The Heart of a Bear

It was Mama Bear who gave me my first inkling of how this thing called pregnancy worked.

Papa Bear gave me some of my earliest woodland survival lessons – usually by spectacularly screwing up his own efforts.

And Brother and Sister Bear were a constant reminder that you didn’t have to always get along to love each other.

Good lessons, for a few generations. And they’re going to have to stick now. Because the teacher has left the classroom.

For those who missed it, Jan Berenstain died last week. She and her husband Stan (who died in 2005) wrote and drew the Berenstain Bears books, which became part of the go-to bookshelf for childhood. Their work was sometimes silly, sometimes touching, but always reassuring and never cruel.

As I look back from yet another birthday (Mom made me promise not to put the number in print this year), I realize why the Berenstains have worn so well. Or why they did with me, anyway.

They didn’t write down to their audience.

I don’t mean that they didn’t use simple words or tried to employ complex, multi-layered plots. But they also didn’t assume that being young meant being stupid. All it meant was that there were things you didn’t know yet – and they were ready to help fill a little of the gap.

I lived for writers like that.

As I got older, I met still more of them. Madeleine L’Engle assumed I could handle a story of hidden angels and baroque time travel. J.R.R. Tolkien pushed my third-grade vocabulary to places it hadn’t gone yet and brought it back richer for the journey. Ellen Raskin (The Westing Game) dared to dazzle me with intricate puzzles; Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth) made me laugh as I learned, sometimes slipping in subtle moral lessons that wouldn’t be recognized overtly until I was older.

I count all of them, and more besides, among my teachers, friends and well-met companions.

They’re still out there – children’s writers who shape the mind instead of pacifying it, who wake it up instead of numbing it down. They may have more to compete with these days. But maybe not so much more at that; my generation was supposed to be hopelessly distracted by junk TV and Atari video games, after all.

All they need is the chance to make the acquaintance.

And maybe a little encouragement.

It’s a tricky balance; how to give a child enough guidance to learn without smothering their childhood. In his own way, Papa Bear may have been the best example, showing the idea of how to rub two sticks together, but letting his Bear Scouts light the blaze.

Granted, that was because Papa couldn’t light a fire to save his life. But still.

Yes, you have to provide the tools. Maybe even make clear how they work. And then you step back and watch. Maybe ready to help, but always ready to cheer.

And good books by good writers may be some of the best, longest-lasting tools of all.

So thank you, Stan and Jan. Thank you for getting us started down the road. You may have been simple, but you were always worthwhile.

Because of you, we’ve all got something to bear in mind.

Blessed Are The Weary

A gale-force wind rattled outside as I watched Heather lying on the bed.

Exhausted. Spent. Tired down to her toes.

On her, it looked absolutely beautiful.

Mind you, I’m not the sort of husband who takes an unholy glee in seeing his wife drained to the last battery. But I knew what her last three days had been like. An all-day trip to Colorado Springs, an all-night visit by her two grade-school sisters, a dinner trip to Northglenn with them and her father – it had been just about non-stop for 72 hours.

For her to be tired, and only tired, after all that was nothing short of a miracle.

As regular readers may know, Heather has just a few health problems. Which is by way of saying the Titanic had a minor leak. And the two biggest icebergs in a crowded sea have been her Crohn’s disease – a charming condition of the guts that an Occupier wouldn’t wish on a Wall Street CEO – and ankylosing spondylitis, a highly painful condition that hits the back, the hip, the shoulder and the neck in an attempt to fuse any or all of them.

The two have waxed and waned over the years, turning life into a minefield. On one memorable occasion, I came home to find her crawling toward the bathroom – walking was simply too agonizing without help. On another, I had to improvise a bed for her in the back of our car so we could make a cross-state trip home that neither of us wanted to cancel.

“I knew you really loved me when you held back my hair while I was throwing up,” she told me once with a smile.

But the hardest parts were the windows of clear weather among the storms. At heart, Heather is a doer. And when her body would calm down for the slightest moment, she would get busy, fitting as much activity into the time as possible – and invariably put herself in bed for the next two or three days, saying “Why did I do that?”

That’s life with chronic pain. You ride the waves, even as you watch fatigued, well-wishing friends struggle with the fact that this isn’t the sort of thing you get better from.

But somewhere along the line, something changed.

It started with a new medicine, the kind with a price tag that suggests diamonds, gold dust and velociraptor DNA were used in its construction. Slowly but surely it pried the window open a little further, enough to hope … and enough to hope to help.

Hope can be a powerful catalyst. And the more Heather could do, the more she could hope to do – never completely consequence-free, but always enough to keep the next step of the ladder in reach. When it came time to become a guardian for her developmentally-disabled 38-year-old aunt Missy, she never hesitated. And that ability to help someone else as she had been helped just pushed the “hope cycle” even higher.

She still has pain days. Sometimes very bad ones. But now, mixed with them, are the days of mere exhaustion, the after-effects of a time well spent. To be able to work hard enough that you’re tired from it.

It’s an odd blessing to name. But a true one.

I don’t know how long this turn of the roller coaster will last. All we can do is ride. I suspect that’s all any of us can do, holding out with as much patience and faith and endurance as we can until the next chance to climb higher comes.

For now, it’s just nice to know that “sick and tired” doesn’t have to be redundant. That to be tired can mean to be well, or at least well enough to truly live.

Sleep on it a bit.

I know Heather has.

For Your Own Good

There’s a lot for a preschooler to learn – shapes, colors, how to play nicely with other kids.

Now, it seems, they also have to learn how to please the Lunch Inspectors.

I take you now to beautiful Raeford, N.C., home of West Hoke Elementary School. It’s at that school where a young girl arrived with a seemingly innocuous lunch from home: turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips and apple juice.

Not bad. Sounds pretty good, actually.

But not good enough to satisfy the Lunch Inspectors. A USDA worker at the school said the lunch lacked the full two servings of fruit and vegetables and that she’d have to have a school lunch instead – at Mom’s expense.

And at Mom’s outrage.

“I pack her lunchbox according to what she eats,” the girl’s mother told the Carolina Journal. “It always consists of a fruit. It never consists of a vegetable. She eats vegetables at home because I have to watch her because she doesn’t really care for vegetables.”

As a side note, the girl ate exactly three chicken nuggets from that school lunch.

Lot of vegetables consumed there, huh?

Now, I do understand that not every home situation is a good one. There are parents out there who’ll send their kids to school with two saltines and a can of pop – or who can’t send the kids out with anything at all. Situations like that need to be noticed and even helped, if they can.

But this was hardly abusive or neglectful. This was someone coloring outside the lines. No, I take that back – this was someone coloring with an unapproved crayon.

A higher-level state worker later said the lunch should have been passed. But to me, that misses the point. Passing the lunch, short of an obvious problem, shouldn’t have even been an issue. All it did was offend the parent and embarrass the school, without even solving the supposed problem.

But then, I really shouldn’t be surprised. There’s a lot of people today who seem to know what’s best for us. Everyone except us, apparently.

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” C.S. Lewis once wrote. “It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

I’m not saying it’s wrong to care. I’m not saying that no one can ever be corrected, or that a helping hand can’t ever be extended. But anything, taken to extremes, can cross the line. Just as too much insistence on self-reliance can become an excuse for neglect, too much insistence on “let me help you” can become a burden.

It doesn’t even need to be the state doing it. We’ve all seen the “helicopter parents,” hovering close lest their child’s foot hit a stone. A recent NPR story found that now many of those parents are now invading the workplace, calling employers to push for their children. One Michigan State study of 700 employers found that a third had received resumes by a parent and that four percent had even seen parents show up at the job interview.

But why not? It’s for their own good, right?

Maybe, just maybe, our society needs a cooling-off period. A chance to remember those preschool lessons about keeping your hands to yourself and doing your own work. A chance to land all the helicopters, official and unofficial, and just let kids have a normal school day.

Don’t act like a turkey.

Save it for the sandwiches.


On the Other Hand

As I watched Missy reach for a marker and color in a picture, something struck me. I braced Heather about it later.

“Is Missy left-handed?”

“Yes,” my wife said smiling. “I didn’t realize it either until we started painting together.”

I had to chuckle. For a moment, despite no blood relationship, Missy and I had become kin.

No, I’m not a southpaw. Not exactly, anyway. It’s more like I found the cast-off parts of a left-hander and a right-hander in a yard sale and bought the mixed kit. You can call it partial ambidexterity if you want – or you can just call it a total mess. I’ll probably agree either way.

All I know is, I can write slowly and clearly with my left hand – or fast and messy with my right.

I’ll hit a baseball right-handed. But I throw it from the left.

The little bit of clumsy stage fencing I know starts with my left hand. But my rare attempts at clumsy basketball layups start on the right.

Having a foot – pardon me, a hand – in both worlds does have its advantages at times. I’ve never had to fumble at desks and drinking fountains made for a right-handed universe. But I’ve also been able to play a killer game of air hockey, flipping the paddle back and forth to the confusion of merely monodextrous opponents.

It’s kind of fun, actually.

Especially compared to the life I could have had.

When I was little, I had what my folks described as a bilateral syndrome, possibly an offshoot of my epilepsy. You could draw a line right down the center of my body, and past that line, my hands would lose their coordination.

A lot of work with some very patient people finally erased the line. They built up my dexterity – maybe a little too well, looking at the results. But I’m not complaining.

After all, it fits me so perfectly.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized there’s rarely just one right way to do something. Politically, that’s made me a moderate (and yes, shot at by both sides). Practically, that’s made me a curious person, eager to see what someone else might think or how someone else might approach a situation.

The results can be surprising, just as when I pick up a guitar the “wrong” way. But it can also be illuminating. At worst, I notice a detail about someone that I’ve never known before. At best, I pick up an angle or an idea that makes my own life a little easier. (I still owe a lot to the teacher’s assistant who taught me how to write papers back-to-front for instance, starting with my destination and building from there.)

Life doesn’t seal itself into neat boxes. And I’m glad for it. It means a little more work, but a lot more fun.

That’s never wrong. Even when it’s not right.

Now that I think about it, I haven’t tried any serious drawing in a long time. The next time I sit down with Missy, I may have to follow her lead, see if my left hand has another surprise it hasn’t told me about.

It may end up a mess, of course.

But if it doesn’t, I’ll have to thank her for giving me a hand.


Night Errant

After about 15 minutes lying on the carpet next to her bed, I looked up into Missy’s face.

“Feeling better now?”

Nod. Smile. “Yeah.”

I smiled back, hugged her. “OK. Now try to get some sleep.”

It was a situation that was odd and familiar at the same time. Growing up, I used to spend some of my nights in the room of my youngest sister, an imaginative girl with equally imaginative nightmares. I’d stay a bit, wait for her to fall asleep, then quietly decamp for my bed.

I’d even had to deal with it as a pet owner once, when our first bird got night terrors, flipping around the cage at breakneck speed. Remembering that she had always enjoyed my music, I began quietly playing on the piano (to Heather’s amusement). Three songs later, Rocky was completely relaxed.

So I had the resume. But there’s still nothing like your first time as a “parent.”

I use the word in quotes since Heather and I are caregivers and guardians for her developmentally disabled aunt Missy, a wonderful woman about eight months younger than me. It’s a role that combines equal parts of parent, sibling, best friend, and sometimes (it seems) second banana in an ongoing comedy act. When Missy smiles and laughs, the room seems to brighten.

But Missy doesn’t talk a lot. So when something scares or worries her, it can be hard to figure out just what.

And that was our challenge when we heard the moans coming from her room late one night – or was it early one morning?

I went in. Heather went in. I went in. Missy went to the bathroom, had her glass of water, sat up a little as each of us tried to deduce what was wrong. Was she feeling OK? Had the day’s story been a little scary? Was she worried about something?

No clear answer. Just a nod or a shake or a shrug, maybe a smile as one of us came in yet again.

Finally, I called on my old big brother training. “Want me to stay up with you for a bit?”

Pause. Nod.

So I turned out the light. Stretched out on the floor. And waited.

It seemed to be enough.

And maybe that’s true for more of us than just Missy.

Sometimes it seems that we live in a world of fears. Some have names: fear for a job, fear for a relative overseas, fear of a bad situation getting worse. But sometimes – maybe even often – they congeal and combine, creating a layer of stress and worry and doubt that hovers like a Denver brown cloud. It can’t be articulated. It can’t even be completely understood.

But maybe understanding isn’t what’s needed.

Maybe what’s needed is a presence.

A friend. A spouse. A parent. Anyone who can be near and remind you that you don’t have to face the darkness alone. Even if they don’t understand the fear, they understand you. They stand by you.

And having them there can make the darkness a little brighter. Maybe even just bright enough.

“Perfect love casts out fear,” the Sunday School lesson went once upon a time. I know that sounds lofty. But even a love that’s still learning can find enough strength to hold fear at bay til the morning comes.

Often, that’s all we need.

Thanks, Missy. Thanks for letting me be that heart in darkness, that friend in the night.

Sleep well.

I’ll see you in the morning.


Art from the Heart


I came home from work one night to find my office had become an art gallery.

Construction paper of red, blue and yellow festooned the walls, covered with paint, with stickers, with bits of tape. “Bowling got canceled today,” my wife Heather offered by way of explanation.

And it did explain.

Regular readers may remember that Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, loves bowling over almost anything else in life, with the possible exception of a car radio set to ’11’ blaring the greatest hits of Face. Long before her Wednesday trips to the alley, “I wan’ go bowling” will be heard at regular intervals.

So with a bowling date foiled, something else had to take its place. For Heather and Missy, it was an “art afternoon.”

The result was simple joy, both in the making and in the seeing.

Obviously, Missy’s not the first person to channel frustration into art. It’s well known, for example, that Beethoven’s “Pathetique” came to be after the composer failed to bowl 300 in a crucial league game (the fact that his biographers blame instead his disgust at his hearing loss is clearly a cover-up). You use what you have, transmuting pain or intransigence into beauty.

It’s something I got to see at very close range, a few years back.

In Emporia, Kansas, there’s a coffee shop called the Javacat-5. Local artists decorate the walls with their work, which can be just about any medium, just about any style. One day, the paintings were a vivid, piercing form of abstract art I had never seen, slashes of blue or of red, a sharp internal rhythm made visible to all.

I interviewed the artist, a young woman who had never really considered a career in art before going to school on an athletic scholarship. Her life probably would have stayed a series of win-loss records for the next few years except for one thing.


Crippling ones.

Team sports were out of the question. Any sports were out of the question. And so, she decided to paint out her pain – to take the lights and colors that assaulted her at regular intervals and put them onto canvas.

The results were staggering.

It struck me – and it strikes me now – that if that can become something striking and awe-inspiring, anything can.

Life gives us a lot of excuses to quit. Often very legitimate ones. Physical pain, emotional stress, loss beyond what any person should be asked to endure. Even minor frustrations can add up into something seemingly unbearable, where we want to become 9 years old again and hide under the covers for a couple of hours.

But there’s a power in those moments, too. And if we can find a way to use that power, however difficult it may seem, the moment can be transformed.

The science fiction author Spider Robinson once cited the Laws of Conservation of Pain and Joy: “Neither can ever be created or destroyed. But one can be converted into the other.”

No one says it’s easy, any more than smashing atoms is easy. But it starts by not stopping. By finding somewhere else, anywhere else, for the hurt of the moment to go.

That’s how you get piercing beauty on a canvas. Or enduring music from a piano.

Or, once in a while, innocent and vivid strokes of paint on sheets of construction paper.

It’s an experience not to be missed. Especially if it’s been Missy’d.