Friday, March 31, 2006

I was a hit!

They laughed.
They cried.
They cheered.
They sat on the edges of their seats.

I laughed.
I cried.
I applauded them.
I stood on heels of my sandals.

Today's talk went extremely well. So well in fact, that the Director of the South Carolina Department of Social Workers (I'm sure there's an official title that I've forgotten) who was in attendance asked if I'd be willing to give the same talk to the state wide conference of social workers at the beginning of May. Wow! I was honored to be asked, and I'm thrilled to be able to lift the spirits of a few dozen more people who have given their lives to serve "the least of these."

The highlight of the day for me, however, was listening to the final speaker, a woman who has seen and been through it all: abuse, addiction, prison, losing her children to "the system" - but she stood before us today approaching her ten year mark of "being clean," with her children back in her custody, along with her three grandchildren.

She spoke honestly and passionately about the pain she has endured in her life and the pain she has inflicted on others. She spoke even more energetically and poignantly about the victories she has experienced and the growth that she contines to see in herself. She spoke of "the sleeping monster" of addiction that still lives within her and the daily decisions she must make to keep that monster at bay. She thanked the social workers for their hard work and told them that it was because of the undaunting courage of one of their own that she was able to begin the long road back to recovery.

She made us laugh.
She made us cry.
She stood before us as a living testimony to the perseverance of underpaid, overworked men and women who have not given up the fight against addiction, poverty, and despair. She stood as a living testimony that if we are willing to face the monsters and seek the help we need, we can wrestle them into submission. And she reminded us that there are no victories that can be taken for granted. Daily, hourly, moment-by-moment, we must all make the right choice when the decision is before us.

I wept for her. I wept along with her. I wiped my running mascara and smudged blush as she gave thanks to God for the strength that He provides to her as she raises her grandchildren, as she helps her children recover from the pain she admits that she caused.

I have never heard such a powerful, transparent, strong, victorious speaker in all my life. My meager motivational speech paled in comparison with her first-person account of the power of prayer, perseverance, and persistence. I will never forget her. Ever.

Thanks for all your kind thoughts and prayers going into today's event. Who knows? I may soon be coming to speak at a convention center near you!

On a sad note, the little boy I mentioned in yesterday's blog remains in a coma. I received a phone call today informing me that the doctors say he has suffered irreparable brain damage due to lack of oxygen. His mother and many others are now praying for a miraculous healing. We continue to pray for him and for her, knowing that these coming days will be indescribably challenging as we wait and hope.
Kyrie Eleison.
Lord, have mercy.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Thursday Thirteen...

Today I will focus on things I'm grateful for and things I'm looking forward to.

1. Steve and Daniel returned from Florida safely last night. Sun-tanned, sporting new baseball caps, and carrying at least seven baseballs they caught at batting practice, they were quite happy to be home. And we were glad to have them back.

2. Our hairdos came out great. Mother-daughter beauty parlor appointments are a beautiful thing.

3. Kristiana and I both completed new necklaces with our new beads. Great hair and great accessories; what more can we want?

4. Tomorrow I will go before a group of South Carolina social workers to give a motivational speech. I'm still not sure what qualifies me to be their guest speaker, but I was asked to do it, and I NEVER turn down opportunities to share some of what I'm learning on this topsy-turvy life journey with people in need of a word of encouragement and hope.

5. My mother and two of her friends are down in Mississippi this week working with people whose lives were turned upside down and inside-out by Hurricane Katrina. I hope and pray that they are doing well and that the work they are doing makes a marked difference in the lives of the people they meet.

6. Yesterday morning I stepped on the scale and discovered that I have managed to gain 5.5 pounds in the last two weeks. Why am I grateful for this news? One, I am blessed enough to have great food around me at all hours of the day. Two, I have eaten lots of that great food at all hours of the day. Three, exercise in the coming weeks will mean more to me now that I have a clear and present goal in mind.

7. Just by drinking lots of ice water, cutting out the morning dose of super-sweetened coffee, and abstaining from eating mounds of raspberry licorice hearts while watching late night television, by the time I weighed in this morning, I was already down two pounds.

8. This internet thing never ceases to amaze me. Somehow, sometime, somebody read the blog I wrote on February 1, 2005 called "My Name is Gail; I'm a Glue Monkey." That person read the piece, liked it, and added a link from my article to their own blog. So people I will probably never know are checking out that article, leaving comments, and making me feel like my words matter. Thanks, Silver.

9. My daughter and I made and sent out three birthday cards today to some dear friends in Connecticut. I love my friend Karen, but she made my spring very complicated when she decided to have her three children on March 22nd, April 1st, and April 9th. Plus she followed that up by celebrating her own birthday on April 11th. I do fine with her son's March birthday, but I always manage to forget to flip the birthday calendar from March to April early enough, so every year somewhere around the 29th of March, I enter panic mode: three cards, gifts, and a trip to the post office, all in one day. It's all in the mail now, dear. Enjoy!

10. I am grateful for friends whose birthdays I get to celebrate at all. I especially like being able to use the internet to congratulate those who are too far away and who need absolutely nothing that I could buy. Sometimes just being friends is enough.

11. What am I looking forward to? This weekend, there are no basketball tournaments to attend or work at. Last Saturday, we were assigned to work at the concession stand at a local b-ball tourney. Our job was to melt Velveeta in a crockpot for nachos and cheese dogs, to heat up chili to add to the hot dogs, and sell soda and Gator-Ade. What an ordeal! My cooking ability was questioned because I was unfamiliar with the chemical composition and melting point of VELVEETA!!! I'm not sure I've ever eaten Velveeta, but I'm sure I'm never cooked it. Yuck!

12. We have invited one of the pastors from our church and his family over for a meal after church on Sunday. If the weather is good, we will have the first cookout of the season! If the weather is not good, we will send Steve out to the grill in the rain to cook the meat anyway. Fruit, pasta, and green salads along with varied grilled meats are what's on the menu. Sweet tea and lemonade to drink, and key lime pie for dessert. If my friend Jill lived closer, she could make and deliver one of her signature pebble salads. That would complete our salad buffet. But alas... I'm definitely looking forward to our time together anyway!

13. The Psalmist wrote: Oh that men would give thanks to the Lord for his goodness,
And for his wonderful works to the children of men.
For He satisfies the longing soul,
And fills the hungry soul with goodness.

I forgive David for leaving out the women in most of his writing, but I join him in his chorus of thankgiving for the goodness of God nonetheless.

Sometimes I worry that I sound too Pollyanna in my easy-breezy writing, but there's so much bad news, so much fear, so much death, disease, and pain in the world. Right now, Laurie, a woman I know from my church is sitting vigil at the bedside of her six-year-old son, Christopher. He is in a coma following a lung infection that caused him to stop breathing. If that part isn't sad enough, Laurie is a widow who lost her husband to cancer when her two children were less than five years old; when I think of the possibility of her losing her son, my heart and eyes overflow. Please say a prayer for their little family.

I realize that there are many in the world who suffer, who do not have enough to eat, who are dealing with the devastation of natural disasters, war, and evil people. In no way do I mean to diminish their sorrow by talking about going to the beauty parlor or eating too much candy. To the contrary, I feel all the more compelled to give thanks for the great blessings that I have received in my life. My husband, our children, our home, family, friends, and all the stuff that we have accumulated in our lives: it's all so much more than I could ever have asked for or imagined was possible for me.

It is the reality of Laurie's situation, the horrors that my mother is dealing with on the Gulf Coast, and the countless other stories that are even more painful than these that cause me to continually give thanks. All those tales of woe are precisely why I am so quick to find reasons to rejoice and point the way to Light in a world that seems steeped in deep darkness most of the time.

Today, I have much for which to give thanks.
Don't you?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Past, present, and future perfect...

Flashbacks: Steve remembers that during his early childhood, he and his dad used to go to semi-professional baseball games on Cape Cod during the summer. Together they ate sunflower seeds, kept the box score, and hoped to catch fly balls during batting practice - or with luck, during a game. During my younger days, I made necklaces from colored pasta or bead kits picked up on the cheap at Woolworth's. Early in our life together, Steve and I went to a couple of Boston Red Sox games at Fenway. I tried to conjure up some excitement about the proceedings, but I couldn't stop thinking or talking about the people who'd have to sweep up all the peanut husks and sunflower shells. I don't think I'll get invited to many more games. Soon after moving to Connecticut as a new bride, I began to frequent a funky, little bead shop in Norwalk, Connecticut; I still have some of the beads I bought 15 years ago.

Fast forward: Right now (9:16 PM), Steve and Daniel are attending their fifth baseball game in three days down in Florida; it's their second annual father-son spring training baseball jaunt. I imagine them chewing and spitting out the shells from their sunflower seeds, punching the web of their baseball gloves between innings, and chanting silly rhymes along with the other thousands of Yankee fans under the lights. And I'm pretty confident that neither of them is worried about the mess they are leaving behind.

As I write this blog, I am sitting at the computer, taking a break from a mother-daughter beading/jewelry making extravaganza. Kristiana and I are in the throes of creating necklaces, bracelets, and earrings from the glass, crystal, wooden, plastic storehouse of beads we have collected over the years. Our most recent stockpile was picked up at our new favorite shop over in Asheville, North Carolina yesterday morning.

Not to be outdone by the male members of our household, we made the trek to the same Inn that brought me rest and rejuvenation at the end of January: the Inn at the Biltmore. We feasted on two divine vegetarian meals at The Laughing Seed, drank chamomile tea and ate creme brulee in front of the fireplace at the Inn, then dove into a dreamy and luxuriously large bed: sweet dreams were had by all. She woke up early yesterday morning to soak in the whirlpool tub while I slept in. After packing our things and heading back into town, we roamed through our own version of the crystal palace, picked out a tube here, a box there, a stone here, a pearl there, and now we are making the most of our most recent discoveries.

Last night, Kristiana and I went to the library like the good geeks that we are, roamed around unhindered by the complaints of the young baseball fanatic who attends our little homeschool, then we went in search of a spring jacket for Kristiana in several stores. No luck, but we sure had fun trying. This evening, we ate Thai chicken pizza for dinner and chocolate peanut butter cookies for dessert. Why that particular meal? Two reasons: First, we can't eat peanut butter cookies or thai anything when Daniel is around; he's allergic to peanuts. Second, having dinner without a salad or vegetable is a rarity indeed. We were being quite extravagant and indulgent!

Okay, so now that I wrote that last part, it doesn't seem like such a big deal, but for us it is. We are big fruit, veggie, and salad eaters, so deliberately choosing not to eat them ... okay, I'll stop right there. I'm just digging myself into a deeper, more hopelessly geeky hole, aren't I? In any case, we have thoroughly enjoyed these three days, evenings, and nights together as a daring duo.

Looking ahead: Tomorrow morning, Kristiana and I are off to the hairdressers to have special hairdos done. Then we will go hear our favorite woman pastor give her weekly devotional, have lunch, and then ... well, quite frankly, I don't know how the two of us succulent, wild women will end our four-day lovefest. Sometime in the evening, the two main men in our lives will return to find us coiffed and gorgeous. (We should give Maya a bath and get her all fluffy and fabulous, shouldn't we?) After the requisite "oohs" and "aahs," we will all have stories to tell, hugs to share, and normal lives to resume.

Why bother to look ahead or plan the future when what we have right now is so enjoyable? So perfect?

La vita e' bella.
Life is beautiful.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Thursday Thirteen

1. The kids and I are alone for a few days this week as my husband is in Boston for work. It's both a blessing and a burden to be home alone with them. Little things, like going to the supermarket and leaving them at home, feel completely different when he's not around. I am far less comfortable with doing my thing when I can't call him and ask him to be at home and cover for me if the car breaks down. It is during the times when he is away that I realize how blessed I am to have a loving partner to share my life with.

2. Having said that, there are times when I wish I could run away from all of this: the homeschooling, mothering in general, dealing with whining and complaining, cleaning up after the dog, cooking, doing endless loads of laundry, dusting, vacuuming, and then sitting down in my favorite corner chair only to look up and see dust on the ceiling fan. Calgon, Roma, Gin and Tonic, take me away!

3. This week, we passed the three year anniversary of the war in Iraq. Over 2,500 American soldiers have died there, and many more have died of their wounds, but because they didn't die in Iraq, they are counted differently. My heart races even now as I think of their pain their families and loved ones must feel because of their loss. Patriotism and service to country are high ideals, but the death of someone dearly loved is deeply, eternally painful no matter what the reason. Plus there are all the thousands of Iraqis who have died and been wounded, not to mention the soldiers and workers of other nations whose numbers we only rarely hear. Sorrow upon sorrow. No end in sight.

4. We have also passed the six month anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and inconceivably, it was only yesterday that the last of more than 5,000 missing or displaced children was reunited with her mother. Six months of searching for her four-year-old daughter ended yesterday. Here I sit, realizing that countless days have gone by when I haven't thought about New Orleans even once, but that woman has never stopped thinking about it. Many tens of thousands of people are still homeless. Most of the homes devastated by that hurricane and its aftermath remain untouched, uncleaned, unchanged in any way. Sorrow sorrow upon sorrow, with no end in sight.

5. In thinking of those two tragedies, I realized that there are far more similarities between them than most of us would care to admit. In both cases, local and national government officials assured all who listened and watched that the resolution to the crisis would be quickly found. Democracy would be established; law and order would be restored; the presence of occupation soldiers wouldn't last long; in fact, life for all affected would be better afterwards than it had been before. Rebuilding would be efficient, complete, and imminent. In both cases, those promises remain yet to be fulfilled. Thousands remain at the mercy of those over whom they have no control or influence. In both cases, most pre-event warnings - as in pre-war protests and the predictions of severe coastal damage - went unheeded. All criticism of the actions of those in control has been and continues to be considered betrayal, negativism, and anti-patriotic.

6. Yesterday was the five-year anniversary of my father's death. I miss him terribly, his gentle spirit, his laughter, his warm hugs, and his insatiable hunger and thirst for righteousness. He made the best apple pie turnovers! And sweet potato pies that brought cousins, aunts, and uncles from miles away. How did he eat so many Snicker bars, so much ice cream, put sugar and honey in his tea, eat some combination of sausage, bacon, and nearly eggs every day, and still manage to stay so thin?

7. I was not one of those parents who looked up the meanings of their children's names and meditated on them long before their births. In the case of my daughter's name, many years ago an Italian friend of mine explained to me that if she hadn't chosen the name Stefania for her own daughter, she would have used Christiana. That name stuck with me. Steve and I weren't even married at the time that I heard that name for the first time, but I told him that if we ever got married and had a daughter, I'd want to call her Christiana, but spell it with a "K."

This morning I decided to look up the meaning of our names. Kristiana means annointed, follows Christ, and her middle name, Nicole, means victorious people. Daniel was given his name because of the faith, the strength, and the godliness of the Biblical character by that same name, but today I found out that his name means "my judge is the Lord." His middle name is the same as his father's first name - Stephen - and it means "crown." They both have very strong names. A lot to live up to. When I shared the information with them, both of the children were excited to find out what their names mean and didn't seem the least bit intimidated by the prospect of carrying those weighty mantles. By the way, Gail means gay, lively. My middle name, Nadine, means hope. Nadine, however, was connected with the name Bernadette and Bernadine which mean: bold as a bear.

8. Last night, I watched a show on television called, "Super Obese." The group of patients being chronicled on the show weighed in at 600 pounds or more and struggled to walk, breathe, and in some cases, even move. They lived at a facility in Ohio that specializes in helping the morbidly obese lose weight, regain their health, and eventually be able to go back home and take care of themselves. I was mesmerized, saddened, and sometimes horrified by the sight of the skin problems, the lesions, and the layers of fat that, in one case, literally dragged on the floor as the woman walked.

That woman had been at the facility for sixteen months and had lost 344 pounds. SHE LOST 344 POUNDS - but she still had a lot more to lose and was looking forward to greater progress during her ongoing residency there. Her newfound excitement about life's possibilities was clearly evident. One man who weighed well over 600 pounds had been there for ten months but had lost only 18 pounds. He, on the other hand, made the decision to leave the program and go home to try to do the work on his own. Like all the diet commercials say: results may vary.

9. As I watched, I wondered what switch in the mind gets turned off when one tips the scale at 250 pounds, then swells up to 300, 350, then 400, 450, 500, 600, 700, eventually 800 pounds. How much does one have to eat to maintain such enormous weight? What are their family members doing? If they can't walk, who's buying, cooking, and presenting them with all that food?

I wondered: where are the switches turned off in my own heart and mind? What am I ignoring and allowing to grow so disproporionately that it literally drags on the floor beneath and behind me? Would I be willing to do what they did, expose my glaring addictions and lack of self-control to others to be judged, criticized, but also corrected? Would I take that much of a risk? How much energy do I consume in order to maintain the bloatedness of my ego, my self-centeredness, and my excessiveness, no matter how it manifests itself?

10. Maya isn't feeling well today. She threw up this morning, like her little five-pound self can afford to lose any weight. Poor thing! It's amazing that, no matter how large the crisis may be that looms on the international horizon, her shivering, shaking, retching little body brings this entire family to a standstill. A few minutes ago while the children were eating lunch, she barked loudly at them, was given food to eat, and seems to be holding it down.

11. Yesterday I had the opportunity to be the speaker for a group of African-American stay-at-home moms. I had no idea what to talk about, but the woman who invited me assured me that any suggestions, wisdom, or advice I might have about motherhood would be welcome. So I kept it simple: I told my own story of how I became a mother, how I decided to become a homeschooler, and how all the answers I think I have about motherhood often morph into doubts and questions under the duress of actual day-to-day parenting. I began and ended the talk with the Rilke quote: Learn to live the questions now... then someday, perhaps you will live your way into the answers. And while they are at it, I added, learn to love the questions. Embrace the contradictions of life, and march on.

12. That group, known as Mocha Moms, consisted of women in many stages of being at home. One is a widowed mother of three children who is figuring out how she can work for much-needed income, but still be at home whenever her children need her. Another is a 38-year-old mother of a 2-year-old, who'd had a child during her teenage years. Her family consists of herself, her husband, a two-year-old son and a nineteen-year-old daughter. Many others had very young children in tow, older children in school, and one was caring for her own two sons as well as a young nephew for two months following his mother's surgery.

But there we all were: sharing our stories of the road of life, encouraging each other to not grow weary in doing good, and assuring one another that asking for help, admitting a mistake, and correcting one's life course are not signs of weakness. They are signs of humanity.

13. I am enormously grateful that I get to share my life with so many struggling, searching, sometimes triumphant, sometimes despairing people. Even though I struggle, search, and I am alternately triumphant and despairing myself, neighbors still invite me over for a glass of wine on the occasional Friday afternoon. Church friends still invite me for coffee or tea. My children ask me to sit with them and read, create art, or play games. My husband asks me to sit with him on the couch and hang out for a while. Even little Maya follows me around the house and wants to know everything I'm doing, especially everything I'm eating. I admit that sometimes I just want to be left alone.

But when I think more closely and carefully about my life, when I list the many sources of abundance I enjoy, when I pay attention to all things bright and beautiful, and give thanks for the many people who love me and call me "friend," I realize that I am blessed indeed.

Thursday Thirteen.
Thankful Thursday.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

We are The Champions!

If you have a weak stomach when it comes to parents bragging about their children's accomplishments, you should stop reading right now and go check in on other blogs you like to peruse. You have been warned!

I have written a lot about my daughter, Kristiana, but very little about my son, Daniel. That is the case primarily because he doesn't like when I talk about him, even if I say good things. Fortunately for me, he doesn't read my blog. (Kristiana, if you are reading this, please don't tell him!) I love my son dearly, and I wish he would grant me permission to speak as freely about him as I do about Kristiana. Anyway, here goes.

Daniel says and does many amazing, funny, insightful, and downright brainy things around here. Here's an example. At the moment, we are blessed to have the world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls on display here in Charlotte. We are planning to go see them in a couple of weeks, so I've talked a lot about them and their significance to us as followers of Christ and avid readers of the Bible. Yesterday, Daniel found a smooth piece of bark outside on the driveway, brought it inside, signed it, asked all of us to sign in, and said he was going to try to preserve it in some way. Why? Because these were the "Dead Tree Scrolls."

This boy does two digit multiplication in his head in a matter of seconds: 45 x 19 in his head! He can listen to a word, a sentence, and sometimes two or three sentences in a row and tell you how many letters were in the words of the passage he heard. Once he claimed to have added up the letters in an entire sermon given by our pastor. Of course, there's no way for us to verify that, but I give him credit for even attempting such a feat. I'm convinced he has something of a photographic memory. But don't take my word for it; I have friends from our time in Connecticut who will attest to the fact that he used to spell words backwards at the ripe age of four years old. The letters of words like "sovereign, worship, Norwalk" and of course all the letters in his own name, rolled off his tongue like he was reading them from a blackboard - backwards.

Along with the eerie mind games he plays, my son is also quite the busy little athlete. Three weeks ago, his regular basketball season ended when the Olde Providence (OP) Heat team won a closely contested game against the OP Raptors for the "8 and under" championship. (He's actually 9 years old, but his birthdate placed him in the lower age bracket.) The toughest part about winning that game was that three of the boys - triplets! - on the opposing team had been on Daniel's undefeated football team during his first (and last) season playing tackle football this past fall. Following that Heat championship, Daniel was invited to join the OP All-Star team to compete against other all-star teams from nearby leagues. Just about the same time, he began to play for an AAU basketball team called the Charlotte Royals. This weekend both the All-Star team and the AAU team had tournaments. He competed in six basketball games! His two teams won all six of the games he played in.

But thanks be to God: the two-team insanity ended this afternoon when his OP All Star team won the championship. There were 6.9 seconds left in the game, and his team was leading by one point. The other team inbounded the ball to one of their best players who dribbled around the defense, launched a shot that bounced off the rim, and one of Daniel's teammates grabbed the rebound and held on for dear life!

Where was my son at the time? Unfortunately, he was on the bench because he fouled out with 8 of his team's 19 points when there were only 58 or 59 seconds on the clock. It was one of those games that I don't usually stick around for the end of because my blood pressure goes through the roof, I start sweating, and Steve is more nervous that I'm gonna curse at one of the refs than he is about the outcome of the event. In my own defense, I am a rowdy, vocal, but always respectful fan. I scream, but only in support of my children's teams or when the ref makes an obviously, blatantly stupid call - which happens more than one would expect. Anyway, back to today's game...

When Daniel's teammate Ross grabbed that last rebound, I leaped to my feet and started screaming, "Just hold it. Hold it. Hold it." As the referees blew their whistle for a jump ball, the buzzer sounded! Yeah!!! We won. We won. They won. I was thrilled.

Six games of basketball. In three different gyms here in Charlotte. After his third game yesterday, he and Steve left the school out near the airport and made their way home, both exhausted by the length of the day, both looking forward to a good night's sleep. (At the time, Kristiana and I were at the fifteen year birthday celebration of the daughter of two dear friends of ours. The quinceanera party in the latino culture is as highly anticipated as the bar or bat mitzvah in the Jewish community.) As it turns out, they left the gym before the real excitement started. A crazed Charlottean, as residents of Charlotte are called, stood outside the building brandishing a gun; on the news, I'm sure they reported it as "a lone gunman." None of the people I spoke to about the incident today knew of any demands, any assaults, or even threats he'd made; they were too busy protecting themselves and their loved ones inside the gym for half an hour until the police arrived and took him away.

Yes, you read it correctly: half an hour. Between the 20 minute wait for the police last Tuesday night when we reported having found an abandoned child and this 30 minute wait for the police when a man was wielding a lethal weapon outside a gym filled with two or three hundred people, one wonders, I wonder, what it takes to get quick police action in this city. Don't get me wrong; I honor, respect, and admire police officers. My oldest brother, Otis, was a police officer in NYC for fifteen years. Cops have voluntarily taken on the monumental, dangerous, and mostly thankless task of law enforcement. But the events of this week have raised a lot of questions... Maybe I'll call Otis and ask for his opinion on these events.

Anyway, ultimately, fortunately, all was well. All is well. No one was hurt. The deranged man (he'd have to be deranged to endanger the lives of so many innocent children and their relatives for no apparent reason) was carted away.

As I sit here writing this blog, Daniel is lying in his bed sound asleep. His sore right ankle is wrapped in a bandage. His second basketball championship medal of the year is lying on the top shelf of his headboard - as visions of multiplication problems dance in his head. I love my sweet, funny, handsome, exhausting, and exhausted boy more than he will ever know!

We are the Champions!

PS. I told Daniel about the blog this morning (Monday, the 20th) and sat with him while he read it. Smiles. Laughter. "I can't believe you told them that I fouled out... I scored ten points, not eight...My ankle was swollen like a piece of meat, so add that." He hadn't heard about the ordeal with the gunman, so I had to explain that. "Why would someone do that?" When I asked him to give me the answer to 45x19, he said, 855. I asked how he did it. He said, "I multiplied 45 by 20, then subtracted 45." Amazing. Overall, he was pleased by the blog, and I'm happy when he's happy.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I found a Diamond last night...

on the parking lot of the church where my son plays basketball. She was a beautiful, frightened, lonely little girl who'd obviously been separated from her mother. Braids in her hair, khaki pants, a burgundy shirt and matching sweater, white socks and white sneakers: when I called 911 twenty minutes after finding her, I was armed with a full description of the petite gem of a girl. By way of clarification, her name really was Diamond.

But let me back up and tell the whole story; I hate when people skip ahead and don't give all the pertinent details. My son has basketball practice on Tuesday evenings from 6 to 8 PM at the Pleasant Hills Baptist Church. Last night, we had to meet up with one of his teammates and bring him along. (As a quick aside, the boy's name is London. His two sisters are named Egypt and Asia. His parents either love to travel or long to travel.) Anyway, because we met up with them, we arrived at practice seven minutes late - and I hate to arrive late, no matter where I'm going. I pulled up to the gym door, let them out, and headed two blocks down the street to our favorite Charlotte bakery, The Great Harvest Bread Company. The bread, cookies, and scuffins (a delightful combination of muffin and scone) are simply irresistible. But much to my chagrin, the shop had closed at 6. I arrived back at the church at 6:09 - and that's when I saw Diamond, alone, crying hysterically in the parking lot.

As I drove past her, I rolled down my window and asked her where her mother was. She shrugged. Suspicious New Yorker that I am, I wondered if it was a set-up and I was about to be car-jacked. I looked around, but there was no one in sight. I approached her, asked her where she'd come from, and extended my hand to take hers. She came to me, again shrugging her shoulders, and I walked her into the open door of the gym to see if she'd wandered away from one of the other team parents. Nope. Two fathers and a mother of Daniel's teammates immediately came outside with me, and we began to look around the neighborhood in hopes of finding the rightful owner, I mean parent, of young Diamond.

The other mother in our search party picked Diamond up and began to ask her lots of questions: were you in a car, in the park, in a building? We approached the playground around the block from the church and asked the adults there if they recognized her. Nope. One of the teenagers asked what Diamond's mother's name was: Tasha. She told us her father's name, her sister's name, and that her mother drove a red car. We asked others on the street: one woman walking across the church parking lot, a man on a bicycle, and even stopped a car that was driving past. No one knew her. We entered a well-stocked local candy store. (It was a good thing I didn't have my wallet, or I'd surely have bought something. Instead I held back and gave myself a pep talk: "Stay focused, Gail. This is no time for a sugar fix.")

There we were, four adults, a three-year-old girl, walking the streets of a neighborhood that none of us knew very well, on a chilly Charlotte evening. We were all amazed that during the 15 minutes that we were seeking this child's relatives, we didn't hear a single frantic shout, a desperate cry, or see anyone running madly around the streets searching for their lost child. At that point, we decided to call 911. I told the operator we'd wait in the church parking lot.

We weren't in the parking lot for five minutes when a girl of 11 or 12 years of age sauntered out of one of the church buildings and began to walk in our direction. I asked her if she knew the little girl: "Yes, that's my sister." "Well, we've been walking around the neighborhood for 15 minutes looking for her mother." She looked at Diamond and said, "Diamond, why did you leave?" "Leave? She's 3. Didn't you notice that she was missing?" One of the fathers asked her to have her mother come outside. He approached and spoke to her about the carelessness of allowing a child of that age to be out of her sight for so long. He told her that the police were on their way, and she said she'd be willing to speak to them when they arrived.

Five minutes passed.
Ten minutes passed.
(At that point, the woman we'd stopped in her car drove into the parking lot to make sure all was well and that we'd reunited the child with her mother. I thanked her for coming back. She said she just wanted to make sure everything was okay. Concerned citizens warm my heart.)
Nearly 15 minutes later, the police finally arrived.
We told him what had happened and that the mother was waiting to speak to him. I expected that he'd warn her about neglect and the dangers of allowing her child to stray so far away. Nope. He asked if the child was okay and back in the care of her mother. "That's all we care about." With that, he was gone. We shook our heads.

Needless to say, I've thought a lot about that little girl today. She took my hand, allowed herself to be carried, questioned, and transported by total strangers around a neighborhood that she didn't live in. She was compliant in every way. As parents, the four of us were shocked, horrified, and incredulous that the disappearance of this small child could go unnoticed for so long. Later, when her mother spoke to the Jermaine, the team father who'd joined in the search, she expressed no fear, no deep sense of gratitude, and no real concern at all about what had happened. Perhaps she realized the seriousness of the situation later that night, but no tears were shed when we saw her.

Looking back on the events leading up to finding her, I recalled that when London's mother showed up late at our rendezvous location earlier in the afternoon I had been quite annoyed. Traffic getting up to the church was abysmal. To top it all off, the bakery was closed; that was my greatest diappointment all day. Then it hit me: I needed every one of those disappointments and detours, missteps and missed green lights in order to arrive at the church parking lot at exactly the right moment to find that precious Diamond.

She could have been picked up by a pedophile.
She could have walked across the street and into fatal traffic.
She could have been lost among the boarded up houses and abandoned cars on either side of the church.
She could have... the list of all the "could haves" in this dark and sinful world is long and terrible.
Instead, I found her. She found me. Together we found her mother.
Once again, I was reminded that nothing happens by accident.
Inconvenient timing for me was divine timing for someone else's beautiful daughter.

I hope and pray that all life long Diamond will know in meaningful, memorable, and personal ways that no matter where she goes, Someone is looking out for her, Someone will reach out and take her hand when she's lonely and afraid, and that sometimes the scariest times in life are the portals through which angels and friends enter - when she least expects them.

That is my hope and prayer for all of us.

Monday, March 13, 2006

It's Official...

I'm a published author. I went to the book-signing, the public reading, and the launch of Spinning Words into Gold: A Hands-On Guide to the Craft of Writing. It was a strange moment when I looked around a room of fifty to sixty people and realized that they were holding in their hands a text that housed my words. My reflections. My thoughts. My opinions and ideas now reside in the homes of dozens of people here in the Charlotte area.

Having raised your eyebrows, having gotten your hopes up, having prompted you to fetch your wallet and prepare to hit the link in order to purchase my book, I will now tell you the whole truth. The book mentioned earlier does exist. It was presented to the public for the first time yesterday at a local coffee house called Lava Java. It does contain a few of my rantings, but... the main author of the book is my writing mentor and teacher whose name is Maureen Ryan Griffin. She meticulously gathered the writings of a few famous writers, a handful of her favorite and most promising students (including me!) along with her best ideas, suggestions, and activites, and produced this treasury of gems related to the craft of writing. Quite frankly, I'm not exactly sure of the best way for non-local people to purchase the book, so I will suggest that you go to her website: I'm sure she will have information there on how to get your hands on it.

Anyway, she credits me with introducing her to the world of blogging and includes one of my blogs in its entirety in the book. The web address of this blog appears in the contributors' listing section at the back of the book, so I hope to get some more traffic here. Two other short pieces of my writing appear in the book. Although I will not earn any money from this venture, I am officially a published author.

Or am I? I'm not exactly sure what this means in the world of publishing. Ultimately, that doesn't matter; I don't live in the world of publishing. I live in the world of homeschooling mothers who journal and blog, and now my words will reach a wider audience. For that I am grateful. Enormously grateful.

Since I'm being honest about my accomplishment and accolades, allow me to tell you about a few other opportunities that have come my way to share my words with a wider audience than the one here on the blog. Next Wednesday, I will be speaking to a group of young mothers called, "Mocha Moms" about motherhood, marriage, and how to maintain one's personhood in the midst of mommyhood. I am excited about sharing a few laughs, a few tears, and a few suggestions on how to keep one's balance and sanity when life feels most unbalanced and insane. The first, last, and main point of my talk will be that the battle to stay upright on the river of life is a never-ending one.

The following week, I'll be giving a motivational talk to a group of social workers down in South Carolina. Interestingly enough, the talk will be entitled, "My Mother the Social Worker: A Survivor's Guide." Yes, my mother is a retired social worker, and I survived the ordeal. Although I will share a few highlights and lowlights from my childhood, the goal of the talk is to encourage them to stay true not only to their dream of helping other people, but also to stay true to their families and themselves in the process. I'm a little nervous about that talk because I'll be speaking to social workers! I am afraid that they will spend most of the time evaluating my sanity! Well, evaluating what's left of my sanity... Nonetheless, I am looking forward to encouraging them on their life journeys as well.

And in June, I will be the speaker at two women's retreats up in the NYC/CT area. Four sessions of 45 minutes in length based on the theme of travel. What does it mean to set out on this journey of life and faith as women? I will draw on Biblical accounts of the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt (don't we all feel like slaves sometimes, abused, underpaid, overworked, and all we want is a couple of days off?), the story of the prodigal son (wouldn't life be better if we didn't have to work so hard, if we could take the money, go party, and be on our own?), and point out a few parallels for our own lives. What do we pack for this journey? With whom do we travel? Who will share our burdens with us, listen to us tell the tales of the road, and what is the destination, the goal of all this trekking? (I'm beginning to think I'm obsessed with travel, literally and figuratively! Anybody else picking up on that recurring theme???)

Yes, I am up to my neck in writing and reading and praying and preparing for these sessions. But it is a blast for me. This is what I live for! I am convinced that the reason I have gone through all that I have gone through in my life - growing up as the only sister to three older brothers, the daughter of a bus driver and a social worker, surviving various traumas related to love, loss, life, death, friendships, neighborhood conflicts, emotional, marital, physical, spiritual, and relational upheaval, all of it - is to be able to sift through all the dross, discover the gold that life has buried within and all around me, and then share it with others. I can hardly go back and forth to the supermarket without finding something worthy of a journal entry or a teachable moment with the kids.

Oprah talks a lot about knowing what you were put on the earth to do. Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Life, talks about the same issue. What on earth are you here for? Me? I am here to share with you, my virtual friends, with my face-to-face friends, and in the coming weeks and months, with total strangers, some of what I am learning as I walk this pilgrim pathway. Nothing in the world gives me more joy than preparing for sharing. Nothing.

Anybody need a motivational speaker for your group of teachers, market analysts, doctors, lawyers, stay-at-home moms, or book club members? Call me!

It's official. I've been published.
Furthermore, I'm on the speakers' circuit.
And I couldn't be happier.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

We were not meant to be alone...

Last week, Oprah showed a clip of an earlier interview with George Clooney during which she told him that she thought he was dreamy. She followed that statement with a question: "When you are dating someone, do you do dreamy things?" His response: "I would suggest that I don't. I am 44 years old and single, so the dreamy part must be falling through the cracks." Oprah and her audience laughed at his response. I did not.

There he sat, one of the most eligible bachelors in the world: wealthy, handsome, intelligent, interesting, well-spoken, with all the advantages that money, fame, and looks can afford. Alone. As far as the public knows, he has never had a serious, long-term relationship, no children that he admits to, and no one to share his many homes, cars, and life experiences with. At least, not at the moment. His good buddies, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, are currently involved in serious relationships and for the most part, always have been.

After receiving his Oscar on Sunday night, he was interviewed by Oprah's friend, Gayle King, and he told her that he'd be meeting up with friends later in the evening. "They will all be there with their wives, and I will arrive carrying my Oscar. Won't that be amazing?" Yes, George, it will be amazing. They will be with their wives, and you will be with your statue of gold. But with whom will you share the personal, the private, the most intimate details of what it felt like to stand on that podium and give that eloquent acceptance speech? Who will hold you close, cry tears of joy with you, and wake up with you in the morning, after the alcohol and excitement wear off?

We all wonder, don't we? Why isn't George married? We look at our friends who are single and unattached, and we wonder: why doesn't that person have a partner? I admit that I wonder what it would take for some of my single friends to find someone with whom to share their lives. Even the most independent people I know, the die-hard solo travelers, the ones who refuse to merge bank accounts, the ones for whom the words "compromise" and "submission" are the filthiest in the English language - they are all happier when they are in love, when they are in "the mergers and acquisitions" phase of their romantic lives. We are not meant to be alone.

I'm not suggesting that it is impossible to be whole and complete without a life partner. I firmly believe that in order to be joined to someone else in holy matrimony, in life partnership, we must understand that our completeness will not be provided by the other person. I am strengthened, supported, encouraged, enhanced by my union with Steve, but not made whole by him. I do not mean to suggest that everyone ought to be married. One of my best friends in the world is a Jesuit priest; no marriage in the future for him. He loves his work, his Jesuit brothers, and has dedicated his life to serving God as a single man. I know many single men and women who are enormously happy with their lives.

On the other hand, perhaps there is some truth to the idea that having a partner brings us closer to completion, to wholeness. After all, the Bible says that it's not good for man (or woman) to be alone. And, on some level, we all know how true that is. We may not need a spouse or children of our, but we all need someone close. A bosom buddy. The shoulder to cry on. The friend to call on. The hand to hold in times of loneliness and sorrow. The one who will guide us through the times of darkness in our lives. The prospect of raising these children alone, of making my way through the world as a single mother, as a solo act is not an appealing one to me, not in the least. Marriage is not the answer for everyone, but loneliness isn't the answer for anyone. Solitude, yes. Loneliness, no.

Truly, there is something dreamy about the idea of traveling this journey called life in the company of someone special, someone I love and who loves me. There is something nightmarish about rolling over in bed and finding no shoulder either to snuggle up against after I've had a bad dream or to poke when Maya barks for her early morning walk.

My hope for the dreamy George Clooney is that he will soon find someone with whom he can share himself until death do they part. My hope for the recently divorced Meg Ryan is the same. As I watched the Oscars, I thought of the many presenters and recipients who have recently been separated and/or divorced from their spouses and significant others. I thought of all those who will soon follow in their footsteps. I wondered who they cry with, who wipes their tears, and who picks them up off their marble floors, sits them at their granite countertops, pours them coffee, and encourages them to march on in this not-so-dreamy life. So many of them "have it all," but in the words of the Old King James Version, "have not love."

If you will allow me to paraphrase, I will write my personal interpretation of I Corinthians 13:1-3.
"If I speak with the tongues of of men, women, and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of acting, singing, cooking, dancing, or crunching numbers, and can fathom all recipes, equations, and profit statements,
If I have enough wealth and influence to move mountains, build mansions where they once stood, and hire the staff to maintain it all,
But have not love, I am nothing.
If I give millions to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and hospitalize the sick, and surrender my time, money, and energy to great causes all around the world,
But have not love, I gain nothing."

"Dear friends," John wrote centuries ago, "let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God... This is how God showed His love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him... Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us."

All you need is Love.
All I need is Love.
We were not meant to be alone, so let us love one another.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Simple Pleasures from this week gone by...

eating salad and pizza for lunch with my daughter

sharing a scoop of ice cream with her

listening to the boys on the block play basketball in our driveway even though my son isn't at home; they just like it here

having a new laptop computer to play with and on: it's all mine!

finding great summer sandals and sneakers in my gargantuan shoe size

seventy degree days earlier this week - and it was still February! (It's back down in the upper 50's today.)

a long talk with a neighbor out on the front lawn this morning while Maya lay in the grass nearby

taking daffodils and fresh fruit to my mother-in-law after her lumpectomy

her sincere gratitude as she ate a banana while lying in bed

receiving email that touches my soul and moves me to tears

chocolate almond toffee

sandalwood incense

watching my daughter make jewelry and cards for her best friend

the promise of "a long,long letter" from a very dear friend: bring it on!

having both children plead with me to keep reading when I come to end of a cliff-hanging chapter

Daniel's unbridled excitement when he saw the results of a science experiment he'd done: he's a geek after my own heart!

seeing photos of Leonie's dog, Charlie, and her sweet Chris: her two favorite fellas

watching my own little Maya nearly flip herself over wagging her tail with all her might

the opening of a new Target store in our area (like I need ONE more thing in my house!)

knowing that tomorrow will begin another week, one that will hopefully bring joys and delights all its own

Thursday, March 02, 2006

I was all prepared to be catty...

I had seen the ads for days: Meg Ryan was going to be on Oprah after two years of living outside the spotlight. What happened at the end of her marriage? What is she up to now? There was an image of her with what appeared to be a traditional Indian marking on her forehead; is she now a Hindu? Is there a new baby? If so, does that mean there is another man in her life? Plus there were the obvious signs of a facelift: overstuffed lips, cheeks a little too puffy and a little too high. Her hair was long; was that an attempt to cover her newly adjusted ears? So I settled into a comfy and cozy position on my bed yesterday afternoon with my journal and colored pens at the ready. I was prepared to rip her pampered life to shreds. How dare she be rich, beautiful, and undergo surgery - and still hope to gain favor with me? Not likely, Miss Meg; not likely at all.

Oprah introduced her, and out she sauntered. She's got that hippy strut, that loose gait that I've always loved; she's not model-straight, and impeccably groomed. She is who she is, tall, lanky, and unpretentious. She flopped down into her chair, looked out at the audience, turned towards Oprah with her newly raised, tucked, pulled, and filled face, and peering out from her big blue eyes was fear, insecurity, and unsureness - all the same stuff that plague all of us at some point in our lives, for most of our lives, really. She knew that we all knew that she'd "had work done," but neither she nor Oprah mentioned it during the show.

She talked about the pain of divorce after five years of knowing her marriage was no longer working. She talked about wishing her marriage wouldn't end, that some hope for revival existed, and recounted her sorrow over the pain the divorce caused her son, Jack. Despite the screaming headlines and exaggerated tabloid spreads accusing her of leaving her husband for Russell Crowe, the truth is that her marriage was over long before that relationship began. Her eyes and smile brightened noticeably when she spoke of her newly adopted daughter, Daisy True. She said that her daughter's open smile, energetic, loving, and beautiful spirit has infused her home with newness and laughter again.

Over and over, she spoke of being confused by the tales told about her in the press, the way that most people forget she's a real person and imbue her with qualities that they think she should have instead of accepting her for who she is. She spoke of how odd all the attention is to being on "the red carpet," to being an actress, to being in the public eye. She wants friends she can trust, children she can love, and a life she can enjoy. She was real. She was honest. She was genuine. I felt my claws retract with each revelation.

Last year, she accompanied Care International on a trip to India where she met countless women and young girls in many different settings, all of whom are learning. That seems like a simple thing to most of us because we live in a nation where it is illegal to withhold education from its children. But in India, as in many places around the world, many children, especially poor children and poor girls, are denied access to education. Care International is working hard to emancipate women and girls from the chains of illiteracy and poverty. They are not only learning to read and do mathematincs, but they are also learning about AIDS, rape, birth control, and even basic things like menstruation and personal hygiene. And there in midst of the teeming groups of women and their daughters, in the deserts, in the slums, on the streets, and in the alleyways, was Meg, watching, smiling, laughing, listening, learning about women whose lives she could never have imagined.

I was so ready to be catty and critical of the results her plastic surgery. I think that physically she was more beautiful before she had the surgery. Within a few moments of tuning in, however, I realized that her facelift was nothing more than external evidence of her hope for an internal transformation. Like everyone else, she is searching for relationships, experiences, situations that will lift her out of the darkness and into the light.

Admitting on national television that she is lonely, confused, and sad about so much in her life made Meg Ryan more emotionally and spiritually beautiful than she was before the surgery. Realizing that there is more to life than making movies and money, Meg opened her heart to a needy baby girl from China and a million needy girls in India. Reaching out to meet the needs of the world's poorest and least appreciated citizens has mitigated some of the loneliness and isolation that often accompany her wealth and stardom here at home. She's tried the fame route. She's been married. She's given birth to one child and adopted another. She's traveled all around the world, has found a truly noble cause, and is giving of her time, energy, and wealth to improve the lives of women and children whose prospects for a brighter future were practically nil until just a year or so ago. In the greater scheme of these things, the facelift doesn't matter at all.

As I sat there and watched, new questions bubbled up in my heart and mind. "Gail, how can you be so stupidly insensitive? How can you be so utterly relentless in your criticism and needlessly cruel in your superiority complex?" Meg Ryan is a woman created in the image of the God of love, of compassion, of beauty, of art, of grace, and of mercy. Why would you want to see her in any other way? She seeks to give and receive love, mercy, compassion, and hope in her life. Even if she did leave her marriage for an affair with Russell Crowe, even if that were true, the reason she did it is because she yearns for love, for touch, for wholeness just like I do. She longs to be loved, just like I do. She longs to know peace, just like I do. She would like the pain, the oddness of life, the confusion, and the loneliness to end just like I would.

Life hurts.
Money doesn't ease the pain.
Looking good doesn't make life good.
Sorrow is no respecter or persons.
Nor is isolation.
Friends sometimes betray and disappoint us.
Marriages and other relationships fail.
Judging others is simply a cover-up for my own pain.

I too want a new face, one that shows the internal transformation going on in me. I want my face to reflect both my cattiness and my realization that cattiness is a habit I want to abandon. I want my face to reflect how I am learning to love the life I have and not the life I wish I had. I want to show that this journey of life is stretching me, pushing me to take more chances in love and in friendship and in my walk of faith. The challenges of life are also pushing me to face my resistance to growth, to change, and to acceptance of my faults as well as the faults of others. I am learning to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. I am seeking to be more honest in my relationships. I am learning to ask for help when I need it, to say "No" to requests that I cannot fill, and "Yes" to those that fill me. I am learning that setting and living within reasonable boundaries is both a challenge and a relief.

I suspect that it's a lot easier to undergo surgery: to fill in the wrinkles from too much exposure to the stinging, burning rays of anger and bitterness, to puff out the sallow places where I refuse to let the light of God's love shine in and expose my hidden shame and fear, and hope that no one will mention how fake, how hypocritical I look. I can inject the botox of emotional stiffness into my heart and not be affected when Meg Ryan or Lucy Liu talk about the devastating effects of poverty and earthquakes in the remote parts of the world, and Oprah talks about the continuing legacy of separate and unequal existences here at home that was highlighted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I can perform liposuction on my heart and suck out all the parts that feel deep affection for the gay/straight, single/married, addicted/unstable, hard-working/unemployed, homeschooling/traditionally schooled, black/white, urban/suburban, rich/poor, non-Christian/conservative Christian, illegal immigrant/proud American, nearby/far-away people I know and love, and cling to the notion that "they" don't deserve my love until they start to... or until they stop... I can inflate my cheeks into a phony smile every time I hear someone tell me I am wasting my time on the people on either side of the many slashes that threaten to cleft my heart and life wide open. I can be catty for the rest of my life, standing away from the unwashed masses, and hide in my whitewashed house, clean, disinfected, and always right.

But that's not the life I choose to live anymore. Lord, deliver me from the cattiness, from a routine that finds criticism more palatable than compassion, that applauds my haughtiness but diminishes my humility. Show me when and where I can reach out and touch the hand, the heart, and the face of the wrinkled, the overweight, the scorned, the over-indulged, the scared, the over-confident, the ones who are right, the ones who've been wronged, in other words, everyone I see.

I was all prepared to be catty yesterday when I sat down to watch Oprah. Fortunately,
Meg's meekness clipped my claws. When will I submit myself to being declawed once and for all?