Cups of Kindness

It is New Year’s Eve. The Christmas tree is on borrowed time.   When I crouch near low branches to pull the plug on the lights each evening, she still carries the scent of a warm summer’s afternoon in the forest.    Balsam firs are generally sparse and scrawny.  It is hard to find one without one bad side.   I got lucky.  She stood in a group of four other trees even more beautiful than she was and thus, was chosen as the one to cut.  She was just exactly the right height, too. The tip of the star at the top of the tree just touches the ceiling in our family room.   Tomorrow, stripped of her finery,  I will move her outside near the bird feeders and plunge her trunk into a snowbank so that she can be a shelter and resting place for the chickadees who come to feed all winter long.  By April,  her needles will have fallen off, leaving only a straight, nine foot long trunk and she will become kindling at the fire circle.  While she works at becoming less of what she once was, her sisters in the forest will hunker down under their blankets of snow, becoming more.

2012, too, has drawn to a close.   This evening,  people throughout the world who are more ambitious than I am will dress up and go out to celebrate.  Corks will be popped and champagne poured ’round the globe. There will be kisses and proposals and confetti.  The ball in Times Square will drop without Dick Clark’s countdown.  People will sing of old acquaintances and cups of kindness once again.  For it is New Year’s Eve.

Cups of kindness.  What a concept.

The world needs more cups of kindness.   Pints, and gallons, and barrels of kindness.  Oceans of it in which to bathe our weary souls.

Kindness between family members.   Kindness among schoolchildren.  Kindness between leaders.  Kindness between people of different faiths.

When did kindness stop mattering, I wonder?  What if, instead of resolving to lose that extra 10 pounds, or quit smoking, or stop spending so much money on crap we don’t need, everyone got out a piece of paper tonight and wrote

New Year’s Resolution for 2013

1. Be Kinder

and then, WAS?  For 365 days in a row.   Day after day…week after week…month after month…until this time next year? Kinder with ourselves?  Our spouses?  Our children?  Our aging parents? Our siblings? Strangers? The planet?  I wonder if the ripples created by that resolution would continue to spread.

I am the great great granddaughter of Scandinavian immigrants who left one cold climate for another one and never had enough sunlight.  Enough rice pudding and Lutefisk can turn anyone into a cup-half-empty type of gal.  Even so, this year I think I’m going to resolve to fill at least one cup to overflowing.

I hope that you will do the same.  Happy New Year!


un·fath·om·a·ble  (n-f-m-bl) adj.1. Difficult or impossible to understand; incomprehensible: unfathomable theories.2. Difficult or impossible to measure: the unfathomable depths.

Once upon a time, I taught reading.  To college freshmen.
If you find this difficult to believe, I am sorry.  After all, aren’t children supposed to learn to read in Kindergarten?
My students had learned to read as children.  However, the higher level academic vocabulary required to be successful in college was what they lacked.  Perhaps I should say that what I really taught were words.  Big words.  Important words.  College words.
Words like unfathomable.
Every semester,  my class would sail along pretty well until Chapter 5 when unfathomable appeared on the word list.  Then, like a fully loaded freight train on bad track, the tempo of the lesson would start to swerve and wobble and then grind to a halt.  All because of that darn word.
And so….
We would look it up the definitions in the dictionary.
We would divide it into syllables, paying close attention to where the accented syllable was.
We would spend an inordinate amount talking about why the upside down e was called a schwa.
We would review for the hundredth time the difference between adjectives and adverbs.
And then I’d ask my students to try using it in a sentence.   They would look around the room, shifting uncomfortably in their seats.  Refusing to make eye contact with me.  If actual word bubbles with question marks appeared above real human heads in college classrooms, there would have been at least twenty per class.
And so…sighing loudly..I would use the word in sentences.    Every semester.  Sentences like:
“It is unfathomable to me that, after two weeks of studying this word, that I am still the only person in class who can use it in a sentence.”
“I find it unfathomable that three of you walked to class from the dorm in basketball shorts with a 30 below zero windchill this morning.”
“Why, oh why do you find the word unfathomable so very…well…unfathomable????”
It took a long time for me to realize that trying to define something that describes something as indescribable and beyond comprehension was pretty impossible, even for an English teacher.
Until tonight.  Tonight I could do it.
Because tonight, I am thinking about other students who lived in a place far from the lakes and woods where I do who lost their lives on what began as an ordinary day.  Children sent off to learn little words so that they could grow up and go on to learn bigger ones by parents who blinked, trusted the universe a little too much, and had their hearts yanked out by noon.   Such unfathomable pain to bear.
I am thinking about the disturbed young man who killed twenty babies of other women and the mother who gave birth to him.  I’m thinking  about how truly broken a soul, or mind, or person has to be in order to do such an unfathomable thing in such an unfathomable way.
I am thinking of the unfathomable heroism shown by teachers and staff who gathered children into darkened classrooms and closets and cubbies during the ordeal.  Men and women who did everything they could to protect their students knowing that it could cost them their own lives.
Tonight, a lot of people on TV are saying that there are “no words” to describe today’s events.
Yes.  There is.
But only one.

The Only Game That Really Matters

They introduced themselves to me through the essays they wrote.  Now, Facebook keeps me up to date on their college graduations, marriages, job promotions, and sometimes even the games they’ve won if they have been lucky enough to play professionally.   Once in awhile, late at night, a message will pop up from one of them just checking in to say hello.  This is a gift I never take for granted.   While they came from different cities, they shared many things in common in addition their love of the Game.  The absence of a father was one.   They were men raised by women.  Strong women, loving women, Godly women.  Women who toiled and sweat and tried to fill in the gaps for their sons and nephews and grandsons.

Superhuman women. But women, just the same.

They post pictures, too…of  beautiful little girls and handsome little boys.  Newborn pictures,  and birthday party pictures with toddlers covered in icing. They post the classic  first- day- of -school pictures, and the Trick or Treating pictures, and Christmas morning pictures.

Pictures of the children they’ve fathered.   Pictures of the children they are raising.

There’s a big difference between a Baby Daddy and a Father.

These are the men who are in the game of their lives.  The ones who show up, suit up, stay.  They not only pay for diapers but are man enough to change those diapers.  They are in the delivery room and then continue to deliver for their children in ways both big and small.   They are the sorts of fathers we hope our own sons will be.

Too bad there’s not a Heisman Trophy for Fatherhood.  I have a long list of men  I’d like to nominate.


It’s official.

I don’t know anything.  Nothing.

Just ask my son.

I used to know stuff.  Mothers with sons older than mine assure me that eventually I will know stuff again.  I try to hold on to this promise as I watch his eyes glaze over during conversations with me.  I stifle the urge to lean toward him with my water glass poised directly over his head when he sighs loudly or says for the tenth time during dinner, “MOM!  I KNOW, Alright?”  I conjure up images of the person that he was when he still thought I knew stuff.  When I was the person he came to when he wanted answers to the millions and millions and MILLIONS of questions he had about the world.  He used to ask me questions!  Imagine that! Memories of the small, sweet boy keep me from strangling the not- so- sweet young man who ducks and dodges and struggles against my love for him. The person who demands to do things his way.   The one who is so very sure, every time, that I am wrong about so much.

I drove away from Mr. Certain one dark evening last week, making my way east to visit his sister, a more diplomatic and female version of her brother.  An hour from the place where she lives her own Quite Certain life, traffic on the interstate began to slow.   An accident, perhaps?  I drove on, feeling tired, frustrated and hoping that whatever was going on would be cleared soon.

Then, I saw it. On a highway overpass a half mile up the interstate, dozens of lights twinkled.  From a distance, it was impossible to make out the source.  I wondered if someone had decided to decorate the bridge for Christmas.  Moving closer,  I realized that it was actually five large emergency vehicles,  their blue and white  strobe lights flashing.  My car was almost to the bridge when, from the other side of the interstate, eight squad cars, lights flashing but no sirens, sped along in the passing lane in single file.

Had those of us traveling that night witnessed an Honor Guard?  Were the lights a silent show of  respect for a young police officer from the area recently gunned down in an apparent ambush?  From news reports,  I know that he died serving the community where he was raised and that he was in his thirties. According to the same reports,  he leaves behind four young children.  His grieving mother was recently  interviewed.  She talked about her late son,  and how he’d known since he was a little boy that he wanted to be a police officer after he’d become separated from an older sibling at a shopping center and a police officer had stayed with him, bought him ice cream, kept him safe until they were reunited.  She mentioned during the interview that he had graduated from the police academy early and that he’d been too young to buy his first service revolver so she and her husband had done that for him.  As I listened to the interview, I thought about that kind of love and was awed by it, by her.  My own frustrations with my own son seemed trivial, inconsequential, small, by comparison.

The thing about all of us raising sons is that, eventually, we all get our hearts broken by them.  If we’re very lucky, it is because they just grow up..or fall in love….or make choices we don’t agree with..or move far away from us.  Or tell us that we don’t know anything.

But sometimes, for some mothers, the stakes are much higher.

I might not know much right now, but I learned this on the first evening of the month of miracles and mysteries…on a dark ribbon of highway illuminated by flashes of lights on a bridge in the sky.

In the Season dedicated to another Son. And his Mother.