Now Starring

“Daddy, look!”

I smiled – with Missy, “Daddy” is more of a job description than a title – and came over to the table. She stabbed her finger eagerly at the coffee table book, before turning more pages, and then more.

“Look! Look!”

From the pages leaped star fields, the points of brilliance crowding the page like sand on a beach. And then nebulae … and galaxies …. and planets. Some of the beauty was practically next door; far more of it was farther away than could be traveled in a hundred lifetimes.

But all of it, every last photo in the book from the Hubble Space Telescope, had captured Missy’s eyes and imagination. Our disabled ward is often a woman of few words, but she didn’t need them this time. Her face said everything that needed saying.
“WOW!!!”

She had been ambushed by wonder.

I’ve been there. I think we all have. It might be while watching the Northern California ocean at night, or seeing a blanket of stars above the Rockies, or an unexpected strain of music that lifts you beyond every cloud. It might be something quiet, even ordinary to the outside world … but not to you. Never to you.

Those may be the moments when I unmistakably feel the strength of hope.

Consider. Except for a few primal things, like loud noises, most fears have to be learned. It’s why the toddler years can be so unnerving for any adults nearby, as the little ones reach out to explore a world with no awareness of routine dangers – the electric socket, the heavy book on the end table, the doggie that might not like having his fur pulled.

Some of the fears and cautions we learn are of that sort, the awareness that keeps our impulses from leading us into harm’s way. But we teach others that are less beneficial – suspicions, prejudices, hatreds that inflict pain rather than avoiding it. Almost 70 years ago, South Pacific sang out the truths we’re still dealing with now:

 

You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late,

Before you are six, or seven, or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

And then, there’s wonder.

It’s not something that’s taught, though a good teacher can lead one to it, and help shape it when it comes to light. You find wonder. You discover it. You come upon it and claim it as a gift.

At its most basic, wonder reminds us that we’re connected to something larger than our everyday view of the world. It takes off the blinkers, gives us perspective. At its most powerful, it can be a fuel for dreams and thus for reaching out, because few dreams of any size can be carried out by one person acting alone.

It’s not taught … but it can be sought. And in a world where fears try to crowd out hopes like weeds in a garden, it needs to be.

We build our walls high. So we need to be ready to climb. Wonder can come anywhere, but we help it most when we test our own limits – when we’re ready to risk a new experience, meet a new person, take our mind somewhere it hasn’t been before. Whether it’s the limitless reaches of space or the garden plot you’ve always meant to try out, all of it can serve as a step to something greater.

The clouds above are thick. But if we keep walking, we can find the stars.

Some of them are shining in Missy’s eyes right now.

Hearing Through the Storm

I wanted to write about Adam West this week. This was going to be a warm and fuzzy farewell to TV’s Batman, full of  the echoes of “BAM!” and “ZZONK!” and maybe even a “KAPOW!” or two.

But then shots rang out. Again. And it’s been a little hard to think about anything else.

This time, it crossed the country in a single day. The sites couldn’t have been more different. A baseball field in Virginia where congressmen were practicing for a charity game. A UPS center in San Francisco, where it was just another working day – until suddenly, it wasn’t.

Until the anger reached out. Again.

I used to write about these more. That was when the announcement of a mass shooting was a punch to the gut, a painful shattering of an ordinary day. It demanded to be grappled with, even if there were no clear answers to offer. (Are there ever?) Even if all that could be offered was comfort.

Now it seems more like an old wound, poked and prodded to life again. They’ve not become normal – please, let them never become normal – but the pace has increased and the alarm bells have started to blend with the overall noise. Now, we pay lasting attention mostly when something raises the bar, with maybe a high profile victim (the baseball shooting), or a strange setting (the Aurora movie theater), or a huge casualty list (the Orlando nightclub).

I almost wrote “… or a place we expected to be safe.” But that’s the point, isn’t it? We used to expect safety. Now, we seem to expect anger. No, shootings like this aren’t normal yet, but now they’re punctuation marks rather than breaks in the narrative.

When I was a kid, we used to play a storytelling game called “The Boiler Burst.” It was a narrative version of musical chairs, where whoever was up had to tell a story, usually long and rambling. Sooner or later, the person would have to call out the words “the boiler burst” and everyone would move.

After you’d played a while, you became harder to surprise. You learned how to listen to the story, to listen for the cues that would suggest the punchline was coming. You knew which players would jump to the punch line as quickly as possible, and which ones would draw it out to the point of agony. The more closely you listened, the more ready you were.

I think we need to do some listening now. Because the pressure keeps building. And if it doesn’t stop, the boiler will burst again.

I’m not naive enough to think that we can ever completely scourge this kind of thing from the nation, or that we can ever understand every last motive of every last shooter. But we can grapple with the national anger that gives them a space to grow and flourish. The rage that has touched all of us, even those who have never heard a single shot.

Some of that anger comes from understandable places. There are many among us who fear for their families, or their jobs, or their rights, or their place in the world. When the conversation seems to stop, when those who might be able to help turn into stone walls – or worse, seem to add to the pain – the fear turns to anger and the anger grows.

Some of it is manufactured. From ancient times to now, people have found it convenient to stir up anger and point it at a target – an “other” who can be safely blamed for all their woes. That rage can build mobs. It can build camps. It never, ever builds solutions.

We need to hear where the anger is coming from. We need to listen for the real worries and fears that generate it, and to know when we’re being sold an easy answer. We need to be more aware of each other and our hurts, so that no one has to shoulder their burden alone.

We won’t prevent all the crazies. But we can stop helping them flourish. And if we turn down the volume, maybe, just maybe, we can better hear them coming.

Batman’s not going to burst through the door this time.

This time, we have to come to our own rescue.

Lighting Hope

I’d gotten halfway across town when Santa Claus mugged me.

OK, not literally. There’s no need to call the fine folks of the Longmont Police Department and report a jolly old man with a fur hat and a blackjack, making a getaway in a reindeer-powered sleigh with one (red) headlight. The year’s been strange, but not that strange – yet.

No, this time Santa was part of a yard display that seemed to pop out of nowhere, complete with lights and color and holiday cheer. Normal enough for the holiday season. But a bit striking when it’s several days before Thanksgiving.

Missy, of course, was delighted. Our disabled ward eagerly plays Christmas carols in the middle of July. If Longmont were to break out in colored lights immediately after Labor Day, she’d probably break out in cheers that could be heard as far as Lyons – right before insisting on seeing every display, every night.

Not everyone is in her camp, of course. As stores increasingly deck the halls with holiday merchandise right after Halloween, I’ve seen the more-than-occasional post on social media, all of it set to a common theme: “What happened to Thanksgiving?”

I understand it, believe me. When I worked in the now-vanished City Newsstand bookstore, Christmas music and decorations were strictly forbidden until Black Friday. The dire penalties were never explicitly spelled out, but presumably included a lengthy spell on the Naughty list and a stocking full of coal.

But these days, I’m not really bothered by a chorus of “Oh, Early Light.” For a couple of reasons.

First, I figure Thanksgiving can take care of itself. Where other holidays cry out, Thanksgiving is about drawing in. It doesn’t require fireworks or dazzling displays, just a table to share and a spirit of gratitude. Its one garish parade, the Macy’s march, is really more of a start-of-Christmas celebration, with cartoon balloons and forgettable pop ballads mixed in. Thanksgiving doesn’t need to shout. It just needs a space to be.

Secondly, in this year of all years, I’m not about to refuse light and cheer from any source.

It’s been a hard one, with a lot of fear, anger and uncertainty that isn’t over yet. One (out-of-state) friend has had family threatened.  Another found a friend’s car had been covered with hateful graffiti. In so many places, online and off, battle lines have been drawn.

Mind you, election years are often divisive. But this one has taken it to a power of 10, not least because it’s left so many unsure of their future or fearful that they don’t have one. It’s a time when we need to be standing by each other and saying “You will not be forgotten” – as a promise, not a threat.

But threats are in the air.

I’ll say it again – we need each other. Every time we isolate, every time we declare someone unworthy of a place at the table, we weaken the whole family. Every time we turn aside from someone who needs our comfort, our support, our help, we break one more bond and undermine one more foundation of our common life.

If a few lights can remind us that joy drives out hate, I’ll welcome them.

If an early carol or two can send out the call for peace and understanding, I’ll join the chorus.

This isn’t about burying discord under a carpet of tinsel and plastic snowmen. It’s about recognizing the pain and reaching out to heal. It’s about seeing the darkness and driving it back so that we can find each other … and ourselves, as well.

There’s a Christmas carol I’ve quoted in this space before, taken from the despair and hope of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Its final verses are worth evoking one more time.

 

And in despair, I bowed my head,

‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,

‘For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men.’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,

‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep,

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.’

 

May we give that peace to one another and a true Thanksgiving with it.

May that be our proudest decoration.