Monday, February 28, 2005

A cry for help...

Help, help, help!

My family and I are off to England for a much-anticipated 12 day vacation next week. Six days in London will be followed by a potentially harrowing six-day road trip in a rental car gallivanting (or should I say "careening"?)around the English countryside. Being a big-city lover myself, I am thrilled to have all that time to explore London. Steve lived there for a semester in college and has been dying to take me there since the day we met. After eighteen years of telling me how wonderful a city it is, he has finally decided to stop telling me and to show me.

For all of my European travel, I have never seen London. I have been under London, but I have never seen it. Here’s my rather odd story: Although I spent many hours on the tube beneath London's historic streets during the summer after my junior year in college, I was never able to make my way out into the world above ground in London. That was in 1986, nearly twenty years ago now - yikes, I’m getting old. I was traveling with a group of college students to various European countries checking out churches and missions organizations. I spent the next semester in Madrid – where I fell in love with Spain, the Spanish language, and a certain young man whose wife has since issued a restraining order against me, but that’s a topic for another blog. Back to my London story – while on that summer tour, I passed through (well, underneath) London from Dover on my way to Oxford. Then I made the return trip to Dover. Several weeks later, I passed through/under London again on my way up to Northamptonshire to visit a friend I’d met in Oxford. I ran from the platform at one train station down the stairs into the tube station, rode across town, and exited the city on another train from yet another station. I think it was at Victoria station during one exchange that I left my backpack with a friend and ran to an open door facing the open air. I looked up and down the street quickly then sprinted back to my bag in order not to miss a close connection.

This trip promises to be much more promising. My husband has taken on the job of tour director for our adventure. Lest there be any mournful shaking of heads and worrying that our daily rounds will be limited to rugby matches and darkened pubs, my husband has a stellar trip-planning history. For our honeymoon he planned a three-day layover in San Diego, complete with visits to Coronado Island and Tijuana, Mexico, on our way to Hawaii where we stayed for seven days on the tiny island of Kauai. Plus he is the one who makes all the airline and hotel reservations for my annual solo treks. This man knows his way around True to form, he is pulling together an impressive list of sights he wants to guide us to and through, and I am looking forward to our trip tremendously.

True to my own form, however, I am planning a few solitary getaways while we’re there. I will place a call to the National Gallery in the next day or two to reserve a ticket to the Caravaggio exhibit they are hosting at the moment. I am meeting up with a friend I haven’t seen in over two years; she lives in Connecticut but because she is an American Airlines flight attendant, she has made plans to meet up with us in London and will spend most of her layover with our family. What she doesn’t know yet is that I am planning to sneak off alone with her that Friday night so we can see London under the lights. Kim, bring your dancing shoes! With my recently developed addiction to collage making, I’m looking forward to perusing a few paper shops there, snagging a few uniquely English magazines, and whatever restaurant take-away menus, promotional cards, and matchbooks that aren’t nailed down. Plus all the receipts, maps, and museum and abbey entrance tickets will make for memorable journaling and scrapbooking upon our return.

Here’s where my call for help comes in. I would like to make an appeal to anyone who has been to London: Please send me ideas and suggestions. Send restaurant, shop, and gallery recommendations. While I realize that six days aren’t nearly enough to see such a splendid city, much less my few hours alone, the more guidance I receive with regard to London’s “must see” sights, the better my experience will be. And don't be afraid to send a few "out of the way" places for me to check out; there's nothing quite like the insider tips offered by someone who has abandoned the road most often traveled and cut a new trail of their own.

Write soon, my much-revered travel advisors; we leave Wednesday, the 9th.

Ta-ta. Or is it “cheerio”? See, I’m learning how to speak their language already.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

What I won't be doing tonight...

Tonight is Oscar Night. Actors, actresses, singers, photographers, camera operators, and fans are all frantically preparing for seeing and being seen on The Red Carpet, the nervousness of awaiting the announcements of the winners, and then party-hopping from one gala event to the next. If they had the good fortune to be invited to the ceremony and then the parties to follow. And if they were able to starve, enema, and dehydrate themselves sufficiently enough to fit into their gowns and tuxedos. Undoubtedly millions of people around the world will gather around their televisions to watch the parade of stars and wait with bated breath to see if their favorite actor or actress will be chosen to take home a gold statue and be forever remembered for superior performances on the silver screen. I will not be among those millions.

I feel myself slipping into another of my hyper-cynical moods this afternoon. Well, actually I’m in a great mood, but it’s all this Oscar buzz that has me in a tizzy. I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up straight when I think of the inordinate amount of time, energy, publicity, money, pomp and circumstance that is spent on this ceremony. Over the past few weeks, I have been bombarded with commercials on television, in the newspaper, on the radio, and in magazines about the Oscars. Don’t miss the Oscars! Don’t miss Joan and her daughter’s pre-Oscar show about what everyone is wearing! Chris Rock is hosting! Oprah will air her show from the Kodak Theater on Monday! Watch her show to find out what the parties were like, who celebrated with whom, where, when and for how long!

Tonight the world will watch the wealthy and the thin stand before cameras smiling fully, waving animatedly, and wobbling unsteadily on legs of rubber as the contemplate both the humiliation of loss and the unlikelihood of winning all the while wearing gowns, jewelry, and tuxedos they don’t even own. Except for Oprah that is; she never wears things she doesn’t own. There will be reporters praising the impeccable taste of the well dressed and reducing the poorly dressed to the ash heap of society. FOR WHAT??? Other than those whose names are pulled from those envelopes, precious few lives will be changed in one way or another as a result of tonight’s festivities.

I ask myself questions like these. Does a single one of those people care who watches that show tonight? Do they care whether or not I saw any of their movies? Do they care what I’m wearing tonight? Do they care that I own all the jewelry I’m wearing at the moment? Do they care that I don’t care about the Oscars?

On a more serious note, do they care that I spent time on the platform at church this morning beside a Pastor from Spain who shared great jokes and great stories about what God is doing in his country and that I translated his wonderful accounts from Spanish into English? Does it matter to them that there are no bright lights, no cameras on his church in Madrid, but that lives have been transformed because of the work that Pastor has done and because of what God has done? On Oscar night, doesn’t it matter that there are still thousands of people still without homes after this past summer’s hurricanes in Florida and the Caribbean? What about all the displaced and orphaned in the war-torn and tsunami-ravaged places around the world? What about all the hungry families within blocks of the Kodak theater and the restaurants that are preparing $1000 meals all over that city who will go to bed hungry at the same time that overpriced food is thrown away? After all, there’s no room in that rented gown for a single chocolate Oscar statue powdered with edible gold dust.

I know, I know. I take all this stuff too seriously. I have no right to deny anyone their right to celebrate whatever they want to celebrate whenever they choose to. I hear my critics saying aloud, “Lighten up, Gail. Everybody has a right to spend their money as they choose. Everyone has a right to party, to dance, to laugh.” Absolutely. I love a good glass of wine along with most people. I love to dance and laugh and celebrate life. However, I am increasingly skeptical of, increasingly dissatisfied with, and increasingly disturbed by all the partying and celebrating that I do, that we do in this world that has absolutely no real value. Celebrate new life. Celebrate marriage. Celebrate friendship. Heck, throw spontaneous surprise parties for your loved ones. But spending millions of dollars to commemorate the expenditure of millions of dollars in the making of movies that add almost no value to the lives of anyone other than the movie- makers themselves – that smacks of excess to me. “Oh Gail, you’re just jealous of their good fortune, tiny waistlines, and fiercely sculpted upper bodies.” Perhaps that’s true. I’d love to lose five more pounds and do a few more push-ups. But I certainly do not envy their broken marriages, alcohol and drug addictions, and all the fear and self-loathing that seem so much a part of life in Tinsel Town.

Perhaps what I really feel is sorrow and compassion. It does matter to me that Brad and Jennifer broke up. It matters to me that Tom and Nicole’s children have to shuttle from house to house to visit with their parents. It breaks my heart that Ben and Whitney and Ashley and so many others find so little satisfaction with all their great successes that they must drink, smoke, and starve themselves into near oblivion in order to gain the love that they all and we all crave. Perhaps it’s not only love they are seeking, but also peace, joy, some level of self-control, and probably even things I cannot imagine and don’t know anything about.

One thing I do know is this: winning an Oscar will not give anyone more than a temporary victory. Tomorrow when the hang-over wears off, every single one of them will have to get up and face another camera, memorize another line, squeeze into another costume, and pray that somewhere along the line, somewhere at the end of all the hard work, there will be some prize, some award that makes all of their toil worthwhile. Silly me, optimistic me, naïve me – I pray that someday they will find The Answer to their questions. I pray that they will meet The One who is The Source of Joy Unspeakable. I will pray that they meet, not The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but the Prince of Peace and that they will come to know His Peace that Passes all Understanding.

In any event, tonight I will not be watching The Oscars.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Tonight's homework assignment

I'm taking a writing class at a local university. For tonight's class, I have to write a dialogue that relates a time in my life when I knew that love was in bloom. I thought back on friendships that have blossomed into more than "just friendships" over the years. I thought about boyfriends I've had in my reckless youth. I thought about those early conversations with Steve, who is my first and current husband... But none of those torrid, on-again-off-again love affairs have equaled the one that I finally decided to chronicle. Read about it below and enjoy.
“I know that it’s weird for me to say this to you every time we get together, but I can’t help it: It’s great to see you again. I am amazed by your uncanny ability to show up exactly where and when I need you. ”

“If you are gonna repeat yourself, Gail, then so am I. You always know where to find me. You know that you can call me anytime. And for the record, you are the only person that I respond to quite like this.”

“A lot of people say they’re available anytime, but you are the only one who has ever really meant it.” Deep breath. “The reason I wanted to see you tonight is simple: I missed you. It feels kinda lame saying it out loud. I have a confession to make: I was hoping that by the time we were alone together, I’d have come up with something specific to say - but no such luck. Here you’ve come all this way for nothing. I’m so sorry; I hope you don’t feel like I’ve wasted your time.”

“You’ve never wasted my time, Gail. If I weren’t getting something out of this, believe me, I wouldn’t keep showing up. Stop beating yourself up about it. I didn’t have any other plans tonight anyway. Besides I’m here now, so why don’t we make the most of our time together? What do you think about driving over to Starbucks, getting a cup of coffee, and watching the Friday night teenage crowd make eyes at each other? I know how much you enjoy 'people watching.'”

“Starbucks sounds great.”

“What’s that look for?”

“You’ve got me stumped. I can’t put my finger on it yet, but there’s something about you that I find completely irresistible. As cliched as it sounds, from the moment we met, I knew I’d finally met my soul-mate. Most people don’t even believe such a thing exists, but I knew right from the first start that you were mine.”

“It’s been said that the best traits we see in our friends are the same ones that we ourselves have in abundance. Perhaps the best of what you see when you look at me is nothing more than the best that lies within you being mirrored back at you.” Pause. “Did I just say that out loud? That sounded pretty pretentious, didn’t it? I feel the same way. Sometimes as I listen to you talk, I feel like I’m listening to my own thoughts. But you know what they say? Great minds think alike.”

“Okay, okay, enough of the flattery. I think we’ve inflated each other’s egos enough for one night. Actually, there is something serious I need to say to you.”

“You can say whatever you want to me; I hope you know that by now.”

“Okay, here goes. I love you. There, I said it. It’s not subtle, I know, but I’m not known for my subtlety. I never have been. And I hate those awkward moments when you want to say something but you don’t because you’re so worried about what the other person is gonna think. Stop me anytime here and tell me I’m not crazy. Oh man, you’re not stopping me. Oh crap. Now what do I do now? I can’t seem to shut my mouth. Why are you laughing?“

“Lighten up, Gail. I was only trying to make you sweat a little. I’ve loved you since the first time you opened up to me and put your heart on the lines. You’ve been nothing but truthful, transparent, and genuine with me, even in the awkward moments. You’ve talked to me and cried openly with me during times of fear, anger, sorrow and loneliness. But...”

“I’m so sorry for being such a grouch when we are together. It’s just that you are so easy to relate to that I forget sometimes that I can’t just dump the crap on you and keep the good times to my self.”

“If you hadn’t so rudely interrupted me, you would have heard the rest of that thought. What I was going to add was that I’m glad you don’t call on me only when you are down in the dumps. As much as I want you to know you can tell me that tough stuff, it is a lot more fun being with you when you talk about watching movies and making smoothies with your kids, your late night conversations with Steve about your crazy mothers and uninvolved, irresponsible siblings. But the best times for me by far are when you talk about all your secret thoughts and dreams and hopes for the future.”

“Once again, you prove yourself to be the only friend I’ve ever had who remembers every detail of every story I’ve ever told you. You listen without complaining or judging me. You put up with every one of my rants and ravings without ever running away or getting embarrassed or somehow making me feel inadequate. You have never been too busy to meet up with me and listen to whatever I dish out. I’m not sure how to thank you.” Sniffles. “Look at me, getting all choked up. I’m such an idiot.”

“You are not an idiot. You are who you are. Never apologize for that. But really, Gail, what kind of journal would I be if you couldn’t tell me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Me? Forgive him???

About four years ago, I welcomed a good friend into my home for a few days. He was down on his luck, out of work, and in need of a fresh start. He had lost his home. His car had been repossessed, and his daughter was in desperate need of the love and attention of a caring parent. He spent a week or so with us, dried up after a serious alcoholic binge, and went on to become a steady presence in his daughter’s life, providing for her needs, and guiding her in the best way that he knows how. I applaud his strength; not many people can drag themselves out of the miry quicksand of alcohol addiction, reenter the work force, regain a solid position in society, and live a reasonably happy and successful life.

At about that same time, someone else I know chose to walk away from his wife and two daughters in pursuit of a dream that makes alcoholism seem like an easy habit to break. At the time, I recall that he was droning on about something related to a pyramid scheme for selling discount orthodontic insurance. Or was it discount telephone service? Perhaps it was vitamins. No that wasn’t it; I think it had something to do with house cleaning products. Truthfully, over the years, it has been all of these products and more. In any case, he was gone. He still is gone; only I don’t think he knows it yet.

This second man is rapidly approaching what is often referred to as “rock bottom.” Although he is currently out of work, about to be evicted from his home, he is still buzzing from the high of countless failed “get rich quick” schemes. He still believes that a well-negotiated recording contract or the well-researched call list of gullible folks willing to be separated from several hundred disposable dollars will vault him to the wealth and stardom he has deserved all these years. Those of us who haven’t signed up for any and all of his offers in the past are the ones who are responsible for his bad luck. Those of us who aren’t willing to float him a few thousand dollars now and solve his current financial setbacks will undoubtedly regret our selfishness when his luck runs hot again and Motown comes a-calling.

Most of the time, the only thing that is running hot is my blood, and what I want most is to ring his prideful neck. What about his two beautiful daughters? What about getting a job for their sake, for the sake of their education, for the sake of their futures? What about the simple but undeniable dignity of work? How does he sleep at night, face himself in the mirror, and hold his head high knowing that he doesn’t support the two girls who carry his name? What about his dignity as a man? Doesn’t he want to dress well, to eat well, and to build a future for himself? Who does he think will pay his bills when he’s 50 years old? How does he expect to be able to pay the inevitable medical bills that accompany aging? Who does he think will pay his back taxes, credit card bills, and all the other debts that he has accumulated over the years?

When I think back a few years to our heated discussions about politics, I wonder how he justifies his refusal to work and pay his own way considering his vehemently adamant stand against public assistance of any kind, his insistence that each American must pull himself up by his own bootstraps and provide for his own family. At the time, he didn’t think that medical care should be provided for those who couldn’t pay for it themselves. He berated me for my liberal leanings and chastised me for my willingness to support rather than dismantle this nation’s welfare system. I wonder where he stands on those topics nowadays.

When I get most angry at him, when I am feeling most judgmental of him, when I want to show him our bank statement and ask to see a copy of his, at those most self-righteous moments, I go back to the book I haven’t yet finished: What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey has me rethinking my stance on this issue of grace and forgiveness yet again. He points out the horrible imbalances on the scales of grace and explains that there is no room for revenge or vindictiveness in grace. Forgiveness is unfair, Yancey points out. Forgiveness must be offered even when it isn’t requested because “often the only person to be healed by forgiveness is the person who does the forgiveness.” That would be me.

Even though this man hasn’t wronged me directly, I have chosen to shoulder a backpack of anger and resentment that I must lay down, or I will be crippled by it forever. Resentment, says Yancey, “means literally to feel again: resentment clings to the past, relives it over and over, picks each fresh scab so that the wound never heals.” I hate how accurately that statement describes my feelings for this man. I relive the past, the ways in which he has hurt so many people. I don’t want this wound to heal because I’m afraid that if I do, then I will do something stupid like lend him money. Or I will somehow talk myself into believing that he’s not so bad off, that what he has done hasn’t been as destructive as it is. If I forgive, if I extend grace, I tell myself, I will be “giving in and going soft.” If I let go of the anger, then I will let go of the need for him to make restitution. Then I shake my head violently and remind myself that I am under no obligation to lend him money. What he has done is awful and no amount of forgiveness can or will change his dreadful and inexcusable behavior towards his children.

What I’m learning, chapter by chapter, moment by moment, is that forgiveness and grace will never mean anything to him unless he actively pursues them. However, the sooner I put them into practice the sooner I will know peace, calmness of mind and spirit, and freedom from this interminable cycle of resentment. I am learning that in order to “break the chain of ungrace,” I must find a way to forgive him. I must also find a way to forgive myself also for the hatred I have harbored, for the anger I have abetted, and for the bitterness I have borne. In the future, when these feelings return and I know they will, when I am reminded of his irresponsibility and selfishness and I know I will be reminded, I will return to this moment and forgive him again. I will forgive myself again. I must or I will become as addicted to rage as my first friend was addicted to alcohol.

Honestly, anger is a lot easier than forgiveness.
Can I get a witness?

Friday, February 18, 2005

What's that smell?

I couldn’t resist. On the way home from my writing class last night, I stopped in at Wal-Mart. Even at 9:30, reconstruction was in full swing. Outside the building, ladders and scaffolds were peopled by burly, surly workmen who undoubtedly wished they were at home watching Donald Trump pompously fire some pompous and over-ambitious upstart. Or perhaps there was an NC State basketball game they had been looking forward to all week long, but there they were – replacing the light fixtures, repairing the chipped façade, and otherwise doing their part to bring the metamorphosis to completion.

I headed inside to find the dental floss they didn’t have during my early morning visit last week, or at least that’s the excuse I was willing to give to anyone who asked. Truthfully, I was being nosy. Since last week, they have added new cash registers with high-tech screens and scanners. The pharmacy area is still behind wooden barricades, so I had to take a rather wide detour around it to get to the dental care section. As I strolled past the much-expanded magazine rack and marveled at the great variety of periodicals that I would never in my life choose to read, I was wrenched out of my quiet reverie by a horrific odor. It was a nauseating cross between the smell of overturned dirt at a garbage dump and an overflowing septic tank. Even before my mind had time to completely form the question, “What is that smell?” my watering eyes found the source: an open trench about 18 inches deep in the middle of the floor. Something had obviously gone terribly wrong underfoot, and the ground had to be opened up in order to solve the problem. Nevertheless, while all that work was going on, while the very earth under my feet was being excavated, the store was still open for business. People were pushing carts and piling up goods to haul home.

As I gazed down into that pungent pit, I was reminded of a sermon taught by Ian Cron years ago at Trinity Church in Greenwich, Connecticut. He told the story of the basement in his childhood home and the absolute certainty he had that a bogeyman lurked down there. Because of the odd smells and inexplicably spooky sounds that came up from the basement, he hated going down there. As far as his young mind was concerned, absolutely nothing down there warranted his personal attention. If there was anything that needed to be put down there or retrieved from there, he would either let someone else in his family do it or he would run down and back without pausing to look around for fear of what he might discover.

He extended that description to the basement of our hearts, minds, and lives. We sometimes open the door to the basement of our hearts and toss things down there: a painful memory, a conversation that we’d rather forget, or the memory of how we injured someone we claim to love. There are times when we know there’s a lot stored there that must be sorted through and discarded, but it’s easier to just leave it all alone. For as long as possible we avoid all encounters with everything that lies beneath.

In my own life, inevitably there arises from the darkened depths of my heart an especially noxious smell that I cannot ignore. Sometimes it is the smell of a dying relationship that proves to be overpowering. Or perhaps I hear the sounds of what I think are wild animals down there. The voice of a needy friend I abandoned years ago cries out for forgiveness and restoration. The echoes of lies I have told, of hurtful words I have uttered, and of right words I spoke out of wrong motives resound again and again from caves in my soul that I thought had long been ago been shut up tight with bricks and stones of self-righteousness. Gradually, the stones begin to shift, and I realize that someone is in the cave trying to break down the wall that is keeping out the light.

Ian said that at those times, Jesus Himself is rattling around the basement of our lives, looking through all the anger, the resentment, the guilt, and sorrow, and the bitterness we have stored in leaky barrels in our hearts. He is wading through the sewage, knocking on the basement door from the inside, and offering me the option of pulling the plug that will let all the silt and slime drain out. His noisy, unsettling presence means I cannot ignore the soggy, smelly mess anymore. It’s nasty work, but Somebody’s gotta do it.

While all the renovation is being down in the innermost parts, life above ground has to go on. Perhaps I have to set up temporary detours around certain people and situations in order to avoid stirring up the old resentments. Perhaps I need to set up barricades that prevent me from stumbling into those sulfur-scented cesspools of anger, hatred, and prejudice that I seem to be magnetically attracted to. Unfortunately, while the ongoing work of emotional and spiritual construction goes on internally, externally I still have to be a wife and mother, a sister and a daughter, an aunt and a friend, even when I’d rather close up shop and do the work of soul rebuilding without impediment or interference. But life, like Wal-Mart, is a 24 hour business.

After I peered into that smelly trench for a while, peeked around the pharmacy barrier one more time, and eavesdropped on the crew setting up the new rifle display, I grabbed two packages of dental floss, two sets of pens for rubber stamping projects Kristiana and I are working on, and rushed home to watch ER. I wonder what will be new at Wal-Mart next week when I go back for a brand new toilet snake.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

"God, I've got something I want to ask you."

I’m in the middle of a book called What’s So Amazing about Grace? The author of the book makes one crucially important point in the book that echoes through every chapter and every cavern in my mind: Grace is illogical and inexplicable and unimaginable; so is forgiveness. This morning’s reading was in the chapter entitled, “The Arsenal of Grace,” and it moved me so deeply that I pulled out my journal and began to write about forgiveness and grace and pain and doubt.

“Every time I pick up this book, I’m challenged in my thinking, in how I live out my faith. Do we really forgive if we hold out and wait to be asked for forgiveness? Can we forgive the one who drops the bombs, who hits the World Trade Center in an airplane, or dies as a suicide bomber? Can I forgive the racist who whispered epithets in my ear at college parties? Or the careless woman who insulted me without even realizing it? Can I forgive the father who abandoned his children without explanation or the wife and mother who refuses to be reconciled? Is there forgiveness for the national leader who provokes war and refuses to admit wrongdoing? Refuses to apologize for the scores of innocents lost? Can I forgive the rapist, the incestuous sibling, the brutal and cruel parent whose verbal, physical, sexual, and emotional wounds disfigure the children? What about the teenage driver whose careless behavior orphans young children or cripples a young mother of six?”

By way of explanation of this last comment: This past Sunday night, a woman I know from church, a homeschooling mother of six children, got into her car with her oldest son and her son’s friend and was just two short blocks away from the church when she was rear-ended by a young woman who’d lost control of her car. My friend Aimee’s back was broken in the accident. For now her six children are split up in three different households so that her husband and her sister can care for her during the next week during which time she must remain flat on her back. (I wonder how she will breast feed their two month old.) Then she will spend the next three months wearing a back brace. I suspect that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people are praying that she will heal quickly. After all, her oldest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia about a month before their sixth child was born. That oldest daughter has bi-weekly visits to the hospital for chemotherapy and blood work. And all the children need their mother’s attention and love.

My journaling continued: “The real dilemma is about what I say to God, what I ask Him. Dare I confront God and ask for an explanation? Who am I to challenge Him? I am nobody, but I do have a few questions. A wise friend of mine said something in a devotional a few weeks ago that I cling to now: ‘You can ask God any question you have. He can take it.’

“Here are a few of my questions, Lord. Why do babies get cancer? Why do children get AIDS from their parents? Why does this family of six children not only have to take care of one child with leukemia but now also have to deal with Aimee's broken back? Why was there a tsunami that killed over 200,000 people? Why all the flooding in Pakistan when drought is ravaging so many nations? Why so much excess and greed and bounty here in the US when so many are hungry and needy around the world? At the other end of the spectrum, why am I so blessed when so many others have so little? When will I learn to share more, to give more away and to stop accumulating so much? When will I become truly grateful?

“What’s so amazing about grace? Grace allows for the questions, the doubts, the anger, and the demands for justice. Still grace persists. It demands nothing. It expects nothing. It flows over and around and through my greatest defenses. It forgives anyway. It defies logic. It is unmerited favor for those who don’t deserve it, including me. Grace makes absolutely no sense. It’s illogical. It cannot be easily understood or put into practice.

“But God, how can grace and forgiveness work on the large scale issues like the holocaust, like the genocides in Africa and Kosovo, like the senseless violence and mayhem that mar so many cities and homes right here in my country, like the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the probable conflicts to come in Iran and Syria? Does it make sense for Americans to forgive the terrorists who slaughtered thousands of innocent people three and a half years ago in this country? Does it make sense for grief-stricken families to forgive Palestinian, Iraqi, and Lebanese suicide bombers? Does it make sense for Afghan and Iraqi widows and orphans to forgive the United States for its military actions in their homelands? Does it make sense for the victims of military actions to forgive Israeli, Colombian, Russian, or Sudanese soldiers and their military leaders? Can they, should they be forgiven? Who decides? Based on whose standards? Does it even make sense to hope for grace and forgiveness in those situations? Is grace possible? Is grace relevant? Is forgiveness possible? Is the risk of extending grace and granting forgiveness worthwhile in our dangerous, ungraceful, and unforgiving world? What is really at stake?”

Tonight and tomorrow and the day after that, I will ponder the wise words that Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to his young poet friend decades ago. I will read his famous and often-quoted letter as though he addressed it directly to me: “Gail, be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day to the answer.”

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Welcome to Wal-Mart, shoppers...

This morning I got up early and went to Wal-Mart before daybreak. Crazy, I know, but I’ve become obsessed with making collages of late, and I needed a folder to hold all supplies I've bought as well as the tidbits I’ve gleaned from magazines and newspapers. I figured it would be easier to pick up the few things I needed without the children in tow. So at 6:09 am, I backed out of the garage and made my way to the world of Wal-Mart after hours.

I’m no fan of Wal-Mart. In my humble opinion, the stores tend to be overcrowded with under priced and poorly manufactured items. Plus I’ve read too many stories about sweatshop workers in faraway places whose lives are unnecessarily miserable in order for us to smile like that yellow smily guy as he rolls back the prices. I’ve read Nickel and Dimed, and the author’s accounts of sixteen hour training sessions, urine tests, and strict vigilantism among workers and managers still cause me to shudder. I had sworn off of Wal-Mart indefinitely - unless I was desperate for something that only they offered or I needed something at an hour when only they were open. So this morning, I girded myself in excuse number 2 and set out for an early morning shopping trip.

I was absolutely shocked at what the store looked like. First of all, every door in the building was wide open. I know it’s warmer these days than normal, but it couldn’t have been more than 45 degrees outside. All the doors were open, and all the lights ablaze. The entire women’s clothing department was empty. Down to the bare wood floor – I didn’t realize the floor was wooden. I always thought it was carpeted; what followed that discovery makes me wonder if they have recently changed the flooring. The first 24 cash registers were closed and barricaded by all the rows and racks of clothes that had been displaced. There must have been 25 Wal-Mart employees gathered in that clothing area, rearranging, reshelving, removing racks from place to another, and reorganizing that entire area. The woman who happened to walk into the store just in front of me said that she works there, that a major redecoration is going on, and that the “new store” will open on April 15th. But have no fear, I was assured, Wal-Mart will remain open for business the whole time.

I was amazed, dazzled, bamboozled, absolutely flummoxed by what that store looked like. Wal-Mart is known for its predictable layout. Every Wal-Mart Super Store is laid out the same way. Every non-Super Store is laid out the same way. I wandered around in that store, the same one I have gone into on occasion over the past two years and couldn’t quite figure out where most things were. The entire protein bar (I love my chocolate mint Balance bars)/diet supplement section was gone. Most of the clothing racks were inaccessible. I couldn’t even get to the craft and sewing section at the back of the store because of all the crates and forklifts and wide-leather-belt wearing workers.

I overheard a manager telling one employee to pass an overloaded carriage along to her sister and to get the shelving done quickly. Two sisters working the graveyard shift at the same Wal-Mart? One employee was telling another about her grandmother’s DNR request and the impact that has had on their family. In a moment of crude humor, a man who worked there propositioned these last two women in a rather oddly expressed appeal that they help him “relieve a lot of tension.” They burst out laughing and said he’d made their night.

I finally found the file folder I was looking for in the midst of the mayhem, picked up some razors, and wound my way back through the maze of reconstruction equipment to the only open cash register. In front of me in line were two Wal-Mart employees who were shopping before heading home for the night – well, for the day – since they were just finishing their shift. Then there were three men who were obviously part of a paint crew. One had a single bar of Irish spring soap and a bottle of shampoo. The second had three large bottles of pineapple soda, and the third was the extra man on the paint crew, but he wasn’t buying anything. And then there was me: snobby, uptight, full-time mom, out for an early morning adventure to buy some accessory to get her over-priced, under-used art supplies a little better organized. It was a world unto itself, and I felt like an alien on the planet of Wal-Mart.

I have spent some time today wondering if I should rethink my position about Wal-Mart. After all, it meets the needs of countless people whose jobs, families, and friends depend on its existence. That store meets the needs of people whose budgets are tight, whose tastes are simple, and whose only goal is to survive until the next paycheck. That store also meets the needs of people like me who want a place to wander into and through in search of bargains that Target, Michael’s, the local mall, and the internet cannot yet offer me. For me, Wal-Mart is one option in dozens; for many, it is the only choice.

But before I can give my final answer, I need to find answers to questions like why there is so much white bread on the shelves there when most Americans are in desperate need of high fiber breads. Why all the Little Debbies cakes and so few healthy snack choices? Who needs another pair of polyester pants when cotton is better for the body and the environment? Will the people who make those inexpensive items in the aforementioned faraway places and the people who sell those items right here in the good old US of A ever be able to afford the very items they sell? I’m still shaking my head over the passage in Nickel and Dimed when the author realized that, because she was only earning $7 an hour there, she couldn’t afford to buy any of the shirts she was organizing on the clearance rack there. Understandably, food was far more important to her than new clothes.

I wound my way back home just after 6:45. I organized my stickers, scrapbooking papers, and magazine clippings; I really like my new file holder. And I have decided that on April 16th or so, I'm going to go see what the new Wal-Mart looks like.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Today felt different...

It really did. I woke up, slipped my feet into my slippers, slipped my body into my robe, and slipped my robed body quietly into my study room. I sat down on the floor to think, to pray, to read, to write my morning pages. But before I got to the morning pages, I slipped into the homeschool room to check my email and to check up on my various Yahoo groups. Bad idea – if I don’t write in the morning, the morning doesn’t go well. Today was no exception.

Except for one thing: it felt different. I knew that I couldn’t just let the anger and frustration of a thoughtless, wordless, pen-less morning overwhelm me or the children. It wouldn’t be fair to them or to myself to waste one of my last few days on earth unnecessarily annoyed about something relatively minor. So I pulled out my morning pages journal during art class time, did my writing, and felt much better. This evening when the fish didn’t turn out as I’d hoped, I took a few deep breaths and figured out what it would take to fix the mistake I'd made. No need for anger. No need to eat something wholly unsatisfying. Life is too short for bad food. Life is too short for bad moods. Life is too short to shout at the children, regret the yelling, and refuse to ask for forgiveness.

Today turned out to be a day of reflection, of reading, of gratitude, and of thinking about what my life is and dreaming about what I hope my life will be. I thought about what these last 364 days should and shouldn’t consist of. Here is a little of what I came up with.

Life is too short for diet soda. Drink the real thing, or drink water.

Life is too short to save all the good clothes and good jewelry for Sunday. I may only have a month of Sundays left; why not wear the good stuff everyday?

Life is too short to keep a long list of grievances.

Life is too short to read trashy novels, watch trashy television, and eat trashy food. Unless I want to.

Life is too short to be able to spend sufficient time with my friends one-on-one; I want to get them all together in one place and dance all night long.

Life is too short to go to sleep angry at people. I may not wake up and be able to make up.

I have loved and been loved deeply in my life.

I have known truly remarkable men and women during my lifetime. I wish I could tell each of them how much joy and love and grace and wit and humor and style and creativity they have given me.

I have seen beautiful cities and towns in this country, in Europe, and in South America. But nothing in the world is more beautiful than the smiling face of a friend or loved one after a warm hug.

I have eaten a lot of candy in my thirty-nine years, and I don’t regret a single milk chocolate pecan turtle, Tropical Dot, Snickers bar, chocolate truffle, almond M&M, mint kiss, malted milk ball or green apple jelly bean - even though I have had every fill-able tooth in my mouth filled – twice.

I love silver jewelry. I have 15 cross necklaces and over 20 silver bracelets. I can’t count the earrings.

I have a collection of elephant statues. I plan to write about each one, where it was purchased and what drew me to it.

My bookshelves are filled with books that, when taken together, tell the story of my life. Each one came into my life at exactly the right moment, giving me another piece of the puzzle that makes me – me.

However, the most remarkable thought I had today is this: There isn’t a whole lot about my life that I would change if this were the last year of my life. I love the house and city we live in. I travel often. I read and write and try to take life seriously – but not too seriously. I eat what I like. I wear comfortable shoes and clothes that allow me to breathe and move freely. I create art that makes me happy. I end conversations with salutations that express my feelings for the people with whom I speak. I love my husband, our children, and our extended family, and they know that. I treasure my friends and value my acquaintances, and they know that. I am at peace with God and with myself. What else is there? Am I missing anything?

So now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I won’t regret this hunk of cake.

Monday, February 07, 2005

A Year to Live

So what is going to change in my life? Will I travel more, write more, read more? Will I give up the regimented exercise routine and just eat the chocolate sundaes I crave? Will I stop the obsessive dental care and just let the teeth turn into dust as they seem to want to do? What about homeschooling? Will I continue to teach my own or send the kids off to school so I can have my days to myself? What would it feel like to be free all day long – free to go to the museums, to shop, to go for long walks, to make art, to write the book I’ve promised myself I’d write? Will I take the trip around the world that I’ve wanted to take for so long? Lie on the beaches of the southern coast of Spain and look over at Morocco and sail across the Mediterranean Sea? Will I take a trip to see and bid farewell to all the friends I have known and loved in my 39+ years or will I invite them all to come see me and throw the party to end all parties right here in Charlotte? With just a year to live, I have so many decisions to make in a very short time.

The first thing I want to do, in this my final year of life, is to learn to slow down and take life one day at a time. It’s far easier to plan for the future than it is to live for the moment. How many times have I postponed making a phone call or writing a letter because I expect to have more time to concentrate sometime in the future? How many times have I put off a necessary conversation or confrontation because it was easier to let things slide than to stand in the gap between myself and a loved one and try to stop the shift towards isolation that all relationships seem to move into? Why don’t I just tell him that I love him, tell her that she means more to me than she could ever know, and thank the many people I know whose presence in my life has brought immeasurable joy and laughter? Why can I not ask for forgiveness of all those I have offended and offer it freely to those who have offended me? When will I stop asking these silly questions and just get on with living them – and then living my way into the answers?

So I’ll slow down and make more coffee. I’ll slow down and dunk more cookies into hot tea. I’ll slow down this year, and I will listen to my children’s wildly imaginative tales. I will ask my husband to explain to me once and for all exactly what he does at Bank of America. I will send more postcards and email. I will make more telephone calls, but I won’t take “I’m really busy right now” for an answer. I’ll pop in unexpectedly to see friends, and I will have more dinners and parties here at home. I will read more to and with my children, and I will make more art with them. We will sing and dance and eat ice cream more often. We will take more days off from school and let life teach us what we need to know as we go along.

I’ll spend more time wondering about life and less time complaining about it. Isn’t it amazing that the sun rises every morning, that the birds sing every afternoon, that the moons fills out completely every month, and the flowers bloom every year regardless of what we do or what we feel or even what we want? It’s fascinating to watch a puppy run up and down our street greeting all the people and all the other dogs without a care in the world. Children, especially babies, are so responsive to the smile of an adult. Even the youngest ones learn early on that adults are pretty serious creatures most of the time, so when one of The Big Ones looks down and smiles, extends a hand, and engages them in conversation, most little people perk up and respond with a smile of their own. One friend in Spain told me that every night when he goes to bed, he looks back over his day and asks himself if he has made anyone smile that day. If so, it was a good day. If not, he hadn’t had a good day. Now that’s a great way to measure success. So I’m gonna smile more at kids and at adults. I’m gonna speak to strangers and wish them well on their life’s journeys. I’m gonna tell more people about how important it is to live everyday as if it were the first day of the last year of their lives. Ultimately I don’t know if I’ll be here a year from today to report on how “my last year” went; none of us knows.

Many people make up lists of things that they hope to accomplish before the end of their lives. There is a website (probably hundreds of them actually) devoted to posting the many lists made by ambitious and forward-thinking people of what they hope to do before dying. The lists are impressive, and so are the tales told by the brave souls who acted out their fantasies and lived to tell about them.

The sad thing is that most people make up those lists, but never live them out. They plan trips that they never take. They imagine conversations that never take place. They plan and build homes they never get to really live in. They buy clothes they never get to wear and enjoy. They plant the seeds for loving friendships and never take the time to water the soil, feed the young seedling, and reap the fruit of love well tended.

Who am I kidding? I ought to replace every “they” in the previous paragraph with “I.” Fortunately, I haven’t been given a terminal diagnosis and deadline – at least, not yet. Nonetheless I have no idea how much time I have left.

This afternoon, I started a book entitled A Year to Live, and the premise of the book is that we can best prepare ourselves thoughtfully and deliberately for life by preparing ourselves thoughtfully and deliberately for death. The author advises a radical approach to the common cold: The next time I get sick, I should take to my bed and pretend it’s my death bed. Let my life flash before my eyes. Lying there reflecting on the life I have lived, what do I wish I had done while I was still young and vigorous? What regrets do I have? When my nasal passages clear and my headache fades, I ought get up and do those things. When I am forced to await the results of mammograms or blood tests, I ought to ask myself what I would change if the diagnosis is not what I hope for. Then answer those questions with my life.

A year to live. Perhaps I have more time than that. Perhaps not.
The question is this: how will I live out these, my final days?

Friday, February 04, 2005

Ever have one of those days?

It’s just not happening today. I came up with a few ideas of things to write about. They sounded really good in my head, but when I got to the computer keyboard, nothing came. For example, I wanted to write about a movie I just watched, “Lost in Translation,” with Bill Murray. It’s the movie about him being in Tokyo on business, he met a woman who was staying in the same hotel, and they became friends. They talked. They ate together. They drank together. They got to know each other very well. But something really important didn’t get said between them.

He was working on several commercials for an alcoholic drink called Santori, trying to make sense of the demands of his energetic and demanding director and photographer. He didn’t speak any Japanese and was convinced that most of their direction was being lost in translation. Long tirades and gestures on their part were reduced to three or four words by his obviously anxious translator. Again it seemed the most important parts of the message never made it over the language barrier.

So I wanted to write about how life often feels that way. I wanted to write about how I listen to my children talk about their friends and the trials and tribulations of childhood. I listen to Steve talk about work and the demands on him there. I listen to friends talk about their marriages and work lives and their children and all that is going on for them. I read email, blogs, postcards, letters, and take calls from people in joyous, dire, enthralling, and frightful situations. Some are traveling the world over on business and pleasure. Others are bound in rather tightly prescribed circles of life. I seem to understand all of what I hear. It seems to make sense to me. I nod at the right times and places. I ooh and aah when appropriate. I cry at times of sorrow and loss and guffaw at the jokes and antics of those who so freely share their humorous anecdotes.

But then something strange happens when I begin to speak and tell my stories. It’s very similar to what I have felt when I have sat down to write this week. I sometimes feel like most of what goes through my mind doesn’t make it to and through my lips very well. I am convinced that most of what I long to express will be lost in translation from soul to soul. How do I say “I love you” to my friend in a way that doesn’t cause panic or discomfort? How do I say “I can’t imagine what you thought was going to happen” to a family member without sounding judgmental? How do I say “I miss you” over the telephone line without sounding foolish or maudlin? How do I say “Please forgive me” without choking on my guilt? How do I say “I don’t really care what you think” without sounding callous and indifferent?

At the end of the movie, Bill Murray hugs his new friend and whispers something into her ear. No one but the two of them is privy to his words, but instantly their countenances are transformed. The tension between them vanishes. Relief is immediate and obvious. They go their separate ways but everything has changed both between them and within them.

Today, I could use a hug like that. Today I could use a long and warm embrace, a whispered, secret, solitary thought, a strong hand to hold, and a few moments of stillness. Today I could use a long walk with someone who has nothing to say, just walks with me, someone who is just there. Or perhaps a long drive in the car would do. Quiet. Alone together. Today I would love to have one of those times when nothing is lost in translation.

Nope, it’s just not happening today. But I guess we all have days like that.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

"My name is Gail; I'm a Gluemonkey."

Last night I joined a Yahoo group called “Gluebooks.” Interesting concept they’ve got going, simple, but interesting. Get a notebook. Get some glue. Get some old catalogs or magazines. Start cutting. Start gluing. Take photos of your work. Upload the photos to the sight. Ooh and aah over each other’s creativity. I spent quite a long time last night gazing in wonder at the gluepages produced by some of the other folks in this group that calls itself, “gluemonkeys.” Some of the talented artists in that group have entire composition books, index card notebooks, and entire decks of cards (artist trading cards - ATCs – also a new phenomenon for me!) covered and filled with words and images liberated from old magazines and catalogs, united in unlikely combinations that work remarkably well. They send out themes on a daily basis (today’s was “dreams”) and the artists get to work. We can share the final product if we’d like to, or just keep it to ourselves. There’s a separate section for newbies, like me, to upload their first page. I’m proud to say that I sent mine out into cyberspace about an hour after I started it. Needless to say, I am quite excited about the prospect of adding yet another creative outlet to my already well-filled daily schedule. Being the obsessive-compulsive journaler that I am, I have decided to put these gluebook projects into my regular journal. No separate books for me; I want it all with me all the time.

Last night after joining the group and ogling the ATC masterpieces that cannot possibly fit onto the backs of the same cards we use to play “Go Fish,” I took to my bed with scissors and two old editions of Traditional Home magazine that I rescued from a neighbor’s discard heap. Her garbage heap became my treasure trove. Snipping, clipping, humming to myself, I filled to 9x12” manila envelopes with images and words that I will use for future projects. My mindset was singular; I was not admiring the layouts of fabulous homes I could never aspire to live in, but rather looking for phrases, headlines, flowerpots, window frames, and advertisements that would serve as the material for future gluemonkey layouts.

Of course, it all got me to thinking about my life. It’s not too far-fetched an idea to suggest that my life is a series of gluebook projects. I’ve had days, weeks, months and years of words, phrases, flowers, and experiences that I have loved, but I have also had times of failure, sorrow, and painfulness I’d rather throw away. I’ve had moments I’d like to relive and others I wish I could erase from my mind a lot like Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey did in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Much as I might try to with shopping, sugar, and the occasional mojito, erasing the bad memories isn’t always possible. Much as I might pull out the photo albums and vicariously revisit favorite places, as often as I reread the emails and journal entries, reliving the greatest moments isn’t possible either.

But what if I took the old stuff and reused it to create new images? What if those sad moments of near-suicidal depression in college could be cut up into smaller pieces and used to encourage someone who is in despair now? What if I interwove them into stories I tell my children about how fear can be overcome and how sadness can be transformed into gladness after the passage of time and the forgiveness of wrongdoing? What if the highlights of my life could be recycled and repackaged as letters and emails of encouragement for others? Can’t I figure out ways to use the crazy glue of love and laughter and friendship to put the pieces of my broken heart back together after life’s deepest disappointments? Can’t I take to my bed and reposition the angry thoughts, juxtaposing them with memories of good times gone by?

Some of the pages I saw in the Gluebooks files contained images I would have overlooked in magazines. Some of them were actually repulsive to me, a little too sexually explicit for my taste, a little too abstract for my rather concrete mind. Some of the colors were a little too bright; others were a little too somber. Some of them were absolutely masterful, and I wished I could see them in real life, talk to the creator and pick his or her brain for ideas and shortcuts. I want to see the files of images that these people must have, the piles of magazines, and find out the brand of glue they use. Last night, I looked back through years of messages that had been posted to the group and clicked on every one that promised some detail on how to be more creative, how to pick the best brands, the best photo images, and how to take the best pictures of the final products. I wanted to learn the best secrets of success from the members with the most experience so that I could bypass all the rookie mistakes and jump right into the intermediate/advanced group.

Then I remembered: I've gotta start at the beginning, make my own mistakes (like uploading to the wrong place – which I did this morning), and figure out which products work best for me. I have to clip the pictures and phrases that speak most loudly to me and remind me of my own life, and then create the pieces that reflect my own very unique expression of “dreams” or “purple and green” or “the letter B” or whatever other prompts that come my way. It was yet another timely reminder of the words of Aslan: I must listen to, hear, and live my own story. No one else can live my life, tell my story, or make any of my gluebook pages. I’ve got to compile my own image and word library, and then make use of them as fits my own interpretation of the themes of life.

A couple of months ago, I read a book about a woman who decided to learn pottery. She went to a few classes, perhaps even a retreat or two. To her shock, in one class she was asked to take the bowls she had made, break them, and then put them back together to form a new bowl. At first, she had great difficulty with destoying them; she just couldn’t bring herself to hit them hard enough to shatter them. Once she felt the power of crushing them, of willfully striking them with enough force to reduce them to pieces, though, she was addicted. However, she didn't feel the full impact of the exercise until she began to put those acutely angled shards back together. The tiniest pieces were often the most important because they bound the seams back together and made the new bowls truly complete. She took what had been broken, what many other potters would throw away, and she created scarred bowls that aptly reflected her scarred life. Her bowls are a lot like my gluebook pages – and my life. Expended. Expired. Expunged. Exhumed. Reformed. Reglued. Remounted. Redeemed. Resurrected. Rejoice!