Misfire

Luke Skywalker is out of room in the Death Star trench. TIE fighters have closed in, led by the inexorable Darth Vader. 

Suddenly with a shout, Han Solo swoops in from behind in the Millennium Falcon! He opens fire … and accidentally blasts the young Jedi into smithereens. 

“Oops.” 

No, this is not a new George Lucas special edition (thank goodness). But it is a reminder to be sure of what you’re shooting at – something that a number of Star Wars followers disregarded when they review-bombed the wrong production. 

For those who aren’t steeped in the latest news and controversies from a galaxy far, far away, there’s a new Star Wars series out (of course) called “The Acolyte.” It’s built as a mystery-thriller, set among the Jedi about a century before any of the movies take place … so no Anakin, no Kenobi, no direct tie into any of the familiar plotlines. 

As with anything new, some love it and some don’t. And as usual these days, some of the ones that hate it REALLY hate it, to the point of “review-bombing” it online – piling up bad reviews and ratings to make it seem less popular. So far, no surprise, except … a number of the bombers missed the series entirely and instead down-rated “Acolytes,” a 2008 Australian horror film.  

That’s a Death Star-sized miss. But then, intensity has never been a substitute for accuracy. 

And when someone gets worked up over “Hurting Wrong Fun,” that sort of literally misaimed zealotry is probably inevitable. 

“Hurting Wrong Fun” is an old gamer’s phrase. It’s a sardonic reference to the idea that it’s not enough to enjoy something – you have to enjoy the “right” things in the “right” way or else you’ve caused pain to the universe. Or at least, to its self-appointed judge.

Now don’t get me wrong. In matters of taste, it’s OK to dislike something. If you aren’t into rap music, ice hockey, muscle cars or (gasp!) science-fiction movies, I’m not going to be the one to say that you must change. Different strokes, right?

But when that dislike turns toxic – “If you like this, you’re wrong and I have to stop you” – then that’s another story. That’s the gatekeeper, the one whose enjoyment comes from dictating the enjoyment of others. It’s a cramped, narrow view, and one that’s not terribly fun for anyone except the critic and their friends.

Worse still, it cheapens the debate on matters where it is important to take a stand. There are critical issues and matters of conscience that are more than just “opinion” and need to be discussed seriously. But when we’ve gotten used to doing battle on no stronger grounds than “Well, that’s my opinion and yours doesn’t count,” it hurts our ability to see real needs. More than that, it hurts our ability to see real people, shutting out everything else except our own voice.

And it’s so easy. The Dark Side always is. Staying calm, keeping perspective, focusing on what matters – that’s a Jedi-level challenge.

So leave the “Hurting Wrong Fun” arguments alone. Let people enjoy what they enjoy. Save that conviction for the times when it’s needed … and even then, don’t let your passion throw off your aim.

That’s when you’ll be a Force to be reckoned with.  

Working in the Dark

I love weird stuff. And every so often, it’s so weird that I have to spend a morning on it here.

That’s how we’ve ended up with columns on the infamous “Boaty McBoatface.” Or on the man who solved nearly 7,000 Rubik’s Cubes in 24 hours. Or on the friend who loves to wrap a “hippity hop” ball in lights and lower it from a rope to celebrate the New Year. You know, the stuff that keeps the world interesting.

Well, we’re back in Rubik’s territory today. Not quantity this time, but quality. I’d say it’s a real eye-opener, but that would be singularly inappropriate in this case.

You see, today’s weird and wonderful accomplishment comes from an Australian teen who set a new Rubik’s Cube speed record … for solving it while blindfolded.

In 12.1 seconds to be exact.

Now I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t do a 12-second solve with my eyes open. Even if you let me “solve” it by peeling off all the colored stickers and putting them back on again so they matched.

To be fair, Charlie Eggins’ first reaction, according to Guinness, was also “I still can’t believe it!” And that’s after he’d done about 25,000 practice solves.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so startled. Maybe none of us should be.

After all, we try to do the same thing every day. Only we’re taking on something harder than Rubik’s Cubes.

We’re trying to solve people.

We like to think we know our family, our friends, the folks around us. Even with complete strangers, we’re usually pretty comfortable in our rules of thumb … after all, they can’t be that different from us, can they? Even one of our most fundamental rules – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – takes as its first assumption that others want what you want.

That’s not a bad starting point. It’s certainly better than seeing the “other” as a danger to be feared. But every so often – more than every so often – we run into the limits of it and have to reassess.

It could be minor, like discovering their indifference to a movie “everyone” knows. (“What do you mean, you’ve never seen Star Wars?”) It could be something more fundamental in their beliefs, their upbringing, the way they see the world.

Big or small, earthshaking or trivial, we suddenly find something that brings us up short and makes us think instead of react. In that moment, we get new eyes: toward the other person, the world, even ourselves.

Like a number of literature geeks, I’ve been reading Emily Wilson’s new translation of “The Iliad” lately. (I’d offer you my copy but, well, beware of geeks bearing gifts.) There’s a moment early on where the fierce warrior Diomedes is briefly given the ability to recognize the gods on the battlefield , even when they’re invisible or shape-shifted. Able to see who’s receiving special help, he fights more effectively than ever, even wounding Aphrodite when she tries to protect one of her favored warriors.

Clear vision can produce amazing results.

But like Eggins, we won’t solve anything if we’re not willing to come to grips with it.

We may be working in the dark. But if we’re at least trying to understand, we’ve taken the first step. (A step too few take, judging by the headlines.) We may get it wrong. We may fumble and stumble and misunderstand. But if we make the effort, and recognize the attempts of others to do the same with us, we’ll get there eventually … even if it isn’t in 12.1 seconds.

And that’s pretty weird and wonderful in itself.

Make Yourself at Holmes

I don’t like to make assumptions about the New Year. But this time, dealing with it may be … elementary.

For those of you who missed it, Sherlock Holmes has escaped copyright, an opponent more tenacious than Professor Moriarty. As of 2023, the Great Detective is fully in the public domain, allowing the free use of the stories and characters in any medium. Why, we could see novels, movies, TV shows …

Hmm. OK, then.

If this sounds a little confusing, I don’t blame you. After all, Sherlock Holmes is already one of the best-known and most heavily utilized fictional characters in history. New stories appear every year, maybe every month. You can find him in board games. You can find him on stage. If you looked hard enough, you could probably find him in breakfast cereal. Could he be any more public?

As it happens, even Inspector Lestrade could predict the answer: lawyers. Holmes, as it turns out, has long lived in a legal gray area. The bulk of his stories by Arthur Conan Doyle did indeed come into the public domain ages ago. But with a small number of the tales still under copyright, Doyle’s estate could and did battle (most recently with Netflix)  over “unauthorized” use of the character. So he was public, but … not that public?

I could get even further into the silliness of protecting an author’s rights for nearly a century after his death. (Doyle passed away in 1930.) But no one wants to start the new year with a thesis on intellectual property law.  Well, except maybe Sherlock’s smarter brother Mycroft, but he hasn’t been returning my texts lately.

Instead, in honor of this year’s literary liberation, I’d like to suggest a few Sherlock-style resolutions for 2023:

  • Pay Attention: Everyone knows the scene where Holmes meets a client and rattles off the person’s complete biography, based on details he’s noticed. Most of us aren’t going to be THAT observant, but we can make sure to focus on the people around us and better understand where they’re at and what they’re going through.
  • Reason, Don’t Assume: Holmes’ most famous proverb is that “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” But sifting one from the other takes thought. If a claim seems wild, check it out. If a claim seems to support what you already believe, check it out even harder – after all, how often do the police in a Holmes story jump to the easy conclusion?
  • Find the Right Experts: Holmes talks to people. Constantly. He talks to medical examiners about the state of a corpse, carriage drivers about a suspect’s movements, even informers about the criminal underworld. But he doesn’t ask a street urchin about the Queen. Find the people and sources who can help you learn, and be careful in judging sources.
  • Use Your Down Time: There will be time “between cases,” so find a way to restore yourself. That said, Holmes isn’t always the best model for how to spend that time. When he goes to a concert or peruses the news, that’s great. When he uses his drawing-room wall for target practice … not so much.
  • Keep a Close Friend: Every Holmes needs his Watson, after all.

With that, best wishes for the year ahead. We’ve all been through some strange adventures lately, and there’s surely more mystery to come. But keep working on the puzzle. And whatever success you find, I hope you lock it in.

Or even Sherlock it in.

A Hole in the Silence

In space, no one can hear you scream. Unless you’re a black hole, apparently.

File this one under “weird but true”: a few days ago, NASA released the sound of a black hole to the internet. More specifically, a low, unsettling moan that prompted one online listener to declare “Space is haunted.”

What in the name of George Lucas is going on here?

After all, most of us learned the same thing as kids: there’s no sound in space. Well, unless you live in the Star Wars universe, where fast things roar and big things rumble because it’s Just That Cool. I mean, what’s the point of a space battle if you can’t rock an entire movie theater with the blaster bolts and explosions, am I right?

But for a galaxy that’s not run by Industrial Light & Magic, we’re used to thinking of things as being spooky silent. No air to push. Therefore no sound waves. Right?

Well, it turns out we all should have paid better attention in science class. Because as often happens, what “everyone knows” isn’t quite the whole story.

This particular black hole, you see, is in the midst of the Perseus galaxy cluster. A star cluster has hot gas. Gas that can transmit sound. Not very much, not very well – NASA had to enhance this one like a 1980s rock concert, to present a sensation that’s normally 57 piano keyboards below our hearing range – but enough to make a faint impression.

I don’t know about you, but I find that weirdly hopeful.

Space gives a different perspective on things, both overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Earlier this year, when the first images came back from the Webb space telescope, it made some people feel small while others felt connected to something wonderful. (For the record, I’m in the latter camp.)

This touches something similar. Once again, it’s a wonder that most of us didn’t expect. Not a vast interstellar panorama but the smallest of whispers in a sea of silence. Waiting … but only if you know how to listen.

And sometimes that seems about as rare as a sound in space.

We’re not a patient people, by and large. So many of us feel the need to do something and do it now. One reason the early pandemic lockdowns were so unsettling, I suspect, is that for the first time a lot of us had to hold still … and had almost forgotten how to do it.

The thing is, it’s not hard to make an impression. Even a black hole in the middle of nowhere can do it. What’s harder is to step back and actually see beyond our own impressions and efforts. To experience and understand. To be.

How many things do we miss hearing because our head is filled with our own chatter?

How much do we ignore without knowing we’re missing something worthwhile? It might be as vast as a black hole … or as small as the person next to you.

Hear the silent. Listen for the impossible. Touch lightly. Once we’ve learned that, we’ll know that even a murmur can matter. That the acts we do take, however small they may seem, always leave something behind.

Give everything its space. Haunted or not.

That’s the hole lesson right there.

Pieces of the Picture

As I studied the dumpster’s dimensions, for a moment I felt like Dad.

No, Dad isn’t in sanitation. But whenever me or my sisters moved, we always wanted Dad as crew chief. To him, moving trucks were three-dimensional puzzles, where everything could fit just right if you only found its place in the picture – and he ALWAYS found its place in the picture. It might have been because of his time aboard a submarine, where space is limited and precious. It might have just been a natural talent for order. Either way, it was awe-inspiring.

It’s also a talent that I’ve usually lacked. My awareness of spatial relationships has been approximate, to say the least. As for order … well, Heather and I used to joke that I was a “walking vortex of chaos,” and my notebook-filled newsroom desks usually told the tale well.

But this time, as we prepared for the Great Home and Yard Purge of 2021, everything seemed to click. Branches … go here. That worn-out armchair … goes there. Like Sherlock Holmes assembling a case, every piece had its perfect fit, which then created the space for the next one. It was a living game of Tetris.

And at the end of it all, with everything squared off and filled up, it felt enormously satisfying.

No surprise. Most of us like neatly fitting pictures.  We like symmetry and order and consistency. There’s an appeal to the movie plot that ties everything neatly together, or the room whose layout says “comfort” without a word, or the ideals of justice (so hard to achieve) that say we all have a place and a part to play.

Most of all, we like explanations. And that’s where things get tricky.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The quest for explanations and answers is what drives philosophy, science, even newspaper editorials. We ask questions, we examine the world and ourselves, and we try to put together an answer that fits what we see.

But the world is messy and our senses are limited. That means there are going to be ragged edges to all of this. If we’re honest and careful, we acknowledge that, letting an old answer die or evolve as our understanding gets better.

Or, as Yoda put it, we take the quicker, easier, more seductive path to the Dark Side. We make the answer fit, no matter what we have to do to get it there.

Forcing a fit is one thing when you’re breaking down dead branches to stack them neatly with your yard waste. But as an approach to understanding the world or other people, it’s outright harmful. It means ignoring what you don’t like, while inflating coincidence into significance. The story becomes more important than the reality, and challenging it becomes a personal offense.

It means never allowing yourself to be wrong. Which in turn means never allowing yourself to learn.

I mentioned Holmes earlier. The Great Detective once warned against twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. Things can fit – but if you start with the answer you want and cling to it no matter what, you won’t actually discover anything. Paradoxically, you have to be willing to back up to move forward.

Easy to say. Hard to do. Essential to learn.

If we keep testing, keep examining, keep questioning , we can get to the answers that satisfy instead of just the ones that feel good. We can share thoughts instead of butting heads.

And those other answers that we discarded along the way?

Well. there’s always a little more room in the dumpster.  

Seeing Small

Everyone in my family has a favorite moment from the girls on Klickitat Street.

For Mom, it will forever be the image of a kindergarten teacher saying “Sit here for the present,” and a young girl spending all day wondering what her present will be.

For me, it’s the inevitable confusion of directions while trying to drive to an appointment. “Do I turn left?” “Right.” (Turns right) “MOTHER! You were supposed to turn left!”

For Heather, it’s the image of a young force of nature sullenly declaring “I am TOO a merry sunshine!”

For all these and a thousand more, we have Beverly Cleary to thank. Even if we can no longer do so in person.

For those who missed the news, the beloved children’s author and one-time librarian died recently at the did-I-really-type-that age of 104. She left behind shelves full of stories and more than a few autographed cards from retired library card catalogs. But if there’s just one thing that carries her legacy, it has to be the stories of Ramona Quimby and her family.

It’s not just that the stories are funny or touching or familiar, though they’re all of that with a hard-boiled egg on top. It’s that Clearly had one of the rarest gifts that an adult can have – the ability to truly remember how a child sees the world.

It’s harder than you think.

Oh, we chuckle at the amusing things children say or shake our head exasperatedly at the strange things they do. These days we even make internet memes out of the most striking ones. But what so many of us forget is that to a child, these moments are neither amusing nor thoughtless. They come from thoughts that are just as rational as any adult’s – it’s just that the reason is based on much less experience and very different assumptions and priorities.

So to a Ramona, it makes perfect sense to lock the dog in the bathroom for stealing your cookie. After all, misbehaving kids get sent to their room, right?

In a Ramona world, it’s a reasonable conclusion that the national anthem’s verse about “the dawnzer lee light,” must mean some kind of lamp. After all, “dawnzer” isn’t any stranger than any other word the grownups use.

And when a favorite teacher tells you to go home until you can behave, it might as well be the end of the world. After all, if you were that bad, why should she ever forgive you?

That understanding of life from the smaller side of the street is one huge reason why Cleary’s stories have endured. And it’s a lesson of basic empathy that’s still needed, not just when dealing with children but with adults as well.

Which is why I’m gratified every time I find someone else who can see with Cleary’s eyes.

My wife Heather speaks “child” better than any adult I know. When she’s confronted with a child making a big deal over a small thing, she never lets her amusement show in her eyes – however tempting it may be. To them, she knows, it’s serious.

A nurse we met recently had to deal with our protesting, struggling Missy who was NOT eager to be poked with a vaccine needle, however important it might be. At a time when it would have been easy to be impatient and move to the next appointment, she met Missy with friendliness and understanding. (And some impressive arm speed.) To Missy, she knew, it was frightening.

When all of us meet all of us, it’s not always easy to understand, even when we’ve been there ourselves. Not easy – but oh, so essential.

The books are done. The lessons remain. May we retain them well.

In a world where so much is veiled in confusion, there’s still a need to see Cleary.

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.

The Bindings That Tie

Some phone calls can transform an entire evening.

“I’m very pleased to tell you that the book is finally in.”

Ding-ding-ding! Never mind trying to find downtown parking near Barbed Wire Books on a Friday night. Never mind the chill of a January evening. This treasure had been a long time in coming, and it was perfect.

A used copy, for affordability.

Clearly in excellent condition.

And most importantly, the true object of my quest: a hardcover binding.

No wonder this one had taken months to search out. How often do you surrender a high-quality copy of The Lord of the Rings?

If you’re a regular here, you know that JRR Tolkien holds a high spot in my personal pantheon of heroes, both for the richness of his creation and the family history that it’s bound together. Dad introduced me to the lands of Middle-earth when I was in third grade, and from then until the early days of college, we read and re-read The Hobbit and his three-volume Lord of the Rings together. We pored over his old Ballantine paperbacks until they fell apart, got him a new set for Christmas, then started again.

Shortly after I got married to Heather (who is every bit as geeky as me), I found and quickly latched onto a single-volume paperback Lord of the Rings – a mass of paper that would probably stop a low-caliber bullet while leaving Elvish script embedded in it for good measure. That hefty tome followed us through the first 21 years of our marriage, coming along on camping trips, car trips, and numerous bedtime readings to an enraptured Missy.

It was during one of those Missy readings that the spine finally gave way, having provided service far beyond the ordinary literary call of duty. We finished its last reading in honor, laid it aside, and then began a new adventure. After all, if a thousand-page paperback book had lasted from the beginnings of Google to the ending of the first Marvel Cinematic Universe, how much longer would a hardcover hold up?

When you treasure something, you try to make it last.

And that’s true of more than just fantasy epics.

If you’ve owned a house or a car, you know the simple truth: maintenance is cheaper than repair. Take care of it and it will take care of you.

If you’ve exchanged rings and said “I do,” you learn a simple truth: that great wedding are far easier than great marriages. One is a singular event that is soon over; the other is an ongoing effort to build something anew every day.

And if you treasure a free nation, you know a simple truth: that it’s more than reciting the Pledge, learning the Declaration, and waking the neighbors on the Fourth of July. It takes work. It means facing up to what our country does and doesn’t do well, proud but clear-eyed at the same time. It means fighting to preserve what needs to be preserved, and to change what needs to be changed. It means speaking without fear, thinking beyond your own small piece of the picture, and building a nation that makes life better for all of us.

And most of all, it means holding our leaders accountable for the actions done in our name.

We’re not always good at that. Our brains like to simplify, and it’s easy to break things down into teams and colors and slogans – politics as sports, where the referee’s calls are just what “those guys” deserved but a gross injustice for “our guys.” Where right or wrong is less important than not giving in to the other side.

Breaking that is hard. And essential. We don’t have to be in lockstep – but without some common understanding and accountability, nothing worth keeping will endure.

When you treasure something, you try to make it last. Whether it’s the binding of a book, or the binding of a nation.

Hold it close. Bind it well.

And then, let it Ring.

In Translation

The difference between the right word and almost the right word, Mark Twain once told the world, is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. By the look of things, Heather had just swallowed a horde of lightning bugs.

“En route??”

Heather shook her head as she looked away from her reading material, torn between hilarity and disgust. “There has got to be a better way of saying ‘on the move’ than that. I mean, it’s just … just wrong!

A little background may be in order here. Heather, like millions of people across the internet, decided to jump feet first into Duolingo. She wanted a fresh start that would keep her brain busy, so rather than resume her long-ago college pursuit of German ( from which she mostly retains “The window is dirty”), she instead went after French.

Funny thing. When you’re home a lot due to chronic illness, you wind up with a lot of time to spend on language lessons. A few months ago, she felt confident enough in her reading comprehension to try children’s books. So she found some old favorites in translation, the ones that she knew as well as her childhood phone number.

That’s a great way to navigate an unfamiliar road. But it also means that the potholes can be really jarring. And one such dip in the road came when The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe portentously declared that Aslan was “en route.”

“Really? REALLY?

In the original English, the phrase is “Aslan is on the move.” Heather loves the feel of that phrase – the sense of something coming, of life waking up, of expectation and possibility and change. You could even see it as the opening of a chess game, the unfolding of a strategy that is just now beginning to show itself.

By contrast, to hear that Aslan is “en route” sounds like a package is coming from Federal Express. Definite. Predictable. Decidedly non-mystical. “Yo, I’m on my way, see you in about 15!”

Maybe that sounds a little finicky. But words matter. Even when they technically mean the same thing, they carry a different weight. As the writer Terry Pratchett knew, there is a hilarious difference between calling your epic tale “Gone With The Wind” and “Blown Away.”

The dictionary wouldn’t care. But we know better. What we say isn’t necessarily what someone else hears.

That matters to all of us. Not just the translators.

It means peeling back assumptions and old habits, and fitting yourself into someone else’s experience.

It means hearing stories that might not be comfortable, going places you haven’t been, learning how life and the world works for someone who isn’t you.

It means examining your mental picture like an engineer scrutinizing a design, trying to see what’s been left out – or maybe, should never have been put in.

It’s not easy. And we’re not going to get it right all the time.

But making the effort means a wider, more caring, more interesting world. It means living with chords rather than monotones, a library instead of a worn-out book, a rich and varied playlist instead of a track perpetually caught on a single earworm.

It means we actually hear each other. And help each other. That we become harder to fool with fears and hatreds because we’ve caught a glimpse of the wonder that may wait behind.

That’s worth it. Every time.

Listen well. New worlds await, and not just Narnia or Hogwarts. Maybe they’re still far off, but have no fear.

They’ll soon be en route.

Right, honey?

 

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.