Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A time to laugh, a time to cry...

Yesterday as I spoke to a friend on the telephone, she told me of a friend of hers, a 38-year-old man who'd died suddenly over the weekend. This morning I received an email about a woman I knew from Connecticut who'd died in her sleep earlier this week. Over the weekend, I attended a retreat for homeschooling moms (which could be a blog unto itself...) during which the speaker told of a young mother who'd recently died of cancer. The brevity of life is rarely discussed.

Tomorrow morning we will fly out to San Francisco for the weekend to see some friends and celebrate the clean bill of health recently given to their one-year-old daughter who waged and won a fierce battle against cancer. Another dear friend who suffers with depression is making progress in the battle against the darkness. Another is healing from a successful hip replacement surgery and is rejoicing in painfree morning walks with her dog. Many hundreds of evacuees from the Gulf Coast have been placed in housing here in Charlotte, have enrolled their children in school, and are finding work to provide for their families. Victories over despair and disease are not discussed nearly often enough.

So today, I will set aside time with my children to mourn for those who have lost loved ones, for those who have lost their homes and businesses in disasters of all kinds, and to pray for those still in the midst of difficult times. And we will also pack our suitcases, read a few guidebooks, and make plans to enjoy our time in San Francisco, all the while giving thanks to God for healing Caroline.

This morning, I went for a long walk with my husband and we talked about how blessed we are, how well we live, and how much we have to be grateful for. We laughed at our children's antics and questions and unique learning styles. We lamented the crisis of leadership and direction both in our church and our nation. We brainstormed about some plans we are making for future travel, homeschooling, and family activities. And throughout our conversation, I thought of the widow in one of the homes we passed, the woman who recently lost her husband to cancer. I thought of two couples I know anxiously trying to get pregnant. I thought of all the divorced, broken, and blended families in our neighborhood. Mostly, though, I gave thanks for our health, our life together, and the realization that no matter how brief life is, every moment of it contains some touch of grace, some strand of hope, some possibility for love.

The Bible says, "Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning."
Today we will weep with those who weep.
Tomorrow we will rejoice with those who rejoice.
Daily we will lift our hands and hearts in praise and thanks
for this gift that is life.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

"Born into Brothels"

Today is my son's ninth birthday. Nine years ago today, I gave birth to him in a whirlpool tub at The Birth Cottage in Poughkeepsie, NY. I suspect that those early minutes of hot water on his head are what caused him to hate washing his hair to this very day. What a joy it was to welcome him into the world! Eight pounds and nine ounces of rambunctious, nerve-jangling, life-altering energy that couldn't even wait for me to get out of the tub before making his dramatic entry into the Belsito family.

Birthdays are fun in our house. We have a tradition of the children waking up to find balloons in their bedrooms on the morning of their birthdays. We used to make banners as well, but I was too lazy of late to do the computer work after they went to bed last night. Anyway, yesterday he informed me that the balloons look like people to him and frighten him, so he didn't want them to be in his room when he awoke. So I tied two to his chair in the homeschool room, two to each of their stools at the kitchen counter, and one to his PlayStation unit in the family room. he liked that much better.

Soon after we all got up this morning, we piled into my bed for the opening of the presents. A few goodies I'd picked up in Spain were a big hit, as were the other odds and ends we tossed into a gift bag for him. He's still so easy to please; I hope he maintains his simple joy and laughter long into his life. No birthday cake for my Daniel, though; he requested butterscotch squares which we ate with neopolitan ice cream after football practice tonight. He is in bed now, belly full, heart happy, and already looking forward to Christmas.

I am enormously grateful to be able to honor my son's life in such a simple but beautiful way. He's a delight to have in our family. A friend of mine with four daughters tells them this story: "A long time ago, God was walking around heaven deciding which children to send to our family. He sent you to us, and we couldn't be happier. Of all the children in heaven He could have chosen, we are thrilled that He gave you to us." I like that story. Of all the boys in our neighborhood, in all of the world, there isn't one other boy I'd want to have as my son than this kid. He smiles broadly every time I tell him that, but he tests me with the names of certain boys he likes a lot to see if I'd choose them over him. Of course I never do. He makes me laugh, cry, scream, fume, rant, rave, and adore him - all within a single hour some days. He runs, jumps, falls, figures out two digit multiplication in his head, and remembers Bible verses after looking at them only once or twice. He's an awesome kid. But I admit to being biased.

This afternoon on our way to his football practice, we returned some movies to BlockBuster and picked up a few more. I grabbed one entitled, "Born into Brothels." I'd never heard of it before, but it appears to be a documentary about the lives of children born into brothels in Calcutta. They are taught to use cameras and take photos of themselves, their friends, and their lives. I expect to shed many tears, to be moved to anger, and then numbed by the film.

I expect that it will also cause me to hug and appreciate my own children in a new way. It will move me to a deeper level of gratitude for the great bounty and blessings we enjoy and are able to rain down on them. It will remind me of the comfort, the peace, the calm, the normalcy (if such a thing exists...) that makes up our regular routine.

Born into brothels.
Born into privilege.
Born into fear and despair.
Born into security and hope.

In some ways, those statements are contradictory. In some ways they aren't. There is fear and despair in the midst of privilege. There can be security and hope in the backrooms of brothels. I am looking forward to seeing the film. I will be sure to write a review soon thereafter.

I am also looking forward to celebrating Kristiana's 12th birthday at the end of October. We are planning a mother-daughter day on Saturday the 29th: out for breakfast, some clothes shopping for her, getting our hair done, manicures, and everything else we can think of. It should be lots of fun.

Happy Birthday, Daniel!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

More thoughts and questions on Hurricane Katrina...

Last Monday evening, my daughter and I went to the Charlotte Colisseum with several bags of clothes, books, cosmetic items, and school supplies to donate them to the evacuees from the Gulf Coast who ended up here in our home city. After we passed through a metal detecting security checkpoint, we were directed to the Red Cross volunteer table. I asked if it would be possible for us to read some stories to the children - in English or Spanish, to paint some fingernails, to hang out, and provide some human comfort to those who had lost so much.

"Sorry, ma'am. Sorry, the children have all dispersed, so reading to them isn't an option right now. Your daughter has to be 18 years or older. Nope, she cannot help with sorting clothes either because that takes place on the site of the residence and the minimum age for any volunteers is 18. You have to have a minimum of four hours at a time to help out. You must go through training classes in order to help. No one is allowed to enter the residence itself. I'm not exactly sure if we have any Spanish speakers; sometimes we do, but I'm not sure at the moment."

We wanted to help, but we couldn't.

I remembered the story told by the woman at the Labor Day dinner a few weekends ago; whe works for the Red Cross. She said that the Red Cross was on site and ready to offer aid to those evacuating the Gulf Coast within 24 hours of the storm, but they too were denied access to the affected areas for far too long. Doctors and nurses who were airlifted out of New Orleans hospitals and deposited at the airport there were told to mop floors instead of helping needy patients because liability was too high if they weren't government appointed physicians. One doctor wept as he told the CNN reporter of his anguish at watching patients die all around him.

They wanted to help but they couldn't.

I am curious to see who will be allowed to help. Whose companies will be allowed access to complete the demolition of those destroyed cities? Whose companies will be given no-bid contracts to rebuild? Whose companies will service the affected regions? Will the men and women who lived and worked in New Orleans be allowed to come and do some of the work, to be paid to rebuild the city they called home for so many years?

I also wonder whose opinions will be taken into account when rebuilding New Orleans? One wise friend of mine believes that those who lost their homes, those who lived in public housing, those who lived in rental properties should be consulted in this process. What kind of communities do they wish to return to? What kinds of resources did they lack prior to Katrina that can now be factored into the reconstruction equation? Will there be more access to public transportation or will their new homes be built closer to the communities they serve and service? Will they have easy access to supermarkets, doctors, libraries, and schools? Is it possible to build neighborhoods that reflect the small town feel of ages gone by: where cars and minivans aren't needed in order to shop for groceries? Is it possible to construct buildings that allow for easier handicapped access, safe child-geared play areas, and access to evacuation routing should it become necessary again?

Isn't it a little uncomfortable to read these questions and try to find answers to them? I am so steeped in the philosophy that says, "He who has the money makes the decisions" that I cannot imagine asking poor people to dream aloud about where and how they'd like to live. I am so steeped in the philosophy that says that no one has "a right" to health care, that no one has "a right" to decent housing, that those who pay their way are those whose opinions matter, that it's hard to imagine a society or a city in which those of us who have money and health care and homes we own have to accept someone else's opinion or allow others to enjoy the benefits we take for granted. Even if it's true, that we don't have the right to demand anything of anyone else, even if it's true that we deserve absolutely no mercy or grace or kindness, shouldn't we extend grace and mercy and compassion to others simply because it's the right thing to do? Shouldn't we, especially those of us who cling to the notion that this is a Christian nation, that ours is a Christian president, and that Christian moral values ought to be upheld, shouldn't we be setting the example of compassion in this dark and dismal situation?

A few days ago, I was hearing a lot about "the blame game." It was a popular phrase on the lips of reporters and politicians alike. Some wanted to lay blame (myself included) and some wanted to avoid laying blame. One of the sharpest and funniest modern-day philosophers in America, Jon Stewart said: "Those who don't want to play the blame game are usually to blame." But sarcastic comments aside, I began to consider the issue of responsibility. Why don't we forget laying blame and begin to take responsibility?

When I burn dinner, it's my responsibility. It's doesn't make sense to blame the electric company for a power surge that hit my stovetop. When I neglect to feed my new puppy, it's my responsibility. It doesn't make sense to blame the children for distracting me from my duty as mother to the newest baby in our midst. Sure, I'd do anything to avoid playing the blame game in those situations; but evasion on my part does nothing to dismiss the truth that what is my fault is my fault. I didn't do what I was supposed to do. I forgot. I didn't pay attention. I didn't take it seriously. I must stand up and tell the truth: I did it. I messed up. Here's how I'm gonna make it right.

To that end, I was shocked, amazed, almost incredulous when President Bush stood before television cameras on two occasions last week and took responsibility for the failings of the federal government with relation to the crisis on the Gulf Coast. He said that as President he is responsible for the problem and for the solution. As he stood there last week and spoke of the hope of New Orleans being rebuilt better than ever, as he spoke poetically of the glory that will return to that great city, I couldn't help but speak out loud to the talking head on my television screen. "So how are you going to make this right? You've taken responsibility and that's admirable. But who will you pick to rebuild those ravaged places? Please don't let us see the names of the same companies who had first dibs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who will be given first consideration by FEMA and other charities in the task of giving aid to those in need? Please don't let it be the wealthy people with big houses and equally large insurance policies. What will happen differently in the future when tragedies like this occur? Will you rush home from vacation and meet the needs head-on? Will you dispatch your best and brightest leaders rather than friends or friends of friends? That fiasco with FEMA Director Brown has yet to be sufficiently explained. Please make sure that there is better resume checking in the future."

No one who knows anything about me is the least bit surprised that I struggle with disappointment with the current administration. I am no Republican, and unless the political climate in this nation changes drastically in the coming years, I don't expect I ever will be. However, the disappointment and shame and anger I feel right now is less political than it is spiritual.

Hundreds of people wanted to help the needy when they arrived in Charlotte. Hundreds more were ready and willing down there where the disaster struck. At a time when so many were in need, help was denied them for reasons I will never understand. Millions of dollars have been donated to various agencies and churches and organizations as a result of this hurricane. What do we do now?

For the love of God, in light of His great mercy, let us prove that we are above favoritism and fear of lawsuits and personal or political pride, and let us do the right thing now because it is the right thing to do. Let us include the underprivileged and the displaced, the powerless and underrepresented in the planning and execution of this long process of restoration. Let us move away from the usual models of allowing wealth, power, and political access to dictate the outcome and allow justice, fairness, and brotherly kindness be the units of measure by which we gauge our growth in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Let us show we are Christians by our love, by our hard-work, by our willingness to continue to be held accountable, by our unrelenting availability to those in need, and by our unimpeachable integrity.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A quick apology...

to those of you who send me comments. I've had to change the format of leaving comments a little in order to stop getting spam here on the blog. It is a self-explanatory thing you have to do when you get to the comment screen. The computer generated spam distributors cannot bypass this step, so it makes life easier for me. I hope it's not too much of an inconvenience to my cherished friends who like to write to me, but if it is, by all means, skip this comment thing altogether and email me directly at:

Thanks for your understanding, Gail

"Suffer for Sexy..."

Back when I was living in Connecticut, I discovered that whenever I did something special with my hair, tried a new make-up color, or found a pair of sensational shoes, one particular church friend would sidle up next to me and ask what I had done differently. Once when it was a hair-related inquiry, I replied, "It's the wonder of plastic. Rollers, that is." Then I launched into the minute details of shampooing, conditioning, oiling, twisting, and setting my locs on more than 50 rollers, sitting under the dryer for hours, sleeping in the rollers overnight, and removing them in the morning. It was a painful procedure, but well worth the many compliments and the undeniable Oprah-type glam of wearing my hair in springy curls for a week. My friend listened to my description with rapt attention, and then she said, "Well you know, you've gotta suffer for sexy."

I knew that she knew what she was talking about because that woman wore the highest heels, the most elaborate hairstyles, the most complex and color-coordinated make-up, and clothes that looked like they'd been made just for her curvaceous frame. I know that she had "suffered for sexy." The hours it took her to put that look together are certainly incalculable. But the look was indescribable. I would watch her prance up onto the church platform to sing with the worship group and mumble something under my breath like, "You go, girl."

I have thought of my friend Mary often in the past few hours because today is what I affectionately refer to as "beauty parlor day." I have gone through all of the aforementioned hair-raising antics and am currently sitting at the computer with white, gray, and pink rollers all over my head. I have spent nearly two hours under the dryer already and will spend a minimum of two more hours under it before I take the rollers out sometime late tomorrow morning. With my light blue nightgown and my black ankle socks on (trapping both the warmth of my feet and the soothing effects of the shea butter cream I've put on them), I am not anyone's picture of elegance or beauty. But tomorrow when I get dressed to meet Moneesha for lunch at Dean and DeLuca, when I drive my daughter over to her best friend's house for a sleepover tomorrow afternoon, and on Saturday when I stroll across the fields at my son's football, everyone else will see the benefits of my current suffering.

The only possible hitch in all of this will be when I have to take Daniel to football practice in a couple of hours. I'm planning to put on a hideous black satin cap over my rollers, don my grey hooded sweatshirt, and pull the hood over my head as I drive through the streets of South Charlotte on the way to the practice field. I will have on my darkest shades and I will not look to the right or to the left as I drive. On practice days after we drop him off to play, my daughter and I usually head to the pet store in search of treats for Maya, to a bookstore in search of treats for ourselves, or do something far more mundane like head to the supermarket - but not tonight. I will shove him out of the still moving minivan and race straight home - hoping and praying not to run into anyone I know. I may even try to outrun any police officer who should try to stop and ticket me due to my haste.

About halfway through the first hour under the dryer this morning, it hit me. This current suffering is remarkably parallel to the suffering of athletes in training, musicians practicing, and highly accomplished writers toiling away at their computers. The sweaty workouts, the grueling runs up 45 degree hills, the many hours of playing and singing up and down the scales, and the countless drafts of crappy stories are the steps up the ladder of success that no one sees. The restrictive diets, the secret hideaways for late-night jam sessions, and the tears over approaching deadlines and receding imaginations - that is what success demands of all who seek it. You've gotta suffer for sexy - and for fitness, for being in tune, and for producing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. What we see on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, on the grand stages of domestic and international opera houses, and on the tennis courts of Champions are the results that came at a great personal cost to those performers who make it all look so beguilingly simple. There is nothing simple or easy about what any of them do.

Much closer to home, I find that I too must restrict my intellectual and emotional intake by cutting out junk-food television. I must stretch my heart and soul by reading and watching painful news broadcasts and listening to the tales of woe suffered by friends and family. I must force myself to acknowledge my sedentary lifestyle and make a plan to improve my spiritual fitness when I am feeling unfit, over-weight, and poorly nourished in that area of my life. When I wake up an hour before everyone else in my house and open my morning pages journal, when I read and reread familiar Scriptures and meditate on them, when I sit at the computer keyboard to write, erase, rewrite, and re-erase - all of that adds up to an increasing fitness of heart and mind that doesn't come easily or simply.

I would hate for anyone to see me on the floor of my study room poring over old journals, flipping through study books, breaking the points of colored pencils, or weeping in prayer over the broken hearts and shattered lives of people I know and people I know of. I keep the door to my study/workout room shut when I am working out the kinks and cramps in my attitudes towards those I long to despise but I know I ought to love. I grunt with every set of lunges and squats, lifts and pulls to fight the cellulite of self-pity and false humility, that cottage-cheesy stuff that everybody sees in me but I don't want to own up to. The flabby underarm waddle that keeps on shaking long after I stop moving - that's my self-righteous indignation, and I've gotta be persistent in lifting the barbells of humility and grace in order to keep it at bay.

It's the behind the scenes work that makes the most difference. Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, and Ben Bratt make it look too easy. They show up on our movie screens fit and gorgeous, sleek and perfectly coiffed. Venus, Serena, Andre Agassi, and Roger Federer sprint and hurl themselves across the court only to place the ball in a far-off corner of the box; they are like powerful modern dancers out there. What we don't see are the trainers, the massage therapists, the cooks, the clothing designers, the make-up artists, the beauticians who make them look like pure perfection. And that doesn't include the graphic artists, air brush artists, and computer animators who put in the finishing touches that make us all feel nothing short of ashamed of our flabby, unseemly bodies and our wrinkled, pock-marked faces.

Unfortunately, I don't have a team of magicians to put me together every time I make a public appearance. I have to do all the hard work of physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation myself. I wear my shoulders out taking care of all this hair, build them up again sweating, kicking, and punching my way through Tae Bo, and drinking enough water to float a small boat. I sharpen my communication skills by writing so much in my journal that I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in my right wrist. Here's the truth: I am willing to undertake this afternoon's clandestine drive to football practice and the painful night of sleeping in rollers in order to receive the many compliments I'll get on my fancy new 'doo tomorrow and for the next few days. I am also willing to forego an hour or two of sleep every night in order to build my faith, deepen my satisfaction and contentment with this amazing life I live, and figure out ways to share my tales of the journey with all those patient and trusting enough to return to this blog over and over.

Mary was right; sometimes you've gotta suffer for sexy. And for joy unspeakable full of hope, for wisdom, knowledge, and depth of insight, and in order to attain the peace that passes all understanding.

At the moment, however, I'm off to sit under the dryer for another half hour or so.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Lessons I've learned from my dog...

She's less than five months old. She's the cutest thing I've seen in many a year. The way she cocks her head to the side when I call her name makes me giggle every time. The way she starts scratching the bottom of her kennel in the mornings to go out for her walk proves how smart she is and how much she has already learned about her daily routine.

But here's the best thing about Maya: this dog, this beautiful little Yorkie doesn't bark!!! She jumps. She paws at us through her kennel cage. She knows that when we come to open the door, she must sit down in order to be set free. But she doesn't bark at us. We are wondering when she will discover the power of her vocal chords, but we are certainly not looking forward to that day. So until that day arrives, we are enjoying the sound of silence from our sweet little Miss Mama Maya Mia Belsito - that's her official American Kennel Club name.

In the two weeks and two days that Maya has been a member of our family, she has taught me more than I have taught her.

First of all, she has taught me what true joy and excitement are. When we come into the kitchen where her daytime pen is located, she begins a dance that is difficult to describe, but I'll try. She gets up on her back legs and puts her front paws together - and she dances. She leaps up as high as she can. She lifts her back legs at least six inches off the floor, and she slides from one end of her kennel to the other. Repeatedly. Watching our every move. Until we began the difficult chore of training her to stay seated and calmly be welcomed into our family activities, she would keep that dance going for a solid five minutes. But, like I said, she's a smart dog, so she prances for just a few seconds - just long enough to show us how excited she is to see us - before sitting down. And once we open the cage and tell her to come out, she scampers over to whomever is closest to her and wags her tail so hard that she practically knocks herself over. She falls over to one side with legs akimbo begging to be scratched and rubbed and loved. Total openness. Total vulnerability. Total joy.

Secondly, Maya has taught me, reminded me really, of the great joy that can be derived from the simplest things. Today Daniel gave her a carrot, and she played with that carrot for nearly 20 minutes. She'd nibble it, then pick it up in her mouth, toss it a few inches away, and pounce on it like it was a live snake. She chased it, kicked it, and finally ate the whole thing. I think she was genuinely disappointed when it disappeared for good. She has a similar routine with an old sock we've given to her as a toy. The expensive doo-dads we bought at PetSmart aren't nearly as intriguing as the newspaper shreds before she pees on it, the hand towels she curls up on, and a few well-tossed bits of her dry food. Plus my dreadlocs send her into fits of glee as she bats at them and tries to catch them in her teeth whenever I pick her up. This little furry princess needs no tiara, no chariot pulled by able horsemen, nor does she pine away for fur coats. All she wants is a bowl of water, a handful of liver treats, and a good hug or two to get her through the day.

But Maya has not only taught me fun and enjoyable things. She has also reminded me that when something doesn't smell right it usually means that something is not right. Yesterday morning, when I opened her kennel to take her out for a walk, she didn't come out as she usually does when I call her. She ducked her head a little and avoided my gaze. I actually had to reach in and pull her out. As soon as my head entered the kennel, it hit me: something did not smell right. In fact, something smelled awful. But I pulled her out anyway, successfully overcame my gag reflex, and took her outside. Unable to ignore the noxious fumes for long, I picked up her sleeping towel and sniffed it. Yikes! Yuck! Phew!

Two smelly deposits needed to be removed from the towel and disposed of properly. The towel then needed to be disinfected. The entire kennel needed a Lysol treatment. As awful as it was to clean, I was glad that she didn't have to go back into that mess the next night. She wouldn't have been able to sleep well, and perhaps then we would have heard her first barks.

But even in that awful situation, Maya taught me a lesson. She knew she'd done wrong. She knew that her mess had to be cleaned up, but she never stopped trusting that all would be well. She went outside for her morning walk. She came inside to eat and drink and hang out in her pen. She never doubted that all would be taken care of and she would be restored to her rightful doggy place in our family.

Maya has nothing to worry about. She gets fed regularly. She has fresh water to drink at all times. She has toys she loves. She has a family that loves her and takes care of her. She is being well trained to obey us, but in the process she's eating lots of her favorite treats. She's not worried about the mortgage payment, the potential hurricane threatening the North Carolina coast, or about the damage left by Hurricane Katrina. Her needs are being met. Her caretakers have never let her down. She is a happy dog.

As I watch her curl up and settle down for her regular naps, I sometimes envy her complete lack of worry. As I watch her attack her food bowl, I sometimes envy her carefree life: the bowl appears and it's full of the food she loves. The other bowl is always refreshingly thirst-quenching. The wet, smelly towel disappears and is replaced with a clean, dry one. Life is good.

Then I remember that I have nothing to be jealous of. I have no more need to worry about my life, my food, my water, or my clothing than she does. I have no more need to worry about the hurricane than she does. Certainly I'd have to make arrangements for her, for the children, for Steve and for myself if a bad storm hits this area, but worry isn't necessary. If Maya worried about whether or not her food would arrive, it wouldn't change anything about her eating situation; it's completely out of her hands - or her paws. If I worry about the weather, it doesn't change anything about the weather. It's out of my hands.

Not only do I have nothing to worry about, I have a whole lot to dance about. I have a husband and two children who love me. I have friends and family members all over the States and in many parts of the world who love me. I have a house I cannot imagine leaving, a church I am actively involved with, and neighbors whose presence in my life is a daily gift. I have friends who faithfully read this blog and share both encouraging and challenging responses. I am blessed beyond all I could ever list in one paragraph or even in an entire five subject spiral notebook.

Like Maya, I have a loving Father who cares for me, who provides all that I need, and lets me out of my cage every once in a while so I can explore the world around me. He's training me to trust Him, to follow Him, and to come to His side when He calls. I don't have to bark at Him; He knows what I need before I ask. When I wander away, He doesn't chase me. He waits until I have reached the end of my tether, have exhausted myself with resistance, and then He gently calls me to His side where there is always a treat: His loving and gentle presence.

Besides my God in whom I trust, I have many who hold me, feed me, and who even reach into my kennel and help me clean up the crap I try to hide in the folds of my life. Those are the kinds of friends I hold onto with both hands.

She's a great teacher, this tiny little tidbit we call Maya. If she lives to a ripe old Yorkie age, then I've got another 12 to 15 years of lessons ahead. And I thought I was done with school...

Friday, September 09, 2005

Celebrating in the Midst of the Sorrow

Fetid, filthy water soaks into the streets, the shops, the libraries, the banks, and the homes in New Orleans. Long slats of vinyl siding, roof shingles, unmoored bathroom appliances, and countless plywood boards litter the streets of devastated towns and villages along the Gulf Coast. Unfortunately sorrow is not limited to the Gulf Coast these days. A tornado destroyed parts of Iowa and of Spain in the past 24 hours. Drought continues to scorch parts of the western half of this nation. Family members and friends of those whose lives were lost nearly four years ago on September 11, 2001 are preparing to live through yet another grim anniversary. Fresh tears will flow. Photos will be clutched, stories of heroism told, and memorial services will be held in honor of the lost. Famine, war, poverty, disease, depression, crime, and loneliness are headlines that never seem to stop scrolling across our television screens, computer monitors, or our hearts and minds.

But in the midst of the suffering, there are reasons to celebrate. Two weeks ago, thousands of people fled their homes and towns before Hurricane Katrina arrived. Despite the slow and uncoordinated plan that took effect late last week, thousands of people were kept alive in those dank, dark, and hot shelters. Families have been reunited and reestablished elsewhere in the States. Some children have started school in new communities. Some adults have found new jobs and will begin them soon. Millions of dollars have been raised. Food and clothes have been donated, and lives are being restored. Not only is the water receding in New Orleans, but so also is some of the deluge of grief, heartache, and misery that has washed over us in unstoppable waves for the past eleven days.

On a more personal note, a Connecticut friend’s husband celebrates his birthday on September 11th. Another will welcome her husband home tonight when he returns from a week of work-related travel. My dear Pamela will spend her second weekend in Rome with her son; she will spend the next six months doing research, writing, and taking in all the glories of The Eternal City. Katie is beginning her second year of leading the Wednesday Worship series at First Presbyterian Church in uptown Charlotte. We were overjoyed to receive communion from her this past Wednesday and inaugurate another year of seeking God along with the faithful members of her congregation. Our precious puppy, Maya, is doing phenomenally well. She wags her tail furiously when we enter her line of sight, and then she chases us and jumps onto our laps whenever we wander out of her presence. She eats well, sleeps deeply, and has found a friend in Midnight, the enormous black Lab across the street.

In a few short hours, we will join several dozen friends to celebrate my mother’s 70th birthday. My mother has lived here in Charlotte for just over a year, and in that short time she has made enough friends to merit a birthday party with “real” invitations, over 75 invited guests, and enough willing volunteers that I don’t need to do anything but show up. I hope and pray she has a wonderful time. I know it will be hard for her though, because anytime there is a gathering of close friends, she wishes that my Dad could be at her side. After 45 years of marriage, four years of widowhood have not been sufficient to ease her sorrow or to stop missing from her best friend.

I asked my mother to tell me the greatest changes she has seen in the world in her 70 years. Although I hoped she’d give me an answer right away, she said she’d think about it and get back to me. As I wait, I think I will speculate on what her list may include. Certainly there have been a plethora of “conveniences” invented in her lifetime. Easily accessible and widely affordable automobiles and airline travel, telephones and televisions, personal computers and laptops come most quickly to mind. The fact that water fountains, public transportation, and hotel facilities are open to people of all races and creeds, and she lives in south Charlotte in a condo complex where whites and blacks own adjacent units all reflect a much-changed North Carolina than the one she grew up in. If, during her childhood, someone had told her that during her lifetime cities in her home state would look like Charlotte does, she would have responded that they were “as crazy as a sprayed roach.” But tonight she will be feted among friends and family from North and South America, black and white, interracially married, and no one will be worried about a cross burning on the front lawn.

This afternoon as I prepare myself and the children for the party, I have thought a lot about the many thousands, the many millions who do not have reason to celebrate today. They have lost their homes, their livelihoods, and people they love. They have lost faith in institutions and in people that they thought would come to their aid. They look around them and see cause only for despair. To them, to the sick, the jobless, the homeless, the desperate, I can offer only words of encouragement that are not my own. Please allow me to plagiarize and share a few tidbits from The Book I refer to daily for wisdom and guidance. I find that in times of sorrow there is much to provide comfort.

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why are you so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; He is my mighty rock, my refuge.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid, not be dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Tonight, at least, there will be joy at Mom’s party. The sorrow will probably return when the morning news reels roll, but in the midst of it, let us all take time, make time to eat with friends, to raise toasts, and to celebrate.

Happy 70th Birthday, Mom!

Monday, September 05, 2005

Questions, alligators, and fever...

I am so glad that the hungry ones have been fed, the thirsty ones have had water, and the sick ones have been moved to hospitals in other cities. It is good that the desperate and homeless have been transferred to other cities where the children will be able to go to school, the parents will begin to find work and housing, and the millions of Americans who watched helplessly as the situation worsened will finally be able to lend a hand, get personally involved, and make a difference. Finally, we get a chance to do something important, something compassionate, something human - after a week of nothing being done for so long and watching an inhumane crisis unfold before us. I am so glad.

But all is not well with me. I am still angry. I am frustrated. I am incredulous. I am confused. I still have a lot of questions. What on earth were they thinking as they stole televisions at a time when there was no electricity? What on earth were they thinking when they raped, killed, and assaulted other desperate, hungry, and newly homeless people? What could possibly be gained by shooting stolen guns at police officers and others who were trying to maintain order? And where are the thieves, rapists, and murderers now that the city has been evacuated and its trapped residents have been relocated to cities and towns all over our nation? Will they ever be brought to justice? Will anyone ever be brought to justice for the travesty, the tragedy that came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? For the people filmed running out of stores with diapers, baby formula, band aids, soda bottles, potato chips, and candy bars, is the judgment and the punishment the same as for those who stole television sets and dozens of pairs of sneakers? Would I have done any differently if I were there with my hungry, wet, dirty baby in my arms? Would my husband have entered those stores in search of sustenance for us?

Still I am glad because of the conversation around the backyard picnic table at a neighbor's house last night. As we sipped wine and beer, ate burgers and hot dogs off the grill, we talked about the horrors of last week. One of the women who was there works for the Red Cross. The good news was that over $100 million had been raised so far. We were all thrilled to hear that. The bad news was that staging areas with food, water, shelters, clothing, and other supplies were set up in neighboring counties on Tuesday and Wednesday, but that they weren't allowed to enter the area. She wasn't exactly sure why, but they were denied access. Some said it was because of the looters and gunslingers. Some said it was because access was severely limited. Some said it was because there wasn't a coherent plan of response and rescue. If The Red Cross was there and set up, why would anyone hold them back? If the media was there, set up, and moving freely throughout that downtown area of the city, how bad was the access? If hundreds of people could simply walk out of the city on the local highways, with feet bleeding, with hearts broken, and with souls deeply woulnded, why couldn't supplies be walked and carried and carted in?

Anyway, last night we talked about the race issue, the class issue, the fact that so many of our soldiers and tanks and other large pieces of equipment aren't available at the moment due to engagement elsewhere. We wondered what will come of this horrible situation in the weeks, months, years, and elections to come. We didn't resolve anything. We couldn't make much sense of any of it, but it was good to talk. It is necessary to talk. Wonder. Question. Consider. Pray. Help.

I spoke to a dear friend who lives in Vermont, and the questions flowed between us ceaselessly. Will New Orleans ever be rebuilt as it was? Should it be? Will poor people be able to live there in the future? Will neighborhoods be built that encourage community and togetherness, or will there simply be more huge houses on fortified compounds, affordable only to the super wealthy? Who will be chosen as contractors to clean up and rebuild? Who will profit from this great loss? What will happen to the thousands who must make entirely new lives in new places? How long can people be housed in public arenas before they are evacuated yet again? Where will they live? How will they live? How long will the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the generous people of this great nation be able to feed and clothe them? What about the many thousands of people affected by the storm whose faces will never be seen on television, whose personal stories will never be told, but whose losses are equally complete? What will happen to them? What will happen to our entire nation? And what if another hurricane strikes within the next two months? Hurricane season doesn't end until November.

Everyone is relieved that most of the residents of New Orleans and other affected regions have finally been brought to safer places. But many hazards and dangers remain. Alligators swim freely in those fetid waters. As do poisonous snakes. Human waste, trash, and debris leach their own toxins into the environment. Abandoned pets are now living as rabid animals on the loose. There are still people trapped inside their homes who await rescue.

And for those of us residing in safe, dry, unaffected homes, there are still alligators in the water, poisonous snakes swimming around in our souls. In our hearts. I've been bitten by the toxic snake of rage. I've been pulled under water and rendered helpless by the vicious jaws of cynicism, distrust, skepticism. The venom of rabid fear and worry surges through my veins as well. But I am praying for the antidote of forgiveness, of love, of tender-heartedness to kick in soon. So far this morning, I've journaled a little, read a little, taken a walk with Steve to the tennis courts, played a few games of tennis with him, and had a glass of ice cold water. I feel the fever breaking already.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Is this really happening here?

In the United States of America, the last superpower, the nation that is exporting democracy and equal rights and civil rights and human rights all over the world? The nation that is securing peace all over the world, shipping water, food, blankets, and clothing to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe? How is it that not only American reporters, but also journalists from abroad could fly into New Orleans with their equipment, security, food supplies, clean clothes and transmit images of total devastation and death, but no food, water, or medical supplies could be taken in? Where were the reporters sleeping this week?

Why were private hospital staff members evacuated by helicopter while critically ill patients were being manually ventilated on the roof of the public hospital across the street? How is it that, once the military was called in, it took only 48 hours to feed all those poor people, evacuate them, and find shelters for them - but they had to wait five days before help came? What took so long?

Are they refugees or American citizens? Did they not do as they were told and move from their homes to the Convention Center and the Super Dome? Why were the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana on the radio pleading for help all week long, but the directors of Homeland Security and FEMA and our President couldn't get there, respond, and perhaps even apologize for the inexplicable absence of action?

How is it possible that we moved our President and various members of his cabinet in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq to serve Thanksgiving turkey dinner during the war, but we weren't able to get them into New Orleans?

Would our response to this tragedy have been any different if a category 5 hurricane had hit Miami, Florida or Galveston, Texas and appeals for help were being made from the capitals of those states? Would our response have been any different if the thousands of faces in the streets outside those buildings were white? If the girls who had been raped were white?

There are just a few questions I've been pondering between fits of rage and bouts of abject horror at what is happening in these, the great and grand United States of America.

Is this really happening here?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Beginning of Fall - Part Two

There is a tree a few blocks from our house that has recently begun to “go through the change.” The leaves on the outer edges of the branches have gone from verdant green to rich mahogany. Although only a few of them have changed color so far, by the end of this month, I imagine that the majority of the leaves will be a shade of red that is reminiscent of ice cold cranberry juice. Set against the background of the Bradford pear trees that seem to stay green for most of the year, the tree under consideration is brilliant beyond compare. My feeble attempts at descriptions of color do that magnificent specimen no justice; forgive me. I will say it as plainly as I know how: at the beginning of the fall every year, this tree matures into a kaleidoscope of earth tones that are luxuriant, intense, full-toned, and breathtakingly origin.

At the beginning of the fall, the green chlorophyll in the leaves and branches begins to withdraw from its prominent place in nature’s color scheme and all the other shades, the reds, oranges, yellows, and burgundies are finally allowed to shine forth. I remember being amazed in high school biology class when I learned that those colors are always there; they are simply outdone, outnumbered, and overridden by green during spring and summer. The beauty is always there, but it is only at the beginning of the fall when it appears to the naked eye. I love that; the beauty has always been there. We just haven’t seen it.

I will turn 40 in just over three months; my birthday is three months and thirteen days from today to be exact. According to many age charts, most women’s magazines, and despite all hopes and wishes to the contrary, I am at the beginning of the fall of my life. I am still green in most spots, but the edges are starting to darken. Skin tags and sags are harder to hide. Dark spots get darker. Hair begins to grow where it ought not be. Joints snap, crackle, and pop in the morning. Laugh lines deepen – gotta laugh more, though. All these lines and bumps and spots have always been here; I’m horrified on a daily basis by how much more visible they are, even to my naked eyes, which are getting weaker by the year.

My hope, my dream, and my prayer are that I will live the rest of my life, from now, the beginning of the fall, until the end, the dead of winter, in such a way that my brightest colors will show more and more over the passage of time. In my 39+ years, I have known the early bloom of infatuation, the warmth of love, the heat of passion, the reproductive season, and now I will slow down a little and let my true colors shine through. I will read more novels and watch less TV. I will read with greater discretion and write with greater insight. I will spend more time with family and friends in search of more satisfying relationships and less time in search of the perfect lipstick to match only temporarily satisfying outfits. I will sit still and listen more to the stories my husband and children want to tell me. I will seek wisdom and understanding. I will seek silence and solitude. I will pray and read the Bible more. I will share the few tidbits of truth that life and love and the Author of Life and Love have taught me.

Here at the beginning of the fall, I will send my roots deeper into the earth, into the nutrient-rich loam that resides beneath the superficial layers of life. I simply don’t have time to waste on the silly stuff, the stuff that doesn’t last. I will travel as much as possible. I will reflect on life and write my reflections as much as possible. I will surround myself with fellow seekers and thinkers who want to make the final years the best ever. I will ask as many questions as possible. Going forward, whenever I am in a tough situation, I will ask myself questions like, “How much time have you spent pondering the lesson you are meant to learn through this difficulty? What have you learned already? How is this experience making you stronger? How will this challenge, this storm, this infestation of life’s little pestilences and plagues make your colors shine brighter?”

One dear friend of mine is watching her father’s health fail. Another is watching her marriage fail. I watch in sorrow as the levees of New Orleans fail, homes are destroyed, and lives are lost. As oil rigs are set adrift out there in the Gulf of Mexico, oil prices are sent skyward here at home. As the war rages on in Iraq, lives are cut short in Darfur, and people in southeast Asia are still recovering from last year’s tsunami, it is painfully obvious that there is simply no avoiding the beginning of the fall. The entire planet is at the beginning (or is it the middle?) of the fall.

In the midst of it all, I wonder what is happening to my colors. Are they brighter because the Light of Life shines through me or are they darker because the fear and despair have dimmed the light? When others come to me for help or advice, do I open my arms like the mighty magnolia to provide rest, shade, and protection? Or will I wilt, fall, and impede the progress of others as they seek shelter from the storms of life? When storms like Katrina, Divorce, Death, and Job Stress blow over me, around me, and through me, in Whose arms do I hide and find shelter?

Here at the beginning of the fall, I am convinced that my richest hues have yet to be revealed. I believe that life’s most meaningful lessons have yet to be learned. I am determined to find deeper passion in my marriage and parenthood than I have ever known. I long for my friendships to be more expressive, more dependable, and more meaningful. I want meals to be tastier and lingered over longer. I want times of peace, love, and togetherness to last longer and times of anger, war, and disagreements to end sooner. I want to experience more faith and less fear, more love and less bitterness, more laughter and less resentment. I want to live gracefully, age joyfully, and die peacefully. With my brightest colors in full view.