March 27, 2007

Life On The Edge

Her dusty-brown, just short of decrepit double-wide trailer hangs on the side a mountain in a place disingenuously called Brand’s Flats with a hundred or so others. The land is too steep to be of much use so the landlord hacked out notches big enough to hold a home and another trailer park was born. It’s not the location most people would make as their first pick of places to live, but to her it’s home. She often says the only time she’ll ever live anywhere else is when she is too senile to know any better.

Carol’s trailer is the only double-wide, but at 22 is older than most of the others in the neighborhood. Ants often make themselves at home as there are too many holes, small and large, to keep them out. Chemical sprays only slow the inexorable insect tide. Birds roost in the eaves where the boards have either rotted or fallen off.

Carol does not drive, relying on family as a lifeline. Most days are spent with books, or crossword puzzles or crime shows. The Internet is an unexplored mystery and likely to remain so. Most nights she falls asleep on the couch embraced in the television’s soft glow.

Last month her electric bill was $490 while her monthly income is only $700. Nonetheless, the last time I saw her she insisted on making meatloaf and potato salad. Like most Southern women (and perhaps all) she takes great pleasure in nourishing all that grace her doorway.

Carol, at 67, has already survived uterine cancer and she just recently suffered a very nearly fatal blood infection. The good news is the hospital stay scared her enough to quit smoking after more than 40 years, the bad news is she will be on oxygen from now on.

She has also survived a violently abusive, alcoholic father and two abusive, alcoholic husbands. Alcoholism is so commonplace it was expected of her children, and they more than lived up to the expectation. It has been said that her family tree is not a tree, it is a vine. She has wrestled with the demon herself. So far she’s got him pinned.

Despite the poverty, the poor health, the ghosts of abuse and loss that haunt her memory Carol is helping to raise her great-grandchildren. They are the children of her oldest grandson who is in prison, again. The three boys, the youngest is actually no kin but the son of their mother by another man, love her with the abandon and fervor of the young. To them she is love, she is protection, she is Grandma.

To me she is Mom.

March 26, 2007

Wisdom Of The Desert

Not many blogs have caught and held my attention as easily as this one, Wisdom of the Desert. It is aesthetically and ascetically pleasing and believe it or not the woman who created it is not Orthodox. She is a wonderful woman and clearly puts a lot of time and effort into her daily entries. Take a look, I believe you'll agree.

Making Memories

These photos were taken on our recent trip to Virginia with my seven-year-old daughter to visit with some of our family. She took all the photos except the first two.

March 25, 2007

Back From Virginia

We made it back safely from Virginia. These photos are from this morning after the Divine Liturgy. The man holding the Blessed Bread is Moses, a true servant of God.

March 19, 2007

Apology and Clarification

I want to apologize to anyone who found the preceding post too strong or were offended by its content. It was not my intention to offend anyone and I ask your forgiveness. Here in our community, in the middle of Lent, evil of the worst sort reared its ugly head and it was my intention to point out that there are many people in the world (especially children) who are at risk every day. There are also many people who willingly inflict harm on those entrusted to their care. My point was that we should pray for the innocents and do what we can to ease their burden. Again, I apologize and ask your forgiveness if you were offended.

March 18, 2007

Suffer Not The Little Children

I hate to keep writing about the same topic, but the death of Christopher Michael Barrios Jr. has been very troublesome in our community. Even though we all know it’s undeniably true, we all hate to think that something this dreadful could happen here. It’s shocking to realize just how many active monsters walk among us. Many details of Christopher’s death have not been released.

One comment to my previous post said that I am exposed to evil of the vilest sort. I am exposed to it more than most, but not nearly as much as some other folks I know. The investigators who deal with crimes against children are a special breed. They have to be able to deal with some of the most potently evil people on the planet without sacrificing their own humanity, their own sense of dignity, their compassion. I do not have the stomach or the heart for it.

The story of what happened to little Christopher has only just begun. We will have trials where the particulars of his life and his death will be revealed in full. We will be shocked and we will weep for this child who came face to face with the darkest side of our kind. And those responsible will have their day in court, and they will be exposed for what they are, aberrations, monsters, child killers.

Many times I have wondered why cases involving children seem to bother me so much more than others. I realize that crimes against children shock most of us more than other crimes, and rightly so. But with me it seems to cut very deep and take a long time to heal, even when I have no direct knowledge of anyone involved. I think the answer (at least partially) is because I know and remember on a very deep level how it felt/feels to be a defenseless child. Without going into particulars, my childhood was not without its trauma. Several generations of alcoholism, persistent poverty and lack of parental skills coalesced to make the childhood of myself and my siblings (and many of my cousins and neighbors) a rollercoaster ride though Hell. Don’t get me wrong, my childhood was no worse than some. In fact, compared to other stories I have heard (and have direct knowledge of) it was rather tame. But it was sufficiently cruel to stunt my development, emotionally and physically, to a marked degree.

Sadly, my story and even Christopher’s are not unique. Every day untold numbers of children suffer at the hands of strangers, but many more suffer at the hands of those who are supposed to love and protect them. I know of cases of children being shaken to death, of children put in scalding hot water, of children bashed against walls, of children smothered, of children burned with cigarettes, of men having sex with infants, of infants ejected from cars because no one strapped them in. I also know of a situation where a mother shook her child violently enough to cause major brain trauma. Yet she did nothing for weeks until another family member forced her to take the child to a doctor.

Make no mistake, this is the world we all live in. We have our jobs and our cars and our homes and our families that love us. We are the fortunate ones. So pray. Pray hard for this wicked, wicked world and the children trapped in it.

March 7, 2007

Humble Pie

Earlier this week my wife and our two daughters went out to eat at one of our favorite restaurants. It’s one of those places caught in a time warp. A place where all the waitresses call you "Honey" and the kids don’t have to worry so much about being quiet. The sign outside is so old it’s in style again. A place where you can ask for fried chicken gizzards or fried okra and no one will even blink an eye. A place where for about six bucks you get a dinner with beverage and dessert included. A place where you can write a check and they don’t ask for identification. Blue collar cuisine at its finest.

That night it took about half an hour to get our food. It was getting late and we were getting a bit testy about having to wait so long. What I really wanted to do was to go see the owner (she was working as a waitress because they were so shorthanded) and demand our food. I would not be rude, but very straightforward and curt. But my daughters were sitting there. How would I want them to behave if confronted with this situation? Would I want them to be polite? Would I want them to fight the urge to demand better service? Would I want them to be compassionate, to put the event in context, to consider how hard the two waitresses were working to accommodate so many people?

So many times I tend to want to blame others, to make my faults something they caused. But of course my faults are my own. The problem is within me, in my pride, in my unwillingness to put others first. I know that it is important, especially during the Lenten season, to put aside pride, to resist the deadly seduction of anger, to love equally. Even though I am aware of the problem, I tend to let myself get rattled by the smallest things, things that at the time seem enormous, but really mean absolutely nothing. Many times I let negative emotions get in the way and cloud my judgement. I know that I am a much better man, husband and father when I am in control, when I decide how I will react, when calm reason replaces the rage.

So I sat there and tried to look like I was just taking it all in stride. I reminded my daughters that we knew they were shorthanded, that generally the waitresses were very prompt, and that the owner took great pleasure in making vanilla milkshakes for the youngest daughter. I hope my frustration was not too obvious. I hope they saw the man I want to be.

Mission In Valdosta

A few weeks ago my wife, my daughter and I traveled to Valdosta to worship with the folks at Valdosta Orthodox Christian Mission. It’s about a two hour drive so we drove over the day before and spent the night in a hotel.

They meet very early in a room provided by a Presbyterian congregation. Once a month a priest and a reader from St Justin Martyr drive to Valdosta to conduct the Divine Liturgy. Other weeks they have a layman’s service. This particular week the priest and reader were there so there were about a dozen people all together (including us) gathered in a converted Sunday school room. Essentially it is church in a box. Every week they lug their supplies out of a closet then put them all back in when the liturgy ends. Compared to the beauty of a traditional Orthodox church the place was pretty Spartan, but the essentials were all there, with icons of the Theotokos and our Saviour.

Being there stirred up brew of memories, some good, some not so good. Prior to discovering Orthodoxy I was the church council president for an ELCA Lutheran congregation that finally ended its long slide to oblivion. We had been meeting together for about a decade, but due to a variety of circumstances the congregation was never really economically viable. It was nice meeting with a small group of people on a very regular basis and becoming thoroughly entwined in each others lives.

The down side was that we were stagnant. We tried everything, sometimes by mandate of the ELCA and sometimes on our own, but we did not survive. Sadly, the lack of growth caused much anguish to the core group. Many people came and went but there were about a dozen of us who were there from beginning to end. Going though the process of disbanding was like attending a funeral that never ended. We are now scattered to the proverbial four winds with most everyone ending up in a Lutheran or Episcopal congregation.

So the folks in Valdosta have a long row to hoe, but they have the advantage of having a very supportive mission partner at St. Justin Martyr. The winds of adversity will only makes their roots grow deeper.