Sunday, February 27, 2011


"Suppose you want to build a tower. You would first sit down and figure out what it costs. Then you would see if you have enough money to finish it. Otherwise, if you lay a foundation and can't finish the building, everyone who watches will make fun of you. They'll say, 'This person started to build but couldn't finish the job.' (Luke 14:28-30)
Mario, Alicia, David, Joe and Vince - 1990 

Yesterday you read about our new building.  Anyone who's ever built before will know that  building involves more than you expected it would.  Each estimate submitted by each sub-contracted builder is submitted  to be attractive.  They tempt us into thinking that we may be able to do what we want for what we expect to pay.

If there's problems (and there's always problems), that estimate  goes out the window and real costs become apparent...and significantly more.

Sometimes the costs are not just financial.

As I've watched the eldership of Junction go through the ups and downs and faith-building exercises of putting up that Center, I have developed a new-found respect for them.  How reasonable they all seemed, so level-headed and able to shoulder the huge amount of reality during the building.  I didn't witness any tantrums or division between them.  It was amazing.

I needed to see this so that I could make the comparison that I am going to make tonight: building costs are always more than you expect they will be.

Today (Sunday) was a typical day of activity and celebration (what I'm supposed to say as a Christian saved by grace) at church.   In reality, it was a reminder to organize certain ministries better (especially for the Diepsloot contingency) and I felt weary at the end of it, and came home a little tired.  Mario and I talked it through, and before a nap, I decided to return to a long-overdue task- typing up policies for our church.

Some days in ministry are electrically charged with the Holy Spirit and as I try to type about them I am at a loss.  This was not one of those days.  Typing up policies is not what I came here for.  It was a mundane task, dry... but necessary.

It is days like this that I ask the dreaded question: What am I doing here?

That question is becomes heavier when I converse on SKYPE with our pregnant daughter, Alicia, in the States.   When we talked today, her morning my night, I hung up and cried.  I can hear the pain in her voice as she tells me that everyone goes through their pregnancies with their mother near by.  I see tears well up in her eyes and see Harmony actively bouncing around in the background.  I am aching to hold both of them.  There is a lot of underlying things...

It is further weighted down by my ordering a birthday e-card tonight for David and Lennae's youngest, Lauren, who barely knows me.  Her mother, my daughter-in-law, Lennae,  reminds her of who I am and buys the girls their favorite books with the Amazon cash we send for birthdays and signs the inside cover from me and Mario.  It makes me tenderly thankful  when I realize how she wants the girls to know us.  We haven't seen them for two years.

The question is even further weighted down by not being able to get ahold of Vince, who is most likely sleeping or working.  His schedule is gladly interrupted to talk to me, and he writes instant messages so creatively and full of life that I know that the acorn hasn't fallen far from the tree.  Still, it's been crickets when I've tried to reach him this week....

Even further weight on the question is missing Joe, who just had a long conversation last night with Mario.    I slept through the one-hour exchange last night, from the son who has been weathering his own changes in his life.  He's fiercely private with his heart, and when he comes clean to us, it's like an ocean of emotion.  I missed it, and Mario's description of the call was "Wonderful".  Cricket, details.  Prodding only makes it worse.

As we were driving home the other day, I asked Mario what he would think if I blogged about "the kids".  He thought, then said "They probably won't like it."  It may be true... but it may not be.  Sometimes the things I have to give them are only encouraging words, and this is the way I know how to love them.

Being here, as people with a calling to Africa, specifically here in South Africa, there are two questions we have to consider: "Am I really called by God to be here?" (and since the answer is yes)  The next question is "Will I stay and finish what I've begun?"

That question has to be answered everyday....

Friday, February 25, 2011


Teach us to number each of our days so that we may grow in wisdom.    (Psalms 90:12)
The Junxion Center from the far north entrance to our new church property.  

Our church, The Junction, has just celebrated ten years in existence.  We have been members of Junction for four years.

I still remember sitting in our office, upstairs in our Sacramento home, reading an email from Mario telling me he had found our new church.  He was in South Africa, with our friend and soon-to-be-employer-in-ministry, Hennie.

The name, he wrote, of our new church was The Junction.  Its lead elder, Craig Elliott had just met with Mario over coffee to share stories and testimonies...and vision for the future. Because of a God-ordained instant connection, Mario decided that this church was the one we were supposed to be a part of, and cancelled any future meetings with the other church leaders that Hennie had scheduled.

Thank God.

As I read his email, I have to admit that then I was basically under the assumption that we would stay in Johannesburg, South Africa just to base ourselves near an airport.  We were determined that, as part of a team led by Hennie Keyter, we would need to be near an airport so we could easily go in and out of Africa, and also go back home now and then, to the USA.  Hennie had insisted that Mario first find a local church to connect with before we made a decision to move here.  His suggestion was more of an ultimatum than advice.  Hennie knew that real relationships were built at a local level, and the local church would be our new family.  He was right.

Junction (with all of its quirks and warts) became our family, in the fullest sense of the word.  While we traveled internationally, our new "home church" became our main grounding and support.  It encouraged relationship on the local level...and accountability.  We grew part of Junction the same way that an adopted child becomes a true member of the family.

Today,as I write this, I think of how life is strange.  It never goes the way you envision it going.  We don't travel in and out of Africa (as we thought we would), and my main relationships are here, in this church home.  In 2010, we saw Hennie- our first link to this wild continent- once.   "It is God's calling," he once told us, "that will bring you here and keep you here."

We "found" our calling in the recesses of our local church and its ministry to the poor in South Africa.  Junction is a church with half of its population well above the economic level of wealth in this world.  This select group of people had hearts (and position) to fight for the rights and spiritual well-being of  the other half of the church population.  These were folks well below the poor in America.  Well below.  Because of the unusual economic diversity of its members, Junction is seen as unusual in a country well-known for class separation.

It has been four years (almost) since we moved here.  Through it all, we have ridden the waves of change that Junction (and we) have endured, the only way we know how: transparently and among friends.  The reward of last Sunday was particularly sweet.
Craig and Suzanne cut the birthday cake.

Craig and Suzanne, our elders, envisioned, long ago, a center for the rich and poor to come and meet as family in a community center that was a testament to God and His faithfulness.  On Sunday, the Grand opening of Junxion Center, this community center long ago seen in Craig's mind, was held.

It was a beautiful day, after four days of heat and rain... God saw fit to gift us with a day of puffy white kisses in the clouds, and no rain.
At all.

Jo and I
The day was an end to many of preparing for this fabulous event, which not only celebrated our birthday, but the convergence of "sports-meets-the-arts" in one space for the good of the community.  Joanna, my friend (and someone I had traveled into Africa with) was the official coordinator, but I worked closely with her and Paula (my new-found friend in event-hosting).  Under Jo's eye, the Center opening and Birthday Celebration took place.

The main challenge from my side was that my husband had been attacked by a strange illness: one that brought unusual stress into our relationship.   Three surgeries within six weeks crippled us as a couple.
I also had been asked by the church if "I wouldn't mind" taking "my awesome administrative gifting" and using it to help run the new Junxion Center until we could find a full-time person to manage bookings.  I'm a world class schmooze, and I recognize a snow job coming...and I still said yes.

I became quickly involved in the business end of the Center and its partners, or its tenants. I began collaborating (with tenants renting space from us) to plan this day of the Center opening.  They all had invested so much of themselves (as we had) into the new space, and wanted to make it work.  So the launch of the Center was important to their businesses and to their lives.  I had super-organized Jo and Paula on one side and the tenants (whose administrative personalities surpassed mine) on the other.

I was a fish out of water.

My new "job" as Center manager I shared with my friend, Terri, who like me, had a desire to help where needed.  We both are pretty good administrators, but were also deeply relational and thrived on ministry.  We  have the same hearts for shepherding, and we both seemed to struggle with balancing everything.  Sharing the job, Terri braved the morning traffic (working 8-12), and I took on the afternoon commute (working 12-4).

In the week I agreed to take the job (just a week and a half ago), I felt overwhelmed with the re-entry into "the workplace" and planning for the party and the Center opening.  I also had offered to bake the cake for the party.  Jo quickly suggested we buy it (but we were over-budget already and I LOVE TO COOK!) to "take some pressure off".  I politely disagreed, and asked if I could make it, knowing my strengths are in the simple arts -and baking is relaxing for me.

The Elder's luncheon upstairs.
I also asked if I could host the upstairs meeting, meant to be the luncheon for all of the church leaders in the area...and for our own Junction eldership.  Jo and Paula said yes, with the stipulation that I would raise a white flag at any moment and they could take over.

It was a day that surprised even me, with all of our preparation paying off in a smooth party, where food was sponsored and served with a smile and where old and new friends came together in thankfulness.  It was like any other birthday, where the one-time baby is celebrated for who they have become, and loved by everyone around.
Mike and Lena with their gift,
the much-coveted Madiba, with
the artist, Marc Alexander

The center was buzzing with activity and everyone seemed to have a good time.  The whole church was happy and playful.  We gave Mike and Lena the most beautiful painting of Madiba (Mandela) to take with them to the South Coast when they will leave next month, and we gave Rob and Bridget an ipad for their new life in Germany.

Everywhere you looked there was music and activity and celebration.  I was so happy that it was all happening with so much life and wonder.  Mario and I looked around, more than once, and said "This is the most amazing party!  Everything is going well, and we're hardly doing anything!!"

The Center, designed by our friend,
Roger Boden, from the west
The truth of the matter was that we were part of a tem, the truth of our lives here in Africa, and especially at Junction.  We were part of a team that was bringing together a celebration of a church anniversary and a community center opening - marrying the two and having them make sense.

In a world of no absolutes, we live with one: we are absolutely children of a Father who loves us.  We are absolutely unable to celebrate with any kind of sincerity without him.  We are absolutely sure that this could not have happened without him.

I sit here, tonight, back to my love, my love of writing and telling the story.  It is my first day off in two weeks, and I am smiling, remembering the party.  It was beyond what we could have imagined.

I am absolutely sure that tomorrow morning I will sleep in.


Saturday, February 12, 2011


Cupid, in Roman mythology, was the son of Mars and Venus, the god of war and the goddess of beauty.  He was told by his mother to go into a mortal’s room to destroy her with a poisoned arrow, making her fall madly in love with an evil man.  Venus knew the way to wreck a woman’s life is to make her fall in love with a jerk.

Cupid has become a symbol of love (and of Valentine’s Day)  often depicted as an angel with a bow and arrows.  No one bothers to remember that he was a mama’s boy who tripped on his way into Psyche’s bedroom and cut himself with his own arrow and fell in love with the woman Venus was trying to destroy.  OY!  Cupid's weakness and stupidity makes him a good mascot for the oddest holiday of the year.

I have a top ten list about why Valentine’s Day sucks... and around this time, each year, I am reminded of it. 

I’m happily married to the love of my life.  Not only does he remember gifts and foo-foo favors, but he also remembers to put the seat down every single time.  That is a romantic gesture!  He has never let me down on this day...he once sent me a Valentine that was so big it had to be hand-delivered – it was the size of a poster. 

Nevertheless, I still believe, by its very nature, the holiday still sucks - big time. 

My main reason I feel this way is that this holiday is a day that we have made to celebrate romance (many times our twisted version of romance) and inflates the normal prices of chocolates, cards, and flowers on and around that day.  It exploits romance, not celebrates it.

Secondly, it makes single people feel so unloved and so alone.  I never have been alone on Valentine’s Day, but I’m literally protective and perturbed for the people who are.  These are amazing, awesome people who have to be reminded that they (on this one day) are not in a significant relationship where they can have an overpriced dinner with their significant other, looking goopily into each other’s eyes and telling each other how they are the bees knees...and so on.  The next day most water cooler conversations turn into competitive comparisons of how dearly loved each others’ significant other has made them feel .  I know of no single person who has ever said “Get a life!” or “Thank God you both kow-tow to holiday pressure!” 

Lastly, I think the holiday has (more than any other) made me and most people I know feel unloved or unworthy more than any other holiday, by a flippin long shot.

 In Latin, valor means “brave”.  Valentine’s Day is a day that evokes thoughts of bravery, specifically my bravery through the years of elementary school and enduring Valentine’s Day parties where I got the cheapest, least cute cards from all of my classmates...sometimes the one that was the “bonus” one on the back of the box that you had to cut out.  That one didn’t have its own envelope.  How many times had I wished to be pretty and popular...and get the large cards, the “best firend” cards, even from people who I thought were my best friends!  It was not to be, and I joined the rank of many who saw the day as a day to be humiliated or ignored. 

In High School, when everyone finally admitted I was pretty and worth a damn, I collected handfuls of roses sold by the Asilomar delegates on Valentine’s Day.  No one dared to put them in their locker.  It was the oil of the anointed, the flavor of love in our small little world.  I proudly carried mine around to show how loved I was.  There were always those with more; there were always those with much less, even none.  I ignored the pangs of my heart for them, and listened, instead, to the voices of the admiring friends, proclaiming me popular and queen of roses.  How pathetic. 

The Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, written in 1260 was one of the most-read books of the High Middle Ages.  It gives sufficient details of Catholic saints for each day of the liturgical year, and is one of the only references we have for St. Valentine.  Its very brief description portrays him as an evangelical man, preaching Jesus Christ and calling everyone to know Him...and His love.  The story has him refusing to deny Christ before Claudius, Emporer of Rome, in the year 280.  Claudius opposed proselytizing in any religion, even in those regions where he allowed natives to worship freely. The act of wilful defiance to an emperor was punishable by death, and Claudius ordered it for Valentine the following day.  Before his head was cut off, Valentine restored sight and hearing to the young daughter of his jailer. The girl was poor, and left orphaned would not be able to earn a living.  There was no romantic relationship, just the last act of a man condemned to die. 

As a result of the miraculous transformation of his daughter, the Roman jailer became Catholic and reported the event to the church, who pronounced him a martyr and considered “Sainthood” for him.  The day they eventually pronounced St. Valentine’s Day (February 14) is the anniversary of his execution, not his birthday.  We are celebrating the execution of a good man who healed and blind and deaf girl and was led to his slaughter by a corrupt king. How romantic!

Chaucer, who wrote Canterbury Tales, also wrote a long poem called  “Parlement of Foules” (Assembly of Birds) where he proclaims St. Valentine’s Day to be “A Day for Lovers”.  

So it’s Chaucer’s fault that the holiday became the heavily marketed guilt tool of chocolatiers and restaurateurs  around the world.  It’s his fault that my single friends all need pep talks on how they are highly valued and dearly loved on this day. 

I’m not falling for that.  My husband loves me and he doesn’t need to jump through hoops to prove it.  We buy discounted cards and candy for each other the following day (or a week after) that are 50% off. 

This makes me smile... we beat the holiday pressure at its own game.
And Canterbury Tales sucks, too. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


There I was, laughing my head off in a public place (the Discovery lounge at Life Fourways) looking at the pics I just took of Mario on his Blackberry.  The cleaning lady kept passing me, smiling...not quite sure what I was up to, but trying to catch the spirit of joy that was on me.
Mario being wheeled out of his hospital room.  Mario wheeled into the pre-op room.  Mario looking sick (“Sell it, babe! This is for posterity!”)  Mario laughing…The pictures make it  look like we were having fun while he waited for surgery.

The truth is, a hospital is the last place you ever want to come if you want to have fun.

In the last three weeks I have become an unwilling subject-matter researcher of kidneys and the urinary system.  I can sketch the whole thing and tell you where the stone in Mario was, and why it was the hardest area to have a kidney stone.  I can tell you what a stint is and why its placed in someone’s ureter and how it will help the kidney drain properly; what it’s made of and how it gets there.  I have learned what contributes to stone formation and why they form in men more than women...and so on.
Because of Mario’s stone and its subsequent pain, I have learned the power of the urinary system and become familiar with how its malfunction can threaten the happiness of a happily married couple.

This morning I woke up thinking Mario would have the awful stint removed from him and be driving himself home tonight.  The doctor looked at the CT scan and saw it being clear.  I saw this as cue to celebrate a miraculous healing.  The doctor, it turns out, saw it as “a good start”.  My elation was drowned  by a big, flopping wave of reality.
It turned out that even with the CTscan, being clear, it wasn’t the only factor to be determining whether or not Mario would go home today or tomorrow or the next day without a stint or without  follow-up surgery scheduled.  I wanted a supernatural healing of kidney stones- a testimony of God’s goodness, and I wanted it today.
After the blood- work was done and analyzed,  Mario’s early morning conference with his doctor didn’t give him much hope for the outcome we were praying for.  His next few sms’s to me were not hopeful…in fact they reeked of discouragement.  There were other things the doctor had to check during surgery, including the possibility of the other kidney having problems, renal abnormalities and the ever-fragile ureter being weakened by the recent trauma.
I didn’t want to think about the possibility of another surgery in two more weeks.

I was deflated and angry as soon as I walked in to Mario’s room.  He saw it as soon as I came in.

“What exactly did he say?” I asked, after plopping down all of my stuff.  Mario looked up at me and raised his eyebrows.
“Hi,” he said.  If I’m in a bad mood and don’t greet Mario properly, he’ll make sure I do.  This does nothing to help my mood.

Instead, as Mario tried his best to recount, I flipped furiously through his medical chart, double-checking his blood work results.  I noticed the shoddy I.V. drip that some new nurse did, listened to the familiar complaints about sleep loss and pain....

How much longer would this all go on??  What would it take to stop the pain, the medication, the trips to hospital?  How many more squirming nights would we both have??

In the deepest point of frustration, my friends, Rebecca and Denise walked in the hospital room, with one intention: to pray.
Mario and I both melted (gave up) and accepted prayer, since not only hope was dashed, but our hearts seemed to be as well.  It was a welcome relief.
Sometimes prayer is a nice gesture, and other times, it is a funnel for the Holy Spirit to fill every part of you.  This time it was the latter.  I wept in the presence of God, surrendering every emotion except complete exhaustion.   Tears, like the kind that a five-year-old cries when they need a good night’s sleep poured out of me. I wept in relief, in surrender, in desperation.
The prayer lasted awhile, but I can’t say how long.  It was necessary for me to be completely real with who I was: the most powerless piece of this puzzle of healing.  As much as I hate that role, it is mine.  I am powerless, but also having a powerful and graceful Father who cares even more deeply for Mario than I do.
Rest.  Peace. Calm.

Faithful to provide even the most undeserving His grace, we thanked God for His presence.  It was the most amazing gift we had today. As the hours ticked by slowly, we read, rested.  We visited with our lead elder, Craig (who told me to stay away from my own research)!  By the time he went into surgery I could honestly say I was relaxed.  
Mario was prepped for surgery while I snapped shots of him clowning around.  The Blackberry shots were now funny to see, and I loved the fact that I could now laugh at them after the disappointment of the day.  I didn’t know what was going to  happen or how he would  feel when he came out, but I did rest and trust God,  my Father, who knows all these things.

I went to the coffee shop to buy Mario a sandwich “just in case” he might be hungry later on.  When I went back up to the room to drop it off, I headed back for surgery immediately.  I started to get onto the elevator,  only to be greeted by Mario being wheeled out of it, by two nurses, on his surgery bed.  As soon as he saw me, he started to cry.  I felt my face turn red and tears start to come. 

“What happened?” I asked the nurses who were pushing him.
“He did great,” one of them said.  I had heard that before.
Then Mario said “They took the stint out.”  His face was filled with relief, love, thankfulness...and I suddenly got it: these were happy tears.  The stint being removed completely was the one scenario the doctor said would not be happening today, barring a miracle (his words).  
“No stint.  No Stone. No catheter,” the nurse said, smiling.  The statement said everything. 

What happened to the stone?  Where was it?  What happens now? The answer to all three questions, as my grandmother would say, is "Sabe Dios" (God knows).  
So many times I research the enemy, rather than rescuer.  I research the attack, rather than trusting in my secret weapon.
Today I am wow’ed by a miracle...and I would say “I’ll never doubt the power of God again!!”

But I’m 48...and if I had a nickel for everytime I said that... I’d pay for Mario’s surgery in cash.
Thank you, God, for grace.  I love you.  

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Bessie at church with traditional celebration face paint
There is a saying we all have that is similar to this: "Things could be worse, someone else has it harder than you do."  This is supposed to cheer us when we are feeling like life has hit us hard with tragedy all at once.  For some reason this saying never brought much comfort to me... I can't relax in the knowledge that someone else suffering more than I am in this world.  

Before you read this, I must preface: Bessie loves my blog, and says so.  She told me once "You must come and interview me so that you can write about me."  She asked, specifically,  that I tell this story, but it is a painful one.  Please do not think that this is exploitive, but rather a testament to the strength and power of a God who sustains us.

Here in South Africa there is a division between the people who have nothing and the people who have something.  People who have something are Mario and I - we live in a nice, comfortable cottage next to terrific peaceful neighbors.  We get to fly home about once a year, and have two cars.  By comparison, many people here have nothing.  One of my best friends, Portia is a single mom who lost her husband, Thembe, three years ago.  She lives in a one room place in Diepsloot that I now know better than to call a shack (it is literally a boxcar) with one bed.  Still, Portia has a relatively nice place compared to most in the township.  She has good neighbors, well-behaved children and a wonderful job that pays her well enough to send her kids to private school.  She is happy and fortunate and very thankful... and a leader wherever she goes.

Bessie is also a single mom in Diepsloot.  Rather than dying, her husband ran off with her neighbor and best friend, leaving her with six kids to raise alone.  Bessie didn't have a job and had to scrape to make ends meet.    If you ask Bessie about her ex-husband she says he never loved her and was a man sent from hell to steal her virginity and her peace (she feels strongly about this).  She also says that if it were not for God, she would have sunk into depression when he left, since it was so close to the death of their young son, who had been hit by a car and died.  The more Bessie shares, the more you realize she has been through several terrible times that only the strong survive.
Bessie is full of love and wise sayings that come out funny.  She once comforted one of the kids at Sunday who had been falsely accused by saying,  "You know, my angel, the horns that people try to pin on you, they don't stay."  She makes me laugh, with her deep and solemn voice, uttering these cute sayings, and she laughs when I laugh, glad that her humor is not lost.  When I forget to do something or bring something to church, she says "You know, this disease of forgetfulness is contagious because I am getting it too."  She can say several of these things each day, making it very pleasant to be around her.

Right after Margaret Julia died, Bessie's father past away in her homeland, Qua Qua.  She was devastated, and as we are her friends, Portia and I sat with her in her house and cried with her, prayed with her, loved her.

When she returned from the burial (a custom very sacred to most black South Africans, regardless of tribe or culture) she was relieved to see that her mother was in peace and the funeral had been fully payed for.  She was happy that she and her children got to go home to see the family and grieve together.

Last weekend, while we were having dinner with friends, Mario got a phone call from one of the Diepsloot leaders.  He told him that Bessie's sister had taken her life, and had also "taken her children with her".  Mario, in the most respectful way possible, thanked him for telling us and asked what should be done next.  The leader had told us that another burial would cripple the family, not just emotionally but financially.  He also said that visits should be made, and people should "sit with Bessie".

The next morning I called Portia and caught her relaxing on a Saturday (very rare!). I told her that Bessie had just lost her sister, and under bad circumstances, and that she possibly had her children witness the event right in front of them.  Portia, like me was shocked and offered to go with me as I sat with Bessie.

Armed with groceries and cold drinks, we walked up the street where Bessie lives, past card-playing, beer-drinking groups congregating in the facades of the shacks that lined the street.  Beer makes normal people bold, and the remarks about a white lady carrying groceries "like she stays here" were ignored by me and Portia, who set our faces towards Bessie's house.  As we approached, we could see her through her garden gate (Bessie lives in a beautiful brick house with a front garden that stands out as much as she does in this neighborhood).  She was doing her washing and talking to another visitor, who was there to grieve with her.  Her face was smeared with mud (a grieving sign) and when she looked up to see us, she pursed her lips together and opened the gate.  Her tears left noticeable tracks in the muddy face wash.

We went into her house and said we were sorry about all of this.  She recounted to us what had happened.  Her sister, depressed from her father's death and her her no-good husband leaving, made scrambled eggs in the morning, sprinkled rat poison on the top of them and then chili on top of that, so that the poison would not be noticeable.  She ate them, and fed them to her children, ten and five. After breakfast, the young son ran next door to alert the neighbors that his mother had fallen down and was foaming at the mouth, and now his sister was doing the same.  When the neighbors began to congregate, the boy himself fell down, and the ambulance was called.  There was (as usual) a delay in their response, and the boy died also.

I sat, frozen, realizing Mabuti's description "She took her children with her," meant that she had also killed her children.  I thought that they had seen her take her own life.

As Bessie told the story her young daughter, Kena, listened and ate a small bag of chips.  She obviously had heard the story before now.  Portia asked Bessie if she had told her children and if they all knew.  Bessie said that they all knew, and asked why this happened.  Their second question was if Bessie would ever do this.  The thought made me shiver.

Bessie's response was typical Bessie: "I told them that I would never do this terrible thing, because my hope and faith is in the Lord.  Why should I kill myself because my husband is a sneak or if my own father has died?"  They took comfort in this.  Bessie's strength is in the Lord.  Her children, also.  We sat, the four of us at her kitchen table and talked about many things.  There were lots of tears.  There were lots of stories.  At one point, Bessie and Portia recounted about Thembe's death.  I still remember the day he died.

Even so, there was laughter.  Bessie was recounting how she heard the news about her sister poisoning herself with rat poison that she herself had kept in her own home.  When all of her kids had gone to sleep that night, Bessie took the poison and threw it out in the trash heap.  Now, she said, she would kill the rats the old-fashioned way, "with a shoe or a broom."  The image made me giggle, and we all joined in.  Bessie laughed the most: a welcome relief.

As we left, Portia and I marveled at Sis Bessie's strength.  Who can imagine this grief??  She was so composed, so strong.  Her only worry was for her mother, who was devastated.  I dropped off Portia at her house (after checking on some neighborhood kids), and then went down the 511, past Cedar Lakes to Northriding, with its stables and its electric fences.

Tragedy like this knows no bounds.  Where is our strength?

Friday, February 4, 2011


Coach Poletti's Picture he sent me - at age 90

Look closely.

The picture of the man in front of the fireplace with Christmas decorations all around him changed my life.  He boosted my self-esteem, gave me direction and purpose, loved me and made me think above my circumstances.

Some teachers stay as giants in our lives... and he is one.

I remember entering high school at the tender age of 13.  I had just been through the most tumultuous time I had ever had with my parents, and I was officially grounded for a year.  "May as well be my whole life," I thought, as sentenced was pronounced.  I knew better that to verbalize that thought.  I went to school in jeans, without makeup and completely winded.  That feeling didn't last.

The halls were filled with upperclassmen, all dressed much better than I was.  The girls had perfect hair and forms much more feminine than mine.  The elder boys, athletic and dressed in letterman jackets, with feathered hair stared shamelessly at every girl, even me.

I tried to focus, but it was like a trip to Hollywood.  My sister, Patty, had gone before me in high school and I practically memorized her yearbooks.  The people here were as enchanting as the thrill of High School.

Sixth period was the last class of the day, and one of the few that had upper and lower classmen mixed together.  It was called "Public Speaking", the breeding ground of future lawyers, CEO's and senators...and me.  The people in the class took second place to one: the teacher, Ernest G. Poletti.  He was tall and bald and had complete comand of the room.  Every eye was on him and I watched, fascinated, as he introduced the most important class I would ever take.

Poletti treated us as if we understood everything he said, and I was sure he was a genius.  He completely blew us all out of the water by telling us if we ever wanted to make the speech team we would have to come to seven a.m. challenges every morning.  Several people there were already signed up. I (uncharacteristically)  wondered, secretly, if my "grounding for life" would be lifted to come to school at 7.  I thought I might have a chance...

Seven a.m. challenges were exhilarating, and I was inches away from the Speech team captain, Julia Moriarty when I went.  Looking back, the super-Mormon-Sigourney-Weaver look-alike was larger than life to me.  I was a mouse next to her.  The rest of the room was a mixture of stand-out students ...and me.  I didn't do well that morning, but I absorbed a lesson: if I spoke very well, people would listen.

Meanwhile, I listened to Poletti, who was a model of organized thought mixed with persuasive delivery.  I learned impromptu (a no-preparation speech with organized thought), extemporaneous (preparation of world news that each student was given 20 minutes to read), debate (Oxford and Lincoln-Douglas) and a mixture of prepared speeches (my personal favorite was Original prose and poetry).   Poletti loved me, as he did all of his students, and encouraged me to compete.  I did, and my life was changed.

Poletti retired the same year, much to everyone's dismay.  Several teachers followed him, but none took his place.

In my senior year, I was not the speech team captain.  I missed the honor by three points, and Steve Tashima (my nemesis in Speech) took the crown and loudly boasted before me.  He was also President of the mega-brained CSF (California Scholarship Federation) and he didn't need another feather in his cap to make him even more self-confident.  Still, at graduation I was given the Ernest G. Poletti award (the speech team's most inspirational speaker) and I knew that I had discovered my calling in life.

Life, as all adults know, doesn't go as we think it will.  After graduating I  hit a lot of bumps in the road and  became less and less like that girl who dazzled with spoken words.  At my lowest point, I appeared to be lost: a drug-addicted, desperate, young, single mother who knew life would have to change.

It was then that Jesus made Himself known to me.  I still tear up thinking of Jesus saved me. His tenderness and love and faithfulness to save is still the most incredible miracle to me.

Years past and Mario and I sat in a restaurant after a church prayer meeting.  A crowd of high-school kids came in, dressed in business attire with a few supervising adults.  They were noticeably confident and polished.  Mario asked if I thought they were a local high school choir.  I smiled, and said I thought it was a speech team.

How many Saturday nights had I come away from a Speech tournament ravenous, victorious, surrounded by my friends who were the same??  At school we were squares and brains and listened to all the wrong musical groups, but together we were mighty and lived in a world beyond ourselves.  These guys looked familiar: like us twenty years ago.

As we left we passed the supervising adult that looked about my age (!) and I asked her where her group was from.  She told me that the group of kids were from a local high school and that they were, indeed a speech team.  She asked me, excitedly if I had ever competed in California.  I told her I did, in the Stockton Unified school district.  She asked my school and my coach, and without thinking, I answered that Poletti was my coach (I had only had him for one year).  She lit up.

"You know, he's still alive!" she said, encouraging me to write to him.  She gave me her card, and told me that she would forward any letter I sent to Mr. Poletti.  We said goodbye, and I left.

In the parking lot, Mario encouraged me to write to him.  He knew all about Poletti, from stories I had told him, and knew the influence he had on me.  Then he said it: "Do you think he prayed for you?  Do you think he knew Jesus?"

The question was suddenly clear.  Mr. Poletti had to have been a Christian.  He reeked of life and wisdom.  He changed me, moved me and welcomed me to be all I could be... like no other.  That night I wrote to him... and I struggled through an introduction and a brief synopsis of who I was now.  I told him about having a baby that saved my life.  Meeting Mario and marrying.  Having a daughter.  Teaching at a Christian School.  Visiting Africa, making plans to move there.  I wanted to ask my question, but didn't know how.  I eventually did:
          "...I want to say that in high school I was not very moral, and consequently not very happy.  Even so, speech made me walk upright and keep focused on something.  I'm sure it would have been easy to be swept away if it had not been for a purposeful goal in front of me.  I also suspect that you were (are) a Christian man, even though you never preached.  Is this true?  Looking back, I believe you had to be.  Some people who believe in God just radiate His grace...."

I ended the letter, thanking him for who he is/was to me, and that he remained a hero in my life.

Two weeks later I got an answer, in the form of a letter.  I couldn't believe it, seeing his return address label with a Modesto address.  I opened it to find the picture above, and a note written on a single piece of paper, in pencil:
             "Dear Janet
                       Please forgive me for writing in pencil but if I can't erase because I use ink I'm afraid I'll never be able to complete my message.  It is great to hear from you and to know you are a teacher in a Christian school.  That is a wonderful place to teach!  I am sure that God will inspire you in gratitude for your choice of a place to teach His Word!
                      God has been very kind to me.  I am in good health and still enjoying life- even tho I am ninety years old.  I still do most of the things I like to do.  God bless you for remembering me.  Your kind words are deeply appreciated and will never be forgotten!
                           Ernie Poletti   Alias 'Coach'"

My coach.  It still brings tears....

Today, as I sifted through the dailies about Cairo and the tremendous tumult there, I remembered the Iranian revolt of my freshman year.  The Ayatollah Khomeini and his methods of terrorizing us, the United States, were new and extreme.  I remember us all fiercely reading periodicals around Poletti's desk.

I learned how to research from this man.  How to collect and compare information.  How to test sources, how to filter through opinion and find fact, how to think past what I was reading.

And instead of a blog about Egypt I could only write this.  I could only think about a man who changed my life - in one year for one hour a day while I was a smart-mouthed know-it-all distracted by my peers.

Some people who believe in God just radiate His grace.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Mario and Mike Myburgh 2010
Mario and Rob Forbes,
Thanksgiving 2009

Mario just got off the phone with Lena, our friend here who is moving in the next couple of months from Joburg to George, an idyllic restful area in southern South Africa where people go to vacation.  Mike and Lena have been elders at the Junction (our church) for awhile, and have been spiritual blessings to Mario and I since we got here.

As a courtesy, (since Lena is my friend and she called Mario on his phone) he put her on speaker phone.  She was talking when he came in to the room, so I heard her saying  "...and I was wondering if you'd like to come over for dinner on Thursday night this week?"  I quickly looked over to him, furiously nodding my head (encouraging him to agree).

"Sure!" Mario said, raising his eyebrows at me. We realize that, with the Myburgh's are moving soon, we are fortunate to get any time with them.  The thought made my heart break and smile at the same time. "What can we bring...."  Lena told him not to bring anything, just to come.

"So how are you doing, Mario, really?" she asked.  It is a question on a lot of minds.

"I'm doing better," Mario said.  "But, I am heavily medicated."  This made me laugh.  Lena heard it right away.

"Why is Janet laughing?" she asked.  She can hear me on speaker.  Mario said I like his jokes, even though this one made it past Lena.

I can't imagine Junction without Mike and Lena.  They are like pillars in our church's DNA, both highly intelligent and dignified.  I've never known anyone like them before.  It is like a wise part of us is moving away- slowly leaving, step-by-step.  Mike stopped being an elder in January to make preparations for his move, and already, it feels different.

People aren't pillars, though.  Not like rocks or stone.  They change; they move; they grow.  They are in our lives for indefinite portions, and for some, the separation is too painful to imagine.  People who are dependable and faithful aren't supposed to leave our lives, especially if they are touchstones.

Not long after Lena's phone call, Mario's best friend here, Rob, sms'd (texted) him.  It said "How about one more breakfast?"  Mario came in to show me, with the smile he has when he's really happy.

 "Mexican breakfast at 6" was Mario's response.  So, I have to make burritos after I blog.

Not long after the breakfast, Rob and  his son, Graeme will board a plane for Germany, where they are moving.  Bridget and Claire will leave two weeks later to join them.


This is a particularly sacrificial parting for us.  The Forbes family have been our "fun friends" for the past year -- the friends we call when we want to have fun.  We guffaw, shriek and bring inhalers when we're together. They are also our "trusted friends", the ones here with whom we share the deepest parts of our hearts.  The places where stubborn insecurities dwell...and haunt us.  It is true friends that bring the non-judgmental exorcism of these ghosts and talk us down from our ledges.

The hardest part is that Rob is leaving, and he has been a real friend to Mario.  Not the kind that's an example or a pin-up hero, but the kind that calls him "Colonel Mustard" or makes regular time to spend with him.  In an instant, they became brothers, and are pretty flippant about it.  That's one thing they have in common: they're flippant about stuff.

Rob and Mario are friends in a place and in a profession where real friends are scarce.  They seem to have a decent respect for each other and a general love for each other's personality.

Now they will be leaving for Europe.  

A few years ago we left our home in Sacramento for here.  People said they would miss us (and they do) but I guess I don't see myself as someone someone depends on, or is in need of  me so much that they can't connect with me through email.  Maybe our kids or our family are this way, but friends??

I feel as if we won a contest and were awarded the services of a massage therapist for a year...and this is day 364.

Loving, accepting and releasing people in and out of our lives is a normal part of living, and we all do it.  In an impermanent world, it's one of our greatest joys and biggest heartbreaks.  As I make breakfast burritos for tomorrow, I pray that Rob remembers them as his last perfect meal in South Africa.  OR, if that can't happen, I hope he gets terrible indigestion and cramps and thinks of me as he flies out of  Johannesburg.

Either way, he's thinking of the Rodriguez's.