Friday, July 29, 2005

Marriage and Marching Penguins

In a few short hours, my brother Otis will stand at the altar awaiting the arrival of his beloved Joy who will do what all brides do: put on her very best dress and saunter down the aisle, ignoring everyone else in the sanctuary, her eyes, heart, mind, and spirit focused on him alone. Surrounded by family and friends, they will renew their vows and celebrate 25 years of marriage. Their three (dare I say it?) adult children will participate in the ceremony. Love songs will be sung. Videos will be made. Photographs will be taken. And later, they will eat, laugh, tell stories, and look back with fondness and with sorrow over the quarter of a century that they have shared as husband and wife. Tomorrow morning they will have breakfast with those who have traveled in from far distances before they take off for a second honeymoon. Thousands of dollars spent, hundreds of miles traveled by so many, a few brief moments at the altar, and an addition 25 years will be toasted and anticipated.

For me, it hardly seems possible that so many years have passed since they were wed. I can still see my fourteen-year-old self in the mirror of Joy’s house, preening in my floor length powder blue bridesmaid’s gown, flowers in hand, limo outside waiting to take us to their wedding ceremony which was to be held at Brooklyn Tabernacle on Flatbush Avenue. I can still remember leaping in my brother’s arms a year later when he gave me the news that my first nephew, Kevin, had been born. Then along came Matthew who was born while I was a freshman at Williams. Raquel stopped the flow of sons early one July while I was on a summer missions trip in Oxford, England. No need for a wake-up call on this one, Gail: “Kevin is now 24. Matthew is 21, and Raquel is 19. You are getting old.” But no one cares about my age woes at the moment.

Today is about Otis and Joy whose life together, I am willing to wager, has outlasted most of the marriages that were consummated during the summer of 1980. Like every marriage, Otis and Joy’s has been bombarded with a constant barrage of difficulties. Raising children is not easy under any circumstances, but in the early days of parenthood, they made the decision that one of them would work nights and other days so that someone could be at home with and for the children. Otis was a police officer in the Bronx for many years before taking an early retirement due to medical complications and Joy is a nurse and nursing instructor. Our father died nearly four and a half years ago, and Joy’s mother passed away just a few months ago. Our immediate and extended family, like all families, has suffered the ravages of cancer, diabetes, divorce, absentee parenthood, alcohol abuse, estrangement, and death. There have been years when I seriously pondered changing my name and making up a family story with a much happier plot line. Thankfully, today I have something to celebrate with my brother, Otis. He and Joy made a commitment to one another 25 years ago, and they have remained true to that commitment.

Last week, I took the children to see “The March of the Penguins.” It is an engrossing documentary that follows a herd of penguins during the course of one year. They exit the water at the South Pole and make their wobbly way across 70 miles of ice to their ancestral breeding ground. The courting ritual, the gestation period of the egg, the hatching, raising, and feeding of the baby are told in minute detail. Being the true geek that I am, I sat in the darkened theater, notebook and pen in hand taking furious notes for the entirety the film. Holding my pocketbook journal up in front of my nose so I could see by the light reflected from the screen, I filled page after page with comments and questions about that amazing story of love, trust, instinct, hope, and determination. The wind, the snow, the bitter cold, the alternate abandonment of the hatchlings by their parents, the aggressiveness of predators, and the inimitable cuteness of those babies all taught the audience an unforgettable science lesson that felt a lot more like a spiritual lesson to me.

Here are a few of my notes from that afternoon: During the course of their annual trek, the route across the ice is replete with roadblocks. Ice is shifting and changing. How do they do it? How do they get to their destination? Penguins never travel alone. Those who do, don’t survive the trek. They walk, and when they are tired, they slide on their bellies. They join other groups of penguins coming from every part of the Arctic region and return to their birthplace. There they look for and find mates. The mother penguins balance their eggs on their claws and do a clumsy dance with their mates to transfer the egg over to dad for several months of safe keeping. Sadly some couples drop the eggs onto the ice and lose their babies. I hesitate to include more of my notes for fear of revealing too many movie details; I highly recommend that it be seen.

But let me include one more tidbit. Following the months of harsh storms, deep darkness, and near starvation, finally there is victory over winter. The desperate attempts of all the mother and father penguins to preserve the lives of their newborn are not in vain. Parents and little ones finally get to eat their fill. With surprisingly few exceptions, they protect themselves and each other against winter’s attack as well as that of their predators. Even though the family is not always physically together, there is the innate knowledge, the hope, and the determination that it will be reunited. Time together is cherished. Difficulties are faced with tenacity, with the help of the entire penguin group (yes, sometimes it does take a village!) and with thick fur. Doesn’t that sound like what families ought to be?

This evening, Otis in his penguin suit and Joy in her glittery gown, will be a shining example of the march of a different kind of penguin. Their delicate and clumsy dance of parenthood, the high personal and professional price they paid for setting their family unit about all else, and the absolute certainty that surrender was never an option – all these factors contributed to the victory they will celebrate together with two hundred beloved members of the village that has helped them not only survive but also emerge victorious from the long winter that marriage feels like so often. Congratulations to you both!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Walmart Revisited - Part 3

I’m writing this blog at 7:05 in the morning, and I’ve already been awake for four hours. My mother had a 6 am flight out of Charlotte; I was the chauffeur on call, so mine was an extremely early wake up call. Like most mothers, I welcome and enjoy my time alone, even if it is spent shopping for the family’s needs. In my neck of the woods, there are only two places that are open for family-style shopping in the pre-dawn hours: Harris Teeter (the local supermarket chain) and WalMart. So once again, I ventured into one of the many massive warehouse structures that serves as a link in the international chain of the world's largest retailer.

A WalMart SuperCenter is an impressive place. At 5:20 in the morning, it is also an eerie place. If my calculations were correct, there were ten men for every woman on the premises, employees and customers combined. Fewer than three dozen cars were stationed in the ten acre parking lot, but insider there were easily five or six dozen workers. If I remember the data from the famed Nickel and Dimed book correctly, the most likely explanation for the paucity of parked vehicles is that many of WalMart’s associates cannot afford to own cars of their own and take the bus to work.

As I stood before the vast array of diet products, pondering whether or not to purchase another box of my much-loved mint chocolate chip Balance Bars, I overheard several men talking about their plans for the future. One man, whose stuttering was torturous to this impatient eavesdropper, told his coworkers that in three or four years he’d quit his job at WalMart and own his own home. The others chorused their support for his plan and added graphic details about their own aspirations. Together they unpacked not only many crates of goods that will hopefully be sold later today but also many dreams that will hopefully be fulfilled soon hereafter. Unfortunately their laughter was a little too loud and their stories were a little too colorful. The abrupt, mid-phrase silence that befell us all was undoubtedly imposed by the passing shift manager. “Pipe down, gentlemen,” is a sanitized version of what I imagine she barked as she marched over to the back-to-school area where they had congregated.

In typical elitist, insensitive, and pompous speculation, I commented to myself, “Surely no one aspires to work the night shift at WalMart. What a depressing and degrading job it must be.” I hadn’t even completed that thought when my still developing “real world” mindset responded that not a single person I’d observed during my entire circuit of the store appeared to be degraded or depressed. In fact, each person whose eyes I met spoke to me in a friendly, welcoming, and helpful manner. Not only that, my scolding inner sociologist commented, but in the world of the chronically unemployed hoping for any income whatsoever, the desperate housewife in need of grocery money, the father desirous of being at home with his children during the day while his wife works a day job, the student whose allowance no longer covered his personal expenses, and the thousands of men, women, retirees, and young people all across this nation and around the world who simply want to work, earn a paycheck, and contribute honestly to the societies in which they live, a graveyard shift at WalMart is exactly what is both necessary and aspired to, and shame on me (yet again) for not honoring and applauding that.

On Saturday mornings, the Spanish-speaking congregation of the church I attend has a 6 am prayer meeting. Much to the chagrin of the neighbors whose bedroom window is a few short yards away from our noisy old garage door, I gather with the faithful, hopeful, and exhausted few knee-benders who join hands and hearts each week to pray for our world, our city, our church, and our loved ones. Until his recent return to Bolivia, one endearing older gentleman named Pedro always prayed for the people who, at that hour, would be returning home from having worked the whole night through. Every Saturday morning, he pleaded on their behalf that their arrival at their respective destinations would be anticipated with peace, happiness, and love. This morning, I had another opportunity to see and interact with some of those who’d labored through the night. I greeted the greeter, the cashier, the grocery stockwoman, and the many others who lifted, dropped, hung, and displayed thousands of products for the thousands of customers who would soon undo all their hard work. I should have thanked them.

At the edge of the vast parking lot, eighteen wheeler trucks sat silent while their drivers slept before embarking on another long day’s drive on the hazardous and busy highways. A little further down the road, crates of hamburger rolls, slabs of meat patties, slices of cheese, bushels of lettuce, and packets of condiments offloaded from a truck were being carried into the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant on Pineville-Matthews Road as I drove by. Gas station attendants arranged cartons of cigarettes behind countless counters. Bagel-makers boiled dough at Bruegger’s Bagel Shop. Baristas at Starbucks busied themselves churning out over-priced cups of coffee to the folks for whom $4 is not too much to pay for a jolt of caffeine. I was right there in the middle of it all, winding my way home, with a new foot bath, two reams of computer paper, a jar of peanut butter, a vat of grape Gatorade mix, and placemats with the presidents’ faces on them in the back seat of the minivan. All the while my mind overflowed with respect, admiration, and gratitude for the hundreds, nay, the thousands of benefactors of Pedro’s prayerful petitions, who toiled all night long to feed themselves, their spouses, children, parents, employers, and me.

Monday, July 25, 2005

A Serious Case of Heartburn

FYI: This is a continuation of last Thursday's blog, so read that one first if you haven't done so already.
Those two men who had the privilege of walking with Jesus on the road to Emmaus had what Oprah refers to as an "aha moment" once He disappeared from their presence. They looked at each other and asked, "Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road and while He opened the Scriptures to us?" Looking back on their conversation and meal with the Master, they realized that His presence, His voice, His wisdom, His patience with them had set something to simmering on the stovetop of their hearts.

My question is this: why don't I pay closer attention to the times when my heart burns within me? Why do I usually only notice in hindsight that I have been in the company of beauty, grace, kindness, and love? Truthfully, my heart has become increasingly aware of and responsive to the many, no, the countless times that I look up, listen up, and perk up because I am being accompanied on my journey by beautiful, thoughtful, intriguing, captivating, wise companions.

This past Saturday as I sat enjoying a super-sweet coffee drink at a local cafe, I eavesdropped on conversations, watching with wonder as fathers wrestled with their children, mothers cooed at their babies, baristas greeted customers with grins and warmth, listened to the fountain bubble nearby, and my heart burned within me. I sat in awe at the simple beauty of the setting, and I wondered if anyone else there on that quaint little plaza felt the same. Yesterday afternoon my daughter and I strolled through an art exhibit at the local museum of art absolutely fascinated by the technique, the process, the collaboration, and the unimaginable results of the work of Chuck Close. Several other couples made their way quietly through the show along with us, reading the wall boards, gazing at the finished pieces, and shaking their heads in wonder just as we did. At one point, I turned to an elderly couple nearby and couldn't help but exclaim, "It's incredible." They both nodded and laughed. She said it was her third visit to the show because the first time was simply so overwhelming that she had to return and see it again. Exactly. I will soon return. There at the Mint Museum of Art, my heart burned within me.

Does not my heart burn within me everytime I:
- see the full moon?
- hear a baby cry, especially on an airplane?
- see anguished faces after subway, skyscraper, and train station bombings?
- hear tales of kidnappings, beheadings, and missing teenagers?
- watch in awe as those penguins march across miles of ice for the sake of the next generation? How on earth do they know how to do all that?
- read that another 10,000 hard working people are about to lose their jobs?
- comfort a grieving friend or family member after the death of a loved one?
- hold a newborn baby?
- make a new friend or reconnect with an old one?
- see evidence of abuse on the face of a woman or child?
- listen to movie stars, athletes, celebrities, powerful business people, and "perfectly normal" people alike say that all they want is a peaceful life, a restful vacation, a trustworthy spouse, and friends that care deeply about them?
- am shown an engagement ring and listen to the excited lovers as they plan for their upcoming nuptials?
- listen with sadness to the details that led up to another divorce?
- groan with sorrow over the senseless slaughter of innocent people in countries all over the planet?
- remember the wonder of the birth of those puppies in a friend's back bedroom?
- cheer for Lance Armstrong as he wins yet another Tour de France?
- cheer for the disabled athletes whose only reward is finishing the race?
- cheer for Tiger Woods as he wins yet another major golf event?
- read about how much time, energy, and money Tiger gives to charities to help others whose lives are not so blessed as his own?
- consider the overwhelming evidence of how excessively this culture, this nation, and I exalt certain individuals due to their athletic, artistic, or financial success?
- see the wonder of spider webs and birds' nests in the yard?
- smell the roses growing adjacent to our back deck?
- clip a handful of gardenias from the bushes out back, place them in a small vase, and breathe their heady fragrance in my study room?
- listen to my children playing, laughing, building forts, and playing hide-and-seek in their bedrooms?
- am told that I am too liberal, too conservative, too tolerant, not tolerant enough, too friendly, too standoffish, too strict, too lenient, too aggressive, too passive, too religious, not faithful enough, too patriotic, and not patriotic enough?
- hear the increasingly dismal statistics on divorce, poverty, homelessness, AIDS, alcoholism, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, abuse, unemployment, and abortion?
- watch movies like "Whale Rider" and know that there are countless girls like her all over the world, hoping to be noticed, loved, and appreciated for who they are, not ignored, abused, and resented for who they are not?
- read books like "A New Kind of Christian" and take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in looking for a new way, a different way to live out Christianity in this world?
- recognize and embrace the fact that the list of "heartburn moments" never has to end as long as I keep my heart open to the wonders, the joys, the mysteries, as well as the terrors, the sorrows and the despair that this life has to offer???

Thursday, July 21, 2005

What are you talking about?

While we were in Madrid, the children and I logged many hours of walking along the broadest boulevards and the narrowest alleys of that magnificent city. One evening we watched in awe as the longest flag ever manufactured was unfurled along the city’s main avenue in anticipation of being chosen to host the 2012 Olympics. During our many walks in my favorite city in the world, we were accosted by beggars, approached by vendors, and gawked at by MadrileƱos of all ages. We walked with ice cream cones, cold drinks, and our supermarket sacks. We walked early in the morning, in the midday heat, and in the cool of the evening.

There was one common factor in every walk we took: conversation. We talked about the tight pants and revealing tops we saw, the countless dogs, and the breathtaking architecture. We talked about friends we missed in the States and friends we’d made in our travels. We talked about the Spanish traditions we wished were part of our culture and the American traditions that we wish were part of Spanish culture. We talked about our family, the families of people we loved, and the families we watched on television. We talked about places we'd visited, places we hoped to go, and places we hope we never go. My relationship with my children grew far deeper on that journey than it would have had we stayed here in Charlotte, and talking as we walked was the main reason why.

As we meandered through Madrid, my eyes and my mind often wandered to the people we encountered along the way. Some walked alone with their heads bowed in silent and somber contemplation of the sidewalk. Others window-shopped and dreamed of wearing fine clothing and fine jewels. Still others walked with family and friends, chattering away in Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, and Japanese, among other languages. No matter where I was, who I saw, or what language they spoke, I wondered what they were talking about.

Were they discussing the struggles in their marriages, the challenges of parenthood, and stress at work? Were they listing the various ailments and treatments being suffered by and administered to ill friends and family members? Did they share with one another their fears and doubts and worries about terrorism, the new President of their nation, and the state of their fragile economy? Were they commenting on the beauty of the city they were in or the merits of a city they'd visited previously? Were they concerned with mounting personal, national, and international debt? Were they recounting the details of the previous evening’s delightful dinner or how poorly it had been prepared? Were they struggling to get pregnant or lamenting being pregnant yet again? Were they planning upcoming weddings or dealing with the despair of divorce? Were they commenting on the recent birth of a new baby or the grief of recent bereavement? Were they walking to job interviews or returning to dead-end jobs? Were they going to care for alcoholic spouses or drug-addicted children? Were they lamenting the inexplicable lack of contentment despite having acquired all the stuff that they thought would fill the empty places in their lives? What were they talking about? This inquiring mind wanted to know.

In Madrid’s Prado Museum, I saw several paintings depicting one of my favorite Bible stories and was reminded that my curiosity about ambulatory conversations was nothing new. The twenty-fourth chapter of the gospel of Luke relates the account of two dejected disciples who had left the city of Jerusalem and were traveling to Emmaus just days after Christ's death and burial. Centuries before my Spanish sojourn, somewhere on the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus, Christ Himself appeared to them and asked them: “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

His simple question prompted several more of my own. What if someone appeared beside me and asked me what I was talking about, thinking about, and dreaming about as I walk through this life? What if that same someone walked alongside me for a while and listened attentively to my answer? What if that Someone clarified for me all the connections, all the coincidences, and all the consequences of everything that has happened in my life? What if this Sacred Stranger joined me on my journey, walked me all the way home, talking, laughing, and listening all the way?

And what if I did the same for the people I know and love? No, I don’t have the answers to anyone else’s deepest questions. Nor do I have the solutions to anyone else’s most difficult problems. I can barely articulate my own questions, never mind answer them. But what I do have and what I am praying for more of is the willingness to walk alongside my fellow pilgrims, ask them Christ’s simple question, and then listen attentively as they answer.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Why even bother to write all this stuff down?

During the week before last, I read a book entitled Gilead in which an aging father wrote a long letter, a journal of sorts to his very young son. Fearful that his life would end long before his parenting responsibilities, the reverend set out to tell his son the story of his life, his pastorate, his own father and grandfather, and how the legacy of all those pastors, all that Biblical outrage, and all their most well-guarded secrets would very likely influence his son’s life. Into the multigenerational story, the main character adeptly wove enchanting descriptions of the world in which he lived. He marveled at the beauty of the sky, the fields, the townspeople that surrounded him, as well as the dainty details of his son’s skin tone, the curve of his neck, and the subtle beauty of his beloved wife. While my description here is scant in details, the novel most certainly is not. It is a both worthy of a luxurious, slow read, accompanied by sweet tea and home-baked cookies. Most days, that's exactly how I read it. Aaaahhh!

As I worked my way through that lyrical novel, I found myself reflecting both on what I write and why I write. Do I expect that my children will read all my journals and blogs, take all my sage advice to heart (is it sage?), and avoid the many pitfalls that have felled me in this life of mine? Do I expect that someday my personal writings will be the stuff of Anais Nin legend? Do I take the time include my observations of my children’s antics, my husband’s humorous foibles, and my own frequent bouts with “foot in mouth” syndrome? If they read my journals thirty or forty years from now when I’m long gone, will they have any idea how much I have enjoyed them, cried with them and for them, and prayed for great joy and peace to reign in their lives? Will they know how much I’ve dreamed for them and their futures? Will they realize how incredulous I still am that they even exist – that my body (with some willing assistance from my husband) created two human beings with hearts and souls and minds of their own? Will they know how much I love them?

When I think back on our month in Spain, when I read the postcards I sent to myself along the way, and the many pages of journaling I did while we were there, I cannot help but be grateful for the wonderful time we shared there. To awake each morning with excitement as to what we would see, who we would encounter, and what new food we would try – it was a gift beyond any we’d ever shared before. We walked for hours at a time, took the subway all over Madrid, and sometimes I followed their lead as we made our way home from local shops and cafes. That was an adventure; we never got lost, but there were a few uncertain turns made along the way. Most nights, I couldn’t wait to put them to bed so I could rush downstairs to my journal and write about the day. They both left for Spain with a certain amount of skepticism as to what awaited us there, but they both begged and pleaded for us to stay there longer when the day of our departure from Spain arrived.

As they read, will they hear my laughter as I describe how we sat on “our bench” on la calle Eloy Gonzalo and watched the Spaniards promenade with their children and dogs in tow? Will they see my smile when I recount our walks, talks, and meals with Antonio up in the north of Spain? Will they remember the wrinkled little old woman who sat across from us on the train to Toledo and then donned her beggar’s attire and asked us for a donation half an hour later outside of the magnificent cathedral there? Will they remember where we sat in the back row of that same church to eat our licorice after a long morning of exploring and hill climbing? Will they appreciate the fear and uncertainty I felt when Daniel fell and hit his head on the marble slab sidewalk of la Castellana and nearly knocked himself unconscious? The thought of going to a hospital in Madrid and being told that my son had a concussion was more than I could process at the moment. If they read my journal, I think they will know all that and more.

If they read my journals and my blogs, they will know that in the midst of a busy life, an active family and church life, I had moments when I wanted to run away from it all. They will know that even though I loved them and their father without measure, at times I wanted to be single and childless. They will know that despite my numerous professions of faith sometimes I was nearly drowned by overwhelming waves of doubt. They will know that I am a deeply flawed, skittish, easily unnerved woman who tried desperately to protect them from all my flaws, skittishness, and nervousness. They will know that my bravado, my strength, my courage, and my determination to give them the very best life I could imagine for them were nothing more than a premeditated attempt to keep them from ever knowing the despair, the hunger, the sorrow, and the fear that most children their age experience on a daily, an hourly basis all around the world and even in this very nation.

Many people who don’t journal tell me that they don’t write because they are worried that people will find out their secrets and think less of them. Others say that their lives are too mundane to be worthy of recording. Some think that journaling is difficult, demanding, and downright dangerous. I agree with all of those reasons; every one of them makes perfect sense. But I go beyond those reasons and ask myself these questions: what if more people knew that their secrets were the same as everybody else’s and that if we tell the truth about our fears and doubts and mistakes, we can help many others make better decisions in their lives? If it’s true that my DNA is unique, that no one else in the world is like me, that there has never been anyone else like me, then everyone of us is living a unique life, and who wouldn’t want to read about my unique walk through this world or yours? When I think of all the questions I never asked my dearly departed Dad, I am all the more sorrowful that he didn’t keep a journal, and leave behind his great wisdom in written form. Journaling is difficult, demanding, and dangerous sometimes, but so is life. Why not tell the tale for others to enjoy?

Someone wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living. Journaling and blogging have provided a platform for examining my life, for putting my reflections on paper, and then later on, for leaving an account of my life for my children to examine and reflect upon. Just as I followed their lead down the streets of Madrid, I hope that someday they will follow mine, watching from a distance as I recount my uncertain turns along the way. May my poorly drawn map of my own life serve as both a caution and as a tribute to the wonder that this life can be. Write on!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

What if there's more than one version?

What if ten buildings were bombed in New York, Charlotte, Chicago, Los Angeles, Des Moines, Boston, and Ponte Vedra Beach every night at 10:30 PM? What if police officers invaded random houses across the nation on random nights, arrested all the men in the house, patted down all the women, and asked the children where the guns were hidden? What if we had electricity for fewer than eight hours per day, running water for three hours, and no idea when the outages would take place? What if foreign soldiers had control of every public building in our government centers and only a handful of Americans had access to those buildings?

What if resistance to their presence was punishable by arrest and indeterminate imprisonment? What if our citizens were tortured and abused by foreign soldiers? What if churches were bombed and Bibles were torn to bits? What if it were illegal to speak against the newly elected government? What if there were no forum for protesting against the elections themselves? How is it possible to tell the truth or hear the truth under those circumstances?

What if no one believed my version of the story? What if my description of life before the war, of life since the war began, and of the horror of trying to make a life under deplorable daily conditions were dismissed as fake, exaggerated, and as propaganda? What would my blog look like if those were the conditions under which I was writing?

A friend of mine sent me a link to a blog written by a 24 year old woman in Iraq. Reading it, I was horrified. Saddened. Outraged. Suspicious. Then I stopped myself and asked: why do I doubt the veracity of this blog any more than any other I've read? Are her accounts any less believeable than any others? What if she is telling the truth, a side of the story that CNN and ABC and Fox News cannot tell because none of their reporters is a 24 year old Iraqi womea? What if what we have heard here is only half of the story or only one third of the story?

Was Saddam Hussein a horrific leader? Absolutely. Should he have been removed from power? Absolutely. Did it have to cost Iraq the lives of more than 100,000 of its citizens? Did it have to cost America over 2,000 of its citizens? Will it cost tens of thousands more lives and tens of billions more dollars before it's over? Has it all been worth it? Are we safer now, is the world safer now --> because Saddam is no longer in control of Iraq?

I guess the answers to all these questions depend on who you ask. On whose version you believe. I am grateful to Moneesha for pointing me to a different version of the war stories. Check it out at Be mad. Be outraged. Be suspicious. I went through all of those emotions and more. But then take a moment and consider: what if all that she describes is true? What if everything she describes happened here in the United States? How then would we live?

To that courageous young woman in Baghdad, I wish all God's blessings. I wish you safety. I wish you peace.

I will continue to pray for peace, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not only in London, Madrid and New York.
Not only in Congo, Sudan, South Africa, and Rwanda.
Not only in Pakistan, India, and Thailand.
Not only in Canada, Bolivia, and the United States.
I will pray for peace in every nation,
in every city,
in every home,
and in every heart
all over our weary, fearful, desperately needy world.

Grace and peace, Gail

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Prodigal Hamster

Yesterday during my weekly date with myself, my cell phone rang. Kristiana was calling with bad news: “Buddy’s not in his cage.” Buddy is our hamster. Chubby little thing with long whiskers, round belly, and a short tail, he has become a much beloved member of our household. Our neighbors aren’t so crazy about him because when we were in England back in March and they were hamster-sitting, he escaped from his cage and, in what I believe was a courageous break for freedom, gnawed a hole in the carpet under the door of their game room. I was enormously apologetic for the damage he had done, but part of me was proud of his determination. After all, there is no place like home. This time was different, though. He was already at home. What on earth did he think he was going to find on the floor and in the corners of our house? I quickly came up with a plan for finding him. I gave Kristiana precise instructions: “Grab your brother and the babysitter and begin a room by room search for Buddy. Get down on your knees and look under every piece of furniture. Look in all the closets because, as we have learned, he can get under doors. Call me with an update in 15 minutes.”

After ten anxious minutes of waiting for my phone to vibrate, I called home. Kristiana answered and with triumph in her voice announced, “We found him. He was in the laundry room. He was covered in dust, but now he’s back in his cage.” Ignoring her blatant criticism of my housekeeping skills, I told her how glad I was that they had found him so quickly and sent up a quick prayer of thanks that he had survived his ordeal and that they had successfully completed a rescue operation and not a recovery.

What was he thinking, that crazy little rodent? First he had to scale his little wooden hut and leap up onto the cover of the clear Rubbermaid container that he calls home. His mansion is no shoebox; this is one of Rubbermaid’s 60 quart LatchTopper boxes. According to the dimensions on the label, the box is 16.4 inches from top to bottom, so he had to jump down 16.4 inches to the counter in the homeschool room on which his home is perched. From the counter top to the floor is another thirty-six inches. After going down fifteen stairs to the first floor, he had to wind his way around and under the kitchen table and turn left into the laundry room. I’m no daily sweeper, but this I know for sure: there is no food on the floor nor are there water puddles anywhere downstairs for Buddy to fill his pecan-sized belly while he was on the run. He must have been hungry and thirsty when they found him and put him back in his now tightly secured Latch Topper.

Where was my prodigal hamster going? Did he have a plan? In the middle of the night, did his little mind wander back to the comforts of his cage? Did he begin to think, like his Biblical counterpart, that if only he could return to his father (or in this case, his mother, Kristiana) he would be willing to eat the leftover nuts and seeds that were on the bottom of the bag? Did he feel lonely and scared down there in the dark? Did he wish he could lick himself clean in the cozy comfort of his bed – which had been fashioned from a Pringles tube? And when he saw Kristiana’s face peering down at him in the corner, was he glad to have been discovered? Will he now be contented to be a homebody, or will he attempt another run for freedom as soon as we all forget yesterday’s excitement and leave the cover off the box again?

Like Buddy, I know the thrill of escape. As a high school senior, I couldn’t wait to get to college. I would finally have freedom from television and radio rules, freedom from curfews, freedom from wondering what the neighbors thought of me, what the church people thought, and especially what my parents thought. For the next six years (four as a student and two as an employee of Williams College), I ran through the streets of Williamstown like a rebel without a clue. I ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. I went to every party that I could get into and danced until the wee hours. I had several boyfriends. I tried several intoxicating substances, some legal and some illegal. I even became a leader of the campus Christian fellowship group. I wanted to be sure to try every possible escape route.

Like Buddy, I also know the agony of hunger and thirst and being coated with dust in dark corners in the middle of the night. With freedom came consequences. My soul’s hunger for love and attention and companionship wasn’t satisfied by the charms or in the arms of my boyfriends. With each guy I chose, I realized within minutes that they were as insatiably ravenous as I was, but none of us knew how to fill each other’s empty places. My soul’s thirst for laughter and joy and fun wasn’t quenched by White Russians or beer taps. A few dizzying walks back to my dorm room and one particularly gin-soaked birthday party in Madrid were all I needed to give up any hope that alcohol could solve any of my problems. And no bar of soap, bottle of body wash, or fresh scented shampoo could wash off the filth that always seemed caked on long after the boyfriends left.

I wish I could say that there came a time when I saw the error of my ways, when I stopped my senseless Houdini-esque escape attempts, and settled down. I wish I could say that I have stopped trying to drown my sorrows in alcohol on occasion and overfeed my hungry soul on junk food on a regular basis. But I cannot. The only difference is that now my escape routes are no longer clandestine; in fact, they are quite respectable. I travel internationally when I am looking for a break from my life, and not just under the East River on the subway. I drink one or two mojitos now and no longer stand near the drink table with cups in both hands. And I’ve upped the ante a little. Now I shop in better stores nowadays, but the desire is the same as when I frequented the flea markets of Greenwich Village in Manhattan: to cover the wounded places with fine clothing and funky jewelry. I eat fried calamari now not street-sold hotdogs, but the craving for fulfillment is still there. I watch foreign films and reality television in order to avoid the reality of my life. I read better books, thereby entering the mind of the author and the life of the characters, but eventually I must close the cover and follow the plot line of my own tale. I live in a better house with better windows and better locks than I could ever have dreamed for myself, but sometimes I think I set the alarm at night to keep myself in rather than to keep others out.

Nowadays we have to check on Buddy morning and night to make sure he doesn’t escape again. Nowadays I have to check on my own heart and mind morning and night, making sure I’m feeding myself well on The Bread of Life, drinking the Living Water, and enjoying the toys that have accumulated in my cage. But don’t let these lofty thoughts be misunderstood; I am no hamster, but my heart, mind, and body still want to escape every time the cover to the LatchTopper is left off.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

I'm Your Venus...

Saturday was one of the best days of the summer so far - at least it was for me. Why? Because the #14 seed, Venus Williams defeated the #1 seed, Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon. I was thrilled that it was an all-American final match. I was thrilled that Lindsay was able to come back after her back injury and play very well despite her pain. But I was beyond thrilled, bouncing up and down in my bed, cheering, yelling and screaming for quite a while when the match ended and Venus had won. I was sad that Serena wasn’t there to cheer on her big sister and to celebrate with her that night. Even though they are divorced now, Venus’ parents were there in her box, both cheering her on, both groaning whenever she missed shots or double-faulted. But they were all vindicated; all of us, her loyal fans, were vindicated when the match ended and she was crowned victorious. It was as though the Venus had arisen from the ashes, defeated the enemies of doubt, criticism, and cynicism, and proved that there is still fire in those 25 year old bones. Although she is profoundly and embarrassingly inarticulate at times when she is interviewed, Venus didn’t need words to express her joy this time. As the tournament officials prepared for the awards ceremony, she stood up. She sat down. She laughed. She covered her face. She looked up at her family. She looked down at the grass beneath her happy and hopping feet. Her joy was inexpressible and uncontainable. Congrats to Venus, the three-time Wimbledon Champion. May you have many more!

Later I took a few minutes to try to figure out why it meant so much to me that she won. It didn’t take long to find the reasons why.

Like Venus, I often find myself in the position of underdog, written off, dismissed. When we moved to Charlotte, some skeptical friends thought we were making a foolish decision to leave Connecticut for North Carolina. Several of them posited that it was downright dangerous to move to a segregated South with our integrated family. Long before that, many had advised against our marriage; after all, they said, interracial marriages don’t usually work out. With the divorce rate in this country hovering just above 50%, I wondered which types of couples had any greater or lesser advantage over any other. Proudly and happily, I can report that last week we celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary. Several years before that, there were friends and neighbors who said that leaving New York City for a tiny college in a tiny town called Williamstown Massachusetts was nothing short of idiotic. Those ended up being four of the best years of my life thus far. Millions, it seemed, have been sitting on the sidelines shouting advice and jeers and taunting me for nearly four decades.

The good news is that there have always been a handful of dear friends in my box who have cheered me on. Like Venus’ parents, some of my loved ones won’t speak to each other for unknown reasons, but they watch out for me. They call out words of encouragement. They travel with me from tournament to tournament. Usually when one cannot attend, someone else will take their place. There are photographers in the crowd, writers, artists who have rendered images and words about me that have shown me just how much they love me. Those are the people who have never doubted that I could come back after injuries, downfalls, and even when I have inexplicably quit in the middle of the game. There are the trainers who follow me into the locker room, rub balm into my aching spirit, put ice on my rage, and help me stretch out the tension in my heart. With my eyes and ears and heart open for all the love that never stopped spilling over from that corner of my life where my friends gather, I have been able to stay in the match even when I am down two sets and two breaks. For every one of them, for all of you, I am profoundly and inarticulately grateful.

There was another reason why Venus’ victory touched me so deeply: even with all our supporters in the crown, this game of life is a singles’ match. In the dark moments when no one else knows what I’m thinking and worrying about, in those quiet times when I am afraid and overwhelmed, and even in the midst of the busyness of life, family reunions, extended vacations, getting together with friends for dinner and holiday celebrations, and soul-jolting conversations, I am alone. There is simply no way to avoid the fact that I single-handedly must do the work of soul building, face the fear factor, fight for every point against the onslaught of despair, and eventually receive the prize that awaits me when this match called life is over. During the toughest times, when churches I attend explode and fall to pieces, when friends and family fall ill and die, when job loss happens, when loneliness forms a thick curtain around me and no one is able to rend the veil, that’s when I am forced to tune out the noise of the madding crowd, focus on the single task at hand, the single ball that is hurtling towards me with impossible spin and unstoppable force. When my father died in March of 2001 and then September 11th happened six months later and my brother got sick at the end of the same year and my husband lost his job six months after that, I had one simple goal every day: get out of bed. After that, the rest was easy. Getting dressed, making breakfast, teaching the kids, keeping the house clean, boosting Steve’s spirits during the job search, teaching a Bible study, keeping up with my writing group assignments, maintaining friendships by phone, email, and in person – all of that was much easier once I got out of bed. One shot at a time.

Maybe the tennis analogy has gone too far now, but the truth never goes too far. Venus came back and won last Saturday because she never gave up on herself. She never allowed her many injuries and defeats to prevent her from playing on. Her critics never got closer to her than her loyal supporters. She never allowed the reputation or ranking of her opponents intimidate her. She played as hard as she could every game of every match. She learned from her faults and gained the determination to reduce their frequency and their import. The cheers and groans of the crowd had no bearing on the outcome of the tournament. In the end, she alone had to play. She had to serve when it was her turn, and she had to return serve when it wasn’t her turn. The court, as large as it is, is a solitary place. No one else can play the match in her place. But the good news is that no one else’s name was written on the check she received either.

It’s uncanny sometimes how closely sports imitate life.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Pregnant and Paralyzed...

I know I have used the "pregnancy" metaphor before. But this time, I really mean it. Not that I'm physically pregnant, but that I am emotionally and spiritually pregnant. There is something brewing in me that is struggling to be born. There are many things in me that I am patiently awaiting.

I am thinking about writing a personal commentary on the Ten Commandments. No, I'm not concerned about taking a knife and killing anyone at the moment, but is murder happening in my name? Am I neglecting to curb my tendency towards covetousness by calling it something more benign?

I am thinking about writing a more indepth analysis of our time in Spain. Why do I like life away from my home and life and country so much? What is it about anonymity and solitude and carlessness (as in, being without a car!) that I like so much?

I am thinking about writing an analogy a new friend has given me on how our lives, our hearts are like luggage - some of us pack heavy and some pack light. Some use ziploc bags to keep things separate and some just throw the bottles in with the shoes. I love my jewelry and when I travel, I keep it stored in a little box with a rubber band around it and carry it in my handbag. And I'm thinking that we all have our luggage, our baggage, and our secret compartments. What's in mine? How do I unpack it? Do I dare unpack in the company of others or only in the privacy of my personal space?

Plus there is a line of thought about the church, the big pink building I go to every Sunday morning and the church as people. Aren't we the church, folks? And if we are, why do we flock to tbe big buildings? Why do we hide inside and hope that the outsiders come to us? Why aren't we being salt and light in the world? Making a difference outside the four walls? Forget for a minute that we want people to join our club, to come to our building. What is it about my personal faith that would be appealing to someone outside of my faith? What does it mean when so many people who think of the Christian church in this country - and around the world - think of judgmental, mean-spirited, boring, un-fun people? Shouldn't I care about that image? Shouldn't I be doing something different, something that attracts others to want to be a part of this group that I have given my life over to? Isn't it time that I forgot about the group and talked about the Person that gives my life meaning? If no one new enters the building, isn't it possible that the church can still grow - if it's really and solely about relationship? Is it a reasonable goal to expect that unpacking my luggage can or should happen within the context of the church? If AA can do it, why can't we?

I'm in the middle of one of the most spirited and pointed email exchanges of my life with the same woman who gave me the luggage analogy. She too is battling with these "church/Christian/what do these terms mean" queries. I met her two weekends ago when I went with my mother to lead a women's retreat on the topic of "grace." As I prepared for the retreat, reading, writing, thinking, reflecting on times in life when I have been the recipient of grace - and when I haven't - times when I have extended grace to others - and times I haven't, I was temporarily paralyzed by the horrible line of thought and question that Philip Yancey ponders in his book, What's So Amazing about Grace. He reminds us that the Christian faith is the only one that is founded and established on grace. We as Christians ought to be overflowing fountains of grace, but unfortunately we have developed the nasty reputation of being really critical and intolerant and unmoveable in many of our stances. "WWJD" is a bracelet we wear, but a question we rarely ask or answer with Jesus' example in the forefront of our minds when the questions have anything to do with grace and forgiveness and unconditional acceptance of others. Didn't He dine with prostitutes and party-goers and diseased and poor people? Didn't He say something about turning the other cheek when we get slapped? What about me forgiving seven times seventy times? Am I doing that? What's so amazing about grace for me right now is that I am not living it out or pouring it into the lives of those I know and love nearly as much as I ought.

I'm also thinking about writing about bathroom sinks. Another thoughtful and excellent friend shared that image with me yesterday, and my mind has run with it almost non-stop ever since. (I'm up at 4:30 AM writing this. That's how busy my mind is at the moment!) What's on my sink and why? Is it that I believe the cleansing products and the makeup and the deodorant and the perfume are simply conveniences? Or do I share the world-wide belief that those things will really make or break who I am, and make the people around me notice and therefore love me more?

Plus there is always my relationship to water. I think about water all the time: wasting it while we brush our teeth and water our lawns, boiling it for tea and rice, using it for doing laundry and the dishes and washing the car. Some days we pray for rain, but most days we pray that it won't rain. How are we all in need of water for washing our bodies, our hearts, and our souls? Why is water so crucially important but so blatantly taken for granted?

Plus there is the new Anne Lamott book (Plan B: More Thoughts on Faith) that has blown the doors off my neat definitions of faith and politics and peace and motherhood and whether or not I should force my children to go to church and aging and how I feel about my body and my hair. Plus all the complications of being a daughter come up. Plus she's no more in love with W. than I am. And there's a Jesuit priest thrown into the mix. And that's just the first three or four chapters.

So there you have it. I am pregnant with thousands of questions, but also paralyzed. I have so many questions and dreams and things I want to develop that I don't know where to begin. I realize that I need to take the questions one at a time and answer each one. Or maybe I don't answer any of them. Maybe I just pose more questions. Maybe I need to learn to live with the questions and wait for the answers to come in their own time. Maybe it's time for me to stop pretending that I have the answers. I'm a seeker. I'm still on the journey. I'm just finding my wings and taking flight on this journey.

I am saying all that to say this: I haven't abandoned the blog. In fact, the opposite is true. I cannot stop thinking about the blog. What I have to do, and what I expect to do more and more of in the coming weeks, is stop thinking and get back to writing. One day at a time. One topic at a time. Not trying to imagine what the responses will be. Maybe I need to decide once and for all that individual responses don't matter. What matters is that people think. That people ask their own sets of questions. That people are stirred up. My heart and mind are certainly being stirred and shaken in truly profound ways right now by all of the above and so much more, so why shouldn't I share that?

I hope somebody is sleeping right now. I'm not.
But I'd better go try and get some sleep...
Grace and peace, Gail