all of the selves we Have ever been
A Distinguished Gentleman
As I sat in the dentist’s waiting room, another patient arrived and took the seat across from mine. We both heard someone in the back say, “Barbara is here,” and she laughed.
“You must be important,” I said. This got Barbara laughing again and reflecting on her eight-year-old great-nephew scheduled to be in an upcoming family wedding. Recently, her nephew tried on the tuxedo he would wear to the event. He looked at himself in the mirror and said, “I look like a distinguished gentleman.”
Barbara delighted in describing her precocious great-nephew. I, too, love the earnestness of children, and I pictured the boy staring at himself in the mirror with his eyes full of pride and his heart filled with dreams.
I waited for my own appointment dressed in amazement--amazed that there is still a child living in this crazy world today who believes that distinguished gentlemen exist! I thought the species had become extinct. I urgently wanted to find the young man to encourage this desire in him and to provide some advice before the world twists his noble ambitions.
If only clothes could make the man, a massive wardrobe change would be in order. I wanted to warn this sweet child that it is not by the treasure of a man’s closet that he distinguishes himself. No, a man distinguishes himself by the treasure of his heart.
Just this week more children and school staff were gunned down inside a grade school. An elected Nashville representative said there is nothing that can be done. A helpless elected official who homeschools his own children and leaves the others to perish does not distinguish himself as leader no matter what he is wearing; he reduces himself to an unwitting accomplice in the next school shooting. Do these words truly reflect the treasure of this man’s heart?
I cannot bear another helpless round of “thoughts and prayers.” It is time for examination. Let us not become a culture extinguished by guns and violence. Let us be a people distinguished by the good treasure of our hearts. Let our words and actions reflect the treasures we value. Surely, our children are among them.
“A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” - Luke 6:45
"You don’t know how lucky you are to be loved,” Meg said in a startled way, “I guess I never thought of that. I guess I just took it for granted.” – A Wrinkle in Time
We didn’t know it then, but it would be the last time we would all be together in this common joy, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandchildren, great-nieces, and great-nephews. It was a reunion engineered by Cousin Marcia. “Just cuz," she said.
We came from far and near toting car seats into the home where once we had been carried as babies ourselves. Familiar voices slipped out of the house and onto the front porch as soon as the door swung open. Inside, the table overflowed with favorite foods that smelled of home, prepared from cherished family recipes passed down for generations. With every seat in the room already taken, our bottoms rested on the upholstered arms of chairs even as our own arms clung to the shoulders of people we had loved for a lifetime. Out on the basketball court, just beyond the kitchen door, Cousin Tom lifted petite second-cousin Elizabeth onto his shoulders so she could dunk a basketball.
In this home, we first cousins were simultaneously young and old—children and grown-ups. If the walls could talk, they would remember each of us. Somewhere in this precious place, our childhood shadows were stuffed into drawers awaiting our returns.
Here, now, our children sat on the same porch steps, ran down the same long driveway, slammed the same doors, marveled at the same tiny bathroom under the stairs. As my own children were being stirred into this love cocktail, my eyes surveyed the property that had once been a fantasy island: the built in-swimming pool, a pasture where a horse had grazed, a play house, a basketball hoop, a tennis court. The ghost of a sleepy Lassie dog rested on the warm asphalt taking it all in too. Inside the house, books lined the living room shelves and a piano occupied the space in front of the window. This place had been our personal Magic Kingdom where every childhood interest had been encouraged.
“…the joy and love were so tangible that Meg felt that if she only knew where to reach
she could touch it with her bare hands.” – A Wrinkle in Time
Through the archway I saw into the family room where my mother sat illuminated by sunlight and memory. The brilliant and beloved youngest of my grandmother’s many children, mom had a rare moment to be the center of attention. A new generation became her enraptured audience hanging on to her every word.
This home belonged to our adored Uncle John and his wife, Aunt Janet. Kind and unshakeable, generous, and a lover of gadgets and emerging technology, if he bought one new item, Uncle John bought nine—one for himself and one for each of his sisters and his brother. Aunt Janet never complained. The latest miracle invention revealed on this Cousin Reunion Day was the hot air popcorn popper. Even as the sun began to set, fluffy, fresh popped kernels rose from the machine’s spout, but even magical popcorn could not make the day last forever. We loaded our cars in preparation for our departures, each of us believing that there would be more popcorn on a future day, that this was the first of many cousin reunions to come. We strapped ourselves and our children inside the vehicles that would rocket us to our homes in distant galaxies and far from this star where all of our lives began.
As we pulled away, Cousin Tom stood in the driveway holding a sign: “Does anyone have to tinkle?” We left laughing at this reminder of Aunt Gen’s frequent and famous last words, a necessary question in an extended family where as many as 21 nieces and nephews might be traveling in a single pack.
Of course, we had all tinkled! It was a life lesson not eliminated but retained, a lesson written in a family language for words too impolite to shout in public, a tutorial on self-care, being prepared, and showing consideration for others.
As the procession of cars inched down the driveway, we looked back at this place that had been our sun. We each had journeyed through space and time on many a quest. Sometimes we returned to celebrate, other times, we returned to console. And then the demands of life grew along with our families. We never reconvened for another cousin reunion. Now, I ask myself, “Where did the years go?”
It was all just a tinkle in time.
They paved paradise and put up a parkin' lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot…
They took all the trees, and put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got till it's gone
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot…
As I pulled into the parking lot of a large local shopping center, an earworm wriggled to life inside my head: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…” an old Joni Mitchell hit. I smiled to myself at the memory and the words, and I thought it might be time to hit the pavement at my favorite tree museum, The Franklin Park Conservatory.
I went into Staples and purchased ink cartridges for my home printer. Finished with the errand, I stepped to the automatic exit doors. As they slid open, I heard it.
Like a graceful flock of birds, the notes rose on the air and danced in the twinkling and brilliant sunlight of an unseasonably warm winter day. I was propelled in the direction of the sound and the light. Somewhere nearby, a violin played Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The music was so moving that I felt the urge to both weep and dance at the same time. I was not alone in this. At that very moment, the doors of Target slid open and a tiny preschooler stepped onto the sidewalk and immediately froze in his tracks. His mother tugged on his arm, but he was there to stay, eyes wide and pointed in the direction of the music. Surely, the child saw it for the wonder that it was.
We both stared at a man standing next to a portable speaker. We watched as he swayed and slid the slender bow across the strings of his violin. The instrument’s case lay open beneath a sign sharing news of the man’s financial hardships--his need to pay his rent and support two children. As I dug deep inside my purse for cash, I heard a couple walking by saying it was probably a scam.
I was taken aback by the irony of the situation: people flocking to this shopping center to purchase without question food, pharmaceuticals, and other merchandise from companies that overcharge us, produce products that harm us, and create waste that destroys our environment, yet this gentle man producing beautiful music was suspect. His performance was just too foreign in this land of parking lots, boutiques, pink hotels, and swinging hot spots. In the beauty of the moment, I pledged my allegiance to the wide-eyed child still capable of trust and wonder. I took what cash I had and dropped the folded bills into the open violin case. “The world needs more music,” I said. The violinist nodded his thanks and continued to play.
Filled with anticipation each time I step out onto a parking lot, I bring cash…and I listen. I hope to hear the stop-you-in-your-tracks sounds of that magic violin. Though I wish him well and that all of his needs will be met, I pray this street musician never stops playing. The world needs more music and a little bit of paradise in every paved parking lot.
How We Roll
I’ve lost my edge. And my bounce.
After a lifetime of rolling with the punches, my figure can only be described as “round,” and my squishy, inert orb rests on the playing field waiting to be kicked into play.
I thought it was my age, but many people of different ages are complaining of a brand of inertia that has become the new long COVID even for those who never contracted the illness.
The op-ed columns are screaming with commentary on “quiet quitting,” and yesterday, the mailman shared that he has been delivering mail for 30 years after a stint in the military. His days are getting longer because the post office is short on help. “There used to be a waiting list of people who wanted to work for the post office. It was considered a good job,” he tells me as he fills the mailboxes that line the lobby walls. “No one wants to work anymore. They don’t want to work weekends or long days. They don’t want to deal with the weather…” I feel for him as I rest on the steps watching him work and listening about folks who haven’t quit because they’ve never even taken the field.
As if the news media were reading my mind, a headline pops up: Coronavirus Linked to Personality Changes in Young Adults. According to a Florida State University study, the pandemic “may have fundamentally changed the personalities of young people.” The long periods of social isolation seem to have made them moodier, more prone to stress, less cooperative and trusting, and less restrained and responsible. Researchers speculate that these changes may be due to a disruption in the completion of specific and normal developmental tasks and in the maturing process in general.
My mind wanders to a Holocaust survivor I have known. He was herded off to a concentration camp when just an elementary school boy. He recalled standing in the morning line-up as wagons passed by the long rows of captives. The bodies of those who had died overnight or in the gas chambers filled the carts and hung from the sides. “These were our loved ones,” this survivor told me. “We were an emotional people, but we couldn’t even cry.” In his eighties, he now wept, grieving the loss of his loved ones along with the temporary loss of his own humanity at that terrifying and tragic time.
While our lives in no way resemble the tragedy of the Holocaust, I can appreciate the point of view of the shell shocked, those individuals who have faced intense, life-threatening circumstances that produced feelings of helplessness, fear, inability to reason or to carry on with the normal tasks of daily living. How especially true this must be for children with wild imaginations and limited life experience, perspective, and power.
In the last three years, we have been bombarded, not by bombs, but by disasters. First, COVID made its way into our awareness. There were the terrifying unknowns and dire predictions. The lockdowns. The disruptions to travel, daily life, work, school, and supply chains. There were loss and death, exhausted caregivers, and no end in sight. Anger and outrage were directed at the very people trying to assess the germ and protect us from its harm. And while we were trying to find a balance for living, we were inundated with news reports about climate change, wild fires, and shortages of every kind. Our government came under siege as our representatives attempted to complete the ceremonial task of certifying a presidential election. An unprovoked war broke out in the Ukraine, and new horrific war crimes were exposed each day on the news. That was soon followed by threats of a nuclear power plant disaster or the use of nuclear weapons. Fuel supplies were cut or sabotaged.
We continue to struggle with skyrocketing inflation as the world teeters on the edge of financial collapse with the British and Chinese currencies in trouble. We have argued long about immigration, and now we are treated to political stunts on the evening news even as the entire world is struggling with mass displacement due to famine, disease, hunger, human rights disasters, war, violence, and climate change. New germs threaten to get us: monkey pox is on the rise everywhere; Ebola cases are increasing in Africa; and polio has been found in the wastewater in New York. Devastating mass shootings and frightening political upheaval are daily news fodder. We learn that we cannot trust people in leadership to reach solutions or protect us even as violent crime increases. And this week, we were served a new poison--a once-in-a-lifetime weather event that has devastated Florida, the Carolinas, Georgia, and parts of Virginia. And continuously humming in the background of all of this is the media shame machine. We have so many new labels to discredit people that we can no longer speak to one another in the civil manner needed to solve problems.
No wonder young people are quietly quitting. We are all weary and frightened. Like overstimulated two-year-olds, we just want to take a nap and wake up when the world is all better.
My mind wanders again, this time to the people aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11. When it became apparent that terrorists had hijacked their airplane and intended to do grave harm to the country, these passengers decided to take action knowing they would likely lose their lives in doing so. “Let’s roll,” Todd Beamer is credited with saying. The plane went down but spared the much larger disaster in the making.
This morning electrical workers and Red Cross volunteers here in Columbus, Ohio and in many states both red and blue, started their engines. Their wheels began turning. Small armies of the tired but determined left home for disaster zones in Florida, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia.
Hang in there, kids. We may be weary, but when it matters, this is how we roll.
I went into labor on Labor Day.
The holiday that traditionally defines the end of summer was about to redefine my life. By midnight contractions were coming close together. The doctor could not be reached, but the answering service advised me: “Get to the hospital.”
Almost two weeks past my due date, my husband and I were ready. The hour-long drive to the hospital took on the extra seriousness that travel takes in the lonely, dark hours of the night. I timed my contractions by the glowing blue digits of the dashboard clock, reassuring myself that this was no false alarm. My husband and I did not speak. He concentrated on driving and kept his thoughts to himself. My own mind was stirring with both concern and excitement.
It had been a long nine months. This pregnancy followed a painful miscarriage. While delighted with another pregnancy, life had not been easy. I suffered from serious anemia; the low-iron fatigue was complicated by repeated travel from Ohio to California where my father was dying of cancer. In between trips, the old pipes in our home blew out and all of the plumbing had to be replaced. Both my life and my home had been torn apart, but, at last, a wonderful new chapter was about to begin.
We arrived at the hospital where I was assigned to a labor room and placed on monitors. The hours ticked by with no increase in the intensity or frequency of contractions. Drugs were added to an IV in an effort to move things along. One-by-one signs appeared that a baby was on the way and so did the signs that it was a baby in distress. The decision was made to proceed with a cesarean delivery. A nurse anesthetist began the epidural. Almost immediately I felt a strange, intolerable heaviness from my lower back to my toes. I focused all of my energy on holding my body together. Tingling and discomfort moved up my spine, through my neck, and to the back of my head.
In the delivery room I struggled to maintain consciousness. My mind began to register that something was terribly wrong. “I should care about this but I can’t,” I thought. It was like someone had thrown a switch in my head that separated my emotions from the reality of the emergency taking place. I was more apathetic observer than participant.
At 3:12 PM my daughter, Emily, was born. She was wrapped in a blanket and handed to her father who turned Emily’s tiny, red face toward me as the staff whisked both father and daughter from the room. The doctors finished their work. My eyes next opened somewhere in a hospital corridor, and then I was out again. The next moment of awareness came as a young nurse approached my bed in the recovery room. I could see her face coming closer. “Something is wrong with me,” I said. “I’m all wet.”
The nurse lifted my covers. I heard her cry out, “Oh, my God!” and I faded again. When next I came to consciousness my obstetrician was standing at my bedside yelling, “Where’s the father?!” Fourteen pairs of legs surrounded my bed, each connected to a pair of hands working on some separate part of my body. Blood was pouring out of me and onto the cart, dripping down to form a puddle on the floor.
“Fifty-over- thirty,” a woman’s voice called out my blood pressure. I was shaking with cold. In his desperate haste to get blood into me, the young technician preparing the transfusion had by-passed the blood warmer. “This is how dead feels,” I said to myself. “I am going to die,” became my last terrified thought, and then a sweeping sensation lifted me backwards off the bed. I transcended the room completely oblivious to the lifesaving efforts and drama being played out on the bed below.
My entire life passed before me--not like the play of a videotape on fast forward as I had always imagined, but an overwhelming sense of my entire life presented in the capsule of a nanosecond. I felt comforted, but the comfort did not last. A vision followed: my baby daughter, no longer a newborn, looking straight over her daddy’s shoulder and into my eyes as her father carried her away from me. The depth of sorrow her eyes conveyed was unbearable. I prayed: “Please, God. I have to make it back. She cannot grow up in that kind of sorrow.” In answer, a commanding presence, not really a voice or an image, pressed me: “Choose!”
The rest of that very long day is recorded in my memory as a series of snapshots taken in brief moments of consciousness: procedure rooms, doctors behind glass walls, strange other voices, my own voice screaming in pain. The next day was not much better as I came to consciousness in the intensive care unit not sure if I would live.
My husband went between the hospital nursery and the ICU bringing instant Polaroid snapshots of our daughter. Each time a new photo was taped to my bedrail, my husband gave me an update on the babies leaving the nursery for the neonatal intensive care unit at the nearby children’s hospital. Despite my confused and agitated state, I thanked God that it was me and not my child struggling for life.
After a couple of days in intensive care, I was moved to a regular post-partum room. Still tied to multiple IVs, I was a virtual prisoner of tubes. In addition to being extremely weak, I could barely open my eyes or flex my fingers due to swelling from the copious amounts of life-saving fluid I had received. As soon as I was settled into my bed, a nurse appeared with my daughter in her arms. When she placed Emily into my lap, I immediately noticed two large red marks—one on the center of Emily’s forehead and the other at the nape of her neck. “Angel kisses,” the nurse stated as she reassured me that these marks were innocent and would likely fade in time.
Our room soon filled with the balloons, flowers, and cards that had been waiting for my step-down from the ICU. So many prayers and good wishes! I received multiple copies of one particular greeting card. Each copy came from someone different and unknown to the others. The message: “For His angels will watch over you and guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). That psalm became my mantra in the following days and months of recovery, an antidote to fear and discouragement.
I have faced many hard times since Labor Day 1990, but none so terrifying. In each instance it seems a guardian angel has been nearby continuing to watch over me. And the baby whose sorrow saved me is now an exceptional young woman of great competence and deep goodness. Others tell me so. Of course, I know this. She is the gift of an angel with the kisses to prove it.
How Lucky Were We?
It is 76 degrees and sunny.
The sky is brilliant blue and cloudless. The air is fresh and gently caresses my face as it moves the day forward. It is one of those early summer days that feel endless, one that is surely a glimpse of Paradise.
I drive past the municipal swimming pool on my way to the grocery store. A mom dressed in a bathing suit and filmy white cover-up holds the hand of an excited preschooler as they make their way from the parking lot to the pool gates. On the street, a dad steps out of an SUV wearing a bright red t-shirt, black swim trunks, and flip-flops. He opens the back door of the vehicle, and out pour two school-aged boys each with a towel under his arm and eyes dancing like sunlight on water.
For a moment, I get lost in my own memories of long summer afternoons at the community pool, except in my memories, our parents did not accompany us. They dropped us off as was the case with most of our childhood activities. In the summer, we had our pool passes and a handful of change. Our marching orders were: “Be good.” Those two short words contained an encyclopedia of advice. The Reader’s Digest condensed version was: follow the rules, listen to grown-ups, don’t fight with each other, and be at the meeting place ON TIME.
We passed many of our youthful summer afternoons at the swimming pool, in the water or stretched out on our towels, or at the concession stand consuming as much of the sugary pink popcorn as we could afford on our tiny budgets. By the time we got home, we would be starving, but in the meantime, the pink popcorn was a special treat available only at the swimming pool, and it was sufficient sustenance for those afternoons on which we filled ourselves with sunshine.
We listened for the lifeguard’s whistle that kept us safe. Maybe it was a warning that we had violated some rule, or that our dunking shenanigans were becoming dangerous. The sound of the whistle might be notice that it was time to clear the pool for a cleaning or for the changing of the guards. If other kids’ parents were present, we listened to them too, even if we didn’t know them. While we did stretch the definition of “walk,” we tried really, really hard not to run on the slippery wet pavement surrounding the pool. We had heard plenty of stories of children who had slipped, fallen, and smacked their heads, or of that one boy who had broken his arm.
I was never afraid at the pool. I lived with the assumption that with lifeguards and adults present, my watery world was safe. Anything that troubled me that the surrounding adults couldn’t handle, like a sudden attack of menstrual cramps, could be managed for a dime by calling my mother from the pay phone. The worst mass event that I could imagine was everyone peeing in the pool at the same time.
I grew up in a time when children like me were kept separate from the weapons of war and even graphic images of violence. Children were to be protected. Our parents and grandparents knew war first hand. They fought to keep such carnage an ocean away from their children. If ever I knew such events occurred, I would never have anticipated that they could or would happen in my special places like school or at that treasured community swimming pool.
While my grandparents had lived the immigrant experience, not an easy one, their grandchildren grew up white and with full citizenship. We lived in friendly small towns and new suburbs. We had space, peace of mind, freedom. And safety.
How lucky were we?
Law enforcement responds to a call.
It is from a day care center, a grade school, a high school, a college campus, a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a concert, a festival, a public protest, a movie theater, a nightclub, a bar, a restaurant, a grocery store, a convenience store, a subway station, an Interstate Highway, a gas station, a military base, a Congressional baseball game, a campaign event, a Veterans Home, a municipal building, a manufacturing plant, a park, a bank, a shopping mall, a jewelry store, a city street, a birthday party, a block party, a football watch party, a post office, a FedEx facility, a factory, an office park, a newspaper office, a library, a massage parlor, a yoga studio, a health care facility, a hotel, a trailer park, a home, an apartment complex, a neighborhood door-to-door rampage.
There is an intruder.
He has guns.
And body armor.
He has a plan.
And a belief system.
He is influenced by hate-filled public discourse and an on-line community of like-minded individuals who provide him with an audience for this act, an act for which his audience will dub him a hero.
Is he mentally ill?
It is difficult to assess in this digital age in which inattention, thought disturbances, paranoia, and personality disorders have become main stream, an age in which many have willingly surrendered the higher powers of the human mind, gifts such as impulse control, empathy, and insight. We are trading our humanity for followers and likes. It is becoming cool to be unkind.
We ask ourselves what must be done about mass shootings. And the truth is that we need intervention at every level.
Law enforcement needs to be better prepared and more vigilant as do we in our comings and goings from all of the normal places we live and frequent. The list above is a list of all the places mass shootings have occurred in this country. There is no place untouched.
We must do something to stop the proliferation and use of guns, especially assault weapons. We must be vigilant for signs and reports of planning. And most basic of all, we must stop the hate-filled, divisive public discourse that is overwhelming all of us in person, in print, on television, and on-line. We are exhausted by it, but there are some minds more fragile and more susceptible, people who will be damaged and act out in ways that harm us all.
We need to prioritize human rights and human safety over gun rights and gun safety. The people who fill our legislatures need to represent the good people of America. There are enough of us to really show our power at the polls. And while we are at it, maybe we should change the rules of the game. Let’s show our elected officials to whom we have given good salaries, Cadillac health insurance, and big pensions what the gig economy we face looks like. Let’s limit their pay to the work they get done. If they want to represent special interests, let them go to work in corporate America.
In the mean time, there are enough of us. If we have to, we can lock arms and form a human chain around every school in America so that our children will know they are safe, that grown-ups are in charge, that parents are not defenseless, that they can believe in us again. My children are grown, but sign me up. I’ve got the rest of my life to give for something that matters so much.