I’ll Be There

The beginner choir was singing the opening notes to “I’ll Be There” when I finally tuned in to the middle school choir concert. I was there to see my daughter perform, in the advanced choir. Her songs would be last in the program. I had a long wait. And this is what made is hard to settle into my seat and just be where I was. I was waiting for everything else to be over. Besides, it was hot, we were in a public school auditorium and I could not get my camera to work for some reason…so I was frustrated. But, something about the opening strains of this song caught my attention, and I settled in. Almost two entire groups into the music program, and I was finally settling in.

You and I must make a pact

We must bring salvation back

Where there is love

I’ll be there.

Suddenly, I saw the faces of these little girls. One little girl had a sad hopeful look on her face. One shuffled her feet and was clearly searching through a wall of bright lights for a face in the audience. One of them swayed to the music as if she was really feeling what she was singing. All of them beamed. All of them wanted to be there. All of them were proud, and deserved to be.

Johnston is a performing arts magnet school in the Houston Independent School District. Kids from all over the district audition to get into the school. We did not move into the district in time for Haley to audition the year we moved into town, so we specifically found a house located within the zone of this school so that an audition would not be necessary. The school is that good…and that good for the creative students that go here. Artists, musicians, dancers, actors and singers…they have found the school and made their way here.

For many of them, their talent is their ticket out of a lower performing school within the district. The magnet program rewards those with the talent AND the willingness to work hard.

I watched every second of the rest of the performance. I watched these kids who innocently sang as the state cuts almost 200 million in funding from our district this year alone. The decision to make these drastic cuts happened very recently, but the impact is already being felt. The stable foundation underneath them is shaking and none of them can feel it yet. Not yet. But their parents do. We are watching. Some of us are figuring out what to do with our kids if the school system just caves in on itself. For some of the parents of these kids, there are no other options.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the kids of Nepal. Specifically, how this country, in this moment, has decisions to make about what their priorities are. The people of Nepal have suffered for generations for the opportunity to make decisions that are only recently theirs to make. In this moment, they can choose to build a future for their country that moves it into something inspiring to generations to come, as well as to the rest of the world. I am hopeful that they are not looking to us for that answer.

Tonight, I am thinking about the decisions our country is making about what is expendable and what is not. Tonight, I am looking into the faces of these children, children who are in school because we profess to believe that we cannot be a strong nation unless all of our children have equal access to basic education. Tonight, I wish there was some way to help every politician in the country see the hope I see in these faces. I want the hope in these faces to live…I want this hope to form the foundation for our future. As I go to sleep tonight, I will be praying for a shift in our perception that will wake us up and cause us to prioritize differently, because the children of Houston are not the only ones considered expendable by their governments. The politicians in this country need to all be held accountable for our future…and not just the period of time between now and our next election.



sometimes, I play

I am sitting on a wooden work table in a 100 year old mattress factory, listening to a singer songwriter play his original music to this attentive, mellow crowd. People are scattered around the room in chairs placed in front of and around antique industrial sewing machines that used to sew mattresses and now sew bags. The next room is still set up for making mattresses. Frames, drying racks, compression boxes…all look as if someone, just this second, walked away from using them. There are even downy feathers in the wire egg baskets next to the work stations.
Twinkle lights look carelessly thrown up around the rafters, illuminating only enough as the sun sets for me to make out the other faces in the room. We watch the performer sing in front of a backdrop of colorful flags and blankets thrown onto numerous coat hooks behind him. He is lit by a single living room lamp. We are in a still life.

Only Cheryl could have pulled this off…such accidental looking perfection. She labored dearly to make this happen, but it would be impossible to pinpoint precisely what it was that she labored over. Every detail looks that unstudied, a complete lack of fussiness that is impossible given how perfect it all is. As Will Johnson (lead singer of Centro-Matic) sings about dreaming (I’m not making this up), I look over to see her casually perched in a deep window ledge with Paul and Zoe (her truly adorable husband and magical daughter). It’s a picture, of course, but it will not be taken tonight. Because the genius of Cheryl is that she is not trying to look like this, she just does. Her focus is to make magic. And tonight, with soft winds blowing wind through open windows and the occasionally train whistle interrupting the show, she succeeds.

“This is the first time I’ve played a mattress factory.”

Will speaks softly between songs. He is not miked. There is no need. We are a very small, sold out show. He talks and plays and then talks some more. Mostly we just soak him in with everything else. He is so perfectly placed here. He will always be associated with that night for me. And this is a good thing.

Cheryl runs her business from here. It has been in her family since the 50s, when it was actually used as a mattress making factory. These days, Cheryl makes her line of upcycled bags in this old factory. Until recently, she did all of the work herself…from the initial design of each bag to the invisible stitching that holds each one together. She will gladly tell you about how, the moment she needed help in producing the bags, the right people appeared. This is the way with Cheryl.

Tina and I own some of her bags and I am finding two more are calling my name. They are ridiculously underpriced for bags made with as much care as Cheryl puts into them. Carrying mine makes me feel like I am carrying a glamorized version of our collective past. And these bags get noticed.

There are pictures from the show on her website. (click on the photostream at the bottom of the left column)
But not even these gorgeous shots can do justice to that evening. You can also find a link to her catalog here (link in the left column as well). She just finished a show in Houston, so she will have to update her inventory online before you will see what she really has in stock. I am jonesing for a long hair messenger and a canvas bag with a rebellious lining. Both are scene stealers.

The Impact of a Child

I do not even remember her name and, at the time, I did not know there would be any long lasting impact. It was the middle of the school week, and this little girl had to have been all of 7 years old. She should have been in school, but she was along the main street in a tiny little town called Madrid, which is somewhere between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Haley and I were in transit on the way to Santa Fe when we met her. As we ate on the porch of a quaint restaurant in the town, a little girl came up to us with a box of rocks. Crude crayon drawings barely decorated the rocks. They looked hastily done, as if she had just ducked into the woods behind the diner to create some additional merchandise.

She gave the impression of a girl raising herself. Her comfort with walking up to strangers and asking them to purchase crayon colored rocks was disquieting. She saw my camera and asked me to take a picture of her with my daughter. I wonder if she wanted someone to have proof she was there. The fact that I cannot now find the picture of the little girl whose name I can’t even remember, is sad to me.

No one at the restaurant seemed to know her. As we walked through the town later, we caught site of her occasionally, always alone. Madrid is an isolated and very small town along this highway; it seemed improbable that she was alone and unknown there. We were there for hours, and I never saw her with anyone. I think part of me was prolonging the shopping that day in hopes that I would catch sight of her with a family, any family. As we drove out of the town at sundown, I saw her on a bench…looking for rocks.

I think about her more than I imagined I would. But not her exactly. I don’t know her story, really. But the story I have in my head, the one of the little girl or boy having to raise themselves in a world that does not really see them, that story belongs to a lot of kids.

The girl in Madrid did not create the fire in me to share stories of kids living in our periphery, but she did make me stop, and she did add some kindling to the fire stoking in me. I wish I had her story. I wish I could find the two colored rocks we bought.

I have been writing stories about the kids in Nepal recently. And today I am thinking about other children who have also stayed on my mind over time. As I gear up to submit a bunch of my stories to you over the next few weeks, I find myself curious about your stories. Tell me about some child you encountered that you still think about. It does not have to be a sad, dramatic story. Children generally remind us to be merry, and I’d like to hear those stories too.