It’s a Wonderful Wife: What Mary Bailey is teaching me about how to live post-Sandy Hook

Five years ago on December 14, we heard and read of the horror that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, We imagined the grief of these parents who had already wrapped Christmas presents for their children, these babies whom they would now have to bury. Their grief was beyond our fathoming, so monstrous and so paralyzing.

Anne Lamott writes about Sandy Hook in her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, particularly how paralysis is not a place to stay on the heels of grief.  “You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next. Without stitches, you just have rags. And we are not rags,” Lamott writes. “We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the whole shebang, you miss the stitching.”

A powerful epidemic of kindness ensued following Sandy Hook. NBC ‘s Ann Curry spurred us on to commit 20 acts of kindness. To include the women who died at the school, The 26 Acts of Kindness movement began with a roar. Donations of talent and treasure and teddy bears swelled not only around Newtown but into communities everywhere. The lightness and goodness did its damndest to drive out the darkness.

Five years later, we are numbed by the regularity of massacre on our soil. We are bereft of shock when another mass shooting occurs. Great sweeping acts of kindness may feel, well, a bit naive when the forces that are meant to protect our freedom from fear are, at best, crumbling, or at their very worst, seem to be the embodiment of evil.

In our impotence, many of us will turn to tropey holiday films as we do year after year. That old standby It’s a Wonderful Life will remind us with the chiming of bells and angel wings of what matters.

On a recent reviewing of Frank Capra’s classic, though, it occurred to me that the protagonist, George Bailey, is not the hero America needs at this moment. It’s the First Lady of the Bailey Building and Loans: Mrs. Mary Bailey. George’s mother tells him she is “someone who can help you find the answers.” Maybe she can help America find some, too.

At first blush, Mary Bailey may appear to be one who settles, one who cannot dream beyond Bedford Falls. But Mary cultivates contentment in every circumstance. She doesn’t get an epic honeymoon; she makes loans to fretful bank account holders with her wedding money. She fixes up a leaking, decrepit, old mansion; she calls it the bridal suite. She’s complicit in this — even seems to take joy in it all — and we never see her utter an embittered word about it.

When our protagonist faces his dark night of the soul, it is Mary who leads the charge to save him and his bank. Stitching together a network of friends, she watches as each pours in his dollars and cents.

every time a bell rings

At the heart of all George’s pain is a miserly banker named Mr. Potter whose crotchetiness is only transcended by his greed. Unlike George, Mary does not seem to waste a moment fuming at Potter. Mary’s focus is on what’s possible.

The last few years have been a dark night of the soul for our country.

I have frittered away much of this year reading incendiary Twitter threads and rolling my eyes at political frenemies. To what end? If I am to look to the model of Mary Bailey, then my focus needs to be set on what’s possible.

it's a wonderful life

The poignant beauty of Sandy Hook was a whole nation averting its eyes from the Terrible and Unfathomable and pivoting toward the Lovely and Generous. The indomitable spirit within each one of us has the power to spur something powerful again, by first fixing our eyes on a more redemptive future. We will believe that our disparate rags can become something of a shelter in this “drafty old barn,” to borrow a phrase from George speaking to the one and only Mary Bailey, as she asks, “What’s wrong?” while she fixes the salad. Mary, always fixing.

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Required Reading: What Made Maddy Run

I haven’t visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and seen where she and her family hid in the annex until the Gestapo found them. I have, however, imagined many times what it was like for her father to return to that place and find her diary. I understand if you visit the house, you will watch a television clip of Otto Frank saying how surprised he was to finally read Anne’s “deep thoughts, the seriousness, especially the self-criticism.” I am always so amazed at the honesty, the humility it must have taken this loving father who had lived in the closest of proximity that any parent could imagine to occupy with his or her teenager for years to say, “My conclusion is…that most parents don’t know –really–their children.”

Madison Holleran kept an Anne Frank quotation in her inspiration log on her MacBook. This is what journalist Kate Fagan found after Holleran committed suicide and Holleran’s family gave Fagan the laptop. Fagan first reported on Holleran’s tragic death in an excellent feature, “Split Image” on espnW. Fagan has expanded the piece into a book, What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen that I believe should be required reading for anyone living in 2017.

I think this book is so important because Maddy is every kid who has ever put pressure on himself or herself to not just do well but to be excellent in order to make her parents proud. This passage by Fagan resonated with me:

Those lucky enough to grow up envisioning college start hearing about the building blocks of a college resume (the boxes that need checking, the optics that need preserving) from the moment they enter high school, and sometimes even sooner. Too often, kids are herded into commitments and activities that are born not of passion but of obligation. These obligations can continue for years because stopping is not seen as a possibility. Those who do stop risk being perceived as lacking fortitude to push through when the going gets tough.

I was Maddy to the nth degree, working two jobs in high school while pulling a 4.0, leading every imaginable service club, and crushing it with the extra-curriculars. The chief difference is that I slid into my depression/anxiety valley in which I stopped eating and menstruating and generally wanting to be alive well before I left for college. My parents helped me to get the extra support I needed. I believe my story could have been Maddy’s story had I not already been in therapy by the time I left for school.

The other chief difference is that Maddy came of age on social media. Fagan does a first-rate job of explaining the paradox of overconnection and undercommunication. Although we are in touch with one another all day, few of us are engaged in face-to-face communication with each other, or hearing the deep, heaving sigh on the phone. We are constantly decoding what is uttered between the emoji. Fagan’s indictment of this 24/7 texting, posting culture is accurate and she concedes that she has admittedly perpetuated it at times.

What Made Maddy Run is part communication scholarship, part journalism, and part mental health exposition. It is a book that comes alongside a grieving family and asks them to share what they knew then and what they know now. It is not a parenting guide for how to launch a teen into a safe Instagram filter. It is not a playbook for suicide prevention. It is simply a necessary book that has made me feel less alone, not only as one who battles generalized anxiety/depression, but as one who is shepherding kids through uncharted territory. Like every parent who has gone before me, I’m just trying not to be in the dark.

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Starbucks Red Cups and Choosing the Good Portion

As November 1st has become synonymous with Red Cup Season for vapid people who have embarrassingly frivolous priorities such as being the first person to show-and-tell a paper cup to the people who live in their phone, HAPPY NOVEMBER 1ST, FAM!

Okay but for real, I enjoy the advent of the Sixbucks festive cup almost as much as I like someone else, especially a barista (they’re always named Brad, aren’t they?) making me a chai almond latte.

This morning, I noticed the new mug warmer gripper thing said, “GIVE GOOD.” The grammarian in me paused for the flash of a moment. Don’t you mean, “Give well”? But then I understood the sentiments. Don’t just give well. Give the good, be a good giver, give the thing that is hard but oh-so-good to give.

It reminded me of the story of when Jesus visited Mary and Martha in their home. Martha, as we know, was fussing and Swiffering and freaking out that the popcorn burned again even though she knew not to press the auto-popcorn button on the microwave (why is it always wrong?). But Mary, Mary just chilled in her Snuggie and offered Jesus a Capri Sun and asked how his day was going. She hung on his every word.

And Jesus said Mary chose the “good portion.”

In fact, when you read the account in Luke Ch. 10, Jesus told Martha to knock off that martyr crap and to take a break. He specifically told her to stop spazzing because “few things are needed—or indeed only one.” Of course, we know by the light of the year 2017 that Jesus was talking about himself as that one Needful Thing. Martha was cleaning the dickens out of her house when she had the Savior sitting right there on her sofa.

It reminded me of the frantic gifting season upon us. As a creative entrepreneur, I have to ramp up my production and I already feel behind. I go on Instagram and see the feeds of every other Etsy shop owner and I start to sweat. It’s like they’ve all gotten their Red Cups and I’m still trying to download the Starbucks app. They’re already listing holiday items and I’m still circling the aisles at Michael’s wondering if I have a coupon to get both the glue sticks and the paint markers. Gah!

But that’s just some Martha wheel-spinning. She’d be the one queuing up the Pinterest projects because she felt she needed to make the holidays spectacular. Whereas Mary found the best presents of God’s presence.

In this way, we can choose to Give Good by first choosing the Good for ourselves. As we embark on a season of inevitable consumption, I know we all try to do our best to avoid register rage and parking jackassery. Yet, choosing to avoid is not always an option or even advisable, especially where holidays are concerned. Hashtag I live with a therapist. Trust.

So I resolve to Give Good, Seek Good, Pray Good. I know this is possible not in total resistance to the season of consumption but in carrying the goodness and light of the season, right in front of me, like a Red Cup warming my hands and reminding my heart to Give Good.

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