Category Archives: Parenting

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.


I Missed You So So Bad!

The rule is simple, and clear. I am allowed to sing, in the car. That’s it. Step outside of the vehicle and my lips better seal. Sweets negotiated that deal to protect herself from the embarrassment of public parental crooning. She knew just what she was doing, too. I’ll sing about anything at the drop of a hat.

Related minor rules include the following: Dad does not dance in public, nor skip. She treads lightly there. She’s seen my personal version of a Monty Python “Silly Walk”. I think she knows she’s better off. At home, I’ll dance to some of the songs on Glee, too (I worked on these simple steps for a while). As long as I stand behind her, I’m okay. Now you know the reason why we don’t watch “Dancing with the Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance” in my house. It’s not that I think I can dance, it’s that I keep trying.

Every once in a while, an allowance is made. Tonight was one of those nights. I was permitted to indulge in various renditions of Carly Rae Jepsen’s number one hit “Call Me Maybe” for close to an hour. Yes! It wasn’t an early Father’s Day gift, no. I just couldn’t get the lyrics right. We must have listened to various versions of the song, twenty different times on YouTube. The Harvard Baseball Team lip-synced cover. The dubbed Obama spoof. Assorted lyrics-on-the-screen videos. I even tried using the Suzuki method! It didn’t matter. I’d play a section, pause, and botch the lyric. Sweets thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen. I haven’t seen her laugh that hard since she last watched the Mirror Scene in Duck Soup.

The first part of the song I got right, is the bridge where Jepsen sings:

Before you came into my life
I missed you so bad
I missed you so bad
I missed you so so bad!

I think the truth those words express about love, is perfect. As I sang the bridge, I was tickling Sweets. The words brought tears to my eyes. They capture my experience of having kids. When you’re welcoming a birth, and you feel a child’s first kick, it’s hard to deny that his/her presence in your life is filling a space you didn’t know existed. I think that’s what it’s like when a heart discovers true love.

Jepsen captures perfectly the sense true love gives that “I always needed you.” It’s not because I was lacking and the child, or lover completed me, no, not that. For me, the words aren’t those of adolescent pining. They belong to an adult heart, proclaiming the life-giving essence of true love. It’s the fundamental realization that the presence of this person in your life is helping you become more than you were, and more of who you already are.

Before your true loves come into your life, you have no idea life can be richer, or more real than it is. After they do, you can’t imagine living without them in it. If you have to? There’s sadness, and thanksgiving. They may be gone, but the richness they helped you discover, remains.

The next time you hear this song, why don’t you call them to mind, and join me in proclaiming this truth:

Before you came into my life
I missed you so bad
I missed you so bad
I missed you so so bad!

Too Soon.

My friend Rico was killed last week. The trouble I have writing the word murdered, speaks to the tenderness of the wound. He was thirty. In calling him my friend, I’m being generous to myself. It is how he made me feel.

Though he only lived a few blocks from me, I only saw him on school days, as I dropped off or picked up Sweets. He was never too busy to say hello, and often extended his hand for a complex four stage hand shake that I never got right. I was often self-conscious of my inability to make each move. It didn’t matter to him, it was part of the way he welcomed people. That’s what stays with me.

Rico didn’t know it, but he was one of my role models for being welcoming. The most important and precious lesson he taught me, again and again, was the importance of welcoming everyone, always. What did I do to merit the handshake, his smile, and the less frequent hug? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Yesterday afternoon, I asked Sweets if she wanted to go to the viewing. She said no, she didn’t want to go. She knew who Rico was, and knows his eldest daughter, who is also ten. “She’s not really my friend, Dad.” “I know,” I said. “I never saw him outside of school, either. Still, it’s important to go. You know what it’s like to almost lose a parent. Do you remember that?” She cast her eyes downwards. “His kids are  Dilworth kids, just like you. Dilworth isn’t just your school, it’s a community. When things like this happen, we come together. That’s one of the most important things people do, supporting each other when they’re hurting.” She looked up and let me know with her eyes that I was pushing a little too hard. A knock at the door signaled her moms arrival. She picked her up, and continued a similar version of the same conversation as they made their way home.

Later, at the viewing, I felt a tap on my shoulder. She’d come with her mom, after all. “I’m glad you’re here” I said to her. “It means a lot. To me, to the family, and everyone that we both don’t know that’s here.” “Yeah, and that’s just about everyone.” I laughed. “It is. These are people who loved him, and only some of them, and we don’t know any of them! They don’t know us, either. We’re letting them know that this person they loved, touched people they had no idea he knew. That’s a blessing for all of us, and a tribute to the nice guy he was.” We chatted with a few folks, and sat for a while before leaving.

Rico leaves behind three children, the youngest of whom is in kindergarten. The school is taking a collection for the Cooper family, for after-school care, uniforms, and the like. If you’re inclined, you can send a check to Dilworth Traditional Academy, at 6200 Stanton Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15206. On the memo put “Cooper Family Fund.” Thanks.


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.

We Love, As We Are.

This morning my daughter looked at me and said, “Daddy? Last year you asked me if I would be your Valentine.” “Sweetie, you’re my Valentine every day of the year!” She was unmoved. Mine was not the right response. I did the only right thing I could. I asked her. “Sweets? Will you be my Valentine?” “Yes, Daddy. I will.”

I told a friend yesterday that I would be claiming Valentines today. “I’m not asking,” I said. “I’m out and out claiming. Consider yourself claimed!” She knows that I have a way of being over-the-top with people I care about. She took my comment in stride. It was late. I was tired, and punchy. I often say that after midnight I turn into a pumpkin. It was after midnight. I know, the proper analogy to the Cinderella story, is for a man to turn back into a mouse. It’s the carriage that turns into a pumpkin. However, I am not a mouse.

This morning I posed the following question on my Facebook page, “The people in your life who cherish you for you, as you are, regardless of your or their mood, are: a. Being paid to be nice? b. Complete fools? c. Confusing you for someone else? d. Your Valentine every day of the year? Or ___.” Most Tuesday’s I post a question. I always have a blank. It’s for the wild card. I believe in wild cards. Then, I added the comment, “Thank you for being my Valentines.” Yes. Jim Wallis of Sojourners is my Valentine. So is the President (I even told him that I “like” him). I’ve liked Vin Diesel for a long time. George Takei? He sends me funny pictures. Anne Rice just goes on and on, about everything! Goodness gracious. It’s like she’s family. Of course, they don’t know me, not really. All the people who do, and still cherish me for who I am, as I am? They’re people of substantial courage. They’re the people I’m intimate with. They, are my Valentines.

Valentines Day, like love, is fraught with anxiety. We’re aware of our flaws in a way no one else can be. We’re Cinderella, unable to imagine that the glass slipper, fits. Even so, we want to be loved. There is part of us that longs for Neruda’s words to become incarnate in an other:

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

One of the most wonderful things children teach us, is how easy this is to make real. If I whack my elbow, and your response is to kiss it better? Well, there are immediate space issues. Immediate. At work, there are HR issues. Besides that, it’s plain weird. Kissing your child’s elbow is another matter all together. The moment your lips touch their boo-boo, crying stops. Tears dry. You are so close that the ache of their bruise becomes the sweetness of your kiss. Your ordinary gesture of care, is not only sufficient, it is transformative.

My claiming of Valentines is meant in the same way. We spend so much time looking for the one that we lose sight of the truth that we all are that one. Love, as our children teach us, is the simplest of things. Make no mistake, I’m not advocating that we begin kissing each other’s elbows. Wouldn’t that be a sight? No. I’m suggesting that we take the ordinary things we do and see them as they are, as acts of love. So. Did you listen to me when I was struggling? You were loving me, when you did. When I thanked you, I was telling you that I love you. When I asked you how you were? That was my way of saying I love you, again. When I say I’m thankful for your support. I’m acknowledging your willingness to be intimate with me. It’s another way I let you know I love you. We do these things all the time. This is how we love. It’s never perfect, though it can approach perfection for short periods. Mostly, it’s the most ordinary of experiences. Imperfect, yes. That is as it can only be. After all, we love, as we are.


Coming, Going, And Epiphany.

I love things that make me stop and take note. There’s an East European tradition of blessing homes for the Epiphany and marking the lintel above the front door with an inscription written in blessed chalk. The ritual can involve the blessing of each room in the house as well. I’ve read stories about clergy who wandered through towns carrying chalk, holy water, and a step ladder. While having chalk that’s blessed and holy water to sprinkle, and even the presence of clergy is a clear way of showing that what is happening is sacramental, it’s not the easiest thing to arrange. Especially at the last minute.

Still, the idea of beginning the year by thinking about the things I want to take place in the rooms of my home? The ways I want to be? The ways I’d like us to be? Where will my family come together to be quiet? Where will we be still? My family is as busy as most. I can’t imagine that the day will come where we pay someone to create that space. But, you never know. I like the idea of talking about what our mealtime should be like. Of sharing our hopes for what happens to the people who sleep and play and do homework in each room. Of asking my kids about their hopes. Naming and claiming each room together might be a wonderful family activity.

If you’re inspired, why not bring this Epiphany tradition to life this weekend? Bless your home and mark it with chalk: 20+C+M+B+12. The numbers match the year and the letters have two meanings. They are the initials of the traditional names of the magi: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar; they also stand for the Latin, “Christus Mansionem Benedicat”, which means, “May Christ bless this house.”

The crosses remind us of Christ, and the holiness of the magi. You write the words above the front door, so that every time you come and go, you are reminded of what you claimed, and of the blessing.

How you do it can be as simple as praying the Lord’s prayer together, asking God to bless everyone in the family, and everyone who visits this year. Then you write the inscription above your front door with chalk. Everyone can write part of the inscription, too. Want a prayer that’s already written? You can find a few options here.

I like the idea of revisiting the claims for God’s blessing, each time I see the markings on the lintel. Part of that is because I don’t have any memory of successfully keeping a resolution made once, and late at night. You know the ones I am referring to. Well, aside from writing the correct year on checks. Every year I have to learn that one over, and over, again. It’s not that I’m not trying. The repetition helps. If I didn’t write it again and again, I’m not sure the change would sink in.

That matches the sense I have, that most of the time, that change happens step by step. It’s incremental, the product of ongoing reflection, and action with intention. I choose again, and again, and again, the way a painting comes together, brush stroke after brush stroke.

Parker Palmer says that the call of Christmas is “to be born and born and re-born, again, and again, and again.” A few weeks ago I wrote, about the “yes” we give each other, and the “yes” that babies require, because they’re so delicate, and fragile. When we have the courage to be ourselves, in those moments, I think we’re as delicate as babies. And yet as they grow up, or as our marriage partnerships continue, we can forget that simple truth.

All the more reason to stop and consider who it is that we share our lives with, as we come and go.

2012. Are We There Yet?

Last night I wished a friend of mine a happy new year. She replied that I was too early with my greeting. Surely we’d speak again before the new year. Then I wished her a happy end of the year. She said I was still speaking too soon. Later, as the clock ticked past midnight, and the date rolled over to December 31, I wished her a happy end of 2011. She smiled, and bid me goodnight.

One of my favorite lines from the Pixar film The Incredibles is Mr. Incredible’s response to that classic car travel question, “Are we there yet?” “We’ll get there when we get there!” is his wonderful reply. These days, when the kids ask me that question, it’s with a smile forming on their faces. They expect the Mr. Incredible reply. Instead, they’re more likely to ask, “How much longer?” What they’ve learned, I think, is that unless we’re stopped in traffic, the answer to their question gets smaller and smaller each time they ask. It’s also a sign that they’re living in larger swathes of time. Six hours is long, but no longer an eternity. Five and a half hours is shorter. So is four. And three. Time gets longer in the last hour. That hour still takes forever. That’s a burden stemming from the wonder of anticipation. It takes forever for me, too.

Another year is upon us. It may take a long time to get to midnight tonight, especially if you are outside, and it is cold where you are. Soon 2012 will be done, as well. We’ll be on to 2013. That year will also pass faster than we believe. “Where did it go?” we will ask. I love the way finding myself in the flow of experience, removes the felt sense of time. You lose yourself so completely, you’re no longer aware that hours have passed, not until the trip to the beach is over, or the book you’re reading ends. Those are times when we’re fully present to life. It’s also the only part of our waking time, that resembles a good night’s sleep. The kind of night where sunlight streaming through a window is enough to roust you, and you beat the alarm clock at your side. I love wakings like that!

My favorite birthday greeting is a variation on the following. “Here’s to the year ahead and all it holds! May your lap overflow with all manner of good things. And in the difficult times, which will come, may you remember your friends and family are at your side.” I’ll let that be my wish for your 2012. Am I too soon? If you think I am, pretend you’re on the other side of the International Date Line. The rest of us? We’ll get there when we get there!

It’s A Wonderful Life!

Since 2006 the Pittsburgh Filmakers have shown the film “It’s A Wonderful Life” in one of their theaters during the holiday season. For the last three years, the price of admission has been covered by the donation of a canned or non-perishable food item. It’s collected as part of a food drive supporting the East End Cooperative Ministry. This year I waited to see a showing of this, my favorite holiday film, until the end of the run.

As I approached the door, I was informed that every seat in the theater was taken. The film, though free, was “sold out.” The fellow working the door reminded me that I could return the next night. The showings would continue for one more day. “I can’t,” I said. “I have choir practice. Here, take this.” I handed him my bag of cans. “Thanks” he said, and “Sorry.” He smiled politely. I turned and began walking to my car. I imagined the headline, “Film in 65th year still sells out!” and laughed quietly. I wondered too, how this happened. I had been looking forward to seeing this film for weeks.

Just as I started thinking, I realized the obvious. I was ten minutes late. Ten minutes isn’t a lot of time. And, I know the first ten minutes of this film by heart. Still, tonight, that was late enough. Why was I late? I’d come to the theater from Sweets’ Chorus concert at her Elementary school. The concert had ended early enough, but I’d stuck around afterwards to talk with other parents, teachers, and to congratulate the students that had performed.

I walk Sweets to school almost every day. One of the gifts of that, and of volunteering to chaperone various events, is that I’ve come know the children in her class, by name. There are many more students that I don’t know by name. Many of them, however, know me. When they see me in the morning, they smile, raise their hand for a high five, to wave, or give me a fist bump. One boy, the child of a friend, likes to channel a Star Wars Jedi and use “The Force” against me. The Force is powerful with him. He likes to use it to throw me against the wall. I indulge him. The greetings are part of their morning routine as they walk to class. They’re part of mine, too.

After the concert, I congratulated the students I saw and circled back with their teachers. The ones present had worked a twelve hour day. I wanted to acknowledge their commitment, and thank them for the good work they do. Next year, budget cuts in the school district may mean that some of them lose their jobs. No one knows exactly what that will look like. The staff is working under a cloud. I know what that feels like. It’s not fun. More than ever, they need to be lifted up. I’m good at lifting people up.

Earlier in the day, I’d approached one teacher as she walked down the hall. She was, as she almost always is, wearing a smile. I said, “I can’t tell you what a joy it is to see you wearing a smile at the beginning and at the end of your day.” For a moment, her smile, widened. “You’ve got have your game face on,” she said matter-of-factly. “Well. You forget I’ve seen you teach. I know it’s not just a ‘game face.’ You love what you do, and it shows. I’m a long way away from elementary school. Still, seeing your enthusiasm, often makes my day!” She thanked me. She’s an excellent teacher, and beloved by my Sweets.

That night, I saw many friends, and congratulated them on their son and/or daughter’s performance. To one couple, I spoke of my plan to see the movie that evening. I was speaking with enough enthusiasm that one of them stopped me mid-sentence, saying, “I can tell you’re excited, but you’re not going to convince us to go with you.” His spouse looked at him and smiled the way spouses do, with love. Then she told him “not to be a Grinch.” “Oh no,” I said. “I’m not trying to convince you. I’m just excited.” I’m a cheerleader. Apparently, I even do it when I’m not trying!

Seeing that the post-concert reception was winding down, I walked into the auditorium to see if any help was needed putting things away. As I walked out I noticed two students waiting. I had not seen their parents that evening. I offered them a ride home. They called home to see if their mom was already on her way. She wasn’t. They let her know I’d offered to give them a ride. I took them home. As I dropped them off, I confirmed Christmas Eve plans with their parents. Only then did I head to the theater. You know what happened then.

At this point the reason why I missed the film may be obvious. I didn’t fully understand until the next morning, as I found myself sharing a long hug with a substitute teacher. We were saying goodbye. She’s a great lady, and she’s landed a job in Virginia. She starts after the new year. Now, who gets to know a substitute teacher? Who hugs one even? I mean, really.

In a year and a half, we’d never shared a conversation that lasted longer than two minutes. Most of them were a lot shorter than that. Most of them consisted of a “good morning” greeting, or a “nice to see you back” welcome. Small moments really. The thing is, life is made of small moments. That’s what happened. A few of those little conversations were very very real. As we shared a second hug, this woman whose first name I didn’t even know, thanked me for my support. That’s when I realized how it was that I missed the movie.

I missed it, because this thing I’m living? Well, it’s a wonderful life.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday’s Word: Yes!

And Mary said,

Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.

Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:37, The Message)

I’m not one who believes that there is one person out there for everyone. One true love. One best friend. One partner in crime. Instead, I think there are people to whom we say yes. Like Mary.

From what I can tell, most of us aren’t visited by angels when it happens. It’s more like we think the person we’re giving our yes to, is an angel. What makes that happen? What leads us to say yes? Is it the chemistry of our pheromones? Something the other says that makes us laugh? Might it simply be that in a given moment, they’re there? Or they say or do something that shows us they understand who we are in a way, we think, no one else ever has? Maybe it’s us too? Maybe we change. Maybe it’s just that, we’re ready. It’s a mystery to me.

Early, in my second year of college, I found myself with a pair of tickets to a concert. Who to take, I wondered. Should I ask Abigail? Zelda? Everyone in between? I thought it might take that. To my roommate, the answer was obvious. “You have to take Mary (not her real name). She’s already said yes.” “What are you talking about? She couldn’t have. I just got the tickets!” He smiled and asked, “When you go to the dining hall for breakfast, who do you eat with?” “Mary.” “Is she already there, or does she come and join you?” “Usually, she’s there. I walk in, and she’s there.” “Everyday or just once in a while?” he asked. “Every day.” “Every single day? Really?” “Yes.” “And dinner? What about dinner?” “I usually eat dinner with her too.” I paused. “Oh my God.” “Yeah,” he said. “I thought you’d never figure it out.”

I asked her. She said, “Yes.” And for the next four years we gave our yes, to each other.

Last night I watched the 2003 film, Love Actually. The film tells not one, or two, but eight different love stories. What I love most about the film is the way it captures the varied forms of awkwardness that falling in love, and giving your yes, entails. The awkwardness is always there, at least for me. And our inability to see mutual affection when it’s staring us in the face? The way I couldn’t with my Mary? That’s often part of it too.

For me, one of the wonders of the film is the way it spends time showing characters coming into the awareness that giving someone your yes, isn’t just about saying that one word, or the familiar three (I love you). It’s a response you give with your whole being. When you do that, this little three letter word, becomes everything. The orientation of your life changes, fundamentally. To me, that’s the wonder of Mary’s yes in the story of the Nativity. We are only told that she “pondered” the angels words, not what that looked like.

Recently, friends of mine adopted twins. When I learned this, I thought, “Wow! What courage!” And, also, “Oh my! I wonder if they have any idea of what they’re in for.” Babies… Women have them, and you bring them home. Or you birth them in a tub as if it were the most natural thing in the world, which it is. There’s no test to pass. No class to take, or degree to obtain, in parenting. There are manuals, yes. Mostly, they don’t help. Fact is, most kids grow up thinking their folks are certifiable with good reason. We are learning as we go. Being a parent, takes courage every day. Mary, must have had a helluva lot of courage. Joseph too, for that matter. They did not know what they were in for. Like my friends, they both, said yes.

I often hear parents say that they live for their children. There is an obvious reason for that. Babies require so much care, that if we expect them to live, they have to become the center of our lives. Children live, and thrive, because people in their lives have the courage to say, yes. And by the way, for what it’s worth, I think the most honest book a new parent can read is Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions., It’s marvelous, honest and hilarious.

We’re one week away from Christmas. One week from celebrating love, actually coming into the world and dwelling in our midst. That baby, like all babies, asks us to to make him the center of our world. He asks us, for our yes. What does it look like for you to listen the way Mary did? What does it mean to take action, to give your yes? My guess, is that you won’t see any angel as you ponder these questions. If you do, it’ll be in the form of a friend or a stranger unexpectedly meeting a need you didn’t know you had.

I lied earlier. I do that, more often than I like to admit. There is one person out there for everyone. One true love. “Do not be afraid” about giving him your yes. This babe, born in a manger, has already given you, his.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday’s Word: Twenty-One.

Twenty-One. Days until Christmas, that is. It’s Advent. A season of waiting and anticipation. A friend of mine is pregnant. There’s no waiting, like that waiting! On Tuesday, she’ll begin her fortieth week. She is more than ready, to pop. She may not be shouting “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It’s likely, more like, “Come on now, baby, the way is prepared! Having never been pregnant, I can’t really imagine what her experience is like. My experience is informed by watching my two children come to full term. What I know first hand, is their births changed everything.

The rub of seeing Christmas decorations out in full force, and hearing Christmas music, three weeks before the liturgical season officially begins, is that Jesus has already come. The marketers are right, it’s Christmas! Of course, their preference is that we worship at “the house of Lord and Taylor.”  Still, Christmas is here. Jesus has come. If you’re a Christian, That birth changed everything, too.

And now the obvious question. How has Jesus’ birth changed everything in your life?

When you wake in the morning with a new baby in the house, you’re typically exhausted. You were up at two to change a diaper, and at two forty-five, for a feeding. You fell asleep at three, with the baby in your arms. At five minutes past, she woke you and shared a gift of spit-up. At five, she simply woke up. On the morning you wake rested, you’ll rejoice; she slept through the night.

The holiday season is a busy one. Shopping, baking, parties, repeat. Children in school have performances, recitals, athletic championships, and banquets. They keep Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, too. Good parents attend all of these functions, and learn about each others holidays. It’s a challenging time, to think about waiting. It’s a challenging time for finding time to reflect (on anything).

It’s not uncommon for new parents to gaze in wonder at their sleeping child. That’s an experience that continues as they grow up. You forget the conversations of the day, and the arguments, or come to terms with whether you handled a situation well, or not. That is, if you’re thinking. Mostly, there’s awe as you look at their sleeping selves with love. Perhaps that’s the way we should keep Advent. As you soak in the beauty of your tree. As you admire, your holiday display or creche, take advantage of that still moment. Who is this Jesus? Maybe you think about it. Or maybe, you ponder the birth of the child Jesus, as a parent gazes upon theirs, with awe and wonder.