blushing archives ii

The Long Good-bye

I recently accepted a terrific job offer and while ecstatically happy about my new career move, I am also saddened at the prospect of moving and leaving behind a cadre of friends and a city I adore.

This isn’t the first time I’ve moved. In fact, as a five life path, change is sort of my middle name. If you know anything about numerology, you know that the combined digits of your birth date reduced down to a single number will indicate many things about you, including your temperament and your approach to life. I’m a five. I like change. It’s easy for me to grow bored if I maintain the status quo for too long, so I embrace change like I embrace a nice, warm latte. Bring it!

The thing about change though, is that you are often required to let go of one thing in order to get something else. It’s like creating a mini energy vortex. You create a space and the universe, which abhors a vacuum, rushes into to fill it with what you desire most. Or what you are most focused on, based on your belief about how the zany game of life works. When I feel stagnant, one of my favorite activities is to clean out a closet. And it works like magic. Stifled at work? Clean a closet. Got a creative cramp? Clean a closet. When the flow of life slows to a dribble, I have one solution for (almost) 100% predictable results: clean a closet.

Sometimes change is small, and it’s easy. Sometimes change is big and it’s a little harder. The change under which I am currently operating is of the harder variety. I love where I live. I like my adopted hometown. I like its quirkiness and charm, and I’m going to miss it terribly. But I also love the town to which I’m moving. We have a history together, that town and me, and like a pair of old shoes, we fit well together. And the new job? Forget about it. It’s a dream job and I’m thrilled to be the one to fill it. And yet? I’m a mess. Happy and weepy and charged and exhausted, all by turns.

As a five life path, I’ve mostly navigated the switchbacks of my life trail without looking back. I’ve got a system. I know (almost) unerringly what to expect; I know (almost) precisely what to embrace, what to let go of and let fall away.  This process of letting go is cathartic in the way of a juice fast. If something is not organically needed, it’s sluiced away with a fond adieu. Sometimes that sluicing pinches. Sometimes that letting go gets hung up. Lately, for instance, I’ve been weepy. I can’t help it, it’s one of the ways I have of letting go. It doesn’t mean that I’m sad per se, just kerfuffled. I was at dinner the other night with a friend and we were talking about my move. Suddenly, without warning, I got all choked up. My friend was alarmed. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Are you. . .crying?” I dashed a tear from my eye. “No!” I retorted. “I’m not crying! Don’t look at me!” I was horrified. My dinner companion is one cool dude, and I totally went all Bambi on him with the waterworks. Gah.

Then, a few days later, my monthly OSHO International newsletter appeared in my email queue. One timely article jumped out at me. It advised, “Never be afraid of tears.” It went on to say, “Tears are more beautiful than anything else you have with you, because tears come from the overflow of your being. Tears are not necessarily of sadness; sometimes they come out of great joy and sometimes they come out of great peace and sometimes they come out of ecstasy and love. In fact they have nothing to do with sadness or happiness. Anything that stirs your heart too much, anything that takes possession of you, anything that is too much, that you cannot contain and it starts overflowing — that brings tears [Emphasis mine].

“Accept them with great joy, relish them, nourish them, welcome them, and through tears you will know how to pray.”

Breaking up may be hard to do, but I’m a goddess and a five and I can manage. And the next time I feel my throat go dry, my chest start to tighten, my eyes begin to liquefy, I will just let go. After all, I’m not crying baby, I’m praying.

Seasons + Rituals

I love summer. Not for the obvious reasons, and actually, I came to this realization quite late, it isn’t strictly about the warmth of the sun. There is a lot about summer that I’m not a huge fan of: blistering heat, humidity, the tendency to camp, for gods’ sake. But oh, there is the Solstice, July 4 parades, fireworks, and grilled food. These things make summer savory to me.

First of all, Solstice. Who knew?  I love it. I love what it represents, the fecund and glorious bliss of bounty that summer brings. I wake when the light spills into my room in the morning, so when the days are long, there is no snooze button that will shut off the light, so I go with it. Once in a while I will step outside on the patio for a few minutes to see if I can catch it: the summer smell. There is a smell wedged in my brain somewhere, the smell of grass before it gets hot, a perfume of river pheromones, the scent of fruit and grain growing ripe, desert rock, lizard, azure blue sky, wild sage. It’s a specific smell that transports me to childhood every time like a soft, summer spell. Magic.

This year, 2012, is a special one, according to a whole range of people from religious fanatics to doomsayers, to Mayan Calendar scholars, to witches and priests and philosophers. According to the Mayans, our calendar ends 12/12/2012. This doesn’t mean the end of the world, just an epoch, so let’s not go down the road of pyrotechnic, alien-colonizing, environmental collapse scenarios. This isn’t about that. And actually, as all endings herald a beginning, we are standing on the cusp of something brand-spanking new. Exciting stuff!  Well anyway, if as some believe, the glorious era in which we eat, breathe, pray, evolve, is, well, evolving its ass on outta here on December 12, we will never see another  Summer Solstice on this spin of the giant, cosmic wheel. There will be new Solstices, and they will be magnificent. But they will whirl away from the old into something we haven’t yet imagined.

Add to all this zany end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it business, I love to cook. So seeing that this would be one special Solstice, I wanted to make my own incense. You know the reason incense is used in spiritual ceremonies, is that the smoke is said (by the wise ones) to carry prayers to heaven. I wanted to be sure that my prayers got a special delivery on this order, so I consulted an old book of spells, stopped by my local herbalist, and gathered the supplies to make my own incense. It’s easier than you think. And fun! When you make your own incense, you get to control what goes into it, and you can customize the mix according to what you’d like to attract and what you’d like to let go of.

I got so excited about making my incense concoction, I made two batches. I couldn’t decide whether to make a solstice mix in honor of the sun and moon, or a prayers answered mix for my own selfish reasons, so I made both. I turned on some music, I lit candles, poured a glass of wine, and mixed sandalwood and sage, myrrh, dragon’s blood (which is actually tree sap) and rose oil. When the mixtures were just right, I poured sea salt into a crystal bowl, and lit a disk of charcoal, watching it burn from red to grey. When the moment was right, I sprinkled a pinch of incense onto the coal, and it sizzled and simmered, sending a spiral of silky smoke to the ceiling. I said another prayer and tossed some more incense to the heat.  Apparently, I had a lot of letting go to do, and an equal amount of requests of heaven. I kept praying and sprinkling and before long,  the smoke started to billow out of the bowl. At this juncture, I decided it was probably best to move the ritual outside.

Outdoors in the mild summer evening, incense smoke continued to raise my prayers to heaven for an hour or more.  I hoped the neighbors didn’t mind.  I don’t think they did. Smoke raises all prayers to heaven and since every thought is a prayer that the universe hears and pays attention to, I reason that if anyone had minded my little sacred ceremony, the fire would have gone out in response to someone’s wish for the smoke to go away.

My Solstice ceremony made me happy. I don’t know why, other than the fact that I love rituals of every stripe. I loved the rituals of the Catholic church, even when I didn’t like its politics. I loved the rituals of marriage, even when they no longer filled my heart. I love the way rituals take us out of our everyday lives and make us stop for a minute, to pay attention, to hit the pause button and breathe and just be.

So now that Summer Solstice has come, been recognized, and faded away, I am giddy with anticipation for my next favorite things:  July 4 parades, fireworks, and food cooked outside in outlandishly intricate gas stoves. It’s summer, and I savor it like one long ritual that runs from mid to late June to early September. I used to think that spring and autumn were my favorite times of year, but I think they’ve been eclipsed for summer, which makes me happy for no reason at all.

SWOOSH

 The other night we celebrated the summer solstice, one of my favorite holidays after Christmas, with some good old-fashioned flame.  Friends came.  We had a little dinner, drank a little wine, and burned all those negative thoughts that had manifested into negative attitudes over the course of the last year.  We wrote them down on strips of paper and set them over an open flame in a blessing bowl.  It’s better than  spring cleaning, watching as those heavy thoughts burst into flame and disperse as little non-threatening wisps of smoke.  The idea is to release them from the psychic baggage claim area of our lives where they hover, round and round on the carousel, circling our auras and clogging the energetic grid.  At best they weigh you down, and at worst, they attach themselves to some unwitting soul ambling by, for not every thought that we think is our own.  Thoughts, like emotions, are magnetic and an unsuspecting traveler can pick up a hitch hiker without even realizing it until they hear something banging around in the trunk, and when they stop to have a look — bam!   Ambushed.

Fire cleanses and fire purifies.  Fire brings you down to ground zero; it’s devastatingly fresh.  In the forest, fire provides the new growth with a whole slew of nutrients to ground their roots in, the equivalent of a superfood.  Like all elements, fire is, well, elemental.  The other night was fire, the sun, the return of the light, and the next night was — water.  Water in its symbiotic and ubiquitous state.  Water also as the cleanser, the purifier. Water in its chlorinated state, not so pure, but don’t disparage, it still serves.  We’re at the swim meet, the summer league.  It’s got its own set of definitions.

As much as I wish, my kids didn’t throw their arms around my neck and beg me to let them be on the swim team.  Rather, I gave them an ultimatum and they balked and bargained and screamed and sulked.  Swimming was something they’d do anything to get out of, yet for all their badgering, they could not budge me. Unusual that, because I am no tiger mother.  More like a bear with its split personality, roaring like mad one minute, all cuddly and cozy the next.  I may seem malleable on the surface, but I’m a water sign — no metal here — and it’s where I’m most at home.  From the crystalline sunlit waves to the murky depths of the deep, water is my friend, my mentor.  The Kabbalists say water is God’s light made manifest.  Water will have its way with rock; it may take a millennium, but water will win.    Water is emotion and we all need to learn its lessons.  I stand my ground.

“Please, Mom?  If I go to the gym every day can I not do swim team?”  Ian.  It’s January.  The gym’s a mile away so he doesn’t even need me or his father to get him there.  It could happen, but I know my son.  It won’t.

“Show me what you got and we’ll talk.”  Turns out he’s got nothin’.   April arrives.  Swim team starts mid-May with a few weeks of indoor swimming and then they move outdoors when the kids finish school.  The badgering begins anew with the looming deadline.

“Mom?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because.  You say you’re going to do something, but you’re all talk.  You were going to start working out in January.  You missed your window.”

“What if I ride my bike everyday?”  He just bought, with his own money saved up from allowance and Christmas and cutting lawns, a used, but still wildly expensive mountain bike.  Ian’s almost 14, and while he doesn’t much go in for organized sports, he can ride a bike like nobody’s business, building ramps in the yard and transporting himself across various obstacle courses with ease.  His father was a big mountain biker in the day so perhaps its genetic.  Hurtling down mountains with a 20% grade over rocks and limbs and boulders is not my idea of a fun workout.  I do not have this gene.  Yet for Ian, the proposition has potential.

“Let’s see what you got,” I say.  Again, nothing.  Actually, he rode his bike to school a couple days, but nothing near the consistency I was looking for so swim team is on.  Literally, on day one of practice he asks me:  “Do I have to be on the swim team again next year?”  I laugh.

Even his father has his doubts.  “Maybe if he hates it that much…,” he says.  Then a surprising thing happened.  Ian didn’t ask again.  Turns out, this year he’s got a few buddies on the team:  someone from his lunch table at school, and someone from one of his classes, and the swim meets themselves with the sheer numbers of kids, 18 down to 8 and under, milling about, eating Skittles and “walking tacos,” playing frisbee on the lawn, cards on their blankets, cheering  for each other even in the not-so-tight races; it’s controlled chaos, like listening to live music in the park all day except there’s no music, just the buzz of the starter gun and the call of the parents, corralling kids to the staging area.  You can feel the memories being made; some of my life’s best are these very moments when I was them and my parents were me, and no, I didn’t make my kids swim so I could relive my glory days, I did it so they could experience for themselves what it’s like to be part of a team, to wade in the richness of this collective consciousness, and of most importance, to get their butts off the couch, get a little discipline, maybe develop some character — nothing much.

They both hate competition, Arianna more than Ian, who’s a natural swimmer although he tries hard to deny it.  They get so nervous; this thing’s a Hydra and they’re not sure yet how to best it.  Except they do know and the practice sessions are paying off as each time they get in the water they shave a few seconds off their times, and now they’re preparing, packing their water bottles and snacks and extra towels with, dare I say, an excitement about being part of something bigger, the gestalt of being part of a team.  It’s two meets into the season; they’re fully engaged.  I’m vindicated, validated.  Water wins again.

The highlight of tonight’s meet, the freestyle relays, has arrived.  We’re ahead, I think, but it doesn’t matter.  It never really matters, because that’s not what this is about.  The kids — the ones who are left since it’s past 10 p.m. and the little guys have headed home to bed — have been cheering the relay swimmers on like every point counts and every race could make or break them.  It’s the last of the last, the U-18 open heats.  The boys approach the block.  Hundreds of hands rise to the sky, fingers wagging in anticipation:

“Swimmers, take your mark…”

Six bodies contort, completely fold in half, heads pointing to the ground, poised there on the block, several feet above the water.  The gun fires.  Collectively, as one, hundreds of arms sweep in an arc to the ground while hundreds of voices breathe the battle cry:

“Swoosh!”

And then, instead of the graceful dives everyone is expecting where bodies enter the water with barely a ripple, swimmer after swimmer stands up on the block and does — a cannonball.

They must have cooked it up among themselves while in the staging area these U-18s, as one kid after another cannonballs it into the water, probably disqualifying themselves in the process.  They all did it, not just our team, all those kids in the last few heats, as if team alliances and rules and winning no longer mattered, as if it were all about camaraderie and friendship and love.

“Swoosh!”

Controlled chaos — and it was fantastic.

pl

photo by Patti Heller

WE ARE…G-1

Every Memorial Day weekend, my family and I corral an extraordinary amount of camping and outdoor gear and head off with a group of my Penn State friends, a/k/a, “the Whales”, boy scout-types with a penchant for adventure and new destinations, as long as those destinations offer kayaking, biking, hiking, spelunking, you name it.  We’re on our 15th or 16th year and the group has grown to include friends of friends, but no matter who, what or where, the tenor of the weekend is always the same: upbeat, athletic, collegiate and competitive.  This year, my husband, Scott chose the location, a difficult task since choosing unwisely will result in an incessant barrage of verbal abuse for the duration of the weekend.  In addition to competitive, this group can be relentless.

Green Ridge State Forest is located in Maryland, close to the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders.  It boasts 12,000 acres, a few handfuls of primitive camp sites, and a way cool motto:  “It’s no walk in the park.”  For those of you not in the know, primitive means no flush toilets, no showers, no water of any kind.  In a nod to the women, Scott ordered two port-a-johns and even paid extra to get the in-stall hand sanitizer (what a guy!).  The site, “G-1”, was not my favorite at first glance, what with the weird mounded fire pit, the excessive amount of spiders and other creepy crawlers, and the fact that it was in a meadow where the heat literally pulled up a chair and sat down to get to know you better.  But there was a clear, cold stream running alongside our Site overrun with butterflies, and it was private, a bonus for our loud group.

My family arrived on Saturday instead of Friday night like the hard core campers and, as a result, missed Saturday’s activity, so we unpacked and waited for them to get back from their rock climbing excursion.  Soon after everyone returned, the sky got goopy, and a sinister rumbling followed.   Tom, a self-taught weather god who took me on as an apprentice about a thousand years ago — I’ve since earned my bolts, the weather goddess version of stripes — and I sprang into action. With our collective visualizations, and lots of hooting and hollering — aaaaaaoooooooowwww is the official Whale call — we pushed at those rain clouds, forcing them into submission.  They skulked off, in retrospect, I see, to regroup.  We were feeling pretty full of ourselves.  Life was good: the food was cooking; the kids were playing; the wine was pouring; the sky had cleared and we had a whole weekend ahead.  If you’re a camper, you know that these are the moments that make all the insufferable, inexorable packing (and unpacking) worth it.

Now anyone who knows me knows that I’d do anything to make my children happy and more to keep them safe, so one may ask why is it that at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, I got on the Potomac River with 14 kayaks, 18 people, more than half of them children between the ages of 11 and 16, and headed down the river for a six-hour float.  Even making great time it would be getting dark by the time we docked.  In my defense, I didn’t know it was going to be six hours until we were carrying the boats down to the river, and Gigi said, “you know you’re not going to be back to camp until 8 o’clock, right?  It’s good we knew that because we’d be really worried.”  Gigi and another contingent of parents and kids — over 30 people were on this camping trip — had opted for biking instead of kayaking.  I usually don’t pay much attention to the how’s and when’s of our daily excursions, and prefer to leave the planning to Tom, Sticks, Beagle and the other more experienced among us, which is why last year I found myself lost on a mountain side with these guys, with the sun was going down fast and no idea how to get back to camp.  We did find our way, eventually — after about a thousand fears about strangers raising my children and how Scott would fare — but had to call Robbie to come pick us up two or three towns over.  With this crowd, there’s always a story, and always magic.

The Potomac was kid-friendly compared to last year’s kayaking trip on Trout Run in Pennsylvania where I capsized at least half a dozen times riding the rapids.  That day, we didn’t take the kids for good reason.  Today was different.  The Potomac was lazy and warm and inviting and the Ranger said it was a leisurely 6-hours from our drop-off point to our pick up place.  The sky was fantastic and clear, and we had coolers full of food and water so what could go wrong?  We spread out in a long snake stream, our aaaaaooooowwws connecting us when the serpentine turns denied us a visual.  The bike trail our friends were on ducked in and out along the river, and for the first two hours we were all connected.  We stopped for lunch around 3:30, but realized we weren’t even at the first checkpoint so we tried to pick up the pace, but with the kids, and a life-preserver wearing dog who doubled as a bow ornament, it was slow going, plus someone needed to be the sweeper.  By 5:30, we realized Ranger Rick’s estimation was just plain wrong.

The kids wanted to get back to camp and make s’mores and tell campfire stories and we had a way to go so we stopped and took a dip, had a snack, and dumped the water out of my son, Ian’s kayak — he had tried to switch from a double to a single in midstream and capsized — then redoubled our efforts.

Minutes later, the sky opened up and would not stop.  Thunder!  Lightening! Torrential, TORRENTIAL downpour!  Mere visualizations could not thwart the power of this storm.  We got off the river in a hurry, half of us on the West Virginia side, the other half in Pennsylvania.  We West Virginians were lucky to have landed at a small campsite and one of the campers, a sweet woman with a lovely southern drawl, offered us half a dozen unused trash bags.  We huddled together for warmth and used the bags as a shield.  Our comrades on the other side were not as lucky; sans trash bags, the rain pounded them.  Perhaps it was trash bag envy, perhaps it was the slight break in the weather, but fifteen minutes later, the rest of our group was crossing the swollen, no longer lackadaisical Potomac.

We regrouped.  Questions were asked.  The incredibly helpful campers had nothing but bad news.  The nearest bridge was 42 miles away so getting a ride wasn’t even a possibility. We had no shelter, no dry clothes, not much water, and we were still an hour and a half by boat to the pick up point.  After a brief discussion among the dads — by now it was close to 8 p.m. and getting dark fast — it was clear there was only one option:  get back on the river in a horrific thunder and lightening storm and paddle like hell.  My girls, Morgan and Arianna, started to cry.  I told them they needed to be brave and bless their hearts, they pulled it together.  For another harrowing hour and a half, we paddled in the lightening and driving rain while Arianna sang, repeating her mantra:  “we can do this; we can do this”.  The sky looked like an Ansel Adams photo, the lightning terrifying and beautiful and lighting our way.

By the time we got to our cars it was 10:30.  We almost missed the landing, but some hapless souls with even less luck than we had that night were flashing a green laser light from the shore in a useless attempt to find the box that had been tethered to one of their tubes and that was holding their car keys.  It was somewhat refreshing after our ordeal to be greeted by these kids, 25 years our juniors and a lot like we were at that age, asking if we’d seen their keys, making us laugh even as we felt we faced down, if not death at least the prospect of it.  We gave one of their group a ride back to their campsite so they could send reinforcements.  I guess they realized, as we did, that it was always good to leave someone on the shore.  Odd, too, as Sticks pointed out, that we were saved by the very people that needed saving.

And then another act of Grace:  just as we’re about to pull out, Gigi and Robbie show up.  They’d been driving around for over an hour, looking for the pick up point to see, at least, whether our cars were still parked there, or whether we were out on the river in the dark and rain.  It’s that kind of love that keeps me coming back on these trips, year after year.

Words fail to capture the nightmare of those hours, but lying in our dry tents, as Scott and I listened to Morgan and Arianna, and Morgan’s friend, Victoria, a first-time camper, talk about their terror, we heard Arianna quip about “the second time we almost died,” and we laughed all the way to dreamland.  I’m sure that on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, in three different classrooms in three different schools, my kids were recounting their Memorial Day weekend escapades, and I find myself wondering if I won’t suffer the same fate as the woman who took her 5-year old into the tanning booth with her.  I mean, what were we thinking, putting our kids back on that river in a severe thunderstorm?  Hopefully, child services won’t show up at my door tomorrow “just to have a look around.” If they do, I will say:  “Yes, I know, but we made the best decision we could — and it makes a great story.”

pl

 

Magic Happens

It’s no secret that public speaking is one of the top activities that induce panic in people. The all-star fears occur in this order:

  • Fear of flying
  • Fear of public speaking
  • Fear of heights
  • Fear of dark
  • Fear of intimacy

I can completely relate to all of them, but have to admit that I somehow have adapted to life on spaceship earth well enough that I have no fear of public speaking. None. Zero. Zippity-doo-dah. Maybe this comes from growing up in a large Catholic family, where when you spoke it was always in front of a crowd. Maybe it comes from having done a stint as a radio announcer. Whatever the genesis, I don’t have it. I don’t break into a cold sweat when it comes to addressing a throng, I don’t get tongue tied, I don’t wish the floor would open into a gaping maw and swallow me whole.

My students on the other hand, have no such luck. At the end of our term, the apex of which is to craft a research  essay, I require them to read their papers aloud in class. Mind you, the average class size is 10-12 people, not a crowd by any means. And still they balk. I consider myself more a writing coach than a teacher; I am wholesale on their side. During the course of our class, I will, at various times, have them do group  work and then ask them to assign an ambassador from their small fiefdom to approach the board and write their collective answer to a question. My ulterior motive here is not to see if they know the right answer, but to desensitize them to appearing in the front of the class. Tricky me.

So, we come to the last night of class, and they are terrorized at the prospect of actually reading their work aloud.  Here is a sample of the conversation we had the other day:

Student 1: Do we have to read our papers out loud?

Me: Yes.

Student 1: That sucks. Can we take a vote?

Me: No. This is not a democracy.

Student 1: Yes it is. This is the United States.

Me: Not in my classroom it’s not. Everyone reads.

Student 2: If we don’t read, do we lose points?

Me: Yes.

Student 3: I can’t talk in front of the class!

Me:  Yes, you can. I promise.

Student 1: Can we read from our seats?

Me: No.

Student 1: That sucks. Why do we have to do this?

Me: Because it’s an important skill for you to develop. It’s good for you.

Student 3: Can we stand behind the podium?

Me: No. You may not hide behind the podium. It will be fun. You’ll see.

And then, they come up one by one, as if to the gallows. Their knees shake. Their voices wobble. I have to interrupt several of them after the first  sentence.

Excuse me. I’m so sorry to interrupt you, but please, you have to breathe. If you don’t breathe, you’ll pass out and that would be terrible because then we would not hear your brilliant paper. Okay? Start again. And so they do and when they finish, the last word is barely out of their mouth before they start to dash away.

Hold it! Stop. Don’t go yet, I say. And then I turn to the class and smile. Does anyone have any questions? No? All right then. Thank you. Let’s give a nice round of applause to Jack (or Kari or Savannah) for this brave and beautiful work.

The third reader the other night was a girl with a speech impediment but Goddess bless her, she stood up there and delivered and I was so proud of her. After that, no one complained about reading their paper. That beautiful girl would have shamed them all.

So then, an hour and a half later, we were down to two readers.  Candidate one is a pain in the patoot. His papers are regularly late. He has a million excuses. When I question him about his weird and completely random reasons for not turning in assignments, he goes a) defensive and b) aggressively offensive. He is an querulous  human being and I struggle to remain impassive in my dealings with him. So, he reads his paper. It is brimming with faulty logic and recrimination. He reads it too fast and mumbles. I do not stop him. I do not coach him to take a breath and not pass out. And then, when he arrives at the very last word of his paper, the room goes black. I am not kidding. It is as if a breaker switch has been pulled, and the room goes dark. The hallway is still lit, so it seems as if it is a prank of some sort. But I have a duty to my students. This is our last night together, and I must maintain a sense of decorum.

Well, I said. That was dramatic! Thank you Wally. Very good.

But Wally does not rush off the stage. He has the room’s attention and he wants more. He begins to offer opinions on the topic of his paper.

No, no, I clap. Thank you, thank you! We’re running out of time. Wally moves peevishly back to his seat. This leaves just one reader, a young man who is possibly my favorite student this term. He is smart and articulate, and he is an Iraqi war veteran.

Emmanuel (yes, his name is poetry), I am so sorry, I say. I have read your draft and it’s a superb paper and I am so sorry that we will not be able to hear it tonight.

With that, this resourceful young hero whips out his mobile phone and activates a flashlight app. He comes to the front of the class and by a small beam of light, reads a paper that begins with a statement about a terrible day during his deployment, one where he “lost several friends to a faceless enemy.” He goes on to talk about the price of war. He speaks handsomely not just about the financial costs of engagement, but the cost in lives. It is powerful and elegant and heartbreaking. When he arrives at the end of his paper the room is ghostly silent for half a beat. . .and then his fellow students erupt into applause. It is an epic moment, and it could not have been choreographed more perfectly. His was a mad muscular paper and it seemed right that we heard his clear resilient voice and his story sitting in a dark room. It could only have been better is if we had been sitting around a bonfire beneath a canopy of stars.

So yes, sometimes I am the compassionate writing coach. Sometimes I am mean Ms. Gregory. But the fear of speaking?  Ffft. It just doesn’t have the power over us that we often think it does. And sometimes, when we stand in the face of our fears and we’re especially lucky, magic happens and we have the privilege to bear witness.

cg

Bending Time

 In my salad days, living the large life of a 20-something, I had a great job, a great place in the city, a great roommate, and a great bunch of friends.  Our only concerns were paying the rent, getting to work on time, and what to do over the weekend.  We were luckier than today’s young adults where 41% of college graduates can’t get a job in their field and some no job at all.

My roommate, Debbe and I had a friend, Rick whose parents owned a house on Lake Raponda in Wilmington, Vermont.  Rick, now an architect, had designed the house in high school, and his parents, possessing the wherewithal to do so had it built.  It was by all standards a dream house and worth every minute of the 6-hour drive to get there.  I learned to water ski on that lake, drive a motor boat, and snow ski on Mount Snow.  We even hiked the smaller Haystack Mountain one weekend, camped overnight next to a lake in the clouds and built a fire that looked like the Gods themselves had fashioned it, grand and dynamic, sparks shooting like fireworks to the heavens.

We always shared the driving to Vermont and it was on one of these rides that my race car persona was born.  Returning home one late Sunday evening, as I deftly maneuvered around a series of large obnoxious potholes, Rick ordained me.

“You didn’t even comment on how I missed those potholes,” I said.

“I would if your wheels had been touching the ground,” he snickered.  “From now on I’m going to call you Dominique Ravioli.  That’s your race car driver name.”

I think Dominique has always been inside me, surely before I even got my license, and now she had a name.  She was probably the one who told me to ride my bike in the street when I was too young to do so, resulting in me missing Halloween the year that I was five.  So maybe she’s not always the best decision maker.

Yet she has other strengths.  Her bravado and can-do spirit, these I take out into the world with me, especially in a tight situation, when I am, as I often am, en route to being late.  I take the train to work, but still need to get to the station.  On those mornings when I’m schlepping off to Philadelphia at warp speed, Dominique’s driving the car.  Most days I’m pulling into the parking lot as the train is pulling into the station and racing to the platform as the bell rings for the train doors to close.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I make it.  Yes, even Dominique has the odd day.

Unfortunately, my daughter, Arianna has inherited my late gene.  I would rather she inherited her grandmother’s on-time/often early gene, but the Gods were not with me on this one.  Debbe once pointed out to me that perpetual lateness = rudeness.  It points to control issues and a disregard for other people’s time.  All undeniably true, so I work hard to self-correct and I’m more often than not successful — at least within a five-minute swing — but the pre-arrival panic, the “am I going to make it?” is sheer hell.

For a while, Arianna didn’t care about being late, but after accumulating a slew of tardy arrivals on her otherwise stellar report card, she started to get the message.  Now she’s freaking.

“Go, Mom,” she says before I’ve even turned the key in the ignition or buckled my seat belt.  It’s a five or six-minute drive to school, four with minimal traffic and all the lights in our favor, and then there’s the one or two-minute trip to the locker and on to homeroom so five to six minutes absolute minimum, but seven is safer, and ten is enough to knit an afghan in the downtime.

When we really need a miracle, we put on her favorite Taylor Swift song and sing the whole way.  Today there’s no way we’ll make it.  It’s pouring down rain and we’ve got five minutes until the bell rings and with the drive and the trip to the locker, it’s just not possible.

“Want me to teach you a trick?” I ask.  “How not to be late?” I know, you’re thinking why I don’t employ this very trick myself and the answer is, I do.  Dominique’s not only a good driver.  She knows things.  Practical things.

“Yesss,” Arianna says, as if I’ve been withholding information all along.

“It’s called bending time.  First you think about absolutely anything other than the fact that you’re going to be late.”  Arianna nods dutifully, stares out the window, willing another thought to take the place of the panic in her brain.

After a dozen seconds she says, “I can’t do it.  It’s too hard.”

“No, it’s not.  Just sing.  Totally get into it.  Time will sit there, suspended in a little bubble for you while you lose yourself in a moment of joy.  C’mon, it’s your favorite song.”

She sighs, tries again, gives up again.  “It’s too hard, Mommy.”

“Don’t try so hard.”

She sings, with feeling this time, and before we know it, we’re there.  Time to school — four minutes with the rain.  A miracle!  On a clear day, it might have been three.  The time experiment is a success.

“Go.  You’ve still got a minute to get to your locker.”  I give her a hug and a kiss to last me all day.

“Bye, Mom.  I love you.”

And just like that, she’s gone.  I know what comes next: high school, college, marriage, grandkids, all before I have a second to catch my breath, snap a photo, make a note in my journal. All the racing around and then poof, you’re there.  I wish I could bend time back to when she was a baby, a toddler, a preschooler.  I’d freeze it here and there, my favorite moments, suspended in that time bubble, available for ready retrieval like bags of M&Ms in the vending machine.  That’s the funny thing about time: it presents itself to us in linear fashion, but there’s nothing even remotely linear about it.  It’s just that we haven’t figured that out yet.

So I’m working on this trick, the one where you treat time like a radio frequency and tune in to any station you want.  Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night, right about the time she was born, 12 years ago today, and I heard her little girl voice — not the big 12-year old voice, but circa 1st grade — say, “Hi, Mommy.”  I opened my eyes, expecting to see her standing beside the bed, but there was no Arianna, just the echo of her little voice.  I’d done it!  I’d slipped through a portal in time!  Armed with the knowledge of this spectacular accomplishment, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Happy Birthday, Arianna.  Your mother loves you — All The Time.

pl

There’s a New Sheriff in Town

There are certain things we take for granted. Every. Single. Day. Things that support us, things like chairs, shoes, brassieres. We don’t take much notice of them as long as they do their jobs and we get what we need out of the relationship. That’s just how we are; creatures of habit. We find a groove, and we don’t generally change unless something rears up and smacks us where it smarts.

So then about two months ago, I noticed that my formerly fabulous ladies’ garments were no longer doing their job as seamlessly as they had hitherto. Well, except for that delicious little gem I picked up in Paris a couple of years ago and paid way too much for, but that’s another story. Lately, I’ve been feeling pinched and chaffed and generally squeezed in all of the wrong places. I am continually grabbing at straps which list in a mournful droop, or I work a finger under the wire where it’s digging into my tender flesh, and pry it away.

According to Oprah’s experts (and we all know that O is the expert about anything she shines her laser light upon), eight out of 10 women are wearing the wrong bra size. Sisters! What is wrong with this picture? Either a) we have no idea what our cup size is, really, or b) we buy bargain Kia bras and expect to them to drive like Mercedes.

Bras are like makeup and eyebrow waxing. They are things that we should have learned about in our tender fledgling years. But most of us don’t have the first clue about how to manage these finer points of personal grooming. Not only is it important to size your essential garments correctly, but if you’re like most women, your weight fluctuates and so too, does the size of your girls. According to the experts, we are striving for support, not spillage. Like a dam, sometimes spillage is good, but not all the time. Sometimes ice cream is good, but not all the time. It’s complicated being a goddess.

So anyway, I yanked my strap for the last time and decided to invest in a few new personal garments. Never mind the shopping spree was incited by the flush of meeting a person of interest (who, as it turns out, will never see the beauty of these bits of lace and magic). New undies! I was excited and nervous as a bride. I knew what I wanted: no scraps of baby-doll lace, no staunch matronly contraptions for me. Nothing to flatten or create optical illusions. Just a basic, pretty, and supportive. . .in a hot kind of way. There are miracle fabrics today that can do anything, even get a girl to the moon, so I knew there were bras with qualities of both Xena and Venus.

So, I cruised through the lingerie department of my local clothing emporium until I spotted just the item for me. She was black and beige and lacy and I thought I would swoon right there in the middle of Ladies Foundations. I glanced at the price tag and nearly swooned again. But then (still harboring the illusion of an unveiling), I convinced myself that the girls were worth it, that I was worth the investment. It was about time I splurged on something basic and beautiful, even if it would remain my own sweet secret.  On the way to the register, I swiped half a dozen frothy little bits of matching décor to dress up the downstairs, and can I just say, with my sale, the sales clerk had a very, very good day.

I did not test-drive the new garments in the store. If I can avoid it at all, I will not strip down in any department store dressing room. The de rigueur fluorescent lighting that department stores insist upon is not only destructive to the collagen cells in our skin, but it is guaranteed to cast ugly shadows, paint skin in the most unflattering of tones, and the evil devices have an uncanny way of magnifying every. Effing. Flaw. Ack!

So, I didn’t try on my little indulgence until I got home. That was when I danced with happiness. I didn’t know. How could I? The brassiere is a marvel of engineering. When constructed with the aesthetics of feminine grace and the female form (not the WWII fantasy pinup or the alarmingly emaciated Victoria’s Secret models), they not only flatter, but they cradle, they cushion, they lovingly caress each curve and swell like a lover’s perfect adoration.  If I were to compose a haiku in honor of my new best friend, it would be: harsh prison dissolves/soft caress J’adore/O joy.

Since my purchase, I’ve been walking up to co-workers and confiding, “I love my new bra.”  I rush to add, “I know, TMI. . .but really. . .I love my new bra.” Then I tell them the brand and how much I spent. Shocking! I cup my breasts like Anna Nicole Smith. I manage to refrain from pulling my sweater over my head to show off the pretty lace fleurettes that embellish my ta-tas. But I’m actually giddy. “I’m never going back!” I whisper. And I mean it. Once you’ve tasted a five star crème brulee, pudding cups ain’t gonna cut it anymore, baby.

I’m going home tonight and burning my old bras, the ones that tortured and tormented. There’s a new sheriff in town, and her companions are beauty and grace.

cg

The Main Thing

 My mom and I are about to have lunch at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant.  On any given Friday we may have had a third, my friend Jean, a divine and amazing woman.  We met in screenwriting class 14 years ago and became fast friends, our writing the glue that held our friendship together despite the three-decade difference in our ages.  Through that lens we saw the irony and the poetry of life.  On this particular day it was just mom and I; Jean died that morning.

Jean and I would have lunch together every couple months, and during those first years my life was troublesome.  Jean became my unofficial psychologist, listening with empathy to my seemingly unending tale of misfortune, a touchstone of grace and absolution, and my official cheerleader, always with a kind word, a beautiful smile, an understanding, been there, done that kind of wisdom.  She’d been raised by a single mom and devoted grandparents; one day my daughter would be in similar waters. Over fajitas, and Chinese, over American, and the limitless salad bowl at the Olive Garden, and our favorite, vermicelli salad bowls with Vietnamese egg rolls, we discussed it all:  endless house renovations (mine), moving from the family home to an apartment (hers), a couple miscarriages (mine), a baby (mine), grown children (hers), husbands (hers dead several decades), grandchildren (hers), a divorce (mine), and our countless agent rejections.   Over grilled romaine salads with salmon we exchanged tales from the front lines of our lives.

On the day my daughter was born, Jean was at the Pantry Restaurant, waiting for me to enjoy the best breakfast in Lancaster County with her while I was at my doctor’s office where my water was breaking all over my doctor’s new shoes.  Jean always had a special affinity with my daughter, an emotional understanding that spanned three-quarters of a century.  As for me, just knowing someone as divine as Jean who had herself been raised by a single mother calmed me on more than one occasion.  That was the first two years.

As the years ran by — because there’s no other way to describe a family life in progress in other than marathon terms — there seemed to be no problem that couldn’t be solved over lunch.  I got remarried to a great guy with two young children and, voila, instant family.  Such big and far reaching changes require huge emotional investments which meant more lunches with Jean.   Sometime later we added a third to our mix, my mom, who gained a girlfriend in Jean as well.

As my life steadied, Jean’s started to fall in at the edges.  She had some health issues, and concerns for her adult children, along with a huge, heartfelt the desire to step in and take control for them, to save them from themselves, to give McArthur-type orders as she did when they were young and relied upon her for everything.  She wanted to; she dared not.

The bigger problems stretched over many lunches, taking more time to marinate in the stew of dreams and realities, sometimes presenting themselves in the space of the refrigerator, the deep fryer, the grill.  Her adult children were changing occupations and spouses and living arrangements — all the big ticket stress-y items — and it was tough to sit idly by and let them make their own mistakes.  She did, and a wiser, more tolerant woman emerged, which is exactly the way life is supposed to work when we don’t fight it or stunt it or hide from it.  When faced with making major life changes or death, some people just choose death.  Jean choose a brilliant, vital life, making trips to New York to see the Opera or a Broadway show, until the last six months.  Afterwards, she didn’t cry or bemoan her fate even though her body took her out of the game six months before her mind did, and when she was finally confined to her bed, her spirit still soared, strong and vibrant.  On any given day, you’d walk into her room and Jean would be holding court.  Just knowing her made you feel better about yourself, and people would line up for a shot of that.  She kept her wits, and her dignity, until the end.  We’d bring Jean’s favorite lunch, those amazing egg rolls, and she’d eat them while lying in bed — she could no longer sit up — and fill herself with egg rolls and our stories, like she was stashing them away for the lean times.  She never let me leave without sending something home “for the kids.”

In the dark days, those last few when she’d slipped into unconsciousness, Jean smiled when you kissed her.  She had been taking nothing in, no food no water, and now no light, only breath.  She’d already boarded the train to see her mother, dead many, many years. Jean had been speaking with her mother often since they’d put her on a morphine drip.  Her husband, her grandparents, her best friend, also named Jean, they were all waiting.  Imagine the party she was dolling up for, and the people she was getting ready to kiss.

If Jean were still here she’d say not to cry, not to worry for her, and not to miss her too much, although she’d secretly like that you did just the teeniest of bits.  She’d say, “Death is a Promotion, People, don’t waste your time worrying about it.  Life’s too short to pine.  She lived  forever without her beloved husband, yet she didn’t live half a life in that time, but a full and effervescent one.  In our screenwriting class, Jean had written a script called, The Main Thing, a story set in Cornwall, England — one of her most favorite places — about a widow and a handsome man, both in the autumn of their lives, both missing important persons of their own, yet both, reluctantly, happy to find love again.  They didn’t realize that, of course, until the end, because it was a romantic dramedy and there wouldn’t be a story without the wait for it.  The premise of the script:  “Just have fun.  That’s the main thing.”  I love that story — it epitomizes Jean.

On the way out of the restaurant there was a guy in the parking lot, talking on his cell phone.

“Hey Mom, how you doin’?” he said.  On the way in, there had been a different guy on a different phone, but he had said the same thing.  It was Jean talking to me — she used to say, “How’s Mrs. Wonderful?” whenever I would call — and what she was saying now was this:  death is a sham, a costume change, death is a promotion.

“Have fun,” Jean would say.  “That’s The Main Thing.”

pl

Ultra-Virus

 In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down Roe v. Wade, a controversial decision granting a pregnant woman, in conjunction with her doctor, the right to choose abortion early in her pregnancy without any legal ramifications, and in later months for good cause, namely, protecting the health of the mother.  The decision was based upon the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and put forth the notion that a woman had a right to privacy in her own body.  Until that decision, women had suffered countless millenia of grief and shame — and possible criminal charges — associated with unwanted pregnancies and attempts at abortion.  Many of our predecessors died or were made sterile as a result of botched procedures — coat hangers and the like — although the numbers are fuzzy as the humiliation shrouding the topic has made it hard to get a head count. The decision should have been a watershed for women’s rights activists, and to an extent it was, given that it outlawed anti-abortion laws in the states, but after almost four decades of living with Roe v. Wade, the controversy surrounding the decision has not dimmed, rather it’s waxed and waned depending on who knows what, the cycles of the moon, perhaps, or whether Mercury is in retrograde.  I believe it’s tied to election years and since it’s always an election year somewhere….

Unfortunately, the assaults on women who choose abortions and the doctors that assist them have become more subversive in the last few decades:  bombing abortion clinics, murdering doctors who perform the procedure, and other terrorist-type attacks which would make Al Queda blush.  Now we have a new evil, the “Women’s Right to Know Act,” legislation with a 19th-century feel to it and which, if enacted into law, will require women about to get an abortion to have an ultrasound within the 24-hour period before the abortion, to look at the image of the fetus on the screen, and listen to the heartbeat when detectable, and if the woman chooses not to look or listen, notes will be made.  What they do later with those notes is anyone’s guess, but reason suggests that it smacks of something sinister.  Granted, the bill doesn’t deny a woman her right to choose — that would be against the Supreme Court decision and the current state of the law — but it makes it a darn shade more difficult to make that choice, akin to emotional sabotage, and something Rick Santorum has been doing to my psyche since he stepped onto the national stage.  Just to be clear, this isn’t a health issue or medically necessary, but a redundant ultrasound designed to strong arm a woman into changing her mind.

We women really don’t need to be saved from ourselves.  Our brains are working perfectly well even with the PMS thing, yet the rhetoric regarding family values versus a woman’s place in the working world zings us every time.  The hard-won and well-earned rights of women, rights that have been gaining ground since we took to the factory floor during World War II, are at risk of becoming more endangered than the Florida panther, yet I’m not sure if any of us even notice.

Abortion is an uber right, one not to be taken lightly, an emotionally hyper-charged subject that requires grave consideration in every instance, but that consideration rightfully belongs, in each instance, to a few.  It’s none of our business what a woman considering her options chooses — it’s her body and her decision — but I’d bet cold cash that none of them got to where they are without a good bit of soul searching.  The only other person who should have a say, besides the doctor, is the father, but where is he in this bill?  Does he have to look at the screen, too?  Will notes be made if he doesn’t?  By the way, in war, are men required to look the enemy in the eye before they shoot.

In Latin, the term ultra vires means to act beyond one’s power or authority.  It’s behaving as if you have the keys to the city when all you have is a map.  Pennsylvania’s mandatory ultrasound bill is ultra vires.  It wants the keys to a woman’s city and her life.  Herein lies the conundrum for me.  We’re so up in arms about protecting the life of the fetus, but it seems once the kid’s born their life is no longer as precious.  Those who deny this should look at the budget cuts that have been ongoing since the Reagan years; they hit impoverished women and children the hardest.  We are a backwards society if our concern for a developing fetus stops when the child is born.

It’s not even about Christian values, but control.  Women have gotten much more powerful in the last few decades, economically, politically, emotionally.  If you’re constantly fighting a chimera, you have no energy left to fight the real battles.  This strategy gives me anticipatory fatigue, exactly the reaction it’s designed to elicit.  The majority of the people running this country — middle-aged white males — may be just a teensy bit afraid of women.  Not singularly, because men are bigger and stronger and what not, but collectively.  They realize that if women ever really got together and started supporting each other in more meaningful ways, things would start changing PDQ.  (And you would have to pick up all your crap in the living room, and stop leaving your dishes in the sink, so there.)

The best way to keep a woman down is to demonize her.  In Greek mythology, the Chimera was a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail, a demon.  The Pennsylvania ultrasound bill demonizes women, yet it’s not just ultra vires, but an Ultra-Virus, this usurping of our privacy rights (think face recognition cameras and Internet cookies) and it’s spreading.  It won’t stop with women, don’t kid yourself, but keep replicating until it’s taken over us all (think circa 1933 pre-war Germany).

Hell isn’t where you go after death, but a world of mistrust and misalignment, of people not only hating each other, but themselves.  Hell looks a lot like us.  If we can’t trust a women to make the best decision for herself and her body, who shall we trust?  The next door neighbor?  The government?  The real Chimera in our country today is not abortion, but our failure to communicate, to listen with not only the mind, but the heart.  It’s not a man versus woman issue, it’s a human issue.

The debate on the ultrasound bill has been tabled for now — after all, it is an election year and election years make strange bedfellows — but like all really good pathogens, it has just gone underground, hiding inside the host, waiting for the day it can make a solid resurgence.  As such, we women would be wise to adopt the Boy Scout motto.  Be Prepared.

pl

Grammar Nazi

On the first night of Composition class I had a student with scruffy Billy goat chin whiskers tell me that he was only in class because it was a requirement, that he thought it was a waste of his time. Then, he  delivered the coup de grace.

“Are you going to be one of those grammar Nazis?”

I looked at him, blinked. “Why, yes, I am,” I said. “This is a writing class, and it’s what they pay me for.” Then I smiled and said as sweetly as I could, while gesturing toward the door. “Oh, but if you don’t want to be here, you are free to leave. Really.”

He declined my invitation to put us both out of his misery, and then spent the remaining class time (four hours) surfing the Net and doing his best to pretend he was not actually, you know, in class.

I suppose I should admit that I’m an accidental teacher. It’s nothing that I really set out to do, but as it turns out, I’m kind of good at it. Probably, because I did not take the traditional route to the chalkboard. In college, when I had the chance to major in English, I took a gander at the rigors of the studies and turned it down, flat. Oh, heck no. It all seemed a bit too. . .fussy for me. Instead, I majored in public relations. I was still writing, but with more emphasis on the function than the form. It was creative and less confining. There were fewer rules.

Then, I got my master’s degree and decided to put it to good effect and try out this teaching business. This is when I really learned about grammar: when I had to teach it. I had no idea some of those parts of sentences even had names, but they do, and they are the devil. All the fussy rules about English grammar, about which no one cares but linguists and English majors, were of no interest to me until I had to teach them. Even then, I was pretty selective about how I would l torture my students.

See, I get why people cringe at the very idea of grammar. So I tell my grasshoppers that there are rules, and there are exceptions to the rules, and they just have to do their best to try to make sense of them. “The English language is a conundrum! Deal with it!” I reinforce using spell check (please, for the love of all that is holy, use it), homonyms (two is a number, too means  also), apostrophes (watch out for misplaced apostrophe’s!). I also emphasize structure. “Get the structure of an essay down now, and sail through all those future papers.” I know, only so much will stick. But it’s all worth it, when you see the lights go on where there were no lights before.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a former student drop into my classroom as I prepped for the night’s agenda.

“I just want to thank you,” she said.

Aw, sweet. “Why?” I asked.

“My last teacher took me aside and told me what a good writer I am,” she said. “I told her it was because of you.”

I couldn’t help it. My eyes got all teary. This was a student who had also told me on the first night of that class: “I don’t like to write, I never have, and you can’t make me.” I replied as I always do to each member of the grammar resistance that I come up against, “You don’t have to like it. But I can teach you some tools that will help you, if you want them.”

And clearly, she did. She turned out to be quite a good writer, once she understood how to make what she does well, work for her. In her case, it was organization. The girl is a whiz at organization, so her structure is beautiful even if her grammar isn’t perfect, but that will get better, too.

So back to the Grammar Nazi. I had my current group of students  post messages about ‘tips for new students’ in our class forum, and the young man with the chin whiskers took a few direct shots at “the gramer natzi.”  I winced, and said nothing. I didn’t have to. The rest of the class went on the offensive. “Dude!” they wrote. “You’ll never get through the program if you don’t learn to use spell-check!” (The gods do hear my pleas.) “It’s not unrealistic to expect good grammar and good punctuation. This is college.” They rocked, misspellings and all. It made me proud. So, I have an unconventional approach to teaching the skills of writing. But for many, it works.

Good evening. My name is Cynthia, and I will be your Grammar Nazi for this portion of the program.

cg

Feminist Slurs and Free Viagra

The summer after 9th grade, I wanted a lifeguard position at our local swim club in the worst way.  I was on the varsity swim team at the high school, and my coach also coached the summer league and managed the pool.  There were three lifeguard spots available and I was a shoe-in for one of them.  I was wrong.  Coach offered all three positions to the guys on the swim team, and told me the work was too physically demanding, a ludicrous reason given that I practiced side-by-side with those guys, lifting weights and swimming, upwards of four hours a day, six days a week.  They may have been stronger, but there was nothing that job required that I couldn’t do and Coach knew it.  It was the mid-70’s and all those lofty feminist ideals were still twinkling in some visionary women’s eyes.  I was fourteen.  A male authority figure in my life had spoken.  There wasn’t much I could do.

Fast forward to the present.  I’m a wife, a mother, a lawyer, and a writer — the order of importance varies, depending on what day it is — and I can’t remember a single instance of discrimination since the time I was fourteen.  Is that even possible, or have I rewritten history?  Most of the worlds I currently live in have equality at their base, an “all men and women are created equal so why waste time talking about it” feel to them.  Perhaps it’s because I work for the government where an egalitarian aura permeates the halls; that writing is an equal opportunity employer; and that my husband and I believe in the prospects of equal partnership.  As for the kids, they fear me more than their father because of my Mediterranean temperament, but that’s another discussion.

What puzzles me is why people are still ranting about the topic of women’s reproductive health.  Weren’t these issues settled about three decades ago?  Now Catholic institutions are aghast because Obama’s health care law will require them to provide birth control to their employees as part of their insurance coverage — Catholics don’t believe in birth control — yet Catholic institution’s insurance plans provide Viagra with nary a care.  No to birth control; yes to Viagra!  They say this comports with Catholic doctrine, and it does, but, really?!  Is a guy old enough to need Viagra someone who should be siring more children?

After the Susan Fluke debacle, it’s become increasingly clear that as a man, you can say what you want about a woman, no matter its veracity.  That’s the strategy Rush Limbaugh employs:  say it big, say it bold, don’t worry whether it’s true.  By the time you have to redact, the proverbial cat will be impossible to even locate.  It’s spin strategy, and it works.

While I’ve never considered myself a feminist in the organizational sense, but as I get older, I can see the need.  Today, forty percent of women earn more than their spouses, yet we hold only a fraction of the seats in Congress, and our daughters have no idea how hard that much was.  Worse still, while our little darlings are held, transfixed by all those high heels in the store window (reminiscent of the days of foot-binding in 18th century China, if you ask me), white Christian men are hijacking their future.

If a woman is busy dealing with issues surrounding contraception — where to get it; how to pay for it; what to do about an unwanted pregnancy, or an ovarian cyst that could have been controlled with birth control pills, to name a few — then she has less time to compete with men doing men things.  All a man has to do — or anyone, really, because women do this to other women — is insinuate promiscuity and the named target is guilty until proven innocent.  In this way we’re not much better than the Taliban.

A few weeks ago, the tables turned a bit. I’m sure Rush didn’t expect his advertisers to abandon him simply because he called Susan Fluke a bad name.  In the shock jock world, controversy is good for business, but when no amount of apology can undo the malicious nature of the words, the sponsors are not going to stick around.  We women have too much financial clout and how we spend our dollars matters.

There’s no excuse for telling lies about people, especially when they are exercising their right to free speech.  It’s called defamation, and there are laws which go to the very heart of how we human beings speak to and characterize each other.    Despite these laws — as if civility should even have to be legislated, but that’s another discussion — the level of animosity in our country has reached epic proportions:  brother against brother; red state against blue state; a mean-spiritedness that hasn’t been seen since the days of the civil war, or George W. stole the election.  Limbaugh and his ilk have had more than a little to do with that.

Perhaps in Susan Fluke my daughters will see a modern day suffragette.  Do we women realize how many of our sisters who came before were reviled, jailed and even beaten so we could shop at Victoria’s Secret?  I don’t think that’s what those women had in mind when they sat shivering in a dank prison cell.  So why are we squandering of our political capitol?  History has shown that if women are going to succeed at changing anything, they need to stick together.

Back to my lifeguarding job.  I did say something to Coach — okay, I griped and moaned — and guess what?  I got the job.  It wasn’t my relentless scootching (my mother’s word for being a pest) that got the job for me, but dumb luck.  The third guy got a better offer so I slipped in, and for the rest of the summer, I worked my proverbial butt off to prove I deserved it.  I hauled hundred pound bags of soda ash down a creaky metal stairway to the floor of the pump room; I cut the 2-acre lawn with a push mower, moving gargantuan picnic tables to get at the grass underneath; I vacuumed the pool (as opposed to pretending to vacuum, RJ), even the hard-to-get-at parts.  I did more work than the guys collectively did, week after week, just to stay on equal footing, but in the end it was worth it.  I can’t recall a single instance of discrimination since, as if by tackling the problem head-on, I exercised it from my life forever.

When I was young, I knew for a fact that men were in charge, but I found a way around it.  Today, I see women taking their place alongside men as equals.  There should be more of us, but until women start supporting each other in ways that men cannot, men will always have the upper hand.  We’re not looking for world domination, just an equal voice in how the world works.  Translation:  control of our hearts, minds, destinies, and need I say, our own bodies.

pl

 

Reading Energy and Other Occupational Hazards

Please then remember, and don’t get too close, to one special one, he will take your defenses and run. So we change partners, always change partners  ~Stephen Stills

What does it mean to read energy? Some people think it’s a lot of new age hoo-haw. Some people think it’s as real as love or regret. I would fall into the category of believers with this reasoning: energy is like air; just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

The other night, I was at a business networking event with the local Chamber of Commerce. It was a pretty cool gig, hosted by the new soccer franchise in town. The meeting was held in a hospitality suite at the newly renovated stadium. I had volunteered to be an ambassador for the event, so I was there to work the room, greet wallflowers, coax introductions, and generally mingle.

Left to my own devices, I am a shy girl. I prefer to observe a situation before I jump into it with both feet. But weirdly, in a business gathering, I am able to flip a switch and charm the pants off of anyone I want. On the Meyers Briggs scale, I am an INFP. This means I’m an intuitive, a reader, a feeler, a perceiver. I’m not naturally extroverted. Instead, I read the etheric, I feel the vibes. Plus, I’m a professional fundraiser, so I have to be a clue-reader to understand what motivates people to hand over their cash. Money is big juju, in case you haven’t noticed. It isn’t just paper, it’s power and Mother, and God, the Yin and the Yang, and country, sinners and saints, and a whole lot of other stuff mixed in.

So there I was, working the room, nodding to people I know, weaving in and out of the crowd. There was a break in the action, and a couple of announcements were made, a couple of prizes were given. Tickets to the symphony, a signed soccer ball. The crowd was feeling good, juiced on networking sizzle and glasses of good local IPA.

Then, I spot a woman I know, someone I want to talk to. I make my way over to her and she is chatting up the guy who had won the soccer ball. She introduces him as the owner of a local luxury car dealership, the guy whose banners are plastered all over the stadium, and before I can ask her what I want to know, she adeptly vanishes.

So there I am, talking to a guy clutching a shiny blue National Soccer League ball. “Hey, that’s some ball,” I say. (How you doin’?)

He squints at my nametag with the little Chamber ribbon hanging off the bottom. “You’re an ambassador,” he replies. (I’m okay, you?)

We chat superficially, as one does at these events. We discover that we have some common ground, that we had each emigrated to this lovely town from the Bay Area. We get a little animated about our former hometown, and the vibe gets a little flirty. Networking, I’ve discovered, is a form of flirtation in which  the endgame is a business transaction. Nevertheless, it’s a mambo and requires a certain grace.

“My wife used to work for a Mega Corp, in,” he says, naming a town I love. “You know it?” (I’m married.)

“Yes, of course!” I reply. (How nice for you.)

“So then, we moved up here. (Still married. Don’t get any ideas.)

“Don’t you just love it here?” (Please. Get over yourself.)

Then, in the midst of our schmoozy patter, he is suddenly not trying to sell me a car anymore, or even pretend to network. Suddenly, he’s all aggression. “You don’t know me,” he challenges. (I don’t feel safe. Back off, sister.)

At his abrupt shift of tempo, I switch my own. I don’t like the vibe he’s giving off. I don’t like the accusation in his tone. What can I say? Sometimes I’m a good witch. Sometimes I’m not. “Oh,” I reply, arching a brow. “I know you. I’m a professional fundraiser. I know all about you.”  (Trust me pal, it’s not your virtue I’m after.)

Luxury car guy takes a stumbling step back, gets a weird look on his face. I smile like the ice queen and he can’t move away fast enough. “I gotta get a refill,” he says, making a break for the relative safety of the bar. (Lady, you are scary.)

I wave and shout to his retreating back. “Nice meeting you!” (Yes. I am.)

I may or may not get the ambassador of the year award, but I do know this.  You have to use your power for good. When provoked however, it’s okay to stand your ground and use your power to smack warty little toads upside their tiny little heads. Then, you smile, and curtsy, and change partners.

cg

The 45-Second Commute

 I recently went to Washington, D.C. for a weekend away with my girlfriends and while there, we took a tour of the West Wing.  Not the East Wing where throngs of tourists go each year to see the Christmas tree or catch a glimpse of the First Lady’s pick for a china pattern, but the West Wing where the most powerful man in the world does the 9-2-5.  We had a special tour.  My friend’s niece is doing a two-year fellowship with the Office of Management and Budget — not much pressure there —  and offered, most kindly, to give up her Saturday night and take us on a tour she’s given dozens of times to friends and relatives (a million thanks, A.).  While the East Wing comes off like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the West Wing is more of a Forbes Most Powerful People list since it houses the offices of the President of the United States.

The West Wing is where the action is, and just like the Savior in the manger, it comes cleverly disguised in an unassuming package.  The ceilings are low, the hallways tight, the overall design, dated.  In fact, but for the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, and possibly the Situation Room, it would be quite unremarkable, especially in comparison to the flamboyant grandeur of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Offices just across the driveway.  There, fifteen-foot ceilings rule, gorgeous molding adorns every wall, nook and lintel, and brass balusters (over 1,400 of them) line the stairways (all 65 of them).

Back to the West Wing.  Burnt in 1814 by the British during the war of 1812 it was refurbished by just about everyone who lived there afterwards with the most substantial work contracted out by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who oversaw the restoration to its historic grandeur.  Yet even with such attention to historic detail, the West Wing will not be making the cover of architectural digest anytime soon.  Not that it’s in any way shabby, it’s just not grandiose in the way you’d expect a structure to be that houses the offices of so many important people, people who shape our policy and our world, people who guide our hand.

It makes no matter.  The entire place is a monument to glory, both past and present.  The air practically ripples with authority, urgency, and importance.  The walls, if coaxed to speak, might say, “if you’re distracted by style, you’re surely going to miss the point.”  The walls, by the way, are loaded with what they call jumbos, a series of 16” x 20” photographs which are rotated every few weeks.  The photos chronicle the life of the president and those close to him both professionally and personally.  Hundreds of photos are taken of the president and his advisors each week.  A few dozen of these photos line the walls of the West Wing and if you don’t catch a glimpse of the real life President, the photographs are the next best thing.

Among the rooms, the Oval Office is a shining star, stunning for a variety of reasons: the ten, maybe twelve-foot windows with views out to the Rose Garden (and the First Kids’ jungle gym);  the President’s desk, created from wood salvaged from the HMS Resolute (a ship from the British Royal Navy built for Arctic exploration); the oval rug with quotes taken from presidents past and chosen by the sitting president.

The Cabinet Room, true to its name, is where Obama meets with his cabinet secretaries and advisors.  They sit in order of age established — the oldest established cabinets get the choicest seats.  The chairs have engraved brass plates with the names of the cabinet positions attached to the back except for Obama’s which says simply, “The President.”  The decor is in the Georgian style with neoclassical ceiling molding and French doors with lunette windows.  A painting entitled, “The Signing of The Declaration of Independence,” hangs above the mantel.  It’s all very official and stately and humbling.

I’d describe the Situation Room, but the clearance needed was too high for us to even get in.  I do know it’s a 5,000 sq. foot complex that was created by JFK after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion to serve as the epicenter of information and technology for the president.  All cell phones and other electronic devices must be left outside the Situation Room to assure nothing is recorded or unwittingly broadcast to the outside world.  We heard voices behind the closed doors of the Situation Room and waited outside like school children, trying to catch a glimpse of the powers that be.  When the door did burst open, a group of four came out, laughing.  No president, or secretary-general, just a few people with a little higher clearance than we had.

The best part of the tour was the Rose Garden which serves not just as a place of great beauty and a spot for the jungle gym — the few reminders that this was a home as well as the seat of immense power were always a bit jarring —  it also allows for Marine One, the President’s helicopter, to come and go from the South Lawn.  We stood on the brick walk under the colonnade, the same route along which the most powerful man in the world makes his morning commute.  Since the First Family’s Executive Residence is at one end of the hallway and the West Wing is at the other, the President has a 45-second commute.  Contrast that with my 2-hour commute and I have to admit to a bit of jealousy.  It was still winter, and there wasn’t much happening with the roses, but the grounds were meticulously manicured and the bushes were responding to the first whiffs of spring.

Now, imagine, it’s windy and cold, the sky is grey, nothing is in bloom so the grounds are more of the same, and suddenly, we hear a door slam a distance away and a few moments later we see a dog sprinting across the lawn, pulling, what’s that?  A First Kid!  Probably Sasha (Malia is so tall it couldn’t have been her).  It all happened in a few seconds, the tug on the leash, Sasha lurching forward, being pulled in directions unknown to her, completely at the whim of the First Pooch.  They were there and gone, leaving us chattering on about who and what and where, and in that moment, we remembered what all that power and all those meeting rooms and decisions about so many urgent situations were about.  Our children.  Our future.

 pl

 

fundraising emergencies

I am a professional fundraiser. It’s what I do for my work.  Before you go getting all dewy eyed and calling me all noble or heroic, know this: I am paid to do this work. It is my job to ask people for money for charity. There are thousands of people who volunteer their time for worthy causes, people who raise money for free. Not me; I’m paid to do it. Don’t get me wrong. I believe with my heart and lungs and guts that I belong in the public sector and not the private one, for too many reasons to list. But my point is, we saints of the nonprofit world are like any other working stiffs; we love our jobs, we hate our jobs, we laugh behind our jobs’ backs.

My associate and I have a running joke. When I need a day to myself, an escape, a play date, I tell her I’m going MIA, but that if she needs me, she can always reach me by phone. “Yeah,” she says sotto voce. “I’ll call you if we have any fundraising emergencies.”  We both get a good laugh out of that line, every time.  Fundraising emergency! Bwah-ha-hah!

In our quiet little community nonprofit, there are no catastrophes. We work apace, plan gala events, write sad and compelling direct mail letters, ask the rich to give to the poor. By contrast and unlike such venerable agencies like the American Red Cross, who with the smashing of a tsunami or wreckage of a hurricane, can spring into action and raise more American dollars via Twitter or Facebook in one hour than most Main Street agencies raise in a year, we get by. Crisis, as it turns out, is viagra for compassion.

We small town nonprofits on the other hand, depend on the kindness of people we know. Any month that we keep the lights on and make payroll is a good month.  I’m not whining, merely stating a fact. Increasingly, there is a science and a method to effective fundraising. More and more, my associate and I plot ways to become more efficient, to create email messages so compelling  that our people will a) have an emotional response and then  b) click the donate now button. Increasingly, we look to the Internet to cast our seeds of cheer and goodwill.

In the early days of the Internet, no one could quite figure out what to do with all that cyber potential besides send emails to friends and surf porn. In fact, in that time between when Al Gore invented the Internet and the miracle birth of Social Media, we all loved the Net, but our computers were like appliances that we used  at most, twice a day, like a toaster.

At a point just before my first marriage hit the shoals of its own disaster, my soon-to-be ex confided that he wanted to start and Internet business and I looked at him like he had sprouted horns. I wanted to say something profound, something  a supportive wife should, but  all I could do is blink and say, “But you don’t know anything about the Internet.” Now, I realize, he was a visionary. Now, no one has to know the first thing about the Internet to make a fortune there. All you need is a good disaster, a little fear or a little avarice or maybe all three, and you’re good to go.

Did you know that the day the Twin Towers went down changed how we use the Internet forever? Suddenly, the Web was not just a place to exchange banal emails; it was a place to share instant information, to relay disaster in real time.  Internet communication became a call to arms like no other in the history of the world.  And then someone connected the dots between disaster. . .and fundraising.  Hurricane Katrina revolutionized online donor cultivation.  By the time the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, online disaster relief was a well-oiled machine and the global community reached for their iPads and Smart Phones and transferred global cash to the Red Cross so fast that the banks could barely keep up with the currency exchange.

Eventually, online fundraising will out-perform the traditional snail mail solicitation letter. It won’t happen tomorrow or the day after that, but it will happen. It’s only a matter of time. Meanwhile, I consider the moral and ethical implications of engineering a fundraising emergency. Nothing serious mind you, just maybe something to stir the cravings of compassion.

cg

getting some of that love

You never know what will happen when you Google yourself. Pam Lazos, esteemed co-blogger on this site Googled herself and found out that she is more popular than she realized. Pam’s novella, “The Quality of Light” was listed as a semi-finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Wisdom Competition. That’s crazy amazing, and we love it! BTW, prizes are not the reason we write, but sheesh, they are so way cool. xoxo-cg

PS: click here to see for yourself.

Crash Helmet Optional

 Something’s happened recently that’s made driving more fun than a barrel full of monkeys.  No, I didn’t get a new car, or even have the old one detailed.  It’s something more mundane in that it happens everyday in cities and states all across the country, even the world, but even in its mundaneness it’s so hair-raising, so terror-inducing, and full of more uncertainty than the typical American voter, that it can rip a primal scream from your lungs at any given moment.  I’m referring, of course, to this:  my 16-year old recently got her learner’s permit.

For some of you, those not in the car, for instance, you have no idea.  For others of you, those in the other car, for instance, you really have no idea.

She stops before the stop sign, making it difficult, if not impossible to see if anything’s coming. She slows down miles before the traffic light, although it’s admittedly better than squealing to a halt. She pulls out of parking stalls without looking behind here to see if anything is coming.  These are only the tiniest tips of the proverbial iceberg.

I’m not proud of my responses to such transgressions:

“What are you, nuts?”

“Do you want to get yourself killed?”

and my personal favorite, “Just because you have the right-of-way doesn’t make it right.”; as in, “The right-of-way doesn’t stop the idiot running a red light or pay the hospital bills while you’re in traction!”

On and on I blather, more for my benefit than hers as she’s clearly not listening.  She regards my advice on the subject of driving as she regards most other advice I offer her — with a raised eyebrow and a reticent stare.  My interpretation is that she is not receiving, or that she considers my proclamations inconsequential at best, irrelevant at worst.

In order quell the widening tide of anxiety that resulted each time I got in the car with her, I enrolled her in a AAA driving class.  It was the best $400 I ever spent because now someone else can blather on about the rights and wrongs, the skills and know how, while I get to dangle the keys and then sit in the passenger seat without us having to square off like WWF rivals at the main event on Saturday night.  Now I’m free to refer to the manual, recite the rules, and say things like, “didn’t they teach you that in driving class?” without breaking a sweat.

My mantra and the one I encourage her to adopt is that the best offense is defense and while such defensive driving techniques may not ensure safe arrival, it will at least tip the odds in her favor.  There are so many bad drivers out there:  the texters, the makeup appliers, the talkers (you know, the ones who constantly look at the passengers in their car instead of the road); the drivers who feel that lanes of traffic should part for them, that wait for no car even — my personal pet peeve — if they are taking advantage of a Right on Red and the oncoming traffic has the green light.  I wonder if having her wear a crash helmet wouldn’t be just the right fashion accessory.

While I sound heavy handed, I feel for her.  Driving is tough, so much to process at first, and she’s saddled with a teenage brain, the kind that doesn’t start thinking about consequences until, oh, say 25.  Then there’s the absolute frenetic driving rituals so in play today.  People must get there, and they must get there immediately even though this leaves no time for civility.  The only ones left with any courtesy anymore are the truck drivers.  I mean this sincerely.  You could let 50 people go in front of you on a turn out into traffic from a side street or parking lot and only one in about every 50 will even register that a kindness has been done them.  Gone are the waves, the smiles, the nods of the head.  I don’t expect them to roll down their window and express undying gratitude.  That would be ridiculous.  But a simple gesture to acknowledge my gesture, or even that another human being is there, living and breathing, a mere couple of dashboards away.  Is this too much to ask?

Yet the masses are unconscious.  If you don’t believe me, just spend some time driving around when you have nowhere in particular to be and observe other drivers in action.  Weird, right?  Both astounding and amazing.  It is into this climate and under these circumstances that we send our daughter, out into the fray, hoping she can stay awake and alert, praying that she’ll stay conscious and return home, safe and unscarred.

Equipped with no more than this fervent hope, her father and I turn to each other and say, “thank God for AAA.”

pl

   

Honest and Naked

It’s so easy to get distracted.  There are the things that are important, then there is everything else. Every blip on the radar screen, the email, IM, wink, billboard, commercial break, class, teacher, guru, latest techy gadget, vies for your attention. And mine. And it seems, all the otherness won’t be satisfied until the focus is completely on the noise. What is that about?

My sister, the one born three years and one day before me, called the other day. “Have you talked to C?” she asked.

I was immediately suspicious. “What happened?”

“Dad isn’t eating.” This sister lives near where the wind comes whipping o’er the plain. The other sister, C,  is closer to me on the west coast, in Almost Canada.

C is the one taking care of our fading father. She is taking care of Mother. C also supervises the care of our disabled brother. She has her hands full. She holds a full time job as a therapist for troubled youth. She is a sister and a mother and a friend. I don’t know how she has time for all this and it makes me feel a little anxious. I have a full time job. I am single. I am thinking of adopting a dog, but that is the extreme extent of my responsibilities. The rest are wants. I want to meditate and remained blissed and focused.  I want to write. I want to publish. I want to travel.

I called C. “How are you doing? What do you need?”

C gave me a litany of recent events. “Dad fell last week,” she said. “Twice.”

Dad is feeble. He is on blood thinners and could bleed out from a shaving nick, let alone grazing his arm taking a header. Also there is the terrible specter of a broken hip, the sliding door into the final decline.

C sighed.  “I’m running as fast as I can.”

“I know,” I murmur. I know, I know.

C is caught in the chaos of the adult caregiver. The more she does, the more she feels she has to do in order to keep tragedy at bay. The trouble is, there is no end of chaos but you can’t tell the caregiver that. She will eat your head. Instead, I tell her how amazing she is, that no matter how much she beats herself up for not being perfect, she is a good person.

Why do we give so much love to others yet withhold it from ourselves? Why can’t we realize that no matter how much or little we do, we are good enough? These are thought-viruses, conditions of humanity. In the meantime, I resolve to make a train reservation and get back up to Almost Canada and lend a hand, even if that only means letting C go out and get her nails done.

I was up visiting a few weeks ago. C took Mother to mass on Saturday night. “Can you stay with Dad?” she asked.

“You bet,” I answered. “We will be fine. We will watch a movie. You go. Don’t worry.”

C pointed to a chart stuck to the front of the refrigerator.  “Okay,” she said. “If Dad loses consciousness but is still breathing, these are the steps you take.”

I looked at the chart and nodded. “I call you, then I call the paramedics,” I say. Then an idea comes to me and I look at her. “What do I do if he loses consciousness and he is not breathing?”

C stares at me nakedly. I can see her trying to figure out how to tell me the steps involved in the care of the dying.

“I call you,” I say quickly. “If anything happens, I call you.”

“Yes.” Okay then. That’s how it is.

“Go,” I tell her. “Don’t worry. You can count on me. We will be fine.”

Dad and I watched a John Wayne movie, one with Maureen O’Hara. Maureen was a pistol. Dad got hungry, so I fetched him a protein bar, which he called a candy bar. I also made popcorn. We shared a bowl of popcorn and watched and old western on TV and it was a regular Saturday afternoon. When mom and C returned, we had dinner like a family. After dinner, we played cards and then C took Dad’s blood pressure and heart rate and registered them on a complicated chart that she keeps for the cardiologist. It was just another night in the life of the sandwich generation.

So then, I had a minor disappointment recently. It wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things, but I obsessed on it until I had worked myself into a perfect funk.  At first, I felt guilty about my little hissy fit, and then I stopped fighting it and gave myself over to it, just wallowed in it, fully immersed. I’m done now with this little distraction, and I’m back on-course. I breathe in, I breathe out. I recognize the distraction for the blessing it was, and I’m fine. I’m always fine as it turns out; it’s all a matter of perspective.

cg

Can I Have Candied Nuts With That?

 We had a gathering on New Year’s Eve. It’s become a bit of a tradition, family and friends, coming and going, some arriving early, some staying late, some sleeping over.  There’s champagne and wine and always lots of great food.  Sometimes we make it until midnight, sometimes not, although now that the kids are older they shame us into it.

We’re all sitting around the table talking and my friend D pipes up about how he went to Sight and Sound, a local theater specializing in the retelling of religious tales.     Religion is always a hot button in my household given that I, a perpetual seeker, live in what I fondly refer to as the bible belt of Pennsylvania.  Most of my husband’s extensive family lean in a fundamentalist direction where my religious tendencies — I’ve been a Catholic since birth — have evolved toward more eastern philosophies coupled with a healthy dollop of New Age ideals and an overarching belief that what’s good for the environment should be good for us as well, meaning, I don’t take nature lightly.  While I can’t be easily pigeon-holed, to outward appearances I probably fall in the idol worshipping category — Catholics are notorious for that, what with all their saints and icons –and am considered at the very least, “fringe.”

Sight and Sound, with theaters located only in Lancaster and Branson, Missouri appeals to those of a fundamentalist bent because it’s not a theater for plays and other excesses found on Broadway, but an elaborate arrangement of actors and animals and high-tech gadgetry that allows people to fly across the theater sky in angel garb, during the retelling of some of the bible’s most famous stories, all the while in service to God.  Think the barn where Jesus was born and all those animals lo’-ing and what not, the what not being the fresh smell of manure as it’s laid by any one of the sheep or cows.  Think Jonah in the belly of the whale (to date, I don’t think they’ve had a live whale, but give them time).  The theater prides itself on the ultimate bible story recreation and I must say, they do a great job until the end when the firm and slightly uncomfortable sale aspect of the production begins.  Despite my catholicism, or maybe because of it, I’ve never been comfortable with proselytizing.  Maybe I’ve shut my eyes to it, but I generally don’t see members of my church going around trying to recruit people like, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do, that is if you don’t count the Spanish and just about every indigenous culture the Spanish ever encountered, and, oh yes, there was that bit with the Inquisition, but that’s all conveniently in the past now, isn’t it?

So it was a bit shocking to find that my friend D, with his fairly agnostic belief system, was:  1) actually at Sight and Sound in the first place, and 2) hanging around after the show.  Part of the chatter immediately following the performance delivered on Sight and Sound’s very state-of-the-art sound system consists of the following message made by an invisible announcer with a most pleasing voice:  “If anyone would like to have a more personal relationship with Jesus, please see one of the ushers after the performance.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I want a personal relationship with Jesus as much as the next guy, unless, of course, that guy is Jewish or Muslim, or Hindi, or Buddhist or, fill-in-the-blank, but I don’t think it’s a commodity that can be acquired at my local theater after the retelling of a bible story, no matter how challenging the subject matter or scale of the production, and especially not from an usher in a black suit.  That’s like saying, “why yes, I’ll take the more personal relationship with Jesus and also, may I have a bag of the warm candied nuts?”  After all, this is America where everything is for sale, even God.  Sweet, right?

Under these circumstances, D couldn’t help himself and who can blame him.  Blessed with a quick wit — he’s known to have pun wars on facebook that take more time than the gestation period of the average housecat — and a much more than average understanding of the bigger picture, he approached the usher.

“I’d like to have a more personal relationship with Jesus,” D said to the smiling usher who’s hand was open in a gesture of welcome.  “Do you have his email address?”

The hand went down.  The smile vanished.  The poor usher was probably too dumbfounded to speak and after an uncomfortable few moments of silence, turned and walked away.

I guess at this point I should say something profound about the nature of religion, but after years of trying to reason with people who’s religious beliefs are nothing short of rooted in cement — I have a vague inkling about what the people in the Middle East go through on a daily basis — I decided there’s no reason to be had.  People can only meet you where they are, and rather than spend a lifetime of disagreeing, of trying to reason, of discussing the intricacies of faith and faithlessness, it’s may just be easier if I keep my mouth shut and my beliefs to myself even though those of the more fundamentalist persuasion — think Tea Party or most of the Republicans — are not so inclined.  For the sake of harmony, what there is left in our country, sacrifices must be made.

Now will someone pass me the candied nuts.

 PL

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