Pouring Down, Rising Above

The rain just wouldn’t stop. 

When I lived in Kansas, I learned what that meant. Hard thunderstorms could make a mess. But steady, unceasing rain could be worse. When water has time to gather its strength, it transforms everything around it. Roads become rivers, concrete dividers become popcorn, lives become changed. 

I thought I knew that lesson. 

Ten years ago, I learned how little I knew. 

If you were here in September 2013, you know what I mean. If you weren’t, I’m not sure I can ever explain it properly. That handful of days belongs to another world, one where events flowed as ceaselessly as the St. Vrain and sleep was a rare and precious commodity. A world transformed. 

Longmont became a city divided. Lyons became an island chain. Missouri Avenue turned into the “Missouri river” as the water rose. Hover Street became impassible, though that didn’t stop some from sloshing their way across on foot anyway, struggling from south to north as emergency workers yelled at them to turn back. 

We held on as the water did its work. 

And even after the waters fell, we weren’t quite the same.

I don’t just mean the physical damage, though rebuilding from that became a years-long effort. Passing through the flood changes people. You don’t just let go of what happened, even if your home and family were well out of the floodway.

A few months later, when the spring rains began, I think most of us paused for just a moment. I remember watching the runoff pool and flow in a gutter near Longmont High School, unable to look away as my mind went back to higher waters and faster flows. 

Call it a reflex. A readiness. A ghost.

But we also carried away something else. We learned that we truly had neighbors. 

It’s easy to forget sometimes. Easy to ignore the lives that pass so near our own or even to clash with them. We divide, separate, watch the world with wary eyes.

But the good stuff never went away. Neighbors still exist. And when the waters rose, we found each other, reached out and helped. 

Even the St. Vrain couldn’t separate that.

It shouldn’t take a flood. Or a blizzard, or a wildfire, or any of the other traumatic moments that throw us into each other’s lives. But then, those are the moments that boil down all the choices and throw everything into stark relief. Where it’s clear that we either stand together or else we might not stand at all.

And so we reach for snow shovels. Or sandbags. Or masks.  One way or another, we reach for a neighbor’s hand and make each other stronger.

The world does its worst. And we rediscover our best.

And each time, I hope the discovery will last a little longer. It’s too important to rise and fall like a passing creek, full past bursting in a crisis and parched to the point of drought otherwise.

I said it at the beginning: sudden storms come and go, but steady effort transforms. That’s true of more than just rain. If we keep that sort of steady focus on each other, that daily commitment to our neighbors, we can reshape our world.

We just need to gather our strength. And not let up.

Long may we rain.

“After 25 Years …”

Heather and I have finally caught up with Tevye and Golde. But we figured out Tevye’s question long ago.

If your “Fiddler on the Roof” trivia’s a little rusty, there’s a moment where the lead character Tevye suddenly realizes that after 25 years or marriage, he’s never asked his wife a simple question: “Do you love me?” With their marriage arranged and a pile of daughters to raise, it never had a chance to come up. But as they reach a moment where their lives and world are changing, he realizes that he needs the answer.

Golde resists at first: why  worry about it NOW? But after much musical back-and-forth, she finally confesses that after 25 years of struggling together, something has grown between them. “I suppose I do,” she admits, surprised at her own answer.

“Then I suppose I love you too,” Tevye answers with a smile.

“It doesn’t change a thing,” they sing together, “but even so/After 25 years … it’s nice to know.”

It is, indeed.

We hit our own 25th a few days ago. The one they call silver. That makes it sound pretty and timeless, like jewelry in a safe, doesn’t it?

Well, it has been timeless. But I think Heather would agree that it hasn’t always been pretty.

Our parents like to tease us about having a whirlwind courtship: Heather and I met in November, proposed the next spring and had a three and a half month engagement.  Sometimes when you know, you don’t want to waste time.

That launched the adventure.  And since then, our mutual weirdness has carried us through a lot.

We’ve discovered what it’s like to spend “date nights” in the emergency room, somehow smiling at each other through the latest medical emergency .

We’ve entered parenthood through the back door, becoming guardians for Heather’s developmentally disabled aunt and uncovering new surprises daily.

We’ve weathered the losses that 25 years bring, from elderly grandparents to a too-young cousin.

And yes, we’ve accumulated photographs, marveled over interesting words, delved into each other’s favorite songs and stories, and shared WAY too many terrible puns. (That last one is mostly me, but she swears I’ve corrupted her.)

There’s been stress and strain to be sure. But also joy as well. And bit by bit, it’s added up.

So I guess, like Tevye, I am a little surprised. Not at the love we always knew was there. But at how small 25 years suddenly looks.

Like a mountain range, it’s built of smaller bits, brought together over time. And traveling that 25 years just means navigating the bits. You make it through the next day. And the next. And the next one after that.

That doesn’t have to just describe a marriage. It’s any worthwhile commitment, really. You decide what’s important to you and then treat it that way. Over and over and over again.

Sure, it can be tiring. Every mountain hiker knows that. But if you’ve committed to something good, the journey is worth the effort.

Ours certainly has been.

So happy anniversary, my love. We’ve climbed a lot of peaks together. And somehow, you haven’t pushed me off any of them, no matter how bad the jokes get.

We asked our Tevye question at the start and every day since. Thank you for the answer that’s always been “yes.”

Now, how about a movie night?

I think “Fiddler” is on.

Unconscious Victory

Talk about someone who was on a roll.

You might not have heard of Delaney Irving. She doesn’t have the grace of a Michael Jordan or the control of a Nikola Jokić. But like them, the Canadian teen has a championship of sorts, a really cheesy one. Even if it’s one she’ll never fully remember.

Irving, you see, took part in the annual Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling in Britain. That’s exactly what it sounds like: roll a wheel of cheese down a hill and run after it until you both cross the finish line. And as the CBC, Reuters and many others reported it, she did it the hard way … by tripping, knocking herself unconscious and rolling across the finish line.

“I think next year I just want to watch,” she confessed to the CBC after waking up to her win.

Now there’s an athlete after my own heart.

If you’ve met me or read this column for a while, you know that I’m … how shall I put this? … not exactly poetry in motion. Unless you consider Mr. Bean or Chevy Chase a poet, anyway. If there’s an awkward, stumbling way to do a simple task, have no fear: I’ll find an even clumsier one.

That’s how I managed to slam the bathroom door into me twice while trying to rescue a puking dog.

It’s how I managed to turn the act of retrieving a grocery bag into a parking lot ballet that required three stitches in my chin.

And yes, as the Longmont theater community will remind you, it’s how I managed to walk completely off stage and into the orchestra pit in the middle of an opening-night solo.

To my sort-of credit, I’m still around to write about this. I’ve even learned the vital survival skill of laughing at myself when life decides I really need a slapstick moment. But amid the laughter, there’s an even more vital quality to be found.

It’s equal parts persistence and commitment, but neither word quite says it. It’s the quality of putting it all on the floor. Holding nothing back. Being ready to fail, but only after doing everything you can to put yourself into a position to succeed.

In sports, it’s the team that knows one bad call won’t make or break them, playing a solid game with no effort left unexerted.

In fiction, it’s the Frodo Baggins type of hero – unable to destroy the Ring by his own strength, but using every ounce of strength to make its destruction possible.

And in life … well, in life, it’s a lot like Delaney Irving. Unable to control all the circumstances, but doing everything you can do. And maybe even getting the win despite yourself.

You set yourself up. Even when you fall down.

You may fall down a lot. There’s always the risk of saying “I gave it everything I had and it just wasn’t enough.” It leaves you without excuses or what-if’s.

But it also teaches. It trains. And it stretches you.

And each stretch brings you that much closer to where you want to be.

So by all means, trip. Stumble. Fall. (Heaven knows I do.) But do it because you’re trying for something better. You just might get it, even if you fall.

Keep trying, even if it’s just to roll a cheese downhill.

After all, where there’s a wheel, there’s a whey.

Book ‘Em

The Halloween season holds a lot of unsettling experiences. Like the chilling costumes. Or the blood-curdling movies. Or the thought that Election Day is just a week away. (“NOOOO!!!”)

But I think Paddy Riordan’s story may be my favorite hair-raising exploit this year, or at least one that I can sympathize with. You see, Paddy walked into his Coventry library with a book that was … shall we say, slightly overdue?

As in 84 years.

That’s right. According to UPI, the copy of “Red Deer” by Richard Jefferies had been checked out since 1938. For perspective, Neville Chamberlain was still assuring Britain of “peace in our time,” Betty White was still a fresh-faced teenager and the Denver Broncos were still 22 years away from disappointing football fans across the Centennial State.

You hear tales like this every so often, usually resolved with a laugh and a minor fine/donation (in this case, a little over $21 based on 1930s daily fines). But they never fail to make me wince as I recognize a kindred soul.

You see, I’m a bit of a bibliophile – which is a little like saying that Usain Bolt liked to run a little. I read constantly. Voraciously. And since I married a big reader, our combined collections aren’t so much a mountain of books as they are a literary Front Range, running the gamut from ancient history to star-spanning science fiction.

Naturally, I often spent a lot of time at the library – or should I say the “other library”? – joining the happy crowd of browsers and borrowers. But a book-loving spirit is a dangerous thing to have in combination with an absent-minded head. Especially when there are so many books already serving as natural camouflage for the newcomers.

And so, I tended to spend about as much time “settling up” as I did checking out. I can’t claim that my overdue fees personally paid for the new carpet at the Longmont Library, but it wouldn’t surprise me much.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, if I make headlines 40 years from now by unearthing a forgotten Bill Bryson volume and taking it to the circulation desk, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And second, as much as these stories strike a little close to home, they’re also heartwarming in a way. After all, we learn about them in almost exactly the same way, time after time: the person or their descendant uncovers the lost volume and brings it in.

No one would know if they didn’t. It’s possible no one would care. Most libraries don’t have the budget to keep a cold case file with square-jawed investigators seeking the truth. (Although wouldn’t that make a great TV series?) After a book spends decades off the shelf, most would assume that it’s not coming back.

Which means that every time it does, it’s an act of conscience. Someone who remembers what’s owed and wants to do their part to make it right.

When you think about it, this is a great time of year to remember that.

I don’t mean Halloween this time (though if you decide you “owe” really good candy to the kids on your block, bless you). But as I said earlier, Election Day is about a week away. Veterans Day is just a few days after that. Taken together, it’s a time to remember what we owe as citizens in building a country for all of us, as well as what’s been paid by those who came before.

Again, it’s a debt owed in conscience. If someone skips their piece of it, few would know. But when more of us who remember and repay, it’s better for all of us.

That kind of commitment speaks volumes.

A Bad Night’s Sleep

Some things just don’t seem necessary, you know? Like bringing sand to the beach. Or rocks to the mountains. Or World Series hopes to a Rockies game.

Nonetheless, a pair of Swiss brothers have decided that what the world really needs is a bad’s night sleep.

Billed as a “zero star suite,” the brothers – yes, of course, they’re artists – are renting out a double bed on a platform with a couple of bedside tables, lamps and no doors, walls or ceiling whatsoever. According to Reuters, “The intention is to make guests think about the problems in the world … and inspire them to act differently.”

The cost: just under $340. That’s with room service, mind you.

So, let me just ask the audience … anyone who needs help thinking about all the troubles in the world, or even just in your corner of it, please raise your hand.

Anyone? Anyone?

Yeah, I kind of thought so.

These days, it’s absurdly easy to dwell on the troubles of the world, not least because we seem to have bought the Whitman Sampler selection. Whatever your faction, philosophy or belief, there’s enough out there to keep anyone up at night. Climate change and court rulings. The economy and gas prices. Ukraine and … well, you get the idea.

And of course, none of us come to these problems with a blank slate. Even in the best of times, we’re all dealing with struggles of our own: family, health or a dozen more besides. If anything, we have too many alarms blaring on the deck. Most are in the “do not ignore” category but each of us only comes with one body and mind to attend to it all. (Well, unless you bought the Doctor Who Time Traveler Accessory Kit, in which case I want to speak with you right after this column.)

It’s easy to get overwhelmed. And depressed. And, well, sleepless.

What’s a person to do?

Something.

No, that’s not a word I left in the column while trying to think of a more profound phrase. It’s what we do. In the end, it’s all we can do.

Something. 
Our piece of the problem. In our place. At our time. However small it may seem.

Some of you may remember that I collect quotes the way some people collect action figures or classic cars. And for a long time, a 120-year-old quote from Edward Everett Hale has had a prominent place in my collection:

“I am only one, but I am one.

I cannot do everything, but I can do something.

The something I ought to do, I can do.

And by the grace of God, I will.”  

Every effort by an individual looks small. But none of them is meaningless. And enough “smalls” put together over time just may add up to something pretty big.

That’s not an excuse to sit back and trust that everything will work out. I’m peddling hope here, not optimism. What’s the difference? Hope commits. It rolls up its sleeves. As another writer put it, by acknowledging that problems can be solved, hope assumes an obligation to get up and do something.

It doesn’t guarantee “easy.” Heck, it doesn’t guarantee anything. But hope calls you to do what you can, where you can.  

Overwhelming? Sure. But not futile.

I’ll indulge in one last quote, from a science fiction author named Leo Frankowski. In one of his books, a modern Polish time traveler explains to a medieval lord that while his people don’t live to fight, they do fight for keeps:

“We fight long wars, and we win,” he says. “Once we fought for a hundred thirty years, when the very name of our country was erased from the map. And we won.”

That’s hope. That’s commitment.

That’s us.

And hopefully, it’s something that helps you sleep a little better at night.

Gee, What a Treat

It doesn’t take long for a kid to spot the dangerous houses on Halloween. Like the ones who give out raisins. Or pennies. Or candy that exists only to fill out a bargain bin. (Bit O’Honey, I’m looking at you.)

But notes home? That’s got to be a new low.

You’ve probably heard the story by now. For the 17 people who missed it, we take you now to North Dakota, where a radio caller said she planned to give notes to some trick-or-treaters that read “My, your parents raised a fat one, didn’t they?”

OK, it’s not quite that crass. But close. According to valleynewslive.com in Fargo, the letter home to Mom and Dad begins “(Your) child is, in my opinion, moderately obese and should not be consuming sugar treats to the extent of some children this Halloween season.”

Brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it? And they say neighbors don’t care anymore.

Let me call a time-out for one second. Yes, a lot of kids are becoming overweight in this country. Yes, even those without weight issues tend to inhale enough Halloween candy to light up three seasons of an anime series.

But even assuming that the woman had the best of intentions and an unerring eye for the children whose weight gain was due solely to eating habits, is there anyone out there who thinks this would actually work? Or would we get to watch a Halloween movie where Mom shapeshifts into a man-eating Bengal tiger?

I vote for tiger.

I speak from experience.

Oh, not on the trick-or-treat note circuit. Rather, from my college days working in a bookstore, the late, great City News, home of the greatest popcorn in Longmont. Like many a bookstore, we drew a lot of kids. Pretty good kids at that. But sometimes a little too … energetic, let’s say.

One boy in particular had decided to amuse himself by turning the bookstore into his personal Indy 500, doing laps at a pretty good rate of speed. It was cute, but a little dangerous; even if he didn’t run into a customer, much of the floor was hardwood and would hurt like the dickens if he wiped out.

So I came over as he made his next pass and  said with a smile, “Hey, slow down a little, tiger.”

That’s when I met Mom.

And met Mom.

And met Mom some more.

The words escape me now. The tone never will. Especially the anger that someone had trespassed on her prerogative as a parent by telling her son what to do.

I still don’t regret saying what I said to him. But I’ll never forget the lesson on how quickly confrontation can blow up, even from mild beginnings, when the subject is a child.

“Fat notes,” however well-meant, are unlikely to do more than begin a fight.

I’m not saying neighbors can’t be concerned or parents can’t be neglectful. But picking battles is always a wise idea. This particular one is for the parents, the doctor, maybe the child’s teachers. People who see the boy or girl more than just once a year in a bizarre costume. People with some idea of the child’s life and health, and what their real needs are.

People whose commitment goes beyond an envelope in a trick-or-treat bag.

I hope, after Halloween, that this worried neighbor turns her eagle eye to more than just weight. That she can keep an eye out for kids who seem to be bullied, or abused, or who just need even one friend. Those are the ones who can use a neighbor who’s unafraid of confrontation, who’s willing to stick her neck out to help one child who needs it.

They’re also the situations that require more than a short letter home, of course. They require a real investment of time and energy and love. That’s risky. And it’s not guaranteed to succeed. But it’s a battle worth fighting.

And it can always use one more person.

I hope she takes note.