lisa kogan
Illustration by Kagan McLeod
The day our columnist saw an airborne Mary Poppins, she was astonished. Her 7-year-old? Not so much. And so the search began: to find a miracle they could both believe in.
Allow me to set the scene: It is one year ago, snow is falling, street vendors have stopped selling pretzels that are made God knows how and begun selling roasted chestnuts that are made God knows where. People are wearing ruby red and kelly green sweaters covered in reindeer appliqués, and I decide to kick off the 2009 holidays with a Broadway matinee of Mary Poppins. There are little girls who would be thrilled with a plan like this. My daughter, Julia, is not one of them. I explain that I used to love going to the theater with my mom. Blank stare. I explain that it will be fun and memorable and the start of a brand-new tradition. Rolling of eyes. I explain that we can eat McDonald's and buy a set of Pokémon cards immediately afterward. Bingo!

The show starts slow but becomes completely enchanting. At the end, Mary opens her umbrella and flies straight off the stage, up, up, up, until finally she is floating right in front of our balcony seats. The effect is jaw-dropping. "Look, honey!" I whisper, "Mary Poppins is suspended in midair!" My darling little 7-year-old glares at me as though I am certifiably insane and whispers back, "Mommy, that's an actress and I can see the strings."

All righty, then.

The time has come for a little hard-core mothering. I need to resurrect the feeling of wonder that salvages us from cynicism. I'm looking for leaps of faith and the element of surprise, and a trace of something that defies logic. "I don't care if the search takes all year; come next Christmas," I promise Julia, "I will find us at least one small miracle—no strings attached."

January: In a horribly misguided stab at whimsy, I decide to take Jules ice-skating. I have not actually been on skates for 36 years, but I assume it will come back to me, you know, like riding a bicycle...something I haven't done for 37 years.

I guess the doctor in the ER of St. Luke's–Roosevelt Hospital said it best when he handed me a pair of crutches, an ice pack, and a prescription for Percocet, and declared, "It's a miracle you didn't break anything." Not exactly the miracle of gliding majestically across the rink at Rockefeller Center as sparkly little snowflakes glisten on your eyelashes, but there's something to be said for colliding headfirst into a family of five hearty Midwesterners, bouncing off a concrete wall, and landing beneath a class of merciless third graders without receiving so much as a hairline fracture. My year of living miraculously is off to an excellent start.

February: Johannes (love of my life, father of my child, forgetter of Valentine's Day for more than a decade) brings home a dozen long-stem tulips and a caramel cupid on the 14th of the month. "My darling," I coo, "you remembered!" He mumbles something about how his firm belief that this holiday represents the commercialization of couplehood has been trumped by my firm belief that I "could probably use the heel of my hand to drive a person's nose straight through his brain."

We struggle, we annoy, we regroup, we stay open, we lie around, we watch MSNBC, we laugh, we hold hands, we buy pumpkin muffins, we get upset because somebody didn't seal the bag and now the pumpkin muffins are stale, and then we start all over again. Love is a battlefield, a many-splendored thing, a blessing, and a pain in the neck, but it is not a miracle. Two human beings managing to blend their lives together for 17 years—now, that's a miracle.

March: It happened at exactly ten after eight in the morning. I know because I had just completed my first "It's ten after eight in the morning, for God's sake! Brush your teeth and track down your shoes before Mommy has an aneurysm" shout-out of the day. I said a silent prayer, took a deep breath, stepped on the scale, and lo and behold, weighed four pounds and six ounces less than I had in weeks.

But I couldn't help wondering if this was a carbohydrate-induced hallucination. I mean, if I had really lost nearly five pounds without even trying, then why were the schools and the post offices and the New York Stock Exchange still open? Where was the parade through Times Square, the Anderson Cooper interview? We will never know, but around Casa Kogan, this incident is still referred to as the Miracle of the Fettuccine Eater.

April: I am folding laundry as the late, great Eva Cassidy sings "Danny Boy" over my crummy old JBL speakers. Her sound is crystalline and ethereal, seductive and soaring. I am amazed by the way three minutes and 41 seconds of music can leave a girl sobbing into a dish towel. Eva Cassidy's voice is about as miraculous as it gets.

May: Here comes the sun and cherry trees and open windows and linen skirts and iced cappuccinos that cost more than my father's first car. Spring is a miracle.

June: On June 2, Detroit Tiger Armando Galarraga was pitching a perfect game—a feat that's been accomplished exactly 20 times since 1880—and hot damn, it was gorgeous! The ball seemed to go faster than his arm, as if the laws of physics couldn't slow him down, when suddenly umpire Jim Joyce ruled Cleveland Indians runner Jason Donald safe, for what should have been the game's final out.

But Jason Donald was not safe, as Mr. Joyce realized after viewing the postgame replay. And then it happened: Joyce sincerely apologized, Galarraga graciously accepted, and Detroiters roared their approval. At a time in the world when nobody seems to be taking responsibility for anything, two incredibly decent men demonstrated compassion, civility, style, and a miraculous degree of integrity.

July: Speaking of basic human decency, I recently came across this little quote from Matthew D. Staver, the founder and chairman of a conservative religious law firm called Liberty Counsel. "I am a Christian and I am a conservative and I am a Republican, in that order," he said. "There is very little I agree with regarding President Barack Obama. On the other hand, I'm not going to let politicized rhetoric or party affiliation trump my values, and if he's right on this issue [of immigration reform], I will support him on this issue." Granted, that's hardly a ringing endorsement, and, make no mistake, there's very little I agree with regarding Mr. Matthew D. Staver. On the other hand, it's nothing short of a miracle to find somebody out there who is willing to be guided by something besides "politicized rhetoric or party affiliation."

August: I am sitting in my dentist's waiting room when I spot Dennis Quaid smiling up at me from the cover of a magazine. Is he People's Sexiest Man Alive? Nope. Is he playing the enfant terrible for Details? Uh-uh. Dennis Quaid's cocky grin is plastered across the front of AARP The Magazine, and according to AARP (formerly known as Modern Maturity), the man is 56 years old. But that can't be right. I mean, didn't I just see him play the burned-out bad boy in Breaking Away? "You sure did," replies Rose, the unflappable hygienist, "if by 'just' you mean 1979." Time rushes by at miraculous speed.

September: Meredith, my neighbor down the hall, is 51 years old...and seven months pregnant. There was no egg donor, no in vitro fertilization, no special blend of Chinese herbs and reflexology—just an $11 bottle of Pinot Grigio and the mistaken impression that already having two sons in college somehow makes conception impossible. Meredith is now busily preparing for the miracle of birth.

October: I'm having coffee with one of my oldest friends, Francesca Gany, the founder and director of the Center for Immigrant Health at the New York University School of Medicine, and she mentions a figure that genuinely shocks me: Of the cancer patients her center serves, 51 percent of those living below the poverty line do not have enough to eat. This is the kind of problem that makes me want to curl into the fetal position with the TV remote and a bag of Cheetos, but humanity is in luck today: Francesca has never met a crisis she doesn't want to tackle. Her latest initiative is called Food for Health, a pantry designed to aid people who find themselves with cancer but without money for food. I walk my friend back to her NYU office, located in Bellevue Hospital, where she and her multilingual team distribute vouchers that will enable patients to go to the supermarket and buy some of the food they need to get them through treatment. Each patient is also given a bag of groceries to take home; there's a can of peaches, a carton of milk, a jar of peanut butter, a bottle of apple juice, a box of rice, and a couple of other items. Francesca reads my mind. "It's better than nothing, but it's nowhere near enough," she says as she places a grocery bag into the arms of a young woman who looks beautiful and tired and enormously grateful that today she won't have to choose between buying medicine and buying a meal. "You people are miracle workers," she calls out as she hobbles toward the elevator. She's absolutely right, but Dr. Gany and Co. simply shrug off the praise and keep the line moving.

November: Thanksgiving dinner. My vegan cousin's vegan girlfriend does not spend the evening making everybody feel guilty over "turkey genocide." My creepy uncle from Great Neck does not ask if 2011 is the year Johannes will finally break down and make "an honest woman" out of me; my addled Aunt Rita does not get drunk and accuse her daughter-in-law of hiding her oven mitts. We eat, we keep our aggression passive, we go home. It sounds pretty basic, but trust me—it's a miracle.

December: Usually when I drop in on friends at work, I find them crouched in a crowded cubicle, surreptitiously shopping eBay, but my pal Valerie Soll is stretching across a table in the Textile Conservation Lab at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, a cavernous space where she and nearly a dozen other experts work to clean, stabilize, and conserve some of the world's most extraordinary pieces. "Check this out," she says, pointing to an enormous tapestry depicting a scene from the life of Christ. It took master weavers from 1643 to 1656 to craft this set of one-of-a-kind tapestries for the nephew of Maffeo Barberini, better known as Pope Urban VIII. "Tapestries were the bling of their day," Val says. "They spoke volumes about your wealth and power—they told the world what you cared about, what you believed in, what your story was."

It's a fragile thread that sutures us to our stories, and it is a miracle that through hundreds of years of travel and temperature, smoke and red wine stains, bright lights and big pollution, along with the weight of hanging in a thousand different places (to say nothing of major neglect; during the French Revolution, farmers used the Metropolitan Museum of Art's famous Unicorn tapestries as blankets to keep potatoes from freezing), the Barberini tapestries continue to tell their stories.

Tonight I will sit down with Julia and tell her the story of my year spent searching for miracles. "The thing is," I'll explain, "nobody really has to go looking for a miracle because it turns out, they're usually pretty close to home." They come tiptoeing in while you're watching a no-hitter or folding laundry or tapping a rock-hard pumpkin muffin against the kitchen counter. They're in tapestries that survive hundreds of years, and parents who survive the morning onslaught, and people who don't have enough food to make it through another day, and somehow make it anyway.

And Jules will nod and pretend to listen, then ask if she can play her Pokémon game on the computer for 15 minutes before bed, which will give me a deeply luxurious 15 minutes entirely to myself—one final miracle for 2010.

Do Miracles Really Happen?


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