Friday, December 31, 2004

If you will allow me to plagiarize...

Some final thoughts for the close of one year and the opening of another. None of these words are mine, but I thought I’d share them anyway.

“I thank my God every time I remember you.”

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”

“Come, you who are blessed by My Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me… I tell you the truth: whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

“But I tell you who hear me, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”

“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.”

“Seek peace and pursue it.”

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

“Who will be left to celebrate a victory made of blood and fire?”

“What the world needs, what we all need is love.”

“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace.”

To all who have shared my life’s journey with me, I send a wish for love, joy, mercy, grace, laughter, traveling mercies, Christmas cookies, sparking apple cider, cheesy nachos, bowls of Italian wedding soup, silver bracelets, lemongrass incense, handwritten letters, cozy slippers, scented candles, warm fires, close friends, the smiling face of the full moon, jazz, soft and strong hands to hold, someone to wipe your tears and calm your fears, and peace.

Blessed New Year, GailNHB

Thursday, December 30, 2004

The cave dweller emerges

At about 3 PM today, I went outside and sat at the table on our deck. It was 60 degrees and sunny; the famed "Carolina blue" sky was cloudless. I had my journal and all my colored pens and pencils with me – I go nowhere without my journal. I just sat there. I listened to the birds chirping, the dogs barking, the cars on the street, the breeze blowing through the trees. Our neighbors were cleaning out their garage. I smiled when I heard one of their teenage daughters say, “Gross.” I wished I could see what she’d discovered. I sat there. Not for very long, but long enough to feel the liberated bliss of having emerged from a cave. In essence, I had.

I’d spent most of the day in my bedroom, sitting bolt upright on my bed, entrancecd by CNN and other news stations, trying to absorb the magnitude of the disaster in Asia. I have since concluded that absorption is impossible. Absorption isn’t even advisable. I watched. I pondered. I wept. I prayed. I pumped my fists in anguish over the lost. I pumped my fists in joy over the found: the five-year-old who survived for two hours holding on to a door knob and paddling as fast as he could. And the son who managed to call his mother and tell her that he and his fiancée had been on an island that wasn’t hit by the storm; he will be reunited with his father -who had gone to Thailand to search for him. I wondered about those with survivor’s guilt: the supermodel, the famous decorator, the parent, the spouse, the child whose loved one was swept away, whose lives will never be the same, who wonder why they live and so many others do not. I prayed for the man who escaped from one of the Twin Towers on September 11th and who managed to survive this tsunami. He’d better start seriously considering what his life’s call is and fulfill it; he has obviously been spared for some special reason.

This emerged cave dweller made an early dinner of quesadillas and edamame, then loaded her remarkably accomodating husband, compliant kids, and her daughter's adventurous friend into the minivan, and headed over to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport to meet up with a friend of mine from junior high school. (And now this emerged cave dweller will stop referring to herself in the 3rd person.)

I hope everyone in the world someday has a friend like Debby. She and I were best buddies in 7th and 8th grade. We spoke on the telephone every day, often more than once. We would call each other to coordinate what we would wear the next day. If she wore a white shirt, so did I. If I wore a blue skirt, so did she. We could finish each other’s sentences, and we often did. If she weren’t one of the blondest girls in the school and I weren’t one of only two black girls in the entire school, we might have been mistaken for sisters. Much to my dismay, after 8th grade, Debby and her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Then she went to college. I went to college. I got married and had kids. She got married and now has a daughter. And through all these years, Debby has kept in touch with me. She has tracked me down, sent me cards and letters, photos, and even attended the reunion of our senior class at Poly Prep. She didn’t graduate from Poly with me, mind you, but she came to the reunion because she has kept in touch with a few other members of our class. I suppose part of the reason she came is because I was the reunion speaker. She came all the way from Florida to hear me speak; I was shocked and extremely glad to see her.

Today Debby and her family were returning from visiting with in-laws St. Louis to her new home state of Florida and had a layover here in Charlotte. She actually chose to have the layover here so that we could get together. So our family met her family at baggage claim, sat with them for half an hour, took pictures, and then they went back to their gate for the continuing flight to Orlando.

This emerged cave dweller (just once more for dramatic effect; please forgive me!)and her family returned from the airport to Blockbuster video where we all picked videos for tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve festivities. There will be lots of movies, popcorn, pizza, Chinese food, soda, cookies, and all kinds of other treats as we bid farewell to the old year and welcome in the new year. I plan to spend several hours tomorrow reflecting on 2004, making wishes and adding to my Mondo Beyondo list for 2005, writing cards and letters to friends, and strolling merrily down the aisles of the Harris Teeter supermarket. That’s a topic for a future blog for sure: I love supermarkets. And joy of joys: a brand new health food store is opening up only five minutes from the house!

I needed to emerge from the cave this afternoon. I needed to release myself from the web of sorrow I’d spun around myself. I needed to release myself from the guilt I’d begun to develop for the bountiful blessings we continue to enjoy here at home when there are so many millions who have lost absolutely everything. I needed help in order to emerge from the cave. If I hadn’t come out, I would have missed out on a balmy, late-December Charlotte afternoon. The sunshine helped. Exercise helped. Journaling helped. Taking care of the kids and the house helped. The family’s willingness to go with me to the airport helped. Seeing Debby again helped. Prayer helped. And tomorrow will help; I’ll get up and do it all over again. Plus there’s all of 2005 looming just a few hours off the starboard bow.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

I remember the simulcast...

of "We are the World" way back in the 1980's when every radio station in the nation agreed to play that song at the same time. I had my radio on at the time, and I ran it up and down the dial that day and was truly awed by the fact that every station had it on. We had pulled together as a nation and as a world to make a difference in the lives of people dying across a vast ocean. We were all caught up in the horrors of the starvation of millions in Ethiopia, and we did something phenomenal. Somebody wrote a song. Michael Jackson was one of the lead singers. All those great musicians got together and made that record - or were CDs out already? Millions of dollars were raised. Lives were saved. We were the world. I'm not sure if anyone has written a song about this earthquake/tsunami situation yet, but we are being the world again.

I am delighted, gratified, and impressed by the outpouring of love and support and prayers for those suffering in Asia. has begun to collect donations on behalf of the Red Cross through their website, and they have already collected nearly $600,000. Blogs and other websites I frequently check in with are filled with good wishes and kind thoughts. People are reaching out. I am so glad that I was so wrong about the apathy in our nation. I hope and pray that our concern for our Asian brothers and sisters does not diminish before the needs are met and lives are saved.

Again today I was consumed with finding out what is going on there. I read stories of families separated, lovers lost in the open sea, and foreboding forecasts of disease and starvation on the horizon. But the aid being sent, the doctors going over, and the quick response of so many nations and individuals have all prompted the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to suggest that new loans may not be necessary in those areas. Yeah for us all - that we have banded together across national and linguistic borders to assist those who have nothing to offer in return but gratitude. May peace and good will prevail not only now in this time of dire crisis, but also far into the new year.

Today I was fully mindful of and newly grateful for the blessing of washing dishes, of doing laundry, of heating the chicken noodle soup a friend brought over for my ailing children, and of playing Skip-Bo with my husband and the kids. (By the way, that’s an awesome card game put out by the makers of Uno.) Both of the children are suffering with colds, and the simple act of giving them tissues, making tea for them, and seeing them nestled in their warm beds under comforters and quilts – it was miraculous for me because there are countless mothers in Asia who have no blankets tonight and no dinner to offer their children. To have fresh water come out of the tap, to listen to the crash of the ice cubes as they cascaded out of the freezer door, to scrub our bathroom tiles and sinks with that sweet citrus scented cleanser and to vacuum – all those mundane tasks were miraculous for me today because I knew that it will be months, perhaps years before some of those very mundane activities become mundane again in southern Asia. Or Darfur. Or Kosovo. Or Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Or Israel. Or Palestine. Or Colombia. Or South Africa. Or the hurricane stricken places in the Caribbean and southern United States. Or so many other places near and far.

My cry goes up again: Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Nobody's Dream Vacation

We have taken some wonderful vacations as a family and as a couple. Back in 2001, Steve and I asked a friend who is a travel agent to help us plan a tenth anniversary trip. She booked us an unforgettable getaway at the Wyndham El Conquistador Resort in Las Croabas, Puerto Rico. Massages, poolside drinks, floating in the warm and welcoming ocean made the seven or eight days pass remarkably quickly. Twice in the next two years we returned with our children to that colorful, relaxing, and beautiful sanctuary on the north east tip of that American protectorate. To watch the children float in the salty sea, pick up sea shells, build sand castles, and experience the thrill of hibachi cooking up close was the stuff of legendary vacationing for me. We would all love to return for a third trip, but this year’s family escape will be to an island of an entirely different sort.

We will spend 12 days on the Island of Great Britain in March. I have never seen London, but Steve lived there for three and a half months during our college days. He’s been threatening to take me there for years now, and finally our time has come. As much as I look forward to seeing the home of William Shakespeare, Princess Diana, and Colin Firth, I will miss the beach combing, pina coladas, and overpriced sarongs at the El Conquistador. My real dream would be to experience Puerto Rico's welcome and warmth in the coldest months of the year. The thought of sunbathing in December, applying sunscreen in January, and drinking Rum and Coke in February rather than hot rum toddies is quite intoxicating indeed.

So when I think of yesterday’s tragic tsunami in South west Asia, I am all the more heartbroken. While I am would be the first to admit that I cannot imagine watching a 30 foot wave wash over the beach as my children played catch with a beach ball, I can certainly imagine sitting on the beach with my eyes closed and my hand gripping an ice cold bottle of water. I can certainly imagine sitting the deck of a small beach bungalow reading a senseless novel with Steve rides a Sea-Doo out in the surf. The unimaginable horror of opening my eyes and seeing the tumultuous sea consume my family whole or in part is exactly that – unimaginable.

My mind is full of questions that I wish no one ever had to answer, but I know that many who walk those poisoned and polluted lands tonight are living out the gruesome and dreadful answers to these queries. What is it like for that Swedish mother I read about who had wandered for hours looking for her husband and children? What is it like for the resort owner who said that nearly 200 guest bungalows had been washed out to sea? What is it like for the residents of those low-lying islands who have lost everything and everyone they hold dear? What was it like to survive those thunderously loud waves and then be left standing – or lying – on a beach with absolutely no idea what happened, where you are or anyone else is, or how you will get back to where you had been staying – if that place even still exists? What is it like to be a tourist scouring the beaches searching for the body of the beloved spouse, for any remnants of your life, and hoping that someday soon you will be able to return to your country of origin? What is it like for the residents of India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Maldives, Thailand, and even far away Somalia whose lives were already at poverty level to have lost what meager means they had? What will the coming days and weeks bring to that devastated region of the world?

Yesterday afternoon after finding out about the earthquake, the tsunami, and the rising death toll on the Internet, I ran to the television hoping to hear more news, to get more information. To my horror, there was nothing on television about it. Hours and hours of football games. Basketball games. Game shows. Cooking shows. Makeover shows. Stories about celebrities who struggle with eating disorders and weight gain. Reruns of television shows that were pointless the first time around. But other than the occasional tag line racing along the bottom of the screen, there was nothing about what must be one of the worst natural disasters in the world in 50 years. Nothing. Around 11 PM, there was a brief blurb on the weather channel. I was angry. I was very angry. Why isn’t something this catastrophic worthy of preempting a football game? Why aren’t the deaths of tens of thousands of people more important than whether or not such-and-such a movie met some ridiculously high expected box office goal? Who needs another Ab Lounger when so many people are dying with their stomachs empty? Maybe if we weren’t so obsessed with filling our already oversized bellies, we’d have more time to care more about what is going on in the world around us. If there were another fist fight at an NBA game, every channel would tune in and show the melee forty or fifty times in a row, so what is our problem? Don’t we care that more than 22,000 lost their lives in about an hour yesterday?

But this is a wake-up call for me too. Thousands of people die everyday from starvation, war, illness, abuse, and countless other causes. I ought to weep for all of them. I ought to be more mindful of the needs and wants of others everyday. I cannot cry my way through every day, but I ought to be more alert to the crises, more willing to send aid when and where I can, and always to be in prayer for compassionate doctors and nurses who know no boundaries or borders, for food, clothing, and other provision given by those of us who can help, and for mercy, for safety, and for comfort in these dark and difficult moments.

Tonight and for many days to come, my thoughts and prayers will be with the people of those water-ravaged nations. Kyrie Eleison: Lord, have mercy.

Friday, December 24, 2004

"Oh what a glorious day...

will come from this Holy Night."

I return so often to the words of my friend Rob's song: "To us is born every December anew, a love that's unbelieveable, given to me, given to you. This is the season. This is the time. I see the face of a child, and that face it is mine. I'm looking for starlight; I'm listening for angels. Everyone is asleep on the Christmas morn, but I'm awake. Yes, I'm waiting here for love again to be born."

My prayer is that an unbelieveable love will again be born in my heart, in your heart, and in the hearts of all those you hold dear. Not only love, but may there also be hope, laughter, peace, and good cheer in your heart and in your home tonight, tomorrow, and always. And lots of presents, too!

Feliz Navidad.
Buon Natale.
Joyeux Noel.
Merry Christmas.

Is the moon visible where you are?

Thursday, December 23, 2004

How can I say thanks?

As I look ahead to Christmas and to the New Year, it is great fun to look back on this year, to recount some of the adventures I’ve been on, and to list some of the wonders that I have seen, experienced, and survived in 2004. I have so very much to be thankful for; here are a few things that came to mind this afternoon.

- I survived an entire month on the road with the kids this summer: NYC, MA, CT, VT and many places in between.
- The minivan held up quite well. After checking out of the rather impressive Northampton Inn, we discovered a flat tire on the van. Fortunately we were just a few yards away from a service station, one of the few full service stations still in existence in the northeast.
- The Inn at Manchester in Vermont: such gracious hospitality and wonderful breakfasts. Daniel loved waffles and ice cream for breakfast.
- The innkeepers hailed from North Carolina, so it was a taste of southern comfort all the way up there in Vermont. They loved seeing our NC license plates.
- walking around the lake up there one bright morning with Daniel and Kristiana
- horseback riding camp for the two of them in Williamstown, MA
- mornings free for me while they practiced their riding skills: sweet freedom
- being reunited with long-lost friends there in Billsville
- watching him excel at shortstop on the baseball field and her on the softball pitching mound during their summer seasons here in Charlotte upon our return
- tennis: finding an excellent coach and improving by leaps and bounds
- my trip to Spain in September for my dear friend’s wedding
- long walks on tree-lined boulevards there in my favorite city
- paella, gambas al ajillo, and chamomile tea every evening after dinner
- seeing my friend so happy with her new husband
- remembering the delirious joy of new love: no one else in the world exists
- lots of writing in various formats
- rereading journals that have been filled with the year’s events
- looking forward to what the new year will bring
- making my dream list for 2005: Mondo Beyondo!
- I am thankful for new friendships formed – what lies ahead???
- I am thankful for old friendships maintained – missing the distant ones terribly
- I love catching up on the telephone, laughing, listening between the lines, trying to imagine where they are, how they are doing, and wishing them all the best
- it’s been a year of good health for me and my family
- I survived a couple of health scares without too much undue panic
- pausing in the midst of the uncertainty to give thanks for good health and good times gone by
- extreme gratitude when the good news was received that all was well
- last Saturday’s inspirational writing retreat with folks I hope will become good friends in the new year and beyond
- all the great ideas I made note of there that have yet to be explored
- turning 39 last week and being happier, more active, and more at peace than ever before
- recently discovering the sweet sounds of Norah Jones
- reading The Chronicles of Narnia aloud one chapter at a time with the kids: we have learned so many wonderful lessons of friendship, trust, and courage from this series
- experiencing vicariously their innocent wonder at the tales of Aslan’s strength and wisdom
- wrapping their presents and knowing how happy they will be on Christmas morning
- baking and enjoying the birthday cake for Jesus on Christmas Eve
- eating dozens of Christmas cookies everyday this week
- sparkling apple cider punch
- the smell of cornbread/sausage stuffing in the oven, watching it steam on the dining room table, and then drowning it in giblet gravy on my plate: it's my favorite part of Christmas dinner - by far!
- warm, homemade sweet potato biscuits with melted butter oozing out of them
- Tae Bo tapes to keep the waistline within reasonable boundaries
- Looking forward to doing it all again next year!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

The countdown is getting mighty low; there are only three more days until Christmas. The presents are wrapped. The cookies are baked. The menu for Saturday is all set. Countless trees and bushes in our neighborhood and all over this city have been overlaid with nets of light. Handrails and windowsills are aglow. Nodding reindeer, tree-shaped blue spirals of light, and electric icicles light up the night. It’s tacky, but it’s beautiful. Shopping plaza parking lots are crowded. Shoppers are tired and irritated. Shelves are sparsely stocked as the week winds down. I’d heard it said that “it’s the thought that counts,” but from the looks on some faces, the only thought that counts is to just get it all done before Christmas Eve and then get back to normal life. The thought is to do all the shopping, cooking, packing, traveling, hosting, gift-giving, partying, and whatever else is demanded of us, but no thought is given to pausing for enjoyment, wonder, and marveling at what is actually being celebrated three days from now. The thought is: “Only three days left. Thank God it’s almost over.”

At noon today, the four of us sat in a beautiful, warmly lit sanctuary in uptown Charlotte for a quiet Christmas devotional where those same words - "Thank God, it's almost over," mean something entirely different. The preparations are winding down, but that realization is cause for exaltation and not exhaustion. Soon we will move from the preparatory, waiting time of Advent – God is coming - into the exultant, celebratory time of Emmanuel – God is with us. I go from waiting for love again to be born into a time of receiving the gift of love, the gift of peace, the gift of time with family and friends, and above all the gift of the birth of the Savior. Joy to the World, the Lord is come.

Last night, I spent nearly half an hour working on a writing assignment. The assignment was to list all the people whose voices ring in my ear when I write. I was supposed to write the names of books and authors and friends and family and teachers and people dead and alive, real and imagined whose influence flows over, through, and around me whenever I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I named specific friends whose approval I seek. I named specific English and Political Science professors whose high marks I coveted. I named specific groups of people that affect my life in one way or another: Republicans, Democrats, peace-lovers, war-mongers, homeschoolers, pastors, priests, laypeople, Americans, Spaniards, Italians, northerners, southerners, neighbors, Christians, non-Christians, theists, atheists, friends, family, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws, coaches, teachers, students, writers, and many others. The list flowed from one page onto another. When I finally put my pen down, I had to smile. It’s a wonder that I write anything at all with that cacophony of voices constantly piping up with criticism and skepticism. Sure, some of them encourage and support, but most are silently sitting by, reading over my shoulder, shaking their heads and “tsking” in disappointment at how much I am not saying, how much I should have left out, how twisted and biased my writing is, and the like. Do you hear what I hear?

As I write about what Christmas means to me, I hear some of those aforementioned voices telling me to keep silent about my faith; it’s personal and no one else cares or needs to know what I believe. I hear others telling me to be more blatant and straightforward about my faith; it’s nothing to be ashamed of and I’m too mealy-mouthed in how I express myself. I hear still others who say that the story of the Virgin Birth of Christ is a nice fairy tale that provides an excuse for overeating and excessive spending at the end of the year. While I heartily disagree with the fairy tale critique, I agree with all the other voices that I hear.

Yes, millions of people around the world overspend and overeat during this time of year without giving much thought to the true meaning of Christmas. I don’t think I’d spend so much time and money and stress on a holiday I don’t believe in, on a celebration of something that means nothing to me. Why bother? I realize that millions of people don’t celebrate Christmas at all; Kwanzaa will begin the day after Christmas and continue through New Year’s Day. Jews celebrate Hanukah. Then there is the Winter Solstice. After a few moments of contemplation, I found a curious intersection between several of this month’s holiday celebrations. Hanukah celebrates the light that God provided when the people of Israel should have been in darkness. God extended the life of the oil that kept their lamps burning and His people gained victory in a decisive battle. After the longest and darkest night of the year, the Winter Solstice signals the coming of new light, of longer days, and shorter periods of darkness. Those of us who celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas know that we who have walked in great darkness have seen The Great Light of the World. We all want to walk in the light. We put lights on our trees, in our windows, and pray for that light to guide us on our way as we walk in the darkness of war, poverty, loneliness, fear, separation, and sorrow that overshadow our world. We are all seeking light and life and joy and peace on earth and goodwill to all. So, come let us adore Him.

I have reflected of late on the lyrics of one of the songs from our church’s Christmas play a few weeks ago. Young Mary and Joseph looked up and sang prayerful solos about what the world would think of the magnificently mysterious child soon to be born. And then as a duo they asked the question that has plagued all of humankind ever since that first Advent over 2000 years ago, “Isn’t this a strange way to save the world?” Yes, indeed. Nonetheless, for me, these past four weeks have been about making room in my heart, in my home, and in my life for the One the angels told the shepherds about. I have read and reread the story of the annunciation, the birth, the wise men who followed the star and found that Baby lying in a manger, and bowed down to worship Him. I have spent hours pondering, singing, and talking about the story of God sending His Son in the form of a baby, born in a stable in the village of Bethlehem. Glory to the Newborn King!

The volume of the chorus of voices in my head increases. Heads wag and fingers point. Skeptics turn away in disgust. But in my heart, there is peace. In my life, darkness gives way to the Eternal Light of love and hope and joy and redemption. There are only three days before Christmas and then an eternity to celebrate.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Give me your poor, maimed, lame, and blind...

Or so says verse 21 of Luke chapter 14. Following the rejection of several invited guests, the master in one of Jesus’ parables says the following: “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.” Several years ago, some folks at our church decided to live out the demand of that master and instituted the annual Luke 14 Banquet.

A couple of months ago, the volunteers sent out hundreds of invitations by mail and word of mouth. This past weekend, they set up dozens of tables, put out plates, napkins, silverware, glasses, red Rudolph noses, jingle bells, and then they waited. We all waited. And promptly at 5:00 PM, the honored guests began to arrive by the hundreds. Dozens of wheelchairs carried excited party-goers. Walkers and canes assisted hundreds of others. And together with patient guides, these honored guests filed into the brightly lit, gaily decorated lobby of our church. Greeted at the door, spirited off to the elevators, gently guided to the escalators, and ushered up to The Crown Room, the guests were treated as much like royalty as possible by the willing and excited volunteers. More greeters met them at the door of the Crown Room and lead them to their tables. They ate. They watched the puppet show. They listened to the speakers. They sang and danced to Christmas songs. Not only the overhead chandeliers, but also the enraptured eyes of the nearly 700 invited guests sparkled for several hours last night.

Who were “the honored guests”? They were the lame, the deaf, the mentally ill, the mentally disturbed, the cerebral palsied, those with Down Syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and bearers of all sorts of challenges that weren’t apparent to the naked eye. They came with caregivers, parents, friends, teachers, and camp counselors. But it doesn’t matter much what they had when they arrived; what matters so much more is what we all had when they left. Well, I can’t speak for any of the other several hundred volunteers at last night’s gala event, so I will speak for myself.

I entered the Crown Room and walked around greeting people I knew, praying with others that the evening would go well, that they would have patience and joy and words of encouragement for all that would be at their tables. Then I stood at one of the side doors and watched in amazement as those that are so often looked over, looked around, or ignored completely, greeted one another, hugged one another, and gladly received the hugs and attention of total strangers who welcomed them, fed them, and did all they could to honor the invited guests. At one point in the evening, I escorted a guest down three flights in the elevator and out the side door of the church so she could have a cigarette. She said it was her first time attending the banquet but that she hopes to return next year. I watched in amazement as the hobbled and bent, the mute and deaf, the scarred and twisted, danced, waved their arms, shook their bells, pasted on their Rudolph noses, and belted out choruses with gusto rarely seen among the “able-bodied.” When large bags of presents were brought to each table and then the gifts were presented to each person, the amazement was not in my eyes alone; it was also in the eyes of each glad-hearted, grateful, and surprised recipient.

About half way through the night, I felt an internal shift. I began to recognize myself in each of those wheelchairs, in each narrow, crossed pair of eyes, in each anxious child, and each disabled diner. I recognized the twisted, scarred, palsied, and mute areas of my own life that so desperately need care-giving. I recognized my own need to be lovingly, slowly walked outside by non-judgmental guides where I must handle my own bad habits. I too need to be fed, caressed, encouraged, and coddled on a regular basis. I too need the company of likewise afflicted souls to eat, sing, dance, and receive the gifts of friendship and laughter and silliness – with no expectation that the gift will be returned. I need people in my life who can look at my scars, see where I’m wounded and weak, and not look away. I need people in my life who can watch me drool and make a mess of my neat and well-groomed life, and are willing to wipe my chin without repulsion. I need people in my life who will come alongside me while I wipe the chins of my loved ones and quietly hug me, purposefully pray for and with me, then move on to help other hurting and needy people.

Even though I realize that we are all hobbling through life, limping, weak, and lonely, I tend to focus on figuring out who will stick with me, walk with me, and push my wheelchair when I am no longer able to do so on my own. I tend to be impatient and demanding just like some of the people at the dinner last night. I want everyone to meet my needs, to listen to my complaints, to respond immediately to my email, and take my calls. I want the world to revolve around me. But last night I was gently reminded that it’s not about me. It’s about all of us, each of us reaching out with grace, mercy, patience, and love to the rest of the travelers on this journey called life, regardless of our personal needs, regardless of our great bounty, regardless of who we are, and regardless of who we think we are.

While I cannot promise a banquet, I will say that holiday cookies, hot tea, and warm hugs are plentiful around here. Anyone care to join me, even if it's only for a virtual tea party? RSVP by Christmas Eve…

Friday, December 17, 2004

If you wish upon a star...

My mind is all aflutter. I just finished another wonderful book. A couple of weeks ago, my book group had our annual Christmas dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. Good food. Good company. We had a book exchange – we were each supposed to bring a book that we loved, wrapped, and we would each come away with something new. I ended up with a book I already own (Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake), but I was not willing to face the disappointment on the face of the woman who’d have to give up a book she really wanted. It was one of those exchanges where an unwanted gift can be exchanged for someone else’s choice. Anyway, I ended up borrowing Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons from someone across the table from me. In that curiously named novel, a handful of housewives on a fictitious Freesia Court tell the tale of being part of a book club that lasts for 30 years. Birth, death, adoption, cancer, a gay son, abuse, widowhood, separation, music, infidelity, deception, betrayal, silence, forgiveness, restoration, redemption, long-term commitment. It’s all there. It’s all right here on my street, in my home, in my heart. I am gonna suggest it as a book for my group to read next year. I suspect no one will fall on the floor and admit to physical abuse or having given up a child for adoption, but I hope it will open up discussion about the ways in which we all put on masks and play charades in our lives. I hope it will cause us to face our own demons and reach out for help in exorcising them. If nothing else, it will certainly be an entertaining read.

Yesterday as I read someone else’s blog (, I was challenged with one of the best New Year’s Eve traditions I’ve ever heard of. Andrea, the writer of that blog, explains that she hates New Year’s resolutions. They are all about punishing ourselves for our shortcomings and making ourselves feel smaller than ever when we fall off the bandwagon. Why deprive ourselves of chocolate or berate ourselves for loving food by trying to starve ourselves? Yes, there are habits that merit abandonment, but the beginning of a brand new year ought to be the beginning of brand new dreams, hopes, expectations, and aspirations, not a time to set up a new list of ways and reasons to think less of who we are, of who I am. She shares an idea given to her years ago by a good friend: the Mondo Beyondo list.

The idea is simple and simply revolutionary. Write down a list of the biggest dreams and hopes that I have. Where do I want to be in five or ten years? What do I hope to be doing? What difference will I be making in the world? Again, it’s not about reminding myself of what I haven’t done yet. It’s a time to dream big: I will have a best-selling journal/memoir published, a well-appointed, high-ceilinged, three-bedroom apartment in Madrid, Oprah’s cell phone number on speed dial on my own cell, a standing weekly writing date with Lauren Winner, and I will make my acting debut opposite Richard Gere in a movie about an amazing writer from North Carolina whose blog catapulted her from her modest study room to the private dressing room of her new friend and most honest critic, Oprah Winfrey. I get to play myself, of course, and Richard Gere plays my handsome, supportive, loving, and generous husband. My book is, naturally, a beloved and highly recommended volume in book and writing clubs alike. I will walk the quiet beaches of that remote island off the Spanish coast and collect shells to add to my travel momento shelf while sharing stories of life, love, and faith with my favorite confidante and closest friend, Steve. I will be fluent in Italian and Portuguese. I will be able to cook a gourmet meal from scratch without recipes and without having to go to the market; I’ll have all I need in my SubZero fridge and immensely well-stocked pantry. Plus there will be Pellegrino, sweet tea, wine, diet Dr. Pepper, and all the tap water any of my numerous friends would ever want to drink. Not to mention red Australian licorice, almond M&Ms, and oatmeal toffee cookies galore. This is what dreams are made of, and this is the exactly kind of stuff that goes on the Mondo Beyondo list.

Perhaps my dreams would be more modest: five or six good friends who get together on a monthly basis for twenty or thirty years and tell our own tales while eating bon-bons and walk this journey of life arm in arm. We will cry together through cancer, accidents, funerals, the weddings of our children, our own remarriages after widowhood or divorce, and whatever else life throws at us. We will laugh together through botched Thanksgiving dinners, split pants seams at company events, bad hair days, and our husbands’ last-minute birthday and holiday gift choices. And every year we will go away for a spa weekend where we will stay up late, sleep in late, and enjoy every oiled, massaged, hysterical moment together.

The thing I am looking forward to most about this list is the chance to honor all my dreams, both big and small, by writing them down, uttering them aloud in the car on the way home from the supermarket and in my early morning huddling in front of the Christmas tree when I look back on Christmases past and dream of Christmases yet to come.

I will fill the list with cosmic, unanswerable, improper questions, too. The “what ifs” will pepper my list. What if I had…? What if I hadn’t…? I’ll wonder if today’s difficult homeschool lesson on binary numbers will matter in five or ten years, or this argument, or this burnt dinner, or these painful hair rollers. Won’t the relationships matter more than the job, and the family game and movie nights matter more than all the after-school, transcript-padding activities that pull us away from each other? Will today’s sticky gingerbread house episode bring back better memories than the perfect cookies we point at in the Dean and DeLuca’s pastry case? I’d better make sure that the Mondo Beyondo list consists solely of the real dreams, the big ones, the colossal ones – and I’d better make sure that those dreams are the ones I live out and not just the ones I write about. If I truly believe what I say I believe, then I’d better do whatever it takes to keep from becoming an angry, fat housewife eating bon-bons wondering where the years went. If I truly believe what I say I believe, then I’d better start living out these dreams and wishes and hopes and expectations and prayers right here and right now.

Here’s to living a mondo beyondo life - and having our dreams come true.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Keeping it Plain and Simple

I seem to find great quotes everywhere. I usually copy them down, dissect them, slice them into barely recognizable slivers, and then put them back together in some personally relevant way. Today - and only today - I’m putting the scalpel down and leaving this one whole. This quote comes from Sue Bender’s book entitled Plain and Simple which I’ve been reading for what feels like a long time. On two separate occasions, Sue left her successful, busy, demanding bicoastal life for a few months and went to live with the Amish for weeks at a time, hoping that the simplicity of their quilts and the simplicity of their lives would change her in some simply miraculous way. This quote comes from the epilogue of her book. It’s both an insightful ending and a remarkable beginning.

“This isn’t a story about miracles, instant transformations, or happy endings. My journey to the Amish did not deliver a big truth. I’m not radically different. No one stopped me on the street and said, ‘Sue, I don’t recognize you. What happened?’

“I had hoped for a clean slate, imagined the old me magically disappearing and a totally new me in its place. That didn’t happen. Nothing of the old me disappeared. I found an old me, a new me, an imperfect me, and the beginning of a new acceptance of all the me’s.

“What I was learning was never what I expected. What I am learning doesn’t stay with me all the time; but I have glimpses, then it slips away. When I started this journey, I had a picture of the right way to be and the right things to do. Living with the Amish changed all that. Now this quilt, this book, this life is teaching me to trust, no matter what life turns out to be – even if it is not what I expected or what I thought I wanted.

“And I am not wise. Not knowing, and learning to be comfortable with not knowing, is a great discovery.

“Miracles come after a lot of hard work."

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

As you blow out the matches...

As this day, my day of celebration comes to a close, I have much to celebrate. To begin the day, Steve and the kids showered me with thoughtful and wildly excessive gifts. There was jewelry, a very cool poncho, a soap/lotion/bath gel set that smells wonderful, and several gift cards that will take the better part of this coming year to deplete. With my love for Starbucks, crafting, and reading in mind, they filled my coffers with more than enough to put me on a first-name basis with the friendly sales staff at several local establishments. If my skin weren’t such a deep milk chocolate brown, I’m sure I would have been a bold crimson red from blushing; their generosity was overwhelming.

It’s hard for me to accept the love and appreciation of others, but I guess that’s true for many. Most of the time I don’t feel deserving of anyone’s love. Often when I read the things I write in my journal and explore my deepest, darkest crevices, I am convinced that if anyone knew me as I truly am, they wouldn’t love me. But there is no one on the planet who knows me better than the three people who watched me wide-eyed as I opened their bountiful packages, and they have never hesitated to call out for me when they are sick, when they have a new gadget to show and tell me about, or when they want to just sit close and cuddle. On nearly a daily basis, they confess to loving me, and on a daily basis, their devotion leaves me without words. So to them I say, “Thanks.”

Yesterday I wondered what I would do with one fantastic hour on my birthday. After much deliberation and negotiation, the three of us piled into the minivan and made our way to the South Park Mall. I realize that is the name of a lewd, poorly-regarded television series that I am proud to say I have never seen; it is also the name of quite the upscale shopping spot here in Charlotte. We inaugurated my new Starbucks card and sat at the window bar watching the well-endowed shoppers parade past with packages and parcels of all sizes, shapes, colors, and origins in their arms. Then we strolled through a few shops, made several purchases of our own, and otherwise enjoyed ourselves. Well, Kristiana and I did. Daniel protested every part of the outing except for his strawberries and cream frappuccino. I stood toe to toe with him and said, “Listen, when it’s your birthday, we won’t come to the mall, but today is my day. We are doing what I want to do today, okay?” When one of the saleswomen asked why the children weren’t in school, I said, “It’s my birthday, so I took them out of school to celebrate with me.” Daniel rolled his eyes.

Last week, I wrote about a book I was reading at the time called One Year Off. What a tale of great adventures on the road David Cohen told. One of their last stops in Asia was in a remote cave full of statues of Buddha. Without a flashlight, they were unable to see much. So the author pulled out a book of matches and lit them one at a time illuminating for brief seconds their colorful and sacred surroundings. “When I lit a match, it formed a small circle of light around us. In that circle, hundreds of tall thin Buddhas stood sentry. Each time I lit another match this gentle army sprang to life, and each time it flickered out, we were plunged back into darkness. It was a remarkable effect, very spiritual, and it made me consider how far we’d come in this last year. It was almost a year ago, exactly, that we were living a pretty ordinary life in the suburbs of San Francisco. Now we found ourselves 1500 miles up the Mekong River, igniting matches, one after another, in a pitch-black cave surrounded by thousands of carved Buddhas. It all went by so quickly, this journey of ours – just one brief luminous scene after another.” He then went on to describe the countries, cities, and homes they had visited. He ended with a more wide-angled view, comparing the lighting of the matches in the cave with the lighting of matches in life.

And as I sit here pondering my birthday, I can’t help but ask where have these 39 years gone? What is illuminated in the circles of light in which I have stood? It is certainly going by quickly, and so much of what I recall corresponds to his artfully rendered description of alternating deep darkness and luminous scenes. I remember brief snatches of my childhood in Brooklyn. I remember learning Braille in elementary school so I could pass notes with Loddie, the blind boy in my 5th and 6th grade class. Did he know he was the only white student in the class? Then there were six years at Poly Prep, the school with the tall white tower at the foot of the Verrazano Bridge. I wasn’t blind; I knew I was the only black student in most of my classes. Then there were six years at Williams: four as an undergrad and two as a member of the staff. It was there that I discovered the world of political science, some of the glaring injustices in our world, the power of multi-national corporations, and the power of protest. I went to football games as both a fan and a field commentator, sat in on art history lectures even though I hadn’t registered for that class, and met the man who is now my dearly beloved husband. I also stayed up late, laughing with friends, dancing at BSU parties, and quietly joyfully journaling as many details as I could remember. Then there was marriage, two children, a graduate degree in exchange for reading books I loved and writing papers I cherish to this day, my father-in-law’s death, my father’s death, and an unexpected move to Charlotte.

I’m guessing that at this point in my life’s journey, I’ve lit about half my matches. I have gazed with awe and wonder around the cave holding the many sacred relics of my own life. I am thankful for every time I’ve burned my fingers and my heart as the light has gone out on the life of a loved one or the life of a friendship: I have loved and been loved. I am thankful for every time I’ve soothed a feverish forehead, rubbed Elidel into eczema, and applied Vicks Vaporub to congested chests: I have two children that rely on me to provide comfort when they are in pain. I am thankful for every page I read, every page I have written, and every wandering thought I have had: my mind and heart are made stronger with every one. I’m grateful for every candle on my cake, every old-age joke, and every laugh line around my eyes; I have lived long, lived well, and I’ve been “laughing all the way” – well, a lot of the way. For the most part, mine is an ordinary and uneventful life. Nonetheless, mine is a much enjoyed and richly blessed life. I pray that I will willfully and courageously light whatever matches that remain and discover again and again the mysteries and miracles that sometimes hide in the shadowy cave that my life often resembles. For these 39 years and for whatever time is left to me, I say, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.” Happy Birthday, indeed!

Monday, December 13, 2004

Help - I'm fresh out of ideas!

Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m not quite at the big 4-0, but I’m getting really close. REALLY CLOSE. I’m definitely not one of those people who will unplug my phone and sit in the dark, or undergo radical reconstructive surgery in order to alternately mourn or ignore the passage of time in my life when I reach that imminent milestone. I have lived a life that has been jam-packed with passionate love, compassionate friendship, deepening faith, and many international adventures. There have also been deep internal conflicts, moments when suicide seemed like a viable alternative worth serious consideration, and countless days when running away from home was thwarted only by the cries of hungry children. As I reflect on the good days and the bad ones, I am grateful. I have met amazing men and women all around this globe who have brought light and laughter and love into my life and have changed me forever. I have read books, seen movies, and listened to lectures that have caused me to see the world, to see people, and to see myself in ways that were unfathomable to me beforehand. During my thirty-something years, I have walked hundreds of miles, driven thousands of miles, and flown tens of thousands of miles only to find that what I needed to see, learn, and understand was already inside me, wrapped in the fine threads of thought, prayer, meditation, good conversations with loved ones, great food with hungry friends, and sometimes even in the humorous cartoons of the Sunday paper. As I look ahead to tomorrow and the birthdays yet to come, I wonder what the next thirty-nine years will bring. I wonder who I will meet, whose words will inspire me to become a better person, and whose music will raise the roof of my soul. I wonder what countries I will explore alone and with my family in my endless quest for more life, more love, and more learning. I wonder what illnesses will befall us, what wars will ravage our world, and what we will do, what I will do to make a difference in the lives of those around me. It’s both soul-stirring and soul-stopping to look ahead and rhapsodize about what lies far ahead of me. But I will get off this lofty topic and bring it way down to earth.

I spoke to my ex-sister-in-law just a little while. (That term refers to the woman my foolish brother was too brain-dead to hold on to when he decided that single life was better than marriage and bringing up two beautiful daughters. Betcha can’t guess whose side I was on when the divorce was in the works…) She made an intriguing suggestion. But let me set the stage for her idea: three years ago, in December of 2001, I, the youngest of four children, the only daughter of a widowed mother and sole sister to three older brothers, went to bed on the night of December 14th, my birthday, without so much as a telephone call from any of the above. Now, let me be clear, I usually love my family members. I usually recall with some modicum of kindness and good-will our childhood. I usually send them holiday cards, write postcards when I travel, and otherwise go out of my way to be a supportive, loving, caring, and attentive sister – this after being tortured by them so extensively as a child that I am no longer ticklish on any part of my body. So it was quite saddening, distressing, mind-boggling, and downright unconscionable to me that all of them, all four of them forgot my birthday. That was a sad day indeed. After countless retellings of the tale to any and all who will listen and countless rewrites of that momentous day in my journal, I’m over it; well, not really, but I say that I am because it makes them feel better. See? There I go being the ideal sister and daughter again.

Oh, yeah – back to Cathy’s idea. She wisely said that I cannot rely on others to make my birthday special. She encouragingly said that my value in the world is not reflected by whether or not people who claim to care for me remember me on my birthday (or at any other time) and tell me what I mean to them. She was so right, and I needed to hear every word she said. For better or for worse, I often measure my self-worth by the words and silences of others. She ended our conversation with the following: “Gail, do something spectacular for yourself tomorrow, even if it only lasts an hour.” What a concept! Something special for myself! No need to wait for someone else to pick the perfect present or make the perfect cake or arrange for the hot rocks massage to end all hot rocks massages. But look at the time: It’s already after 7 PM. What can I arrange on such short notice? Who will watch the children? What will I wear? And more important than any of those questions is this: What will I do? With only an hour, what spectacular thing could I do? My husband will be at work all day, has a work-related Christmas social that will continue into the evening hours, and the children have basketball practice until 9 PM, so the first thing that came to mind will have to be postponed. A stroll through a favorite piazza and chiesa in Rome would prove difficult to pull off, as would an hour in “my chair” at that caffe I love so much just off the Tevere. Walking through the old city in La Coruna with a dear friend who always makes me laugh with stories of teaching precocious students isn’t possible either. An hour in the Met, the MoMA, the Guggenheim, or even Charlotte’s Mint Museum would amount to nothing more than an artistic appetizer. The main course of art appreciation and consumption must be enjoyed very slowly.

Ultimately, I am without a definite plan. I don’t particularly like manicures, and it’s too cold (35 degrees) for a pedicure; I couldn’t possibly walk to the car in flip-flops. Besides, who sees my toes anymore now that sandal weather is behind me? I don’t need any clothes, so a trip to the mall isn’t particularly appealing - although perhaps a makeover would be fun. Nah – then I’d just feel compelled to buy something I don’t need. Perhaps an hour of artwork, collage-making, or journaling would be fun. Solitude at Starbucks or an hour of perusing the library stacks are favorite activities of mine, but then again, I can do any of those last five or six things anytime.

I know I’ll spend the next three or four hours trying to come up with something clever and creative and tantalizing. Care to help me? Care to toss a few good ideas my way for how to spend an hour in spectacular fashion on my birthday? No idea is too small; I’ve already got the big ones covered…

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Painful Price of Beauty

Last night was a miserable night for me. I went to bed with about 75 plastic rod rollers in my hair. I normally sleep on a very firm pillow, but last night it was all feathers for me. I tossed and turned and tried desperately to get comfortable. The rollers jabbed my ears, my forehead, and my neck. I looked like an alien from the asteroid heading to earth (that’s on the teaser for next week’s The West Wing). It was not a pretty sight. But here’s why I did it in a nutshell: as I stood in my bedroom complaining that my hands were numb from putting in rollers, Daniel looked at me and said, “Yeah but Mom, you are gonna look so pretty tomorrow.” He’s right; today my hair looks great. Full of bouncy curls and all the various shades of red and brown highlights aglow, I’m looking quite fine, if I do say so myself.

Whenever I decide I want this curly look, I have to go through a rather elaborate process. The usual stuff comes first; I shampoo, condition, oil, and then twist my locs. That’s how dreadlocs remain separate one from another: after the shampoo, each is twisted separately and allowed to dry. But when it’s fancy hairdo time, I twist them, put them on rollers, sit under a dryer for an hour or two, sleep with the rollers, and remove them in the morning. The good thing is that the curls last for a week or so. It’s fun to have that full Diana Ross look for a few days, then when I wash the curls out, it’s back to my usual long, flat locs until I get inspired to inflict the pain and discomfort again. I always apologize to Steve for having to lie next to his helmet-headed wife. No cuddling is possible for fear that I will injure him with my instruments of torture and beauty.

Why last night? Well, today I attended a Christmas brunch with a group of women I am getting to know and like quite a lot here in Charlotte. And tomorrow morning we will hit the road and head towards Greenville, North Carolina, to visit several aunts, uncles, cousins, and their children. My uncle Cullen is a minister in nearby Winterville, North Carolina, and I haven’t heard him preach in at least 25 years, so it’s time to go hear him again. Plus it’s Christmas – and I will take or make any excuse to take a trip. All in all, I decided to go “glam” for a few days.

But to get to that “glam” place, I needed to go to a painful place. A hot, sweaty, under the dryer place. An uncomfortable, twisting, pulling, place that involved releasing a few truly insufferable rollers. I had a friend back in Connecticut who always wore huge hair styles and unbelievably heavy make-up. I don’t think she owned heels that were less than three inches high, and her clothes covered her like paint covers walls: airtight. She was a sight to behold. Once when I’d done this curly ‘do, she complimented me on my new style. I was straight forward with my explanation: “It’s the magic of plastic and the heat of a dryer.” She came in close and whispered, “Gail, you’ve gotta suffer for sexy.” I laughed. But every time I pull out my bag of magic plastic rods, I remember Mary’s comment. I remember her sage comment when I am sweating through my Tae-Bo workouts: no pain, no gain. I’m not looking to pull a muscle or lose my hair in order to look my best, but without a doubt, hard work is involved. Discomfort is involved. Being able to smile at my reflection in the mirror and wear a size 8 after a decade in 12’s and 14’s - those results have made the pain worthwhile.

I have found that the same truth applies in areas of personal, relational, spiritual, and intellectual beauty and strength as well. If I am going to be a woman of peace, of love, of patience, of godliness, of kindness, of gentleness, then there is work to be done. There must be regular shampooing of unkind, rude, selfish, insensitive, and inconsiderate thoughts from my mind. If I am going to be the best wife I can be, I need to regularly run the “virus check” to quarantine and delete the accumulated critical, angry, disappointed thoughts that sometimes threaten to paralyze and crash our marriage. If I am going to be the best mother I can be, I have to spray Lysol in the parts of my mind where the germs of impatience, unrealistic expectations, and pure jealousy of how great their lives are in comparison with the life that I had as a child have grown. I sometimes have to do a few “extra sets” of lifts, take a few extra moments to push myself to new heights, new depths, and go beyond my perceived limitations if I am gonna drop this excess baggage. When I have to prepare for uncomfortable encounters, difficult conversations, and long car rides with the family, I set aside a few extra moments of solitude to make up for what will be lost in awkward moments and tight hotel rooms.

All this often entails painful work. Even without the rollers, I sometimes toss and turn at night when I am at an impasse in a friendship, facing a crisis of faith, or pondering a marital question that seems unanswerable. On many mornings, I get up before the sun in an attempt to find relief from the forehead, heart, and soul jabs that awaken me. When my fingers go numb after writing countless journal pages, when my heart is pounding and my chest is heaving, when my eyes are red after hours of crying, I tell myself what Daniel told me last night, “Yeah, Gail, but you will be so beautiful, strong, wise, peaceful, and loving tomorrow.” It’s the inner beauty, the peace that passes understanding, the unspeakable joy, the hope for that which is yet unseen, the faith that what He has begun in me will be brought to completion – that’s what I want to be reflected on my face. That’s the only kind of “glam” I want to be known for.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

I hope the President is okay...

He’s one of my favorite television characters, President Bartlett is. And now that his MS has kicked into high gear, he’s in a wheelchair, unable to sign his own name, and barely able to move. The preview for next week showed him falling over in the bathroom. What will happen to the President? I’m almost ashamed to say that my children ask me every Thursday morning what happened on “The West Wing” the night before. Almost ashamed. The truth is that many very thought-provoking political discussions have begun as a result of me watching that show on Wednesdays and explaining it to the children during social studies class on Thursday. I always have to make sure that I get home in time to watch it. Tonight, my book club had it’s annual Christmas dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. I laughed out loud when the woman sitting next to me explained that she was checking her watch so often because she didn’t want to miss “The West Wing.”

I don’t know much about MS except that it is a progressively debilitating disease that eventually confines its sufferers to their beds, demands increased dependence on others, and because it has little or no effect on brain function, the mental and emotional anguish must be intense as the illness overtakes all of life. Apparently, at least according to the surgeon general on Air Force I with Bartlett, the paralysis and numbness begin gradually. It comes and goes. And it can be hidden in the early stages. I know someone who is currently struggling against the advancement of this awful affliction. In a video shown at our church a few months ago, she spoke about the great sadness of her children never knowing her as the vivacious, active, vibrant woman she used to be. She is such a strong woman whose body has rebelled against her heart’s desire to be the kind of wife and mother she has longed to be.

Of course, tonight’s episode has gotten me thinking. What dis-ease is quietly taking over me? What symptoms am I hiding? Like President Bartlett put his useless hand into his right pocket, am I putting a paralyzed emotion into a deep pocket of denial in order to avoid having to reveal the parts of me that aren’t working properly? Am I allowing the insensate nerve endings around my heart to atrophy in order to avoid having to deal with having it broken again and again by a careless friend, an irresponsible sibling, or a thoughtless stranger? Will I let things go so far without taking action that I too will be carried on a stretcher by a spouse or two children who should not have to take responsibility for my spiritual or emotional well-being? Am I honest enough to reveal my most personal trials and tribulations with anyone at all? Am I willing to risk the rejection, the criticism, and even the pity of others in exchange for a few true advocates and companions on this journey that is my life?

Will I reach out and ask for help when homeschooling, housekeeping, serving at church, and being a wife and mother become more than I can handle alone? Will I make tough and unpopular decisions to protect myself and my family when the mind and relationship-numbing drug of busyness threatens to anesthetize us completely? Will I decline invitations to holiday parties and choose quietly sitting in front of our tree instead? Will I forego yet another silly holiday movie and play Milles Bornes with the kids instead? Will I insist that we mark off family nights every week and put on our pajamas early, pop some popcorn, and watch old home videos together? Will I sleep late during Christmas break and replace an early morning Tae Bo session with full fat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls and Illy from the Bialetti with heaps of raw sugar – even just once? Will I admit when I’m losing the feeling in my soul and ask for time off to recuperate, be rehabilitated, and get “that lovin’ feeling again”? Trips to Spain and Italy serve as phenomenally effective therapy, but those are therapeutic remedies I can draw on only once per year. I will get away in a couple of Saturdays for an all day writing retreat; that’s right up my geeky alley. In between those more serious interventions, I will take time out daily for quiet reflection while burning my Rome-purchased cinnamon incense. I will take slow, lazy walks on balmy Charlotte afternoons (it was nearly 70 degrees here today) and have long talks with my kids about books, read them Bible stories, work on holiday cards for our Dominican and Swazi sponsor children, drive around our neighborhood at night looking at the holiday lighting extravaganzas that Charlotte loves to put together, sing Christmas carols, bake oatmeal-raisin-toffee cookies from scratch, laugh at the antics of our hamster, Buddy, and discuss the political and international ramifications of President Bartlett’s visit to China in a wheel chair.

See? I’m not always serious and religious. I sometimes watch television, too. Speaking of which, I might have to cut out early from a Christmas caroling session next Wednesday evening to make sure I’m back at home in time to see what happens next. This inquiring mind wants to know how Josh and CJ and Toby and that new blond press lady handle this new crisis. And with Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits in the cast now, I’m truly a goner. Hey, we all need an escape of some sort, don’t we???

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

One Year Off

If I had to name my five favorite activities in the world, included in that list would be reading, writing, and traveling. Two summers ago, I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in my right wrist. While I must admit that a newly developed love for tennis hadn’t helped my situation, the main instigator for that alternately painful and numbing diagnosis was my writing. I grip my pen so tightly and press the point so firmly onto the paper that I have put holes in many an unsuspecting and undeserving journal page. I have ripped furrows in the margins of favorite books, and there are many grooves in my desk that will always remind me of enthusiastic notes and letters that I have etched over the years.

If asked what my life goals are, if asked what I would do if I were to win the lottery (which I am unlikely to ever win as I don’t play), if asked what I would do if some distant relative or generous friend died and left me a fortune, my answer is simple. First, I’d give some of it to family and friends in need and to some charities I respect. Then I would pay off our mortgage since that’s our only outstanding debt. Anything that remains would go towards travel. Leisurely (months at a time), luxurious (no tents or rustic cabins for this spoiled bunch), international (there’s a big, beautiful world out there that I’d love to see more of), and educational travel. I’d fire Steve from his job, put dust covers over the homeschool desk, pack our rolling bags, and take the Silvermine Academy on an extended field trip. We would start in South and Central America, as I have only seen Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro there, and both of those stops were far too well-planned for my taste. We barely saw any of “the natives;” it was all tour guides and bus drivers. Then we’d fly over to Spain to visit with friends and roam freely, frolic slowly through France, immerse ourselves in Italy, gallop through Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and all the other countries in between. We’d probably avoid the northern European countries as I avoid cold weather as much as possible – and I hear it’s ridiculously expensive up there. I guess somebody’s gotta pay to keep them all warm. We’d charge through the Chunnel, explore Great Britain for a while, hit a few Irish pubs, and then fly down into Africa. Wildlife safaris and photography would define our stay there. Off to Australia, up into Asia. I could go on. I would go on and on and on if I could. If only…

Reading fantastic travel books has had to bridge the impassable gap between my vivid imagination and the reality of my life. Unlike some friends and relatives who have enough money to retire right now but simply choose not to for reasons I don’t quite understand, we aren’t yet in a position to scrap it all and hit the road. But as my children pulled me out of the library last week, literally holding onto my already overflowing bag of books, I saw the ultimate “reality/fantasy/travel/adventure/sell it all and just do it” book I’ve ever run across. It’s called One Year Off. The editor of a successful publishing company, his wife, and their three young children, (9, 7, and 2 years of age!) sold their home, their cars, their stuff, bought round the world airline tickets, and took a year off. From California to Costa Rica to Europe to Africa to Australia to Asia and back, on camels and pontoons, in airplanes and armed vehicles, in tents and luxurious hotels, eating at street stands and in stuffy French restaurants, they stopped talking about it and made it happen. I have laughed, shaken my head in shock, and held my breath as David Cohen tells a fantastic tale of a dream come true. Yes, parts of his story are nightmarish, but most of it is the stuff of quixotic legend.

I simply cannot imagine what a year of travel with my husband and our two children would be like. First of all, I would insist that we not take along a lap top computer unless it was a tiny one that is used only for journaling and email. No Backyard Sports or Sims or Madden Football or Barbie or Mavis Beacon or Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego CDs. I would want us to figure out where in the world we were. I would make sure that is not accessible on our little laptop. The American sports scene would have to be temporarily blocked from the masculine conscience of my family. Sorry, guys, but Monday Night Football, sports reruns, and Olympic Badminton are off the agenda. I too would have to give up my addiction to Sabrina Ward Harrison and the Irish Jesuit Prayer webpage that leads me through such wonderfully calming and centering prayer retreats every day. It’s time to reacquaint ourselves with our own imaginations, to make up games as we go along, to just be. To be together.

We would pack lightly. The author of One Year Off describes his seven and nine year olds trying to wrest their large suitcases from between the trestles of the tracks of an oncoming train at a rural station in France. Often they had to travel in two cabs because they had too much stuff. He said one of their greatest regrets was carrying too much. One budget-busting story was of doing their laundry in Zurich; a single trip to a laundromat cost them $150. Not me; not us. Each of us would have a school size backpack and a single pull-behind bag. I know it can be done. I went to Spain this September for a wedding and ten days of gallivanting with exactly that much luggage. I was fine. And if I didn’t have to carry that puffy floor-length skirt and high heeled shoes for the wedding, I would have been more than fine. There would be journals for everyone, cameras in every bag (disposable ones for the kids), a light heart, a spirit of adventure, and a well-worn series of travel guides at our disposal. Actually, I wouldn’t even take whole books; I’d rip out the pages we’d need and leave the rest at home.

Someday I hope we will pack up, leave this all behind, and take a year off. In the meantime, we should probably start small. Pray for us as we are going away for one night this coming weekend; Steve sometimes snores and Kristiana tends to kick Daniel a lot when they are sleeping in the same bed. That year off may be a long time coming. Traveling mercies, G

Monday, December 06, 2004

Are you a survivor? Aren't we all?

I just got in from dinner out with my mother. A couple of weeks ago, she invited me to join her at a dinner given at our church for widows. I know that there are myriad outreaches at our church; it’s one of those “mega-churches” that reaches out to meet nearly every need that our community faces – or at least it was in my mind until I recently spoke to a friend who lives in Colorado and attend a church of 11,000. Ours “only” has about 2800 on Sunday mornings.

Anyway, I accepted my mother’s invitation, although a question played repeatedly in my brain until it was verbalized by one of my inquisitive children this morning: “Why is she inviting you? You’re not a widow.” Well, as it turns out it wasn’t a dinner for widows; it was a dinner, a banquet really, for the cancer and grief ministry at the church. There were about 90 people present, and I was struck by the variety of people. I expected it would be a room full of somewhat sedate women whose loss would be written on their furrowed foreheads. Instead I was greeted by what seemed like a knitting club’s annual gathering: there were holiday sweaters galore. Red ones, white ones, green ones covered with sequins, bells, bows, glittery beads, and all sorts of doo-dads that cannot possibly survive intact after even a single round in the delicate cycle of any 20th or 21st century washing machine. The men wore colorful ties and crazy sweaters of their own.

There they all were, grief and cancer survivors. Men and women of all ages, various nationalities and obviously in varying stages of recovery and survivorship. Wigs, hair pieces, newly grown hair, slow gaits, and far off stares abounded. But there was also great laughter. The people at my table were quite entertaining. A retired fireman who began his career the year I was born was the funniest of the bunch, regaling us with tales of being burned at the stove of the firehouse. Going into burning buildings, he quipped, was far less dangerous than taking on the challenges of preparing a meal for his coworkers. We talked about the heavyweight plastic utensils we were using, the weather, the differences between life in Charlotte and life in New York City, and who would win the door prizes that were being raffled off. And I wondered what brought each of those people to the dinner. Which of these hearty and happy souls had gone under the knife, had lost a loved one to cancer, or are currently dealing with cancer themselves?

Dinner itself was delicious – and quite interesting. The appetizer was a jello mold with lots of fruit floating in it topped off with a glaze of reddish whipped topping. At first, I thought it was some mistake and they had served dessert first. I looked around the room in confusion and saw several tables on the perimeter that were covered with sizeable slabs of all kinds of cakes: chocolate, carrot, red velvet, and two kinds of cheesecake. Nope, the jello wasn’t dessert; it was indeed the appetizer. I’m no big fan of jello by any stretch of the imagination, but I ate most of it sans the whipped topping. Dinner was ham, potatoes au gratin, and peas, which the elderly gentleman to my right referred to as “buck shot.” He poured my water with a shaky hand and an iron-clad determination. We all watched in nervous silence as he poured and breathed a collective sigh of relief when he put the pitcher down. The slice of ham I was given covered half of my plate. HALF OF MY PLATE! The potatoes had a mound of cheese on them that could have stopped the ticker of any serious heart disease patient.

Jello, a side of ham, the cheesiest potatoes I have ever seen, and a sixth of a cheesecake. Are they kidding? No, they aren’t. This life is short. It’s plagued with plagues. Why not wear the festive sweaters, tell the tales of firehouses and friends, eat well, laugh hard, sing loudly, and then go home with a song in your heart? For cancer survivors, for the caretakers of cancer survivors, and for the loved ones left behind, every Christmas is a time to celebrate. Every Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate. Every day is a time to celebrate good food, toe-tapping music, and life itself.

As I sat there and looked around the room, I wondered how much different that group must have looked last year. Some of the members of the cancer support group hadn’t survived the year. Some had moved to warmer climates for the last few months and years of life. Some have gone into remission and have chosen to take this year off from the reminder of being a survivor. And next year, more of their number will have passed away, gone on to the heavenly home they have prepared themselves to enter. New members will join. New caretakers will come to be taken care of. I arrived at the banquet wondering what I was doing there, but it wasn’t long before I was wondering why there weren’t hundreds of people there, even thousands. There is no one I know who hasn’t been touched by cancer or grief in the past year or two. There is no one I know who couldn’t use a little encouragement as we care for the ones that we love who are suffering. And the people I know who aren’t in either of those categories, should be in a room like that offering encouragement and hugs to the rest of us.

Just as I entered the prison last weekend convinced that I’d have little or nothing in common with the inmates or their visitors, I entered this evening’s event with a baseless and arrogant detachment; “I’m here to support my mother, but I don’t really belong. I’m neither a widow nor a cancer victim.” Just as I left the prison last weekend with a fierce attachment to my new friend Daniel and his mother, I left the dinner with a few more fierce attachments and several questions that I wanted to ask every person in that room: “What brought you here tonight? What grief are you carrying? Are you sick? Who have you lost?” I wanted to listen to every story, write down every detail, and give each of them a hug.

As the raffle drew to a close and it became apparent that I wasn’t going to win anything, I sat back, took another long look around and realized that I had won something far greater than a gift certificate to Red Lobster or Dean and DeLuca. I had gained new friendships, found new reasons to laugh, and tried to learn new names and faces that I can add to my growing list of requests when I sit, not on the lap of Santa, but at the feet of Jesus in prayer. “Lord, can you remove a few tumors, grow back some hair, and give all those folks whatever it will take for them to have a very Merry Christmas? For some of them, for some of us, this could be their last Christmas; please let this one be as fully festive, jubilantly joyful, and markedly merry as their first Christmas many years ago. And would you please bring me a gift card from Barnes and Noble while you’re at it?”

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Soup's On!

I love homemade soup - even when I have to make it myself. It’s not nearly as pleasureable as homemade soup made in someone else’s home, but enormously gratifying nonetheless. My daughter, Kristiana, and I have a pot of Italian Wedding/Orzo soup on the stove right now. A bottle of Orvieto Clasico wine was the only white I had in the house, so two cups of that went into the soup pot and the final cup went down my parched throat. Yum! In a very short while, we will enjoy the warmth, the rich flavor, and the hearty nutrition of one of our favorite soups. There’s something so special about making the tiny meatballs, adding the seasonings and spices, and chopping the garlic and onions; I feel like I’m doing something much more old-fashioned and authentic than just opening a can of soup and heating its contents for three to five minutes. Plus there is the secret pleasure of crying real tears while chopping the onions. I think about my friend, Daniel, who is in prison two and a half hours away. I think about eight-month-old Caroline who is sick with cancer out in San Francisco and 11-year-old Alyssa here in Charlotte whose leukemia is currently in remission but who must undergo months of chemo to keep it in check. I think about Fernando who is recovering from complicated nasal surgery here in Charlotte. I think about my oldest brother whose diabetes doesn’t seem to want to be brought under reasonable control. And I cry - the onions are merely an excuse to let the tears flow. Then as I smell the garlic sizzling in the olive oil, I am reminded of my three trips to Italy. I remember the walks up la Via Tomacelli in Roma, stopping in for cappuccino and nutty bread at a favorite café. I think about sitting in favorite churches for quiet times of writing and thinking and marveling at the magnificent art all around. I laugh when I recall the oddity of sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Roma, listening to Chinese people speaking Italian. And I remember sitting around a table there with ten newfound friends and trying to decipher their splendid melodic Italian intonations. I didn’t even mind that I understood precious little of what they said; I was in Rome. Que bella! Back in my kitchen here at home, after adding the final ingredients, I left the soup to simmer, but I didn't go far. I stood nearby tantalizing my olfactory glands with whiffs of the culinary magic taking place literally and figuratively under my nose. My daughter had made the meatballs. Watching her long fingers mix the meat, the bread crumbs, the egg, the salt, and the pepper distracted me for a few moments. She’s only eleven years old, but most of the time she is much more of a friend to me than a daughter. We journal and make collages together. We groom each other like marmoset monkeys and paint each others finger and toe nails. She reads voraciously just like I do. Currently, we are reading a book entitled, Plain and Simple, together. It tells the story of a woman who left her life of luxury and modern conveniences in California to spend a summer with an Amish family in Iowa. The simplicity of the quilts and the faceless dolls she had seen in her many weekend antiquing trips intrigued her more than she could easily explain away. So she took the plunge and found a family that welcomed her and showed her their way of life. I enjoy the discussions I have had with Kristiana about how radical such a lifestyle choice would be. And even though I know we are many light years away from an Amish existence, there was something plain and simple about being together at the kitchen counter this afternoon making soup. Mostly we worked in silence, but we shared the unspoken goal of feeding ourselves and the rest of our family simply and plainly. It was a moment I won’t soon forget. My soup, this Italian wedding/orzo soup is a personally inspired combination of two different recipes. I once made the wedding soup but found it too thin. On another occasion I made the orzo soup but wanted some meat. So I put the two together and ever since then, I’ve only made the two in combination. In so many ways, that is a perfect metaphor for my life. I grew up in the chaos of Brooklyn, New York; then I cocooned myself in serene and pastoral Williamstown, Massachusetts for four years of college and two years of work after graduation. I found great joy in both places, but realized that I needed some combination of the two. So I moved to Connecticut where I lived for 12 years before heading to Charlotte - which has turned out to be the perfect combination of city life, suburban life, racial, cultural, and socio-economic for me. I grew up in a 98% black neighborhood in Brooklyn, spent six years in predominantly white Williamstown where I met my 100% white husband (who grew up in a small town in central Massachusetts that was 98% white), and we moved our interracial family to various mixed communities, culminating here in Charlotte. New York City once called itself “the melting pot;” I’m not sure, but it may still go by that name. I remember reading once that that phrase – melting pot – is not as complimentary as many thought. In a fondue pot, where everything melts together, the uniqueness of each kind of cheese is lost to the combined flavor into which one dips a piece of bread and comes away with one single gooey glob of cheese. Tasty, but messy. Perhaps “mosaic” is a more useful, more relevant term. Each tile in a mosaic retains its own distinct color, shape, and properties. But when they are joined together by way of some fixative, a dazzling effect is attained. One can step back and see a larger picture; the influence of the artist’s hand is evident from a distance. Or one can stand closer and examine each separate contributing fragment. So it is with our soup. The orzo, the meatballs, the spinach, even the bay leaf retain their individual characteristics in our soup pot, but together the savory opera that comes to its exuberant crescendo on the tongue is resoundingly harmonious and demands encore spoonful after encore spoonful. So it is with our family; each of us brings a unique shade of skin, nuance of spirit, and uniqueness of perspective that together have formed an irreplaceable and unrepeatable quartet. And so I hope it will someday be in our world. Each nation, people group, language group, and family contributing a colorful, dynamic, valued, and flavorful presence that is enjoyed by all. Is this dream of mine "pie in the sky," hopelessly naïve, and by all reasonable measures, impossible? I sure hope so. But what an awesome recipe to attempt to bring to the boil! Buon appetito!

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

What are you waiting for?

One of my favorite Christmas songs was written by a friend of mine named Rob Mathes. It’s called, “Waiting for Love to be Born.” I have always heard and believed that Christmas is not so much about the presents as about the Presence of God, about the birth of Jesus, that baby in Bethlehem who has turned this world upside down. I know that many people don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah or anyone extra special. Many believe that the Bible is a book written by people for people about people in an effort to stupefy people down through the ages. I confess to having many moments when I have wondered if in fact it’s all a rather well-contrived hoax. Regardless of what anyone believes about Jesus, no one else has had a greater impact on the last 2000 years of world history than He has. Lives have been lost, found, changed for the better and, some would argue, changed for worse because of Jesus. Wars and rumors of wars have ravaged many nations and peoples both in defense of the name of Jesus and in an effort to eradicate His name. So when I heard Rob Mathes’ song about his take on what Christmas is all about, I stopped the CD, listened to it again, and found myself thinking of Christmas in a slightly new way. “All is set. I know my stocking’s downstairs, and the sky is smiling: there is magic in the air. I can’t sleep. I am so glad to be home on this early morning, I’m not alone. This is the season – this is the time. I see the face of a child and that face it is mine. I’m looking for starlight; I’m listening for angels. And the house is asleep on this Christmas morn, but I’m awake. I’m waiting here for love again to be born.” It hit me between the eyes: I too am waiting for something new to be born this Christmas as I have waited for something new to be born every Christmas for as long as I can remember. As a child, I waited for new toys and books and sweets that would make that day special. As I got older, I hoped for envelopes with that tell-tale soft spot in the middle. In college, I just hoped to be remembered. Then when love struck, I looked for small boxes under the tree. Even now as an adult in charge of putting packages under the tree for two growing young ones, I still feel the magic in the air. As I strolled through Target today, I marveled at the doll clothes, the games, the computer animated toys, all the glittery, noisy, colorful, cool stuff. And before I feigned offense at the excessiveness of it all, I looked at another woman evidently silenced by the grandeur as well as said, “When I wander down these aisles, I wish I were a kid. There’s so much great stuff to buy for our children, isn’t there?” She laughed and nodded emphatically. In my more sophisticated moments, I furrow my brow and say that Christmas is more than the presents: it’s the closeness of family, the feeling of wonder, the fantasies of the children and frolicking in the crisp, new snow. But I must admit that I am still a sucker for a pretty package. Books I have eyed for months, thoughtfully chosen journals with their gently illuminated covers and pristine empty pages, pretty little boxes with funky earrings and matching necklaces and my personal favorite - gift cards – all that good will and generosity just make me weak at the knees. Sipping peppermint mochas at Starbucks while slowly savoring their rich lemon pound cake – all on someone else’s dime - number among my greatest pleasures. As for priceless gifts: I confess to waiting for the thoughtfully penned note, the perfectly crafted email, the unexpected telephone call that boosts my spirits and assures me that I am not forgotten, that I matter in the hearts and minds of the ones I hold dear. Rob’s song goes on: “Bundled up – I know what’s waiting for me more than a pretty package next to the tree. Something else – a gift far greater I know: born in Bethlehem long ago. The sun is rising - I see the distant lights. Oh, what a glorious day will come from this holy night. To us is born every December anew, a love that’s unbelievable, given to me, given to you.” No matter whether or not we believe what the Bible says about Christ, all the frenzy of this time of year, the shopping, the travel, the days off from work, the baking and cooking and decorating and trees and wreathes and candy canes, it’s all because of that baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger. If He had never been born, then there would be no reason for all this fuss. For those of us who believe that the baby grew up to die on the cross because of His great love for us, then what we wait for every Christmas, is not the love letter of a lifetime. It’s not the all-expenses paid trip to the great cities of Europe and Africa or the 3 carat flawless diamond earrings or the thigh-length sheepskin jacket or the $100 Starbucks card – even though all of those would be greatly appreciated and enjoyed in good health. What we await, as Rob so simply and beautifully states, is for love again to be born. Advent season is the time of waiting, anticipating, preparing, and welcoming the Love that was born so many years ago. Every year I wait for Love to appear again, to bring peace on earth and good will for all people. I wait for the light to appear in the darkness, for the luminous full moon to rise above the cold, shadowy, frightful night that seems to persist in this angry and sorrowful world. What I await is an untamable love, an indescribable love. It’s a love that’s unbelievable. It’s peace that passes all understanding. It’s good will that cannot be hunted. Every December, I look forward to the tree, the presents, the cookies, the chocolate, the parties, and all the fanfare. And once the tree goes up, every morning I steal down to the living room, plug in the lights and stare at them for many silent moments. I shake the presents even though I know what’s inside most of them. I hope and wait for the perfect present every year, the one that makes me laugh and cry and shout and fall silent all at the same time; but I have never found it under the tree. I find it when I look at the miniature manger scene next to the fireplace and try to make out the details on the tiny faces of the miniscule holy family. I try to imagine what Mary thought about and felt and dreamed of in those last days before she delivered that miracle baby. She waited, and I wait. I turn on the stereo and sing along with Rob: I am waiting here for love again to be born. What are you waiting for?