Practice Makes Peace

It’s amazing how such a little thing can pull you out of a funk, and I’ve been in a deep one for weeks.

The recent weeks have been flooded with flu’s and funerals and pneumonia, and at a few points I was ready to stop treading water and just sink to the bottom of the black cold pond of life, letting the ice close over if only to get a little quality sleep (I’d given up on the reset button on Friday).  I was still feeling funky Saturday morning as we raced to make it to Thing2’s (our six-year-old son) basketball practice.

Neither the Big Guy nor I had thought to set the alarm Friday night, and when I opened my eyes and looked at the clock, I realized we had 21 minutes to get everyone up, dressed, and chauffeured, to a school 20 minutes away.  I raced to the kids’ room yelling, “Up! up! up!,” half-aware that my twelve-year-old son, Thing1, was already up and locked in a video game (as I threw clothes at both of the kids he calmly explained that he also doesn’t pay attention to clocks on weekends).  Surprisingly the wild goose chase that constituted the rest of our getting ready and on the road did nothing to penetrate my gloom.  But when we walked into the caferia-turned-gym of the elementary school, the ice over my head began to melt a bit.

We live near Arlington, VT.  Their school and the elementary school Thing2 attends in the next town is so small that they have to combine with each other to get the minimum four players needed to form a team.  The kids are all in first and second grad, and, with no million dollar sponsorships on the line, it’s often a toss-up as to whether we’ll arrive at a Saturday game or just an extra practice.  Five minutes after we arrived, we stopped wondering if the other team might just be late, and relaxed as we realized our panic had been completely unnecessary.  Today was a practice.  We grabbed a few folding chairs and found a safe spot at the edge of the cafeteria to wait and watch.

Like most parents, my butt already has a permanent flat impression from years of waring the bleachers at ballparks and gymnasiums, and I am not proud of the fact that part of my routine includes indulging in a little smart phone therapy (I know, I know, I should be committing every play and bounce to memory for the mental scrapbook).   But today, as the coach drafted another parent and a few players’ siblings to participate, something made me put away my phone and pull out my pen.

Thing2’s team is a bit rag-tag in style as well as size.  None of the kids have fancy sneakers, and several play in jeans or whatever the weather dictates.  The kids are competitive but never cutthroat. They’ll share the ball as often as they steal it.  While the coach maintains structure, he’s enthusiastic about the game, not militant about discipline.  When his enthusiasm infected Thing2 again this overcast Saturday morning, SuperDude, Thing2’s evolving, multi-talented and perpetually joyful alter-ego, exploded onto the court and, with a twirl and a leap and a dancing ‘dunk’, yanked me through the hole in the ice, out of my funk and back into life.

Watching him twirl and run, stopping occasionally to climb the makeshift rock wall with a teammate, reminded me once again just how good the rag-tag chaos we call life is.  It reminded me how even the things that fomented my funk are mostly indicative of our blessings rather than any host of misfortunes.  And, as they wrap a tied practice game of two on six (one coach + one parent vs. four players + two sib’s), I am amazed again at how life can breathe itself into you when you least expect it.  And maybe that’s the time you need it most.

Till Death Do Us Part

Most days I don’t stop. I may stop doing the things I want to do, but, like most people, I tend to forget about the work-life treadmill I’m on until something blows a fuse.

Saturday night the entire circuit breaker popped when I returned home from my writing group to hear of the death of an old family friend. This friend was at our wedding, standing up as a surrogate father to my husband whose own parents had died several years before. Our friend had lived a full life but had been plagued with chronic health problems at the end of his life, and, while the news saddened both of us, it was not unexpected.

I didn’t cry Saturday night, however. Nor did I cry last night as we rushed to pack and get on the road for a four hour drive in hopes of beating an inconveniently-timed winter storm. I didn’t even cry as we were driving to the cemetery. As we drove from the entrance of the cemetery to the site of the service, however, and I began to think of our friends saying their final goodbye to their father and husband and grandfather, I did cry.

It was raining and snowing, and the service was brief with words of ritual from the rabbi and words of remembrance from our friend’s family. It was only as the ceremony ended and the attendees formed lines of comfort for the departing family that I realized that all my tears had been for the family and their loss but not for this man whom we loved so much, and it was not until we regrouped for the more informal memorial in the afternoon that I understood why.

Our friend’s daughter had arranged a luncheon following the graveside service. The atmosphere was subdued but not somber as his friends and family stood at the podium and offered their memories of this man. As we nibbled at our lunch we heard from his fellow World War II vets, former classmates, and friends about his contributions and his kindness.

And with each story from an old comrade-in-arms or former co-worker, one thing that stood out was the fact that this man and his now-widow had been married for almost 60 years. Almost every old friend at the podium had been married equally long. In a country with a fifty percent divorce rate, my husband and I were surrounded by couples who had been married for more years than we had been alive. To be sure, there were some exceptions, but the prevalence of long-married couples in the room got me thinking about why I had cried so little and about my own expectations from life and marriage and love. Here were people warmed by the memories of their friend and buttressed by each other.

I began to realize that I could not cry for this man that we love. I can cry for the people who lost him (our family included), but to live and die surrounded by people you love and have loved for most of a long, productive life is a life and and end very few people ever achieve.

Years ago, on our wedding day our friend stood up to wish us and our guests ‘Nachus’, the hebrew word for joy. I think of his words often and never more so than today when we witnessed exactly what he was talking about. He had lived for his family and friends and in deriving joy from them, had given it back exponentially. So, as we left, I was not thinking about the things we lost but the lessons and blessings we will keep with us forever because we were friends.

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.

Three AM

It’s 3 AM, and outside the wind is howling. Inside my alarm set for 5 AM. I am exhausted but sleep is nowhere in sight.  Through my consciousness march words and images of Newtown, CT and worries about a grand bargain happening miles away that will undoubtedly leave those of us on the ground out in the cold.

I know this is one of those moments those accepting the things I cannot change moments, but the anesthetic of serenity escapes me right now.

I am the queen of worry. Writing is reflection. It is retreat and rally at the same time. But sometimes I wonder if my rally is just the circus and if the retreat is just a distraction from the real things in my own life that need real solutions.

The New Normal

Twenty years ago I was on the receiving end of an armed home invasion at the home of an acquaintance I never should have made.  It ended with a group of us lying on the floor, our noses in a smelly mustard and gold shag carpet as we wondered if our assailants were about to leave us or leave us dead.  When they were gone, we began cycling through all of the stages of grief until the police came and an emergency locksmith could make new keys for our cars, allowing us to escape back to our old lives.  What I didn’t realize in that first hour was that my old life was over forever.

It wasn’t a great life before the robbery, but it was not a life lived in fear (or caution, but that’s another story).  I had lived in ‘bad’ neighborhoods before the incident and no part of the city really frightened me.  After the incident I was afraid to go anywhere, and when I had to be in public places or unsecured locations, I made every effort to be invisible.  I watched doors.  I sized up people.  Fear embalmed me.

It took years and a lot of love from the Big Guy to crack that sarcophagus.  However, even now, when an incident like the one in Newtown, CT is reported, I realize, part of my soul will always be wrapped in those bandages (as I suspect the survivors of this and other senseless massacres will be).  I felt it yesterday as we sat at our son’s basketball practice and every opening of the door knotted my stomach a bit more.  I know this sensation – it’s part of the new old normal that began twenty years ago.

We had already planned a weekend of holiday activities with just the four of us, and, wanting to avoid the glare of the malls, we opted for a visit to the Vermont Country Store in Weston.  We did our weekly breakfast at Bob’s Diner in Manchester and headed up the Bromley mountain on the way to Weston.  For the two of us, the gloriously cold and sunny day seemed out of joint with what has been in our hearts since Friday morning.

In the back seat Thing1 and Thing2 were already beginning their road trip antics that I swear are designed to grow grey hair on my head.  The Big Guy reprimanded them as the volume reached earthquake level, but as we switched on the radio and all of us marveled at the passing mountainous landscape we’ve seen a hundred times before, I reminded myself that this, too, is part of my New Normal.  Right now, it is enough.

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.