A Frank Conversation

I spent a lot of Christmas Eves sitting in the corner.

Not because I’d landed on Santa’s “naughty” list, by any means. (No matter what my younger sisters may claim to the contrary.) But because that’s where Frank was. And Frank had a strong gravitational pull.

If you’re a regular here, you’ve met my wife Heather and our developmentally disabled ward Missy. Frank was Missy’s dad and Heather’s grandpa. He and his wife Val would open their home to the entire clan on Christmas Eve. And they came. And came. And came. You could barely move the width of a jingle bell without rubbing elbows with family who’d come from Texas, or Kentucky, or England, or even just down the road to join the festivities.

It was a time of trading presents and stories and occasional jibes – the Year Of The Burned Carrots would never be forgotten – where everyone would get to come together and reconnect as a family. At least, that’s how I’m told it happened. I witnessed a lot of it second-hand.

Because while the merry chaos was going on, I was sitting in the corner with Frank.

Frank was a traveling salesman most of his life and was very good at keeping the conversation going. So good, in fact, that it could be difficult to find a departure point – especially for a young man who’d just married into the family and didn’t want to seem rude.  Heather used to joke that the rest of the family would watch us talking from afar and plan ways to “rescue” me from the world’s most relentless raconteur.

“How long has he been there?”

“Shouldn’t somebody do something?”

“*I’m* not going in there.”

The funny thing was, I really didn’t mind.

We both had a love of history, and Frank knew a lot of it, both national and family-related. We both had a love of bad jokes, and Frank knew a lot of those, too. We both had our share of unbelievable stories, whether it was some of the crazier things that had happened to me on stage or his own belief that he’d seen a UFO while in the Air Force.

Most of all, I think, we were both observers of the world. Sometimes with very different opinions about it, true, and sometimes pushing back a bit on those opinions. But at the heart of it, we had a very real respect for each other – what we’d seen, what we’d learned, who we were.

When you come down to it, that’s the heart of a family.

Maybe the heart of any people that hold each other in love.

Love is a word we throw around a lot, especially this time of year. Too often, we don’t go deeper in examining it than the sentiment of a Hallmark movie or  maybe the Grinch’s heart suddenly swelling by three sizes. It becomes something warm, desirable, even special – but like a tuxedo, a little too special to be everday wear.

Go deeper.

Love starts with respect. The ability to step behind someone else’s eyes. The capacity to acknowledge their joys and pains and needs. The willingness to take someone where they are – and sometimes the refusal to leave them where they are, as well, helping them become something even better.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about enduring abuse, or putting up with gaslighting, or tolerating the outright intolerable. Respect goes both ways. There’s a difference between acting from love and being a victim, just as there’s a difference between political wrangling and outright obstruction or corruption. But when it’s really there, even the most ordinary acts can become gifts as precious as anything under the tree.

May that gift find you all, wherever you may be.

And if it finds you in the corner, get comfortable. You may be there a while.

Windows in the Wall

It began with a deep family discussion. My wife Heather and her sister Jaimee had become embroiled in one of those topics that can transform an entire autumn: should Jaimee dress as Princess Leia for Halloween, or as a unicorn?

The arguments were weighed and considered with the seriousness of a House investigating committee. (I kid, of course –  it was actually much more serious than that.) In the midst of it, without warning, our disabled ward Missy looked up.

“Unicorn,” she said.

A pause followed.

“Well,” Jaimee said, “if Missy says so, I suppose that settles it!”

I’m not saying Missy is an Old Testament prophet, whose judgments come replete with ominous clouds, rolling thunder, and a lightning show worthy of Castle Dracula. (Well, not until she gets really impatient with us, anyway.) But if you’ve followed Missy in this space at all, you know that she tends to the quiet side. Some people say a word to the wise is sufficient; for Missy, a few words to a conversation is abundance.

But in the time that Heather and I have cared for her – seven and a half years now – there are periodic bursts of new vocabulary, like a river carving new channels. Every so often, the results are striking enough to mention here, like when “ma shoe” became “ma tennis shoe” a few years ago, or last Christmas, when she improbably added “Hallelujah” to the list. Even calling me “Scott” sometimes instead of “Frank” (her dad’s name) or “He” counted as a major milestone.

The thing is … lately, there have been a lot of milestones.

“I wanna go” is a standard phrase. But “Let’s move over here” is new.

“Lookit!” is an old favorite. But “Look at the animals,” said while pointing to a herd of horses, caught us off guard.

“Can you do me up?” popped out one afternoon, as she extended a jacket in one hand.

And even the stock comments sometimes turn into short conversations now.

“Where are we goin’?” Missy asked for the 10th time near the end of a drive one day. Rather than answer again, I lobbed it back to her.

“I don’t know, Missy, where do you think we’re going?”

“Home!!”

She was absolutely right.

We’ve always known that Missy understands more than she’s able to say, that a lot hides behind her silence. One night, as I read A Wrinkle in Time to her, the character Mrs. Whatsit was describing the art of “tessering” – folding time and space – by noting how much more easily a caterpillar could cross the edge of a picnic blanket if the corners were pinched close together.

Heather peeked her head in. “How far have you gotten?”

“We’re learning how to tesser,” I responded.

And Missy, quietly, picked up the edge of her blanket and brought the corners together. And grinned.

Lesson learned.

And now, by fits and starts, the words are starting to catch up. Not in a mass wave – the limitations she has are still real ones, an internal wall rarely scaled. But she’s increasingly finding cracks in the wall. And every once in a while, she builds windows.

I don’t claim to know how. Yes, we read to her a lot, we talk with her a lot. Maybe it’s as simple as that – that what you give your attention to flourishes, like seeds receiving water.

But that discounts Missy’s own work. The learning and growth that’s going on inside her, the process that only she can see.

Maybe that sort of growth always seems kind of magical, regardless of your age or condition. We’ve all done it. The lucky ones never stop. And most of us are still powerless to explain it fully.

I’d love to hear what Missy thinks. Maybe someday I will, just a little. After all, she’s already folded time and discovered unicorns. What’s one more miracle?

Let’s move over here, and see.

Doing It “My Way”

“If I had my way …”

Just writing those five words takes me back to my second hometown of Emporia, Kansas. It’s a nine-hour drive by car, but an instant flight in imagination. It just takes one thought to walk the acres of Peter Pan Park, or to race to my (cluttered) desk at The Emporia Gazette, or to taste a Braum’s sundae yet again.

And somewhere in that weave of images lives John Peterson.

Mr. Peterson, who died recently at the age of 96, was a man of many parts: professor and dean at Emporia State University, world traveler and biologist, passionate about conservation and the arts. But the open door through which most of Emporia knew him was his regular column in the Gazette, called “If I Had My Way.”

The title sounds didactic. It wasn’t. This was not a command, but an invitation. John’s column walked through his thoughts and his beloved community like a man on an evening stroll – noticing, commenting, passing the time. It was rarely earth-shaking. It never had to be. It was a chance to visit with a neighbor, to listen and muse and ponder.

His readers often mused right back. More then once, a passerby would greet him with his perennial catchphrase. He remembered one who would call out “If I had my way, the weather would be lots better today,” or another mentioning “If I had my way, you would keep writing those columns.”

“See how my title works for me?” he teased in print once. “Makes me feel good. That is fun.”

Those five words could have been the grumbling of a cranky old man. In John’s hands, they were closer to the late Andy Rooney’s “Did you ever wonder …?” It was a chance to consider what life could be, or at least a small corner of it. Like Hawaii’s “aloha,” it was a greeting, a farewell, and an expression of love.

We could use a little more of these days.

Oh, we’re good at expressing what we want the world to be like. Boy, are we! Whether it’s a sharp-tongued Facebook commenter or a president who finds it “disgusting” that the press can write what it wants, it’s easy to take offense, take a stand, and take on all comers. Right or wrong matters less than “My way or the highway.”

I don’t mean taking a principled stand. There are times to fight for something you believe in strongly, or against a wrong that will not let you remain silent. This isn’t that. This is taking umbrage that someone dare disagree with the rightness that lives in your own head. Other voices become threats to be walled out, lest they undermine you.

After all, what if they were right?

During the latest First Amendment brouhaha, my mind went to another president. Thomas Jefferson was no stranger to the partisan press. He often turned it loose on his enemies from behind the scenes as a rising politician, and often caught holy hell from it in return.

It’s said that when Alexander von Humboldt visited the White House, he found a copy of a newspaper that viciously attacked Jefferson. Shocked, he had to ask: Why are these libels permitted? Why isn’t the newspaper closed or the editor fined or jailed?

Jefferson asked Humboldt to take the newspaper with him. “Should you hear the reality of our liberty, the freedom of the press, questioned,” he said, “show this paper and tell him where you found it.”

Other voices matter. Listening matters. Seeing the visions of others matters, even as we ask them to share our own. Even if we don’t always like what’s shared in return.

Conversations make communities. That’s true in a great nation, or a small town. Remembering that can make life better for everyone.

And you would remember that … if I had my way.

Are We There Yet?

“No , Google, that’s not what I want.”

Not an unusual conversation under any circumstances. Doubly so when it involved Google Maps, as I wrestled with my phone screen to make at least one sensible route appear. (And by “sensible,” I meant of course, “route that I like.”)

I have nothing against the great orienteering tool of the 21st century. Most of the time, it’s been a godsend to me since I lack any real sense of direction. I’ve often said that the one direction I can reliably find is “down,” so long as I remember to leave my shoelaces untied first. It’s helped to know that the mountains are always west – at least, until I moved to Kansas for nine years, which may explain why my first attempt to find Lake Eisenhower ultimately led me to two ruts in a farmer’s field.

Ah, the good old days.

This time, though, it was being recalcitrant. I needed to visit the office of an out-of-town veterinarian friend. Google Maps was perfectly willing to take me there – so long as I used I-25, in part or in whole. Which for me, is a little like saying “You can come to the Bronco game, so long as you wear black and silver and carry a banner that says ‘Go, Raiders.’ “

I’m not totally unreasonable. I’ll use our great, great interstate when the time is right – say, 10 or 11 at night, when the cars are scarce and the exits are easy to reach. After all, there’s nothing wrong with I-25 that removing 90 percent of the traffic wouldn’t cure.

After the electronic equivalent of twisting one arm behind Google’s back, the map finally, reluctantly, gave me what I wanted. It wasn’t the fastest route there. In fact, it overshot the mark by a little bit in order to cross beneath the interstate and then double back. But it would take me on a route I trusted and get me where I wanted to go.

The fastest route is tempting. But it’s not always the best one.

As I write that last sentence, I’m tempted to look over my shoulder for the American Inquisition. After all, that’s heresy for us, and not just in driving. This is a nation that often loves straight lines, simple answers and clear-cut decisions.  And sometimes bulling through despite the complications does help us find a better way forward, like Indiana Jones in the bazaar blowing away a master swordsman with one shot.

Most of the time, though, it leads to frustration. If everything must be simple, then opponents must be crazy or wrong – after all, any reasonable person should clearly be able to see you’re correct. If things must be resolved quickly, then anyone who says “Hey, wait, what about this,” is the enemy, or at least wasting precious time.

And so discussions become debates become arguments. Positions get polarized with opponents seen as little more than cartoons. We dig in – and when you dig in, nobody is moving forward.

Health care. Immigration. Gun control. Each of us could name a dozen issues where we’ve had the same discussion over and over again without moving an inch. Many of these are high-stakes issues where people care passionately and deeply, which makes it even harder.

Most problems don’t have a single, sweeping solution. They require smaller steps on a number of fronts, as we define what we really want and what that looks like in each piece of the situation. That takes longer – and that’s hard when a sense of urgency is there. But it also means the solutions we reach are likely to be better fits, creating a path forward one cobblestone at a time.

The best route is not always the fastest. It’s the one that gets you where you want to go.

Let’s start mapping, shall we?

***

NOTE: Thank you to the many, many people who wished us and Missy well after last week’s column, “A Day In Emergency.” She’s been doing great and is as sassy and sweet as ever. We appreciate your thoughts!