Sunday, March 19, 2017

On Alabama and Icebergs and Grace

"Children, you have homework tonight.  I want you to go home and ask your parents if they can donate a Christmas tree.  It would be so nice to have our own tree here in the classroom.  So ask them tonight - don't forget!"

My second grade teacher Mrs. Hellums was one of my favorite teachers ever.  She had brown curly hair and said I looked like the girl who played Laura Ingalls on TV.

On heavy hot days when our un-airconditioned classroom felt like a clay oven, Ms. Hellums would call us to the front of the room to sit in a semi-circle at her feet for story time.  We worked our way through the entire Little House on the Prairie Series, hour by hour after lunch.  When the heat became so heavy that even she couldn't stand to read anymore she would ask us all to close our eyes and imagine that we were floating on an iceberg on the South Pole.  She would ask us what it felt like ("cold!") and what we heard ("water splashing against our iceberg") and what we saw ("a polar bear swimming by").  The most important lesson we learned in her classroom was that we had the ability to imagine our way out of difficult circumstances and into a better reality.

Years later I would learn that polar bears are only found at the other end of the globe, in the Arctic Circle.  I'm glad I didn't know that at the time because it was a lot more fun with the polar bears there with our class floating on an iceberg on the South Pole.

After school I met my older sister Christi in front of the school for our 30-minute walk home.  The very best part of the walk came first and the very worst part came right after that.

The best part was the catwalk.  It was a rusty cement and steel platform encaged by chain link walls that spanned over Skyland Boulevard.  We loved to pause on the catwalk above the four lanes of traffic, cars whizzing by below us and making the catwalk tremble beneath our feet.  It was thrilling to be so close to speed and danger and yet to escape unscathed every time.  Sometimes an 18-wheeler came by and we would pump our arms into the air, and on rare occasions the driver would honk their horn just as they passed beneath us.  That was a story worth telling at the dinner table that night.

Years later I would learn that a catwalk was also a platform that models walk on at fashion shows.  I'm glad I didn't know that because I prefer to think of it as a platform that school children walk on and get 18-wheelers to honk at them.

The worst part of the walk came right after the catwalk.  The hill towered before us, daring us to try to scale its steep sidewalk.  We had to though because there was no other way home.  The only way over the hill was one exhausted breath at a time.

Two years prior, Mrs. Hellums had been Christi's second grade teacher as well so she too knew the imagination trick.

"I'm going to invent a car for us to get up this hill," Christi told me.  She didn't look at me, both of us were facing forward and keeping our eye on the sidewalk in front of us.  "It's going to fold up so I can keep it in my desk during the day at school and then when we get to the bottom of the hill we can unfold it and sit in it and ride it up the hill."

"What else ... is it going ... to have?" I asked.  Christi had a vivid way of describing things and her enthusiasm was stoked by an eager audience.  One day she would make her living off of this talent of hers and it would take her as far as the White House. 

But for now we were just two tired and sweaty little schoolgirls trying to get up a monster hill.  "And when ... can you have this thing ... ready?"

"Well, it's going to have a Coke machine in it too.  Like at McDonald's but it will be our very own Coke machine.  I mean, we can share Cokes with other kids if we want but it's going to be ours.  The Coke machine is going to be right there above the steering wheel and we can have as much Coke as we want.  And there will be a place where you can get Sprite out of it too.  And in the glove compartment there will be snacks.  Different ones every day, but always Ho Hos every day."

It was almost too much to dream about.  Although the car was never built, the possibility of it nudged Christi and me up that monster hill every day inch by steady inch until at last we crested it, right at the corner where Mrs. Hellums lived.  She let the kids chain their bicycles to the stop sign at the corner of her yard in the mornings because no one dared to ride their bike down the monster hill.  Even with brakes, that ride would kill you.

Years later I would learn that the stop sign was city property and it was against city ordinances to chain our bikes to it but I'm glad I didn't know that at the time.  It was so much nicer to think that our bikes were safe and legal in Mrs. Hellums' yard all day.

Christi never told me when the fold-up car would be ready because dreaming about something is one thing but committing to something that you know you can't deliver is quite another.  We grew up in a family where story-telling was encouraged, but once you promised something you were expected to deliver.  Besides, we didn't need the car.  We needed the dream of the car to get us up that hill every afternoon.

We were almost home when we passed Mr. Smith's house on Crestline Drive.  He was having the pine trees cut down in his yard, which was a practical and smart thing to do in Alabama in the 1970s because the pine trees were home to millions of cockroaches, who migrated from the trees to the nearby houses and back.

I burst into tears.

"Why are you crying, Mel?" Christi asked.

"Don't you think that's sad?  All those trees?  Just dying?"

We stood on the street looking at each other, each confused about why the other didn't understand.

My mother was always in the same place when we got home - standing at the formica countertop in the kitchen, in the corner next to the stove.  I told her about the trees and how sad I felt about them.  She reminded me about the cockroaches and said that was probably why Mr. Smith was having them cut down  Also, his wife had recently died and perhaps he was getting his house ready to sell.

"Maybe," I said.  "Oh, and Mrs. Hellums wants people to ask their parents if they can donate a tree for our classroom," I said.  I knew it was a stretch for my parents to have a tree for our own house, and that donating one for a classroom was impossible.  Besides, my mother was relentlessly fair so if she was going to buy a tree for my classroom, she would have to buy one for three other classrooms as well.  The math in our house was always in multiples of four, and when you multiply by four even a cheeseburger becomes too expensive.

I don't remember if it was my mother or me who put together the tragedy of Mr. Smith's pines and my classroom's need for a Christmas tree but soon my mother was on the phone with him.  The curly white phone cord stretched from the base of the phone to the pantry, where my mother was talking to Mr. Smith.  It wasn't that the conversation was private - she was just trying to hear him and let him hear her.  Although the house was fairly quiet right at that moment, you never knew when our house was going to get noisy.  Maybe a sister would sit down and start practicing the piano. Maybe a door would slam.  Maybe someone would start fighting.  Noise was like cockroaches in our house - it appeared suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.  And so when we talked on the phone we went into the pantry.

"Mr. Smith says he'll deliver a tree to your school tomorrow," my mother said as she hung the receiver back up.

"Really?" I asked, grinning.

"That's what he said," she said as she hugged me.  "But let's wait and see what happens tomorrow."

Alabama pines did not make great Christmas trees.  They were scraggly and their needles were a dry and pale green.  If a plump Douglas fir says "all is merry and bright", a recycled Alabama pine in your living room says "this will have to do for this year."  As a young child I learned the value of tinsel, which does great things to distract from the skeletal appearance of an Alabama pine.  We knew the value of something shiny long before it was a thing.

The next morning when I got to my classroom our Christmas tree was already there.  An admiring throng of students was gathered around it.  Mrs. Hellums clapped her hands in delight when I joined them.  "Look how beautiful it is!" she said.  "Your neighbor delivered it early this morning."

It really was beautiful.  The needles were a lush, dark green.  The tree was plump and full and it chuckled "all is merry and bright."

It was not an Alabama pine from Mr. Smith's yard.  It was a Douglas fir, which he had purchased at the grocery store and delivered to our classroom.

In the second grade my teacher Mrs. Hellums taught me the power of my imagination. 

My mother taught me that tragedy and need can sometimes come together to produce something wonderful.

And Mr. Smith taught me the true meaning of grace. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

On Japan and Generosity and Jewelry

When I went to Japan to teach English at a middle school in 1992 I thought Japanese kids were going to love me.  Mostly because kids in the US always did.  I was a Sunday School teacher and a babysitter and a Girl Scout and a big sister, and where ever I went I found little kids and they found me.  

When I reported for the first day of school at Anesaki Chu-Gakko in Ichihara-shi, it was an oppressively hot and humid Monday morning.  A group of girls was standing in front of the school and they noticed me right away.  As a tall Westerner, I stood out.  I waved at them and waited for them to run towards me.  

Instead, they ran away screaming.  

I tried to imagine how I was going to do my job under these circumstances.  As a JET (Japanese English Teacher), the Japanese Ministry of Education was paying me to be in the school for the year to form relationships with the kids and encourage them to use the English they were learning in the classroom.  

That was going to be hard if I couldn't get the kids to stop running away from me screaming.  

As a first step, I got the kids used to being in the same room with me.  Of course I was there for their English lessons.

I also spent time with them outside of class.  At lunchtime instead of sitting in the teacher's lounge with other teachers I sat in the classrooms with the kids.  When it was time for o-soji, I cleaned the glass windows and swept the hallways, right along with the kids.  (Japanese schools typically don't pay for janitors, instead the kids spend about 15 minutes each day cleaning their own space.)  At some point the kids started coming to my house on weekends and they invited me to theirs.

Over time they warmed up to me and soon I found myself once again surrounded by children all the time.  They asked a lot of questions about what life was like for teenagers in America.  And they wanted to know what Michael Jordan and Madonna and River Phoenix were like in real life.  

To be clear, I never met any of those people.  

One day, a sweet quiet girl whose name I can't remember gave me a necklace.  Her friend had given it to her and she gave it to me.  It was a tiny coral star on a delicate gold chain.  There was a school rule that students couldn't wear any kind of jewelry other than hair ties.  As she gave it to me she said, "I can't wear this but you can."  

I thought that was the sweetest sentiment in the world.  I can't use this but it will make me happy to see it on you.  

It felt like the purest sense of generosity.  I wore that star to school a lot and it always made her happy.

Over the years I've acquired and lost a lot of jewelry.  Typically I don't buy expensive things so I don't have to be upset when I lose them.  But that coral star has somehow stayed with me.  From Japan to the Monterey Peninsula in 1996.  From Monterey to Silicon Valley in 1999.  From Silicon Valley to Beijing in 2005.  From Beijing to Nashville in 2011.  Somehow that coral star always managed to get into my bags and relocate with me.  

Coincidentally, coral has become one of my favorite colors.  Or perhaps that's not a coincidence at all, maybe it's exactly what you would expect given the way the color  came into my wardrobe via that first little star.  The other day I wore a coral sweater to work and that little star was a perfect complement.  During conference calls that day I found myself wrapping my fingers around it, the pad of each finger settling into one angle of the pentagram.  I thought about that sweet little girl and her generous spirit.

I have long since lost touch with her but where ever she is I hope she's in a place where she can wear whatever jewelry she wants.

And I hope she still has that sweet sense of generosity. 

And if by some chance she sees this post and wants her necklace back, nothing would make me happier than to give it to her.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Post Where I Thank Donald Trump

"I need to know there are still rational people in this world!  I need to be surrounded by them - thousands of them!" she said though her tears, a flame in her dark eyes.  "I just need to know I'm not the only person left in this world who sees how crazy he is!"

Of course there are rational people who voted for Trump.  One day Audrey will learn to say, "I don't agree with your views but I can appreciate why you feel that way."  But this was not the time for that.  One day she will develop empathy and understanding for others' viewpoints, but for now she needs to fully express her own. 

It was late Thursday evening, the night before Trump's inauguration and the mood in my house was somber.  I had just flown in from a business trip to Ft. Lauderdale, a trip that had been physically and emotionally taxing for me.  I was looking forward to a slow, quiet weekend at home that looked something like this:

coffee with my bestie
walk on the greenway
soccer with Grant
make something in the crockpot
bubble bath
hot almond milk with ginger

But my roadmap for a peaceful weekend started to crackle and burn at the thought of making a trip to Washington D.C. for the Women's March.

Would we drive?  That would mean at least 20 hours of driving in one weekend, all to be at the march for a few hours.

Would we fly?  At this point tickets were at least $1,000 per person and I wasn't sending Audrey into that chaos alone.  I would need to buy two tickets. 

I felt tired just thinking about the trip so I tried to make the case that there  was going to be a march in Nashville and that according to the latest estimates there should be 2,000-5,000 people there.  That was thousands.

And frankly, I felt a little scared at the thought of making the trip.  A drive through the night to D.C. would be dangerous in and of itself, and a protest like this one might attract violence.  I didn't feel ready to handle any of that.  

But my daughter was sitting on the sofa next to me with tears in her eyes, asking me to take her to a place where she could see that she was not alone.

And so we made our plans to drive to D.C. as soon as I got off work on Friday.

Then at work on Friday I found out that my coworker Shai was also planning to go for the march.  Weeks ago she had joined the team that was organizing the Nashville March and at the same time had bought a bus ticket to D.C. for the weekend on a crowd source bus.  Across a crowded conference room I yelled to Shai, "Audrey and I are driving!  Go with us!!!

And then there were three.  

So in the evening of Friday, Jan. 20, Shai and Audrey and I started our drive through a long and foggy night and as the sun rose on Jan. 21 we pulled up at my sister Christi's house in Maryland, where we slept for two hours and then got up and took the metro into town.

With each metro stop the train turned a deeper shade of pink as we picked up more and more pussy hats and protest signs and mothers and daughter and sisters.  We cheered and clapped for each other, and I thought, "There are so many of us!  Even this far away from the Capitol, there are so many of us!"

That feeling of 'so many of us' - that intensified as we exited the subway onto the street level.  Metro stations around the city were dumping buckets of pink pussy hats into a swollen river of marching men and women.

There were several police officers and as we passed we thanked them each for their service.  They smiled back and said it was their pleasure.  Statistically speaking, at least half of those officers probably did not agree with our views - but there they were, fighting for our right to express them.

That made me love my country and our Constitution more than ever before.  

As we got closer to the Capitol the river of pussy hats broke the riverbanks and started to flood the entire valley of the Mall.  There were so many of us that we couldn't even march - we stood and soaked in all of the energy and beauty of it all.

"Yep, it isn't just us.  There are lots of people who feel the way we do.  And our democracy is still strong enough for us to come out in throngs like this and protest," I thought.  Tears streamed down my face and I didn't even try to wipe them away.  Surrounded by my sisters - and many brothers - crying felt like a totally normal thing to do.

(This was my favorite sign.  "They tried to bury us.  They didn't realize we were seeds.")

A woman walked up next to me and smiled.  "It's amazing, isn't it?"  She nodded at the crowd all around us.  I smiled and nodded and cried some more.  An unspoken understanding passed between us. "I don't love crowds and I'm a little afraid right now but I know you are too and yet this is more important than all of that.  Thank you for helping me be strong."  I have never felt as threatened and as safe all at the same time.

(This was my second favorite sign.  "Barack, you rest.  We got this.")

Audrey hugged me.  "Thank you so much Mommy for doing this for me."
 ("Let's try to get a better picture of you," Audrey said.  
"Honey I think we can give up on the thought of there being any good pictures of me this weekend.  I've been awake for two days now.")

"Is it what you hoped it would be?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking out at the flooded pink landscape, punctuated by colorful protest signs.  "This is exactly what I needed.  Thank you so much."

Messages of goodwill were streaming in through social media.  Friends who agree with our views cheered us on and thanked us for representing them.  Even those who don't agree wished us a safe journey.  And the early reports said that the crowd in Nashville had already far exceeded initial expectations - instead of 2,000-5,000, the streets were packed with 10,000 protesters. 

After several hours of floating in the lake of pink protest, we were ready to drift back to our homes.  While the trip to D.C. had been dark and foggy, the trip back home was dark and rainy.  It would have been a hard drive under any circumstances but Shai and I had been awake for almost two days now.  We fueled ourselves with Dr. Pepper and Mt. Dew and happy conversation until finally, at 1:00 in the morning we arrived back in Middle America.  We dropped Shai back with her husband and baby, and then Audrey and I went home and went straight to bed.

When we woke up the next morning we were both starving, so we made a breakfast of English muffins and eggs and smoothies and coffee.  We sat together at the kitchen table and convinced each other that the whole thing had actually happened.  Audrey thanked me again and again for taking her, and I thanked her for getting me to go.  I wouldn't have gone if it hadn't been for her, but now that it was over I was so grateful that we took this chance to raise our voices.  

The amazing thing about that weekend is that so many forces came together to make it possible.

Without me, Audrey would not have been able to go to the march.  And without her, I would not have dared to make the trip.  

Without Shai, I would have been the only responsible adult on that perilous journey.  And without us, Shai would have been sleeping on a bus for two nights. 

Without Donald Trump, I would not have found my First Amendment Voice, and I wouldn't have had this amazing weekend adventure with Audrey and Shai.  

And so with a grateful heart, I say thank you and amen to all of those things.  

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Breathing ...

It was every new mother’s nightmare.  The nurses were holding my newborn baby girl just outside of my field of vision. 

I was lying on the operating table with a large blue drape separating me from all of the baby delivering activities.  On my side of the drape it was just me and the anesthesiologist in a quiet pool of fentanyl, chatting to pass the time.

“Just in case you were worried about it, let me reassure you that you are breathing.  Sometimes people feel like they’re not breathing because they can’t feel their chest rising and falling, and they start to panic.  But as long as you can talk you’re breathing.  And you’re talking, so obviously you’re breathing.  Just in case you were worried about that.”

The odd thing is, I never doubted that I was breathing.  I guess because I wasn’t passing out.  But once the anesthesiologist told me that other people tend to panic, I felt weird for not panicking

Which, as fate would have it, was just the moment when the nurse approached me - holding Audrey just so I couldn’t see her - and said, “Before we let you look at your baby I should tell you that…”

It probably took a half second before she finished her sentence, but in that instant my mind flashed through several worst-case scenarios.

“Your baby was born dead.”

“Your baby doesn’t have eyes.”

“Your baby is a fish.”

So when the nurse actually finally completed her sentence, I was completely relieved.

“I should tell you that your baby has a little cut on her lip.  It must have happened when the doctor pulled her out.”

“Oh!  Can it be fixed?” I asked.

“Yes, she’ll probably just need a stitch.  We’ll have a plastic surgeon look at it later this afternoon.”

And then they brought her to my face and I saw my baby girl for the first time.  She was beautiful.  Even with the tiny cut on her lower lip.

Later that afternoon the phone rang in my room.  “Ms. Gao, this is Nurse Carrie from the nursery.  The plastic surgeon is here and we need to know if you want your baby to have anesthesia before he stitches up her lip.”

“Of course I want her to have anesthesia!” I said.  My poor baby.  Why were we even talking about this?  We can’t ask her to have her lip stitched up without anesthesia!

“Well, think about it,” said the nurse.  “She needs one stitch, so that’s one poke with a needle.  If we give her anesthesia that will also be one poke with a needle.”

One poke with a needle either way.  And if she has anesthesia that will be chemicals in her tiny little body…  If we stitch her up without anesthesia then we can spare her the chemicals…  Buddy wasn’t there and they needed a decision right away. 

Suddenly motherhood seemed so hard.  So many hard decisions to be made.  And no crystal balls anywhere to be found. 

“Alright then, please go ahead and do it without the anesthesia.”  I cried and hoped my baby would forgive me.  Partly for letting her experience so much pain on her first day on earth, and partly for bringing a baby into the world without having first secured a crystal ball.

Today, sixteen years later, Audrey is quite proud of her lip scar.  It’s her only scar – whereas her brother is held together by more stitches than we can count.  On our last trip to the ER in August we tried to count, but lost track somewhere around 15 and the time a friend pushed Grant into a chair that had a screw protruding out of it. 

Audrey’s scar is the way I know she’s mine.  She was most definitely not switched at birth because I saw her in the first few seconds, in the delivery room, and she had that cut.  And now I can see the scar from where that cut was stitched up.  She is mine.  Her scar tells me so.

I got my first stitches on Audrey’s  birthday too.  Mine go across my abdomen, along the C-section incision.  The scar curves upward at the ends like a soft smile, as if my abdomen is forever sighing and smiling and saying, “Yeah, I did that…” 

That eventful day in the fall of 2000 was more than just the day Audrey was born.

It was the day I learned that motherhood is really really hard.

And it was the day I learned that 
even if everyone else panics about something, 
it's okay if I don't.

It was the day I learned to yearn for a crystal ball, 
and the day I realized that even when you need it the most 
it will not materialize.

It was the day I discovered the power of anesthesia.  
And the day I learned that sometimes it’s better to face your pain without it.

It day was the day I learned that Audrey is mine.
And that I am hers.
We have the matching scars to prove it.

But most importantly, it’s the day I learned that 
if you’re talking, you’re breathing.  
If you ever doubt it, just say a few words, 
to yourself if you must, 
and know that you are breathing.  

And that you are okay.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Scars mean we survived

“A scar means, I survived.”
-                    - Quote from Little Bee, from the book Little Bee by Chris Cleave

A round dot on my upper lip.  I got that when I had the chicken pox when I was about five.

One on my knee.  I was running in a field day race at the middle school in Japan and I fell and skidded into the gravel just after I crossed the finish line.

One that traverses my left forearm.  That was a suspicious mole that my dermatologist biopsied. 

One that crosses my abdomen.  I’m probably most proud of it.  I got it on October 10, 2000, the day I became a mother.  On that day Audrey also got a scar.  When the doctor cut into my abdomen the blade went through my skin and uterus and placenta and penetrated all the way to her sweet little face.  He nicked her right on the edge of her lip and she was born bleeding.  The doctors stitched her up and now the scar is just barely visible but when I look closely I can see it, and I remember the day she and I got our matching scars.    

My scars would fall into a category I have come to think of as “surface scars”.  They’re surface-level scars that were caused by accident or injury or illness, and as soon as the skin healed I was fine again.  The damage healed completely.

This summer while the kids were with Buddy in China I took a class that was held at the Tennessee Prison for Women.  Each Wednesday evening I spent a couple of hours in the prison with my inside classmates and we studied how to affect change through civic engagement. 

But really, I studied them.

I was fascinated by their scars.  I realized that their scars were different from mine. 

These women do not have surface scars.  Their scars run deep because they aren’t the result of an injury or an illness or an accident.  They got these scars because someone intentionally and maliciously hurt them.

I call these “deep scars”.  They penetrate far beyond the skin and stab their silvery veins into the heart and soul of the victim.  With time the skin might heal but the injury to the heart remains much longer.  It takes months or years to heal … in fact I’m wondering if it ever does. 

Although I’m sure my professor Christin would give me a passing grade for the class, I would give myself an F.  Because the point of the class was to learn how to achieve change through civic engagement.  Yet at the end of the class, I feel less able to change my environment than I did when I started.

I wish I could change the fact that mothers leave and fathers die, but I can’t.

I wish I could change our broken foster care system, but I can’t.

I wish I could change the fact that some women choose really shitty boyfriends, but I can’t. 

I wish I could change the fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, but I can’t.

I feel so helpless about all of that.  And so I sit here and run my finger back and forth, back and forth across the smooth silver scar on my left forearm. 
And it occurs to me that Little Bee was right, scars do mean we survived. 
But that doesn’t mean that we’re okay. 
Or that we ever will be again. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Silent Frog Vigil

“Where’s da fwog?” Charlie asked me.  I reached out to him and he put his chubby hand in mine.  “Da fwog.  Where’s da fwog?”

I looked across the campfire at his mom.  “He can hear the frogs down by the creek and he wants to go find one.” 

“Oh!  Is it okay with you if I take him there?”

“Sure!” Amy said.  This is what family camp is all about.  My children are teenagers but during family camp weekend, I get to take care of a  two-year-old again, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

I’m not sure why Charlie picked me out of the campfire circle as the person who would be able to help him find a frog at the creek but there’s no way I could say no to this kid.  His eyes are like two big chocolate drops and his cheeks are scoops of butterscotch pudding. 

I took his sticky marshmallow hand in mine and we walked towards the creek.  On the way there he stopped to recruit one more frog hunter.  “Where’s da fwog?” he said to Jack, our ministerial intern from Vanderbilt.  “I don’t know,” he replied as he too took Charlie’s hand.

Just down the hill, Jack, Charlie and I paused at the stone bridge that crosses the creek and listened for the frogs.  We could hear one upstream and Charlie led the way to find it. 

A few feet upstream was a flat rock that had space for Charlie and me to sit while we tried to find the frog.  Jack perched a few feet away on a higher lookout rock, also intently trying to find the source of the croaking. 

Every few seconds the frog croaked.  We knew we were close.

In the distance we could hear the rest of the campers singing campfire songs.  The smoke from the fire floated in the air, mixed with the caramel scent of roasted marshmallows and fertile whispers of springtime in Tennessee.  The earth was just waking up after a long winter and far below the surface the roots were stretching in the dark soil, pushing up flowers and the scent of another chance.

Another chance.  Another chance to try.  Another chance to get close.  Another chance to get it right.  Another chance to find what we were looking for.  Another chance. 

Oak trees stretched their arms above us like an embrace.  They held us as we sat in silent frog vigil.  Between the branches we could see full silver clouds above, their underbellies lit up by the light of the full moon. 

As we waited quietly for the frogs Charlie tossed stones into the water and delighted in the splash as each one hit the creek.  The moonlight hovered around his head like a gentle halo, and I was … there.  I was there.  In that moment all I did was be there. 

Okay fine.  I also stressed a bit.  I was stressed because Charlie had chosen me to help him find the frogs and so far we hadn’t seen one.  I wanted to deliver.  I wanted to be a wise adult who could make this cherub’s frog dreams come true.  And I was failing on that front. 

Eventually Charlie’s mom came to find him because the campfire was dying down and it was time for him to go to bed and dream about frogs. 

Maybe I dreamed about frogs too, because when I woke up the next morning I had an obvious revelation. 

Sometimes we can’t see something,
and yet we have found it

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Red Prius and Other Hot Thoughts

Folks it has been a hot summer.  And just when I think it can't get any hotter, I get another breaking news alert on my phone.  More awful news.  Another outburst.  More violence.  More daughters and sons taken away from their families. 

I sort of hate looking at my phone lately.  Because I'm afraid of what breaking news alert is coming next.

The heat of this summer has brought some things to the surface for me.  Most notably, I've had to face the reality that I have biases.  Here's an example.

The other day I was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway when a red Prius pulled onto the shoulder and moved past all the other cars.  I thought to myself, "They must be having some sort of emergency.  Maybe they're rushing to the hospital.  There must be a good reason."

Why was I giving this car the benefit of the doubt?  Usually when a car usurps the shoulder like that I curse them under my breath.  I assume they're selfish, self-centered, an all-around jerk.  So why in this case did I assume there was an emergency of some sort?

Because it was a Prius.  I have a positive bias towards Prius drivers.  I believe that they are environmentally aware, selfless, kind and humble people.  Because they chose a car that's more energy efficient than stylish.  No offense, Prius drivers.  Because the whole point here is that you made that trade-off.  You chose a car that looks like a lunch box because saving the planet is more important to you.

And thus, if you pull onto the shoulder in a traffic jam, I assume you had a good reason.

So there you go.  I have a positive bias for Prius drivers.

As biases go, that one isn't so bad.  It's a positive bias.  And it's more humorous than harmful.  Naturally, I have a lot more biases where that one came from.  And they're not all positive.  It's not hard to write about my Prius bias.  It would be a lot harder to write about some of my other biases.  But I think it's important, as the asphalt melts in the heat of this summer, to admit that I have biases.

I'm not sure what to do next.  I wish someone could tell me how to get rid of my biases.  But clearly as a society we have not figured that one out yet.  And I'm not sure it's even possible to get rid of our biases.  Maybe the best we can do it acknowledge that we have them.

My name is Melanie and I am biased.

I'm telling you this summer just keeps getting hotter and hotter.

Many of the scary and awful events of this summer have happened in crowded places.  Shopping centers, festivals, restaurants, airports, public protests, parks, celebrations.  I wonder if you are like me.  I wonder if, for a brief moment, you considered not going to public gatherings this summer.  You might feel like you are vulnerable when you are in a crowd.

You might feel like you are at risk when you are gathered together with others in community.

In reality, the opposite is true.

We are at risk if we allow ourselves to withdraw.

We might feel safer if we isolate ourselves but the truth is, as the mercury rises this summer of 2016, we need each more than ever before.

The only way I'm going to survive these sweltering weeks is huddled together with my community.  I need to gather with my people at the altar, at the table, at the bar, in the classroom, on the jogging trail, in the waiting room, in the conference room, on the porch, at the gate.  As as the water and the wine and the coffee flow, I need to sink deeper and deeper into relationship with my family and my friends.

And even here, on the pages of my blog, I need to gather together with you, the beautiful people who come here to read.  Whether we have met personally or not, when you take the time to read my thoughts, we are in community.

And I need you.  We need each other.

This summer of 2016, as the tempers flare and the bullets fly, we need each other more than ever.  Let's please not allow the fear and the horror of this sweltering season to tear us apart from each other.  Let's remember that the only thing that's going to save us all is if we can come together in community.

And I don't just mean easy community.  Easy community comes with people who see things the way you do.  People who grew up in an environment similar to yours.  People who are going to vote for the same person as you in November.  That kind of community is easy.

But folks we also need hard community.  We need to sit with people we don't agree with.  People we don't understand.  And we need to look deep into each other and listen and in the end we may not agree but we need to be able to hear each other.

That is the only way we will get through the fire of this summer together.  Together.  In community. 

We need each other.

I am not going to let go of you.

Please don't let go of me.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

It All Started With This Pot of Soup

"Do you need help?"  

I could hear a voice but there was so much smoke in the house I couldn't tell who was talking.  I waved my arm through the air and saw a murky figure.  It was a man standing in my living room at midnight.  A man I had never seen before.

"I was studying and I heard your smoke alarm, and I looked over at your house and saw the smoke coming out the back door so I thought I'd come over and ... are you okay?"

"No, I guess I'm not okay," I coughed.  "Have we met yet?  I'm Melanie."  I waved more smoke away and shook his hand.

"I'm Adam," he said.

"Well this is a weird way to meet but it's nice to meet you.  I left a pot of soup on the stove when I went to bed and I've turned that off now and put the pot out in the backyard, but now I can't get the smoke alarm to turn off.  I'm trying to get the battery out but I can't.  Do you think you can do this?"  I offered him my screwdriver.

He climbed up on the kitchen chair underneath the smoke detector and pried the battery out it.  He placed the the battery gently on the kitchen counter, then he picked it back up and pointed at the now defunct smoke alarm.  

"You should probably ... put this back in.  Soon.  Like, as soon as the smoke clears."  He placed the battery into my palm and closed my fingers around it.

I coughed and smiled.  Clearly I was a woman who needed to have a functioning smoke detector at all times.  

"I will," I promised.  And I did.

"Well, it was nice meeting you, even under such odd circumstances," my neighbor said.  

"It was, thanks so much for your help," I said.  "Here, let me give you my cell phone number just in case I can ever help you with anything.  I'd love to return the favor to you some time."  

Although he was my next door neighbor, I didn't see Adam or hear from him again for the next year.  Then he moved out of his duplex, I moved out of mine, and I thought the night I nearly torched my house would be the first and last time I ever heard from him.  

But then my phone rang the other day and I finally got to return that favor.  

It was the county fire chief.  

Adam had applied to be a volunteer fire fighter.  

And he listed me as a reference. 

I gave him my highest recommendation. 


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Yards Full of Stories

 "Mom, you're so WEIRD!  What is it with you and cemeteries?  Your whole family is this way!"

She's right.  I am weird.  I do have a thing with cemeteries.  And my whole family is this way.

It was a freezing Sunday morning in late November.  The kids and I were having a family getaway at Montgomery Bell State Park and on our way to the trail head we passed a beautiful old cemetery.  I pulled the car over.  

That's when my kids began wailing and gnashing their teeth.  "Mom, can't we just go to the trail head?  Why do we have to stop here?"

I could hardly hear them.  I was halfway to the tombstones.

I'm not sure why the Parsons love graveyards so much.  I think it's because we have a deep love for stories, and we know that a graveyard is not just a yard full of graves.  It's also a yard full of stories.  Only with these stories, you don't get the full tale.  All you know is when it began, and when it ended, and maybe you get a few words that came in between. 

Despite their protests, my kids soon left the car and joined me among the headstones.  Soon they were as engrossed as I was.  Grant was calculating the length of each person's life.  Audrey noticed that as you went further back into the cemetery the graves got older and harder to read.  In a far corner of the cemetery she tried to decipher characters on a blackened, moss-covered headstone.

"This one is so hard to read... I can just barely make out the words..." she said.

"Wow, this one over here must be even older.  You can hardly tell there are words on it at all," I said.

By this point Grant had joined us as we crouched close to the oldest, blackest stone in the cemetery.  "That's not a tombstone," he said.  "It's just a black rock, isn't it?"

"Nope, I'm pretty sure that's a tombstone," I said.  "See, you can kind of feel the indentations."

"You're right," Audrey said.  "I wonder what it says.  What do you think it says?" she asked.

"I wonder," I said.  "You know if we had brought the right supplies, like chalk and paper, we could do a chalk rubbing.  You hold the paper over the stone and rub the chalk over it and it lets you see what's carved in the stone."

"Do you think a pen and paper would work?" Audrey asked.

"I doubt it," I said.  "We don't have chalk or crayons in the car, do we?"

"We might," Grant answered.

We all know that "might" is an understatement.  It's likely.  Because my car always has a layer of ... something ... in the floorboards.  Apple cores, empty water bottles, shin guards, make up brushes, books, permission slips, training manuals, flip flops, half-eaten granola bars, spoons, allergy tablets...

My epitaph will say, "She had something rolling around in her floorboard." 

"I'll go see what I can find," I said.  "Meanwhile you guys see if you can make anything out here."

I searched the car, hoping to find chalk or crayons and white paper.  The closest thing I could find was a composition notebook and two pencils.  I was pretty sure this wouldn't work but I wanted to give it a try.

Back at the gravestone, I tore out a piece of paper from the composition book and held it across the front of the stone while Audrey ran the pencil over it, back and forth.  At first it just looked like gray and white bumps and I was afraid we were going to have to admit failure.

But Audrey continued to swipe the pencil over and over, across the paper.  Hypnotized, Grant and I hardly breathed as we watched Audrey's hand swing back and forth.  We were like teenagers at a sleepover huddled around a ouija board, testing to see if a message would emerge from the mystical game, listening for the slightest indication that something was there, skeptical and yet at the same time naively hopeful.

And after about a minute, one very clear line appeared on the paper.

"Wait a second, what is that?  Is that a line?  It is!  Is that part of a letter?  Keep doing that!  There's another line!  Is it an H?  Is that an H?  Or an N?  It's an M!  It's an M!  Grant, do you see that?  It's an M!"

Never have three people been so excited to see an M.

A raspy voice from the dead that had not spoken in centuries was choking out sound once again.

M.  M.  I am M. 

I continued to hold the paper fast and Grant and Audrey took turns swiping the pencil across it, exploring to the left and to the right of our M to find the rest of the name.


His name was Liam M.J.

He was born in 1825.  He died in 1913.

We could feel a series of smaller indentations further down on the stone.  We thought this must be Liam M.J.'s epitaph.  We moved our paper over it and began to swipe the pencil.  These letters were harder to read since they were smaller.  Then, like an ancient telegraph coming over a rusty wire, the letters rose slowly from the rock.

"God.  God ... made?  God ... gives?  Oh!  God gave.  God gave.  It says God gave!"

"He ... He ... He took."

"God gave.  He took.  Aw!"

"He ... will ... He will what?  ...  He will ... what? ...  He will restore!"

"It says, "God gave.  He took.  He will restore.'"

"Wow!  Is there one more line?  There is!  What does it say?"

"He ... He what? ... He dwells?  ...  He ... doth?  ...  He doeth!  That's old English.  He doeth ... all ... He doeth all ... He doeth all things ... He doeth all things ...  He doeth all things well!"

The three of us stepped back for a moment.  We stood in the golden sunlight, in the middle of an ancient cemetery and recited Liam M.J.'s epitaph together.

"God gave.  He took.  He will restore.  He doeth all things well."

And then there was just wind.  And leaves blowing across the graveyard.  We were paralyzed in a trance of reverent amazement.

As we drove to the trail head each child was looking out the window, perhaps thinking about Liam M.J. and wondering what his life had been like.

I was feeling a profound happiness.

I was happy to know that the Parsons' love of cemeteries was a dominant trait, and that mine had been solidly transferred to the next generation.

And I was happy about our encounter with Liam M.J.  He had had a message for us that morning, and we had listened closely and heard him.

Actually I guess Liam M.J. had two messages for us that day.

The first one was obvious.   

God gave.  He took.  He will restore.  

He doeth all things well.

I believe that.  He does do all things well.  He does.  He does.  And I am grateful.

The second message was more subtle, and it was for my children. 

Yes, your mother is weird.  

She has a thing for cemeteries.

Her whole family is that way.

And aren't you glad?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Crazy Sh*t that Happened at The White House

1. I was invited.

Let’s just start off with this.  The fact that I was invited to the White House for the September 25 State Dinner for Chinese President Xi and his wife Madame Peng is just incredible.  

Check out the guest list here and you will see of course President Obama and Michelle Obama, President Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan.  You will also see:
Mark Zuckerberg
Tim Cook
Misty Copeland
Sonia Sotomayor
Larry Ellison
Joe Biden
Lee Daniels
Marc Benioff
Madeleine Albright
John Kerry

And buried deep in that list you see this:

 Ms. Christi Parsons, Correspondent, Los Angeles Times

    Ms. Melanie Gao

My sister is not only a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, she was also President of the White House Correspondents’ Association last year.  She’s sort of a big deal in Washington.  When she got invited to the State Dinner she forwarded me the invite.  “Are you interested?  See below!” she said. 

Yeah.  I was interested. 

I knew that I was one of the least significant invitees that evening and I could not have cared less.  I was excited just to be in the same room with all those powerful and beautiful people.  I fully expected to be seated in the back of the dining room, right next to the kitchen, and I was fine with that.  In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that I had been seated in some sort of overflow room and I would have even been fine with that too. 

That’s why #5 on this list was especially surprising. 

2. We took an uber to the White House.

I wasn’t sure how we would get to the White House that evening but for some reason I imagined the President sends a limo for you.  Or perhaps a black Suburban with bullet-proof glass.  

It turns out he does not.  

You have to figure out transportation on your own and my sister and I called an uber to take us there. 

It was a Prius. 

3. I got sniffed down by a German Shepherd even though I was wearing an evening gown.

It takes four stops to get into the White House for a State Dinner.

At the first stop they checked our IDs.

At the second stop they checked our invitations and made sure our names were on the guest list.  I guess they wanted to avoid a replay of this.

At the third stop we got sniffed down by a German Shepherd but the way they did it was fascinating.  They asked me to stand on a metal platform.  On my right was a giant fan.  On my left was a metal grate and behind the grate was a secret service officer with a dog.  The fan was blowing my scent over to the dog, who was able to sniff me down without ever actually touching me or my designer dress.  Amazing. 

Finally, they ran our purses through an X-ray and we walked through a metal detector. 

At last, we were cleared to enter the White House itself.

As Christi and I approached the White House doors, an older man was approaching in a wheelchair.  We slowed down to allow him space to get in the door in front of us.  He stood up from the chair and walked into the White House as if he had been there a thousand times before. 

Which, apparently, he had.

“Oh my god.  That’s Henry Kissinger,” Christi whispered to me. 

We walked into the White House behind Henry Kissinger. 

The Parsons sisters. 

    From Alabama. 

        From the farm house on Hargrove Road. 

                    Those girls, the Parsons sisters. 

    Walked into the White House behind Henry Kissinger. 

Crazy sh*t.  I am telling you. 

4.  Going through a receiving line with the Obamas is like going through a car wash.

2015 was an amazing and blessed year for me - I got to meet the Obamas not just once but twice.  So I feel like I’ve got a body of experience to work from here.  Christi advised me not to try to start a conversation with them, just let them do all the talking.  She told me not to initiate a hug or a kiss or anything like that, I should let them initiate all the greetings. 

This was my first attempt at a receiving line with the Obamas, in April 2015 at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

And this was the State Dinner in September 2015:

I think there’s a marked improvement, don’t you? 

It’s because I figured out how to approach the receiving line.  Just put it in neutral and take your foot off the brake.  Just like in the car wash.  The Obamas will start a sweet and charming conversation with you, and when it’s time for you to move along, an extremely polite uniformed military officer behind you will press on your elbow until you move along.  It’s actually the easiest thing in the world.

The Obamas were always charming and stately and funny and real, all at the same time.  President Obama had met all the sisters back at the WHCA dinner in April, so when just Christi and I showed up at the State Dinner in September, he asked about the other sisters.  That floored me.  He remembered that we have two other sisters.

5. They seated me next to the Number Two in the Chinese delegation.

When we entered the dining room Christi and I weaved our way among the tables to find our place cards, which had been hand written by White House Chief Calligrapher Pat Blair.  My name has never looked as beautiful to me as it did that night, written so delicately on a beautiful ivory card, embossed with a gold White House seal, propped on a solid gold place card holder.   

I introduced myself to the gentleman on my left and asked him to help me pronounce his name.  “Li Zhan Shu”, he said slowly.  “栗战书。  我很高兴认识您。我叫高美玲,” I said.  “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Li.  I’m Gao Meiling.”  I wasn’t planning to use my Chinese name when I introduced myself but it just slipped out.  Even though I hadn’t used that name in years.  He remarked that I spoke Chinese and I told him I had lived in Beijing for six years.  Then we both went on to meet our other table mates.  There were eight of us at the round table. 

A few minutes later President Obama and President Xi made some openings remarks and then the first course was served.  As we were eating, Christi leaned over to me and said softly, “That Chinese man next to you is the Number Two in the Chinese delegation.”   

“What does that mean?” I asked. 

“They rank everyone in the delegation and the guy next to you is the second highest ranking person, just after President Xi himself.  He’s the head of the Communist Party in China.”

I whispered to her softly, “What the hell???  Why did they put me next to him?  I should be next to the kitchen!  Why did they put me next to the second most important person in the freaking delegation???”

“I don’t know but these things are always intentional.  Just stay calm and act normal.  But don’t start a conversation with him.  Wait and see if he starts a conversation with you.  The man on his left is the Director for China Affairs on the National Security Council.  The two of them are supposed to be having a serious conversation.  If Mr. Li gets tired of that conversation, he might turn to you to talk and if he does, you can talk with him.  But don’t keep him from talking with the National Security Council guy.” 

I stirred my mushroom soup and wondered who in the world thought it was a good idea to seat me next to the Number Two in the delegation.  And I wondered why no one had given me a heads up.  In my world, we would give people a heads up about that sort of thing. 

But we were most definitely not in my world here.  

For most of the dinner Mr. Li did talk with the National Security Council advisor on his left.  But around dessert, their conversation died down and Mr. Li sat quietly for a moment and ate his dessert - lemon curd with buttermilk custard sauce. 

Don’t start a conversation with him.  Don’t start a conversation with him.”  Christi’s words echoed in my head. 

“您吃的好吗?“ I asked him.  “Are you enjoying your dinner?”

Dammit.  Why do I always do that?  The only guidance I had for the whole entire evening was to not start a conversation with the guy to my left.  And I started a conversation with him.

But he was gracious and sweet about it.  He said he was enjoying his dinner and then we chatted about Beijing.  It turns out his house is not too far from where we lived in Beijing, and we knew a lot of the same places.  I asked if it was okay to ask about his family and he said it was, so he told me about his children and I told him about mine.  And then dinner was over and it was time to move into another hall for a musical performance.

Which was more crazy sh*t.

6. The musical performance was not what you would expect.

Okay, let’s talk about what you would expect.  It’s a post-dinner musical performance.  It’s a delegation from China. 

A private cello concert from Yo-Yo Ma, right? 

Or maybe a performance from Misty Copeland, the first African-American dancer to be promoted to principal at the American Ballet Theatre. 

Nope.  It was Ne-Yo.  Yes, that Ne-Yo.  Hip-hop star Ne-Yo.  Agent Deveroux in the film “Sharknado 3” Ne-Yo.

He sang three songs - the last one was the one we all know.

I knew my rent was gonna be late about a week ago
I worked my a$$ off but I still can’t pay it though.
But I’ve got just enough to get up in this club,
and have me a good time,
before my time is up.

I kid you not.  This is how we entertained the Chinese delegation.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Ne-Yo as much as the next person.  But to entertain a delegation from China…?  It made about as much sense as seating me next to Li Zhan Shu. 

I do want to insert here that I have a problem with the lyrics of that song, and I’ve lectured my kids a few times about what to do if you can’t pay your rent.

You make a partial payment with whatever money you do have, make a commitment to pay the rest by a certain date, and then stay in and watch Netflix that night.

Which granted, is not a song anyone would buy. 

7. Only the stars had their phones out.

Apparently it is not diplomatically correct to tweet pictures of yourself at a State Dinner.  None of the political or business figures ever had their phones out.  Not even Apple CEO Tim Cook.

But the celebrities were constantly taking pictures and posting them. 

I sat next to Lee Daniels’ mom at the performance and she was lovely.  She introduced her son as “Lee” and at first I thought he was vision-impaired because he was wearing sunglasses indoors.  At night. 

Then I realized he was just famous. 

Incidentally, he’s the director of a movie I loved very much -  “The Butler.”  It takes place in the White House in the 1960s.  And I sat next to Lee, the director of that movie.  In the White House. 

Crazy sh*t.  I am telling you. 

8. They took away the place card holders before dessert.

Do you remember I mentioned the solid gold place holders for our name cards?  Just before dessert was served the waitress came around and took them all up. 

Christi told me that if they don’t do that, some people will steal them. 

America, please.

9. As the clock struck 11:00, it was over.

The musical performance wrapped up promptly at 11:00 and our enchanted evening at the White House was over.  Our exit from the presidential residence was unceremonious.  One minute we were in the regal glow of that historic mansion and 30 seconds later we were standing on a street corner in DC, waiting for the pedestrian light to turn white so we could cross with all the other normal and regular citizens.

How can everything be so magical one minute, and the next minute you’re standing on a cement curb, waiting for a street light to change? 

It was like we dreamed the whole thing. 

But I know I wasn’t dreaming because the next morning I woke up and found this picture on my iPhone:

Yeah, that's Ne-Yo.  

He's winking at me.  

We had a good time before our time was up, didn't we Ne-Yo?