Monday, December 17, 2012

Our Stories, Our Songs

            For as long as I can remember, I’ve put my girls to sleep by telling them stories and singing them songs. For our older daughter, Katie, it has always been stories. When she was tiny, she preferred fictional tales, such as the one about the purple-polka-dotted bunny who was ostracized for his unique appearance – that is, until a little girl found him and loved him just the way he was. After awhile, Katie grew to prefer real-life stories, especially ones about the things I did with my brother when we were young. For some time, she even requested more specialized stories about times when I was playing with my brother and one of us got hurt. (Thankfully, I had a limited supply of those.)

            For our younger daughter, Chelsea, it has always been songs. She has found comfort in being sung to sleep by my wife or me, with our voices at lullaby volume as we croon “Rainbow Connection” or “You Are My Sunshine” or “Hey Jude.” As we move closer to the holidays, songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” ease their way onto the bedtime song list. At some point, we find ourselves singing to a child who is fast asleep, her breathing slowed and her pink blanket cuddled in her arms.

            On a recent evening, Chelsea asked me to sing her a few songs, and when I thought she was asleep, she popped back up and requested another. By the eighth song, my 7-year-old was still awake, and I’d sung the equivalent of a late-‘90s John Mellencamp album. I told her that she was old enough to start easing herself to sleep on her own after a few songs. She cried about that for a bit, and eventually gave in to sleep.

There are times, when the girls are begging us to stay up with them for just a little longer, that I want the stories and songs to end for the night. I crave some time to myself, away from the kids for a bit. The desire for some downtime is a natural feeling, and I don’t feel guilty for thinking it. Of course, Friday’s events in Newtown, Connecticut, remind me of just how precious every moment is with my children. But when I think of Friday’s massacre, as well as the past seven weeks since Hurricane Sandy, I also am reminded of the importance of our own stories and songs.

            We have a little wooden decoration in our house that reads, “You Are the Author of Your Own Life Story.” I bought it because I think it’s true: Each of us tells our own story each day through our actions and words, and together we work to tell our society’s story through our collective expressions. In the last two months, there have been a whole lot of stories in our immediate world that are sadder and more shocking than most of the things we’re used to here in the Northeast. Of course, additional stories of war and natural disaster around the globe compound the sadness.

            But we still hold the key to so much of this societal story. We still have the ability to turn that story into a song. My friend Steve Politi, a tremendous sports columnist for the Star-Ledger of Newark, wrote a piece a few weeks ago about the Point Pleasant High School football team, and how these young men walked from house to house after Hurricane Sandy in order to help people clean out their storm-ravaged Jersey Shore homes. A new friend of mine named Judy in Bay Head, N.J., has told me some stories about moms who can’t afford holiday gifts because of all they’ve lost to the storm, and my school is working to buy gift cards so those moms can go out and buy those gifts. Yesterday, President Obama told stories of teachers and students whose heroism defies description in the midst of true terror at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

            We tell these stories through our own words, and we tell them through our actions. Steve wrote the inspirational story about those football players, but they lived it themselves. There is no storm that can overpower that kind of goodness; Sandy’s a chump in comparison. The president can share the anecdotes in his speech, but these adults and children found grace in a conflict far beyond what most of us will ever face. That’s part of their story now, and it’s shocking in its sheer courage.

            It’s the holiday season, and some of us are not in the mood to celebrate much this year. That’s a natural feeling in the wake of so much sadness and loss. But if we had the chance to ask all the individuals who died from Hurricane Sandy, and if we had the chance to ask those who were killed in Newtown on Friday, I think they would encourage us to celebrate our lives with one another. They’d remind us that our stories are not over, and that we’ve got some people out there whose lives we might be able to touch today and tomorrow.

            They’d also remind us that we’ve got some catching up to do – there’s been too much sorrow in too short a time period. The story has fallen too far off course. We need to bring some joy back now, with little time to spare. Our individual and collective stories need a lift; they need to feel like a song again. So what do you say? Let’s reach out to one another and begin. I’ll start with the one about the purple bunny …