Sunday, August 28, 2005

It may be quiet for a few days...

and here's why. Check out this link (scroll to the bottom of the page) and see what we're up to these days.

Yes, we took the plunge. We are panicked and excited and amazed at Maya's presence in our home. We can't believe we've done it, but we have!

Keep us in your thoughts and prayers in the coming week of sleepless nights. I guess it's back to midnight diaper changes and teaching a little one to sleep through the night.

What was I thinking???

Bye for now, Gail

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Beginning of Fall - Part One

The public schools in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina opened yesterday. Parents roused their sleepy children from their beds, encouraged them to put on newly purchased, freshly pressed outfits, and helped them hoist supply-filled backpacks onto tension-filled backs. School bus drivers were as lost as their young passengers were, baffled by new routes to new schools. “Learning cottages” (AKA “trailers”) filled school parking lots, soon to be filled with new students. Teachers checked over new lesson plans as they anticipated new educational adventures. Bouquets of newly sharpened pencils in new vases contained the seeds of creativity yet to be planted. In the words of my favorite commercially commandeered Christmas carol: it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

As a child, I was one of those rare children who always loved the start of the new academic year. I still do. At this time of year, I can frequently be found wandering the aisles of Target and Staples wistfully fondling the non-toxic glue sticks, turning ten packs of spiral notebooks over in my hands, and eyeing reams of college ruled composition paper. Two weeks ago, I purchased several eight packs of my favorite fine point pens, half a dozen decorated folders, and two boxes of the most colorful paper clips I’d ever seen. I don’t expect that we’ll need 200 paper clips during the course of this academic year, but if we do, we’ll have got them on hand. Even though there are only two students at The Silvermine Academy (AKA our homeschool), I can say with confidence that there are enough school supplies for ten times that number of hungry minds.

During my many years of formal education, those final days before the start of the new school year were days of quiet anticipation and careful assessment. I thumbed through new notebooks with their unmarked pages. I shined my new shoes with their unscuffed soles. I tried on my jeans with their untorn hems. I had an A in every subject and a perfect attendance record. All was well with the world; I was about to start school.

Here I am again at the beginning of the fall; only this time I am the teacher, the school is housed in our “bonus room,” and the only students are my own children. There are lessons for Kristiana and Daniel to learn on animal biology, American presidential history, Spanish language and geography, and the finer points of grammar and punctuation. There are lessons for me to learn on the biology of a marriage in its 15th year of existence. There are lessons for me to learn on the history of parenting a pre-teen daughter and football-playing son. There are lessons for me to learn in the nearly dead languages of forgiveness and love in a world where revenge and hate are spoken so fluently. And there are also lessons for me to learn on the finer points of submitting pieces to writing competitions even if I am never published or paid. There’s so much for all of us to learn this year.

At the beginning of the fall, we all have the same clean slate, the same empty notebooks, and the same opportunity to open our hearts and minds to the lessons that await us. What field trips must we take this year? Where will we go in our friendships, in our marriages, in our relationships with our parents and siblings? What great works of art will we gaze upon at the museum of modern family science? What monumental works will we create? How will we fare as we undertake new experiments in the lab of parenthood, of divorce, of new marriage? Will we put on our goggles, our heat resistant gloves, and take hold of these new test tubes with gusto and courage? Or will we shrink back and hope somebody else will extinguish the flames of failed past experiments? Will we reach out to the new kids in the lunchroom of life, the new neighbors on the block, and the new faces in the sanctuary, synagogue, or temple? Or will we keep our seat at the pre-determined table with other members of the in-crowd and leave the newbies to fend for themselves?

This is the most wonderful time of the year. Well, at least it can be. This is a wonderful time to find new recipes in old cookbooks. This is a wonderful time to reignite the fire of intellectual curiosity in my children. This is a wonderful time to encourage my husband to find new outlets for his creative energy. And this is a wonderful time for me to sharpen my pencils, my wit, and my mind for the year that lies ahead.

Today, at the beginning of the fall of 2005, I am turning to the first page of my new notebook, choosing an unused brightly colored new pencil, and getting ready to take copious notes on the lecture being given by the Master Teacher. I’d better go; I can’t be late to the first lecture.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

I've tagged myself...

There is an internet phenomenon right now called "tagging" that is all the rage at several of the blogs I frequently visit, but since none of those people know me, none of them will ever tag me. So I'm tagging myself. Here's how it works. I write five random things about myself that no one else is likely to know.

Here goes:

1. I think airports are wondrous places. I usually find a seat near a window and watch the airplanes come and go. Then I look around at other passengers and wonder where they are going: home or away. Are they looking forward to their trip or not? Are they married, single, divorced, or considering any of the above? Are they nervous about flying or do they love it as much as I do? Where will they stay? What do they think of me? Is my lipstick okay? Have I dropped food onto my clothes? I want to ask the pilots where they live, how long they have been pilots, what they enjoy most about being in the cockpit, what frightens them about flying. I want to ask flight attendants about their best and worst episodes on board. That sort of stuff.

2. I thoroughly enjoy going to the supermarket. I would never join an internet shopping club. It is always a thrill to grab my cart, plop my huge handbag into the kiddie seat, and enter into the local Harris Teeter. I plunge in with great curiosity and anticipation. All the fruit and vegetables in piles. The cuts and slabs of meat. The sushi. The cold cuts. The bags of beans and lentils. The salad dressings. The cereal boxes. The colorful bottles of juice, Gatorade, soda, and seltzer. The bags of chips and pretzels. I wonder who buys all that stuff. Who really eats Little Debbie cakes? Who drinks the green Kool-aid in plastic bottles? Don't people know that there is absolutely no nutritional value in white bread? Here in North Carolina, wine is sold in the supermarket. I wonder who knows which wines to buy and how they know. I like a good buzz, I mean a good glass of wine every now and then, but I don't have any knowledge of how to choose which wine. So I always get the white zinfandel and sip the sweet stuff. Works for me.

3. I am obsessed with my teeth. I brush vigorously with sensitive toothpaste. I follow my regular toothpaste with a prescription extra flouride toothpaste to help battle my sensitivity even more. I floss daily. I use a flouride rinse as well as Listerine. I use bleach to whiten my teeth a couple of times each year. Unfortunately, I didn't become obsessed with my teeth until ten or so years ago. Up until that point, I didn't take very good care of my teeth and now have a mouthful of cavities. Every fillable tooth in my mouth has been filled - at least once. Some have been filled twice. No crowns yet, but I'm sure there will be one or two coming soon.

4. This one stands in direct contrast to the previous one: I am addicted to candy. I carry mints or mentos with me at all times. I have a secret stash of red Australian licorice or raspberry licorice hearts somewhere in the house almost all the time. I am partial Snickers bars, milk chocolate pecan turtles, and Reeses Fast Break bars. I sneak candy into the movies, into church, and into my bedroom. I am a life-long sugar addict. Of course, I feel obligated to follow up that admission by declaring that we eat only organic salad, drink only organic milk, and eat only whole grain wheat bread. We never buy Twinkies or Hamburger Helper or Sunny-D. But I don't need to excuse or explain or justify my behavior. This is just a random and idiosyncratic thing about me. The truth is that I'm not ashamed of my candy addiction. Candy completes me.

5. I almost never buy things in single units. When I find sensitive toothpaste or mint floss or Australian licorice or socks or skirts on sale, I buy at least two. Sometimes three. Often more than that. When I was in Spain a couple of months ago, I came across a pen that I loved. I bought 30 of them in various colors and in both medium and fine points. Not at the same time, of course, lest they think I was nuts. But the two saleswomen noticed that I came in often and always bought the same items. When I got back to Charlotte and went to one of my favorite stores (Staples), I discovered the same pens in packs of eight colors in fine point. I was thrilled. I bought 7 more packs. I also discovered my favorite journal of all time there in Spain - rediscovered it really. I was introduced to them at an art supply store in New York City years ago, but then that store stopped carrying them, and I was forced to use a different type of journal. When I spied my old favorites at a shop near our Madrid apartment, I ordered a case of them: 24 to be exact. I was forced to buy another suitcase to bring them all home. Along with the pens... and the fabulous short sleeved shirts I found in Zara (the store) and fell in love with. I bought 8 or 9 of them in a rainbow of colors. Nothing in single units. Everything in multiples.

So there you have them: five of my random and strange personality quirks. It was fun writing this down; strange, but fun. I would love to hear back from anyone reading this: what are five of your random quirks? Would you be willing to share them here on the blog or at your own blog???

I'm off to write in my new journal with a new purple fine point pen. Then I will have to decide which Zara shirt I will wear to the supermarket. It's gonna be a great day!!!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Soul in Solo Travel

Lest my Tuesday's blog be interpreted as the ranting of a depressed, suicidal, or desperately lonely woman, let me be clear: there is an enormous upside to solitude. I have made more mind-bending discoveries, gained more soulful insights, and received more life-transforming revelations on solo journeys than I thought possible – until I traveled alone.

During the summer before my senior year at Williams College, I spent the month of August in Europe with a backpack, a first-class Eurail ticket, and a fistful of addresses of a few friends I was planning to visit. I figured out ways to ask for food at shops and vendors in countries where I didn’t speak the native language. I taught myself how to read not only 24-hour train schedules and foreign subway maps, but also the facial expressions of those who spoke not a word of English. I drank lavender tea for the first time on the Normandy coast. I developed a serious addiction to shortbread cookies coated with milk chocolate. And I became addicted to the intoxicating, energizing effects of coffee – on the road alone.

A month later, when I saw Velazquez’ depiction of Christ Crucified in Madrid's Prado Museum, my faith became sight. There He hung on the cross alone. There I stood in the gallery alone. He understood solitude. At the other end of the art spectrum, I was enchanted by the playful, colorful, whimsical painting of MirĂ² in a museum in Barcelona three years ago. Although I wandered around the Miro foundation alone, I laughed out loud. I sat and stared. I wrote frantically and wildly in my journal. In March of 2000, I sprinted up three flights of stairs to the uppermost deck of the Seabourn Legend a little after 4 in the morning in order to be the first one to see the sunrise as our cruise ship pulled into the harbor of Rio de Janeiro. Sure there were tour groups that were shuffling along behind tour guides that were droning on in Barcelona and Madrid’s museums. Sure there were a handful of other passengers on deck watching the sun cast its quilt of many colors onto the South Atlantic Ocean that Rio morning. But ultimately, profoundly, and willfully, I was alone. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

At the church of the Holy Cross in Florence in October of 2001, I experienced firsthand that no matter how lonely I may feel at a particular moment, in fact, I am never truly alone. I entered the cloister that afternoon sick of the solitude, overwhelmed with longing for the company of someone I knew and loved. As I sat there, writing in my journal, crying, feeling sorry for myself, I began to hear what I could only describe as the still, small voice of God whispering quietly into the ears of my sorrowful soul. Gradually my loneliness faded and was replaced with the unmistakable presence of Someone Else. I knew that I knew that I knew that I was no longer alone because He was with me. He would accompany me to restaurants and museums and shops that I would love. The prayer of a pastoral friend of mine a few days before my trip had been answered; Ian had asked that I would know firsthand what it was to be alone with The Alone. While I cannot fully explain what happened to me there in that ancient square, I will say this: the remainder of my first foray into Italy evolved into the best solo trip I have ever taken.

In the midst of the busyness of motherhood, marriage, friendships, and everything else that makes demands on my time and my energy, I draw upon and delight in the solitude that I have learned to carry with me. On line at the supermarket, I enter my own cathedral of praise and give thanks for the bounty that I am able to take home and prepare for my family. At the airport last week as I waited an extra three hours for my flight, I reminisced about the three dear friends I had just spent two days with, brainstormed about what I hope to accomplish with the children this year in our one room schoolhouse, and basked in the joy of those hours alone. Sitting in one overpriced coffee shop or another every Saturday morning, nursing one overpriced, highly sweetened coffee drink or another, filling the pages of my journal with words, filling the wellspring of my heart with thoughts of joy, and filling my mind with the words of well-chosen poems, psalms, and other thought-provoking writings, I always wonder why people don’t choose solitude more often.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Solitary Stories from the Road

On his flight from Miami to Madrid back at the beginning of June, my husband sat beside an eleven-year-old girl on her way from San Francisco to Alicante, Spain. The product of a divorced home, she travels from one end of our country to the far end of another every summer and every Christmas in order to spend time with her father.

On a recent trip I took to the New York area, two young brothers traveled alone on a USAir flight from Charlotte to the Big Apple. Their mother dropped them off at the gate on this end. I wonder who would pick them up at the other end.

Lance Armstrong recently won his seventh consecutive Tour de France. Although he is a member of a team, Lance had to ride every stage of that grueling bike race alone. And so did every member of his team as well as every member of every team that competed in that competition.

A few years ago, one of my dearest friends in the world spent an entire month walking from the border of France to the magnificent cathedral in the northwestern corner of Spain. El Camino de Santiago is a centuries-old pilgrimage that draws travelers from all over the world to traverse its long and lonely trek in groups, in pairs, and sometimes alone from its exhilirating start to its inevitable conclusion.

After reaching Santiago de Compostela, there was one final place to go: Finisterre. The end of the world. He and his friends climbed out onto the rocks, looked out over the Atlantic towards the Americas, gave thanks for traveling mercies, and some people threw their worn and broken boots out into the sea. One friend looked down at the water as it beat against the rocks and decided to go for a swim. Disregarding pleas to the contrary, he plunged into the frigid water, swam for a few short moments, and then disappeared from view. At the end of el camino at the end of the world, he arrived at the end of his life.

Even though it may not appear to be the case, all of these stories are all the same. All of these travelers are learning that life is a solitary journey. Parents bring children into a world where parents don’t always stay together. Children are shuttled back and forth through airports and arguments, through security checks and checkpoints of complete insecurity. Sometimes they sit next to people who care for them, look out for them, ask them questions, and tell them stories. Sometimes they sit alone on long flights, during long nights, and in long car rides where few words are spoken and no love is shared. I am deeply saddened when I think of how so many children learn so very early that this life is a solitary journey.

Lance and his teammates set out every morning with a plan of attack. Who would provide protection for Lance, who would keep pursuers at a distance, and who would give up their own dreams of success – all the answers to those questions were mapped out before any of them took to the road. But each man rode on his own seat. Anyone who fell down had to pick himself up. Anyone who fell behind was left behind. Spouses, children, friends, lovers, and other loyal supporters could do nothing but watch from the sidelines, speak to their beloved on a cell phone, and wait anxiously at the finish line every evening. My husband, my children, my friends, and my co-travelers can cheer for me, protect me from some enemies, and provide succor when I am in need. But I ride this life cycle alone.

I have visited a couple of those welcome stations along el camino de Santiago in Spain. I have watched the walkers as they check in to that private suite of reflection at the end of a stage as the sun sets. Their stages are vastly different from those of the Tour de France. No one is keeping time. No cameras document the finishers. Spouses aren’t waiting with Gatorade and massage therapists. These men and women walk alone. They think. They cry and they pray. Slowly, they make their solitary way to the inevitable end of the journey.

Not long ago, I stood at Finisterre with Antonio. I looked down on those jagged rocks. I wept as I imagined him there dealig with the untimely death of his friend. I wish I could have been there to comfort my friend when he lost his friend. But like every traveler on every airplane, every bike, every car, every bus, every train, and every pair of feet, like that sweet little Spanish-American girl, those brothers on their way to New York, and Antonio, I walk my life journey alone. I travel alone. I carry my bags and my burdens alone. I think and pray and read and write alone.

Sooner or later, though, I cry out for help, yearn for companionship, and long for comfort on the road. Gratefully, my Help, my Comforter, my Companion hears me when I call, and my cry for help has never gone unanswered. But it still feels awfully lonely sometimes.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The US Open of What?

Flipping through the channels this morning, my husband and I stumbled upon a morning news show reporting on the current starvation crisis in the African nation of Niger. The sight of beautiful brown-skinned children with their deeply shadowed and sunken eyes, flies buzzing around their emaciated frames, surrounded by hundreds of other children and their equally malnourished mothers both angered and shamed me. Why did I not know anything about this sooner? What is being done? How are my two sponsor children doing in Swaziland and the Dominican Republic? Where is the money going, the monthly contributions that I make in their names? What else am I going to do? Who are the amazing people, these foreigners who wade into those battle zones, fighting to save lives rather than to end them, with bread, rice, porridge, as well as seeds and seedlings for future crops? Why was I born into such a wealthy nation when so many are born into such despair? Why does such inequity continue to exist in the world? If we can import computer chips, Harley Davidson t-shirts, and cocaine from around the world, why can’t we export even more of our corn, wheat, and barley around the world? I know we are already the world's largest distributor of food aid, but why can’t we give more – especially in light of that fact that we also served as the host nation for one of the most ridiculous competitions in existence???!!!

Sitting there in bed this morning, silenced by the outcry of those desperately hungry people, I was even more deeply disturbed by the sublimely outrageous spectacle I’d seen less than 48 hours before: the US Open of Competitive Eating. Yes, that’s right. This nation recently hosted competitors from around the globe to compete in the “sport” of overeating. Appropriately sponsored by Alka Seltzer, men and women of all ages and sizes gathered in Las Vegas for several rounds of 15 minutes in duration during which they consumed as much food as possible. I was simultaneously repulsed and captivated by the broadcast.

The competitors (I simply refuse to refer to them as “athletes” even though some of them are in fantastic physical condition.) were paired up, much like in the US Open Tennis tournament: top seeds faced bottom seeds and the challenger who had consumed the most food at the end of each round advanced. The rounds I saw involved the consumption of spaghetti and meatballs, salad (quarterfinals), potato skins (semifinals), and six pound appetizer platters (finals). Just to provide a little perspective, the first and second place finishers in the potato skins round ate 72 and 54 potato skins respectively – each topped with bacon and two kinds of cheese. That’s 36 and 27 whole potatoes! The appetizer platters contained chicken fingers, a bowl of chili, a buffalo chicken sandwich, chopped vegetables, artichoke and spinach dip, and a few other things I don't remember - on each platter. The two finalists ate more than two platters each. What surprised me most was that the second place finisher was a very, very slight Asian woman whose country of origin I didn’t catch. The man to her right was Japanese and is best known as the long time reigning king of the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest. According to the commentator, neither of them weighed more than 145 pounds.

This morning’s famine report bombarded us with critical statistics on how many people will certainly die of starvation within the next month if nothing is done to help them immediately. However, this crisis did not start yesterday, last week, or even last year. I have spent the last several weeks and months listening to criticism of the UN and its leadership, some of which is well deserved. I have spent the last several years, perhaps even decades, listening to criticism of the leadership of many African nations, especially those where the poor and powerless slowly starve to death while the prosperous and powerful slowly fatten themselves on the financial and food aid that is being sent for the dying. That too is criticism that must be taken seriously and dealt with purposefully.

But perhaps the most deep-seated, the most shameful, and the most quickly dismissed form of corruption is the one that has turned my nation into the most obese in the world when so many millions are dying of starvation. The most sobering and devastating statistics I have heard in the past few years are those that denote the number of American children suffering the ravages of diet and lifestyle induced diabetes and other chronic illnesses. The greatest waste of resources is right here in the US of A where we drive our gas-guzzling, road-hogging vehicles to the drive through window, where we order family-sized meals for each individual in the car, eat the entire 800 calorie burger, 450 calories of french fries, throw away half the aspartame-laced soda (“and a large diet coke”). Upon returning home, we engage in three more sets of arm curls as we pump ice cream, nacho chips, and peanut M&M’s into our chubby cheeks, all the while shaking our fists in rage at international waste, greed, and overindulgence.

So I ask myself: what am I going to do with the anger, shame, and frustration I’m feeling right now? What difference am I going to make in the fight against starvation in Africa and gluttony in America? What am I teaching my children that will make a difference in the way the next generation eats, gives, and lives on this shrinking planet with its shrinking resources? What on earth prompted somebody somewhere to convert gluttony into a televised and highly compensated activity? And why on earth didn’t I turn away from watching it? That is a rhetorical question I can and will answer: I was taking notes for this very blog!