Thursday, December 15, 2011

Once Upon A TIme

Once upon a time there was a daddy that held his newborn baby on the first day of July and heard the words: Down Syndrome, open heart surgery and heart defect all in the same sentence.  Holding that baby that was barely an hour old the daddy felt sadness and fear like a total eclipse.  His normal sunshine had a shadow.  He could barely breathe.  He couldn't stop holding his baby.  He had to leave his wife and carry his tiny bundle up to some tests. Those tests would reveal the heart defect that was suspected.  As the daddy was watching the tests, all alone and desperate, a song was playing.

That melody, those words and the moment created an indescribable peace and comfort for this daddy.  He held onto that in his hours and days of bad news that followed.  He could feel the blessing he was given.  He knew his son had a rough road ahead but he also knew that the "arms of an angel" would wrap them all up and see them through.

For nine weeks, that baby tried to grow.  At the weekly weigh-ins at the doctor's office, the mommy dreamed of adding little pebbles to the baby's socks so that there would be some weight gained but she knew it would only delay the truth: the heart that was their baby's had only one large chamber and only one valve.  A skilled surgeon would need to build the walls of that baby's heart and create two valves out of one.  The hope was to wait until that baby got bigger but it took way too much energy to eat.  Every meal was like a full workout for that tiny baby.  Normally, it takes about six weeks for a baby's lungs to fully adapt to breathing oxygen.  Once that happened, the lungs tried to do the work of the heart for our baby and he officially went into heart failure. Open heart surgery was no longer sometime in the future.  The time was now, September.

As that daddy held his tiny son, the darkness and fear couldn't help but begin their march toward this daddy's big open heart.  He needed something to get him through this scary part.  He wanted to picture life after open heart surgery.  He tried to imagine the months following.  He couldn't.  All he knew was that within a little while Christmas was coming and his other two children, ages 6 and 4, would be eagerly awaiting Santa's arrival. Would his baby be here for Christmas? Would he survive?  Would he ever know all of the joy that Christmas brings?

Those thoughts swirled around in a sea of fright and hope, a mixture of possibility and worry and landed on one guiding thought.  The daddy announced: "If we get through this and our baby survives we are going to have the biggest, most amazing Christmas decorations and lights to celebrate.  Every year we will add to it and soon we will have the brightest, most dazzling celebration light show around our town."

Miraculously that baby hung on for dear life.  He survived his rib cage being pulled apart, his body being put on a bypass machine so that all of the blood could empty from the heart, his heart being cut open and the "electric field" being broken, the surgeon maneuvering a Dacron patch to create the missing walls and the surgeon somehow using the tissue from one valve to create two.  He withstood a breathing tube, three days without food and two chest tubes to drain the fluids from his body still measured in inches.  He was enveloped by music that brought comfort and hope. And he weathered that invasive attack on his small body with the grace of a baby.  Any one of us would be complaining, reliving the tortuous moments, worrying about recovery and trying to imagine feeling better.  The baby slept and ate and snuggled in and healed remarkably quickly.

Within a few days it was clear that the baby was going to see Christmas.  The daddy got busy.  True to his word he bought some Christmas lights, box after box, bordering on obnoxious and teetering on over the top.  He didn't care.  He bought a jigsaw and started cutting wood.  He created a lollipop forest, a row of candy canes and a gingerbread house.  He let his young children sand and paint and get messy. He was a former master at creating a parade float.  He knew how to set up a large party.  Those skills came in handy for the Christmas light project. 

Each year, the daddy gets out his jigsaw and creates another wooden character.  Twelve years later there is a North Pole sign being held by a penguin, Santa and his sleigh, Mrs. Claus, three snowmen (one in honor of baby Caroline wearing a pink scarf) , a mailbox where you can mail a letter to Santa, and last year's newest addition an angel.

"Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.” 
~Norman Vincent Peale

This year's newest addition -- after much voting and discussion -- was an ice-skater, skating in 
Rock-elf-eller Center. 

Twelve years later that faithful daddy still celebrates the miracle of his baby's health.  He brightens up his neighborhood at Christmas and remembers to acknowledge the light during times of darkness.  

May we each take the time to brighten up our small corner of the world: through our actions, our faith, our generous heart and our mindful moments of optimism even during the darkest hours. Someone once called it: stubborn gladness.  With only a handful of days until we celebrate a real miracle, let's steep in stubborn gladness, reflect joy and be messengers of hope...just like a certain house I know.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Airport

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends." -- Love Actually (movie) 

I've been hanging around airports the last couple of days.  I've been traveling alone, in my own little world, and so I got to do a lot of observing...listening to conversations, watching the arrivals, seeing the departures and creating stories in my head.  

One of my favorite movies is called The Terminal with Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones.  In that movie, Tom Hanks is stuck indefinitely at an airport and must figure out how to survive (and thrive) in a world where everyone is going someplace and has no time to help.  Tom Hanks makes friends with busy airport employees and yet stays true to himself throughout the movie. 

What I love about that movie is what I love about airports: the connections.  Most of the time, we are busy on our path.  We almost always have blinders on...busy, so busy, insidiously intent on getting to our destination and on maintaining our forward momentum.  It is literally the opposite of what we know brings about happiness...enjoying the journey...and yet still we march forward.  

At the airport, for just a moment, instead of being on our daily straight line, we have circles...circles of connections all around us.  Wherever you look, you have families saying good-bye through tears and bear hugs.  You can spot a romantic couple stealing a kiss or whispering love notes.  There are kids eagerly awaiting the arrival of a parent with a home-made poster or a shy smile.  There are reconnections of several generations and excited whoops and hollers.  Yesterday, as I made my way home there was a very non-descript older lady being pushed in a wheelchair by some airport employee who was also pushing a very obese young twenty-something guy in a separate wheelchair.  Of course, I noticed the guy and barely registered the old lady in pink. However, when I heard "Sis!!!" yelled out from an equally old lady in blue and the ensuing home-coming of love and friendship and family that surrounded those two in a frenetic airport, I took note.  Old lady in pink is important to the old lady in blue.  She's somebody's someone special and it was plain as day.  It made me smile, not just for the two of them and their obvious joy, but also in anticipation of the day I yell "Sis!!!" to my old lady sister in a pretty pink sweater...forcing some random airport employee to get caught up in our homecoming: two old ladies and loads of love.  I can just picture it. :)

Airports are portals of adventure but are also just as importantly a passageway home.  Waiting for Jack at the airport a few days before Thanksgiving I had tears in my eyes.  I had nowhere I'd rather be.  I wanted to just be as close as I could get to the spot where he stepped off the plane and headed back to us.  I had to be satisfied with lurking near the new monorail that our airport has created to carry people back and forth to the new terminal.  Waiting with Caroline, Patrick, Mary Kate and John we had our circle, ready to celebrate a home-coming, waiting to feel complete as a family again. And there he stepped, cool as a newly minted college guy can be when his whole family shows up at the airport to bring him home. We swarmed him, hugged him, tried to play it cool as we laughed and joked and hugged some more.  All around us, the same miracle was repeating itself: regular people pausing for all the world to see and greeting, loving and welcoming home (or sending off) their loved one.  It's OK to reveal your emotions an airport real life happens and the masks we so carefully contrive to take us through our days slip away. 

Airports are busy.  Airports are a weird paradox between all of the boundaries and borders we put up to guard ourselves from our enemies and all of the crazy interconnectedness of the world.  We are ALL somebody's someone special.  We ALL matter.  Someone somewhere is waiting for us, wishing us home or sending us off with good luck and lots of love. The pilots have families that care; the airline attendants do too; the people who work the counter and (God bless them) deal with missed flights, wrong bookings, lost luggage, tired travelers with crabby kids and oversized baggage also have people waiting for them at home ready to love them up.  Those air traffic control heroes who watch mind-numbing radar  and coordinate the flow of flights in a safe calm manner most definitely have people back home cheering them on.  And at the airport we give them our life and our safety and take a leap of faith.  We grant them access to our lives all the while knowing that it is a fragile, breakable, no-guarantee situation. We each hold within us the knowledge that we're taking a risk and it is this reason that allows us the emotional moments of good-bye and welcome home.   

I guess at the airport, with its mandatory security clearance, x-rays, pat downs and baggage checks, we are forced to stop and take note that our world might not be as safe or as free as we lull ourselves into believing. It makes us recognize the incredible gift of traveling without limits or restrictions and the amazing job that the airports and airlines do day in and day out without very much applause or appreciation.  They keep us free and safe and return us home again.  Airports are a treasure and today I say thank you to every single person who works so hard to help it all run deceptively smoothly.  Thank you for your dedication, your professionalism and your kind acceptance of all of us stumbling and bumbling travelers.  Thank you!  Now, bring my husband home safe, OK?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Catherine Grace

"A babe in the house is a well-spring of pleasure, a messenger of peace and love, a resting place for innocence on earth, a link between angels and men."
                                     --Martin Fraquhar Tupper

There's a baby in our house...well, not quite, a baby in my sister's house.  Catherine Grace.  She was born on November 22, 2011 and those of us with number focus think it's a very cool birthday: 11.22.11. Good birthday karma.

Babies, oh babies.  I've been blessed with four tiny bundles to love and squeeze and hold in the middle of the night and whisper and sing and create silly nicknames for and I know I sound greedy but it really doesn't seem like enough.  Look what they do...just grow up and away they go!  Having a baby in the house brings a quiet sense of wonder, a reverence and a feeling of connection to the bigger world and yes, even the universe.  It forces you to pause and soak in that baby goodness.  Holding someone so very fresh and brand new always creates in me a feeling of possibly, if I play my cards right, just maybe being privy to the secret of life.  If I just hold him long enough, I'll know that connection to the heavens.  If I snuggle in close, I might understand for a moment the incomprehensible. 

How can it happen?  It's as magic as a butterfly.  How do the cells know to become eyes, heart muscle, skin, toes, bones and ligaments?  How can the heart beat so steadily and just keep going like the never ending waves in the ocean?  How does the baby know your voice when it's been hearing it all muffled and under fluid for her whole life? How can two completely different people together create a baby that has a little of her daddy and a little of her mommy and yet be the only one on the planet, forever irreplaceable and one-of-a-kind?  It's a breath-taking and breathless time and it stuns me each and every time.

Holding Baby Catherine Grace, my whole world stops.  I'm taken back to holding each of my babies for that very first time.  My heart is so full with the job and privilege and gift of motherhood.  I remember being soooo clueless, soooo tired, soooooo full of doubt and misgivings and honestly wondering how anybody thought I could be capable enough of mothering this brand new baby named Jack.  

Seeing Mary Kate for the first time, I was awash with the joy of having a daughter.  The possibility of pink. I had convinced myself that I was having another boy and so upon hearing the words, "You have a daughter!" filled with disbelief I begged John to "check again".  Hearing Jack call her "Mary Cake" for the first few days of her life renewed in me the deliciousness of babyhood...yes, she was better than cake! 

Holding Patrick for the first time I was filled with a sense of the familiar. I "knew" him in a way I hadn't felt with Jack or Mary Kate and the instant message that came through loud and clear from the universe in those moments I simply spoke robotically to John: "This is Patrick.  He has Down Syndrome and is exactly as he should be." I was comforted by that message but felt an incredible urge to "circle the wagons" and begin protecting him. Little did I know that he would need no protecting.  

And then there's Caroline. "Out of the everywhere and into the here." Never thinking I would be crazy enough or lucky enough to have a fourth baby, I couldn't believe that she was here.  To this day, I still whisper in her ear, "Thank you for coming" as she sleeps. I knew she was there "out of the everywhere"...could feel it, and one late night I asked her to come. I know it sounds bizarre.  And I guess that's what makes it even more real...yes, the bizarre happens and she is living proof.  Someday, she'll get her own blog story about that fateful night. Watching the kids love her, protect her, dote on her and envelope her in love has been amazing. 

Babies.  Every single baby deserves to be wanted, cherished and held tight in a cocoon of love. So many are not.  Many, many babies are thrown away and discarded because of bad timing, the wrong gender, a cleft palate, an extra chromosome.  Holding Catherine Grace reminds me to fight for those unwanted babies.  There are couples waiting in deep sadness for a hole to be filled.  They are waiting to be chosen as an adoptive family.  They are waiting to raise enough money to be able to adopt.  They are waiting and trying to muddle though layers and layers of bureaucracy trying to wind their way though a maze that has their baby at the end. If for some reason, you find yourself unable to love a baby at the moment you are pregnant, know for certain that there is someone in the world who will love your baby if you just give them a chance. I promise.

I know of many families who have adopted special needs kids, baby girls from foreign countries, children out of the foster care system, kids with the worst stories possible and yet still their family finds them. I know of one family in my own town who adopted a little girl from India with tremendous burns all over her little body, severe health issues, a need for constant vigilant care and still her mom stood up and said, "She is mine."and with her mother's ferocious love she has transformed and blossomed and become the very clever and capable little girl she is today. 

Reece's Rainbow is an organization that connects orphans all over the world who have Down Syndrome with their adoptive families. If you are looking for a charity to donate to this holiday season, they might be the one.  They offer you a chance to have a Christmas Angel ornament supporting a particular child for $35.  If you're not careful, you might fall in love and bring a baby home.  That's what happened to Jennifer and Hector Sanchez when they got the Christmas Angel Ornament for baby Sophia in December of 2009.  Today she is home with her forever family, thriving and growing in astounding ways, and keeping her three older brothers busy. And the ripple of seeing Baby Sophia exactly where she is meant to be has led to numerous additional adoptions.  The Herrington Family will be making their way overseas in January to adopt their special bundle Baby Olivia.  

Miracles happen everyday.  Babies are born.  Families reach out and scale mountains to get to their children. The unwanted are welcomed and the discarded are treasured. During this season of waiting for a Blessed Holy Child, I can't help but think of the many babies waiting. Love is at the center of babyhood.  May all children feel it and know it and be surrounded in it.  Just like precious Catherine Grace, my little spot of holiness in an ordinary day. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

No Child Left Behind -- Ironic Isn't It?

“We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?” 
- Ray Bradbury

I'm really bothered.  There is a dirty little secret in education and it is called No Child Left Behind.  Ask any educator what they think of it and you will get an earful. It has a fantastic premise: "Setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education."  Who can be against such a thing?  
Which is why the bill passed with huge bi-partisan support in 2002 and the heavyweights of politics signed on: proposed by George W. Bush, co-authored by John Boehner (R-OH),  George Miller (D-CA), Ted Kennedy (D- MA), Judd Gregg (R- NH).  It sounded great.  It was going to reform education and make teachers accountable. It was going to make sure that every child in every school improved and made progress or else.  It was the "or else" that changed everything.  If the improvements didn't happen every single year, your school went into "Program Improvement".  Eventually your entire district would go into Program Improvement.  

After ten years of NCLB, 80% of the districts in the state of California are in Program Improvement.

Should we guess which districts these are?  The poorest and the most diverse.  No duh.

What happens when your entire district is Program Improvement?
no field trips
no art
no science
no social studies
no writing of any significance
no literature
no PE
reading and math take up most of the day -- with constant re-teaching and fill in the bubble testing

Here's where it gets really bad.  The teaching is literally taken out of the teachers' hands and a "scripted curriculum" is given.  The teacher must be on the same page, on the same day, at the same time as all of the other teachers at the same grade level in the district.  People come in and check and make notes of where you are.  Any professional respect has vanished.  Any feeling of competency is gone.  Teachers with 20-30 years of experience in the poorest, most diverse districts are treated with derision and disrespect.  Morale at these schools is at an all time low.

It used to be that if you taught in a poor, diverse district your students had a chance, a real chance to grow and learn and make progress and lift themselves out of poverty.  They had opportunities afforded them that their family life would never provide: science camp and outdoor education in 6th grade, a field trip to a farm, an observatory, a play.  As a first grade teacher in one of these districts I started out my year with a field trip to the city library by city bus.  We had them get their first library card and check out their first ever book; 75% had never been to a library and sadly, many did not even know what a library was.  Although the economic and family situations of my students were often disastrous there was always the hope and love of school.  Reading big books or fantastic stories and poems, singing songs, playing outside games, creating art projects and doing science experiments naturally ignited their curiosity and fired up their wonder.  
That is all gone now.

Today, students in Program Improvement districts are treated to heaping mounds of reading drudgery and worksheets.  There are math worksheets and the unforgiving pace of constantly moving ahead regardless of mastery and leaving behind most of the class.  The second language learners are given ever more opportunities of re-teaching and more worksheets.  It is grim.  
And yes, I'm bothered. 
Real bothered.

I keep waiting for the big wigs to shout this insanity down.  But, how can you say out loud that you are against NCLB without looking like a teaching lightweight?

Of course, I am for high expectations and equal opportunity.  Who isn't?
But, I am not for condemning an entire segment of our society to educational gruel while the haves continue to have all of the enrichment and joy of learning.  

Most of you don't know education's dirty little secret because you are part of the lucky 20%.  Your district is wealthy or perhaps your children attend private school -- either way your child's school is full to the brim with opportunity, joy and educational privilege.  You naturally thought all children were given real opportunities for learning. Well, No Child Left Behind left behind an entire chunk of our population. Check out the drop out rates. 

And where is the grace in all of this?
It is in the incredible resilient spirit of both the students and teachers in the desperate schools.  After ten solid years of this, those teachers still come to school each day with hope in their heart and faith that their students can learn and grow even with drudgery.  They work to provide a moment of lightness: skipping to recess and calling it PE, singing while they take attendance, assigning the fun stuff for homework.  
The students still come to school with bright eyes and high hopes.  Their parents, with no real knowledge of the system, still put their faith in the school. 
Those teachers are heroes.
They haven't left town, retired or put their hands up in the air and waved a flag of surrender.
They are still there, regardless of the rancor, the disrespect and the impossibility of their situation.  
They believe in the kids.

And now here is the Kryptonite of No Child Left Behind that no one wants the poor and diverse to know:  we can dismantle it.  We have the power.  All we have to do is to choose not to take the test.  If enough parents make that choice, the test becomes invalid.  Suddenly, Program Improvement has no weight. 
Trust me.  No one wants you to know this or do this as a parent.   
There will be incredible push back and repercussions but what can be worse than TEN years of drudgery??? TEN more years?  Entire generations of learners thinking this is the only way?

I'm ready for a fight.  Bring it on.

As a parent at one of those schools, I'd opt out of the test. Bring the legislators with no educational knowledge to task.  Ask them to think up some new way to have high expectations and accountability.  I'm all for it.  I'm against teaching to the test and pure drudgery.
Our poorest, most disadvantaged kids need way more than that.  
They need the wonder and joy and excitement of school.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, I'm not quiet any more.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Home Is Where the Heart Is

   "My home is not a place.  It is people." -- Lois McMaster Bujold

I've heard it said, "You can't go home again." and I've worried about that.  Because if that sentiment is true, what happens to Jack, my oldest who has left home and is in the very first few months of college?  Is it possible that he won't ever return home with the same heart, the same self, the same Jack-ness that we love and adore? What does that mean?  Where do we go from here as a family?

I had some crazy feelings of excitement and trepidation as we ventured onto an airplane just John and I headed to Los Angeles to see Jack for the first time in two and a half months. I was simultaneously tortured by the idea of seeing him for just a few hours and thrilled with any time at all.  Like a wilted flower, any drip of water would do.  When it became clear that we would for sure get to see Jack, John's face was lit up with a smile that wouldn't stop.  He kept looking at me, smiling.  I kept brushing him off.  I just wasn't sure.  Were we going to be cramping Jack's style?  Would he want us there?  How was it going to play out?  It felt unreal and dream-like and I couldn't quite picture it at all. Most of all, I wondered, would Jack be the same? 

We got to his dorm and took the elevator up.  We walked the halls that at the beginning of school had been freshly painted, new and clean. Today, they were dirty, lived-in and rather collegiate looking. We knocked on the door and found three room-mates missing and three girls sitting in the living room with Jack in the classic.  We introduced ourselves and heard their stories. Zoe from Dallas, Aubrey from San Diego, and Jordan from LA.  All were together and friendly and polite.  Zoe gave us the run down of the plans for the day.  We made small talk and visited until Jack popped out, clean and ready to go. We hugged and took a good long look at the newest incarnation of Jack: college guy.  He was smiling, excited and happy.  He was ready to show us around and we followed his lead and got ready to go.  Zoe, ever the cruise director, handed Jack a list of phone numbers that he could use since he had misplaced his phone. 

First stop: book store.  We walked across campus and noticed mothers and fathers and sons and daughters just like us.  We felt part of something and yet a cloistered bubble of three at the same time. We decided to get some red for the football game and put on our required USC clothes.  We watched guys paint their entire bodies, we saw Trojans and cheerleaders and families and fraternities and an entire college scene that seemed scripted and watched Jack maneuver and make his way.  He greeted friends as he passed through and knew instinctively where he was going.  He guided us through it all.  He seemed comfortable and confident.  This was his turf and he wanted to share.  He showed us where he practiced volleyball, where he filled out paperwork for the screenwriting program, where he hung out with friends.  Best of all, he was genuinely himself, nothing was lost or missing, totally himself but with a bit more.

I don't know when I first felt this, maybe it was eating a hot dog at the Parents' Barbeque amid red and gold swaying balloons or it could have been as we were rushed along with the sea of red making its way to the Coliseum, but I knew that my heart was here.  It didn't matter what I was doing or the thousands of people beside me, as long as I was with Jack, my heart was here.  It was then that I realized for perhaps the first time that my heart is indeed cut into four very large pieces and they are outside of me.  

I guess since my kids have always been under my roof and generally with me that I was tricked into thinking that my heart was in my home.  But being with Jack and feeling a piece of myself there, I know now that my heart is wherever my children are.  Somehow, in the strangest way, I feel comforted by this.  I feel as if I have unintentionally made four horcruxes and stitched a little piece of my soul into Jack, Mary Kate, Patrick and Caroline.  They may travel the earth but they have my heart and that is where my home is -- wherever they are.

We kicked the flagpole and wished for good luck.  We resisted the bacon wrapped hot dogs with sizzling vegetables tempting us on our way to the stadium.  We walked by the rose garden planted in the early 1920's and filtered our way into the LA Coliseum.  We went down into the student section almost onto the field and were greeted by Jack's friends with a warm welcome.  We basked in the balmy southern California sunshine, the sublime joy of an afternoon of nothing but football and Jack and started learning the Trojan way.

If you've never been to a USC game let me tell you one thing: they live large.  They must have taken lessons from the British because nobody does Ceremony and Pomp better than these guys.  Out comes the fairy tale white horse with a Trojan atop.  He leaps off the horse and plunges his sword into the soil.  A cheer releases from the thousands of people and the game begins.  The band with full regalia plays its heart out.  The cheerleaders give it their all.  Gigantic flags are waving with an individual U and S and C and a Trojan all working together.  Smoke comes billowing out of a side entrance and with music playing, cheerleaders yelling and the crowd chanting, the football players rush onto the field.  

The game was fantastic...triple overtime and a heartbreaker of a loss...but that was beside the point.  We were with Jack.  Suddenly, we had to rush to the airport. We had to kiss our sweet son good-bye.  We got a glimpse of his world and had to head back to ours, where three other hearts were waiting.  We knew that we had found our way back home and that Jack would too.  Thanksgiving isn't that far away.

Change is inevitable.  Babies grow up.  Kids move out and we must adjust our sails or get stuck in stagnant waters.  This week-end, the grace that filled me up was learning that my home and my heart are where my people matter where on the planet that takes me. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Side By Side

Good friends, Patrick and Daniel at 6th grade camp.

The other day, I was on a mad dash to Target.  As I was driving in the parking lot, an old lady, spry and remarkably quick zipped across oncoming traffic to get to the other side.  Following behind her, WAY behind her, still on the other side of the parking lot was her hunched over husband.  He was slow moving, and clearly the anchor weighing down the speedboat.  It was painful to watch him try and keep up.  Impossible not to notice his resignation and his sadness at being left in the dust. I wanted to get out of my car and tell that mean old bitty a thing or two.  But pausing long enough not to hit him and forced to take the time to watch him cross the street like some slow moving snail made me feel a compassion for both of them.  It must be hard always ready and perpetually waiting.  It must be just as hard to be the one always trying to keep up.  It was then that I said out loud with nobody in the car to hear: "Why can't we all just be side by side holding hands?"  

Side by side.  What a lovely thought.  Nobody rushing.  Nobody feeling like they can't keep up.  Nobody tapping a foot in irritation. Just side by side.  Together.

Patrick is forever s-l-o-w moving.  I feel like I am constantly rushing him and forcing him to hurry.  Twelve years down this road and still I haven't learned my lesson.  There is no hurry, Beth.  It all unfolds at the exact right moment.  Some people you can't rush. Some moments you can't rush. It's a tricky balance in a world where speed is adored and adulated.  Rushing and hurrying are the norm -- it's what is expected.  

So living with someone like Patrick is a constant balance.  He indeed knows the right way to live.  He is excellent at giving you undivided attention.  He takes the time to listen.  He affords you the gifts of lingering and cherishing because when you are with him, there is no rush.  I want to be more like him. I want to be able to see a sadness in someone's eyes and find myself taking the time to ask and linger.   I want to live at his pace and stop trying to speed him up.  It's a tug of war between what matters and feels right and what the outside world tells you is important.  Clearly, I'm still learning.

"Always remember that each day as you look at your world and see millions upon millions of flowers opening up, God does it all without using any force." -- Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

Patrick has two friends at school.  Two real friends, Christopher and Daniel.  I knew he had friends that he played with on the playground but I didn't know until his birthday party in the summer just how close these three are.  They are equal friends...laughing and sharing jokes, running and playing games, sitting and sharing sodas or pizzas or ice cream and enjoying each other's company.  It has been a remarkable thing to watch unfold.  No play date began it.  There were no helicopter moms facilitating it.  Outside of school all three are involved in other activities and rarely run into each other.  It just evolved over time at school and getting to know each other.  Christopher is gentle and kind.  He is someone who loves the underdog and looks out for others.  He's a Boy Scout and a fantastic singer.  His love of music was what first sparked a friendship with Patrick.  He's a natural encourager.  Daniel is a recent immigrant from Cuba.  He has language barriers and difficulty understanding this crazy culture he's been dropped into.  He needs people who aren't rushing to take the time to break through that barrier.  He has an easy going personality and a quick smile.  He's always ready for some fun and a laugh and I know that is what drew Patrick to him.  He's so much larger than Patrick that he often will take on the role of protector and since he knows what it feel like to be an outsider, he's always willing to let people in.  These three together know what it's like to be side by side.  They were cabin mates during a week away at sixth grade camp.  They hiked together and encouraged each other through new experiences and fearful moments.  I try and picture those hikes and I smile.  Patrick must have surely been bringing up the rear but I can imagine both Daniel and Christopher looking out for him, telling him he could do it and encouraging him in such a way that he believed it too.  He hiked to the top of a peak, a first for him, side by side with his friends.

Christopher and Patrick are all smiles!

October is Down Syndrome Awareness month.  All month I've been pondering what to tell you.  What to say that might bring an ounce of hope and optimism to a new mom that has been prenatally diagnosed, or a new mom that is holding her tiny infant and just knows a diagnosis and can't imagine what the future looks like.  All I can tell you is a simple message: side by side is how you get through anything.  It's so much better that way.  Don't rush.  Don't hurry.  Just take the hand of a friend or a loved one, take a deep breath and begin the journey.  The journey is pretty beautiful.

The world may think we need to out-run each other but I've been taught otherwise. 
I'm so grateful to my teacher.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Earth Laughs in Flowers

"I don't know whether nice people tend to grow roses or growing roses makes people nice."    Roland A. Beowne 
I have a secret soon as I think of it, I smile and can't help it.  It's not hidden but whenever I go there it feels as if it's my own private paradise: the Frederick N. Evans Memorial Rose Garden in McKinley Park in Sacramento.  I want to know what Frederick N. Evans did to deserve such distinction and such a fantastic legacy. He must have done something good, real good.

I recently read about a question to ask your children: name five things you love. So, I asked Caroline, in passing as she was literally scootering around the kitchen and living room in an endless track.  Each roundabout revealed another, in this order: Buddy, Momma, Teddy, Flowers, School. Since she is a newly minted kindergartner I breathed in a momentary breath of gratitude for "school" -- with such a big adjustment I was grateful that in this crystallized moment she was loving school.  It was a revelation to me since she has been coming home exhausted and prone to tears. 

Of course, Buddy and Momma and Teddy made sense since those are three things she routinely hugs, cherishes and sprinkles her sweet sugar on.  

Flowers, for some reason, floored me.  We hadn't been gardening, picking roses, buying flowers at the Farmer's Market or even talking about them recently but flowers sure made a lot of sense to me.  She loves to gather flowers.  She picks the dandelions, cuts the roses in our garden, notices the flowers growing wild in our neighbor's yard and begs me to make crowns of little clover flowers whenever we spot a clump growing protestingly in a manicured lawn. She has a secret spot for girl.

What gets us side-tracked and oblivious to the daily beauty around us?  Speed?  The nonsensical rush through our day to day obligations? Pressure? Stress? It's silly isn't it?  The very thing that can give us pause and help us drink in the beauty of today: a flower, seems inconsequential, optional and thoroughly "extra". 

Yesterday I was making a grocery list.  As usual, we were out of milk and assorted other necessities.  I was writing it down while Patrick and Caroline were eating breakfast and so I enlisted their help, hoping they would remind me of some crucial item I might have forgotten.  I asked them what they would like me to get at the grocery store.  Patrick mentioned cranberry juice and Caroline piped up: flowers.  Flowers.  How luxurious.  How completely frivolous.  How unnecessary.  

How tell-tale adult of me.

I don't usually buy flowers at the store but yesterday I almost forgot the milk I was so intent on my mission.  Flowers.  Of course. The earth laughs in flowers someone wisely once said. However you say it, life just feels better being cloaked in their beauty. We feel their sacred ordinary grace and calm down for a bit. Yesterday, I bought some flowers for a little girl who reminded me not just of their beauty but their necessity as well.

  Happy Thursday Caroline!
Happy Day to me!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In Praise of Dads

"Small boys become big men through the influence of big men who care about small boys."

My father's dad was overwhelmed by the sudden death of his wife and gave custody of his two young children to his spinster sister.  My dad was raised by a schoolteacher with strict, firm love and as soon as he turned 18, he was outta there -- onto new adventures, courtesy of the Marines.

My husband said good-bye to his dad when he was about ten.  His parents were newly divorced and his father opted to fade into the shadows.  I'm sure in some twisted way he told himself that he was being noble and giving his children stability by only having one parent to answer to.  In truth, his absence left a Papa Bear size wound that could never be healed.  

Yet these two men each had children of their own and both are not just good and attentive and kind dads.  They are superheroes.  They get the ever-present, not-for-a-minute-am-I-missing this award.  They are in it through every twist and turn and awkward moment.  And every single one of their children can feel that commitment...that cement of stability and presence and it serves as a both a compass and as a talisman.

When the first tower was hit and fire was raging on that awful September day in 2001, I stumbled out of bed confused by a phone call from my mother urging me to turn on the TV.  When I walked into the den, groggy and disoriented, I asked John why he hadn't awakened me.  His words were some of the sweetest, kindest and wisest he has ever said:

"Because I thought you could use a few more minutes of not knowing this."

For a split second I was wrapped in that love and fierce protection and then the second plane hit shredding that cloak and leaving us all with the naked knowledge and dread that this was no accident but the methodical plan of evil intentionally crossing our path, hell bent on destroying us.

How could I send my two small children to school?  How could I pretend that things were normal and life would just keep going?  I called my dad, hoping he would give me the Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card and go along with my plan to keep Jack and Mary Kate home from school.  He paused and let the silence on the phone make his point.  "No, Lizzy, they need to go to school.  They need that order in their day.  If you keep them home don't you see that the people who crashed those towers win.  You are giving them exactly what they hope.  You are listening to the fear.  You send them to school.  That's what you need to do."  Robotically, I did it, taking comfort in my father's words and wisdom.  It was the right thing to do but it sure seemed questionable that day.  Without my compass I wouldn't have known the right direction.

Both my husband and my dad make the mission of fathering their children their most important life's work and their children know it.  This level of devotion changes everything.  As a child, I knew I was safe, accepted, loved and highly regarded.  That childhood send off allowed me to provide those same things to my children.  But in the back of my mind I hear a critic yell: "Big Deal -- You saw what it looked like, you knew how it felt, so you were able to copy the model showed to you, no biggie."

But how did my husband do that?  With out any fatherly figure in his life, how did he navigate adolescence, college, his career, his adulthood and his fatherhood without any roadmap?  He listened to his gut and he plowed right in.  Holding Jack in those first breathless moments, tears unexpectedly sprang to his eyes and he asked out loud: "How could my dad have given this up?" I had no words.  I could feel the gigantic gulf of emptiness and the deep sadness that John had to somehow carry during this moment of immense joy.  But that was all I could do -- I couldn't heal that wound.

But four people could.  Jack, Mary Kate, Patrick and Caroline have somehow lessened the pain.  His joy in their lives, their hopes and dreams and accomplishments is radiant.  It is positively enticing.  He is over the top in his regard for them.  They are wondrous, amazing, fantastic and incredible.  He always gives second chances, sees their good side, thinks they are beautiful and fills them up.  His ability to give that love especially in the least deserving of moments is such a beautiful act that I am humbled over and over again.  It's harder for me, truly, yet he makes me want to be that selfless.  

Dads often get shoved aside.  People disregard their powerful influence and today, shockingly, it is considered a viable option to have a child all by yourself as a woman.  Ask any child who grew up without a dad to give their uncensored opinion about that and the truth becomes crystal clear.  Dads are not optional, like some sort of appetizer at a grand meal.  Dads are necessary and crucial and non-negotiable.  They provide the other side of the coin.  They are the mirror for their sons and a first love for their daughters.  They are a daily grace that is indispensable and in need of some serious applause.  

Three cheers for you, dads!  You matter!  You rock!  You're amazing!  
Most of all, thank you!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Needing More Hellos

"Why can't we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together?  I guess that wouldn't work.  Someone would leave.  Someone always leaves.  Then we would have to say good-bye.  I hate good-byes.  I know what I need.  I need more hellos."  ~Charles M. Schulz

It's been almost two weeks since I had to kiss my firstborn good-bye. Two weeks.  That's not that much time at all and yet every time I see him on Skype, hear his voice or read his words I know it might as well be a decade.  Already so much has changed for him...navigating the world -- yes that big wide world -- pretty much on his own with three stumbling and bumbling room-mates for companionship.  He seems older already.  He seems more worldly and yes, more moments have happened in these two weeks where his eyes have been opened.  I love it and I hate it in pretty equal doses.  I'm so thrilled for him to be on this adventure and so sad for me that our adventure with him in our daily life has ended.  

He's fine.  No, actually, he's pretty great.  He likes his room-mates, he has averted disaster and he's found his way to class and to food and to friends all relatively easily.  Heck he's even done his laundry!  

I can't help but reflect on my own going away moments.  I really don't remember being fearful at all -- although I'm sure I must have been nervous.  I just remember the adrenalin.  I remember being excited and ready and so curious about all of the new places and new people and new things I was seeing and learning.  I was thrilled and hopeful.  I knew I could do it and I wanted to go for it.  I couldn't get over the very different and yet so very much the same.

I remember the kindness of strangers: that first day on my bike searching for my Classics class when out of nowhere a fellow biker pointed out the correct building I couldn't figure out from my map.  I remember the professors who told good stories and recited lines of poetry from their passionate hearts.  I remember feeling super cool hanging out in the Coffeehouse after class with my 75 cent bagel and cream cheese. I remember the parties and the craziness and the FUN!  Mostly, I remember the new friends who made me laugh and think and wonder about things I'd never thought about before. 

So...when I wish for more hellos from my big guy, I just remember how many, many, many hellos he is getting everyday. It's tantalizing to think about all of the paths he is crossing and all of the experiences he is having each new day of his adventure.  

And, it makes me want to have more hellos too.  I look a little longer for those confused faces trying to figure out a new school, a new team or a new town.  I find myself reaching out...pointing out a building, a person who knows the answer or a website that might help.  

A few years ago during the summer I had an itch to go to the beach.  My baby was weeks old but that didn't stop me; the beach was calling our name.  It was a little reckless but I packed up a picnic, good sunscreen and lots of sand toys and we started our adventure.  Two freeway exits down the road I got a flat tire.  I was close enough to home that I didn't freak out but it was a very vivid, deep feeling of vulnerability and suddenly I felt like a jerk on the open road with three kids and a tiny baby. What was I thinking? 

Two young hispanic guys stopped their car in front of ours.  I told the kids to be silent and I opened my window.  One of them offered: "I'm a mechanic, I know how to change a tire.  I'd like to help you change yours."

I was shocked and thrilled and very emotional.  He changed my tire like the expert he was and I sat in awe at a skill I needed to have.  Within  ten minutes we were ready to go.  I searched through my purse and tried to pay him.  He shyly smiled.  He refused and said: "I just got married a few weeks ago.  I would hate to have my wife out on a freeway like this and I would hope someone would help her the way I am helping you. "  That sacred moment of silent connection between us was all we needed:  I thanked him, and vowed to pay it forward.  He just smiled.

Often I think of that good deed...that kindness because he could see his wife in me.  Without effort, I can see Jack in all of the college kids around my town and I begin my hellos.  I can see myself in the new teacher and it dawns on me that that's the secret.  Seeing ourself in others gives us the willingness to say hello, to reach out and break down barriers.  Knowing it could be you gives you the grace to be patient, forgiving, understanding and most of all kind.  You're a little more tender and a little less ready to pounce.

So...deep's time for fewer good-byes and more hellos.

Hello world -- you're pretty beautiful.  

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Grace Happens

Do you have someone you'd like to be when you grow up?  For me, it's Susan Branch.  If you don't know her, she writes the most beautiful cookbooks, creates gorgeous calendars, develops material for quilters and generally has her creative mojo overflowing. Recently she began a blog and I love it!  Take a look and escape into the wonderful world of Susan Branch.

So...I had to steal her little bumper sticker...I just know we would be friends if only I hung out in Martha's Vineyard.  :)  

Anyway, her bumper sticker got me thinking...if we all lived like Susan Branch, we would create our own islands full of people that are wise and of good will.  The grace would happen.  We wouldn't need anything fancy.  We wouldn't even need a view...just some good will and wisdom.  And where can we find that?  Here's the big secret that even darling Susan Branch doesn't seem to mention very often: at eye level with kids.  

So often, they have that lovely mixture of good will and wisdom.  

They give second chances.  They love ferociously.  They think you're beautiful.  They dance.  They cuddle when they need to (or if you need to), offer up a quick "sorry" when the time is right, pause with wonder and stop eating when they are full.  They don't have any pretenses and they tell it like it is.  In short, they keep it real.  

Just the other day, my sister's son Peter was crying and my sister asked him why.  He looked up at her and clarified the obvious: "Because sometimes little boys cry." Yep.  They do. So, on my list of things that kids do right is Peter's astute observation: they allow themselves to cry when necessary. 

Kids keep it simple.  They can sense a fake the way a raccoon can find a garbage can, immediately.  They live effortlessly, simply and with profound grace.  

I have four kids.  One just left to find his own little village full of wisdom and good will.  Pray that he finds it, creates it and lives it.  I do.  And until I see him again, I'm going to hang with my posse: kids.  I'm going to search them out, listen and wait because sssshhhh: that's where the grace happens.