Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Speaking of homeland security...

Tonight I spent about an hour at the home of a neighbor representing my block as a “block captain” in our new neighborhood security program. Two starched and serious police officers explained to us the importance of closing our garages even when we are at home, hiding all personal and valuable articles in our vehicles, not warming up our cars on our driveways in the morning (which is actually illegal here in Mecklenberg County), and not even leaving our wallets, purses, or laptops computers in our kitchens. It’s an increasingly dangerous world out there, and now apparently that danger is coming much closer to home. One of my neighbors ventured out into her backyard earlier this fall to water her plants and upon her return to her kitchen, discovered that someone had entered her house through the garage, stolen cash and credit cards from her wallet, and made his way to the nearby Target to do some early holiday shopping. They know that’s where he went because they caught him on the store’s security tape. Apparently, he had done this before as he kept his baseball cap pulled low on his forehead and never looked up during the entire transaction. Too bad the cashier didn’t notice that the well-groomed, polite young man was using the credit card of a woman named Mitzi Savage. If the cash register doesn’t beep or blow a whistle or send up a smoke signal, then no one bothers to match the name with the face. Nine of us sat in my neighbor’s dining room entranced by the tales of the devious behavior and downright audacity of this city’s criminals, and we were dismayed by the foolish behavior of the victims who walk alone at night, leave our wallets, cell phones, computers, and expensive leather coats on the front seats of our cars while the engines are running, and we are no whwere in sight. We South Charlotteans have been targeted by trenchers (the idiots who get a thrill out of driving their cars across meticulously manicured lawns), teenage car thieves (who steal cars from a nearby driveway to go to the local shopping mall, where they do their shopping, and then steal another car to drive home), and larcenists who break into our kitchens and steal our laptop computers and wallets while we sleep. If we can’t be safe in our upscale, overpriced, exclusive enclaves, then what hope is there for anyone? Why can’t my husband’s hard earned money protect me and my children from the riff-raff that wants to make my life so miserable? And who makes up the bold new breed of malfeasants that have upset the delicate balance of our fair community? I can’t even write that stuff with a straight face. Do I want my house to be broken into? Do I want my husband’s car to be stolen off our driveway? (Why he won’t put his car into the garage is one of the many things about him I will never understand, but c’est la vie.) Do I like having to turn on the alarm when I go out for a walk with the kids on a sunny late autumn afternoon? Do I want my mailbox knocked over by drunken teenagers leaving a local party? Absolutely not. But do I deserve to avoid the injustices of life, the ravages of desperate and mean people any more than anyone else? Absolutely not. As we sat in that meeting earlier this evening, we all wanted some reassurance that the police would do more to protect us, that we could come up with some plan that would make all the crime stop, and that our beloved neighborhood, Rosecliff, would not succumb to the madness that seems to be gripping other areas of Charlotte, North Carolina, our nation, and our world. As I sit here now recounting the increased crime in our neighborhood, I find myself wanting to explain where I live. I want to do all I can to fend off the notion that “someone out there” would assume that I live in a bad neighborhood, so what else should I expect? I want to prove that I don’t live someplace where crime is taken for granted; I want to prove that we are in one of the most coveted areas of this entire state; I want to say that we deserve better. We work extremely hard to keep our homes, lawns, and streets looking their best. We paid more for our houses when we bought them and we pay more in taxes every year in order for our children (well, not mine in particular, but "ours" in general) to go to good schools. We chose to live farther from uptown Charlotte in order to avoid the hassles and dangers of “city life.” But the truth is that I don’t deserve any more protection or safety than anyone else in this or any city, nor can I say that my nation deserves more of God’s blessing, protection, or love than any other. Every parent in the world hopes, dreams, and prays to live in a community and in a world where our children and spouses and houses are safe from harm, from break-ins, and from terrorists. Some of us pay for alarm systems, guard dogs, and safety deposit boxes. We pay for kick boxing classes, pepper spray, and gun licenses. But none of that can insure or assure our safety. I live in what many people consider to be the strongest, most revered, and most powerful nation in the world. Our military is the largest and most technically advanced in the world. Our nation consumes more sugar, soda, ice cream, and French fries than any other nation in the world. (Just thought I’d throw that last statistic in there to lighten things up a bit.) But we are not immune from the cruelty and murderous rage of people who would rather die than see us live as we do. No color-code alert systems will change that. No well-armed citizenry, well-trained military, or well-patrolled borders will change that. No ADT system will stop thieves from prowling our quiet streets and breaking into our well-appointed homes. No vigilant neighborhood watch system will outwit the determined criminal in search of an easily snagged leather bag. We will lock our doors, set our alarms, and bring our wallets upstairs at night. We will be careful when we are out and about in the evening. We will tell the children to wear their bike helmets and come inside if a stranger ever approaches them when they are outside playing. But the bottom line for me is a plagiarized line. This line was written centuries ago by a lowly shepherd boy who later was crowned king of Israel: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” Good night. Sweet dreams.

Monday, November 29, 2004

My Prison Chronicles

I won’t soon forget Saturday’s prison visit. My friend Claudina and I left Charlotte at 9:15 in the morning and journeyed into the mountains of North Carolina. Although the highways all the way there were wide and well-paved, my soul felt like it was being dragged over cobblestones under protest. We stopped at tag sales and flea markets where shotguns lay on tables next to bags of roasted peanuts, watches that had stopped running years ago were under display glass cases held open by long butcher knives. Honey packed into jars with pieces of the comb sat on tables next to collard greens that had obviously been picked days before. One man explained how he had taken calendar photos and mounted them in wooden frames as tobacco juice ran down his unshaved chin. Another directed me to the nearest store that sold watch batteries gesturing with a hand covered with walnut sized blisters. Neither of his eyes seemed to be focused on me; each one seemed to seek its own focal point. Trailer homes with thin and patched walls were topped with thickly rusted tin roofs; winter’s winds and blowing snows must make them almost uninhabitable. Up we climbed. Finally we arrived. Two prisons at the end of the same narrow road. Razor wire in triple coils wound its way from the ground up to the top of the fence and formed an ominous awning 15 feet overhead. I left all my personal belongings, except for my driver’s license in the trunk of the car. I wondered at the need for such a defensive action; who would be bold enough to break into cars in the parking lot of a prison? Three security checks later, we were in what looked a lot like a school cafeteria sitting at a round table awaiting the arrival of my friend’s son, Daniel. While we waited, I looked around at the other guests. There were women there with young children in tow, ostensibly to see husbands and fathers. There were women dressed up in suits and high heeled shoes awaiting their two hour time allotment with their boyfriends and husbands. There were parents who’d come to see their frighteningly young looking sons. Within a few minutes the inmates began to file in one at a time. There were old men whose legs were weak but whose arms held their loved ones hard and fast. One inmate was so clean shaven and well groomed that he could easily have passed for a wealthy businessman from any upscale suburban development. One young man sat entranced for two hours, staring at his girlfriend in an obvious attempt to memorize her face and her hands and her hair. Not knowing when he’d see her again, he was determined not to let a single detail go unnoticed. At the end of the visiting hours, they were the last ones to release each other’s hands. As sweet and romantic and tender has these reunions appeared, I couldn’t help but wonder what acts of violence, depravity, or foolishness had been the cause of their incarceration. As I reflected on the saga of the young man I now faced, I wondered what act of judicial injustice, unfairness, or prejudice had doubled or tripled their sentences. I wondered if any of these men had had two hour, forehead-to-forehead gabfests with their loved ones at any point before coming to prison. Perhaps if they had been so thoughtful, attentive, and loving years ago, they wouldn’t be thus caged today. Perhaps naively, I thought that the love they displayed there in the visitors' room could have saved them if they'd expressed it instead of the rage drove them to pick up the gun, the knife, or whatever other weapon they'd wielded in their various criminal outbursts. Finally, Daniel came in. He looked so young, not even 25. He said he was one of the last to arrive because after showering and shaving, he had lay down for a nap. When he heard his name called for visiting hours, he’d had to jump up and come running. After months of writing letters on his behalf, of sending letters and postcards to him, and praying for his safety there in prison, I was delighted, honored, humbled, and overwhelmingly saddened to finally meet him. More than once in the two hours that followed I had to fight back tears. I wanted to hug him, to hold his hands, to assure him that somehow he would be released before his 28 years had elapsed. I wanted to tell him how sorry I felt for him, how much I wished he weren’t there, and fill the air around us with words that would miraculously make everything better. But I said very little. In fact, most of the time I was silent, listening to him ask his mother about his siblings, and their children. He asked about what we had eaten for lunch on our way to visit him. He asked where I'd learned to speak Spanish sow well. He asked about my recent trip to Spain. He told us about his recent request for a prison transfer; the dormitory style arrangement in which he is now being held is far less appealing to him than the privacy of a one-man cell. His request has been approved, and he is awaiting relocation to a facility seven hours away from his family. Brushing off the very real possibility that many months would likely pass between visits in the future, he talked excitedly about his GED studies, and his hopes of completing courses in carpentry, electrical studies, and a host of other things that are available there. I thought, “Once he learns these skills, he’ll be able to get a good job.” But then I remembered: he’s going to be in jail for more than two decades, and the longer he’s in here, the less likely it is that he will ever be able to make good use of these skills. That’s when the tears would well up again. Remarkably, Daniel’s spirits are high. Mine haven’t quite recovered. Along with the other somber visitors, my friend and I left when the two hours were over, holding each other close as we made our way back to the car, rode in silence for the first half hour, and then spoke only intermittently for the two remaining hours of our return trip. The pouring rain matched the tears that streamed down the insides of my heart and mind. It wasn’t until early Sunday morning that the emotions overflowed and I soaked my pillow with the flood of despair and outrage and anguish and sorrow that had been threatening to wash me away for over 12 hours. Even now as I pen these prison chronicles, I realize that I have not completely recovered my emotional equilibrium. I have often tried to end these wandering thoughts of mine with some cleverly worded witticism or pithy, thought-provoking phrase. Nothing comes to mind today. My heart is heavy with thoughts and prayers for my new friend.

Friday, November 26, 2004

I won't be at the mall tomorrow...

Today is the busiest shopping day of the year. Millions of us were in recovery from turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce overload. I burned off a few calories by following through with my usual Friday routine: it was laundry day. I filled several pages of my journaling trying to figure out ways to avoid the holiday bulge – which in my case seems to be a little too late. The bulge has already appeared. Yikes! The day was filled alternately with dusting, vacuuming, reading, writing, sending email, and watching the “What Not to Wear” Thanksgiving marathon. Where does Clinton find that purple polka dot shirt? Ultimmately, I was doing anything and everything to avoid thinking about tomorrow. Tomorrow I’m going to prison. All day long I have wondered what that will be like. I remembered that I went to a prison in the Washington, DC area back into 1980 as part of a one-day program to encourage and support the men incarcerated there during the holiday season. I spent a few hours in a medium-security facility, sang a few Christmas carols, shook a few hands, and got out of there as quickly as possible. Tomorrow it will be maximum security, maximum shake down, maximum lock down, and minimum sit down. His name is Daniel Sanchez. I’ve never met him before, but I feel like I know him pretty well. Almost two years ago, I met his mother who was on a crusade to try to get his sentence reduced from an unfathomable 28 years down to something reasonable like 5 or 10 years. Daniel does not deny that he committed a crime. He attempted to mug someone, but after he knocked her down, a wave of remorse washed over him, so he ran away. He didn’t take her wallet. He didn’t rape her. He knocked her down; as she fell, she broke her finger. The next day he turned himself in to the police, admitted his crime, followed the advice of his court appointed lawyer, and signed a prepared statement that he thought was an accurate account of the crime. Not fluent in English, Daniel had to work through an interpreter whose reputation was one of making the lives of the investigators easier rather than that of the accused. In any case, Daniel was sentenced to 28 years in a maximum security prison. How do I know all this? His mother came to my house and told me his story. She told me about the sweet son who turned into a rebellious teenager and was blossoming into a strong and respectful young man. She told me about the young man who had found a good job in construction, was applying for American citizenship, and then did something inexplicable. He had never committed a crime before that day. He never denied his culpability. He never considered leaving the country to escape punishment. And for that, he will spend the next 26 years incarcerated. Claudina, Daniel’s mother, arrived at my house in early 2003 with an armful of papers, documents, and letters and asked me to translate the English documents into Spanish and the Spanish documents into English so that she could mount an appeal on her son’s behalf. During every free hour, I worked frantically, advised her on agencies that might be interested in assisting her, and provided as much moral support as I could. Both her spirits and mine were gradually deflated as rejection letter after rejection letter found its way into her mailbox. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of an early release for Daniel, but Claudina has not lost hope. She thinks that if he is forced to serve the full sentence, she will not be alive when he is released, so she will spend the rest of her life, if necessary, lobbying for another lawyer’s assistance, another trial, any consideration whatsoever. She writes to him regularly, visits him often, awaits his telephone calls anxiously, and is preparing to send out yet another round of petitions on her son’s behalf. I have purchased a Spanish thesaurus and await the next batch of entreaties in need of translation. And tomorrow I will wake up early, meet her at to her house, and ride with her in her car for nearly three hours to the town of Spruce Pine, North Carolina to visit Daniel in prison. What does one wear for a prison visit? Certainly not all my usual silver jewelry; apparently the metal detection and search process can be humiliating. A modest skirt, black sweater and denim jacket are my outfit of choice. I chose that jacket because I need one with a pocket for my driver’s license. It’s the only thing I will be allowed to take into the building; I need the same photo ID that I sent several weeks ago with the visitor’s application I submitted. While millions of Americans will be out shopping or at home watching football, eating leftover turkey, and sleeping in one more morning of this holiday weekend, Claudina and I will be sitting with Daniel for two short hours, talking, laughing, praying, and trying not to imagine the next two and a half decades of two hour visits. Me? I’m going to meet a friend, to put a face with a name I have typed time and time again, and to prove to him that someone other than his family cares enough about him to forego another trip to the mall in passionate pursuit of Chia Pets and other early bird specials in order to wish him a belated Happy Thanksgiving, a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Such as it will be…

Thursday, November 25, 2004

One hundred twenty turkeys later...

we returned home around 11:00 this morning after four hours of a major Thanksgiving Day morning marathon at our church. One hundred twenty turkeys later, we fell down hard on the sofas in our family room and shook our heads in amazement at the generosity of our fellow Charlotteans. I am one of those people who really doesn’t like to cook very much. I do it all the time because we have this nasty and persistent habit of wanting to eat everyday. But as often as possible, I opt out of the chore of cooking. So when the church asked for volunteers to help prepare the meals for over 100 needy families, we signed up - but not for cooking. By 6:30 am the four of us were on our way. We opened and drained cans of green beans. We spread brown sugar and pecan topping on mashed sweet potatoes. We stirred huge vats of stuffing. We wrapped and warmed 120 turkeys. As the assembly line of packers formed and all that food was apportioned and put into family-sized containers, I stationed myself at the sink where I scrubbed dozens of pans and then ran them through the industrial dishwasher there in the church’s industrial kitchen. I also managed to inflict industrial stainless steel gashes on both forefingers. No one bothered to warn me about how sharp the edges of those pans were, so when I gripped the pan with one hand and scrubbed with the other, the gripping hand took the brunt of my brute force. Ouch! The band-aids and scars will long serve as reminders of Thanksgiving Day 2004. Truthfully, no scar on any finger is necessary to remind me of this delightful day. Sure, there’s an abundance of blessing for me to give thanks for in my own life. I’m healthy, happy, and have managed to surround myself with fabulously interesting and supportive friends and family members that make for fabulously interesting stories. But what made special has very little to do with me. Remember, I’m the one who doesn’t even like turkey, but this day is not about me or what I like. One hundred and twenty turkeys and over three hundred pies were purchased, cooked, and transported to our church by kind-hearted and unselfish people whose hearts and minds extended far beyond themselves this morning. In addition, over three dozen people rose up early, made their way through this sleeping city, and give of their time, their energy, and even their blood (well, my blood anyway) so that others could have an otherwise unattainable Thanksgiving feast. Who knows? erhaps there were people in that kitchen this morning who would end up taking home one of those meals. Perhaps there were people in that kitchen who couldn’t afford to buy an extra turkey, but they could afford an extra hour or two of service. Everyone there had a story, but this morning none of those stories mattered. This morning it was about being united to tell one story: that people we don’t know have needs we don’t understand, but that didn’t stop us from sharing a love we don't know how to explain. On this Thanksgiving Day that began for me in a hot church kitchen in front of hot ovens, over hot pans, soaking wet beside a hot sink, I was warmed to the very soul with gratitude for the chance to give thanks and then give. And now one hundred twenty turkeys later, I am going to put this tired body, this full belly, and these sore fingers to bed. Gratefully, Gail NHB

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

When leftovers are a feast unto themselves...

I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. My father was a city bus driver for twenty years, and my mother was a secretary for the Board of Education and Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan respectively for most of my growing up time. I have three older brothers who claim that I was treated like a princess as a child, but all I seem to remember are the times they would band together to torture me. Two brothers would hold me down and the third would tickle me until either I wet my pants or stopped laughing. I figured out that the best way to end that particular torment was simply to stop laughing as soon as possible. To this day, I’m not ticklish. The other affliction I suffered at the hands of my brothers was the water torture. Again, two would hold me down, and the third one would pour water into my mouth. “Swallow it or you’ll drown,” would be the sage advice they chanted while I gagged. I am fairly sure that the three of them would deny all charges, but we all know the truth. I suppose when television and non-Christian music are not permitted as evening diversions, then boys will be boys and make their sister into their favorite toy. When they weren’t torturing me, I followed them around, listened in on their conversations, and offered my services as a hair braider to gain access to their private den downstairs. It was the 70’s when large afros and cornbraids on guys were also quite fashionable. It was during one of those extended hairstyling sessions that I made the decision to outdo them in some area of my life. They could go out with their friends more than I could. They had larger allowances. They had a radio in their room where they listened to secular music! I had to come up with some way to do something better than they could. When my two oldest brothers began to study Spanish at school, they thought it would be clever to use their newfound linguistic skill to talk about the rest of us. They would chatter away and then giggle at their wit. When I entered the 7th grade and had the option of studying either French or Spanish, I chose Spanish. I learned as much as I could as quickly as I could. I studied all the way through high school, took several classes in college, went on to study in Madrid, and later become a Spanish teacher. (So there, Otis, Glen, and Darryl!) It was in college, however, that my Spanish skills, my working class neighborhood, and this upcoming Thanksgiving Day tradition came together in an unexpectedly memorable way. During my freshman year in college, I discovered that there was a world beyond the neat and what I thought were ironclad borders of these United States of America. One day I went to the home of my English professor for extra help, and when I arrived there I found him wildly enraged and yelling at his television set. I almost declined his invitation to sit and watch the news with him; I’d never seen him so emotional. As it turned out, that was the day the United States had invaded Grenada. I didn’t even know where Grenada was, but I decided to learn more about the situation. I took a political science course during second semester of my freshman year with a professor from Argentina, and my life would never be the same. Central and South American politics became the focus of nearly everything I read, every movie I saw, and every conversation I had. I couldn’t believe what people of so many nations had suffered at the hands of insensitive explorers who had “discovered the new world,” all the centuries of dictatorships that were so common for them and completely unknown to me, and more recently of irrationally greedy multinational corporations. I walked on picket lines near the college campus where I studied. I signed petitions for all sorts of things. I both joined and supported fellow students and townspeople who were conducting sit-ins, protests, and demanding that the college divest from South Africa. My parents denied my request to go to Nicaragua and see the Sandinistas in action, so the next best thing happened: Nicaragua came to Williamstown. During the fall of my sophomore year the national basketball team from Nicaragua came to play against Williams College. They were touring the country and arrived on campus just days before Thanksgiving. Being the overzealous Spanish student that I was, I volunteered to take one of the coaches to my house for the holiday. It wasn’t until we were on our way down to Brooklyn that I thought about my awful brothers, our rather humble home, and the potentially touchy situation we might face with a Spanish speaking Nicaraguan in our mostly black American and Caribbean neighborhood. I wondered what he’d think of our small bedrooms and even smaller bathrooms. What if he saw a roach? What if he didn’t like our neighborhood? Would he like our food? Being that I had long since surpassed my brothers’ rudimentary grasp of the language of heaven, I wondered if anyone else in my family be able to communicate with him since I was by far the best Spanish speaker in the house. I needn’t have worried. My oldest brother was married at the time, and his wife and young son had tamed his wilder instincts. The other two brothers were quite gentlemanly; in fact, I think they were impressed by my Spanish and awed by the fact that this was the coach of an international basketball team. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the four of us siblings and my father could have beaten that team; I basked in their honor and respect for those few, short days. And as for the coach, he loved our house with its cracks, leaky roof, and uninvited multi-legged guests. He said that he’d been worried about how he’d be accepted by my family but that he felt nothing but warmth and love from all of us. My parents loved all the major holidays, and they thoroughly enjoyed preparing elaborate holiday meals. They cooked up such magnificent feasts for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas that my five cousins who lived across the street from us would come to our house early in the afternoon to eat and then go back home for their own meals a couple of hours later, then for a final act of glorious gluttony, they would return for dessert somewhere around 9 PM. That Thanksgiving was no exception to my parents’ legendary cooking forays. The preparations began several days in advance. So on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, we had to eat whatever was left over in the fridge in order to make room for the goodies yet to come. With that in mind, I prepared an apology for the coach: “Please excuse our leftovers. Normally my parents cook great food nearly every night, but this week is different. But on Thursday you will agree that these mediocre provisions were not eaten in vain.” Again I needn’t have worried. He opened the fridge and looked inside for what seemed like an unendurably long time, then he turned to me and said, “I’ve never seen this much food in one place in all my life.” Silence. Shame. Tears. And an early prayer of Thanksgiving. “Thank you, Lord, for these leftovers.” But then a new round of worries came over me: What on earth would he think when he saw the real Thanksgiving bounty two days hence? After the blessing over our heavily laden table and under the appreciative gaze of my incredulous Central American guest, my three noisy, obnoxious brothers ate with a reverence and appreciativeness that set that Thanksgiving apart from any before or since. I almost loved them that day. As for me, I don’t think I have ever thought of leftovers, Thanksgiving, my working class family, or our humble home the same since that day. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Is it time for a virus scan?

Several weeks ago, our computer caught a nasty case of the flu. The CD roms coughed. The keyboard wheezed. The internet connection ran a high fever and no amount of cool compresses, soothing words, or repeated rebootings brought any relief. Finally I was forced to call in a computer doctor, one of those guys that earns his $75 per hour by calming down the parents of the ill apparatus while quietly diagnosing, treating, and inoculating the victim of the virus assault. I watched in awe as Bob, the computer guy, pulled pieces off his key ring – literally – that he injected into the card slots, some of which I didn’t even know existed, and bring my computer back from the brink of death. I thanked him, clapped him on the back, and if my husband hadn’t been in the room, I might have kissed him full on the mouth. But the subsequent act of writing the payment check could arguably have made the aforementioned kiss an act of prostitution. Bob showed me the two new virus protection programs he had installed and said that I should run system scans on a regular basis to clean out the adware, the malware, and all the other parasites that stealthily worm their way into my hard drive and make the software turn into pudding. One of those programs is called Spy Sweeper and the other is called Ad-Aware. That day when Bob ran those two programs, they discovered over 500 various little invaders, all of which were making life in the Fast Lane of the Virtual Superhighway slow to nearly a standstill. Once he quarantined and deleted those little rascals, I was up and running again. Every couple of weeks since then I have run those programs and nodded my head in pride as a mere 8 or 10 additional attackers are laid to rest in the junk heap of would-be computer killers. But last week I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. The Ad Aware program offers various types of computer scans. The default setting is for surface scans. The next one on the list refers to a deep scan. Always looking for an adventure, a chance to push myself to a higher level, I decided to go for a deep scan to see what might surface. There were 283 enemy soldiers who had infiltrated my fortress and were ready to synchronize their watches and attack my poor unsuspecting and unprepared files, folders, and beloved first drafts of various writings I’m working on. Two hundred and eighty three of them! I was shocked, horrified, angered, and enormously grateful for having gotten below the surface and done a deep scan. That got me to thinking: it’s easy to go through life with the occasional surface scan. I go through a few carefully selected commandments and check off the boxes: Nope, haven’t killed anyone today. Nope, no stealing either. I’ve told a few lies but those were related to the kids and whether or not I’ve bought all their Christmas presents, so those don’t really matter. No idols on the mantle in the family room, and no acts of adultery to report this week. I love my house, so there isn’t much coveting of the neighbor’s houses, wives, husbands, or asses of late. Whew! I did pretty well this week. But when it’s time for a deeper scan, that’s when the real dirt floats to the surface. Have I loved my husband, my children, my annoying neighbor with the weird tic, my neighbor’s son who teases my son mercilessly, and the woman I know whose claim to fame is complaining about everything – am I loving them as I love myself? Am I extending a helping hand to those who are in need even when I would rather be helping myself to a warm bath? When I have been slapped in the face by critical family members, by complaining children, and demanding friends, when I am ignored, insulted, and silenced, do I turn the other cheek or prepare to make use of the Tae Bo kickboxing drills I have so religiously practiced for the past two years? How often do I bother to do these more probing, painful, revelatory deep scans? Not often enough, that much I know for sure. Sometimes I need to call in experts (who can be described as anyone flown in from out of town…) to do the work for me. There are a few people in my life whose honest critique both stings and stimulates. Amy pushes me to find new perspectives on old controversies and encourages me to keep writing in the silences and thinking out loud. Karen gently nudges me in the direction of reality when I am unreasonable in my familial demands and stands behind me when I am falling backwards in my marriage and in parenting, pushing me along the road less traveled: perseverance. Antonio listens to me recount the times in my life when I want to pull the parachute cord and escape from the battle altogether. He reminds me that the road is long, el camino dura toda la vida. Struggle, la lucha, is expected. Without the struggle to break free of the cocoon, the butterfly’s wings would never be strong enough for flight. Maria always prays blessings over me, not that I am blessed for she knows that I am richly blessed, but that I will bless others in all I do, say, and think. Others fill my email box with journaling prompts, reading suggestions, and pointed questions that prevent me from getting stale and telling the same tales over and over. It’s much easier to live on the down low: to live a double life where what appears on the surface is fine and upstanding and noble. But when the sun goes down, when the night is dark and no is watching, all kinds of bad things happen. Thoughts are dark. Deeds are darker still. Fears surface. Random acts of sarcasm, selfishness, and superiority become the modus operandi. But when the sun rises again, when those deeds of darkness are brought into the light, when the fears and lies and broken promises are exposed, then I see who I really am, what I’m really capable of, and I run that deep scan, that attic sweeping, basement organizing, extermination program of introspection, quiet reflection, contemplation, and prayer yet again. I quarantine the culprits, eliminate them, and start with a newly repaired, cleaned, and rebooted hard drive. As I continue to meditate on what this Thursday is supposed to represent, I continue to discover reasons to give thanks. Today, I am thankful for Bob, the computer guy, Ad Aware, Spy Sweeper, and for the new ways in which I see my life, my faith, and my friends in the light of a nearly fatal computer crash.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Thank God for elastic...

As we come to the end of the fall semester of homeschooling, I am taking a little time to reevaluate what we are doing, what’s going well, what’s not going well, and what needs to go. It’s quite exciting to look back at what the children have learned and accomplished so far. It’s quite humbling to see how much is yet to be accomplished. And it’s downright sobering to take inventory of all the stuff I have at my disposal to carry out this monumental undertaking of educating our two children – although the truth is that I know I have learned far more than they have in this process. Curricular materials, notebooks, pencils, glue sticks, beads, dictionaries, CD roms, a hamster, a white board, three computers, workbooks, art supplies, and all kinds of gadgets. And that’s just in the homeschool room. Venture downstairs to the kitchen, the family room, the living room, the laundry room, and there is stuff everywhere. I recently reorganized our art supplies and as I went through everything, I was awed by the amount of supplies we have. Watercolors, gouache, acrylics, rubber stamps, more glue, paper of all weights and sizes, brushes, brayers, scissors, beads, fabric, sewing supplies, stickers, markers, ink pads, calligraphy pens, and several art instruction books. In the past, I have had moments of overwhelming guilt for the bounty that we have been blessed with. At those times, I have gathered together bags and boxes of clothes, books, toys, and food, and carted it all off to friends, family, and acquaintances in need. But most of the time, and I guess more so at this time of year, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude. I rarely indulge thoughts of entitlement; I know I don’t deserve this amazing life. I don’t deserve most of what I have, but I am enormously grateful. When the hurricanes, tornadoes, and scorching heat make the local weather reporters interrupt our evening news, I am grateful for this strong brick home that has weathered so many storms. When I check my email and chat cheerfully with friends on the telephone, I am grateful for the wonder of communication technology. When I flip a switch and lights come on, when I push a button and the ceiling fans fire up, when I turn a knob and the flames in our gas fireplace reach out for my dreadlocs, I am grateful for the engineers, mechanics, operators, and repair personnel who make sure it all keeps running so smoothly. When I stand in my closet chafing at the challenge of choosing a different outfit to wear everyday, I am grateful to have so much from which to choose. When I sort through four piles of clothes in the laundry room, I am reminded of the South African children in my friend Jyll’s photos; we could outfit an entire village of children on any given laundry day. When I stand at the door of the pantry trying to decide what to make for dinner, I am frequently struck by the privilege of having so much to choose from. It’s not just that there’s a lot available in the supermarket; it’s that I get to choose so many great options and bring them home for our family to enjoy. I know so many people in dire financial straits for whom food choices are often based on the budget of the week in question. When we were negotiating the final details of the purchase of this house, the previous owners asked if it would be okay for them to leave their older refrigerator here for us. They were taking the one from the kitchen, but they had a second one that they weren’t going to need. Of course, we said, we’ll keep it. So now there is a second refrigerator in our garage. When there’s a good sale at the supermarket, I stock up. When there’s no more milk, bread, salad, or ice cream in the kitchen fridge, one of us will dash out into the garage and grab a replacement When I am stumped for dinner ideas, there are undoubtedly some pizza crusts or turkey burgers or chicken breasts out there. When I see men, women, and children wearing those tell-tale bandanas, the ones that cover chemo-induced baldness, I am grateful for good health. When my mother-in-law was hospitalized a couple of weeks ago, I was grateful for medical insurance when her health wasn’t good. And 72 hours from now, when I am recovering from second and third helpings of salad, stuffing, and pie (have I mentioned that I don’t like turkey!), I will be grateful for the elastic waistband of my pajamas. The list of life’s bountiful blessings could go on for pages, and I know it will go on forever in my heart and mind. Amy Grant sang a song twenty or so years ago that means more to me each time I hear it. “If you see the moon rising gently on your fields; if the wind blows softly on your face; if the sunset lingers while cathedral bells peal, and the moon has risen to her place, you can thank The Father for the things that He has done. Thank Him for the things He’s yet to do. And if you find a love that’s tender, if you find someone that’s true, then thank the Lord; He’s been doubly good to you.”

Friday, November 19, 2004

What lies beneath...

I recently joined an online forum related to journaling. I receive thought-provoking prompts every morning that I dutifully consider and work through during the course of the day. I do a fair amount of surfing the web for ideas, questions, and discussions on how to keep a journal, collage, write creative non-fiction, and otherwise feed this incessant habit of writing and pouring myself onto paper. Often as the hours pass, I find myself trying to come up with ways to make something poetic out of choosing the right onions for the pasta sauce. I boil water, pour it over my tea bag, and try to come up with some clever metaphor for boiling water and my dry and thirsty soul. When I sit down here to work on this blog, I am constantly pushing myself to be creative, humorous, witty, and unforgettable all in less than 750 words. But sometimes, as I meander through my life looking for metaphors under every rock, behind every conversation, and between every line I read, I wonder if I’m a little too serious. Perhaps I should put the books away for a while, put down the pen, step away from the keyboard and just lighten up. Forget all the analysis and just live a little. Watch “Fear Factor,” “Meet Your New Mommy,” and David Letterman. Sleep in as late as possible; forego the hour of quiet reading, writing, and reflection every morning. No more solitary walks in the morning for prayer and planning. Enough of the alone time that draws me away from Steve and the kids. Learn how to be renewed and rejuvenated in front of the television, reading pulp fiction, and talking about soap operas on the telephone. Who needs all this mindfulness and contemplation? Get a life, Gail. A few days ago, I gave some serious thought to giving up reading and writing completely for two weeks and seeing what happened. The first thing I did was open my journal to write down the idea and try to flesh it out. Mid-page it occurred to me that I was writing about not writing. That plan had already failed. One of the journaling prompts from earlier this week included this quote by George Simons: “To keep a journal brings about a certain intensity of life, and I do not always wish to be that intense.” I felt my heart change its rhythm as I read that statement. I shook my head in absolute and profound disagreement. The intensity of life that he alludes to is exactly why I journal. It’s what I want from journaling. It’s what I want from life: intensity. If I’m not going to live and love intensely, deeply, and passionately, then why bother? The idea of living a mindless, unconsidered, blasé life is not attractive to me in the least. When I write, I think. When I think, I write. When I live, think, and write, I live more fully, completely, and colorfully. With every page, every question, every resolution, I feel like I know myself better. I hear more. I feel more. I grow. I ask questions. I find answers. Questions morph into answers. Answers into questions. My nerves are calmed and my anger is dissipated. Laughter is remembered and joy is multiplied. I simply cannot imagine not living this intensely, experiencing life this openly, and wandering around less alertly than I do now. When fear and loneliness and uncertainly attack, I let them flow right through me onto the pages of my journal. When joy and love and new friendships bloom, I record my enthusiasm on the pages of my journal. When life feels monotonous and boring, I flip back and have a physical record of not only all that I have overcome, but also all that I have be blessed with in my life. When I am feeling land-locked, I pull out the travel journals and recall the freedom I enjoyed, the wonders, the wandering, and the lessons learned on the road. My favorite emails grace these pages. My tears stain them as well. I have affixed the labels from my favorite candles, cards from restaurants, and even programs from the funerals of people I have known, loved, and bid farewell to. I clip articles from magazines and newspapers, save airline boarding passes, and receipts from mementoes of my journeys and glue them in. So when I open my journal, I find page after page of stories, memories, events that prove to me just how intense my life is. It also shows me the areas of my life where I need to work harder to bring out the luster, those areas that I have neglected in the rush and routine. I have found that keeping a record of the ups and downs magnifies the ups and diminishes the downs. Some people say that they could never keep a journal because all they would write about is the bad stuff. Perhaps it’s necessary to get all the “bad stuff” out of the way in order to get down to the good stuff. Rake off the fallen leaves, the old mulch, the dead pine needles, and find the rich soil underneath that needs to be raked, fertilized, and sown with new seeds. On the day that we moved into the home we last owned in Connecticut, we found a horrible red shag carpet. Well, we knew the carpet was there but we hadn’t really looked carefully at it until all the previous owners’ stuff was gone and ours was in. Years of dog fur, cigarette ashes, and filth of all kinds was packed down into that carpet. It was so bad that when a stuffed animal I’d had for years, my favorite brown bear of all time fell onto that rug, I had to throw it away. My allergies kicked in very soon thereafter and I started sneezing. That was it; we decided that very night that we would get rid of that carpet as soon as possible. Three days later, one of our good friends came over to help us rip up the carpet. No matter what was underneath, it couldn’t be any worse that what we were already dealing with. The carpet was so old and tattered that Steve and Kevin were able to rip it up by hand without any tools at all. They pulled up the pad underneath, and there was the finest wood floor beneath that we had ever seen. All I had to do what damp mop it. No need to refinish it, polyurethane it, or anything else. The shine was amazing. We could have made a different choice: we could have had the carpet cleaned and lived with it as it was. But if we hadn’t been willing to take our chances and rip it up we would never have found what lay beneath. For me, journaling is a way to rip up the years of dirt, dust, bad memories, bad habits, and let the shine come through. I’ve had to peel back layers of padding and cut through many cleverly laid booby traps of fear, selfishness, and self-righteousness. I’ve learned to maintain the shine through collage, through writing, and through recording not only my prayers, but also the answers to them. No, I most certainly do not shy away from the intensity of life that journaling brings. I say, “Bring it on.”

Thursday, November 18, 2004

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

While I get a great kick out of the way Staples uses that song in its commercial, the one where the father is joyfully skipping and trotting his way through the store collecting school supplies for his less than enthusiastic children, that’s not the rendition of the song that is on my mind tonight. No, tonight I am thinking about the Christmas season. When I was a child, one of my favorite Christmas traditions was when we would take a Christmas Eve drive into distant areas of Brooklyn and even out onto Long Island where a home would be transformed into a wonderland of lights, figurines, musical statues, and passersby would stand at the fence and marvel at the ingenuity, sparkle, and colossal waste of electricity and money. There is a town an hour or so away from Charlotte that is known for its holiday display of epic proportions. It’s not unusual for eager voyeurs to wait hours in traffic to drive the streets of that otherwise sleepy town during the weeks leading up to the day when we are supposed to celebrate a silent and holy night. Well, there is nothing silent or holy about the way we ramp up for the Christmas spectacle in this country. By the time November 1st rolls around, the lights are already being strung, the wreaths are being hoisted up lamp posts, and stores are stocking garland and foil icicles. At Target and WalMart, Halloween candy is on the shelf directly across from gaudy ornaments and Christmas stockings. Thanksgiving gets hopelessly lost in the shuffle, forgotten, except for poorly designed paper goods and frozen turkeys that seem to be bigger every year. Who really needs a 23 pound turkey? Or a stuffing mix that feeds 15? Just how many turkey sandwiches and turkey soups can one family stand? But more on turkey another day. Tonight my mind is on Christmas. Just the other day, I was at the mall with the kids looking for a cool cover for me cool new phone – which almost never rings. But when it does ring, I almost never get to it on time because I am so unaccustomed to the sound of it. I actually had it in my skirt pocket the other day and my son pointed out to me that it was ringing. It was in my right hip pocket! On the rare occasion that a call comes through, the thing rings, vibrates, and lights up – but I was completely oblivious. Sometimes I’m genuinely surprised that my husband leaves these two amazing human beings I gave birth to in my care and trusts that I won’t leave them somewhere in one of my cloud-gazing stupors. But back to Christmas – I was at the mall the other day, and there they were. Those stands, those carts, those kiosks that appear only at Christmas. The ones that sell odd assortments of odd meats for oddly high prices. I actually heard one woman express what appeared to be genuine excitement because of one of those meat trays. They appear at the mall in November. They remain there all day and all night until the middle of January. Who eats that stuff? What happens to the ones that don’t get sold? Are they returned to the warehouse where they wait for the next year? How long can meat retain its edibility when it’s not refrigerated for weeks at a time? I guess I ought to be asking a different question: is it, in fact, meat? Then there are the tins of cookies, fruit cake, and Christmas wines that people seem to buy by the ton and gallon, respectively. The ham in cans, the candied fruit in jars, and the candles that smell like candy canes, pine trees, and sugar cookies – all these things baffle me. Candles? Why not bake real cookies, put real flowers in a vase, and eat the candy canes? Ham in a can? Whose idea was that? And who was the first person who saw fresh ham next to ham in a can and thought that the latter was a good idea? Then there are those expensive, finely painted – some even from the inside, fragile tree ornaments. I must admit that many of them are exquisitely rendered. Whoever has a steady enough hand and a clear enough mind to paint an ornament on the inside without crushing it to bits in the other hand is undeniably talented. But who’s kidding who? How many of those $35 baubles survive more than one Christmas? I will say that we have received some amazing ornaments as presents down through the years, and they have all survived three or four Christmases. I would never and I will never buy such an ornament for us myself. Nor do I buy those balls that are made of that whisper thin, razor sharp glass. They are more fragile than light bulbs. They are held together by a wire that could pass between dry paint and drywall. They come off in your hand if you blink while you are hold them. And they sell in packages of 25 for $1.49. They are perfectly priced but terribly made. Isn’t it amazing how those things seem to turn into powdery shards when they inevitably fall from the tree onto the floor? It doesn’t matter how fine or thick or padded your carpeting, those things splinter into at least 155 pieces upon impact. They are impossible to pick up with bare fingers and under the pressure of the vacuum cleaner’s bristles, they fragment even further. But the tree decorating rules in our house are clear: the children help put up the plastic ones, the wooden ones they painted as toddlers, and then they back away from the tree for the rest of the season. I wire the expensive ones on to the top of the tree, and then I turn to them and remind them of their relationship to the tree for the remainder of the holiday festivities with all the Brooklyn bravado I can muster. “Stay away from this tree. Don’t even breathe on it. Don’t even look at it too hard. If I catch either one of you with your hand extended in the direction of this tree and your body happens to be within 15 feet of it, you will pull back a stump.” Or something along those lines, but couched in far more Christian and motherly terminology. But the single most inexplicable holiday phenomenon is the Chia pet. Sold only at Christmas time, shaped like animals, cartoon characters, plants, and assorted unidentifiable objects, those thingamabobs boggle my mind. I try to imagine the scene: it has been 365 days since last Christmas. The anticipation builds. The family rushes downstairs to the tree. Mom bellows from the top of the staircase: “Don’t anyone touch that tree or else. I will hand out the presents when I get down there.” Wrapping paper flies in every direction. New slippers. Diamond earrings. "Ooh." The latest Grisham bestseller. A scarf. "Aah." Luggage. A new tie. "Just the one I was hoping for." Barbie dolls. Nintendo. A Chia pet? Who ever asks for a Chia pet for Christmas? Somebody must be buying them, or they wouldn’t appear on the shelves of our finest establishments year after year. The commercials make it look so easy: Mix the seeds with water, spread the mix on the Chia, and keep it moist. Watch the weeds grow out of the holes through the top of the head. How does one follow such grand creativity and generosity? One goes to eat the ham from the can, the canned sweet potatoes with marshmallows (what are they made from?), the green beans topped with canned onion crisps, wash it down with the wine from the box, and follow all that fine festive fare up with the cookies from the tin and the shrink wrapped fruit cake. “What? This holiday is about the birth of a special baby over 2,000 years ago? What baby? Listen, can somebody pass the water pitcher? The Chia pet is looking a little dry.” For the record; my Christmas shopping is done. I’ll be sleeping till noon on the day after Thanksgiving! Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Unforced errors

A little over a year ago, I began tennis lessons. My first teacher was a very sweet young man who was one of the lifeguards at our development pool. One afternoon while he was giving my children their lesson, I mentioned that I wished I knew how to play tennis. He said he was the captain of his high school team and that he’d be more than willing to teach me how to play. I paid him $20 an hour. He taught me how to hold the racket, swing it properly, and spent most of the hour teaching me how not to look like a complete idiot on the court. During the past two summers, in the scorching Charlotte heat I have hit hundreds of tennis balls. I run, jump, stretch in various directions, and hear odd popping and cracking noises come from my elbows, wrists, shoulders, and knees. What sustains me are the visions of Masters Tennis Tournaments all over the world, hearing commentators talk about the "tennis phenom" who started playing at 37 with a teenage coach and is taking on players who have played since childhood. These past two summers, I have dragged my very young son out to play as often as I could. Then when he got home from work, my husband has been forced to play another rounds with me. There was more than one day when I played three sessions of tennis. About eight months ago, I pulled into the driveway of a good friend’s house, and the car in front of me had a vanity plate that said, “DROPSHOT.” I walked into my friend’s living room and asked whose car that was. A week later, I was on the court with a “real teacher.” Rhonda is awesome. She is energetic, encouraging, and extremely talented at tennis. She runs me around the court, back and forth, up and down. That first lesson left me cramped, dehydrated, and smitten: I was absolutely hooked on tennis. I am still hooked on tennis. But there’s one catch: I am mercilessly critical of myself. If the ball goes out of the court boundaries, I collapse onto the court like I’ve been shot, ranting and raving like a lunatic. If I hit the net, I hit the court with my racket. If I miss my serve, I want to just crawl into a hole and die. It’s ridiculous. I know it’s ridiculous, but when I’m out there, I just can’t help myself. I expect nothing but perfect tennis every time I’m on that court. Sure, I’m still a novice player, barely beyond the beginner level. I’m not totally unrealistic about my talent. When my coach serves her “real serve” to test my responses and make me push myself to the next level, I’m fine. I miss most of her serves, but that’s to be expected. When my husband lays down one of his impossible spinning shots, the ones that bounce on my side of the court, then head back towards the net, I get upset with him not myself. “Just hit it straight, Steve. Give me a chance. It’s not nearly as much fun for me to watch you hit those crazy shots as it is for me to actually be able to have a few rallies with you.” I’m getting more evenly matched with Steve, but I’m still a long way from beating him. With Rhonda, I am way out of my league. The one I really want to beat up on the most is me. There are two words that my coach has used more than once that just make me grind my teeth: Unforced errors. “Gail, when you get your unforced errors under control, you’re gonna do great. You are improving so much. You could get out and play tournaments, but the unforced errors are what you have to watch out for.” Those words echo in my head for hours after every lesson. Eventually, I shake it off and get myself back on track with my normal life, leaving that sweaty hour of power behind. Later, though, in the quiet moments, the reflective moments, those words roar through my mind again. I cringe when I think of the “unforced errors” I commit in the course of my daily life. The times when I get a little too angry at the kids and yell a little too loud. The times when I am unnecessarily impatient with my mother and forget that she’s doing the best that she can. The times when I push people a little too hard and expect them to live up to impossibly high standards that no one could ever meet. The times when I roll my eyes at the overwhelmed store clerks or inattentive waiters for no particularly valid reason other than my superiority complex. The times when I am critical of someone and express my disappointment in obvious and unrefined ways. Those are the unforced errors that make me want to fall down on the court – and ask for forgiveness. Those are the times when I wish I could ask for a “do-over,” an instant replay with an alternate outcome. On their own, none of those errors is a big deal. But taken together, they add up to lost opportunities for growth, lost connections that can never be remade, and lost time for togetherness that can never be recovered. Even the very best tennis players, the ones who get paid millions of dollars to play tennis commit unforced errors. They do nothing but play tennis all day every day, and they don’t play it perfectly. So what chance do I have to avoid the errors I make? What can I do to reduce their frequency? Practice, practice, practice. On and off the court. I stand in my kitchen and go through all the motions of the serve. I stand in front of my mirror and practice my swing. I need to do the same in life. Stand in front of my children and serve up an apology. If I don’t say it exactly right and it gets smashed back into my face, so be it. At least, I put myself out there and put the ball in play. If I listen attentively and give time, patience, and forbearance in a challenging situation without sucking my teeth or making a sarcastic comment, then I have given someone else the chance for a winner, or at least a winning moment. If I back down and willingly give up my right to demand an apology or explanation from someone, extending forgiveness before it is even sought, then I’ve come a long way towards winning a chance to go into a second set. Plus there’s always room for unforced laughter, unforced hugs, unforced encouragement, unforced love, unforced respect, and unforced graciousness. Let those be the passing shots that people remember about me. Let kindness and gentleness, reliability and approachability, mindfulness and tenderness be the trademarks for which I am known. The unforced errors are part of tennis and part of life. The goal in both is to do exactly what my coach advises: Get the unforced errors under control. Let the strength of your game, and not the errors, determine the outcome.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Gail Almighty...not so much!

A few months ago, I saw a movie starring Jim Carrey called, “Bruce Almighty.” He happens to be one of my least favorite actors, but I’d heard interesting things about the movie, so I rented it, watched it, laughed at some parts, was offended at others, but overall I wasn’t terribly disappointed. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the premise is that Bruce is elevated to the position of God for a certain amount of time and has to deal with all that being God entails. He loves the power to move morning traffic out of his way, the alterations he produces in his wife’s physique, the ability to walk on water, and uses those powers freely. The most provocative scene in the movie for me, however, is when he sits down to answer the millions of prayers that were being offered. People all around the world in all kinds of situations are constantly raising all kinds of prayers. To win the lottery. To be healed of some disease. To pass a test. To be pregnant. To not be pregnant. The list goes on for endless pages on his celestial computer screen. Suddenly Bruce doesn’t feel so Almighty. He realizes that it’s not gonna be possible to read each one and give an individual answer. So he says, “Yes” to every request thinking that then the prayers will stop for a while. Well, that doesn’t work out too well either. In the end, he rightly concludes that he’s not God, could never be God, and gladly returns the reins of the world and even himself to God – who happens to be Morgan Freeman in a white suit. Hmmm… Lately, I have been receivinglots of prayer requests myself. Children with cancer and other illnesses. Marriages on the rocks. Job loss. Family members and friends serving in one war or another. Children estranged from parents. Parents who won’t take responsibility for their children. Pregnant teenagers. Barren adults. Ill parents. Rebellious children. Imminent divorce. Imminent death. To win a baseball game. For the health of a pet. The state of our nation. The state of our world. The list goes on and on. To some extent I am honored that so many people know that I’m, in their words, “really religious.” In truth, I take my faith very seriously and spend a lot of time praying for other people. But there are times when it feels overwhelming. There is so much pain and heartache, loss and loneliness, brokenness and emptiness in this world. In the past few months, I have come to an obvious realization, one that I should have figured out ages ago, but I’m a slow learner. Here is my “aha” moment in a nutshell: Every one has a story. No matter the size of the house, the age of the car, the shapeliness of the body, the spotless faces of the children, the immaculately manicured lawn, the educational degrees, the size of the bank account, there is always a story. There is a broken place, a scar, a trauma that is just below the surface. I remember that on the morning of my father’s death, as we left the hospital, I was watching the people in the halls, the elevator, and in the parking lot there at King’s County Hospital. I wanted to scream out: “My Father Just Died. Don’t You Care?” But they were in the hospital too. Either someone they loved was there, they themselves were about to check in, or they worked there. In any case, this probably wasn’t going to be an easy day for them either. As I made my way up to Brooklyn this past summer to mourn the loss of my dearest uncle, I looked around on the plane and the train and wondered if anyone else was on their way to a funeral. I thought the same thing on my way to a wedding a month later. I look at faces in the mall, in the supermarket, and in Barnes and Noble. I sometimes see tears about to fall. I sometimes see dark shadows and bruises behind sunglasses. That’s the obvious stuff. But what about all the silent screams, the inner turmoil, and the secret sorrows? There is always a story, and there is always a prayer request attached to that story. I know some people think it’s crazy to pray. If God cared, why would all this stuff be going on? If God cared, why doesn’t He just fix it all? Well, some of what ails this world is self-inflicted. Smoking, obesity, unbridled anger, jealousy, obsessive controlling behavior, addictions of all kinds, pollution, drunk driving, rampant consumerism, racism, corruption, self-centeredness, wastefulness, personal, corporate, national, and international greed - all that stuff, it kills. It makes us sick and it kills us. We can fix a lot of that stuff ourselves. The rest of it, I just don’t know. When my dear friend asks for a reason as to why his eight month old daughter might soon die of cancer, I have no answer. When another friend asks why her ex-husband refuses to send child support for any reason other than his selfishness, I have no answer. When I read of the rape and prostituting of children as young as infants still in diapers, I am without words. I sometimes wish I could tap into a little of what Bruce Almighty had. I’d like to try my hand at being “Gail Almighty” for an afternoon, but then again, I’d most likely blow it just like Bruce did. I used to think I needed to make a list of possible solutions for each of the problems I’d hear. So I started such a list and freely offered it to God in my startlingly naïve prayers. Do this, Fix that, Make him happy, Heal her of what ails her, Get them back together. But what do I know? How do I know what the best solution really would be? Now I usually just say the words of that Mr. Mister song of ages ago: “Kyrie Eleison down the road that I must travel. Kyrie Eleison on the highway in the night.” Lord, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on that sad woman, that lonely man, and those confused children. Have mercy on my friends, family members, and their friends and family members, all of whom have a story, all of whom are on the highway in the night. Lord, have mercy on us as we make our way through the darkness that is all around us and is often inside of us. Have mercy on the people committing random acts of vandalism and arson in our neighborhood. Have mercy on the busy, the overwhelmed, the underpaid, and the unemployed. Have mercy on the ill, the dying, and those who love and care for them. Have mercy on the homeless, the hungry, the unloved, the forgotten, and the imprisoned. Have mercy on the victims of war and rape and devastation in the Middle East and Africa and all over the world. Have mercy on all of us, O Lord I pray. I don’t understand how or why prayer works, but with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, I believe that it does. It must do something because people who don’t profess personal faith of any kind, people who claim to have no interest in faith, God, or religion at all, will often ask for prayer of someone who does believe. Not only when they face a crisis or hear of a tragedy, but also when they hear wonderful news, even the most adamantly anti-religious among us will impulsively say, “Oh, my God.” He hears that simple, heartfelt prayer as well as the long, wordy ones. As for me, when the titles of the countless stories I have heard flow onto the second, third, and fourth pages of my heart, when the list of needs is longer than the time I have to read through them, I lift my hands in surrender to The Truly Almighty One, and say, “Kyrie Eleison.” Lord, have mercy.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Chlorophyll and Caterpillars

Out on another walk the other day, I thought about chlorophyll. It’s been on my mind of late because both of my children have been studying leaves and plants. The cycles of plant life, the components of leaves, all that stuff that left me in a spelling and scientific fog back in school. As I walked along the busy boulevards of South Charlotte, I looked both above and below me was a sense of awe in relation to all the leaves. Most of the leaves had given up the fight for everlasting life and had fallen to the ground, but some still clung to their respective branches in a desperate attempt to stay young and vital. One in particular caught my eye. It was lying next to the sidewalk as I strolled past. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it had been painted. In three evenly divided stripes, bright hues of red, green, and yellow imitated the flag of Mali. I turned around and went back for it, slipped it gently into my pocket, carried it home, and placed in on the desk in my study room where it is dry and crackled at this very moment. I thought about chlorophyll and how chlorophyll’s job is to keep the leaf green. With the water and nutrients drawn up from the root of the tree, sunlight, and oxygen that leaf had managed to stay green for all of the spring and summer and into the autumn. Once the season, climate, and nutrient-rich soil transitioned over to fall, the chlorophyll’s job was terminated, and those other colors began to emerge. I remember a science teacher once said that those colors are always there, it’s just that the green is the strongest one in the leaf’s spectrum. I began to reflect on how much I am like that leaf. All the nutrients in the soil of childhood, school, friendships, church, college, early marriage, and motherhood have kept me green for a long time. I have met wonderful people and formed lasting relationships. I have lived and breathed free in many a city, state, and nation. I have enjoyed the wealth of many cultures and languages, eaten good food washed down with clear water and fine wine, been relatively successful in competitive athletic endeavors, been strengthened and renewed by a deepening faith, and increased in hunger and thirst for more of the above. I’d like to believe I look younger than my 39 years. But the truth is that I am in the mid-to-late summer of my life. Mornings and evenings feel a little cooler than they used to; I need my robe more frequently and pull out my comforter earlier than I used to. My hips and knees don’t seem to recover from tennis and Tae Bo as quickly as they used to. The same noisy, sensational, violent television shows and movies hold very little appeal for me now. Reality television in no way reflects the reality of my life or of anyone I know. I’d much rather nurse a cup of tea and a good book than be nursed into a broadcast coma. When I am in Europe with friends, I am less inclined to head out for dancing and carousing after midnight than I used to be. A late supper, a stroll down a well-lit avenue, a cup of tea at a favorite café with a well-versed pianist nearby – those are the activities that satisfy me now. And as I enter this new phase, I find that I like myself a little bit more. I feel more colorful. The books I choose, the journal entries I pen, the conversations that interest me most are more varied and nuanced, reflective and open-ended, less shaped by sharp answers and more molded by meandering questions than ever before. How are you really? What has happened lately that has changed you in some significant way? What if I was wrong about that? How could I have done that differently? How can I respond to this difficult situation with grace and forgiveness and understanding – even if I am right? How can I be more but do less? How can I reach out to others without appearing desperate or clingy? How can I touch someone whose life seems untouchable? And when my life is over, when I am no longer around, what will be the legacy of my life? Whose lives will be changed because of how I’ve lived? Will anyone’s eternity be affected by the witness of my life? Attempting to answer those kinds of questions is far more intriguing to me than hashing out the potential resolutions to political, athletic, dramatic, or comedic dilemmas. Most of that stuff just doesn’t matter to me much anymore. As I approach the time of my life when falling from the tree is not so far-fetched, I long to reflect more of the real colors, the colors that have always been there but I have kept hidden behind branches of bravado, self-assurance, a loud voice, and many words. I yearn to display the deeper shades of love, appreciation, friendship, faithfulness, loyalty, graciousness, and Godliness that have always been there. I know that I haven’t always shown those colors. I know that I owe apologies to friends, acquaintances, and family members who have suffered because of my selfishness, greed, covetousness, arrogance, intolerance, impatience, and various other wrongheaded attitudes and behavior. I am reminded of the life of a butterfly. For many weeks and months, it crawls along the ground as a caterpillar, looking up, looking around, trying not to get squished. Like a caterpillar, I crawled around feeling intimidated, trampled, ignored, and threatened for years. I felt small and insignificant, so I looked for ways to be noticed, to not get stepped on, to not be taken for granted. Then the caterpillar enters the cocoon. It wraps itself up in its fine silky threads and waits. That caterpillar doesn’t even know what it’s waiting for. It doesn’t have any idea what’s coming next. I suspect that most caterpillars don’t know that they are caterpillars, nor do they realize that they are going to turn into something fantastic. In the same way, I have never thought of myself as someone who was hiding, not living up to my potential, or that there were other colors and shapes and adventures yet to be made manifest. Life wrapped me in education, marriage, childrearing, homemaking, homeschooling, and all sorts of other cocoons. But now I feel like my wings are beginning to unfurl, wings I never knew I had, and I sense that my spirit is just starting to soar to new heights. I am seeing my heart, mind, and life with new eyes, with new intentions, and with new compassion. I feel strength, joy, peace, and grace flow into, through, and around me as never before. Unfortunately the lifespan of the average butterfly is not very long. It floats on gentle breezes, lands on inattentive passersby, and pollinates countless flowers in its brief existence. While I may not have another 38 or 39 years to soar on these newly discovered wings, I will do everything I can with the time and power I have left to provide good nourishment, strong roots, and fresh air for the two young caterpillars I have been able to welcome into the cocoon of my home. I will do all in my power to exemplify the life of a butterfly whose wings are just drying, expanding, and lifting me off to new heights. I will continue to collect colorful leaves and remind myself that as the green of youth fades, the true colors will emerge. (Pardon the hopelessly tangled mixed metaphor here at the end…) Sometimes I am overwhelmed and always I am gratified by The Creator’s ability to teach me such meditative lessons, especially since I spend so little time out in creation. I never suspected that chlorophyll and caterpillars could teach me so much on this, my life’s journey. Here's to earth science and life science.

Friday, November 12, 2004

A Reel Dilemma

Both of my children are at sleepovers tonight. Steve suggested the possibility of going to a movie, having a late supper at a favorite restaurant, and pretending we are a couple without kids. I said that maybe I should stay home and work on Friday's blog. "It's gonna be a great follow-up to yesterday's entry related to morning walks and the great outdoors and stuff like that." So I flipped a coin, asked the 8 ball, rolled the dice, read my tea leaves, fasted and prayed for a while. The answers were all the same: go out with your husband. As if anyone will even notice... One more thing, here's a great quote I found in an Isabel Allende book I recently read: "True friendship withstands time, distance, and silence." To all you silent, distant, and long ago friends, I'm still here. I'm not going anywhere. I can wait. Until then, traveling mercies.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Undeveloped Land

I was out for an hour-long rather invigorating walk this morning. Anybody who knows me well knows that I am NOT an outdoor person. Given the option, I will almost always choose to be indoors. My ideal day consists of being in my living room, sitting on my rather large red chenille couch, book in hand, tea on the table, and incense burning. On the most beautiful spring day, flowers in bloom, birds chirping, I am perfectly contented with watching the splendor of the season from the comfort of my kitchen window. I almost feel guilty for spending all that money on deck furniture and the marvelous mosaic table and chairs under the vine-wrapped pergola in our backyard. On occasion I will smell the roses as I go from car to house – although not too often because that involves actually exiting the garage. I have been coaxed outside by Steve and the children to plant tulip, daffodil, and lily bulbs both here in Charlotte and back in Connecticut, but that’s only because I made them promise that most of the bulbs would be planted in lawn locations that are visible from inside the house. In my own defense, I suffer from fairly serious hay fever, so pollen, cut grass, and other outdoor allergens can wreak havoc on my compromised immune system. But mostly, I just can’t be bothered with all the swatting at flies and mosquitoes, and then when the sun's rays shift, I have to change positions, and with all my books and pens and journals, it’s just a pain to haul everything outside. So I just stay in. Having said all that, I have decided to turn over a new leaf. I have made it a goal of mine to go out on walks several times each week. Not with the children. Not with Steve. I just go walking. I am dazzled by Mother Nature’s antics. And I think. I think about friends, family members, travel, books I’m reading, books I’m writing, and books that should never have been written. I think about the traffic that is coming at me at 50 miles per hour on the side of the rather busy road I was walking beside. Oh, yeah. There is one exception to my “I’d rather be inside” rule – and that is if I have the option of being outside in a large city. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and during my entire educational career there, I had a minimum of an hour’s commute to school. Two public buses to elementary school which I navigated alone for the most part. Then in junior high and high school. I walked ten minutes to the bus stop and then rode for 45 minutes before another ten minute walk to school. So city walking comes naturally to me; I don't seem to have any respiratory reactions to smog, carbon monoxide, or traffic noise. In fact, I’d rather walk along a busy boulevard than a quiet country road any day. So there I was this morning walking along Pineville-Matthews Road, traffic hurtling at me at breakneck speed, and it occurred to me that one dropped cup of expensive coffee, one lunge for a favorite CD as it rolls underfoot, one poorly timed lane change, and I would be trapped beneath a Hummer and standing before the Great White Throne in a heartbeat. I was also thinking about the fact that I live in one of the fastest growing counties in all of the United States. Houses, shopping plazas, medical and office parks, churches, you name it - they are popping up everywhere. Entire developments go up in a matter of weeks. I will say this: folks down here do a pretty good job with building things. Many homes are made of beautiful brick and stone. Office buildings are very well done, at least they look really good. Not much aluminum siding going up in my neck of the woods. I like that. But anyway, as I walked along that busy road, my attention was drawn to the acres of undeveloped land that still grace that busy stretch of road. For as far back as I could see at some points, there were trees. Most were standing tall, strong, and serene. Some had lost the battle against wind, rain, and Carolina clay, and had fallen over. Fallen leaves and pine needles made the floor of those mini-forests look soft enough to wander through barefoot. I could hear squirrels scampering around and I could imagine all sorts of other small beasts looking at me and wondering what I was doing so close to the edge of their property. The sky overhead was cloudy, so there were none of those magnificent shafts of light piercing the darkness, but it look inviting nonetheless. As I peered through the pines, I sent up a quick prayer that those woods would remain undeveloped. The animals need someplace for refuge. The people need someplace to help them remember that this area was once nothing but Carolina woodlands - until we decided to bulldoze, flatten, and grow concrete. The wildness of those woods both frightened me (being the indoor person that I am) and excited me (being the hopelessly romantic geek that I am). I wondered what great adventures the kids and I could have wandering through there on a nature hike. What animals live in there? What kinds of trees are in there? Do many people explore this undeveloped land? Who has designs on owning it, parceling it and domesticating it? I kept walking. I kept thinking. I thought about the undeveloped places in my mind, the corners where wild things still grow. It’s so easy nowadays to get caught up in being sophisticated. To know the right clothes to wear, the right wine to order, the right places to go on vacation. To list the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve seen, and the artist’s works I know well. To tell stories of the cities I’ve visited, the achievements of my children, and drop names of famous people I’ve had brushes with. But what about the wild stuff? The stories I make up for my kids when we are in the car, the fantasies I have about giving all this up and living in a breezy apartment overlooking a quiet plaza in Spain, and the dreams I’ve had since I was a child. Dreams of days without any agenda at all. No homework – no housework. What about just taking days off from school to do nothing at all? What about getting up enough courage to wander through the undeveloped land I saw this morning? I must learn to resist the urge to always be so proper, so well-mannered, so erudite. So I laugh out loud at good jokes. I sing for no reason. I stare at my children at home and at strangers in the street. When they notice me, I just smile and tell them what it was about them that caught my attention: a scarf, a great smile, a wonderful scent, a great piece of jewelry. I take chances that other people are as interested as I am in making connections. Why not? I am so well-developed, so well organized, and so well insulated from the warmth and life that emanate from others. Why not be undeveloped at times? What if I gave a stranger a compliment everyday? What if I thanked the cashier or the toll booth attendant and really meant it? What if I left an extra four dollars at the counter at Starbucks and told the barista to serve up the next drink for free? Then I could sit and watch the reaction of the next customer. (Two times in my life I have paid someone else's tab at a shop. The people ahead of me on line didn't have all the money they needed, so when they left after promising to return with the money, I paid what they owed. My only request was that when they returned to find the bill paid that they would promise to do the same for someone else at some future time. "Pay it forward." Which is a great movie...) What if I stopped demanding so much from Steve and the kids all the time, and just let them be wild and undeveloped for a day or a weekend? What if? Yes, being undeveloped can be frightening. What if they take advantage of me? What if the stranger I greet gets a little too friendly? Why not take the chance? What I cannot forget is that being undeveloped can be exciting, as well. In fact, some of the dearest friends I now have were met under just such circumstances. There’s the friend whose two children are almost exactly the age as my two: older girl, younger boy just like me. Our children hit it off right from the start, and we became great friends. There’s another who is married to the brother of one of my husband’s work colleagues. I met her at a dinner party when I sat next to her and struck up a conversation about her recent marriage. We have been buddies ever since. In fact, she wants me to visit her family in India with her someday. I met one friend in a library while on vacation and books have been a mainstay of our relationship for years. No one I know has ever been offended by a smile or a compliment or a casual conversation. I don’t think I’ve ever been rebuffed in my wild moments. Anyway there I was on my walk this morning, hoping to avoid death by armored vehicle with a petite Southern belle behind the wheel who was putting on mascara, chatting with a girlfriend on the phone, and handing a juice box to her toddler all at the same time. And I was thinking about a lot of stuff. I got home energized, stared at my kids for a while, drank an awesome cup of coffee made from the private recipe of a Mexican friend, read for a while as I sipped my café, and the day has been uphill ever since. I think I’ll take more morning walks. Being outside isn’t so bad after all.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Family Photos and Quotidian Mysteries

Last night my daughter came into the kitchen clutching a green photo album. Every time I look at those family albums, I think about friends who are caught up in the scrapbooking craze and whose albums are well organized, labeled, and so perfectly laid out. Not mine. I am blessed to have a camera that puts the date on every photo. I know that “real” photographers out there think those neon numbers at the bottom of photos are an anathema to the art of photography. For me, they are a Godsend. Those dates make it possible for me to put off placing the photos in albums for as long as I like. I never have to worry about what order to put them in. The date says it all. I have fallen behind by two or three years at a time, but when I sit down to do it, it’s a breeze. Anyway, last night, Kristiana had chosen one of her favorite albums and asked me to look at it with her. The album contained images from when she was two years old. Photos of her little friends, our neighbors at the time, of my pregnancy with Daniel, his water birth, and the first few months of his life brought back so many fantastic memories. While looking at the images of Daniel’s handsome, but miniature, face and Kristiana’s obvious adoration of her little, I yelled out to Steve who was in the family room, “I want another baby.” He just laughed. So did I. Just over seven years ago, within weeks of Daniel’s first birthday, I underwent surgery to prevent me from making a rash decision based on seeing photos of our beautiful babies. At the time of the operation, friends asked me why I was doing it so soon. “What if something happened to one of your children?” First of all, I was taken aback by the idea that I would have a child in order to replace one that was lost. That never occurred to me. Secondly, I had the wisdom to look ahead to nights like last night and know that I didn’t want to wake up at the age of 40 (in this case, 38), find myself with a few free hours during the day, catch a glimpse of a young mother pushing her stroller down the sidewalk, look at Steve, and ask if we could have another baby. My darling husband, sweet and generous man that he is, is not known for denying me much, so if he didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to turn me down, I’d be looking at another round of diapers and middle-of-the-night feedings. No, Gail, no more kids in the offing, but those photos sure were great to look at. There are photos of the kids in a curly blond wig that I bought somewhere. Even Daniel, poor abused child, was not spared its presence. Unwittingly, he sat in his high chair, shoving Cheerios into his miniscule mouth with that handful of impossibly large and lewdly bleached blond curls atop his nearly bald head. There are photos of both of them asleep in their high chairs with food on their faces. Bare bottoms in bathtubs were another recurring theme. Then there are the photos from our trip out to Phoenix when Kristiana was three and Daniel was just four months old. His first flight. Our only trip out west as a family. We were there in January, but the temperature rose to nearly 70 during the day. Having escaped the bitter cold of Stamford, CT, we were glad to sit poolside for a few hours each day. Daniel was dressed from head to toe to protect his fair skin from the sun’s rays; those oversized sunglasses made him cry every time I put them on him. Kristiana, on the other hand, was wearing an orange and green bikini. She was the most beautiful girl out there. She was also the only girl out there, besides her mother, who was still carrying a few extra pounds from pregnancy and was most certainly not sporting a bikini. All the hotel staff and the rest of the guests thought we were crazy to be out there; they thought it was too cold. An hour and a half later when we went inside to get dressed, Kristiana peeled off her teeny, weeny bikini to reveal a suntan that reminded us of those ads of yesteryear: that little girl who pulled down the back of her bathing suit to show her fanny tan. We had no idea the Arizona sun was so strong in the winter. Kristiana didn't care about that; she was proud of her “stripes.” The photos of her 3rd birthday party brought back memories of the first house we lived in as a family. It was a townhouse on Hope Street in Stamford. We loved that place with its four levels, spiral staircase, and freakishly friendly neighbors. The walls were hollow, but our lives were dense with laughter and homemade pasta sauce and cloth diaper changes and car loans that had to be paid off. We moved from there to a raised ranch in Norwalk, an acre of property with a pool, an enormous lawn out front where Daniel learned to hit a baseball high and far, and the basement room that would become our first homeschooling room. With our California Closet desk that ran the entire length of the room and a white board Steve ordered from the Internet, we christened ourselves The Silvermine Academy, and we have been a traveling schoolhouse ever since. We have taken field trips to Puerto Rico, Italy, Spain, Florida, all over New England, and all along the east coast. We are hoping to take our show on the road next spring, exploring several cities and villages in Great Britain. But for now, we are in Charlotte, North Carolina, a city I’d never even visited before Steve accepted the job here, where that same wall-to-wall desk is covered with workbooks, pencils, three computers, Bibles, dictionaries, and various other ephemera related to life and learning that seem to pile higher and higher by the day. Last night as I looked at those photos, especially the series taken of me in that infamous Demi Moore pregnancy pose, I marveled at the lives that have grown inside of me. I look at Daniel now, eight years old, playing computer games about sports, reading books about sports, writing haiku about sports, and otherwise showing signs of physical, emotional, spiritual, and athletic health, and I am in awe. I look at Kristiana who is eleven years old, a voracious reader like her mother, with an imagination that makes Barbie dolls, Bratz dolls, and Beanie Babies live out stories that even soap opera writers couldn’t fathom, and I am in awe. I cannot believe that my body created two other living beings with bodies and souls of their own. Although there will not be any other baby Belsitos emerging from these hips (or that doctor at the Birth Cottage in Poughkeepsie will have a lot to answer for!), I often wonder what else lives within my heart, mind, and spirit that is waiting to be birthed… I cannot deny it; ours has been a blessed life. Lest I wax too sentimental and sappy, I will hasten to say that there have been speed bumps along the way. Steve and I lost our fathers within nineteen months of each other. We have had divorce, death, serious illness, and job loss hit far closer to home than either of us would have liked. In fact, we have either experienced or come perilously close to all of the above within our own immediate family. Daniel suffered a terrifying allergic reaction to peanut butter while the children and I were in Colonial Williamsburg a couple of years ago. Kristiana bit through her tongue as a young child and the blood flow was enough to make this “almost-medical-student” blanch. Steve drove himself to the hospital late one Saturday night after complaining that he had had several hours of chest pain. I wanted to call an ambulance. He wanted to be the macho man. It turned out to be a pulled muscle that nearly pulled my heart out of my chest. But as we have faced every oncoming life tornado, we have battened down the hatches, weathered the storm, and lived to see another cliché. As I prepare to go through another day of homeschooling, cook another dinner, mop another floor, and do another load of laundry, I find myself gratefully looking forward to the routine of it. There is comfort in the ordinary tasks of life. One author refers to them as “Quotidian Mysteries.” There is a mystery as to why we get to live so well, laugh so often, and suffer so little. There is a mystery as to why I have such loving, caring, encouraging, supportive friends in my life. Yet in the ordinariness of it, there is profound mystery. But this is a mystery I don’t want to solve. I will let this one be. And daily I will lift my heart and my hands in thanks to the God of All Comfort, Grace, and Mercy who has seen fit to make the quotidian so marvelously mysterious. The final words of a book I cherish say it so well: “I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The Things They Carried...

Television commercials can be ridiculous sometimes. There’s one set of commercials related to some credit card company that shows marauding barbarians who attack unsuspecting imbeciles whose only fault is carrying the wrong credit card. As they approach the unwitting victim invariably from behind, one of the wild men looks at the camera and asks, “What’s in your wallet?” Everyone who has ever had the misfortune of having to pick up my pocketbook and give it to me asks a question very similar to that one. It usually goes something like this: “Sure, Gail, I’ll hand you your… what on earth do you have in this thing, bricks? How can you carry this thing all day? No wonder you have such shapely shoulders and such sinewy arms.” Well, that last part is something of an exaggeration, but there can be no exaggerating the bulk of the weighty satchel that I carry on a daily basis. I had to give an answer for the contents of my bag just this past September. On my annual getaway, I left my handsome husband and two charming children for 11 days of gallivanting in Spain. A dear friend was getting married in Madrid, and another dear friend had offered me a place to stay and his good company for a few days up in La Coruna. Ever the efficient packer, I managed to cram ten days’ worth of clothes and a wedding outfit into a single rolling bag and a bag I had slung over my shoulder. I was quite proud of myself. No waiting at a luggage carousel for me. I’d hoist my hefty bag down from the overhead bin (praying all the while that no one would duck under it and try to get past me on the aisle), and be on my way. The flight from Charlotte to Miami was uneventful. Well, I had to spread my arms, legs, and remove my shoes upon passing through the security check here in the Queen City. I wear about 15 silver bracelets, a white gold watch. a silver cross chain, five earrings (don’t ask), and I even manage to attach a few jewels to my dreadlocs. I haven’t passed through many checkpoints in recent years without “being wanded” by the female inspector on duty. I’m used to it now; I include inspection time in my airport arrival and departure schedule. At Miami Airport, I had to leave one terminal and make my way to another that felt like it was about half a mile away. Again, I took off my shoes, spread my wings and waited patiently to be patted after being advised of my right to keep quiet and just do as I was told. Eight hours later, I went through the same routine in Madrid before boarding my flight for La Coruna. As I stood and went through the procedure for the third time in about 12 hours, I smiled to myself as I thought about the stuff I was really carrying. And I gave thanks that my bracelets served as a good decoy to keep them from asking me to empty my bags on the shiny steel tables I always sit in front of as they check the soles of my feet for metal studs. I shudder to think of how embarrassed I’d be to show how anal I am about packing. With everything in Ziploc bags, clothes rolled up tight and in carefully designated places in the suitcase, and enough snacks to last me several days, I am quite the traveling pack rat. Let’s see: I had purchased some beautiful stationery for the bride and her mother as well as music and a couple of books for my friend in La Coruna. Then there was the red Australian licorice, chocolate covered almonds, Luna Chocolate Mint Crunch protein bars, honey roasted almonds, sesame sticks, a banana, two apples, and a water bottle, (one never knows what will appear in the airline feeding troughs, I mean trays, these days). Hand gel and hand wipes, (who knows what diseases my fellow passengers are carrying on their persons?) Two journals, pens, markers, colored pencils, pencil sharpener, glue sticks, stickers, and paper clips (for collages, creative journaling, and distressed children travelers in need of diversion). A camera, film, incense and incense holder, a door stopper for the inside of my door (keeps unexpected visitors outside), jewelry, Euros, dollars, family photos, gifts for my friends, photocopies of my passport and credit cards (just in case a mugger or pickpocket get the best of me), and postcards. Why postcards? Well, when I was in Spain two years ago, I bought a bunch of postcards but never had time to mail them. So I brought them back to the States. I rediscovered them as I packed for this trip. While laughing at my miserly nature, I had a brilliant idea: I decided to take them back to Spain - where I filled them in, bought stamps, and finally sent them. Who would ever know the difference? On top of all that stuff, my clothes, and a pair of dangerously high heeled sandals for the wedding, I’d packed enormously high expectations for fun, adventure, great conversations, time alone to reflect on my life, my friends, my marriage, and my future. I took along colossally grandiose dreams of solving several of the world’s problems, or at least a few of my own, while strolling down the grand boulevards and back streets of Madrid. I had a wish list of stuff I’d hoped to bring home: a few cans of confidence, several packages of patience, and a dozen momentous memories. As I strolled through the airports in Charlotte, Miami, and Madrid, I wondered what my fellow travelers had in their wallets and in their bags. I saw wine carriers, liquor carriers, and dog carriers. I saw bags that were wrapped in plastic and tape. I saw bags that had seen better days, and I saw bags that cost more than my entire trip. But what were those people really carrying? Were they off on their honeymoons with bags full of hopes for a loving future? Or were they carrying remembrances of good times gone by on their way to funerals where they would bid farewell to loved ones? Were they on business trips that would involve firing fellow workers? Or perhaps they were heading off on secret trips where they rendezvous with long lost lovers. In one waiting area at Miami International, a gentleman with an Eastern European accent asked me to take a photo of him standing beside the statue of a giraffe. I wondered who he’d show that photo to. Was he heading back home to Europe bearing gifts for his wife and children or was he simply taking the photo because, like me, he loves giraffes? After spending five days in La Coruna, my friend drove me to the airport for the return flight to Madrid. The airport in La Coruna is quite small. The only plane on the tarmac was the one I was getting onto. I waited at the back of the line so I’d have as much time as possible before boarding. I was ready for the bracelet treatment, and my friend was looking forward to watching the search for hidden explosives. Well, the bracelets didn’t even buzz, but my bag did. What was in my wallet? Scissors! How was it possible that three strip searches turned up nothing but hair jewelry and one beleagured guard at a tiny airport in Northern Spain discovered my scissors? I didn’t even realize I had them. A pair of my childrens’ scissors that I’m sure I used for a collage some day weeks earlier had never been removed and here they were. After I expressed my disbelief that they hadn’t been found earlier, for some strange reason he let me keep them. Later that night when I checked in with my friend who had turned into a scoffer and guffawed at my airport ambush, he accused me of being a terrorist. The things we carry. Weapons of paper destruction. Journals, pens, stickers, and protein bars. I’m sure that somewhere I have hoarded a few lies, secrets, and silences that could make for mass destruction. And there must always be food of some sort for the body and mind: almonds, apples, a good book, a few well chosen quotes, and stamped self-addressed postcards for random mailings. The things we carry stashed in our carry-ons or checked in with the bigger stuff – it will all get dumped out and exposed someday. So what’s in your wallet?