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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Shape of Eleven

She would have been eleven today. I would have made her favorite meal, which is spaghetti, and we would have had cake, probably something with pink frosting, and I would have eaten a slice even though I gave up sugar for Lent, because if God understands anything about us, he understands this. I would have looked at her across the table, an island of grace amidst her unruly brothers, and maybe caught a glimpse of what she would look like as a mother. I would have kissed her goodnight, the way I always did, and perhaps I would have lingered in my hug, breathing in her smell, because I think something in me understood, before we lost her, that you never know how many days you will have with them.

Eleven is a curious number, if you look at it, if you sit at your desk and scratch it on a pad and stare at it because you can't find any words in yourself. And if you think about how you can't find the words, you remember what the writer you admire most said to you, that writing is actually very easy, that you just open a vein and bleed. And so you rip the bandage off the wound, and through the sting of it you see that the shape of 11 reminds you of two people standing, a mother and a father, perhaps, and they are waiting. They are looking into a future they cannot see, and they are waiting as if in a line, as if in both their small minds is the question, "How much longer here?" They wait in line and they quietly ask God this question, but very quietly, because to want it to be finished, so often and so fiercely, is a sign that you are broken.

The shape of 11 reminds you, if you look at it, of two people, a mother and a father, maybe, who have a space between them, a space that once was filled, only now it is empty, and though they reach out in their numbness, it is such a great distance to cross, the emptiness called she was here, or only daughter gone, that you wonder if they will ever close the gap, these separate ones. And when for a time the space disappears, and they are one again, it is indeed a miracle beyond the powers of any mathematician, to make one out of two divided by nothing.

And the shape of 11, if you look at it, is like a lonely 1, staring at himself in the mirror, like a father who shuffles into the empty room and cries out, only no matter how much he shouts there is only the mirror, and he standing in front of it, remembering that this is where she would stand, right here, and he would put clips shaped like butterflies in her hair, and marvel at how she could look like him, and still be so purely different and lovely.

The shape of 11 is the empty box, it is arms raised to heaven, it is the repeated number on the walls of the prisoner scratching out his existence, denoting one more day, and one more day, each carrying him closer to the opening of the door, the end of the separation.

The shape of 11 is two flags staked into the bloody ground, side by side, and two people, a mother and father, just maybe, who say, "this is our life, all of it, the blessing and the curse, and here we will stand until it is finished." And if you look closely, you see that it is good ground, this place where they stand; it is sprinkled with blood, but it is overgrown with life, and so it is good ground. It is proof that joy and tribulation can co-exist, life and death, peace and suffering, and only because there is something on the other side of that mirror, the life more abundant, the reunion, the setting right of all things wrong.

But mostly, today, the shape of 11 is the two dreams, what might have been, and what is to come. Happy Birthday, Caroline.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Bootleggers, Baptists, and Cheap Tortillas

Anyone who believes Wal-Mart is the scourge of modern civilization would do well to read yesterday's front-page Wall Street Journal article about its operations in Mexico, which are opposed by anti-globalization (pro-poverty) groups like the Orwellian-named Global Exchange, but which have proven to be a spectacular boon to the poor people who shop and work there. It put me in mind of Bruce Yandle's term, "bootleggers and Baptists", which he coined for the odd coalitions that emerge to protect the status quo. Dry counties satisfy the moral sensibilities of some religious folk, and fatten the bank accounts of bootleggers, and so the two effectively unite in an unholy coalition.

Take the recent effort to require pornographic Internet sites to adopt a ".xxx" suffix, for example. Primary opposition came from the porn purveyors, on the one hand, and Christian groups on the other. More publicized was the cynical coalition forged by the likes of former Christian Right wunderkind Ralph Reed, who moralized about the evils of gambling while pocketing laundered cash from Indian tribes who want to preserve their gambling monopolies.

Wal-Mart faces a similar battle in Mexico, where socialists unite with shop owners and local monopolists in a thuggish front to prevent poor Mexicans from paying less for their food. Fortunately, many Mexicans are proving to have more sense than some intellectuals north of the border, as the WSJ makes clear:

"When Wal-Mart was building a store in Juchitan in 2005, local shopkeepers and leftist groups tried to rouse popular sentiment against the American invader. The efforts failed, and by the end of opening day sales were so strong 'the place looked like it had been looted,' says Max Jimenez, the store's 31-year-old manager."

Unfortunately, some groups that claim to work for democracy don't trust people to decide for themselves, any more than Global Exchange believes in, well, global exchange. Hopefully for the poor of Mexico, however, democracy will out, because as the deputy mayor of Juchitan explains, "The ones who have benefited the most are the poorest. I hope another one comes."

Me too. I hope they get Wal-Marts and Targets and Walgreens, despite the best efforts of self-styled global activists who haven't an inkling of what it must be like to go without diapers or medicine, or to pay the local boss twice the going rate for corn meal.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Monday, March 5, 2007

Created Things

Although I find most business writers to be shallow purveyors of detestable philosophies, I've always liked Stephen Covey's admonition to "begin with the end in mind." What a wonderful idea, and so easily forgotten. What are my ends? Sometimes it's easier to discern them by deduction, by eliminating the things that clearly shouldn't be ends. Take my alma mater's fundraising campaign, for example, exuberantly named, Carolina First. Whenever I receive their letters, I find myself muttering, "you're not even close."

I read somewhere that it's how we spend our time, not our stated principles, that reveals what we truly value. This sticks with me, and I find myself evaluating how I've done. What was first today? Yes, I know what I tell people matters most, but what did I put first? Sometimes — often — looking at ourselves in that light is humbling.

Yesterday I heard a pastor declare that while God has given his people dominion over creation, too many of us have given creation dominion over ourselves. That resonated with me, because over the past couple of years I've been trying to wrest back control. At some point the things I owned began to own me. The job was first, career was first, my happiness (and there's something that will set you apart from the world — declare that the end is not one's own happiness) were first.

So I left a great job, because it was getting in the way of becoming the father and husband I need to be. I miss it, but I've never once regretted leaving. This summer we'll leave our house, in part because we fit in that neighborhood like tube socks go with Oxfords, but mainly because we see an opportunity to own an adequate home outright. The end isn't simplicity, mind you, it's regaining dominion. The world becomes a different place when you have no debt, and when you need less income to provide for your family. You are less . . . owned — I think that's the right word — when your material need is reduced.

I think we have to cultivate a sense of independence from the material things, the things that can only ever, to a right-thinking child of God, be means to some glorious end that has reverberations far beyond this life. We have to cultivate this independence, because our nature is to seek after comfort, and measurable goals, both of which are furthered by money, and career success, and nice cars, and all the things that trap us into behaving like the people we never wanted to become.

Of course few people would disagree, even non-believers, that family is more important than possessions. But how do we spend our time? That is the irritating, nagging question, isn't it? What do we worry on when we awake in the middle of the night? What do we our thoughts turn to as we shower, as we dress, as we drive? What do we do with our time in the evenings? Our calendars whisper to us the truth about the ends we have in mind.

Some time ago, I made a list of the things I wanted for my children. It included everything from being able to shoot (accurately) a gun to walking humbly with God. Sometimes I take out the list and ask myself how I'm doing. Some days I'm ashamed to look at it. Other days I think there's hope, even for someone like me. We don't control the destiny of our children, but surely we prepare them to wrestle with it, no? Lately I've taken to asking myself, as I get into bed at night, how I've done with them, with my wife. Did I build, or did I destroy? It's never neutral, you know. You are either building those lives, building that relationship, or you are robbing from the ones to whom you've linked your life.

So my challenge to you (and to myself) is that we think, as this week begins, about what we want to accomplish. What are the ends we have in mind? And are we working toward those ends, or working toward ends we'd be ashamed to admit? I wonder how much our lives can change — in marvelous ways — when we begin to force a consistency between the ends we espouse and how we live. I, for one, am going to give it a try.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)