Forever Changed

My son missed the bus. It was his second year in high school after having been home schooled since fourth grade. I was still homeschooling my two younger children. I would have to wake them up early to drive him to school for 7:23am. My husband had already left for work. It was very cold outside.

My son was apologetic, and his siblings woke up without grumbling. I was the one grumbling, but I tried to keep it to myself. On the ride to school, my nine year old daughter marveled at the ice crystals still on the trees, sparkling in the peachy glow of sunrise.

Later on that morning, my sister contacted me. There had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My pulse raced. I got a lump in my throat. My husband taught at Newtown High School, just down the street from Sandy Hook Elementary. I grabbed my laptop and stayed glued to it all day, horrified by the surreal events unfolding, wanting my husband home safe with me. I gave the kids independent work to do. I couldn’t teach them that day, and I couldn’t tell them about the nightmare that their father may or may not have been involved in.

He texted me later. He said he was safe and he’d be home as soon as he could. I told him there were hugs at home waiting for him. He replied, “And kids.” My heart ached for those families whose kids would not be coming home that day. It was so close to Christmas, too—the season of anticipation of joy and wonder, the expectation of warm family gatherings. It would be so different for those families now. So different for us all.

That night with my husband home safe, he related some of the story to me. His class had been in lock down. He and his students huddled under desks in a corner of his classroom. The doors were locked and black paper covered the windows. He prayed. Over the coming days, weeks, and months he would share more memories of that fateful December 14, 2012, but that night he told me only what he could manage to say and only what I could manage to hear. Then I left him on the couch and tended to my chores in another room.

As I vacuumed I realized how blessed I felt to be able to do even a mundane task. I could process the horrors of the day while I cleaned up crumbs from the floor. So many moms would not have the strength or the desire that night to bother with such petty things. And the fact that my son had missed the bus that morning, well, I saw it for the blessing it was—an opportunity to spend a few more minutes with my kids.

Two days later, we searched for a Christmas tree at a local farm. Again I felt blessed by the sheer act of walking quietly through rows of evergreens with my family. It was peaceful. Although our hearts were broken, we were whole. We were together. Along with the peace, I also felt a little guilt.

When Christmas morning rolled around, my husband worried, as he always does, that the kids would not be happy enough with what he viewed as sparse offerings beneath the tree. I reassured him, as I always do, that the kids would be happy with their gifts. I reminded him that no one in our house should be anything but completely grateful that day. And every day.

Posted in Priorities, Sandy Hook | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Of Tigers and Teapots

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(This was originally written in the fall of 2015. I found it in my drafts and decided it was time to post. Much has changed since I originally penned it, but the sentiment remains the same.)

Our family has been going through stuff for almost a year. And by “stuff” I mean that literally–physical objects, material things, the trappings of life.

Shirley, one of my husband’s grandmothers, who lived up the street, passed away three months ago. There is a large dumpster outside her house. She did not own the house. Her son and daughter-in-law lived with her. They are moving out. The owners of the property have been doing major work on the property. Clearing trees and brush and removing an old in-ground pool. Everything inside the house must go. And there is a deadline of one month. Shirley’s four children have been going through the things in the house, each taking their own treasures. These are mainly photo albums and handwritten recipes, but there are also ceramic tigers (Shirley’s trademark!), record albums, and odds and ends.

Nan, my husband’s other grandmother, lived next door to us and had a personal library behind her house. She passed away eleven months ago. Since then the family has been slowly going through her things, disposing of obvious trash, and trying to figure out what to do with everything else. As with Shirley’s house, some things we know we want to keep. Photos, scrapbooks, genealogy, a few special items. Then there are the things that seem like they would be worth some money. Like old books. So we research those. We find that they are not worth as much as we had hoped and perhaps even less because they are not in mint condition. According to dealers, the books are not worth much, but if we had some ephemera–journals, pamphlets, letters, diaries, photograph collections–to offer, they might be interested. But those are not for sale. They are the very things with which we won’t part.

I can see both houses from where I sit. Shirley’s with the dumpster and Nan’s with the liquidator’s truck. I’ve seen how difficult it can be to sift and sort, to save and to discard. But to everything there is a season. . .

There’s a third house where I’ve been going through stuff. A friend of mine is eighty. She lives alone. Her husband passed away three years ago. She asked if I’d help her purge. Three things specifically–clothes, books, and files. We started with the clothes. I helped her sort through her husband’s clothes and pack them for the thrift store. She pointed me in the right direction and then went off to do another chore in another room. She didn’t want to watch me pack up her husband’s things. She wanted me to do it; she knew it was time. She just didn’t want to watch.

This left an impression on me. I care about my friend, and her husband was a lovely man, but I am still somewhat removed from the situation. I am not family and therefore not as emotionally attached to the material things that belonged to him. I can be objective while, at the same time, respecting his things and her space.

That’s why we go through so much when we go through physical stuff. It’s not just cookie jars and dress shirts and tea pots. It’s memories–some happy, some sad, some downright difficult. We each come to the place where we can let go of the stuff and still hold onto the memories, in our own way, in our own time.

Posted in Grief, Psychology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Good Neighbor: Control of Tone in Writing and Life

Reading The Writer’s Control of Tone edited by Edward M. White, I learned something about myself in the first two pages of the introduction. Talk about effective writing! White relates a story of a curriculum salesman visiting a college composition class he was teaching. White suggested in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of the curriculum he was selling, the salesman take on the role of teacher for the day and teach the class using the program materials. White himself would also play the part of a student.

When summoned to the blackboard to “correct” an overly elaborate sentence heavy-laden with adjectives and adverbs, to cross out all the superfluous words, White froze. The exercise which was intended to help sell a “writing” program had nothing to do with writing. It was then that White realized that in order to decide how to write or rewrite the sentence, he needed to decide what tone to use. In order to do that, he needed to know what he wanted to say and to whom he wanted to say it. “How can anyone write unless he has something to say to somebody?…Writing for nobody is not writing at all.”

I closed the book and ran to the computer. I am a firm believer in space and time intersecting on the graph of the fabric of the universe, God putting me at just the right place at just the right time, and, in my case, seeing just the right words to reveal what He would have me know at that moment in time and space. I am 45. I am writing a lot these days. Why didn’t I do it before? Did I have nothing to say? Surely, I have had ideas and opinions and observations for a mighty long time. And I’ve always, in one way or another, had words to communicate those thoughts. Did I have no one to whom to communicate them? Surely not. I have had a supportive family and a few friends around me all my life. The difference between now and then, the reason I only recently started writing seriously, lies in my psyche.

I’ve just now realized I have something to say. I look around. I listen. I hear what people around me are saying, their observations on the world. I take in the daily news by osmosis like everyone else. What I’ve found is that, for the most part, bad news travels fast and negative voices are the loudest. But if I’m not speaking up, counteracting all that negativity with a positive, hopeful outlook on things, then I am partly to blame. It’s the old adage:  If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. In her book, Susan Caine introduced us to The Power of Introverts. Even there, being an introvert herself, if she did not put herself out there and write a book, and then–the extreme jump out of the comfort zone–give a TED talk– the world would not have been graced by  her exposition on the merits of the quieter class of individuals called “introverts.”

I’ve also realized I’ve got an intended audience. A few years ago, I started calling my mom every day. She is an excellent listener. I tell her nearly everything, every minute detail of my day. Why? Well, one reason is she’s my mom; she asks me questions no one else asks about the boring things. But I also realized that in order to convey the point I wanted my mom specifically to grasp, I had to set the scene in a certain way. She knows many of the characters in my real-life stories, and I know how intimately she knows these people and I am privy to her feelings about them. Therefore, I construct the stories I share with her with these aspects in mind. They affect my tone. Also, don’t we talk to our mothers in a way we don’t talk to other people? I started listening to myself tell her stories. I listened to her listening to me. I paid attention to the questions she asked and how my stories affected her. And then I asked myself questions. Was I accomplishing my goal? Did she grasp the purpose, the message, of my story? Did she respond as I had hoped she would?

This purposeful storytelling carried over into other conversations I would have with other people. Wanting to convey a particular message to a particular individual necessitated crafting a story in a specific way. It’s not rocket surgery. When you really think about it, don’t we all do this? Consider our audience as we construct our story? Sometimes but not always.

Sometimes we just want to “get it out.” We all have that friend who constantly complains. I often wonder what the point is. Many times I am too far away to solve the problem. Sometimes there is no solution. It’s just a voiced complaint. Is the hope to gain my sympathy? Empathy? Ok, sometimes I can offer that in response. But I wonder if this friend is even thinking about how I will respond to the complaint. Complaining is a knee jerk reaction. Have a problem, get upset, tell someone. I’m human. I get that. But I’m thinking (and you may say I’m dreamer) that if we can add a fourth step, it would make a big difference. If, before we text or blog or FaceBook, we pause and consider our audience. To whom are we speaking? Ask ourselves: How will what I am about to say affect the person to whom I am saying it? How would that small but significant act affect not only what we say but how we say it?

I suggest this might even change our mind and we’ll come to realize that this thing that was so utterly important a second ago, is, in the grand scheme of things, not worth sharing, doesn’t contribute anything valuable to society, will not edify our listener. And this would cause us to zoom out and maybe even reevaluate our purpose on the planet. What kind of messages do we want to spread? I love TED talks and I love their motto:  “Ideas worth sharing.” If we pause before our outbursts to others and ask ourselves is this worth sharing, what would we say?

Maybe, like Edward White, his arm frozen holding the chalk at the blackboard, we should pause before that next angry text and ask to whom am I speaking? What do I really want to say? What message do I want to send out into the world? We all have something to say. Will it be poison or fruit?

Posted in Books, Kindness, Psychology, Tone, Writing | 2 Comments

Reflecting on Giants with Sophie and Scout

“Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”

~John Calvin

I’ve been thinking about giants. Some giants we make and others are made for us. Specifically, I’ve been considering one of the giants in England and the one that used to reside in Alabama. This week I saw the movie The BFG based on the book by Roald Dahl. I also read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Granted, they are both fictional stories and, one might say, from very different places in the literary world. But the best fiction tells us something true about ourselves, and these two very different stories share much in common–only in reverse. They both address the human tendency to manufacture a hero. This is an idea worthy of exploring.

In The BFG, Sophie, a bright, precocious, and incredibly brave little orphan girl looking for someplace to tie her heart, meets a giant. In the beginning, she is afraid of him. She starts off seeing him maybe not even as a person but as a thing to be feared. He is big, mysterious, seemingly ignorant, and possibly dangerous. But Sophie does not cower under her covers. She inherently senses something needful and beautiful, something of value for her. As the giant carries her to his cave and takes care of her, we learn he is not only more human than most human “beans” and not dangerous but we find that his heart is even bigger than his ears. (Once you read the book, you’ll get the reference!) He is a BFG, a Big Friendly Giant. The huge giant and the little girl become great friends. And, it would seem, Sophie finds what she was seeking, what she needed, what we all need–not necessarily a giant, but a friend with a giant heart.

I will not give away the story; you must read this scrumdiddlyumptious tale for yourself. Suffice it to say, Sophie’s perception of the giant changes as she gets to know him. Isn’t that the way with most people we allow ourselves to get to know? How often are our first impressions of people shattered when they surprise us with some word or action that is “out of character” and our view of them changes, expands to include and envelop new personality traits? How surprising it is when these new traits deviate greatly from our original image. Despite Malcolm Gladwell’s premise in his book Blink, that it is usually within the first couple of minutes of meeting someone that we form an image of them that will stick, maybe we can overcome that and, as the old adage goes, not judge a book by its cover. Sir Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “A mind once stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Our impressions of people are expanded by our increasing and varying experiences with them, never to return to our original, more limited first impression.

In contrast to Sophie’s relationship with her giant, the relationship between Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her father Atticus Finch seems to move in the opposite direction. It grows more troubled over time as we progress from To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout was a young girl, to Go Set a Watchman where she is now 26. We fell in love with Scout and Atticus in Mockingbird. Atticus was the hero when he defended a falsely accused Negro man in an Alabama courthouse. (I don’t feel I’m giving anything away here. If you haven’t read Mockingbird, well, get to it!) Because of his integrity, Scout places him on a pedestal. And we, as the readers, can’t help but do the same. Who wouldn’t want a dad like that?

But in Watchman, he falls off the pedestal as Jean Louise (as she is called as an adult) learns her father is a bigot. (I’m not going to tell you the whole story. You may want to read it, and if you haven’t, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt; it just came out in 2015. You may not want to read it. You may want to keep Atticus on that pedestal. Believe me, I understand.) Jean Louise finds Atticus at a meeting with a bunch of people using racist language and distributing racist literature and learns her father is not who she thought he was. The impression she had of him for so long is shattered and she feels betrayed, feels it was all a lie. Her giant shrinks. But is this merely a consequence of growing up? Maturing? Seeing our parents for who they really are, warts and all? Her perception of him changes as Sophie’s perception of the BFG changed, but in Jean Louise’s case, this happens in a negative way. We get the impression she doesn’t feel it widening her perspective as much as bringing her secure world crashing down to the ground.

At the end of Watchman, Jean Louise and Atticus have the hard conversation. She is very heated. He remains cool and composed. You get a black and white version of Gregory Peck in your mind as Atticus pushes his hat back on his head and justifies himself while remaining tender with his beloved daughter. She is still the jewel of his heart, but she is growing older and her perspective needs to change in order for her to grasp the complete picture, the whole truth with all the nuances of who her father really is. And who put him on that pedestal? She did. Was it fair to him that he would have to live up to some larger-than-life image she conjured up in her mind?

At the risk of waxing psychological, I suggest that Mockingbird offered us, among other valuable lessons, a picture of a healthy father-daughter relationship. In my opinion, a little girl needs to believe her daddy can slay dragons. He should be a knight in shining armor–for his little girl. But in Watchman, Scout is no longer little.

We loved Atticus Finch for his integrity and his tenderness with his daughter. So much controversy has been made over Harper Lee’s portrayal of him in Watchman. I think it’s because we wanted to believe in the Herculean version of him. We, too, want to place him on the pedestal. And keep him there. But what if this other side of Atticus is true to his character, too? Doesn’t that make him more human? More plausible? Or maybe it transports us way back to the beginning of our quest. Maybe it sends us, like young Sophie, to the window at the witching hour, where, parting the moonlit curtains with trembling fingers, we peer out at the shadows, our hearts yearning for a hero.

 

 

 

Posted in Books, Psychology, The BFG, To Kill a Mockingbird | 1 Comment

Electronic Roadkill

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The phone lay smashed on the road. I stood there staring at the innards. Its back had been sheared off to reveal its guts. Eviscerated. I found myself paralyzed. Knowing, of course, this thing wasn’t alive but still not wanting to touch it, I flipped it over with my foot, knowing what I’d find but still curious. Aargh! A smashed screen. Why was I shocked to see it? As if it were a face that had been morbidly deformed in an accident. What had brought about the demise of this creature? Had someone run it over with the car? Was it intentional or accidental? No matter. Did you pick it up? my family asked later. No, I didn’t pick it up, I replied. As if it were an absurd notion. If I’d shaken myself out of my reverie, I would have remembered that in reality, it was just a piece of garbage, but at that moment, staring at it in the road, it was a living thing–or had been living. And why? Because as much as we would deny it, or, at the very least, hate to admit it, we pour our lives into these gadgets and we draw our lives out of them. When we forget our phones, we feel naked, incomplete, as if we’d lost a limb.

Our centers of communication, they help us notate, schedule, calculate, monitor, search and surf for information, music, whatever—the world in our pocket, at our fingertips. FaceBooking, texting, snapping photos of anything we find even slightly amusing to post, paste, send, and share, share, share with the world. Constantly. Day and night. In them, we carry around a portable alarm clock, stop watch, timer. It seems like such a short time ago since they came into existence, and yet now they are ubiquitous. You have a smartphone, right? we ask as if to say, you have a pulse, right? Even children have them.

They consume us. Look at the way we drop our heads, curve our backs, grasp the miniature centers of our world like my precious, my precious and tap-tap-tap with fingers and thumbs, curling ourselves around them, like a caterpillar curling itself around the leaf it’s munching on. It drawing our attention, we drawing our sustenance from it. And, like bugs, walk right into the trap, the Inter-Net. No one drags us. We do so willingly.

In the 1990s, (the not-so-distant past) you could tell what people were doing by which tool they were using. We had a desktop home computer that indeed sat on the desktop and it was indeed at home. And it stayed there. We turned it off when we were done. Then we did something else. The TV sat by itself in the living room. We turned it on when we wanted to watch a show. We turned it off when we were done. The telephone sat on a table. We used it to call someone. We hung it up when we were done and walked away. Today it’s not always easy to tell what people are doing. Texting is obvious– pecking away at the screen like a caffeinated squirrel. However, with the the one-thumb-scroll, a person can be surfing the internet or browsing emails or ordering plane tickets. Then they stare at the screen. Are they reading, watching a movie, or checking out the latest viral YouTube video? Today the phone is always on, always in the pocket, always available for whatever whim we let sweep us away. There is no walking away from it. Be honest. Who turns their phone off at night? Those two people raising your hands—that precious phone is on your nightstand, isn’t it?

We are attached to our phones. They have become appendages. So when I saw the phone in the road completely demolished, I couldn’t help but mourn someone’s loss. They had spent many hours and much energy sending and receiving bits of life on the information superhighway via that little hand-held device. Kinda scary that so much of someone’s precious life can be held in a palm. But it reminded me that I have a choice. I have the power to choose where to pour my life, how to spend my time. I can invest it in social networking or in the actual human beings sitting beside me in the same room. I can choose to consume images and ideas from a screen or I can gaze at sunsets and into the sparkling eyes of my children and my husband. Phones are fragile things. But so is life. I looked up from the broken phone in the road, the electronic carcass, and saw the trees rising tall above me, felt the sun warm on my face, heard the originators of the tweet—the birds—singing sweetly. I don’t need buttons and passwords and charger cords to enjoy the beauty around me. I can keep walking. Hands free.

 

 

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To Brooklyn–and Beyond!

“I have been through some terrible things in my life, some which actually happened.”* My two teenage sons were going to a concert in Brooklyn. I was terrified. We live in Connecticut. Not Hartford …

Source: To Brooklyn–and Beyond!

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On the Floor

I nearly trip over the guitar and the tubes of paint and the piles of clothes and the cords running like river tributaries on a map on my way to the bed to wake him up. I almost twist my ankle getting there. Is it my job anyway? He’s old enough. He shouldn’t need me to wake him every morning. Isn’t that the alarm clock I hear blasting on the shelf? How can I hear it from the next room and he not hear it five feet away? So I snap, and he mumbles amidst the piles of curly hair. As I trudge away, I realize the guitar, which had been a Christmas gift, is dismantled. I sigh, shake my head, and find my way to the sanctuary of the laptop.

I find an email from the prayer chain. A little boy is in the hospital. A little one we know. The news is a bolt right to the heart. Time stops and sounds hush as the spotlight of my attention comes down around this little one in the photo on the screen, baseball cap over his cropped hair, big grin.  In the days to come that smile may fade a little as fatigue overtakes him from all the tests and treatments to get the white blood cell count down and his platelets and his strength back up. In the next photo, there’s Mom and Dad. Dad wears a paper gown and a hair net, protecting his son from his germs. Mom’s wearing a big smile. I search her eyes for exhaustion and fear. I don’t see their traces. Yet. It’s only the first day of treatment.  I wonder how she’s holding it together so well. I would be in pieces on the floor.

This mom, she’s a friend of mine. She was the one who prayed with me that day in the store. We were both there to buy food, but I had received heart-shaking news and walked the aisles like a zombie grabbing boxes and cans of who knows what and dropping them into the cart, going through the motions. My head and my heart elsewhere. And then I came around the last aisle and there she was, this mom with her little pigtailed girl in tow. Are you all right? she asked. I’m sure it showed on my face. That it had been the longest shopping trip. That it was about to be a very long year. No, I’m not. And there it was. My feelings all spilled out in the aisle in the grocery store. Clean up in aisle 7. She hugged me right there in the store as she prayed for me. Right there in the store. My brokenness and the gift of her attention, her intentional blessing washing over the cracks in the tender armor of my mother’s heart.

And now there she is in this photo with her little boy and her husband, trying to hold it together, holding onto each other and more little ones at home and their faith in divine promises. My heart goes out across space and time, trying to touch hearts that are hurting as mine once did and does again in sharing their pain. The only way to hold her from here is supernaturally, hands folded, knees on the floor amidst the clutter of dashed dreams, or were they merely expectations? I widen that spotlight of my attention out to those on my immediate stage left and stage right. Starting with the one upstairs who dismantled the Christmas guitar.

A couple days later I went to check on the status of my son’s room. It was still a mess, but my guy had reassembled the guitar. Before he did, though, he added his own flourish, his own color. That sweet boy in the hospital likes to play ball, my special guy makes art. I’m glad I had retreated to my office that day instead of blowing up about the clutter. It gave me a moment to breathe, regroup, and remember my priorities. Even with the tubes of paint scattered on the floor and the paint stains on his good pants, the mess doesn’t seem so messy. At least that mop of hair is still resting on the pillow in his own bed. He’s here. Why does it sometimes take a crisis in order for me to appreciate the very fact that my children are even present with me here in this life?

This precious family on my screen–the one I’m praying for–they remind me not to sweat the small stuff. Amidst earthly plans now sanctioned to a corner somewhere and tubes carrying the good stuff in and the bad stuff out, prayers going up and challenges coming down, it may look like a mess, but sometimes clarity comes in the hospital room or the teen’s bedroom or even in a grocery story. And sometimes it’s a friend who gathers up all the tears we have spilled on the floor that offers us a glimmer of heaven.

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