Ever Northward

It is late November.  I can feel the muslin shroud begin to descend over the holiday season – dulling my senses.  The Christmas season is my favorite time of year and my least favorite. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

I can feel the tug of “the journey” begin to pull at my heart strings.  December 22nd has come and gone fifteen times already; fourteen Mother’s Days and fourteen July 11ths.  During the past fifteen years, I’ve made this passage dozens of times.  Sometimes it was multiple excursions in a year, especially in the early years but not so much in recent times.  For two years during my battle with my inner demons, my addiction, I didn’t make the trip at all; too ashamed to make an appearance on those “holy grounds”.

I travel northward, ever northward, like the snow geese above me.  Passing the Canadian geese heading south with their incessant honking.  Over the same pathways as before, through the barren and bleak winter countryside.  Past the familiar hamlets and lakes that dot the route of PA 402 through the mountains.  I pick up US 6 through Wallenpaupack and Hawley and Damascus.  There is very little in the way of traffic except in the villages.  Not many people are making this trek.

As I approach Narrowsburg I cross over the Delaware into New York.  Sometimes it feels like I’m crossing the River Styx for nothing awaits me except for reminders of death.  Nevertheless I push onward through Lava.  All around is evidence of a region that is long past it’s prime: unkempt lawns, cars on blocks in the driveways, paint peeling off the ramshackle homes.  Depression epitomized.

I am close.  The summer camp sites that surround Lake Huntington are the harbinger that my pilgrimage is nearing its end.  The three hour journey ends when I pull into the cemetery in Fosterdale.  Fosterdale is so tiny a town that one would miss it if one blinked; it doesn’t amount to much more than a gas station/convenience store, a church and a flashing traffic signal. An unlikely backdrop, I admit, for this blog post but there it is.  This is where she “resides” now.  The car comes to a stop and I turn off the engine.  Silence.

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Not much has changed since last year.  I remove the dried out decorations and memorials from last visit and replace them with fresh ones.  No doubt they will be there next year and I will repeat this little ritual.  I brush away the dead leaves.  My aunt, Margaret, rests nearby.  I silently pay my respects to her memory as my cousin, who has accompanied me on this trip for the past five or so years, places her Christmas memorial greens on my aunt’s resting place.

She used to live not far from here, my Mom.  I can’t be sure for how long but it was long enough for me to have visited several times.  The truth is, I think I’ve visited her more since her untimely passing than when she was living in the area.  There was always going to be plenty of time to visit … maybe next Mother’s Day … maybe next summer … maybe next Christmas.  There wasn’t going to be any more “next times” after December 22, 2000.

Honestly, there were several trips when I felt “obligated” to make the trek – six hours of traveling for a 15 minute visit – but this trip felt a little different.  This time it felt as if she were saying, “It’s ok. You don’t have to do this anymore although I do appreciate the effort and the thought.”

But as I write this I feel something else.  I feel that gentle tug on the heart, that flash of the memories, and I reach a place of serenity and coalescence.  For as long as I am able I will make this pilgrimage to that holy place.  Her memory deserves it and I need it.

 

 

The Big “C”

There aren’t many words or events in your life that can cause you to stop dead in your tracks, cause you to stop breathing for a second or make your heart stop beating: getting that phone call that “there’s been an accident” or that a loved one has passed on and sitting across from a doctor and being told you have cancer.  Everything just seems to freeze – your breath, your heart, time, the world’s rotation_MG_6751. You question yourself. “Did I hear him right?” “She must be mistaken.” “I must have misheard him.”

When you finally catch up with the spinning earth, you hear the ticking of the clock on the wall again and your breathing begins anew, you hear yourself asking “Excuse me? Can you repeat that?” You heard the doctor correctly the first time.  You look over at your spouse and she’s reeling from the news also.  You kind of go numb. Life becomes surreal.

You automatically go to your default setting: cancer = surgery; cancer = radiation; cancer = hospital stays; cancer = losing your hair; cancer = debilitating cures; cancer = death.  You race through your memory and start to recall all of those friends, family members, loved ones and acquaintances who’ve had cancer.  You make a mental tally of those who have succumbed to the disease and those who have beaten it … at least for now.

Everyone has had to deal with this monster, either directly or indirectly.  We all know a family member (wife, husband, child, parent, brother or sister) who’s had it, know a friend who’s had it, know a co-worker who’s had it or know someone who knows someone who’s had it.  It shatters lives. It disrupts plans and dreams. It tests your strength and your faith.

Grandma during better days

Grandma during better days

So, what exactly is this “cancer” thing that reeks such havoc on our lives?  I’ve done some research and here’s what I’ve learned.  According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is defined as cells that divide without stopping and spread to surrounding tissue.  Kind of already knew that.  While all cells in our body divide, cancer cells are different.  Cancer cells are able to ignore the body’s signals to stop growing or are able to ignore signals to shut themselves down and die when those cells are no longer needed by the body. That’s something I didn’t know. In simple terms, they can behave like teens who ignore their parents or act like the unwanted relatives who refuse to go home after the holiday visit.

Don’t misinterpret my “light-hearted” approach to the technical details of cancer.  This is serious stuff; very serious.  According to the American Cancer Society (“ACS”), it is estimated that over 1,600,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2015 and almost 600,000 deaths are estimated from cancer in 2015.  They estimate that over 40,000 women will die of breast cancer and more than 27,000 men will die from prostate cancer in 2015. Lung cancer and colon cancer will claim the lives of an estimated 158,000 and 52,000 men and women, respectively.  All in all, the statistics show that 43% of men will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime and 23% will die from it; for women the figures are 38% and 19%, respectively.13992185687_84109c2c67_z

And this thing is an equal opportunity killer.  It brings all to their knees regardless of socio-economic status, education, gender, religion and creed.  All the money in the world cannot buy you another day.  Just ask Steve Jobs.

And what about the economic impact of cancer? Well, it’s staggering.  In 2011, the ACS estimates that the direct medical costs associated with cancer was over $89 billion in the US alone.  This doesn’t even touch on the indirect costs of lost productivity, added stress, missed work days, etc.  Of course, you can’t put a dollar figure on the loss of loved ones and friends. Those lives are priceless.

Grandma B a few months before she passed

Grandma, a few months before she passed

The personal costs from the wreckage of cancer is indescribable.  I know from which I speak.  While I have been fortunate in not receiving a diagnosis myself, cancer has touched my life through the ones I love.  Two wives were diagnosed with cancer,  my maternal grandmother died of stomach cancer, two aunts died from cancer, an uncle passed from cancer, a co-worker had cancer, a co-worker died from liver cancer, a friend has leukemia and the list goes on and on.

The battle is waged against cancer on many fronts – doctors, care givers, researchers and ordinary people who support the patients and their families.  Progress has been made.  Only 40 years ago, 50% of the patients diagnosed with cancer survived at least 5 years.  As of 2014, that number jumped to 67%.  More remains to be done and if you feel led to find out how you can help please visit the ACS at American Cancer Society to learn more.

How does this make me feel? Frankly, what I feel pales in comparison to what those with the diagnosis feel.  What I can attest to is how powerless it all makes me feel.  It really is a lesson to realize that there are limits on what I can offer and that I must rely on God to carry us through this crisis.  I can use the tools I’ve learned in recovery to weather this storm – this is beyond my depth, God is bigger than this and I have to allow Him the room to work his “magic” and do what I am capable of doing.

So what can I do? I can continue to love my wife. I can pick up the weight of the daily routines that she might find difficult. I can continue to encourage her through the treatment.  I can continue to be there for her.

Love Transforms (Pt. 5) – And The Dam Finally Breaks

This is Part 5 of our story with Daniela.  We’ve taken snippets of our blog, www.servingdaniela.blogspot.com, and reposted them here.  If you want the full version fell free to read it at that website.

We wasted little time heading over to Assateague island and the beach.  The Island is a National Wildlife Refuge and is home to hundreds of wild horses – not to mention herons, bald eagles and other wildlife.  The beach had been decimated by Sandy last October but is in great shape now.  The water was “refreshing” and the surf was perfect for boogie-boarding!  Daniela was a little reluctant to go in at first but when she saw all of us – including Peter – having fun in the surf she eventually joined us.  Even Pete enjoyed the pounding surf.IMG_0377

Daniela is a girl who initially says “no” to new surroundings, new adventures, new foods and new challenges.  But once she warms up to the idea and tries it she is all in!  Same was true today about boogie-boarding.  The first time she went in the sea she didn’t touch the board.  Second time’s the charm though.  She and Eileen were rocking and rolling on those boogie boards!!!  She had a blast. — July 22, 2013

What I got was a different sort of relationship; one that is complicated – very complicated – coupled with moments of simplicity. Things have happened at their own pace and in their own seemingly bumpy, twisted direction – sometimes it has been a series of fits and starts. D and I have had a rollercoaster of a relationship since she arrived on the scene. Some days have been full of walls coming down followed swiftly by walls going back up. It can be an exasperating journey this hosting business. Whew! It can try your patience and make you talk to yourself and question your sanity and laugh out loud and smile a lot and feel a connection on some level – all in the same day. — July 24, 2013
I have learned so much about so many things during this process – faith, love, understanding (to name a few). I have seen a stranger touch a young man’s heart and a young man start to break down some walls she built for protection. I see two “parents” using unconditional love and understanding to meet a young woman’s painful issues. Some days are better than others but we make progress. It is an unconventional family in the making. It’s so complicated when human frailty and fears are involved and yet it is so simple – keep meeting those fears and fragility with love, wait for those magic moments with D and stay out of God’s way. — July 24, 2013
HPIM3937[D]espite the fact we didn’t “go” anywhere we really went somewhere deep today, very deep. Today Daniela seemed the most relaxed she has ever been since she arrived. She spent the day napping, listening to her music (even played it loud so we all could listen to it), playing with Peter and doing a whole lot of smiling.
Throughout the day she was playing little games with Peter. She fed him sunflower seeds and laughed when he ate them shell and all. She gave him fruit herbal tea bags and squealed when he would pop them in him mouth and chew on them and then spit them out like a big wad of chewing tobacco. She lined up bits of french fries on the table hoping that Peter would eat them one by one. Fat chance. Pete scooped them all up in one fell swoop and shoved them in his mouth faster than you could say “finger-lickin’ good”. She was in stitches!!
We decided to go out to eat tonight. Eileen overheard one of the servers speaking and noted that she sounded Russian. Sure enough, Natalia was indeed from Russia. Well, we introduced her to Daniela, she began talking to her in Russian and D had a smile as big as the day is long. She even tried some shrimp! When it came time for dessert we asked Natalia if they had any Russian Napoleon Tort. “No,” she said; we explained that D had made some for us and D was beaming as Natalia talked with her about that scrumptious dessert.
Back at the ranch D explains she will take a shower as she heads down the hallway. Good Lord, Eileen!! Is she humming? I believe she is! Wait, wait. I think she’s even singing!! WOW!! Not only is she singing, she is using the removable showerhead as a “microphone”, stretched it into the hallway so we could watch her and going Milli Vanilli on us! She was laughing and we were right there with her, laughing and applauding.
No photos were taken today. No videos were recorded. Yet today we will not forget. Today is the day Daniela and the rest of us took this relationship a little bit deeper than where it was. It’s not Mariana Trench deep but it doesn’t have to be. The fact is the family dynamic improved greatly today, proving yet again that time, being present in the moments and love will cut inroads through the jungle of fear and pain. — July 26, 2013
[S]he gestures our sign for a small store. Mmmmm. Off to a sweet little shop where my friend Connie works and has amazing fashion sense. Another success! She selects a white sweater that sort of is a cape and sweater in one…looks beautiful! A few more items, she is beaming with joy! Arrive home and she write me a note in English, from her Latvian/English dictionary. “I would like to try lobster or crab”…. I have no words. After much haranguing and rolling of eyes over my trying to translate the process of purchasing lobster, she cuts to the chase and chooses to have Phil and Peter go in search of said items.
Not only does she want us to go get the lobster but she seems to indicate that it should be us three that goes. At first, I didn’t really understand that she wanted to join Pete and I but she repeated the gesture that the three of us should go on the lobster quest. So, this is rather unusual that she requests to be with me but I jump up and head to the car. I dare not let this opportunity pass. Off we go to the seafood vendor and sure enough they have lobsters!! D and Pete wait in the car while I pick out the lobsters and grab some shrimp. I didn’t even make it into the car with the lobsters before D started shrieking and screaming. I took full advantage of this and took one of the lobsters out of the bag so she could get a good long look at it. Oh my God!!! Her screams almost shattered my eardrums. I had an ear-to-ear grin!
Back at the house she asks if the lobsters are alive. I nod but then point to the pot of hot water, pantomiming the lobsters going into the pot and then my best imitation of rigor mortis setting in – lobster style. When I put the lobsters on the counter she shrieked a bit more but curiosity overtook her fears. I showed her how to pick it up and reassured her that she was in no danger. Sure enough D picked it up, looked at it square in the eye and practically insisted we take pictures of her while she held the lobster. Not only that … Daniela grabbed the camera (a first since she’s been here) and started taking pictures too. What followed was a veritable frenzy of claw cracking, tail eating, butter dipping and shrimp peeling that would put Daryl Hannah ala “Splash” to shame.
I am trying not to spend any effort in figuring this out. Mostly because I know that it has nothing really to do with anything I have done. All we have done for Daniela is give her the room to breath, get acclimated, trust us, set firm boundaries and love her. Today she checked in with her chaperone. In the past there has been a serious or sullen tone in her voice when doing this. Not today; today there was an abundance of animated, joyous tones, twinkling eyes, smiles and many “labi” throughout the phone call (“labi” means “good” in Latvian). She is relaxed and enjoying herself. She has surrendered to being herself while in the midst of this crazy, unconventional family and in the process has become a part of this family … forever. — July 27, 2013
Today began in beautiful Chicoteague Island Va. We have been blessed to own a vintage 1961 Marlette trailer that sits back on a quiet lane. It’s really groovy and the same age as Phil and he is also very groovy! But the grooviest thing about it is that for the past week our little family has called this home. Snuggled in probably 500 square feet we had some awesome together time. We saw a beautiful side of Daniela that she had kept under wraps. We swam in the ocean, hung out and did nothing, laughed at lobsters and relaxed.
D had a habit of waking up Peter each day by singing “PEEETER YUM YUMS”, at the sound of which he would very groggily pop out of bed and stumble to the kitchen and await her next command. So we heard that a lot…PEEEETER YUM YUMS …. and she would sometimes trick him by giving him an empty raisin box.  He would give her a look and each time try not to fall for her shenanigans. He loves the game they play and so does she. She shares with him enough food for there to be a good chance of yummys so he plays the game even if it’s an empty box of raisins.
Dinner is served. Pasta with garlic and shrimp…and ketchup for the Latvian at the table…lots of it…coming out of the bottle are sounds to rival some serious intestinal issues. She pauses when the bottle makes the squirting sound, we all look around…PEEETER!!! She sings…As if he was responsible for the symphony. We laughed so hard I though Phil was going to need resuscitation. Beautiful the sounds of farts from the ketchup at the dinner table!
Phil heads out to pick up the last dog from the sitter. While he’s gone D starts calling PEEETER YUM YUM HOTDOGS….POPCORN…..SPRITE.. she’s laughing hysterically and I am in awe of hidden English words and Peter, well, face it, he is NOT falling for this. — July 28, 2013

Love Transforms – And the Walls Start to Crumble (Pt. 4)

This is part four of our journey into hosting from 2013.  We spent five weeks loving on a teenager from Latvia and all that goes with it – the frustration, the laughter, the walls and the smiles.  To read the full text of our adventure please visit www.servingdaniela.blogspot.com

This is what I learned about Daniela today:  She is a perfectionist, she takes pride in things done well and wants to excel.  Frustration comes quickly when things don’t go according to plan.  But she keeps on going. I thought the potatoes [grate for potato pancakes] were heading to the trash when she became frustrated. HPIM3926
Another intuitive thought hit me in this deep spiritual moment. Seriously what would Jesus do? Not in the wwjd bracelet kind of way, but the I am supposed to be living like Him kinda way. Apparently when He is not making nutella sandwiches for snarky teens, He helps them ease their frustration by grating potatoes with primitive equipment and smiles.
This young lady is bright and shining for a moment, dark and brooding in the next. She terrifies me, she makes me laugh, she reminds me of how awful sixteen can be and how hard it is to straddle the world between child and adult.
Then came the dessert – homemade Russian Napoleon tort.  Words cannot describe the sweet deliciousness of this cake.  IMG_0325The only thing more delicious at the table was the sight of Daniela laughing, pantomiming, understanding, conversing, beaming, smiling, eating and enjoying our company as a family.  Is this a miracle in the making right before our eyes?  Of course it is.  Did we see this coming? Perhaps, but I will tell you that Phil was very frustrated a mere 72 hours ago!
The power of love standing steadfast against fear is a slack-jawed, eyes wide open kind of incredible miracles.  Tomorrow may bring its own issues but for the past 48 hours God’s love, given to us and then re-gifted to Daniela, has leaped tall buildings in a single bound and broken through the cracks in her walls.
If ever we needed proof that love triumphs over fear and hate and negativity, if ever we needed proof that love can scale the walls built around hearts, if ever we needed proof that God’s plan for loving Him and loving others is all we need to melt away some of the sadness, what is happening here with Daniela is that proof. — July 15, 2013
She told me I was not her mother and should not act as if I was.

She is right. I am not her mother. For me this is the hardest part of loving a child who is orphaned and the parents are alive somewhere reminding her that she is not wanted. I have no place to judge anyone else for where they are in their life, their darkness, their addiction. But boy, it’s really hard to look at this girl  and understand why she is where she is.

God has a plan. A perfect one. One that does not cast me in the role of savior, but servant. Part of the servant deal is that I need to be constant in my response regardless of what arrows might fly past my head, or into my heart, And man this is really hard stuff. I could never have imagined that in such a short time I could love a stranger from half way around the world the way I already fiercely love this kid.

That our God loves us…me..her ..us all… just is an overwhelming, undeserved, no other word but Grace with a capital G. When I agreed to be His hands and His feet, I didn’t for a moment think about  how those feet walked to His death for us. I just wanted the fun, do good, save the whales kind of walk. You know it’s a spiritual journey…when it really really hurts. — July 16, 2013
I read this on another person’s blog today: “And no matter how the craziness of this whole parenting thing all turns out: The reward of loving is in the loving; loving is itself the great outcome of loving. The success of loving is in how we change because we kept on loving – regardless of any thing else changing.” – A Holy Experience by Ann Voskamp.  I thought to myself, “How wonderfully succinct and perfect that statement is and how it so neatly dovetails with what I am experiencing on this journey with Daniela together with what we are discussing in church – superheroes.”
Basically, we have been discussing how God takes the ordinary man or woman and uses them to stand in the breach, to go to the darkest of places and do the mightiest of deeds.  We are called to do deeds that sometimes seem too big for us to accomplish.  Most people would not have chosen Moses, a murderer with a speech impediment, to lead the Israelites out of Egypt – but God did and that seemed foolish.  Not many would have chosen David, a lustful home-wrecker and adulterer, to lead a nation to greatness – but God in his foolishness did.  Why on earth would Jesus rely on a motley crew of twelve bumbling knuckleheads to carry his message of love, peace and salvation to change the world – doesn’t make sense and yet they did just that!
My pastor, Michael, tonight asked if there were any mountains, troubles or issues where I feel I need to be a superhero or in need of one.  He knows our ups and downs with Daniela.  This situation does not call for a superhero.  Daniela does not need a superhero; Daniela needs the unconditional love of a man, a man who is old enough to be her father, so that she will know that someone cares about her no matter what.  Daniela needs to experience the love of God.  Daniela needs to experience that because she has no frame of reference for that – she does not understand how I, a stranger, can love her when her own family does not love her!

I am no superhero.  I am an ordinary man called to do extraordinary work with a young woman. I am called to perform a deed that is more than I alone can do with my feeble powers. But I am not alone! I will show up and God will do His good work with her to heal the brokenness of her spirit and her heart.

I have learned so much from this adventure in faith. I have never really grasped the power of turn-the-other-cheek or how powerful love-your-enemies really is.  Love wears down the walls of fear and hate. I have seen first-hand how steadfast love CAN change a person.  I have seen how steadfast love can bring light into a dark and broken spirit.  I have experienced and witnessed how steadfast love can perform miracles.  I think I’ll keep trying this love thy neighbor thing.  It’s kind of groovy! — July 18, 2013
Today D agreed to go out. We shopped at my friend Cathy’s house because she has the most amazing eBay store and has small sizes. We sorted through the uh huh’s a lot of UT UHNNN (that’s teen age for “no stinking way”) accompanied by major scowl. Bottom line we had a few winter basics and a beach cover up. Stopped at Target and actually purchased things for hair and nails. I tortured and embarrassed her in the underwear section by selecting giant granny panties and saying “PERFECT” really loud!
[S]he typed into the translator ”could we go to Linda’s?” Linda and Wayne have graciously shared their swimming pool and home for her half birthday party! I was astounded; this was the first time she used anyone’s name! We scooted home, changed in swim suits and drove like batman for a refreshing evening dip. It was super; Linda was out and Wayne was busy, D and I floated in the water then had sword fights with the noodles, made elephant trunks and noises and finally filled the water pistols and planned for the arrival of Phil.IMG_0326
He came on down and was welcomed by two girls and water pistols…total shock attack. But we weren’t done…Phil went to change and we positioned ourselves D behind the truck, me flattened against the garage. We were like a SWAT team. We even did the counting sign thing…. We chased Phil into the pool and the water fight continued. He was a great sport! — July 18, 2013
There are those things that comfort us from our childhood. For me it was an IBM paper box and a yellow blanket. For kiddos growing up in Eastern Europe I don’t know exactly what that would be but today I got a glimpse. Milk Soup.
Yes, Milk Soup is mostly what it sounds like Milk. Warm. Like soup. With pasta. Broken not whole. And the staple – Sugar. I was waiting for the cheese, the salt, the pepper. “Nu uhnnnn” I was told. D scooped out a bowl for me and made me sit at the table. Soft, mushy, pasta in milk with sugar. I had quite a preconceived notion.
I watched D as she ate hers. Slowly savoring the flavor. I tasted mine after, of course, smelling it carefully. WOW it was like a box and a blanket and grilled cheese and tomato soup comfort all wrapped up into one! I asked her if this is what the children in Latvia like to eat and explained what we called “comfort food”.  A huge smile crossed her face and she nodded.
I want milk soup in my life. I want comfort and warmth for myself and for those I love and even for those I don’t love. Warmth and comfort from broken noodles. Man, some days I am the broken noodle. But I am reminded of my brokenness and what God does in my life to mix it all up and get something good. I could never have imagined that hosting an orphan could be like this. It doesn’t always look appetizing and I often smell first … but add one teenage orphan and two crazy adults and stir in the warmth and sweetness of His love… voila! Milk Soup. — July 19, 2013
Peter sometimes doesn’t bother taking the skin off of things that he eats or he will eat something and leave no trace of its existence on this planet.  For example, he will eat through an orange rind much like one would eat an apple and he will eat an apple in its entirety – core, seeds and stem included.

Today at the game we were eating peanuts.  You guessed it – he ate the peanuts shell and all!!  This had Daniela shrieking with laughter and amazement.  Eileen tried doing it to show D that it was quite normal to eat peanut shells.  She was crunching away but when D turned away Eileen was spitting out those shells faster than a pro baseball player spitting out tobacco juice!

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I seem to struggle with making a connection with her.  In fact, there are times when I feel completely disconnected from her and this process.  Sometimes I feel like my only function is to make her tea, buy her french fries or make her lunch.  At least that is the way it seems.  She can be charming and lovely but I wonder if she does that because she wants something from me or is she being genuine.  It’s hard to tell at times.  I have to hold on to the hope that we are both reaching out for each other – bumbling and stumbling through this process – and that we will make whatever connection we are supposed to make. — July 21, 2013

Love Transforms – Rollercoasters and Surprise Parties (Pt. 3)

This is Part 3 of our condensed version of our adventures with Daniels during the Summer of 2013.  For the full story visit www.servingdaniela.blogspot.com.

I prayed a lot today. As frustrated as I was at not being able to spend time with her today I had to turn this one over the God. I cannot break through the walls this girl has erected over her 16 years; the walls that protect her from being hurt from rejection (especially rejection from older males – such as her father). So I prayed that God would somehow whisper to her heart that it is okay to let some light and love in; that she will not be hurt by me; that she can trust me. I think she kind of knows that already in her heart (where the love resides) but her mind (where the fear resides) has temporarily taken her heart hostage. – July 8, 2013

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Laima was gracious enough to spend the day with us and it was a tremendous help today. Little did we realize that God’s plan had us helping each other. Turns out she had a rough morning with her host family and needed to get out of the house. Meanwhile Daniela1006150_608255112539844_2027515651_n had someone to talk to and Laima coaxed her along throughout the day. Hmmm, imagine that!

Eileen hooked up with us at the end of the day at her mom’s house. My nieces Irina and Nadia and nephew Vitaly were also there. Laima showed Eileen how to make a traditional Latvian headdress out of daisies while Irina had the idea that I needed my toenails painted. I had nothing to lose by trying to get Daniela to smile … so it was on. By the end of the session my toenails were painted, I had a floral wreath in my hair and a bouquet in my hands. It worked.

What have we learned about this girl so far is this: she is smart and crafty; she can be moody; she is constantly TESTING, TESTING, TESTING to see if we really mean it when we tell her that we love her. It’s like she’s saying, “You say you love me. Let’s see if you still love me if I am rude to you and to your friends and family. Let’s see if you still love me when I shut you out completely. Let’s see if you still love me when I am acting like an emotional lunatic” – July 9, 2013977384_486911604725210_2115226007_o

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After a series of translation and language issues I determined that “regular sausage” is not sausage at all but rather bologna and “regular bread” is white bread. We picked up some peaches and apples too. She seemed to like those. Then she smiled when we came to the bakery section and pointed at the doughnut case. One doughnut and one blueberry danish later she was a happy camper.

After we got Laima we headed back home and began making the traditional Latvian birthday cake (which is really more like bread). It turned out pretty darn good. Laima assisted in the kitchen and it was very much appreciated. So it was off to the Adams’ house for the party with cake in tow; Daniela has no idea.

There must have been about 30 people there from church. We are so blessed to have such great friends as they truly practice being God’s hands and feet to each other and to the community. When it came time to sing “Happy Birthday” Daniela had no idea until she heard her name being sung and the cake was placed in front of her. She smiled quite a bit and really enjoyed the attention and gifts from all. She especially relished the time with the little kids who came up to her and hugged her and wished her happy birthday. – July 10, 2013

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Today was a trip to the amusement park and, despite the attitude problems from our petunia, the day definitely had its bright spots. Laima joined us again and really seemed to enjoy herself. She got her first taste of cotton candy and she really liked it.

Daniela and Zhenya really seemed to enjoy themselves. They especially enjoyed the water rides!! We all went on the wooden rollercoaster, except for Daniela and Laima, and really had a blast. What a rush! More importantly it was really nice to watch Daniela interacting with Zhenya and enjoying herself, albeit for only a few hours. The magic seemed to dissipate as soon as we got in the car to go home but the moments are cherished. – July 11, 2013IMG_0301

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We had a little conversation this morning about her less than appropriate attitude toward us, our friends and our families.

Her response (in a nutshell): I do not like you; good behavior from her we will never see; it is disgusting when you say you love me; your house smells like dogs and it disgusts me; Americans are the most disgusting people in all the world; I think about leaving here all the time and the longer I stay here the worse it will be for you.

My counteroffer: We cannot force you to be polite but the choice is yours – be angry and miserable or try to enjoy; either way we love and care for you no matter what you do and that will not change; I am aware that you do not like me although I have done nothing to deserve this mistreatment; I am trying my best; you are wrong Daniela – the longer you stay here it will NOT be worse for us. – July 12, 2013

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She enjoyed an indoor picnic lunch with everyone gathered around the kitchen table. Hot dogs, pasta salad, cucumber salad and watermelon were enjoyed by all. Peter was the entertainment with his gusto for food; he had Conner, Ryan and Daniela laughing with his eating many pieces of watermelon and trying to steal the peaches on the table at the same time.

The highlight of the day had to be Alex, Jana’s three-year old son. When he arrived around noon, Daniela was hiding in her room under the covers. When it was time to head out to the pool, Alex went up to her room (with Peter in tow) and jumped on her bed. “Wake up! It’s time to go swimming!” he said. She could not resist such a charming young man. (I come to find out later that it seems Alex has a crush on Daniela.)

Off to the pool we all go for an afternoon of swimming, water slides, cannonballs and conversation. Daniela played with Alex and Jana in the pool and had a nice time. It was quite an enjoyable time had by all. It was topped off with a trip to the local ice cream joint. Ahhhh! A good day indeed. – July 13, 2013

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Daniela has developed a really cool relationship with Peter over the past two weeks. She has interacted very well with him and he with her. She has taken to mimicking his vocalizations … and playing keep-away with his beloved and well-worn pillow. She teases him in a way only a sister could get away with – hiding her food from him when he approaches, taking the front seat and relegating him to the rear seat in the car, and playfully taking his food away from him and taunting him with it. Peter adores her!Daniela and Peter Smiling

We went out to grab a little light dinner and while there something magical seemed to occur. I believe we had the beginnings of light dinner conversation in broken Latvian on our part and some English on her part!! WOW!! Eileen called me a “pensionars” – senior citizen – and Daniela and she laughed (so did I). Then Daniela said “Do you speak English?” fluently. This was immediately followed up with us saying “Kas jauns?” – What’s up? Daniela responded with “I am a tourist” and “I’ve lost my traveling companion.” We laughed and laughed as Peter – her traveling companion – was away for the week [at camp]. – July 14, 2013

Talking

Nine years ago I avoided his phone calls like the plague. For almost a whole year he wouldn’t take my phone calls. Growing up he was a tough guy to get close to. Over the past seven years we’ve grown closer. Nine years ago he couldn’t rely on me at all. Today he trusts me. Things change. Sometimes good things can come from terrible ordeals. Today, we went out to dinner. Nothing special … just an ordinary meal. We talked … about Facebook (“What is it?” he asked. “Should I do this Facebook thing?” “Can’t people just send me pictures by e-mail?”) … about how he met my late step-mom (“I was meeting with a lawyer on an estate matter.  She was the lawyer’s secretary.  I had to meet the lawyer many times and things just progressed.  She told me she thought I looked sad and needed cheering up.”) … about baseball; yes … baseball. Cliche, perhaps, but that’s what this father and his son did … talked baseball.52025301_c773f451f7_m He talked about the glory days of the Yankees. He reveled in comparing Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle.  He told me about Sal “The Barber” Maglie and Ryne Duren ( a relief pitcher for the Yanks with a blazing fastball and lousy eyesight!).  “The best hitter I ever saw play was Ted Williams. He never struck out swinging.  DiMaggio was a better all around player but Williams was the best hitter … ever.  You know it’s saying something when a devoted Yankee fan says this about a Red Sox player!” “When I was a kid, I’d get a $1 allowance for doing my chores.  I’d walk all the way to Yankee Stadium – about 50 blocks. I’d get a bleacher seat – $0.60, a scorecard was $0.25 and that left me $0.15 for a soda and a hot dog.  I used to watch DiMaggio in center field.  He could see the signs the catcher was giving so he knew what pitch was coming. At the crack of the bat, he was racing off.  He made it look so easy.” “Today’s baseball just isn’t the same.” No, it isn’t but neither are these conversations. Thank goodness for change!

Mmmm … Donuts

I spent two hours in the local Dunkin’ Donuts shop in Bangor, PA last evening.  I usually do this while my son Kris is at Hopesprings youth group.  It gives me time to do some thinking, musing and writing.  I get the added bonus of doing all that while enjoying a cup of Joe and munching on some donuts.460307409_4e78c5dae4_m

Last night’s visit was especially sweet.  With just about 20 minutes to go before I had to leave in walked a young mom and her two daughters.  They couldn’t have been more than 5 and 3.  Mom ordered herself a coffee and the wee ones each had a frosted donut.  They settled down at a nearby table and the girls shook off their coats, their long blond hair standing on end in response to the static electricity created in the frenzy.  They were each wearing frilly tutus and tights as they sat down to devour their treats.  The chattering away through donut-stuffed mouths and sugar glazed lips all combined for a few moments of bliss.  Through all the giggling and enjoyment Mom was smiling and talking to her girls.

“They are just darling,” I said as I passed them on the way out.  3922484807_5a3f314631_m

“Thank you,” she said as she smiled.  I knew that she recognized the gift of simple joy of sharing time with her daughters.

All this in a donut shop.  Who knew? But I guess that is the point, right? You never know where those thin places will appear; you never know where or when heaven will meet earth.  You just have to be open to it when it presents itself and when that happens you just have to sit back, enjoy it and give thanks that you were witness to a little miracle.

And I only had two donuts. Not bad; not bad at all.

The Secret Life

Creative Commons, open license

As you may know, my Dad lives alone now and he is getting on in years. As a result, he had someone come in once a week to clean and tidy up. Her name was Lily (not her real name). She was the mother of two kids and was recently married. She was in her mid-thirties. According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), domestic violence costs exceeded $8.3 billion in 2003 dollars.

I had the good fortune to meet her several times over the past four months; just a few times but enough time to see that she was a good person. She was kind and easy to talk to. She cared about the well-being of Dad. I believe that Dad considered her more than just a “cleaning lady”; he relied on her a lot – for small tasks, sure, but more so for someone to talk to. She was a friend. According to the CDC, the physical costs (bruises, broken bones, wounds, etc) of domestic violence are often accompanied by psychological and emotional trauma (addiction, anxiety, homelessness, dysfunction of various sorts, etc.).

Monday night I received a phone call from Dad. I could tell right away that something was wrong. I braced myself for the worst and was completely taken aback by his news. Lily was dead. Lily was killed as a result of domestic violence – shot to death. Supposedly there was an argument (allegedly one of many in the relationship) with her husband which ended with him allegedly robbing her of her life. Allegedly there had been a history of domestic disputes during the course of their relationship and at one point Lily had sought out a protection order against him but never followed through with it. Police eventually arrested the husband and he is currently in custody. According to the CDC, almost 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men in the U.S. are victims of severe violence at the hands of their intimate partners.

Dad was dumbfounded. “What could they have fought about? What was so terrible that he would kill her over it? Why did she stay with a guy like that? I had no idea that she was going through that.” No idea what was happening on her home front. She had a secret, a dark secret, side to her life. I never would have guessed that she was victimized by domestic abuse. Not in a million years. She hid it very well. According to the CDC, 241 males and 1,095 females were murdered by their intimate partners in the U.S. In 2010.

6597736735_5bdc129acd_mIn recovery, we are told that our secrets will make us sick. If we hold it in, if we hide what we are struggling with, if no one knows we are in trouble … then we are very likely to relapse. For Lily, she kept that dark secret well under cover. I don’t pretend to know if her airing her troubles would have prevented this tragedy; maybe not. All I do know is that keeping that kind of stuff secret is never good. Lily paid for it with her life. Her death leaves an awful hole in many people’s lives – her parents, her siblings, her kids, her friends, her community.

If you are reading this and you are a victim of domestic violence or know someone who is struggling with this issue call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or visit http://www.thehotline.org.  Talk to someone! You are not alone and help is available.

I didn’t get the privilege to know Lily very well but I am nevertheless wounded by the loss of a kind and lovely woman to senseless violence. I am grieving over this tragedy and struggle with answers that don’t seem to come.  Lily, I am fortunate to have met you. Thank you.

A Letter to My Daughters

March 8, 2015

Dearest Daniela and Nelya,

I love you both with all of my heart.

I begin this letter by telling you something I’ve told each of you many times before – I LOVE YOU. I have never tired of saying it and I will forever tell you how much I love you – until the end of time.

I think that you both realize that while I am not your biological father I consider you my daughters and, I hope, you look to me as a Dad in your life. I have been blessed to have each of you in my life through a hosting program. That would make you “sisters” and even though you each live a great distance from each other (one in Latvia and the other in Ukraine) my hope is that you would have the good fortune to meet each other someday. I am confident that you would become friends very quickly as you are very much alike.

You are both strong and lovely young women who’s lives are about to enter adulthood. In many ways life and adulthood has already met you face to face. In so many respects you have dealt with more challenges than most people twice your age. Through your courage and tenacity you have endured so much and I admire you for that. Many people could not have accomplished what you have done and you are my heroes.

While it may seem that you’ve dealt with so much already in life there is still so much more life yet to come for you. There will be many good times and events in your future but there will also be some tough times. There are exciting and adventurous times for each of you and I am excited for each of you as you experience life in all it’s glory. I am very blessed to not only be a witness to your journey in life but also to be a part of your lives in the future.

So, why am I writing to you now? Simply because the speed of life is about to get much faster for you and it will also become a lot louder! There will be many ideas, fads, things and people that will be clamoring for your mind, imagination, heart and attention. There will be many sparkly objects to tempt you along the way but not all of them will lead you to good places. So I thought that this would be a good time to tell you a few things while the opportunity presented itself. I hope that you don’t mind me passing along some information about life.

I will not pretend that I have unlocked the great mysteries of life or have any special insight into how to find the meaning of life. Nor am I so naive to think that you will actually heed all I have to say but perhaps you will; after all, when I was your age (and yes, I was once your age) I did not think my parents had anything to offer me in the way of advice. As I got older I realized my parents had a lot of wisdom. All that I can offer you is the benefit of my experiences and observations during my short time on this planet. You may feel it necessary to put my words to the test and that is certainly okay; I understand that. So here it goes …

● Life is not always easy and you will not be happy all the time; to think otherwise is unrealistic. There will be tough times and there will be times of sorrow; there will be times where your heart will feel like it is breaking and will never mend. However, those dark times will be outweighed, far outweighed, by times of wonder, times of sheer joy, times of laughter and times of love. The experiences of joy and love will, at times, make you feel like you cannot contain it inside your body and you will feel like you are going to burst! There will be times when you will feel connected with everyone and everything around you on a level that you will find difficult to put into words. Cherish those moments of pure love and joy for even in the darkest, ugliest of moments you must find the spark of beauty hidden in those moments and cling to those sparks! They will carry you through the dark moments.

● Speaking of love, when it comes to your boyfriends and husband, do not settle for a mouse or a pig … ever! Do not think so little of yourself that you feel you must accept less because somehow you believe you are not worthy of the best. I will say this very clearly – you are worthy of nothing less than the very best! Never accept someone who treats you like garbage or disrespects you as a woman or treats you as someone who is inferior; you are second-best to no person and you are glorious in your own right! Any man who is unwilling to support your dreams or defend you and your honor is not unworthy to have you. It is better to be alone than to be treated like a second-class person. So be patient and the right match for you will come along. I promise he will appear.

● Do not go chasing after love. Love begins with loving and accepting yourself as God meant you to be, including all your talents and your faults. Take the time to discover who you are, what you like and what your talents are; take the time to explore your dreams. If you are true to yourself and are patient in finding your partner in life, your mate will find you when you are ready for him. Let love find you.

● Experience what life has to offer you. The world is a small place and full of a variety of people, music, foods, art, culture and traditions. All of those things, and so much more, are within reach for you. Try new things and keep an open mind. Be open to learning new ideas and discovering how similar you are to people from different cultures, religions,and regions. We are all part of the same family – the human family. With that said, be adventurous but not reckless. If something doesn’t feel right for you avoid it.

● Listen to that inner voice. You know the one I am talking about, don’t you? It’s the one in your “gut” that warns you that what you are contemplating doing isn’t a good idea. It’s also the same voice that encourages you to spread your wings and soar. Pay attention to it. I encourage you to spend some time (a minute or two will suffice) in quiet and stillness each day to stay in tune with that “Voice”. That is one way that God speaks to you.

● Take the time to appreciate and notice the beauty in the world around you. Make the time to let beauty and love into your life. Notice how blue the sky is, how the grass smells, how warm the sun is on your face, how delicious the cake tastes. These little wonders are around us all the time to remind us of how much of a miracle life is, how much we are loved to have these little wonders in our world and how much we are part of the miracle! These beauties are here to help us through the dark times, to remind us that the tough times will not last forever. Look for the beauty even in the ugliest of scenes – it is there.

● To the extent it depends on you, be kind to yourself and to others. Treat others as you would like other people to treat you. Be a positive force of change in the world by being that positive force for change in yourself. If you want the world to be more peaceful, be peaceful yourself; if you want to see more love, tolerance and humanity then be more loving, tolerant of people who are different from you and be more generous with your neighbors. No one ever became poor by giving of themselves.

One last thing before I end this letter. I want you to know that no matter what happens, no matter where life takes you, no matter how far away you are … you always, always, always have family who loves you to the moon and back. Never forget that … never.

I love you both with all my heart … forever.

Phil

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The Nudge

(not to be confused with the movie, “The Grudge”)

If there is one thing I’ve learned over the past few years it is this: pay attention.  It seems relatively simple, right? I mean, how hard is it, really, to notice things.  But I’m not referring to noticing when someone is sporting a new hairstyle or donning a new outfit. That’s stating the obvious (although I’ve had lapses on even that rudimentary level). No, I’m talking about being aware and open to the subtleties in life.  Oh, they’re there all right but too often we blow past them in the rush of daily life (and doesn’t life seem to be moving faster and faster). I’m throwing myself under the bus on this as I too often move too fast in my daily routine to hear the whisper of Spirit or notice those around me.

Let’s be honest … we live in a very noisy world – cell phones, MP3 players, television, car radios, podcasts, car horns, traffic – and it doesn’t seem to be getting quiet anytime soon.  We also live in a very busy world; frenetic is probably a better word. We have school events, grocery shopping, work, appointments, social engagements, and the list goes on and on.  I am not immune to these demands.  Too often my day is spent hurtling from pillar to post and by the end of the day I realize that I have not paused at all.  That kind of 8256967824_ea9beda442_mlifestyle can easily become addictive and I have to re-learn how to be still. Being still is critical for me.  It is only in the stillness that I can hear the whispers in life.  Move to fast and I miss them.  Move too fast and I don’t pause to watch the birds at the feeder outside the kitchen window.  Move too fast and I fail to notice how blue the sky is today. Move too fast and I miss the beauty in everyday things like the way the sunlight makes the fresh snow sparkle unlike any diamond! If I don’t slow down and be still, inside I’ll miss the nudge of Spirit.  I’ll miss the important but oh so subtle whisper of direction for my life.  I need that navigator, that internal compass, in my life; without it I cannot kno607586749_17d626f0c2_mw which road to take in life.  When I am aware of the nudge and heed it’s leanings I am more peaceful.  When I am lost in myself I inevitably will miss the “bridge out ahead” sign and fail to take the exit ramp.  Listening for the signal allows me to feel the nudge of Spirit and that nudge moves me in the direction to which I should travel.

I got that signal, that nudge, at several crossroads in my life in the past few years.  I sought out the necessary help for my struggles eight years ago; had I not, you wouldn’t be reading this now. I went on that second date with Eileen; had I not, my life would feel an emptiness.  I hosted a teen orphan from Latvia and adopted another one; had I not, I would have missed the opportunity to see how unconditional love can conquer fear and I wouldn’t be blessed by my son and “daughter” today.  I started a writing career; well, we’ll see where that leads.

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So why write about “the nudge?”  You’re just describing a seemingly random series of events and choices, aren’t you? Here’s why … when I get that nudge I follow it’s lead.  Last week I watched a video. It was an interview of Sister Simone by Krista Tippett. During the course of the hour-long conversation many topics were broached – social justice, Pope Francis, being secure in insecurity and loving on the overlooked.  At one point the conversation turned to what prompted Sr. Simone on her path. Her response – she heard the whisper, she felt her heart move, she didn’t resist the “nudge” to her calling.  For the full conversation visit: http://www.onbeing.org/blog/live-video-sister-simone-campbell-of-nuns-on-the-bus-with-krista-tippett/7309#.VPdca-H8r2Y.

Then, two days ago I read an article authored by Anat Vaughan-Lee.  She writes, “We do not always know what it is or how to articulate it, but deep inside there is a longing, a longing to live according to a true calling. A calling that comes not from the personality but from a deeper part of ourselves …” She goes on to state that by heeding that calling we become connected to life on a much deeper level and our being, our soul, is at peace because we are true to our calling.  You can read the short article here: http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=1067. 13718646634_e591fff743_m

Where am I going with this? Simply this: when I pay attention to the whisper, the nudge, the pulling on my heart, the calling, I feel connected to life around me on a deeper level.  When I feel more connected I am more attuned to noticing and appreciating the Beauty and the Divine in ordinary things.  When I can see the Divine in others I am better able to see the Divine in me.  When I can feel the Divine in me I can glimpse the Grace and Love that is the Divine.  When I follow that nudge my purpose is in harmony with the will of the Divine. I feel connected.

And so I write …

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