Friday, April 17, 2020

It's Okay to Miss Them

Not long after 9/11, I read an essay by a New Yorker who'd worked near the World Trade Center who was trying to adjust to the disjointedness he felt after life was turned upside down. In this account, though, rather than dwelling on the horrors of that day he saw his loss through all of the little moments and interactions he'd had each day through September 10 that were now gone. He thought about the guy who he'd bought the newspaper from or the women who'd served him coffee; the person that ran the store now buried under dust; the security guard; the window washer; receptionist. He didn't know if they were actually gone, but they were no longer a part of his life, and because of that, he was missing something, left wondering and grieving in both big and small ways.

This I think is where we are now, those of us who are not in the thick of things. We hear of health care workers risking their very lives, of working tirelessly and witnessing heartache, and we feel that we should count our blessings. We do count our blessings. But because we have more time to think, we have more time right now to grieve the small things.

This pandemic life has only been going on for about a month but somehow feels much longer. I am grateful to have extra time at home with family, for health, for my faith, for spring, for so many things.

But you know what I miss? I miss the guy down the street with the moustache who was always out in his yard or walking his dog. We'd exchanged pleasantries for years. I am sure he must be just fine (I hope) but just laying low, but it's strange to never see him anymore.

I miss people stopping to chat with each other in grocery stores instead of scurrying like rats, holding their breath and not speaking so as to not release extra germs into the atmosphere.

I miss picking up Chloe after school and seeing the hordes of laughing elementary schoolers, filled with boundless energy, racing back and forth on the sidewalk.

I miss watching the leaves spring to life while standing on the baseball fields with my kids, kicking off the Little League season. I miss the voice of Joe Castiglione on the radio, calling the Red Sox games and the memory of being surrounded by 30,000 people in Fenway Park singing "Sweet Caroline."

I'm not a hugger by any stretch of the imagination, but I miss hugs and greetings at church on Sunday mornings and the glorious sounds of a room full of people worshipping.

I was out walking the other day as the sun set; it was the kind of evening that should have invited children on bikes and people walking dogs. Yet it was quiet; doors and windows were closed; in many houses I saw only the eerie glow of TV screens. And I could only think of something I'd been reading to Chloe a few days before. We are just finishing the last book in The Chronicles of Narnia, a story about the end of the Narnia they had known and loved. It read:

All around them the wood was very quiet. Indeed it was far too quiet. On an ordinary Narnian night there ought to have been noises -- an occasional cheery "Good night" from a hedgehog, the cry of an owl overhead, perhaps a flute in the distance to tell of Fauns dancing, or some throbbing, hammering noises from Dwarfs underground. All that was silenced: gloom and fear reigned over Narnia.  
- The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis

I am an introvert. I love quiet and time alone. But even we introverts know and feel that this is not just quiet. This is gloom and fear reigning over America. And this is what breaks my heart sometimes.

After Sept. 11 I think there was a similar feeling of things getting back to normal but never really being the same again. And today I think there is some of that, but maybe it's -- we keep waiting for things to get back to the way they were, and we don't know when or if that will happen. And so we distract ourselves, or we accept it, or we waver between the two. And in the meantime, as we did when we used to look back to Sept. 10, we think about the little things that we forgot to appreciate.

I don't think this is so bad. It's part of human nature. What's that old 80's song? "Don't know what you've got, 'til it's gone..."

I am remembering the feeling of rising up in a Ferris Wheel with my kids at an amusement park and looking at miles of people without every thinking they were contagious. I'm remembering family parties and Chloe at the beach laughing at the waves, making friends with kids she's never seen before.

The waiting is like remembering someone who was special to us but is no longer with us; the warmth of memory keeps things alive. We feel sad and grateful at the same time, and that's okay. It means we more clearly see the lovely little things that grace our lives each day; each season; each year. The things we seamlessly accept without truly appreciating what they are, until they are not there.

It's okay to miss them.


Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Greater Gift

It's easy to count up the losses. They've mounted as the days and weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic have rolled on: loss of life, loss of freedoms, a sense of safety, loss of routine and social events, and above all, loss of control. We've experienced the loss of things we love: baseball, playgrounds, travel, coffee shops.

Yes, we could go on and on about the losses.

People say this can be a time of gains. We must think of it as a GIFT, you see. I know they're right. We've been given the gift of time with our kids or to pursue a new hobby or organize the attic or spend time getting closer to God. I know this, but so far with kids home and attempting to work and everyone here, I somehow find I have less time. And all of the things that I'm not doing or could be doing threaten to pile up like tasks I haven't accomplished on my Pandemic To-Do List. I want to live grateful but not burdened.

There is one thing, though, one gift I can embrace with fully opened arms. It's the glimpse into other people's life situations that may be different than my own but point back to the same thing: we all, whether during a time of crisis in the nation or not, have struggles and pain and heartbreak. That saying about being kind because everyone is fighting some kind of battle rings true today and every single day of human existence, no matter what we see on social media.

I hate this pernicious virus that is sweeping across the world, taking lives and our economy with it. But suddenly more than ever I'm thinking about people on the front lines who consistently risk their lives to care for others. I think of them as real people with families and fears who push on because it's what they do.

I'm thinking about nursing homes and the people who fill them; about confused minds who wonder (or don't wonder) why people aren't visiting, and those who love them but can only from a distance right now. There are some nursing home residents who before the virus were already alone. Every day, just down my street, I pass them on my walks, but don't always see.

There are the cognitively disabled who may not understand why routines have changed; they can't leave their group home to go home; their work program has been cancelled; the staff person who worked with them was laid off. There are children with special needs missing therapies and schedules and the parents trying to explain things they can't fully explain themselves, and teach in ways they haven't been trained to teach.

Our children are missing their friend groups and teachers at school; other kids are missing a safe haven from a troubled home. Some kids are understandably disappointed about missing field trips and concerts and graduations. Every year some kids are in the hospital missing real life due to serious illness...only their class isn't missing out with them. They're alone in the disappointment.

There are those with addictions and mental health issues needing healthy connections and outlets more than ever during an extremely stressful time but not having them.

There are people who were already struggling to pay the bills who are now struggling that much harder.

We could throw our hands up in the air in despair, wondering how we can even hope with so much loss and heartache and pain. But I hope we won't.

We've been provided a generous gift of empathy and perspective. COVID-19 is a different lens to see the world -- as full of beautiful, broken people who we may not be able to impact on a global scale, but certainly can on an individual one.

We can think: who's life CAN I touch...not just now, but always?

We can remember: No matter the smile or Instagram photo or feigned confidence, every one of has a burden we carry.

We can ask that God keeps our eyes and hearts open, long after the virus fears have faded away, because the needs will still be there. And we are here to help meet them.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Wild and Untamed

Recently someone mentioned that some new walking trails had opened up in our town. The town purchased and converted a golf course that had been closed for years into "open space." I couldn't wait to go and check it out. I've been looking to get more exercise and have found that walking and hiking really work for me. I love the peace and quiet. I love nature.

Over the next few days, I explored the area with a friend, with my family, and by myself. On the first visit I realized immediately how much I liked this quirky patch of land. I just couldn't pinpoint why at first.

Is it scenic? In spots. But the land is right up against the highway and in many spots you can hear the cars constantly buzzing by. Power lines stretch overhead. It's not particularly organized. Paths meander and then disappear; at one time I'm sure they made more sense, when they led to different holes on the golf course. Some paths are overgrown with brush. One literally drops off and disappears -- a stream down below wore away at the concrete over time. You can see nature trying to reclaim the space, with tall weeds growing out of pavement cracks and bushes once trimmed spreading clear across the walkways. Several of the wooden bridges crossing the stream are closed due to disrepair. Those that aren't feel a little sketchy as you walk across.

There are places where you can leave the paved walkways and cross over trails that look like they've been mown in the grass. The grass trails are short cuts but also muddy and can confuse you further as far as where you're actually going. I followed one not long ago sparkling with frost. I had no idea what I was doing, because I could see a fence in the woods that marked the very edge of the entire property. I didn't turn just then, because in another moment I saw it -- a deer bounding ahead of me, deeper into the woods, leaping above branches that littered the ground.

The words came to me, as I lumbered up a hill, trying to find an actual trail once again. Wild and untamed. You see that kind of language in advertisements; brochures -- "Explore this untamed wilderness area in all of its natural wonder."

This had once been a very different place. I tried to picture it with neatly trimmed, emerald green grasses rolling on and on, and little white golf carts trolling around. I couldn't, because I hadn't seen it. The spot was a more exclusive one back then.

At one time this place was perfectly manicured. But was it beautiful?

I don't know, maybe not everyone feels this way. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. But put together and meticulously groomed does not always equal beautiful.

Thank God.

I think I like these trails because they aren't trying so hard anymore.

I think there is something beautiful about meandering, about wandering, about things unresolved and unpredictable. Or, I'm learning to see things that way.

I see a little better as I walk over bridges with patched holes; through grasses with pricker bushes that poke my legs; past the zoom of cars and the flight of deer oblivious to the noise.

No, it's not tame, and I can't help but think of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

But it's good.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Minding the Process

I live in New England, where it takes a little longer for spring to arrive than in some other parts of the country. Sometimes this can feel frustrating. It's a slow transition. Spring doesn't always behave the way it's supposed to. How else can you explain snowstorms in April? Mud lingers. Trees stay bare, no matter how much you will them to bloom.

This is all true, but I've found there's something exhilarating about watching spring come alive slowly.

This glorious transition is the sum of many subtle changes. First -- the sight of a few crocuses or daffodil bulbs bursting out of the soil. At night, one mild evening the peepers call for the first time from a nearby swamp. The grass shifts from brown to emerald green. Before the maples ever sprout their broad leaves the shrubs and bushes show life first. It's a bottom up process. The ground thaws and wormholes finally burst through, evidence of life below.

Like a child in the womb, life begins, change begins before we see it.

Some people hate New England winters, but there is something about them to embrace. There is something about each season to love; to learn from.

There is a stark beauty in bare branches and snow that sparkles. There is always beauty somewhere, even in the bleak seasons. I love how in our darkest, coldest January days, the light is already returning to us before we notice.

Conversely when summer is at its peak the days are shortening, as much as the thought saddens us. But this is the way it has to be.

I love how the seasons are cyclical, how there is a constant ebb and flow like the waves. The is the story of our very lives. How perfect that God would make all of nature to comfort and remind us: there will be peaks and there will be valleys. There will be a time to plant and a time to harvest.

There will be times of great change that feel as if nothing at all is changing or ever will change. Yet the process has been set in motion, and in a time not so very far away, we will see. Like the leaves that unfold after the warm spring rains overnight, making us wonder how we had forgotten what they look like.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Autism Awareness

"Oh look, autism awareness month is coming up," I mentioned to Ethan while rifling through his backpack. There was a flyer. The school was doing a lot -- asking people to wear blue; sponsoring a door decorating contest; displaying puzzle piece posters.

Ethan barely registered interest. "So," I asked him. "Do you think you're going to say anything this year?"

Back in second or third grade, or maybe both, during class discussion on autism awareness day, Ethan had volunteered that he was on the autism spectrum. Kids at that age either said that was cool -- or that they were, too. I didn't consider these moments earth-shattering breakthroughs, but was impressed that he'd spoken up. Ethan's always been pretty reserved.

But that was then. "Eh," he said in response to my question. "I don't think I'm going to."

"Why not?" I wondered if it was because we were easing our way into THAT AGE...the one of embarrassment and peer pressure and not wanting to stand out.

"I just don't think my autism affects me that much anymore," he replied. "Not the way it did when I was little. I don't think I need to talk about it." He ambled off to do something -- probably read his coding book.

I stood there looking at the flyer and feeling a swirl of things:

Elation, because he was right. Ethan has learned to manage the more difficult aspects of his type of autism well, particularly at school.

Trepidation, because he wasn't completely right. His autism still affects him in subtle ways, ways that a typical person might pick up on when he might not.

Gratitude, that he was even able to sit before me and voice his feelings about the whole thing so articulately.

Wistfulness, because my role as parent is changing. It's his decision to share this information with others. It's his decision not to. These are the wee baby steps of self-advocacy. But his version of self-advocacy may look different than mine. I'm Mamma Bear. I will err on the side of making excuses to everyone so people will be less likely to make fun of my child. Or to think he's just "weird."

Shame, because those kind of thoughts of wanting to protect my son also reveal my own lifelong struggles of caring too much what others think.

April 2 is Autism Awareness Day. Ethan's autism has made ME so much more aware of so many things in the nearly 10 years now (can it be?!) since his diagnosis.

I'm aware of how a child's special needs can both expose your own ugliness and also shape you into something much more beautiful. It can reveal our ultimate lack of control and beg the question: who do you trust? For those with a faith walk it prods you to ask: is God still good and do I love like Jesus? It asks you to reconsider what we really want for our children, our lives, our selves, and what gives someone value.

Today a big stack of papers came in the mail. Results of Ethan's tri-annual testing, this time in preparation for (can you believe it??) middle school. There was a whole ream of assessments with multiple acronyms. I came to the last result. It was a repeat of the first test they ever performed on Ethan. He's taken it about five times over the years. For the first time ever, he scored just one point below the cut-off for being labeled "officially autistic." Whatever that means.

Because that is yet one more thing I've learned through all of this: the amazing, widely varying spectrum that autism is. Ethan and my brother are about as far apart on it as one can get. Yet thanks to the ways Ethan thinks and acts, the perspectives he shares, I understand more about Andy than I ever could have. I also see some of the beautiful things about autism that are harder to recognize when someone is very significantly impacted.

People with autism have an incredibly different way of perceiving and processing the world around them. It's amazing and baffling and funny and painful all rolled into one.

Ethan says autism doesn't impact him that much anymore. I don't how true that is. Time will tell.

I do know that it has always and will always deeply impact me. And I'm incredibly thankful for that.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Just Do the Right Thing

Back when I was in grade school I started subscribing to the belief that I was a victim of what I called "The Goody Two-Shoes Curse." What that meant was, everyone else could get away with something habitually while the ONE time I tried to bend the rules, I would get caught.

This started way back in second grade, when some older kids used to sneak across the street and get candy from a convenience store before we had to go inside the school. The one time my friend and I tried, we were busted well before we got there. Next I tried reading a book under my desk instead of paying attention and got caught first time. Acting out towards the whining neighbor kid: his mom saw me and told my parents. Punishment ensued.

This continued through high school. My best friend and I were at a golf course trying to find where the popular people were hiding and partying when who got stopped by the police but us -- while they continued blissfully partying. The officer threated to bring us back home in his cruiser.

Over time I realized that I wasn't very good at being bad anyway, would never possess much of a rebel personality, and had a screaming loud conscience, so why not just listen to it and not try to be something I wasn't? And so I never smoked a cigarette or got inebriated. Most of my bending of the rules has occurred with speed limits and red lights (and even then, I've gotten caught -- multiple times!).

I say all of this to say I should have known better, the day before Christmas break, when Ethan had a musical event at his school and the parking lot was jam-packed. Everyone was in a festive mood. I was running late because Chloe had to gather her Christmas light necklace and blinking headband. Even though we lived just around the corner we drove there and I realized there was nowhere to park, we were late, and since I didn't feel like traipsing from way in the back of the school, I was going to just park on the grass in the front as several other parents had done.

I took a deep breath and went over the curb and onto the grass, looking around slyly for anyone protesting my actions. All clear. Chloe and I booked into the school and managed to slide into some of the few remaining seats. Kids sang and holiday cheer was spread around, and then it was time to go. The school day had ended and we were left pushing through the mass chaos of hundreds of kids dismissed for their holiday break. At the car I buckled the kids in and we were off...only, we weren't.

There was something I'd forgotten when I parked on the grass. It may have been December, but we'd just had a little warm spell and a boatload of rain. The snowless ground was not frozen but very, very wet and muddy.

My tires spun. And spun. And spun. I got out of the car as other parents climbed into their properly parked cars and began driving away. I looked down at my tires. They were inches upon inches deep in mud.

"MOM? What's going on!" Ethan demanded. "I want to go home!"

I tried again. Nothing except the smell of burning rubber. "Ethan, get out of the car and help push," I hissed, exasperated. What I expected to accomplish, I don't know. The kid is as skinny as a rail. I thought of the parents getting into their cars whispering, "What is she doing, having her son try to push the car?" But I couldn't exactly ask him to get behind the wheel while I pushed.

Chloe started crying and asking, "When are we going??" I pressed the gas pedal harder, twisted the wheel back and forth. Mud was shooting up and spraying all over the van. My shoes were caked with mud. I looked out at the buses loading up kids and parents and students walking to their cars. I knew there was only one thing we could do.

"Kids," I announced. "We have to walk home." You can imagine how this went over. I ignored the wailing as we gathered backpacks, papers, and gifts from teachers. Outside it was now raining and we hunched under our hoods, trudging in our mud-covered shoes past parents who weren't dumb enough to park in the mud. There were a few other cars still parked next to us on the grass, but I'm pretty sure they had four-wheel drive.

Our walk home is literally a tenth of a mile, but it was long enough. We walked up the hill behind the school as parents in the car pick-up line looked on, curious; flung our things over the ladder attached to the fence that divides our neighborhood's property from the school; and slogged down the hill through the backyard.

"MOM GOT US STUCK IN THE MUD!" Ethan took pleasure in announcing to Dan, who'd been home with a migraine, and Anna as we got inside.

The fun was only just beginning. Anna took charge of the house while Dan and I rode back to the school in his car. He took one look at the car and how far sunk in the mud it was and asked incredulously, "What did you DO?"

After a few minutes of him attempting to get me unstuck it became obvious -- I was going to have to be towed. We drove back home and called AAA while the kids asked when we were going to have dinner. AAA called us back 15 minutes later to say they were on their way, so back we drove to the school in the quickly growing darkness. I could see the lights of the tow truck approaching just as I saw the vice principal coming out to his car to leave. Further I slunk under my coat, hoping he wouldn't recognize me. In the school I could see the lights in the principal's office were still on -- and thought I glimpsed the shadow of her head peering out the window as the truck pulled up.

"Well, well," said the driver as he examined my mess. "You got yourself stuck pretty good." I loved the way the flashing yellow lights reflected all over the school building and even onto the houses across the street. Just the attention we needed.

As he uncoiled a very long chain to connect to my car, I noticed there was a woman sitting in one of the few cars left in the parking lot. "Did you see that woman?" Dan asked a moment later. "She was sitting in her car laughing at us."

After more lights flashing and beepers beeping my van was hauled out of the mud -- 3 1/2 hours after I'd originally parked it. The janitors in the schools were sweeping the halls. The stars had started appearing.

Looking at my mud splattered car the next morning I sheepishly realized that I needed to stop going on about the Goody Two-Shoes Curse and just do the right thing. Even the little stuff. Our kids are watching. But even when no one's watching. You do what's right because it's right.

The other night we went to Ethan's school for his band concert. It was another warm, soggy kind of evening. I looked up at those risk-takers parked on the grass and eased into my "legal" parking spot. Humiliation really is one of the greatest teachers.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The (Christmas Tree) Saga Continues...

The other morning Ethan issued a big sigh -- one of many he's emitted lately. 

"What is it?" I asked. 

"Why did we get this tree?" he demanded. "It's the worst Christmas tree ever." 

And truly, it is. We cut down our tree on December 1, immediately got it into a stand, and began faithfully watering it. No matter. The entire bottom of the tree is completely bare. The cat walks underneath and needles rain everywhere. The needles are so thick on the carpet I'm afraid to use the vacuum for fear of breaking it. 

"All of the needles are going to be gone before Christmas!" Ethan wailed. 

"Ethan, stop. No they're not." I heard more needles rain down. Hopefully

He followed me into the kitchen and I began to prepare Chloe, who happened to be jumping and dancing around the room singing "Jingle Bells," a bowl of cereal.

"Why can't we just buy a new tree?" Ethan begged. 

"Ethan we are NOT spending money on a completely different tree at this point..." I was interrupted by Chloe slamming accidentally into my arm, mid-song. The bowl went flying into the air before landing on the floor, splashing milk and Life cereal everywhere. Chloe ran into the other room, shocked at what she did. I found her sitting huddled in a rocking chair next to the tree. Needles were still raining. 

"It's okay hon, it was an accident," I tried to soothe her. 

Ethan had followed us in. "No one is allowed to go near this tree until Christmas," he announced, glaring pointedly at Chloe. 

"I can't stop the cat," I told him, heading back to the kitchen to wipe up the cereal mess. 

"That's it! You need to give these people a bad review online," he decided. I'd thought about it. But that seemed so...Grinchly. 

After breakfast, I looked up the tree place on the computer as Ethan peered over my shoulder. "Five star reviews!" Both of us were incredulous. "Why are all these people giving them freakin' five stars?" Ethan screeched. 

"Stop with the freakin'"...I said automatically. Five stars. Sheesh. Maybe it was their family members rating it or their closest friends. There were only six reviews after all. 

"Mom, you have to do it." 

"Ethan, I can't." I kept picturing the happy couple at the tree place, walking up to our car, ready to hand us a saw. They were a very small tree farm. I didn't want to put anyone out of business. 

The pestering continued until I told Ethan I wouldn't review the place online but would give them a little call to express my displeasure with the tree. As the sun came up and threw light into the room, it looked even worse. Never mind the spider webs on the star. 

Later in the afternoon, I had a chance to dial the number. You Scrooge. Who calls to complain about a Christmas tree? What did I want them to do, anyway? Refund me? Just as I was about to hang up, I heard more needles pouring down. Soldier on, I told myself, gritting my teeth. 

Only -- no one picked up the phone. The voice mail cheerily announced that the tree farm was now closed for the season, and "Merry Christmas!" My guilt momentarily disappeared. THAT figured. Maybe I SHOULD go online...only the reviews were so nice. IF they were real reviews. They talked about how kind and helpful the owners were. I couldn't do it. We were just going to have to suck it up.

I wondered about tinsel. Maybe I could buy some tinsel and wrap it around the bottom. That might make it less noticeable. Only -- putting tinsel on would mean touching the tree. And even more needles would pour down.

"Mom, I kind of was hoping I'd come home from school today and find a new tree in the living room," Ethan confided that evening. 

"Eeth. It's a week until Christmas. Do you think I have time to completely take apart this tree and set up another?" I exclaimed. 

"But this tree is sooo bad..." he whined. And there we had it. The day had come full-circle.

The next morning began with more of the same. "This tree looks like a dead man's fingers," Ethan said glumly. He had trouble motivating himself to get dressed, he was so upset.

"Look, you're going to be late for school. You HAVE to get dressed," I said through clenched teeth.

"Ethan, the tree discussion is closed," Dan added.

He lay on his bed, staring sadly at the ceiling. I was starting to lose patience.

"Listen. We can't do anything about the tree. But there are LOTS of people this Christmas who can't do anything about things that are really, really sad. Like maybe they lost a loved one. And they can't do anything to bring them back, and it's hard for them to celebrate Christmas."

"You're not helping me!" Ethan exclaimed.

"I'm trying to give you some perspective," I muttered.

That evening we sat in the dark for awhile looking at the glow of the tree.

"I see more webs," commented Chloe.

"Mom, can we put that yellow caution tape around the tree until Christmas morning?" Ethan asked, as more fell off, inexplicably. This time I saw him cracking a smile. And a little laugh. Progress.

It was time for Ethan to go to bed. "I'm just worried because I don't know what the tree is going to look like on Christmas morning," Ethan confessed. "I'm so worried about it."

"You're worried because you don't know what's going to happen. You can't predict what's going to happen," I told him. "I understand. We all have worries like that. It's one of the hardest things about life because we don't know how things are going to turn out sometimes. But we can't let that steal our joy."

"Can we pray the needles stop falling off the tree?"

"We could, but that's nature, Ethan. How about we pray instead for peace? So that no matter what happens, we can be a peace with this, and you can sleep instead of worrying about the tree, and we can still enjoy Christmas. That's what the peace that passes understanding that they talk about in the Bible is all about."

And so we did.

Today, needles are still falling. We're soldiering on towards Christmas. And Ethan was able to leave for school with a smile on his face.