Chasing Fire: Understanding the Death of Baltimore’s Mayor in 1904

 In 2003, I completed my 306-page thesis on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. In my research, I stumbled on a little-known fact about the mayor of Baltimore during that historic conflagration, and I composed a much shorter piece (below) about his death and my pursuit of the truth about how he died. In the process, I found myself trying to understand the death of my own father, who fought fires in Baltimore for 29 years before he died.

The parallels between the death of these two men were haunting, to say the least.

Read on. All of the information is true, triple-checked in multiple published sources from 1904.

And do me a favor: Let me know if you think I should pursue this story.

 

CHASING FIRE
by Rus VanWestervelt

The more I go, the less I know.
Will the fire still burn on my return?
Keep the path lit on the only road I know.
Honey, all I know to do is go.
~The Indigo Girls~

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 10.55.43 AMI

 1971

Wes, as my father was known in his firehouse on Greenmount and 32nd Street in the heart of Baltimore, introduced me to fire when I was six. He was taking me to my first Orioles game and decided to park behind the station, just a few blocks from Memorial Stadium. When he opened the back door to the firehouse, the acrid rush of diesel suffused the air around me, in me as I stood before a magnificent and intimidating sign on the back of Truck 7.

He led me on a tour of the station, walked me up the black iron steps that spiraled tightly to the left, and offered me a chance to slide down the fire pole, which I declined. When we returned to street level, he lifted me with ease into the driver’s seat of the hook and ladder, where I stretched my arms around the steering wheel, peered over its edge to see the back of Engine 31 so close to me, and then reached up to pull a blackened cord that rang the fire bell loudly.

That illusion of being a firefighter–being just like my father Wes–ended before I could realize what was happening.

A booming voice echoed in the fire hall, dispatching both fire engines to a service call. Wes grabbed me out of Truck 7 as firefighters jumped into fire pants and boots and the firehouse gates rolled up, revealing a bustling Greenmount Avenue. One firefighter ran out with flags and stopped traffic as Wes carried me to the side of the station.

Sirens wailed, bells rang, horns blared.

From my father’s strong arms, I watched Engine 31 and Truck 7 rumble past us and out of the station.

I wanted to follow them, chase them out the door. And that was when the hunger, the passion for fire was born.

The front gate began rolling down just as Truck 7 cleared the house, and I looked over Wes’s shoulder to watch that magnificent, intimidating sign turn left and out of sight:

BEWARE: KEEP BACK 500 FEET AT ALL TIMES.

 

2

22 April 1989

Several hundred feet from where my father lies dying, I sit against painted concrete in a cold hallway at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, where I watch the EKG monitor above me. Dad’s life line is erratic, jumping from zig-zagging peaks to near-flat lines that make me think the end has finally come for him. He is taking his final breaths after a medic call three years ago infected him with hepatitis. A most prolonged, agonizing death, in the line of duty.

With me in this hallway is my brother-in-law, Rob. We have spent the last 30 minutes in silence, just a fraction, though, of the 17 hours since paramedics brought Dad here.

We are outside a small room where Mom sits with some of her children.

Dad remains on a gurney through double doors and down another hall. My brother Jim, who fights fire in Baltimore County, is with him, as is our grandmother and a few other family members.

I keep my distance. I’ve already said goodbye.

My eyes return to the monitor, where the zig-zagged peaks have become frantic. I look to Rob, who has nothing but strength for me, and I rest my head against the cold concrete and close my eyes. The monotone whispers seep from Mom’s room but have no meaning. We all pass this time a little differently.

What seems like a minute passes.

I open my eyes and catch the monitor: the peaks are gone; subtle bumps melt away into a flat line, and then the screen goes black.

 

 

3

 

13 Years Later

The screen of my lap top is black, empty. I can’t find anything to bring it back to life.

I’ve been here at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis for just over two hours looking for new information on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. My story, about the men who fought the greatest fire in Baltimore history, is going nowhere beyond the greatly publicized facts: in early February of that year, firefighters from Baltimore and neighboring states chased fire around Baltimore’s harbor for nearly 30 hours; on the evening of February 8, more than 1,500 buildings lay charred across 140 acres of commercial land; Baltimore’s entire financial district and the original colonies established in the seventeenth century had been reduced to rubble and ashes.

I push away from the table and return the three green document boxes filled with handwritten military letters to the information desk. Should I continue this blind search or call it a day? I pay no attention to the old man taking my boxes.

“That’s a good story, that fire,” he tells me. He rocks back in his worn, wooden chair after taking my boxes and locks his hands behind his head–a makeshift headrest that seems comfortable.

I nod in kindness.

“The real story happened after the fire, you know.”

I tell him I did not.

“If you want a better story, find out what really happened to the mayor a few months later.”

I say nothing but shrug my shoulders, now mildly wondering what he is talking about.

“The mayor,” he says. “They say he killed himself after the fire, after just getting married.” He leans forward and looks up at me over the counter.

“That’s what they say, at least. You won’t find much about it.”

He pauses. We don’t blink.

“There’s a reason for that. There’s your real story.”

He smiles, jots down a few reference numbers for me to look through some more rolls of microfiche that I never asked for, and passes me the slip of paper.

“Good luck. Maybe you’ll figure out what really happened.”

I turn and head toward the drawers of microfiche just on the other side of the Archives building.

Figure out what really happened?

4

 

I spend weeks following the old man’s advice and research all that was written about the mayor’s death. Smith & Wesson .32 caliber handgun “of the latest pattern” used; bullet enters through the right temple and exits just above his left ear; powder burns are light, and estimates are that the pistol was fired at least 8 inches from his skull. All this happening 113 days after the Great Baltimore Fire, 16 days after his runaway marriage to Mary Van Bibber, and four minutes after leaving his new wife alone in her study, just 9 feet down the hall.

None of this matters to me, though. After reading dozens of articles written about the fire and the mayor, I feel detached from all of it. Just words on pages printed 100 years ago.

I feel nothing.

So I decide that, tomorrow, I will visit Mayor McLane’s row house at 29 West Preston Street.

 

* * *

 

From Maryland Avenue I turn right onto Preston, and there it is. So anticlimactic, I think. I have passed this place so many times on my way to downtown Baltimore, realizing now that, for every block I drive through Baltimore–anywhere, for that matter–I am passing by history. Events unknown. Unrevealed. Still locked up behind sheets of plywood and plaster walls.

I park on Preston and stand in front of the row house where McLane died. In the late 1960s, The Greek Orthodox Church converted the mayor’s home and three others into an annex for its congregation. The other houses to the right along Preston are still in their original state. Time-worn planks of plywood cover first-floor windows, but the second and third-floor windows all seem to be of original, uneven glass; some are shattered where rocks have been thrown through, while others are intact but show their age, holding decades of dirt, pollen, cobwebs. These houses sag with the weight of history; even a fresh coat of paint along the gingerbread trim that adorns the windows and the edges of the roof would not reignite their charm. They are tired, ready for demolition.

I am disappointed, as I know the chances of ever getting inside one of those boarded-up row homes is remote, at best. Still, I need to see for myself the layout of the rooms, where Mary rested, where her maid Lizzie Redchurch ran up the stairs when she heard gunfire, where Robert McLane died.

I have to do this. I have to find some way to get into one of those original row houses, just doors away from the row house that Mary Van Bibber and Robert McLane called home.

 

5

 

The Thursday after I stood in front of McLane’s home, I meet my friend Trina at our local YMCA for our usual cardio workout.

I tell her the fascinating story of the end of the mayor’s life and the circumstances surrounding his death.

I share my frustration in not being able to get into one of those row houses across from the Greek Orthodox Church.

She looks at me in disbelief.

“You mean the Greek Orthodox Church on Preston?”

I nod, suddenly realizing the serendipitous connection my Greek friend, Trina Kalathas, has with the same Greek Orthodox Church across the street from where McLane died.

The same Church that had turned McLane’s house into a Greek Annex.

And, as my luck has it, the same Church that owns the rest of the row houses along West Preston.

 

6

 

Next day: overcast, with sporadic light rain.  Trina parks on West Preston, across the street from the strip of row houses, and we sit in her Hyundai as I replay the last minutes of the mayor’s life. We are here to meet Father Dean, who will unlock 41 West Preston for the first time in many years.

Father Dean is very busy. He is a harried-looking man who thinks first of his church, his mission, his people. He sits behind a desk in his rectory, a room filled with papers, books, and plaques on the walls. He seems eager to help, but first he has questions. Who am I? Why am I doing this research? How did the Church play a role in the story, both in the past and now? The church is celebrating its own anniversary soon, and he is concerned that some local writer spinning stories of murder in his annex will not be good for his parish.

I answer his questions and pledge a donation in appreciation for his time and for the opportunity to enter the row house.

A few minutes later, we are on West Preston Street, facing the row houses.

I shoot a few pictures of McLane’s house as well as the home a few doors down on the right. I frame the shot, and I see the row of houses return to their natural state, looking pristine. For a moment, I hear the sounds of the horses’ hooves in front of me, the bustle of citizens passing by to my left, then to my right on this holiday afternoon. Windows seem to be opened randomly along the second and third floors on this late May day.

Perhaps, I think, we will not be alone. Perhaps in the coming minutes we will discover some truth about the mayor’s death that had not been considered 100 years ago.

And if we are not alone, perhaps what we discover inside and on the third floor of 41 West Preston Street might just bring some relief, some resolution to those who join us, perhaps, in spirit.

I snap off two pictures, happy to capture this image.

I turn to Trina and the priest and nod.

7

 

Father Dean unlocks the first door, and Trina and I step into the small foyer area while we wait for the priest to unlock the second door. Fresh air mixed with rain mingles with the damp, musty smells of this tiny area. A gust of wind seems to breathe new life into these old walls.

In the low light the priest struggles to find the right key to open the main door. After several failed attempts, Father Dean smiles.

“Got it.”

The rush of the stagnant, cool air blows through the foyer, around us, and out the front door.

Father Dean steps out of the way. Trina takes the lead.

The stairs aren’t easy to climb; bulky banisters line each rickety and narrow flight of stairs. They twist sharply, always to the left, as they spiral up to the top floor.

8

The weather on the morning of Monday, May 30, 1904 was cool and calm with rain showers threatening from the northwest. McLane spent the morning with his new wife, Mary. It was Memorial Day, and all city offices were closed. He had no need to go into City Hall, had no meetings scheduled, and thus spent most of the day with Mary. Early in the morning he met socially with Mr. Henry J. McGrath, who noticed that the mayor was in an excellent humor, laughing and joking.

After McGrath left, McLane spent the next hour catching up on some memos and preparing for meetings later in the week with the Burnt Fire Commission, established to handle the aftermath of the fire just three months ago.

Mid-morning, McLane and his wife took a brief walk along Preston Street. They returned home just after 11 a.m., and McLane then scratched out a memo to Judge Henry D. Harlan, informing him about a meeting he would like to have the following day regarding the status of student examination papers he was reviewing.

In the early afternoon, he enjoyed lunch with Mary and his older stepson and retired with his wife to her study in the third floor front room of their upscale row home at 29 West Preston Street.

 

9

 

Trina and I reach the third floor, and I cannot believe how small the rooms are. I pictured bigger rooms, longer hallways, and plenty of space to move about freely.

Instead, the hallway is only four or five steps between Mary’s study and the mayor’s dressing room, where most of his belongings were packed. We compare the layout with the published reports of Mary’s home, and the only difference we can detect is that these rooms no longer have doors.

Each room is less than 14 square feet in size. Armoires, beds, and dressing mirrors took up the majority of the space available in each room. Add a fireplace against the right wall and plenty of boxes still unpacked from the move, and the McLanes lived in one very tight space.

Father Dean seems uneasy already. He has appointments waiting for him across the street.

We mark where the pieces of furniture would have been arranged: armoire toward the back against the left side wall, tall dressing mirror in the back left corner, and a large bed against the opposite wall, with the fireplace just to its left, and a small closet tucked neatly between the fireplace and the back wall.

After we determine where the furniture would have been placed in each room, Trina assumes the role of Mary and I the role of McLane.

We are ready to reenact the mayor’s final minutes.

 

10

At 3:11 p.m., Robert McLane joked with his wife in her study about the way she had tied up a bundle of clothes, presumably to be packed away for the summer season, and he made plans to take a second walk with her later in the afternoon, before the rains came. She thought the idea of a walk was good, especially after such a big meal, and asked only that she have the chance to rest a bit in her study, alone.

The mayor honored her wish.

“Well, I’m going over and straighten some things in my wardrobe,” he said, crossing into the hallway and leaving Mary in her study.

A click of her study door. The four steps to his dressing room in the rear on the third floor. And then, a second click, this from his dressing room door closing. Inside this room, he planned to unpack summer clothes he had brought over from his father’s residence, as well as some personal papers and letters, including a congratulatory letter he had received recently from his sister in France.

Two rooms separated by nine feet.

Silence followed for four minutes. Mary would tell authorities later that she spent those moments resting, alone, in her study.

11

Trina and I move to the front of the house, where Mary’s dressing room was. There, we talk and joke about bundles being tied up, taking another walk, and what we might do after dinner.

“I’m going to unpack a few things while you rest,” I say. I leave Trina in the front room, close her imaginary door, and walk the few steps down the hall to the back study, which I enter and pretend to shut the door to the hallway.

Our intention is to wait in our respective rooms for four minutes so that we can see how loud a gunshot might sound in contrast with the long silence. I don’t have a gun, of course; I plan on using the journal I brought with me and merely hit it hard against the wall.

Two minutes into the reenactment, a loud “Bang!” two flights below shatters our silence. It startles all of us out of the reenactment. Father Dean calls down the stairs to see if anyone is on the ground floor, but there is no answer.

Trina, closest to the stairs, goes down to the ground floor to see if we are no longer alone.

 

12

Breaking that silence at precisely 3:15 p.m. was a loud, sharp sound that was followed by a muffled thump, as if something had fallen. Mary later said that she was startled by the sounds, which she described as something like a shutter banging once against the back of the house, causing something to fall inside the back room on the third floor, where the mayor was unpacking.

She called Lizzie Redchurch to come upstairs to check on the mayor. Lizzie was already on the way, though, believing the noise to be more alarming.

She knocked on the mayor’s dressing room door.

No answer.

Lizzie turned, took three steps to where Mary stood in the doorway to her study.

“He’s not answering, ma’am. Shall I try again?”

Mary nodded.

“Open the door, Lizzie.”

Lizzie turned, retraced those three steps to the mayor’s closed dressing room door, and turned the handle.

At first she did not see him in the small room. She panned right to left, looking first over the bed at the fireplace against the right wall, then the small closet in the corner,  the closed window against the south wall, and then the dressing mirror, which stood tall in the far left corner of the room.

It was here that she saw the mayor’s reflection, a man dressed in a dark suit who did not, could not answer his maid’s persistent rapping.

Lizzie, her face now white with fear, looked over her shoulder to Mary and whispered, almost unable to speak, “Why, Mr. McLane has fallen down!”

Mary hurried to Lizzie at the other end of the short hall. Together, they entered the room and rushed to the mayor, lying on the wooden floor in front of his dressing mirror. He lay still as Lizzie kneeled to his side.

For a moment, silence returned to the room, as they thought the mayor had suffered a brief fainting spell. Lizzie put a hand on the mayor’s shoulder to wake him. But just as she leaned in to whisper his name, to nudge him a little harder, she noticed the blood that began to seep from where McLane’s head rested against the wood.

Lizzie Redchurch gasped.

“Oh, dear God.”

She backed away from the body and showed Mary the blood that was now flowing steadily from under the mayor’s head and along the floor.

Both Mary and Lizzie left the mayor and the room, screaming.

At 3:15 p.m., just four minutes following shared laughter with his new wife only steps down the hall in her study, Mayor Robert McLane lay dying.

13

“Just the second door slamming in the foyer. Everything’s fine.” Trina climbs the three flights of stairs and returns to Mary’s dressing room.

Trina and I try to pick up where we left off, but the noise terrified us, derailed us, and I think that Lizzie Redchurch must have been just as startled when she was on the first floor and heard the sound of a gunshot on the third floor. If that sound had been a mere four or five steps down the hall, it would have been so alarming that there would be no other possible response but one that was swift and immediate.

Father Dean looks at his watch and realizes that we have already spent more time in the house than he had planned. Back at the Church, several colleagues are waiting for him to return, and he urges us to wrap up our reenactment.

I feel that we need at least another hour to play out several scenarios of how the gun might have been fired, who else might have fired it, and how it eventually ended up under McLane’s body before he fell to the ground.

Begrudgingly, I finish the roll of film, taking pictures of every angle of every room. Father Dean waits for us downstairs, in the foyer.

 

14

 Much like the speed with which flames consumed six full blocks within the first hour of the Great Baltimore Fire, news of a single gunshot in the mayor’s dressing room spread quickly.

Soon after leaving the room, Mary composed herself surprisingly well and immediately gave orders to everyone in the house. She called her son, Ralph, to the third floor and sent him to alert Dr. A. Trego Shertzer, a physician who lived just two doors down on the corner of Preston and Maryland Avenue, and bring him immediately to help the mayor.

Mary then sent Lizzie to the home of Mrs. Elliott Schenck, a long-time friend of hers who lived just a few blocks away for help.

Within one minute of the events that had begun to unfold, Mary was alone with Robert McLane as he lay dying.

Ralph ran into Dr. Shertzer’s front office and screamed for help. The terror that filled Ralph’s voice startled Dr. Shertzer enough that he wasted no time asking questions. He grabbed his hat, ran past the young Van Bibber, and hurried to 29 West Preston. Within three minutes, Dr. Shertzer was by the mayor’s side.

When he reached the room, he found the mayor lying on his face upon the floor. His head was twisted toward his left shoulder and rested in a pool of blood that flowed from a “horrible wound” through the right temple.

He turned to Mary, who seemed to be paralyzed with fear.

“Mary, listen carefully. I need you to send out a summons at once to all of the physicians who can be reached.”

But instead, Mary did not move. “Good heavens! Why did he do it?”

Dr. Shertzer repeated the need for her to assemble as many physicians as possible, but only with stern encouragement did Mary eventually leave the room with Shertzer’s words of hope that, perhaps, more  physicians would help the mayor’s chances for survival.

But that was not Dr. Shertzer’s intention at all. In fact, he sent Mary out of the room to occupy her, to make her feel as if she could do something of importance to help her dying husband.  Later that night, Shertzer would explain to a Baltimore Sun reporter, “The moment I examined the wound I saw that the mayor could not possibly live, and I did not want to have the responsibility of being the only physician with him when he died.”

While he waited for other physicians to arrive, he placed pillows under the mayor’s head and body to bring some comfort, if any.

It was then that Dr. Shertzer first saw the gun underneath McLane’s body. He picked it up and examined it closely. The gun was fully loaded, with the exception of one cartridge, which he assumed had just been fired.

* * *

As Shertzer tried to comfort the mayor and examine the weapon, Lizzie Redchurch had reached the home of Mary’s friend, Mrs. Elliott Schenck.

Schenck wasted no time in sending Robert Kempf, a servant, to be with Mary. On his way to Mary’s row house on West Preston, Kempf stopped by the Central District police station to tell two officers on duty of the mayor’s condition. Both men had already heard the commotion on West Preston, however, and were preparing to go to the house to see what was the matter.

Kempf, Redchurch, and the two officers raced toward 29 West Preston Street.

* * *

Just moments after Dr. Shertzer discovered the pistol and returned it underneath the mayor’s body, Dr. Nathan R. Gorter arrived at the scene and was horrified by the mayor’s wound. He looked around the room, desperate to help in any way possible.

Dr. Gorter hurried to the only window in the room, just inches from the mayor, and opened it. A rush of cool, humid air filled the room.

Gorter encouraged Shertzer to move the mayor closer to the window, where he hoped the mayor would be more comfortable.

Dr. Shertzer hesitated. He wasn’t convinced that moving the mayor a few inches was going to make a difference in his condition. But Gorter ignored Shertzer’s concern and started to move McLane’s body across the floor, dragging the revolver still under his body.

Within minutes, three more doctors joined Shertzer and Gorter. William Greene, William T. Watson, and Joseph Baborg all entered the bedroom in equal horror at the mayor’s condition. The last physician to join the others was Dr. Claude Van Bibber, the brother of Mary’s first husband. Dr. Van Bibber had remained close to his sister-in-law in the years that followed his brother’s suicide. In direct contrast with the other five physicians surrounding the mayor, Mary’s brother-in-law seemed surprisingly composed and in charge, taking such actions as meeting with friends and members of the press outside to offer that, although there was no doubt that the mayor had shot himself, it looked almost certainly that the shooting was accidental.

In the mayor’s final moments, nine men surrounded Robert McLane, including Adjutant General Clinton L. Riggs, who had led his men courageously during and immediately after the Baltimore fire in February. He had heard the news of the mayor’s condition and rushed to his friend’s room, understanding the inevitable, yet wanting to be with him in his last minutes.

No reports documented the whereabouts of Mary in the mayor’s final moments.

 

15

Back on Preston Street, Father Dean looks for keys as Trina stands nearby.

Closer to the mayor’s home, I lean against the cold brick building in the light rain and stare up at the brick façade.

All is still.

 

16

 

Precisely at 4:55 p.m., one hour and forty minutes after the bullet had passed through the mayor’s brain, Dr. Claude Van Bibber made his way through the crowd, found a Baltimore City police officer on the edge of West Preston Street, and informed him officially that the mayor was dead.

It was only at this time that the police were involved in any capacity in the shooting, and now the death, of Baltimore’s mayor.

A death that, within 24 hours, would be declared a suicide, a “pistol-shot wound in the head from hand of deceased while suffering with mental dementia. Contributory cause of death is shock and cerebral hemorrhage.”

Case closed.

 

17

 Father Dean pulls the door closed, turns the lock, and gives the knob an extra twist.

Locked.

He hurries back to the Greek Orthodox Church, and Trina and I head back to her Hyundai. We drive along West Preston and pass row home 29, then 41. Trina turns right on to Howard Street, and West Preston disappears.

I should be grateful of what we have already learned, but I want more. Being there, acting out some of the reports of Mayor McLane’s death, was not enough.

We inch our way through the city, crawling past buildings scarred by fires–some from long ago, some only hours old, still standing in outright defiance. They hold the reminders of how vulnerable we will always be to fire.

Trina turns on Charles Street. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the windshield wipers scraping across the front glass window. I want nothing but for it all to leave me, dry up, go away. But I see orange. And red.

Fire.

 

18

1989

I open my eyes and catch the monitor: the peaks are gone; subtle bumps melt away into a flat line, and then the screen goes black.

“Do you understand what has just happened?” my brother-in-law asks.

I nod.

Jim, my brother, comes through the double doors. Enters the small room where Mom waits. One whisper heard now as he tells Mom that Dad is dead. She stands up, leaves the room, collapses in Jim’s arms, then disappears behind the double doors that open and close now as routinely as the chambers of a heart, allowing the stream of family members to come and go, come and go.

 

19

 

At a red light on Charles Street, I hear the wails of a fire engine approaching the intersection just ahead of us. A hook and ladder turns left onto Charles, and the KEEP BACK 500 FEET sign fades from my view as the truck weaves its way through snarled traffic before turning right and disappearing down a side street.

Wipers sporadically clear the light mist from the windshield.

Gas fumes mixed with rain find their way into the car. Swirl around me.

Trina asks what our next move is.

I wonder how significant it is that Mary’s first husband died as mysteriously, why the Baltimore Police weren’t more involved between the time the gun was fired and when the mayor drew his last breath, and how a town, still reeling from the devastation of the fire that burned down its city, dropped this story within hours of the mayor’s graveside service.

Was it just as ridiculous for me to chase it, especially when the likes of H. L. Mencken scratched out only a few sentences about the mayor’s death decades later, alluding to McLane’s inability to handle the stress brought on by the aftermath of the fire?

I’m no Mencken, but I can’t let this one go. My research on Mary ends in New Jersey in the form of a postcard-sized picture of her, decked out in burlesque clothing and, from what I can gather, married again.

“I think our next move is to head north. See what Mary was up to after she left Baltimore. Up for the chase?”

Trina nods, the light turns green, and we go with the whish of the wipers clearing the rain.

“Fire and rain,” she says, and I laugh.

“Yeah, Fire and rain.” I add, as we drive north, suddenly in silence.

 

 

# # # #

 

Embracing The Vision Of An Unparalleled Life

SECUEaster1

I have just returned from one of the most powerful spiritual experiences in my life with Church of the Nativity, compared only to a late summer afternoon 23 years ago at Chesapeake Presbyterian Church in Calvert County, MD. At Chesapeake, we were running a summer camp for kids, and our theme for the entire week was Beauty and the Beast. As the Beast, I had the powerful role of transformation. That experience, in itself, was both humbling and uplifting.

At the end of the week, all 700+ children joined us together in the auditorium for a culminating celebration. As I stood on stage with the rest of the cast, we were brought to tears from the song of 700 voices as they stood, waving their hands, in grace and gratitude. The energy and excitement we felt in that church was beyond any connection I had ever made, anywhere.

I have experienced great moments of solitude on the top of mountains; I have worshiped quietly among the natural sounds immersed in the woods. I have even stood in meditation on the edge of the ocean, with the subtle roar of the water coming and going, washing my feet and feeling the push-and-pull of the tide in the moving grains of sand. Each of these experiences has brought me great strength, and they will continue to provide energy in the years to come.

These moments serve a genuine purpose in our lives; they allow us to return to the core of who we are. They quiet the noise that has surrounded us, pulling and pushing us this way and that for whatever reason – noble or otherwise.

These bigger experiences, with hundreds or thousands of people, are quite similar. We find ourselves surrounded by an even greater energy, a collective spirit that abandons pain, suffering, and anxiety.

Yesterday, I felt such a communion with about 5,000 others at SECU Arena on Towson University’s campus, where Church of the Nativity held their Easter Mass in an event that took me back to Chesapeake and those 700 hand-waving, singing children who filled the auditorium with love, life, and energy.

The service began with a “warm up” that included sports-like introductions, electric guitars, a lip-syncing contest, and a social media scavenger hunt. This was not your typical Roman Catholic Easter Mass.

It worked. The crowd was engaged, laughing and celebrating as the two hosts, Kristin Costanza and Chris Wesley, welcomed everyone to a service about resurrection and establishing a vision for living purposefully, authentically.

SECUEaster3As the band concluded the warm up and Father White watched on stage, I was struck with the beautiful fusion of traditional worship and contemporary praise for recognizing the power of the present, leaving behind the past and all of the pain and suffering that are wrapped up in the archives of those moments long gone. The picture here really captures that fusion for me.

For years now, I have focused on mindfulness and awareness of the energy in the present moment. We carry so many heavy burdens with us from our pasts, and they anchor us into the ground. For some reason, we keep looking to others to break the chains for us; worse, we often feel like we are deserving of the pain, and we become resigned to an existence tethered to what is in the past.

The story of Jesus’ Resurrection reminds us that the past is gone. Rebirth is all about leaving behind what has anchored us from our past.

Still, although we have been released from its pain, its suffering, we wallow in this status quo of what has happened to us, to the ones we love, and to the world. We base our existence on pain and memory. There is great fear in this way of thinking, of living. Unfortunately, it is the premise of an existence for many millions of individuals, struggling every day with depression, anxiety, and pain.

It doesn’t have to be this way for any of us.

At one point in Father White’s sermon, he said, “Excitement overcomes fear; that is what Vision is all about.” This vision that we have for ourselves has to first come from within. The energy that 700 children or 5,000 individuals creates comes from that personal belief, that energy of self-worth and excitement for living today and letting go of yesterday.

This is not easy to do. We are inclined to believe that our pasts have defined us, that we are where we are today because of who we are. But this is not true. This is only who we believe we have been all these years. We have allowed our past experiences filled with pain and suffering to define us. Our perceived self has been a self-fulfilling destiny because we have believed it as if it were truth.

It isn’t. It is nothing more than a false image of ourselves built on fear. Once we realize this, we can begin to diminish the hold this fear has on us, and we can let go of the chains. We can free ourselves to see the beauty and the power of the moments in our present lives.

When we are able to do this, a different kind of fusion happens — the fusion of the self and the greater spirit that is available to all of us. That fusion happened yesterday, as it did all those years ago at Chesapeake. There is a great message here for all of us. We must silence the noise of our pasts and find solitude in quiet worship, but we must also return to our friends, our communities, and share that excitement for our vision of living an unparalleled life.

I offer my thanks to Church of the Nativity for sharing their own vision, bringing excitement back into our lives, and giving us all courage to let go of the fear that has gripped us for so long.

Enjoy this short clip of the final song of yesterday’s Easter Mass, and may you feel the energy and excitement of resurrection in your own life today!

Let The Fear In, Then Let The Fear Go

MPV No Fear

We are all doing our best to carry on, but sometimes fear grips us. We find ourselves paralyzed by a certain event, or tragedy, or simple twist of fate that puts us in a challenging situation. I really believe, too, that the older we get, the more fatigued we become in such challenges. We begin to ponder resignation; we feel too tired to fight again.

It’s okay to feel that way. What’s not okay is to harbor it, offer it a room and free board, and let it take up an indefinite residence within you.

In the past three weeks, I have experienced three deaths: a 20-year-old former student, a 49-year-old former classmate, and a 67-year-old friend. The youngest fought for his life and inspired hundreds of thousands; the middle-aged friend struggled in many ways throughout his adult life to find happiness. The oldest was like a mother to me and a grandmother to my children. These three very different deaths prompted three very different reflections within me.

Individually, the youngest gave me strength, the middle-aged gave me anger, and the elder offered me love.

Collectively, though, their deaths served up a not-so-healthy dose of fear.

I am getting older, too. We all are. The 20 year old lived more fully than most do in a lifetime, even in his battles to defeat cancer. The 49 year old, on the other hand, battled more than most do in a lifetime, but in a pursuit for happiness. The 67 year old lived a life, as I knew her, filled with loving kindness, opening her house and her heart to all.

How well have I lived my life?

The fear is strong within that single thought — nearing the age of 50, clearly not in the best shape, and expending too much energy into areas that are not good investments in my overall health and well-being.

This past weekend, I spent three long days at my daughter’s Finale for her equitation season. In comparison with what she did in those 72 hours, I did very little. I did, however, spend a great deal of time observing her and the work ethic of the other eight riders. They worked well into the night preparing the horses and the trailers, then awoke at 3:30 a.m. for the final prep before the big event began just before 9 a.m.

They did more work and conquered more fears in those 72 hours than I face in a full week — maybe an entire month — and not one of them complained.

I look at the picture of my daughter, featured above, and I see what it looks like when you let go of fear. I see she believes in herself. She has confidence to go from a trot to a canter. She has courage to approach the next jump and soar into the air.

That’s what I need to remember. That’s what we all need to practice. When fear grips us, we need to acknowledge it. Let it in fully. But then we need to do what so few of us are good at doing: we need to let it go. Release it forever. Then get to work.

And what is that work? Living. Fully. It’s all about letting go of the past. Letting go of the fear. Letting go of the what-ifs.

It’s all about realizing the present. Embracing what is. Running full speed into the next moment with belief, confidence, and courage.

We are going to face those challenges every day, and some are going to be tougher than others.

We just need to remember: We can make the choice to let the fear in, then we must make the choice to let the fear go.

What choice will you make?

When A Classmate Dies: Gone But Not Forgotten

Gone1Our classmate, Pat Doyle, has died.

I didn’t receive the news from a call on my phone. Instead, I received it via status update, which scrolled across my screen like any other on my birthday as I thumbed through friends’ updates and birthday wishes. Wendy’s words were stuck somewhere between a meme about Mondays and a meteorologist’s mea culpa about his miscall on the latest winter storm.

I regretfully tell all of you that we lost a wonderful friend, Pat Doyle this last weekend.

I was immediately struck with the memory of the call I got in March 12 years ago. Phil was on the other end, shaken, trying to find the words to tell me that our younger friend, Donnon, had just passed away. It was the first experience for many of us in losing a classmate so early in our lives, which were forever changed by his death.

I read Wendy’s words as I had heard Phil’s: the reluctant bearer of bad news shared with a broken heart. It wasn’t hard for me to jump back another 25 years to 1989 when I had to make the phone calls to all of Dad’s friends after he had died. Nobody wants that job. Nobody.

When that announcement is made, though, it cements a certain bond between friends and loved ones; we inherit and share a stark and indefatigable certainty that nothing is guaranteed, our time together is limited, and we will forever be bound by the love and the loss of the passing of our friend.

Siblings

When I arrived at Pat’s afternoon viewing, I heard the familiar voices flowing from the small Worthington Room just to my left. There they were, assembled together in the mix of tears and laughter, of hugs and shrugs, of generations of loved ones sharing in the grief and shock of Pat’s passing. I walked through the doorway, and it was like I had joined a sacred group of fellow grievers. In this room, despite our differences in age, demography, and even political or spiritual beliefs, we shared a common bond that would forever connect us.

Pat and I weren’t that close. You could say we were always one radio station away from each other. 98 Rock and B104.3 (Means Music!) might have been on different ends of the music spectrum, but they were always just a twist of the dial from each other, as we all are as classmates.

Immediately to my left and sitting on a small padded bench were two friends from Loch Raven. They called my name, and we shook hands, hugged, and shared memories of the good times and the shock of Pat’s passing. Another classmate entered the room, and when we hugged and talked about Pat’s final months, tears welling in our eyes, I realized that we were no longer classmates; we were brothers and sisters, siblings of the class of 1983. We did not stay in touch as often as we should, and we definitely did not see the world through similar eyes. Yet, in this small room in a funeral home wedged between a beltway and a busy intersection of car dealers and the National Guard Armory, classmates who shared math classes with Mr. Dwyer, Drama with Mr. DeVita, and English with the wit and charm of Eddie Marbury, we now shared a different kind of classroom, learning that love and friendship among the people you grew up with are the most important things we hang on to as we get older.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Gone2As I made my way through friends and loved ones to pay my respects and say goodbye to Pat, who lay hidden within the closed coffin at the other end of the room, I stopped to offer Wendy a hug. She kissed me on the cheek and spoke with genuine kindness, a concern for all of us, and a respect for the fragility of life and love. Pat is gone, yes. But in his passing we recognize that we are still here together, and the very least we can do is care for each other as we never have before. We are no different than the signatures scrawled colorfully across the pages of our yearbooks; we carry with us the unique beauty of our individuality. These lines of love, of which Pat is one, will bind us as brothers and sisters, now and forever.

This is what Wendy stirred within me, and I carried that feeling, that bond, as I approached Pat’s casket.

I placed my hand on the curve of the casket’s soft wood and closed my eyes. Pat, our brother, had left us, and it was time to say goodbye.

As I began to whisper my prayers, I felt a surge of energy that was bigger than me, bigger than this coffin or this room. From handshakes to hugs, from tears to prayers, I felt the energy of hundreds of brothers and sisters around me near and far, all remembering the phrase of our 1983 yearbook: Gone But Not Forgotten. Like a slide show, the pictures of Pat that everyone had shared ran through my mind against the soundtrack of muffled words of comfort behind me. Here we were, just like countless others who have faced the passing of a classmate, with the charge to live our lives more closely, more sincerely.

I lowered my head, kissed the soft, warm wood where my hand had been, and offered peace and promise to live and love more genuinely.

It is the least we can do to stay close, to live with a daring charge to remember this fragility of life, and to carry our brothers and sisters tomorrow as we do today.

 

gone3 pat

Why Nobody Wins In The Ray Rice Assault Case

Like so many other citizens of Baltimore (and football followers across the country), I am nearly speechless about the incident involving Ray Rice and his fiancee, Janay Palmer.

As of this evening, this much is known. Two complaint summons were filed with the Atlantic City Municipal Court on Feb. 15, 2014. In the first summons, it is written that Palmer “did…commit assault by attempting to cause bodily injury to Raymell Rice, specifically by striking him with her hand, while at the Revel Casino.”

In the second summons, it is written that Rice “did…commit assault by attempting to cause bodily injury to J. Palmer, specifically by striking her with his hand, rendering her unconscious, at the Revel Casino.”

Before the two summons were released, TMZ.com released a video purportedly showing Rice dragging Palmer’s unconscious body out of an elevator. Rice’s attorney, Michael Diamonstein, has confirmed the video is authentic, but also argues that it shows the end of the incident and should not be used as the sole basis for judgment or even understanding of what occurred.

Regardless of what happened before he (allegedly) dragged Ms. Palmer’s limp body from the elevator (and then walked away), there is no side-stepping the enormity of this incident for Rice, Palmer, and others.

In fact, this is just plain ugly on too many fronts, which is why the story is so big in Baltimore and beyond. It has polarized the nation on various platforms:

Football: How should the Ravens handle this? The NFL? Should his success as a football player be kept separate from his personal matters? Will Rice play again for the Ravens? For anyone in the NFL?

Bullying: How can an individual so outspoken on bullying be involved in an alleged assault with a woman? Does this negate his advocacy? Undo the many projects he has supported and endorsed? Diminish the impact he has had locally in Howard County, Baltimore City, and elsewhere?

Domestic Violence: How will a public figure be viewed and, ultimately, judged in a matter of domestic violence? Will his clean record and social advocacy act as “contributing factors” that might lead to him receiving a sentence on the lower end of the spectrum? There is already discussion that the charges don’t fit the crime; will they be revised to more accurately reflect what happened, thus focusing on the issue of domestic violence as opposed to a football player, or a once-antibullying advocate?

He vs. She: Mutual assault charges were written against Rice and Palmer, leading many to ask, who was at fault? Is there even a victim? I have seen many online fights already, claiming she deserved it and he had every right to fight back. Others argue that under no circumstances do you ever hit a woman.

Which platform — if any — will rise to the top of list? Is any one of these more important than the other?

There is a fifth platform that has yet to be discussed.

Local Idolatry: We have raised Ray Rice to be a hero for our children, and few local athletes have done more to stop bullying and stand up for the victims. He empowered so many with confidence, trust, and courage. What will our children think? What do any of us think when we build up such public figures and they embrace the opportunity to lead – at one time by example?

This is why we all need to care about what is happening to Ray Rice and Janay Palmer. This is not just about football, bullying, domestic violence, gender roles, or local idolatry. It’s about all of these things, but each is so intertwined with the other, like thickets of wild thorns impossible — and dangerous — to separate.

Maybe this is why, in the end, none of these platform fighters will be satisfied with any outcome. Nobody wins in this case.

We can only hope that our own sensibility rises from the thickets, that we take care of ourselves, and of each other, and know that we can never raise another individual to a level above us, or anyone else.

We need to continue our fight to end bullying, to end domestic violence, to end idolatry. We don’t need to waste our energy mulling over the what-ifs and how-comes of limelight individuals who have struggled themselves. While we may offer our thoughts and prayers that they get the help they need to resolve their differences and overcome their issues, we cannot let this single incident detract us from the hard work that needs to continue with these and other important causes, and with the masses who are not football heroes or community leaders who struggle with the bullying and the violence every day.

 

What We Can Do In The Wake Of The Columbia Mall Shooting

Saturday morning, January 25. I am working on my syllabi for the upcoming spring semester, feeling pretty good at what I have already accomplished. I pour another cup of coffee and begin to look ahead at what still has to be done.

Still so much to do, so much. So much.

At 11:32 a.m., I receive a tweet notification from the Baltimore Sun:

breaking alert shooting

 

Immediately I forget about the work I need to do for the semester that begins next week and retweet the Sun’s breaking news. I begin scouring the various news sites for information. Twitter. Facebook. Websites.

Nothing.

Finally, news sources begin to broadcast the news that a shooting has occurred. There are mixed reports – all unconfirmed – that there are injuries. Fatalities.

The journalist in me awakens, and I get to work.

I do my best to inform so that others might be safe, broadcasting factual information that others need to make good decisions, to reach family members and friends. I use the power of social media to reach as many as I can, and I am grateful that this technology exists.

But still, underneath that steel, unemotional approach of a journalist, I can’t stop the thoughts creeping in that this is my school’s hometown. The kids I have taught for over a decade work at this mall; my current students and their families shop there frequently. This is their back yard, and tragedy has struck them on a personal level.

The teacher in me awakens, and I begin to worry.

A friend and former student who is an emergency responder texts me that he is en route to the mall, and I realize that my own current and former students could somehow be affected by this. What are they experiencing? Are they witnesses? Is it possible that they are affected in an even more tragic way?

My oldest daughter is their age.

The parent in me awakens, and I begin to panic.

The names of the two victims are released, and we realize that Tyler Johnson, 25, was a former student of ours. Our social media feeds blow up with RIPs and expressions of utter shock. I hear condolences from students I have taught, from friends I know, from acquaintances around the globe who have experienced similar tragedies.

The journalist, the teacher, the parent, the individual within me merges, and I am left to ponder the enormity of what has happened.

I imagine the same has occurred for countless others here in Maryland and across the country. An event like this forces us to remember similar tragedies in our lifetimes, some of them so personal that we are rocked by tremors of those memories.

I don’t need to list them. We do not need to be reminded again how senseless acts can devastate lives over and over again.

Instead, I consider where we are, and where we can possibly go – as individuals, as a community, and as a country.

In the coming days, we will hear national debates rise up about mental wellness and gun control. We will hear arguments to make our public spaces safer. We will hear and experience fears that copycat killers will rise up and seek some kind of sick glory, riding on the coat tails of this tragedy.

But right now, in these hours that follow, the only thing I want to hear is of people pulling together, of a community rising in faith in each other, of a state and a nation putting aside the debates and focusing their spirit and energy on comfort, healing, understanding.

We will all feel the pull to “be” the journalist, the teacher, the parent, the friend. In the end though, we are all just individuals trying to comprehend the senselessness of such moments.

This is what binds us. It’s our choice – right now – to choose to see beyond the debates of what should have been done and what we should do now.

So much to do, so much to do.

But not today.

What we need to do right now is choose to embrace the ones around us – not just in Ellicott City, Mt. Airy, and College Park. If we truly want to find a solution, to make a difference, it begins here.

 

 

Extreme Temperatures, On-Time School Openings, Put Children At Risk

The decision to open schools on time for many Baltimore-area systems (Frederick, Carroll, Howard, and Montgomery; Baltimore County had planned an on-time opening but delayed classes for two hours due to a “facilities heating issue”) caused an oft-heated debate via social media between parents, students, and community members.

For full disclosure, I am a teacher of 26 years here in the state of Maryland. I attended Baltimore County public schools, graduated from two local colleges, and now teach in one county school system and lecture at a local university. I am deeply entrenched in the ways of Maryland weather and our school systems.

As well, I am a father of three children, ages 9, 12, and 17; the youngest we home school, and the two older children (both girls) attend public school. With the exception of a 3-year stint in a Montessori school when our oldest daughter was 3 — 5 years of age, both girls have spent their entire school-aged years in public school.

For further disclosure, my wife and I do not raise “wimpy” children. We provide them many opportunities to experience independence, where they take risks, feel failure, and learn from both positive and negative outcomes.

I am a lover of many things, including meteorology. The science of weather fascinates me, and I love to share that passion with others. Sometimes, it coincides with my love for teaching — not to mention my enjoyment for “snow days,” which do not happen very often in the Baltimore region. We tend to get very hyped around here whenever a “Winter Weather Event” is on the horizon.

Merge all three on social media: Love for weather, love for teaching, and love for the Baltimore hype, and you get a “perfect storm” of passion, energy, and excitement.

Sometimes, that spills over in to weather- and school-related events that are serious. In these last 24 hours (and in the next 12), we find ourselves in such a place.

I posted a very strong opinion that schools should be closed due to the extreme cold temperatures (you can read my complete post here). Some agreed with my perspective, and others did not. I do appreciate all of the opinions that were shared.

In reading the opinions of others, I noticed three main arguments FOR sending the children to school on time. I address them here, out of respect to my friends and colleagues.

1. The temperatures weren’t that bad. Suck it up; it’s not like we live in extreme western Maryland.

The temperatures were — and still are — very bad, and they are very dangerous. As I pointed out in my post on social media, it takes just 1 to 5 minutes for frostbite to occur on exposed skin when wind chill temperatures are below 0 degrees. The temperature in and around Baltimore this morning ranged from 0 to 3 degrees, with wind chill temperatures exceeding -18 degrees.

Yes. In western Maryland, they were even worse, where the temperature was -13 and the wind chill exceeded -39 degrees.

So, while you are correct that “it’s not like we live in extreme western Maryland” (where schools were closed), I ask you this: does the decision to open or close schools really lie in the balance between -18 and -39 degrees? I would classify both as dangerously cold enough to cause frostbite and other serious health issues within 5 minutes.

2. We are creating a society of wimps; sending them in to the cold builds character.

I am first in line when it comes to complaining about how much our children are enabled. We have created a society of immediate gratification and instant expectations.

Sending children — some even before sunrise — out into dangerous weather conditions has nothing to do with building character. The extremely low temperatures in the past 24 hours have been historic on many levels. Even if we discard the record lows, you have to go back 20 years — 1994 — to find a time when temperatures were this low.

Please stop trying to use weather events unprecedented in our children’s lifetimes to build their character. Extreme temperatures of this nature happen every 10-20 years, and our children are not equipped to handle them easily. There is nothing — not a single thing — that is gained by sending a child to a bus stop for 15-30 minutes in temperatures that can cause serious health issues.

I ask you this: How long, beyond 1-5 minutes, should our children be exposed to extreme temperatures to build their character? Is 15 minutes enough? How about 30 minutes for over 1,000 Baltimore County students who had to wait additional time for their buses, as 25 of them had mechanical issues, and there was no way to alert the children on the bus stop that they would be waiting two or three times longer than normal?

Let’s put this another way. If I want to build my 12-year-old daughter’s character, how long do you think it would take Child Protective Services to contact me if I sent her on a 2.5-mile hike across town (that’s about how far she would travel in those 30 minutes she would have spent at the bus stop) at 7:25 a.m. in temperatures that felt like -18 degrees?

At least she would be moving during those 30 minutes, unlike the children on the bus stops.

I want to know — I really do — how many adults who were outspoken about our “society of wimps” spent 30 minutes outside this morning? Even better: how many of you under-dressed the way some of our children were forced to do this morning?

That’s what I thought.

3. If you dress accordingly, you won’t have any weather-related problems.

First, we are talking about public schools and bus stops. In any school, you run the extremes of cultures and class. And, as I stated above, we live in a state that is not necessarily prepared for weather of these extremes. Our wardrobes are not adorned with sub-zero parkas and balaclavas, and for good reason: we don’t live in a climate where conditions require such heavy outerwear.

Second, we are talking about school-aged children who just don’t think too clearly at times when it comes to dressing appropriately for extreme weather. Remember– These conditions have not existed in their lifetimes. They have no experience of what -18 degrees feels like, nor do they have any experience of the dangers associated with such low temperatures. So many of our children who attend public school and who stand on bus stops just don’t practice good common sense.

You might ask, “Where are the parents? Why aren’t they taking better care of their children?” Good question. Teachers have been asking that for a long, long time regarding the care for many of our children. The truth is, though, that it can’t be placed solely on the parents. Many families have no choice but to send their children to the bus stop unsupervised. They don’t have the means to drive their children to school, or even to the bus stop where they can wait for the school bus.

The real truth in public education is that there are not “absolute” circumstances. You cannot guarantee that 100% of the children are going to be prepared for such weather, just as the county could not guarantee that 100% of their buses would operate perfectly.

This morning, 1,000 of our children experienced that non-absolute, and many of them may be experiencing the effects of being exposed to the harsh temperatures for an excessive amount of time.

I ask you: If your child comes home from school with frostbite or other health issues related to prolonged exposure in sub-zero temperatures, will you tell them to suck it up? Will you tell them that they will someday be grateful for such character building?

Save your arguments — many of which are valid — about our wimpy society when we are not talking about severe and even life-threatening issues. The extreme and rare temperatures should not be taken lightly by anybody, for any reason. The school systems put our children at great risk today, and I believe there needs to be accountability for such inaction on their behalf. It isn’t too much to ask them to defend their reasoning in leaving schools open. They owe it to the families and the communities, certainly. More importantly, they owe it to our children who they sent out in to the extreme temperatures, many of whom were waiting for buses that would arrive much later than the scheduled time, if at all.

Writers Must Find Balance Between Art And Audience

My friend Brad at Starboard Society sent me an early-morning email, asking my opinion about an article published today in the New York Times. The piece, “As New Services Track Habits, The E-Books Are Reading You,” discusses the latest use of reader data from e-book sales. Publishers and authors are using the data to determine reading habits and how to write the “perfect” book that delivers, keeping the reader hooked to the very last page.

Nothing wrong with that on the surface, right? Writers have formulas that they have been using for centuries to connect with their readers. There is the generic plot sequence that just about all of us remember from our school days: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (or that ever-cool word, denouement, that we just loved to say over and over when we were writing the end of our stories). Then there are more sophisticated story structures, including Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, a 12-stage cycle that taps in to the very core of every human being’s journey through life.

So what’s the big deal, using reader data to track exactly what today’s readers are, well, reading? The data are telling us that readers prefer shorter chapters, and that we not stray too far into the surreal (probably a mistake I made with my novel Cold Rock). I think the results are going to tell us other common-sense findings, such as more action, less telling; more what-happens-next, less here’s-what-happened. No surprises there.

I welcome the feedback, to be honest with you, as long as writers keep one thing in mind.

There’s a shift in online writing that scares the hell out of me, and it could very easily creep in to this trend with writing to the specifications of an insatiable audience.

First, let me address the latter point. Authors used to crank out a novel a year, and that was a great pace. Our readers would wait with anticipation for the next big book to be released, and then they would devour it, discuss it for months, and then look forward to a sequel, or a new original work. Authors would tour for months after its initial release and then go into hibernation to create that next big book.

That’s just not the reality anymore. Authors have insatiable audiences, and publishers are demanding that writers feed them often with online content and other smaller stories in print and online periodicals. Authors must have an online presence via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, where they are staying connected to their readers.

The incessant “More! More! More” chant continues to rage on, dictating an author’s life to stay one small step ahead of the masses who are publishing anything, and everywhere. Believe me, there are plenty of writers out there who are more than happy to do whatever it will take to make it. That’s always been the case, even before the word “Internet” was muttered for the first time in some coffee house pow wow.

Authors will need to take a firm stand, in my opinion, with what they do with the e-book statistics about reading habits and patterns. Just like any other artist, a writer must hold her ground in her creative work. If we sacrifice the originality of our work and submit fully to the ever-shifting trends of readers, we will be nothing more than prostitutes of the trade, delivering to our readers whatever they demand, and as often as they demand it, with little to no regard for preserving the sanctity of our unique and creative efforts.

How in the world will we ever be able to advance in a society that merely provides what is demanded? It seems to me that, just as happiness can never be found in pursuing such empty and materialistic treasures, we will never be able to stop this insatiable need for “More! More! More!” if we stop asking our readers to consider something new, something unique, and something completely unimagined.

Bring on the stats, and I will do with them as I wish.

Now, if you will excuse me. I have a story to finish writing.

 

Christmas Is For Children, But They Give Us These Three Greatest Gifts

rvw octsnow2We hear and see it everywhere — from the non-stop Christmas music being played on radio stations to the holiday movies that we love to watch in the comfort of our own homes: Christmas is for kids.

I remember those early mornings, waking up before sunrise to see what magically appeared under the tree overnight. I would kneel in front of that magnificent plastic tree, with big colorful lights covering my world with greens and reds and blues. When my sister finally awoke and joined me, we shared those last few moments together in total bliss, waiting for our parents to join us.

These are the memories we make as kids. Magic, merriment, and family all rolled up in a bundle of wrapping paper and colorful light.

As we get older, though, the gifts we receive change. Where our greatest delight once came from the biggest box under the tree, our greatest gifts today come from the lessons of our own children. Here’s what mine have taught me.

Live The Life You Were Meant To Live

Before young children experience fear, guilt, or hurt, they cannot stop being who they are at such young ages. They demonstrate a forthright determination to fulfill a life lived as genuinely as we can only imagine as adults. For my own children, this meant gymnastics, equitation, baseball, and creative expression. It’s bigger than that, though; it’s about tapping in to the core of who you are and just doing it, living it, simply because it is what is inside of you. For me, it is writing, photography, and music. These are my oxygen. My kids remind me every day that I should never sacrifice the air that I breathe, for any reason. This is their first gift to us.

Love Everyone, EverywhereLegacy 5

A child’s compassion brings us to tears every single time, simply because it is pure; it is the nectar of our being. We see and feel our own love and innocence in their acts, and we even ask ourselves, at times, when did we become so jaded as adults? As I drive around town doing some last-minute shopping, the strangers around me shoot glares of anger, even threats of don’t-you-dares and get-out-of-my-ways. We complain that the holidays stress us out, but really — we are the generators of that stress. It’s not the stores, it’s not the pressure to buy! buy! buy!; it is simply our choice to abandon the basic principles of love because we feel that it is necessary to fulfill everyone else’s expectations. I don’t see our young children running around all stressed out during the holidays. I see them running around all excited, filled with love and magic and hope. Imagine shopping with a heart filled with those three wonderful things: love, magic, hope. This is their second gift to us.

Get Peace, Give Peace

As I walk through the stores and see frustrated moms and dads with their children, I don’t focus on the anger of the adults. I look at the children and see and hear what they are feeling, thinking, wishing, and dreaming: Peace. They don’t want their moms and dads angry, or frustrated, or stressed out. They want peace. They want the loud words to stop, the endless chain of No’s to finally find their end. They just want us to abandon our frustration, our anger, and receive their peace that they feel, enjoy the joy, and share in the magic. They don’t understand why we cannot see it or feel it. We can, if we only choose to. This is their third gift to us.

When our children were very young, and we would take them for Christmas drives to look at all of the pretty lights that you put up around your houses, we could not savor enough the oohs and aahs that would come from the back seat as they saw and felt and appreciated the magic of Christmas. We need to hear that again and carry it with us, not just in this holiday season, but always. We need to live our lives, love everyone, and participate in peace. These were never dreams of our children; they were their realities, just as they were once our realities as well.

Life. Love. Peace. Once and always within us.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Rus

compassion01

An Open Letter To God: Are You There?

are you there god 2

photo: rus vanwestervelt

Dear God:

Are You there? Lately I have been wondering, as a few things have happened around our world that makes me question what’s really going on.

Well, I guess it is a combination of things. I mean, bad stuff happens all the time. No real change there. The change is in us, and the way that we are living our lives.

It’s really beginning to concern me.

I remember when I was in fifth grade, our teacher took us to the library to pick out a book (or two) for the winter break. I was an avid reader by that time, and I was going through the books we had pretty fast. Most of the nonfiction titles were about sharks or ghosts, and I had already devoured them. When it came to fiction, though, I read anything I could find. I walked over to the “New Arrival” shelf, and I found a book that I had never heard of before. It came at a time when I was curious about all things related to God and spirituality. I distinctly remember thinking that this book was there, for me, at that exact time.

I took the book to the librarian to check it out. She read the title, then put the book behind her on a separate shelf. She looked at me with disappointment.

“I’m sorry, dear. You can’t read that book.”

I looked at her incredulously. I had never heard of such a thing.

“What do you mean? I’m in fifth grade! I thought we could check out any book here.”

“You can,” she responded. “But not this one. It’s not appropriate for boys.” She waited for me to leave, but I just stood there. I was an ornery kid.

“Why isn’t it appropriate?” I asked.

All she could do was get angry at my persistence. “It just is! Find another book. Look around you. We have plenty of other titles that you will like.”

I left the librarian, and the copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume, remained on the back shelf and out of my reach.

Later that day, I found out from a girl friend of mine that the book had stuff in it about bras and menstruation, and I immediately decided that I had heard enough and would be happy to find another book before we left for the break, even if that meant rereading about sharks and ghosts.

I admit, though, I was pretty bummed. I thought that the book was about God, that it was there for me, on that shelf, for a reason. And that librarian? She could have recognized why I was interested in the book in the first place. A little redirection to the God shelf would have been pretty appreciated.

I’m wondering how many fifth graders today are wondering about God and looking for answers. I know that, if I am now, at the age of 48, then others must be as well.

So, God, instead of going to my local library (where, by the way, I can now read any book I want without being questioned because it’s all self-serve when it comes to checking books out), I thought I’d come directly to You today.

Are You there, God? It’s me. Rus.

I want to tell You why I am so confused right now. It’s not about these tragedies that are happening around the globe and, terrifyingly enough, right here in the States. Like I said before, I get that (I don’t like it, but I get it).

I am confused because I feel like I know too much. I have read too much about the history of religion, and I question the validity and the motivation of our historians to capture certain religious events. Even more specifically, I question the timing and the similarities between the development of Christianity in relation to other religions.

Or should I not get too hung up on all that stuff? Should the hows and the whys regarding the past not matter to us in the present?

To be honest, God, If it were a purely historical thing, then I don’t even think I would have the need to write you. Wam, Bam, Thank you for the facts, Ma’am. And I’d be on my way.

(Probably not too appropriate here in this context, God. Sorry ’bout that.)

Anyway, this is why I am hung up on this.

photo: rus vanwestervelt

photo: rus vanwestervelt

I feel Your presence. I feel Your love. In all things. I listen to the holiday songs, and I feel You. I see the icons of Christmas, and I don’t see dollar signs or material goods; instead, I feel You.

When I don’t think about all the things that I have read, and when I stop comparing it to how historical or significant events are archived today with so much bias and subjectivity, where seemingly unrelated agendas govern the accuracy of actual events, everything is different.

But I do think about them, and that’s the problem. I’m finding it so hard to follow my feelings when my head is telling me something so different. It’s just so hard to let go of all of that thought stuff and just believe.

Isn’t that how it worked before we had all this stuff written down? Why did it have to get so political about who wrote what, and how?

Earlier today, I asked a few friends about how they knew You existed, and the answers that I got were right in line with us believers having a personal relationship with You that transcends the written word.

Believe me, God. As a writer, it’s very hard to acknowledge that anything should transcend words. But when we write, we are just trying to understand, aren’t we? To put things in a relative context that makes us understand something a little better? In this case, I think it has done just the opposite.

Anyway, here’s what they said.

Mark offered a quote from a band called, Live: “I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven. – I look at my daughter, and I believe. I don’t need no proof when it comes to God and truth, I can see the sunset, and I perceive.”

That’s pretty clear to me, God. You exist in all things, now and forever. Check.

Natalie went deeper with her thoughts, bringing to light in a strong reminder that Nature offers proof that something greater than us exists. “Why does something greater than ourselves (nature) have to be attributed to a deity? I believe there is a higher power than mere humans, but I think nature in all her glory is more than enough to believe in. That way, I can remove judgment and feeling from the equation and just accept what is.”

I couldn’t agree more that the spirit of the higher power existed long before we could write anything about it. It existed, and we as humans reacted to it in the best way we knew how.

Bernadette: “Something inside a belief, a feeling and yes faith. Who or what created all this? Even scientifically speaking, all this energy starts and ends where and why … I know in my darkest hours that my faith and God carried me through it. I don’t believe in “my god” or “your god” over Allah or any other named [deity]. I believe in one God who does not discriminate; he/she loves everyone “as is”; the rules I find to be man made and not God driven at all. The God I know is for all people, all of the time. Even the nonbelievers.”

Again, we are back to the origins being before any written documentation. Beautiful, Bernadette.

Adam: “The quest to understand ourselves as spiritual beings requires belief in a spiritual realm, one which explains the origins of the universe, the world and of us as individuals, and our relationship with the creator. My belief comes from an understanding that we are spiritual beings, created by a spiritual deity. This is the framework through which I see the world. I understand maths and science as manifestations of the creative language of a creative God.

photo: one of my favorite students!

photo: one of my favorite students!

Each culture has its sacred texts, including atheists, to explain origins and meaning. The opening chapters of Genesis do not explain how the world came into being, but explains why it came into being, because God wanted relationship with the creation. And the resultant Bible is the history of that relationship.

How do I know God exists? I know the relationship I have with him and the communion with the saints. I have seen, and heard, many physical miracles of healing; have heard prophecy and words of knowledge, which, like a scientific theory, must be weighed carefully and proved.

The natural world is therefore a reflection of a creative God, a sign to direct me to the one who made it. I see it and know it most when I see people enacting the commandment to ‘love thy neighbour.'”

God, isn’t Adam awesome? (whoa– If there are no coincidences, I’m pretty excited here about mentioning God and Adam in the same sentence, and knowing you both). When he says that the natural world is a reflection of a creative God, it makes perfect sense to me.

I don’t need the words as much as I need to connection with the natural world, the communion with all that transcends us as humans. And yet, as Adam says so eloquently, we can also see You through the kindness of others.

Katie couldn’t agree more with what Adam shares: “Grace, any moment of someone else sticking their neck out for you or lending a hand, especially when we don’t deserve it, to me is a reflection of the original, ultimate example of this kindness. It’s something that even in today’s world, none of us have time for, goes against ‘every man for himself’ survival instincts, and yet its still everywhere.”

Deborah sees you, God, in everything around her: “You need only to look around to know that God does indeed exist. He is there in all of nature, in the falling of the leaves off the trees in autumn, and in the budding of leaves in spring. When you truly look around and realize what nature has to do in order to complete this cycle each and every year, than you know that a higher being is in charge.”

Jim, ever succinct, agrees as well: “The balance of chemicals in your blood stream, the Natural Order of the Universe, the Beauty of Nature – all evidence to me.”

So God, I guess writing does help us get closer to you in some ways. When my friend Lisa wrote, “That’s why it’s called ‘faith’; I just know,” it’s probably one of the simplest, yet most convincing statements I’ve read in a long time. Tonight, writing helped me understand more of what I believe, and why. As well, my friends’ writing put to shame my concerns that you might not be there anymore. Through their words, I feel Your love. And that’s probably the greatest way to receive Your love, through the kindness of others.

Phew! I feel better already!

Thanks for all You do (this is getting awkward).

Yours,

Rus

(p.s.: I think I might write an “Are You There God?” book for boys. All of this might have been a little simpler if that had been on the “New Arrival” shelf all those years ago.)