Wednesday, December 30, 2015

I resolve to just Be Inspired

The holiday hamster wheel we’ve all been riding at a fierce pace for more than a month has changed speeds in the last day or two, and will hopefully come to a screeching halt after this upcoming New Year’s weekend. We will all settle into 2016, and with it an opportunity to start fresh.

New Year’s resolutions can be a bit of a cliché, albeit they’re on the minds of many seeking a greater peace-of-mind, body and/or soul in the coming year. Most of us make them, only to be discouraged within weeks by our lack of inspiration. There’s not any bad excuse for our slacking ways. We get distracted with life, and its demands…work, kids (and their homework, their sports, their events and commitments), church, house work, etc., etc. And then, someone goes and gets sick, which inevitably always blows mommy’s priorities to pot! Or, perhaps we set our sights too high to begin with? No matter the reason, most years, we start out January with a bang, and end it in a worse place than we were before it started.

So, in an attempt to not be discouraged a month from now, I resolve to not set any established resolutions this year. No weight loss goals. No resolutions to be tidier, or healthier. No high expectations set for the type of wife and mother I need to be in 2016. No New Year’s lists are being made or being checked twice before midnight on Thursday by this harried full-time working wife and mother-of-two. Just a simple resolution to do my best each day to simply Be Inspired.

It’s a directive that will surely entail a re-evaluation each and every day, based upon the course my life takes. It will, in and of itself, entail a more conscious effort to pull myself up by my bootstraps on a daily basis. And, on days when I can’t muster the strength to do that, I had better make sure I’m not far from my parish’s chapel, where I can meet My God and quiet myself in his presence. Whatever the case on any given day, I will feed my soul. For this place deep within is where the inspiration lies. And, I’m confident if I resolve to just Be Inspired in 2016, my whole self and family will benefit in ways I never imagined possible a year from now. Simple inspiration fosters far greater action on its own that impacts every aspect of my body, mind and soul.

In the coming days I will close this chapter of my life entitled “2015” feeling encouraged by the peace one can acquire by being “10% Happier” (Dan Harris, 2014). Just like millions of other Americans, I will spend a bit of time these next few days pondering where I’ve been this past year, and where I’m headed.  I look back and remember discouraging moments. I recall words said that I wish I could re-tract. I am disappointed by particular opportunities where I may not have selected the high road, and was led down paths I wish I hadn’t traveled. At times this past year, my life journey stripped me of my character, and even of my dignity. I was knocked down a notch or two. But, I’ve discovered that when I’m down is always when I’m more inclined to let My God in. And, it’s here that he taught me the value of having a humbler, more peaceful heart.

This past April (not even a week after we celebrated his death and resurrection at Easter), I narrowly escaped a black wall cloud headed straight towards me at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. I had just completed one of the most inspiring conferences I’d ever attended and was anxious to get home to my family when the storm hit. More scared than I can recall being in my adult life, I was literally brought to my knees during that severe storm outbreak that occurred just moments before I was due to board my plane. I was alone, and I was scared. It was just me…and My God.

Later that April night, he met me in my St. Louis hotel room. He woke me in the dead of night with the charge to bring up a certain Matt Maher song on You Tube. I wept as the words to “Hold Us Together” were sang. Then, he inspired me to meditate for the very first time in my life, which introduced me to a whole new dimension of personal peace I’ve not ever known. Little did I realize he was preparing me for challenges that lie ahead. But, then again, that’s often how My God operates. It’s in these challenges that we can choose to either wither or grow.

Mindful meditation brought a far better peace to my mind and soul in 2015 than I’ve ever known, and I’m eager for more of it. I resolve to continue to work on quieting my active mind, and finding “my center” on a regular basis. I have an inner voice that seems to never shut up. However, I have discovered that the more I consciously quiet my mind through meditation, the more peaceful I become on the outside. I am more inclined to respond versus react when I’m “present” and not focused on the past or the future. This year taught me just how much my soul actually craves the peace, love and joy of the present moment. I resolve to continue feeding my soul in the New Year with daily inspiration.

It’s so ironic that I find it most difficult to be the best version of myself to the ones I love the most. My husband and two boys are my heart and soul, yet they are the ones who see the ugliest version of me on a regular basis. They see me tired and grouchy and impatient. They listen to my rants and react to my regular barking out of perpetual daily chores to keep the household running like a well-oiled machine.  But, how much peace, love and joy do they actually receive from me? I’ve struggled with this question in recent weeks, and have resolved to make it a little more evident to these precious people in 2016. Inevitably, if I follow through with the personal resolution to just Be Inspired, the ones I love the most will reap the positive benefits of this more “present” wife and mommy.

As I look back, I can whole-heartedly attest that my faith and prayer life strengthened greatly over the course of this past year. I've gained a bit more patience and far more perspective. I've learned to shut up a little quicker, and I do a better job these days of just responding versus reacting. For the first time in a long time, my year is concluding on a much more encouraging note than it began. But, there's far more work to be done.

At midnight this Thursday night we will hear the famous Scottish folk song, “Auld Lang Syne.” The hymn begins by posing a rhetorical question as to whether it is right that old times be forgotten. I say absolutely not. Never forget, as our pasts encourages pronounced inspiration. But, always forgive…ourselves and others…for that’s where the liberation lies. Freedom from our own personal chains fosters peace, and in centered peace we find boundless love and joy. So, here’s to an inspired 2016, full of peace, love and joy.

Auld Lang Syne
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.


We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.


And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

tra·di·tion * trəˈdiSH(ə)n/

Tradition is a word we hear a lot this time of year. According to Merriam-Webster, its definition stems from the Latin word traditio, which means “the action of handing over.” In twenty-first century America, it’s termed as “a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time.” Traditions often provide a source of identity to those who participate, strengthen family bonds and offer comfort and security.
No matter the struggles and strife that may occur within our families throughout the year, Christmas traditions always bring us back to center. These are what create that joy we feel in our hearts as adults when recalling the holidays we experienced as children. They’re what make our souls warm and our faces smile when we think about Christmas.
I remember our annual Christmas Eve trip downtown in the early 80’s to see the festive displays at Pogue’s and Shilito’s, and the CG&E train display, and Fountain Square adorned with twinkling lights. My dad still occasionally mentions the year one of the talking reindeer told me I “might be a little greedy!” Thankfully I don’t recall that episode! Santa would always drop off one gift for my sister and I on Christmas Eve morning that would accompany us downtown later that day. I particularly remember the year Rainbow Bright was in her heyday, and she joined us on our holiday city visit later that afternoon.

Chris and I took our boys downtown this season to ice skate at Fountain Square, and they were over-the-moon excited! We attended Cincinnati Reds’ Fan Fest down at the Duke Energy Convention Center first on that Friday evening in early December, and then walked the several blocks up to Fountain Square to the holiday ice rink. After about a half hour in line, and then the Zamboni’s inopportune cleaning right as we were fitted for our horribly uncomfortable ice skates, we finally checked into the rink about 10 pm that night. After a little more than an hour on the ice, we shut the place down well after 11. And, on the way home stopped by United Dairy Farmers for a midnight ice cream treat.  Our boys are certainly at a prime age to remember all the exciting details of our downtown holiday experience this year. Thankfully there were no mishaps on the ice!

The Murray's in downtown Cincinnati for a fun ice skating adventure.

I recall decorating my grandma and grandpa Stranko’s Christmas tree each year as a young girl with all the women in our family, and that memory warms my heart to this day. My grandma would leave that tree up until Valentine’s Day nearly every year if she could! And, who could forget my father’s silly Christmas tapes he would unbury each holiday season that included carols that no one else on this earth has ever heard. My sister and I still twitch when we hear Barbara Streisand’s version of Jingle Bells! 

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has also been a great family tradition that began when my family saw it in the theater on New Year’s Eve the year it came out – 1989! We would watch it on VHS (and later, DVD) at least a dozen times during the Christmas season every year, beginning with Thanksgiving weekend, and always culminating with a viewing during our Christmas Eve celebration with Dad’s side of the family, before heading to midnight mass. The one-liners from that movie are thrown out all year long in The Goodman Family! “Oh, Eddie... If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn't be more surprised than I am now.”

Special holiday traditions would certainly become a part of our Murray Family Christmas season. Some began before our boys were even born, like our Travel Tree. Some we incorporated into our household once the boys came along, like St. Nick and “Elfy.” And, others were just born this year – like our journey out to the tree farm for a real tree, and our Advent wreath centerpieces on the dining room table. The boys love this stuff, and all of it makes my soul smile from the inside out!

The Travel Tree
I brought home an ornament from Santa Cruz, CA during our honeymoon up and down the California Coast in July of 2000. I honestly didn’t think much about it, other than it being a cute little keepsake from our honeymoon that would adorn our family Christmas tree for years to come. Then, the following year we took several vacations, and I picked up an ornament from each locale – Key West & Key Largo, Cancun, etc. And, the following year we ventured down to Florida – Jacksonville and Amelia Island and then on over to Tampa, Clearwater and the like. At each destination, I picked up an ornament. By the time we built our new home in 2004, I had accumulated quite the collection of destination-based ornaments from our travels, and the idea occurred to me to buy a Christmas tree for our bedroom that holiday season. The Travel Tree was born!
The Travel Tree is a 5' artificial tree that is placed in our bedroom each year, and is adorned with
memories from all our many travels since 2000.
Truth-be-known, the Travel Tree is Chris’s favorite Murray tradition. It’s entertaining to re-visit all the great places we’ve traveled through the years – be it a family vacation, a work trip or just something fun we experienced regionally together on our boat. The newly-added ornaments of that year are always the first to be hung each year, and then we continue on hanging each of them, one at a time, recalling something fun about that location. Sometimes I’ve had to be creative – like when we went to Cabo San Lucas and I was unsuccessful with finding an ornament, so I converted a magnet into one that Christmas. Or, when we ventured down to Lake Cumberland a few years back…there’s an unsinkable keychain in the shape of a red life jacket hanging on my tree from that getaway. 

Our Lake Cumberland "ornament" is actually a floating key chain.
The boys’ favorites are the Disney ornaments - I'm sure for all the "magical" memories the destination conjures up in their little minds from our family vacation there in 2013. They are now old enough to remember the origins of many of the ornaments that cover our Travel Tree, like Hilton Head, The Outer Banks, and The Smoky Mountains. But, I love fielding the many questions that arise each year as they hang up ornaments from destinations they have not visited. One of my favorites is that round, red Las Vegas ornament. Little does Connor know he was our most treasured Vegas souvenir from our vacation to Sin City in 2005!

Ornaments from Disney, Hilton Head and Vegas are just a few of the many highlights of The Travel Tree. 
St. Nick
Santa Claus found his way to America, thanks to the rich tradition of St. Nick in European countries. In many places St. Nicholas is the main gift giver. His feast day, St. Nicholas Day, is December 6, which falls early in the Advent season. In some European countries, he arrives in the middle of November and moves about the countryside, visiting schools and homes to find out if children have been good. Other places he comes in the night and finds carrots and hay for his horse or donkey along with children's wish lists. Small treats are left in shoes or stockings so the children will know he has come. It’s a tradition that has been passed down from generation-to-generation from Europe over to America.

The celebration of St. Nick is popular among Catholic families in the United States. I was raised Catholic although, I didn’t attend Catholic school, and my household was certainly not engrained in Catholic tradition. I attended CCD (now known as PRP), and often times it was my Papa who brought me to church on Sundays. I spent a lot of time at my maternal grandparent’s house when I was young and befriended two neighbor girls, Holly and Lisa, who ironically attended church and school where my household now attends – St. Bernadette. These friends were who first taught me about St. Nick – primarily because they always received fun little treats from this visitor the first week of December every year. I often wondered why this guy didn’t stop by my house too, and assumed it was a “Catholic school thing.”

My paternal grandparents immigrated to America from Holland (The Netherlands) after World War II. I was blessed to have known my Dutch family overseas for many years, the last living family member of which passed away this past year – Aunt Reik. My dad’s aunt, Aunt Reik, adored her American family, and would often send little trinkets to us around the holidays. When Connor was born, she sent him a pair of wooden shoes (“clumpers”). When these arrived, the wheels immediately began to turn regarding how I could weave his Dutch heritage into these shoes. And, the Murray St. Nick tradition was born. Owen also received a pair of wooden shoes from Aunt Reik when he was born a few years later, and she even sent a treasured picture of herself in the Amstelveen market when she purchased them!
Aunt Reik in the Amstelveen market where she purchased Owen's wooden shoes in 2008.
Every December 5th, the boys set their clumpers outside their bedroom doors. This past year, after I read a brief story to them that evening about the history of St. Nick, Connor got the idea to cut up some apples (since we didn’t have any carrots) and leave them in their shoes for St. Nick’s horse (tradition has it that he makes his rounds on a horse or donkey instead of a reindeer). And, even though St. Nick brings my boys pretty much the same thing every single year, a gingerbread kit and two wooden clumpers full of candy treats, they still get excited. We’ve made this tradition not only something they treasure as Catholic children, but one that keeps their Dutch roots alive and well in their hearts. 

The boys in their "clumpers" on St. Nick Eve.
My mother-in-law discovered The Elf on the Shelf in 2009 shortly after this holiday tradition hit the market. She was so excited to bring him and his book over to the house. I hid it that first night in late November on the shelf in our entry way, and my oldest, only four at the time, got such a kick out of this jolly little elf. At only 18-months-old, Owen was too small to really get the gist of it, but enjoyed the hunt every morning with his big brother.

Since then, “Elfy” has made his annual appearance the weekend our first tree of the house goes up – generally the weekend after Thanksgiving (this year he arrived a weekend late, since we were a bit delayed getting our trees up). He is a mischievous little character, hiding in places that are sometimes more obvious than others. The boys’ favorites include the toilet paper party he has every year in the bathroom, and when he ends up dragging out their toys for his own nighttime amusement. This year that silly little elf even took a little poo and left behind some remnants on the toilet bowl! “Elfy” always gets into the cookies when we bake our annual holiday batch, and the night before that this year, he was hanging from the oven door in great anticipation!
"Elfy" makes a lot of mischief during our Christmas season!
What I love most about this holiday tradition is the boys’ excitement. My ten-year-old still barrels down the steps each morning in December wondering where Santa’s helper could be hiding. They leave him notes, and stare at him magically. I know the dynamic of this tradition in our home will probably change in the next year or so, but I’m confident we will morph it into a family hunt as they get older. What a fun way to celebrate the “magic” this season holds.

A new tradition
Shortly after Connor was born in November of 2005, Chris and I bought a beautiful 10’ artificial tree for our great room. We knew the next few years of having little ones toddling around would make for mayhem during the holidays, and an artificial would be far more practical. Me being the perfectionist that I am love to be able to mold and shape the branches of an artificial tree around each ornament. I also like being able to keep my tree up well into January if I wish. I can drag it up the basement steps on Thanksgiving weekend, and then back down whenever I please. I’m a Type A personality, and us Type A’s love an artificial tree! However, last year was the final year we could muster out of that beautiful artificial tree. We ditched it after the holidays.

Back in November I suggested to my husband that we take the boys out on a tree hunt this year. I didn’t want to purchase a new artificial tree, because we plan to move in another year or two and I don’t want to invest in another artificial tree not knowing if our next house will have high ceilings or not. He agreed. This would be a fun family outing, seeing as though our boys have never experienced a real tree in our home at Christmastime.

We picked the boys up from school the Thursday after Thanksgiving and headed out to Corsi's Tree Farm in the neighboring county east of ours. Chris and I had purchased several trees from Corsi’s when we were DINKs (dual-income-no-kids), but hadn’t ventured out to the multi-acre farm in many years. We were delighted to find only one other car in the parking light when we arrived around 3:30. We stepped inside the large heated barn that also poses as a small gift shop that offers customers holiday music, hot chocolate, and other festive treats. There was even the family’s large yellow lab lying next to the wood burning stove…an added extra for the boys! We told the owners what we were looking for – a 10’ Frasier Fir, and he advised where on the farm we should look. And, so we ventured down a long trail with our hot chocolate and Chris’s hand saw. The big trees were in the far back lots. About 45 minutes later, Chris found it – a beautiful Fraser tucked in between a couple of other large trees.
"Family Selfie" at the tree farm!
After about 30 minutes of sawing, I placed a call to the owner for “reinforcements” in the form of a chain saw and a John Deer Gator. They hauled our monster tree (and our boys) back up to command central on The Gator. After another cup of hot chocolate, and some friendly conversation with the farm owners, we loaded up our new tree into the back of our Ford F250 and headed for the house. 

Our boys and their tree.
We spent the next four days decorating our new holiday treasure. This tree is lit with more than 1200 white lights! Sufficed to say, the ladder stayed in our living room for nearly a week as this anal-retentive mother tweaked and re-tweaked her branches, but it was worth it. What memories this real tree brought to our family this season! The boys will never forget seeing half of daddy’s body stuck under that tree at the tree farm as he attempted to saw it down. Or, Owen’s little Charlie Brown tree he found that day (it was the top of another tree that had been sawed off, but they hauled it for him nonetheless, just the same as our big one, and even wrapped it for the ride home). His little tree sits in our living room with virtually no needles left, adorned with all his favorite little ornaments. And, Connor will never forget the moment he did the honors of cutting the rope that held up the branches once we got her stable in the stand…it was like a scene from National Lampoons Christmas Vacation! This tree is HUGE, and it’s perfect for us, and the memories it has brought us this Christmas season will leave a lasting impression for years to come. And, after this first experience of a real tree from the tree farm, we’re now confident this has become a new Murray family tradition. 
"Before" and "after."
This year we also incorporated two Advent wreaths to the mix of our festive home (one wreath for one child, and one for the other, so we would not have a fight on our hands each week when it came time to light the wreath!). Our boys learn about Advent each year during the Christmas season at their school, but we had never committed family time to celebrating the season with this Catholic tradition. Our parish conducted an Advent wreath event the first Sunday of Advent where families could make a small wreath and learn a little more about what this symbol stands for in the Catholic Church. Each Sunday evening during December, we spent a few minutes in reflection at our dining room table discussing what the Advent wreath symbolizes, and then we would light the candles for the week. The boys enjoyed the weekly lighting…especially Connor, who is oddly enamored with fire right now! I hope to carry this tradition through the years in our home, as it not only re-iterates important traditions the boys learn during the holiday season at school, but helps them to understand that Christmas traditions can be very simple and basic, and are not always centered around such pomp and circumstance.

Our family's advent wreaths.
What I love most about these traditions Chris and I have created for our own family are the smiles I get to experience on our boys’ faces that will hopefully be transformed into joy in their hearts as they grow older, just as our own childhood holiday traditions left an indelible footprint in our minds of what the season brings. I can only hope they will experience this joy well into adulthood whenever they think back on the season of Christmas and recall how they experienced it in our household. And, maybe they will even carry some of these traditions into their own families. I firmly believe this sense of childlike joy is what Jesus wants us to experience, as this season is all about families and love, just like it was more than 2,000 years ago in that little town of Bethlehem.

Monday, December 14, 2015

December 14: Not Just Another Day.

Mornings in the Murray household are pretty chaotic, especially the last half hour before heading out the door. Mommy is finishing up getting ready, all the while coaxing the boys off the couch and upstairs to get dressed and to brush their teeth. It’s a mad dash to get out the door by 7:35, and more often than not it generally involves me yelling, the two of them poking one another incessantly and then being sassy, and me yelling some more. By the time I drop them off at school, I feel like l have ran a half marathon. I anxiously rush them into their school building, and then take a deep breath once back in the car. At last…peace and quiet!

I visit our parish chapel most mornings after drop-off for 10 or 15 minutes of quiet time with My God, always praying for the safety and protection of my boys right next door, as well as the opportunity to be more patient with them later in the day. Most Mondays I light a candle for our week, praying for specific needs our family may have. It’s my time with My God. It quiets my soul and prepares me for my day, while also settles me from the craziness experienced just a few moments earlier.

I’m confident a similar morning experience is shared by many young families. The hurried frenzy…the "listening ears" turned to their OFF position…the words of frustration sometimes spoken to start our day that we wish we could take back once we drop them off. A deep breath, a few prayers, and some peace and quiet later, we think of our children and smile. But, 30 minutes prior to that, we are pulling our hair out!

On December 14, 2012, I’m confident there were many young families going through the same maddening morning routine. They dropped their kiddos off at school, or pushed them along onto their busses, thankful for the peace and quiet that occurred once their little darlings were gone. But, a few dozen mommies and daddies in Newtown, Connecticut didn’t have the chance to make it right later that day. Three years ago today 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and 6 adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary. Prior to driving to the school, Lanza shot and killed his mother at their Newtown home.  As first responders arrived at the scene, Lanza committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Every parent’s worst nightmare occurred in Newtown, CT that dreadful morning three years ago today.

My December 14, 2012 was a day like most. A crazy morning trying to get my then-first grader and pre-schooler out the door. They weren’t quite as sassy as they are now as fourth and first graders, but our mornings were still chaotic! I went about my day, working as a Marketing Manager for Panera Bread. We had just opened the downtown Cincinnati / Fountain Square bakery-cafe, and if my memory serves me correct, I was downtown that day to support those post opening efforts.  After work, I went straight over to my Oma’s house to pick her up for our annual holiday shopping outing. I would load her and her wheelchair into my Toyota Highlander, and we would venture out for dinner at Bob Evan’s, and then hit a few stores that she needed holiday odds-and-ends from, like Kohl’s, Meijer, etc. It was hard for Oma to get in and out of the car at that point – she was 87, and when it was cold, her “wooden leg” got stiff…as did the rest of her body. So, other than dinner and a stroll through Kohl’s in her wheelchair, she would stay in the car while I ran in and out picking up the various items she needed for her family members and friends. She would stay in the car and listen to Christmas carols on my radio.

During our holiday journey around Highland Heights, KY that evening Oma asked if I’d heard about the horrible school shooting in Connecticut that day. I had not. Although I am field based, I often go about my day with the radio off. I either pray, or just take in the peace and quiet within the confines of my vehicle. I hadn’t watched any TV that day or listened to the radio until I tuned in the Christmas carols for her that evening. She told me a bit about what she’d watched on the TV earlier that day, and I just shook my head – yet another school shooting, I thought.

After getting Oma settled into her condo with all her holiday flare that night, I started home. I hadn’t been back to the house since before school and work that day. My aunt Kathy had picked up the boys from school, and hung with them until their daddy got home, since I had an evening with Oma planned right after work. I merged onto Interstate 275 and settled in for my 20-minute drive home and thought I would catch up on the school shooting details on Cincinnati’s am station, 700 WLW.

It was far more horrific than I’d even imagined.  A young monster walked into an unassuming elementary school in a small Connecticut town and opened fire. Twenty innocent first graders were murdered that morning, along with six teachers / administrators in a senseless act of evil. My mind immediately went to my first grader, Connor. Our school is a small private Catholic school in Amelia, OH. It’s totally inconspicuous, tucked into middle-class suburbia, with kids who are taught morals and values and how to love their God, and parents who are invested in the academics of their children. But, Sandy Hook Elementary seemed much the same in many ways.

Twenty little first graders went off to school that morning, probably some of which experienced the mad-dash craziness (just like mine do most mornings), but never lived to see their mommy and daddy that evening. They had hopes of Santa coming in 11 days, and thoughts of playing in the snow during their upcoming Christmas break, and all the hopes and dreams that little six and seven year olds can hold. All of this was stolen by the devil in disguise carrying a semi-automatic weapon.

The radio station spent a few minutes talking about this senseless act, and then proceeded to play one of those montage songs that combines a heart-wrenching tune with words spoken from the event. I could barely stand what I heard. First responders speaking of the horror they encountered that day; teachers crying tears of fear for what occurred at their place of employment; neighbors recounting the moments they saw unfolding in front of them at the neighboring school…all set to Silent Night.

I got home in tears and hugged my boys that night, thankful to be in their presence, as did probably millions of American parents the night of December 14, 2012.

I recently completed the book Choosing Hope, an inspirational memoir by Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary who saved her entire class of first graders on that horrific morning by piling all sixteen of them (and herself) into a single-occupancy bathroom within her classroom, only feet from the massacre taking place outside the door. The first grade class next door to them was blown to pieces. The unit in the book entitled MY DARKEST HOUR is hard to read – nearly 80 pages outlining the gripping way this tragedy occurred for her and her little “friends.”

First comes the initial blast of gunfire, then the sound of shattering glass. The hair on my arms stands up. I know right away what I’m hearing. Columbine is happening in the place we call Pleasantville. How can it be? Someone with a weapon is shooting their way into our perfect school. My classroom is the first in the building. We are in grave danger. Sitting targets. I jump up, run to the door, pull it closed, and switch off the lights. Thanks God for the dark blue construction paper I taped to the door for a lockdown drill and forgot to take it down. I can’t lock the door. My keys are clear across the room, on top of my desk, and there’s no time to fetch them. For what? A locked door is no match for a magazine of bullets. If we’re going to live, we have to find a hiding place. Fast. I look around the classroom. My students don’t seem to understand what is happening. One, the little girl I call our fashionista, because she wears things like leopard prints and leggings, stands there smiling. I can’t tell if she is somehow oblivious to the sounds or frozen scared. The windows don’t open wide enough for a first-grader to climb through, and who knows what or who is waiting outside. Evil is coming for us and there’s nowhere to go.

Where can we hide? Where can we hide? There’s only one place. The bathroom – a tiny first-grade-sized lavatory with only a toilet and a toilet-paper dispenser inside. Its dimensions are about the size of two first-grade desks pushed together. Maybe three feet by four feet. There is so little space that the sink is on the outside, in the classroom. I have never been inside of the bathroom before. An adult wouldn’t fit comfortably. How in God’s name will I get sixteen of us in there? It is our only chance. The impossible will have to become possible.

This heroic, twenty-six-year-old teacher crammed 16 little first graders and herself into that tiny space where they hunkered down for nearly an hour until the SWAT team coaxed them out (she was leery at first to open the door…partially in shock, but primarily just terrified). “Mrs. Roig” saved 16 little lives that day, yet felt lost in body, mind and spirit for quite some time after the tragedy. She couldn’t get the sight of the blood-stained hallways her class had to walk through in order to exit the building that day, or the shrieks she heard from students next door to her classroom as they uttered their last words on this earth before being murdered. She had lost colleagues, and her school community had lost 20 other first graders…it very well likely could have been her class. Her and her students came closer to death than any of us would dare to imagine, and it stunned her for a while. But, she didn’t let it define her, and soon committed herself to making this mess her message of hope. She now travels the country as an inspirational speaker for teachers and academic organizations, and is the Executive Director of Classes 4 Classes, Inc., an organization whose mission is to connect classrooms to care and to teach every child in our nation that our lives are not separate but very connected.

A November 2013 report issued by the Connecticut State Attorney's office concluded that Adam Lanza acted alone and planned his actions on that December 14 morning in 2012 when he opened fire on an innocent school, but no evidence collected provided any indication as to why he performed this horrific act, or why he targeted this particular school. Case in point – it could happen anywhere. Evil knows no boundaries.

Most mornings are crazy for my household, and I admit to being one of those mommies who flies off the handle more often than not in our early-morning frenzies. But, since reading “Miss Roig’s” book these past few weeks, I’ve been a little calmer in the mornings. I try to take the the time to not only give my boys a kiss before sending them on their way, but look them in their eyes and hug them tight (even if I don’t get a warm embrace in return!).

Today, after dropping them off I headed over to the parish chapel and asked God’s grace on the twenty-six angels who lost their lives in that senseless act of violence three years ago – only 11 days from the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. My heart felt heavy for the families of those 20 little innocent first graders (my youngest is now in first grade), who would now be in the fourth grade (just like my oldest is today).

I get to spend the next 11 days among the frenzied holiday countdown of dealing with Christmas tantrums, and wrapping their presents in preparation for the big celebration, and somewhat dreading the two weeks they will be off school and home pulling one another’s hair out each and every day. How blessed I am to have these worries. And, may God bless those Sandy Hook mommies and daddies who don’t have their fourth graders to hold this holiday season, for the fourth Christmas in a row. I pray a peace that surpasses understanding is upon their hearts on this day, and I thank God I still have my baby boys to hold this Christmas.