Category Archives: Life

It’s Good To Give.

Every year I wrestle with what I’m going to do to keep the season of Advent. It’s a question because while the religious season of Christmas doesn’t begin until December 25th. That’s when our cultural celebration ends.

Not that I shy away from holiday festivities. Not at all. I go caroling with my neighbors. I bake cookies in seasonal shapes, and wear a Christmas tree hat as that day approaches. This past Saturday I visited Bryant Park in New York city, as well as Rockefeller Center with my kids. The tree is up and lit in Bryant Park. Rockefeller Center’s is up too, but won’t be lit until Wednesday. I won’t see it for a few weeks. I’ll have to wait. Waiting is what Advent is about.

The waiting is for the birth of Jesus, who has already come, and who Christians hope will come again. In a sense, Advent is like the last weeks of a pregnancy. You know the baby is coming, and it’s just a matter of time until she does. The tension I experience between Advent and our cultural celebration of Christmas is something like having baby shower after baby shower before the birth. When the child is born, everyone celebrates, then goes home. Try that with a family member!

One of the reasons I like all the trappings of red and green–even while my church is draped in solemn purple–is because of the way we’re encouraged to think beyond ourselves. While it’s easy to get bogged down finding just the right gift, I like the simple reminder of the season: it’s good to give.

Tagged , ,

Please Stay.

You, reading this, and feeling that you are alone, that no one is there, or can possibly understand what you are going through because being raw with vulnerability, you wonder what worth your life has. Thank you for staying.

You don’t know this, but you posted a status the other day–on Facebook–that lifted my spirits and turned around my day. I liked it, but didn’t tell you how much it mattered to me because while I’m a huge mush most of the time, I’m shy, too.

Last week you tweeted a picture of a quote I found inspiring. Now, I only retweet or favorite those, every once in a great while. That’s on principle. I can be silly that way. I didn’t let you know.

I haven’t told you how much I like seeing your endless selfies, vacation shots, pictures of things you find interesting, and pics of kids I have never met, or don’t really know. Often your smiles, and theirs help me wear one on my face. I love smiling. Thank you for those gifts.

When you invite me to things, I’m grateful for being thought of, even if the event is hundreds of miles away. How could I possibly attend? You know that, and asked anyway. Thank you. The invites across town? They mean a lot too. Even I don’t go. Keep including me the way you do. It helps me remember I’m not alone.

Like a lot of people, I’m stubbornly set in my ways. I don’t think I am of course (who does). You help me break free, and think differently about things I think I know. You’ve introduced me to things I wouldn’t otherwise know anything about. My sense of life is bigger as a result. All I can say is, “Wow!”

When I’m too serious, you help me remember there is a lighter side, and way of seeing almost everything. I often forget it’s there, waiting to be discovered. I have let out the most wonderful belly laughs as a result. Thank you for them, also.

You teach me a lot. I bet you don’t know that. About what it means to love, to have courage, to persevere, and find a way through. You help me get perspective when I’m struggling. You’re wonderful that way. You really are.

When you ran into me at the grocery store you asked me my favorite question: “How are you?” For a lot of people the question is a throwaway, something you say. It matters to me. You remembered that and gave me your attention as you asked. You gave me your presence, too. There’s no greater gift.

All these little things you do, all of them, they help make my days–which are sometimes very hard–brighter, and easier to get through. These are just a few examples of the way you make a difference in my life. Thank you for staying. I know there are moments when choosing to stay takes all the courage you have. If it sounds like I’m being a little selfish here, I am. Last night I learned what it’s like to have a Mork-shaped hole in my heart. I don’t like this feeling. It hurts. And well, this is something else on my list of things we’ve been through together. You’ve held me through so much. Ha! What a wonderful auto-correct typo! I meant, you’ve helped me through so much. Really, what you’ve done is hold me. I hope I get the chance sometime to hold you, too. Please stay.

Tagged , ,

Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?

Tonight at dinner Sweets complained that she wished her cell phone had a front-facing camera, so that she could Skype her friends. Hearing this Bud muttered, “That’s such a first world problem.” Sweets looked at him quizzically. “What do you mean?” “Well, the richest countries in the world are the First World countries. The next level are Second World. Then poorer countries, are Third World countries.” He paused. I looked to see if Sweets recognized the terms he was using. That’s when I heard Bud say, “Dad? Can you help?” I turned toward him. “You’re doing fine. Why don’t you give her some examples of what you mean?”

It’s Passover, and Easter is just around the corner. This morning while searching for a Passover quote by Walter Brueggemann–my favorite Hebrew Scripture scholar–I stumbled across this article by Carol Sowa about a talk he gave in 2002. In the talk, Brueggemann considers the important role Scripture plays in offering a sense of reality that contrasts with our typical understanding of the way things are:

The narratives of the Torah are designed to construct an alternative world. The oracles of the prophets are basically designed to subvert…. to call into question, to expose its (the world’s) inadequacy and phoniness.

Interesting words. Most of us don’t walk around thinking that our sense of reality is limited or inadequate. It’s more typical, I think, to believe our personal understanding of the way things are is as considered, and well thought out. At the same time, when we meet someone with a different perspective, it the experience is flummoxing. We find ourselves wondering how it is possible that such an otherwise decent person could think the way they do. We can’t imagine the possibility that this other person has given as much care to thinking through their thoughts and ideas, as we have. This is true, even when we live in the same neighborhood, and our kids attend the same schools. We don’t know how to value their different perspective.

My kids often take pleasure reminding me that my way of looking at things is limited. There was a time when their mom and I were two people with all the answers they needed. Our word, and God’s? One and the same. That time has passed. Tonight in that same conversation, I talked about wanting to see a new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Hearing that Sweets responded, “Dad. Do you know what going to a museum with you is like? You spend an hour in front of a single painting. Then you say something like, “Do you see the bit of yellow in the corner? That changes it completely for me!” She laughed and continued. “At least it’s not as bad as when you take pictures.” She mimes holding a camera. “You’ll look at a flower from every angle you can so you don’t miss anything.” Bud waited for her to finish, then asked wryly, “Isn’t your major Visual Arts?” “Shut up” was all she said in reply.

In Sowa’s article about Brueggemann’s talk she notes that:

He sees the missionary task of the church…”to enhance the human for the sake of our common humanity….I propose that our task is to help people host an alternative world of imagination that arises from narratives and oracles.”  [T]his is accomplished through the telling of stories which “invites the children into an amazed, dazzled world of miracles.”

It’s Passover. You can see the edge of this happening during Passover Seders. Throughout the meal, it’s the kids who have the most fun. Before the story of the Exodus is read, the youngest asks a basic question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The Four Questions follow, all to help the kids understand why this meal is celebrated the way it is. At the end of the meal, they search for the Afikomen, and hope for the reward that comes with finding it, first.

From time to time, Sweets asks me, “Why do we have pasta every night?” When she does, I’ll sometimes walk her back through her last week of meals. Even though I can show her that before the evening’s meal she hasn’t had pasta in nearly a week, it’s hard for her to let go of her conviction. Letting go is often one of the hardest things we do. We fear that when we let go, we’ll lose something in the process. The result is that we’re good at holding on tightly.

What we don’t see is that when we let go, we create space for things to happen. Things we didn’t imagine we could see or think, understand, feel, and express can take place. Things that are different. As a parent, a chunk of helping to created those spaces involves keeping my mouth shut. That isn’t always easy to do. It’s easier for me to explain a concept I’m familiar with, than it is to let Bud work through his ideas as best he can. In many ways, the best thing I can do for him, is be encouraging. Help is affirming him, and no more. He has do it on his own. That’s me, letting go so that he can stretch. It’s also remembering that Sweets tells her stories out of love, even when she complains.  She’s reminding me that the way I experience things isn’t the way she does. We help each other grow, and adapt when we’re able to listen, and accept.

I want to them to feel comfortable stretching.What my kids don’t know is that life is full of impossible crossings. When I look back, I see many times when my imagination failed me. Something happened and I couldn’t see any way I would get through. And then, I did. What seemed impossible, and a threat, passed over. Catching moments like that has always amazed me. Of course they did. They’re the sort of miracles we live in our every day. Examples of possibility that made a day, or night, different from any other before it.




Tagged , ,

Let It Go!

During the Oscars Sunday night, John Travolta mangled his introduction of Idina Menzel. In an instant she became Adele Dazeem. Almost as quickly a meme was born. As a result, you too, can “Travoltify” your name. On Monday’s episode of  The Tonight Show, host Jimmy Fallon wondered what went through Idina Menzel’s mind when she heard John Travolta’s introduction. “Let it go! Let it go!” is what he imagined. A day later, John Travolta’s publicist reported that is also what Travolta is trying to do. I hope he isn’t ashamed of what happened. He made a mistake. He’ll make others too. Idina Menzel? I’m sure that is a name he’ll never forget.

It’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The other night Sweets asked me what I was giving up for Lent. That’s the tradition, to abstain from something you enjoy to remind you of the habit, practice, or attitude you want to embrace. There’s more to the season, of course, what it’s about and why Christians keep it. This isn’t “that” kind of post. She said she is giving up meat (her brother Bud is, too). “Why?” I asked. “I think it will be good.” “Good?” I said. “Yes. Good.” “You know,” I said, ” We’re almost Vegetarian. Why don’t you give up dessert instead?” “Dessert?” Her eyes widened as she said the word. “I could never do that!” We laughed.

Sweets doesn’t have words to describe what she is giving up meat for. Not yet anyway. When she figures it out, I’m sure she will tell me. She’s good at that, in the way tweens are. In the mean time, she will do her best with this discipline. She’ll make mistakes, yes. That’s okay. If anything, my role is to help her be gentle with herself, when she does.

We make mistakes. We have habits, and attitudes we’d like to change. If we’re ashamed of these habits, they can turn into personal versions of the Adele Dazeem meme. When that happens they have too much power. It’s time to let go. As you think about the way you’d like to change, consider singing along with the song. Don’t try to change because you want to be perfect. No. Let go of the burden feeling you have to be perfect brings. As the song says, let the old needing to be perfect you of the “past be in the past” so that a wholehearted human you can “rise like the break of dawn.” “Let it go!”

Tagged , , , ,

Ten Lessons I Learned From My Other Dad.

I’ve always thought of myself as someone whose been lucky enough to have had two dads instead of one. Seventeen years ago today, I lost my other dad. What follows are a handful of the things I learned from knowing him.

1. Let your life be about abundance.

My example of this is a small one. Most Sundays, breakfast consists of two eggs fried sunny side up, with bacon, hash browns, toast, and a great cup of coffee. That is, unless I have something to celebrate. Then the hash browns turn into potato salad. The toast turns into an “everything” bagel, the butter a smear of cream cheese blended with, or topped with lox (and onion, and capers). Sometimes I’ll skip the lox, and substitute white fish salad. When this breakfast becomes lunch I keep the eggs, and add the white fish salad as a side. Just like that, lunch becomes a feast. I didn’t grow up on these breakfast foods. Bay and Annie shared them with me. What good is the richness of your bounty, if it isn’t shared?

2. Be welcoming.

When a friend comes to your door, greet them with a smile and a bear of a hug. Every time. It’s the way he welcomed me every time I visited. It’s the way I welcome people I love.

3. Laugh, and laugh again.

My dad gave me my love of everything Broadway, and did his best to teach me about Classical music. We saw good movies, and many of them had to do with music (funny that). Bay helped me discover my love for physical comedy. It was with him that I first watched–on television–the wonder that is “It’s a Mad Mad Mad World.” There’s a fabulous collection of moments from the film here. My dad is quieter than Bay was. Watching it, Bay laughed to the point of tears. More than anything, when I think of the way I know to laugh, and that it’s okay to simply let loose, and laugh myself to the point where I’m gasping for breath? That was one of his gifts to me.

4. Don’t forget to laugh at yourself.

He owned an unusual looking car. A brand I’d never heard of. An Avanti. A what? Exactly. What I remember most about it was that it often didn’t run. One time, would-be thieves tried to steal it from a repair shop, and failed. They started it, rolled it into the side of the shop, and left it there. The car didn’t have any brakes. Or was it, no steering? It may well have been both! Whenever he told the story, he laughed.

Once while in high school I was out driving with a group of friends. I was in my car, a Dodge. JBR, Bay’s son–and my best friend–was driving his dad’s Avanti. We were driving aimlessly as teens can, happy to have friends in both cars. More importantly, some of these friends were girls we hoped to impress. We needed a destination. I tried to flag him down and was unsuccessful. Knowing that he’d boasted the Avanti had a Corvette engine, and knowing that mine had a powerful engine of its own, I decided on a manly approach. I would pass him. We were driving in an empty county park after dusk. What could happen? 

I stunned JBR with the attempt, and was successful. As soon as I passed him, I saw blue lights in my rear view. A county police officer ticketed me for speeding. I was driving a grand 40 mph in a 25 mph zone. “Officer,” I said, “we weren’t racing. I was trying to get him to stop.” I actually said those words. “License and registration” was all I heard in reply. A speeding ticket for driving forty miles per hour? Yes, I was foolish to speed, even at that rate. Reasoning with the officer? That was pure folly. Later that night, I was too stunned to laugh. Too afraid of what my dad would say. When he heard the story? Bay laughed out loud, and out of love. My dad? I think he laughed too. Me? It took a while.

5. Some choices are simple and make perfect sense. When they do, make them.

What else stays? When I joined Bay’s family for trips to dinner, or to see a movie, we always took their Civic. It was new, and tiny. What did I notice most? It ran and ran, and ran. After the folly of the Avanti, it was the perfect car.

I purchased the first car I owned from his eldest daughter. It was five years old, a diesel, and got fifty miles on a gallon of fuel. I asked a mechanic about it. He told me that diesel engines “ran forever.” The car was immaculate. She had every receipt for every repair and oil change the car had ever had. That choice was simple. Seven years later, and with over 170,000 miles on the odometer, I gave it away and replaced it with an Acura. I’d planned on buying a Civic, longed for an Accord, and ended up with an Acura for a price in between a Civic and an Accord. That was also a simple choice. It is also as close as I’ve come to an Avanti moment. Fortunately the Acura ran well, and long. By the time I gave it away, I’d replaced everything on it except the engine block. Now I drive a Civic. It too, runs and runs, and runs.

6. Life is about taking care of others.

My folks raised me with a strong sense of Catholic tradition. In practice, my understanding about what’s most important, revolves around what people do, not what they say they believe. That’s orthopraxis trumping orthodoxy. I remember many conversations over dinner, and after dinner, having to do with healthcare, and the emergence of HIV. What mattered most to Bay–as I remember–was doing whatever could be done to help those who had HIV, and to protect those at risk for contracting the virus. Even now, his passion for justice, informs both my faith, and my life.

7. Share your stories.

It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your stories. Tell them again. Stories are one of the ways we help each other remember that we share a human experience. That matters. Bay loved to look over the top of his glasses when he wanted to reinforce a point he was making, or deliver a punch line to a great story. With a gleam in his eye, and a smile on his face, I wanted to listen, even when I’d heard the story before (sometimes especially then). 

In 1947 Bay founded the Atlantic Chemical Corporation with his brother Rubin. Rubin is also a storyteller. Here are a few comments about Bay that are part of a larger, and very funny rendering of Rubin’s career in the dyestuffs industry. If you can imagine this story punctuated with laughter, along with hand gestures assuring you that the best is yet to come? Well, you’ll have a sense of the way Bay told stories.

“The most dynamic guy I know is my brother Bay. He is also the only man I know who could have built the Great Pyramids without stones. He could have done it on enthusiasm alone. Bay, my sons Jon and Josh, and I were the sole owners of Atlantic.

I remember once a frantic call from Bay at the Nutley factory to me at our headquarters office. He needed some money immediately. Without a second thought, I quickly dispatched a messenger to Nutley with $200.00. I figured a “collect” freight must have arrived or something equally urgent. I called Bay to tell him that $200.00 was rushing on its way. Would it be enough? There was a prolonged silence…”I only needed money for a haircut,” said he.

Bay’s penchant for surplus machinery at bargain prices was legendary. Nothing compares to his purchase of one million dollars worth of Univac equipment from Army surplus for $5,000.00. Atlantic may have had the first computerized inventory system in the dye business.

One day I received this phone call: “Mr. Rabinowitz, this is the US Naval Base in New London, CT. We are pleased to inform you that yours was the successful bid on Lot #543A, one surplus, slightly used submarine. Please tell us where you would like this delivered.” I was absolutely and totally speechless. I couldn’t even stammer. The thought of a submarine parked in our yard next to micro-motors, Irish shillelaghs, lead-lined tanks and tons of hopcolite my dear brother had bought for “future” use was too much to absorb. All I could manage were some strangled sounds. Suddenly, I detected a giggle on the telephone wire. Who the *@#x* is this, I demanded? The laughter broke out in full force. It was Bill Hoffman, P.A. of Burlington Industries, surrounded by a bunch of other low-life friends of ours just having some fun at my expense.

To this day, very few people, except for Max Birnbaum, know that surplus beams from the second layer construction of the [George] Washington Bridge support much of Nutley’s equipment, Bay may have been given to overdesign since these beams could have supported the Empire State Building!”

8. How Love Works.

This piece of wisdom is the way he described his romance with his wife, Annie. I think it’s the only way love, for me, has ever worked:

I chased her, and chased her, and chased her. Finally, she caught me!

9. Words matter. People matter more.

Sometimes Bay would join JBR and I as we watched a baseball or football game on TV. I learned to look forward to the comments he made during the game. Invariably a certain moment would repeat. A play would end and he’d turn around. Looking at us over the top of his glasses, he’d shake his head and say, “Would you believe that? They did it again. He made a catch, not a ketch. A ketch is a boat for christ sake!” Words matter.

At the same time, he never corrected my usage of words. I’m sure I gave him many opportunities. For a time, I had a girl friend for who loved to correct every mistake in usage I ever made. He never did. They both helped me pay attention to the words I use. The people who use them? He continues to help me remember that they matter more.

10. Celebrate, and give honor where it is due.

Bay’s and Annie’s New Years parties were legendary. Their house would fill wall to wall with people. I’d see family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and more folks I didn’t know. To me, it seemed like they’d invited everyone in our town. At Hanukkah, Bay’d light the menorah, and the window facing the front of the living room would become quiet sacred space. “Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the universe…”

When I was accepted to college. When I graduated. When I landed my first job. When I was engaged to be married (both times). When I married. What ever event was taking place in either family, they joined in or included me. We celebrated. Even moves. I helped with a number of moves. Wait a minute!

Bay passed away around the time “Bud” was conceived. When he was born, choosing his middle name was easy. Its Bay, and as his mom and I have always hoped, he’s becoming a man with a passion for life, and a love for people.

With appreciation, honor, and a lot of love for Bay Rabinowitz, born November 24, 1922 (a guesstimate), and who died on August 5, 1996. Thank you for all the lessons you keep teaching me.

What Matters: Living After Sandy Hook.

On Thursday, I did some last minute shopping at Target. At Sweets’ school, today is Pajama dress down day. The kids can wear pajamas to school in place of their regular uniforms. In preparation–after deciding she didn’t have anything suitable to wear at home–Sweets poured through racks of fleece and cotton sleepwear. Finding two different sets with potential, she asked, “Dad, where are the dressing rooms again?” “Walk from here to that corner over there” I said, while pointing to a wall on the other side of the store. “That’s where they are.” “Okay. I’m going to try these on. Will you be here when I get back?” “Yes” I said. She walked the fifty yards to the dressing rooms alone. I remained where I was, chatting with a friend. Target is a place where Sweets feels safe. I do, too.

While we were there, we ran into six other students, their parents, and one of the school’s First Grade teachers. Everyone was shopping for pajamas. I walked over to the teacher to say hello. It was the first time I’d had a moment with her since last Friday’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. This teacher is a marvelous person, and such a good teacher that parents with children in her class, often request that she teach their next child as well. I’ve had that conversation. I’ve encouraged other parents to have that conversation. She’s that good. While we were talking, I swallowed hard. If my daughter’s school was Sandy Hook, she might have been one of the victims. It was a sobering moment.

Last Friday, when the news about the shootings broke, I was stunned. “Not again,” I thought. I spent much of the day driving. I was spending the weekend with my parents. My dad had heart bypass surgery just before Thanksgiving. He was coming home. I wanted to be available to help with any transition issues that might arise. I’d also planned to meet with a friend. We were going to organize Christmas cards. Mine never seem to make it into the mail (I say “maybe this year,” every year).

In the car, I moved in and out of the range of a given radio station’s signal. As I did I invariably ran into the tragedy as “breaking” news. It was disorienting. I didn’t want the drive to become an extended meditation on what had just happened. I turned off the radio and traded it for un-listened podcasts on my iPod.

I finished the drive, and met my friend. The first thing that came up in conversation? Sandy Hook. After a few minutes, we let the topic go. Like me, she was struggling to understand how something like this could have happened. A while later, I noticed her two year old trying to climb onto an office chair using the space under the arm rest as his entry point. Concerned that he might get stuck, or fall, I picked him up and held him high, so that he could touch the ceiling. I set him down and he bent his legs. He was ready to leap again. We repeated the play again and again. Enough times that he was able to hit the ceiling with his right hand, with his left, and with the two of them together in multiple combinations. We repeated this until my arms tired. For me, the moment of play became a symbolic action of a future filled with hope. One where he would break through whatever ceiling was before him. One, where the sky would be his limit.

In Target, the teacher asked me, “Has Sweets started making snowflakes?” Her daughter, who is seven looked up and said, “Mom, who’s making snowflakes?” “I think you will. Maybe tomorrow” she replied. “What for?” “A lot of schools are making snowflakes for other children, so that when they come to school it will look like a Winter wonderland. Isn’t that wonderful?” “Yes!” Her daughter clearly liked the idea. “Can we make snowflakes too Mom?” “Of course.” The teacher looked at me. I wanted to ask how she was. She beat me to the punch. “How is Sweets doing?” “I think she’s okay,” I said. “I asked her if she’d heard about what happened, which she had. I asked if she wanted to talk about it. She didn’t. I let her know that if she wants to, we can, but we don’t have to. She told me there was a moment of silence on Monday “which is what we always do when something bad happens.”” Sweets’ teacher chuckled, and added, “I think that’s a good approach. There’s no need to take her anywhere she’s not ready to go. All it will do is scare her.”

During the past week, I’ve been thinking about how a person is supposed to respond, how we’re supposed to live, after an event like this. There are obvious things. Gun control. Everywhere else in the world, when something like this has happened limiting access to guns has dramatically curtailed further incidents of gun related violence. This is not a Second Amendment issue. This is common sense. The politics of gun control may be difficult. The logic is clear.

We need to do more to support the Mental health of our citizens. Stories like this one are heartbreaking. Collectively, taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves, is a responsibility we share.

The most important thing we can do? That’s easy. It’s this: show up. Stress, anxiety and shock shut us down. They keep us from feeling comfortable walking across a department store where most days we are safe. It keeps parents from finding friendship with each other over time, in the places where they gather. The way I do, at Target, and my children’s schools.

As she disappeared from view I didn’t worry that Sweets wasn’t in my line of sight. She knows how to behave around strangers, and she’d checked to make sure she knew where to find me when she returned. Those gestures, and her simple walk, are small unconscious ways we all have of showing that violence doesn’t win. It’s a way we have of putting the evil that happened at Sandy Hook, in its place. During the past week, people have been bringing stuffed animals, candles, and flowers to makeshift memorials throughout Newtown, CT. These acts do the same thing. They convey our mourning, yes. They speak to the reality of our shared pain. Most important, they are a way of saying to the families of the victims: You are not alone. We are with you.

For me, one of the wonders of the presence of newborn children is the way babies re-orient a parent’s life. Everything a parent does, has the child’s well-being at the center. Nothing else is important. New parents know this, and feel the weight of responsibility, as they leave the hospital, or their birth center. The stakes are high, a new life is in your hands, and there’s no manual. Newborns and young children are often overwhelming. They eat at all hours. They sleep and wake when they want to. They pee and poop without asking if you have a diaper handy, or a change of clothing nearby. Sometimes, five minutes after they finish, they do it again. Still, most new parents learn to successfully shift their attention from what I want to do, to what the baby needs.

Last Friday, after dinner, my friend said, “I don’t think I can work on Christmas cards tonight.” I sighed in relief. I couldn’t think about bringing glad tidings. Not that night. Instead, we watched a movie with her nine year old daughter. I sat on one side of her child, my friend on the other. The movie, “Henry Poole Is Here” is a quirky tale of redemption. I needed something to redeem the day. As the DVD played, I realized I didn’t like the film. Neither did my friend. In the end, our sense of it wasn’t important. We looked to the child sitting in our midst. If she wanted to watch it, we would. If not, we’d find something else. We checked with her multiple times. Every time, she said that she wanted to keep watching. That’s what happened. That night, like many people, we were out of sorts. I was reeling. Without thinking we knew one thing: nothing was more important than meeting her needs.

A week later, that remains true. I think the way to think about what to do, how to respond, and how to live after Sandy Hook, must begin by thinking as differently as the parent of a newborn does. We need to re-orient our sense of what we want and need. We have to keep showing up, and live as if the needs of our children trump any of our own. We must do this, today, tomorrow and every day after, because they really do. Our children aren’t simply our future. They are our precious present. Nothing else matters.


Everything Happens. A Thanksgiving Day Reflection.

Sh*t happens. Everything happens for a reason. These are two popular phrases that many use, and few combine. When anyone tries, the outrage is reflexive. Disease? Disaster? Death? Happening for X reason? That’s language of blame. We’re sensitive to blame, and the way it reveals our refusal to own the result of our actions.

It’s much easier for us to say that good things happen for a reason. There’s no outrage. We accept the relationship between the terms, and happily extend them. We say, “everything” while we mean only “good” things. There’s no blame, so there’s less resistance. Some folks like to say that a good result was “meant to be.” Good fortune is then gifted by God, or the kindness of another. I suppose that can be true. Still, along the way, I think we miss that when we say things like this, we’re absolving ourselves of the good fortune which can also result from our actions. Instead we’re giving it to a someone else, or higher power who has a “plan.” I wonder, why are we so unwilling to accept that we have the ability to make good choices ourselves?

My Dad is in the hospital. Last week he had an emergency quadruple bypass. He’d been at a used book sale, and found himself slumping and without energy. My mom, from her corner of the room they were in, saw that he was supporting himself by holding on to a post. He was sweating. He didn’t know what was going on. “I couldn’t figure out what was happening” he said later. He’d been feeling a dull pain in his chest for weeks. We’ve learned since that his arteries were 90% clogged. I shook my head when he told us he was trying to “figure out what was happening.” Of course he was. It’s his, there’s-an-over-the-counter-medicine-for-this, way that he has of problem solving health issues. It’s a way that he doesn’t make good decisions. Choices. A person makes hundreds each day. Most of them don’t make any difference in our lives or that of others. It’s not something we think about because there isn’t any need to. It’s simply part of living.

At the book sale, a volunteer staff person saw my dad slumping, and asked him if he wanted a glass of water. He accepted the offer. My parents were grateful for the moment of kindness. I’m not sure if anyone tried to help them after that. Further kindness at the book sale is not part of the story they’re telling. At this point, additional kindnesses are as likely to be details hidden behind the larger moments leading to his surgery, as they are of something which did not happen. It can be a challenge to offer help. We don’t want to offend. We’re convinced that we don’t know how. We are afraid that we’ll do the wrong thing. We think things like it’s not really our business to get involved, because who knows what the real situation is… The way those questions play in our mind? They’re the dark side of the wide Libertarian streak we’ve embraced. It’s not just government we don’t trust. We don’t know how to trust each other, or ourselves. These same things also make it difficult to ask for help when we need it.

Last night a friend said, “Bypass? I went through that with my dad in January.” Another, “my dad had a new ticker installed five years ago.” And, “mine had this done ten years ago.” In the last week, I’ve been amazed at the sheer number of people who have joined in, saying “me, and us, too.” As a friend put it on Facebook, “It’s not so much that we ‘like’ this status, as we ‘understand.'” For me, the chorus of these messages is another reminder that while we have a terrible habit of thinking that no one understands what we’re going through, we all move through the same kinds of things in life. Often these events, are exactly the same.

After drinking some water, my parents returned home. The next day they called my sister, who lives a few short blocks away from them. She called their doctor, and made sure he would see them on Monday. Monday’s visit to their GP led to a return on Tuesday for tests with a cardiologist. That doctor drove them to the hospital in his own car. In retrospect that may not have been the best choice–an ambulance being able to provide more support–but in the moment it was a decision that spoke to the urgency the situation required. From my sister, to my parents doctors, here were good decisions. We make them, too.

Today is Thanksgiving. The family is dining today in the hospital cafeteria. I’m a little anxious about that. It’s different. It’s also something that people do every year. We won’t be alone. Not in this, either. Another friend said, “Thanksgiving in a hospital with a sick relative? Been there. Done that.” For a brief moment I thought of asking, “Yes, but, how was the stuffing?” Then I remembered the most obvious thing. This day isn’t about the what of the meal. The work of service by those preparing and providing the food, will still take place. It’s not about the where of the meal either. Home isn’t about walls and a roof. Home is where ever you happen to be, with people you love. Today is a day for being together. A family gathers, and give thanks. In this, a life where everything happens.

For 9/11: Being Whole, Together, As We Are.

I watched him run, my friend’s small boy, all of three years old. We were in front of Sweets’ school, the children having just finished singing what I call “The Promise Song,” during their morning assembly.

“I am a promise, I am a possibility, I am a promise, with a capital P, I am a great big bundle of potentiality!”

I was still singing as I bounded down the steps, taking them two at a time. That’s when I saw my friend, watching her son, and I imagined, marveling, as he chugged along. The distance from the steps to the sidewalk is around fifty yards. As he moved past the halfway point, I realized he wasn’t slowing down. The sidewalk was now twenty yards ahead. The street was twenty-one. What was about to happen was unthinkable. Realizing this, my friend Karen, started running, too.

I was still singing, but my voice was soft. My attention was with Karen, and her child.

“I can go anywhere that I want to go. I can be anything that I want to be. I can climb the high mountains, I can cross the wide sea.”

The “wide sea” of asphalt now lay a few feet ahead. Karen, was closing. Would she get there? I continued, “I’m a great big promise you see!” My voice trailed off. He was on the sidewalk when he fell. Karen scooped him up moments later, his laughter having turned into a wail. There was no blood. No apparent scrape. The surprise of falling had simply taken his glee and turned it inside out.

She picked him up, giving consolation the way a mother does, holding her child close. As I reached them she said, “He’ll be okay. I think he’s stunned, more than anything.” He seemed fine. The fall was in his past. We walked. I looked at her and said, “Isn’t this a beautiful day? It’s clear and crisp. I love this weather.” “I know, the sky is so blue.” I looked up. “You’re right! Wow. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. THAT doesn’t happen enough in this town.” I was taking in the sky when she said, “It was this clear on September Eleventh.” In the silence that followed, I thought of that day’s empty sky.

Before singing “The Promise Song,” we’d had a moment of silence, and the Principal read several reflections from Messages to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11, 2001. Before going to school, I'd joined my daughter, saying these prayers, written by my neighbor. We’d also watched James L. Martin’s reflection on the events of that day in 2001. September eleventh remains a day where people stop, and remember.

As we reached her car, Karen put her son down saying, “Let’s see if all your parts work.” He’d stopped wailing, shortly after we’d started our conversation. He walked easily to the car. If he needed more proof that he was fine, there it was.

In 2009 Joe Biden read an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese” at the Ground Zero Memorial Service. His reading came just before a moment of silence, marking the point in time when the second plane struck the World Trade Center.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Another friend said this morning, “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel normal on this day. Eleven years later, I definitely don’t.” His words took me back to Karen, and her son. My friend’s sense of the world is still turned inside out.

When Joe Biden read Mary Oliver’s poem at the Memorial Service in 2009, he skipped the first five lines of the poem.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

For me, those lines change the experience of the poem. Read as a whole, it puts first line he read, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” in a different context. We’re not mourning while “the world goes on.” We are people trying to love, what we love. We wrestle with our ability to do that. We beat ourselves and each other up, longing for proof that our love is strong enough. We can be told left and right, time and again, that “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination” and that we have a place “in the family of things” and the words will float through our ears. We can do things like sing “The Promise Song” until we are hoarse, and the words will remain outside our hearts.

The tension of hearing words like those in the poem and the song, coupled with our deep desire to be enough as we are, and at home where we are, is fully felt on days like this one. Days where our sense of what it means to live, and breathe, are turned inside out and revealed as modest constructions.

I like the phrase President Obama made famous during a speech on Super Tuesday in 2008. Quoting the poet June Jordan he said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” At the time, he was criticized for this turn of phrase. It was called messianic, and self-congratulatory. Andrew Sullivan noted then that “The point is surely that we shouldn’t wait for someone else to save us, or lift us up, or fix our problems or address our fate. We are the only ones who can do this.” That also means “we’re responsible for our own failure.” We see much, want to control outcomes, then blame ourselves or others when we fall short. We hold on and don’t know how to let go, how to turn it around.

September eleventh remains a point of wounding, instead of a place where healing can occur in relation to everything that happened that day. Like every child that falls, we were stunned. We wanted to wail. Instead, we put up a front. We wanted to show strength in the face of trauma. In wanting to present well to the rest of the world, we tied ourselves to our wound.

Thinking in relation, means thinking differently about who we are. We’re used to being part of communities that are born from boundaries, and differences. My family. My town. My country. It’s a way of thinking that separates, and leads to statements like, “you’re either for us, or against us.” That phrasing isn’t just one that comes into play when terror strikes. It’s what happens when we yell at kids, for setting foot in our yards. It happens in our homes, when we decide that an either or ultimatum is the only solution to the behavioral matter of the moment.

What if we let go of the way we’re wedded to good and bad? Us and them? Red state, and blue? If we stop judging and start joining, perhaps we can quiet the voice telling us we have failed again. That we are not good enough. A voice that leaves us to “have to walk on [our] knees / For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.”

Letting go, we might just realize that to find the way through “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” It couldn’t be that easy, could it?

In standing back and letting her child run, my friend Karen was brilliant. I wonder if she sees it that way? After all, you can look at what happened and say, “she let him fall.” I know she didn’t let him fall. What she did was let him run. She could have run with him from the start. She didn’t. That’s Karen opening up “what’s next” to a world of possibility. In this case her son, falling, and our conversation. If she had run with him from the beginning, our conversation would never have taken place. If she and I had not spoken today, you would not be reading these words. Vulnerability is the secret that helps us turn things around. It’s the thing that always works. Not because it is impossible for others to resist. It always works because being vulnerable changes who we are.

Brené Brown says, “When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make….Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.”

Being vulnerable is what happens when we let ourselves be caught up in our mother’s arms. It’s the way we move through from being wounded, to healing, and finding ourselves whole, you with me, together, as we are.


Spin Class Wisdom, And The Love We All Desire.

This morning, I stumbled across this essay: “Everything I Know About Prayer I Relearned in Spin Class.” It’s by a young Jesuit named Michael Rossman. I found it via James Martin‘s Facebook page. He discovered it this morning, in the Sunday bulletin at St. Cecelia’s parish, (Boston). I laughed when I saw the title. It’s a nice piece. One chock full of wisdom.

Reading it called to mind some of the people who’ve helped me understand both the importance of being part of a community (Rossman’s #1), and the challenge of living in community. Nothing takes a person off a pedestal of admiration, the way living with them does. The ordinariness of life. The ebb and flow, with its endless repetition and sameness. Once you understand the ups and downs of a person’s moods, you can see through the sheen we all project to hide our brokenness, and fear of rejection. To see, you have to look. We can choose to not look, and avoid the question altogether. But if you dare–and I think all great loves and friendships require that we do–what remains is the simple choice to be with another person, not as we’ve imagined or hoped them to be, but as they are.

I think the choice is something we first encounter with our families. Having known us all our lives, they can typically see through our facades. We see through theirs, too. We know each other too well, in the sense that when change happens, family is often the last to accept it as real. That, of course is the same reason most of us are our worst critics, we know all the history.

Being able to accept each other as we are? It’s the reason some friendships last, and others, don’t. Everyone wants to belong, to be accepted, and loved. Even Jesus did. I think it’s the secret to happy marriages, too. Someday I hope to test that hypothesis.

Being able to accept ourselves as we are? I think a lot of that involves coming to terms with our vulnerability, and brokenness. If yours is like mine, I’m sure your family is more than willing to help you do this. Of course, they’re often the people we have the hardest time hearing. All that history gets in the way, differently.

I like the way Rossman pointed to the way he’s supported by a communion of saints (#9), who “inspire, guide, and intercede.” And that he allows that the “communion of pop singers that blast from the speakers during [Spin} class could also analogously serve in a saintly role for spinners – even if some of their lyrics or personal lives may not always be so saintly.”

I sometimes consider of some of the bloggers I read in a similar manner. I’m thinking in particular of three women (#5?) who don’t live in my neighborhood, and that I don’t really know, or know well enough to consider part of my community (though one lives about twenty miles away). They write from different places, at different paces, and for different reasons. They are part of my communion of saints because of their willingness to dive deep, and be vulnerable (#10). Again and again they teach me the importance of taking first steps (#11), and pushing through to the end (#3) even though I have no idea where it is. For all of that–it’s a lot–I am in their debt.

If you have time, and the inclination, you can find their windows into the love we all desire, here:

Maternal Dementia
The Jennie Blog
Canned Beer Classy

The Love In My Heart.

Bud was sitting in the backseat of the car as we pulled up to his mom’s house. He said goodbye to my friend in the front passenger seat, and looked at me. “I love you, Dad.” “I love you too, Bud. Do you have your keys?” He waved them in the air so that I’d see that he did. Then he got out of the car.

As he walked away my friend turned to me and said, “Wow. Did you hear that?” “Hear, what?” “He told you that he loves you! He’s almost fifteen for Chrissakes! When you were his age would you ever have told your Dad that you loved him in front of one of his friends?” He paused, long enough for me to realize that the answer to that was an obvious no, then added. “You two, have done a wonderful job with your kids, you know?” I nodded, and smiled. “He’s a great kid.” Pointing with his index finger, my friend waved his right hand the way I remember his father doing when he wanted to make a point. “They both are.” We sat with the stillness of that for the short ride to my home.

Sometimes I think telling me she loves me is Sweets favorite thing to say. “I love you Daddy.” “I love you, too, Sweets” is our typical exchange repeated through the day, every day. It’s said frequently enough that it’s like a mantra. I used to wonder if she was checking to see if I really did love her. As if there was a possibility in her mind that I might not respond, or say, no. Now I think it’s just the air we breathe. She’s rich and full. Like a good mantra, “I love you” grounds us.

Sweets is young enough, that her “I love you” comes from a cup that only remembers that love overflows. The wonder of Bud’s “I love you” is that he is old enough to realize that not everything works out in the end. He loves the repeated phrase from the Hunger Games books, “May the odds be ever in your favor…” and is discovering that life, like the game in the book, is unfair. The world can be hard. At the same time, he is also learning to identify his needs. It’s the coolest thing. Something like that can only happen when a person begins to understand who they are. Neediness, in contrast, comes from our emptiness. From the way we feel that we’re lacking, and so, we need approval for example, to know we’re okay, or we need to be in a relationship to feel whole. He’s growing up. He’s beginning to have a sense of  who he is. What a kid!

I love them both. I would do anything for them. When the kids were younger it was easy to see cause and effect between what I would do as a parent, and the impact it had. Just think of the game “peek-a-boo.” Adults don’t play peek-a-boo with kids because it makes the adult feel good, though it does that in a marvelous way. We do it, because we see the joy the child experiences from the play of the game. I think it’s one of the ways we are reminded what it means to love another person unconditionally. Sebastian Moore reports that Marshall Rosenberg–who works in conflict resolution–says that “what we want above all things is to be the cause of joy in each other.” We want to love and be loved. Not for any reason or because of anything we do. We want to be loved for ourselves, as we are.

The kids and I have all the disagreements parents have with their kids, of course. The way I make them happy is different today than it was when we played peek-a-boo. Then, many games brought the cry “Again Dada, again!” Seeing them happy remains something precious, as does seeing them become individual selves. When I told my son that I didn’t like the Hunger Games movie, he didn’t take offense. He didn’t receive it as a rejection. Instead, he calmly suggested that I read the book. That is exactly what my friends said. That sort of thing is happening more and more. Still, I wonder, am I leading them anywhere good?  I worry, even though I know it doesn’t matter how much I want to try and see down the road of their lives. Anything I think I see, is an illusion. Heck, I have a tough enough time seeing down my own road. Anyway, that’s my head trying to control, a richness my gut knows only comes when I am true to the love in my heart.