Saturday, November 26, 2005

Tis the season...

I remember watching that crazy show, "Third Rock from the Sun" a few years ago and laughing at the Thanksgiving episode. The four members of that alien family discovered early in the week of Thanksgiving that in order to observe this mysterious holiday properly, they needed to find, purchase, cook, and consume a certain phenomenon known as "balls of butter." So each of them ate their own individual turkey and then were clueless as to why they all felt so sleepy. Their futile battle against the overwhelming effects of tryptophan was hilarious to watch. After waking from their long afternoon naps, they perched themselves outside on the roof overlooking their front yard and recounted the events of the day. Relieved that they had survived that gluttonous ordeal, they gave thanks that they would have plenty of time to prepare for future holidays because surely no other major holiday could follow so closely after Thanksgiving. If only...

Indeed, the preparations for another major holiday have begun. The lights are up on storefronts. Wreaths adorn street lights here in Charlotte. Trees are being sold in parking lots that only a few weeks ago were awash in pumpkins. The holiday shopping frenzy is in full swing already. Several hundred people lined up at a local shopping mall for a 1 am entrance! What could you possibly need at the mall at 1 am on the morning after Thanksgiving? What about the silent nights, the sleeping in heavenly peace? What about joy to the world and peace on earth, good will to men?

Advent season begins officially tomorrow, and there is much to look forward to in the next 40 days. I look forward to cuddling in front of the fireplace with Steve and the children, hot cocoa, popcorn, and visions of fruitcake dancing in our heads. I look forward to the plate of cookies my neighbor's daughter brings to our back door every Christmas eve and the batches of our own cookies that will add to my already expanded holiday girth. I look forward to putting up our tree, the light of electric candles in our windows, and wearing my sparkly red turtleneck sweater to church on Christmas eve. I look forward to singing Christmas carols around the piano with the kids, reading the story of the birth of Christ on Christmas eve, and awakening on Christmas morning to the smell of the breakfast casserole in the oven, the sight of presents under the tree, and the music of my friend, Rob Mathes as he sings my favorite line of all: "I'm waiting here for love again to be born." That's what it all leads to: Love. Born anew. Joy. Silent wonder. The star of David. Wonderful Counselor. Mighty God. Prince of Peace. Peace that surpasses all understanding, explanation, and over-commercialization.

As much as I look forward to my 40th birthday on the 14th of December (Have no fear: there's still plenty of time to compose poetry or song lyrics, string pearls and crystals into one-of-a-kind necklaces, and get them in the mail for a timely arrival...), as much as I look forward to watching the children open their gifts and scream with delight, and as much as I look forward to letting my tears flow every time I hear "O Come All Ye Faithful," I know that the real reason for the season is that baby that was born in the manger over 2000 years ago, the baby that grew up, became a man, died, was buried, and rose again.

The Christmas season officially begins tomorrow.
Tis the season to await the soon coming baby.
The soon coming healer.
The soon coming Rabbi.
The soon coming King.

Joy to the world, indeed.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksliving! (nope, that's not a typo)

I just came in from an early morning walk with Maya. What a glorious morning! The sky is a rich, deep blue, streaked with pink clouds. As I stood and gazed up in wonder and the sun continued it ascent into the Carolina sky, the clouds faded to a rich, deep orange. Almost directly overhead, the half moon took its last glance at the rising sun and smiled its ever-white smile in its direction. Even Maya stopped her incessant sniffing and looked up for a few seconds.

The street is quiet. Cars are not pulling out of driveways and heading uptown to park beneath the many banks that dot the Charlotte skyline. Front doors are not banging shut behind children heading for the bus stop at the corner. Dogs aren't even barking this morning. Birds, however, are singing their usual songs of greeting to the morning light - and warning each other that the crazy little dog from 8724 is out again.

She can barely jump up and reach my kneecap, but Maya is crazy about chasing birds. Across the street from us, our neighbors have a grove of very low bushes flanking their front walk, and there must be 50 birds living in those bushes. They cluck and squeak and rustle the branches. They preen their feathers and stretch their wings and hop around on the grass on either side of the path. And it all drives Maya absolutely bonkers. My poor little hunting dog has absolutely no genetic choice but to do all within her power to empty those bushes of those birds. Once she hones in on them, no amount of Alpha Dog correction on my part can divert her attention. So on the odd morning, I allow her to pull me across the street where she noses around underneath the leaves, sniffs, stretches her tiny neck, and sets her sights on liberating the Ayers family from the captivity of "The Birds." She'd like to eat them, but she gladly settles for scaring a few of them and watching them fly away.

This morning, however, we stayed on our side of the street, and I contemplated the events of this Thanksgiving Day. I imagined hundreds of men and women checking on their slow-roasting oversized turkeys during the morning hours. Stuffings are being prepared, cranberry sauces slow simmered - that is, unless they are being cut out of cans... Gravies, sweet potatoes, salads, and pork roasts will soon be cooked to perfection.

Yup, you read it right: pork roasts. Much to the chagrin of my mother and mother-in-law, we will be dining on pork today. I don't like turkey. I never have. Well, that's not entirely true. The only part of the turkey I like is the thigh, the dark, fatty, juicy meat of the turkey thigh. But since supermarkets carry only whole birds, breasts, or legs, I am plum out of turkey thigh luck. True to my ingrained rebellious nature, I refuse to be coerced by society, tradition, or my mother-in-law into cooking an entire, dusty, dry bird in order to nibble on a few bites of a thigh.

I've been told countless times by friends, acquaintances, and enemies alike that there are ways to keep a turkey from getting dry, but I've never had the pleasure of eating a slice of turkey breast that wasn't dry. So today we will eat pork tenderloin. There will be stuffing, cranberry sauce, and my mother's candied yams. In an effort to honor the traditional consumption of food with feathers on Thanksgiving, my mother is also bringing her famous fried chicken. Now that's a bird I can eat with gusto.

We will eat at noon. Yup, you read it right. Why wait until 3 or 4 in the afternoon when everybody's gotta eat lunch anyway? I figure we may as well eat the real deal early and have dessert as the main course at 5 pm. In fact, we've been invited to two Thanksgiving desserts: one at 5 and the other at 7:30 this evening. This is my kind of day: breakfast, lunch, and two rounds of dessert, all washed down with sparkling cider, sweet tea, and wine. For this great bounty, I am indeed thankful.

What else am I thankful for today?
* this morning's beautiful sky.

* baking and cooking these past two days with the children: chocolate chip cookies, a lemon pound cake, stuffing with pork sausage, and cranberry sauce made from fresh cranberries.

* the sounds of my home this morning as the heat kicks in, the hamster wakes up, and my son tunes into SportsCenter on ESPN.

* the quiet breathing of my daughter and my husband as they sleep.

* the anticipation of reading the notes of thanksgiving we've written this week and placed in a beautiful shoe box. We will read the notes one by one over the course of the day. The goal is to guess who wrote each one, but the real joy will be in conspiring (as in "breathing together") on prayers of thanks.

* lengthy conversations with three of my best buddies yesterday. I sat at Starbucks with one friend and talked for two hours while we nursed peppermint mochas and flipped through a book of Caravaggio's paintings. Such good memories I have of seeing his works in London, Rome, Florence, New York, and one right here in Charlotte!

* listening to the pastor talk about the importance of "thanksliving," not just this week, but always. May it be a way of life, not a single day of overindulgence with a brief prayer of thanks thrown in for good measure.

* listening to that same pastor sing a song about all that God has done for him.

* watching a video at the same service about a young man from our church who'd had a terrible dirt bike accident nearly two months ago. His helmet came off during the incident, and he suffered a very serious head injury. After his parents had been briefed and prepared for a recovery time of three to twelve months, one month and one day after the crash, he walked out of the hospital, completely restored, both physically and mentally. My son and I approached him on Tuesday night after the service and told him how much we'd been praying for him during the time of his chemically-induced coma. He thanked us, smiled his wide braces-bound smile, and went back to sipping his hot cider. Young Aaron is a living, breathing, walking, smiling testimony to the power of love, friendship, medical technology, and pure, old-fashioned prayer.

* I am thankful that another year has passed and we remain in good health. We are still together as a family. We haven't lost anyone to death, serious illness, or accident. We have so much for which to give thanks.

So here's to eating, drinking, laughing, looking around the table today at family and friends, and giving thanks for their presence, for their love, and for their willingness to share this day with us.

Here's to raising a toast to far away family, friends and loved ones who are not with us in body, but who are always with us in spirit. I will give thanks for all of you as well.

And finally, here's to remembering the one who aren't with us anymore: my father, my father-in-law, all four sets of our grandparents, Jill's father, Cindy's uncle, Suzanne's son, Ida, Leza, and countless others whose names I don't remember and probably never know. You are sorely missed, but we give thanks for all that you gave us while you were here.

Happy Thanksgiving.
Happy Thanksliving.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Why can't we all just get along?

My dear, sweet little Maya is recovering quickly from being spayed. Poor thing - she ran around the house with seven staples in her abdomen for nine days. Those miniscule pain pills she was taking must have worked very well because the day that we brought her home from the surgery, she ran up the stairs without stumbling even once. I had to chase her, grab her (gently) and put her in her crate; clearly, she was in no pain, but I was concerned that one of those staples was going to come out. Last Friday they were taken out, and she has continued to heal nicely. All in all, she did quite well.

Just a few minutes ago, I took her outside for a walk - and she peed and pooped without delay! (This is one smart dog!) Once she was done with her business, she took to chasing leaves, birds, and anything else that moved... including the 50 pound chocolate lab that lives next door. That dog could easily knock down the average person if she got up to speed and charged. I know that because she has gotten up and speed and charged me more than once - I thank God that I'm larger than average!

Anyway, Buddy (the neighbor dog) had just come back from her walk, and Maya ran right up to her and started sniffing her, chasing her, and playing with her. Of course, they bowed to each other, rubbed noses, and sniffed each other's private parts first. Fascinating ritual, isn't it? (Brief aside here: My daughter and I flipped through a doggie comic book at the pet store the other day and found one that showed two dogs in that head to tail stance. One said to the other, "We've gotta come up with a different way to greet each other.") As Maya and Buddy were being reacquainted, my neighbor Cliff told me about the doggie training class they take Buddy to on Mondays. He laughed as he described the way that the dogs greet each other every week.

"They lick, sniff, nip at each other's heels, grab each other by the throat, and wag their tails. All the while," he imagined, "they are probably asking each other how last week went, what was new with their owners, that sort of thing. Every now and then, one dog will get a little too rowdy and sink the teeth in a little too deeply, and a little scuffle ensues. A few growls, a few nudges, a hard stare - and then it's over. Maybe the following week, one dog has to be a little more submissive than usual at the start of the class, but then the issue is settled once and for all."

Then Cliff asked the pet-related parallel to the infamous Rodney King question: "Why can't we all just get along like dogs do? It doesn't matter which dog is bigger, which is pure bred, what they eat, where they poop, or how bad their breath is. They greet each other, kiss, sniff, lick, and then they get on with the business of being friends. Grudges are settled quickly, efficiently, and then forgotten."

Good question, Cliff. Dogs know how to deal with each other. Alpha dog status is quickly established. Boundaries are clear. Dogs know their place. Occasionally there is the scuffle that draws blood. Sometimes stitches are needed. But for the most part, dogs are forgiving, loving, accepting, tolerant animals. They look at their owners with unconditional love, with unwavering longing, and with unquestioned loyalty. Maya literally eats the socks I sweat in. She devours the hairy ends of carrots that I drop on the floor. She bows her head and wags her tail everytime I enter the room.

What a different world we would have if we learned to honor each other in a similar way! What if managed to overlook bad breath, smelly bottoms, and the fact so many of us are mutts? What if we found more reason to love and accept each other than to reject each other? What if we didn't care who had fleas and who had lost some teeth? What if we had our tussles, settled the matter, and then were determined not to bring it up again?

I know there are some misbehaviors that defy easy dismissal. Infidelity, violent episodes, abandonment, neglect, and abuse are tough to forgive and impossible to forget. Those are the biggies.

But let's face it; most of the things that we hold grudges for are not the biggies. Somebody borrowed $20 that they didn't return. Or maybe as much as $200. Someone forgot my birthday. Someone didn't send a thank you card for the gift I patiently chose, purchased, wrapped, and delivered. Someone criticized something I wrote or wore or said. She didn't return my email. He didn't return my call. She forgot the date we'd made to have lunch and stood me up. He rode his bike into my car and left a ding. She lost my sweater at the movie theater. They showed up late for the dinner we planned and painstakingly created. No one thanked me for the dinner I spent hours preparing. On and on goes the list of grievances. On and on goes the bitterness. And absolutely none of these things are worth the loss of a friendship or even an acquaintance.

We were dog snobs in our search process. My son Daniel and I are both allergic to dog fur, so when Kristiana did the research on which dogs we could own, the list was pretty short. When we began the search in earnest, we had to be sure that we were dealing with a purebred dog because we didn't want to take the chance of running into a dog that had a shedding gene in the mix. We chose a Yorkie because it has hair, not fur, it doesn't shed, and it will remain very small. No seventy-five pound hairball factories for us, thank you very much!

What if we could figure out a way to downplay the purebreed issue among the human species? Thankfully, my friends didn't exhibit the same pickiness when they chose me. I recognize and fully admit to the impurity of my bloodline: I can be moody, selfish, and snappy. I have been known to shed my anger and self-righteousness under every chair in my vicinity. I am suddenly needy and whiny, and often I leave smelly piles of self-importance in my wake. I thank God for my dear, forgiving, friends. They must strong stomachs in order to clean up after me and still tell me that I'm a good girl all these years. I thank them all for patiently training me to be a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend. Okay, maybe I took that analogy too far, but here's the point: why can't we all just get along? And why can't I be equally accepting when I choose my friends?

Yet again, I will endeavor to follow Maya's noble example. Weighing in at a scant 4.1 pounds, every time Maya finishes her first order of business on the lawn, she sprints to the homes of her canine companions on the block, one after the other: the chocolate lab on one side, the mixed breed pointer on the other, the black lab across the street, and the house up the block that now has five dogs (they belong to Rob and Jen, the couple whose wedding reception we went to a few weeks back). Even though nearly every one of those dogs has knocked her over, barked at her, and tried in every possible doggie way to intimidate her, Maya is fearless in her approach. She has obviously forgotten their earlier antics and moved into the friendship phase of the relationship. With each furious wag of her tiny body, she screams: "Bygones are gone good-bye. Today's a new day; let's play."

Well, I'd better go. I'm gonna head downstairs and give my favorite teacher a dental treat; she likes those more than apples!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Whose approval do I seek?

There are certain people in my life whose approval I seek.

There are some whose opinion on my writing means a tremendous amount to me. I look for their names in the comments section here on the blog. I look for their names in my inbox at I read between the lines of their remarks. I look words up in both the dictionary and the thesaurus in order to tease as much meaning as possible from their responses. I crave their affirmation for the way I express myself in words.

There are others whose opinion of my style of dress and accessorizing is paramount in my mind as I pull my outfits together. What would ----- think of this combination of colors? I often wonder what Stacy and Clinton, of What Not to Wear fame, would think of my high-waisted straight leg jeans. I have a ready explanation for them (or for those two English women whose show Stacy and Clinton have replicated) if they should appear behind me someday and take pictures of my ample behind in my jeans: "I have a 36 inch inseam, and NO women's jeans in the world have a 36 inch inseam. So I am forced to order my jeans from the men's section at LL Bean and cover the high waist with long sweaters. It's really not my fault. It's the fault of the fashion industry that doesn't cater to us tall women." That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. In fact, the inseam issue was a major contributing factor in my recent decision to wear a skirt nearly every day.

On a more serious note, when I am standing next to the pastor on the pulpit and translating his sermon from Spanish into English on Sunday mornings, there are certain people in the congregation whose nods of approval keep my spirits high. As long as those few people are smiling and nodding, I'm proud of my work. But when they turn their heads a little to the side or look away when I glance in their direction, I know I've made a mistake.

Finally, there are two or three extra special friends, the true insiders whose tone of voice, whose choice of words, whose opinions about any and every aspect of my life can either make or break my mood in an instant. To get the long-awaited phone call, to see the much anticipated email, to receive the long overdue snail mail missive --> for me, that is the stuff that causes me to stand a little taller, walk a little more proudly, and laugh a little more loudly. On the other hand, their disapproval and, even worse, their silence cause me to doubt my significance.

This past week I have spent a lot of time wondering whose approval of me ought to matter most. Whose opinion deserves to carry enough weight that I should change my behavior, my style, my reason for living as I live based on what they think? What would happen to me, to my heart, to my spirit if these all-important critics of the movie that is my life stopped sending their reivews? Who would I be if they stopped writing or calling or telling me what I mean to them? What would I be worth then?

Yesterday I smacked myself in the forehead and kicked myself in the ample behind. "Take a deep breath, Gail. You need to rethink and reconstruct this line of questioning right now!" How long will it be before I stop chasing the ultimate compliment that is never going to come? When will I step off the roller coaster ride that is so closely associated with this vain pursuit of validation? When will I remember that most people are far too busy looking out for their own welfare, hiding their own faults, and pretending that they don't need anybody else's approval to pay attention to me?

It occurred to me that I will never receive from anyone else what they do not have. For who among us feels unconditionally loved, approved, and affirmed? Who among us has enough love and encouragement to spare that we can give it freely and unexpectantly to others?

Today I was reminded over and over that there is A Friend who sticks closer than a brother. There is One whose mercies are new every morning, whose faithfulness is great, whose love is everlasting. I am grateful for the incomparable creativity and glorious love that God shows through the beauty of the leaves as they change colors and dot our thick green lawn, the sight and sounds of the geese flying overhead (I wondered if any of them had begun their journey up in Connecticut, my old stomping ground), and the undeniable love of my dear little dog, Maya, who cannot seem to stop her squirming and licking and tail wagging when she is in my presence.

Tonight as I listened to some new friends share accounts of miraculous healings, divine provision at critical moments, and unmistakable touches of grace, I was humbled by each story and grateful for each reminder of God's love for all of us. I've already been approved, affirmed, and richly blessed in ways that far exceed all I could ever have asked or imagined. Why do I keep seeking the approval of everyone but God, the only one whose approval I already have?

Good question. But still...

I have to be honest: there are times when I need friends "with skin on." There are times when I just want to be hugged, kissed, and held for a while. There are times when a well-timed joke, a well-constructed email, or a warm cup of tea at a friend's kitchen counter send me clear over the full moon itself! Can I get a witness?

Friday, November 11, 2005

"Go to the ant...

Consider its way and be wise:
It has no commander, no overseer, no ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer and
gathers its food at harvest."

I have learned several lessons from ants this week. Quite frankly, I wish I had thought of these things without having to battle the little things on my home turf. But sometimes it takes an up-close encounter to learn the lessons properly. So here goes:

First of all, ants work together as a team on every project. They are perhaps the best example we have of how to play "follow the leader." One ant finds a treasure of sugar, lays down a line of ant-scent, and everyone else in the nest follows that leader. If one ant veers to the right or to the left, the others will follow. Each ant can make hundreds of trips back and forth between the nest and the object of its desire. Very little will deter an ant from carrying out its purpose. The problem arises when the ants come across a bait laid out by an irate home owner. The trail of ants continues, but instead of bringing home food that nourishes, they bring home poison that eventually kills all the members of the ant clan.

When we choose to do so, people work well as teams also and follow well-made trails that lead us to great treasure. When the Pilgrims set out from the shores of England several hundred years ago, they laid a trail to religious freedom, a trail that many followed. Many trips were made back and forth across the Atlantic even though the way was certainly trecherous. For those seeking religious asylum, that trail was well worth following. When the late Rosa Parks decided to not give her seat up on the bus fifty years ago, she laid down the scent of racial and social freedom that thousands have followed in the decades that have passed since then. If she had not stayed seated on that bus, my inter-racial marriage would be illegal in the state in which I now reside.

On the other hand, problems arose when settlers from foreign lands followed each others' scents across the Atlantic Ocean carrying slaves in the holds of their ships. Problems have arisen as alcohol, drugs, pornography, guns, and tobacco became the target of thousands of trips back and forth across our streets, our school yards, our nation, and our world. Entire generations of people are dying of AIDS/HIV the world over because of the trail laid by thousands of people who have spread that dreaded virus. Gang, family, and government-sanctioned violence kills millions around the world every year; one ant gets hurt, gets indignant, decides to seek revenge, and countless followers march off to their deaths. This nest that we call planet earth has been repeatedly infected with these and other venoms, and far too often the poison spreads far too quickly for anyone to stop it.

What if we decided to lay down different trails? What if we laid a trail of conservation, recycling, reduction of pollution, and environmental concern that subsequent generations can follow in order to slow down the destruction of our planet? What if the trails we laid were scented with forgiveness for wrongdoing instead of bitterness and retaliation, with graceful acceptance instead of prejudice and intolerance? How different would our homes be if we carried the cargo of laughter and loving embraces into the nest rather than a cold shoulder, a pointed finger, or a clenched fist? What if we took the nectar of joy that we harvest in our homes and carried it into our schools, our work places, and even our churches?

Another analogy came to mind after the Terminix lady explained that another way that ants are killed is through the powder that is laid on their trails. Later on when they groom each other they coat each other with that toxic substance and die soon thereafter.

I had to consider what is on my hands and on my heart when I groom my husband, my children, and the other people I love and care for. Do I clean them with kind and encouraging words? Or am I rubbing the salt of criticism and sarcasm into wounds that are so often inflicted on them by the world? Can they trust that the lotion, the powders, and the oils I rub on their tender spiritual and emotional underbellies are made up of soothing sentiments? Am I careful to handle healing balms when I groom myself or am I exposed to ways of thinking, patterns of living, and belief systems that will eventually maim and kill me, those around me, and those who share the world in which I live and move?

One more lesson from the ants: Don't use pumps with Starbucks syrup bottles. That's the same as leaving the bottle wide open.

I am grateful for everything those tiny sugar ants taught me.
I am more grateful for the kind Terminix woman who came to our house the other day, explained the life cycle of the ants to me, and then laid down a trail that will lead them out of my house and keep them out.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Mea Culpa

I got up at 6:03 am.
I walked the dog.
I did some journaling, reading, and praying.
I made oatmeal and ate it with the children.
I did some homeschooling with the kids.
We raked and bagged leaves.
We met some other homeschoolers at a museum where we walked and talked our way through an awesome exhibit called, "Renaissance to Rococo."
I came home, sat down to read, and fell asleep on the couch.
I got up and cooked dinner.
We ate.
I washed the dishes.
I walked the dog.
I went to a 7 pm appointment with my therapist - great session!
I went to the supermarket on the way home.
I gave my son Motrin for a headache. I hope he's not coming down with something.
I sat down to blog - it's 9:28 pm.
My eyes can barely focus, and my fingers are hitting the wrong keys.
I will continue the story of the ants tomorrow.
Mea Culpa - my fault.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I hate ants!

Well, it's not that I hate ants so much as I hate seeing ants in my house. They are welcome to eat, breed, and be happy in the great outdoors, but stay out of my house, please!!!

The first run-in I had with ants in my house was a little over two years ago. Our church was having its annual picnic that day, and I was preparing to leave. Happily gathering goodies to put in our picnic basket, I was stopped in my tracks at the door of the pantry when I noticed several ants crawling around on one of the shelves. I killed them. Then I looked a little more closely and noticed a few more. I stood up straight, looked at the back wall of the pantry, and realized I was under a full scale attack. They were everywhere, all over everything, crawling in, out, up, and all around all of my food.

Lest anyone think that I am not a serious housecleaner or that I only rarely go into my pantry, I want to set the record straight. I keep a very clean home. I believe that my house should be presentable at all times. Anyone should be able to come over at anytime and I ought to be comfortable with how my house looks. I sweep, dust (yes, Karen, my dusting skills have improved tremendously since moving down here!), vacuum, mop, do laundry on a weekly basis. So that Sunday afternoon appearance of the sugar ants was quite a shock to me.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, "sugar ants," I will explain. Down here in the South (and in other critter friendly environments) there are several varieties of ants. There are the biting, horrifying red ants. There are the huge black ants, the ones that look like they are ants on steroids. There are the regular black ants. And then there are sugar ants. They are about half the size of regular ants, and they move in legions. Tiny little things that suddenly appear out of no where and seem to have taken over before you realize it.

Well, that lazy Sunday afternoon quickly became an all-out defensive. I recruited my husband, the kids, and a friend who was at our house at the time to help me empty everything out of the pantry. Everything. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about my tendency to buy things in multiples. Food is no exception. So my many bottles of olive oil, pancake syrup, boxes of cereal, oatmeal, and Swiffer sheets all had to come out. Anything that had ants on it had to go - unless it hadn't yet been opened, in which case it was washed off and set on the dining room table. We cleared out the entire pantry. I sprayed a lot of bug spray. I wiped down the shelves. Then I took the shelves out. I wiped down the walls. And the next day, Steve sealed up every visible crack and crevice, then proceeded to paint the walls of the pantry.

It turns out that the guy who installed our alarm system had drilled a hole in the floor of the pantry to run the wire under the house and failed to seal the hole. The ants accepted the "open invitation" to invade our home and couldn't believe their luck: the door led directly into the main food source in our house. We closed, locked, and sealed that door.

A few weeks ago now as I chatted on the telephone in the kitchen, I looked up at the two bottle of Starbucks syrup on top of our refrigerator (we make frappaccinos and all kinds of coffee drinks here at home) and noticed that they were darkened and swarmed by the moving, feasting bodies of sugar ants. "Oh crap!" I thought to myself. "Here we go again." I had to throw the two bottles away, spray all around and on top of the fridge, and clean up the mess again.

Did I mention that I hate ants?

Again, how did I miss them? How did they take over so fast? I knew that it hadn't been more than a day or two since the last time we'd used the syrup. I ended up having to throw away several other things that were stored on top of the fridge as the ants had made that whole area their new home. I pulled the fridge out of its alcove and discovered that the ants were coming in from a crack in the floor of the kitchen! There is simply no hole too small for those little creatures to squeeze through. Yuck, yuck, double yuck!

At great risk of freaking out all the people I know who are anti-chemical - I even count myself among their number - I will continue with my story. We are members of the "just call Terminix" club. Down here in the South, the critters are far too overwhelming to take lightly. I am no fan of pesticides on the lawn or spraying toxic substances willy-nilly on the property line in order to kill every living thing within 100 feet of our house. All I ask is that the animals that belong outside stay outside. Within these four walls, I will admit no multilegged creatures that we haven't paid good money for!

So I called Terminix and asked them to make an emergency visit. A sweet woman came yesterday and explained something absolutely fascinating to me. She said that sugar ants lay trails as they walk. If the first one veers to the right, all the rest of them will also. As soon as one ant finds a source of sugar, thousands will follow. And each ant will make hundreds of trips on the same ant-made trail. In order to get rid of them effectively, there are several steps to take.

The first one, she said, is to not spray bug spray on them. (My first thought was, "She's nuts.") She said to use Windex. It kills the ants I see, but doesn't kill the scent trail. Then I should call Terminix and have them come put out bait for the ants. (My second thought quickly morphed into a question: "But isn't bait meant to attract them? Why would I want to attract them INTO my house?) She said that the reason for bait was the attract the ants to the sweet poison which they take back to the nest and feed to each other thereby eventually killing the nest. The toughest part, she said, is seeing the ants swarm to the bait in the first 24 to 48 hours. But once that time passes, the numbers will dwindle as the nest is destroyed by its own hard-working inhabitants.

A second line of defense, she went on, is a powder the Terminix people lay down. The ants walk through the powder and take it back to their nests on their feet. Then during the communal cleaning and grooming process, they spread the poison to each other and die that way.

I realize that this is quite the gruesome explanation of ridding ourselves of small, defenseless, hard-working creatures that God created. I feel awful about allowing big, bad chemical companies to spread their ghastly liquids and powders in my home. In my defense, I will say that I tried several all natural products before calling in the big boys, but they didn't seem to get the problem under control. I just cannot stand seeing ants, bugs, flying things, or anything with more than the four cute little legs Maya scampers around on IN MY HOUSE.

After her thorough and eye-popping explanation, the very kind woman from Terminix proceeded to inspect the outside of our home to try to find where the ants were coming in. As it turned out, they were congregating and entering through the crawl space door.

Another explanation may be necessary here: because of the nature of the landscaped here in NC, basements are rare. The infamous red clay of the South cannot support the walls of basements, so houses tend to be built on cinderblock and cement foundations with crawl spaces. Those spaces tend to be about four feet in height, big enough to get into in order to repair plumbing or electrical issues under the house, but not big enough to expand into useable living space. Big enough for all the bugs in the county to congregate but not big enough for a family to hide in the event of a tornado. By the way, I hope I never have to test out the validity of that last statement!

Yes, the ants had found a way into the crawl space, a crevice in the floor below the house, and were apparently planning another invasion. She said she powdered them, sprayed them, and used all the other weapons at her disposal to discourage them from continuing with their assault. I thanked her, asked God to protect us from any long-term effects of our exposure to only He-knows-what, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Within moments of her departure, a spiritual analogy flashed through my mind.
I'll share it tomorrow.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Dancing in the Light

Today I am going to share a story I read on a favorite website this morning. Please excuse my blatant plagiarism, but indulge me as well. This account reminded me of the piece I wrote earlier this week about heartburn. I hope you enjoy it. I certainly did. Peace, Gail

"Heliopher" is based on a Russian legend recounted by Maxim Gorky.

Once upon a time there was a race which was lost in a great, dark forest. The trees stood so close together that the light of the sun could not penetrate the thickly entwined branches. There were also numerous wild animals which fell upon the people, especially the children, when they wandered too far from their parents while they were playing. So everyone lived in a constant state of fear of death and destruction, and a hopeless despair took hold of the hearts of the folk.

Continuous black darkness had strangled all the light in their hearts. They could not love one another any more. They even hated and murdered one another in their rage. Yet they were forced to remain together, for it was impossible for any single man to defend himself against the attacks of the wild beasts. They had lost all hope of ever finding their way out of the forest. Many of the young people did not believe in the light they had never seen, and they mocked their elders, when, with a last weak light gleaming in their dim eyes, they recounted tales of the festive, sunny days of their youth.

Among the people however, there was a young man called Heliopher. He was very much alone, grieving over the misery of his people, and seeking a way of salvation. He bore in his heart an endless longing for light and love in the desolation which surrounded him. Heliopher left his people to seek the sun. For many months and years he wandered through the dangers of the forest and of his own soul, and often, very often, nearly lost all hope and confidence. But Heliopher bravely withstood his enemies, whether within himself or around him, and at last he reached the edge of the forest and saw the light of the sun. In terrible amazement he fell into a swoon, and when he awoke he saw in the twilight that he was watched over in his slumber by beautiful people. In the green meadows stood the simple huts of the sun-people, and Heliopher lived with them in peace and endless joy as the most beloved amongst living men.

Then Heliopher went back to the forest to seek his people. “Come, brothers and sisters,” he said to them, “I will lead you to the light.” At this there was murmuring and frowning, wavering and hesitation, wonder and questioning, incredulous laughter, and finally a jubilant “Yes!” And then, at last, the longed-for departure.

Then the light of the sun shone in Heliopher’s eyes, but the way was long and difficult, and demanded much suffering and sacrifice, and murmuring arose among the people. Some spoke and said, “Let us murder him, the betrayer of the people!” And the dark glow of hatred was in their eyes. Others were wiser and said, “No! let us judge him in the presence of all, for it is dangerous to give the people a martyr.” And Heliopher spoke to his people, and talked about light and love. But the wise ones answered, “You lie! There is no light, there is no sun, there is no love. Let us be darker than the forest and more cruel than the wild beasts. Then we shall be masters of the forest!”

Heliopher answered in great pain, “O believe not, ye wise men, that ye can be victorious over darkness by being more dark, that ye can overcome the wild beasts by being more beastly. Only love is stronger. Only the light of the sun can drive away darkness.”

“Be silent!” said the wise men. “There is no light, there is no sun!”

And the people shouted, flinging their arms about in raging despair, “There is no light, there is no sun!”

But Heliopher called out, “Follow me!” Then, with his nails, he tore open his breast, and his heart burned with love, and it glowed and shed its beams through the dark forest. He took it in both hands, held it high over his head, and strode forth in front of the people.

In reverent wonder and silence the multitude followed the burning heart. (Emphasis mine.)

As they came out of the forest, the people ran in jubilation towards the sun, dancing in its loving rays, and loving one another. But Heliopher knelt down at the edge of the forest, and with the last strength of his outstretched arms he held up his loving, pulsing heart to the light of heaven, and gave his last smile to his people.

Did you feel it? Did you feel Heliopher's deep love and desire to lead his people from darkness into light? Did you see the truth of how love is stronger than war and pain and the enemies that try to drag us into the darkness? When will we stop killing ourselves and each other with our anger and jealousy and fear? When will we stop calling ourselves "wise" and pay attention to those who walk with the light of love, peace, grace, and mercy as their guides? When will we stop the arguing and one-upsmanship long enough to notice that there is a burning heart of love to follow out of the dark forest?

I believe that love and joy and fellowship are possible in this world. But in order to get there, I must be willing to lay down my prejudices and personal vendettas. I must be willing to forgive those who have called me crazy and foolish and naive. I must continue to seek peace and pursue it. I must receive the love of God and then share it with others. I must never stop crying out in the midst of the chaos and fear, the anger and bitterness, the finger-pointing and shouting - crying out that there is another way. There is Light. There is Love. There is Peace. There is Laughter. There is all this and more - more than enough for everyone who cares to imbibe. There is a Fellowship of The Burning Heart that welcomes each of us to enter.

The truth is that none of our worldly goods, none of the physical or financial wealth can protect us from the sorrow, the doubt, the self-loathing, and the despair that we all face in the car, in the office, in the shower, in the closet, at the table in the fine restaurant, at our own kitchen tables, at the mall, in the museum, at our desks, at our easels, and in the dark when we think everyone else is asleep. If our wallets, bank accounts, and pantries are full, why do we still feel so empty? If our waistlines, double chins, and thighs are so large, why do we still feel so small? With such neat answers to life's tough questions, why do we still feel so messy? If none of the old ways, the old goals, the old ideals are working for us, why not consider a new way?

I pray that I will be willing to live as Heliopher did. May I be willing to wander away from the crowds, follow the dappled beams of light back to the Source, and then be willing to return to those still fighting so fiercely in the dark to lead them home. May I be willing to rip out my own heart again and again, and hold it up for the world to see the love, the strength, and the beauty that resides within because of the Light that has shone down on me. May my final act on this earth, like Heliopher's, be to point people towards the light of the Son, the open fields of grace, and the eternal dance that we all long to join.

"I hope you'll dance."

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Sometimes heartburn is a good thing...

Earlier today, one of my favorite pastors gave a sermon on one of my favorite passages of Scripture. Following the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, He joined two of his disciples as they make their way from Jerusalem, the city where all the events surrounding His death took place, back to their homes in Emmaus. In Luke chapter 24, we read that as they walked, He joined them and asked what they were talking about as they journeyed. They were astonished that He didn't know all that had happened in Jerusalem, so they proceeded to tell him the story of His own death. In response, He explained to them all that the Scripture had predicted would take place, shared dinner with them, and when He broke the bread and began to give it to them, their eyes were opened. They finally recognized Him. Then He disappeared from their sight. I love the question they asked each other once He was gone: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"

I love "aha" moments. Those moments when all of a sudden it makes sense. Whatever "it" is. I remember waking up in Spain one morning during the fall of 1986 and realized I had dreamt in Spanish the night before. "Yes," I thought, "now I get it. Now I see. Spanish makes sense to me now." I had years of learning ahead of me, years of figuring out how to conjugate and use verbs properly, but at least and at last, my eyes were finally opened. I remember early on in my self-guided course through European art how excited I was when I would enter a room in a museum and correctly identify a painting by its artist and theme. Finally, all the books I'd read, all the videos I'd watched, all the conversations I'd eavesdropped on in galleries had paid off, and my eyes were opened. Just a few weeks ago, I had an "aha" moment when I realized that Maya could so easily be trained to "come, sit, stay" - all I needed was a sizeable handful of treats.

It is hopelessly naive and presumptuous of me to compare my epiphany moments to the discovery those two disciples made that fateful night at their supper table in the dusty town of Emmaus over 2000 years ago. The Risen Lord, the one they spoke of wistfully in Luke 24:21 ["We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel"], had walked with them, talked with them, and given them a personal lesson into all that He'd done in their midst.

I've had those moments of wishing, hoping "he was the one." Romantically, of course, that happened a couple of times before I met Steve. I have met men and women whose intellectual sensibilities have mirrored mine in remarkable ways. There are those who share my love of art, books, and travel. There are others with whom I can have endless conversations about politics and world events. Still others are perfect for analyzing marriage issues and parenting situations. I have made soul connections that seemed unbreakable, inviolable, only to watch the relationship "fade to black." I have had friends who have called, written, visited, or emailed with regularity suddenly disappear from my life without explanation or farewell. And each time, the pain is real and acute. Because I had hoped he or she was "the one." Like those disciples, I too am destined to have times when just as I "get it," the teacher, the message bearer disappears. I pray to be wise enough to learn when to let the messenger go but never relinquish the message.

Fortunately, there are many friends and co-travelers on this road of life who have stuck with me for years. I especially value a handful of dear ones who have come alongside me more recently and asked questions similar to the one Christ asked the two men in this story. "Gail, what are you thinking about, what are you journaling about, what are you talking about these days as you walk along your way?" Last Wednesday, the same pastor I mentioned at the beginning of this blog approached me at the end of the service and asked me if something was wrong. She could tell from the pulpit, she said, that something was bothering me. Thanks, Katie, for noticing my distress, for asking about its cause, and for starting me down the road to recovery from some deeply rooted painful stuff I've needed to deal with for a very long time.

Here's the bad news: friends are always going to let me down. I will attach myself to a new person, latch onto a new friend, and he or she will disappoint me. I will make telephone calls that go unreturned. I will send notes that go unanswered. I will issue invitations that are unanswered. I will transplant my hopes and dreams onto my children and watch them pursue something entirely different from what I have in mind. Pastors whose teaching I benefit from will leave and work at other churches. Friends whose presence in my life motivates to be a better person will move to faraway cities and even more distant nations. Family members and other loved ones will get sick and die. My heart burns not only every time one of those relationships begins, but also every time one ends.

Fortunately, there is also good news: for every dashed hope, for unmet expectation, and for all the unrequited love I have experienced, I also have countless moments of "heartburn" that I hope will last indefinitely. Making a new friend in the library, running into an acquaintance at a restaurant, listening to someone explain a painting I admired or formulate a question about homeschooling at a lecture I attended - in each of those encounters, there was a moment when I felt my heart burn within me, when I felt an unusual connection with another person. I am so glad that I didn't ignore the symptoms on any of those occasions and came away richer and more joyful because of my willingness to act upon that feeling. At those moments, heartburn was a good thing.

Henri Nouwen wrote a truly remarkable book called With Burning Hearts on this same Scripture passage. In essence Nouwen's point was this: when we allow ourselves to fall into step with Christ on the road of our lives, we are able to enter into what he calls "the Eucharistic life." We get to dine on the rich Bread of Life and drink the Water that gives us new life. We receive from His hand and His Word the food we need to feed our hungry and thirsty souls. We are all hungry; the question is, "What are we dining on?" But Nouwen goes further. He posits that we must take that spirit of sharing the table into the world. I can share what I am learning, my "aha" moments with others. I can ask them what they are feeding on and how it's working for them. I can sit down with strangers and friends alike and share food, share fellowship, share life.

An extraordinary and momentous thing happens every time I allow myself to be open, to be vulnerable, to be honest about my hunger and thirst, about my loneliness and my needs, about my fears and desires: I am transformed. My soul's pain is soothed, and its hunger is sated. My eyes and my heart are opened not only to God and what He wants to speak into my life, but also to those around me, those with whom I share this peculiar form of heartburn. The richness, grace, and beauty that comes to me through friends and loved ones is immeasurable.

Near the end of the book, Nouwen wrote the following: "Having entered into communion with Jesus and created community with those who know that he is alive, we now can go and join the many lonely travelers and help them discover that they too have the gift of love to share. We are no longer afraid of their sadness and pain, but can ask them simply: 'What are you talking about as you walk along the road?' And we will hear stories of immense loneliness, fear, rejection, abandonment, and sadness." Some of my best conversations are with other travelers who are willing to share a little of the loneliness, the fear, and the sadness, and together we live out the truth of the adage: "A sorrow shared is but half a sorrow. A joy shared is a joy made double."

I am disturbed by the ads on television for heartburn medications that are meant to ease the pain that comes from eating foods that upset our digestive systems. There is one that shows a man at an airport eating spicy sausage that his family thinks will be his demise. There is another one about the man at the restaurant buffet, loading up a second plate, but pounding on his chest hoping to beat the pain back. Here's what I always want to ask the pasty-faced, pudgy men who are eating their way into an early grave: "Why not just avoid the food that causes the heartburn, acid reflux, and chest pain? Just back away from the table, big guy. Better yet, avoid all buffets at all restaurants."

The kind of heartburn the disciples diagnosed at the end of the book of Luke, the kind that comes from being cared for by observant friends like Katie, and the kind that I'm developing after meeting three people at church who are quickly becoming good friends - this is the kind of heartburn that should never be avoided. This is the kind of chest pressure that makes me want to keep going back to the table, keep loading up my plate, and never back away. Sometimes heartburn is a good thing.