Friday, September 23, 2011


Rodin's The Thinker 

“ See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you're gonna start doing some thinking on your own and you're gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don't do that. And Two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library”  - Will in Good Will Hunting

The speech you see above is from a gem of a movie that was written by two best friends who are now famous: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.  The scene in Good Will Hunting where it appears is one of the most memorable in the movie.  Will (a young janitor from South Boston) confronts a Harvard pretty boy after he insults Will’s friend to impress a girl.  The Harvard guy turns his clever academia wit on Will, who quickly outs him as a plagiarist – citing the ancient text his wit is from, down to the page number.  Will’s mind, we learn early in the movie, is hiding out in the body of a troubled, violent Southie who would rather fit in than excel. 

It is my delight to remember it.  I love seeing it in print and thinking that someone came up with that retort.  It's beautiful.  I love to notice people's giftings, and that's why I loved Good Will Hunting.  
I once went shopping for my granddaughter’s first birthday in a crowded book store in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I was looking for the Shel Silverstein classic “The Giving Tree” so that I could pass it on to her, as I hoped to pass it on to her mother.  The guy helping me had never heard of it, and said they probably didn’t have it.  He made his way to the computer as I heard the words of the beginning of the book being spoken by someone else nearby:  “Once there was a tree... and she loved a little boy...and every day the boy would come...and climb up her trunk...and swing from her branches...”   I followed the voice around the bookshelves to see that it came from the man who was busy fixing the escalator.    It was magical...

Today I was looking up a poem, a very famous one, called “Invictus”, written in the Victorian era by a poet named William Ernest Henley.   While incarcerated on South Africa’s famed Robben Island, Nelson Mandela recited the poem to himself daily, and to other prisoners on occasion to boost their morale. It was put into the movie Invictus (also starring Matt Damon) as he tells the young Rugby captain that it served as inspiration through the years of abusive and wrongful imprisonment. 

Henley was a sickly child (his tuberculosis of the bone led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee) his school was interrupted by periods of  solitude, confined to his bed.  As a teen, Henley took the Oxford exams without attending school regularly... and passed.  His demeanor was colored with confidence and power, and was known for entering a room with great dignity.  Friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, he unwittingly served as inspiration for the dreaded character, Long John Silver from Treasure Island.   

In my research I saw that Henley was immortalized in a bronze bust by Rodin, the same man who sculpted The Thinker.  I had no idea they were alive at the same time, didn’t know that Rodin ever sculpted him.  The rabbit trail led me to a room of discovery about Rodin, who also was self-taught and is now known as the father of modern sculpture.   The Thinker has now become one of the most recognizable sculptures in the world.

There are so many people spilling over with giftings too great to be contained in one person.  As I read about their lives, I see the fingerprints of God in each one of them.  What made them unable to see Him?  I think of the true talent in this world, how it doesn’t pool in one belief system.  Talent and giftings  (what my Nana used to call the “kisses of God”) are everywhere, in every religion. 

Although touching, Invictus speaks  of finding strength in oneself , rather than God.  Henley, the author of beautiful and perfect poems was a self-confessed atheist.   Mandela, an example of strength and leadership is agnostic.  Rodin, the creator of so many important religious pieces,  never bothered to make a strong commitment to any faith.

The end of the poem, is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking to me: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul"  

Alive with giftings and life and beauty and still not able to see where it comes from. 

It is the definition of tragedy.    

Monday, September 19, 2011


The Flying Poodle, a symbol of Joy

The story of the Flying Poodle is one that keeps growing.

It’s actually the funniest story I’ve ever told...the first time.  The re-tellings are missing the thing that made it hilarious in the first place: uncontrollable laughter. 

We used to have a van (virtually a bus) that could seat eight people, and when we made long trips we often were nominated to take other people.  So, I was the designated car-pool mom more often than not, or for sports events, or fireworks shows, etc.

The day I told the story we were on our way to Los Angeles from Sacramento.  it was Mario and I with our daughter, our niece and two other friends making our way to an event in Southern California.  The car was pretty fun, everyone munching on snacks and telling stories.  It was then that I told the story of the flying poodle, about another story that my boss’s wife wrote...

My boss was a good, solid guy: an older man near retirement when I worked for him.  His wife (I’ll call her Agnes for the sake of this story) stayed in a home across the street and often would come to see him.  I liked them both, especially the way they related to one another.    

One day, as I accompanied my boss on a trip to the Post Office, my boss had a stack of his own mail in the front seat, next to him, that I noticed as I got in the car.  It included several 8”x10” envelopes, addressed to various magazines, and being curious, I asked what they were there for.  He told me that they had just lost a dog, and that his wife had written a story about it. 

“It turned out to be a spiritual experience for her,” he said, candidly.  I asked which dog it was, and he told me it was their beloved poodle, whose name I now forget.  I gave condolences, and we went ahead with our day.

About two years later (I had since left the job, my boss had retired) a mutual friend bought her own house and asked if I wanted to rent one of the rooms.  It was perfect accommodation, and she was awesome company.  One night we began to talk about our old boss, and I mentioned the story to her about the trip to the post office.   She looked up at me and asked, “Did you get to read the story?”

I said I hadn’t, so she (master of organization that she was) went into her filing cabinet and retrieved it for me.  At the time I read the story I was a lapsed Catholic.  I knew little about the Bible, angels, or the Old Testament.  What I did know was there was a particular sect of Christianity filled with absolute nutcases who claimed to have dreams and visions and gave themselves elaborate titles and bought themselves Rolls Royce’s with the money that they duped out of people. 

So...I read Agnes’s story, and by its verbiage and punctuation, the first thing I could tell was that her reading pile was probably all romance novels.  The language wasn’t particularly creative, but never used the same adjective twice (my precious poodle,  my trusted friend, my docile poodle, etc).  I plugged along.
Agnes had just lost her beloved, trusted, docile poodle  and was grieving  outside of her home one day.  She was watering her garden and began to cry (“as many tears flowing as the water from the hose”) and decided to go inside.  She dropped the hose and had a good cry in the privacy of her home.  When she came back, she saw, in the puddle of water, an image of her poodle flying up to heaven. 

She knew no one would believe her, so she fetched her Polaroid from inside and took a picture of the apparition.  Underneath the photographs she had a caption: “These photos have NOT BEEN ALTERED in any way. They were taken of the puddle just as I found it!” 

There, in the Polaroid was a picture of a puddle.  I didn’t see a poodle, so I twisted the paper in different directions for different perspectives.  


Then, from the angle I began in (right side up) I saw maybe a figure of a quadruped with limbs lifted higher than the rest of its “body”. it.  But it made me laugh.  Agnes, I thought, was a nut. 

Still, it brought comfort to her.  So much comfort that she decided to do it again the next day.  She watered the garden and dropped the hose in the dirt, returning after the same allotment of time as she had allowed the day before.  There, lo and behold, was another image of comfort.  In the next Polaroid (with the same caption) was an image of a woman looking over a grave.  This, Agnes said, was proof that her pain was known and that her grief was noticed by God.  I rolled my eyes. 

The second picture was much clearer.  In fact, it actually looked like Agnes looking over a small grave (“Should I be worried if I see this?” I thought) .  The rest of the story wasn’t as good as the pictures.  It was the pictures that made me worry about Agnes’ time management and mental well-being.   I looked up at my friend and we spontaneously laughed. She shared my opinion of the story.

The day I retold the story in the van, the day we were driving to Los Angeles,  I couldn’t get past the description of the first picture without laughing.  It was especially hard when I was trying to illustrate how the poodle was flying up to heaven.   Since they hadn’t seen the picture I was trying to show how the blob was maybe having hands that stretched toward the clouds, finished with his life here on earth.  The whole thing was too funny, and I gasped for air between words.   We were all unable to breathe (as I lifted one hand slightly higher than the other) through raucous laughter, even Mario, who was trying to manage driving. 

I really didn’t intend to make fun of the story, it was just the re-telling at the time I re-told it that was funny.  We were on our way to a conference and the drive was definitely one of the best drives I ever remember. 

Why?? Because of laughter!!

 In Norman Cousins’ memoir Anatomy of an Illness, he wrote that he battled heart disease, two ways: by taking massive doses of Vitamin C and, by training himself to laugh.  He began research onto the biochemistry of emotions and found that comedies, like those of the Marx Brothers, helped him feel better and get some pain-free sleep.

Laughter helps the pituitary gland release its own pain-suppressing opiates – and is why children get much better sleep than adults.  Do you know how much children laugh in a day??  Compare this to how much adults laugh in a day. 

According to the research that Cousins studied, laughter has these benefits:
  • Lower blood pressure,
  • Increase vascular blood flow and oxygenation of the blood,
  • Give a workout to the diaphragm and abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles,
  • Reduce certain stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline,
  • Increase the response of tumor- and disease-killing cells
  • Defend against respiratory infections–even reducing the frequency of colds–by immunoglobulon in saliva.
  • Increase memory and learning (or so says a Johns Hopkins study where humor during instruction led to increased test scores),
  • Improve alertness, creativity, and memory.
My friend, Sue Jameson, is a JOY ACTIVIST... and says it even works if you practice when something’s not funny. 

Yesterday we were in the middle of honestly great paella when a laughing fit came over me as I was re-telling a story.  Our whole table of friends were (again) gripped with laughter and we were lightened by it, even though it seriously challenged my bladder control.   I tried to write out what we were laughing about...the words seemed contrived and not funny. 

Know what’s funny??

Today Agnes seems less demented to me.  Her story brings tears to my eyes.  She experienced the death of a poodle, and instead of running out and getting another one, she allowed herself some time to grieve.  On a day of tears, she chose to find comfort in that water puddle, and she wrote about it.  She delighted in the retelling of the story, she later told me, even though “Nobody bought it.”

I always liked that lady. 

Terri and Roger do "The Flying Poodle" - a sign of great joy.  

Flying Poodle pin available through Angel Pins by Rosemary.  I felt obligated to advertise her link here, since I used her image, which looks just like Agnes’s flying poodle. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Buddy Holly 1936-1959

I carry Buddy Holly with me in my car – his greatest hits CD, that is. 

I can drive on the crowded streets of Northern Johannesburg, complete with street hawkers, selling everything from Rugby shirts to spinning pinwheels, with Buddy singing in a rockabilly style. As taxis stop where they’re not supposed to stop; let out their passengers where they’re not supposed to walk; I have to navigate around those who dart across the road in front of me, while I hear him singing “If you knew; Peggy Sue....”  

Listening to this music transforms me from a foreign stranger to a comfortable American girl who has made her home here. 

Being transplanted from your homeland to another is different from visiting.  Sometimes, I feel like a stranger in a strange land, no matter how I slice it.  Even though I’ve been in my new homeland for four years, things can still seem a little foreign – and me, as well.  Buddy reminds me, (along with Tom Petty and Dire Straits) that I am an American girl.  

Last night I thought of Buddy in a different way.  I thought of his words as I thought of my husband. 

Mario is very pastoral, such a wonderful friend to people, and most who meet him appreciate his real-ness right away.    Still, people are people and when they hurt, they hurt others.  It has been a rough season in our lives in this area: being hurt. 

Yesterday was the first meeting of a new course he’s attending, along with the rest of our church’s leaders.  It’s called “Redemption”, and is designed to help people who are hurt.  Before administering a “medicine” of any kind, one should be familiar with it, so the church’s  leaders decided to take the class all together and see if it was helpful, worth the time, etc.
When he first told me about the class, how all four leaders would attend and what it was called, it sounded like a lot of other classes we had done before (church leaders should be familiar with the human heart).  Th first assignment, Mario told me, would begin with telling your life-story (up until now) in ten minutes. 

I laughed.

“Good luck!” I said.  We both have long and colourful stories, filled with a myriad of abuse, rebellion, treachery.  Ten minutes is... ten minutes. 

So yesterday, as we were in the car, heading to our friend’s house for dinner, I asked him how it went. 

“It was wonderful,” he smiled.  He began recounting to me the events of the day, saying that these four men he worked alongside of were used to being the ones who listened to stories, not the ones who told them.  It was like a room of cops laying their guns on the table just to be regular men. 

When he came to the part where he shared in the meeting, he began to cry. 

He is the most tender, beautiful man, standing 6 foot one and weighing 240 pounds (mostly muscle) – so most people are thrown off when he cries.  BUT he’s not afraid to show emotion, and he does freely. 

There, in the car, he told me about telling of his childhood (he doesn’t remember most things, like his first grade teacher, clothes he wore, etc.), his adolescence (also troubled) and finally, his 
adulthood (proving himself to the world) until he miraculously had a life change.

In this world, we are never fully delivered from the hurts of our past.  The rest of the conversation was beautiful, but too private to share.  I share what I do because it was disarming for me, even after 24 years of marriage.  I cried with him, as he shared his story with me again... and how it felt to tell in a room full of peers.  Mario holds nothing back, especially from me. 

He was remarkably able to snap out of the re-telling as we pulled into our friends’ driveway. 

All I could say is, “Honey, you are a walking miracle.  You know that, right?”

Then, we greeted our hosts, and transitioned into our more public selves to visit.

Later, as I washed my hands in the bathroom, I thought of Buddy’s song, “True Love Ways”.  Buddy Holly wrote it (with his friend, Norman Petty) to give to his wife, Maria Elena, as a wedding gift.   Their marriage was young, but he could foresee their life together.  When it was recorded October 21, 1958, it was done in her presence.  Dick Jacob, who produced it and conducted the orchestra, gave it a new flavor: a “departure sound” that is slow and romantic, unlike Buddy Holly’s rockabilly standards. 

The lyrics of the song say “Sometimes we'll sigh; Sometimes we'll cry; and we'll know why just you and I know true love ways.”

Love isn’t romance and bells all the fact; it’s that way hardly ever.  It’s full of sighing and crying.  It’s the love that makes you stay...the commitment that makes our hearts one.  It’s the power of true love. 

He committed his life to staying with me.  He’s stayed through the hardest times.  He stays, no matter what.  He doesn’t hold back his heart, even when he’s hurt. 

He has true love ways...  That’s why he’s so easy to love.

To see Buddy Holly's video, "True Love Ways" click here

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Me, Sudan 2008
Overweight.  Loud.  Opinionated.  Moody.  Prone to low-self esteem (or should I say low self-image?)

Flaw after flaw, I look at myself and come up wanting.  That's not the half of it.  I drain people, even you, as you read this.  

Sound familiar??  How many times do we pick ourselves apart and believe what the devil says about us??  Or what the world says about us??  Or what we say about ourselves...  

My inner voices can be the undoing of me.  

Last night, in a flood of tears, I looked back at the year we've had...full of tragedy and unpredictable sadness.  Filled with betrayal, false friendships exposed, and a vision of what I thought we were building here crashing to the ground.  This year has tempted me to become monkish, hermit-ing in a cave with all of my books and broken pots to scrape my wounds.   It is all my fault: I am here in Africa, and my family (who needs me) is on another continent.  I am an incapable leader: selfish, assigning tasks and barking out orders.

I've written my whole story,  my thoughts: it's my form of processing.  I don't regret moving here to Africa to follow the whole calling of God, why do I feel so depleted??  Last night I recounted to our dear friends we came to for prayer, the whole thing.  The terrible, awful feeling that I am a failure.  No fruit, no energy, lost vision.

They asked questions: You feel that you have failed? Is it your efforts you're counting on?  Do you believe the Gospel?

The Gospel.  

Good News.  That's what it means, literally translated.  Guess what?   There's good news.  What is it??  Jesus (our Messiah) is here.  He has come to save us.   He knows my name, He knows my kids, He knows my flaws.  He is bigger than all of these combined.  He has power to save me, my kids, my family.  He is powerful, loving, coming to claim what is rightfully His, and He will not stop.  He will not stop being the Messiah, saving us, His ongoing work is both unstoppable and finished.   

I remember Him.   The righteous and freshly revealed Jesus- alive and unveiled to me.  I opened the door as an addict, laying on the floor of my rock bottom, and He lovingly overpowered me.  He scooped me up in His arms and whacked through the marsh weeds of judgement with His sword of righteousness, speaking with His mighty voice "She is mine!"  He was the one who spoke truth in my ear and gave me grace to believe.  He flooded me with undeserved love and acceptance after years of believing I wasn't good enough.  Then he sat me into a life that was full of Him- a savior worthy of everything: especially my heart.

It's as if someone finds me in an alley, half-drunken bottle of cheap wine in my hand, slouched and bleary-eyed, and says, "Janet, is that you?" and I remember who I am.  

I remember I live in a mansion, rich with wealth and love and open to anyone.  I remember I am a princess, what the hell am I doing, half drunk with imitation wine in an alley??  

I looked up last night and saw Him.  He was there.  My savior... He'd never left, and was the backbone of who I was, am and will ever be.

"Your fruit," they said "Is you." The thought sends me reeling, and accuses every false belief I have about myself.  

"It is a lie that you have no fruit," my friends say.  The truth was like a wrecking ball- aimed not at me, but at the lie, and I watched it come down.  Relieved, and sad that my hands had built it.  It was my mind that believed it.  

I am forced to believe God.  I am forced because faith jumps to different level when you are so far removed from situations and you are not wealthy.  Faith takes on new levels because your desire to change things is exposed as a weak and life-sucking sin.  God becomes my only hope, my only avenue to walk down when things get hard.  

I choose to believe God only because He is the One with the power to change all things.  I choose to believe because, in all of my life, I have never, ever, ever lost anything by believing Him to come through.  He does. 

After all, He scooped down and saved me and made me who I am.  What could be harder than that?

That is my fruit.  

Me, approx 1965


Sunday, September 11, 2011


Before the towers fell: this is what I "heard" happened.
Google Images

My parents had a similar exchange starter: Where were you when Kennedy was shot?  The question you could ask anyone: friend or stranger and it would begin a deep exchange that would lead to a foundation that would be there forever.  We have walked through a similar event together.  It has changed us both.  We are family; we are one. 

The question is not meant to be asked to remember a celebration, it was a tragedy when John Kennedy was shot.  The young, democratic president was smiling in a parade and then (BAM !) he was gone, taking our hopes with him. 

I was not yet a year old when it happened. 

Our generation also shares a similar question: where were you when the Twin Towers were hit?  Where were you when the Pentagon was hit?   Where were you when we saw United Airlines Flight 93 crash and go up in flames in Somerset County, Pennsylvania?  

Where were you the morning of September 11, 2001?

I was driving my white GMC minivan, on my way to school.  Vince and Alicia, fresh-smelling and dressed in school uniforms, were there with me.  I was getting ready to turn the corner to pick up our carpool rider....  and my stupid cell phone started ringing.  

Alicia looked at it.  “It’s dad,” she said, handing the phone to me. 

“Hi,” I said, trying not to sound annoyed.  I hated being called when I was driving. 

 “Where are you?” Mario asked, as he does when things are crazy or there’s been an emergency.
“I’m about to pick up Justin,” I said, “What’s wrong?”  Something was definitely wrong.  Alicia looked in the back seat at Vince, who remained cool. 

“Pull over,” Mario said. 

I did.

“What??” I said, after I pulled over.  Someone must have died.  I tried to remain calm, but I was in a hurry, and a little disturbed with the voice Mario had.  He knew I had a schedule to keep, and still sounded desperate.

“Someone has bombed the Twin Towers,” he said. 

“What!!??” I shouted into the phone.  “Again??”   Eight years earlier the garage of the Twin Towers was bombed, killing 6 people.  Terrorists were always trying to bomb the Trade Center, the Western World’s  Business Capital. 

“No,” Mario said quieter (it seemed like slow motion). “They flew a plane into Tower two.  We thought it was an accident, but then they flew another plane into Tower One.”

I felt my heart stop.  I looked at the kids, who were watching me.  I repeated what Mario said, even though I was pretty sure they could hear him.  They both nodded.  Then Alicia said it:

“Also the Pentagaon,” she said. 

“What??”  I was still on the phone with Mario, but I was now scolding Alicia.  “How do you know?  Were you watching TV?” 

Every time I repeat that last bit I think of how stupid I sounded.   Watching TV before school was strictly forbidden in our house, mainly because my kids (like me) were not morning people and were prone to tardiness. 

So, while I heard the earth-shattering news, I was reacting to Alicia breaking the house rules.  What a moron I was! 

“Did they bomb the Pentagon, too?” I asked Mario, using Alicia’s information. 

“Yes,” Mario said.  He was now distracted by talking.  “Janet, I gotta go.  Are you going in?” He asked.  Mario, under normal circumstances, would have sent me home.  He would have met me there,  he would have told me to use the TV and keep the phone lines open.  Check on elderly neighbors.  Not this time. 
Mario was calling from the San Francisco Bay area, on a job for the Justice Department working with a police department that needed him.  He was making arrangements to get back to Sacramento, where we lived. 

It was the first week I had with my own classroom.  After following the beloved Mrs. Kittleson (she taught the class for 25 years before I got to Wilton), I had taken over her classroom of primary students: 13 of the most gifted, brilliant kids I had ever met in my life).

It was one of the most exciting times in my life, functioning as a teacher to kids under 10-years-old, their whole lives dependent on what you taught. 

What was I supposed to tell them today? 

“If you go in,” Mario said, before he disconnected, “stay off the freeway.”  The line went silent.  I looked down at the phone, and saw that the network dropped my call. 

I  pulled up to Justin’s house and waited for him, as I phoned the school.  The line was busy (of course). 
“Let’s just go,” I finally decided.  “If the school is closed we’ll just drive back.” 

“Why would school be closed?” Vince asked.  He acted as if that was a very strange question.  I agreed, kind of embarrassed.  Why would school be closed?

Getting to school I was relieved to see parents and kids, like normal, dropping off and being dropped off.  Parking nightmares; kids lugging backpacks... all normal scenes.  I walked to the principal’s office and was intercepted by a student. 

“Mrs. Rodriguez!!!” she shouted, “Guess what?” Her face glowed from early morning playground running. 
“What?” I answered, in similar cheer.

“I can jump rope up to 100 now!  Watch!”  She began, quickly, as I attempted to stall her. 

“Honey, I have to see Pastor Greenfield, can you show me at recess?”  I said, opening the door.  She didn’t stop, counting aloud.   

I walked in to the office as Janet, the school secretary was writing slips for awaiting students.  It was minutes before the first bell. 

“What do I do?”  I asked her, as soon as the coast was clear.  “What do I say?  My class is still too little to get into the specifics of what happened.  I don’t even know.” I said, panicked. 

Janet was nodding, her eyes wide.  “I know,” she said, quietly, “Just ask Pastor what he says.”

I was surprised to hear he was in his office.  I rushed in.  Two other teachers were already in there. 

“Mrs. Rodriguez!” he greeted me as if today was any other day.  His demeanor was one of strength, not idiocy.  Pastor Greenfield (like George W. Bush) was definitely aware today was not like any other day. 
“Let your class lead you,” he said.  “They will show you if they are troubled, how they need help, what they know, if anything.  Make this day as safe as possible.  Make it a normal day for them.  They need to see that their school is where life is the same as it always is.”

I made my way across the blacktop to my classroom.  Students waited outside, but not in such a hurry to go in.  The playground was alive with basketball games, jump-roping, swinging, and kids hanging out, talking. 
Everywhere I looked I saw normal kids doing normal things.  Maybe the world hadn’t changed after all. 
Everything was normal.  I took roll, we got fruit out for morning recess.  We did homework slips, we filled water bottles... and then it was time for prayer.  Kasey raised his hand for a prayer request. 

“I’d like to pray for the United States,” he said.  Kasey was one of the deep kids.  He looked sad. 
“Okay,”I said. “How many of you know what happened this morning?”

A few raised their hands.  They looked a little guilty for knowing.  Maybe their mothers also outlawed morning TV. 

“Okay, well, this morning, some people took two planes and crashed them into two very tall buildings in New York City,” I began.  The class was silent, and their eyes were all wide. Then came the questions....
“Where did they get the planes?” “What happened to the people inside the planes?” “What happened to everyone in the building?”  “Who did it?”  “Was there a fire?"

 I was on very thin ice.  What if I told them something their parents didn’t want them to know?  What if I scared them?  What should I share?

What would Mr. Rogers do?

“It’s important to know,” I continued, “that the news programs on TV will have some very scary images of what has happened today, and you may not want to see all of them.  Ask your parents what  you should see, and don’t be ashamed to tell them if things scare you.  It it also important is to know that you are safe, you are loved and you are protected.  Your parents love you, I love you and we are all going to pray that things get better.  And they will.  Most often, even after things go terribly wrong, we all find a way to get back to normal.”

I’ll never forget the look in their eyes.  They believed me. 

I had no right to promise all that I did, but I didn’t know what else to say. 

The day, after that, progressed like any other school day.  My kids even came in during certain times to ask for money.   They seemed fine, so like their usual selves.

I was glad when school was over, and I exited the classroom to find Justin’s mom sitting on the bench outside of the classroom.  What was she doing here?

“Hi, Janet,” she said, somber-faced.  I wanted to make sure you knew I was taking Justin home myself today.”

“Oh, alright,” I said. “You were able to get the afternoon off?” I asked. 

“Yeah,” she said, “I just had to be with my kid.” She walked over to the high school area, in hopes of connecting with Justin.  I would follow her shortly to see if my kids may actually want to be seen with me long enough for me to ask them to come home with me (they loved me, but they were typical teens, chatting with friends after school). 

It had just occurred to me that I had not checked in with Mario, or anyone else, for that matter, on what else had happened today.  I didn’t even know if he got back home. 

It turned out that while I was trying to make a normal day for the kids, things were anything but on the outside of the hurricane fencing that surrounded Wilton Christian School. 

As I walked to the office from my classroom to call Mario, I saw a man, tall and still in work overalls, yelling at the lead pastor of Wilton Bible church, there in the middle of the playground.  I could only catch bits and pieces, but I could tell he was angry about something. 

“... and on my way home, I notice that you aren’t even flying the flag at all!!  Let alone half-mast!!  I’ll never come to this church!!  What the.....” 

It was just the beginning.

Wilton Christian School is a small, private Christian school in the southeast
corner of Sacramento County.  Here is a picture of staff and students taken
in the fall of 2002.  I am next to the green arrow.  

Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers took control of four commercial airliners en route to San Francisco and Los Angeles after takeoff from Boston, Newark, and Washington, D.C. Planes with long flights were intentionally selected for hijacking because they would be heavily fuelled.

 At 8:46 a.m., five hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center's North Tower and at 9:03 a.m. another five hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower. The South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. after burning for 56 minutes in a fire caused by the impact of United Airlines Flight 175. The North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m. after burning for 102 minutes.

Five hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. A fourth flight, United Airlines Flight 93, under the control of four hijackers, eventually crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m. after the passengers fought the hijackers. Flight 93's ultimate target is believed to have been either the Capitol or the White House. Flight 93's cockpit voice recorder revealed crew and passengers attempted to seize control of the plane from the hijackers after learning through phone calls that similarly hijacked planes had been crashed into buildings that morning.[17] Once it became evident to the hijackers that the passengers might regain control of the plane, one hijacker ordered another to roll the plane and intentionally crash it.

 Three buildings in the World Trade Center Complex collapsed due to structural failure on the same day.  Other surrounding buildings were condemned. 

All aircraft within the continental U.S. were grounded, and aircraft already in flight were told to land immediately. All international civilian aircraft were either turned back or redirected to airports in Canada or Mexico, and all international flights were banned from landing on U.S. soil for three days. The attacks created widespread confusion among news organizations and air traffic controllers.
On September 11, 2001 there were a total of 2,996 deaths, including the 19 hijackers and 2,977 victims.  The victims included 246 on the four planes (from which there were no survivors), 2,606 in New York City in the towers and on the ground, and 125 at the Pentagon.  All the deaths in the attacks were civilians, except for 55 military personnel killed at the Pentagon.

Over 90% of the workers and visitors who died in the towers had been at or above the points of impact.  In the North Tower 1,355 people at or above the point of impact were trapped and died of smoke inhalation, fell or jumped from the tower to escape the smoke and flames, or were killed in the building's eventual collapse.  At least 200 people fell or jumped to their deaths from the burning towers landing on the streets and rooftops of adjacent buildings hundreds of feet below.

9/11 is shorthand for September 11th in America, while other countries use the 11/9 (month/date/year). People in America use a telephone emergency system called “911” to signify EMERGENCY or a cry for help.

 It is considered the largest terrorist attack in the history of the world. 

Thank you to Wikipedia for accurate News Information and detail.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


At a revival in Mozambique.  Picture by Robin Malherbe. 
When I'm sick I start to question where it came from. I do a lot of work in the township and sometimes with a lot of kids... maybe that was it. I work out at the gym...maybe that was it.  If I actually remember who was apologizing for being contagious around me, I make an assumption that they “gave it to me”.  Where does that saying come from??  Giving is supposed to be GOOD; viruses are BAD.

Because of  my lifestyle, or maybe my expectations, I can think of myself as invincible; unstoppable; made for the job before me!  In reality, a common virus can knock me down and render me five years old in my mind, crying for my mommy.

The CDC says that most invading viruses are usually gone in ten days. Cold, flu, and other viral invaders are attacked by our incredible Immune system; we are created by God to fight off invading viruses. Even so, some viruses have had a hey-day with us. The most recent one that hit the States was H1N1, (Swine flu) that had people being quarantined as if they had smallpox.

 The Spanish Influenza pandemic (1918-19) is the one that  is the standard of all pandemics.  It is estimated that approximately 20 to 40 percent of the people all over the world caught this virus;  and that over 50 million people died. Approximately 675,000 deaths from the flu occurred in the U.S. alone, most very quickly.

Today flu can be deadly, but for babies, toddlers or senior citizens, those whose immune systems are not as effective; a “flu vaccine” has been made available. Vaccines (as we all know) are a promise that cannot be kept: usually making a shield against deadly viral components.   In the case of most flu vaccines, the effectiveness rate is at 50 per cent, depending on the year and the virus.

  It is our first reaction to cure ourselves, simply put: “shield ourselves” against our invading viral attackers.  Vitamin C, hand sanitizers, even masks make us feel more protected, but it is literally impossible to live germ-free!

 When we made the move here, to South Africa, we realized the difference between a virus and a VIRUS. Some superviruses can wipe out a village - tuberculosis (the TB bacteria) is airborne and multiplies faster than cancer. Malaria, a mosquito-transmitted bacterium, can kill someone in 24 hours.  Cholera can kill a healthy person in six hours... transmitted by drinking contaminated water or food.   All of these are not viral, but since they are are transmitted like viruses (easily and upon contact) there are not much to protect the people who are poor in comparatively underdeveloped countries.

HIV, a level 3 virus, is not as easily contracted.  It reproduces rampantly, by the transfer of blood, semen, vaginal fluid, pre-ejaculate, or breast milk.  The place where we live,  South Africa, has the highest rate: our nation-wide infection rate of HIV was in 2007 at 28%.

The statistic is a joke.  

It's hard to describe here, to people living without an endemic virus, how bad this feels.  It's ominous.  One in four people in South Africa have HIV. Most of those people are black and live in townships. If you look at things this way, you can say every other person in the township has a deadly virus.

  One in one hundred will admit having it.

  While we have contact daily with those who are infected, we’re rarely truthfully told if they have been tested or if they are positive. Predominant teaching among the the cultural leaders here is that HIV can be remedied by muti, or ancient medicine.  This is taught by trusted chiefs or leaders.  Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, once had sex with an HIV positive woman, and then later explained he was probably not infected because he took a shower afterward.  This is the example we are working against.

 Since it is a relatively "new" virus it is nearly impossible diagnose from one testing.  To encourage someone to be tested is a feat of gargantuan proportions.  To convince them to be regularly tested is the hardest thing I have ever done (or feel compelled to do).  The crippling effect of the virus here is ignorance and poverty.
 It is also the crippling cause of contraction.

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas present, when saying goodbye to Ebenezer Scrooge, shows him too shivering orphans underneath his cloak. They frighten Scrooge so much, and seem so foreign an attachment to such a happy spirit that Scrooge asks, "Are these yours?" The Spirit answers, "THEY ARE MANKIND's!! The boy is ignorance and the girl is want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased." How prophetic for Dickens, seeing into a worldwide handicap that will doom us all -- not knowing, maybe not caring.

It is sad for us to be exposed to both worlds.  We come from the USA, a fast-paced first world, where most people see themselves as having enough problems of their own to worry about others half-way around the world.  We live in South Africa, a land where truth is relative, and people still have a class-system. As a "white" woman (no one here understands that I am Hispanic) I am an imported snob who thinks she knows everything.  At best, I am loved by my friends, many of whom are infected by the virus.  Even they want me not to know their status.  It is none of my business.    

This life-threatening thing kills off many of our friends here.  Since we have been here we have lost dear, close friends.  Only one admitted to having the virus. 

While we do the day-to-day relationship building, a few English doctors and American celebrities chisel off a percentage of their time and resources to dedicate a portion of themselves towards a remedy or a cure.  The rest of the first world can seem (to me) lost in i-pads and big screens and liposuction and implants.

 I see the sub-human orphans cling to all of our ankles and look up at us for an answer. Will we ever be removed from you?

Or is this a secondary infection that won't go away?

Sunday, September 4, 2011


Alice and Chev at a cast party (approx 1970)

When I fell in love with Mario, I fell hard.  

Anyone who has a true love knows the day that you realize that it is real; he's the one; this is it; fill in your favorite cliche.  The truth is, it all isn't a cliche.  It was the most real thing that ever happened to me.  

As with most love stories, we had issues. I had just come out of a live-in relationship that was very passionate, but dramatic.  I was trying to raise a young son whom I protected from life obsessively, and meeting the love of my life wasn't supposed to happen so soon after the separation.  But it did.

 Mario had also been married before to a really nice lady named Cathy.  Every account of Cathy (even from Mario) was that she was a typicial California girl (complete with long, blonde hair and blue eyes) and a sweetheart.  Even Mario said that the divorce was "his fault", although in the re-telling of the events, from my perspective they seemed better suited as best friends, rather than man and wife. 

There we were, two of us, single parents to great kids, meeting for coffee at a diner for wonderful, emotional connections where I gazed across the table into his beautiful brown eyes and listened to the wisest, most beautiful person talk about building a future.

He had a plan.  

If he ever did get married again, he said, it would be to his true love, his Alice.  Mario then explained to me about the relationship that his father, a Broadway actor named Chev Rogers, had with his wife (Mario's "step-mom") Alice Evans.  Alice was Chev's refuge in the storm of life, but was also the most exciting person in Chev's life.  She was multi-talented, beautiful, and could sing... and break glass.  She and Chev had met on the National Tour of Sound Of Music and were inseparable.  Their lives were one dream after another... and they adored each other.  They played hard, loved hard, fought hard and weren't afraid of truth and hard times.     Yes, if he ever married again, it would be to his Alice. 

I remember feeling threatened by the comparison.  How could I be like the Alice he was looking at as the epitome of true-love?  A Broadway Dame with a big voice, a gorgeous face and head-shots that changed with each show she was in.  I was a recovering drug addict and single mom, vulnerable and insecure...and desperately in love with the "perfect" Mario.

I went home once from one of our coffee shop chats and wrote a poem I called "Your Alice".  The next day at work I gave it to him:
 Looking in your face I see
The eyes of one who’s meant to be
I hear you speak of life and love
The face of one you’re dreaming of;
That things will just fall into place
With one...perfect...face...
                What face?
                What Look?? What Shape?? What Kind??
Tell me, and I’ll make it mine.
 How I wish that you could see
Your Alice come to life in me,
The joy in what you’re speaking of
I long for, too: undying love.

Mario later spoke to me outside.  "Your poem," he said, with tears in his eyes.  "Where did you learn to write like that?  The last's just how I feel."

I was flooded with relief...and love.  From there on in, we made plans toward marriage.

This still didn't mean I couldn't feel insecure.  Talking with Cynthia, Mario's mom, I thought would give me some balance.

"She's wonderful," Cynthia said, after a long drag on her cigarette. "And he is horrible. Horribly hard to live with, just the most ego-maniacal man ever born "  Cynthia was honest and bold and truthful.  I couldn't believe her version of both of them.  First of all, Chev, as Mario described him,  was larger-than-life, and an artist.  Mario never exaggerated or lied.  Secondly, I had never heard an ex-wife speak so well of the new wife.

"That's because she really is an angel," Cyndi, Mario's cousin/sister later told me.  Cyndi had met Alice on numerous occasions, and was one of Alice's favorite people.   "She is beautiful.  One of my favorite people in the whole world."  Cyndi also told things like it was, and she loved me, so  I felt a little more comfortable by the time Mario and I boarded a plane bound for NYC to meet her (and Chev) for the first time.  I was so nervous, meeting the "new" in-laws... and Broadway stars to boot.

Arriving in New York City, June 1987,  at nearly midnight, we had to go through a wide-awake (and scary) Harlem to get to the West End of Manhattan, where Chev and Alice lived.  I was so nervous I thought I would break in half.  Finally we arrived and Chev answered the door looking every bit the Broadway star he was... and I'm sure capitalizing on my sheepishness.

"So this is Janet," he said, in a booming, deep voice, stretching his arms out for a hug. I smiled, and hugged him, hitting my cheek against a plastic stop-watch  hanging from his neck.  We turned made our way through the kitchen and into a wide, open living area with a grand piano and crown mouldings and a hanging chandelier.  I scanned the room for Alice... who I found out was in bed.  How dare she??  After all, it was only 12:30... and I'm sure she was used to partying until dawn.

While Chev offered us drinks, Mario insisted we put the boys down to bed, and we began the process.  While we set up beds, I saw more "realistic" pictures of Alice around the room.  They looked like a normal couple, not so much the larger-than-life version I had made them to be, but rather like my own mom and dad, with family, baby pictures, holiday shots.

Chev and Alice with Pepe, the family patriarch.  

Somehow I slept that night, and when I awoke, it was to Mario stirring to go to the bathroom.  He walked outside, and was greeting by an excited yell, followed by a laugh.  I could hear the hugging from where I was. Mario giggled and Alice continued a melodious laugh... one that I was strangely jealous of.

I got out of bed, got dressed, looked for makeup, gave up and then walked outside.  There she was.  She small.   Somehow she wasn't so "Broadway sized", she was even smaller than me.  She turned around and gave me the most disarming smile I had ever been greeted with.  I blushed, and hugged her, as she said "So this is her."

Throughout the week, Alice's beauty became real to me.  She became (in my eyes) less perfect than I had made her, more warm and real...full of love for most everyone we talked about.  She asked real questions about me, about my family.  And she loved my poem.

"Honey," she said, in her gorgeous voice, "your poem is a treasure.  I wrote it down here in my journal, see?" I smiled, so humbled that she would save this.  "I am just so glad Mario has met you.  He needs a woman who really can see him."

Saying goodbye after the week was over was a little sad, but I was ready to get back home. As she hugged me, she whispered "And you, my dear, are a delight!"  She meant it.  It meant the world to me, and I thought about her the whole trip home.

At the end of the year, MArio and I did get married.  We had our own passion, our own drama, and our own obstacles we somehow overcame.  The following year we had a daughter and named her Alicia, the name Chev called Alice.

Over the years, Alice proved herself to be a woman who would love us without question.  She would be at the end of the phone to bless us, and to encourage us in sad times and celebrate the happy times.  She mourned with us as Cynthia succumbed to cancer in 1991.  When she and Chev finally decided to divorce, they parted with peace and blessings, but we also mourned together.  She showed us how to hold each other in our hearts when separated by distance, and she became to me who she was to most others that knew her: the picture of what a loving woman should be.

Terrible pic of all of us, 1997
Year after year, she became more a part of our own hearts, opening our ways of thinking; encouraging our growth.  In 1997, ten years after we were married, she and her new husband, Pic came to visit us in Sacramento.  During the visit, Mario and I had a huge fight and I later talked with her about it.  She listened, gently cooing, and finally saying.  "Honey, I trust you both so much with each other that I know you'll work it out."

In 2007 we permanently moved here to South Africa.  Our jumping off place was New York City, in Alice's Riverdale apartment.   We said goodbye, promised to write (we do) and promised to saty close (we are).  Through any distance, we have an understanding that we are always there for each other, and each others' trusted confidantes.  She is a delight and a treasure.

Today is Alice's birthday.  I cannot begin to tell you how blessed we are to know her.  To have her in our lives means that we have a woman who values us and accepts us regardless of all our shortcomings.  The woman I met in 1987 and was frightened to know has turned out to be one of the deepest human blessings in my life.

The funny thing is, most people who know Alice say the same thing.

That's the mark of a life well-lived.

Blessings and love, dear one.  We love you.