Friday, December 11, 2020

Hark! The Herald Atheist Sings

“I really like Christmas.  It’s sentimental, I know, but I just really like it.”

-Tim Minchin, White Wine in the Sun

Atheists aren’t my traditional go-to when it comes to Christmas, and with good reason.  Consulting an atheist about Christmas is a little like consulting a nudist about fashion.  They've heard of it, and they may even have friends who are into it.  But it’s just not their thing.

I do make one exception.  Self-avowed atheist Tim Minchin (also an accomplished Australian comedian, actor, and musician) wrote and recorded one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time.  And that song really hits home this year.

Give it a listen now if you want to skip to the good stuff.

I’ll admit I’m not especially discerning when it comes to Christmas music.  I'll listen to everything from religious carols to secular standards.  The only songs I don’t much care for are those about having sex at Christmas, or more accurately, about not having sex on Christmas, which appears to be a problem of epidemic proportion among pop singers spanning generations. 

Note:  While I don't appreciate the “sexy Santa” genre, I’m inexplicably fond of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and I do mean the date-rape-y original.  It’s horrible and cringey and I fully appreciate why it offends so many…but I just really like it.

Which is borrowing a phrase directly from Minchin’s song, which brings me back to the point at hand.

This Christmas will cap a spectacularly miserable year for many of us.  I suppose there are some who will manage, despite all odds, to enjoy the holiday.  Hurrah for them!  But there will be a larger-than-usual number of us who feel depressed and anxious.  Those who are tired, or sick, or missing loved ones.  Those who’ve gained weight.  Those who’ve lost faith. 

This is our 2020 Christmas anthem.  And here are just a few reasons why:

It has modest expectations.

Look, 2020 has already turned “lowering the bar” into an art form.  If you’re concerned this holiday season won’t measure up to prior celebrations, Minchin’s lyrics will meet you right where you are.  He isn’t expecting “big presents” or “a visit from Jesus.”  I imagine some of my Christian friends might take offense to that idea:  What’s the point of celebrating Christmas if you aren’t waiting for Christ?  In response, I ask that you listen to any carol from the aforementioned Sexy Santa genre.  If we're doling out points for reverence, this one goes to the atheist. 

It’s full of humility.

It’s nice to be reminded that despite the talking heads on cable news and the blowhards on social media, there are still some human beings humble enough to admit they just don’t know.  The key note of Minchin’s lyrics is intellectual humility.  He offers a series of cynical observations about the commercialization of Christmas (most brilliant:  that Jesus has been “press-ganged into selling PlayStations and beer”), but then follows each one of them with a sheepish and apologetic, “but…I still really like it.”

It’s the sort of thing human beings used to do in the old days:  entertain two simultaneous and contradictory opinions, and wrestle in the frictional space between them.  It’s a good and productive place to be. We’d do well to return to it.

It embraces the wait. 

Minchin anticipates a cheerful reunion with his Australian family at Christmas.  He imagines them waiting for his cross-continental arrival, and passing their time drinking white wine in the sun.  It has to be the warmest, brightest, merriest Christmas image ever captured in words.  This year, even as a global pandemic rages, I’m comforted by the idea that across continents and across towns (maybe even across the veil that separates the living from the dead), loved ones are collectively and selflessly waiting it out.  The reunions will come, one day.  But until then, we’ll raise our glasses and wait.  

There’s a baby at the center of it all.

I won't ruin this moment for you.  I’ll say only that the “jet-lagged infant daughter” wrecks me every time, in part because she recalls, to my mind, another infant at the center of another Christmas story.  I’m not suggesting there’s an intentional (or unintentional) Christ-figure in Minchin’s lyrics; to do so would show blatant disrespect to his philosophy.  I know only that the image of adoring adults passing around a baby “like a puppy at a primary school” is about as pure and reverential and awe-inspiring as any church lawn nativity I've ever seen.  It lifts my spirit.

And that’s what I love most about my go-to atheist at Christmas, especially in this seemingly godforsaken year.  He admits he’s “hardly religious,” but his words somehow reignite my own shaky faith.  I suppose it has something to do with his unabashed confidence in the fundamental truth that “wherever we are and whatever we face,” there are people who love us and “make us feel safe in this world.”



That's what I want my family and friends to feel most this Christmas, of all Christmases.  Well, that and maybe a little grateful that they took a few minutes to listen to Tim Minchin, the atheist, who really likes it. 

And with good reason. 


Friday, July 31, 2020

To the Class of 2021

So you're a high school senior.  

Congratulations.  And my condolences.

For many of you, this was supposed to be the summer you were courted by college admissions officers who showed you state-of-the-art classrooms and impeccably staged dorm rooms.  You were supposed to get irrationally excited about That One School You Loved At First Sight and you were supposed to visit the bookstore and buy the sweatshirt, ripping the tags off even before you left the building so you could wear it on the ride home. 

You were supposed to go back to school at the end of this month, walking a little taller than your natural height, because you are a senior, dammit.  You know these halls like the back of your hand.  You were supposed to smile at the teachers and they were supposed to smile back, a secret exchange that suggests you know they’re just fallible human beings, but you promise not to let the freshmen know.  They haven’t earned the right yet. 

You were supposed to relax into your seat on that first day knowing it was your “last first” day, and you were supposed to soak in the intoxicating feeling of familiarity that breeds (not contempt but) nostalgic affection.  Everything would look a little smaller, somehow.  And you were supposed to enjoy every fleeting minute of it.

Instead, you’re facing a tough decision.  Your parents read an email from the superintendent aloud to you, citing the third iteration of a back-to-school plan that now includes a choice between two-day-a-week in-person learning or staying in your room for another month. 

Or three. 

Or nine.

They look at you blankly and ask, “What do you want to do?” because they know you aren’t a child anymore.  You’re 18 (or nearing 18) and the decision is primarily, if not exclusively, your own.

You struggle.  As parents, we're used to watching you struggle, but we can’t help the way we want to help.  The way we’re used to helping.  We can’t assure you we’ve been there before.  We can’t tell you what we did at your age.  These are uncharted waters, and you are a rudderless crew.

Last year's seniors had it tough, no doubt.  They missed out on their proms.  They missed out on graduation ceremonies and senior class trips and “skip day.”  But for the most part, they had their post-graduation plans buttoned up when the pandemic hit.  And when it did hit, they didn’t have a decision to make.  They had a decision made for them.

As a community, we bent over backward to make them feel special, in every way imaginable.  We chalked their driveways and organized parades and painted banners and left pick-me-up presents on their doorsteps.

(Psst...don't expect the same.)

It’s not that we don’t recognize your losses, or love you any less.  It's just that we adults (and American adults in particular) have notoriously short attention spans.  We are full of compassion in a moment of crisis, but we grow tired and cynical rather quickly.  (Consider, for example, how we lauded your teachers as heroes in March, and called them cowards by mid-July.)

But here’s the thing.

You aren’t adults yet.  You do not tire quickly, and you are not ruined by cynicism.  You are compassionate and resilient and creative.  I know this, because I know so many of you.  I’ve been your youth leader since you were in 8th grade.  I’ve been on mission trips with you.  I’ve stayed up overnight with you.  I’m raising one of you in my own home.  

Ok, so you may not have fully developed frontal lobes, and you occasionally make dumb decisions as a result.  But in many ways, you’re smarter than we are.  And that’s why you cannot make a wrong decision about the start of school, as long as the decision is yours to make. 

If you decide to return to school, it is not because you are reckless or selfish.  You’ve weighed the risks and you’ve considered the alternatives and you’ve made an unspeakably difficult choice that your parents and their parents never had to make.

If you decide to stay home, it is not because you are cowardly or lazy.  (See the reasons above.) 

And if you’re still hesitating, I suspect it’s in part because you're afraid of being judged.  Know this:  we adults are notoriously judgmental.  While you’re busy lifting each other up on Instagram with heart emojis and gushing compliments and unabashed expressions of genuine affection, we’re over here trashing each other over political memes on Facebook (look it's a thing). 

Judge you?  We cannot hold a candle to you.  

I’m effing tired of the word “unprecedented.”  But that’s where we are.  More to the point, in this moment, it’s where YOU are.  You are the class of 2021, beginning a senior year you never imagined, and do not deserve.

For whatever it’s worth, I am rooting for you.  But since those frontal lobes are not fully developed just yet, and because that’s the ONE thing I have over you, I’ll leave you with this: 

Wear your mask, wash your hands, and do your homework. 

You’ve got this, seniors.



Sunday, April 26, 2020

Throwing in the Towel

About five years into writing my doctoral dissertation I sat down to compose a difficult email to my advisor.

I had decided to give up.

I told him I appreciated his unending patience with me, through my relocation to Connecticut, my engagement and wedding planning, my struggle to conceive, and all the anxieties of a recently confirmed pregnancy.  I didn’t want to spend another minute analyzing the allegorical implications of Troubleall’s madness in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair.  I was sick and tired.  I was throwing in the towel.  He wrote back almost immediately.

Dear Kara,

I wonder if you are aware of the origins of that phrase.  Boxers cannot throw in the towel.  That is a decision reserved for their trainers.

Keep writing.        



I did go on to finish my dissertation, and as clumsy and terrible as the final product was, I defended it before a panel of faculty who shook my hand at the end of three long hours and called me Dr. Russell for the first time.  My advisor, trainer's towel stubbornly secured around his shoulders, took Mark and me to his favorite diner and ordered himself an egg crème.  It was his victory as much as mine.

Fast forward two decades and I find myself in the throes of another long battle.  In this corner, a 50-year-old wife and mother of two who thrives on regular, close proximity to friends and family.  In the opposite corner, mother-effing COVID-19. 

I’m tired.  I don’t want to “do” social distancing anymore.  Like many of you, I’m ready to give up the fight.  But every day the damn bell rings to signal a new round.  And every day, I strap on a mask and wash my chapped hands and maintain a six-foot distance from all but three other human beings on the planet.  It doesn’t matter that I’m sick and tired of it all.  I can’t throw in the towel, because the choice is not mine to make.

Please, please don’t listen to the idiots who suggest otherwise.

See, I know about idiots, because I am one, too.  And not just when it comes to boxing metaphors. 

Like you, I’ve known people who have fought harder and more horrible battles than mine.  They’ve battled homelessness.  They’ve battled the grief of losing parents and children.  They’ve faced terminal cancer diagnoses.  They’ve gone off to war, or they’ve been left behind to carry on, alone.  I have always been stunningly inarticulate when it comes to offering encouragement to the battle-weary.  I eventually settled on an all-purpose condolence catch-phrase: “You are so strong.  I don’t know how you do it.”  It felt like the right thing to say.  (Ok, maybe not “right,” but at least not terribly wrong.)  I wanted people to know how much I admired them.  I meant it as a testament to their courage.

With unbelievable grace, they’d smile weakly and accept my attempt at sympathy.

Then one afternoon my best friend lost her sweet and humble husband to suicide.  In the grueling aftermath, I watched in awe as she kept putting one foot in front of the other.  I didn’t know how to express my admiration, so I fell back on the phrases I knew best. 

“You are so strong,” I told her.  “I don’t know how you are doing this.”

She didn’t smile.  She looked me square in the eye, as only a best friend can, and said “What choice do you think I have?”

Thank God she loved me enough to school me. 

I think this virus is teaching all of us a similar lesson.  We do not have a choice but to keep fighting.  It doesn’t matter how tired we are of the masks, or the isolation, or the monotony.  We can’t give up.  Not yet.  If we start pulling our punches now, we’re going to be blindsided. 

Just yesterday, my uncle sent me a music video.  He’s a Christian with a capital C, in the same way that I’m more a “christian” with at best a lowercase letter…maybe even a “k”.  (Which is to say, he’s quite a bit further along on his faith journey than yours truly.)

I wasn’t familiar with the song.  It was performed by an all-boy worship band, and my first impression was that they had beautiful voices and really excellent hair.  

Then I paid attention to the lyrics:

“I count on one thing / The same God that never fails / Will not fail me now / In the waiting / The same God who’s never late / Is working all things out.”
Well, that’s comforting, I thought.  It’s nice to imagine (even believe) there’s a God in heaven who won’t fail us, even now.  “It will all work out” may be unforgivably cliché, but wouldn’t it be something if it were also true?
And then came the chorus:
“I will lift you high in the lowest valley” the perfectly-coiffed boys sang.  And I thought to myself, YES.  THAT is the kind of God I can get behind.  We’re in a pretty low valley right now, and we could sure use a divine hand to lift us out of it.
Except that, as I mentioned earlier, I’m kind of idiot.  Not only when it comes to boxing metaphors and expressions of condolence, but also when it comes to Christian music lyrics.
Turns out, it’s not God speaking in the chorus of “Yes I Will.”  It’s just some dumb old human being.  Some guy who is in his lowest valley and is still praising God.
Well, that’s bullshit (was my first thought).  I need a God who will scoop me up and rescue me, and instead I’ve got one who expects to be praised even when I’m sick and tired?   

And that’s when I had a teeny, tiny epiphany…the only size epiphany idiots are capable of having.  I realized my prayers throughout this pandemic have sounded an awful lot like that email I sent twenty years ago to my dissertation advisor.   

In essence, I begged both of them to call an end to the fight.  And they both gave the same reply:

Keep fighting.

I know my dissertation advisor wasn’t a sadist.  I trust the reason he didn’t throw in the towel is because he knew I hadn’t yet given it my all.  I like to think the same is true of God.  I trust that when He throws in the towel for me, it will only be because I have no fight left.  If I trust in that, it becomes a little easier to keep swinging.

So whether you watch Fox or CNN, whether you believe in God or in Dr. Fauci, please don’t stop fighting.  Not yet.  When the bell rings for another round, come out swinging.  If it helps, try doing it in a bright satin robe with your alter ego emblazoned on the back.  You’re probably not leaving the house, anyway. 

Come on.  I had to. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

For How Long?

I wonder if the same three words haunt you, too.  

Looks like you won’t be going back to school, kids.  (For how long?)

Guess I’ll be working from home beginning Monday.  (For how long?)

I found eggs!  This should last us a while.  (For how long?)

I’m doing ok.  I can handle this.  (For how long?)

Truth is, the individual days themselves haven’t seemed so bad.  I’m wholly aware of how fortunate I am to be able to say that.  I married a good guy, and I enjoy his company.  For the most part, I think he enjoys mine.  My kids are home and I like them an awful lot, too.  In between Zoom meetings and distance learning and conference calls, we’ve finished a puzzle together.  We take long daily walks. We smile and wave at strangers and they smile and wave back.  We’re watching The Great British Baking Show from start to finish.  We have plenty of food.  (Ok, it’s mostly a giant stack of tortillas, but we have food.)

And yet…

It’s the “for how long?” refrain that plants a pit in my stomach.  How long before I can walk into my parents’ house again without fear of making them sick?  How long before I can see my sister?  How long before I can pick up my phone and not feel dreadfully compelled to consult an exponentially increasing line graph?

I generally consider challenging things “endurable” so long as they have a set finish line. 

5k races.


Holding my breath during a mammogram x-ray. 

Elementary school concerts.

But when “how long?” is met with silence, or confusion, or a brutally honest “no one really knows,” a challenge can feel damn near impossible.  This morning I let a friend know I was struggling.

“The how long part is the worst,” I confessed.

“You know,” she replied, “that’s very biblical.”

(Pastors, amiright?  Even at 9 am on a Saturday they can’t shut it off.)

So I literally typed “how long Bible” into the search bar and up popped Psalm 13. Trust me, you don’t have to be religious, or even believe in God, for that matter, to get something out of this one:

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? Look on me and answer, LORD my God.  

I know as much about the Bible as most Catholic high school graduates, which isn't saying a whole helluva lot.  I know the word itself means “song,” and I know they’re often set to music or chanted in both Christian and Jewish services.  I sense this particular singer has endured something miserable for quite some time.  His patience is wearing thin.  He’s getting a bit antsy…even angry…and he wants an answer to his question, dammit. 

Just like many of us right now.

And guess what?  He doesn’t get one.  Here’s how the Psalm continues:  

But I trust in your unfailing love.

You see, this is why people get so pissed off about the Bible.  The answer to “How long?” is “But I trust."   

That’s, like, not even an answer. 

Unless that’s precisely the point.

Maybe fear and anxiety and suffering isn’t about how long.  Maybe it’s not about endurance.  Maybe it’s about trust.  And maybe it’s helpful to frame things that way for a minute.

Endurance demands a lot of us.  We have to be strong to endure.  We have to fortify our bunkers and tighten our muscles and keep our anxieties in check.  Trust is completely different.  Trust is about letting go. Trust isn't about self-reliance;  it's about interdependence and human connection.  And while I’ve had some hot mess moments over the last few weeks trying to endure the challenges of an unfolding pandemic, I’ve also had some incredible glimpses of what trusting in unfailing love looks like.

I bet you’ve seen it, too, so I won’t bother linking to viral clips of neighbors gathering six feet apart on the sidewalk singing “Happy Birthday” to a six-year old.  Or the husband holding up a “thank you for saving my wife’s life” sign to the glass window of an Emergency Room.

Instead I’ll narrow my experience down to just yesterday.  And not even all of yesterday.  This is some of the love I witnessed on one 40-minute walk with my husband:

I saw my friend Tammy, who was delivering a box of rice to our friend Joe.   

I saw a brother and sister spreading out hand-painted rocks on a beach towel on their front lawn.  “Come take one!” they said, stepping back to maintain a six-foot distance.  “They’re for free!”   

I saw my friend Pam, whose first question was, “Is your mom alright?”   

I saw Michelle and Riley, honking and yelling from their car that they can’t wait for Sunday night’s Zoom meeting. 

I saw stuffed animals propped in windows and hope-filled messages chalked on driveways.

And that's not an exhaustive list.  

How long will this last?  We don’t know.  No one does.  So I think it's perfectly okay to feel the pit in our stomachs. It's ok to feel our anxiety growing and our patience wearing thin.  And it's ok to keep demanding answers. 

But it’s also important to accept that the answers may not come…at least not anytime soon.  And in the meantime, even when answers fail us, we can trust that love does not. 

The "Hope Rock' we selected. And yes, I washed my hands.

Friday, March 20, 2020

So I Married a Prepper

I don't mean to sound all 1950’s about the whole thing, but my husband is the family provider. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I do my fair share of supporting the four of us.  Over the years, I have secured such lucrative positions as “volunteer board president for a start-up non-profit,” “adjunct lecturer at a state university,” and “part-time youth director at a local Congregational church.”  Despite the tens of dollars I rake in each week, Mark has insisted on providing our family with still more. 

Which is why it shouldn’t surprise me that during this global crisis, he has voluntarily extended his role of family provider to include the responsibilities of family “prepper.”

I didn’t even know the word existed until a month ago.

Preppers, it turns out, have been prepping for a long time.  They build subterranean bunkers stocked with personal water filtration systems, medical kits, 50-pound bags of rice, propane, firewood, firearms, and something called a “sun oven.”  My husband, new as he is to prepping, has amassed none of those things.

His cache includes eleven bags of BBQ-flavor Pop Chips, twenty-four canisters of Crystal Lite lemonade mix, and a jar of yeast specifically packaged “for bread machines.”

Reader, we do not own a bread machine.

As nervous as we all are about what’s happening, and about what could happen, Mark is the first to admit he’s handling it worst of all.  I’ve banned him from making Amazon Prime purchases without permission.  I’ve encouraged him to practice “exposure response prevention” by walking past a half-gallon of milk we don’t need, and leaving it on the shelf for someone who needs it more.  His WebEx calls are professional and on point, but he cannot be trusted to walk through Price Chopper alone.  I’ve pointed out to him repeatedly, and I hope lovingly, that his temporary lunacy arises from a very real threat to his provider instinct.  He wants to make sure we’ll all be ok.  It is killing him that he cannot make sure of that.

After reassuring him of the unquestionably noble source of his anxiety, I’ve done what any good wife would do:  I’ve laughed at him. 

And the boys have joined in.

Yesterday a package arrived from Amazon.  He swore it was the last of the purchases made before my “ban” went into effect.  He glanced at the three of us sheepishly before opening it, and made us promise not to make fun of him when we saw what was inside, because he could not remember what he had panic-purchased.

We promised. 

(We lied.)

It was like getting a present from Santa, if Santa was a drunken amnesiac.  Mark carefully sliced the box open and lifted the contents for all of us to see.


“Dad,” Brian said, exasperated.  “Are you kidding me?  Our refrigerator is already 45% tortillas.”

Mark snort laughed.  

And that’s how I know we’ll be ok.  Not that we won’t get sick, or be scared, or be scarred in possibly permanent ways by this pandemic.  But as long as we can still laugh, both with and at one another, we will at least be us.  

Our family went through our own crisis nine years ago.  One minute, it was situation normal.  Then suddenly, and without warning, we slammed into a brick wall at full speed.  For the next several months we intentionally retreated from coworkers, from extended family, and from all but a few of our closest friends.  We “turtled up,” as Mark dubbed it then.  Today, we’d call it social distancing.   

As much as we agreed isolation was the best course of action for us, there were times it felt as damaging as the illness.

And then one day we discovered a weapon in our arsenal we’d forgotten.  It was a very wise doctor who pointed it out to us, and who gave us permission to use it.

We’d forgotten our sense of humor.

It seemed irreverent and irresponsible to laugh during that time.  But slowly, and timidly, we tried it anyway.  And I swear every time one of us laughed, our "family spine" straightened a bit.  Humor didn’t shrink the threat we were facing, but it made us all feel a bit taller, and a little more up to the task.

We do not have a hospital-grade medical kit or a sun oven in our arsenal. But we’ve been honing and stockpiling our sense of humor for years, because we learned it’s pretty essential to our survival.  (That and Crystal Lite lemonade, apparently.)  It’s who we are.  And it’s one of the ways we’ll do our best to get through this, however long “this” lasts. 

And now if you’ll excuse me, I believe that's Mark’s powdered milk delivery at the door.   

Friday, February 14, 2020

For My Husband: A Lo-Carb Valentine

Shakespeare’s Cleopatra used the phrase “my salad days” to describe our youth:  that green time of life when we’re too inexperienced to know what we’re doing, and too foolish to care.

I married Mark in my salad days. 

Despite not knowing what the hell I was doing, I chose well. I know this for a fact because I recently entered the meatball salad years.

It wasn’t Shakespeare but my oldest son, Kevin, who coined this newer phrase.  We were on our way to my parents’ house last summer, and I assumed both he and his brother were zoned out on their phones, having not heard a peep from either of them for some time.

I was deep in conversation with Mark about the dinner I’d ordered the night before:  a beautiful salad with mixed spring greens, toasted walnuts and fresh goat cheese.  Atop the salad, three meatballs in marinara sauce.  It was fantastic.

“You wouldn’t think to put meatballs on a salad,” I told him.  “would never think of it, anyway.  But it’s on menus everywhere now.  I guess it’s part of the lo-carb craze.  And the funny thing is, you don’t even need dressing.” 

“Well, you don’t like dressing, anyway,” Mark said.  

“I don’t,” I agreed.  “But what I mean is you don’t even miss it.” 

Mark was quiet for several seconds.  “Didn’t you have a meatball salad that summer we were in Tennessee?”

“I did!” I said, amazed and touched that he remembered.  “They didn’t prepare it that way, but I was trying to eat lo-carb on that trip, so I just skipped the pasta and put the meatballs right on the salad.”

A few minutes passed, during which I began to doubt myself.

“Wait…” I said.  “They weren’t meatballs.  It was a meat sauce.  I put meat sauce on the salad in Tennessee.  And Janet did it, too.” 

“That’s right,” Mark said.  “I remember they served a meat sauce.”

“I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’d ever mixed red sauce with salad, though,” I said, with renewed confidence.  “It was good, but definitely not as good as those meatballs last night.”

I paused for a minute, remembering the meatballs.  And mid-memory, a voice came from the back seat.  

It was Kevin.

“Hey mom and dad,” he said, an obvious smile in his voice. “Tell us more about the meatball salad.”

And that was the precise moment we together realized what Kevin and the rest of the world had known for some time:  we were old. 

Even if time continues to bless us both, we are already well into the second half of our lives.  These are the years that will slow us down a bit, even as the world speeds up around us.  These are the years that will likely bring us in-laws and grandchildren.  These are the meatball salad years.  And on this Valentine’s Day, I want you to know there is no one with whom I’d rather spend them.  


Friday, January 31, 2020

For Kobe, Who Probably Never Met Ted Knight

My little sister cried when Ted Knight died.  He was the white-haired, bumbling news anchor on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I didn’t realize (until word of his passing reached my grandparents’ mobile home, where we were spending the last few days of summer) how much she loved him.  She confessed it through sobs.

It struck me as odd then, because she didn’t know Ted Knight.  And as much as I wanted to feel a little of what she was feeling (sisters do that for each other), my 17-year-old self couldn’t muster anything more than mild confusion, which I masked with a weakly sympathetic pat on the back.

I don’t remember how long she “grieved,” but I can assure you she was fully recovered by day one of her senior year.  Her world moved along...Ted Knight-less.  

I have a 17-year-old of my own now, and Wednesday morning he texted me from his chemistry class:


I know Brian’s penchant for drama, so those midday all-caps messages don’t faze me anymore.  I glanced nonchalantly at my phone screen, waiting for whatever garden variety teenage angst would follow.  And what followed was this:  Brian’s chemistry teacher had returned to school that morning after an extended absence.  While he was initially happy to see her, the reunion went south when discussion turned to Kobe Bryant, who was killed three days prior in a helicopter crash along with his daughter and seven other souls in Calabasas, California.  

Brian's next text:

No ounce of exaggeration [she] went on a 5 minute rant about how it’s not that big of a deal and he didn’t affect us personally so we shouldn’t care I’m so upset

It's safe to assume that unlike countless others grieving the loss of Kobe Bryant, and unlike millions who will likely remember where they were and what they were doing when he died, I alone thought immediately of Ted Knight.  

My son never met Kobe Bryant.  He's not even a Lakers fan.  But both of my boys live and breathe NBA basketball, and both of them cried when Kobe died.  

Would they have cried for those seven strangers if Kobe hadn’t been on board?  Of course not.

Because they didn't know those people, I’d argue.  And Brian’s teacher would probably argue back: That’s precisely the point.  They didn’t know Kobe, either.

Except that they DID.

No, Kobe wasn’t family.  And it should go without saying that the loss of a celebrity figure in no way compares to the loss of a friend or family member.  But to suggest Kobe’s death was “not that big of a deal because he didn’t affect us personally” is wrong.  And like all good English teachers, I’m going to use prove my point using a poetry term.  Enjambment, in this case.   

Much like a teenage boy’s texts, enjambment is signified by a lack of punctuation.  It’s defined as “a poetic device in which a line of poetry extends, without punctuation, beyond the limitations of the natural line break.” 

That definition is horrible, as are most literary definitions.  It’s easier to understand with examples.  

A poem without enjambment looks like this:

This little piggy went to market.
This little piggy stayed home.
This little piggy had roast beef.
This little piggy had none.

It’s not great poetry, but you get the point.  Every line ends with a mark of punctuation:  a “natural break” between one line and the next.  

And here’s a poem with enjambment:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

It wouldn’t make sense to read T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land one line at a time.  It must be read in one continuous breath, each line of verse extending beyond the limitations of the natural break.  That's the magic of enjambment:  the last word of one line is connected to the first line of the next in a way that creates meaning, despite the fact the words will never touch.  

No, my little sister never met Ted Knight.  But that bumbling white-haired news reporter on MTM must have meant something to her.  It doesn’t matter what that something was;  her sobs testified that across time and space and television airwaves, she felt a meaningful connection.  And when he died, she felt the loss.

Just as my sons felt when Kobe died.

Just as millions of people felt.   

Because despite his flaws (and given his admitted marital infidelity and alleged sexual assault, I’m asking a LOT from that single word), Kobe Bryant inspired.  He thrilled and awed.  He brought irrational confidence and unrelenting hope and immeasurable joy to kids who wanted to be like the Black Mamba.  He extended his reach beyond the natural break, across time and space (and wealth and race) to create meaningful connections with people he would never touch.  

Fortunately for all of us, we do not live out our lives full stop.  Our inspiration and our pain, our joy and our grief are not limited to the natural breaks of physical contact and geographical proximity.  We do not have to touch one another to be touched by one another.  The universal poem of which we are all part would make no sense that way.  

Any kind of meaningful human connection, especially in a world that feels increasingly splintered and hell-bent on barriers and full-stops, should probably not be called into question by even the most well-meaning of chemistry teachers.  Yes, my son took time to grieve for a man he never met.  

But hey, he never met Jesus, either.  ;)