Lesser Lights

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The major stars are always more visible than those around them. It’s demonstrably true not only in the galaxies but in the more modest constellations of humanity. Our attentions are naturally drawn toward those who shine most impressively and dramatically—for good or ill; those more modestly gifted or less showy mostly find their own lights muddled or even eclipsed by the intensity nearby, and as a result we seldom spot and take note of them.

Even those of us who are not only accustomed to, but also aware of, being humbled and diminished by comparison to others’ flashier character can easily forget how this applies to others. Just because I might feel neglected doesn’t necessarily mean I notice others being equally shortchanged; indeed, it’s more likely that if I’m feeling under-appreciated I get too preoccupied with my longing to be Special and resentful navel-gazing to think that I’m probably in the majority rather than otherwise.

Still, there’s hope. Just as a supernova will someday burn to nothingness, human stars tend mostly to flash into the general notice, burn however brightly for however long, and be dimmed by eventual inattention or death. They, too, will eventually be outshone and/or replaced by other stars whose time has come.

And if I, or any other, should in the meantime feel unreasonably hidden from sight, we are still free to seek our own bit of gleam. For some folk, that seeking comes in ambitions for accomplishment and fame. For the rest of us, the surest way to kindle the blazing fire that gives off sufficient heat and light to be noted by anyone else is to turn our focus outward. Devoting energy, attention and love to causes and works outside of our petty selves, and especially to other persons, is the spark that, when kindled in their spirits, creates the steadiest, most lasting kind of light. Even the smallest and weakest among us shines brightly in this tiny act of selfless will.digital illustration

Rainmakers

Now that super storm Sandy is mostly past, those in the wake of the destruction are left to dig out from under all of the mayhem. As all natural disasters do, Sandy left behind not only massive damage brought on by the high winds, flooding, snow, fire and explosions that were part of the storm and its immediate effects but a whole swath of financial, social, political, logistical and definitely not least of all, emotional and personal damages that will take years to be mitigated, let alone resolved. Besides the losses of life and health that are such obvious costs of a massive storm ripping through, we all know–those who have been through this grinder before, anywhere in the world most especially–that there are innumerable other things once held dear that have been slashed away in a few hours’ time and many of them will never be recovered.digital painting from a photo

The homes blown down, stripped away by violent waters, or burned were filled with people and lives and the Stuff of those lives–in many cases, all gone. The businesses closed for a few days, often in crucial periods of their peak season, are eclipsed by those whose doors, if they still physically exist, will close forever and by the many owners and employees and customers who will have to find other resources for making a living or acquiring the services and goods they count on to shape their ordinary lives. They will all find, as my spouse said very quietly to me when I came down the stairs to find him waiting palely on the 11th of September in 2001, that ‘the world as we know it has changed.’digital painting from a photo

But we also know from long experience that disasters, whether natural or human-made, can bring unexpected goodness trailing in their wake. The immediate selflessness and generosity and heroism shown by those who rush into the maelstrom to save others and who pull the stricken into their waiting arms of safety and warmth and shelter and healing are, when we others take a lesson from their shining examples, only the first wave of light and hope to follow the darkness and despair. If we all, whether by the nebulous but potent means of offering support in our hearts, minds, prayers, and invention or by the more concrete ways of donating, digging, driving; of building stronger buildings to replace those lost, remembering those who have died with forward-looking perpetuation of their virtues, and taking up whatever tools we have to recreate a more closely knit community that can expand exponentially to bring in every person with every need and every gift that can fill that need–then every storm is not an irremediable horror and every battle is not the one that will end safety and sanity forever. We are bigger than the storms. We can be the rainmakers who rise up out of ordinariness and even destruction to build something real and new and extraordinary.

You have a Lovely Forehead

photoI was Auntie Ingeborg’s favorite great-niece. Of course, that’s potentially a less impressive achievement if you happen to know that each of my three sisters were her favorite great-niece, our father was her favorite nephew, his brother was her favorite nephew, and so on, ad infinitum. Potentially less impressive, I say, but not at all so in reality if you happened to know Auntie Ingeborg. Because she had a peculiar talent that is very rare indeed among humans: the capacity to make every individual she knew into her absolute favorite. It was completely sincere, unforced, and unquestionably real, and we never doubted it, any of us Favorites.

Auntie had a perpetual delighted smile and an endless twinkle in her eyes and rosy cheeks just made for children to pat affectionately, a lap that was always at the ready for clambering kids to pile on and around for stories, and a genuinely exotic store of entertainments few aunties of any sort can aspire to offer. But by popular standards of style and glamor, you’d never have given her a second glance. She found a perfectly prim schoolmarm look in simple crepe dresses and orthopedic shoes that suited her right down to the ground, and once she established that as her comfort look I don’t recollect her ever deviating from that significantly in the remaining decades of her life. She certainly wasn’t a magazine cover model, with her rather crooked teeth, and with her heart-shaped face accented just a touch too far by her under-bite. But that radiant smile, those softly blushed cheeks, and those merry blue eyes showed off the ethereal beauty of her heart to perfection, so I never once thought of her as ordinary at all. And she most certainly wasn’t ordinary.

Auntie had skills, talents, powers and exotic resources that no one could have guessed on first meeting her. First off, she lived in an apartment, quite the exotic concept to little kids raised in American suburbia. It was already a well-worn building of that vintage that had all sorts of wonderful creaks in its hardwood floors and hallways, a cage-style elevator that was just about the most mystical contraption I’d ever seen and carried us slower than a kid carries his books to school on Exam Day. And it had a Murphy bed. One of those fantastical metal monsters that stood on end, hidden in a closet, by day and pivoted out to unfold down at night.

But also during the daytime, as we learned, it stood guard in front of Auntie’s toy chest, an old and very slightly musty trunk filled with even older and rather odd and very delightful toys, including one of the earliest versions of a small robot I can recall, a little metal man that, when the key on his side was wound, began to walk stiff-legged across Auntie’s carpet in a cheerfully menacing zombie sort of way as the sharp little metal spikes that protruded through the soles of his metal feet would push out to raise up each one alternately from the rug. It was the sort of toy that would never be allowed by modern parents and other legal experts, because the foot-spikes were incredibly sharp and the metal was hard-edged and undoubtedly the paint on it was full of lead, and we loved to play with it almost endlessly.photoThere were other bits of magic and mystery stashed in the toy box, to be sure, not least of them that we quickly learned to dig into the box thoroughly on arrival, and as quickly as we could wrestle the bed far enough on its pivot to release the box to us, to find the box of Barnum’s Animal crackers that Auntie happened to have hidden along with the toys in there. Those who grew up eating them tend to agree that they are fairly insipid of flavor and texture, but the fact that they came in a charmingly decorated little box that looked like one of Barnum’s mythic circus train cars, full of exotic beasts, and it had a string handle on it for carrying around with us as we played with the toys and we got to dole out the little biscuits at our own leisure from the little wax paper lining inside the box–why, this was the stuff of dreams!

In truth, the toy box, though it was the object of our beeline in the door on arrival, was not the most crucial of entertainments at Auntie’s–that status was Auntie’s alone. For, as a lifelong grade school teacher, she knew how to amuse and occupy the caroming minds of wriggly kids about as well as anyone on earth ever did. She quizzed us about our wide-ranging and rarely accurate knowledge on any number of topics, showing more genuine interest and enthusiasm than any such conversation with miniature humans deserves, she played her old upright piano and sang silly songs and very old hymns, and best of the best, she would let us all pile up around her as she told fascinating folk tales, the finest of which were accompanied by her making pencil marks on her paper tablet to illustrate the path the story’s protagonists took from one episode to the next, the drawing of which ended quite miraculously in a picture of something–perhaps a giant vegetable with a person who lived in it looking out its window, or our favorite, a cat whose tail curled in a wild spiral that ended both the tail and the tale.photoShe was no specimen of the more refined social graces that might be expected by a more patrician crowd than her circle of family and friends. Physical or athletic grace was clearly not her great gift any more than it’s mine–when we moved the Christmas tree into the middle of the room to join hands and circle it singing old Norwegian Christmas songs, as was our sometime tradition, Auntie managed not once but in two different years to bump into and topple the decorated tree. I’m not even absolutely certain that the second time could be credited entirely to her, because it’s not as though there wasn’t the previous experience to tell my father, for example, that we could consider just doing that little ritual on one of the days when Auntie was celebrating at another relative’s house. But given that no one was harmed in the event and that we all had an excellent laugh not only on both ‘tipsy’ occasions (no, Auntie was not–only the tree was) but for all the years since as well, he can hardly be faulted if he did suspect a repeat in the offing. Auntie, as it was, laughed harder than any of us.

Auntie’s driving history, too, had certain mythic qualities to it, ending when she was at least in her eighties and still chauffeuring needy Old People (some of them undoubtedly much younger than herself) to the doctor’s office or the grocery store or church, or to where she taught English as a Second Language to immigrants for a very long time. The beginning of her automotive life was illustrated for us by the awe-inspiring story of the day that my father, then a high school student, came home after classes and found Auntie reclining on the family couch in a somewhat dazed state, from whence she plaintively asked if her nephew would mind going out to retrieve her car, which she had left at the neighbors’. He was puzzled as to why she hadn’t, evidently, brought it along with her all the way to his parents’ house, until on arriving at said neighbors’, he could see that her slightly skewed understanding of the operations of centrifugal-vs-centripetal force in driving had resulted in her cutting the corner of the street, jumping the neighbors’ front rockery, and landing the car in the midst of the garden border under their front window. It is unclear how, precisely, he was able to successfully remove the automobile from its highly artistic position in the neighbors’ front yard, but apparently this did occur, as did eventual restoration of the yard’s normal, more vegetal, aspect. Auntie’s driving was somewhat tamer after that, though occasional indications of her earlier style did leave us all wondering over the years how it was that she never seemed to get in any further accidents, or even get a police citation, out of all her miles on the road, an outcome for which we were all profoundly thankful.

It may be presumed that among other things, the lovely lady we knew alternatively as her self titling of Jog-along Julie did indeed keep on moving through life at a steady pace but because she had so many commitments to her teaching at school, community and church locales and to her watchful companionship of nearby friends, she didn’t need to drive very far when she did drive.

She was, after all, far too busy taking care of and cheering up a multitude of others, writing letters prolifically to family far and near, and reading–to herself and to others as well. Any birthday or holiday was almost guaranteed to be celebrated with the gift of books, and she can certainly claim much credit for how much her nieces and nephews of all ages learned to love a good story not only at her knee but in the pages of the books she doled out to us. Every story, even the books of silly rhymes and jokes she shared with us, may have had some subtext of educational purpose, given Auntie’s lifelong commitment to teaching, but we knew in addition that the central theme was simply how much she loved us.

She constantly made sure to say something supportive and complimentary to everyone, even on days when and to people with whom it was quite a stretch. When we sisters reluctantly sent her the dreaded school portrait photos that we always thought were hideous representations of who we were rather than what we hoped and wished we looked like to others, she would tell us how marvelously sweet and attractive we were, without fail. When one sister sent the photo that she hated most to reveal to the light of day (because she despised how far she had her hair pulled back on the occasion, thinking it made her face exceedingly exposed) Auntie wrote to her with great kindness that she had ‘a lovely forehead.’ Nothing could, for us, more simply and clearly have illustrated how gifted Auntie was in finding beauty in us even where we felt most flawed.

Though she seemed so fixed in time by her perpetual uniform of the schoolmarm look, by her continuity in writing letters, sending books, telling stories to the youngest members of any party, and driving, albeit more slowly, the Old Folk she knew to their appointed rounds, Auntie finally did actually grow old and die. But of course, even her funeral was occasion for us to hear her piping voice cheerfully chirping out how amazing and fantastic we all were. The relatives who gathered to plan her memorial service were suitably impressed to compare notes and discover yet more of her Favorites among their number. And the whole day of togetherness not only confirmed that her love was what we all had in common, but was filled with laughter at the same old stories of Auntie’s antics, and the warmth of her boundless thoughtfulness and selfless kindness toward all and sundry in the family and in the whole wide world.photo