Tuesday, July 29, 2008

At Home in Mitford

My friend Lauren Yarger gave me this book, the first in a series of novels about an Episcopal priest, Father Tim, in a small North Carolina town. Lauren loves these stories and I can see why. Author Jan Karon has created a world I’d like to visit, peopled with lovable characters living everyday lives. It’s low-keyed, yet that simplicity is what reflects the beauty of the Incarnation. This book is a treasure.

I would love to have Father Tim as a friend or be part of his parish. He’s a man of strong faith who knows his Bible well, but he’s never preachy. As he says, he likes having scripture on hand to rise up and meet any occasion of the day. He mostly keeps these passages to himself, but we have access to his thought and I loved reading his reaction to any situation. It made me wish I knew scripture that well. One of his favorite verses is Philippians 4:13 -- “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

While Father Tim, who turns 60 in the book, doesn’t go around spouting Bible verses to the town folks or his parishioners, he is quick to call out a scripture reference to one listener -- his dog, Barnabas, since this is the only way to calm down the frisky hound. “That dog knows more scripture than most people,” said his neighbor, Cynthia.

A confirmed bachelor, Father Tim is drawn to Cynthia, a children’s book author new to Mitford, and she to him, but he’s unsure about how to proceed. “’Lord,’ he prayed. ‘I’m not used to this ‘going out’ business. Some might tell me to follow my instincts but I’ve spent so many years trying to follow yours that I’ve nearly lost the hang of following mine. So, thank you for being in on this and handling it to please yourself.’ There! That put the burden squarely on the Lord, he thought.”

I also loved Father Tim’s homespun wisdom about ordinary life. He was always right on target. Here’s his take on getting down to work: “How could he have considered taking Monday off? Monday was the diving board poised over the rest of the week. One walked out on the board, reviewed the situation, planned one’s strategy, bounced a few times to get the feel of things, and then made a clean dive. Without Monday, one simply bombed into the water, belly first, and hoped for the best.”

Karon says she writes “to give readers an extended family, and to applaud the extraordinary beauty of ordinary lives.” She does this beautifully in At Home in Mitford. It’s nice to know I still have a whole series of these books to explore.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A true test

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but to test a man's character give him power."
-- Abraham Lincoln

Friday, July 25, 2008

Victoria Clark

Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark has given us a delightful sampling of different genres of music in her first solo CD, "Fifteen Seconds of Grace.” It’s a CD for the spirit.

She starts with the beautiful hymn, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” This is often thought of as a Quaker hymn, but it’s not. It was written in 1860 by Robert Wadsworth Lowry, a Baptist minister. Like Pete Seeger who popularized the song in the 1960s, Clark omits the Christian wording of the original, substituting the word love for Christ, but listening to her sing it is like listening to a prayer. I love the message -- “No storm can shake my inmost calm/While to that rock I’m clinging;/Since love is Lord of Heav’n and earth,/How can I keep from singing?”

Other selections include music I consider inspiring, although from completely different sources. Good movie and Broadway music always lifts my soul, and that’s just what Clark does when she sings “It Might Be You” from “Tootsie,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” from Hello, Dolly and “I Got Lost in His Arms” from Annie Get Your Gun. She’s also introduced me to a new song to cherish, Jane Kelly Williams’ lovely ballad “Thomas.”

Adding to the beauty of this CD is the impressive group of accompanying musicians, including John and Bucky Pizzarelli, under the direction of Ted Sperling.

In the liner notes, Ms. Clark explains why she included the title song, also by Ms. Williams: “Sometimes we experience these little gifts, moments that can be so short, maybe only 15 seconds, that remind us that we are forgiven, or that we are loved, or that we are lovable -- reminders that keep us humble, and pure, and whole.”

Lovable, pure and whole are just how I would describe Fifteen Seconds of Grace, another CD well worth adding to your collection.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

God's One Liners

1. When praying, don't give God instructions -- just report for duty.

2. We don't change God's messages . . . God's messages change us.

3. When God ordains, God sustains.

4. Most people want to serve God, but only in an advisory position.

5. Those who anger you control you.

6. Worry is the dark room in which negatives can develop.

7. God doesn't call the qualified . . . God qualifies the called.

-- from America Online

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

[title of show]

What starts out as a funny, creative show runs out of steam halfway through and devolves into profanity and vulgar attempts at humor. Too bad writers Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell couldn’t sustain the gimmick because I really thought they had something clever going for awhile.

The gimmick is two guys, Bowen and Bell who play themselves, who want to enter a musical theatre festival, but don’t have a show to submit so they make up one as they go along with the help of their friends Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, who also play themselves. There’s a lot of gay humor, some of which I missed, and a great deal of insider theatre references, of which I may have missed a bit too. The title comes from the first line of the application, which they decide makes as good a name as any. I did like some of the ideas they had for other titles, my favorite being Your Arms Too Short to Write This Show. (If that doesn’t mean anything to you then you’ll probably miss much of the inside humor -- and you might even think I forgot the apostrophe in Arms.)

[title of show] debuted in 2004 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and enjoyed an extended Off-Broadway run at The Vineyard Theatre in 2006. Now it‘s on Broadway, with that journey worked into the plot. The set is basically four odd chairs and the onstage keyboardist, Larry Pressgrove, who is the show’s musical director.

One of the insider names that popped out at me was Mary Stout, with a line about her getting hit by a hot dog cart. While Mary Stout is a veteran performer, she is not well-known enough that the average person in the audience will recognize her name. I did because she sang for us twice at Broadway Blessing and she lives on my street. I didn’t know she had gotten hit by a hot dog cart, but now many people will know.

Even though the show is only 90 minutes (it felt longer), the writing in the second half, which deals with the possible changes to be made for the Broadway run, sounds like material dreamed up to fill time rather than original writing. I did laugh when they discussed substituting the name Al Roker for Mary Stout because it would have more audience recognition. For reasons unfathomable to me, The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization has acquired the stock and amateur rights to the show.

Between the Off-Broadway run and the waiting and hoping to move to Broadway, the creators kept the show alive through the internet series, "The [title of show] Show," which is available for viewing by visiting www.titleofshow.com/toscasts.htm.

[title of show] is at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. For more information visit www.titleofshow.com.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Song of the Builders

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God --
a worthy pastime.

Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside
this way and that way.

How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope
it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.

-- Mary Oliver

Sunday, July 20, 2008


"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
-- Thomas Edison

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tom Fontana

I spent a delightful couple of hours Wednesday afternoon with Tom Fontana, the writer/producer of such hit TV series as “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Oz” and “St. Elsewhere.” He had bid on and won a tour of my beloved Cathedral of St. John the Divine, to be given by the Dean, the Very Rev. Dr. James Kowalski, and to be followed by tea with the Dean. Because of all my showbiz connections and my decades of involvement with the Cathedral, Jim asked me to help host the afternoon.

Tom brought with him his two brothers, Charlie and Paul, his casting director, Alexa Fogel, and Brendan Mason who works with her, and another television superstar, David Simon, who originated the ideas and penned the scripts for “Homicide” and “The Wire.” (The day after the tour it was announced he had been nominated for an Emmy Award for his work on “The Wire.”) I knew David’s name because I knew he had developed his shows in part from his experience as a police reporter at The Baltimore Sun. I had covered that beat full time in January 1978 as a college intern.

Before the tour we sat in the Dean’s bright, spacious office while he presented an overview of the Cathedral’s history. We all also began to chat, and the topic of Baltimore came up. I mentioned that it was my hometown and added that I too had spent time on the police beat at The Sun. At that David swung his face back to look at me in one of those double-take gestures you see in comedies. He said: “What did you say?” He probably has had people tell him they’re from Baltimore, but I’m sure he didn’t expect to take the tour of the Cathedral and meet someone who had also done his old beat. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to turn my experiences into hit TV shows, but I did receive four college credits and write an essay about one of my encounters that was published in The Quill and which I later included in my anthology, Journalism Stories from the Real World, for which Walter Cronkite wrote the introduction. All those late nights covering murders, rapes and robberies weren’t in vain for me either!)

So it turned out the police beat was another talking point with our guests that I couldn’t have foreseen because I didn’t know David was coming. Still, what you have to understand is that while I have knowledge of the Cathedral and know a lot of people in show business, and was even a police reporter in Baltimore, I am the most unlikely person to be entertaining TV powerhouses. You would have to go to a Third World country to find anyone who has watched less television than I have. I don’t have cable, which in Manhattan, because of the difficulty with reception, is the equivalent of not having TV. Which is just fine with me. I only have a TV set so I can do my various fitness DVDs and tapes each morning because fitness is one of my minor religions. I’ve never seen any of the shows that almost everyone regarded as must-see -- “M.A.S.H.”? No. “Steinfeld”? No. “Law and Order”? No. “The West Wing?” No. You get the idea. The answer is no to everything.

Except, that is, for a couple of taped episodes of “Oz” that my friend Diane Synder lent me nearly a decade ago. She thought I would be interested in the nun character, Sister Peter Marie, played by Rita Moreno. I was indeed. Although the series was too violent for me -- I know a show set in prison has to be violent -- I developed respect for Tom Fontana for creating a credible nun character, whom he based in part on his sister who is a nun. All too often nuns are portrayed as dimwits, villains or comic relief, not the vital, intelligent women most of them are. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me say I am an associate member of the Sisters of Charity of New York, which means I haven’t taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but I do try to live the order’s charism, or mission, which is charity.)

I would never have thought that tape I watched all those years ago would come in so handy one day. After the tour, we all went to the Dean’s apartment for tea and more chatting. Tom happened to mention that his sister was a nun and I said how much I liked her character on “Oz,” sounding just like a regular television watcher. We were then able to have a great conversation about that character, his sister and nuns in general, and I thought, Thank you, Diane.

It turned out to be a lovely afternoon. I hope they enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed hosting them. My friend Drew used to say, the bigger the star, the bigger the star. That was certainly true of Tom Fontana. He couldn’t have been more down-to-earth. He might just get me watching television.

Well . . .

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

George Carlin's Views on Aging

Thanks to Dudley Stone for this.

Do you realize that the only time in our lives when we like to get old is when we're kids? If you're less than 10 years old, you're so excited about aging that you think in fractions.

'How old are you?'' I'm four and a half!   'You're never thirty-six and a half. You're four and a half, going on five! That's the key 

You get into your teens, now they can't hold you back. You jump to the next number, or even a few ahead.

'How old are you?' 'I'm  gonna be 16!' You could be 13, but hey, you're gonna be 16! And then the greatest day of your life . . You become 21. Even the words sound like a ceremony . YOU BECOME 21 YESSSS!!!

But then you turn 30. Oooohh, what happened there? Makes you sound like bad milk! He TURNED; we had to throw him out. There's no fun now, you're Just a sour-dumpling. What's wrong? What's changed?

You BECOME 21, you TURN 30, then you're   PUSHING  40. Whoa! Put on the brakes, it's all slipping away. Before you know it, you  REACH  50 and your dreams are gone.

But wait!!!   You MAKE it to 60. You didn't think you would!

So you BECOME  21, TURN 30, PUSH 40, REACH 50 and MAKE it to 60.

You've built up so much speed that you   HIT 70! After that it's a day-by-day thing; you HIT Wednesday!

You   get into your 80's and every day is a complete cycle; you HIT lunch; you TURN 4:30; you REACH bedtime. And it doesn't end there. Into the 90s, you start going backwards; 'I  Was JUST  92.'

Then a strange thing happens. If you make it over 100, you become a little kid again. 'I'm 100 and a half!'
May you all make it to a healthy 100 and a half!!

1..Throw out nonessential numbers. This includes age, weight and height. Let the doctors worry about them. That is why you pay 'them.'

2. Keep only cheerful friends. The grouches pull you down.

3. Keep learning. Learn more about the computer, crafts, gardening, whatever. Never let the brain idle. 'An idle mind is the devil's workshop' And the   devil's   name is   Alzheimer's

4. Enjoy the simple things.

5. Laugh   often, long and loud. Laugh until you gasp for breath.

6. The tears happen.   Endure, grieve, and move on. The only person, who is with us our entire life, is ourselves. Be ALIVE while you are alive.

7. Surround yourself with what you love, whether it's family, pets, keepsakes, music, plants, hobbies, whatever.   Your home is your refuge. 

8. Cherish your health:   If it is good, preserve it. If it is unstable, improve it. If it is beyond what you can improve, get help.

9. Don't take guilt trips. Take a trip to the mall, even to the next county; to a foreign country but NOT to where the guilt is.

10. Tell the people you love that you love them, at every opportunity.

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take,but   by the moments that take our breath away.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Perfect Harmony

I’m happy to announce more good news about Broadway Blessing. The Essentials, a New York-based company that collaboratively creates innovative theatre, will be appearing, along with the previously announced Lynn Redgrave, Boyd Gaines, Project Dance and others.

I caught The Essentials’ a cappella comedy Perfect Harmony last night at the Clurman and loved it. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and I’m not just saying that because they’re going to be singing for us. If I hadn’t liked it, I would just have mentioned that they’re currently appearing Off-Broadway and would have left it at that.

The show is about two a cappella high school groups, one of boys (The Acafellas), the other of girls (The Ladies in Red), and their ups and downs as they prepare for national competition. Each character’s personality is well crafted, so the show isn’t just lovely singing and funny one-liners. The characters are endearing in the way the characters were in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Perfect Harmony, written by Andrew Grosso and The Essentials, premiered in the 2006 New York International Fringe Festival and was extended as part of the Fringe Encore series. You can catch it now for a limited time on Theatre Row -- www.ticketcentral.com.

Then catch The Essentials again as the curtain goes up for the 12th annual Broadway Blessing, 7 p.m. Sept. 8 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street.

Monday, July 14, 2008

When Faced with Sorrow

by Norman Vincent Peale

The most shattering experience that can happen to the human spirit is the death of a loved one. No words, no action, can deaden the overwhelming pain of bereavement. But there are practical means with which it can be faced and lived through with strength and fortitude.

1. See the goodness. Nothing that God ever ordained is bad. Therefore, though it is painful, God’s goodness is nevertheless to be found in sorrow. His goodness is given to your loved one who has gone and it is given to you who remain.

2. Don’t stop living. For your own normal readjustment, continue your normal activities as much as you can. Do not avoid places that you associate with your loved one. Continue living as before. In due course, the knowledge that your loved one would want it that way will comfort you.

3. Don’t view death as loss. Never say, I have lost my wife, my husband, my child, my brother or sister. Remember the words of this poet, “Love can never lose its own.” Your loved one is merely living in another dimension. He or she is never far away. You have not lost your loved one.

4. Think of where your loved one now lives. Your loved one is in our Father’s house of many mansions and is surrounded by love and beauty, and is well and strong and happy. Tell yourself that he or she is all right and content.

5. Find comfort in the promise of a reunion. Remember the old hymn, “In the sweet bye-andbye, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.” Hold onto that as fact. God, who made it possible to meet here, also makes it possible for us to meet over there.

6. Ease others’ grief. Perhaps the best way to heal your own sorrow is to help someone heal theirs. When you give sympathy and love, they come back to you doubled. Make a list of all the sad people you know and try to bring comfort to them. By so doing, you will find amazing comfort and healing for yourself.

7. Express yourself. When sorrow comes, give normal expression to your grief. Do not bottle it up and hold it in. God made tears for a purpose; and that was to relieve us. A tear is agony in solution. Don’t be ashamed of your grief or try to repress it. Cry it out and pray it out. Peace will eventually come.

8. Rely on your faith. Perhaps the greatest healing of sorrow is to be found in your faith. Repeat some of the great words of Jesus Christ. He understands your sorrow. Use comforting Scripture verses such as: “. . . I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (John 11:25,26).

The greatest healing of sorrow is to be found in your faith.

Excerpted from Help Yourself With God’s Help by Norman Vincent Peale. Copyright © Peale Center for Christian Living. 

Saturday, July 12, 2008

You Ought to be in Pictures: Movie Tunes, Act 1

It’s always nice to discover a new cabaret artist. This one had been under my nose all along. Rita Ellis Hammer is a fellow member of the Episcopal Actors’ Guild and the Dutch Treat Club. It was at a Guild party in June that she told me about this CD and kindly sent me a copy.

Listening to it conjures up images of New York nightlife of an earlier era, a sophisticated time of dark, candlelit clubs filled with couples in evening clothes smoking cigarettes, some theatrically using cigarette holders. Think Bette Davis in “All About Eve.”

Rita’s interpretation of songs is that of the worldly woman. Starting with “The Lady is a Tramp,” she gleefully and wickedly belts out 14 classics, giving them just the interpretation I’m sure their creators would love. She makes them gutsy and bluesy, and her “Windmills of Your Mind” is absolutely haunting.

She chose to sing tunes from the movies because they, along with the movies that featured them, were so important to her as a little girl growing up in Brooklyn after World War II. “They were the brilliant songs that let people escape from their lives for a little while,” she writes in her liner notes. “I fantasized that I was being crooned to by Bing, that I was singing with Judy, that Fred was whirling me lightly around the dance floor in his white tie and tails.”

The CD and cabaret appearances mark Rita’s return to show business. She began performing on the radio as a child, billed as Baby Rita. She then went on to a career as an actress in the Golden Age of television before taking many years off to raise her daughter, Elissa.

And now she’s back! Her live performances have drawn raves. Eric Myers of Time Out New York called her the cabaret find of the season and The Free Press picked up on her time-gone-by quality, saying: “Rita Hammer is a classy lady with a big voice. . . you’ll swear you’re listening to a blues shouter in the Delta, a chanteuse in some 1930s nightclub, or a USO dame entertaining the troops from a bandstand.”

While waiting for her next show you can enjoy this spunky singer through her CD. It's available on CD Baby or by calling (212) 724-3706 to order.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Did you know . . ?

Merwin Goldsmith sent these. I hope you enjoy them.

In the 1400's a law was set forth in England that a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. Hence we have “the rule of thumb.”


Many years ago in Scotland, a new game was invented. It was ruled “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden,” and thus the word GOLF entered into the English language.


The first couple to be shown in bed together on prime time TV were Fred and Wilma Flintstone.


Every day more money is printed for Monopoly than the U.S . Treasury.


Men can read smaller print than women can; women can hear better.


It is impossible to lick your elbow.


The State with the highest percentage of people who walk to work: Alaska


The percentage of Africa that is wilderness: 28% (now get this...)


The percentage of North America that is wilderness: 38%


The cost of raising a medium-size dog to the age of eleven: $ 16,400


The average number of people airborne over the U.S. in any given hour: 61,000

------ ------------------------------

The San Francisco Cable cars are the only mobile National Monuments


Each king in a deck of playing cards represents a great king from history:

Spades - King David
Hearts - Charlemagne
Clubs -Alexander, the Great
Diamonds - Julius Caesar


If a statue in the park of a person on a horse has both front legs in the air, the person died in battle. If the horse has one front leg in the air the person died as a result of wounds received in battle. If the horse has all four legs on the ground, the person died of natural causes


Q. Half of all Americans live within 50 miles of what?

A. Their birthplace


Q. Most boat owners name their boats. What is the most popular boat name requested?

A. Obsession


Q. If you were to spell out numbers, how far would you have to go until you would find the letter 'A'?

A. One thousand


Q. What do bulletproof vests, fire escapes, windshield wipers, and laser printers all have in common?

A. All were invented by women.


Q. What is the only food that doesn't spoil?

A. Honey


Q. Which day are there more collect calls than any other day of the year?

A. Father's Day


In Shakespeare's time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence the phrase “goodnight, sleep tight.”


It was the accepted practice in Babylon 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the honey month, which we know today as the honeymoon.


In English pubs, ale is ordered by pints and quarts. In old England, when customers got unruly, the bartender would yell at them, “Mind your pints and quarts, and settle down.”

It's where we get the phrase “mind your P's and Q's.”


Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim, or handle, of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. “Wet your whistle” is the phrase inspired by this practice.


At least 75% of people who read this will try to lick their elbow!



1. You accidentally enter your PIN on the microwave.

2. You haven't played solitaire with real cards in years.

3. You have a list of 15 phone numbers to reach your family of three.

4. You e-mail the person who works at the desk next to you.

5. Your reason for not staying in touch with friends and family is that they don't have e-mail addresses.

6. You pull up in your own driveway and use your cell phone to see if anyone is home to help you carry in the groceries.

7. Every commercial on television has a web site at the bottom of the screen

8. Leaving the house without your cell phone, which you didn't even have the first 20 or 30 (or 60) years of your life, is now a cause for panic and you turn around to go and get it.

10. You get up in the morning and go online before getting your coffee.

11. You start tilting your head sideways to smile. : )

12. You're reading this and nodding and laughing.

13. Even worse, you know exactly to whom you are going to forward this message.

14. You are too busy to notice there was no #9 on this list.

15. You actually scrolled back up to check that there wasn't a #9 on this list.

~~~~~~~~~~~AND FINALLY~~~~~~~~~~~~

NOW U R LAUGHING at yourself.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Boyd Gaines

I’m thrilled to report that four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines will be joining us for this year’s Broadway Blessing, along with the already announced Lynn Redgrave and many others. Hope you’ll be with us too -- 7 p.m. Sept. 8 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

More details to follow, so stay tuned!

A Walking Miracle

I hated to finish this book. Chapter by chapter it was a blessing, so much so that I have added it to my favorite book section on this blog. My faith grew and strengthened as Art Sanborn shared his powerful story of international ministry and a physical healing that would be impossible except by God.

Someone should make a movie of this book, which is framed by two life-altering experiences. In the first chapter Sanborn recounts the frightening afternoon of body surfing that left him a terminal quadriplegic. In the final chapter he writes of the joy nine months later of walking into the office of the doctor who treated him. In between he shares the many miracles he encountered over the years through his work as a missionary in Southeast Asia.

I love reading stories about people with strong faith, but I have never read about anyone for whom miracles were provided on such a regular basis. It was because of these miracles that Sanborn was saved from despair when he was told after his accident that the best he could hope for would be to breathe without a respirator. Having broken the third and fourth cervical vertebrae in his spine, doctors said his injury was as severe as Christopher Reeve’s and that there was no hope of his ever regaining use of his arms or legs.

“I felt my spirit fighting to stay alive,” he writes. “I had seen others die before, and I knew that, when a life hangs by a thread, the patient’s level of determination is often what makes the difference.

“But why fight it? If I survived this ordeal, I would only live to be a full-time burden on my family. And living with a 24-hour-a-day migraine and no ability to move wouldn’t really be living anyway.

“Struggling against these thoughts, I turned my focus toward worshipping Jesus. As I did so, He filled me with the will to persevere. I reflected on Scriptures that I had memorized, and those Scriptures gave light to my present situation. The thought had been nagging me, What can I possibly do in this situation to be productive?

It occurred to me that I could use this time to pray and intercede for others. So I spent much of my waking hours doing just that. I knew I was robbing Satan of any little victory he might have gained from the destruction of my spinal cord.”

And he prayed for himself, for healing, “since the miraculous power of Jesus has no limits.”

Rather than chronicle his medical journey, he flashes back to the extraordinary life he, his wife, Ellen, and their three children, Sean, Michelle and David, lived as missionaries. The stories of miracles are so uplifting -- the mysterious truck and driver appearing on a narrow mountain path to carry them to their destination before vanishing into thin air, the financial needs that are met to the penny, a lost pocketbook returned by someone who didn’t seem to exist -- these are just some of the remarkable incidents in the lives of the Sanborns.

The stories are told to praise God, but Sanborn’s great sense of humor keeps them from sounding preachy. Even his experiences that don’t involve miracles make for compelling reading, amounting to fascinating lessons in cultural differences, in food -- I could not have eaten what he did! -- and languages -- he once told a group of university students that Jesus was crucified on a pair of trousers, and another time trying to lead a prayer to the Almighty God of the Universe he had prayed to “the fat woman on the bicycle.”

In closing, Sanborn writes about the reaction he gets from people to his miraculous healing. Although he could walk, he had no feeling in his legs. When people asked how he could walk under those circumstances, he’d reply: “Because I’m a Christian. I don’t walk by feelings. I walk by faith.”

Once a rehabilitation nurse, after meeting him at church and seeing him as a fully functioning man, accused him of lying, saying that he never could have been a quadriplegic.

“That left me a little rattled at first,” he writes, “but upon reflection, that encounter actually became a source of affirmation. Anyone who has a personal relationship with Jesus knows that He can do all things. He could have completely healing me moments after my accident, but if He had, who would have believed that I had really broken my neck? Now I have MRI films that were taken both before and after my operation, in addition to all the other hospital records that verify my injury.”

He quotes Isaiah 40:31 in explaining his foundation, his ability to continue through adversity, . . . “God has proven to me, time and again, that ‘those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’”

A Walking Miracle is a beautifully written account of a life beautifully lived.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Serving the Spirit

Tennis champion Serena Williams' most powerful on-court weapon is her attitude.

I have to laugh when people say, “Wow, Serena, the way you play, you must have been born with a tennis racket in your hand!” Well, not quite. But close. Back in the late seventies my dad taught himself to play tennis by reading books and watching videos. He needed a practice partner, so he talked my mom into taking it up too. They’d hit the public courts at 5:30 A.M., then practice again after work. Mom stuck with the routine while she was pregnant with me.

Some parents have their babies listen to classical music in the womb. For me, it was the thwock of the tennis ball ricocheting off racket strings, the squeak of sneakers on asphalt. You could say I came into the world with a sense of the rhythm of the game. Still, I had to wait till I was four years old before my dad let me follow my older sister Venus (who’d already started lessons with him) onto a neighborhood ten?nis court in Compton, California. I wasn’t much taller than the net, but did I love to play!

I picked up the game at an early age. I picked up on something else too, something that goes far beyond tennis. The idea—the belief, really—that life is about learning. Not just from school and church, though my parents certainly stressed both. But also from people, from experiences, and, yes, even from losing.

You learn from the get-go when you’re the youngest in a big family, like I am. I had my older sisters—Yetunde, Isha, Lyndrea and Venus—as examples. Especially Venus, who’s just 15 months older than me. I copied how she dressed, how she wore her hair, how she talked. I wanted to do everything Venus did.

Our mom told me that even though God makes us unique and different, he loves us all exactly the same. It’s how true you are to yourself that matters. It wasn’t until 1999, when I was 18, that the truth of that statement dawned on me. Venus and I had the same coach (our dad), went to the same tennis school in Florida and practiced together. But our games didn’t turn out the same. Venus is a strategist, rallying from the baseline, waiting for the right moment to rip a passing shot out of her opponent’s reach. Me, I’m more aggressive. I like to come to the net and volley, take charge and dominate the match, especially with my two-handed backhand. Different styles of play, yet as I found out, both do the job. In tennis the most prestigious tournaments are the four Grand Slams. I won my first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in September, and the next summer Venus won her first, at Wimbledon.

Winning was amazing! But long after the glow of victory faded, the deeper spiritual lesson stayed with me—that like every one of us on this earth, I’m meant to become my own person, make the most of the unique gifts God has blessed me with. I’m still having fun discovering what they are.

Losing, that’s another story. I don’t like to lose—at anything. (Just ask my sisters about the singing contests we used to have.) Yet I’ve grown most not from victories, but setbacks. If winning is God’s reward, then losing is how he teaches us.

Take the time I hurt my wrist in 1997, my debut year on the pro tennis tour. (I was 16.) In my second event, I beat two top-10 ranked players and made it to the semifinals before I got beat. Nowhere to go but up, I thought. Later that month I was skateboarding and bam, total wipeout! I stuck my left arm out to break my fall. Jammed my wrist. Badly. I’m right-handed, so it wasn’t the worst injury, but I was seriously dejected because I couldn’t hit my two-handed backhand (to say nothing of the trouble I got into with Mom and Dad because I’d skipped school to go boarding).

“Why don’t you make the pain your gain?” Venus said. “Work on your forehand.” My sister’s advice was totally on target. I focused on my forehand like never before, working on every element from my stance to my follow-through. By the time my left wrist healed, my forehand drive was ferocious. That improved my entire game.

The biggest lift? It came from a devastating loss in the quarterfinals of the 2000 U.S. Open. My opponent: Lindsay Davenport, No. 2 seed. I was the defending champ and I wasn’t about to give up my title without a fight. We were tied in the first set at 4–4, neither of us able to break the other’s serve. The ninth game, I served. Lindsay pushed me to a break point. I hit a forehand long, past the baseline. Lindsay was up, 5–4. Dumb. How could you lose that game? I smacked my racket against the court. I knew it was unsportsmanlike, but I was just so frustrated.

The negative thoughts kept coming at me. The next thing I knew Lindsay was serving for the set. I lunged, hit a backhand. Right into the net. Lindsay won the set, 6–4. That time I smacked my racket on the court so hard the frame cracked. I had to grab a new racket out of my bag. Not that it helped. I fell apart, overhitting, complaining about calls, throwing my racket. I lost the second set, 2–6, and the match.

In the locker room, I went over the match point by point. I’d made 27 unforced errors. That’s like giving your opponent 27 points. I lost the match because I lost my composure. I expended so much energy being negative I didn’t have anything left to put into winning. Worst of all, with my bad behavior I hadn’t shown respect for my opponent, for the game or for the ability God gave me. I’d blown it. Totally.

The only victory would come in learning. No more whining about bad calls. No more dwelling on my mistakes and getting down on myself. It’s hard enough to beat these women on the pro tour. I didn’t need to fight against myself too. Stay positive. My most powerful weapon on the court is my attitude.

I added another weapon to my game—prayer, which is as sure as my two-handed backhand. One rule in tennis is that every other game you switch ends of the court with your opponent. Every changeover, I bow my head, close my eyes. And I pray, Help me stay strong out here. Help me stay calm and do my best. Thank you, Lord.

I don’t pray to win. Not that I don’t want to or try to. But I know now a loss can be a gift. A chance to grow. Losing has taught me to be a better winner and a better person, one who is always looking for opportunities to learn. And in life, just like in tennis, that’s how you go forward.

This essay by Serena Williams appeared in Guideposts magazine. Read more at serenawilliams.com.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Daniel McDonald

I didn’t know Daniel McDonald, but after listening to his CD and reading the liner notes I feel I do and that I like him. I’m sorry that now I never will get the chance to know him. Daniel McDonald died in February 2007 at the age of 46 of brain cancer. He recorded True Love as a legacy to his wife, Mujah Maraini-Melehi, and their two young children, Fosco and Ondina. It is lovely and heartbreaking at the same time.

Among the Broadway shows the handsome actor starred in were Steel Pier and High Society. He began recording this CD right after the terminal diagnosis, while he still had the energy. Finishing was not easy; he had to be pushed into the studio in his wheelchair to record his last song, “Wonderful World.”

Most of the selections are American songbook staples -- Berlin, Gershwin and Porter -- but he included two lovely Kander and Ebb numbers -- “First You Dream” and “Second Chance” -- accompanied by John Kander himself. He also has some special voices backing him up -- the children, who were 6 and 3 at his death, can be heard laughing and singing on a couple of selections and Mujah sings “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” with him.

Mujah has written notes accompanying each song so the children will get to know their father through them. About her duet with her husband, she writes: “We wanted you to hear our voices together so that you can hear how much love there was between us. And yes, the melody does linger on.” Another explanation, for “Hit the Road to Dreamland,” is touching: “When you were babies we used to watch an HBO special called ‘Good Night Moon’ in which Tony Bennett sang this song as a lullaby. Daddy used to sing it to you as you fell asleep, and he wanted to be sure you would keep it forever.”

The CD is dedicated to “any child who has ever had to say goodbye to their Mommy or Daddy too soon, and to anyone who has had to let go of their mate, their love -- their dream.” It is filled with moving black and white and color photos of Daniel with Mujah, Fosco and Ondina, taken by Rob and Lisa Howard between the time Daniel was diagnosed and his surgery.

Not only is the CD a gift to his family and friends -- and all of us who will get to know him through it -- it is a gift to other families whose lives will be shattered by a cancer diagnosis. Proceeds go to Team Continuum because, as Mujah writes, “. . . when someone gets diagnosed with cancer it does not only affect the family emotionally, it disrupts it financially with no end in sight. . . We wanted to give back to Team Continuum because I know where the money raised is going: It’s going to the families when they need it most. Not the the labs, not to the doctors -- to the families. We were one of those families.”

It is so sad that they had to be one of those families, but it’s a blessing to experience this joyful celebration of love. I hope the CD will be ordered far and wide, and that its melody will always linger on.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Seeing-eye cat

Dudley Stone sent me this touching account by Terry Burns:

“Cashew, my 14-year-old yellow Lab, is blind and deaf. Her best friend is Libby, 7, her seeing-eye cat. Libby steers Cashew away from obstacles and leads her to her food. Every night she sleeps next to her. The only time they're apart is when we take Cashew out for a walk. Without this cat, we know Cashew would be lost and very, very lonely indeed. It’s amazing but true: This is one animal who knows what needs to be done and does it day in and day out for her friend.”

Act now

"You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson~