Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Royal Reunion

Early this morning, Coretta Scott King passed from this life into the next, entered into the heaven she had dreamed of and read about all life long, and was greeted by two Kings: first the King of Glory and then her beloved Martin Luther King, Jr. For the four children she left behind, this was a sad morning. For Mrs. King, this was the morning she'd been waiting for since the morning she heard the news of her husband's assassination.

I never knew either of them, Dr. or Mrs. King. But in so many ways, my life is what it is because of them, because of their dream of what this nation could be, and because nothing, not even death, could stop the work of righteousness that motivated Dr. King from being carried forth.

Way back in 1983, when I was a senior in high school in Brooklyn, New York, I entered and won an extemporaneous speaking contest at my school by writing, memorizing, and reciting a letter I'd written to Dr. King thanking him for the life he lived, for his dedication to his belief in equality for black and white people in this nation, and for his insistence that inequality must be battled in the northern states as well as the southern ones. When I graduated from Poly, there were fewer than twenty-five black students in a total population of 500 students. When I returned to Poly seven years later as a teacher, the percentage of students of color there had more than doubled. When I was invited to speak on the occasion of twenty-five years of coeducation nearly three years ago, there were more black girls in the student body than there were black students in total when I was a student there. At Poly Prep in Brooklyn, New York, Dr. King's oft-repeated dream had come true.

At this very moment, I am sitting at my children's homeschool desk in Charlotte, North Carolina, writing this blog. My two bi-racial children are outside walking our dog, playing with their friends in our mixed neighborhood in total safety and peace. As an African-American woman married to a white American man, I couldn't have lived in this house in this neighborhood in this city forty years ago. Truthfully, this neighborhood didn't exist forty years ago, but no neighborhood in this city would have welcomed our multi-racial family with the hospitality we have received since coming here. In fact, college students seeking to live out Dr. King's dream were smeared with mustard, ketchup, and epithets here in Charlotte four decades ago. I wonder if Dr. King thought such drastic change was possible in such a relatively short time.

Two years ago, I drove down to Atlanta with my daughter, and we visited the King Center for Peace. We walked reverently through the displays, watched short videos, and looked deep into the eyes of both the hated and the haters as they stared back at us from stark black and white photographs. We concluded our sojourn with a self-guided tour of the church that Dr. King pastored there in Atlanta. With the exception of a few tourists, the sanctuary was empty. The walls were bare, as was the floor. I wished those walls and that floor could have retold the tales, re-preached the sermons, and thereby re-instill in me the need to stay the course and continue the fight for peace, for freedom, and for equality for all people in our nation and all around the world.

Kristiana and I sat silently in a pew on the right side facing the pulpit about two-thirds of the way back. I tried to imagine the exhiliration, the fervor, the spirit of determination that surged through the crowd of sanctified soldiers gathered there on a weekly basis. Soldiers that fought for true freedom, for liberation from the dictatorship of racism, from the tyranny of Jim Crow. Soldiers that knew that the following week, some of those counted in their ranks would likely be dead or in prison. I tried to imagine the resonance, the power, the urgency in Dr. King's voice as he challenged his listeners to fight bullets with blessings, to protect themselves with prayer, and to march on till victory was won. Together they sang, they wept, and they armed themselves for another week of battles against an enemy for whom the world was broken down into two separate but never equal halves. That old hymn, "God be with you till we meet again" was more than merely words sung to a melodic tune; it was a benediction that could very well be their last.

As I always do when I think of that famous Washington monument speech, I have tears in my eyes now as I picture Dr. King describing for the world of his dream. There is so much still to be done to bring it fully to life. We are still judged more by the color of our skin than the content of our character. Nowadays, however, we have added place of residence, level of income, country of origin, native language, and sexual preference to the standards by which we judge those around us. Segregation still separates our neighborhoods, schools, clubs, and churches one from another. But there has been great progress. Because of those early freedom fighters who were willing to lay down their lives for their friends - some of whom they never met - I can live this great life that I have been blessed to have.

This morning, Mrs. King laid down her life one last time. She stopped worrying about who was being judged about what. She stopped taking her medication. She abandoned her wheelchair. Today the color of Coretta Scott King's skin, the neighborhood in which she lived, the right to vote for the candidate of her choice - today, none of those things matter to her. Today, right now in fact, she is dancing; she is singing; she is laughing; she is shouting in unison with her long-lost husband: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

Thursday, January 26, 2006

On the road again...

On Jen Gray's blog today, I read the following:
(She's a great photographer as well as an insightful and honest writer.
Check her out: www.jengray.com)


why did you move there?
what are you doing?
will you conutinue to do photography?
are you going to stay?
will you go back to teaching?
have you made any friends?

and the answer: I DONT KNOW.

all i know is that each morning i build a fire,
put on my hat while i sip my coffee, and then...
i just follow

i have never been this slow in my entire life.
but i think somehow i am finally catching up to myself.
and i think i may even like who is showing up."
I could write my own set of very similar questions:
why are you going there?
what will you do?
will you continue writing?
will you ever get back to teaching school?
have you made any friends?

And my answer would be the same: I do not know.

So this weekend, I will go up into the mountains of North Carolina alone.
To think.
To write.
To read.
To walk.
To take some photos of my own.
To try to answer some of these questions.
And who knows? I may meet Jen Gray there; after all, I will be going to the very same town where she is living at the moment. Seeking her own answers. Walking, reading, writing, and taking photographs.

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I will wake up, make and sip fresh coffee, curl up with my journal, look out over the mountains, and follow my thoughts, my pen, my colored markers, and my wild imagination to the next thought, word, and imaginary place for as long as I want. I will bathe slowly and luxuriously. I will take short and long walks, short and long naps, and short and long writing sessions. I'm looking forward to the slow pace, the complete lack of a schedule, the peace that comes from quiet solitude.

The thought of catching up to myself, of being reacquainted with my own interests and thoughts, sleeping late two mornings in a row, eating and drinking whatever I choose whenever I choose and without having to share, worry about food allergies, do the dishes, or makd sure everyone has everything they need before I can sit down to eat -- these are truly revolutionary concepts for me. The possibility that I will discover a more profound understanding of myself, my dreams, my goals, and perhaps my doubts, fears, and concerns as well - just the possibility thrills me.

I'm off to finish packing, get some sleep, and hit the road in the morning.
Wish me traveling mercies, okay?

Buon viaggio, Gail

Saturday, January 21, 2006

My daughter is my hero!

We signed her up to play basketball late last fall. At the tryouts, there were only five girls officially registered, and she was one of them. She began the season with practices on Tuesday evening. which was perfect for us because she has horseback riding on Monday afternoons and junior high youth group on Wednesday nights. Over the next three weeks, 12 more girls signed up, so the league commissioner decided to split the group into two small teams. We asked that she remain on the Tuesday team. No such luck. She was placed on a team that practiced on Wednesday. Again we asked if she could remain on the Tuesday team because of our weekly conflict. No such luck; they told us she could practice with the Tuesday team, but play games with the Wednesday team. Ridiculous! Willing to forego the beginning of her youth group gathering every week, Kristiana decided to make the complete transition to her new team and practice with them. Then the league switched their practices to Friday nights from 8:30 until 10 PM. Their games are on Saturday, sometimes as early as noon! This is how they treat one of only five girls who followed the league-ordained procedure from before the start of the season. Outrageous!

Fortunately, Kristiana is a far better person than I am. She plays her heart out every weekend. She gets the rebound and protects it from the reaching, slapping hands of her opponents. Whenever the opposite team's shooters step into the key, she tries to block their shots. She takes as many lay ups as she can. She sinks her foul shots as best she can. She steps out on the offensive players when they hang out near the three-point line. She leaves every ounce of strength she has on the court every time she plays. But at the end of every game, she climbs into the minivan with sweat on her brow and tears in her eyes.

Today her team lost its fifth straight game. They are 0-5.

Later, as she walked into the garage carrying her sneakers and a gift she'd thoughtfully chosen for a good friend's birthday, she slipped and fell, landing hard on her right hip. She earned every one of those tears. After she gathered her possessions off the floor of the garage, she entered the house with so much poise and dignity that Steve and Daniel didn't realize what had happened. Not one to garner anyone's pity, she didn't even tell them what had happened. She's such a brave girl.

What makes me most proud of her strength of character is knowing that what is happening to her this season, what happened to her this afternoon is no anomoly. Kristiana has a long history of doing and saying the right thing because it's the right thing to do. One night last season, her basketball team lost by 30 points to the team led by the man who had coached her for two previous seasons. Not once during the game did he take out his top scorer. At the end of the game as we walked out of the gym, he made a comment to her that was meant to lend humor to the situation. I responded with angry, sharp words. On the way home from the game, through her tears, Kristiana said, "In a game like that, Mom, I'd rather be on the losing team than on the winning team. What they did wasn't right." The good news is that Kristiana's team went on to beat his team twice later in the season. (See how mean-spirited I can be??!!) Her mother ought to sit at her feet and learn from her more often, rather than the other way around.

Tender of heart, soft of voice, compassionate towards all, Kristiana is my hero. She never speaks of quitting the team. She never asks to skip games or practices out of frustration. She likes all the girls on her team and speaks highly of each one, even the ones whose performances on the court contribute to the team's dismal record. I know that when they play again tomorrow afternoon, she will play as hard as ever. (Yes, you read that right; they had practice on Friday night, a game on Saturday, and another game on Sunday of the same weekend! These people are absolutely nuts!)

Me? I want to clobber the refs when they miss calls. I want to yank the bricklayers on her team off the court and leave the best girls on the court all game long. And most of all, I want them to win the rest of their games this season. Unfortunately, that is highly unlikely.

I hope that when I grow up, I will be like you, Kristiana.
I love you, sweet girl.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Back in the High Life... again!

I don't get out enough. I don't get together with women friends nearly enough. I am a full-time, at home, homeschooling mother, and I don't get out enough. So this morning I got out. I went out. I worked out, showered, got dressed, put on my boots, climbed into my new car (Happy Birthday to me!), and drove to the home of a complete stranger to spend two hours with women I barely know.

Sounds odd, I know, but I'm a member of a group here in Charlotte called the South Side Sisters. It's a group of about 40 black women that gathers one Friday morning each month to talk, laugh, tell stories, recommend doctors, gyms, and great places to shop. We tell each other's what's going on, who's doing what, and whose husband has changed jobs. We tell stories of our recent travels, travails, and triumphs. Some of us are real estate agents, Mary Kay ladies, doctors, teachers, computer consultants, jewelry designers, volunteer fundraisers, and professional shoppers. Now that I think about the fine threads we all were wearing, I suspect that we all fit into that last group.

We are all married women. Most of us are mothers, and all of us are determined to make the best of the blessed lives we lead. Every month there are newcomers, new residents of Charlotte, or newly moved into South Charlotte - which I why I know very few of them very well. The women in the group invite their new neighbors, friends from church, fellow parents at their children's schools, and we come together simply to celebrate our lives. No agenda. No political discussions. No religious debates. Just sisters on the South side of Charlotte befriending other sisters. Eating good food, drinking good coffee, and having a good time.

Adrienne, the woman who hosted the Sisters this morning, lives in a beautiful home overlooking a beautiful golf course and is the mother of three beautiful children. She has a scrapbooking room in her basement (there aren't many basements in Charlotte... they must have paid a sizeable chunk of change for that house!) that inspired us all to work harder to make the time and claim the space to do what we love. One woman told of numerous volunteer opportunities in and around Charlotte. Another woman asked for help in planning a middle school social event so that our pre-teen children can get to know and care for each other just as we, their mothers, know and care for each other. The computer consultant of the bunch and one of the real estate agents approached me and asked if I'd be willing to do some freelance writing for their businesses.

More than once during the course of the morning, I looked around at the women there. Manicured nails. Meticulously made-up faces. Carefully coiffed hair. Nearly every earlobe, neck, wrist, and finger glittered with something. Leopard print bags and pointy-toed boots. Chanel. Ralph Lauren. St. John. Eileen Fisher. Leather this. Suede that. Diamond the other. Fur trim abounded. In the driveway and on the street was yet more bling: BMW. Jaguar. Land Rover. Escalade. Decadent. Rich. Lush. It was over the top. The sum total of the wealth represented there this morning had to approach $50 million. And there I was, soaking it all in, listening, joining in with the laughter, telling stories of my own, and awash in gratitude.

I am grateful to live in a place where such extravagance is the norm. I am grateful to know so many strong, intelligent, and strikingly beautiful women. I am grateful that every one of those women was black; it may sound strange, but before coming to Charlotte and joining this group, I had never been in a room with so many black women who were so well off. I really like not being the "only fly in the buttermilk." On yet another gorgeous January day in Charlotte, I am grateful to be alive, healthy, strong, and surrounded by so many women who look and live a lot like I do.

I was honored that before we ate, they asked me to pray. To give God thanks for the bounty that we take so much for granted, to ask Him to keep us mindful of all that He has done and all that we can do because of all that we have. My prayer was and is that we never lose sight of what is possible when we work hard, when we are good stewards of what we have, and when we take the time to enjoy the benefits of work well done and a life well-lived. May we never lose sight of the inestimable value of new and old friends, of shoulders to lean on in tough times, of ringing, loud laughter in the good ones, and of the great pleasure of living well through it all.

In a world that is being torn apart by war, poverty, hunger, pain, and fear, for a few hours this morning we came together in the pursuit of peace, fullness, jubilation, relaxation, exhiliration, and getting a glimpse of the magazine-worthy home of yet another South Side Sister.

I definitely need to get out more.
Here's to a great life!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Do you hear what I hear? Part Two

On the good days, on the days when the sound of silence is golden, when peace reigns in my heart rather than discontentment, when hope springs eternal, on those days I hear another Voice. I read and meditate on other quotes. These are some of the words that bring me comfort and strength, not only on the bad days like the one I wrote about yesterday, but also on the good days, like the one I'm having today.
I lie down and sleep; I wake again because the Lord sustains me.

You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.

The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.

Those who know your name will trust in You, for You, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek You.

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord for he has been good to me.

You have made known to me the path of life; You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.

You turned my wailing into dancing; You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.

How priceless is your unfailing love. Both high and low among people find refuge in the shadow of your wings.

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

My soul finds rest in God alone.

I am not alone in seeking rest for my weary soul, for my tormented mind. I am not alone in my wailing and in the wearing of emotional and spiritual sackcloth. I am not alone in having a downcast spirit or disturbed soul. Nor am I alone in finding rest in God, in His Word, and in His unfailing love and presence in my life. The Psalmist David and his fellow singers and writers wrote these words and many others that have been of great sustenance and support for me.

As a fan of Oprah Winfrey, I have followed the recent controversy about the last book she assigned to her world-wide book club. I haven't yet read the book, but I will pick it up soon I'm sure. Apparently the author of the book, James Frey, has been accused of wildly exaggerating the stories he tells in the memoir entitled A Million Little Pieces. Critics, broadcasters, and insignificant people like me have discussed it, written about it, and wondered what our expectations ought to be of memoirs. How much embellishment is too much?

I am the first to say that I am not surprised or dismayed by the possibility that Frey stretched the truth in order to sell his book. I am also the first to say that I embellish details in my own writing. Just a few minutes ago, I confessed to a friend that I carefully craft these blogs to keep readers interested, curious, and most important of all, coming back to read more of my rantings. I endeavor to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But the truth I tell is only mostly true. It's my version of the events of my life. My husband, children, friends, and other innocent bystanders would most certainly tell the story of my life quite differently than I do.

But there is one Book in my life that I have no doubts about, even though I know that there are millions of people who think this Book is even more wildly exaggerated and overrated than Frey's. There is one Book in my life that I turn to more than any other when I need guidance, comfort, and wisdom. I know that I am not alone when I say that I don't understand it all. I don't even agree with all of it. Yet no matter how disputed, maligned, or reviled this Book may be, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel, no matter how difficult it is to defend at times, I have never doubted the truthfulness, the relevance, or the indispensability of The Bible in my life.

Do you read what I read?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Do you hear what I hear???

It drives me to drink.
It drives me to teetotaling.
It drives me to laughter and to sorrow.
It fills me and leaves me cavernously empty.
It drives me to shop ceaselessly and shames me into frugality.
It makes me overeat and tempts me to starve myself.
It drives me to jealousy and chides me to be grateful for what I have.
It motivates me to seek solitude and drives me into crowded rooms.
It urges me to connect with friends and cautions me to steer clear of everyone.

What is "it"? It is most definitely not anything available on Ebay.

I will quote one of my favorite books.
"Some years into our spiritual journey, after the waves of anticipation that mark the beginning of any pilgrimage have begun to ebb into life's middle years of service and busyness, a voice speaks to us in the midst of all we are doing. There is something missing in all of this, it suggests. There is something more.

"The voice often comes in the middle of the night or the early hours of morning, when our hearts are most unedited and vulnerable. At first, we mistake the source of this voice and assume it is just our imagination. We fluff up our pillow, roll over, and go back to sleep. Days, weeks, even months go by and the voice speaks to us again: Aren't you thirsty? Listen to your heart. There is something missing.

"We listen and are aware of... a sigh. And under the sigh is something dangerous, something that feels adulterous and disloyal... We sense a passion deep within that threatens a total disregard for the program we are living; it feels reckless, wild. Unsettled, we turn and walk quickly away, like a woman who feels more than she wants to when her eyes meet those of a man not her husband."

Have you ever heard that voice? I have heard that voice all life long. But the first time I heard it, breathed that sigh, and panicked was in 1994 when my daughter was about a year old. In my mind, I'd "arrived." I had graduated from college, married a generous and loving man, and worked for four years as a teacher and college counselor. We had bought our first house. I had gotten pregnant without any difficulty, given birth to a beautiful daughter, and was taking graduate classes when I heard it. I didn't just hear the question; I felt it in my inner harbor, that safe place that no one has access to but me. I shook it off as selfish discontent. How dare I want more? How dare I think that there was more than what I had? What was I supposed to do with those feelings? I wondered if they were worthy of attention or if I should simply ignore them, hoping they'd go away.

It was at that point in my life that I began to look at other people, at couples, at families, and wonder if they too feel that twinge of emptiness, of loneliness, of longing that I felt so profoundly. But I never had the courage to ask. I didn't want to "give men the wrong idea" and I didn't want women to think I was after their husbands. I couldn't ask my pastor or anyone else at church because I was so deeply involved (I taught Bible studies, for goodness sake), that I thought everyone would wonder about the truth and seriousness of my faith. Heck, I wondered about it myself. Fast forward to 2006...

Nowadays most of the time I feel grounded; the answers are clear, and I have no doubts about who I am, what my purpose in life is and where I am going. But there are other times when I feel that feeling again. I hear that voice again. As I write in my journal, as I read book after book, as I explore friendships, relationships, and my faith, and even as I walk Maya up and down our street, I hear the voice and feel the shift in my life's foundation. Is it cracking a little?

I often respond to the questions I hear with questions of my own. Questions that deserve not only serious consideration but also acceptable answers. How do I, how do we answer that call? Whose voice am I hearing? Since I am not the only one wondering about these things (and it is my firm belief that every person on the planet is asking themselves similar questions), will I find safe, patient, loving people who are willing to tell their stories, ask their questions, and together seek answers?

Sometimes the answers I hear are a little too pat. A little too simplistic. "God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it." "We are right, Gail, and they are wrong. Don't allow these frivolous questions to cloud your clear judgment." "If you have any doubts, that your problem." "You have always been too open-minded and liberal for your own good." Sometimes they are a little too dreamy. "I'm going to try a little bit this and a little bit of that, and whatever feels good, I'll do that until I find something better." "Just pray, Gail. Clarity and peace will come."

I know I'm being long-winded today, but this is a never-ending inner conversation. What I'm sharing here is merely today's chapter. By the way, the quote about the voices came from John Eldredge's The Sacred Romance. A fascinating read. Today I began The Holy Longing. Similarly intriguing. In different ways, both books tap into the source of The Voice and how we hear it, recognize it, and spend our entire lives responding to it.

After all, it is that holy longing for sacred, true romance,
for deep fulfillment, and for lasting connection that
drives us to marry and then to divorce.
It drives us from one job to another.
From one car to another, one house to the next.
From one meal to the next.
From one book, movie, CD to the next.
One church to the next.
One friendship to the next.
From one continent to another.
Perhaps we will find the answer, the lasting peace, comfort, and whatever that thing is that we can't quite name, in the next paycheck, bonus, award, promotion, relationship, rendezvous, or whatever that thing is that we can't yet identify. But we'll know it when we see it, find it, buy it, own it, sell it, or get the newest model of it.

Do you hear what I hear?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

You? Yes, you.

Have you told your loved ones that you love them lately?
Have you read a book to a child lately?
Have you sent an unexpected card, letter, or care package to anyone lately? I'm not talking about email, chain letters, and requests for money or favors. I'm not talking about mass-produced Christmas letters or photos of the children and the dog. I mean a real letter, sent via snail mail, with a handwritten note.
Have you called a long lost friend and reconnected lately?
Have you contacted a former teacher, mentor, or coach and thanked them for the influence they have had in your life?

I once bought a book that consisted of nothing but thank you letters. The author decided to thank her childhood busdriver, her rabbi, the makers of Lactaid pills (for those of us who are lactose intolerant) and sent copies of that letter to Ben & Jerry's, Good Humor, and Baskin Robbins. She thanked Bic for their pens, the CEO of Boeing for not hiring her, movie stars, people who sat next to her in restaurants... you get the picture. Many of the letters were mailed, and many of them weren't.

I met Pam Janis, the author of Thank you, Everyone, at a library reading and book signing way back in June of 1999. I was moved by her desire to thank not only everyone who had made a positive impact in her life, but also those whose decisions and actions may have hurt her at one point, but in the end brought about change and advancement for Pam. So I ask you, and I ask myself, who have I thanked lately? Whose words have encouraged me lately - and have I thanked them? Whose criticism has stung me lately - and have I thanked them?

This morning I was publicly humbled, humiliated really, by someone who had been upset with me for several months apparently, but hadn't said anything about it until today. At church. In front of other people. I offered no excuse, no explanation, and immediately said I was sorry. Needless to say, I've spent a lot of time since then thinking about what she said and how hurt she has been all these months. I didn't remember having wronged her, but my forgetfulness doesn't matter. She remembered. She was in pain. I was sorry. I am sorry still.

Here's the thing: after the initial waves of anger, shame, and vengeful thinking passed, I was thankful to her for telling me the truth. I am glad she was able to unburden herself and feel better for having told me. And I am thankful for the lessons I have learned today about myself, about my fallible humanness, about how careless and thoughtless I can be. I am planning to write her a note and thank her for the lessons she taught me.

I left that meeting feeling drained and went to my local drug dealer for a $4 hit of caffeine mixed with chocolate, otherwise known to us junkies as a mocha with an extra shot. The kind young man behind the counter greeted me with a smile, took my order, and then handed me two free drink coupons because he liked my hair. I will head back over there in the next couple of days to thank him again for his kindness and generosity. And get another hit.

So what are you waiting for?
Sign off the internet and go thank somebody for something.
What the heck? Give them a hug while you're at it.
You? Yes, you.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

What is the Greek word for "fear of basements?"

I grew up in a house with a basement. Two of my three brothers lived down there. The washing machine and dryer were down there. So were the ping-pong table, my father's workbench, the oil tank, the oil burner, the electric meter, two very musky, mildewy, and over-stuffed closets, and countless shadowy creatures I never actually saw, but was convinced lived down there.

During all of my growing up time, I hated that basement. Rare was the time that I ventured down there without loudly beating heart, a well-marked escape route, and deeply-treaded shoes tied securely on my growing feet. Plus there were the occasional NYC sized waterbugs that would scamper from pillar to post right when I was at the narrowest part of the hallway at the greatest distance from both exit doors. I hated it down there.

With all the lights blazing, the windows clamped shut, doors locked from inside and out, even then I was terrified. Every sound triggered a new round of heart palpitations. Every shadow a shudder. Every movement a moan. It was that basement that taught me how to count stairs on the run, how to get up them two or three at a time, and never to turn my back on the light source. Keep the light between me and whatever is unknown. Darkness had to be avoided at all costs. When in doubt, sprint for the stairs, and take them in pairs.

Two years after I graduated from college and returned to Brooklyn to teach at my high school alma mater, I asked my parents the unthinkable: I asked if I could rent the basement bedroom and bathroom and make it my home for a year or two. They agreed. Before I moved any of my belongings down there, I made a thorough inspection of the entire space. I opened the closet doors and discovered coats that my parents had worn in earlier, thinner days - coats that would later catch the eye of my vintage-hungry students. I found books that I'd read as a child, books I'd been forbidden to read (Letters to Karen, A Hiding Place, and Arnold Schwarzenner's books about working out among them), and the carcasses of many dead bugs that never had found water. I swept, vacuumed, cleaned, organized, alphabetized, replaced old bulbs with newer and brighter ones, and made myself at home.

I learned to enjoy the flickering shadows created by scented candles, the minute but irresistable glow at the end of the stick of incense, and the hypnotizing glow of the television screen there in my new basement hideaway. And darkness, especially when Steve came to visit and spend the weekend, became a welcome friend.

Right around that same time, back in the very early 1990's I was learning to rattle around and make myself at home in another dark place: the recesses of my own heart and mind. I'd climbed out of the dungeon of a suicidal depression after breaking up with my first serious relationship during my sophmore year in college. I'd scampered out of the cellar of serious loneliness during a six and half month stint in Europe as a senior in college. It wasn't all about me though; I'd looked on in horror as college friends and alumni drank themselves to death. I watched one friend agonize over the decision to have an abortion; on the one hand, she so longed to carry the child to term. On the other, she knew that her parents, her friends, and her college professors would be so disappointed with her decision not only to be physically intimate with a fellow student but also her desire to live with the consequences. Those were dark days indeed.

But in that basement where I lived, in the classroom where I taught, on airplanes when I traveled for business and pleasure, during the lonely walks back and forth to class in Madrid, as I held hands with a hospitalized friend who'd attempted suicide because of boyfriend troubles, even as I sit here at the homeschooling desk in tony South Charlotte, I have learned that I no longer need to fear the darkness. In fact, in the darkest times I have learned the most about myself, about my friends, and about the God I love and praise.

Sitting next to the hospital bed in North Adams, Massachusetts, as a frightened undergrad trying to comfort another frightened undergrad whose stomach had been emptied of the poison but whose heart was still groggy with terror, I reached out for her hand and found the darkness a little less eerie. While a student in Madrid with only enough money for a one way busride every day, I learned to appreciate the architecture of that grand city as none of my other classmates did. Walking home in the wee hours of the morning after public transportation stopped running, the darkness was a reminder that I'd spent all evening and far into the night with new friends. In that Brooklyn basement, the darkness provided cover for my tears when I heard the news that a beloved, perhaps over-loved, college professor had died in a plane crash.

And now years later, living in a house that has no basement, I am no further from the shadows. In fact, I now believe that when all of life is lived above ground, the inner darkness can be even deeper. Without any physical place to hide away from the prying eyes of family, friends, and neighbors, the emotional, relational, and spiritual hiding places abound. So I am learning to love the darkness. When others look at me askance and tell me to "just snap out of it," to enjoy the new clothes, to be thankful for my friends, and to take myself and my navel-gazing tendencies less seriously, I wonder what's rattling around and taking up residence in the basement of their lives. I wonder if they are as afraid of the dark down there as I used to be. I want to tell them: buy some new light bulbs, a good broom, and some strong garbage bags, tie on good running shoes just in case, plan an escape route, and take the plunge. Who knows? They may very well find long-lost treasures and family heirlooms worthy of display.

In truth, I've become enamored with venturing into the shadows. I want to know what's driving me to fill my closet with new clothes and Wonderbras; it's not just the fabulous sales at Hecht's department store. What parts of my life are feeling naked, too visible? What parts are feeling flat and need to be pumped up a little? I want to know the real reason why I'm obsessed with losing ten more pounds. I already weigh less than I did when I got married. What parts of me feel excessive and need to be trimmed? Why do I go to such great lengths to feel paralyzing guilty for every good and beautiful object I own, for every caring friend I have, and for every hug and kiss my family gives me? Why do I feel so unworthy of love and blessing? Why do I make up so many excuses for not submitting my work for publication? What happened to me to make me so unsure of my gifts and talents and so afraid of failure and rejection? Why do I clamor for the attention of people who seem to care nothing for me but ignore the advances of those who demonstrate their love freely and frequently?

I ask myself these questions - and so many more just like them - on a regular basis. I journal about them. I blog about them. I read books that claim to answer these questions. I expect my insurance company to pay my therapist so I can explore them further. And I talk to friends about them.

One fellow seeker, traveler, and questioner told me to stay right where I am: to take up permanent residence in the darkness. It is there, she assured me, that I will find both The Light of the World and myself. She sent me the reference to an obscure Old Testament verse that deserves prolonged scrutiny, but here it is with none whatsoever.

Exodus 20:21 - The people remained at a distance,
while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.