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.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The One Who Got Away.....

The boy has some gorgeous brown eyes, with the kind of long lashes others spend hundreds of dollars to recreate. He is staring at me across his chicken nuggets and fries, the joviality of the local watering hole a contrast to his quiet words. “Mom, I’m sad I don’t have a grandpa to teach me how to fish.” It’s the kind of punch that can stop your breath. And the kind of loss only a ten year old could feel.

We’d been talking about his grandpa earlier that day, on what would have been his eightieth birthday. Mass and donuts, and a couple of basketball games with the extended family began the day. And then Marty was off to his friend’s for a play date. He and his buddy are the comic book types, and spent their afternoon creating good guys to slay the villians. I reconvened with two of my brood at dinner. Apparently his thoughts of grandpa had been smoldering all day.

I think about it too, this loss that is immeasurable. My dad died before any of these three were born, and I can’t imagine the way things would be different with him in their lives. I have a picture of my dad holding my cousin Angela when she was a baby, and I fantasize about MY babies looking up into his red flannel shirt and smiling blue eyes. How many lost moments from there to here? How many lessons unlearned for my kiddos?

Grandma is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. She fills my boy with brownies and Bible stories. She sends him home with giant balls of twine and wooden figures for painting and creating. And where else would my kids watch the rosary on television in the afternoon or clamor for a front row Jeopardy seat? Just last week, this same boy called Grandma to beg a visit in order to avoid yet another of his sister’s basketball games. Grandma has been a constant in my children’s growth. She watched all of my kids at least one day a week from the day they were born. That’s a lot of Grandma-isms and snuggles and quality time.

But what if Grandpa was here? I can just picture the nature walks, my dad patiently pointing out a crocus poking through the soil or the tracks of a deer.  He really would teach them how to fish, and to spit on the worm for good luck. I can totally hear the stories he would tell, and the voices he would create, my children’s eyes lit up in anticipation. I’m not sure who would enjoy celebrating Christmas more, or breaking mom’s rules when she wasn’t looking, but I have the sense that there would be a LOT of giggling, a lot of sneaking around, and a whole heap of fun.

Unfortunately, we cannot re-write history, and even a comic book aficionado like Martin can’t create a super hero strong enough to wipe out death, or the myriad of illnesses my dad succumbed to.  Missing my dad is one thing, but I hate the sucker punch for my children of life without their Grandpa.  Certainly my father’s daughter, I have taught them to plant tomatoes and appreciate the water and listen to the call of the robins in the yard. I have passed on his love of writing and storytelling, as well as his faith. But at the end of the day, on the edge of the lake, we are all still at a loss as to how to get the worm on the hook.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ode to Catholic School's Week (On the Importance of Macaroni Art Evangelizing)

Catholic Schools Week is as good a time as any to step back and ponder the meaning of life. Or in my case, the meaning of spending basically an extra mortgage payment every month to send my three children to a Catholic school, when the public schools in my town are perfectly lovely. (After all, I’d love that little trailer by the Sandusky Bay. I’m just sayin’.) 

And my head is also swirling this week as a Catholic School teacher, amid high school application due dates and Crazy Hair Day and getting the report cards and little beige book completed just in the nick of time. I do think it goes without saying that Catholic school teachers do more with less, and create a whole lot of miracles along the way.

So why shell out all this hard-earned money, and make it a point to EARN the money in a Catholic School?!?! A great question. I suppose that since history repeats itself, one could argue that I am simply sticking with the tradition of the Irish Catholics that have gone before me. There is something to be said for my Grandpa James Kelly, who worked without ceasing to send four girls, including my mom, through Catholic schools. Or maybe it is the influence of his oldest daughter, my aunt and godmother Sister Ann Kelly. Auntie was recently honored for SIXTY plus years of service to the community of Ursulines. This is an accomplishment I cannot fathom, but her razor-sharp philosophical mind, humble prayer life, and greeting card ministry have certainly changed me for the better. It might even be my time at Gannon University that cemented my love of Catholic education. Within that Catholic University I was able to attend retreats at a monastery, view poverty up close on the streets of Erie, and be challenged in my faith by very loving (and ironically not always Catholic!) mentors. Or maybe it is because on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers and our nation’s innocence were falling, I was teaching in a public high school and simply could not share my true feelings and beliefs about prayer during a crisis.

There are countless other reasons, big and small, for why I choose Catholic education for my children. Maybe I have a soft spot for blue plaid and little boys in trousers and belts, or want my offspring to know that the rosary is not actually a necklace. Maybe its because my brother-in-law can never quite believe that I know ALL the lyrics to ALL the church songs by rote, and I want my kids to possess that same party skill. (“Bloom Where You’re Planted,” anyone?) Perhaps I just want my loves to realize that faith is more all-encompassing than Sunday morning, and that when life hands them lemons, that God is waiting at the ready with the sugar and ice. Whether it is a hard math test or a forgotten gym bag, or any number of things that can ruin a perfectly good school day.

Although my only public school learning experiences were in kindergarten, where the O for Octopus book is all that stands out in my mind, and at the University of Pittsburgh, where I was playing with power tools and hanging theatre lights all day, I don’t subscribe to the view that public schools are inferior or wild or heathen. In fact, I truly loved teaching at Firelands High School, a very public school filled with hard-working families. And I certainly don’t judge other Catholics that make a public school choice for their children.

But I do know, at the end of the day, that I want my children at St. Joseph School. Even when I joke that our school family is a categorically dysfunctional one. Or when I have a problem with a parent or student. Or when someone treats my daughter in a decidedly un-Christlike way. We are all human, after all. But I know above all else, that like the Spanish proverb says, God writes straight with crooked lines.

And these crooked lines are the reason I am giving up the beach house to send my kids to a Catholic school. Beyond my aunt and the blue plaid and the high academic expectations and the rosary each day, it is my father that influences my choice. Not raised in the faith like my mother, he nevertheless insisted on Catholic schools for his three girls. I have always wondered what made him write that check each month, and work so hard to share the Catholic faith he did not yet have. And THAT, I think, is the miracle of this Catholic school. That God can work from the inside out and the outside in.  That my father could make his own Communion and Confirmation during the spring of my eighth grade year, a few months before I was Confirmed myself.  That he learned his faith from his DAUGHTERS, instead of the other way around. Evangelization, as I just taught my eighth graders this week, is spreading the good news of God, and you don’t have to be a grown up to do it. Catholic schools broadcast this through macaroni crosses and painted hand prints  and learning to use the gifts that God Himself has bestowed…..even if you don’t even WANT the gift of mathematics one bit!!!  We learn to dream big and act meek and always genuflect on our right knee.

I know there are other ways to achieve a lasting faith and a belief in one’s own abilities, but my money’s on SJS for my kids, and the faith and resilience I know they will need as they grow in this ever-changing world.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Appreciating Teaching

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day, a day for Chipotle to give out free burritos and for little children to bring in fistfuls of tulips to their favorite teachers.  Not a bad sentiment really, (although I apologize to my offsprings’ mentors since we did not remember the tulips or burritos on this hurried Tuesday morning.)

Today, however, I think it is a good day to appreciate BEING a teacher. This often-debated job is a great way to make a living….and a life.

I always say that teaching is a game of moments. In the past eighteen years, there have definitely been moments that have brought me to my knees, stolen my breath, made me laugh, cry and feel.  There have been moments when I was positive that this was the exact WRONG job for me, and moments when this career could not be more right. I have seen things that I wish their parents could: a moment of discovery, a smile of pride, an act of friendship. And I have seen countless moments that the students never thought I thought I noticed: the most heart-warming kindnesses, and the most heinous of bullying.

I am humbled to think that around 1200 students have sat in the desks in front of me over these many years. They have all left a piece of themselves behind. I remember Chris’s metaphor that blew me away: “The football field is an angry boy’s heaven.” Or the way I hugged Bridget as she sobbed about her grandma. I can remember Geoff’s poetry analysis of William Carlos Williams like it was yesterday, although 17 years have passed since he last left my class. Or the way Amanda gave a fantastic speech about a serious illness that had changed her life.

Through nearly two decades, I hope that I have shared my love of communicating, that they all know where to place the commas and how to write with imagery. I hope they can find a metaphor in a story, and always remember to get the work done first before they play.

But I don’t think they understand how I love them. How I pray for these students past and present and what will happen to them. How I hope that the lessons and discipline I have tried to instill will ripple when they leave my class. How I wish for them a job that offers moments like they have offered me: the beautiful glimpses of life and discovery that leave you with goosebumps and tears. And the knowledge that they are working towards something greater than themselves. And I even wish them the hard stuff too, which makes the good moments that much sweeter.

I am still in awe of the paths these students have taken. Joe is doing art gallery showings in San Francisco, and Maggie is choreographing musical theatre in Chicago. Bryan is a busines man in Columbus, and Emily is studying architecture in New York City. Bridget is returning home to find a kindergarten teaching job, and Kyle is serving our country in Afghanistan. So many choices and paths and moments, makes me appreciate our cosmic intersection in time.

So yes, I appreciate teaching. I appreciate the learners that have graced these desks, and the lessons they have revealed to me. I appreciate the words they have written and the trust they have shown me. I admire their moxy and the energetic lenses through which they see the world. A burrito or tulip won’t be enough to say it today, but I am thankful for all of them and all of the moments we have shared.