Sunday, August 18, 2013

oy! another birthday

Our youngest turns 10 tomorrow.  It's such a bittersweet event, her birthday. We adopted Mary when she was 5 years old from an orphanage in Ukraine, so her birthday is a time for me, as her mother, to wonder and (yes) to mourn. 

Mourning may seem a strong word, but I think it's appropriate.  Adoption is the most beautiful thing I know of, but it's - by nature - rooted in pain, and we have to acknowledge that (I think) in order to have a healthy, whole perspective.  Or maybe I'm just a hopeless melancholy ...

I spend the others' birthdays telling each one the story of his or her birth - where we were when contractions started, what it was like getting to the hospital, every little delicious detail.  I don't know any of that with Mary.  I didn't feel  her kicking inside me, didn't deliver her, nurse her, or spend hours sniffing the sweet baby smell of her head while cuddling her to my chest.  In fact, when she asks for stories of when she was a baby, I make them up - I do!  I use what few details I do know (like that her Babushka took care of her the first 2 years of her life) and I make up stories that it's completely reasonable to assume occurred.  Happy stories of love and caring ... she eats them up!  And I feel no shame, whatsoever - she deserves a few good stories.

Tonight I found myself over-tired and feeling that same melancholy ache, so I started reading back through her adoption blog.  Over the past now-almost-5 years, I've read the posts from when we were actually in Ukraine multiple times, but I can't remember when I last I read the posts from once we'd returned home - when our life together actually started.  It has brought me joy tonight, to read them and remember that we have a plethora of memories, of stories to tell - and to remind myself that we went through growing pains not unlike a family bringing home a newborn.  

Here are a few snippets from her first month at home:

    koo pats-yeh, da? (bath, yes?)
  • The transition is good except bedtime is hard for her, hope tonight takes less than 2 hours, we've been spoiled by 3 who go to sleep easily. Other than that she's happy as can be.  Oh - well, except for the dog ... every time he comes near her it's "Oy!!!!  Sabaka!!!  Oy!!" and then lots of Russian that we can't understand but sounds like rebuke.  No crying or screaming, but definitely not pleased either.  Kind of cute, actually. :)

  • We took a walk down the street to get our neighbors' mail and halfway there she noticed I was barefoot.  After all you've read about Ukraine I'm sure you're not surprised that she GASPED out loud, pointed to my feet, and exclaimed, "Oy!!! Mama, ________ " (insert Russian rebukes here).  Too funny.

  • She's just a happy busy little thing, fairly easily redirected when need be.  As evening rolled around we prepared her for bed with, "Bath - then milk - then sleep".  She said "da" and understood well, then enjoyed her bath.  After drying and dressing her she said, "Nye spaht, moloko" (no sleep, milk) and I said yes, so we went downstairs for the warm milk.  Then back upstairs for teeth brushing, and we left her with her reading light on to look at some books (which she enjoys) while we did the routine with the other 3.  By then she was done with the books and starting to get up, "ya hachoo"-ing everything under the sun ("I want" this and that, whatever she could think of).  I said no, time to sleep, and she started with the yelling.  I turned off the reading light, took her in my arms just like an infant and rocked her as we listened to a Steve Green CD together, all the while whispering sweet things in her ear...

    wearing half the dress up box at once
  • She asks"eh-tah minyah?" (is it mine?) - every time we dress her.  It's adorable.  YES, it's YOURS! Makes me remember how they literally stripped her naked to send her with us from the orphanage- not one thing actually belonged to her, not even her underwear.

  • Poor thing says "nyeh groupa, dah?" (no groupa, right?) several times a day.  We respond with:  "Nee kagda, nee kagda, nee kagda edeetya groupa!" (You are never, never, never going back to groupa!) to which she just giggles and smiles and comes for a big hug. 
  • This afternoon the entire family enjoyed another warm, sunny NC afternoon outdoors. Mary is a true American kid now: she's got muddy sneakers and she's used the bathroom in the woods!
  • I'm trying to teach Mary to answer basic questions by having the others model.  So we go down the line, "What is your name?" and they each give their first and last name.  She answers correctly, now, too!  So cute.  Then she points to me and says, "Etah Mommy McConnell, da?"  
    the 4 siblings, Mary's first month home
  • I told her it's called flour.  Mary was SO funny, she kept asking, "Shto Etah?" over and over, then quizzically repeated "Flour" after me, several times.  Finally, she went and got one of her books, brought it TO me, pointed to a picture of a flower and said, "Mommy look - etah FLOWER"!
There's Light in memories.  
In story.  
In remembering and retelling.

They connect us. 

I'm glad.

Because tomorrow, we celebrate!

Friday, August 16, 2013

the power of like

Yesterday I enjoyed a special treat. One of my former students had been telling his Mom how much he missed me and wanted to see me.  I've been on the Mom end of that conversation a few times, so being the sought-after one was lovely and fun for me.  We met at the pool, where he smiled from the water and waved off and on as his Mom and I talked.  He has autism, and while I enjoyed hearing him share the best parts of his summer, I knew he wasn't looking for much conversation - just my presence.  At one point he walked near us and said to his Mom (one of the very best I know), "I like you."  Then he pointed to me and said, "I like her, too. I like both of you." Then he went back to the pool.  If you've ever spent quality time with someone who has autism you know that one of the most refreshing things about them is the complete absence of bullshit.  Having this boy say he liked me is worth infinitely more than the flattery of others.  You can believe the value of his words wasn't lost on me (I happen to like him, too!)

Mary's friend, and my personal savior for an hour
Today's weather was so lovely and unseasonably cool that the kids and I did a walking tour of Uptown Charlotte.  In the midst of that, we spent some time at Imaginon, the children's library.   The older three scattered in different directions, but the youngest - Mary, 9 - continually asked to me play with her, and frankly, I just wasn't in the mood.  I put her off multiple times, encouraging her to read or use one of the computers or find a friend.  As this back-and-forth continued I couldn't help but notice a girl about her age, having a very similar discourse with her father.  She was chat-chat-chatting away right in his face, and he had the look of a man who was a million miles away and desperate for school to start.  He occasionally nodded and mumbled, "Uh huh" until she eventually gave up and began to explore the Arthur exhibit.  Mary headed in her direction.  "Do you want to play?" she asked.  That's all it took - the two of them were off and happy ... (almost as happy as that father and I were!)  Later, Mary said bye to her friend, and as we walked away she said, "Mommy, she liked me!" 

I discovered a new-to-me band called Bombadil at a house concert this past year.  One of their more delightful songs is Question - a simple song about the power of like.

There's power in being liked.

Here's something I share with awkward feelings not unlike those expressed in Stuart's song, because I recognize how corny it sounds.  I look up at the  moon at night, and as I do, I get this feeling inside, this profound sense that the moon shining on me is like God looking right at me, smiling and saying, "I see you. And I like you."  Several times in my life this experience, this spiritual encounter, has been more real - more ... solid - than if an actual person in a physical body had walked up and spoken to me.  I don't have any theological support for such a notion. I can't systematize it for you or point to a chapter and verse in any sacred text.  I just ... know.  I guess you could say ... I believe in it?

This past weekend I got to listen to James Allison talk for a bit about faith, and what he had to say really struck me.  I'll likely do a poor job paraphrasing him, but the gist of it was this:  faith has been made into something that is brought about through emotional manipulation and held over us as a requirement for acceptance - this thing you must have, and have enough of, and in the correct words or ideas (whether they make any sense to you or not) and without it ... well, without it ... you're out.

But, he says, "religious talk" aside, that's not what anyone actually means when they speak of faith.  Having faith in someone means, at its core, to trust that he or she has your absolute best interest at stake.  To trust another person's heart toward you.  To know that you know that you know that he or she ... likes you. Isn't pretending , but is genuinely and truly fond of you. And that knowing puts you at complete ease. You, in turn, remove all pretense, lower any masks.  You relax in their presence ... you rest.

As a person who has both privately and, often, publicly wrestled with "my faith", I found this immensely helpful.  Because the reality is that as I've "lost" more of that first kind of faith, I've gained more of the second.  And it's that second kind of faith that, as Barbara Brown Taylor likes to put it, "Is saving my life today".

One last thing.  That student, the one who said he likes me?  He doesn't like me because I look a certain way or because I have certain impressive skills.  He doesn't know a whole terrible lot about me. He doesn't believe certain things about me to be true (or not true).

He likes me because he knows I like him.

I guess, maybe, you could say ... he has faith in me?


I like that.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

porch Light

After dinner I wandered down to a neighbor's house to see if she was home and free to chat.  She was.

We sat on her front porch together to catch up on kids and husbands and jobs (well, mine - she's freshly retired).  As is often the case, our conversation quickly dove into the deeper issues of life.

The sun began to set.  Sunsets are often beautiful, but tonight's was especially breathtaking.

It never occurred to me to run home and grab my camera to capture the image.  I hoped, trusted, that someone else with a far keener eye - and far nicer lens - was doing just that.

As for me, I was content.

All I wanted was to keep listening.  Keep talking.

Till the sky went dark.

I saw the Light (at the port-a-potties)

©Copyright2013 Scott Griessel/Creatista
Less than a week ago I stood not 10 feet from Amy Ray as she shred the mandolin and belted, "Let It Ring!"  She and her musical partner Emily (also known as The Indigo Girls) had all of us at The Wild Goose giddy with excitement.  But as I watched them play, something else became clear.  They weren't just a gift to us - we were a gift to them. Their faces, especially Amy's ... she could hardly sing, for smiling!  It was like she was in ... HEAVEN. They'd barely start a song - just a chord, even - and we'd all join in, drowning them in sound as we sang along joyfully and passionately.  Maybe that happens at all their concerts, I don't know, but it sure felt like something special and it shown in their eyes.  Both of them thanked us between every song, complimenting us, pouring out gratitude for all the great work all of us do and how much they appreciate the causes we stand for.  Best of all, they said they can't wait to come back - back to the Goose! This, after waiting through an hour long rain/lightening delay and walking through ankle deep mud just to get on stage?

©Copyright2013 Scott Griessel/Creatista
Something got to them.  It's the same thing that's gotten to so many of us geese.  It's why we never stop talking about it and writing about it and why we drive everyone completely INSANE this time every year.

It's not this famous author or that famous activist or historian or musician... Sure, we geek out about those people (I got my picture taken with Krista Tippett!) but it's not that.  It never was. If you think it's that, and what I'm saying makes you roll your eyes, read this - he says it better than I can.  It's the people.  The warmth and light of the people draw you in like the best campfire.  It's the one-another.

©Copyright2013 Scott Griessel/Creatista
The Light of the Goose is the people.  The children who play in the mud and the gray haired folks who push walkers through the mud and everyone in between.  As I look back over the past 3 summers and reflect on how my experiences of the Goose have changed me - quite literally changed how I do life -  I can pinpoint one constant:  the Light I've encountered in others' eyes and in their stories.

I only attended the first Wild Goose for a day.  I said, at the time, it was because of other commitments and what not, but the truth of the matter is I was scared.  Voices warned me I'd be led astray, and I was still giving those voices power in my life.  Yet, as I drove out to Pittsboro with my son, the excitement and anticipation built until I practically bounced out of the car. I'd promised him friends, so we were looking for the one family I knew were there, when it happened.  We now refer to it as The Synod of the Port-a-Potties:  Bill came from one direction, Meredith came from another, I from a third.  We all converged on the port-a-potties at the same time, and the rest literally is history.  This is only a sampling of the people who camped together, ate and talked together, at this year's Goose - and it all started because two summers ago three of us had to use the bathroom at the same time.

But it's not just the people I know - it's the people I meet.  At that first festival I was converted by a man I'd never met and will likely never see again.  I came home and made real, tangible changes in my life because the Light in him solidified something in me I'd been waffling over for too long.  I made friends at last year's morning prayer that I stay in touch with to this day (thank you, facebook) and who I couldn't wait to see again this year - one couple has a farm in Virginia, another work at a college in Tennessee.  These people impact me.

Even the speakers have an impact far beyond what they do from the stage.  I walked down a gravel road with Frank Schaeffer last year, and that conversation meant something to me.  This year I caught his eye and said, "You don't remember me, but-"

"I do indeed remember you!" he interjected. "We had a great talk! How are your kids?"

It's not that he's famous and that I grew up reading his dad - it's that he saw and heard me, and I him.  I heard a talk on Post-Cynicism from Ian Cron last year that plucked the very strings of my soul, but those vibrations lasted because I heard it with a friend. I know that if I start spiraling out, she'll look at me and say, "Remember what Ian said:  you're not enlightened, you're just being a jackass!"  Even the Rev. Dr. William Barber, who I never got a chance to speak with personally, healed something inside me. He spoke this year about dry  bones - well, last year I was dry bones.  I was.  As he preached the Spirit blew on me and I literally made my way from the sidelines to a seat front and center with my friends.  The last thing I wanted was to hear a man in a suit preach a sermon - I didn't think there was anything in that for me, ever again.

I was wrong.


What reflects back at me through the eyes of these people prevents me from even considering that They were right.  They warned me, back then - they did!  They said I was indeed on a wild goose chase, one that would lead me far from the path of truth.  They told me this was nothing new, just a bunch of liberal hippies dressing old ideas up in new packaging.  They told me the Spirit wasn't in it and that I was caught up in the emotion of something that felt fresh to me and, honestly, who doesn't like to have a mid-life crisis now and then, go off on some crazy tangent?  They literally told me that it was okay to walk to the edge of the cliff and peek over, but to be careful lest I fall off and take others with me.

When I look into the eyes of an 80 year old who marched for civil rights with Dr. King, I know.
When I look into the eyes of a man who explains to me that his liberal religious upbringing (polar opposite of mine) left him wandering and that he didn't know what he was looking for but he was finding it at the Goose (just as I am), I know.
When I look into the eyes of my friend by the campfire, as she tells me that the author she just heard talked with her afterward about their shared pain, and that this connection was literally healing her broken heart, I know.
When I put my arms around my kids and we talk together about what the day meant to them, I know.
When I pray with a stranger, and hear the same sentiments come out of her mouth that I've been feeling for days but couldn't put words to, I know.

They. Were. Wrong.

But they were right, too. Because I didn't stay on the edge of the cliff.  I didn't stay safe. But I didn't fall ... No.  

I took a flying leap. 

(I've read in a book somewhere, something about soaring like eagles  - maybe you've heard the phrase? ... Yeah, it's kinda like that)

I know Light when I see it.  So, for me, the annual Wild Goose is like a pilgrimage.  I literally plan my calendar around it.  Because I'm a Light junkie.  I just can't stay away.

See you at the port-a-potties.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I was sitting in a field in Hot Springs, NC, trying to adjust my camp chair and looking around for my children, when I saw her. I excused myself from friends who'd been chatting and headed in her direction.  All I had to do was catch her eye and smile, and she was up out of her camp chair, too.  As we hugged and exchanged "How are you?" and "How's your family?"', she exclaimed, "But you stopped writing!"  Something in my eyes must have given away that my blog was a sensitive issue, because she immediately followed with, "You'll know when the time is right. And when it is, I look forward to it. Because (she paused now) you have a gift. You do."

Carol and I at the 2012 Wild Goose Festival
Carol and her husband were our tent-neighbors at the previous year's Wild Goose Festival (2012).  It was the first and last time I'd seen them, but when you spend 4 long hot days and nights together in a place of such spiritual safety and welcome - well, it's fertile soil for heart-bonding.  How relieved we both were to admit that neither of us could remember the other's name - we literally laughed out loud, considering all the details neither of us will soon forget.  They are of my parents' generation, and more delightful than I can adequately put into words.  And so, seeing her again more than a year later and having her speak those words to me ... something happened.  When others have pointed out my writing - or lack of it, the past year - I've felt ... Defensive. Embarrassed. Guilty. Pressured. Apologetic. Annoyed.

But when Carol looked me in the eye, I felt my spirit soften.  Maybe it was her. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was the wild spirit of The Goose.  I don't know.  But inside my soul answered simply, "Okay".

And so, here I am.  Welcome back, if you're an old "pondering" friend.  Nice to meet you, if you're new.  Let's see where this Sunburst Street leads.