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.