Thursday, December 14, 2006

He did what with what?

I had just closed the front door early this afternoon, clutching a handful of newly delivered Christmas cards and a couple of bills, when I heard a yelp from the kitchen. Not a barbaric yawp, mind you. It was a Connor yelp, but not in one of its usual forms. It wasn't an I'm-furious-my-horse-won't-stand-up holler, or a my-sock-is-bunched-up-in-my-shoe growl. It sounded something like a small, surprised animal.

I had taken only a few steps before he came running toward me. He didn't say a word. Just stuck his tongue out and pointed.

"What?" I asked, seeing no signs of injury or destruction.

His pointer finger pumped like a piston at his now drooling tongue, and he raised both eyebrows, as if to say, "Hello! My tongue is what!"

I leaned down, careful not to get in the line of drool, and inspected it. It looked pink, kinda sandpapery. About what you expect to see in a healthy tongue.

I motioned with envelope-laden hands. "What, Connor?"

"I touched it," he said.

"Touched what?" I asked, but I knew. I knew.

"That." He pointed back toward the kitchen. There was no longer any question, really. But -- seeing that he didn't seem worse for the experience -- I wanted to hold onto the illusion a bit longer that surely, SURELY, my son (who, might I add, takes after his father very, very much) wouldn't do such a thing.

"Show me what you touched."

He stuck his tongue out again and pointed at it a bit peevishly this time.

"No," I began walking toward the kitchen briskly. "What did you touch your tongue on?"

He didn't comment. He couldn’t, really, since he had his tongue in his hand.

"You touched your tongue on the skillet, didn't you?"

I looked over my shoulder at him. He nodded.

"Connor, WHY did you touch the skillet with your tongue?" I removed it from the burner, on which I had briefly (it's possible to get the mail without stepping fully outside our front door) left a grilled-cheese sandwich browning on low heat.

He shrugged. And held his tongue. I examined it again closely and still saw no sign of a burn.

"Connor, haven't I told you never to touch anything on the stove?" He nodded. "That includes WITH YOUR TONGUE."

"Yesth, mahm."

I'm fairly sure he didn't know the skillet was hot. But he suspected it might be. So, he reasoned, the safest way to find out if it was hot or not would be to, you know, test it with his tongue. A tongue is wet, after all.

The obligatory moral of the story is never leave something hot on the burner, however briefly, when there's a four-year-old in the house. I shouldn’t have. If he had been seriously burned -- or burned at all -- it would be a different kind of story and I'd feel awful instead of mildly guilty. (Will there be a point in the rest of my live-long life that I don't feel some degree of guilt associated with parenthood?)

But a secondary moral might very well be, when instructing a boy never to touch the stove or items on it, be clear this includes with his tongue.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Would you rather eat Comet or Blitzen?

A couple of friends have emailed this meme to me, and I've seen it posted. So here we go:

Eggnog or hot chocolate?
I tasted eggnog for the first time yesterday. It wasn’t bad, but I prefer hot chocolate. However, my favorite winter drink is a fruit tea* my husband and I first tasted long ago at a Tennessee B&B. I harassed the proprietor until she gave me the recipe. (What, did she think I was going to start a fruit-tea conglomerate?) I’m drinking the tea right now, in fact, out of a mug bearing the likeness of Young Elvis.

Does Santa wrap presents or just sit them under the tree?
Santa NEVER wraps his gifts. The very idea. Although, with Madeline, the jig is up. A few months after last Christmas (and turning five) she informed me one day, “I’m thinking Santa isn’t real. I’m thinking you and Dad give the presents.” She’s agreed not to tell her brother.

Colored lights on tree/house or white?
This seems to have become quite an important distinction in the past few years. I actually think white lights are, well, classier. But we have colored lights on our tree because that’s what I had as a child and that’s what Roy had. And apparently, that’s what our Indian/Irish/English ancestors hung on their teepees/cottages/chateaus. So we simply Can’t Break the Tradition. Santa might die or something. I’d like to say white lights on the outside of the house. But we don’t seem to get around to outside lights anymore.

Do you hang mistletoe?
Yes. Over our bed.

When do you put your decorations up?
The second weekend following Thanksgiving. I just don’t have the energy to go into full-blown decorating that first weekend. We just relax. It's like the calm before the storm.

What is your favorite holiday dish (excluding dessert)?
Excuse me? Excluding dessert? That’s like saying, what you’re favorite song, excluding the lyrics? Actually, this one’s pretty easy: my mom’s dressing. Oh, my, it’s so good. It’s very moist. It tastes wonderful. And – touching on a decades-long debate with family friends – it doesn’t have any sage. None. Nunca. Sage is bad. Bad, I tell you.

Favorite holiday memory as a child.
No way could I choose one, so I’ll pick a favorite older memory.
One cold Christmas Eve, as a teenager, I drove with my brother to town to pick something up for Mom. Sam was probably seven or eight. The sky was heavy with that crystalline quality, where sound travels miles and the darkness is almost blue. Cresting a hill on our farm-to-market road, we encountered the moon, perched hugely before us. It shimmered ivory in its enormity, close enough so that if we left the car, the steam from our breaths would have caressed its surface. My heart filled, but I didn’t say a word. My brother did. He exclaimed, “Wow.” “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I asked. “Yes, it is,” he said. And that’s when, for me, my little brother became less my little brother and more his own person, someone who thought on his own, saw beauty and shared it.

When and how did you learn the truth about Santa?
I was probably in kindergarten. I just kind of figured it out and, on the way home in the car (sitting in the front seat, before all children had to be chauffeured), I asked Mom if Santa was real. She told me no, and I cried quietly. Not because I was bitterly disappointed, but – and I remember this feeling still – because I mourned the loss of something magical.

Do you open a gift on Christmas Eve?
We sometimes gather with another family for a Christmas Eve gift-opening party. But it’s not a matter of tradition that we open a Christmas Eve gift.

How do you decorate your Christmas tree?
I love pulling out ornaments because almost every one of them bears a memory or belongs to one of us. There are ornaments from my childhood, bearing my name or the name of my first dog (and still the best dog evvuh). There are ugly-but-lovely wooden soldiers Roy painted as a boy. (I don't try and hide them or anything.) The kids have gotten ornaments each year, and they love to see them again. Several my mammaw made for me. There are strands of wooden beads and, of course, lights. It’s not a designer tree, but we love it.

Snow! Love it or dread it?
Love it. Rarely see it. One early December, when Madeline was just a few days old, we woke to a blanketing of snow. Roy and I bundled her up like the Michelin man and went walking through a wooded park. It was magical.
The only other sound's the sweep/Of easy wind and downy flake./The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,/But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep.

Can you ice skate or ski?
I can ice skate as long as no one gets in my way or makes me turn sharply. Or speaks to me. As for skiing, does water skiing count?

Do you remember your favorite gift?
My sister, Christy. Her birthday is Christmas Eve, and I adore her still.

What's the most important thing about the holidays for you?
It’s a perfect time to talk about the birth of Jesus into the world – God, all-powerful, mighty God, born into the world as a helpless infant to a teenage mother in a barn. Is that not poetry? But I would be lying if I didn’t also say I love Christmas music and sharing that love now with Madeline.

What is your favorite holiday dessert?
Oh, NOW we talk desert. This one’s easy. Every year, my dad and I make divinity fudge together. We use my grandmother’s recipe (I have the actual sheet of paper in her faded handwriting). It takes time, skill and – at the end – at least two people and preferably three to get it all out of the bowl before it loses its liquidity (you know it’s time to start spooning out when it begins to lose its shine). It’s almost an art form getting it just right. Dad’s the master, and no other divinity comes close.

What is your favorite holiday tradition?
I don't always get to do this, but most Christmas Eves, our church has a very simple service, wherein the Christmas story is read out of the Gospels, in between the singing of classic Christmas hymns. Members of the congregation take turns reading, and the music is led simply and without fanfare. At the end, the lights are extinguished, and the candles passed out upon entering the sanctuary are lit one-by-one as people pass the flame from person to person. It is an exquisite symbol of Christ's love. "I am the light of the world," he said. When all the candles are lit -- hundreds of them -- we sing one more time by the shimmering light. Writing about it makes my throat swell.

What tops your tree?
An angel. Growing up, for YEARS my parents used a cardboard star I cut out and covered in glitter. Every year or so, I had to reglitter. I loved that thing. I recognize now it was pretty hideous. My parents really loved me.

Which do you prefer giving or receiving?
Giving. Definitely. My godmother says she loves to give so much, it’s a shame she’s not rich. I feel the same. It would be really cool if she were rich. ;)

What is your favorite Christmas Song?
Hands down: “O Holy Night,” when it’s sung with skill and heart. When it’s done right, and I hear “Fall on your knees. O hear the angel voices …” I tingle all over. Incredible song.

*Fruit tea recipe
Make a gallon of your favorite tea (five tea bags) in a big pot on the stove. I use caffeine free, and there’s no difference in the taste.
2 cups sugar. You can start with less and add more at the end after tasting.
1 can lemonade from concentrate
1 can orange juice from concentrate
½ can pineapple juice from concentrate
5 or 6 cinnamon sticks
8-10 cloves
Serve when it’s hot enough (the kitchen will smell great). I refrigerate remaining tea and heat by the mug until it’s all gone. You can fish out the cinnamon sticks and cloves or leave 'em in.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Getting abreast of the situation

Author's Note: I know I have a few readers of the male persuasion, which is fabulous, of course, with me liking men and all. But the following is intended for a female audience. I've got material too rich to pass on, but I really don't care to share it with anyone possessing both an X and a Y chromosome ... unless you happen to be my husband. In which case I hope you know who you are. So, if you don't have breasts, you'll need to skip this one. Or, at the very least, pretend you did.


My mother-in-law, Sandra, says that as we age, medical tests get steadily more invasive and dehumanizing.

I'm beginning to see that may be true. Certain events took place, which had me taking a trip to the radiology department last week for my first mammogram.


The procedure was mostly about peace of mind, in light of an It's-Probably-Nothing concern. Of course, like most women, I'd heard about how getting a mammogram is even more fun than an annual pelvic exam. And I'd seen the stock photos of a woman getting one. Those pictures usually show the woman from behind, perhaps partially draped, while a sweetly smiling tech (let's call her a boob technician) takes an x-ray from behind the protective screen.

It's quite clear why you only see the back of the patient. The kindly photographer is shielding you from the fact this woman's boob -- besides looking like a week-old, Dollar Store balloon wedged under the dresser -- is being pulled two feet from her body by a $300,000 vice. They like to call it a "mammography machine." Wink. Wink. And the tech is smiling because 1) her boobs are not where yours are, and 2) you look ridiculous.

The whole procedure, while necessary and not particularly painful, is pretty much an exercise in humility. In situations like that, I find it's best to roll through with humor. My boob technician, it turns out, was a former student of my mother's and remembered me from when I occasionally accompanied Mom to school. Life is funny, you know. One day you're 11 and shyly waving hello to a roomful of teenagers. The next day one of those teenagers is 42 and telling you you'll need to wear nipple stickers. That's what she said. Nipple. stickers.

I lifted one eyebrow.

"We're all out of tassels," she deadpanned. Thus I discovered a boob technician after my own heart.

The whole clamping ordeal -- you must get in as much breast tissue as possible -- reminded me a bit of trying to get an overstuffed pillow into a starched case: you shove on this side, and it pops out the other. My job, I was told as she positioned and tightened, was to relax. Yes, relax.

At that, I couldn't help but laugh out loud -- which of course created jigglege, which then necessitated reclamping. Eventually, though, I just sort of checked out of my body and watched remotely. Not exactly like Shirley McClain, but with that part of myself that takes notes to process later. And here's one of the things I noted: It is possible, even when one's mammary glands have gone from oval to linear, even when a virtual stranger is sticking metal-tipped stickers on parts of oneself never intended for accesorization, it is possible even then to continuously suck in one's stomach.

Because, by golly, a girl has to maintain her image.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Best holiday of the year

I am amazed. As I sit to write, it's not yet 11 o'clock this Thanksgiving Eve. I have baked cookies -- and by baked I mean added an egg and butter to the package mix -- prepared the first half of the cranberry salad (which must sit overnight), remembered to set out the yeast rolls and managed not to burn a chess pie. I've done more food preparation this evening than in the last, uhm, what year is it? I realize this is a paltry effort compared to, oh, most any mother with two good hands and a stomach. My own mom has probably been in the kitchen for 18 hours by now. BooMama has doubtless cooked enough to make Paula Deen weep.

Roy has injected a poor, defenseless turkey with Cajun garlic marinade, and we've set aside the neck and sundry other bird gut items for Mom to use in her giblet gravy tomorrow. Roy won't touch the stuff, but he's faithful every year to set it aside for her.

And here's the really amazing part: the house is pretty clean. And there's not one basket full of clothes waiting to be folded anywhere in this house. It's like an early Christmas miracle. The fact that I can say all of this before 2 a.m. is astonishing.

Tomorrow we'll load up sometime before noon and make the five-minute drive to Mom and Dad's house. Family I haven't seen in years -- the California Garrards -- will already be there. In fact, they're probably arriving at my parents' house as I type this. Not long after we get there, the Browns will arrive en masse*. They're family by choice, and we've been gathering for Thanksgiving as long as I can remember Thanksgivings. The only year I've ever missed was when Roy and I were living in Ireland. To my shock, the Irish don't observe an American Thanksgiving. Go figure. Although one pub we visited offered free buffalo wings that Thursday. Oh, yes. Guinness and dried-out chicken wings: We were one Wampanoag short of recreating Plymouth Colony.

I've always loved Thanksgiving. By the time I hit my mid-teens, I had decided it was better than Christmas. I love being around so many people I love, so many people who make me laugh, so many people who complain about the board games we always play. There will be incredible food, someone will bring wine in a box and insist it isn't that bad. Mom will pull out all her china and my grandmother's. The silver will be used. We'll run out of room and tables and tell the kids to quiet down. They won't.

After dinner, we'll gather all the food on the island in the kitchen and cover it with a clean tablecloth. Then we'll visit and laugh and not two hours will go by before someone pulls up a corner of the tablecloth and digs in again.

I love Thanksgiving.


* Writing en masse takes me back to a lovely time in my life as a journalist. Early in my newspaper career, I pulled a story off the Associated Press wire about some poultry disease spreading through Mexico. In an effort to stamp out the disease, the government was wiping out the entire poultry population. I used the story and, pushing deadline, hurriedly slapped on the headline, "Mexico kills chickens in mass." Probably somewhere in Haiti, there are people perfectly comfortable with this marriage of voodoo and Catholicism. But that wasn't exactly what I was going for. Y'all don't go killing any turkeys in church over the holidays. Trust me. It's frowned upon.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Worrying, happiness, vomit and thanksgiving, or The Day I Turned 35

Today is my birthday. From college on, I don't recall getting particularly excited about a birthday. I'm perfectly pleased to have lived another year, and haven't the slightest qualm about my age. But a birthday is pretty much another day for me, except, if I'm lucky, my mom phones early to sing happy birthday. I get a few thoughtful presents. Some people I love call me or even visit. Those are good things.

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the day my best friend's father died. She's the same age now her dad was when he died. That and something else that occurred yesterday had me thinking this morning -- before I ever got out of bed -- about the possibility of dying young. (Not that I've been given any bad news, mind you.) Connor wouldn't remember me. Madeline wouldn't remember me well. So there I was -- the woman who rarely cries at crying-appropriate times -- all weepy.

Poor Roy. He behaved as though he didn't even notice the wife he went to bed with had obviously been body snatched by Sally Fields in a performance somewhere between "Steel Magnolias" and "Not Without My Daughter."

Connor woke and crawled into bed with us, and we giggled together. Then Madeline made an appearance in all her tumble-headed glory. And I felt better.

We all joined Mom and Dad for breakfast before church, and I got presents and kisses and the pleasure of just being with my parents ... without having to pull Connor into the bathroom for a stern talking to/thrashing. Nothing spilled. No one cried.

I felt good.

The music was great in church. The band led us in a super-charged, rockin' down-home version of "I Saw the Light" which no one under 30 had the slightest clue what to do with. But we older folks -- you know, 35 and up -- clapped and sang like we all have Dolly Parton and Randy Travis on speed-dial. Oddly enough, there were helium-filled white balloons loose in the sanctuary -- probably the remnants of a wedding -- which would swoop down from time to time while we sang and while the pastor preached. Kyle made a joke about how God had appeared as a dove. Maybe he takes balloon form these days. From then on, I imagined the slowly diving and lifting orbs as his spirit. I know they were just balloons, but the visualization was a comfort.

Sometimes, even when it brings out the Sally Fields in us. Even when it's at an inappropriate time, like your birthday, I think it's worthwhile to remember we aren't promised tomorrow. "Man is like a breath. His days are like a shadow that passes away," the psalmist tells us. In my recent sleeplessness, I came face-to-face with a review of regrets I would have if, indeed, I didn't have tomorrow: an angry response to a wet bed, days and days without answering a prompting to open my Bible, putting off making cookies with Madeline, not getting under the sheet-and-chair tent with Connor. Not praying enough.

Our church had a potluck Thanksgiving meal tonight. Unfortunately, Roy couldn't go with me because -- in the fine tradition of my sister throwing up on me one long-ago Christmas Eve -- poor Madeline was hit by a stomach virus this afternoon. You know, to commemorate Mom's special day. Roy insisted on staying home with the kids, so I went on and even wore the tiara and red feather boa all members of our small group must wear during their birthday celebrations. Picture the looks caused by a woman sweeping by in twist of red feathers, a head full of cubic zirconia and a plate piled with chicken enchiladas. Priceless.

After we ate, Kyle told us about the Pilgrims' tradition of counting blessings during the meal and prompted us to do the same. It was a wonderful exercise and a great way to close out the evening. In fact, expanding on what was shared around the table tonight, the following is an incomplete, in-no-particular-order, off-the-top-of-my-head list of 20 things I'm thankful for:

1. I'm thankful for a great marriage. Not a good one. A great one;
2. I'm thankful for two healthy kids (present stomach virus excluded);
3. I'm thankful Madeline didn't throw up in a restaurant;
4. I'm thankful for the carwash vacuum cleaner, floor mats and Febreeze;
5. I'm thankful for the flowers, the cake and the balloons waiting on me at dinner tonight (even if the balloons were already tangled 40 feet up in the ceiling joists when I arrived);
6. I'm thankful for thick, warm socks on a cold night and the feeling of taking my bra off after a long day;
7. I'm thankful for music -- jazz, rock, pop, praise, bluegrass and even the occasional splash of hip-hop;
8. I'm thankful for living in a country where education, access to healthcare and the right to worship and vote are largely considered givens;
9. I'm thankful the holidays are coming, and I'll have a chance to make memories and take pictures and see my children thrilled;
10. I'm thankful for terrific friends, good conversation and a bottle of wine;
11. I'm thankful for being tall;
12. I'm thankful for serving in a church that truly cares about people;
13. I'm thankful I can pick up most of my children's toys with my toes;
14. I'm thankful Roy is able to provide well for our family;
15. I'm thankful my mother-in-law just moved back to Texas;
16. I'm thankful my parents live in the same town, and my sister has a new baby boy;
17. I'm thankful I have a brother who enjoys my company;
18. I'm thankful for a king-sized bed and the man who shares it with me;
19. I'm thankful for good books that don't end with the hero dead; and
20. I'm thankful for God's grace.

Your turn.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

A cowboy, an Indian and an ill-mannered orangutan

Apparently along with the gum, lolly-pops, fake cigarettes and jaw breakers, Connor and I picked up a virus for Halloween. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to have hit Connor as hard as me. (Yes, I knocked on wood -- you know, just in case there is no God but rather an angry family of imps randomly punishing people for spilling salt, breaking mirrors and assuming they've dodged trouble.)

Halloween night was fun. We trekked over to my parents' house so the kids could show off their costumes to Grandbee and Granddad. A few days earlier, we spent a small fortune on Connor at Lone Star Western Wear. I was going to go the Wal-Mart route, but Roy and I decided to splurge, and the kid's outfit ended up costing about the same as a one-minute Super Bowl ad. It was worth it, though, when I saw him all dudded up. Connor looks like my dad in his Stetson. As for Madeline, well, she was a Disney Princess for the fourth year running. This year it was Pocahontas. A very blond, Nordic-looking Pocahontas.

Roy couldn't make it because, poor man, he was home in bed with a migraine. Nevertheless, the kids and I met up with Erin and her clan to trick-or-treat through Bel-Air neighborhood. Folks there have to buy candy in milo-sized bags.

It was, as always, a memorable experience. On the occasions I hung back while the kids walked up to a door, inevitably something interesting would happen. Connor really enjoys ringing doorbells and viewed the evening as a doorbell delicatessen. Once, Madeline reported he had squashed a plant. I asked him if this was so.

"No," he said very seriously. "I just laid on it."

About 30 minutes into the evening, Madeline began grabbing her throat and making fairly impressive hacking sounds. "I need water," she demanded. "I need water!"

"Did you eat hot candy?" I asked.

"No! I'm just thirsty." She looked at me as though I was capable of pulling a Capri Sun out of my nose.

We stared at one another a while, her exasperation refreshingly wordless. She waited for me to DO something.

"Well," I offered, "I could spit in your mouth." Because, you know, I'll go the extra mile for my kids. "Otherwise, I don't know what you expect me to do at this moment." I held my hands out to verify I had no liquids.

She looked at me the way she will be looking at me for at least the next 15 or so years and turned on her Disney Native American heel toward the next house. There were about a billion kids pressing toward the door and I was caught toward the back with Connor. So it wasn't until I heard the man at the door saying, "Yes, sweetheart, go right on in." And the yelling: "HONEY, can you get this little girl some water?!" that I realized Madeline had taken matters into her own hands.

By the time I made my way past the press of humanity and identified myself as the camel's mother, she was walking out of their kitchen wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and looking very satisfied. I guess the spitting idea wasn't her first choice.

Once home, the kids had a few pieces of candy, and I got them cleaned up and to bed, just in time to have my mom come over while I took Roy to the ER with his migraine. Two hours and shot of Demerol and Phenergan later, he was doing much better.

Wednesday morning, I woke up not feeling so great. Nevertheless, Roy's headache was gone, and we had plans to go to the Fort Worth Zoo with the kids, where Roy had arranged to meet a high school friend of his (with her oldest daughter) whom he hadn't seen in 21 years. When it's been over two decades since a visit -- not to mention having told the children 500 times they would be going to the "big, big zoo" that day -- feeling a little under the weather and having logged a trip 10 hours earlier to the emergency room isn't enough to call it off. So away to the zoo we went.

We did indeed meet up with Roy's friend, Shannon, who, not surprisingly, proved to be lovely and witty company. Those two caught up as we walked through the exhibits. My favorite was the primates. Connor was particularly fond of the orangutan, which looked just like the one in "Every Which Way But Loose." While I was thinking about Clint Eastwood and how much I hated that movie and wondering why it was broadcast on network TV at least 50 times when I was a kid, the hairy beast walked right up to Connor from the other side of the glass and proceeded to eat his snot.

I don't buy into humans having descended from monkeys, but Connor and that primate have eerily similar eating habits.

About an hour and a half into our visit, I was freezing -- more so than the weather should have caused -- and feeling generally awful. So I excused myself from our company, left the kids with Roy and returned to the car.

And I slept. For two hours. In the zoo parking lot.

So that's what I did yesterday: Went to Fort Worth to take a nap.

Good times.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

More than I asked for

If the first sentence of my last post has taught me anything, it's that you don't joke about hating someone. At least not someone who works for a church and is beloved by the masses.

The things is, I figured I could say something like "I hate my friend Erin" without worrying because it's so obvious IT'S NOT TRUE. It's akin to saying after a while you'll get used to the smell or God is a Republican. (Kidding! We all know he's a Socialist.)

I've mentioned somewhere in my musings that, while I have many friends, it's rare that, like Anne of Green Gables, I find a kindred spirit.

I moved back to Athens, my hometown, nine years ago. I had my wonderful husband and my parents around me, which was and is an incredible comfort. But I felt the absence of a really good friend. So I started praying about it.

It took a while, but God answered that prayer in the form of two people. My friend Elise (who deserves her own post) and Erin.

Elise and I think scarily alike. We say similar things. We like similar things (excepting her freakish love of marching band music). We travel well together.

On the other hand, Erin and I really aren't all that alike -- at least not on the surface. She accessorizes the house according to seasons; I do Christmas. She's very sensitive and nurturing; I've never cried at a wedding and I'll nurture you if I HAVE to or if, you know, you're my kid or something. She remembers everyone's name; Now who are you again?

When we first met, I felt drawn to her but didn't figure there was much of a chance we'd be close friends. I was wrong.

Almost five years ago, she reported (in what I recall being a shell-shocked manner) that she and her husband, Jon, were expecting another child. Up until that time, she was just my friend, Erin, who had three kids. It was with the birth of Caleb nine months later that she became My Friend Erin With Four Kids.

Two months after Erin's announcement, I learned I was pregnant with Connor. In the years that have passed between then and now, our families have gotten increasingly intertwined. They love us and our kids, and we love them and their kids. I've viewed that fact as a blessing for a long time now. But it really settled in my heart last week.

Connor and Caleb both attend Angel Keepers a few days a week (a Mother's Day Out-type arrangement). Those two adore one another, which is a joy to my heart. This particular morning, Erin was running a bit behind, so she dropped Caleb off at my house, and I took both boys to their class.

We sang together in the car on the way there. Caleb requested Johnny Cash. I prayed over both of them. On the way down the hall, I held Caleb's hand and he held Connor's. Outside the room, I put lunchboxes in their spots and then knelt down to hug them both. Kiss them both.

"Love you boys. Have a good day," I said. And they marched in where they were greeted by a chorus of "Connor!" and "Caleb!"

I smiled all the way back to my car as I thought how much I love Erin's son, and what a precious gift that is. I wouldn't hesitate, nor would Roy, to take not only Caleb but every one of those four children as my own.

That's God for you. I asked for a friend, and he delivered a family of six.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Running without being chased

I hate my friend Erin with four kids.

OK. Not really. I love her. But last night while I was running in the half-dark round and round a mile-long path, and it was humid, and hot in a way that is RIDICULOUS for October, I was not thinking of how I love her.

I was thinking about how two weeks ago she casually asked, "You wanna run the Turkey Trot with me?" And how -- though my brain screamed, "SAY NO! For the love of Kraft cheese, say NO!" -- I shrugged as if it were a minor matter not involving pain and phlegm and said, "OK."

Obviously, I was in denial of the last few times I've decided to start running again. (And by "again" I mean since graduating from high school sixteen years ago.) You see, I used to be an athlete. Really. Four quarters up and down the basketball court? No problem. Four quarters up and down the soccer field? No problem. I got tired, but my body went as long as I told it to.

Then, at 24, living in Austin, I decided to join an adult women's soccer league. I was once an awesome soccer player (never mind that it had been a decade since playing competitively).

I couldn't keep up. I had to ASK someone to substitute in for me. Small children and bunnies mocked me. I had a splitting headache the rest of the day following games. It was humiliating. My body wouldn't behave the way my brain told it to, and I detested that so much I did what any proud, self-respecting former athlete would do: I quit.

Damn you, bunnies!

Since then I've briefly re-entered the cardio-workout world on a few occasions. But, to my total shock, my body STILL would not behave the way my brain told it to. I got exhausted quickly. And I hurt. And I felt like crap afterward.

Isn't there supposed to be a rush of hormones that makes me feel wonderful? Aren't I supposed to be energized? "Natural high," anyone?

Well, let's just say after a good margarita and Mexican food with friends, I feel pretty darn good. After a run, I feel like the fourth day of a flu. This is clearly a no brainer.

Then Erin said, "Wanna run the Turkey Trot with me?" And I said yes. And I've been dying ever since then, because I CAN'T just quit now. I can curse the day we met. I can curse the fact that two children, no exercise and an unholy love of cheese does not make for physical superiority. I can just curse.

But. I. can't. quit.

So there I was last night, running/walking/running/walking ... I've worked up to longer runs between the walking. Eventually (she tells herself) I'll be just running. Although at this point, it's hard to imagine that happening. The good thing is, in the short time I've been running, I no longer feel like Toni McKillMeNow for three hours after the run (like the first day), and I'm no longer sore over most of my body (like the first week). So that's progress.

When I no longer check my watch every minute to see how much time I have left to suffer and when I no longer breathe to the beat of "I-hate-this," then I'll REALLY be making progress.

Thing is, I don't REALLY hate it. I mean, I don't love it. I don't even like the running itself. But I do like the sense of accomplishment afterward. I'm not too old or too lazy or too out-of-shape to push myself. That's a good thing. It may not be non-stop up and down a field, but it's something.

And that's more than I could say a month ago.


Monday, October 09, 2006

WTFFDTM, or What The Frickin' Frackin' Does That Mean?

There's something that's been bothering me for quite a while now. More, I daresay than the waning popularity of celebrity poker. In my Internet perusals and the occasional email, I come across acronyms that mystify me.

Hi, Toni. IHHFYIAW. How R U? What's new in ur world? IRAAMND.

And, of course, I'm supposed to just know this translates into:

Hi, Toni. I haven't heard from you in a while. How are you? What's new in your world? I recently acquired a monkey named Deborah.

At the risk of offending millions, is it THAT HARD to spell out words like "are" and "you"? I suppose I should note I'm not talking about text messaging, which involves pecking out correspondence on the cell phone keypad while eating a Frito pie and tailgating me at 70. Clearly, that's a time when linguistic brevity is the only reasonable course of action.

I just missed the boat entirely when it comes to knowledge of all the commonly used shorthand acronyms. I've figured several out from context, of course. It only took a minute or two of pondering to discern IRL means "in real life." At first glance I wondered if "Maybe we can meet IRL someday" suggested a liaison in Ireland.

So in the absence of an authoritative www-shorthand source (and being too lazy to Google it), I've devised my own translations. I like to think they add a certain je nais se qua to the original text.

ROFL. Now I know this denotes laughter. I often see a smiley face next to it. But I cannot figure out what it stands for. ROFL brings to mind the sound one makes while vomiting, which I don't equate with hilarity. But that's just me.

BTDT. I'm clueless. "Beautiful turkeys don't talk." "Beware the dainty trucker."

KWIM. "Kool-Aid works in ministry." "Kan we ingest monkeys?"

MRME. "Methinks randy merriment ensues."

IMHO. "Ima ho." Clearly.

I could go on, but TWJBA. (That would just be annoying.)


Friday, September 22, 2006

The other man in my life

I was out late with the children tonight. Those of us who went to Guatemala last month gathered with loved ones at Ted and Melissa's house to watch an incredible video Steve put together from the thousands of photos taken on the trip. Afterward, we ate more and talked while the kids played upstairs in an Elysian Fields of a playroom.

What with all the visiting and kids not bothering me and pudding eating and visiting, it was just after 11 before I gathered the children and headed home. We skipped teeth brushing (they'll grow new ones) and got right down to the nitty-gritty of prayers and "see ya in the mornin'."

Madeline was asleep inside five minutes. Over half an hour later, Connor was still restless. He's been afraid of the dark lately, so I let him go to sleep with a little flashlight. Sounds like a bad idea, I know. But, to my surprise, he usually turns it off after a short while and goes on to sleep. I suppose it's more about the comfort of having a light than using it.

A few minutes ago, I went in to check on him. As I pulled the tangled sheets from under his little body and spread them out again, he shined his growling tiger flashlight on me.

"You're beautiful, Mom," came a voice raspy from sleep and allergies.

I leaned down closer. There was no charmer's grin. He was sleepy serious. Before I could gather myself to respond, he said again -- in case I hadn't heard the first time -- "You're beautiful."

I put my lips next to his ear.

"That's the sweetest thing you've ever said to me," I whispered. "Thank you."

It wasn't what he said. It was the way he said it: spontaneous, unsolicited, sincere. I thought of all the times he's frustrated me and when I held him as a newborn so full of love I thought my heart might break. I thought of the years ahead when he'll naturally start to pull away, and my heart will break.

You're beautiful, Mom.

My hair is pulled back in an ugly hairband I use for face washing. The makeup hiding the scar across my eyebrow is gone. I'm wearing a 15-year-old robe.

He thinks I'm beautiful.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A leaky tire, a fake leg and Floam

I am a mess.

I have friends whose husbands have been away from their families many months at a time. These women dig in. They go deeper. They find reserves of strength.

Here I am, lo unto the second week of Roy's absence. I have dug in and gone deeper only to discover I am perhaps not suited for single motherhood, in the way Notorious BIG is not suited for children's music.

Let's review the past couple of days.

I had intentions of being good -- of getting up early every morning to have some quiet time. It hasn't turned out that way, so much. After pushing the snooze button a number of times that requires the use of integers, I rolled out of bed yesterday having to get Madeline up, pack her lunch, get us both dressed, force her to eat two bites of SOMETHING (not eating breakfast = godlessness), scoop Connor out of bed and get her to school before the tardy bell rang.

35 minutes? No problem.

I pulled up alongside the curb where one of the helpful teachers -- who was beginning to give straggling parents the we-really-need-to-get-inside-now look -- headed over to our car. At this point, I turn around in my seat to hand Madeline her cute, pink monogrammed backpack. Unfortunately, it's upside down, so the top comes unsnapped in her hands. Which, although nothing fell out, greatly irritates Madeline who wastes no time telling me about it (which, in all fairness, pretty much mirrors my behavior the past several days).

The teacher is getting closer. Other late arrivers are waiting for us to Unload The Child and move on. I snatch the backpack, invert it, snap it, hand it to her again. She starts to put it on her back. The bag is fairly small, and the straps aren't too long, so in order to get it on her back, she has to shimmy into it using chicken-esque arm flapping motions.

Get out of the car first, I tell her. Which, of course, ratchets up the tension. Then I remember her four-pack of cinnamon-flavored applesauce for snack times and hand it over as she's fighting with her pack.

Oh my good Lord. You would think I handed the child an oil-slicked octopus. The audacity of asking her to carry TWO THINGS in her TWO HANDS was, well, too much.

Despite the plethora of items she had to juggle -- in fact, the teacher had read the scene and moved on to another car behind us -- she somehow found it possible to slap her face into her hands out of the sheer horror of having landed such a mother. Finally, when I said something nice like, "Get out of the car. Now!" she exited the vehicle only to find it impossible to close the car door, what with an item in each hand and all.

She shoved at it halfheartedly with the applesauce pack. It moved a few inches. She looked at the door. Shrugged and turned toward the building. At this point, I employed my highly refined knowledge of child psychology by hollering: "If you don't CLOSE THE DOOR I'll spank you RIGHT! NOW!"

Magically, she managed to do just that fairly quickly, but not before I added, "Have a good day. Love you."

Then I went home, got Connor dressed, fed, lunch packed and carted him off to Angel Keepers for a portion of the day. I discovered somewhere during all this that I had a low tire. So I went to a convenience store, put in my 50 cents (because we certainly wouldn't want to offer free AIR, would we?) and stared at the lifeless hose. Busted.

I drove off, leaving behind my air pressure gauge. I pulled into another gas station. The air pump had an Out of Service sign on it. I moved on.

The air pump at the next station had no sign on it. But it cost 75 cents. Because, of course, we wouldn't want the price of air to be competitive. I had two quarters left and managed to find enough loose coins to exchange them for the all-important third one. I inserted them. I staired at the lifeless hose.

Have I mentioned it was raining?

The clerk kindly provided me not with 75 cents, but with an 800-number I can call for recompense. Yeah. I'll get right on that.

A customer witnessed the exchange and informed me Brookshire's has -- are you ready for this: -- free air. So I drove across town. Yeah. There's an Out of Service sign on the pump.


I pulled into an auto service station, quickly explained the situation, throwing myself, like Blanche DuBois, on the kindness of strangers. All six employees, heretofore seated comfortably and probably discussing the president's address before the United Nations, shot me blank looks. The kind of look that makes you think if you had a spare banjo, there might possibly be a showdown to follow.

Finally, to get me out of there, one fellow graciously aired up the afflicted tire. Thank you, Jesus.

Later that day, when I return home with both children, I find a prosthetic leg hanging from my back door. Really. A prosthetic leg. Hanging. From my back door.

A friend of a friend had dropped it off for me to return to its owner, whom I sorta know, through my husband.

I just wish it had been an arm, because at this point, I could really use an extra hand.

Then tonight as I worked to get the kids in bed, Connor walked into Madeline's room where I was enjoying a nice mommy moment combing out her hair. He was still undressed, having not been long out of the bath. Without preamble, he turned his back to me, bent over, grabbed both bottom cheeks and said, "Look."

Have you ever heard of Floam? It's basically goop -- in this case pink goop -- filled with Styrofoam pellets, which can then be molded or used to coat various items. The various item during this instance would be my son's posterior. Or, as his best friend Caleb likes to say, his boodelay.

If Roy was here, I imagine Connor would still have applied pink Floam to his boodelay, but it would be nice, so nice, to have said, "Roy, could you remove the Floam from your son's hiney?"

Opportunities like that don't come along every day.


Monday, September 11, 2006

Innocence unwinding

Sunday evening, I drove the kids home with the windows down. It was cool only by a Texan's standards, but being desperate for Fall, I kept the air conditioner on to create an artificial chill. A new CD played music somehow melancholy and hopeful at the same time.

The setting sun, just beginning to dip below a canopy of oaks, threw a golden light on my children in the back seat. I watched them in the rearview mirror: Madeline's body turned toward the setting sun, her face held up to the light, her blond hair moving softly, then whipping suddenly. Connor, uncharacteristically, was quiet as well.

The moment was a wordless, passionate prayer. In my heart there welled up a sense of gratitude for the instant that can be neither manufactured nor captured, seasoned with the knowledge of how tentative the beauty of it is.

I started the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, like most mornings -- racing the clock to get out the newspaper by deadline. Then came news of planes and collapsing buildings and the horror. Before I could even begin to try and process it for myself, I had to grapple with the design and content of the most important front page of my relatively short journalistic career.

Madeline was 10 months old, and it wasn't until that evening, as I sat her in a bouncy chair on the floor and watched TV coverage, that it hit me. Seeing her there, helpless, innocent, dependent -- while above her ran images of people hurling themselves from burning towers -- I felt fear. Fear not for what all this meant for me or Roy, but for what it meant for my daughter and any children to follow.

I've swallowed that fear for the most part. I can't control events that big or the ones still to come, so I don't dwell on them. For that reason, I've avoided coverage of the 5th anniversary. Avoided stories and pictures, movies and TV specials.

Until tonight.

My husband boarded a plane on a mission trip to Romania today. I didn't want him flying on 9/11, but neither of us made a fuss about it.

This evening I watched interviews with people whose loved ones were aboard United Flight 93. And I thought about what it would be like if Roy called me to say goodbye.

Earlier, Madeline had walked up to me as I sat watching a video montage of images from that day five years ago. The picture she saw was of an exhausted firefighter in the foreground, while behind him flames consumed a building half-hidden in smoke and debris.

"Oh, my gosh," she said. "Look at what that fire is doing to that building."

Before I could react, she turned away, offering with confidence: "It's probably a grass fire." Then she went back outside to play.

She is still that innocent little girl, dependent on her loved ones and now teachers to filter life for her. And I grieve, truly grieve for the day she understands it was not a grassfire.


Friday, September 08, 2006

Book Love

I've been toying with a way to write about some of my favorite books without boring the jiminy cricket out of you. You'll be pleased to know I haven't figured it out, but I'm going to press ahead anyway. You see, someday, years from now, when Madeline and Connor are in their 20s or 30s, they'll have an overwhelming desire to read some of my favorite books. (Shut up. Yes, they will.) Fortunately, all they'll have to do is flip to page 31 (that would be this post) of the leather-bound collection of my writings available at any good bookstore.

I loves me some books. I can remember being in elementary school and reading "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" because I discovered it was listed at a higher reading level than I "should" have been at. Didn't actually like the book that much -- I can still picture the "Murder She Wrote" gal on the cover -- but it got me into the habit of seeking out books that would force me to think a bit. (No disrespect intended toward "Sweet Valley High," Erin.)

It was also about that time I realized the daily ever-lovin' eternity I spent on Bus 13 passed quickly if I had a book to read. So on that bumpy yellow dog I fostered a reputation as a stuck-up smartypants by burying my nose in books like "Let the Circle Be Unbroken" and "The Red Badge of Courage." "Circle" was my gentle introduction -- through the eyes of four precocious black children in a loving family -- to segregation and racism. "Red Badge" was the first time I'd seen fighting and war portrayed in a way that was neither glamorous nor heroic.

In about seventh grade, there was a miniseries on TV called "North and South." Some of you might remember it for having kick started Patrick Swayze's career. (And aren't we all eternally grateful for "Roadhouse"?)

Well, we just had one TV at home, and Dad was not the type to commit to a miniseries (particularly since he avoids stories about "dogs, Indians and the Civil War"). So every morning during gym, I'd listen to my friends gush about Orry and Madeline and how wonderfabulous it all was. So I went to the library and checked out the book (the first in a trilogy by John Jakes). It was like entering another world. Anytime I could be reading it, I was. Same for the concluding books in the series. When one of the main characters was killed, I cried like a pregnant woman reading Nicholas Sparks and moped for two days. (No, I don't know why Madeline cried when the visiting team scored a touchdown last week. Her dramatic flair is a complete mystery to me.)

In high school, I read a bunch of Dean Koontz books, which introduced me to the idea of magical realism -- something I would come to appreciate even more in college with books by the awesomely original Alice Hoffman ("Practical Magic"), Isabel Allende ("The House of the Spirits") and Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("One Hundred Years of Solitude.") Long before Oprah gave "Solitude" her gold-minting seal of approval, my Latin teacher, Mrs. Lemmon, passed copies out to her graduating seniors with the charge: "Read it." We did.

Books have almost always been a way to escape for me. And I'm certainly not living a life of silent desperation; I just LOVE being transported into other people's stories. For that reason, I stick mostly with fiction. I couldn't possibly list all my favorites, because I'd leave too many off. So I've walked around my house collecting books off the shelves. I'll try to organize them into some semblance of categories. Pay attention now, because when I'm done, I hope you'll reciprocate.

Classics (modern and old):

"A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens.
In junior high, our honors English teacher got it in her crazy head that we were plenty old enough to do a research paper. (God bless her.) For whatever reason, I chose Charles Dickens and read "A Tale." We're all familiar with the first few lines: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ..." Besides being an epic run-on sentence (You know I'm a stickler for complete sentences. She said. Sarcastically.), it's not a half-bad opening line. Better even than, "It was a dark and stormy night." The rest of the chapter was pretty much a bore, however, as it just sets up The Times for us. But the story kicks off in Chapter 2, and from that moment on, I was hooked. Up until then, I was pretty much clueless about the French Revolution. This book made me care.

"All The King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren.
I would never have read this book had it not been forced on me by my Southern Lit prof at A&M (along with "The Bear" by Faulkner). Ostensibly, it's a fictionalized telling of the life of Louisiana's most infamous politician, Gov. Huey Long. What it ends up being more about (for me) is how his right-hand man refuses, ultimately, to shed his idealism. It's got everything -- including a Pulitzer Prize.

"Beloved" by Toni Morrison.
Another Pulitzer winner. This book is dadgum fabulous. It blows my mind. Set several years after the Civil War, it involves the loss of a child, a runaway slave, a terrible secret, desire, hope, a haunting. Amazing read.

"Franny and Zooey" by J.D. Salinger.
This was originally published in two parts in "The New Yorker." J.D. Salinger is an incredible talent, who frustrates the tar out of me by being such a whack job he won't publish any more of his stuff. You just KNOW his house is full of manuscripts collecting dust bunnies. "Franny and Zooey" is the story of two remarkable siblings who are part of an equally remarkable family. It's just a sweet, melancholy telling of Franny's spiritual struggle and her brother's response. When I read this, it made me want to be smarter.

"All the Pretty Horses" by Cormac McCarthy.
OK. If I HAD to pick a favorite book of all time. This would be it. (I've never seen the movie.) I picked this one up from a display table at a bookstore when Roy and I were living in Dublin in '94. We had just finished college and were doing the expatriate thing, living hand-to-mouth and trying to make friends. It rained all the time. It was beautiful. It was lonely. So when I saw this was a coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old Texan, who travels to Mexico, it struck a chord in me. I wasn't 16 and I sure wasn't in Mexico, but I felt a kinship in the adventure of leaving what you know for what you don't without much more than what's in your pockets.

Y'all. It's just about the most beautiful thing I've ever read. And I don't mean beautiful pretty. I mean lyrical, transcendental, haunting.

"Gift From the Sea" by Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
This book was a wonderful gift from a wonderful woman who, for a very short period, took me under her wing. Lindbergh (yes, that Lindbergh -- who's husband was a wealthy aviator and whose baby was tragically kidnapped) was in her own right a very gifted author. "Gift From the Sea" is a collection of beautiful meditations -- using the ocean and its shells as her muse -- about what it means to be a woman at different stages in life.

After I read this and marked it up a bit, I gave it to my mother who made notations of her own and then returned it. What a treasure.

Just plain good stories:
I could go on forevuh here, so I'll just list three.

"Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier.
This is one of the best books I've read in the past six years. (Yes, I saw the movie and liked it too.) What I love most about it is how the main female character, Ada, makes the journey from a smart, pretty, genteel, useless woman who can't even stand up to the yard rooster to a person of internal fortitude and strength. At the same time, the hero's journey homeward is very "Odyssey" like. It's some of the best prose writing you'll ever come across and just a beautiful story.

"Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon.
It's hard to categorize this book (the first in a series, but it can be read alone). It's got all the elements that make my reading heart happy: a smart, wisecracking heroine; a strong, good-hearted hero, an epic setting, terrific, realistic writing, a gripping storyline, adventure, romance (though it's not A Romance), tragedy, triumph. Gooood stuff.

"Redeeming Love" by Francine Rivers.
You get a group of women together, mention this book and STAND BACK. There will be exclamations and exhortations. And if someone in the group hasn't read it yet, well, buckle up. I'm sure not everyone who reads it loves it, but I'd bet at least 90 percent do. Now, it is "Christian fiction," and I'm not a big fan of the genre. (Don't hurt me.) But this book stands on it own as a work of literature. It will also make you say, "Man. God loves me that much? Really?" One warning: The prologue, in which we learn exactly why the main character is so screwed up, is a downer. It's a necessary setup however, and the book takes off with chapter one. I read until 5 in the morning. It's that good.

Christian literature that has recently rocked my world:

"Velvet Elvis" by Rob Bell.
Weird title. Fabulous discussion on what this Walk With Jesus thing is and what it should be or could be. It stretched me. It made my faith bigger. I wish all my non-Christian friends would read this and "Blue Like Jazz" so that, at the very least, they could better get what this faith thing is all about for me -- and a lot of other Christians who don't fit the Pat Buchanan mold.

"Blue Like Jazz" by Donald Miller.
This is a quirky memoir of one man's growth as a person of faith. One of the many things I love is that it gives "permission," if you will, to love Jesus and still -- gasp -- have a beer and be a Democrat. (I prefer wine and I'm not a fan of either party these days, but that's not the point.)

"Always Enough" by Roland and Heidi Baker.
Here's the story of two missionaries who took that Great Commission thing very seriously. They went out to the poorest of the poor to bring them help and hope. The amazing story they have to tell (and are still telling) took my breath away.

And one more:
"Sheet Music" by Kevin Leman
Leman is a Christian author and psychologist who has mostly written about child-raising issues. But this book is all about sexual intimacy in marriage. I hesitate to list it because 1) I don't want people thinking, "Oh, she and her husband needed help." Or, "Oh, she's a pervert." Neither is true (I hope). I give "Sheet Music" to engaged couples about a week before the wedding, and at least one new bride has made a point of pulling me aside to say, "Thank you." Now, this isn't your typical Christian-author sex book (though I've only read one other and that was right before my own wedding). It's very frank. There are no euphemisms. He's no-nonsense about saying: Generally speaking, here are a woman's sexual needs and here are a man's and here's what makes a sexually happy couple. I think in the church and even amongst ourselves, we're too shy about this subject and a lot of couples suffer. That's my two cents.

Assuming anyone is still with me at this point, I'd love to read your comments about what your favorite books are and why. And if you think I'm way off base with one of my picks, tell me. After all, I don't mind telling Sarah she's nuts to like "Silas Marner." ;-)


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The me and the me I wanna be

After my last post, I've been at a bit of a loss. A couple of things have thrown me. First, it took every bit of a week for me to really recover my equilibrium from the Guatemala trip. Not that I did any mountain climbing there, but there were a lot of late nights and early mornings bookending emotionally exhausting days.

What seems also to have stalled me in my post-writing tracks are some of the seriously nice things people have written in the comments section. This is a paradox even to me, since I really love getting comments (it's not entirely about ego). Yet frequently when I write about God-y things in my life, people respond with the kind of accolades that make me wiggle a bit uncomfortably in my seat.

You know how the Apostle Paul was fond of calling himself the worst of sinners, etc? Well, even as I read that, I figure he had to be aware, at least on some level, that he was The Apostle Paul, aka God Actually Spoke to Me During a Road Trip; Author of Most of What-Would-Be The New Testament; Early Leader of A Little Movement We Like to Call Christianity.

I mean, come on. He knew he was the man.

So, to clarify, when I say I'm really not worthy of some of the praise thrown my way, I'm not saying this in a Paul kinda way. Nor am I suggesting I'm literally the worst of sinners. First of all, I'm not settled on whether or not there's a sin hierarchy. There's that whole a-sin-is-a-sin thing, which still perplexes me somewhat. While all sin separates us from God, I'd rather Roy lose his patience after a long day (a sin) than have him operate an international drug cartel from his garage office (a sin).

I just feel that, while I'm not selling pot to Girl Scouts or dressing up like a Dixie Chick for Halloween, I should state for the record that in some of my more personal, faith-oriented posts, I'm presenting the best of me. Not fake me, but certainly not the way I am all the time. I'm writing about the me I want to be when I grow up. The me God wants me to be. The me I tend to be in starts and fits.

I've clearly shared more about the starts and not so much the fits. For balance, I submit forthwith, a few of my shortcomings fit for public consumption:

Though I come from a fine tradition of Southern-style cooks, I really hate spending time in the kitchen. I do it because it's necessary. But the redundancy of mealtime, for me, is like standing on the shore and watching wave after wave after wave after wave after wave rushing up at me. (Paradoxically, I do love the fellowship that takes place over a meal and consequently enjoy having people over for dinner parties.) No doubt, because of my limited mealtime offerings, neither of my kids are great eaters, and Connor especially has culinary preferences ranging from A to A-and-a-half.

I also suffer from playtime elitism. I adore my children. I like going places with them (except restaurants). I like talking to them. I like walks and chasing them in circles around the house for the purpose of scaring them into muscle limpness. I like swimming and dancing with them and roughhousing a bit. But I really don't like kid board games or coloring. And there's only so much time I can tolerate being the horsy. Or roll playing as the customer in the world's most bizarre restaurant. A few minutes of that type of play and I'm disengaging, no matter how pathetically they implore.

And now Madeline and I have ventured into the lovely mother-daughter experience known as homework time, which involves crying jags (hers, not mine ... yet) and dialogue such as:

Me: Sound out the word, please, Madeline.
Madeline: But the teacher said I am supposed to read it to you.
Me: Yes, but you're just looking at the picture to know what the word is. I want you to sound it out for me.
Madeline (throwing her head back against the pillow, cupping her face in both hands and groaning): I am reading it.
Me (voice rising): Sound. It. Out. If you would obey me and have a better attitude, we'd already be done and this wouldn't be so painful.
Madeline: It is painful!

To which I could only silently agree. I have all the respect in the world for parents who do a good job of homeschooling. Clearly, though, when God looked down from the dawn of time, saw Madeline and devised plans to prosper her, they did not involve being homeschooled by her mother. Because when I get frustrated, I tend to react in a way that ratchets up the tension for everyone. And I don't care if you're five. I'm taking you down with me.

Here's another thing -- and I am being honest here -- ignorant people really irritate me. I know God loves them and I'm supposed to love them. When I ask God to help me be Jesus for anyone in need, I know that includes ignoramuses. But it is just so hard to to be Jesus to people who irritate the fire out of me. (And, yes, I'm being a bit on the dramatic side here, but this is obviously a real area of pridefulness in my life that isn't pleasing to God ... or me for that matter.)

I also find that after meaningful times of spiritual growth, I tend to almost immediately afterward behave poorly. I'm grumpy. I fall out of good habits. I start praying less. It's ridiculous. I'm sure God gets tired of it. I know I do.

God: If you'd just obey me and have a better attitude, this wouldn't have to be so painful.
Me: It is painful!


Sunday, August 27, 2006

There and back again

I returned from Guatemala yesterday afternoon. It was an exhausting and exhilarating adventure. I made new friends and tried to comfort those in need. I messed up and got frustrated. I held babies and wiped tears and laughed. I tried to ignore mess and stink. I saw beautiful children and was amazed they have been tossed aside. I saw people grow right before my eyes.

Once again, I'm grateful for the expansion of my faith, and I'm sore -- physically and emotionally -- in the aftermath. I'm not sure I yet have the energy to wrap my mind around the experience and offer it up for others to digest. So, instead, I'll share something I've already written.

First, though, a brief explanation: There were 14 of us in our group. We traveled with the assistance of Buckner Orphan Care International. Most of the group members are employees of Red Dot Steel Buildings. Some of us, like me, are connected to Red Dot through our husbands. Amazingly, the company's leadership regularly sends its employees on mission trips where it funds improvements at orphanages in several countries. They also look for places to do good works right here at home. Can you imagine what the world would be like if more businesses cared so much about people?

Nearing the end of our trip, I sat in the dim light of our hotel room, the veranda doors letting in a cool breeze behind me. And I wrote.


Hello, husband. I write this late Thursday night. Today has been quite a day. I’m sitting here trying to think of how to describe it, and the only words that come to mind are mountaintop and valley. I saw both today; I suspect most of us did.

Melissa spoke to the group early in the week about us being the body of Christ – how we are individually his hands, feet or eyes; his mouth, legs or arms. We all have different functions within the body, none being more important. I really saw that today. I thought about the men, spending most of their time here on hands and knees, bent over tile – cutting it, laying it, grouting it, cleaning it. What wonderful work.

Near the end of our time today, Melinda and Valerie and Renee and Leanna spent a long time struggling to get photos of the girls printed out to put in picture frames. The going was slow and frustrating; the room they were in was crowded and warm. It must not have felt rewarding or even worthwhile at times; and yet they were doing their best to have just one more thing to leave behind.

The last time I came to Antigua, what I prayed was that God would break my heart for the children I encountered. As you know, he did that. This time, my prayer was (and still is) that Christ’s love for these children could be seen through me. Specifically, that at some point, when they looked at me, they would see his face.

When we returned from Manchin today, I wanted to write you an email, but not having access, I wrote this in my journal:

Thursday, 8-24-06

I just returned from our last afternoon at Manchin. Sitting in the airport Saturday, before leaving, I read through some scripture. One of them was Ezekiel 26:25: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.”

When I read that, the Holy Spirit convicted me that we should have a baptismal ceremony for these girls. We had been told several of them had made professions of faith. Some I know about personally from the trip in January. An attempt had been made previously to have baptisms at Manchin, and we were refused. But God laid it on my heart: Try again.

So this morning we decided, one way or the other, it was going to happen. We arranged for a large bucket of water to be placed on a concrete slab in the courtyard. Along with that was a smaller container.

In our Bible time, Melissa and I explained sin and God’s desire for our salvation, and about how baptism – though it is not necessary for salvation – is a symbol of God washing away our sins. And how he desires us to experience baptism. Robyn and Phaedra shared the same thing in their classes.

In crafts, Leanna & Melinda and Renee & Valerie had the girls make salvation bracelets, explaining how the colors represent our spiritual walk from sin to an eternity with God.

We explained in our Bible classes that after we were done, we would be gathering in the courtyard for all those who had made professions of faith in the past and felt led to be baptized (there were no new professions that I know of). Roughly 20 girls gathered in a circle around the water bucket. We explained that this act should be purely personal and not for anyone else's benefit.

Then, one by one, they walked to the center. Robyn stood on one side with her hands on the girl; sometimes Phaedra and later Melissa stood on the other side. Francisco, our wonderful 17-year-old interpreter, stood just behind her and translated. As girl after girl came forward, I was so blessed to be able to lay my hand on her shoulder or over her heart and speak God’s message: “I baptize you, my sister, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. God says, ‘I will pour clean water on you, and you will be clean.'"

As Francisco finished translating God’s blessing on each girl, she lowered her head, and I poured water over it. Sometimes, when one of them particularly special to Robyn or to me walked up, we would speak more words of love.
Robyn hugged them and kissed them as they returned to the circle and the next girl came to the center.

It was miraculous. An incredible blessing. Some of those girls had such beautiful emotion on their faces. They understood what was happening. With some I could feel their hearts pounding under my hand.

It had been a tough day up to this point. We had to battle for their attention. Several slept. Two had seizures – one in the middle of Melissa explaining how important it is to grow in the knowledge of the Lord. We were beset.

But God, oh, how he shined. How he blessed us.

Praise God. Praise him.


You know, Roy, there’s something else. One of those girls, as I was speaking God’s blessing over her, she looked right into my eyes. And I swear, at that moment, I know she wasn’t seeing me. She was seeing Jesus. As much as you love me (thank goodness), you know I’m not worthy of that kind of blessing. No one is. But in our weakness, he is made great. If he can do that in me, he can do that in anyone.

See you soon, dearheart. Kiss the babies.


And that was that. To those of you who lifted us up in your prayers: Thank you. It was good. God is good.


Saturday, August 19, 2006

A broad in Guatemala

It usually takes me a week or so to feel prepared to write a post. Those of you who on a daily or nearly daily basis offer up funny, pithy, witty or thoughtful musings amaze me. I'm not creative enough, or prolific enough or -- I should just face it -- disciplined enough to do that ... unless you want to hear what my kids say every day.

Or I could start posting parenting advice. Here's what I told a friend yesterday. She was upset with herself because she had had such a difficult time with her children the night before, she ended up telling them to "go to bed now!" Then told the youngest, very firmly, to brush. his. teeth. Now.

He ended up in tears, telling her he was "afraid" of her, afraid she was going to scream at him. My friend was guilt-ridden.

So I counseled her that she needed to begin yelling at her children on a regular basis. That way, it would no longer be a traumatic experience for them when yelling commenced. Problem solved.


So perhaps you begin to grasp how I need to carefully screen my ideas before posting. This post, however, shall be an exception. It's a Hail Mary pass.

I'm leaving for Guatemala in a few hours. I'll be spending most of the week in Antigua at a teenaged girls orphanage -- Manchin. There will also be visits to a small children's orphanage and a boy's orphanage.

I spent a week at Manchin in January. It was a spiritual-high experience. But this time I feel totally unprepared. Because I am. I've asked God to forgive me for my lack of discipline in preparing. I'm asking him to use me anyway, and he's proven time and again he's capable of doing amazing things with my sorry butt. (Slimming would not be one of them, unfortunately.)

I would covet the prayers of any of you so inclined. I am praying those of us on the trip will be smack-dab in the center of God's will for these children and anyone else we encounter. You know: whoever the One is. They are the disenfranchised. The forgotten. The cast off. They are hungry for love. I want to give them my love. But I can't stay with them, and my love is not sufficient anyway. God's love is sufficient. That's what I want them to grasp. Please pray for that.

I'll post when I get back -- probably next Sunday. So many of you have become so precious to me. Thank you for that blessing.


Monday, August 14, 2006

From fourth grade to Beaver's Bend

My earliest memory of Janet is on a basketball court. We were both in elementary school, but attended different campuses. (South, West, Bel Air's the best!) We ended up playing Little Dribblers together. She was tall like me. But, unlike me, she was good at the game. She already knew about bouncing the ball. Janet's dad was our coach. I don't remember much about that time, except her dad was nice, and Janet dominated the court.

I probably wouldn't remember that short season at all were it not for the fact that a year or two later, in fourth grade, Janet would re-enter my life in a significant way. During the in-between time, her family had moved away, her nice dad had died, and she had moved back to Athens. Our teacher told us Janet would be joining our class. We should be nice to her.

It was never any trouble being nice to Janet. I remember saying hello to her when she returned. She tells me I reminded her then of Tigger. I think she's referring to Tigger's hyperactive bounciness. It wasn't until our freshman year in high school that Janet became "JT" to me, a kindred spirit. A sister.

The same fourth-grade year that Janet joined our merry gang (we were a so-called gifted class and wasted no time dubbing ourselves the "The Nerd Herd"), I also got to know Joye. Joye was one of those girls. You know the type: Pretty. Kind. Sparkling smile. Blond. Did I mention kind? Yeah, that's the part that really gets you. You can't even dislike her for all the other stuff, like being pretty and blond and sparkly.

Oh, and she was also really smart. I mean really. She was reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in junior high. And didn't even tell anyone. Who, who reads Dostoevsky without telling people? Seriously, if I ever get to the end of "Crime and Punishment," I'm sending out embossed announcements.

So around about high school, I figured out Joye was a keeper. A life friend. A sister.

At different times, Joye and Janet and I roomed together in college. We got married, had kids. Traveled. Got jobs. Had more kids. Quit jobs. And the whole time I've tried to hang on to both of them. It hasn't always been easy. We've lived in different states, and I'm not a good phone caller or frequent flyer. Somehow, though, we managed to keep the connection. There's nothing -- nothing -- in the world like girlfriends. I figured that one out even as a naive teen. I know myself well enough to be aware I don't collect good friends easily. It takes years. Decades even. And the older I get, the slower I am. So when it happens, I don't let go.

An amazing thing happened, too. The men we picked to marry? Well, they like each other. A lot. And our kids like each other too. So a few summers ago, Joye and Matt and Roy and I got to talking and decided we'd get together for a long weekend in a cabin near Beaver's Bend, Oklahoma. It was fun. I mean staying-up-late, stupid-laughing fun. So we did it again. More fun! And this year, since Janet and Wade decided it was time to return to this part of the country, they were able to join us.

So two weekends ago, there we were: in a huge cabin, overlooking beautiful land: Roy & Toni & Madeline & Connor; Matt & Joye & Emily & Claire & Garrett (and Emily's friend Gabby); and Wade & Janet & Austin & Jackson & Anna Grace.

Sounds like a bit of a madhouse, doesn't it? It was. A really loud, busy, incredibly delightful madhouse. And when we finally got all the kids to bed at night, we stayed up talking and playing games and drinking wine and eating well and laughing and laughing and laughing. I'm positive that type of thing pleases God. It's no accident so many of the Jesus narratives take place while he's at a festival or a dinner guest at someone's house. We're wired for fellowship. It feeds our souls.

Our last full day, we rented a pontoon boat and motored out into the crystalline water under a perfectly blue sky. Eventually, we killed the motor and floated to an undulating almost-stop. The desire to jump in was so great I didn't bother fighting it. I swam back and pulled in Austin. Then almost everyone else, acting in a singular motion, flung themselves up and out. Screaming, splashing, laughing.

That time was pure joy. The children were thrilled and we adult-types no less so. It was beautiful, and we held onto it until finally, a few hours later, rain pushed us to shore.

I think about how different things could be, if one of us -- Joye or Janet or I -- had let go of the other. I think about what we could have missed. But we didn't. We held on. And we make life beautiful for each other.


JT's in the center; Joye's on the right. She's not blond anymore, but she's still sparkly.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

It burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame

I was 19 when I met Roy. He was 24. I walked into a crowded, loud Chewy's restaurant in Austin, Texas, and spotted him standing near the door with a mutual friend. I noticed him right away. Noticed him the way a woman notices a man she will think about for a while. Noticed him in a way that drew my eyes toward him even when he wasn't speaking.

I was smitten.

He had longish hair and dark-green eyes with smile lines (already?) at their corners. He wore a worn-out leather bomber jacket and a couple of small hoop earrings. We were introduced, of course, but I don't remember that part. I remember how he stood there, handsome and somehow serious and pleased at the same time.

There were several people in our party, many strangers brought together by mutual friends. We got to know one another in short time across our long table. I learned Roy's mind was sharp and his laugh quick. I learned he spent four years in the Presidential Honor Guard. I learned he was studying archeology.

During the give and flow of talk, the conversation moved away from us, and I used the diversion, under hooded eyes, to peer across the table and study his face. What I saw was him looking at me. I'll never forget the almost literal shock of that moment.

That was when I learned the best, the most wonderful thing of all: He was smitten too.

After that evening a courtship of letters began. We attended different universities, so he wooed me, from a distance, with his words. He couldn't have known then how much I loved language, how I adored seeing the depth of a mind pour itself onto a page. So when his letters arrived, full of self-disclosure and humor and romantic pursuit, I felt joy.

We were engaged a year later. Nine months after that, we married and finished college, together finally, at the same university.

A friend once told me he thought it was a little sad, really, the idea of someone being with only one other person -- only having loved that person, only having been intimate with that person, only partnering with that person.

And if someone's that person isn't the right person, well it can be sad.

At the beginning of our courtship, I couldn't have imagined how good life with this man would be. At the beginning of our marriage, I couldn't have imagined how the roots of a love fertilized by friendship and devotion and passion could seize me in such a way that I can't imagine, even for a second, turning my back on it. I've learned, when marriage is right, it does, it truly does get better.

When I met him, at 24, I didn't foresee celebrating his 40th birthday -- today -- with him.

I could fill pages with the things my husband does that make me love him more -- playing with the children, seeking me out for a kiss and a hug in the middle of a busy day, cleaning the kitchen while I bathe the children, endless back rubs, his love of books and learning, his compassionate heart, his artistic skill.

But what it all comes down to is his realization that love, that love (raya, ahava, dode) is not a feeling one simply enjoys as long as it lasts. Love is a decision, a constant series of decisions one must make. He decides to forgive me when I'm churlish. He decides to encourage me. He decides to help me, even when he's tired. He decides to spend time with me and talk with me and seek me out. He decides, every day, to love me.

How then could I not love him back?


Friday, July 28, 2006

Welcome to my fixer-upper

For the five people in the blogging universe who don't read Boomama's site, here's the deal: She invited everyone to take photos of their homes and then link to her Tour of Homes post. The idea is that those of us who have been reading each other's blogs for a while can get a better idea of what it's like in each other's real lives.

So here we go. First let me explain Roy and I have owned for lo these six years, a Fixer-Upper. We got a lot done the first couple of years, then what with kids and jobs and my general aversion to painting, things slowed way down. Until recently. Roy's been working on our garage. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Here's a view from the street. Perhaps I shouldn't include a street-view shot of the house for fear of ninjas lying in wait, but I've lived in this town long enough, if someone really wants to know where I live, they can ask the lady at the grocery store. I'll just have to trust if someone comes here with evil intent, they will know what Jonathan Edwards meant when he referred to sinners in the hands of an angry God. And, yes, the grass needs cutting. And there's something resembling a partial, dried-out mote near the front door. Eventually (Mr. Man promises me) there will be a covered veranda there.

Living room/dining room.

Uhm. Kitchen. Don't really know what to say. It's no showplace now, but you should have seen it when we bought the place. Yech.

I love going into someone's house and checking out their refrigerator. Refrigerators and bookshelves say a lot about people. So what does this one say about us? Well, that's me in the blue dress with a very dear friend. I'm about six months pregnant with Madeline. That's a bottle of champagne in my hand and a cigar in my mouth. I didn't drink any; I didn't smoke it. But I love the picture. Below that (next to me in the WW I biplane) is Roy with his best friend; Roy's face is partially obscured by cigar smoke. He wasn't pregnant (and he rarely indulges anyway). The magnets are from England, New York, D.C. and Luckenbach, Texas. One of my favorites is a gift from Elise. It's a Davy Crockett quote: "You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas." Perhaps not the warmest sentiment (hell notwithstanding), but if I'm going to be generally reviled for being a Texan, I may as well earn it.

Bedroom/office/blogging central. At the opposite end of the room, are the built-in bookshelves and window seat Roy built. Mad and Connor have their own rooms, but I figured I'd better draw the line somewhere with all these pictures. You might notice our windows aren't framed-out (same with the windows behind the living room sofa). They used to be, but we recently had most of our windows replaced, and that's work still to be done. The joys of a house built in the '30s.

OK. I mentioned Roy is working on the garage, which is connected to the back side of our house by a screened-in porch (a MUST here in Texas). He's resided/painted half of it.

So that's about it. Thanks for stopping by.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

The proposal and the condition

When Roy asked me to marry him, we were on a mostly deserted stretch of Florida beach. We had traveled there together during our respective spring breaks. It was chilly, but not that chilly, so I wondered why he chose to wear his jacket for our walk along the dunes.

The mystery was solved when he dropped to one knee near a stand of swaying beach grass and pulled a small jewelry box out of the jacket. He was as serious as I had ever seen him when he proposed.

Of course, I said yes. Whispered yes. Yelled yes. Became yes. And we kissed and were generally exuberant the way couples are supposed to be at that moment. Well, except my parents. Story goes that when my dad asked my mom to marry him, she started laughing -- the way we women will sometimes do. Apparently Dad hadn't read the happiness-plus-momentous-occasion-sometimes-triggers-bizarre-fits-of-laughter memo. So he thought she was laughing at The Question, which was not the response he hoped for. Fortunately, they got it sorted out in less time than it would take on an episode of "Friends."

So there we are, Roy and I, walking along the surf, full of the promise of the future and our lives together. And it occurs to me that, Hey! I'm going to Ireland when I graduate. I mean I had been planning to see Ireland, live in Ireland since I was in the fifth grade and wrote off to the Irish Embassy for all the free stuff they could stuff in an envelope and send to Athens, Texas.

And Europe. I was traveling Europe. I was SEEING THE WORLD, you understand, Mister? And if we're gonna get married, you're gonna have to come with me. 'Cause that's where I'm goin'.

To which, he replied, "Sure." Roy had already seen a pretty wide swath of the acreage on the other side of the Atlantic, and he was more than happy to see it again with me.

And that's what we did. We graduated together, obtained student work visas for Ireland and the UK, spent four months after graduation saving up funds (and living with my parents; God bless 'em), and then we showed up in Dublin without jobs or a place to live.

It was a grand adventure.

To be continued ...