Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An open letter to the love of my life, part 2


Dear love of my life,

Hi again. I wrote to you about a month ago -- did you reply? I haven't gotten a signed letter or a number identified as "LOVE OF YOUR LIFE" on my phone, so I can't be sure.

I've continued thinking about you. Your (presumed) absence is driving me bonkers, but I'm recasting the crazy as practice for when I'm crazy about you. As crazy, I hope, as you'll be for me.

Once when I was mourning a waning love with vast amounts of tears and snot, my patient listener let me moan and groan for a good 10 minutes, and then she asked, just once: "Are you crazy about him?"

I couldn't answer her. Because I knew if we had the kind of love that would see us through to the bitter, sweet, complex end, the answer should be yes. But I couldn't say yes. So I didn't say anything.

And there was my answer. To everything.

That's what it's going to come down to in the end. We're going to be wild about each other. We're going to crack each other up, go on play dates well into our 90s, tease our kids mercilessly, hold hands at the grocery store, attempt to eat healthy together but always resort to ice cream, look around rooms to see if the other has come in yet.

You'll be crazy about me. I'll be crazy about you. No big questions. No big doubts. Just calm assurance from the still, small voice.

In the meantime, however, I am descending into a pit of emotional wackiness and overblown chocolate consumption. Feel free to get in touch soon. We could all use a break.

Love,
Me

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A note on this week's post:

I received so many incredible responses and thoughts to the first Open Letter post that I had more than enough goodness to crowdsource a second prayer. So, here you go ... love in everyone's words, take 2.

Do you want to ring in and help take us to Open Letter 3? Leave your thoughts on love found, love lost, and love still searching in the comments!


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Prayer #232: An Open Letter to the Love of my Life (part 2)

I will tell you you're the best.

I also will apologize when my dog chews your shoes, gnaws your clothes, and steals your food. I know this will happen because no matter how old my dog is when I meet you, he will still be eating things he shouldn't be eating.

I look forward to thanking you for the chocolate cake you'll bring home for every occasion, because you will know me well enough to know that I love chocolate cake about as much as you, and you'll be fine with that. (I'd also like to thank you in advance for sharing the last cookie with me.)

I can't believe how excited I will be to see you every time I get to see you. Let's hug tightly, kiss passionately, act meaningfully, live fearlessly, and love unconditionally, no matter what life brings us.

Be warned: I won't know how to love you the way that you want, need, or deserve at first. But I will do everything I can to learn. For you, I will never stop learning how to love better. And I know that you will do the same for me.

We'll both understand that love is not an emotion, it's all emotions. But more than that, love is a decision -- the best decision we will ever get to make.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged.

Missing me one place, search another.

I will have stopped somewhere, waiting for you.

At that point, I'll feel like I waited forever. But then the rest of my forever will feel the way it should -- happily complete -- with you by my side.

Love will be found ... and hopefully found again, and again, and again, all with the same person. Because I love the idea of rediscovery -- even if I did learn it from Journey's Faithfully.

Amen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

To sit in judgment: What jury duty taught me about justice, conscience, and the American way

The jury summons. November 2012.
"Madame Foreperson, have you reached a verdict?"

The court clerk was staring at me. I stood up, sealed envelope in hand, and answered on behalf on 11 other people, "I have." I handed the envelope to her. She handed it to the judge. The judge wrestled with the seal for a minute, pulled out five papers that had my signature on them, and began to read.

"One count of robbery: guilty. One count of robbery: guilty. One count of abduction: guilty. One count of abduction with intent to defile: guilty. One count of statutory burglary: guilty."

Each "guilty" dropped like an anvil in the center of the courtroom. I didn't look at the counsel, the victims, or the defendant. I just kept my eyes trained on our calm judge, for whom putting people away was routine.

I, on the other hand, was ready to hurl all over the scales of justice.



The jury summons had come a month earlier. It was the first summons I could actually fulfill, so on the appointed day I bounced into the Arlington Circuit Court overflowing with civic pride and expectations of Law & Order.

I had a feeling somewhere deep in my fate barometer that I was destined to serve on this jury. So when my name was called to join the juror pool, I did my utmost to demonstrate the integrity and impartiality I hoped was in there somewhere. The vigorous nodding and laser eye focus did the trick; within a couple hours the trial had begun, and I was in the jury box along for the ride.

It was a criminal case. An African-American man stood accused of breaking into the Best Western Pentagon and robbing two older Canadian tourists (a mother and a daughter) on one of their regular road trips through the U.S. The Commonwealth of Virginia was prosecuting on the victims' behalf.

Evidence was circumstantial at best, resting largely on the eyewitness testimony of two women who'd been covered with hotel blankets most of the time the robbery took place. Security camera footage was fuzzy. Paperwork was patchy or inconsistent.

Though the prosecutor was polished and dramatic, his theatrics couldn't gloss over the thinning facts. And the defense, though they had several opportunities to highlight that, seemed to favor distractions or red herrings.

By the end of two days, with approximately 10 witnesses and lots of counsel posturing to absorb, I didn't feel much clearer than when we started. The concept of "beyond a reasonable doubt" kept replaying in my mind:

The standard that must be met by the prosecution's evidence in a criminal prosecution: that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

The prosecution hadn't convinced me this man had done it. I could still think of a few other logical explanations. And I wasn't about to convict someone on "likely" or "probable." How could the other jurors feel any differently?, I thought. Surely deliberations would take 30 minutes.

With that, the judge dismissed us, and we headed back to the chilly jury room.



We were a group of 12, with nine men and three women. Most skewed 40 or above. A couple of us were around 30. We were lily-white save for two Hispanics. Everyone struck me as well educated and pleasant.

The clerk instructed us to choose a foreman. The other jurors clasped their hands and looked around expectantly. No one stepped forward. I, ever abhorrent of a vacuum, raised my hand.

"I haven't done this before," I said in an attempt to set reasonable expectations, lest I derail the entire legal process while on a learning curve. "But I'll do my best." Everyone nodded and smiled. It was time to begin.

Contrary to my confident assumption, we were split as a group: six convinced that the circumstantial evidence was sufficient and the eyewitness testimony reliable, and six convinced that the case hadn't been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Open and shut it was not.

I started covering the white board with notes and lists. People wandered around the nippy room clutching coffee cups. We watched the surveillance footage on a locked-down laptop. We discussed different styles of skull caps and debated about what warranted "suspicious behavior." I noticed a few people had tendencies to veer into procedural-drama-type speculations, as if we were playing at CSI.

Everyone stayed fairly calm, except for a tense moment when one juror erased half of a discussion list and another juror chewed him out. I rewrote the list. The first juror apologized. The second one stewed. And on we went.

After two hours and a lunch break we were split 9-3. After two more hours, we were 12-0. Unanimous. Ready to rule.



The clerk brought in the verdict forms and handed them to me. Each required me to handwrite in our decision and then sign it on behalf of the group. I spread out the five forms in front of me -- simple Word docs that had been printed off in a back office and were now about to alter the course of a man's life.

We voted around the table once more on each count, just to make sure we were all in agreement. The chatty group lapsed into a sober silence. The only sound was my pen scratching. I thought about the weird fact that these forms would probably go into a vault somewhere until fire or the march of time destroyed them, and that my signature from this point/day/moment in my life was forever linked to them.

The pit in my stomach went 10 feet deeper. A terrible rush of adrenaline surged through my body. My vision swam for a split second, and my hands turned to ice. I knew in that moment this was a power trip I'd never wanted to have and wasn't relishing now.

Still, I finished signing them. And out we went into the courtroom to reveal our decision.



As the prosecution presented immediately following our verdict, the defendant did have a prior criminal record -- gun possession, sexual assault, robbery, just to name a few. He'd already been in jail a few times too. I could feel some of the burden lift from the jurors' shoulders (or maybe it was just mine?) at this reveal, knowing that his record increased the probability of his guilt.

Ultimately, we sentenced the defendant to 95 years. (Full story and ruling here.)  Then we packed our bags, put on our coats, and headed our separate ways.

Only then did I realize I'd never learned everyone's names. We'd been unintentional yet complicit partners in anonymity, sharing these three days, this major decision, and nothing more. I felt a little lonely as I headed toward the metro. Who else would understand?



I know now why we have so many law dramas depicted on film. Where else is human nature on such bald display? What else so well encapsulates our hubris, missteps, hope, desperation, fear, elation, and indecision? Even with a "lesser" crime in judgment, I felt swept up in the victims' emotions, the prosector's intensity, the judge's soothing oversight. Imagine what happens when even more is at stake.

But what's really been gnawing at me since the trial ended is this question: How can we ever really know? How can we as humans really sit in judgment of others when we weren't present, when we bring our own prejudices and experiences to the table, when we are expected to reach decisions with a set number of other strangers?

Moreover, why am I feeling guilty for assigning guilt to someone else? The defendant had the same moral choice that any person does, and he chose to break into a hotel room and rob two little old ladies. Had he chosen differently, none of us would have been at that trial for three days. So why am I reluctant to put him behind bars for a decision he made?

I've determined it's a matter of transferred conscience -- that because this man's conscience failed him at a critical moment, I had double the responsibility to follow mine in this moment. I had to do my utmost to set personal opinion and bias aside and rule strictly on facts. I had to rely everything I've ever learned about values, societal expectations, and our legal system's checks and balances, and let it guide a fair decision. (Or one as fair as is possible.)

We could get into a whole discussion here about why we as society choose to levy justice, or why justice might be best left to a higher, more final authority, but all I know for sure is how my stomach felt when I signed and handed over the verdict forms. My entire moral education came to bear at that point. I think I made the right decision. I hope I did.

Prayer #231: Judgment Day

If I'm ever asked to sit in judgment, Lord, let it be with full faculties, deep humility, wide discernment, and a firm grasp on my own imperfection so that I understand the impossibility of sitting in judgment at all.

Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Awesome" is a self-fulfilling prophecy

Awesome billoard. Photo by musedTM.

Believe you are awesome, strive to be awesome, and true awesome will follow.

That's the theme of this week's post, and perhaps will be the theme of the year, and should probably be the theme of our lives. Why am I saying it now? Well, first read the following story from a dear friend who asked that I share it, and then we'll chat. [I've edited for length, emphasis, and anonymity.]

This past weekend I went to a wedding. The bride is a good friend of my spouse's. She was a beautiful bride. Her dress was gorgeous, she looked stunning, and her soon-to-be husband got tears in his eyes when he saw her walking down the aisle. It was such a beautiful day.

But ... the bride spent the entire morning and afternoon before the wedding putting herself down. It was a day full of criticism. She stated over and over that her shoulders were too wide, her hair wasn't right, etc.

She even took some time to bring up things that were wrong with her on my wedding day when she was in my bridal party. (Ironically, I only remember her looking pretty on my wedding day and I have no memory or photo evidence of her looking the way she thinks she did.)

When she was putting herself down, she wasn't complaining in a way to fish for compliments. It was more like she was just stating facts about herself, except that everything she was saying wasn't true. She is gorgeous. She just doesn't see herself the way the rest of the world does.

I cried when I told my husband how she was putting herself down. My heart broke for her because it was her wedding day. That is the day that a woman is supposed to feel gorgeous and happy and loved. I am not one of those women who have a ton of confidence (I at least think I look "OK" most of the time), but I can tell you that on my wedding day, I felt beautiful.

In fact, I think I never looked more beautiful than I did on my wedding day, because it was the happiest day of my life. I tell everyone that I spent most of my wedding day crying because I was so happy and it's true. I was marrying the love of my life, I was wearing a gorgeous dress, my family and friends were there to celebrate the event with us, I felt beautiful ... and all of that just made the day beautiful.
And when I look back at my wedding pictures, I don't nitpick about things the way I usually do. I don't look for a fat roll or too much teeth in a smile or bingo wings. All I see when I look at my pictures is how happy I was.

I wish I could have transported the feeling of those memories to this bride, because she should have felt lovely and not self-conscious about all of her imaginary physical flaws.

I guess this weekend just reinforced the idea that women need to stop telling themselves things that they wouldn't let another person say to them. I would get pretty angry if another woman came up to me and told me that my post-pregnancy mommy bulge is disgraceful, so why is it okay to whisper that thought to myself? And even worse -- believe it?

Women are their own worst critics. And I wish we would just stop. So much potential joy and happiness is lost in waves of self-loathing. You can never get those times back.

I wish the bride could have broken the cycle of self-criticism on her big day, and I hope sharing her story with you will help you, me, and other women remember that we should be happy to be ourselves and that we should stop the nitpicking.

I hope you don't mind me sharing this with you. You aren't the sort of woman who constantly puts herself down, but this whole situation bothered me enough to want to talk about it. And maybe talking about it will make other women take the steps to consciously try to stop putting themselves down so that at least the big events in their lives aren't marred by self-criticism.

Photo by ALEGNA MARIE

Ok, now we can discuss. A couple points to frame it:
  1. This story is about women and addressed to women, but I know men can treat themselves the same way. It's a human thang, so let's include everyone.
  2. The wedding in this story is a backdrop for a larger point.We could have a whole separate series about wedding day expectations, societal pressure, etc. But that's not the main peg here, so let's leave it be.
So you know where I'm coming from, my friend is right when she points out I'm not a self-criticizer. I'm blessed to have developed healthy, grounded self-esteem over the years. People believed in me early on, let me learn, fail, and grow on my own, and as a result instilled in me a strong sense of what I bring to the table.

In the core of my being I believe in my worth -- not just of my outward appearance, but also of my beliefs, my actions, my talents, my shortcomings, my potential. I really do tell myself on a regular basis that I am awesome, and on a regular basis I really do believe it.

Some of you might read that and think I am horribly arrogant and self-righteous. So let me state for the record that awesome does NOT equal perfect. Far from it, especially in my case where I have a long list of un-awesome things I've inflicted on myself and others. My point is that we still have to love ourselves first, ALL of ourselves, and that includes perceived and real flaws.

Then you can focus on self-improvement. Then you can challenge yourself to keep growing and learning. Then you always expect (demand?) that others treat you with respect, dignity, and grace -- the same respect, dignity, and grace I'm sure you're showing them. But you need the foundation first. You need to know you are worth it.

I was very much involved in my friend-the-narrator's wedding, and I can verify that she was over the moon on her wedding day. But let me tell you, she is as beautiful to me every day as she was that day because she carries love and joy with her. Her smile is every bit as radiant; her laugh is every bit as bright. And that has nothing to do with makeup and a good photographer -- it comes from kindness, gentleness, and openness.

I can guarantee you're equally awesome. The question is, do you believe it?

Photo by kelsey_lovefusionphoto

Prayer #230: Awesomesauce

Awe is wonder. Awe is dread. But awe is also veneration -- to honor what sits before you, to admire all its facets, to defer to where it can lead you and what it can teach you.

Why, then, are we scared to awe and be awed? Why do we shy away from acknowledging it and inspiring it? Why do we not look at the daily miracles at work in our own hearts and minds and say, "This is worth expanding. This is worth revering. This is worth exalting."

Force of awe beyond our reckoning, bury the nasally voice that says we are not worthy, and turn the knobs way up on the symphonic chorus that says we are. For if we listen to beauty, we become it.

Amen.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Cold awakening: A reflection on Superstorm Sandy

After the storm in NYC. Photo by Barry Yanowitz, Flickr.

The lights flickered once, then twice, then off.

The cold didn't rush right away. It glided in like a young girl on ice skates, oblivious to sharp blades and hard falls.

Once it did arrive, I had nothing to do in the dark gray hours but keep it at arm's length. I avoided my own hands so their iciness wouldn't petrify me on contact. Warming soon occupied all my energy and thoughts. (That, and praying the house didn't burn down from one forgotten, whispering candle.)

The premature dark sunk its fangs deep into my bones. I couldn't shake it loose. I couldn't slip into sleep when warmth was leeching from my body, gasping at the night, and disappearing with no further fanfare. I had to let the cold come close, close enough to taste its metal, touch its prickly hide, smell the hidden blue snow building somewhere in a vast back room.

It sat around me for hours. Every so often it inched closer, twitching its eyes in the opposite direction and whistling while it did, as if to pretend the inevitable wasn't happening. Soon we were holding hands. I knew because I couldn't feel mine anymore.

And when the dusk succumbed to real night -- a transition my body didn't notice -- and all that remained were lightless shadows, I thought only about the tip of my nose, how I had no dignified way to warm it, so instead I considered it an Eskimo kiss from a ghost.

Prayer #229: What Superstorm Sandy Taught Me

Cold is easy to bear when you know your power will come back in a day, and you can pile on warm, dry sweaters while you wait, and you have friends to stay with if you're feeling grouchy.

Cold is easy to bear when you don't have to file insurance claims, or rebuild your home, or mourn a community.

Cold is easy to bear when you are not the one hardest hit, when you are not really the one they are talking about when they say, "those affected by the natural disaster."

In light of all this, cold seems fine.

So today I pray for warmth for those without it, for light, for energy and comfort and a return to near-normalcy, for the blessed boredom of routine. I pray that we who have it help others get it back. And I pray that we all gain the grace, amid the chaos and disruption, to notice what life looks like when stripped to its bare essentials.

Amen.

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Please consider donating to the American Red Cross to support relief efforts. Donate online at www.redcross.org, or mail a check to: the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C., 20013. To donate by phone, call 1-800-RED-CROSS or give up to $10 by texting the word REDCROSS to 90999.