Not a Prayer

When no prayer finds my lips,
And Your blows crush me to the earth,
And the light from above cannot illuminate 
The mire of my sorrow,

Then
   in my torment,
   in my lament,
   in the despair of my soul,

You begin to find me,
Though blackness remains.

(I was inspired to poetry during the Michael Card concert, and jotted this down. It is reminiscent of the utter blackness of what happened 3 years ago, and, thus, autobiographical, but not recent.)

Imponderably Improbable

This weekend’s This American Life program was entitled, “No Coincidence, No Story,” and featured a huge selection of fascinating short stories.

Life is full of coincidences, but I’ve never experienced one that seems more improbable than this:

In 1995, I was visiting the Rondon family in the Dominican Republic, and spent some time looking through their library. A book that caught my eye was, La Ira del Tirano, a book by Miguel Guerrero, about the assassination attempt Trujillo (a truly “wonderful” dictator) made against the then-president of Venezuela, Rómulo Ernesto Betancourt Bello, who had the nerve to support democracy in Latin America.

The Rondon children explained that Guerrero was a friend of the family, and I borrowed the book to read to improve my relatively meager Spanish skills. (It would take me years to get through, but it was, eventually, helpful.)

Later that day, I was passing about a quarter hour of free time when the kids were watching television together, the only time in a full week in which the television was on. They had tuned to the Nickelodeon channel, and a filler program was running, showing on-the-spot interviews conducted with random visitors to Universal Studios, Florida.

In those few minutes of time, among the thousands of visitors to Universal Studios that day, at the only moments we were actually watching television, who was selected for an interview but the book’s author, Miguel Guerrero himself!

Imponderably improbable.

God Is Born

Around Christmas, I always think about my favorite Christmas hymn: “God is Born” (“Bóg się rodzi”). I’ve only got one recording of it in English, on an old cassette entitled “An English Christmas.” It is the National Christmas Hymn in Poland, where it originated. Here’s what I’ve been able to transcribe from the English version I have:

“God is Born”

God is born and night is shaken
He the Heaven’s King lies naked.
The living Word knows brightness darkened,
He the Limitless takes limit.
Born disdained yet worship given,
Mortal, yet the Lord eternal.
Now indeed the Word made flesh
Has come on earth to dwell among us.

What hast thou, O Heaven better,
God abandoned thy perfection?
Here to share the trial and sorrow
Of His poor, beloved people.
Suffered much and suffered dearly,
For we all were guilty sinners,
Now indeed the Word made flesh
Has come on earth to dwell among us.

Born into a common stable,
He is cradled in a manager.
How then tell me what surrounds you
Hay and peace and simple shepherds.
You were ones who had the honor
Him to greet, and kings came bowing.
Now indeed the Word made flesh
Has come on earth to dwell among us.

I love the old hymns that are filled with such great doctrine. (So much of our modern popular and sacred music is vacuous—or at best superficial—by comparison.) Here the subject is the Incarnation: God the Son lowering Himself to become one of us. Wow!

Have a listen:

Sympathetic Lines of a Father to a Daughter in Bed with Mumps

Periodically, I do a search for this poem we memorized in high school. Today, at last, I found a slightly flawed version of it online, and was able to use that to get a corrected version via Google Books. The poem was published in Baxter’s Explore the Book, in a lesson on Ecclesiastes, although there is no author attribution, it is, indeed, delightfully sarcastically entitled …

Sympathetic Lines of a Father to a Daughter in Bed with Mumps

Thus generations come and go,
From youth to age they wiser grow;
Yet as they pass they all relate
They learn their lessons just too late.
Our junior wisecracks dodge the truth
That dense old parents once were youth,
That present youth must older grow,
Oft haunted by, “I told you so,”
And all their youthful bombast rue
When they as parents suffer too!

When they as parents suffer too,
As with strange certainty they do,
They marvel at the self-sure ways
The next relay of youth displays.
They hear the same old arguments
Arrayed in fresh accoutrements—
The times are different, so are we,
Just let us have our way, and see.
For artful Nature oft repays
Her rebels in ironic ways.

Thus generations, as they go,
Perpetuate the tale of woe.
They will not learn from yesterday,
But choose to learn the harder way—
Experience shall be teacher, please;
And well he teaches—but what fees!
What fees he charges those he schools
Before he makes wise men of fools!
How oft his scholars have confessed,
“Ah yes, poor Dad and Mum knew best!”

Each generation soon is past,
So sure at first, so sad at last.
As ranks of youth successive rise,
Each thinks, “We are supremely wise.”
They each a lot more knowledge know,
And yet a bit less wisdom show.
O sanguine youth, God’s word revere—
Honor your parents while they’re here;
And you will find in later days
What handsome dividends it pays!

Beaten by Children

Each Friday evening I take a class in Mandarin at the Chelmsford Chinese Language School. After that class, I go to chess club, while Naomi studies Chinese Folk Dance. I wrote this at the end of last year.

Carissa is quietly contemplative. She keeps her body movements still, with a level of concentration that seems incongruous with her age. She looks disarming. Yet she plays chess with such aggression that I find myself doing nothing more than react to her constant attacks the entire game, with no chance to implement a winning strategy of my own.

Jeffrey is “all boy.” Every time he makes a good move, his whole body shakes with elation. He laughs with glee every time he puts forth another reveal, or forces me to choose which of two pieces I am going to have eaten by his.

I am 42. They are both just seven years old. In addition to their age, they have one other thing in common: They absolutely destroy me at chess.

But the children weren’t the only ones who learn and improve. I go back every week, and I get better.

Building a Future with LEGO: My Nephew Andrew Roberts

(Excerpt from the Community Advocate Newspaper, Friday, February 3, 2012, article by Sue Wambolt, Contributing Writer.)

Marlborough – Prior to November 2011, Andrew Roberts worked for County House Research performing in-court background checks. By the end of November, though, he retired to pursue his lifelong passion, building Army tanks with LEGOs.

Lego tank and APC, designed and built by Andrew Roberts.
A sample of the many tanks that can be built with Andrew Robert’s LEGO kits.

Roberts’ love for LEGOs began at age 5 when he was given a big bucket of the brightly colored building blocks as a gift, and he has been playing with them ever since. About two years ago, Roberts heard about a man who was building World War II tanks out of LEGOs. Intrigued, he decided to build his own LEGO tank which he then put on eBay – and it sold. He made another and it sold as well, snowballing into something bigger than Roberts could have anticipated.

… Read the full article at the Community Advocate Newspaper site.

Andrew Roberts poses with a Lego M1 tank he designed and built.
Andrew Roberts has made building with LEGOs a full-time business.

To see or purchase any of Andrew’s sets or instructions, visit his eBay store: http://stores.ebay.com/Battle-Brick.

See You Later, “New Dad”

Five years ago my Mom remarried at age 80, several years after the death of my father. “New Dad,” as I generally referred to him, was George Fortini, a sweetheart of a guy who proved (along with Mom) that being crazy-in-love and romantic wasn’t just for young people.

The five years he and Mom had together were marked with many of the typical struggles of octogenarianism, but they took care of each other with love, grace, a large amount of very good-natured ribbing, and constant delight with what God had given them. George demonstrated that God’s grace was just as attainable and life-changing as falling in love still was.

Mom and "New Dad"
Mom and "New Dad," George Fortini

Their story of finding each other has brought a smile to the face of every one of the many people with whom I have shared it. Their obvious, genuine affection has been just as inspiring.

Most of our family attended their wedding. Mom and George were neighbors, and a path had been worn into the front lawn between their two houses. (George refused to move in with Mom until after the ceremony, insisting that he wanted to “do things the right way.”) New Dad was always grateful that our side of the family accepted him as readily as we did.

How could we not?

Late last week, George was admitted to the hospital with some internal bleeding from an ulcer. Efforts to stop it were unsuccessful. He was moved to hospice on the weekend, and passed away quietly and peacefully, while holding his daughter’s hand, at around 10:30 last night.

Although our reunion in Heaven will come, now we feel the sorrow of missing him especially sharply.

How could we not?

From We to Me

An involuntary divorce is, quite frankly, a terrible event. I doubt that will surprise anyone. There are dozens of expected perils and adjustments. It is tragic, and painful beyond belief.

But that pain does, eventually, well and truly end. One adjusts. Balance returns. Life becomes fabulous again.

But occasionally, there are bits of adjustment that are just plain odd or unexpected.

The one of these, with which I struggle constantly, is whether to use the plural first person pronoun, we, to describe events in the past that were performed when there was a we. Do I say, “We always wanted a daughter, and had the name Naomi chosen for many years,” or should it be, “I always wanted …”?

As the time passes, I still find myself waffling on this one. Some weeks I strongly lean toward, “I will describe things as they were,” and other weeks I think, “No! I have to be clear that I’m single. What if some unmarried Nobel-prize-for-science-winning* supermodel missionary gal is eavesdropping on this conversation and mistakenly thinks I am married?”

Anyway, these are the kinds of post-divorce things that nobody talks about.

Cheers.

*No, the Nobel Prize for Economics does not count. (I have standards, you know.)

(And, yes, I know that I am not using parallel structure in the title. The rhyme seemed more appropriate.)

9/11: An Eyewitness Account

Originally published on September 11, 2003. Republishing for the 10th anniversary of this terrible, world-changing event.

Personal background: Michael Frenchman is my “not-father” (an interesting title that I coined with a history of accusation, assumption, adoption, and eventual DNA test), a dear-but-distant friend to our family, and a videographer/producer/diver/etc. He and his wife, Karen, reside on West 27th Street, in New York City. Coincidence brought him very close to the tragedy, and his well-written perspective goes well beyond the sound bites we (especially today) are accustomed to hearing from NYC residents.

From: Michael Frenchman
Sent: Thursday, September 13, 2001 13:23
Subject: Where were you…

Sorry to have been out of touch in the last few days. We still can’t get long distance service and even email is sporadic.

Karen and I arose early on Tuesday morning, preparing to drive to the Staten Island car-ferry and another day working on our rental apartments there. We were running late and began to think we would miss the 8:45 boat. Our best route was straight down 7th Ave. to Vesey St. and then right a block to take the West Side Highway a few blocks further downtown to the ferry entrance at South Ferry. I suppose we turned onto Vesey Street at about 8:44 and onto the West Side Hwy at about 8:45. That corner is the northern base of the World Trade Center. We had the radio on. As we pulled into the ferry area, I heard one brief report that there had been an explosion at the WTC. Looking nearly straight up, we saw smoke and clouds of paper flying towards the east, to Brooklyn.

As soon as our car was loaded on board the ferry, we scrambled to the rear upper deck and watched in amazement as nasty gray-white smoke poured from the northwestern tower looming above us. Someone said they’d just heard that a twin-engine plane had hit the tower. Karen thought it might have been an accident—a small-plane pilot having a heart attack or some such and losing control. But I was convinced it was a deliberate act, by whom, I could only begin to guess.

A few other passengers joined us on that rear deck as the ferry pulled away from the terminal. The skies were crystal clear and blue. A foreign couple gazed in shocked amazement and tried to get a better look through the 25-cent binoculars. They offered us a peek. But the unaided view was clear enough from our close south side vantagepoint. We could see numerous plumes of smoke and tongues of flame pouring from broken out windows. We could not, of course, see the huge and gaping diagonal slash on the opposite north side of the building where the first plane had hit.

The ferry was perhaps a half-mile from the towers when we saw a silver and blue two-engine jetliner flying unusually low and slow up the harbor in-between us and the Statue of Liberty, passing less than a thousand feet to the west of our boat. People who often land at LaGuardia Airport know that the pilots frequently treat the passengers to a run up the Hudson River for a spectacular view of the city. The sentence was only half formed in my mind that the pilot of this jet must have been trying to see and show what was going on at the Trade Center when the actual trajectory of his course became frighteningly clear. As the plane banked slightly to its right, I said aloud “He’s going to hit it!” We stood fixed in horror for the 5 to 10 seconds it took for my prediction to be realized. Set against a perfectly clear and blue sky, our reality transformed into a wide screen movie as each frame presented a new millisecond of action: the jet angling for its final alignment, the glide of the now-irrevocable projectile, the counterclockwise-tilted plane disappearing into the building, a fractional moment of black gashed wall instantanously billowing out one-two-three conjoined black and orange balls of fire and debris, the slap of thunder three or four seconds after the impact.

“We’re under attack,” I said twice.

We watched as long as we could from the open deck until two police officers on board ushered everyone inside, I don’t know why except for some irrational and false sense of control in the midst of the surreal. We watched through the windows as all the other passengers gathered, some crying, some staring in disbelief, some talking excitedly on cell phones, many still all but oblivious to the event and unwitting as to it’s meaning. Karen and I touched the arm of a nearly frantic woman crying on her cell phone as if she were in communication with someone in the doomed buildings. There was nothing for us to say or comprehend.

Once off the ferry, we drove half wild to our apartments and sat with one of our tenants to watch the terrible drama unfold on TV just like the rest of the world. We are now somewhat like those hundreds of people who were in Daley Plaza in Dallas and had a glimpse of the Kennedy motorcade and those awful moments and who then watched that eternal frame replayed and replayed for the past forty years. Our actual memory: the sights, the unwarned, unformed reactions, the smells of the harbor, the brush of the breeze, the heat of the early morning sun, the murmur of the other passengers, the rumble of the ferry engines, the hand of Karen in mine, the raw surprise as the world tipped on a new and unexpected pathway. All this will now blend and merge into the TV images of others’ amateur video, of traffic-helicopter cameras and sky cams on network TV buildings uptown.

I remember that in the plaza in front of where the towers stood was/is a sculpture depicting two pyramids—an allusion to the notion that these structures would last as long as their antecedents at Giza. Like you, we watched them melt to the ground and blow like so much desert dust.

So that is where I was and what I saw on one of those days which we will all always remember. “Where were you when ….?”

Karen and I spent the rest of Tuesday alternating between the TV and our chores at the apartment. What else could we do? We spent the night with friends on Staten Island, obviously unable to return to a besieged and cut-off Manhattan.

By late afternoon yesterday (Weds.), enough access had opened into the City that we were able to wend our way across the Verrazano Bridge, up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, past the prohibited Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridge entrances, onto the Long Island Expressway, past the “show your driver’s license” check point at the Midtown Tunnel and back into a quiet and subdued city. We have traveled a lot this summer. No time away has seemed as long as these 36 hours.

Thanks to everyone who called to see how we were. We were never in any real danger except during the moments we were driving below the base of the now-disappeared twin towers. We’ll never know what flaming debris may have fallen to the street yards behind our passing car. But our personal story is so many orders of magnitude less significant than that of the thousands dead and injured and directly traumatized and so picayune compared to the onrushing and unpredictable consequences of this ugly act that I even hesitate to retell it.

We hope you are all well and that some good ultimately comes out of this tragedy.

Love and peace,
Michael and Karen