Lap 41: A few scattered thoughts

I am eight days into my 41st lap around the sun. Weird, huh. I told a friend the other day we are who we are in the eighth grade. She argued with me vehemently, but I stand by that. In fact, the older I get, the more I seem to be that person, albeit a more secure, self-assured version of that person. I liked that person. She was competent (working at an animal hospital at 13) and teaching herself the 8th grade (homeschooler!). She was curious. She was a good sister. She was brave, in ways I see now, but am not going to go into here. She loved well. I see nothing wrong with being that person again, though this time with a driver’s license, a good chunk of student loan debt still to pay off and business cards with a title on them. If I brought all that I liked about that girl into life with this woman, I could do a lot worse.

Fort Wayne has had a blue million homicides this year and apparently it finally got to me. Early this morning, I woke up deeply disturbed by a dream involving a young black man walking around with a bullet hole in his head (he was dead and walking around) and I could do nothing about it. I tried to draw attention to it, but nobody paid any mind. I couldn’t help him in anyway. Maddening and nauseating. The timing is puzzling to me, though. In April, I stood at two homicide scenes, feet from the bodies. No problems. I covered a couple homicide trials this year, and had no issues there either. Why I woke up panting and disgusted with myself and all in the world at 4:30 this morning, in a hotel room after four days away from it, I have no idea. I can only guess the trouble is cumulative: too much death in too few days, too much controversy, too much feedback from the public (they can take a step back at any time and it’ll be fine with me).

I notice, though, I’m getting a lot more cynical and a lot less tolerant at the same time. It seems counter-intuitive, but even though my gallows humor functions quite (inappropriately) well, I am prone to feeling more sad in the courtroom, much less able to separate the victims’ emotions from mine by distance. I blame age. I blame an ever-deepening realization of consequences, of loss, of anguish, of love, of all that makes life here so completely miserable and amazing all at once. People I love with my whole heart have lost so much in the past year, and it is maddening to be so completely impotent, so totally incapable of doing anything more than walking along beside. And I just am not any good at that. (see above reference to incapability and know that makes me angry). If we have another case like Plumadore in the next few months, I very well might find myself curled up on the floor.

This all sounds very depressing, I realize. I’m really not though, just feeling a tad introspective. Maybe it’s Bach on the headphones, maybe the darkened library in this fancy-pants resort we’re staying in for A’s work conference, maybe it’s the rainy November weather. No worries, though, it’s all good. My blessings are frequently counted these days.

My writing location
My writing location

And they are many.

On a totally unrelated note, I really like wedding rings. As you know, I’m big on symbol (connecting the spiritual reality to the physical realm) and they definitely are that. I like the wedding ring on my finger, I love the one on A’s and I just think it’s a fabulous tradition for a kinesthetic type like myself who is always in need of the concrete and the tangible. (I married Mr. Concrete and Tangible because I need it so much)



On a familiar theme

Or actions have consequences, late 2011 edition.

I’m sure you hadn’t heard the news, what with the holidays and the recess appointments and the Iowa clown car, I mean caucus. So in case you didn’t, here you go.

The tauntaun made a bad choice New Year’s day and ate Princess Leia. As my 3-year-old nephew explained it, the tauntaun did not do what he was supposed to do, which was protect her, instead helping the tiger to eat her.

“But she’s ok. She came back to life,” he said as he made the tauntaun climb the door frame on the sun porch.

Well, thank the Force.

Most of our choices don’t have a complete reversal, especially if they’re tragic.

As I wrapped up the tauntaun the day before (we do our Christmas on New Year’s weekend), I was so mad I could spit. I intended to buy L a different present, as well as a more deliberate choice for my new month-old niece MM.

But I never got to the store last week for Christmas shopping or groceries. I ran out of milk, orange juice and patience as I chased the worst story I’d ever covered and the worst I hope I ever cover. It’s not over, so it will continue to aggravate the #*$(& out of me, but whatever. The bad choices of that guy spread out like so many ripples in a shallow pond after a boulder falls into it. The cops missed their Christmas with their families searching for that little girl. Normal people throughout the community prayed and hoped beyond reason for her safe return. And I sat and listened on the scanner to the fruitless hunt, lit a candle, had a good cry and knew in my heart she was dead. But all that work, hours and hours of chronicling the madness (I told one of my judges I felt like a carnival barker in hell…step right up and see the freak show), left me without the time and the emotional energy to engage in my own joy.

Thank God, seriously, I realized that was happening. It only took a day or two to figure out how to deal with it, put it aside for the time being and join in the celebration of so many recent blessings in my life and the lives of my sisters. I sit here now, on the tail end of a week off, nearly ready to go back to work. I know, though, that that one choice made by that mom to put her child in the care of that one guy, who made the choice to do what he did will continue to ripple throughout my own life, professionally and personally. I know it’s going to wear me out, make me cry, make me pissed off and make me spend time in the basement with my heavy bag, hitting the only thing I can.

The little princess didn’t come back from this one. I give thanks knowing that my sister is raising that little boy to understand that bad choices have consequences. And in spite of the resurrection of Leia and the rehabilitation of the tauntaun, L knows some things aren’t made right.


Morally mandatory

“The devil he wore such a fine, fine shirt
And it stayed so clean, While he dragged me through the dirt.”

Rocks and Water by Deb Talan.

I am not sure exactly why we’re here again, but we are. Ten years after Cardinal Bernard Law was exiled to Rome and the Boston Archdiocese left in ruins, the reputations of another American institution, this time big time college football and an iconic coach are caught doing the same thing.

Repeat after me, boys and girls: if you see a grown man forcing himself on a young boy in a shower, you do not call your boss. You call the police. I don’t care what the law says. I don’t care what your university policy says. You call the frakking police. Are we clear? OK, moving on…

Somewhere around 1996, my mom and sisters and I returned to Baltimore for a vacation to catch up with old friends. I was in my early 20s and a complete emotional disaster. The thing about abuse is how crazy you feel trying to make sense of it. Your brain can’t make sense of it, of course, because, by definition, it is senseless. But it tries, you try, and in the effort you usually end up tied in an impossible knot, your soul at the center and stuck.

Our oldest friends as a family lived in a beautiful rural area just outside the city. We stayed with them in a house my parents helped them build and one that my sisters and I ran around countless times as little kids. Mr. Jack and Miss Marian. Their names make me smile, just seeing them on the screen. Mr. Jack and I ran an errand one evening during the vacation, buying milk or something at a convenience store up the road. Earlier in the afternoon, the house lost power and BG&E came out to fix it. Because of the single lane going to their house, Mr. Jack and I were trapped in the driveway for awhile while we waited for the trucks to leave. I will never, ever forget that conversation in the darkening car.

He looked me square in my eyes and apologized. We should have done something, he said. We knew there was something wrong with your father, that there was something wrong with how he treated you and the others in that house. And we didn’t do anything. We prayed for you, but we should have done more.

What could you have done, I asked.

Something more, he said, tears in his eyes.

That conversation pushed me a huge step forward on the path to un-knotting my life and how I felt about it. It made all the difference in the world, particularly since I held nothing against them because of their inaction. It hadn’t even occurred to me at that point that what was going on may have been visible to others.

Over the years, a few others along the way have made similar statements to the women in my home. All were welcome, but none so blindingly gracious as that encounter in the driveway. Someone knew. Even when we didn’t know (or more accurately, didn’t know we knew). And yes, they should have done something. But they realized it and did the best they could years later. They owned it and took responsibility for the damage their inaction may have caused.

I am sure that we’ll be here again, as a culture, as communities, as churches, as brothers and sisters in this place gone mad. But by God, it does not have to be this way. My friends on the blog are still looking for a similar, heartfelt encounter with the POTB at ABWE. Maybe the grand jury that took at shot at Penn State just 90 miles up the road will prompt some fearful action on their part. But I ain’t holding my breath.

We, as human beings, should not concern ourselves with the legal minimum responsibility to each other. And we need to understand it’s always going to be hard. It’s always going to be the respected coach, the medical missionary, the beloved parish priest. It’s always going to be a shock, a horrible surprise. And if you fall asleep at the switch, for the love of all that is good and holy, do NOT stand there and say, well, I did the least I could do. It doesn’t matter the LEAST you can do. The LEAST of US trumps that, every time.

Taking action, being accountable, protecting them…it’s morally mandatory.

Not an option.

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Matthew 18:6

But they did not receive Him…

…and when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?’

But He turned and rebuked them and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.

Luke 9: 53-56 (today’s Gospel reading)

Fixing to get real

I have a bad feeling about this thing, kids. And it’s not that I think the protesters don’t have the right idea(s) or that taking the Constitution for a walk every now and then isn’t a good thing. It needs a little exercise, more than just carrying copies in your pocket and then confusing it for the Articles of Confederation.

Anywho, I don’t think this is going to end well. There are those in the blogosphere who seem to think we’re in the last days of Empire, but, frankly, I think we’re past that already. You know when a person dies, there’s that last breath, the gasp and the rattle in the chest. We’re living in that — the vapors expelled right before there We’re done, as a country, as a culture–as the “land of the free, home of the brave/in God we trust, red-white-and blue” stick a fork in it, kids.

A really smart guy (who uses dirty words, so beware) predicts the #Occupy Wall Street movement is just one testosterone-crazed young man with bigger ideas away from a full-on violent, French Revolution kinda outburst. I tend to agree with him. Right now the populace is adequately entertained with its Real Housewives and its X-Factor and its Monday Night Football, but give it time and we’re going to have the roiling masses throwing park benches through office windows and the police are going to be doing more than just pepper-spraying the inconvenient protesters. Heck, they already arrested a woman who closed her bank account at Citi. True story.

I see it in the faces of the people waiting in the hallways of the courthouse, trying to make ends meet, trying to save their homes, their dignity, their whatever-they-have-left. I feel it sometimes in myself when I open another bill, put those student loans back in deferment, or wait to see how bad my health insurance is going to go up.

We, as a country, could have fixed this years ago. The president could fix this –make those useless bureaucrats in the SEC and elsewhere do something about the crimes that were committed, make the U.S. economy to stop functioning like drunken Midwesterners on a First Nation casino bus tour through Michigan. The GOP (and a handful of Democrats) could fix it too by stop saying NO, by knocking off this non-stop “if I don’t get want I want, I’m going to hold my hand over the country’s mouth until it turns blue”.

We’re done. We’re done because the churches (particularly the Evangelical masses) have long since stopped being a prophetic voice against the wanton accumulation of wealth at any costs. We’re done because the churches (particularly the mainline) have long since stopped being a prophetic voice for morality. We’re done because we’ve confused partisanship for patriotism. We’re done because we allowed our representatives to make campaigns secret. We’re done because we’ve decided that corporations are people too! Yippee!! We’re done because, while there’s no I in team, there’s I in “I want” and “mine.” We’re done because most Americans (largely of Evangelical bent) think that we’re Exceptional because we’re here

We ain’t nothing new and people like us have existed and been wiped off the map of history countless times before by impatient masses who start chanting “mine” louder than the people in power.

Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field until there is no more room. Who chase after rewards and love a bribe; who do not defend the orphan nor does the widow’s plea come before them. Isaiah 5:8, 1:23.

How would sorrow find a home?

If we lived in a world without tears, how would heartbeats know when to stop? How would blood know which body to flow outside of? How would bullets find the gun? —Lucinda Williams

The court cases I cover almost always force me to ask myself what I think about repentance, forgiveness, grace and mercy. Some days it’s pretty clear –a victim behaves in a way that is totally atypical, offering forgiveness and hope to the guilty; or the guilty makes a truly genuine gesture of repentance, having clearly turned around and forsaken the former action.

But most times, it’s just a muddled mess — pride and denial waging a battle on one side of the courtroom while anger and betrayal war on the other. Somewhere in the middle is a judge trying to sort it out and craft some kind of thing that will resemble justice in the end, whatever the hell that is.

Today was one of those days, I guess, where things were less clear, at least at the end. A particularly difficult defendant to see as a soul (he lured a pizza deliveryman to a robbery and then shot him to death) and a victim’s family worn out by all the drama and pain of the past few years.  The case had more than its fair share of twists and turns on the way until today, and it kept it up right up until the end.

The defendant’s family characterized him throughout the hearing, and much of the case, as a generally respectful person raised in church and someone with a call on his life. The victim’s family begged to differ, knowing him only as the one who left their son and brother dying in a gutter.

Again, I was amazed at the callousness with which we treat each other, astonished at the blinders we wear in regards to our own behavior and that of those we love, and just generally saddened at the state of things in this place where the default is to grief.

I’m always glad I’m not the one on the bench. And it’s a good thing I’m not God.

The remembered

I was originally going to write about this on Saturday, but it was so beautiful outside, I couldn’t bring myself to darken the day. But it’s still on my mind, so here we are.

The mother who killed her son and then kept her dead baby in the plastic tub received a 62 year prison sentence Friday. She got a few extra years for beating her older daughter, a beautiful and precocious 10-year-old.

The judge wondered aloud before passing sentence what damage was done to that girl, how ever will she build something resembling a normal life and view of the world. She watched the crime occur. So did two other children.

This was the second case so far this year in which children witnessed their parents killing or beating soon-to-be-dead children.

It’s chilling when you think about it: how their little brains have been rewired before they even start out, opening the door to struggles most of us can’t even begin to imagine. There are those who will condemn them for those struggles, the choices they will make in the future, the lives they will lead and the situations in which they will find themselves. But I am giving them up to God. He knows where they started out and He will see where they end up.

My brain struggled with the contrast, though, on Sunday when we baptized yet another baby. (We’ve had a baby boom of sorts at church, so it’s been nearly every Sunday for the past few months. It’s cute.) This little girl was so happy, so adorable. She sat, mostly naked in her godmother’s arms, chubby hand stuffed in her grinning mouth while Fr. Andrew anointed her with the blessed oil.

So here we have these two stark realities:  a child protected and loved, prayed over from the beginning and hopefully safer within the community of believers of which she is now a part; and then these children in the care of mad people, crazy from anger or drugs or mental illness, who see that which most of us never see and then have to match that reality to the rest of their lives.

I may have to start lighting candles for all these kids. I already light one for my friends on the blog, the ones that fight on. I could turn the back of the church into a forest fire, though, with candles for all the children, living and dead, I’ve written about over my dozen years in this business.

For the ones that died: McKinzie, Jezaih, Ariona, Kweli, Alyssa, Kelsie, the list goes on and on, names I don’t even remember, there have been so many.

For the ones that live: most of those names I never know, the ones that survived, or the siblings of the condemned who saw or heard or knew.

Lord, have mercy.