Friday, December 30, 2005

Speaking of Deuteronomy...

Of all the books of the Bible in which to find a personal theme verse, Deuteronomy would be the last one I'd expect to be The One. With all the dietary, social, and religious laws, with all the accounts of past travails, and promises of future battles for the land the Lord had promised the Israelites, Deuteronomy offers few upbeat, twenty-first century insights. Or so I thought...

The children and I were reading the second chapter when I found it. In plain language, in clear prose, Moses composed the verse that elevated my 40th birthday to Biblical import.

Here it is, Deut. 2:7 -

The Lord your God has blessed you
in all the work of your hands. He has
watched over your journey through this
vast desert. These forty years the Lord
your God has been with you, and
you have not lacked anything.

I am a forty year old woman who spent only six years "working outside the home" before making the decision to be a full-time, at home, homeschooling mother. During the few years I worked, I interviewed for five jobs. I was offered all five of them. I worked in college admissions and alumni relations at Williams College for two years. I taught junior high and high school Spanish and did college counseling at Poly Prep, my alma mater in Brooklyn, New York. Then I taught Spanish and did college counseling again at The Taft School in Watertown, CT. During the spring of my second year at Taft, I "found myself with child" and resigned my position at the end of that academic term.

Carrying two children through full term pregnancies, giving birth to two healthy children (without the aid of any pain medication, I add with great pride), raising them to the best of my ability, and now teaching them to be noble, hard-working, fun-loving, God-honoring people gives me both pleasure and pain that are nearly indescribable. Nothing I accomplished, wrote, taught, counseled, or advised during my brief tenure as a teacher or college counselor compares to what I have learned, written, or come to the believe in the years since becoming a mother. And in all these situations, in my travels as a teacher and counselor, in my travels as a wife and mother, in my armchair journeys as a reader and writer, I know that God has blessed me in all the work of my hands.

We live a life here in Charlotte that is beyond all we could have asked or imagined for ourselves and our children. God has blessed us with faithful friends, with generous neighbors, with beautiful homes, with active churches, and with great prospects for much more of the same in the months and years to come. We have been able to support needy family memebers and friends, causes that matter to us, and missions groups that serve people here and in other parts of the world because God has blessed the work of our hands with financial gain. I have befriended immigrants, translated documents into English and Spanish, served as an interpreter in legal matters, and God has blessed the work of my mouth. I have listened to people in crisis, laughed at humorous episodes, and written countless notes and postcards, and God has blessed me with numerous and treasured friends.

But this life of ours hasn't always been easy. Many days feel like treks in the vast desert with no oasis in sight, not even on the most distant horizon. Death in our families. Serious illness. Health scares. Nightmares. War. Job loss. Job changes. Dryness of spirit. Dryness in our marriage. Longing for days when I could put the children on a school bus and sink into a long morning of talk shows and mugs of coffee. Churches fall apart, as do relationships. Some nights I lay in bed, sleepless, fearful, wondering how and when the empty places will be filled. Wondering how and when the anger will subside. Wondering how and when the many irresponsible and unresponsive people in my life will get their comeuppance. Wondering when I will stop feeling guilty for the anger, the wishes for revenge, and the unrelenting lust to leave all this behind and live a life for which I must give absolutely no accountability to anyone.

It is through this vast desert that God has watched over me. On this long journey, His hand has kept me safe. On the back and side streets of cities like Milan, Barcelona, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, Boston, Rome, Madrid, Salamanca, Savannah, Charleston, Stamford, Norwalk, Florence, Bologna, Paris, Waterford, Amsterdam, London, York, Bath, and so many more, I am never truly been alone, for the Lord my God has been with me. On the back and side streets of fear, desperation, depression, loneliness, disappointment, resentment, and abandonment, the Lord my God has been with me. No, I cannot explain it. Nor can I prove it. But I know that I know that I know that He has watched over me on this journey, this my life's journey.

During these forty years I have lacked nothing. I have never missed a meal - except by choice. I have never missed paying a bill - except when I have forgotten to send it in on time. I have never been without love, support, encouragement, and the presence of people who love me. My closet, my pantry, my sock drawers, my shoe shelves, my book shelves, my pen holders, my cosmetic baskets, and right now, my eyes are full to overflowing.

So you see, there is personal wisdom and application even in Deuteronomy.

Here is a favorite stanza from a poem by Ruth Forman called "The Journey."

"Let the journey continue
let us speak the same language in our many tongues
may the path lead us home may the journey lead us home...

"The journey long y'all the journey long
but we got company
pray we find it
know it like our hands..."

Thank you all for being my company on this journey.
May the path lead us home.
May the journey lead us home.

Blessings on your journey,

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Year in Review

Last week I embarked on the monumental journey of reading through this year's journals. I got the idea from an online group in which one of the women told of the great benefits of reading her entries, and I decided to follow her lead.

I began with volume 41 which had as its starting date the 11th of December of 2004. For those of you who are keeping score, that would be the 41st volume since the year 2000. I began numbering them at that point because of another journaling buddy who said she's been counting hers for years. Someday I hope to go back to the very first journal begun in 1984, and not only count but also read all of them.

Coming to the realization that I had filled 40 journals in four years served as a clear illustration of how prolific my journaling has been. I do not allow many days to pass without filling a few pages with thoughts, questions, complaints, concerns, prayers, hopes, dreams, anger, lust, fear, discontent, joy, jokes, quotes, and whatever else comes to mind or has been collected recently. I have enjoyed the rediscovery of stickers, collages, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, emails that moved me towards rage and others that inspired deeper thought - all of which are now glued into my journals. (Acid-free glue, of course.) I simply cannot imagine not writing.

While reading, I have made a few noteworthy decisions and discoveries.

Decision #1: I will never again include email or articles in my journal that are upsetting to me. I remember one particular email exchange early this year that actually caused me to yell out loud at my computer monitor. I don't often get highly incensed, but certain topics elevate my blood pressure and I wade into the fray with both fists pumping. For some unknown reason, I decided to print out those missives and glue them into my journal. A few days later, I already regretted that decision. At the time, I was working through a book called Being Peace which challenged me to seek peace, pursue it, and "be" peace in every situation of life. There is far too much strife, anger, revenge, and self-righteousness in the world already; I need to do my part to turn the tide towards peace. So why did I memorialize those feelings in my private papers? I do not know. Nor will I repeat that foolishness any time soon.

Decision #2 follows naturally after #1: Instead of immortalizing the bad stuff, I will make a determined effort to bring news of good cheer, of peace, of grace, mercy, and restoration to my journal in the days and months to come. There is far too much bad news on television, in the newspapers, on the Internet, not to mention all the tales of sorrow and suffering that come from the homes of people near and dear to me. The least I can do is make my journal a place of rest, of rejoicing, and of indomitable hope.

This year has been a year of hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, war, tsunami, racism, sexism, homophobia, divorce, death, and "four more years." This has been a year of tragedy at the SuperDome in New Orleans, in the subways of London, and in the privacy of our own broken homes. But it has also been a year of new babies, marriages, friends that make me smile, surprise visits, anniversary celebrations, trips across the ocean and across our nation, children that make me laugh, and a grand entrance into the second half of my life. I have written about all of these topics and many more here on the blog. I have discussed them with friends and enemies. I have wept over them. I have laughed because of them. I have changed and grown as well. I will write about "the bad stuff" elsewhere, developing articles and essays and blogs as well as pieces for other genres, but in the future, I'm going to try to keep my journal free of the worst of times and full of the best of times.

One funny journal reading moment: Two nights ago, after I put on my pajamas and slippers, I sat down on the floor of my study room to read what I'd been thinking and writing about eleven months ago. Here's what I read: "Monday, Jan. 10: I am on the floor of my study room. Purple robe. Blue slippers. Red sweatpants. Black socks. Burgundy top." I howled. At the moment I was reading those words, I was wearing my purple robe, blue slippers, black socks, burgundy top - and black pants. The outfit was almost entirely the same as it had been a year earlier. Some things haven't changed much.

One thing that has changed this year is my attitude towards homeschooling. I see traces of anguish and concern about what they were learning and how I was teaching in journal entries I made earlier this year. Are they learning enough? Do we spend enough time reading, writing, doing science experiments, and the like? Are they ready for the California Achievement Tests in April? What if they aren't doing enough? What if they are falling behind? What if going to England in March and Spain in May take too much time away from school?

What???????? Gail, get a grip. Taking them to the land of great literature, lengthy monarchies, fish and chips, and the broadest range of potato chip flavors on earth for 12 days comprises one of the best history, geography, social studies, and phys ed unit studies ever planned. A month in Spain, speaking, listening, watching game shows, living, shopping, exploring, eating, drinking, and making friends - all in Spanish - I couldn't teach them all of that here at home if Spanish were the only topic we covered for an entire year.

My response to those earlier episodes of concern: take a deep breath, relax, enjoy. We read plenty; this year we read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series. We talk about nearly every topic under the sun. The other day, we discussed labor unions and their influence on the workforce as a result of hearing about the transit strike in New York City. Last week we talked about whether or not it matters what greeting people use at this time of year. When we are bored with the lessons I prepare, we do an oral review of the state capitals. We do math problems in our heads. We play Pict-ades, our homemade combination of Pictionary and Charades. During our Christmas break from the regular schedule of schooling, both children have asked when we would continue with reading through the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible. Some people think those early books are dense and uninteresting; my kids have found them quite interesting. (We wonder who could possibly keep up with all the necessary sacrifices and laws recorded there. We thank God for Jesus who is the once and for all Passover Lamb!) Okay, so I have infected my kids with the virus of geekiness, but I make no apology. We enjoy ourselves tremendously. (And, of course, they passed every section of the CAT with flying colors.)

Speaking of geekiness, I have to sign off now because my daughter just asked if we can continue watching the "Pride and Prejudice" series we began yesterday, the one with Colin Firth. Yum, yum. But lest anyone think we are all work and no play, I can hear Daniel downstairs in the family room with a friend making really weird noises while they play PlayStation. It all evens out in the end. And it's all good.

This year in review can be summed up in a phrase oft quoted and ever true:
It was the best of times.
It was the worst of times.

May 2006 bring more of the same.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

So this is Christmas...

Last minute shopping.
Wrapping gifts. Realizing we don't have the same number of gifts for the kids.
Still more last minute shopping.
Baking sugar cookies, peanut butter and Hershey's kiss cookies, lemon cake, key lime pie, and butterscotch squares.
Dusting and mopping the floor.
Doing laundry.
Calling a friend overseas to pass along Christmas blessings.
Sitting next to the tree.
Recalling where and when ornaments were purchased or made.
On our honeymoon. At Disney World. At Kwanzaa celebrations back in Connecticut.
At home on our chaotic, art-covered dining room table.
Listening to music.

And remembering this John Lennon song:
So this is Christmas
What have you done?
Another year over, a new one's just begun.
For weak and for strong
For the rich and the poor ones
The road is so long.

I ask myself: What have I done this year? Who have I loved? Who have I lost?
Have I remembered the near and the dear ones, the rich and the poor? The weak and the strong? I remember the sorrow of the tsunami, the horror of the hurricanes, the earthquakes, the bombings, the ongoing war. I also remember weddings, births, travel, lessons learned on foreign shores and right here at home.

But since this is Christmas, it's not about me. It's about Him. For me this year, many of my Christmas ponderings and wonderings have been about his pregnant mother, Mary. I know that many of my Protestant friends don't think about Mary very much: too bad for them. Mary gave birth to the One I call my Savior. She carried Him in her womb for nine months, nursed Him for at least nine months, weaned Him, watched Him, marveled at His very existence. She pondered many things in her heart.

On Christmas Eve, which, of course, was not Christmas Eve to her, Mary was weary from her travels. Dusty. She probably had a backache and swollen feet. She must have felt that common nesting instinct, but there was no nursery for her to decorate, no wardrobe of newborn pajamas for her to wash and fold neatly, and no cradle for her to prepare for her newborn child. There were no aunts, sisters, or grandmothers by her side to massage her swollen abdomen, prepare food, or assure her that all would be well. There was no midwife to instruct her and encourage her as she moaned and groaned her way through labor. Sure, she knew that her child was different from all the others. Sure, she knew that what was conceived in her was not of this world, and that must have been reassuring. Life-sustaining. But on one dark night, alone with her husband, surrounded by no choir of angels, Mary gave birth to Emmanuel, Jesus, the Messiah, the Shalom of God. Born a child and yet a king. Born to reign in us, in me, forever. It makes me weep just to think of it: She gave birth to the Christ Child.

So this is Christmas. What have I done? I look around the house, around the living room, and my answers to that question are obvious. The tree is heavy with ornaments, brightly lit and crowned with a star. The gifts under the tree are wrapped and ready to be torn open. But since this is Christmas, none of what I have done matters at all.

Since this is Christmas, then Mary's willingness to be the handmaid of the Lord matters far more than my meager contributions to our family holiday festivities. This year, this Christmas especially I thank Mary for allowing her body to serve as the package within which the greatest gift ever brought to earth was borne. I join in the chorus of all the generations before me who have heeded the early refrain of her song as recorded in the book of Luke: I call her Blessed, and blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus.

But what makes this Christmas is what God did.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.
Joy to the world, indeed.

Have a very Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

There was room at the Inn...

but I think that is because Steve had made reservations several weeks ago. We checked in at 4 PM. I slipped into a warm bubble bath at 5 PM before pre-dinner cocktails in the enormous library and a delightful dinner in The Dining Room downstairs. A candlelit stroll through the Biltmore Estate filled my head with visions of sugar plums, parties, and horse-drawn carriage rides in decades gone by - all hosted by the Vanderbilt family. Of course, being moved along at a not-so-leisurely pace by earphoned security guards, ruffled and crushed by fur-coat wearing blue-haired ladies woke me from my celebratory stupor and spoiled the mood a tad. No matter. We picked out a few postcards for the children, a gift or two for family and friends, and made our way back to the Inn. We awoke at 9:20 on Saturday morning, quickly showered, packed, and made our way down to The Dining Room for breakfast before our 11 am check-out. The twenty-five minute wait was more than we were willing to endure, so we headed into downtown Asheville for breakfast, shopping, and lunch before heading back down the mountain into the Piedmont of North Carolina. It was a splendid way to enter a new decade of life.

As we walked the chilly streets of Asheville, as we shivered between shops there, as we listened to accounts of war, poverty, loss, and injustice on public radio in the car, as we drove through towns that had no power as a result of a recent ice storm, we became increasingly mindful of how blessed we are. We and our children are healthy while so many suffer with asthma, diabetes, and cancer. Steve has a job for which he is well-compensated while there are so many who are out of work and homeless. I am able to stay home with our children, homeschool them, travel widely with them, and plan future jaunts, while so many simply long for a reliable car to get back and forth to work and school. Ours is a favored life indeed.

When I compare the way I celebrated the 40th anniversary of my birth to the birth of Christ, the contrasts are glaring. It hardly seems fair that the One for whom all this Christmas hubbub is named was born into a temporarily homeless family to an unwed mother, at a time when promiscuous behavior was punishable by stoning. It hardly seems fair that the One whose glory the angels sang to shepherds in the field slept in a most ignoble place normally inhabited by beasts of burden. During the early years of His life, many of which were directed by the wisdom gleaned from dreams, this Holy One was spirited off to Egypt as an infant, brought back to Nazareth as a toddler, raised as a carpenter to adulthood, then died nailed to a cross made of the same kind of wood He had most likely carved into cradles, tables, and doorposts. His was not a favored life, at least not by today's standards.

I have heard many sermons that attempt to explain the Christmas story too simply. Some pastors say that He was born poor so that I can be rich. His simple birth paved the way for my rebirth. His humble beginnings parallel His humiliating death. I'm forgiven because He was forsaken. I'm accepted; He was condemned. I believe all of that is true, and in my head it makes sense. But my heart, my soul, the truest, hungriest places in me yearn for something more than that which can be explained logically. In fact, I am glad that it's not as simple as a three-point sermon of phrases that all begin with the same letter. Spare me the superficiality.

This story of Christmas is truly a mystery. May I never fully understand it. May I never be able to diagram it, parse it, conjugate it, and explain it away. May the wonder of this wonderful holiday always outstrip and overwhelm my small imaginings, my meager ponderings, and all the simple analogies my mind can conceive. The Love that Christmas embodies outshines all the glittery jewels I will ever own, is sweeter than all the cookies I will ever bake, and is deeper than any affection I now have and ever will have for everyone I know and claim to love.

Yes, my birthday celebration was special. The shopping was fun. The milk chocolate pecan frogs (The name "turtles" is owned by Nestle!) we found at The Chocolate Fetish were well worth the wait. Steve's company was much enjoyed, as was his remarkable generosity. But beneath, above, and beyond all of the tinsel, the lights, the trees, the food, the Frangelico, and the new earrings, there remains the quiet hum of anticipation, the undeniable expectation of something inexplicable, something that never changes, but is ever new.

Rob Mathes says it best in what is still my favorite Christmas song:
Bundled up, I know what's waiting for me
More than a pretty package next to the tree.
Something else, a gift far greater I know
Born in Bethlehem long ago...
To us is born
Every December anew
A love that's unbelieveable
Given to me, given to you...
I'm waiting here for Love again to be born.

May Love be born in your heart this Christmas.
All over again.
For the first time.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Oh Happy Day!

I'm one of those people who loves to reminisce. I often begin thoughts like this: "Thirty-two years ago at this moment, I was sitting in Santa's lap at the mall asking for..." "Three years ago last Thursday, we put our Christmas tree up for the first time in this house." "Two weeks ago right now, we were waiting for the results of the pregnancy test." That sort of thing. No, I haven't waited for the results of a pregnancy test in more than nine years, but I bet you're paying attention now, aren't you?

Seriously, yesterday at this time, Steve and I were enjoying a fantastic dinner at Campania, an Italian restaurant in our area with a well-deserved reputation for excellent food, fine wine, and impeccable service. The salmone aurora melted in my mouth, and the insalate caprino had just enough goat cheese and pine nuts to balance off the vinagrette superbly. Cake, candles, and lots of presents back here at home rounded out the perfect night. I managed to put my hand over Daniel's mouth to keep him from blowing out my candles just in time, little rascal. "Tonight it's all about me," were my exact words. Generous and kindhearted man that he is, Steve put only four candles on my cake - one for each delightful decade of my life.

Generous and kindhearted man that he is, Steve also made sure that every item on my wish list ended up in wrapping paper in the kitchen. Everything, except for the milk chocolate turtles which are out of stock at Dean and DeLuca, much to my deep dismay. I'll survive, I'm sure, but I had been looking forward to them for quite a while. I'll just have to wait until the chocolate case is filled again in order to indulge that whimsy of mine. (It occurred to me as I typed the last sentence that if the unavailablity of those sweets is my greatest birthday disappointment, then mine is indeed a good life.) Plus he more than made up for the missing pecan turtles by adding a true work of art to my collection of cross pendants with an ornate piece made by an Israeli artist. It is sterling silver encrusted with Swarovski crystals in various shades of blue and green. He also chose a sparkly snowflake necklace for me that will offset the red of the turtleneck I am planning to wear to tomorrow night's dinner perfectly.

Yesterday at this time, I was rereading emails and ecards sent by thoughtful, witty, fun-loving friends and family members whose greetings added to my good spirits on my big day. I will not soon forget your kind words and gestures. Today I received a gorgeous bouquet of yellow roses and calla lilies from my dear friend, Kim. To all of you who remembered and thought enough of me to send your warm wishes, I send my thanks, and I wish you great blessing in this Christmas season and beyond. May your days and nights be merry and bright.

Tomorrow at this time, we will be beginning our tour of the Biltmore Estate up in the North Carolina mountains. Apparently, the Biltmore is at its finest at this time of year with candles lit, carolers strolling around, and elegantly dressed visitors pretending that the massive estate is their own. I'm planning to let my imagination run wild as I traverse those wide corridors, glide up and down curving staircases, and welcome the guests to their stately guestrooms. Even though we will have only 30 hours away from the kiddies (but who's counting?), I am looking forward to dinner, a tour, and a night at the Biltmore Inn tomorrow, followed by breakfast at the inn and a lazy stroll along the streets of Asheville with my generous and kindhearted husband on Saturday. All alone. Just the two of us. What a concept!

No, I guess "Oh happy day" doesn't fit this description too well, does it? Perhaps "oh happy week" is better.

Am I really 40? Is that even possible?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

My Top Forty...

Here I sit, on the eve of the first day of the second half of my life. In the words of the immortal James Brown, "I feel good." Tomorrow will be a busy day: breakfast at my Mom's house, Wednesday worship at noon under the teaching of my dear friend, Katie Crowe, followed by lunch with the kids, dinner with my husband, and an entire day threaded through with thoughts, prayers, journaling, and pondering the entirety of my life thus far, and wondering about what lies ahead.

One of my favorite songs by Billy Joel is called, "I've Loved These Days." In it, he recounts friendships, loves, and other highlights of his life to that point. In my own life, there are many friendships, loves, and highlights to be grateful for. I have loved these days, these 40 years of life on the planet. As I listened to Daniel play basketball on the driveway with his friends earlier today and realized that he's been building these friendships for over three years already, as I looked into her room and watched Kristiana set up her favorite toys for visit to imaginary worlds I cannot even dream of entering, as I stare into this computer screen and try to summarize what I am feeling right here right now, then I can truthfully say, "I've loved these days."

Sometimes when I think about the things I write here on the blog, in the essays I craft, and on the pages of my journal, I criticize myself for being a little too optimistic, for seeing life through rose-colored glasses a little too often, and skimming over the more serious events too lightly. Perhaps I am too cheery for some people, but my goal in life for several years now has been to find the light at the end of every long, dark tunnel, to find the lesson in every difficulty, and to look at the world around me with eyes full of compassion, peace, and love. It's not easy sometimes, I must admit. But with all the bad news, abuse, scandals, murders, wars, and mayhem that fill the airwaves and newspapers, I cherish this outlet where I can be positive, grateful, and hopeful on a regular basis.

Looking back on my life in the past few days, I have shed tears and laughed aloud at memories that have come back to mind. In no particular order, I'd like to share 40 of my favorite people, places, events, and remembrances.

1. Giving birth to my two children.
2. Earning my Master's degree from Wesleyan University with all A's.
3. Taking Kristiana with me up to the podium to receive that degree. She was 4.
4. Being with my father when he passed away in March of 2001.
5. Meeting and marrying Steve.
6. The decision to grow dreadlocs.
7. Discovering the literature of Alice Walker.
8. Being inspired by her to begin the practice of journaling.
9. Attending Poly Prep from the 7th grade until the 12th grade. Teaching there for two years after graduating from college.
10. Running the anchor leg on relay teams both in high school and college.
11. Going to Europe in 1986, especially Ireland, England, Amsterdam and Spain.
12. Learning Political Science and so much more from Carlos Egan.
13. Learning to speak Spanish fluently.
14. Going to Italy for the first time in October 2001.
15. Sitting alone in the cloister at the Santa Croce church in Florence.
16. The double rainbow in Bologna in 2002.
17. Moving to Charlotte.
18. Finding this house on the first day of house hunting in October 2002.
19. Sending and receiving email.
20. The first five minutes of being in bed on a cold winter night after a busy day.
21. Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby.
22. Beth Moore: her Bible studies, poetry, and contagious energy.
23. Teaching Women of Hope in Wilton, CT.
24. Resting my head on Steve's right shoulder.
25. Sinking into a warm bath, candles burning, music down low.
26. The way Steve proposed to me: "Gail, I love you. Will you marry me?" on a hotel marquis in Reading, PA.
27. Karen's visit this past weekend: what a fabulous surprise!
28. Being present for the births of all three of Karen's children.
29. Pinnacle 2000: seeing Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and many ports in between.
30. Traveling in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Spain, and beyond with my children. They are such intrepid, trusting, willing, open-minded, wide-eyed adventurers.
31. Meeting and befriending Antonio Allende, my favorite Jesuit priest.
32. Listening to and singing Christmas carols with my kids while I play the piano.
33. My entire book collection: it's hard to pick a favorite.
34. Sunbathing, reading, and looking at the water off Palomino Island, Puerto Rico.
35. Settling in at a table in a restaurant or coffee shop, alone, pens and journals spread out before me.
36. Kim Hooker's trip to Spain in early June to hang out with me: so very cool!
37. Having my own bedroom and bathroom for three years of undergrad life at Williams College.
38. Explaining phrases like " the phone was off the hook" and "I must sound like a broken record" to my technologically advanced offspring.
39. Standing in front of Velazquez' painting of the Crucifixion of Christ in the Prado in Madrid. It moves me to tears every time I see it. Every single time.
40. Knowing that I could write 40 more highlights and not even skim the surface of the many blessings I have known in this life.

I have loved these days. I look forward to the days that are yet to come.
Yeah for me!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Only four shopping days left...

until the Big Day! Yes, I am turning 40 on the 14th! Steve and the kids are out shopping even as I write. For the first time in many, many years, I made a list of the things I'd like for my birthday. Like most mothers, I am accustomed to receiving lists of desired gifts for my children's birthdays and for Christmas, but I have not made a list, actually written one down for decades. (It's strange that I can now use the word "decades" in reference to a time period within my own lifetime. A sign of the times, huh?) Last night I sat at my desk, pen in hand, paper before me and did a quick mental inventory of my study room, bedroom, closet, and secret stashes all around the house. I don't need more shoes, more skirts, more shirts, earrings, necklaces, or makeup. I've got plenty of pens, journals, books I haven't read, and enough bottles of cream, perfume, and nail polish to last until the next major birthday, I'm sure. I don't need a thing. Quickly, I sent up a prayer of thanks for this life that is beyond all I could ever have asked or imagined.

Forty. 40. Cuarenta.

Every few days, Steve takes my emotional temperature in relation to my birthday. The other day, he asked me what it feels like to no longer be able to say I'm "thirtysomething." I laughed. I've never referred to myself as thirtysomething. I've always freely told me age and will continue to do so. I will never be ashamed of the years I have lived. Each has brought its own set of joys, victories, and good memories. Each has also brought its own set of sorrows, pains, and losses. But each year has been a blessing, a gift, and each has transformed me and made me into the woman I am today. Last night, my daughter said that she's glad I'm not someone who is ashamed of my age. That meant a lot coming from my twelve year old daughter.

In the middle of our laughter about the "thirtysomething" reference, both Steve and I stopped middle snort and began to babble profusely about the show by that name that was on television in the late 80's or early 90's. Does anybody else remember that show about the two married couples and the two single people who were great friends in suburban Philly? One couple had two kids and was getting ready to be divorced. The other had two young children and a large house that was in constant need of repair. The two married men worked together at an ad agency that eventually went belly-up. The single guy was a college professor who slept with his students too often and wondered why he was never taken seriously by his colleagues. The single woman desperately wanted to meet the man of her dreams and wondered why her desperation was a turn off. Steve and I loved that show. We watched it with fascination. We were still in our 20's at the time with no children, or perhaps had only Kristiana but she was still a baby.

We couldn't imagine being so old, so mature, so engulfed in home ownership, advising friends with marital problems, and single friends who wanted to be married. We never thought we would ever be like them. I find it quite interesting that an entire decade of my life has passed and I don't recall thinking about that show once during our "thirtysomething" years. But I know exactly why I never thought about the show during the past ten years: We were living it out. Both of the homes we have owned during our 30's have demanded constant attention: cracks, leaks, painting, sanding, caulking, replacing, hiring workers to climb ladders and reach the things we don't dare to repair. We have cried with divorced friends, comforted their broken-hearted children, attended funerals at an increasing rate, and watched our children spring to new heights on a daily basis. Heck, we even have a dog! We really are adults now.

Almost three years ago, I made the promise to myself that when I reached my 40th birthday, I would be in the best shape of my life. At the time, I set a goal to weigh 15 pounds less than I did when I got married. I wanted six-pack abs, chiseled arms, and a sculpted back. I wanted a super modern dreadloc hairstyle, new makeup, and the best clothes money could buy. I wanted to make Steve proud to say that his wife was 40.

About three months ago, I realized that I wasn't going to weigh 15 pounds less than when I got married; ten pounds less would have to do. My arms are slender and strong. I've got nine-pack abs. And my back still supports my rather large, thickly dreadlocked head. I wear modest makeup, and I don't think I'll ever be able to justify buying a $275 pair of jeans. But I have still reached my goal of being in the best shape of my life.

I am happier with who I am now than ever before. I love my husband and children more than I ever have before. I have let go of old obsessions, fears, doubts, and worries in the past few months, all of which I thought I'd just have to live with forever. I am learning to release dying friendships, welcome new ones, and have arrived at a level of contentment with the relationships that I didn't think was possible. I am better able to listen to the problems and dilemmas of friends without taking on the responsbility to fix it all. I am more comfortable with and accepting of my body as it is than I have been for many years. I am strong of mind and spirit. I have a more fulfilling, joy-producing relationship with God than I have had before.

My greatest wish as I approach my 40th birthday is that all of these trends will continue.

In case you were wondering: A gift card from Caribou Coffee (a place kinda like Starbucks), a few colorful scarves, funky tights to wear with my skirts, and milk chocolate pecan turtles.
To my UTTER SHOCK: My husband and children just returned from "shopping" with Karen Powell - my best buddy in the world. She flew down from Connecticut to be with me for the weekend. After I screamed and fell on my knees, she said, "You only turn 40 once. I had to come!"

Please forgive me for typos and grammatical mistakes. I've gotta go hang out with Karen!!!!!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Christmas Queries

Driving around Charlotte this week, I have been dazed, dazzled, and confused by the explosion of holiday decorations, the countless sale signs, and the tripling of traffic on the streets at nearly every hour of the day. What used to be simple midday trips to the supermarket have been transformed into parking fiascos, emotional assaults by men and women of all ages soliciting funds for various charities, and exercises in self-restraint every time I see a display of Hershey's kisses in various flavors. I do love Christmas candy. Who am I kidding? I like all kinds of candy!!!

Earlier this evening, I nearly ran my car into a tree; I was literally driven to distraction by an overly decorated house in our neighborhood. What is it that makes completely normal, otherwise reasonable and understated people decide to pepper their lawns with enormous, backlit candy canes, inflatable Santa Claus dolls, and mechanical reindeer that bow their heads down as though they were eating the grass? Why do people hang tiny white light bulbs from their rain gutters? Do they really think they look like icicles? What are people thinking when they climb ladders, perch themselves precariously on steeply pitched roof lines, and suspend a few fragile strands of lights on window and door frames? What are people thinking?

Lest you think I am the grinch that is trying to steal the Christmas spirit, let me clarify: I am not being critical of any of the festivities. Quite frankly, the displays fascinate me. I'm one of those people that will go out of my way to look at houses and neighborhoods that take this festivals of lights stuff seriously. I pull over to curbs, turn on my flashers, and take in the entire effect as often as I can do so safely. My children and I try to guess how long it took to install the monstrosities we spot. We wonder about ensuing electric bills, the opinions the neighbors have about all the hoopla, and where all that stuff gets stored during the rest of the year. No, I'm not being critical at all. I'm just wondering. This inquiring mind just wants to know.

I wonder about something else as well. Why do so many people who otherwise have no interest in Jesus, in Christianity, or in faith of any kind make such a big deal about this time of the year? We can try to ignore the baby that was born in the manger in the city of David and say that what we are doing nowadays has nothing to do with that. Even the winter solstice is a celebration of new life, of the end of the darkness and the coming of the light. Ultimately then, we are all honoring the coming of the Light of the World. We can talk about the importance of taking time to be with family, to celebrate the end of another year, and all that jazz. Family is important and worthy of honor. I know of so many families in such deep pain right now that I cannot help but think about our fearless foursome differently these days. Simply being together for another year, still loving one another, and planning for the future together is a priceless commodity. Surviving another year, especially a year that began with the sorrow of the tsunami, has been marked by hurricanes, earthquakes, and mudslides, and strife all around the world - surviving such a year is certainly worthy of celebration.

But it has to be more than just that. I know it's more than that. The baby whose birth I am waiting to commemorate grew up to be a Man whose death I will mourn in four months' time and whose resurrection will raise my spirits anew a few sorrow-filled days later. Christmas is the beginning of the story, the never ending story, the story that is told over and over every year. This story predates our calendar; in fact, it is the standard by which our calender was created.

As I gather gifts for my husband, children, and my mother, as we put up and decorated the tree this past weekend, and Steve strung sets of lights on the bushes in front of our home, I wonder: what are people thinking? Do they wonder what all the uproar is about? Am I the only one filled with questions as the countdown to Christmas continues?

Away in a manger while sheperds watched their flocks by night, was it a holy night? Were the stars brightly shining when angels came from the realms of glory to the little town of Bethlehem? What child is this on the first noel caused good Christian men to rejoice and three kings to bear gifts as they traversed afar? Who is He in yonder stall of whom the herald angels sing? The angels we have heard on high go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born. So come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Sing in exultation. Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

I had a farm in Africa...

One of my favorite movies is "Out of Africa" with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. The rolling Ngong hills, the countless animals on the savannah, the dinners by firelight while out on safari are almost enough to make this city girl want to camp out. Almost. Rather than the call of the wild, I know I would hear and heed the call of indoor plumbing.

Over the past two days, I have been slowly making my way through this beautiful, painful, lonely, lovely, frightening, disheartening, and deeply engaging film. I have seen it dozens of times, and every time I watch it, I find myself imagining myself right there with them, listening to her every homespun tale, looking through his binoculars out onto the horizon he has yet to explore. I know what some of you are thinking: "It's a movie, Gail. Of course it's all romantic and perfect. Real life in Africa is nothing like that." Others are wagging an accusatory finger at the computer screen and reminding me that theirs was an adulterous relationship. The argument could rightly be made that they were taking advantage of the Africans they used as servants and in some cases as lovers. Yeah, yeah, yeah... I still like the movie.

Over the past two days, I have also been engaged in the task of decorating our house for Christmas. The tree is up, but there are still a few ornaments to put on it. The candle lights are in each of the upstairs windows. Steve has strung white and green lights on the bushes out front and is at a local store at the moment buying more lights. While walking Maya in our front yard this evening, I noticed that several of our neighbors have been hard at work on their own lighting ceremonies today. On this rainy South Charlotte night, I imagine that many families are gathering around the hearth (or the television) telling (or watching) homespun (or Hollywood produced) tales. Parents are conspiring about gift purchases. Children are dreaming about gift purchases.

And we all are looking through sets of binoculars into an uncertain future. What will the new year bring? Will there finally be peace in Iraq? Will the troops begin to return home? I hesitate to offer a positive response to these questions for many reasons. Here's one: I spoke to a friend who bought a Yorkie at the pound today. Apparently, the previous owner of the dog had two Yorkies but had to make the difficult decision as to which of the two he would take with him during his deployment in Iraq! He was allowed to take only one; the other had to remain stateside. I am struck by the fact that he was able to take a dog with him to a war zone. I expect that he expects that the military leadership expects to be there for quite a while longer. But that's a whole 'nother blog...

Back to the future: will there be peace here at home? I know of yet another couple getting divorced, another child shuffled between broken homes. A teenager separated from her family is steely and tough during the day, but I bet she hugs her pillow and silently stifles her tears when she thinks of Christmas Eve festivities away from her parents and siblings. Busy parents work long hours and barely have time to enjoy the season. Hurried children are driven from one activity to another, eating in the car, doing homework between piano lessons and basketball practice. When will the silent nights, the peace on earth, and the good will come to pass?

On a more personal note, as I look towards the new year, I have a set of questions of my own. Will I return to Spain with the children for a month-long adventure this spring? They both want to go back, and I would always rather be in Spain than just about any place else. Will Steve and I reach our fifteenth wedding anniversary next June with a sigh or a shift into high gear? What will be the health status of our mothers, siblings, children, and the two of us at the end of this year and the next? Will I ever be published apart from on this blog? What lessons are left for me to learn by the end of this year? I'm sure there are many.

Isak Dinesen left her home in Denmark for an unimaginable adventure in Africa. She met a man there whose influence in her life would change her forever. She experienced a continent rich in scents, colors, people, culture, language, strife, and sorrow. She contracted an illness that nearly killed her, but ended up making her immensely stronger. Ultimately, though, she lost her farm, mourned the love of her life, and was forced to return to her native Europe monetarily poor but emotionally rich. From her years of life abroad, she gleaned stories that have ushered readers into worlds they could only imagine. I am one of those readers.

I will never have a farm in Africa. I will most likely never see the Ngong Hills. However, often I describe my life with the same adjectives I ascribed to the film I will someday soon finish watching: "beautiful, painful, lonely, lovely, frightening, disheartening, and deeply engaging." I plan to spend the rest of my days spinning tales, looking towards the distant horizon, and dreaming of broad flat houses with equally broad porches, and unexpected guests who ask for nothing more than my company, a glass of fine wine, and a conversation that lasts longer than the candles that light up the night.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

I was gonna apologize but...

then I thought about it for a while, and I realized I didn't have anything to apologize for.

Three months ago I began a writing game with a wonderful woman named Maureen Ryan Griffin. I met her last year around this time at a winter solstice writing retreat. Excellent day. Excellent woman. Check out her website at Anyway, one of the commitments I made for this writing game we played was that I would blog at least twice per week. That was hardly a difficult assignment for me as I love to write, and I think I like blogging more than any other form of writing - except for journaling.

Over these past three months, I have been pretty faithful to my biweekly blogging schedule, but I have noticed during the past few weeks that I have tended to wait and write towards the end of the week. Here I sit on Thursday night to write my first blog of the week. It's not that I am without ideas or without incidents worth sharing; it's just that the weeks are flying by so fast that I haven't made time to sit and write until the week is nearly gone.

Tonight on my way back from seeing my awesome therapist I spent a few minutes thinking about what I'd write tonight. The first thing that came to mind was an apology. "I'm sorry that I have been waiting so late in the week to write. I'm sorry that friends come to the blog only to find that I haven't written anything new in four or five days." I made a mental review of my week, where I've been, what I've done, and I realized something else: The busyness of my life, the fullness of my schedule is not something I need to defend or apologize for. I love my life. I love the fullness of it. When I'm tired, when I'd rather be writing than driving the children from one activity to another, even though I'd rather write than cook, clean, do laundry, or just about anything else, life happens. And the writing has to wait.

Julia Cameron wrote a book entitled, "The Vein of Gold" in which she encourages and guides her readers through a process of discovering the vein of gold that is embedded within each of us, the vein that oozes with the golden ore of our lives. But in order to find that vein, we must live our lives. It's not enough to write; I must live. It is the living that fills the vein with richness, beauty, and depth.

This week, I have lived fully, passionately, and gracefully (I hope). On Monday afternoon, I took Kristiana to her horseback riding class and sat in the minivan watching Steve Martin's "Father of the Bride" with Daniel. What great laughter and discussions we shared about the antics of a goofy father and the love that drove him to do all those crazy things. Then after dinner, I took off for the final session of a writing class called "Getting Your Work Out There." I do all this writing, so why not submit a piece or two for publication or for contest consideration? I've submitted three pieces to a writing contest so far. I know that one of them didn't make the cut, but the other two are still out there.

On Tuesday afternoon, I met with Maureen and spent an hour retelling the tales of the past three months, the ways in which I have been winning this writing game, and the goals I want to reach in the future. She makes me laugh. She makes me cry. And above all, she makes me want to be a better writer. On Tuesday evening, I took Daniel to his basketball practice at 6, then drove with Kristiana to one of my favorite stores in the world: Staples. I picked up DVDs so that I can download this enormous blog onto my laptop computer, edit some of them, and launch them out into the world for wider consideration. I found some fine paper on which to print them, bought my daughter some special pens for her own writing, and enjoyed her company thoroughly as we strolled through that wonderland of writing.

Yesterday, the kids and I went uptown for the wonderful Wednesday worship service we all enjoy. Katie has begun a series of devotionals on the various characters involved in the advent, the arrival of the Christ child. Yesterday she talked about the genealogy of Christ as listed in the first chapter of Matthew. From there we were off to Sushi 101 for a lovely lunch then returned home for basketball on the driveway, walking and playing with Maya, a brief visit to the library, and dinner before heading out for more evening activities. We kept the kids up until 10 PM, irresponsible parents that we are, talking, laughing, and sharing our adventures from the day. By then, I needed to spend a few moments alone with my dear hubby, and so it was time to shuffle the little people off the bed.

Today, we left the house early to take Maya to the vet. Poor thing has been harboring a slight infection at the wound site after her spaying. Something just didn't seem right, so we drove her over. I will spare the most gruesome details, but let me say this: Maya is prone to carsickness. By the time we arrived at the vet's office, therefore, we had some clean up to do before we could hand her over to the vet's nurse. The problem? A dissolving stitch that never dissolved. Now she takes oral antibiotics twice per day as administered by my very responsible twelve year old daughter. We settled down for homeschooling at 11:30, and still managed to get most of our work done by 1 PM. After all, we had discussed the formula for the five paragraph essay on our way to the vet, so most of English was already done.

As I mentioned earlier, I had a 7 PM appointment with my therapist tonight. One of my dearest friends asked why I see a therapist. There are many answers to that question, but I will give only one: he listens to me tell the story of my life and asks great questions that help me see myself, my birth family, my immediate family, and the world in which I live more clearly, more compassionately, and with a deeper sense of clarity. Jim has helped me recognize faulty patterns in my life and in my relationships that have stunted my emotional, mental, and spiritual growth, and assists me as I either fix the patterns that are salvageable or abandon the untenable ones altogether.

This has been a full week. This has been a well-lived week. There have been tough moments, moments of frustration, dashed expectations, and lost opportunities. There have also been moments of singing, hugging, laughing, talking about antibiotics, Christmas decorations, Grammy, football, and the dangers of spraying the "Nature's Miracle" No Chewing Bitter Spray on Maya's fur.

I was gonna apologize, but then I realized that my excuse would be the fullness of my life. And I will never apologize for life.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Tis the season...

I remember watching that crazy show, "Third Rock from the Sun" a few years ago and laughing at the Thanksgiving episode. The four members of that alien family discovered early in the week of Thanksgiving that in order to observe this mysterious holiday properly, they needed to find, purchase, cook, and consume a certain phenomenon known as "balls of butter." So each of them ate their own individual turkey and then were clueless as to why they all felt so sleepy. Their futile battle against the overwhelming effects of tryptophan was hilarious to watch. After waking from their long afternoon naps, they perched themselves outside on the roof overlooking their front yard and recounted the events of the day. Relieved that they had survived that gluttonous ordeal, they gave thanks that they would have plenty of time to prepare for future holidays because surely no other major holiday could follow so closely after Thanksgiving. If only...

Indeed, the preparations for another major holiday have begun. The lights are up on storefronts. Wreaths adorn street lights here in Charlotte. Trees are being sold in parking lots that only a few weeks ago were awash in pumpkins. The holiday shopping frenzy is in full swing already. Several hundred people lined up at a local shopping mall for a 1 am entrance! What could you possibly need at the mall at 1 am on the morning after Thanksgiving? What about the silent nights, the sleeping in heavenly peace? What about joy to the world and peace on earth, good will to men?

Advent season begins officially tomorrow, and there is much to look forward to in the next 40 days. I look forward to cuddling in front of the fireplace with Steve and the children, hot cocoa, popcorn, and visions of fruitcake dancing in our heads. I look forward to the plate of cookies my neighbor's daughter brings to our back door every Christmas eve and the batches of our own cookies that will add to my already expanded holiday girth. I look forward to putting up our tree, the light of electric candles in our windows, and wearing my sparkly red turtleneck sweater to church on Christmas eve. I look forward to singing Christmas carols around the piano with the kids, reading the story of the birth of Christ on Christmas eve, and awakening on Christmas morning to the smell of the breakfast casserole in the oven, the sight of presents under the tree, and the music of my friend, Rob Mathes as he sings my favorite line of all: "I'm waiting here for love again to be born." That's what it all leads to: Love. Born anew. Joy. Silent wonder. The star of David. Wonderful Counselor. Mighty God. Prince of Peace. Peace that surpasses all understanding, explanation, and over-commercialization.

As much as I look forward to my 40th birthday on the 14th of December (Have no fear: there's still plenty of time to compose poetry or song lyrics, string pearls and crystals into one-of-a-kind necklaces, and get them in the mail for a timely arrival...), as much as I look forward to watching the children open their gifts and scream with delight, and as much as I look forward to letting my tears flow every time I hear "O Come All Ye Faithful," I know that the real reason for the season is that baby that was born in the manger over 2000 years ago, the baby that grew up, became a man, died, was buried, and rose again.

The Christmas season officially begins tomorrow.
Tis the season to await the soon coming baby.
The soon coming healer.
The soon coming Rabbi.
The soon coming King.

Joy to the world, indeed.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksliving! (nope, that's not a typo)

I just came in from an early morning walk with Maya. What a glorious morning! The sky is a rich, deep blue, streaked with pink clouds. As I stood and gazed up in wonder and the sun continued it ascent into the Carolina sky, the clouds faded to a rich, deep orange. Almost directly overhead, the half moon took its last glance at the rising sun and smiled its ever-white smile in its direction. Even Maya stopped her incessant sniffing and looked up for a few seconds.

The street is quiet. Cars are not pulling out of driveways and heading uptown to park beneath the many banks that dot the Charlotte skyline. Front doors are not banging shut behind children heading for the bus stop at the corner. Dogs aren't even barking this morning. Birds, however, are singing their usual songs of greeting to the morning light - and warning each other that the crazy little dog from 8724 is out again.

She can barely jump up and reach my kneecap, but Maya is crazy about chasing birds. Across the street from us, our neighbors have a grove of very low bushes flanking their front walk, and there must be 50 birds living in those bushes. They cluck and squeak and rustle the branches. They preen their feathers and stretch their wings and hop around on the grass on either side of the path. And it all drives Maya absolutely bonkers. My poor little hunting dog has absolutely no genetic choice but to do all within her power to empty those bushes of those birds. Once she hones in on them, no amount of Alpha Dog correction on my part can divert her attention. So on the odd morning, I allow her to pull me across the street where she noses around underneath the leaves, sniffs, stretches her tiny neck, and sets her sights on liberating the Ayers family from the captivity of "The Birds." She'd like to eat them, but she gladly settles for scaring a few of them and watching them fly away.

This morning, however, we stayed on our side of the street, and I contemplated the events of this Thanksgiving Day. I imagined hundreds of men and women checking on their slow-roasting oversized turkeys during the morning hours. Stuffings are being prepared, cranberry sauces slow simmered - that is, unless they are being cut out of cans... Gravies, sweet potatoes, salads, and pork roasts will soon be cooked to perfection.

Yup, you read it right: pork roasts. Much to the chagrin of my mother and mother-in-law, we will be dining on pork today. I don't like turkey. I never have. Well, that's not entirely true. The only part of the turkey I like is the thigh, the dark, fatty, juicy meat of the turkey thigh. But since supermarkets carry only whole birds, breasts, or legs, I am plum out of turkey thigh luck. True to my ingrained rebellious nature, I refuse to be coerced by society, tradition, or my mother-in-law into cooking an entire, dusty, dry bird in order to nibble on a few bites of a thigh.

I've been told countless times by friends, acquaintances, and enemies alike that there are ways to keep a turkey from getting dry, but I've never had the pleasure of eating a slice of turkey breast that wasn't dry. So today we will eat pork tenderloin. There will be stuffing, cranberry sauce, and my mother's candied yams. In an effort to honor the traditional consumption of food with feathers on Thanksgiving, my mother is also bringing her famous fried chicken. Now that's a bird I can eat with gusto.

We will eat at noon. Yup, you read it right. Why wait until 3 or 4 in the afternoon when everybody's gotta eat lunch anyway? I figure we may as well eat the real deal early and have dessert as the main course at 5 pm. In fact, we've been invited to two Thanksgiving desserts: one at 5 and the other at 7:30 this evening. This is my kind of day: breakfast, lunch, and two rounds of dessert, all washed down with sparkling cider, sweet tea, and wine. For this great bounty, I am indeed thankful.

What else am I thankful for today?
* this morning's beautiful sky.

* baking and cooking these past two days with the children: chocolate chip cookies, a lemon pound cake, stuffing with pork sausage, and cranberry sauce made from fresh cranberries.

* the sounds of my home this morning as the heat kicks in, the hamster wakes up, and my son tunes into SportsCenter on ESPN.

* the quiet breathing of my daughter and my husband as they sleep.

* the anticipation of reading the notes of thanksgiving we've written this week and placed in a beautiful shoe box. We will read the notes one by one over the course of the day. The goal is to guess who wrote each one, but the real joy will be in conspiring (as in "breathing together") on prayers of thanks.

* lengthy conversations with three of my best buddies yesterday. I sat at Starbucks with one friend and talked for two hours while we nursed peppermint mochas and flipped through a book of Caravaggio's paintings. Such good memories I have of seeing his works in London, Rome, Florence, New York, and one right here in Charlotte!

* listening to the pastor talk about the importance of "thanksliving," not just this week, but always. May it be a way of life, not a single day of overindulgence with a brief prayer of thanks thrown in for good measure.

* listening to that same pastor sing a song about all that God has done for him.

* watching a video at the same service about a young man from our church who'd had a terrible dirt bike accident nearly two months ago. His helmet came off during the incident, and he suffered a very serious head injury. After his parents had been briefed and prepared for a recovery time of three to twelve months, one month and one day after the crash, he walked out of the hospital, completely restored, both physically and mentally. My son and I approached him on Tuesday night after the service and told him how much we'd been praying for him during the time of his chemically-induced coma. He thanked us, smiled his wide braces-bound smile, and went back to sipping his hot cider. Young Aaron is a living, breathing, walking, smiling testimony to the power of love, friendship, medical technology, and pure, old-fashioned prayer.

* I am thankful that another year has passed and we remain in good health. We are still together as a family. We haven't lost anyone to death, serious illness, or accident. We have so much for which to give thanks.

So here's to eating, drinking, laughing, looking around the table today at family and friends, and giving thanks for their presence, for their love, and for their willingness to share this day with us.

Here's to raising a toast to far away family, friends and loved ones who are not with us in body, but who are always with us in spirit. I will give thanks for all of you as well.

And finally, here's to remembering the one who aren't with us anymore: my father, my father-in-law, all four sets of our grandparents, Jill's father, Cindy's uncle, Suzanne's son, Ida, Leza, and countless others whose names I don't remember and probably never know. You are sorely missed, but we give thanks for all that you gave us while you were here.

Happy Thanksgiving.
Happy Thanksliving.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Why can't we all just get along?

My dear, sweet little Maya is recovering quickly from being spayed. Poor thing - she ran around the house with seven staples in her abdomen for nine days. Those miniscule pain pills she was taking must have worked very well because the day that we brought her home from the surgery, she ran up the stairs without stumbling even once. I had to chase her, grab her (gently) and put her in her crate; clearly, she was in no pain, but I was concerned that one of those staples was going to come out. Last Friday they were taken out, and she has continued to heal nicely. All in all, she did quite well.

Just a few minutes ago, I took her outside for a walk - and she peed and pooped without delay! (This is one smart dog!) Once she was done with her business, she took to chasing leaves, birds, and anything else that moved... including the 50 pound chocolate lab that lives next door. That dog could easily knock down the average person if she got up to speed and charged. I know that because she has gotten up and speed and charged me more than once - I thank God that I'm larger than average!

Anyway, Buddy (the neighbor dog) had just come back from her walk, and Maya ran right up to her and started sniffing her, chasing her, and playing with her. Of course, they bowed to each other, rubbed noses, and sniffed each other's private parts first. Fascinating ritual, isn't it? (Brief aside here: My daughter and I flipped through a doggie comic book at the pet store the other day and found one that showed two dogs in that head to tail stance. One said to the other, "We've gotta come up with a different way to greet each other.") As Maya and Buddy were being reacquainted, my neighbor Cliff told me about the doggie training class they take Buddy to on Mondays. He laughed as he described the way that the dogs greet each other every week.

"They lick, sniff, nip at each other's heels, grab each other by the throat, and wag their tails. All the while," he imagined, "they are probably asking each other how last week went, what was new with their owners, that sort of thing. Every now and then, one dog will get a little too rowdy and sink the teeth in a little too deeply, and a little scuffle ensues. A few growls, a few nudges, a hard stare - and then it's over. Maybe the following week, one dog has to be a little more submissive than usual at the start of the class, but then the issue is settled once and for all."

Then Cliff asked the pet-related parallel to the infamous Rodney King question: "Why can't we all just get along like dogs do? It doesn't matter which dog is bigger, which is pure bred, what they eat, where they poop, or how bad their breath is. They greet each other, kiss, sniff, lick, and then they get on with the business of being friends. Grudges are settled quickly, efficiently, and then forgotten."

Good question, Cliff. Dogs know how to deal with each other. Alpha dog status is quickly established. Boundaries are clear. Dogs know their place. Occasionally there is the scuffle that draws blood. Sometimes stitches are needed. But for the most part, dogs are forgiving, loving, accepting, tolerant animals. They look at their owners with unconditional love, with unwavering longing, and with unquestioned loyalty. Maya literally eats the socks I sweat in. She devours the hairy ends of carrots that I drop on the floor. She bows her head and wags her tail everytime I enter the room.

What a different world we would have if we learned to honor each other in a similar way! What if managed to overlook bad breath, smelly bottoms, and the fact so many of us are mutts? What if we found more reason to love and accept each other than to reject each other? What if we didn't care who had fleas and who had lost some teeth? What if we had our tussles, settled the matter, and then were determined not to bring it up again?

I know there are some misbehaviors that defy easy dismissal. Infidelity, violent episodes, abandonment, neglect, and abuse are tough to forgive and impossible to forget. Those are the biggies.

But let's face it; most of the things that we hold grudges for are not the biggies. Somebody borrowed $20 that they didn't return. Or maybe as much as $200. Someone forgot my birthday. Someone didn't send a thank you card for the gift I patiently chose, purchased, wrapped, and delivered. Someone criticized something I wrote or wore or said. She didn't return my email. He didn't return my call. She forgot the date we'd made to have lunch and stood me up. He rode his bike into my car and left a ding. She lost my sweater at the movie theater. They showed up late for the dinner we planned and painstakingly created. No one thanked me for the dinner I spent hours preparing. On and on goes the list of grievances. On and on goes the bitterness. And absolutely none of these things are worth the loss of a friendship or even an acquaintance.

We were dog snobs in our search process. My son Daniel and I are both allergic to dog fur, so when Kristiana did the research on which dogs we could own, the list was pretty short. When we began the search in earnest, we had to be sure that we were dealing with a purebred dog because we didn't want to take the chance of running into a dog that had a shedding gene in the mix. We chose a Yorkie because it has hair, not fur, it doesn't shed, and it will remain very small. No seventy-five pound hairball factories for us, thank you very much!

What if we could figure out a way to downplay the purebreed issue among the human species? Thankfully, my friends didn't exhibit the same pickiness when they chose me. I recognize and fully admit to the impurity of my bloodline: I can be moody, selfish, and snappy. I have been known to shed my anger and self-righteousness under every chair in my vicinity. I am suddenly needy and whiny, and often I leave smelly piles of self-importance in my wake. I thank God for my dear, forgiving, friends. They must strong stomachs in order to clean up after me and still tell me that I'm a good girl all these years. I thank them all for patiently training me to be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend. Okay, maybe I took that analogy too far, but here's the point: why can't we all just get along? And why can't I be equally accepting when I choose my friends?

Yet again, I will endeavor to follow Maya's noble example. Weighing in at a scant 4.1 pounds, every time Maya finishes her first order of business on the lawn, she sprints to the homes of her canine companions on the block, one after the other: the chocolate lab on one side, the mixed breed pointer on the other, the black lab across the street, and the house up the block that now has five dogs (they belong to Rob and Jen, the couple whose wedding reception we went to a few weeks back). Even though nearly every one of those dogs has knocked her over, barked at her, and tried in every possible doggie way to intimidate her, Maya is fearless in her approach. She has obviously forgotten their earlier antics and moved into the friendship phase of the relationship. With each furious wag of her tiny body, she screams: "Bygones are gone good-bye. Today's a new day; let's play."

Well, I'd better go. I'm gonna head downstairs and give my favorite teacher a dental treat; she likes those more than apples!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Whose approval do I seek?

There are certain people in my life whose approval I seek.

There are some whose opinion on my writing means a tremendous amount to me. I look for their names in the comments section here on the blog. I look for their names in my inbox at I read between the lines of their remarks. I look words up in both the dictionary and the thesaurus in order to tease as much meaning as possible from their responses. I crave their affirmation for the way I express myself in words.

There are others whose opinion of my style of dress and accessorizing is paramount in my mind as I pull my outfits together. What would ----- think of this combination of colors? I often wonder what Stacy and Clinton, of What Not to Wear fame, would think of my high-waisted straight leg jeans. I have a ready explanation for them (or for those two English women whose show Stacy and Clinton have replicated) if they should appear behind me someday and take pictures of my ample behind in my jeans: "I have a 36 inch inseam, and NO women's jeans in the world have a 36 inch inseam. So I am forced to order my jeans from the men's section at LL Bean and cover the high waist with long sweaters. It's really not my fault. It's the fault of the fashion industry that doesn't cater to us tall women." That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. In fact, the inseam issue was a major contributing factor in my recent decision to wear a skirt nearly every day.

On a more serious note, when I am standing next to the pastor on the pulpit and translating his sermon from Spanish into English on Sunday mornings, there are certain people in the congregation whose nods of approval keep my spirits high. As long as those few people are smiling and nodding, I'm proud of my work. But when they turn their heads a little to the side or look away when I glance in their direction, I know I've made a mistake.

Finally, there are two or three extra special friends, the true insiders whose tone of voice, whose choice of words, whose opinions about any and every aspect of my life can either make or break my mood in an instant. To get the long-awaited phone call, to see the much anticipated email, to receive the long overdue snail mail missive --> for me, that is the stuff that causes me to stand a little taller, walk a little more proudly, and laugh a little more loudly. On the other hand, their disapproval and, even worse, their silence cause me to doubt my significance.

This past week I have spent a lot of time wondering whose approval of me ought to matter most. Whose opinion deserves to carry enough weight that I should change my behavior, my style, my reason for living as I live based on what they think? What would happen to me, to my heart, to my spirit if these all-important critics of the movie that is my life stopped sending their reivews? Who would I be if they stopped writing or calling or telling me what I mean to them? What would I be worth then?

Yesterday I smacked myself in the forehead and kicked myself in the ample behind. "Take a deep breath, Gail. You need to rethink and reconstruct this line of questioning right now!" How long will it be before I stop chasing the ultimate compliment that is never going to come? When will I step off the roller coaster ride that is so closely associated with this vain pursuit of validation? When will I remember that most people are far too busy looking out for their own welfare, hiding their own faults, and pretending that they don't need anybody else's approval to pay attention to me?

It occurred to me that I will never receive from anyone else what they do not have. For who among us feels unconditionally loved, approved, and affirmed? Who among us has enough love and encouragement to spare that we can give it freely and unexpectantly to others?

Today I was reminded over and over that there is A Friend who sticks closer than a brother. There is One whose mercies are new every morning, whose faithfulness is great, whose love is everlasting. I am grateful for the incomparable creativity and glorious love that God shows through the beauty of the leaves as they change colors and dot our thick green lawn, the sight and sounds of the geese flying overhead (I wondered if any of them had begun their journey up in Connecticut, my old stomping ground), and the undeniable love of my dear little dog, Maya, who cannot seem to stop her squirming and licking and tail wagging when she is in my presence.

Tonight as I listened to some new friends share accounts of miraculous healings, divine provision at critical moments, and unmistakable touches of grace, I was humbled by each story and grateful for each reminder of God's love for all of us. I've already been approved, affirmed, and richly blessed in ways that far exceed all I could ever have asked or imagined. Why do I keep seeking the approval of everyone but God, the only one whose approval I already have?

Good question. But still...

I have to be honest: there are times when I need friends "with skin on." There are times when I just want to be hugged, kissed, and held for a while. There are times when a well-timed joke, a well-constructed email, or a warm cup of tea at a friend's kitchen counter send me clear over the full moon itself! Can I get a witness?

Friday, November 11, 2005

"Go to the ant...

Consider its way and be wise:
It has no commander, no overseer, no ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer and
gathers its food at harvest."

I have learned several lessons from ants this week. Quite frankly, I wish I had thought of these things without having to battle the little things on my home turf. But sometimes it takes an up-close encounter to learn the lessons properly. So here goes:

First of all, ants work together as a team on every project. They are perhaps the best example we have of how to play "follow the leader." One ant finds a treasure of sugar, lays down a line of ant-scent, and everyone else in the nest follows that leader. If one ant veers to the right or to the left, the others will follow. Each ant can make hundreds of trips back and forth between the nest and the object of its desire. Very little will deter an ant from carrying out its purpose. The problem arises when the ants come across a bait laid out by an irate home owner. The trail of ants continues, but instead of bringing home food that nourishes, they bring home poison that eventually kills all the members of the ant clan.

When we choose to do so, people work well as teams also and follow well-made trails that lead us to great treasure. When the Pilgrims set out from the shores of England several hundred years ago, they laid a trail to religious freedom, a trail that many followed. Many trips were made back and forth across the Atlantic even though the way was certainly trecherous. For those seeking religious asylum, that trail was well worth following. When the late Rosa Parks decided to not give her seat up on the bus fifty years ago, she laid down the scent of racial and social freedom that thousands have followed in the decades that have passed since then. If she had not stayed seated on that bus, my inter-racial marriage would be illegal in the state in which I now reside.

On the other hand, problems arose when settlers from foreign lands followed each others' scents across the Atlantic Ocean carrying slaves in the holds of their ships. Problems have arisen as alcohol, drugs, pornography, guns, and tobacco became the target of thousands of trips back and forth across our streets, our school yards, our nation, and our world. Entire generations of people are dying of AIDS/HIV the world over because of the trail laid by thousands of people who have spread that dreaded virus. Gang, family, and government-sanctioned violence kills millions around the world every year; one ant gets hurt, gets indignant, decides to seek revenge, and countless followers march off to their deaths. This nest that we call planet earth has been repeatedly infected with these and other venoms, and far too often the poison spreads far too quickly for anyone to stop it.

What if we decided to lay down different trails? What if we laid a trail of conservation, recycling, reduction of pollution, and environmental concern that subsequent generations can follow in order to slow down the destruction of our planet? What if the trails we laid were scented with forgiveness for wrongdoing instead of bitterness and retaliation, with graceful acceptance instead of prejudice and intolerance? How different would our homes be if we carried the cargo of laughter and loving embraces into the nest rather than a cold shoulder, a pointed finger, or a clenched fist? What if we took the nectar of joy that we harvest in our homes and carried it into our schools, our work places, and even our churches?

Another analogy came to mind after the Terminix lady explained that another way that ants are killed is through the powder that is laid on their trails. Later on when they groom each other they coat each other with that toxic substance and die soon thereafter.

I had to consider what is on my hands and on my heart when I groom my husband, my children, and the other people I love and care for. Do I clean them with kind and encouraging words? Or am I rubbing the salt of criticism and sarcasm into wounds that are so often inflicted on them by the world? Can they trust that the lotion, the powders, and the oils I rub on their tender spiritual and emotional underbellies are made up of soothing sentiments? Am I careful to handle healing balms when I groom myself or am I exposed to ways of thinking, patterns of living, and belief systems that will eventually maim and kill me, those around me, and those who share the world in which I live and move?

One more lesson from the ants: Don't use pumps with Starbucks syrup bottles. That's the same as leaving the bottle wide open.

I am grateful for everything those tiny sugar ants taught me.
I am more grateful for the kind Terminix woman who came to our house the other day, explained the life cycle of the ants to me, and then laid down a trail that will lead them out of my house and keep them out.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Mea Culpa

I got up at 6:03 am.
I walked the dog.
I did some journaling, reading, and praying.
I made oatmeal and ate it with the children.
I did some homeschooling with the kids.
We raked and bagged leaves.
We met some other homeschoolers at a museum where we walked and talked our way through an awesome exhibit called, "Renaissance to Rococo."
I came home, sat down to read, and fell asleep on the couch.
I got up and cooked dinner.
We ate.
I washed the dishes.
I walked the dog.
I went to a 7 pm appointment with my therapist - great session!
I went to the supermarket on the way home.
I gave my son Motrin for a headache. I hope he's not coming down with something.
I sat down to blog - it's 9:28 pm.
My eyes can barely focus, and my fingers are hitting the wrong keys.
I will continue the story of the ants tomorrow.
Mea Culpa - my fault.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I hate ants!

Well, it's not that I hate ants so much as I hate seeing ants in my house. They are welcome to eat, breed, and be happy in the great outdoors, but stay out of my house, please!!!

The first run-in I had with ants in my house was a little over two years ago. Our church was having its annual picnic that day, and I was preparing to leave. Happily gathering goodies to put in our picnic basket, I was stopped in my tracks at the door of the pantry when I noticed several ants crawling around on one of the shelves. I killed them. Then I looked a little more closely and noticed a few more. I stood up straight, looked at the back wall of the pantry, and realized I was under a full scale attack. They were everywhere, all over everything, crawling in, out, up, and all around all of my food.

Lest anyone think that I am not a serious housecleaner or that I only rarely go into my pantry, I want to set the record straight. I keep a very clean home. I believe that my house should be presentable at all times. Anyone should be able to come over at anytime and I ought to be comfortable with how my house looks. I sweep, dust (yes, Karen, my dusting skills have improved tremendously since moving down here!), vacuum, mop, do laundry on a weekly basis. So that Sunday afternoon appearance of the sugar ants was quite a shock to me.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, "sugar ants," I will explain. Down here in the South (and in other critter friendly environments) there are several varieties of ants. There are the biting, horrifying red ants. There are the huge black ants, the ones that look like they are ants on steroids. There are the regular black ants. And then there are sugar ants. They are about half the size of regular ants, and they move in legions. Tiny little things that suddenly appear out of no where and seem to have taken over before you realize it.

Well, that lazy Sunday afternoon quickly became an all-out defensive. I recruited my husband, the kids, and a friend who was at our house at the time to help me empty everything out of the pantry. Everything. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about my tendency to buy things in multiples. Food is no exception. So my many bottles of olive oil, pancake syrup, boxes of cereal, oatmeal, and Swiffer sheets all had to come out. Anything that had ants on it had to go - unless it hadn't yet been opened, in which case it was washed off and set on the dining room table. We cleared out the entire pantry. I sprayed a lot of bug spray. I wiped down the shelves. Then I took the shelves out. I wiped down the walls. And the next day, Steve sealed up every visible crack and crevice, then proceeded to paint the walls of the pantry.

It turns out that the guy who installed our alarm system had drilled a hole in the floor of the pantry to run the wire under the house and failed to seal the hole. The ants accepted the "open invitation" to invade our home and couldn't believe their luck: the door led directly into the main food source in our house. We closed, locked, and sealed that door.

A few weeks ago now as I chatted on the telephone in the kitchen, I looked up at the two bottle of Starbucks syrup on top of our refrigerator (we make frappaccinos and all kinds of coffee drinks here at home) and noticed that they were darkened and swarmed by the moving, feasting bodies of sugar ants. "Oh crap!" I thought to myself. "Here we go again." I had to throw the two bottles away, spray all around and on top of the fridge, and clean up the mess again.

Did I mention that I hate ants?

Again, how did I miss them? How did they take over so fast? I knew that it hadn't been more than a day or two since the last time we'd used the syrup. I ended up having to throw away several other things that were stored on top of the fridge as the ants had made that whole area their new home. I pulled the fridge out of its alcove and discovered that the ants were coming in from a crack in the floor of the kitchen! There is simply no hole too small for those little creatures to squeeze through. Yuck, yuck, double yuck!

At great risk of freaking out all the people I know who are anti-chemical - I even count myself among their number - I will continue with my story. We are members of the "just call Terminix" club. Down here in the South, the critters are far too overwhelming to take lightly. I am no fan of pesticides on the lawn or spraying toxic substances willy-nilly on the property line in order to kill every living thing within 100 feet of our house. All I ask is that the animals that belong outside stay outside. Within these four walls, I will admit no multilegged creatures that we haven't paid good money for!

So I called Terminix and asked them to make an emergency visit. A sweet woman came yesterday and explained something absolutely fascinating to me. She said that sugar ants lay trails as they walk. If the first one veers to the right, all the rest of them will also. As soon as one ant finds a source of sugar, thousands will follow. And each ant will make hundreds of trips on the same ant-made trail. In order to get rid of them effectively, there are several steps to take.

The first one, she said, is to not spray bug spray on them. (My first thought was, "She's nuts.") She said to use Windex. It kills the ants I see, but doesn't kill the scent trail. Then I should call Terminix and have them come put out bait for the ants. (My second thought quickly morphed into a question: "But isn't bait meant to attract them? Why would I want to attract them INTO my house?) She said that the reason for bait was the attract the ants to the sweet poison which they take back to the nest and feed to each other thereby eventually killing the nest. The toughest part, she said, is seeing the ants swarm to the bait in the first 24 to 48 hours. But once that time passes, the numbers will dwindle as the nest is destroyed by its own hard-working inhabitants.

A second line of defense, she went on, is a powder the Terminix people lay down. The ants walk through the powder and take it back to their nests on their feet. Then during the communal cleaning and grooming process, they spread the poison to each other and die that way.

I realize that this is quite the gruesome explanation of ridding ourselves of small, defenseless, hard-working creatures that God created. I feel awful about allowing big, bad chemical companies to spread their ghastly liquids and powders in my home. In my defense, I will say that I tried several all natural products before calling in the big boys, but they didn't seem to get the problem under control. I just cannot stand seeing ants, bugs, flying things, or anything with more than the four cute little legs Maya scampers around on IN MY HOUSE.

After her thorough and eye-popping explanation, the very kind woman from Terminix proceeded to inspect the outside of our home to try to find where the ants were coming in. As it turned out, they were congregating and entering through the crawl space door.

Another explanation may be necessary here: because of the nature of the landscaped here in NC, basements are rare. The infamous red clay of the South cannot support the walls of basements, so houses tend to be built on cinderblock and cement foundations with crawl spaces. Those spaces tend to be about four feet in height, big enough to get into in order to repair plumbing or electrical issues under the house, but not big enough to expand into useable living space. Big enough for all the bugs in the county to congregate but not big enough for a family to hide in the event of a tornado. By the way, I hope I never have to test out the validity of that last statement!

Yes, the ants had found a way into the crawl space, a crevice in the floor below the house, and were apparently planning another invasion. She said she powdered them, sprayed them, and used all the other weapons at her disposal to discourage them from continuing with their assault. I thanked her, asked God to protect us from any long-term effects of our exposure to only He-knows-what, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Within moments of her departure, a spiritual analogy flashed through my mind.
I'll share it tomorrow.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Dancing in the Light

Today I am going to share a story I read on a favorite website this morning. Please excuse my blatant plagiarism, but indulge me as well. This account reminded me of the piece I wrote earlier this week about heartburn. I hope you enjoy it. I certainly did. Peace, Gail

"Heliopher" is based on a Russian legend recounted by Maxim Gorky.

Once upon a time there was a race which was lost in a great, dark forest. The trees stood so close together that the light of the sun could not penetrate the thickly entwined branches. There were also numerous wild animals which fell upon the people, especially the children, when they wandered too far from their parents while they were playing. So everyone lived in a constant state of fear of death and destruction, and a hopeless despair took hold of the hearts of the folk.

Continuous black darkness had strangled all the light in their hearts. They could not love one another any more. They even hated and murdered one another in their rage. Yet they were forced to remain together, for it was impossible for any single man to defend himself against the attacks of the wild beasts. They had lost all hope of ever finding their way out of the forest. Many of the young people did not believe in the light they had never seen, and they mocked their elders, when, with a last weak light gleaming in their dim eyes, they recounted tales of the festive, sunny days of their youth.

Among the people however, there was a young man called Heliopher. He was very much alone, grieving over the misery of his people, and seeking a way of salvation. He bore in his heart an endless longing for light and love in the desolation which surrounded him. Heliopher left his people to seek the sun. For many months and years he wandered through the dangers of the forest and of his own soul, and often, very often, nearly lost all hope and confidence. But Heliopher bravely withstood his enemies, whether within himself or around him, and at last he reached the edge of the forest and saw the light of the sun. In terrible amazement he fell into a swoon, and when he awoke he saw in the twilight that he was watched over in his slumber by beautiful people. In the green meadows stood the simple huts of the sun-people, and Heliopher lived with them in peace and endless joy as the most beloved amongst living men.

Then Heliopher went back to the forest to seek his people. “Come, brothers and sisters,” he said to them, “I will lead you to the light.” At this there was murmuring and frowning, wavering and hesitation, wonder and questioning, incredulous laughter, and finally a jubilant “Yes!” And then, at last, the longed-for departure.

Then the light of the sun shone in Heliopher’s eyes, but the way was long and difficult, and demanded much suffering and sacrifice, and murmuring arose among the people. Some spoke and said, “Let us murder him, the betrayer of the people!” And the dark glow of hatred was in their eyes. Others were wiser and said, “No! let us judge him in the presence of all, for it is dangerous to give the people a martyr.” And Heliopher spoke to his people, and talked about light and love. But the wise ones answered, “You lie! There is no light, there is no sun, there is no love. Let us be darker than the forest and more cruel than the wild beasts. Then we shall be masters of the forest!”

Heliopher answered in great pain, “O believe not, ye wise men, that ye can be victorious over darkness by being more dark, that ye can overcome the wild beasts by being more beastly. Only love is stronger. Only the light of the sun can drive away darkness.”

“Be silent!” said the wise men. “There is no light, there is no sun!”

And the people shouted, flinging their arms about in raging despair, “There is no light, there is no sun!”

But Heliopher called out, “Follow me!” Then, with his nails, he tore open his breast, and his heart burned with love, and it glowed and shed its beams through the dark forest. He took it in both hands, held it high over his head, and strode forth in front of the people.

In reverent wonder and silence the multitude followed the burning heart. (Emphasis mine.)

As they came out of the forest, the people ran in jubilation towards the sun, dancing in its loving rays, and loving one another. But Heliopher knelt down at the edge of the forest, and with the last strength of his outstretched arms he held up his loving, pulsing heart to the light of heaven, and gave his last smile to his people.

Did you feel it? Did you feel Heliopher's deep love and desire to lead his people from darkness into light? Did you see the truth of how love is stronger than war and pain and the enemies that try to drag us into the darkness? When will we stop killing ourselves and each other with our anger and jealousy and fear? When will we stop calling ourselves "wise" and pay attention to those who walk with the light of love, peace, grace, and mercy as their guides? When will we stop the arguing and one-upsmanship long enough to notice that there is a burning heart of love to follow out of the dark forest?

I believe that love and joy and fellowship are possible in this world. But in order to get there, I must be willing to lay down my prejudices and personal vendettas. I must be willing to forgive those who have called me crazy and foolish and naive. I must continue to seek peace and pursue it. I must receive the love of God and then share it with others. I must never stop crying out in the midst of the chaos and fear, the anger and bitterness, the finger-pointing and shouting - crying out that there is another way. There is Light. There is Love. There is Peace. There is Laughter. There is all this and more - more than enough for everyone who cares to imbibe. There is a Fellowship of The Burning Heart that welcomes each of us to enter.

The truth is that none of our worldly goods, none of the physical or financial wealth can protect us from the sorrow, the doubt, the self-loathing, and the despair that we all face in the car, in the office, in the shower, in the closet, at the table in the fine restaurant, at our own kitchen tables, at the mall, in the museum, at our desks, at our easels, and in the dark when we think everyone else is asleep. If our wallets, bank accounts, and pantries are full, why do we still feel so empty? If our waistlines, double chins, and thighs are so large, why do we still feel so small? With such neat answers to life's tough questions, why do we still feel so messy? If none of the old ways, the old goals, the old ideals are working for us, why not consider a new way?

I pray that I will be willing to live as Heliopher did. May I be willing to wander away from the crowds, follow the dappled beams of light back to the Source, and then be willing to return to those still fighting so fiercely in the dark to lead them home. May I be willing to rip out my own heart again and again, and hold it up for the world to see the love, the strength, and the beauty that resides within because of the Light that has shone down on me. May my final act on this earth, like Heliopher's, be to point people towards the light of the Son, the open fields of grace, and the eternal dance that we all long to join.

"I hope you'll dance."