Skip to content

On Homecoming…

In the last months, we’ve been experimenting with leaving the dog loose in the house when we’re gone. The puppy days are over, and she’s proved that we can trust her not to nibble furniture or mistake the dining room carpet for grass (and pee on it). She’s also calm enough that she doesn’t freak out when the Amazon delivery person looms at the door with a big brown box and tromps away through the yard (something that still startles me now and then, to be honest). 

Leaving her free was a relief for me. I had a little trouble feeling good about being away for any length of time knowing another creature was patiently (or not) waiting in a cage for me to come home and release her. (Maybe some people are better at that. I simply didn’t have enough dog experience to be cavalier about it.)

But the real unanticipated benefit of having a dog loose in the house while you’re away is the greeting when you return. Arriving home to an eager face and a demonstration of exuberant delight that you’ve done something so simple as come back to the place you started from is a new experience for me and not one I intend to take for granted. Most dog owners will tell you they love homecoming. A rush of endorphins floods though you when someone meets you at the door absolutely ecstatic to see you. My sense of homecoming begins the minute I pull in the driveway and see the little face in the dining room window watching for me. I cannot help smiling when I see her peering through the glass expectantly. By the time I exit the car and open the door to the house, she has run to meet me. An absence of five minutes or two hours is met with the same joyful welcome back.

It makes me wonder how often I provide that sense of “homecoming” joy for the people in my life. How often do we take for granted the simple gift of greeting and welcoming? How often as a family over the years did we remain engaged with whatever we were doing when someone came back from an errand or home from school/work, forgetting to acknowledge one another’s comings and goings? While we humans would feel silly racing to the door with yips of joy and face licking for our family and friends, surely we can do at least a little better and try to live up to the example of these pets of ours. A bright smile and happy greeting. A sincerely delighted “I’m so glad to see you!” or “Welcome home!” A bright “good-morning” as we see each other at work. These are easy things to do for one another. And…as I have seen with this puppy of mine…simple, powerful acts of love.


Dog Days of Summer

Last fall, I got a dog. My first dog. I lived more than fifty years without one. Mom was afraid of dogs and allergic to cats, so having a pet wasn’t an option in our family other than the rabbits we raised in the back yard and a few short-lived tadpoles and turtles. We gave dogs a wide berth in public, too, since Mom worried that we’d be bitten or covered in germs. Thus, as an adult, I was one of those people who visit your home and cringe when your dog greets them at the door. The lively wet licking, jumping, and enthusiastic sniffing always intimidated me a bit. 

And then one night, about five years ago, at a charity auction, I started petting a sweet white puppy on a leash who had been donated to the cause that night by a local dog breeder. The puppy was well-trained, and his handler demonstrated its skills to me when she saw how interested I was. I’m sure she believed I would be a big bidder that evening. The puppy stood patiently while I stroked the soft fur between his ears. His tail thumped on the carpet, and he looked up and met my eyes with that lively, happy, soulful gaze a golden retriever has. I had never seen a white retriever before, and the handler explained more to me about the breed. English cream goldens look just like the typical golden but with a slightly stockier build and cream-colored fur. They have the temperament that makes golden retrievers popular family pets around the world, and their black eyes and noses give their face an expressive look that I fell in love with on sight. 

Tom made me leave before the auctioneer started the bidding on the puppy.  I think he believed my impulses would get the better of me. But that evening began a period of what I can only call “courting” the idea of having a dog. I researched different breeds, stalked websites looking at puppy litters for sale, read up on puppy raising, asked friends about their dogs with an interest I’d never had before, and curiously watched people out walking with their dogs in the neighborhood. On the advice of a friend, I even visited a local English cream breeder to see if I found the adult versions of these dogs as wonderful as the puppy I’d seen. I did. In fact, when a big female came and lay down next to me as I sat on the floor with a pup in my lap and put her paw on my leg, I felt myself relax. The pictures my son snapped of me holding the puppy look as awkward as anything you’ve ever seen. It kept wriggling and nipping, and I had no idea what to do with it. But one photo captured me watching the puppies play with my hand resting gently on the adult dog at my side, my fingers deep in her fur like we had fused together. Joe joked that I may be the only person who ever went to look at puppies and liked the grown dogs better. I responded quickly that I had also enjoyed him less as an infant than I do now! 

A year ago, I made the decision to stop full-time work after thirty-two years and spend more time writing, volunteering, consulting, and traveling. Some people call that retirement. I prefer to think of it as Act II.  A month into it, my husband challenged me to stop talking about a dog and get one if I was really serious. He’s never been wrong when he nudges me hard on these kinds of things. I’m often hesitant about change. He embraces it, pushing me off the cliff so I can discover flight. At his urging, I took the plunge and we bought a puppy. Bailey came to us in late-October, and last month she turned a year old. The first months of raising her nearly killed me. Friends who know me well couldn’t believe I’d traded a completely free and relaxed time of life for getting up in the middle of the night and cleaning up “accidents” as well as complicating travel and social life by having to drop off a puppy with a kennel or hire a sitter. They weren’t wrong. I almost lost my sanity trying to surmount the steep learning curve of having a high-maintenance puppy (yeah…she had a few issues). There were tears. They were mine. I’m not proud of it, but to be candid, I also shed a few tears over my children through the years. Everything worth having is hard. We earn the best things in life with sweat equity and intense emotional engagement.  

We survived the early days. Bailey grew up a bit and got used to us. I suspect she also forgave a multitude of mistakes I’m not even aware of making. We’ve only had her nine months, and already I can’t imagine our home and my life without her. How do people survive without a dog? How did I almost miss this experience? Suddenly so many things I did not ever understand make sense to me. I now get why people take time off work to take care of a pet emergency,  and why my friends who’ve lost animals still weep when they talk about them. I understand why someone would run home from the office at lunch every single day no matter how stressful that is “to let the dog out.” I understand the tug of some creature patiently waiting for you, unconditionally depending on you to care for it, and loving you with its whole heart that makes you leave somewhere early to get home for them. I see now how a dog fills a home with its presence. Even when I’m the only person in the house, I’m not alone because Bailey is snoozing on the floor in the hall while I work. I never come home to an empty house; she’s always waiting, delighted to see me again. She follows me around as I do some chore, and even the most mundane task feels less boring because she’s watching with intense fascination. Vacuuming? Laundry? They are pure entertainment to her. I sometimes talk to her as she sits watching me, solving something I’ve been thinking through in my head as I hear the words aloud. Other times, I’m the one watching her,  wondering what she is thinking about all these crazy human things she observes from her favorite place on the floor.

This post is more than just a paean to my puppy. People with far more experience in this realm have written millions of words about the love between a person and a dog. I am new to this relationship, just beginning to realize all I did not know. I am still struck by the instant bond that occurs with other humans when we talk about our dogs. I mention I have a dog, their faces light up, and the connection is forged immediately. I have seen more pictures of the pets of strangers than I have in my whole life. I’ve seen them in four different states and two different countries just in the last few months. I’ve met every neighbor in a mile radius, people I only waved at before as I drove in and out during the twenty years we’ve lived here. Now I stop to chat with them on our daily walks. I know their names, and, if they have one, their dog’s. I sit in my chair in the driveway with Bailey nosing around in the grass, and people stop by to talk and let their pup off the leash to romp in our grass. My house is less clean. My floors often sport little tumbleweeds of white fur that I have to scoop up. I have to worry again as I did with children about whether a few sneezes means allergies or a cold coming on, whether picking at food signals a stomach upset, and whether sleeping all afternoon is a nap or an illness. I’ve put miles on my Fitbit in heat and rain and snow. I am outside every single day. I notice the birds and squirrels, leaves dancing off trees in the breeze, and clouds scudding across the sky. I have made friends with a vet, a dog trainer, people at two kennels, the staff at the pet store, and everyone at Lowes and Home Depot where I run her through the store to practice training. I have filled my photo roll with pictures of Bailey, and sometimes I laugh out loud at something she does. It’s hard to picture life without this kind of connection, joy, and hard work. 

So this is about more than a puppy. It’s about adding something unexpected to what was already a full and happy life. It’s about coming to know and learning late. It’s about being taught patience and learning to let some things go (like fur on dark jeans, spotless floors, and perfectly styled hair). It’s about connecting to other people and nature in a way I could not before, and it’s about seeing that life can continue to expand in ways we did not realize if we are only willing to open to possibilities.

When Children Are Watching

This morning, I read a New York Times editorial about our President’s etiquette in which the author included these words: “…he is violating Americans’ expectations of how presidents should behave — even of how adults should behave, particularly when children are watching.”

It got me thinking about why, as adults, we alter our behavior “when children are watching”. We do it so often, in fact, that the warning “not in front of the children” is a phrase that has connotions for all of us. In front of children, many of us try harder to be a better version of ourselves. Perhaps at some level, adults sense the hypocrisy inherent in what we tell children we expect of them and the version of behavior we present to them through our example.

As a teacher, I know what it means to watch one’s actions carefully—in even the smallest of ways—“because of the kids”. For thirty years, I worked with colleagues who called each other by first names in private but always courteously addressed one another as “Mr. X” or “Mrs. Y” in front of the children. It sounds strange, I know; nevertheless, the honorifics were instinct whenever they were present. I wouldn’t dream of calling Randy anything other than Mr. Ross in front of our students. I honestly believe if the science lab  caught fire, my teammate Stacy would have run in shouting, “Mrs. Froehle, Fire!” With children watching, we modeled respectful address and treatment of one another…always. It is second nature to educators to remember we are role models…in the hallway, in your neighborhood, at a restaurant. We know better than anyone how quickly a child takes your measure and tucks away what you are teaching. 

Unlike many professions, mine is also one where you must watch your speech carefully…because children are watching. Many a teacher can tell a funny story about letting or almost letting a bit of adult profanity slip in an emotional moment in front of the kids. A cold sweat breaks out as you realize the children or adolescents watching know what you said, almost said, or wanted to say. But you model careful dignity. You bite your tongue. Or you apologize with shocked horror as if you have no idea where that word came from. You show them such speech is not classy or dignified. You tell them you were completely wrong to utter it in this setting. They are watching. They are learning. They use language far more filthy on the school bus. You know it. They know it. You still act appalled at your verbal slip and fall. And you show them it matters how we present ourselves in these settings and always.

When you work with children watching, you try to model courtesy and citizenship in a community. You say “please” and “thank you.” You ask them to help you pick up trash off the floor in the hallway “even when it isn’t mine.” You model kindness. You shake your head gently or speak firmly when a child forgets manners, and you remind them of the better way. When they are cruel to one another, you hold them accountable for kindness. And you try to model what you teach in your own life. The parent who appears in your classroom door unexpectedly, irate, without an appointment while you are teaching third period, who somehow slipped past the front office secretary and is demanding to discuss the cheerleading tryout right now, dropping f-bombs and shrieking about fairness…you approach that person calmly, willing your own blood pressure to stay put. You ignore the false claims about your sanity and intelligence. You remind yourself you are a professional, that people get emotional about their kids’ lives and hopes and disappointments…but mainly, you remind yourself that children are watching. Thirty sets of eyes are on you. So you say firmly and calmly, “I’m not having this meeting right now, Mrs. X. I’m teaching class. If you want to discuss this, you’ll have to make an appointment or call me later.” 

You move to your phone and dial security to help this visitor out if you must. You then turn back to the kids watching, apologize that their learning was interrupted, keep cool, and you resume the learning without breaking a sweat because children are watching. Always watching. In the midst of challenging moments with other humans, you show that we can find a different way besides screaming at each other or calling names. How else do we teach children not to lash out when they are hurt? We show them it can be done.  I’m always stunned by the adults who prattle on about bullying and abstinence, and then are mean or out of control themselves. The mother who demands the school stop kids from being nasty to each other is active on a Facebook group where neighbors criticize each other or teachers at school in the ugliest hit-and-run comments. The guy at the basketball game gripes that kids aren’t respectful, then screams obscenities at the ref over a call he doesn’t like.

As a parent, I know my children were the often unseen audience for my life, and there were certainly times I did not show them my best side. Sometimes I simply had to say to them, “I didn’t handle that well. I’m sorry you saw me do that.” At the very least, in those moments, I was acknowledging to them that humans make mistakes and responsible people must own them and deal with the consequences. They got to listen to me agonize over careless words I’d said that hurt someone, and watch as I tried to make amends, and see me sad about the fact that “I’m sorry” doesn’t erase words a person cannot unhear. In other moments, I was more conscious of the ever-present lesson of my own living in front of them. When my husband and I navigated difficult life decisions; relationship disagreements; sticky situations with friends or work; or simply talked about the news, we held many of those discussions on purpose with the kids in earshot. We also chose very intentionally when to move those conversations out of their range. Some things are only for adult eyes and ears after life’s experiences prepare you to process them. 

Perhaps it is because I am a teacher that I cannot forget the basics of how our brains encode new information. The strongest learning happens experientially. Children really do learn what they live. They watch all the time. They tuck away what they see. They try it on for size in their own lives and play. Anyone who has watched kids fake a “wedding” with dolls or dress-up clothes or who has really listened to the running patter of little voices as they are pushing cars around or building with blocks or drawing something will hear familiar memes and stories being acted out in their own words, even things you didn’t think they noticed. In fact, trauma-informed care training is showing us that the things that happen when children are watching have lasting impacts far beyond the incident their little brains recorded…impacts we cannot undo easily.

So does it matter what we do when children are watching? Is it inauthentic to check our behaviors in order to try to show them the best of what people should be? I believe it matters deeply. “Do as I say, but not as I do” is no way to teach a child. Life will offer them many opportunities to be cruel, unethical, or disrespectful of people and institutions. The only countermove we have is modeling what is good as often as possible, letting them see us choose the right path even when it is hard, showing them what self-control for the greater good looks like, showing them how to treat others and how to live in dignity. Will we forget sometimes? Yes. But they never will. 

The Power of Play

img_0152At recess, our teachers set us free onto an asphalt playground as big as the sea and school grounds stretching endlessly around it. Alexander Hamilton Elementary sat on acres of land—an area too vast to cover in the time we had to play. Choices were necessary, and we had so many of them.

Behind the building, a paved parking lot held brightly painted four-square boxes, a row of hopscotch lanes, and four half-court basketball goals with boundaries and keys marked in yellow paint. Beyond the parking lot lay playground equipment simple enough to fuel imaginations—a jungle gym of steel gray bars with bits of rust we turned into a ship, a jail, a dog kennel, a zoo, or a rocket. I fell for what seemed like forever once from where I had perched on the very top bar in the crow’s nest, and had to leave recess early to let the nurse check my bones. She pronounced briskly that I’d only knocked the wind out of me, a phrase I pondered for its strangeness. Until then, I didn’t know I’d carried wind inside my rib cage.

Grass struggled to grow under the monkey bars—horizontal steel ladders in the air we went skimming across dangling by one hand. We never worried about falling. It felt good to drop to the ground, absorbing the shock with your knees, to check that your skirt was hiked down over the shorts you wore to hide your underpants, and rub sore palms against your aching armpits.  The old rusty merry-go-round surrounded by a ring of rutted dirt was dangerous when the eighth grade boys took over. They could get it spinning so fast the world blurred. We stayed back and watched them with round eyes, thrilled by their strength and rough talk. They taught us about danger and caution.

Swings blew in the wind on two steel sets, and beyond them grew a strand of oak and maple trees with gnarled roots that met the earth to create fascinating homes for acorn fairies we imagined. We built additional tiny dwellings there with twigs and leaves, busily discussing magic. Shade patches on the grass changed shape with the angle of the sun, and on hot days, we sank into their inviting coolness to rest and tie clovers or dandelions together into necklaces and crowns. Occasionally someone found a lucky four-leaf clover, and others gathered around to vet its authenticity or pronounce it fake as we jiggled pinched fingers to see if an extra leaf fell to the earth, rendering the extraordinary just another clover after all.

Farther to the west, a kickball game was always in progress on the “good” baseball diamond and on the uneven weedy football field, kids ran races and played tag. Some group was always throwing a rubber playground ball against the building while classmates with feet pinned bravely to the sidewalk tried to dodge without flinching. When they threw you out in kickball or hit you with the dodgeball, the loud smack covered your whimper and the stinging red mark would stay all afternoon. We played anyway, building playground courage every day.

Beyond the football goalpost, a huge unmowed meadow stretched until the nearest houses took over with their grassy yards. The field was full of gullies, rocks, twisted old tree limbs, broken bottles, trash, rabbit nests and mice…and probably ticks and spiders and snakes. But the recess duty teachers posted themselves way back on the parking lot and near the kickball diamond, and simply let us roam. We mashed the tall grass down into nests and built forts, “raided” each other’s territories and shrieked with glee as we snatched their treasure—a glass bottle or an elegantly-twisted piece of wood—and ran with it back to the safety of our own grass walls. A large boulder at the edge of the field grew warm in the sun, and I remember lying with my cheek pressed to the sparkling quartz stone soaking up the heat from it in my light blue windbreaker. The field’s twisted paths and mounded bumps of dirt were places we returned on weekends with our bikes to “ride the hills” and dare each other to take the tracks at top speed. Later, when the field was sold to a developer, we rode there to explore construction sites—clambering up open stairs and rappelling into newly poured basements.

On wet days, we left the fields and grass areas alone. Mud pooled in them, and dirty footprints made our teachers cross. “Stay on the blacktop today,” they called out before tweeting their whistles to set us free from our classroom lines. We jumped rope and made up games. I loved Statues. The “Swinger,” spinning furiously in a circle, held you by one arm, then let go to send you spinning off, dizzy and stumbling against the centrifugal force of your movement. You had to freeze as you landed, your mind furiously working to imagine what you would become when the “Buyer” pressed your nose to bring you to life. Would you be a robot? A ballerina? A lion? A queen? What would the Buyer most want to choose? If selected, you’d become the new Buyer…a peaceful transition of power no one questioned.

Together we created games, a dozen new versions of tag. In my favorite, you tried to elude the person who was “It” but you couldn’t step off the painted lines of the basketball courts. We proclaimed a “no reverse” rule so you couldn’t change direction once you started down a line segment. Eventually we revised the game further, and the bars across each free throw line became “free zones” where you could change course if you could scurry there fast enough before you were caught and frozen by “It.” I remember my mind working furiously as I tried to calculate the intersection of my friend speeding to “unfreeze” me and the rapidly approaching “it” who could render her helpless. Playground geometry in motion.

We laughed hard in those days. The playground was a stage to play out every story. Jump ropes could be jumped, swung low to trip those leaping over them, knotted to poles to take people prisoner, or turned into reins for horses. Sometimes I was a neighing thoroughbred racing like the wind dragging a shrieking classmate behind me. Sometimes I was the “rider” pulled along yelling, “Whoa! Whoa!” Anne Wilson was the fastest girl runner. She beat everyone in sprints to the grass from the imaginary start line we drew with our feet. The fastest boy title changed regularly. Once we had Anne race a boy while we lined the course everyone agreed was a fair distance. When she won, we all cheered and the girls felt a little faster that day.

As we grew older, we practiced playground flirtation. You let a boy know you liked him by running up behind him and stealing his hat off his head, then darting off giggling while he chased you to get it back. Over and over we’d repeat this trick, so you had to choose carefully whose hat you snatched. If your target was too obvious, people made up chants and rhymes with your names in them together. Strategy mattered.

We feel into patterns of our own making. Chinese jump rope was all the rage until it wasn’t, but for a while I worked hard at home to master “ankles” so I could move up to “kneesies” and amaze everyone like long-legged Kelly Watkins. Double Dutch went on alongside regular jump rope, so everyone could play. If you got stuck being a twirler for too long, you complained and dropped your end of the rope until fairness prevailed. Clacker balls on strings drove everyone crazy until someone brought jacks and a rubber ball from her Easter basket to school and started a movement. For one entire month, we played “Baby” with some of us assigned to be the children of the ones who played “Mother.” We acted out family life together. Some mothers were harsh; others let too much go. Those of us playing babies knew how to take advantage of their lack of knowledge. And they grew wiser.  In second grade, we engaged in “Puppy” and went around barking and yipping at the fifth graders until they either adopted us or begged the recess teacher to keep us away from them. When the puppies started digging in the giant sandbox area next to the playground, Mrs. McKee declared an end to it. She never seemed worried about the sand crawling with bacteria embedded under our fingernails; the custodian just didn’t like us tracking onto the doormats by the boiler room doors.

Snow in northern Indiana comes often and stays till March in giant piles pushed by ploughs to the edge of parking lots. By December, we could stand in line to get a running start to slide on shiny ice slicks left behind on the blacktop. Cathy broke her wrist when she fell, and we all signed her pink cast. We called the little fenced kindergarten playground “the playpen.” It jutted from the building two floors above the parking lot, and the long grassy hill that sloped up to meet it was slick and snow-covered all winter long. We couldn’t bring sleds to school, but your nylon snow pants, once wet, were perfect for sliding to the bottom where we sometimes landed in big piles of each other. We made rules about not going “boots first” into anyone’s stomach. No one broke them. Teachers watched benignly in their fur-trimmed snow boots and recess coats, twirling their whistles as we clambered our way up six foot snow piles ringing the hopscotch area and shoved down anyone who thought to claim sovereignty. Sometimes the shoving got rough, but no one respected any King of the Mountain who got there by hurting people, so we tempered ourselves. The big boys had their own part of the snow mounds where they could push each other harder, and we respected borders.

The sound of several long, shrill whistles blown at once recalled us three times each day to line up to go inside. Our teachers, fresh from a smoke, lunch in the lounge, or a coffee-laced gossip would come outside and count their classes to make sure no one was still off playing in the fields or on the edge of the school grounds where a drainage ditch emptied into a stagnant pond full of tadpoles and minnows. Once I was with a group who wandered that far, playing in reeds and cattails following the calls of frogs.  We didn’t hear the recess whistle. Only when we glanced back at the playground devoid of all life, school windows staring back at us like blank eyes, did we panic, racing to the back doors of the building and slipping inside. My teacher simply frowned when I breathlessly joined the line outside the drinking fountain. I never wandered so far and so carelessly again.

I remembered all these things last week as I sat watching my nephew’s flag football game in the Sunday afternoon sunshine. The game was close and tense—a league championship after a long season. The records of these teams were excellent according to the parents who clued me in so I could properly appreciate the talent before me. This competition would determine who would claim the gold plastic trophies lined up on the table under a canopy where a mother kept score by flipping the numbers on a stand-up chart. Adult referees joked with the father coaches good-naturedly as they griped about calls. During whistled time-outs, coaches ran onto the field with whiteboards to draw plays for the kids huddled around them. The quarterback on one team wore a Velcro wrist corsage with a list of the team’s strategic options so he could call them out if, for some reason, his coach became too incapacitated to direct their movements. Fortunately, he never had to use it; all the adults were able to perform their roles without help. Fouls were called, and mistakes pointed out. Exhortations to run faster, try harder, and throw better helped direct the children’s hands and feet in ways that drew applause or groans from their audience. We sat in lined-up canvas chairs watching their every move or paced the sidelines…each grown-up’s chance for happiness hanging on the next play. A mother next to me covered her face and couldn’t watch at one point. She was too nervous. Would the kids’ efforts render us victors or losers? At the end, one team won and the other lost. All the players lined up reflexively to shake hands and claim their snacks—years of practice conditioning them to know exactly how. Parents packed up the tents and chairs and coolers and water and flags and balls and nylon belts. They headed to the cars, dissecting the game’s ups and downs with their offspring and one another. Winning parents tried to graciously conceal their delight and model compliments to the losers; losing parents consoled themselves and their children by talking about next year and one play near the game’s end when the refs missed calling a foul that everyone clearly saw. Oh well. Baseball just started. Every weekend will bring a chance to try again for victory. The kids called good-byes to each other and hopped in cars to head home. Play time was over for today.

I watched them. And my heart ached for recess.

Heading Toward the Light

The first day of winter arrived this week. Today snow falls gently outside, and I’m reminded that January and February will bring more of it until I don’t view it with perhaps quite the same level of wonder as I do this morning. 

The first day of winter…short days, dark mornings, the snap of cold air. With each passing year, I understand just a little better why some people choose to live in warmer, sunnier climes, even if it means forsaking this change of seasons I love so much—the falling leaves, budding crocuses, brilliant autumn afternoons, and the dancing flakes I see outside today. The months of January and February are harder than most for those of us who long for light. And…if I let myself dwell on the “first day of winter” idea, I might feel discouraged thinking of how far away spring and summer seem from now.

Something in all of us loves the light…in all its varied forms:  rays of warmth, beams through the window, sparkles on the water, glowing lamps that hold back the night inside our homes, sparks from our fires, lightning streaking across dark sky. The older I get, the more I find myself a heliotrope; leaning toward the light, yearning for days to last longer. Perhaps some part of my soul knows I have passed my life’s own summer solstice and am journeying (though slowly I hope) toward the longest night from which I will not awaken in the same form. Thus, I lean ever more strongly toward the sun, and the year’s own rhythms reassure me. 

That first day of winter is actually a corner-turning moment in the rhythms of the planet. The solstice that marks the shortest day and longest night is the beginning of the return of the light, not the beginning of a several-month slog to spring. Each day after this one gets just a fraction longer, and that is cause for celebration. We are heading away from the darkest days with each rotation of the sphere on which we stand.

Earth’s cycles remind us that days can lengthen again and light will once more  hang in the sky long after evening comes on summer nights if we are only patient with the movement of the planet. The mornings of winter—awakening in the dark, heading out into darkness to start the day; these are often uninspiring. Dimming light on December evenings, arriving long before the dinner hour, feels like a cheat; the day disappeared from us so quickly. 

But when the  winter solstice comes, and the calendar tips over into the slowly-returning light, I can feel my heart fill with hope. Somehow the angle of the beams changes fractionally, reminding me each morning that I am one with the earth and our predictable journey toward longer days, dripping once again with precious sunlight. 

Home of the Brave

I love my country. I love its sprawling, diverse geography; its Bill of Rights; its peaceful transitions of leadership; and its free elections. And I hate its flaws: the racial tensions and hatred that still prevail in our diverse society; the fact that in a land of plenty we have not eradicated poverty, hunger and despair; and the increasingly tribal and polarizing politics. The things I hate do not negate my love; this is my land.

This week’s controversy over how our citizens exercise their freedom to speak demands that we examine what it means to be Americans. The argument over NFL players taking a knee is fueled by a leader who has an innate sense of performance theatre. While we are busy watching the magician’s distraction, we cannot see the inner workings behind the illusion he asks us to accept as real. Despite knowing this, I still found myself thinking more about free speech and patriotism this weekend than nuclear threats, economic concerns, tax reform, possible Russian interference in our elections, climate change, and health care. Distraction is a proven technique used by showmen everywhere for a reason. Audience members really aren’t as good at multitasking as we’d like to believe. We focus where they point us.

So, like most of my countrymen and women, I followed the trail of this bait and switch over the weekend as I watched football games and read the news. And I tried to stay off social media. I didn’t want to know who passionately believes people should keep their mouths shut about racism or which of my friends believes that we should only demonstrate in ways acceptable to all. The very nature of demonstration is that it is symbolic to the one who protests. It means something to that individual. It is his or her speech. If the forum is well-chosen, it is meant to make the rest of us uncomfortable enough to pay attention. And…our Constitution safeguards our right to speech that makes others uncomfortable, so long as we do not endanger them.

I have thought hard about this, and now I’ll exercise my own freedom. The truth is that not respecting the National Anthem in the expected format does make me uncomfortable. I’m a patriot. I love the moment of collective honoring of America that comes at the start of sporting events when thousands fall silent, stand, and watch the flag wave on the field or in the sky (or on the big tv). I am the girl who snaps at the stranger next to me who talks through the Anthem to his friends because he didn’t realize it has started. I hiss at him for quiet and use my “teacher look” to eyeball his hat and gesture for him to remove it as if he were an adolescent student. I ignore his glare, put my hand on my heart and sing, and I am not ashamed of that. It means something to me, that moment.

Oddly enough, I find myself more annoyed by the guy who keeps yapping after the Anthem has started than by the silent players on the field showing their dissent by quietly refusing to stand. But make no mistake; both of these actions make me uncomfortable. The difference is that one of them is intentionally supposed to…it is a symbol of my fellow citizens’ dissatisfaction with some things in our country. The other one is just some guy who doesn’t recognize that the stadium has gone quiet and someone is singing words that should signal him to respectful silence. One group “gets” the significance of this Anthem—enough to choose it as the backdrop for peaceful protest. The other group doesn’t get the significance enough to know why they should stop talking to their buddy about who paid for the beer and take off their hats and be still. Is that a generalization? Yes. Unfair? Perhaps. Biased. Certainly. We all have bias; this is mine. Do I recognize that some of the NFL players might just be “grandstanding” for attention rather than expressing deeply-held convictions? Perhaps. Do I see any irony in a gesture of protest that refuses to honor the symbol of the freedom that gives you the right to protest in the first place? Of course. But Supreme Court opinions on flag-burning, for example, expound far more eloquently on both sides of that argument than I can. (People should read them; they are incredibly thought-provoking, and they have pushed my thinking over the years about what America really means.) Are some of the NFL protesters men who’ve shown character flaws in their life choices and actions? Probably. Does that negate their rights to opinions? No. Just as it doesn’t negate the rights of the flawed people watching who may disagree with their actions. Are some  of the players and owners “spoiled millionaires?” Yes. So is the leader who criticized them…the same guy whose wife had to nudge him to put his hand on his heart and pay attention once when the Anthem played. I suspect there is no perfect American.

But none of those things is the point here.

I’ve heard more than one person say that they accept the right of those football players to protest but “not like this.” Democracy is messy. Free speech is not always pretty. Demonstrations are symbols, often loosely linked to the source of the protest; I think of Gandhi’s hunger strikes to protest British rule, for example, or United Nations allies withholding goods from countries to protest their nuclear programs or the genocide of their people. These are symbolic actions; intelligent, thoughtful people understand symbolism. The very flag we salute (or not) is a messy symbol in itself, standing not only for the unity of our states but also for the ugly protests against authority and the bloodshed that led to our union.

I heard thoughtful friends and commentators this weekend express concern that the “knee takers” and “arm linkers” on the football fields around the US and London this weekend are choosing a poor form of protest since the connection to their cause isn’t clear. When they refuse to stand silently or sing along with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” onlookers believe they are protesting the National Anthem when they are, in fact, trying to make a statement about racial profiling and police brutality in our free society. These aren’t connected enough, some argue. Doesn’t that confusion prove the protestors should seek another way to make their point and stop all this interference with football and patriotism? No. It doesn’t.

Symbols, by their very nature, stand for something else…and sometimes need explanation for those who didn’t conceive them. This need for clarification of their meaning doesn’t prove they are meaningless. Priests and pastors who explain the symbolism of the bread and wine at every Communion do not diminish the power of those symbols to the faithful with their reminders of what they mean. Once the link is made in our minds to symbols, we comprehend their significance. The link to our kneeling countrymen and women has been made by many of them—clearly and often. They do not hate our country. They do not hate our flag. They do not hate our countrymen and women who give their lives in military service to protect us and others around the world. They do not even hate most of the men and women who police our cities. They hate racism. They hate acts of brutality and those in power who commit them. They hate that people would rather not know about or act to change these things. They kneel to protest these acts and lack of action…and, this weekend, many also knelt to protest a leader who called them “sons of bitches”and who seeks to bully them into silence or into another form of protest at the risk of their livelihood. No one who is paying attention can feign ignorance about what their act of kneeling represents. We should acknowledge that for many, this choice was difficult, made only after thoughtful consideration of the consequences and requiring them to summon the courage to do something so public and so unpopular. These fellow citizens have been clear that they are intentionally choosing this sacred moment of public homage to our democracy to remind us that we still have work to do on freedom in this land of the free. Standing and singing our Anthem is an act of patriotism that honors our country. It is also an act of patriotism to love this country enough to do something unpopular to demand that it reach its potential.

While some of my countrymen kneel, I will stand with hand on heart and sing our Anthem. But I will also let their act of quiet non-participation remind me that I have a responsibility as a citizen to work for a better America. And both these things will be acts of fervent patriotism and love of country.

Would You Mind…?

The Yosemite Valley is wild and strong. Towering granite peaks dwarf human arrogance even as they stretch our souls beyond bounds. In their presence, I felt small, but still…my spirit soared.

Three-thousand-foot rock walls block more than cell signals; they enclosed us safely in space away from the outside world for just a weekend. I recharged while all my devices lost power. I hiked. Glimpsed beauty words cannot describe. Cooled my body in waterfall mist. My camera captured breathtaking scenes:  two-dimensional disappointments whose only value lies in allowing me back inside those moments for a fleeting instant.

And everywhere I went, I was in community. A national park is full of worshippers. In the valley of the shadow of these mountains forged by time, you feel the grace and power of the same God–no matter how we might define “religion” in our daily lives.

The last time I came here, I was younger. The world was younger. Technology…was younger. I remember carrying a camera case, cushioning a state-of-the-art Canon Sureshot. Point and click. Automatic focus. Develop the perfect pictures later. I could even delete by flipping through digital images in the postage stamp screen. I could erase any scene I didn’t want. It was miraculous then. We could capture everything in such clarity but select only the best to keep.

What I couldn’t do with that old camera fifteen years ago was take my picture. A “selfie” wasn’t part of our vernacular; self-recording our own moments hadn’t entered our culture. We had not begun the Age of Obsession with Ourselves, spinning our lives, marketing our brand, becoming our very own paparazzi. If I wanted to save a memory with my own face in it, I asked for help from fellow travelers. “Excuse me…would you mind taking a picture of our family?” And I would hand over my expensive cherished camera to a total stranger and trust that he or she would help record this moment, would get “the Christmas card shot” that would help us tell our story to our friends. “Excuse me? Do you mind? Can you help?” I don’t remember anyone ever declining. They always said yes. They may not have spoken my language, but who cares? Help is its own dialect. They may have felt burdened by the request. If so, they did not say. I regret now that I did not fully appreciate that small act of civility then as I do today. We used to take it for granted. Some did not even engage in the obligatory “swap of services” by letting us take a photo in return. Simply, they always helped us capture this memory we wanted when we asked with a shy smile before continuing on their way. I needed them to be part of our narrative; without them, I would not have these memories. We could not do it alone back then. We had to cover each other.

The pictures were often terrible. Not many strangers ever mastered the twelve-inch differential in my husband’s height and mine…nor were they very mindful of the fact that Joe’s best smile is not the one he poses with. Most were not attuned to the subtle ways of counting to three but snapping on two or four while we were all a little more relaxed and real. Some got the family at the expense of the background or the background at the expense of a head or half a person. Kristin always grimaced when she saw their view of her. That’s ok. This collection of pictures that aren’t beautiful is actually a reminder today of all the ways in which people help each other when they don’t have to. It’s a collaboration among strangers that I find strangely beautiful all for itself.

In Yosemite, I stood on a wooden bridge over the Merced River, watching Vernal Falls come crashing down, spotting fleeting rainbows in the spray exploding like fireworks over the rocks. I didn’t snap a selfie. I saw a smiling couple taking pictures of each other posing at the bridge railing (the falls too tall and too close to make the aspect ratio of any selfie capture the moment well), and I asked them, “Would you like me to get one of you guys together?” They paused, caught off-guard by this charming, old-fashioned request. Then they smiled and said that would be great. And handed me their $900 iPhone. I sized the shot to get it right, to get them right. (We don’t even have to ask how to use the camera today; we all speak Smartphone.) I got three terrific Christmas card-worthy photos of those two. I swear they will love them. They continued on their way without even checking my work. No do-overs. No retouching. Just faith. A part of me finds it odd that I noticed this small gesture of trust.

I hiked twelve miles up the falls and back around that day through the mountains to my starting point at the dusty trailhead on the road to the campground. Along the way I was never alone. Dozens of strangers accompanied me. And in our mutual awe of the valley around us, we were a congregation on this Sunday morning. A diverse and unconnected body drinking in the view. Communion.

At the top of the waterfall, a viewing platform just big enough for a few people hangs out over the edge right where the roaring stream bends to drop on rocks hundreds of feet below. You cannot possibly take a selfie and do justice to the view. You’ll miss so much if you try to do it by yourself. Focused only on your own face, you will completely lose the context of where you are. You must count on others standing back twenty feet to snap the shot that shows that you are here. And so we did. We joined an improvised photo brigade and each took turns posing while someone else held our digital lifeline and snapped the picture of us smiling bravely into the sun with miles of wilderness at our backs. Then we’d move to the snapping space, recover our phone from someone, and become the photographer for someone else. Symbiotic,  collaborative, poetic justice. That evening, back at the campground, my husband and daughter would share with me their moment of hanging out over the edge of the world on Half Dome, preserved for me and them by total strangers–a picture they could not have captured themselves to bring me so I would share their joy in the summit I could not make myself. My heart still fills with gratitude to the nameless, faceless hiker who caught that memory for me to have with them.

Later, back at home in my life, I muse on the fact that while I was encased in this throwback human moment, my countrymen and women debated the politics of hate speech on the unending news cycles that fill our days and our devices. For a weekend, in the cathedral of rock walls that blocked these signals, we did not have to know that so many of us despise one another. I was able to wrap myself in ignorance and bask in the purest light, bathe aching feet in glacial waters beside a roaring stream that hid all other sounds. Relax to the soothing white noise of earth speaking. I drank the water I carried and talked to people I will never see again. And we captured memories for one another…we strangers.

I know my musings here are naive. Ensconced in this skin I did not choose but was merely born in, I can only plead guilty to being innocent of what it feels like to be hated or hunted for being myself here in “the home of the free.” I cannot change this. Still, I wish naively with all my heart and with no appropriately sobering real experience to make me cynical, that we could block most of the signals the world is sending and just be decent strangers willing to help one another on the journey, feeling gratitude for the creation around us. I wish that we could trust each other with things of value and do one another simple kindnesses without question. I wish that we could see the context beyond our self-images and our own narratives and let other people into our stories. The people I shared the journey with last weekend traveled far to stand together in awe of something bigger than ourselves. And when they handed me back my camera, they gave me back their generous view of me to keep and this small spark of hope. And I am grateful.