This is truly part 2 of First Impressions. The scene is the LA Airport; I was fresh off the boat, at a young 17 and I will never forget it. Below you will find Part1 for your convenience
...I do not remember how the customs officials checked out my story but after about 10 minutes in her office, the nice lady who called me honey let me go. As I walked out the door, I was stunned to find my new friend waiting for me. Not only was he truly concerned but he was going to make sure I got to the right terminal. Are these people for real I thought? As we walked toward the minimal customs gate, there was my mother, a welcome guide into unknown territory.
My friend insisted on taking us to our new terminal. I had never spent much time in airports but the vastness of this one enchanted me. Is anything impossible for these Americans? My friend's mother met him and embraced us with easy charm. She would be glad to take us. Outside, I marveled at the sun, the palm trees (this was Southern California) and the many huge cars (it was also 1971). There was a joyous hustle and bustle: reunited friends and families were piling into their vehicles as we now did. I knew I was a part of all this newness but all I could do was take it in.
It was a large cream colored car with red interior. It just didn't look serious, unlike the European cars I was used to. His mom with her bleach blond hair and cat like sunglasses didn't look very serious either. In the Europe I knew, people who had cars took them very seriously, it was never a joking matter: the way they handled, their performance, all were paramount and you never, ever let anyone drive your car. Never. It would be like loaning your fountain pen, it would ruin it. Someone else would handle the gears differently and zap, it would be the end of your driving experience. No, this one before me now was definitely an amiable giant waiting for its cargo. Perhaps the size added to its playfulness: so many of us could slide down the bench seats, I began to hear a soundtrack to my fantastic adventure: the Beach Boys grooving their way through good, good, good, good vibrations.... I was really in America and in spite of all the unknown, a broad smile broke across my face.
I will never forget the sight of the windshield as I looked up from the middle of my front row seat. It was clean, that wasn't it. It was wide of course, to accommodate the sheer expanse of the car, but that wasn't it either. No, the windshield had a rainbow painted at the top! I thought I had just walked into a fairy tale. Could this be true? I peered intently. Yes, it was painted on alright. The general effect, I noted, was to make it appear a sunny day. Well it was a sunny day but I could imagine not all days would be. So to Americans, I concluded, everyday has to be a sunny day or at least look like one. Pictures from my childhood history books flashed across my mind and emotions, Louis the 11th, the mean one who spied on his people and put them in cages, the Dark Ages, the plague, the hunger, the bleakness, Charles Dickens England. Not here I thought, not now and certainly not with this rainbow tinted window. While I didn't think for a moment that every day could be lovely, I already knew better, or that we could ever live by the pot of gold, I did like the intent, the optimistic view of life. Even more than that, I was enchanted by the childlike simplicity that would think this could work, that anyone would take it seriously. And you know, maybe it does work in a way. I mean, ok, life is not a bed of roses and that painted windshield certainly does not make it so but, then again, it's so delightfully playful, like children making the best of everyday... I had come to a land of hope for a better future. I have loved it ever since.
Friday, December 31, 2010
Along with a fleet of other passengers and my trusty little dog, I flew over in a chartered flight from Amsterdam to Los Angeles via Winnipeg. It was a one way ticket and a one way trip. I had two suitcases, one larger one small, as I pioneered my way to the New World. At the time, I thought of it as my Promised Land. I didn't know the genesis of that expression but the words alone, known in France as well as here, were awe inspiring and I embraced them.
My life had been complex for most of its 17 years owing to my own active mind and emotions no doubt, coupled with my parents' unfortunate divorce when I was 4. It seemed I could not make this family relationship thing work on any level. Apparently I was very much wrapped up in myself and quite impossible. All I knew is that now I was saddled with being a teenager by no choice of my own - as if childhood hadn't been complex enough, now this? Whatever the case, my Promised Land awaited me as I leaned against the window, taking in the unknown, watching land give way to Sea, leaving behind all that complexity, that incomprehensible mess of human entanglement that had always had the upper hand in my life. I wouldn't miss it.
My mother had emigrated the year before along with her husband and they had rented a house in the Bernal Height district of San-Francisco. I would have place to land, a restful thought. My neighbor on the plane was a young man whose pants and shirt were tie dyed and therefore indistinguable: he was a mass of color and long hair but his manner was absolutely normal, he could have had short hair, a polo shirt and slacks. I marveled at how genuinely friendly he was.
As we approached LA, we flew over a blue lake. Look, he said pointing out the window, that's LA! I was dumbfounded. It's smog he explained. Smog? Air pollution he said lightly, which in itself amazed me. You're not worried about that? Yea, it's bad he said with a smile. He must really like his home I thought. I liked that but how on earth was our plane going to make it through that sludge? However land in it we did and I was relieved to see the sun on the other end. It was a beautiful bright Southern California Day.
I now needed to transfer to a different plane to get to San Francisco: I had been given $50 to make the trip. At customs with my student visa, I was pulled aside and had to part from my new friend. What was I doing in America, how much money did I have, would anyone support me, was I planning on staying? Despite my 6 years of High School English, I felt functionally illiterate. My interviewer however was completely reassuring: it's ok honey, it's ok, I remember her repeating. She seemed to mean it and I believed her. Besides, she called me Honey! I didn't even know her and even more to the point, she didn't know me but she liked me well enough to call me honey. What a wondrous land. I liked it right back.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Well Christmas is past and I don't mean to harp on these things but I really do want to share a moment of understanding I had yesterday. It first requires a little context.
I have always been aware of the many flavors of Christianity in the world. They have puzzled me and at times greatly bothered me. God isn't confused I would say to myself but the many people throughout history cannot all be right: each group claiming to have the right doctrine or revelation and often in sharp disagreement one with another. So, how to make sense out of all this? For years I didn't. I trusted God to sort it out but yet it puzzled me.
Well, you see I have a dear aging relative who suffers from Alzheimer's. She lives in a facility that specializes in such conditions and she is well cared for. I visit her two or three times a week, it all depends on my inspiration and her need.
We talk. We really do. Increasingly though, she makes no sense. However, because I have known her for years I know, or think I do, when she is really trying to communicate, often I'll know from the timing and the look in her eye that it's either serious or humorous.
Yesterday was such a moment: I could see it in her eyes but it was coming out as an MC Escher painting; there was no real sense, no end point, no starting point either, just a detached string of perfectly recognizable words hanging in space and all in impeccable English. But those eyes and that face looking at me wanting to make contact. It touched me so and in such cases I always respond to her intent, not her words. She then always sits back content. Usually it's one of her flashes of humor so then I laugh despite the nonsensical pun and seeing that, she laughs too.
As I was leaving her Care Facility I was swarming with emotions from our visit. We had made contact in a meaningful way and it seemed central at that moment. Before I could even get to the coded gate, I heard in my mind God speaking as it were. Before I could argue or refute it, the thought shot into my heart somewhat like this: "I respond to the intent of my people too, their words are often spastic and even faulty but I see their heart and that is what I respond to."
The understanding came without all those words, very fast, very sharp and extremely restful. End of puzzlement for me. End of discussion. I hope this communicates. Eventually, it reminded me of the scripture in 1Samuel 16:7, though I had never seen it in that light before:
|"...for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart." |
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Friday, December 24, 2010
...God With Us...
...what can I say about Jesus, except what He has done for me, knowing full well that mine is only one of numberless stories. I have no other authority to speak of the Son of God. He intersected my life at just the perfect time which, translated in my case, means the worst time of my life or close to it. I was now open to being rescued, saved from myself, let alone, as I found out later, from much more than that.
I went to a party and through one of His people, felt His Presence with every sense of my being. I knew only that I needed that Presence terribly in that moment, more than I had needed anything or anyone in my life before. I was overwhelmed by the unmistakable conviction I was dirty through and through but, at the same time, I felt a saving Love I had never felt before. The next morning, we were invited to Church and I was trembling inwardly. It was my first Church service ever. As the choir stood up to sing, everything broke inside, any vestige of keeping it together (a favorite phrase of our generation) forever gone. After being led in private prayer at the end of the service (my sobs would not stop), the inner war that had raged on for so long stopped and all was calm. It was a pervasive calm I had never experienced before.
He transformed my obsession with my own misfortunes, my inward pain and my inability to fulfill my role as wife and mother, to a sense of Fullness, an abiding Joy (I have to capitalize these because none of that came from me). The wounds didn't all leave me but the Fullness inside me so far outweighed them I forgot for a time they were there.
Instantly and instinctively, I stopped taking all drugs or alcohol and have never started again; a vibrant devotion to others (particularly my husband and my children) was birthed in my heart that day. These were gifts made to me as surely as the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh were made to our Lord: they have proved invaluable in the nearly 30 years since. He didn't remove my imperfections but my faults and I had been forgiven; the peace I felt was palpable on a near atomic level. With this new indwelling Presence (it was so strong I could barely eat for three days) nothing seemed impossible to me. I was accepted.
Coming home to our humble apartment after that Church service I saw everything with new eyes. I did in fact feel like a new creature. It was a miracle of salvation in January of 1981 and I have never recovered.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
So much has been said about this mother. It's perfectly understandable given whose mother she was and, perhaps even more, given our tendency to put people on pedestals. At least I am guilty of doing that but I see this penchant, as the French would say, this leaning, going strong in our culture.
It's an unfortunate tendency. We deny people their humanity and then we stop being able to relate to them. We say: 'well that's ok for them, they're special/rich/famous/chosen, but not for me'. We push things off that way when really there is something there for us to learn or to identify with. Perhaps deifying a person allows us to not expect too much of ourselves. I'm not sure what all the components are but I do know it's not habit that brings good fruit.
I appreciate Mary a great deal. I want to learn from her simple submission to the extraordinariness of God. She was humbled too, later in her life but through it all she remained faithful and steadfast. I know that a sword went through her heart because the scripture tells us so. Isn't that also something with which we mothers (or fathers) can identify? Our very own children do not belong to us, after all! It sure feels like they do when we give birth to them and hold them near as they grow but then they must go on to live their own lives, fulfill their own callings. Do we always understand? Do we always see the end from the beginning? Do we allow them missteps? Do we give them room? Do we never feel the wrenching? I am moved by the humanity of Mary in such an extraordinary moment in time.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
It's about the little guy on the right, kneeling and waving his hat. He was part of this Crèche scene my mother-in-law gave me those years ago. He's not a Wise Man, clearly not Joseph, has a little sheep at his feet but that doesn't make him a Shepherd, he certainly isn't dressed like one. That leaves only one possibility: he's the stranger.
I have a friend of Jewish background who once joked to me about an estranged relative being "the stranger" at our table. She explained that it was a Jewish tradition to welcome someone from 'outside' their circle, especially during the Feasts in Israel. I read that in my Old Testament as well. Welcome the stranger for you don't know, they may be angels as those, for instance who visited Abraham...
I also like it because God always makes a provision for everyone and He encourages us to widen our circle, make room for the stranger. Different customs should not be allowed to put a wedge between us. He said Israel was once a stranger in Egypt. Haven't we all been strangers at one time or another? This is where the gift of hospitality mentioned by Paul becomes so meaningful. We are encouraged to draw out our heart and give selflessly. I just love God's character.
Here is the third Wise Man. My husband likes to point out that nowhere does the Bible say that there were three Wise Men, anymore than it says that Eve partook of an apple. The things we assume. I'm not saying there weren't three, I wasn't there nor am I a scholar. Three is not a bad number for the Bible says that a threefold cord is not easily broken. Then again, Jesus sent his disciples out two by two, so that could also be the case. I must confess, being a mother, I prefer three or even four, it's just safer: they came from afar and to a land with people of different customs.
This participant in my Crèche is pictured next to the young mother, kneeling before the Child. The Bible makes it clear these men came to worship Him. We can see the Gold he brought or perhaps it was a vessel containing Frankincense or Myrrh. As a dear friend pointed out to me recently, these were thoughtful gifts: not only were these items of value, to be traded or sold for the young family's needs, but each element also had profound symbolic meaning.
I know it's obvious but it bears repeating: God made us, made this world and put us in it. Even after the world was forever and completely changed when Adam and Eve forsook God's explicit directive, God saw fit to leave us and the bad guy in it side by side. There are joys to be sure, often beautiful and deeply moving, but it's a world of toil, of danger, of obstacles and sorrow. However, God has arranged to be our Provision in it! Here, He makes sure that this young family is equipped for a future they don't even fathom yet. We don't live life with 20/20 retrospect vision, we rarely know what is coming but God sees the future and knows how to prepare us for it so that we'll be able to make it through to our destination.
What shall we say then to these things?If God be for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31
Monday, December 20, 2010
The next figure that has my attention is Joseph. I just re-read the story around Jesus' conception and birth and his character never ceases to amaze me. Talk about self-effacement. He had a great deal of responsibility and few privileges, yet I wouldn't be surprised to hear he considered it all a privilege. I don't doubt he spent all the money to be had from the gifts of the Wise Men on securing safe passage and all necessities for his family.
He is shown here with an angel for his ear was turned to heaven. What a picture of a Father we have in him who never sought anything for himself but spent himself providing for those under his care, a man in charge who was not an autocrat because he himself answered to God, a man who loved his wife in the most selfless way and who let her fulfill her calling with unreserved support.
He was not center stage and never would be, we don't even know when or how he died but this we do know: he was chosen to raise the only Begotten of the Father.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
I guess I'm having my little Advent here. I was preparing to publish First Impressions Part 2 when I realized that my heart wasn't in it: it's so close to Christmas, I simply can't leave my Crèche.
I love the wise men. I understand they were the scientists of their day, men of letters, astrologers, astronomers and probably alchemysts all wrapped into one.
Somehow, without an Old Testament as their guide, they recognized the Star in the East and understood what it meant. It presupposes they knew the constellations well enough from years of study and that they had the wisdom to interpret the meaning of what they saw. It's a mystery to me. Since wisdom, the one from above, points us to Christ, it is not a stretch to say God gave them this wisdom. I love it. They didn't go to church with us yet they knew. They knew before most of Israel did.
I am so grateful that God can and does use the most unusual people and circumstances to reveal His will and to advise us, to show us the way... Truly, "the Earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein." Psalm 24:1
Saturday, December 18, 2010
My mother in law gave me a beautiful Crèche from Italy years ago. I bring it out every year. This figure came with it: the shepherd. I always think of King David when I look at him, before he was King of course. A lot can be said about David but here's just one thought I have: he always kept his Shepherd's heart, even after he became King. He wasn't perfect of course, he was a man, but you can tell when you read about him and when you read the Psalms he wrote, that he always stayed on watch for his sheep, his people. He was one man after God's heart. I also know that the Lord is my Shepherd... I trust Him to lead me, to keep me, to feed me and to bring me home.
Friday, December 17, 2010
I have three crèche scenes in my house. By the way the word crèche is French and is still in use today for any childcare room or facility: it means lodging for children. Indeed. Well this crèche scene is set up in my kitchen window, which is a greenhouse window. The stage is a simple wooden plant stand and I rigged a little lamp from a night light bulb in a socket wrapped in brown paper and threaded through the grilled shelf above. I see it each time I do the dishes during the Christmas Season and every time, I am thankful for His Birth. Such a humble birth it was, in worldly terms. Yet nothing of His true nature, His power, His authority, his Purity, none of that was lost, just hidden from view much of the time... Truly amazing and food for my soul. Hope it feeds yours too. Merry Christmas.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
I arrived in San Francisco in late summer of 1971. They told me we were about to enjoy Indian Summer. The days were hot as they had been in Italy where I usually spent my summers but to my astonishment, there was no lingering on the patio after sunset, gone was the reward for making it through the heat of the day, the chill of the night air quickly drove us inside.
Those summer days were filled with indoor and outdoor get-togethers. It was then I learned about the outdoor bbq, a typical American tradition. I knew about grilling out of doors but it was only for 'brochettes' what we call shish-kebabs in the US, specially prepared meat bits alternated with onions and mushrooms on a metal stick laid over the little grill. The big slab of meat slathered in BBQ sauce, the random hotdogs, the marinated chicken breasts tended by adults on the grill as the kids played outside was a new and welcome experience for me; it was true family affair and I loved it.
On this particular day in the park, a trip to the store was needed. No one seemed panicked that all was not just so. Another breath of fresh air: improvisation here we come. I cannot remember but I imagine I volunteered to tag along with a 13 year old girl, the family babysitter, another novelty; we giggled easily together. I enjoyed her carefree demeanor, no class struggle here between hired help and employers: it was all a big happy family, or so it seemed to me that day.
The assignment was to find salad makings. My mother being an excellent cook and my sister being older and always in charge in mom's absence, I never really learned to cook. I suspect I didn't mind. So here we are together in the produce section picking out likely canditates. As I turned over each head of lettuce looking for wilted leaves and examined the celery for dryness and brown spots, she ask incredulously: "have you had classes for this?'
I need at least an entire paragraph to explain that I was dumbfounded. It would be as if I asked you if you had taken classes on how comb your hair or pull on your socks: it was just a matter of common sense! It gave me a peek into the American way of thinking, and reminded me of an American diet my grandmother had asked me to translate during my last year in France: it had to do with calories and fat and such like, words I have never heard before. I never did translate the diet for my grandmother, not having a clue as to what a calorie was. Here again it struck me how scientific the bent of American thinking was: the experts will know, let's take a poll, make a study, do research.
All of that hit me when I looked into her face. She obviously had much more confidence in the word of what she considered to be a learned person than in what her own eyes could tell her about our poor celery. Years later, I realize how much that thinking has permeated my own. To be sure, there's something to be said for it but that day, what I thought can best be translated by an expression I would learn later: that's just too much.
Back in the park, as we licked our lips of bbq sauce and crunched our salad everyone was chatting. Suddenly my little friend the babysitter interrupted the banter and exclaimed: oh, that's weird! Weird? I asked, what on earth does that mean? She paused. She said it again loudly as if I were deaf: WEIRD! How do you spell it? I asked. Another blank stare. She tried to spell it but couldn't figure out if it was ei or ie and stopped again. I trudged on without a visual image of the word. Well? I asked, what does it mean? She searched her brain.. well... she hesitated... it means.. uh....weird, you know? No, I did not know, I had never even hear the word before. Now she added hand movements and became a bit agitated... weird, weird, you know.. I mean, when somethings weird, it's just '...weird!
I never got it. I just let it go for that afternoon in the park with our delicious salad, bbq chicken hot dogs, steak, tablecoths and dessert, frisbees and sunshine, children playing and dogs frolicking. I loved America. I'd get it later.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
I'll never forget the first time I heard the word 'funky' shortly after I emigrated to the US with my little dog, on a chartered flight from Amsterdam in August of 1971. I was a young 17 years old.
Within a week, my mother took me to visit a young friend, a co-worker, who had just moved to a small rental at the top of Bernal Heights in San Francisco, just a few blocks from where we lived. This she shared with another young woman and more beads than I had ever seen in my life: strings of beads served as a partition in doorways, they were strung in macrame for hanging pots, together with yards of fabric they hung on the walls and furniture, and of course, this being 1971 San Francisco, they were sewn onto clothes, bonnets and purses, strung around necks, wrapped around wrists and dangling from ears. I soon got in the act myself.
I cannot remember the roommate's name. She was blond, late 20's, perhaps early 30's. To me anyone over 25 was old. In those days, cool men wore long hair. News reporters, most TV personalities and the general workforce had joined in, albeit with a cleaned up version, their hair carefully trimmed halfway down their ears. Young folks and students had it hanging down their shoulders with abandon. Long hair was in.
I realize now that for those with curly hair, long hair became bouffant, it exploded out sideways from the head. The curlier the hair of course, the bigger the mass and properly layered, it could actually form a globe: those were the days of Afros, tie-dye, Santana and everything ethnic.
Back to the roommate. She was blond as I said, petite, very fair, very white and informed us that she had just gotten herself a permanent: a host of tiny ringlets testified to this as she shook her head, they settled back quickly around her slender face and pale blue eyes. She was terribly excited about her perm and proceeded to extol its virtues: you don't have to do anything to it, just wash it and let dry naturally, you can use this special comb to unsnarl it she assured us, producing a three pronged object, but otherwise it's carefree, she gushed. Then, before we could respond, she bounced away behind the beads and soon returned brandishing a common hairbrush. This she would now demonstrate: throwing her head down over her knees, she began brushing her hair upside down with gusto. It actually grew in volume under our very eyes until I thought it could not possibly grow anymore. I do this for a different look, she commented as she worked away, nose to her knees. When she was satisfied, she suddenly stood upright and, with a firm toss of her now substantial head, her arms stretched out as if she had just jumped off the High Wire Act, she beamed at us as we took in the sight: there she was with a full-blown enormous blond Afro. Welcome to America.
She was the first person to use the word "funky" in my presence. Her apartment was funky she said and she liked it. I had not the slightest clue what she meant. It took years before I could actually wrap my head around that one.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Friday, December 3, 2010
I would say hot off the press but it's not even dry, or off the board, as you can see by the tape; so here is my latest little watercolor, measuring about 12 by 12 maybe a bit more. It's from a small snapshot of my mother in Paris, where she was born and raised, taken not long before WWII. The beret is authentic :) Apparently she had just been very sick and did not want to pose for this. I absolutely love this picture of her, she only smiles when she wants to, it makes her genuine. I was very moved making it: mom was an only child, she saw many hardships. I also saw how much my sister and I are in her, I never thought we looked like her. She was the most beautiful child and became a beautiful woman. To me, little (or big) Liz Taylor had nothing on my mom. Oh, and thank you for taking the time to visit. Hope you enjoy.