Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

Obviously, Martin Luther King has done so much for humanity.  But how often do we take the time to celebrate what MLK has done for that curious subset of humanity, high school English teachers?MLK

I have been teaching English for almost eighteen years now, and for each one of those years, I have read something by MLK in at least one of my classes.  His name and works always find a way into the classroom.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll talk about two examples:

(1) If you want to teach argument, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”(1963)  is the quintessential piece.  Appeals to logic and reason (or what we call “logos” in the biz), appeals to emotion (or “pathos”), appeals to his own character (or “ethos”)– he’s got all the bases covered.  I could go into detail about how he does this, but that’s another post.

For now, I want to zoom in on a particular passage from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one that is just two sentences long:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n*****,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

As always with King, it’s not just what he’s saying here but how he’s saying it.  Strictly from a rhetorical standpoint, his passage is remarkable to me, for several reasons.  First, he’s worked in some great metaphors in there– e.g. “stinging darts of segregation” and “airtight cage of poverty” and “ominous clouds of inferiority.”

Next, it’s an excellent example of the rhetorical device known as anaphora– the repetition of a word or phrase and the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences.  So, in this case, we have a series of dependent clauses beginning with “when.”  The repetition of “when” lends some rhythm and unity to the piece.

Speaking of the dependent clauses, did you notice how the “when” clauses get piled on and piled on?  At the end, the reader is saying, “Whoa!  That IS a lot!”  To me, this is an example of how the form of this passage mirrors the content;  the repetition of the clauses underscores the overwhelming burdens African-Americans have to carry.

Finally, this passage is a perfect way to teach the usefulness of the periodic sentence– which is a sentence that withholds the main subject and main verb until the end.  In this case, we have dependent clause after dependent clause (ten, by my count), until finally, we get to the main subject (“you”) and main verb (will understand”).  Again, this is the form mirroring the content: the passage is about how long the African-American community has had to wait for change to occur, so now, as readers, we have to “wait” until the end of the sentence to see the main subject and verb.  So brilliant! (King, I mean… he’s the brilliant one, not me…)

(2) MLK also ties in perfectly with that high school staple Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (published in 1960). Now, even someone reading this book for the first time can see that Atticus Finch, in his quest for racial equality and his commitment to nonviolence, shares a lot in common with Martin Luther King.  What’s cool is that King himself saw this connection.  In fact, King actually makes an allusion to Atticus in his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait.

The Atticus reference occurs in a chapter called “The Sword That Heals,” which is itself part of a metaphor King uses to describe “the just and powerful weapon” of nonviolence.  Reverend King alludes to a moment in Mockingbird when Atticus goes to the local jail to protect his client, a black man named Tom Robinson, from a mob that wanted to lynch him.   The scene gets tense very fast, with the men telling Atticus to get out of the way and let them do their thing.

Suddenly, Atticus’ daughter Scout– blissfully innocent as always– comes out of the shadows and recognizes the leader of the gang; he’s the father of one of the boys in her class.   When she calls the man, Mr. Cunningham, by name, the mood changes; it’s as if just the simple act of hearing his name awakens Mr. Cunningham to his potential actions, even shames him.  The gang disperses, and the crisis is averted.  Later, Atticus– ever the wise sage– says the incident reinforces the fact that “a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they are still human.”

That’s the incident in Mockingbird.  Here’s what King had to say about it in Why We Can’t Wait:

“We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice.  It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense.

“Yet there is something in the American ethos that responds to the strength of moral force.  I am reminded of the popular and widely respected novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird.  Atticus Finch, a white southern lawyer, confronts a group of his neighbors who have become a lynch-crazy mob, seeking the life of his Negro client. Finch, armed with nothing more lethal than a lawbook, disperses the mob with the force of his moral courage, aided by his small daughter, who, innocently calling the would-be lynchers by name, reminds then that they are individual men, not a pack of beasts.

“To the Negro of 1963, as to Atticus Finch, it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice.”

I haven’t taught Mockingbird in a decade, but I’d encourage anyone who does teach the book to use this connection.  Not only does it allow for a discussion about the similarities of Atticus Finch and Martin Luther King, but it also drives home a larger point: that the literature we read in class does not exist in a vacuum.  Indeed, the ideas in these texts have real-life implications. Students may not always believe this, but it’s true.




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World Series - St Louis Cardinals v Boston Red Sox - Game SixIt’s 11:26 pm on Wednesday night, October 30, 2013.  Just a few minutes before, the Boston Red Sox had beaten the St. Louis Cardinals to become World Series Champions.  My friend Jeremy sends me a text that sums up everything I’m feeling at that moment.  And he does it in just four words:  “What a freakin’ season.”

Of course, he doesn’t say “freakin’,” but he’s right: the 2013 season was amazing and inspiring and glorious.    But what made it even sweeter is the fact that the 2012 season– and the last month of the 2011 season– was so very, very the opposite of all the those things.

As I reflect on the 2013 season, I thought about something I wrote over a year ago, for my former blog.  I re-read it and realized it’s not only eerily appropriate but it has a lot to do with story-telling.  So I’d like to re-post it here, with some additional comments following:

Red Sox and Silver Linings (originally posted at teachertrenches,blogspot.com, September 28, 2012)

As the 2012 Red Sox go gently (or maybe “limp shamefully”?) into that good night, fans are left trying to salvage something positive out of this season.  It’s not easy.   In fact, I had to rely on Aristotle to do it. 

Here goes: the 2012 season is part of a larger story.  It’s a low and humbling and soul-crushing part of the story, sure… but it’s also an essential part.

To get what I mean, we have to go back eight years ago, to the waning minutes of October 17, 2004.  Red Sox vs. Yankees. Game Four of the seven-game American League Championship. The team that wins this series goes on to the World Series.  And it looks like that team’s going to be the Yankees. They just needed three more outs.

The Red Sox had entered ALCS five days before, on October 12, full of swagger and fire. But they ended up losing Games One and Two. Then came Game Three, on October 16th, which they didn’t just lose; they got decimated, 19-8.
Former Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein called it a “colossal defeat.” The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy said that in Game Three the Yankees “stripped the Red Sox of all dignity.” Every reporter covering the series made it a point to remind Red Sox Nation that no team in baseball history had ever been down 3-0 in a postseason series and came back to win.

For a Sox fan, Game Three was the pits. And that’s not a colloquialism; I mean it was like being in a pit— a deep, dark, seemingly inescapable pit. The rockiest of rock bottoms. A nadir. The belly of the whale.
Then came the next night, October 17th. It’s Game Four, bottom of the ninth, and the Sox are trailing 4-3. They have only one half-inning to keep the series alive. If they don’t, they go home.

But then Kevin Millar draws a walk off Mariano Rivera—and everything changes.  Pinch-runner Dave Roberts steals second; a Bill Mueller single gets Roberts home to tie the game; and two hours later, at 1:30 am, David Ortiz clobbers a walk-off homerun in the twelfth. Final score: 6-4, Sox.
That was just a start, of course.  But that start led to a Sox victory in Game Five.  And Game Six.  And Game Seven. And so, the Red Sox, after being down 3-0, won the ALCS and headed to the World Series—where they reversed an eighty-six-year “curse” by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in four games.

So what does this have to do with the 2012 Red Sox?  Simple: it’s all about the story.  You see, to me, the story of the Red Sox 2004 postseason is not just about a team clawing its way out of a pit; it’s about the pit itself.
Say if the Red Sox weren’t down those first three games? Say if they didn’t suffer the “colossal defeat” of Game Three, the one they lost by eleven runs?  Would the Game Four victory, and the three wins that came after it, be as sweet?

Sure, “a win’s a win.”  But a win snatched from certain defeat, right from the hands of your most hated rival—that’s a WIN.

Here’s where Aristotle comes in. The concept of the “dialectic” says that you can’t fully understand something unless you also know its opposite. You know good by knowing evil. You need darkness to see light. You need to comprehend defeat before you can truly appreciate victory.

Compare the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees to the 2004 World Series against the Cardinals, who went down in four straight games. No pit, no adversity, no whale belly, no seemingly unconquerable obstacle… and consequently, no compelling story.
Sox fans have endless stream of words to describe the feeling of finally winning a World Series after eighty-six years: unforgettable, historic, redemptive. But when describing the actual 2004 World Series itself, one term keeps coming up: “anti-climactic.”
Or how about their next visit to the World Series? Let’s face it: the Red Sox’s 2007 season and postseason didn’t have anywhere near the drama of 2004. For most of the season, they were in first place. Hard to get a story out of that, you know?
Once again, what does this have to do with 2012?  Basically, the 2012 season, taken as a whole, is like Game Three of the 2004 ALCS, with innings 1-8 of Game Four thrown in. In other words, it was the pits. 

We landed in the pit at the end of 2011, when the Red Sox flitted away their comfortable lead in the standings and failed to make the play-offs, and never left.  The 2012 season introduced us to a much-maligned new manager. On his watch, old friends left, and then new friends left—to the point that the team currently crawling to the finish line hardly resembles at all the one that took the field in April.  And for the first time in fifteen years, the Red Sox will end the season with a losing record.

The season that started out with all the “Fenway Turns 100” hoopla didn’t live up to the hype. Not by a long shot.  Instead, we had an entire season in the belly of the whale.   

But this is just part of the story.  A heart-breaking but necessary part.

If this season looks like Game Three of the 2004 ALCS, then we have to remember that from the “colossal defeat” of Game Three came the miraculous, one-for-the-ages Game Four.  And we will have another Game Four. Maybe it will be next year, maybe it will be the year after.  But it will come.  Boston will surge back, someday, and when it does we’ll appreciate the accomplishment all the more.

Since we didn’t have too many walk-off victories this season, Sox fans may have forgotten how those games make for great stories.  But you can’t have the “come-from-behind” victory unless you were first behind.  You have to have eight lousy innings before you can have a redemptive ninth.  You have to lose all hope before you can get it back.

The story of the Red Sox isn’t finished.  Yeah, they’re still in the pit, but they’ll crawl out.  And when they do, we’ll love them all the more because of it.  Aristotle, after all, said so… and I’m pretty sure he was a Sox fan.

I wrote that a year ago.  Over the past year, the Sox climbed out of the mud and swill and raw sewage of last place to become the Best in the World.  And that is obviously “can’t-keep-a-thought-in-my-head” fantastic.  But riddle me this: would it be as fantastic if it didn’t come after the Lost Season of 2012 and the Monumental Collapse of 2011?  No way.  In order to go from “worst to first,” you first have to be “worst.”

And I’m not even taking into account the Boston Marathon bombings from last April, when the season was only a few weeks old. Now, in a real way, the tragedy of the bombings and the glory of the Red Sox victory aren’t really connected. Except they absolutely are.  They’re connected through the city of Boston.  They’re connected through the Red Sox and all the charity work they did over the past six months.  They’re connected through the story of the 2013 season.

Bottom line: you have to be coated with mud and swill and raw sewage in order to appreciate fully the healing champagne cascade.  (Incidentally, I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but some time in my life, I want to be in a room where everyone is getting so doused with champagne that people have to wear goggles and rain coats.  Looks like fun.)

What a freakin’ season.  What a freakin’ story.

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chainsYesterday, as part of my first day at summer school, I played the Police song “Message in a Bottle”– which I then heard on the radio on my way home.  Got me thinking about something I had written a few months ago but never posted, a piece about “synchronicity”– the phenomenon, not the Police album!  

One morning, several months ago, I woke up with “Dreams” on my mind.

I’m not talking about the remnants of the Sandman.  I mean the song “Dreams,” by Fleetwood Mac.  For some reason, I woke up earlier than usual that day— without the aid of my alarm, I should add—with the chorus of that song (“Thunder only happens when it’s raining”) in my head.

Now, I’m not the biggest Fleetwood Mac guy out there.  I like them, sure, but in the way that everyone likes Fleetwood Mac.  (I don’t even own a copy of Rumours!)  I’m such a casual fan, I didn’t even know for sure that the song was called “Dreams.”  In fact, I first thought the lyrics floating through my freshly-awakened noggin were from another Fleetwood Mac song, “The Chain.”

About a half-hour later, I’m driving to work, flipping the channels on the radio, stopping on the “classic hits” station.  And what’s playing? Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”

Now, would this be at all noteworthy if I had, say, Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” on the brain and then heard it on the radio?  No, because that song is still played quite often; I’d wager some stations exclusively play it.  But “Dreams” is no “Call Me Maybe.”

“You should look at the lyrics,” people said when I told them about this curious incident. “Maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.”  And it is: I think the Universe is reminding me about synchronicity—the phenomenon of two or more unrelated events occurring at the same time, seemingly by chance, what Carl Jung described as an “acausal connecting principal.”

Synchronicity isn’t scientific, but it’s real.  Jung (who actually coined the term, in the 1920s) wrote extensively about it.  His most famous example involves one of his patients, who was describing a dream in which someone gave her a piece of beetle-shaped jewelry.  At that very moment, Jung heard knocking on the window; when he went over, he found an actual beetle, trying to get in.

(Interesting aside: Jung described this patient as “psychologically inaccessible”—a tough nut to crack.  But after the incident with the beetle, she opened up, and their sessions become more productive.)

The truly unusual thing about synchronous events is that they are not that unusual; they happen all the time.  I personally can think of two more incidents from the past year, both of which also involve songs, that attest to the legitimacy of synchronicity.

Exhibit A:  Last summer, on my birthday, I wake up to music coming from my sons’ room. They’re tinkering with the clock radio we just bought for them, and they land on a “Back to the 80s” show; one of the songs I hear is Ratt’s “Round and Round” from 1984.

So I get up to go for a run, set my iPod to “shuffle,” and listen in confused wonder at the very first song that randomly comes up, out of 800-plus songs: “Round and Round.”

Exhibit B is even freakier, because it’s a three-parter:  a few months after the Ratt episode, I’m in my car, heading to the mall, and from out of nowhere, Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” pops into my head.

I’m sure you see where this is going: I get to the store, and “Human Nature” is playing on the PA system.  And when I get back in the car, what do you think I hear on the radio?

Now, some may dismiss these examples as insignificant coincidences. And I’ll agree with the half of that; there’s nothing particularly significant—nothing earth-shattering or serendipitous—about hearing a song on the radio.  But coincidental?

Just the opposite, in fact: synchronicity hints at the Grand Design just beneath the surface of everything.

Jung said that synchronous events give us a glimpse into the “peculiar interdependence” that exists between the world and all those who inhabit it—and I agree.  Think about it:  in 1976, Stevie Nicks wrote “Dreams” in California; more than thirty-five years later, on a random Thursday, some Connecticut DJ decides to play that song, on the same morning I inexplicably woke up thinking about it. Now, I don’t know Stevie Nicks or that DJ, but in that moment, through that song, we’re connected.  Linked.

Speaking of links: I have a fitting coda to “Dreams” story.  Later that same afternoon, I was again in my car, listening to that same classic hits station, when another Fleetwood Mac song comes over the airwaves: “The Chain.”

Nicely played, Universe.

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“I know what she means. Writing, painting, singing—it cannot stop everything. Cannot halt death in its tracks. But perhaps it can make the pause between death’s footsteps sound and look and feel beautiful, can make the space of waiting a place where you can linger without as much fear. For we are all walking each other to our deaths, and the journey there between footsteps makes up our lives.”
(Reached, Ally Condie)

Last week I finished Reached, the final book in Ally Condie’s YA dystopian trilogy beginning with Matched and Crossed. This passage from the final pages of her story confirms what I believed from the beginning: Condie has written a 1,245-page love letter to the arts. And through all the drama and romance, she beautifully depicts the ways in which writing, painting, and music can uplift, inspire, and transform.

You see this in a place called The Gallery, where members of the Society gather to share the things they’ve created: pictures, poems, fashion, sculptures. Some sing, while others learn to write. The novel’s protagonist, Cassia, reflects on what makes this place so special and powerful: “I like it best when I hear the whispers of those who are here for the first time, who stand before the wall with their hands over their mouths and tears in their eyes. Though I could be wrong, I think many of them feel as I do whenever I come here. I am not alone.”

For we are all walking each other to our deaths, and the journey there between footsteps makes up our lives.

We tend to mark time by the major events in our lives – birthdays, weddings, graduations, the birth of our children. But when you add those up, the number is small. I’ve had 43 birthdays (counting the actual day of my birth), one wedding (let’s hope it stays that way!), three graduations (I’m not counting elementary school), and one experience of childbirth (twins… two for the price of one!)

Compare that number—48—to the total number of hours I’ve spent on this earth: 376,680. (I’ll pause for a minute while you go get your calculator and tally up your hours!) But more importantly, these hours are made up of moment

Relaxing with a really good cup of tea,
Meeting a friend for lunch
Throwing snowballs after a blizzard
Crying tears of shared sorrow
Laughing so hard your stomach hurts
Soaking in the beauty of a sunset

No matter how ordinary they may seem, every moment “between footsteps” makes up our journey and makes our journey worthwhile. That’s what Condie means by “the space of waiting.” And the question she so movingly poses in these final passages of Reached is: how will we fill that space?

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642 things to write aboutOne of our favorite gifts this Christmas was a book called 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto (2011).  Given to us by a dear friend, the book is a collection of prompts (642 of them, we’re guessing), such as “Write ten sayings for fortune cookies” or “Write a story that ends with the line, ‘And this is the room where it happened.’”

For our New Year’s Resolution, we’d like to “do” this book, to use it to fire up our somewhat-soggy-from-the-holidays creative embers.  Much like the NaBloPoMo Challenge, we’re hopeful that this endeavor will bear fruit in several ways: new and interesting blog posts, a “stretched” or enhanced creative energy in our writing, and a renewed dedication to our next big writing project—a sequel to our first (as of yet unpublished) young adult novel.

We have some individual resolutions, too—ones that don’t have anything to do with writing. And what are they? Well…


All best plans seem to come in three’s, so I’ve come up with three resolutions for 2013.

I resolve to spend more time outdoors. January in New England may not be the best time to start this one, but I read a statistic from the Gale Encyclopedia of Public Health that the average North American spends 90 percent of the time indoors, 5 percent in cars, and only 5 percent outdoors.  And I know I fit into that category.  When you’re a writer, a reader, a mom, and a pop culture fanatic, you tend to be more of an indoor person.  So 2013 will find me putting on my warmest coat and getting outside to let the sun shine upon my face, the snowflakes coat my eyelashes, and the gentle breezes carry me away.

I resolve to eat more vegetables.  This may seem like an odd one for a woman in my 40s, but if I’m being honest… I hate vegetables.  I envy those people who can serve up a plate of roasted eggplant, zucchini, asparagus, (fill-in-the-blank with your vegetable of choice) and devour it with the kind of ecstasy I only reserve for Ben & Jerry’s.  In the words of Corey Flood from the movie Say Anything: “that’ll never be me, that’ll never be me!”  However, I do resolve to eat more vegetables, even if I never grow to love them.

I resolve to act on benevolent impulses.  Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that humans possess a “natural benevolent impulse” that moves us to love others and to perform kind, charitable acts.  I would say this is definitely true for me with one slight difference: my benevolent impulses lead me to want to perform kind, charitable acts.  It’s the doing where I tend to fall off the rails.  Oftentimes because I’m too busy (or too lazy), and other times my introverted nature stops me from putting myself out there.  But not in 2013!  Every time I have an impulse to do something nice for someone, I resolve to do it.


I, too, have three specific goals… as well as one less quantifiable, infinitely goofier one. First, the specific ones:

  • I’d like to lose twelve pounds (at least) before April.  In January 2003, I lost twenty-three pounds as part of a New Year’s diet; ten years later, the pounds have slowly but oh-so-surely crept back. I figure I’ll try to lose half of that original amount (twelve is half of twenty-three, kind of) this time around.
  • I’m going to make a project on iMovie. We bought an iMac almost two years ago now, and I don’t think I have used iMovie even once.
  • I want to improve my ping pong game.  We have a table in our house, and I want to get better at it. (Probably the first step would be to call it by its proper, snootier name: table tennis.).

Now, here’s the goofier goal: I want to be more “up” on things. Not necessarily political things or big-ticket news items. I just want to know things that everyone else seems to know about.

Let me give an example:  with the end of the year comes lists—the most popular songs of the past year, the biggest news stories of the year, the top ten Sporcle games that chewed up the most potentially productive hours. (OK, that last one might just apply to me…)  But my favorite year-end list has to be the “Dead Celebrities” review—the one that provides a final farewell the famous folks who died over the past twelve months.

The individuals on this list often fall into different categories: the “Fond Remembrances” group (e.g. Dick Clark, Adam Yauch, Maurice Sendak); the “Such a Shame/ Cautionary Tale” group (Whitney Houston); the “Wait, You Mean This Person Didn’t Die, Like, Ten Years Ago?” group (Ernest Borgnine).

Then we get to the most frustrating category of them all: “Yes, This Celebrity Died Months Ago and Somehow You’re Just Finding Out Now.”  Every year, I learn about one celebrity death that somehow passed me by. In 2011, it was Dobie Gray. In 2004, it was Rick James.  And in 2012, it was none other than… Donna Summer.

Apparently, the Queen of Disco died of lung cancer last May…. so how did I not know about this until a few weeks ago?  Hey, I wasn’t her biggest fan, but… it’s Donna Summer!  Why wasn’t there more hubbub about this?

I’m not saying no one knew about Donna Summer’s death; in fact, everyone I talked to about this has said, “Oh, yeah, I knew.” So I guess I’m not so much sad she died but more frustrated that I didn’t know.  I hate being left out!

So maybe next year I will either try to be more aware of what’s going on, or else enlist a massive team of pop culture watchdogs who will send me an alert whenever a famous person dies.  (Then again, maybe I’ll just stick to the ping pong.)

To hold ourselves accountable to our joint and individual resolutions, we promise future blog posts with updates on how we’re doing.  But now we’d love to hear from you!  Use the comments section to share your resolutions for 2013.

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Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.comWe live in Connecticut.

Knowing that no combination of words, however eloquently strung together, will ever adequately portray the shock and grief our world is experiencing, we humbly offer the thoughts that flow from our broken hearts on this day.

How it easy it would be to collapse under the stark evidence of unspeakable darkness in our world.  How tempting it is to succumb to the belief that our world is irreparably broken.  What words of comfort could heal these wounds?  What prayer will suffice?  What can we do for those families in Newtown who are drowning in darkness?

Our challenge, it would seem, is to bend… but refuse to break.  To seek out the light no matter how faint it may seem at a time like this. To shine our own light – a light of love, faith, hope, and peace – until the glimmer becomes a spark, joining with the light of others until the darkness is expelled.

There is so much good in this world.  We need to shout this from the rooftops.  There are ordinary heroes performing extraordinary acts of love and courage every day.  We must hold them up for all the world to see.  Yes, it is true we feel helpless today, but there is much that we can do.  Take a long, loving look at our dear ones.  Hold them a little tighter.  Love them a little more deeply.  Search out those that need comfort and do what we can to help them.  Pay close attention.

Be gentle with yourself.  Allow yourself time to grieve, to weep, to clench your fists in rage.  Know when you need to seek rest.   To step away from the media coverage and quiet your mind.  Do not feel guilty for counting your blessings or finding joy in the love you have carved out for yourself.  It is precisely that love that can heal the world.

To the families of Newtown… you are wrapped in our embrace of love and prayer.

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ImageIn honor of my wife’s birthday (Happy Birthday, sweetie!), I thought I would share a memorable way to celebrate a birthday milestone: the Countdown Photo-Calendar.

I wish I could take credit for this amazing idea, but I can’t.  As with most of my best ideas, I blatantly stole it from someone else—in this case, the wife of a college buddy.  Several years ago, my friend was turning 40, and his wife did this calendar for him.  I was so impressed with the idea, I decided to do the same thing when my wife turned 40… which was, uh, not long ago.  (I’ve learned you should never talk about a woman’s age…)

And what is the Countdown Photo-Calendar?  Here’s the deal: picture in your mind’s eye a hanging display, made of clear plastic, with 40 transparent pockets for photographs.  In each of those pockets is a placard with a number; basically, the whole display looks like a Classic Concentration game board.  The last pocket holds number 40, the Day of Reckoning of Person Celebrating Birthday (whom I will henceforth call PCB).

On the first day, which is forty days before PCB’s birthday, PCB pulls back the placard with the number 1 to reveal– a friend or relative!  Well, a picture of a friend or relative– not the actual person (unless, of course, your friend happens to be Flat Stanley.)

And somewhere in that picture is a number 1.  Maybe that person is holding up a drawing of a number 1, or maybe an ace of spades, or something. (For my college friend’s calendar, I made a made a big “6” out of Legos and took a picture of myself sitting next to it.)  Also, included with the picture is a little message from the friend or relative, wishing PCB well.

For every day for the next thirty-nine days, PCB uncovers a new person and a new message.  At the end of the process, PCB has a quilt of forty pictures of the people that decorate his/ her life.

The Countdown Photo-Calendar is a great thing to do for That Special Someone, but it’s not something you can just throw together.  So I thought I would provide a step-by-step tutorial to guide any interested parties through the process:

(1) Get yourself a calendar—a regular old calendar, with months and weeks and days.  Identify your PCB’s birthday and count backward forty days. (Technically, you don’t have to do it for someone’s 40th.  I’m saying 40, because it’s a big one and because the photo-holder seems to come with twenty or forty pockets.)

(2) Count back twenty additional days– at the least. After all, you’re going to need to give folks time to prepare. You’re depending on audience participation here; you don’t want to spring this on someone. (“You mean to say that you need to plan this a good sixty days ahead of time?” Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Kind of daunting…)

(3) Make a list of the people you want represented and randomly assign a number to each person.  (I say “random,” but you probably want the more responsible people to have the earlier numbers, since they’ll have less time to prepare.)

(4) Rifle through the e-mail contacts of PCB. (As with all great acts of love, this project does require you to be a little devious.)

(5) Send out an initial message to all the folks on your list, using your work e-mail (or else some other email that PCB doesn’t check).  In the message, you should explain the concept and what you’re asking of them.  Basically, you’ll need two things from each person: (a) a picture of himself/ herself displaying an assigned number; and (b) a “Happy Birthday” message that falls somewhere on the “witty/cute” spectrum.

Make sure you stress that this is a secret and that no one should e-mail PCB or else mention to PCB how awesomely thoughtful you are. Also, stress that anyone who wants to decline most certainly can with no hard feelings– which, naturally, is a lie.  (If someone don’t want to participate in an activity as fun as this, you can bet the feelings will be hard– as hard as the stone that resides where his heart should be.)

(6) Send out a second email, in which you list the numbers you assigned to each person AND the date which you must receive it. (See where this gets tricky?)  For example, “Agnes, Number 14, Due Date: Nov 11th.”  (And why is this going out in a separate email?  Basically, so you don’t overwhelm folks.  The first e-mail explains the concept; the second e-mail gets into the nitty-gritty details.)

(7) Sit back and wait.  Just kidding!  There’s no waiting in Countdown Photo-Calendar Creating!  You need to order the plastic photo-hanging thingy.  Here are two you can order online:

For someone celebrating a 40th birthday, you should order the “80 Photo” version, since only one side will be visible. (Each pocket technically holds two pics, so that’s how they get away with saying “80 Photos.”)

(8)  Make the placards, the place-holder cards numbered 1 through 40.  These cards don’t have to be super-fancy; on the other hand, they shouldn’t pieces of lined paper torn out of a three-ring binder either. The calendar is a decoration, something that will be in your house for at least forty days, and the placards are an integral part of the presentation.  (For my wife’s calendar, I enlisted the aid of my niece, and we made individual mini-collages for each card.)

(9)  Check your inbox. Oh, lookee here!  Folks have responded!  Hopefully, the people responsible for the initial numbers have sent in their pictures and messages.  If not, you’ll need to do some gentle nudging.  (In fact, you’ll probably find yourself doing a lot of gentle and not-so-gentle nudging throughout the whole process.  )

(10) Unveil the calendar to your PCB on the day before day one. (It’s a pretty big display, so you’ll need space to hang the thing.  I used those tiny suction cups and hung it up on our sliding glass door.)

(11)  Get up a little bit earlier on the morning of Day One and put the #1 picture/message-combo behind the placard. (I tended to do one day at a time, partly because some folks didn’t get the picture to me until the night before, and partly because I know my wife.  If I had filled up all 40 pockets on that first day, she would have opened all of them within minutes.)

(12) Repeat Step 11 every morning for the next thirty-nine mornings.

(13) Enjoy.

The whole thing a labor of love, for sure—but the love more than makes up for the labor. And the final collage at the end truly is a story, of a life and the people in it.

Of course, you can really only do this once… which means my wife didn’t get a Countdown Photo-Calendar this year. But maybe a Birthday Blog Shout-Out will do. Happy Birthday, sweetie!  I love you!  You’re the greatest!

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