Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Part Three: Stop Shooting, We Love You

Full disclosure:  This post is only peripherally related to parts one and two, EXCEPT that it follows my train of thought about being neighbors, violence, peacefulness and the general complexity of stories that are ten-second blurbs on the news.  So if you’re up for a ride… all abroard.

To tell this story I need to go back to last summer, a summer known to our neighborhood as something like, “wow, that was a crazy summer.”  In the span of three months we had a shooting, a robbery (or “home invasion” if you would rather feel scared this morning), a one-guy-runs-the-other-one-down-with-his-SUV (is there a shorthand term for this?), a heart attack (to a dear grandma who was caring for four of her teenage grandkids), and a big house fire.  There are so many stories related to these events that I can’t begin to tell, from a sympathy card that made a tough guy cry to my attempts to give a newborn a bottle during an emergency (I forgot to take the storage disc out and the poor baby just wailed and wailed until I figured it out.).  But I will tell one story, and it comes from the people involved in the big house fire.

The fire itself was just what you’re picturing–fire trucks, ladders, soot-covered men doing heroic things.  No one was hurt physically, but the couple who had recently bought the house took a big hit financially because they had not been able to purchase insurance.  In the months that followed there were valiant attempts by the couple and their community to renovate, but it was just too big, too damaged, too much.  They moved to the Southside.

Fast forward a year to… well, now.  The husband of the insuranceless-but-valiant couple–Colin– is riding his bike home, in the Southside, one evening.  At one intersection he vaguely remembers cutting someone off, sortof, but gives the encounter little thought.  However, it turns out that the other guy gave the incident a lot of thought… or at least a lot of emotion.  As Colin carries his bike up the city steps, the driver attacks him with a hunting knife.  Later the doctors would be amazed that every cut missed important organs and blood vessels by millimeters, but the road raging driver was certainly trying to kill him.  Colin lives, the driver disappears, and the story goes on.

Last Sunday Colin gave the message at his church, Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community.  A friend sent me the audio link (http://hotmetalbridgefaithcast.blogspot.com/2012/09/matthew-538-48-colin-albright-look.html), and last night I listened,  absolutely transfixed.  Colin is not a professional preacher, but just a Jesus-following guy talking about a scary thing that happened to him and his reaction to it.  He entitled his message, “Look Crazy Guy, I Forgive You.”

What struck me as I listened was how Colin was naturally, authentically, and almost unconsciously able to react to this situation in the way that I hope I would be able to react if a similarly horrible thing happened to me.  He urged the congregation to pray for his perpetrator,  asking (this is my paraphrase), “Who should you really feel sorry for?  Me, surrounded by this great community, supported by the 700 people who came out for the fundraiser last Saturday (organized by local cyclists), and ultimately at peace; or this crazy guy, who, whether he gets caught or not, is obviously living a miserable existence?”   He also talked about dealing with our own tendencies to anger, pointing out that we each think that our level of anger is normal and justified–and so did the ‘crazy dude’.  Finally, he talked about pushing through the fear that can keep us doing the things that give us life.

All this from the stabbed guy whose house burned out last summer.

This morning I’m thinking about how the word ‘encouragement’ really means to give courage, and I would say that this is what Colin (and the couple who still held their wedding… see Part Two) has given to me… courage.  Because, to be honest, sometimes my natural, authentic, almost unconscious reaction is much more fear-based.  I’m really good at imagining the what-ifs of living in the city, living on our street, or just living at all.  It can be paralyzing.  It can keep me from doing those things that are life giving, for myself or for someone else.

But really, it’s hard for even me, the dedicated worrier, to come up with a pair of situations like what Colin has faced in the last year.  It’s not that it’s been easy for him, or for others who suffer in similar or dissimilar ways.  It’s not easy… but, look, there can be life on the other side.  There can still be healing.  There can still be hope.  As my husband quoted, “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Colin, thank you.  And crazy guy, watch out– I and a whole bunch of other people are praying for you.


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Part Two: Stop Shooting, We Love You

I was not there to witness the bullets, but I did witness the vows.

They were wedding vows to a beautiful woman made by a man who had been shot in the chest six days earlier.  For better or for worse, richer or poorer, sickness and health, until death do us part.  Familiar wedding vows, but never quite like this.

I sat in the row with my neighbors and it echoed, this phrase, until death do us part.  Until death do us part, between a couple who had almost been parted six days before vows were made.  Until death do us part, but not quite yet.

I sat and remembered making the same vow to the man who sat next to me, squeezing my hand.  Seven years ago we said, “Until we are parted by death”, and I remember that moment, those words, with perfect clarity.    This clarity is surprising to me because so many of my wedding day memories are now blurry.  But that moment I know, its sharp colors and lines imprinted in my brain by the gravity of the phrase.  As I spoke it, I was shocked.  How could these words be spoken into a day so filled–filled almost to the breaking point–with life?  At that moment death seemed foreign, impossible, and yet there I was, binding myself to a mortal.

There was no other way.  I knew it then, but I know it better now.

Last night after the vows were spoken and the couple pronounced, we celebrated. Life in the face of death, we feasted and toasted.

And together, we thanked God for another day.


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Part One: Stop Shooting, We Love You.

It wasn’t fireworks this time.

Bang, bang.  We were sitting in the dining room, eating our Vietnamese soup.  Bang, bang, ba.. ba.. bang.  Our oldest was charming us—using her kid chopsticks, and showing us how she could pick up the noodles.  “Mama, are those fireworks?” she inquired.  I went to the window cautiously.  Two men, one our neighbor, were getting into an SUV.  The passenger was bleeding.

“I’m not sure what’s going on honey,” I replied truthfully and met my husband’s eyes.  He walked to the window and I smiled across the table.  “Do you like your soup?  You’re doing a great job with those chopsticks.”  I felt strangely untroubled, more focused on maintaining normalcy for my daughter’s sake than figuring how what had happened outside.  Our housemate came in through the back door, he and my husband walked away to talk.  “What was your favorite ride at Kennywood?  Won’t your sister (who had fallen asleep in the car and was now in her bed) be sad that she missed the soup?  We’ll have to save some for her.”

It took her at least ten minutes to wonder where daddy had gone, and we looked out the window together.  “Mama, are those police officers?  Why are they here?”  The police officers had blocked off the street and were shining flashlights at the sidewalk.  I took a slow breath.  “I think somebody got hurt honey.  The police officers are here to help figure out what happened.”  As they worked, the neighbor’s kitten rubbed up against their legs.  “Mama, look at Petula!  Can I go get her?”  “No, I think it’s bedtime for you.  You can hold the kittens tomorrow.”

Grudgingly she walked upstairs, still upset that the police officers were monopolizing the kitten.  A story, a prayer, a song and a glass of water later she was tucked in and on her way to sleep.  I walked downstairs.

My husband and our housemate were still outside, but I was content to watch from the couch.  I still felt calm, perhaps I was in shock.  News crews were everywhere—later I would find out that my husband consented to an interview.  Across the street in our pastor’s yard was a sign, simple with blue text reading “Stop Shooting.  We Love You.”  My husband pointed the sign out to the reporters.  “That’s true,” he said into the cameras, “we love our neighbors. We pray that everyone will be okay.”

It is, of course, both that simple and infinitely more complicated.  Why else are we on earth but to love God and our neighbors?  If I know anything, I know that this needs to be at the center of our lives.  Still, when violence comes so close to home, it is unsettling.  Are we being irresponsible parents?  Are the girls in danger?  In my head I argued with myself, “Jen, you know that statistically it’s more dangerous to raise kids in the suburbs because of car fatalities.  Violence in the city is almost always between people who know each other.  You do everything you can to keep the girls safe—physically and emotionally.  You can’t put them in a bubble.”

It’s just that some days I would really like a bubble.

Later that night my husband told me about the news interview and how he had prayed about whether or not to do it.  “It’s just so easy,” he explained, “for people to hear about a shooting in the city and to think, ‘oh, another shooting, same every night.’” He paused.  “All I wanted to say was: ‘Those were our neighbors.’”

There was laughter outside.  We went to the window again.  A police officer was using his laser pointer to play with the kitten.


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Helicopter Footage

I knocked on my neighbor’s back door.  A grown-up answered.

“Your garden looked great in the helicopter footage,” I said.  “You could see the lettuces.”

“Thanks” he grinned, “I’m just glad that the police dog didn’t chase the chickens.”

Now how’s that for a conversation you don’t get to have everyday? Welcome to the paradoxes of our urban/rural life.

To tell the story I have to tell the back story.  The day before the helicopters hovered a friend was visiting.  We were sitting in the yard and the kids were running wild–chasing each other, climbing trees, and throwing their weight on the tree swing.  They carried all five chickens into the playhouse and pretended that the poor beloved birds were their children.  I brought out some bread with peanut butter and cups of milk.  “Snacktime!” I called and they all rushed toward the picnic table, dappled with sunlight under the pear tree.  My friend looked at the kids, looked at the yard, looked at the chickens and said, with all sincerity, “Your kids are having a great childhood.”

What would she have said the next day?

The next day we were again out in the yard, but the younger housemate-boy was having a tough time.  I went inside to try and comfort him.  Three kids outside, one crying on the couch.  I tried sympathy, I tried humor and finally book-reading seemed to help.  The whole time, in the back of my mind, I registered that a lot of police cars had driven by the house.  This was not usually a cause for alarm as cops sometimes use our road when the main arteries are crowded.  But there were a lot of sirens, and so I asked a friend (a different friend from the day before) if she could look out the window.  I had finally gotten the little boy to calm down, and I wasn’t about to stop reading stories!

“We need to get the kids inside right now,” she said in a calm but definitive tone.  Not even knowing why, I ran for the door, pulled three protesting children off swings and out of the playhouse, and brought everyone back inside.  I still had no idea what was going on.  You can’t see the street from the backyard, and I couldn’t even look out the window because I had four screaming preschoolers to deal with.  “Let’s all go and play in the boys’ room” I announced loudly, as chipper as I could manage.  I made eye contact with my friend, but we were both mute, not wanting to upset the kids.

After we herded everyone upstairs and the kids were engrossed with the toys, I excused myself and went back downstairs to look out the window.  There were a lot of police cars, and the policemen were looking under our parked cars.  The neighbors were all out, gawking, as if a parade was about to come by.  There were news trucks, helicopters, reporters… maybe they were the parade.  My husband had just come home and I interrogated him.  There had been a police chase, I learned, and two men had stopped their SUV just in front of our neighbor’s house and got out to run.  One hid in a car and was discovered almost immediately.  One ran through the backyard two houses down and they had caught him too.  But before they caught him he hid his gun somewhere, and now the police were looking for it.

I looked out the back window just in time to see a policeman with a dog checking out our chicken coop.  I laughed outloud.  My husband looked surprised.  “Oh honey, ” I explained, “I was laughing at myself because my first thought was, ‘How embarrassing.  I didn’t clean out the coop today.'”

And then I went out to chat with some neighbors.  There wasn’t much left to gawk at, but we shared stories and watched each other (not me) be interviewed by news reporters.  It’s always funny to me how these crazy events seem to bring us closer together as neighbors.  We share the bond of our common experiences, just living our lives side-by-side and trying to give our kids great childhoods.  Just growing the lettuce that you could see from the sky.