Saturday, October 29, 2005

It hardly seems possible...

that I've been keeping this blog for over a year. I have written more than 125 entries so far. I've loved doing this, living this topsy-turvy, exhausting, exhilirating life and then being able to share my insights and observations with such dear and supportive friends. War, tsunami, death, disease, travel, a new puppy, movies, books, WalMart, and so many other great and small, major and minor, worldly and Godly topics have found their way into my ramblings. Thanks to all of you who have read and enjoyed my words, who have commented and remained silent, who have been part of my life as I travel this journey. Thank you.

It hardly seems possible that tomorrow we will celebrate the 12th birthday of my wonderful and beautiful daughter, Kristiana. She's nearly as tall as I am. We share shoes, shirts, belts, jewelry, as well as a love for reading, journaling, drinking tea, and watching home makeover shows. She's one of my dearest friends and one of the best gifts God has given to me.

It hardly seems possible that my body produced two other human beings, separate individuals that are walking this planet with hearts and souls of their very own. They are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, heart of my own heart. I am blessed beyond measure to have these two children, these dear friends, these sneaky cohorts in my plot to find as many reasons to laugh as possible and find as much joy as possible in a world that seems determined to stifle all the laughter and kill all the joy.

It hardly seems possible that this is my life.
But it is possible.
This is my life.

For my husband,
for my daughter,
for my son,
for our home,
for our family,
for our friends and neighbors,
for coffee and tea, scones and cookies,
for birthday cake and ice cream,
for mother-daughter days at the mall and getting our hair done,
for "buy-one, get-one free" sales,
for warm robes and cozy slippers,
for Canadian ice wine and port,
for milk chocolate pecan turtles and chocolate covered almonds,
for the color red,
for rubber stamps and fine point Uniball markers,
for incense and scented candles,
for the doubts and the questions,
for the hopes and the dreams,
for all whom I have known and loved in this life thus far,
and for all that is still to come,
I am grateful.

Here's to life, love, laughter, and all that is beautiful.
Happy Birthday, Kristiana!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

"Maximum reps to failure"

The other day as I roamed through the magazine section of Borders bookshop, I came across a fitness magazine called Oxygen. Emblazoned across the cover were the following headlines: "Higher, Rounder, Tighter: Three weeks to Rock-Hard Glutes!" "Is Your Salad Making You Fat?" "Drop a dress size by Jan. 1" "Six Moves to a Sexier V-Taper" That last one had me confused until I flipped through the magazine and discovered that the "v-taper" is the shape that extremely fit bodies have from shoulders to waist. But what drew my attention most acutely was the line at the very top of the front cover: "The Truth about Abs: Why Crunches are Never Enough." What is the truth about abs? I wondered to myself as I sucked in my stomach and looked around to see if anyone was checking out my 12 pack abs.

I will not tell a lie. I bought the magazine. I have read most of it. I have learned a lot about pills that bring about drastic weight loss in 12 weeks. I have learned the names of companies that specialize in clothing for women with curvaceous derrieres. I have marveled at the amazing shapes on these amazingly sculpted women who win fitness, aerobics, and "figure" competitions. Yes, there is a new sport simply called, "Figure." I have taken comfort in the fact that not one of these little vixens is older than 36 years old, and most are under 33 years of age. I want to see what they look like at 40 after having two kids. Not one of them is listed as being more than 5' 6" tall. I want to know what other 5'10" forty year old homeschooling moms look like; there are none in this issue of Oxygen. There never seem to be many of us in these fitness magazines. Perhaps I should start my own publication...

Anyway, the woman on the cover fits the standard profile of the typical fitness cover model: blonde hair, bleached teeth, french manicure, and she can't possible be more than 5'2" tall weighing in at all of 110 pounds. I must admit to being both sickened and awed by the fact that she had a baby only six months before the photo was taken. And of course, she would be the one who is the focus of the article on why crunches are never enough to keep the old six-pack in order. What are her goals? "Having fun with my family, building my business and working on my six-pack." Well, good for her.

In the article, Cynthia tells her readers to do five different exercises that work on the entire abdominal region. Crunches, side crunches, planks, v-ups, and scissors will tone those muscles. Cardiovascular exercise will burn off the fat. And a diet of egg whites, oatmeal, small salads, chicken, fish, and steamed vegetables is enough to have the abs I've always dreamed of. So what on earth am I supposed to do with the stash of fun-size Snicker bars, the packs of green apple Mentos, and the Rocky Road ice cream I've got stored away for a rainy day?

As I read the descriptions of the five ab-tightening exercises, one phrase was repeated in some form in each of them. "Do one more set to failure." "Do as many sets as possible." "Do three sets for a max number of reps to fatigue per set." "Do three sets on both sides until failure." In other words, keep doing the reps until the muscle fails or until total fatigue sets in. Until not another lift or crunch is possible. Break the muscle down so that in healing it is strengthened.

If that is true, then my spirit, my soul, and my heart must be pretty strong right about now. These past ten days have been a series of life exercises until failure, total fatigue. Football practice twice per week for one child. Horseback riding for the other. Church activities for all of us. Plus all the usual: cooking, cleaning, dog training, keeping the critters at bay (I'll have to write about the recent invasion of the sugar ants some other time.), laundry, extended family care, all the usual suspects. Failure has set in. I can do no more heavy lifting.

On Wednesdays the kids and I go uptown to an awesome noontime church service. We listen to a truly gifted Bible teacher expound on the truths of Scripture and follow that with an excellent lunch prepared by chefs in the church kitchen. When I opened my journal to take notes on her talk today at noon - appropriately themed around the need to hear God speak in the silence - I noted that I hadn't written in my journal since Sunday. For me, that is both heart-breaking and life-draining. No wonder I feel such mental muscle failure. No wonder I feel so empty and so weak, so weary and heavy-laden, so hungry and thirsty. I haven't taken any time this week to rest from the working out, to feast on the Bread of Life, to digest what I have ingested, to reflect on the Light that has shone so brightly into my life for so long. Spiritual and emotional muscle failure are inevitable when I don't take time to journal my thoughts, questions, and experiences.

I came home from church around 2 PM, made myself a cup of coffee, and shut myself in my study room for a while. Pen in hand, heart aflutter, mind at play. I wrote. I spilled over and out onto the pages of my trusty journal. And I remembered the ab-crunching advice. Keep doing reps until fatigue and failure set in. It is in weakening the muscle that growth comes. It is in tearing it down, literally tearing the muscle fibers then allowing them to heal, that sculpting occurs. I wrote some more. I asked myself more questions. I prayed. I thought. I looked out the window. I flipped through that fitness magazine. I embraced the weakness, and in so doing, I felt stronger.

The apostle Paul wrote a very similar article to the church of Corinth nearly 2000 years ago. Actually, it was a letter, not an article. This verse is found in the twelfth chapter of the second letter he wrote to that group of believers. "Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong."

While I cannot say that I have yet learned to be content with weaknesses or any of the other hardships listed in that verse, I can say this: I know that it is in my weakness, in my failure, in my overwhelmedness that I grow strong. It is in the times of exhaustion, powerlessness, and disappointment that I am forced to draw upon the truths of the God I believe in, to rely on His words of peace, joy, and courage for the strength to keep on lifting the burdens that life drops at my feet. It is at moments like the ones I am living through this week - maximum time in the great outdoors to get Maya to poop anywhere but on the carpet, maximum time on the phone, the internet, and in the company of friends and family who are in need, maximum time peering over my children's shoulders into math textbooks and writing assignments, and maximum laundry folding - that failure seems to be my only option.

But I take heart: if what Cynthia, the tight-bodied former National Aerobics Champion, says is true, then I can expect a six-pack of patience, grace, gratitude, joy, courage, and commitment to be fully developed and bikini ready in just six weeks!

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Second Time This Year

I spent quite a bit of time outside today working in the yard. First I blew leaves off the back lawn this morning. As I look out the window down onto the yard, I can see no difference from what I saw earlier in the day. But that's only because it's fall; accordingly, the leaves have not stopped falling all day. The seeds of new grass sown last week had been protected from hungry birds long enough to take root and begin to push new blades out of the well-watered earth. As I maneuvered the noisy, heavy leaf blower, I smiled at the thousands of newly uncovered fragile, tiny sprouts. "Welcome to sunny south Charlotte," is what I should have said. The lawn is in its growth phase for the second time this year.

After a short session of homeschooling, I donned my yard clogs again, my husband's work gloves, and began trimming the bushes in front of the house. Don't ask me what their names are, but the short ones with the red and green leaves needed to be relieved of their wild mohawk of new growth. The prickly ones that grabbed at my red sweatpants as I wedged my way between them and the brick walls of our home had nearly consumed some of the red and green ones. I cut my way back towards the house and then worked my way free with my powerful wand of weed whacking wonder. The low green ones that send out long stems of light purple flowers have already moved beyond their second flowering of the year and were in need of cutting back. Someday I will learn the names of those plants; these descriptions are crude and rudimentary.

A couple of hours ago as I walked Maya in the backyard, I noticed how unruly the gardenia bushes have become. I headed towards the garage to grab the clippers when I noticed that they too are about to burst into bloom for a second time this year. Some of the buds are already tipped with fragrant white leaves. Others are only days away from opening their perfumed souls to the sky. I cannot wait for their scent to fill our yard and my heart to overflowing. What a cheery perfume they will release to the world.

This second bloom of the year thing is new to me. Back in Connecticut there was no second round of growth for the bushes and trees in our yard. What a gift this is to receive each autumn. Through no fault or work of our own, it is a gift of the earth, a gift of grace that we get to enjoy rebirth so late in the year. Thanks be to the Great Creator.

Coincidentally, I am feeling a second wave in my life. My husband and I have resolved to rekindle our relationship in this, the second half of our lives. Why not spread some fertilizer over our depleted marriage? Watching our fathers die between 1999 and 2001, caring for our mothers ever since, raising our children, making a major move three years ago from Connecticut to North Carolina - all this has taken its toll on what used to be a vital and growing love affair. It's time, we have decided, to prune back some of the weeds that have choked us both, dig up the rocks that have clogged the soil of our minds and souls, aerate the hard ground that has formed between us, and sow the seeds of grace, patience, forgiveness for wrongs done, and plant bulbs of laughter, romance, and peace so that the next 14 years of marriage will be even better than the first fourteen. Just tonight we toasted to our future over a quiet candlelit dinner for two.

For me personally, as I approach my 40th birthday, I realize that I am in the best shape of my life, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I have spent countless hours in the past five years walking, playing tennis, doing tae bo, reading, writing, reflecting, praying, and asking for greater understanding and depth of insight into myself. Mercifully, my prayers have been answered and my hard work has paid off. Fortunately, I have decided to not stop here. I am feeling a new yearning to write, to teach, and to create art. I am determined to deepen friendships, to release old grudges and resentments, and welcome all that God has in store for me in the next four decades of life.

As I walked past the gardenias heading for the clippers in the garage earlier this evening, I was stopped in my tracks when I saw all those new and beautiful flower buds. I remembered the intoxicating aroma that floated across the deck and into the kitchen windows back in the spring. I knew that I couldn't nip that bud just yet. And I was challenged to take inventory of my life. What areas of my life are beginning to bud for a second time? Why not hold off on the pruning of difficult or non-responsive friends and family members I might otherwise be tempted to cut off and throw away? Why not reach out one more time in the hopes of stimulating growth for the second time this year?

I look forward to bouquets of gardenias on the kitchen counter in the days to come as well as new blossoms of old friendships, a mature marriage, and a strong soul of my own in the years and decades to come.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A bad case of "The Shoulds"

Today is definitely one of those days when all I hear echoing in my head is a list of "shoulds." I should vacuum. I should clean the bathroom. I should dust. I should edit a piece of writing that is due next week. I should read aloud to the kids. I should bathe the dog. I should call certain people. I should email other people. I should cook. I should bake. I should... I should... I should...

What I long for is a day of "I get to..." Today I get to wake up at a reasonable, leisurely pace. Today I get to drink my coffee wihtout interruption. Today I get to sit on the big red couch in the living room and read all day. Today I get to journal, make a collage or two, read emails that have been sent to me by dear friends, respond if I so choose, or otherwise I get to postpone responding and just bask in the glow of being remembered and honored as a friend. Today I get to eat steel cut oatmeal for breakfast, sushi for lunch, and a home-cooked meal for dinner - none of which I had to prepare. Today I get to relax. Today I get bypass the usual routine of cooking, cleaning, vacuuming, or going to the supermarket. Today I get to ignore the voice of "the shoulds."

Currently, I am reading a book entitled Sabbath Keeping. It is written by a Christian woman who has observed a day of Sabbath rest each week for twenty-five years. On her Sabbath day, she does no work. It sounds simple enough, but in actuality it is a challenging proposition. After all, what is work? Work is anything you are paid to do, anything that you "should" do, anything that involves emotional stress and strain and the urgency of completion. Work is anything that does not fall into the "today I get to..." category.

So what would work be for me? Homeschooling and homeschool prep. Editing pieces that are meant to be published or sent to writing contests. Cleaning, cooking, laundry, or shopping. Checking email - because I will either feel guilty for not writing back or feel disappointed that friends I'd hoped to hear from hadn't written. Staying out of malls, stores, and even restaurants would be a consideration, because if I am taking a day of rest, should I expect others to have to work for me? Work is anything that makes me feel the way I'm feeling right now: anxious, overwhelmed, consumed, and annoyed. I cannot imagine how much more peaceful and restful my life would be if I incorporated these kinds of thoughts and decisions on a regular basis. Imagine if all the workaholics actually took a day off to sleep late, drink coffee, play games with family and friends, and avoided all kinds of work for an entire day.

In place of all the things I choose to avoid on the Sabbath, with what activities would I fill my day? There would certainly be candle burning, reading for pleasure, journaling, eating good food (including some of the things I avoid when "I should be eating what's good for me"), drinking lots of tea and coffee, time alone for quiet reflection and prayer, and all the other things I would include in my "Today I get to..." list. I might go for a walk in the neighborhood or perhaps just sit on the deck. I might spend time with family and friends, but only the ones who "fill my cup" and not the ones who "drain me dry." I might write cards and notes to people I miss and cherish. I might take a long nap. (Even as I write this paragraph, I feel my blood pressure dropping and I'm making a lot more mistakes with my typing - because I am relaxing and releasing tension with each thought.)

Today is definitely one of those days where "the shoulds" are shaking me to the core. (I also happen to be pre-menstrual, but that's a topic for an entirely different blog.) As soon as I finish this, however, I will attend to one more "should." I should take my overtired, cranky, exasperated self down to the kitchen, turn on the kettle, and make myself a mug of tea. As the water boils, I will make a list of the most pressing "shoulds," offer it to the flames, and watch the ashes go up in smoke. Actually, before I can do that, I should get a gas stove; paper doesn't burn terribly well on a flat top electric stove. So in the meantime, I get to continue reading this well-written book on observing the Sabbath and figure out ways to incorporate its principles of rest, grace, and gratitude into my life.

The only question remaining is: what kind of tea do I want???

Saturday, October 15, 2005

"Love actually...

is all around us." Those are the words of Hugh Grant's character in the movie of the same name, and as I am discovering myself in these past few weeks, it is true in life. Yes, war, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, high gas prices, and the avian flu are very much in the news lately, but when I take my eyes off of those headlines and begin to ponder the less heralded events in life, I see signs of love everywhere.

In a few hours, my husband and I will go to the wedding reception of two friends who have decided to give love another chance. Both husband and wife emerged scarred and wounded from previous marriages, but they believe that love actually is worth another try and have formed a new family. They were married on the coast of North Carolina yesterday afternoon and are having a party tonight here in Charlotte.

Yesterday I received an email announcing the birth of the first grandchild to a dear couple we knew from Connecticut. In the few words of that greeting I could hear and feel the love that Ruth has for her new grandson. Earlier in the week, we opened a note sent to us from a former GE colleague and his wife who have recently had another baby. In speaking to the new mother on the telephone, I was reminded that no one infuses energy and love into a family like a newborn baby.

On Thursday afternoon, I had the opportunity to sit with my dear friend Katie, for a couple of hours, hashing over life's ups and downs, the challenges and the joys that life in North Carolina brings, and between sips of coffee and tales of woe, love flowed in us and through us. Last night I ate a spicy meal and drank a fine red wine at the home of Alejandra, a new confidante from Costa Rica. Then there is the long-term and ongoing chat-fest I indulge in almost with Karen. Nor can I fail to mention my favorite flight attendant, Kim, who calls me on her way to and from the airport; she's the same one who flew all the way to Spain in early June to visit us. Amy, in Vermont, keeps me honest about politics, parenting, and homeschooling - among so many other things. Moneesha keeps me flush in postcards, email, and never lets a week go by without checking in on me in some way. I could go on and on, but the truth is obvious: there is deep love even in friendship.

I have developed two awesome relationships solely through the internet. One is with Leonie, an artist, writer, dancer, photographer, and all-around wonder of a woman - even though she lives all the way over in Australia. I met Joanne because she attended and worked at my college alma mater. It was through her work there that she and I became friends two or three years ago. The internet has connected us across many miles; in spirit, however, we are always close at hand and heart. Someday I hope to meet both of these women face-to-face, but in the meantime, we will deepen not only our friendship, but also our love for each other by means of keyboard and satellite.

Even in times of sorrow and loss, love has a way of showing up. One of my favorite chefs in the world, the woman who undoubtedly makes the best roast beef roll-ups and sweet pepper jelly on the east coast, lost her father last weekend. As she watched him decline, she wrote to me and called me regularly, telling me over and over again how much she loved him, how difficult it was to watch him suffer, and how incredulous she was that eventually she would have to make her way through this world without her father's physical presence two houses away from her own. Her love for him seemed to multiply exponentially in their last days together. This is the same woman who has immeasurable love for her two step-children, for her siblings, and for friends whose disappearance from her life still baffles her - her love just keeps on going and going and going. Jill, you are in my thoughts and prayers.

I know far too many women (and men) who are watching their marriages dissolve, who are steeped in the agony that follows divorce, and who are currently in relationships that are defined more by pain than by joy. Yet in every case, these women have no regrets for the love they have shared, for the children they have birthed, or for the hope they still harbor in the face of dire circumstances.

Love is not always pretty. Love is never easy. What I see in the movies never includes the drudgery of dirty diapers, the late night arguments, or the ebbs and flows of passion that accompany every relationship in life. As much as I'd like to know the kind of love that is described in I Corinthians 13 firsthand, in my personal experience, most of the time love is not patient. It is not kind. It is rude, self-seeking, and easily angered. My imperfect, conditional, and temporary love does keep record of wrong. It doesn't always protect, trust, hope or persevere.

But even though I fail at it so much of the time, love actually is all around me. I look forward to seeing it, toasting to it, and reconnecting with it tonight at the wedding party.

Congrats Rob and Jen!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Why can't they be more like us?

A good friend and I were involved in a mutual self-pity fest. Actually, we were telling about some trials we are facing with people we love, and she jokingly said, "Why can't they be more like us?" We both laughed, and then we moved on in our conversation to some of our weaknesses, those blind spots where we are missing the mark in our own lives. For example, I am quick to observe and comment on behavior in others that appears addictive to me: gambling, drinking, workaholism, overeating, that sort of thing. But I am far more reluctant to label my affinity for candy as an addiction. I notice when others are excessively critical, but I see myself as appropriately observant and honest in my assessments. That sort of hypocrisy is prevalent in my thought life...

Following that conversation, I spent some time thinking about that question. I began to wonder what my family would be like if my husband and children were more like me. As usual, I started with the best attributes I have. I began to mentally diagram how much cleaner and organized our home would be. No one would have to ask me to find anything of theirs because they would put it away where it belongs. Dirty clothes would be in the hamper, and clean clothes would be folded or hung properly. Dishes would almost never be left in the family room because I almost never eat in there. I eat in the kitchen, as all reasonable people do.

Then thoughts and questions began to arise that were not as self-aggrandizing. What if they thought about each other and about me the way that I think about them? What if they experienced the same impatience and indulged in the same superiority complex as I do? What if my children imitated my way of doing married life - would that make for better marriages in the next generation or weaker ones? What if they handled money, accumulating debt or paying off their debts like I do? What if they exercised, ate, read, wrote, traveled, and lived as I do? What if they imitated how I speak to and treat the people I encounter during the course of the day, especially the people who annoy and inconvenience me? Would our world be better because they were more like me or would it be worse?

What if my neighbors cleaned up after their dogs the way we clean up after Maya? What if they trained her the same way we are training her? What if they invited each other for dinners and barbecues as openly and warmly as we do? What if they were as noisy or as quiet as we are? What if they followed the edict I am supposed to follow: "love your neighbors as yourself"? Would our neighborhood be more or less loving and generous on the whole?

What if my fellow church members lived out their faith as I do? If everyone attended the services and donated their time, energy, and money as I do - would our church grow or would it be forced to close its doors? What if they all prayed, read the Bible, and applied its truths as I do? Would the world be more or less interested in the faith I profess? Would anyone care to know more about what guides my life and serves as my source of strength, peace, and longsuffering based on how I live? On how I speak and think and act in the world?

What if the citizens of every nation drove cars like my cars, ate like I do, shopped like I do, and had homes like mine? What if everyone adjusted their heat, their air conditioning like we do? What if they used the same cleaning products I use, and consumed as much water and electricity as my family does? What if everyone donated to charity, got involved with politics, and held the same social, economic, racial, and religious beliefs and prejudices as I do? Could our planet support my lifestyle six billion times over? For how long?

And in a broader sense, what if other nations acted the way our nation acts? Imagine all the food that could be distributed if other countries gave as much as we did? What if doctors, nurses, medical technology, and medicines were shared around the globe to the same degree and with the same results that this country does? What about the way we treat the unemployed, the homeless, the working poor, the orphans, the widows, and the sick of our nation? Would we want our national system of care to be replicated around the world? What about the way we handle conflicts and disagreements with other countries? What if every nation chose to spread democracy and capitalism the way that we do? What if every nation that felt threatened by another nation acted as we have acted in the past fifty years, ten years, five years? Would our world, could our world survive?

Several years ago, I read a book that challenged me "to live simply so that others can simply live." Am I willing to live like that? Am I willing to do whatever it takes so that asking this question - Why can't they be more like us? - is no longer a rhetorical act, but a sincerely self-motivating one? I wonder: does the world need more people like me? Or does the world need more people like me to adjust my way of life, my way of thinking, speaking, and coexisting with others for the benefit of all six billion of us and not just me, myself and I?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

"But will it make a difference?"

For the first time in over two months, we are getting a good, soaking rain of more than one inch today. Charlotte and the surrounding area had begun to lose its characteristic lush lustre. The ground beneath the withered grass and around the parched flowerbeds had begun to crack as though the earth was forming tiny mouths each of which cried out for water. The children and I looked out the windows and cheered. Except for the fact that we must walk Maya in the rain, we are loving the clouds and gloom. (Good news on the housetraining front: she has peed and pooped outdoors with regularity and ease for the past two days! The only accidents were my fault; I simply waited too long to take her out.) Earlier this afternoon, the weatherman on one of the local news stations said, "Finally Charlotte is getting much needed rain, but will it make a difference?"

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and countless churches and charitable organizations appealed not only to Americans but also to foreigners to send aid, food, money, clothing, and other items for the relief effort. As we called in a donation and then gathered soap and toothpaste and unopened packages of socks and underwear from our closets and cupboards, I looked over our few things, then contemplated the devastation portrayed in the news and wondered, "But will it make a difference?"

Late last year, a neighbor of mine gave birth for the second time in thirteen months. Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I would rather clean my house than cook in it. Cooking is simply not my favorite thing to do - not by a long shot. But twice last winter when I was making soup, I put several servings into a plastic bowl and took it to Jennifer and Steve. Even as I walked there with my meager offerings in hand, I asked myself, "But will it make a difference?"

A year ago when we received the horrible news that infant Caroline had cancer, we immediately began to pray for her. We cried for Zach and Natalie and wished we lived closer to them so that we could support them in a more tangible way. I must admit that during times of prayer, I wondered and even asked God, "Will it make a difference?"

These two inches of rain won't solve the crises that southern farmers are facing as a result of the prolonged drought of these past months. But our lawn, rose bushes, and magnolia trees in their own special way are singing in the rain right now. Our bars of soap and bottles of shampoo won't meet the needs of all the evacuees who settled in Charlotte. But one family of clean-haired, lavender smelling folks is squeakly clean right about now. Jennifer and Steve ate two meals they didn't have to cook at a time when diapers and midnight feedings were all they had to look forward to for weeks on end. And Caroline is alive today because doctors acted with wisdom and God touched their hands and touched her body in such a way that she is alive and well right now.

It is impossible to know the effect our small acts of generosity, faith, and caring on the lives of those around us. Often our prayers and donations touch the lives of people whose faces we will never see. But when I take the time to reflect on my life, I know there are countless blessings that have been bestowed on me by doctors, friends, loved ones, and total strangers who didn't allow that question - "But will it make a difference?" - to keep them from reaching out and touching my life. Radiologists who reviewed repeat mammograms and gave me the good news that the lumps I felt were cysts were thanked in person and by mail. The gentleman who found my passport, travelers checks, credit cards, and airline ticket at Miami Airport and then chased me as I ran frantically down through the terminal several years ago was an angel from heaven itself. The list could go on for pages and ages. But receiving gifts of grace is the easy part.

For me, the challenge going forward is to do the right thing even when it seems futile, when I am certain that it won't make a difference. When friends don't respond to email or return my calls, I must continue to reach out. When politicians don't respond to letters or direct appeals, I must continue to speak up for what I believe. When poverty, war, and disease seem inevitable, I must stand against all of these killers whenever and however I can. When the only question that my mind seems to form is the one that began this blog, even then, I must do what is uncomfortable, say what is unexpected, and live in such a way that I make a difference.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Praise for Poop!

It has been a great six weeks with Maya. She's undoubtedly the cutest dog I have ever laid my eyes upon. Her black and gold bangs cover her eyes coquettishly, and every time she cocks that little head to the side and looks up at me, I giggle. Her four pound frame fits perfectly into the crook of my elbow, so I carry her around the house like she's a newborn baby. There are some moments when cuddling with her is the only thing that calms my frazzled homeschooling, housekeeping nerves. For me, the woman who promised herself, her husband, and her two children countless times that the only way we would ever own a dog would be if I moved out and found an apartment in Rome, those are momentous words indeed.

Today, however, was not a good day with Maya. Today was a tense, frustrating, agonizing day with Maya. Today was the first day of seriously housetraining Maya. I know that seasoned dog owners are chuckling already, but I am not a seasoned dog owner. This is the first dog I have ever lived with. This is probably the last dog I will ever live with.

Why have we waited so long to begin the serious housetraining? In all honesty, I didn't realize that I wasn't seriously housetraining her until recently. When we brought Maya home at the end of August, we put her in a kennel in our kitchen, an open bottomed pen that a kind and generous neighbor has lent to us. Maya happily trotted into her pen and within three or four days was peeing and pooping on her newspaper in the pen. Very few accidents in other areas of the house gave us the false sense that we were making good progress with her. Perhaps I am being hard on myself; she was doing great. But I quickly grew tired of reaching over the walls of the pen and cleaning up her messes. So I decided to move the entire operation out to the garage. Being a smart and adaptable puppy, Maya figured out that peeing and pooping in the garage seemed to elicit praise and treats, so she adjusted her routine to the pen's new location. Within two weeks, I was tired of cleaning up the messes in the garage as well.

So this morning, I made the decision, after consulting many dog training books, to make yet another change in Maya's elimination situation. The garage pen is gone. There are no newspapers anywhere for her to squat over. We are in Boot Camp. Today she and I spent the day attached at the hip. Literally. Two books refer to this process as "umbilical cord training." She remained attached to her leash all day, and it remained attached to my hand or the chair in which I was sitting. Needless to say, I didn't get much cleaning, cooking, reading, writing, or anything else done.

To her credit, Maya peed outside more often today than any other day of her life as a Belsito. To her discredit, she pooped in her crate twice this morning before the umbilical cord was attached. I walked her half a dozen times. I set up camp in the garage and attached her leash to a stake in the front yard. I begged, pleaded, cajoled, offered bribes, yelled, and breathed heavily caffeinated breath into her terrified face for most of the afternoon. In a moment of unabated frustration, I left her in Kristiana's care soon after dinner, marched up to my room, did a yoga workout, and stepped into the shower at 7:30 this evening. As I toweled off, I looked up and watched a hand tape a sign to the inside of my bathroom door that read, "She pooped. Hip-hip-hooray." In less than ten minutes, my daughter had gotten that dastardly dog to do her business in the great outdoors. We were thrilled. To reinforce my approval, I took Maya outside again, ran around with her for a few minutes on the front lawn, and she peed again. I was ecstatic.

Then it hit me: I was dancing around my kitchen and on my front lawn because of a piece of poop no bigger than my pinky and a puddle of urine that would barely fill an espresso cup. What has my life come to? I thought the potty training days were over when Daniel declared himself diaper-and-pull-up-free over six years ago. Even as I write this, it has occured to me that I should make Kristiana do all the puppy training; she was potty trained in less than a week. When she was done with diapers, she was done. I need to interrogate her tomorrow in order to find out her secret for success.

I would imagine that today was the first of many days when a smelly pile and frothy puddle out on the lawn are reason enough to make me shout for joy. At the moment, though, I can barely muster enough energy to type; I am going to bed. Tomorrow morning at 6 am, we start this demanding dance of defecation all over again; that's when she takes her first walk and then gets tied to my chair for another 16 hours.

Monday, October 03, 2005

"Here she is..."

Her name is Caroline. She is 18 months of age. She has brown hair with blonde highlights and brown eyes. She's a tiny bit of a thing, but she is, according to my son, "the cutest little kid ever." While I may disagree with that superlative statement, only because I think my kids were cuter, I would agree that last Thursday evening when we arrived at her house in San Francisco for dinner, she was quite a sight for sore, tired, and tear-filled eyes.

There she was, the little girl we'd prayed for, cried for, and prayed for some more during the previous twelve months as she battled a vicious cancer that was doing all it could to end her life. She fought. Her parents fought with her. Even her four year old brother fought on her behalf. Across the country, we shared her story with friends of ours who joined us in seeking healing on her behalf. So when we heard the good news that all was well, that her tests are continuing to come back with no sign of cancerous cells, we knew we had to get out to San Fran and meet little Caroline.

Although Steve and I have known her father since before we were married, and we spent time with Zach and Natalie while they were dating, and we saw them when Ben, their son, was just a couple of months of age, we'd never met Caroline. Before heading out west last week, we had seen only three or four photos of her. Oblivious to who we were or how much we felt that we've known her forever, Caroline greeted us cautiously from the safety of her mother's arms and allowed herself to be put down only after she was coaxed into playing with my daughter. Watching her run down their center hallway into the playroom was no less spine-tingling and soul-stirring for us than if she had been the winner of a beauty pageant whose name was being announced: "Here she is, Miss America, Caroline Abrams." Who am I kidding? It was much more exciting than that. Off they went, out into the backyard to play with sidewalk chalk, back inside to eat dinner, upstairs to play in her room, and back into the kitchen for cookies and ice cream. She's a perfectly normal, energetic, funny, milk-loving toddler who happens to have survived cancer.

On Saturday night, Steve and I went out to dinner with Zach and Natalie. I asked all kinds of questions about what the last year has been like for them as a family. They asked what it has been like for us to follow the events from so far away. I said this: "It was an honor for us to be able to pray for her regularly. It was a joy for us to be able to tell our children that she was better. And it was a thrill for us to finally meet the little girl that had been so much a part of our lives for an entire year."