6 · Aug · 2003

One Too Many

I must be training me for something big.

I used to say this a few times a week. It was a way to encourage myself to go through whatever heartache I was experiencing without giving up the hope that things would eventually get better. I joked that the only reason I could figure that my life was so full of hard lessons is that someday I would be in charge of a something extremely important, say a small country. And everything I had learned through my failures would be the vital information I needed to pull off my new role.

I don't know if I was serious about this fantasy. Mostly, I scaled it down to thinking that I at least had a good shot at owning a successful business one-day or landing a knockout husband with the mind of Gandhi and the passion of Colin Farrell. Still, for several years now, I have been thinking it's just not my season yet; but it will be. At some point, this patience will pay off.

But with every blow to my ego, I alone must scrape up some courage to say those words. Because with each failed relationship or career, a little bit of that hope dies. The problem is that hope, like life, must be replenished.
While no person can ever take the place of another, the hope that something or someone better awaits simply must be found. At least for me that's how it works anyway. And let me say; finding hope in the dust of someone's departure or the remains of a bad career decision is a lot of work. It's become my full time job.

They say there are stages in healing from the death of a loved one and often people grieve their personal failures in a similar way. I believe this to be true because I spend a great deal of time in Stage 1: Denial. A lot of my energy goes into convincing myself that I could not have possibly cared as much about what I lost. With my heart in my throat I whisper to myself that it‚s no big deal. Something better waits.
Denial is much a drug for me as it is an art form. But one can only deny for so long. In the words of Ben Harper:

And now the drugs don't work
They just make you worse
But I know I'll see your face again

The following song is about grieving one loss too many.

Another Distraction

you held me in the palm of your hand
you closed me in your floating embrace
when my dreams fell to the ground
only in you I found escape

but what is left now that the sun has come up
what am I in your well crafted life
an honest heart will not be found
but to cry mistake is so cruel it's a lie

just another distraction on the way
to the life out there I believe lies in wait
just somebody I loved and can't forget
another detour, a different way

in this wake after the storm
what I miss most is our faithless plans
for all my hope of a passionate life
I would not find a better man

just another distraction on the way
to the life out there I believe lies in wait
just somebody I loved and can't forget
another detour, a different way

Penny René

Posted by Penny Rene at 05:45 PM

24 · May · 2003

The World's Greatest Lie

“What is the world’s greatest lie?” the boy asked completely surprised.

“It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives we lose control of what’s happening to us. And our lives become controlled by fate.”
- from The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The year is 1985. I am sitting in a folding cushioned chair at a Baptist Church in Oklahoma and I have just circled what will forever be known to me as “my verse” in my bible. I look at for a long time, ignoring what our pastor, Brother Mike is preaching about in the Sunday morning sermon. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart will be also.” -Matthew 6:21. This is the thing to do when you are a teenager in a southern Baptist church. You choose your favorite bible verse and add it to the end of personal notes or scrawl it on a school folder so that everyone will know how godly you are. Around that same time, a corny Christian band called Glad had popularized the verse with their recording of a song by the same name. The chorus went something like this
Where your heart is, there your treasure will be
Where your heart is, the whole word see
Where your heart is

When I think of it now, it makes me smile. I was so naive. But eighteen years later these words come back to me like lightning. And they are even more relevant, more personal than ever before.
This time I am walking up to the citadel area in Sighisoara, Romania. It was last month, in fact. I stop to catch my breath and I turn look up to the sky to wink at God. “200 or so steps.” I tell him. “You do have a great sense of humor.” I have to walk these steps every day on my way to House on the Rock where I am doing grant research in the hopes of becoming a full time volunteer for Veritas. Until this moment, I was unsure if I could live in Romania, though I knew it was more economical and practical for the job at hand. But standing there, breathless among the trees with the towers of the medieval city above me and the river below, I feel as if I am finally home. I feel as if I have finally arrived at a destination I have been running to for eight years. And I always thought I was running from something. My heart was right where I left it in 1995, in the Pearl of Transylvania. And I am singing the lines as I plod along the remaining steps.

I have always believed this verse to be a universal truth. I knew it was true, but it is such a simple fact, it’s easy to forget. Like the rule of gravity. We all know it, but we still complain and marvel when things come crashing down.
When we’re young, we know where our heart is and we listen to it without shame.
At a very young age I spun the globe in our home family room and placed my finger on the Black Sea. At that moment, I knew that reaching that spot was as simple as packing a bag and going. But over the years I was easily distracted and like most people I started to forget that anything is possible. I was being convinced that my childhood dreams were foolish.

But have you ever noticed children have a direct line to God? When my nephew, Connor was about four years old he began telling my sister (his mom) that she shouldn’t worry about him so much because someday when he died he would get to be with Jesus in heaven. This scared my sister. Conner was a perfectly healthy toddler. It was around the same time that she would ask him something like “Who told you that?” And he would reply “Jesus told me” in a perfectly matter of fact tone. A Child’s communication line with the Almighty is clear as a bell. This is before we know the word “religion”, before we are required to pretend we can explain things like love and death.

Three weeks ago I stood at the edge of the Black Sea in Romania near the border of Bulgaria. I watched the waves roll in on the pebbled beach and I wondered what words I could say to you that would make you realize that whatever it was that you dreamed …. No, whatever is that you KNEW as a kid you were born to do you CAN still do.

Desires are placed in us before we are born. Benjamin E. Mays said “Every person is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive, and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done.” And Psalm 37:4 says “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Proof again that God wants to give us what we desire if we only have the heart to ask is Matthew 7:7-11. “…. Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone…. If you then, being evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!”
And for those of you who don’t need God’s encouragement, at least accept mine. Dreams are gifts.

Not everyone sees the Black Sea as part of his or her childhood dream. Some people see a ranch house, or the perfect mountain ski trail. My friend Alex A. sees a backpack full of cameras and a press pass that says “National Geographic”. If you want to be a professional surfer and you happen to be excellent on the board, that not a coincidence, it’s a huge hint. Maybe your career will last one year, maybe it will last 15. Either way, you’ll enjoy doing it. Ask a few elderly friends how they feel about their dreams. My survey says most people only regret NOT going after what they knew in their heart they were made to do. Trying and failing isn’t so bad after all.

Like all great books that know no barriers of language, culture or time, The Alchemist gives us a story that reflects truths that are vital to every human being. Santiago is every boy, every girl. You will swear the Alchemist knows your name and has heard your thoughts. If you happen to be at a time in your life when a decision needs to be made regarding the desires of your heart or your Personal Legend, as Coelho calls it, this would be a good book to pick up.

The thing to remember when considering your calling is that only you know what it is. Take it from someone wasted years hoping her dreams would change and become more convenient for everyone else. Each day that I firmly walk in the direction of my hearts desires I find the path was designed for me and no one else could walk it. And there is a treasure waiting. I’ve seen it.

Don’t believe the Worlds Greatest Lie, now that you know what it is.

Posted by Penny Rene at 02:46 PM

4 · Apr · 2003


In 1989, as the Berlin Wall began crumbling to the ground, other Eastern European countries like the formerly known Czechoslovakia and Romania took the opportunity to free themselves as well. Romania participated in this celebration by overthrowing their government and executing the Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, who had literally them captive for forty-five years. During this process of Revolution, approximately 1000 Romanians were killed.

Ceausescu ranked up there with Osama and Saddam as far as his mental stability and tactics for “improving his people”. With the hope of turning Romania into an industrial nation, he tore apart villages, demolished 35,000 homes and farmlands and stepped up production of factories. The displaced people, many of them poor farmers, were placed in the miles and miles of colorless, cold block apartments. His loyal Securitate officers, through torture, imprisonment, or murder often dealt with any resistance to the government.

In the same way that Hitler sought to remove all trace of the Jews, Ceausescu portrayed the 255,000 Gypsies in Romania as a common enemy of the Romanian people. He wanted to get rid of all Gypsies and planned to create a superior "Dacian" people by selective breeding and population engineering. Ceausescu’s' fascination with Hitler's racial policies was no secret.

During his reign as Romania’s self appointed President, Ceausescu outlawed birth control and abortion. This created the epidemic of 100,000 institutionalized children-a figure that has remained steady to the present. In the eastern department of Constanta, abandoned, malnourished, diseased children absorb 25 percent of the budget today.

Before Ceausescu and his militant wife, Elena were stopped, Bucharest, which had formerly been nicknamed "Little Paris" resembled the ruins of the Roman Empire, whole villages had been wiped out, ninety percent of all Romanians lived below poverty level, the rich artistic heritage had been raped and the infant mortality rate was so high that births were not officially recorded until a child had survived to its fourth week.

Prior to their liberation in 1989, Romania was already one of the world’s most invaded lands and war torn people. In fact, if you sort through the very long history of the people, formerly known and Dacians, you will have difficulty finding a time in which there was peace. The land that is now known as Romania is rich in mountains and rivers, borders the Black Sea on one side and experiences all four seasons. In the summer, the fruit is like candy and the sun permeates every home. In the winter, the snow blankets each city for months, but the mountains shelter the people from threatening winds. The Romanian people are known for their love of poetry and their innovative painters and sculptors. In their prime, Dacians were once the wealthiest most cultured people in the world.

Three months after the country of Romania freed themselves from their powerful dictator, an American professional war photographer by the name of Deborah Copaken Kogan visited the country to document a miner strike in Tigure-Mures. At the suggestion of a Romanian colleague, she visited one of the many hospitals that house some of the thousands of orphaned children, a result of Ceausescu ethnic cleansing. In her book, Shutterbabe, Kogan recalls the discussions before her visit:

----“Hospitals for unrecoverables? What do you mean by that?” I ask. Doru stares at me with a look I am starting to recognize. It’s one where he standing on the far bank of a river, I’m standing on the near, the river is very wide, and we have no bridge. “You know, unrecoverable. Children who can‚t be saved,” he says.
“Oh, I see. Children who can‚t be saved.” I repeat absentmindedly. Except now, I am actually digesting the words, translating them into English in my head. “What kind of kid can‚t be saved?” Doru furrows his brow in confusion. “Lots of kids can‚t be saved. Lame ones, retarded ones, the bastards, the blind.”

And I think to myself, the chasm is too wide. If either of us tries to swim to the other side, we will drown.----

Kogan goes into great, alarming detail of her experience.

---We hear the soft, plaintive moans before we enter the room. There, crammed together into a single crib, on a blanket sodden with their own urine and feces, lie five listless toddlers. They range in age from perhaps one to four years old. Two have no legs. Another looks like he has cerebral palsy. One has drool coming down his chin and a fifth one seems mentally retarded. When the children notice us standing over their crib, they flap their hands expectantly.---

Sound familiar? It would be five years before I step foot in a similar hospital about 236 miles away in Sighisoara, Romania.

During Kogans‚ visit, she found in a hospital closet, the decomposing body of an orphan boy who had killed himself by beating his head against the wall. Nurses performed the autopsy in front of her with a rusty saw on the floor of the bathroom.
By the time I arrived in 1995, soiled mattresses had been replaced and some hospital regulations were beginning to be enforced.

In 2001, I stopped by the Hospital again. At that time I noticed compassion beginning to register on the faces of new doctors, nurses and Romanian volunteers.

In two days I leave for Romania again for a month long stay. Aside from trying to raise money for the humanitarian efforts of Veritas Romania, I will naturally survey the slow recovery of a country that has become as dear to me as my own.

My friend, Dr. Gabi Popa, tells me that the latest crisis Romanians are dealing with is the lack of medical supplies, particularly anesthesia. Patients die waiting for simple surgery and painkillers. Though spirits soared when the country was voted into NATO only months ago, many Romanians are frustrated. For the last dozen years since their Revolution they say little has changed. But asked if they prefer the old Regime, no one will crack a smile.

Today elite, Romanian soldiers are standing alongside American soldiers in Afghanistan. And the border along the Black Sea is filled with US Troops previously located in Turkey, awaiting a decision regarding the constriction of a new American military base in Romania.

I am telling you this story to remind us that nothing good ever comes easy and progress takes time. In my lifetime, I may not see Romania completely recover to the thriving nation it could be. But I have seen the proof with my own eyes that every year the country grows stronger. Every year the people prove to be determined and passionate about their success. And I am confident that one day Romania, without the aid of US protection, will reach out to other countries that are in need of their help.

For 18 months I have been listening to the news reports about the devastating conditions of the Middle East. My imagination is fueled by my own experience with the result of an insane dictator. The circumstances surrounding the Romanian Revolution were entirely different, yes. The people saw a long awaited opportunity for escape and took it. So the thought that haunts me is this:
How tight must the fist around their necks have been, how deep must have been the despair and helplessness of the people in Afghanistan and Iraq that all those people did not feel they could rise up and destroy their oppressors? Surely it is worse than Romania was in 1989. And this, even with my wild imagination, is uncompressible to me.

I try not to be too opinionated on things I don‚t understand. But I am at least smart enough to know that I am only seeing a glimpse of the pain that has been inflicted on these people. When I see the images on TV I think of the long road to recovery and I pray under my breath for the very people who hate us. Anger is, after all, the first step in recovery. If you have ever experienced the death of a young friend you will understand better what I mean. Anger is often misdirected.

“Go ahead”, I think. “Scream and cry - get it all out. But hang in there. Just hang around long enough to see that first bit of change. It will get better. It has to.”

Some people have asked me why it had to be us who „liberated‰ Iraq. What does it have to do with us? Oil? I don‚t know. Maybe in the beginning that was our interest. Or maybe this conflict is simply over the potential threat Iraq poses, not just to the US, but also to other countries in the Middle East.
But then, what does it matter if the end result is that a people who were being destroyed now have a chance to live? Keeping in mind that every man and woman in the US military joined on a volunteer basis, I wonder:

What is a sufficient price to pay to free an enslaved nation? Five American lives? Ten British troops? How many Kurds has Saddam killed? How many women have the Taliban raped and mutilated? How many children have never known peace? If these were Jews being killed in mass numbers and not Kurds, would our opinions be different? And who are we to expect overnight recovery of their compassion and revival of their optimism?

These are questions I raise to all of us who stand on this side of the war. When we watch the relentless news coverage of the fighting it‚s hard to imagine that some of these Iraqi terrorists are worth trying to take alive. The chasm between Us and Them seems too wide. One of us will surely drown, we think. But it is precisely at a time like this our emotions run high and it is easy to not think clearly. It is easy to be angry and waste our energy on anger when active compassion is what is clearly needed. In the face of so much danger, many people feel helpless, even paralyzed.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, "Without justice, there can be no peace. He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it."

As I pack my suitcase for this trip to Romania I cannot help what role I will play in the restoration of the Middle East as a viable, peaceful place. But I am sure of this: there will be plenty of opportunity to give part of myself to this revolution, as it will take decades of patience and hard work from people all over the world to counter act the centuries of terror.

After 12 years of freedom, my Romanian friends will tell you that though progress is slow, it is happening there. With every political election, every successful Romanian business transaction, the people take a step toward cleaning up the residue of their former totalitarian government. Some simply await the natural death of the generation that participated in the ruin of the country. The college students who fueled the revolution are now in their early 30’s and they vow to raise children who will not tolerate the violation of human rights by any regime. Only when these children are adults who actively participate in the progress of business and government, will we begin to know the true potential of the new Romania.

To the Iraqi people, the Kurds, the Muslims, Christians and Jews everywhere who stay true to the original teachings of love for all mankind, to the troops fighting for liberation, the still struggling Romanians and all the civilians everywhere who hate conflict as much as I do, I whisper these words again, “Go ahead. Scream and cry - get it all out. But don’t give up just yet. Hang around long enough to see that first bit of change. It will get better. It has to.”

Penny Rene
Oklahoma City
April 4, 2003

The following lyrics were written by Matt Slocum for his band Sixpence None the Richer. Their latest album, Divine Discontent includes this song along with a beautiful remake of the 80's war song, "Don't Dream It's Over," a Neil Finn song made famous by Crowded House. Strangely enough, this CD gathered dust for the last three years while tied up in contract negotiations and was finally released, in perfect timing, last fall as the conflict with Iraq and the US began to boil.

I look out to the fields where blood is shed upon the ground
I breathe in and breathe out,
Change the channel, mute the sound
I take a match, a cigarette, and a walk to clear my head
My stomach's reeling at the thought of all those human beings dead

I breathe in, I breathe out, then go down to do an interview
About a song, three minutes long, I just need something to do
Especially when my dearest friend was sent to cover Kosovo
His last assignment brought a bullet and now he's gone

Feels like I'm fiddlin' while Rome is burning down
Should I lay my fiddle down, take a rifle from the ground
I need the ghost to breathe a northern gale tonight
'Cause I'm paralyzed, I'm paralyzed

I packed his books up, left the office, went to tell the wife the news
She fell in shock, the baby kicked and shed a tear inside the womb
I breathed in, I breathed out, soaked the ground up with my eyes
It's hard to say a healing word when your tongue is paralyzed

I breathe in, I breathe out
I breathe in, I breathe out
I breathe in, I breathe out
I breathe in, I breathe out

Posted by Penny Rene at 06:00 PM