“A very small degree of hope is sufficient to cause the birth of love.”—Stendhal

It was Friday afternoon and I was perched at a weathered, picnic table at the top of the stairs overlooking the dock.

The sun burned hot and bright—shining through the just-barely-fluttering birch leaves hanging out over the water creating a sense of transparency, like when light is diffused through kite paper.

The breeze was cool and intermittent, softly lifting a few strands of hair around my face and placing them back down so I could sweep them from my vision again and again.

I did what I could to brush aside, as well, the many, mounting rejections intrinsic to creative pursuit—and to temper the sadness and dismay building in my bones over innocent children dying in school once again.

There are ample reasons in any life to lose hope for humanity and for our aspirations—to lose faith in the power of benevolence and our ability to live safely, fruitfully, joyfully.

Even the smallest injustices can take root in any-one-of-us and germinate into something distorted and more powerful than what is merited if we allow it to.

Might we all find ways to examine this inner-alchemy and insist instead on a personal evolution—a way forward—expressive of greater compassion, deeper insight and specific calls-to-action unique to each of us.

Might our efforts spread and take root and become intertwined between us so that we might weave a world fit for us all—like an intricate basket—weighty yet giving to accommodate the vastness of our differences and our distinct need for one another.

When they first went down to the dock, Jonah and his spritely—his sisterly—friend tied heavy, metal objects to long ropes and tossed them out into the water repeatedly.

They noticed a pair of hermit crabs in the distance and wondered aloud if their rope could reach to touch them.

Adrian sat on the long part of the dock alone soaking in the sun and sea air, resting in his private thoughts.

Then he placed a frisbee with a mesh center and a faded, pinkish-orange frame over his head like a bouncy hat.

Later he made his way onto his stomach—legs stretched out behind him, arms propping him up—resting again.

A motor boat passed through the cove briskly heading for the shoreline off to our right creating fast, undulating waves and jostling the dock.

The quiet mood transformed with the rapid rhythm of the water and the kids sprung-up steadying themselves on the rocking raft like surfers, suddenly filled with new ideas for play.

In the distance an unusual sea craft appeared—one-part tug-boat, one-part barge—with a narrow tower emitting a small stream of smoke into the clear, blue sky.

I pointed it out, speaking in a regular voice despite my distance—my call-to-attention carrying swiftly and clearly in the vicinity of water.

This tendency has to do with air temperature and soundwaves and the way this dynamic allows for more of what we say to reach those who are listening.

Jonah ran up the stairs past me toward the house—inspired.

“Where’s the camera?” he shouted, unwilling to stop to hear my reply.

Soon they had the camera with the zoom-lens and a notebook with crayons poised to capture and record all that they saw and thought about these mysterious happenings.

I tried not to worry too much about the lens getting wet and perused the websites of the chosen artists on my laptop—at first glance the work appeared quite different from my own and impressive.

The mood by the dock changed again when the water calmed and a pair of ducks with a trail of five or six ducklings crossed just a few yards out into the bay.

We all seemed to notice them at once and expressed our glee at witnessing such a sweet sight.

It wasn’t long after that when a sock got stuck in a tree.

On a property with children, socks can be found just about anywhere.

The exploration moved up from the dock and behind me into our yard where Jonah had brought out two, long nylon ropes he found in the shed and together with his friend threw one side up high into a sprawling oak tree and over a branch.

Now there was a length of the rope hanging down on either side of the branch.

They decided to attach a thick, wool sock—one of Jonah’s—between the two strands of rope to create a sort-of seat or thick-knot where they could gain leverage with their bare feet or rest their behinds as they climbed up higher and higher, carrying the rope wrapped up in their legs with them.

When they tired of this pursuit, they threaded the other rope through the circular base of a swing that hung on the opposite branch of the tree.

They took turns climbing onto the swing and allowing the other person to pull it upward with the rope into a steep incline—then letting it go forcing the person holding the rope to run forward along with the swing so as not to get dragged by the momentum.

It was both inventive and dangerous-looking.

I took in their ingenuity doing my best not to gasp at the close-calls and thought about the delicate balance between allowing my children (and their friends) to test their abilities and pursue their visions and to be free, really, all the while trying to keep them safe.

Often giving them space to explore and believe I am not anywhere nearby feels like the most crucial choice I can make now to impact their future-ability to thrive.

It’s so hard to trust this critical process—this birthright—given what I know about the world, given what we all know.

It was a relief—and a return to balance in the weighted-scale of the afternoon—when Jonah and his friend left the swing and brought out the violin.

They both play and passed the instrument back and forth on the porch steps.

I noticed the way the light fell on them like actors on a stage.

Eventually I realized it was time to gather up the ropes and get us ready for an outing we had planned that evening.

The kids pulled on one side of the rope to retrieve it from the tree.

The sock-side went shooting to the top where it became lodged between two branches.

We yanked on it briefly attempting to release it and eventually had to abandon it to leave on-time.

I was surprised a few days later when I noticed the rope and sock had somehow been removed without my knowledge.

Jonah explained that he had accidentally released it when he had once again climbed the rope the following day and it came loose suddenly sending him onto the ground—onto his back—with a thump.

I’m not sure the sock ever made it back inside.

The days have grown longer in these last weeks—the sky illuminated at dawn and brimming with the emphatic narrative-of-the-birds, settling in for a season of greater ease.

 

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“There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.”—George Sand

Given my record of a too-full inbox and a seemingly ravenous spam folder, it feels like a small miracle that I received the message at all.

I had missed the CNN story that had gone viral and so the title of the message, Cards for Jacob, might have come across as unimportant or like more noise from a world so filled with communication.

I had recently approached the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine about a collaboration having to do with the Free-to-Play Project—a collection of my work meant to draw attention to the inherent value—and birthright—of children’s access to and freedom to play in childhood.

We had engaged in promising conversations about sharing my work—ultimately thwarted by my lack of status as a non-profit entity.

It didn’t matter that my mission and desire were to donate funding to their programming.

They were bound by rules and as disappointed as I was.

Despite my frustration with the red tape, I decided to donate half of the profits from a recent commission to the museum scholarship program anyway. The contribution would support seven families offering unlimited access to engaging play for one year.

It felt like the right thing to do in the moment and later I realized it was instrumental in connecting me to Jacob.

When we are open to it—and maybe even when we are not—it seems there is an invisible web of connection that extends beyond the known parameters of this life safeguarding our path to evolution and our purpose in being here.

I like to think Jacob somehow ensured I got the message because he knew this work was for me.

Imagine the power of a small and earnest request invoking a ripple across the globe—from New York to Australia to Dubai—causing hundreds of thousands of people to be stopped in their tracks and to respond.

This was the power of a small, 9-year-old boy whose nose wrinkled at its ridge when he smiled.

His name was Jacob Thompson and his request was simple and from the heart.

In the last weeks of his life—rendered short by terminal neuroblastoma that he had been fighting for four years—he shared from his bed at Maine Medical Center that he would like to receive Christmas cards from anyone who might like to send them his way.

His wish was to celebrate early a holiday he would likely never experience again.

As an aside, he noted how much he loved penguins.

The response took everyone by surprise and was so overwhelming the Portland Postmaster General became involved and began keeping track of the number of cards that were pouring in like an overflow of winnings from a slot machine.

A storage facility was rented to house the incredible influx of mail and Jacob’s family found a purpose—opening and reading cards with and eventually for Jacob—during an extremely painful time.

A few weeks after receiving the e-mail, I found myself driving to a part of a nearby town I had never been to.

It was a cold and sparkling morning just after the New Year and a heavy downfall of snow.

Surrounded by beautiful forests, I could have been driving across the scene of a quintessential Christmas card which seemed remarkable, given the circumstances.

I had been invited to view some of the hundreds-of-thousands of cards Jacob had received before he passed away and to consider whether I might be able to create a work of art with them given my experience working with repurposed materials.

Jacob’s family had been referred to me by an administrator at the children’s museum—the purpose of my experience there clear to me now.

As I drove to the meeting it felt as if I was following a thread connecting me to the next, relevant point in a geometric pin and thread art formation that constructs the pattern of a life.

A cousin of Jacob’s mother came outside into the brisk air and bright morning to meet me.

She wanted to ensure that I entered a certain door in the house so as not to have to navigate the snowier pathway.

She had put her dogs away so they wouldn’t bother me.

I could hear them barking and bouncing around on the wood floors—they sounded big.

Having just said goodbye to my own beloved cat, Autumn, I was eager to meet them and said so.

Sarah and I had an instant connection. There was an ease between us that went beyond our few moments of knowing one another.

It was clear we spoke the same language about life and loss from the start.

She brought out several long, plastic, post-office containers filled with piles of cards that had been sent to Jacob.

She told me about him, too— who he had been, his family and their incredible strength.

Together we poured through the cards—stopping occasionally together in awe of the idea that so many individuals had hearts to hear a young child’s request; to set aside the concerns of their own lives and find the time to reach out to him.

In these hurried and divisive times this occurrence seems miraculous.

At first, I was unsure how I would work with the materials—many of the cards were hand-made out of construction paper.

The current medium I work in—repurposed wall-calendars—provides glossier paper of a heavier weight.

Later I would have the opportunity to see and bring home many—thousands—of store-bought cards and begin to envision a work that would in some way honor Jacob’s life and the profound expression of love that was born out of his being.

Might we all have such an impact in such a short time.

On a Sunday morning, I brought several of the mail trays into my living room and began sorting them.

I was in search of swaths of color—interesting textures—that could be torn and set aside into the creation of a palette that would later become the material for a collage depicting Jacob hand-in-hand with a penguin and perhaps other children who had also endured neuroblastoma.

Jonah and Adrian were intrigued with the cards—with this life—like theirs but unfairly cut short.

“Why didn’t we send a card to Jacob?” Jonah asked me sadly as he sifted through the trays examining intently the words and images.

I explained that if we had known about Jacob, we would certainly have sent him a card.

Like an analyst, Adrian set about gathering the duplicate cards. He created rows and rows of singing Santas and penguins with twirling, ribboned hats, googly-eyed snowman and Rudolfs.

There were twenty-two identical cards that when opened produced a penguin wearing a pink and grey snow hat with green gloves singing Deck the Halls.

 I listened to those songs again and again as I absorbed the cards and their messages, tears occasionally springing to my eyes in response to the many examples of what it means to truly witness another’s suffering and to respond.

Periodically Jonah came to me to show me a card—having read the inscription and wanting to share it.

He was moved by the kindness expressed and I observed his sensitivity as he tried to process the life and loss of a boy his very same age.

It seemed like no coincidence that Jacob’s mother and I shared sons born in the same year.

I was halted again and again by the words written within the cards.

I felt privileged to have access to such profound outpourings of love.

People wrote about how much they cared about Jacob—the hero they had never met. They wished that they could be a fraction as strong as he.

Some encouraged him to fight—that he could beat this. Fight Jacob, fight.

Others assured him of the presence of God in his struggle. They knew he was not alone.

With all of these people showering him with their love—he was most certainly not alone.

They told about their own lives and challenges and about the way cancer had affected their families—their children, even.

The kids who wrote shared all manner of beautiful words and expressed how much they loved the same things that Jacob loved—Christmas and penguins, Minecraft and Legos.

The heartfelt outpourings in the cards came from individuals from all social, political and socio-economic backgrounds.

There in the cards were signs of every possible way of life—all humans responding to the same thing, the experience of another.

It makes me wonder how we can do more of this—more of seeing each other, more of recognizing the many ways in which we are the same. More of living in the way that Jacob would want us to.

 

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