The Impossible Dreams

It’s been rabbit season for a while now. And I’m loving it.

More specifically, it’s been “Harvey” season. And after a year’s break from theatre, I’m very fortunate to have been caught by the world’s kindest man and his giant invisible friend with the pointy ears. A friend of mine was once in a similar state of theatre withdrawal and wound up agreeing, sight unseen, to direct the first show that came his way – which happened to be “Oliver!”

“Oliver,” he said in a daze after hanging up the phone. “That’s the one with 50 kids in it, isn’t it?”

Theatre withdrawal. It’s a terrible and awesome thing.

Truth to tell, this is a show I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. (And a good thing, too, considering it involved two months of rehearsal with a little time off for Christmas.) There is a short list of scripts that I consider “drop everything” plays, where nothing short of blizzard, flood or alien invasion could keep me from trying out. At the top of that list are “Harvey” and “Man of La Mancha,” the musical about Don Quixote.

That’s not an accident.

In a way, both plays are the same story viewed from a slightly different angle. Both are about a man who walked away from mundane reality and embraced a dream. His world doesn’t understand. His family thinks he’s crazy. But his own life is an infinitely richer, more appealing place because of it – so appealing that it even threatens to draw others in despite themselves.

“I’ve wrestled with reality for over 40 years,” Elwood P. Dowd tells a bewildered doctor, “and I’m happy to state that I finally won out over it.”

“Too much sanity may be madness,” Don Quixote’s alter ego muses at one point. “And maddest of all, to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

That’s something that’s inherently appealing to an actor. After all, we spend a fair amount of time walking in dreams ourselves, treating fiction as true and living with people who never were. We create entire families – cast, crew, audience – from the sheer power of that dream. And if we’re lucky, we carry a piece of it with us long after the curtain goes down.

Crazy? I’m sure many of our friends and family think so, especially after weeks of late nights and hastily grabbed dinners. But essential, too.

To paraphrase another “Harvey” character, it’s our dreams that make us who we are.

Oh, it’s possible to live without dreams. Look around. The daily news seems filled with the consequences of the oh-so-practical people more concerned with being right than doing right, where winning justifies anything, where grand visions matter less than seizing a small advantage today. Politics, sports, business – in some ways, it’s a world more hostile to the Elwoods and Quixotes of society than ever.

But once in a while, something lifts us higher.

Once in a while, we gape as a spacecraft lands on a comet or a rover explores Mars. Or we marvel together at the adventures of a boy wizard with the power to make children read 800 pages without stopping. Or we … well, do anything that lifts us beyond survival and self, and into the imagination.

Beyond that line is where hope is born. The power to dream of something better. The desire to make it be.

The madness that can transform all of mundane reality in its wake.

OK, that’s heady stuff from a crazy knight and a guy with a six-foot rabbit. But when you find joy in the middle of an angry world, it can be a little overpowering. Mad? Maybe. It’s the end of a withdrawal from dreams, and that always has powerful consequences.

Though if those consequences involve 50 singing children, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

See you on stage.

 

(PS – Want to join the madness? Show times and tickets are at www.longmonttheatre.org. Tell ‘em Harvey sent you. )

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A Time to Remember

Missy’s been down lately.

Nothing unusual in that, of course. We’ve all been there. To parody the old title, Even Disabled Women Get the Blues, and Missy has occasionally had her own reasons to need a little comfort. Sometimes it’s an illness. Sometimes it’s an emotional moment in a movie. Sometimes it’s because Blake the Canine Trash Compactor has just eaten her crayons. All the usual motives.

But what’s interesting now is the timing. This one keeps a schedule.

My wife Heather first noticed it a few years ago when she was still just visiting and helping Missy, before we became guardians to the woman of few words and many mischievous smiles. At first we thought it was a coincidence. Then, after the second or third year, we realized what it had to be. By now, we’re positive.

This particular stretch always hits in late January. Right around the time that Andy died.

Andy was Missy’s brother and Heather’s uncle, a man who liked to tease and joke about as much as he liked to fly. And like many a brother, one favorite subject of his teasing was his little sister – not in a mean-spirited way, but in one that often set her laughing, too. Not a big , boisterous man but an open and friendly one that no one could help but like and smile along with.

But nine years ago, our favorite high flier came to Earth too soon. Brain cancer. It hit all of us pretty hard and still does.

But I’m not sure any of us realized at the time just how deeply it touched Missy.

Sometimes Missy almost seems to live in a world without time. Oh, not in the small sense. She remembers the daily routines: when her “bus” is supposed to come for her day program, when lunch is supposed to be, when to start arguing about having to go to bed. But on a larger scale, it’d be forgivable to wonder how much of an impression time makes, outside of major events like Christmas or Halloween (which carry their own rather obvious cues). Both she and her world seem to go on much as they always have, moving at her own pace in her own way.

But when the same “down” period always seems to hit in late January, centered around the same day each year – well, it becomes harder and harder to not notice.

Understand, we’ve never made a big deal of it around her. We’ve put up pictures and memories on Facebook like the rest of the family, but it’s not like she sees us stalking around the house in crepe and gets reminded. In so many ways, it could seem like just another day.

But to her, it obviously isn’t.

And while that’s sad, it also leaves me impressed. Because once again, it shows there is so much more to this lady than anyone would realize at first sight.

The mental disability that took or blocked so much has not taken her memory.

Not where it counts. Not where it ties her to the larger world.

It’s easy for that world itself to forget. To look at someone like Missy and dismiss her as “other,” unaware, apart. But she notices. She learns. She understands, even if it isn’t always the same understanding that an adult of her age would usually have.

Open and welcoming, she will avoid someone she’s been given reason not to trust.

Normally near-silent, she will react to the plot twists of a loved bedtime story – often with comments.

And for all the seeming changelessness of her life, she too holds close the ones no longer there.

It sounds obvious when you think about it. But how often do we?

The time will pass. The blues will lift. And soon we’ll be dealing with a restless Missy again, eager to bowl or swim or venture out on a Saturday morning trip downtown.

I think Andy would be pretty proud of her.

I know Missy still has one more smile for him.

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Peace Together

My wife Heather is not a fan of January.

The antipathy goes back to her school days, when January meant not just returning to school, but returning without an escape hatch. She and her classmates faced a long, cold, bleak month without the enchantment of Christmas or the myriad minor holidays of February – indeed, hardly anything to break up the barren landscape of the calendar at all.

With, of course, one significant and recent exception.

I’ve written before that King Day is a curious holiday. It’s one of the few we have that’s dedicated to a person instead of an event. It’s a reminder of a fiery time, placed in the middle of a frozen month. (In many ways, the August anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech might be more appropriate.)

And it’s about the only time, other than Christmas, when we spend a holiday talking about peace.

Please don’t think that I’m just referring to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dedication to nonviolence. That is an important part of his legacy and one that might have even surprised him at the beginning of his career, when armed guards and weapons for self-defense seemed to be an option worth considering. As we know, he finally made a powerful and famous choice to walk a different path, one that still inspires people today.

But that’s not what I mean by peace.

It’s a complicated word, really. A couple of my friends – one a pastor, one an author – like to point to the distinctions between two of the “peace” words, the Latin “pax” and the Hebrew “shalom.” The first, they note, is an end to open hostilities, a basic lack of violence. Under that definition, so long as you do not have war, you have peace, regardless of how resentful or conflicted the setting may be otherwise.

The second is something else. A “shalom” peace is a wholeness, a restoration of balance. Under that definition, peace is what you get when things are restored to the way they were meant to be. It has the broader implications of the English word “harmony,” of differences not clashing, but creating a more beautiful whole.

That’s a much more difficult goal to reach. But also a more embracing one.

One can have the first kind of peace and still have injustice, hatred and fear. In fact, “pax” is often just a breathing space between wars, the sort of thing seen in Germany of the ’20s and ’30s, where peace exists mainly because one side lacks the ability to act on its anger … for now.

The second kind—that’s the kind that echoes through King’s words again and again and again.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

“We adopt the means of non-violence because our end is a community at peace with itself.”

“If you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. …”

Not just the absence of wrong. But the presence of right.

That’s worth advocating. And it’s worth remembering. Even in the coldest, bleakest month in the year. Maybe even especially then – when are we more aware of the need for heat, for light, for the warmth of friends and neighbors?

The power to redeem January. Now that’s something.

And if it’s still a little difficult to rise in the darkened mornings and slide back to work or school – well, so be it.

After all, peace is a great dream. But no one ever said it wouldn’t require snow tires.

 

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Never Silent

I’ve started and stopped this column about half a dozen times so far. I doubt I’m alone. Some things, some events are just hard to wrap your mind around.

And when it comes to the murders at Charlie Hebdo, that may just be an understatement.

Understand, I’m used to people who don’t get freedom of the press. Especially this week. This week seemed to abound with folks who flunked Civics 101, reaching its peak in County Councilman Kirby Delauter of Maryland, who became a figure of national ridicule for telling a reporter to never publish his name without his permission or he’d sue. In response, the paper’s next editorial not only used his name in virtually every sentence, it used the first letter of each paragraph to spell out K-I-R-B-Y D-E-L-A-U-T-E-R.

It seemed like a perfect time to smile, laugh and remember a few basic truths. To get silly in a good cause.

Then the news out of Paris came. And it stopped being funny anymore.

I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks. I know the type, though. Satire always carries an edge, ready to skewer the sacrosanct and roast the untouchable, whether with the neatness of a rapier thrust or the messy vigor of a chainsaw.

It’s meant to shock people, often to make them step back and think. And it invariably makes enemies. Among reporters, there’s a saying that if you never offend anyone, you’re not in journalism, you’re in public relations. That goes double in satire, where targets are mocked deliberately and openly in a day’s work.

This time, the laughs were answered with blood.

For anyone who creates, this is the fundamental fear. And it’s one that can be fatal in more senses than just the obvious.

When ideas carry punishment, something important dies. When saying the wrong thing can get you fired, arrested, or even killed, the fences start to go up. The bravest fight on, perhaps, but most simply keep their heads down and watch their step. And self-censorship is the most insidious kind of all.

Kill one artist and a hundred more quietly die with her.

I’m aware that calling Charlie an “artist” may be a bit much for some, like putting Mad Magazine in the ring with Pablo Picasso. But freedom of expression and the press doesn’t just protect the elegant. It guards the crude, the irreverent, even the outright repulsive. The problem with saying “No, not him,” is that everyone has a “not him”; protecting those is the surest way to ensure it doesn’t become a “No, not you” someday.

All of which can sound awfully abstract when gunfire starts to ring in the streets. But it matters. Now, more than ever.

Now, a world has to show that fear will not win.

Not by declaring wars, or announcing new laws, or the dozens of things that societies often reach for in the wake of a murderous attack. But by continuing to speak. To laugh. To shout. To risk offense. To show that our voices will not be silenced, that our ideas will not be locked in a drawer and forgotten.

In a way, it’s Kirby Delauter all over again. How do you respond to a demand for silence? Speak even louder.

Delauter, of course, is still a civilized man. He apologized and withdrew his words. I doubt we’ll get the same courtesy from the Charlie shooters or those like them. But that doesn’t matter. The tactics remain the same. Hold the line. Stand the ground. And never let the walls rise.

This is about all of us, polite or obnoxious, French or American, left or right or center. This is about an idea, even a dream.

And it does not die here.

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This New Guitar

I twisted the peg, checked the tone. Way too low.

“Other direction, Rochat,” I muttered as I begin to reverse the tuning on the guitar. Better … better … perfect.

I smiled. Only 70 zillion steps to go.

Music’s never been a stranger to Casa Rochat, but it usually involves 88 keys and some desperate scrambling to turn a page without losing the rhythm or my sheet music. But this Christmas, Heather and Missy decided they were going to expand my repertoire a bit. Which is how I wound up with an acoustic guitar under the tree.
A guitar!

There has always been something about a guitar that sounds like home to me. Like a lot of Colorado kids born in the ’70s, I grew up listening to my parents’ John Denver albums, which probably set the pattern. That got reinforced by a lot of friends and relatives, especially acting buddies who would break out their six-string at a cast party. Often we’d play together, piano and guitar, chiming out folk songs or oldies or anything else we could think of.

When music became more available online, I adapted so many chord sheets that I began to joke about playing “rhythm piano.” And so, over the years, I began to think about chasing those warm, familiar sounds myself.

Easy to talk about, of course. Everyone’s got one of those friendly, fuzzy dreams from writing the next big bestseller to climbing the Fourteeners. They’re fun to bring up and cool to contemplate. But turning them into reality … well, that’s a different animal.

That’s work.

Or at least, that’s the attitude most of us take toward it.

Two attitudes, really. The first is to get disappointed when a new task doesn’t yield success right away. “I can’t draw Longs Peak on the first attempt, therefore I can’t draw.” “I tried auditioning and I didn’t get Prince Hamlet, so I’m done.”

The second … well, the second is viewing it as work in the first place.

Granted, to any objective bystander, work is exactly what it is. But most of us aren’t objective about what we do. Mark Twain hit it right on the money in “Tom Sawyer” when he pointed out that “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

I write. A lot. I read about writing a lot. Even when I read for pleasure, I catch myself breaking down the structure and style, like an architect studying a blueprint. It’s effort at times, but it’s not really work. It’s just what I do, how I think, who I am.

At least, until I break into a sort of writing I’ve not done before. Then the sweat comes and the doubt begins. The reflexes aren’t trained, the expectations aren’t familiar, and the work, so second-nature at other times, becomes visible, even awkward.

Arguably, I’m doing exactly the same thing. But my mind doesn’t know that yet. It sees work, and lots of it; a mountain to be climbed rather than a view to be discovered.

If I turned that around, I’d probably have half a dozen novels by now.

Turn it around and there’s a freedom. This isn’t school. Nobody’s making me write a book or learn guitar or become a kitchen virtuoso. This is something I can choose to do or not do, to my own satisfaction or disappointment.

Terrifying? Sometimes. But also attractive. And somewhere, buried beneath the surface of the work, a lot of fun.

We discover that on so many other things we love. Why be surprised to find it again?

And so, this year, I’m strumming. Not as a resolution, forced by the change of the year. But as a dream that can finally be real – and real fun – with some time and effort and joy.

And maybe, in the chords, I’ll even hear an echo of a distant time and a Rocky Mountain tenor.

Take me home.

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Bringing the Year to Book

With the exception of the Muppet version, my Mom has never really liked “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

It makes sense. Musically, it’s the holiday equivalent of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Logistically, it strikes a little too close to home for anyone who has to keep a house clean during the holidays and is beginning to feel run over by 10 lords a-leaping, nine ladies dancing and all the assorted livestock, with the five golden rings having been accidentally thrown out with the wrapping paper long ago.

And personally, I always felt that I got the better deal anyway. Every Christmas, instead of having to feed and house 50 people and 23 birds that “my true love” wished on me, I could sit down and take hold of the world.

Or at least, of the World Almanac.

Every year, it sat like a gift-wrapped brick at the foot of the tree: the new World Almanac, the book that proved the World Wide Web would have an audience long before the first dancing cat ever hit a computer screen. I plundered that volume for nations and flags of the world, for county-by-county presidential results, for the true names of celebrities and the weirdest facts to hit the headlines. About the only thing it was missing was a random image of Rick Astley on page 47 singing “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

In a family where knowledge of odd and random facts was a given – a friend of mine once called dinner at our house “The Rochat Family Jeopardy Hour” – this was one of the vital grounding points, and mighty cool reading besides. Looking back, it was also a pretty good way to meet the New Year, getting a quick reminder of the year just past before stepping out into uncertain territory.

That’s an important function of New Year’s Day. Maybe even the only one.

When you think about it, New Year’s is a pretty odd holiday. Granted, all holidays are pretty odd. These are the times when we set aside a day to begging for chocolate in masks, or eating candy out of socks, or painting food and hiding it in the back yard for our kids to find (or, more often, for our dogs to discover, snarf and get sick on). Compared to this, a holiday to declare “Hey, we used up another calendar!” almost seems pretty normal.

Still, you wonder. It’s a birthday celebration for no one in particular, a chance to go wild over leaving the festivities of December for the bleakness of January. And it’s not like most of us have a choice in the matter. It’s a little like popping corks and playing music to celebrate going to the grocery store; the journey is going to happen, with or without the Auld Lang Syne.

Its sole purpose is to be a stopping point. A crossroads.

And maybe that’s enough.

It’s easy to get immersed in life, or at least in existence. When I was a kid, the Talking Heads had a hit with “Once in a Lifetime,” which hit a bit close to home for many people:

“And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack,

And you may find yourself in another part of the world,

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile,

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife,

And you may ask yourself “Well … how did I get here?”

This is the “how” – the chance to break the surface of the water and understand the surroundings before diving back in. And that current moves fast.

At this time last year, I was still a full-time newspaper reporter.

At this time last year, I hadn’t yet gained my niece Emma or lost my Grandma Elsie.

At this time last year, we were still getting used to a Clydesdale of a dog named Blake. Still flinching at the sound of a rainstorm and the flood-filled memories it created. Still wondering if anything could stop the Broncos on their way to the Super Bowl.

Still wondering what lay ahead.

That’s a book I haven’t gotten to read yet. But I’m looking forward to the next pages. After all, it’s been a pretty exciting story so far.

Friends and readers, may 2015 be everything you asked for and a few things you didn’t.

Maybe even including the partridge in a pear tree.

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Christmas Presence

“He had eaten most, talked most and laughed most. But now he simply was not there at all!”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit”

 

Every year, my sisters and I knew that to wake up Christmas, we had to wake up Grandma Elsie.

We planned it with the skill of a military operation. I would stay awake through the night on Christmas Eve, softly singing carols to myself in order to stay awake. At 6 a.m. – the earliest time we were allowed up, amidst warnings that would chill the blood of Jacob Marley – I would wake Leslie. She would wake Carey. And together, we would let our rambunctious dog into the basement where Grandma slept, so that she could make coffee and trade silly songs with us while waiting for the caffeinated odor to rouse Mom and Dad.

It was her English-accented voice that taught us the words to “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” It was her presents that always included a package of miniature chocolate Santas. She was often the one who invited us to Christmas Eve services and always the one who would have a margarita with Christmas Eve dinner at the Armadillo, our standby restaurant on Dec. 24th for over 30 years.

And this year, it’s her absence that’s felt most around the Christmas tree.

It’s our first Christmas without Grandma. It still feels strange to say or write it. It felt strange back on Thanksgiving, when my Dad’s voice quavered slightly as he remembered her while saying grace. It was an occasion with good food, good family and lots of squirming toddlers – just the sort of environment she loved most.

The place she would once have been at the heart of.

They say the holidays can be the hardest time. I had no idea how true that was until now. We’d had an empty place at the table before – once, when my new job in Kansas had me working on the night of the holiday, and a few times since after Leslie moved to Washington and couldn’t join us as frequently.

But those were small things by comparison, shadows that could be put to flight if needed. All of us knew that, if it were necessary to have the whole crew at the old house, we would find a way there.

Not so easy this time.

It may be most powerful now because of the ritual. Christmas is the time when traditions wake and walk again, when we do things the way we’ve done them for years upon years. Favorite movies, favorite meals, favorite memories. The weight of that habit can become mighty, as Heather and I discovered our first Christmas, when we debated whether stockings were emptied before presents or afterward. (I still think I was right.)

But when the time comes to walk that ages-old dance again, there’s suddenly a step missing. A skip in the music.

And it makes the absence, the presence, more noticeable than ever.

Perhaps that’s as it should be. I’ve always had a disdain for “getting over it” or “moving on.” Memories should remain, just as love remains. How horrible to even contemplate forgetting, how hideous the thought of putting that memory away, like an unneeded ornament in a taped-up cardboard box.

But memory doesn’t have to be joyless, either.

Grandma loved this time of year. She may have had mixed feelings about the snow – or even spectacularly unmixed feelings – but she never failed to take joy in the lights, the music and especially the gathered family. She would not have wanted that joy to end, nor should it.

Not even when it needs to live side-by-side with grief for a while.

It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to remember.

But it’s also OK to celebrate.

And so, as we scramble to gather presents, I’ll also stop to mind a Christmas presence. Maybe even sing an off-kilter carol or two.

I’ll wake up her memory yet again.

And with it, wake up Christmas one more time.

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Beginning to See the Light

For the third time in four nights, Missy and I hit the road. And as we drove, the nightly refrain again rang out.

“Look a’ that!” Missy’s finger shot out to indicate a brilliantly decorated home and yard, accented by an inflated sleigh with reindeer.

“Look a’ that!” A roof edge outlined in blue-white LEDs, looking as though it had been claimed by stained-glass icicles.

“Look a’ that!” Electric candles in the windows, the only soft glow the house had.

“Look a’that! Look a’that! Lookit!”

By the end of the trip, Missy’s busy finger was still requesting new avenues to explore, pointing out the signs of lit homes and neighborhoods all the way back to the house. At her direction, we could have gone for hours longer, then likely started again.

“Want to do this again?” I asked as we pulled back into the driveway.’

Vigorous nodding. “Yeah!”

I couldn’t blame her. After all, my inner Missy was doing exactly the same thing.

There are a few things that really mark the start of the Christmas season to me. There’s the annual struggle to find and erect the Christmas tree, festooning the branches with every long-held decoration we own, right down to the bodiless head of Holly Hobbie. (LONG story.) There’s the comforting strains of John Denver and the Muppets, singing in the season as only they can. (After all these years, I still automatically respond to “Five … gold-en … rings!” with “Ba-dum, bum, bum!”) And yes, there’s the well-worn tapes and discs bearing tales of Scrooges and Grinches and sad-looking Christmas trees that only need a little love.

But the essential punctuation for me has always been the lights.

My wife Heather’s the same way. We react to Christmas lights the way a groundhog reacts to its shadow, ready to add six more weeks to the season just so we can see it all. We spent many a date night noting and categorizing the displays we’d pass, including:

* The Landing Strip: A roof perfectly outlined in a single color, with no other decoration, seeming to call out to passing aircraft, sleighs or UFOs.

* The American Epileptic Association Award: A home with so many blinking and flashing lights that it could have been level 37 of an especially busy video game.

* Disneyland: The home and yard that had been completely taken over by lights, figurines and licensed characters, cramming in five Santas, two Nativities, the whole Mickey Mouse family and a utility bill that could have reset the national debt.

* Oh, Really?: These would be the well-intentioned ones that somehow didn’t come off quite right, like the automatic Santa Claus in one home that bobbed back and forth, looking oddly like he was pounding on the window, trying to escape.

After we became guardians to Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt, it cranked up the Light Run by a few notches. No surprise, really, because Missy is a little like a home at Christmastime herself.

No, I don’t mean that she comes with running lights and glowing reindeer (though she might find that really cool, come to think of it). But she often meets the world at one of two extremes. Sometimes silent, her expression hidden, taking in the places and people around her. Or else with her feelings completely on her sleeve, cheering at a bite of pie, beaming at a newly-met passerby, calling out when she wants to go somewhere (or even more loudly when she doesn’t).

All that’s missing is Clark W. Griswold getting humorously electrocuted in the background.

So these last few years, I’ve watched both the neighbor lights and the “Missy lights.” Both seem to transform the world around them with just a little effort. And in a landscape of darkened homes, that effort stands out all the more brightly.

Maybe there’s some hope there for all of us.

Meanwhile, it’s time to hit the road. Somewhere out there is a rainbow-colored Rudolph with our name on it. Maybe even literally.

“Look ‘a that!”

I can’t wait.

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I Didn’t Mean To … And I Love It

Three things in life have the gift of utter invisibility: the second half of a pair of socks, the car keys when you’re 20 minutes late, and the last box of Christmas tree ornaments.

“Not in the garage … not in the basement … not in the closet … wait, here’s some wrapped newspaper … no, those are old dishes …”

I don’t know about peace on Earth, but I was ready to give last year’s Scott Rochat a piece of my mind. Where were the stupid things?

One more try in the basement. Back straining, I pulled out old boxes of newspaper clippings … old suitcases … an old plastic tub full of …

Oh!

“Honey?” I called to Heather as I brought my discovery upstairs. “Take a look at this.”

The grungy plastic tub didn’t hold any Christmas ornaments. But it did hold an album of wedding pictures. More specifically, wedding pictures of Heather’s grandparents, in a worn but glorious black and white. Further down were more discoveries: a book of tales from India lavishly illustrated by Heather’s great uncle, old pictures of our ward Missy as a baby, even a picture of Heather and Missy as girls together, hair shining in the light.

“That’s incredible.”

We never did find that last box of ornaments. But it no longer mattered. We’d already unwrapped the most amazing present imaginable

***

It’s odd, really, but the best discoveries are often like that. Seek and ye shall find … but not quite what you were looking for.

Ask Richard James. He was trying to find a way to make naval instruments more stable when he accidentally knocked over one of his springs – and found he’d discovered the Slinky.

Or maybe Percy Spencer, who found a melted chocolate bar in his pants, and realized it had been cooked by the microwaves of a magnetron he’d been working on.

A stove left on too long led to vulcanized rubber. A transistor grabbed by mistake helped create the first pacemaker. And we’ve all heard the story about dirty dishes and penicillin.

On and on the list goes, oddly comforting in its serendipity. It’s a reminder that even our frustrations can come back to help us and that the “right thing” may not be what we think.

Nobody’s perfect – and it turns out that’s pretty wonderful.

Granted, there are mistakes and there are mistakes. I’m pretty sure nobody’s going to give me the Nobel Prize for successfully introducing my chin to a concrete sidewalk, for example. But if we don’t fear mistakes, that’s when real learning can take place.

My brother-in-law Brad, one of life’s truly handy people, once told me and Heather that a lot of home projects were easier than they looked. “You just can’t be afraid to break anything,” he said.

Good words to remember.

***

Looking back at my own delvings and the more noteworthy discoveries above, there really does seem to be a common thread, a balance that has to be struck. You have to be willing to make the effort, without being so focused on what you should be seeing that you miss what’s there.

If I’d said “Oh, well,” and done something else, I’d have missed a treasure. But I also would have missed it if I hadn’t started to widen my search.

Instead, in a season of the unexpected, we found a welcome surprise. That’s more than worth a few missing beads and bangles. And who knows what new discoveries might lie ahead?

I might even learn about this wonderful thing called “labels.”

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A Simple Thanks

“What time will the bus get here?”

For a moment, Heather didn’t know what to say.

Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, spends five mornings a week waiting for her “bus,” the van that takes her to her day program. She’s watched eagerly, fumed impatiently, even rearranged the contents of her lunch box a dozen times to pass the minutes.

But the minutes – that was the trick. In three and a half years of living with Missy, we had never heard her refer directly to “time.”

A simple time. Small in moments. But not in meaning.

Faced with that, what else can you do but say “thank you?”

And note the time, of course.

==

When you think about it, Thanksgiving is an odd sort of holiday.

Most holidays, aside from deliberately silly ones such as Talk Like a Pirate Day, commemorate something grand or important. They mark the birth of religions, or the founding of nations, or the labors of parents, workers, and soldiers. They underline famous names and sometimes infamous ones. (Right, Mr. Fawkes?)

And then there’s the fourth Thursday of November.

The first Thanksgiving — the one mythologized with construction-paper hats across the country, anyway — didn’t mark the arrival of the Pilgrims into a new land or the first meeting between natives and newcomers. It celebrated simple survival. Not so simple at that, either. Half of the original Plymouth colonists died in the first year, many in the first three months.

After a start like that, a good crop and helpful neighbors were things to be thankful for, indeed. Mind you, I won’t put on rose-colored glasses; I think we all know how quickly those neighborly relations turned sour. But I won’t ignore the moment, either.

And if the moment then is foggy and half-legend, the moment now is more like Missy’s grasp of time: simple in its essence, profound in its implications. An entire day, built around the words “thank you.”

That’s something we don’t always do so well, anymore.

Oh, we know the words. We learned them all as children. But “please” has become an intensifier for the resigned and the upset(“Will you please stop feeding your peas to the dog?”), while “you’re welcome” has vanished almost entirely in the wake of “no problem.” And “thank you?” That’s something we toss off over the shoulder, a social nicety less about gratitude and more about saying “OK, you did it, that’s great, can we go?”

Thanksgiving makes us take that at a slower pace. It gives us time to think about those two words and what we mean by them – well, in between the Lions and the Cowboys games, anyway.

It’s about as simple as you get. And maybe that’s why it’s slowly fading out.

It’s not a fair contest, really. Christmas has the glamour and the music and the gifts. Halloween has wild costumes and abundant chocolate. The most elaborate thing that Thanksgiving has is the food, and that’s easily subsumed by its tinsel-wrapped neighbor.

And so a time for family and gratitude becomes Black Friday Eve.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked on Thanksgiving myself. I know the attitude matters more than the day it’s celebrated on.

But it’s easy to lose the attitude, easy to get caught up in the stress and strain of the moment. Easy to just be too tired, to not have time.

Simple things break easily.

But it doesn’t take much to make the fragile powerful. It doesn’t need turkey or stuffing or a big dining table. All it needs is a few minutes to see the world instead of just passing through it. We’ll see soon enough how much we owe to how many.

And maybe we can even hope for new gratitudes to come.

==

Soon, Missy will watch the window again as the minutes roll by. Her minutes.

It’s only one moment. But it adds to so many that have made this year so special. And like the facets of a crystal, all these small, brief moments add up to something beautiful.

That can’t be ignored. And it won’t be.

Take the time. Always. A simple thought, for a small moment.

Thank you.

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