Monday, October 24, 2016

Macular Regeneration

I had a conversation with a dear friend today. I love her. A lot.
But she's a bit of a conspiracy theorist. More than a bit, actually...
"They" are drugging our water, so that men will be more effeminate and they won't want to have children.
"They" are teaching our children how to masturbate and are making our children touch each other's genitals in school.
"They" are experimenting on pregnant mothers to see if "they" can create mutated children.
She also said that she lives in terror of all that "they" are doing and all that is yet to come.
When I said that I didn't believe what she was saying, she said that she understood that there were people who didn't want to see the truth, people who want to remain blind to what's really happening out there. But she knew what she knew, and nothing I could say would change her mind.

Funny that she should mention blindness and not wanting to see.
I've been thinking a lot about eyesight lately. About blindness.
And macular regeneration.

I have blind spots. I have had them all life long.
My children are brilliant. They are excellent athletes.
My house is fantastic. Spacious and well built.
My church is made up of loving, kind, welcoming, generous people who love God and all God's people.
Except... my kids are also deeply flawed and would rather not have to work too hard if at all possible.
Except... my house has chipped paint and stained carpets and leaks and cracks and occasionally critters come in through those cracks. Yuck!
Except... my church and my seminary and my neighborhood and my family and my country are all made up of self-centered, self-involved, selfish people. By no means do I believe that I an free from any of those characteristics.

Macular degeneration is a disease where the macula, the middle section of the retina, the part that allows us to see what is right in front of us, is damaged. I've heard it said often - "She can't see what's right in front of her." I've experienced it often - I will be looking for my purse or my glasses or the thing I want to wear. I look high and low, between things, behind things. Then I stop and say a quick prayer - "Lord, please open my eyes so I can find it." When I open my eyes, there it is. Right in front of my face. How did I miss it? It was right there.

Macular degeneration - it's in front of me, but I can't see it.
I can't see the intentional experiments on unborn babies.
Nor can I see the classrooms where children are told to take off their clothes and touch each other.
Honestly, if that is happening, I don't want to see it. So she was right about that.

But here's what I do see.
I see brave people who are fighting with all their energy to create equitable educational opportunities for all children.
I see others who are quietly fighting to help the poor and disenfranchised to understand their rights and the power they have to control their own lives, through voting, through community organization, through entrepreneurship.
I see a friend walking with her wife through illness while together they raise several beautiful children.
I see one friend working to regain her self-confidence and her courage after the pain of divorce, while another one is trying to establish her self-confidence and courage while in the midst of a difficult marriage.
I see someone who works for the UN, helping desperate people find safety and security and hope.
I see school buses being filled with rice and beans and being shipped to Haiti to feed hungry people.
I see housing complexes being planned and built to provide places for the homeless to come in off the street.
I see a new facility here in Charlotte for people who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses to find help, support, and residential care if it is needed.
I see lawyers advocating for indigent clients, for those imprisoned unjustly, and for the abandoned.
I see friends recovering from harsh kanswer treatments.
I see parents who long to be both supportive and effective advocates for their suffering children.
I see black churches and white churches seeking ways to be one church, one united, beautiful, colorful, culture-full church.
It's right here in front of my face, and I see it.

Until recently, my macula had become cloudy with doubt about what is possible between people who say they love one another but cannot get along with each other.
My macula had become cloudy with despair about the growing distance between so many needy people and those who can offer assistance and support.
My macula had become cloudy with the fear that I would not see measurable change for the better in our city, in our churches, or in our home in my lifetime.

But thanks be to God - I am experiencing what I have termed "macular regeneration."
The clouds are lifting.
Connections are being made between individuals and groups that have struggled to find their way together in the past.
Healing is happening in broken relationships.
Barriers and walls are falling - barriers that divide people of different socio-economic groups, between different neighborhoods, between different congregations, between people of different languages and cultures.

We may not agree with one another's politics or faith claims or lifestyle choices.
Agreement in every area is not necessary.
What is necessary is the ability to see one another. To listen to one another.
To welcome one another. To walk one another home.
Even if home feels like it is one thousand miles in the other direction from the one we think we should be going in. Through valleys and shadows, through sickness and health, through protests and peace talks, through it all, we walk together. (please forgive the shameless plug for a group of awesome people I have the honor to call my friends) We have to walk together. If we don't walk together, all of us, there truly is no hope for any of us.

I don't like to think of myself as a conspiracy theorist.
Some of the connections I have heard people make are bizarre, truly bizarre.
I admit that I don't watch the news enough to say for sure whether some of the connections my friend tried to make earlier today are true.
I admit that there are some truths about our world that I don't want to see.
I am guilty of wanting to keep my head firmly buried in the sand on a lot of issues, some of them serious.
But one thing I refuse to believe or accept is the notion that our problems are too big to solve, that our divisions are too broad to bridge, and that our fears are too deep-seated to be uprooted. I have seen too much healing, too much forgiveness, too much hard work by too many people to give up or give in.

I don't know about you, but I'm gonna keep looking for and working towards macular regeneration.
In my immediate family, my extended family, my church family, my city, and beyond.
Quite frankly, I don't think I have any choice.
Because the alternative is despair.
The alternative is fear.
The alternative is blindness.
None of which are alternatives that I am willing to live with or in.

Macular regeneration.
Do you see what I mean?

Friday, October 14, 2016

Do you see what I see?

I got a new pair of glasses a couple of weeks ago. Progressives. Two eye appointments ago, back in 2014, I chose to get progressives. But since I'm near-sighted, I found myself taking my glasses off when I would read or work on my computer - both of which I do a lot. That year, I spent most of my time without my glasses on. The last time I got my eyes examined and got a new pair of glasses, I decided to get mono-vision glasses in my prescription for distance. I used them when I watched television and drove and went to the movies, you know, distance stuff. I had no choice but to take them off to read - but that was a challenge when I was at church or in seminary, places where I would have to look at people and screens a fair distance away, but also look down and take notes. On and off. On and off. Now I'm back to progressives - which are just a euphemistic name for bifocals, old people glasses. I'm getting old. Well, maybe I'm not getting old, but my eyes certainly are.

I like these new glasses, but it took me a few days to get used to them. The first full day that I wore them, I felt slightly nauseous all day. It was late in the afternoon before I figured out that my eyes and brain were struggling with this new way of seeing the world. It felt like I was on a boat out at sea. All day long. I'm more accustomed to them - but I must confess that I have started to take them off again when I'm reading or on the computer. Like right now, as I type, I don't have my glasses on.

Anyway, I've got these new glasses. I see my world, my house, my neighborhood, and I even see myself in the mirror more clearly with these new glasses. I am enormously grateful for the clearer vision they have provided. I am grateful for the doctors and nurses and technicians and engineers who understand the angles and curves and functions of the nerves and cells and components of the human eye and who have created glasses and contacts and anti-glare coatings and all the other gadgets and gizmos that make it possible for those of us with aging eyes and imperfect eyes to see better.

Someone I love had surgery a few years ago to remove cataracts. It was like a curtain had been removed from in front of her. Her blurry vision cleared completely. That same person has glaucoma and has to put drops into her eyes every day. We both hope and pray that the drops continue to keep the pressure in her eyes low enough so that she does not deal with any of the irreversible loss of sight that glaucoma can cause.

Two people I love are dealing with macular degeneration - the blurring of the macula, the central part of the retina at the back of the eyeball, which causes the loss of sight in the center of their field of vision. I know someone who can't look straight at you - she has to turn her head to the side in order to see straight ahead. I think she is dealing with macular degeneration or something very similar to that.

When I was in elementary school, there were two or three children there who were blind. I volunteered to help them get around the classroom and the school, and in exchange, I got to hang out with the most interesting kids in school. They taught me how to read and write in braille. They let me eat with them and hang out with them in the school yard and marvel at the development of their other senses. Around that same time, my father used to drive blind people back and forth from Brooklyn to the New York School for the Blind in Manhattan. During the summer months, I would ride along with him. The men and women he drove were fascinating to me. I wondered how they got dressed without seeing their clothes. I wondered how they kept their homes clean, how they organized their wallets, how they knew where anything was. I didn't know enough not to ask dozens of questions. When we arrived at the homes of the passengers, I would hop out of the van, go greet them outside their homes, offer them my arm, and walk them to the van. When we arrived at their school, I would open the van door and escort them one by one from the van to the door of the building. From there, they could figure out where they needed to go. I watched their every move with unabashed awe. I'm glad they couldn't see how much I stared at them, but I would imagine they sensed it in some other way.

One day when I was ten or eleven years old, one of the women took hold of my elbow and as we walked towards the entrance to the school, she said, "You are going to grow up to be very tall." I asked her how she could tell, and she said, "I can tell by how the bones in your arm feel." Amazing.

The human eye, the gift of sight, the ability to compensate for the loss of one's sight through other brain patterns - it's amazing.

All of which has gotten me thinking...

What are a few of the things right in front of me that I do not see?
The beauty of fallen leaves - even when they clog our gutters
the resilience of my aging and scarred body
the courage of my young adult children
the loyalty of my hard-working husband.

Where is pressure building up within and behind my eyeballs?
The pressure to get good grades in seminary
to not offend people when they said offensive things
to be kind and nice and happy all the time
to have a solution whenever someone shares a problem with me.

Where is my vision getting blurry?
And what is it going to take to clear up the blurriness?
Am I willing to get my emotional, spiritual, relational eyes checked?
Whose opinion about the state of my mental health do I trust?
Whose diagnosis and prognosis would I accept as reasonable and valid?
What steps am I willing to take to improve my vision?
Am I willing to wear progressives, to take gradual steps towards clarity?
What if I feel dizzy, uncertain, unsteady on this new path, this new life journey?
Am I willing to be vulnerable enough to truth the guidance of others,
people I can't even see?

Whose unexplained but undeniable insight do I trust?
Who are the marginalized, the overlooked, the outcasts in my world -
and how much time do I spend at their feet, learning from them?
Who has invited me into their world, into their situation, and shown me how much I am missing, even though I think I am the "fortunate" one?

I am reminded of the stories in the gospels of Jesus healing people who were blind.
More than once, Jesus asked this question: "What do you want me to do for you?"
I want to see.
I want to see again.
I want to be whole.

Holy One, I want to see.
Please open my eyes.
Open the eyes of my heart.
To see love, beauty, power, and hope in everyone I meet.
To see your image in everyone I meet.
I want to see you.

"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I'm found,
was blind, but now I see."

So be it, Lord. So be it.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Thankful Thursday - Hard Discussions

Too many people that I know and love are dealing with kanswer. We have had hard discussions about kanswer treatment and the future.

Parents I know are dealing with struggles with their children. College issues. Drug and alcohol issues. Relationship issues with the other parent or with siblings or significant others. Every day, we parents are having hard discussions about hard issues.

After a Bible study this morning, I stood with a pastor friend, and we had a hard discussion about race and complicity and silence in the church and why we need to have more hard discussions.

At the home of friends from church, my husband and I joined a group of other friends from church, and we had a hard discussion tonight about protests and justice and church and challenging sermons and what we can do to make a difference in our city and in our nation.

At seminary, we are reading about black theology and white theology and liberation theology and flawed theology and who gets to decide what is and what isn't flawed theology. These are hard discussions.

Cops and Barbers is a group that brings together community members here in Charlotte and police officers. To talk. To get to know one another. To hash out challenging topics. Their hard discussions began long before the recent events here in Charlotte and are still going on.

It's hard to talk about hard things.
But as so many people say these days, "We can do hard things."
We have to do hard things.
If we are going to survive as a family,
as a church,
as a city,
as a nation,
as a world,
then we have to be willing to have hard conversations.
And we have to be willing to do hard work.
We have to talk. We have to listen to one another.
We have to walk together. We have to work together.
We have to be willing to be wrong and to be called out for our wrongheadedness.
We have to confess where and when we have been wrong in the past, whether it is our own actions or the actions of our forebears and ancestors.
We have to be willing to change our minds and our vocabulary and our relationships.

I am grateful for these hard conversations.
I am grateful for the ways that our confusion is forcing us into more frequent interaction with one another.
I am grateful for the uncomfortable moments that are arising, the questions, and the uncertainty.
I am grateful because people who have never talked about race and racism before are having hard conversations now.
I am grateful because people who have called for justice and fairness are finally being heard.

I hate the stories that have brought us here.
The legacy of slavery, segregation, and hatred.
Segregation. Lynching. A profoundly biased criminal justice system.
Poverty. Injustice. Hopelessness. Fear. Anger. Despair.
Homophobia. Xenophobia.
Lack of adequate education. Willful ignorance. Unconscious bias.
Intentional oppression. Unintentional microaggressions.

But I am grateful for the legacies of hope and strength that sustain those who continue to fight the good fight for peace and righteousness and healing.
I am grateful for the newfound courage and renewed determination to do the hard things, to have the hard conversations, to ask the hard questions, and live into the hard truths that we are being forced to face.

The way forward will be with a broken heart - as Alice Walker wrote.
The way forward will certainly be with heavy hearts.
But I hope, I pray, that the way forward will also be with hopeful hearts.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Thankful Thursday

Where do I begin? At the beginning. At the source.
Thanks be to God.
Thanks to my friends and family and classmates and professors.

I am one month away from the four year anniversary of my kanswer diagnosis.
Which is (almost) mind-blowing to me - how can four years have passed already?
I am grateful for how well I feel and how strong I feel every day.
Kanswer sucks and so does kanswer treatment. I am grateful for every chance I get to share hope and encouragement with others who are on their own kanswer journeys.

I am three days away from visiting a young 30-something year old who was diagnosed with kanswer almost two years ago. She had three small children at the time - and was diagnosed with breast and ovarian kanswer. Miraculously, truly miraculously, she came through the treatment extremely well and strong... so strong that she and her husband now have a fourth child. In three days, I will go spend some time with them and meet that brand new baby girl. When my friend discovered she was pregnant, she was advised to terminate the pregnancy because the hormonal changes could bring on a recurrence of the aggressive kanswer she had just gotten through. A few times when she has posted photos of her gorgeous baby on Facebook, she refers to the day and the moment when she chose the life of that precious little girl over her own. There are many, many hundreds of people (if not thousands!) who are glad that they are both alive and well, thriving and bursting with joy. I can't wait to hold that chubby little one in my arms. She's quite chunky and juicy - and her mother appropriately calls her "Squish."
I am grateful for the miracle that is every newborn baby.

I am grateful for apple orchards, fresh pressed apple cider, and hot apple donuts.
I am grateful for olive oil, coconut oil, and canola oil - and all the delicious foods made with them.
I am grateful for gas stations with gas. We have had gas shortages here in Charlotte more than once in the past few years - and it is a disconcerting thing to not know when gas will be available again.

I am grateful for excellent customer service. Last week, I had to call Directv because we were having trouble with our service after a strong storm had passed through the area. The woman I spoke to walked me through resetting our system and together we resolved the issue. As she diagnosed the problem, we shared stories about our kanswer journeys (she had a brain tumor a few years ago) and laughed and groaned and wished each other well. And then she offered us an update to our system at no cost; as it turns out, being a long term customer of an overpriced entertainment system sometimes has its benefits.

I am grateful for the opportunity to volunteer at the Loaves and Fishes food pantry again today.
I am grateful for the other volunteers, for our camaraderie, for the laughter we share, and for the compassion we feel for those who come and request assistance.
I am grateful for the chance to talk briefly with the four year old twins who came in with their mom. With matching outfits and braids. Energy and smiles.
I am grateful for the woman who promised that the next time she came, she would be bringing food to donate.
I am grateful for the supermarkets, the private donors, and the individuals that donate food to the pantry.
I am grateful to my church for providing the space for the largest Loaves and Fishes distribution site in our city.
I am grateful that I was able to use my Spanish to assist two beautiful, pregnant Guatemalan women who came. One said she was shocked that I could speak Spanish so well. It still shocks me.

Speaking of Spanish and Spain... I am grateful for the memories of my first visit to Spain thirty years ago right now. It was the first semester of my senior year in college and I studied in Madrid for four months. Those four months transformed the way I think about travel, about language, about being alone, about exploring cities, about courage, about the Catholic faith, and about being grateful for the ordinary things I too frequently took for granted. Like food and shelter, like public transportation and snail mail. I am sooooooooo grateful for Spain, for the many times I have been able to return since 1986, and for my Spanish friends, who are much more like family.

A couple of weeks ago, I was an angry black woman.
I'm still pretty angry about all those same things.
But tonight I am also a grateful black woman.
I am grateful that my city is calm again.
I am grateful that the intersections where fires were started and windows were broken have been cleaned up.
I am grateful for the members of the clergy and other concerned citizens returned to the place where the young man was shot during the protests to pray and reconsecrate the ground where his blood was shed.
I am grateful for the fiercely courageous people who put themselves between protestors and the police, who begged for calm, who sang, who linked arms with strangers in walls of protection, who took photos and made videos of what was really happening on the streets, and who continue to do so.
I am grateful for the prayer vigils, church services, peaceful marches, and other gatherings that have happened and are still being planned here in Charlotte.
I am grateful for how the hard work of healing is pulling so many people together. This is the work that doesn't get televised. This is the work that ignorant people say must be done before they will concede that black lives matter. This is the work that fear-mongerers and hate-mongerers deny in order to keep fear and hate alive. This is the very work that the "friend" of a Facebook friend said isn't happening, even though I posted links and photos proving that it is happening. And this is the work that has been happening in this city for a long time. It didn't start after Mr. Scott was murdered.
I am grateful that the anger that drove the protestors to the streets two weeks ago is being channeled into deeper conversations about race and segregation, about justice and peace, about how to not just go back to the ways things used to be.
I am grateful for the conversations I have had with people in their 80s, 60s, 40s, 20s and everywhere in between about how to make friends across racial lines, how to respond (and not respond) to racist comments, and how to not lose their composure when conversations go poorly.
I am grateful for hope.
I am grateful that love is already winning.

I am four weeks, almost five weeks, into my second year of seminary.
I know beyond a shadow of doubt that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
Asking questions. Not finding too many answers.
Being pushed to rethink everything I thought I knew about the Bible,
about theology, about the church, about this country.
Being pushed to push back against the things my professors say and the things that other students say.
Being pushed to examine my places of privilege - marital privilege, heterosexual privilege, socio-economic privilege, educational privilege.
Being pushed to recognize that I hide in my comfortable life a lot. I talk a big game about equality and justice and racism and prejudice, but what am I doing to change the system within which I live quite comfortably?
I am grateful for the discomfort I feel and for the knowledge that it's never going away completely.
I am grateful that the seminary has not shied away from talking about what has been happening here in Charlotte. I am grateful for the obvious discomfort that some of my classmates have experienced, because we can't fix what we don't admit is wrong. We can't serve our city and our churches with any efficacy if we cannot talk about race and racism. We are in the south. We are in North Carolina. We have race problems here. If we, as ministers and church leaders, aren't willing to wade into these deep socially and politically dangerous waters, then I'm not sure we should be ministers. Not in the 21st century. Not in a country that is threatening to elect a man who is openly sexist, racist, xenophobic, and not ashamed of any of those things as our president.

I could go on and on and on.
In my heart, my mind, and my journal, I will go on.
But I will stop here.

One more thing - thanks be to God.

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Three-Church Sunday

Yesterday morning, my daughter and I attended three different churches. We started at our home church, First Presbyterian Church, a predominantly white church here in Charlotte, at the 9 am service where my heart was deeply touched and my spirit fed by the senior pastor's powerful sermon about prayer and suffering, about our responsibility as people of God and his responsibility as a white person, in particular, to be people of peace, love, faith, and reconciliation. 

After his sermon, we left for Sunday school at First United Presbyterian Church, a predominantly African American church, where they are in the middle of a series of classes related to the Belhar Confession and the Confession of 1967. The Belhar Confession was written in response to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s. The writers of that confession intended it to confirm their faith in God, the authority of God's law, and the need for Christians to obey the law of God rather than the laws and teachings of the German state, especially where those laws contradicted the teachings of Scripture and sought to dictate the life and actions of the church. The Confession of 1967 was written in response to the injustices prevalent in this nation during the time of Jim Crow and segregation and all other racially motivated wrongdoing. The continued relevance of those confessions more than 50 years later reminds us that there is much work to be done, much healing to be experienced, and many barriers to be taken down so that we can be reconciled with one another. 

After the SS class, we went back to FPC for the baptism of the grand-daughter of one of my church friends - how timely it was, after the week we've had here in Charlotte, a week in which division and fear have driven people apart yet again, that the baby baptized and welcomed into the family of God and the faith family of our church today was a beautiful little African American girl. 

On our way home, my daughter and I decided to visit Caldwell Presbyterian Church - where the Pastor used the time of his sermon to open the mike, as it were, for the people of the congregation to speak words of grief and hope, sorrow and truth after the events of this week. Then the mayor of Charlotte added her voice to calls for reconciliation and unity in the city. Following the service, Kristiana and I joined that welcoming, loving congregation for a potluck lunch.

Do you hear a theme running through all of this? The work of reconciliation in the family of God, in the church of Jesus Christ in this broken, beautiful, hurting and hopeful city. At three different Presbyterian churches, we saw gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor, republican and democrat, and many who don’t fit neatly into any of those categories - together, singing, praying, and being baptized into the family of our great and merciful God.

It would be easy for us to think that we as individuals have done nothing wrong, nothing to cause the division that became painfully and angrily evident in our city this week or in our nation over these past few years. It would be easy for each of us to think, "I’m not part of the problem, I’m not part of the group of agitators that has sown seeds of fear and hatred in the aftermath of Tuesday’s tragic shooting." And that may be true, but I don't think we can let ourselves off the hook that easily. 

One of the mainstays in our Presbyterian liturgy is our time of confession. We read responsively and as one voice words of confession of sin, sins of thought, word, and deed. I must say that there are times when I read those words of confession aloud with the congregation, but inwardly I recoil and think - “I didn’t do that. I didn’t act that way.” Whether or not we have committed the specific sin being confessed, we pray those words on behalf of ourselves and others. We pray those words as a part of the ongoing work of being reconciled with God and one another after we wander away from the work God has called us to do. 

In his book, Fear of the Other, William Willimon, former bishop in the United Methodist Church, says this, “Christians, on the basis of the great grace we have received from Christ, are always apologizing, confessing, repenting.” 

There is a lot of apologizing, confessing, and repenting that is needed.
I almost ended that sentence with, "in our city and our nation."
But it's broader than that, and it is also narrower than that.
We need to apologize, confess, and repent before God, before ourselves, before those we don't know, and before those yet to be born.

Do we not need to apologize, confess, and repent for:
* the damage we do to our planet, to our future, and to the future of our children with the chemicals and poisons we spray so freely and frequently on our lawns, trees, fruit, vegetables, and soil?
* our unwillingness to take seriously the repercussions of our way of life? the size of our houses and the number of our cars, the overabundance of clothing and shoes we own, the staggering percentage of our food that we discard, the number of paper towels and paper napkins, disposable cups and plates we have donated to landfill, most of which will never decompose?
* the ease with which we shrug our shoulders and just head back to the mall for more stuff we don't need given to us in plastic bags we don't reuse while sipping excessively sweet drinks from plastic cups that will be in plastic bags in landfills for many, many, many years?
* the ways in which we perpetuate fear and anger and hatred against others, against anybody and everybody we don't understand? people of other religions, other language groups, other nations, other customs? people who don't look like us or think the way we think? 
* our willful silence when we hear and see people we know and love do and say things that we know are wrong or racist or sexist or homophobic or xenophobic?
* our indifference towards the suffering of the homeless and poor, the weak and infirm, the imprisoned, as well as refugees who are victims of undeserved violent acts at the hand of the state? 
* our willful blindness when we are confronted with evidence that contradicts our strongly held beliefs about other people - and about ourselves?

Last night, I went back to my church for a meeting of the elders. I participated in that meeting by reading something I wrote about reconciliation and building the beloved community here in Charlotte and included a description of my three-church-morning. As some of us made our way out of the church at the end of the evening, one of my friends said something like, "I'm worried about you, Gail. Three churches in one day? We've gotta keep an eye on you..." I responded, "It's an addiction, brother. It's an addiction." We all laughed as we made our way out into the darkness of the downtown area of this city we all love - just one block from where so many of last week's protests were concentrated. I know the hundreds of National Guard soldiers and police officers patrolling the streets had a lot to do with that. I also know that the thousands of people praying and preaching and talking about and taking the leadership related to peace, real peace, the peace that we have to work relentlessly to create and maintain had a lot to do with that as well. I know that discussions like the one we had just concluded, hard discussions, uncomfortable discussions, at seminaries like the one I attend, at white churches, at black churches, at other churches that more accurately reflect the diversity of the city and the church of Jesus Christ are having an impact as well. I know that the work of people of every faith and people who claim no religious affiliation or interest at all - all the work that is being done towards peace, wholeness, reconciliation, and connection, it is all making a difference. I felt it all day yesterday. I felt it last night. 

The work that is ahead of us is staggeringly challenging.
The work that must be done within each of us is too.
But if what I saw at the three churches my daughter and I visited yesterday is any indication,
if the videos I have seen posted on Facebook by my friends, videos of peaceful people talking to and hugging police officers and National Guards, videos of choirs singing in the streets of Charlotte, are any indication, if the work being done to challenge the imbalances and injustice embedded within our city's public school system is any indication, then we have reason for hope.
It won't be easy. It won't be quick. It certainly won't make the news.
But every act of mercy, every act of kindness,
every act of forgiveness and reconciliation,
every apology offered, every pardon granted,
every friendship that develops across boundary lines that have been established to keep people apart,
each one will be a brick, not thrown through at a person or through a window,
but rather a brick that forms part of the foundation, the piles, the decking, 
every part of the bridge we so desperately need to connect us one to another. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tonight I am an angry black woman

I am so sick and so tired of seeing black men gunned down in the streets of our nation.
I am so sick and tired of seeing men who look like my brothers, my nephews, my son,
and the sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers of people I know and love
shot and killed by people who have sworn to protect them, to protect all of us.

I am so sick and tired of all the killing.
The excuses.
The explanations.
The rationalizing.
"If only he had/hadn't ________________, he wouldn't have been shot."
Haven't we seen every permutation?
Armed. Unarmed. Compliant. Non-compliant. Standing. Laying on the ground.
In their cars. Outside of their cars. Walking. Running. Silent. Belligerent.
Reaching for their license. Reaching for registration.
Asking for help. Pleading for breath.
Selling CDs. Selling cigarettes. Teenagers. Pre-teens. Adults.
Dead. Dead. Dead.
With the notable exception of the teacher who was intervening for a student with autism.

Just stop shooting black people.
Stop killing black people.

Cuz even if he does have a gun, a real gun and not a toy gun,
even if there are weapons or drugs in the car,
even if he doesn't comply with the command to prostrate himself on the street,
even if he is drunk or high,
even if he is a thief,
even if all those things are true,
(by the way, in most of these public cases, none of those things turn out to be true)
no one deserves to be shot and killed the way these men are being shot and killed.
Left to bleed out on the street or in their vehicles.
Without medical aid or CPR or assistance of any kind.
Why not start with the taser?
Why not shoot in the legs?

Oh wait, they did shoot the teacher in the leg. The teacher who was on the ground with his hands up in the air, pleading for his life and the life of his student. That guy still got shot.

Just stop shooting people.
Stop killing people.

I know I've posted this link before. But the song means more and more as the years pass.

We who believe in freedom cannot rest. 
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes -
until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, 
is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons.

People, go stand in front of a mirror or pull out a journal and talk to yourself about how you feel about black people and black men in particular. What comes to mind when you think about your personal interactions with black people? If you don't have any interactions with black people or anyone who doesn't look like you on a daily basis, then that's part of the problem - ignorance.
Not knowing. Not being exposed to people who aren't like you.
That needs to change. Period.

Then talk to your neighbors about your fear and their fear and your racism and their racism.
Talk to your families. Talk to your spouses and your children.
Be honest about your prejudices, your privileges, and your pride.
Tell the truth about the ways in which you have diminished the value of the lives of other people.
People who don't look like you. People who don't live the way you live.
People whose sexuality, country of origin, first language, manner of dress, or religion don't match yours.
People you dismiss, disregard, disdain.
People whose public executions no longer move you or make you angry.

Think about it. Talk about it. Journal about it.
And then do something.
Stand up. Speak up. Stand out. Speak out.
Let your voice be heard - this shit is just not right. Not right.
Enough is enough.
If any of this is going to change, it has to start with me. It has to start with you.
Right now. Tonight. Think. Ask yourself hard questions. Seek difficult answers.
Make a plan. No excuses.
Enough is enough.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Water water everywhere

About an hour ago, I was seated at our dining room table working on a project. My daughter came in from babysitting and informed me that a fire hydrant just up the street from us was on. Gushing water. There was a truck there with workers doing something or other, and water was running down the street. She declared that she was going to walk up and wet her feet in the water.

Immediately, I closed my computer, abandoned my project, and joined her and our teeny tiny dog on a wet adventure. I was the first one out of my flip flops, and I plunged my feet into the narrow stream. Perfection. I dropped my head back and laughed out loud.

How many times have I read and heard about the importance of allowing my feet to touch the earth, the grass, and the dirt? To be fully grounded on this planet of ours? Well, I'm not doing that. Not with all the ants making anthills in the grass and all the chemicals that are spread all over our lawns. (Please forgive us, Lord, for the myriad ways in which we poison the very earth beneath our feet.)

This afternoon, I put my feet in that water and I kicked it up on the lawn of the house we were standing in front of. I splashed it onto my dog - who was obviously as happy to be wet as my daughter and I were. All the people who drove past us smiled broadly at us. I bet they were jealous of how much fun we were having. A couple walked past with their dog and told us that it looked like we were having fun. But they didn't take off their shoes. They didn't step into the magnificence of that abundant flow. Too bad for them.

I worry about water. Drought. Flooding. Melting glaciers. Rising sea levels. Busted pipes. Aging water heaters.
And what about the residents of Flint, Michigan? Subjected to some politician's bad idea about how to save money by getting water from a different river. Complaints were lodged for months. None were taken seriously. Bottled water. Filtered water. What about people who can light their water on fire because of fracking and other industrial experiments that use unwitting citizens as their canaries, their guinea pigs?
What does it feel like to be afraid of your tap water?
Water water everywhere. Except when there isn't any water anywhere.
Or the water you have access to is too dangerous to drink.

Earlier this summer, I went on a silent retreat. My third visit to The Jesuit Center.
I should write about those eight blissful, tearful, beautiful, wonder-filled days of prayer and journaling.
Anyway, there were two women on the retreat who, when they brushed their teeth,

The first time, I chalked it up as a fluke, convinced that she was the only person in the nation who practiced such a wantonly wasteful habit.
The second time, I nearly screamed.
Different woman. Different age bracket. Different race. Same horrendous act of excess.
I was grateful that we were in silence, or I might have said something mean and insulting.
I was incredulous that there are still people who let the water run,
waste that precious life-sustaining resource while they brush their teeth.

After the second sighting, I took a few deep breaths and asked myself, "Why do you think you saw this twice, Gail? What are you supposed to learn from this double take?"
Almost immediately it came to me: Abundance. Provision. I have been blessed with so much in my life. Beyond all my imagining and dreams. Even though I can be so frugal, with money, with water, with food, with my love - there is abundance all around me. Be grateful, Gail. Give thanks.

Thankfully, I didn't see either of those two women or any one else repeat their water wasting offense.

Today, standing in that water, I thought about the drought we have been experiencing here in the South. I thought about wildfires out west. I thought about people all over the world who would have been incredulous at the intentional, unrestrained release of that liquid gold, from the fire hydrant directly to the gutter. For a split second, I asked God to forgive us for airing out the water line or rebuilding the pressure or whatever else the workers were doing. And then I went back to splashing water and waving at my jealous neighbors.

Friday, September 09, 2016

School's Back from Summer

The bulletin board in the front hallway at a school I visited last week

The school year has begun for most students in the US.
Supplies have been picked over at Target and Walmart and Staples.
School uniforms still look fresh and new.
Teachers are still energized and excited about their lessons.
White boards are still white.
Textbook pages are still tight and unstained.

Even as a homeschooling mom, never granted a break from my kids all year round (except for my escapes across the sea to my beloved Spain), I looked forward to this time of year. New pencils and erasers. New planning books. Computers lined up. The printer filled with unwrinkled paper and fresh ink cartridges. Renewed hopes that I would become an enthusiastic cook and organized instructor. Hopes that were inevitably dashed within the first two or three weeks of the year - but I was incurably optimistic every fall.

Last Monday, August 29th, I spent over an hour welcoming students into the cafeteria of the Westerly Hills Academy here in Charlotte, a high poverty public school that serves both elementary and middle school aged children. Every weekday morning, students arrive at school between 7:30 and 8:00 am for breakfast. Classes begin at 8:15. Along with a gaggle of other volunteers, I sat in the lunchroom giving students their meal codes, the number they would give to the cashiers in order to have their meals provided for them all year long.

Crisp white shirts. Khaki pants. Blue pants. Sweaters.
Hair in braids or curls. Beads and ribbons.
Mothers and fathers accompanied some.
Others wandered in by themselves.
An entire family dropped off the oldest sibling. The youngest child in that family cried vigorously as they left.
Mostly smiles and excitement about being in school that first day.
Some sad, nervous, unsure expressions.

One little boy took his number from me and, as he walked away, tears welled up in his deep brown eyes. Based on his name, I made the assumption that he was Latino, so I switched over to Spanish. When I asked him if he needed help, his eyes brightened momentarily, then he shook his head somberly as he took his leave. A moment or two after he sat down to eat his morning meal, I noticed a man who looked like he was the child's father sit down beside him at the table. At that point, the little guy lost his composure completely. The tears that brimmed his eyes cascaded down his cheeks in torrents. The man rubbed his back and spoke tenderly to him. One of the teachers sat down on the other side of the young student and whispered assurances of her own. As the three of them made their way out into the hallway, presumably to take the first grader to his classroom, I wished him a happy first day and a great year in first grade.

I toyed with the idea of keeping the multi-page handout with all the children's names, grades, and lunchroom codes. That list would have served as a prayer guide for me all year. So many names and faces. So many stories. So much need. So much need. I decided to err on the side of respecting the privacy of the students and left the sheets there. I can and will still pray for those precious children as they work their way through their studies, their fears, and their many challenges. I don't need to know their names. God already does.

Tomorrow morning a new set of new students will begin a new school year.
Tomorrow I go back to seminary for my second year of study.
Tomorrow a new cohort of seminarians will join the journey.
I don't expect there will be many crisp white shirts - other than those on the professors.
There won't be many pairs of khakis either.
And no one will be given a meal voucher code to use at a cash register.

But we will all arrive with our own adult fears and challenges.
We will hide tears - although some will probably shed a few. Myself included.
We will disagree with other students.
We will disagree with our professors.
We will wonder how we could ever have been so naive about so much related to our Christian faith.
We will question and we will doubt much of what we have heard in church all our lives.

And then we will try to figure out whether and how any of these readings and discussions affect the ways in which we live and move in the world, the ways in which we interact with those whose faith is not our own. Those whose lives do not parallel our own. Those whose stories we cannot possibly fathom. We will wrestle with whether our understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ really is good news for the world - and if it is, how do we share that good news? We will wonder aloud about just how much we have corrupted that good news and tried to make it good North American news or good Protestant news or good Presbyterian news or some exclusive form of good news that only the chosen few (us, of course) can understand and benefit from.
There will be blood, sweat, and tears.
And I cannot wait to get there and wade into the fray.
Theology 1 and New Testament 1 - here I come!

School's back from summer.

One of my favorite books of prayer is The Book of a Thousand Prayers, compiled by Angela Ashwin.
This prayer was taken from that book. I have modified it, making it personal by adding "we" and "us."

Grant, Lord, to all of us who study and those who teach us,
the grace to love that which is worth loving,
to know that which is worth knowing,
to value what is most precious to you,
and to reject whatever is evil in your eyes.
Give us a true sense of judgement,
and the wisdom
to see beneath the surface of things.
Above all, may we search out and do
what is pleasing to you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
after Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)

Can I ask a favor of you? Whenever you see a school bus, when you see students on public transportation, when you see students being dropped off by weary and wary parents at school, when you see students walking or biking or skateboarding to school, would you say a prayer for all students everywhere? For enough textbooks and notebooks. For passionate and compassionate teachers. For enough food to eat not only during the school day, but also over the weekend when one or two meals per day are not provided by the school. For safety and security at home. For hope in their future. For peace.

I know there are millions, perhaps billions of school-age children in need around the world. I remember the children I saw in the cities, towns, and villages of Haiti, in their brightly colored uniforms, intently pushing their way through traffic and crowds, through fields and down rocky narrow paths to school. Very few of them are likely to leave their villages for college or for a better life. But each of them, all of them deserve just that - a better life. Praying for all children everywhere is a big ask, I realize, but I believe in a big God.

I remember the faces of children in the ironically named "Paradise" in Nicaragua, in Sevilla in Spain, and the faces I saw at Westerly Hills last week. I remember their bright and fear-filled eyes. I remember their ready smiles and their nervous giggles. I remember seeing glimmers of hope in spite of the tremendous and mounting odds that are not ever in their favor. Will you join me in praying for them?

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Thankful Thursday

Don't let my silence fool you.
Don't let my lack of Thankful Thursday posts fool you.
Gratitude overflows down here in Charlotte.

Flipping back through my journal tonight, I found things like this:

"I just ate a delicious peach. Lord, thank you for its delightful deliciousness."

"My son is leaving  for college tomorrow. Lord, in your mercy, please protect my beloved child. Your beloved child. In whom we are both very well pleased. Thank you for the gift that he is and has been for us. I will miss him, but I know this is good."

I described an encounter I had with a little girl at an outdoor children's science museum. She was probably five years old or so. She approached me and commented, "I like your earrings. Are you a mama?" I responded: "Thank you. Yes, I am a mama, but I don't have my children with me today." As I walked away with my friend and her son, I turned and bid her farewell. She turned to me with confusion on her face and set me straight by clarifying: "I'm not leaving." So sweet.

One of the highlights of this summer for me was watching the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Certainly there were many issues and problems and fears. Would there be proper facilities? Would the athletes be safe? Would there be terrible traffic issues? I kept thinking about all the years of hard work, the years of not having dessert, the hundreds of competitions and practices and tryouts, the miles traveled, the money spent. How did the equestrian competitors get their horses to Rio? I wondered about the athletes who trained for years in their chosen discipline, were sponsored by their families, friends, and countries, arrived in Rio and lost their first race. Truly they were "one and done." I thought about those had a false start in a racing event - and never got to even run their races. I watched athletes weep with joy and gratitude at the end of events. I watched others weep because of injuries. So much passion. So much courage. So much joy. So much wonder. I am grateful to have been a witness to it. I am grateful that there were no terrorist acts. I am even grateful for the Ryan Lochte foolishness because of all the conversations around white privilege that have come out of that series of idiotic events.

The man who won the 400 meter track and field race is from South Africa. That young man's mother was a world class athlete earlier in her life, but she was never permitted to represent the country internationally because she was (and is) a woman of color in a nation governed by the brutal and racist system of apartheid. Anyway, for those who are not familiar with track and field, the 400 meter race is one of the toughest. It is a full lap around the track, run at top speed. The longest sprint. One of the most painful races a track athlete can run. The athletes who compete in that race stay in their lanes the whole way around the track, so they have what's called a staggered start. They begin the race a yard or two away from each other. Lane 1 is the inside lane, the one closest to the infield, and the runner in lane one begins the race with all the other runners further ahead on the track. Lane 8 is the outside lane. The runner out there cannot see any of the other competitors when the race begins. The athletes placed in lanes 1 and 8 in a final heat are only rarely in contention to win the race.

For the first time in Olympic history, the winner of the 400 meter race was in lane 8. Not only did he win the race, but also he set a new world record. He ran the entire race without ever seeing any of his competitors on the track. He led the way from start to finish.

And that got me to thinking and wondering - how hard is it to keep going, to keep running as fast as you can, even when you don't know where the other guys are and whether they are catching up to you? How do you press on and do what you know you need to do, even when there is no one else to push you and keep you motivated? Where does that inner strength come from? I am grateful for the lessons and questions and hope and excitement the Olympic games brought to my life this summer.

I had the tremendous honor and responsibility of participating in the baptism of the daughter of a dear friend of mine. To stand with their family, to present her for baptism, to ask the congregation to commit themselves to teach her and walk with her and "strengthen her family ties with the household of faith" was one of the highlights of my summer, of my year. I love that little girl and her entire family. Her mother and I are soul-sister friends. I am grateful for my church family and for the deep friendships I have with people there. I am grateful for the welcome my family and I have received there and for the many opportunities to use my gifts, to teach, to preach, to ask questions, to listen, and to love these co-travelers on my faith journey.

Standing in my study recently, I pulled out a few journals, both my regular journals and my travel journals as well. Flipped through a few pages. Reread a few pages. Looked at stickers and ticket stubs and magazine clippings tucked between pages. I have met some fabulous people in my life. I have traveled to beautiful and devastated places. I have laughed and wept. I have been blessed going out and blessed coming in. For all of that, I am grateful. For the journals that record so much of it, I am grateful. For the bookshelves, the walls, the roof, the floor, for this home we have, I am grateful.

For life and breath, for hope and joy, for strong shoulders I can cry on, for my husband's ability to make me laugh, for my daughter's cooking, for my adorable little dog, for our new neighbors, for my ongoing friendship with the neighbors who moved away, for x-rays and band-aids, for my reliable car, for silence, for prayer, for the love of God, family, friends, for all of this, I am grateful.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Goodness of Life

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a favorite author whose every published word found its way into my hands and my heart. After reading one of her books for a college English class, I remember leaving my dorm and running, literally running, to the bookstore in my tiny college town to buy more of her books. An African-American female writer whose books are commonly assigned in high school and college classes, she became a mentor to me, a guide on the path towards understanding myself as a woman of color in the United States. She writes about black women's bodies and hair. She writes about our relationships with our own daughters as well as the men in our lives. She writes about travel and music and cooking and love and loss and flowers - and does so with a passion and expressiveness that enthrall me still.

I have never met her in person, but I dialogued with her books for years. I still do.
In those early years, when I closed the covers of her books, I sighed. Deep sighs of longing.
Longing to meet her. To sit under her teaching. To look into her eyes. To watch her cook.
To learn from her interactions with her friends, her neighbors, and her daughter.

Although I never met her, in the early 1990s, I met her daughter. Back in the days before computers. email, text messages, and Facebook were all the rage, her daughter and I became pen-pals after I wrote her a letter in response to a magazine article she had written. Letters and postcards flew between us. I drove to the college she attended and met her in person. Not long after that, I flew out to California to visit my then-boyfriend (now husband) who was working out west. My favorite author and her daughter lived in northern California at the time. The daughter invited me to drive up to the house and hang out for a day.

What? Me? Your house? Your mother's house?
I went. With great excitement and trepidation.
The house was beautiful, peaceful, joyful.
It smelled of incense and essential oil and spicy food.
She and I talked and laughed and ate our way through the day.
With great sadness, I said good-bye to her and drove the three hours back to San Francisco.

A few months later, much to my shock, amazement, and surprise, I received an engraved invitation from her and her mother. They were hosting an annual gathering of friends and other loved ones to celebrate "The Goodness of Life." And I was invited! I received the invitation two or three years in a row.

Looking back in shock, amazement, and surprise through my memories, I confess that I never went to the parties. Was I too cheap to buy the plane ticket and find a nearby hotel? Did I really forfeit the chance to meet her mother, one of my favorite authors, at her own house, surrounded by their friends, as one of her invited guests - all because I didn't want to spend a few hundred dollars? Yes and yes.

My friend, the prize-winning author's daughter, has since become quite famous in her own right. She is a widely read author, an internationally renowned speaker, a mother, a teacher, an actor, and more than all that, she is a woman of strength, courage, intelligence, and breath-taking beauty both inside and out. We have fallen out of contact. But I still google her and read her writing. I follow her on Instagram and marvel at just how fabulous a woman she is.

Even though I never attended their parties, the name stuck: "The Goodness of Life."

For years, that was the theme and subtitle of all my journals; even on the pages soaked in my tears, I kept a record of the goodness of life. Life isn't always good or easy or pleasant. But there is always goodness to be found if I look. There is always something worthy of gratitude and celebration - at least there has been for me. And anybody who has read this blog for more than five minutes knows that I have run into a few obstacles in my life - but through each challenge, through tears, through chemotherapy, through battles with mental illness in my family, through it all, I have been repeatedly reminded of the goodness of God and the goodness of people and the goodness of life. There is so much beauty. There are so many gifts.

I was reminded of the goodness of people and life early this morning. I went to Trader Joe's to pick up some goodies for a dear friend of mine whose final round of chemotherapy was this morning. I chose some of my favorite snacks and breakfast food and fruit and even some special soap. Cuz who doesn't like a goodie bag? I remember back in my kanswer days, perfect strangers sent me care packages after my story landed on the blog of another famous writer. I loved every single bar of soap, piece of licorice, card, note, sticker, pen, stick of incense, and tea bag they sent. It was magical, the effect of all that love and encouragement.

Anyway, this morning I told the woman at the cash register at Trader Joe's about my friend's last chemo treatment. She was appropriately happy for my friend and spoke kindly of my desire to drop off a gift bag. As I waited for the machine to read the chip on my debit card, she stepped away from the cash register. She returned with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and said, "Please give these flowers to your friend and say they are from the folks here at Trader Joe's. This is a big day and we want to honor that." I am glad I was wearing my sunglasses at the time - because the goodness of life that she showered on me and my friend welled up in my eyes.

Kanswer sucks.
Chemotherapy sucks.
Surgery sucks.
Each one of us has five or ten or a thousand things we can add to the list of things that suck.
Flooding in the south.
The earthquake in Italy.
The fact that one of my fabulous neighbors moved out of their house today.
The divisive presidential campaign.
The fear mongering that has gripped and divided our country.
I could go on.
So could you.

But there is goodness and beauty that emerges even during chemotherapy. There are kind, funny, and infinitely patient nurses in the oncology office. There are generous and thoughtful employees at local grocery stores who send flowers to people they don't even know as a random act of kindness.

I am determined to remember the joy of sitting with my friend back in the early 1990s and looking out onto the trees and flowers and zen garden and fields of flowers in her yard in Mendocino, CA.

I am determined to remember the wonder of standing at the base of the Cristo Redentor statue, the same one that I saw on television dozens of times during the recent Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, and gazing down onto the beaches and buildings below.

I am determined to remember the immediate and inexplicable feeling of peace, the sense of "finally being at home, my true home" on the day I arrived in Madrid the first time - back in August of 1986, thirty years ago. I barely spoke Spanish. I was hot and sweaty. I had been groped by the train conductor on the night train between Paris and Madrid. But when I arrived in Madrid that late summer day, backpack on my back, bus map in my hands, I looked around me I knew: I was finally at home. I still feel that way every single time I arrive at Madrid Barajas Airport - "I made it back home."

I remember the blessing of food in the fridge, the freezer, the pantry, and my not-so-secret stash of snacks. (My family knows exactly where it is, but they also know that they cannot ever, ever, ever dig into it or take anything out of it!)

I remember the gift of arriving home safely every night after all of our driving and walking and working and volunteering and spending time with friends. There are many people who leave home each morning, but do not return home at night. Safe passage is a miracle, every single day.

I could go on. Couldn't you?

I am determined to remember the goodness of life.

PS. I am enormously grateful to Alice Walker and her daughter, Rebecca Walker, for bringing so much goodness into my life through their words, their convictions, their womanism, their powerful wisdom, and simply for being who they are in a world that has often criticized them fiercely and attempted to silence their provocative voices. I don't always agree with everything they say and write, but everything they say and write makes me think deeply about what I say and write and how I live my life.

Monday, August 22, 2016

That New Baby Smell

On July 17, 1981, my brother, Glen, came home with the best news I had heard all year. He said that my older brother, Otis, and his wife, Joy, had had their baby. Kevin!!! As the words fell from Glen's mouth, I leapt into his arms with joy. Besides the fabulous news that the baby had arrived safely, we rejoiced over the fact that Glen and I had not tumbled down the stairs he was standing on at the time. The two of us could very well have ended up in the same hospital that Kevin had been born in if we had fallen down the brick stairs on the front of our house.

I would imagine that Otis and Joy got sick of my near-daily visits to their apartment to see and hold bathe and snuggle with their sweet baby boy. I spent hours with him in my arms, sniffing that new baby smell. Certainly there were moments when there were other smells as well, but the smell of his breath, the smell of the top of his head, the smell that lingered after I uncurled his tiny fingers and laid his hands on my face - that smell became an addiction that has yet to be broken.

Kevin's little brother, Matthew, was born during my freshman year in college, so I didn't see him for several weeks - but when I got home from college, I had another baby to snuggle with and sniff. I know that sounds a little weird, perhaps a little creepy, but that new baby smell is unrivaled in its miraculous bouquet.

Otis and Joy's third and final gift to me, I mean their final addition to their family, Raquel, was born when I was in England. Why I felt the need to be so far from home when they were bringing new life into the world is beyond me, but there I was. She was born in July, and I didn't get back to the States until December. Far too long to wait to meet my first niece, but not so long that I missed out on the wonder of holding her little body in my arms, closing my eyes, and taking my first hit of the splendorous scent of new baby girl curls.

Three more nieces were born to my two other brothers in the years that followed.
I changed their diapers. I bathed them. I fed them. I babysat them all for free.
And when nobody was looking, I lifted their arms and smelled their perfectly formed armpits.
I peeled off their socks and smelled their tiny toes.
I nuzzled them and sang to them and shook my head at the magnitude of their beauty.

If my memory has not failed me and my calculations are correct,
Kevin is now 35, Matthew is 32, and Raquel is 30. They are married.
And they all now have babies of their own.

On July 21 of this year, Kristiana and I were on the tail end of a two day visit with Raquel and Jay and their gorgeous little girl, Aurora. On the final day of our visit, we met up with Matthew's wife, Monisha, and their son, Myles, and Kevin's wife, Susan, and their daughter, Pem. Raquel's husband was in the room with us - but he hardly counted - no offense, Jay, but that visit was all about the babies! Matthew and Kevin were both out of town for work - we were sorry to miss them, but again, it was all about those babies.

Right - Kevin and baby Pem
Top left - Matthew and baby Myles
Bottom left - Jay and baby Aurora

That afternoon, I watched those three new moms care for their babies, feed them, nurse them, and change their diapers. I watched them love those babies and nurture them, speaking to them with tenderness, laughing with them, playing with them, mothering them as though no one else was present. Even as I type these words, tears well up in my eyes as I think of the love that filled that apartment, the adoration, the intimacy between mother and child, between husband and wife, between the three new mothers, as they helped each other resolve the issues and challenges that came up in the few hours we spent together. One by one, I took each of those children into my arms, held them close, silently prayed over them, and breathed in that new baby smell.

There are far too many families in which terms like "sister-in-law" and "niece by marriage" designate some level of separation or formality. There are far too many families in which the presence of a mother-in-law in the room - be it the birthing room or the living room or the baby's room - means there is tension in the air. There are families in which an aunt and a cousin who live six states away are not easily or quickly folded into the new life of a newly formed family. I am blessed to say that none of those things is true for or among those three siblings and their spouses and new babies.  My sister-in-law, Joy, is about as adoring, patient, generous, available, and encouraging a mother and mother-in-law as I have ever known. And those three new mothers are more like sisters than most "real" sisters I know. They all welcomed me and my daughter with open arms, generous hospitality, and complete trust in our love for them and their babies.

In this day and age where some people insinuate that immigrants need to be kicked out of our country, in this day and age in the world when some people insinuate that people of different backgrounds and cultures and languages cannot live together in peace, Kevin and Susan, Matthew and Monisha, and Raquel and Jay are proof that those insinuations are far off base.

My African-American brother, Otis, married Joy - whose family originated in Honduras.
Kevin married Susan - whose family originated in Cambodia and Laos.
Matthew married Monisha - whose family originated in Jamaica and Aruba.
Raquel married Jay - who is a first generation immigrant from Poland. He is the only member of his birth family living in the United States.
Truly a uniting of nations.

But back to the babies and that new baby smell.
Two days and two nights with Jay and Raquel provided me with many hours of bliss with Aurora.
How could I possibly be expected to resist this face???

Indeed I could not resist kissing her and holding her and taking in her sweetness.

 Pem is more serious than Aurora,
and her hard-earned smiles are dazzlingly beautiful.
Awake and asleep, she was comfortable in Auntie's arms.

 Myles, Myles, Myles. So handsome, so strong, so active.
Most of the photos I took of him are blurred because he is a little man on the move.

Monisha hanging out with Myles and Aurora
while Jay played with Pem.
One family. One love. 
One beautiful moment for Auntie.

The only thing I didn't like about my time with my nieces and nephew and their babies was the knowledge that I would soon have to leave them in NY and make my way back home to Charlotte. Truthfully, I try not to look at the pictures or reread my journal from those days too often - because I miss them so much. I am beyond sad when I think about all the days and weeks and months I will not share with them because of the distance between us. The milestones. The celebrations. Their first words and first steps.

If you scroll back up and look at the photos of these three little people in my arms, you will notice that my head is down in most of the photos. Do you want to know why? Because I am trying to draw in as many deep breaths of that new baby smell as possible.

Thirty five summers ago right now, I was most likely on my way home from Otis and Joy's house, after spending the day with Kevin... and his parents. I was most likely trying to figure out when I could get back there. Not much has changed. I am still trying to figure out when I can get back there and see Myles, Aurora, and Pem... and their parents.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Sabbatical Over: "This is Now"

Last week, I went to hang out with my mom and watch the Olympics for a couple of hours. We watched television and talked and ate. That's our routine every time I visit her: watch tv, talk, and eat. She always has treats at her place that we don't have at our house. Things that I would consume in large quantities over brief periods of time. Nutter Butter cookies. Fresh roasted peanuts. Miniature Hershey's chocolate bars. Mixed nuts (without peanuts). Lance cheese crackers. Cheesecake. K-cup coffee and tea pods. Those butter cookies that come in huge dark blue cans.

Yes, my mother, who lives alone, is a member of BJs. Why? So she can buy huge quantities of food to feed her family and friends as often as possible. She is one of the most hospitable people I have ever known. I remember many parties and meals and gatherings at our home during my childhood, many of which would include several friends spending the night, sleeping on couches and on the floor in our Brooklyn duplex. True to form, she is hosting the family reunion for the family of her birth, the Elliotts, this coming weekend. She already has the chairs set up in her living room, and she has made one of several trips to BJs and other stores to buy all kinds of goodies.

Anyway, last week I was sitting with her in what she refers to as her "woman-cave" watching television and eating fresh roasted peanuts. Except they weren't too fresh. Actually, they were quite stale. She apologized for the status of the peanuts and followed her apology with an invitation to me to open the large jug of mixed nuts she had recently bought in anticipation of the family reunion. I thanked her for the offer, but said, "Don't you want to save those nuts for next weekend?"

She answered, "This is now. You don't know what's gonna happen between now and next weekend. One woman who was supposed to come to the family reunion recently had to have emergency surgery and she can't come. This is now, Gail. This is now."

Her response landed immediately in my journal.
I am the queen of postponing things I like,
things I like to eat, things I like to do,
things I like to read, things I like to experience -
the more I like to eat something, the more likely I am to postpone eating it for some future time.
For some special occasion.
I spend more time than I care to admit figuring out ways to do things I love -
next week, next month, next year.
Just not right now.
Gail, this is now.

A little more than fifteen years ago, after getting undressed after church, it occurred to me that I always felt my best when I was wearing a dress or a skirt. Getting ready for church, choosing my outfit, was one of the highlights of my week. As I stood there looking at my "church clothes," pondering what pair of baggy sweatpants or uncomfortable jeans I was going to don, it hit me: if I save these clothes I love, these comfortable dresses and clothes, for exclusive use on Sunday, then each item will be worn only three or four times each year. And the rest of the time, the other 300+ days of the year, days of homeschooling and driving my kids to their music lessons and athletic practices and trips to the supermarket, all of which composed the majority of my life, I would be wearing clothing I didn't like nearly as much and that didn't look nearly as good on me. Sooooo - I decided to start wearing my favorite clothes every day. I no longer own baggy sweatpants or uncomfortable jeans. And every day, I get to pick dresses and skirts and jeans and tunic tops that I love to wear.
This is now.

When one of my kids wants to have breakfast or lunch with me, when they come into my bedroom and plop down on the bed to watch television or talk or just hang out, I say a silent prayer of thanks, and turn up my emotional/relational/parental hearing aid and listen closely. My children will soon be 20 and 23 years of age; the fact that they still like hanging out with me, telling me their secrets and asking my advice is miraculous to me. I will go out for a mother-son breakfast date tomorrow morning. Sure, I could have offered to cook breakfast here at home for him and the rest of the family. But when my 19 year old son asked me to go out on a date with him two mornings before we take him and get him set up for his sophomore year in college, I said "YES" - and thought to myself, "This is now, Gail. Go out with your boy. This is now."

When friends write or text or call and ask to get together for tea or lunch or dinner or a walk, I try to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
Life is short.
This is now.

Drive six hours one way to visit the incarcerated son of a dear friend?
Go with her, Gail.
This is now.

Tell someone my story about kanswer,
my family's story about mental illness,
about the challenges of marriage and parenting,
about how hard this faith journey, this life journey can be,
even when telling those stories moves me to tears?
Cry if you need to, Gail, but this is your story to tell.
This is the time to tell it.
This is now.

Speak up against racism and prejudice of other kinds, even when it feels uncomfortable?
When I feel uncomfortable and those who are listening are also uncomfortable?
People are dying now because of fear and misunderstanding.
Say something now, Gail.
This is now.

Don't keep postponing the good stuff.
Don't even postpone the challenging stuff.
Don't save your best dishes or dresses or smiles or compliments for some other time.
Don't save your hard-won wisdom or deepest convictions for some more convenient time,
for some more comfortable conversation.
Tell the truth now.
Stand up for justice and peace now.
Live with joy now.
Go for a walk and watch birds flitter from tree to tree now.
Eat the Nutter Butter cookie -
or better yet, make some vegan homemade chocolate chip cookies - now.
This is now.

Thanks, Mom, for challenging me to rethink how I live my life.
And all it took was an offer to eat some mixed nuts.

PS. Thank you all for your comments and encouragement during this month of blogging sabbatical. Thank you for coming back to read my ramblings.
Thank you for coming along for another leg of my life's journey.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Thankful Thursday - Sabbatical

I'm going on sabbatical from the blog.
I need to take some time to refuel, recharge, to be refreshed and renewed.

I'm heading off on a journey.
With my daughter for a few days.
Then alone for a few days.
Then back home.

I am thankful for the chance to rest.
Thankful to the friends and family who will be rest stops along the way.
And to those I don't yet know who will be encountered on our journey.
And then on my solo journey.

Thankful to those who will be praying for our safety and for our enjoyment.
Thankful to and for those whose prayers have made this journey, this adventure possible.
Two months ago, I wasn't so sure this trip would happen.
But it is happening.
I am enormously grateful.

May hope abound in you and around you.
May joy, indescribable, inexplicable joy, surprise you.
May you find reasons to give thanks every day.
Peace be with you.

I will be back in a month.
Well, I will get back home in less than a month,
but I will return here to the blog in a month and a day - on August 15.

Adventure awaits.
Traveling mercies to you.
Go well.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Thankful Thursday - Thankful for tears

So much sorrow.
Too much sorrow.
A man was shot to death in his car - with a woman and a child in the car.
As he reached for his license.
And explained that he had a gun in the car.
A gun he was licensed to own and carry.
In this country so obsessed with the 2nd amendment, the right to bear arms, it would appear that a black man exercising the right to bear arms is fair game to be shot - in his car. Without even having the gun in his hand. A black boy with a toy gun in a park is fair game too. A black man with a toy gun in Walmart too.

My heart is broken.
This is incomprehensible to me.

I am a tall black woman with extremely short hair.
I couldn't be any more flat chested - after the double mastectomy.
So I wear earrings every time I leave my house, dangling earrings.
I try to wear bright colors and other things that make me stand out as a woman.
Because I don't want to be mistaken for a man
walking through my predominantly white neighborhood.
I don't want to be gunned down because someone things I'm a black man
walking through my predominately white neighborhood.
And I always carry my cell phone with me because in my photo file,
I have a photograph of my driver's license  -
to prove that I live in the neighborhood.
I have rehearsed my appeal should I get stopped -
"I'm reaching into my pouch for my cell phone to show you the photo of my driver's license.
I don't have any weapons. Can I lower my hand and take out my cell phone? Is that okay?"
I could carry my license, but since I take my phone to listen to music anyway,
I took a photo of my license.
(Most of the time that I'm out walking, I am not using earphones, mind you,
so I can hear what's going on around me. I can't afford to be unaware of my surroundings.)
It sucks that I have to think about all this stuff - but I do.
Every time I leave my house to walk alone.

Black people everywhere are praying over our children more.
Especially our sons.
Giving thanks every time they arrive home safely.

I've told my son that if he goes out running,
he can't wear a sweatshirt with his hood up.
He can't run with earphones in -
he needs to be able to hear if someone speaks to him or calls out to him.
I've told him how to respond calmly and cooperatively if he is ever stopped by the police.
And I give thanks to God every time he arrives home safely.

How long, America? How long will we allow this brutality to happen?
How many must die this way?
Are justice, fairness, and equality even possible in this country?
Today, I am thankful for tears.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Knowing Place - Take Two

This is what I wrote yesterday about the knowing place.
I woke up at 4 am this morning thinking about it.
I turned on my light, took some notes in my journal, and went back to sleep.
Here's what woke me up - the fact that the knowing place exists,
the fact that I have discovered peace and rest there,
doesn't mean that I am free of all doubt and fear and uncertainty.
Not even close.

During the hardest times in my life - this spring, four years ago on my kanswer journey, back in 2008 during another family crisis, and during the other major storms in my life - the knowing place has held firm. I knew that we weren't alone in our trials. I knew that we were loved and being prayed for and supported by many, many beloved friends and co-travelers on our life journey. I knew that God was with us. I knew that all would eventually be well.

But still.
But still.

I doubted. I had questions.
I wondered. I worried.
I held my Bible up and reminded God of the promises contained therein.
I battled despair and wondered if life was better than death.
I had no blessed idea of how the crises would be resolved.
Or if they would ever be resolved.

My journal is filled with pages of large letters -

Pages of questions -
What if I die?
What if he dies?
What if she dies?
What if she lives and this is as good as it gets?
Is this a life that will be worth living?
What if insurance won't pay for this?
Will I trust God even then?
Will I believe God's promises to be true even then?

There are pages of Bible verses - particularly verses and passages taken from the book of Job.
"Job 1:21 - Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; 
the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
Job 13:15 - Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.
Daniel 3:16-18 - Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego answered the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up. 
Mark 9:21-24 - Jesus asked the father: "How long has this been happening to him?" And he said, "From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us." Jesus said to him, "If you are able! - All things can be done for the one who believes." Immediately the father of the child cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief."

For anyone unfamiliar with the stories of Job and the three guys mentioned in the Daniel passage, here is a very brief synopsis. Job was a rich man who lost everything, including his children (but not his wife), in several tragic incidents that all took place on the same day. After hearing about all that had gone wrong, Job responded with that noble quote in Job 1:21. Later in the book, he declares his trust in the God who is said to have allowed all those tragedies to happen. Spoiler Alert - at the end of the book of Job, all of his stuff and family are restored, in even greater abundance.

The three guys mentioned in Daniel are captives of the king to whom they are speaking. They have been summoned and required to bow down to a statue the king has made of himself, ninety feet high and nine feet wide. These three young men refuse to bow down and are threatened with being tossed into a fiery furnace. They stand in defiance to the king's order, declaring their belief that the God they worship could deliver them from the fire, but even if God didn't deliver them, they still wouldn't worship that statue. They end up being thrown into that fiery furnace. Spoiler Alert - God protects them, they are not burned by the fire, a fourth person (could it be God?) is seen in the fire with them, they are delivered out of the furnace and promoted into high positions in the king's service.

In Mark, Jesus is introduced to a father whose son has suffered with "a spirit" that made his life horrible. The father asks Jesus' disciples to heal the boy, but they are unable to do so. Finally, the father appeals to Jesus himself - and he simply states what I have felt often - "I believe; help my unbelief." Spoiler alert - the boy is healed!

My appeals to God went something like this - "I'm here in the knowing place, God, trusting in your power to heal. Believing that you can deliver her and me and us from the fiery furnace of illness and fear and worry and helplessness. Don't you want to deliver us? Since you are able to deliver us, Almighty God, why won't you do it - and do it right now??? What about the happy endings that appear so often in Scripture - like in Job and with those guys in the book of Daniel? When do we get our happy ending, our healing, our deliverance?"

These passages and several others rested comfortably, or rather uncomfortably, in my journal and in my heart during the horrors of this spring's doings and undoings. There were moments when I had enough strength and faith to stand firm in the knowing place and declare, like Job, "Blessed be the name of the Lord" and "Yet will I trust in God." But there were many, many moments in which I read and spoke those words through clenched jaws and gnashing teeth.

These passages and several others also reminded me that not all Biblical accounts end happily. In fact, very few of them do. Execution and exile and enslavement are not uncommon responses to those who declare their trust in and reliance on God.

One of my favorite Bible passages temporarily lost its shine, but after I broke the rose-colored glasses through which I had desperately tried to see my life and the world, it was restored to its luster... John 16:33 records Jesus saying to those he loved, "I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

I used to like the parts that talk about me having peace and Jesus overcoming the world. What I didn't want to think about or experience was the part where he talked about us having trouble. When I encountered difficulties, I retreated into "Why? Why me? Why her? Why us? We are so good." I couldn't even finish that last statement without laughing to myself, sometimes laughing through my tears. We are so NOT good. Nor are we immune to the pain and suffering that are part of the human experience. Who are we not to suffer? Who are we not to face trials, tribulations, and difficulties?

But still.
But still.

On those same journal pages, on those long drives to the hospital for visits, during the wee hours of the morning when I would find myself awake and on high alert, even as abundant tears flowed and unsavory language found its way through my furious fingers, even then I knew. I knew that our story would not be one of bitterness and sorrow and fear forever. I knew that God was working - even when I didn't feel it. I knew that I would not devote myself to the worship of despair and fear. I knew that I believed - even in times of unbelief.

I knew and I wondered.
I believed and I doubted.
I questioned and I was convinced.
I rested peacefully and I woke up in the middle of the night.
I felt God's presence and I felt God's silent absence.
All of the above.
All in the knowing place.

The way forward was not (and is not) always lit beyond the very next step.
The way forward was not (and is not) easy.
The way forward passed (and passes) through unspeakable sadness.
But it was and it is ever and always moving forward.
Thanks be to God!