Tuesday, June 24, 2014

No One Needs To Be Smarter Than A Fifth Grader

Fifth graders have life figured out.

Every spring my husband Cliff, an elementary school principal, invites his fifth graders, five at a time, into his office for milk and cookies. Information from these chats is used in the final assembly, attended by parents, to honor their children's time at the lower school campus. He says a few things about each student.

He contends that fifth graders know the importance of people. One boy told him that "being around someone you love makes you nicer." A girl suggested that a lonely person should watch the playground carefully because someone else is all alone, too. Just go over there.

They know everyone needs a friend.   

They understand effort. A child recited a Thomas Edison quotation: "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." Many know homework is only bad when they wait until the last minute. "Always pretend the deadline is now," one advised.

They know everyone should try their best.

Causes now matter to them. They pay attention to examples of courage. Ghandi's statement, "Be the change you want to see in the world," is as important as Olaf's, the snowman from Frozen, who says: "Some people are worth melting for."

They know everyone can make a difference.

At this age, a sense of humor deepens beyond knock-knock jokes. With understated irony, they can create an effect. One boy said his favorite quotation was from Richard Nixon: "I am not a crook." When Cliff announced this at the characteristically sentimental assembly, it brought the house down.

They know everyone loves to laugh.

By now, they have a sense of personal history. They've succeeded, and they've failed.  They know life can be overwhelming. One girl embraced the saying: "Accept that some days you are the pigeon and some days you are the statue."

They know everyone struggles.

While a popular TV game show insists we should be smarter than fifth graders, I'm not so sure. The announcer asks fact-based questions, as if that's all there is to wisdom. It isn't.

Just ask someone who is eleven years old.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sudden Angels Part 4: Each Dime

My mother died in 1999. That's when I realized what mattered.

Until then, I thought I had every last thing--wonderful husband, wonderful daughter, wonderful chance to publish a book, that turned out to be Sweet Moon Baby.

But the devastating loss of my mother, a larger-than-life presence who squeezed the best out of each day, left me paralyzed. My mother could do at least fifteen things at once to perfection. She did them with a single-minded intent, grabbing me by the hand to share the adventure beside her. The task might be routine, but she jollied me into thinking it was the chance of a lifetime. She was wise and funny and devoted to my valuable contribution. She saw to it that I succeeded at whatever it was, quoting from The Little Engine That Could who climbed an impossibly steep mountainside track. As I grew up, the challenges were increasingly harder, but she convinced me that with another tap, turn, or try, I'd make it. Quitting was never an option.

"Anything worth doing, is worth doing well," she said with a smile that shot sunbeams of possibility through my doubting heart.

Without her steadfast encouragement, I couldn't see how I'd rise to accomplish anything again.

She'd been gone for three days when I found the first dime.

While Maggie, who was two and a half, napped, I cried silently in the rocking chair. I was sinking. Then my eye caught a glimmer. In the distant corner, a single dime sparkled from the most unlikely location. Something about it did not seem random, so I placed it on my dresser.

The next day, as I carried groceries into the house, a wave of despair overtook me. Grief does that. With no warning, it covers your soul with the cold fingerprints of regret. As I placed the sacks down to find a tissue, I saw a dime by our door. I picked up the blinking comfort.

This appearance of dimes continued, sometimes alone and sometimes in pairs. They always seemed to radiate something about my mother. Maggie found them. Then Cliff. We couldn't explain it. We'd never found dimes in our lives before. Maggie named them Nana dimes.

We took her to Disneyland for a distraction after losing my mother because the heartbroken toddler could not comprehend why her grandmother would leave without saying goodby. Sadness swept through me when we approached the "Small World" ride I'd ridden with my mother at the New York World's Fair in 1964. It had been her favorite attraction. I knew she would have loved taking Maggie through it. Overwhelmed by her loss, I hesitated, trying not to cry in the world's happiest park. There on the pavement ahead, gleaming alone, untouched by the passing crowd, was a dime. I picked it up, believing my mother would indeed ride with us.

The people who helped my mother at the end of her life all found dimes within months of her passing. It made sense; she always sent thank you notes. Her housekeeper's skeptical husband said, "I don't think God works that way." I answered, "Maybe not. But I believe my mother could." He dropped by several days later to say he, too, had found a dime.

In Sweet Moon Baby, I searched for a way to include her dimes in the story. Maggie's arrival from China was the grandest day in my mother's life. Perhaps no one ever loved a grandchild the way she did. Widowed at forty-six, she'd packed away a trunk of certain joys. But Maggie was her unexpected blessing. And so I wrote:

          They crisscrossed a hundred roads. Coins twinkling like scattered moon beams
          took them from corner to corner.

By now I've found almost 350 dimes. Each one appeared on a day when I struggled or on a day when I was elated. The same is true for dimes found by Cliff and Maggie. Their arrival feels linked to something we would have shared with her.

There must be a way to calculate the odds for finding dimes. An equation surely exists to explain this event.

I don't care about numbers.

The other day Maggie helped me plant grass seed. I don't like yard work. She doesn't either. Like any teenager, she was not at her best. I remembered my mother patiently overlooking my poor attitude about things I didn't want to do. So I started telling her about my mother's yard-planting joy and how she hoed huge expanses, removing every twig and pebble, raking the space for all it was worth, faithfully watering twice a day. "Those seeds knew better than to disappoint Nana," I told her.

Maggie forgot her misery. We talked and laughed until we'd finished. No one would have been more proud of us than my mother. By now I don't have to tell you what I found in the seed the next morning.

Once my mother died, I understood what mattered. At first I thought death meant I'd lost her forever. But she wasn't about to let that happen. Not my mother. She had no intention of letting anything get in her way. Ever. While death is a powerful reality, it can't hold a candle to the certainty of love.

In each dime.  

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Oklahoma Winds

Almost no one has ever spent time in Oklahoma.

Whenever people ask about my life, and I mention my time in the state, they nod and say, "I passed through once on my way to Dallas/Los Angeles/Memphis. Not much there." I can't disagree. The Indians, who were marched in on The Trail of Tears from their beautiful homelands elsewhere, felt the same way.

I've said plenty of times that if I'd been on a covered wagon headed West, I'd have turned around and gone back upon rolling into Oklahoma.

The Wichita Mountains near Lawton are the country's oldest range and, in their hey day, would have looked like the Rocky Mountains. Now they're on their way back into the earth, which explains why they're reduced to piles of colossal rocks. Even the mountains want out. Enough said.

Yes, Oklahoma has cities with air-conditioned malls and elaborate suburbs like any place in America. Their universities are impressive. First-run movies play there. They have Starbuck's.

But the lay of the land defines any territory. Despite its post-card pretty spring azaleas, it's basically a hard place with far too many flat acres sliced up by barbed wire. During summer droughts, people give up on lawns and daisies and tomatoes because water is rationed. The blamed hot wind burns the life out of everything green.

So it's an everlasting wonder to me that Broadway's first modern musical was Oklahoma! Set in a simpler time, it's about everyone getting all dolled up to go on a picnic. Such a sweet notion. If you know the story at all, however, you know it takes a bad turn. Tap dancing and fringed surrey aside, a menacing darkness roars through the fun.

That is Oklahoma.

Smack dab in the center of Tornado Alley, it is a horrific place to live. I've seen my share of twisters. They are a swirling, mesmerizing wonder. Dropping out of a bottle-green sky, they massacre the landscape with an unforgiving tunnel of wind.  I've hidden in hall closets and underground shelters and never been hurt.

But that wasn't true a year ago when twenty-four people died from a tornado in Moore. Our relatives there suffered serious property damage. Life is still not back to normal for many and never will be for some.

If you live anywhere in Oklahoma, you know it's a dangerous place. Powerful loss can ride in on the next brutal wind.

So I was especially touched when we saw Maggie's boyfriend in his school's production of Oklahoma! They captured the romantic spirit of a farm on the plains. They whooped and hollered through ambitious dance sequences. They had ruffles and paper lanterns and picnic baskets. But best of all, they had a collection box in the lobby for donations to the Moore High School Theater Department because that 2013 tornado destroyed their construction equipment. A portion of ticket sales went toward the fund, too. These sympathetic students in St. Paul wanted to help.  

Annually in Oklahoma, "where the wind goes sweepin' down the plain," countless valuable things are carried away.

But every now and then, good winds blow in, too. Generously. All the way from up here in Minnesota.

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