Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Cracked Christmas Carol

On this Wild Ride Wednesday I’m going back to my first Christmas as a new mom.

I went into labor around noon on December 7, 1984 with my first child. Like all new moms I’d had so many questions and concerns about the whole birthing process. Would I recognize labor when it began? Would I get to the hospital in time? Would it hurt?

The answer to all those questions was a resounding YES!

I’d been married to my baby’s father for two years and there were outrageous ups and downs. My husband (Terry) was addicted to cocaine. The impending birth of our child, however, seemed to balance my husband and I hoped the ugly days were behind us. That (as my blog readers already know) was not the case!

I was concerned about leaving my little apartment when it was time to have the baby. Not only did we live in an ugly area of town, but I also didn’t trust my husband. I wanted to protect our simple home and assets from the unseemly characters that were my husband’s friends.

One of the precautions I took before going to the hospital was to hide the unused checks. I found the small box with four books of checks and their duplicates and buried it deep in the kitchen cabinet inside a rarely used pot. I put the firmly fitting lid squarely on the small cauldron. Surely Terry would never think to look there.

Dallas was born at 4:20AM on December 8, 1984. My labor hadn’t been terribly long, but Dallas entered the world a bright shade of blue and in distress. One nurse swooped him out of the room and Terry went with them. A nurse stayed with me, cleaned me up, and calmly assured me my child would be fine. She was right.

I was not prepared for the flood of love that washed over me. I held my son in my arms and promised him I’d protect him and keep him safe.

Terry left the hospital around 6AM to go home and get some sleep. Dallas and I were taken to the large, noisy maternity ward at Fresno Community Hospital. I spent my first night as a new mom with 20-30 other women, their babies, and their mostly dysfunctional families. I didn’t see Terry again for about 12 hours.

On Christmas day Dallas was 17 days old. Terry and I paraded our beautiful son around to my grandpa, aunt, uncle, and cousins. That first Christmas was magical.

On December 26 I went to the mailbox where I found two notes from my credit union. I saw the words stamped in large red letters—INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.

The hidden checks! I went to the kitchen cabinet and dug through the pots and pans for the box I had meticulously hidden. An entire book was missing!

Over the next several days I received more notices from my credit union. How had this happened? When did Terry write the bad checks and for how much? Where was the money? The clouds of confusion slowly began to part and the light of truth gradually broke in.

When Terry left the hospital a scant two hours after Dallas’s birth, he went home and rummaged around our tiny apartment until he found the hidden checks. Those were the days when we could walk into a grocery store or liquor store and simply write a check to “Cash” and get real money in exchange for the signed note.

Terry had gone to a couple of liquor stores and every Safeway in town where he’d cashed checks in the amounts of $25-$50. The bad notes totaled more than $850. While I was in the hospital recovering from giving birth to our first child, he was hosting a cocaine party. My sister’s boyfriend was the only guest at that party, and the two guys smoked (freebased) a lot of crack.

I had been the sole breadwinner, and only earned $900 a month. I would bring home considerably less money while on maternity leave. Terry called his mom and dad (who were divorced) and told each of them that we had a lot of baby needs—which was true, of course. Each parent sent a couple hundred bucks, but not one dime went to the baby. It all went to cover the hot checks, but it wasn’t enough.

When Dallas was around four months old, a certified letter arrived at our home. Terry was being charged with fraud and there was a warrant out for his arrest. I called his grandmother—a wonderful woman with whom I had a very close relationship. She shuddered at the thought of her precious grandson going to jail, and she sent the money needed to pay back the bank.

When Tom and I bought our home 12 years ago, a search of our financial records revealed that I STILL owed money to the credit union from that one incident all those years before. I think the outstanding balance was about $42 and I had to pay it before we got our loan. We actually paid a couple of my ex-husband’s debts, as the state of California held me responsible since he was MIA.


Monday, June 28, 2010

What's The Take-Away?

A few weeks ago a friend commented that my blog has gotten a bit more positive. I think she actually said something like, “your blog used to be more negative”. She likes seeing a “take away” from each post—a “what I’ve learned from this mess” statement.

The truth is, a ton of stuff has happened, and is still happening, that I don’t understand and for which I have not yet discovered the purpose.

A few months ago I wrote a post called, “Forgive Me If I Have A Bad Day” in which I wrote a list of some of the traumatic happenings of my life. A few people slammed me over that one! A family member asked my kids to check on me as she thought I might be considering suicide.

A couple of days later I wrote a follow-up post called, “More Good Days Than Bad”. It was the flipside of all the bad stuff—looking at the blessings that come through the tragedy. The aforementioned family member said, “I like this post much better”. Some people are afraid of the dark.

The title of my blog is “Liz by Design…Our Journey”.

Life is a journey. That is simplifying things a bit and is exactly the kind of bumper sticker theology that I like to avoid. However, it is truth.

When I first started blogging 5 years ago I did it for me. I wanted to keep a record of where we’d come from, where we were, and where life would take us. I could see that some of the small details were already slipping away and I recognized that even the minutia was going to be important on this journey.

Of late, I’ve started thinking in terms of gaining more readers and I recognize that you want to be uplifted, challenged, or filled with fuzzy goodness. I also recognize that you are very, very smart and I don’t need to placate you or soft-pedal the truth.

I’d like to get our story published one day, as I want you to believe in miracles as much as I do. I want you to know that I know that God is still in the business of marvelous wonders.

Here’s the deal—I really don’t understand why some of the bad stuff has had to happen. I don’t yet see the purpose and the deeper meaning. That’s especially true when it comes to some of the ugliness that’s come at the hands of so-called “friends”. I recognize that sometimes stuff happens for which there might not be a take-away—it just is.

I also like the idea of shooting questions out into the blogosphere in hopes that it boomerangs back to me in the form of answers. I want to stir conversation, share experiences, and find others like me—people who feel alone.

The single most difficult part of our journey so far is the isolation.

I may not always have the answers and my blog might not be teeming with fuzzy Christian platitudes. I try to write in English…not Christianese.

I’m a mom who loves her prodigal children (oops…there I go speaking Christianese) more than life itself and a woman who wakes up every morning and prays for one day’s worth of strength.

Our journey…one day at a time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Roach Motel

It's Wild Ride Wednesday. Our journey has taken me places I could never have imagined I would go. Here's the story of my first visit to one such place.

I turned left on G Street. Fresno residents would agree—this was a VERY undesirable part of town.

I'd been down there before. I’d had the opportunity to minister to homeless men at the Fresno Rescue Mission located on G just south of Ventura.

It wasn't the Mission, however, that drew me to the dark, filthy, drug infested neighborhood down on G Street—it was my son.

My oldest child was home from prison and was on parole. Well, he wasn’t actually at home since the great California Parole System—in their wisdom—decided he shouldn't live with us. I won't even discuss the rationale behind their decision, as it was in fact irrational, but it was our reality.

In order to deliver a few bags of groceries to my hungry son, I drove past the rescue mission, and past drunk and sick men and women pushing shopping carts filled with junk and trash. I continued past the little village known as "tent city"—shanties built from discarded camping tents, garbage bags, and building scraps.

I finally arrived at the small, roach infested motel that the state parole system had demanded my son call home.

The tiny room was even worse than I expected it would be.

I opened the paper-thin door and saw the bed to the left. My son pulled back a stained and shredded blanket to reveal holes in the bottom sheet—holes clearly created by repeated stabbings with a small knife. A worn, splintering cabinet stood precariously near the foot of the bed and cradled a barely working television set with a 15-inch screen.

Where was the hope?

A newly paroled young man who wanted to turn his life around was put in the darkest part of town, surrounded by drug addicts, alcoholics, hookers, and the mentally deranged. He was forced to spend a minimum of 14 hours a day in that hole. The prison system expected him to find a job and stay out of trouble.

They told Dallas to believe in himself and his future. That seemed like an impossible task in that dark and hopeless place.

More than three years have come and gone since that first sad visit to my newly paroled son. Dallas showed amazing strength and courage. He never stopped believing in himself and his future. He lives at home now—a totally free man.

Though G Street seems a million miles from here, its residents are in my heart and in my prayers.

Monday, June 21, 2010

I saw your name on Facebook...

“I had no idea what Facebook was. And now that I do—I think it’s a huge waste of time.” Betty White said that when she hosted Saturday Night Live last month.

After Ms. White’s wildly popular Snickers commercial aired during the Super Bowl earlier this year, there was a massive Facebook campaign to get the octogenarian actress on the long-running NBC live sketch comedy series, Saturday Night Live. She started her television career back in the era when most all television was live, so surely she was a natural to host SNL.

The campaign worked and the uber talented Betty White wowed the studio audience and the TV viewers. So maybe Facebook isn’t such a huge waste of time after all, eh?

Well, I think it does have its positives, but mostly…Betty White is right.

The social networking sight has not become a giant time suck for me yet because I have never, ever played Farmville, Mafia Wars, The Sims, Plants vs. Zombies, Pacman, Doodle Jump, or any of the other addictive and wacky games or applications.

It has been a joy, however, to reconnect with a few long lost friends, co-workers, and classmates. In fact, five times as many people showed up for our 30th high school class reunion just a few months ago as came to our 25th gathering (only 4 classmates showed up at that one). I give Facebook all the credit for helping us reconnect.

The other day I got a note in my FB inbox.

“I have seen your name come up on fb several times… I began to wonder if you could possibly be the Elizabeth Santori that I had in my 2nd grade class at Tarpey when I first started teaching. If so, you were such a great kid and always made my day!”

It was a note from my second grade teacher, Mrs. Higgins! I remember her very well, and it was a wonderful surprise to know that she remembered me. Her note made me smile.

So, although Facebook can sometimes be a huge waste of time, I want to thank Mrs. Higgins for taking an extra moment to drop me a line.

I’ve sent several notes to friends, and even a few strangers, whose lives have intersected with mine through mutual acquaintances. I’ve let people know I was praying for them in the midst of a struggle, and I’ve reminded seldom-seen folks that they matter to me.

I’ve been “unfriended’ by a few, and I’ve gotta say…that hurts. Cyber rejection hurts almost as much as a face-to-face slap down, but connecting with someone from my long ago past makes my heart sing.

Thanks Mrs. Higgins for your kind words. You made my day. You reminded me that Facebook isn’t just a huge waste of time but can, in fact, bring joy.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Job's Friends, part 2

The other day I wrote about Job’s friends. I loved the fact that after Job lost everything and was suffering excruciating physical and emotional pain, his friends came to him, ripped their clothing, and sat quietly with him for seven days. They just loved him.

When I was in the darkest of places I wish I’d had more friends who just sat quietly with me and loved me instead of making judgmental and condemning comments. Even some of the advice was painful. Unless you’ve been in that same situation you might not understand that.

Well, when we read on in the Biblical book of Job we discover that Job’s friends weren’t content to sit quietly. They too felt compelled to open their mouths and heap hot coals of condemnation onto their friend.

Job’s wife gets in on the action too. His wife said to him, "Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!" Job 2:9 (NIV)

As a side note here, I must say that I question the motivation behind Job’s wife’s comment. I mean she too was in pain. Hadn’t she also lost her children and her home? She must have been desperate for the pain to end. But I digress.

A friend of mine commented on my blog post. She works in a grief ministry and walks with people through the grieving process. She said, “When I think of people who do not say anything—that is worse”. I can only speak from my own personal experience. The people who were silent didn’t hurt me.

I wrote a post several months ago about people who THINK they know what’s best for us in our time of grief, when in reality, they’re just adding to the stress. I know people just want to help—really I do.

In the end, the Lord made Job prosperous again. He ended up with more cattle, donkeys, sheep, camels, and kids then he had before.

BUT…and this is important…BUT, God prospered Job only AFTER he prayed for the very friends who had cursed him. After Job had prayed for his friends, the LORD made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before. Job 42:10 (NIV)

I remember a time when God told me to pray for someone who had hurt me. I did it immediately. I’ve continued that practice to this day—praying for people who’ve caused me pain. Do I pray for them so that the pain will end and God will prosper us and give us swag?


I do it because it’s right, and because personal healing and a healthy relationship with God is better than all the stuff in the world!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

It Wants Your Children

It’s Wild Ride Wednesday. Here’s another crazy excerpt from the journey that is our life.

I crawled into bed after another very long day. Tom was out of town and all three of the kids were home. Dallas had just turned 19, Drew was almost 17, and Giana was nearly 16.

We’d made it through Thanksgiving, but Christmas and New Year’s Day were just around the corner. I wanted only to get through the holidays with little drama.

Every day brought a new and terrible revelation. We knew Dallas was on drugs and we suspected Giana was using as well. When you’re dealing with drug addicted kids (and young adults) you have to be very careful.

Even though we believed they were using drugs, we couldn’t make accusations without real facts to back up what we knew in our hearts. You see if the drug addict thinks he or she is about to be found out, they will bury the secrets even deeper and tell better lies.

The addict’s deceitfulness must be challenged with real information that can supported with hard facts. Otherwise they will retreat further and could be lost forever.

Tom and I couldn’t relax for a moment. We had to keep our eyes and ears open all the time. I covertly listened in on one end of suspicious phone conversations, intercepted mail, sifted through pockets, had nonchalant conversations with chatty school friends, and frequently searched bedrooms and backpacks.

It was around midnight. The crisp pine scent from the large Christmas tree in the front room filled the house. Chilly air wafted in through my open bedroom window. I could smell smoke from the smoldering fireplaces in the neighborhood. I was just starting to dose off when something woke me.

I heard a clanging and clattering in the hallway.

I got out of bed, opened my bedroom door, and looked into the long narrow walkway leading to the front room. I saw a thick black smoke-like substance stretching the length of the hall and hugging the ceiling.

The thing seemed to actually have arms that were reaching over the top of each of the three closed doors and was slithering through the tiny cracks between the door and its frame. It wasn’t trying to get into my room—just the rooms of my children.

I’ve looked into the eyes of evil before, and even then I felt peace and calm. This was no different.

I shut the door to my bedroom and crawled back into bed. I pulled the covers up around my neck and I prayed.

“Dear God, what is that?”

I heard a voice. “It’s the spirit of sexual promiscuity, and it wants your children.”

I prayed more.

Less than a month later Dallas left and would essentially be homeless for months. He and his sister nearly died from their addictions.

God gave me peace in the midst of the storm and in the face of evil. He gave me wisdom so I would know how to pray for my kids.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

We'll Never Give Up!

These are tough economic times and people need jobs!

Okay…that isn’t exactly a shocker of a statement. We’re all living in this world, and the downturn has affected every one of us.

My mom has a friend who is proud to brag about the fact that she’s been unaffected by the financial meltdown. Several months ago Mom talked to her friend on the phone for the first time in a couple of years and the first words out of the friend’s mouth were, “I still have all my money!”

It sounds like money is a top priority in that woman’s life. Well…good for her.

But I digress. MOST people are struggling and many people need jobs!

My son Dallas is 25 years old and he (like all of us) has made a few mistakes. Many of us were never caught. Not only was he caught, but he also took personal responsibility and never, ever ran from the consequences. I’m proud of my son.

Unfortunately, he is having an extremely difficult time finding a job. I wish somebody would give this guy a break—a chance.

When my son was released from prison it was clear that he would need financial, emotional, physical, and spiritual support. Tom and I have stood by him, as has most of the family, and Dallas is so very appreciative.

There are agencies in and around our town whose mission it is to help men and women just out of prison. They teach life skills, help them get an education, and aid in the job search. Hope Now For Youth, and Teen Challenge are two organizations that have a particularly good reputation and success record. Sadly, however, they wouldn’t help Dallas.

If Dallas had been a gang member or a murderer he would’ve had agencies clamoring to get him into their program so they could turn him into one of their success stories. Dallas’s crime was too severe for some agencies to give him a hand, and not nearly bad enough for other organizations to invest the time in him.

My son has been off parole for 5 months, but his record will follow him for the rest of his life (although there is hope that it will be expunged someday). This is what I want you to know—if Dallas had never been arrested, he probably would have died from a drug overdose. He’s meant to be here.

I write this post not just for Dallas, but also for all the men and women with criminal records who can’t get a job. We complain about the revolving doors on prisons and county jails. It seems that “the system” isn’t incapable of turning men and women around.

What do we expect? Society won’t accept them and won’t give them a job. Many newly released prisoners have nowhere to go. Their families have long ago given up on them, the privately run programs refuse to help them, and the government has run out of money. People need food in their belly and shelter from the cold. Jail looks pretty good if you have nothing else.

Dallas WILL thrive and he’ll be stronger, better, and more talented because he’ll have to work harder than most. I know he can’t do it alone, however, so we’ll never give up on him.

That’s how we roll.

Monday, June 14, 2010

When To Keep Quiet

The Biblical story of Job has brought me great comfort and encouragement over the years. Tom and I have felt like Job—getting hit with one crisis after another. There’ve been times we felt like giving up, but we hung in there.

I love Job’s friends.

When Job's three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. Job 2:11-13 (NIV)

No one said a word. I love that. In fact, no one spoke for seven days, and then the friends let Job speak first.

I know that people want to fix things. They speak out of love, desperation, frustration, or their own pain. But, seriously, we ought to learn to keep our mouth shut now and again. People say the darndest things!

The hurricane that ripped our world apart was swirling and churning around us. Every day brought a new and terrible challenge. “Friends” said, “it’s your fault for working in the theatre”, “you didn’t spend enough time with us”, “you should have listened to us”, or “that’s what you get for changing churches”.

One long-time friend made a particularly hurtful comment. She said, “Look, Dallas made his choice when he was a little boy. You need to just give up on him.” Does Jesus give up on us? Would Jesus throw hot coals of discouragement on open wounds?

Some people feel they need to say something super spiritual to friends in crisis. They say, “God is in control”, or “you just need to trust God.” While I accept the truth of those words, there are times when the pain is unquenchable and we just need someone to sit quietly with us.

Do you know someone in the middle of a battle, a storm, or is suffering unbearable pain? Go to them. Sit quietly. Love them!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

One Soccer Ball Brings Hope

As I sit here watching the World Cup soccer games, I can’t help but remember one of the most poignant memories I have from my trip to Malawi, Africa.

Our team was made up of high school and college kids. I was one of four adult chaperones. One day we walked the six miles or so to Zoomba school where we painted chalkboards and walls, cleaned, and played soccer with the kids. Of course, the African children call the sport, “football”.

Near the end of the day we stood before 2,000 students. A couple of our kids gave their testimonies, and then John Richardson presented the school with a handful of gifts. We gave them practical items—brooms, cleaning supplies, buckets, etc… John then presented the final gift—a single soccer ball. I was overwhelmed with the response of those beautiful kids.

I saw 2,000 children stand to their feet and let out an ear piercing cheer. Their hands shot into the air, their smiles were wider than any grin I’ve ever seen, and their faces glowed with unabashed joy. You’d think we’d just given them a million dollars!

A single soccer ball brought hope to 2,000 African children!

Those of us in America might not be able to fully grasp the importance of the World Cup being held in South Africa. I’ve had a glimpse how one ball can boost the spirits of school children. I can imagine how this tournament has brought hope and light to a struggling nation.

We take so much for granted in our day-to-day privileged lives here in the U.S.A. It can be difficult to get an American child excited about anything. Even the poorest among us have more than most of the richest children I met in Africa.

If one soccer ball elicits a standing ovation from 2,000 kids can you imagine the jubilance the World Cup is bringing to the South Africans? My heart leaps with joy just thinking about it!

Go South Africa!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Teaching and The Arts

It was about ten years ago that my friend Laurie Pessano called me up and asked me to be a part of her teaching team. A privately funded project was getting off the ground and its purpose was to get dance, music, and theatre into the elementary schools. Laurie had written the curriculum and was now looking for teachers.

Laurie is a brilliant actress and director and I’m not gonna lie—the thought of teaching alongside Laurie was intimidating,

I’d already directed a number of shows (churches, children’s theatre and the like), and I’d directed the Junior Company. The Jr. Company is a performance group made up of dancers and singers between the ages of 8 and 16. But teaching…in schools…where educated teachers would watch me and learn from me? Was I capable?

I expressed my insecurities to Laurie and she simply said, “Liz, you know more than they do”. You know what—she was right!

I have been blessed to be a part of an amazing team of talented artists who teach kids how to express themselves through dance, music, theatre, and visual arts. In addition, we have written curriculum that teachers can easily use in the classroom regardless of their artistic abilities.

The Bonner Family Foundation—a huge supporter of the arts in the Fresno community, paid for the project for which I was originally hired. That job led to my being tapped to host several episodes of the PBS television show “Art Is”, and to the incredible job I’ve had for the past four years.

I’ve written lessons that incorporate theatre and dance with language arts. I am proud to say that because of my encouragement, teachers have found the confidence to expose kids to the arts and to help them discover talents they didn’t know they had.

The most recent project with which I've been involved has been funded by a Federal government grant. My team and I taught in three elementary schools in the Fresno Unified School District where we worked with all kindergarten through sixth grade students and their teachers. The project has ended because there is no money for the arts.

I think it’s a shame that creativity has been pushed aside for the stay-in-your-seat-and-don’t-move kind of rigidity that has infected the classrooms. I feel so bad for teachers whose jobs are on the line if their students don’t get the expected scores on the standardized tests they are given several times a year. The students can’t learn because half of their brain is being stifled and is told to shut up!

Music, art, and creativity live in the right side of the cerebral cortex of the brain. Math, numbers, and words come from the left hemisphere. If half their brain is being told to hush, how can we expect children to grow up whole? That is exactly what’s happening in the classrooms of today—at least here in California.

Personally, I’m very concerned about what I’ll do for work in the coming months. I do need to get a job and continue to earn money.

But, more importantly, my heart breaks for the students whose teachers are too overwhelmed and tired to be creative—even if creativity was encouraged!

The arts are essential to a well-rounded education. The arts are vital to the formation of a healthy brain!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

So this is a Crack House

It's Wild Ride Wednesday. Here's another excerpt from the journey that is our life.

We gathered early on a Saturday morning in the parking lot of The Bridge Evangelical Church in Fresno, California. I was hoping there’d be more people, but I was grateful for the dozen or so friends who showed up at 6am—ready to canvas the city with “Missing Child” posters.

My 15-year-old drug-addicted daughter had been missing for nearly two weeks.

A stranger had watched me staple one of the posters to a telephone poll outside her front window, and she felt compelled to help. Her name was Sonja, and it turned out she was connected to the Federal Marshall’s office. She, along with her husband, spearheaded and organized the poster party.

A giant map of Fresno was spread open on the trunk of Sonja’s car. Red lines divided the map into a grid. She gave instructions to the sleepy, but supportive group of volunteers.

We broke up into groups of two or three, armed with a map, a staple gun, and a stack of posters. I thanked everyone for sacrificing a few extra hours of sleep, and we piled into our cars and fanned out across the city.

We walked and stapled, and stapled and walked. We showed Gia’s picture to everyone we saw and asked them to please call if they had any information that might bring our little girl home.

A couple of hours later my cell phone rang. One of the volunteers (and a dear friend) said he was standing with an apartment manager who swore Giana had been staying in one of her apartments, and had been seen several times over the past week.

The manager wanted to talk to me. She told me the residents had up and left the apartment the day before. She’d allow me to search the abandoned unit, but I was not to bring the police.

Sonja and her husband had some experience with sifting through evidence, so I asked them to accompany me to the complex. The manager agreed to let all three of us into the filthy apartment located in the old Mayfair District of Fresno.

An older lady with dyed black hair greeted us. She had nicotine stained fingernails, and a deep, throaty voice. She was wearing an ill-fitting pastel dress and house slippers.

She identified a picture of our car as the one the young woman was seen driving. She told us the girl was tall and blond, but was wearing a black wig. The woman knew the girl was young, but had learned to not ask too many questions. Besides, a man was always hovering and rarely left the girl’s side.

She slipped the key in the lock, turned the knob, and opened the weathered door.

As soon as the door swung open a strong stench of filth and rotting food swept over me. A waist-high mountain of discarded furniture, clothing, and trash stretched from one end of the apartment to the other. A narrow path was carved through the garbage and leading straight to the kitchen. A slightly narrower path led to the bathroom.

So this is a crack house.

So many emotions washed over me—fear, sadness, disgust, guilt, and anger. I did a cursory walk-through. I saw discarded boxes of hair dye and half-used bottles of shampoo on the bathroom counter. A urine-stained mattress sat alone in the middle of the bedroom—without a frame or coverings. I looked up to see a hole cut in the ceiling—a crude hiding place for drugs.

The electricity had been cut off to the small unit weeks earlier. Dirty, rotting dishes filled the kitchen sink and stovetop. A lone tub of mold-covered cottage cheese sat in the refrigerator.

I sat on top of the mountain of trash and began sifting through the garbage. I was looking for any evidence that my daughter had been there and where she might be headed next.

I found a small note that said, “There are pictures of her everywhere”. Had someone seen the posters we’d put up all over town? I sifted through drug paraphernalia, discarded personal hygiene products, papers, car parts, broken dishes, and pieces of glass and metal.

I put my face in my hands and cried uncontrollably for several minutes. I was overwhelmed with the realization that someone’s daughter had been living in this hell. Even if it wasn’t Giana, it was somebody’s baby.

“Oh God”, I prayed, “whoever the girl is, please help her and bring her home to her family.”

I never found anything that proved inconclusively that it was Gia who’d been living in the squalor. In fact, when we finally got her home we learned that she’d never been to that complex or that apartment.

I still think about the young girl I never met that day. She was a stranger, but she was a mother’s daughter. I’ve prayed for that drug-addicted stranger many times over the years.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Some days I hate the news.

The news broke on Friday. A well-loved school bus driver has been arrested and charged with a federal crime involving child pornography. My heart sank when I saw the man’s smiling face in the photo that flashed across my television.

I met Ray when he drove the school bus my kids rode to and from school each day. Everyone loved Ray—especially my kids.

Ray was more than just a bus driver to my kids—he was a friend. Dallas is a friend to one of the man's sons. When Dallas got into trouble, Ray was one of the very few people who told me he believed in my oldest child and he encouraged me to never give up.

Drew was just heartbroken when I shared the news with him, as he was especially close to Ray. My second son often seemed more comfortable around adults than kids his own age and Ray was a grown-up who poured confidence-building encouragement into my son.

Channel 30 showed a clip on last night’s newscast in which the bus driver’s wife assured the public her husband was a good man. She would stand by him. The station put a copy of that clip on their Facebook page. Their followers responded with ugly, judgmental comments.

I won’t defend the crime with which Ray has been charged, for it is indefensible. Nothing the man did, however, negates the good things he contributed to my family.

Tonight I’m praying for Ray and his family. I know God loves them all so much and this situation breaks His heart—as it does mine.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I am Special

I wept when I read my friend’s blog post the other day. She titled the entry, “Different… but Special”.

There was nothing sad about the content—quite the contrary. I wept, however, because I was envious of my friend. She’s got a supportive and sweet family, a lovely home, and a wonderful ministry. I have all those things as well, and it wasn’t those assets that triggered my jealous reaction.

I envy my friend’s confidence.

“I promised you if you dropped back by today I would share something special with you.” Her words piqued my interest. She went on to share a snippet of her testimony and a bit about her ministry. Shawna Marie Bryant is a worship leader and speaker—and she’s very good.

My life has been a wonderful, terrible, beautiful, and horrifying. It has been an adventurous journey. Eleven years ago I was at a very dark and desolate place when God told me that my story was for the church and that it was just beginning.

I now know the meaning of those prophetic words.

I know that I know that I know I have a story that God wants me to tell. It is a story of addiction, sin, loss, helplessness, healing, restoration, new growth, and hope.

I attended a writer’s conference in Orange County on May 1. One of the keynote speakers gave each of the 400 or so attendees a rubber band. She told us to put it on our wrist. She admonished us to snap that little piece of elastic every time we put ourselves down or talked smack about our abilities.

So, here I sit—snapping my wrist. I am a writer. I am a speaker. I am an actor. I do have a ministry that is of worth and value to God and to the body of Christ.

You want to hear our story. I promise you that after spending just a few minutes with me, you will be challenged and encouraged, and you will believe in miracles.

I am special.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A drama sketch for you!

I follow several blogs and I love getting insight into the thoughts, passions, and gripes of my friends and fellow writers.

I read a post today that hit home for me. It was about the way church members love to write notes. Boy, we'll complain about anything.

We love to grumble about the music, the length of the sermon, or the way the church board spends money. But, as the author of the blog pointed out, our complaints are usually self-centered.

I was reminded of a drama sketch I wrote several years ago called, "Writing Notes". I was told when I presented the script to the Music Pastor, that it couldn't be performed because it was "too real". Hmmmm....

Anyway, it's been many years and it's never been performed. I thought I'd post a link to the piece in case any of you church drama types out there would like to have a copy of my sketch, "Writing Notes".


Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Body

On my 30th birthday, I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw. My youngest child was nearly four and I could no longer blame the extra weight I carried on the old “I just had a baby” excuse. So, I got serious.

I changed my diet and started exercising each and every day. Eight months later, I’d lost 35 pounds and I was relatively happy with the way I looked and the way I felt. I can’t say I was uber happy, as I’ve always been a bit self-deprecating. But, I felt great!

It’s been nearly 20 years since I made that life-changing decision to take better care of myself. I’ve never let up, but my body has betrayed me.

I’ve gone through traumatic menopause (too much drama in my life), and I’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I poured health and life into my body, but my body has succumbed to the ravages of nature and circumstances.

I don’t like it!

For the first time in my life, I REALLY understand the picture the Bible paints of the family of God. We are one body. ALL the parts must work together for the body to be in the best possible shape.

Even when most parts are willing to work and fight to be healthy, one part can betray the rest, and the entire body suffers. A giant machine can be crippled by the failure of just one tiny cog.

I will not give up on getting the rest of my body back in line. It may take some time, but I won’t give up on it.

I wish more people felt that way about the body of Christ.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wrong 'Hood-Right Reason

It's Wild Ride Wednesday. I asked my husband Tom to write a guest post for today. We both saw a lot of crazy stuff during the several weeks we spent searching for our missing daughter. Rarely, however, did we really feel that we were in danger. There were some scary moments, however. In this post, Tom tells about a night when the search definitely turned treacherous.

When our daughter was missing we spent a lot of time trying to determine her whereabouts by following up on many different leads. Some of these leads came in from the private investigator we had hired to find her. Others were more anecdotal leads from friends of friends who believed they had seen her in one place or another, or well-meaning people who had seen the posters we plastered all over town.

There were people who were "pretty sure" Giana had crossed their path. One night I decided to pursue some "sightings" that seemed plausible.

There is a little residential neighborhood on the outskirts of town where someone claimed they saw her car (well ... our car; the one she had taken when she ran). This neighborhood is near the river—right off Herndon and Highway 99 in Fresno—and is known for being a somewhat "seedy" area.

We’d heard that she was staying down there with the same man she’d last been seen with, and this was further reinforced by a friend of her brothers who claimed they had seen her come into the Taco Bell near that location. It was worth a look.

That night I swapped our other car with a friend's van (to avoid her recognizing our vehicle if I found her) and I drove down to that neighborhood to look around. I spent my time slowly cruising up and down the residential streets looking for any sign of her car parked somewhere. Back alleys separated the rows of houses and I paused at each one to check out what might be parked there.

In one alley I saw a parked car with someone leaning in the passenger window. I paused at the end of the narrow dirt road to try and identify the make of the car. The person leaning into the car stood up and looked at me. The driver flipped on his headlights. I was apparently disturbing something I shouldn't be seeing but I could see it wasn't her car so I moved on.

I cruised up and down the tiny side streets and then made my way back to the only road that lead in and out of the neighborhood . The same car from the alley passed me going the other direction and it was moving at a pretty good clip. In my rear view mirror I saw the driver slam on his brakes, make a quick U-turn in the road and accelerate up behind me.

It was time to leave.

I quickly left the neighborhood and headed home. The other car chased after me. Now we were on a six-lane road—both driving far too fast—and it was clear the driver was intent on catching up to me. Every time he got up next to me I would slow down so I could be behind him. I'd then pass him when he slowed to match my speed. I didn't want him next to me.

His window was down and he was screaming something at me. Though I don't know what he had to say, it was quite clear that I wasn't welcome in his area. I had no illusion that he had something helpful to contribute to the search for my daughter. It was far more likely that I had disturbed some "transaction" of his in the alley and he wasn't pleased. He chased me for a couple miles and then broke off and headed back to the neighborhood from which he had come. I headed home.

As it turns out, Giana was never in that neighborhood (although she’d been given a free Pepsi at the Taco Bell). Like so many leads we had received, it was another dead end. Months later, I told Giana that story and she said, "Oh, Dad. You shouldn't have been down there. It isn't safe in that area."

Yeah. I get that now.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Scar Tissue

On Sunday the pastor continued his sermon series titled, “The Journey”. After his surgery to remove skin cancer he was given a cream. The nurse instructed him to apply the medication daily and it would diminish the ugly scar on his leg.

“I don’t want it”, the pastor told his nurse. “I want the scar to remain so I can remember my journey.”

I have deep, deep scars on my heart and my life. They are left from the cuts, bumps, scrapes, tumbles, and run-ins I’ve experienced during my family’s journey over the past several years.

Some of my wounds were self-inflicted. Other people dumped some of the emotional trauma on me, and I was left with nasty scars. Their ugly behavior was caused by their submission to drugs, selfishness, anger, jealousy, or plain old sin. Whatever the cause, I carry the marks with me wherever I go.

Scars on our bodies are created when new skin and tissue grow where the old skin has been damaged, cut, or ripped away. An injury or incision of any kind always causes pain—sometimes a little and sometimes more than it seems possible to bear. But, healing happens naturally, and the imperfections left behind are evidence of that healing.

The brain sends out signals to the rest of the body that say, “Hey, we’ve been wounded! All hands on deck! Blood vessels, cells, muscles…you all know what to do—now get to healing!” The healthier the body - the quicker the healing.

Restoration for me took longer than it should have in some torn areas because the body failed to come to my aid (church, family, etc…). But healing has occurred and great growth has changed me for the good, and has added purpose to my life.

I love my scars. They remind me of where I’ve been and where I never want to go again. They keep me grounded and focused on what’s really important in life. They are a constant reminder that new growth fills in the empty holes left after the old is ripped away.

A family member once chastised me to “stop blaming the past for where you are.” That’s just silly. If I lost my legs in a car accident my life would be forever changed. I wonder if anyone would say, “Liz, stop blaming the car accident for losing your legs.”

I don’t blame the ugly experiences for where I am today anymore than I blame my childhood tumbles for the small scars on my bodies. They just are. The marks remind me of all we’ve survived!

I am grateful for where we are and for how far we’ve come. The fact that my children are alive is nothing short of a bona fide miracle. The scars remind me and I am happy to have them. They are evidence of survival and fabulous new growth!