Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A slice of heaven

March 30, 2009
Subject: A Slice of Heaven
Heaven isn't a place to which one ascends. It is a state of being that never ceases to exist but finds itself obscured by Life's infinite realities. We are often unable to access heaven here on earth so it is no wonder that we look for it outside and above ourselves. However, every now and then we are gifted a glimpse, a reminder that heaven is present, always present. Waiting.

The Chase Youth Award ceremony Thursday night was heaven. I could tell you that it was great, and beautiful. It was touching and endearing. It was sweet and exciting. It was all of those things and yet it was infinitely more. Therefore, I'd like to invite you to sit with me here, while I tell you a story....

It was 4 30 Thursday afternoon, March 26, 2009 and the kids had finished an early supper. They were sitting on a century's old love seat in our dining room getting their shoes on. They were excited to be going to the award ceremony. They, like I, had no idea what this was going to entail, but it didn't matter. It was something new and different. It was something about Reo and it was worthy of a great thrill.

The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 5 30 and we pulled into the parking lot at 5 23 and we still had to walk a distance to get into the building. I knew it wasn't going to start exactly at 5 30. These things never do and this is an event celebrating kids for heavens sake so it is supposed to be completely light-hearted and fun! Regardless, I had this hell-bent notion that we had to be there earlier, so waltzing in at just before 5 30 was hairy. I kept asking myself, "Where is my joy? Where is my fun?" What made it worse was 2 of our friends called to ask, "Where are you guys? The place is packed! I took a deep breath and gave myself a little slack. We were late. I loathe being late and feeling hurried and what's worse is that we left in plenty of time! I told myself, "Julia get a grip. It is what it is. Let it go and lighten up." The moment we entered the auditorium, suddenly everything was right. The event wasn't close to starting. Sound checks were still going on. People were mulling about and finding their seats. We had plenty of time and I instantly relaxed! My mind was tempted to be an asshole and say something like, "See Julia? You dope! What a total waste of energy!" My heart was equally tempted to cower in shame, repeating with defeat, "I know..I know....sigh" I didn't allow either to surface. Instead, I took a deep breath, held my head high and told my mind and my heart, "Sometimes isn't a matter of having it all together. Sometimes it is simply a matter of recognizing when things are falling apart and holding together anyway."

The auditorium was a large typical university type space with a traditional looking stage and a balcony. It was standing room only and the energy in the air was electrifying. Laughter, shrills, glee, smiles hugs, high fives, and hand shakes were overflowing my senses. Suddenly the stress I was feeling over just wanting to get here had transcended into pure delight over what was about to happen to Reo. I was absolutely over-joyed.

We were immediately greeted by a dear friend Terry who gave Reo a small gift, which completely blew his mind. It was the movie, Bolt, which he promptly coveted and held onto for the entire evening. Tata and Amy were reserving seats for us in the second row so we quickly joined them and sat down. Reo was twitching in his seat. Tata sat beside me holding Aria, while Doc and I took turns containing Rianna. Amy sat beside Doc who was only one seat over from the center aisle. Reo looked up at me more than once and said, "I think I'm gonna win!" I thought it was time to give him a little perspective. I had him take a moment and look around at all the kids. "Reo, all of these kids have been nominated for some kind of award and only one of these kids will get one for courage. It might be you, but then again, it may not be. Either way, take a look at how many heroes are here!" Reo looked around for a moment and said, "Wow! I'm gonna win Mama!" It was all I could do to keep a straight face! I showed him the program that listed the names of all the kids that had been nominated. I was mildly bewildered over the number of names. Pages of small print listed name after name after name. I said to Reo, "Look honey. Look at all these heroes, just like you! One of these kids is going to receive an award for courage. Just one. Let's see if we can find your name." We began slowly searching for his name. The reality of the situation started to dawn. Reo was beginning recognize that his name was but a mere speck in a sea of names. It was so impressive. Finally, we found his name and shortly afterward, the ceremony began.

The auditorium filled to capacity was silent. If you can imagine, hundreds of little kids and their parents completely still. It may have lasted only a moment or so but it was nevertheless palpable. The mayor of Spokane began to speak and the pulse of excitement began to beat. She spoke about the attention drawn to our youth regarding issues of drugs and alcohol, pregnancy, drop-out rates, bullying and the like and reminded everyone that as important as these issues are, tonight was not about that. This ceremony was about celebrating the youth of Spokane who are making good choices, who are leading their peers and over-coming obstacles that surpass what most ought to endure. She told the audience that tonight was about celebrating kids who are doing great things. My lip began to quiver ever so slightly and I felt this swell of emotion rise in my face that wasn't yet close to spilling over in my eyes but was certainly building there. I was so grateful for the piece of gum Tata offered me so I could be distracted.

The program continued with the typical production-political type speeches that were actually lovely and poignant. A short video was shown describing what the Chase Youth Awards actually are and how they came to be. Jim Chase, the mayor of Spokane years past left this award ceremony as his legacy. It was his brilliant idea to turn the attention about our kids upside down and take notice of all that they do right and well and celebrate those that truly excel. This is an organization that is run entirely by the youth of Spokane. The judges, the selection committee, the presenters and those putting it together are kids from all of our area high schools and middle schools. It is, truly, an extraordinary event. I had no idea! Just before the awards were to be given we were told that this year 1,000 kids had been nominated. That number rang in my head like a gong. 1,000 kids nominated. I couldn't wrap my head around it. It was then that I noticed how the awards were actually broken down and just how significant it all was.

There are 3 primary groups of kids: Youth (elementary age), Middle School, and Teen (these kids were awarded at a ceremony held later in the evening.) For each primary group there are 6 categories, such as leadership, creativity, courage and so forth. For each category there are 2 awards granted; one is an individual award and the other is a group award. There is also a special award called "The Spirit of Jim Chase" that is granted to a particular group of kids. This year's event was witness to a total of 30 awards granted and Reo was one them.

It was an extraordinary experience to watch him process what was unfolding before his eyes. He was listening to stories, hearing a child's name called, applauding with enthusiasm and watching every single movement that these kids made. I could see him calculating how they walked up to the stage, climbed the steps, walked across the stage shaking hands with the several adults waiting to greet them, receive the award and then sit down on the stage. He was absolutely lit!

Finally the time came for his award. Erica Ames, a beautiful and statuesque young woman, began her presentation by letting the audience know that the only way to understand the reason for this person to receive the courage award was to read the nomination letter in full. "It tells us the story" she said. Erica is a sophmore in high school. She is also a former Chase Youth Award recipient and has been involved with this organization for several years. She is currently the Chair of the Chase Youth Commission. She stood at the podium with all the poise and grace of a seasoned pro. It was hard to believe that she had probably only just recently come of age to obtain a driver's license. Her confidence was unwavering and her presence offered something wise and reassuring. The other notable thing about her is that her right arm is missing hinted by only an empty sweater sleeve hanging by her side. What I found particularly striking about this obviously defining feature of hers is how completely inconsequential it seemed. Everything about her manner seemed to say, "Yeah, I don't have a right arm. So anyway, moving right along.." and that truly is all the attention that is paid. It's like you can't help but notice that her arm isn't there and then it doesn't enter your mind again. At least that's how it felt for me. She read my letter as if she had taken in Reo's story, my story, our story as her own. I'd never met her before, but suddenly it seemed as if I knew her. As if I'd always known her.

Reo's eyes were glued to her. He knew this story. He said, "Mama, she's talking about Aria." I smiled at him and nodded. Thank God I was chewing gum, otherwise I would have not have been able to hold back the flood that was building. Reo looked at Erica briefly and then turned to me again and said, "She's talking about ME!" That's when it hit him. He really he had won and he was going to be one with all these other kids he'd been watching for the last 20 minutes. He smiled and bounced on his seat a little and held his fingers to his mouth.

"....and the 2009 Chase Youth Award for Courage goes to.....REO LAYTON!" The whole place erupted with applause and Reo bounded out of his seat with the force of pure jubilation. Doc met him in the center aisle. Reo paused for just a moment needing a little reassurance. I could hear Doc telling him, "Way to go Reo! I'm so proud of you! You can do it! Go on up there big guy!" I was standing applauding along with several other people with tears streaming down my face. I watched that little kid walk over to the stage, climb several steps up onto the stage and walk casually and confidently to all the adults, including Erica, waiting to meet him and shake his hand. Reo bowed in front of the mayor and beamed while she placed a glass medallion on a large purple ribbon around his neck. He was given a large black folder and turned like pro to the audience center stage so that he could have his picture taken. In true Reo fashion that captured happiness in the purest sense of the word, he stood there clutching that folder to his chest like it was the world's best prize. He scrunched up his shoulders and with the biggest cheesiest grin ever he posed for the cameras. It was the the most adorable thing I've ever seen. He marched on over to the side stage where several other kids were already sitting and there he watched the remainder of the ceremony unfold. As the next speaker was making his way to the podium Aria leaned over and said, "I think they're going to call my name next!" Tata and I burst out laughing. We didn't want to kill her buzz but I made it very clear that tonight was about celebrating Reo. I told her that maybe next year she would be nominated and maybe she'd win an award. "We'll just have to wait and see!" I said. Between you and me though, now that I know what this thing is all about, I don't know if I have the courage to write another letter! Holy smokes!

We heard stories of kids putting together food drives, recycling programs and even one group of middle school kids that created a suicide prevention program that went to local elementary schools modeling to the kids how to share and express feelings. We heard a story about a young girl in foster care over-coming all kinds of odds stacked against her, rising above the status quo and leading her peers toward excellence. One extraordinary story after another. Beautiful kids, parents, families, friends coming together in celebration of the human spirit that is overwhelming good and decent. It was an absolutely breath-taking evening.

When it was all said and done, Reo came off the stage after having been up there for a good 45 minutes and said to me, "Mama, I'd like to introduce Aria to the mayor." The way he said it cracked me up. It was as if he and the mayor were old buds or something. It was adorable and we were invited back stage to a V.I.P party and were hopeful that we could meet the mayor. I was able to meet Erica and chat with her briefly as well as several other people. In the mix and madness of all of this, Reo was starting to melt-down. I think the adrenaline was wearing off and he was realizing just how far out of his comfort zone he was. He began to complain that his leg hurt and was holding back tears. I think we were all emotionally overwhelmed and ready to go but he was determined to introduce Aria. So we persevered and went back stage. Reo waltzed right up to the mayor and said, "Excuse me mayor, I'd like to introduce you to Aria!" The mayor was just delightful. She beamed and bent down to meet Aria who was definitely in the spotlight. Several people were interested in meeting her and Reo and the 2 were receiving attention that was a little unnerving for them. These are rather shy country kids so this kind of attention was beyond their experience. The mayor mentioned to Reo, "You said you wanted to introduce me to Aria." I thought to myself here is this kid on the stage facing an enormous crowd who for a moment are celebrating only him. He has it in him to whisper to the mayor in his moment of glory, "you gotta meet my sister Aria!" This is what makes Reo such an extraordinary kid. He has such a subtle and sincere way of sharing the moment so that light shines even brighter for everyone.

You can imagine that Doc and I were absolutely bursting with pride over these kids. Naturally people were complimentary of my letter and told me so. Life is so good in that it inhibited me from relishing in those compliments for too long by having my kids uncomfortable, teary, whiney, and tugging at me desperately needing to leave. I wasn't able to talk to anyone for any length of time and that was perfect. I'm certain I was not walking on the ground when we left. I was warm inside and out. I was smiling all over and I was filled with a new found sense of calm. I would love to take full credit for making this happen. I would love to consider myself so clever to have written such an original thought. Wouldn't I be oh so grand? But Life shows me in such a gentle and real way that this isn't the reality. My letter resonated deeply not because of its uniqueness but because it is a well known and well worn story. It is a human story. Some of us have already experienced it or are experiencing it. Others know someone dear to whom they can relate through the words on these pages. The names differ, the details too but it is the same. It speaks to the same heart showing us once again of our infinite connection.

Reo was in tears as we walked to the car, but by the time we got our seat belts on he was better. He was joyful and full of story. We took the kids to Dairy Queen, which was an over-the-top treat for them. We had a ball. By the time we got home, it was just before 8 30 and the kids were wiped! We got everyone tucked in and they were sound asleep in no time. The next morning, Reo came down to breakfast wearing a super-hero T-shirt and his medal. He couldn't wait to get to school to tell everyone. He beamed all day long. I finally had an opportunity to look in his folder and see what was in there. I found his Chase Youth Award certificate and on it was a purple and gold seal saying "Judges Choice". We were told that a handful of kids were given this seal to document that their award was particularly outstanding. There were several letters of congratulations including one from our governor and a fancy envelope with the seal of the United States House of Representatives. It was a card from our state's representative. I plan to put all of this into some kind of collage and frame it for him.

It all began with me reading an advertisement in the newspaper requesting nominations for this award. I cut it out of the paper and placed it by my computer. I thought about it for a week or 2 and the day before the deadline, I was overwhelmingly compelled to write that letter. It was like I turned the spigot of my mind and out poured those words. I knew the moment I hit the send button on my computer that it was the right thing to do. It was a good thing to do. I didn't allow anything to deter the focus and attention I wanted to Reo to have. I sensed I was tapping into a light, something we hadn't known before and I wasn't afraid or doubtful.

It was like this; Imagine a stone wall that juts into a small lake. Imagine the wind blowing slightly. Imagine you are standing alone on top of this wall facing the water. Imagine your arms held wide open with only the wind and the sun as companions to your senses. Imagine knowing with every fiber of your being that everything is right and good. Imagine saying to yourself, "This is heaven and I bow deeply to its sacredness." I was a little girl in New England in the woods of my childhood by a reservoir on a stone wall the first time I knew heaven surrounded me. I've had glimpses several times such as this but this ceremony was the first time I saw it around and within my children. The profoundness of this experience is such that I can rest in a state of grace knowing that despite hardship, despite worry, doubt, anxiety, despite Hell, I can embrace "Come What May" with the power of heaven that all will be o.k. ~j

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