Notre Dame and our common humanity

Why is it that tragedy unites us but otherwise we spend our time picking each other apart and spreading divisiveness?

I don’t want to launch into a synopsis on modern politics or the state of the world today. Most people are pretty up-to-speed on the general dark cloud hanging over the western hemisphere without my rehashing it…so I’ll be short and sweet here for the sake of all of our sanity and won’t delve into things about which I know (too?) little.

What I know is this: Notre Dame cathedral burned yesterday and it stopped everyone in their tracks. Suddenly people of all stripes are united in their grief. Facebook posts display picture after picture of individuals’ experiences at Notre Dame, plus stories of longing and sadness from those who hadn’t had the chance to go there and see it in person.

The notion that this monument anchoring the skyline of Paris for centuries is in peril defies belief. This human construct, a display of the beauty that man is capable of creating, has for centuries drawn pilgrimaging Catholics, as well as millions of tourists of other religious and agnostic persuasions, to stand in awe of its majesty. It has survived so much history, so much destruction, from the French Revolution to the two horrific world wars of the 20th century. But in mere hours yesterday it literally went up in flames.

It’s like the smack across the face that the world needed. I hope it is, anyway, and that some long-term good will come of it. Historic monuments like Notre Dame are an investment. They represent hope, connect us to our past, and guide us toward the future. They are an incarnation of what binds us to each other and to our common good. They are a symbol of the best in human civilization – architecturally, culturally, and artistically –  and a beacon when we have lost our way.

We have been living in a period of neglect of community, faith, and hope. We have literally let historic buildings crumble and decay before our very eyes due to a lack of funding, indifference, and disinterest. In our lives, the virtual becomes ever more confounded with reality. We intentionally, or through the magic of algorithms and our personal data, surround ourselves only with like-minded individuals.

Today we must acknowledge these failings and renew our faith that we are more alike than we are different. It’s well beyond time to restore global sanity, to find common ground, and to chart the course forward with an intact moral compass by investing in what really matters. The investment required is not exactly in our history or our future, per se, but both together manifested in how we treat our fellow man today. Words like honor, dignity, respect, integrity, patience, and hope swirl through my mind. The restoration of the building is a worthy aspiration, but those values are what urgently need restoring.

The Untold Story of a Little Town with a Big Heart and a Lot of Sole

Rural communities are suffering. Highways bypass historic downtowns, big box stores cannibalize revenues from local retailers, and there are limited employment options, forcing young people to leave in search of opportunity. These issues are not unique to rural areas, but are exacerbated there by the lack of a critical population mass, and more piecemeal and sporadic services and resources. In some places, “homecomers” have led the way back to the rural communities where they were raised. Many communities are expanding high speed broadband and e-connectivity resources to improve education, health care, and business opportunities. And some communities band together to painstakingly plan for renewal by focusing on the vital role of their most historic structures in anchoring their past while launching a new future.

The Industrial Revolution spurred the creation out of farmland or forest of many of our nation’s cities and towns. Factories sprung up along the shores of powerful rivers to capitalize on the harnessed hydropower. Immigrants in search of work flocked to what, at the time, were outposts of civilization, eventually building homes and a community around their livelihoods. Homes, churches, performance halls, and other civic institutions emerged from the wildlands.

For a time, the paper industry of Millinocket, ME; the appliance and railroad industries of Fort Wayne, IN; the textiles of Lawrence, MA; the shoes of North Brookfield, MA; and the steel, textile, and tanneries of North Philadelphia, PA, to name just a few, thrived. But then manufacturing practices became more mechanized. Companies found cheaper labor in the southern U.S. or abroad. Demand for paper declined. More modern manufacturing facilities evolved and the original production methods and buildings became obsolete.

Slowly, insidiously, the industries that had built these cities, towns, and neighborhoods shuttered their doors, moving elsewhere or closing entirely. What remains are vacant mill buildings, deteriorating opera houses, empty storefronts – the dilapidated, decaying nucleus of the country’s manufacturing communities. What happens when the primary source of employment evaporates but a community has set down roots and traditions; has built ornate civic structures, but doesn’t have the resources to maintain them? When the city or town itself loses its spark and stagnates? And when it barely recovers from the last recession before the next one begins?

According to the Economic Innovation Group’s 2018 Distressed Communities Report, recovery from the most recent recession has been unevenly distributed. Since the 1990s, there has been an “intensifying ruralization of distress,” said John Lettieri, EIG’s president. The challenges facing rural America are complex and stubborn and difficult to solve. At the same time, our current “period of national prosperity is our chance to reinvest in communities and rekindle the economy’s dynamic forces.” (EIG report)

A new future requires some sort of catalyst to forge forward out of stagnation. What is it that finally ignites revitalization in some communities, while others continue to languish? I have a few theories after two decades working in real estate analysis and community development. One is an engaged and competent local government. Another is a devoted group of local citizens with a strong leader. A cohesive vision and implementable plan, both with short- and long-term goals, is critical. Usually success takes years of coordinated effort between local and state government and committed volunteers. Surely sprinkled in there is a bit of luck and good timing.

In North Brookfield, MA, a rural community of 4,800 people about 25 minutes from Worcester and 60 miles west of Boston, residents and town leaders have rallied around the historic Townhouse as the focal point for their community’s redevelopment efforts. Designed by Eldridge Boyden, a locally accomplished architect, the Townhouse was one of the first public spaces in this country built in the French Second Empire and Italianate styles. The building was constructed in 1864, and served as a hub of political, cultural, and community activity for the broader region.

Then times changed. The Batcheller Shoe Company closed in the early 1900s, and with that and the evolution of retail towards big box stores and online shopping most of the family-owned businesses in downtown North Brookfield also eventually closed. Currently, the almost 14,500 square foot Townhouse is vacant, and the main street is quiet. The Bell Tower was damaged in Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and determined to be structurally unsound.

But North Brookfield is a small, tight-knit community with a ton of heart. Manufacturing continues on a smaller scale, with Vibram, the Italian shoe sole company, operating the former Quabog Corporation rubber manufacturing plant across the street from the Townhouse. The Friends of the North Brookfield Townhouse, a non-profit group brimming with volunteers, ideas, and passion, was organized over a decade ago with the mission of preserving and renovating the Townhouse to re-establish it as the center of civic, political, social, and cultural activities. The Friends and the town have worked arduously to preserve the building, hiring a local craftsman to replace the Bell Tower in 2014 and, in 2015, thanks to state funding, securing the building from water infiltration by replacing the roof, windows, dormers and gutters.

Among many other initiatives, including applying for and being awarded an allocation of historic tax credits to help finance a renovation, in the fall of 2018 the Friends facilitated the painting of the building’s exterior. They collected donations for all of the supplies, and brought in lunch daily for the workers, a number of whom were prisoners from the Worcester County Sheriff’s office work release program. Townspeople passing by would see what was happening and stop to ask how they could help. Some literally picked up a paintbrush and worked for a couple of days, some gave money for supplies, while others brought chocolate chip cookies, brownies or homemade pumpkin bread to share. There was no cost to the town. The results speak for themselves.

The Townhouse is a building with high emotional content. It has the capacity to stir one’s soul. In the traditional metrics of market conditions, it’s a challenge and the Friends will need financial support from grants to private donations to pull it off. But not everything that is worthwhile in life is quantifiable. In fact, I would argue, that the things that matter most have no intrinsic monetary value – like community, integrity, hard work, passion, and hope. The town of North Brookfield has these in spades. The Townhouse is a center piece of the town architecturally and a vital link between its past and its future. That future is being constructed with vision and dedication, strong leadership, and a plan based in solid fundamentals that will capture the imagination of the town and the region. Maybe sprinkled with a bit of luck for good measure.

Welcome to North Brookfield – the heart and sole of Massachusetts!

“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be…”
― from William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality

“Let me tell you the secret that has led to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity.” – Louis Pasteur 

Vanilla, Powerfully Plain

I mentioned that my family has bit of a love affair with the chocolate chip cookie. You know what the smallest make or break ingredient in a chocolate chip cookie is? The vanilla. The difference in taste that a single teaspoon of vanilla makes is astounding.

But I have often heard vanilla used as a synonym for plain. In fact, Merriam Webster dictionary defines vanilla as, “lacking distinction : plain, ordinary, conventional.” And, yet, a world without the vanilla bean would be flavorless and bland.

Where does the majority of the world’s vanilla grow, you ask? In one of the least plain, ordinary, or conventional places on Earth. That’s right, my old love, Madagascar.

Madagascar boasts more than 75% of the world’s vanilla fields. All of Madagascar’s vanilla is grown in the SAVA (Sambava, Antalaha, Vohemar and Andapa) region in the country’s northeast. Vanilla is Madagascar’s largest export, which is pretty remarkable given that the plant, which was introduced from Mexico during the French colonial period, needs to be hand-pollinated.

This CBS video from 2017 discusses the recent vanilla bean shortage, a little about the price fluctuations over the past two decades, and the impact of the shortage on US businesses. What the video alludes to but doesn’t dive into, is what life is like for vanilla farmers in Madagascar now that vanilla is second only to saffron as the most expensive spice in the world.

Used to flavor so many sweet treats in the west, with the US, France, and Germany being the primary importers of its vanilla, vanilla beans in Madagascar are labor-intensive to cultivate. In a developing country like Madagascar, where the rule of law is flimsy at best, corruption is rampant, poverty is beyond most westerners’ comprehension, and cyclones can wreak havoc on a crop that takes three years to be marketable, sustainable livelihoods are elusive.

When Madagascar was a French colony, the French government set prices for vanilla producers. Madagascar gained its independence in 1960, after which the Malagasy government set the vanilla prices. During both of these periods, prices were low and predictable. In the mid-1990s, however, just about when I arrived in Madagascar, the Malagasy government de-regulated vanilla prices because of pressure from global financial institutions. This was the beginning of the dramatic vanilla bean price fluctuations that have been on-going ever since.

Increased demand and higher prices would, ostensibly, seem to be a good thing for Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries by GDP (the 10th poorest according to the World Atlas). Global vanilla prices were hovering at about $450 to $500 per kilogram as of August 2018, with the expectation that this year the prices would decline somewhat due to increased production. For context, this is about the same as the price for silver.

Demand pressures, however, have led to farmers harvesting beans too early to prevent theft; increased need for security at vanilla fields; and generally more dangerous conditions for vanilla farmers. Much of the vanilla profits go to middlemen, though the SAVA region has also benefited from this boom period. For vanilla farmers, it has been documented that they typically don’t know what to do with the windfall. In the context of rural Madagascar, where the closest bank is often a day’s walk along routes patrolled by armed bandits, long-term savings are not realistic. A large influx of cash in rural Madagascar turns into a liability pretty quickly.

Because of the vanilla boom, in addition to demand for rosewood, protected rainforests in the northeastern part of Madagascar, like Masoala National Park, have been illegally cut to create more vanilla fields. It makes logical sense from the perspective of the local population, the majority of whom are barely surviving on a daily basis, with absolutely no social safety nets. No one wants to miss the opportunity to become a “vanillionaire”, and the long-term implications of their actions on the island’s unique flora and fauna, like the use of its vanilla beans, are luxuries that appeal to those who live in another world. They are irrelevant to day to day survival.

Except that, in the end, it isn’t irrelevant at all.

For the long-term sustainability of the region, of the very vanilla plant that is the source of such demand, it makes no sense at all (check out this 10-minute BBC documentary to learn more, starting around minute 7:30). Other aspects of the local economy benefit from tourists interested in seeing lemurs, wild orchids, and rosewood trees in their natural habitats. Even more esoteric to the rural population, but still meaningful, is the potential for medicines cultivated from plants that grow in Madagascar’s forests, such as from the Madagascar periwinkle, which is an ingredient in leukemia treatments. These are much the same issues I observed in 1996.

Where do we go from here? Trust me, this is a question I have been asking myself for over 20 years, since I first set foot in Madagascar. There are no easy answers. Education has to be one component. Functional government is inevitably another. There aren’t short-term solutions for long-term, sustainable outcomes. For creative ideas, I like this World Bank blog that reports on initiatives happening in Madagascar, and also Madecasse’s efforts to establish bean-to-bottle production within Madagascar. As in so many aspects of life, I also think it’s a good idea to have small, specific, achievable goals that can be accomplished in the short-term, but that begin to establish the path toward a larger, long-term goal.

So, for now, the next time you buy vanilla extract or vanilla ice cream or almost any sweet treat, think about that little dab of vanilla and what a difference it makes to your taste buds, but also what an impact it has on a little country way on the other side of the world. The story of vanilla is more complex that it appears, and it is far from plain.

Pictures courtesy of Madecasse and National Geographic

 

 

 

The Void

Have you ever felt like you were being chased by silence? Or felt the weight of nothing?

The sudden loss of someone you love does that. There’s this constant sensation that something is missing, this echoing emptiness enveloping you. In quiet moments, the sadness creeps in, sneaks up behind you and surprises you with its tenacity. It’s still here…

My mind searches and searches for answers, attempting to fill this void, but the result is always the same. She is gone and it’s incomprehensible. She was so vibrant and full of life one minute (actually for 71 years of minutes!), and then she was gone. Who knew that the absence of someone could take up so much space in a room? Who knew that silence could be so loud? That emptiness could be so heavy?

Everywhere I look I see the negative space in the composition of my life with Nancy. Where once the space around her defined her physical presence, now the space where she isn’t defines her absence. I first learned the concept of negative space in 11th grade art class. I am not 100% sure I am interpreting it accurately, but this abstract way of thinking resonates with where my grieving mind keeps landing.

We went skiing last weekend, one of Nancy’s favorite activities. When I opened the door to the condo, I expected her to be there, as if maybe our paths just haven’t crossed this past month. Her smile and her voice are so vivid, my mind insists that she’s here somewhere. Out at dinner, the lack of a chair reserved for her made my chest ache. Her absence weighs on us and fills the space between us. I thought I saw her walk by the ski lodge when I was waiting in line inside to get lift tickets. My heart leapt and I almost ran out to call her name. And then my brain caught up with what my eyes thought they were seeing.

On our first run, laying down the first tracks that day after hitting the chairlift for the opening bell, the sun’s rays shone brilliantly through the clouds. I always call this God lighting. In that breathtakingly magical moment, I knew Nancy was with us, that this was her peeking through to whisper hello and good morning and I love you all.

Sun Rays at first run
Nancy’s Hello

What I wouldn’t give for a hug from Nancy right now. How she would have enjoyed being with us.

It was great to see how much fun the kids had, how life goes on for them with so much less heaviness. They happily and fondly and vocally remember her. We talk about her a lot. She is still very much with us, her positive spirit guiding us and encouraging us onward. She would absolutely be telling us to go, live, and enjoy life. And we are…but, for a while anyway, there’s also this mental leap of loss, this inescapable physical void that accompanies us.

I’ll close with this beautiful Maya Angelou poem that the amazing author, storyteller, life coach, and my kindred spirit Susie Rinehart sent to me recently. It expresses so eloquently what I am stumbling through here. Enjoy. And go out there and live!

They Existed, by Maya Angelou

“When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

Madagascar, and I don’t mean the movie

If there is a traditional or typical path in life, I am almost assuredly not on it. Because I tend to wander down uncharted paths, a lot of my stories require a backstory to answer the inevitable “how the heck did you end up there?” And so it is with Madagascar. I have a lot to say about Madagascar, but I’ll start with the backstory for now.

In college, I went through a bit of a lost soul phase. The university I had chosen to attend wasn’t the best fit for me, and I belatedly discovered that just because I was physically going to the library didn’t mean I was actually learning anything (mostly because I was spending my time there sending email and writing funny haikus). I had been a pretty strong student in high school, but that wasn’t translating well into college. I temporarily lost track of who I thought I was and had a bit of an identity crisis.

The good news is that my crisis made me brave. I felt like I had nothing to lose so I kept trying new things. One particularly fraught semester I read a description in the Student Conservation Association catalogue for the backcountry trail crew at Baxter State Park in Northern Maine. I had only been to Maine once before, but I nonetheless decided that that was where I would find salvation. My attitude at the time was, “it can’t be worse than this,” so I applied. Long story short, sometime in late May, my mom dropped me off at the Molly Pitcher rest stop on I-95 in New Jersey where I had arranged for one of my new trail crew-mates to pick me up. And off I went into the wilderness for three months. Really? This was the plan? I can’t imagine what it was like to be my parents during those years. I mean, you dropped your kid off at a rest stop on I-95 in New Jersey? Clearly this was well before helicopter parenting became a thing.

Living in northern Maine was absolutely one of the best curves on the path of my life. I was immersed in a brand new environment, living completely off the grid in a physically stunning and remote rural area. I lived in close quarters with people from widely varied backgrounds, with different interests and challenges in their lives. I had tons of time for reflection – countless miles on the trail deep in thought, and no phone or electricity at the rustic cabin where we lived. There were few distractions. I hiked, I read, I wrote, I thought. We made a single trip to town each Friday to collect mail, use the payphone, do laundry, and go to the grocery store. We worked incredibly, mind-numbingly, body-achingly hard. Life in the park was basic and simple and incredibly rich.

One part of our job was to spend a solo week on “mountain patrol”. When it was my turn, I climbed Katahdin daily to be a resource for Park visitors about the trails, the flora and fauna, or whatever other questions they might have. In my backpack I carried extra water, a first aid kit, and a hand-held radio. I spent my days patrolling the trails above treeline and talking with hikers. Did I mention that I grew up in Philadelphia? This was one of the most foreign environments compared to my prior life experience in which I could find myself. And I loved it.

While patrolling the summit, I came across a group of campers enjoying lunch with a view before descending. Their group leader had lots of questions about my job, what I was studying at school, and what I planned to do next. I explained that my parents had encouraged me to learn a second language, and were hoping that I would spend a semester studying in France to solidify my French fluency. The notion of living in a big city, even if that city happened to be Paris, held zero appeal to me. I couldn’t fathom what I would find of interest there and I knew with 100% certainty that I’d cheat and speak English most of the time anyway. “Have you ever heard of the School for International Training?” she said. “You could study in another French-speaking country,” she said. And then she rattled the school’s phone number off the top of her head and I wrote it down on the back of my park trail map.

As soon as I got out to town, I called the 800 number from the payphone to request a program catalogue. This was at the dawn of the internet, so cellphones, google and email were not yet widely available. It was old fashioned phone and snail mail (and, no, this wasn’t the Dark Ages. It was the mid-90s). When I read the course description for the Madagascar program my eyes welled up with tears. The program combined all of my academic interests, from French language to environmental issues, and also the mystery of exploring Madagascar. I felt called to be there, like finally someone was speaking my language.

That February I touched down in Antananarivo and began the most transformative five months of my life.

What is the point of this story? I ask myself that question all the time. Sometimes, admittedly, there is no point and it’s just a good story. In this case, the point is that taking the less traveled path can be a good idea (just ask Robert Frost) and that being open to unfamiliar worlds -environments, people, lifestyles – is important, eye-opening, and life-changing. You learn a lot more about yourself when the familiar is stripped away. And you learn a lot more about others when you meet them where they are and attempt to understand their reality and see the world through their eyes.

“The real treasure, to end our misery and trials, is never far away – it is not to be sought in any distant region; it lies buried in the innermost recess of our own home, that is to say, our own being…if only we could dig. But there is an odd and persistent fact that it is only after a faithful journey to a distant region, a foreign country, a strange land, that the meaning of the inner voice that is to guide us on our quest can be revealed to us. And together with this odd and persistent fact there goes another, namely, that the one who reveals to us the meaning of our cryptic inner message must be a stranger, of another creed and foreign race.” – Heinrich Zimmer, “Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization”

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” – Marcel Proust

 

Good Grief, Charlie Brown

Is there such thing as good grief? Because it feels like an oxymoron. Grief is heavy and hard and, of course, sad. It implies the loss of something important. How could that ever be good?

I was saying to a friend the other day that I’ve grieved so much lately that I must be on the path to enlightenment. Right??? I mean, what else is the point of all this suffering and introspection? I get it, I really get it. Life is fragile and short and beautiful and hard. And grieving is something you have to live through; there are no shortcuts. The Weight of Grief, a sculpture by Celeste Roberge, accurately and poignantly reflects how it feels.

grief
The Weight of Grief by Celeste Roberge

Grief is a funny thing. I can be ambling along quite pleasantly in my “normal” life and it just sneaks up, welling up unexpectedly in my chest from seemingly nowhere to overcome me. I’d love to call out, “MERCY”, to the universe and actually get a reprieve. But, instead, here I am facing again the reality that this life journey isn’t something that’s totally in my control and diving deeper into gratitude for what I have and authentically living for what really matters.

Here’s where the good in grief lies. Grief amplifies the otherwise mundane, magnifying the importance of the smallest gesture. I had never understood the importance of ritual, for example. Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of ceremony or tradition. But when we joined hands in a circle around my aunt to pray together, though our brains were addled with grief and a sensation of numbness was overcoming us, we all knew verbatim the words. It required no shuffling of papers or notes, no cueing, no preamble. There was incredible solidarity in that harsh and deeply painful moment.

Food is another item that ascends to the pinnacle of significance during times of grief. People deliver food to grieving families as a way of saying, “I love you and I don’t know what else to do so here’s one less thing to worry about.” Food becomes an important means of connection, both literal and figurative sustenance.

When my aunt died unexpectedly two weeks ago, she had been anticipating our arrival to visit for a couple of days. Her refrigerator was full of some of the family favorites: her homemade mac and cheese, broccoli (our staple veggie), pasta and meatballs, and ricotta cookies. We decided that we should gather as a family and enjoy the meals she had prepared. My husband was given the task of packing up the food and bringing it to my cousin’s house. He felt strongly that he was delivering something sacred, so he packed the car with ceremony and care. Nancy had baked her love for us into each morsel of that food. The food was emblematic of her devotion to us and her anticipation of the time we would be spending together. It always tastes good, but never before had consuming mac and cheese been so poignant.

I can’t talk about food and not mention the chocolate chip cookie, which is hands down one of our family’s most treasured delicacies. My mom and my aunt were like some sort of chocolate chip cookie ambassadors, working industriously to spread their love of this perfect cookie far and wide. Chocolate chippers were regularly in the cookie jar on our kitchen counter, homemade and delicious. Every time I came home from college my mom was pulling a fresh batch from the oven, the smell of melting brown and white sugar, butter, and gooey chocolate chips permeating the kitchen. Our exchange students from France, Germany, Serbia, and countless visitors from elsewhere, were quickly indoctrinated to this most American delight. When traveling abroad, my mom even brought brown sugar and chocolate chips with her so she could reproduce the official chocolate chipper there. When I lived in Madagascar, I improvised using chopped up chocolate bars to make some for my homestay family. I am not kidding at all when I say that we believe with an almost religious zeal in the chocolate chip cookie as the quintessential unifier and the answer to almost any question. At Nancy’s celebration of life, we served chocolate chip cookies.

The last item I wanted to highlight are the plentiful rocks and shells on a New England beach. They can seem like nothing much at times, commonplace and a regular part of the beach landscape. Many people just walk by them, preoccupied with their thoughts or focused on the ocean. But in the midst of our intense grief, my cousin’s wife had the presence of mind to collect various shells and rocks from the beach near where Nancy lived. She put them into a wooden box for each of us, and instructed us to build a cairn of remembrance for Nancy at our homes. The cairn, she wrote, will “act as a landmark and a compass to guide us back to the people, places, and communities that Nancy loved.” She also gave each of us half of a shell that another family member has in their collection, a symbolic way to keep us connected across the days and miles between us now that we have returned home. With these beautiful words and her extraordinarily thoughtful gesture, instantly these otherwise ordinary items became a coveted treasure imbued with deep meaning and value.

In grieving there is renewal in connection with family and friends and community. It always comes back to this. That was on display in spades at Nancy’s celebration of life (Community Pays Tribute to Nancy Waddell), and in the food that kept arriving at our doorsteps. In loss we are reminded of what we have and somehow we appreciate it more fully. Out of grief, new friendships and connections are made (I’m looking at you WV Adaptive and HFCC!). In my sorrow, but also in how I have deliberately chosen to live every day of these past two weeks, my aunt is present. Her example, her capacious heart, and her compassionate spirit guide my actions. I can tell she will never leave me. Good grief, that’s an astonishing gift.

charlie brown good grief
Good Grief image by Charles Schulz

Child of Mine

The holiday season is manic. I’ll just start there. It starts around Halloween and sails right through Thanksgiving into Hanukkah and Christmas and then New Year’s. Since Halloween starts in early October now, with ghosting and decorating and thinking about costumes all part of the lead up to the big night, basically the whole fall, from back-to-school right through New Year’s is rich with the bustle of life and activity and, frankly, the pace is completely unhinged and frenetic and exhausting. Part of me loves it, and a big part of me wants to make it stop!

So, here’s the thing I’ve started to notice as life goes on and I get older, for certain, and hopefully wiser. You have to celebrate the little things in life every day. You have to take a step back and take that deep breath and find joy even when the rest of the day is utterly forgettable. Even when the day includes yet another trip to Party City and all you can think is “I just can’t.” Even when the day is spent stacked with activities and chauffeuring your offspring hither and yon. There is so much to be worn down by, so much negativity, so much TO DO, that you run the risk of missing it all, the proverbial not seeing the forest for the trees.

The stuff that we remember in life, the stuff that matters and that you’ll be thinking about when your time on this Earth is winding down, isn’t the holiday shopping (unless there’s some epic mishap that results in a good story to tell) or what you got or how much you got done, like there’s some holy checklist and the more you check off the better you are or your afterlife will be. No. The manic pursuit of a bucket list, or any list, how many places you’ve been, how much money you’ve made…these are empty and fruitless quests if the goal is happiness or contentment.

The stuff that really fills and sustains the soul, is found in the gathering of friends and family, of multiple generations, to enjoy a cup of coffee and some holiday treats on Christmas morning. The sustenance comes from the sharing of stories and experiences, from toasting our brimming coffee cups that will help us survive the day after a reveille that was a little on the early side. It’s in the sheer delight and simplicity of seeing my mom, who truly is only capable of living in the present anymore, marvel at the Christmas trees and lights and enthusiastically sing out Christmas songs.  It’s a warm and gentle sea breeze; it’s the magic of dolphins playfully diving in and out of the waves; it’s a full moon hanging heavily in the evening sky – and still there in the blue of the next morning (a moonset sunrise); it’s a snow day when you just drop everything and play that board game with your kids and bake comfort foods and ignore the “to do” list; it’s a friend who leaves you tea and biscuits at your door when you are down and feeling broken.

There is magic and inspiration in the big things – a marathon or a trip abroad or a new experience.  But it’s how you weave the experiences together, it’s what you live with every day, what sustains you when life isn’t particularly glamorous or grand, that matters most.  It’s the daily appreciation of the little things: like an umbrella when it’s raining; a baby’s laugh that rings out like a balm for the soul; a solitary chocolate chip; a warm beverage; a hug from a friend.

Remember to be grateful and to cherish all of life’s little moments, even the messy ones.  Because life is really the sum of its parts, and the little moments are what matter most.

As I sit here trying desperately to write for five minutes without being interrupted by one of my children, surrounded by the detritus of Christmas, I guess I should try to take this to heart. This is it.  This is the good stuff.

So I’ll close with a memory and a song from several years ago. The setting is the East Sangerville Grange in Sangerville, Maine. It was February, it was freezing, the snow was piled high, and a blizzard was on the way. In this simple, modest, one-room grange hall in the central Maine highlands on this cold and snowy night many from the community gathered to listen to Bill Staines sing and play acoustic guitar. And I was introduced to one of the most beautiful and moving songs I have ever heard. It’s called Child of Mine. Click here to hear it live.

The full lyrics are displayed below. And they apply to everyone – adult, child, have children, or don’t – everywhere.

Face, don’t fear, the unknown.

Find joy in each day.

Love sees us through.

Connect with people and our common humanity.

And you will be buoyed by hope. And maybe survive the holiday season just a little more happily.

Child of Mine

Child of mine, you are the wildest wind
And the dearest dream I will ever know
Love’s lasting light shines out from deep within
This father’s heart as I watch you grow

Child of mine, you are the break of dawn
And the brightest star I will ever know
Love’s lasting light comes shining on and on
From this mother’s heart as I watch you grow

There is a road and that road is all your own
But we are here, you need not walk alone
To face, not fear each coming new unknown
Is the way to lift your wings
Child of mine, you are the sweetest song
And the greatest gift I will ever know

Child of mine, where spirits fly above
There is but one that belongs to you
So let it grow and it will thrive on love
For it is love that sees us through

You have the hands that will open up the doors
You have the hopes this world is waiting for
You are my own but you are so much more
You are tomorrow on the wing, child of mine

Songwriters: STAINES
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