March’s Tender Promise

In memory of my mother, Grace Minto, who died two years after this was first published in the Litchfield County (CT) Times, March 2013. Though not Irish, she loved Saint Patrick’s Day.

I look at the field and realize for the first time in three months the ground is green. Yes, there’s lingering snow and mud oozing, but overwhelmingly there’s green. Green grass, green tennis courts, and green shoots poking through garden debris. 

Sun lingers and there are birds at the feeder. Next week, students who go to the boarding school where we live will be back from spring break and sounds of balls—tennis balls, baseballs, softballs—will fill the afternoon air. Thwomp, crack, pop as bats and rackets connect, releasing the tension of a winter of indoor sports, academics in steam-heated rooms, and too many dorm-bound nights stuck inside by cold or snow.

Today my own tension of winter boredom snapped as I pried open the back door and resurrected the deck with broom, Windex, and paper towels. Cleaning table and chairs, sweeping seed kernels and refitting the bird feeder on its metal hangers gave me joy that spring is here once again. New seed brings cardinals, tufted titmice, and chickadees, as well as sneaky squirrels, happy to see their food once again. 

What is it about green that refreshes my soul? Is it because it’s “God’s Color,” as Mom always said? Is it the hint of leprechaun? St. Patrick’s Day and the wearin’ of the green, even for those of us not Irish, brings the wink of a smile that life doesn’t have to be so serious. We can dance a jig, toast with some ale, and know that things aren’t so bad if we face them together.

And then there’s Mom curled into a fetal ball, living for her three meals a day. Waiting to be changed and rolled; dependent on her caretaker Dimple and my sister. I dutifully arrive in Florida every few months to check in, though keeping a safe distance from the reality that Mom has retreated into a netherworld–the twilight between life and death; living, but not really living any kind of a life. Dying, but not yet leaving. Suspended day-to-day by the care of Dimple so willing to change and wipe and feed and preen. 

Mom hangs in the balance between two worlds, the here and now and the there and hereafter. The birds hang in the balance of the feeder as it swings in the wind, dependent on the seed being dumped in day by day.

My own balance is caught off guard by the delicate tug of winter’s discontent lingering in my bones, reminding me of daily failures or regrets. Blessedly, just as I’m over the edge with all that I’m not, the green of March opens my sensibilities to possibilities. There’s hope in tomorrow. Hope for being a better grandmother than I am mother. Hope for being a better old wife than young wife. Hope for being a better friend now than I was as a young friend. March simply brings hope. 

What a happy thought as the march of hope begins again. Hope of new babies and hope of redemption. Is that why Lent lingers in March, to remind us that redemption is nigh? The oozing mud of life threatens to suck us in, but the green, grass soaks it up for us.

People like Dimple perform daily miracles that keep life in balance for people like Mom and me–people who need to be balanced. That’s what March is all about. It’s the balance-beam month, a pivot from winter to spring. 

My soul awakens to the melting snow, the green carpet, the roaring brook, and the hope of tomorrow. Now the clocks spring forward like leprechauns jumping over the stones of life, leaving tomorrow filled with the sunshine of new chances, and new opportunities. Quite simply, a new season.

Mission by Mission: A Soldier’s Journey of War, Faith, and Healing by Jane M. Bailey

Reprint from Today’s American Catholic (www.todaysamericancatholic.org) February 10, 2022

The Frog Hunter:
A Story About the Vietnam War, an Inkblot Test and a Girl
By TB Stamper
Milton Barn Press, 2021

$15.99 ($4.99 Kindle)   370 pp.

Not every author can write beautifully about the hell of war. Writer TB (Bart) Stamper is one of them. He kept me turning the pages of his book, The Frog Hunter: A Story About the Vietnam War, an Inkblot Test and a Girl, straight through to the end and left me breathless in the process.

A memoir is only as good as its ability to carry the reader along with the author. Stamper brought me with him to boot camp, paratrooper and Ranger training, onto the plane to Vietnam, into the crucible of fear and fire fights, onto the choppers, and into the face of death. In the tradition of Vietnam memoirs like Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, it is a harrowing ride that covers the full spectrum of human emotion.

Fighting our way through the war’s moral morass, Stamper showed me, with his lyrical writing, how war wounds the soul. He writes of a night reconnaissance mission, lying still on the ground, listening to the enemy patrol searching for him, their boots softly breaking branches, close enough to touch. He relays that “Tiny maggots of fear multiplied, eating away at my courage. Squinting forcefully, I squeezed the sweat from the corners of my eyelids, fighting to concentrate and stave off the chewing worms.”

I was there with him, waiting for our date with death.

When he brought me on the plane home from Vietnam, I sat with an anguished soldier burdened with a vault of memories too painful to open for the next 12 years. We got off the plane and I wanted to run, far and fast, from the war. But for Stamper, the devastating effects of combat had embedded themselves and there was no escape. He returned to stateside duty in California and headed for a collision course with his superior officers.

I was swept along in his desperate search to find truth. Turning to the hippie culture, he realized the peace movement wasn’t always so peaceful after all, and his footing slipped. Finding love, and the Rock on which to plant his boots, gave him the foothold he needed to heal.

Stamper introduces me to his personal God. He is not the God of my imagination nor my denomination. This is an intimate God who comes after a broken soldier. He forgives sin, unlocks vaults, and heals wounds. As I turn the last page, I am immersed in hope. Stamper has found a higher, more wondrous way.

The Frog Hunter lays the truth of war on the line and offers a means to peace through faith forged in war’s aftermath. While it moved me deeply, it also left me feeling contrite as to how little I know about the Vietnam War, soldiers’ lingering pain, and my own faith. With this in mind, I requested an interview to understand the man behind the book. Stamper graciously agreed. We got together on a beautiful winter morning. His home was warm and welcoming, with a distant view of Connecticut hills.

Stamper is quiet, serious with a quick wit, and has a Ranger-steady temperament of grit and determination. When asked how he was able to write such a gut-wrenching book, he replied, “Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’” He continued, “While I was in Vietnam, I kept a photo album with snippets of writings, thoughts, drawings, and poems. For the next 50 years, the war, mission by mission, poured onto legal pads, spiral notebooks, scraps of paper, or napkins until I finally organized the writings into the book that was published in October.”

God is an important component of The Frog Hunter, yet the title doesn’t indicate that. It takes a while for the reader to find God in the rubble. I asked why this was so.

Charlie Team, November Rangers, Vietnam, 1969. TB Stamper is standing on far right

“The story is about a tumultuous three-year period in my life: before, during, and after Vietnam. A God-thread appears in the prologue and continues through to the last page. At times we see a hint of him, or his shadow, then he crashes through the veil unexpectedly. It was important to reveal God in my book exactly as he revealed himself to me in my life. I have been a Christian now for 50 years, and he continues to reveal himself to me every day through his Word.”

When Stamper talks about his faith, his voice is strong and his eyes pierce, as if to say, “I know what I’m talking about. Don’t dismiss this.” He has a belief that appears born of a lifetime with God. Yet Stamper did not grow up religious, and did not attend church. “My parents had a 50-pound gold-colored Bible that sat unopened on the coffee table. I think it was there as a nod to God, hoping he might see it and bless our house.”

When asked how his beliefs developed, he said, “As a child, I believed there was a God, a benevolent creator of the universe. One look at the night sky told me that, but I didn’t really know him. As a teenager, I was squarely in the driver’s seat of my own life and barely gave him the time of day.

“In Vietnam, I developed the habit of praying, no begging, God to let me survive. The chaplains conducted weekly services at our firebase. One for Catholics, and one for Protestants. I attended both for a short while, until my friends started to get killed, then the enormity of the war overwhelmed me and I stopped going.

“By the time I came home, the war had destroyed all that I thought to be true and the desperation in my soul set me on a quest to find truth. What I didn’t realize is that through it all, God was drawing me to himself. We have a pursuing God who desires we be in a relationship with him.”

The first chapter of The Frog Hunter shows Stamper living a fun-loving life straight out of American Graffiti, complete with hot rods and Friday night drag races. This is juxtaposed with an awareness of the war and the approaching draft. Stamper says he was naïve about everything at the time. His patriotism was tempered by images of body bags on the nightly news. It was after seeing John Wayne in The Green Berets that he got a decision-making jolt. “The film tapped into my patriotic fervor and pumped testosterone straight into my 18-year-old veins,” he says. Three hours later he was in the Army recruiting office.

Vietnam complicated the Catholic Church’s already uneasy relationship with war and peace. An argument that Vietnam was a “just war” had its origins in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, where he denounces “the main tenet of socialism, community of goods” as “directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind” (§15). The church was divided between those committed to Gospel nonviolence and a vocal anticommunist flank represented in the U.S. by Cardinal Francis Spellman.

In 1967, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson visited the Vatican to implore Pope Paul VI to facilitate dialogue between the United States and Hanoi. Johnson saw the pope as both an enemy of communism and a persistent voice for peace—after all, he had famously admonished, “No more war, war never again” during his 1965 address to the United Nations.

The Vatican was influential in persuading Hanoi to begin early peace negotiations. On January 27, 1973, “An Agreement Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam” was announced to a divided America. Many of us at the time were naïve enough to believe that peace meant peace. But while American troops came home and bases were closed, the war continued. Two years after the peace agreement, communist forces ended the war by seizing control of South Vietnam and the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It was a bitter pill for soldiers like Bart Stamper.

“I think the ones who understand the cost of war most are those who have been touched by it directly,” he told me. “The whole point of soldiers going to war is so civilians don’t have to experience it. However, the people who should never be oblivious to the cost of war are the politicians who send our solders into harm’s way.”

Stamper said he was most proud of the incredible heroism of the men with whom he served in the November Company Rangers, 75th Infantry, 173d Airborne Brigade. He tempered that by saying he was least proud of the way our government conducted the war. His voice got quiet and quivered with anger. “It cost men their lives.”  

In The Frog Hunter, Stamper recounts reading a newspaper two years after his return from Vietnam where he learned that the North Vietnamese Army had advanced into Binh Dinh Province and the town of Bong Son had fallen. It was a few miles from LZ English, where his Ranger unit was stationed—where he and his buddies fought and died. “I stopped reading and threw the paper down,” he writes. “Those turncoat politicians! We had the victory-in-hand and they’re just giving it away!”

During our conversation he expanded on that. “It is well documented that Congress gave the war away during and after the negotiated peace by breaking their promise to support the South Vietnamese by not sending them the supplies they needed to defeat the North. In doing so, they invalidated the sacrifices of all who died and were wounded; the sacrifices of their families and loved ones; and turned their valiant efforts into waste. A quarter million South Vietnamese soldiers were killed and two million civilians murdered. Here it is, almost 50 years later and the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, who sacrificed so much, watch things crumble like Vietnam, with their sacrifices also invalidated.”

When asked what advice he has for the younger generation of soldiers, Stamper’s voice cracked. “Twenty-two vets a day kill themselves. That’s nearly one per hour.” He took a minute to compose himself, pain evident.

“I’d tell returning soldiers, God knows what you went through. He was there. And he is with you in your arduous journey home. If you feel the ground beneath you is crumbling, know that there is firm ground ahead. A Rock on which you can plant your boots. That Rock is Christ.”

Stamper’s advice to politicians is simple. “God put you in authority to do the right thing. We are all accountable to God for our actions. Weigh your decisions carefully.” His words recall those of Pope Francis, who writes in the conclusion to his 2021 collection, Peace on Earth: Fraternity Is Possible, that questions of conscience “should disturb the political leaders who will answer before God and the people for the continuation of wars.”

As for advice to the church, Stamper replied, “You want to fix the world’s ills? Stop embracing the culture, telling people what they want to hear and trying to be liked. Give people the beautiful, unvarnished Gospel. Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins. His sacrifice is the only thing that transforms the human heart.”

Author TB Stamper today

The Frog Hunter’s prologue and epilogue are bookends to Stamper’s evolving relationship with God. From its first hints to its deepening convictions, this relationship emerges within the thicket of war and Stamper’s tempestuous return to civilian life. It coincides with falling in love with his lovely wife of 50 years. Stamper says that “The Frog Hunter is my story. It’s the story of God’s incredible love for us all.”

Stamper smiled at me, clearly at peace with having told his very difficult, very personal story in his book, and in our conversation. His son, who is a professional filmmaker, stopped the camera that had been recording us, his gracious wife made us lunch, and their beautiful home came back into focus.

What’s next for Bart Stamper? “Going to the grocery store,” he replies with a grin. His son doesn’t let him off the hook. “Should we tell her about our project, Dad?”

“Oh, we’re planning a trip cross-country to film the stories of my November Ranger Company buddies. Incredible things happen in war. I want to get their stories on film.”

Before I read The Frog Hunter, my knowledge of war was abstract. I knew war is hell; I just didn’t understand what hell is. I am grateful that Bart Stamper leaned into his pain and wrote his way out. He gave me the visceral truth about war, its aftermath, and a path to solace through the Savior who walks side-by-side with broken humanity. Bart leaves me with words from Psalm 46:1. “God is our shelter and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble.”

If only we’ll listen.

Jane M. Bailey writes from Litchfield, Connecticut, about matters of the heart and people who make a difference. To see more of her writing, go to JaneMBailey.com. To learn more about TB Stamper, see SoulRanger.com.

Published in Today’s American Catholic (www.todaysamericancatholic.org) February 10 2022

Just Another Miracle

First published in The Litchfield Connection (August, 2019). Reprinted in The Green Mountain Trading Post St. Johnsbury, VT (Vol. 48, No. 10).

Years ago, I started a daily ‘Miracle Journal’ to capture the small miracles in life that many days I overlook.  My journal is filled with simple things, like the miracle of running water, or the miracle of my teenage daughter having a conversation with me without a hint of surliness.

One day, after my husband left for work and the children’s school bus pulled away, I took out my miracle journal to enjoy a writing respite in the morning quiet.  There didn’t seem to be a miracle in sight, so I sat with pen in hand deep in thought.  God, there must be a miracle around here somewhere.

With that, a whooshing sound came from the chimney only steps from the sofa where I was sitting.  I looked up and found myself face-to-face with a squirrel who had landed with a thud right onto the fireplace grate that was filled with ash.  He got his bearings quicker than I did and flew out of the fireplace headed to parts unknown in the house, leaving a wake of black soot on the carpet.

In that nanosecond, a childhood memory flashed through me of my uncle’s home being destroyed by a squirrel during a week he and his family were on vacation.  The picture of my uncle’s beautiful home in shambles morphed into a vision of my own house being gnawed to death as it was turned topsy-turvy by this invader.

My heart raced as I considered what to do, while remembering cautions about animal bites and rabies that might ravage my body as the squirrel marched along his path of destruction. 

A plan popped into place, a wonderful and simple plan:  contain the squirrel in one room and call the town animal control department.  I could hear the squirrel upstairs and I cautiously followed the soot trail, hoping to shut him into a bedroom. 

I got to the top of the stairs, where he stood looking at me.   Blood pounded in my ears as this small squirrel took on features of a mountain lion ready to tear me limb-from-limb.  He must have thought I was ready to do the same to him, because he took off with a shot into my husband’s office.

I caught my breath and glanced into the office to insure he hadn’t escaped from under me.  There the squirrel was, hidden beyond my vacuum cleaner which was spread out in the middle of the room, with its hose disconnected from the carpet attachment in a messy sprawl.

In a moment of magical insight, I ran into the room and slammed the door behind me putting the squirrel and me in the same room.  Throwing caution to the wind, I ran to the open window and threw up the screen as I grabbed the vacuum hose and dropped the end of it out the window. 

The squirrel was cowering in the corner, as I cowered deep inside myself—two animals in fight or flight mode.  Not a good thing!

I turned to run back out of the room when suddenly the squirrel scampered up the hose heading for freedom, as my sub-conscious knew he would.  When he got to the end of the hose just outside the window

Aaagh…I hadn’t thought of this part…he’s going to splat onto the concrete sidewalk below.  There will be blood, and guts.  I don’t want to kill him.  Why did I ever do this? This was a terrible idea!

Just as that thought crossed my mind, my squirrel took a leap and to my amazement spread what I can only describe as wings, angel wings, and glided toward the tree that is 10 yards from the house

Is this possible?  There he was, safely scampering down the trunk of the tree, none the worse for his adventure. 

My prayers of “Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!” turned into “Thank you, God!  Thank you, God!  Thank you, for sending me a flying squirrel to show me that miracles do happen!”

I shut the window, put the vacuum away, walked downstairs, and closed the glass door to the fireplace. Then I sat down, picked up my journal, and entered my miracle of the day.  As my journal attests, there is no end to the miracles around us.  We just need to look–even into the fireplace and soot of our lives.         

Happy New Year!

Pop the champagne, throw confetti, kiss the dog—the kids are back to school.  The lull of summer has ended.  No more lolling about.  It’s time to get-with-the-program with our clean slate.  It’s a new year.

If I had my way, September would be New Year.  For me the first day of school was always the time to start fresh. 

My new black marbled notebook was the place that held my new year resolutions written with the freshly sharpened pencil in my brand-new pencil case. 

“I will be neat this year.  I will be organized this year.  This year, I will cover all my books with brown paper bags, and I will not procrastinate on homework.” 

So many resolutions that I also make in January, just to be double-sure I will re-invent myself.  So many resolutions that I continue to make even though I’m long out of school.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being given a new chance.  Maybe this year I’ll have the cool teacher.  Maybe this year I’ll be one of the cool kids. 

When I became a teacher, I realized that starting a new school year was fraught with those same thoughts, though reversed.  Maybe this year I’ll have the cool kids.  Maybe this year I’ll be one of the cool teachers.

Just like New Year’s Eve always prompts a visit to my mental memory file, so it is with September beginnings. 

The march of independence is one year at a time, each marked by a first-day-of-school picture from a skinny, happy child to a touch-of-surly teenager with the rolled up skirt, “Really Mom, must you take a picture of me going to high school?”

And then there’s college.  Still the camera, still the new notebook—digital though it is, and still the lump-in-the-throat-say-goodbye-to-home-wait-I-don’t-want-to-leave-yet feeling of fear overlaying the euphoria of realizing it’s time to write the future in that new notebook.

When I got my first teaching job at Public School 30 on Staten Island, the very elementary school I attended, the first day of school was way more heart-pounding than it had been when I was a kindergartner. 

I was going to be facing a room full of seven-year-old second graders and I was petrified.  How do I get them into the right reading groups?  How many spelling words should they be given each week?  How do I set up table groupings when the tables are screwed to the floor in the same rows they had been when I was in school? 

I got to my classroom early to be sure I was ready.  The minutes ticked away as I placed name tags on desks, unrolled a rug for the story corner, set out rulers and counting blocks in the math corner. 

Like the countdown in Times Square, I could feel the new year closing in,

One last thing.  I balanced on a chair and was frantically taping an alphabet chart above the chalkboard, (yes, chalk!), when I heard the classroom door open. 

I glanced from my precarious spot with the alphabet chart dangling and there was my father walking into the room. 

“What are you doing here Dad!?”

“I just came to wish you good luck,” he said. 

With that, he turned and gently closed the door behind him. 

I finished taping the alphabet chart, wiped my tears, took a deep breath, and headed off to pick up my class of children—the ones with their new notebooks and pencil cases. 

We greeted each other with relief.  It was going to be a good year; we had clean slates and luck on our side.       

So pour the champagne and let’s have a toast to new beginnings.  May children everywhere, big and little, begin this new year with a clean slate.  We are all one year older and wiser. 

Time to take out a freshly sharpened pencil and write our resolutions as well as our future.  Let the new year begin!   

Max’s Hardware Store

Remembering Dad. No, this isn’t my dad or Max’s hardware store. At least you get the picture.

Today, the day before Father’s Day, I needed some paint, so I headed down to the local hardware store.  It was closing time, so I literally ran into the store and asked where the spray paint was kept. 

The clerk quickly steered me in the right direction.  I ran back through the stacks of lawn equipment, light bulbs, plungers, and the bins of screws and nails to grab my spray paint.

I suddenly stopped and caught my breath.  Not because I had been running, but because I was suddenly transported back 55 years or so to when I was a young child on Staten Island, far from the Connecticut town in which I stood.

Dad would periodically say “Hop in the car, we’ve got to pick something up at Max’s.”  And off we’d go, a dozen blocks or so to a small storefront on Watchogue Road. 

We’d walk through the door and a tinkling bell would alert Max he had a customer.  Dad would head right for whatever he needed, some nails, some tubes for the television that was on the fritz, or best of all, some paint. 

I would wander around Max’s labyrinth of hardware which was packed into every square inch of that small store.  There was barely room to walk the aisles, and the hardware was literally draped to the rafters.  My small eyes would lift to the ceiling, amazed to see hoses and baskets, wires and coffee pots, everywhere I looked.

The smell of sawdust (or maybe just plain dust) permeated the air.  The light was dim and the store was a cave of the most interesting stuff a child could imagine, though having no idea what any of it was for.  Max knew it all; he may have been small in stature, but he had a head crammed with inventory. 

Dad would explain his project and Max’s mustache would twitch happily into a smile as he went running off to find just the widget or gadget Dad needed. 

And if by my lucky stars, Dad needed paint, I got the thrill of watching Max load the paint mixing machine—the gadget that shook, rattled & rolled the paint can until the paint was just right.  That was the highlight of any trip to the hardware store.

It seemed like we always left the store with Dad whistling.  He’d have his tv tubes or can of paint and I’d have had my trip with Dad. 

I knew then I had ahead the happy time of watching Dad do his project, making the tv work, changing the color of the wall, or fixing a broken door; making our world at home just a bit better or brighter. 

“Thanks Max” Dad would call, before the tinkling bell ushered us out.

As I caught myself in the reverie of Max’s hardware store, I headed back to the checkout with my simple can of spray paint, sorry I didn’t have a can to put on some shake-rattle-roll machine.  

I was glad though that some other child had a hardware store to go into that still sells individual nails and screws of all shapes and sizes and still has shelves laden with all types of widgets and gadgets. 

As I paid for my paint, I had to put my sunglasses on to hide my wet eyes.  “Happy Father’s Day,” I said to the cashier, not even knowing if he was a father.  It didn’t matter; “Happy Father’s Day” indeed Dad. 

You may not be here anymore, but I can still go into a hardware store and remember….and then go home and paint. 

Bridge Over Troubled Water

My Crossing to Safety Reminder

Years ago, on a beautiful summer day, I drove home to Virginia after a visit to New England.  I was enjoying the peaceful drive as I headed over the Tappan Zee Bridge, glancing at the vista of the Hudson River.  In a surreal second, my heart started  to race as fear swept my body.  I didn’t think I would…or even could…make it to shore.  My hands shook as I gripped the steering wheel and locked my eyes on the car in front of mine, using that tether to carry me across the bridge.

     Once I crossed to safety, all I could think about was how I was going to make it over the next bridge.  I had never had a panic attack before and never wanted to again.  It may have been irrational, but the fear was debilitatingly real.  Sure enough, the next bridge was worse than the first.  For years after that, I drove miles out of my way to avoid a bridge.  My mantra became

one bridge at a time.

     The truth is, the bridge wasn’t the problem, it was my life.  I was deep in mid-life muck.  Our home seemed to be in chaos.  My husband worked long hours, I was going to night school, my daughter was hitting puberty, my son had learning problems, and I was miserable.  I wanted out of the whole mess and didn’t know how to get there.  In other words, I didn’t know how to get to shore.

     Not unlike how I worry today about fording the swift cultural current raging on the daily news:  Columbine-Newtown-Parkland-…and the list goes on.  How do we get to shore?  We tremble as we cross shaking, swaying bridges.

     Two years ago I took care of my sister who was crossing a bridge of a different kind–the one that carries us to the other side, that shore of which we are so unsure.  In Jean’s last week, her husband and I sat in her hospital room with bated breath, watching her erratic breathing become increasingly shallow.  Food would no longer go down, and we could see her pain was beyond tolerable. 

    The Do Not Disturb sign on the door reminded us that Jean was crossing the final bridge.  We were alone with her as she drifted into deeper sleep.  Softly the door opened; a nurse adjusted the pain pump, an aide brought new ice chips, the chaplain said a prayer.  We crowded onto the bridge, gently releasing Jean to shore, where the waiting hand of love took her soul to safety.  Then, turning, we packed her things and trudged across the long bridge out of the hospital.  It was not an easy walk, but we knew Jean had not crossed her final bridge alone.

     What do we do to help people over their bridges?  Not long ago, I crossed a bridge and saw a sign that read, “If you need help, call the Bridge Suicide Hotline 1-800-…”  All along the side of the bridge was netting, preventing a fall—or a jump.  On the Chesapeake Bay Bridge there is drive-over service available for those who can’t manage the drive themselves.

     When I was in India, I saw a dangerous, bubbling waterhole in the hills overlooking Nepal.  A wizened grandmother who looked to be about 110-years-old was crossing a high bridge above the water with a boy no older than four.  He stopped to fearfully look down at the percolating water below.  His grandmother prodded him forward with her stick, moving him slowly onto the safe path beyond the bridge.

     We prod and poke each other to safety, one bridge at a time, helping each other across the raging rivers below until, bit-by-bit, we can cross those bridges ourselves.  Thanks to many pokes and prods helping me to face and fix my broken spirit, I no longer need to tether myself to the car in front of me; I can finally enjoy the view.

     Today, I look out my window at the small wooden arched bridge over the running brook behind our house and smile at the beautiful reminder of my crossing to safety.

Gospel of Grace

~from my May column in the Litchfield Connection (see Publication Clips on this website for published version). Originally published in the Best of The Litchfield Community Writers Group, 2017.

It had been one of those mornings when nothing went right, including my drive to work.  My hair was a mess, traffic was congested, and, in general, life was chaotic. 

While stopped at a red light, I glanced at a rundown church squeezed between two strip malls and noticed the name, Gospel of Grace Covenant Church.  “Okay, God,” I dared, “show me some grace today.  I certainly need something.”

When I pulled into the office parking lot, I glanced around.  No grace here, I thought.  The morning routine at school division headquarters droned before me. 

Newly released test scores of the district had been in the morning paper, so the phones were ringing with questions about score discrepancies.  Statistical analysis was the name of the game.  No grace to be found as I worked the numbers, the formulaic answer to how well we’re teaching students.

With numbers dancing before me, an e-mail titled ‘Invitation’ caught my eye and I clicked to see that central office staff were invited to the stadium behind our building to participate in field day ceremonies.  I didn’t know what field day it was, and didn’t expect to find any grace there, but at least some fresh morning air would be a respite from number crunching.

I joined the throng of central office personnel heading to the stadium where there was a scattering of parents in the stands, but we were the bulk of the cheerleaders.  The large stadium was mostly empty. 

Someone handed out rhythm sticks, pom-poms and banners. The high school drum line bounded onto the field.  Something important is about to happen! the pounding cadence announced, just as the emcee roared a welcome to a parade of students entering the gates. 

I leaned over to ask what field day this was and caught sight of wheelchairs in the distance, the crooked smiles of those unable to maintain facial composure, the determined steps of those who having trouble walking, and realized this was the school division’s special education field day. 

Our cheers went up as school after school of students, little ones and not-so-little ones, streamed into the stadium. Our rhythm sticks pounded, our banners waved, and the parade passed by, with grins abounding. 

Teachers pushed wheelchairs, held hands, cajoled the foot draggers and held up school signs announcing where their charges were from.  Class after class, child after child, streamed on.  Each one giving us a look that said, “Yes!  We are here!  We can do this!” 

Oh, what grace it took.  The grace of teachers giving up time, lots of time, to get ready for this day; the children themselves, working painstakingly to do whatever it would take to compete. 

Yes, it was grace that streamed into that stadium amid the raucous chaos of a number-crunching school division, reminding us that achievement is more than the sum of score reports; reminding us that one teacher can make a difference; reminding us there is hope in a chaotic world.

It brought back to me the words of a chaplain who had served in the Iraq war and said that he served at “the juncture of chaos and grace.”  Wherever there is a juncture, the path splits to either side—toward hope or despair, like a scale that can be tipped to one side or the other.  That chaplain works to tip the scale of war toward peace and hope amidst the rubble and clutter. 

Like the volunteer at our local hospital who each Sunday walks up to the nursing station and asks, “Who didn’t have any visitors this week?” and trots off down the hall, most often to the indigent ward, to pay a visit to the visit-less.  A bearer of grace, tipping the scale away from loneliness.

Tippers are everywhere.  Look for chaos, and you’ll find them; the ones who coax and cajole the world to a higher plane of meaning, to a more beautiful place. Yes, to a kinder, gentler, more civilized place.  The teachers who put together the special education field day are tippers all.

As I headed home that night and passed the Gospel of Grace Covenant Church, my hair was still a mess, the traffic was still congested, but life in general was no longer chaotic.  The balance had been tipped to the side of grace.

The Purple Carpet

I stepped out the door today and found a purple carpet next to my front step. How did this happen so fast? One minute snow, the next a purple rug.

It was so beautiful I had to get on my hands and knees to feel the lushness of the ground. As I moved my fingers, I felt the warmth of the sun on the tiny flowers. No wonder they were all facing the front of the garden like good students.

Hidden within the blaze of purple, one flower crying real tears. Holding on to earlier rain as we often do.

Uh-oh…what is this patch of white doing here, elbowing its way into purple territory? Just as pretty, but delicately different. Looks like it got into the party without an invitation. Fortunately my purple friends don’t mind the intrusion.

I tiptoed out of the garden, leaving the flowers to their sunbath. Why did I ever think purple wasn’t a good carpet color? It’s perfect.

The Story-Behind-the-Story

Terra Symphony String Quartet

Having no idea what to write this week, I thumbed through my pictures for inspiration. I did a double take on this picture I took last year while running to catch a subway under NYC. I remember stopping for a moment to listen to the beautiful music being played by this string quartet and thinking, Wow, that is a breath of fresh air down here!

I haven’t thought about this brief encounter until today when I looked closely at the picture and saw the banner hanging behind the quartet. Mmmm…they have a name: The Terra Symphony Orchestra String Quartet.

I dug around relevant websites and discovered that this NYC-based Brazilian orchestra began as a dream of violinist/violist Eliano Braze. He funded his dream through subway donations. I thought of the donation I put into the open violin case a year ago and how it, along with the many other donations dropped in the case, keeps Eliano’s dream alive.

When Eliano was a child, he lived on Brazil’s streets. Through a special project, Eliano learned to play the violin at age 10 and played with an orchestra at age 13. By 14 he was composing. In his twenties he followed love to New York, bringing his love of music with him. Now he works with his dream orchestra and continues his work under the streets of New York bringing joy to people like me.

Where does Eliano Braz get his inspiration? According to the Terra Symphony Orchestra website he is “Inspired by earth’s original symphony found in the Amazon jungle.” So while I’m combing my iPhone pictures for inspiration, he’s mining ancient history and finding funds in the bowels of the underground.

If you want inspiration, watch this (you have to scroll down to 2nd video) 5-minute documentary about Eliano Braz. By the end, I was thunderstruck by what people can accomplish through their dreams. I realize how small my dreams are compared to Eliano’s. This was a reminder that our dreams get played out in underground tunnels of life where we inspire one another in ways we’ll never know.

So what did this subway quartet teach me about writing?

  • Inspiration can be found anywhere…from the Amazon jungle to the NYC subway.
  • Look behind a story for the real story.
  • Don’t just dream, dream big and dream beyond the boundary of your life.

Thank you Eliano for taking your music underground on the day I happened to be catching a subway.