Sunday, April 12, 2020

Cuaresma, Cuarentena

In Spanish, the word for Lent is Cuaresma. The word for quarantine is cuarentena. But the word cuarentena is also a rarely-used synonym for Lent. This year, during Lent, the world itself made a sacrifice of change and isolation. May we, like Jesus, come out of our desert stronger, with lessons learned.

Las palabras cuaresma y cuarentena tienen una misma raíz. Pero cuarentena es también un sinónomo poco usado de Cuaresma. Este año, durante la Cuaresma, el mundo mismo ha hecho un sacrificio de cambio y aislamiento. Esperemos que, como Jesús, salgamos de nuestro desierto más fuertes, con lecciones aprendidas. 



De la ceniza de
tu miércoles
no queda huella.
La cuaresma está
por terminar.
Abraza tu desierto.
El ruido, déjalo atrás.
Entra al silencio
de esta santa cuarentena
hasta que lo único
que queda es respirar.
Tu viernes
se vestirá de luto; 
el sábado de
gloria y confusión.
Pero el domingo renacerá
en destellada Luz
que convertirá
en catedral
tu solitario balcón.

-cs 041120

(Loose translation into English)


Of your Wednesday ash
not a trace is left.
The Lenten season is
coming to a close.
Embrace your desert.
Leave the noise behind.
Come into the silence
of this holy quarantine
until all that you can do
is breathe.
Your Friday
will dress itself in mourning;
Saturday in turmoil 
and in glory.
But Sunday will be born anew
in blazing Light 
creating a cathedral
of your lonely balcony. 

-cs 041120

Saturday, April 20, 2019

And the rains came

the rains came down
and we huddled,
cradling our pain and confusion

this was not the promise.

expectations drowned in mud,
reality in lockstep marching
without malice
without mercy,
a red line slowly strangling
the world.

when all was lost,
when we were lost,
that’s when the rains came down.

and the Earth thundered.
the Heavens split,
Holy Fire engulfed
a man-made Tree,
leaving only bitter Ash

cleansing ash
mixed in mortal silence
as the Living Rains came down. 

-cs Ó041919

Thursday, March 28, 2019

On Keys and Compliments

It was 1983. I was working in the international sales department of a manufacturing company, a job landed two months earlier thanks only to my command of Spanish. The environment was nothing like that of my last full-time employer (a leading law firm in Ecuador).  The rules and jargon of the U.S. labor culture still perplexed me.

At that particular moment, I was interrupting an engineer. Spreading a schematic out on his desk, I pointed to an error in the design. Not that I knew exactly where the error was; I just gestured vaguely in the direction my boss had.

The unhappy engineer made some notes for himself. I reached past him to pick up the schematic. All of a sudden, a smile softened his face and he murmured,  “Someone sure smells good!”

Then, with a horrified look on his face, he stared up at me and blurted, “Oh, but it isn’t you!”

(I later learned that he had been reprimanded for inappropriate comments made to female colleagues. As for me, I’ve giggled over his compliment-backsie for years.)

Compliments. Powerful little bits of encouragement that we’re often too unmindful to give. There’s a juvenile judge in whose court I interpret from time to time. Watching her interact with the teens that file nervously past her bench is a study in the power of compliments. 

One young offender walked forward this week in his Sunday best. The judge smiled and said, “Thank you for dressing so respectfully for court. That’s a great tie.”

“Thank you,” he mumbled in his thirteen-year-old voice (part man, part boy, part yodeler), and stood a little taller than before.

She does this with all the kids in one way or another.  

I was thinking about that when I left the courthouse. Thinking about how easy it isespecially on social mediato criticize those who are too young, too old, too different or just don’t seem to have a handle on life, overlooking the chances to build someone up. 

While lost in thought, I pulled up to the post office to check the day’s mail. The battery has gone out on my key fob and I haven’t found my teeny little screwdriver yet, so I’ve been locking the car manually. As I walked to the post office door I shifted the keys in my hand. The key ring felt light. And small.

The car key was missing.

I retraced my steps. Nothing on the ground. But when I peered through the window of my car, there it was: my key, lying neatly in plain view. The ring that attached it to the rest, the ring that I kept meaning to replace, was flimsy and had come loose from the rest of my keys.

Stepping inside the post office, I called roadside assistance. Just telling the operator that I’d locked myself out of the car apparently wasn’t enough. I felt compelled to explain about the flimsy ring, and the dead battery, and how this hadn't happened in a long time, and how I’d make sure to take care of it all right away. She listened patiently, an impromptu Mother Confessor who tried to assure me that I had no reason to feel dumb even though we both knew differently.

Fifteen minutes later, a man in a roadside assistance car pulled up beside me. About three minutes after that, my door was open and I could sheepishly return to normal life.

As he reached past me to pick up his logbook, my rescuer’s face eased into a smile. “Someone sure smells good,” he said. “That perfume is perfect for you!” 

Then he got in his car and drove away, leaving me just a little bit taller.  

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