Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Feeling overwhelmed when you want to make a difference

I'll be at the Decatur Book Festival this weekend speaking and signing books around 3:20 on Sunday. I'd love to see any of you who live in the area.

My husband likes to tell the story about a man who discovers a little boy on the beach throwing back into the ocean the sand dollars that had washed ashore. The man asks the boy why he’s even bothering since there are so many he couldn’t possibly save them all. “What you're doing doesn’t make any difference,” the man says.


The little boy throws another sand dollar into the ocean and declares, “I've made a difference for that one.”

I am often overwhelmed by the homelessness that confronts me every day. When shelters close during the summer in our community, those without permanent addresses take to street corners in droves to ask for money from passing motorists.

There is no one reason they’re homeless. Most have legitimate needs. A few are working an angle.  One person cannot possibly help them all, and I’m often perplexed as to what to do. We give monthly to a homeless ministry, but it feels so little to do. It just doesn’t seem I can make a real long term difference.

But one day this summer, as I stopped for a traffic light, I noticed what I thought might be a mother and her physically challenged young adult son.

I couldn’t stop in the road, and when I came back a short time later, they were gone. But I made up my mind, if I ever saw them again, I’d find a way to stop and talk to them.

Two weeks later, I did.

And that began what has been a roller coaster adventure in helping them find a permanent address. It has taken an army of persevering, loving, giving folks to pull this together, but this past weekend, this mother and son opened the door to their own place, where they can reasonably live off their income.

I fight fear about this situation, because there are variables that could quickly make it go south. Sometimes I hold my breath that it might all fall apart. Then I remember the extraordinary things God has done to make this happen.

They needed to pay a utility deposit, which could only be paid by credit card, and of course, they didn't have one. The next person that called me happened to already have a prepaid debit card in just the amount we needed.

We needed an essential personal item, and again, in my next phone call, a friend had what we needed in the right size.

I told another friend where I was going to check out mattresses, and she knew the store manager who gave us a discount. I had no idea there was any connection.

We were giving a woman a ride to a worship service and she just happened to know of a fund that would help us pay for some of the essentials.

This is only a small sampling of the many ways God has provided for this family. There are dozens of others.

It has been my very great privilege to see this process unfold, and I’m thankful to have had a miniscule part in it. My heartfelt thanks to the multitude that came alongside to make this happen.

I am still going to feel overwhelmed as I drive around my community, because there are just so many without homes.

However, somewhere today, there’s one family that doesn’t have to worry about where they’re going to sleep tonight. Like the sand dollar the little boy threw back into the sea, God has helped us make a difference for them.

"Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way" (Colossians 3:17 The Message).


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Lucy, ladders, and when you feel stuck

Jerry popped a French fry in his mouth as we ate lunch, and studied me a moment. He swallowed. “Well, are you going to tell anyone about this, Lucy?”

Lucy (after Lucille Ball) had become my moniker whenever I’d done something that might compare to her character’s outrageous antics.

The waitress streaked by, and I took a sip of cherry Coke Zero. “I don’t know.”

That was a few weeks ago, and I guess in time, I’ve gotten over the sting of this episode enough to tell it. But please, I beg you, don’t email me to tell me how crazy this was, and how I could have been killed, etc. I’ve already had a couple of people pin me to the wall on it. I am sufficiently admonished, and I promise I WILL NOT try this again. Here’s what happened:

It started with a fluttering.

“Hey, did you hear that sound in your office?” Jerry said interrupting one of my painting sessions in the living room. I’d been working on an extra large canvas, which wouldn’t fit in my regular painting spot in my office/studio.

We investigated and thought it a bird in a woodstove chimney, maybe stuck in a part of the chimney in the attic, which meant getting on the roof to take the chimney cap off so the bird could get free.

Here’s the thing. Jerry has one replaced knee and the other one needs it. He’s not getting on any roofs.

But my knees work great. “I’ll do it.”

However, we didn’t have an extension ladder, only a stepladder. Again, don’t email me. “No problem,” I ignorantly said. “Hold the ladder real tight, and I’ll pull myself up on the roof.” I hadn’t been on a roof in decades much less hoisted myself up on one.

After I’d put my foot where words on the stepladder read, “Do not use this step,” I thought it was somewhat easier said than done to pull myself up, because there was nothing to hold. Somehow, I managed to do it, and when I stood up, it was a lot higher than I imagined it might be. I felt a little dizzy.

I inched to the chimney and tried to take the screws off the cap. I needed a screwdriver. Jerry went to get one and threw it on the roof. I had to crawl to retrieve it. Did I mention it was in the nineties that day, and we have a black roof? My hands were scorched.

I removed the cap, and we thought we’d leave it open a while for the bird to escape. Poor thing.

Now, to get down. When I peered over the edge, the top step of that ladder was really far. I mean REALLY far.

“Just crawl backwards, swing your rear over the edge, and I’ll put your foot on the ladder,” my beloved spouse said.

I thought about it a minute. I knew if my rear ever went over the edge, I was going down. It’d be like casting out an anchor.

“No way.”

“Sure, it’ll work. Just don’t hang on to the gutter. It might tear off.”

I didn’t especially like his priorities in that last remark.

“I’m not doing it. There’s nothing to hold.”

We went back and forth like that a few minutes. The tear faucet was close to turning on. How was I going to get off this roof?

Can you say stuck?

“Call Lilyan and get her extension ladder.” I folded my arms tightly in front of my chest.

I guess my body language convinced Jerry that I was firm in my resolve not to come over the edge.  He made the call and went to fetch the ladder from our neighbor.

During his absence I perched on the roof kneeling, my hands burning to steady myself, and surveyed my surroundings adjacent to the top of a Bradford pear. Two Downy woodpeckers flew to a nearby branch. It seemed I could hear them mocking and laughing at the gigantic wobbly bird on the roof. Poor thing, indeed.

Jerry came back with the ladder. “Hold tight. I’m trusting the ladder,” I said, letting go the “swing your rear over the edge comment” as I came down. But, what I really meant was I trusted him not to let me fall.

Later, I had to go back up again. The bird was still there. We tried to put a branch down the chimney so the bird could climb out. Didn’t work.

Do you think the bird might be all the way down in the stove,” Jerry asked.

“Trusting the ladder, again,” I said descending.

We went inside, opened the stove doors, the flue, and a wren streaked out.

Thankfully, we’d had the foresight to trap the cats elsewhere, but thinking the bird went out the door, we let them back in.

First thing Wilbur did was find the wren.

It was grab Wilbur and open the door again. It took awhile to convince this poor feathered creature that the open door was his pathway to freedom. He was draped in dust bunnies and cat fur from hiding under furniture.

At last, he took to open air.

Then, I had to go back up and put on the chimney cap. Trusting the ladder again.

 So, here are the takeaways from my roof experience:  

I have a new respect for roofers. They deserve every penny they get. I hope they wear gloves to protect their scorching hands and don’t have any equilibrium problems.

Solomon was right. “. . . better a nearby neighbor, than a brother far away . . . “(Proverbs 27:10). Thank you Lilyan for the ladder.

Like the wren, sometimes we can let fear get such a grip on us that we don’t even recognize the door to freedom.

And that trusting the ladder thing. I'm glad I could trust Jerry, but in an even greater way, it’s nice to know God is always holding our ladder to help and support us when we feel stuck.

But I have to tell you, if we hear fluttering again. I am not getting on the roof.

Lucy is done with ladders.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Thank you dear Harriette Austin

I have a sad heart.

I just learned extraordinary writing mentor, Harriette Austin, passed away this past Saturday.

Back in 2011, I wrote these words about Harriette here at One Ringing Bell just before one of her conferences at which she had asked me to teach.

Harriette Austin is legendary in this area as a writing instructor and encourager extraordinaire. I’d read about Austin and her writing classes for years, always intending to go, but my children’s soccer games and ballet classes conflicted with the evening sessions she held.

In my fiction manuscript and screenplay, Give My Love to the Chestnut Trees, a character, Aunt Laney, mentors a young girl toward her aspiration of writing. One night, I had a dream, and in it, I saw a picture of Harriette Austin like one I’d recently seen in a newspaper, and heard someone say, “She’s the real Aunt Laney.”

Shortly, after that, I saw a way I could take one of her classes, and what I found is that Harriette Austin is indeed the real Aunt Laney. She’s all about planting seeds of hope and encouragement in those who are struggling to believe in their own ability. Those of us who’ve attended her classes adore her. Her knowledge, wisdom, and insight in the area of creative writing are almost unparalleled.”

Madeleine L’Engle says the writer often writes more than she knows. I imagined Aunt Laney and found her come to life in Harriette Austin. Through her conferences at which I taught several times, I started a Christian Writer’s group in this area. And from that group, members have gone on to have pieces published in national magazines, and I feel at least one is moving towards a book deal. I can draw a line from their successes straight back to Harriette Austin. My group is not alone. I know of at least two others who started writer’s groups out of Harriette’s nurturing. No way to know how many others there are.

And we couldn't begin to guess how many writers are published today because of Harriette and how many more will be published in the future?

She has truly left a legacy, and we want to make her proud. Writing is a hard, hard business. Discouragement at every turn. I saw her last during a visit I made at the retirement home where she lives. Shelves of books lined her apartment walls. I had to wonder how many of those volumes might be in print because of her inspiration. As I showed her the published pieces from my writer’s group and shared what I was doing, I felt like a little kid bringing my creations to my mom. As always, I left encouraged. I don’t think you could be in Harriett’s presence and not be.

Harriette had a Yale University School of Drama graduate program degree, as well as decades of experience in Hollywood. Oh, the stories she could tell.  But I think her greatest joy was inspiring others.

When you scroll through a Google search for Harriette Austin, what you see is author after author thanking her for her influence in their book acknowledgements.  Mine is right there, too, in Give My Love to the Chestnut Trees, for which I won a book deal in a writing competition. Perhaps, it is because of Harriette that I even had the courage to enter.

I will always miss you dear, dear Harriette Austin, the real Aunt Laney. I hope I can be to others even a fraction of what you've meant to me. Thank you for everything.

"I thank my God every time I remember you . . ." (Philippians 1:3).

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Rio and traveling the same streets

On Sunday, as we watched the last few meters of the Olympic Women’s Road Race along Coco cabana Beach in Rio, memories came flooding back.

“We traveled those same streets,” Jerry said apparently having the same thoughts I was having.

I nodded. I remembered well sailing along the road that lined Coco cabana beach.

A little over ten years ago, I traveled with my daughter to Rio to work in the favelas surrounded the city.  Later, Jerry took our son in a separate trip.

Though the media has been replete with negative reports about Rio, I have precious memories, even amidst working among the poorest of the poor there.

After flying across the gargantuan Amazon rain forest with a stopover in Sao Paulo, it took us more than thirty hours to reach Rio. I was exhausted, but I have to tell you, when I first saw Christ the Redeemer statue atop the 2300 feet tall Corcovado Mountain, I had a Weekly Reader moment. For some reason, I remember a picture of the statue in the children’s educational paper, never dreaming I would actually see it. Oh, and the Coco cabana beach is just a beautiful as you might imagine.

We packed our own clothing and personal items in carry-on luggage so our checked baggage could be used for gifts for the poor. We prepared and served meals and gave out hundreds of packages as we held a Christmas party for those served by the mission. One night as I filled plates of food, I looked over to see my daughter sitting on the floor playing patty-cake with one of the little Brazilian girls. I felt my eyes grow moist.  Unable to speak each other’s language, they found a way to communicate.


Another night, I played keyboard with a Brazilian worship band. I didn’t know the song, understand the Portuguese, or have a chord chart. I just tried to change chords when they did. It probably sounded terrible, but I couldn’t help but think of the verse from Psalm 18:49, “ . . . I will praise you, Lord, among the nations . . . “

I had the privilege of leading Bible study for those on the mission trip with us, and one afternoon, I assisted in baptizing a long line of people in a pool there.

Many of the children in Rio favelas cannot attend school, because born at home, they are not allowed to attend without producing a birth certificate.  They live in houses with dirt floors constructed of whatever their parents find to provide some measure of shelter; some don’t even have outhouses.  Many of these babies live on the streets. Heartbreaking.

As we distributed clothing and other necessities among these hills, it’s like Jerry said, for a couple of weeks, the briefest of times, we did travel the same streets as these folks did. Enough so that as I am watching the Olympics, I am wondering wistfully how those we encountered are doing.

When we travel the same streets, it takes down the walls between us. We understand more about what others actually experience. That’s why when I hear all these negative reports about Brazil, I don’t buy in to everything because I’ve met the people there.

Currently, some friends and I are trying to help a family out of a homeless situation. In order to do so, we’ve had to make some trips to places not many want to visit. We have to travel the same streets as this family.

I’m thankful that I serve a God who did the same thing for us. He sent His son to travel our streets and take down the wall between us and Him.

"For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility..." (Ephesians 2:14).

As I was finishing up this post this morning,  Jerry, not knowing what I was writing about, handed me a USA today article called Let’s Lighten up on Rio, people. I love it. Read it here.

Our own Olympic experience: In 1996, when the Olympics came to Atlanta, we obtained tickets to attend a soccer game held in our town. We rounded up these cuties and off we went to see Argentina and Portugal battle it out in the semifinals. It was great.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Raccoons, Rabbits, and Powdery Mildew

If you look hard in this picture, you’ll see a little masked face gazing down.


While we were waiting to eat dinner in a coastal restaurant, we noticed a group of people looking up. We joined them to see what was going on. This fellow and his brother were tussling with each other high in the tree, and then they’d occasionally stop and eyeball their audience. We oohed, ahhed, snapped pictures, and commented on how cute they were. It was nice of the restaurant to provide such a great floorshow while we waited.

Then I came home to my pitiful little container garden in the back yard and found tomatoes scattered on the ground like billiard balls. All with bites out of them.  It appeared that one of our little entertainer’s distant cousins had a hey day while we were gone.

Raccoons didn’t seem so cute anymore.

The rabbits that have eaten all my squash and zucchini aren’t looking so charming either.

That’s after several weeks of fighting powdery mildew out there, too.


Made me think of a verse slightly paraphrased.

“Don’t’ hoard squash and tomatoes down here where it gets eaten by rabbits, hit by powdery mildew or―worse―stolen by raccoons.”

If my identity were wrapped up in farmer, I’d be in big trouble.

But the truth is that sometimes I let my identity get wrapped up in other ways, like writer.

If things don’t go well in that arena, with the literary version of raccoons, rabbits, and mildew, I can start to slide south and get down in the dumps. Because one thing never changes in any writer’s life, and that’s the fact you’re going to get rejections. Or worse, just never hear from projects sent out. And what about that new algorithm Facebook is using, how’s it going to affect my blog traffic when I post on Facebook?

Now, to the unparaphrased version of Matthew 6:19-21 in The Message:

“Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

It requires a certain vigilance to keep us from drifting into the arena where we let our worth be determined by our successes or the lack thereof. Raccoons, rabbits, and mildew are always standing by to assault us, and we need to keep our eyes on our true worth, that of being a child of God.

This child of God is about to turn in her gardening gloves and let the critters have it. Summer is about over anyway, and I can hope for next year.

Hello farmer’s market.
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