This Undeserved Life

Sage Brenner is 21 months old. His brother, Ira, is 16 months old. With only five months between them, they can’t possibly be twins. And since Sage is black and Ira is white, they can’t possibly have the same parents, right? “Yes, they can,” says Natalie Brenner with a big smile. Natalie—a new mom, author and adoption advocate—is quick to set the record straight. “They are brothers in every sense of the word. They are my sons. They are my blessings.” Natalie and her husband Loren always wanted to adopt. “We talked about it and prayed about it even before we got married,” Natalie recalls. “There are so many children in the world who need a loving home. We felt that adopting would be a natural path for us, a natural expression of our faith in God, and our belief in family.” As it turned out…

Risky Business: What High-Risk Kids Can Teach Us About Connecting

On my first day of work at the community center, I wasn’t nervous. After all, I’d supervised youth “delinquents” in corrections programs; I’d worked juvenile probation. I knew this gang-run neighborhood was teeming with kids who had few choices, and even fewer resources. I knew exactly what they needed: structure, guidance, mentoring. To say no to drugs and yes to education. I expected to put in 2–3 years and move up and out. I was not expecting Marco. Marco was not impressed with me or my college education. He was living a life I could barely comprehend: he’d been stabbed, beaten, set on fire and burned (on purpose) with an iron. In the first year I worked there, he was shot at, hit by a car and “violated” by his gang — meaning they’d taken turns beating him with their fists over some rule…

Hiking Argentina? Don’t Forget the Wine

About 650 miles from the pulsing city of Buenos Aires lies Mendoza, where urban rhythm gives way to natural opulence, and where wine is more than a business, it’s a spiritual pilgrimage. Mendoza hugs the Chilean border, giving easy access to the mighty Andes mountains and the South Pacific Ocean. After a week in BA with traffic and crowds (and some awesome meals), I was more than ready for some quiet time in the snowy peaks. It was late June — winter in South America — and I’d left the U.S. without giving the weather much thought. Hiking Argentina, however, is not for the unprepared. My pack always has my hiking boots and sleeping bag either packed or strapped outside, but I still had to buy a warm hat and a thick alpaca jacket. Then I dashed off to meet my Chilean guide, whose English…

The Power of Failure

If you want to empower girls, you have to let them fail. After a week of cool but unusually sunny weather in southern Scotland, I arrived in Fort William, ready to hike Ben Nevis. I needed to get my first lungful of Highland air, and stock supplies for the next 7 days on the Great Glen Way. The rain hit first thing in the morning. A sprinkle at first, then sheets of icy drizzle, then a downpour. This did not surprise me. It is Scotland, after all. I had rain gear and waterproof hiking boots and a good supply of single-malt.   What did surprise me was the number of young parents with little kids out on what was now a treacherously slick path, especially headed uphill. One family, obviously on holiday, was picking its way up the rocky slope. Mom and dad, boy and girl and baby. Right…

3 Things I Learned at a Writing Retreat

“Rustic cabins with all the conveniences of home,” the email gushed. “Miles of pristine forest trails to explore, and spectacular sunsets over the lake.” There were photos of blissed-out writers doing tai chi in the grass, getting massages, or writing intently on sunlit porches. “You take care of everyone else,” the email nodded sagely. “Isn’t it time to do something for YOU?” I handed over my credit card number in five minutes flat. A few days later I was out the door, bound for Lake Something-or-Other for a weekend of writing, communing with nature, and supporting other women writers. Here’s what I learned: Number One: I can live without wifi, but I really need a heads up if there’s not going to be electricity. And when you say “all the conveniences of home” I assume that includes flushing toilets. And a roof. Not to…

Em Dash-ians Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose but Your Commas …

  I wrote my first, furtive em dash as a freshman in high school. A boy I liked in English class was sneaking them into his paragraphs willy-nilly, despite our teacher’s objections. I was preparing a speech to the assembly, and it sounded stiff and boring — which was crazy, because I’m hilarious, and I knew the speech was, too. The periods made me stop. The commas let me slow down, but didn’t give me the dramatic effect I was after. And using exclamation points drove me crazy! No, I wanted long, sweeping paragraphs — interrupted by bursts of humor or pique — that packed an emotional punch. I wanted the punctuation to guide my voice as I spoke, to give my words rhythm and power and depth. The em dash made it happen. I spent the next several years writing research papers and playing by The Man’s…

Behind the Green Door

Kiefer was still holding my hand, squeezing a little too hard, but it was dark and he seemed to know where he was going, so I didn’t complain. “Almost there,” he whispered. “Portuguese wine and cheese biscuits, coming right up.” He turned left abruptly, and I stumbled into one of the crumbling stone walls lining the alley. Something wet and furry brushed against my ankle and I squealed. “It’s just a rat,” he shrugged. “No worries, here’s the door.” I pulled up short in front of a dark, wooden archway. The door itself was hidden in shadow, and dark shutters covered the windows. I’d only been on the Camino for a few days, so I was hardly an expert, but this didn’t look like any hostel I’d seen so far. “Are they open?” I didn’t see any light inside, and I was starting…

There’s No Such Thing as Perfect Timing

Stop waiting for perfection. Step out there. In Vila do Conde, Portugal, on my second morning of walking the Camino de Santiago, I am struck again by the pragmatic faith in this little village. There are no guard rails on the footbridges, no warning signs, no walk/don’t walk signals. I stand stupidly on the sidewalk, longing to cross the busy street to the café I see on the other side. I watch, horrified, as other pedestrians simply step out into the traffic — just throw themselves into mortal danger with no apparent fear. I’m equally amazed when the zooming cars brake for them. Just stop, in the middle of the road, to let them pass. And wave merrily as they speed off again. Not me. I stand on the curb, hyperventilating. I want bedrock assurances that the cars will stop before I put myself in peril. The drivers…

Runaway Mom

My Teenager’s Not a Flight Risk. But I am. At age 55, I set out alone to hike the Camino de Santiago from Portugal to Spain. Like so many pilgrims, I came home both reflective and giddy, eager to share my experience about walking the sacred Way, and what it meant to me. Here’s what I never talk about: I left my 16-year-old son home alone while I did it. That’s right. I left the country, strapped on my backpack, and allowed my teenager to fend for himself for several weeks. In my defense, it was all his idea. Cameron adamantly refused stay with relatives; he had school, he said, and his part-time job at the burger joint, his speech competitions on Saturdays, and his theater rehearsals. He wasn’t budging. So I ran away to Europe, and left him. Alone. The youngest…

Stop Eating Meat! (Just Kidding)

Well, I’m kidding a little. We Americans love meat – roasted, grilled, fried, baked or simmered all day in our greens. We don’t consider a meal complete without a big hunk of beef, pork or chicken taking up half the plate, and when we hit the fast food joints, we head straight for the double-thick, extra-large, bacon-covered animal flesh. We feed our kids the same way, teaching them to savor all that fatty goodness, and to turn up their noses at broccoli. And let’s face it: meat is yummy. Is there any aroma more intoxicating than thick steaks on your outdoor BBQ? Who can live without fried chicken? Or a succulent, perfectly roasted turkey? The problem is the amount of meat we consume far exceeds what is healthy for our bodies, our community or our planet. Americans eat an average of .75 pounds of meat…