Friday, October 29, 2004

It seems like only yesterday...

but it was actually exactly eleven years ago today. I was 50 pounds heavier than I am right now. I had spent several months eating everything that wasn't strictly forbidden in my "make a huge baby" diet. I had long since given up on any form of exercise other than walking back and forth to the kitchen, and moderation of any kind was not on my agenda. I was pregnant with my first child, and I was determined to have the biggest baby possible. What ended up happening was that I had a good sized baby who ended up with the biggest Mommy possible - at least for the first few months. In her first act of parental defiance, Kristiana decided that October 15th, the predicted date of her appearance, was a little too early for her debut, so she kept her father and me waiting for an additional 15 days. Yes, my daughter was long overdue. Well done. Beyond well done. When she was born her fingers and toes had the familiar wrinkles of an old woman who'd been left in the tub for an extra 45 minutes while the nurses tended to someone with a Code Blue. I entered the hospital on Friday, October 29th with the intention of having my water broken and waiting to see what happened. Being the obsessively controlling person that I am, I had given clearly written, detailed and signed documents informing the attending physician that no one on the hospital staff was even to mention pain relief within 15 feet of my hospital room for the duration of my labor. Unless my child was in severe distress, I was going all natural. I was going to eat and drink as I pleased, shower, bathe, walk, talk; this was going to be my labor. Anyone who dared to challenge me on that point would not soon forget the heat of the coals over which they were going to be raked. With my mellow music playing, sipping GatorAde, nibbling on snacks I'd brought, alternately walking down the hallway, taking warm showers, and sitting in the rocking chair, I moaned and groaned my way through about ten hours of contractions without the aid of any aids. Then it was time to push. I'll bypass the gory details and suffice it to say that after three hours of pushing, I saw the face of my precious angel girl. A whopping 9 pounds and 1 ounce, 22 inches long, she was well worth the wait. I know, I know; if she was only 9 pounds and change, that meant there were still a little more than 40 that I had to deal with on my own. Contrary to everything I'd been lead to believe, nursing didn't help me lose much weight at all. But that's a whole different blog: the whole weight loss, exercise, "can I ever fit into my pre-pregnancy clothes?" thing. I am proud to say, however, that I now weigh 12 pounds less than my pre-pregnancy weight, so the answer to that earlier question is, "No, I can't fit into my pre-pregnancy clothes. But that's because they are too big!" Tae-Bo is the best form of exercise I've ever done, ever! In the words of my workout guru, Billy Blanks, "If you've got the will, Tae-Bo is the way." But I digress. There she was: Kristiana Nicole Belsito. Plump, juicy, sweet, ravenously hungry, and eager to turn our world upside down. I simply could not believe - and still cannot believe - that my body produced another human being, an independent person with her own soul, personality, likes and dislikes, and I am responsible to raise her, to bring her up to be a young woman who lives an honorable, Godly, and productive life. Yesterday I realized that tomorrow is her true birthday: she was born at 2:59 AM on Saturday, October 30th, 1993, and tomorrow she will be 11 years old. These eleven years have flown by. She has grown in body, mind, and spirit. She's the kindest, most generous, most patient, and most loving member of our family. I say that with deep humility because I thought that as the Mom, I ought to embody all those qualities. But when I watch her as she moves around in her life with her teammates, friends, and in our home, I am increasingly convinced that I was nothing more than the vehicle for transporting a truly gentle soul into the universe. Who she is seems to have very little to do with who I am; I am a lot of things, but "gentle" is a word that is rarely used to describe me. It seems like only yesterday that she emerged from warm, wet darkness into the light of the world with a light of her own, a light that glows from within her. It seems like only yesterday that she altered my life irreversibly. On that cool Saturday morning in Stamford, Connecticut, in a hospital that no longer even exists, I became a mother for the first time. While so much about her has changed over the years, one personality quirk of my dear Kristiana hasn't: she still takes her time in just about everything she does. Of the four of us, she is the one who most enjoys the considerably slower pace of Southern Living. She gets out of bed when she's good and ready. She cleans up her room on her own schedule. She is almost never in a hurry. When I'm not trying to rush her along for fear of arriving somewhere less than ten minutes early (notice the control freak in me again), I admire her ability to take life at a more sane, peaceful, life-affirming pace. I hope she can teach me how to do that someday before I get left in the tub developing wrinkles while someone down the hall gets shocked after going belly up. For now, I'd better go start wrapping her birthday presents. Grace and peace, Gail

Thursday, October 28, 2004

A new take on the Partridge family...

When I was a child, my two oldest brothers took piano lessons for a few years. Otis is almost ten years older than I am, and Glen is almost five years older. They would be spirited off to lessons at some woman's house. I cannot recall her name nor do I have any idea where she lived in my hometown of Brooklyn. What I do remember is finding an out of the way place to sit and listen when they practiced playing. We had an old white upright piano in our living room with a triangle shaped metronome that I was fascinated with everytime I set it to rocking. As I recall, Otis stopped playing the piano soon after the lessons ended and took up the electric bass guitar. But Glen went on with piano playing and singing and eventually pursued a music degree at a small college just outside of New York. The song I remember best is Moonlight Sonata. I would sit in the shadow of the dining room table and close my eyes, imagining myself in the moonlit fields on some summer night, lying down in the grass and gazing at the stars above. I dreamed of holding some handsome young man's hand as we both fell under the spell of the full-faced moon that above us seemingly just out of arm's distance. There is something about that song that thrills me to this very day. When I came of age to learn the piano, my father took a weathered copy of that red John Thompson Beginning Piano lessons book, opened it to the first page, sat me down on the bench, pointed out middle C, and I was on my way. I picked my way through that book for months. Then I pulled out our own church hymnal and started to pick my way through that book. I actually got to be a decent little piano player. If our church organist was absent and the substitute organist was unavailable, and if absolutely no one else on the church property could distinguish between the treble clef and the bass clef, then I would play the piano at the Sunday evening services at church. For some reason, I took to the songs with flats; the more flats the better. However, if there were any sharps at all, I could bumble and fumble my way through, but it was always a disaster. I played piano all the way through junior high school. But once in high school, I joined the school choir and never returned to playing the piano regularly. Until we got our little electric piano/synthesizer/karaoke machine thing, that is. We purchased it several years ago when Kristiana tried her hand at learning the piano. She never developed any serious interest in it, but we had already bought the machine thing and weren't going to take it back. For the record, I hesitate to call it a "piano." It's like referring to Coffee-Mate as "cream;" it's just not the same thing. Anyway, tonight I pulled out the hymnbook I shoplifted from the church many moons ago and flipped through it for a few minutes before I found my favorite section. (By the way, is it really stealing if it's meant to build our faith and family togetherness?) I love Christmas music. I have always wished it weren't relegated to the two weeks before and after Christmas. So I extend the holiday music season in our house by picking through "O, Come All Ye Faithful" and "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night" and several other old favorites from late October through late January. Tonight was the first night of the holiday music season in our house. I thumbed through the familiar carols seeking out songs with flats. As I got warmed up, Steve and the kids recognized the tunes, gathered around the machine thing, and began to sing. Well, Daniel started off by choosing a single key all the way at the end of the keyboard and pounding it over and over again, much to the consternation of the rest of us. After I threatened him with an early bedtime, he took up his proper role as high tenor among us and off we went. Singing carols. Laughing. Yelling out favorites. Bumbling through the songs with sharps and plodding through all the ones with flats. I will definitely have to practice when they are out of earshot. And from now until the end of January, on any given evening the Henderson-Belsitos of Charlotte, North Carolina, will enact our own special rendition of the Partridge Family Sings Christmas Songs. I guess it's best not to compare ourselves to that cloyingly cute clan of polyester wearing, groovy feeling, traveling minstrels. In our very own right, we're a curiously clad, oddly matched, well meaning gaggle of geeks with not much musical talent between the four of us. But we do love our Christmas carols. By the way, just so that I don't come across as totally insane, our Christmas tree won't go up until just a week or so before Christmas. I'm most definitely not one of those people who keeps the fake icicles hanging from the front porch all year round. Do those people think that no one notices them hanging up there? We once went to look at a house for sale during the summer, and they had their Christmas tree up in the living room. The very apologetic real estate agent said that they like it so much they just keep it up all year round. The house, by the way, had been on the market for about a year. Hmmmmm... Anyway, happy holidays!

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The dreaded "C" word...

My father died of lung cancer three and a half years ago. My closest maternal uncle, Uncle John, died of prostate cancer two months ago. His daughter, Aprelle, who is not only my cousin but also my godmother, is battling bone cancer even as I write. Several aunts and uncles on my mother's side have died of various forms of cancer during my lifetime. Alyssa, the nine-year old friend of my daughter was diagnosed with leukemia yesterday. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, on Monday morning I was the interpreter at the funeral of Marta, a 42-year-old mother of two, who died of cancer last Thursday. Caroline, the seven-month old daughter of a dear friend of ours has already gone through four rounds of chemo, had surgery, and has four more rounds of chemo left before the end of the year. Cindy, one of my dearest and oldest friends is a seven-or-eight- year survivor of breast cancer that claimed both of her breasts. In March of 2002, Leza, my best friend from college died of complications from colon cancer that had spread to her brain. And she was the strictest vegetarian I have ever known - except for her final days when she broke down and asked for barbecued beef ribs and Pepsi. I was honored and thrilled to be the one to go to the restaurant and pay for her to eat them one last time. How on earth did she get colon cancer? Well, one answer to that question is that her mother died of ovarian cancer when Leza was just a few short years out of college. We all have sad stories and sobering statistics to add to this list. Whenever I see a woman with a flowery scarf, boldly colorful bandana, or silky kerchief tied over a hairless scalp, I want to hug her quietly and then scream loudly. Where did this awful disease come from and when are we gonna be done with it? Why do the cause for it and the cure for it elude us so efficiently? Why? Sean, my masters' degree thesis advisor was a remarkably honest man. When faced with a question he didn't have an answer for, he simply stated, "I have no coherent answer for that question." This is one of those inquiries for which there is no coherent reply. Cancer sucks. It evervates. It paralyzes. It demoralizes. It debilitates. It tortures. It kills. I myself had a breast cancer scare just last month. I will never be able to thank Brenda, the mammography technician, enough for her kind and supportive words, as well as her clear explanations for everything we saw on the various scans she did. When I left the mammography office, I saw the bewildered and horrified face of a woman whose news had obviously not been as good as mine. I cannot imagine the agony she faces with the treatments and surgeries that are sure to come. As I walked out of the Ob-Gyn office that awful day late in September knowing that I would have to undergo a diagnostic mammogram to figure out the nature of the lump I had found, I swore to myself that I would live my life as fully as possible no matter how much time I had left. I promised myself I would call my friends and family, send out letters, emails, and postcards telling all the people I love that indeed I love them. I promised myself I would always do the optimistic thing. I would find the silver lining in every cloud, look at the bright side, and be thankful in every situation. On October 7th, when I found out that all was well, I reiterated those promises. I reminded myself that I am not released from those promises simply because I had learned that the lumps were nothing to worry about. There is still war raging around the world. Famine, disease, abuse, addictions, crime, and a host of other earthly ills claim lives every day. Volcanoes erupt. Hurricanes blow through the South. Snow storms strand hikers in out of the way places. A family that was in our church two Sundays died in a plane crash this past weekend. Not one of us knows how long we have to live - even when the medical test results are "negative." So I "take the plunge" more readily nowadays, take more risks, and no longer hesitate to pray for and then make contact with friends when they cross my mind. I approached Lauren on Monday night after her great talk on spiritual memoirs and extended my hand in friendship. I sent an email to Rebecca, a friend from years ago whose smile, laughter, and wisdom I miss. I wish her all the best with her soon-to-arrive baby. I called David in California to check in on my favorite handyman. I sent a postcard to Antonio, the best Jesuit priest I know. I leave countless phone messages for friends whose companionship on this journey called life I treasure. I send out emails that are far too long, give out way too many details, and ask way too many personal questions. I began to keep this blog so that I would have more opportunities share my love for words, my love for life, and above all, my love for my friends with my friends. But right now I'm gonna turn off the computer so I can go call my cousin and see how she's doing. Traveling mercies to you, Gail

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

"You've Got Mail."

Those are among my favorite words. I've never used AOL, but apparently that's the way its users are greeted when they open their accounts and new mail awaits them. I'm a sucker for a simple romance, so the movie of that same name is nestled in my collection of sappy romances. Meg Ryan's character sends out cosmic questions and various personal tales to Tom Hanks' character. He returns the favor. They leap out of bed in their respective apartments after snuggling with their respective partners every morning and hope to hear those three glorious words and find an answer to a question or perhaps face a new question to consider. Before heading off to la-la land at day's end, they check again. They write about the power and the glory of ordering coffee at Starbucks and how to defend themselves from thoughtless and mean-spirited strangers with carefully chosen, acutely sharpened words. They laugh at each other's foibles and mourn each other's losses. They become dear and close friends, virtual friends, anyway. I bet everyone in the world with an email account loves to hear those words, spot that glowing envelope, or find whatever symbol our Almighty Internet Provider has established as the indicator that our prayers have been answered. I bask in the glow of long-distance love everytime someone sends me an email. I think to myself, "Someone out in the big, bad, busy world thought about me, sat at their keyboard, and penned something just for me." Well, maybe not. Whenever I see these letters - "FWD" - my heart sinks. Whenever I see these words - "Read this and pass it on" - my heart sinks even lower. Whenever I come to the end of an email and read these words, "If you send this to ten people within two hours of reading it, then your life will never be the same..." - or anything along those lines - I hit the delete button. The ones that just make me laugh the hardest are the ones that promise money or some gift certificate or other monetary reward for forwarding email to my friends. Do people really believe that The Gap has someone glued to a computer screen watching to see how many email I send out with their name on the subject line? Will General Motors really send me a check because I clogged the email-boxes of friends and families with minutiae? Has anyone ever gotten one of those checks? Anyone at all? I certainly don't know anyone who has. I know someone who tells all her friends that if it's a forwarded story, a plea for prayer about a kidnapped or diseased child, an appeal to forward a letter to the White House or National Public Radio - if it's anything that hasn't been written for her eyes only, then please don't send it to her. At first, I thought that was pretty harsh. I thought, "She's gonna miss out on some interesting stories and accounts." I no longer feel that way. She's got it right; if it's junk mail, it's junk mail. It doesn't matter who wrote it or how important the cause. Junk mail in my email-box is no less annoying and wasteful than junk mail in my curbside mailbox. I feel the same way about those parties that women friends invite me to: Serving Dishes that will make me the consummate hostess, Make-up that will turn back the clock of my skin, Baskets that will clear up the clutter, Candles that will add both aroma and atmosphere, Kitchen Gadgets that will make plucking the feathers off the Thanksgiving turkey a real breeze, Books that will make my 8 year old actually want to read, Scrapbooking so that all these photos and sayings last for eternity, Cleaning Products that make mopping and dusting a delight - it's all the same. "You don't know what you're missing. This is the pineapple corer you've been waiting for. This camouflage/foundation will cover a multitude of Reese's peanut butter cups." I finally figured out that what I'm missing: at the end of those parties it's usually a sizeable chunk of change and that last square inch of space in my kitchen, bathroom, and hall cupboards that are subsequently filled with more gadgets that I don't need and don't ever remember how to use once I get them in my house. Once I read a catalog that informed its readers that the set of dishes being advertised therein was meant to replace the set sold in the last catalog. "So let me get this straight? Six months ago, you told me that those Tuscan-inspired dishes were the best that money could buy, and now you are telling me to get rid of that set and buy a set of Provence-inspired platters??? We are eating the same macaroni and cheese this year that we were eating last year!" Are there people out there who really buy that stuff? Pun intended. About five years ago, I decided I would politely decline every invitation to every one of those evening slam-shopping parties. If you want to have me over for tea and cookies, I'll be there. But I don't want to be surrounded by nervous women whose sole reason for buying what the pasty-faced, smarmy saleswoman is hawking is to help their hostess get the party gift - the basket of gadgets that she doesn't need either. Every now and then I will break down and accept an invitation from a friend just to assuage my guilty conscience and also to see if the sales pitches have changed. Nope, not at all. We are warmly welcomed, served recently frozen hors d'oevres on paper plates with diet soda in matching cups. We chat politely in the kitchen and take what feels like our last deep breath when we are instructed to make our way into the living room and be seated on enormous chairs with impossibly low seats; we are trapped. The presentation begins. We ooh and aah at the right moments, smile and nod on cue, and handle the proffered samples with care. None of us has forgotten the words repeatedly whispered by our wise mothers whenever they pulled us through fine antique shops: you break it, you bought it. When I know the squeeze is soon coming, I thumb through the catalog, frantically seeking the two cheapest items available for purchase and hope that someone else at the party (it feels more like an all-night interrogation until a sunlamp) is gonna spend a few dollars less than I am. After all, I don't want to be known as the cheapskate who kept Barbara from getting her third set of vanilla-coconut candles this month. Heck, she may be voted hostess of the month and get to choose a set of two 6x6 Holiday Spruce-scented votives for free. I guess it's that same thing when people send out those ridiculous pleas about the Gap email advertising campaign and try to make us feel guilty so that we will keep the chain going. Enough already, folks. Let go of the fantasy. The Big Company Gift Givers aren't watching. Very few people read forwarded email anyway. If I'm gonna go through the racing heart thing every morning and every evening, waiting desperately by the modem for my true love to send me some small tidbit or answer one of my cosmic questions, to declare his undying virtual love for me, I don't want to have to pick my way through your junk to find his jewels. Stop and think before you press that forward button. Better yet, promise me that you will never include me in any email recipient list that begins with those three dreaded letters: FWD. Go ahead make my day. Rock my world. Ring my bell. Tickle my ivories. Find my e spot. Compose something sensual, personal, titillating - and original. Then beckon me, draw me in, and hold me close; I promise I'll close my eyes and moan ever so quietly. I can feel my knees weaken already. I'll even tell you exactly how I like it. In the words of the leggy hooker with a heart of gold played by Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," (which is, of course, another of my favorite sappy romances): "I'm a sure thing." All it takes are those three little words. They send shivers down my arched and quivering spine every time I hear them: "You've Got Mail." Right now, you'll have to pardon me; I think I need to go take a cold shower. Gail

Monday, October 25, 2004

All good things come to an end...

including our lives. This morning I had the grim task of serving as an interpreter at the funeral of a 42 year old wife and mother who died of cancer last Thursday. She was born and raised in Peru, came to the United States, was married, and had two beautiful daughters who are now 7 and 9 years old. As I stood on the platform with the Pastor and watched the family grieve their loss, I had to work hard to keep my emotions under control. When the husband came to the microphone and asked me to translate his words of honor and praise for his wife, I was dangerously close to the edge of an outburst. I kept imagining my children sitting on that pew with my husband sitting between them and my vacant shell lying in a box in front of them. I pictured my mother by their side and the pain that would undoubtedly be etched into her face. I tried to think of what would be read in my eulogy and which hymns would be sung. I hoped that the pews would be full of people who knew me in life and had come to honor me in death. I used to wonder how my friends would be informed of my passing. In response to that particular line of morbid thinking, I began to write a will of sorts. In it I include the passwords to my computer and Internet account. I include specific wishes for my children. I've left all my jewelry and clothes for my daughter except for my wedding ring, which I want my son to give to his future bride. I encourage them to read my books. I am convinced that the books I have bought, read, reread, and indelibly marked with my loopy scrawl will give them another means whereby they can know this person I have become over the years. From Cloister Walk to The Temple of My Familiar to Mistress of Spices to Girl Meets God to This Bridge Called my Back to With Burning Hearts to Blue Suburbia to Just a Sister Away to Traveling Mercies to Daughter of Fortune and all the other volumes in between - I have taken phrases and paragraphs and chapters, mixed them together, simmered them on the burner of my mind, poured them over my heart, and allowed their savory spices to soak into the very marrow of my soul. Each of them forms a layer of the still-growing onion that is my life. Finally I encourage Steve and the kids to get to know me, the me they have never known --> by reading my journals. I have one friend who is considering the possibility of having someone destroy her journals in the event of her death so as to spare pain and embarrassment to those who might read them. While I understand her desire to protect her family from some of what is written in her beautifully rendered books, I cannot help but hope that the depth and intimacy of my family's knowledge of the wife and mother who lived with them all these years will far outweigh any temporary discomfort. There is so much more in those journals than I have ever been able to say in life. I have gone back and made changes in my will several times since composing it. After this morning's funeral service, I realized that there is more to write. Perhaps I will try my hand at writing my own eulogy. What would I want people to know about me that they don't already know? Perhaps I will include the songs I would like to have sung and a list of the people I would want to participate in the ceremony. Perhaps I will finally answer a question that has rattled around in my head a lot these past few days: What if I told the truth? What if I included the secret loves, the secret fears, the private wandering and wondering, the things I have done when no one else was looking? What if I told about the loneliness, fear, and sadness that paralyze me at times? What if I told about all the times I wanted to leave this life behind and start all over again? What if I wrote about how afraid I am to die? Not so much afraid to die as reluctant to leave my life behind. There are so many Spanish and Italian towns I still want to see. So many winding roads still to traverse. Someday I must expand my horizons and explore other continents. One friend now in Dubai longs for me to see both the UAE and India with her. Someday I'd love to. There are so many lessons still to teach my children. So many foods and wines yet to be enjoyed at seemingly never-ending feasts. So many conversations still to be had. So much beauty still to be seen. So much love still to be shared. Each time I open that computer file irreverently titled, "This Contestant's Parting Comments," and reread my post-mortal thoughts, I weep. I cry because I know that when those words are read by eyes other than mine it will be because I am gone. Someday someone will tear open that manila envelope, take the long walk down the short hallway, sit down at the computer, double-click on the Internet Explorer button, and share the news of my final departure from the world, telling my dear friends that this good thing has come to an end, this life of mine, this journey, this pilgrimage. Yes, all good things do come to an end. But it ain't over yet. I'm gonna get up from this computer, go watch my daughter in her horseback riding class, drink a mango smoothie with my son, and later attend a reading by one of my favorite writers, Lauren Winner, where she will most likely share some of her life story. I'll be sure to include some of her comments in my journal. It will make for interesting reading someday... At the end of her farewell letter to her children, one fictional mother wrote: "Go well, my children. There is so much beauty in this life." I wish you the same, Gail

Friday, October 22, 2004

Have you ever wanted a new name?

I know I have. My name is Gail. Gail - that's it. Nothing fancy. People ask me what it means and I have no coherent answer. I'm not complaining about the name my parents chose for me, but I must admit to having gone through phases when I wanted something a little more exciting - especially when I was younger. At one point I decided to change my name and have people call me by my middle name, "Nadine." I don't know what that means either, but it seemed more interesting than "Gail." Fortunately I had (and still have) kind and tolerant friends. They agreed to call me by my new name. One problem: when they said, "Nadine?" I said nothing. It wasn't what I was used to being called, so I never responded. I soon went back to "Gail." For all my high school years my track coach called me "Gailie." Even my high school boyfriend took to calling me by that name; on occasion he still does. I have never told either of them this: but that name makes me feel like a seven-year-old. One friend simply refers to me as, "G." That makes me feel mysterious, intriguing. I like that much better. It's nearly impossible for my Spanish and Italian speaking friends to pronounce my name. As they struggle to wrap their mouths around that decidedly English "ai" vowel dipthong I smile and sometimes offer them an easier option: "Just call me 'Maria.'" That never works either for the reason mentioned above. I've gotta just deal with it: I have always been, am now, and will always be "Gail." Or am I? One of my favorite songs is, "I Will Change Your Name." I have loved it from the first time I heard it. We sang it often at Trinity Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. The words are simple: "I will change your name. You shall no longer be called Wounded, Outcast, Lonely or Afraid. I will change your name. Your new name shall be Confidence, Joyfulness, Overcoming One, Faithfulness, Friend of God, One who Seeks My Face." That song moves me to tears nearly every time I sing it. For lots of reasons: first of all, I know very well what it means to live up to every single one of the names on that first list. Secondly, I only rarely and barely live up to that second set of names. This past summer while on an extended road trip with my children, I listened to the Trinity CD that contains that song dozens of times in the minivan. While journaling one summer day I decided to list all the names I could think of that I no longer wanted to be called, the names I no longer wanted to call myself. I followed that exercise by listing all the new names I would choose for myself, the ones with which I would be christened if given the chance. I hope you don't mind if I share some of those names with you. Feel free to add your own... "I will change your name. You shall no longer be called..." Weak, sad, contrary, rebellious, selfish, divisive, a gossip, complaining, impatient, jealous, nosy, unforgiving, unloving, conceited, cold, distant, moody, unavailable, grumpy, unwilling, judgmental, uninvolved, uncaring, unkind, controlling, nagging, uncommitted, prejudiced, insensitive, unreliable, aloof, overbearing, hypocritical, intimidating, needy, clingy, demanding, inflexible, or desperate. "I will change your name. Your new name shall be..." Loyal, patient, persevering, mindful, diligent, disciplined, truthful, careful, thoughtful, joyful, helpful, generous, considerate, willing, vulnerable, open, gracious, unbiased, hospitable, transparent, honest, sincere, comfortable, comforting, attentive, persistent, reliable, warm, welcoming, meek, available, funny, gentle at heart, bold, caring, deferential, friendly, open, trustworthy, wise, vital, understanding, prayerful, humble, cheerful, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, self-sacrificing, peaceful, peace-making, and loving. I'm not always spiritual and high-minded in my naming ceremonies, believe me. I also want to be known as a good cook, an insightful writer, good looking, well groomed, well dressed, well read, well traveled, sexy, sweet-smelling, the life of the party, and an engaging conversationalist. Obviously, I won't be able to fit all of this in the "Name" blank on the form to renew my passport next year, but it's been both good fun and a serious challenge to reflect and work on this list over the past few months. How would you fill in these blanks? "You shall no longer be called _______________________________. Your new name shall be ______________________________." Hope your autumn is awesome, Gail

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Isn't today Thanksgiving Day?

Several years ago, I was addicted to the Oprah Winfrey Show. I never made plans for anytime near 4 PM because I didn't want to miss my daily dose. I spoke about her show so much that at least one friend was concerned about my spiritual health. Was I seeking Oprah's advise more than anyone else's? Had I lost perspective on who I was and who Oprah was? I assured her I was fine. I was. I still am. And one of the reasons I am so fine is because of a book that Oprah ranted and raved about for weeks on end back in 1996: Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. It's one of those books where you read a chapter a day and reflect on the questions and challenges it poses. Early in the year, the readers are challenged to begin a Gratitude Journal. The premise is simple; the outcome is profound. At the end of each day, I was to take a few minutes to list five things I was grateful for that day. Start off with the small stuff: my children's laughter. Safety on our jaunts around town. Salad. Clean water to drink. Stuff like that. Health. A good job. A home we loved. Family and friends that care about us. The bounty in the supermarket. The list grew. My eyes were opened in a new way; I looked for and noted the details that made each day special. My heart was opened in a new way; I longed to encourage others to pay attention to the small stuff. That's when I became convinced that everyday ought to be Thanksgiving Day. Everyday, even the dreadful day when my father passed away back in March of 2001, was cause for celebration: he was no longer in pain. He no longer needed glasses or an oxygen tank or the help of a wheelchair. I still had my mother and my brothers. My children were still in love with me. So was my husband. One woman I am still getting to know sent me an email recently and said that she is considering gratitude as a discipline, as something she practices deliberately. Yes, yes, yes - do it. Practice it deliberately, but you will be surprised by how quickly it no longer feels like a discipline to be kept, but a joyous habit to maintain. At least that's what happened to me. While keeping the gratitude journal started out as something that took discipline to do on a daily basis, it quickly became one of the highlights of my day. Although I no longer keep a separate notebook for my daily list, I have never stopped the practice of praise as I wander through my days. When I pull into the garage after hauling the children from place to place or hauling home the loot from Harris Teeter (that's the local supermarket for all the non-Southerners out there), or return from another heart-pumping tennis lesson, I whisper a word of thanks for traveling mercies. When I am sorting the clothes into the washing machine and scrubbing microwaved oatmeal off of breakfast bowls or drinking loose leaf tea in a mug chosen for me by a friend in Vermont, I give thanks for fresh water and thoughtful friends and healthy kids who eat well and have the health, strength, and motivation to make messes in their clothes. When I began the habit of praying with my children, I didn't refer to it as prayer but told them it was time to say, "Thank you, Jesus." With all that I have been given, with all that I have seen and experienced in my life, with all that is around me that is beautiful, exhilarating, and enriching, I cannot help but respond with an attitude of gratitude. When I see the devastation of war, poverty, abuse, loneliness, illness and death, I force myself to give thanks even then. And when thanks just doesn't come, I pull out the old gratitude journals and remind myself of blessings I have known in times gone by. Late last spring I had the chance to give a talk for mothers of children with special needs. I spoke to them about the tremendous benefit of keeping track of the blessings in the midst of the trials. I must admit that I worried that this idea of keeping a gratitude journal would seem trite in the face of what these moms faced. They listened politely and some even seemed moved. I handed each of them a stenographer's notebook and challenged them to try it out. Two days ago, I heard that one of the mothers took my challenge to heart and began to keep a gratitude journal. She explained it to her family and left it on the kitchen table so that everyone had access to it. Apparently, it's been a big hit. Everyone has contributed including the youngest member of the famiily whose scribblings must be translated and transcribed. When friends visit and inquire about the tattered steno pad, they take the opportunity to spread the good cheer: gratitude is contagious. In this season when colds become common and the flu is spread like so much holiday gloom, I want to start an epidemic of epic proportions, a pandemic of sorts. Will you join me? When you greet someone, friend, foe or stranger, ask them what they are thankful for. End letters and email with a short list of what you are grateful for. Teach your children, your family, your loved ones, and unloved ones that giving thanks is a small thing with monumental consequences. What am I grateful for today? This blog. Fried eggs on English muffins. Those who are diligently seeking peace in this war-torn world despite being told that to do so is a waste of time. The ability to vote. Friends far and near. My Pilot/Namiki fountain pen. Oprah. Books. My journal. Rain. The list goes on... Gratefully yours, Gail

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

These are a few of my favorite things...

Asking questions, making collages in my journal, ankle-length denim skirts, being alone with The Alone in Italy, excursions in the north of Spain with a dear friend while listening to him tell stories of his beloved Galicia, lemongrass incense, Oprah magazine, paella, gambas al ajillo, arroz con leche, Alvarez Gomez cologne, Kiss My Face Peaceful Patchouli lotion and bath soap, friendly neighbors, chocolate covered almonds, my multi-colored dreadlocs especially when my kids play with them absentmindedly, white zinfandel, mojitos, red Australian licorice, silver jewelry, sarongs with matching flip-flops, playing tennis, toe rings, Teva sandals, large pocketbooks in bright colors, sleeveless turtlenecks, colored pencils, fried calamari, Hob Nobs, long email sent from distant friends especially when they attach digital photos, talking on the telephone, daffodils in spring, Mass MOCA, The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, breakfast, down comforters, children's chewable vitamins (I guess I'm still a kid at heart), long hugs, solitude and silence especially in the morning before anyone else in the house is awake, warm brownies with mint Kisses melted on top, friendly waiters, happy children, hot tea with lots of sugar, roaring fires on cold nights, talking about my faith in a skeptical world, Ian Cron's sermons, Rob Mathes' Christmas music on the house sound system during the holiday season - or anytime at all, other people's travel stories, postcards with colorful postage stamps sent from friends who thought about me when they were away, loud music in the car, The West Wing & ER (the TV shows), hot rocks massages at the Golden Door Spa in Puerto Rico, airplanes, smiling at and talking to strangers in airports, bookstores and coffee shops, homeschooling my kids and going on field trips with a class made up of two students, Aerosole boots, motorcycles with riders clad in heavy leather jackets, playing Uno and Milles Bornes with my kids, watching my children sleep, pregnant and nursing mothers, chubby babies, iced lemon pound cake from Starbucks, laughter, MAC makeup, sweet tea from Manhattan Bagel here in Charlotte, Caravaggio's Conversion of Saul and Bernini's sculpture in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, Velazquez' Crucifixion at the Prado in Madrid, art of all types and eras, the full moon as seen from the window in my study room, milk chocolate turtles, Madrid's Paseo de la Castellana, warm apple cobbler, the friend who introduced me to list-making, and just anything by Alice Walker, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, Lauren Winner and Anne Lamott. Everytime I work on these lists, I am amazed at the great blessings I have been given in this life. Even though I pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," I am repeated overwhelmed with gratitude for the bountiful abundance that has lasted far longer than any single "this day." Thanks be to God. What about you? What are some of the little things - some of the details that most people overlook - that you like most? What makes you smile even when no one else is around to be in on your secret? What are you most grateful for today? Grace and peace to you and yours, Gail

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Plus there is the whole faith thing...

I claim that my faith is the most important thing in my life. And it is. It really is. I leap out of bed most mornings and cocoon myself in my study room for an hour of "quiet time." I write in my journal. I read the Bible. I do some sort of preplanned Bible study. I marvel at how much I learn each time I read and meditate on God's Word. So why are there other mornings when I don't want to get out of bed at all? Why are there times when I am not so sure? When I wonder if what I believe is really true? I know that in the past I have had people berate me for revealing my doubts in public. Well-meaning people say that because I have taught Bible classes and advised other people on their faith, I shouldn't say that I'm not always 100% sure. But isn't the un-sureness a part of the faith walk? The Bible says that "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." Sometimes I'm just not certain. Sometimes I'm not so sure. But I have come to believe that that's what faith is; it's continuing this God-oriented journey even when the outcome isn't clear, even when I don't feel the solid rock under my wandering and stumbling feet. But I march on. I press on. I remember once hearing a pastor say that he keeps a small part of his heart aside in case all this faith stuff is wrong, in case he's been duped by all this God-stuff. I remember that you could hear a pin drop when he said that. His honesty was unnerving, but also reassuring. Pastors are supposed to be sure, aren't they? Yet because he told us the truth about his doubts, it was okay for us to tell the truth about ours, for me to tell mine. I love the story of Thomas, the disciple who said he wouldn't believe that Christ had risen from the dead until he could put his finger in the wounds in Christ's side. He is often referred to as "Doubting Thomas." Even though the Bible doesn't tell whether or not he inserted his finger, there is a painting I love (I'll have to find the name of the artist. Perhaps it's Caravaggio...) that shows Thomas' finger in deep. He didn't just look at the wound up close; he sticks his finger into it. He spoke his doubts out loud in the company of people he loved and trusted, and in the painting anyway, when he had the opportunity to do so, he reached out in doubt and withdrew his finger with his faith substantiated. Good for him. How great it was for Christ to stand there patiently and let Thomas find out the truth behind the rumor of His resurrection first hand, or perhaps "first finger." Do we dare give voice to our doubts? Do we dare reach out our hands in doubt and ask God to give us a way to feel, to sense, to know - some sign of His presence? How do we find the balance between faith and doubt? Between hope and despair? Between telling the truth and keeping the truth secret??? This whole faith thing baffles me... Doubting Gail

Finding the right balance

Is is possible to find the right balance in life? I am a wife and mother of two awesome children, but is there a balance between being those two things and being myself? Can I balance family life with solitude? Can I balance the blessings of a home, more food than we need to eat, a more than sufficient income, and all that comes with a life of privilege with the desperate poverty, hunger, and ravaging illnesses that plague our world? What about finding the balance between being my true and authentic self and keeping up the masks of perfection and contentment and grace and elegance that I so want the world to see? I love how Sabrina Ward Harrison talks through the process of spilling open, of not trying to meet the unreasonably high expectations she sets for herself. Sometimes we give ourselves a break, but most of the time we don't. How do we find the right balance? Plus there's the issue of food. I am glad to say that I love ice cream and chocolate bars and Cherry Coke and licorice and toasted bagels with sausage, egg, and butter. I eat and drink them all - in moderation. But I also love organic baby green salad (does that count when I put Good Seasons dressing on it?) and edamame and yerba mate tea with organic raw brown sugar and raw veggies and organic cleaning and laundry products. Do the organic soaps outweigh the non-organic pitchers of sweet tea I drink? Does the Kiss My Face soap outweigh the MAC make-up I wear in unabashed attempts to look younger than I am? These are questions that I think about, ways in which I see the contradictions in myself. And while I'm glad I see them and think about them, I just wish they'd all go away. I want to ask my various and sundry hypocritical choices and inexplicable contradictions, "Why can't we all just get along?"

A very good friend of mine sent me a letter yesterday asking how we find time to be who we are when everyone around us wants and needs affirmation to be who they are? In my response, I ask her a question. How do we gently and kindly say to the others, "I need a break. When are you gonna listen to my rantings and ravings? When do I get to stomp my feet and go slam my door and hide in my room for a while? Who listens when Mom needs to pour out what's ailing her?" How do we as mothers find the balance?

I wish I lived closer to her. We'd drink lots of tea together, burn more candles, laugh - and do laundry at the same time. And cook dinner at the same time. And bake cookies all the while. Then we would tell our own stories, compare our wounds, and celebrate the victories. Celebrate the moments when we find our balance.

Care to share a few tales of your own? A few tips on tipping the scales of life towards balance???

Grace and peace, Gail

Monday, October 18, 2004

Here I go...

I never thought I'd be one of those people who blogs. I'm not exactly sure what this means. Does it mean that I have finally lost my mind and have joined the masses of people who will spend countless hours writing onto a website (is this even a website?) in the hopes that some kindred spirit will share a favorite book and we might meet on the Virtual Superhightway? Does this mean that I will be discovered as a great writer who is wasting her time on the Internet when the whole world wants to and desperately needs to hear my voice? Who really cares?

This is my place in the world. Where I write and edit and publish all by myself. And this is great fun. This is my life. This is my journey. This is where I get to add to it and take away from it and change it as I see fit.

I have surfed a few blogs. I am impressed at the creativity of my fellow bloggers. I am moved by how many people in the world are reaching out to be seen and heard and touched. It's amazing how many people share my interests. It's reassuring to know I am really not the only one reading the books I read and watching the movies I watch. Here's to finding each other finally. Here's to bridging the gaps that seem to separate us. Here's to reconnecting with ancient souls - those within us already and those wanderers yet to be discovered.

Grace and peace to all who find their way here.
Traveling mercies to all of you on your own life journeys.