The Toppling of the Towers

I play computer Solitaire.  A lot.  It started when I discovered it as a free game on our first family home computer, and it grew into an obsession.  I play at rocket speed, timing myself to see how quickly I can sort the cards until they are organized into neat piles.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure this out.  I hate chaos and disorder.  I detest clutter.  And I have formed a pattern of coping with problems alone.  It began when I was a young woman in an unhealthy relationship.  Grey clouds would gather, the air would thicken, and rumblings would be heard from a distance.  Slowly, deliberately, the sky darkened and large raindrops randomly splashed against the pavement, and then, little by little, they quickened.  Soon there was nothing but chaos- crashes of thunder, flashes of lightning, rain like sheets falling from billowing masses of black and gray.  When they passed, I never talked about the storms.  When the sun again emerged, I would smile, clean the debris, and act as if nothing had happened. 

I did this for years, until I could no more.  Finally, I began a new chapter of my life and on a different computer, learned a new version of the Solitaire game.   This version was harder, requiring much strategy and careful maneuvering.  I lost more than I won.   Still, I sorted and organized and piled the cards into neat harmonious groups.  It was systematic.  Orderly.  Tidy.  But a few weeks ago, after I successfully finished a game, I realized that once the piles are completely sorted they topple, crashing to the ground where they shatter into small bits and shards.

I have thought about this a lot. From the moment we are born, we crave the company others.  Babies know this. We can feed them and change them and wrap them in the finest of blankets, but sometimes they cry because they just need to be held.  They nestle into our arms and snuggle their heads into the crook of our necks.  When they get scared, they run to their parents, holding up chubby little hands to be lifted to the safety of a daddy’s shoulder or a mother’s lap. 

Animals know this. They herd together for warmth and safety.  Elephants form protective circles around an injured or weak family member.  Puppies and kittens lie so closely when nursing from their mother that it is hard to tell one from another.  Ants move in armies, relying on the strength of the group to bear a load that greatly outweighs each soldier.  Horses bay and whinny when one is removed from the other’s eyesight.  Sheep move as one when lead from the pasture to the fold.

This lesson has never been so obvious as it has during the past month.  My mother, the hub of the mighty wheel of my family, has become ill.  The knowledge that she will not be with us for long emerged from a vague distant fog and has become glaring and stark.  She has always been there, soft and warm, with strong arms that pull us close to her breast.  She has taught me how to live, how to laugh, how to love. Imagining life without her leaves me with flowing eyes, and a lump in my throat that cannot be swallowed.  I want to run from this, to hide in my game of Solitaire.  To sort and order and make neat piles. 

But as I watched the cards topple from their towers, I remembered that life was never meant to be a game of Solitaire.  A different strategy is needed.  Instead, I reached out to my siblings, my children, my nieces and nephews, my cousins, my friends.   We did not sort ourselves. We did not pile into congruent towers of like suits. Instead, we formed a circle.  And here we stay.  We stand together, shoulder to shoulder, supporting each other’s weight, wiping each other’s tears, bearing each other’s burdens.  In the circle, there are no towers to tumble, no crashing of cards to shatter on the floor.  Towers fall when they are stacked too high. Circles widen to embrace new members. 

I will always try to sort my life into neat, orderly piles.  And I will always live my life with a healthy sense of independence.  But in the days ahead, Solitaire will be played on my computer.  Life is a team game, to be shared with the people I love.  If you look, you’ll find an opening in the circle.  Come on in.

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Simple Song of Freedom

Today I have a heavy heart.  Yesterday, while hundreds of people in Kampala, Uganda,  gathered to watch the World Cup, there was a bombing.  One American was killed.  He was Nate Henn.

I met Nate when six young people from Invisible Children stayed with us this past winter.  My daughter Abby, had arranged for them to speak in our area of New Hampshire and although many people with much grander homes offered to host them, they chose to stay with us.

The group arrived after church on a Sunday, blurry eyed and travel weary, piling their backpacks and sleeping bags into the living room.  They warmly introduced themselves; Brian, Hannah, Allyson, Christo, Innocent and Nate.   I learned that Christo and Innocent were native Ugandans.  Hannah, one of the roadies, was from the UK.  The rest, roadies as well, were Americans.  After a bit of small talk, they put a movie into the DVD player and soon were asleep, snuggled up to each other like six little puppies.  While they napped, I cooked and made a pot of coffee.

Nate was the first to awaken, and gratefully accepted a cup of coffee.  He was obviously the Papa Bear of the family, waking the others shortly before it was time to leave for their next speaking engagement.    He expressed concern for Christo, who was not feeling well, and his worried eyes relaxed when I told him I would take care of Christo while the rest of them were away.

That evening, after ibuprofen and tea, Christo and I chatted.  In the few hours of that Sunday evening, I learned more about Uganda than I had in my entire life.  Christo, an engineer, designs and builds schools. His brown eyes glistened as he told me of his passion for education.  It is his belief that the future of his country rests on the shoulders of people like Innocent, who was kidnapped at age seven by the rebel army and forced to serve as a soldier.  Innocent escaped and was captured, and beaten so badly he was unable to walk for days.  Told that if he tried to escape again, he would be shot as an example to the others, he waited until he was well, and again escaped, this time successfully.  He and the other Invisible Children, spent their childhood in hiding, in order to avoid the rebel forces.  Now grown and ready for college, Innocent’s dreams are to finish his education and return to his homeland as a leader who might restore it to a country where children don’t die from cholera, AIDS and rebel gunfire.

The rest of the week was filled with the comings and goings of the Invisible Children’s ragtag army. Every day, they spoke in schools and churches to raise awareness and funds, and then tired and hungry, they returned to our apartment to eat, sleep, and catch up on their email.  My living room was a sea of bedding, laptops and clothing, and for a week, I was their mother- cajoling them into eating more vegetables, picking up their empty glasses and joining in their banter.  For their farewell dinner, I made lentil soup.  Nate, filling his bowl a second time, pronounced it was the best he’d ever had.   Nothing warms the heart of a mother, surrogate or otherwise, more than filling the bellies of her loved ones. 

The next morning, there were hugs all around and then they were gone.  All that was left were deflated air mattresses  and a signed post card on the kitchen counter.   The place they had carved in my heart ached with emptiness.

So this morning, when I saw Nate’s picture on the TV screen and heard how he and sixty four others were killed by suicide bombers, my heart broke a bit.  The monster that Nate battled- the repugnant monster of strife and war and killing- ultimately took his life. 

You might think this is the end of the story, but we can make it a beginning.  Because of who Nate was, and who the others who share his vision are, the work will continue.  If half the people who heard Nate’s voice pick up where he left off, his song will continue. We can sing another verse.  We must sing another verse.  So Nate and his comrades in the war against hate will not have died in vain.

Today I’ll mourn but tomorrow, I’ll be in the alto section.  How about you?

“Come and sing a simple song of freedom

Sing it like you’ve never sung before

Let it fill the air. Tell the people everywhere

We the people here don’t want no war.” *

*”Simple Song of Freedom” by Bob Darin

Catch a Falling Star

This morning, my friend Gerry sent me a testimony he wrote about a dear friend who suddenly passed away.   Through the email I could sense the sting that he is feeling- the kind of shock that sends you reeling and leaves you disoriented and confused.   I remembered that same feeling one evening when I opened a letter from my sister.  When I tore open the envelope, a newspaper clipping fluttered to the floor.  I picked it up, expecting to read some cheery news about one of my nephews.  Instead, I found the obituary for my closest childhood friend.

The winter I was in first grade, I moved from the parochial school in nearby Three Rivers, to the public school in my home town. This was done because I spent the first half of the year standing in the corner, rapping my own knuckles with a ruler as penance for horrible sins only a six-year-old can commit, such as spelling my name wrong, or arriving past the second bell when the bus was late.  The months between that September and December were filled with fearful tears and the few memories I have of those days are shrouded in lonely darkness. 

First grade in public school was very different from St. Anne’s.  The classrooms were bright and sunny. My teacher was Mrs. Cassidy, a petite lady who wore flowered dresses and corrected me with a gentle smile. At St. Anne’s, I had been taught to write in cursive, using the Palmer method.  Mrs. Cassidy showed me how to print rounded letters between the wide lines on special penmanship paper.  It was fun, like artwork, and when I was finished, I decorated the margins with small sketches of puppies and tulips. How Sr. Lucien would have cringed!   Under Mrs. Cassidy’s guidance, I learned to add and subtract, to read and to sing songs about April showers and the grand old flag.  My Monday morning stomach aches were replaced by enthusiasm, and I finally relaxed enough to begin making friends with some of the other children.

One of those children was Linda.  She was delicate and blonde and reminded me of a spring lamb.  She wore a red and black cowgirl outfit, complete with boots and fringed shirt to school, and her lunch box was shaped like a barn. Linda invited me to her sixth birthday party and on a beautiful May afternoon, I gathered at her house with other little girls in pastel dresses to eat cake and play “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”  I still remember my party favor- a string of amber beads to wear around my neck. They were translucent and glistened in the sunlight and to me they were as precious as diamonds.  But more precious was my friendship with Linda.

Despite her fragile stature, Linda was daring and adventurous.  She and I would spend overnights at her house, rise early in the morning and armed with chocolate covered graham crackers,  explore the woods behind her house.  We swam in the icy waters of her brook during the summers and slid down her snow covered hill in the winter. We sang songs to each other over walkie-talkies, earned 4-H badges by planting Mother’s Day seeds in paper cups and shot BBs at each other’s feet.  As teenagers, we rode a motor scooter through nearby pastures, daringly cutting the headlight in the dark, as if to look danger in the eye and tempt fate in a wicked game of roulette.  We whispered about boys and borrowed each other’s clothes, and smoked cigarettes in the school bathrooms.  And through the years, we watched the clear night skies for shooting stars.

After high school I went away to college.  Linda did not.  Our paths didn’t cross again until many years later, when I was in the early months of my first pregnancy.  She arrived at my house, her baby boy- Micah- happily packed on her back.  He reminded me of her as a child with his elfin eyes and wispy blond hair.  We excitedly caught up on each other’s lives and went for a walk. When we returned, I started to bleed and within a few days, the baby was gone and I was left in a quiet house with empty arms.  Buried in my own grief, I mourned for weeks.  Months turned to years, and somehow, Linda and I lost touch, never to see each other again.

Linda’s memorial service was much like she was- free, open and non-traditional.  Her friends and family spoke fondly of her sense of adventure and her zeal for life.  We all agreed our lives were brighter and happier for having known her and then with a tear and a hug, we went again in our separate ways.   I will always carry the regret of not being there while she was sick, of not standing with her in the dark days, of not saying goodbye.

People’s lives are much like the shooting stars Linda and I sought.  Some do a long, slow swan dive, leaving trails of red fire so bright that we can still see them long after their lights have burned out.  Others, like Linda, dance so quickly across the night sky that if we look away for an instant we’ll miss them.

Life is short.  Take a little time, look up a falling star and say hello, before it’s too late.

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