Archive for February, 2014

“Thank God every morning when you get up that you have something to do that day, which must be done, whether you like it or not.”
   —  James Russell Lowell

It has been a very long week.  I’ve often said that February is the longest month of the year; and that sentiment certainly was on my mind these past few days.  Today is Saturday, and we have absolutely no obligations or deadlines.  We stayed up indulgently late last night as we wound down from the last basketball game of our last child, who soon will graduate from high school and mark the end of an era.  As often happens when I have the opportunity to sleep in, I found myself awake as soon as the sun began to peek over the horizon.  My sweetheart and my teenager, neither of whom is afflicted with spontaneous early rising are living my dream as they continue to rhythmically breathe in the sweet slumber we all had planned to enjoy.  Instead, I find myself alone in the early morning with only the dog for company.  Part of me feels a tiny bit disgruntled and even a bit envious of their ability to linger in bed; but the greater part of me is having a difficult time staying grumpy.

The sun is amazing this morning as it sparkles and glitters on the surface of the snow that still covers most of our world.  The snow — that dreary, cold, intrusive nuisance that has had our backs aching and our shoulders tired from shoveling paths to connect with the world beyond — is beautiful this morning, if I allow myself to see it without the filter of my challenging week.  I smile, in spite of my desire to embrace the idea that my tasks of the day are burdens; and I turn my attention to the table.  I would call it the dining table, but the truth is that very little dining has taken place at that table in the last week.  It is more the “push things aside and make room for a bowl of cereal or soup” table; and we have resorted to carrying plates to the sofa rather than sharing a family feast.

I look at all the good intentions that lie on my table and wonder whether I have chosen this time, right now, to purge my files and sort the reams of paper that have accumulated in the drawers because it is February – the longest month – and I prefer to cram all the miserable tasks of my life into twenty-eight days and leave the rest of the year free of such things.  Piles begin to materialize as I sort.  Keep this.  Give this to one adult child.  Give this to another.  Important papers are organized.  Duplicates are shredded.  My favorite pile is the “why on earth did I think this was worth filing?” pile.  I feel self-satisfied as I fill the recycle bin with the papers that seemed so important at the time and make room for new ones to take their place.  Here and there, I find a photo or a card that has somehow escaped its proper place and now surprises me with a tender memory.  I grab a small box and begin to fill it with those memories, and their sweetness lifts my spirits so that my work moves quickly toward completion.

The sorting is done.  As I come back to my February life, I realize that I have just spent an hour of my weekend sorting paper; and I begin to chastise myself for not finishing such things during the work week.  Then I remember how it was that the piles grew higher and more jumbled each day.  Each time I would begin to sort, I would be interrupted by a phone call or an impromptu visit from someone who loved me.  There were favors to do for people who needed them, and there were surprises delivered that delighted me.  There were places to go and people to love and not enough time in the day to keep ahead of the piles as new papers landed on and then were mixed with the old.

I thought about the sorting and realized how it was a metaphor for my life.  There are tiresome tasks that face me every day; but every now and then one of those photos or cards comes to the surface and reminds me why it is that I do all the things that surround those moments.  I realize that I am nesting now — just as I did before the birth of each of my children — clearing and sorting the old to make way for something new.  It has been quite a ride since our eldest son entered kindergarten in the Fall of 1975; and that era will come to an end when the tassels are flipped this June.

Perhaps February is not to blame for my resistance to sorting and clearing and making way for what lies ahead.  Perhaps it is as simple as the truth that endings are often poignant or sad.  Still, in the midst of all the piles of life that we accumulate, it is important to remember that every day is punctuated with spots of light and moments of joy.  Our job is to be thankful for it all — the mundane and the amazing — and be sure not to let the miracles be buried under the debris.

As I type this reminder to awake each morning and give thanks for all the work you are blessed to do, my friend the sun has just found the crystals that hang in my eastern window.  Rainbows flash here and there, and suddenly the monochromatic morning is painted with colorful splashes that remind me that I am loved.

Good morning!  And have a spectacular day!

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
    — Michelangelo

Another snowy morning greets us today, and the announcement that school is closed no longer even raises an eyebrow in feigned surprise.  It seems engraved in stone that summer break has been buried several inches deeper by the snow that now is measured in feet rather than inches.  It is frozen.  Encased in ice.  Buried.

This is the year that my last child will graduate from high school; and although I am not dancing her out the door and beginning any premature celebration, I do hope that she and her classmates will be able to graduate on time.  On time.  What does that mean, anyway?  I look at these kids — these young adults who only a few years ago had not learned to tie their own shoes — and all I can think is that they’re just not ready to set out on their own and discover what the world has to offer.  And what they have to offer to the world.

I pause for a moment and dig through the random files in my memory.  As I approach the sixth graduation of young people I have loved, I realize that each time the day arrived I had the same misgivings.  Was my job really finished?  Had I done all I could to prepare this child of my heart for the future s/he would choose?  And then I move on to the more recent files — the ones that contain the amazing adults who are parents, business owners, managers, experts in their chosen fields, creative people who bring so much to themselves and to others.  I grab a candle and begin to sort through the darkest corners of my memory.  I remember my own graduation; and I see the young woman who thought she knew all about the world.  And I see her through the eyes of the woman I have become.  And I realize that I was no more ready for all that has continued to unfold than my last graduate will be when her time comes this June.

I think of Michelangelo and his block of stone.  I am certain that I might have looked at it and seen a block of marble, maybe even one with beautiful veins of color and a unique sheen that never before was seen in such a stone; but Michelangelo saw an angel.  And he liberated that angel — first in his mind, and then in reality — so that a person like me could see it, too.

Why is it that we look at the angels in our world — the graduates ready to embark, ourselves when seen through the eyes of experience, the people whose surface is all we let ourselves touch — and see nothing but immovable, unchangeable blocks of stone.  I remember being a young graduate; and I remember feeling like the angel I wanted to become.  I know that my young graduate from the Class of 2014 sees herself the same way.  I know I must stop thinking of her as the child she always has been and see the limitless potential for adulthood that lies beneath the familiar surface.

Graduates and winter and Michelangelo begin to dance together in my mind.  They are making a mess of the files and re-ordering them in a less chronological fashion.  A new folder is created.  It’s name is “Potential,” and they all hop in together.  I place the file in the front of the first drawer in my thinking.  I wonder, as I straighten it there how different my world might be if I remembered to see the potential in the people and things that cross my path.  I wonder how much more I would encourage each block of stone to liberate the angel inside?

As I gaze out my window at my garden patch, buried under three feet of snow, I pause for a moment and look beneath the surface.  For an instant, I almost think I can smell the ripe tomatoes that will grow there next summer.

It’s 11:00 AM, and after two hours of shoveling and snow blowing, only one car remains stuck in our parking area.  About 20 inches of snow fell yesterday and into the night; and we awoke to the unparalleled beauty of fresh, glistening snow as far as the eye could see.  Happy Valentine’s Day.  The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of school and work and just about anything else that is not concerned with finding our way back to civilization.

Our family has some unusual ways of celebrating holidays, I guess; because as I passed the thought about the massacre, my mind did a quick edit.  The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 2014  1986.  Rewind twenty-eight years.  Today’s snow and the removal thereof made it easy to transport myself to the time when we created our Valentine’s Day tradition.  Mark and I had been married for sixty-nine days.  Yes, when two people with three children between them marry and move all of the above into the woman’s three-bedroom rental house until they can have settlement on the home they will share, they count in days, not months.  We had lived for those sixty-nine days with most of our belongings in boxes as we awaited the time when we would move and expand into the home we have shared for twenty-eight years.

As moving day approached — February 14, 1986 — we filled the last boxes, prepared to strip the beds for the three-mile move, and confirmed the truck rental.  My son, Max, was 15 at the time; and some of his friends had volunteered to help us tote all our worldly possessions from Point A to Point B.  Even better, Mark’s father and four brothers were poised to make the trip from upstate New York that morning to provide manpower and vehicles for the move.  Sally (8), and David (6) were excited to help, and I planned to spend most of the day supervising their efforts in order to avoid injuries.  Then the storm came.

There were not 20 inches of snow back in 1986; but before the day was over, nearly an inch of ice had coated our world.  The New Yorkers were frozen in, separated from us by impassable roads.  Some old friends of mine who had three strong teenage sons came to the rescue, and we slipped and slid from one house to another.  Every box had that distinct aroma given off by wet cardboard, and I was grateful that I had used a permanent marker to label them by room so that they would end up where they needed to be unpacked.  Because I was no rookie at mothering, I had insisted that the kids’ beds be set up first thing, so when the long day was over they would be able to go to sleep.

I remember very little about the move except for the trail of ice, water, and mud that seemed to touch every square inch of floor in the house.  I remember throwing pizza at the movers and the children at some point; but mostly, I remember many trips to my new bathroom that confirmed what we suspected — that our fourth child was on the way.  Maybe it was that seasick and disoriented feeling one sometimes has when her world is turned upside down.  Maybe it was knowing that when all the haphazard hauling was done, all those boxes would need to be unpacked.  Maybe it was another moment of realizing that we had jumped off this cliff into the world of blended families; or maybe it was all-day morning sickness that was amplified by knowing that before the next Valentine’s Day I would be adding an innocent baby into the wild adventure we had chosen.  I only know that I was not much help that day.

As with all good massacres, once the bloodshed was done, the clean-up began.  We were cold, wet, and exhausted.  After leftover pizza and PB & J, we started moving the kids toward bedtime.  As we walked up the stairs, trying to keep up with the boundless energy of excited children, I felt particularly smug for setting up the beds early that morning.  My brilliance began to dim as we came around the corner at the top of the stairs and discovered that our helpers had neatly piled every box for each room right on top of the bed that awaited its owner.  The final shot rang out, and the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1986 came to a silent end.  After only another hour of lifting and moving, the beds were cleared and the children were half asleep, enjoying the excitement of our new family home.  It belonged to us all — not his and not hers — ours.

While a lot of folks may be feeling cranky today, due to the V-Day Massacre of 2014, I am enjoying this new round of winter weather that has dredged up warm memories of the day our family truly merged.  And as I think of the twenty-eight years we have grown together in this place, I almost enjoy clearing a path through the snow to our door.  Chances are that someone we love will stop by.

“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.”
     — Kenji Miyazawa

One Spring morning some years ago, as I walked through my park, I spotted an old tree.  The previous Fall there had been a devastating storm.  It had broken trunks and uprooted trees all along my walking path; but this one had survived.  Its scars showed, that’s for certain; and far fewer branches were sprouting with leaves than a year ago.  Where one very large branch had required removal, it left a scar that looked exactly like a heart — and from this heart grew the greenest new leaves you ever could imagine.

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‘Hello, old friend,’ I thought as I snapped its picture, ‘I know how you feel.’

I was silent here yesterday, because I have been thinking of that tree; and I have been thinking about pain — the sort that tears us open and leaves our hearts exposed and vulnerable — and I have been thinking about the way that the greenest new growth often comes after the pain.

My sweet little granddaughter, Cheyenne, is going tomorrow for surgery.  She’s kind of an old pro at such things after more than a dozen trips to the hospital for such procedures.  Some have been quite complicated; and others, like this one, have been minor by comparison.  But Chey is older now, and she has begun to understand what lies ahead; and she simply wants the pain to go away.  Night before last, as she said her bedtime prayers, she asked God to take away her pain forever.  Oh, my sweet girl, there are so many people in your world who would get in line to take your pain as our own; but sadly, pain is part of being human and alive.  I tuck you into my heart and hope you can feel how much you are loved; because ultimately, it is love that eases our pain.

I remember one time when I was a child asking my mom a similar question.  I had taken a spill on my bike and had a huge brush burn on my leg — you know the kind — and it burned like fire and kept me inside away from the fun the other kids were having.  I asked my mom why God would let things hurt and keep us from having a good time.  She gave me an explanation about pain being a warning system that alerted us to the fact that we needed to care for an injury.  She had me imagine how my knee might continue to bleed or become infected with dirt if I hadn’t felt the pain that reminded me to take care of it.  I remember feeling vaguely satisfied by this, but I also remember thinking there had to be a better way.

Life was quite simple back then.  Skinned knees were the most awful pain I could imagine, and when the pain came it was gone as soon as a scab began to form and keep the air away from my hurt.  Now that I am older, I have been visited by pain many times.  Each time, I think of that skinned knee.  Each time I feel somewhat betrayed that pain has to be part of my humanity.  But each time, I heal; and the person who moves on from the pain is wiser, stronger, and more compassionate than the one who existed before.  I want to tell this to Cheyenne.  I want to tell her that the only way to get through the pain of being human is to learn to embrace our pain and to treat it with kindness as we would any unexpected visitor.  I want to tell her that visitors don’t stay.  After a while, they move on; and even when we haven’t enjoyed the visit, we discover that we have learned something about how wise we are, and how strong we are.  We discover that we feel greater compassion for other people when they are entertaining pain – the unwanted guest.  I want to tell her that when the storms of life cut us deeply and leave our hearts exposed to the world that we can truly love without restraint in a way we never knew we could before we knew pain.

I want to tell her all of this, but not today.  Today, Cheyenne is six years old.  Today, the abstract meanderings of her old grandma are beyond her simple view of life.  Today, I tell her that she is the bravest girl I know and that you can’t be brave unless you are a little bit afraid.  Today I tell her that her body will be better when the surgery is done, and I trust that her pain will visit for only a little while.  I tuck her into my heart — the one that bears the scars — and feel her pain along with her, knowing that it is love that will make her pain bearable.

I look at my tree — the one with its heart wide open — and I think of how my own heart has grown stronger each time pain has come to call.  I think of Cheyenne, who already is kind and thoughtful and loving, and I wish her a short visit in the land of pain that will lead her to deeper compassion, deeper understanding of others, and the chance to grow her courage so that her heart overflows with the love born of pain.

As I feel her pain, I hear my heart say, ‘Hello, old friend.  Stop for just a minute or two.  I’m sure you have somewhere better to be.’

“I try to teach my heart not to want things it can’t have”
   — Alice Walker

It is a dreary winter afternoon.  It is February 9th, and the Olympics are in full swing far away in Russia.  We had a family celebration today in honor of the 34th birthday of my (step)son David, complete with cake and candles and singing and fun.  The laughter and joyous cacophony of children filled our home.  The party is over; and truly I had a day where my heart overflowed with everything I could possibly want.  But in the silence that follows the celebration, I feel melancholy, wistful, and more than a little bit sad.

My thoughts catch up with my emotions, and I realize that today is that day – the one that changed my world forever and in many ways began to shape me into the person I have become.

It was a dreary winter afternoon.  It was February 9th in 1980, and the Olympics were in full swing in Lake Placid, NY.  My sons were having a busy Saturday with their neighborhood friends, pretending they were athletes and competing in their own version of the Winter Olympics.  I was folding laundry when they came in the back door for a quick drink of water.  They were gone as fast as they had appeared.  “Don’t slam the do-…”  Seconds later there was a squeal of tires, a thump, and the scream of my eldest from the street.  My son, Brett, had darted out from behind the hedge in front of our house.  Nine children had seen the car and stopped, but he didn’t.  In an instant, my whole view of life and the way the world works was changed.  Children were supposed to outlive their parents — that was how my world always had worked — yet I ended the day with one less child that I had when it had begun.  My heart stopped beating that day, as it focused on wanting something I no longer could have; and it was years before I felt comfortable wanting something new and different.

When my marriage to my sweetheart included his son, David, I often found myself feeling wistful and out of sorts on Dave’s birthday.  One year — probably an Olympics year — it struck me:  David was born on the day I was burying my son.  No wonder all those mixed feelings seemed to swell up whenever we sang Happy Birthday to David and marked the passing of another year.

It has now been thirty-four  years since Brett’s death and David’s birth.  I have lived and loved a whole lot since then; and my heart has learned not only to be satisfied with other things, but to want them wholeheartedly.  But this year is an Olympic year.  And this February 9th is a dreary winter day.  And I type this at the time that a car and a child collided and forever changed my view of life.  My sweet granddaughter, Cheyenne is the same age Brett was when he died.  She is missing a front tooth, just like he was.  And on Thursday she will return to Children’s Hospital for another surgery.  And I realize, just as I learned so very long ago, that there are all kinds of surprises in our lives — some wonderful and some heartbreaking — that all come together to make up our lives.  I have learned to trust again and to know in my heart that, in the end, everything will be all right.  I hold onto my heart and take in all the joy that surrounds me, and I make it what I desire.

My son taught me that lesson many years ago — to love every minute and open my heart to every single person who will let me love them.  I have made the wonder of life my heart’s desire; but every now and then, on a dreary winter afternoon when the Olympics are in full swing, I forgive myself for the sadness that finds its way into my heart and touches the tiny corner that holds the memories of a sweet little boy who is forever six.  And I tell myself that soon Cheyenne will be seven and then eight…and that everything will be all right.

“I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning…”
    — Joseph Priestley

I annoy people.  Especially, I annoy people whose life dream is to sleep late in the morning.  For as long as I can remember, I have just naturally been up and ready to roll between the hours of 5:00 and 6:00 AM.  This was the reason for the curse my mother put on me when I was a child.  It was a very early morning, and I was particularly wide-awake and perky, when she said to me, “I hope you have ten children and they all get up at 5:00!”

I’m sure she didn’t mean that; because I would have been delighted to have children who were ready to move early in the morning.  Instead I got normal kids — and teenagers — who sometimes thought it was inhumane for us to expect them to be vertical by the crack of noon.  My mother’s curse didn’t land, but I think she got her wish in the end — that I had to deal with people whose internal clocks ran at a different pace from my own.

If you think you have no good reason to get up in the morning, I have a suggestion for you.  It was an experiment I did three years ago, and it had a powerful impact on my life.  I made a pact with myself to get up every morning and take a picture of the sunrise.  What I discovered during the course of my experiment was that there were way more than 365 sunrises to be seen in a year.  As I began to learn about how the world is transformed with the return of the light each morning, I realized that I needed to spend at least ten minutes with the sunrise to see it unfold in all its splendor.  As I spent more time with the rising sun, I began to notice how the breeze would shift subtly with the dawning light.  I heard how the birds’ songs changed as the sky grew bright again.  I saw how the dew sparkled and twinkled before it evaporated into the morning air, and I began to feel the changes in myself as I realized that I was a part of it all.

I have always been an early riser; but now, when I open my eyes in the morning, I say out loud, “Cool!  I have another day!” and I celebrate my own return to the land of the living.

The past month has not been an easy one for most people I know.  This winter has been especially harsh; and I must admit that my excitement at venturing out into sub-zero weather is a bit less than it would be on a balmy summer morning.  It is then that I think about all those sunrises and about the way that the world is always changing, even when we don’t stop to pay attention.

There is an old story about a man who had a room filled with horse manure.  He then invited his sons, one at a time, to go inside and see the surprise he had for them.  The first son, highly offended, slammed the door in disgust and told his father what a cruel joke that had been.  The second son kicked off his shoes, dived in, and started digging with both hands.  “What are you doing?” his father asked.  “I’m digging,” the boy replied, “there has to be a pony in here somewhere!”

It’s all about the pony and the sunrise.  It’s all about what we anticipate each day will bring — even when the snow is deep and the temperatures are harsh.  It’s all about making sure we experience enough of life that we can trust on the rough days that something good lies ahead.  So let’s find excitement simply in having another day to live.  Let’s hop out of bed, go see a sunrise, and remember, if we dig long enough, we just might find a pony.

“If you do a good job for others, you heal yourself at the same time, because a dose of joy is a spiritual cure.”
     — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We tell our children.  We tell ourselves.  All the time.  Don’t judge your work based on what other people think of it — rather, know within yourself that you have done your best and keep striving to improve.  When we do a good job, we know it.  Yes, there are times when we might be our own harshest judge; but if we set our standard for performance based on honestly doing our best, we are always pulled toward becoming better at the things we do.  It is good to be self-contained, self-evaluative, and self-forgiving as we strive to be the best people we can be; and there is a sort of personal joy and satisfaction in not allowing other people to dissuade us from becoming who we truly are.

When the time comes to judge our accomplishments, it is important that we can stand tall and know that we have done our best; but it also is important that the life we live is connected to the lives of others.  This opens us to judgment and even hurt; but if we are strong enough to stand alone, we also are strong enough to stand among others and let our actions forge connections.

We are, by nature, social animals.  It matters to us to feel that we are part of something greater than our individual existence; and when we begin to venture outside of our self-contained being and allow our work to touch another person, we experience another sort of joy — the joy in connecting with others who understand and appreciate our purpose, the joy in bringing meaning and  purpose to another life besides our own.  It is good to know that we can stand alone; but it is joyful to experience connecting with others who walk the path with us.

If we feel alone, the best cure is to reach out and share who we are with another person.  When we are met with understanding and see the light of recognition in the eyes of a stranger, we experience true fellowship.  When we open ourselves to the joy of giving and connecting and recognizing others of our kind, we find that we are cured.