Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Borders and a New Year's Prayer

I’ve been thinking a lot about borders, current events being what they are. 

At a Rio Grande summit last month where I served as the interpreter, someone made the simple but profound observation that you cannot see the border in the river. The image gripped me. 

It got me to thinking about water and baptism and new life and how we all have borders in our lives because change is one of those inevitable things, like death, taxes and the pull of gravity on body parts. 

I don’t know about you, but when I plan a journey I start with the destination and work backwards. If there is no To, there can be no From, and I find myself forever parked at the starting line, wondering where to set my sails.* 

Of course, most of my journeys happen without planning. I pin my hopes or expectations or fears on a distant point and somewhere along the way realize that I’m headed there, gathering experiences (and pounds and wrinkles) as I go. Somewhere along the way, I reach a border between what was and what will be. 

The thing is, whether the journey is planned or (more commonly) accidental, I tend to forget that after reaching the border, after I rest and take a breath, I will inevitably – there’s that word again – head for yet another border. Another invisible line between what was and is, and what will be. 

And while I may not see it, the experience is always a baptism. Each border always brings a death and rebirth of sorts.

I think about things that drive people from their physical homes and homelands, and those that drive us from our metaphorical ones.

I think about the fears, dreams, or needs that push and pull us into the journey and how they trigger fear or hope in others along the way, others who are then pushed or pulled into their own journeys, carried to their own borders, facing their own invisible lines.

And in the crisscross of our paths and borderlines, I find sketched the face of our common humanity.

So here’s my prayer for 2019: whether we look at the exhausted faces of refugees fleeing conditions most of us cannot imagine, or the careworn faces of our neighbors whose struggles we cannot see, may we all extend a little mercy and remember the grace we have been given.  

*Metaphors may be unapologetically mixed, shaken or stirred this New Year’s Day.

© 2019 Carol Shaw

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Dignity and a Runny Nose

I don't usually post in such quick succession, but I don't usually get attacked by babies in court, either.

Today I had a rare interpreting assignment - rare, in that I rarely accept them. My practice is primarily translation and I like sitting in my little corner office (formerly my son's bedroom), surrounded by dictionaries and other resources. Instrumental music streams from Pandora as strings of words and phrases populate my mind. I sift through them, weighing, sometimes researching, perpetually seeking the right ones for the text before me.

It's a zen place, is my office. It's comfortable and comforting. But every so often I exchange it for the rapid-fire pace of interpretation. Change is good exercise for mind and soul, so from time to time I put my interpreting license to good use and let my brain run a different kind of obstacle course.

Off come the sweatpants and t-shirt, and out of the closet comes the suit and closed-toe shoes. I use a small briefcase. I even put on a little makeup to boost my professional appearance.

And that brings us to today.

There was only one case on the docket that required an interpreter. The offender was a juvenile. She was accompanied by both her mother and her child, a cherub with rosy cheeks and bouncy curls. Since Grandma was both Mom's guardian and Baby’s sitter, the judge allowed us all to approach the bench.

I interpret in court so rarely that I no longer have equipment. That's a mistake. As I stepped up slightly behind Grandma and began to interpret simultaneously, Baby reared back in shock. Those sparkling eyes squeezed almost shut. "NO!" she yelled, perceiving in me some kind of threat. The judge glanced over. Grandma tried offering a bottle, which promptly flew through the air, narrowly missing me. The judge didn't stop, so neither did I.

"No, no, no!" Baby insisted, launching her pacifier at me. Every time I got too close to her grandmother the tears began to flow. Little snot bubbles formed. Grandma shifted her to the other hip. I shifted to the other side of Grandma, trying to keep distance between me and Baby without interfering with Mom and the judge.

Then Baby’s fists balled up and she alternated between trying to hit me and trying to push me away.

Grandma turned from one side to the other, alternately trying to pacify her and keep her away from me.

I alternately dodged baby fists and feet and tried to keep access to Grandma's ear.

I can only imagine the show we were giving the folks in the gallery.

The short hearing was eventually over. Mom, Grandma and Baby left. The judge, who had been focused on Mom but couldn't help catching the action in her peripheral vision, stared at me - I couldn't tell whether in amazement or shock. Finally she said, "What was THAT?"

I wanted to say, "The death of my dignity, Your Honor." 

Instead, I asked for a signature on my time sheet and left. But on my way out of the courthouse I found the answer.

Baby was sitting on a bench with Grandma. As soon as she saw me, she squealed with laughter and reached for me, eyes sparkling.

So what was that, Your Honor? 

Just a little reminder to step out of my world from time to time. To forgive and forget. Maybe be a bit more flexible sometimes.

Just a little Reminder with bouncy curls and a runny nose.

Ó Carol Shaw 2018

Sunday, October 14, 2018

When No One Seems to Listen

Friend Murphy, ever deaf to my pleas, has partnered with technology and upped our dysfunctional game. I now stand accused of not being who I say I am.

One of my Facebook accounts was disabled for “pretending to be someone else”. My account (and by extension, I) was deemed bogus. Without due process or hearing, I was abruptly ejected from that back-fence-around-the-world that I enjoy so much.

The initial shock morphed into something akin to loss, or maybe a form of existential crisis. It felt like my friends were all in the local hangout together because they were the cool kids who knew the secret code, and I - well, I was not. I was stuck on the outside, knocking on the door and looking for a keyhole.

Soon, the Five Stages of Facebook Loss set in.

A simple mistake, I thought. I have - sorry, had - two accounts. One for family and old friends; the other for colleagues, business friends, and my professional groups. Someone must have seen my picture on both pages and decided one was Me and the other was Not Me.

So I wrote to The Facebook Team (as the notice was signed) and explained the situation. 

The next morning, I received an email from Adele Gisell at Facebook. They could do nothing until I submitted the correct documentation. I sent a copy of my license to Ms. Gisell and moved into the next step.

Who did this to me? Who jumped to that conclusion and why didn't they talk to me first? Did I leave anyone mid-conversation? Did they now think I didn't care? Life was being shared and I wasn’t part of it. Did they miss me?

An email from Donnatella Oceans at Facebook dropped into my box. It was identical to the email received earlier. I submitted a copy of my passport (duly redacted) and moved on.

Facebook said that a friend had reported me as an imposter. Some friend! And what's with the form letters, Facebook? And those were my photographs and memories and conversations with old friends. Mine, Facebook, not yours. At least give a little warning!

The next email, this time from Dezfara H'ghar, was identical to the previous emails and confirmed my suspicion that I was dealing with algorithms, not people. There was no human intelligence examining my documents; just a program, a two-dimensional robot designed to scan for certain patterns. The irony of a pretend customer service agent telling me that I was pretend was not lost on me.

If you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em, the saying goes. In their lack of sentience, the programs could only search for patterns. So patterns they would have. For the disabled Facebook account I had used my original surname and my current one in order to be more easily identified by old friends; none of my legitimate documents contain that set of names. I would provide them with fake documents to beat a charge of being fake myself.

The following morning, I received an email (this time signed Blue Dela Cruz). It was the same form letter as before. Apparently, they can recognize fake documents but not real ones.

Today, I quit what is arguably an excellent metaphor for our current political times. Despite all the busy back-and-forth, no one is accepting solutions that work for all parties. Questions are asked with little to no attempt to understand the problem. All responses are considered fake, regardless of any truth they may contain.

So today I quit trying to move the massive machine.

I'm taking action: not against but forward. Getting back in the game. Reestablishing connections. Reentering the social exchange. Because unless we make the effort ourselves, nothing happens.

And while it may feel like no one is ever really listening, I know that isn't true.


Murphy is always listening.

Ó Carol Shaw 2018

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The tooth about Murphy

I woke up to the sound of the alarm. Something felt off, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. My day didn’t normally start for another hour at least, but I had to be dressed and across town soon, so I stumbled to the bathroom to splash water on my face.

My jaw was a little sore. I’d been clenching my teeth. Maybe a smile would relax my muscles, help me feel more awake. So I smiled. In the mirror, a gap-toothed grin to rival that of any 6-year-old beamed back at me.

Sometime in the night, a crown had come off one of my front teeth.

I quickly searched around the bed. No crown. And no time to look any further. I had to get ready. In less than 30 minutes, my friend Charo was picking me up for an event we were attending. An event at which I was speaking.

And there I was, looking like a character from Lil’ Abner. Suddenly, I was Very Wide Awake.

Murphy, it seemed, had just upped his game.

Murphy and I have a long-standing relationship. He lurks, just out of sight, and little things go wrong. Or big things. A piece of software crashes just before a deadline. My neighbor’s cottonwood drops branches into my yard instead of theirs. And my car had just been declared un-roadworthy. That meant I’d have to take the bus to get to my out-of-town conference the next day.

Over the years, it’s become almost a game. How well can I roll with the punches? How quickly can I think of Plan B? or C? We’re cat and mouse sometimes, Murphy and me, and he keeps me on my toes.

As I stared in the mirror, my mind raced. This was a low blow, even for Murphy. Deep down, I have a stubborn streak of vain insecurity. I’d even gotten a fresh mani-pedi the day before to boost my confidence for the workshop. It seemed doubtful that little hoop earrings would distract much from the awkward gap in my mouth. Plans B, C and D were jettisoned as my mind raced and I got ready on auto pilot. Time to roll with the punches.

In the car, I told Charo what had happened. We laughed together and she told me to relax. My friends are a great counterbalance to Murphy. 

All through the other speakers’ presentations I used a little Mona Lisa smile, but my session was coming up right after lunch, the last one of the day.   

Over the years, I’ve come to see Murphy as God’s little civil servant. We all have a Murphy, of course, but my anthropomorphic version has faded red hair and a bristly little mustache. He carries a clipboard. There’s probably a baloney sandwich in his lunchbox.

His job is to make sure that I never get too comfortable or take too much for granted. And he’s very good at his job. He’s made me step out of my comfort zone, go on accidental adventures, and surprised me with perspective. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Murphy – or at least, be a little more at ease with his lurking presence. And here he was again. Who needs a comfort zone anyway?

After lunch, I walked to the front of the room. I looked out at the waiting attendees.

I told them about getting a mani-pedi because I always get a little nervous, and I flashed my bright red fingernails to make my point. I told them that God has a sense of humor and He has ways of making sure that I never take myself too seriously.

And then I flashed the biggest grin I could muster…

The next day, still congratulating myself for successfully rolling with Murphy’s latest punch, I called my dentist. They managed to squeeze me in for a temporary crown.

As I sat in the dentist’s chair, watching the minutes tick by on the clock, I realized something else.

I may have dealt with Murphy yesterday, and I may have made sure that I would not be toothless at the conference, but he had still won. In my effort to fix my dental woes, I had lost track of time. 

My bus to Austin had just left without me.

Well played, Murphy. Well played.

Ó Carol Shaw 2018

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

July 4

Sometimes we get binary and talk about an aisle with opposite sides, forgetting that for an aisle to exist everyone must sit in a single room.

Sometimes we talk about points on a spectrum, but points only form a spectrum in relationship to each other. 

Maybe it's something else - something bigger.

Maybe it's a piece of fabric,  
something big and broad  
that stretches up and down and across
and even diagonally.
Something with an underlying theme
to the lines and corners
and range of hues. 

Something like a few stars
and a few bars,
and a few colors,
and when you put them all together,
they make a theme that no single component
can ever create on its own;

and maybe you on your straight red line
and me on the tip of an angle -
maybe we need a day
to remember that
without you on your bar
and me on my star, 

we would just be
isolated points on a nebulous spectrum
or empty chairs in a broken room.

-cs 070418

Sunday, May 20, 2018

On Labels and Expectations

A couple of months ago I took my car to a local shop to have some work done. The attendant asked for my phone number in order to look me up in their computer system.
“Jolly Carol?” he asked.
“What?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly.
“Jolly Carol. That’s you, right?” and he showed me the screen. It seemed that someone, many years ago, had mis-entered my late husband’s name into their system. “John” had somehow morphed into “Jolly”. Later, they added my name and just like that, I was Jolly Carol Shaw.
The attendant then sat down to regale me with jokes and stories about his grandchildren. What’s more, he expected me to laugh. I was, after all, Jolly.
Last Friday, I found myself in the hospital emergency room. My foot, propped up in front of me, looked like an overstuffed empanada. I wish I could say I injured myself doing something heroic, like saving a puppy, but no. The truth is, late Thursday night I stepped on my own shoe while packing, returning from a quick trip. My foot (still not healed from an earlier sprain) exploded in pain. In the morning, I had to ask for wheelchair assistance at the airport. And by the time my flight landed, my foot was an angry, swollen mess and my son made me go to the ER.
As we sat there chatting, my son and I, my nurse came up and introduced himself. We cracked a couple of jokes. The doctor ordered some tests and I was wheeled down the hall to rule out a DVT (a precaution after flying-while-injured). The ultrasound technician made a lighthearted comment and I laughed. She said, “I heard you were fun!”
Fun. A new label had preceded me, and she was prepared to treat me accordingly.
We shared a few chuckles. The x-ray tech came to cart me away and we laughed together. Eventually, I was deposited back in the hallway with my son. The doctor came over, handed me some papers and told me that it was a bad sprain; he had prescribed pain medication, there was no other damage, I should go home and stay off my foot for several days.
My son and I looked at each other. We both needed lunch. I was loopy from little sleep and lots of pain. And I needed the bathroom. So he wheeled me toward the door. We passed one bathroom, but my addled brain said, “No, that’s for patients,” and in my mind I was not a patient. So I asked him to take me to the waiting area where I could easily hobble into the bathroom.
When I came back out, I found my son explaining to someone from the hospital that no, we really weren’t running away. The man eyed me with suspicion. Then he gruffly ordered us back to our spot in the hall until properly released. 
Back inside the ER inner sanctum, they processed me for discharge. We joked about my slow-speed “escape”. We came up with new labels: Wheelchair Fugitive, Granny on the Lam, and Hotfoot Shaw all made the cut.  
But I couldn’t help thinking. We humans tend to treat others based on our own expectations. We often see what we expect to see. 
So, what if we all expected to see in others the image of God?
Would it change how we treat them?
And if it changed how we treat them, would it change their response? 
Would it change the world around us?
I don’t know about you, but I want to find out. Just let me grab my cane and orthopedic boot.  

Ó Carol Shaw 2018

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Of Cheese and Investment

Some people invest in Wall Street. I, apparently, invest in cheese.

Having recently admitted to my friend Ellen that I was in serious danger of becoming a card-carrying hermit, and recognizing my need to devote more time to my friendships, I decided this week to join a group of fellow translators and interpreters for a purely social event. Some of these women I’ve known for years. Some I’d never met. But they were coming together on Saturday morning for brunch, and I was going to join them.

I chose the safe option and offered to take a cheese tray: dash in to the store, grab a tray at the deli and check out – 10 minutes, tops. That was the plan.

But the store was out of cheese trays. I quickly weighed my options: wait in line here or race to the other store a 1/4-mile away.  The time seemed better invested staying put, so I joined the line at the deli counter.

We inched forward. The lone deli worker greeted her regulars as she filled tubs with salads and sliced ham. Finally, it was my turn.

That was when Deli Lady politely said, “Just a moment,” and disappeared.

I looked at the time again. Surely she was coming back soon… right? I re-calculated my options and the time involved and decided it was still probably better to stay.

A couple of minutes later, Deli Lady was back.

“I need a cheese tray, please,” I said, trying not to sound anxious.

“We’re out,” she answered. I refrained from pointing out that their lack of prepared trays was precisely why I was in line there, and not at the checkout. 

Could she make a tray?  She thought about it a moment, then said yes.  She asked how big I wanted it: small, medium or large. Unsure of just what those meant, I began gesturing, measuring random sizes in the air.

She didn’t blink.

Eventually I added the words “ten to fifteen people” (while still waving my hands around). This got a nod from Deli Lady and she once again disappeared. I once again began weighing my options. Did I have the time to wait for her to make a tray? She seemed to be working at I-don’t-want-to-be-here speed. Should I leave and take my chances elsewhere?


We know how valuable it is. When we invest it, we are so loathe to pull the plug.

And so I waited, and eventually Deli Lady could be seen sorting through trays in the back room. She found what she obviously believed to be the right size and wandered back. It looked a little big to me, but my investment of time seemed about to pay off so I shut my mouth.

Cheese began to fall in thick slabs from the slicer. She cubed it with an enormous knife.  A small mountain of cheese began to grow on the tray, all in slow motion.

The minutes ticked by as she found the right lid.  More, as she keyed in the prices. My investment in cheese was quantified. She secured the lid, handed me the tray and drawled, “have a nice day,” as I made a mad dash for the checkout line.

Total time: 45 minutes.

As I drove across the Metroplex, I pondered our odd relationship with time. We waste time, forget time, lose track of time and sometimes think we have all the time in the world.

But the moment we become conscious of our investment, time becomes a thing of immeasurable value for which we fight.

We finish poorly-written books in order to not invalidate the time spent finding out just how bad they really are. We back the same team or attend the same church year after year because we’ve always done so. We defend relationships, heroes and ideals (sometimes beyond their expiration dates) because of the time we have invested up to that point.

As I pulled up to our hostess’ house and parked, I thought of the group of women gathered inside. Friends, acquaintances, strangers – all of them people in whom I was about to invest a little time.

Then I hoisted my tray and marched up to the door. Today, my investment in friendship would be conscious – and it would come with cheese.