Monday, December 31, 2012

Endings and Beginnings

It's hard to believe another year has is gone. I'm another year older, and hopefully wiser. It's hard to believe my babies are really not babies anymore -- they are 10 and 3 years old. Times, they are a-changin', as Dylan sings.

Every year I sit down and write out the annual Christmas family newsletter. I know how ridiculous the Christmas newsletters can be, and frankly, as I sit down to pen the bragging family accomplishments it feels somewhat snobby and crazy and stupid. But I do it nonetheless, to share with far-away family and friends, and for one other selfish reason: To help me process and log the year. It's a good way to remember all the "good" that happened in our family this year; a way to count our blessings. It's a family history of sorts, and we can look back someday on this year and see where our family was and how blessed we were.

This Christmas season was a different one, to say the least. Every year, I, as well as many others, start with lofty goals. Get the holiday cards out early (I am still sending them out now!). Get the shopping done early (the majority was done early, I guess). Wrap early (didn't happen this year). Etc. etc. Of course, the holiday spirit was interrupted by the sadness in Sandy Hook, which lingered throughout the Christmas holiday. We did many fun things, however, as I look through the pictures, and I will treasure those moments.

Tonight is New Year's Eve, and we will spend a quiet family night at home. We usually watch movies, but Big Girl has asked to watch the "Cake Boss" marathon on TLC, so it looks like we will be watching crazy cakes for the holiday before the ball in Times Square drops.

New years, of course, mean new beginnings. I am hoping that the events in Connecticut earlier this month will shape our society in 2013. I am very pessimistic about this, however: As we move away from Dec. 14, will the memories and lessons be as gnawing and fresh? Will we remember to be kind? To count our blessings? To change? To look more closely at safety and laws and protection of our citizens? To curb knee-jerk reactions into reasonable expectations? To continue 26 Random Acts of Kindess into indefinite acts of kindness? To remember Newtown doesn't need money and teddy bears, but prayers and compassion and help for years to come? To curb materialism and our dependence on technology to just be good human beings to other good human beings?

My father volunteered at a Sandy Hook church last week.
He came home with this card, cross and bracelet.
The card has many hopeful Bible verses to
help one cope with the Newtown tragedy.
I want to be filled with hope. I want to think that most will remember. I had a conversation the other day with a friend about Facebook, about how it was interesting to observe the news feed post-12/14. At first, nothing but sadness and prayers and remembrances and condolences. Then a few days later, regular life crept into the feed -- mostly from non-Connecticut friends. And then, it was mostly back to normal. My friend said she actually had to stop her Facebook usage and hasn't really gone back. She could not read the "normal life" posts when she was so close to the tragedy, so affected by it. I understand her reasoning.

Life does go on after a tragedy, even one as horrific as what happened in Sandy Hook that day. The only hope is that society learns from it. I don't necessarily mean tightening gun control laws or putting armed guards in schools or locking up the mentally insane -- I mean that people learn to stop focusing on what is not important and focus on what is.

That is my hope for 2013. That we come together, stronger, stop judging, put aside pettyness and selfish behavior, stop worrying about what really doesn't matter, and remember, that in the end, all we need is love.

Cherish the New Year's holiday 
with your loved ones!
See you all in 2013!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Love Wins

On Sunday, I took a drive to Sandy Hook to see the memorials. My husband and I decided to take separate trips. Big Girl was too emotional and did not want to see it. Despite having Christmas tasks to finish, I hopped in the car Sunday morning to take the 20-minute drive and see it first-hand. I felt compelled to visit before it all disappears, which is said to be happening this week.

Seashells with victims name on them under wreaths for each life lost.
I was very conflicted on whether or not I "should" do this. Some consider it a morbid act, a wrong thing to do. It is not a tourist attraction -- yet it is.

Prayers to heaven fill the red bowl.
But in the end, I am completely at peace with my decision to go see it all -- "peace" being the key word. I felt so full of peace after leaving Sandy Hook that morning. So grateful that I had witnessed what I had witnessed. It is very hard to put into words how incredibly moving the memorials are. It is nothing like I have ever experienced in my life.

There are many small memorials around various sites in Newtown, but the primary two spots are in the village of Sandy Hook, as well as the entrance to the Sandy Hook School. It was very easy to find a parking spot in the village and walk to both sites.

The memorials fill both sides of the street in the village of Sandy Hook.
It is really unbelievable how much there is left there in tribute.
There are so many people doing the same thing -- so many people! -- yet it was incredibly quiet. So very, very quiet. The loudest noises are the cars driving by. It is absolutely stunning how silent all the people are. Every now and then you hear a child's voice ask a question to a parent, but other than that, it's still, silent, just a whisper of "excuse me" as people try to navigate around others, with cell phones, taking pictures. Many carry flowers, gifts, and leave them among the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of things lining the streets. Tents are everywhere to protect the items, keeping the candles lit and the stuffed animals and paper ornaments from becoming two soggy from earlier rains this week.

So many things struck me. One was the numerous tributes paid in Christmas cookies. Boxes of them, bags with names on them, and even elaborate gingerbread houses set up around the memorial. It was said that on the day of the shooting, parents were to have made gingerbread houses with some of the little lives lost in their classrooms. Clearly that moment never happened. And clearly many felt the need to leave a gingerbread house because of this. I don't think I could ever look at a gingerbread house the same way again.

There are signs from all over country, declaring other communities' support for the town and the tragedy. There are numerous angels, Christmas ornaments, letters, notes, candles, stuffed animals, toys, school supplies, crosses... It goes on. And on. And on. And flowers...

It takes your breath away. During my visit, I was pretty good at not getting too emotional -- or so I thought. After walking through the endless displays in the village, I walked up the road to the site of the school. The shoulder of the road is blocked off for pedestrians; there are so many walking the same path that the police -- who are everywhere -- clearly are trying to allow visitors a safe journey down the road.

Walking from the village to the school.
When the tents come into view, it becomes abundantly clear that this is the site -- the entrance to the school where so many lives perished. And then you see the Christmas trees:

One after another, after another, after another,
and the enormity of all is very real. 
A tree for every person lost. It is unfathomable.

The trees have dozens and dozens of ornaments on them left by mourners. More flowers and notes and candles and stuffed animals are on the ground. The display goes on and on, curving into the road which leads to the school.

Seeing this was so incredibly moving, tragic, beautiful... It is just incredible the sheer amount of love that radiates from these exhibits. Nothing is valuable, yet everything is place with such love by someone, from somewhere, from around the town, state, world... You feel it, and you feel it deeply. A soggy teddy bear, a rose, a paper angel. Someone left these for someone lost, and it stuns the soul when you realize that the tragedy in a neighboring town is causing the world to weep.

Memorials have cropped up at every tragic event: Sept. 11th, Princess Diana's death... I never personally witnessed those, but I am sure that the feelings are likely the same. I do not know if Sandy Hook is so personal to me because it is so geographically close; if it hits home because I have three little ones; or because I volunteer in the schools; or how the insaneness of it all just makes one feel no place is sacred.

The little LEGO model made me think of my own LEGO-loving kids.
Whatever it is, it will be very hard to ever, ever forget. I choose not to forget. I hope not to forget. And I hope that the world feels the same because only good should be the result of an evil we could not prevent.

Love should win. Love will win. Love has won. Love wins.

The memorials will be removed next week. The town will recycle them into "soil" to be used in a permanent memorial. I know many of you live far away, unable to see these first-hand. I hope, that in some small way, this blog post of my own visit, will give you some comfort. Some hope. Some love. 

Tonight, share the love.
Pay tribute to Sandy Hook by leaving 
a candle lit on your front steps, front walk or driveway. 
Help light up the night for heaven's angels. 
Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Waiting for New Year

Day 3's morning newspaper. Three pages of obituaries for lives lost. Heartbreaking.
It Day 7. One week.

I have tried and stopped, and written and deleted, for days now. I find it hard to say anything that will be worthy of honoring those lost in the Sandy Hook tragedy. The past week has been engulfed with immeasurable sadness. I know the feeling resonates across the country. As news trickles in, we are given stories of heartache, stories of bravery, sweet stories of little children. It's the stories that get me. I love them, every sweet detail. I hate them because we are hearing about lives lost, little ones lost days before the most-anticipated holiday of the year who leave behind grieving families. I cherish them because they inspire me to be a better person and honor those angels.

There are so many other stories too. I recently read a story about Gene Rosen, a retired man who lives near Sandy Hook School and found six children sitting near the edge of his driveway Friday morning. The children fled the classroom of slain teacher Victoria Soto in the hail of gunfire and ran out of the school. A bus driver was standing over them. Rosen brought them in his house, gave them stuffed animals and juice and called their parents.

Pies with initials of lives lost,
made by volunteer bakers in New Jersey.
Author Beth Howard, who penned the book "Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss & Pie," headed to Connecticut as to hand out slices of pie in the community. Howard, who suffered her own loss, just decided to leave her home -- the American Gothic house in Iowa -- and hop in her RV to drive to the East Coast. She, and numerous volunteers, have baked hundreds of pies in New Jersey to bring here, and then later baked more in CT. It is her way of healing, albeit with comfort food. You can read more about Howard at The World Needs More Pie. (There has been some question, among my journalism friends who witness the pie-giveaway in Newtown, of whether this was self-promotion, or "grief tourism." I'd like to think it wasn't, but since I'm mentioning her, I thought I would mention it.)

Since we focus on twins often on this blog, I would remiss if I didn't mention little Noah Pozner. Noah perished at Sandy Hook leaves behind a twin sister, who escaped the tragedy because she was in another classroom. Twiniversity wanted to honor this little boy, and managed to raise more than $5,000 in a single day via social media, which will be used to plant a tree in Central Park. A generous benefactor matched the donation, and now two trees will be planted side-by-side in the park.

One of the adults who perished has a grandson who happens to be in an after-school club I run at my daughter's school. It is devastating to hear these connections to lives lost, day after day, during this past week. Just when you think what happened 20 minutes away can't get any closer, it does. Friends going to funerals. A victim buried in my hometown this morning. A neighbor calling to watch her daughter when she gets off the bus, because the parent is stuck in Newtown for a funeral. Day, after day, the much less than six-degrees-of-separation are amplified.

Sandy Hook has become the daily normal in our lives in CT, and I wonder if it is the same across the country. Countless messages about school security from administrators, actual threats and more lockdowns, calls to add armed guards and bulletproof glass to schools; requests to form a human chain to prevent a crazed group of so-called religious individuals from picketing at local funerals. There are also many grass-roots efforts to help, whether it is to donate money or items or meals or create tributes.

I am very conflicted by some of this, and have decided that perhaps the greatest way to help is to follow the 26 Acts of Kindness movement: Perform 26 acts of kindness in honor of each of the lives lost. It doesn't have to be donating -- money is pouring into Sandy Hook by the bucketfuls, funeral expenses are being covered, scholarships are being set up, teddy bears are accumulating by the truckloads, etc. Here is a good blog post about ideas of what a random act of kindness is. I sometimes think it is the little things, the caring things, that ability to just be nice to others, that will honor these people most of all. Making the world a better place can occur through the simplest of actions that don't involve one penny.

Also, the Connecticut PTSA is collecting homemade snowflakes to put in the relocated Sandy Hook School when the kids return after winter break. They want to make the "new" school a "Winter Wonderland." We will be participating in this mission, and my Girl Scout troop is making snowflakes as well. It's a great project for Christmas break, doesn't cost much, and gives the kids some way to participate.

Send your snowflakes to:
Connecticut PTSA
60 Connolly Parkway
Building 12, Suite 103
Hamden, CCT 06514

There are so many footnotes to all of this; I could write a million words. I think it's only fitting to mention my former colleagues at a local newspaper who have been spending days and nights covering this story. They have been nothing but respectful in their words and pictures and actions. They have worked, as they are required to, while many criticize them, under intense pressure and stress. These editors, writers and photographers have been spending countless hours working to get this story right and to make sure it is respectful. They have families as well and it is very hard for them as it is for all of us. It should be noted that we -- meaning my local newspaper's community -- are grieving for our own as well. Two of our former colleagues and respected friends lost loved ones who were adult victims in the shooting. We are devastated for them.

Today was the very poignant moment of silence. It is pouring, pouring buckets of rain here. Just incredible amounts of raindrops falling from the sky. It's like tears from heaven. Or a cleansing bath to wash all this sadness away, and say it's time to greet the world with a better attitude and mission. The new year is coming.

I hope you all do have a wonderful Christmas. 
There is more meaning in the season this year, don't you think? 

See you all in the New Year.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Let There Be Peace on Earth

There are only two towns separating my hometown on Newtown. Two. Only about 20 minutes.Twenty.

Friday was a normal day. Big Girl off to school; twins running around. I was trying to clean up my house, get my bedroom and bathroom back in order after our recent little remodel. Tackle mountains of laundry. I was due to be the "Mystery Reader" in Big Girl's class at 12:30 p.m. so I was trying to do as much as possible before the little ones needed to be dropped at my parents' house. The babies were watching Nick Jr. and "Sesame Street."

Nearing noon, I decided to stop at McDonald's for lunch for the twins to eat at my parents' house. I went through the drive-thru, ordered, and my phone rang. It was our schools' alert message system, informing me that "due to the shooting at a school in Newtown," the towns' schools were now on "lockdown/lock-in" with a policeman stationed outside.

My first thought was OK, safety measures; my second thought was how do I get in? I called the office and asked "Do I come? Am I allowed in?" Yes. And yes. I just need to identify myself and show ID and the teacher had notified the office that I would be coming.

The news of the shooting, at that point, did not send off warning bells in my head. I thought it might be a domestic dispute, like a estranged husband going after a wife; or something involving older kids at a high school. That is not to belittle either of those possibilities, but as I drove to my parents, I just never thought that it could be this. This bad. Kids this young. This many. This gruesome. This truly close to home.

At my parents' house, the TV was on. The news reported it was bad. Possibly the worst. Ever. No numbers yet. An elementary school. Little kids. Babies.

I headed to my daughter's school and hit the button on the door. A police SUV was sitting in the lot. On any normal day, a buzzer would sound and the door would unlock. Today, a voice: "Who is it?" I answered and the door unlocked. The office staff were standing, talking on phones, reassuring parents as phones were ringing. Young teachers were frantic. "You send your kids to school and this happens? I got to work and I need to fear for my life?" one young teacher says to me, walking by with her lunch.

Faces everywhere are tense.

I walk down to my daughter's class, and they are waiting for me. I read them a story, a Laura Ingalls Wilder one, of course, making them laugh about how Christmas in the pioneer days seems laughably simple right now. "A penny in the toe of the stocking! A whole penny!" Wilder writes, and I read the line with a little humor -- A WHOLE PENNY!! The class laughs. I am grateful. The kids, now, seem fine. My phone is ringing in my pocket. I ignore it. I finish, get up to leave, and my daughter hugs me -- hard. Does she know? Does she know how bad it is?

In the hallway, I listen to my voice mail. It's the school alert, again. Lockdown will be lifted but police will remain outside of the school. Faces, everywhere, are still tense. My phone's beeping, beeping, messages. I walk out the school doors. I wave to the policeman, a thankful wave.

By the time I am back at my parents' house, numbers are released. My phone is beeping. I check my messages. Is everything OK? Friends around the country are sending Facebook messages. Some are just hearing "school shooting" and "Connecticut" and of course, think of me, and others. Are we OK?

Yes, we are OK. But not completely. Who can be right now?

I head home with the twins. Try to continue chores, but I'm totally distracted by the television. The twins obliviously play, and Buddy Twin eventually naps on the couch. They are too young, so young, too young to know anything other than Mommy is upset. I numbly watch continuous live coverage with the Christmas tree lit up two feet away from the television. It seems to mock the news. Stupid Christmas. Why now?

At 3:25, the bus pulls up. Big Girl comes in the house. "Mom, we had lockdown today," she says, as if lockdown is just a natural activity. (Unfortunately, it sometimes is. They practice hiding in corners now. Isn't that just absolutely sad to hear?)

I ask her if she knows why. She says a classmate saw something in the nurses' office and "something like two bad criminals got out a few towns away and killed somebody." Umm, no.

No, I tell her. It's actually much worse than that. She is 10. If I do not tell her now, she will hear somewhere else. Better to face the truth immediately. I tell her a crazy man got into a school and shot many people. Yes, kids. Yes, teachers. I tell her that this is not a normal thing; it is very rare; it is not something to worry about happening to her. It is why we practice safety drills. It is why you have lockdown.

I hug her tight. And then I sob. I don't want to scare her but I am sad because I know she will remember this day and look back on it like I remember Sept. 11. This reminds me very much of Sept. 11. I tell her this is a very, very sad event. Does she have questions? "Do we know any of the people who died?" she asks. I don't think so, I tell her. We may know people who know them, however. And that was very true.

We sit down and watch President Obama speak. Then the day continues on.

Over the course of the night, news emerges. Possible victims, connections to many friends on Facebook.
Many friends who are teachers worked under the principal at other schools. The principal's daughter lives in my town and the principal's grandchildren are in our schools. A friend works with a parent who lost a child. Another friend tells a tale of a little girl she knows who lost her best friend. Another friend lives next door to the mother of an adult victim. Stories of heroism emerge.

It's all so surreal as notable newspeople are just minutes from my home, broadcasting live on television and Twitter and online. My former news colleagues from across the country are assigned stories to cover this tragedy.

A prayer vigil is planned in my hometown.

My husband is sick; stomach bug or food poisoning or something. I leave him to rest in the bedroom and bring my pillow to the couch. I can't sleep. I doze in and out; CNN in the background. In the middle of the night, I check my phone. Messages. Facebook messages. I fall asleep in the armchair.

The sun rises. It is my twins' birthday. They are 3.

I should be happy, but I am sad. I fetch the newspaper and make a cup of coffee and sit down to read. The little ones are up. My husband is up, but not feeling great. The babies open their presents and are happy and smiling. I am happy to have them. Happy to have my Big Girl too.

We were supposed to go to an aquarium today, but my husband is too sick, and it should not matter because I am capable of going on my own. But I am not in the mood nor moving fast enough this morning to leave in time to drive the 75 minutes to get there for the day. I change plans. Lunch out, at Friendly's, every kids favorite place, with crayons and comfort food and ice cream. I ask my mom to go. The twins are very active so it is hard to have an outing where they have to sit still. After lunch we head to Walmart and I am a puddle of tears in the car. I am mad at me for being so mad at them for their fidgetyness at the restaurant, for wanting this one thing to be happy and nice and birthday-like when the world feels so uncelebratory at the moment. I am frustrated and tired and mentally exhausted and Walmart is not helping matters by being so busy and remodeled where I can't find anything.

We head back home to my parents' house and visit with my father. I decide to run to the local pharmacy to get a flu shot. I fill out the paperwork and wait for the tech in the waiting area. I check my phone. A former colleague's daughter is among the dead. She was a substitute teacher at the school.

I pick up the kids and we head home. My husband is feeling better. We decide to go see Christmas lights as soon as it gets dark. I feed the children something to eat, then put on their pajamas and we drive around to see lights set to music at two locations. Buddy Twin falls asleep in the car. I carry him up to his bed. Bunny Twin plays with my husband and Big Girl.

I decide to go to the prayer vigil.

It is cold. There are hundreds of people. Our town green is overflowing with those hurting for our neighbors two towns away. There is crying. There are prayers. There is song. There are candle lights, but they ran out of candles. Every clergyman and pastor and priest in town speaks. We ache. Sadness on a cold winter's night. Voices ring out: Let there be peace on earth.

Home again. I'm on the computer, writing this. But my personal story really doesn't matter when parents are mourning tiny children, days before Christmas, just a few miles away. And other children are robbed of their childhood for what they witnessed.

I don't know if I will be back to this blog before Christmas. I hope your holidays are happy. That you share time with loved ones and cherish every moment. This next week, I will be busy with a very heavy heart. Keep Connecticut in your prayers.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Happy Birthday to My Babies!

My twins turn 3 years old tomorrow -- THREE YEARS OLD!!! How is this possible? I needed to take a walk down memory lane to remind myself that time, indeed has passed. Enjoy the proud mama moments below. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas at the Dollhouse

The dollhouse is decked our for Christmas! Big Girl and I decorated it the other night. As we were going through our decorations, we realized we need a new tree for the living room, so our little house is lacking a bit of Christmas cheer. The tree was just a bottle brush-style tree that you use in those holiday villages; most of them have snow on them, but this one didn't so we used it inside. I had strung a set of mini lights, also from those tiny village accessories on it, but both the tree and the lights have seen better days. I need to scope out a new one.

Here's the front door. The little sled by the front is an LL Bean ornament. Ornaments can be the perfect little things for dollhouses! This year, we have a new addition to the decor:

The little red wagon with presents inside is actually an ornament from the Sandra Lee line at Kmart. It's really a perfect little addition to the yard, don't you think?

Check out this, however:

Yes, that's a Leg Lamp in the living room window. Be careful, it's fra-gi-ley! (We just love "A Christmas Story," don't you? So retro, so cute.) The leg lamp was a stocking stuffer to my husband last year, who jokes that he wants one for our real living room window. Sure, it would be funny, but I can't get past my love of sweet, country Christmas stuff to actually put something like that my window. So we just got this for the dollhouse! It's actually a little porcelein hinged box. It's the perfect size, however. I only wish it would light up!

Have a merry "little" Christmas!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Gingerbread Village

Every year a little church near our house displays a giant Gingerbread Village. The church members spend months planning and creating elaborate houses. The houses are on display for one week only, during which visitors can purchase a house and pick it up at the end of the week-long event.

Big Girl always has a half-day of school during the week the village is on display, and this year was no exception. Bunny Twin joined our excursion this year; Buddy Twin was sleeping so we left him home with my mom. It was definitely a bit of a challenge to contain a toddler in the crowded gingerbread room, but we managed to leave unscathed!

The village is always so inspiring! This was my favorite house:

I love the little pretzel fence on this one, and the sheep are so cute!

Another adorable house -- love the windows!

A sweet barn:

It's always fun to check out all the different creations and see what they come up with each year. And believe it or not, admission to this event is free! They take donations, and the houses are, of course, for sale, with some sold for hundreds of dollars. The church also has a holiday bazaar and lunches available during the event. It's very popular; when we arrived on a Tuesday afternoon, there were three senior citizen buses in the parking lot. 

Do you have a gingerbread display in your area?