Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Our hearts are broken. Our hearts are full.

On Friday afternoon, I read the horrible, unimaginable news about the school shooting in Newtown, CT. Like so many others across the country, I struggled to keep it together, to keep from breaking down in front of my own three children, two of whom had just returned home from their own elementary school, which is not unlike Sandy Hook, not unlike elementary schools in small towns all around the country.

At one point I withdrew to the bathroom for a few minutes, to cry and then compose myself. I didn’t want my children to ask what was wrong. How do you explain to two 5-year-olds that 20 children, hardly older than they are, had just been killed? How do you explain to a little boy who loves to play with toy guns, but has no real understanding of death, that someone with real guns just shot up a first-grade classroom? How do you explain evil to a child?

There is no explanation, of course, no matter how old we are.

With the sadness and confusion of Sandy Hook still in the back of my head, we went about our weekend business. We helped my parents find and cut a tree to set up on their porch and decorate for Christmas. We went to the town Christmas party and saw Santa. We went skiing and watched the Frosty the Snowman movie and attended a holiday party with friends and acquaintances, nearly all of whom have children in elementary school.

I hugged my kids a little tighter over the weekend, sometimes struggling to keep myself from smothering them with love. I was more patient than I often am, speaking more gently even when I had to repeat, ‘Please don’t jump on the couch,’ or ‘Stop singing at the dinner table and just EAT,’ for the umpteenth time. In my head I thanked god and the universe and my lucky stars over and over again that I had my children to love and to scold, and I wept inwardly for the parents and the children of Sandy Hook.

Monday morning the opening of school was delayed by wintery weather, so we ate breakfast at a leisurely pace and wrapped Christmas presents. Sandy Hook was not on my mind until I pulled into my children’s elementary school. It’s a small school – just over 100 kids from three towns in seven grades. Everyone there – students, teachers, parents – is familiar. And, so, it feels safe. It is supposed to be safe, this school for young children in a small mountain town.

I don’t know if it was the realization Monday morning that nothing is safe, no place is safe, that nearly sent me into a panic. More likely it was the thought that I was doing what 20 other parents had done last week – what millions of moms and dads do every weekday – dropping my kids off at school and telling them I’d see them in a few hours, that I love them, to have a great day. Even that simple act of normalcy now seems a huge leap of faith.

I know other parents – and teachers – felt the same Monday, and probably will for a long time. I read that Newtown students returned to school this morning, and I can’t begin to imagine how scary that must be for them, for their parents, for their teachers.

I don’t want to dwell on the horrific news of Sandy Hook. I don’t want to think about the man who killed those children and their teachers. And yet I can’t stop thinking about it. I’d like to say I read instead about the children lost that day and the adults who protected them as well as they could, but even that is too much. It is too much to bear even here, two states away, with no personal connection to Newtown, CT.

And so I put on my holiday face and finish writing out the Christmas cards. I sing Christmas songs with my kids and wrap their presents and go through the regular pre-Christmas scramble. But amid all the joy of the holiday season, I find myself often on the verge of tears.

Tears of sadness and bewilderment for Sandy Hook. For the children there who loved horses and singing and playing dress up and dancing, just like my own three children do. For their parents, who surely have Christmas presents wrapped and placed carefully under the tree, gifts that will never be opened. For their friends and siblings and teachers who have to somehow find a way to carry on, when so much has changed.

Tears of frustration and of powerlessness to make any useful changes. How do we prevent anything like this from happening again? Stricter gun control? Better care for people suffering from mental illness? Both seem insurmountable challenges.

Tears of gratitude and love for my own family. As news of the shooting broke, President Obama said, “Our hearts are broken today.” Yes, our hearts, all of us, are broken over Sandy Hook. There is no silver lining to the senseless killing of 20 first graders and the teachers and administrators who died trying to protect them.

What there is is a reminder of what really matters in this world, the things it’s easy to forget amid the hustle and bustle of every day.

And so I hug my kids and worry about them. I relish the beauty in the everyday things that mean so much – the uninhibited laughter of excited children, the Christmas lights twinkling through the darkness of a dreary December day, the first-thing-in-the-morning hug from my 3-year-old, the calming act of breathing fresh air deeply, the beautiful smile of my little girl, the magnificence of the mountains outside my window, the dancing joy in my little boy’s eyes, the promise of snow and of brightening days.  

My heart is broken. And, yet, my heart is full.

Friday, December 14, 2012

O Christmas tree

It is the center of the holiday decorations, filled with baubles big and small and memories of Christmases past. Even with the wreaths hung outside and the mantle decorated in garland and wintery figurines, it is the Christmas tree that brings the holidays home – somehow, it just doesn’t seem like Christmastime until there is an evergreen in the living room, its sweet piney scent permeating the house, tiny lights twinkling from its full branches through the darkest days of winter.

When I was a little girl my family would, some Decembers, tramp into the woods at the edge of our back yard and cut a “Charlie Brown” tree to trim. Being outside in the quiet woods, the chilly air turning cheeks and noses rosy, added to the joy of bringing home the Christmas tree. Knowing the specific spot in our little piece of forest from which the tree came made it a bit more special.

In college, a several hours drive from home, I set up a tiny plastic tabletop tree in my dorm room, decorating it with small ornaments. That little tree was a reminder that soon I’d be at home, with all its comforts and a real Christmas tree adorned with familiar ornaments.

Since then, I’ve trimmed trees from gas station or grocery store stands, or cut with a permit from National Forest land, or – lately – picked from a local tree farmWhat once was a simple annual selection has turned into a family affair, as our three young children run gleefully from fir tree to fir tree, shouting, “This one is perfect. Ooh, look at this one!” until we settle on a tree just the right height and shape.

My most memorable Christmas tree was the one I found at the edge of an isolated back road in Colorado, during a snow storm, with some friends I’d run into after work. We took a detour on the way home, and one of the friends produced an old saw from the back of his beater truck before we waded through deep, powdery snow to lop off the section of evergreen sticking above the snowline. We returned to town in the winter dark of late evening and carried the tall, scraggly tree to the corner of the living room. My roommates humored me, and the tree was lit and decorated and remained a part of our household through the holidays. It was beautiful.

Through the years I have carted from place to place a box of ornaments gathered, one at a time, over my 39 Christmases. My husband has a similar collection. Our tree is not trimmed in some elaborate color theme or similarly-styled ornaments. Instead, we fill it with the decorations from our childhoods and with those now garnered each Christmas by our own children, who clamor to find and hang their own special ornaments.

Our tree holds many reminders of Christmases past. There is the small green and red baby boot from my first Christmas, a toy soldier from my husband’s boyhood, and the Old Man of the Mountain ornaments given to us the year New Hampshire’s famed profile collapsed. My favorite ornaments are the three circles of plaster hung by silky red and green ribbon. Into each is pressed one precious imprint of my children’s infant hands.

Christmas present fades quickly, the holiday racing toward us, then gone in a flash of happy excitement and crumpled wrapping paper. But the Christmas spirit lingers as long as the tree remains in its stand in the living room, the lights twinkling until it’s time to pack the ornaments away for Christmas future.

This essay appears in the December 14 edition of the Record-Littleton.