Wednesday, May 31, 2006

On the Road Again...

This time, I'm heading for NYC in the morning and then on to Connecticut where I will be the speaker at the women's retreat of our former church, Hope Church in Wilton, CT. I am really excited to see old friends again, to make new friends, and to share some of what I am seeing and learning with fellow travelers on life's faith journey. We will laugh. We will cry. We will walk and talk and sing and break bread together. It should be an absolute blast.

I used to think that the people who led these retreats had their acts together, that somehow they had found a source of holiness and grace and peace that the rest of us mortals could only hope to discover. Someday. In the sweet bye and bye. I no longer think that because I know that I don't have my act together. I am plagued with questions, concerns, doubts, fears, and wonder. What keeps me calm and confident as I go into this weekend's sessions is this: I have come to realize that it's not about me. It's not about what I know or what I think I know. It's about helping other women come to understand what Michael Yaconelli called "God's annoying love for imperfect people." It's about helping a few women understand not only that there's nothing they can do to earn His love, but also, and far more importantly, there's nothing they can do to lose it.

One of my main texts for this weekend's four sessions is the well-known New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son as told in Luke 15. One day, he approached his father and asked for his share of the future inheritance. I've heard it said that in the culture in which Jesus lived, to make such a request was the same as telling his father that he wished he were dead. Strong words, but the father obliged. The son took off with the money. A good time was had by him and all of his newfound friends - until the funds ran out. Sitting in a pigsty watching the pigs eat, the young man came to his senses and decided to return home. He would ask his father to allow him to be a slave. I love the next verse: "And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him."

From a long way off, the father saw his son.
From a long way off, the father most likely smelled his son.
And from a long way off, while the son was still miles away, the father had compassion on his son, forgave him, and yearned to welcome him home.

The tendency in churches is to preach about how we have all wandered off and need to return home to the Father. There is another tendency to talk about the older brother, the one who stayed at home and was the hard-working obedient son. Still others admonish listeners to think of all the people that, like the Father, we must have compassion on and forgive.

Here's what recently caught me up short and got me to thinking about this story in a different way: No matter what that young man said or did, he was still his father's son. Even if his father had accepted his offer of slavery, he was never going to be "just a slave." He would always be the son. Loved. Accepted. Part of the family. My question for the ladies will be this: What if we stopped focusing solely on our faults, our failures, our doubts, and began to live as though we are loved, accepted, and forgiven children? That's what we are. How life-changing would that kind of realization be? I've got lots of questions for the ladies, but not a whole lot of answers. I'm okay with that; I hope they are too. For better or for worse, I'm on the road again.

A dear friend said it perfectly this morning: "It's about this begger telling a few other beggars where to find Bread. It's about one fisherman telling another where to cast his [or her] net." So if you call me, email me, or drop by to see me this weekend, there will be an imaginary sign that says, "Gone Fishin" on the door.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Few Questions I've Been Pondering...

* What do the words "wild abandon" and "unbridled passion" mean to me? When was the last time I felt either of those emotions? When will I feel them again?

* What (or whom) am I passionate about? What lights the fire in my soul? Am I living out my passions or just talking and writing about them?

* What (or who) gets me up and excited in the morning? What makes me smile and sigh as I fall off to sleep at night? What do I dream about over and over?

* What does it mean to "savor" life? To savor a friendship, an afternoon with my daughter, that first cup of morning coffee? Is it possible to savor every moment of life in some way?

* What do I want to be known for, characterized by? What am I doing to make it so?

* If the life I am now living - relationally, emotionally, spiritually, physically - never changed to any significant degree for the rest of my life, would that be okay with me? If not, what am I doing to change my life and make it the best it can be?

* What random acts of busyness keep me from doing the intentional acts of joyfulness that I ought to be carrying out?

* What other questions ought I be asking and answering?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Sometimes I think I'm crazy...

Here are a few examples:

* The Spanish congregation of my church has a prayer meeting every Saturday morning at 6 am. I had been a regular attender until the end of April when I decided to take a break and sleep in for a few weeks. Just before 11 PM last night as I fell asleep, I offered up a simple prayer. "Lord, if you want me to go to prayer tomorrow morning, you will have to wake me up. I'm not setting the alarm." I guess it was less of a prayer and more of a challenge, now that I've written it out. Somewhere in the night, I had a dream that a youth gospel choir was performing a concert just for me. After a particularly rousing tune, I woke up and looked at the clock: it was 5:06 am. Am I crazy, or did God wake me up on time for prayer? I smiled, climbed out of bed, got dressed, and headed off to church.

* I went to the room where the prayer meetings usually take place and was quite surprised to find that I was the first to arrive. So I sat. Thinking. Wondering what I would do if no one else showed up - being that it was the holiday weekend and all. I recalled two phrases that have been rolling around in my head a lot this week: Sacred Solitude and Alone with The Alone. Hmmm... Maybe this was my turn for some sacred solitude, time to be alone with The Alone. I began to relish the thought of an hour of time alone. To pray. To think. To speak to God and to myself. The security guard noticed me sitting there. (There's a security guard at the church because it's open 24 hours a day, just in case people like me want to be alone for prayer in the middle of the night.) He told me that they'd begun to meet in another area of the church. Am I crazy, or did God want to test my fidelity? Would I stay there even if no one else showed up?

* From prayer, it was off to Caribou for some joltin' java. I journaled. I read. After waking up mysteriously, finding myself inexplicably alone with God for a few moments, and then surrounded by over 20 other early risers who also felt the call to come together, shoulder one another's burdens, and share one another's joys, this is what Michael Yaconelli wrote on page 84 of Dangerous Wonder - the book I'm reading:

"But God does more than hide - He also seeks. Early one morning, I was writing about my faith. My office was a mess with reference books strewn over the entire surface of my desk, my couch, and my floor. After about two hours I began to sense the presence of God in my study. It was a very unusual experience for me but, at the same time, very real. It was as though He was playing with me. I went to the computer and wrote down my experience as it was happening...

'I sit in my room this morning, playing hide and seek with God, enjoying the seeking as much as the finding. Catching glimpses of my Father smiling, darting from one book to another, hiding in my mind. Suddenly He is standing there in my thoughts laughing, escaping my grasp, only to turn up in the pages of my notes. As I gather my notes, my Bible, my books to prepare this talk, I find my soul overflowing with gratitude, with the tears of joy because God and I have just spent two hours together, just He and I playing with truth, and I live my study with a strange understanding that I did not find God... God found me.'"

* Am I crazy, or was that page written just for me, to be read today at Caribou Coffee after the morning I had? Am I crazy, or is it possible that God laughs at me, at us, that He cares whether or not I get up and go to church on the last Saturday morning of May? Am I crazy, or was God playing with me this morning?

* Here's Yaconelli's answer: "God does play with our souls. He hides and He seeks and His laughter heals our hearts. When God plays with us, before we know it, we are playing: playing with our neighbors, our church members, and even our families."

* Before I head off and play a few games with my children, I've got another question: Am I crazy?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Thursday Thirteen

1. It feels like it's been a month since I last wrote a blog. So much has happened in the past week; I guess I should expect to feel this way.

Please accept my apologies right now for all the times I will use the word "beautiful" in this blog. I have my synonym finder close by, but nothing I've found in it captures the magnificence of what we saw and experienced there in Costa Rica. My only advice is to go there and see it for yourself. But until then, here is my humble description.

2. Costa Rica was magnificently beautiful. The trees, the flowers, the trees waiting to flower, the flowers that looked like trees. The monkeys passing vertically by our breakfast table on their way from the tops of the enormous trees to the bottom of the forest. They didn't even seem to notice us, while we humans leapt up from our tables to take dozens of photos.

3. The ants in Costa Rica were a force to be reckoned with. They are everywhere. I know it's the tropics. I know the season is changing from summer to fall/winter there. But I was amazed at the number of ants we saw, the various sizes of the ants, the huge chunks of leaves, food, and dead insect cadavers they carried. Steve and I followed one particularly impressive group of leaf-cutting ants to their hole in the ground. In actuality, there were three completely distinct columns of them that ended up in one hole.

One of the hotels we checked into was so infested with ants that we had to change hotels. Watching the ants parade along the stone patio next to the pool is one thing; watching them stroll past your shoes and suitcase in the privacy of your hotel room is something else entirely. We saw three different rooms in that hotel, and the ants were countless in all three rooms. So we switched hotels. Great decision.

4. In Spanish, the phrase "Si, Como No" translates to "Yes, of course." The after-the-ants hotel was called "Si, Como No." And there seemed to be absolutely nothing they wouldn't do for us there - beginning with offering us a honeymoon suite for the price of a deluxe suite. They shuttled us to the beach, to the airport, and even took Steve back to the ant-infested place to help him pick up our luggage and transport it to our new place. Our breakfasts were made to order by efficient and warm-hearted cooks. Drinks at the pool bar were served up by one of the friendliest young men I've met in a long time.

5. That last statement about the friendly waiter deserves some explanation. In all honesty, every waiter, every concierge, every masseuse (there were two delightful massages indulged in by yours truly!), every pool attendant was remarkably friendly. Even friendlier than the average soul here in Charlotte, and we have some mighty friendly folk in these parts. Every request was greeted with "Con mucho gusto." With pleasure. Even the bellman who showed us the three rooms in the hotel we left was friendly, patient, and helpful to the very end. The people in Costa Rica were undoubtedly the friendliest, most gracious and hospitable people I have ever had the pleasure of mingling with - in all my travels. I was impressed by every taxi driver, every airport security employee, and even the ladies waiting to clean our rooms smiled and wished us well every time we saw them.

6. The best meal we had was purchased at a roadside cafe set up by four or five local women just outside the Manuel Antonio National Park. Most of the people who ate there were local Costaricenses who were selling wares to us, the unsuspecting tourists. A plate of chicken, beans, rice, plantain, yucca, and a few other goodies I've forgotten cost about $5 and was enough for Steve and me to eat our fill. Hot off the grill, straight out of their pots, served on plates and eaten with silverware that most assuredly came from their own kitchens, it was delightful. We followed that up with a bag of 2 or 3 peeled and sliced mangoes that cost us $1 - it was a fresh, juicy, sweet, and healthy dessert.

7. The fact that the beachside homemade meal was the best we had in no way diminishes our awe at how good the other Costa Rican food was. Gallo pinto, a rice and beans dish that is typical of CR, was a staple at breakfast. Fresh fish and shrimp graced our table every night at dinner. Guaro cacique is a CR alcohol that flavored several tropical drinks we sampled; we always left the table full, satisfied, and giggly. Not a bad way to end each day!

8. To arrive at the beach, we took the hotel shuttle to the mouth of a small inlet in the bay. We had to wade through the water - which reached about halfway up our calves, walk about 100 yards over some rocks and tree roots to the entrance of the National Park. With a beautiful but completely empty beach on our right, we walked half a mile through the rainforest (it's amazing how the rainforest comes right to the beach) to another beach, even more beautiful than the first. There were only dozen or so people when we arrived, but as the morning wore on, the beach became more populated, and by the time we left, large groups of teenagers were making their way towards the sand. As we walked towards the exit of the park, we wandered onto the sand of the completely empty beach we had passed as we entered. Steve could offer no reasonable explanation as to why it was empty. Such beauty. Such serenity. Untouched. Unpolluted. Unimaginable.

9. Words fail me. More monkeys in the branches above the trail. Insects that were worthy of photography and serious study. Rock outcropping just offshore with trees defying all reason and growing straight up from the stones. Water that was deceptively strong, but wonderfully refreshing. A half-moon that couldn't bear to be separated from the glory of that day and remained visible until nearly noon in the clear blue sky. For once in our entire relationship, I wanted to stay at the beach longer than Steve - and I'm NOBODY'S outdoor person. It was breath-taking.

10. From the beach, we were chauffeured by an informative and chatty taxista back to our hotel where we changed our shirts, dropped off our towels, and then the same driver took us into the bustling little town of Quepos. We walked around the little town, up and down its narrow streets, in and out of its narrow shops, and settled at a bar for a lemonade and soda to cool off.

On the walls, hanging from the rafters, and pasted to mirrors behind the bar were bumper stickers, license plates, and caps left behind by hundreds of fishermen who had made Quepos homebase for sportfishing trips. Apparently, the port just across the street from La Gran Escape bar and restaurants is world-renown in the fishing community. If I had to spend day after day out at sea hoping to either catch my dinner or eat vegetarian that night, I'd want to start at that bar in that little town on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.

11. The hotel we stayed in for our first and last nights in Costa Rica is the Marriott Costa Rica. Once a large coffee hacienda, it was converted into a hotel years ago and now overlooks the mountains from the back and the remaining 30 acres of coffee plants in the front. The loggia overlooking the fountain in the courtyard, the flowers hung from every courtyard window, the decorative bowls of fresh red peppers and eggplants sweating in the heat, the fragrant blooms in enormous bowls and vases on display at every turn - I was mesmerized. I sat in the open-air common area reading, writing in my journal, imagining how fabulous it would be to rendezvous there with friends for long, fiery conversations over long, cool drinks before turning in and being serenaded by birds, monkeys, and other critters whose calls I couldn't identify.

12. I love to travel. I love airports and airplanes and taking off and landing. I love every part of every journey I take. I arrived at the airport in Charlotte last Thursday morning with high hopes for a journey of relaxation, reconnection with Steve, and reacquaintance with myself. The day after our arrival, we returned to San Jose airport in order to take our 20 minute flight to Quepos on Sansa Air. I had been warned that the plane would be small, but the truth of that statement hit home when a passenger, an expectant fisherman, was turned away from his flight because his 300 pounds of girth were too much for the aircraft. I cannot imagine his embarrassment.

My knees were touching the back of the co-pilot's seat on our flight. I was thrilled. I looked over his shoulder the entire time: watching the plane take off and ascend into the clouds, seeing every maneuver on the flight deck during our short journey, and observe with keen interest every time a lever was pushed, pulled, turned, adjusted, and depressed as the plane descended and landed on a runway that wasn't much wider than the dead-end street outside my house. I loved absolutely every minute of it. Going and coming from Quepos.

13. If I have calculated correctly, Steve and I have been married for fourteen years, ten months, and twenty-six days; we will raise a proper fifteenth anniversary toast on the night of June 29th. We just returned from five days and four nights in Costa Rica celebrating that accomplishment. We share three cars, two children, and one long, colorful, bumpy, tropical, humid, musty, sometimes bloated, sometimes sweet, often challenging, always changing life together.

Just as I felt a little overwhelmed and unprepared for what awaited us as we exited the airport in San Jose last Thursday, I felt some apprehension and had no idea what to expect those many moons ago when we were united in holy matrimony up in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Just as we had to make adjustments in our itinerary because of hotel issues, we have had to make course corrections in our marriage because of personality quirks, job changes, and good old-fashioned selfishness.

Sometimes there are no easy solutions to the challenges we face; we can't just check out of our family situations and move into something more accomodating and comfortable, no matter how painful family conflict is at times.

Sometimes we enter dark and stormy times when we have to fly by the instruments of commitment, discipline, and determination when love, passion, and excitement are obscured by clouds of routine and disinterest.

And every now and then, we are surprised to discover delightfully colorful, airy, fragrant, blossoming places in our hearts and minds where warm breezes of laughter blow. We are assisted along the way by reliable, caring, and hospitable friends who guide us to quiet, refreshing places we could never find on our own.

We went to Costa Rica last week in order to celebrate a long, mostly happy life together. We returned looking forward to many more anniversaries and many more trips to the land of "Pura Vida."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Today I celebrate...

* the apple crisp my son and I made yesterday morning

* the bran muffins my daughter made this morning

* the fact that cooking counts as science in our homeschool curriculum

* hot, sweet coffee in the morning (especially with apple crisp or warm muffins!)

* washing the car with the kids an hour or so ago

* ice water

* boiled eggs

* the sound of Maya's collar ringing-tingling all over the house as she searches for chew toys she leaves lying every place

* seeing photos of my beautiful niece in her prom dress

* the way that my children look at me; I think they really like me!

* cutting my son's hair yesterday only to have him shriek when he looked at it in the mirror. Yikes! Half an hour later, he said he really liked it short. Yeah!

* the many supportive, loving comments I receive from those of you who read the blog

* a new passion of mine: scrapbooking. I already own tons of stickers and patterned paper because I use them in my journal. So why not use them for our photo albums? Fun! Kristiana and I will attend a scrapbooking convention here in Charlotte in August. You know me: I start a new thing and dive in head-first. Why not live life to the fullest???

* divine timing! The children and I intentionally waited to be the last people in line to greet the Pastor after today's noon service, then walked out the side door only to be greeted by my husband who came dashing in, hoping to meet us for lunch. Steve and I seem to be on some kind of synchronized watch these past few days.

* another great book: Dangerous Wonder by Micheal Yaconelli. He's the same guy who wrote Messy Spirituality. He's wise, funny, insightful, and dares to believe that life ought to be characterized by unanswerable questions, amazement, wild abandon, passion, and the unending pursuit of all of the above.

* getting out on the road again. Tomorrow morning early, Steve and I leave for COSTA RICA to celebrate 15 years of marriage! Walks on the beach. Hikes through the rainforest. Tropical drinks. Staying up late. Sleeping in late. We will be gone only until Monday, but any time away is a good time, as far as I'm concerned. I won't be blogging my Thursday Thirteen as usual, but I will try to come up with thirteen pleasures that I can share next week...

Here's to life, love, and laughter.
Celebrate something today. (Got that from

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Saturday Sublime

So far, so great.

* I woke up at 7:35 to the wet licks and fuzzy, flashing tail of Maya. Daniel had brought her upstairs to our bed where she proceeded to wiggle us awake; we got what Daniel loving refers to as "a Maya call". (Get it? Not a wake-up call, but ...)

My eyelids had a light coating of wine-induced sandpaper on the inside when I awoke as I'd been wined and dined by a dear friend of mine: Costa Rican food on the menu from soup to dessert, except for the two glasses of red wine. Not much in life compares to a three hour meandering conversation with a kindred spirit over a well-prepared meal. Here's to many more!

* Unfortunately, Steve had a fender-bender yesterday on the way home from work. Fortunately, no one was hurt. He took the car to the body shop this morning, joined me and the kids in the minivan afterwards, and together we went to a local dive for breakfast. With coffee, bagels, and fruit smoothies in our tummies, we made our way home.

* Because Steve had to take Daniel to his baseball game, Kristiana and I set out for a walk to the library. All along the way, we talked, laughed, planned the wardrobe I will take along when Steve and I head for Costa Rica on Thursday, and, like true North Carolinians, greeted everybody we passed.

* On our way home, we stopped at CVS for water bottles, and who should we meet at the cash register but Steve??? He was picking up a few things for his mother in between inning of the baseball game. As I approached him at the counter, he was about to slide his credit card through the machine, but I stopped him and said, "Wait, pay for our stuff too." The cashier and another customer gasped in surprise. I laughed and said, "You guys must think I'm pretty bold. He's my husband." An audible sigh of relief went up as did a few hearty chuckles.

Steve's perfectly coiffed hair, carefully constructed golf-worthy outfit, and straight-laced appearance are quite a contrast to my wildly curly dreadlocs, black polka-dotted skirt, and matching lime green tee-shirt. I forget just how diametrically opposed we must appear to the uninitiated. We declined his offer to drive us home; we were thoroughly enjoying our walk.

* As we ambled through our development, we stopped at two ponds along the way and watched turtles swimming lazily, a family of two adult geese and six adolescent sized goslings paddling close to the shore, and birds foraging through the grassy hill adjacent to the pond. Kristiana said, "We wouldn't have seen any of this if we had driven to the library." So right, my dear.

* The only time I regretted the choice to walk was when we crossed paths with a hideous black snake. Kristiana said, "Look at the snake." I asked, no I shrieked, "Where?" There it was about 30 yards ahead of us on the street. I insisted that we cross to the other side and shielded my eyes as we passed it. I can't even look at them without having my skin crawl. Even as I type this, I feel nausea rise within me.

* At the moment, Kristiana is sitting out on the deck with Maya. Daniel is probably still playing baseball. Steve is sitting on the sidelines of the game, no doubt eating sunflower seeds, and I'm at the computer pontificating about my Super Saturday. I think I'll go join the girls outside.

After all, it's a sublime Saturday in South Charlotte.

Happy Mother's Day to all the Moms out there.
Happy Mother's Day to all the Dads out there;
if it weren't for you, we wouldn't be mothers.
So thanks for your input, as it were.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Thursday Thirteen

One year ago today, the children and I set off on a month-long adventure in Spain. We got up on the morning of the second Thursday in May, took one last look at our packing lists, changed our sheets and towels (who wants to come home to dirty sheets?), and headed off to the airport. We flew from Charlotte to Miami where we had a layover of several hours. Then we boarded the flight to Madrid. Here are the first thirteen things that come to mind as I look back at that journey.

1. We did it! We left behind the comfort, ease, and luxury of our life here in Charlotte and moved into an apartment we'd never seen in a neighborhood we didn't know in a city we hoped to get to know much better. I'd been to Madrid many times. Kristiana had been there once with me, but Daniel had never been to Spain before. And I'd never lived there in a place of my own. With my children.

2. During the hours when we sat at the airport in Miami in the shadow of a giraffe sculpture, waves of panic, fear, and excitement washed over me intermittently. I'd planned for that trip for months, and finally the day of our departure had arrived. I was thrilled and terrified, joyful and jittery. But at that point, there was no turning back.

3. I had a fight with a woman within moments of entering the airplane. The children and I weren't sitting together, and I think that's what started the elevation of my blood pressure. Anyway, the woman seated in front of me had her child's stroller in the overhead bin. I asked her if she minded if I took it down and put my bags up there. No, she didn't mind. But the bags and the stroller couldn't fit up there together. I asked if I could give the stroller to a flight attendant to put away. Yes, I could. Then she got up, followed me to find the flight attendant and reported my behavior as if I'd committed a crime. The flight attendant and I were both perplexed by her outrage. The flight attendant relieved us of the stroller and stowed it properly. We returned to our seats where she proceeded to badmouth me to her mother - in Spanish. I couldn't let the opportunity pass to let her know that I understood her, so I responded in Spanish. Talk about shock and awe. By that time, Daniel and Kristiana were both crying, and I was on the verge of tears myself. The two young women seated beside me in the middle section of the plane offered me their seats so the kids could sit with me. I thanked them profusely. Later in the flight, I offered my sparring partner a glass of wine. She turned me down, but she apologized for her outburst. I guess we were all a little tense.

4. We arrived in Madrid exhausted but excited. Because we travel only with what we can take on board with us, we rolled our carry-ons past our fellow travelers who awaited their luggage and made our way to the metro (the subway) and on to our new place of residence.

5. Within a few hours of our arrival, we'd found the local market where we would do our grocery shopping for the next month, the bench where we would sit many nights each week for people-watching, and the bar-cafe where we would have our morning toast and coffee for me and tea for the kids. We became regulars there at Orio: the waitresses greeted us warmly when we arrived and knew what we wanted before we asked. On the morning of our departure for the States, the young waitress who would sneak chocolate coins for the kids came out from behind the counter to hug us good-bye and to chide us for not coming in every morning.

6. The local stationery store owners became friends of ours as well. We slowly emptied out the display of markers and pens in one shop. And across the street, I special ordered a case of 24 of my favorite journals. The day before we left to return to Charlotte, we went to say good-bye to our favorite shopkeepers, and the gentlemen at the journal shop gave the children good-bye gifts.

7. I remember the old woman who lived in our building and would stop us on the street when she saw us and talk to us like we were old friends. Her smile warmed my heart as her hand clutched and warmed my arm.

8. I remember the homeless man we called "Crazy Guy." He would relieve himself openly on the corner in front of the church, sleep on the sidewalk, and pick spent cigarettes out of the gutter hoping for one last puff. One morning, as we walked past him, we noticed that he had been seriously injured: there were several stitches across his brow and dried blood on his face. We didn't know what happened to him, but for the next few days, we prayed that he'd heal well and that he would be okay. I wonder how "Crazy Guy" is doing today.

9. I remember when Daniel fell and hit his head on the marble sidewalk outside El Pabellon del Espejo on El Paseo de la Castellana. He nearly knocked himself unconscious. I've never been so frightened for either of my children in all their lives. Other than a headache for the next few hours, he was fine. Later the same afternoon, he jumped down a short staircase in our apartment building and hit his knee on the bottom corner of the marble wall adjacent to the landing. (The downside of quality construction is the threat of serious injury for running, jumping, active boys.) I thought he was going to pass out from the pain. It was not a good day for my dear Daniel.

10. I remember the great walks and talks I had with my friend Kim when she came to visit us. Shopping, sitting at sidewalk cafes drinking coffee, telling stories about marriage and motherhood, childhood traumas and childrearing, and watching gameshows in Spanish with the children, she and I cemented a friendship that spans miles and months of silence.

11. I remember the great time we had with my dear friend Antonio in the north of Spain. Cathedral visits, long walks down back streets, and fabulous meals in restaurants owned by some of his friends were some of the highlights of our entire month in Spain. He's the best tour guide I've ever known, and I am enormously blessed to call him my friend.

12. I remember the beauty of the island of Menorca. Steve visited there as a junior in college and arranged for us to go there as a family just before our return to the States. Tiny beaches carved out of the base of plunging cliffs, blue and green water that sparkled and shone, cool mornings, hot days, warm nights, the Collingwood House where we were the only non-British guests - except for the dozens of tortoises outside our window - and the gracious hospitality of the people of that island will not soon be forgotten.

13. We did it! We went. We learned. We laughed. We fell down, we got lost, we got up, we found ourselves. We went to the zoo, the amusement park, and a Real Madrid soccer game where we sat in a cloud of marijuana smoke and giggled our way home. We rode buses, subways, taxis, and in the back seat of tiny European gas miserly cars. We shopped, cooked, ate, walked miles every day, played soccer in El Retiro park, and never missed our minivan or Target or the Harris Teeter supermarket. For a month, we were city-dwelling, subway-riding, street-walking vagabonds... and we can't wait to get back there to do it again. Perhaps we'll stay six weeks next time. Perhaps six months.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

On the Wings of Love

The story began sometime during the second decade of the 1900's. Eddie and Elizabeth Clarkson sent letters to one another across several states and two continents. After five years or so, he drove from Charlotte to Texas to propose to her. Following their wedding and honeymoon, they came to Charlotte to a house on Ridgewood Road. The solitary tree that stood in the backyard was soon surrounded by hundreds of others as their love and their garden grew far and wide, deep and long in the stately Myers Park neighborhood of my fair city.

More than 75 years later, their homestead is currently known as Wing Haven. Acres of lush garden are hidden behind a brick wall, and only the well-informed even know it exists. Soon after our arrival in Charlotte three years ago, a well-informed friend of mine told me that the children and I should visit; she was certain we would all enjoy it thoroughly. She was right; we did.

This morning, the children and I returned to the garden. We walked its narrow, winding paths, gazing up into the gnarled branches at birds and squirrels that surely wondered what we were doing in their haven. We watched spiders and chipmunks wend their way through webs and underbrush. Gardeners trimmed dead leaves, fed growing plants, and wondered what we were doing in their haven. I took photographs of flora, fauna, and two frolicking children. Water dripped in bird baths. Fountains flowed into stone bowls of all sizes and shapes. Poetry, song, and prose appeared on stone beneath our feet, nailed to trees, and hung on fenceposts. Roses bloomed. Koi swam. Bird poop fell around us in showers. Mosquitoes made mincemeat of my exposed calves. It was an adventuresome hour.

Over the years of their marriage, Edwin and Elizabeth never had children. They had their garden. They planted, tended, and extended. Instead of purchasing birthday, Christmas, or anniversary gifts for each other, they bought plants, flowering bushes, and bricks with which they constructed the paths that bisect the garden and lead all wanderers into, through, and around wondrous nooks and corners where plants, insects, and birds alike all thrive. If I remember the details of the introductory film correctly, they bought enough bricks over the years to build many homes far larger than the one in which they lived.

Brick by brick, they built a legacy that has outlasted them by decades.
Brick by brick, they built a sanctuary, a haven in the heart of Charlotte for creatures that could not have done so for themselves.
Brick by brick, they laid the foundation for generations of Charlotteans to learn to appreciate the wonder of nature, the beauty of the great outdoors, and the quietness that is possible even in the midst of a thriving, growing community.

Of course, all of that made me wonder about the legacy I am building for future generations of Henderson-Belsito children, the foundation I am laying within the hearts and minds of the two that are currently in my care, and the peaceful sanctuary that I hope our home provides for all of us. Do we live and thrive within the brick walls of this home with as much confidence, with as great a sense of protection, and with as serene a spirit as those animals did earlier today?

All through the garden there are warning signs, advising all passersby to walk carefully as the bricks underfoot can be slippery. Not only were they slippery in places, but also they were noticeably uneven. It was obvious that in some places the roots of trees had proven irrepressible; they were pushing up from the teeming earth beneath, and the bricks could not withstand the pressure.

Do I have the same kind of depth, strength, and determination to live, to break through the barriers that life erects as those tree roots? There are times when I feel a certain sense of condemnation from those who would prefer for me to sit quietly in church and not raise an "Amen" when the words or music touch a responsive chord in me. There are times when my husband shushes me at sporting events when I yell out in support of my children's efforts, in protest against a referee's inaction or an opponents' inept action, or simply because I feel like shouting. Some people think I talk and laugh too loudly. Others think I dress too loudly and wear too many accessories. Sorry, folks; this life was meant to live fully, loudly, joyously, raucously, in full dazzling color, and I will not be silenced.

As we neared the end of the path through Wing Haven today, we came upon a group of raspberry bushes (or were they blackberry? This city girl is hopelessly ignorant of bush and flower facts). There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of berries strewn across the path beneath our feet. We tried to imagine the glee of the birds, ants, bees, and other critters that are able to enjoy those luscious fruits without impediment all spring. No competition from the human consumers. They can eat freely of those sweets whenever they choose. Yeah for them!

My greatest concern at the moment, of course, was that we would get the berry juice on the bottoms of our shoes and track it into the car and eventually into our house; I guess I never forget who I am as mother and housekeeper! Later on, however, as I thought back to that red and black juicy section of the trail, I wondered about what juicy messes I'm leaving behind in my life.

Perhaps all my loud laughter, the dozens of filled journals that line the shelves of my study room, the classes and lessons I've taught over the years, and the blogs I have written in the past eighteen months will leave stains of joy, traces of good memories, and even the occasional stinging nettles of challenging questions all over the lives of the many people who cross my life's path.

As we drove towards Wing Haven this morning, Daniel made it clear that this little field trip was not to his liking. He made it seem like he'd rather be at home doing some dry and boring writing assignment than wandering through the wooded pathways of a quiet city gardenscape. Not even two dozen paces into the garden, his objections, his voice, and his spirit quieted. Sure, he wanted to pick one of nearly every flower we happened upon. He wanted to plunge his hand into every fountain. He wanted to climb over every chain that separated the public pathways from the private ones. By the end, he wanted to eat those berries, feed the birds, and catch a fish in the small pond. Mean mother that I am, I had to say "no" to nearly every one of those requests.

He's so much like his mother. Often I enter life's mazes under compulsion, with reservations, and resisting all efforts to convince me that there is something beautiful awaiting my discovery. It never takes long, however, before I long to touch, smell, and taste nearly everything within arm's reach.

I hope that someday soon, we will both get to the place where we open our minds and hearts more readily to appreciate life's bountiful gardens, even though we will most assuredly be stung by bees, bitten by mosquitoes, and tripped up by mislaid bricks. Sometimes we will have to muddle through life bruised, bleeding, and stained.

I hope that we will never choose to avoid the pitched and perilous path, but that we will get up when we fall, brush ourselves off, and press on. After all, the rose garden is undoubtedly just around the next corner.

Check it out:

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Thursday Thirteen

Continuing with the theme of messiness, today's list will consist of thirteen messy areas in my life at the moment.

1. Although I am having "a good hair day," my scalp is a flake-factory. I'm glad my dreadlocs cover my scalp so thoroughly.

2. I'm wearing cutoff denim shorts under a beautiful tunic top I bought in Spain last year. The reason the shorts are hiding beneath the top is that they are a little too tight. You know that feeling when a little flesh is being pushed up over the top of the waistband? That's the feeling I'm dealing with at the moment. But it's a very cute outfit.

3. The very cute necklace I was going to wear with my very cute outfit broke as I put it on. It's a beautiful brown and green crystal necklace that Kristiana and I designed and made together a week or so ago, but now I need to restring it.

4. Even though I floss daily, rinse with Listerine before and after brushing, use a prescripion flouride toothpaste along with my regular Sensitive toothpaste, I still managed to produce three small cavities - which the dentist says may improve on their own if I brush more thoroughly. With all due respect, Doc, I'm not sure how I can take better care of my teeth than I already do. For goodness sake, I've even cut back on my sugar intake. So I've added one or two more brushings per day - I'm up to four times daily now! What else can I do?

5. Yesterday at the noon church service, the congregation took communion. The way it works is this: we walk up to the front, tear off a hunk of bread from the half loaf in the Pastor's hand (yesterday the bread was still warm), dip it into the wine glass filled with grape juice that is being held by someone else, then eat the dripping chunk on the way back to our seats. Delicious. But by the time the entire group has been served, there at the feet of the Pastor is a scattering of crumbs from the communion bread. We eat of the bread and sip/drip from the cup, and leave a holy mess behind.

What a great parallel to our lives! Eating, drinking, sharing, talking, laughing, crying, walking, and living together - leaving trails of tears, crumbs of joy, and piles of sorrows in our wake.

6. I waited one day too long to cut into a pineapple, so when I chopped off its spiny, tough skin, it was rotten. We all moaned at the loss. Daniel reminded me that he'd suggested to me the day before to cut it and put the pieces into a bowl to prevent the very thing we were lamenting. "A child shall lead them;" I should have listened.

7. I saw Laurie at church last night. Her face was gaunt. Her eyes were eerily vacant. I hugged her gently. She thanked me for the note I had written, and then she was gone. I didn't know what to say or do. So I whispered a prayer for peace and comfort for her. Later a friend and I conspired to find a way to be with her in her grief and love her in her sorrow. We plan to pick up some tea bags, cake, fruit, and flowers and just show up at her house. Even if she isn't at home, who wouldn't want to come home to a basket of loving-kindness at such a time as this? There is nothing anyone can do now but love her.

8. My heels are hard and crusty at the moment. I had a pedicure the week before last, and my feet looked great - for about four days. Last week I used the foot bath I own. I scrubbed these overworked feet, used my high-tech sandpaper-pumice stone thing, and they felt and looked great - for about two days. It's time to tackle them again.

Oddly, I confess that I am grateful for the hardness; it demonstrates how active I am in my life and reminds me that the hardness in my heart can also be softened --> but none of the results last long. Life happens, so the therapeutic cleansing must be repeated often.

9. Our backyard is a teeming, growing, green place with bushes that are taking over the walkways, vines that are choking the flowers, and ivy ground cover that is threatening to cover the lawn. I SO wish I had a green thumb or even a genuine interest in keeping the yard under control. I know that the previous owners of this house, who surely spent thousands to plant this magnificent garden, would be appalled at the condition it is in now. I need to break down and hire somebody to come tell us what it all is and how to take care of it. It's a beautiful, quiet, colorful garden, but it's a mess.

10. Today is the fourth day in a row that I am going to have to drive one child or the other to a sports-related practice. That doesn't include playdates, church-related events, doctor's appointments, and all the errands in between. While I know that there are millions of mothers and fathers chauffering their children to and fro in our vast nation, that many of them have more than two children and more than one activity per day, I still have times when I feel sorry for myself. I ask questions like: What must it feel like to just get into the car and be driven every place? What must it feel like to just arrive in the kitchen to a hot meal, to open one's drawers to clean clothes, and to find fresh bars of soap and tubes of toothpaste at the ready at any given moment?

11. There are four large Rubbermaid containers sitting on the floor on the other side of the homeschool room just outside of Kristiana's bedroom door that need to be put into the attic. What is inside those boxes, you ask? OUR CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS. I can't put them in the attic by myself, so I have to wait until Steve is available. When Steve is at home, those boxes never cross my mind. I wonder if I should just leave them there for the rest of the year and save ourselves the trouble of bringing them back down in six months' time. No one seems to mind their presence. They aren't in the way of anything, nor do they block the path to any other place in the room.

12. Because it's been so dry here in Charlotte, the pollen and mold counts in the air are extremely high, and my allergies have been horrific. Sneezing, runny nose, itchy ears, and more sneezing. Did I mention sneezing and runny nose? Disgusting. And my particular brand of hay fever comes with frequent nosebleeds. I am not a pretty sight most mornings. I wake up honking, blowing, sneezing, coughing, and end up parading around the house with one nostril plugged for indeterminate lengths of time. Fortunately, I am blessed with a tolerant, supporting, loving family. I think they feel sorry for me most of the time; the rest of the time, I think they just want my noisy, wet performances to end. So do I.

13. I spend far too much of my time and energy on trying to look perfect, speak perfectly, and be perfect. But I am far, far, far from perfect. I eat organic salad and wash it down with diet soda. I talk too loudly on my cell phone and frequently use it whilr I'm driving - without a headset. I don't return phone calls when I should. I forget appointments and meeting times. I talk too much sometimes, and fail to speak up appropriately at other times. I am obstinate, obtuse, and overbearing. I am habitually flighty, easily flummoxed, and hopelessly flawed. Mine is a hurry-scurry, frolicksome, willy-nilly, gratifying, jumbled, jovial, awkward, worrisome, upbeat, messy life.

Truthfully, I cannot imagine it any other way.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Messy Spirituality

I have just finished reading a book called Messy Spirituality. The title was enough to draw me in, and the content was enough to hook me in the very first few paragraphs.

The very first sentence in the book is this: "My life is a mess." Not many people are more honest than that. The author, Michael Yaconelli, goes on: "For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a godly person. Yet when I look at the yesterdays of my life, what I see, mostly, is a broken, irregular path littered with mistakes and failure... I want to be a good person. I don't want to fail. I want to learn from my mistakes, rid myself of distractions, and run into the arms of Jesus. Most of the time, however, I feel like I am running away from Jesus into the arms of my own clutteredness."

A couple of pages later, I read this: "Messy Spirituality unveils the myth of flawlessness and calls Christians everywhere to come out of hiding and stop pretending. Messy Spirituality has the audacity to suggest that messiness is the workshop of authentic spirituality, the greenhouse of faith, the place where the real Jesus meets the real us."

Let me stop here and say this: I don't think that this messiness idea is relegated only to Christians. Everyone I know, everyone, is struggling with messiness in life. The big job isn't paying off in relationships that work out well. Focusing more intently on one's relationships hasn't improved them in any noticeable way. Political activism leaves its activists feeling pretty still and alone. Art, authorship, and public recognition don't fill every hole in the soul. We are all struggling to make sense of the messiness of our lives.

What I love about this book is the author's notion that we aren't ever going to get out of the messiness. Life is a mess. Friendships fail and disappoint us. Marriages either never get off the ground or end up in horrific crash landings. Jobs move us, shake us, then spit us out. This is what life is; there's no hope of cleaning up the mess. The goal is to learn to live in it, with it, and grow in spite of the messiness of life.

If we look at the Bible (or any other religious text for that matter), we are confronted with countless people who failed. Liars, murderers, thieves, adulterers, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, blind, lame, and deaf people - they all had a role in the story of divine love, grace, restoration, and redemption. Rahab the prostitute was the great-great-grandmother of King David. Moses, the murderer, led the Israelites out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land. Peter denied knowing Christ three times, but then ended up being one of the great early preachers of the Good News. These people were a disaster. They messed up. They lived messy lives.

As I do. With my lies, my lusts, my fears, my doubts, questions, concerns, dreams, and deep disappointments in so many people including myself. I adore my husband and children one moment, and want to pack my suitcases, change my name, and go live in Spain for an indefinite period of time the next. I love homeschooling and teaching classes at church one day, but I am ready to bag it all and go live in Brooklyn and teach at my high school alma mater the next. Most days I love our little Yorkie, Maya, but sometimes I want to squeeze her little rib cage in my fist and scream at her for peeing in the house again. I'm a mess. Full of contradictions, loathe to confess my foibles, but longing to be perfect. I try so hard, but still I fail.

Here are a few truths I have gleaned from this Yaconelli book and which I hope to remember in the future, when I am bound to fail again.

* I am hopelessly flawed, but hopelessly forgiven.
* Spirituality is anything but a straight line; it is a mixed up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down, toboggan ride full of unexpected turns, surprise bumps, and bone-shattering crashes.
* When I peruse the titles in a Christian bookstore, I feel like I am the only klutz in the kingdom of God, a spiritual nincompoop lost in a shipful of brilliant biblical thinkers, an ungodly midget in a world of spiritual giants.
* The essence of messy spirituality is the refusal to pretend, to lie, or to allow others to believe we are something we are not.

So when I read about one friend who is a combination of tears, laughter, ups, and downs, and another who is in a very vulnerable place at the moment, when I read the blog of one woman whose life was humming along swimmingly a year ago, but is now in the midst of an unexpected divorce and is starting all over again - when I read those stories, I am reminded that we are all on this unpredictable, uncomfortable, inexplicable, undeniable, and unavoidably messy journey called life.

None of us knows how to do life right all the time, how to make the right choices all the time, live out our principles and morals perfectly. None of us has the perfect marriage, or relationships with our children, parents, or friends that are the stuff of legend. But we have what we have. We are who we are. We are --> I am a mess.

But I take heart in the following statement found on page 88 of Messy Spirituality: "Spritual growth is a wild search for God in the tangled jungle of our souls, a search which involves a volatile mix of messy reality, wild freedom, frustrating stuckness, increasing slowness, and a healthy dose of gratitude."

My life is a mess. But I love it nonetheless. I thank God for every frustrating, pulsating, heart-melting, heart-wrenching moment of it. I pray to live it well, every messy moment of it.