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.

Bigger Things

Water rising in the streets. Highways cut off. Neighborhoods turned into islands as their residents hunker down to shelter from the deluge.

We know this story.

Oh, not on the scale that Houston has seen and endured, to be sure, with its millions of people and trillions of gallons of water. But our own memories of floodwater are still raw and fresh, not quite four years old. We still recall the power of the storm.

We remember river channels moving and attacking from new directions. We remember south Longmont isolated and Lyons evacuated. We remember the rain, steady, unhurried, relentless, never seeming to leave.

And one thing more. That even as floods divided the city, they united its people. For a while, the usual controversies didn’t matter. What mattered was reaching out to the next guy, and the next, and the next.

The scale has changed but the impulse hasn’t. A storm focuses attention to an amazing degree. All at once, people line up to offer shelter, or supplies, or even a hastily assembled fleet of boats like a second Dunkirk. I can’t say all criticism or animosities were forgotten – among 300 million people, that may be an impossibility – but for a while, they were eclipsed by something bigger.

Come to think of it, that’s a timely word. After all, it hasn’t been so long since that was literally true as well.

Just a couple of weeks ago, much of the country took a break from what it was doing to watch a hole in the sky. For some, it was transformative as totality turned the midday sky into a magical darkness. Even those of us just out of the main path of the solar eclipse were transfixed by shadow, reflections, and the hint of sun still visible through darkened glasses.

Again, it didn’t lift us completely above our controversies and arguments. But it did seem to put life on pause for a few minutes, to make the contention smaller as we stood and watched together.

For a moment, the scale changed. And our perspective with it.

For a moment, our focus was captured by something larger than ourselves.

It doesn’t last. Maybe it can’t. The author Terry Pratchett once noted that “Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.” We still are different people with different views, and when that singular focus has passed, we still have to figure out how to build a life together day by day.

But we can keep that common purpose on a deeper level. We can remember why we come together in times of disaster and wonder.

Because your life matters as much as mine. Because we share a world bigger than any of us. Because it’s not just about ourselves, but about the others in this world who are just as worthy of respect and dignity and help – and that each of us is an “other” to someone, who may someday need an outstretched hand and an open heart.

We may each of us see the road differently. But if we’re striving for the same destination, to reach a place that lifts all of us up and holds none of us down, then we can travel together. It won’t always be a peaceful journey – what family road trip ever is? – but if we can agree that helping each other is more important than scoring points or revenging wrongs,  it will at least move us all down the road.

A hurricane makes it obvious. But storms move on.

It’s up to us to make sure something bigger remains behind.

The Moment of Pain

Sometimes news is hell.

I don’t use the word lightly. Yes, at the best of times, the daily news can seem to hold enough misery, anger and grief for anyone. Major wars. Minor cruelties. Kardashian news. We know it, we brace for it, we sigh as it goes by.

But some weeks are worse. This one, for instance.

If you’re among my Longmont readers, you know what I mean. The murder-suicide, with a man suspected of killing one parent with a knife, nearly killing the other and then taking his own life. The stabbing attack on a seven-months pregnant woman, where the child-to-be was physically removed. Each hard on the heels of the other, gruesome and horrific.

If there’s anyone who simply turned their computer off on Wednesday and refused to read any more Internet news, I can’t say I blame them.

Some scenes hit you in the heart and rip your soul open to scream. They’re the calls that every cop and paramedic hates to get, that every reporter hates to write, that every reader hates to bear witness to. They’re the ones that your brain refuses to let go of, asking the heavens “How is something like this allowed to exist?”

It doesn’t matter if the audience is the world or the folks inside city limits. The audience is you. And it’s too much to hold.

I don’t have a magic word to make it go away. I’m not sure I could be trusted with one if I did. To feel another’s pain is to be human; if I banish that pain, am I sending my humanity away with it?

But oh, the temptation.

So what do we do?

If there’s any answer at all, I think it has to be “What we can.”

Grief like this doesn’t just shock, it isolates. It makes you feel alone and helpless in an overwhelming world. Other hurts seem minor compared to that big boulder that refuses to move.

That is when we most need each other.

This community has a powerful heart. It showed in full force during and after the 2013 flood, when no sort of help was off limits. People cleaned their neighbors’ homes, housed their neighbors’ families, sometimes saved their neighbors’ lives.

It’s harder with something like this. I know. There’s a less visible enemy to fight, a less obvious way to help. But the gist remains the same.

Be there.

Be there when someone in pain needs a kind heart and a listening ear.

Be there when they don’t dare talk but just need someone nearby.

Be there when you see a friend or a neighbor or a stranger who seems to need a hand.

Not as a snoop. Not as a looky-lou or an intrusive pest. But as the brother or sister we all need to be to each other.

Most of us may never know any of the people who were at the heart of this. (Those who do, bless and keep you all.) But we all know someone. It can start with something as simple as a word of kindness to a police officer or EMT, a reminder that they’re remembered and appreciated. It can grow as big as you want it to.

If we all care for one of us, we all care for all of us.

Good news happens, too. But it’s rarely as easy as looking. We have to find it, to make it, to create it ourselves. We have to be it. And that can be a frightening prospect.

But not half as frightening as having to stand alone.

News can be hell. Undeniable. True.

But together, maybe we can be heaven.

Civil, Not War

When someone stops shouting in your ear, it can take a minute to notice.

It had been a typical work-from-home day at Chez Rochat. Which is to say, something like Fred Astaire dancing on ball bearings, each step careening into the next and none of them quite on balance. Wake up, write, get Missy out the door, write, check on Heather, write, let the dogs out, write … a lifestyle tango with an unrelenting orchestra.

And then, a beat skipped.

I missed it at first. It was only later that I added up the evidence – the ballots on the counter, the calendar on the wall, the thin pile of mail on the table – and asked the question that had been hiding in my mind.

“What happened to all my election chaos?”

You know the sort of thing I mean. Over the last few years, even a non-presidential race has become an Event, sort of like being invaded by locusts, but less productive. The junk mail that could heat a home for the winter. The robo-calls that make telemarketers a nostalgic memory by comparison. The relentless barrage of ads by the oh-so-concerned, or at least the oh-so-concerned-that-you’ll-vote-the-right-way.

This year? Sure, there’s been some calls, a few letters in the mailbox. There’s been the usual back-and-forths in the usual places, some of them pretty edged.

But it’s been … bearable. Normal, even. Like an election instead of a war.

Is this even allowed anymore?

OK, I know part of it’s that we don’t have the big money here this time around. No massive spending for national politics, or fiber-optic campaigns, or oil and gas issues. When it’s down to just a few local folks spending a few thousand dollars each – at most – it’s hard to stir the waters too badly, even if the occasional outside group parachutes in.

But I think it’s a little more. Left to ourselves, I think we’ve regained a little perspective.

Last year, at the height of the Colorado wildfires, I used this space to ask that President Obama and Mr. Romney suspend their campaigns here and give the ad money to relief efforts. I saw that column re-circulated in a lot of places, but no sign that anyone in authority ever gave the matter a moment’s thought.

This year, we followed fire with flood. And with disaster on their doorsteps, our local folks showed how to do it. Everyone called off campaigning for the next three weeks or so, even those who most needed the exposure. Digging out the home became more important than getting out the vote, and more than one candidate found a way to lend a hand.

I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna. There’s a little cynic in me still that will point out how hard it is to campaign in a flood-ravaged town, and how no candidate wants to be the one that gets labeled “the insensitive jerk.” I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some calculation, frankly.

But that’s part of my point. Even the most tactically-minded politician could look at this situation, say “campaigning is stupid” and then not do it anyway. They recognized what people wanted and did it.

Isn’t that how the system’s supposed to work?

In this case, an abundance of sense (and a shortage of cents) seems to be giving us a sane election. Not a perfect one or even a perfectly polite one – by its nature, democracy tends to be pugnacious – but one where the vote can be just one more fact of life, instead of an all-consuming monster.

I’ll take it.

So thank you, ladies and gentlemen of public life. Thank you from the bottom of my over-stressed nervous system.

And if you do feel the urge to send me some mass mail, let me know.

I can restock the fireplace any time.

Something Went “Click”

The living room had been struck by a toddler tornado.

From one end to the other, the floor displayed the unmistakable signs that my 2-year-old niece Riley had been present. Scattered toys. Well-strewn cookie cutters. Discarded magazines. And not a square inch of carpet to be seen.

But as I started to pick thing up, I realized something was missing.

“Oh, please no …” I muttered, knowing how upset Missy would be if this had been lost or broken. A frantic search finally uncovered the safe-keeping spot my wife Heather had used, out of Riley’s sight and reach. Inside lay a massive Study in Multi-Colored Plastic Brick, an agglomeration that might require its own building code.

Fort Missy was safe.

That’s my name for it, anyway. I’m not quite sure what Missy herself considers it. The broken paths and varied levels could be a city, a labyrinth, a mighty chunk of abstract art. Heather swears it’s an attempt at an airport where a relative once worked.

Whatever it is, it’s required almost every Lego our developmentally-disabled young lady possesses, with minor adjustments here and there to integrate new pieces. Every so often, Heather and I get invited to help with specific bits of the masterpiece, a tiny brick pressed into our hands to make the latest revision.

It’s funny. For months, those Legos had sat in the house, little-used. But lately, they’ve become a passion for Missy, right up there with her morning tea and her bedtime story.

Ever since a certain exhibit hit the Longmont Museum.

You know the one I mean. Everybody in town knows the one I mean. The museum’s “Amazing World of LEGO” exhibit has easily been its most visited ever, and small wonder. Some of the exhibits are jaw-dropping: a Lego-built bicycle, a plastic recreation of Action Comics No. 1, and more.

But the heart of it, and by far the noisiest part, has been the Lego city where child visitors constantly build, demolish and build again. Surrounded by possibilities, they create their own.

Apparently, one visitor took those possibilities home.

I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, inspiration is a funny thing. It only takes the lightest of touches from the outside to send the mind in a new direction, or unlock a dream that had laid dormant.

For me, a missing word in a Spanish textbook’s glossary helped lead me to journalism.

For my wife, a chance-heard broadcast on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death ignited a lifelong passion for the Beatles. Followed very rapidly by a fascination (if sometimes a joking one) with Bob Dylan.

I suspect everyone has a similar story. Maybe a word in the right place or an image in the wrong one. A picture, a tune, a story that takes root.

It’s a powerful thing. And an unsettling one.

It means we need to be aware of our own actions. A kind word may reverberate longer than we expect; an offhand wisecrack may wound more deeply than we see.

It means we need to tend the fields of inspiration so that they’re there when needed. A museum or a forest. A drama class or a space program. Anything that fills the void with possibilities and imagination.

Because make no mistake, the void will be filled. And if we don’t choose some of those possibilities, they will be chosen for us. Does anyone really want to leave that life-changing touch to the undie-clad pop stars of the MTV VMA Awards?

I didn’t think so.

We all have the power to be givers of dreams. It’s up to us to use it well.

After all, Fort Missy  won’t get built by itself.

A Rose for the Infield

The bat tapped the ball gently, sending a soft liner into the infield dirt.

“Go, Missy!” Heather and I shouted as Missy leaned on the arm of a volunteer and slowly made her way to first base. Partway there, she looked back over her shoulder to make sure we were watching and beamed.

Another softball season had opened. Missy, as usual, was having the time of her life.

Even without “her Joe.”

“My Joe” is how Missy refers to Joe Brooks, her Niwot Nightmares coach for a number of seasons. Once upon a time, Joe taught at Longmont High School and coached baseball. After his retirement, he decided to keep his hand in, and volunteered with a local league for the disabled.

I’ve written about that league before, where life is less about winning and losing and more about having a good time in the sunshine. Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt, may be one of the longest-running players. In his time as coach, Joe practically adopted her, always greeting her with a smile, a hug and some advice on practicing her throwing.

I always admired how much he gave to that team. But it’s funny. Now that Mr. Brooks has retired for the second time, I find myself looking at the whole league with a different eye.

An eye full of roses.

I should explain. Recently, I had the chance to catch up with a dear family friend named Sarah. As we talked and reminisced, she happened to bring up one of her favorite parts of town: the Roosevelt Park rose garden.

Why the rose garden?

“Because of what it means,” she explained. To her, it was about more than just the flowers. It was about living in a society where those flowers could be planted and maintained, a society safe enough that one could walk among the flowers in peace and without fear. Where the flowers themselves could be left in peace.

This wasn’t just a garden. It was a small reminder of how lucky she was to live where she lived, in a place where quiet and beauty could still have somewhere to be.

Watching the players and their helpers on the dusty diamond, I had a similar feeling.

Joe Brooks poured energy and love into the program. And that’s a great thing. But the program was around before him and is still going strong after him – and that may be a greater one.

It means there are still so many who care.

We don’t always do such a great job of looking after “the least of these.” I’m sure most of us could point to stories – or real-life examples – of a world that looks past the poor, that neglects the elderly and the disabled, that leaves children to shiver with cold and fear. They’re heartbreaking accounts. And too often, they’re just accounts, engaging our sympathy but not any sort of response.

After all, it’s so big. What can we do?

What we can do.

What some people have done here is to keep a small labor of love going each summer. To prove that this is still a place where the disabled can have a place, that love and friendship and care are not dead. That flowers of kindness can be planted, and bloom.

It may not transform the world. But it’s protecting this small piece of it.

So thank you, Joe. Thank you to all the coaches and organizers and volunteers, past and present, who keep this garden growing.

You may not get laurels. But you surely have roses.

See you in the bleachers.

Brought Fourth in Silence

I’ve never known a quieter Fourth.

No shells bursting in the sky. No firecrackers raising the hackles of our dog. Just a night where the occasional rattle and bang and boom was occasional indeed, brief ripples in a sea of silence.

And yet the stillness rang louder than any skyrocket.

It’s no surprise, of course. This is a summer where many people have seen enough fire in the sky already. With Colorado burning down day after day from wildfires, fireworks had become about as politically popular as renaming Mile High in honor of Al Davis. Maybe less so.

Shhh. This is a No Sparking zone.

Some disagreed, of course. Some always do. And I can understand. Fireworks have been an expected part of the day since John Adams. I have memories of watching the bursts from bat-inhabited golf courses, or tree-obstructed bedroom windows, or even from our own rooftop, the shingles made slippery by a protective hosing down against bottle rockets. (Mind that last step!)

So yeah, it’s a great part of the day.

But it’s only part of it.

Absurdly, my brain began to go back to Christmas, to a Grinch who decided stealing all the presents could steal the holiday with it. Anyone with young children in the house (or our Missy) can recite the results by heart:

 

He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!

Somehow or other, it came just the same!

 

It’s still true. Douse every sparkler, shush every “1812” cannon. The day is still there, the freedom still as real. The symbol isn’t the thing.

And the symbol this year may be more potent than anyone expected.

What’s the day about, really? Not beer and explosives, fun though the combination may be. It’s about a people taking charge of its own future, about men and women and communities doing what they must to secure the day, however little they might like it.

It’s about a general who constantly wanted to come to grips with the British – yet knew his country’s only chance was if he kept his army alive.

It’s about those who risked “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor”in grasping at a dream where failure meant the noose.

It’s about those who could leave family and home, or hold it together while others left, deferring what they wanted in favor of what was needed.

The Fourth of July has never been for wimps. Living the legacy means making tough choices.

And when we make those choices together, for the protection of us all, that’s a brighter light than any skyrocket could create.

There’ll be a day when the fireworks return, a day when smoke and flame can be replaced by “Ooh” and “Aah.” Maybe it’ll be twice as good, with two years of Independence Day budgets saved up. Maybe it’ll be the same show as before, with this year’s spending donated to this year’s fires, a drop in the bucket but a welcome drop all the same.

Whatever comes, the Fourth will come with it. And someday it’ll come with all the bells and whistles and Roman candles anyone could want.

Until then, we wait. Not out of fear. But out of care, out of duty, out of watchfulness for our friends and neighbors.

And even on a silent night, those can be heard loud and clear.

Exhaustive Democracy

I don’t usually write about my reporting side here. I’m going to make a small exception today.

If I can stay awake, that is.

As many of you know, I cover city politics. And this last Tuesday, city politics covered me like a semi covers a skunk. It was almost 1 in the morning before the final gavel came down, closing a night of often impassioned and sometimes angry debate.

The subject was fracking, of course. It so often seems to be these days. And I won’t be weighing in directly on the issue, just like I haven’t weighed in on airport runways, backyard chickens, or marijuana dispensaries. My job is still to cover the story, not to be the story.

But I do have something to say to the five dozen speakers who pummeled the air with their opinions and concerns. To all involved in extending the debate until deadlines were only a fond memory. To everyone who helped me wake up the next morning feeling like I’d gone 30 rounds with Joe Louis in his prime.

Thank you.

Seriously.

Memorial Day is almost upon us. Every year, we talk about honoring the soldiers who fought for the nation we live in and the rights we hold. The men and women who help keep this a free country.

But the finest military in the world can’t keep a nation free if it loses the habit.

I know. This is the sort of thing newspapers usually get excited about just after Election Day, either praising the public for a higher-than-expected turnout or excoriating it for a low attendance rate. But voting’s only one step in the democratic process. The easiest one, at that.

The hard part is to enter the brawl. To shape the issues that get voted on. To push the officials who cast the votes, maybe even to become them.

To be a voice instead of just a hole-puncher.

I didn’t agree with every speaker Tuesday night. To be honest, there were a few on all sides that had me biting my tongue hard enough to leave marks. Some went so far out on a limb that they were tap dancing with woodpeckers.

But I give them this, good and bad and ugly. None of them stayed home and stewed. None of them decided it was somebody else’s problem. All of them came and made their feelings known.

Sure, we can talk about civility or checking the facts or finding ways to come together. Those things are important, too, even crucial. But the first step, the vital step, is to break through apathy and get everyone in the same room and talking. You can’t have a good public debate if you have no public debaters.

And whatever the other faults of Tuesday may have been, that was not one of them.

So thank you, one more time. Thank you for insisting on being heard. Thank you for being a people, a public, a participant.

See you all next time.

Right after I get myself a nap.