Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A poem for tuesday

I have a LOT of friends divorced, getting divorced, or struggling. This prompted a long thought and a short poem.

Marriage

In a world that is round
Every departure is an eventual arrival.
If fuel were not a consideration,
Every plane leaving the Atlanta airport
Flying on a due course
Would, in due course,
Arrive back at the Atlanta airport.
Such is the nature of circles and cycles.

In a world that is round
Two lives joined follow similar circuitry.
Every departure of feelings for each other
Should arrive back at love,
And the journey of hearts started long ago.
Such is the nature of circles and cycles.
In due course, love flies on a due course,
Unless we run out of fuel.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Hope


"Then the angel said unto them, 'Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."

"Do not be afraid." This is a message many of us still need to hear over 2000 years since this announcement was first made.

We live in a culture of fear. We are bombarded with fears both real and imagined. Fear of loss or abandonment. Fear of sickness, terror, war, and death. Fear of financial ruin. An ever-present insidious fear, even in the so-called "good times", that something is not quite right with the world and evil lurks right around the corner--an evil that will bring everything crashing down around us.

But it need not be this way, if we put our hope in that Baby whose birth was announced to poor shepherds so long ago. Hope is the opposite of fear. It is a belief that something better is in the future. That this situation we find ourselves in, this messed up world with so much sorrow and ruin, will be made right. That justice, peace, love, and (dare I think it) real happiness are the final outcome of this drama that we find ourselves a part of.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that the Spanish word for hope also means "to wait." And that is a beautiful depiction of what we do: hope and wait; wait and hope. We have no reason to fear, because we know that things will be someday be made right.

The Savior announced by the angels so long ago had this to say about Himself:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."

I believe that is a hope worth the wait.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Onion with a Bad Attitude



I pass by this sign for a bookstore in Opelika, Alabama almost every day. I don't know why, but it always draws my attention.

What is this onion's problem anyway? He is obviously angry and itching for a fight. I have run across some mean onions before, but most of the time they sort of sneaked up on me. This particular onion is just looking for trouble.

He is definitely not from Vidalia, Georgia. I have met many onions from that area and always find them to be pleasant--most of them even sweet.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Legends Close to Home


A few days ago my wife finally demanded that I get a new pair of work boots. The ones I had were only five years old but beginning to come apart. Now, I've never been one to give up on any garment just because it has a little age and shows some wear. But I knew that she was right in this case (especially when it rained) so I began a search that ended at Bridges Boot Outlet and Western Store, just off I-85 near the little Chambers County town of Cusseta. Although only about six miles from my home, I had never really noticed the store. I found a decent pair of boots there and also discovered (by virtue of a historic monument in the parking lot) that I had been living near the birth place of an American celebrity. At least he was a hundred and thirty years ago. His name was Pat Floyd Garrett.

Garrett was born in Cusseta in 1850, but grew up on a plantation in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana. In his early twenties he went West, where he became a cowboy and then a buffalo hunter. Apparently a tall man with a "short fuse," he killed his first man in 1878 in a dispute over a buffalo hide. The incident was ruled "self defense," but it probably influenced Garrett to move on to New Mexico where he opened a saloon. It was likely there that he met and became friends with William Bonney. Bonney was thin, about 5'8", fair-skinned, had a neat appearance, and was very good with a gun.

A few year's later the two men found themselves on opposite sides of a political struggle between ranchers and the government of Lincoln County, New Mexico. Garrett was elected sheriff and was given the task of rounding up Bonney and his small gang, who sided with the ranchers and homesteaders. Garrett eventually captured and arrested Bonney. But before any trial occurred, Bonney killed two jailers and escaped the Lincoln County Jail.

Several months later, Garrett learned that Bonney was hiding out in the home of a mutual friend. Garrett waited until night, then slipped into the house to take Bonney. Historians dispute what happened next, but it appears that Garrett surprised Bonney as he walked into a dark kitchen in the middle of the night. Bonney's last words were "Quien es?", (Who is it?) I'm guessing his next to last words were "Tengo hambre" (I'm hungry). Garrett shot and killed the unarmed man.

The incident led to some notoriety for Garrett. He held various other lawman positions throughout the West, and eventually even became friends with President Teddy Roosevelt. But his bad temper always followed him, and he was eventually killed in a land dispute over goat grazing. His killing was ironically ruled "self defense."

Now you probably have never heard of Pat Garrett, and I'm sure you never would have heard of William Bonney if Garrett had not done one other thing: he co-authored a book with western writer M.A. "Ash" Upson that became a "best seller" in it's day. The book was called "The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid." It was such a sensation that it created a larger-than-life folk hero that still lives on in movies and songs.

Billy the Kid became an American legend. Pat Garrett is remembered in a boot store parking lot. Maybe Garrett should have spent more time writing stories.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tiger News?

I am always a little surprised at the media frenzy when a celebrity is caught in a moral transgression. I don't find it especially fascinating, but the majority of the American public must--otherwise it wouldn't CONSUME the news media for days on end. It's easy to blame the media circus, but they are, after all, presenting stories that get "ratings". If people weren't tuning in, they would soon go on to real news.

The latest news fad is Tiger Woods. It was a relief to let Michael Jackson go for a while, I'll admit, but this story has the potential to drag on forever.

I've never been a fan of Tiger Woods. I'm not even a fan of the game of golf. I have played a few times, and I will admit that Woods is good at a difficult game. But golf is a GAME, not a sport. As Columbus, GA comedian Tim Wilson correctly puts it "Anything an 85 year old man can whip me at is a game. If you can't get your nose broke in it, then it ain't a sport." Woods was recently named "Athlete of the Decade." I don't think so. If he can hit a 98 m.p.h. fastball or get back up after he has been leveled by a 350 pound man, then maybe I'll change my mind.

Here's a news flash: being good at something does not make someone a good person. This is true in sports, entertainment, business, politics, religion, and almost any other endeavor mankind pursues. We are all human, and therefore all subject to commit all kinds of evil against ourselves and each other.

Perhaps Tiger Woods can withstand the current media frenzy and one day resume his exalted status. In the meantime I think I'll turn off the T.V. and go read a book.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Best Football Player You've Never Heard Of

The State of Alabama has been consumed with football over the past couple of weeks. Last Friday we had the annual clash between Alabama and Auburn. The last couple of days we've had the high school championships. Today the University of Alabama and Florida play for the SEC Championship. All of this football made me think back to my high school days and to one of the best football players I have ever known. His name was Alvin, but we all called him "Joe Blue".

Joe Blue came from the government housing project on the east side of town. Among the kids this neighborhood was known as "The Bricks", because the little houses and apartments were all cookie-cutter variety brick structures. When Sylacauga schools were integrated, the two all-black schools in the Bricks (an elementary school and a high school) became a sixth grade school and a junior high for the entire town. It was a rough place in the 1970's. Assaults, stabbings and robberies were commonplace among the residents. My mom was the director of the government run preschool there for a while, so I got to see a little more of life in The Bricks than the average white kid. It was a tough place for any kid to grow up.

Joe Blue was a quiet kid off the football field. He was always dressed in the kind of clothes you'd expect to see at a "Thrift Store" today. I had no classes with him, as I was in the college prep group and he was in the "special ed" group. I never saw one of his parents attend a game or pick him up at school. He walked everywhere he went. I don't remember him ever being involved in anything at school other than football: no clubs, no activities, no girl friends. He was the kind of kid you hardly notice, really. But on the field he was a different story.

He was a kid that God might have built for football: about 5'11', 200 pounds; no neck; all muscle stretched over big bones. He played two positions: full back and nose guard. These two positions require reckless abandon and and the ability to deliver punishing hits. He played the game like it was meant to be played: all out, every play, until the whistle blew or the clock ran out. Some of my team-mates said he was so good because he was "too stupid to feel pain". And truthfully he was a little "slow" mentally. If at fullback, when the play called for him to get the ball, the quarterback would often have to tell him, "go right, between the tackle and tight end", or "roll to the left flat and look for a pass". But on defense, where he truly excelled, he simply went to the ball. And God help whoever happened to be holding it when he arrived.

Joe Blue played best when worked up into a frenzy. Our sophomore and junior years, we had a coach who knew how to bring that out. He was the kind of man you'd follow into battle. A coach who yelled, screamed, hugged, jumped up and down, and otherwise did whatever he felt necessary to motivate. Like all great coaches, he could determine the right motivational button to push with each individual player. With Joe Blue, it was the "he's going to beat you speech". It went something like this:

Coach: "You can't stop him, Alvin."
Joe Blue: "I got him."
Coach:(Louder) "He's whippin' you, Alvin."
Joe Blue: "He ain't gonna whip me."
Coach: (Now Yelling) "You're getting whipped, Alvin; you're beat; you can't do it."
Joe Blue: (Also Yelling)"Ain't gonna whip me. Ain't gonna whip me. Can't whip me."

This scenario was repeated as necessary. And after this kind of coach induced self-hypnotism, whoever had the misfortune to be lined up in front of Joe Blue got creamed.

Our senior season was a different matter. We had a new coach. He was a preppy little guy who had played some college ball at Auburn. His only coaching experience had been serving as an assistant coach at one of the big Birmingham suburb schools. This was a school known for academics. A school that was wealthy and lily white. This guy liked to make quiet little speeches and tell stories with a moral. He was about as inspiring and motivating as an accountant. And he had no patience for Joe's mental slowness. Joe was quickly relegated to one position--defense. But the frenzy was no longer there. He was still good, but not as good as he had been with the "working up". I think something in his spirit had been broken by the new coach. In some ways, I guess he finally got whipped on the football field for the first time.

I've seen Joe Blue once since those high school days. I stopped to get some gas at a convenience store in Sylacauga, when I heard someone call my name. He still looked like a football player--solid and muscular--but a little gray-haired around the edges. I got a big bear hug and that old smile I'd only see after a victory when we were kids. When I asked him about his life, he simply said "I'm preaching the gospel now!"

I haven't seen Joe Blue since. I hope he is still doing well. I do know this: if he preaches anything like he played football, Satan better buckle his chin strap, because he's about to get his bell rung.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Let the Saints March On

The New Orleans Saints are 11-0, and are playing like the Super Bowl is a definite possibility. Any doubts to their legitimacy were removed, at least in my mind, when they thrashed a very good New England Patriots team last Monday night. This year's Saints team is good in all phases of the game, and quarterback Drew Brees is having a season that could make a Manning brother envious.

I've been told by a friend in New Orleans that the city is totally consumed with "Saints fever". And she has good reason to be. The franchise is historically one of the N.F.L.'s worst, at least in terms of on-the-field success. Founded in 1967 as an expansion team, it took the Saints ten years to achieve a .500 season. It took another decade after that to have their first winning season. The team has only made the playoffs five times in their 32 year existence. The Saints are one of only five teams in the N.F.L. that have never played in the Super Bowl. I'd say the people of south Louisiana have a right to be excited.

I've been a Saints fan for a while, which is kind of unusual in central Alabama. Professional football is not important in this state. Alabama is college football territory--period. The average Alabamian will usually tell you that they just don't like the N.F.L.--that it doesn't have the excitement or the enthusiasm that the college version of the game entails. These same people might gather with some friends to watch the Super Bowl on T.V. each year, but that's about the extent of their interest in professional football.

It's not that we haven't tried hosting professional football in Alabama before. Birmingham has fielded several teams in ill-fated leagues over the years. The most successful attempt was the 1974 Birmingham Americans of the World Football League, who actually won the first and only "World Bowl", defeating the Florida Blazers 22-21. That team's victory celebration was regrettably short-lived: the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department seized their uniforms and equipment for unpaid debts in the locker room after the game.

My interest in Saints football began in 1986 when I was a graduate student at LSU. My wife worked at a large insurance company in Baton Rouge, and the company gave her a pair of tickets to a game. It was my first NFL experience, and I became a fan of the professional game as I watched Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino rip the Saints defense to shreds with his amazing passing skills. I had been to many college games previously, including some of Bear Bryant's great University of Alabama National Championship teams, but the skill level of the professional players was way above anything I had ever seen.

I had to wait a year for the next pair of free tickets (graduate students were poor back in those days). Unfortunately we had car trouble on the way to New Orleans. Instead of witnessing another Saints whipping, we spent about four hours on the side of I-10 somewhere between Laplace and Kenner. The rest of the day was spent being towed back to Baton Rouge. Those were, as they say, "the good old days".

Since then my Saints watching has been only via television. I watched and cheered along with many others across the nation in 2006, the year when the Superdome reopened after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans needed something to cheer for after that nightmare, and that team was something to be proud of. They were close that year, eventually losing to the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship game.

This just may be the year the Saints finally make it to the Super Bowl. They may even win it. If so, I hope a certain eternal destination has some winter clothes in stock--because if the old saying holds true, it may be about to "freeze over".

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Country Music Song

My cousin Mike and his lovely wife Sarah came down from Nashville this weekend to visit. They were married a few months ago, so this was the first time we've had to visit since the wedding. I took Mike hunting Saturday morning, and we were all tickled that he bagged a nice ten-point buck. Sarah and Becky did some shopping and toured the Auburn campus while we were in the woods.

Saturday afternoon we sat around and visited and watched some football on T.V. Sarah told us some about her first husband, who is a fairly successful country music song writer. I don't listen to "modern" country music, so I was probably not sufficiently impressed as she listed some of the stars he writes songs for (I thought "Diamond Rio" was a jewelry store at the mall). This guy has apparently made a very nice living and won some major awards in Nashville. Mike remarked that he needed to learn to write songs so he could experience some of that wealth and recognition.

The conversation turned to this and that. Tired from hunting, Mike stretched out on the couch with his head in Sarah's lap. Somehow, we got on the subject of computers, and more specifically laptop computers. Someone remarked that they could never get on their laptop since the other person was always using it.

And then it hit me--there's your country song.

So, this is my first (and probably last) attempt at country music song writing. It's called "Why are you on my laptop, instead of on my lap?"

My nights sure seem so lonely,
I can't find much to do.
I read and watch some T.V.
But I'd rather be lovin' you.
Since you started that Facebook stuff,
I'm left to sit alone.
I haven't felt so lonely
Since I was out on my own.

Don't you want my arms around you
every night of the week?
Sitting on our couch at night
Lovin', cheek to cheek.
I got to ask you honey,
Wouldn't we both like that?
So why are you on my laptop
Instead of on my lap?

What do you find on that Internet
that's so much more than me?
Are you chatting with some other guy
Living in a fantasy?
I know you can surf most anywhere
there's so much online to see.
But that cyber stuff ain't flesh and blood
That can love you like me.

Don't you want my arms around you
every night of the week?
Sitting on our couch at night
Lovin', cheek to cheek.
I got to ask you honey
Wouldn't we both like that?
So why are you on my laptop
Instead of on my lap?

If you don't log off real soon girl
I'm headed out the door.
And we'll find ourselves both on our own
Like we were before.
You can stay in your electronic world
but you know I'll be alright,
'cause I'll find a girl that wants real love
and knows how to treat me right.

You need the real thing honey
And you know we'd both like that.
So please get off my laptop
And come and get on my lap.

Anybody know how to play the fiddle? Have your people call my people.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Over the River

The Opelika Cliftons will soon be gathering to head "over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house" for a Thanksgiving feast.

The river is the Tallapoosa, crossed on a four-lane bridge on US 280 at Alex City. There will be a few nice creeks crossed on the journey as well, which will attract little notice from the travelers. Creeks with equally lyrical Indian names: Saughahatchee, Chattasofka, and Socapatoy. Names and places much older than the holiday that demands their crossing today. The hardwood and pine woods will be designated by five counties, names also Indian or early statesman or soldier: Lee, Chambers, Tallapoosa, Coosa, Clay, and finally Talladega. We will stop short of the actual town, Sylacauga, which is also an Indian name that means "buzzard roost." Yes, I am from buzzard roost. But that is a story for another day. Today the focus is on "grandmother's house". Grandmother is my mom.

The sheer volume and deliciousness of food at this annual gathering will be shocking. There will be turkey, of course, but likely also a country ham. There will be cornbread dressing, giblet gravy (actually two giblet gravies because my brother doesn't like chopped egg in his), squash, green beans, scalloped potatoes, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, vegetable slices, deviled eggs, and various kinds of pickled things (slaws, relishes, etc.). There will be several varieties of casseroles. And of course, the homemade rolls--good for soppin' or just plain good by themselves.

If you are able to survive all that, then comes desert. Probably three or four pies (pecan, sweet potato, cherry cream cheese, and peanut butter) and a couple of cakes. Maybe even some cookies, just in case none of the other sweets strike your fancy. Weight can be gained just by looking, and I can assure you there will be more than just looking.

Almost all of this bounty will be bought and prepared by my mother. She is the glue that holds what remains of this small family together. The extravagant meal is prepared with time and effort, but also with love. At the end of the meal each year, someone will invariably point out the obvious--that this was way too much food--way overdone--and vow that we will not do this next year. But I know we will, as long as mom is able to do it. It is her way, among other ways, of showing her love for us. This gift is taken seriously, so much so that if I call on Saturday and say, "Mom, I'm coming up to visit tomorrow--let's go out to eat," she will likely say "But I've got this roast I can fix us..."

The family has held together for another year. There will be Becky and I, along with our sons John and Kyle. John's girlfriend, Taylor, will be joining us this year, separated from her other family in Mobile. Becky's parents will also be there, although her dad will be a little more feeble than in year's past. My brother and his beautiful wife Wendy will be there. This will be Wendy's second Thanksgiving as a Clifton (she hasn't run away screaming yet, so I guess she's going to make it). My brother finally found her after year's of searching, and their happiness together in their second year of marriage is touching. Sometimes so much so that I have to sternly say "You'll stop, you're making me sick." But I couldn't be more pleased for them. Good things do sometimes come to those who wait.

My dad will be absent from all this. It is hard to believe that he has been for twenty-three years. I am approaching the age at which he died, which is a strange feeling for me. I often wonder if the thoughts I have--my views, my outlook-- are similar to what he was thinking at the same age back then.

The great John R. Cash once sang "Let the Circle be Unbroken". I am thankful, this year, that our remaining little family circle still holds for another year. Because I realize all too well that one day it will, like Johnny's, be only rejoined in the "bye and bye".

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Short-term Missionary

I wrote this little poem after a church group trip to Honduras several months ago. There are those who are critical of these short trips, contending that they do little long-term good for the people they attempt to help. I can't argue how much they impact the visited, but I do know a little about the impact on the visitors. The effect on my life has been profound.

Short-term Missionary

We dutifully assemble from scattered flocks
every summer trickle to steady stream.
A single week to put feet to Faith
Winged migration South, early May until around Labor Day.

Wearing our matching day-glo t-shirts
printed with churchy slogans or perhaps
razor blade snippets of the Ancient Word.
We are coming to save you.

Giddy and obnoxiously loud in the airport.
Nervously departing the "First World" like the Conquistadors before us.
American dream packed along for the journey: Laptop, I-pod, Blackberry.
Useless trappings of our affluence on public display.

We will return redeemed or beyond absolution.
Unexpectedly transformed by the very ones
we pretentiously thought to help.
Repentance is, after all, a change in direction.

Salvation for and from ourselves.
Baptism in the smile of a Honduran child.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"The Girl": Visited and Revisited

In previous posts I told you a story about a friend of mine in Honduras who I refer to as "the Girl". I wanted to write a brief update of our visit with her on our recent trip to Honduras.

There is an excellent Christian ministry in Tegucigalpa called "The Micah Project" that helps boys get off the street (and usually off drugs, as well) that we became familiar with through our association with the Girl. She has three brothers who have come through their program; so my wife contacted one of their staff members to see if they could assist us in making contact with her. It happened that two of the brothers were celebrating birthdays the weekend we were in Tegu, so Micah graciously arranged a birthday party for them. We were invited, as well as the Girl and her mom.

The party was an evening affair. I mention this because the Micah House is in a really rough section of Tegucigalpa. We had visited once before in broad daylight, and I can assure you that it was one of the few times I have ever been nervous about my safety in Honduras. I got the feeling on that visit that I would soon be "dead meat" if our host Michael Miller didn't command so much respect for the work he does there in the neighborhood. And on the occasion of this visit, it was dark. I don't mean dimly lit. I mean dark as in "no light at all." This particular evening, the power was completely out in this section of Tegucigalpa. So our visit was to be entirely by candle light.

The Girl was friendly and seemed truly glad to see us. After assurances that we still loved her and weren't "mad at her", we were able to have a relaxed conversation for about two hours. We made an earnest attempt to catch up on all the events in our lives since we'd last spoke. She is pregnant--due in January. She was initially living with her baby's father, but he lost interest in her when she got pregnant, and takes no responsibility for her or the unborn child. She lost her job (I assume due to the pregnancy) and is living in a small house with her mother and two brothers. They have little money, relying totally on the meager income from the older brother.

In spite of these prospects, the Girl remains positive. She tells me of her plans to go back to work after the baby comes, and of her continued hope to be able to go to university some day. She confides that she is very lucky to be able to live at home with her mom, as mom can help watch the baby as she pursues these dreams. I smile a lot and nod, encouraging her as best I can. I tell her that she faces difficulties, but she can do it.

At no time does she ask for money. I give her a little anyway. It won't be enough for the days that lie ahead.

The time we spent by candlelight that evening was much too short. As we were leaving, the Girl's mom stopped, kissed my cheek, and said something in Spanish that I didn't understand. But that was O.K. In that dimly lit moment, we were united across cultures by a Girl we both love.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Hurricane Ida and TWC

Hurricane Ida is approaching—and I’m sure the folks at the Weather Channel are absolutely giddy. I’ll bet Cantore is probably stationed on the beach somewhere around Pensacola or Mobile, grim-faced and braced against the howling winds and stinging rain. Surely decked-out in his official Weather Channel slicker, goggles on, feet slightly wider than shoulder width to withstand hurricane force wind. There will be impressive graphics and updates all through the evening, with intense dialogue like this:


Alexis: “Now we go to our storm expert Jim, live on the beach at Pensacola. How’s it going, Jim?”

Jim: “Well, it’s definitely getting rougher out here. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hold up before I have to take shelter in the Holiday Inn. It’s really coming down.” (camera pans around Jim—just looks dark).

Alexis: “It looks really bad. Was that a garbage can lid I just saw blow by?”

Jim: “Yes Ally, it was. This is really a situation we have here. I wish more people would have heeded my advice to secure their lids. But now we’ll just have to wait and see how many cans are lid-less when the sun comes up tomorrow morning.”

Alexis: “How about the surf? Is it bad?”

Jim: “Yes. The waves are really getting frothy. Kind of reminds me of the sudsy surf I experienced in Destin in 2002.”


You’ll have to let me know about all this. I quit watching The Weather Channel about four years ago when I felt they went off the deep end with their coverage. Before that, I was a Weather Channel junkie—so much so that family and friends made fun of me about it.


Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not minimizing hurricanes--they are serious business. We went through one here in central Alabama (Opal) in 1995. It rained about a foot before the winds hit. Opal blew down about a million trees, seventeen of which were in my yard. The worst part was that she hit during the night. The power went first, followed by howling wind and terrible crashing noises in the blackness. I was doing what I normally do during the night, sleeping, when Becky suggested that I join her, our kids, and an old bird dog we had at the time in the hall of our house. I knew immediately that she was really scared—that dog had never been allowed inside before. That was a long night. Our only contact with the outside world was a local country radio station, which reported crucial information like “I think our station's garbage can just blew away”.


I hope that Ida is not too bad and people won’t get hurt. I also hope that the Weather Channel folks have a good time, and I’m sure they won’t miss me. I’ve gone back to getting my weather like my daddy did—I just walk outside. If I get wet, I know it’s raining.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

And Now for a Brief Commercial...



I want to recommend a great place to stay if you ever have reason to visit Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

We stay at the Humuya Inn (pronounced "Who Moo Ya"). It is very reasonably priced (rates are about what you would expect at a Holiday Inn in the U.S.) for the quality of rooms and the service that you receive. Among the features we enjoyed:

  • A large comfortable room, beautifully decorated, with air conditioner and t.v.
  • Private bathroom with the best shower I have ever had anywhere in Honduras (actual hot water and good water pressure)
  • Wireless internet
  • A large lobby with comfortable furniture, including a big screen T.V.
  • Room T.V.'s include many U.S. network channels (I even got to watch Tennessee vs. Alabama)
  • A great interior courtyard with tropical plants where I watched hummingbirds while I drank my morning coffee
  • A rooftop plaza with a spectacular view of Tegucigalpa
  • Top notch security, including a doorman at the entrance and a safe in each room
  • Free continental breakfast
  • Good food with friendly service.
One important feature is the quality of the staff. Scott Crook is a North American who has created a top-notch hotel out of what was once a private residence. Scott and his wife (and some of his staff) speak English, which is essential if you are linguistically-challenged like me. They were very helpful in making recommendations, arranging transportation (with quality taxi drivers) and going over and above the expected in ensuring that we had a pleasant stay.

I believe Scott has enough space to accommodate small groups and church teams. The next time your organization plans a mission trip, why not consider an extra day to relax and "regroup" before the flight back home? The airport is only minutes away from the airport, the Cascadas Mall, restaurants, and the Central Market district.

Please tell Scott that Ray Clifton sent you. You won't get a discount, but you will likely get a puzzled look and "Who?" for a response.

Check it out online at: http://www.humuyainn.com

Monday, November 2, 2009

Making a Difference, Part II

In my last post I wrote about a Louisiana lady, Laurie Matherne, who is making a difference in the slums and poor neighborhoods near Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I wrote about her involvement in a feeding program through a medical clinic ministry called "His Eyes", but I wanted to mention a few other things that Laurie is doing.

The church Laurie works with, El Cuerpo de Cristo (The Body of Christ), shares a plot of land with the His Eyes Clinic in the village of Nueva Espania. This church also has a feeding program, providing nutritious meals to about 160 poor children every Sunday. The importance of a few good meals a week for these children is hard for us to grasp here in the States. But consider this: cheap food, which is mostly what these poor families can afford, tends to be "junk" food. I am reminded of this every time we visit Honduras and try to buy groceries. Most of the small neighborhood stores are filled primarily with chips, cookies, candy, and other sugar-laden processed foods. There is very little in the way of meats, vegetables, and fresh foods. As a result, malnutrition and related health issues such as diabetes are prevalent in Honduras. These feeding programs are a small but essential step in the right direction.

Laurie also offers and conducts English language instruction through the church. Many of her students are adults--the mothers of the neighborhood children. Laurie explained that their desire to learn English is primarily in order to be able to help their kids who are taking English in school with their homework assignments.

Another planned project is the establishment of a small library at the church. The importance of such a thing is again hard for us to comprehend here in the U.S., where almost every community has a library and a book store or two. But in most areas of Honduras, a safe place for children and adults to come and read is rare. Laurie's library is modest at present, containing only a few volumes. With time and additional donations, she hopes to add more titles, as well as additional shelves, tables and chairs. Her most requested book is the Bible.

Laurie Matherne is a busy lady, humbly following the example of Jesus Christ in a tough place. Her work is not high-profile or glamorous, and I would imagine that it is often frustrating and very lonely for a single lady so far from the comforts of home, friends, and family. And yet, this is what I believe the Bible teaches following Jesus is to be about--showing God's love by ministering to those in need; bringing hope to people who live in a place where hope is in short supply.

Please visit Laurie's blog and see how you can help support her efforts.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Making a Difference in Tegucigalpa

One of the unexpected joys of visiting Honduras over the last eight years has been establishing friendships, not only with Hondurans but also with missionaries from the U.S. who serve there. One of these friends is a south Louisiana lady, Laurie Matherne.

My wife Becky discovered Laurie's blog about living in Honduras a couple of years ago. I started reading and became a fan of her writing immediately. Laurie's dry humor and keen wit are always entertaining, and her stories and observations about life and work in Honduras are a must read for anyone thinking of visiting or relocating to Honduras. We were able to meet her briefly on a visit last May, and have since communicated through our blogs and Facebook.

Last week, Laurie was kind enough to pick us up at the airport and take us to our hotel. Later that day we were able to tag along with her in one of her many ministries in one poor neighborhood area up the mountain from Tegucigalpa.

We took Laurie's Toyota pickup (affectionately named "Pepe Burro") up a mountain road to a little neighborhood called Nueva Espania (New Spain). Laurie explained that the neighborhood became established after Hurricane Mitch. Spain promised some financial support, hence the name. The support apparently never arrived, but the name stuck. It had the hard-scrabble look of many of the poorer barrios in Honduras--rough dirt roads, small cement block houses, skinny dogs wandering trash-littered streets. There were lots of barefoot kids in cast-off clothing from the States. You can't travel very far here without seeing "Florida Gators" or "Roll Tide" on a t-shirt.

Laurie works with two separate ministries that share a walled compound: "His Eyes" which operates a medical clinic, and El Cuerpo de Cristo, a local church. On this day, as she does three times each week, Laurie worked with a local woman in a "feeding program" associated with the clinic. This takes place in an old block building, sparsely supplied by North American standards, with only a few tables and chairs and some storage cabinets. The kitchen consisted of a sink and a newly acquired electric oven/stove, of which Laurie is especially proud. Through support from her church and donors in the states, 100 to 150 children get a glass of milk and a bowl of a rice dish three times a week. On this day, the dish was arroz con leche (rice with milk), which is a little like our rice pudding without the sugar. About a hundred children were present, with probably 30 who appeared to be three to five years old. The kids are remarkably well-mannered and polite; each says "thank you" as they receive their meal. Quite a contrast to the parent/child interaction that can be witnessed in the line of almost any fast-food restaurant in the U.S.

Part of Laurie's mission is to make sure that these kids get something nutritious to eat, even if it is only three times a week. She believes this is one way to help people out of poverty: teach them to properly care for themselves. She targets the women and children because they are the most vulnerable to the effects of real poverty--a poverty where malnutrition is almost a given and starvation is not unheard of. This is simple evangelism in which few words are needed. The love of Christ is demonstrated in a basic, tangible way for all to see and experience.

I want to write more about Laurie's work in my next post. In the meantime, why not visit her blog ? Be sure to click on "Ministry Information" sidebar to see what else she's been up to.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Taxi Ride in Honduras

We left Tegucigalpa Monday morning en route to an orphanage we support in central Honduras. My wife made arrangements for us to travel by taxi instead of the public bus. This is not as expensive as you might imagine for a seventy-mile drive, and it is certainly a safer option than a bus for two gringos with limited Spanish language skills. We have made this same trip many times over the last few years and have a specific taxi company we use. We always request the same driver. Due to the current political situation, I will refer to him as “Bill”.

Bill is a pleasure to travel with. He is always pleasant, funny, and even acts as a kind of tour guide instead of rushing to the next fare. Want a photo of something? Bill pulls over and parks--sometimes even directing the best camera angle for the shot. He will detour off the direct route to show you a historic monument, a lovely view, an old church, or even a nice public park. He is proud of his country and eager to share it with foreigners. I believe national pride is the reason why he takes so much time to show us new things each time we ride with him.

This time he arrived to pick us up thirty minutes early (not typical Honduran behavior). He asked me if it would be ok if we picked up his wife for the ride out to the orphanage. After assurances that it was a fine idea, we went to pick up his wife in an area of Tegucigalpa we had not previously seen. Bill detoured through the narrow streets, carefully noting points of potential interest, including the entrance road to the blockaded Brazilian embassy where former president Zelaya is taking refuge. We stopped on a nearby corner and picked up Bill’s lovely wife, who he calls “Baby”. He grinned and explained in his best English: “We married ten years—no babies. So this is my baby.”

Bill and Baby took us to a quaint little public park called “the park of the lions” for some photos and then we headed out of Tegucigalpa. Bill and Baby both speak a little English and we speak a little Spanish, so the conversation was slow but effective. Baby was cautious at first, but when she determined that we loved Honduras she began to speak her mind in a quiet, determined way.

Baby is a public school teacher. She is not working at present because of the political turmoil. The children have had almost no classroom time this year, especially since July, and now school has been canceled for the remainder of the year. The authorities have decided that all students will be promoted to the next grade anyway. It is obvious from her troubled expressions that Baby is upset for the children who are missing critical opportunities to learn. Learning time that probably cannot be replaced.

We ask Baby who she supported (the Honduran teacher’s union is reportedly pro-Zelaya). She told us that the union is divided. She crossed picket lines and continued to teach when her union went out on strike; at one point soldiers had to protect her and the others who crossed the line, as well as the children who wanted to continue learning. She spoke quietly but with conviction. She admitted her personal life has been affected by the troubles as well. It is difficult to do little things when tensions flare up and civil liberties are curtailed (curfews). Simple things normally taken for granted, like buying groceries and shopping become challenging. She is weary and ready for things to settle down and life to return to normal.

Bill and Baby were both curious about what is being reported in the U.S. They wanted to know what people in the States are thinking about Honduras. (How do you tell someone with so much national pride that the average American couldn’t locate Honduras on a world map?). They are baffled by the U.S. political response thus far. They are emphatic that that 70-80% of the country continues to support the current government and the removal of Zelaya. Both see Venezuela’s Chavez as the real cause of the current political problems. They do not want a dictatorship in Honduras.

They are emphatic that the violence which has occurred has been more isolated than what international news organizations have reported or implied. Baby was adamant that only four people had actually been killed in the so-called riots (holding up four fingers to add emphasis to her point). At one point Bill becomes particularly animated as he gestures to the peaceful countryside: “Where is the violence? Do you see violence?” Both worry that the people from the U.S. will continue to stay away. They have noticed that even the church groups from the States are no longer coming.

Time seemed to pass too quickly on this occasion and we arrived at the orphanage sooner than I would have liked. Hugs, goodbyes, and hopes for God's blessings were were exchanged all around. In the weeks ahead as I search for the latest news from Honduras, I will be reminded of a proud taxi driver and his school teacher wife. It's funny how the politics of a little obscure country can become very personal when names and faces are attached.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Politics and People in Honduras

Nobody on the road
nobody on the beach
I feel it in the air
the summer's out of reach." (Don Henley, "Boys of Summer")

I am in Tegucigalpa, Honduras for a couple of days. You have probably noticed I don't write much about politics; not because I'm afraid of people disagreeing with me, but because I just don't like politics. My general view is that the Far Left think they are smarter than everyone else, and the Far Right think they are better than everyone else, and everyone in the middle could care less until it starts to affect their pocketbook. But I do want to take a moment to give you my impressions of the situation here in Honduras.

There has been much written about how Honduras got to this point. You can read about that from articles and blogs from people much more knowledgeable than I. I am commenting on what I see here and now.

There is a conspicuous absence of North Americans here. There were about 28 people on my flight here, and about half of those were illegals being deported. On my past visits there has always been a plane full of church teams coming for short-term trips, as well as the typical tourists. Same situation at the airport on arrival: very few travelers--almost no gringos.

I am staying at a very nice hotel, the Humuya Inn. It is owned by a North American who has invested a considerable amount of money to offer an affordable, safe place to stay. It is virtually empty. Has been for weeks now. The owner lays off workers and tries to hang on.

Our friend Laurie who is a missionary here was kind enough to drive us around yesterday. We went to two very beautiful towns just outside of Tegu: Santa Lucia and Valle de Angeles. I had been to Valley of Angels before. Although there are some very fine artists and craftsmen there, my overall impression on the previous visit was that it is a "tourist trap" (kind of like the "Gatlinburg" of Honduras, on a smaller scale). There was almost no one there. I saw two other gringos. No one in the shops or on the streets except locals, and not many of them.

We stopped in one shop owned by a friend of Laurie. This lady is Honduran but has also lived in the States. She was gloomy. Her mood is understandable--no tourists equals no customers equals no dollars. As the political impasse drags on, the economic crisis here continues to deepen. We throw that phrase around a lot in the States: "the economy." Let me translate it for you: "people". People suffer. Especially in a poor country like Honduras, where currency is as scarce as a hen's teeth even in the so-called good times.

There is an election in November that could return the country to some sort of normalcy. The so-called "coup" and the ousted president could become a moot point. The problem is that the international community (especially the U.S.) has so far threatened not to recognize the legitimacy of whoever becomes the democratically elected president. If this occurs, the crisis will likely deepen. Civil war is a possibility, as desperately poor families may have to choose between starving or becoming hired-gun soldiers. There are rumors that guns and money are already flowing into the country from the south.

I have a book at home written for people who are considering relocating to Honduras. One of the author's main contentions for moving here was that Honduras is so beautiful yet so poor and backward that no other country would ever bother to invade. Therefore you would always at least be safe from war. I'm not sure I agree with that any more. Honduras seems to be a pawn in an international chess match. Venezuela, Cuba, and the U.S. (among others) are moving the pieces. I am afraid the game is about to get out of hand for this poor little country.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Killer Bees

We've had great weather the last couple of days here in central Alabama. Sunny and cool, low forties at sunrise topping out about the mid-sixties. Good weather to be outside.

I've been cruising timber both days. Foresters cruise lots of timber. It's a fundamental part of the job. I've always thought the terminology was a little misleading though. "Cruising" kind of sounds like I'm riding around in a candy apple red '59 Thunderbird with a cute girl with a pony tail, listening to the Beach Boys, on our way to the Dairy Queen for burgers, fries and a shake. No such luck. "Cruising" is forester lingo for appraising trees and timber. It involves walking back and forth across a property, stopping at defined intervals to measure all trees in a designated area. It allows the forester to estimate the value of the timber by systematically measuring a sample (or subset) of trees, rather than measuring every tree on the property. It is a great job if you like quiet and don't mind being alone. Not so great if you have a short attention span or are easily bored by repetition. I enjoy it when the weather's cool and the woods are pretty. I hate it when it's hot (above 80 degrees) and the woods are brushy.

One benefit of the quiet is that it allows my mind to wander. Among the things I wondered today was "whatever happened to the killer bees?"

Back in the late 1970's and early '80's, there was a lot of media coverage about africanized bees that were supposed to be gradually migrating from South America to the southern U.S. These "killer bees" were considered to be very dangerous because they built massive hives and were much more aggressive than our honey bees, often attacking in large swarms that could actually kill animals and humans. The media hype was extensive--the predictions drastic and horrifying. The killer bees would change outdoor life in the South as we knew it. It was only a matter of time.

There were even a few bad B-movies that depicted this plague of winged invaders (kind of like we are seeing with climate change today). My personal favorite showed all the horrors of the infestation of Houston. Chaos in the streets. People trapped in their homes and cars or stung to death. The city was finally saved, however, when the bees were lured into the Astrodome, where a quick-thinking hero turned on the air conditioner and froze the entire swarm.

The original cast of Saturday Night Live also picked up on the hype. One of my favorite skits of all time was John Belushi and the gang, dressed up in ridiculous bee costumes. The recurring skit always involved the over-sized bees breaking into homes and businesses, with the terrified occupants crying "who ARE you?" The camera would zoom in on Belushi, who answered in a Mexican bandito accent: "We are the keeler beees."

Despite the hype, I'm glad to report I've yet to encounter any killer bees. I'm hoping I won't. I have enough trouble with thorn vines, greenbriars and yellow jackets.

Friday, October 16, 2009

U2 360 Tour

A friend of mine asked that I write a review of the U2 360 Tour concert at the Georgia Dome a couple of weeks ago, so here goes...

Be forewarned I'm hardly an impartial reviewer of anything U2. I've been a big fan since the mid-80's. I vividly remember hearing my first U2 song, "New Year's Day", on the car radio and being completely blown away by their unique sound. Since then, I've bought and enjoyed almost every song they have ever released. I also own numerous concert DVD's, as well as several books by and about members of the band. My wife Becky is probably even a bigger fan. She overcame her fear of flying when I bribed her into taking her first plane flight to see U2 in Denver in 2005. So we were obviously excited about the show in Atlanta.

The 360 Tour is a little different than U2 concerts of the past in that they are only appearing in large arenas like football stadiums. The stage is round, covered by a four-legged monstrosity that holds massive multiple speakers, lighting, and a round video screen. This enormous set-up, which has been dubbed "the spaceship" by fans, is designed to provide a more intimate setting in these large venues (for a peek, go to www.U2.com). The intent is that every seat in the house has a good view of the band--hence the name "360 Tour." My only disappointment with the Atlanta show was that the stage was positioned at one end of the arena (instead of in the center), so there was nothing really gained.

The audience was a little more diverse than at previous shows we've attended. When a group has played for thirty or so years, I guess they attract a wide following: from young kids (7-8 years old) to senior citizens. The production felt a little more "corporate" than past shows ("Blackberry loves U2") and a lot less political. I did not notice the customary presence of groups such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, or even the One Campaign. The concert did however include a tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of Burma who is currently imprisoned by a military junta.

The performance was great as always. U2 played twenty-five songs covering the full span of their career. Although a big venue like the Georgia Dome inevitably distorts the sound quality, I'd have to say that I've never heard Bono's voice sound better at a live show. Becky especially enjoyed a remix version of "I Know I'll Go Crazy" which included a cool video accompaniment. My personal favorite was "Amazing Grace" immediately followed by "Where the Streets Have No Name."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

More Brothers Needed

Some time ago I was channel surfing and landed on one of my regular stops--National Geographic Television. They were running a 2008 documentary called "Outlaw Bikers" about federal agents who infiltrated criminal motorcycle gangs to gather evidence for prosecutions. A segment on the Mongols Motorcycle Club and the A.T.F. agent who successfully infiltrated them was especially fascinating.

Federal law enforcement had tried for years to break up the Mongols, a club based in southern California with a big laundry list of illegal activities: drug dealing, money laundering, gun-running, robbery, extortion, murder, and assault. But the Mongols were careful and smart, so arrests seldom resulted in convictions. In early 1998, Agent William "Billy" Queen agreed to assume a new identity and join the club to gather evidence. This was no easy proposition. Queen left his wife and children behind in Texas and moved to southern California. Due to the Mongols application process (which included background checks and references), Queen had to have a completely new identity fabricated: social security and credit cards, school records, work history, driver's license, etc. The government constructed his previous life in minute detail. And he, of course, had to remember these details as if he'd actually lived this fictitious existence. Failure--a slip at any time--would almost certainly result in his death.

Queen was eventually accepted and began to ride with the Mongols and gather evidence. He had many close calls due to his limitations as a federal agent (agents cannot commit crimes, only observe), but he was able to convince the gang that he was, in fact, one of them. This charade went on for twenty-eight months. During this time, he had no contact with his wife and children or anyone from his previous life. He was only a few weeks away from gathering enough evidence to complete the assignment when something happened that almost blew his cover--his mom died back on the east coast. Now his fake identity included a mom, but not in that location. So if anyone monitored his travel, he would be discovered as an impostor. He decided to take the chance, and left southern California for three days.

Upon his return, he was telephoned and instructed to come to the home of one of the gang leaders. Queen figured that he had been tailed and would likely be killed. When he entered, the gang members approached him en mass. And then something strange happened: each man embraced him. Each said something: "I love you brother"; "Sorry about your mom"; "What do you need, man?"; "What can I do for you?"

And it was at this point in the story that something strange happened to me. Tears filled my eyes. Because it hit me that these men who were the worst of the worst--murderers, drug dealers, criminals with little regard for anybody or anything--were acting more like Christ than many of us who call ourselves "Christian." They were actually living the "brotherly love" that Jesus taught and expects His followers to live every day. And I'm sorry to say that I've very seldom seen or been a part of anything like it. I can think of one man who has treated me this way (N.V., you are the "real deal"; love YOU brother). Worse yet, who have I treated this way?

And that is a real crime.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Postscript to "The Girl"

I would like to add a few thoughts on the story of "The Girl." I've had a few readers comment that the story is sad, and I guess that at this point, it is. A few others have indicated that it's a shame that she made some bad choices after so much had been invested in her future. That's true as well. But I still think there is hope for her to accomplish great things--to fulfill whatever purpose God has for her young life. And I know from experience that things aren't always what they seem to us when we're in the middle of them.

I have certainly been discouraged with the recent developments in the Girl's story. After all, I have seen evidence of God's hand on her life. There are just too many coincidences to believe otherwise. I felt that I had an important part in the story. After all, I had personally invested time, money, prayers, and plans in hopes that she could break the cycle of poverty so common in Honduras. So I have to admit that my initial reaction was "Why, God? Why does it have to turn out this way when You've so obviously been working in our lives?"

I was reminded this morning when reading some Scripture that negative twists in story lines are hardly unusual in the lives of God's people. Specifically, I was reading in 2 Kings 3:8-37, the story of the prophet Elisha and an old women. If you are unfamiliar with the story, let me paraphrase it for you.

Elisha was a traveling prophet at a time when few cared to hear anything from God. He was befriended by an old couple in the village of Shunem, who graciously prepared him a place to stay whenever he was in their neighborhood. Wanting to repay their kindness, Elisha asked the women if there was something he could ask God to give her, but she maintained she had everything she needed. Elisha's servant pointed out that she was old and childless. So Elisha tells the women that when he returned in about a year, she would be holding a new addition to the family.

The woman's response is priceless. It is, in essence: "Don't mess with me, man of God. Don't give me some kind of false hope. I'm too old to deal with that." But the story goes as we expect when God is involved, and sure enough, the old woman is blessed with a son.

Some time later in the story (I assume a few years went by), the story takes an unexpected turn. The kid dies. Just dies. No explanation.

The grief stricken woman hunts down Elisha, who knows something is wrong when he sees her coming. Her words to Elisha surely stung: "Did I ask you for a son? Didn't I tell you not to give me false hope?"

There is no recorded response from Elisha (no "Don't you know that God loves you?"; or "All things work for good to those who love the Lord"; or even, "Smile, God's in control"). He simply takes action, returning to the woman's home and to the child's dead body. After some anxious moments and a lot of prayer, God restores the child's life. The woman is reunited with her beloved son.

I think I can relate to both the old woman and Elisha. I certainly understand not wanting to have "false hope." And I believe that Elisha must have wondered "God, what are You doing?", even though this isn't stated. He simply kept believing in God's plan and in His purpose. And he took action accordingly. And to me, that's the important part--the taking action.

That's the next chapter in the Girl's story, too. I'll look forward to giving you an update some time in the future.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Home/Old Home, Part 2

The Girl began the next chapter of her story in January, when she and nine other girls from the orphanage moved into the newly established "Transition Home" in Tegucigalpa. I'm sure it was exciting (and a little overwhelming) for both the girls and the young staff couple who were their house parents. So much to learn that we take for granted here in the States: how to get around in a large, confusing city; how to get a job (when you've never had one that paid--and in a country where unemployment is sometimes above 40%); how to manage the money you earn (learning to budget when you've never had any money to spend). I know I would have been overwhelmed. I'm guessing you would too.

But most of the girls did quiet well negotiating these obstacles. We were in contact with the staff couple by email, and we were encouraged to learn that the Girl was able to find a job by February. We soon received our first telephone call from the Girl--she had used some of her wages to buy a prepaid cell phone. She gave us the number and said "Now you call me back, understand?" It seemed that her cell plan didn't charge for incoming calls--so she had already learning something about budgeting. She was excited about her job, which was selling coffee on the streets. Now I don't mean she had landed a job at Starbucks. I mean she was a walking coffee pot. She had a big tank of coffee on her back, similar to the herbicide sprayers we use to spray weeds here in the States. She walked the streets of Tegucigalpa nine to ten hours a day like this, selling coffee by the cup. It didn't sound like a very good job to me. But she was excited to have it. And according to the staff couple, she was very successful at it. Her big smile and her friendliness to strangers made her a natural salesperson. We were excited for her, to say the least.

We called her again in early March. But something had changed again. She was moody--refusing to speak any in English. Pretty much refusing to talk at all. I did not "read" too much into the call--after all, I had seen her act this way before. I assumed she had just had a bad day. Her moods usually passed as quickly as a summer thunderstorm, so I thought I'd just call back in a few days.

I never got to make that call. We received an email from the directors of the orphanage a couple of weeks later. The Girl had been expelled from the transition home. There had been some on-going problems since the beginning--problems in getting along with the other girls, disrespectful behavior toward the staff couple, curfews missed, assignments ignored, etc. She had been given chances to "act right" and follow the rules, but she continued to disobey. And so, just that quickly, it was over.

I was able to contact the Girl's older brother who was attending college in Costa Rica. He told me the Girl had moved back to her mother's house in Tegucigalpa. He tried to assure me that she was going to be all right, and that we shouldn't worry. The Girl still had her job. He promised to keep us informed. He would contact us in May when he returned to Honduras to visit and let us know how to contact the Girl (the cell phone no longer worked). We could do nothing but wait.

We received another email from the Girl's brother a few weeks later. It was brief. The Girl was doing fine at her mother's house. She still had the job selling coffee. She now had a boyfriend. And, "Oh, and we think she might be pregnant." Later, he informed us that the Girl was indeed pregnant, and the father was refusing to take any responsibility. Sadly, she did not wish to speak with us.

And so the cycle was made complete. The Girl with the high hopes and dreams, who had wanted to "fly away", had landed right back at her starting point.

I know that you, dear reader, were hoping for a happy ending to the story of the Girl. I know I was. There is something in us all that yearns for the line "and they lived happily ever after" in an underdog story such as hers. But sometimes circumstances and choices make that ending less likely. Maybe sometimes where you begin has a lot to do with where you end.

But to me, this is still a story of hope. Because regardless of how it seems at this moment, the Girl's story has many more chapters yet to be written. And as long as there is hope there will always be a chance of "they lived happily ever after."

My wife will be traveling to Honduras in a few weeks. She intends to re-establish contact with the Girl. I'm betting this story isn't over.

Monday, October 5, 2009

New Home/Old Home

The Girl's last year at the orphanage was filled with ups and downs, highs and lows. As I said, something changed. She was often moody when we visited, and at least once I received an email from the directors asking that I write to encourage her to be more helpful and cooperative. She continued to do well in her last year of school, but otherwise she was obviously ready to leave. The problem was still where to leave.

About midway through the year, we thought a solution had finally presented itself. The directors of the orphanage announced the creation of a "transition home" in Tegucigalpa. The concept was simple: since the older children had such difficulty re-entering society, a small group would live together in a structured setting for a period of about ten months. A staff couple would supervise and guide them in this transition process. They would basically learn some of the skills needed to become independent: finding a job, attending college classes, managing money, etc. It was a fabulous idea, and one that would fill a critical need--not only for the Girl, but for many of the others with the same problem. Each year a new group would have this opportunity. We were excited to learn that the first "class" would begin in January 2009 and would be comprised of nine of the older girls who had completed all their education at the orphanage. We assumed that the Girl would finally get the break she desperately needed.

We visited her again in late November, this time making a special trip to attend her graduation from "junior college." We arrived with the expectations of a celebration for her accomplishments and a likely "send off" to Tegucigalpa. Instead, we found disappointment. The Girl was accused of some misbehavior of a rather serious nature. She would graduate, but being selected for the transition home was doubtful. I talked with her about the accusations against her, as well as talking with the directors. There was nothing I could do to resolve the situation. After all, I am a parent too, and I know kids make mistakes, serious and otherwise, that require discipline. All I could offer the Girl was to encourage her to be patient--we could find another solution that would allow her to leave--but I knew that she was resolved to leave one way or another. We left with an uneasy feeling that we might not see her again.

In January, we got another surprise. One of the girls originally selected dropped out, and the Girl was picked to take her spot. Once again, we were thrilled that things might really work out for her. I believed she at least had a chance for a better life than the one she had struggled through to this point.

And I was right: she did have a chance. What she did with it was now up to her.

Next post: New Home/Old Home, Part II

Friday, October 2, 2009

Transitions

I believe the story of the Girl somehow turned on a decision and a request.

The decision was that we should bring the Girl to the U.S. to study English. After all, she had the talent, the dreams, the "smarts" necessary to succeed. She just didn't have anyone to support her in Honduras if she went to college there. Seemed like a pretty simple, straight-forward idea, right?

I should mention that this was no easy decision. We knew it would be challenging for her, as well as difficult and expensive for us. It is not easy for a Honduran to get a student visa to the States (or any visa for that matter). The whole system is designed to be expensive, difficult, and discouraging. And while we do live a few miles from a great university, the English language program for international students is pricey to say the least. Other difficulties are less obvious: she would be unable to drive (we would have to transport her everywhere); she would be unable to work (student visas only allow you to work at the school you are attending); she would struggle with the culture here in the States; and she would still face some of the same difficulties of transition and support when she returned to Honduras. But we were not frightened or discouraged by any of these things, because they can all be overcome. We had seen it happen for another girl from the same orphanage, and she had been (and is) successful in the same process. In fact, she is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met, but that girl will be the subject another time. This story is about the Girl who wanted to "fly away."

So I made a request. I wrote a letter to the Directors of the orphanage explaining the plan and the reasons behind it. I believed that it would be approved. After all, I had visited many times. They had been in my home here in the States. Quite frankly, they know us, and we know them. I believe there is mutual respect and admiration between us, even though we don't always agree with each other on every issue. And I believe that they knew that our relationship would continue regardless of their decision--that we would continue to support them whenever and however we could. On each of these points they were correct.

We got an immediate response that the request had been received and would be considered. A couple of months went by with no further response. A second inquiry produced a response letter--not from the Directors, but from a staff member who supervises the older girls. Request denied. The reason: the Girl needed to complete a final year of school available at the orphanage before such a proposal could even be considered. Otherwise it might be viewed by some of the other children as an "unmerited reward." That point I could understand. The email went on to imply that "we just didn't understand the culture--that although our intentions were good, we were in effect interfering with the Girl's progress." That contention I still struggle with. Because to my knowledge, the Girl never knew any discussions were taking place. It was presumptuous, I know, but we asked for permission to do all this without even asking her if she wanted to do it.

There are turning-points in our lives that we aren't even aware of at the time. I will always believe that this was one of those times for the Girl. She would spend another year at the orphanage. We would spend another year searching, hoping, praying for some other solution. An unexpected opportunity would come along--but something imperceptible had changed in the Girl's outlook. Maybe her boredom lead to a loss of hope. I don't know what happened. I just know something changed.

Next post: New home/Old home

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Orphanages (Part 3)

The Girl would spend the next five years at her new "home". Initially things went quite well, and it seemed that she finally had found a place that "fit her." She began to progress rapidly through school, graduating sixth grade, then electing to continue to pursue the Honduran equivalent of junior college (grades seven through nine). Like most of the older children, she was given various positions of responsibility at the orphanage--sometimes in one of the kitchens; sometimes supervising younger children in the yard (playground); sometimes in the laundry. She seemed happy and hopeful. The only complaint I ever heard from her is one I hear from most of the older children: "I'm bored." Eventually, like most teenagers, she began to yearn for freedom. In her case, freedom from the monotony of an institutionalized existence. And please understand, even for all the good they do--saving children like the Girl from poverty, crime, abuse, and misery--most orphanages are institutions. They simply cannot handle the sheer magnitude of the numbers of children they care for with the workers (most volunteers) they have. I first noticed the Girl's restlessness one day when I looked in her Spanish Bible. Written inside the cover, in perfect English: "one day I want to fly away."

I guess my wife and I visited the orphanage about three times a year on average during this period of the Girl's life. We began to explore ways to help her. She seemed to pick up English words quickly whenever we visited, so we brought her some language training cd's and and a Sony Discman so she could study at night. We were delighted on our next visit a few months later to find that she had learned remarkably well. We could actually have basic conversations in English (my delight was equally matched by her frustration that my attempts to learn Spanish were not progressing nearly as well). We began to see that this ability with English might be her "ticket"--so we continued to encourage her at every opportunity. As time went by, I became a convinced that she might just "make it". That is, she might have an opportunity to become an educated woman with a chance for a better life than the one she had come from.

The question was "how?" This is the question that many young women face in Honduras. It is the hole in the safety net of the orphanage "system". The day eventually comes when the child grows up and is ready to leave to begin an adult life. Since they have been cared for by the orphanages for most of their childhood (in a regimented, controlled environment), they have little idea of how to function in the "real world." Worse yet, they have no support structure to begin their reintegration into society. This is analogous to a parent raising a child here in the U.S. until the day she walks off the stage with her high school diploma, handing her a suitcase, and saying "goodbye and good luck". And unfortunately, the results are predictable. Statistics indicate that about seventy percent of Honduran girls are pregnant within six months of leaving orphanages. Thus the cycle of poverty continues and the orphanages are not in any danger of going out of business.

We were determined that this would not be the case for the Girl. She had dreams--to become a teacher, or perhaps a missionary. We wanted to help. We researched Honduran colleges, scoured the Internet for information, talked to people. But the conclusion we reached was always the same: she has no reliable family, no where to live, no way to survive without "in country" help. And so we made a decision--and a request. It seemed like a small thing at the time, but I believe it was a turning point in the Girl's story.

Next post: Transitions

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Orphanages (Part 2)

And so at age 15 the Girl arrived at the large private orphanage in central Honduras. She would later tell me that she finally felt she was at a place that "fit her."

It was there that I first met her back in 2003. Though I had stopped by the orphanage for a quick tour the previous year, this was my first "official" visit to this orphanage, a week long stay with a group comprised mostly of kids from Auburn University. I didn't know this at the time, but the Girl had arrived there herself only a few weeks earlier.

If you've never visited an orphanage, here is something you need to understand: most have "sponsorship" or patronage systems in place. This is how they raise a substantial portion of the funds required to feed, clothe, and house the kids in their care. For the sponsor, this becomes a way to "feel good" by making a small monthly contribution towards the welfare of a child. For the kids, many of whom come from the same poverty and circumstances similar to the Girl's, this sponsorship becomes a matter of utmost importance. A sponsor is a symbol of hope. A connection to the world outside the gate. And truthfully, someone who will likely send you birthday and Christmas presents, as well as buying you things when they visit. Some of the kids who are friendly and good-looking become quite proficient in the process and obtain multiple sponsors (and to this I say, "Good for them"). This is the orphanage culture among the kids.

I arrived in 2003 with determination to become a sponsor. I had mental picture of "the chosen one" before I even arrived. She would be young (five or six years old), pretty, and smile a lot. A daughter to a dad who had two boys at home. I had a yearning to spoil some little girl absolutely and completely rotten. I'd done "snips and snails and puppy dog's tails" and was ready for "sugar and spice and everything nice." And so I took every opportunity I had that week with the kids to look for the chosen one. The only problem was that everywhere I went, there was a smiling fifteen year old at my side (the Girl). She knew almost no English ("what is your name" sounded like "what is jew name?"). She shadowed me the whole week, always smiling. The day I left, I learned she knew a little more English : "I have no esponsor."

And thus began my family's relationship with the Girl. My wife would later jokingly say that the Girl knew how to spot a sucker. Maybe that's true, but it has never mattered much to me.

Next post: Orphanages (Part 3)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Orphanges (Part 1)

And so the Girl and her brother were taken from the streets of San Pedro Sula and placed in one of the many state-run orphanages in Honduras. Now I will admit I've never been to one of these "homes", but I have friends in country who have, and from their descriptions, they are only one notch above being on the street. There are numerous stories of rape, abuse, and other crimes against children. The Girl diplomatically described this institution as "a place for children who don't have much discipline", and reflected that she and her brother spent most of their time "getting hit". After a few weeks in this paradise, they planned and executed their escape.

Further street-wandering followed. Eventually the Girl located a friend of her mother. This lady agreed to take them in, as long as they did whatever she said (e.g. "worked") without question or argument. The Girl thought some about this offer and decided that, although the terms were not great, they had to be better-off than they were when begging in the streets. She worked very hard for the lady, and for a while they had food to eat and a roof over their heads. But bad luck follows some people like thunder follows lightning, and pretty soon it found them again. The little brother suddenly became sick with asthma and almost died. The Girl also got sick shortly thereafter. The lady they were staying with suddenly decided that maybe they should find other accommodations. She assisted their search by calling in the authorities.

Since the Girl and her brother had already proven ability to flee the state-run system, the government placed them in a private orphanage. The Girl recalls that they were treated very well there. They went to school, were cared for, and finally began to feel that they had found a "place" in which to live and grow up. But this too was short-lived. As she reached the age of ten, she and her brother were sent to different orphanages. The last family ties they clung to were severed, and they would not see each other again for the next eight years.

The Girl was transferred around to various orphanages over the course of the next six years. Always there was worry and concern for her younger brother, and always thoughts of her mother. She managed to continue her education, and life at the private orphanages wasn't always bad. She has especially fond memories of some time spent at a Catholic orphanage. She recalls that the Sisters were pretty strict on her behavior and at school, but were also kind and genuinely caring. There is even a laugh as she describes the nuns on a swimming trip (I never thought of nuns as swimming either). Finally at age 16 she was taken to a large private orphanage in central Honduras. It was there I met her in 2003.

Next post: Orphanages, Part 2

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A "typical" childhood

In 1988, the Girl was born into this little country of natural beauty and abject poverty, the seventh child to a mom not yet thirty years old. Another brother would follow two years later.

She cannot remember much about her very early years. Her memories are only of her mother and the younger brother. She does remember wondering why she had no father. The mom initially told her she "didn't have one", but even a young child eventually figures out that can't be so--especially in a country where poverty forces families into tight quarters. Sex education in such places is taught not in schools but across the room. Later she would be told that her dad "didn't want her." She believes it would have been better to think she never had one.

She also remembers the struggles. The mom would work for a while and they would have money for food and the basics. But the jobs and the money never lasted long, because mom also had a taste for alcohol and drugs. Men would come into and out of their lives on a regular basis. She remembers one sister being born--only to die in her arms of some unknown sickness (she still feels sadness about this). Eventually the Girl and the brother were dropped off at a grandmother's and mom went to jail. All of this occurred before she reached six years of age.

Shortly after her seventh birthday, the Girl remembers her mother returning to retrieve her and the brother. They were off to make a fresh start. The three of them moved to San Pedro Sula, where mom got a new job and they were a family once again. For a while things went really well. They had money and each other, and her hopes began to grow with each passing day. But the odds for success are slim for addicts, and pretty soon mom's wages began to disappear one sip at a time. The Girl and her brother were forced to look to the streets for survival.

The Girl will not tell me too much about the streets. I am pretty sure that some things happened there that are too painful to recall. How good can life be for a ten year old girl and her seven year old brother on the streets of a city in which an unarmed man would fear to walk at night? She will say that they mostly begged. When they were successful, they ate; when they weren't, they didn't. This went on until the Honduran authorities finally picked them up.

Next post: the orphanage phase.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Beginnings

To begin to understand the story of the Girl, you must know a little about the setting in which it all takes place. Honduras is a country of beautiful landscapes. A place of unending mountains, with narrow valleys in between the steep green slopes. Strikingly green and lush during the rainy season, a lesser green in the dry times. Trees and shrubs with gorgeous blooms of purple, orange and red. Bright blue sky that can only be seen in places that have little industry to pollute. Small towns scattered throughout the countryside. Some quaint with a sleepy-looking sort of Central American charm. Most look far less than what North American standards would call prosperous: sub-standard housing, narrow trash-littered streets, free-roaming livestock.

There are two major cities: Tegucigalpa (the capital) and San Pedro Sula (the industrial center). Both are typical third world cities--crowded, noisy, full of vehicle traffic and countless people and who have flocked there looking for work. Tegu (as it is typically referred to by the gringo) is particularly mesmerizing--almost too much for the eye to take in. Streets lined with small shops. Street vendors plying their wares. Cast-off vehicles from the North, especially old Blue Bird school buses. Ramshackle houses crammed together on slopes so steep that you have to wonder how a rain drop hits the ground and makes it on down the hill. People everywhere you look, especially children. Like the Pied Piper led them away from Hamlin and dropped them off here.

It was into this landscape, this setting, that the Girl was born.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Story of a Girl

I want to tell you a story. It's a story about a girl I know who lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Lately this story isn't going too well, but then again, it isn't finished yet. Like a lot of stories, mine and yours included, it is still being written every day, one choice and circumstance at a time.

I warn you that it is not a light-hearted, happy tale. But let's face it, it's not a light-hearted happy world we live in sometimes. The princess is not always awakened from the witch's spell by her true Love's kiss. The underdog doesn't always win. The villain is not always exposed and punished.

Some of this story is as predictable as a cheap paperback novel. But it doesn't have to be that way. And that is precisely why I want to tell it.

Next post: Beginnings

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A poem for Wednesday

I make a living from the land. Actually, the past few years I've made a living selling land. Mostly farms and woods, and mostly to people who were looking to "have a place in the country." It is, for the most part, an enjoyable job. And I was fortunate to be able to make quite a few sales. Things were going so well that I quit my original profession (forestry) to devote all my time to real estate.

And then about a year ago the recession hit. Land sales slowed, then virtually stopped. I started looking for forestry jobs until thing "picked back up", but there were none to be found. After several months of no income, I was able to find some contract work marking timber for a friend of mine. Low pay, but I was thankful for it. I wrote a bit of somewhat whiney poetry about my experience:

Timber Marker

I walk this Russell County tract hemmed in:
Lumber baron land to the north,
Old Federal Road on the east,
Paper company clearcut to the south,
U.S. 51 on the west.

Twenty years as a forester.
Master of Science.
Returned and reduced by Obamanomics
to entry-level woods work.
This is my bailout.

I make my mark on this landscape
one tree at a time.
One pull of the paint gun trigger and
a sixty year old loblolly pine
Is sentenced to a short stay on death row.

These woods are a story that only a forester can read.
Current condition--species, size quality
A reflection of timber cutting in previous economies.
Someone's need to pay down a loan or
a grandchild became the first in the family to go to college.

My story will be here for the next thirty years.
Hidden in the trees that I spared
And in the open spaces of those I did not.

As a footnote, I'm happy (and very thankful) to say that I've been rehired as a forester by the company I originally left for full time land sales. I will also continue my attempts to sell land. Hopefully things will get better soon economically for all of us.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Signs and Wonders: Hunting Clubs

Another sign Fall is close: hunting club activity.

I saw this just a few days ago when I made a trip to the local sporting goods store to buy a pair of work boots. The hunters were swarming all over the store, carts loaded with all the latest gadgets--eyes glazed over with visions of glory in the season ahead.

Hunting (especially white tail deer) is big business in Alabama. The annual impact on the economy is measured in millions of dollars for an activity that lasts from November until the end of January in most of the state. Think that's an exaggerated claim? Consider a list of "requirements" for this "hobby", at least some of which must be purchased by a participant:

Big game license: $30
4x4 truck (to get there) $30,000
ATV (to get there when you get there) $10,000
Rifle and accessories $750
Climbing stands $1,000
"gadgets" (items the magazines say you simply must have) $500
Hunting clothes, boots, etc $500
Gas, groceries, supplies $1500
Hunting club membership $750
Seed, fertilizer (wildlife food plots) $250
Butchering/processing meat $100
Taxidermy $350
Misc. (or, "Hey, I need that...") $500
Total $46,230.

Now admittedly, not every hunter will buy all of this every year. But I know quite a few who will buy a good portion of it. Always makes me smile when I hear some guy justify hunting because he likes the taste of venison and "it's cheap meat." By my calculations, an average deer costs over $1500 per pound. I think rib eyes are a little tastier and definitely cheaper.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Signs and Wonders: Dog Behavior

Another sure sign that Fall is near: my dogs are playful again.

I can't ever remember a time when I didn't have a dog. They are as much a part of life to me as sunshine and fresh air, and they've given me as much pleasure over the years. I've occasionally had other pets as well, but nothing in the animal world can compare to the companionship of a dog.

Over the past ten or so years, we've always had a boxer (or two). If you've never been around one, this is a great breed. They are slow to mature, even tempered, and fierce-looking but very gentle. To me their most defining characteristic is their need for companionship. They are very "attached" and social. This is great if you want to take the time and responsibility of owning a dog. Not so good if your idea of a dog is a lone fixture in the landscape of your back yard. This is why we usually have two--they can occupy each other when we're at work, rather than chewing the chimney off the house in some sort of psychotic protest of being left alone.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my two have spent a good portion of the Alabama summer trying to escape the heat by taking refuge under our back porch. They make a brief appearance around sunset, when we take our daily trip around the yard--me on the atv, them barking out in front. I think this is some gentetically encoded memory to them--the three pack members on the hunt, roaming the landscape in search of a wildebeast to pull down for supper. And though we always return unsuccessful, this is a trip that must be made daily. Doesn't matter if I'm late from work, sick, or the weather's bad. Miss a day, and there will be consequences . Something will be chewed up and scattered across the back yard--probably something important.

The recently cooler morning temperatures have brought back their playfullness. I heard them on the back porch this morning--the scuffling of paws across the deck. It usually involves a toy or a piece of bedding, stolen by one, chased by the other, and repeated until a new game is devised.

We have not yet, however, witnessed the true sign of Fall in dog behavior this year. I don't know what the scientist would call it, but I refer to it as a "running fit". Every dog that I have ever had has exhibited this behavior at least once. It is a sort of spontaneous reaction to cooler temperatures. Or maybe it's just the "joy of being alive". It usually happens like this: the first really cool day, the dog takes off running at full speed, usually in some sort of circular route, and often finishing with some sort of comedic effect (ie, diving headlong into shrubbery, or knocking over lawn chairs). It only last a minute or two, and will only occur once at the beginning of the Fall season. My late boxer "Butch" was especially artful at this. He once made three complete full-speed circuits of our house and ran right up the sloped front end of the minivan we owned at the time. A dog standing on top of a minivan, with no idea how to get back down, is an image you never forget.

I can't wait to see this year's show.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Signs and Wonders: High School Football

One sure sign of Fall: high school football kicked off last night across Alabama.

College football is king here, a place where you must choose between one of two teams, and close friends and even family members may not speak to each other for an entire year depending on the outcome of a game in November. But high school football is still pretty important, especially in the small towns of rural Alabama. Places like Eufaula, Reeltown, Ashland, Demopolis, and Brewton. Places where there's not much to do but grow up, graduate, and go to work. Where generations of men have suited up as Aggies, Bulldogs, Tigers, or Generals for a few Friday nights that became a lifetime of memories and stories. Where you can still find grown men with families and mortgages and problems "down at the plant" sitting on picnic tables outside the Dairy Queen and talking about an October night twenty-five years ago when "it looked bad at half time, but Sammy ran wild in the second half and we won 28-27."

High school football is a rite of passage in these little towns. A connection between place and time as well as fathers and sons. I vividly remember crisp Friday nights of childhood, going with my dad to see his Alma mater in our town. There was always an ancient black lady named Mabell who sold roasted peanuts (they were called "parched peanuts" then) in front of the stadium--a lady rumored to know voodoo and who supposedly carried a straight razor to fend off peanut thieves. We always sat with my uncle, a man who finished his Friday nights of glory and spent the rest of his life working in the cotton mill. But he never forgot. I can remember numerous occasions when his beloved team was down by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But a first down or two would have him on the edge of his seat, fist clinching and unclenching, muttering "we're coming back" like a Tibetan mantra (and no, uncle Arnold, they weren't coming back. They never came back).

I was not immune to the fever. My first year was great. An inspiring coach--the kind who made speeches that made you play better than you really were. A good season one win shy of the playoffs. The second year forever limited my glory stories: a new coach and a few returning players led to a win less senior season. My last memory of playing football is walking off the field after that final defeat to our biggest rival, who had only won one game previously that season. Their stands chanting "'O and ten, do it again"; ours responding "two and eight and you think you're great."

My youngest son has better stories to tell. A three year starter for a big school in a larger town, he knows far more about wins and glory than his father or grandfather. Yearly trips to the playoffs. Playing in front of thousands instead of a few hundred. Late night highlights on television news. A year of college ball to prove he could play at "the next level". Memories and knees still intact.

But for others, high school football is still essential to life. So much so that it even requires serious thought and planning. I recently learned that an old acquaintance was considering holding back his son's entry into first grade (he has a late August birthday) because it would give him a year's advantage over the other kids in football. Knowing his dad's athletic ability, I doubt five years would make any difference.