Keepin’ the Small Town Faith

Thing1 and the Big Guy had just headed off to Hubbard Hall, our local community theater and art center, to take part in a Holiday and Christmas reading.  Thing2 and I were headed to the library in Arlington Vermont for a visit with Santa.

We had missed seeing Santa at our town’s Christmas party (it’s a village of about 300 that is sort of a bedroom community next to the bustling metropolis of Arlington, VT), and I knew Thing2  really wanted to see him this year.

 

He is six. He asks questions all the time about everything, and Santa lore is uppermost in his mind this week, as it is with every child under the age of 12 (believers and non-believers alike).  As I guided the car down the dark muddy road, he asked how did Santa’s sled fly. I knew the tried and true answer of “magic” would not suffice. He had already begun hypothesizing. Would it have jet boosters?  Did the reindeer have some sort of special feed? Then he began asking who St. Nicholas was.  Were he and Santa the same person? Where did Santa come from?  I knew what the next question was.

I’ve been down this same road with these same questions before.  It seems like only yesterday that Thing1 was asking them.  Thing1 is a born skeptic.  However, Thing2 is more than willing to look for the magic in everyday items and events, so I thought we would keep the magic of Santa going a few more years before logic and skepticism threatened it. But as I drove I wondered if this would be our last year.

Thing1 has been well aware of the fact of the myth for many years, but he was willing to play along – after all it’s in his best interest.  As he’s grown older, he has enjoyed playing Santa along with us, helping us keep the story going for Thing2 by advising us to use special wrapping paper and even what should go in the stocking.  But I am not ready to surrender Santa on behalf of Thing2 just yet. Part of me knows that with the end of that bit of make-believe goes a special part of his childhood, as well as this magical phase of our parenthood.

The questions grew increasingly challenging, and I was relieved when we pulled into the parking lot at the library. The parking lot was crowded, the library was hosting Santa story hour, along with a Christmas basket lottery.

We climbed steps, and Thing2 asked, “Who’s playing Santa is here”.

“Santa, of course,”  I answered.

“No it’s not mom.”  Thing2 appeared very knowledgeable suddenly. All the Santa lore he had cleaned from years of Christmas specials on TV  briefly came to bear now as he authoritatively told me, “Santa sends his helpers.”  I didn’t know how to combat this so I listened to his theories until we got to the door and went in.

We were slightly late, and I was glad.  Santa had already arrived (no need to explain the lack of arriving reindeer – they were parked in back according to Thing2) and was getting ready to read The Night before Christmas.

Suddenly Thing2’s air of authority dissolved.  He clutched my hand pulling me closer to the front of the crowd to get a better look but was unwilling to go with his best friend to sit on the floor to hear Santa up close and personal.  Thing2 was silent through the story, his arms wrapping around my waist occasionally.  The story ended, and Santa invited the children to come sit on his lap and tell him their hearts’ desire for Christmas. Thing2 and I got in line, and he waited politely, his grip on my hand tightening as we got closer and his doubts shrinking with the line.

But this Santa was about to banish every last shred of doubt from his mind.

Thing2 watched his best friend climb on Santa’s lap. Then his little brother and little sister climbed on. Thing2 began to dance nervously.  A few more seconds and the last child in front of him was  finished attesting to their own good behavior for the year. Now it was Thing2’s turn.

Santa called Thing2 by name as he lifted him on to his lap. My first-grader appeared only mildly surprised. Then Santa told him he was sorry he hadn’t seen him at the Christmas party last weekend, and Thing2 was silent.

He stared at Santa, his list forgotten. Somewhere in his mind the acknowledgment was forming that Santa might actually see him when he’s sleeping and knows when he’s awake. Santa asked him if he been good this year.  Thing2 thought about that carefully for a moment and opened his mouth, but nothing came out.  He closed his mouth and looked at me for confirmation for the answer he wanted to give.  “He’s been very good this year,” I said.

Santa called him by his name again and said, “Well that’s wonderful to hear.   And has your brother, Thing1 been good too?”

Thing2 nodded solemnly and said,  “We’ve both been very good.”   Santa laughed, and Thing2 finally screwed up his courage and told Santa his wish list.  Then he wished Santa a Merry Christmas and hopped down.

We drove home talking about his visit and the Christmas basket we’d won for Grandma.  We talked about the kids he’d played with until we stopped to pick up some vittles at the Country store.

Thing2 bounced through the door of the establishment and immediately fixated on a toy the store’s owner had put out on one of the counters for display.  He played while I waited for the food and paid.  I picked up our bag and called to him to move along.

“I’m playing,” he responded with a mischievous smile.  Normally I would answer this type of insurrection with military efficiency and discipline (which, for some reason they don’t always take seriously), but tonight I reached into my arsenal for a new weapon.

“Remember,”  I said, “Santa’s watching.”  Thing2 instantly straightened up and walked calmly to the door, and I reminded myself to feel ashamed of my ploy once I had him buckled in.

“Is he really watching?”  Thing2 asked as we pulled out of the parking lot.

“He is in this town,” I answered.  And that was the end of the questions as we drove out of sight.

Tuning in and Acting Out

 

I often say that my two acts of faith are my garden and my kids.  Each is evidence of my somewhat unfounded belief in the likelihood of a better future.  One future begins anew each spring; the other is an ongoing, developing promise in the keeping.  Once I found any act of faith on my part completely out of sync with my very secular outlook on life, but one Christmas Eve, a few months after I became a mother, all that changed.

We were living in Germany at the time, celebrating the holidays with relatives and my visiting parents.

The Christmas season in Germany is an event to be experienced. It is not just one day; it is an entire month.  Instead of the orgy of shopping that defines much of the Advent season in the United States, however, many Germans begin the Christmas celebration early in December with Nicholas Tag (St. Nicholas Day).  This is the day that St. Nick visits children (and employees) bearing gifts, and it is the kick-off of a month-long celebration in almost every town square.  Almost every town and city has a Christmas market filled with delectable goodies and crafts. Walking through booths covered with Sherenschnitte-inspired gingerbread treats and ornaments is like stepping into winter fairytale land.  Most businesses in Frankfurt were closed on Sundays (not just at Christmas), and, even though our German family is pretty secular too, they do enjoy the traditions of the season as much as we do.  They introduced us to a wonderful one of their own  – each Sunday in Advent we met at their house to light one of the 4 candles and enjoy quiet conversation and tea and baked goodies with each week.  It was warm and cozy, and it was the perfect prelude to the most powerful spiritual experience I had ever known.

On 23 December the Christmas Markets came down, and the center of Frankfurt was briefly quiet.  Most (not all) stores were closed on Christmas Eve, and some even closed early on the 23rd.  This was not my first Christmas in Germany, but it was the first time we had gone into the city for the celebration on the twenty-fourth, and it was not until we came out of the train station that I realized why commerce was brought to a halt that day.

We had boarded the train at our usual stop – the empty end of the line at 4PM.  It was almost dark already, but there had been a surprisingly big crowd in our car.  Each stop closer to the city had added a bigger crowd, and by the time we rolled into the center of town, we had become a throng on wheels.  It was nothing compared to what awaited.  On the platform, trains from other parts of town and suburbs were arriving, spilling out their contents until a sea of humanity washed around us.

At first I was very nervous; I was holding my 4-month-old in his snugly, and I was terrified he would be crushed in the crowd.  The crowd, however, was happy but not overly boisterous.  Perfect strangers smiled at us as we all scaled the stairs up to the street.  On the street, surrounded by the massive and festively-decorated but closed retail establishments, the crowd in the subway station suddenly seemed like a small gathering.  There were tens of thousands of people flowing towards the old part of the city and to the bridges.  Frankfurt is a very cosmopolitan city, but for some reason I was still surprised to see people in muslim skullcaps and yarmulke’s,  hijabs and jeans making their way toward the ancient Domkirche (The Roman-built Dome Church) at the center of the Altstadt.

There were a few stands selling hot spiced Glühwein and potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce, and my Dad treated us all to a warm snack as we milled around with this mass of people.  A few people bumped us as they moved from one part of the square to the other, but without exception people were smiling.  They smiled at the baby, at each other, at their ceramic cups filled with hot spiced wine.

And then it began.

From the Domkirche came first the softest peal of a bell.  It grew louder, and the crowd around us began to quiet.  Conversations began to cease, and the Domkirche rewarded us with a louder song and more bells.  Then, across the river, another church added its voice to the growing chorus.  My aunt had explained ahead of time that each of the churches coordinated the timing of their songs so that the different rings never became dissonant, but nothing prepared me for their effect.

Within a few minutes, churches all around us were letting their bells ring, and it wasn’t dissonant, it was hypnotic.  Standing in a sea of people off all faiths and no faith, German-born and immigrants, all of whom were almost completely silent and sharing, if only for a few minutes, peace on our little piece of Earth and goodwill towards all.  It didn’t matter what path we took to get to that place.  It didn’t matter what prism we used to channel that peace, it only mattered that we felt it and felt it together.

I think of that moment every Christmas.  For me, the reason for the season is that feeling of peace and goodwill and it is a feeling I search for throughout the year.  The events of this last year have made it harder to find, and the event in Newtown, CT made me wonder if it would appear anytime soon again.  I even began to wonder if some part of humanity was trying to fulfill part the prophesied Mayan apocalypse.

But then someone mentioned that the apocalypse wasn’t really an apocalypse.  According to this person, the Mayans foretold that the world would not end, but would restart.  It would be like pressing a giant reset button. I wasn’t sure if this person (possibly on the radio) was an authority on Mayan Apocalypse Gospel, but the idea of resetting seemed appealing, and I began planning my own reset.

A few years ago, when we were scrambling for food and fuel, an anonymous friend stuffed a trio of gift cards in our mailbox, and I decided my reset would be to pay that forward.  As I was making my own plan, I stumbled across a similar, grander idea authored by Ann Curry on NBC.

Ms. Curry had tweeted a very simple idea.  Do one act of kindness for each person killed at the Newtown school.  Everyone.  Do twenty-six random acts of kindness.

To me, this missive was like the first peal of that bell from the Domkirche.   Even if we don’t get to all 26 (or if we do 27 or 28 not just a memorial but an antidote to despair), each act is another ring of a bell, a joining of another sea of humanity.  Each random act of kindness represents a small act of faith that the better nature that that exists within us will triumph. I cling to it as the hope that people of all faiths and no faith will use these deeds to weave a stronger common thread to bind us together.  To work for this, I think, is a supreme act of faith, and, while it is founded primarily on hope this morning, it is one I am more willing to adopt.

Heros Never Die

My youngest son’s first grade teacher, Mr. M., passed away today. It was a life cut short by cancer. For many of these kids it is the first time they have had to face losing a loved one. And he was loved by these kids and by all the other kids whose lives he touched.

Some kids look forward to the first day of school – it’s a chance to reconnect with old friends and an excuse to buy new clothes. My youngest child did not this year. Faced with a crowd of still mostly older kids in the lunch room, his trepidation was very evident, and he clung to my hand. The principal approached, and, even though he knows and loves her, he still would not let go of me.

But she was ready for this. She bent down a little.

“Have you met Mr. M?” she asked. My son responded by turning his face to my stomach. “Come on over and meet him,” she said. She led us over to a tall man who was surrounded by at least dozen adoring, older children. “Mr. M,” she said, “This is one of your new students.”

Mr. M instantly turned his full attention to my son. He bent down a little to try and make eye contact. Then he spoke to both of us, and something about his thick New England accent got my boy’s attention. Mr. M. knew all the right questions to ask a five-year-old boy. They were more than ‘How was your summer?’ questions. They were questions that told the kids that there was still a very healthy kid inside this towering teacher.

He made a few more jokes, and my shy little boy quickly let go of my hand. The rest of the first grade soon arrived, and I watched him joke and comfort and make each of them feel as though they were the most special kid in the class.

He was not a pushover – rules were to be followed, and he believed in consequences. But during the brief month or so that he was running that First Grade classroom, I rarely had to rouse my son out of bed. Every morning I heard the same refrain: “I can’t wait to go see Mr. M.” And every night, I saw the results of Mr. M’s firm, loving presence as my youngest child began finding the joy in learning for its own sake. It is a gift he will take with him for the rest of his life.

Tonight I cry for what our community has lost and for what these children are feeling right now, but I know that even his youngest students have a sense of how much better it is to have had him in their lives, if only for a short time. The word hero is overused, but I don’t know what other word better describes someone who spends their last months on earth lifting people up and giving them their futures. And I do know that when the sadness subsides, he will live on in the kids who were lucky enough to have known him.

Radio Silence

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Even the November of 2011 – several months after Hurricane Irene tried to drown Vermont, most of the state was still in recovery mode.

One coworker was still excavating almost a foot of mud from her basement – and still counting her blessings that the house had not been swallowed when the bubbling little creek that ran 20 or 30 feet from her house became a torrential river and in a matter of minutes. Another coworker had waited out the birth of his second child while Irene was raging overhead.  In my neighborhood near Arlington, Vermont, homeowners along the Battenkill River and other low-lying areas were also recovering. Some homes would remain empty for months.  The thing I remember most about those early months, however, is not the destruction, but the way, Irene brought out the best not only in our neighbors but in the people who came from other areas of the country to lend a hand.

I saw people who I knew were still cleaning out from their own messes deposited by overflowing rivers somehow finding time and resources to start collection drives for neighbors and neighboring towns in more dire straits. Through the grapevine we’d hear stories of people making trips over the mountain on four-wheel-drive vehicle or even horseback to collect much needed supplies for town that have been literally stranded by washed out roads. There were collection boxes at the country stores.  People needed everything – furniture, baby supplies, food and drinking water – We scoured our home for anything we could donate.

In the week or so before and after the Election, we engaged in a bit of radio or media silence at our house.  Unlike Irene, the campaign seemed to be bringing out the worst in competitors across the board, and, recognizing that watching the mayhem wouldn’t slow it down, we tuned it out.  This also meant that we missed a fair amount of news related to Hurricane Sandy, and, aside from following Facebook to find out where to donate, I’ve been living under a figurative rock of late.

Then a few days ago, I clicked on one of my news sites.  The election was over, and the people who govern us were still making me think Thing1 and Thing2 could work things out more equitably.  Most of the photos coming from affected areas in New Jersey and parts of Queens still looked as if there had been a war.  There were a few stories about looting after the storm, but they were did not dominate.  What started to dominate, as I read more about the aftermath, were stories very much like the ones that had played out before us in Vermont just a year ago.

I saw the bit about the New York Marathoners morphing the race into an opportunity to race.  I saw a group that was helping people collect sample sizes of much-needed toiletries.  I saw Occupy Wall Street occupying Sandy and getting supplies out to people across the area.  And mostly what I saw was confirmation that while the infrastructure may be damaged, our national social conscience that the media and politicians love to denigrate for one reason or another, is healthier than we are sometimes led to believe.

The Art of the Art Community

Saturday our  writing group met at my house.  We had all been looking forward to this for weeks and even months, and there was no way I was going to miss seeing these people.  But when an invitation to a friend’s Origami Days celebration appeared on my Facebook page, I felt more than a tiny bit of conflict.

Leyla Torres, a gifted illustrator had recently revealed on her long-time interest in Origami on her Facebook page, and she joined the community of Origami users in their global, on- and off-line celebration of the art last weekend.  But writing group is now sacred to me, and I contented myself with the hope that I would see the results on Facebook on Sunday.  Fate and my family had other plans, however.

The Big Guy took command of the kids for the afternoon so that grownup talk could happen at our house.  I expected them to return about the time the group ended, but it was getting dark by the time they bounded in the door.  The Big Guy usually finds something fun for them to do – hardware stores, Lego exhibitions, and welding shops – and today was no exception.

This man who has avoided Facebook like crazy had discovered Origami Days as he was driving by our friend’s studio in Arlington, VT.  He took a chance and dragged the kids into the tiny gallery, and they emerged an hour later brimming with a different kind of energy.  Their excitement still showed by the time they glided in the door, pockets full of Origami swans and toys.  In two minutes, Thing 2 apprised me of their day, of the entire history of origami, and of the generosity of their hostess.  The Big Guy then told me that she was holding the gallery open just a little longer, so I grabbed my keys and out the door I went.

The gallery was in an old carriage house behind the big stone Church in Arlington. Petite with a sometimes soft-spoken demeanor but a feisty spirit, Leyla shares gallery and studio space with her husband, John Sutton, a multi-talented artist and gifted photographer. Heated by an old wood stove, the simple rustic gallery was decorated with John’s black-and-white photos (in frames he built himself).  But it was the riot of color on the table at the center of the small space that grabbed my attention and held it.

Strewn across the table were dragons and roses and butterflies and intricate boxes made of folded, interwoven pieces of paper. Some of them seemed (deceptively, I’m sure) simple; others clearly had taken hours and years of practice to learn how to construct.  Leyla cheerfully shared the history of her interest in this craft and in a community of paper artists dedicated to sharing peace through art.  But it was the colors that caught my heart as they reminded me of a gift/prize I had received from another artist earlier in the day.

Maria Wulf, a fiber artist and the wife of our group leader has been joining our sessions, and she serves as a gentle sounding board and resident joyful spirit.  That spirit is evident everywhere in her art.  She designs quilts that are colorful and somehow contemporary and traditional.  She had created a giveaway contest on her website, and I was the lucky winner of two colorful potholders.

My prizes were, like Leyla’s origami, a marvelous combination of connecting shapes and colors.  But they were each reflections of their creators, spreading happiness and peace.  I knew the two of them should meet at some point, and I told Leyla about our group and about my potholders.  I asked if I could link to her site (I’ve linked to Maria’s site since I’ve had this blog), and I could see her excitement rising. We talked about art and writing and encouragement, and, suddenly, she stood up and went to the basket full of origami art at the end of the table.  She started rummaging and pulled out seven or eight flat pieces that could be easily carried home and said, “Here take this to your writing group as a gift from me.”

I thought about the other gifts she’d already given my kids this afternoon. They were bits of paper, and they were art, but they were also trophies of a world made just a little wider in the space of an afternoon.  And when our group next meets to widen it’s world, I’ll bring these trophies, and, with them, (I hope) the encouragement that feeds not just the artists but the communities they nurture.