21 December 2005

India and white twinkle lights.

Just like my husband, all the lights in the house are asleep....except for the white twinklers on our little Christmas tree. The tree subtly stands at the end of the bed where I'm sitting in our loft, and my toes can almost touch the branches. It's so peaceful up here. As I soak in that special quiet that surrounds you when everyone else is sleeping, I'm thinking about Christmas and how it began with one single bright star...a star that led us to the one Light of the World. Somehow, in the midst of stocking stuffers, wrapping paper, and mall traffic, it's progressed into one of the most stressful, busy, and downright superficial times of the year, and I've been caught up in it once again. This year is different though. I'm still excited about giving gifts, and we've definitely hung our stockings on our makeshift "mantle" (the railing for the stairs leading up to the loft), but tonight I'm wondering why I seem to so easily forget the one and only thing that is worth celebrating.

I absolutely love The Food Network, but if you watch it as much as I do, you'll really start to believe that "the holidays" are all about family, making cookies with sprinkles, and adding an extra splash of heavy cream to everything you're eating. "It's the holidays, throw some extra sugar in there! Indulge a little!"

Holiday. For a word that's supposed to mean "a religious feast day; a holy day," there doesn't seem to be much holiness about it (ouch...that hit home).

As I spoke with my friend Pastor Samson in India today, I was humbled to remember what I've been so quick to forget. The "holidays" are not about getting, eating, indulging, or even making the house look pretty (as I straighten the wreath on my door for the twentieth time). Why, for once, can't it be about LESS? Making myself less. Living with less in this world. Removing distractions so I can see that one light that shines in the darkness...the light that the darkness does not understand...the light that is life to us...the light that is sometimes much more easily seen by believers like those I know in India.

Oh, how differently we celebrate Christmas here as compared to the rest of the world. The first thing on my mind is how I'm going to beat traffic to make it to Toys 'R Us and still have time for all the cookie-making, house-cleaning, and gift-wrapping. And what on earth, out of my closet full of clothes, am I going to wear to the Christmas Eve service?? On the other side of the world, Pastor Samson and his staff are thinking about how many sarees they can gather to give to the widows in nearby villages who cannot even afford a single dress. They're looking forward only to their hour-long prayer meeting on Christmas Eve and the "love feast" they'll share together afterwards. And we'll probably be eating more food on Christmas Day than they've seen in the past week.

It's almost a year ago now that I stepped foot in India for the first time. After 19 hours on a plane, I made it to Chennai at 2 am never feeling so alone in my life. Anxiously, I scanned the crowd for Pastor Samson and a sign with my name on it. Dozens of empty, foreign eyes stared back at me at the baggage claim as I became more and more desperate - why on earth had I come here alone? Relieved, I finally found Samson and then proceeded to violate every cultural rule in the book by flinging myself at him for a hug. The blessed man forgave me quickly, and he and his wife Prabhukumari led me to the taxi. My eyes were wide as I took in the first sights of India...people living in shacks on the side of the road, cows crossing the street with the cars, wild boars feeding on trash, and the smells, oh, the smells. This was going to be an adventure...

During those 10 days in India, I went to the farthest corners of the earth, was in the most physical discomfort, was more hungry, saw more beautiful people, and experienced more joy than I ever have in my life. I was stretched farther than I ever thought I could be. I saw the hopefulness and joy firsthand that comes from walking closely with Jesus, and I'm not talking about just going to church on Sunday, singing a few hymns, and then going out to lunch. I met a widowed father of 3 little children who has one leg and walks to church with crutches and a smile on his face. I stood in a grass hut village of people who lost husbands and fathers to the tsunami, and still, these new barefoot friends of mine could only think of one thing: proudly showing me the new church they'd built for their village - literally a concrete room the size of a closet, the ceiling strewn with colorful paper lanterns. On that hard, cold floor, we sat together and sang hymns to a God who is so big that He is as present in the smallest village of India as He is in my apartment in Dallas. I played with children at the Peace City orphanage who pray more earnestly at 6 years old than I've ever prayed in my life. I held their hands and touched their little, skinny legs. I played ball with them and laughed with them, the whole time wondering how I got to have this opportunity...and humbled to wonder how I could make sense of my middle-class Western life after the trip was over. You know, I've heard that joy comes through suffering, but there, I saw it and tasted it. I didn't understand it, but I sure believed it.

A year later, I still haven't made sense of it, but I hope I'm a little farther along. Of course I still find happiness in decorating our tree, giving gifts, baking 15 dozen Yummy Cookies and playing my Nat King Cole/Dean Martin/Bing Crosby Christmas album on endless loop. And I'm not saying we all have to sell our things and move to India, but what am I doing with my life to make it clear what I truly value? To reach out to others in love? To make myself less and not keep asking for more? And by the way, what if God called us to move to India one day? Would I be willing to go?

So almost a year later and as Christmas Day swiftly approaches, I want to take a few moments to remember my friends oceans away in the little town of Ongole, India. Pastor Samson, Prabhukumari, Wesley, Hudson, and even little Kerthanea the orphan girl with pigtails. Peace be with you, friends. From another continent and thousands of miles away, you have reminded me: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14). These white twinkle lights at the foot of the bed are a lot more than a decoration to me now...and I hope it doesn't take until next December for me to remember that simple Truth again.

P.S. You can see all of my photos from India here.

23 November 2005

Goodnight, Nashville.

Tonight, as my 28th birthday comes to an end, I’m finally saying goodbye to a city that has held my heart for the past 10 years. In 1995 at almost 18 years old, I strolled onto the campus of Belmont University in Nashville, TN with the world at my doorstep. Moving into the dorm that first day in Nashville, I was immediately at home. I remember blasting “Gangsta’s Paradise” on my boom box as any true Jersey girl would, and then finding out that my suite mates (and everyone else on the hall, for that matter) were diehard country music fans :). A few hours later, I met a girl in ropers and a long flowy denim cowgirl skirt who would become my best friend, and that was it. I was a Tennessee girl at heart from that moment on.

Every single day was bright and sunny the fall of my freshman year. We spent our days in class writing poetry and memorizing the great leaders of the Western world, our lunches stuffing ourselves with slightly warm chicken nuggets and Lucky Charms in the cafeteria, and our evenings country line dancing in cowgirl boots at Denim ‘n Diamonds or going to an FCA meeting in the campus ministry Barn - God rest its soul - which has now been replaced by a parking garage. If anyone had told me on my first day at Belmont what the next 10 years would hold, this gangsta rapper-turned-cowgirl surely wouldn’t have believed them…

I look at the world completely differently than I did when I was 18. If I could use one word to characterize the last 10 years, it would simply be “hope.” Hope of what life would be like in a Southern city after spending the first 17 years of my life in the northeast…hope of getting that internship at a record label…hope of finding a boyfriend…hope of working for a family-oriented company post-graduation…hope of living on the beach…hope of getting married one day. Many of these hopes have become real. For 3 years I interned at record labels and was a part of creative projects for artists I only dreamt of meeting in high school. I met friends who have left my life completely changed for the better. I witnessed the birth of my best friend’s first child. I stood in the summer rain and made a vow to the love of my life.

One of my friends said last week that one of the things that makes Nashville so special is that it’s full of hopeful people who are chasing their dreams. Well, I finally left Nashville on Labor Day 2004 with a different dream and a different hope – the hope that I could dare to find joy and happiness away from my community and in another place. Although I knew moving was undoubtedly what I supposed to do, parts of my heart were still left behind. You don’t just live in a place for 9 years and leave it without a fight.

Now, over a year later, as a ridiculously happy married woman living in Dallas, I’ve finally learned a little something about hope. Nashville has symbolized everything that was once comfortable about my life. I know now that hope has nothing to do with living in a place that is comfortable, or getting that house on the beach if I ask God for it enough times. Hope has nothing to do with finding the perfect job or group of friends or duplex with hardwood floors and a killer fireplace. Hope has nothing to do with seeking out a “safe” life. It took me 28 years to learn that hope is yearning for something that will never truly be fulfilled in this life. Hope is the expectation that God will do something with my little life that will actually matter for His Kingdom. For the first time, my hope is in Christ, and that’s it. I say that’s “it,” but really, isn’t that everything?

I would still love to live on the beach, mind you. And I definitely miss my house on Beechwood with the huge back deck where we had many a marshmallow roast. I miss driving through Hillsboro Village, drinking coffee on the ledge at Fido, and going to Destin three times before summer’s end. But I now know that I don’t need those things to find true joy.

So tonight I curl in bed with my sweet husband and say goodnight, Nashville. I’m finally moving on. I’ll never forget you or who you’ve helped me to be, but you don’t hold my heart anymore. With hopefulness, I’ll continue this journey for the next 10 years. My cowgirl boots are still in the back of my closet waiting for a special day. Except this time, I’ll be dancing in Texas.

23 October 2005

New York City...my kind of town.

Isn't New York the best? Growing up in Jersey, I hardly appreciated it, and everyone pretty much stayed away from Manhattan unless we had an absolutely necessary reason to venture away from our sleepy suburb (which was a mere 30 miles, yet seemingly lightyears, away.) What a sad, closed-minded perspective we northeasterners had of a place that I've finally come to know - thank goodness - as magical. Now of course, there was always the once-a-year visit to a Broadway show or the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, but even then it was made very clear that we were going to an "over-crowded, filthy place with lots of muggers," and we were shoved into a cab or tour bus outside the theater faster than you could say "roasting chestnuts." Not until I left for college in Tennessee and had the chance to bring friends back with me who had never been there before, was my love for New York City kindled into a roaring fire.

So, as a dedication to a place that has held so many special memories for me, here's a list of Christine's top 7 favorite places to go & things to do in New York City:

1. Rockefellar Center sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you go closer to the end of November/beginning of December, it's way less crowded and just the most magical place to be. I love walking down 5th Ave. browsing all the Christmas windows and venturing into Macy's for a warm drink at their basement cafe...returning to the chilly outdoors to walk down the angel-lined pathway leading to the Rockefellar Christmas tree that is always about 20 feet taller in person that you ever imagined it would be from TV. A trip to this area of the city is not complete without some time spent resting your toes and sipping a latté at Dean and DeLuca overlooking the Rockefellar rink and across the street from The Today Show.

2. Central Park. OK, as far as I'm concerned, you simply cannot go wrong in Central Park unless a) you have no senses, or b) you're dumb enough to jog there alone in the middle of the night. Sitting under a gorgeous fountain...playing with iron sculptures like this friendly little Hans Christian Andersen duck...watching people at the Wolman skating rink on an icy pre-Christmas day...laying on your stomach in the lush grass in the spring, summer, or fall...or accepting a marriage proposal on a hill covered in golden leaves :), there are wonders and adventures every which way you turn. You could literally walk around the park and explore for an entire day and see a fastastic variety of people, ages, and cultures . My favorite thing about Central Park is that it can transport you to another world in a matter of seconds. One moment you're in the middle of the rush of crowds of high-class shoppers on Park Avenue, and a moment later, you're in a peaceful oasis with gardens, horse-drawn carriages, and quiet park benches that could be set in the middle of the country if you didn't know better (and if not for the tips of skyscrapers peeking above the trees, giving away your true locale).

3. Café Lalo. This place is a little piece of Heaven on a brisk New York morning. 9 or 10am - get off the train on the upper west side and walk down Amsterdam to this gem of a café. It's also the location of the famous scene from You've Got Mail where Kathleen Kelly hurts Joe Fox's feelings: "And you...you are nothing but a SUIT." As you can see in this photo, they usually have the tall casement windows wide open without a screen. If you can score a small table in front of the window, sip some homemade lemonade or a warm drink, let the sun warm your neck, and smell the fresh flowers, it's nothing less than ideal.

4. Serendipity III. Ok, so a lot of my favorite things in NYC so far have centered around food or drinks, but bear with me here. Have you HAD Serendipity's Frozen Peanut Butter Hot Chocolate? It's like a frozen Reeses peanut butter cup, except you can drink it, and there's a vat-load of homemade whipped cream on top. Susan and I always share this one, and we can only take about 5 sips each before our tummies start to give way. But those 5 sips...boy are they worth it. I know this restaurant has been hyped up since the movie Serendipity released a few years ago, but not only are their desserts delicious, but it's perfectly whimsical inside.

5. Peanut Butter & Co. in Greenwich Village. Yet again, centering around food, but where else can you order a peanut butter, chicken, and green apple sandwich on wheat, with a side of carrot sticks??? Yes please, may I have another. Take me to Heaven now, because if that was my last meal on earth, I'd be happy. This place is tiny and is right around the corner from NYU, and yes, they only serve peanut butter sandwiches! They also make custom peanut butters like Cinnamon and Spicy that you can buy by the jar.

6. Exploring the brownstones on the Upper East Side. These buildings are simply gorgeous. I love walking down these quiet, historic streets wondering who lives there, where they got their "old money" and what their life is like. Do they have a simple life or are they busy executives who hardly have time to enjoy their beautiful homes? Who lived there in the early 1900's and what was it like? Did they go to-and-from home by horse and carriage down the cobblestone streets?

7. Broadway. Last but not least, my favorite musical in the entire world...Phantom of the Opera. From the moment the music starts until the last note at the end, this show always gives me chills. Take the most glorious music you've ever heard and couple it with a set so realistic that you'll wonder how you've suddenly been transported from a regular theater to a dark and creepy underground waterway with gondolas, ghosts appearing in mirrors, and infinite candlelight. All I know is that this is a masterpiece and a Broadway must.

So, here's to a city that is altogether refined, entertaining, fanciful, diverse, serene, energizing, and quirky. New York City…that’s my kind of town.

09 October 2005

"Happy Thabsgibing Back"

Without a doubt, Thanksgiving is the best holiday ever. The smells, the weather, the food, the being with family….I loved waking up and knowing it was crisp outside and then following the smells of Thanksgiving morning down the stairs to see what awaited me there. In my house in New Jersey growing up, I always smelled my dad's coffee brewing, the turkey beginning to bake, and the distant hum of the TV as the pre-broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was beginning (a must-see for all in the metro NYC area!). My dad would pick up my grandfather in the city of Bayonne and bring him back to the house, where my "Poppy" would declare as soon as he walked in the door, "WHERE’S MY BRUCK-FUST." Poppy always wore a 3-piece suit with cufflinks for his trip out to the “country” as he called our suburban town of Madison, since he had lived his entire life in the inner-city. This was a special event for him! So as Poppy entered in his formal duds, the rest of us were still standing there in our pajamas, and my mom in her fluffy deep purple floor-length robe. Using both of his pointer fingers to show me just how tall he wanted the glass to be, Poppy would then ensure that I was planning to include a “tallllll glass of orange juice” with his meal. Funny enough, throughout the years the requested orange juice size grew in height from a coffee mug to a Pilsner ☺.

My dad would bring home an authentic New York Crumb Cake from the local bakery, and we’d all groan as my mom ate off all the crumbs. I loved it when the cooking preparation began, as mom, still in her robe, would prepare the turkey. There were the typical “blechs” and “ewws” when she took the giblets out of the poor little bird’s insides, cooked them, and fed them to the dog. I don’t think I ever touched raw turkey giblets until I was 26 for that reason alone. I would, however, joyfully help my mom by cutting up the onions and carrots for the turkey’s brown-in bag. After everything started cooking, we’d get showered and into our casual clothes and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade with Poppy. My grandfather was a cosmetician for The Rockettes back in the day, so he would look forward to the moment when “his girls” did their number in front of Macy’s – the highlight of the parade. How on earth did all of their legs kick at the exact same height anyway? To this day, I still don’t get it. And how about the Garfield float? He was looking for lasagna, but all anyone had to offer the poor guy was a big browned bird.

At this time of year, I also love movies that feature Thanksgiving. You've Got Mail is such a classic (but who am I kiddin', I could watch that movie on a sweltering summer day, I love it so much). Who can forget a troubled and distracted Kathleen Kelly getting into the "cash only" line on Thanksgiving morning with no cash in her wallet. Behind her in line, a customer named Henry begins to get agitated, ("And I'm HAYN-ry!") and cashier Rose won't crack a smile ("Get-in-anotha-line."). Thankfully, Joe Fox comes to the rescue with some comic relief, Rose cracks a smile and even answers his holiday greeting with a “Happy Thabsgibing back” in broken English. Sadly for Kathleen, Rose hasn't forgiven her for stepping in the wrong line and scowls at her as she zip-zips the card through the credit card machine. And it's finally Hayn-ry's turn in line...

29 September 2005

Meet the Chocolate-Covered Korean.

My husband is the cutest thing EVER. Last night I walked into our bedroom to this sight and my husband yelling, "I'm a cocoa bean, I'm a cocoa bean!" He then proceeded to introduce me to the "Chocolate-Covered Korean" through song :) See for yourself here. Hee hee!

27 September 2005

Wheat toast's best friend.

Let's talk about orange marmalade for a moment. Is it the nectar of heaven or what? This morning I had some on my live grain wheat toast, and it was simply a party in my mouth. Tiny pieces of orange rind and a buttery, slightly sweet taste...one bite with my eyes closed, and I'm transported to an old farmhouse in the country with sun beaming in through the kitchen windows, fresh eggs in the mixer, and fresh bread on the table. Of course this is a world without calories or carb-consciousness, and of course I have nothing to do all day except bake and make things for people :). Fancy that!

You know, it really is disheartening when you think of all the preservatives and chemicals we put in our bodies, when they were created to eat the natural foods given to us in creation.

26 September 2005

Great quote.

"A man's heart is changed when he realizes what is in the heart of God towards him."

25 September 2005

Goodbye, summer.

Goodbye to sand in your toes, sweat dripping down your nose behind your sunglasses, beach volleyball, running through sprinklers (which I did the other day on a walk, mind you), strapless bathing suits, floating in the pool on your back, flip flops, and cookouts.

Make way for Harvest parties, roasting chestnuts, long sleeves, warm drinks by the fire, the smell of burning wood, and in Texas...finally being able to drive with the sunroof open!!

Summer ain't completely over here, but it's on its way out. I bought some Pumpkin Spice coffee a few days ago to support missionaries in Honduras. Yum! Check it out at MissionaryCoffee.com.

Illustration (c) 2005 Christine M. Bailey

24 September 2005

My girls.

I love my girls. As I sit here this morning in Dallas, I'm wishing we could meet at Jackson's for a yummy Chicken Salad Torrado or get a suhweet cone from 'ole Nance at TCBY :). I mean, look at you! Not only are you beautiful on the outside, but you each have settled yourself into a little nook inside my heart. Here are just a few words you each symbolize to me:

TLC ~ free-spirit, passion, abandon
Amy ~ laughter, security, papes :)
Christy ~ everlasting, loyal, wisdom
Jeny ~ transparency, care, prayer
Suz ~ kindred, dreamer, kindness
Christina ~ adventure, creative, canoodle :)

Big kisses and hugs to you each today. MISS YOU!!

18 September 2005

Living and Loving Dangerously

"We are suspended here, with love being the only power to hold up our hearts. This leaves us with a few options in the meantime, really -
it is either have memory, have vision,
and be about the business of living and loving, or else be done with it."

(Jan Meyers, The Allure of Hope)

I wish I could say I remembered this quote on a daily basis. To "be about the business of living and loving" - all the time - I wonder how different my life would be. Instead, I feel like sometimes I'm more about the business of "worrying and fretting" or "longing and pining" - both of which are no more than sorry seconds. It makes sense though - here we are in this life, and what options do we really have, if we want to live abundantly? Here's another quote I love...

"Strangely, it is dangerous faith
in our untamed Savior
that leads us to the joy we crave."

It was part of the dedication at the front of the book Your God Is Too Safe by Mark Buchanan. Wow. I guess I am learning that the joy I truly want only comes from following Christ dangerously...letting Him take me to places that might seem scary and unsafe but places that really are good if only our human eyes could see what God sees. I guess I'd rather live dangerously and adventurously if it means seeing God the way I am seeing Him now.

Summer and the Simple Life in Madison, NJ

I'm trying to remember what it's like to live in a small town...a place where you know your neighbors and their kids, and you can knock on their open screen door to borrow milk for pancakes when all the stores are closed on Thanksgiving morning. A place where you can enjoy a night walk in the neighborhood by yourself and not worry about feeling safe.

I grew up in a place like this. In Madison, NJ, (pop. 16,000) I knew both of our next-door neighbors - coincidentally, both older Italian couples with husbands named Joe, on one side we had the Marano's and on the other side, the Romano's. In the spring, I woke up to the sound of a Little League bat hurling a ball onto one of the three baseball fields across the street from our house, and I heard these sounds through my bedroom windows, which were always wide open in the spring. Summers in Madison were as perfect as they could be. Summer meant going to the Madison Community Pool every single day. I'd wake up, eat some cereal, read a good book for an hour or so or watch cartoons, and then mom would call up the stairs and see if I was ready to go. I'd grab my beach bag and jump into the '70s Camaro, ready for another day swimming in the sun without a care in the world....and to see my friends and especially Herbie the Ice Cream Man.

We always drove the same route to the pool, up past all the Italian homes on my street, Myrtle Avenue, left on Ridgedale, past the historic homesteads with the wrap-around Victorian porches, right on Fairview, down the hill to the corner of Central Avenue, where the HUGE, ancient Victorian sat back majestically from the road, across Central, around the curve, past the soccer field and....oh yes....I can smell it and hear it now....

As we turned into the parking lot, I could hear the sound of the diving board flubbering on the metal supports as someone plunged into the diving tank...the crickets singing from the thick woods on the other side of the pool fences...the smell of chlorine mixed with dried popsicles, a smell that can only be characterized as the stickiness of summer.

To my chagrin, Mom always parallel-parked at the farthest possible spot away from all other cars so no one would hit her precious Camaro. So I had to stomp in the weeds as I shimmied out of the car with only my bathing suit, beach bag, and dry towel wrapped around my waist. Woe to the day I forgot my sandals and had to draw in my breath and run on barefoot tippy-toes across the burning asphalt in a race for the front entrance, my mom clomping behind me in her wooden Dr. Scholls.

The entrance to the pool was a monument to my childhood. First, there was the grass picnic area next to the bike rack, worn with tire marks from the ice cream truck's daily pitstop....and then the glimmering "3 big rocks" that sat on a grass island creating a circle drive at the pool entrance next to the flag pole. These "3 big rocks" were not only boulders; they were daily visiting spots, gossiping points, home bases for freeze tag, you name it. They also had the world's stickiest surface due to years and years of drips from Creamsicles and Toasted Almond Good Humor Pops.

So past the rocks, and in we'd go....who would be the lifeguard at the entrance checking badges today? Would it be the cute senior guy from Madison High that I had a crush on at age 8? Well, whoever it was, he/she inevitably had a whistle on a chord double-wrapped around his/her neck like a choker (which all of us little kids thought was SO cool and would imitate as soon as we got home), feet propped up on the desk that held the cash register, and then came the lazy phrase, "Hey...badges please." I would proudly expose my upper left hip where my badge was pinned to my one-piece, walk a few steps further under the portico, and remove my sandals (if I hadn't forgotten them). Why? "NO FOOTWEAR ON THE DECK." This sign was glaringly obvious as you went through the entrance, and anyone who ignored it was whistled at by a guard (not in a good way) and asked to remove their sandals promptly or else.

The best time of day to arrive was when it opened at 10 am. The guards were just taking their stands, and the water was crystal clear and unbroken. I'd usually scan the place from right to left....kiddie pool and tire playground with the tether ball and volleyball/badminton courts in the far distance, then the 2 and 3 feet area with the small water slide, under the blue and white rope to the 4 feet section, the main swimming area. It was huge. You could yell across the pool to your friend, but she wouldn't hear you as she dove in to do another handstand. Past the 4 feet to dun-dun-duh.....the exclusive "adult-badge-required" area: the 5 feet lap lanes. Yes, it was a celebratory occasion during childhood when you passed your "deep water test" and could then swim under the rough blue and white rope with the attached mini buoys to the adult swim area. I'll never forget my first time over there after I passed the test. It almost felt like snooping around in my parents' bedroom when they weren't home. I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually allowed to be there now. But past the adult lap lanes was something greater and more important still...the glorious crown jewel of the Madison Community Pool: the diving tank.

You must really understand the diving tank in order to appreciate it. 12 feet deep and shaped like a colossal punch bowl when you opened your eyes underwater, this section was definitely for the brave and big kids. I started on the low dive, then the medium dive, but it was the pinnacle of summer the day I first jumped off the beautiful, towering high dive. I remember jumping off so many times in a row that the bottoms of my feet hurt were red from the impact when I went home that night. And the sweet victorious day when I actually did a DIVE off the high-dive. Put your hands together in a fist over your head....stand on the edge....keep your arms straight and strong...then slowly tip your body forward and let it go over the edge head-first. The first impact was like diving straight onto concrete....but I did it! And after the first time, I couldn't stop myself from doing it again and again.

One of the best games to play with friends in the diving tank was to yell out a question right as the other person jumped, and the person jumping had to answer it before their face went underwater. I'd wait in line at the medium dive, trying to anticipate what question I might be asked and planning out how I was going to jump high enough to have time to answer it. But no matter how much planning anyone did, it seemed that you were never able to finish your answer in time, which of course is what made the game so hilarious. "Say your full name and address!!" "Christine Piccione! 43 Myrtle Abbbbbbbbbbbbblllllllll......" One big splash and everyone starts giggling until you pop your head up gasping for air, climb back out, flatten the stomach on your one-piece to get out the big air/water bubble, and go to the back of the medium dive line for another round. Classic.

So at this time of day, the pool was pretty much empty, except for that one old lady with the leather skin who, if I didn't know better, I would think had actually taken up residence in the women's locker room so she could be the first and last one there every day. The first important decision of the day was where you would "set up camp." We always sat on the parking lot side. Mom would set up her lawn chair, I would lay my towel on the grass next to her, and we'd both set off for the water. Once my mom stuck her first toe in the water, you were not getting the lady out unless she absolutely HAD to go to the bathroom or occasionally, for a badminton match. The "mer-woman" could swim for almost 8 hours straight, filling her time with laps, jogging in the water as her side ponytail swung from side to side, talking to the guards, you name it. Yes, Mrs. Piccione was well-known in these parts, and dare you make her hurry to get out of the pool when the last whistle blew at 7:30pm, and you were in danger of receiving a really dirty look and being kicked off staff by the manager, Al.

My pool activities were always different. Sometimes I would enter the pool at the 4 feet stairs in the corner, swing like a monkey on the aluminum pole for a little while, and then do some handstands. I'd venture across the 4 feet and see if any of my friends were camped out yet on the other side. Sometimes I'd practice dives off the edge of the 4 feet as my mom watched and rated them. But the day always held one unforgettable highlight: a visit from Herbie the Ice Cream Man. As soon as we heard the jingling bell signaling the Good Humor truck's arrival in the parking lot, utter anarchy broke out as children of every age jumped out of the pool, grabbed their towels, abandoned tether ball courts, mowed down their parents, and left the swimming area in swarms to try to be the first one in line to see Herbie. (Hint: Secure your ice cream money ahead of time so you don't have to waste time fumbling in your mom's purse as other kids are trampling you in the mass exodus. I learned this the hard way.) Once I got to the truck, even though surrounded by wet hair, wet towels, the scent of runny suntan lotion, and often, wet butts brushing the sides of my hips, I liked to stand in line for a little while so I could put some thought into what I was going to order that day.

After we'd received our selections from skinny Herbie with no teeth (and come to think of it, very suspicious sores on his hands and face) my friends and I would head to the "3 big rocks" with our sugary delicacies, our towels wrapped around our waists, or, if we were feeling naughty, twisted into a painful wet whip. We'd spread our towels on the burning rocks as to not singe our buns in the midday heat. Then, we'd slowly open the paper wrapping and take that first delicious bite into the crumbly goodness of the Toasted Almond. My favorite bites were those beginning ones before you hit the stick. Even though hitting the stick was special in this case, because that meant you were that much closer to your potential prize....a stick that contained the magical words, "One free Good Humor pop." What a joyous occasion this was....because it meant not one, but TWO, ice cream treats that day. The winner would head victoriously back to Herbie's truck and order another (perhaps a Chocolate Eclair this time)....and you would always pretend it was your first in case your mom happened to see you :).

After ice cream break, I'd usually go back in to the pool area and lay on my towel for a little while longer. If I wanted to play badminton, my mom would get her pruny self out of the pool and join me. Sometimes as the day got later, around 4 pm or so, my dad and brother would come by. I remember my heart jumping when I saw them walking across the parking lot, because this meant that I could get piggybacks in the water from my dad and get launched across the pool by my brother (which I secretly loved even though I screamed when he did it). Later in the day was a special time at the pool. The midday crowd started to thin out, and it was a different crowd of professionals coming by after work and a few other families who pretty much lived there all day like we did. Around 7 pm, I was finally tired of swimming, my lips were purple, and the sun was getting lower in the sky. I'd always head back over to our "camp" but this time I'd lay on my mom's lawn chair and watch her finish her exercises for the next 30 minutes. My time on the lawn chair was special and reflective. Mom always packed snacks like sesame sticks, carrots, and golden raisins deep in her pool bag. I'd dig those out and munch on them as I let my hair dry knotty and curly and chlorine-filled and revel in the carefree life of a kid in the summer. At about 7:15, the guards started making their rounds and cleaning the deck. I loved to lay back on the lawn chair, close my eyes, and listen to the sounds. This was their system: one guard had a big bucket and would scoop up water from the pool and pour it on the deck. The other guard then took a big push-broom and swept the water all over the deck to the edge until it went into the grass. This is how they "cleaned" the deck. Sometimes I'd follow them all around the pool and dance on the edge of the grass, trying not to let the water touch my toes. At 7:30, the loudspeaker clicked on and the announcement came, "Attention: The Madison Pool is now closed. Will lifeguards please clear the pool." The guards could not stand up quickly enough and blow their whistles in unison to signal that it was now time for everyone to get out of the water so they could go home and party the summer night away with their high school friends.

After a day at the pool, we always went home in our wet bathingsuits, and my mom had this one navy blue sweatshirt she would always keep in her pool bag to wear over her suit. Blue sweatshirt, swimsuit, and Dr. Scholls...nothing else on the bottom. Classic.

Well, the Madison Pool is still alive and well, and my mom is the social chair, planning parties and family events for the summer season. Even though I live in Texas now and don't have a community pool, I still leave part of myself there each summer season. Walk through the lobby on any given day and look for a colorful posterboard sign decorated with markered mini pineapples, hula girls, or music notes advertising the next "Moonlight Swim." Each poster is a DreamMore original and my contribution to a place that characterized my whimsical summers.