June 28, 2008

Amazing Grace: Day Two

Day One

Dawn was loud with the calls of birds. I rose before everyone else and walked out into the meadow to the edge of the sagebrush. The slight movement in the Timothy grass belied the stillness of the air. In spite of the boisterous cries of joyful birds, the huge landscape felt silent. What was missing? The sounds of men: machinery, metal on metal, voices, and yes, even music. Silence is part of the music here.

The camp from the edge of the meadow

Morning shadow

For this moment in the expanse, golden in the morning sun, I could put away the world back home and just be. Alone in the desert air, I did not have to shut out the world. I became a part of the whole. It was peace made physical.

An hour later, the rest of the parents were up eating their oatmeal, cooked with water heated in “billy cans” in the fire. (We could mix in cinnamon, brown sugar, and raisins as desired.) We knew the kids were coming, but we didn’t know when. The instructors were keeping contact with walkie-talkies, and they told us the children were delayed. To give us something to do, we started on a walk across the large meadow.

We were investigating the remains of an old campsite a quarter mile away when the word came that the kids were here. We emerged from the trees and shrubs and began the long walk back to the camp. We could see the SUV pull up when we were about halfway there. Bodies poured from the car, walking through the site. Which one was Ben? They were all about the same size, disguised in identical clothing and hooded sweatshirts.

I sped up my walk, tromping through the grass rather than stepping over it. Is that Ben? No. Not that one either. Is it…? Yes! I dropped my water bottle to the ground and speedwalked the remaining distance. Ben was smiling at me, bright teeth in a dusty face.

I grabbed my son in my arms and started to cry. “I missed you so much. I missed you so much.” Truth be told, I had missed him for many months before he left for camp. But he was returning my hug and shyly smiling. My boy was back.

Abe was close on my heels and grabbed Ben with a sob. They both took a deep breath and smiled at each other. There were similar reunions over the grounds of the campsite, greetings from loud laughter to silent hugs.

The instructors were quick to step in and fill the awkward moments by telling the students to get their gear to the parents’ tents. Ben immediately took his pack and began to set up a shelter with his tarp.

In the four weeks that he had been at camp, Ben had grown in strength, skills, and maturity. We saw the first evidence in that shelter he was erecting. It was taut and impervious to the strong desert winds. As he showed us what he was doing, we helped him find large rocks with which to anchor his cords. The tarp had no grommets, so he had to make a pouch on each corner and peak and fill it with whatever he could find locally. He used dried cow poop. This stuff was everywhere, and apparently it came in quite handy for a number of things.


Breaking off a chunk of a cowpie, Ben stuffed it into the pouch he’d made on the corner of the tarp. He wrapped the cord tightly around the ball it made and stretched the cord to loop around a very heavy rock. (The rock had to be heavy enough to counter the wind. I’m guessing they were 40 to 50 pounds each.)

An instructor told us later that Ben would be sleeping in the tent with us, so he took it down. No complaining, just assent. This was another sign of change.

The instructors herded us back together and we all hiked about a half mile to base camp, where we participated in exercises that tested our group dynamics. Our group of eight was shown a 4x8 deck that was balanced off-center on a log fulcrum. Our assignment: with everyone standing on the deck, make it balance parallel to the ground for fifteen seconds.

Being a goal-oriented person, my mind was instantly at work. “Okay, everyone, we need two rows of four people lined up immediately above the log.”

The instructor had other ideas. “And Birdie, you can’t talk.”

My mouth opened, but in a brief moment of excellent self-restraint, I closed it again. An attorney/dad chimed in with his idea as others began climbing on the deck. After he spoke for about thirty seconds, he was told he couldn’t talk. Ohhh. Each leader who stepped in with instructions was eventually silenced, leaving those who normally were followers to instruct everyone on what to do. Eventually, we met our goal under the leadership of the quietest ones.

In the ropes exercise, we had to get everyone through a web of ropes; but each of us had to use a different opening, without touching any rope. There were some rules, of course. One person had to go through without touching the ground. A couple of others had specific restrictions. “And Birdie, you will be blindfolded.” Okay. I’m noticing a trend here. Since I couldn’t see, I couldn’t offer advice. I patiently awaited instructions, and we succeeded beautifully.

Learning moments like this happened the entire time we were there. I am a teacher by training and trade, but I cannot approach the intuitive timing these instructors had for finding the “teachable moment.” And they never told you what you were to gain from their instructions; they let you discover it on your own. Brilliant execution of well-designed purpose. No wonder Ben was doing so well.

After a lunch of peanut butter on pita with (a minimum of four and a maximum of seven) dried apricots, we hiked back to have private family conversations with our field therapists. This was where we saw the greatest evidence of change in Ben: what we had seen in his carriage and expression became real in the words he spoke. Ben dominated the conversation, constantly employing metaphors to explain his new ways of thinking and behaving. It became clear then that the boy we had hoped to see would remain in the past; Ben was becoming a man.

In the afternoon, Ben used his poncho to create a shade shelter for us in front of our tent. It took him less than ten minutes to erect a cool spot of relief from our tent, which was an excellent slow-cooker by afternoon.


An instructor approached Ben to ask him to make a fire, his first. They needed to smoke out some bees which had literally just moved into a tree by the firepit. Ben had sparked a couple of embers in practice, using his handmade fire kit of a drill bow (curved stick with cord), a spindle (small stick with crudely carved points), and two blocks of wood for holding down the spindle and creating an ember.

Igniting the tinder

Ben set to work by the firepit. In less than fifteen minutes he had “busted a coal” with his kit, ignited some grassy tinder by blowing gently on the ember, and set it in kindling in the pit. A few logs, and a fire was burning nicely. It was late in the afternoon, so Ben’s fire was used to cook dinner later. And the bees stayed away.


Our Truth Circle that evening was all about family: “What does family mean to you?” The answers that came from parents and students were profound and moving. Each of us said something different and yet we were all saying the same thing: families of origin and families of choice—we all have both—are where we belong.

Hundreds of buds on this wild rose bush

Next: Day Three

Recommended Reading

I know, I know. I'm working on the next chapter of Amazing Grace tonight. I've been scrambling to get work done so I can leave Tuesday to see Ben graduate from camp.

Meanwhile, if you want to read an eloquent result of passion and intelligence, read this.

June 26, 2008

On Sin and Grace

Mohandas Ghandi’s “Seven Deadly Sins:”

Wealth without work,
Pleasure without conscience,
Science without humanity,
Knowledge without character,
Politics without principle,
Commerce without morality,
And worship without sacrifice.

"Original Sin," artist unknown

The simplest definition I have for sin is anything that separates me from God. I have found that the greater awareness I have of my own sinfulness, the easier it is for me to offer forgiveness, mercy and love. And I will try to give that within my capacity to do so, for I am a profoundly grateful recipient of God’s own infinite grace.

Grace is yang to the yin of brokenness. It makes us whole again, healing the shattered state which tragedy, disillusionment, inhumanity, and hopelessness have inflicted upon our souls. Grace is light to darkness, the light from which springs hope. What a joy it is to know this light, this hope, this peace.

Grace is found not in objects but in even the simplest of acts: a smile; an outstretched hand; “Please;” “You’re welcome.” It is apparent in the absence of action: a swallowed retort; restraint instead of vengeance; gentle silence.

Where have you found grace?

June 24, 2008

Amazing Grace: Day One

Preceded by Amazing Grace (Intro)

Our first day at the desert camp was spent getting settled and learning the rules by which we would live. Abe and I were given our clothing, bedding and a small amount of gear. (The only things we brought of our own into the camp were boots, a hat, and underwear.)

The yurt at base camp

Six sets of parents gathered in a yurt to talk about what we could expect. Our lifestyle in the desert would be “leave no trace,” which required extra vigilance with every item we handled. Nothing, not even food crumbs, would be left behind.

Two of the six tents in the meadow

We were trucked into our first campsite, a large meadow on the rolling plain with six frame tents widely disbursed. The meadow was filled primarily with Timothy grass about a foot high. A copse of cottonwood trees gave shade to the firepit. Around the meadow, for miles in every direction, was sage-filled plain. Most of the sagebrush was about three feet high. Boulder-strewn foothills to the north led to the Sawtooth Range, hidden from our view by brown bluffs and small peaks.

Sagebrush all the way to the foothills and beyond

At first it looked as though there was little animal life. But it took less than an hour to realize that this was a birder’s paradise: there were redwings, goldfinches, jackdaws, whipoorwills and more I did not recognize. The only sound was of constant wind and birdcalls. Out in the meadow, away from the trees, the wind did not diminish but its sound did.

Mystery bird on a bush

The parents gathered around the firepit for the solace of company. As we chatted about this and that, laughter was quick but died as quickly. It felt as if we were searching for anything to keep us from voicing our as-yet-unshared fears. Long silences were encouraged by the landscape, and it was not uncomfortable in that context.

A fire was built and we had a dinner of rice and lentils with several spices. This would be our dinner every night, and we ate from our large metal cups with large plastic spoons (just as our children had for several weeks). Every bit of that dinner had to be eaten. Part of “leave no trace” means “leave no crumbs.” If you cook it, you eat it—if not tonight, then for breakfast the next day.

After dinner we rinsed our cups and spoons in a very spare amount of water and sat around the fire for Truth Circle. This was a daily tradition for our children each morning and evening, in which all participants had a voice, taking turns speaking about the given topic. We were asked what we hoped for when we saw our children the next morning.

An object was selected for each Truth Circle for helping us take turns. This “power object” was passed around the circle so that only the possesser could speak. Faces were illumined in firelight, silence broken by sniffling. Some were unwilling or unable to speak, others speaking what everyone was feeling. The hope was palpable.

As the power object was passed, I could feel myself opening up more. My composure was almost gone when it reached me. I was a swirl of emotions: hopeful anticipation; fear of failure; exhilaration at the peaceful landscape; gratitude to be among those whose pain and hope bound us. Above all, a longing.

“I want to see my son smile. I want him to smile when he sees me.”

Would Ben be glad to see me? I prayed he would. His letters gave me hope, but this was face-to-face; I wasn’t at all sure what to expect.


In the firelight we affirmed each other in our fears and hopes, and we grew quieter as the sun began to fade late in the evening. Sunset limned the curves and points of the horizon while a waxing moon grew brighter. Stars slowly emerged with the sharp shadows. The wind faded with the light and new birds’ voices awakened. It was time for bed. We would greet our children in the morning. I lay on my sleeping bag with a flashlight to write what I could. (With a pencil! On paper!) If I could get it out of my head, maybe I could still my heart and go to sleep.

Next: Day Two

June 18, 2008

Amazing Grace

Preceded by Open Hearts, Open Plains

Not so long ago, I thought my beautiful boy might be lost to us, to himself. I hoped that this visit to the high plains desert might bring back to me the sweet boy that I knew. But I did not see that boy at all; I saw instead a maturing young man. He is quietly confident, speaking in metaphor of his new outlook on life and himself, showing an astonishing self-awareness and wholeness. He is growing into leadership and goal-setting for the first time in his life, and it is a wonder to witness. I thank God for allowing me to see this transformation.

Ben is not the only one to change in this past weekend; Abe and I have been challenged to examine our roles within our family and within our relationship, to balance our gifts and be aware of when it is time for one to step up and the other to step back, working as a team. This will take a conscious effort for both of us, and we are eager to have it happen. The dynamics of our personal relationship will benefit and our family’s connection will strengthen as a result.

This is a cathartic moment in the life of our family, one upon which we will look back and with a few key words remember. This is the stuff of life for which we all long; but note that it came at great cost, figuratively and literally, shared in part by loving people in our lives who have supported us. What would happen if we could accept the need for this kind of growth without the cost? Would we seek it as fervently? History and experience tells me that it is rare to grow without a painful catalyst. That makes us human, I suppose.

But allow me to encourage those who need help in any form to seek it quickly, vigorously, and to persevere. Those in our close network extended their support and shared their knowledge, and because of that we found shortcuts we would never have known. It was complete strangers who ultimately led us to this solution for our family, and our network of support has expanded exponentially. Reach openly for whatever help you need; you might be astounded at the number of people who want to help and do. I feel that I and my family are recipients of amazing grace from many sources. I am indebted to all and will do everything in my power to pay it forward.

In upcoming days I will post about our experience; meanwhile, please accept my humble thanks for your supportive comments and prayers.

The photo is sunset of our first day in the desert.

Next: Day One

June 11, 2008

Open Hearts, Open Plains

Preceded by Light in the Darkness

Abe and I are leaving today to camp for a few days in the high plains desert with Ben. It’s good: he wants us there. We will be meeting in his domain for the first time since he left so angry. We have yet to speak with each other, but we have communicated by letter. Ben wants to establish a good relationship with us once again. This is the first step in a long, arduous journey for all of us, but it’s a big step. We will be creating a new dynamic between all of us. It will be a time of truth; and with truth comes pain, release, and hope. Those of you who are so inclined, please pray for openness, trust, and laughter for all of us. (Those who are not so inclined are off the hook.)

While we are out there, I will be without my computer. (Deep breath. In. Out. In. Out.) But I will take pictures and keep notes so I can tell you about it upon my return. Meanwhile, let’s hear from you. I think I may need to hear this when I get back:

What did your parents do right?

Next: Amazing Grace

June 10, 2008

Powers Of Ten

In 1968 Charles and Ray Eames, a married team of innovators in architecture, design and photography, made a film for IBM called “Powers of Ten.” It is a visual exploration of the relative size of things in the universe.

Beginning with a couple on a picnic in a Chicago park on a spring day, the camera pulls away. Every ten seconds the view is ten times further away than the previous view, which is indicated by an open square. As we pull away, we move into space (exactly as it would be facing from Chicago in spring) and see the earth.

The picture of the earth was taken by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972. This photo was the first time in the history of the human race that the earth was seen without lines on it. No divisions, no names, just one whole planet floating in space. It was a paradigm shift that changed forever how we envision our home world.

As you continue back, the curved lines represent the orbital paths of the other planets in our solar system. Before you leave the solar system, you are moving at the speed of light. Eventually you see that we are situated in the Sagittarius Arm in the outer third of the Milky Way. The “camera” continues back until we reach a point in space where relative distance has no meaning. The film then moves forward, ultimately entering the subatomic world as we knew it at the time.

You must find the nine minutes it takes to see this video. It is one of those moments that revives the Wow Factor you remember from childhood.

June 9, 2008

South American Reds

It was a Saturday, so I wasn’t teaching. My friend Lynn was at work at the newspaper when she called. Apparently a reporter had pulled a fast one on the typesetters because it was April first, and they were ticked. It cost them a lot of time to redo some of their material because of him, and they had a deadline to meet. She needed my help to get back at him. Could I come up with anything to get revenge?

“Let me think.” Now the cardinal rule of practical jokes is that no one gets hurt and nothing gets damaged. But beyond that… “Yes. What’s his phone number?”

“I KNEW you were the one to ask. Here’s his extension.”

The reporter answered his phone.

I told him I had a story that I thought needed to be told. I owned tarantulas, and I thought they were getting a bad rap by the public. (Keep in mind, I am quite certain these vile creatures are the devil incarnate and should be obliterated from the face of the earth. I know absolutely nothing about them. Why should I?)

“People need to know what great pets they make.”

“How did you get my name?”

Uh-oh. “Oh, I just saw it in the paper. Should I be talking to someone else instead? I just thought it would be a good story.”

“No, no, no. I think you’re right. What makes them such good pets?”

“Well, I’ve got two. Mine are South American Reds, a little smaller than the black variety, and they’re real smart. And gentle, too.”


I poured out a story about how they could be trained to beg for food, loved to be petted, etc. This went on for some time. He uh-huhhed a bunch while I spun this nonsense. Apparently he was taking notes. At one point he asked me to hold. A couple of minutes later he came back on the line.

“I think I can get a photographer this morning. Are you free?”

“Well, yes, but there is just one thing.”


“April Fool from teletype.”

All I heard was an “Ooooooooh” that faded. Then a click.

My phone rang about thirty seconds later. I could hear Lynn and her fellow typesetters howling with laughter.

“What did you say to him? Why was he running all around the newsroom?”

I told her my story while she relayed it to the rest of the ladies. They were hooting as she told me about watching him through the glass wall. After he hung up he had walked up to their window and wagged his finger at them and smiled.

Harmless fun, but he didn’t try a trick on them ever again. And Lynn’s still at the paper all these years later, having moved to the newsroom herself. She and I still remember and laugh. After all, what are friends for?

Postscript: I visited Google images ("red tarantula") to add a visual aid for interest. But I recoiled in horror at the very first page. No way in hell am I posting a picture of one of those monsters on MY blog. Brrrrrrr. Use your imagination. I did.

June 7, 2008

Yes, Nan Is My Mother

I was an English teacher in the late seventies, back before it was called Language Arts. I had eighth grade students, and for the most part I loved what I did.

One of my students was a genuinely sweet boy. He was smart but not a smarty, and his work was thoughtful and original. One day he walked up to me at my desk with a smile on his face.

“I understand that Nan is your mother,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“Nan. Isn’t your mother’s name Nan?”

What’s going on? “Yes...”

Big grin. “She’s my partner in Hustle lessons.”
It seems he was the tallest boy in the dance class, which consisted entirely of young teens and my mother, in her late 50s. So he got to be her partner. He stood there grinning.

I rolled my eyes. “Go sit down.”

He gleefully took his seat.

My mom is something else. Always has been. When I was in high school, she bought a guitar because she wanted to sound like Eric Clapton. I was mortified. When she was 65, she signed up for skiing lessons at Jackson Hole. (God intervened with a severe cold and she spent the weekend in front of the fire in the lodge. Thank heaven.) At 87, she has finally slowed down a little, and her short term memory is failing. But she pumps iron and rides the stationary bike three times a week. She travels the world every year, dragging my willing but sedentary stepfather along. She finally quit working as a travel agent about a year ago.

A former model, Mom still has the carriage of Princess Grace. She plays poker with “the girls” every week and is a former state champion in bridge. She is always open to new experiences and opens her house to anyone. No stranger to tragedy—she lost her first husband and first three children—she still loves to laugh, and it’s infectious. My friends who have met her all use exactly the same word to describe her: “amazing.” She really is. I can only hope it’s hereditary.

June 4, 2008

Vanilla Pride

I read some absolutely exceptional blogs that have expanded my world beyond my wildest dreams. I am so grateful for the diverse viewpoints and stimulating conversations available to me. But I have a bone to pick with some out there in blogdom. I read posts and occasional comments that have a thinly-veiled contempt for what is termed the “vanilla” lifestyle. Who am I kidding? There’s nothing veiled about it.

I read of disdain for this “vanilla” existence and then find a recitation of basically the life I have chosen to live: long-term monogamy; suburbia; quiet nights at home or with friends; children; movies; reading, etc. In some of the thoughtless throwaway comments, it sounds like a living hell of mind-numbing blandness.

I’ve got news for those who curl their lips with a heavy-lidded sneer of derision: you don’t know vanilla.

I’m not talking about the artificial vanilla whose flavor is plastic and short-lived with a bitter aftertaste. I’m talking about the real vanilla which is rich, exotic, and sensually sweet on the tongue. My vanilla is warm and deeply intense yet mellow. It is not the white-hot flash fire of lithium, it is the smoldering banked embers that last beyond dawn. It’s the flavor to which you return after a night of hot spice. It’s the flavor of home and baking and open arms.

Vanilla is a vibrant and powerful sexual experience that is refined and enjoyed many times over with a single lover. It is the overwhelming, everlasting sweetness of love for a child. Vanilla is anticipating the comforting presence of longtime friends or the exciting tension of making new friends. It is being joyfully subsumed by good music and fine writing. Vanilla is expanding your world with deeper knowledge and uplifting experiences. It is challenging your own precepts with fresh and innovative ideas. Vanilla is a quiet revolution of change from within. And vanilla rightfully takes its place on the spice shelf, one of many good flavors.

Damn straight I’m vanilla, and proud of it. My symbol is not a raised fist, it is an extended hand. My flag is white: elegant in its simplicity, it contains the entire spectrum of light. Let it wave.

June 2, 2008


In January, two people in my life died within a week’s time. One was a relatively new friend whose overtures to me were heartwarming and welcome; and one was a longtime warm acquaintance whom I grew to admire and respect. Each of them left something of themselves in me in life and in death.

The first of these friends had a strong connection to an online community, and a large group of people gathered online to grieve. I joined them, and I’ve never experienced anything like it. She was greatly loved, mostly for her affectionate and supportive presence in our lives. Many expressed what they think has happened to her, now that she is no longer on the mortal plane. Even in my grief, it was fascinating to read how people found comfort through their beliefs in the afterlife. Is she aware of how we feel about her, now that she is gone? Is she present in our lives, following what we do and what we think, simply because we loved her?

I, too, believe in an afterlife; but I couldn’t begin to tell you what I believe about its nature—only what I hope. From my father’s death when I was eighteen, I have wondered if he knew what was happening in my life. Every single major event in my life, I have missed him: my college graduation, my wedding, the birth of my children and their accomplishments, the illnesses and terrible moments of pain. Are you there? Do you know? Do you see?

I wonder too about my brother, whom I hardly knew in adulthood. Does he see what his death from AIDS has wrought in my life? Is the small amount of work I do for the HIV/AIDS community just for me—which is enough—or does he see and understand?

I can’t know the answer to these questions, but I find myself deciding that, if they are aware, those who have gone before me would be happy for me in my life because I am basically at peace. My life has changed because of each of these people, and some were aware because I told them so. As much effect as a death has on me, it is given meaning in the life that was lived and the one I choose to live as a result.

And so I am left with some final, unknowable questions: What will be said when it is my turn? And will I hear? All I can say to my loved ones is, God willing, I will be there; I will watch; I will listen; and I will continue to love you with all my heart until the end of time.