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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Father Christmas

Father Christmas

The first Christmas holiday after my parents’ divorce, our father led my siblings and me through the stuffy corridor to his apartment. He stopped us short of entering, and instructed us to wait in the hallway. My siblings and I waited, swaddled and sweating in our scarves. Then, with a twinkle in his eye that shown all the way to Bethlehem, Pops appeared at the door and ushered us inside.

The apartment was dark, except for a warm red glow illuminating the sitting area.

I saw Santa, but I could say nothing.

This Santa, or one of its many million incarnations, was typically found at garden centers or department stores in the aisle marked “Yard Ornaments” or “Outdoor Lighting.”  Not “Living Room Fixtures” as my father had seen fit.

And yet there in his living room, standing all of 3’5”, Santa shone.  A bright red beacon, arms outstretched, proffering a sackload of waxy, colorful presents. Santa, who, among the rest of my father’s furnishings – from the Ethan Allen Mid-Life Bachelor Collection – stood out like a garden gnome at Versailles.

My father crowed, “It’s SANTA!!” as we stood around the yard ornament in the living room, “Look at him!  Isn’t he the jolliest fellow you ever beheld?”

I stood at a distance, my mind swirling with the significance of Santa. “Doesn’t anyone else find this INCREDIBLY SAD?!” I wanted to cry.

Our father was living in a one bedroom apartment whose lobby smelled like armpits.  Just last year, we had all enjoyed Christmas in a large living room, charmed by the smell of pine from our real Christmas tree.  Suddenly, I felt as though we had been exiled to a trailer park, one where yard ornaments had to be kept indoors.

“Yeah,” Pops said, “Maybe once it snows we’ll put him out on your porch.”

Santa never got any fresh air that year.

My first semester away at school, mired in final exams and completely oblivious to the holiday season’s arrival, I called my father during a study break.

As Pops reported on all of the festivities, his voice crescendoed, “And, of course, Santa’s waiting for you.”

I choked at the thought of my brother and sister eating Christmas cookies and watching Claymation specials in their pajamas – all within Santa’s jocund gaze. I was so homesick.

After all of my exams were turned in that first semester, I came home to friends with photo albums and boys under mistletoes. But I also came home to Santa, whose hollow plastic barrel looked good enough to hug.  What once was an emblem of my sadness had become a token of home for the holidays.

During my last year of college, my father remarried.   Julie brought two cats to the relationship. My father brought three children. And one Santa. They moved into a home on a tony street of white light holiday schemes.

One day, Julie came home to Santa on her porch.

Try as she might to convince my father, her new husband, that he was single-handedly bringing down the property values for the whole neighborhood, Pops could not be dissuaded.

This did not come as a surprise to my siblings and me.  Pops is not a particularly recalcitrant person.  It’s just that he so fervently loves the holiday season and guards the spirit of the season as sacred.

Last year, I received a call at work from my father during the day, an oddity, which caused for alarm.

“I’m in bad shape,” he said. He was on his way to the hospital. He had fainted in an elevator at work and now he couldn’t keep food down.  The doctors discovered a hole in his esophagus due to stress. He underwent a blood transfusion for severe anemia, and his esophagus was patched.  While my father was recovering from surgery, I spoke with Julie on the phone. She had been hard-pressed to get my father to a doctor after his initial fainting in the elevator.

I asked her how she cajoled him to take time off work to go seek medical help.

“I threatened to call off Christmas,” she explained. “I said, ‘I’m not putting up the tree. No cards. No gifts. No Santa.’”

The last ultimatum had been the prompt that he needed.

Santa arrived late to his post on the porch that year. The neighbors probably thought Pops had retired him for good. Upon his reinstatement, the neighbors balked.

But since Santa may very well be the single most important reason my father is still alive, Santa is going nowhere. My family and I – Julie included – have embraced Santa as our own. He is our home team mascot, and no one boos for his home team.

Santa’s cherry nose has faded since he first came into our living room and our lives, but no amount of burned out bulbs, or the sneers of white lights-loving neighbors will ever banish him from our hearts.

Santa represents for us the childlike whimsy that Pops loves about holidays. The spirit of the season which is most palpable for him. The love and joy that are meant to be held right out in front, right out on the front porch.

This piece originally appeared in the Dorchester Reporter in December 2007.

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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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