Balloon Jesus

A week ago Saturday, I found myself doing something I never imagined: making Balloon Jesus dance in Rochester’s Pride parade.

When my friend, Nancy, explained that our little church group (Sophia Community) would join other local church communities to march at Pride, I knew I wanted to join – and bring the girls. Given that we have both family members and close family friends who are gay, Ella and Annie are completely un-fazed by the thought of same-gender people loving one another; in fact, hearing that others don’t believe that this is completely okay and normal absolutely astonishes them. “But mom – they’re people! No one can control who they love!”

Participating in the parade would be an opportunity for us to actually demonstrate our acceptance and support at an event where the LGBTQ community feels not only safe but celebrated for exactly who they are.

Also, let’s face it: the gay community knows how to throw a party!

In the aftermath of Orlando, I wanted our outfits to be focused on spreading the love. We spent the morning before the parade decorating some t-shirts and psyching ourselves up for the joyful spectacle that was sure to occur along the parade route.
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Annie’s shirt: “PRIDE” {plus drawings of same-sex couples holding hands and a heart with “love” written many times}
My shirt: a geeky music reference that reads |: love is : |  (get it??)
Ella’s shirt: “LOVE is a magic to live by” (the parade’s theme was “Let’s Make Magic”) {also, a drawing of a magic wand}

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Me: “fill the world with music, love, and PRIDE – LMM” (from JLo and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new song, “Love Make the World Go Round,” written in tribute to the Orlando massacre)
Ella: “Love Is Love Is Love Is Love”
Annie: “LOVE is PRIDE”

On the drive over, I attempted to let the girls know that we would encounter some… unusual… costumes, displays, signs, etc. I also shared my not-so-secret hope that we’d be marching near some drag queens, ’cause ever since seeing Kinky Boots, I’ve had a bit of an obsession with men capable of pulling off “female” waaaay better than I ever will be.

Due to blocked off streets, we had to park in a church parking lot about a mile away from our assigned gathering spot and wait for Nancy’s husband, Paul, to shuttle us closer. Paul wasn’t there when we arrived… but a complete stranger another man was. He approached us, saying, “Are you looking to get to the parade, too?” I acknowledged that we were waiting for a ride, but didn’t want to engage in conversation. Being polite to strange men is totally cool, but more than that? Nope. Need to set a good, cautious example for my children.

Then the man said, “Are you waiting on Paul, too?”
Um, yes actually, we are.

“Was he supposed to bring you to Nancy?”
Um, yes actually, he was.

“You’re meeting at 210 Alexander Street, right?”
Yep.

“I’m driving people, too. I can just take you!”

And that is how we wound up riding to Pride in the backseat of a sedan driven by a man we’d met 30 seconds earlier. As soon as we got out of the car – after thanking the nice gentleman for the ride – I whirled around to Annie and Ella and said, “You do understand that accepting rides from strangers is usually a DEFINITE NO, right?”

Good examples, y’all.

Although it took a while to make our way to 210 Alexander, the walk over gave us an opportunity to pass the other participants, floats, etc. I had to stop and collect myself at the We Are Orlando group, where marchers held photos of each of the massacre victims, but otherwise, it was pretty much the very definition of happiness.

All ages and races, rainbow everything, glitter, spandex (so much spandex), butterflies, mermaids, leather bodysuits and masks (the Rochester Kink Society float was particularly eye-catching), tutus, Speedos, unicorns, a log cabin-esque float for a local gay campsite, muscular bare-chested men with towels around their waists atop a float advertising “Bathhouse: The Musical!” … and more smiles and laughter than I can remember seeing in one place in a long damned time.

Oh – and Balloon Jesus. Gimme a sec.

After taking only 20 steps or so, the girls’ eyes were so wide, they looked like young Botox patients gone awry. I leaned close to whisper, “Normally, I’d tell you it’s rude to stare… but everyone here is dressed up specifically so you’ll look at them – so feel free to look! Just try to make your expressions more ‘interested’ than ‘terrified,’ okay?”

I’d seen some in-progress photos of the Sophia Community float, but didn’t know what to expect from the final product. When we rounded the corner to 210 Alexander, I could  vaguely make out a large balloon structure in the distance. This didn’t surprise me – Nancy and I have a friend, Kelly, who makes incredible balloon sculptures for a living (how cool is that!), so having a balloon sculpture as part of Sophia’s float wasn’t particularly unusual.

I briefly considered the possibilities – a balloon cross? Doves? Angels? – but then, upon realizing what it actually was, said aloud, “Oh my gosh. It’s Balloon Jesus.”
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The first great thing about Balloon Jesus was all of the phrases he inspired. “Let’s go meet Jesus!” “I know we’re where we belong because we’ve found Jesus.” “We’ve been touched by Jesus!” 

The second great thing about Balloon Jesus was the sculpture itself. Kelly always does a remarkable job of turning balloons – balloons!! – into incredibly realistic-looking re-creations of whatever she’s modeling, but Balloon Jesus was particularly fantastic. I mean, he looked like Jesus (or whatever I imagine Jesus looks like). To make him more authentic, Nancy had requested that the balloons for Jesus’s skin not be pink or peach – as a Middle Eastern man, Jesus wasn’t light-skinned – and the tannish color of his radiant face was pretty terrific.

The very greatest thing about Balloon Jesus, though, was the reaction that onlookers had upon seeing him. One of the floats behind us was for a local nightclub, and it blasted pop-y music as we made our way along. (This float also featured drag queens; score!) Marching to the celebratory sound waves, Nancy and I – who were each holding a stick propping up one of Balloon Jesus’s hands – decided to move Jesus’s arms so that he appeared to dance.

The parade route was a relatively straight shot, so it was pretty easy to see the folks on the sidelines before we reached them. We watched as they scanned each float or marching group, shouting affirmations (“Happy Pride!”) and cheering. We also watched as their eyes eventually panned to our float, narrowed with contemplation about what on earth they were viewing, and then widened with joy-filled realization.

That’s when the awesomeness really began.
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Other awesomeness: tossing candy!

It was fun, certainly, hearing people call out some version of, “Balloon Jesus is dancing!” and calling back, “Yes, he is!” It was affirming and lovely hearing a good half-dozen onlookers delight, “Hooray! Jesus isn’t white!” or “It’s black Jesus! YASSSS!” 

But I was unprepared for how it would feel hearing people yell, with triumph and utter jubilation, “Hey – you’re right! Jesus loves EVERYBODY! Even us!!”

I never thought I’d feel comfortable shouting to the world, “Jesus loves you!” And yet, as these rainbow-bedecked onlookers gleefully cheered at the thought of Jesus accepting them, when maybe their faith communities had not, it felt not only comfortable but pure, real, beautiful. “Yes, he does! JESUS LOVES YOU!”

I am so grateful to have found Sophia Community, whose members espouse what I’ve always felt about Jesus: that we are, indeed, loved just as we are. That’s the grace and power of God’s love; it is endless, boundless, and meets us right where we are. God’s love is for Ella, Annie, and me. It is for those who go to church every Sunday and those who will never step foot inside a cathedral. It is for those who pray religiously (yes, a pun; God has a superb sense of humor) and even for those who don’t believe.

God’s love is for everyone marching and everyone on the sidelines – the married heterosexual couples with kids, the older men in dapper hats holding one another’s hands, and the younger women with multiple piercings wearing rainbow tank tops that said, “GAY AS F*CK” (there were a good many of those). God’s love is, sometimes to my annoyance, even for the guys on the corner shouting through megaphones that God says gay people are going to hell.

I’d worried that, by marching in the parade instead of standing on the side, we’d miss out on (what I assumed to be) the best part: seeing all of the participants. Now, I understand that, by marching, we had the remarkable opportunity to spread the Love Wins message, to see people feeling accepted and celebrated for exactly who they are… because of Balloon Jesus.

It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Amen!
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Yes, It’s About Race

Have you seen the videos? The ones of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being shot and killed? The ones where two black men were shot and killed by police officers? Two days in a row, two sets of videos, two men’s lives lost.

I haven’t seen the videos, and I’m not sure if I will. I have no desire to each two more men’s lives be horrifically taken, right in front of my eyes. I’ve already seen this over and over again – so many of us have – and yet it’s still happening, so clearly watching isn’t helping things, and I need to maintain a small shred of protection around my heart.

To Anton and Philando’s families, I’m so sorry, and I’m sorry that I’m not watching; I simply can’t right now. But I’m here speaking out for them, and I hope that’s one minuscule consolation.

Where is the outrage? Not amongst black and minority communities, but amongst the rest of us? How are we not so aghast and appalled and furious and devastated that we have to take a moment to sit down and then figure out what to do next? (Actually, I cried when I told Nick about it, and now I’m literally shaking, so there’s at least one of us who feels this way.)

Every single time this happens, the number of people who positively stumble over themselves in their rush to say that “race has nothing to do with it” is astonishing. I’m sure the excuses are already in full force: but Anton had a record! He just got out of jail! He was carrying a gun! (He didn’t reach for it, and was on the ground when he was shot, but yes, he had a gun.) He wasn’t complying! In other words, he somehow deserved to be killed, or was asking for trouble, or at least presented an awfully strong case for violence against him.

Nope. Not about race.

But what about Philando? He had no lengthy rap sheet. In fact, he worked for the local school system as a cafeteria manager. (Not sure why this matters? Well, these days, every school employee is required to be fingerprinted and background-checked, so there is absolutely no way that this man had a violent record. Further, do you have any idea of the saint-like patience and stamina it takes to run a school cafeteria??) Those facts aside, he was pulled over for a broken tail light and was asked for his license. After informing the officer that he had a permit to carry a weapon and that, if the officer checked, a gun would be found in his car, he calmly leaned over to reach for his license and registration – fully complying, as he had been asked – when the officer shot him.

So, just to be clear, Philando deserved this, or was asking for trouble, or presented a strong case of violence against him… how?

Think this is still not about race?

A couple of months ago, I was pulled over for speeding. The whole family was in the car and I lost track of how fast I was going. I didn’t even attempt to pretend otherwise; I acknowledged to the officer that I’d been going too fast, apologized, and handed over my paperwork. I explained to the girls that I absolutely earned the ticket I was about to get, and that it would be a great lesson for me (and them, fingers crossed).

When the officer came back to the window, he returned my license and registration… and told me to drive safely, then headed back to his cruiser. That was it. No ticket, not even a warning. I was stunned, and told the girls so. They wanted to know why I hadn’t gotten a ticket when I’d broken the law. Maybe it was because I was only driving fast, not erratically. Maybe it was that I fully cooperated and took responsibility for my actions. I probably just got lucky. But I also told them that I was lucky to be a white woman rather than a black man, because the outcome could have been different.

At the time, this statement – although true – felt extreme.
It doesn’t this morning.

And yet, most people continue to say that race is not an issue.

When a white college student gets only six months of jail time for sexually assaulting, and attempting to rape, an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, and the photos paraded around the media are of him as a shining athlete, rather than his mugshot, I grow a little suspicious. When a white man guns down people in a theater and is not shot and killed on the spot by responding officers, but is arrested and led away, I grow still more suspicious. When a white man deliberately targets a black church, murdering parishioners in cold blood, and is offered a bulletproof vest by police as he is taken to the police car, I am no longer suspicious; I am certain.

Race has a heckuva lot to do with it.

Still unconvinced? Try this. Imagine that you could trade places with someone for a day. You experience life exactly as they would – a Freaky Friday sort of situation. Now imagine that you’ve traded places with a black man, and that you’ve been tasked with driving around. You’re on the highway. You’re in the ‘burbs. You’re downtown… a black man, behind the wheel. Imagine that you’re pulled over – maybe you ran a stop sign, or maybe you just have a broken tail light (did you even know your tail light was broken?). The cop shows up at your window, and there you are, strapped into the driver’s seat behind the wheel.

Be honest: you’d be terrified. You would’t be sure that you’d come out of it alive.

Think this is still not about race?

We cannot begin to fix this if we cannot even acknowledge, as a country, that racism is an *enormous problem*. So I will say it: racism is an enormous problem in this country. Yes, there is also a police brutality problem (although I truly believe the vast majority of cops are good and are trying their best – but our best is a best that is inherently, unconsciously racist). There’s a gun problem (which is another issue that is still not even acknowledged as a problem, so that’s fun). But right now, right here, the biggest issue is race (ever seen this video of how differently a white and black man are treated while openly carrying?).

WE NEED TO FIX THIS. This is not a black problem or a minority problem; it is a human problem for all of us, every race. I know that the United States is facing almost unprecedented division and difficulties right now, but at its heart, I know we are better than this. I believe in America, and I believe that we can do this; I believe that we can truly be the land of the free, where everyone is created equal.

But until all of us would feel safe walking around as a minority (a person of color… or a Muslim, or someone who is gay or lesbian or transgender, or heck – a woman), we have not reached that place. When most of us would be scared for our lives to walk in those shoes, there is a serious, dangerous, heartbreaking, terrible problem.

Please, let’s stop pretending that this isn’t happening. Let’s not avoid talking about it because it’s difficult. And, for the love, let’s stop explaining away violence against black folks and people of color. Let’s acknowledge that racism is a tremendous problem. And then let’s work together – all of us – to make the change.

 

What Is This Feeling? (omg omg omg)

Today, a familiar, padded manila envelope arrived in the mail. I knew immediately that it contained Jitter‘s “official” CCI cape/vest – the one that she will wear when we’re out and about in public. Since she’s been such a fantastic learner and has such a great personality, we’ve been itching to be able to take her with us on errands. Now that we’ve gotten CCI’s stamp of approval, we’ll start making her our constant companion, just as we have with our other CCI pups.

image1Looking spiffy… but not so psyched to be all gussied up…

Along with this readily-anticipated package, however, came another mailing from CCI – this one thick, in a legal-sized envelope. It was clear from the address label that it wasn’t a fundraiser or informational brochure, but since we’ve never received two pieces of mail from CCI on the same day, I was stumped as to what it could be.

When I opened it, I understood why: we’d never received one of these before.
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A guide to graduation.
Because Fenwick has nearly completed his Advanced Training! He has only 4 weeks to go until Team Training; only six weeks to go until the Big Day!!
He is *this close* to learning everything there is to learn and becoming an official service dog!!!

When I saw that front page of the graduation packet, I got teary.

Our boy has almost done it!!

As I began to read the letter (that accompanied the graduation info) aloud to Nick and Annie, my voice was shaking; by the time I finished it, I was officially crying.

After a year-and-a-half… After doing our best with him and taking him to puppy classes and bringing him everywhere with us… After Annie falling head over heels in love with him and watching our hearts break as we turned him back into CCI, kept afloat only by the hope that maybe he might actually do it, might actually change someone’s life…

After all of it – this boy is nearly there. He is our first CCI puppy to make it to this stage; the first two were released early, and Jambi is considered a CCI success because she was accepted as a breeder (Jitter is one of her pups!), but we have not had a dog come this close to fulfilling all of the training requirements and then be matched with someone in need.

Until now.

Fenwick’s learned how to turn on and off lights. He can open and close drawers, doors, cabinets, and refrigerators. He’s been taught to pick up objects and bring them to whoever’s asking. He’s able to pull his handler in a wheelchair. He’s polishing up a few other advanced commands, but otherwise, he’s good to go, training-wise.

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The bold paragraph is the heart-stopper…

That’s not a guarantee that he’ll graduate, however. We know this. There’s always the chance that something will happen in the next few weeks that could get him to be dismissed (that possibility is slim, but still). More likely, there’s the very real possibility that he won’t be the perfect match, personality- or skill-wise, for any of the candidates. CCI wisely has more dogs than recipients at each of its quarterly, two-week Team Training sessions; that way, each person is matched with a dog who truly meets his or her needs. Accordingly, there are always – every single time – several perfectly trained, otherwise-amazing, ready-to-go potential service dogs who do not find their human…

… meaning, every single time, there are several eager Puppy Raiser families – like us – who receive the news that their dogs did not make it, after all. Come August, we could well be one of those families. We tell ourselves this over and over, so as not to get our hopes up only to have them dashed in an instant.

And  yet…
It is nearly impossible not to hope, not to imagine, not to nearly jump out of our skin with excitement and pride.

Because, whether or not Fenwick is a part of the graduating class, there will be a graduation ceremony on August 12th. On that day, after two weeks of intensive matching-up and getting-to-know and detailed instruction and exhaustive training, a group of people will go home with a dog by their side — a dog who will guide and comfort them, assist and teach them, allow them to live the lives they have dreamed about.

There is a group of people out there right now – at this very moment – who, in six weeks, will have their lives changed by a Canine Companions for Independence dog. As we go about our daily summer routine of friends-over and too-much-ice-cream and swimming and reading and staying-up-late, there are other folks out there going about their daily summer routines, folks for whom these dogs represent mobility, friendship, independence, confidence, love, freedom…

Who are they? What are they like? What makes them laugh? Do they prefer milk chocolate or dark? Are they morning people or night owls? What are their goals and hopes and wishes? Are they, as I am, closing their eyes at this exact instant and imagining themselves with the dog that will make the difference?

Will that dog be Fenwick?

Knowing that there are, tangibly, undeniably, people in the world who will be graduating from CCI in six weeks with one of these remaining dogs – and that one of the dogs up for changing someone’s life is Fenwick – is a feeling unlike any I’ve ever experienced.

Even if it doesn’t happen, this feeling, alone, will have been worth it.
And so we wait… and hope… and pray… and cross every appendage… but ultimately know that this will play out exactly as it is supposed to, however that is, and that – no matter what – Fenwick has already made a difference. We will count down the days while reminding ourselves that it may never come to pass.

But then again… it might.

IT REALLY FREAKIN’ MIGHT.
HOT DIGGITY DOG. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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Our Fenny, exactly one year ago today.