Christmas Cards

After a long hiatus from sending Christmas cards to friends and family, I am excited to report that I designed and ordered cards this year. I am 88% confident that we will get around to addressing envelopes and mailing them out as well. Just in case I live in the 12%, this is what I came up with this year:
Christmas-Card-2012

 

And this card idea was the runner-up:
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Two Times Makes a Tradition

For the second year in a row now, dare I say it’s tradition, two of my chiblings* have come to stay with Brian and me the weekend following Thanksgiving. For years before this new “tradition” has been in place, the Friday after Thanksgiving has been bookmarked as the Thanksgiving celebration for my dad’s clan. My dad’s children, children’s spouses, and children’s children all convene in my grandmother’s 1970s ranch for our day of family chaos and wonderment. Sometimes there’s hula-hooping, or charades, or wrestling, or a game. Every year finds the youngest generation playing in the basement, football on TV, laughter, conversation, and Grandma’s roast beef and Texas sheet cake, to name a few of the staples.

(*Chiblings is a term I coined to fill a gap in the English language. It is a gender neutral word for the children of one’s siblings and is much more succinct than always having to write “niece(s) and nephew(s).” You’re welcome, English speakers.)

Thanksgiving 2007

Thanksgiving, 2007

Last year my brother and his wife had plans after the family gathering, so Brian and I arranged to take their two youngest, Brady and Paige, home with us to Pittsburgh to spend the night. This year, without impetus we did the same, extending their stay until Sunday.

After a lazy Saturday morning and easy afternoon with Penn State football, video games, and the game Tri-Spy, Brian, Brady (9), Paige (6) and I set off to a nearby playground. Closed for construction. Bummer. Thinking on the fly, we went to the bowling alley. An hour-and-a-half wait. Strike two. As we loaded the car and headed to the movie theater for Tangled in 3D, I twisted around in the front seat and told Brady and Paige, who were still upbeat and cheery, that if we didn’t get to do anything fun this weekend, they could at least tell people that we had fun ideas.

Fortunately things turned in our favor and we spent the rest of the evening enjoying the movie and the amazing Winter Festival of Lights at Oglebay Resort. The chiblings didn’t have a camera with them, but each took 70-100 photos of the light displays using their Nintendo DS systems. One of Paige’s favorite displays — that I happened to capture, albeit crappily, on my cell phone — was the carousel with moving horses. Throughout the entire evening, even after we left the resort, she continued to exclaim, “How did they get the horses to move like that?!”

On Sunday, we scored again with an afternoon at Carnegie Science Center’s SportsWorks. We were fortunate to pick a day with a small crowd, giving us pretty much free reign and nearly unlimited access to whatever “exhibit” we wanted. Brady (who is flipping on a trampoline in November’s masthead) loved the virtual roller coaster best. Paige’s favorite was the 25-foot (that is, about 7 Paiges) rock climbing wall. The weekend was officially a success.

Brian and I pulled our car into the garage Sunday night, children returned to their parents and our cats in charge of the house again. The house is quiet, which is nice on one hand, but missing a joy and presence that only those amazing little people can fill. A couple times I have caught myself sitting on the couch or at my desk staring off into nowhere, reflecting on the fun weekend and the kids’ antics, smiling as I remember Paige beam as she told the SportWorks attendant that she had pushed the button at the top of the rock climbing wall not one, not two, but three times. I too was in awe of her boundless energy. She had climbed that wall 6-7 times at least, ringing the proverbial victory bell with a push of the button on the last several attempts, and then she would rappel down as though she had been doing it professionally for years.

But that beaming. There was no prize for the number of button pushes; she was just so delighted in her own accomplishment. We are impressive creatures, aren’t we? Almost always capable of achieving so much more than we ever credit ourselves able to do. Anyway, it’s these little moments with our chiblings that inspire us to rustle up our home for a weekend with their imprint and to create new traditions.

Dedicated to You, Mom

Okay, so I know there are still the extensions, the quarterly reports, and the back log from your ‘real’ job, but I hope you can still appreciate this little e-card I made for you. (Click on image to enlarge.)

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It will probably take your eyes a while to readjust to natural lighting after constantly being exposed to only desk lamps and fluorescent lighting for so long, but they’ll get there.  Even though you still have a full load on your plate, please, please allow yourself to fully recover with pedis and massages and walks and sleep and American Idol…or whatever.

Easter

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The Garden Tomb just outside the walls of Jerusalem.  This is one of two possible sites that is believed to be where Jesus was buried after his crucifixion.  The evidence was compelling, but whether this was the true site or not, the tomb here at least provided a visual for where Jesus was buried on that first Good Friday.

After the story was recounted and the evidence was presented to us, we had a chance to look inside the tomb.

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Above all else, the evidence that was most pronounced to me was that it was empty.  When they discovered this tomb, this burial place had a pillow cut into the rock and the foot carved out – signs that it was a finished burial place.  The one next to it, in contrast, had not been completed.  Two burial places in this tomb, only one completed.  It was prepared for someone, but it was empty.  It was empty!

This completes the story.  The punishment for our shortcomings is death.  God loved us so much that He said, “Whoa, you all are in a predicament that you cannot escape on your own.  Tell you what, I will take your punishment for you.”  In the most awful death, Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  He was buried.  Three days later, Jesus conquered death.  He left us with an empty tomb and gave us a victory that we could never earn on our own.  We don’t deserve it, but this victory is ours for the taking.

This grace and mercy, this unfailing love, this hope, this victory and promise of an abundant life…this is Easter!

(Here is one of the songs we sang in church this Easter morning.)

Incomplete Without that Sunday

This story was read to me nearly fifteen years ago, and from time to time it will creep to the forefront of my mind and recast a swell of gratitude, humility, and reverence.  It couldn’t convey a more appropriate theme for this week…

Ragman
by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing my life, my street sense, my sly tongue had ever prepared me for.

Hush, child. Hush, now, and I will tell it to you.

Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear, tenor voice: “Rags!” Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.

“Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!”

“Now, this is a wonder,” I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?

I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, sighing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.

The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.

“Give me your rag,” he said so gently, “and I’ll give you another.”

He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.

Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then HE began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.

“This IS a wonder,” I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery.

“Rags! Rags! New rags for old!”

In a little while, when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.

Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.

“Give me your rag,” he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, “and I’ll give you mine.”

The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw: for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood – his own!

“Rags! Rags! I take old rags!” cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.

The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.

“Are you going to work?” he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head.

The Ragman pressed him: “Do you have a job?”

“Are you crazy?” sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket – flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.

“So,” said the Ragman. “Give me your jacket, and I’ll give you mine.”

Such quiet authority in his voice!

The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman – and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman’s arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.

“Go to work,” he said.

After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, an old man, hunched, wizened, and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.

And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. On spider’s legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.

I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.

The little old Ragman – he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And then I wanted to help him in what he did, but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died.

Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope – because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.

I did not know – how could I know? – that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night, too.

But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.

Light – pure, hard, demanding light – slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the last and the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow nor of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.

Well, then I lowered my head and trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: “Dress me.”

He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!

Keep Watch

Today begins Holy Week.  The events celebrated this week are the most critical of the Christian faith.  Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (our Palm Sunday), the Last Supper, the Crucifixtion, the Resurrection – these are no small potatoes.  One of the powerful moments during Jesus’ final week on Earth occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26).  Just before he is given over to his enemies who eventually crucify him, here in this garden Jesus tells his friends how heavy his heart is because he knows that he will soon bear the sins of the world on the cross.  He knows that death is closely upon him.  He sobs.  He prays.  Three times he lets God know that he doesn’t want to go through with this, but in those same moments he surrenders his will and says, okay, if this is really your plan, God, then I’m in.

April’s masthead shows olive trees from the Garden of Gethsemane that breathed the same air that Jesus did.  When we walked through this olive garden on our trip to Israel in November, I wanted so badly to hear these centuries-old trees tell the story of what they had seen, of what they had heard.  I cannot imagine the overwhelming sorrow of that night with Jesus.  But I hope someone told those trees that night to keep watch, because just beyond the darkest event in history comes the most remarkable, the most beautiful, the most powerful event this Earth has known.  Keep watch, good news is coming!

***

Gethsemane

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
maybe,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

~Mary Oliver

Green Day

No, I am not talking about the band.  Though, if I were referring to Green Day the rock band I’m sure my husband would have something to say about how the trio is underrated.  Today is March 17th, so I am talking about none other than St. Patrick’s Day!

Frankly, I know very little about this holiday other than what I quickly read on Wikipedia before writing this post.  I don’t really care to elaborate on its origins; what makes the day special for me is that it was Ro’s favorite holiday.  The man loved Jesus, but Christmas and Easter didn’t unearth nearly as many dollar-store items in our household as St. Patrick’s Day did.  Ro owned no “Kiss me, Jesus is Risen!” buttons, but Lord knows on March 17th the “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” button was pinned to his black and green plaid cardigan at the top o’ the morn’!

To date, Ro is the only person I’ve known who, on St. Paddy’s Day, would receive as many store-bought cards and incoming phone calls as he would for a birthday.  He was not shy about his love for the day; if his words didn’t express it, then the Shamrock sticker on his Bible sure made it clear.  One year he decorated the kitchen with green streamers cascading from the chandelier to the kitchen walls like the spokes of a wheel.  This was a day to be celebrated!

The leprechaun cut-outs Ro hung around the house were cute too, but to have a day where you are practically obligated to drink a stein of beer – I believe this cuts to the core of his Paddy’s Day passion.  Ro grew up in a Nazerene church where things like dancing, playing cards, and drinking alcohol were pooh-poohed, yet out of this strict upbringing grew a man who loved to have a glass of wine or a tall, stout beer with his blazing hot shephard’s pie – just a glass or two at a meal to give his lips a refreshing blast of heaven.  We rarely had any alcohol in the house as I grew up, so any chance for him to have a drink was a treat.

St. Patrick’s Day, 2001, Brian and Ro went for a midday green beer.  I was at my parents’ house when the phone rang – another Happy St. Patrick’s Day call for Ro.  It was his sister, my Aunt Virginia.  Ro had such a sweet, close relationship with his sister.  I also adored and loved her.  I don’t recall ever meeting her in person, but before she became too weak to use a typewriter she and I were Pen Pals.  She would send the most sincere, thoughtful notes to encourage me, pray for me, and tell me stories of her life.  Sadly, she passed away last year, the summer before Ro did.

On this particular day, Aunt Virginia and I exchanged a couple updates with each other.  I knew she wanted to talk to Ro, but I explained to her, “He’s out drinking green beer with Brian.”  She laughed.  I laughed.  But later that day I learned that we were laughing for different reasons.  She laughed because she thought I was making a joke.  I laughed because I was thinking oh, that Ro and his green beer.

What I didn’t know until after the phone call was that Aunt Virginia never knew that Ro consumed alcoholic beverages, let alone that he had an acquired taste for them.  A devout Christian and product of the Nazarene church herself, she adhered to the no-drinking rule and assumed that her brother did as well.  I know heaven doesn’t look back at Earth or celebrate our holidays or resemble life as we know it, but I still find myself creating a story in my head of Ro and Aunt Virginia together.  Ro is chuckling with a Paddy’s Day beer in hand as his sister discovers this little secret of his, and then starts to make sense of that phone call I had with her eight years ago.  Of course my little fantasy is so irrelevant for them now, for as much as Ro loved to celebrate this day, there is no holiday or event on this Earth that can come close to matching the celebration that they know now and will experience for eternity.

Thinking of you today, Ro!

Groundhog Day

Scout: I saw my shadow.  Winter is over.  Let me in now, my job is done.

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Me: You have that backwards. When Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, like he did this morning, that means we have six more weeks of winter.

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Looks like someone could use some cheering up, perhaps with a new catnip toy.  Either that or an all-expense paid trip to the Caribbean, but we’ll start with the fake mouse and see if that can’t subdue her inner cobra until spring arrives.

Hope

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The Valley of Megiddo in Israel.  In Hebrew it is called Har Megiddo, what we know as Armageddon.  It is 50 miles long and 50 miles wide.  Here is where the Bible says the battle will take place (Zechariah 12:11, Revelation 16:16) between good and evil, between Christ returned and the Antichrist.  Christ prevails in this battle (Revelation 17:14), and then in Revelation 20 it explains that after this Christ will reign on Earth while Satan is captive.

For a thousand years the Earth will have the privilege of knowing and living with a perfect government, made perfect by an omnipotent, omniscient, holy leader.  After Satan’s imprisonment during this thousand years, he will be released and will build up one last army to fight against Christ.  As depicted in Revelation 20, Satan and his army will lose this final battle and will be forever separated from God and God’s faithful followers.

Did you hear that?  Even with a perfect government in place Satan will be able to gather people who willingly choose to fight against the ruler, against Christ.  The problem has never been a poorly run government or an economic bailout or an unmerited war or an incapable leader – even in a perfect government people will revolt.  The core issue has always been and will always be the heart of man.  We are fallen and imperfect.  Our human sinful nature is in conflict with what is right and true and holy.

Today was a monumental day in our country.  We inaugurated the 44th President of the United States of America.  Today we inaugurated the first black President of this nation.  The events were impressive as usual, though there was an added flare of emotion as this marks another ‘first’ in U.S. history.

I did not vote for Barack Obama.  I do not agree with most of his policies and have a different philosophy on the role and purpose of government.  I will, however, do my best to respect him as our President.  I will try my best to submit to his rules and laws as long as they do not compromise my adherence to God’s highest authority.  I pray that the decisions President Obama makes will ultimately bring blessings upon our country.

I will not, however, join the voices that deify him.  There has been so much talk of hope around this election and this President.  I understand the desire to have a competent government that generally serves its people well, but in what exactly are we being asked to place our hope?  Hope in an imperfect government?  Hope in an imperfect man?  I can’t hope in that because I know it will inevitably leave me disappointed.  I am not trying to be cynical, but am merely acknowledging that no mere man and no one administration will ever wash away the world’s problems or the country’s problems.  Rather, my hope is in the One who can make this promise —

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Revelation 21:4

President Obama is intelligent and well-spoken.  He will be a face of endless opportunities for children that think they have limits – they will think about what could be instead of simply what is now.  But there is only one perfect and holy One that can save me from my fallen, sinful state and there is only One that can uphold such lofty promises as offered in Revelation 21:4.  My hope is in him.

Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. Psalm 25:4, 5

In the Spirit of the Olympics

It is impossible to watch the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing without evoking a sense of nostalgia for my Olympic experience over a decade ago. As college sophomores, three of my girlfriends and I worked as security guards at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Yes, security guards. Not so much the gun and cuffs type of guards, more like the crowd control type of guards armed with walkie talkies and hip sacks.

The crowds we managed usually took us seriously, though we did not look or feel serious. Our uniforms screamed FOREST RANGER! more than security guard, and as our Ranger Rick hat and black Reeboks went on each day, we tried so hard to transform into no-nonsense guards, but never made it much past giggling teenagers.

At first we worked eight-hour days, but during the second half of our stint our shifts increased to twelve hours. We had a whole lot of thick polyester going on for our company to expect us to withstand twelve hours in Atlanta in August, but somehow we endured. Well, I know how we endured…

…Walkie talkies. Our supervisor reprimanded us repeatedly for abusing our walkie talkie privileges, but the urge to update each other with famous people sightings, event scores, and A Few Good Men quotes was too tempting. In our minds, seeing the Dream Team, Dennis Hopper, Jamie Lee Curtis, etc. were legitimate reasons for walkie talkie usage.

We also endured the long days by trading sponsor pins, an extremely popular hobby during the ’96 Games. Fortunately for us, three stations to which we were frequently assigned were located at the entrances to the Sponsor Village in Centennial Park (the town square of the Olympics). Manning the entrances to Sponsor Village in a sponsor pin-trading world would be equivalent to striking oil in your backyard or finding a Dorito in the shape of Elvis, which you know would sell for millions on eBay. “I need to see your credentials before entering, please. Ah yes, you are with Kodak. And do you happen to have any extra pins today, sir?” In the picture below, Tracy and I had exchanged pins for a gourmet lunch while on duty at Post 33. This station was much tamer than the ones surrounding Sponsor Village and it also had seating, which was not the case with all posts, so we capitalized on these little luxuries as they came our way. (Note my neck garment, a cooler that you could fill with water and freeze.)

But not every moment as an Olympic security guard was bliss. Sometimes the masses leaving a venue were nearly riotous, swarming at us like Alfred Hitchcock’s birds. Sweaty, smelly people angrily pecked at us for denying them permission to take the short-cut through Sponsor Village to other venues. Additionally, the same day Tracy and I enjoyed our shrimp cocktail at Post 33, we regretted turning our walkie talkies to channel 3 (the police channel) as incoming reports warned policemen about a bomb threat in the kitchen immediately behind us.

Then there was the actual bomb. Until this point in our Olympic adventure, our gravest perils were 1) the punctured water bed at my brother’s (Cliff’s) apartment and 2) the non-friend of Cliff that stayed at the apartment for several days during our stay despite Cliff’s demands for him to leave. This non-friend closely resembled Cliff’s cat, Pookie, in that he laid on the couch all day and left one of the bathrooms gritty and smelling of something in the same genus as kitty litter. The water bed and the loitering non-friend were such minor inconveniences though, really arousing more laughter than aggravation. Cliff’s apartment was otherwise ideal. It had the frill of leather couches, yet the environmentally-friendly flare of cardboard coffee tables – perfect for scribbling phone numbers, messages to roommates, and haikus without wasting unnecessary paper.

And Cliff (and his roommate/best bud, Bill) were incredibly hospitable.

Surely I didn't deserve this

On the night of July 27, 1996, however, we encountered peril on a different scale. Off duty and in civilian attire, a group of about ten of us visited Centennial Park to enjoy the sights and live entertainment. As rockin’ as the Jack Mack and the Heart Attack concert was on this stage…

…after about twenty minutes of Jack Mackin’ we were ready to call it a night. Just as we were leaving the park the bomb detonated near this concert sound tower (far left in photo).

We estimated being less than fifty yards from the explosion, a distance that could have easily resulted in serious injury if we were in the explosion’s line of fire. Providentially we did not exit at the same end of the park that we had entered, which kept us away from most or all of the shrapnel. The two people who were killed and 100+ who were injured could not say the same. A couple people in our group suffered from minor scrapes when mass exodus induced mild trampling, but generally we were all safe. We all handled the crisis differently – tears, panic, humor – but each one of us felt blessed.

When we showed up for work the next day, Centennial Park was closed and wrapped in police tape. This pulsating, dynamic time square had become lifeless and eerie overnight. It was a relief to be assigned to stations at other venues for the several days that the park was closed. I spent some time working at the Olympic stadium that hosted the track and field events. I appreciated having the liberty to walk on to the field if I so desired. You know, in case U.S. star sprinter Michael Johnson needed a pep talk or a high five or help carrying his gold medals.

We saw many different sporting events on our time off. The most exciting moment of this volleyball game was sneaking over to the gymnastics side of the building during the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team practice and receiving a friendly wave from the team, including Kerri Strug (pre-broken ankle). The second most exciting thing was discovering that Dippin’ Dots were served at the venue. Not to say that the volleyball game itself was not a thrill, but this was a time when Dippin’ Dots were starting to come alive in popularity. Ice cream of the future?! That’s a big deal!

During a free day reserved for shopping, we stumbled upon a rare opportunity to hold the torch that carried the Olympic flame first from Greece to Los Angeles, and then across the United States…

…before it was passed to Muhammad Ali so he could ignite THE Olympic torch and thus commence the 1996 Games.

It is unfathomable what kind of experience it must be for athletes to participate in the Olympic Games, but I have come to learn that the life-changing experience belongs not just to the athletes and the teams competing, but to anyone who has the opportunity to participate in an event of this magnitude in which the entire planet participates, sometimes with intense competition, but almost always with peace and sportsmanship. It is no wonder the Olympic theme song stirs such nostalgia within me – the tune carries a piece of the world’s history, but it also carries a piece of my history as well.