Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Do you suppose the small gathering at Gettysburg that 19th century afternoon appreciated the lasting impact of the words scrawled on the back of an envelope spoken by a son of America’s heartland? Perhaps not.
In the end, it was the plain rightness of the way the words fit the occasion that made them immortal. How modestly they captured the emotions of a scarred nation and honored the people who were not there but whose lives, and indeed their deaths, remain in the enduring heart of the nation.
Although no book of history is likely to enshrine them, I had not just one, but two such experiences a bit more than a week ago. Each left me with insights and feelings and ideas that ranked with the historic power of the iconic address at the Gettysburg battlefield.
Two clerics of varying rank, age, and experience each did a very daring thing. They addressed a time where, on levels from parochial to national to global, emotions are being tapped and people of good will are finding themselves on opposing sides not of their making. We hunger to heal or to banish or at the very least to understand those emotions just a bit better.
The miracle of it all is that the remarks, and even the seeming asides, threw remarkable light on the things that were in my heart and I suspect, those of many of my neighbors.
Cardinal Dolan came through the cold and snow to mark the preview of the Centenary of the Church dedicated May 5, 1918 and, on that day, declared the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer a National Historic Landmark. Also on that day, the Dominican Friars of St. Vincent Ferer marked the 50th year, Golden Jubilee of their life among the neighbors of the area now designated as the East 60s and 70s.
By no coincidence, the Cardinal had come to signal that the evolution continues. The Cardinal told of his morning’s celebration of the funeral of a hero immigrant, soldier and “savior” to at least four of his Bronx neighbors. “Do you know the name Emmanuel Mensah?” he asked. He repeated the story we had read in the newspapers and seen on television news reports. A ground floor resident, Emmanuel could easily have escaped the inferno that had engulfed his apartment building. But he went back time after time to rescue those less fortunate. When his charred remains were found days later in the ashes of the building, the Ghanan immigrant/newly minted citizen and Marine PFC delivered his most eloquent testimony about what really matters. The Cardinal captured that message in stunning simplicity as he said, “Emmanuel knew that life was not just about him.” To me, a Gettysburg moment.
Earlier at a morning gathering of volunteers, Dominican Pastor Walter Wagner encouraged a dialogue on the subject of a nation hungry for Conversation in a time of Confrontation. He encouraged us to explore how to move from isolating parallel statements to unifying human exchange. Invoking heroes of the past, he cited Abraham bargaining with God on behalf of his contemporaries of Sodom and Gomorrah. The surprise was that it turned out to be that the outcome was not so much defusing God’s outrage but instead awakening his own capability to understand and forgive. He called on the group to join in a pilgrimage which might be described as progressing from Robert’s Rules of Order to a system of speaking and listening with lasting and deeply human benefits. Another Gettysburg moment that day.
Walking home that evening I already sensed that something unique had happened. But it has taken more than a week to discover that I had been given an infusion of insight with the potential to be a sort of “gift that keeps on giving” should I work to take its lessons on board.
I already guessed that “getting” the messages was one thing, but it was up to me to make it happen. One of the requirements would be simplicity. Don’t succumb to the lure of distraction. Don’t fall for the shiny object that is held out to take you away from the home truths you know are the real message. Don’t fall for the temptation to think that unity happens easily or that it is not worth whatever it takes to make it work.
My “Gettysburg Moments” have shown that conversation, honestly practiced, has the power to disarm confrontation. And above all the simple truth that heroes are recognized as people who know “It’s not just about me.”
The next five words if they had not made it too long to be a headline, would have been…..to make someone a winner.”
Pardon the nit-pick, but it’s not the time to let a phrase mislead. It should not/must not be allowed to sound ambiguous or suggest an “I give up” attitude. It’s quite possible we are hearing too many conversations of late about “losers.” This will not be another. This is a conversation about a dazzling array or winners I was blessed to encounter in the week just past.
In the face of yet another national tragedy read on if you agree that it is time to seize on small victories and to make that a tiny step to a larger, braver healing and consolation.
The first on a list of “winners” was the pigeon strutting his blue and teal glory on an East 66th Street sidewalk Tuesday morning. I wished it “Good Morning,” and “Thank you for bringing your beauty to a place where you and your breed are not always greeted with positive emotions.” This pigeon was singular. Arguably the most beautiful one I can remember seeing. As it strolled toward Lexington Avenue I was forcibly reminded of the insight of the late John Updike in his moving book Pigeon Feathers.
In that book, the musings of a little boy asked to dispatch the pigeons his parents felt were invaders in the family’s barn. The little boy was trying to make sense of the sad death of a relative and questions about “what is next?” after the death of an elder. Looking at the extraordinary, multi-hued wonder of the fallen birds’ feathers he concluded that there must be something next, something more that simple extinction to honor this bit of creation. He was forced to wonder whether anything so glorious was fated simply to be erased.
As he fell off to sleep the boy posed that puzzle to the Lord whom he was told by his clergyman was the champion and defender of the vulnerable. So, David put his hand outside the covers and asked the Lord, if he was there and if he was such a protector, to touch his outstretched arm telling him that there was more than extinction at the end of the life of creatures. The conclusion of that dialogue was this: “He returned his hands to beneath the covers uncertain if they had been touched or not. For would not Christ’s touch be infinitely gentle.” Any creature that sets off that train of memories is, in my opinion, an unquestioned winner.
Then there was “Flynn.” I was sorry to miss his big win at the conclusion of the iconic Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. (Am I the only person who never had a dog who is magnetically drawn to the annual television coverage of this canine Super Bowl?)
On return from the evening meeting that kept me from the real time coverage, news reports showed me a virtual “puff ball” of a Bichon Frisé that had gotten the nod as “Best in Show.” The reporter noted that the decision apparently elicited a moment of surprised silence. Perhaps not surprising as more than one person mentally questioned how a creature so arguable “cute” had also been judged what millennials would likely dub “awesome.” Now mind you, as a short person I would never hold out for tall being a standard for excellence. After all, the Irish Wolfhound wins my heart and my vote every time, at least mentally, since the patent impossibility of its being a part of life in my one-bedroom UES apartment.
But, back to Flynn. As he made appearances on network television and other high visibility destinations that morning, we were reminded that “Cute” and lovable has much less to do with his win than the fact that he is a nearly perfect iteration of the BF breed standards.
Next was a conversation with a young man whose story of a rescue I wanted to share with you. I will not tell that story because more even than its power was his response. Rejecting any sense of heroism, he simply thanked me for my interest and reminded me that the story belonged to the one he considered himself fortunate to have been able to help by being in the right place at the right time.
In a world where the definitions of winning vary wildly I had a glimpse this week of some of the best. Who are the winners? The ones I met in the week just ended remind me that winning is not a matter of overcoming. It is a story of being and becoming. And the rewards? Not just gold medals that can be melted down or trophies that could be dented. Not notoriety that fades with the next news cycle.
The winners to whom I am indebted are the individuals who simply by being, remind us that it is a great achievement to be true to standards that are much wider and deeper than just yourself. A pigeon that in its loveliness brings along a reminder that the simple truth of living your limited moment to its fullness brings a lasting gift to those who observe it. A “top dog” who was honored for being an example of what it means to demonstrate not just who you are but how you demonstrate the power of those who came before you. You tell your world about the best possibilities of your “breed.” A modest young man who demonstrates that the best way to tell your story is to honor the eloquence of another person’s story. To be your own unique story and respect that the other has every right to own a story in which you played a role.
Here’s to the “winners!” May their tribe increase.
One might think that nothing could impress a person who has risen at 3:40 AM to take a car service to the airport for a 6AM flight. So, imagine that I was truly touched, amazed, and intrigued when Meagen, my niece and friend, said to me as I joined her in the car service, “I am leaving the home of my birth and my mother’s home for the last time. I will return to a house of memories.”
At that moment, sleep deprivation bows to another set of feelings, and mind and heart scramble to stand up to the insight you’ve just heard from a woman whose wisdom and bravery have been demonstrated to you for all the decades since she changed my life. Her parents invited me to be Meagen’s godmother at a time when I was proud and somewhat intimidated by being nominated for a grown up, lifetime commitment I had never been offered before. Fortunately, I didn’t know what else to say but “Yes.” Even more fortunately I would learn, as we both navigated our very different lives in a tandem of evolving relationships, that we would reach a point of cherished friendship.
As Meagan took up her role in Toronto to work on the shooting of her upcoming Marvel Comic series, I returned to our urban village. Once home, I sought a point of reference that would help me honor Meagan’s deeply heartfelt comment as we drove out the driveway of the only home she and her two younger brothers had ever known. You see, they joined their parents and two older brothers as the only other family ever to inhabit the singular Victorian style home in its 100+ year old history. They lived not just in a house, but in a life-enhancing tradition.
Finally, a light dawned as I recalled the unforgettable comment of a dear friend and mentor named Tom Kennedy. He is the person who played an important role in the effort to establish Aer Lingus as a national air carrier worthy of identification with the country of his birth. No surprise that I confided in Tom to learn how I might respond to the expressed anxiety of another dear friend as he planned his first trip to the country of both his late parents’ births. “Of course he has some anxiety,” Tom explained. “He’s going back to a place he has never been before.” The wordsmith had captured the heart of the feelings!
So, somehow that gift of insight illuminated the pre-dawn remark that landed with such impact, and prepared me to deal with the poignant and poetic words I repeat today. Meagen has given me permission to share them with you in our Sunday morning walk in our urban village.
I am so very happy to be here.
Where even though my parents are no longer physically able to embrace me –
I am ‘huzzahed!’ by each leaping pebble in the semicircular gravel drive on my way to the “family entrance”;
I am forestalled, but never denied entry, by the always kicked brass kick-plate at the back door;
I am instantly warmed by the wood-cladding, and the thick plaster that form the high walls and ceilings;
I am gladdened by the sunset dancing through the windows:
I rest on the carefully placed furnishings bequeathed by previous generations of love and laughter and creativity;
Here – where I am known.
Here – where I first came to know myself
Here- where love was made real.
Though I am neither a parent nor the owner and heart of a singular home, I can safely guess that you who are will hear in Meagen’s words the echo of the famous biblical welcome to the life that begins when the current one moves to its transition, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
There are no words to express my own gratitude for a definition of “Homecoming” that banishes sadness and establishes an unshakeable sense of what parents and a family can achieve in the course of their very human lives. I rejoice, unreservedly in an era of new beginnings that has had such an auspicious start.
In the interest of full disclosure, you have a right to know that this question is being posed by someone who believes that laughter is the very best medicine, and whose huge regard for the late, great sage and journalist, John Chancellor, holds his observation about laughter as combination of byword, mantra and motto, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
Tell me you never had reason to react to that insight with at least a small inner voice that signals, “Of course, of course,” accompanied by the sound of the hand hitting the forehead in a gesture of recognition. It’s a million miles from any defeatist alternative based on the false belief that if bad news can happen, it does.
There’s probably no need to build a case for why it is at this moment in our national history a Godsend to turn to a common-sense path to balance in the face of fear that things may be heading in a scary direction. And equally important, an antidote to buying into all the negative alternatives that cuts off the path to a much more sensible alternative summed up in phrases such as “For goodness sake, lighten up”, or “Get serious!”, or “How could that work when 80+percent of a sensible electorate believes that’s not the answer to the problem?”
Let’s visit some examples of how you can know when “It’s time to laugh.” I’ll take ownership of several of them and hope that encourages you to consider them a starter kit and to come up with your own list of reasons to defuse the doomsayers and move in the direction of sense. To laugh off the narrow view that rules out finding alternatives and to look for ones built on openness to the belief that the best answers are the ones that respect a diversity of input.
Act One: The quasi-political one you find in print and electronic media.
In the week just ended, a seemingly plausible legislator selected by a seemingly plausible electorate suggested that known defenders of the rule of law were investing their scarce “spare time” in a covert secret society dedicated to sabotaging a sitting POTUS.
Now mind you, as a profoundly junior league peace activist in the opposition to the Vietnam War, I was not on the face of it, an obvious cheerleader for the FBI. I related strongly to the interpretation portrayed in the recent production of Kunstler, that civil disobedience was a vital power in getting our judiciary and our citizenship to feel called to see the moral side of the opposition. In short, that the destruction of paper should not be the issue, but that grown-ups needed to see how shallow it looks in contrasted to the destruction of people.
But still I was, at least, a bit “spooked” by the suggestion that lots of my fellow citizens and a sector of our media were buying into the legislator’s dire warning. Then, the next day, the Congressman explained that his warning was just a sort of joke…. Even to have spent a few minutes considering one of thousands of the perennial conspiracy theories that form the shiny objects that distract from the real issue is a waste of those minutes. Open safety valve and conclude it’s “time to laugh.”
Act Two: The personal/familial one you find in a seemingly poignant event.
On a more personal level, the marching orders issued to her family by my treasured sister before her recent death, made it clear that she would consider crying as a sort of “dereliction of duty.’” Her faith, her personality, and our luminously clear understanding that she saw her reunion with the love of her life, “James the Great,” and all the loved ones who went before them, as an ultimate positive.
She had mandated that her eulogies were to be “funny” and that her mourners were to be sent from her last ceremonies “laughing.” She wanted them to participate in her confidence that she was setting out on the next chapter of a “life changed, not ended.” My sentiment exactly!
So, imagine my challenge when the masses of white roses surrounding her simple coffin evoked in me a stream of world class watery eyes. After repeated assurances that it was the flowers and that I was not a begrudger that would have denied my big sister the realization of her deepest hope, I decided I might have to up the ante. Then, I decided I’d better move to her other direction: “Be sure they leave laughing.” And so, the kindly procession of sympathizers began to hear the last surviving Cunningham sibling deliver this accusation: “Pardon my sister’s sense of humor. She seems intent of sabotaging my unshakeable happiness for her by engineering watery eyes that owe more to allergy than to emotion.” And in what a playwright’s stage directions might describe as “sister silently addresses her deceased sister with an unspoken aside…” “Enough Peggy, it’s definitely not funny!’” In short, that’s Act 2 of “It’s Time to Laugh.”
Act Three: The commercial with suppliers of phone and banking services.
Scene 1: In a meeting with your well-named personal bankers at your local Chase branch, a couple of unexpected events reveal sides of your bankers that you might otherwise never have discovered.
As you seek advice on how to juggle withdrawals and deposits to cover unpredicted expenditures that soon will come due, and as it becomes clear that you are not the master of all the things your “much smarter than I” smartphone can do, your personal banker takes it upon himself to help you unravel your electronic challenges as well as your financial ones. And so, as you sail through two new breeds of having your phone recognize you and grant you admission to your own data, you come away with a new story. “How did I know that?” to answer the observers who are amazed by your newborn confidence you can now answer, “My personal banker taught me.”
Scene 2: Or what about the astoundingly patient and competent Verizon Wireless Tech Guru who stays on the line for nearly three hours to determine that your very fancy new phone is not just persistently dark of screen, but officially deceased. He sets up a free replacement to travel to you within 24 hours and then spends the other hours resuscitating and reinstating the data to which you waved goodbye when it was migrated from the phone you understood to the one only your genius network engineer understands.
Two prime and I believe not entirely unrelated examples of how you face down an attack of “deer in the headlights” brand fear-evoking challenges and top them off with a relieved pronouncement: “It’s Time to Laugh.”
Once in a blue moon a unique spirit chooses to transfer to this planet and from that moment all bets are off. (Note that it is her choice, always and only.)
Doctors at Mercy Hospital in Chicago predicted that the little girl bearing the names of two brave grandmothers would never go beyond her six pound birth weight unless she had surgery to correct pyloric stenosis. Mary McCullough asked her friend Sara if she might pin a relic on the baby of a newly canonized young Saint (Therese Martin of Lisieux, France) who had promised to spend her Heaven casting roses upon the earth. And at that moment an alliance was forged between two strong-willed young women committed to settling for nothing less than miracles. Their first joint venture was announced by the doctors who told her parents that something seemed to have caused the stenosis to disappear.
By the time the baby was just a little more than two she stood in her namesake Grandmother’s Carrickone, in Northern Ireland, eye to eye with a ferocious guardian gander and commanded, “Don’t quack.” Always the big sister, she put her faith in the God she had come to refer to with her recently minted soft Irish accent as “Poor auld Goddy Jesus,” and morphed from allegedly timid grade-schooler to blue-ribboned child of the Sacred Heart at Woodlands Academy in Lake Forest, Illinois, belle of the ball, and toast of the Chicago Mayoral residences in Chicago and Eagle River, Wisconsin with her classmate Pat Kelly.
When the trailblazer headed East she beguiled audiences as “Peg o’ My Heart,” the title character in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, a sparkling performer of Puccini, and student council president of Marymount College in Tarrytown. It is not recorded whether she said “Don’t Quack,” but history will show that shortly after graduation and back in Illinois, she firmly but politely refused to participate in the swimsuit competition, and was still named Miss Sylvania.
Fierce loyalty to her friend who was dating Jim at the time Peggy first met him, she decreed that she would be his friend. And that in turn deepened the conviction she expressed to her own children when years later, she urged them to be sure to “fall in like before you fall in love.” That’s what she had done until one fateful day her own “Jamie” came to meet WOPA Radio Personality “Cousin Peggy” bearing the white rose she had asked her friend Saint Therese to use as the signal that this was the man she would marry.
Thus began a 62-year duet featuring the talented soprano and her beloved “James the Great” that ended (but only temporarily) three years and two days ago on January 10, 2015.
Their song became the sound track for a love story with scenes in Culver Academy in Indiana and “Along the Rocky Road to Dublin” in a stage performance in Joliet, where she also joined the Frankie Carle Orchestra as glamorous soloist for the song “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk.” Off stage and at a shrine at old St. Mary’s where Jamie proposed to his “Maeve,” and afterward at St. Raymond’s where they were married one day in late May, the ensemble grew to include five remarkable children, 13 grandchildren and legions of friends. Her commitment to the love of her life left behind a trail of “also-rans” that included a Prince of Persia and an Alpine skiing instructor. Never losing her devotion to the little girl so like her strong willed self, she still takes it for granted that it is not asking too much to demand color coded signs from heaven. And she remains faithful to the bargains she strikes, even the one to let her Jamie precede her. She does of course require that he do so without ever ceasing to keep his hand in hers.
Her father said that his firstborn arrived with the bills on the first of the month. But it is certain that he and her mother and siblings and all who love her are quite sure that her arrival has always been in the assets side of the ledger; proving that “God is never outdone in generosity,” as she loved to quote her father.
And, of course to all ganders who try in vain to shake her faith she will, I feel sure, offer them a warning to the last moment of her life that dare not be disobeyed. “Don’t Quack.”
Written August 1,2015
By no coincidence, this tribute to my beloved big sister was written on the day when her birthday coincided with a “Blue Moon.” I offer it to all of you who share our Sunday morning voyages of discovery in the urban village we share. Today I wait at the end of the telephone line as her children update me on her transition to the life of unconditional love and reunion with her “James the Great.” She said so often in the just days more than three years since he went to prepare the way, that she was determined that he would be proud of her and her courage. And so all of us who love her get in in line behind him to tell her how very proud we are of how she has invested these three years of life as we pray that her transition is gentle. No gander to annoy her and no need to say “Don’t Quack” as she sings her way from Life to Life. Her rendition of Vissi D’Arte in her rich dramatic soprano re-echoes in my ears. Read the lyrics as we say “Thank You” to the God who loves beauty and art and Peggy, a gift to the world that comes only in a Blue Moon, as she takes her bow and we rush to the stage to offer her armloads of white roses.
Having donned a hat purchased at an outdoor farmers’ market at Helsinki’s Harbor many Februarys ago, I felt armed to deal with current weather here in our urban village. Despite its “foxy furriness” that inspired honorary nephew Will Cosmas, JD to name it “Aunt Annette’s Finnish Fright Wig,” I wear it with peace of mind and seem to hear it whisper, “And I thought it was cold there on the Baltic!”
It has made me sensitive to my neighbors’ headwear choices. Looking out the window of the MTA’s Uptown 103 bus yesterday I did however register a bit of surprise at the fedora that somehow clung to the heavy wool scarf that wrapped the head of a woman who was apparently garbed in a full closet’s worth of sweaters, coats, and diverse warm wear. This mild amazement prepared me to look to my left and be remarkably unfazed by the well and conservatively garbed “man in a suit” who topped his sartorial choices with the vinyl helmet that suggested more mandatory uniform than fashion choice. I believe it bore some print ID information above its front beak.
But by that time, I looked up to see what cross street we were approaching and noted that both on our bus and on the sidewalks outside adults were rolling wheeled vehicles with no visible passengers. For many months as the weather turned chilly I wondered that infants had tiny hands protruding from snowsuits, parkas and lavish layers of down and wool. Whatever happened to the mittens of my childhood anchored to little bodies by a connecting cord that stretched from wrist to wrist-mitten to mitten that insured that the streets would not be awash in a crazy quilt of single mittens? But now, both the uncovered hands and the babies themselves have disappeared and a new breed of zipped and hooded stroller “duvets” are the upped antes of protective gear. And yes, I must admit, I observe this phenomenon with a tinge of envy.
Speaking of mittens, I have a friend with a long history of adapting to climates from Ireland to the U.S. via Norway and Kuwait who insists that the only handwear with a hope of maintaining some measure of warmth is (are?) mittens. She insists that any form of these will do the job better than any equivalent gloves. Except perhaps for silk gloves worn under the mittens.
My mind races to think of where one would find silk gloves. I do have a couple of pairs of white kid gloves that have taken on the aura of quaint anachronism. But silk? I don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps a liturgical vestment supplier? From the masses of boxes that arrive daily at my address, and the fact that someone has even been engaged to transport these to individual residents’ doors each afternoon, I am inclined to think that absolutely anything can be ordered online. But first I need to find the mittens that won’t look like they were loaned to me by a cross country skier and that form a very uneasy alliance with a black wool princess style coat. So, the quest for silk gloves currently goes on hold.
Like anything that seems to present a new or at least unaccustomed challenge, the current cold blast sent me to review the writings of Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine? Where did that connection arise in the search for insight about a highly unusual deep freeze currently stretching from top to bottom of the contiguous states of the east coast? The phrase that popped up in my mind was from The American Crisis, for which he coined one of his most famous descriptions of the birthing period of our current democracy.
As a firm believer that there are no coincidences in life, I quote the good and balanced man. Hoping that his centuries-old words are firmly in the public domain, I repeat them and note that what started as a slightly lighthearted application of his wisdom remains to cast light on challenges even greater than an unusual meteorological event.
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.
So, “Hats Off” to Patriot Thomas Paine and any event, however unlikely, that moves us to revisit these words that are a precious part of our patrimony.
As you read these words, it is New Year’s Eve 2017 when we meet to head, in spirit, for Times Square. Opting to cut through Central Park, we can pay honor to Robert (“Robby”) Burns at his statue in the Park’s Poets (Literary) Walk. The brave Celt’s poems capture, in the dialect of his native Scotland, the brave, fragile humanity of their subjects’ daily lives.
Burns is credited with capturing and writing down the sentiments of earlier generations. He told a long-time correspondent that he had adapted the poem called Auld Lang Syne (old long since/the olden days) from a traditional Scottish folk song. The words he recorded finally appeared in 1788, shortly after the poet’s death, in the fifth volume of George Thomson’s Scots Musical Museum.
As night falls on the last night of this challenging year, we feel especially indebted to him for having rescued the traditional song. As a favored anthem for welcoming a new year while continuing to treasure the friends and the moments of the past, it sets the scene. One of the beloved song’s traditions reminds us that it is still possible for people who may not even know one another, to form a circle, clasp crossed hands and sing with confidence, that they can “yet share a cup of kindness for auld lang syne.”
Tonight, it will be with a bow to the visionary Robby, that we proceed on our pilgrimage to what had come to be called “the Crossroads of the World” in the first year of the present Millennium.
In the interests of full disclosure, it is vital to say that my annual return to Times Square occurs only in memory. Given the times in which we live, I choose to make my “mental” walk to Times Square via Central Park and its Poet’s Walk precisely to bow in gratitude to Robert “Robbie” Burns, champion of vernacular poetry and of the power of the present to be burnished by capturing the best of the past. We are indebted to him for preserving the words of “Auld Lang Syne.” By recording those words of an iconic hymn, he continues to remind us all of the enduring value of old friendships.
And speaking of long friendships, I recall that one of the conditions of being allowed to join Waterford Wedgwood as storytellers and speech writers for the launch of its astounding “Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball” alliance with the City called “The Crossroads of the World,” was that my colleagues and I did not have to BE THERE when this glorious triumph of creativity made its maiden descent. That explains why my annual treks occur mentally and in memory and not in the seas of humanity that watch the ball’s descent in person.
As a lifetime friend charged with telling the stories of its people and its products, the strategy and marketing communications practice that shares my initials also owes its corporate name to another project for which we worked with Waterford Wedgwood USA. (More about that another time, but suffice to say we may be the only corporation whose name was inspired by an airport and the creation of a scepter.)
The adventure began for us at the culmination of a five-year period when Waterford’s Millennium Collection Toasting Flutes had captured the imaginations of some two million collectors by raising toasts to Health, Happiness, Love, Prosperity and Peace. On the eve of a transition no living human had ever experienced, it was time to join in the telling of a story of a daring icon of hope.
Some form of a “ball drop” to mark the start of a new year had been happening in New York’s Times Square area since 1907. That year, the event was marked by the drop the drop of New Year’s Ball of iron and wood, illuminated by 25-watt bulbs.
To celebrate a unique moment, 93 years later, Waterford Crystal was commissioned to join with Phillips Lighting totally to redesign the New Year’s Eve Ball. Thousands of handcrafted triangular panels were joined to form a geodesic sphere some 12-feet in diameter and weighing nearly 12,000 pounds that has become familiar to a global audience. For Times Square 2000, the Millennium celebration at the Crossroads of the World, the New Year’s Eve Ball’s redesign combined the latest in lighting technology with the most traditional of materials, reminding us of our past as we gazed into the future and the beginning of a new Millennium.
This year nearly three thousand panels are illuminated by some 33,000 Phillips’ light emitting diodes. They combine to show the addition of cut crystal symbols of such grace-full spiritual messages as Serenity, Kindness, Wonder, Fortitude and Imagination.
By 2007, the beauty and energy efficiency of the Centennial Ball inspired the building owners of One Times Square to build the permanent Big Ball weighing nearly six tons and twelve feet in diameter. The thousands of Waterford Crystal triangles are illuminated by tens of thousands of Philips Luxeon LEDs. This Big Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball is now a year-round attraction sparkling above Times Square in full public view January through December. Atop One Times Square, it stands as a monument to the amazing marriage of the best of visionary technology with time-honored and enduring human artistry.
And so there come together in the moment we will celebrate later tonight, the best hopes expressed in song by “Auld Lang Syne” and in the human creativity of a crystal-clear call to a dare to enshrine the past by expressing an inspiration I like to think of as “Beauty ever ancient, ever new.”
To that we will confidently raise “a cup of kindness yet!”
In a 19th Century bible that lives on a shelf in my sister’s living room, there are letters to Santa. It’s a good place for them, since the Bible chronicles the genealogy of their mother’s ancestors. The letters were written by children who grew up in that house in the decades since their family became only the second to live there in its 100+ year history. It’s been too long since I treated myself to sitting by the fireplace and re-reading those wonderful testimonies to the insights of children, teenagers, young adults reflecting on a year soon to end and another soon to begin. They reveal wit, wisdom, more hope than fear, and a vision of their world that was wider than just their family’s concerns and their local world.
Tonight, I sit at more than 700 miles away from that comforting and inspiring fireside and try to capture the spirit embodied in those letters. Not coincidentally (you who have joined me in our weekly Sunday morning walks in our urban village know I don’t believe in coincidences) this is the winter solstice, when the shortest day joins the longest night of the year for those who live in the northern hemisphere. The letter I write to Santa will surely be touched by that interplay of light and darkness.
In the early hours of the Winter Solstice morning here in our urban village, we will be able to observe a unique miracle, streaming live from Newgrange in Ireland’s County Meath. Five millennia old, this Neolithic site was built long before the Pyramids of Giza rose in Egypt. And it was only in the last decades of the 20th Century that its complexity became clear. At first it was thought to be a passage grave: a Dolmen-like structure in which a long, narrow passage led to a round open space. But then, archeologists concluded that the grassy, domelike structure was not simply an add-on over the ages but an integral part of the site. That, along with the absence of remains and the discovery of a keyhole-like roof box atop the narrow passageway that created a path for light to travel to the central chamber. At the solstice, for some 17 minutes, light enters through the roof box to illuminate the central chamber. There, it seems to celebrate the coming of light, unique in its power to an agrarian culture. For 5,000 years and counting, a long darkness yielded to new light; clarity replaced misinterpretation. The power and validity of solidly based tradition made new sense of an existing reality. What was vital to tillers of the land, is now symbolic of a 21st Century’s power to harness nature’s light to power the planet.
There’s my clue, Santa! I see how I can write this letter to you when I am feeling more than a little “in the dark” and even afraid. That’s no atmosphere in which to write to you in the spirit of two generations of children who maintained hope in the face of all the changes that define the path from child to adult.
As I approach the watershed moment of Christmas 2017, I look back at some of the “places” (physical, mental, moral, poignant, hopeful, admiring and dubious) we have visited together since the Winter solstice of 2015.
We have applauded a brilliant negotiator who led a parade in New York and even more significantly a pilgrimage to peace in which George Mitchell served and then departed, recognizing that the peace belonged to, and would only be best kept by, the people whose lives it had touched for centuries. We have lamented phrases like “alternative facts” and applauded an alternative wall that formed a barrier for discouragement as a democracy raised a wall and swung wide its central gate to release the power of creativity and generosity to set a new course for recovery from economic collapse to an amazing economic recovery. They opted to achieve that through expenditure of resources through the generous bestowal of support for the arts and artistry of a people. We have mourned the passing of a life-long educator who put aside personal gain to operate in an environment neither she nor her community owned but which both respected for its unique culture. She became a champion of how differences can be harnessed in hope, to honor the power of diversity.
But what of this year now ending, and the one that soon begins?
Like the children of a home that has bridged a century and remains ready to face a future testifying to the value of elegant endurance, I will begin by welcoming you and thanking you for coming to promise that giving is at the heart of this season. Although I use the title “Santa” you have partners everywhere, all of them heroes of light and its victory over darkness. Some are as brave as the Maccabees who bet and won on their earth providing sources of light. One as humble as a child born in a stable and committed from the start to be a healer. Another, an Abraham willing to risk this first born to ensure a future that embraced a wide diversity of descendants that would circle the globe. But why am I explaining this to you? You obviously “get it.” So, let me get on to a short list of a staple of Letters to Santa: some requests for gifts longed for from the heart and that I somehow know will banish the dark of anxiety and replace it with liberated, liberating light.
Santa, please continue showing me that not everyone has his/her price. As I grew dizzy seeing legislators who had loudly expressed skepticism suddenly flipping and starting to sound like sycophants. There must have been reasons other than money to explain the whiplash phenomenon. For example, anyone who has concluded that voting is based on the profit motive and/or stating quite openly and with no embarrassment that government can be won by the highest bidders, will have to think again. It turns out that two men and a woman who are the three wealthiest members of the US Senate all voted against a plan that suggested that it was a good idea to abdicate public service for private profit.
Santa, please reassure this grown up child whose parents were never too busy to remember her needs. Please give me the gift (before January 1 when the neglected deadline for facing up to the Children’s Health Insurance Program comes due.) In the spirit of a New York newspaper editor of the past century, please confirm my optimism that there really is a Santa and that he wants no harm to come to 9 million children because the alleged grown-ups were too “otherwise occupied” to protect them
Please, Santa, don’t misunderstand the citizens of this great-hearted country who are still working on their feelings about immigration. I can’t believe that they meant for their government to name Puerto Rico a foreign country in order to increase import/export taxes. Write off any misunderstanding as a consequence of staff reductions in the State Department.
And please Santa, keep inspiring the newly endowed wealthy at the head of our global/multinational corporations. Remind them that they can become better than “one trick ponies” by continuing to pass out bonuses (and enshrine the impulse by permanently raising the wages of the weekly/monthly paycheck echelon of their employees.) And let us expect the best of all the foreign investors to benefit from the legislation’s new plan for redistributing wealth. Help us to help all of these recipients of a massive Christmas gift of a plan to guard against the sluggishness of trickle-down economics and not allow it to become treacle down as a wise person of my acquaintance styles it.
Santa, I hope you have the power to erase fear. I’m beginning to see that the things I lament in myself and in my fellow citizens mostly fit comfortably under the heading “FEAR.” It’s fear, isn’t it that makes us form “teams” and to name the ones not wearing the team jersey (or baseball cap) as “OTHERS?” Pity the fearful; but don’t follow them into subrosa committees within committees. Encourage us/them to realize that dialogue is a more effective tool than backroom, locked door strategizing. Help us write prescriptions for open-minded, respectful use of the uniquely human power to talk to one another, a medication that can be consumed as needed.
Remind us all when we risk succumbing to fear that it is not invisible to our fellow humans. When it generates bullying and innuendo designed to discredit open statements of hard won evidence, it is an undeniable sign of fear. And as we would be wise to keep in mind, it is the truth that makes us free. So why would anyone be afraid to follow the pilgrimage searching for truth?
Please, in all your identities, help us to make heroes of the people who put gold bars in the Salvation Army kettles and $200,000 checks annotated with a request for anonymity. Keep restocking the bank accounts of people like the comedic performer who invested hundreds of millions of dollars to buy up and write down the medical bills of people who had not hope of being able to do so in the foreseeable future.
And Santa, please help me be brave enough to dream big and trust unreservedly in the hope that we will be worthy of our checks and balances form of government and not succumb to fear in all its negative power.