Children as Teachers

The Christmas season began with the traditional sleep-over for my granddaughter.  Macy embraces traditions and decorating the tree is one of her favorites. We debated how to string the lights. Macy likes the colored lights. I like the clear ones. We ended up using both and placing way too many of them on our tree.

When we finished decorating, we hid the extra Santa ornaments all over the house. I marveled at how clever this eight-year-old has become in hiding them—under cushions and inside coat pockets! When her dad texted to say he would be late to pick her up, we squealed with delight. We agreed to play Weird but True.  She beat me soundly. She actually knew that butterflies taste food with their feet.

When her dad tapped on the door, Macy was busy making a list. “We have to plan ahead, Gigi. Last year our gingerbread house collapsed. Check this one out on Amazon. It is prefab!” She pointed to my computer screen. The post-it note she crunched into my hand had the make, the model, even the number!  “My intention is to build you the best gingerbread house ever!”

“Intention?” I asked. “Where did you get that word?”

“From you!” Macy laughed as she hugged me farewell.  Intentions. Lists. Plans. Wasn’t this the year I was determined to ditch Christmas lists. Wasn’t I working on being in the moment? Anyway, I ordered the prefab gingerbread house.

Often Christmas feels like I have watched a feel-good Hallmark movie, but I have not lived it. With mile-long lists, the holidays slip into a blur of delightful—but rushed—moments. This year I consciously set about cutting back on intentions, lists, and “must-do’s and choosing activities that would give me joy. I wanted to live these moments. It proved to be a challenge.

I held space for events like three-year-old Harper’s Christmas program and Macy’s Christmas recital. I didn’t buy many presents this year, but I tried to choose them more thoughtfully and be mindful of why I was choosing them. But in the weeks before Christmas, I still proved to be more Martha than Mary.  I cleaned. I scrubbed. I baked coffee cake from my mom’s recipe and iced dozens of sugar cookies. (I ate a good number of them, too!) I relented and made endless lists in preparation for Christmas brunch with cheesy eggs, bacon, and cinnamon rolls that my youngest son claims is his favorite meal of the year—although he no longer eats bacon.

On Christmas morning my family arrived, and there was a flurry of opening gifts, surprises, and the experience was laced with mimosas, coffee cake, and followed with the celebrated cheesy eggs. But this year was different. I did ignore the dishes, and I let everyone find their own coffee or tea. After breakfast I hid behind my Christmas tree with the overload of twinkling lights. There for nearly an hour I simply held my son’s newborn, Evy, and she graciously rewarded me with smiles and baby coos. I was able to reflect on all the wonder of Christmas. A child. A tree. The day slipped by too quickly, but I felt there.

Nearing dinner time, Macy took my hand and guided me to the dining room table where she and her three-year-old cousins Harper and Steven had been laboring over my present. When I entered, Harper shouted, “Surprise, Gigi! We made you a beautiful gingerbread house!” Steven clapped joyfully. Perhaps in the back of our minds was the collapsed gingerbread house from last year. This memory made the children’s success—even with a prefab house—all the more magical.

Late Christmas night, after I cleaned the sticky candy bits out of the carpet and swept the gum drops from the floor, I found my gingerbread house sitting on the kitchen bar. I paused again to reflect. While I will never fulfill all of my intentions or plans, I need them—just as Macy did, but most importantly I realized I need to pause, reflect and seize magical moments before they slip away. I am still learning how to find this balance—but the children are such wonderful teachers.

To all of you, now and in the coming New Year, I wish you intentions, wonderful plans, moments of magic, and, of course, children as teachers.

Giving Invisible Gifts

I am digging through the Christmas boxes when I see an image that is still etched in my brain. The boy. The hair shorn close to his head. The green tee shirt that held a German phrase I did not understand. How he sat like Rodin’s Thinker at his desk. How he died near Christmas and how that moment ripped my high school apart.

The week before he died, we had been reading Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince in class. The story centers on a pilot who landed in the Sahara Desert. Having a mechanical problem, he sets about repairing his plane when the odd, childlike Little Prince appears.  Initially the Little Prince is quite put off by the pilot, who is completely wrapped up in his airplane repairs. But slowly the Little Prince uses his magical stories to befriend the pilot and teach him important lessons about life. During one discussion about the book, I asked my students what they had learned.

“The fox came up from his hole!” all eyes turned toward the voice coming from the fourth row. Lucas. “That fox teaches us about trust and friendship.  Powerful stuff . . . but the best part is the fox’s gift. He gave the Little Prince a quote, a thought.” Then Lucas paused knowing his silence would give this quote the emphasis it needed. “What is essential is Invisible to the eye,” he said. “This quote is cool—and I like the idea of giving free gifts, too!” Lucas joked. Then sitting sidesaddle at his desk, Lucas poised himself like Rodin’s Thinker. He held our complete attention. “The invisible is the best stuff . . . goodness, truth, friendship, stuff like that . . . and how often do we stop and realize that?” There was another moment of silence as we pondered. “Just so cool,” he added. Then Lucas turned and leaned forward on his desk, leaning into a future that should have been. That was my last vivid memory of him.

One week later, Lucas was shot in the head while doing his job– trying to stop a thief from walking out of a Walmart with a television. That was nearly two decades ago. I still feel the hurt. It surfaces as I dust off the Christmas boxes and prepare to hunt for the ornaments and the Santas I hide throughout the house. I also think of my dear mom who died in March. It will be hard to face my first Christmas without her.  Lucas. Mom. I think I feel their presence, and I marvel at this. The power of the invisible.

But my reverie is interrupted by my favorite eight-year-old, Macy. “Gigi, let’s hide the Santas first!” Her joy is contagious, and I nod. Then my granddaughter pauses pensively. “But what about Santa?” She eyes me seriously. “My friend Madison says he is not real.”

“He’s real,” I answer. I do not miss a beat. “He may be invisible—but he is there.” She pops open the box with our Santas and gives me the stink-eye look that she has mastered. “Think about it,” I suggest. “What really matters is invisible.” She plops down on the floor examining a miniature Santa she has pulled from the box. She is quiet for a long time.

“I sort of see what you mean. Santa is like the magical stuff we can’t see.”

“Yes. Maybe love? Maybe the spirit of giving? Special things we can’t see—but we feel,” I say.

“Oh, like Grandma Betty,” Macy says as if it all makes sense now. Then she jumps up and wraps her arms around me. Again, I feel a presence. Again, I marvel at this. The power of the invisible. Then I return a hug to this beautiful child who will always be my teacher, and a sliver of light slips into me—the invisible is truly the greatest gift we can give.

The Veteran

As they drove by, they spat at him. They flung half-filled beer cans and called him names. He was nineteen and wore an American uniform. His number had been drawn in the draft. #14. He knew he would be headed to Vietnam. But he was not afraid. His father and his mentor Chuck had both served in World War II and Korea. They made him proud.

It was 1970 and although he knew Vietnam was an unpopular war, he did not know he would be reviled when he donned the uniform. “I was a kid, and I didn’t fully understand the war,” he told me not long ago, “but I did understand duty, and I had grown up an American. I loved and wanted to serve my country.” His voice softened, “But the beer cans . . . the hate being flung at you from fellow Americans back then . . . I didn’t expect that.”

Yesterday I sat in an elementary school gym packed with children celebrating Veterans Day by singing “American Tears.” Several hundred children belted out, “Sometimes I think about America, about her struggles through the years.”  It gave me pause. I love my country, but of late I have not always celebrated living here. Like many of you I am frustrated with our inability to act on global warming and to protect our children from shootings and bigotry. I am upset with the elected officials who waste time quibbling when so much is at stake.

Suddenly on the wall of this gym appeared a huge slide of a Vietnam veteran. Of course, Vietnam was the first time I questioned my country. I would come home from high school and see the images of the atrocities played out on our television screen. I wrote a high school essay, decrying our obsession with war, especially one that lacked logic.

But the children’s lilting voices broke through my reverie. They sang, “I think of people who did what they had to do with the strength to act through their fears.”

The Story You Need to Tell Honoring Veterans StoriesIn that gym I was sitting by a man I admire deeply. The veteran. The one who was spat at by fellow Americans several decades ago. One who believed in the ideals of our democracy and would have given his life for those ideals. The one I married.  In that moment, the words to the song I heard resonated deeply in me, “I know I’m blessed to be living in liberty.

When the children stopped singing, my granddaughter returned to sit in the special section set aside for her grandfather. My husband. The veteran. She beamed at him with pride. She had stayed up late last night making a poster to honor him. The veteran was introduced to the school and the children clapped wildly in appreciation for his service.

In that moment, I realized it is true. I will always be an American—and the tears I cried were heartfelt American tears. The veteran was sniffing back tears, too. Tears of joy.