Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Full Circle

I’ve had a little “event” come up and I’ve got to get this week’s posting out there so I can move on to bigger things. I was sitting here about to bore you to tears with another story of working in the church with kids. The picture below shows not only Sarah, my oldest grandchild, but in the background is Stephen Cottingham. The thing I wanted to tell you was how satisfying it was for me to not only be there when Sarah went to church camp for the first time but the even more blessed feeling to watch Stephen lead the event. I took Stephen to this same camp when he was about Sarah’s age. Now he’s leading them. I’ve come full circle.

But I have to stop here. I just got a call that the Other Stephen, my son-in-law, Steve……..has Chicken Pox. Yes, Chicken Pox, the disease only little kids get. I can’t claim that he was a defective groom and ask for a refund on the wedding because he caught them from Emily. They BOTH have Chicken Pox. So, you can see why I can’t write any more. I have to get packing and go help with the kids while they recover.

And, by packing, I mean for my trip to Mississippi that I leave for on Sunday. I found myself with not much to do for a couple of weeks so I decided to go back to Pearlington to help. So, life is kind of busy right now.

I’ll give you a full report when I get back. I hope they’ll let me take pictures of them. I know she and Steve will laugh about this some day.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


A couple of days ago marked the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq.

When I look back at the things I’ve done in my life one of the things missing is that I have never been part of a political protest. I’ve never taken a risk for a cause I believe in. The farthest I've stuck my neck out has been in the voting booth and conversation with friends. The more I thought about it, the more firmly resolved I became that I simply couldn’t die without taking some kind of a risk for my beliefs. So I decided to march.

I've taught Sunday School to a lot of young men who are now in the military. Evan Gray returned home without a scratch after riding a tank into Baghdad carrying a shoulder mounted missle launcher. But Chad Kueser didn’t. He lost both of his legs. Now Matt McCormick is over there and Matt Cottingham may go for his third tour. And Nathanael Gold is in the Marine Corps reserves. I've watched these kids grow up. It’s time to stop this war. So I decided to march.

I’ve never been to a political demonstration before. I attended college in the 60’s yet somehow managed to miss out on civil rights marches and all the peace demonstrations. I wasn’t sure of the drill. I mean, what do you wear to a peace march? Good shoes, for sure. But should I wear out a T-shirt that made a statement? About all I could come up with was church mission shirts or college sweat shirts. I decided to go for the classy and uncontroversial look. So I wore my newest polo shirt. Better in a mug shot, I decided. I don't think people get arrested at these things anymore but it's always best to be prepared. I wanted to avoid carrying anything so I wore my jeans with the biggest pockets and stuffed them with car keys, camera, cell phone, chewing gum, note paper and pens. I probably looked like a kangaroo.

I showed up at Mockingbird Station about thirty minutes before the march was to begin. But the DART station there is just huge and I didn't see a gathering of peaceful looking people. For the longest time I just walked around trying to figure out where everybody was or where they were supposed to start. Then I started seeing cops and people with cameras on tripods. This looked like the place.

But first I had to tend to a couple of business matters. Namely, I had to pee. Something told me this was a matter I needed to take care of before setting off to God Knows Where. Also, the weather was windy and overcast. It looked like it might be cold. So, I did what any good American would do. I went shopping. I spotted a shop across Mockingbird and marched off to buy a jacket and use their bathroom before setting out. I had no idea just how long a peace march takes.

I found a really nice long sleeved shirt that matched my short sleeved shirt perfectly. For once in my life I looked rather fashionable, if I do say so myself. I was probably the best-dressed marcher they had except for the kangaroo pockets.

When I got back to the parking lot enough people had gathered that I knew I was in the right place. One clue was a solid crowd of old hippies with long gray hair wearing t-shirts with one slogan or another. A lot of the men had not only turned gray haired but suffered from pattern baldness and refused to give up their ponytail so they ended up with that pony tail of only the lower half of their head. The more mature folks outnumbered the young kids. There was even a gray haired woman walking with a cane. I am not kidding. So, this is where all the old hippies went to.

I found the most main-stream looking woman I could and struck up a conversation. Dawn came all the way from Fort Worth for this. She had fashionable clothes like myself. I noticed one dignified man wearing a suit and tie. He appeared to have come straight from work.

Someone came up and asked Dawn and me to carry a banner. We held it there for a while before we realized we didn’t have a clue what the banner said. For all we knew it could have said something way out of our comfort zone. But it had a slogan I could carry with conviction: “One Planet – One People” I couldn’t have come up with a better one if I tried.

Dawn was an experienced seamstress and we spent a lot of time critiquing the banner. It needed holes to lessen the wind resistance but was made from very sturdy material. I looked around at all the banners and realized somebody somewhere has a garage full of these banners for most of the year. I wondered if their neighbors know. We stood at the DART station for about 30 minutes before we actually did anything. A television reporter came and asked me what I was trying to say by my presence there. I gave him a few sound bites and Dawn told me I was both eloquent and succinct. So far, marching is a lot of fun and we haven't even taken a step yet.

We didn’t really walk very far, we only went from the Mockingbird station across Central Expressway and to the edge of the SMU campus--maybe a half a mile or so. But the people in charge certainly knew how to run a peace march. We made very orchestrated moves. It reminded me of all the times the Girl Scouts marched in the Labor Day parade. There was a lot of stopping and standing around. We stopped several times and deliberately stood in the intersections. Our police escort waited for us as we blocked traffic. It seemed to be timed because after a while the police would then tell us quite politely that we needed to move because he needed to let traffic through. I’m not a really vindictive person and I felt kind of bad when I realized what we were doing to the residential Highland Park streets. The traffic there is bad on good days. We had a whole lot of big black SUVs mad at us. I looked up to see three helicopters hovering over us.

Several cars honked at us. I told myself these people had read the banner that said “Honk for Peace” and, sure enough, some people gave us the peace sign. There were others, of course, that gave us the Unpeaceful Sign. On the whole, however, we got a lot more positive vibes from traffic than bad vibes.

We passed La Madeleine, where I had made arrangements to eat dinner afterwards with a friend, and turned right to skirt alongside the campus. At this point we encountered a bunch of very conservative SMU boys who shouted at us from their cars. This was unusual- I thought all college kids were against authority and wanted to demonstrate against the status quo at the drop of a hat.

Somehow the march now shifted from being against the war to being against the proposed location of the Bush library at the SMU campus. My interest waned at this point. I really don’t have a beef with the library being there. I don’t automatically foam at the mouth over Everything Bush. I’m a little more ambivalent than some of the folks I was marching with. About a block more of walking and the march ended up at a grassy spot where they had set up a platform for speeches and music. There were a couple of non-descript speeches against a variety of things, including one in Spanish about immigration reform. Another lady offered to take my end of the banner since I was letting it droop. I passed off the banner and faded into the crowd. When the entertainment started I walked back over to the shopping center to meet my friend for dinner.

Within 30 minutes I had a calls on my cell phone from friends who had already seen me on the news. I tried to remember what I had said and all I could remember was something about war not being the answer to the world’s problems. I think I said war is never the answer. But, in retrospect, I’m not sure I feel that way. Sometimes there are reasons for military action. Certainly it required a war to stop Hitler. And the more I thought about it the more gray the whole issue got and the less black and white it was. Yes, I'm against the current war. I'm worried not only about the people on both sides who this war is killing, maiming and mentally re-arranging. There are a hell of a lot of innocent civilians being permanently affected by all of this. They don't deserve what we are doing in that country. I'm against what we are doing to our own reputation in the world. I want us to be team players in the global neighborhood. I think if we were issued a report card now we'd get a D minus in "Plays well with others." I worry what we are doing to our planet with all these explosions making craters in the surface of Mother Earth. Actually, the banner I had been issued expressed my beliefs better than I had: "One Planet, One People."

I didn’t go to the march with a statement for the press prepared. I certainly never expected to have a television reporter ask me to explain my beliefs. Beaven and I have plenty of ideas and opinions when we sit around our house and watch the news on TV. In my rush to give a short answer to the television guy I took the risk that I wouldn't give a complete answer.

In the end I found the risk I had been looking for and it wasn't the one I expected. I thought I would be risking physical injury or arrest or at the least a lot of walking and shouting. The real risk I found was in misrepresenting my own beliefs. I risked trying to make something extraordinarily complicated into something simple. The risk came not from outside but from within myself.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Rites of Spring

School is out for Spring Break so we’ve come to the time I’ve waited for since they were born. Both granddaughters are here for the week and both are at their prime cuteness. Both are potty trained and can open car doors. Thank you, Jesus. Sarah can even brush her own hair and Essie recently got a haircut that makes my life a lot easier. They’ve stayed with us enough that our house is a relaxing place for them. Just a whole week of everybody getting to do just what they want to do.

The first thing we do at Grandmother Camp is have a family meeting. Sarah is old enough to take notes of the meeting for us. Here is our list of what we want to do this week:

1. play games
2. learn to clean house (OK, that was my idea)
3. go to Chuck E. Cheese’s
4. bowling
5. sleep outside in the playhouse
6. go to library
7. e-mail Mom
8. pull tooth
9. build a campfire
10. fannie dance
11. blue bologna dinner
12. buy more grapes

So far, here at hump day, we’ve bowled, e-mailed her Dad, slept out at the playhouse and bought more grapes. Today we plan to go to Chuck E Cheese and maybe run by the library. We’ve bought a set of jacks and playing cards but just haven’t found time to play them. Their dad has taught them how to play Black Jack which if you think about it is really just a counting game.

Number eight has occupied a huge chunk of everyone’s attention except for Essie who really couldn’t care less if her sister’s tooth is about to come out. The first thing you need to know about Essie is that she lives in her own world and dances to her own drummer. And what you need to know about Sarah is that she is a Very Sensitive Child. Very. God help us all. Her mother was like this at seven so you’d think I’d be used to it. But it’s more like “I’ve served my time in hell. Dear God, please spare me this one.”

Sarah spent the past two days constantly wiggling the tooth and moaning over it. When it became too much of a distraction while she bowled yesterday she opted out of the game and let Essie bowl in her place. I kept making her go wash her hands after she put her tooth wiggling fingers in the very public bowling ball that God only knows who has been there before. So I’m not sure if she was upset by the tooth so much as it was Granny and her handwashing obsession.

So when the tooth finally came out last night no one was happier than me.

“It came out! It’s gone!,” she shrieked. “It’s gone! It’s gone! It’s gone!”

She danced around the house, clapping her hands and kicking her feet. We took a thousand pictures and discussed what the tooth fairy usually brings her for a tooth.

This whole time Beaven sat in his easy chair reading an electronics magazine with the cat asleep on his lap. After about the eight round trip dance through the house shrieking once again that
“It’s gone! It’s gone!! It’s gone!,” he finally muttered “Who’s going to stay with her through childbirth?”
“Not me. I’m going to Europe.”
Still another round of dancing and shrieking.
“No, China. I don’t think they have as many telephones there.”

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Unanswerable Questions

When I was growing up my best friend, Elizabeth, lived about two blocks from me and we did everything together. We rode our bikes all over Oak Cliff. We explored the creek in front of her house in the summer and made snow forts in the winter. We tormented the bus driver in junior high and double dated with the two most patient boys in high school. She would say or do just about anything. She would cook up squirrelly ideas then convince me to go along with her. She was Lucy to my Ethel. About the only time I ever turned her down was the hitch hiking trip to Mexico our second year of college. Even I thought that one was stupid. She went without me and the newspapers wrote about her trip.

I loved to go over to her house because it was so interesting. Her mother once collected their dog’s fur, spun it into wool with a real spinning wheel then knitted a sweater from it. She wanted to change the color of her living room furniture once without buying new stuff so she painted the couches with house paint. It was an ingenious idea and except for the brittle nubs this created, did the trick—the couch was the color she wanted. You just had to expect the sensation of sitting on a prickly pear when you sat down. There was a mural on the hall ceiling (a pretty good one, too—kind of like the Sistine Chapel), a world map on the wall of the laundry room and a lemon tree painted in the kitchen.

In high school Elizabeth had a white Pontiac convertible. We could start at the top of the hill by my house, slip the car into neutral, sit up on the seat backs while she steered with her feet; and coast all the way down the hill. We pretended we were beauty queens in a parade and waved at people we passed. It’s amazing we didn’t get arrested.

She was known in our schools by the names “Dizzy Lizzie” or “Crazy Liz.” These nicknames were mostly joking references to her outlandish personality. It wasn’t until we were grown that I realized just how well these names would fit her

All this time, Elizabeth’s mother was so wacky that she was a constant source of interest to friends and embarrassment to her daughter. I think I was the only one who knew her mother was periodically hospitalized for mental illness. Elizabeth would confide in me that her greatest fear was that she would grow up to be just like her mother.

After college, she married and moved to Oklahoma. When it came time for our 10th class reunion I called her. Her husband was beating her, she said, and declined to go. She had moved all her furniture into the street and was waiting for Fred Sanford, the junkman on TV, to come get her. The pieces began to fit together. “Crazy Liz” really was crazy. She had become her mother.

She surfaced in my life briefly a couple of times after we grew up. Both times it was good to see my old friend and we would discuss her mental illness. She trusted me after so many years of friendship and would tell me what it felt like. There were voices telling her horrible things and sometimes she would see angels in the stall at the public bathrooms. Once we had a conversation about the medication she needed to take. She hated taking it. She told me about one time she was off her meds and was convinced that Elvis was alive. And I asked if she knew he was dead when she took her medicine. Oh yes, she said, she knew he was dead as a doornail when she took the medicine. The conversation came to a chilling end when I realized that logic was of no use to her. It just didn’t exist for her.

One of the last times she appeared in our lives was the day she burst into the WFAA-TV station reception area and asked to see Beaven. She was dirty and disheveled and even had bags full of stuff with her to remove any doubt that this was a real live bag lady. She shouted some gibberish about the conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy and left as suddenly as she showed up.

I spotted her later that week on the curb of a downtown Dallas street holding a sign about the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy. Her normally immaculate blonde hair was limp and lifeless. She had gained weight and looked dirty. There was my childhood best friend, the girl I grew up with, included in my wedding, shared deep secrets with, double dated with -- and I could not make myself stop to talk to her. She had become scary even to me.

She comes from a very wealthy family. They would be willing to spend it all on her care if she would let them. But this disease is a tough one. You can medicate a person into reality but once her brain was cleared she would fail to see the reason to keep taking the meds. And without them, her life is a living hell.

I say all of this because our homeless guy, Mitchell, is starting to cause problems at church. Check my blog posting of August 23, 2006, “Be Careful What You Pray For.”

Because of my experience with my crazy friend, mental illness doesn’t scare me like it does some people. But I also know how little use logic is when you deal with them. Mitchell pissed off a bunch of the men in our church and they tried to use logic on him. And it’s come to a testy situation. He doesn’t like them and they don’t like him being around.

I remain as convinced as ever that sometimes Jesus dresses up like a homeless man and goes around visiting some of his congregations just to see how they treat him. I’m afraid we’re about to slap a restraining order on Jesus at the First Presbyterian Church.

I can’t blame the other folks who want to get rid of him. I talked to a friend from another church that had their own homeless guy for a while. They bent over backwards to help him but it backfired in the end as it usually does. At this stage in the science and art of medicine there remain some problems we just can’t fix. We’ve sent a man to the moon but can’t crack the code on mental illness. We’re just not there yet.

We gave Mitchell our best shot. I haven’t heard from my friend Elizabeth in five years. I can’t fix them; I can only pray for them. Spring is here and sleeping outdoors won’t be so bad for a while. Elizabeth always enjoyed camping. May God watch over my friends Elizabeth and Mitchell.

I read a book by Rachel Naomi Remen called Kitchen Table Wisdom a few years ago and I found the most awesome quote in it. It’s been on my mind lately and I’ll leave it with you today.

“Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in asking unanswerable questions in good company.”