A Spiritual Encounter for the Non-Believer in the Room

My father passed away on a Wednesday in September. On the Sunday before he died; my brother, sister-in-law (to-be) and I, sat in silence next to my father while he slept in his hospice bed. A steady influx of friends and family had been in and out all day to pay their last respects. Everyone had eventually left the room, except for the three of us.

Before I go on; you should know that for some time, I’ve been grappling with the concept of God. While in some ways, I’ve become more spiritual, in other ways I stopped believing that God is an altruistic and omnipotent “being”, but rather a “thing” that lives in each of us, and that “thing” is all around us, in people, and nature, and we live and eat and breathe “it” every single day. Yet, while my father was sleeping and dying; it occurred to me that someone needed to pray for him, but to whom does one pray, if not to the “omnipotent?” I sat there waiting for someone to do it. It couldn’t be me, because I had questioned my very own faith in the altruistic “being” that I was supposed to believe in. Someone else had to pray, but still, praying for my father became increasingly more and more important to me.

I was in turmoil. So, I prayed about it. I prayed to the God that I learned to trust in my youth. I prayed that He would take my father swiftly and without pain when it was his time to go. I prayed for the healing that I hoped would take place in the rest of us, after he was gone. I prayed that God would give me courage to pray out loud and that I wouldn’t mess up The Lord’s Prayer and single-handedly botch my own disbelieving, never been to church dad’s–chance at going to the Heaven. So, out loud I began to recite, “Our father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” My father’s eyes opened and he looked at me in a way that he never had before. When I finished reciting the prayer from memory, he closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

It was a sunny day and the moment that I finished the prayer; the house grew dark as if the lights were turned off. And, then it grew light again, and then dark and then light again in quick succession. My siblings and I sat there with our mouths agape. Then, rationale struck me. The clouds had blocked the sun, that’s all. But, after the house grew dark and light again three times, a ray of light came in through the window, and found my father’s right foot. There it glowed and flickered for over five minutes, and illuminated him like nothing I’d ever seen . My siblings and I were flabbergasted and I tried to find the source of light, probably filtering through the trees and coming in through the window where it rested on my father’s foot. But, I couldn’t find the source of light. No matter how hard I tried; I couldn’t find it. I got out my video camera and video-taped the light dancing over my father’s foot. I wanted to prove to myself later that I wasn’t crazy. My father heard our hushed, confused voices and said, “What? What’s happening?’ I told him what had happened and I told him about the light on his foot, that he was too weak to see for himself. He wanted me to bring the camera to him. I showed him what we had witnessed and watched as his face suddenly became peaceful and at ease. I think he had felt something happen too.

Faith has a funny way of rearing its head. Something did happen that day, and I’m not exactly sure what to call it, if nothing short of a miracle for both my father, my siblings and me. But, a minister informed my sister-in-law (to be), that when the house grew dark and light three times; that was the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He said that was for the non-believer in the room. (She didn’t know that I was questioning my faith, rather she assumed since I prayed for him that I was very spiritual.) She hadn’t told him about the ray of light, only that the house went light and dark three times. Then he asked her if a ray of light had found him. When she told him yes, he said that the ray of light was the spiritual cleansing of the person who was dying.

My father didn’t always make the right choices, and I’m still forgiving him for some, but I loved him. On the day of the funeral, a lone Bible sat on a pedestal in a far corner of the room at the funeral home. I hadn’t touched a Bible in years. I walked over and randomly flipped it open, and the pages fell to Leviticus Chapter 5. My eyes went straight to verses 15-19. I read something about he (my dad) must bring forth a ram that was pure in his own estimation (Me? Hardly.) for a trespass offering (The Lord’s Prayer) to forgive him (my dad’s ignorant sins.) Or least that’s my interpretation of all of that. When you are losing someone important to you; believe me, your faith is all you’ve got. I like the idea that my dad is somewhere up above and looking down on me every single day. Without faith; my father has been reduced to a pot full of dust in an urn, buried underground.

My Identity Crisis

I lost my wallet somewhere between King and Market Streets in San Francisco after Game #1 of The World Series.  (The SFO Giants won!) Amidst my husband’s and my mad dash to catch the Bart in front of the legions of people swarming from behind us out of the ballpark; I somehow managed to drop a wallet. That’s a big piece of dirt to re-trace, and an impossible feat, even if I wanted to do it.

The point is moot anyway, because I didn’t even know I lost my wallet until I tried to tip the hotel shuttle guy at the airport the next morning. The realization that I had lost my wallet and that I could be stranded in Oakland without any money or access to money left me dazed and confused. I felt helpless, particularly since my husband had left on an earlier flight, and I wouldn’t be able to board my flight back to LAX from Oakland without my ID.

Without money in my pocket, my lips were parched and I needed something to drink. Without money in my pocket; I was suddenly starving, even though I grabbed some food from the complimentary buffet at the hotel. Without money in my pocket; I felt destitute and alone.

Standing in line, waiting to plea my case to a TSA agent, almost in tears about a lost wallet and the possibility of not being able to board a plane without my ID; I happened to notice the burn victim standing in the line next to me. The features on his face were barely decipherable and his arms were marred with scars. When he caught me looking, he smiled at me. I forced my frustration and self-pity back down into the cracks and crevices of my being and smiled right back. I was in awe of him, and only imagined what he’d been through to get to his spot in line on this day. My troubles paled by comparison.

I somehow managed to get through the day. Whoever told you that you couldn’t fly without identification was wrong. TSA pulls you aside and asks you a sea of questions that only you could answer. Once they are assured that you’re not some terrorist disguised as a loser who dropped her wallet after a sporting event; they let you pass on through.

It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself. It’s much harder to be the guy who survived a fire of some kind that left him disfigured. Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself; I ask myself whether or not my problem is as bad as any of that. The answer; I hope and pray, will always be no.

There’s a Writer in All of Us

I’ve been thinking a lot about the allure of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. What attracts people to post tidbits about their lives, professions, thoughts, actions or beliefs? What is the compelling reason behind all this excess sharing of information that crosses generations and keeps us coming back for more?

Is it that humans have a compelling need to conform? Everyone’s on Facebook, so I need to be on it too? Perhaps those sites are fulfilling our social need to be recognized, liked or accepted? Maybe, we are all just voyeurs and like to look through a small window into other people’s lives?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but my addiction to Facebook, in particular, is terminal. I’ve abandoned the extra thirty minutes of sitcom every night and I even Facebook through lunch upon occasion. I open Facebook with the first sip of my morning coffee. But why?

Recently, on a flight to Miami, I had a neurosurgeon tell me that he tunes into Jerry Springer every day. When i asked him why; he said because watching the program was mindless and made his problems seem trivial and small, but mostly because he wanted to. I thought that was a great answer for a man that had to concentrate almost daily on finite details while performing brain surgery. Jerry Springer is like his glass of wine during his hard day’s work. It’s his method of escapism.

The same is true for me and Facebook. I own and run a business. I have two active kids. I have a home to manage. Pets. A spouse. Employees. A mortgage. A daughter going off to college soon. You get the picture. Maybe I’m escaping from all of it for brief interludes. Your news feed and my two or three posts per day, complete me. Maybe it’s my means of escape, but for me that’s not exactly it, because I love my life and I don’t need to hide from it. I generally face it head-on.

So then what is it, if not a means of escape? Simply, Facebook and Twitter both feed my need to write. I’m a writer. A writer gets their fix any old way they can, and when they can’t be consumed in some big writing project, they dive, head first into Facebook. Social Media to the writer is like a heroin addiction to a junkie. We can’t help ourselves. We love to chronicle the stories of our lives.

I believe there is a writer in all us. Social media allows us to feed that basic human need to write. I challenge anyone with a Facebook addiction to tell me it ain’t so.

Life’s good material. So write about it.

The Constant Fight for Female Supremacy

For those of you that are female, and have had the joy and pleasure of giving birth to a daughter; you should be able to figure out what’s behind the topic of my post.

My daughter turns sixteen on Thanksgiving Day. She’s everything I am and everything I wished I’d be. From a completely biased mother’s perspective; she’s practically perfect in every way. Except she drives me crazy.

Raising a daughter that is so like me has been one of the greatest challenges of my life. The things that drive me nuts about myself are of course, genetically ingrained in her. She’s a veritable derivative of me, and because she is; she has the propensity to drive me crazy! I mean, come on, the kid never shuts up, can talk her way out of anything, and she doesn’t have an off button. Just like me.

Those same qualities about myself are the qualities that my husband finds endearing in both of us. Those qualities, when used in the right way, had a little something to do with some degree of success that I’ve managed to achieve in my forty-one years.

My husband says the battles in our home sometimes feels like he’s witnessing a constant fight for female supremacy. Before now, I happily carried the matriarchal torch all by myself. After all, who’s in charge here anyway? Someone’s gotta be, and of course, that’s gotta be me. My mother said it. Her mother said it. All good mother’s say it, “It’s my home and my way or the highway. When you move out and pay the bills, you’ll be in charge.” For sixteen years; I’ve exhaled the mantra.

But, recently, something’s changed. My child has grown into a young lady. She has real thoughts and concerns about the way things ought to be and she wants to share them, in her own voice and in her own way. And, someone has to listen, and that’s gotta be me. How else can my daughter learn to pass her own matriarchal torch someday?

So, despite myself and every female particle in my body screaming, “Don’t do it! Don’t let her control her own life! She’s just a kid”! I know it’s time to let her make some of her own decisions. Next week my little girl will be driving herself around in a two ton vehicle. I won’t be there to help her to navigate around the bicyclist on a winding road, nor be there to coax her into a gentle stop at a red light. I’ll have to trust her to do it on her own and in her own way.

Right Before You Die. (A prologue to my novel)

Right before you die, your feet turn white and your legs get all mottled-up in color somewhere between the vibrant hues of purple and blue. You can’t see your legs and feet anymore, because you’re immobile and on your back, where you have been placed, in your final resting pose by your nurse. Even though you are old, your mind and hearing are still strong, and the audible whispers of the people around you confirm what is happening to the body that you can no longer see or feel. It frightens people to watch the metamorphism as your organs begin to shut down, one-by-one.

Life, or what was left of it, leaves your eyes long before this, before your body becomes a chameleon and starts to change its colors. The bright blue eyes that you once had are now dark and glassy and all fogged up. The people around you become nothing more than clouded, living and breathing visions through your own drug-induced, fog daze. Thankfully, the morphine you have been administered takes the edge off of anything that resembles pain. It takes you awhile to focus in on your surroundings and find who you are looking for as you scan through the sea of faces hovering over you. You give an obligatory nod to each new one you see to let them know, that you know, that they are there. These are the people who have come to watch you die, but your pride won’t allow you to do it in front of them.

While your family is gripping your hands and holding you tight; you stare off, for a time, into a place that only the dying can see. You’ve just started to entertain the prospect of going there and start to play with your own breath to see if you can stop the beating of your own heart, but you’re not quite powerful enough for that. Also, you’re not ready yet, because people have come to pay their respects, and waiting is the right thing to do.

Your loved ones seem more prepared for you to go than you are because they don’t want you to suffer anymore. In those brief moments you have to escape within yourself, you admit, if only for a fleeting second, that you are scared. But, by now; you’ve ultimately come to grips with your destiny. You know you will soon die, and suddenly you have an altruistic sense of what that really means. You muster up just enough energy and final breath to say goodbye to all the people that float in, and drift around you; a steady influx of people that rattle the door every time they enter your personal space and pull you away from where you almost went. You’re just lucid enough to stay awake, because you owe it to them, and know it’s important that they get to say their final goodbyes. They are the people that care about you the most, the ones who have come to bid their final farewells, and you chalk off the people who didn’t; they are now permanently erased from your mind.

You tell everyone that you love them, and you say it with your eyes too, because speaking takes too much out of you. This time, you mean it with all of your heart and soul, and in a way that only the dying can feel, and you wish you had the words and the voice and a loudspeaker so that you are sure that they know. Those people who stand over you, lurking, are hoping and praying that you’ll die soon, while they are watching, because secretly they are in awe of your teeter-totter between life and death, but mostly because they don’t want to watch you feel any more pain. They have no qualms about telling you that it’s alright to go, and that they’ll see you on the other side. But, you’re not quite sure that is where you’ll end up.

Miraculously, your closest loved-ones, your children and your spouse, are each willing you to live and praying for you to die at the same time. They are silently begging you with their own eyes to stay, as if you have some degree of say in the matter. They also are praying that you’ll be taken comfortably and without any further degree of suffering. They are conflicted by this push/pull of both willing you to live and willing you to die. These people are the ones with words still left unspoken. They have unresolved issues with you about how you lived your life, and how that impacted them. You know they are in turmoil, and even though you took so much from them, and caused them so much pain, they are still there—forgiving you for the life you lived, and letting go of whatever was left of what they were still holding onto. The guilt of this and of dying consumes you. You’ve caused everyone so much pain already, and you know that they will be there when you take your last breath. If only you had more time, then maybe you’d undo some of the things that you did.

It’s T-O-N-I-A

I was born at precisely midnight. All the hands on the clock were pointed at 12:00 midnight, even the second-hand.   There I was, all pink and new and ready to take on the world, but not before my mother had to pick my birthdate. “Call it,” the doctor said, “Pick her birthday.  You can choose either the 19th or the 20th. She was born on the 19th, but we looked at the clock on the 20th. So it’s up to you.” It was a life changing moment for me. I could either be born on October 19th, or October 20th,  and I didn’t get a single say in the matter. It was up to my mom. So, she picked the 20th and still calls me on the 19th to wish me a happy birthday.  She obviously wasn’t too committed to the process. If they had left it up to me, I would have gotten two birthdays. Somehow, I still feel entitled to the one that got away.

Somewhere along the way, my parents had also forgotten the correct spelling of my name. I mean, come on! The date of my birth is understandable, because technically; I was born on the 19th. But, my name? On my birth certificate, it read T-O-N-I-A.  I had no idea.  Really, I didn’t have a single clue that my name was mispelled until somewhere around my twenty-third year when  the social security administration wrote to tell me that I didn’t exist.  “We have no record of you,” the note said, “You don’t exist in our database.”   Really?  There might have been a kinder way to put that. 

Apparently, my kindergarten teacher, Miss Swihart, disagreed with the spelling of my name and started spelling it T-O-N-Y-A.  She never really informed anyone that she disagreed; she just changed the spelling.  Phonetically speaking, she was right about the way it should be spelled, but that’s not the point.   It’s really the principal of the matter.  Kindergarten teachers don’t have the express license to go around changing their student’s names.  I, of course, had no idea how to write my name when I entered her classroom.  My five-year-old self pretty much left that all up to her to teach me.  Somewhere between learning the alphabet and how to ride a bus; I’m betting that’s when she changed my name. 

This is how my parents tell the story anyway.  They blamed the whole name change thing on some, poor Kindergarten teacher who had twenty other names to remember how to spell.   For all I know, my own parents may have forgotten how they spelled it in the first place, and wrote it down wrong on my school registration papers.  So, let’s blame it on teacher, for the sake of argument.   Even if it was poor, Miss Swihart’s fault, don’t you think it’s even a tad bit strange that my parents never corrected her spelling along the way? In any case, before I got married, I had to alter the spelling of my first name back to how it reads on my birth certificate to T-O-N-I-A.  I couldn’t get a marriage license until I proved who I really was, T-O-N-I-A, the little baby, all pink and new,  born October 19th or 20th, 1969.

People always comment that my name has an interesting spelling. My response is always the same. “Yeah, well…my parents can’t spell, and neither could my kindergarten teacher, for that matter.” The first part is funny, the second part just loses whoever asks, I think. 

If you grew up in the era of Bright Lights, Big City; click here for one of the most beautiful songs ever written with my name in it,  Ice Cream Days by Jennifer Hallhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUFhMBIUFAA

Life is about falling down

The Urban Dictionary refers to a clutz as someone who is extremely careless, stupid and a hazard to be around. Trips over shoes constantly, breaks anything he/she touches, should not be alowed around heavy machinery or anything that might put other’s lives in danger.
Mr Clutz walks into old, rich woman’s house with lots of v. elaborate, precariously placed ornaments and brakeables scattered around.

Clutz: Oooh look a penny!
(As he picks up penny, knocks down v. expensive china vase)
Old woman: Good heavens! That vase was my Great Grandmama’s!
Clutz: Huh? What vase?

Like a Kid in a School Yard

When I was in elementary school, I loved the playground. The playground was the one place that you could run around, uninhibited without a care in the world. On the playground, you could forget about all of your worries and just be a kid, but it also was a pretty dangerous place for a scrawny, little clutz like me.

Back then, I was a bit of a tomboy and when I wasn’t playing baseball or dodgeball with the boys, you could find me on the swing. The swings were always my favorite place to go when I just wanted to be by myself. I didn’t need someone standing behind me, pushing me from behind. It’s probably no suprise to people who know me today that back then, I’d push myself. All I had to do was pump my legs and I would soar higher and higher. From up there, it felt like I could touch the sky or punch a hole in it with my feet if I wanted to.

The boys would always pick me to play on their teams, because I was good at sports, despite how clumsy I was in real life. In real life, when I wasn’t throwing or catching a ball, I would fall down A LOT! One day, after the bell had rung, I jumped off the swing and landed forehead first onto a rock protruding from the ground. It wasn’t a big rock either, but I liked to tell people that it was a huge boulder. In truth, the rock was only about six inches in diameter, but it packed a big punch to that tiny little noggin of mine. Like every other time when I fell, I just picked myself up, brushed myself off and went about the rest of my day.

The following morning, I awoke with two black eyes. I looked ridiculous and, of course, my little eight-year-old, immature friends all laughed at me and called me a raccoon. That didn’t matter though; I loved having them, those two big black eyes. They hung around for a while and became a part of me for a short period of my life. I earned those black eyes, that time I fell down. Those two black eyes told a story; a seemingly nothing kind of story; a story about a kid who once fell down and bumped her head. Still, that story was mine to tell. I owned it and learned to form and shape the story, any old way that I liked. That’s why I love to write, because nothings sometimes have the propensity to turn into somethings, if the tale is told just right.

So, here’s my mantra. I think life is all about falling down. If we could just learn to get back up with as much grace and poise as we can possibly muster; we’ll be alright. And, hey, if you are someone like me, who fell down a lot in both the literal and figurative senses, then you’ll ease into old age with a lot of practice and hopefully you’ll spare yourself a broken hip.

P.S. I learned a lot from that swing, and I still push myself. Sometimes I have to push myself to get back up. You might have to push yourself to get back up, too. Trust me, it gets easier every time.