Thursday, October 29, 2009

An Unlikely Fan

When I was little, my senior-in-high-school cousin broke his neck playing football, and came home to our house in a body cast. And I wondered, at the ripe old age of seven, WHO in their right mind actually DOES this? Glories in beating each other senseless? The answer never came.

So. I have never been to a football game where someone else didn't pay my admission. And even then, I always take a book. There are no Superbowl parties at our house. We host Oscar parties. In our home theater. Yeah, I live in that world.

So, you can imagine how long it took me to shrug off the disbelief when Mr. Cool said he wanted to sign up for football. Tackle football. In a league for kids. Complete with helmets and pads. And bullies. And it only costs, what? A whopping $300? I did my best to talk him out of it. But he was relentless. And we believe in giving our kids opportunities. Even ones we're not crazy about. So I drove to some sports store across town that I SWEAR I never even knew existed, and waited in line to sign him up. I looked around at the other families signing their kids up to ravage each other. Holy NASCAR! There was not a lot of refinement in this crowd. I was ready to walk out on the whole thing. Then I saw another mother that I know and trust, dutifully signing up her very bright, well-rounded son. And I regained my confidence. Wrote the checks. Sucked it up. Did not say ONE WORD to the little guy about how I REALLY feel about football.

And now, two-and-a-half months later, I am both changed and grateful. Start with his coaches—fathers who donate five nights a week to helping these boys succeed. Who praise and encourage and ENJOY them rather than berating them. (And they're currently undefeated!) I see my little Number Eleven down there on the field sacking the quarterback. Sometimes I have to remind him not to tackle ME! And now I'm the one in the stands cheering and shouting, "Get him! GET HIM!" I'm somewhat amused that I'm the mom who never misses a game. (Even though I still read my book during half-time). I may not be crazy about football. But when it comes to Mr. Cool, I am a total fan! My fierce love for him is what keeps me in the stands. Keeps me chauffeuring to practices and games. Keeps me cheering him on. Keeps me doing all the other Mom-things I do, that will continue long after the championship game is over...

...and well into the eternities.

Go, Team!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sometimes October Breaks My Heart

Yesterday I heard a powerful rustling outside the house, and turned to watch the oak tree outside the window shed half its a single gust of wind. They all fell at once, in a rush, coating the ground beneath with giant, curling brown-paper confetti. No time to float, or linger. Just here. Whoosh! Gone.

It seems that in the space of a week we have moved from soul-soaring, saturated a flurry of falling leaves. And I feel my spirits falling along with them. I look to the mountains above our house, and the cloud cover has dropped, obscuring the mountaintops with a thick, hazy fog. I feel similar clouds sinking over my heart. A heaviness sets in.

It's not just the weather, nature's life cycle, that does this to me. It used to be that certain dates in October would bludgeon me with their weight: the 7th, the 10th, the 12th, the 25th...
The day I felt no movement, heard no heartbeat, delivered a lifeless daughter, and buried her. A whole month when my body could not seem to get warm, stay warm, even wearing a winter coat indoors. Now their arrival is barely noticeable. Memories just descend in quiet moments, like a blanket of leaves.

I'm driving home from work, and suddenly she is with me, and I am back there, reliving a thought or a feeling, a moment that was key to her passing. I might even find myself mentally cradling her little head again. Sometimes I'm surrounded by her presence and the sweetness of it moves me to tears. Other times I see an eight-year-old girl and think, instead of baptizing our daughter, we had a baptism by fire.

Last night there was a woman who reminded me of my mother. It was also an October when my mother realized she would, in fact, die. Resigned. And told me so. No pink ribbons could possibly make me any more aware, and the irony is certainly not lost on me. In October.

Sometimes, in October, my feet are so heavy they scarcely move. Sometimes, in October, it is really hard to get out of bed in the morning. And hard not to go back there after the kids go to school. Sometimes, in October, I need to bury myself in a book, escape into someone else's story. Sometimes, in October, my eyes well up with tears with no warning at all, triggered by the most fleeting gesture or thought.

Don't worry about me. I'm okay. I've made it through lots of Octobers, and I'll make it through countless more. But if you see me and my smile's not quite as bright, or my step doesn't seem as light, if the look in my eyes feels distant or my brain acts a little's not personal. It's just that I'm having an October moment. Or maybe a whole October day. Because sometimes October breaks my heart.

That said, I know that a broken heart ultimately pairs up with a contrite spirit, leading us Home. It's the sacrifice He requires from us. And in that perspective it seems like a very small a price to pay.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Because I can't say no...

There is one blogger to whom I simply cannot say no. (Okay, there might be four or five. But that's about it.) So when Luisa tagged me for this meme and said, "please play" how could I resist? Here I present my semi-tweaked version of Kashkawan To The Fifth Power:

Five North American Cities in which I'd seriously consider living:
(I'm assuming this implies I haven't already lived there, or Pasadena would be top of my list.)

San Diego
Colorado Springs
Cold Springs

Five songs to which I WISH I could sing all the words:

Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine
Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium
Rutter's What Sweeter Music
Elton John's The Greatest Discovery
Jason Mraz's Life Is Wonderful

Five Childhood Friends I'd love to see again:
Margaret Lloyd
Paula Gillette
Ellen Clark
Lola & Linda DiLello (twins count as one, right?)

Five Delicious Dishes I could make with Luisa's food list if stranded on a Desert Island:
Bread, Butter, Eggs, Apples, Chocolate
(I completely ditto Luisa's food list,
so I had to come up with my own twist here.)

Pain au chocolat (assuming the bread can be reworked into a croissant)
Caramel-Apple Bread pudding
Bread cubes and apples dipped in Chocolate Fondue
An excellent omelette
Hot chocolate and buttered toast (this is my preferred midnight snack)

Titles of Five Upcoming Blog Posts I have yet to publish:
(If you use these we'll know where you stole them!)

Noises Off!
Exhaling Love
Sure-Fire Motivator for Kids' Piano Practice
The Karma Police Are After Me
In Praise of Praise and To Best or Not to Best (2-part series on praise)

(Comments are off on this post.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Bogeyman of Edinburgh

The idea came to us in the hallowed halls of Cambridge, where I totally imagined Fagin to be collecting orphan boys, and Macbeth lurking in the next cloister. Just as our semester was coming to a close, my friend Dottie and I stuffed our Sidney Sussex towels into our duffels, and plotted a way to tour the UK for a few weeks on a Brit-Rail pass. (It’s a great way to travel when you’re young and foolish.)

You have to know my friend Dottie. She is a tormented writer. And the most hilarious storyteller. Truly, I am convinced that the universe conspired to have the most bizarre things happen to her, simply so she could write about them, tell the world her stories. You can imagine my delight in tagging along with her. I felt more like an accomplice than a sidekick!

In order to save money, we planned on taking “night trains” instead of staying in a hotel. We'd magically just "wake up" in the next city. It seemed like a great idea, but since the UK is geographically challenged, the only trains that would grant us a full eight hours of (not) sleeping were the ones that ran between England and Scotland. Even then, schedules were quite compromising. (I distinctly remember disembarking in Inverness at 5-something in the morning, and wandering the foggy streets until the bakeries and coffee shops opened). I have many, many spine-tingling stories of these Brit-Rail adventures, but one of the most memorable (that I thankfully lived to tell) took place on our first visit to Edinburgh.

We arrived in the late afternoon, just before sunset, and basically had a few hours to wander the city before catching a night train to London. We locked our bags at the train station and started making our way to the center of town when we met a little old Scottish man on the street who offered to show us around the city. We looked at each other, and shrugged “why not?”, so we suddenly had our own private tour guide of hidden Edinburgh, Mr. Thomas Bogey. That was his real name.

[I write this now and want to wave my arms and shout “Hello, girls! Red Flag! The name alone should be enough of a warning! Run while you can!” but...]

We couldn’t believe this little old man was willing to spend hours escorting us through Edinburgh to show us his favorite sites. He didn’t know any good sweater shops, but he assured us he’d give us an amazing tour of the city. So we loped alongside him as the sun lowered and the shadows lengthened over Edinburgh.

He did take us to most of the key places, and he knew a great deal about the history and such, but what began to be disturbing was what ELSE he knew. He’d stretch out a gnarled finger and say in his thick brogue, “Right over there a little girl and her mother were killed. Their bodies were found just beyond that thicket.” or “Right over there a young lady disappeared. No one ever saw her again. Papers say she fell in the river, but I don’t think so.” “Right over there a teenage boy died. Shot in the head. Nobody found out who did it.” Holy cow, was this guy ever giving us the creeps! How did he know so much about every murder in town? And why was he telling us? I secretly decided the only reason he was so obsessed with all this killing was because HE'S THE ONE WHO DID IT!

I exchanged a few wary glances with Dottie, but neither one of us dared say anything for fear he’d do us in right then and there. He led us through so many dark alleys and deserted byways I didn't know if we'd ever find our way back. Finally we got near enough to the train station that we thought we could make a run for it. We told Mr. Bogey it had been a lovely tour, and we thought we should be heading back to the train station now, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “Nay, lassies, it’s only half past seven and your train doesn’t leave till nine. Besides, ye haven’t seen Scott's Monument. It’s just around this bend here. Come can't say ye've been to Edinburgh and not see Scott's monument.”

[What was next? Robbie Burns’ grave? Mwaahhahaha!]

So a few minutes later we found ourselves reluctantly standing beneath the gothic spires of a looming 200-ft. tower: Scott Monument. “Lovely.” “Mm-hmm. Very nice. Okay, let’s go.”
But the Bogeyman was unrelenting: “Ye have to go inside and climb to the top. Ye can see all of Edinburgh from up there. It’s most beautiful as night falls.” "No, that's okay. Really..." But Mr. Bogey insisted on dragging us up there...and paying our entrance fees.

[What? So now that it’s FREE it’s okay? Hellooo...!]

The next thing we know we’re entering the monument and climbing this rickety, only-wide-enough-for-one-person spiral staircase up-up-up to the top of Scott Monument, like we're in the sequel to Vertigo. As we climb, the morbid thoughts increase: “This is it. This is where he’s planning to do us in.” And there was no way out. Ahead, there was my friend Dottie, carefully and breathlessly making her way up the stairs of doom. Behind me there was only Thomas, the Bogeyman of Edinburgh, poised to hurl me down said stairs. So I kept climbing.

When I finally crept out onto the balcony at the top, relieved to see sky again, Thomas started in on another tale of how some unlucky lad fell to his death from that perch. A little breeze picked up and I got the shivers. The Bogeyman made his way over to the edge of the balcony and motioned for us to come look. I stayed frozen, clinging to the stairwell for dear life. But Dottie was making her way to the railing where he was waiting for us. I can still see her, with her big black-and-white tote bag slung over her shoulder. And I called out to her, in that muffled, motionless, make-no-sound voice, the way it happens in nightmares: “Dottie...Nahooooh....!” But it was too late.

She was already there, next to Thomas, looking over the edge. I had to do something. I made my way to the lookout and grabbed hold of Dottie’s purse strap, (as if that were going to protect either of us) and she had hold of my arm. We each clutched the railing with an immovable death grip. I gasped audibly. And took in the breathtaking sights of Edinburgh, shivering in the evening breeze. Our hearts never stopped racing. But neither of us was hurled to her death.

After a few minutes fearfully gazing over the city, we stepped rather gingerly down as our would-be assassin led us back over the rickety stairs and then disappeared into the evening shadows. That was it.

We compared notes all the way to the train station. We were both convinced we were being led through the city by a serial killer. And that he was planning to hurl us to our deaths from the top of Scott Monument. But it turns out the terrors of certain-and-imminent-death were all in our heads, and our Bogey-man was none other than a curmudgeonly Boo Radley, with a brogue.

Or was he?

I’ve asked myself time and again if this was a bonafide brush with death, and we were mysteriously protected by a ring of guardian angels, or if our fears were altogether unfounded. Perhaps Mr. Bogey himself was our guardian angel, protecting us from some other unseen evil as he escorted us through after-hours Edinburgh.

— Which ultimately makes me wonder, how many other unlikely angels go unrecognized? And how many irrational fears keep us from fully enjoying the moment at hand?

My apologies to the four of you who read a serialized version of this during my first month of blogging. This has now been edited down and slightly retooled for Scribbit's October Write-Away Contest: Fear. (I also need to add that I totally got the idea to resurrect an old post from InkMom, who reposted a positively spine-tingling, horrifying story! Be sure to visit her next, if you haven't already.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I need a search engine for my house.

Tonight I was looking for a book. Amid the 118-or-so (yeah, I actually counted them) that are stacked on and around my nightstand. I peered over dusty piles, reluctant to take them apart, just kind of glancing at them askew, and maybe tilting them slightly to reveal their spines, for effect. And suddenly I thought, Can't I just enter the title somewhere, and have the book I'm searching for magically appear on the top of the stack? Google. I need google for my overrun book collection. Now.

And then there are those elusive car keys. Yeah, and the cell phone. Couldn't I just enter "keys" and "phone" when I'm ready to leave, and have Yahoo! make these essential items resurface from wherever I absent-mindedly set the time I get to the back door?

Last night I was up until 2 am ransacking my office (you cannot even imagine the towers of paper I dismantled, sheet by sheet) looking for the new phone card I bought to send to Josh. I spent untold hours searching for a card-with-a-code I bought for $15. Something is very wrong with this system. I needed to be able to enter "phone card" or "code" and have it magically appear so I could email the code to our son. The computer has me so spoiled.

So this morning as I was pondering my need for googling things around the house (sock mate, anyone?) it occurred to me that what I really need (on top of all the computer-generated efficiency for my home) is a search engine for my heart. Wouldn't it be great if we could summon up Patience and Sacrifice and Forgiveness at the precise moment we need them? Separate them out from all the millions of other things—some more applicable than others—that are swimming around inside us, and bring the Top Hit to the surface.

Screaming kid? Sulking teen? Husband running late? P-a-t-i-e-n-c-e (click!) Mercy would be there, too...m-e-r-c-y (click!) and I know that Charity is somewhere in here...I just can't put my finger on it right now. I need a search engine to bring it to the top, highlight it, give me a link.

I'm sure that in quieter moments, the Spirit does precisely that. Works on my heart. Enters key words. Sorts by relevance. Brings clarity. But only when I provide the space. I need to slow down and really search. From a single Source.

Proverbs 20:27 The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts...

Psalms 77: 6 I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"All I'm Saying Is, Kindness Don't Have No Boundaries"

I cannot remember when I've enjoyed a book more thoroughly than The Help. In fact, I was so completely immersed, the voice in my head started phrasing things in black vernacular English. The characters are strong and lovable and distinct, the plot is well-woven, and the suspense just about killed me at the end. Here's what I initially wrote on Goodreads:

Okay, I started reading this a few days ago and I cannot put it down! It's about a handful of black maids in Mississippi in the early 60s. There is humor and suspense and drama so intense sometimes my heart is just pounding as I read. The perspective is invaluable. I'm tempted to file it under "life changing"....

So far the line that sums up the book for me is this: "All I'm saying is, kindness don't have no boundaries."

When we first moved to Los Angeles, we lived in the Crenshaw District, where we were the minority. Every week we saw these amazingly strong black women bedecked in Sunday dresses and bright-colored hats, walking to church. These women may have worked during the week as bus drivers, child-care givers, and hotel maids, but on Sundays they showed their true colors. They were strong, faithful, even powerful. They were bright and beautiful and brash. They anchored the community. The Help gives us an inside look at the domestic workweek of the 1960s version of these wise, impervious women we admired.

I finished the book a few weeks ago (early, for a change) and can now affirm that I marked it as "life-changing" — a distinction I save for very few books. I was so engrossed in the story, the characters, their lives...I really did read way into the night with my heart pounding from all the growing suspense. I couldn't bear the thought of anything bad happening to these courageous women. I realized I'd become very protective of them. Aibileen was innately good, astoundingly wise, and consistently mentored kindness. Skeeter was headstrong and courageous, willing to stand for what was right when she was surrounded by opposition. Minny was a hoot! She had the iron will of a linebacker. Something about her just DARED anybody to mess with her. (And hardly anybody did.) The sacrifices they made were truly extraordinary.

Some surprising (possibly life-changing?) things came up during our book group discussion. First, we debated on the ethics of hiring domestic help, period. I weighed in heavily in favor. Don't get me wrong — I love my house and my children, love working and serving in our home. But there was a time (about a dozen years, actually) when I NEEDED the help. And was grateful for it. I bonded with those who came to our aid. Maria, Corrina, Alba...I love these women. I was glad to be able to offer them work, glad to have their influence in our lives.

There is a certain vulnerability inherent in opening up your home to hired help. They know all the little nooks and crannies where you never think to clean. They know how many times you dropped off your son with a wet diaper or forgot to comb his hair. They know how you behave when you're stressed-out. There is such a high level of intimacy and trust, and discretion is at a premium. Some people are very uncomfortable with this. (I remember my grandmother saying she could never hire a cleaning lady — she felt like she'd have to sit her down and visit, fix her lunch, essentially treat her like a guest. Then again there is my mother-in-law. She finally broke down and hired a cleaning-lady...not to do all her work, but to work beside her, clean side-by-side. After a very short time the cleaning-lady quit. She simply couldn't keep up with my mother-in-law!...Those of you who know her will understand why!)

Somebody else brought up the idea of Aibileen writing down her prayers. Aibileen said she thought they were more effective that way. Much like the brother of Jared, people would ask Aibileen to add their concerns to her prayers because they knew she had a pipeline to God's ear. Minny said, "Rumor is you got some kind a power prayer, gets better results than just the regular variety." Our book group seemed genuinely intrigued with the idea of writing down prayers. Only two of us in the group had ever tried it. One wrote them as sort of an Artist's Way stream-of-consciousness that she came to recognize as her innermost pleadings to God, and she also noticed answers appearing within her writings. That was cool.

I actually used to keep a separate Prayer Journal. On the left side of the page I'd write what I was praying for or about (and add a little check mark for every time I asked about it again) and on the right side of the page I'd fill in the answers as they came. Every prayer was answered. Not a single right-hand page is blank. So I might have to agree with Aibileen...they work better that way. Maybe just because I'm paying more attention.

I don't think it's a sign of weakness to ask for help — in our homes or in our hearts. I think it's a healthy step, one that has the power to make us at once humbler and wiser. But only if we approach the seeking of help with the type of genuine kindness that knows no boundaries.

And I think it's divine to actually be that help. Think, "But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant." (Matt. 23:11) Nowhere have I seen that scripture better brought to life than within the pages of The Help.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Exceeding Expectations

Color possesses me.
That is the meaning of
this happy hour:

Color and I are one.
I am a painter. —Paul Klee

Last weekend I drove up the canyon on the brink of tears.
This was not sadness, people. I was exulting in all the beauty that surrounded me. Fall colors will do this to me, without warning! Sometimes the intensity just overwhelms me. On top of it all, I was embarking on an adventure: A whole week away, with just me and my paint...and Charles Reid.

The Reids said they haven't been to Jackson Hole for 25 years. (That's a long time.) And I'm so glad they decided to come back. As I sat in the classroom on that first day, I had that same brink-of-tears feeling overcome me. The green dot on my nametag placed me on the front row, and I could hardly believe I was in a studio with Charles Reid, watching him paint, sitting so close I could watch every nuance unfold! Sometimes the entire class would hold its collective breath as we watched him work a few colors together on the paper...and then we'd all let out a collective, simultaneous, deeply satisfied "Hmmmm" or "AAhhhhh" when we saw him turn it into something particularly beautiful.

Charles and his wife, Judy, are the loveliest people. He is quite possibly the world's greatest living watercolorist, and yet was unerringly kind in his critiques, always very encouraging, and looking to find something praiseworthy in every piece. She is a former kindergarten teacher, and ran the workshop with just the right balance of kindness and efficiency needed to keep 18 artists on track.

Here's what I painted this week:
(The first three were done live, from posed models, and the rest are from historical photos in and around Jackson Hole. The last one isn't finished.)

As the workshop came to a close, and I watched Charles paint for what could be the last time, I was again overcome with joy—just the sheer awe of watching him work, doing things so daring we'd never think to attempt them ourselves, and then watching the sensational results that followed: The touch of the master's hand. That afternoon I had the distinct impression that this was a tiny glimmer of what we all must have felt as we watched The Creator shape the earth, spinning the universe into existence with a mere stretch of his hands. We knew we were witnessing something glorious.

I hope I never lose what I gained this past week. I hope I never see a face or horse or a landscape in the same way after watching Charles Reid paint. I hope all that wonder and expression and confidence and genius will somehow insinuate its way into my own work.

Jeff and the kids joined me in Jackson Hole on Friday morning, and we spent most of the weekend swooning over the grandeur of the Grand Tetons. Followed by a long drive back to reality.

Sigh. Deep Breath. I'm home.

p.s. If you missed Mr. Cool's commercial (it aired between conference sessions) here's a link to view it on vimeo: