Fifteen Years Later

The infant I had then is ready for driving school, playing soccer on the big boy field, with the ones who look like men and shave. Because of his passion we went to a New England Revolution soccer game on the eve of September 11. The date hadn’t occurred to any of us yet and we soon grew wary of being told to stand for remembrances. Not because the remembrances shouldn’t be held, but because of the constant barrage of manufactured patriotism. If you’re not with us, you’re against us.  It gave me a perspective on why an NFL player might want to send his own message in one of these stadiums. There is another story, and the one being presented doesn’t represent all of us.

The next day Younger Son had another game in far away coastal RI. We saw the tributes in our hotel breakfast room but for the first time they were personal and quiet. The reporter interviewed the children of his hometown, where almost two dozen people had lost their lives. These children, married adults now with their own children, calmly told stories of what it was like to grow up without a parent. They’ve had to tell those stories all their lives, no matter what the rest of America says about what happened in 2001.

Waiting for the game to start, we found a beach to walk on. A child played with a soccer ball on a grassy field. A young man approached and asked if he could play. The child turned and bolted away – probably more from stranger danger than the man’s latte-brown skin tone. The man walked to a nearby tree where he had a blanket spread out and began his prayers. His song at the end rang quietly on the breeze and added to the beauty of the ocean scene. The American flag a few feet away hung at half staff. In my mind I encouraged my son to get his ball out of the car and play with the man. But in reality it never happened.

When we got home Older was working on his homework. He said this is why he hates homework, because he had to ask me questions about something sad – 9/11. I didn’t mind. We were spared the worst of the tragedy. I told him about my sister who managed to call and tell me she was OK before cell service went out. He asked if I thought it changed the world – of course it did. Fifteen years and hundreds of thousands of lives lost. “What do you think of the political response?”

Am I allowed to tell him I think it was a continuation of the tragedy? How do I phrase this? I told him about the unity we had squandered – how it didn’t matter who you were but on those days after you looked deeper into each other’s eyes. You made connections with strangers. You cared how people were doing and you chose your words carefully. Using phrases like “It’s so hot I’m gonna die” became too painful to say. No one knew when it was OK to laugh again. We were reverent and unified. We are the opposite now, and that is why sometimes it’s hard to stand up and pledge allegiance. The angry voices in the headlines no longer represent me or what I want for my children. There are more stories than what we’re hearing. I wanted to tell him how we have to love each other, shut our mouths and listen with open minds. But he was on to the next assignment. And the football announcer on the tv mentioned the tributes that were painted on the shoes of some players, while others still kneeled in protest.

Addiction is a Disease. Period.

In the last year we’ve lost three of the greatest actors of our time: James Gandolfini. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Robin Williams. Only after they died did we learn the true depth of their suffering.

After Gandolfini’s passing you didn’t hear as much anger or blame in the response. People were just sad. Because his compulsion was overindulgence – we can all relate to that. He was a man of big passions, he loved food, he loved cigars. While worrisome (and ultimately fatal), this type of behavior can even be admired in a man of his stature – he deserved to put his feet up and enjoy himself after all his hard work. People weren’t angry at him.

In the cases of Hoffman and Williams, I don’t have to discuss how visceral and inappropriate the response has been. And I probably don’t have to spell out that the difference is because their problems were addiction and depression. It is widely known that if a person had cancer we’d all be rallying to support them and their family, bringing food, making hospital visits, starting funds, holding charity baseball games, leaving coffee cans around town for donations. But when they have the disease of depression, or alcoholism, and a host of others I’m forgetting, we shun them. We blame the sick person.

Ironically, while looking for answers to Williams’ death, I found comfort (or at least a laugh) in Chris Rock’s retweet of an Onion story about how assigning blame is now the fastest human reflex. I think when we’re feeling grief over a suicide or an overdose, we blame the person because we are hurting and it’s their fault. Then it becomes very easy not to see the victim’s hurt.

When I first studied alcoholism, I learned that anyone can suffer from addiction. And many people in your daily life are actively struggling with it. It is very easy to put on a mask of normality and continue about your business. You can rise to the highest position in your career and go on for years in an active drugs and alcohol situation without anyone really suspecting what’s going on. A “drunk” is not just the guy living in the gutter.

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

In elementary school we learn (well we used to learn, I don’t know if it lives up to common core standards nowadays) that you have several aspects to your “self” – mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. We were told that in order to have a happy life, we should work to keep all these areas healthy. My husband and I are teaching our kids that when your body is sick, you go to the doctor. When your mind is sick, you go to the therapist. There is no shame in this. It’s common sense. Our society needs to embrace this ideology and stop shunning normal human responses to stress. Because we’ve got more stress than ever nowadays.

Throughout my life I’ve loved people who suffered from mental illness. I’ve loved people who suffered from depression. I’ve loved people who suffered from addiction. Those people deserve no less respect than the ones stricken with other more socially acceptable diseases. They crave compassion just as any other sick, hurting person does, and it is not their fault that they are sick.

Until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes you have no idea what they suffer. There but for the grace of God go I. In these times of loss no one has the right to cast judgment, or call someone a coward, or say how could they not get help. These men were fighting battles their whole lives, as any addict does. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they don’t.

I don't have his egg anymore :(

I don’t have his egg anymore 😦

Mr. Williams’ death hit me hard. The odd thing is several of my friends said they thought of me when they heard the news – I don’t know why, except that I’ve obviously loved him as so many other people have throughout the years (or maybe it was my Mork from Ork action figure). People say he had everything, and how could this happen. I think we need to flip that around and see the other side: the fact that he was able to get up, get out of bed, get to work, get on stage, get in front of people – everything that he gave in spite of what he was dealing with is nothing short of a miracle. We should simply be grateful.

Feeling Contemplative on a Bike Ride

A day for me. As a home child care provider, let me stress to you how rarely this happens. I have worked for 12 years in my home, every day, all day. Think about it – when you’re a child care provider, you can’t leave the house. You don’t run out for a cup of coffee, or take an afternoon off for a dentist appointment. You don’t even get to stop at the market on the way home for a gallon of milk. You just – stay home. It’s a little confining. Don’t have claustrophobia and become a home child care provider.

Lately I’ve found myself taking a few steps back into the world. It’s been wonderful getting re-acquainted, and seeing the town around me for the fun and lively place it is. Of course in true motherly fashion, the day for me became the day I scheduled the recall work on the car. But that’s OK because it forced me to take a bike ride around my town, which is one of my favorite things to do.

I dropped the car off early and relished the quiet morning before the world woke up. I rode to the bridge over the river and took pictures of the rowing crew working out. Smelled the fresh air and flowers (and the garbage truck), and watched all the people dressed up in business clothes heading to work.

As I passed the sights along the way my moods changed wildly: traffic building at the highway entrance. A homeless man sleeping along the bike path. A grandmotherly lady with her bike basket, smiling and ringing her bell. The words “kill you” graffiti’d on the bridge underpass. A nanny with two young boys on bikes. A young guy with headphones actually smiling pleasantly. A serious bike racer all decked out in spandex.

My mind wandered and I couldn’t help but flash back on the days when I used to get up and go, like these folks, to a real professional-like office job. I thought about the plans I’ve made that have come true, and those that didn’t. How I felt about the loss of those things and how I’ve come to be content where I am. The benefits of a corporate job versus being my own boss and working with children. I thought about working at home and how nice it would be to work away from home again. Did I make the right choices, for myself and for my children?

I was probably in this speculative mood because we spent the weekend at a family wedding. My sons got it – the meaningfulness of what was happening. They knew they were part of something big and they took it seriously. They loved every minute of spending time with family and were incredibly sad when it was over. When I asked Older why he didn’t want to leave he said, “I don’t know when we’ll have everyone together like this again.” I promised right then to find an occasion, or throw a party for no reason just to make it happen.

My husband and I have recently had some deep conversations about the meaning of real parenting. Is it sending your kids away to camp to teach them independence? Is it letting them lay around the house all summer and get the desperately-needed downtime their bodies require for summer growth spurts? Is it strict discipline or having fun? Where is the balance and what is right? Does any of it matter that much, if they grow up to be relatively happy and sane people?

In the end that’s really the most you could ask for. I think parenting comes down to this: having fun. Teaching them to be grateful for what they have and to share what they can. Keeping them interested in trying new things, and showing them the joy of exploring new places. Letting them know that things may turn out as planned, or they may not, but you move on and find the next thing. Giving them a sense of hope, and the resiliency to keep moving ahead no matter what comes.

Remembering a Hero

There’s nothing I hate more than when someone passes and the tributes come rolling out. Our heroes should hear the tributes and get the thanks before they die. So I sit here with the regret I knew I’d have for never sending that fan mail to Maya Angelou.

What held me back was, she’ll never read it anyway. Who’s to say she would even care? She’s heard it all before. But who’s to say she wouldn’t have read it, been touched, and even written me back? (That’s positive thinking. I stole it from my therapist friend.)

So now, without irony, I roll out my tribute to Dr. Angelou. I had the privilege of seeing her on two of her lecture tours in 2003 and 2006. She was still agile even moving in slow motion, so eloquent and funny, full of wonderful stories, bawdy, and even a little harsh. Tough love, but mostly love.

She spoke so much truth and beauty that I found myself scribbling what she was saying on the covers of my Playbill. Here is what she said (paraphrased, not direct quotes, from notes I scribbled on my Playbill in the dark ten years ago):

We all have the potential to touch. Our power to make the world a better place is immense.

Laugh as much as possible.

(On a young girl’s stubborn use of the n-word): It’s poison and it diminishes me. It diminishes us.

We are more alike than unalike. Too many facts hide the truth. If we truly internalized this our world would not be in the state that it’s in.

Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.

(On her uncle, who helped raise her): I am where I am today because somebody dared to be a light and shine on me. He made me love to learn. The power of the light to infect, to lead someone out of the dark, to dim, into the light; for each one of us who dares to think we can be of service – we are lights, and we have the possibility of lighting our family. It is time for us to take the responsibility of being lights.

I can still hear the breadth of her voice and the timber and cadence she used while saying those words, and I could’ve listened to it forever. She was mesmerizing. Once at a work convention we had to answer the question, “Who would you have dinner with if you could choose one celebrity?” and I chose her. That day I met and became friends with an amazing woman who I’ve kept in contact with for years since then. She said when I spoke Maya Angelou’s name, she thought, there’s a person I want to be friends with. So I have proof that Miss Angelou brought people together in ways she never knew.

The regret I have for not sending that fan mail reminds me of the time I saw Stan Lee in the lobby of a hotel and was too afraid to approach him. My husband tried to coach me on what to say but I was frozen. I even thought about writing him a letter too, explaining that the dork who was secretly trying to take his picture with her phone was too shy to say something like, you are amazing and your work is a gift and thank you so much for sharing it with us. (Well it WAS Comic-Con weekend and I’m sure the poor man had enough of weird people coming up and worshiping him to hold him for a long time.)

So, Stan Lee, thank you for the world you created that enthralls and entertains my sons and me. Thank you for sharing your creativity and stories and the life lessons snuck in there (or slammed over our heads with Thor’s hammer). Thank you for inspiring us to create as well.

Thank you to all the friends and mentors, famous or not, who have inspired me on the way. It takes a lot of support and guidance to keep a person going. It often comes in the smallest moments, when you’re least expecting it, sometimes from the last place you’d expect. In reflecting on Maya Angelou’s legacy, I hope to be more open to those moments.

And I take the responsibility of working as hard as I can to raise good people. During her lecture she recited some verse on the death of a loved one: “Look for me. I am present in the songs children sing. I’m living in the games children play.” That is where our work lives on and our light shines strongest.

Trying to Find the Spirit

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Well, it used to be. As a mom with a full-time job, it’s the living on no sleep, drinking too much coffee, downing Emergen-C shots to fight germs I can’t afford, stumbling through the mall at 10 PM like a zombie time of the year. I’d like to see someone turn that into a catchy tune.

I really used to love Christmas, I really did. And even up to the last few years I still loved it, having surprises in store for the kids and reveling in their excitement. But now it feels like a grind that starts at Thanksgiving. I don’t know if it was this hard for my parents when they were putting on Christmas for us, but they never showed they were cranky about it.

I’ve had the privilege of reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” with Younger Son lately – as a real and true geek, this is a moment I’ve looked forward to for a long time. Now with just four days ’til Christmas, I can identify with Bilbo when he handed the ring to Gandalf: “I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

Oh, Bilbo. I do know what you mean. I am the butter. But Younger has finally agreed to reading all four books together, so even if that’s not Christmas spirit at least it makes me ridiculously happy.

I was excited for a white Christmas after so many years of way-too-mild Christmases. Not one but two little snowstorms gave us over a foot of snow blanketing the yard. And now in these last few days before the holiday it’s supposed to jump to 50+ degrees. So the low hum of global warming dread that had been quieted is back.

My Kindle offered me a free version of “A Christmas Carol” so I decided to jump into that, thinking maybe the classic tale would snap me out of the doldrums. As with every book I’ve read as a child and come back to in adulthood, the experience of reading it is so much richer.

However, I also came to find out that it’s because of Dickens and this very story that we’re historically supposed to have a wonderful Christmas. In fact Christmas was a dying religious celebration until Charles came along and decided it should be a life-changing event. Oh, the irony.

My favorite song has become the Vince Guaraldi/Peanuts version of “Christmastime is Here” because everyone knows it’s depressing while trying to be cheerful. Thank you for your insight to human nature, Charles Schulz. Your gift to the world may be truer than Mr. Dickens’.

My family has several holiday traditions, activities that we’ve done with the boys year after year, and I wouldn’t miss them even if I was feeling Grinchy. I’ve enjoyed doing those because it’s precious, stolen time with my boys away from the madness. And we have fun no matter what we’re doing. Those times make me exceedingly happy, but it’s not technically Christmas spirit.

So what am I to do? Besides a delicious meal, perfect gifts, my contribution to our economic stability, joy, peace, love, and happiness, I’m supposed to have Christmas spirit. Just the requirement makes it feel less possible (and all the more depressing).

In the end, spirit came to me in flashes this year. In explaining to Younger what Habitat for Humanity is, that there are people who are willing to give up their time and money to build homes for others in need. In a neighbor whose picture order got mixed into mine, and instead of tossing them in the trash, she delivered them right to my door. At the school band concert when the kids played Good King Wenceslas all on the same notes. Singing “Dahoo dores” at our Whoville flash mob. Younger picking a fancy red “Christmas” shirt to wear on Christmas day, and being the general curator of Christmas spirit all month.

It came in a long and detailed email from my aunt, telling stories of Christmas in her house as a child and everything her mother did to make it special despite not having any money to spend. How family and friends were welcome all week and the time was spent visiting and eating bad sugar cookies with the silver balls that break your teeth.

That is what I have to settle on, finally, as the meaning of Christmas for me this year. After all the long hours, hard work, stress over finding the right gift, forgetting to bring out the silver and praying it wouldn’t be tarnished just hours before the meal was to be served, it comes down to family. It’s simply a tradition for family. I am blessed with a large, happy, and healthy one, and while it’s exhausting to fit them all into the schedule, it’s worth it. And we’ll continue to do it every year, while searching for the meaning behind the insanity. Isn’t that what family’s all about?