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!