Encouragement for life -- from a woman surrounded by it. These excerpts are from Simply Living, a privately syndicated weekly column, dedicated to preserving the joy – and the sanity – of modern family life. If you are interested in publishing Simply Living, please contact Caroline Schermerhorn at: scherm@ee.net.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words
By Caroline Schermerhorn
I’m aboard a Delta Airbus for the next 90 minutes, conveniently situated in a window seat right on the wing. Being the responsible mommy-sort I am initially absorbed in looking out the window at the moving wing parts, ready to spot trouble and report it to the cabin crew. I thought my husband might remark, “That’s normal. We all do that.” But he doesn’t cooperate. According to him, everyone doesn’t stare in a paranoid fashion at the plane parts, ready to play the hero and save the plane from certain wreckage.
Good golly, hasn’t he ever seen “Gremlins”?
For that matter, have you ever been able to look at a flock of birds resting serenely on a telephone wire, without hearing the screams of children as they ran from the schoolhouse in Hitchcock’s “The Birds”? And what movie-goer in his right mind has never looked carefully at the shower head just once, ready to jump out of the way of streaming blood?
Okay, maybe I have an overactive imagination. Call it the curse of the artist. But I’m not the only one in our home who gets caught in an occasional day dream.
I have a seven year old boy, for instance, who is easily transported between my home and Middle Earth. With his old blankey thrown over his head in tunic fashion, and a wire hangar/bow on his back, Legolas eats, drinks, and plays – sometimes for days - in my home.
My teens, on the other hand, live more easily in the Victorian age of Pride and Prejudice. Many lovely, romantic, indeed, even passionate girlie letters have been sent through the mail as the result of an occasionally re-screening of that A&E classic.
And to follow the line by line script playing that happens around the dinner table, you might think “A Knight’s Tale” enjoys a weekly showing in our home. (Well, it does.)
Images are powerful.
We like to think they are not. We like to think we can indulge in the latest reality show without adapting their coarse, mealy-mouthed method of verbally ripping someone to shreds. We like to think we can look beyond a steamy ten minutes of an adulterating love affair, and only be affected by the true, noble (?) message of a movie. And who doesn’t kid themselves into picking up the latest newsstand item for a one certain “compelling” article, despite the promise of sex/wealth/beauty displayed on the front.
Despite what we may wish to believe, our reason is fed by our senses. According to the great writer/philosopher G.H. Chesterton, we owe a great deal of what we think to what we see and small and taste and handle. Makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, we make our daily decisions based on the realities we have experienced in our daily life. It’s inescapable. Our common sense, that window of the soul, is nourished (or malnourished) by our five senses.
It goes to follow, then, that my choice of entertainment is much more important than I’d realized. . After all, my body may go on vacation, but my senses do not -- and neither does my mind. Just look at Madison Avenue if you want proof. Here is a multi-billion dollar industry built around the idea that you are definitely, no doubt about it, influenced by what you see and hear. Need proof? What product do you think of when you hear “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony”? What sportswear company is in your mind when you see an innocuous white swoosh? Whose pizza is served under the big red roof? If you answered Coca-Cola, Nike, and Pizza Hut, then you and I have something in common: we use our senses to learn about our world.
It’s not enough to say, “We try to steer our kids’ media choices.” Remember what that great master, Yoda, taught: “There is no try. Do or do not.”

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Hero Worship

I'm driving home from a neighboring city one afternoon last week. The radio carried Mark Schultz's tune, "Letters from War", and the tears were falling so fast, I thought I might have to pull over.
Today however, as I drive home from the cemetery, that soldier finally has a name and a face.
As far as I knew, Clem was just an old priest who lived out his last days in a local nursing home. I had no idea he was a decorated war hero. I don't know if he ever took a bullet for anyone, or if he saved any fellow soldiers from certain capture. But like so many other young men of his time, he volunteered 1944 and crossed overseas to fight a faceless evil for the freedom of a foreign people.
I wish I'd known Father Clem through these young and lively years of his youth. By the time I met him, he was living in a nursing home and coming weekly to Church to serve a daily or weekend Mass. The stroke that had robbed him of his vitality shadowed every tentative, sloping step he took up the altar. The paralyzed muscles in his face denied the rest of us a tender smile or sincere look from this devout priest. Yet, when asked how he must feel about living in this old crippled body he insisted, "This is nothing."
It wasn't until his now that I recognized his heroism.
At his funeral Mass, a black and white photo of one of "our boys" bears the visage of a dashing young man in a World War II uniform. Reverend Clement Benedict Durbin, born July 26, 1924.
So this was the young man who put his life on the line, willing to give his life that others might live. He served in the 79th Infantry Division and came home a decorated war hero.
The monsignor at Mass tells the rest of the story. He speaks of multiple battles where Clem was the last man standing; how he one day looked up to Heaven and prayed, "God, you must have a purpose for my life if you bring me home alive." When Clem came home from World War II, he put the medals away and was joined the priesthood, where he spent the remainder of his 80 years battling for the soul of his country
I think about my two little sons and wonder, how do you raise a hero?
Finally, the casket is rolled to the back of the Church, and the family follows. I can see a shadow of Clem's former life in the family's tall and graceful carraige. When the white pall is lifted from his cakset and replaced by Old Glory, the imagery in my heart is complete. Father Clem has just become my hero.
My boys see the picture of a young Clem at the back of the church. What war was he in, Mommy? I wonder about his mother - with what pride she must have seen his selfless dedication to others. How did she raise this man?
When we arrive at the cemetary, Clement Benedict Durbin's body is officially greeted by a contingent of uniformed American Legion soldiers. They snap to attention as the casket is drawn from the hearse. The respect for this fallen soldier is evident in their eyes.
My boy's eyes also grow wide with admiration. Their young bodies tremble with each loud echo of the fifteen-gun salute. Their natural inclination to love Honor is enlivened when one of those soldiers offers them a shell casing from the salute.
My boys lie in bed tonight. The shell casing has joined their other little treasure of rocks, trading cards, and sports trophies. His picture is tacked to the wall between their crucifix and their soccer pictures.
I'm experiencing an odd mixture of awe and of fear. On one hand, I realize that today, I experienced firsthand the deep abiding joy of a man who fulfilled his life's purpose. On the other hand, I've been left with a deep inspiration to raise my own heroes - and I'm fearful that in the end I'll cave and wish they'd just watch out for themselves.
How does a mother raise a hero? Did Clem's mom spend the days in silent prayer as she went about her daily tasks? Did she have special ways of enlightening her children to the needs around them? Did they give time and attention to those outside of their home who were in obvious need? Or did they simply live in a time that recognized and embraced noble sacrifice?
Did he live in a world where it was easy to be a hero?
I pray tonight for my sons and daughters, that they will be endowed with the means to give of themselves for others' sake. I pray for our world, that it will love and recognize goodness and selflessness. And I pray that I will know how to raise up and let go when my own little heroes are ready to give of themselves.
Father Clem, pray for us.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Just a Game

“It’s just a game, Honey.”Unbeknownst to me, I’d just uttered nearly fatal words. Though I didn’t know it, our relationship, our future marriage, and the creation of our children hung in the balance at that moment.We’d just spent the evening playing cards with some friends. It wasn’t even cards… it was UNO, for goodness’ sake. Had I realized my sense of teamwork was being put to the test, I probably wouldn’t have giggled when I dropped multiple “Draw Four” cards on my own beloved team mate and future spouse. Had I known I was being scrutinized for my strategic ability to shake a fifty point loss, I don’t think I would have asked for another beer. And if I’d had any notion that I was being weighed for my ability to someday raise sons who recognize a game as opportunity to excel in life, then I most certainly would not have patted him on the cheek and said, “It’s just a game, honey.”Fortunately, whether it was by my youth, my coy femininity, or my kitchen skills, he married me, despite a brutally weak rating in the “competitive” category.Fast forward eighteen years. I’m spending Memorial Day weekend in the bleachers at the North Newark Little League Memorial Tournament. The season is half over, and it’s been a rough one.Ours is a brand new team, one year out of farm league. With only ten guys in the dugout, coach doesn’t have a lot of room for strategic benching or creative field management. Every guy, every swing, every catch – and every mistake - counts. Sometimes too much, I think. For goodness’ sake, they’re only 10 or 11 years old. Why must so much ride on a game? I shrink when an inning is wrapping up, and my boy steps up at home. Two outs, bases loaded. He’s waited what seems like hours to get this turn at bat. The success of this inning weighs heavily on his ability to get a good piece of the ball and speed to first base. He wants like crazy to please his teammates, his coach, his friends… and with Dad in the stands, there’s naturally electric undercurrent of wanting to please the old man. The boy is, quite literally, “stepping up to the plate”.Another kid stands on the mound. Equally young. Equally aware of his chance to become an evening’s hero.The stands momentarily hush as he takes the ball, works into his wind up, and releases it into the batter’s box. The bat is swung, the ball’s in the air, and everyone scrambles to the next base. Our boy dashes safely to first, grinning all the way. But a cloud of dust reigns out over second, and the ump makes what turns out to be a controversial call.“Out!”The stands release the pent up emotion of the moment, as a bunch of parents rise up in the stands and declare the boy “safe”. Wasn’t the ump watching? Didn’t he see what happened? How dare he miss this call – it’s too important!I don’t envy this ump: a seventeen year old boy who has come up through twelve years of Little League. He’s grown up on this Field of Honor. Twelve years of play have taught him the rules and developed within him a fine sense of impartiality. He does his best to call a fair game. He saw what he saw. He knows the value of authority. And he’s not backing down. This kid stands on the other side of the fence, faces off against a group of parents, strong in their united outburst, and makes his decision like a young officer in battle. The call stands.Wow. That’s when it dawns on me: It’s not just a game.