Act by Act, Word by Word

Since last Friday I have struggled to make sense of the senseless. I have tried to understand what can’t be understood. I have counted my blessings to have my own happy, healthy children who have lived to see adulthood. As a teacher I have wondered if I would have had the courage to do what those teachers in Connecticut did to shield the students in their care from harm. Along with our nation and the world I have mourned the precious lives lost in Newtown, Connecticut. I have tried to find words to express the ineffable sorrow conjured by this moment in time, a pivotal moment fraught with grief and politics, but also one I hope holds the key for change within our society.

For several days after hearing about the shooting in Newtown, I had no words to convey what I felt. Words seemed inadequate and still do. How do we comfort the parents of these children who will never see their faces again or hear their laughter? How do we comfort the families of the teachers and administrators who tried to protect those little children from this nightmare come to life? No words can convey our sorrow or our helplessness in the face of such grief. No gesture can offer enough comfort to ease their pain, but still we try because we can imagine all too well the same fate happening within our own communities to us. We still pray for them and reach out to the families of these precious children and wrap our arms around them even if it is from afar.

As I was returning home yesterday from Appleton where I finished my Christmas shopping and made a final grocery shopping run—two tasks which seemed incongruous in this moment—I turned on the radio. I looked for a Christmas carol station but couldn’t find one which had religious songs, only silly pop renditions of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and the like. I needed the comfort of calm, so I turned to NPR. I knew there would be no commercials and perhaps some classical music. Instead I realized the news was playing. Frankly, I didn’t want to hear another story about the shooting, but yesterday the first two funerals were held. The correspondent for NPR was covering those funerals. I was only half listening to the story because I was worried about an imminent snowstorm on Thursday and wondering how my youngest son would be able to make it home. Ironic, I know, that I worried in the midst of this tragedy, but parents worry no matter how old their children become. Despite my being distracted the words of the rabbi who attended Noah Pozner’s  funeral made it through my own thoughts.

I believe the rabbi’s name was Rabbi Shaul Praver, and what he said finally allowed me to make sense of what has happened. His words allowed a puzzle piece I had worried over to fall into it’s proper place and filled me with calm purpose for the first time since last Friday. I regret I must paraphrase because I was so taken in that moment that I forget the rabbi’s exact words. He said Noah and the others who died are with God in heaven. It is up to us now to bring heaven down to Earth, act by act and word by word.  Wow! Those words sang through my consciousness. Finally, here is something I can do. I can make a difference each day by treating all people with kindness and compassion. I can be the light of heaven here on Earth. We all can. Another rabbi interviewed on the news, Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht said that we can “elevate and sanctify our lives in honor of these children.” Even those of us who are far away from Newtown can make a difference in this life. We can’t change what has already happened, but we can honor the memory of those lost by how we live. Even if we only touch one person with kindness, perhaps that one moment will make the difference between life and death.

The idea that we reach out to others one kind act at a time is what I am advocating here. Why should we do this? We should reach out because each life is precious, because we are our brother’s keeper. Each life on this planet contributes to every other life even if we aren’t always aware of our affect. Just look at the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. We all affect each other’s lives in so many small and sometimes great ways, and we will never know how great an impact we have had on our fellow man, at least not while we’re here. We are and should be responsible for each other. Let’s remember what John Donne wrote in 1624 in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation17. I won’t quote the whole passage here, but the words do explain why each of us must make a difference in the lives of others. He says, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.”  Though these words were written so long ago, Donne’s message applies to today’s tragic circumstances.

Most of us will mark this tragedy in our own personal ways by hugging our children, by praying, by taking some sort of action. However we decide to accomplish the task, I believe we must make a difference in our world. Perhaps this tragedy will be the impetus for true change in our society. Perhaps we will mean it when we ask someone how they are instead of using “how are you” as a greeting. Perhaps we will be patient when we drive behind an elderly person. Perhaps we will treat the young men and women in middle and high schools not as delinquents but as people with strong opinions trying on adulthood. Perhaps we will guide them instead of ridiculing them. Perhaps we will treat each other as human beings worthy of love and forgiveness and kindness.

We must take responsibility for each other, act by act, word by word. We must bring God’s heaven down to earth and shine the light of His love into the darkness we see in the world. Get off social media for a while and interact in a physical way with your friends, family, and strangers. Become “involved in mankind.” Talk to people in the grocery store. Chat with the lady collecting money for the Salvation Army. Chat with the older gentleman in the pew next to you at church. Then really listen to what they have to say in return. Learn their stories. Embrace them with kindness. Become a part of your own communities. Make a difference.  Honor the memory of those who lost their lives long before they could make a difference here on Earth. Perhaps if we do these things, the wish for peace we all share at this time of the year will become reality.


“No Man Is an Island”

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

                                John Donne

Christmas Greetings

What happened to old-fashioned Christmas cards? Winter scenes sparkling with glitter.  Gold foil wreaths with red berries. The three kings at a manger scene with a glittering star above. I miss that kind of Christmas card, the ones you could save and look at years later or use in a craft project. No matter what kind of card I receive, however, I appreciate being remembered by my friends at this time of year. I really do, especially when, in the past, I have not been faithful about sending out cards each year. Sometimes life gets in the way and eats away at the time we have. Even though I like reading my friends’ newletters and seeing their children, I really miss the artistic and lovely cards of the past which reflect not only the time period in which they are given but also the personalities of the senders.

So far this year I have received a few cards, some of which are actual cards, but most of which are newsletters or a picture of people I don’t even know, our friends’ children. I probably shouldn’t comment on this sensitive subject, but I feel compelled to make the case that most people—well, maybe some people—don’t really care what their friends’ children look like. I would much prefer if you are going to send a picture of your kids that you, my friend, include yourself in the picture. I want to see YOU! I don’t care how much you’ve changed over the years. In fact, that is what I would like to know. It helps me merge the image I have carried of you over the years with who you are now. It allows me connect with the people in my life and recreate an image of you to hold on to, one I can embrace as I embrace the differences I see in the mirror every day. I want to know how you’ve changed, how you’ve been, what you’ve done since we were last together. Wrap all that up in an artful card when you send holiday greetings. It’s better than a present to me!

Unlike some people I LOVE getting holiday newsletters. I know they’ve been maligned and lampooned over the years, but finding out what all our far-flung family and friends have done over the past year is exciting for me, especially since we can’t get together the way we once did. I enjoy reading about the accomplishments of you and your children and about what has happened in your lives. If you can manage to make the letters funny also, that’s a huge bonus, but absolutely not necessary. Not all of us are Lewis Grizzard or Rick Bragg or my new favorite column writer, Allison Glock. Just hearing about your exploits makes me feel closer to you. If I’m honest about these newsletters, I also must confess that since you are writing to an English teacher turned writer and an English major who aspires to be in publishing one day, Shannon and Erik respectively, you will be graded on your grammar and punctuation! Just kidding…sort of. It’s an affliction really, one we can’t help, but don’t be discouraged from sending us your news! We love hearing from you.

This season I will be sending out the trifecta, our newletter complete with a picture stuffed inside a beautiful card I bought at Walgreen’s. I tried to purchase cards with a bit of sparkle embodying not only the beauty of the season but also the reason for the season, the birth of Christ. Though this has been a difficult year for us, I will still include information about our accomplishments and our failures because those things have made us who we are in 2012. I can’t say I won’t be happy to see this year come to an end. I will. But I also want to take the time to remember our blessings and share those with my friends. I want to reconnect with people we have known for years and share our lives again, if only for the few moments they read what I have written.

As they near the end of the letter, I hope they will look at our picture and remember fondly the times we were together. I hope the memories give life to our friendship once again. I wish we could spend every Christmas with the ones we love, no matter how far away they are, but until then, Christmas cards will have to do. In the hectic pace of our lives, it’s really too bad we don’t take the time to write to each other more than once a year and send something we can hold in our hands to remember the people we hold in our hearts all year.

Number One on My Christmas List

I have asked Santa for only one thing this Christmas. A cookbook by Thomas Keller called Bouchon Bakery. I have always loved baking. I’m pretty good at it, but I want to take my skill to the next level. Something about the precision and, of course, the sweet products satisfy my desire for order and comfort that, at times, the creative side of my nature is entirely lacking, especially the order part. When I feel out of control or upset, I either clean or bake, but I much prefer to bake. What I really want to do, however, is to learn how to bake croissants and pastries, French pastries. I also want to learn to make macarons, not the coconut macaroons I grew up eating and enjoying, but the delicate French confections made with two meringue cookies sandwiching a luscious filling between them.

My interest in macarons blossomed after reading a book called The Color of Tea by a first time author, Hannah Tunnicliffe. Fantastic book! It’s about a young British woman who opens a tea shop in Macau after realizing she won’t have children. Baking and opening her shop helps her heal and gives her life direction and purpose. The chapters in the book were enough to inspire anyone to learn to make macarons. Each chapter was titled with a new flavor: gunpowder green tea with sweet mandarin butter cream, espresso with dark chocolate ganache topped with a square of gold leaf, pear and chestnut with Poire Williams spiked buttercream. You get the picture. Well, I couldn’t get the idea of baking something that wonderful out of my mind. I even looked up how to make macarons on the internet and learned that they are a testy lot difficult to perfect and often cause inexperienced bakers to fail.

The temperamental nature of macarons is one of the reasons why I chose Thomas Keller’s book Bouchon Bakery. After days of research when I should have been revising my novel (Procrastinating? Me?) the reviews indicated Keller’s book to have the best instructions even for beginners to be successful. In my search to decide if making macarons was viable I watched a video on the internet showing how to make macarons, but the people spoke only French. Somehow I know I will get more help from clearly written instructions than from watching a French video, even though watching the chef’s technique was incredibly valuable. In addition to the macarons, Keller offers recipe makeovers of such favorites as Oreos and Nutter Butter sandwich cookies, not to mention savory breads as well.

I like the idea of getting a cook book as a gift. It is the gift that will allow me to give back to my family by making really good food for them. It also fits the profile of the perfect gift to give according to my husband. I have teased him over the years about his gifts because he doesn’t give me “traditional” girl gifts. Sometimes that has been frustrating, especially when my friends ask what I got for Christmas, but over the years I have realized he is incredibly romantic about his gift giving. He doesn’t go out and buy whatever he thinks a girl might want. Instead, he listens carefully to what I say and what I like to do and comes up with a gift corresponding to my interests: skis and new ski boots one year, a gift card from the Sundance Catalog another (I wanted some cowboy boots that year). He doesn’t usually give me jewelry or clothes or other “girl gifts,” although on our twentieth anniversary you could have knocked me over with a feather when I opened my gift—a diamond anniversary ring with diamonds all the way around the band!

My wish this year is for that book and the sweet smells of baking that will waft from my oven when I begin using it. I hope he will remember to include some baking supplies and perhaps a scale for accurate measuring. I also will need a pastry bag with tips and perhaps some baking sheets and tart pans. Hmmm…maybe I should have asked for a little bit more than just the book! Who knows? Maybe I will love baking so much I will be inspired to open up my own café and serve the wonderful baked goods I produce to the citizens of my little town, but even if I never share anything but the “fruits” of what I learn, I will enjoy learning. In fact, that is the kind of gift I enjoy the most, the kind that keeps giving you pleasure long after the gift has been opened. The pleasure grows with use.

What’s on your list this year?