30 July 2013

At the Crossroads in Philadelphia

We arrived in Philly as close to on-time as the airlines seem to be these days, which meant that we would make our connecting flight.  By the time we found the gate for the next leg of the trip, it was pouring outside, thunder cracking, lightning flashing.  We wandered for a while, shouldering the burden of the carry-on traveler, and eventually returned to the gate with bellies full and bladders emptied.  That’s when we noticed him:  Satan incarnate.  You’re probably not surprised that Satan can be found in an airport, maybe especially the Philly airport, since most of the folk who pass for airport workers are known to be his minions.  And so, there he was, that little devil:  about three foot four, forty-two pounds, stained khaki pants and swinging an orange sweatshirt over his head.  I’d guess the form he took was about three years old.

He was screaming at a girl a bit older than him, trying to hit her with the sweatshirt that he lassoed awfully close to other travelers.  The zipper pull was flying all too close to passenger eyes, but who was I to say anything?  And that scream:  shrill enough to make you wish a fingernail on a chalkboard would drown it out.  Meanwhile, she was tossing Cheetos at him, the orange crumbs on the carpet proof of an ongoing feud.

Every now and again a frumpy middle-aged woman grabbed his arm and spoke to him in a menacing whisper, although I couldn’t hear the words she said.  I could read her body language like a Psych 101 textbook.  I watched for a while, pretending to be vacantly staring into space, afraid of catching his eye and therefore his wrath, but unable to look away.  More Cheetos were thrown, the sweatshirt swung, the woman threatened.  Fellow passengers looked for empty seats away from this ring, moving away if they could.

Eventually the storm moved on and the call to board was announced.  In the shuffle of gathering luggage and jackets, I lost sight of little Satan.  I was awash in relief that perhaps he would not be seated next to me, and that maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t even be on board our plane.  Reassured and confident of a quiet flight, I actually exhaled a sigh of relief as I waited my turn to get on.  When my row was finally called, however, there he was, seated in first class.  Naturally.

19 July 2013

The Gratitude Project

Most summers, for me, entail some type of improvement project, usually of the home variety.  This summer, though, I wanted to do something meaningful that hopefully would have a positive ripple effect of some sort into the wider world.  I knew that I wanted it to have something to do with gratitude, because that is the predominant attitude I’ve tried to hold throughout this year of trials.  A gratitude journal, where on a daily basis you record three to five things for which you feel grateful, didn’t quite fit the bill.  It was too personal and self-reflecting.  I did some searching and happened upon this cute website that entertained me for a while, but wasn’t what I was seeking either.  But thxthxthx did drop the hint of writing thank you notes. 

And so I decided to write a thank you note each Monday through Friday this summer, from June 3 until today.  Each day I woke up and considered various people in my life and chose one to thank, thirty-four in all (I took Independence Day off).  Some of them were pretty standard thank you notes:  thanks for a place to stay, thanks for feeding our cat while we were out of town, and so forth.  Some were so heartfelt that I was reduced to tears while writing them.  In others, I wanted to express my gratitude at that person’s presence in my life and my admiration.  In many, I included a quotation that seemed meaningful to the connection I felt with that person.  A surprising and unintended effect was that many recipients thanked me for thanking them.

I had a simple set of rules:  the notes had to be handwritten; they had to mention some specific quality or thing about the person it was addressed to, and only one card could be written per day.  The act of writing by hand, addressing, and stamping each one forced me to pause each day and to focus on that person and his or her impact on my life.  There were times when the scope of the project loomed heavy, but the act of writing each one was never a chore.  If anything, it was a process of unburdening - of saying that which too often goes unsaid.  As the project neared its end, I felt a little scattered, like it needed to be extended because I still had more people to thank.  But today feels like a proper time to end it, with other events needing my focus and attention.  I also realized that writing a thank you note doesn’t require a project - I can do it any time, for any reason.

Overall, it was a pretty emotional experience, but also a very grounding one.  Each day I was reminded of the richness of this life - how people are the center of it all, and how seldom we truly acknowledge the textures and contributions made by others to our lives.  These small notes were a tangible way of making the abstract qualities of gratitude a bit more concrete.  The French have a saying, gratitude is the heart’s memory, and my heart is full-to-bursting that I am lucky to be a part of so many amazing people’s lives. 

14 July 2013

Harry Potter and the Banned Bookshelf

On our recent trip to Oregon, we spent a few days visiting friends in the very literary town of Ashland.  Shakespeare is everywhere in Ashland, thanks to the theater festival hosted there every summer.  While there, we spent a rainy day wandering into various shops, including a lovely bookstore downtown that sold new, used, and collectible books.  The shop was run by two older women who had that mix of sass and swagger that instantly made me want to hang out with them for the rest of the day.  Their books were mostly organized by subject matter:  gardening, Shakespeare, folklore, mystery, etc, as in most bookstores.  There was also an entire bookcase devoted to banned books.  It was fascinating to scan the titles of books deemed inappropriate, vulgar, controversial, and scandalous, and to note many favorites among them.
My daughters are voracious readers like me, and I thought they’d find this particular display interesting.  I drew their attention to it and briefly explained what it means to ban a book:  that a group of people feel a book’s topic is not appropriate and that the book should not be available to anyone.  This is quite different from, say, a parent’s decision that a book or movie is not appropriate for her own children at a particular age of their lives.  For example, I would not permit either of my daughters to read Fifty Shades of Grey at this is point in time, and yet, I also feel that it should be available to others who choose to read it. 

We stood before the bookcase and they read the titles.  It wasn't long before they demonstrated their shock: 

“What are all of the Harry Potter books doing here?”

“Shel Silverstein?  Are you kidding?”

Their exclamations continued, and while we stood there, a small group of people gathered behind us and voiced similar reactions.  A little while later my daughter asked me why someone would ban Shel Silverstein, well-known for his collections of children’s poems, most especially Where the SidewalkEnds.  And I realized, as with some of the tough questions I’ve been fielding lately as a parent, that I didn’t have an answer for them.  I couldn’t pinpoint what might be offensive about any of the books they were familiar with.  But I urged them to keep asking questions, especially when someone is trying to protect them from knowledge.  I want them to wonder and question and to never be afraid of information regardless of its form:  novel, poetry, music, art.

After we returned home, I did some research to find out why some of these books have been challenged and ultimately banned in certain places.  There were three basic arguments for the Harry Potter series:  the books promote witchcraft, Harry breaks the rules and yet is portrayed as good, and that the subject matter was too dark and violent.  And yet, [spoiler alert] if you’ve read the books or seen the movies, you are aware that the major theme is the triumph of good over evil.  But in order for good to triumph over evil, it is sometimes necessary for unjust rules to be broken.  To criticize Harry for breaking the rules is akin to criticizing our founding fathers for standing up to the over-reaching laws of George III.  Henry David Thoreau, widely considered to be the quintessential American philosopher, wrote a treatise entitled “Civil Disobedience,” in which he examines a citizen’s right to reject laws which are unjust.  As far as rejecting Harry Potter for promoting witchcraft, I fear there are much darker and more real forces than this fictional series describes.  One need only look to the nightly news to find evidence of them.  And regarding subject matter being too dark, this seems to be a personal preference.  What is too dark (or depressing, or realistic, or graphic) for one of us might be what makes a story appealing for someone else.

The kids in Harry Potter are placed in situations where they have to make choices, just like any of us.  These choices have the potential to impact their lives and the lives of others in positive or negative ways.  Some adults don’t want to teach the kids the skills they will need to survive in a world fraught with danger; others find it necessary to do so.  Some of the kids make good choices, others make bad ones; some of the kids survive and others do not.  This magical world seems to be a lot like the real world, doesn’t it?  Instead of dementors, we have meth and other addictions that destroy our essence.  Just like Dumbledore and Delores Umbridge, positive and negative role models surround us, and it is up to us to determine which is which.  And as in Harry Potter, our children will eventually learn that adults are not only fallible, but at times dead wrong.

And isn’t that ironic?  That, as J. K. Rowling put it, “we all have light and dark inside of us.  What matters is the part you choose to action.”  Of course, we know this already, and children know it, too.  So why are we afraid to trust them with their choices?  If we allow them to make small choices (like what books to read), they will perhaps be prepared when the time comes, to make the best choice about issues that truly matter.  Some adults don’t want anyone to read a fictional fantasy about kids forced to navigate various perils and make choices that will allow them to overcome evil.  Perhaps what those who ban books actually fear is free will. 

Banned Books Week is typically observed during the last week of September, to celebrate our freedom to read what we choose while also highlighting threats and challenges to this right.  I encourage you to look at the most challenged titles of the past decade, here

01 July 2013


I couldn’t sleep.  Helicopters were circling, if only in my mind.  The chop-chop-chop of their rotors was an incessant knocking that wouldn’t let me forget the nineteen.

There are no guarantees in this life, and we each dodge as many bullets as we can.  But when those who help us dodge our own bullets are killed - well, that’s tough to reconcile.

2013 has been a year of dodging bullets for me so far.  Early in the year I was dodging the breast cancer bullet, made easier for me by a very early diagnosis and a very thorough and skilled physician.  Just before the summer solstice, my family, my neighborhood, and our community dodged another bullet when favorable weather and very capable firefighters were able to beat back a fire that could have been devastating.

It wasn’t until last night that any of us realized - to some degree - what that devastation might potentially entail.  The Yarnell Hill Fire, 0% contained at this posting, is reminding us all of the destructive power of flames.  Hundreds of homes have already been lost in Yarnell, a small hamlet nestled in granite boulders and manzanita-oak chaparral.  The City of Prescott has lost nineteen hot shots, elite firefighters who literally create the line containing the fire by hand. 

We don’t yet know the names of these courageous people, but the reverberations in our community will be intense and painful.  The words that express how we feel about this will be insufferably inadequate.  There are no guarantees in this life, to be sure.  So hold your babies a little closer, love a little more deeply, and practice gratitude a little more consciously.  Acknowledge those who allow us to live our lives in ease because we carry with us the knowledge that they will do all they can to protect us.