Saturday, July 21, 2007

Wide Open Spaces

"She needs wide open spaces / Room to make her big mistakes / She needs new faces / She knows the high stakes"

I finally got around to watching Spellbound, which was recommended by Betsy a few years ago. The film follows eight kids, all about 13 or 14 years old, in the weeks leading up to the 1999 National Spelling Bee. Although many of the kids' stories were compelling and touching, I found myself instantly drawn to Ashley White from Washington, DC.

Ashley lived with her mom and little sister in a cramped apartment, and she took the Metro to and from school. She described herself as a "prayer warrior", constantly asking God to reward her hard work. While some of the other contestants had foreign language tutors and computer programs to help them memorize words, Ashley studied every day after school using Scrabble pieces and an old-fashioned blackboard.

When Ashley stepped up to the microphone for the first time during the Bee, I cheered aloud for her. It was hard to watch her stumbling and struggling to spell her first word. She looked really nervous, obviously trying to collect herself. After she spelled the word correctly, she quickly walked back to her seat and burst into tears. It was clear that the stakes were higher for her. Winning the bee would mean a college scholarship, a career, a life beyond what she knows. I don't even know Ashley and my heart broke a little bit for her. I can only imagine what her mother must have been feeling.

One of the things that struck me most about Spellbound is that it was as much the parents' story as it was the kids'. Neil Kadakia's parents made preparing for the Bee a military exercise. His mother actually said, "When you fight in a war, everyone has the same goal." Angela White was not so militant, but she did ad hoc PR for Ashley, phoning everyone she knew to watch the Bee on ESPN and urging the local papers to report on her daughter's achievements instead of that week's neighborhood gunshot body count. Both Angela and Mrs. Kadakia did everything they could to encourage and support their kids, and had faith that everything would turn out fine in the end.

My mother is a woman of incredible faith, a devout Catholic like almost all Pinay mothers I know. Much like Ashley, Mom is a prayer warrior, asking God to grant her and her family various things like good health, a productive job interview, safety, peace. She tells me that she includes me in her daily rosary prayers, even though she knows I don't believe in "her" God anymore. I never fully appreciated the power of Mom's faith and how much it is an extension of her love until I met La Moreneta.

I visited a friend in Barcelona, Spain, this past April, and we took a day trip out to Montserrat, the “serrated mountain” believed to have been carved out of the Catalonian landscape by angels. The Benedictine monastery atop the mountain houses a sanctuary for La Moreneta, the Black Madonna of Montserrat. She is a small icon, thousands of years old, representing the seat of wisdom with the Christ Child on Her lap. After lunch, my friend and I went our separate ways and I lined up with the devotees to see and touch La Moreneta. As a recovering Catholic, I have seen more than my fair share of santos, and I expected La Moreneta to be just another statue.

But when I stepped up to the viewing platform and looked into La Moreneta's serene face, I was thunderstruck. Her eyes were so calm for someone who had brought a child into the world only to have that child grow up to suffer greatly and die for someone else's cause. Yet what could She really do? Her part in His destiny had already been written. Her child, Her heart, was walking around outside of Her body.

It is difficult to explain or understand what happened next, but somewhere inside me, I felt a roof cave in. I could barely breathe as I touched the orb La Moreneta was holding in Her outstretched hand. There must have been thousands of words flooding into my head at that moment; I only understood three: "Thank you, mothers." I was so overcome with emotion, I had to quickly exit the line. I sat on a pew in the prayer chapel and wept for at least ten minutes.

I wept for the emotional distance between me and my mother, all the times I pushed her away when I probably needed her most. I wept for the physical distance between me and my mother, and between her and her mother. I wept in appreciation of my mother's constant faith and love, even when I get myself into situations no mother would ever want her child to be in, or make choices for myself that turn out to be huge mistakes. I wept in profound gratitude that the Universal Mother had helped me understand that if I want to be a mother, I have to allow my heart to walk around outside of my body. I never really understood that until I looked into La Moreneta's eyes. Thank you, mothers.

A day after viewing Spellbound, I read this article, a "Where are they now?" about Ashley White. My heart broke again for Ashley when she expressed disappointment in herself for repeating the cycle of single teen motherhood in her family. "I was always a go-getter," she said. I am sure Angela White always had faith that Ashley would remember that go-getter attitude and make a life beyond what she knows. Ashley is now attending Howard University, thanks in part to a few people who felt a connection to her through the film and helped sponsor her college education. I am no prayer warrior, but I send good Universal Mother vibes out to Ashley as she walks around these wide open spaces.

"Wide Open Spaces" by Dixie Chicks

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