Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Gift of Candlesticks

We watched Les Miserables today, and oh, I cried, probably more than I did when I saw the musical on Broadway in 1988.  We emerged from the theatre red-eyed and wrecked.  This, I thought, is what the Greeks had in mind with catharsis.  It felt kind of good to sob for something not immediate and real right now, but images of oppression and reminders of the oft-futile nature of war made my mind wander to Syria and gang rape in India.  I've been thinking of the story all afternoon, rife with examples of what it is to be human.

I carried a glimmer of the hope promised in the film's poster out with me, too.  When Jean Valjean is offered food and refuge in a parish shortly after his release from two decades of imprisonment, he betrays his host by stealing silver from the church before he flees.  Police capture him and turn him over to the Bishop, who claims that the silver is not stolen, and that Valjean had, in fact, forgotten the candlesticks and adds them to his sack.  After the authorities leave, the Bishop admonishes Valjean to use his bounty to make an honest man of himself.  

The unexpected generosity and grace of the Bishop is passed on by Valjean, who refuses several opportunities to kill his dogged pursuer, the Inspector Javert.  Javert, though, is immune to paying it forward, never himself showing mercy for Valjean, and barely redeems himself by the end of the work.

I recognized Valjean's gift from the Bishop as one we have the choice to give, too.  It requires a complete selflessness and utter lack of desire for vengeance.  The Bishop, after all, could have manifested a defensible righteous indignation; smugness at his guest's predicted behavior; at the very least, grave disappointment.  Instead he offers kindness and opportunity, without any way of knowing or need to confirm that the silver will be well spent by Valjean (versus, say, on drugs).  The bishop's gift requires true gift-giving spirit:  that which demands nothing in return, that which looks past any notion that gifts are earned or deserved.

I am thinking of the ways we can pass the candle in our daily lives:

Cheerfully refusing to engage with road rage.

Declining opportunities to be locked in battles of wills:  giving in because it's the right thing to do, even if it means letting someone feel like she's "won." Everybody wins when we let go.

Biting a lip instead of biting back.

Resisting envy and the judgments which accompany it about who has or gets what, and whether they need or deserve it. 

Offering generosity in the form of compliments, attention, and favors to those who most challenge the giving parts of ourselves.

Acknowledging the wisdom and value in views and beliefs that aren't our own.

Doling out random acts of kindness. 

Practicing forgiveness.  Letting go of grievances and grudges.  Accepting someone else's burden. 

Here's to more candlesticks circulating in 2013.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

List: Christmas Wonderfulness

1.  Friday was the first night of Winter Break, and we grabbed an auntie and headed to the mall to sit on Santa's lap, eat dinner at a restaurant where you order food with an iPad, and do a little shopping and a lot of soaking up the spirit and songs and window displays.  We started the evening with rockstar parking and ended it by finding a few funny gifts for friends.  It was the perfect start to some time off with family. 

2.  BFF Missy and her kids established an assembly line of toiletries and snacks at their house to make sock care packages for folks who are homeless. Big and Little Sis got to participate in the creation of a few of these stockings and we gave them out to brothers and sisters camping out under the freeway by our house. Thanks for the inspiration and opportunity, buddy.

3.  We came home from our annual Christmas Eve dinner tradition of red and green soups at Mammom's and Bampa's (minus Mammom and Bampa, who are with my sister and her husband and their three boys in Oregon) and I headed down the block to drop off a gift at our neighbor's house.  "Come back in ten minutes!" my neighbor/coworker exhorted us.  "You'll be just in time for Grandpa to play the accordion and our Christmas singalong!" 

I'm not one to turn down an accordion occasion, and it was as awesome as I thought it would be, with Grandpa accompanying and shouting out cues before various verses, "All the ladies now!" and a house full of family and friends.  Just when we thought the festivities were over, The Talent Competition was announced.  The first act was a family of red-nosed reindeer playing "Rudolph" on a keyboard.  Big Sis stepped up to be the second and last act, and won the competition with "If I Only Had a Brain" on the keyboard.  The prizes were scratch-off lottery tickets, and our neighbor host promised instant cash-out.  Big Sis walked away with $11 (from a party we crashed), while the second-place act reminded us that if it weren't for their keyboard...

4.  And then we returned home for construction time.  Christmas Wonderfulness features the cooperation and enthusiasm of determined Auntie and Honorary Auntie as well as Husband in the assembly of a key Santa gift, which we completed at midnight.  And note:  Honorary Auntie had already assembled one of these items in her own workshop at home the week prior, before we determined it was too big for the girls' bedroom.  And she still agreed to assemble one desk more.  Love.

5.  Big Sis has been asking for her own room.  And though we contemplated making a move to a different house this year, it wasn't meant to be (and wouldn't necessarily result in "own rooms," either).  Though she asked for a Kindle, Big Sis got "room of her own" for Christmas this year, in the form of a desk, lamp, blotter/calendar, bulletin board, and retro-refurbished chair set up in a corner of the bedroom which is now all hers.  I haven't been so excited about a gift in a long time. 

6.  Big Sis and Little Sis independently thought of and chose very thoughtful gifts for each other, and it made me teary to watch them exchange presents and observe their reactions.

7.  We spent mid-Christmas Day with Husband's family at our niece's house, where she hosted a scrambled-egg-and-bacon breakfast a la Grandma Shirley.  In keeping with tradition, we were packed in a small house and spilling out of doors, where there was scooter-riding, remote-control-helicopter-flying, and all combinations of relatives sharing conversations and love. 

8.  One of the coolest gifts received this year was for Big Sis--a set of juggling sticks from our niece.  Our niece demonstrated her crazy stick skills, inspiring Big Sis, who spent a good part of the morning practicing until she could catch one after flipping it in the air. 

9.  My dad's sister, Auntie, has stayed at our house this year--on the futon couch in the living room as that is the only "guest room" we've got.  That puts her front and center for all our goings-on and it's been great to have a guest so game.  Also, we went for a jog her first morning here...and she kicked my tail.  Note to self:  be fit like her when I'm 62. 

10.  We headed back to Mammom's and Bampa's for Christmas Dinner, which was actually breakfast made by my chef brother:  waffles, apple-cider doughnuts, and the family tradition of huevos rancheros (with fresh avocado).  We ate till stuffed, exchanged gifts, and then played Catch Phrase with the kids.  We came home with hearts and tummies full. 

Though our families couldn't all be together, we felt a special appreciation for the efforts of everyone near and far to create connections and continue traditions. 

And...another year of believing:  Magic.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The God of My Small Thing

One of the best gifts I give myself is one-on-one time with Little Sis, who expresses exhilarated bliss at having me to herself and babbles joyfully in thoughtful, inquisitive, and reflective monologues. 

Little Sis has been thinking a lot about God lately, and running her thoughts by me.  My best role here is Listener as she poses and answers her own questions and develops and modifies independent understandings. 

Here's a transcript of some of Little Sis' musings on the Maker; I'm leaving my responses out, so imagine me, nodding here, cocking my head there, and asking a few clarifying questions as she works out the mysteries of the universe...and pays tribute to her grandma.

Do you believe in God, Mom? Little Sis asks as I roll enchiladas.

I'm just not sure I do.

I don't think God created the world; I think the world made itself.  Also, didn't God die, and if he was really a god, how could he die?

A girl at school told me if you don't believe in god you will die when you're a child.

But I don't believe that.

I told her that's not true because I know people who don't believe in God and they're not dead.  Some people in our family believe in God and some don't. 

Do you think Mammom believes in God, Mom?  Little Sis asks as she scooters alongside me on an evening walk. 

I might ask her, but I don't know.

I am not sure I believe in God.  I think he died.  You know, up on those sticks?

And I don't think God can make dead people come back, because when people die they can't come back.  I mean, why would he make his son come back and not Grandma Shirley?

I don't get that.

That wouldn't be fair. 

But if Grandma Shirley did come back, it would be so wonderful; we could go to her house and swim with her and play with her toys. 

That would be great, Mom. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Illusion of Control

My thoughts aren't far from the families and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary and community of Newtown, Connecticut. 

How we react to tragedies like these is so informed by our own experiences, backgrounds, baggage, and circumstances.  Because I work at a school, my initial responses to events that involve schools, including my own, are generally informed by my position as vice principal:  responsibility for the safety and well being of staff and students, plans for care for affected students and staff and messaging to parents and the community, anticipation of changes to our own safety procedures and protocols. 

So my own feelings are deferred.  I've learned to not be surprised when my emotions don't surface as others' do.  It wasn't until I was at the kitchen counter talking with my mom about those parents in Connecticut, who had to leave their children lying at the school when they went home Friday night, that I wept.

We're talking at school about normalcy and safety and learning and routines and comfort and support.

We're talking as parents about discussing this with our children and protecting them and letting them go and what if what if whatifwhatifwhatif and there but for fortune go we

We're talking as a nation about guns and mental health and communication and you should and you shouldn't and good and evil and innocence lost and what will we do next

But what we're all talking about is control.  What we can control and what we can't control and what we wish we could.  We will try to wrestle something down to the ground now because we think we failed to do just that on Friday.  In times of uncertainty, helplessness, and insecurity, we assert controls. Gun control, access control, parental control, information control, innocence control, freedoms and restrictions control all at the same time.  We want to be the ones in charge and we want someone to take charge, and honestly, it's all confusing.

We're considering reasonable next steps to increase our children's safety, and trying to avoid overreacting.

A friend of mine asked on Facebook, "Parents, do you ask if there is a gun in the house when your kids go on playdates?"

A great question, because it reminded me of a time when I was nine years old, playing at a friend's house, and that friend told me her dad had a gun.

"Really?" I asked.  "Yep," she answered.

My memory tells me that my buddy reassured me the rifle was unloaded as she retrieved it from under her parents' bed.  I have no memory of her parents' whereabouts, but I remember thinking that my parents told me NEVER EVER to play with guns and though I was a fairly enlightened child, I went ahead and ran around the house in giddy thrill, chased by my friend and her brother and That Gun.  That I was ever near a gun was a secret I kept from my parents, because guess what:  I would not have been allowed to play with that friend at her house ever again. I'll never know what other outcomes were possible from that scenario, only that I walked away unscathed. 

And that I played with a gun despite knowing it was dangerous and I was forbidden to do so. 

That question, "Hey, do you have a gun in your house?" also reminded me of my friend whose husband learned there are ways to deter potential sexual predators from targeting your child.  Because the likelihood that the person who victimizes your child is someone you know, experts suggest front-loading adults who care for your child with a statement explaining that your child is aware of his/her body and has had conversations with parents about healthy boundaries. My friend's husband had frank, sometimes awkward discussions with friends and parents of his children's friends about his daughter's safety in their homes. 

I ask myself if I have the guts to be so bold--do you?

And where else might I be a little lax, too trusting, or holding on too tight?  Are our windows locked every night?  Are my children in the right car seats, every time; do I own the safest car?  Do I have parental controls on the TV and computers?  Am I choosing the correct developmental stage for solo bike rides around the block, walking to school alone? 

Ultimately I rely on gut and decisions that help me sleep a little more assuredly at night.  But my head hits the pillow knowing no amount of bubble wrap, practical precautions, or exertion of my controls amidst the uncertainty protects my children from the potential of random chance or determined and dangerous deviants. 

I sleep with gratitude and sadness tonight, wishing rest and peace for the residents of Newtown, Connecticut. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On Fairy Bundles and Fleeting Moments

It was a warm September afternoon, and we were in the backyard entertaining friends while our kids busied themselves scurrying in and out of the house.  They hula-hooped and jumped rope and petted the rabbit and carried dolls and dragged one another around in the wagon and drew and glued and made herb potions from the garden and created habitats for creatures and hung fairy bundles from branches.  We paid half attention to their comings and goings and doings, oohing over artifacts they shared, applauding their short performances, and admiring feats of skill. 

But children leave wakes that demand our examination and I don't mean wet towels and dirty socks. I mean carefully-laid-out tea parties and Lego-Squinky-Polly-Pocket-dollhouse-furniture complexes and toys lined up outside the bedroom in orderly avoidance.  These are the ephemera we absentmindedly tidy up, trip over, and vacuum.

On that September evening, though, as I swept the backyard for dishes and glasses and wayward dolls,  I found a potted tree on our patio adorned with elfish ornaments:  coconut husks filled with cotton, leaves, and flower petals; bows tied on branches; tufts of dried wild grasses and blossoms wrapped in ribbon.  By night the breeze would blow at least one of the delicate packages asunder.  So I grabbed my camera.

May you find fairy bundles in the backyard...and magic all year long

Our holiday card this year features a photo of that backyard fairy bundle, my reminder to myself and friends that beautiful moments occur beneath our noses, and we might miss the magic if we look away (or at our phones) too often.

I'm acknowledging that "dragons live forever, but not so little boys."  That fairies fly away and "painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys."

But I also have to fight an urge to mourn the passing of days and childish ways.  Wonder, I'm noticing, is around the bend at every stage if I resolve to put nostalgia in its proper positive place and embrace the present.

This season, I celebrate the fairy bundle:  my daughters' gift of now.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

List: Not-So-Serious Stresses

1.  Stall Stress:  When there's no toilet paper...and it's too late.

2.  Dress Stress:  When you're trying something on that is too tight, and you can't easily get it off.  You start sweating and wriggling and doubling over in the dressing room.  By the time you're safely out of the article of apparel, you're genuinely afraid of it. 

3.  Store Stress:  When you get to the cash register and:

a) realize you don't have your wallet, or
b) your credit card is rejected, or
c) you have to write a check and hold up the line.

Another version:  When you have a full cart of groceries and a tantrumming child you've threatened to carry out of the store.  It's so hard to abandon those groceries; it's so hard to endure the stares and sighs. 

4.  Stylist Stress:  When your haircut starts looking bad, but it's too late to say something, so you struggle to maintain small talk with your hairdresser whilst cringing inwardly. 

5.  Sent-Message Stress:  When you're pretty sure you just sent that email/text to the wrong person. 

6.  Steering-Wheel Stress: When you're lost, and your navigator's directions to "turn west" so don't help because you've made 13 turns in 10 minutes (and it's dark or high noon).

7.  Stain Stress:  When you spill coffee on your shirt and then blot it with a wet towel and now you have a coffee stain bordered by a water stain and the compulsion to explain it to everyone you encounter.

Similar:  Blemish Stress

8.  Lost Keys Stress:  Self-explanatory.

Similar, in needing no explanation:  Doctor's Appointment Stress.

9.  School Stress:  So many options!  Pick one.

10.  Sunday-Night Stress:  When you can't enjoy part of the weekend because it's Monday Eve. 

Add your own, friends!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Gratitude That Made Me Gulp

On Saturday I found a letter in the mail that looked like a holiday card (isn't it fun to open mail this month?).  I recognized the surname in the return address area and ripped open the envelope in anticipation. 

It was a thank-you card.  It was a thank-you card from Florence's parents, the cousin of one of my close friends from college and his wife.  It was a card from their family, expressing gratitude for a donation I made in 2010 to COTA, the Children's Organ Transplant Association. 

It was the kind of thank-you note I suggested writing a few weeks ago.  Except that this note came from the parents of a little six-year-old girl who died in March of a rare disease called autoimmune encephalitis.  Florence's spark, and her life and her battle, inspired all sorts of support (see Mom-101's plea on behalf of her family here and here and here, and the COTA page to read Florence's story). 

Her family's blog is a poignant and inspiring glimpse of their journey with Florence, her big sister, and each other.  And still, they March Forth (as they plan an event to honor Florence that "evokes moving forward, focusing on children, improving medical care, curing rare diseases, and helping families and kids.") 

I imagine Florence's mom and dad writing hundreds of notes of gratitude to donors and supporters during a season when many of us are scribbling signatures on photocards featuring healthy families. 

They're reaching out to their village. 

In this time of giving, here are two ways to honor the life of Florence and other children needing  transplants:

Duke's Pediatric Bone Marrow Unit's Family Support Program:  Checks should be made out to Duke University with "In Memory of Florence McDow" in the memo line. They should be mailed to:

Family Support Program
Duke University Medical Center
1400 Morreene Rd.
Durham, NC 27705

You can also donate to COTA (Children's Organ Transplant Association) here

Thank YOU, McDow family.