Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gratitude Practice

It's another gorgeous autumn day in Charlotte. Bright sunshine illuminates a few wisps of clouds in the famed Carolina blue sky. Brisk breezes blow newly fallen leaves across the driveway and into the garage. It's easy to find many things to be grateful for on a day like today.

1. an excellent Cardio Craze workout today. Andre Hairston is an awesome workout guide.

2. finding organic canned beans for 99¢ per can at Harris Teeter.

3. fresh brussel stalks (brussel sprouts on the stalk), gala apples, and baby spinach from Trader Joe's

4. ordering our kosher turkey for Thanksgiving   (food is always on my gratitude list!)

5. greeting my husband and children here at home after they suffered through a difficult lunch with a friend of the family that is here visiting for the weekend.

6. college football on television

7. two new dresses from Synergy Organic Clothing. My son picked out a striped dress for me that I would never have chosen for myself, but it is the cutest thing I have worn in at least two years. I ordered it in navy & white and blue & green.

8. Romare Bearden's show at the Mint Museum. I've seen it three times... so far.

That yellow banner was a magnet for me to fill my shelves with bargain books.

9. a pile of books I'm working my way thru. I'm reading four or five right now - which is not a good idea for me. I have enough trouble remembering what each book I read is about. But there are so many good books around me, so much to learn. I'm greedy; I admit it.

10. tomorrow is my daughter's 18th birthday. we started celebrating her life, her courage, and her strength on Thursday. Recently, I saw a segment on an Oprah show in which a mother and daughter pair worked through a problem that the daughter was struggling with. Oprah had a guest on the platform who asked the mother to look at her daughter and say the following: "You are my daughter, in whom I am well pleased." Needless to say, I wept as I wrote those beautiful words into my journal. And yesterday, at a moment when Kristiana and I were alone, I told her: "Kristiana, you are my daughter, in whom I am well pleased." It was a precious moment between us. 

*** Happy birthday, my sweet and brave girl. I love you very much.***

Friday, October 28, 2011

Note to self: addiction hurts

Five weeks ago yesterday, I admitted to myself that I was addicted to sugar. Don't laugh; it's not funny at all.

I put two tablespoons of sugar and peppermint syrup into my coffee every morning. I ate red australian licorice - a lot of it. If I went out to dinner, I had a sweet alcoholic drink and dessert every time. Every time. At home, I made sweet drinks, baked cookies, made key lime pie, and had stashes of sweets in many places in my home. I reminded myself of Meg Ryan's character in "When a Man Loves a Woman." She had bottles of alcohol hidden in every room of her house. She couldn't go even a few hours without a drink. She neglected her marriage and her children because of her addiction to alcohol. Okay, so maybe my husband and children didn't suffer from my addiction, but I did have candy hidden in many places in this house. I had candy in the car. I had candy in my purse at all times, in the drawers of my desk, in the drawers of the nightstand next to my bed. Nearly every supermarket trip, every stop at CVS, even trips to health food stores were occasions for me to feed the sugar monster that lived inside me. There is no other way to describe the way I was living: I was addicted.

Back in June when Steve and I went to the Westglow Spa in the North Carolina mountains, the time I met Gloria Steinem, I was told about a massage therapist there who could tell when someone ate a lot of sugar simply by the way their body, their skin, and their joints felt in his hands. Needless to say, I didn't book my massage with that guy. But I ran into him while waiting for one of my treatments. At the time, I was sipping a rather potent cup of sweet tea, herbal tea of course - we were at a spa. When I told him what I'd heard about his famed sugar-seeking hands, he laughed. Then he began to count off the many dangers of sugar, the way in which it poisons our bodies and our planet. I was shocked to learn how much damage I was doing not only to my body, but also to this planet I claim to love - simply by maintaining this addiction to sugar.

Between that informative though disturbing conversation and Thursday, September 29th, I continued to hear and read information about sugar's effects on the body. I wasn't exactly looking for that information, but it began to come to me through articles in magazines, in news stories on television, and in conversations with unrelated people. The message was coming through to my drug-addled brain: "Sugar is your drug of choice, Gail. It's time to stop slowly killing yourself and numbing your emotions with sugar. Addiction hurts."

After shocking myself with the discovery of a ten-pound weight gain on the morning of September 29th, I made the decision: the sugar has to go. Cold turkey. No more coffee in the morning because I cannot drink it without sugar. No more licorice. No more chocolate. No more peanut butter chocolate chip cookies from Great Harvest Bread Company. No more key lime pie from 131 Main. Cut out the lemon drop martinis and mojitos and mai tais. No more cinnamon chip muffins from Manhattan Bagel. No more sweet tea. Done.

I thought I would be in agony. I thought I would suffer from migraine headaches and sluggishness. I was convinced that I would be in a bad mood for the next six months. I am glad to say that I was wrong about every one of those expectations.

Within three days, my skin was clearer and less dry. The ezcema patches on my legs began to clear up and haven't returned. My nasal congestion cleared within a week. I no longer woke up with a stuffy nose. The late morning and mid-afternoon energy slumps disappeared. My digestion system began to function more efficiently. I was more than mildly surprised at how much better I felt overall.

That's when I began to do research about what sugar does to the body. I began to read the blogs of other people who have dealt with their own sugar addictions. Some spoke of remarkable weight loss in the first month of cutting out sugar - one woman lost 8 pounds in the first month; another lost 22 pounds. I have lost 7.5 of the 10 pounds I gained. I am thrilled - and I've decided to try to lose an additional five pounds - what the heck? Others spoke of being able to sleep better. Check. Reduction in acne. Check. Loss of swelling and pain in joints. Check. The lists of positive benefits are long.

This coming Sunday, my daughter will turn 18. (Happy Birthday, Kristiana!!!) In true Belsito family style, we began to celebrate last night with cupcakes and candy. Yes, my husband brought five cupcakes and red licorice into this house last night. The cupcake he picked out especially for me was something called "Peanut Butter Explosion." (Note to self: beware of enablers...) I had to eat some, right? It's my daughter's birthday weekend, her 18th birthday, no less.

So I ate half of the cupcake and six or seven of those licorice circles. Delicious.

And then... I walked away. I felt no need to go back and finish the cupcake. I felt no pull to sneak back downstairs later and eat four handfuls of the licorice. I didn't begin to plan my next trip to Fresh Market or Target or any of the other places I used to frequent to get the best candy for my hidden stockpiles. Thanks be to God, I'm free.

Well, not exactly. I woke up this morning with my right nostril nearly completely blocked. Gotta get some water into this body of mine to wash the sweet nectar of death out of my body again.

As I have been doing an inventory of my closets, dresser drawers, and other hiding places, I have been asking myself what else I am addicted to and what else I've been hiding in the secret places of my life. What other habits do I need to break? To whom have I allowed yourself to get dangerously attached? I've already identified a few names and habits that need to be eliminated from my life diet. Some have already been dropped. A relatively new dependence has snuck up and taken over too much of my time and energy, and I already see the negative effects it is having on my heart and mind and life. I've gotta get over this one - quick. It's not that it's a terrible thing in itself. What concerns me is that I'm feeling that old thrill of the hunt and the conquest again - and I like that feeling. The "hit" followed by the "high" - I only want more, more, more.

It hasn't been easy, but the time has come to admit to the truth of my addictive personality and let The Truth set me free. I know I'll face these addiction-inducing situations, those attachments again and again in my life, but if I can overcome a 40-year sugar habit, I know I can overcome these short-lived challenges. I know that not "if," but "when" I  indulge and get hooked on something new, I can start again. Go back to Day One and begin the journey one more time. I know that the battles are not over, but I am more than a conqueror through the One Who Loves Me Most.

Note to self: addiction hurts.

"My name is Gail, and I'm an addict."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

School Bus Memories

As I drove home after dropping my son off at tennis practice today, I pulled up to a stop light behind a small fleet of public school buses. The big yellow ones with NORTH CAROLINA PUBLIC SCHOOLS written on the side. These buses looked fairly new and clean. The windows were closed tight and darkly tinted. I can only imagine how hot it must get on those buses in this North Carolina heat; every attempt to reduce the glare of the sun and increase the breadth of the shadows is worth the effort.

I followed those buses nearly all the way home, watching with rapt attention as, one by one, they turned right and left at various corners in order for the students to arrive safely back at home. At one light, two buses stopped side-by-side. Suddenly several windows were opened and many high fives and handshakes were exchanged between students on the two buses. Then when the light turned green, just as suddenly as they had been opened a moment or two before, the windows were closed and the homeward journey continued.

As I watched that exchange of greetings between buses and the subsequent closing of the windows, I thought back to my own days of riding the school bus.

In elementary school, I attended a magnet school a long way from my house. The school bus picked me up across the street from my house in Flatbush and from there the ride was 45 minutes, crossed the great borough of Brooklyn, picking up tired little people at 15 or 20 bus stops, and deposited us at P.S. 307, the Daniel Hale Williams school in Fort Greene. (I just made the connection between my elementary school and the college I attended, Williams College. Plus my son's name is Daniel. Wowza! How cool is that?)

Because my stop was one of the first of the morning route, I would usually sit up front, right behind the driver. My father was a city bus driver at the time, so I felt an instant connection with whomever happened to be the school bus driver. I would ask lots of questions about driving and traffic. I would offer to open the door at the various stops. I would sometimes slip under the bar separating the driver from the students and sit on the box between the driver and the window. Why those men (all the drivers were men back then) ever put up with my antics is beyond me. But I loved riding the bus. I loved school. And I loved being up front - in the bus, in the classroom, at church, in the car. (I still like being up front. Anybody who goes to church with me knows that I want to sit up near the front.  Some things never change...)

The afternoon bus rides were often tougher. The younger kids would often get on the bus first and  they usually wanted the front seats. So I'd have to sit in the back. The older kids didn't appreciate my camaraderie with the driver or with the teachers and principals at school (I guess I was a bit of a brown-noser, but I truly didn't think there was anything wrong with hanging out with adults - and I couldn't understand why the other students cared who I hung out with.) I had my fair share of fights on the bus. Being the peace-loving, tender-hearted kid that I was, I tried as hard as possible to avoid fisticuffs, but sometimes I had no choice but to defend myself. Pulled hair. Split lips. Torn clothing. Bookbag contents strewn. It wasn't pretty. But I survived.

It wasn't all terror and teasing on the bus. Those same school buses also took us to the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Museum of Natural History, and many other eye- and heart-opening sights in New York City. We went on factory tours and train trips, to concerts and Broadway shows, as well as many other cultural and social events that shaped my malleable mind into the music, art, and travel lover that I am today.

For middle school and high school, I attended a private school, equally far from my house, but at the opposite end of Brooklyn. For six years, the bus picked me up on Ocean Avenue and traversed streets and boulevards heading for Dyker Heights, not far from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, to the Polytechnic Preparatory Country Day School, known more simply as, "Poly." I loved that place. I loved every minute of my six years there at Poly. I loved it so much that, soon after graduating from college, I went back there to teach for two terribly short years. If I still lived in New York, I would still be teaching there. I wouldn't have homeschooled my children because they both would be students at my alma mater.

Life on the school bus, especially during my middle school years, was quite different from school bus life in elementary school. The main reason for the vast change in school bus etiquette was a kid whose name was Frank. I won't say his last name because I want to protect him from potential prosecution for the behavior he incited and committed on the bus.

There were mustard and ketchup packs boosted from the lunchroom and squeezed out onto unsuspecting people waiting to cross the street after the school bus passed them by. Pedestrians were showered with mustard and relish. I still cringe when I think of the poor woman on her bike, dressed all in white, who was doused in ketchup as we passed her. (Maybe that is why I still am reluctant to buy any clothing that is white.) I wish I could say that I worked hard to stop Frank from doing what he did. I wish I could say that I reported his behavior to the driver or some other authority. I'm glad to say that I never participated in the rampant tomfoolery, but nor did I make any attempt to end it. I laughed a lot on that bus. A lot.

Well, except for the few times when the bus driver would pull over to the side of the road, get out of his seat and come to the back to reprimand us for our noise and for our rowdy behavior. And the day that Frank threw a bus seat out of the window - yes, he pried the bottom pad of the seat off the frame, lifted it to the open window and shoved it out - we all knew, even Frank, that things had gone a little too far. The driver of the vehicle that was nearly destroyed by that flying seat stopped the bus and got on. He was not happy. He came to the back of the bus and let fly a string of epithets, insults, warnings, and threats that every single one of us deserved to hear. I felt bad for the driver. He couldn't believe we had been so irresponsible and reckless, plus he was going to get into big trouble for the missing seat.

It was in the back of that Poly bus that I had my first interracial dating experience. His name was Joe. He was one grade ahead of me and about three inches shorter than me. But we got along very well. He wrestled. I played basketball. He played baseball - or was it lacrosse? I ran track. He played football. I screamed my head off at the games. Our homerooms were a few doors away from each other, mine being the very classroom to which I would return several years later as a teacher. In the morning, we would sit in the hallway outside our homerooms and talk. In the afternoon, we would sit next to each other on the bus and talk. After several weeks of that, we began to hold hands. Whenever anyone walked past in the hallway or came near us on the bus, we would let go. I liked Joe a lot. I think he felt the same. But we never spoke about it. We simply sat together and held hands - as long as no one else was around.

It's remarkable how so much of who I am today, who I live with, who I relate easiest to, what I fear, what I avoid, and what I find funny was established during my years as a school bus rider. Many of the most important lessons of my life were learned while the wheels on the bus went round and round.

Today, as I drove home from dropping my son off at tennis practice, I drove behind a small fleet of school buses. And I remembered my own school bus experiences. I smiled. I cringed. I apologized yet again to that beautiful young woman on the bike and the horrified bus driver. I laughed when I remembered mischievous, young Frank and sighed when I remembered sweet, young Joe. And I reminded myself to be alert and cautious when standing on street corners while school buses are passing by. You never know.

I wonder how Frank and Joe are doing these days.
And I wonder if they ever reflect on their own school bus memories.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Finding Common Ground

To all my sister-friends who have ever struggled with your faith walk, who have ever questioned your place in the church, especially in churches where women are "silent," (but not so silent that they can't make up most of the singers in the choir, teach most of the children's Sunday School classes, or run Vacation Bible School), who have tried to cling to faith rituals that have lost their meaning, who bristle at the jokes and stories told from the pulpit that are at your expense and the expense of all women everywhere, who long to be truly seen, heard, and welcomed into your own faith community, and may have given up and walked away in despair and disillusionment -

to those who have asked God to speak, to move, to act, and have wondered at the gaping silences, to all people, men and women, who are seeking a deeper faith walk while struggling to make sense of how crazy and lonely and uncertain it sometimes makes you feel to pursue Someone so unknowable and unspeakable -

I want you to know that you are not alone.
That there are others in the same place.
That there is common ground.

Know that all the ground between you and me,
between each of us on this halting, stumbling, confusing,
life-altering, exhilirating, inexplicable journey of faith -
all the ground between us, between all of us, is holy ground.

And if you are in a city where the movie, Higher Ground, is showing,
please go see this movie.
Please, please, please, go see it.
And then stop back by here and tell me what you think.

I saw it yesterday with my daughter.
I plan to go see it again - soon.
I hope to read the memoir it is based upon.

In the meantime, at all times, and in every situation,
remember, you are not alone.
There is common ground.
Stay on the pathway of faith, the way, el camino.

I wish you peace, courage, and hope.
Deep peace.
Profound courage.
Boundless hope.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Keep Parenting - and everything else - in Perspective

I toyed around with the idea of writing another post, a final post, about my first trip to Italy - the one that ended ten years ago yesterday. One of the best solo trips of my life. I probably will write more about that trip. But not today.

I just finished another fabulous book, The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted - and other small acts of liberation, and thought about writing a post about it. I probably will. But not today.

When I couldn't decide on a blog topic, I clicked over to my facebook page, scrolled down a few entries, and discovered a link to this remarkable New York Times article on parenting a dying child. How does one do that? In the only way you can - for this day, this moment, this hug, this meal.

Here's the truth - that's all any of us are doing - parenting dying children, loving dying spouses, spending time with dying friends. Perhaps we don't have a declared diagnosis. Perhaps no timelines have been drawn up of how much time is left. But none of us will survive this trip on planet earth. And none of us knows how much longer we have.

Love the one you're with.
Or get with the one you love.

Write the letters you've postponed.
Or the emails.
Or the text messages.

Live fully.

Say what you need to say.
I love you. I miss you. I think you are beautiful.
You are dear to me, a soul friend.
I am glad you are in my life.
You are being remembered fondly.
This isn't working anymore.
It's time for us to give each other our freedom.
We need to make some changes around here.
Speak the truth.

Thanks to the aforementioned article, I have been challenging myself to stop worrying so much about grades on math tests, tennis scores, five-paragraph essay forms, whether or not my shirt matches my skirt closely enough, and whether or not I've folded the laundry while it is still warm, you know, so the wrinkles won't set in. I'm gonna drink more tea, go for more walks, read and play more games with my kids, create more art journals, reach out to some of the friends I let get away, accept more invitations from the ones who won't let me get away, and let go of the relationships that have stopped growing and thriving altogether.

I am looking forward to the ways in which I will keep parenting, life, love, and everything else in perspective.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"We are and we are not"

One of my blogging heroes, Kristin Noelle, wrote a beautiful piece that I must quote and imitate. I don't think she will mind.

The thought in all of this, though, that I wanted to share is this powerful idea that all of us "are, and are not". We are powerful and we are not. We are graceful and we are not. We are confident and we are not. We are experienced and we are not. We are wise and we are not. We are beyond our years and we are somewhere back in childhood. Infancy, even! Sucking our thumbs and wondering about everything, What in the world just happened??

I am powerful and I am not.
I am graceful and I am not.
I am confident and I am not.
I am experienced and I am not.
I am wise and I am not.

I am a great mother and I am not.
I am a loving wife and I am not.
I am a reliable, trustworthy friend and I am not.
I am a good listener and I am not.
I am a teacher and I am not.
I am a writer and I am not.

I love my husband and I do not.
I love my children and I do not.
I am an organized, committed homeschooling mother and I am not.
I am a dedicated full-time, stay-at-home, housewife and I am soooooo not.
I eat healthy, organic, nutrient-rich food and I do not.
I drink six to eight glasses of water every day and I do not.
I have a great life and I do not.

I want a life of passion, wild abandon, and world-wide travel and I do not.
I want to break out of this routine of life that I have established and I do not.
I want to live like some of my blogging and real-world heroes and I do not.
I am tired of living in suburbia and I am not.
I am a big-city dweller at heart and I am not.

I want to get "a real job" and I do not.
I wish I had never given up teaching and I do not.
I want to run away from home and I do not.
I want to downsize and live a slower life and I do not.
I worry about money every single day and I do not.

I am free to write whatever I want on this blog and I am not.
I feel like every blog post has to have something related to Jesus in it and I do not.
I feel guilty whenever I don't say something about God in my posts and I do not.

I do the best I can to be the best I can and I do not.
I practice what I teach and preach and I do not.
I worry about what other Christians think of how I live my Christian life and I do not.
I worry about what non-Christians think of me and I do not.
I wonder what all that means and why it matters and I do not.
I care deeply about what everybody thinks of me and I do not.

I'm gonna stop being so anxious about this stuff and I will not.

I miss going to church and I do not.
I believe that all is well and I do not.
I am a Christian and I am not.
I believe what the Bible says and I do not.
I worry about what God thinks of me and I do not.

I'm boring and predictible and I am not.
I am reliable and dependable and I am not.
I am faithful, loyal, and available and I am not.

I am a pacifist and I am not.
I am certain of many things and I am not.
I am full of questions and I am not.
I have a lot of answers and I do not.
I am full of doubts about things I used to believe without question and I am not.

I am worried about what some of the readers of this blog will think about this list and I am not.
I am being completely honest in this post and I am not.

I am glad I found Kristin Noelle, her blog, her voice, and I look forward to more of her and the lessons she is teaching me through her writing... and I am not. (Kristin, that's only because you are rocking my world so much, girl. Making me think way too hard and ask way too many questions.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Another rainy morning on Hilton Head

We escaped our life in Charlotte on Friday morning and retreated to our favorite home away from home - a rental house on Hilton Head Island. It's our third time staying here - and we all love it.

We rent bikes. We walk on the beach. We eat too much. We laugh. We talk. We disagree about where to eat. We snap at each other's silly comments. We roll our eyes at each other's food choices. We go to our separate bedrooms and pretend that no one else is home. In other words, we take our show on the road. But here in Hilton Head, all our annoyances, all our bad habits, all our selfish tendencies, as well as our love for each other, our enjoyment of each other's company, and our gratitude that we are a family, that we are still a family after all these years, all that we are is surrounded by palm trees, alligators, herons, pine needles, turtles, sand, and surf.

Friday was sunny and bright and warm and wonderful.

Saturday was cloudy and warm and wonderful.

Sunday was drizzly and wonderful.

Monday was rainy, wet, windy, and wonderful.

Today, we go home - which is wonderful, too.

All in all, it was a good vacation. No matter what the weather, we were away from home. We were together. These four days were a reminder of something I said more than twenty years ago... something about sticking together for better or for worse.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Italy 2001 - Day 2

(If you haven't already read the post I wrote before this one, then this one won't make as much sense. I will confess that it may not make any sense even after you read the first one... but it is what it is.)

I wasn't in Rome long. I went from Fiumicino airport to Termini train station where I caught the express  to Florence, known to Italians as Firenze. In the taxi from the Santa Maria Novella railroad station to my hotel, a lovely convent that had been converted into a bed and breakfast, I could barely contain my awe, my glee, my incredulity at finally being in the city I had done so much research on, the city of Brunelleschi's famous done, the Baptistery/Battistero, the Uffizi Museum and much more. I was in Firenze!

Unfortunately it was too early for me to get into my hotel room, but the man at the front desk gave me a map, circled the hotel, circled another spot, and directed me to what he promised would be a fabulous lunch at a little place called Mario's. But I had to hurry, he said, because they were always busy and the place closed promptly at the end of their lunchtime service. Off I went, map in hand.

Within minutes, I was lost. I couldn't find the street signs very easily. It took me several minutes to realize that they were attached to the buildings not on poles. I couldn't tell which direction I was going on any given street. I stopped a few times to try to orient myself at one intersection after another. To no avail.

So I stopped a woman and asked her how to get to Mario's. Actually, I pointed to the circle on the map and shrugged my shoulders. She told me. In Italian. In very fast Italian. And she gestured with her right hand. I set off with renewed energy and hope. Both of which faded rather quickly when I arrived at where I thought she had sent me, but saw no busy restaurant and no sign of Mario's.

So I stopped someone else. Repeated the same exchange of asking with my hands and being answered with her hands - only this time, at the end of the arch of her finger-pointing was Mario's. Or rather a crowd milling outside of Mario's. A crowd of people chattering away in Italian, frequently checking their watches. Uh-oh. This place might close before I could even get it. It had taken too long for me to get there to turn away without trying.

So I stood back for a moment and watched as a few people in front of me gave their names to a man with a clipboard. I did the same. Or rather I tried. Again, the Italian-English language barrier proved nearly insurmountable. But he wrote something down, something that I hoped would remind him of me when the time came.

The time came. He pointed at me and motioned for me to follow him and three other people entering at the same time. I followed. The restaurant was tiny and packed. I saw one empty table with four chairs. What the heck? Are we all going to sit together? No way. I don't know these people. I don't speak Italian. This is not going to work. Immediately, I began to panic and pray at the same time. "Lord, really? This is what my first sit down meal in Italy is going to be? Me sitting with three strangers, hoping they don't interpret my silence as rudeness. Gee, thanks, Lord. Thanks a lot."

Behind the menu, I looked around at other people's tables, thinking that perhaps the best thing for me to do would be to point at someone else's plate and place my order that way. It all looked good. It all smelled good. And I was hungry. So I could only imagine how delicious it would be once it hit my palate.

I lowered my menu and sheepishly made eye contact with the other three people at the table. The two men and the one woman sat staring at their menus. Then one man turned to the woman and asked her what she thought she was going to order. They bantered back and forth about things they had already had and what they wanted to try. The other gentleman chimed in with some suggestions of his own, being that he had been in the city for a few months and had eaten there a few times.

How do I know all this? Because they were speaking in English! I wanted to jump up and go kiss that maitre'd on the mouth. He had fished the four English speakers out of the crowd outside and put us together. I nearly broke down and wept. In fact, think I did get tears in my eyes. Together we decided what to order and while waiting for our food, we got to know each other a little bit.

The man who was there by himself had spent the previous five or six months on sabbatical from his parish in England where he was an Anglican minister. He spoke of missing his wife and children but also about how much he had loved his time there in Florence. He was heading for home just a few days later.

The couple was from California. They were both college professors. The woman was teaching in Florence for the year and that man was in Budapest, or someplace else equally interesting. He was there visiting her for a few days. Turns out they knew one of my college professors, a political scientist who had moved from Williamstown, Massachusetts, out to one of the UC schools, Santa Clara, I think it was. They informed me that she had had a son and was doing quite well.

They asked for my story. I told them that I like to travel alone and do so quite frequently. I told them that that was my first time in Italy and that I had come to Florence for a few days not only to do the tourist thing but also to visit a woman I had gone to college with who was an art history professor there with the Syracuse University program. The woman asked who my friend was. I told her. She informed me that she had had dinner with my friend just a few days before! They were colleagues in the same program.

Unbelievable! Except that it was happening. To me. Right there. In Mario's. In Florence. In Italy.

My prayer changed. No longer was it, "Lord, really? This is what my first sit down meal in Italy is going to be? Me sitting with three strangers, hoping they don't interpret my silence as rudeness. Gee, thanks, Lord. Thanks a lot."

Rather quickly, it was transformed into, "Lord, really? This is what my first sit down meal in Italy is going to be? Me sitting with three strangers, hoping they don't interpret my tears of joy for tears that indicate a nervous breakdown. Thank you, Lord. Thanks so very much."

When I rolled myself out of the restaurant an hour or so later, as I wound my way back to the hotel, all I could do was say, "thank you, thank you, thank you" over and over again, mostly internally, but sometimes out loud. Suddenly, I had a deep sense of peace about the entire trip. If God could orchestrate every detail so that I would take a flight from New York to Rome accompanied by a gaggle of nuns, take a train from Rome to Florence, not be able to get into my hotel room, be given a recommendation and a map to a restaurant I'd never heard of, get lost twice on the way, arrive at said restaurant at exactly the right time, and be put at that table with those three people on that Friday afternoon ten years ago, then I could trust that all of the rest of the journey would be just fine.

It was more than fine. It was one of the best trips I have ever taken in my life.


PS. I'd post pictures of that inaugural journey but the ones I took on that trip aren't digital. And, no, I'm not about to pull them out of the albums and scan them. I'm far too un-technology savvy for that.

PSS. Lest I sound too Pollyanna-ish in the final lines of this post, not that I have a problem with being called Pollyanna-ish as I have been called much worse, let me be quick to add that not every scene of my life has been as well coordinated or as happily concluded as lunch was that day at Mario's. I've sat in emergency rooms with sick loved ones. I've leaned over caskets holding the bodies of people I still loved. I've known the fear of job loss in a tight economy. I've wondered how our bills would be paid on time. I've felt the agony of watching a child writhe in pain and suffer through a rather serious illness. Life has not been an easy journey for me. Nor for anyone. I know that.

But this is something else I know: every time I allow myself to bask in the loving presence, provision, and protection of God and also when I allow myself to scream, cry, doubt, and question God's love for me and everyone else in the world, even then, I am reminded that if God is God, if God is Almighty and All-knowing and an ever-present help in time of trouble, then neither my ability to find a reason for gratitude and subsequently tell a cleverly crafted story nor my persistent complaining and my frequent bad choices - none of what I do or don't do has any effect on who God is or what God is capable of doing. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

I Remember Ten Years Ago Tonight

I was sitting at JFK airport in New York City awaiting my flight to Rome, Italy. Ten years ago today, I took my first trip to that amazing, wonder-filled country. Yesterday I pulled out my journal from that trip and reread parts of it. Here are a few of the highlights from that momentous night.

October 4, 2001 - 6:18 pm - I'm sitting at a table at JFK, watching flights take off. Thinking. Praying. Incredulous about being here. Leaving here. But very excited. So many wonderful people, sights, meals, museums, and experiences await me. I am thrilled. I anxiously await and anticipate a life-changing experience for all 5 of my senses and for the most important sense of all: my heart and soul. 

I remember vividly how tense we all were, all the passengers at JFK, just a few short weeks after the horrors of September 11th. No one complained about the new inconveniences related to boarding flights. No one minded being scanned and wanded and asked a dozen questions. Those of us who awaited Alitalia Flight 611 departing at 7:40 that Thursday evening sat quietly, nervously, eyeing one another, measuring each other up, trying not to look too nervous and hoping that no one around us looked excessively nervous. Fear hung thick in the air.

The approaching sound of women's voices speaking rapidfire Italian began to fill the waiting area. It sounded like a posse of very energetic and happy women. To my great delight, it was a group of nuns, all in their habits, simple carry-on bags in hand, plain black sweaters over shoulders, sensible shoes underfoot. A collective sigh of relief went up from everyone in the area. We all knew that we would be fine. If there was going to be a gaggle of nuns on board, then there was also a cloud of saints flying with us. I laughed at how silly that line of thinking was, but I also embraced it as an implicit promise from God. I mean, how could God let an entire gaggle of nuns go down in flames somewhere out over the Atlantic Ocean, on their way back to the Vatican, no less?

The flight crew is being processed. I like the looks of Italian people already. My God, this is gonna be people watching at its very best. Thank God for dark sunglasses. I'm so glad I decided to go thru with the trip, that I didn't back out. This is gonna be really good for me. Excellent. Just said my final goodbyes to Steve. He's so amazing. Beyond amazing. No fear, it seems, at letting me go. Possibly losing me. Amazing. I need to treat him better. 

7:50 pm - On board: mother and son team, interracial couple with a new baby, a gaggle of nuns, 4 black women on a journey. I'd love to talk to them. Maybe I will.

I didn't talk to anybody on the flight, except to my journal. Which is filled with such funny little details, questions, hopes, dreams, prayers, descriptions of the flight attendants, other passengers, the "dinner of tasteless fish," and a summary of the book I was reading on the flight, a book I still take with me on every overseas journey, The Way of the Traveler. I read it for the first time on that flight. I have since bought a second copy because I underlined so much and written so much in the margins.

Ten years ago right now, I was sitting at the airport awaiting a flight that would take me to a country that, second only to Spain, is my favorite country in the world. The art, the architecture, the churches and duomos (cathedrals), the language, the people, the food - I loved it all. I wept copiously at the beauty, the history, the trees, the gardens, the sunlight, the way light bounced off of fountains and church facades, the small cups of powerful espresso, the dainty heels on the well-heeled and spectacularly dressed women, and the breath-taking beauty of Italy's handsome men. The respectful way in which the people lived in, across from, and behind buildings that were hundreds of years old reminded me that there are people in the 21st century who care about history, who care about preserving their history, and who welcome others into their ancient way of life - it all awed me.

I remember that there were many times on that trip when I would sit on the back pew of a church, on the steps leading up to a cathedral, on a bench outside of a museum, or at a table outside of a caffe and close my eyes, soaking in the sounds and smells of the place. I would open my eyes and make a list of everything I saw, smelled, heard, felt, and even the smoke that I would often taste wafting through the air. Those lists, those passages are some of my favorite momentos of that journey.

Every one of the ten nights I spent in Italy, in Florence and in Rome, when I lay down to sleep, exhausted, foot-sore after hours and hours of walking, I would close my eyes and, smiling broadly in the darkness, I would say some variation on the same theme: "Thank you, Lord, for every minute of this. Every single minute of it."

One truth penned on that flight ten years ago tonight still rings true: I need to treat Steve better.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Every now and then...

I come across a blog post or a video that say exactly what I would have said if she hadn't said it first. Here are two such gems that I discovered in the past 24 hours.

The first is a video by Kristin Noelle. It's about ten minutes long, but worth every minute. Kristin writes and maintains one of the most thought-provoking, challenging, encouraging, empowering blogs I read. Please go check out her writing and her beautiful sketches. But watch the video first.

The second is a blog post by one of my favorite writers, photographers, and story tellers, Jen Lemen. Jen is one of my favorite people in the world. I had the honor and privilege of meeting her three years ago in San Francisco, plunging immediately into deep conversation with her and feeling my soul shift on its axis, simply by being in her presence. She's that wonder-filled.

These two women have served as role models for me as writers, as mothers, as thinkers, as adventurers, as honest, vulnerable, deeply flawed, real, loving, confused, beautiful women. They are women of deep faith, of deep love, of deep convictions, deep questions, and deep trust.

And they are both darn good writers.

Feast on their wise, fearless, and tear-soaked words.

PS. I just found another gem. This is a letter directed at "Women's Ministry." It made me laugh, groan, and shout "amen." The same woman wrote this piece about prayer. I think I just found a new writing love. Enjoy!!!