Friday, December 30, 2005

Speaking of Deuteronomy...

Of all the books of the Bible in which to find a personal theme verse, Deuteronomy would be the last one I'd expect to be The One. With all the dietary, social, and religious laws, with all the accounts of past travails, and promises of future battles for the land the Lord had promised the Israelites, Deuteronomy offers few upbeat, twenty-first century insights. Or so I thought...

The children and I were reading the second chapter when I found it. In plain language, in clear prose, Moses composed the verse that elevated my 40th birthday to Biblical import.

Here it is, Deut. 2:7 -

The Lord your God has blessed you
in all the work of your hands. He has
watched over your journey through this
vast desert. These forty years the Lord
your God has been with you, and
you have not lacked anything.

I am a forty year old woman who spent only six years "working outside the home" before making the decision to be a full-time, at home, homeschooling mother. During the few years I worked, I interviewed for five jobs. I was offered all five of them. I worked in college admissions and alumni relations at Williams College for two years. I taught junior high and high school Spanish and did college counseling at Poly Prep, my alma mater in Brooklyn, New York. Then I taught Spanish and did college counseling again at The Taft School in Watertown, CT. During the spring of my second year at Taft, I "found myself with child" and resigned my position at the end of that academic term.

Carrying two children through full term pregnancies, giving birth to two healthy children (without the aid of any pain medication, I add with great pride), raising them to the best of my ability, and now teaching them to be noble, hard-working, fun-loving, God-honoring people gives me both pleasure and pain that are nearly indescribable. Nothing I accomplished, wrote, taught, counseled, or advised during my brief tenure as a teacher or college counselor compares to what I have learned, written, or come to the believe in the years since becoming a mother. And in all these situations, in my travels as a teacher and counselor, in my travels as a wife and mother, in my armchair journeys as a reader and writer, I know that God has blessed me in all the work of my hands.

We live a life here in Charlotte that is beyond all we could have asked or imagined for ourselves and our children. God has blessed us with faithful friends, with generous neighbors, with beautiful homes, with active churches, and with great prospects for much more of the same in the months and years to come. We have been able to support needy family memebers and friends, causes that matter to us, and missions groups that serve people here and in other parts of the world because God has blessed the work of our hands with financial gain. I have befriended immigrants, translated documents into English and Spanish, served as an interpreter in legal matters, and God has blessed the work of my mouth. I have listened to people in crisis, laughed at humorous episodes, and written countless notes and postcards, and God has blessed me with numerous and treasured friends.

But this life of ours hasn't always been easy. Many days feel like treks in the vast desert with no oasis in sight, not even on the most distant horizon. Death in our families. Serious illness. Health scares. Nightmares. War. Job loss. Job changes. Dryness of spirit. Dryness in our marriage. Longing for days when I could put the children on a school bus and sink into a long morning of talk shows and mugs of coffee. Churches fall apart, as do relationships. Some nights I lay in bed, sleepless, fearful, wondering how and when the empty places will be filled. Wondering how and when the anger will subside. Wondering how and when the many irresponsible and unresponsive people in my life will get their comeuppance. Wondering when I will stop feeling guilty for the anger, the wishes for revenge, and the unrelenting lust to leave all this behind and live a life for which I must give absolutely no accountability to anyone.

It is through this vast desert that God has watched over me. On this long journey, His hand has kept me safe. On the back and side streets of cities like Milan, Barcelona, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, Boston, Rome, Madrid, Salamanca, Savannah, Charleston, Stamford, Norwalk, Florence, Bologna, Paris, Waterford, Amsterdam, London, York, Bath, and so many more, I am never truly been alone, for the Lord my God has been with me. On the back and side streets of fear, desperation, depression, loneliness, disappointment, resentment, and abandonment, the Lord my God has been with me. No, I cannot explain it. Nor can I prove it. But I know that I know that I know that He has watched over me on this journey, this my life's journey.

During these forty years I have lacked nothing. I have never missed a meal - except by choice. I have never missed paying a bill - except when I have forgotten to send it in on time. I have never been without love, support, encouragement, and the presence of people who love me. My closet, my pantry, my sock drawers, my shoe shelves, my book shelves, my pen holders, my cosmetic baskets, and right now, my eyes are full to overflowing.

So you see, there is personal wisdom and application even in Deuteronomy.

Here is a favorite stanza from a poem by Ruth Forman called "The Journey."

"Let the journey continue
let us speak the same language in our many tongues
may the path lead us home may the journey lead us home...

"The journey long y'all the journey long
but we got company
pray we find it
know it like our hands..."

Thank you all for being my company on this journey.
May the path lead us home.
May the journey lead us home.

Blessings on your journey,

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Year in Review

Last week I embarked on the monumental journey of reading through this year's journals. I got the idea from an online group in which one of the women told of the great benefits of reading her entries, and I decided to follow her lead.

I began with volume 41 which had as its starting date the 11th of December of 2004. For those of you who are keeping score, that would be the 41st volume since the year 2000. I began numbering them at that point because of another journaling buddy who said she's been counting hers for years. Someday I hope to go back to the very first journal begun in 1984, and not only count but also read all of them.

Coming to the realization that I had filled 40 journals in four years served as a clear illustration of how prolific my journaling has been. I do not allow many days to pass without filling a few pages with thoughts, questions, complaints, concerns, prayers, hopes, dreams, anger, lust, fear, discontent, joy, jokes, quotes, and whatever else comes to mind or has been collected recently. I have enjoyed the rediscovery of stickers, collages, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, emails that moved me towards rage and others that inspired deeper thought - all of which are now glued into my journals. (Acid-free glue, of course.) I simply cannot imagine not writing.

While reading, I have made a few noteworthy decisions and discoveries.

Decision #1: I will never again include email or articles in my journal that are upsetting to me. I remember one particular email exchange early this year that actually caused me to yell out loud at my computer monitor. I don't often get highly incensed, but certain topics elevate my blood pressure and I wade into the fray with both fists pumping. For some unknown reason, I decided to print out those missives and glue them into my journal. A few days later, I already regretted that decision. At the time, I was working through a book called Being Peace which challenged me to seek peace, pursue it, and "be" peace in every situation of life. There is far too much strife, anger, revenge, and self-righteousness in the world already; I need to do my part to turn the tide towards peace. So why did I memorialize those feelings in my private papers? I do not know. Nor will I repeat that foolishness any time soon.

Decision #2 follows naturally after #1: Instead of immortalizing the bad stuff, I will make a determined effort to bring news of good cheer, of peace, of grace, mercy, and restoration to my journal in the days and months to come. There is far too much bad news on television, in the newspapers, on the Internet, not to mention all the tales of sorrow and suffering that come from the homes of people near and dear to me. The least I can do is make my journal a place of rest, of rejoicing, and of indomitable hope.

This year has been a year of hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, war, tsunami, racism, sexism, homophobia, divorce, death, and "four more years." This has been a year of tragedy at the SuperDome in New Orleans, in the subways of London, and in the privacy of our own broken homes. But it has also been a year of new babies, marriages, friends that make me smile, surprise visits, anniversary celebrations, trips across the ocean and across our nation, children that make me laugh, and a grand entrance into the second half of my life. I have written about all of these topics and many more here on the blog. I have discussed them with friends and enemies. I have wept over them. I have laughed because of them. I have changed and grown as well. I will write about "the bad stuff" elsewhere, developing articles and essays and blogs as well as pieces for other genres, but in the future, I'm going to try to keep my journal free of the worst of times and full of the best of times.

One funny journal reading moment: Two nights ago, after I put on my pajamas and slippers, I sat down on the floor of my study room to read what I'd been thinking and writing about eleven months ago. Here's what I read: "Monday, Jan. 10: I am on the floor of my study room. Purple robe. Blue slippers. Red sweatpants. Black socks. Burgundy top." I howled. At the moment I was reading those words, I was wearing my purple robe, blue slippers, black socks, burgundy top - and black pants. The outfit was almost entirely the same as it had been a year earlier. Some things haven't changed much.

One thing that has changed this year is my attitude towards homeschooling. I see traces of anguish and concern about what they were learning and how I was teaching in journal entries I made earlier this year. Are they learning enough? Do we spend enough time reading, writing, doing science experiments, and the like? Are they ready for the California Achievement Tests in April? What if they aren't doing enough? What if they are falling behind? What if going to England in March and Spain in May take too much time away from school?

What???????? Gail, get a grip. Taking them to the land of great literature, lengthy monarchies, fish and chips, and the broadest range of potato chip flavors on earth for 12 days comprises one of the best history, geography, social studies, and phys ed unit studies ever planned. A month in Spain, speaking, listening, watching game shows, living, shopping, exploring, eating, drinking, and making friends - all in Spanish - I couldn't teach them all of that here at home if Spanish were the only topic we covered for an entire year.

My response to those earlier episodes of concern: take a deep breath, relax, enjoy. We read plenty; this year we read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series. We talk about nearly every topic under the sun. The other day, we discussed labor unions and their influence on the workforce as a result of hearing about the transit strike in New York City. Last week we talked about whether or not it matters what greeting people use at this time of year. When we are bored with the lessons I prepare, we do an oral review of the state capitals. We do math problems in our heads. We play Pict-ades, our homemade combination of Pictionary and Charades. During our Christmas break from the regular schedule of schooling, both children have asked when we would continue with reading through the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible. Some people think those early books are dense and uninteresting; my kids have found them quite interesting. (We wonder who could possibly keep up with all the necessary sacrifices and laws recorded there. We thank God for Jesus who is the once and for all Passover Lamb!) Okay, so I have infected my kids with the virus of geekiness, but I make no apology. We enjoy ourselves tremendously. (And, of course, they passed every section of the CAT with flying colors.)

Speaking of geekiness, I have to sign off now because my daughter just asked if we can continue watching the "Pride and Prejudice" series we began yesterday, the one with Colin Firth. Yum, yum. But lest anyone think we are all work and no play, I can hear Daniel downstairs in the family room with a friend making really weird noises while they play PlayStation. It all evens out in the end. And it's all good.

This year in review can be summed up in a phrase oft quoted and ever true:
It was the best of times.
It was the worst of times.

May 2006 bring more of the same.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

So this is Christmas...

Last minute shopping.
Wrapping gifts. Realizing we don't have the same number of gifts for the kids.
Still more last minute shopping.
Baking sugar cookies, peanut butter and Hershey's kiss cookies, lemon cake, key lime pie, and butterscotch squares.
Dusting and mopping the floor.
Doing laundry.
Calling a friend overseas to pass along Christmas blessings.
Sitting next to the tree.
Recalling where and when ornaments were purchased or made.
On our honeymoon. At Disney World. At Kwanzaa celebrations back in Connecticut.
At home on our chaotic, art-covered dining room table.
Listening to music.

And remembering this John Lennon song:
So this is Christmas
What have you done?
Another year over, a new one's just begun.
For weak and for strong
For the rich and the poor ones
The road is so long.

I ask myself: What have I done this year? Who have I loved? Who have I lost?
Have I remembered the near and the dear ones, the rich and the poor? The weak and the strong? I remember the sorrow of the tsunami, the horror of the hurricanes, the earthquakes, the bombings, the ongoing war. I also remember weddings, births, travel, lessons learned on foreign shores and right here at home.

But since this is Christmas, it's not about me. It's about Him. For me this year, many of my Christmas ponderings and wonderings have been about his pregnant mother, Mary. I know that many of my Protestant friends don't think about Mary very much: too bad for them. Mary gave birth to the One I call my Savior. She carried Him in her womb for nine months, nursed Him for at least nine months, weaned Him, watched Him, marveled at His very existence. She pondered many things in her heart.

On Christmas Eve, which, of course, was not Christmas Eve to her, Mary was weary from her travels. Dusty. She probably had a backache and swollen feet. She must have felt that common nesting instinct, but there was no nursery for her to decorate, no wardrobe of newborn pajamas for her to wash and fold neatly, and no cradle for her to prepare for her newborn child. There were no aunts, sisters, or grandmothers by her side to massage her swollen abdomen, prepare food, or assure her that all would be well. There was no midwife to instruct her and encourage her as she moaned and groaned her way through labor. Sure, she knew that her child was different from all the others. Sure, she knew that what was conceived in her was not of this world, and that must have been reassuring. Life-sustaining. But on one dark night, alone with her husband, surrounded by no choir of angels, Mary gave birth to Emmanuel, Jesus, the Messiah, the Shalom of God. Born a child and yet a king. Born to reign in us, in me, forever. It makes me weep just to think of it: She gave birth to the Christ Child.

So this is Christmas. What have I done? I look around the house, around the living room, and my answers to that question are obvious. The tree is heavy with ornaments, brightly lit and crowned with a star. The gifts under the tree are wrapped and ready to be torn open. But since this is Christmas, none of what I have done matters at all.

Since this is Christmas, then Mary's willingness to be the handmaid of the Lord matters far more than my meager contributions to our family holiday festivities. This year, this Christmas especially I thank Mary for allowing her body to serve as the package within which the greatest gift ever brought to earth was borne. I join in the chorus of all the generations before me who have heeded the early refrain of her song as recorded in the book of Luke: I call her Blessed, and blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus.

But what makes this Christmas is what God did.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.
Joy to the world, indeed.

Have a very Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

There was room at the Inn...

but I think that is because Steve had made reservations several weeks ago. We checked in at 4 PM. I slipped into a warm bubble bath at 5 PM before pre-dinner cocktails in the enormous library and a delightful dinner in The Dining Room downstairs. A candlelit stroll through the Biltmore Estate filled my head with visions of sugar plums, parties, and horse-drawn carriage rides in decades gone by - all hosted by the Vanderbilt family. Of course, being moved along at a not-so-leisurely pace by earphoned security guards, ruffled and crushed by fur-coat wearing blue-haired ladies woke me from my celebratory stupor and spoiled the mood a tad. No matter. We picked out a few postcards for the children, a gift or two for family and friends, and made our way back to the Inn. We awoke at 9:20 on Saturday morning, quickly showered, packed, and made our way down to The Dining Room for breakfast before our 11 am check-out. The twenty-five minute wait was more than we were willing to endure, so we headed into downtown Asheville for breakfast, shopping, and lunch before heading back down the mountain into the Piedmont of North Carolina. It was a splendid way to enter a new decade of life.

As we walked the chilly streets of Asheville, as we shivered between shops there, as we listened to accounts of war, poverty, loss, and injustice on public radio in the car, as we drove through towns that had no power as a result of a recent ice storm, we became increasingly mindful of how blessed we are. We and our children are healthy while so many suffer with asthma, diabetes, and cancer. Steve has a job for which he is well-compensated while there are so many who are out of work and homeless. I am able to stay home with our children, homeschool them, travel widely with them, and plan future jaunts, while so many simply long for a reliable car to get back and forth to work and school. Ours is a favored life indeed.

When I compare the way I celebrated the 40th anniversary of my birth to the birth of Christ, the contrasts are glaring. It hardly seems fair that the One for whom all this Christmas hubbub is named was born into a temporarily homeless family to an unwed mother, at a time when promiscuous behavior was punishable by stoning. It hardly seems fair that the One whose glory the angels sang to shepherds in the field slept in a most ignoble place normally inhabited by beasts of burden. During the early years of His life, many of which were directed by the wisdom gleaned from dreams, this Holy One was spirited off to Egypt as an infant, brought back to Nazareth as a toddler, raised as a carpenter to adulthood, then died nailed to a cross made of the same kind of wood He had most likely carved into cradles, tables, and doorposts. His was not a favored life, at least not by today's standards.

I have heard many sermons that attempt to explain the Christmas story too simply. Some pastors say that He was born poor so that I can be rich. His simple birth paved the way for my rebirth. His humble beginnings parallel His humiliating death. I'm forgiven because He was forsaken. I'm accepted; He was condemned. I believe all of that is true, and in my head it makes sense. But my heart, my soul, the truest, hungriest places in me yearn for something more than that which can be explained logically. In fact, I am glad that it's not as simple as a three-point sermon of phrases that all begin with the same letter. Spare me the superficiality.

This story of Christmas is truly a mystery. May I never fully understand it. May I never be able to diagram it, parse it, conjugate it, and explain it away. May the wonder of this wonderful holiday always outstrip and overwhelm my small imaginings, my meager ponderings, and all the simple analogies my mind can conceive. The Love that Christmas embodies outshines all the glittery jewels I will ever own, is sweeter than all the cookies I will ever bake, and is deeper than any affection I now have and ever will have for everyone I know and claim to love.

Yes, my birthday celebration was special. The shopping was fun. The milk chocolate pecan frogs (The name "turtles" is owned by Nestle!) we found at The Chocolate Fetish were well worth the wait. Steve's company was much enjoyed, as was his remarkable generosity. But beneath, above, and beyond all of the tinsel, the lights, the trees, the food, the Frangelico, and the new earrings, there remains the quiet hum of anticipation, the undeniable expectation of something inexplicable, something that never changes, but is ever new.

Rob Mathes says it best in what is still my favorite Christmas song:
Bundled up, I know what's waiting for me
More than a pretty package next to the tree.
Something else, a gift far greater I know
Born in Bethlehem long ago...
To us is born
Every December anew
A love that's unbelieveable
Given to me, given to you...
I'm waiting here for Love again to be born.

May Love be born in your heart this Christmas.
All over again.
For the first time.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Oh Happy Day!

I'm one of those people who loves to reminisce. I often begin thoughts like this: "Thirty-two years ago at this moment, I was sitting in Santa's lap at the mall asking for..." "Three years ago last Thursday, we put our Christmas tree up for the first time in this house." "Two weeks ago right now, we were waiting for the results of the pregnancy test." That sort of thing. No, I haven't waited for the results of a pregnancy test in more than nine years, but I bet you're paying attention now, aren't you?

Seriously, yesterday at this time, Steve and I were enjoying a fantastic dinner at Campania, an Italian restaurant in our area with a well-deserved reputation for excellent food, fine wine, and impeccable service. The salmone aurora melted in my mouth, and the insalate caprino had just enough goat cheese and pine nuts to balance off the vinagrette superbly. Cake, candles, and lots of presents back here at home rounded out the perfect night. I managed to put my hand over Daniel's mouth to keep him from blowing out my candles just in time, little rascal. "Tonight it's all about me," were my exact words. Generous and kindhearted man that he is, Steve put only four candles on my cake - one for each delightful decade of my life.

Generous and kindhearted man that he is, Steve also made sure that every item on my wish list ended up in wrapping paper in the kitchen. Everything, except for the milk chocolate turtles which are out of stock at Dean and DeLuca, much to my deep dismay. I'll survive, I'm sure, but I had been looking forward to them for quite a while. I'll just have to wait until the chocolate case is filled again in order to indulge that whimsy of mine. (It occurred to me as I typed the last sentence that if the unavailablity of those sweets is my greatest birthday disappointment, then mine is indeed a good life.) Plus he more than made up for the missing pecan turtles by adding a true work of art to my collection of cross pendants with an ornate piece made by an Israeli artist. It is sterling silver encrusted with Swarovski crystals in various shades of blue and green. He also chose a sparkly snowflake necklace for me that will offset the red of the turtleneck I am planning to wear to tomorrow night's dinner perfectly.

Yesterday at this time, I was rereading emails and ecards sent by thoughtful, witty, fun-loving friends and family members whose greetings added to my good spirits on my big day. I will not soon forget your kind words and gestures. Today I received a gorgeous bouquet of yellow roses and calla lilies from my dear friend, Kim. To all of you who remembered and thought enough of me to send your warm wishes, I send my thanks, and I wish you great blessing in this Christmas season and beyond. May your days and nights be merry and bright.

Tomorrow at this time, we will be beginning our tour of the Biltmore Estate up in the North Carolina mountains. Apparently, the Biltmore is at its finest at this time of year with candles lit, carolers strolling around, and elegantly dressed visitors pretending that the massive estate is their own. I'm planning to let my imagination run wild as I traverse those wide corridors, glide up and down curving staircases, and welcome the guests to their stately guestrooms. Even though we will have only 30 hours away from the kiddies (but who's counting?), I am looking forward to dinner, a tour, and a night at the Biltmore Inn tomorrow, followed by breakfast at the inn and a lazy stroll along the streets of Asheville with my generous and kindhearted husband on Saturday. All alone. Just the two of us. What a concept!

No, I guess "Oh happy day" doesn't fit this description too well, does it? Perhaps "oh happy week" is better.

Am I really 40? Is that even possible?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

My Top Forty...

Here I sit, on the eve of the first day of the second half of my life. In the words of the immortal James Brown, "I feel good." Tomorrow will be a busy day: breakfast at my Mom's house, Wednesday worship at noon under the teaching of my dear friend, Katie Crowe, followed by lunch with the kids, dinner with my husband, and an entire day threaded through with thoughts, prayers, journaling, and pondering the entirety of my life thus far, and wondering about what lies ahead.

One of my favorite songs by Billy Joel is called, "I've Loved These Days." In it, he recounts friendships, loves, and other highlights of his life to that point. In my own life, there are many friendships, loves, and highlights to be grateful for. I have loved these days, these 40 years of life on the planet. As I listened to Daniel play basketball on the driveway with his friends earlier today and realized that he's been building these friendships for over three years already, as I looked into her room and watched Kristiana set up her favorite toys for visit to imaginary worlds I cannot even dream of entering, as I stare into this computer screen and try to summarize what I am feeling right here right now, then I can truthfully say, "I've loved these days."

Sometimes when I think about the things I write here on the blog, in the essays I craft, and on the pages of my journal, I criticize myself for being a little too optimistic, for seeing life through rose-colored glasses a little too often, and skimming over the more serious events too lightly. Perhaps I am too cheery for some people, but my goal in life for several years now has been to find the light at the end of every long, dark tunnel, to find the lesson in every difficulty, and to look at the world around me with eyes full of compassion, peace, and love. It's not easy sometimes, I must admit. But with all the bad news, abuse, scandals, murders, wars, and mayhem that fill the airwaves and newspapers, I cherish this outlet where I can be positive, grateful, and hopeful on a regular basis.

Looking back on my life in the past few days, I have shed tears and laughed aloud at memories that have come back to mind. In no particular order, I'd like to share 40 of my favorite people, places, events, and remembrances.

1. Giving birth to my two children.
2. Earning my Master's degree from Wesleyan University with all A's.
3. Taking Kristiana with me up to the podium to receive that degree. She was 4.
4. Being with my father when he passed away in March of 2001.
5. Meeting and marrying Steve.
6. The decision to grow dreadlocs.
7. Discovering the literature of Alice Walker.
8. Being inspired by her to begin the practice of journaling.
9. Attending Poly Prep from the 7th grade until the 12th grade. Teaching there for two years after graduating from college.
10. Running the anchor leg on relay teams both in high school and college.
11. Going to Europe in 1986, especially Ireland, England, Amsterdam and Spain.
12. Learning Political Science and so much more from Carlos Egan.
13. Learning to speak Spanish fluently.
14. Going to Italy for the first time in October 2001.
15. Sitting alone in the cloister at the Santa Croce church in Florence.
16. The double rainbow in Bologna in 2002.
17. Moving to Charlotte.
18. Finding this house on the first day of house hunting in October 2002.
19. Sending and receiving email.
20. The first five minutes of being in bed on a cold winter night after a busy day.
21. Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby.
22. Beth Moore: her Bible studies, poetry, and contagious energy.
23. Teaching Women of Hope in Wilton, CT.
24. Resting my head on Steve's right shoulder.
25. Sinking into a warm bath, candles burning, music down low.
26. The way Steve proposed to me: "Gail, I love you. Will you marry me?" on a hotel marquis in Reading, PA.
27. Karen's visit this past weekend: what a fabulous surprise!
28. Being present for the births of all three of Karen's children.
29. Pinnacle 2000: seeing Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and many ports in between.
30. Traveling in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Spain, and beyond with my children. They are such intrepid, trusting, willing, open-minded, wide-eyed adventurers.
31. Meeting and befriending Antonio Allende, my favorite Jesuit priest.
32. Listening to and singing Christmas carols with my kids while I play the piano.
33. My entire book collection: it's hard to pick a favorite.
34. Sunbathing, reading, and looking at the water off Palomino Island, Puerto Rico.
35. Settling in at a table in a restaurant or coffee shop, alone, pens and journals spread out before me.
36. Kim Hooker's trip to Spain in early June to hang out with me: so very cool!
37. Having my own bedroom and bathroom for three years of undergrad life at Williams College.
38. Explaining phrases like " the phone was off the hook" and "I must sound like a broken record" to my technologically advanced offspring.
39. Standing in front of Velazquez' painting of the Crucifixion of Christ in the Prado in Madrid. It moves me to tears every time I see it. Every single time.
40. Knowing that I could write 40 more highlights and not even skim the surface of the many blessings I have known in this life.

I have loved these days. I look forward to the days that are yet to come.
Yeah for me!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Only four shopping days left...

until the Big Day! Yes, I am turning 40 on the 14th! Steve and the kids are out shopping even as I write. For the first time in many, many years, I made a list of the things I'd like for my birthday. Like most mothers, I am accustomed to receiving lists of desired gifts for my children's birthdays and for Christmas, but I have not made a list, actually written one down for decades. (It's strange that I can now use the word "decades" in reference to a time period within my own lifetime. A sign of the times, huh?) Last night I sat at my desk, pen in hand, paper before me and did a quick mental inventory of my study room, bedroom, closet, and secret stashes all around the house. I don't need more shoes, more skirts, more shirts, earrings, necklaces, or makeup. I've got plenty of pens, journals, books I haven't read, and enough bottles of cream, perfume, and nail polish to last until the next major birthday, I'm sure. I don't need a thing. Quickly, I sent up a prayer of thanks for this life that is beyond all I could ever have asked or imagined.

Forty. 40. Cuarenta.

Every few days, Steve takes my emotional temperature in relation to my birthday. The other day, he asked me what it feels like to no longer be able to say I'm "thirtysomething." I laughed. I've never referred to myself as thirtysomething. I've always freely told me age and will continue to do so. I will never be ashamed of the years I have lived. Each has brought its own set of joys, victories, and good memories. Each has also brought its own set of sorrows, pains, and losses. But each year has been a blessing, a gift, and each has transformed me and made me into the woman I am today. Last night, my daughter said that she's glad I'm not someone who is ashamed of my age. That meant a lot coming from my twelve year old daughter.

In the middle of our laughter about the "thirtysomething" reference, both Steve and I stopped middle snort and began to babble profusely about the show by that name that was on television in the late 80's or early 90's. Does anybody else remember that show about the two married couples and the two single people who were great friends in suburban Philly? One couple had two kids and was getting ready to be divorced. The other had two young children and a large house that was in constant need of repair. The two married men worked together at an ad agency that eventually went belly-up. The single guy was a college professor who slept with his students too often and wondered why he was never taken seriously by his colleagues. The single woman desperately wanted to meet the man of her dreams and wondered why her desperation was a turn off. Steve and I loved that show. We watched it with fascination. We were still in our 20's at the time with no children, or perhaps had only Kristiana but she was still a baby.

We couldn't imagine being so old, so mature, so engulfed in home ownership, advising friends with marital problems, and single friends who wanted to be married. We never thought we would ever be like them. I find it quite interesting that an entire decade of my life has passed and I don't recall thinking about that show once during our "thirtysomething" years. But I know exactly why I never thought about the show during the past ten years: We were living it out. Both of the homes we have owned during our 30's have demanded constant attention: cracks, leaks, painting, sanding, caulking, replacing, hiring workers to climb ladders and reach the things we don't dare to repair. We have cried with divorced friends, comforted their broken-hearted children, attended funerals at an increasing rate, and watched our children spring to new heights on a daily basis. Heck, we even have a dog! We really are adults now.

Almost three years ago, I made the promise to myself that when I reached my 40th birthday, I would be in the best shape of my life. At the time, I set a goal to weigh 15 pounds less than I did when I got married. I wanted six-pack abs, chiseled arms, and a sculpted back. I wanted a super modern dreadloc hairstyle, new makeup, and the best clothes money could buy. I wanted to make Steve proud to say that his wife was 40.

About three months ago, I realized that I wasn't going to weigh 15 pounds less than when I got married; ten pounds less would have to do. My arms are slender and strong. I've got nine-pack abs. And my back still supports my rather large, thickly dreadlocked head. I wear modest makeup, and I don't think I'll ever be able to justify buying a $275 pair of jeans. But I have still reached my goal of being in the best shape of my life.

I am happier with who I am now than ever before. I love my husband and children more than I ever have before. I have let go of old obsessions, fears, doubts, and worries in the past few months, all of which I thought I'd just have to live with forever. I am learning to release dying friendships, welcome new ones, and have arrived at a level of contentment with the relationships that I didn't think was possible. I am better able to listen to the problems and dilemmas of friends without taking on the responsbility to fix it all. I am more comfortable with and accepting of my body as it is than I have been for many years. I am strong of mind and spirit. I have a more fulfilling, joy-producing relationship with God than I have had before.

My greatest wish as I approach my 40th birthday is that all of these trends will continue.

In case you were wondering: A gift card from Caribou Coffee (a place kinda like Starbucks), a few colorful scarves, funky tights to wear with my skirts, and milk chocolate pecan turtles.
To my UTTER SHOCK: My husband and children just returned from "shopping" with Karen Powell - my best buddy in the world. She flew down from Connecticut to be with me for the weekend. After I screamed and fell on my knees, she said, "You only turn 40 once. I had to come!"

Please forgive me for typos and grammatical mistakes. I've gotta go hang out with Karen!!!!!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Christmas Queries

Driving around Charlotte this week, I have been dazed, dazzled, and confused by the explosion of holiday decorations, the countless sale signs, and the tripling of traffic on the streets at nearly every hour of the day. What used to be simple midday trips to the supermarket have been transformed into parking fiascos, emotional assaults by men and women of all ages soliciting funds for various charities, and exercises in self-restraint every time I see a display of Hershey's kisses in various flavors. I do love Christmas candy. Who am I kidding? I like all kinds of candy!!!

Earlier this evening, I nearly ran my car into a tree; I was literally driven to distraction by an overly decorated house in our neighborhood. What is it that makes completely normal, otherwise reasonable and understated people decide to pepper their lawns with enormous, backlit candy canes, inflatable Santa Claus dolls, and mechanical reindeer that bow their heads down as though they were eating the grass? Why do people hang tiny white light bulbs from their rain gutters? Do they really think they look like icicles? What are people thinking when they climb ladders, perch themselves precariously on steeply pitched roof lines, and suspend a few fragile strands of lights on window and door frames? What are people thinking?

Lest you think I am the grinch that is trying to steal the Christmas spirit, let me clarify: I am not being critical of any of the festivities. Quite frankly, the displays fascinate me. I'm one of those people that will go out of my way to look at houses and neighborhoods that take this festivals of lights stuff seriously. I pull over to curbs, turn on my flashers, and take in the entire effect as often as I can do so safely. My children and I try to guess how long it took to install the monstrosities we spot. We wonder about ensuing electric bills, the opinions the neighbors have about all the hoopla, and where all that stuff gets stored during the rest of the year. No, I'm not being critical at all. I'm just wondering. This inquiring mind just wants to know.

I wonder about something else as well. Why do so many people who otherwise have no interest in Jesus, in Christianity, or in faith of any kind make such a big deal about this time of the year? We can try to ignore the baby that was born in the manger in the city of David and say that what we are doing nowadays has nothing to do with that. Even the winter solstice is a celebration of new life, of the end of the darkness and the coming of the light. Ultimately then, we are all honoring the coming of the Light of the World. We can talk about the importance of taking time to be with family, to celebrate the end of another year, and all that jazz. Family is important and worthy of honor. I know of so many families in such deep pain right now that I cannot help but think about our fearless foursome differently these days. Simply being together for another year, still loving one another, and planning for the future together is a priceless commodity. Surviving another year, especially a year that began with the sorrow of the tsunami, has been marked by hurricanes, earthquakes, and mudslides, and strife all around the world - surviving such a year is certainly worthy of celebration.

But it has to be more than just that. I know it's more than that. The baby whose birth I am waiting to commemorate grew up to be a Man whose death I will mourn in four months' time and whose resurrection will raise my spirits anew a few sorrow-filled days later. Christmas is the beginning of the story, the never ending story, the story that is told over and over every year. This story predates our calendar; in fact, it is the standard by which our calender was created.

As I gather gifts for my husband, children, and my mother, as we put up and decorated the tree this past weekend, and Steve strung sets of lights on the bushes in front of our home, I wonder: what are people thinking? Do they wonder what all the uproar is about? Am I the only one filled with questions as the countdown to Christmas continues?

Away in a manger while sheperds watched their flocks by night, was it a holy night? Were the stars brightly shining when angels came from the realms of glory to the little town of Bethlehem? What child is this on the first noel caused good Christian men to rejoice and three kings to bear gifts as they traversed afar? Who is He in yonder stall of whom the herald angels sing? The angels we have heard on high go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born. So come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Sing in exultation. Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

I had a farm in Africa...

One of my favorite movies is "Out of Africa" with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. The rolling Ngong hills, the countless animals on the savannah, the dinners by firelight while out on safari are almost enough to make this city girl want to camp out. Almost. Rather than the call of the wild, I know I would hear and heed the call of indoor plumbing.

Over the past two days, I have been slowly making my way through this beautiful, painful, lonely, lovely, frightening, disheartening, and deeply engaging film. I have seen it dozens of times, and every time I watch it, I find myself imagining myself right there with them, listening to her every homespun tale, looking through his binoculars out onto the horizon he has yet to explore. I know what some of you are thinking: "It's a movie, Gail. Of course it's all romantic and perfect. Real life in Africa is nothing like that." Others are wagging an accusatory finger at the computer screen and reminding me that theirs was an adulterous relationship. The argument could rightly be made that they were taking advantage of the Africans they used as servants and in some cases as lovers. Yeah, yeah, yeah... I still like the movie.

Over the past two days, I have also been engaged in the task of decorating our house for Christmas. The tree is up, but there are still a few ornaments to put on it. The candle lights are in each of the upstairs windows. Steve has strung white and green lights on the bushes out front and is at a local store at the moment buying more lights. While walking Maya in our front yard this evening, I noticed that several of our neighbors have been hard at work on their own lighting ceremonies today. On this rainy South Charlotte night, I imagine that many families are gathering around the hearth (or the television) telling (or watching) homespun (or Hollywood produced) tales. Parents are conspiring about gift purchases. Children are dreaming about gift purchases.

And we all are looking through sets of binoculars into an uncertain future. What will the new year bring? Will there finally be peace in Iraq? Will the troops begin to return home? I hesitate to offer a positive response to these questions for many reasons. Here's one: I spoke to a friend who bought a Yorkie at the pound today. Apparently, the previous owner of the dog had two Yorkies but had to make the difficult decision as to which of the two he would take with him during his deployment in Iraq! He was allowed to take only one; the other had to remain stateside. I am struck by the fact that he was able to take a dog with him to a war zone. I expect that he expects that the military leadership expects to be there for quite a while longer. But that's a whole 'nother blog...

Back to the future: will there be peace here at home? I know of yet another couple getting divorced, another child shuffled between broken homes. A teenager separated from her family is steely and tough during the day, but I bet she hugs her pillow and silently stifles her tears when she thinks of Christmas Eve festivities away from her parents and siblings. Busy parents work long hours and barely have time to enjoy the season. Hurried children are driven from one activity to another, eating in the car, doing homework between piano lessons and basketball practice. When will the silent nights, the peace on earth, and the good will come to pass?

On a more personal note, as I look towards the new year, I have a set of questions of my own. Will I return to Spain with the children for a month-long adventure this spring? They both want to go back, and I would always rather be in Spain than just about any place else. Will Steve and I reach our fifteenth wedding anniversary next June with a sigh or a shift into high gear? What will be the health status of our mothers, siblings, children, and the two of us at the end of this year and the next? Will I ever be published apart from on this blog? What lessons are left for me to learn by the end of this year? I'm sure there are many.

Isak Dinesen left her home in Denmark for an unimaginable adventure in Africa. She met a man there whose influence in her life would change her forever. She experienced a continent rich in scents, colors, people, culture, language, strife, and sorrow. She contracted an illness that nearly killed her, but ended up making her immensely stronger. Ultimately, though, she lost her farm, mourned the love of her life, and was forced to return to her native Europe monetarily poor but emotionally rich. From her years of life abroad, she gleaned stories that have ushered readers into worlds they could only imagine. I am one of those readers.

I will never have a farm in Africa. I will most likely never see the Ngong Hills. However, often I describe my life with the same adjectives I ascribed to the film I will someday soon finish watching: "beautiful, painful, lonely, lovely, frightening, disheartening, and deeply engaging." I plan to spend the rest of my days spinning tales, looking towards the distant horizon, and dreaming of broad flat houses with equally broad porches, and unexpected guests who ask for nothing more than my company, a glass of fine wine, and a conversation that lasts longer than the candles that light up the night.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

I was gonna apologize but...

then I thought about it for a while, and I realized I didn't have anything to apologize for.

Three months ago I began a writing game with a wonderful woman named Maureen Ryan Griffin. I met her last year around this time at a winter solstice writing retreat. Excellent day. Excellent woman. Check out her website at Anyway, one of the commitments I made for this writing game we played was that I would blog at least twice per week. That was hardly a difficult assignment for me as I love to write, and I think I like blogging more than any other form of writing - except for journaling.

Over these past three months, I have been pretty faithful to my biweekly blogging schedule, but I have noticed during the past few weeks that I have tended to wait and write towards the end of the week. Here I sit on Thursday night to write my first blog of the week. It's not that I am without ideas or without incidents worth sharing; it's just that the weeks are flying by so fast that I haven't made time to sit and write until the week is nearly gone.

Tonight on my way back from seeing my awesome therapist I spent a few minutes thinking about what I'd write tonight. The first thing that came to mind was an apology. "I'm sorry that I have been waiting so late in the week to write. I'm sorry that friends come to the blog only to find that I haven't written anything new in four or five days." I made a mental review of my week, where I've been, what I've done, and I realized something else: The busyness of my life, the fullness of my schedule is not something I need to defend or apologize for. I love my life. I love the fullness of it. When I'm tired, when I'd rather be writing than driving the children from one activity to another, even though I'd rather write than cook, clean, do laundry, or just about anything else, life happens. And the writing has to wait.

Julia Cameron wrote a book entitled, "The Vein of Gold" in which she encourages and guides her readers through a process of discovering the vein of gold that is embedded within each of us, the vein that oozes with the golden ore of our lives. But in order to find that vein, we must live our lives. It's not enough to write; I must live. It is the living that fills the vein with richness, beauty, and depth.

This week, I have lived fully, passionately, and gracefully (I hope). On Monday afternoon, I took Kristiana to her horseback riding class and sat in the minivan watching Steve Martin's "Father of the Bride" with Daniel. What great laughter and discussions we shared about the antics of a goofy father and the love that drove him to do all those crazy things. Then after dinner, I took off for the final session of a writing class called "Getting Your Work Out There." I do all this writing, so why not submit a piece or two for publication or for contest consideration? I've submitted three pieces to a writing contest so far. I know that one of them didn't make the cut, but the other two are still out there.

On Tuesday afternoon, I met with Maureen and spent an hour retelling the tales of the past three months, the ways in which I have been winning this writing game, and the goals I want to reach in the future. She makes me laugh. She makes me cry. And above all, she makes me want to be a better writer. On Tuesday evening, I took Daniel to his basketball practice at 6, then drove with Kristiana to one of my favorite stores in the world: Staples. I picked up DVDs so that I can download this enormous blog onto my laptop computer, edit some of them, and launch them out into the world for wider consideration. I found some fine paper on which to print them, bought my daughter some special pens for her own writing, and enjoyed her company thoroughly as we strolled through that wonderland of writing.

Yesterday, the kids and I went uptown for the wonderful Wednesday worship service we all enjoy. Katie has begun a series of devotionals on the various characters involved in the advent, the arrival of the Christ child. Yesterday she talked about the genealogy of Christ as listed in the first chapter of Matthew. From there we were off to Sushi 101 for a lovely lunch then returned home for basketball on the driveway, walking and playing with Maya, a brief visit to the library, and dinner before heading out for more evening activities. We kept the kids up until 10 PM, irresponsible parents that we are, talking, laughing, and sharing our adventures from the day. By then, I needed to spend a few moments alone with my dear hubby, and so it was time to shuffle the little people off the bed.

Today, we left the house early to take Maya to the vet. Poor thing has been harboring a slight infection at the wound site after her spaying. Something just didn't seem right, so we drove her over. I will spare the most gruesome details, but let me say this: Maya is prone to carsickness. By the time we arrived at the vet's office, therefore, we had some clean up to do before we could hand her over to the vet's nurse. The problem? A dissolving stitch that never dissolved. Now she takes oral antibiotics twice per day as administered by my very responsible twelve year old daughter. We settled down for homeschooling at 11:30, and still managed to get most of our work done by 1 PM. After all, we had discussed the formula for the five paragraph essay on our way to the vet, so most of English was already done.

As I mentioned earlier, I had a 7 PM appointment with my therapist tonight. One of my dearest friends asked why I see a therapist. There are many answers to that question, but I will give only one: he listens to me tell the story of my life and asks great questions that help me see myself, my birth family, my immediate family, and the world in which I live more clearly, more compassionately, and with a deeper sense of clarity. Jim has helped me recognize faulty patterns in my life and in my relationships that have stunted my emotional, mental, and spiritual growth, and assists me as I either fix the patterns that are salvageable or abandon the untenable ones altogether.

This has been a full week. This has been a well-lived week. There have been tough moments, moments of frustration, dashed expectations, and lost opportunities. There have also been moments of singing, hugging, laughing, talking about antibiotics, Christmas decorations, Grammy, football, and the dangers of spraying the "Nature's Miracle" No Chewing Bitter Spray on Maya's fur.

I was gonna apologize, but then I realized that my excuse would be the fullness of my life. And I will never apologize for life.