short excerpts...other writings...upon occasion or as prompted...
The tiger in the water? A representation of my life -- spirit and environment!


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An Extra-Ordinary Right

Just scratch the surface…. It is a thought I have often had over the past three decades of raising handicapped children. When you think you have a hard lot, all you have to do is scratch the surface of someone else’s life, and yours suddenly looks not bad at all. There are those who would say that God gives each person no more than he or she is capable of bearing, but I don’t think God gives us our burdens at all. Rather, in my experience, the burdens come from the workings of nature, our own ineptness, and the sometimes ill-intentioned behaviors of others. God steps in and provides the support when our load becomes an overload. Breaking points differ, though, for one person’s load is another person’s overload. That is what Eliana and I learned three decades ago.

When my children were little, Eliana’s were, too. Like my children, hers had medical problems. Her older son was born with Immune Deficiency Syndrome. He was the first “bubble baby” to be raised outside a bubble, mainly because Eliana is a force to be reckoned with. She was unwilling to let him be put into a bubble. Whenever I thought my problems were bad, I would call Eliana, who had been my best friend in college. We ended up living only 30 miles apart for a while when our children were small. I was at Renboro University, and Eliana was working for an insurance company in nearby White Spring. Eliana and I would compare notes. Somehow she always thought that my load was worse; after all, I had two children with problems. I always thought her load was worse; after all, her son, Paul, had a much smaller chance of survival than did Doah and Noelle although for a while Doah had been given no chance at all of living, something that I, like Eliana, was just not willing to accept.

Eliana had another difficulty, one that I did not. She was Jewish, and her husband Bob was Catholic. Donnie and I, both being atheists, never had to deal with familial religious dissent on top of the strain that birth defects put on a marriage and family. Eliana and Bob had few problems in the early years of their marriage: she went to synagogue on Fridays and he went to mass on Sundays. Then came the kids and the struggle as to choice of religion in which to raise them. Judaism being matrilineal and Eliana being matriarchal, Eliana won. The children were raised Jewish, and Donnie, Eliana's children, Eliana, and I had a wonderful time at their bar mitzvah and bas mitzvah, as did Bob.

The friendship that Eliana and I had helped us both in many ways. One of the things that Donnie and I worried about in the early years was appointing a guardian for our children. In the event that something should happen to us, we wanted a guardian who would raise them similarly to how we would raise them, who would fight for them, and who would teach them to fight for themselves. We certainly did not want my abusive mother raising them, and Donnie's mother was too old and would have been unable to cope with all the defects -- she cried whenever she thought about them. Eliana was a perfect choice. She was young, and she was used to handling children with birth defects. She agreed. Of course, she would -— for the same reason that I agreed to take in a dying child artist from Siberia during a period of time when we had no money, I was partially unemployed (trying to start up an independent institute), and our kids were in the delightful but demanding teenage years.

Eliana, in spite of her robust ability to handle nearly any crisis sent her way, had a limit to her emotional resilience. She found that limit in the summer of 1982. She and Bob had taken Paul and Mavis, their younger daughter, to Philadelphia, Eliana’s home city, to find a good oncologist. The ones in Renboro declared that treating Bob for cancer that came from being exposed to Agent Orange during his military assignment in Vietnam was useless. The cancer was too advanced when the doctors found it. As usual, Eliana was not willing to accept such a prognosis. She packed up Bob and children, took a leave of absence from work, and drove eight hours to Philadelphia to meet with doctors she trusted. The doctors there, as Eliana suspected, were able to get Bob’s cancer in remission, and Eliana and family made plans to return to White Spring.

That was when she received the urgent call from the pediatrician. Mavis, the healthy child, apparently was showing signs of juvenile diabetes, based on tests done right before the family left for Philadelphia. With her usual enthusiasm substantially subdued, Eliana returned to White Spring with a still-ailing Bob, daily medicine for Paul, and concerns about Mavis. Ah, it would be so good to be home after eight weeks away!

As she drove up to their house, however, something seemed wrong. Something was wrong. The back door was swinging on its hinges. Eliana walked in cautiously. No one was there. The place was empty, very empty. The house had been ransacked. Nearly every personal possession she cared about was gone.

Eliana did not cry that day. She was too stunned. She did not cry the next day, either. Instead, she did some research and found out who was considered the best psychologist in the White Spring area and made an emergency appointment.

At the psychologist’s office, Eliana laid out her whole story. I imagine that took some time! When she finished, the psychologist was silent for quite a while. Then, he quietly said, “I’m sorry. I will not charge you for a visit because I do not have any good answer for you. If I were in your place, I would just go have myself a nice little nervous breakdown. I think you have earned it.”

Eliana started to laugh. She laughed all the way home. She never did end up crying over the lost possessions; she just rebuilt her house and her life. Bob is still alive; his cancer has been in remission many years. Paul outgrew his lack of immunity somewhere around age 12. Mavis, it turned out, never did develop juvenile diabetes; it was a false alarm. Both children are now married with families of their own.

Now, though, any time I feel that I have an overload, I think of Eliana and her (and my) entitlement to a “nice little nervous breakdown,” and I laugh like Eliana did. Once again, a divine intervention in a very unlikely source — an honest psychologist with an odd sense of humor — had given both of us — Eliana and me — a mechanism for handling our lives when they went into overload. Somehow, the knowledge that the best psychologist in White Spring had given us a free prescription for a nervous breakdown was enough to lift our spirits. Neither of us ever filled that prescription.


Adapted from an excerpt from Blest Atheist (copyright 2003, MSI Press).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Stabbings of Rollie

Development of self-worth was not a natural part of what passed for nurturing at our home. As the oldest and most defiant, I received perhaps the greatest number of beatings, but I did not receive the worst of them. That was reserved for Rollie, my younger brother, who was a happy-go-lucky, live-for-today fellow with my spirit of defiance when accosted. Rollie, as a teenager, could easily have dropped Ma to the floor but had sufficient residual respect for her role as a mother not to use his physical size to return the hurts she delivered to him. He mainly used words, but no words admitting being hurt ever slipped past his lips. Not even when he was stabbed twice, once by Ma and once by Dad. In both cases, he remained defiant.

I have a somewhat hazy memory of the first stabbing. It was not undertaken for any reasonable motive. Reasonable people don’t stab their children, so there could not be any good reason for doing so.

In any event, Ma stabbed Rollie in the buttocks for putting the hamburger planned for supper that evening in the roadside mailbox where no one could find it, something he did for spite for Ma’s beating him about something else. (Rollie, like me, could be spiteful; “don’t get mad, just get even” tended to be a modus operandi.) Realizing that she had drawn blood, Ma became even angrier, not at herself as one might think, but at Rollie.

“Look what you made me do to you! You bastard! Don’t you dare cry, or I’ll do it again. And don’t you dare tell, or I’ll do it again. This is all your fault. If you would behave, you would have no problems.”

None of us ever knew what “behave” meant. Ma’s expectations differed from moment to moment, depending on her mood.

“Go wash your hair, bitch,” Rollie retorted in defiance, referring to the fact that when Ma’s hair was dirty she was at her meanest. I often said the same to her, including using the word, bitch, or other equally pejorative label. Through example, she taught us a rich vocabulary of colorful epithets at a very early age. We never used them at school or in the community, but we had much practice listening to and using them at home.

“Don’t you tell me what to do,” she threw back at him. “I’ll show you who needs a hair washing!” And she grabbed him by the hair and pulled him to his knees. “Now, say you’re sorry. Beg me not to hurt you some more!”

“Hell, no, bitch,” he said. “You beg me to forgive you!” I understood Rollie. I would never beg or ask for mercy, either. Fighting back, not begging, was what kept our self-esteem intact.

Rollie twisted away, wrenching himself free from the hand that was holding him by the hair. “Hey, bitch,” he taunted her in defiance, “You want to try for the other side? I have two cheeks. You only got me in one!”

Of course, he did not wait for an answer. He took off running. She would not be able to catch him, and by the time he would return, she would either have washed her hair and mellowed or would have found another child to beat. This particular event, this stabbing, would be over. It was a completed disciplinary action.

Years later, Ma would not deny the stabbing but would try to justify it. “I did not stab him,” she told me in a conversation in 1998, “I hit him. I just forgot I had a knife in my hand.” As if hitting were all right!

Dad, too, had a moment of pure rage that left a permanent scar on Rollie’s body. It was the end of the summer, and we had just finished haying the lower field. Hardly anyone in our rural Maine farmland had the modern automatic haying equipment that bundles and ties hay into cubes or rolls. We had to do everything the old-fashioned way, which meant by hand and with people power.

Dad had been driving the tractor. Ma and we three older girls had been pitching into the wagon the made hay, i.e. mowed hay dried in the sun (hence the expression, to make hay while the sun shines). The three younger boys had been treading the hay and were now riding back to the barn in the hay wagon. We did not have a large hayfork that could be lowered from the upper story of the barn and mechanically sweep the hay through the upper story window into the hay loft. Instead, we had to drive the tractor into the barn and use pitchforks to pitch the hay up into the loft, forkful by forkful. It was a lot of hard, physical labor. The only ones big enough at the time to toss hay that far were Dad, Ma, and we girls.

We began tossing the hay. The boys were told to climb into the hayloft, take a pitchfork, and weave in the forkfuls that we threw up there. In order for hay to stay put in a hay loft it has to be interlaid, with bundles of shafts being “tied” into other bundles of shafts, in ways that parallel gathering hay from the field by pitching it into the hay wagon while someone walks around the wagon, intermixing the forkfuls of hay being thrown into it, in order to make it lie flat and not fall out. In farm parlance, this is called treading hay. Hay wagons with well tread hay can carry as much as double the size of the wagon. When hay is subsequently taken from the hay wagon by pitchfork and thrown into a loft, the intermixing of shafts breaks down and the hay has to be “re-tread,” so to speak, while being thrown into the loft.

Rollie, for some reason, could not keep up with the amount of hay coming in his direction. Without being tread into the mix fast enough, forkfuls kept falling back into the hay wagon. Dad was clearly at the end of his physical endurance. It took only a word from Ma to put an end to his emotional endurance, as well.

“He’s horsing around again, Bartholomew” she said to Dad. “I can’t do anything with that kid. Just get rid of him.” She was always talking about getting rid of one or another of us, I being the one she most frequently wanted to get rid of.

Unexpectedly, in a burst of rage, Dad threw his pitchfork into the hayloft. It was not clear whether he was angry with Ma for what she said because Dad really did love kids or whether he was out of patience with Rollie.

Regardless of what prompted Dad to throw the pitchfork, he did it. It went sailing through the air and, still with a good deal of force behind it, sliced through Rollie’s lower leg and nailed him to the floor of the hayloft. Rollie stood still, speechless, for a stunned moment, realizing that he was pierced and pinned.

We were all shocked, so much so that I don’t remember if Rollie said a word, if anyone said a word. Wordlessly, Dad climbed the built-in ladder to the hayloft and worked to free Rollie from the pitchfork. I don’t remember if Rollie screamed. I do remember Ma sending my younger sister, Danielle, scurrying for bandaging. Danielle became so good at the home care of wounds that it is no surprise that she is a top flight nurse today at a leading medical center. Danielle applied the bag balm, a wondrous salve that we used on the cattle when they had cuts and abrasions, and wrapped Rollie’s leg. No doctor ever saw what happened to Rollie, and it must only have been by the grace of God that his leg healed with no more damage than a scar as a reminder. None of us, though, needs a reminder.


This excerpt comes from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009), prior to copyediting and publication. The book is essentially my conversion story with all the gory and glorious details. It also contains stories about "The Burning House," the name that my brother-in-law William Smith (Danielle's husband) gave to the home where we grew up and to a poem he wrote about it. I would say that the images in the poem are quite accurate descriptions of the emotional state in which we lived with one exception: we did not perish but managed to escape, each in his or her own way, and have worked most of our lives both to help each other and also to do whatever we can to make the world around us a better place than the burning house where we grew up.

"The Burning House"
by William Smith
copyright 2009

I dreamed a dream of a burning house
With brothers and sisters and a cold bitter spouse.
The halls were all crooked, the doors were ajar.
I heard all their cries from the road in my car.

I put on the brakes and came to a stop
While an old jackrabbit went hippity hop.
I looked back again, and the house was ablaze.
The people inside just looked in a daze.

The curtains were tattered, the roof was not straight.
The hinges were knocked off the broken front gate.
The paint was all weathered, and the shutters hung loose.
A shadow on the barn door looked like a noose.

A kid outside shouted, "There's a fire there, you see".
But Mama kept screaming, "Come back here to me".
"No, I cannot, ‘cause your house is on fire".
But nobody listened as the flames grew still higher.

Once in a while a child would run out,
But Mama and Papa would just scream and shout.
The kid in the yard would utter a scream
As a child ran back in as if in a dream.

Soon the house burned right to the ground.
The kid in the yard made not a sound.
I opened the door, and she sat on the seat.
She didn't look back because of the heat.

I stepped on the gas, and we sped away.
I opened my mouth, but what can you say?
"They had to go back," was her soft reply.
All of them chose their way to die.

I turned on the light; she was just seventeen.
She was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen.
I'll never forget the night I stopped there,
‘Cause I married that girl with the long, flowing hair.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Boy in White

This particular excerpt needs some background explanation: (1) I grew up on a farm in Maine; (2) I loved languages, taught myself many as a child with pen-pals in many countries, as well as studied even more in school; (3) always wanted to be a teacher; (4) was the oldest child in a highly abusive home, sexually, physically, and emotionally, where the greatest amount of physical abuse, nearly always on a daily basis, was delivered by my mother; (5) I was an atheist for 56 years before having a hard conversion at the hand of God; (6) long before my conversion, I was not only exposed to many miracles but also a player in the drama that surrounded them including the rescue of a dying young child artist from Siberia named Shura, for which act the priest at the Russian Orthodox Church in Akademgorodok, gave me the label, Good Samaritan, a label that has stuck. Now, here's the excerpt:

As a child, I loved the song, "The Impossible Dream." I could relate to that. Yes, indeed, I did think that my unreachable star was the story of a farm girl who ultimately, as a polyglot, provides consultation to ministries of education in many lands. However, it turns out this conclusion is faulty. All the experience I have gathered indicates that my original goals of learning languages and teaching were just the means, not the end. The means was given to me in spades ostensibly to provide credibility and a vehicle to speed my journey to the star. I am not there yet, but I know what the end must be. The end was somehow in the beginning: to be a Good Samaritan at times and in places of God’s choosing. I generally succeed at the action, albeit far from always, but I often fail at the timing and the manner. I still try to do things my way, on my schedule, and even, at times, with pugilism. To be a Good Samaritan in God’s humble way of quietly turning bad into good, I need conscious repetition of the étude and guided practice in keyboarding. Shura’s interlude was clearly but one of the themes.

The opening score, surprisingly, occurred in childhood. On one bright, cold winter day, I dragged my sled three houses down the street to our neighbor’s teton-shaped hill, where all the children in our area of town gathered to race down to the mostly untraveled country road below on sleds, cardboard, or whatever else was available.

I pulled my sled up the hill, waving to the other children in the neighborhood but mainly concentrating on the anticipated thrill of the ride. Sledding can, and probably should, be a community sport. It was precisely that on Lengory (Lenin Hills) behind the University of Moscow where I was studying as a graduate student. My daughter Lizzie, who had come to Moscow with me, and her American friend Sally, daughter of an American diplomat, shared Sally’s cherry-colored, round, plastic, American sled that immediately drew to them the attention of the Soviet children who had never seen such an object in their lives, their sanki being oblong and wooden with metal runners. Soon a Russian girl piled onto the sled with Lizzie, and they sailed down the hill amid shrieks and giggles that bonded the American and the Russian in a moment of joy in a moment of time. Then it was Sally’s turn to spin down the moderate slope with a Russian boy. The communal play lasted for a couple of hours, during which the lingua franca was laughter.

The scene on our neighbor’s hill 30 years earlier, however, was significantly different. We were a community of children in the sense that we all knew each other, but our sport was an individual one. We did not share adrenaline-spurred shrieks of fun but rather we quietly felt the thrill that defined the fun of New England downhill sledding.

That afternoon as I was pulling my one-person wooden sled up the hill a third time, I noticed a young boy, clad all in white and definitely not adequately covered for the sub-zero temperature that rosied our noses as they protruded from the scarves wrapped around our necks and faces and tucked into the hoods on our coats. I puzzled over the boy in white only momentarily as I mounted the hill and then the sled and began my third downhill run toward the road. Suddenly, about half-way down the hill, the boy in white, well blended with the surrounding snow in my visual field, began moving across the path over which my sled was about to speed.

“Get out of the way!” I yelled. I was as much annoyed at his being in my path as I was afraid of hurting him. He stepped back, and I briefly caught his sad look as I zipped past.

The memory is old and the details lodged in the mind of an 8-year-old whose perception of the world had moments of extremism. Therefore, I will not insist that every detail was precisely as I remember it today. What I do remember precisely, however, was being shaken by my own unkind words. I hurried home, towing my sled and a bundle of regret and concern. Somebody had to help the boy in white. He was wandering through the New Hampshire cold with no coat! He would freeze on the hill or anywhere else in our neighborhood. He seemed so oblivious to his surroundings and to the cold. He must be poor, indeed, I thought. We did not have much when we were children, but we always had warm clothes, and we were always bundled up, displaying a “cared for” look.

“Ma,” I called as I dropped the rope of the sled and ran into the house. “There is a boy on the hill without a coat. He is going to freeze! We have to help him!”

“Well, let’s go,” she said. I could not point him out through our window, so we set off for the hill. By the time we got there a few minutes later, however, he was nowhere to be found. We looked farther afield, but we saw no lad in white. Ma asked some of the other children, but none remember seeing him. I was at a loss to explain to Ma why he was not there, but she was not angry this time.

In spite of her inability to love her children in an altruistic manner, whenever someone in the greater community needed help, Ma was always jolly on the spot. Those two seemingly mutually exclusive attitudes — cruelty to her children and kindness to the community — made it difficult for us children to understand Ma. It also made it difficult for the community to understand our reaction to Ma for the community’s experience of her has always been positive. Indeed, when it came to community affairs, my experiences under Ma’s wing taught me and all of my siblings responsibility for others. For example, when I entered first grade at our local two-story wooden school, Ma pronounced it a fire hazard and death trap. There was only one staircase, and anyone caught upstairs in a fire would be too high from the ground to jump to safety. So, Ma bundled all of us children, only four of us at that time, in heavy coats, hats that came to our shoulders, scarves that covered our faces so completely that we could barely breathe, thick homemade mittens, woolen pants under woolen skirts, and woolen leggings covered by wool socks and heavy boots. Then off we older three marched with her, with Willie, equally swaddled in layers of wool, lying in the hand-pushed sleigh that served as a baby carriage in snow-covered New England of those days. At door after door, we knocked, and Ma would explain the dangers of a fire starting in the school house. Person after person would sign her petition for a sprinkler system at the school. We met every person who lived in our town, or so it seemed. Several weeks later, Grammy came to babysit us, and Ma went to the school board meeting with her petition in hand and words at the ready. A few weeks after that, the school had a sprinkler system.

As for the boy in white, I never saw him again. My friends insisted that he never was there, that he was a figment of my imagination that had frozen in the cold and was hallucinating snow images. Not a boy in white but a boy of snow. Still, I can see him today as clearly as I saw him on the hill so long ago. Today, I wonder if he was not there to teach me a lesson in kindness, in neighborly love — and to reveal perhaps why Ma may, indeed, live in grace, in spite of all her earlier cruelty and self-absorption for when there was a need for a Good Samaritan, Ma was usually the first volunteer. Perhaps God was using her, too? If God could use an atheist, then perhaps a believer with a temper might also be a potential instrument.

Adapted from an excerpt from Blest Atheist (copyright 2003, MSI Press).

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Three Vignettes and One Thought about an Enemy

In a most fascinating way, I once came face to face with the so-called enemy. That meeting remains one of my favorite memories. It occurred in a restaurant in Minsk in 1993. I was helping Academicians from the Belarus Academy of Sciences bring knowledge of individual differences in approaches to learning to the new textbooks being prepared in the Belarus language for K-12 students in a variety of subjects following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the nationalization of curricula. The Humanities University gave us a place to work, and the president and vice-president took me and several other guests to dinner soon after my arrival. I sat catty-corner from Anatoly, the vice-president. For some reason, Anatoly and I began comparing our biographies and were stunned to learn that during the Cold War, I was an officer in the US Army and he an officer in the Red Army; we had both had the same specialty and held the same rank. For a brief moment, we stared at each other, then Tolya (after such a discovery, it was only natural that I would begin to use the nickname for Anatoly) exclaimed, “You were my enemy!”

“And you were mine,” I responded. We marveled about this discovery until long after dinner had ended. How could it be that two people who seemed to understand each other s poluslova (from half a word), as the Russians say, had been directly targeted against each other in an earlier time? Both veterans of the Cold War, we found we had even more in common than our scholarship. Thereafter, every day Tolya would bring me candies or cookies for our break, and we would sit and marvel again at how strangely fate had wrapped our lives together — and that we had found it out. We shared no military secrets; there were really none of any value by then, anyway. What we shared was a new understanding of the word, enemy.

With the recent cooling off of relations between the USA and Belarus, Tolya has become locked away from me for now, perhaps even forever. Who knows when winds of politics will shift again? But now I know what lies behind the old Iron Curtain that is being drawn again between me and a land and people I came to know affectionately a decade ago. And for one bright and shining moment, I stood side by side in friendship with my enemy.

Likewise, years ago, a Belarusan housewife discovered a similar thing about her enemy. During WWII, advancing German troops would burn down entire Belarusan communities. To escape detection, the citizens of the towns would flee to the surrounding swamps as the Germans approached. In one small village, a mother of many grabbed her children and fled, only to discover to her horror upon reaching the wooded swamp that she had inadvertently left her infant in his crib. She wanted to go back after him, but it was too late. The Germans were already at the edge of town, and the townspeople made the mother stay in the swamp for fear of her giving away their position to the German enemy. The mother wept for her lost infant for three days. When the Germans vacated, the townspeople returned to their razed town, hoping to rebuild it. The mother walked along with them, in the blackest of grief. As the townspeople reached the outskirts, they saw one house still standing, the house that contained the crib of the infant who had been left behind. The mother, hardly breathing as a result of overlapping waves of fear and hope that crushed the breath from her, rushed into the house. There in his crib was her infant, well fed and happy. A bottle was beside the baby, and next to the crib on a rocking chair, which had obviously been used to feed and comfort the infant, was a German soldier’s warm winter shawl. To the shawl was pinned a note: “To the mother of this beautiful child.”

I earned my PhD in Russia, at the time the land of the enemy and, I suppose, still the land of the enemy. Thanks to colleagues and senior scholars from the USSR Academy of Sciences, I was afforded the opportunity to finish the process that I had all but completed in the USA but would never have been able to finish because of arcane residency requirements and high tuition costs. The Russians allowed me to finish zaochno (non-resident). Because this was a first time occurrence of an American earning a doctorate in Russia, there was no bureaucratic way to charge me tuition from across the ocean. So, the university did not charge me anything, simply telling me that being able to claim me as their alumnus was payment enough. What does one say to such kindness to a member of an enemy nation? Perhaps one says what I said at the end of my public dissertation defense:

Двадцать лет назад я приехала в первый раз в Советский Союз, чтобы посмотреть на лицо врага, но за двадцать лет я не нашла не одного врага, а только друзей.
(Twenty years ago I came to the Soviet Union for the first time to look upon the face of the enemy, but in all these twenty years, I have not found any enemies, only friends.)


Veterans from opposite sides becoming fast friends? Humaneness in the middle of war in the form of mercy to a baby? A hand stretched out to a scholar and colleague across the ocean to facilitate degree completion and ultimate better job opportunities worldwide without regard to recompense? Could it be that deep down in the soul even of those at war flows an understanding of what the word neighbor means in God’s reckoning?

Modified and adapted from two of my publications (copyright 2003, 2009). Posted at the suggestion of Adoro at Adoro te devote.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Casual Attire

Mommy gets invited to parties a lot. Sometimes she has to dress up real fancy. Other times, the invitation says “casual attire.”

One time when Mommy got a casual attire invitation for a party with some business associates, she was staying with my sister. She did not have any casual clothes with her—just things that were for play and fun. It seems to me that play clothes are “casual,” but Mommy said no. She wanted something a little dressier in order to be casual.

So, Mommy went shopping. There were some nice stores where my sister was living. Sometimes it is hard for Mommy to find just exactly what she wants, but this time was different. She found a very pretty pink pantsuit. The pantsuit fit her perfectly. It did not cost a lot, either.

The next night, it was time for the party. Mommy put on her pretty pink pantsuit. Mommy said it was very comfortable—that was another reason she really liked it. She thinks it is very difficult to find good-looking clothes that are also comfortable.

My sister was not home, but that did not matter. Mommy got a ride to the party.

Mommy had a good time at the party. There were people there she did not know, but they all smiled at her. In that case, Mommy went over and introduced herself. Mommy likes to talk to people who smile at her.

Mommy had a very good time. She met some friendly new people. The food was good. The conversation was interesting. The party lasted several hours, and Mommy stayed until the very end, getting to meet a number of new business associates. She said she hoped she made a good impression.

When Mommy came back, my sister was already home and in bed. She got up, when she heard Mommy come back. When she saw Mommy, she was very surprised.

“Where were you,?” she asked.

“At a business reception,” said Mommy.

“In that outfit?”

“Sure,” said Mommy. “It is really very comfortable. Feel how soft it is.”

“Mom!” said my sister. “Of course, it is comfortable and soft. It’s pajamas!”


This story is adapted and shortened from a collection of vignettes that I helped Doah to write and publish several years ago (copyright 2003). It was my attempt to help him understand literacy and the purpose of writing and reading. The book was featured, one of thousands of other books of course, at the National Book Exhibit in Los Angeles that year, and Doah proudly walked up to the check-in counter for his author badge. "I author," he announced, and he really acted like one at the booksigning. Sometimes that boy can really surprise me!
You can check out the other post from Doah's book here.

Note: After several posts of weighty topics, I thought it might be time for some levity. I hope this post will bring some laughter, or at least a smile.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

From Cruelty, Compassion

Cruelty does not always have to breed cruelty. Sometimes cruelty becomes so extreme that it breeds kindness in those who have been vividly shown where the lack of kindness leads. My sister, Katrina, is an example. My brother, Rollie, always said that I taught the other members of the 8-pack, the name he used for all eight of us children, how to survive and Katrina taught them compassion. I sometimes wonder how much of Katrina’s compassion was triggered in response to one of the cruelest moments I have ever experienced. When Katrina was three or four years old, we had a pet cat. That cat seemed normal to me, but Ma did not like it, partly because it would bring her gifts of live mice, which it would lay in her lap, causing Ma to stand up and shriek. For a farmer to be afraid of mice seemed rather ironic, but she was, indeed, afraid of them. She would stand on a kitchen chair, as in the stereotypical cartoon, and shriek if she saw even the tiniest and friendliest mouse in the kitchen. So, the cat was probably not going to curry any favor with Ma. Nonetheless, the cat did not deserve its fate.

What was that fate? One day, as we children — there were only we three older girls at the time — were playing in the yard, the cat showed up to play with us. Ma was sitting on the porch stairs watching us. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, the cat jumped on Katrina’s back and frightened her. Whether or not the cat intended to hurt her was unclear to me, and I think it was also unclear to Katrina. However, for Ma, that was the “last straw.” She grabbed the “vicious cat” by the nape of the neck and marched with it into the house to my father, demanding that he burn the poor creature hanging docilely from her hand in our wood-burning furnace. How could a cat be “vicious,” I wondered, if it allowed you to pick it up so easily? In spite of my pleas and cries, the cat was handed over to my father, who, unable to stand up to my mother’s ire and worked into a lather himself from her fury, took it into the basement. My mother dragged my two sisters and me (the only children in the family at the time) along to watch as my father opened the furnace door, threw the cat onto the pile of wood being consumed by flames, and shut the door. The cat’s piteous wailing, full of pain and terror, did not last long but was seared by flame into the lifelong memories of three young girls. Over time, Ma has ensured the death of a number of cats: death by drowning, death by gunshot, death by whatever mechanism was handy at the moment. All were cruel, but death by fire was the cruelest.

I felt guilty that I could not save our pet that day. I have never forgotten her surprised, beseeching eyes as she sailed through the air onto the burning wood or her agonized screams as the flames consumed her life. Perhaps that is why as an adult I became very good at rescuing and taming feral cats, whether they be in the woods of Arroyo Seco, California or on the city streets of Amman, Jordan. In Amman, where feral cats were often atrociously abused by a population afraid of them, Dr. Beth, cat rescuer, became well known to the humane society that took in a number of the cats that I rescued.

Rescue operations, however, did not end with cats. While some people’s children might bring home a stray dog or cat, my children would bring home stray kids. One of them, Blaine, moved in and became a member of the family. After Blaine came Shura, a dying child artist from Russia who was able to get the care in the USA that allowed him to live, thanks to a series of miracles. Not long after that, Ksenya showed up from Moscow. After that, Vanessa, a young mother who had been kicked out by her husband when she was nine months pregnant because she was no longer capable of working and bringing in income, moved in with her three children. I was working on my dissertation at the time, so I was able to pick them up at school and babysit them while Vanessa worked at a job she had recently found. Later, our "acquired" children (with whom my husband and I became acquainted from our work abroad) did not move in with us but do continue to call us Mom and Dad and come to us for emotional support. These young folks forged a family bond that has crossed political, ethnic, and religious lines: in addition to the two Russians who did live with us, from the Middle East, we acquired two Muslim daughters (one Sunni and one Shia) and two Christian sons from Eastern Catholicism. I stumbled across each of them (or, perhaps, they across me) quite by chance, helping them when they have experienced moments of great difficulty. In return, they have given me insights into their cultures that Americans very rarely get, and, as “relatives,” they have brought us great joy as we have shared their lives, both the ups and the downs, with them.

My current rescue operation is for a dying, blind orphan in Tula, Russia, whose two brothers were adopted by a family in the USA, not knowing that there was an older sister. (Yes, back to Russia -- it is, at least, a language I speak and the country where I earned my PhD, so it is like just another home to me.) I learned about Katya in a pretty miraculous way, too complex to relate here, and miracles have continued to shape the path for Katya from Russia to the USA, the latest being that American doctors are pretty convinced that once she arrives, they can remove her tumors, which means that she will be coming to the USA not to die, but to live.

One poor tortured cat whom I could not rescue as a child -- such an evil deed by my cruel and abusive mother -- has led to many rescue operations of both animals and people. Was this a matter of God turning bad to good? Limited bad to widespread good? I might say that it was just a matter of my rescue proclivities and chance encounters, not attributable to what happened to me as a child or to God's influence on me. I might say it for some of the rescues, but not for all. Certainly, I know and feel that each cat rescue -- a few dozen of them by now -- is an attempt to compensate for the pain that my pet suffered. And what about the miracles that surrounded by Shura and Ksenya, without which rescue would not have been possible? I probably, speaking honestly, would not be able to explain how I could take in, clothe, and feed all those extra people and cats when we had barely enough money to feed the core Mahlou clan. But God provides, and that, too, is at times a miracle and at times an example of the good that God brings from the bad.


This excerpt comes from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009), prior to copyediting and publication. The book is essentially my conversion story with all the gory and glorious details. It also contains the stories of both Shura and Katya (linked here to a summary of each) in full detail -- all the miracles, triumphs, and examples of how God cares deeply for the most broken among us.

About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.