Religion

THE BEST THING I LEARNED IN 2013

This is my first ALL CAPS title. I’m that excited. It’s THAT important. I want to share with you the best piece of advice I received this past year. It’s actually part of a philosophy called Stoicism.

Still here? Good. Don’t be scared. Like many people, I want to be wise. I seek knowledge. I crave understanding and acceptance. Every year, I try new things to fulfill these goals. This year, I tried to meditate, but found that I would only fall asleep. It was like taking a ten minute nap sitting cross-legged on the floor. Even my butt fell asleep. Meditation was not going to get me there.

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I bought some books in September. I thought I’d begin everyday of the school year with an inspirational poem or thought-provoking essay–short, to the point. I bought A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings, by Coleman Barks. My friend Michele over at The Everyday Strange and Sacred (check out her awesome blog here) peaked my interest in Rumi. Very cool poet. He died in 1273, but his words are of all time. As I was finding the right book of Rumi, Amazon led me to the People who bought Rumi also bought…which led me to A Guide to the Good Life {the ancient art of stoic joy}, by William B. Irvine. I was looking for the good life–I knew I needed a guide. Yet, I was intimidated by the word “stoic”. Stoic seemed cold, steely, detached. But once I checked out the inside jacket cover, I was hooked. It read:

One of the great fears that many of us face is that, despite all our effort and striving, we will discover at the end that we have wasted our life…William B. Irvine plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most successful and popular schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives…Using the psychological insights and the practical techniques of the Stoics, Irvine offers a road map for anyone seeking to avoid the feelings of chronic dissatisfaction that plague so many of us.

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The two books arrived together, and I spent the first few months of the school year trying to begin each day with Rumi and the Stoics (sounds like a cool band name). Like most things, my morning routine faltered, and my reading was replaced with hitting snooze seven more times, or making lunches for the boys, or–you get the gist. But as I look back on 2013, and I take stock in the year that was, I keep returning to the greatest insight I have gained this year, in fact in the past few years. It’s that good.

One autumn morning, as the sun turned our kitchen a golden orange, I was reading about stoic joy–I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. I came across the following: “In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people  that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability…One wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to WANT THE THINGS WE ALREADY HAVE.

WANT THE THINGS WE ALREADY HAVE. My mind was blown. It seemed as if all of the words on the page darkened save for those six. I felt the glow of those words shine of the page a la Indiana Jones when he found the Holy Grail (maybe that was the sun coming in, but I swear the pages were glowing). Want the things I already have. Could it be so simple? Yes. Yes, it could.

I immediately thought of the gas fireplace I had been pining away for these past few years. “It’d be so nice to just flick a switch and have a roaring fire,” I’d say. (Damn you, HGTV) But wait. I have a fireplace. So many people wish they had a fireplace in their home, and I already do. I am lucky. What if I simply enjoyed the fireplace I already have? What if I made a point of having more fires this year? I could enjoy the sounds of crackling flames, the sweet smell of smoky wood, the natural warmth and ambient glow. Want the things I already have.

As I got dressed for work, I looked at my wardrobe. “How many plaid shirts from the GAP does one man need?” I thought. Not as many as I own, I’ll tell you that. Yet, I’d find myself buying another shirt or pair of pants every other month or so because of a sale that was too good to pass up. “Why do I even need to go shopping as often as I do?” I thought. I don’t, if I just learn to want the things I already have.

I drove to work that day and thought of all the things I covet that didn’t matter. I live in a nice house. I drive a nice car. Yet, there’s always something more on the list that I thought I needed–and when one thing was acquired, more was added to the list. It never seemed to shorten, just grow.

All that week, I applied this philosophy to my thought process. Looking around at the gym, I’d see the bodies of people more fit than I. “Wish I had that guy’s muscles,” I’d lament. But then I’d catch myself–Hey, want what you already have. You have powerful legs that allow you to run, and healthy lungs that let you breath. You are lucky.

And I am, terribly lucky. I have all the ingredients for happiness, yet I allow myself to become distracted by all the insignificant desires that consume us. We are consumers. And that’s the tragedy of it all.

But I found as the weeks passed, I continued to think about this phrase, and it released me from some of the pressure we put on ourselves to be, to do, to buy, to desire. I looked around me at the people in my life, and I thought how happier we’d all be if we just learned to want what we already have.

To the writer who just started a blog–don’t worry about when you will get your next follower–want the ones you have today.

To the person who keeps checking Facebook for more likes on her photo–appreciate the Likes you’ve already received.

To the folks who dream of one day getting the corner office–want the job you have right now.

To the couple trying to conceive their second child–appreciate the miracle that is already in your life–want the child you already have.

To the friend who can’t wait to move to a bigger house–talk a walk through your house now and remind yourself what you loved about it when you first bought it. Want the house you already live in.

To the people who look at their significant other and think how they might be able to do better–how much better would your relationship be if you desired your present partner more? Want the person whose hand you hold today.

To those who are searching for THE ONE–want the life you have right now, the freedom, and enjoy this time to discover more about you.

To all of us who’ve lost people, be it this year, last, or long ago–what if we loved those still in our lives more deeply, rather than allow our energy to be consumed mourning those who are resting in peace?

Yes, I found that this phrase became a mantra for me. I applied it to things, to situations, to people.

This Christmas, I thought of these words when spending time with family and friends. Too often in the past, I would fixate on the people who were not there, on the loved ones from whom I am estranged. But this year, rather than think about the people I didn’t spend the holidays with, I looked around the room at those who did come to my house, or I to theirs, and I appreciated them more. I was thankful to have so many kind, caring people show up in my life. I refused to waste my time and energy worrying about those who do not. Yes, I wanted the people I already have in my life.

Such thoughts were with me as I heard the laughter of my boys and their cousins as they chased one another through the house. I did not care about the furniture, or the mess, only the people who were there to share this special time with us. These thoughts made me feel more alive.

Someone came up beside me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Beautiful fire,” she said, admiring the dancing orange flames in the hearth. “Thanks!” I said.

Beautiful fire, indeed.

Happy New Year, Everyone. I hope 2014 is filled with many moments of joy and wonder. May you see the amazing things that surround you in the present. May you find more value in what you already have.

I leave you with a few of my favorite poems by Rumi, which complement this phrase that has become my guidepost.

Out Beyond

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense

Hoping to be More Alive

You are an ocean in a drop of dew,
all the universes in a thin sack of blood.

What are these pleasures then,
these joys, these worlds
that you keep reaching for,
hoping they will make you more alive?

Sandy Hook: One Year Later

I wrote this piece last year, a few days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As I re-read it today, in honor of its one year mark, my emotions still feel pretty raw. Not enough has changed in our culture, but I try to be hopeful. In the end, hope is all we have.

So, it is in that spirit of hope that I ask you to visit the following site: Sandy Hook Promise . There, you will find the inspiring mission of the parents, family, and friends of Sandy Hook Elementary who refuse to just be the latest victims of gun violence and are fighting for change–real change within our country. It’s a powerful approach, as they are working towards sensible solutions, not more polarization of citizens in regard to gun control. I urge you to check it out, sign the pledge promise, and if you can, donate a few dollars. I know money may be tight, I know everyone seems to want donations from you, but we need to band together to effect real change. If you do decide to donate, perhaps choose the $26 option–one dollar for each person who lost their lives that day. Thank you for reading this.

The World’s Greatest: An AMERICAN Tragedy

I am a mountain
I am a tall tree
Oh, I am a swift wind
Sweepin’ the country
I am a river
Down in the valley
Oh, I am a vision
And I can see clearly
If anybody asks you who I am
Just stand up tall, look ’em in the face and say

[Chorus]
I’m that star up in the sky
I’m that mountain peak up high
Hey, I made it
I’m the world’s greatest
And I’m that little bit of hope
When my back’s against the ropes
I can feel it, 
I’m the world’s greatest

–from  The World’s Greatest, By: R. Kelly

Tears sting my eyes, as these lyrics blare through my iPod. I am out for a run on this cold, damp Sunday morning. I begin to weep openly–the emotion becoming too much. I can’t stop thinking about those kids. The innocent victims of another horrific school shooting. This is not the kind of music that I run to, usually. The song happens to be on my iPod because I downloaded it last year for my boys, who were performing it in a talent show at school. We played it every night for about two weeks. As I run, the lyrics take me back to watching them onstage with several dozen other elementary school children, scared and nervous as they performed in the dark auditorium for beaming moms, dads, and other family members. Then, my mind immediately shifts to the school children at Sandy Hook Elementary–the ones who experienced such a different form of fear and nervousness. The ones who lost their lives. The ones who lived– who will never be the same. I cry because none of us will ever be the same.

I am bawling my eyes out as I run on the side of a very busy road, and I don’t care how I look. I am so sad. And this song is making my grief spew forth because the lyrics are so beautiful. The words remind me of a comforting poem that  is often shared at funerals, by a woman named Mary Frye: Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there; I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain… The song now comforts me in that way. I take solace in the fact that these gentle souls, and the adults who lost their lives protecting them, are now a part of a greater good, a larger entity.  Their spirits will live on in all that is beautiful and innocent, like them: a twinkling star, a majestic vista.  They cannot have died in vain.

I have been pretty emotional all weekend. I agree with many things I’ve read on Facebook about not giving this gunman the notoriety our society seems to bestow on the madman du jour. I am so fed up with all of the violence. I am embarrassed to admit that I paid little attention to one of the latest shootings at a U.S. mall. Like many, I’ve grown numb, tired. But this horror, this living nightmare, may be the wake up call this country needs. All weekend I keep staring at my sons, who are both around the victims’ ages. I feel helpless that I cannot shield them from the ugliness of our world. On Friday, as I watched them get off the school bus, wearing Santa hats no less, I was stung by the fact that 20 parents would no longer be greeting their children off the bus. They will never come home again. The Santa hats underscored my boys’ innocence. I thought how, just yesterday, I was hopeful their belief in Santa would last one more year, and now I am concerned that their belief in humanity will last one more year. How could I even begin to explain this event? They know nothing of what occurred in Connecticut–how long can that last? I feel ashamed for even thinking this way when others have no child to explain anything to anymore.

I hit repeat on my iPod. I want to hear this song again. I want to cry my eyes out for all of the victims and their families; I want to wallow in this pity I feel for all of us, for our country. I hear the echo of the singer saying “The world’s greatest…the world’s greatest.” I think about that phrase. I think how Newtown, Connecticut has witnessed the world’s greatest–the greatest examples of heroism, selflessness, and loss of innocence. I think of this land of ours, and how we are supposed to be the world’s greatest–and we are at so many things–including killing. I’m sure you’ve seen the stats by now. The magazine Mother Jones reports 61 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Fifteen out of 25 mass shootings of the last 50 years occurred in the US–the next country in the line up has two. TWO! Why are we such a violent country? Why are we so much more violent in our domestic lives than other countries. The gun control debate is raging with sound and fury now. Mental illness is also being talked about with deserved attention. One of my burning questions: Why does it seem we are more mentally ill than other countries? Why do these gunmen aim at the heart of our Nation–our innocent school children? Is this the price of freedom? How many more schools need to be ambushed before we begin meaningful dialogue and real change?

Speaking of schools, another reason I feel so emotional is because I am a teacher. I read the stories of bravery from these others in my profession, and I am humbled beyond measure. I picture myself trying to hide my students and fend off an attacker–or die trying. Could I be so brave? I pray to God, yes. Sadly, since Columbine, we’ve all become jaded. And teachers have an ever-growing fear. I know it scares me. My teaching career has spanned the spate of school shootings. As a result,  I saved my son’s hand-print from an art project in preschool in my wallet–so that if our school was ever attacked, I would have his hand to hold in the end. I have also saved special messages from the boys on my phone, so if I ever think I won’t be coming home, perhaps their sweet voices would comfort me as I prepared for whatever was in store. Why the hell would I think like that? Why? Because too many schools have been subject to such terror. I teach in a wonderful school, in a beautiful town, with the most amazing kids. Many of these tragedies have occurred in similar settings. And as the death toll in schools across the country continues to rise I pray, “Let this one will be the last.”

Just this week, I had the chance to visit my son’s second grade classroom to talk to the children about Christmas. It’s a public school, and this was part of their Social Studies unit–including all of the holidays we celebrate this time of year. My first observation when I arrived at school–one I’ve had numerous times–was the sad commentary of having to be buzzed in via intercom. A sign reads: “Please stand right here when speaking into the console so camera can see you.” Every time I’m buzzed in, I feel like I am visiting a prison. Yet, once inside  I see the joy, I hear the laughter of the children, and I notice all of the incredible work being displayed. It is a happy place. It is a place of energy and enthusiasm. I’m glad my kids can go to such a school. That afternoon, I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of the Nativity with the kids, and I told them what I say to my own students: “I love teaching in a public school because we are all so different, and we can teach each other about our differences. We are different, and yet we are the same.” They understood.

And I guess that’s why I am writing this blog entry: I want to understand. Yet, as I get older, as I seek more wisdom, I realize that there are so many things beyond my understanding. And I know that is how life works. I think of how much I’ve changed in the past decade, as a husband, as a father, as a man. I am the least religious I have ever been (16 years of Catholic school), yet I am the most spiritual, the most peaceful I’ve ever been. I don’t know if I believe in a God the way I was raised to believe in him. I hope there is a heaven. I hope that there is a place where people go where all of this makes more sense. Here is the picture that stirred my thoughts on this concept of religion yesterday. I came upon it online. The caption was in honor of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary:

“We can’t help but think this is what heaven looked like today.”

heaven

Credit: painting by John Lautermilch

If there is a heaven, then these sweet children and their protectors are certainly there. Now if only they could help those of us on Earth who are left trying to make a better way from all this. Tonight, I pray to them for strength. Strength for all of us.

You are a Crusader

The runner’s high kicks in at the one mile marker. My brain buzzes and the tiny hairs on the nape of my neck tingle. I am euphoric.

For the second year in a row, as many as the race has been held, I am participating in a 5k in my hometown: The St. John of the Cross Crusader Challenge. St. John of the Cross. The parish where I spent 8 years of grade school under the tutelage of Immaculate Heart nuns. Where I was an altar server, a mass lector, and a parishioner through college. The place of my brother’s wedding, my father’s funeral. This place holds a lifetime of memories–from what is now a lifetime ago.

My mother asked me to do the race last year. Said I was the only one she could count on to participate. I caved to her request and she missed the whole thing–arriving an hour after the race finished. When she would complain how her other children didn’t even bother to show up, I reminded her that neither did she. “Oh, well…” she’d say.

I have trouble visiting home. For one, my mother sold our house and now lives in an apartment. Truth is, though, I wasn’t sad. It was such a small house–a twin. And there were nine of us living in it. And there was always chaos and turmoil. Once, when I was driving to the nearby mall, I took my son, Owen, who was about four at the time, down the street where I grew up. “That’s where Daddy lived!” I said, pointing. “In the yellow and white house, Daddy?” he asked. “Just the yellow side, Honey.” I said, somewhat bitterly. Mr. Onebedroomforfiveboys trying to explain the concept of a twin home to his son, Mr. Ownroominafourbedroom Colonial.

The homecoming is bittersweet. Bitter because the school is closed–has been for several years, and the parish membership is waning, as well–a reflection of many, once-thriving Catholic churches and parochial schools. Sweet because I see many familiar faces and have many fond memories of the years I spent traipsing back and forth to school, playing on those fields, praying in those pews. The nostalgia overwhelms me. I can map out every classroom I was taught in and recall the teachers as well. First grade, second room on right in the primary hall, Sister Ann George; Second grade, opposite end of primary hall, second classroom on the left, Sister Joseph Agnes…

As I enter the auditorium, I am greeted by many of the mothers whom I know. Several of my mom’s best friends are assisting with registration, t-shirts, directions. My mom is nowhere to be found. She’ll show up late again, I think. The orange glow from the fluorescent lights sends me back in time– to performing on the stage, playing basketball for the intramural teams, attending the parish Christmas bazaars, even winning a pinewood derby for my Cub Scout pack. I move outside to the “playground”; the blacktop where I enjoyed many games of tag, wall ball and ring out. There is no play set–no swings or slide–those were only for public school kids. The once-firm macadam is now rubble, the faded hop-scotch numbers barely recognizable. I pass the steps where the fifth and sixth graders would line up–the steps from which baseball card collectors would toss “doubles” to anxious kids–right next to the “Spit Pit”, concrete steps leading to a cellar, where much coveted cards would be thrown, and some would risk a saliva attack to claim a prized player–a Greg Luzinski or Steve Carlton. I do my pre-race stretching on another set of steps, where I recall clapping the erasers in many grades–I can almost taste the chalk dust in the air. There are times, like now, when my mind plays tricks. Where I feel like I am seeing this through the eyes of a 7, or 10, or 12 year-old. So little has changed around this campus physically, yet, when I snap back to present day, I realize, so much in me–and the world– has changed.

There are about a hundred people at the starting line–a mix of walkers and runners. There is a Mummer’s String Band Quartet playing Dixieland music, and the fire station has brought a truck to display the American flag. One girl sings the National Anthem while the rest of us are awkwardly quiet. This feels like small town America to me, both in the sense that there is the unspoken fear that these towns are an endangered species–swallowed up by all the McMansions and the effects of the recession, and in the sense that there is an abiding sense of hope that good, decent people will continue to gather, will continue to rally, and support one another and live upstanding lives.

The pastor says a prayer of thanks. And then the race begins.

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My latest running song is “Wake Me Up” by Aloe Blacc and Avicci. I play it several times when I run. The beat is great for pacing and the lyrics captivate my mind:

Feeling my way through the darkness
Guided by a beating heart
I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start
They tell me I’m too young to understand
They say I’m caught up in a dream
Well life will pass me by if I don’t open up my eyes
Well that’s fine by me

So wake me up when it’s all over
When I’m wiser and I’m older
All this time I was finding myself, and I
Didn’t know I was lost

Before today, the lyrics made me think of parenting. How parenting is like feeling my way through the darkness. How none of us knows where the journey will end–or for whom it will end first. The lyrics are almost like a dialogue between a parent and a child–to me–because that’s where I am in my life. But today, I am seeing things through the eyes of my younger self. I am the child, yet, I’m wiser and I’m older. I feel this dance between my selves take shape early on in the race, and find myself switching perspectives throughout. I pass the tree that we planted in eighth grade–thirty some years ago–and think that it should be bigger. I run along the sidewalk where I was once a safety–I loved wearing that neon badge. I see the church spire in the distance, and reflect on how much my religious life has changed in the past decades. How I no longer go to church, or consider myself a Catholic, and yet how I’ve never felt more at peace and less fearful in my life. I may not be religious anymore, but I am spiritual; I feel blessed in so many ways.

All this time I was finding myself, and I didn’t know I was lost.

I hear these words as I enter Roslyn Park–a childhood hangout for sports and trouble making. A woman holds up a sign to encourage the runners. It reads: “You are a crusader.” My eyes sting with tears. I am so moved by this statement. I feel like a crusader. I feel like I have fought to be where I am in my life– to make peace with my past and try to be a good man. To have authentic relationships in my life. To live in the moment with my wife and kids. To be true to myself.

Each of us is on a path, and so many stops seem predetermined for us. I think about what I can control–very little but my reaction sometimes. I know all this, and yet, I think of how frustrated I’ve been the last couple days. I think about my mother.

The other day I was reading a book that described an “adult relationship” with one’s parents. I was completely baffled by the term: A-D-U-L-T Relationship? “Is that possible?” I thought. It mentioned foreign concepts like “boundaries” and “privacy” and “independence”.     I was dumbfounded.

I love my mother. I really do. But sometimes I think that’s the problem. Love confuses things. It can weigh upon a person. And if that love just happens to be Catholic, it is wrapped very tightly with guilt and shame and fear and more guilt. My mother is obsessed with death (for more on that, read this). She cannot get enough of bad news. I have told her this makes me uncomfortable. I have asked her not to talk about certain things in front of the kids –like DEATH–yet she cannot seem to help herself. The other night I invited her for dinner. Here are some highlights from her visit:

Two minutes into visit:

MOM: There was a guy on Katie (Couric) today with no arms who painted the most beautiful pictures. You should bring them up online and show the boys. (My son’s look at their arms, and then at me).

ME: Oh, wow. That’s sounds incredible–but they’re about to start homework.

MOM: And Katie asked him how he eats, and he said he eats with his feet. (Now worried that we’re not paying attention, or horrified enough, or grateful enough for having all of our limbs, she deliveries a tidbit to each of us) And Hayden (7), he says he washes his feet before meals the way other people wash their hands. (Hayden looks at his hands, then his feet). And Owen (8), he showed her how he puts food in his mouth with his feet (Owen puts down the apple slice he was about to eat). And Michael (aging rapidly), he brushes his teeth with his feet, and writes with his feet, and…Oh! And she also had a woman on who was shot in the face and she–

Me: MOM!!! Please! They don’t need to hear this stuff.

Mom: (feeling wounded) Well, you should at least check out the guy’s paintings.

Me: Okay, boys, let’s start your homework. Come on over here, Mom. Want some coffee? …

Twenty minutes in:

Mom: I told you about my friend Peg’s son, right?

Me: No.

Mom: Dropped dead at work. They think it was an aneurysm.

Me: That’s terrible, Mom.

Mom: Yeah. Forty-eight. You never know.

Thirty minutes in:

Mom: (excitedly) Michael, guess who died?

Me: Who?

Mom: Helen Planter (a lady who worked at the school where my father was Athletic Director). She was ninety-three.

Me: Oh, boy. That’s a long life.

The night continues with two more deaths, a few cancer scares, and the latest update on her doctor’s visits. There is also the tenuous topic of family.

My family is a collection of strained relationships. I gave my mom a book a couple weeks ago entitled Make Peace With Anyone. When I ask her if she read any of it, she replies, “I tried to, but you know I’m not good with that sort of stuff.” “What, PEACE?” I think.  I do not think everyone in my house has been on speaking terms since the Carter Administration. Each decade gets a bit worse. Currently, I have relationships with three out of six of my siblings. This inability to communicate seems to have been inherited from my parents. I am sad by this, but I realize that being invested in other people’s lives is not always possible. Again, boundaries. Who knew? My mom tries to plead her case about disputes she is having. “I could be dead in two weeks,” she says, playing the victim. “Any one of us could be dead in two weeks, Mom. Any one of us.”

By the time she leaves, I am exhausted. Pam can see it in my face. There is a weariness. I am spent. I would love to have a nice visit with my mom, but instead I become anxious, angry, and more aware of that funny mole on my neck (“You never know,” I can hear her say).

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As the race continues, I find myself becoming more exhilarated with every step. The air is crisp, and the autumn sun makes the leaves shine with extra brilliance. I come to the end of the park, and look at the field where my dad coached township football. I give a nod to the field: “You loved that game, Dad”, I think, and look up to the sky. I am thankful for a purely positive memory of my father. I feel great coming to the end of the second mile. All that has burdened me this past week seems to be lifting. I think: So, you’ll teach your children to be lifelong friends. You’ll show them that love is not always easy, but it’s always there for them. You will strive to have adult relationships with them when they are grown. 

I am approaching the most challenging part of the course–Grisdale. Grisdale is a monster of a hill. Everyone in a five-mile radius has a story about Grisdale. About soaring down it on a bike, or a skateboard, or a sled. It is steep, and I am about to climb it. Anxiously, I begin the ascent. I am a few yards up the incline, when I see a car trying to come down the road. It seems to be diagonal–taking up most of the street. The driver is attempting to turn, but racers keep moving around the car. I am instantly annoyed. What the hell is this person doing? Bad enough to be driving through the race, but this person is clueless. The driver seems paralyzed. I look at the car in disgust. I am now close enough to see the driver. It is a woman. It is an older woman. It is my MOTHER.

As a runner who happens to teach English, I am constantly made aware of the metaphors that the running life will present to me. This one’s a doozy. My friggin’ mother is blocking up the entire road of the hardest part of the race. She is an obstacle–my obstacle–stuck in the middle of the road. Wreaking havoc and causing panic. I feel my resentment build. But then, I check myself. “STOP!” I say to myself. “Stop it! This is your mother. If you keep viewing her as an obstacle, she will forever be your obstacle.” When I’m wiser and I’m older... I shift my focus. My mom is here, right in front of me, at the hardest part of the race. And she is a sign of support–encouragement. “Go, Michael!!” I hear her yell. I run up to her car and high five her through the window. “Thanks, Mom!” I say. Then, I make it up the hill faster than the year before. The end of the race is in sight.

Having to climb that beast means that I am now at the top of the highest point in my town. The view is expansive–breathtaking. On a clear day, I could see Philadelphia from here. I charge down the hill and round the corner where I spy the finish line. My mom is already there, waiting for me.

I do not stop immediately at the finish line–I need to walk and catch my breath. By the time I get back to the crowd, my mom has already called my cell phone. “I thought you left,” she says. “Really?” I say. I give her a hug. I am glad to be here with her on this crisp morning in October. I feel like although it is rather limited, I was able to go home again. My mom brags to her friends about me running. “Only one of my kids who could do that,” she says. I feel sorry for my brothers and sisters. Then I hear her start to talk to one of her friend’s daughters. “I give the shirts out at the race for that little boy who died,” she begins. I cringe.

Boundaries, Michael. BOUNDARIES.

Lord of the Fleas

LOTF cover

And now for a dramatic reading of Lord of the Flies, that classic psychological study by William Golding, as seen through the eyes of my six-year-old:

Hayden picks up a copy of Lord of the Flies that he finds in my car while we are driving to swim lessons.

Hayden: Oh look, Lord of the Fleas.

Me: It’s Flies.

Hayden: Lord of the Flies. Here, I’ll read page 106. (He begins to make up words while pretending to read the print). And the boys came and farted on the Lord of the Flies. And then they watched as farts came out of the flies butts. Then all the boys said, “Ewwww. That’s gross!” Then the fleas–I mean flies–and the boys all started farting at the same time.

Me: (Rolling my eyes while driving–and laughing on the inside.)

I apologize for another post about farts, but the boys are in full swing with their fart jokes and potty words. And I can be as gross as they come, but the constant barrage of fart/pee/penis/butt/burp references is becoming a bit maddening. And speaking of maddening, I had to laugh at Hayden’s dramatic reading of the book, because he proved a theory that Golding was positing when he wrote this classic novel: all boys are freaking crazy; they are one plane crash away from a descent into madness.

I recently finished teaching Lord of the Flies (LOTF) to my ninth graders. The book is so captivating and eerily believable. I read the book (ish) in high school–I bet I read mainly the Cliffs Notes back then. But I did honestly read it in my twenties, then I taught it to juniors my first year of teaching high school. I was only 24 and I know I did not do the provocative themes justice. This year, we added it to the curriculum, and I became immersed in the island and its inhabitants. I shared with my students how different I felt teaching this book now that I am fortysomething and have young boys of my own.

In the month that I prepared for, and then taught, the book, I watched the behavior of boys through a different lens. I noticed how, in many ways, boys are so primitive in their need to be physical, to compete, to gain your attention, and, ultimately, your respect. As a teacher, I have the privilege of witnessing gawky freshmen boys grow  into confident, aware young men. And with my own boys, I see their constant battle of wills and wits. And whether they live as survivors on an island or siblings in the suburbs, boys everywhere are gross! They smell, they have sick senses of humor, and laugh at the most inane shit.

I had started to put the book behind me, having just finished it in time for spring break, when Hayden’s little literary serenade made me examine its impact on me again. We just happened to be on our way to swimming class, where last week I had an epiphany while reading the book. As I sat in the steamy pool area, I watched my boys begin to swim with the instructor. I brought my LOTF with me to re-read for the coming day. For the next few minutes, I was transported from the steamy discomfort of the Y, to an island in the Pacific, where a group of privileged boys were in a frenzied state, feasting on the succulent pork from their fresh kill. It was the crucial scene where Simon–sweet, innocent, Simon– runs on to the beach to tell the boys that “the Beast” is really just a dead parachutist. In the mayhem and confusion, some boys believe he is the Beast–although some knew he was not–they KNEW! He is pushed into the circle and brutally, fatally attacked. Too late, his fellow schoolmates realize it was one of their own that they have murdered.

As I come to the gruesome end of this chapter, I find I am distracted by another group of boys– the ones at the other end of the pool–the group of boys that includes my two sons. They are being loud. They are splashing a great deal. And they are hitting each other “playfully.” The instructor ( a mild-mannered man in his early twenties) has no control of this rowdy bunch of “Littluns” and is in the middle of the pool assisting the only girl in the class. I pick up my book and make my way down to the other end. I am glad to see that my sons appear to be merely bystanders in all this, but my anger with the boys in the novel is seeping through as I look at this lot. “Boys are crazy,” I think. “All boys. Crazy!” I watch as one of the swimmers taunts the weakest one in the pool. “He would be Roger,” I say to myself. I see another boy screaming song lyrics at the group while making violent waves in the water, “Baby you’re a firework!” he hollers. “And he would be Ralph,” I think. Two boys begin to hit each other with their kick boards. “And there are Jack and Piggy.” Owen, my eight year old, looks back at me, aware that I am watching and sensing that I am not comfortable with how his class is being conducted. He smiles at me, sitting on the edge waiting for the teacher. “And who would you be, Owen?” My eyes pass over to Hayden, the more volatile of my two sons. “And what about you, Hayden?” I wonder. “Would you be leaders or followers? Would you remain good or cross the line into evil? Would you be victims or perpetrators.” I shudder at these thoughts.

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I share this incident with my students the following day. “That bunch would not have made it until the end of the week if they were stuck in that pool arena with no adults.” They laugh nervously, and then they become somewhat reflective. Throughout the teaching of this book, we’ve talked at length about human nature and what human beings are capable of. Sadly, I share news articles with them–articles that I simply came across from the daily paper. No need to look very far to read what humans can do to one another. The first is about a boy in our area who was beaten by two others in the school yard and died the day after his twelfth birthday. Next, I reference the atrocity of a European woman gang raped in India while on holiday with her husband. This serves as a  parallel to the killing of the sow by the boys, a performance that is likened to a gang rape by the diction Golding uses in the scene. I tell the students how infuriated such atrocities makes me. I reiterate how literature acts as a mirror for society. And I remind them that, yes, there is evil in this world, but there is also good. We can be agents of good. And ultimately, our challenges will probably not manifest themselves on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere, but in our neighborhoods, our school yards, our streets, and yes, even the steamy poolsides of the local YMCA.

Thankfully, I remain hopeful. I believe that humankind is inherently good. And I realize that we all are all things: good AND evil, leaders AND followers, victims AND perpetrators. It is my goal as a father to teach my boys to lead when necessary, but not be afraid to follow the right kind of person;  to stand up for the Piggys of this world who are victims of cruelty; to seek enlightenment like Simon who communed with nature on the island and realized there was a higher power in all of this; and to keep the fire burning on the shore, to never give up hope or the belief in their fellow man. If they can gain all of this, I can put up with all of the fart jokes they can muster.

Shut the Hell Up!

When I was five years old, I was invited to a costume party down the street. The party was hosted by a boy named Jim (Jamie) O’Hara. He and I had much in common, as we were both the youngest of large, Irish Catholic families. Or at least I was the youngest of mine for the first four years of my life–and was just getting used to my status as older brother of twins. TWINS! No more attention for Michael. But I showed them–my family that is. I went out of my way to gain attention. Good or bad, I made damn sure you would notice me. Which leads me back to my costume party. The costume I chose for this occasion was (drum roll) Raggedy Ann. Yes folks, you heard me right. Raggedy-freakin’-Ann!  I am so embarrassed to admit it now.

Since this was NOT Halloween season, costumes were hard to come by–not sure why. My costume was prompted by the fact that my mom had a full spool of bright red yarn in her knitting bag, and my sister had a blue dress–no overalls to be found. I’m not sure who thought of the costume, I only know I was fine with it (at the time) cause I knew it would stir up trouble with my older brothers and my dad. I’ll show those manly men! I’ll dress up in drag! Talk about attention!!

I’ll never forget walking down the street with my mom, and all the odd looks that the neighbors gave me. But I had everyone’s attention. And it didn’t stop on the walk there. At the party, which was really just a handful of neighborhood kids I saw regularly, we played  in the basement and had some snacks. This was when kids’ parties were relegated to the basement for a few games, some soda and cake–No rented magician or travelling circus, no Bouncetown or Play Gym, no friggin’ goody bags to reward you for coming and having fun! It was basically a chance to play indoors, rather than outside for 12 hours. Anyway, the party was hitting a lull, and Mrs. O’Hara suggested we play charades. We all loved charades.

Maybe it was the dress, maybe it was because my attention-seeking radar was already in full gear, but when I got up there I did not play charades–I performed my debut stand-up routine. First, I gave a very authentic portrayal of my sister, age 8, having one of her tantrums. I screamed, I threw my red wig on the floor, and then I stomped on it, a lot. The crowd roared with laughter. Mrs. O’Hara said, “What else you got?” So I whipped out my impression of my dad getting mad, my mom calling everyone in for dinner a thousand times, my sister having another tantrum, the two little brats who usurped my role as youngest crying their lungs out, my parents yelling at my older brothers. I was in a manic frenzy of impersonations. I do not remember the party ending. I do not remember anything after my “performance”. I just know I went home exhausted.

The next day, my entire family attended the 10 o’clock mass (the mass to be seen at). It was boring, as usual. I couldn’t wait to get home and outside. Then it happened. In the parking lot, as we headed to our car, I heard Mrs. O’Hara’s voice. “Joanne, I just have to tell you…” “Tell me what, Pat?” “Your Michael was the hit of the party!” “Really?” said my mother, fixing her gaze on me. “Oh, yes! He had us in stitches.” “What about?” “Oh, you know, his brothers and sisters, all the craziness that goes on in these houses. He’s a character that one.” “He sure is,” I heard my mom say, although I had already skulked to the car and was hiding in the back seat amid the menagerie of arms and legs that belonged to my siblings, the very same people I abused in my comedy routine just a day prior.

When my mother finally came to the car, she got in very slowly. We drove home in relative silence, the entire three minute trip to our house from the church. When we pulled into the driveway, I made a run for the back door. “Michael!” “Yes, mom?” “Come here.” I came. “Yes?” “What exactly did you do at O’Hara’s?” “I was just messing around.” She looked at me suspiciously. I had to give her something. “I just acted out Erin throwing a tantrum.” She continued to stare at me in anger. I winced under her gaze–my mom never got mad at me–ever! In that exchange of looks, I felt like she could see in my eyes all of the other skits I performed. I knew she felt betrayed, outed by one of her own. “We don’t ever talk about our family like that to others. It’s our business. Do you understand?” “Yes.” “Don’t ever do that again!” “I won’t.”

Fast forward three years. Jamie O’Hara has just announced that he is not coming back to St. John of the Cross. The harsh discipline of our third grade nun is too much for him. I know one of them did throw a desk down the stairwell at a kid–maybe that’s what sent Jamie over the edge. And as a “good Catholic” I was incensed that he would give up, that he would go over to the Dark Side of public school. It wasn’t as if we were best friends. Truth is, we grew apart after his costume party. I think it was the combination of me dressing as Raggedy Ann, behaving like Andy Kaufman‘s understudy, and airing all my family’s bad behavior. Whenever I saw Jamie, I thought of his party, and I always associated his party with my getting in trouble.  Hence, I felt awkward around him. But that didn’t stop me from opening my big fat mouth once again. This time, he was the recipient of my bitter tongue.

We were walking to school. The survivors. The one’s who didn’t succumb to public school, but offered up the crazy behavior of “the religious” to all of the suffering souls in purgatory. There were about fifteen kids who would make the trek from our neighborhood–up one hill, and down another. We were talking about the scandal that had fallen on the third grade–the departure of Jamie. I said it without even thinking: “You know he’s going to Hell, don’t ya.” “MICHAEL!” gasped a few of the girls. “Well, he is! There’s no way God won’t punish him for this. Public School!?! They’re all probably going to Hell!” I was proud of myself. Taking a stand for my beliefs. Speaking the good word of the Lord. The rest of the walk was fairly silent, as everyone considered how quickly one’s fate, one’s salvation, could turn–on a dime!

It was a beautiful September night. The sun was beaming into the kitchen as we just finished dinner. I was hoping to get out for another hour of play. There was a knock on the screen door. Someone answered it. My mother and I still lingered at the table. Stupid me for not scarfing down my food like the rest. “Hi, Mrs. O’Hara!” said a brother or sister. My mom shot up from the table. Pat O’Hara was not one to just drop by. I tried to escape. I tried…”Hi, Joanne. Is Michael home?” Oh, shit, I thought (sorry, Jesus).

Mrs. O’Hara sat me down at the kitchen table with my mother. She proceeded to tell me that her son was NOT going to Hell. That God loves all of his children regardless of where they go to school. That we’re all trying to get to the same place, we just have different ways of getting there. She made her case like the loving mother she was. I nodded and kept my mouth shut. In my head, I was thinking how this MAY be true, but catholic school certainly gave me an upper hand in the matter. Mrs. O’Hara took pity on me and my remorseful face. My mom let me be excused from the table where they chatted for a few more minutes–awkward, to be sure.

When I heard the screen door slam, I waited in my room for the call. “MICHAEL, get down here!” There was my mom at the bottom of the steps. I knew that look, but I had only ever seen it once before.

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The author, circa his Raggedy Ann Phase.