Battle Fighting in Mexico

In the lobby of our tropical resort in Playa del Carmen, just outside of Cancun, a giant statue of the Archangel Micheal greets vacationers as they arrive. He dons warrior's armor and raises a sword above his head, ready for battle.

He and the lobby are breathtakingly beautiful. We glimpse the ocean before unloading our bags into our room, and I wonder why the angel hangs out in the lobby and not the beach.

My snapshots of our getaway will not tell the whole story. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, it can be if the image is spectacular; my photos are not. Only showing you my pictures will rob you of smell and touch. They are a feast for the eyes but will not exhale warm salty breezes that kissed my face all day. Without additional description, you'll not walk barefoot with me on the hot massaging carpet of sand - grains of rock rounded and smoothed by nature's toil.

Together, we could have but won't listen to calm sea murmurs whispering to us her secrets of joy and pain, stories of faith and hope, romance and tragedy--- and love.

The voice of God is over the waters. Psalm 29:3

If I use words to further explain these two-dimensional images, we could hear His voice together. His deep crystal blue song set to a rhythm by the current draws me close, beckoning me to stay awhile.

The sea gulls cry, but the sea, strumming God's lullaby, awakens all my senses into one slow, endless moment of awe, fear, and peace.

The sun bakes the sand and all exposed human skin while I expose my happy and sad secrets to the wind, waves, and moon.

"Hola! Como esta?" Everybody is cheery and hospitable, and everybody thinks I speak Spanish because of my brown skin and hair until I stare blankly and beg, "English, please?"

"Of course, SeƱora. So sorry!"

I'm the one who's sorry that I don't know Spanish, but that's not why George and I jumped on a plane and flew down here. Though I would love to learn the language and engage more with the sweet, passionate people of Mexico, there was another, more pressing matter for this trip. Like the angel in the lobby, I'm here to fight a battle.

It's the same one I've been fighting, but here there are no distractions, except that we are also celebrating our wedding anniversary. 

Twenty years seems like a long time... because it is, but a full life tends to fly. We moved six times, had four exciting children, took on homeschooling, helped Mom navigate life after Dad died, and learned how to be good to each other. We're not perfect, not even close, and we've had good and bad days, but we've learned how to have them together. What a gift.

Our marriage is a 20-year-old boulder on which I've leaned on, stood on, walked on, carried on, and cried on. Most of all, we've just kept moving on, living out love and our dreams, and we're still dreaming. Surrounded by fountain springs and palm trees at dinner yesterday, we imaginatively rebuilt the deck as a sunroom back home, added a patio off the mudroom and a balcony off the master bedroom and more trees and fountains... Over dessert, his chocolate something and my vanilla, we decide not to actually make any decisions, just dream, just be.

We're still learning, because that's life, right? A series of lessons? The mind of a learner is actually a battlefield - one side pulling toward love and connection and the other toward bitterness and hate. There is only one way to get on the winning side. You have to fight.

It's hard to stare at this quiet, endless ocean that shimmers in the bright morning sunlight, watch the sailboats glide and think about fighting. But here I am doing that. Because now that I'm here, I recognize that the fight is as endless as the sea, but so is the love I'm fighting for.

Love of myself - the real battle.

Loving a husband who has his own set of flaws and drives me crazy sometimes has been much easier than learning to love myself because I know for some reason he loves me. What a gift.

It's high time I gave this gift to myself, too. The gift of loving myself - and slowly I'm learning  how. As much as my sweet, witty, studious, intellectual, hard working, patient, strong, handsome hubby loves me, he can't make me love myself. He can show me a glimpse, but I have to do it. I have to battle my demons and fight for it.

It's a love worth fighting for.

Peacock hanging around.

They sang and played right at our table.

These are everywhere.

I'm baked.


When You Have to Walk Away 2

If someone somehow hurts you, it’s better to go down where the pain is and pull it out into the light. It’s better not to ignore it, pretend it doesn’t hurt, say everything’s fine, or hide it. I know that doesn't work. I’ve tried.

Time does not heal deep cuts. At least not without some treatment. For best healing, you have to wash it and put ointment, then cover it for a while till the tissue heals and the scar forms. The scar tissue waxes stronger than its original when it's all over. So that’s good.

Washing out the pack of lies I’ve believed for so long has taken a few years. One of the lies is that I don’t belong. I’ll not be included genuinely. I’ll never be accepted as a full member of any group. Because I believed this, I treated myself with the same hatred. Assuming the worst, I behaved as if I can’t belong anywhere, weird, ugly, undeserving turd that I am.

Hanging out in my room, we talk, the kids and I. My terrible short-term memory buries the details, but I do remember that we end up somehow talking about belonging.

“Have you ever felt that you didn’t fit in?” I ask. All heads nod.

"What did it feel like?”

“Like gross,” says little one.

“Really bad,” says son.

“Not good,” says teen girl.

Now I’m nodding my own head. “Yep, pretty much. How could we think about it? Should you believe it? Is it true?” They shake and nod all the right answers, and I know 14-year-old Ceci might have burst out crying if she’d been asked these questions.

“But you do belong.” I try to be all matter-of-fact. “You’ll always belong here. All four of you fit inside our family like a glove with six fingers.”

“We didn’t need that visual,” teen girl groans. And we laugh.

“But you won’t always live here. You’ll spread your wings and fly. Eventually, the Bibawy nest will be empty, and you’ll each do your own thing with your own different people. And you’ll belong to them and they to you. You’ll still belong here, but you’ll belong there, too.”

Heads nod. “But what about friends… They don’t always make you feel like you belong.” Extrovert girl has a thing or two to say. “When I’m with my Egyptian friends, they call me white because I barely know Arabic. When I’m with my white friends, I’m the Egyptian, brown and Orthodox and different from them.

So complex. Is it culture? Two clashing cultures trying to meld in one country, in one home, in one girl. We just want to fit, feel like we belong, be a part of and give to something good and greater than our individual selves.

Maybe this is one of the shining perks of Zumba. In the Zumba family, you belong. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you’re going. You belong here. All you have to do is breathe, let down your hair, and dance.


In her element, she stepped toward me mid-song, mid-beat and mirrored my clumsy moves as we danced a salsa together. How many times had she hovered around disrupting my concentration causing me to mess up and decorate the music with our laughter? How many times had she shown this reserved, awkward klutz how to do a six-step salsa?

The first year doing Zumba class was all new and exciting. The first time I jumped on stage (after much coaxing) to dance with the instructors, facing the class, was breathlessly exhilarating. Dancing women who care about fitness watched me for the next move. Was this real?

At the song's end, Zumba girls hugged me, and these same ladies clapped for me all smiles. They cheered instead of sneered. They said, good job, not, you're a flop.

Zumba teachers toss their happy spirit around like their hair whips around in the dance. Well, if their hair is long enough. During his class at the convention last month, Mario Gutierrez, pro-skills instructor, play-mimicked the girlish hair-whipping we do in class, with short, spiked locks in for the ride, certainly not whipping. It just wasn't the same, though highly entertaining. So it's a thing. Zumba hair-whipping.

Zumba girl gave me "permission" to be free and wild when I finally "let my hair down." It was the tone in her voice that threw me a curve. A coaching, supportive, sincere, confident voice. It was weird. I didn’t know how to interpret. I had to believe her, much against my better judgement.

I returned again and again. Class was offered three times a week. I rearranged my schedule, kissed my husband and flew off to shake, skip, and squat my cares away for one hour, to get more of that building up and to see if the Zumba girls would do it again - let me dance with them. They did with smiles every single time.

In those first months, I could not have known what I know now. Even a 40-something, timid, homeschooling mom can get a confidence she never had. An uncoordinated, non-athletic, uncreative frump-girl can sneak out of her comfort zone, come alive, and do new things. When I became an instructor, Zumba girl told me to fly.

A weird feeling nagged. Deja-vu. I could not pinpoint the familiarity of her words. Where had I heard them before?

"You’re getting better," she said once, referring to the anxiety and depression. I knew I wasn’t, but neither of us knew the worst was yet to come. There’s no stopping it because once the storm rages, there’s a flood rising in the valley, and you’re wallowing.

I imagined she could help me but didn’t know why such thoughts. Maybe I was clinging to anyone and everyone who would talk to me. She wasn’t the only one who was listening. She wasn’t the only one who cared. Maybe it was because of her connection to Zumba, this totally new life-shock. I couldn’t get enough of it. Zumba girl posted on my Facebook wall a meme about Zumba addicts. Maybe it was the whole Zumba family thing.


In my room, our talk veers away from culture and toward God. It tends to do that when I’m the one steering.

Well, really, He was. He must have been because He gave me the words…

"He loves you, chose you, dressed you up, made you belong to His body. You belong. You’re a people for His own possession. (1 Peter 2:9) Because He just doesn’t abide nor divide by culturalism or any other ism. You are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28) We are the Lord’s. Romans 14:7-9

"You can walk away from every single mean person or group of mean people that makes you feel unwanted. You can walk because no matter what you are still loved - completely. Believe you’re loved wholly, and you’ll be holy. Complete in every way that counts."

I was saying this to the kids and realized God was saying them to me. These words prove to me that I can walk away from my mother.

After two years of wading in a painful dark sea of confusion, abandonment, and devastation, I realized it was not Zumba that I had been addicted to. It was a person. Soon, I’ll tell you about her - the imposter.

Thanks for reading.


When You Have to Walk Away -1

"Last Christmas, I gave you my heart. But the very next day, you gave it away..." -Wham!

Last Christmas, I gave my mother an Alex & Ani bracelet. A friend had shown me these pretty things in a little accessory shop at the mall and I thought they were terribly cute and sentimental. I hadn't given her any kind of gift in many years, but I wanted to make this already glowing season glow just a little more, so I gave it to her and smiled saying, "It's for you. I hope you like it." And I meant it. She keeps to herself everyday in her assisted-living room in the nursing home. She lives with very little assistance... except for the meds. Besides occasional visits from her children, she lives alone.

It felt good to give it to her. Tiny buds of forgiveness must be forming inside.

A few weeks ago, while unpacking a box of kitchenware she had returned to me for storage, I spotted the unwrapped Alex-Ani box, laid in a glass pan, bracelet still inside. She had given it back. On the phone, I was given confirmation from her that she was in fact returning it. "Ceci, I don't wear this stuff..." said impatiently. It was gold with a dangling charm that etched a tiny flower bouquet and the word "Mom." She was always giving gifts to people, but she's never been good at receiving them.

She's not rejecting me, just the stupid bracelet, my head mutters. My bleeding heart says, goodbye Mom. Just goodbye.

It's a long road to self-respect when your self in childhood is anything but respected. It doesn't work to just tell myself to respect me. That's like telling a two-year-old to read the Magna Carta or commanding the pimple under my nose to be gone. It takes a little TLC and a lot of work.

One of the hardest things I've ever had to do is walk away from her.


She used to laugh easily, especially at my brother's jokes. She used to cry easily, too. She cried when Jimmy Carter lost second-term election because "he was honest." She talked of how she detested animals, then played with and cared for our little Shetland sheepdog every day. She'd look right at you and smile, holding your glance, holding you captive, because she had you convinced that the smile was her warmest and just especially for you. She was tender and bossy all at the same time. Control freak, especially inside of moving vehicles.

Driving with Mom made life very interesting. If she wasn't driving the car from the driver's seat, she certainly drove from the passenger. Slow down! Did you put your signal on? You're too close to the car in front of us! Don't look at me look straight ahead! You don't need to take the highway to go there. Do you know where you're going? No, don't look at the map! Don't eat while you're driving. Don't talk! Yes, she really forbade talking. She was truly a nervous wreck and I was too by the end of even the five minute road trips to the neighborhood grocer. "Cars are very dangerous machines," she'd counsel.

Cruise control was a very bad invention, which she refused to use, because it took the control away from her and gave it to the car. Private conversations in the family that did not include her simply did not happen in our house.

"What are you all talking about?" she'd almost demand, seating herself comfortably in her spot at the table. If Dad attempted a man-to-man conversation with my growing brother, she would have one ear on the skillet and the other ear on their dialogue. "Why are you telling him that, Emil? That's ridiculous," she'd snub, rolling her eyes.

She focused on one thing at a time. If she was cooking, all focus was on cooking. No side conversations. When she planted her impatiens or watered her pots, that is what we talked about. I guess multi-tasking wasn't her thing. But everything got done. And everything was clean. And the food was good. Except for the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in our lunch boxes. Gross. At least she never subjected us to the cultural imposition of foole madamas pitas at school. But honestly, fava beans and tahini sauce makes much more sense to me than peanut butter and jelly mixed up together. Gross. But I do love bacon, hamburgers, spaghetti and apple pie... and ice cream. Egypt needs to be introduced to Ben & Jerry's. Mom's perpetual favorite was chocolate ice-cream. But she always bought Neapolitan so everyone could be happy.

She spoke her mind no matter what anyone thought. She did not care. If you didn't like it, too bad. (Sounded much worse when she quipped that in Arabic.) And she'd follow up with that look that says, "What are you gonna do about it?" 

She never gave a genuine "I'm sorry," except in sarcasm or half-baked. There's no time to apologize when you're busy flirting with rebellion.

If she liked you, you were her world. If she didn't like you, you were given the silent treatment or death stare. I got a lot of both.

There were brief moments and seasons when I was tempted to re-kindle for the thirty-ninth time the belief that she really loved me. Fleeting wispy glimpses of feeling loved. Like the time we had a tickling match, just her and I. I was very little. Or the time she told me I'm a good mom. And the time we cried over my sister together. But seemingly the next moment, I was her enemy again, and reality would sink me deep into what I know now is heartbreak. If I wasn't acting too much like Dad, I was failing to submit to her delusional "don't talk to that person" or "we have to call the police" orders.

She was loud, proud, opinionated, demanding, sarcastic, exhausting, complaining, untrusting, controlling, and she was never wrong, nor still.  She was yet strong, courageous, intuitive, fun, flirtatious, engaging, resourceful, frivalous, independent, affectionate, and exciting. I loved her.

Loving her back then wasn't a problem. The problem is now. I still love her. And while I still love her, I have to walk away.

Because your love for that one person that you can't help loving doesn't go away just because you walk away.

When that one person can't love you anymore, even if they once did, you have to move on... so you can keep loving them. You have to walk away and go down there. Go to where that pain is and feel it, all of it, and it will feel like you're walking through the valley. The shadow of death in my valley hovered and threatened to cover me - 

until it didn't anymore.

(Soon, I'll explain how.) Thanks for reading.



Visit to the Monastery: How do You Change the World?

Our summer trips to Rochester make the kids giddy with excitement as we see the grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins and whoever else happens to be visiting. And on our July visits, we study theology.

Most of the students who come are young enough to be thirsty for much more learning and mature enough to realize how much more there is to learn.

The speaker is knowledgeable. He is a wealth of facts and a dissertation of solid conclusions. He's not only a teacher but an exhorter, a celibate full-time deacon with a black robe and long beard. This brother-to-all is also my brother-in-law.

Deacon Antonios serves here in this young church with the red carpet, white walls, and wide open altar. They have not yet added the iconostasis, but they have added a monastery to this plain, rural spot in West Henrietta, New York. He and the priest of this little church inside the little monastery added learning. They added depth. They enriched the spirit-soil, planted more, watered more. And God is growing it.

Today, about 70 Copts have driven from all around this side of the Mississippi to learn more about their Orthodox faith. Because the more you learn, the more your mind expands. The more answers you get, the more questions come up. The more you take, the more you want, the more you can give.

In our classical approach to homeschool education, we teach the children how to ask questions as part of the art of learning. But when the conversation, usually in debate form, is in full swing, spontaneous inquiries rush in. Their heads have been filling up with knowledge since the days they were learning how to walk and talk. After we pour stories of people, places and events into their brains, somewhere along the way (middle school) these same kids begin to ask the harder questions, like why and how. They begin to do what teens do best: argue.

Instead of merely handing out the answers, we show how to find them or arrive at solid conclusions. As a parent and teacher, the questions get more and more challenging.

That's because they're ready to wrestle. When you're thirteen and questioning the affirmative and negative positions on euthanasia (at what point are they dead?), war in foreign lands (is it any of our business?), and whether to break the law by helping a slave or Jew escape oppression, you discover that right answers are not always cut and dry.

The struggle is real, but reasonable.

By extracting errors in reasoning and applying sound logic, sometimes reconstructing the entire equation, we recognize fallacy and prevent heresy.

Sound reasoning leads to understanding and understanding to wisdom. Wisdom is why we learn anything. Asking questions gives us the freedom to  get it. (Proverbs 4:7-13)

The young conference participants at the monastery ventured this weekend to go deep with their teacher and friend into the study of eschatology. The title of the lecture series is presented in the interrogative: What Will Happen at the Second Coming? The question is provocative and stimulating.

Because when you're between 18 and 25 years old, and the world around you is changing for better or worse, you find yourself for the first, hopefully not the last time, charging forward, declaring, "Not without me you don't. If the world's going to change, I'm going to be a part of it." Inaudibly, and perhaps subconsciously, they add, "Because I now know I can." 

At the second coming, the world is going to change considerably.

By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly... But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. 1 Peter 3:7, 10-13 NIV

We can be a part of that change now. Live holy, look up, and speed up His coming!  

So while the youthful world changers charge forward, the whole flock of us looks forward to that great and terrible day when He comes. But this time, He'll be the one asking the questions.

Icon of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite, monastery patron saint


Why Roses Have Thorns

She's so beautiful in spite of herself, covered in all these thorns.

The month of May is busy for this little homeschool. Amid exams, papers, speeches, recitals, concerts and 429 other events wrapping up the academic year, we're running too fast to notice the blooming dogwoods.

May's sunshine and rain pair up in an Ohio sky to summon me to my garden. Every year May wraps its warm breeze around my face and then skips away before I have a chance to return its embrace.

And here we are at July's door.

In Savannah by now, my verbena, gaura, daisies, yarrow, Indian hawthorns, Russian sage and azaleas would be dancing around in the muggy air. But when we lived there, Savannah's breezes lulled my oldest to sleep in the carrier every day. She was yet our only child, so there was much more time to nurse flowerbeds along with her.

Last week, my knock-out roses and I had a confrontation. Covered with spotted, yellow, hole-infested leaves and wilted blooms, the poor bushes had been neglected long enough. So an afternoon of clipping and deadheading lay ahead of me. My sunhat with the big rim sheltered my face from the June sun that hot day. My gloves protected me from the thorns but not from the memories.

My mother was born with a green thumb, the greenest. Whatever she stuck in a pot or the ground sprung up in a frenzy and yielded to her every command. Her plants obeyed her much better than we did. But then some days and years felt like they were nurtured more than we were.

They were beautiful. I was jealous of them.

I watched a kind and rare patience exude from her face as she planted and watered. She told me once that it is amazing to watch plants sprout, grow up, bud, bloom and multiply. Every spring, she planted a bed of impatiens in the front but would stare at other people's hydrangeas and gasp, "Look how beautiful they are!"  So I planted them for her one May afternoon after we moved back from Savannah. Dwarf bushes with huge round pink blossoms. The rest of that sad planting story will have to wait.

For some reason my mother didn't do roses. Maybe she didn't like the thorns. Who does? Why would one deliberately bring to their home a thing that pokes and scratches till you can't stand it? Would you buy a dog that bites? A bird that pecks? A snake that strangles?

In the U.S., we spend billions on remedies to remove pain. We do whatever works. We talk to a therapist, take drugs, drink, get a dog, exercise, travel. When those don't work, we laugh, cry, pray, eat, take a walk, sleep, marry, divorce, have sex, have children, watch a screen. 

We do these things to protect ourselves from the pain because we don't want to hurt. My gardening mother avoided pain by avoiding one of the world's most cherished flowers for her glorious garden.

But roses are exquisite because of their thorns. Their intoxicating scent makes them most susceptible to attack, so they are guarded by these rustic stabbing pins to keep them safe and preserve their beauty.

We are like the roses. The closer we are to Christ, the sweeter we smell, the more susceptible we are to Satan's attack.

Maybe the crown of thorns is understood a little more. He took the piercings so we wouldn't have to. They drove a thorn-spiked wreath into His head, and we were saved from eternal death.

Thorns pierce and deliver.

The church has a thorn. It's name is Martyrdom. People that die for Christ protect the faith and the church. The millions of Christians around the world who bravely endured torture and died for the cross around their neck or tattooed on their arm or mouthed in the form of "I choose Jesus"  strengthen the faith of the living.

America has a thorn. It's name is Death on the Battlefield. Revolutionary soldiers fought long and hard on our soil. Many were wounded and many died, but out came our freedom from tyranny. We celebrate that freedom this week. The thorn of war protected our young budding country, which then flourished over centuries from sea to shining sea in size, name and number.

Thorns pierce and protect.

The churches in America were filled with mourners right after 9/11 because that's what thorns do. They cause pain and make you yelp.  All the mourners everywhere still cry out for their people that loved God and lost everything - except their blissful forever.  You can't help but look up. We're just made that way. Many more martyrs will yet pierce the church, and she'll rise higher than the river of blood they shed and be victorious. Men, women and children everywhere find and follow Jesus, and more go to church, and even more talk about Him or just wear Him on their face and hands. The church - God's people - blooms stronger, protected by the sharp thorn of sacrifice.

We have many thorns. A few of ours are called grief, sickness, loss, hunger, poverty, rejection, hate, and anger. We rise above our suffering when the thorns cut deep and the eyes veer toward heaven because there is just no other place to look. And we, the wounded, vulnerable from having loved and lost, can grow like the roses. The delicate petals of our heart are protected by our own love-pains because when the pain is too much we cry out for deliverance and draw near to our great Protector.

He allows the pain to pierce like a thorn because sometimes we need to run for cover.

We need to run to Him.

Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love. Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.
Jeremiah 31:3

For they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. 
They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary.
 They shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:31

Those who expect to reap the blessings of liberty 
must undergo the fatigues of supporting it. - Thomas Paine

The liberties of our country, the freedoms of our civil Constitution are worth defending at all hazards; 

it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have received them as a fair inheritance 
from our worthy ancestors. They purchased them for us with toil and danger 
and expense of treasure and blood. It will bring a mark of everlasting infamy on the present generation – 
enlightened as it is – if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle, 
or to be cheated out of them by the artifices of designing men. -Samuel Adams



Dad: Remembering the Forever Parts

When Dad died, time cruelly marched on, and there were days I woke up scared the memories of him marched right on with it. All at once I intensely needed to remember everything. It was urgent.

But over the years, exactly 13 today, I've realized that I don't have to remember every single thing he said and did. To keep his memory alive I just need to share the important things again and again.

God does not get tired of bringing up the sun every single day for thousands of years. He doesn't get bored of reminding us the important things... like His love and His pain. (John 14:26)

When you love someone and they go away, you'll not get bored thinking and talking of them. You'll get busy.

You'll go about bringing up their legacy like God brings up the sun. You'll keep bright the light they lit while they were here.

Dad loved to tell the immigration stories. He'd work himself up to a belly-aching laugh that had him in stitches when he remembered the quirky and crazy things that occurred on his passage to the U.S. By the end of the story, we weren't laughing at the story but at him. He was a sight when he laughed hard, guard down, red-faced, light-hearted, happy.

Though I never saw him cry, I saw his pain, too. Living with and caring for a woman he chose to love despite her oppressive ways was not easy. Verbal and emotional abuse was a byproduct of  severe paranoia. It occurred daily. It was exhausting. It was gut-wrenching and soul-stripping.

There were days when I could see all of it on his face - the face that took regular tongue-beatings and loved her anyway. He picked her up off the lonely road, every time, carried her on his "mule" and checked her into the nearest facility that would take her and ensured her care. And while he did that, family members had decided once and for all that it was he that made her crazy. Insult to injury. Salt to the wound. Vinegar poured into a thirsty mouth.

You remember their laughter, their love and their pain, those precious parts of their soul that live on through us - the forever parts.

Remember...  not in order to relive the past, but to revive the future.


A Smile, then Marriage

Sometimes I bring my cell phone into the bathroom to listen to a podcast or music. When I arrived at the gym in the neighboring town to teach this morning's Zumba class, it smugly continued to lay there in the same bathroom at home. It is the only device I use to play the music for class.

My partner, unlike me, managed to remember her playlist and thankfully was able to teach for me until Esteban appeared in the classroom with my phone 15 minutes later. As I stared at it, he pointed to a man standing just outside the classroom waving and smiling at me.

George had up and flown out of the house and driven the half hour to the gym to bring me the phone so I could teach my Zumba class and so Ana, my co-teacher, could get a break before her next group exercise class.

This happened today - one day after our wedding anniversary.

The first time I met my George was at Tante Suzy's house. His family was friends with my aunt and uncle and were visiting from New York, and we all were having dinner. I don't remember how me and my siblings got up to Cleveland, nor do I recall where my parents were. I don't remember their presence.

But I do remember his.

All of us cousins, siblings, and friends chatted at dinner. We were going to build the coolest ever shopping mall. And it was going to be constructed like a pyramid. The Pyramid Mall because we're Egyptian and it made sense. Laughter decorated my aunt's dining room that night as we ate her famously delicious food. Wit and silliness kept up the liveliness, and, with his easy, hearty laugh, so did George, who barely spoke five words.

There was something about his smile.

I didn't understand the attraction at the time. But I was not about to go home and announce to my parents, who had always forbidden dating, that I had fallen in love with a boy's smile.

But I had because sometimes you get so used to the fake smiles that they become the normal ones, and then, when a real one comes along, you know it. You discover it, like spotting a giant, fuzzy, romantic golden moon on the horizon way back behind the tree line when it seems like you can just reach out your hand and touch it, but you can't. And sometimes you just know when the smile is for you and when it's not. Smiles are continually misused as masks to hide pain, truths, lies, opinions, and motives. A smile can hide a quiet volcano of feelings.

A smile can hurt. But the less that fears are allowed to rumble inside you, the more your smile will do what it's supposed to do...

Comfort, show kindness, forgive, welcome, cherish, reassure, love, think pure. 

George's smile did those things more than a few times. So I married him. 

Happy 20th, my love.

Schmidt's Sausage Haus und Restaurant, German Village


Waiting at Fourteen

I wait for him to walk out of the recital hall. Parents are not allowed to watch their students perform their memorized and polished pieces for the competition. The audience is one piano judge smiling and taking notes. He conducts his practice through the week like driving in rush hour traffic. Start, stop, speed up and, again, except, for my 10-year-old boy, there are no red lights. He doesn't slow down. He spent the last two weeks zipping through 10 pieces every day to get it done and get on with the next thing. Reading Scripture Sleuth, shooting the basketball, building blanket-couch forts, bugging his sisters, playing in the creek. So much to do, so little time.

Now he is finished, and he has to endure the torture of waiting for his sister to finish her turn of 10 pieces, which are longer.  "Can I play one of the pianos?" says he.

Life includes waiting. There is good waiting, like anticipation, and bad waiting, like dread. We do both, and, like it or not, we don't always get a choice and there's no particular pattern.

I've always been waiting for something.

I waited for words of encouragement, trips to Northland Mall, and relatives to visit our house with the locked doors. I waited to do things that Mom said we'd do sometime.

There was the incident at the gas station. I stood there waiting for her to come back and get 14-year-old me.

I waited for the college acceptance letter and for her to leave the psyche hospital. I waited for her to get better.

I waited for the call with the job offer I so wanted.

I waited for my sister to like me.

I waited for my shy man to just say it... "Marry me." Some things that you want most of all are the hardest to ask for.

Four times, I waited nine months to see the faces, fingers, and toes of familiar-looking babies. Then I promptly waited for mom mentors.

I waited for the jasmine vine outside my Savannah window to bloom in April and the white gardenias to show up in May. The gardenias didn't come, but that last May in the deep South? Anastasia came. On May 6, I had a brand new baby girl.

I had waited seven years to return to my hometown, only to have the sun go into hiding and Dad to die unexpectedly three months later. There's a picture of him holding her at one year old.

The sun came back, but he didn't. I was happy for him that he didn't have to suffer anymore.

I waited in the exam room till the nurse finally appeared to tell me the lump was nothing. And she waited softly while I cried tears of relief. 

No one escapes the waiting room.

I continued to wait for mom mentors. How was I to know how to be a good mom? Or even just an okay mom? By May 6, 14 years ago, I had two girls that depended on me for their very existence, plus some amount of patience, wisdom and unconditional love that I didn't have. I hadn't taken any classes or read any books on those things. I did try to read a few books about mothering, but they depressed me because they made me realize ways I had not been mothered. Back then, I was not ready to face that, so I didn't.

Then, when I was ready, I waited to remember. Many things, it occurs to me, have escaped my memory.

I don't remember her favorite color. I don't remember her teaching me how to do things though I'm sure she did. I don't remember the faces of any of the doctors or the social worker from family services. I don't remember what I told that social worker. I don't remember celebrating my siblings' birthdays or any dolls or toys I might have owned. I don't have anything from my childhood. I don't remember her dresses or a particular perfume. I don't remember any birthday, Mother's Day or Christmas presents I gave her. I don't remember her painting my nails or styling my hair. I don't remember pet names, I love yous, or I'm sorrys. I don't remember holding hands or long walks.

I do remember the dreaded peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Little Debbie snacks, and the many times she asked about my day when I got home from school. Five minutes into my story, the two-way conversation inevitably evolved into a monologue about lurking demons, sinister mind control, and "the committee" keeping us under surveillance. It was like she at first reached outside of her mind groping for reality only to slip back in. Reality is dismal for one who believes she has special psychotic powers and is being used for purposes of epic proportions.

I don't remember my fourteenth birthday. My Ana is turning 14 tomorrow, and she wants no part of a party. Just everyone home and her gift, which she has already secured - Bluetooth headphones. She will street perform her violin at the farmer's market to raise money for Europe, then she will read her book, which currently is mesmerizing her, as it did me years ago. Then we will grill burgers, eat key lime pie, and visit family friends in Springfield. She doesn't want us to sing the birthday song to her in order not to inconvenience anyone. 

She doesn't know how beautiful she is. Being the very personification of mischief, she at least doesn't appear to. She also doesn't appear to mind waiting. 

"We'll have a party on an important birthday, like 16," she states. "Fourteen is not important."

"Every birthday is important," I try to insist, my heart not really into forcing the issue. "But it's your day..."

A precious few of the invisible, numerous, thoughtful thoughts that steadily flow out of her gigantic brown eyes spill onto the pages of our mother-daughter journal, and I wait to hear the infrequent whispers of her mind with every written entry I find on my pillow.

More and more they come my way because if I knew anything at all 14 years ago, if I held on to only one thing, it was that my 14-year-old would feel how much I love her, and she'd know how much I know her.

She wouldn't have to wait to find out.

For they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. 
They shall mount up with wings as eagles. 
They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. 
Isaiah 40:31


When She Smiles at Me: Hope is Not Just an Easter Thing

Black banners adorned the church walls on Good Friday. They were tacked temporarily right over the icons. Etched in white is an outline of Jesus wearing a handcrafted twiggy crown made of very long thorns thrust into His head.

What is my pain compared to His?

"The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all." Isaiah 5:6

What is my pain? Nothing in quantity and intensity compared to the joy awaiting me and the whole army of believers. He loved enough to save us joy that will never end. Never. That's why immortal God died.

~ + ~

I just want to do things with her. I want her to want that too. I ache deeply and long with every sinew, heartbeat, breath, smile, and tear to talk all day. To walk long and breezy. To craft, cook, do each other's hair and nails, share a swing, share clothes, dreams, a milkshake, secrets deep and dark, to write notes to each other. Hold. Laugh. Cry. Pray. Dance. With her.

I have no insight, no understanding of these newer feelings. I want to stop loving her. Then it would be less hurtful. I could stop the pain.

But Jesus didn't stop the pain on that Friday. He let it beat, strike, mutilate, sicken Him till it was over. He allowed, even welcomed the abuse and undeserved punishment to take its course till the beating stopped, till there were no more body parts to nail, no more air to breathe - till He died.

I'm not going where He went because He plunged into a hellish death for me... so I wouldn't have to. Good Friday is all about two things: the cross and love.

Do you believe in the power of love?

Despite the wealth of mystery that surrounds God, the wealth of His love was revealed on the cross. If God is love, how can love not be power? Because in His dying, death died.

And the Orthodox Christians everywhere sing it now and for 50 more days:

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life.

It is in this power, the resurrection, the awakening from death, the being and living alive that hope can even be a thing.

For us Christ-followers, hope is more than a thing. It is oxygen. It is the air we breathe.

When grief suffocates and tears choke, and I insist doggedly that there. is. no. hope. for a certain situation or person, I inhale hope. I can't help it. It just appears and creeps into my pores and nostrils.

The more I curse it, the more it sneaks up on me.

~ + ~

For some reason I told my mother about my recent struggle with depression.

"Why? she urges. "Do you know?" Real concern rings through the phone into my ears and even again on the follow-up call.

"Are you better now? You have a good husband and beautiful children. They need you," she pleads.

"Are you sleeping better?"

"No, waking up at 4 a.m. and can't get back to sleep."

"Why? Get me a book on depression. I want to understand what you have." She really wants a book.

Who is my mother?

I'm almost willing to bet all the ice cream in the Midwest that this rare, fresh breeze of clarity reveals her true self to me and I get a mother for a minute. I get my mom. In this moment, she's giving me caring attention. I get to feel a mom for me, be on the receiving end of the heart-touch of a mother - mine. The slender hands of her heart reach into mine and enfold me in what I think might be love, but I can't be sure - definitely not 75 percent. Maybe fifty percent? Twenty percent?

Next thing I know, the uninvited stirring of heart and soul throws me in the ring to wrestle tantalizing thoughts. A spark of hope has been ignited, again - without my permission. I feel the walls closing in.

Without faith, I am a lame five-percent sure.

Without faith, hope is torture, and the reason is simple. It could be false. Who in the world would want to get their hopes up if they're only fantasy, false or impossible?

Hope of the faithless amounts to that five percent. For a faith-ing, resurrected soul that comes alive? Hope is 100 percent. There is 100 percent hope for the hopeless because of Easter.

The good news of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday is that there is 100 percent hope for the faithless, when they dare to believe in a dreamy eternity that is no dream. They believe in a very real life with a warrior-Savior-God-man, who used a wooden cross for a fighting weapon to snatch us up out of darkness with a galaxy-size love into a glow of heavenly light, rainbows and skies of new colors, new songs and new dances on dazzling, sparkly streets.

I get a preview with a rare sparkle in her eye when she looks at me smiling.


When You Walk Into Your Death: Today is Palm Sunday

The words of these lines speak to the faith, hope and love, and other holy goodies that have been hollowed out of me.

But holy week upon us, there's a renewing of everything good... everything that means anything.

I lost someone today. I longed to hold her so.
When she drew me in I couldn’t let go.
I’ve lost a part of me.
She helped herself, clutched tight and didn’t let go.
Goodbye, love, more precious than my heart.
Your face in my head will salvage my smile.
But you would not stay with me awhile.
Heaven pours hail droppings of shattered love
Like the mountainous, restless clouds above.

The clouds of our hard times and sin hover darkly, but Jesus arrives and very, very humbly... riding on an unimportant little animal. The donkey has always enjoyed the least respect from us humans. Today is a happy Palm Sunday for millions.

But for those who know and love a certain 27 plus 11 Christians* in Tanta and Alexandria, Egypt, and for Coptic Christians worldwide, tragic loss, shock, heart break for their ascending souls. And how does any of this make sense? They entered the church this warm happy morning like Jesus rode into the heart of creation 2,000 years ago, only to be plucked out of the wreckage of this world. Today.

Today we wonder in horror about the terrorists' plans for next week, Easter Sunday, who will be caught in their trail of destruction next. Is my family next? George's?

A cousin died today. My first cousin's cousin in Tanta. I didn't know him, but he was family - my dad's nephews, their families mourn today. It hits closer and closer.

It's happening in our own backyard. Right here in Columbus, Ohio, USA. We get the reminder every Sunday as we stroll into church and say hello to the nice security officer guarding the entrance.

The Christ-believers walked into church not knowing they would die today, but a wee worry hovered in the back of their heads. Will I see tomorrow, they asked. They know they are a target. George's sweet aunts, my newly married cousin with little ones, the young and old, the sick and the ambitious. Will senseless death rock the faith of the flock in our ancient motherland? Will it rock ours?

Jesus knew He was riding into His death on this day. He did it anyway - for you and for me. Today's Palm Sunday martyrs walked into their death because they knew losing the world was a small thing compared to what they knew they were going to get - unthinkable joy.

They were not selfish, they were in love.

Sometimes in this life, instead of swaying the palm branches in the air, we need to just turn our own palms up...

And be ready like He was.

Hosanna in the Highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord

*Number of reported casualties as of 10:45 a.m. today.


When You Wish You Were Happy

At the horizon on Route 23 toward Michigan, the sky is the palest but most unmistakably blue. In the distance the cotton-ball clouds smear over a soft layer of smokiness.

"What's wrong, Mommy?"

"Nothing... well, not really."

"What's wrong? Are you sad again?"



"I don't know. Sometimes I just get sad in the morning."

And other times at night, or at noon... I hate telling her any of it, but I try to keep it broad and simple.

"I love you, Mommy." She kisses my cheek and leans her head on mine. I close my eyes. Why isn't this tender heart filling up my heart-hole?

Maybe there really is no bottom and maybe the bottomless pit throws me into a hopeless fit.

Maybe I need to stop right here, close the laptop, lock the door and throw away the key. Maybe all I ever wanted was for her to love me with a mother's love, and she just can't and I need to get over it.

I don't need everyone to love me. But no love can replace a mother's love. I don't need her to be everything to me, just need her to be one thing - a mother.

My phone rings, and, slightly cringing, I touch my screen.

"Hi Mom."

"Ceci? How are you?"

There were many extended periods through the years when she didn't have the mind to ask me that.

"Good." I'm strictly monotone, guard up, poker face.

"Tell me what's wrong. Don't you know what is making you sad?" Her voice is calm and sincere.

"I don't know."

You don't want to know. The truth? You can't handle it. Plus, I'm too damn nice to tell you what you did to me. Plus, you'd deny it anyway. You always rejected my words. You rejected me.

Once lying on a hospital bed, she told me I'm a good mother.

I'm getting ready to hang up, but she's not as ready as I am to give up.

"Tell me. Did something happen? What happened? Just tell me. Maybe I can help you.” How does she know it's a specific thing? How did she know there's something to tell?

"There's nothing you can do, Mom."

Writing about Mom is an inch-by-inch sort of thing, slow, like driving in Toledo traffic during rush hour yesterday.

We're just trying to get through it to get to Southfield. And I'm just trying to get through my mom issues to get to a new place... a place of happiness...

A place of real letting-go forgiveness, where the horizon of our relationship is a pale smoky blue, dotted with sun-infused, lightly toasted marshmallow clouds instead of blackness.

I want to push out of the chrysalis, tired of spinning, tired of hanging upside down, tired of the dark. But at least I'm not still crawling.

"I wish I could do something," she's says believably. She's in a good mood. Her voice is soft like the pretty white clouds in the Detroit sky. Today is a good day for her. But is it a good day for me and her?
Maybe she does love me - in her own way. But I can't really feel it. I know her love for me could never make me happy. I remember it as contingent on whether my behavior and personality were up to par.

But maybe love is there regardless.

Is this whole blasted thing really even about love at all? If she loves me, why am I not happy? Do I want her love or my happiness? Maybe one isn’t necessarily the result of another.

Maybe we all just want to be happy, and love is just a luxury we're willing to give up for the feeling of happiness.

I want her love to make me happy. But it doesn’t, so I'm unsatisfied and sad. "What's love got to do with it?" sang Tina Turner.

The ultimate Love only just saved the world and passed out tickets to heaven forever. But Christ's long, grueling torture and death did not make anyone happy... until someone explained it.

Love is sacrifice. He did it for love’s sake, for God’s sake, for our sake. The best love is His love.

So you say there can be no self in love. And I am trying to make sense of that famous commandment, the big one that I’ve never understood: love your neighbor as yourself.

As I spin silky love-threads around myself in this fragile chrysalis, it will get easier to love her - not in her way, not in my limited way, but in God’s sacrificial way.

I’ll be waiting a long time if I wait for the happiness feeling to light up my sky before forgiving her. Might be an eternity before she loves me the way I want her to. Maybe the answer is not the idyllic love of a mother that I’ll never have, but the love of a Father I’ve always had. Mom’s best love would have brought me sporadic moments of happiness. God’s love gives me unfailing limitless joy that comes with hope.

Love is not a luxury for a lucky few, but a thing He tucked inside of us to resemble Himself. We all, including Mom, have it - a bit of His undying love that becomes ours, that bursts out of our insides when we’re ready and dances around with wings spreading joy on everyone.

Because love flutters joy like a butterfly, and happiness has nothing to do with it.

~by Anastasia (with Conte crayon)


When Sweet Sixteen Turns Seventeen

Candy-apple red lipstick, sparkly headband, black trousers black blazer, pink collared skirt with black polka-dots. And black-rimmed eyeglasses.

Her headaches had persisted since she lost them months ago. These beasts heap dumpster-truck loads of denseness on her broad eyelids and her brain. Daily during the week prior to the speech tournament they attacked her concentration and momentum so that memorizing her persuasive did not happen. 

The night before her first round, George had extracted the lenses from the locker room under her sister's bed. So she was as ready as she could be.

One of these days, she'll believe me just enough to chance the peppermint oil on her achy temples. And when I assure her it's not embarrassing but normal to have a crush, she'll tell me what color his eyes are and hear me not laugh. I'll remind her that it's her laugh I want to hear, the endless giggle that mingles with every conversation in every situation.

But 17 is one year closer to 18 and what am I doing? Do I hold captive every minute with her? Am I remembering everything I need to tell her? Will she be ready? Have I confessed every mistake against her?

I keep staring at her face, round and blushed. It's going to change again. The shades of her portrait have more mellowing to do. Her colors will yet deepen, and her smile will broaden. Her laugh will sweeten and her step will quicken. The Artist and Author of beauty is not finished with her. He's going to keep brushing strokes of inner beauty and strength on her.

But have I warned her about every danger? Has she learned enough? Does she have the tools and know how to use them? Is she confident enough? Is she tough enough? Did she get the lessons in kindness and shrewdness and wit along with geometry, history and grammar? Does she know how to forgive? how to love? Does she believe the right things? Which presidential candidate would she have voted for had she been old enough? I actually know the answer to that one.

Her aunt coaches her through the Strengths Finder program, and one of her top five is WOO - winning others over. She woos with her smile and laugh and a ready compliment just for you. She makes you feel welcome. She wins you over with her willingness to listen and her wealthy memory bank. She doesn't forget a name or a face while I consistently rattle off the names of all her siblings before finally getting to hers.

She embraces the hardships and injustices by calling them what they are - hard and wrong - and then chooses joy, staying as young and giddy as possible despite her mature mind.

She lives up to her name - youthful. The thing about her that will not change is her youthfulness. 

Though this fervent foodie can cook a mean koshery and whip up Teta's baklava like it's nobody's business, Taco Bell and Swedish Fish are always within reach.

Interaction with people is her soul food. For her, to embrace life is to embrace all kinds of people from all kinds of places. This has made her become wistfully lovable and dazzlingly engaged. Since she learned to walk, she has been fluttering from here to there and everywhere, never staying in one place or with one person for very long. No one is out of her reach because she always finds a way to connect with you. 

Forever reserved, I sit and gape. What did she say to that elderly man? to the little girl? to the cashier? to the security guard? to the performer? to her friend's dad? to her friend's little brother? It's not the words that elude me, but her ability to quickly summon the right words for every person.

So her friends are many, but forging deep relationships takes longer because it requires you to stop fluttering and stay put for a minute or two.

He will brush layer on layer of color and texture. Dark and bright days swirl and blend into new patterns and hues. Oils, charcoal and salt are extracted from her life experience to create depth and richness and to cause tension and pain. 

She will succeed and fail, celebrate and mourn, give and take, believe and reject, love and hate, fight and surrender. Her quickly changing canvas will emerge from the simple mess of lines, curves and dots to a well-defined, complex depiction of color, texture...

and love.

I wish I had filled a time capsule with the things we did, things that made her laugh or cringe, things she said or did that made us laugh or beam with pride. I wish I had recorded every single award, performance, report, story and drawing... every single friend, smile, tear, joke, dream and destination. 

Then she'd have one small snapshot of how much she is loved by us. And if it reflects even a wisp, she'd have a glimpse into the wide-open arm-engulfing love God has for her - love that spills across an endless sky airbrushing it with the emotions Juliana's days stir up:

~Yellow for happy

~Orange for witty

~Purple for silly

~Blue for chill

~Red for angry

~Green for adventurous and ambitious

~Black for disgusted and annoyed

~Pink for love and friendship...

-the colors of her complexion.

She's making grown up decisions and preparing to enter a grownup world. Her wings have only just begun to spread, and she's already flapping.

Happy Birthday, Butterfly.