Last week was the first snow of the season here and the kids were beyond excited. It was pretty enough that I think even most of us grown up folks were excited, too. . .there's nothing like that first snow clinging to the trees and making everything sparkle to brighten a dreary winter. The boys couldn't WAIT to go sledding! But school days and early darkness meant that the days of the week passed by and we still hadn't loaded everyone up in the car to make it to the big hill.
"Mommy, can you please, please take us sledding after school on Thursday?" Philip and Daniel begged me. "We are big enough now you don't even have to worry about us. You can just watch Noah and we'll take care of the rest. Pleeeaasseee??!!!!"
The thought of taking all four of them sledding by myself was about to give me a panic attack, but one look at their hopeful little faces and I knew I had to say, "Yes."
"Oh, Mommy, YES!! This is going to be awesome. Pick us up from school. We'll be car riders! Can you come get us early? How about right after PE. We don't want to miss PE."
"Nice try, kids, but I don't think they are going to let me take my kids out of school and miss the NWEA test to go sledding. HOWEVER, Noah and Josh and I will come get you right after school and go straight there, OK??!!"
And for the next day they planned and giggled and decided who was going to be on what sled and what kind of cool tricks they could do and all "Can we take the snowboard?" and "Don't forget to pack my warm gloves!" I looked at the weather forecast and it was supposed to warm up on Thursday, but the temperature looked like it was going to at least start cold and steadily increase during the day. Eternally optimistic, I decided there was enough snow that even if it got warmer and started to melt, there'd still be enough left after school for at least a little bit of sledding. It would be even warm enough we wouldn't even have to bundle too much! Although I have a science degree and a little more than the basic awareness about the temperature at which phase changes occur, I'm not so easily constrained by things like reality in my daily living.
So, all day I prepped for our plan. Noah and I went to Target to buy a 4th sled. We even went to the sledding hill to test it out. The snow was melting but there was still enough left on parts of the hill that we had some good runs. We made snowballs and laughed and enjoyed our wintry fun. But by the end of our time there we had to shed our coats. It was getting downright warm, enough to send Frosty the Snowman into panic mode. I looked at the sun beating down on the hill and listened to the sound of dripping water everywhere, did a little more math as to how much of this was going to melt before 4 pm and thought, "Oh, dear, this might not be good."
But, STILL ETERNALLY OPTIMISTIC, I went through all of the motions. . .packed the bags with the snow gear, loaded the four sleds in the back of my van, tossed bananas and fruit snacks into my bag, buckled in the little brothers and headed off to school to pick the boys up. The sun was smiling (a little cruelly, I might add) upon us as my van sloshed through melted puddles of snow all the way to school.
I found the boys chattering with one of their sweet former teachers. "We're going sledding!!!!"
She looked at me quizzically. "Here?" she said, "Or. . .are you driving someplace. . .far away!?!????"
"Um, here." I said, now a little embarrassed that my lack of connection with reality was on display for all to see. "We're just going to check it out and see what we can see!"
"Oh, well, have fun!" she smiled at me and gave me a worried look. I gave her a confident thumbs up and headed out into the lovely 50 degree sunshine-y day to go sledding.
As the boys herded to the van they were still chattering away. "You know," said Phil. "The top of the sledding hill is at a higher altitude. It might even be colder up there so there's more snow!"
I giggled, enjoying his optimism, too.
"Hey, there's snow between those trees!" Daniel exclaimed, pointing at a hill covered with large trees, snow still filling their tangled roots. "Although, we probably couldn't sled there. That'd be kind of painful."
"We could sled on the grass, right, Mommy? I mean, that would be fun??" said Josh.
"SLEEEDDDIIINNNGGGG!???!!!" Noah squealed as we turned the corner that headed towards the hill, his memories of just a few hours before getting him psyched for the adventure ahead.
"Guys, we're just going to check it out. We'll give it our best shot, OK?" but at this point I was getting more than a little worried.
I turned into the drive and in front of us was a bare sledding hill. The gate was closed and locked shut to block the parking lot, I am sure to deter optimistic/crazy folks like us from coming to sled on the soggy remains of snow.
In the back seat, Phil instantly burst into tears. "We were car riders for THIS!!!?????!"
Daniel and Josh looked forlorn. Noah, ever cheerful, started pointing out other patches of snow in neighboring yards, "We sled dere? Nook, dere's some snow!"
I pulled out of the lot and out onto the main road. I didn't really have a Plan B but it was time to come up with one on the fly. "That's OK, kids, off to our next adventure!" And I steered the van towards a nearby park. There was no sledding hill (or any large hill there, for that matter) but I remembered from when I used to take the boys there in their toddler days there was some shade and also lots of little hills. Maybe there would be a scrap of snow left and a little bit of fun to be had. As I navigated into the muddy parking lot, Phil's cries in the backseat got more desperate, "HERE!!!?? This is NOT what I had planned!!!" Daniel told him to cut it out, and Phil reached across the seats between them and punched him in the chest. A knock-down-drag-out-fight was about to take place in the 3rd row. It was time to get out of the van- AND QUICK!!
"Guys, let's just see what we can see."
Noah was out of the van in a hot second, off to explore the playground with Josh right behind him. Daniel looked at the (still crying) brother next to him, his two other brothers playing happily on the playground and said, "Hey, Mommy. I think I'll take those snow pants now."
This left Phil and I in the van alone. As we watched his brothers play, tears continued to streak down his face. "Phil?" I asked him gently. He crossed his arms, turned his head and made a tearful grunting sound.
I was at a critical crossroads here. There was a large part of me that wanted to be angry with him and tell him to get over himself, as the tears of an eight-year-old throwing what was by all appearances an epic temper tantrum are not my favorite sound. But as I felt that agitated and frustrated feeling welling up inside of me, I decided to just pause and take a deep breath. As I let him cry, I thought about the lesson that this might be trying to teach me. How often do I cling to my own plans, and grumble and drag my feet when my day or my week (or my life) doesn't go the way I imagined it would? It's certainly OK to be disappointed. When things don't meet my expectations, how hard is it for me, even as an adult with YEARS of experience with things not going my way, to shift my mind into forward mode and release the vision I had in exchange for the reality of what is happening the present moment? I needed to give Phil some grace, as there are many times I so desperately need it myself.
"Honey, have you ever hear of Plan A?"
"That's not even a word. Have you HEARD OF PLAN A???"
"Again, a yes or no would work."
"And if I said, 'Life is all about Plan B, what do you think that would mean?"
"I don't know," Phil said, avoiding my eyes.
"It means, sometimes things don't go the way we planned. But then we have to try and find a new plan. . .plan B!"
"OK, have you ever heard the phrase, 'Wherever you go there you are?"
"Again, merp is not a word. So let me enlighten you. It means you can't change the past, all you have is the present moment. Where are you right now?"
"Riiiiggghhhhhhtt. The sledding hill is closed, we're at the playground. We can't go back and make the snow un-melt. This is where we are."
"Alright, I've got another one for you. Have you ever heard, "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade?"
"So, when things don't go your way, you just have to make the bet of it, sweetie. I know, I'm disappointed, too. I've been planning for this all day. This is something I struggle with, too. We just have to choose our attitude and make the most of it."
Later when I recounted the story to Paul he asked me if I could have possibly worked any more cliches into that conversation. Maybe, maybe not. But, I think it worked. I shut off the van and left the door and trunk open, then I headed over to where Noah was playing. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Phil sneak out of the van. He had pulled his boots on and was in the middle of the snow in the adjacent field making a snowball.
It wasn't long before he made his way over to the playground.
In a few more minutes, he was back to the van for his hat and warm gloves.
And a few minutes later, returning for his snow pants.
And after about 10 minutes, he asked for a sled.
And before I knew it, all four sleds were out of the van and four little boys were gleefully sledding down the tiniest hill imaginable, having the time of their lives.
In the van on the way home, Josh was overwhelmed with how things turned out. "Mommy, I didn't think that was going to be fun but that was AWESOME!!"
"I agree, buddy!
I am realizing that there is so much beauty to be found in the "melting snows" of life. The moments that don't go the way I planned can have a divine loveliness all their own. . .but the only way I am going to have eyes to see that beauty is if I release the vision in my head of what I thought it was going to be. Once I let that picture go, I am free to live in the present moment. "It is what it is" my Dad always says. "Live in the now, man." in my best Garth Algar voice. "Today is a gift- that's why it's called the present." (I had to work in JUST A FEW more cliches in case Paul reads this.)
It wasn't what we had planned.
But it was fun.
And it was beautiful.
An hour of sweet childhood, savored in the melting snow.
When I was a first-year high school science teacher, I spent a LOT of time at school, as all first-year teachers do. Everything was new and overwhelming and I had no depth of previous experience to draw from, so I usually spent each evening pulling together my lessons for the next day while feebly trying to recover from the ones I had just taught. Although in later years I would still often work late, there is nothing in the world quite like the particular exhaustion of the first-year teacher. Around 6 pm I would still be slumped over the keyboard of my Mac, three hours past the end of my "day", high heels discarded beside me, the sides of my hands covered in Vis-a-Vis marker, the sleeve of my denim jacket dusted with chalk. A human eraser, if you will. My desk would typically be littered with a half-eaten bag of M&M's, a lukewarm Coke, piles of papers, broken pencils and random things I had confiscated from my students during the day, love notes. . .gum. . .those little skateboards you skate with your fingers. My heart would be full but my mind would be vacant as I tried to pull my act together.
And this is where Bruce would find me. Bruce was our evening custodian, in charge of cleaning my room in the science wing as a part of his rounds. If you are a first-year teacher, my prayer is that you will have a Bruce in your life. Just when I felt like I couldn't go on, there was no way I could get together the energy to make it to the copy room and run that lab I had just created let alone set it up, Bruce would pop in with his big smile, his white hair, and his hearty laugh. That little bit of friendship and human contact would be just enough to bring me back to the land of the living, and he'd send me off to the copy room with a smile on my face.
Our conversations were usually nothing profound, he'd tease me about being a "rookie" and how late I was working (again) and we'd catch up about family and weather and the like. At Christmastime, he noticed I was stringing up a few lights around my room and offered to bring me some trees from his house to decorate. Of course, I couldn't turn him down so we trimmed my room together, giving it that little touch of cheer that was even more special because it came from a friend. We chatted so often about so many of the same things that I can't remember, but one conversation in particular has stayed in my heart all these years.
It was a spring evening and the sun was just slanting in when we ran into each other in the hallway, I on my way to the copy room and Bruce pushing his trash can towards the Physics end of the building. We stopped to chat as usual, but when I asked how he was I noticed tears starting to form in his eyes. It wasn't long before tears started to spill out of mine, too. Cancer. He had cancer. They found spots on his brain. I can't even remember the details because my mind was swirling, "How could this happen to my friend?" Of course, in typical Bruce fashion, he was trying to be positive as he explained everything to me, but I could feel the undercurrent of hurt and uncertainty in his wavering voice. Time froze there in the hallway, the moment etched in my mind. Then he said the thing I will never forget.
"I just didn't know. They never told us. They never told us smoking was bad for you! If I just would have known, maybe. . ."
As his voice trailed off, the look on his face, the confusion and pain in his voice, they were enough to break my heart. Although he could have easily been my grandfather, he looked at me pleadingly as a small child would.
"How could he have known?" I thought to myself. And if he had known, would it have changed anything? There are no guarantees in life, no magic formula one can follow for a perfect one free of pain. The one thing I did know, even at the ripe old age of 23, was that there was no use in him beating himself up about tobacco or anything else for that matter. Forward is the only way time goes.
"Bruce," I said, trying to comfort him. "There is no way you could have known. It's OK. It's OK, Bruce. It's not your fault." And I made sure I caught his eye so he could see how much I meant it.
"It's not your fault."
He bit his lip and nodded.
I hugged him.
I believed that with my whole heart.
I still do.
I think of Bruce often, especially any time I feel myself getting hung up or worried about the choices I make for myself or my family. Sometimes we just don't know. I believe we're all just trying to do the best we can with the physical, financial, and emotional resources we have available to us. So any time I get hung up on a decision and researching and thinking and weighing options, I tell myself, "You know, Jen, sometimes you just aren't going to know. Just do the best you can." And what kinds of choices are the things that are the most essential about us, really? What remains when we are gone? The answer, from my friend Bruce, is simple.
The most important choice is how we treat people.
What remains is kindness.
What remains is love.
Bruce and I cried a little bit more together that evening before we parted ways. The next few years brought many changes in our lives. My classroom was moved and I had a new evening custodian, Bruce was on and off work, I became a much more efficient teacher (spending less evenings slumped over my computer in exhaustion and more actually living an adult life) and eventually left for my first maternity leave. Shortly after my son was born, I learned that Bruce had passed away. I wept for my friend, but mostly for myself. I would never see his tall white-haired frame rounding the corner to greet me with a smile, we would never share a laugh or a story or a lukewarm Coke again.
I rejoiced that he was free from pain.
But cried because he didn't know.
He didn't know the impact he made on my life, the little golden thread of friendship woven into the tapestry of my being. I had been blessed just from being a beneficiary of his kindness and warmth at a time when I was a little bit lonely and more than a little bit tired.
And he'd never know because he thought he was just being himself. . .emptying the trash, doing his job, sharing a smile on the way. Never imagining that there was anything special or "golden" about it.
I am also imagining that there are some things you just don't know, too.
There are people out there whose lives you are touching today that will remember you for years to come.
You are weaving yourself into the tapestry of the world by your mere presence in it.
Just you. . .showing up at work or yoga or preschool, just you. . .going to the grocery store, going to church or the gym or the library. Just you. . .working on your latest project, taking that conference call, picking up the mail or the dry cleaning, posting on Facebook, reading stories to your kids, taking your car for an oil change.
Yet even below our awareness, through the simple living of our daily life, we can be making a difference in someone else's.
Who knows what stranger or friend our kind smiles are touching today? Who really needed a laugh and we gave it to them? Who was lonely and our "hello" made them feel less alone? Who saw our Facebook post and it gave them encouragement?
Were you the answer to someone's prayer today? Was that kind word you said going to be a golden thread in someone's tapestry, the way Bruce was in mine?
It's awe-inspiring to imagine the impact you are making in everyday ways.
So, just keep being you, little golden thread.
You're being woven into so many people's lives, and all you have to do is be yourself.
We all have a lot of choices to make today, and sometimes we just aren't going to know.
But the most important choice is how we treat people.
What remains is kindness.
What remains is love.
Hope and faith will both come to an end when we die. But love will remain. Love is eternal. Love comes from God and returns to God. When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love. The love with which we lived our lives is the life of God within us. It is the divine, indestructible core of our being. This love not only will remain, but will also bear fruit from generation to generation.