United States

Wee the People

The voice of democracy rang through our house last week. Owen (9) came home to inform us that he was running for student council. “Only 4th and 5th graders can be classroom representatives,” he told me excitedly. “Each class elects one boy and one girl. A lot of boys are running, but I think I have a shot.”

As he walked out of the kitchen, I already felt like he had won. I was so proud of the fact that he decided to run on his own. As a parent, you’re often not sure if your kids are getting the message. We don’t keep a checklist on the fridge of all the things we do/do not want them to do. So, we try to lead by example. But, more than that, we hope. We hope a lot. Hope that they will understand all that we cannot put into words. That they err on the side of what’s right. That they just be nice, and kind, and president.

Over the next few days, Owen worked on his campaign. He sat in his room creating posters that highlighted his policies and platform. Posters that looked like this:

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“Wow, Owen!” I said, impressed. “This looks awesome!”

“And I made him this one, Dad,” said his little brother, Hayden (8):

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And just like that, I beheld the candidate and his campaign manager. For the next few days, it felt like I was in the presence of a young JFK and his brother, Bobby. The boys continued their work in earnest.

“Dad, did you notice on my signs where I ask everyone if they got their cards?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“See, you can’t give out candy or prizes, so I thought it would be neat to give each of them a card before they vote.” Cards. He made 28 little cards for his classmates. Cards that looked like this:

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“Here’s the one he made for me,” piped in his manager, Hayden. And he showed me this:

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“Now, Owen, you should put all of these in a folder so you don’t…” directed Hayden, and the two boys were off again. I saw them cutting and folding, and placing everything in what I am sure was the first file cabinet for many of us–underneath the couch.

The day before the election, the boys and I were driving in the car. “So, Owen, if you did win, what is something you think you might do for your fellow classmates?”

“Well,” he said, “every month we go to a meeting with the principal and some teachers and tell them of any problems.”

“What do you think might be a problem you would bring up?”

“Umm, like, let’s say the buses are too crowded. Then I would work to fix that.”

“Okay, how?” I implore.

“By telling them we need more buses!” he answers emphatically.

Would that it were that easier, my son. Would that it were, I think. Yet, I say, “Sounds good, buddy.”

That night, I watch him craft his speech. He doesn’t let me read it, but he allows me to show him how to write it in big letters on several indexphoto (56) cards. Since I will not see him in the morning, I wish him well before bed.

“Good luck tomorrow, O. And just remember, no matter what happens you can still be a leader.”

“Okay,” he says.

“You’re a leader just for wanting to run in the election. No matter what happens–you’ve already won in my book.”

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I first thought about writing this post before the election took place, and I thought it would be cool not to reveal if he won or not. I truly believe he is a winner just for trying to do this at such a young age. And not a “winner” in the sense that every kid gets a trophy at the end of the season regardless of their record, but a winner in the sense that he took a chance, he stood up, he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself.

But now that I know the outcome, I must inform you–and not for the reasons you might think.

Owen won. He did, and I am proud. But the victory was enlightening for other reasons.

For one, some of his “friends” said mean things about his winning–one even claimed they were no longer buds (the same boy who was playing with him at a birthday party two days later)–and therein lies a hard lesson for anyone. As the wise sage Taylor Swift once proclaimed, “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate…” An important lesson indeed: there will always be people who will try to dampen your spirits, who don’t want you to succeed. But I am happy to tell you that Owen seemed quite unphased by this.

The second insight from the election comes from the fact that two of Owen’s running mates wore oxfords with bow ties and delivered Power Point presentations. My son wore his usual shorts and sneaks, delivered a heartfelt speech and gave everyone a colorful voting card–looks like Owen’s on his way to being a Democrat.

Regardless of his political leanings–he’ll always have my vote.

God Bless America!

 

 

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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File Under Funny: A Twig Grows in Blue Bell

photo (53)My second-grader, Hayden, came home from school on Friday with a twig sapling to plant in the yard, in honor of Arbor Day. He put it on the patio table, essentially making it the dogs’ toy of the minute. All weekend, he inquired about when we would plant his “tree”. Finally, I broke the bad news. “I think the dogs ate your tree, buddy.” He handled his disappointment quite well.

Today, Hayden walked in with yet another stick sapling to plant. “What’s this?” I asked excitedly. “Mrs. H let me have the class tree.” “Did you tell her what happened?” “Yeah, and she said to take this one.” “What did you say?” I asked, reminding him of his manners. “I said, ‘I guess that’s why they call it a DOGWOOD TREE.'”

If this tree grows to maturity, Hayden will be 105 years-old. Best of luck, Twiggy.

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Spring Sting: A Runner’s Reflection on the Boston Marathon

Originally published April 23, 2013.

The irony of the Boston Marathon: America has stopped running! This epiphany came to me as I was participating in a 5k at my boys’ elementary school over the weekend. I have these moments of clarity when I run, and during the annual Spring Zing, I was preoccupied with thoughts of the bombing victims in Boston. Then it came to me: America has changed. This latest attack was different.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you have learned that I am a runner. I am as a shocked as everyone else who knows me that I am this athletic in my forties–much more than I ever was as a child. I have participated in close to fifty races in the past two decades. Fifty! And invariably when I run, there is usually a moment in the race when my eyes well up with tears. I am overcome with emotions–pride, joy, disbelief, humility. This is not the person I was slated to be in my youth. Not the overweight, unmotivated, smoker. Yet, here I am. And beyond the disbelief that I am an adult runner, is the pride I feel for being a part of something so palpable, so uplifting. I am forever grateful to have discovered running. For it is my love of running that has helped me explore the world around me and within me. Running has allowed me to process so many things I would have missed otherwise in my daily routine.

landscape-photo.net

Cherry Tree, by: Bruno Monginoux

The Spring Zing is a very sweet affair: A 3.1 mile race that winds through  the neighborhoods that surround our local school, and a 1 mile fun walk for the younger kids. These events are followed by an auction of gifts and crafts created by the various grades–paintings made out of thumb prints, mosaics and garden baskets constructed with tiny hands, etc. The money raised benefits our elementary school, and its partner school in Africa. One of the highlights of the school year, this event has become a reminder for me about the joys that springtime bestows on us. Sadly, this year’s fun was tarnished by an exhausting week of national sadness in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Saturday’s race was especially bittersweet because it is the one race I do that involves many young children. Over one hundred young people, ranging from first to fifth grade, participate in the 5k. My sons have yet to do this race, but truthfully, many of the children who sign up for it are out of their element. They are not ready for this distance. But I don’t think that matters. The point is, they are developing an awareness for running distances–for setting a goal and doing their best to finish it. Many of them do end up walking some, most, or all of the course–but they all cross that finish line! Whenever my boys ask me if I won a race (NO), I always reply, “Anyone who finishes the race is a winner.” This might sound lame in our “I am number 1” culture, but I mean it. In running, as in life, the race is only against yourself.

As I watch so many children “running” with their parents, I am filled with excitement, looking ahead to the day when I might run side by side with my boys in a race. I have dreamed of such a day since they were born. This thought alone is enough to fill my eyes with tears. But on this day, my smiles toward these families are interrupted by images of other runners whose limbs were lost just days ago pursuing the same passion. I feel the power of my stride hitting the road, only to imagine my feet missing. Next, I envision the youngest victim, Martin Richard, running beside these innocent, naive children, and I shudder at his image that is now burned in my mind: holding up his P-E-A-C-E poster with the plea “No more hurting people.” Richard was my son Owen’s age.  Such stark thoughts of this heinous act try to sabotage my race.

Like most of America, I was riveted by the bizarre turn of events that began on Monday, April 15th and ended with cinematic flare five days later. I still cannot fully comprehend what transpired. Yet, I am proud of the reaction that so many have had in response to this latest act of terror. In numerous news accounts it has been noted how, rather than flee the horror caused by the bombs, many people ran into the fray, determined to help, refusing to kowtow to cowardice, adamant that these monsters would not continue to paralyze our national consciousness. Strangers held one another, clothed one another, administered first aid and comforted one another. They remained. This approach echoed throughout America in the days that followed. Rather than cancel races in the wake of such destruction, more races were organized. I witnessed this locally in Philadelphia, where thousands of men, women, and children ran through Center City just three days after the attack, in honor of the victims and all who ran the Boston Marathon. And many other races have been created in response to this act. 

Yes, the irony of the Boston Marathon is that America has stopped running! As a nation, we are tired of being fearful. The city of Boston has demonstrated the bravery and dignity that is required to stand up to evil. Sadly, we have seen this bravery too many times. But with every new attack, we just grow stronger, more determined. The American people will not live in terror. We will not let this defeat us. In the end, the bad guy will not win–good will continue to outweigh evil. This courage is inspirational, and indicative of what America is becoming, has become, post 9-11. 

Halfway through the race, I realize this. I am emboldened by the courage of all those people who were in Boston that day, and put others before themselves. I think of all the brave law officers, military, and medical personnel who worked tirelessly to save lives, capture these perpetrators, and restore order and safety to the streets. I decide to put my fears–my thoughts of blood and death–away. I look up at a beautiful sky, where the sun begins to emerge from a billowy cloud. I breathe in the crisp fresh air. I smile. As I backtrack the mile and a half left of the course, I see a collection of children on the other side of the yellow line in the road. They are running. We are running. We are all united in this race. We are all united in our freedom as a country. I raise my hand, and begin to high five anyone and everyone. Kids respond without thinking. Parents reflexively put their hands up to match mine. We connect. I spend the rest of the race connecting with all of the amazing people who have come into my view on this glorious day. Each of their smiles, every high five, is a testament of our will to continue. For make no mistake–the race is not over. 

cc by-nc-nd Bruno Monginoux www.photo-paysage.com & www.landscape-photo.net

Monginoux / Landscape-Photo.net (cc by-nc-nd)

“Give me your tired, your poor, your second-grader who wants to run away to New York!”

My son, Hayden, came home with his report on immigration. He was very excited to show us all his hard work, and we were just as proud to read it. After doing just that, I had to share his paragraph on why people want to move to another country.

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At first, I thought Lady Liberty was simply holding her torch, but after reading the last line, it does sort of look like she’s flipping us the bird:) Please don’t move to New York, Hayden. We’d miss you.

Here’s to life, liberty, and second grade reports.

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A Picture’s Worth?

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. I disagree. I say a picture’s worth about five words, and often those words are inaccurate. I came to this realization after our family ventured to New York City for a weekend of Christmas cheer. We had tickets to a 9 a.m. (yes, a.m.) show of The Radio City Christmas Spectacular on Sunday morning, so we decided to go up on Saturday and ring-a-ling some Christmastime in the city. My wife’s parents met us in Manhattan.

On the train ride back that snowy Sunday afternoon, I posted this picture on Facebook:

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It received the most likes I’ve gotten all year (over 90!). Yet, as I looked at the photo, and the sweet comments from my FB family, I felt like a bit of a fraud. “Beautiful family,” said my friend, Barb. Thanks, Barb. I agree.

However, there is so much more to the story than the pictures we post on any social media outlet. Think about that profile picture you just updated with a shot of your Christmas tree. Any fights happen during the decorating? Or, what ugly comment fell out of your mouth while trying to get your kids to look perfect for the family photos of the now obligatory holiday card?

Yes, this picture captured some of the fun, and all of the magic that the Big Apple has to offer during the holiday season, but it did not tell the whole story–the thousand words were far from that photo. For this picture was taken only an hour after my son said the ugliest thing he’s ever said to me, and I responded in (un)kind.

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New York City is one of my favorite spots, and as I get older, I think of it as home to the world. I love the feeling of belonging I get when I’m in New York.  The city makes me feel alive. However, the city with 2 young boys can make me feel suicidal. Beyond the complaining about walking (“My pants are hurting”) and the cold (“I can’t feel my neck”), there is the constant worry that one of your kids may die! My darling son thought it was funny to run ahead to the corner of every street, threatening to step into oncoming traffic. If I had a dollar for every time I yelled “Hayden” as he approached a cross walk, I would have been able to stay at The Four Seasons rather than The Courtyard Marriott. I knew it was bad when I started having fantasies about having an only child–or GASP none at all (only for the weekend, of course:). I would chastise myself mentally for thinking this, but then I would spy both kids walking zigzag down the block, stepping in everyone’s way, or brushing up against any surface in the hopes of ripping their brand new winter coats. Breathe, Michael. It’s the holidays. Enjoy this moment. Let them be kids… GET OFF THAT WALL NOW!

We packed a lot into one day. We marched our way up 5th Avenue and marveled at all of the glittering photo (34)storefront windows, and the dazzling display of wealth. We stood in line at FAO Schwarz and then beheld the most fantastical, over-indulgent toy store in the whole United States. Surprisingly, we convinced both boys that Radio City was our gift to them , and they could use their allowance to buy a toy (they get allowance for things like breathing and going to the bathroom inside the house). Hayden insisted we go to the Build-a-Bear factory to spend his allowance. As I watched the corporate bear adoption process, I was amazed at how sweet the whole experience felt. Then, more walking up to Rockefeller Center, aka Santa’s Insane Asylum. We’re talking throngs of people, hundreds packed so close together that even the Dalai Lama would feel claustrophobic.

I was relieved that we didn’t have any plans to ice skate, we were simply trying to view the tree and get to the LEGO store-which happened to be smack dab in the center of The Center! The store felt like Santa’s Workshop on Steroids. Owen planned on spending his money there, but after a half-hour of deliberation, we realized the line snaked around the store and down the stairs. I kid you not, it was probably a quarter-mile long. Bad Daddy came on the scene and said, “I’ll be happy to come tomorrow after the show, but we can’t wait in this line for an hour.” Tears. “The LEGO I really want is at the other place, but mom told me to wait til I came here.” “FAO Schwarz?” I ask. He nods. “I’ll take him back there,” says Pam. Had the madness seeped into her head? “Go for it,” I say. “Hayden and I will walk back to the hotel.” Which we did, after I got a Starbucks–no madhouse there, since there’s one on every corner in NYC.

Now a weekend in New York usually involves dinner and a show. However, when you have a seven and nine-year old, your dinner is at 6 p.m. and your show is at 9 the next morning. But reservations are still required, and we had them at a yummy spot called La Bonne Soupe. After a brief rest at the hotel, we headed back out into the bustle and walked up to the restaurant. I had been attempting to get a picture of photo (31)photo (30)the boys for our Christmas card all day, but Hayden insisted on making a goofy face in every photo. I tried on our walk to dinner, but he continued to smirk and squinch–not a genuine smile to be had. The restaurant was “cozy”, which is Manhattan for cramped, yet, the ambiance was warm and welcoming. The place is famous for their French Onion soup, and the menu was filled with many tempting dishes–which happened to come with a complimentary glass of wine. Sign me up. Although, at that point, I could have used a bottle or two.

Everyone was tired, but the boys were quickly fading. For Owen, fading means getting more quiet, for Hayden, fading means getting more obstinate. He refused to sit up, he was banging his plate and silver ware, and my mother-in-law had to ask him (politely) to get his hands out of his pants. All of this with the distraction of games on my I-Phone. It was early enough, and the place crowded enough, that he was not making a scene, but I was out of patience and he was out of time. I looked around the room, comforted by another family with two girls of similar ages to my sons, whose parents were hesitant but resigned to handing over their phones at the first sign of trouble.

Just then, a man sat down at the next table. He was older, well-dressed, and eating alone. Alone in a nice restaurant on a Saturday night–so why was I envious of him? Oh, I know why. The reason was kicking me under the table, trying to coerce me into downloading another frigging app to my phone. “No, Hayden,” I said, annoyed. He began to whine. “No!” He did the limb-flail on the booth seat. I was done with this behavior. I pulled one out of the Parenting Torture Manual: the under-the-table-pinch. He shot up, startled. Then, he realized what I did. I thought he might scream, upturn the table, chase me with a butter knife. But instead, he just hurled the meanest thing he’s ever said to me, right there in Manhattan, in front of all of us, including my in-laws. With quivering lips, he mumbled, “I wish you didn’t live with us,” with such dramatic flair that I would swear he’s been watching Lifetime TV movies.

And my response. My response? I looked at him, and with a measured tone said, “Oh, yeah, well guess what? When you act like this, no one at this table wants to live with YOU!” Inside, I felt better, but outside, I was being met with uncomfortable stares from everyone at my table AND the man sitting next to us. He looked up from his soup bowl and stared right into my eyes with an expression of sad disapproval–You are a mean man, Sir, his eyes said. No, my eyes shot back. NO! You have not lived with this kid for the past seven years. You haven’t watched him almost kill himself at every damn street corner today. You weren’t there when he choked his brother in line at FAO Schwarz. You weren’t there when I ran back into that madhouse of a toy store because he forgot the goddamn birth certificate for his goddamn bear: Mushroom Thomas Trainer. Don’t you judge me. This kid could put anyone over the edge. Even you, Mr. Perfect.

“Would anyone like another glass of wine?” asks the waitress as she checks in on our meal. “Yes!” say the four adults at our table. “YES!”

That’s the real story. Not the one you see in the photograph. That’s what I kept coming back to after I posted that picture on Facebook. This picture does not tell the whole story. Far from it. This picture does not show my insecurities at being a dad, the regret I feel for my reactions sometimes, the constant fear I have that something bad might happen to one of my children, the unfair resentment I have towards my sons’ for not knowing how lucky they are–we are–to be afforded these wonderful experiences, experiences I never had as a child.

I sit alone on the train, in an odd one-seater by the exit, and watch a lady and her boys eat cupcakes and giggle in the seats right in front of me. I am aware of the ease with which they handle each other, this family in front of me–my wife and our boys. It’s an ease I wish I could feel more.

The car ride home from the train station is adventurous and tense, as the first snowfall blankets the highway. The boys are excited to see the flakes. Pam and I worry as we see cars in ditches off to the side of the turnpike.

We are relieved to get home without incident. Excitedly, we begin to recap our experience in the city.  It’sphoto (32) unanimous that the Toy Soldiers was our favorite Rockette number in the show; Owen longs for the French toast he had at the corner diner; Hayden recalls the Rockefeller Center scene depicted in LEGOS. Like most trips, there were many bright moments, peppered with some miserable ones. And that’s the nature of family, of traveling, of life.

Then, Owen gripes about me making them wear those “itchy” sweaters to the play, and Hayden whines about the fact that I refuse to let him wear sweatpants everyday.  I tease them for being wimps. They say, “You’re so mean, Dad! You’re the meanest dad in the world!” I recall the Bad Parenting Manual this time and respond with, “Oh, yeah? If I’m so mean, then why don’t you two go and live somewhere else! Then you’ll see how good you have it.” Response one: “Fine!” Response two: “We will!” “You two wouldn’t make it to the end of the driveway!” They attempt to do just that, in six inches of snow, in bare feet. They come back in, frozen. The three of us can no longer tell if we’re kidding or angry, and I can see the headlines now: “Boys die of pneumonia attempting to run away from home. Meanest Dad in the World Missing”.

Pam brings the boys up to bed, and I throw myself a pity party while I shovel the driveway. With each mound of snow I heave, a thought spews from my mind: Well, someone HAS to be the bad guy; Mean? They’ve don’t even know what mean looks like; These boys live a charmed life; I’m tired of always being the disciplinarian. My thoughts pound steadily, each one making me feel worse. Then, I hear a banging on the bedroom window above–it’s Hayden, freshly showered and in his PJs. He’s banging hard. What did I do now, I think negatively. He says something, but it’s muffled. “What?” I yell up to the little figure in the night. “Will you come up and snuggle me?” he yells, louder this time. I laugh at the absurdity of it all, the meanest dad in the world being asked to snuggle. “Sure,” I say. “Give me five minutes.”

As I lay in Hayden’s bed, we talk about all the things we loved about the Christmas Show at Radio City. He shows me where his new bear, Mushroom, is going to sleep. Then, he asks me to draw letters on his back. I spell words and he tries to guess them: N-E-W Y-O-R-K C-I-T-Y: “New York City,” he shouts. S-A-N-T-A: “Santa,” he says, stifling a yawn. I-L-O-V-E Y-O-U: “I love you,” he whispers, halfway off to dreamland.

No picture could capture this moment.

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.