Saturday, December 11, 2010

God brain

A year or so ago, a brain study found that people who believe in God or have religious experiences have a different brain structure than those who don't. You can read a summary of the research here.

I find this kind of fascinating... especially given that my dad and I are on completely different ends of the spectrum as it relates to God. My father is an atheist and I am a washed by the blood of the lamb born again Christian.

But does the fact that there seems to be a physical difference between believers and non-believers actually have any bearing in whether God is real... or whether he calls us all, equally, to be in relationship with him?

I imagine the non-believing folks with non-believing brains would like to say that some anomaly in my brain is the source of my fantasy that God exists. I, of course, think it is just the opposite. For me, a person with the non-believing mind is a little like someone who is color blind. Their physiology prevents them from seeing the color red. But their inability to see it doesn't mean that red doesn't exist.

A person born blind can't see the world at all... but it doesn't mean that the beauty of the world is the figment of the imagination of those of us who are sighted.

The article about the brain physiology went on to say that the God believer brains had more real estate in the compassion and social centers. I wonder if people are born with that extra brain power, or if the belief in God somehow rewires us to be more compassionate.

The study didn't address cause and effect. It didn't research the brains of converts, before and after. To me, that would be fascinating... to see if our physiology actually changes when we become believers.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Catholic in me....

When I was in high school in Providence, we always joked about Saki's pizza on Weybossett Street: It's the Italian restaurant with the Japanese name run by Greeks.

My religious landscape is a little like that: She's the charismatic catholic at heart who goes to a low Episcopal Church and works in an Evangelical ministry.

And maybe I am not actually a Catholic at heart. But Catholicism definitely informs how I engage with the church and the world. I love liturgy, believe that the sacraments confer God's grace, am driven by the Holy Spirit and love (LOVE) scripture. A spiritual mutt if ever there was one.

So, how does this all look on the ground? Well, for one thing, my catholic sensibilities (and I do mean catholic with a small 'c' in this case) are the very thing that have kept me from leaving the Episcopal church and finding some other place to worship. They have kept me at Grace through what proved to be a rough transition to it's new Rector. They have kept me tithing even when I didn't feel like it. And they keep me reading the psalms every night, day in and day out (with some exceptions) for 7 years now.

My evangelical friends often wonder why I don't just leave my church (or denomination, for that matter...) and my response is that if we all just left our churches or denominations every time something came up that we didn't agree with, there'd be 30,000 different churches. Oh wait, there are.

Which isn't to say that if God dropped a thunderbolt and ordered me to mosey on my way, I wouldn't.... When I was a Unitarian who had come to Christ, God did just that, on the second anniversary of my baptism. I was sitting on a beach in Duxbury MA, at a leadership retreat for the lay leaders of my church, and Jesus basically gave me a right hook across the head. That is when I left the Unitarian church.

But he hasn't done that with me at Grace. So some weeks I sit in the pew clinging to the fact that I am there to worship, because it is the one thing I can hang on to.

Then I go home and read psalms of exile.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Shakespeare it's not...

...But I have been reading over some of my earliest blog posts this morning, and it is amazing to revisit the early part of my walk with Christ. I don't think it is a coincidence that I started this blog in 2005, right about the time I left the Unitarian Universalist Church and began seeking a Christian community. This coincided with the 2nd anniversary of my baptism.

I visited a few Episcopal Churches, many of which have since closed. I visited a very soulful Roman Catholic church that moved me so much I cried through every service. It, too, has closed. I railed at God about throwing me in the desert to wander from place to place with no sense of home. Advent of that year was one of the darkest times I can remember.

But through it all I believe that God was working.

And looking over the old posts, I am moved by how evident it is that the Holy Spirit had my by the hand.

Praise to you, Lord Christ.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Living it

For several years now there has been a bible study at Grace on Sunday mornings called "Live it". I can't remember if I have ever sat in on it before, but today I got up early and joined the conversation.

The whole thing takes place out in the narthex. (Foyer). And because we are who we are, the group is made up of a mash up of folks. Today we had a retired priest, a few folks from Crossroads, the facilitators and me.

I like the format. They use the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. We read the collect, the Gospel lesson, some of the letter from Paul to Timothy and more from my friend Jeremiah. After each reading we talked about them.

God breathed

And gave us scripture

And today I was so happy to be reading it with friends, new and old.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Back to Africa

In January I am heading back to Mali for a couple of weeks. I have already started packing.

I am not excited. No. Not at all.

This time, I am bringing my eldest son with me. About a month ago I asked him if he wanted to go and at first he said no. But after thinking about it and talking to a friend, he decided that he did want to go. I am beside myself.

There will be an interesting group of us traveling together. 2 teens, a 20 something year old drummer from a rock band, a middle aged mom (me) and possible a 60 something drumming student from my church. Pack us all up in my Honda Fit and we'll make the trip to NYC to take a plane to Mali via Casa Blanca. The entire journey will take at least 24 hours. But traveling, as with everything, breaks down into a series of steps. First the drive to NY. Then the flight to Morocco. A long layover. A flight to Mali. And then we are there and the world expands before our very eyes.

Lord, I praise you for the beauty of your creation.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Might be time to read Jeremiah

I have been keenly aware of the pressure I am under, especially at work. It is a tough job, heading up a charity that depends 100% on donations to survive. Not only am I about supporting my staff and keeping the organization on an even keel, but I am also a figure head that represents the organization out in the world. And there are times when that feels like a very heavy load to carry. Because, lets be honest, I am just as much of a goof ball as the next guy. It is crazy that the way people feel about me would have anything to do with whether they support the ministry... but I know it does.

About Babylon:

I will admit, there are times when I feel like I am in exile. We have a new priest at my church and the transition has been way harder than I expected. Right at the moment when I need stability, the rug has been pulled out from under me. The bible study I have been attending for 4 years just got canceled. Lectio Divina isn't happening on Sundays anymore. I have no relationship with the new guy, so I really can't imagine talking to him about any of this.

Lord, I know you have a plan for all of this. I will pray for strength and courage and perseverance.

Monday, October 04, 2010

I'm thriving, thanks.

My local hometown bird cage liner (The Providence Journal) has recently started a themed section called Thrive that appears on Monday mornings. This section of the paper is entirely devoted to New Age spirituality in all it's various forms. There are articles on Feng Shui, yoga poses and 'finding your inner strength'. Today's version had story after story about how women are leaving churches in droves to seek God within themselves. They described a bookstore where you can find crystals that will help you channel your inner healing energy to treat your cancer, or buy a smudge stick of sage to get rid of negative energy in your house.

I've been there, done that, believe me. I was the high priestess of the church of what's happening now, following every rabbit hole for a sense of peace and serenity. I did smudge sticks, runes, tarot cards, astrology, new agey music and chakra healing. I tried to manifest my destiny with positive visualization and crystal meditations. For the majority of my adult life, I was a seeker. What I didn't realize until after I was a 'finder' was that the very thing I was seeking was a deeper relationship with God.

And you know what? That seeking led me to get baptized in a pond in Chepachet. And in that pond I found out that a deeper relationship with God requires only one thing- Jesus. No crystals, no trances, no mystical music, no burning weeds or pseudo native spirituality. No purchases in New Age bookstores. None of it could bring me to a place of peace. Always, always, my soul was restless within me.

In fact, I think that a great deal of spiritual damage has been done by the New Age stuff. There is a perpetual sense that if only you were more spiritual, you would handle life better. If only you could visualize more powerfully, your cancer would go into remission. If only you search more effectively within you, your relationships would be great, your friends kind and generous and your dog would stop pooping on the rug. When you become God, you end up responsible for everything in your universe.

I ran into a friend who is fully in the grip of the New Age stuff. I asked how she was doing and it was clear that she was really having a hard time. Life has been a challenge lately, and she believes that she is somehow responsible for all of it. She believes that if she were just more focused, things would magically resolve. It is a heavy burden, I tell you. One that I carried for years. (Why oh why can't I just manifest the thin, rich, happy woman I think I should be?)

When I saw my friend, I wanted to just shower her with the REAL love. The love that has only one source. The love that is not dependent on us in any way. The love that flows freely whether we deserve it or not. I wanted to shake her and say 'Put down your copy of The Secret and try this instead' and hand her the New Testament. It's all there, my sweet friend. All the secrets we need to know are right there.

For me, no more searching. My spirit is no longer disquiet within me. I am armed with scripture, an abiding trust in Christ and a religious community in which I can grow as a Christian.

And finally, my dear friends, I am thriving.

My heart is not proud, O Lord,

my eyes are not haughty;

I do not concern myself with great matters

or things too wonderful for me.

But I have stilled and quieted my soul;

like a weaned child with its mother,

like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, put your hope in the Lord

both now and forevermore.

Psalm 131 NIV

Saturday, October 02, 2010

A secret love

I have been playing djembe for over 4 years now, but I have to admit, I have always wanted to play the dun duns. Dun duns are the big bass drums in the West African drum ensemble. They are the booming, melodic backbone upon which the other drums weave their magic spells. It is a heavy responsibility to carry the whole rhythmic structure of a piece. If the dun duns mess up, the djembes, the dancers, the whole thing comes to a screeching halt.

Dun duns are big wooden cylinders covered on both ends with thick cowhide. You play them with sticks made out of a very light and fibrous wood that is remarkably strong for being so light. They are about an inch in diameter and have a hammer head embedded in one end.

My teacher has lent me his set of dun duns and I am learning a few songs. I have been practicing like crazy over the last couple of days and having a ball doing it. I have put the set of big drums in the corner of my dining room and every time I walk by I pull up a chair and play for awhile.

Hey, do me a favor. Don't tell my djembes, ok?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

On why we need clean carpets at CareNet

Have you ever seen images of Pope John Paul II at prayer in his chapel?

He would lie face down on the floor, white robes notwithstanding.

We at CareNet have found ourselves in that position a few times recently. Lying face down, or kneeling with our heads pressed to the floor. Sometimes prayers of petition. Often prayers of thanks.

Yesterday, we were praying that our financial dry spell would come to an end so that we can get on with the business of saving lives (mothers, fathers, babies) without being distracted by money worries. By late in the afternoon, a donor came forward promising to pay for our fundraising banquet next month.

If, a few minutes later, you had peaked in the window of CareNet, you would have found several women on their knees, thanking God (and the donor) for his provision.

And it is not just money. We pray for our clients too. And each other. And our donors and supporting churches. Our volunteers.

In Mali you can recognize the devout because they have dents on their foreheads from praying 5 times a day.

I am working on mine.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On success, and other random ideas

I found out that one of my oldest childhood friends just won the genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. I am really happy for him. This is a kid who knew what he wanted to be from the time I can remember. In 8th grade he was practicing his calligraphy during math class.

When you hear news like this, inevitably, such a thing invites you to a bit of introspection. It is pretty clear that I am never going to win a MacArthur grant. (Even if they DID give them out for things like being a mom, running a little non-profit or going to Africa because nothing but God himself brings you the kind of joy that a street party in Mali does....)

Mine is not a life of superlatives. I have grown content with mediocrity.

At one point I learned that many years before, when I was heading to high school, I was offered a shot at a private boarding school. I never knew this at the time. My parents, through a series of strange decisions, chose to send me, instead, to public school... and later to an alternative high school. I remember when I first discovered this missed opportunity, I imagined what life would have been like had I gone to the private school. Different friends. Different college. Different path altogether. I am quite sure that the opportunities would have been different, too. Maybe I would have had a bigger sense of the success drive if I was surrounded by over achievers. Maybe I would have gone on to do something that the world sees as significant.

As it is, I went to an ok high school, a public college and a series of lower level management positions in the corporate world until bagging it all to have kids.

Not the stuff of fellowships.

But eventually, the stuff of happiness. Somehow my path lead me to find Jesus, in whom I find joy. I love my husband and my kids. I cherish my friends more than can say. I now have a job that takes me to the front lines of my faith on a daily basis. And I have come face to face with the reality that I am never likely to do anything of much significance except love God with all my heart and soul and mind, and love my neighbor as myself.

And play my drum at soccer games.

And dance until I throw up.

And hug my kids and kiss my man and thank God that even though I am a half assed goofball, He loves me anyway.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

St. Andrews by the Sea

Today I had the pleasure of speaking at St. Andrews by the Sea to help them kick off their Episcopal Charities Fund campaign. I was invited by my former Rector, Bob Brooks, to talk about CareNet Pregnancy Center of RI.

And I will admit, I was more nervous about it than I have been for any other speaking engagement. It was my first time speaking at an Episcopal Church. Since the Episcopal Church tends to be socially liberal, members are just as likely to be pro-choice as pro-life. I understood that I really needed to try and find common ground, while at the same time challenging people, gently, to at least reconsider their position on the issue.

The scripture readings were a true gift from God, as they made an excellent jumping off point.

First, we heard about Abraham's negotiations with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of a few righteous men. Then, in the gospel reading, Jesus teaches us how to pray the Lord's prayer... and goes on to encourage us to be persistent in our prayer. But he also says that we should have faith that when we pray, God will give us all that we ask for. He asks if we, who are evil, are smart enough to give our children a fish instead of a snake, or an egg instead of scorpion, how much more likely is it that God, who is Holy, will give us only good things?

Which made me realize that when we pray and don't get what we think we wanted, Jesus is assuring us that what we get is, indeed, an egg, not a scorpion. We, sadly, just don't see it sometimes.

As we read the Luke version of the Lord's prayer, it struck me that Jesus might be telling us that the Kingdom is already come. We just can't see it. As Christians, we have to have more faith that the kingdom is all around us though... especially since Jesus expressly tells us so in the gospels. And it strikes me that Christians who are pro-choice may need to strengthen their faith muscles. Why do they think that the world's solution, (death) is really the only option when a woman faces an unplanned pregnancy? And do they really think that God would give these women snakes when they asked for fishes?

After being involved with CareNet for several years now, I can tell you, without a doubt, that there comes a point when these young women finally see their babies for what they are. Not scorpions. Not snakes. But the greatest gifts they will ever receive.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Maybe we should just pack it in. Sell what we can. Give away the rest. Walk away.

The SBA told us today that it won't even give us a minimal loan to cover the repair of our machinery unless we sign our house on as collateral. And you know what? After 20 years of been there, done that, I am just not willing to do it again. We finally got out from under the SBA last year when we sold the building, and after 9 years of being unable to refinance because of them, I am simply not willing to do it again.

I am so tired. Why did they tell us we wouldn't be required to do this? It would have saved me so much time and heartache if I had known this in the beginning. They told me we would not have to sign away our home. Why did they tell us that? Why?

Thank God for our friends. That is all I can say.

Friday, April 30, 2010

In which our heroine testifies in front of the RI House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare

I was invited by Barth Bracey, the executive director of RI Right to Life, to attend the RI House hearing on the Woman's Right to Know act last Wednesday. (H7377)

In a stunning show of spinelessness, the committee, before hearing any testimony at all, voted to send the bill back for further study. That means that it is left to languish in committee for year number 16.

The bill basically requires that women who are seeking abortions be given information on the nature of the procedure, the risks involved and the development of the fetus. Then she has to wait 24 hours before the actual abortion can take place.

In a state that requires a 5 day waiting period to buy a firearm, doesn't a 1 day wait for something like this seem reasonable? 30 other states have already passed laws like this. Our senate has already passed it. Our house has sat on it for 15 years.

The representatives from Planned Parenthood said that they already give women enough information for informed consent and tried to say that the 24 hour waiting period would be too much of a hardship, especially for their poorer patients.

I decided to go check out what Planned Parenthood tells women about the abortion procedure. On PPs national website, if you read the descriptions of the aspiration abortion it states:

# A tube is inserted through the cervix into the uterus.
# Either a hand-held suction device or a suction machine gently empties your uterus.
# Sometimes, an instrument called a curette is used to remove any remaining tissue that lines the uterus. It may also be used to check that the uterus is empty. When a curette is used, people often call the abortion a D&C — dilation and curettage.

For the dilation and evacuation abortion it says:

# In later second-trimester procedures, you may also need a shot through your abdomen to make sure there is fetal demise before the procedure begins.
# Your health care provider will inject a numbing medication into or near your cervix.
# Medical instruments and a suction machine gently empty your uterus.

The italics are mine.

Gently empties your uterus. The bill before the house would require that a woman seeking an abortion be told about fetal development. Most of us have been told for decades that before 12 weeks of pregnancy you are dealing with a cluster of cells. That is simply not the case. You are, in fact, dealing with an individual life that is fully distinct from his or her mother. He has his own circulation system, his own blood supply, hands, feet, brain, spinal cord, the works. At our center, even women who are only 7 weeks past their last menstrual period can see an actual human being when they get an ultrasound.

Fetal demise. That means they inject a shot into the uterus to make sure the fetus is dead.

Planned Parenthood claims that they give women enough information to make a fully informed decision about the procedure they are about to undergo.

If their website descriptions are any indication, what they offer is a sanitized version of reality that is specifically designed to deceive women. They cannot be trusted to provide accurate information.

We need this bill to pass. Please write to your state rep and demand it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A first stab at a post-diluvian wrap up

Today marks the end of the 4th week after the flood.

Status: The shop is still not fully functioning. Most of the machines are running, but at least two are still needing repair.

We have mostly given up on the idea of a Government loan. Apparently we can reapply, but frankly are too busy with getting on with things to jump through all the SBA hoops (again) so it will have to wait until things are actually back up and running.

Personally we are doing fine. Our friends and family have been supporting us in all kinds of ways, from sending checks to cooking meals to arranging for groceries to be delivered. We are set for at least the next couple of months, which is a HUGE relief.

I am, for the most part, on the other side of the chaotic emotional roller coaster and seem to have found a sense of serenity about it all. I met with my spiritual director this morning and described what the last month has been like.

It was like I was two people experiencing everything simultaneously. One side of me was resting in God's love, aware that things were unfolding according to his plan, feeling safe in the knowledge of his love of us. There was a bedrock of peace on which I was relying and it never left.

The other side, however, went through a lot of emotional distress, grief, anger, sadness, you name it. I never knew, from day to day, what frustrations were going to emerge. I was in a maelstrom that just kept swirling around me.

Both of those things were going on at once. Looking back, I realized that the existence of one truth did not negate the existence of the other. I was experiencing them both, and could not necessarily reconcile them.

And maybe it is not our job to reconcile such things. Maybe that is God's role. I am just grateful that for today, the despair has dissipated and the resting in God's hands part remains.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A tiny breakthrough

Finally, finally, I got to speak to a real live human being at the Department of Labor and Training. And she was very kind and concerned and took care of our problem with the unemployment benefits within about 32 seconds. Boom. Done. We were able to check on the status of Nguyen's employees too.

Yesterday I was really in the pits about all of this, so this phone conversation was a huge gift. My spirits lifted immediately. Thank you, God.

Today, the weight of that is gone and I am feeling much lighter about all of it.

Nguyen was in the shop until very late last night. He is working so hard. His employees are too. All they want is to get back to business. I pray, today, that they will soon.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

And then there is the part of me that thinks that because I am not handling this well, I am a bad Christian. Because I feel fear, anger, loss, grief, I am not trusting in God.

Forgive me, Lord, if that is so.

I need healing.

3 weeks down

and the recovery is excruciatingly slow. Just yesterday Nguyen and Don were able to get a repair technician in from Maine to look at the CNCs. He diagnosed the problems and made his recommendations. They are having motors rebuilt and circuit boards replaced. All reasonable expenses after a catastrophe like the floods 3 weeks ago. None of which will be covered by the fabled FEMA grants or elusive SBA loans. The good news is that the machines can be repaired. The bad news is that we are going to have to max out our credit, beg, borrow and steal to pay for it.

I feel such a sense of loss and I am not sure what it is, even. Grief.

My poor husband can't sleep without a tv on, so he has been on the sofa in the living room because we don't have one in our room. He had a nightmare that his building was on fire and being vandalized and no one would come to help. No fire trucks, no police. When he told me about it the next morning, I cried because it was actually true.

Every day there are articles in the paper urging businesses to apply for the SBA loans, but they never say that you are likely to get rejected. They never disclose that over 50% of the applicants have been denied. They never say anything about the fact that just getting the app in in the wake of a flood is, in itself, a herculean effort. Today I finally called a reporter from the Projo to tell him to ask the SBA how many of their loans are being denied and why aren't they printing THAT statistic every day?

The shop has been closed for 3 weeks as of today. My husband and his brothers and employees have been in there working, for no pay, every day. I go to my job and leave my problems at the door when I get there. I can't think about it. I can't talk about it. And then I come home and pick up where I left off, trying to get through to unemployment, trying to remember the name of the person who called us the first day and told us she would help, trying to get a new inventory together for the SBA so we can make another run at a loan. Trying to remember that God is in control.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

It's a process

I will admit, I have been feeling a sense of anger and frustration about the lack of government support for the flood victims. At every turn we seem to hit a brick wall. Yesterday, it all finally came to a head. I had been trying for days to get the unemployment situation straightened out. I was unable to reach a human being and could not figure out what to do with the conflicting information they had mailed me. It all culminated with a call to Senator Reed's office begging them to help me navigate it all. I also got to speak with the head of the RI SBA, who sounded just as angry as I was.

Last night my father and step mother commented that I had seemed angry for a week. Of course their comment made me angry, LOL. But then I had to admit that it was true.

I think that anger is part of a process. Kind of like Elizabeth Kuebler Ross's stages of dealing with death. And there has been a death of sorts. Maybe we should have known better after watching New Orleans, but I suppose it came as a shock to recognize that despite all the good words and concern from the FEMA people and the SBA people and the RI Dept. of Labor and Training people... at the end, there was going to be nothing. I had to process through the shock and disappointment of that.

But now I am done.

And there are lots of things for which I am very very grateful. Friends and family who have been amazing. Dinner miraculously appearing on our table for days on end. Total strangers showing up to clean the shop for hours and hours. Easter lillies and prayers.

And this trial, which I pray will bring me closer to the trials of my savior. I offer it to you, Jesus.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


That is exactly what the government is offering us to rebuild our business after the flood. Zero. We were rejected for the SBA loan because our business lost money for the last two years.

Well, duh.

RI is in the midst of the worst recession EVER. The fact that we are still open is a miracle.

I am trying to figure out it if it is someone's best interest for a little business like ours to fail. Is someone in Washington going to benefit from RI's economy collapsing? They are sure acting that way.

In the mean time, Nguyen and I are Gideon. We can be stripped down to absolutely nothing, but if it is God's will for us to succeed, we will... to his glory.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Easter breakfast with Obama

I will admit that as a pro-life Christian, it was a little hard for me to read Obama's Easter breakfast confession of faith and take it seriously. It truly puzzles me how a Christian can also be the most pro-abortion president we have ever had. He said all the right things... but for me, it sounded a little too well rehearsed. He could have been talking about an economic policy, really.

But then, in the middle of my cynicism, I got a poke from the Holy Spirit.

First, who am I to decide who is and isn't a Christian? Did God offer me the right hand seat? Nope. I am just another goofball trying to do my best. My planks, and Obama's may not be of the same wood, but we have in common the fact that there are, in fact, logs in our eyes. Perhaps I should try not to be too quick to point out the splinter in yours.

And second... it occurred to me that for the average secular liberal, hearing that Obama is a man of faith might just open a door for them that had been shut tight in the past. I pray that is so. I pray that through him, God will draw people to himself.


If you offer to bring me dinner, I am going to say yes.

If you offer me some help cleaning the shop, yes.

If you ask me what you can do to help, I am going to tell you.

This is new for us.

Nguyen and I are used to being the ones who do the helping. We are the ones who cook dinners, rake leaves, shovel snow for the elderly neighbor.

We are the ones to send money to an orphaned child in Mali, or a family member in Vietnam.

I don't say this to toot our own horn. It is just the truth.

But in this crisis, we are learning that if we pray to God for help, he may send it through our friends. And we better be willing to say yes, right?

Jesus was gracious when people gave him gifts. He didn't say 'Oh, I don't deserve that nard... there are people much more deserving, who need it more.'

He just said yes.

So, yes.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Now I know

why it has taken YEARS for New Orleans to get back on her feet.

Because there is nothing.

No federal funding.

No help for businesses.


A homeowner can get a grant up to $30,000 to fix their kitchen, bathroom, bedroom. A homeowner can get a low interest loan at 2.9%.

But a business, the ones who rebuild the houses, the economy, the jobs, the health coverage,

are offered not one single dime to rebuild. Not one dime to put their employees back to work. Not one red cent to start taking orders, or clean the sludge out of their shop, or rebuild their equipment.

Even the paltry $30,000 that a homeowner gets would go a long way towards getting us back on our feet. For that we could buy replacement motors for our machines. We could lease a new space and pay for riggers to move our equipment. We could rent a power washer to clean the crud off our floor.

But congress has allocated exactly nothing except the offer of debt. We can get a 4 or 6% loan that will weigh us down for the next 30 years. We will be in our 70s by then.

Now I know why it has taken YEARS for Louisiana to rebuild. Because her businesses were left high and dry.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

After the flood

I really couldn't believe what I was seeing as I walked through my husband's shop yesterday, a day after the water from the Pawtuxet River receded. The water mark on his CNC milling machine was at 38 inches.

Outside, a HAZMAT team was trying to determine if chemicals from a neighbors chemical processing operation had leaked. We had to wait to find out if the whole site was going to be shut down and condemned. It seems that is not the case, though, as the HAZMAT team finally left.

It was dark in the shop, of course. The lights are still off. Everywhere, dark silty mud that smelled of diesel and motor oil and just a hint of sewage waste.

Because the road to get to the shop is still underwater, the only access is through a neighbor's back yard. A sweet elderly woman who has a gate that opens onto the steep embankment across from the building has graciously allowed us to duck through her yard. Yesterday a photographer from the Providence Journal made her way down the embankment with a camera slung over her shoulder to take pictures of the damage.

Strangely, Nguyen and I are not gripped in fear. We are just patiently waiting to see how things unfold. I think that is probably a result of the many people who are holding us in prayer right now. The first calls I made when I finally realized that our business was destroyed were not to FEMA. They were to my spiritual director and my parish priest.

And it is Holy Week, a time when maybe it is right that we get stripped down to our barest essentials. We come face to face with the limits of our faith. Where does it end? Where does the dark pit of unbelief start? Last year, at a friends diagnosis with a pancreatic tumor, I got there very quickly. I wrestled with God for a week until finally, my friend's tumor was diagnosed as benign. And maybe that was God telling me he'd won the match. And I called 'Uncle' and felt the edge of my faith grow more distant. I have longer to go before I careen into the dark.

This year, too, has pushed it back yet farther. Working in a crisis pregnancy center means that my faith is tested every day. Being in the center of a spiritual battle, day after day, requires a rigorous faith. I can't wimp out. I can't fall into despair. And the only way of avoiding it is to offer myself to God everyday. Seek his will. Run to him for protection.

The edge of my faith grows more distant... at least for now. For today. Because really, what is that edge except the point where you let fear take over? That is the blackness on the other side.

For today, in the ruins of our livelihood, in the muck and oil and shit that fills our shop, in the post diluvian black mire,

It is Easter.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

don't you think

that it is possible to be gracious and loving even when you disagree with someone? And if that someone is a non-believer, isn't it even more important to love them first, and foremost?

We disagree on some things, it is true. There may even be anger there sometimes. But when I look into your face really carefully, I see that you are a child of God, and I know that Christ loves you. And really, my friend, that is good enough for me.

So, Christians, yes you must speak the truth, but never ever forget that you must do it in love. Because love, at the end of the day, is the most critical piece.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lent begins

I am giving up some things. I decided to stop drinking alcohol for the duration. And sweets. I am going to read the New Testament. Maybe do a scripture reading at dinner with the family. And we, as a family, are giving up frivolous spending. By the end of Lent I will have a few extra bucks to donate to charity.

Mostly, Lent is a time of recognizing our failings and offering them to God, who seems to receive them with such grace and love, as though they were the most precious gifts we could give him. I lay them at your feet, my sweet Jesus.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

You know,

Lord, I have been lifting up some pretty big prayers lately. I have been praying for the people I love. And I have to send up a great big thank you for all the prayers you are answering.

So, today, I pray for my friend who is at a turning point and needs some clarity and conviction that he is on the right path.

And I am praying for my mom, who is struggling with her health insurer over a medication that literally saves her life. I am praying that the issue will be resolved and that she can feel less anxiety and fear, and rage, about it.

And I am praying prayers of thanksgiving for the healings, the miracles I have witnessed lately.

I praise you, Lord. And thank you.

Friday, February 05, 2010


Every year, I confess on this blog that I love Lent. And frankly, I would be hard pressed to express why, exactly. Perhaps it is the intentionality of it. It intrigues me to choose a fast, a sacrifice, and offer it to God. And lest I think that I am going to someday become some sort of perfect Christian, I always seem to fail at least once or twice during the season. One year I gave up chocolate. Another diet soda. One year Nguyen and I carried the TV to the basement for the duration. The kids were allowed to watch if they were at a friend's house, but in our house we gave it up. I managed to get through the whole season without watching tv until Maundy Thursday, when, between the service at church and the overnight vigil, I stopped in a Chinese restaurant for dinner and sat myself squarely in front of the TV and stayed glued to it for the entire meal. I had, in other words, consciously broken my fast. I had, in some small symbolic way, fallen asleep in Gethsemane. Good thing I had a confession planned for the next day.

I have been spending a lot of time with Evangelical Protestants lately. Most of the women I work with, the board at my organization and most of our donors are Evangelicals. They don't, as a rule, observe the seasons of the church year the way that Episcopalians and Catholics do. I am sure they must find the emphasis on self mortification rather strange, if not downright pharisee-ish. But for me, it has yet to become an empty ritual. For me, it is an invitation to step into the desert with Jesus and lay my heart bare in the glaring sun. My faults and sins will rise to the surface, as they always seem to do. My ego will struggle with surrender. My desire to be perfect will be pitted against the human reality of my imperfection. Spiritual pride will, if I am lucky, be given some time off.

And many many times a day I will cry out to Jesus for help.

I love Lent.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Speaking the language

So, after the burst of reflection on my trip to Mali, I had an epiphany of sorts. It occurred to me that I need to learn Bambara if I want to understand anything about the culture of the Bamana. So, on Friday, I started with Bambara lessons with my friend and drum teacher. And you know what? I am totally excited about it. All day yesterday I was listening to the recording he made for me. I wrote up some flash cards and practiced for a long time, over and over again, trying to get the accent right, the sounds, the rhythm. Like drumming, sort of.

God speaks to us in the language we understand. Shouldn't we try and do the same?

I will be so happy to be able to speak the language of Mali and not just the colonial French.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

I should have known better

I somehow thought that being friends with a Malian would help me understand the culture of Mali. Or that because I loved the music and could hum along with Habib Koite or Salif Keita, I would feel at home in West Africa.

I should have known better. My own experience told me that this was not the case.

In Vietnam, standing on the bridge in Nha Trang, not only did I not know Vietnam better for having been married to a Vietnamese for 20 years, it was, in fact, the opposite.

On that bridge, I realized that even after 20 years of marriage, 2 children, countless rolls in the hay and late night conversations, there was a part of my husband that I would never be able to fully understand. And until I was standing there looking at the South China Sea, I didn't even know that part of him existed.

So why did I think that a friendship with a Malian would be a cultural passport to another world? Why did I think that playing a drum, or soaking a goatskin or eating sauce and rice would give me an inside scoop on this other world?

I should have known better. Really.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

4 am

We arrived before dawn, after 24 hours of traveling. Shuffling past security, I handed over a scrap of paper with Sidy's father's business address as my contact information. I was waved on by a man in a military shirt and a beret.

A long line to retrieve our luggage. Then, finally, out the door, greeted by young men offering cab rides, cell phone calls, God only knows what else.

Sidy and Ali were in the crowd. No hugs. A brief introduction to Ali. A black Toyota that was big enough to hold our copious lugguge. Lisa and I piled in the back seat.

It turned out to be a remarkably short drive to our house. We pulled up to a big metal gate. Lights were blazing. Sidy shouted for the hired man to open the door. We hauled our things into the courtyard... and then into the house. Sidy showed us our rooms. They were simple, lovely. Mine was in the front of the house. It had a foam mattress on the floor. A sheet. A mosquito net. I also had a bathroom with running cold water. (There was some debate over who got the bathrooms. Sidy, of course, had one. I lucked out and got the other. There was a third, outside, that Rusty used most of the time.

The main room of the house was lit by overhead florescent lights. There was a coffee table, 4 heavy metal lawn chairs with the year 2002 woven into their backs. A little dish rack on the floor with plates, spoons, knives, forks and glasses and cups. A freezer.

We sat in the lawn chairs and Sidy brought out some food. I can't actually remember what it was. We talked about our journey. About Morocco and about Rusty missing the plane because he hadn't gotten his visa in time. I think I might have pulled out the bottle of scotch I had gotten in the Duty Free shop in Casablanca.

And then, finally, we said goodnight and crawled into our mosquito nets and slept until late the next morning.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Travel warnings

The brochures at the travel clinic are clear. Don't eat raw vegetables. Don't drink the tap water. Don't go out without your sunscreen and bug lotion. Don't go out at night. Don't go to nightclubs. Don't rely on ATM machines: there is only one and it doesn't work.

The truth? I did avoid the tap water. I did wear my sunscreen and bug spray.

But I also went to nightclubs and danced until 4am and took cabs home through deserted parts of the city. I ate salads made with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots, doused in the best tasting dressing I have ever had.

I followed the ATM machines around the city, laughing every time we found a new one. Evidently the warnings were outdated.

I walked along the street and was greeted by every person I passed. Good morning. How are you? I am fine, and you? All smiles.

Fresh fruit. Melons and bananas and avocados. Bread bought from a guy at the nearby gas station. Baguette folded neatly in half and placed in a dusty black plastic bag. It was the breakfast of champions, with a big mug of coffee.

Mosquito netting, tucked carefully around the edges of the mattress. And retucked. And tucked in yet again as I got up in the night to pee.

The sorry little gecko, found dead under my suitcase. A casualty of the high powered insect spray that Sidy bombed my room with at night.

No one warned me, though, about the broken heart. The sadness I would feel when I left. The sense of loss as I got on the plane home. And the crushing grief when one of my friends died, unexpectedly, a couple months after I got back to the states. No one warned me that I would never be the same again.

I thought I knew

what generosity was.

I thought I had seen it before.

But it wasn't until I was leaving Mali and was given gifts, big and small, from the cook, my friend's mother, my friends,

That I finally understood.

We brought things

that my friends would have wanted.

Things like malaria tablets and high powered insect repellent and cipro for diarrhea.

She can't see you today. She is sick with malaria.

I felt overwhelmed by the fact that I, there for only two weeks, had enough malaria medication to get me safely through my time in Africa, but my Malian friends had no such thing.

I can't get a years worth of malaria tablets for even a single person, never mind the whole extended community of family and friends.

So next time I go back, it will be the same. I will take my medicine each morning

and rely on God to keep my friends healthy.

Call to prayer

Clean. Nose, mouth, ears, hands, feet. The plastic tessolet filled with water sat under the tree in the courtyard and several times a day my religious friends would perform their ablutions before unfurling their plastic prayer mats and laying them on the concrete paving stones to pray.

Then, stand, hands clasped, kneel, forehead to the ground, stand, kneel, hands together, words whispered silently to God.

I told one friend

'I think God smiles when you do that'.

The last time I saw Maze, was on the rooftop courtyard where he and Sidy's friends were recording Sidy's songs. After the recording was finished, Maze took a moment, as darkness descended, to walk off by himself on the other side of the roof. Overhead, the fruit bats were beginning to emerge from the giant mango trees and quietly make their way across the twilit sky. Maze's yellow shirt billowed a bit in the breeze as he turned his back to us, turned towards Mecca, turned his attention, towards God.

Later, saying goodbye for what turned out to be the last time, I remember seeing the yellow of his shirt as I leaned in for a final, formal, kiss on the cheek.

I don't know anything

I noticed that foreigners in Africa liked to assert what they knew as if it were fact. This is how the Africans feel about thus and so, an aid worker would say. This is what they think of this or that, or the other, over there.

We were driving along the streets at night and I noticed, over and over, brightly lit orange signs that simply said 'Orange'.

What is 'orange'? I wondered. Orange Juice? Orange Soda? Orange cigarettes? Candy? Gum? Condoms?

The signs were everywhere.

Finally, I asked Sidy. What is 'Orange'?

It is a cell phone company, he said.

Mali was like that. Most of the time I had no idea what I was looking at.

The connection was lost

I tried to type on the dusty keyboard. The internet cafe was about 4 blocks from our house and I had been meaning to take the short walk so I could reconnect with home, send an email or two, post a brief comment on this blog. But though I managed to negotiate the price and get online, I realized as soon as I started typing that the keyboard was laid out in the French way, with the Q and W and T all in different places.

So even that. Even typing, which comes so naturally to me now, even that was foreign. Required careful, slow, hunt and peck to circumvent the wiring in my brain that said that a 'T' should go there and a 'Q' belonged over here.

I had paid for 30 minutes. I assumed that would be more than enough time, even with the ancient computer on old fashioned dial up. But by the end of the 30 minutes, I had barely managed to type a paragraph or two.

As I was walking back to the house I realized I had nothing to say anyway.

Scenes from Bamako

I was riding in a cab. Sidy, Lisa and Rusty were in the back. I was in the front. The window was open and we were speeding down the main road, passing vendors with vegetables on their heads, kids selling phone cards at stop lights, guys with rusty blue carts upended on the curb waiting for someone to hire them. Green buses zig zagging in and out of traffic. Then the river, spread out clean and beautiful and serene below the bridge. Walled compounds. Beautiful people. Red dust and diesel fumes hanging in the air.

And I thought to myself, I don't understand what I am seeing. I am seeing it, but I can't interpret it. I can't imagine how I would possibly describe what it was like to be there.

Perhaps it is an American thing, to always want to explain things. To analyze them. To make sense or meaning from what you observe or experience.

But I knew at that moment, in the cab, that there was no explaining. All I could do was see.