A Duchess in Waiting

When I leave for the store at night, Duchess parks herself beside the window and waits.  It’s a familiar position.

For the newcomers, Duchess the Wonder Dog is the older of our two canines, a 13-year-old mix of border collie and black Lab. She’s shy enough to stay nearly invisible when strangers are around and brilliant enough to have figured out how to beat a pedal trash can and get at the goodies inside.

But what she does best, and what she does often, is wait.

For years, that’s been part of her duties as furry bodyguard to my wife Heather, whom she has been devoted to ever since they reached an understanding over pizza. And like the passage in Ruth, the understanding is simple: “Whither thou goes, I shall go.”

When Heather is in bed not feeling well, Duchess waits nearby.

When Heather gets up, Duchess waits close behind, even if that means following her into the bathroom.

If someone rings the bell, Duchess lets our big dog Blake be the security guard, barking at the door in challenge – her job is to be the messenger, running back to “tell” Heather, and wait by her side.

And of course, she does the waiting any dog might do, whether it’s in the front room to wait for one of us to return, or near the table to see if a stray bit of food might slip. (Admittedly, Big Blake is the master of the latter, with eyes and jaws that are about as opportunistic as a rising politician.)

Now, as the years go by, she’s added some new waiting. Sometimes it’s harder to watch.

She sometimes waits by our bed with intense eyes, trying to see how she can get all the way up when her legs no longer want to do the job.

She waits behind Heather just a beat too long, especially in the kitchen, where my wife will suddenly turn to find a furry hurdle in her path that wasn’t there before.

She still waits with devotion, love and care. But now, there’s a bit of age in the mix as well. And it’s hard to see. We like to think that the ones we love won’t change, can’t change. We don’t like acknowledging that even the best of times can be all too short.

That’s true of dogs. Of people. Of almost anything in the world we give our heart to.

And yet, despite the frailties and the changes, the core remains the same.

Duchess is still Duchess. Her other waiting hasn’t stopped, even if it has become more tentative at times. Her loving heart and curious mind are still there. Sometimes the body is, too, especially on snowy winter days that still make her energetic beyond belief.

So much changing, but so much the same. It’s both the reason the changes hurt so much at times, and the great comfort in the midst of them.

And it’s the unchanging pieces we’ll always remember.

I don’t mean this to be an early eulogy. The time to mourn is later – hopefully much, much later. A love that is still present should be celebrated, embraced, and enjoyed. Leave the future to its time. You’re together now, and now is the time to appreciate it.

Sure, a time will come when things move slower and with more care. But don’t ever let the celebration stop, even if it has to move at a more deliberate tempo.

After all, love is well worth the wait.

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Familiar and Strange

Lately my life has been set to the sounds of “Hamilton.”

Granted, it’s not exactly uncommon for me to put a Broadway cast album on heavy rotation. But this time I have a lot of company. The rap musical about America’s first Treasury Secretary is now the hottest thing on Broadway, winning the Grammy, the Pulitzer Prize, and probably a lot of Tonys in a couple of weeks, all while being sold out into the next presidential administration.

By now, the CD is spending half its time in my car and the other half with friends and family as I repeatedly ask “Have you heard this?” Sometimes it takes quite a while to come back.

It’s probably one of the most unlikely successes on the New York stage. And I’m still trying to figure out exactly what went right. You know, beyond having catchy tunes, acrobatic lyrics, and a truly compelling life story to build around. Any theatre fan knows about fun shows that didn’t last – mass obsession needs something more.

In this case, I think it’s the unfamiliar familiar.

No, my brain didn’t hiccup there. But one of the best hooks for any idea is to be almost familiar, the way a mind latches on to a song lyric you can almost remember or almost make out. (“Louie, Louie,” anyone?) You realize that it’s something you sort of know, but not quite … there’s just enough that’s alien or different to require closer examination.

Like a historical figure that most of us studied in school but only vaguely remember. (The same thing has happened with John Adams a couple of times now.)

Like a Founding Fathers drama that casts minorities and uses rap and R&B to make its musical points.

And maybe most compelling, a political setting that echoes the turmoil of our own, but with hope for the future.

I’ve said before that the Founders aren’t marble figures on a pedestal, nor were their times a stately waltz to the inevitable. In the years after the American Revolution, we had economic distress, brawling factions, threats of outright rebellion, and intense wars of words in the newspapers that sometimes escaped to the dueling ground. A presidential election once sat in paralysis for days because of an Electoral College deadlock, and passionately-held ideas fought for attention with accusations and scandals.

Nothing like the peace and sanity of our own times, right?

In that fact lies a lot of hope. It’s easy to get disgusted, to forget that we’ve been through chaos before and will be again. That’s part of what it means to be a free society – to know that things aren’t going to be neat, pretty, and pre-ordained, but that passion, conflicting motives, and even sometimes outright ignorance and intransigence will be part of the mix.

And yet, somehow, we keep going. In its own way, that’s as unlikely a story as the illegitimate kid from an obscure part of the Caribbean who defended a Constitution and built a national economy before being shot by an aggrieved politician.

“What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see,” Hamilton now declares from the stage. Amid today’s strife, seeds and stories are being planted that could grow into something totally unexpected. As long as we don’t give up on the garden (and on keeping an eye for weeds), it will survive the weather.

We know we can. We have a daily reminder. And a catchy one at that.

Want to borrow the CD and see?

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Fantastic Tales

Beware the dragons. Watch out for the trolls. And always remember that heroes may be hazardous to your health.

Not your usual prescription, I grant you. But it’s apparently second nature to Graeme Whiting, an English headmaster who made international headlines when he declared that fantasy fiction would rot your child’s mind.

No, I’m not overstating it. Kind of hard to, really.

“Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Terry Pratchett, to mention only a few of the modern world’s ‘must-haves’, contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children,” Whiting wrote as part of a lengthy blog post on his school’s website, “yet they can be bought without a special licence, and can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children, many of whom may be added to the current statistics of mentally ill young children.”

You might be surprised to learn that he and I agree on exactly one thing: Parents should pay attention to what their children read. Books do indeed open doors onto many places, and every parent should know where their child is spending their time, whether it’s in the park or in the Shire.

But fantasy can open some wonderful doors indeed.

I’m not writing to disparage the more classic works that Mr. Whiting himself loves and encourages for a growing mind, such as Shakespeare or Dickens, which were also part of my reading. Enough so that I’m a bit amused. After all, Dickens was long considered popular trash by lovers of “proper literature” and as for Master Shakespeare – well, whose life couldn’t use a dose of teen marriage and suicide (Romeo and Juliet), eye-gouging (King Lear), witchcraft (Macbeth), and rape and mutilation (Titus Andronicus), with just a sprinkling of cross-dressing and humiliation of authority (Twelfth Night)?

Sure, they’re wonderful – dare I say magical? – stories. But safe? C.S. Lewis once warned visitors to Narnia that the great Aslan was “not a tame lion” and if a story has any power to it at all, it can never be considered a “safe story.” When books meet brains, anything can happen. Anything at all.

Stories have a power that the great authors of fantasy knew quite well.

“Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures?” the hobbit Bilbo Baggins declares in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Tolkien has been my own Gandalf since about third grade, leading my imagination into places both terrifying and wonderful – as have many of the fantasy authors who followed in his wake. My family and I have cheered on Harry Potter, wandered with Taran and Eilonwy, leaped through wrinkles in time, and stumbled through wardrobes into unexpected worlds.

You acquire many things on a quest like that. Beautiful language. Heartbreak and hope. A decidedly quirky strain of humor. And most of all, the realization that evils can not only be survived, they can be overcome.

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey,” G.K. Chesterton famously wrote in 1909. “What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

No, stories aren’t safe. Few things worth having are. But they can be priceless.

So yes, have a hand in your child’s reading. Be careful. Be aware. But be open to wonder as well. And don’t fear the dragons.

After all, that is where the treasure is to be found.

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Running the Course

LeeAdianez Rodriguez had been running late. And then she was just running. And running. And running.

The 12-year-old New York girl had meant to line up for a family 5k race in Rochester, a run of about three miles. Somewhere along mile four, she realized something had gone wrong. Quickly checking with another runner, Lee learned the truth – in her rush, she had accidentally joined the competitors for the half-marathon instead, a 13.1 mile competition.

By then, according to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, her mom was trying to find her. The police were trying to find her. And, unaware of that, Lee had decided to keep on running

“I was like, I’m going to finish this, I’m going to keep going,” she told NBC New York.

Finish she did.

“It was such a scary moment for her, but rewarding in the end,” her mom, Brendalee Espada, told the Democrat & Chronicle. “I don’t even know how she did it.”

Sound familiar?

Mind you, I don’t expect that any of us has ever signed up for the Turkey Trot and then accidentally run to Twenty Ninth Street in Boulder for a little shopping. But we all know about getting on a course that’s longer and more exhausting than we’d planned. That’s how life works.

When Heather and I first got married, for example, we thought we’d mapped out the course pretty well. On our first dates, where most people learn about their favorite books and movies, we had filled each other in on our medical history. (OK, so we’re a little weird.) She learned about my epilepsy. I learned about her Crohn’s disease and her endometriosis.

All planned and prepared, right?

Well, except for the part where she got diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis a few years later. And multiple sclerosis a few years after that. And of course, the part in between all that where we became guardians to her disabled aunt, Missy, a constant source of wonder and amazement to both of us.

Other than that, I suppose we were ready. Which is a little like saying “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

We had no clue what we’d signed up for. But we kept running anyway. And so far, we’re still in the race.

It doesn’t have to be that dramatic, of course. But it’s going to happen. Jobs, families, and even hobbies hold unexpected on-ramps and detours that can carry us way out into the countryside before we know what’s happened. (One of my personal favorites remains getting handpicked for the lead in an Oscar Wilde play, with its beautiful, witty language – and then being told I had exactly three weeks to learn the script.) When it comes to signage, life makes the Colorado highway system look clear and sensible.

And most of the time, all we can do is run the race out.

Well, maybe not all we can do. If we’re paying attention at all, we also learn a few things about strength and patience and endurance. We probably get some lessons in flexibility and humor as well. And we definitely discover some experiences that we would never have chosen for ourselves.

Most of all, most of the time, we learn that we can do it. We can last. We can keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when we’d rather just curl up in a ball for a while. We don’t always want to. It’s not always fun and it’s rarely easy. But it’s there.

“I’m going to finish this. I’m going to keep going.”

Words to live by.

After all, what’s another mile or ten between friends?

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Say McWhat?

A couple of years ago, our dog Duchess acquired a middle name for the first time.

“Her middle name is Hunter,” declared a young boy at one of Missy’s summer softball games – a player who, by amazing coincidence, was named Hunter himself. As the pronouncement was made, Heather and I silently tested out the new addition to our timid canine.

Duchess Hunter Rochat. Hm.

It wasn’t bad. And it fit her old habit of chasing down every rabbit in the backyard that she could find, back in her younger days in Kansas. So, without further ado or ceremony, Duchess Hunter Rochat it was.

If only things were that simple for the British.

Some of you may have been following one of the sillier stories in the news cycle: a $300 million polar research boat for the United Kingdom whose name was thrown open to an online poll. The National Environment Research Council was probably hoping for a name connected with penguins, or explorers, or something else sober and traditional.

What it got was over 124,000 votes for “Boaty McBoatface.”

The name had been thrown out as a joke by a former BBC host, then took on a life of its own. By the end of the contest, according to The Guardian, it was crushing the competition with four times the votes of the second-place entry.

Alas, this week, Science Minister Jo Johnson threw cold water on the proceedings. She said the British government would review all the submissions in order to find a more “suitable” name.

McBoo.

“Admittedly, calling a boat Boaty McBoatface was a bad idea, voted on by idiots,” Guardian columnist Stuart Heritage said. “But it was our bad idea.”

I’m often a bit skeptical of Internet democracy. But this time around, I’ve got to agree. It may be ridiculous. It may be downright stupid. But it honestly deserves to survive, no matter what the regret by the gray-faced bureaucrats.

McWhy? Consider this:

1) The National Environmental Research Council wanted to attract more attention to its scientific activities through the contest. It might be fair to say, mission accomplished.

2) As my sister pointed out, it makes an excellent object lesson for anyone conducting an internet contest. When you make a choice open-ended instead of giving a pre-set ballot to choose from, you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get. I mean, imagine if Dave Barry had gotten hold of this one. (He didn’t, did he?)

3) It’s fun. Utter, glorious, stupendously silly fun. And to be honest, we need a bit more of that in the world these days.

Sure, we face serious problems everywhere we look. There’s always a crisis to consider, a candidate to defend, a cause that’s earnest and urgent. And as we all know, it doesn’t take much to stir up an online fist fight around any of these, full of sound and fury and not much real conversation.  Often, the sheer heat of the “debate” protects any of it from being read, unless you’re already a partisan of one side or another.

In the midst of all this, a boat that sounds like it came off the set of Thomas the Tank Engine might be a much-needed piece of whimsy.

Not everything has to be life-or-death. In the physical world, something put under pressure too long will deform or break. Minds need to release pressure, too, for much the same reason. And if it’s by laughing at something silly that isn’t hurting anyone – well, why McNot?

The British used to be famous for eccentricity. Surely the nation that gave the world Mr. Bean, Doctor Who, and the makeup artist for Keith Richards can accept one more excuse to sit back and laugh at itself for adding a little more weirdness to the world.

It’s healthy. It’s refreshing. It breaks people out of their ruts for a moment and makes them smile. So why not bow to the inevitable?

Or just call it Hunter. You know. Whatever floats your McBoat.

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Exit, Left

There’s been a Marian-sized hole in my heart this week.

Those of you who read this paper regularly understand. Not long ago, the Longmont Theatre Company lost one of its stalwarts, Marian Bennett. On and offstage, she touched more lives than a workaholic chiropractor. She could communicate volumes about a character with one perfectly timed gleam in her eye and make you breathless with suspense or helpless with laughter.

I want to say she’s irreplaceable. She’d laugh at that and deflate the notion with her familiar Texas twang. And maybe she’d be right. All of us are … and none of us are. We all bring something unique that goes quiet when we leave. And barring a dramatic change in the history of the world, all of us are going to leave. Life is hazardous to your health, and the rest of us have to be ready to carry on when time brings another of us into the majority.

Easy to say. Hard to feel, to acknowledge, to own.

Especially when it’s someone close.

Doubly so when it’s someone who so undeniably lived.

 

Fill  to me the parting glass,

And drink a health whate’er befalls,

Then gently rise and softly call,

Goodnight and joy be to you all.

– The Parting Glass, traditional

 

The phrase “grande dame” can be easily misconstrued. It can suggest someone on a pedestal at best, a prima donna at the worst. But it literally means the great lady. Marian herself was charmed by the title until she looked it up in a dictionary and found that one of the definitions was “a highly respected elderly or middle-aged woman.”

“That (title) made me feel pretty good until I realized they were saying I was old,” she told me with one of her stage grimaces.

But Marian really did fill a room. Some of it was physical – she was a tall woman who naturally drew attention. A lot of it was that she did her best to reach out to everyone nearby. She wanted to talk, to chat, to hug – but you didn’t feel smothered. You kind of felt like your next-door neighbor had just come over to catch up.

On stage, that translated into the most perfect sense of timing I’ve seen in an actress. She could discard her dignity entirely to cross the stage in roller skates, or gather it around her to become King Lear himself, but she was always who she needed to be, where she needed to be.

Part of that was because backstage she worked like a fiend. (She and I often drilled lines on opening night, just to be absolutely sure.) Part of it was confidence, the same confidence that led her to travel, to speak her mind, to welcome a friend on one meeting. A lot of it may have been her willingness to look cockeyed at the world, and enjoy it when others did, too.

She could be nervous or anxious, like any actor. But I never saw her afraid. You can’t be if you go on stage. You have to be able to look inside yourself and then share it with the world.

Come to think of it, that’s true off stage, too. Life is more fun, more alive, if you can live it without fear. Not without common sense (Mar had plenty of that) but without drawing back from what you might find.

Even that makes her sound like a lesson. Granted, we all are to each other. But we’re all so much more, too. We’re friends and family and teachers and neighbors, connected by more than we can see.

And when that connection is broken, it hurts. For a long time. It never quite heals the same way … and it shouldn’t. You’ve loved them, cared for them, taken on some of their memories. Of course, they’re not going to vanish from your mind and soul like an overdue library book.

They’ve touched you – and you bear their fingerprints.

Goodbye, my friend. It was a pleasure to know you, an honor to work with you.

Take your bow with pride.

I’ll see you after the show.

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Five Years On

A lot of things can happen in five years.

Five years ago, Peyton Manning was a badly injured Colt with an uncertain future.

Five years ago, Longmont was talking about how best to prepare for a 100-year flood, given the new, larger flood plain map that had come out a few months before.

Five years ago, the Colorado Rockies were … well, maybe some things don’t change that much.

And in the Rochat household, it meant the biggest change of all. Because it was on this week, five years ago, that Heather and I first moved in with Missy.

I still can’t believe I just wrote that.

For the newcomers to this column, Missy is my wife’s physically and mentally disabled aunt, the same age as I am physically, but so much younger in mind and spirit. We became her caregivers in 2011, arriving at her home with hope and uncertainty and way too many cardboard boxes.

I’ll be honest. I was scared out of my mind.

Heather and I had talked about doing this ever since Missy’s mom had died a couple of years before. Heather was excited, even eager. I was … well, uncertain is a charitable way to put it. Questions seemed to orbit me like race cars on Memorial Day.

“What if Heather gets ill again? She’s had a lot of chronic conditions in the past …”

“What if I don’t know what to say to Missy? Sure, I’ve visited before, but living is different …”

“What if something goes wrong? What if it’s more than we can do? What if What if What if What if …”

It became an internal echo chamber after a while. The questions were no longer really all that coherent, just background noise for a rising theme.

Maybe you know what it’s like. Walking in the dark, one foot forward, not sure if you’ll find a road or a cliff ahead. Wondering if it wouldn’t be smarter to stick to the known trails, the safe odds.

Which, in retrospect, is kind of silly. Life gives no guarantees. Even the safest ground can crumble beneath your feet, while the most threatening cliff can represent a chance to fly.

And for five years, we’ve done more than fly with Missy. We’ve soared.

I’ve had the chance to discover how a woman who says maybe a few hundred words a week can fall in love with the written words of her nightly bedtime story. We’ve explored worlds from the epic sweep of Narnia to the small towns of Homer Price. She even became an eager part of the Harry Potter fandom, complete with Hogwarts blankets and a loud whoop at Voldemort’s defeat.

I’ve learned how a woman who walks through the world with halting steps finds fascination in everything around her, from a classic car parked in the next space to a cute dog walking across the street. And how she seems to know literally everyone in Longmont, even picking her long-unseen grade-school teacher out of a crowded Main Street festival.

I’ve learned how fearless Missy can be about expressing herself, right down to shouting “WOW!” in the middle of a church service.

And through her, I’ve seen the world and myself through brand new eyes.

My questions weren’t entirely wrong. Heather did develop more health problems. (So did I, for that matter.) I do sometimes struggle to understand what Missy is asking or what she wants. There are times when it feels like we’re making it up as we go along.

But what I didn’t anticipate is that it wouldn’t matter so much. That the answers we would find would be worth so much more.

That the love of a new-found family could be bigger than all the fears the shadows could hold.

Five years. It feels like forever. It feels like yesterday.

No. It feels like the springboard to tomorrow. And I can’t wait to find out what the next five years will bring.

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Bottom of the Order

It’s almost time for the Colorado Rockies to break our hearts again.

We all know what I’m talking about. This is the team that routinely leads the league in home runs, batting average, and shattered expectations from about mid-April onward. Possessors of the loveliest field in baseball and the lowliest pitching staff. Blessed with forbearingly loyal fans and cursed with a mascot that’s … well … Dinger.

This is no Curse of the Bambino, where the Red Sox were doomed for decades to be almost the best, almost good enough. This is having to play the game for the love of the game, because even the playoffs are a quixotic dream, never mind the World Series. (Save for one strange, wonderful, painful year, of course.)

Yes, even the worst big leaguer has tools beyond what most people could dream of. Even so, I think a number of us Rockies fans can empathize. We know what it’s like to have the dream but not the reach, especially on a field of grass and dirt.

After all, an awful lot of us played right field.

“Playing right field, it’s easy, you know,

You can be awkward and you can be slow …”

— Willy Welch

I came by my love of baseball early. By the time I was in sixth grade, I could quote all the classic World Series moments and tell you who was up or down in the National League. I had my bat and glove, a batter’s tee, even a “pitchback” – netting stretched tightly to return a thrown ball – to practice my brilliant mound moves.

The one thing I didn’t have was any hint of talent whatsoever.

OK, I could move around a little on the bases. That helped on the rare occasions I drew a walk or (once) got hit by a pitch. But otherwise, my one actual summer on a team wasn’t marred by anything as crass as achievement. My bat lived in a different universe from the ball that was being pitched, my cannon arm was more of a leaky water pistol, and my attempts to catch (dodge? Not be crushed by?) a fly ball probably belonged in a Chevy Chase movie.

Naturally, I wound up in right field. Not the right field of Hank Aaron and Carlos Gonzales. This was the grade school Siberia, where fly balls and grounders rarely intruded upon the peace of one’s meditation.

The funny thing was, I didn’t really mind. (In a way, I may have even guessed what was coming, since I deliberately chose No. 13 for a uniform.) Every game, I was out there, keeping up enough “chatter” for three other players combined, letting my enthusiasm make up for the lack of a stat sheet.

Sure, my glory moment consisted of tapping one bunt that dropped right in front of the plate for the Easiest Out In The Known Universe. But who cared? I was on the team, playing baseball! Sort of!

I didn’t come back for a second season. But I never regretted playing the first one. I still don’t.

After all, it’s important to do things you’re not good at, too.

Sounds un-American, I know. We’re about looking for ways to excel – even if we sometimes put it a little more nicely, like “discovering your gifts and how you can make your own contribution.” But it can be an interesting thing to step away from your talents and struggle.

You break new ground, adding experiences and insights you might not have had. You learn humility and empathy, and how to appreciate the gifts of others. Maybe you even walk away with a little more skill than you had before – my own struggles with math in school, for example, made me an invaluable tutor to my little sister because it hadn’t come naturally to me and I could explain it in a way that made sense.

All in all, a lot of neat things can come at you from right field.

And if an unlikely championship ever does come to our Rocks, we’ll be screaming the loudest of all.

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Riding Out the Storm

The Snowpocalypse returned to Longmont on Wednesday. If you read social media at all, I’m sure you saw the shock and horror.

“A blizzard in March? Really?”

“Go home, Mother Nature, you’re drunk.”

“Happy spring, everybody!”

The thing is, if you’ve lived on the Front Range for longer than a couple of years, you know that this is what happens in a normal March. You’ve heard (probably ad nauseum) that “this is the snowiest month of the year.” We know what to expect, and when.

And yet, when the storm hits, it still fascinates us. Like an old sweater or Christmas decoration, we drag the jokes out of storage to be displayed for another year. Heck, I’ve told them myself. When you go from a 70-degree day to 15 inches of beautiful springlike weather literally overnight – well, as Willy Loman once said, attention must be paid.

So we let ourselves be amazed. We cast aside the other fears and demands of the world to focus on digging in and then digging out, sprinkling appropriate touches of profanity as we struggle to remove the concrete-heavy snow from our driveways and sidewalks or navigate the slushy, soon-to-be icebound roads.

Once again, we’ve survived the end of the world as we know it.

And in an election year, that should feel mighty familiar.

Granted, most of us, if given the choice between surviving a presidential campaign season and a blizzard, would probably pick the blizzard. Especially this campaign season.  There seems to be a feeling, on left and right, that this is the year the Great Democratic Experiment meets its greatest test. Elect the wrong man/woman/alien from Planet Mongo, we’re told, and it’s time to flee to Australia – Canada may just not be far enough.

I’ll be honest. I share in some of that feeling myself. I’d have to be Superman not to be touched by all the fear and worry in the air—and not only did I live my cape in the dry-cleaners, I genuinely feel that some of the candidates for office are worthy of our fear and worry.

But you know something? We’ve been here before. For any given value of “here.” Maybe not with these people, maybe not with this exact set of fears, but we have survived an awful lot, in terms of potential leaders and actual ones.

We’ve seen populist leaders lead movements with the fervor of a revivalist preacher, bringing anxiety to those already in power. (Hello, William Jennings Bryan. Or, from a more authoritarian side of the spectrum, Huey Long.)

We’ve seen political parties fracture and break under the stress of the day’s issues, opening the door to a “plurality president” who might have otherwise never set foot in the White House. (Check out when a Democratic split gave us Abraham Lincoln, or a Republican one Woodrow Wilson.)

We’ve had presidents who were drunks. Presidents who were conspirators. Even presidents who took action to silence enemies, or permitted the deportation or imprisonment of entire populations. (Look up John Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts, Andrew Jackson and the “Trail of Tears,” or FDR and the Japanese internment.)

I’m not saying we should yawn or say “oh, well,” at any of this. Some of the things that have happened are truly horrifying. Some of it has even led us to swear at different times “Never again” and justified our vigilance as voters and citizens.

But my point is that we have survived all of it. Admittedly, sometimes by the skin of our teeth. But we have carried through. And we have continued to try to create something better.

We can do it again.

Yes, be aware. Yes, fight like crazy for  the vision of this country you want to see. No, don’t be blasé about what could happen if the person you’re most worried about seizes the controls.

But remember also – we can still survive. And we probably will. Especially if we look past the elections and continue our energy, awareness, and determination to build this country long after the final ballot has been counted.

We can be ready. We can be prepared.

And with enough of both, we can weather the storm.

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Up And At ‘Em

For Missy, all the world’s a trampoline.

It starts with a smile, a sudden drop, and a shout to the skies. With no effort, Missy’s thin, tiny body falls backward onto an armchair, onto a sofa, onto the bed. BOOMF! She strikes the cushion and springs back up again, standing right where she was and ready to do it all over again.

“Wooooo!”

Her face brilliant in its glee, she’ll repeat the bounce twice, three times, still more. It’s contagious, really. By the second or third bounce, I’m usually laughing and cheering along with her – well, as long as the armchair hasn’t been slammed TOO hard against the wall.

“Yeah!!”

It’s not hard to understand the source of the excitement, or some of it anyway. Missy, my wife’s aunt who is my age by the calendar and much younger in mind and heart, has disabilities that keep her moving through life at a careful walk, often balanced on a wall, a chair, or someone’s arm. But when she free-falls, none of that matters. All at once, she can really move. Heck, she can practically fly.

“Look, lookit!”

When she’s really excited, it doesn’t even matter if the chair’s occupied. Not if the person inside is someone she trusts to catch her in time, so she can bounce once more.

“Careful!”

“Yeah!”

When she’s tired enough, the drop guides her to a safe landing and a bit of a rest. The moment was there. The movement was there. For now, that’s enough.

I think a lot of us could understand her just fine.

It’s easy to feel restricted in life. Maybe it’s through high demands at work, or family worries, or money pressures. Maybe all is outwardly fine, but you’re left wondering if you make any mark or leave any impression.

Those are the times we most need to let go into something that wakes us up again. Even if it’s a small thing. Because if it lets you rediscover the joy of the moment, it’s not that small.

A former pastor of mine, who now lives in Maine, once told me that the best advice he had ever gotten as a minister was to take up an activity that he could complete. When you’re in a job that never really ends, the mentor told him, “It’s good to be able to finish something.”

He took up carpentry. Not necessarily the greatest carpentry, he would laugh. But the quality didn’t matter. This was his motion, his letting go, his chance to connect again with the joy of creation.

Sometimes I wonder if something similar doesn’t infuse the various populist movements, for better or worse. At the federal level, we’ve often seen stubbornness that has fused into outright paralysis, where it doesn’t matter if you get anything done, so long as you can prevent the other guy from doing anything. It can be frustrating to watch, even maddening.

In a situation like that, is it any wonder that so many pursue candidates who promise forward motion, a change, a transformation? The call can draw people to the best or the worst, with no regard for the chances of victory – only the knowledge that they’re moving again, part of something bigger than themselves.

Obviously, as we’ve seen with some would-be leaders, that need can be misused. Someone who drops without watching what they’re dropping into might hit something unyielding … or fall to the floor … or smash through a sliding glass door. You have to keep your eyes open. The idea is to fall freely, not blindly.

But just because we can do it badly doesn’t mean the need isn’t there.

Let go. Aim well. Fall into something better and come back smiling.

I’ll be over here, keeping an eye on the armchair.

“Yeah!!!”

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