God

To the Man in the Black Hat

To the man in the black hat

walking the white dog

who passed me while I was taking a break

from running in the park,

my back to him as I stretched under the

canopy of green trees

 

To the man in the black baseball hat

whose gray hair hugged his tan neck

while I watched him walk away on the path

enjoying my freedom in the cool breeze

on this late day in spring

 

To the man in the black baseball hat

with the yellow letters that cradled the opening

on the back of his cap. Seven letters that seemed to call out to me,

as if to say: “This is what today is for. This man fought a war–maybe

two, maybe five. Maybe he is still fighting a war

–within–

so you can stand here and stretch in the afternoon sun

with all of your limbs, and no understanding of what it means to

stand on a battlefield–to risk your life for God and country.”

 

To the man in the black hat with the golden-yellow letters that spelled

V-E-T-E-R-A-N

“Thank you.” I wanted to say those words as I watched you walk by,

and I read the word on your cap. But I felt foolish, listening to my pop music

while I sought out hills to climb for the sake of climbing, and you walked down the path, perhaps off another battlefield in your mind.

 

“Thank you.”

 

I did not have the courage to say it then. But I say it now, to honor you, all of you

who so bravely served, and fought, and perhaps died, or lived to tell your tale, or to simply wear your

cap as you stroll through the park on THIS day, the day we call Memorial Day.

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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.

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.

age 5 2

The author, circa his Raggedy Ann Phase.

Siri can you hear me?

My wife got a new Iphone this weekend, and it’s the first time we have Siri. The boys have been so enthralled with her, and they keep wanting to chat her up. Hayden (6) has been especially taken by this modern-day muse. Poor guy can’t really say his “r’s” yet, so he and Siri get a little frustrated as there are quite a few failed attempts. But it has provided us with some comic relief as we bunker down for Hurricane Sandy. The following are Hayden’s top 5 inquiries for Siri:

1. When is my birthday?

2. Where are all of the McDonald’s in the world?

3. Where is Easter Island?*

4. Why are my mom and dad such Kooks?

5. How did God come to life? **

*When I asked Hayden how he knew there was a place called Easter Island, his brother Owen piped in, “Dad, you don’t know everything about us.” Point taken, smart alec.

**From the time he was three, Hayden has been somewhat obsessed with this last question. He wants to know how everything comes to life. When we tried the old stand-by answer, “God”, we thought we were in the clear. Not so. Now, he insists on asking us how God came to life.  God, a little help here. Siri’s response: “I eschew theological disquisition.” Smart cookie to stay away from that one!

Siri, how cute is this little guy?