Logging Out

Once upon a time, the symbol of midwinter was the Yule log. Now it’s the forelog.

If you’ve never heard the term, please allow my Word Geek Brain™ to make the introductions. You know how after you come back from a vacation or holiday, the “backlog” is all the stuff you have to catch up with? Well, the “forelog” comes on the other end. It’s the piles and piles of things you have to take care of before you can relax.

And my oh my, does the forelog burn bright at the holidays.

We hustle here, there and everywhere like Santa without a sleigh. Gotta buy the gifts. Gotta WRAP the gifts. Only wait, did we remember Scotch tape? Never mind that, gotta plan for company. Gotta clean for company. Check the work schedule. Check the flight schedule. “What do you mean, they’re coming in on Christmas Eve?”

Pant. Gasp. Pant.

You know, I’m starting to understand the Grinch more and more every year.

If it were just sheer social obligation, it would be one thing. But for most of us, most of the time, it’s coming from the best of places. We want to be welcoming to friends and family and neighbors. We want to help co-workers out before the holidays hit. And of course, we want to give the season that we received, so many times from so many people through so many years.

And in a way, that makes it harder. When we get tired – and we will get tired – it’s easy to turn it inward as an accusation. “I should be doing more. They deserve better. I’m not a good person.”

Stop. Stop. And stop.

In a season of love and kindness, it’s time to show some to ourselves as well.

It sounds selfish. It really isn’t. In a way, it’s a reflection of the adage that so many of us learned long ago, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” As my old math teacher might put it, that statement’s reflexive – it suggests that we also need to show the same kindness to ourselves that we would show to a neighbor.

No, it’s not easy. It never has been.

But we need it, as surely as any gift we’ve ever found under a tree.

We need to remember that we deserve good things, too. Not the “stuff” that gets piled up in boxes and bags, but the essential gifts. Kindness. Grace. Love. Forgiveness.

All of us are carrying a lot, whether at the holidays or any other time. None of us know the full extent of each other’s burdens. Sometimes we don’t even know the full extent of our own – we’re just trudging on as best we can, tottering under the load.

It’s OK to pause in the midst of the chaos. No … it’s essential. Take a moment to look at yourself as you would your best friend. Show the kindness you would show to them. Say the words you would say.

One of our family’s favorite bands, the a cappella group Face, had just the right words for it in a song called “Pick Your Head Up.” The chorus declares “The things that you say to yourself are words you’d speak to no one else.”

I try to remember that. To keep my words from being a weapon pointed inward.

If you’re in a place where you need to remember, too, I hope this helps. Know that you deserve the light. We all do.

The forelog will pass. But the strength you find and the flame you kindle can be a gift that lasts.

Better yet – it becomes a gift you can share.

Lift it up. And let it glow.

Living Upside-Down

Some things just have to be mentioned in the same breath. Like Beethoven and the Ninth Symphony. Or Sean Connery and James Bond. Or John Elway and “The Drive.”

So now that my friend Brie Timms has taken her final bows, it’s only right that someone brings up “Noises Off.”

If you don’t know the show, “Noises Off” takes every nightmare an actor’s ever had about the stage and blends it into a smoothie. It’s a comedy – no, an outright farce – where backstage jealousies lead to onstage chaos, with stalled entrances, sabotaged props, and an increasingly bedraggled cast. It’s also a notoriously difficult show to do, including a stretch where the story has NO dialogue for several minutes, relying on perfectly-timed action to get the laughs.

Brie came back to that show again. And again. And again.

No surprise. It fit her so well.

Let me back up: I’m not calling her a soap opera on wheels. Quite the opposite. Brie didn’t have time for unnecessary drama. Anything that distracted from the show didn’t belong. It’s the kind of focus that made her such a terrifying Nurse Ratched – a role quite opposite her real-life personality – and that built fantastic loyalty in her casts whenever she directed.

But she understood the paradox behind the best comedies. It’s an upside-down world where the golden rules are as follows:

  1. Silly is funniest when it’s taken seriously.
  2. It takes great acting to portray “bad acting.”
  3. Division onstage requires tight teamwork backstage.
  4. And most of all, if you want chaos, you have to plan for it.

Brie loved that. Especially the last one. And because of it, whenever she took on “Noises Off,” it ran like a Swiss watch. But a lot funnier.

And now that she’s gone, it feels like a gear in the watch is missing.

But even as the show goes on without her, I think there’s still something to be said for living an upside-down life.

Unlike comedies, life doesn’t give most of us the luxury of planning our chaos, which may explain why it’s often more tiring than funny. But it does tend to send us situations that work best when we flip the script. Where paradoxes make sense.

And the biggest one is that in a world ruled by isolation, we need each other more than ever.

Over nearly two years, we’ve all learned the pandemic litany. Cover your face. Wash your hands. Get your shots. And keep your distance. But we don’t always talk about the why. Maybe it just seems too obvious – in virus times, a person’s got to protect themselves, right?

But it’s not about each of us. It’s about each other. It’s about making ourselves living breakpoints so that the virus doesn’t wreak further havoc among all of us, especially among the old, the sick and the vulnerable.

When we think of our neighbors first, we win.

Teamwork matters. In comedy. In disasters. In life. And when it’s a teamwork born of compassion, one where we each give a little of our strength to help another, that makes all of us stronger.

I wish the team still had Brie in it. We need her. We need all our loving storytellers. But if we keep up that best paradox of all – to help yourself, help another – then I think we’ve kept one of the best parts of her, too.

And that’s a showstopper even “Noises Off” can’t beat.

Beyond Words

Heather hurts. A lot.

I wish I could say those words felt unfamiliar.

She’s had a lot of practice. Since her teen years, my wife has put together a list of conditions that sounds more like a pre-med syllabus. Crohn’s disease. Multiple sclerosis. Ankylosing spondylitis. By now, if we ever hit a Jeopardy! category called “Autoimmunity,” we’re sure to clean up on the Daily Double.

Yes, we joke about it sometimes. We’ve had to, the way Londoners in World War II sometimes joked about the Blitz. (“Last night’s raid hit Monkey Hill at the zoo. The morale of the monkeys remains unaffected.”) We’ve quipped about how Heather’s conditions mostly have the courtesy to take turns, flaring one at a time, or how catchy some of the medical terms would sound when set to music. In a situation you can’t control, sometimes absurdity helps get you through.

And sometimes nothing does.

The last few days have been part of that “nothing.”

Heather’s control is amazing. Most of the time, she carries on so well you wouldn’t realize anything’s wrong, at least, not until she went upstairs for an extended nap. So when the breakthroughs happen … well that’s when you know it’s truly awful.

That’s when 3 a.m. comes and sleep doesn’t.

Words become inadequate. Gestures of comfort feel small. All you can do is try to make it through the night and hope the next day brings more strength to face a painful world with. Sometimes it does. Sometimes you’re just fighting the battle again.

Even without a diagnosis, I think a lot of Longmont is fighting a similar battle right now.

We’ve all grown used to bad news in the world. Maybe too much so. When life keeps screaming in your ear on a regular basis, your mind has to push some of it away out of sheer survival, just to make it through the day.

And then it hits close to home. And you can’t not hear.

You can’t not feel the pain.

You know the story. By now, I think we all do. I don’t need to recount the mailbox shooting point for painful point, where one life was taken and at least two more forever changed. Some of us knew the people at the heart of it. Some had never heard their names before Wednesday.

But all of us are hurting now.

We don’t want things like this to be real. We want to understand why, as if that would forever keep the pain from returning.

But we don’t understand. We can’t.

And a sleepless 3 a.m. comes again.

I don’t have any miraculous words of wisdom here. I don’t think anyone does. Nothing that wouldn’t feel like trying to wrap a wound in tissue paper. The tools aren’t strong enough for the task.

All I can offer us is each other.

When the incomprehensible comes, whatever form it takes, we need someone there. The friend who can listen as the pain pours out in words. The partner whose gentle touch is a reminder that we don’t stand alone. The souls beyond our own who can walk with us and face the unimaginable together.

It may not be enough. But it’s more than we have alone.

And together, maybe we can reach the morning.

Snow Time, Like The Present

Inch by inch, the Subaru crawled over the snow-covered road. Inside the car, the CRUNCH and TEAR of our progress seemed to echo as Dad carefully drove the six long blocks up Gay Street.

It was time to pick up Grandma Elsie. And during the Christmas Blizzard of 1982, that was no small feat.

I can see a number of you nodding along. No surprise. You can always tell the long-time Front Range residents by dropping the words “Christmas” and “1982” into the conversation. That was the year of Bing Crosby’s Revenge, when the snow started coming on Christmas Eve and refused to stop.

That was the Christmas Eve when Dad battled long and hard to clear the front driveway – only to peek out the window during his coffee break and see it covered over again.

That was the Christmas Eve when I left my bicycle on the back porch – and looked out the next morning to see just the tip of one handle breaking the snow.

For my sisters and me, it was the coolest Christmas ever, with the world briefly transformed into our own personal Hoth. (Yes, even then we were Star Wars geeks.) Looking back as an adult, I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been for my folks.

Snow transforms the world, and I still love the beauty and magic that it brings as it makes old landscapes new. But it also carries a price.

It means more work, more caution and less haste.

It means breaking your routine and thinking about what you’re doing and why.

Most of all, it means looking out for your neighbor and lending a hand where you can, whether it’s helping to shove their high-centered car off a snowy median or lending an extra shovel to clear a walk.

And when you’ve made it through one of the Big Ones, you remember. Surviving the Christmas Blizzard of ’82 becomes a badge of pride.

We’ve seen those lessons in other times and places, many of them much less picturesque. Tornado. Wildfire. Flood. All the moments that reach out and test you as a person and a community.

Moments like now.

Years from now, a lot of us (I hope) will be boring kids and grandkids with our stories of the Pandemic of 2020. We’ll have our own tales of the uncertainty, the frustration, the odd things we had to do to get by when the world suddenly sprouted more masks than a Marvel Comics movie.

And hopefully, we’ll also have the same lesson to pass on. That it’s in the times of crisis that your love for your neighbor is truly tested.

We sing a lot about love this time of year. It fills our stories from the haunting lines of “A Christmas Carol” to the cheesiest Hallmark movie on the screen. And whether the tale is profound or trite, one element always comes back – love doesn’t leave you alone.

It doesn’t care about what’s comfortable or normal. It’s likely to ask you to change – to uproot what you thought you knew and rebuild. To think beyond your own skin and sacrifice, whether it’s to help a neighbor or a world.

It’s a hard gift to give. And the best one.

And when the world seems cold, it’s that love that will again light the fire.

The time has come. The season is here. The need is everywhere. Remember the lessons we learned in the snow and reach out with them, even when there’s not a single flake to be seen.

The road has been slow and the progress agonizing. But the destination’s worth it.  

With care, we can reach it together.

Even without four-wheel drive.

Directions in the Fogg

For the last few weeks, bedtime has been a race. And now, at last, Missy has pulled up smiling at the finish line.

A trip around the world can do that.

No, we’re not defying coronavirus restrictions and dashing through international borders one step ahead of the health authorities. Heck, at the rate baseball has been going, even state borders are starting to look like an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.

But Missy’s bedtime reading has opened a lot of doors over the years. We’ve journeyed through Middle-earth. We’ve battled evil at Hogwarts. We’ve traveled the stars with Madeleine L’Engle and solved mysteries with Ellen Raskin.  And since Missy’s online activity group has been “visiting” a lot of countries lately, the time felt right  to introduce her to an old friend.

Once again, it was time to travel with Phileas Fogg.

If you’re not familiar with “Around The World In Eighty Days” – is there anyone left? – you have quite the journey ahead of you. I was a kid on summer vacation with my family when I first read Jules Verne’s tale of the incredibly precise 19th-century Englishman who accepts a 20,000 pound wager to circle the world  in the stipulated time without being a single minute late.  It’s a short novel and one that moves as quickly as its characters as they jump from trains and steamships to sailing craft and elephants, efficiently racing the clock (and a misguided detective).

Like a lot of older books, some bits age better than others. But the story still draws like a magnet because the central idea still works.

No, not the idea of circling the globe in under three months. Anyone with access to an airline ticket and a passport – a combination which, admittedly, has become a piece of fiction itself lately – can travel at a pace that leaves Fogg and his friends gasping in the dust.  But the challenge behind Fogg’s wager is still part of us today.

Namely, the idea that with enough planning, even the unexpected can become predictable.

At this stage of 2020, the idea sounds almost humorous. Anything we may have expected on  New Year’s Eve has surely gone through the paper shredder as we’ve grappled with seven months of upside-down events. It’s always hard to grasp how little control we truly have, but 2020 seems determined to remind us of that constantly … with a Louisville Slugger, if necessary.

The thing is, Fogg’s friends back home seem to have already absorbed the lesson. From the start, they remind him of all the things that could go wrong – breakdowns, bad weather, local violence and more. And in a way, they’re right. Fogg’s ability to take advantage of the good and improvise around the bad gets absolutely derailed on the final lap, disrupted by the one complication he hadn’t foreseen. Disaster looms.

It sounds like a pandemic lesson. And I hope it is. Because – spoiler alert! – that’s not the end of the story.

There’s a second complication. A positive one that gives Fogg more time than he thought he had. But without his planning, he would never have been in position to take advantage of it. And without learning to recognize and return the love of others, he would never have seen the opportunity at all.

And that is the lesson we need to learn.

Not to give up. Not to say “Nothing we do will make any difference.” But to plan as best we can, improvise where we have to, and recognize that ultimately it’s our compassion for the people around us that will get us through this. When we look out for each other instead of grasping desperately at normal, we win – because every one of us is “each other” to someone else.

Like all adventures, this will leave us changed. But it can be a change for the better.

Maybe, just maybe, a little Fogg can help us see clearly.

The Land Outside Time

As Heather watches social media, she’s starting to get a sense of satisfaction. Mixed with more than a little déjà vu.

“So is today Blursday?” “No, it’s Blendsday.”

“Longest … month … ever.”

“You guys, I just missed a call because I forgot it was Friday.”

On and on they come. An endless stream of quarantine-laden quips, comments and memes, all on the same subject: time has stopped. Or lost all meaning. Or slowed to a pace where you can feel continents drifting.

For most of us, it’s a new reality.

For Heather, it’s yesterday. Whatever day that was.

“Now they get it,” she told me. “Now they know what it’s like.”

For those who joined the game late, Heather is chronically ill. OK, that doesn’t really go far enough. Heather is a walking encyclopedia of chronic conditions, who once inspired a doctor to call in his intern for the appointment because he was never going to see another situation like this. Crohn’s disease. Multiple sclerosis. Ankylosing spondylitis. At one time, endometriosis. The list goes on and on, in a list of melodious-yet-poisonous syllables that have brought neighbors to bewilderment and spell-checking programs to tears.

Life has gone on. It’s had to. But it goes on in different ways and follows different rhythms than most of the world. Or at least, it used to.

With the descent of COVID-19, the gap has narrowed significantly.

Now others walk the path she knows so well and begin to learn the itinerary.

There’s the loss of time when you haven’t been able to leave the house for a while. The calendar turns into a map of the Great Plains, a featureless expanse devoid of landmarks, where one stretch of the road looks much like another.

There’s the uncertainty in making plans. Today’s intention may turn into tomorrow’s frustration, whether it’s due to a flare-up or a new emergency restriction imposed by executive order.

There’s the persistent watch for any medicine that might make a difference, reinforced by the knowledge that none of them are as simple as aspirin. They’re expensive, they’re in limited supply, they’re not guaranteed to work, and they come with a long list of side effects that can be as dangerous as the disease itself.

Most of all, there’s the constant background awareness that health is not a given. That you could become sick at any time without warning. And that if you do, there is no cure.

It’s fatiguing. Frustrating. Maddening at times.

And now, it’s everyday life. For most of us.

Which means there may at least be a cure for the most maddening aspect of all. The part that Heather calls “compassion fatigue.”

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth revisiting. As a society, we’re not used to serious illnesses that don’t kill somebody but don’t go away. We want resolution. We want answers. We want to be able to think about something else for a while.

So when a friend or loved one reveals that they have a long-term condition, the first result is amazing compassion. You get offers of help, notes and calls, little bits of thoughtfulness just when you most need them.

But then – nothing changes. And people get tired. “I’m so sorry, how can I help?” slowly turns into an unspoken “Do you STILL have that?” It’s almost a resentment: how dare you stay sick and remind us that life isn’t always so wonderful?

No one can be Saint Francis for 24 hours a day. I get it. No one’s asking for constant mothering. Just for understanding.

And maybe, just maybe, that understanding will be a little easier to come by now.

Most of us are lucky. We will get to routinely leave the house again. We will be able to resume normal lives, dispel the fear, restart the world we know.

When it happens – don’t forget how this felt. Keep hold of that memory for the sake of those still caught between ticks of the clock.

Long after social distancing goes away, there will still be a distance that needs closing. Use the memory of now to build that bridge.

I know Heather will appreciate it. And many like her.

See you next Blursday.

Riddle Me This

Silence had reigned for a while.  For a moment, I wondered if I’d made things too difficult this time.

Then, the messages began popping up on my phone.

“Shred, lasso, trap,” one mused over the puzzle I’d left. “Terrapin?”

I checked, the clues did indeed translate to “tear, rope, pin.”

“CORRECT!”

Another came in, deducing that “lose it, quick text” actually meant “snap, ping.” And another, turning an especially convoluted wordplay into “teenage mutant ninjas.” Before long, most of the “Turtles” category had been uncovered.

Another Riddle Night was under way.

It’s probably my most curious hobby. Lots of people read. Plenty of people act with a theatre group, or play tabletop games, or fool around with a musical instrument. But the number of folks who create riddles for a group of friends to solve … well, I won’t say it approaches zero, but it is clearly a specialty entertainment.

I inherited the title of the Riddlemaster a while ago. Like many things, it started with a Facebook group, in this case centered around the humorous and thoughtful “Callahan’s Place” stories of the writer Spider Robinson. The tavern where Robinson’s science fiction stories were set had compassion, revelry, and near-constant puns – all things we could readily duplicate in a virtual environment.

But one of the more occasional features of the stories was Riddle Night, where one of the patrons would pick an unspoken theme and then write several related riddles on the board. Each successful guess scored a point; the winner had his or her drink tab cleared and got to be Riddlemaster next time if they chose.

We obviously couldn’t do anything about the drink tab in an online “saloon.” But the rest, with some effort, was doable. We added some more time (most of a weekend rather than just one night) and the caveat that if the winner didn’t feel up to the challenge of next week’s riddles, they could “pass the microphone” back to the default Riddlemaster – which, after the first few months, became me – and we were off.

OK, we were clearly off. But a little insanity never hurts for something like this.

By now, the topics have been myriad. Poker hands. Middle-earth. Heroes and villains. If you name it, we can riddle it – and maybe even crack it.

It takes a lot of mental effort, both to forge the riddles and to solve them. But it’s worth every drop of cranial sweat. In many ways, it uses the same parts of the brain that a good pun does, but in slightly different ways.

It forces you to look at meanings and see whether there’s something you hadn’t considered.

It makes you look for patterns and connections, veering away from the unproductive ones and zeroing in when the evidence becomes clear.

At times, it encourages you to work together – someone else’s wrong guess may have the key to your own solution.

In short, it makes you think, be aware, and pay attention to others.

That’s never a bad thing. Especially these days.

We don’t spend a lot of time trying to understand any more. Maybe that too is a specialty interest. It’s always easier to mobilize the troops and concentrate the folks who think just like you, to reinforce old habits and strengthen existing beliefs, than it is to try to see where someone else is coming from. It’s harder to feel where another person hurts – or harder still, to see where you’ve hurt someone else yourself – and reach out to help them out.

Harder. But essential. For all of us.

How do we get there? That’s a riddle indeed. But one well worth the solving.

And like the turtle riddles, the first step is to come out of your shell and try.

The Eyes of Loss

A long time ago, C.S. Lewis wrote that the death of a loved one was like the amputation of a leg. The pain might eventually dull. The patient might eventually work out new ways to walk and live life. But they would remain aware of what had been lost for the rest of their life.

It’s been two years for us. And the limp still catches.

Two years since Melanie. Unbelievable.

Melanie, the 21-year-old cousin who had been staying with us for over a year, probably would have laughed at being remembered this hard for this long. She would have joked that it’s only because of the blanket for Missy that she left unfinished, or the dishes that stopped piling up in her bedroom before a much-delayed trip to the sink. She might have teased that at least we didn’t have to listen for the front door at night, to make sure she hadn’t lost her key in her backpack again.

She’d be wrong about that last one, by the way.

A little bit of me has never stopped listening for the door.

The world seemed to freeze on Jan. 26, 2018 when she was found in her bedroom. It almost seemed insulting that it should move on, without so much as a wobble in its orbit. Move on it did. It always does, in all its noise and wonder.

But maybe just a little more muffled than before.

No … no, that’s not quite right. Not anymore. If you’ve been through something similar – and too many of us have – you realize that the numbness is only temporary. After a little while, your awareness goes the other direction and becomes almost unbearably acute. Like Sherlock Holmes, you begin noticing even the smallest details that might connect to a memory.

When my Grandma Elsie passed, it was soccer that brought her back to me unexpectedly. Strange, since in the years I knew her, my English grandmother was a passionate Denver Broncos fan. But she had also been the one to explain a little soccer to us as kids … and that afternoon, with a World Cup game on TV and tea for Missy brewing on the stove, her memory was suddenly inescapable.

With Mel, it can sometimes be as small as an abrupt cold snap. (At 5’1” with a tiny frame, she had little insulation against freezing weather and little patience for it.) Or an online comment evoking her unique blend of sass and heart. Or the book she’d loaned shortly after moving in that I never did return (dang it).

Or, more subtly, a heightened awareness of other people and their hurts.

Because that was Melanie, too.

That last one, I suspect, has a lot of company. No one knows pain like the people who have been hurt badly, whether through a traumatic loss, a chronic illness, or some other wound to the body or soul that simply cannot fully heal. It damages. It isolates.

And sometimes, it amplifies. Having endured pain, you recognize it in others. Not just in sympathy, but in compassion, reaching out to join hurt to hurt.

We start to see each other’s limps. And with that, we walk together a little better than we did before.

I’m not saying that pain or loss is a good thing. I never could, especially after these last two years. But if we can learn to reach to each other’s pain, to see that it matters, that they matter – that, perhaps, is one of the best things of all.

No, the world never stops. But it can become closer.

Maybe even as close as a memory of Mel.

The Doctor and the Professor

In some ways, the Doctor and the Professor couldn’t seem more different.

The Doctor looked toward a fantastic future, built among the stars and shared with a race of mechanical men. The Professor looked toward a mythical past, sheltered amidst the trees and hills and shared with beings older than mankind.

One wrote at high speed in a utilitarian style that kept the stories coming and coming. The other labored over each word, considering the history of every drop of color and whisper of wind.

And for fans of the fantastic like myself, the New Year hasn’t really started without them. Dr. Isaac Asimov, one of the biggest names in science fiction, born January 2. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, the godfather of modern fantasy, born January 3.

Am I geeking out here? Maybe just a little. But it really is just that cool.

Part of it, of course, is memory. My love for Tolkien was born in elementary school, reinforced by many hobbit-filled reading nights with my dad where we delighted in every new character and voice. (I still envy Dad’s booming Treebeard, just as I think he always appreciated my attempts at the hardworking Sam Gamgee’s accent.) Asimov’s work I met a little later, encouraged in part by a science teacher who felt that no robotics club was complete without the Good Doctor.

Obviously, I’ve got a lot of company – including the Doctor and the Professor themselves, as it turned out. Asimov was one of the few “modern” writers that Tolkien genuinely enjoyed reading; Asimov, for his part, once mentioned that he’d read The Lord of the Rings five times and was genuinely surprised when his own Foundation series beat it out for a Hugo award. But it’s more than pleasure and nostalgia.

The truth is, there couldn’t be a better way to start the year. Because in doing so, we look toward the truly human.

I know that sounds strange. Asimov solidified robots in the modern imagination, while Tolkien introduced us to hobbits and all their kin. But both writers, even in their most epic tales, built everything on the most simple and basic of human qualities.

In Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, the problems of the world aren’t solved by mighty armies and powerful leaders. Instead, it comes from the compassion and determination of simple folk, knowing they’re not up to the job, but doing their best for as long as they can.

In Asimov’s worlds of the future, the answers don’t come from vast armadas and epic battles – in fact, violence is mocked by one character as “the last resort of the incompetent.” Instead, the key is to use your reason to understand the world and the people around you, knowing that if you can see what the problem actually is, the solution may be simpler than you think.

Heart. Mind. An awareness that other people matter – whatever their origin –  and a disdain for the pride and hatred that often sets them apart.

We still need all of that today. Maybe now more than ever.

And if we let it be nothing more than a fantasy, then we’re writing ourselves a very dark tale, indeed.

So go ahead. Look to the promise of the future. Take heart in the legends of the past. And use the tales of both to see our present moment more clearly. That’s what will give us the humanity to reach beyond the threats and fear that haunt our times – to build a world together rather than destroy it apart.

It’s a vital lesson.

And it’s one the Doctor and the Professor are still waiting to teach.

On All Sides

Don’t look now, but we’re surrounded.

No, not by thugs and henchmen, like the heroes of a Batman story.

Not by the Decorations of Christmas Yet to Come, a prospect more terrifying than any ghost Dickens ever invented.

Not even by wild-eyed Mary Shelley fans – though with October marking the 200th anniversary of “Frankenstein,” that’s a closer guess than most.

No, when you live in Chez Rochat as I do, and you’ve just entered the month of October, there’s a surrounding horde more intimidating than all the rest on the way.

Birthdays.

You laugh. But it’s true. When Heather and I first joined forces 20 years ago, little did we realize that among the “for better and for worse” and “in sickness and in health” was an unwritten clause stating “And you shall spend October cornering the market on gift bags and Hallmark cards, and surrounded by ever-increasing Facebook reminders, til exhaustion shall you part.”

October is the month of our ward Missy, who would gladly celebrate each day of it with bowling and dancing (along with every other month, of course). It’s also the month of a grown sister, a young nephew, a frequently-visited aunt. It even holds the day for a much-loved grandma who left us at 93 and a much-loved cousin who left us at 21 … both of them sharing the same birthday.

Surrounded, I tell you.

Every family’s got some sort of similar coincidence, I’m sure. (Before I married Heather, February was usually the typical Rochat Family Danger Zone.) And when you think about it, it’s a rather benign mob. Besides serving as a dress rehearsal for the Christmas logistics that are oh-so-near, it’s a reminder that the ones we love are never far away, that family is nearer than we think.

It’s a reminder we could use these days. On a much larger scale.

True, this country has never quite been the Hands Across America, From Sea to Shining Sea that we like to celebrate in our national legends. Our nation began in a family fight and has found ways to stir up more – figuratively or literally – with each succeeding generation convinced that they’ve been caught up in the worst of it. Civil war. Depression-era strife. Riots and protests. The arrival of Hanson and Justin Bieber.

But without trying to rank it on some mythical internet scale (“You’ll Never Guess Where YOU Rank on the Nation’s Seven Most Strained Moments!”), it’s fair to say that we live in particularly divisive times. Many are hurt, suspicious, angry. And to be fair, many of the events in our headlines are things that SHOULD make us angry, many of them the very questions of justice and compassion whose answers define who we are as a people.

But in the midst of it, we can’t lose sight of something important.

Namely, each other.

When “who is my enemy?” becomes more important than “who is my neighbor?”, we lose.

When politics becomes a blood sport and a tool for revenge rather than a process for arguing our way to answers (sometimes, admittedly, with great rancor), we lose.

When we harden our hearts and block our ears … when we put our pride above another’s pain … when the team justifies any action taken in its name … we lose.

And every time we do, we become isolated in the midst of multitudes. Seemingly many, yet so alone.

We cannot neglect our larger family.

I’m not saying to roll over and surrender in the name of unity, like someone trying to placate an abusive partner. Some fights need to be fought, some stands need to be taken. But if the battle of the moment obscures why it’s being fought, who it’s being fought for, then even victory becomes hollow.

We must see each other as more than “other.” And act like it.

Don’t look now, but we’re surrounded.

By family? By foes?

That’s up to us.