Thursday, March 31, 2011

A new favorite quote...

O God, help me to believe the truth about myself
no matter how beautiful it is.  - Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB

I won't  speak for anyone else, but I've been feeling a little broken of late.
Lonely. Sad. Disappointed. Disillusioned. Empty. Wobbly. Fragmented.
Maybe it's the season changing, my allergies, being PMS, or simply the vicissitudes of life.

But last night and today, I've had the chance to talk to some folks who have reminded me that 
there is so much beauty in this life. 
There is love. Joy is an option. 
God is faithful and true and generous and loving and forgiving
no matter how good or how bad I feel. 
No matter whether or not I feel it or believe it, it is all true.

My friends have also reminded me that I am beautiful and strong and an inspiration,
a good friend, a devoted wife, and a conscientious mother.
Among other things.
None of that describes how I have been feeling this week.
And every single one of them has said, in his or her own way: 
"Whether you believe it or not, Gail, it is all true."

Why is it so easy to believe the bad stuff
and so doggone hard to believe the good stuff?
I do not know.

But today my prayer is that God will help me to believe the truth about myself
- no matter how beautiful it is.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What I do while waiting for "the next great thing to come along"

* drink another cup of coffee with soy milk and peppermint syrup
* take a nap
* go for a walk or a bike ride
* send a text just cuz
* put on some loud music and dance all by myself
* recall times in my life when I have been brave and strong and not easily shaken
* climb into bed and have a good cry
* make a really strong gin & tonic and drink it with gusto
* journal - filling page after page with ungratefulness and anger and curse words whenever necessary
* listen to podcasts of poignant words and soothing music
* try to figure out if "giving up my expectations" is different from "giving up hope"
* put on my favorite new dress with great jewelry and bask in the gorgeousness
* pray: "help, help, help!"
* daydream about passionate kisses and tender caresses
* stare out the window at the grass and flowers and trees and rocks and squirrels, especially the squirrels
* lie down on the couch in the dark and scratch the dog's back
* tell the truth about what I need and what I will no longer tolerate - tell myself first of all
* watch videos on youtube
* listen to the sounds of spring without comment
* have a tall glass of ice water
* take my vitamins
* reread passages from favorite books
* remind myself that I am not alone
* blog-surf
* have a long phone call with a dear and distant friend
* declutter
* make a stop at Good Will to drop off boxes and bags of stuff on my way to the gym
* break a good sweat
* clip images from magazines and glue them into my journal
* say, "Sorry, but I can't. I've already got plans for that day...night...weekend...year"
* reread travel journals
* light a sandalwood candle
* remember good times with my father - who passed away ten years ago
* pull out sharpie markers and write things in big, messy letters on the pages of my homemade art journal
* reread Love Wins and breathe a sigh of relief at the profound truth of it: love wins
* accept the love that comes my way and rejoice when others receive the love they need
* listen to Rezandovoy
* stare at my kids when they aren't looking at me
* engage in escape fantasies, elaborate ones
* make lists of things I'm grateful for
* lie down on the floor and stare up at the ceiling
* smile at and talk to strangers
* recall where each of the elephants in my collection came from
* remember that times of sadness and loneliness are not good times to make big decisions
* watch college basketball on television
* laugh out loud as often as possible
* look at photo albums and events on my computer
* pray: "thank you, thank you, thank you!"
* watch favorite movies in small chunks while I iron and fold laundry
* feel completely sorry for myself - feel every fiber of my being cringe and flinch and writhe
* accept an invitation to attend a concert
* fold the next load of laundry
* study that long list of irregular Italian verbs and do my homework before Thursday night's class
* scrub the shower tiles
* make dinner
* shut my mouth and walk away
* be "the next great thing" that comes along
* stop trying so hard

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

If I ever doubted our decision before...

I no longer have any doubts that homeschooling is the best decision we have ever made for our children.

The kids and I went to see a documentary tonight called "The Race to Nowhere." It is about children - elementary, middle school, and high school aged kids - and the stresses they face in and as a result of our nation's educational system. The right elementary school, several hours of homework starting in 4th grade, reading readiness issues, "no child left behind," teaching to the tests, AP classes, extracurricular activities, parental expectations, competition, SAT scores, college applications - it's all in the movie. And our children are suffering terribly - headaches, stomachaches, anorexia, sleeplessness, depression, ADD, getting addicted to caffeine and other stimulants, and suicide. And it didn't matter if the children were white or black or any other race, if they were rich or poor, if they attending public schools or private. The pressures they face are equal-opportunity soul-crushers.

May God have mercy on us all, on them all.

I sat there in that darkened auditorium with my kids and held their hands, rubbed their shoulders, groaned, furrowed my brow, and gave thanks over and over for our decisions NOT to test them every week on the things they read and learn or make them write needless essays or take on one or two instruments or go to Sylvan learning centers or any of the other myriad things that children get subjected to - all in the name of "being good students." After all that they endure in high school, they head off to college where they get addicted to alcohol and sex and drugs and grade grubbing and cheating in order to get into law school, med school, business school, and from there, they move into the working world.

And in the end, we measure success by
how much money we make,
how big our houses are,
what towns or cities we live in,
how fast our cars are,
which wines we can identify,
how small our waistlines are,
where we go on vacation and for how long
where our children go to school now and college later -

and we model cheating ourselves
by taking out loans we can't afford to pay back
on houses we shouldn't be living in
and cars we shouldn't be driving
and colleges we can't afford for our kids to attend
so that...
they can be just like us - or even "do better than we did."

But how many of us are happy?
How many of us would say that we are contented with what we have?
How many of us would say that we have enough?
A remarkably small percentage of us.
(The truth is that I can't always count myself in that small percentage...)

I am so glad I went to the movie.
I'm glad I took my kids.
We talked about it all the way home.

I am enormously glad we have avoided, side-stepped, ignored all the people and pundits and opinions that have tried to derail our decision. That have tried to make us worry about whether or not our kids will be able to compete at the best schools - included my own beloved alma mater - Williams College. I LOVED my four years there. I did. I loved it so much that I worked there for two years after I graduated and recruited high schoolers to attend. My niece will graduate from Williams in June. I am excited about attending her graduation and seeing some of my own professors and coaches while I'm on campus.

But I don't foresee either of my children attending Williams; I just don't think it would suit either of their personalities or goals or interests. I want my children to choose a school that suits them, that fits their personalities, that allows them to study what they want to learn at a pace that is not unrealistic or insensitive to who they are as individuals. I want their curiosity and creativity and joy to grow in college and not be flattened by the steamroller of grades and crushing competition. I have no idea how the college process with go with my children, and quite frankly, at this point, I don't care. Everything I saw in that film tonight confirmed our decision to be a laid-back, eclectic, tea-drinking, storytelling, hugging, laughing, back-scratching, trip-taking, game-playing, cookie-baking homeschooling family. Sure, they do study and read and write and are learning Spanish. They have days when they don't want to do the precious little work that they are asked to do. There are many days when I tell them that if they can explain to me the point of the lesson they are working on (they each take three classes online), then they can move on to the next thing. If it looks like busy work and they cannot figure out a point to the assignment, then they don't have to do it. Why should they waste their time on busywork?

On the way home from the movie, I declared that we are taking the rest of the week off from school. I could use a break myself.

Forgive me if I've used these photos before...
All these photos were taken last October in Hilton Head.
A week long vacation. Beaches. Bike rides. Petting zoo.
Watching turtles and alligators in a pond near a golf course.
Simple, quiet togetherness.
We hadn't been that happy in years.
We are returning to that same island, to the same rental house, for a week at the end of April.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Looking back, looking up, looking down

On my first full day in Barcelona, Judy and I wedged ourselves into a crowd of people in the plaza outside the main Cathedral of the city. The parade of giants wound its way through the plaza and exited by way of a narrow street. 

Between us and the parade were groups of people wearing matching shirts. Large groups. Men and women. Old and young. Big and small. Tall and short. Greeting one another with hugs and high fives. After spending some time in small talk, slowly and deliberately, they wound long strips of heavy black material around their midsections. I was immediately intrigued. 

An hour or so later, we wedged our way into another crowd a few streets away. The giants had taken up residence around the perimeter of the plaza de San Jaume. They too wanted to see the spectacle of "the castellers." What are castellers? They are human towers. Not pyramids that merely stand still, these towers form in one place and walk to another. 

Those hugging, high-fiving teams became an awe-inspiring constellation of balance and strength and determination and beauty. High above each human obelisk was a child, a little girl, standing tall, arm extended above her, proud to be held aloft by her cast of supporting actors and actresses. Actually, they were more like stuntmen and stuntwomen than actors and actresses.

So many arms and hands at the base. Holding up. Pushing. Bolstering. Sustaining.
And all the while, the entire group of people was in motion.

I suspect that most eyes in the plaza that day were riveted on the little girl at the top of each column. One team in particular appeared to be remarkably unsteady, and we all gasped more than once as we watched that tiny child perched on the wobbly shoulders of the woman below her. That tower leaned and weaved and shook - but the little girl didn't fall. Nor did she look the least bit fearful.

I found my eyes kept falling to the bottom of each tower. I watched those hands, those arms, quivering but strong. Some hands grasped the thighs and legs of the lowest rung on that human ladder. Some hands hold those arms aloft. Still others held onto the waists and shoulders of the people whose hands were more directly involved in the ascension. Only four people were visible in the air, but thirty or forty made up the entire casteller team.

After each team made its entry into the plaza, they began to form larger pyramids. Instead of bases of one person held up by thirty people, they began with bases of six or seven people with fifteen or twenty people in supporting roles. Then more than one person ascended to the top. Two tiny girls would scamper up the backs of their teammates, cross over each other's backs at the top, and then slide back down. It looked like great fun - for the tiny tots. Every one else seemed to be straining and holding on for dear life.

One of the most daring configurations involved starting at the bottom. The first team member to appear above the crowd was the tiniest one. She sat patiently on the shoulders of the two people below her.

Then an entire level was pushed up beneath her. Clinging to the leg of someone on that level was another small child.

The crowd gasped as yet another level appeared - fully formed. Then the girl holding on to the left side of the rising tower climbed to the top, crawled around the shoulders of the one already up there, and both came sliding down - a lot like firemen descend the pole in a firehouse. Breath-taking.

And profoundly thought-provoking. 

My life feels a whole lot like those casteller groups. I meet up with my life team in unexpected places. We all come from various walks of life, various sizes and shapes, colors and patterns, yearnings and desires. We find each other. We wrap love and grace and encouragement around each other, and then we set out on a tower-building adventure. 

Together, as friends, as family, as soul companions, we form teams. We lift one another up. Strongest ones at the bottom. Most daring ones at the top. Sometimes one of us reaches an otherwise unimaginable height, hands raised, spirits soaring. And down below, our team of supporters wobbles and weaves, clings to one another, and all without complaint or resentment. Each of us has had a turn up there, looking around, seeing far beyond all that we could ever see with our feet firmly planted on earth. Those who have not yet had a chance certainly will. 

I have been a part of very wobbly teams. I haven't always done my part to support the ones above me, and when I pull back, entire systems wobble. After hearing heartbreaking stories of betrayal and loss, I have suddenly stopped calling people that matter a great deal to me. Perhaps I am afraid that their tragedies are contagious. Others have pulled away from me during my own times of need and loneliness, and I too have been left to find new means of support for remaining upright. 

Far more frequently, though, I have felt the undeniable love and support and undergirding of people who have carried me through deep, dark, and shaky moments in my life. As my family approaches the ten-year anniversary of the death of my father, I am reminded of the team of hundreds that supported us through his illness and passing. Looking back at the eight years we have spent here in Charlotte, I am reminded of the friends and neighbors who bid us farewell when we left Connecticut and welcomed us with broad smiles and hot meals when we arrived in North Carolina. More recently, while I stood there on that Barcelona street corner, here at home, a team of friends and family members, supported my husband and our children while I gazed up with astonished eyes at the human pyramids that so closely parallels my life. I remain grateful beyond words for the strong ones, the prayerful ones, the funny ones, the serious ones, the loving ones, the near ones, the distant ones who have drafted themselves onto the team that makes my many adventures, large and small, extraordinary and quotidian, possible. You show up right when I need you. You take hold of my from below and lift me to heights I could never attain alone. You write and call and text and meet me at Starbucks and Genaro's and 131 Main. You go for walks with me and car rides. You invite me to walk alongside you, to join your team, and raise you up so you can stand on your own mountains. Thank you, thank you, thank you to each of you and to all of you. My life's journey would not and could not be what it is without you in it. I thank God daily for the amazing people He has brought into my life. Daily. 

As much as I love "my alone time," the marvel of those brave Cataluñan souls in that plaza four weeks ago this coming Saturday served as a visible and visceral reminder that I am never alone. Whether I'm at the supermarket searching for perfect bananas - none of which I grew or transported to Charlotte - or searching for the cheapest gas in the area - none of which I extracted from the earth, refined, or unloaded into those underground tanks - or reading, writing, praying, or crying at my desk here in my study - which I didn't build, paint, or furnish on my own - or 35,000 feet up in the air somewhere out over the frigid North Atlantic Ocean strapped into my seat in an enormous, monstrously heavy steel tube - which I don't know how to fly or operate or maintain in any way - no matter where I am or what I'm doing, 
I am constantly reminded that I am part of the great human casteller team. 
Each one of us pulls another one along. 
Each one supports one another. 
Each one prays for one another.
Sometimes we are on the move. 
Sometimes we are standing still. 
But always, always we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, past and present.
Watching, cheering, gasping, laughing, weeping.

At Madrid's Barajas Airport on Sunday, February 20th, after passing through customs and passport control, I approached the escalator leading to the terminal where I would spend my last 90 minutes - and also my last euros - on Spanish soil. At the base of that moving staircase was the following advertisement for a company called Ayesa. I don't know what they do, nor do I care. But the words echoed and confirmed the message that I had received from so many people during the previous ten days. I did the only thing I could do: stop, pull out my camera, and snap two photos.  

"Don't go alone."

The lesson of that trip, that day, and that hour, was simple.
I was not alone.
I am not alone.
I have never been alone.
And ultimately I was told in command form in this advertisement:
"Do not go it alone."
Whatever "it" is.

Friday, March 04, 2011

"I've loved these days"

This is the blog entry that I have dreaded writing. Not because anything bad happened in Madrid, but rather because so many wonderful things happened in Madrid that I didn't want to come home. Which should come as a surprise to no one at all; I never want to come home from Spain. But after my first-rate time in Barcelona and a far too brief visit in Valladolid, the time had come to say hello to Madrid and good bye to Spain. 

For the first time during this journey, I found myself lodging in a hotel, the Hotel Osuna to be exact. It's quiet the eclectic little place in the outskirts of the city. The building I stayed in is a fairly standard three-story affair with comfortable, clean rooms, much like a Marriott here in the States. The only complaint I had about it was that the heat was set too high - so high that my face cream melted in the bathroom. Became a pure liquid mixture of coconut oil and shea butter. I had to refrigerate it in order to be able to use it. I'd much rather have a room that was too warm than one that was too cold. The rest of the facility is composed of cottages. I've never ventured into one, but from the outside, they do not appear to be inviting, modern, or comfortable in any way. They look more like overgrown beach cabanas - a fine place to put on a bathing suit, but not someplace to spend four nights. 

This is a photo of the path that runs between the cabins. 
The building I stayed in is in the background of the photo.

Why am I so obsessed with taking photos of my coffee and toast? 
This is an extra special breakfast because 1- It was at the Cafe de Oriente, one of Madrid's more famous/infamous establishments. 2- It was across the plaza from El Palacio Real, The Royal Palace.
3- The person who joined Leticia and I for breakfast works in the Palace and has seen the King of Spain up close. It's kinda cool to know someone who has seen the King.
4- He, my friend, not the king, treated us to breakfast.

I mentioned being diagnosed with a terminal case of "Spainmania" in my last blog. 
The fact that I take photos of traffic jams and parked motorcycles proves my friend's point.
But isn't the architecture beautiful? The curved building? The statue of friends embracing?
The bright sky above? What's not to love?

Sitting at a communal table at Le Pain Quotidien for lunch. 
Looking at the people surrounding me,  I was reminded yet again:

Several friends have asked how the weather was when I was in Spain. 
For three days it was cold enough for me to wear jeans. 
Yes, friends, I wore jeans - specially purchased for the trip! 
Four other days, I needed to wear leggings under my skirts. 
And three or four days required the use of an umbrella. 
But I was in Spain! So let the cold rains fall. Let the strong winds blow.
I was as happy as a pig in... Spain!!!

That little fellow in the snowsuit was the main reason for my trip to Spain this month. 
He was born in November - and I absolutely HAD to see him before he got too big. 
His mother is holding him. His grandmother is to their right. 
I love them all like my own family. 
Let me not tell a lie; I count them as part of my extended family.

Holding hands with the newest member of my harem... Jaime.
Yes, I was lying on the floor next to his bouncy seat,
 holding his hand while showing him a card with the picture of a duck on it.

Across the room, there was a whole lotta napping and websurfing going on.
I snuggled up next to the wee one and whispered sweet nothings into his perfect little ears.
In the words of that eminent 20th Century philosopher: "Say hello to my little friend."

Jaime's older brother hiding behind his freshly-squeezed orange juice.
To the right are the hands of Leticia, his mother for four years and my friend for nearly 20 years.
Behind the olive oil bottle is the man who stole her heart.
On the day of my departure, we enjoyed breakfast at Sita before she drove me to the airport.

I'm one of those passengers that pulls out cleansing wipes to clean the tray table, the arm rests, and the window next to me. Then I pull out my journals and pens and snacks and position it all for take off.
If I've gotta be in one place for 10+ hours, I may as well be comfortable, right???
Fortuntely, I didn't have anyone next to me.

My friends don't know this, but on the last night of every visit I make to Spain, I want to spend some time in the center of Madrid. And on the last day of every visit I make to Spain, I feel nervous and guilty about asking my friends to take a drive thru the center of the city, so I don't ask. Amazingly, on the last night of nearly every visit I make to Spain, one friend of mine or another ends up driving me through the heart of the city that I love most in the world. This time, I was out to dinner with my first and only Spanish boyfriend, his wife, and their beautiful daughter. After dinner as they drove me back to my friend Leticia's house, we ended up on La Gran Vía, one of Madrid's main avenues, and I smiled gratefully in the darkness next to Irene's car seat. As my flight from Madrid to Dallas lifted off the tarmac of Barajas Airport, I took one final look towards the skyline of that magnificent city and I smiled in the bright sunlight of that last day.

As I looked out the window, camera in hand, remembering those last days in Madrid,
I imagined the final scene of a movie, a love story, of course. The scene where the lovers bid their final farewell to each other, tears flowing, hands raised in one last wave. 
The song that always plays in my head is Billy Joel's old tune: 
"I've Loved These Days."

Don't bother to look up the lyrics; they make no sense in this context. In my fantasy movie scene and in my real life walk through Terminal 4 at Barajas and down the aisle of the American Airlines 757 to seat 27J, the only line of that song that plays is this one: "I've loved these days."