Sunday, November 12, 2006

Another First

There's nothing like the feeling of a "first". There many firsts in life - the first day of school, first kiss, first new home, the birth of the first child.

Some firsts are not nearly as pleasant - the first breakup, the first major illness, the first visit to a dentist. I've survived my first car accident, my first surgery, my first trip in an ambulance, and my first house fire. Last week I experienced another "first".

Last week I traveled to the bustling metropolis of Wasco, California. I ventured out to this small dot of a town just Northwest of Bakersfield for the very same reason most people "visit" Wasco - to see a loved one who is incarcerated in Wasco State Prison. The first thing you notice as you turn left off of Highway 46 onto the prison property is how very familiar everything looks. Not the same kind of familiarity one has with a place they've been before, but rather it is seeing for the first time something up close and personal that you've only seen in films or television dramas. Yes, prisons really are surrounded by tall fences topped with rolled barbed wire. Yes, there really are tall towers standing in the center and on all four corners of the prison yard from which armed officers keep an eagle eye out for the first hint of trouble.

I had received a list of clothing items I COULD NOT wear onto the prison grounds and I went through three or four outfits at home before feeling confident that I wouldn't be denied a visit because of a clothing infraction. I couldn't wear anything that was made of denim and I couldn't wear any shade of blue. If I wore a skirt it had to be a certain length and could not have a slit. I couldn't wear a bra that contained any form of under wire or any metal at all. Upon entering the prison I could keep with me just two keys, my ID, and $30 in one dollar bills and/or quarters only.

My visit lasted just one hour and just like in the County Jail, there was a piece of glass between me and my son. I sat in the booth that had been assigned me and looked into the handsome young face of my 21-year old son....a felon. From the moment he was born I called my son, "Angel Face" and when I looked into his sad yet courageous blue eyes, I saw my baby.

Another first.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Winter Growth

It's a yearly ritual. Sometime in late October or early November I cut the lawn in both the front and back yards down as low as the blade on the lawn mower will cut. I then aerate the yard with a chunky garden rake and I throw out the rye grass seed and the fertilizer. In no time at all the yard has a fresh carpet of deep green grass and even though I could take a break from yard work if I didn't plant the rye grass, I choose instead to plant.

I performed this yearly ritual two weeks ago and my neighbor wandered out of his home and over into my yard - presumably just to chat. "You aren't planting rye grass, are ya?” he asked. "I sure am!" I responded. "Better you than me" he said shaking his head as if exhausted.

So, why do I plant the rye grass? Is it because I am just vain enough to want my yard to look good all year long? No...that's not it. I've experienced a lot of winters in my life - seasons that have been cold and lonely. In fact, it seems that I've been in a cold and dormant season for a particularly long time. I look for hope, however - small patches of green that tell me even in the winters of life, there can still be growth. The rye grass gives me hope and reminds me that no matter how dark the day is, there is life and there is tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Jail Visiting Rooms

There are places most of us will never see or visit, but rather our perceptions of said places are formed by their depictions in film, television, or news clips. Those places include the county morgue, a hospital emergency room, a police interrogation room, or the visiting area of the county jail. We've all seen movies which shows the angry wife, the urgent lawyer, the partner in crime, or the frightened child walking into the jail visiting room, sitting down on the cold stainless-steel stool and picking up the phone. We've been the fly on the wall as the red jumpsuit-clad criminal enters the cold hallway on the other side of the glass, picks up his own phone receiver and the conversation begins. No matter how many times I saw that visiting room scenario played out on the big or small screen, nothing prepared me for the flood of emotions that overwhelmed me the first time it was me picking up the phone to talk to my frightened 20 year old son on the other side of that glass.

As the months wore on my weekly visits to the county jail to visit my son got easier. We often laughed, talked easily, and we shared mundane details about our daily routines. He told me about the latest book he was reading and I told him about whatever triumphs and frustrations my day at work had brought (I teach drama to elementary age kids). The weekly visits to my son, however, soon became about more than him and me. I began to watch and learn from the other visitors whose loved ones were on the other side of the glass.

I saw moms and dads hold one another's hands as they encouraged their barely 18-year old sons. I watched as young mothers held their toddlers up to the window so they could see their daddy and so young men could say "I love you" to their confused sons. I was choked with emotion when a handsome young man on the wrong side of the glass was unable to hold back the tears when his small daughter said, "I miss you Daddy" into the mouth of the black receiver. I saw a middle-aged woman, dressed in a green inmate jumpsuit put her hand on the glass and her 20-something year old daughter pressed her hand into the glass and said, "I'm here for you Mom." I have listened to the soft muffled cries of a hurting mother as she stands in the visiting room, unable to move until her son disappears from sight and the heavy door slams shut behind him. In that cold, sterile visiting room we are all the same - mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, and friends. In that place we are all equal, despite our differences - different nationalities, religions, economic stations, and education experiences. We represent broken homes, intact families, dark secrets, happy lives, successes and failures. In that room we are all doing the same things at the same time with the same heart. We are connecting, hoping, sharing, forgetting, encouraging....loving.

I may not ever speak a word to one single person with whom I share that visiting room for 30 minutes every week, but each mom, wife, sister, son, daughter, father, brother, and friend who stands on the "right" side of the glass touches my heart. For 30 minutes a week we are all equal.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Magical Place

I know many people who live in a very happy place – a place where there are few challenges, where children are well behaved, where living is simple and carefree…a place where life is downright blissful. On occasion I have visited this magical land and I therefore know it exists. But, I never stay long enough and I always end up back home. This delightful and enchanting land is called, “Denial”.

My own visits to Denial have varied in length and my reasons for taking those trips are as numerous as the trips themselves. When I was younger I went in search of fantasy and fairytales and because I grew up believing in both, I had to be sure I left no stone unturned in my quest. Other trips were motivated by less joyous passions – fear, sadness, weariness, loss, and more often then not – selfishness. However, I always come home.

The residents of Denial always seem to be at peace. They whistle happily and say things like, “my children have NEVER given me one ounce of trouble and are smart, talented, and beautiful”, or, “my husband has never said a harsh word and treats me like a queen every moment of every day”, or, “I’m the perfect best friend and I’ve never let anyone down”. They are experts at pointing fingers, they don’t struggle under the burden of personal responsibility, and they seem to never experience shame or guilt. Who wouldn’t want to live in such a place?

A mother recently left a message on my phone telling me all the reasons her daughter’s bad choices were my fault and the fault of my children. My husband and I had made a choice in regards to our daughter and this mother wasn’t happy with our choice and said to me via the phone message, “you’re making my life hard”. I had a best friend who witnessed another friend pummel me with a torrent of judgment and lies. Instead of standing up for me, she took a long trip to Denial and settled in for a nice quiet vacation with the pummeling friend. Long stays in Denial change people and I lost my best friend.

Maybe I need a change. Maybe it’s time I pack my bags and move to Denial for good. The population in that spell-binding place is high, but I bet there’s room for one more!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

I Miss My Rats

So...the past few years have been very, very hard. Actually, "hard" doesn't even begin to describe the angst, frustration, pain, fear, tears, and loss. The last few years have quite simply sucked!

Through it all a few well-meaning folks have begged the question, "So Liz, what are you doing for yourself?" myself...uh... What does one do when doing "something" for oneself?

I've learned a lot about myself over the past few years. I now have a much longer list of things I know I do not enjoy. I do NOT enjoy manicures, sitting for long periods of time sipping coffee and watching the Tower Rats scurry about (more on Tower Rats later), sitting in a darkened theatre watching a scary movie alone with twenty two strangers, having my hair done, shopping alone, or buying make-up! What I most enjoy "doing for myself" is spending time with friends - watching a rented movie, enjoying a good play, driving up the coast, walking on the beach, playing in the snow, talking on the phone, playing a board game, or putting on a show (even the rehearsals bring me joy!). What do I want to do for myself? I want to be surrounded by the people I love the most, trust the deepest, adore completely, admire greatly, and who make me laugh. Relationships bring me joy!

We've lost all the relationships that matter most to us (except for a few extra special family members). The experience of a crisis (or one crisis after another) always brings out the best and worst in people, and believe me, we saw the worst of the worst! All of our energies went into saving the lives of our children and when you don't invest in relationships there is no return. So, some people gave up on us because we weren't available to them anymore. Sadly, we had to turn our backs on some friends and family because having them in our life brought more toxins than healing balms. Relationships bring me joy and right now I am relationship poor and most definitely JOY poor!

Now...the Tower Rats. Every town has one - the neighborhood that boasts the most of everything - art energy, eclectic citizens, interesting architecture, surprisingly good restaurants, great theatre, and colorful characters. In Fresno that neighborhood is called, "The Tower District" because the focal point of the neighborhood is a very old movie theatre/entertainment venue called "The Tower Theatre". The gyspyskirt-wearin', dreadlocks-adorned, skateboard-ridin', don't-need-no-job-to-tie-me-down characters that walk the streets of the neighborhood and hang out in the coffee houses are called "Tower Rats". I envy them. They have each other - in good times, in bad, in joy, in sorrow - they are ever supportive and ever loving towards one another.

The one solitary activity that I do love is reading a good book while sitting in one of the comfy chairs at Barnes and Noble, surrounded by the smell of new books and good coffee. Happily, I still have Barnes and Noble (or Borders when I want to feel old). But I miss knowing that today will bring a welcome phone call, an unexpected coffee for two, a surprise invitation to lunch, or a bit of creative sparring with the creative team I so dearly loved. But mostly, I miss my Rats! :)

Friday, June 2, 2006


"What would Jesus do?" This has become a pop culture mantra among Christians and the letters WWJD can now be found adorning oh-so-attractive and must have art, jewelry, book marks, bumper stickers, and t-shirts. I must we really, really care about what Jesus would do?

I have heard the question, "What would Jesus do?" asked of very small children misbehaving in the supermarket. "Now Timmy, you are acting naughty. Tell me, what would Jesus do if his mommy asked him to stop whining?" Timmy's little tear stained face would get a sheepish grin across his little boy mouth and he would quietly say, "Jesus would stop whining". "You are mommy's good little boy." Pulleeez!!!

Would Jesus make excuses for not confronting a friend who is making bad choices? "I don't feel that the Holy Spirit has given me permission to address that issue right now. The timing just isn't right." Would Jesus tell a child he was no longer welcome to come to church? "You are too hard. I've given you chance after chance, but I just don't want you here anymore."

It makes me crazy when people use something Jesus did as an example for why they are doing something. One that I have been confronted with often is the fact that Jesus called twelve men out of non-ministry type jobs and made them His disciples. People claim they have been "called" and then they find some church who will hire them to be their Junior High School Pastor despite the fact that the week before they were a truck driver. Well...what would Jesus do?'s true...Jesus called working men into His ministry. However, let's not forget that after calling those men He taught those men twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty five days a year, for three years before putting them to work. When God calls us, He calls us to excellence and He calls us to education.

Do we want to give God our very BEST? Hmmm....what would Jesus do?

Monday, May 22, 2006

A Mother's Heart

Being a mom is incredible and beautiful and amazing and is more important to me than any other position I might ever hold in life. Being a mom is also awful and painful and sad and.....hard! Having a Mother's heart is the hardest part of the job.

When my son was five I went one Sunday morning to pick him up from his Sunday School class and the teacher said, "Your son was very bad today." The woman to whom I had entrusted my son's physical and spiritual care for the morning then turned to my son and said, "Tell your mommy how bad you were today". My Mommy instinct was to pounce on that pious woman and rip her to shreds. My Mommy's heart was flooded with emotion. I wanted to understand what had happened to inspire the teacher to make such a bold accusation. I wanted to scold my son and help him to see that whatever he had done wrong was a bad choice and he was capable of making better choices. I wanted to look around the room to see who might be listening to this conversation for fear that my reputation as a mother and woman was being seriously attacked. But mostly, I wanted to scoop my child up into my arms and love him and assure him that even when he acted badly my love would not go away.

My heart has been ripped, torn, and broken in two many times in my 44 years, but nothing hurts my heart so deeply and calls me into action so fully as the hurt, sadness, brokenness, and suffering that is experienced by my kids.

God made moms and dads completely differently - thank goodness. Dads tend to be more black and white about things and it's pretty easy for them to distance themselves from the bad choices their children make. I heard a psychologist once say that kids learn early on that Mom's love was unconditional, but Dad's love was clearly conditional. I don't believe a good dad's love is truly conditional, but their responses to their kids is clearly conditional upon behavior. A friend of ours calls it "good cop/bad cop" and it is the way God made us.

There have been times in the lives of my kids when I - Mom - was the only one who still believed in them, still found reasons to trust them, and still had a sliver of hope that the outcome of whatever crisis they were in would be positive. If it hadn't been for the crushing ache in my chest for my kids I would never have cried out in anguish to God. If it wasn't for the deep heart pain that calls me into action, there might not be one single person in the world praying for my kids.
As awful as it is, God calls us moms to hurt for our kids so that we will never stop praying for them.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Morning Exercise.....a poem

By Elizabeth Stoeckel

Run, ride, peddle, step.
Going, going
getting nowhere fast.

The heart struggles to meet the demands
of the determined and sometimes rebellious body.

I smile, and then laugh
at the many pairs of flailing limbs
as they are reflected in the mirrored walls.

We move independently together.
Going, going
getting nowhere fast.

May, 2006

Saturday, May 20, 2006

May Sweeps

It's May. For television May and November are big "sweeps" months - the time of year when TV shows pull out the big story-line guns and hope to attract the highest number of viewers. Advertisers look at the sweeps numbers to determine which shows will get the most exposure to their clients' products. Of course the shows that get the most viewers will get the most money for each advertising minute.

When I was young I loved to watch "All My Children" with my mom. I still watch the occasional soap opera (or "story" as my son calls them), and the best story lines are tangled and untangled in the months of May and November. I still remember gathering at my friend Louie's apartment in November of 1981 to watch "General Hospital's" Luke and Laura FINALLY get married!! I remember each and every husband of Erica Cane (from "All My Children" and played by Susan Lucci).

The thing that kept me hooked on soaps was not the hot guys, the steamy love stories, the beautiful clothes, or the exotic location shots, but rather it was the knowledge that eventually good would win, and evil would be exposed. There is always a character in the soaps who is manipulating things to make themselves look angelic, and the good people look really bad. Eventually, however, the truth is always seen, the manipulator loses the girl or guy, and true love always wins out. Primetime TV has had their share of schemers as well, and my favorite new schemer is Parker Posie's character on Boston Legal....but I digress.

Several years ago a woman who is all smiles and charm to the outside world so convincingly wove a tapestry of half-truths and lies about me that I lost my job - a job she now has. A couple of years later I understudied a beautiful woman in a theatrical production. She demeaned me verbally and emotionally and night after night I left those rehearsals in tears. She lied about her behavior when confronted and her charm eventually won the heart of my dearest friend and I lost him to her. if life was truly a stage then May and November would be sweeps months! This would be the time of year when all the story pieces come together, lies would be revealed and the good girl would get those she loves back. Good people would be forgiven for bad behavior and bad people would be found out. However, this is real life and people don't forgive as easily as they do in the Soap Operas, the girl doesn't always get the guy, and there are no cute ribbons with which to wrap life's package in that proverbial neat little bow. I guess that's what makes TV "fantasy".

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

By Elizabeth Stoeckel

They are vessels
navigating silently through the sometimes murky and rough,
often calm and still waters of life.
They are strangers.
Though most seem strong and withstanding
I wonder about weaknesses that have been repaired,
and holes that have been patched.
Many are plain and simple,
but they hold secrets of outlandish exploits
and surprising adventures.
A few are gaudy and bold,
but their contents are unnecessary or destructive.
Some drag cargo they long ago meant to purge,
while others carry riches unseen by the passing outsider.
They are vessels transporting stories and memories,
hopes, desires, and dreams for the journey.
Though we share the waterways from one port to the next,
we are strangers.
We unintentionally touch,
and we are strangers still.

September, 2005

The Apple Tree

18 months ago I planted a brand new apple tree- a sapling. For me that little tree represented hope for a better future, for as you know my son was in jail and my daughter was 750 miles away in a drug and behavioral treatment program.

Last Spring I was thrilled to see eight tiny Fuji apples begin to form. As the apples grew larger those little tiny branches began to bend and sag under the weight of the fruit. I went out each and every morning to monitor that little tree and one morning I saw that one of the branches had split, but was not yet completely broken. I wrapped that little branch's wound and then I used garden tape to wrap all the tiny branches together in such a way that they were clinging to one another and then they as a group were clinging to the trunk (which was still small, but sturdy!).

Do you know that all eight of those tiny apples grew into huge, delicious apples. I thought of the church and how we all need to support one another in order to produce the best possible fruit. If we - the body - are not there to support all the other branches then the fruit bearing branches will eventually break under the weight of that fruit. The same can be said of our work place, our neighborhood, our family, and our circle of friends. As the branches get stronger they have the responsibility of supporting the new, smaller branches.

I am so excited to report that this year that little tree has about 30 apples growing on it's still frail branches. The branch that had suffered a split last year has healed. Because the tree is still young, all the branches will once again have to cling to one another so all 30 apples will grow to maturity as I expect to share and eat them all! :):)