"From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done…"
- Elton John/Tim Rice
"The Lion King"
It was early December in 2000 and we were grateful for a patch of warmer than usual weather just prior to the holidays. Emma and Clara were active, busy, rambunctious three-year-olds and a recent purchase of new tricycles had given us a playtime option they loved. Racing around the back driveway or tearing up the front sidewalk caused an explosion of happy giggles to spout from them like bursts of water from a summer fountain in the park.
Buying the tricycles had been a financial stretch for us, but a sale at Target coupled with our urgency in finding appropriate gross motor activities for these two little monkeys who never stopped moving, quickly shifted the purchase from a want to a need.
The girls awoke each morning with one major goal…get outside and ride their new red "bikes." But as often happens in a family of five, a third child's needs supercede the others and everyone has to cooperate with a plan that might not fulfill their greatest hopes for the day's schedule. This particular day our older daughter's needs had to come first. We were in the throes of pre-Nutcracker rehearsals, and as "Clara," she was rehearsing more than she was eating and sleeping…combined.
We had all piled into the Jeep accompanied by the echoing strains of "I want to ride my bike, I want to ride my bike"…a litany...in stereo. We dropped our older daughter off at the dance studio, stopped by the grocery store, and then picked up the twins' babysitter so I could work for a few hours while she watched them ride their tricycles around the block. When we pulled into the back driveway, I immediately noticed that something was missing…the tricycles. I was sure they had been in the driveway…and now they were gone.
At first I thought that perhaps their dad had scooted them into the backyard, or put them in the garage. However, a quick but thorough search made it clear that the tricycles were no longer "in the house." Julia quickly, and miraculously, turned the girls' attention towards a messy, therefore thrilling, art project while I assessed the situation.
The trikes were gone. Period.
I was devastated. We had stretched our budget to buy them in the first place. Replacing them was going to be hard…even if the sale was still underway. Of course I was already praying to see that we could not be separated from anything that was truly ours, but more critical to my spiritual poise were the feelings of helplessness, violation and despair I felt. We lived in a very sweet neighborhood bordering the grounds of the university, and anchored by a wonderful park with a lake and ducks and a playground. I felt so safe there and I trusted that my children could play without harm.
And, to be honest, I was angry.
As I vacillated between praying to feel a sense of peace and wanting to let loose my tears (and feelings) of frustration, the question kept coming to me, "Who steals tricycles from the driveway of a home?"
The prayers for inner peace finally overcame the angry tears. I sat still. I was poised, waiting for the inspiration that would make sense of this all. Again, the frustrated question came.
"Who steals tricycles from the driveway of a home?"
"So much for the parting of the clouds," I thought. But when the question came again, "Who steals tricycles?" I actually listened and engaged. Within a moment or two, my heart broke wide with mercy.
"Oh my goodness," I thought. "Only someone with small children or grandchildren would ever want two shiny new tricycles just before Christmas."
I remember hearing a Sunday morning pundit, speaking about neighbor on neighbor urban violence, once say, "Desperate measures are nothing but a measure of someone's desperation."
Anyone whose experience made them feel hopeless enough to stop and steal two itty-bitty shiny red tricycles out of another person's driveway…must be feeling very desperate indeed. And not only might they be feeling the bleakness of their own hardship, but they must have had children or grandchildren, siblings or nieces and nephews they wanted, and needed, to care for.
"...More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round..."
In an instant, my prayer changed from one of "take away my anger and let me find peace," to "how can I be an instrument of change and healing in my community which includes someone feeling so desperate that they would steal toddler-sized tricycles?"
The more I prayed, the more my heart burst open with ideas for how we, as a family, could participate in some way toward making a difference during that Christmas for children whose parents may have had needs so looming that the simple traditions that we enjoyed were, for them, beyond even our modest holiday budget .
Because our holiday plans that year were being driven by our daughter's ballet "career" and her performance in The Nutcracker, it was a natural first step for me to think about how we could roll out that performance to a larger audience…those in our community who might not have the means to purchase expensive tickets. And although my husband and I were not poised to write a check for a block of tickets, I knew we could always draw on an abundance of practical spiritual ideas, a generous desire for social advocacy we shared with our friends, and a love for the arts that was fathomless. These were the things we had invested in for our own children's future. These were the things we could offer to share with others.
Throughout the rest of December we were overwhelmed by the number of amazing, fresh ideas that God laid at the doorstep of our hearts for how we could share our holiday bounty…of dance, beauty, art, inspiration, and music with others. However, one opportunity unfolded immediately…and it continues to fill my heart with gratitude.
So, back to the tricycles.
After the girls were settled into their messy art project with Julia in the kitchen, I headed off to my "office" at the Border's bookstore café near our home. Since I was there much of every day for appointments with patients and inspirational study, I had become quite close to the managers and employees. That morning as I sat at my favorite table praying for answers, Heather, the store's events manager, noticed me staring into the empty space between where I sat and the snow-covered mountains looming in the west just beyond the plate glass windows. She playfully asked me what I was daydreaming about.
I told her, "A way to bring The Nutcracker to children whose parents can't afford tickets." Then I went on to tell her about my morning and the tricycles.
Within the span of ten minutes, we had our first gift to the community all wrapped up with shiny paper and satin ribbons. We would bring The Nutcracker to Borders bookstore on the busiest Saturday of the holidays and perform scenes throughout the store. I called the director of the ballet and she agreed that this would be a perfect opportunity to share The Nutcracker with children who may not be able to otherwise attend, promote the performances, and give the dancers another dress rehearsal. It was done.
Throughout the month, opportunities to share what we had with others quite literally fell into my lap. For this "once upon a time" very poor little girl, it was as if I had been given the greatest gift…to be able to give back. The gift I received in return was priceless…a new perspective that didn't put me on either side of an economic chasm…privilege or poverty, but gave me the tools and the heart to build bridges of compassion and humanity.
I stopped seeing desperate parents, children, teens…or desperate measures. Instead I saw families eager to care for one another's needs. I saw mothers willing to bake and serve cookies at a bookstore rather than be out shopping for their own children at the mall. I saw, through grateful tears, children wide-eyed with wonder as the strains of Tchaikovsky's "dum-dum-da-dum-dum-dum" ushered in E.T.A. Hoffmann's story of a girl, a toy, some sweets and a dream…children so fully satisfied by the beauty of it all that hunger was forgotten…for a moment at least.
That was one of my favorite Christmases of all times. As I sit here writing, I realize that I can't, for the life of me, remember how or when we replaced the girls tricycles. Somehow it happened…but it simply escapes me today in the light of what we discovered about ourselves and our neighbors.
When we see someone resorting to desperate measures, like Cho, the young man who voiced his desperation in such an angry, violent way, we can either feel angry, hopeless, vulnerable and frustrated ourselves, or we can look for ways to bridge the chasm between hearts with practical prayer-based solutions that break through despair with the light of hope and kindness.
The answers to Virginia Tech, Columbine, 911, and Darfur do not lie solely in the portfolios of Senators, on the maps of Generals, the promises of presidential hopefuls, or in the hands of prison guards. They lie in the most accessible place on earth…the heart.
"..It's the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life."
There is more to do....but it can be done...