Thursday, October 9, 2014

Facing the Darkness

I woke on the morning of my forty-fourth birthday with a lump in my throat and an overwhelming feeling of dread.  Not due to the number of candles on my cake, but because on this day that God brought me into the world, He was calling me to face a fear that I’d been running from for a decade.

*****

All of us have been exposed to injustices in life that revolt, appall, or offend us, either through personal experience or simply by watching the evening news.  I generally react with varying degrees of concern and/or shock, depending upon the headline of the day.

The unfortunate truth is that the abominations we hear about on the news, such as rape, murder, theft, and violence, have, sadly, meshed into the landscape of our existence.

They have become part of life in the Big City.

But there is one atrocity that isn't often reported on, yet when it is, it raises the hairs on my neck, tightens my throat, and leaves me with a crushing sensation of being punched in the gut.  Attempting to think about it leaves me completely undone, split down the middle, paralyzed with disgust.

The subject is so vile and inconceivable to me that I have literally become physically ill thinking about it.

The reality of it is something I've never allowed to fully permeate my brain.

But as I approached my forty-fourth birthday, I began to feel led to crack open the door to it, even for just a moment.  And those moments turned into hours, and the more I thought about it, the more I gathered the courage to face it, head on.

It’s happening all over our country, our city, even right in our own neighborhoods. Down the street from our schools, playgrounds, and the places we eat and shop.

And the only way to stop it is to shine light on it.

The issue I can no longer ignore, or allow myself to neglect is the tragedy of modern day slavery, Human Trafficking.
 
And today, instead of celebrating my birthday with a nice lunch out or a mani/pedi, I would be taking a van tour of brothels in Houston through an organization called Elijah Rising, a non-profit Christian group committed to the fight against sex trafficking.
 
The goal of the van tour would be to learn to identify these establishments and begin to understand the inner-workings of how this monstrous industry operates in spas, massage parlors, and cantinas across the city.

*****

I showed up at Elijah Rising's office for the van tour with a wad of Kleenex in my purse and my largest, darkest sunglasses to hide my tears.  I did not know how I would make it through this tour, but I was determined to do it.
 
Upon entering the building, a staff member explained that it used to be a functioning brothel.  I navigated the chopped up rooms with low ceilings and no windows, and felt my first wave of nausea as I turned the corner and encountered a row of six showers in a dark hallway.

Shells of rooms remained, scarred with the outlines of where dirty mattresses had lain.

Artifacts had been saved, restraints, drug paraphernalia, actual pictures of the human slaves formerly held within.

I felt the ghosts of despair and darkness slither up my spine like a poisonous snake. All the sins that these four walls had witnessed echoed throughout the building, long-forgotten lamentations that cried to be remembered.  Souls of young girls robbed of their innocence, plagued by circumstances, bound by fear.  Evil plastered into the walls, trapping the people within, draining the light and life from them.

I felt every ounce of it, and it took my breath away, like a swift punch to the gut.

My knees wobbled as I exited the building and climbed into the van.

The van tour drove us by establishments that were right under my nose, obscurely blending into the landscape, one in the same shopping center where I picked out my wedding china.

But the part that tore my insides out was just being inside that building.

It would haunt my dreams for days to come.

*****

Our van tour guide told us stories that chilled my blood and made me want to crawl outside my skin.

I am overwhelmed, burdened, and broken by what I saw and heard.

I am not clear on my place in this war against Human Trafficking, but I know I am being led to face the horror of it, think about it, and do something about it.

In the days ahead, I will be praying about what God wants me to do. I am not overly religious, but I have always heard people talk about being led to do something they didn't want to do, and now I know what they mean.  It would be much more pleasant and convenient to continue to focus on the nice, easy volunteer work of which I've become accustomed.

But I believe in the promise that if we are obedient and faithful to God’s call, He will equip us for battle.

I will not forget this forty-fourth birthday.

And I don’t believe I’m meant to forget.



Houston ranks No. 1 among U.S. cities thought to have the most victims of human trafficking. (KPRC-TV)

The average age of a girl entering the sex trade in the U.S. is 12 to 14.(DoSomething.org)


California harbors 3 of the FBI’s 13 highest child sex trafficking areas on the nation: Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. (DoSomething.org)


The National Human Trafficking Hotline receives more calls from Texas than any other state in the US. 15% of those calls are from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. (DoSomething.org)


Human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It reportedly generates a profit of $32 billion every year. (DoSomething.org)


If you feel compelled to learn more, here are some resources:
Elijah Rising
United Against Human Trafficking (UAHT)
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Letter to the Preschool Teacher

Dear Treasured Preschool Teacher,

Thank you for loving children enough to dedicate your life's work to them.

Today, I place my almost four-year-old into your hands.

He is the light of my life, my precious love, my everything.

He is bright, funny, boisterous, sensitive, loving, strong-willed, kind, tender-hearted, and joyful.

Although he may seem shy at first, he’ll warm up to you once he becomes used to your smile and your tone of voice. These are the things about you that he’ll be observing.

He will spend almost as much time with you as he does with me. Whether you realize it or not, these hours he spends with you will be life changing for him.

You are writing an entire chapter of his early, little life.

You are playing a vital role in growing a human.

I want you to know that I am praying for you. For patience, strength, wisdom, and a loving heart.

May I be so bold to ask a few things of you, since we don’t know each other?

Will you always remember that he is a child of God, created in His image?

Will you guard his heart, while you train his mind?

Will you look for the good in him, and seek to encourage him?

If he misbehaves (and he likely will…he’s four), will you discipline him in a firm, yet loving way?

Will you deliver consequences with empathy?

If he has little quirks, like he’s scared of loud noises or gets overwhelmed in large groups, will you honor his differences?

Will you love him?

You see, I have to ask, because unfortunately, I can’t assume.

I’ve seen the effects that a bad preschool experience can have on a child. Ripple effects that last years into a child’s life and must be undone like the intricate layers of a woven knot.

And I can’t bear the thought of his spirit being damaged in that way.

I am entrusting him to you and praying that you will be exactly what he needs, when he needs it.

So, it is with anticipation, hope, and a bit of nervousness that I turn him over to you at the threshold of your classroom.

The last words he said to me as we hugged goodbye in the hall were, “Mama, I’m gonna be a good friend! I’m gonna make a friend today!”

Dear Teacher, I hope he finds a friend in you.




Monday, August 18, 2014

Bye, Bye, Summer: One Last Blast

I am so ready for summer to be over.  I am so not ready for summer to be over.

Yes, it is possible to feel these two things simultaneously.

It’s been week after week of existing in survival mode, waiting for Husband to come home, scurrying to the store at night, because I refuse to take my kids grocery shopping.   There are doctor, hair, and work appointments backed up, waiting for the Fall when time will finally open up and spread out before me.

There has been lots of fighting, screaming, pushing, whining, complaining and all around bad behavior.

But.

There have been lazy mornings in bed, no nagging over homework, no rushing around to after school activities, and zero drama.  There have been forts and snuggles, swimming and splashing, traveling and exploring.

So, with mixed emotions, Daughter and I decided to leave Husband and Little Brother behind and bid farewell to summer with a last blast Girl’s Trip.

One of her favorite tv shows is The Daytripper on PBS (click HERE for schedule).  In each episode, host Chet Garner visits a different destination in Texas and highlights the unique activities, food, and culture of that town.  Not only is the show educational, it’s all presented in a high-energy, playful manner which appeals to kids and grown-ups alike.

Chet’s passion for Texas history, food, and fun elevates the program from an ordinary travel show to true entertainment.  His sense of humor shines through in each episode, as he’s known to often illustrate his narratives with a quirky skit involving costumes, wigs, and crazy accents.

So, my daughter requested to go on The Daytripper’s San Antonio tour, which is basically experiencing the show live and in person.  We made a weekend trip out of it, relishing these last few days of carefree fun before alarm clocks and spelling lists.

First stop: Austin, TX: The Capitol


Daughter had never been there before, and it was so fun to experience all of it again from a child’s view:  the wonder and awe of standing on the star in the middle of the floor and gazing up into the dome, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

The Dome

Climbing the grand staircases to fearfully inch toward the middle to peer out over the railing.

Brave Little Soul
The solemn stateliness of the House of Representatives, especially as seen from the viewing gallery above.

This is where important stuff happens.

On our way out, Daughter announced, “Maybe someday I’ll work here, Mom.”

" I demand to see Rick Perry!"

Saturday morning dawned, already a scorcher by the time we met the Daytripper bus to leave for San Antonio, but we came armed with lots of water, cooling towels (these are the best things ever!), and sunscreen.

Official Trip Badge with Host, "Mariachi" Chet Garner

Our first stop on the tour was Mission San José, followed by Mission Concepión. These missions were established in the early 1700s by the Spanish, who were in competition with the French to colonize parts of Texas.

We learned about life as a Native American at the mission, and Daughter commented how lucky we are that we don’t have to live in one of those little rooms with fifteen of our closest family members!  Our Park Ranger tour guide, Tatum Weeks, was amazing and really brought history alive for us.  If you ever visit, ask for her!


 

After a delicious Mexican lunch at El Mirador, we headed over to the Institute of Texan Cultures, the museum/library of University of Texas San Antonio.  We learned a lot about the vast array of ethnic groups that settled in Texas and their impact on history: German, Irish, Polish, Hungarian, Chinese, and even some of my own ancestors:

Slovakia, actually, but close enough.

Don’t worry, amidst all the learning going on, we definitely had some fun:

Making Mariachi Faces!

Lasso Lessons...this cowgirl needs more work.

We ended the day at Beethoven Maennerchor, home to an authentic beer garden, complete with one of the oldest German singing societies in Texas.  Here we were treated to a fabulous meal and sing-along with traditional German drinking songs.

Prosit!
Thus ended our fantastic Daytripper experience in San Antonio, sadly.  It was back to the bus, back to Austin, then home to Houston the next day.

But not without a quick visit with our dear friends and a spin around Lake Travis.

Tubing...pre-wipeout!

What a way to end our wonderful Girls’ Weekend.

And now, it’s back to reality…backpacks, new shoes, and a fresh start to All Things School.

For everyone who is sharpening pencils and packing lunches this week, I hope your start to the school year is as smooth as possible, and if you’re a Kindergarten mom, don’t forget your hankie on that first day!

How do you feel about the end of summer? Blessing or curse?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Words I Should Have Said

“I’m so happy to see mommy, I’m so happy to see mommy, everyone has fun in music class!”

The group of mothers sat cross-legged on the floor, bouncing tots on their laps, singing along with the overly-cheerful opening anthem.

I felt a buzz in my pocket, my cellphone, which I ignored.

But after my phone conversation yesterday with Dad, and the knowing realization that followed, a grim reality pierced me when I looked and saw it was from my parents’ home phone number.

The mom next to me saw the ashen look on my face and offered to watch my two-year old while I went outside to return the call.

“Bouncing up and down on my little red wagon, bouncing up and down on my little red wagon”

I didn’t want to leave that room.

But I did, in what felt like slow-motion, feet-dragging in a light-headed blur.

Standing in the scalding, summer heat in a strip-center parking lot, I dialed the number and received the news I knew I would hear.

I glanced back through the window of the music room and saw my daughter twirling in circles, laughing and singing, arms outstretched.

********

Walking up to the podium, my feet were mired in quicksand.  I held tight to my grandfather’s Bible, from which I would read a passage.

I felt as if at any moment, I would come undone, from the inside out, pieces of me strewn throughout the church, reaching the furthest corners.

I was supposed to speak about my father.  The best I had come up with in the early hours of the morning was a scripture passage that my grandfather had underlined in the Bible he gave to my father.

I read the passage, as steadily as I could, hands shaking, trying not to choke on words.  I prattled on about how the passage said that God would always be with us, and how I knew my father would always be with us in spirit, too.

I’m sure my words were exactly what they needed to be at the moment, and maybe I just wasn’t capable of any more on that day.

But I should have told those people sitting in that church that the reason I knew he’d always be with me, is because he had always been there for me.

When I was very young and made to go for asthma breathing treatments, he accompanied me and held my hand as they put the scary mask over my face.  He wove together stories about a girl named, “Jenny Lynn” who had adventures with cowboys and wagon trains, and her best friend, an American Indian named, “Chief Red Cloud.”

He took me to work with him on occasion, entertaining me with colored pencils and paper, while he pored over the geological maps on his walls.

When I was sick from experimenting with wine coolers one summer night in high school, he let me stay in bed the next day and brought me a grilled cheese sandwich on a tray.

When a very bad thing happened to me in college, he was the first one to hold me up, tell me everything was going to be okay, and help me find a way to make it so. No questions asked.

He wrote pages and pages of letters to me, in his shaky hand, full of fatherly wisdom and advice, encouragement and reassurance that I breathed in like air.

Tonight, as I sift through those old letters and think about that day at the church, I wish I could go back in time and tell those people that he was, simply, my everything.

He taught me how to succeed and how to mess up.

He taught me how to encourage others and how to apologize when I made a mistake.

He taught me to stand up for what is right, even when it seems like the world is against you.

He embodied unconditional love.

No, he wasn’t perfect.  He didn’t always say and do exactly the right thing at the right moment.

But one thing I can never say is that he wasn’t there for me.

I carry all those best moments of him tucked away in a tiny place inside my heart, and although I can’t speak to him or hold his hand, I can unpack those memories whenever I need to feel him close.

Tonight, as I empty that place in my heart and sift through those treasures, I give thanks for his life.

And the life I was lucky enough to share with him.

Christmas, 1977



Saturday, July 19, 2014

No Ear for Harmony

The walls of the soundproof booth closed in on me.  I strained to hear the barely audible chimes and beeps piping through the headphones placed over my ears.

The noises dwindled, trailing off into the depths of my fuzzy head like soap bubbles swirling down a drain.  I began to wonder if the sounds I struggled to hear were only in my imagination, conjured up to reassure me I still had full range of hearing.

As an ill-prepared, hung-over college student sweats during a final exam, knowing her sins may have finally caught up with her, I sat in the chair wondering if this would be the end of the line for me and the love of my life.

I’d been to a lot of concerts in my forty-three years, many of them in small venues, crushed up against a speaker by an unforgiving crowd.

I’ve attempted to use ear plugs a few times, but they always fell out, and frankly, I didn’t like the way they tickled my ears and muffled the very sounds in which I was seeking to submerge.

Salve for the wounds of the week.

People ask me all the time, “How do you manage to go to so many concerts?  I’m always too tired at night.”

And here is my answer:

I go because I have to go.

It’s like oxygen to me.

All day long, I’m suffocated by The Wiggles and Radio Disney, and I have to cleanse my musical palate at least once every two weeks.  Preferable once a week.  Four weeks, and I start to get the shakes.

A musician at heart, I played the piano as a child, and as a young adolescent, I discovered that banging out some Beethoven was an enjoyably therapeutic way to release angst.

My musical tastes expanded with the New Wave movement of the ‘80s, and I discovered bands like The Cure, The Smiths, and Depeche Mode.  Coupled with the upbeat pop sounds of Duran Duran and INXS, I delighted in the ability to always find a song to fit my mood.

Music became more to me than sound emanating from a Sony Walkman.

Music became a manner of holistic healing.

Solace in another’s lyrical expressions.

And today is no different.

I’m not likely to connect with a poet at a coffee house, but set those same words to music, and I’m all ears.

I can listen to almost anything and enjoy it.

The magic of the live show lies in the connection between performer and audience, artist and appreciator.

Each artist speaks his or her own language, and the listener is invited to partake in the dialogue for the evening:  a love lost, then found; a memory preserved; an emotion that at the writing of the song was so strong and prolific, it overtook every cell of the songwriter’s body.

During a good live performance, all of these stories, feelings, people, and places will be transferred from artist to listener, aided by chords and melodies.

There is nothing else in the world better to me than listening to a live show of a musician who is performing with his/her whole heart and soul.

"A life without music is a life not worth living." I dramatically pondered.

I panicked, envisioning denial of the heartfelt harmonies of The Mastersons.  The gorgeous, rootsy ballads of Ryan Adams.  The witty, rollicking missives of Rhett Miller and Old 97s.  The meditative melodies of Chris Martin and Coldplay.  The playful, rhythmic groove of Bob Schneider.

I sat with sweaty, wringing hands, waiting for the results of the hearing test.

“Everything looks good.”

Exhale.

I’ve got tickets to a show next week.

I’ll try to remember the ear plugs, I promise.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Trials, Lessons Learned, & Aligned Stars

I slowly placed the phone back on its receiver, careful not to tangle the long, peach-colored cord with the black one from the neighboring answering machine.

“Well, what’d he say?” Roommate demanded.

“He said it’s over.  That we should just be friends.  That he’d see me around campus.” I choked on the words, reeling from their cutting reality.

“Whatever, he’s an idiot.  Get dressed, we’re going out.” Roommate charged.

I obeyed, mainly because I was too weak to argue with someone who usually won.

Retreating to my bedroom, I threw open the door to the closet, taking refuge in early '90s fashion, finally deciding on a sleeveless chambray shirt tucked into a floral-print wrap-skirt from Harrold’s. 

Giant, silver-fluted earrings completed the look, hoping to instill the same level of confidence possessed by the girl in the store who’d sold them to me.

Roommate was waiting for me when I came out with a shot glass filled with ominous-looking amber liquid.

“Drink up,” she commanded.

It was going to be a long night.

********

The car sped precariously down Lovers Lane, with the driver’s attention torn between obeying traffic laws and finishing her cigarette.

Entertainment options were thrown out like items on a fast food dollar menu.

Having picked up several other girls along the way, the debate centered on which bar to bless with our presence: Yale Ice House, Across the Street, Milo’s, or Cardinal Puff’s.  Someone piped up with Rhythm Room, adding that Jackopierce was playing, which had the added benefit of hoards of their fraternity brothers in residence to potentially distract me from my heartache.

I broke the tie by casting my vote for Rhythm Room. 

********

After fighting the crowd to get in and ushering our fake IDs quickly under the nose of the bouncer, we found an open picnic table out back and parked ourselves there with our pitcher of beer.

Jackopierce, an acoustic duo comprised of SMU contemporaries Jack O’Neill and Cary Pierce, had just started their set.  I strained to hear their guitars and pleasing harmonies over the noise of co-eds laughing and socializing. 

The crowd ultimately settled down, and we were treated to some of the best covers I’d heard in a while…U2, REM, Big Country, with several original songs thrown in.  They were clearly talented, with a certain dazzling stage presence, which proved to be a winning combination in allowing me to forget my troubles.  At least for a few hours. 

Which eventually turned into twenty-five years.

********

Husband and I took our seats right up front, thrilled to have an evening of adult conversation that wouldn’t include any mentions of Spongebob or Peppa the Pig.

The show was packed, and we visited easily with the other fans around us who had driven all the way up to The Woodlands from Houston to see Jackopierce on their 25th anniversary tour.

Husband and I had a separately attained, yet mutually shared love of the duo.  It was one of the many things we had in common when we met.  In our sixteen years of marriage, we’d seen them play live as many times as we could: their farewell show on New Year’s Eve 1997 in downtown Houston, their first reunion show at Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas in 2002, another reunion show at Mucky Duck in Houston, and lastly, at Warehouse Live back in 2007.

It had been seven years, and we were ready for Jack and Cary to take the stage.  They possess a distinct chemistry together as musicians, although each is talented in his own right.  There really is nothing more clean, musically, than hearing their two voices in tandem. 

And as they performed each song that night, what came through loud and clear was more than perfect pitch.  It was a gentle, yet confident air of contentment that I’d not seen in them before.  A joy that shined through in performing and seeing the fans enjoy their music. 

Just two guys on stage enjoying themselves, like the rest of us.

Gone were the attitudes that often piggyback on the insecurity of youth, replaced by genuine gratitude for earning a living doing what they love, connecting with others in a meaningful, authentic way.

It mirrored so much of what I see in myself at the age of forty-three. 

We’ve given up chasing fame and what we thought success would be. Success is now defined by having a Good Life:  enjoying what we do, and having people around us, family, and friends who love and appreciate us.

And because we’re not striving for the unattainable, we’re better for it.

Their show that night was the best performance I’d seen from them, by far.

Jackopierce successfully assures us that the mid-point of life is nothing to be feared, but to be celebrated.

All the Tiny, Hidden Bits of Goodness that have been simmering away throughout our youth and early adulthood finally boil to the surface at 40, and it all begins to make sense…the missteps, the trials, the lessons learned.  They can finally take a backseat to all of the blessings. 

They led us to where we need to be.

Yeah, we missed a couple turns (but it never really mattered)
On our way to change the world (and it’s just about to happen)
The stars align
This is our time
We're gonna take it.

Indeed, you will, guys.

And this fan intends to have a front row seat.
Me and Cary Pierce...Go Ponies!

If you want to be happy, go buy Jackopierce's 25th Anniversary Live CD, recorded at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas HERE.  And watch this montage video for their new single, "This Is Our Time" celebrating 25 years of music and fun:

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Take a Deep Breath and Let Go (Part II)

The cat followed me into Big Sister’s bedroom, close on my tail, and when I made myself comfortable on her bed, he followed suit, curling up in a ball at my side.

We surveyed her room, neat and tidy, missing the usual mix of discarded shorts and t-shirts littering the floor.  There were no half-drawn pictures or half-read books strewn about, waiting to be finished.

Her dolls were lined up in an orderly fashion, without the promise of a tea party or a new adventure for the afternoon.  Her desk top was deserted, markers and pencils corralled in their cubbies, denied the opportunity to bring ideas to life.

It had been a week since Big Sister boarded the bus to camp, all smiles and waves, while I bravely hid my red-rimmed eyes behind dark sunglasses.  This was a grand improvement over last summer, when my parting image was of her sobbing into her tie-dyed pillow (read about that HERE).

This year was different.  She was a big girl, a veteran.  She worried about the other first-timers and vowed to comfort them in case they felt sad.  She knew the reward for being brave was several weeks of independence, having fun, making friends, and trying new things. 

Testing out her wings without Mama hovering.

And as I linger here in her empty room, just to feel close to her, I know this is right.

For every twinge of sadness I feel when I can’t grab her for a bear hug, I picture her beaming face on the camp website, arms encircling new friends.

For every time my throat tightens when I remember I can’t tuck her in at night, I imagine her snug in her bunk bed, whispering and giggling with her cabinmates.

For every ache I feel in my gut when I long to ask her about her day, I cling to her letters, full of excited details of each new activity she’s tried, and each triumph she’s attained.

As hard as this is, I know this is right.

As for Little Brother, he is soaking in the undivided attention, ecstatic that we can spend our entire morning playing with cars or blocks without Big Sister stealing the spotlight.

And I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the relief I often feel knowing that there’s one less mouth to feed that day, one less minion to manage, one less living being to keep alive. 

The peace in my house is tangible without the daily sibling squabbles, and in their case, knock-down, drag-out, fight-to-the-death battles.

Yes, rolls of wrapping paper can be light sabers.

But for all the fighting, there is love that sneaks in, even if it’s disguised as a zombie in Minecraft.

Thank you, Sweet Jesus, for five minutes of Minecraft.

I know he misses her, too, and in the blink of an eye, she’ll be home, and they’ll pick up where they left off.

Time feels suspended today, though, and I remain in her room, soaking in the lavender goodness.  The soft, girly comforter beckons me to stay, and I’m drawn to the pictures, notes and trinkets on her bulletin board, all clues to the secret of who she is becoming.

All of this will surely evolve, as she grows into the young woman we’ve raised her to be, ready to leave the nest to take on the world.

But for now, I’ll take comfort in knowing that she’s coming back.

And this is all good practice for the day that she doesn’t.

Because that day will come, friends, when we Mama Bears will have to take one last deep breath and let go.

Don’t worry, we’ll do it together.

*****
Hooking up this week with the best writers on the interwebz.  If you're a blogger who writes, a writer who blogs, or a reader who lurks, please join in the fun.  I'm always there when I can be.