Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Thankful Tuesday

I won't be here on Thursday to do the Thankful Thursday post.
So I decided to move my Thankfulness forward two days.

Tonight, I'm thankful for -

* art museums that are beautiful both inside and out

* friends who listen to my woes and don't condemn me for my complaining

* meatloaf with a ketchup glaze, rice, and salad for dinner

* tasty wine in beautiful bottles

* The Great Harvest Bread Company

* Trader Joe's market

* fruit, vegetables, bread, peanut butter, clementines, and a very happy tummy

* watercolor class demonstrations and discussions

* backpacks stuffed with summer clothes, flip flops, and anti-malaria medication

* airports, airplanes, runways, and new places to explore

* faithful, reliable, long-lasting partners

* cameras, ipods, cell phones, chargers, and electricity

* eucalyptus, lemongrass, and citronella essential oils

* a homemade pedicure with my footsoak tub, soap, lotion, and nail polish

* daffodils in February

* how much my dog loves me, even though I ignore her most of the time

* the lessons she still teaches me about trust, love, contentment and playfulness

* sitting with two great friends and not having to say anything at all

* silly signs in serious places

* poetry, hymnody, and four-part harmony

* ancient trees, new grass, and deep shadows

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Different Way to do Lent

Last week, my children and I went to church on Ash Wednesday and emerged with ashen crosses smudged on our foreheads. I couldn't see mine, of course, but I did see my children's. I promptly forgot about it, but an hour later, after a few moments of small talk, Daniel's tennis coach asked me, "Is today Ash Wednesday?" Then I remembered the dark smudge on my forehead. And I remembered, proudly, the extensive list of things I was giving up for Lent. The usual things I give up every year, plus a few more for good penitent measure.

On Friday morning, though, something changed. Something shifted inside me.
Something slipped and leaned a little to the left.
Then whatever it was fell and shattered.

Suddenly I wanted to eat and drink all the things that were on
My Very Important List Of The Many Frivolous Things That Had To Be Given Up For Lent.
I wanted to watch the television shows that I had forbidden myself to watch.
I wanted to do everything on That Long List Of Lenten "Thou Shalt Nots."

So, of course, I immediately began to question my dedication to the things of Faith.
I began to question my commitment to the God in whom I say I believe.
"How can you give in to temptation just two days into Lent?
What kind of Christian does that make you, big girl?
How can you even think about this? It's only Friday!
Just how weak and uncommitted are you, Gail?
How fallen and how sinful are you, really???"

Then I remembered: God didn't ask me to give up any of those things.
I had made that decision for myself.
I had made that horribly long and draconian list all by myself.
I remembered that, for me, creating that long list of things I couldn't do
for the 40 days of Lent this year was an indisputable sign of my spiritual depth,
my spiritual maturity, my strength, my love for all things Godly and true,
and my ability to maintain full and total control of my emotions and my body.
Heck, if Jesus could do it, so can I, right?

Questions bubbled to the surface of my soul.
Is that what Lent is about?
Is the length of my list a reflection of the depth of my love?
Is the severity of my sacrifice a reflection of my submission to God?
Absolutely not.

I began to think about Lent differently.
I began to think about a different way to do Lent.
After all, saying "no" to myself is too easy, I realized.
I punish myself all the time:
too much Law and Order? No tv for a week.
too much coffee? no sugar for 60 days.
too many Tostitos chips with lime? exercise for 30 days straight.
too many discontented thoughts? pray more, read more, journal more, submit more.

So I decided that this year, Lent will be a time of saying "YES."

YES to art, to color, to museum visits, to painting, and to sculpture in the rain.

YES to lunch dates, to dinner dates, to pizza, salad, pie, and ice cream.

YES to tea, coffee, and closing my eyes to enjoy every sip and every slurp.

YES to haircuts, piercings, long earrings, colorful scarves, and knee-high boots.

YES to simplicity, complexity, clarity, confusion, witty banter, and wisdom.

YES to Haiti, airplanes, holding hands, long hugs, and always wishing for more.

YES to books, music, movies, NPR, Jon Stewart, and late night laughter.

YES to reading blogs, printing them out, and gluing them into my messy journal.

YES to prayer, joy, forgiveness, mercy, singing badly, and silence too.

YES to tears, sorrows, loneliness, brokenheartedness, hard times, and farewells.

YES to aches, sadness, doubt, questions, darkness, and stormy nights.

YES to making mistakes, making corrections, and messing up again and again and again.

YES to letting go, laying the load down, saying "enough is enough," and being done, for real this time.

YES to giving, receiving, gratitude, enjoyment, and appreciation for the bounty in life.

YES to all that God allows to come my way during Lent and always.

YES to suffering, false accusations, torment, death, burial,

and, most of all, YES to resurrection and to new life.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

One week from now...

I will be in transit to Haiti. To this place, to meet some of these children, to have my heart broken wide open, filled with a new vision and understanding of the world in which they live, and then mended again by the love I know they will surround me with. I have traveled enough to know that the little that I will give to them will pale in comparison with the great riches of kindness, smiles, stories, joy, and welcome that they will extend to me.

This is a video taken on a trip to the same school this past December.

I have heard that the people there will assume that I am Haitian and that I speak Creole. In that regard, I know I will be a sore disappointment to them. I am planning to seek out a classroom of students studying Spanish and put my language skills to use there. Otherwise, I will rely on the English speaking teenagers and the universal language of hand-holding, hugs, and playing catch with tennis balls. 

I cannot wait to get there! But I'm gonna have to wait one more week. Our group of ten leaves early on the morning of March 1st and returns early on the morning of March 6th. 

I covet your prayers, your kind thoughts, your best wishes for a safe journey. I promise to return with hundreds of photos, dozens of stories, a journal full to overflowing, and a radically transformed perspective on the world and this life I live. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Here you go again...

The job isn't working out as you'd hoped...
School fills your day with boredom and your night with busywork...
Marriage demands much but gives little in return...
Separation and divorce promises relief but fails to keep that promise...
Your mother died, your sister died, your mother's sister died...
A storm rolls in, the foundation under your home rolls away...
Loneliness consumes you, people drain you...
Sorrows pile up, tears leak out...
Here you go again...

The words of a favorite song come to mind again tonight...

"He never promised that the cross would not get heavy,
and the hill would not be hard to climb.
He never offered our victories without our fighting,
but He said help would always come in time.
Just remember when you're standing in the valley of the decision
and the adversary says, 'Give in,'
Just hold on - our Lord will show up and
He will take you through the fire again."
(Warning: If you cannot abide country or bluegrass music, don't click on this link...)

Recently, someone challenged me about the thinking behind that song:
If God is so almighty and all-knowing,
why take us through the fires over and over again?
why not take us around the fires?
why not take us over the fires?
why can't we simply avoid fires altogether?

My answer was simple: I do not know.
I don't know why I have had to go through so many fires.
I don't know why any of us have to go through all the fires we face in our lives.
I am fairly certain many fires are yet to come.
I am absolutely certain that I will cling to this feeble faith of mine.
I will cling to the belief that God will, in fact, take me through the fire again.
Through to the other side.
Wherever, wherever, or whatever that other side may be."

Here you go again, L.
Here you go again, T.
Here you go again, N.
Here you go again, J.
Here we all go again.

Just hold on. Our Lord will show up.
And He will take you through the fire again.
And again.
And again.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Things I Love

1. an unexpected phone call from a dear and distant friend that has turned into weekly phone dates for conversation and prayer

2. watercolor painting class
the teacher doing a demo

the student tries her hand, twice

3. being able to pour out my thoughts, my fears, my hopes, my joys, my jokes, my stories, my sorrows, my dreams, and my despair into my journal. just letting it all flow.

4. my ipad. i have so much to learn about how to use it, what apps to buy, and which books to read on it. however, i am thrilled about how many games of solitaire I have won.

5. clear skies in the morning and bright sunsets on windy evenings

6. gentle and personalized reminders that I am loved, seen, appreciated, that i have not been forgotten

7. black cherry pie and jelly beans from Fresh Market on Valentine's Day (yup, sugar is back in my diet. not as bad as it was six months ago, but it's back.)

8. the smell of frankincense sticks burning in my bathroom

9. the scent of both the spray I use for dusting and the cleaner I use around the house. (i would love to know what it feels like to walk into a house where the cleaning has been done, the laundry has been washed, dried, folded, and put away, and dinner is hot and ready on the stove. i want to experience that sudden assault on the olfactory nerves - cleaning fluids, laundry detergent, and dinner all at the same time. and i want to know that feeling for three straight months... at least.)

10. the coffee recently purchased at World Market, the coffee and chicory blend made famous at New Orleans' Cafe du Monde, with a few dashes of cinnamon added before i start the coffee maker. i've got a pot brewing right now.

11. finding a Lands End rain jacket at Good Will for $4.99. it looks like it was never used. if i'd ordered it online, i would have paid $50. (i broke my "no clothes shopping this year" rule because i need a rain jacket for my upcoming trip to Haiti. more details on that trip to come.)

12. watching my son listen to music, respond to text messages, sip tea, and write a well-crafted story all at the same time. kids these days!!!

13. sneaking out of the house in the evening for tea at Caribou coffee. stolen time to think, to journal, to people-watch, to play with my ipad, and to be alone. blissfully alone.

14. signs of spring while still shivering in February

Sunday, February 12, 2012

In recovery and preparing for the next session

Turns out that I didn't have to do any painting during the first class. The teacher dazzled us with his own works of art at the beginning of the class, went over the lengthy list of supplies we needed to gather together, and then stunned us all into fearful, respectful, hopeful, and awful silence as he demonstrated how to paint a flower. 

He started the painting demonstration by painting a sky and added a purple streak. As he painted, he explained to us how important it is that we move fast while we paint; watercolor is unforgiving. Once it dries, it's there to stay. Acrylic and oil paints can be used one on top of the other and the layer underneath will disappear. Not so with watercolors. Work fast. Keep the paint wet. He explained that when the paint is allowed to dry and then additional layers are added, the outcome is usually "a disaster." I was quick to point out that his disasters would be considered masterpieces to us.

"Other than that, it's fairly simple," he said. "First sketch out the flower you intend to paint. Then pick your yellow... add bits of orange... add green to the same puddle of paint so that it all works together... if you want to make purple, don't use cobalt red, use alizarin crimson instead because... you can fill in the details later."

Flat brushes, round brushes, wash brushes, water buckets, paint palettes, paint tubes, a mixing tray, a kneaded eraser, Arches watercolor paper blocks, and clothes that we can get messy in - all this and more will be needed each week.

I watched, took notes and photos, and then drove home trying not to fall into despair. No one told me I would have to be able to sketch in order to paint. It makes sense, of course, but I didn't think about details like that when I signed up for the class. I reminded myself that he's been doing this since before I was born. The next day, I bought all the supplies, squeezed the paint into my palette, and had fun playing with them. No flowers emerged. A sky did. As did a few footprints on a beach.

There is much to learn, much to create, much to enjoy. Fun, I trust, will be had by all.

One class session down. Nine to go. I look forward to tomorrow night's gathering of artists.

The only class I know I will miss is the first Monday in March.
I'll be on my way back from a five day trip to Haiti...

Monday, February 06, 2012

"Just show up and get wet."

Yesterday, my daughter and I had the delight and privilege to hear Brené Brown speak at a local church here in Charlotte. I've enjoyed her writing, her blog, and her TED talks for two or three years, so it was a joy to hear her in person. To meet her. To shake her hand. And even to get my photo taken with her.

She is a beautiful woman who tells funny, poignant, heart-rending and heart-mending stories about the lives we lead, the ways in which we deal with our challenges, and the necessity of courage, love, connection, and belonging in our lives.

She told a story about her daughter, who used to be a competitive swimmer. This young girl hated doing the breast stroke and admitted that she wasn't very good at it. In fact, she wished she didn't have to compete in the 100 meter breast stroke at an upcoming swim meet. Her coach was unmoved by her pleas. In a pre-race conversation, she and her mother, the thoughtful Brené, agreed that victory in the race would be measured in one simple way. The daughter simply had to show up and get wet.

She was called to the starting blocks, dove in, and, as she expected, she was the last one to finish her heat. By the time she had pulled her exhausted body out of the pool, the girls in the next heat were standing by the blocks ready to begin. She was upset about her last place finish, but with tears streaming down her face, she spoke the words we all need to say more often in our lives: "But I was brave, wasn't I?"

Brené went on to give examples of how we as parents, as spouses, as siblings, as children, we as workers, as friends, and as human beings live in a world at a time when expertise is the only thing that counts. If we can't do it well, expertly, then we probably shouldn't bother at all. If I'm not the best mother at the play group, the best dressed woman at the party, the best writer in the group, the best hostess on the block, the sexiest, the best looking, the fittest person in the workout class, the wealthiest, the smartest, the wittiest, the happiest in my marriage, the most extraordinary, if I can't be the best, the strongest, the fastest, the most ____________ of all, then I may as well stay home. "Go big or stay home," right?

What if we stepped back from the edge of all this competitiveness and angst and gave ourselves, our friends, our family members, and most especially our children, permission to "simply show up and get wet"? What if we found ways to stop comparing ourselves to everyone around us and learned to accept others and ourselves as we are, where we are?

What if my house is not the cleanest?
What if my car is not the newest or fanciest?
What if my kids aren't the best behaved or the smartest?
What if I'm not the most organized?
What if I'm not a great cook?
What if I'm not the most environmentally conscious?
What if I don't know much about politics and don't care to know more?
What if I'm not "extraordinary" at all? (And by "extraordinary," I mean worthy of a reality TV show...)

Brené said something profound, something that we forget far too easily -
Whether or not we are ever the most _______________,
however we choose to fill in that blank,
whether or not we ever get to the pinnacle of whatever mountain we are climbing,
whether or not we have the best kids, the most kids, or no kids at all,
whether we have the best home, the largest home, the greenest home, or no home at all,
whether we are married, separated, divorced, or not interested in any of those categories,
whether or not, whatever or not,
no matter what,
our worth is non-negotiable.
our value is unchanged.
we are all, we are each worthy of love no matter what we accomplish or don't accomplish,
no matter what we do or don't do,
say or don't say,
achieve or don't achieve.
Who you are, who I am, who we are matters
because we are alive, because we were born.

I'm leaving the house in a few minutes to begin an art class - watercolor painting - a continuing education class through the local community college. I haven't taken an art class since junior high school. Despite the voice in my head that has been telling me that my art won't count unless I have a solo exhibit at the local museum of fine art, I am determined to simply show up and get wet. Wet with paint. Wet with tears of joy and delight and embarrassment. No matter what the outcome, I'm going to show up and make a holy mess.

Friday, February 03, 2012

"Welcome home."

I love to travel. Nuff said.

One of the best parts about travel and one of the worst parts about travel is coming home. I walk down that sloped walkway and turn the corner, groaning at the length of the line of American citizens being steered to one immigration kiosk or another. I wait patiently, knowing that any complaints or rolled eyes could earn me the type of inspection that will most assuredly make me miss my connecting flight.

Finally, I step up to the window and a rather stern looking gentleman asks me for my passport, inquires about the length of my travels, the reason for my trip, and passes my documents through his special machine. He glances up at me once or twice, hands my passport back to me, and says those words that always make me smile:

"Welcome home."

Every single time, no matter how deep the scowl on his face, no matter how few times he has looked up at me, whenever that man (and it always is a man) says those words, I feel a shudder of happiness roll down my spine.

"Welcome home."

No matter where I've gone, what I've done, what I've bought, how fearful I've been, no matter who I've seen, what danger I've endured, no matter how heavy my suitcase or my heart, those words remind me that once again I have have made it back to my homeland safely. Once again, I have overcome. Once again, I have photos to share, stories to tell, journal pages to complete, and gratitude to express.

"Welcome home."

On this Friday morning, I ask myself, to whom do I need to offer that same greeting? Who needs to be reminded that they too have survived, endured hardship, met with and overcome obstacles, and escaped from snares and troubles? Who needs to be reminded that, even if they aren't done with their obstacles and troubles, even if they are planning to walk through some of the mine fields of life, even as they struggle with the deep darkness that can sometimes befall us on this life journey, even then, perhaps especially then, those dear loved ones of mine, you, need to be looked at, listened to, and welcomed home.

I'm not inspecting passports.
I'm not asking for details.
It's none of my business.
But know this, remember this, do not ever forget this:
no matter what,
no matter what,
no matter what,

"Welcome home."