Part I: It’s cold. It’s freezing. We’ve been saying the same two sentences all week long. Tired of repeating the same old hackneyed phrases? Here are some more colorful alternatives:
The Brassy Option
It’s colder than a witch’s teat in a brass bra.
It’s colder than a brass toilet seat on the shady side of an iceberg.
It’s cold enough to freeze the tail* off a brass monkey. *(Frequently substituted with spherically shaped male part of the anatomy).
It’s colder than a gravedigger’s shovel.* (Frequently substituted with word that rhymes with “brass”).
The Classy Option
“When the breath freezes into ice dust and falls almost silently to the ground, Siberians call it the whisper of stars.” from David K. Shipler’s Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams.
Part II: It could always be worse:
Here’s a reading suggestion that will put your shivering into perspective. Evgenii Zamiatin’s short story “The Cave” is about a couple trying to survive in an unheated apartment in the dead of winter. Post-revolutionary Petrograd is depicted as a prehistoric landscape of glaciers and woolly mammoths. The bitter cold drives the couple to desperate acts. The story is deeply depressing, of course. It is Russian literature after all. I know this doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, but it’s a great story and I can guarantee you it will make you feel like you’re not so cold after all…If you have access to JSTOR, you can read the full text there for free. Otherwise, it’s in The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader.
I spent the four coldest years of my life during my college days in frigid New Hampshire. I would run as fast as I could between classes trying to minimize my exposure…and there are very few things I hate more than running. As soon as the air hit my face, my ears would burn with an icy fire. The snot dripping from my nose would turn into miniature icicles. My eyes would start to water, the tears would freeze my eyelashes, and I would hear an icy tinkle every time I blinked. At least it’s not that cold…unless you’re reading this in New Hampshire.
It’s been widely reported recently that it’s colder in Winnipeg than it is on the surface of Mars. Again: no comfort at all if you happen to be reading this in Winnipeg.
And for more perspective…at least we didn’t get 26 inches of snow like we did in 2009!
Stay warm out there and have a wonderful weekend!
A few summers ago, we were heading to the beach to meet up with family friends with whom we were sharing a house. Our children would be sharing a bunk room for a week, and, we imagined, all the knowledge that they had amassed between them through friends, family, and sex ed classes. We knew that our friend’s son, who was going to school in another state, had already had these classes, and that even before this, his parents had dutifully taught him everything there is to know.
We, on the other hand, as usual, were woefully behind the curve. Not only had our son not yet gone through the “Family Life Education” classes as they are euphemistically called here in Virginia, we, as parents, had not given him any real information at all. I’m sure my son would say that we are overprotective parents, although he’d probably put it in a slightly different way. When he first asked me where babies came from, I flat out panicked and blurted out the first thing that came to my head, “You go to the hospital and the doctor helps you have the baby.” Period.
And so, as we drove down to the Outer Banks, my husband and I decided that at the very first opportunity, he would head things off by taking our son for a walk on the beach to have “The Talk.”
Later, he reported their conversation to me with a half grin on his face. It had been going pretty well, he told me, until he got to the actual mechanics…
“Ewww! That’s disgusting!” my son exclaimed as he recoiled in visceral horror.
“It’s really not that bad,” my husband tried to reassure him.
“Why? Does the doctor put you to sleep first?” my son asked with such sweet innocence that I really had to wonder if we had made a terrible mistake in tearing away the veil.
As a firstborn, our son has had to weather his parents’ inexperience. It’s often difficult for us to gauge how to treat him. I’ve always felt guilty about the fact that at the tender age of two, he automatically became “a big boy” in my eyes, the very minute his little brother was born. When I look back at pictures of how very little he was back then, I am filled with sorrow and regret that I didn’t baby him for longer.
On the other hand, he has always been the kind of kid who has bridled against being treated as a child. I remember one morning, when our son was a Kindergartner, my husband returned back home after seeing him onto the school bus with his shoulders slumped and a mournful expression on his face. As he had done every morning for months, he had given our son a big hug as he saw the bus pulling up to the stop. Our son bore it stoically, but as he mounted the stairs, he stopped and turned around for a moment. Gazing into the distance he said with a world-weary sigh, “I wish people wouldn’t hug me in public.”
It’s only gotten more confusing with time. He can now finally sit in the passenger seat next to me when I drive, but I usually have to remind him of the fact as he automatically heads towards the back of the minivan. I still have to nag him to do his homework and to pick up his clothes, but to do so, I have to crane my neck to look up at him as I shout my directives. Last week my husband bought our son his first razor and he shaved for the first time. He absolutely refused a tutorial, insisting that he’d figure out how to do it “on the internet.” This week, he’s going to get braces. And so we bumble on, hoping that he feels as cherished and loved as a newborn, while knowing that we are cheering him on as he makes his way to adulthood.
Discovering this on my door knob:
left for me by my friend Annika, with whom I led Helping Hands!
This poem by Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam, (1898-1938)
I’ve been given a body – what should I do with it,
So singular and so my own?
For the quiet happiness of breathing and living
Tell me, whom should I thank?
I am the gardener, and I am also the flower,
In the world’s prison, I am not alone.
The windowpane of eternity is already marked by
My breath, my warmth
A pattern is imprinted upon it,
Unrecognizable in recent times
Let the dregs of the moment trickle away
The sweet pattern will not be erased.
And this quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Did Santa bring your kids sugarplums this Christmas? Ours got unicorn meat in their stockings!
There are lots and lots of reviews of this product on Amazon, including one by George Takei. You can read them here. I promise you, they are highly entertaining!
But perhaps not quite as entertaining as the kids’ reactions when they discovered what was inside the cans:
This weekend I was feeling distressed about the bad behavior, which led to the demise of the Helping Hands service group I had helped found about eight years ago. I decided to refocus my thoughts on people who inspire me. Fortunately, there are many of these people in my life, including the many children who have participated in Helping Hands over the years.
There are people like my friend Rosita, who as PTO president of her school in Madison, Wisconsin used funds to make sure every single child at her economically diverse school had a pair of snow pants. She refused to make the yearbook a fundraiser as is common practice, because she felt that every child, whether or not he or she could afford it, should be able to have one.
There are people like my dear friend Janel, whose every word and action somehow seem like acts of kindness:
And then of course, there’s my own mother, who won’t spend a penny on herself, so she can give lavishly to others.
Here are a few more stories I’ve been thinking about…
When my friend Amanda came to visit for a few hours over the holidays, we got caught up on what we’d been up to in our professional lives. I expressed sadness over my inability to provide meaningful help in some of the harder cases I had been dealing with at work. She responded by telling me the story of a nineteen year old she knew when she was about the same age, who was working in a hospice. When she asked him how he could bear to work in a place where he couldn’t really do anything to help the people who were there, he responded with a wisdom far beyond what you would expect of a teenage boy:
“That’s where you’re wrong. You can always do something to help. You can adjust a pillow. You can hold a hand. You can make a person feel less lonely by sitting with them.”
Those words, uttered decades ago by a nineteen year old I’ll probably never know, took my breath away. I’ll remember them for the rest of my life.
And then I asked Amanda what she had been up to. “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet…of imagination all compact” is my friend Amanda. She’s a professional medical writer and an incredible poet, who is always cooking up extracurricular benevolence projects. The last time we met up, she told me about how she’d been visiting sketchy neighborhoods late at night to meet up with prostitutes. She tries to get them the help they need to get out of the terrible situations they are in, whether by driving them to rehab or by finding them work clothes for job interviews.
“Sometimes, they don’t want to be helped. Some nights, all I can do for them is to buy them a hamburger. So that’s what I do.”
Now she’s expanded her scope to help longterm unemployed people. Don’t ask me how she does it, but she’s bringing people together to start up their own businesses. She’s pounding the pavement and meeting with lawmakers to make things happen.
And finally, there’s my friend and erstwhile co-leader of Helping Hands, Annika. We were emailing back and forth as we made the hard decision to give up the fight. As we came to our sad conclusion, I sent her one more message to thank her for all she had done. I shared with her my vague fantasy that we could open up some kind of business, because working with her has always been a joy.
In her reply, she told me that she had been fantasizing about the same thing when the lottery was getting so big a few weeks ago! I’m not going to lie…I had a few ideas about what I’d do myself, in the unlikely event that I would actually ever buy a ticket and in the even unlikelier event that I won. Me? I thought about debts that would get paid off, maybe getting a really nice camera…But Annika‘s idea for when she hit it big was that we would take all those millions of dollars….and open our own non-profit charity. Goodness.
Today on my way home from work, the skies were dark. As I stopped off at the pharmacy to refill a prescription, I realized there was a rainbow in the sky. A sign? I pulled out my camera set to autofocus and tried to take a picture. Every time I pressed the shutter button, the rainbow would disappear. Finally, I switched to manual focus and got the photo:
Sometimes, it just takes a little more effort to readjust your focus to capture the beauty that’s there.
O miserable, miserable!
The first part of this overly long and tedious post is, frankly, a big fat downer, but I have to get it out of my system. Feel free to skip to the “And yet” part. I probably would, if I were you.
This has been a heartbreaking weekend. The Helping Hands service group I helped found at my children’s elementary school eight years ago, came to a premature end on Friday. Not for a lack of participants and willing teachers. Not because the group wasn’t something our school was proud to have. Certainly not for a lack of resources…We have a lot of generous (and truth be told – affluent) parents at our school, who have contributed thousands and thousands of dollars to a PTO that is supposed to represent our interests.
Until this year, we had always been reimbursed by the PTO to cover basic operating costs, which never came to more than a hundred dollars a session, and usually well below that. The cost of this program was low, because teachers have always volunteered to lead the program. We have never charged for the class, because we strongly felt that it would go against the very spirit of the program to charge families to participate. Because we didn’t charge a fee, we were able to be inclusive of the very few kids at our school, who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford to participate. Over the years, we have engaged in fundraising for disaster relief, for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, for an orphanage and school in Haiti, the list goes on and on. One thing we’ve never had to raise funds for is to cover our own operating costs. Why would we, when we are part of a school, whose PTO has tens of thousands of dollars in its groaning coffers? Until last year, I trustingly wrote checks to the organization every single year, like most of the other parents at our school do.
Last year, our Helping Hands group was facing a large shipping bill to send a donation of clothing to the Ford Haitian Orphanage. Knowing that the PTO had carried over a large sum of money from the year before, we applied for a PTO grant to cover the cost. In doing so, we inadvertently ignited a controversy. The board felt that money should not go “outside of our own school.” We brought a room full of parents to a usually sparsely attended PTO meeting. They spoke up for us to say that they could see that spending money to ship donations our group had collected would be just as much an investment in our own children as it would be for children in Haiti. If a vote had been permitted, our project would have been fully funded. What an empowering and valuable lesson it would have been to show our children how an ethical community behaves. Those who have share with those who don’t…or should anyway. How wonderful it would have been for our children to see the adults in their lives modeling as generous behavior as they themselves were when they set out to help others outside of our own school. Instead, we were told that a vote would not even be allowed.
After a lot of rancor and wrangling, the outcome of the controversy was that we held a fundraiser. The money raised allowed us to send our clothing donation and also to give donations on behalf of our school to organizations that meant something to our kids. They voted to give money to the Hope Community Center, the PACEM homeless shelter, SHE (a shelter for battered women), the SPCA, the Wildlife Center, and the Ford Haitian Orphanage. In addition, we were asked to submit a request for next year’s budget. We optimistically requested $1200. We were given $50. We assumed that the fifty dollars would be for special projects or expenses beyond the basic ones. On Friday the PTO let us know by way of an email informing us that we are $47.41 over budget, that it will now no longer cover our basic operating costs. We can only conclude that this is a punitive measure for calling out the board on how it manages
its our money.
When we tried to navigate the system, the rules were arbitrarily changed. We hoped for a change in leadership for the following year and waited for an announcement calling for nominations for a new executive board to be voted into office. Instead, we got an announcement that the board members had basically reappointed themselves in reshuffled positions. At this point, my co-leader Annika and I are throwing in the towel. Pounding your own head against a brick wall is just stupid. I wrote my very last check to the PTO today for exactly $47.41.
Our aim has been to show kids that no matter how small or how young they are, they can make a positive difference in this world. Over the years we’ve done projects around our school from raking leaves to cleaning paths. We’ve done projects in our own community from collecting money and supplies for schools in a neighboring county whose buildings were destroyed in an earthquake to helping set up cots for a temporary homeless shelter. We’ve done projects that have taken our kids out into the wide world to visit far-flung places like Afghanistan and Haiti through their charitable giving. Through all of these experiences these children have learned what a difference a penny makes, what a difference an open heart makes, what a difference a willingness to help others makes.
These days, my husband and I only get presents for our children, never for each other. Every once in a while, I pick something out for myself, but I always give Colin the credit. It’s a win win every time.
“Oh my gosh! I LOVE it! How did you know this is exactly what I wanted? Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!!! Mwah!”
Here’s what “he got me” this Christmas:
I love it! It was perfect after it was resized, free of charge, to fit my finger, which has apparently become even chunkier than before.
And here’s the drawing it came from:
I’ve always adored this picture, depicting all three of my children. It was drawn years ago by my oldest son on a tiny scrap of paper. Now I can wear the drawing on my finger every day!
Mia Van Beek, a jeweler whose studio is here in Charlottesville, can use your own child’s drawing to create everything from a pendant to a ring. Best of all, the whole process can be done by email. You can check out her beautiful work here:
I hope none of you will ever have to stay at The Children’s Inn, because if you do, it means that your child is receiving medical care at the National Institutes of Health. On the other hand, I wish everybody could experience this wonderful place.
The Children’s Inn is located on the campus of NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s a place where children can stay with their families in a homelike setting, while receiving treatment or participating in medical research, free of charge. My daughter is one of thousands of kids who come from all over the U.S. and from more than 80 different countries to stay there. It’s one of her favorite places on Earth.
To me The Children’s Inn is the physical embodiment of human love, compassion, and grace in the theological sense of the word. We stay there periodically for my daughter’s (routine) appointments at NIH, and every time, I feel a little guilty. I think, “We don’t really deserve to stay there. It’s too nice. She’s not really sick.” It occurred to me that this is exactly what grace is: a blessing that is undeserved and unearned, but freely given.
The well-stocked art studio:
There are special classes for kids, but also workshops just for caregivers as well, during which children participate in fun activities elsewhere.
On another visit, I saw a signup for free piano lessons for children:
The game room:
When we go to the Children’s Inn it’s only for one night at the most, but there are children who spend months there. The Learning Center, with its own tutor and volunteers, helps these kids keep up with their schoolwork:
This month’s newsletter says: January brings in the New Year along with midterms for many of our middle school and high school residents. Remember to bring your books so that you can get tutoring while you are staying at the Inn. The Learning Center is always open to help you do homework or study for tests…if you need any of your school supplies replenished please let us know. We will be glad to restock your backpack.
We saw a little boy braving the frigid temperatures to proudly take the house dog Viola for a walk…
Upon checking in, every child is given a key to his or her own mailbox. The staff make sure there is something in the box every single night. My daughter’s box hadn’t been checked in some time, so it was bursting with all sorts of surprises:
It was freezing cold and already getting dark, but we just had to check out the garden:
The Children’s Inn cares for the whole family. While we were sitting by the fire in the main lounge, I saw managers offering warm hats and scarves to guests, who had just arrived poorly equipped for the freakishly cold temperatures. In the rooms there are notices offering gift cards to local grocery stores for families who may need help because they are struggling with medical bills and are unable to work. It can be stressful caring for a sick child…Adult caregivers can even sign up for 15 minute massages by a licensed masseuse!
Dinners are often prepared and served by volunteers. We happened to be there on Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, and a Feast of Three Kings was served:
I have to admit, my shy self was dreading going to the dining room for dinner. I fervently hoped no one would sit at our table, and my heart sank when someone did. Of course, it turned out to be a highlight of the trip. Chris is a college student who has been staying at the Inn on and off for six years, and has spent as long as six months at a time there. My daughter and he share a mutual love of Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series. He pulled House of Hades out of his backpack and my daughter assured him that she wouldn’t ruin the ending for him by telling him what happens in the end. She felt compelled to run back to the room to bring a copy of her own Rick Riordan novel to the table. (She’s read them all countless times, but always insists on traveling with at least one of the hefty tomes). We compared notes on our stays here and kept coming back to how grateful we are for the Children’s Inn. He said, “As soon as I’m making any kind of paycheck, I’m sending a portion of it every month to this place. It’s been a lifesaver.”
The Inn is a private, nonprofit corporation funded by private and corporate donors. I love that places like this exist as manifestations of the depth and breadth of human generosity and kindness.