Thursday, January 26, 2012

Forever Free

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." 
-- Frederick Douglass

I remember learning to write.  I was given a string of phonetic symbols for every sound in the English language and for that reason I could write anything.  I felt so powerful.  Spelling wasn't a problem.  All I needed was time.  However, I don't remember learning to read at all.  I must have breezed through that because I can never remember not knowing what all of those letters meant. I remember getting a prize in first grade for reading the most books and I still have my prize: a book, of course.  

I have always loved to read.  So many books and words of wisdom from writers have touched my heart throughout my lifetime.  I remember crying in my blue room in Illinois over the heartbreak of Old Yeller.  I fondly hold a collection of over 50 Nancy Drew yellow and black hardbacks, beginning with one of my favorites: The Secret of the Old Clock.  I was right alongside the young girl in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret wondering where my boobs were. As an adolescent, I triumphed with Scarlett O'Hara and detested passive and perfect Melanie in Gone with the Wind.  I snuck books into virtually all of my classes in high school.  My reading was insatiable.  In college, it was destiny that I would gravitate to an English major.  Writing and reading as homework??? Perfect.  I sat in awe as my English professor recited John Milton's Paradise Lost from memory and made those densely woven words sensible through his passion alone.  I had the privilege of reading Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Thoreau, Emerson, and, of course, Shakespeare.  

Throughout any difficulty in my life, I have found a book that has soothed my soul.  Martha Beck's book Expecting Adam became my mantra about having a child with Down Syndrome.  Where is God When It Hurts? helped me to make sense of leukemia and fear.  Maya Angelou helped in so many ways on so many days.  

It was only natural that when I had kids the reading would take on a new richer, more amazing dimension.  Sitting with a child on your lap, laughing at Dr. Seuss, wondering with Roald Dahl, rhyming with Margaret Wise Brown makes any day pure magic.  I remember riding bikes with Jack the summer of third grade down to grab the newest Harry Potter, number three -- The Prisoner of Azkaban -- and oohing and aaahing over the hardback book, all 435 pages.  The warmth of the sunshine, the gift of another epic installment about Harry and Hermione and Ron, the joy of watching Jack enthralled made that moment one of my sweetest memories.  We had the thrill of waiting up until midnight for the subsequent Harry Potters, dressing up, cheering with the crowds and devouring the books within days of their release. I am forever grateful to JK Rowling and her imagination!  Her books lit a fire within Mary Kate as well, along with Junie B. Jones, Judy Moody and our tear-inducing favorite Charlotte's Web.

One of the first things that I read after Patrick was born was that the French school system did not believe it was possible to teach a person with Down Syndrome to read.  They actually stated that any evidence of someone with Down Syndrome reading was equivalent to training a monkey!! It was a trick, not reality.  I remember getting my momma bear claws out and chiding whoever wrote that crap in my head: "Oh yeah, maybe that's true for all the French kids but look out -- my kid's no monkey!  Get out of my way.  My kid is going to read."

In preschool and kindergarten he focused on letter sounds and sight words and in first grade he was given a scientist of reading for a teacher, Mrs. Thompson.  I had complete faith in her ability to teach Patrick, along with 34 other first graders, how to break that code.  Two weeks into school I had a meeting with her.  I'm sure she doesn't remember the exchange at all, but to me, Patrick's literacy hung in the balance.  I asked her if he was going to be a good fit in her classroom.  Did she think he could learn in there.  With no hesitation, she assured me he could be there and that he would learn to read.  Five years later, almost every night Patrick reads to me and almost every night I sit in awe as I hear his voice wrap around the words in print.  Some nights, I can't help it and silent tears just come streaming down.  My boy can read!

That might not seem like much when you've never had a memory of not knowing what those crazy scratches on paper meant but I'm reading a book right now called Life is So Good.  It is the true story of George Dawson, a black man who did not learn to read until he was 98! Listening to the times he was in a restaurant and couldn't order off of a menu, feeling the times he knew he was cheated because someone realized he couldn't read, and knowing how many posters, newspapers, books, magazines, billboards, tickets, medicine bottles, doctors orders, cards, letters and life opportunities just passed him by  like leaves blowing off of a tree makes me cringe.  It's impossible to imagine being so cut left isolated and ashamed.

As I listen to a little voice sound out children's books beside me and feel that familiar curl of coziness as Caroline climbs aboard for another adventure I think of George.  There is so much grace in shared stories, the written words of people from past ages sharing their observations and the beauty of letters coming together in a way that hasn't happened before.  Reading is a comfort and sense of belonging to all of humanity; it's a highlighter pen for places to visit or people to meet, a spark that lights a fire, and a salve for the deepest wounds.

Today I'm grateful that I was given an opportunity to learn to read and know the love and power that comes from being able to seek information for yourself.  I'm grateful for the educational opportunities that my children have been given -- for the schools and the teachers that believed in them.  I'm grateful to live in a place where ALL children are educated and I'm profoundly moved that I can continue the circle of education with beginning teachers.  Today, I'm going to appreciate print and the immeasurable joy reading has given me my entire life and I'm going to finally find out who taught George to read..

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Eyes of Love

"There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved.  It is God's finger on man's shoulder."  ~Charles Morgan

So last night I was folding laundry...a job I usually save for late Sunday nights when the whole house is quiet and it's just me.  But this week, miraculously, I was ahead of my chore and was folding on a Thursday night with John next to me.  I was trying to choose a TV show to watch.  He was on his laptop.  It was the epitome of mundane. 

I walked by his chair and he reached his hand out, not looking at me.  I looked down.  He looked up. And there they were...the eyes of love.  It wasn't romantic or sexy or anything other than supreme comfort.  "I love you," he said with his gaze.  I felt it and leaned down for a quick kiss.  And just like that, I continued forward and he went back to his computer.

An hour before that we were saying good-bye to our family friends who had come over to dinner with their 13 month old cherub.  Kalev was opening and closing his hands in that adorable good-bye that young toddlers do and I couldn't take it.  Mary Kate, Caroline and I were fussing all over him and his mom squeezed him tight and giggled with joy.  Her eyes were leaking love for her son and it was tangible and felt by all of the admirers around this sweet little guy.

Later that night, I took a walk with Buddy.  His look up at me was full of love and contentment as he waited for his leash to get attached. Just before I left, I walked down the hall to check on Mary Kate, making sure she was in bed.  With the lights off, all I could do was walk up to her bed, stoop down for a quick kiss and notice the highlights in her hair. Afterwards, I walked beside Jack, talked in the cold night time air about an amazing invention and the fun waiting for him back at college.  When we got home, Jack went upstairs and I made my way to check on Caroline and Patrick in the dark.  I could hear Caroline's slow breathing of deep sleep.  She was snuggled in covers on a cold night.  She received her goodnight kiss unaware.  Patrick, too, was cozy and lost in sleep.  His kiss was sprinkled on the top of his head and he took no notice.  I walked up to say goodnight to Jack.  This is our last night before he heads back to school.  I looked around his comfortably messy room and felt a pang.  I'm going to miss that guy...again.

And so, I started thinking about looking at those we love.  Getting to see them each day and having the chance to say with only our eyes how lovely they are.  How inspiring.  How brave.  How magnificent.  

I remember reading  a quote from Maya Angelou.  She was talking about her son and the intense love she felt for him. And she mentioned that she wanted him (and all children) to be greeted with the radiant smile and effusive love of a mother whenever they come home.  She wanted all children to feel the thrill of love's gaze.  The joy of being cherished.  The transformation of being wholly, indefatigably loved with abandon.  I try to remember that whenever I see my kids after I've been away from them for awhile and it's not hard.  They are adored and hopefully they feel it.

But there are others who rarely, if ever, feel the sweet contentment of love's gaze.  Of course, we can guess who they are.  They are the "marginalized"...those on the outskirts of society so I guess that makes them on the outskirts of love.  Which is pretty crappy.  We have the homeless, the addicted, the abused, the defeated, the discouraged, the bullied, the taunted, the disabled, the neglected, the orphaned.  Whatever the situation, the least we can do is offer acceptance, encouragement and yes, even love in the simplest way...through our eyes.  People feel judged.  They feel ridiculed. They feel dismissed or misunderstood simply by the way we look at them.  How often do we look past these people? For me, I'm ashamed to say...way too often.

About a year ago, I was standing in church listening to the priest and I could barely hear him.  I was distracted by a father just loving his daughter.  She was in a wheelchair, drooling with fists clenched in that twisted, painful, tell-tale sign of cerebral palsy. She clearly couldn't speak and yet the conversation those two were having drowned out the world. He couldn't have been more rapt, more fascinated or more interested in her and she knew it.  His love and tenderness took my breath away and I knew that for me, that interaction was today's gospel, homily and God's holy presence all wrapped up into one.  

That moment still inspires me.  And it reminds me why Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi and Martin Luther King are all revered.  They were (and in the Dalai Lama's case still are) able to give every single person that gaze of loving devotion. There is no price.  The criminal, the leper, the sick, the mentally ill...all of us...are worthy simply because we are here. 

So...I guess I've stumbled onto an extra New Year's Resolution.  In addition to the exercise I need to do, the closets I need to clean or the letters I need to write comes a real challenge: look at the world with a gaze of love.  Yes, that means even when my kids bug me, when someone is rude, annoying, self-centered, obnoxious, needy, intolerable or just plain wrong I need to hold my gaze and offer my love.  I'm pretty sure I'm going to blow it a million times but why not give it a try...that's what resolutions are all about.