Thursday, April 16, 2015

Hiding in Plain Sight


I’m obsessed with spring. Year after year, large piles of snow give way to an awakening earth underneath, and I am still no closer to understanding how it happens. What is the trigger? How do these crocuses know that even under two feet of snow, it is time to rise and shine?  How do trees bud and the birds come North? Must be magic, like my favorite illusionist David Anthony sawing a woman into pieces before my very own eyes. Illusions. Magic. The unfurling of new life from the darkened earth. I just can’t figure any of it out.

My rake and I do know a few things. We need to rid the lawn of the many acorns that the hapless squirrels have thrown around all winter. And eradicating the dead grass will make room for a lush new lawn when the April rains decide to cease.   We even intuit that it is time to clean the beds and spruce them up.

Today was the day to order the tools of the trade for beautifying the beds. Don’t ask what I will do tomorrow when I come home from work and see four yards of mulch and 2.5 tons of river rock in my driveway. (That’s a magic trick for another day.) But a stop at the Rock Pile led to a chance encounter that put a smile on my face.

I saw him near the bananas. No working mother of three can ever leave the house on just one errand, so after ordering the mulch, I headed to the grocery. Halfway through the produce section, I stopped dead. The gentleman with the twinkle in his eyes looked very familiar.

“Excuse me,” I said. (I live big, and have no qualms about making a fool out of myself near the mangoes.) “Is your name Tommy Burns?”

“Yes,” he replied. There was that twinkle again.

“My name is Katie Kraven. Do you happen to remember my dad?”

He was as shocked as I was, and broke into a huge grin.

I have vague memories of this man who I know played a huge role in my father’s life. He helped to paint the house I lived in as a little girl. He is my sister’s godfather. And he was a role model, mentor and friend to my dad for years.

But time has gotten away from us and it’s been a lifetime since I’ve seen him. He hugged me and grabbed my hand. He told a few funny stories about his great-grandkids, their antics, and his removable teeth. He explained that although his kids have moved around the country, he lives in the same house where he’s been for decades. A few moments to catch up, and then he was gone, with his bag of lettuce and one yellow banana.

I love the magic of these freeze-frame moments, these chance encounters that come seemingly out of the blue. I know who he was to my father. And I know the positive impact he had on my dad’s life. But how do you reconcile that between the Vitamin Water and the organic chips? I don’t know all the details, and it is too much history to relive at this point, but I know Tommy’s impact somehow must ring in me still.

Magic, I tell you. How else to explain that the people we need, the reminders that can heal us, are like daffodils popping through the earth or rabbits pulled from black hats? They have all been hiding in plain sight all along. I’m pretty convinced that this is the way with most miracles.  With random grocery moments. With bulbs that blossom into beauty.  With new eyes on old realities, and new hope in the darkest moments.

So many blessing are hiding in plain sight. And it just takes a little raking and a little wonder to uncover them.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Faith in Chocolate


Another Christian holiday is upon us, and I’m again amused by the juxtaposition of faith and tradition. Grandma suggested the other day that the kids were too old for the outside Easter egg hunt she does for them, and she was met with great resistance. I’m waiting for their un-belief in the Easter Bunny schtick as well, but we are still going strong.

I thought Santa would have been on his way out by now, but I haven’t heard a peep of unbelief.  At ages 12, 10.5 and practically 8, these three still believe, wholeheartedly. Caveat: They’re a little lukewarm on the tooth fairy, but then again, the tooth fairy is a total flake around here. And these kids often lose their teeth AFTER they lose their teeth!!—One is still in the crack in the driveway sidewalk. We can see it but not reach it. But, I digress.

I suppose it is possible that my cherubs are just playing us to get more loot, but I think it is deeper than that. Think about it. These three believe wholeheartedly in Jesus rising from the dead after three days in a tomb. Why wouldn’t they believe that a special bunny could hop through the world delivering eggs all night?!

These kids have FAITH with a capital F. When their beloved Pa died, they consoled US. “Mom, why are you crying? He is in HEAVEN!!” Of course they were sad, but their belief in Pa’s eternal life was rock solid. Thank you Catholic School Education! (And I only get a LITTLE miffed when Sean tells me that I am not his favorite mother,…Mary is!)

It’s a good question. Why do I expect them to run out of faith in Santa or the Bunny, but hold ON to their faith in a benevolent, resurrection God. These children of mine are all or nothing.  I think that is a good thing. I know their faith will grow and change and be challenged as they age. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think I get where they are right now, though. If they believe in a personal Jesus that died for their sins on the cross and paved the way for eternal life, which they do, then why give up their faith in a chocolate wielding bunny?

Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s coming soon: testing their faith, and testing their believe in gift-bearing creatures. I’ve been taking precautions of course. Our bunny always makes a (poorly) rhymed scavenger hunt to lead them to a gift. These kids are no dummies; I typed it this year so they didn’t recognize any handwriting.  And the peanut butter chicks and giant chocolate bunny ears are well hidden from wandering eyes.

Most of all, I appreciate the way they teach ME about faith. They insisted on the Good Friday service yesterday, and want to experience the beauty of the Easter Vigil tonight, even with its length. Along with belief, they like to live their faith too.

So it’s a good thing the bunny learned how to type, and I’d say Grandma better keep hiding the eggs!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Moments of Victory


They say that parenting is the hardest job in the world. Frankly, I think that working on power lines in sub zero temperatures or herding wild boar might be more arduous, but parenting sure has its moments. Or you could be like me and choose  teaching as a second career, and then your whole waking life will be composed of moments when you are explaining and instructing, and your clients are either daydreaming, writhing on the floor, or trying to squirm their way out the door! (I will leave it to your imagination as to whether these scenarios take place in my classroom or my living room.)

At any rate, life is a game of moments. There is ALWAYS beauty in the chaos. I tend to keep my eyes wide open to experience these moments, both in my classroom and my house. But the experts ARE right. Parenting is nearly impossible. To teach, love, cajole, empower, motivate, remediate, activate these three very different creatures on a daily basis is a privilege and a chore.

The Zac Brown Band says “Soak it all in. It’s a game you can’t win. Enjoy the ride!!” He’s right, but I’m the kind of girl who likes to have some W’s for the win column. The following recent moments stand out as victories for this haggard mama.

1.Parenting Win: Nature Category: The other day my 12.5 year old daughter got in the car, looked at the sunrise and declared “That is so beautiful!! Look at those colors!!” She quickly turned to me and said, “And I’m not even making fun of you, Mom!” Hilarious.

2. Parenting Win: Getting the Job Done Category: I got stuck at work recently for several unplanned after school meetings. Unfortunately, the girl who runs my house when I am working was also staying late for her writing club. We arrived home late, wondering if the house would be on fire and the boys playing Minecraft amidst the flames. Proud mama moment to see both boys had changed out of their uniforms, completed their homework, and eaten their after school snacks.

3. Parenting Win: No Means No (But Often No Leads to Better): Cue first warm day. Yeah, it was only about 49 degrees, but the boys were playing baseball in shirtsleeves and clamoring for Speedway slushies. No I said, over and over again. Finally satisfied that no really DID mean no (seriously, do these children not KNOW me?!?!), the elder boy decided that they should make smoothies. A few ounces of frozen berries and mango juice later, all parties were delighted.  And the kids had a much healthier treat!

4. Parenting Win: Grocery Store Edition: The FIRST miracle occurred when the eldest willingly went to the store with her mother to stock up for the week. And of course, the mother found a former student to talk to. Mid conversation, I turned to find that not only did my daughter empty ALL  of the groceries on the belt, but they were already loaded in bags in the cart. Love that helper!!

Obviously there are a myriad of moments, big and small, that constitute parenting wins. And equally obvious, there are moments when these same key players are dissolved in tears over a math problem or a runny nose. But win or lose, Zac Brown is right: “It's a near-perfect day. Wishin' I wouldn't get any older. They say that it's gone 'fore you know it…So soak it all in. It’s a game you can’t win. Enjoy the ride.”

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sorry, Wrong Number

“Hi. Is Chuck there?”

“Sorry, you have the wrong number.”

Again and again and again. The constancy of the wrong numbers astounds me.

I have had this phone number for six years, ever since I looked around my eighth grade one day and realized I was basically the only one who didn’t own a cell phone.

That started the cycle of wrong numbers that continues to this day.  At first it was random.

“Hi. Is Chuck there?”

“No. Sorry.”

Then came the messages. I’d check my machine and hear “Yeah, uh, Chuck? Where do you want the crew of guys today?”

I figured Chuck was a contractor.

The calls continued. Six years later, and I’m still getting calls. I don’t understand why they don’t have his new number.

I guess it wouldn’t be such a big deal if my dad’s name weren’t Chuck. Well, Charles D. Kraven to be exact, but he always went by Chuck. I can still picture him holding out his hand to shake when he met someone new: “Chuck Kraven, glad to know you.”

He’s been gone almost fourteen years, and it’s the little things I remember and miss the most. Believe me, I just had a run-in with his favorite chocolate coconut bars in the bakery the other day. Sometimes time does NOT heal all wounds.

Lately, the calls are coming more frequently, and during times of turmoil.  I was crying in my reading chair the other day, when the phone rang.

“Hi. Is Chuck there?”

And then last week at school I was waiting for an important call during my planning period.

“Hi is Chuck there?” I answered, and before the guy hung up, I finally decided to ask him who Chuck was.

“Is he some kind of a contractor?

“No, he works at the steel mill.”

Insert chills and spooky music. My dad spent the better part of my childhood working swing shifts at U.S. Steel.

And there are other Chuck messages.  Last summer I was on vacation at the pool with my kids, having a really bad time of things. I was in a lousy mood with some difficult circumstances and generally feeling bereft.  I spied a guy with several tattoos, and Phillipians 4:13 stood out. After a quick Google, I had it:  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I approached the man to thank him for the message and tell him the verse helped one weary traveler.

“I did it for my son Chuck. He died of cystic fibrosis at age 19.” The tears rolled from my eyes. And his. We hugged, and cried some more. His name was Chuck too, of course. I promised to pray for his teenage daughter who was still battling the disease.

I don’t know that I ever understood what it would be like to live without my dad on this earth. I mean, how could I? I didn’t know that I would still be able to get wiffs of his cologne or hear his voice in my head. I didn’t realize that the lessons he taught would grow louder and clearer with time.

And I certainly don’t know why my phone keeps ringing for Chuck, or what kind of message he is trying to send me.  But I know for sure that love lives on.

Sometimes I wonder if I make too much of things, or if I find connections that are just coincidence.  I feel my dad in moments big and small, but is he really here? I almost wish I was kidding in sharing that as I was writing this today, I missed a phone call. No message was left, but curious, I hit redial to hear these words: “Thank you for calling United States Steel. “ More chills. More love. Okay dad, I get it. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Goldilocks and Sports: Searching for "Just Right"

Kids and their sports have been spinning out of control. And like the three little bears, some sports brackets are TOO intense, while other athletes are being rewarded heroically for nothing. It’s a phenomenon I have watched with growing unease, and I’m left wondering where the “just right” of my sporting childhood could have possibly gone.

As I always say, no child of mine will ever go to the Olympics in any sport.  Speed, height and agility notwithstanding, I just don’t have it in me as a mother. Sports and kids have become a full time business, and I am not that kind of entrepreneur.

It seems that each sport comes with multiple teams throughout the year, eclipsing other sports seasons so that a kid ends up with no choice but to specialize at a young age. Or worse: play a few full-intensity sports at once!

Not that I don’t love my 2006 Honda, but I just have no desire to spend that much time in the car, schlepping mini athletes hither and yon. Plus, Marty recently broke a second cup holder, which caused his sister to demand an entirely new vehicle. No way would I run a sports practice car-pool in a brand-new vehicle!

I joke that I’m lazy, and that my kids are a bit uncoordinated. (Heck, I even have a kid who decries sports entirely, although he does admit he would be willing to take up fencing, with a little pole vaulting on the side!) I might feel differently if my children showed some stellar skill from an early age, or if there was some sort of legacy I was pushing for them to uphold.

Beyond these reasons, I just refuse to let the almighty sports machine take control of my family. I don’t mind extra time at home to play Monopoly, (if you define playing as a few passes around GO for each player, until all heck breaks loose and the top hat goes flying.) But without a ton of practices and games, we have time to sing, (loudly), dance in the picture window (which embarrasses them--a true bonus) and play Spot-It, (which I always, always lose.)

There is a flip side to the high-intensity sports that I find just as disconcerting: the model where everybody just gets a trophy for showing up.  Call it a trophy for breathing. Kids know what’s going on. Take me for instance. You don’t think that life-sized second place trophy I won for baton when I was seven was ridiculous? There were only TWO people in the entire competition! I can still remember being appalled, even at such a young age.

Kids know the score. They understand who is good and who deserves the trophy. Life is not fair, and I’m okay with my little guys learning that in increments along the way, instead of just being sheltered from every imperfect moment. (My opinions on snacks and drinks for halftime are equally vigorous. Really, they can last an hour without caloric intake.)

I believe in seasonal sports, that hard work should be applauded, and kids should also have time for free play and fun at home . I believe there are winners and losers, and that teamwork is an essential skill built on sports teams. And at the end of the day, I appreciate teams that don’t steal my family life or patronize my children. I am certain that there is, like Goldilocks thought, a "just right" that can be achieved in this realm through a combination of parental restraint and refocusing goals..

Friday, February 20, 2015

On Failing Lent. And What to Do About It.


Lent and I have never gotten along. Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of bettering myself, of breathing deeply. And I can even live without Pepsi for 6+ weeks. Frankly, I like to think I’m a pretty good apple during the green robes of ordinary time. But as soon as those purple robes appear, and you tell me I need to eat two small meals with one regular, I start freaking out.

I’ve certainly experienced success at “doing Lent” before; its not like I’m a total Forty Day Failure. In my junior year of college, for instance, I went to mass every single day at the Cathedral, and did a ton of social justice work.  More recently, I have lasted a whole forty days with no sweets, or gossip, or eating after dinner. But at this time of year, when people greet each other with “Are you having a good Lent,” I get a little twitchy. What is it with me that I can’t jump into the idea of “doing Lent”? Everyone around me has had a master plan for weeks, whether Matthew Kelly or the Jesuits or some self-created almsgiving plan. But I showed up Ash Wednesday with a purple striped dress and a blank stare.

So I wake on this snow day, already three days behind the curve, and amid my feelings of inadequacy, I open my inbox to find the following question from a far-off friend.  “What does ‘practice resurrection’ mean to you?” (Now that I think of it, this friend came along just when I broke off my engagement many years ago.  Talk about a time in my life when I needed some resurrection!)

The line ”Practice resurrection” is from Wendell Berry’s poem entitled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front. ” Makes sense for ME to find my  “Lenten plan” in a poem. Berry says it this way: “So, friends, every day do something /that won't compute. Love the Lord. /Love the world. Work for nothing. /Take all that you have and be poor. /Love someone who does not deserve it.”  It’s a mantra I can live with.

I think I have trouble with the grandiose notion of Lent, the “ashes on the forehead”,  “ look at what I can give up” program, the big push for forty days. I’d like a quieter, gentler Lent, something to sustain me through the whole calendar of seasons. Its how I think about weight loss.  I want to make small changes that I can integrate into my daily life. The cabbage soup diet or fad diets will not last.  I guess I just want my Lent to be DOABLE every day.

Lent is a good reminder, a baseline, a check-up. But we don’t have to go big or go home.  I learned this watching baseball with my dad: little ball. I ALWAYS play little ball with life. To me, life is truly a game of moments. Katie says it this way: “Lean in. Look with your heart. Say yes. Find the magic. Breathe. Create. Re-create.  Give thanks. Find joy. Laugh with a student. Buy a candy bar for a tired clerk. Make a sandwich for a tired kid.  Plant a garden. Walk on a frozen lake. Be thankful. Pray. Go out on a limb. Invite someone in. Get off the couch. Turn someone on to their talents. Believe. Take the challenge.

Little ball is a good way to do Lent. Each moment matters, and don’t worry about hitting it out of the park.  The very last line of Berry’s poem puts it all in perspective for me: “Practice resurrection.” I’m not as cocky as I sound, and I don’t think I’m already perfect. But showing up is always the most important part. Practice makes progress, and forward motion is a great way to build the Kindgom of God.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Gold Medal Valentine

It’s the kind of Valentine’s Day Hollywood films are built around, and each year around this time, the scenes start to spin through my memory. I was student teaching abroad, a project that did not quite work out as planned, but definitely sounds romantic enough to start with.  And he (hmm…still not really sure why HE was there at all) was standing in the Rock Hall of Fame in Paris when we met. Yes, Paris France. And yes, the day set aside for candy hearts and romance.

Nineteen years have blurred his pick-up line, or more probably I was running my mouth about some nonsense and he decided to jump right in. Maybe it was the fact that he spoke English, and his native New York was close enough to Cleveland to make me feel comfortable after the turmoil of my overseas trip to date. And he was also easy on the eyes. I’m sure that didn’t hurt!  All I know is, by the time we left the Rock Hall, we had the name of a great French restaurant from the clerk, and a plan to torment the city that is not known for its love of American tourists. 

What followed was a whirlwind day on the streets of Paris. Like any good Hollywood flick, we only had a day, and the insistent ticking of the clock fueled the excitement of our exploration.  The sights and sounds have grown fuzzy with time, but there are certain moments that can never be erased! The Eiffel Tower was a must-see, and we raced to the top for a breathtaking view of the city. Pretty sure I made it to the top first, but who would quibble about such little details now?  I remember a rude cab driver, how we marveled at the architecture of the city, and a last minute decision to visit the Louvre. We literally RAN up the Metro steps, hit the doors of the Museum and ran to the Mona Lisa. I think we had 18 minutes to visit altogether. Plenty of time for one of the greatest paintings of all time, whose ghostly eyes really DO stare at you no matter where you are!

The day finally slowed when we made it to the recommended restaurant where, if my memory serves, I do believe I ate an entire chicken. What I do know for sure is that the meal was divine, in a tiny dark restaurant, with atmosphere just dripping from the walls. After the world’s best dinner, the boy from New York bought me a red rose from a woman on the street, and there was some strolling hand-in-hand through the dark Paris alleys.  Sometimes I still think it was all a dream. (A good one, I might add.) You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried!!

This was certainly a once in a lifetime day. Great timing. Great city. Great guy.  The memories are fantastic, but the whirlwind day in Paris also serves another purpose as the calendar spins each year to Valentine’s Day: The pressure’s off for me. Who could beat an Eiffel-Tower –climbing- French- restaurant- eating- Louvre- visiting- day? Just not possible! I don’t even have to worry or wonder.

There is something so comforting about knowing this. The boy and the rose and the Mona Lisa win the Gold. And the memories are as good as the reality. So this year?! I’ll “settle” for what has always been the Silver Medal for my Valentine’s Day fun, and what continues to melt my heart when I think about the importance of love in my life: the love of my kids. We will eat together and giggle. There will be much chocolate and many other sugar products consumed. I will marvel at the way they’ve grown and the ways they teach and challenge me. And I’ll enjoy their homemade cards and drawings, and their squeezer tight hugs, with just a teensy backward glance to the day I starred in my own Hollywood romance.