Empty Chairs and Empty Tables

I have been looking forward to the release on Christmas Day of Les Miserables, the movie.  I loved the play and all those revivals of accumulated casts typically televised on PBS for fund raising events, with Colm Wilkinson in the lead.  For years I listened to the CD in my car, usually singing along, plaintively vocalizing the sad song of Fontine, or the righteous ballad of Javert, or belting out “Can you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men….,” harkening back to the passion of my old college Viet Nam War protests.

So on New Years night, I decided it was an auspicious moment to take myself to the movies and just allow myself to wallow in the music and the drama, the protests and love and tragedies, the Les Miz Experience.  I was in total swoony love with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean.  I was worried about Russell Crowe who looked terrified every time he had to sing.  Amanda Seyfried was a little annoying with her high pitched squeaky voice.  And Anne Hathaway sang her heartwrenching song in a performance that The New Yorker movie review noted she would probably parody herself in on Saturday Night Live.  But I overrode these little criticisms, and was completely engaged in the lavish sets and costumes and, of course, the music.  When Eddie Redmayne sang the beautiful “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” I was totally entranced.

So entranced was I during his passionate rendition of the song Marius sings after his friends have died in the battle on the barricade, that I didn’t realize until the elderly man sitting next to me handed me a handkerchief (a real cloth handkerchief, not a tissue) that I was quietly sobbing.  For me, the singer was not an idealistic university student during the French Revolution, he was a little boy in an elementary school in Connecticut.  “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken, there’s a pain goes on and on, empty chairs and empty tables, now my friends are gone.”  Empty desks, empty cubbies, empty playground swings and empty monkey bars.

I have found during the past few weeks since December 14, 2012, that the grief has not been spoken; it is too tragic, too horrible and too frightening.   We had all talked ad infinitum about Super Storm Sandy, the deaths, destruction, unpreparedness, power outages, Global Warming, subways under water, boats in the streets.   But in various social settings, in conversations with friends or colleagues, I found no one wanted to bring up the deaths in Connecticut.  I talked to my daughters, desperate to assure them how much I loved them, wanting to be sure I could console them.  Our ritual “I love you”s at the end of every phone call, xoxoxo’s at the end of every email took on deeper meanings as I thought of the last goodbyes of so many parents and their children.  But most of my grief was silent, unspoken.

I wanted to call my friend and colleague Teri Covington, Director of the National Center for  Child Death Review.  We had worked together on the review of child deaths in Nevada, a public health initiative to analyze each death and the circumstances, to make recommendations, to prevent future deaths, to “Keeping Kids Alive” as the Center’s tag line reads.  But what was the analysis of these child deaths?  It was all too simple:  innocent children, a violently disturbed young man, semi automatic fire arms.

“Oh, my friends, my friends don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for.

Empty chairs and empty tables.”

I didn’t call.  I quietly grieved.

On the website, grief.com, sponsored by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the phrase Public Grief is used and explained.   It is that pervasive grief that impacts an entire population:  the aftermath of 9/11, the massacres in Rwanda, the killings at Columbine, the shootings and deaths in a movie theater in Colorado, Gabrielle Giffords shot and members of her staff and constituency dead.  Through the media or direct contact with those affected, we are all affected.  Public grief is like any other public health epidemic, it ravages our bodies and emotions, impacts on our abilities to function, disrupts sleep and eating, it causes literal heartbreak.  But there is no typical arc of a disease outbreak.   And, there is no vaccine to prevent the damage, or surgery to correct, or medicine to treat.  The outcomes are as varied as each individual’s fingerprints.  Some will be energized to enact changes in laws or policies.  Some will sink into deep depression.  Some will reach out to the victims with love and tokens and memorials.  Some will find an artistic expression.  Some will provide counseling; some will receive it.  Some will advocate for teachers and school personnel to have guns.  Some will seem unaffected and will suffer emotional pain in years to come.  Some will advocate for the mentally ill and the disabled so that these do not become labels of fear or mistrust.  Some will grieve and join together with others and heal.  Some will quietly privately grieve. The pain goes on and on in a myriad of ways.

But I wonder what is grief? One definition is:  grief is a profound emotional process with very real biological symptoms that can endure for months.  But there is disagreement as to whether or not it is a “disease.”  The argument continues in regard to grief’s inclusion in the 2013 DSM:

Is grief a disease? That is one of the crucial questions psychologists are asking as the American Psychiatric Association revamps its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), used by millions of mental health professionals to diagnose patients, for a fifth edition due out in 2013.

A group of psychiatrists have spearheaded a movement to include ongoing grief as a disorder, to be labeled “complicated” or “prolonged grief.” Others have proposed, separately, that a mourner can be labeled clinically depressed only two weeks after the loss of a loved one. The problem with both potential changes is that more people’s grief will be diagnosed as abnormal or extreme, in a culture that already leads mourners to feel they need to just “get over it”. (slate.com)

The psychiatrists and psychologists can argue on, but I don’t know, is grief a disease? An epidemic? A private emotional struggle?  I am not sure this research helped me at all to know what grief is, I only know how it feels.  But I do know what grief is not.  It is not despair.  It is not revenge.  It is not blame.  It is not a justification for violence.

I don’t know how it is that someone who suffered such a great loss could also give all of us a great gift.  It is as though the person with the most extreme pain is also the person able to provide a healing process for the rest of the population.  Robbie Parker, Emilie Parker’s father, was able to speak of grief, his grief, his family’s grief, the grief we all feel.  He spoke of his daughter’s beauty and generosity of spirit. He spoke of kindness, humility and compassion, and the inspiration for us to love each other.  He gave us a very public message from his own heart to help all of us begin to heal from our public grief and our own private broken hearts.  And as I think of his words I am reminded of a card I keep on my desk that says:

“…I swear I will not dishonor my soul with hatred, but offer myself humbly as a guardian of nature, as a healer of misery, as a messenger of wonder, as an architect of peace….”*

The chairs and tables will remain empty forever.  All we can do as we grieve is to try to be architects building a kinder, more compassionate, more loving world around them.

And to never forget to tell our children how much we love them.

P491guardians

 

 

*from a poem by Diane Ackerman; cards and posters produced by and available from Syracuse Cultural Workers, Box 6367, Syracuse, NY   13217

 

 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”

It was not a beautiful day in the neighborhood.  The river swelled with rain, the high tide and the pull of the full moon which was obscured by the storm clouds. The wind blew houses apart, ripped out electrical wires, knocked down trees and set violent waves into motion.  On the streets of my little village, the storm left hundreds of people along the river and creek with water and mud in their basements, their living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens.  Some homes were missing entire walls. Docks were washed away.  Boats were in the streets and crushed into houses.  Without electricity the village was dark and people we had always welcomed as tourists became voyeurs to the devastation and some sadly came back under the cover of the darkness to take advantage of exposed boats and homes that still contained valuables.  We had a curfew in our little village.

As the days went on and communication was slowly restored we all became more and more aware of the assault on our larger neighborhood, other towns and villages where our family and friends live. Jersey City where two of my daughters live, Hoboken, the Jersey Shore with shocking pictures of homes washed out to sea and the roller coaster mangled and submerged.  Staten Island devastated; a woman walking around rubble where her house once was.  Battery Park under water and much of Manhattan at a standstill: a New York Moment became a long continuum of slow dark nights and days of daunting challenges of finding food, drinking water, housing and comfort.  There were deaths from falling trees, isolation, flooding.

Here in our little village we gathered last Thursday morning at the Village Hall for instructions, information and opportunities to help each other.  Our Mayor Chris Sanders said, “We didn’t lose anything of value; we lost stuff.  No one died.  We can replace the stuff but we can’t replace a life.”  “Life is far more than anything you can see or hear or touch.”  He didn’t say that, but it was the message in his message.

And the villagers joined together to help with the stuff.  Crews bulldozing the streets, neighbors helping neighbors pump water and clean sludge out of their homes, the Fire House serving as a temporary shelter.  I was fortunate.  I got to help just by doing something I love, cooking big pots of soup for people staying at the Fire House and the volunteers.  I also had the opportunity to just listen to some people who just needed to talk.   It was hard to listen knowing that I couldn’t fix anything that these women needed help with. I didn’t have answers, but I think there were people like Judy and Jackie and Helen and Sue who just needed someone to listen to their questions.  Like, “Can I ever go back to my house on the river?”  I thought of Atul Gawande’s book Better citing one of the five ways to change the world as listening.   I just tried to quiet myself down and truly listen.

There were all the public health issues of contaminated water and requirements of boiling drinking water, of wearing protective clothing in water that contained sewage and chemicals.  Concerns about food spoilage and gastrointestinal infections.   And the importance of safeguarding against stepping into water that had electrical wires concealed beneath the surface.  Although not too many homes in our village have garages I reminded people to not sit in a closed garage running their car to charge their cell phones.

In the midst of this I received an email from my daughter Kierra who had gotten information from my grandchildren’s Montessori School about what to tell kids about all the damage and devastation.  So often in the crisis and busyness of trying to cope and clean up and take care of and rebuild we forget that kids can’t understand what happened not just to them, but to others in the big neighborhood.  The email referenced a quote for parents, really any grown ups,to help children during a crisis in their own home, in the village, in the big neighborhood.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”  Fred Rogers

Those of us who are of a certain age and our children remember watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood which was on PBS for more than 30 years from 1968 to 2001.  It was in fact always a beautiful day in the neighborhood as Mr. Rogers slipped into his zip-up sweater and sneakers.  Although Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a little cardboard town, he gave kids and all of us who watched the understanding of the big neighborhood and our responsibilities for each other.  He helped us all understand, “That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”   And helpers that put the neighborhood back together after a superstorm that devastated homes and businesses and people’s lives.

As I look at the newspapers and the TV reports, at the online pictures of the damage left by the violent winds and surging water, I keep looking for the helpers and I keep reminding everyone I know, big and little that there are always helpers.  I don’t mean this in any way to be flippant.  The damage is real in real neighborhoods, not the little 1960’s cardboard TV set.  Precious irreplaceable lives have been lost and it will take a long time and immeasurable resources to fix and repair and replace the stuff.   But the messages that Mr. Rogers left for us are real, too, and I believe that these messages help us as helpers and as those who need so very much to be helped.

The Marathoners ran to Staten Island with rakes and shovels and bottled water. My friend Linda Burnside in Winnipeg ran her own fund raising  “Run Anyway.”  On the news last night there was the report of a man from Texas who drove to Long Island with supplies and food.  There was a fund raising concert last Friday night with Sting and Springsteen and Christina Aguilera supporting the Red Cross.   Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Nita Lowey came to our village.  The Salvation Army was here in Piermont, so were our DPW, Fire Fighters, Women’s Auxiliary, Police Force and our inspiring Mayor Chris Sanders.   The helpers are everywhere on this beautiful day in the neighborhood.  They are us.

(And by the way, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you, I have always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.”)

http://video.pbs.org/video/1415187976/

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFzXaFbxDcM

Fred Rogers > Quotes

“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me. ”

“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

“Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love. Like all of life’s important coping skills, the ability to forgive and the capacity to let go of resentments most likely take root very early in our lives.”

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are. ”

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”

“Mutual caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain.”

“Love and trust, in the space between what’s said and what’s heard in our life, can make all the difference in the world. ”

“The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.”

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”

“Whether we’re a preschooler or a young teen, a graduating college senior or a retired person, we human beings all want to know that we’re acceptable, that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others.”

“Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”

“I hope you’re proud of yourself for the times you’ve said “yes,” when all it meant was extra work for you and was seemingly helpful only to someone else.”

“The thing I remember best about successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they’re doing, and they love it in front of others.”

“We need to help people to discover the true meaning of love. Love is generally confused with dependence. Those of us who have grown in true love know that we can love only in proportion to our capacity for independence.”

“The child is in me still and sometimes not so still.”

“Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.”

“It’s very dramatic when two people come together to work something out. It’s easy to take a gun and annihilate your opposition, but what is really exciting to me is to see people with differing views come together and finally respect each other.”

“The connections we make in the course of a life–maybe that’s what heaven is.”

“Little by little we human beings are confronted with situations that give us more and more clues that we are not perfect. ”

“It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”

“I’m proud of you for the times you came in second, or third, or fourth, but what you did was the best you have ever done”

“When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”

“In the external scheme of things, shining moments are as brief as the twinkling of an eye, yet such twinklings are what eternity is made of — moments when we human beings can say “I love you,” “I’m proud of you,” “I forgive you,” “I’m grateful for you.” That’s what eternity is made of: invisible imperishable good stuff.”

“At the center of the Universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision us to continue against all odds. Life is for service.”

“Whatever we choose to imagine can be as private as we want it to be. Nobody knows what you’re thinking or feeling unless you share it.”

“The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.”

“What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness.
A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re MUCH more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.”

“Peace means far more than the opposite of war.”

“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”

“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”

“I don’t think anyone can grow unless he’s loved exactly as he is now, appreciated for what he is rather than what he will be.” “Try your best to make goodness attractive. That’s one of the toughest assignments you’ll ever be given.”

“How great it is when we come to know that times of disappointment can be followed by joy; that guilt over falling short of our ideals can be replaced by pride in doing all that we can; and that anger can be channeled into creative achievements… and into dreams that we can make come true.”

“A young apprentice applied to a master carpenter for a job. The older man asked him, “Do you know your trade?” “Yes, sir!” the young man replied proudly. “Have you ever made a mistake?” the older man inquired. “No, sir!” the young man answered, feeling certain he would get the job. “Then there’s no way I’m going to hire you,” said the master carpenter, “because when you make one, you won’t know how to fix it.”

“I believe that appreciation is a holy thing–that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”

“There was a story going around about the Special Olympics. For the hundred-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and, at the sound of the gun, they took off. But one little boy didn’t get very far. He stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him–every one of them ran back to him. The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line.
They all finished the race at the same time. and when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. And you know why? Because deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”

“It’s really easy to fall into the trap of believing that what we do is more important than what we are. Of course, it’s the opposite that’s true: What we are ultimately determines what we do!”

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood,
A neighborly day for a beauty.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?

Won’t you please,
Won’t you please?
Please won’t you be my neighbor?”