Within 15 minutes on that warm December afternoon, everyone knew Jacob’s name.
It was the day he disappeared.
We had been returning to Periwinkle Park from the beach when we ran into Jon. He raced toward us on a bicycle and seemed quite upset.
“Have you seen my son? He’s riding a blue bike.”
Eric glanced quickly at me and back to Jon. “No. We didn’t see any kids. What’s his name? How old is he?”
“Jacob. He’s five. He knows he’s not supposed to leave the park.” Jon turned his bike toward the back gate.
“We’ll get on our bikes and look for him,” Eric shouted.
Jon glanced back at us, “Thanks!” And sped away.
Periwinkle Park is a gated community dotted with palm and coconut trees, near the white, shell-covered beaches of Sanibel Island in Florida. It is a curious mix of tent-camping spaces, RV sites, mobile homes, and a bird sanctuary. I never thought of Sanibel Island, or the park, as a place that might be dangerous. Until the day Jacob went missing.
We hurried back to our little shack, grabbed our cell phones, and rushed off on Rosey and Buttercup, our bicycles, in different directions.
Eric looked back at me and shouted, “do you have Jon’s number?”
“No. But I have yours,” I replied and rode off over the crusty limestone gravel and shell hash.
We pedaled through each winding road in the park. The chain turned; the tires spun in time with my thoughts which circled around the name Andy Amato. Little Andy, only four years old, lived near my hometown. He was last seen following his older sister and her friend into the woods near their home in 1978. Only his toy Weeble was ever found. Jacob would not be like Andy. He couldn’t. I pedaled faster, eyes scanning the surroundings.
I scoured each driveway, parking space, and square foot of lawn, searching for any trace of the missing little boy. Nothing. Until the Phaeton RV at site 227. There, leaning against the electric hookup, was a small blue bicycle with white training wheels. I called Eric immediately.
“Does Jacob’s bike have training wheels?”
“I don’t know. Where are you?”
“I saw a little blue bike at site 227.”
“Ok. I’m almost there now. I see it. I’ll call Jon.”
But the bike was not Jacob’s.
When I exhausted each corner of the park I joined a large group of resident searchers, expanding by the minute, who had gathered outside of Jon’s residence. One woman asked, “has anyone heard anything?” Mumbles of no, nope, not me, filtered through the group. I asked about the blue bike. “He doesn’t use training wheels” one of the men said. “The police are on their way,” someone else offered.
The police. Suddenly I was three years old, and watching the police in my parent’s driveway,. Decades ago, when the whole town was searching for my sister Louise. Louise never came home.
The sun sank toward the horizon along with the hope that Jacob was still in the park. If I were five years old and taking off on an adventure, where would I go? Buttercup and I headed out of the park, toward the twinkle lights on the bike path.
After pedaling for about 10 minutes, my phone rang. I glanced at the screen. It was Eric. My heart paused, “Did they find him?”
“Yes,” he said. “He was at a friend’s house.”
“Oh, thank God.” I began breathing again. Jacob was fine. I was grateful for all his parents would not have to endure.
In 2020, 30,396 juveniles (under the age of 18) were reported missing in the United States alone. 8% of those cases remained open at the end of the year. Some, like little Andy Amato, were never found.
Although Jacob's story had a happy ending, it is a powerful reminder of how things can change in an instant.
At the close of 2021, Jacob’s story is a reminder to be vigilant. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “When recovering a missing child, the most important tools for law enforcement are an up-to-date, quality photograph and descriptive information.” Please consider one of your resolutions to complete a Child ID kit for your children. Set a reminder to update it every six months.
All my love and best wishes to you and your family for another year of happiness, celebrations, and watching your loved ones grow. Cherish each moment.
Bob’s recipe for 3,000-pound cement.
(3,000 pounds of pressure per square inch) Use a ratio of 1 pail of cement (preferably Portland) to 2 pails of concrete sand. Add 1 pail of pea stones; mix dry with cement hoe (a garden hoe with holes), then add water, about a pail, ½ pail at first, then the rest incrementally, as you keep drawing in the dry stuff. Let dry 1 to 2 weeks before pressure test.
Dad loves cement. The process of making it for him is an art, but also a mental salve. Especially when he’s upset. He’s always kept busy, but when something is on his mind, there’s no other way you’ll find him. “When you’re upset, just keep yourself busy”, he’s said. I passed that sage advice on to my first-year students at SCSU this fall, and I live by it myself. It works. Mixing a batch of Portland cement is just one of the possible diversions.
When the mind is upset trying to mix ingredients to get conclusions that make sense, there is really nothing better than keeping busy. Coming from a meditation instructor, this may seem counterintuitive, but consider for example, the relationship between yoga and meditation.
Yoga has traditionally been practiced in order to tone down physical and mental restlessness, before sitting in stillness to meditate. First, stir the ingredients well, and then let them be still.
When the mind is a stinging swarm of thoughts, especially when the worry is beyond our control, activity works out the nervous energy in the body, created by the mind’s need to “do something”. Simple actions are best -- gardening, mowing the grass, scrubbing floors – because they allow us to work with our emotions at the same time. Mixing water, soap, and dirt, scrubbing swirling them together, rinsing the floor clean. All while letting worry float somewhere in that bucket of dirty water, getting it off the floor. At least for a time. Giving our mental processes time to slow and settle. To downregulate and manage our stress so that it doesn’t become chronic.
So, when Mom was hospitalized this month for COVID-19, Dad and I got to work. Cutting branches, clearing grapevines from the stone walls, and raking the yard. We were worried, but not worried sick. We kept busy.
Ultimately, this mode of self-care gives us the energy we need to continue to be strong for others. Because we can’t give to others what we don’t possess ourselves. Kindness, compassion, and deep understanding of our own process is critical. So, in sage advice from Dad, “Get to work. And it will work itself out.”
As I was paddling on the lake today, I went searching for Pink Water Lilies which usually bloom around this time of year. I found their cheerful, cotton-candy-colored blooms floating among clusters of glossy-green, saucer-sized lily pads in the two northern-most, shallow coves.
I’ve always loved to photograph these aquatic plants but until today, I didn’t know that their essence is used in naturopathic treatments. It wasn’t until after the photographs and a brief session of paddleboard yoga that I went back to the dock and read more about these velvety beauties.
According to Cynthia Scherer, a flower essence practitioner and researcher, Pink Pond Lily flower essence helps to clear old paradigms related to self-image and the perception of others. Scherer suggests it also helps to clear unsafe feelings left over from old traumas.
As I learned while writing the memoir, Finding Mary, trauma causes the unconscious to experience a persistent lack of safety. This may lead to the “stuckness” I describe in the memoir. As a defense against uncertainty, the mind attempts to keep things familiar – causing our perceptions of self, others, and life circumstances to appear fixed. This view limits opportunities, whether they be accomplishments or relationships, because we literally are not allowing ourselves to see or trust new possibility. Change is unknown, and unknown can be scary.
Each time I offer my book to a stranger or a new venue, I feel that fear. The book is a deeply personal story, my first inclination is to keep it to myself. What if people don’t like it? Even after the amazing support I’ve received from vastly different groups of readers, the doubt still lingers like old trash. I realize I need to face the fear and move forward into the foggy grey of reality.
I’m not planning to try the plant essence anytime soon, but I can attest to the solace water lilies provide, when paddling into a quiet cove amidst blue skies and birdsong on a warm summer day. Their optimism and courage reach from the murky depths of the lake bottom into the sunlight and remind me that there is indeed a season for everything. To fight change is to fight the tide. Yet risk can be paralyzing. To be open to change is to be vulnerable, and that can be scary. Perhaps I can take cues from the water lilies as they are a graceful role model. For there is both possibility and beauty in unfolding.
(--part of this blog is an excerpt from my memoir, Finding Mary: A Journey of Reclamation.)
“I always believed in living for today because I might not be here tomorrow.”
June 17, 1973 was a beautiful summer day. My 16-year-old sister Louise woke up and lived for that day. None of us knew she would not be here tomorrow.
It was Father’s Day, and the compound buzzed with the energy of children – eight of them. I was the youngest at the time, only four, and don’t remember if I said goodbye to Louise that warm summer afternoon.
Louise had her license and a car, and in only a week, she would have finished her junior year of high school. An honor society certificate hung on her bedroom wall, next to an award for perfect attendance. Despite being an introvert, Louise had a large group of friends and eight younger sibs who adored her.
She filled her days with school, work at the shoe factory, trips to the ocean, baseball on the neighbor’s lawn, and mini-bike rides. I recall the smell of eucalyptus and menthol as I stood on tiptoes near the bathroom sink, and she swiped some Noxzema across my cheeks. Of course, where there are teenagers there is mischief and at our house it seemed like someone was always getting caught smoking cigarettes or teaching me to write swears in the sand, but our home was lively and fun, and always felt safe. Until that particular Sunday in June.
That day, Louise pulled on a comfy pair of patched, hip-hugger, bell-bottom jeans, and a flower-print sleeveless blouse. She brushed her shoulder length, straight, blonde hair, sliced a perfect middle part, and tucked each side behind her ears. Just a sweep of Yardley Cheek Gloss would suffice. She wiped the residue from her fingertips and tossed the compact into her brown leather purse. She grabbed her Dr. Scholl’s sandals slid her feet under the red, buckled straps, and bounded down the stairs.
It was just before noon when my pretty, petite, 16-year-old sister climbed into her pea-green ’64 Nash Rambler with her sidekick, our sister Tammy, ready for an afternoon of teenage fun in the 70’s. Peace, love and good vibes.
“Happy Father’s Day!” she shouted to Dad, waving an arm out the driver’s side window as she and Tammy left the yard in Louise’s Rambler. Louise never came home.
I hope I said goodbye. I hope I told her I loved her. But I don’t remember. I was busy riding my big wheel in the driveway, trying to spin out in the gravel like the commercials on TV.
It had seemed like any other day.
The message today is to cherish your loved ones and the precious gift of time you have been given with them. Be in the moment 100% as often as you possibly can – that is where lasting memories are made. Don’t ignore the fact that someday, these memories may be all that you or they have.
The opening quote was printed in the first page of the 1974 Tourtellotte Memorial High School Yearbook -- the yearbook dedicated to my sister Louise. As I write this post on Sanibel Island in Florida, I pick up the phone to call Mom and Dad and tell them I love them. On this day, more than any other, I take care to live for the moment.
It’s June 17, 2021, and it’s a beautiful summer day. I love you, Louise. And yes, I live for today, because none of us know if we’ll be here tomorrow.
Imagine for a moment, that you are a good-hearted, hard-working person who has chosen to spend your life in true service of the public – not with words, but with actions. You are willing to give up your own life at any moment of any day to save the life of another. Now imagine being spit at as you drive down the road by some of the very same people you swore to protect. Imagine having to stand in a “peaceful” protest as “peaceful demonstrators” spew horribly rank and humiliating language in your face, and chant “die pigs”. Imagine reading news about officers being attacked, ambushed, and killed, as you button up your uniform, polish your badge, and kiss your family goodbye knowing any day – that could be you on the news.
Now imagine that happening day after day, every single shift, without an end in sight. Put yourself in THOSE shoes.
I know some of you already have. I know some of you are spouses and partners of police officers and you see their hope, their belief in humanity, fading. You see them questioning why they even put on the uniform anymore. Who are they protecting? Who are they serving? People who hate them? People who won’t take a supportive stand because they are afraid to be labeled a racist? Blue is a community of color too. In fact, it is quite a diverse mix of race, religion, and gender. Please pass this message along to those who need to hear it.
Change will not happen by bashing the innocent. You will never experience peace by spewing hate, filth, and violence toward the peacekeepers. You will never feel respected by disrespecting others. You will never feel safe by dismantling law and order.
I honestly believe Dr. King’s words that people should only be judged by the content of their character. It seems silly for me to state that I do not tolerate discrimination in any regard—because I live my life that way. But remember, and please pass it on: You can support law enforcement AND be against racism in All forms. It does not have to be, as some politicians or the media would have you believe, one OR the other. Actions should be taken to combat discrimination wherever and when ever it exists.
Look at the law enforcement statistics in YOUR state. Particularly all you mask wearers (of which I also proudly wear, because as part of the blue community, I believe in protecting others). There are problems that need to be addressed in law enforcement –YES. ABSOLUTELY. But they are not equal in all states, cities, or towns. You want lasting change? Then stop stamping your feet and spewing nastiness. Stop spreading hate. Stop doing nothing. Start looking up REAL robust, reliable data – you know, like the science stats we use that tell us to wear masks-- and tell politicians to use that data to make sensible, thoughtful, considerate, lasting REAL change in the places that actually need it. Don’t let knee-jerk, political pandering screw things up further. Action is important. The RIGHT actions are paramount.
All communities of color matter. We should stand up for ALL of them. And Let’s be smart about it. I am asking you to take two simple actions. First, please use your circle of influence, your voice, your heart to reach out to those who are tasked to protect us. Let them know without a doubt, that they are still appreciated. Because, trust me, morale is at an all-time low. Second, send a clear message to politicians that actions need to be taken based on the history of each department. Not on what they and other politicians think will satisfy their voters or quell the violence.
Through kind-hearted and intelligent actions, let the world know you will not stand by and tolerate discrimination in ANY form – class, creed, race, religion, or color—brown, black, or blue.
Another black Friday flyer. Dozens line my recycling bin. Small business Saturday, cyber Monday—I’m not tempted to shop on any of these days. What I want for Christmas can’t be bought, it can’t be seen, it isn’t possible. I want my sister Mary to come back.
One spring evening just over four decades ago, an asthma attack woke her in the middle of the night. Mom tried the inhaler, but it wasn’t helping, so Dad rushed her to the emergency room. I went back to sleep thinking the doctors would make her better. Mary died on the way to the hospital, one month before her 14th birthday.
I was almost seven years old at the time, and Mary was my entire world. She loved any excuse to celebrate, and Christmas was her favorite holiday. We started by decorating grandma’s house. Up into the snowy woods we trudged, with a small handsaw to find the perfect white pine. With teaspoons and tiny, sap-covered fingers we dug into the frozen gravel of the driveway, lined a coffee can with cold, grey rocks. We brought the tree into ‘Siberia’, the term grandma used for the lonesome living room that stayed shut after Grandpa died, except when we slept over. Mary and I opened the door, started a fire in the fireplace, wedged the trunk of the white pine into the coffee can, and stood it up, straight and proud, ready for decorations.
We cut red and green construction paper into strips, bent them into loops and linked them together with scotch-tape to form a chain. We popped corn on the wood stove in a cast iron pot and strung the kernels together with a sewing needle and thread. I jabbed my tender fingers so much, that Mary found a thimble for me. We colored scenes from a Christmas coloring book, cut around the figures, threaded ribbon through the tops and tied them onto the thin, rubbery branches of the white pine. Finally, my favorite part --Mary cut out a star shape from an old saltine box, covered it in reclaimed tin-foil, and secured it to the top of the tree with bread ties. Viola!
When my younger sisters were old enough, I rekindled the tradition of the white pine, but ‘Siberia’ always felt hollow and cold, no matter how great a fire I built. Mary was the warmth and light. She crowded out the emptiness that no black Friday sale can fill.
In writing for the past two years, I’ve realized that losing Mary created a hesitance toward trusting the good of life, toward connection. And I’ve realized that I’m not alone. Just this year I’ve met many people struggling with loss, and the shame, guilt, and other feelings that go along with wondering why you survived and your loved one didn’t. And for many, the Holidays are a powerful trigger. Perhaps it’s the year coming to a close – another type of ending, or the pressure to be happy when you are feeling alone and missing someone deeply. This year, I will try to have a little more compassion, a little more patience, a little more understanding for myself and others.
So please, pardon me if I don’t get excited by super sales and holiday bargains. I’ve never found happiness there. Mary and I created happiness with our own hands – not in what we created necessarily, but in the experience of spending time together.
My family never grieved, we never talked about Mary. It was what we needed to do to survive. But at Christmastime more than any other, I remember her. This year I am also remembering who I was when she was alive. Just now I am admiring the small Christmas tree in my living room. At the top of the tree is a handmade tin-foil star that my nieces and I made two years ago. That is what I am reaching for. And if this resonates with you, I hope you reach for your own tin-foil star with both hands. It is something no cyber sale can ever provide.
I wake early, as my body gives in to the relentless tugging of my busy mind. The sunrise brings with it another birthday, some quiet reflection, and perhaps a bit of angst. I grab a mug of coffee and walk down the hill to the beach, where sand hugs my toes like an old friend.
The grains are cool and slightly damp, as this part of the earth is just waking up to enjoy its hours in the sun. As the tide retreats, it litters the strand line with slipper shells and oysters and clumps of bright green seaweed. Small flies buzz about with delight. A large branch of driftwood adorns the beach, a treasure washed up by the tide. This is a perfect place to smooth my tangled thoughts, breathe the salt air, and watch the darting and flitting of the shore birds.
The surface of the sea is bent into subtle folds of steel-blue satin, as it yields to the 30-foot-long, stone groin built to keep the sand from eroding. As humans, we spend significant time and energy to keep things as they are, even when we are unhappy, because the unknown seems more frightening. Several groins are lined up in succession on this stretch of the shoreline; great stone arms of quarried granite reaching toward the sea, trying to capture the beach, announcing our resolve.
Yet the sand moves regardless of our plans, our engineering, or our determination; caught up in the longshore drift, a flow that has existed billions of years before the Anthropocene. I wonder about blockades I’ve placed in my life, driven by a decades-old fear of the unknown or a need to latch onto some stable ground. I wonder if there will ever be a time when we will accept the movement of the sand; when I welcome the changing conditions in my life and begin to see them as potential. That would take courage, trust, and resolve. That would involve the willingness to accept and adapt to unintended consequences.
I can’t speak for the engineers, but perhaps this will be the year I raise the hammer and chisel and begin to dismantle the blockades and impoundments. Perhaps this will be the year I return to the fresh, oxygenated, intuitive flow of life. So I roll up my sleeves as I make my wish because I know without action, wishes vanish like clouds absorbed into the bright blue sky on a dry summer day. On this birthday, I wish for the strength and trust to welcome the unknown as an unexpected guest, investigating with curiosity rather than fear, that which she may have brought with her.
I woke up today thinking about the Beatles song “Let it be”. I’ve heard it many times, but this morning, the lyrics rang loud and true. I’m crafting an intention for the New Year and thinking a lot about ‘letting go’ of things I can’t change. Like many people, I have suffered difficult losses in life and the idea of ‘Letting Go’ is stressful for me. I tend to equate it with abandonment or not caring.
In the course of Mindfulness teacher training, we discussed the concept of ‘letting be’ as a starting point or replacement for ‘Letting go’. We didn’t talk about it in the context of the Beatles song, but the lyrics served as a solid link between the two concepts.
I’ve been putting a lot of energy into self-exploration this past year, and made much progress on the rough draft of a memoir. However this came at the expense of some current family relationships. As I dug deep into the past, I dissolved into a fog of unresolved childhood grief. I learned the meaning of terms like ‘anticipatory grief’ and ‘complicated grief’. Although it is 40 years after the fact, I finally gave myself permission to grieve the loss of my older sister Mary, and all of the memories that could have been. I don’t accept the loss and I’m certainly never letting go, but through patience and compassion, I have taught myself how to let it be.
Life is a balance of Yin and Yang however, so as I drew closer to my connection with the past, current relationships seemed to fall away. I focused so much on the loss of my older sister Mary; I neglected my current responsibility in that role. I am not a perfect older sister. I am a flawed human with much to learn about how to live in the present. The toughest part of this education for me is to recognize that there is much I cannot change, understand, or repair, no matter how strong and sustained my effort. So, for situations when effort is fruitless yet letting go is impossible, perhaps I can recall the timeless message in the Beatles song and find the wisdom to let it be.
This is my intention for 2017 – to be kind and compassionate, to do my best, and then -- to let it be.
I sat in a chair, looking out the window at kids playing soccer in the rain. I could have stayed there—sheltered and warm—and secretly wishing I was running with them. My hair would have stayed dry and neat, my clothes spotlessly clean. But I joined them. Because I have learned that those types of decisions don’t just allow you to live, but allow you to be alive.
I will never regret the dark green streaks that stained my clothes or the bruise on my knee from taking that sliding kick on the wet grass—for in that moment—I was a fifth grader again. Running in the rain. Being Alive.
That soggy day, the adults took the picnic inside but the kids knew the best place to be was still outside. It was an example of how often adults chose comfort over a sweaty face and racing heart. That instance reminded me of other times where I could have taken the comfortable route, but didn’t. Times when I chose to…..
…Leave the warm air along the banks and plunge into the icy water of Angel Falls in Rangeley Maine;
…Face my anxiety of heights (and a massive wedgie), and conquer the ”Geronimo” waterslide;
…Hike ‘Sleeping Giant’ twice in one week, just to feel the challenge of the blue trail in my legs and lungs;
And farther from home, when I chose to....
…Brave the voracious mosquitoes and sleep outside under the black Alaskan sky punctured by a billion stars;
…Spend a month in a small hut in the East African Bush, lulled to sleep by trumpeting elephants;
…Ponder the true absence of sound (and heat), tenting on the ice sheet in Greenland.
Some time ago I ran across a quote by Joseph Campbell and it resonated with me. Campbell wrote “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”
Perhaps when much of the human, bustling, judging, hurrying world is asleep or day dreaming, their souls try to remind them—to take more risks, to allow yourself to feel the cold on your skin, and the earth under your nails. That being alive is experienced in discrete moments.
It’s about pushing limits and appreciating connections to others and nature. It’s about feeling uncomfortable, so that we really know what true comfort is. Wet clothes and grass stains, tents and stars, mosquitoes and sore muscles. Being alive is about high-fives between muddy girls with decades of numbers between them—yet connected by a timeless bond, an invisible fabric they are woven into. Life, right here, right now.
The most beautiful people I know are the ones who have remembered how to be alive. Because genuine beauty originates from happiness within. Happiness attained not by entertainment, but by experiencing true pleasure. The pleasure that comes from choosing to run in the rain.
Comment with your own experiences….. Do you simply live your life? Or do you savor moments of being alive?