Monday, January 31, 2005

Wanna meet my new friend? Pope Joan is her name...

“For a thousand years, men have denied her existence – Pope Joan, the woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to rule Christianity for two years. Now this compelling novel animates the legend with a portrait of an unforgettable woman who struggles against restrictions her soul cannot accept.”

That is the first paragraph on the back cover of the novel I am now reading. Joan, who took the name of Brother John Anglicus after her brother died and she assumed his identity, is one of the most remarkable characters I’ve ever met between the covers of a book. Her first teacher, Aesculapius, challenged her to continue with her studies, to not allow her gender to be used against her in her intellectual pursuits, but above all, he warned her to be careful not to push her father beyond the narrow limits of his temper by asking what he called her “dangerous questions.” It was, in fact, her relentless pursuit of knowledge that drove her father to inflict permanent stripes on her adolescent back and permanent scars on her eternal soul. After one particularly humiliating incident, Joan ran away from home. The journey towards the Papal throne of Rome began one dark night in the faraway forest of the fictional country of Frankland.

Over the course of the next thirty years, Joan was whipped, beaten, entrapped, and betrayed because she never stopped asking dangerous questions. She developed a reputation for helping the sick and downtrodden, for outwitting all who dared to oppose her in debate, and for standing up for herself no matter what punishment she faced. Needless to say, Joan is my hero. Oh, that there were more like her in the world today.

Early in the book I knew that this young woman and I would have been great friends as children. The narrator describes her turmoil: “What was it in her that would not let go of her impossible dreams? Everyone told her that her desire to learn was unnatural. Yet she thirsted for knowledge, yearned to explore the larger world of ideas and opportunities that was open to people of learning. The other girls in the village had no such interest… They were as inexplicable to Joan as she was to them. ‘Why am I different?’ she wondered. ‘What is wrong with me?’”

If I had kept a journal as a young girl, I’m sure I would have written those words over and over. In my unruly cursive letters, I would have penned, “Why am I so different? Why doesn’t anyone else like the things I like? Why doesn’t anyone else seem as interested in how the world works as I am?” countless times. In elementary school, I stood at the edge of the school yard during recess and gazed through the fence wondering where all the people were going as they walked and drove past. I gazed at my incomprehensibly interesting teachers wondering what glorious secrets they held in their plan books, closets, and desk drawers. The principal’s office was one of my favorite places to go because I got to ask Miss Porter all kinds of questions about how she made operated the intercom system, signed all the report cards, and ran the school. The bus drivers were never safe from me either; I wanted to know what time they started in the morning, when they got home, where the bus depot was, and whether or not they minded all my questions. The church organist had to explain every pedal and stop and peg. The pastor had to explain how the water got into the baptistery, where it came from, and what happened to it after the baptism service was over.

The local library however, was my absolute favorite place in the world. The school library was fine in a pinch, but the Grand Army Plaza Library in Brooklyn, New York was as sacred to me as St. Peter’s Basilica is to any Roman Catholic. The soaring ceiling, the columns of granite, the sculpted stairs and entryway, and those illuminated, illustrated, well-guarded volumes were the stuff of legends, epiphanies, and could only be properly honored by bowing down in worship. I used to love asking for books that were held in the vault below ground because I could watch the dumbwaiter descend to the bowels of the vaults of knowledge and ascend with some juicy and satisfying morsel for my insatiably ravenous soul. Plus the number board behind the call desk was lit up in a really cool way. I would open the hundreds of drawers in the card catalog just to flip through those tiny manila cards, breathe in that glorious fine paper smell, and marvel at the titles of all the books I’d never get to read.

It was at that library that I first swooned to the strains of Europe’s finest classical music. I remember clearly how the reference librarian would look at me with a slightly annoyed grimace every time I handed her another fistful of requests for records. She warned me against scratching the records. She needn’t have worried; those albums were as precious to me as any of heaven’s golden harps. But when I was feeling most devilish, I’d spin the revolving rack of romance novels, grab the one with the steamiest scene on the cover, and find a quiet carrel to hide it while I flipped through it looking for words like “heaving bosoms, bulging manhood, and rapturous sighs” and read on from there. I’m sure Joan of Frankland neither read nor translated anything in that genre from Latin into Greek.

These days I find myself still asking many of those same old questions. Why cannot I not let go of my impossible dream of living overseas someday? Why am I so consumed with reading and writing and travel when so many people I know are barely making it through their days, falling into bed completely exhausted at night, and apparently making no time to do much dreaming at all? When people ask me if I will ever send my children to school and go back to work, how do I get them to understand that there is no work that is more important to me than teaching and raising my children to be as unquenchable in their thirst for knowledge, as untamable in their fierce pursuit of excellence, and as unwilling to back down from a good debate as their mother? Who has time for hours of television every night when the library still has vaults of books in the basement below that have yet to be read? Just last week, I had ten items on hold for me at the library, and a few more “in transit.” Two of the librarians have said to me that they were glad to finally put a face to the name they write so often on the hold sheets that they slip into each reserved book. I know I cannot possibly read all of the books I bring home, but I pray to die trying.

I have not yet finished reading Pope Joan. Nor am I finished with Lily’s Crossing, the next book in the mother-daughter reading series Kristiana and I have embarked upon, or any of the three books on writing that are cleaved with postcards and other paraphernalia that serve as bookmarks for me. However, I suspect that my focus this week will be on Pope Joan. Not only is it next week’s required reading for my book group, but also it is the story of a woman I’d love to have known, a woman whose courage I wish I had, and a woman whose love of the library is even greater than mine. That’s truly a novel concept.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Facing the Darkness

I finished My Secret Diary, the book I mentioned the other day that Kristiana and I were reading together. By the end of the book, Madeline and her mother were reunited with their war-wounded father. Several German spies who had made it onto American shores were apprehended, and the two young sweethearts, Theo and Clara, eventually married and have children. Sweet ending to a sweet story.

But there’s a lot more to the tale than just sweetness and light. One thread of the novel dealt with Clara, one of the other residents of the boarding house where Maddy and her mother lived. Clara and her mother immigrated to the United States after her father was brutally murdered by the Nazis in their presence. With every story of the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans, they were both reminded of their personal heartbreak. With every account of U-boat sightings off the coast of their new homeland and bombings and exterminations in their beloved Europe, their sorrow multiplied. Towards the end of the book, the young and wise Theo spoke tenderly of Clara after they had all learned the horrors her family had suffered simply because they were Jewish. Theo said that Clara had “faced the darkness and won the war.”

While I would never, ever compare my life to that of a Holocaust survivor, I too can name occasions when I have “faced the darkness and won the war.” I remember the dark and lonely nights of the first semester of my sophomore year in college when the breakup with my boyfriend caused me to seriously consider suicide. On many a night, I sat on my bed with my pillow in one hand and a bottle of aspirin in the other. I screamed out my sorrow and pain into the pillow. I examined that bottle closely, opening and closing it repeatedly, and all the while wrote many a suicide letter in my head. I would lay the blame at his feet. He would have to face the rest of the campus with shame and guilt because his calloused indifference and menacing words had done what he intended: I was gone for good. Those were dark nights indeed. But then the sun rose each morning, and I was still alive. I lost weight that fall. On more than one morning, I woke up and realized I had lost my voice. But little by little, battle by battle, I won the war. I realized that my life was far more valuable to me than it was to him. Two years later, when I returned from six months in Europe to finish my senior year there at Williams, he was not even subtle in his attempts to win me back. But by then, I had already met and fallen in love with the man who would later become my husband. I had won the war.

I think of my father who faced the darkness of lung cancer and endured two pointless rounds of chemo. He lost his hair. He lost his strength. He lost the ability to breathe on his own. And according to many standards, on March 22nd, 2001, he lost the battle. But unless my eyes deceived me early that morning, the last thing he saw on this side was the first thing he saw on the other side. I will never forget how widely he opened his eyes, drew in his last breath, gasped audibly, and left me, my mother, and my cousin to recline the empty shell of his body onto that hospital bed there in Brooklyn. I believe that in the final seconds of his life, my father caught his first glimpse of the Prince of Peace, the Commander in Chief calling him in from the battlefront, telling him that it was time to lay down his sword and shield. The battle was over. He had faced the darkness, and it was time to bask in victory.

I think of the young couple from my high school alma mater who on January 8th, brought a son into the world as a result of and proof of their great love for each other. To their horror, he went into cardiac arrest within hours of his birth. Not long after that, they received the news that he had a large tumor on his heart that could only be partially removed with surgery, and unless he received a new heart within three weeks, their baby would die. Day after day they prayed and hoped and shed countless tears. Yesterday, as his other organs were already beginning to fail, baby Jordan received a new heart. Even though there are many hurdles still to be cleared on this long road to recovery, today there is unimaginable joy, relief, and gratitude for the miracle of life that they can now celebrate. They faced the darkness, and they have won the war.

Tragically, though, there is another family to consider: the family that made the decision to donate the organs of their dying child so that other babies could live. They are now entering a tunnel of darkness all their own. My prayers are with them that they too will soon find comfort and come to understand how victory will someday be theirs to celebrate.

Within the past six or eight months, I have read the news, watched the news, and heard the sad news of hurricanes, mudslides, war, drought, famine, murder, rape, and of course, the tsunami. Train wrecks, chemical spills, misguided missiles, trampled pilgrims making their way to holy places, and poisonings have become part of our daily dose of tragedy. But there is a far deeper darkness, a more personal one, what Dorothy Day refers to as “the long loneliness” that grips us all at one time or another in our lifetimes. We have each suffered sorrows that will never make the headlines. We have cried bitter and silent tears that no one else will ever know about. We have longed for new hearts to replace the malfunctioning, shattered hearts that to us seem inoperably damaged. We have faced droughts of love, of companionship, and compassion, and we have longed for friends, lovers, and even total strangers to reach out to us with a smile, a batch of brownies, and a few hours to listen while we tell our sad stories. We have watched Hurricane Layoff, Tropical Storms Divorce and Bankruptcy blow through our lives, washing away so many of the things that we thought were vitally important, so that in the end, we realized that life itself is the only true treasure we have.

Young Madeline, the protagonist and keeper of the aforementioned secret journal, made an observation about the courageous and compassionate Clara that deserves mention here: “Her [Clara’s] father will never come home to her, yet she cried with joy because my father was coming home to me.” As we weep with those who weep, sending our money, our good wishes, and our heartfelt prayers out to them, may we each, may we all find the will, as Clara did, to face the darkness, to escape its invisible and vice-like clutches, and to eventually rejoice with those who rejoice - even if, even when, even though we may not have won our own private wars just yet.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Joy of Reading

This morning the children and I read a brief biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was born in 1867 and died ninety years later in 1957. I liked the final paragraphs of the reading because the reader is asked to imagine the changes that she saw in the world during her lifetime. As a child, she moved three times with her family in a vain attempt to outrun the westward expansion of the late 19th century. From Wisconsin to Minnesota and beyond they traveled by “prairie schooner,” a rather quaint way to say, “covered wagon.” But by the end of her lifetime, she had the ability to cover the same territory in one-tenth the time in and airplane. She lived through two world wars and saw the beginning of the Korean War. She saw the advent of the automobile, the transcontinental train, and the airplane. She saw a lot. But in the midst of all of that, she looked back with great fondness to the earliest years of her life, to the quiet times of family togetherness, to the hard times of life on the open prairie, and to the ways in which her family met the challenges of their day. When her younger sister Mary lost her sight because of scarlet fever, Laura became Mary’s eyes. She described all that she saw for her sister, and it is believed that this practice is what led to Laura’s wonderfully detailed accounts in the famed Little House on the Prairieseries.

As Laura grew up, she saw her world change in unimaginable ways. Certainly she must have loved the ease of using a washing machine and going to the supermarket for flour and meat when compared to the all-day chore of washing clothes by hand and growing one’s own wheat to make bread while plucking the feathers off a chicken a few hours before dinner. The children and I tried to imagine life with an outhouse, with a horse drawn carriage, and beating our clothing against rocks on the back lawn. Daniel covered his face with his hands and shook his head with every gory detail of our imaginary life on the prairie.

Not only did we give thanks for the machines we take so much for granted, but also we gave thanks for the foresight of people like Laura Ingalls Wilder who had the forethought to write down their life stories. Without her enchanting tales of her harrowing adventures, and even the sad stories of the death of loved ones, we would have no idea of what our nation’s pioneers endured as they cut their way through the woods, forged rivers, and climbed the rocky mountains of this magnificent continent. What if she hadn’t written her very thinly disguised autobiography in the form of The Little House series? What if Anne Frank had not penned her diary as the soldiers of Hitler’s Nazi regiments bore down on her city? What if Booker T. Washington had never learned to read or write? What if Jane Austen had heeded the warnings of doom and gloom that condemned educated and published women to the deepest pits of hell and ostracism in English society? What if Alice Walker had never written The Color Purple or Amy Tan had never described the inner workings of The Joy Luck Club? Who else but Harper Lee could have described the racism and hope that prevailed in the South in the turn of the last century in such profound, child-like simplicity? Would we ever know the mindset of young boys whose lives included secrets, thievery, slavery, and mystery if Mark Twain hadn’t penned The adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn?

Whenever I reflect on the greatest joys of my life, books are always on the list. Sometimes I mention specific books by name. Most times I just write “books” because it is too difficult to name the ones I like best, the ones that have influenced me most. Every once in a while I want to reread some of the old favorites. I want to retouch their sacred pages, reread my notes in the margin, try to figure out why I underlined certain passages or put my telltale “check +” next to others. But as much as I want to revisit favorite volumes, I usually don’t do so because there are so many others that I have yet to get to. I love the way one author describes her addiction to books: she says that she buys them, she borrows them from the library, and she makes piles of books around her bed, around her desk, anywhere there is floor space. She flips through them. She sniffs them. She sleeps with them in her bed with her. (I don’t think Steve would like that idea too much.) She simply cannot be very far away from her books at any time. Sounds like my kind of woman. Sounds a lot like me. Who can afford to reread anything when the bookstores keep tempting me with new morsels to savor?

With a mug of hot tea, some fresh baked cookies, a candle burning, and my feet up on the coffee table in the living room, I settle into a snug spot on my big red couch for a good long read. I have a quote clipped out of a local woman’s magazine (Skirt!) that says, “I am never happier than when I am alone in a foreign city.” That quote resonates with me to my very core. However, my days of solo travel in foreign cities are limited to only about ten per year. The other 355 are measured in literary travel to foreign cities, to centuries gone by, and to lifetimes yet to be.

At the moment, Kristiana and I are reading the fictional diary of a young girl in New York City whose father is in the Navy at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Letters from Dad are rare. Taunting by the popular girls at school is regular. The life-story of the German mother and daughter pair that live in the same boarding house is yet to be told. I’d better go catch up to Kristiana; we are reading separate copies of the book, and she said she’s a few months ahead of me in Madeline’s story.

At the top of tonight’s gratitude list will be “the invention of the printing press” and the subsequent decision to publish books in paperback form. “The library” will be on the list as well. How can anyone deny that there is a merciful and generous God when an endless supply of books is available free of charge to anyone with an address?

Monday, January 24, 2005

Faith that is tattooed and pierced...

There was an article in yesterday’s New York Times magazine about the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s son, Jay. Tattooed and pierced, with a ring in his lip and surrounded by dozens of people who look a lot like him, he is building a new kind of church. The truth is that he might take offense to me referring to Revolution, his ministry, as a church. After all, he knows first hand what churches and Christians can do when one falls from grace. After his father was convicted and sent to jail for various forms of fraud and theft, Jay, his sister, and their famously mascara-wearing mother were left to fend for themselves. The Christian community they had been so heavily involved with for years would have nothing to do with them, except to criticize and belittle them. Jay became an alcoholic and drug addict, joined and performed with various punk rock groups, and even had a brief stint at a school for aspiring pastors. After a few painful months there, he was invited to join “an alternative ministry among the skateboarders and punk rockers of Phoenix,” and he jumped at the chance. He knew the angst of rejection. He knew the pain of addiction. And he knew that there was something special about that punk rock, outcast community, a closeness and camaraderie that outsiders simply didn’t understand. It was in that setting that Jay found his true calling. Go to where the needy are and tell them how their needs can be met. Without judgment, without condemnation, without demanding attendance at established churches wearing the right clothes, he and a few of his friends have begun a quiet revolution of faith. Forget church and religion, he says. Accept the grace of Jesus. One woman who came to Revolution in 2002 said, “The teaching never strayed far from this core idea of grace. We hear that a lot, it’s really repetitive, but I need to hear it every single week.”

Grace. Acceptance. Embracing the inherent value of every person no matter their background. Tattoos welcome. Piercings welcome. No one to check the length of your skirt or the style of shoe. No demerits for black eyeliner. No bandwagons to climb onto or off of. Loving and accepting people without an agenda. What a concept.

There are many who would say that there must be standards. There must be boundaries. How could anyone seriously think that faith can be built in a bar? Revolution meets at various bars and clubs in the Atlanta area with cocktail waitresses and a full bar open to all who come. These Revolutionaries even smoke during their meetings. Gasp! Shock! Someone has to make sure that these people are giving up their wicked lifestyles, their smoking and drinking, their homosexuality, and their promiscuity. Someone must hold them accountable. Jay’s response is this: “God’s called us to love people no matter who they are or what they’ve done. You can’t change people. You can for a little while, but eventually they’ll rebel or be hurt or realize what’s going on. I’m not in that rat race. I’m just in the game to say, ‘This is who Jesus is; he loves you for who you are and hopefully you see that in my life and you see the positive things that are coming from it.’”

The sad truth is that many people I know who aren’t interested in the faith I profess express the same sentiments that Jay is responding to. So many people want nothing to do with Christians or Christianity because they have been repeatedly criticized, demeaned, and rejected for their questions, their doubts, and their lifestyle choices. To wonder aloud about issues like injustice, the obscene wealth of some in comparison to the abject poverty of others, homosexuality, abortion, war, the peace movement, incest, abuse, and the apparent selective silence on these issues in the Christian church is tantamount to heresy and is usually met with angry condemnation and the questioning of one’s salvation.

I myself have felt the icy stares of many, endured the painful criticism of others, and basked in the warm embrace of friends outside my faith who are willing to discuss these thorny issues with candor and openness. One friend who rejects the idea of ever putting a foot inside of a Christian church - other than the Quaker meeting house - often asks me how I cope with the contradictions between Christ’s teachings on love and forgiveness and mercy and the blatant lack thereof within the walls of so many so-called Christian communities. When I think of her, my Buddhist friends, my Hindu friends, my non-religious friends, and most of all the ones who believe in God, who want to follow Him and His ways, but know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the established church with all its rituals and standards and measuring rods (that quickly become chastening rods) has no room for their doubts and inquiries, I am moved to tears by their inability to see God’s love in those of us who claim to know Him.

Ryan Dobson, described in this article as “the heavily tattooed son of James Dobson, founder of the conservative group Focus on the Family,” makes a good point in his observation about “the Christian tendency to shoot our wounded.” Had an abortion? Are you a homosexual? Have you shacked up with somebody? Committed adultery? Slept with your boyfriend or girlfriend before or outside of marriage? Been divorced? Been addicted to alcohol or drugs? Dyed your hair, pierced or stretched some undeserving body part, or otherwise strayed from the carefully laid out laws of looking good and living right? You are on your own. Don’t call me until all that gets straightened out.

Not long ago, I accompanied a friend to an AA meeting where she received her chip for a year of sobriety. I was struck by the youth of most of the folks at the meeting. As an older gentleman told the story of his alcoholism and how he has overcome so many obstacles, I watched in amazement as the heads in the room bobbed up and down at his dismal and desperate descriptions of drunken blackouts and job losses. One after the other, those amazingly brave young people introduced themselves by name and followed with that simple but profound admission: “I’m an alcoholic.” There I sat on a Friday night in the basement of a church surrounded by handsome young men and beautiful young women who were telling their stories of addiction and suffering and redemption and falling down over and over again. They held hands at the end of the meeting, prayed together, repeated the AA statement of faith, and then when it was over, they rushed outside to light up cigarettes and have a smoke.

And I wondered – why can’t we be that open, vulnerable, and honest in the sanctuaries of our churches? Why are confessions of failings and misgivings relegated to Friday night sessions in basements where no one says their last names? What if we all felt safe to say who we really are, to show off our tattooed and pierced places in our Sunday school classes? How many of our church members attend AA meetings across town from where they live and attend church because they do not feel safe to be who they really are where they really are? How many women in our congregations would never admit to having had an abortion ot seek support after having had one because they have seen the foam that forms in the corners of the mouths of those who object to abortion so vehemently? How many of our young people sneak off to clinics across town because they fear that no one in their homes or congregations is capable of handling their requests for birth control with grace and mercy? Where do our gay teenagers find solace if they don’t feel safe or accepted or even tolerated in our churches?

Is it possible to establish a new kind of radically accepting, merciful, non-judgmental, agenda-free Christianity? Jay Bakker thinks so. I hope so.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

My favorite sleeping aid...

Today I was reminded of something I had recently lost sight of, something that used to be one of the highlights of my day but had fallen into the ever-widening crack between the most immediate demands of life and the most implicit delights of life. Today I checked in with an internet friend and was reminded that an attitude of gratitude can change everything. It's as simple as setting aside a few minutes every evening to look back on the day and list a few things that brought me a smile, a giggle, a sense of hope for the future – those few moments of reflection do far more to ease me into quiet and restful slumber than a hot cup of chamomile tea and a chocolate chip cookie.

Here are a few highlights from tonight's gratitude journal entry: Today I received an email that granted a request I hadn’t even had the heart to make. Today I read about Booker T. Washington with my children, and we all marveled at his tenacity and courage. Today my daughter helped me make dinner: sauteed shrimp and scallops on a bed of brown rice and spinach salad; even the pickiest eater in the family had seconds. Today I drank my favorite loose leaf tea in my favorite green mug; both the tea and the mug were given to me as gifts from a dear friend for no particular reason other than that she saw them and thought of me. My thoughts savored our friendship with each sip of the tea. Tonight I went to the first session of a writing class that is made up of ten remarkably funny, thoughtful, talented writers, an outrageously enthusiastic and encouraging teacher – and me. Very soon I will crawl into my phenomenally comfortable bed, sleep deeply, dream vividly, and awaken to yet another day when I get to choose joy, choose peace, and choose between four varieties of organic, high fiber, high protein breakfast cereal that Steve and I picked out last night at the brand new health food store just a few blocks from our home.

Thank you, Leonie (, for reminding me that gratitude trumps grousing, groaning, and grumbling my way through the day every time.

Who needs Tylenol PM when I can fall asleep counting my many blessings?

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Confessions of a Bi-Partisan Party Pooper

I am a die-hard tightwad. I am not one of those people who makes a menu for the week before going to the supermarket. I decide on one or two meals to prepare at some point during the week, but I buy the needed ingredients to my list only if they are on sale or very reasonably priced. The majority of my supermarket shopping is simply shopping the sales. If our favorite cereal goes on sale, I buy six boxes. If our favorite yogurt goes on sale, I buy a dozen cups. Truthfully it’s hard to say that we have favorites in many food items, because I buy only what’s on sale. “Eat it, guys, or you’ll be hungry.” We went through a period of about a year when I spent no more than $60 per week on groceries; as a result of our starvation diet, we paid off our school and car loans that year.

When we go out to eat, I cringe when I think of the cost of a small soda at Barolo’s when compared to a 2 liter bottle of soda at the supermarket. And since I’m feeling guilty about wasting money, I go ahead and get outraged at the sheer ridiculousness of the entire soft drink industry. Who needs soda anyway? As for clothing shopping, until about a year ago, the majority of my clothing purchases were made at Good Will. My best friend has chided me for years about my shopping habits: “Gail, get a grip. You don’t have to shop at Good Will anymore. You can afford to buy clothes at full retail; treat yourself every now and then.” So I have begun to treat myself to new clothes at the mall, but I still mostly just shop the sales – and I do that with the mailer coupons that take an additional 20% to 40% off my total purchase.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is no doubt in my mind that travel is my most unthrifty outlay of cash every year. I take annual solo jaunts to Europe. I wander around in Italian and Spanish cities, towns, and museums until my sappy, art-stuffed, solitude-hungry heart is content. But still, I go as cheaply as I can: using frequent flier points, staying in the cheapest hotels that provide me with a private bath (I just can’t share bathrooms with strangers.), carrying snack bars from home in order to skip a few meals here and there, refilling a water bottle that I take everywhere, and eating at stand-up pizza joints all over Europe. Even then, there are moments when I shudder at the thought of how many people could be fed with the money spent on my morning cappuccino and biscotti. How many people would be sleeping in a space the size of my hotel room if that space were plopped down in some of the more densely populated, poverty-stricken areas of the very cities I find myself wandering in? Not only on foreign shores, but also right here at home I rarely go through a day without thinking of ways in which I have wasted money, energy, and resources by leaving lights on when I have left rooms, by standing for a few seconds too long in the shower, and by throwing away the yogurt with expired expiration dates. I am indeed a rich Christian living in an age of hunger.

So when I did an internet search this morning and discovered that President Bill Clinton had a library built in his honor that cost $165 million to comstruct, I was horrified. How many $3.79 skirts could that buy at Good Will for the thousands of women who need new clothes in order to enter the work force? How many pairs of boots could that buy for poorly shod children in the coldest areas of this nation who go to school without sufficient protection from the elements? How many empty oil tanks in cold basements could be filled so that the inhabitants of those houses wouldn’t have to go to bed in their overcoats and leave their stoves on all night to stay warm? How many small town libraries could have been built in the mountain towns, farm towns, and bustling downtowns in this increasingly non-reading nation? Couldn’t someone have advised Mr. Clinton to reduce his library budget by 80% and distribute the rest of those millions to the desperate and unemployed in his home state of Arkansas?

In my early morning internet searches, I also came across several acrimonious and ungracious blog exchanges related to this very topic. Why all this expenditure for a second inauguration? Why are all the “commie liberals” protesting Bush's 2nd inaugural shindigs when they have no problem with banks and post offices being closed for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday celebration? What about Clinton’s second inauguration and his Presidential library? What about following President Wilson’s example who decided against elaborate inaugural celebrations in 1917 because “such festivities would be undignified” while the nation was engaged in World War I? To all the questioners, responders, “commie hypocrites,” and “right wing extremists,” I say: “More power to all of you. Keep talking. Keep disagreeing. Let up on the name calling, but demand answers. Demand accountability. Demand honest self-evaluation. Keep asking the questions. Keep seeking the answers to the toughest questions.” I know that I will.

In response to yesterday’s blog, one friend wrote to me and pointed out that there was little or no chain rattling when Clinton spent $30 million on his second inauguration while genocide was taking place in Africa. What she wrote is sad, but true. There was little discord when the Golden Globes were enacted this past weekend or when the Oscars took place last year. Rarely do picketers line up outside of professional athletic venues to speak out against the excessive cost of tickets and the outrageous salaries paid to the athletes on the courts or the actors sitting courtside. As much as I love Oprah and am awed by her enormous philanthropy, an argument could be made that her many multi-million dollar residences are difficult to justify in the face of the enormous poverty she herself works to eradicate all around the world. The list of criticism could go on, as can the relentless finger-pointing. Ultimately, there is no end to the needs of the people in the world. Jesus himself said, “The poor you will always have with you.”

Another friend asked me today, “What happens when you read books like Nickel and Dimed? Doesn’t it make you sad? Don’t you feel guilty about living in the house you live in when you read stuff like that? I know that if I read books like that, I’d just be really sad.” I told her the truth: it does make me sad. I put down books like this with a mix of equal parts gratitude and guilt for having so much. But it also makes me more aware of the lives of so many people I know. It opens floodgates of compassion and generosity. It makes me look more steadfastly and more thoughtfully at the many people I know who probably will never be able to afford Monday’s $49 ski trip for their children, who will never be able to quit work and homeschool their children, and who will never take solo trips to Europe. Stories like this one make me want to move beyond feeling sad and compassionate – all the way to giving away more of our money, our time, and our energy to help the countless poor that we now have and will always have with us.

And it makes me consider the possibility of running for political office someday. If I am ever elected President, I promise to not have any elaborate celebrations related to the inauguration; I will ask that the funds be used to feed the homeless and poor in Washington DC instead. I promise to not use any funds for a private Presidential library; I will forward all the earmarked funds to the most needy public libraries in the nation. And I will never, ever use taxpayer dollars to feed my addiction to peppermint mochas and glazed lemon pound cake at Starbucks. Those treats will always be paid for out of my pre-Presidential savings account. You have my word.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Nickel and Dimed

Yesterday Steve, the kids, and I went on a ski trip with the junior high youth group from our church. Twenty-nine kids, seven chaperones, and a bus driver who didn’t know his way managed to make it to the Appalachian Ski Mountain Resort in the western mountains of North Carolina. After basking in 70 degree days for nearly two weeks, we left the church at 6 am with a mix of skepticism and hope for cold weather and snow. Let me correct that: they all hoped for snow and cold weather. I hoped for cozy couches, roaring fire places, and creamy hot cocoa. I had no plans to ski; I told the youth leader that I would be the one who stayed indoors all day for the tired, the cold, and the hungry students to come sit with when they’d had enough. The wishes of the majority were granted; there was snow. Most of it was man-made, but there was plenty of snow. And it was cold: the wind chill dipped to 15 degrees below zero. As we slid and swerved our way up the mountain on narrow roads that had not yet been fitted with guard rails, I remembered: I don’t like cold weather. I don’t like driving on narrow, snowy, icy roads. I don’t know what possessed me to volunteer to come on this trip. No turning back, no turning back.

My wishes, however, were not granted. There were no cozy couches. There was only one roaring fireplace, and stationed in front of it all day were wet, cold teenagers who left wet pant prints on the dining hall chairs that served as the only seating option in the entire lodge. Actually, “lodge” is a very generous term for the building I sat in for the seven hours we were there. The only room I could sit in was the dining room. Two never-ending lines of dripping, frigid skiers snaked their way along the two cafeteria counters on one side of the room. I sat at a table at the opposite side of the room with a view of several snow making machines which ran all day. So what I saw mostly from my dining room with a view was flying snow, but when the wind changed direction I would see skiers slalom their way down three hills and make sharp turns to the left in order to avoid those waiting at the lift lines. This place was a far cry from the fantasy I had of a Swiss chalet-style building with a quiet and tasteful restaurant for its well-dressed clientele. I imagined various great room areas with thick carpeting underfoot, large and inviting couches for exhausted racers and a courteous wait-staff that would wander among the couches offering steaming mugs of hot cocoa and fresh baked cookies to those who had just come in from the cold. Honestly, Gail – all that for only $49 – including ski rental, lift ticket, and bus ride up there??? Not likely.

Disappointment notwithstanding, I set up shop at one of the vinyl-covered indoor picnic tables: I pulled out my journals, pens, books to read, the latest issue of “O” magazine, and promised myself I wouldn’t gorge myself on the cafeteria fries and unidentifiable meat burgers. But of course, that’s exactly what I did: eat. I must admit that the fries were quite tasty; they had a spicy, peppery seasoning that disguised the flavor of old oil and frozen potatoes very well. Because the temperature was so low, the attendance of shivering teens around the table remained high. I got no writing done; however, I did a lot of reading.

I started a book called Nickel and Dimed, written by Barbara Ehrenreich. She is a prolific author whose focus is often on social criticism. Several of her earlier works are clearly critical treatises on life in these United States; they include The Worst Years of our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, and The Hearts of Men: American Dream and the Flight from Commitment. In the book I am reading, Barbara tells the story of her own foray into the world of the millions of Americans who live at or just above minimum wage. It took her only a few weeks to realize that one such job was not going to be enough to pay for her to live even in a rented trailer in southern Florida where she took on two waitress jobs at one point and traded one of those in for a stint as a housekeeper at a hotel, but she was still unable to pay all her bills and withstand the harassment and abuse that was part of the “benefits package” of that income level. In Maine, she worked on weekends as an assistant food worker at a senior citizens’ center where she served food to Alzheimer’s patients and worked full-time at a nationally known maid service. The humiliation of her working conditions, the encounters she had with dozens of people who had very little hope of ever advancing in their careers, and the absolute disdain of her clients, whether they were restaurant patrons, owners of homes they themselves could no longer clean for themselves, or the manager of any of the many places she worked was enough to wound her deeply, and she only “did this experiment” for two months at a time. It was impossible for her – and for me - to imagine the physical, psychic, emotional, relational, and spiritual damage that is done to the countless millions who endure such misery every day. And who are criticized or ignored or insulted for the nature of the work they do. Plus there was this little gem that she discovered: “Until 1998, there was no federally mandated right to bathroom breaks... A factory worker not allowed a break for six-hour stretches, voided into pads worn inside her uniform; and a kindergarten teacher in a school without aides had to take all 20 children with her to the bathroom and line them up outside the stall door while she voided.”

One of Barbara Ehrenreich’s points in going through that exercise and then writing the book was to point out that the movement from welfare to the workplace is not as easy as just “getting a job.” Paying rent, buying food, purchasing uniforms for the various employment situations, and putting gas into her car proved impossible for Barbara, as a single woman, to maintain after only two months, and she attempted to do so in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. To provide for children or elderly parents or an unemployed spouse on such low wages was beyond her ability to comprehend - and mine.

And there I sat, at a dining room table in a dining room chair at a less than spectacular ski lodge reading Nickel and Dimed. How dare I complain? The $49 we paid for Kristiana to participate in that outing (as chaperones the rest of us went for free), the $50 we spent on food both there and at Wendy’s on our way back, the snacks and drinks I’d bought at the supermarket and hauled up there in my bright yellow tote bag, and the doodling pens I carried in my designer pencil case all added up to more money than she took home from any of the jobs she had. I will never forget the hard truths of this book, nor will I ever look at a hotel housekeeper, a WalMart checkout person, or a waitress the same again.

Nor will I soon comprehend how our nation’s leadership can spend $40 million on the second inauguration of an extremely wealthy president whose five closest friends, including his vice-president, could probably write a personal check to pay for all the festivities. But that’s the topic of tomorrow’s blog: What could $40 million buy for the Target and Walmart and Marriott and Hilton workers who are barely making ends meet, for the victims of the mudslides and floods in California and Ohio, and even for our underpaid and under-protected soldiers and their families - some of which are on welfare? What could $40 million purchase?

Addendum at 9:25 pm - Earlier this evening, I was relieved to learn that only $3 million of the $40 million spent on the inaugural festivities were taxpayer dollars. The rest were private or corporate contributions. While I still plan to reflect on what $40 million could buy in tomorrow's blog, perhaps I will also ponder what $37 million will buy in the next four years...

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Ever seen a double rainbow?

There are some days when my emotions defy easy explanation. I am tongue-tied, overwhelmed with joy, and moved to silence. These past couple of days have been like that for me. I have been inundated with email from friends who received a photo I recently sent out of myself and my children – friends who have marveled along with me at how much the children have grown. I have received many positive and encouraging comments in response to what I have shared in this, My Life’s Journey. Many friends have called, written, sent notes, and even one six-page letter; I am loved and remembered and so well-thought of in places near and far. There are no words to express how uplifted I have felt of late. Hence my silence.

And in the midst of it all, there are moments of great joy, simple abundance, and even bliss. The best gifts, a friend recently pointed out, are the ones that are made by hand and offered from the heart. I think the same is true of the best moments in life: simple, spontaneous, love-struck. Playing cards with the kids and watching them roll with laughter when I lose so badly that it takes a few seconds before I even realize the game has ended. Watching them play hide and seek with our hamster; only my two children could figure out a way to play a game with a hamster. I’m pretty sure Buddy isn't even aware that he’s part of the game, but he manages to win most of the time anyway. I went to Michael’s the other night to make use of a gift card I received for my birthday and discovered, to my utter delight, that my favorite journaling and doodling pens were on sale at half price. One day last week, I had lengthy and laughter-filled conversations with three of my best friends. Three good buddies filled my ears and my heart with love and laughter and great stories of the road on the same day – what a blessing. I have discovered recipes for my favorite Starbucks beverages online and have made them right here at home. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve always been and always will be addicted to the atmosphere at Starbucks – with those cute little tables, the pithy sentiments on the oddly shaped wall hangings, the secret writers like myself who call ourselves tormented and starving artists while nursing beverages that cost more than many people around the world make in a month, and the computer geeks who never look up from the mesmerizing blue screens of their fancy laptops. But at least now I can whip up personalized versions of my favorite drinks on those days when I just don’t feel like paying $4.50 for a cup of coffee. Yesterday I took homemade sweet potato-black bean-barley soup to my neighbor who has two sons that are one year and two weeks apart in age. Ryan was born in late November of 2003, and Evan was born on December 13th of 2004. She has her hands and her heart full. The love that she has for her two young sons far outshines the exhaustion I know she must feel having two little fellows who demand so much of her time and attention. When she regaled me with thanks for saving one evening's frantic dinner preparation, I reminded her that making soup is a far simpler process than bringing up two babies in a row. I have taken a few days off from dusting, mopping, laundry, and even blogging in order to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather we’ve had here in Charlotte. It’s practically impossible even for me, an unrepentant indoor addict, to stay indoors on 70 degree January days; this is odd even for Charlotte. Some of our recently planted tulips and age-old Bradford pear trees are budding. The sad news is that sub-freezing temperatures will return in the next few days.

After the passing of Suzanne’s son last week, I spent a lot of time thinking about how life feels a lot like tulips that bloom too soon and suffer a premature death. I also reminded myself of the many times that I have missed opportunities to have fun, to laugh, and to take life lightly. I tend to think about things too seriously, to make everything into something deep, and sometimes I forget that life is funny. Life is meant to be enjoyed and not endured. Life is meant to be cherished; after all, it is a series of miracles one after the other.

I recalled one particularly humiliating but funny incident during my first year of work after college when I was a member of the admissions staff at Williams College in Massachusetts. One day I came out of the bathroom and was making my way downstairs to meet a student for an interview. After I passed a couple of colleagues talking in the hallway, they both burst into boisterous laughter. Like every paranoid new person on every job, I knew instantly it had something to do with me. I turned around to see what all the fuss was about and discovered several sheets of toilet paper trailing out of the back of my waistline. Oops!

I remembered the time in junior high school when I came out of gym, got dressed for my afternoon classes, and walked from the locker room to the dining hall for lunch. I ran into one of my gym teachers at the front of the lunch room and we began to chat. I noticed that he kept looking down at the front of my shirt. I’m no buxom babe, so I knew it wasn’t a case of him talking to “them” and not to me. After enduring several of his downward glances, I looked down to see what all the fuss was about. Somehow my shirt had come unbuttoned all the way down to my waist! How did I not notice the draught? What had all the other people thought as I made my way from one end of the school to the other showing off my rather flat chest? Oops!

Then there was the glorious evening last year when my daughter and I saw a double rainbow. The full length of both rainbows were visible in the Charlotte sky for nearly half an hour. I opened my car window and shouted out to anyone within the sound of my voice to look up and see it. I pointed up to the sky for the entire time I was in the car that afternoon. What a sight! I had never seen anything like it before and didn’t think I ever would again. So when I saw another double rainbow in Bologna, Italy a few months later, I knew I was witness to a second double miracle. I didn’t shout anything out loud on the quiet, damp streets that September afternoon. I snuck into the local church that seemed to be miraculously located at one end of the rainbow, sat down on a back pew, and wept. I’ll never forget that moment: me, alone, in Italy, a double rainbow, and the sounds of mass being said in Italian.

Yes, the tsunami victims are still digging out in Asia. The flood waters are receding some in Ohio, but the mud is still sliding in California. Families are displaced and hungry in Darfur. War rages in Iraq. And yet on the edges of so many frayed lives are strands of joy. After the overwhelming waves of sorrow pass, there are ripples of laughter that are beginning to appear again. After hours of excruciating pain, devastation, and sleeplessness, there are moments of what Ian calls “exquisite grace.” I hope and pray that I never forget that in spite of all the horror, this is still a world where double rainbows are possible at any moment.

Friday, January 07, 2005

We were never meant to understand...

Last night I was reminded that there is another language that I am not fluent in, that none of us are fluent in: the language of grief, of death, of sorrow. Words like “bury her son,” “courageous teenager who battled disease all his life,” and “leaves behind his parents and teenage sister” – those kinds of phrases ought to be used only in the movies. But this is no fictional account.

Last night my dear friend, Suzanne, lost her son to complications from devastating, inexplicable, unnecessary, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. He was only nineteen years old, but he had fought a long, brave, and painful fight for ten years. Suzanne had taken him to countless doctors’ appointments, kept him home from school for countless days to give him priceless and boundless love over these long years. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for her to watch her son suffer for so long. I cannot imagine how much she prayed for his pain to be taken away and for him to be able to get up and walk, run, play, even slam the door and drive away to nurse his teenage angst and wounds in the arms of gentle and caring friends. But far more than that, I cannot imagine how horrific, deep, and inexpressibly acute her pain was last night when she felt his spirit get up, walk away, run, play with the angels, and close the door quietly, but firmly behind him, leaving the angst, wounds, pain, and crippling effects of disease forever.

When I read the email last night announcing his passing, I wanted to believe it was written in Swahili, and my brain’s translation into my native English was amiss. But no one could possibly be that bad at translating; not even my tired, weak, tear-filled eyes could misread such bad news. I immediately cried out: "Lord, have mercy on Suzanne, on Carolyn and David, John’s sister and father as well. Give them the courage and the room and the support they need to grieve openly, fully, and unapologetically. Give them comfort, peace, and the presence of dear friends bearing gifts of food, tea, and quietness of spirit so that they will not be hungry, thirsty, or alone at this unspeakably difficult time. Kyrie Eleison."

When the first wave of sorrow receded and I was able to dry that first outpouring of tears, I remembered something I’d read last month on the perpetual calendar above my kitchen sink. “The twists and turns of life have a way of reminding us – we aren’t home here. This is not our homeland. We aren’t fluent in the languages of death and disease. The culture confuses the heart, the noise disrupts our sleep, and we feel far from home. And you know what? That’s okay.” The word that best describes my darkest, saddest, most disquieting moments is “homesickness.” I find myself longing for a home I’ve not yet been to, but I feel certain that it’s gotta be better than this one where I must watch a dear friend mourn the loss of her son. It’s gotta be better than this one where I must watch, love, and support two families that are in a pitched battle against the very aggressive enemy known as childhood cancer. It's gotta be better than this one where I am watching helplessly as a local homeschooling family of five nurse their mother back to health after she underwent surgery to remove stomach cancer earlier this week. There’s gotta be something better than watching crowds of tsunami victims wrestling for food and water that is tossed from helicopters. There must be a place where there are no words for “tidal wave, famine, earthquake, transplant surgery, suicide, and alcoholism.” There must be a country where translators shrug their shoulders and shake their heads in obvious confusion when words like “abuse, suicide, cancer, and roadside bomb” come up in conversation. There must be a country where flags will never fly at half mast and mothers do nothing but dance with their children. That’s the homeland I want to call my own and long to inhabit.

During the Christmas holidays, Steve and I attended a rather large and festive benefit dinner at a local hotel. There were several bands performing that night, none of which I was familiar with before that night. One group called NewSong performed a song entitled, “Arise, My Love” that had the following words as its chorus: “Arise, my love. Arise my love. The grave no longer has a hold on you. No more death’s sting, no more suffering. Arise, arise, my love.” As the lyrics of the song drew the word picture of God the Father looking down at His son who had died and was in the tomb for three days after the crucifixion, I recalled the scene from “The Passion of the Christ” when the enormous tear fell from heaven and the earth split open because of God’s sorrow.

Although that song was conceived as an Easter hymn, it seems equally fitting now as I think of the death of Suzanne's son. As I allowed my mind to wander heavenward and waxed poetic in my thinking, I saw God looking down into a quiet and darkened room as John lay in bed last night at the Westchester Medical Center in New York State. As he struggled to breathe and Suzanne listened alertly for each rattly inhale, I heard God speak out of the silence into the ears of that long-suffering, lion-hearted, exhausted, hungry, and homesick teenager, “Arise, my love. Arise, my love. Disease no longer has a hold on you. No more pain’s sting. No more suffering. Arise, arise, my love.” Those are words we can all understand.

Bye for now, John. Save a dance for me.
Suzanne, I love you.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

No story but my own.

This morning, the children and I read the final chapter of The Horse and His Boy, one of The Chronicles of Narnia books. I’m no fan of science fiction or even mildly fantasy-based novels, but I have thoroughly enjoyed this series. In this book, two young children, Shasta and Aravis, escape the tyranny of cruel parents on the backs of talking horses who carry them back to Narnia. On the way they fight bloody battles, face evil princes, and are stalked by a vicious lion. Or so they think. The lion, of course, is Aslan, the king of Narnia, the protector of all that is good, the defender against all that is evil, and also the instigator of all that befalls these two children throughout their fantastical journey. Aslan is one of our favorite characters from any book we’ve ever read, and we have loved analyzing his words and actions as we work our way through the series. I highly recommend this series to any parent looking for some thought-provoking, challenging, unexpectedly deep conversations with their children.

This is my favorite book in the series so far because of one line that Aslan repeats to both of the main characters in the course of the story. Shasta asks Aslan why he (Aslan) had attacked Aravis one night. Aravis asked Aslan if her servant would be repeatedly punished for her (Aravis’) bad behavior. And in both cases, Aslan’s response is the same: “I am telling you your story, and not hers. I tell no-one any story but his own.”

Every morning when I tell Daniel it’s time to stop playing Play Station or watching ESPN so he can get dressed and ready for school, he protests. He gives me a hard time before every shower, but once he’s in the water, he doesn’t want to come out of there. Every morning when I tell Kristiana it’s time to stop dreaming and get out of bed so she can get dressed and ready for school, she protests. She gives me a hard time about cleaning up her room, but once it’s done, she doesn’t want to come out of there either. After every frustrating encounter with them, I walk away from them with my hands raised high, asking, “When are they going to just internalize the routine and do it without prompting or protest? Don’t they realize how much freedom there is in discipline and routine?” Steve and I have our own set of repeated verbal and mental jab-fests, and I walk away from every one of them asking, “When is he going figure out that my way of doing things is usually best and just stop the protesting?” Finally, I know the answer to all of those questions and so many more: “Gail, I am telling you your story. I will tell you no story but your own.”

It’s not my job to discern, diagnose, and treat their personality quirks and disorders (that’s the judgmental part of me talking). It’s not my responsibility to write, edit, or direct the life chronicles of anyone in my household. I may play a bit part in their productions. I may even play a leading role, but their stories are their stories, not mine. I cannot know, I will never know, and I don’t even need to know what story “Aslan” is telling them. I don’t need to know why they get hurt, why they are afraid, why they get overwhelmed by things that don’t bother me. I don’t need to know what my children will become when they grow up; I don’t even know what or where or who I will be when I grow up – and I’m 39 already!

When I eventually bring the internal diatribes to a halt, when I quiet the voices of spiritual, moral, and intellectual superiority that boom through the loudspeakers of my mind, I recognize that the way that I do things works quite well for me. Period. I cannot foist my system of thought, of being, of living onto anyone else and expect to see the same results in their lives. The story of my life is my story. It’s not Steve’s story or Kristiana’s story or Daniel’s story. I cannot overstate how extremely difficult it is to withhold "my ageless wisdom" from my family most of the time. I want to give my daughter four easy steps for maintaining a neat room every day. I want to give my son four simple reasons why showering and then having me slather Eucerin onto his extremely dry skin should be received as a pleasure and not a punishment. I want Steve to know what I’m thinking without me even needing to tell him – but that’s fuel for a different blog fire… (Obnoxious, repugnant self-flagellation intended and necessary!)

The simple truth is that it is impossible for me to know or comprehend anyone else’s story. I spend hours every day reading, writing, reflecting, rereading, rewriting, meditating, wondering, talking to myself, and I can barely make sense of my own life. I am always honored and humbled, but also downright befuddled when people tell me that they think I know myself well, that I am good at expressing myself, and that I inspire them to think more clearly about their own lives. Most of the time, I feel like my life is being lived out in one language, Greek, for example, and I’m doing the best I can to keep up with the interpreter (my brain) which speaks very little Greek, but is fluent in Russian and Urdu. Much of what happens in and around me seems to be lost in translation. So I bluff my way through life, nodding politely, smiling broadly, and hoping all the while that I haven’t ordered the deep-fried Rocky Mountain oysters instead of the oriental chicken salad I love so much.

In moments of quiet and in moments of desperation, I pour my soul onto my journal pages and try to make sense of the mostly undecipherable noise of life. When I am honest with myself, which is happening more and more these days, I admit that with my non-existent linguistic prowess in Greek, Russian, and Urdu, I have very little hope of helping Steve, the kids, or anyone else make out the plot line of their own lives. I’m learning to love them and cheer them on from backstage, not from the director’s chair.

Thanks, Aslan, for telling me to mind my own business. Next time I throw my hands up and ask “When will they learn?” please remind me that I haven’t learned much yet myself. Above all, please don’t ever let me change the channel from the spine-tingling, back-tracking, exciting, funny, sad, enlightening, tearful, joyful, confounding, exhilarating story that is my life.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Kite Runner - Part Two

A well-read and thoughtful friend of mine recommended The Kite Runner in a letter she recently wrote to me. She said that it poked her spirit and provoked prayer and reflection. It has done all of that and so much more than that for me.

I have been prompted to renew my questioning of the ways in which “oppressed” people are liberated from their oppressors. I recently read a quote by a Vietnamese writer who penned: “Liberate us from your liberation.” I wonder how many “liberated people” around the world would echo his sentiments. I wonder about the plight of so many black South Africans who have been given the right to vote, but are still denied access to many avenues of wealth there. After this morning's the Civil War lesson with the kids this morning, I once again wondered about the plight of the newly freed slaves in the late 1860’s. They were liberated from slavery, but liberated to do what? I think of the millions of people in India who were liberated from British rule only to face the enormous challenge of building and maintaining a democracy that benefits all of its citizens was more than could ever have imagined. Then there are the Afghanis who were freed from heavy handed monarchies, but then subjugated by the Russians. Then they were given weapons and other forms of aid to rid themselves of the Russians, only to be subjugated by the Taliban. Now there is a newborn and fledgling democracy, but it has come at an enormous cost to their nation, to their families, to their very spirit. If this novel, The Kite Runner, presents even a fractional portrayal of what has plagued their bruised and battered nation in the last century, then there must be many who wonder about the true benefit of liberation.

I have been prompted to renew my questioning of the ways in which religion is used as a tool of liberation, an excuse for oppression, and a catalyst for revolution. Religious zeal and a quest for freedom to practice it brought the Pilgrims and Quakers to these American shores. That same religious zeal lead to the hanging and drowning of many women and men who were suspected of being witches, adulterers, thieves, and any of an assortment of rebellious acts against the newly established religious authorities. Two thirds of the way down the Atlantic Coast, religion was one of the driving forces behind the Civil War. Interestingly enough, the same Bible was used to justify both the liberation and the enslavement of Africans. Even today religious zeal fuels the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims of all stripes in the Middle East, Hindi and Muslim in India and Pakistan, and between many who claim to be Christians right here in America.

I have been prompted to ask myself what I would do, how I would live, and whether or not I would even survive under the circumstances faced by the Afghanis during the communist regime, during the Taliban regime, and during the current regime. I have been prompted to ask myself what I would do if “a liberating force’ entered the United States of America in order to liberate us from our governmental leadership. Even if I didn't like my nation's leadership, would I take up arms against the “liberators”? Would I consider those who worked with and for “the liberators” traitors? Would I be willing to sabotage or disable their communications, their vehicles, or the “liberators” themselves if they were on American soil? Could I keep silent and would I maintain my non-violent standards under those circumstances? If not, then is it fair for me to condemn the actions of people who believe that they are defending their homeland against “liberators”?

I am no longer as convinced as I used to be that there are simple answers to these questions. I used to think there was one simple answer: peace is always the answer. Violence and war are never the right choice. I was challenged in a poignant way about my stance on violence several years ago while in a parenting course that encouraged spanking my children with a paddle of some sort. The leaders of the course said that if we didn’t use our hands our children would not think of our hands as the means by which they were being punished. Neither my husband nor I ever felt comfortable using some other implement to spank our children. Soon thereafter we made the decision to no longer spank our children. I regret every time I ever hit them, and I have asked them both for forgiveness. In addition, I found it hypocritical to condemn my children for hitting each other when I was hitting them myself. On the other hand, I know it wouldn’t take long for me to make a fist and throw it if someone threatened my children in a credible and imminent way. Deep breath – deep conflict.

But does my personal policy on violence hold sway in the international arena? What would have happened in Europe during Hitler’s reign of terror if war had not been declared against him? What would have happened if the Civil War had never been fought here in America? Those questions seem far easier for me to answer than the ones that plague me about the current situations in Afghanistan and Iraq. What would have happened if the Taliban remained in power in Afghanistan? Would more attacks on the US have been launched? What would have happened if Saddam Hussein had remained in power in Iraq? Would he have used weapons of mass destruction against his own people again? Would he have used them against anyone else? Would he ever have been ousted from power from within? Are the people of Afghanistan and Iraq better off now that they have been liberated? With all the death, destruction, and instability that their liberation has cost them, would they choose the same path of freedom again if given the choice? Did they have a choice? Did they deserve one? Is the world safer now with the Taliban and Hussein out of power? How are the safety of our world and the worthiness of war even measured? Who does the measuring? Don't the Cubans and the Haitians and the Chinese and the North Koreans and the Columbians deserve to be liberated? If so, who will liberate them?

I finished The Kite Runner after 11 PM last night. I dropped the book onto the floor and surrendered to my troubled and conflicted state of mind. Questions stalked my exhausted spirit while answers eluded it. Visions of the torched hulls of vehicles, the lifeless bodies of infidels lying in the streets, and terrified children scouring garbage dumps and mine-strewn fields for food danced in my head. But when I awoke under my thick down comforter next to my handsome husband in an ornate Italian-made bed in the master bedroom of our elegant brick home on a quiet cul-de-sac in tony South Charlotte with my pantry and two refrigerators full of food, I remembered that I was safe. The cover of the novel that had torn my soul open was all that was needed to protect me from the bombs, carnage, and hysteria of war, poverty, and holocaust. Most of the mothers in Baghdad, Soweto, Phuket, Kabul, Darfur, Sarajevo, Colombo, Banda Aceh, Medellin, Buenos Aires, and many inner cities right here in the USA did not wake up to that same sense of security.

Kyrie Eleison.

Monday, January 03, 2005

The Kite Runner - Part One

Would I ever allow someone to die in my place? What would I do to repay such an enormous debt? Would I ever allow myself to be beaten up in someone else’s place? Would I ever allow myself to be raped in someone else’s place? Would I ever sacrifice my own life in someone else’s place? Would I ever allow someone to be beaten up in my place? Would I ever allow someone to be raped in my place?

I am so easily and so completely ensnared by the brilliant trickery of good writers. At present I am being beguiled by The Kite Runner, a best-selling novel by an Afghani writer named Khaled Hosseini who asks and answers questions much like these in the course of his story. I haven’t finished the book yet, nor have I been able to put it out of my consciousness even when I have put it aside for trivial activities like making dinner, driving Kristiana to her horseback riding lesson, and going to the supermarket. I haven’t been able to eradicate the images of a bomb-strewn Kabul, mutilated villagers, and the people living in terror under consecutive regimes of all types and styles from "my inner flatscreen." How can anyone grow accustomed to the sound of falling bombs? To the tyranny of sadistic gangsters roaming the streets and executing citizens in their own driveways for the least provocation? How does any parent grow accustomed to sending their children to bed hungry while the wealthy, powerful, and well-born can eat meat they themselved cooked? How can anyone run away from such a situation, leave behind loved ones, and make a new life in a new country across one or several oceans? How does one not leave? What prompts someone to return to such a place to atone for wrongs they committed and face the atrocities perpetrated by others?

After I returned from the supermarket this evening, I received the message that one of my dearest friends had called from Vermont to tell me about an NPR show called, “Speaking of Faith.” Tonight’s guest was Anchee Min, a novelist and memoirist who escaped from Communist China after spending years in a forced labor camp. She has written about the sorrow of denouncing her favorite teacher, of being both estranged and deeply connected to her mother, and about coming to America where she now lives, writes, and speaks openly about life in China under the role of Mao. He was her religion, she said. She learned to write that she loved him before she learned to write her own name.

She spoke of her mother and her mother’s faith. Her mother was denounced before the Communist party, suffered with serious illness, and maintained a quiet, persistent faith that Anchee Min credits as her reason for surviving the horrors of Communist China during the cultural revolution. Anchee Min said that if she were asked to consider religion, Christianity in particular, she would have to see how it is lived out. Show me by your example. No need to speak so much about it; “show me the money.” In her mother, she saw inexplicable forgiveness, strength of spirit, and fervency that even communism could not quench. She didn’t need to preach about it or talk about it all the time. Her mother lived it out.

As I near the end of The Kite Runner, I am trying to imagine its conclusion. My hope is that the faith of the protagonist in the value of loyalty and his willingness to live out his newly formed convictions is stronger than his fear of reprisal. My hope is that the earlier mistakes and wrong choices in his life will be atoned for by the living and personal sacrifice that is about to be demanded of him. Redemption comes at a high cost. Forgiveness demands humility, sometimes even humiliation before the one who was wronged. It’s not always necessary to articulate one’s faith verbally; the true test of faith is how it is lived out when no one else will ever know what you chose, in times of crisis when choices are few or non-existent, and when one has the opportunity to walk away in silence, doing and saying nothing at all. I hope Amir is able to pay that high price, to make the life-saving choice he is being asked to make, and will forgive himself for his earlier failings.

When I am in the heat of the “kite fights” of life, hands and soul bloodied, neck, back, and spirit tensed in fear, which will I choose? Will I choose the comfort of acquiescent silence? Will I join whichever crowd is in power so as to save my own skin? Or will I do what I have admonished my children to do so many times: do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do – no matter what the outcome? Anchee Min’s mother chose the latter. Amir, the tormented central figure in my current gut-wrenching read stood tenuously at that crucial crossroads when I last tore myself away from him.

I will not be able to sleep tonight unless I find out his decision.