Monday, November 05, 2007

Hello, old friend

This morning, I met Fall. Driving back to the house from dropping off my son, I crested the hill of a busy residential street. Just then a gust of wind shook the limbs of the trees overhead, causing a patchwork quilt of yellow leaves and blue sky to be shaken out before me.

I've been waiting. Fall here in East Texas is not often remarkable. We do have the occasional turn of spectacular fall color, but most years the surrender from summer to winter is marked by an unobtrusive passage from green, to pale green to yellow to lawn carpet, with patches of red thrown in.

While there's nothing much for leaf looky-loos to get excited about, I have come each year to anticipate the leaf showers. Around our house, particularly in the back yard, and lining some of my favorite well-traveled back roads, are elm trees. I love the shape of these trees. They form a graceful umbrella canopy, with narrow limbs hanging down here and there like wayward tendrils of hair. When the wind blows, the trees sway gently. The movement mesmerizes me on the too-rare occasions when I stop, still and watch.

Seeing those leaves swirl up over the hood of the car this morning, bouncing against my windshield made me smile. It's not cool enough to require a jacket this morning, but autumn has made its entrance.

Once I arrived home, I walked out under one of the big elm trees, looking up as gusts of wind brought the leaves down around me like a light fall of snow. Just above, patches of white clouds streaked so quickly across the blue sky, it was as though everything outside the graceful, downward arc of leaves moved in fast motion. Within: peace. Without: the world.

I didn't pray, not consciously. But it occurs to me now I was obeying one of the commands I too often ignore.

Be still and know that I am God.


Sunday, July 01, 2007

Call me Ptomaine Toni

About six weeks ago, I decided it was time to lose some weight. The catalyst for my decision came in the form of an old pair of shorts. Actually, it wasn't the shorts as much as it was the zipper ... and its reluctance to zip. That. was. it. I started the South Beach Diet the next day. Roy joined me, which made the whole thing easier. Although the word "easy" is perhaps misleading.

South Beach was developed by a cardiologist for his patients and spread by word-of-mouth until he eventually wrote a book that has sold a gabillion copies (give or take 12). Phase 1 of the diet lasts two weeks and is pretty strict: no pasta, bread, juice, fruit, corn, peas or alcohol. Other than the pretty hardy breakfasts and fish allowed, you might as well pack yourself into a cardboard box full of lettuce and sugar-free Jell-O and eat yourself out in 14 days.

Phase 1, for all its restrictions, worked like gangbusters. But not before, in the first few days, I felt hungry enough to suck the toothpaste right out of the tube, not before I got so SICK of grilled chicken salad I couldn't bear the sight of a freshly mowed lawn. But because Roy and I were doing it together and because it became a matter of pride for me, I stuck with it.

About four days into it, I was throwing dinner together in a hurry, trying to get things on the table before Roy had curtain call. (My renaissance man was in the local production of "To Kill a Mockingbird.") I grabbed a bowl, marinated and seasoned several chicken breasts, popped the chicken in the oven, heated some green beans (minus a dab of bacon grease. sigh.), sliced and diced for the salad and washed up a few dishes. Roy was running out of time, so I went ahead and threw the salad together and sat with him to eat while the kids played. He left. I set the table for the kids, got the chicken out, told the kids to wash up and put dishes in the sink.

That's when I grabbed the salad bowl. The perfectly empty, spotless salad bowl. I stared into it, at the tiny oval reflection of the overhead light, the one covered in asymmetrical yellow daisies painted there by my grandmother. I stared stupidly, as if by not moving, I could alter the reality that I had served salad in the same bowl used to prepare raw poultry.

My response was a cross between panic and self-rage, with liberal use of a word rhyming with shmum-ash. I called Roy at the theatre to let him know if at some point in the second act he began to feel a little queasy, it likely wasn't nerves, but the first twinge of a horrible bout of food-poisoning that might have both of us curled in the fetal position with our faces pressed against the cool, cool bathroom tile.

Rather than acknowledge the fact that he had, sadly, married a shmum-ash, he assured me it would be just fine. That the bacteria from the uncooked chicken surely wouldn't be a problem. I responded by lovingly assuring him that, no, we were both about to die, thank you very much, and I'm pretty sure Harper Lee never envisioned Boo Radley projectile vomiting on Atticus.

The only silver lining was that, thankfully, the children hadn't eaten the salad.

About half-an-hour later, my friend Cathy pulled up. Her children were in the play, and she had heard from Roy about our impending date with acute gastro-intestinal cleansing. She pulled a bag out of her car and explained that her family used some products that might be very helpful to us. Out of the bag she pulled items I'm pretty sure even Whole Foods doesn't carry: a 32-ounce bottle of Liquid Chlorophyll; another of Whole Leaf Aloe Vera and a little squeeze bottle of Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE). The GSE is a "bit tart," Cathy warned and would be more palatable mixed with fruit juice. I didn't bother explaining fruit juice was a Phase 1 no-no. With a few directions, she left me with the sack, on her way to deliver one large Chlorophyll/Aloe/GSE cocktail to Roy at the theatre.

Now, look. I don't particularly like green vegetables. I eat green beans because I know they're good for me. I eat asparagus and steamed broccoli, as long as it's smothered in butter. I don't care for much else green. So standing over my sink holding a white bottle of Liquid Chlorophyll stained green around its lid was similar to that moment right before the technician yanks the wax off.

The prospect of food poisoning, however, was sufficient motivation for me to dutifully mix a teaspoonful of chlorophyll into eight ounces of water. The smell isn't actually that bad. It's rather minty.

The smell lies. If you've shockingly never enjoyed a glass of chlorophyll, imagine gathering two large handfuls of grass clippings from your yard. Grab a few pine needles if they're handy and four or fives leaves from any available shrub. Place your harvest into the blender, add a little water and, voila!

If you don't remember your science that well, chlorophyll is the green pigment in plants that helps out with photosynthesis. According to Nature's Sunshine Products, Inc., it's also useful as a digestive tract detoxifier and supports intestinal health. I clung to that bit of propaganda as green water dripped down my gulping throat.

Next: Whole Leaf Aloe Vera. This time I mixed an ounce with water. The bottle assured me I was in for a "refreshing and pleasant tasting vegetable juice drink" which would be "intensely cleansing."

Refreshing and pleasant my ash. It tastes precisely how one might imagine it would if you broke a leaf off your aloe plant, jammed in a straw and sucked. Except maybe not that good.

I just managed to fight back the gag reflex, reminding myself what I was drinking would combat the bacteria in my digestive system. Fortified by that thought, I proceeded to put several drops of the grapefruit seed extract containing Citricidal into a third glass of water and knocked it back.

I like grapefruits fine, cut open and served with a sprinkling of sugar. I have nothing against grapefruit. But this stuff was so intensely tart that hours later I could still taste it on the back of my throat like a sour paste. I couldn't finish this drink all in one take, stopping to stomp, slap my hand on the counter and gasp.

A couple of hours later I repeated the process. The good news is, neither Roy nor I were ever sick. I can't say whether we just got lucky or the stuff we took really lived up to its billing. Either way, we were very, very fortunate -- if you call eating Salmonella Salad with a chaser of Liquid Plant fortunate.

In this case, I suppose the glass of liquid chlorophyll was half full.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The getaway

I called Erin the other day to find out how long a hickey takes to fade. She said she wouldn't know, which I find hard to believe since -- hello! -- she has four kids.

The sad thing is said blemish wasn't a result of marital congress. I was grooming and unintentionally pinched the skin on my neck. Sounds implausible, I know. But I have the kind of skin that will redden up for half-an-hour when I scratch it too hard. It makes mosquito season a cornucopia of joy. (Mosquito season in East Texas runs from February to December.)

Anyway, the next morning when I finally got around to looking at myself in the mirror -- well after I'd dropped Madeline off at school -- I saw the telltale mark of any saucy tart worth her salt. (Angry comments from offended saucy tarts will be forwarded to the John McCain for President website. I don't know why. It will just amuse me.)

Erin didn't even believe my story at first, which indicates my inner saucy tart might be showing. This is probably the result of a recent getaway weekend with my husband. About two years ago we pledged to make it a priority to get away by ourselves for a couple of nights about every four months. Oh, my. I still vividly recall about 12 hours into our first getaway thinking, Yes! I remember us being this way. ... why did we have kids? Oh, yeah. We love and want them. They're wonderful. That, uh, what's her name ... Madeline! Yes, Madeline. She's the smartest most precocious child and her brother ... uhm ... her brother ... two years younger, blond. Connor! Yep, Connor. He's so funny. Great kids. Great, great kids. Honey, could you get me another mojito?

Seriously, I cannot say enough about the importance of getting away with your spouse for some alone time on a regular basis -- even if it's just a standing date night. It's marvelous for boosting intimacy, energy and generosity in the most crucial relationship in your family.

But even as I preach this, we don't always find it easy to make arrangements to get away for a long weekend. In fact, this last occasion was the first time we'd done so in nine months. Nine. long. months. As is our custom, we stayed at the Hyatt Regency (think the giant, lit ball above the Dallas skyline). While Roy parked, I went ahead to check in, full of the joy that accompanies the beginning of a much-anticipated trip. I strode up to the counter before a young woman with a friendly face.

"Hello," I said. "I have reservations for two."

She pulled up my name. "Yes, Mrs. Clay. I see you've already paid. I'll just need your credit card for any additional charges."

I gave it to her and she clicked away on her keyboard, finally pulling out two card keys. "I have you in a non-smoking room on the fifth floor with two double beds." She extended the cards toward me.

I stood there a moment, not moving, letting the words "two double beds" echo through my mind. This is what happens when you book through Priceline. They put you in a room low enough to hear the noise from the usually-loud open-to-the-top lobby with TWO DOUBLE BEDS. I don't want TWO DOUBLE BEDS. I want a giganta bed. I want a bed that screams This Way to Marital Congress! Or something like that.

I glanced at her nametag. "Jaymee," I said, my deep voice taking on perhaps a hint of controlled hysteria, "I don't think that room will do. I don't think two double beds will do."

I leaned in a bit. "Jaymee, I have two young children. My husband and I are spending our first weekend together, away from them" -- I spoke slowly -- "in nine months." Another beat. "They are six and four."

She stared at me. I lifted an eyebrow.

"OK, Mrs. Clay," she clicked on her keyboard again, "I have you in a non-smoking room with a king-size bed on the 25th floor with a city view. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

I smiled. "Jaymee, you rock."

About an hour-and-a-half later someone knocked on our door. Roy and I looked at each other. The kind of looks that said, "Why is there someone knocking on our hotel door and can this be good?" After a bit of scrambling, Roy opened it. I could hear a woman's voice but not make out the words.

When the door closed, he walked around the corner, grinning, with a bottle of champagne, a cork and two wine glasses. There was also a note signed by every member of the desk crew. The message said, "We hope you enjoy your stay here."

And we did. Yes, we did.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Upon having returned from Sam Hill

I would say I'm back, but that would be pretty presumptuous considering not more than a handful of people care one way or the other whether I blog. And of that handful, fully half primarily visit this site for its links to bloggers who have a habit of actually posting.

I can't say precisely why I checked out of Blog World. By checked out, I mean not writing or reading any posts. My sister-friend JT would tell me when a particularly funny post somewhere cracked her up, like BigMama's encounter with a rude pedicurist. (Ironically, JT started blog reading because I kept sending her links insisting You Must Read This.)

And My Friend Erin With Four Kids keeps me up-to-date on major events in the lives of bloggy people she knows I care about. For good measure, she also lets me know when other bloggers -- those I hadn't gotten to know -- are going through tragedy. Erin is one of the most tender-hearted people I know, so she really goes there and digs in when others are hurting. She tells me I should read something because it's heartbreaking-but-inspiring writing. I usually don't read it, though, not if I wasn't already emotionally invested in that person's life on some level.

I ask myself why that is, and what comes to mind is ... an oyster. Sometimes I'm a mother hen (are they really that nurturing?) and other times I'm an oyster. A five-foot-eleven-inch oyster with freakishly long toes and a knuckle-popping habit. During, shall we say, the season of the oyster, when I get an intrusion of bad news that doesn't involve my immediate world, I protect myself by not examining it too closely. Instead, I begin to segregate it from the rest of my life, turning it over and over inside without letting it get imbedded too deeply. Present but separate.

The analogy breaks down, of course, when one considers this process in an actual oyster produces a pearl, while in me it produces ... uhm. I'll get back to you on that one. It also makes me less than exemplar in the arena of current events. Which is -- if I may use the word again -- ironic. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't ever get involved in the lives of strangers. I'm really not. But there are times, for better or worse, I'm compelled to tighten my focus considerably.

Look, I was a newspaper editor for seven years. Nearly every day I perused the Associated Press Wire, often reading the worst news I could imagine: children left in scorching cars to die, genocide, rape, abuse of power here and abroad. I went to the occasional murder scene where, once, people gathered in the street told me, "when you get angry enough, it just happens" as if I should understand why someone ends an argument with a gun.

When I left that job, which I loved, I traded in the 24-hour news cycle for the When-It-Really-Matters cycle. I felt like I had filled up on so much bad news in inverted-pyramid form, it would take at least seven more years to unload it. So I let my Newsweek subscription lapse. I don't watch Dateline or CNN. I read Slate online to keep abreast of the most major events. And, of course, my circle of friends keeps me grounded in the 21st century.

All that said, it wasn't because I was reading too much (or any) sad news that I took leave of Blog World. I think it's more because I developed a habit somewhere in the past two years of just stepping away from things from time to time.

Roy and I lived without television for most of the years of our marriage. We've had the cable hooked up for about a year or so now, and as much as I enjoy access to certain shows, I'm beginning to think we ought to disconnect again. I vegged out last night. Oh, sure it would take super-human strength not to watch the very first episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (her hair was brown! staked vampires didn't disintegrate immediately! Xander was thin!), but I should have just gone to bed. Then of course it was continued to the next episode, so I had to watch. Had. to. Then I felt guilty because I had put off reading my Bible. News flash: Zechariah at 1:30 in the morning isn't easy reading. My priorities aren't reflecting well in my time allotment.

I do the same thing with books. I love getting lost in fiction. But no doubt at lot of that time would be more wisely spent elsewhere. God is clearly telling me I need to step away from certain things, and in the process move closer to him.

Last night, when I groggily opened up to Zechariah, this opened my eyes wide: "Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Return to me,' declares the Lord Almighty, 'and I will return to you.'

It strikes me that it's all good and well to check out of reading or watching or blogging for a while, but if I'm not also in the process returning to him, it really doesn't matter.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

This old house

Colmesneil -- In the spring of 1955, a man named Woodrow Davis married a woman named Mildred Landrum, though no one called her Mildred. They called her Red.

The name hasn’t been self-explanatory in many years. Red's hair is nearly the color of milk glass. The freckles that once marched across her smooth, white skin have faded. But in my mind’s eye I easily see a head full of wavy, rebelliously red hair.

The day Red married Woodrow, she became the mother of three children: 14-year-old Jerrie, 12-year-old Jimmy and seven-year-old Brenda. Woodrow’s first wife had died five years earlier, when Brenda, my mother, was 13 months old.

Before the wedding, people asked Red if she was worried about inheriting three children. She told them she wasn’t.

When Red was around 19 years old, she had surgery. When she woke up from the anesthesia, the doctor sat at the end of her bed and said, “Now, you know, you’ll never have children.”

She loved children. The news was devastating. So when people asked Red if she was worried about becoming a mother to three children, the answer was easy: No. She was glad. Though the transition wasn't always easy.

Red had grown up in a sawmill town, Woodrow a few miles down the road in Mt. Carmel. They dated some in high school. He took her dancing. Then they drifted apart the way teenagers do.

When he was about 18, Woodrow met a girl in Ebenezer community, about nine miles down the road. Her name was Sadie Ruth Ellis. They fell in love, married and had children.

“You never met a better woman,” Red will say of Sadie Ruth. Everyone knew each other in the Deep Pineywoods of East Texas, when Sunday night dances were a dime and even that wasn't easy to come by.

Five years following Sadie Ruth’s sudden death, Red’s sister set her up on a date with Woodrow. He took her dancing. They both loved to dance.

“She was good,” laughs Woodrow. “I could hardly get a dance with her because everyone else wanted to.”

“Your Pappaw was a good dancer too,” she says with a serious nod.

After they were married about two years, Woodrow bought some land in Colmesneil and paid $7,000 to have a little wood-framed house built on it. But before the house could be built, the land had to be cleared.

There is a reason this part of Texas is called The Big Thicket. Red and Woodrow and Jimmy used a cross-cut saw, an ax, a shovel and a hoe to cut back a matted tangle of briars, chop down trees and dig out stumps. They tamed Mother Nature and eventually moved into the little white house on Highway 69.

Oftentimes after school, Jimmy and Brenda would sit at the table with Red and talk about their day. While they talked, Jimmy might drink a half-gallon of milk, courtesy of their dairy cow. The day they switched to store-bought milk, said Red, Jimmy quit drinking milk.

Over the years, Red and Woodrow expanded the house by taking in part of the front porch, adding on rooms, expanding the kitchen. Red’s azaleas climbed a pipe-framed tower in the side yard, and in the spring they still burst into a glory of color. Until recently, every summer Woodrow’s butterbean vines crawled so high up bamboo poles, an eight-foot ladder was required for harvesting. Once, a passing photographer spotted him in the garden, and a few months later Woodrow appeared in Texas Highways, perched atop the ladder, smiling from under the brim of his baseball cap with an outstrechted hand snapping off a butterbean. That picture hung in the kitchen, in a homemade frame, for years.

The picture isn’t there tonight. It’s in a box. The dining room table on which many an amazing meal was served isn’t here either. Nor are the chairs. Or the curio cabinet. The sofa is gone from the living room. The twin beds where my parents sleep during visits have been moved. There are a few chairs left, along with the TV, and a dropleaf table for meals from a depleted refrigerator. The master bed remains so Mammaw and Pappaw can spend a few more nights here while things are set up just a few miles away, in the comfortable little trailerhome behind Uncle Jimmy’s house and, nextdoor, Aunt Jerrie’s house. The double bed where I always sleep remains as well, perhaps because they knew I was coming.

I would have slept on the floor.

It’s not that there aren’t other homes here in Colmesneil where I’m welcome. Being a Davis in these parts means kinship in an enormous clan. But I would happily throw a pillow down in the living room and lay under an orange-yellow-and-brown crocheted afghan to be in this house one more night.
When I was very young, we came here on a visit. My memory of this particular visit begins with the house being full of people. Most of the people were relatives, but I didn’t know all their names. Several of them were crying, including my mother. So I backed into the utility room (“the freezer room,” Mammaw calls it) and started to cry myself.

That’s when Aunt Jerrie spotted me, my beautiful Aunt Jerrie. She was loud like my mom, like all the Davises. She laughed loud and talked loud and smiled a lot. But not this time. This time she was soft, and I felt better as soon as she spotted me.

“What’s wrong, baby?” she said, putting her hands under my arms and lifting me onto the freezer.

“Why is everybody crying?” I asked.

“Well, baby …” Her voice cracked. She gathered herself. “They’re just sad because Grandma died, and they loved her very much. But they’ll be OK. They just need to be sad for a little while.”

That moment on the freezer, in this house, I started to learn about life’s transiency. The lesson continues tonight.

Growing up, I spent at least a week every summer in Colmesneil, staying primarily at Mammaw and Pappaw’s house. My cousin Alex and I were inseperable as kids, and when we weren’t at Lake Tejas or at his parents’ house down the road, we were running in and out of Mammaw and Pappaw’s.

Mammaw would let us fill two bowls with Doritos, and we would lay in the living room floor, pulling out a chip at a time and comparing to see whose was covered with the most cheese. Then we’d argue about it. We stood out at the end of the driveway, and when the big rigs roared by, we’d pump our fists up and down so the drivers would blow their horns. When they did, we’d shout and jump for joy. We tromped through the woods in back of the barn where we’d imagine lurking hobos who’d hopped from passing trains. We created elaborate booby traps for the hobos, who somehow always evaded capture.

Most my memories in and around the house are loud ones. The Davises are a vocal bunch. I love how often our extended family gathered in the sitting area off the kitchen and laughed and argued about who had done what with whom, and just how long have they been crazy anyway?

I love that my own children have run through this house and played on the same swinging see-saw Alex and I enjoyed (even though it can pinch the bejeebers outta your leg). This is a wonderful place. And today, I swear, was the first day I consciously noticed the paint peeling on the garage in back. Today is the first day I realized just how many of the surrounding oak trees were felled by Hurricane Rita.

Red and Woodrow – my mammaw and pappaw – have lived here for 50 years, welcoming children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. He is 89. She will be in August. The fact that they’re still able to do for themselves is a blessing, even if an inordinate amount of grunting is required.

I do not equate losing this house with losing them. Wherever they are, I’ll go there and be glad to be with them.

A house is a house. But it isn’t just a house. This house has a familiar, comfortable smell comprised of old things, years of great cooking and abundant grandparent love.

I thank God I still have the grandparent love. But I know when I leave here tomorrow, I’ll never experience the smell again.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Fat Tuesday tales

Last weekend we made our annual pilgrimage to Shreveport to spend Mardi Gras with good friends. I've never been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but from the stories I've heard, the Shreveport version is decidedly more family friendly.

Oh, sure, there are the girls dressed like a Cosmo cover in 40-degree weather, warmed only by Budweiser and a burning desire to attract members of the male species more intent on goose-pimply cleavage than evidence of a brain. Not that I notice these girls from under my wool socks, tights, jeans, undershirt, sweater, parka, hat and gloves.

The parade route runs along the river, and the city divides the river bank up into narrow lots, which are divvied out by lottery. By mid-afternoon the street is closed, and the undulating route transforms into miles' worth of gumbo, grilling, music and laughter. Kids run about making new friends when not begging for cotton candy, gaudy hats and 50-cent light wands being hawked for $10.

Last year, a God-sent lady from one of the nearby lots walked over to our group to say she thought a little boy from our collection had wandered down the street and was in the hands of a police officer. Just as I was opening my mouth to say all of ours were accounted for, thank-you-very-much, I realized Connor -- who I knew was RIGHT THERE eating the hotdog I had just handed him -- was, well, not there.

I walked at least a block through a mass of humanity before I spotted my 3-year-old in the hands of the officer. He was perfectly calm, having happily followed a cart full of flashing lights.

This year -- thank you, Jesus -- all children remained accounted for. Aside from eating his cotton candy with black mittens and walking down the street insistent on balancing a stuffed chicken on his head, Connor was pretty mild-mannered.

Madeline on the other hand was feeling particularly flamboyantant. She fell in love with Kelly's Mardi Gras mask and after asking 5 to the infinite power number of times for her own, which wasn't possible at the time, Kelly allowed Madeline to wear it to the parade. (The whole reason for gathering is to get there several hours before the parade arrives.) I thought she'd get tired of wearing it, but that didn't happen for the first several hours.

Then, as evening arrived, Madeline took it into her head that she and Carl (Gene and Kelly's son) needed to tango. About a month ago, while flipping stations, I had watched 10 minutes of a dance competition on PBS -- I'm pretty sure I'll dance like that in heaven; the rest of you can amble politely in choir robes -- and apparently Madeline had paid close attention.

So she and and a more-than-game Carl clenched hands and began to march up and down the street, swiveling their upturned chins so dramatically a Bobble-head doll would fear whiplash. It was classic, and when I wasn't laughing I was thinking how lovely it is she's still so free just to be.

She wants to tango. So she tangos. Never mind that she's not sure how. Never mind several hundred people are walking by.

A girl must dance.

A boy must balance a chicken on his head.

And all is well.


Friday, February 09, 2007

This rains got my √Čire up

It's been raining quite a bit the past several months, and that's put me in mind of Ireland. They call it the Emerald Isle because it's so green. It's so green because it rains. A lot. Actually, it mists a lot. Flat-out rain isn't a constant.

That's what it's been doing around East Texas for several days: drizzling enough to curl my hair so that every day it looks as though I just got a haircut. A very bad haircut ... with the piece de resistance being a double spritz of overpriced Mega Frizz.

It's not just the rain that has me thinking of our time abroad, though. I've been reading Madeline a chapter a night of "The Secret Garden." (We adore it.) The book is set in York, and a number of the characters have a broad Yorkshire accent. For the sake of performance integrity -- and the need to distinguish between characters -- I must, of course, employ different dialects. The problem is that I don't have a wide repertoire. In fact, the only accent I can feign with better-than-nauseating results is a sort of Gaelic mish-mash.

I can also hold my own as a Munchkin from the Wizard of Oz, which was always fun in college. When JT and I got bored, we'd go through Wal-Mart and speak only in high-frequency Munchkin speak. That was after we'd gone to Chevron and charged off-brand Doritos, 2 cans of tunafish and a 2-liter of Coke to her dad's gas card. But I digress.

When Roy and I lived in Dublin, two of our flatmates were college students from County Galway. They were lovely (LOOHV-ley) girls, a fascinating mix of modern and traditional, unthinkingly sprinkling their everyday speech with thee's and ye's. ("Do ye mean to say ye didna know black puddin' was blood sausage? I bet that surprised thee.") It was like having a conversation with a King James Bible, only hip and funny.

I learned a lot from our talks in the teeny-tiny "kitchen/eating area" we shared on the first floor. Among which was the certainty that having a bathroom off a teen-tiny kitchen you share with three other people, with a door that's two inches shy of meeting the floor is not desirable.

For love of mercy, just finish your freakin' tea and bickies and go!

I have a couple of stories worth sharing, like the time Roy unintentionally insulted the Lord Mayor and the time I assaulted a man. But they'll have to wait until we get back from Mardi Gras. We're off to spend a family-friendly weekend in Loueeesiana.

Ye be good.


Friday, February 02, 2007

Can't I just carry the big stick?

My dad used to say to me, "Do as I say, not as I do." Fortunately, he's the kind of man where often doing as he did was the right thing. But he'll admit he has a temper. And -- sigh -- I have to admit the same. I find myself having to apologize to my kids every now and again, almost always because I've lost my temper.

The thing is, I didn't KNOW I had such a temper until I had kids. People warn that you can't truly prepare for parenting, but you can at least anticipate certain things such as sleepless nights and coming into contact with more poop than a dairy farmer.

I did not, however, anticipate the times when just one more thing crawls. all. over. me. leading to bellowing and snorting and frantic hand-waving. It's ridiculous. I usually realize it's ridiculous in the midst of the snorting and deflate like a Whoopee cushion. Cue the apology.

This is something I've really been working on the last several months. God used Madeline to grab my attention on this when, in the course of a bedtime discussion, she commented quite calmly, "No, Mom, you don't yell at us all the time. ... Just most the time."

Hello, Conviction. Yes, just take that batt you've got there in your hand and beat me with it. Thanks.

OK. I wasn't yelling at my kids MOST of the time. In fact -- as she protests like Lady Macbeth -- I don't yell as much as I "raise my voice." (There is a distinction. Yes, there is.) As it happens, I have a strong, somewhat deep voice that always got me called out in school no matter who else was talking (Janet and Lori). In any case, Madeline's perception is what mattered. And, clearly, I was hollering/raising my voice too much.

These days I try, when I feel the pressure rising, to just get quiet. To speak very low. (Have you seen Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"? I mean the tone; not the evil.) This tactic doesn't necessarily diffuse the situation, but it does seem to keep it from ratcheting things up.

A number of times recently, as I've tucked Madeline into bed, I've thanked God for the time she and I spent together that day: time with a minimum of head-butting or wailing. That's not because Madeline has changed. That's because I'm changing. And just this week I had one of the best days I've had with Connor in a long time. He was less mercurial. Part of that is the fact that he's maturing. Part of that is the fact that I'm maturing.

Remarkably, striving to be a better parent is making me a better person.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

... with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering ...

I've been reading the Bible lately. And by "reading the Bible," I don't mean just on Sunday morning when the preacher directs everyone to Jeremiah, chapter 40, verses 2 through 4, and I try my best to look like I know whether Jeremiah is before or after Psalms, and for that matter is Psalms before or after Ecclesiastes, because that's where my Bible opened.

By this time everyone's already read about Jeremiah, and moved on to Isaiah -- who is not to be confused with Hosea. And excuse me. I just found Jeremiah! Why are we in such an all-fired hurry here?

No. That's not what I'm talking about. (And, by the way, that never happens to me.)

What I'm talking about is reading the whole glory-hallelujiah-let-there-be-light-but-the-serpent-gave-it-four-stars-they-worshiped-a-calf?-a-child-is-born-They-know-not-what-they-do-he'll-be-back Bible from Genesis to Revelations.

I'd made a short-lived attempt at "The Bible in 90 Days" regimen some months ago. So when PEZmama announced she'd be leading an on-line group through the same program, I jumped on board. I figured being a Christian and all, it behooves me to read my history; it'll teach me to love God more deeply; and I can regale friends with banter such as, "Did you know Abraham was married to his half-sister and pimped her out twice?" (Hey, he did.)

How hard could it be to read 12 pages (of small-script on razor-thin paper) a day? Turns out it's something of a challenge. It takes me about an hour and a half. Apparently, it takes most people about 45 minutes. I'd like to think I require more time because I'm absorbing God's word. Because I'm analyzing it for subtleties lesser minds might miss. In actuality, it's because I frequently have no idea what I just read and have to move back three paragraphs. Think Candyland meets Canaan.

Actually, I really enjoyed Genesis. I'd read pretty much all of it before, but not straight through. And it's quite a tale. There's poetry; there's drama; there's very old people. We see Abraham having dinner with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There's a pretty humorous scene with Abraham bargaining with God over Sodom's pending destruction:

But what if there are fifty righteous people there?
If I find fifty righteous people, I'll spare the whole place for their sake.
Uh, now that I've been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I'm nothing but dust and ashes, what if there are, oh, five less than fifty?
If I find forty-five there, I won't destroy it.
Okaaay. How about 40?
Mmm-hmm. Now, don't get mad, but, if you don't mind me asking, what if you can only find thirty?
Great. Uh, how 'bout twenty?
Sorry, uh -- just once more here -- how about ten?
Yes. Ten. We're done here.

God clearly understand the frustrations of parenting.

So even though the reading is a significant commitment (although not really considering how much time I spend on pointless frivolities), I really enjoyed Genesis. And Exodus started out pretty exciting (and weird): snakes, rivers of blood, hordes of frogs, gnats, flies, locusts. Good times.

Then the instructions begin. Instructions on how to build the tabernacle and everything inside it. I previously had no clue the Ark of the Covenant was made of acacia wood -- two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. That it was overlaid inside and out with pure gold to which four gold rings were fastened on its four feet. Or that the gold-overlaid poles inserted into the rings were never to be removed. Or ... .

But I kept reading and finally was rewarded by ... Leviticus. Leviticus is God's way of making the reader feel as if she too is wandering in the desert for 40 years. Tell me the sin, and I'll tell you the animal to be slaughtered. And where to smear its blood. And what to do with its fat. I cried out to the Lord in my suffering.

What struck me is the incredible specificity of the guidelines for sacrifices, cleansing, observing feasts, etc. juxtaposed with how often the Bible is incredibly, even frustratingly brief. There are 45 verses on how to handle persons with infectious skin diseases. There are six verses on Lot's daughters getting intentionally impregnated by their drunken father. Yes, it's gross. But that's it? Six verses? Did Lot get suspicious when the kids were born with his hairline? Did he care?

Here's the important thing, though: even when I was wading through Leviticus -- and it gets much more interesting after that -- I felt comforted by being in the word every day. I still do.

One night my leg was hurting enough to warrant some pain medicine and a heat pack. As I laid in bed, I started to do that thing. You know. Where you imagine every ache is a tumor? Normally, I mentally walk that road until I fall asleep and then wake up feeling foolish. But that night, no sooner had I taken a few steps down that path than my spirit heard: "Whatever happens, I'm with you. Rest." And I did. Immediately. It was awesome.

The more I read, the more I view God as an incredibly mysterious, forgiving, judgmental, frustrating, loving personality. I'm also seeing a much broader picture of The Story than I've seen before, which is helpful, to say the least.

And as for the questions raised by what I've read, for the most part I accept that "the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever ...." (Deut. 29:29)

I thank God for what he reveals. Even in Leviticus.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

On a winter's day

I bundled Madeline and Connor up yesterday to go break off icicles (several of which are now in the freezer) and expend some pent-up energy. These two photos speak volumes about their personalities.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Please, join our heresy

I received an email yesterday that engaged me more than anything I've read in a while. It was from Janet, my heart's sister. She asked me some no-frills questions about spiritual doubt. I love those sorts of "hard" questions. No wishy-washiness. No Sunday school language. Just: Here's what I've been thinking about. What's your take?

Sometimes the discussion is resolved with an "answer," oftentimes not. But always I feel invigorated by the discourse. Aren't we instructed to love the Lord with all our hearts, minds and souls? He's not afraid of our questions. What are yours?

I'm posting a very slightly edited version -- I had to dumb myself down just a little, you know, so as not to intimidate anyone -- of our "conversation" yesterday. I invite you to join in.

----- Original Message -----

From: Janet
To: Toni
Sent: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 12:21 AM
Subject: rambling...


I don't know if this has ever happened to you, but I was being asked a gazillion questions by Austin about Lucifer and his descent into Hell, when it dawned on me – I'd rather be asked about Santa Claus, because THAT I can explain. Have you ever felt this way? I mean, I know what I know; I feel what I feel; but sometimes I can't help but feel I'm perpetuating some myth Frank told us all was fake long ago.

I'm not having a crisis of faith. I repeat: I AM NOT HAVING A CRISIS OF FAITH.

But still...

Austin had asked me about Lucifer's fall from Heaven, because he’s been explaining it all to a friend, and I found myself longing to explain Santa Claus's rise from Chris Cringle and the whole Rudolph saga. It's much easier.

So I talked to Wade, and he read me an excerpt from "The Brothers Karamazov" that was so compelling, so riveting that it was comforting. This has seriously been a question for thousands of years. And, as I had suspected: agnostics, atheists and believers alike all require faith. Faith. What a hard-to-nail-down word. What is faith?

And, how can God really value it when I have NOTHING else to offer? Everything takes faith. Not believing. Believing.

You know I love Jesus Christ with all that I am. He is my Savior; He has my heart, soul, marriage, my two boys and my girl. What I am extending to you is an opportunity to share any insight or struggle of your own. Wade and I sat up, with him reading to me from his marked-up copy of "The Brothers Karamazov," which was romantic and intellectually and emotionally stimulating in and of itself. But I thought I'd extend the question to you, my dear friend: Have you doubted God? Satan? What does that doubt look like?

I'm not expecting an answer back quickly...take your time. I love you.


----- Reply -----

From: Toni
To: Janet
Subject: question
Date: Wed, January 10, 2007 11:18 AM


I love that you would think to ask me these questions, that you would share your thoughts on this subject. What a gift. Thank you.

Have I doubted God? Well, yes. Honestly, I think anyone who says they haven't is either a) lying or b) not given to thinking deeply about things. Part of faith is, for me, choosing to believe even when I doubt. Now, if I was plagued by doubts, that would speak to a deeper issue, one that would need resolving. But my doubts about God or the best manifestation of himself, Jesus, have usually come fleetingly amidst times of prolonged spiritual laziness.

In fact, I think what doubts I’ve had in the past were rooted more in a ... desire that there NOT be a God. What I mean is, wouldn't it just be easier if this life was it? Granted, I'm living a life that is, by the standards of at least 90 percent of the world, luxurious. So it's easy for me to say that. I'm not hungry or in pain or lacking for ANYTHING. So wouldn't it be easier, I have mused, if I could do what I wanted without consequences beyond this life? Existentialism – the view that we must create meaning for ourselves in an unknowable, godless universe – is seductive. To my mind it can be boiled down to two things: seize the day and, if you're nice, do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. The end.

But, the thing is, I couldn't believe that if I wanted to. God is too real. I'd have to literally pretend not to see him and hear him. I would have to ignore all the amazing works he's performed. It would take more faith for me to ignore him than to concede him.

And his way, the Jesus way, is hard. It's about service. It's about dying to yourself. It's about becoming less so that we can become more. Jesus was unbelievably radical. He turned the universe on its head and then said: Follow me. Do what I do. Was he serious?! Do what he did? Me?

So, yes. Sometimes I feel too lazy to follow and I think, Wouldn't it be easy if I could just carpe diem and, while I'm at it, be nice to people whenever possible? But what did David say? He said this life is but a breath. We were created to live eternally, and earth is not our home. So what seems as though it would be easier – not believing – would be incredible folly in light of what's ahead, like happily splashing in a puddle when the vastness of the ocean is over the rise.

Then, of course, when I embrace the Lord, there are not only hardships, but incredible blessings. Unexpected and bountiful blessings. And life without him would be so hollow, a sounding gong.

As for Satan, well, JT, it may just be easier to believe in him than God. This is his turf we're on, and surely he is horrendous beyond my ability to conceive. I read stories of torture and murder throughout the world, things happening right now -- as I write this. A few days ago, I struck up a conversation in the post office with a Jewish man who survived a concentration camp in Poland. His father and brother were shot in front of him. He was 13. He escaped to the woods. No one took him in. I've never doubted Evil. Satan is Evil. I choose not to think too much about him; there are dark places we're not supposed to go. And, as you know, I've seen a glimpse once or twice, and it's terrifying.

I love you, my very dear friend. And I'd love to hear more of your thoughts.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Just leave a message, you say?

You know the character Hugh Grant used to play variations on? The guy in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" or "Notting Hill" who, while somewhat amusing as he does it, tends to ramble on and on without being able to stop himself?

I channel that behavior an alarming percentage of the time when leaving a voice message. It's as if the beep of the answering machine queues my inner Manchurian Candidate, and what should be a relatively simple activity -- "Hi, JT. Just checking in. I'll call later." -- more closely resembles an oral roller coaster.

It starts out innocently. Then, somehow, I find myself steadily pulling further and further from the simplicity of the act, until everything tips and I'm hurtling toward a tangential freak show of verbosity. Part of my brain is demanding "Just shut. Up." Sadly, that part has little control over my mouth.

So what comes out is something like: "Hi, JT. Just calling to see how you're doing. It's been two weeks since the latest round of strep throat turned your house into a den o' pestilence, so I figured someone's due to get sick soon. NOT that I'm trying to jinx you. But Lord knows the weirdest things happen to you. Who else runs into J-Lo in the mall, for Pete's sake? I mean seriously. And then has her son ask why they keep calling that woman Jello? Or leaves her phone in a hotel where it's picked up by a member of the president's security detail? [Inner Sane Toni is yelling "Abort! Abort!"] But ANYWAY just calling to say --" BEEP!

Having been cut off by the end of the tape or the five-minute max on the voice mail service, I am left with nothing to do but stare at the phone and wonder why, why do I do that? I sat in a room and negotiated a piece of pipeline safety legislation with oil company representatives. I've won awards for extemporaneous speaking. Gift of gab have I, my friend. Oh, yes.

But, apparently, as all girls learn from fairy tales, there is a catch with the gift. A caveat. A stipulation. A sine qua non, y'all.

The listener must be alive.