To you, dear one, with the new ring catching light and the Pinterest folder of DIY centerpieces and the momentum of happily-ever-after already spinning you off your feet:
This July, I will have been married for nine years, and my mind is already clicking over, imagining our tenth anniversary with the same bewildered wonderment I always attribute to our future together. Marriage holds its own kind of time warp for me, I guess; our years together have flown by, but I can hardly remember a time when we weren’t each other’s flesh and blood. Even before I met my husband, all the way back to those starving junior high nights, I was fingering the edges of the soul connection that would one day be ours. His and mine, ‘til death do us part.
Only, engagement was the thing that almost did us part. We loved each other, no doubt. Shortly before getting engaged, we had to be in different parts of the country for three weeks, and I discovered just how unwilling I was to live without him. He had my “yes” long before he asked. But then doubt kicked in as if set to activate at the pinnacle of my happiness, and this is why I wanted to write to you today.
Nobody told me how to handle doubts about getting married. Premarital counseling seemed designed to scrutinize us for incompatibilities and then issue us a pass or a fail stamp for our upcoming nuptials, but compatibility wasn’t the problem in our case. My idea of marriage was. I’d always been taught that marriage was a permanent, divinely-sanctioned contract, and in my mind, the divine sanction aspect implied that God had tailor-made one person specifically for me. This idea had been reinforced by everything from church programs to fairy tales, and I didn’t realize until the diamond ring slid onto my finger just how terrified I was of accidentally marrying the wrong man.
When we enrolled Natalie in first grade last September, we opted out of religion class. Even though we share some fundamental beliefs with the Roman Catholic Church, we weren’t comfortable with her learning doctrine as an academic subject. Frankly, I find it incredibly dangerous when any religion is painted in the same black and white lines as grammar or algebra—right versus wrong, subject to a grade—and I’d like to think that we would have opted out of the class even if it had taught our exact beliefs. (Sunday School is a whole ‘nother ball of wax, but it’s easier to discuss what the girls learn there without having to discredit the entire academic system.)
I was at peace with our decision until we picked Natalie up after her first Friday at school. She was as cheerful as ever, happily recounting how she had gotten to go out in the hallway during religion hour and watch the other teachers have their coffee. I was… less cheerful. Bit by bit, Daniel and I uncovered that Natalie was the only child in the entire elementary school in the entire course of its history to opt out of religion class, and the teachers didn’t know what to do with her other than send her out of the room. My heart thudded straight down onto our granite tiles.
I know all too well what it is to be the odd child out… the only kid at the grocery mid-morning, the only girl in our homeschool group wearing a jumper, the only teen not pledging for True Love Waits. I remember the icy sense of exposure and the sharp loneliness, and I’ve never, ever, evereverever wanted to subject my daughters to them. However, that’s exactly what I found myself doing that Friday, wielding religious principles that banished my six-year-old to the hallway.
I hurt all over for her, but Natalie was clearly not bothered by skipping class, so Daniel and I didn’t push the issue. Instead, we talked to the teachers and arranged for her to join the other first-grade class while hers was doing religion. Some of the other parents overheard us, and the next Friday, Natalie was joined by a little boy. For all the countercultural drama we were putting her through, at least she was no longer alone.
The subject of religion class hasn’t really come up in the months since, but this morning, the little boy’s mother caught up with me after school drop-off. “Guess what I found!” she chirped, taking my arm as if this were the seventy millionth instead of the very first time we’d talked. (I immediately wanted to kick myself for not introducing myself sooner. Or, you know, at all.) “Looking through my son’s workbook, I found a little note he had written during religion hour: ‘Dear Natalie, you are beautiful!’” We laughed together, and I felt a little like crying and a little like skipping all at once. She asked about our church (evangelical), and I asked about theirs (Muslim), and it didn’t matter a single bit that some members of both our religions dedicate energy to hating each other. Our faiths didn’t affect our ability to be friends.
And yes, I know I’m realizing things all the time on this blog that are probably common sense to most people and it’s got to be irritating by now, but I realized in those three minutes of conversation that this is the lesson we’re teaching Natalie with our lives here. She and her classmates might not attend the same church, but our families’ homes are open to each other. We share meals and swap recipes and give each other’s children rides, and if I hadn’t been bracing myself so hard against alienation, I might have noticed sooner that there was no need. Our differences don’t prevent us from loving each other well. Our separate journeys with God don’t make us enemies. That this is even possible makes my soul giddy with hope, and I find myself grateful in a way I couldn’t have imagined last September that my daughter gets a front-row seat.
It popped up on my Facebook feed last summer once, twice, fifteen times before I started seeing it discussed on prominent blogs. Entire circles of social media lit up at once in a universal Aha! moment at the idea that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we compliment their beauty. Lisa Bloom’s article is fascinating and powerful (if you haven’t read it yet, it’s well worth three minutes of your time!), and I am grateful that voices like hers are being heard over the endless glittery din of beauty propaganda. I appreciate her point that commenting on a girl’s beauty disrespects her mind and sets her up for a lifetime of body image issues. However, I also disagree.
I grew up within an extreme religious subculture that required parents to squelch their parental instincts in favor of specific protocol. Our lifestyle encouraged education and Colonial-era homemaking skills while discouraging physical beauty, so most of the compliments I heard growing up fell under the category of accomplishments. My parents freely celebrated my brains and talents, but what I heard even more acutely was the silence when I’d model a new dress.
We didn’t have a television and I wasn’t allowed to look at magazine covers at the grocery store, but some innate girlish part of me had an idea of what beautiful looked like, and I knew it wasn’t me. Few things throughout my childhood hurt as badly as looking in the mirror each morning and feeling sure that if I were even the tiniest bit pretty, someone would have mentioned it to me. I despised my fair skin, my strawberry-blonde hair, and my gangly legs with their perpetually skinned knees, and I absolutely loathed the freckles splattered across my cheeks. In fact, I carried such a low view of my appearance with me to university that I had no response the first time a classmate told me I was beautiful. Clearly, the man was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. (Love you, dear!)
Self-esteem is an ongoing issue for me, but I determined early on not to pass my history of mirror-hate on to my two daughters. The first half of my strategy is by far the hardest: appreciating myself. Every disparaging comment I make about my figure, every gesture of disgust or embarrassment, every dismissal of compliments is soaked up immediately by my girls’ big blue eyes, and it’s scary as hell to remember that I am their introduction course to womanhood. My words about myself will affect what they see in the mirror for their entire lives, and you know what? That day when they survey their own stretch-marked mama bodies and feel like someone rearranged them without their consent and consider the merits of muu-muus and wonder where to even begin with the concealer, even then they will be radiantly beautiful. Which means I have to accept the possibility that I am too.
The other part of my strategy is less about reversing thought patterns and more about giving my instincts permission to love unabashedly. My girls are both artistic, imaginative, curious, and kind; they do brave things and learn from mistakes, and I let them know how much I admire them for it. They are also beautiful. It’s the truth, and my defense against mother-bias is that I’ve never met a little girl who wasn’t beautiful. Their innocence and mischief, their uninhibited smiles, the darling gaps of missing teeth, the residual glow from heaven’s handprint… pure beauty, yes?
I can’t keep such precious, transformative truth a secret, so I tell them. I talk with my daughters about books and brains, but I also let them know how their loveliness fills my eyes to overflowing. It’s just a comment here or there, nothing pre-meditated, but when their daddy smiles proud and tells them they’re beautiful, both six-year-old Natalie and four-year-old Sophie respond in delight: “I know!” There is no trace either of self-deprecation or of conceit (though I’m working with them on a more socially acceptable response) and not even a whisper of wishing they were different. They are beautiful, just as themselves, and they know it.
I follow the same philosophy when talking to the girls’ friends. Their appearances are never the focus of conversation, but I also don’t ignore their new haircuts or sparkling smiles or the outfits they cheerfully cobbled together themselves. I am all too aware of the images and ads that will dog them their whole lives about not being skinny or tan or fashionable enough, and I hope that my voice carries more than its share of weight when it tells them that they are enough. Even in first grade, they are inside-and-out beautiful, and I want them to know this to their core before marketing campaigns try to convince them otherwise.
I believe that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we ignore any part of who they are in an effort to control their priorities. I believe that our instinct to celebrate their loveliness in addition to their intelligence and courage and talent exists because we are meant to be holistic beings—soul, spirit, mind, and body. I believe that beauty and brains are in no way mutually exclusive and that we need to stop perpetuating the myth of Either-Or. I believe that our children need to hear every bit of the good we see in them and need to hear it often enough to start answering from a place too far within them for media onslaughts to touch…“I know!”
Everywhere, it seems, I’m reading about Lent, and I’m trying to let the words sink in, but they float just above my level of comprehension. Ashes, fasting, sin, mortality, dust to dust… Maybe it’s because I’ve never attended a church that practiced Lent (though I know that’s not a prerequisite to participation). Maybe it’s because I’m on such tenuous terms with organized Christianity. Maybe it’s because words like “sin” and “fasting” shut me down trigger-quick with oppressive memories.
My being with you this year doesn’t just refer to posting more often. The internet offers a shiny, gilt-framed backdrop for whatever image of ourselves we want to project, but it’s a hollow allure, this self-sponsored PR. If I’m only offering a mirage of who I want you to think I am, any attempts at connection will vaporize with the illusion, and I believe that connection is the reason we are on this planet together. Thus, with = authenticity.
Are you ready?
As far back as I can remember, the Easter season has symbolized a very personal kind of brutality to me. The story of Jesus’s crucifixion is horrific, no matter the religious paradigm. A man who devoted his adult life to teaching kindness, spreading hope, standing up for the marginalized, and living out compassion is tortured to death by religious leaders who feel their legalistic system threatened. The injustice is instantly recognizable, the tragedy deeply felt. And it is all my fault.
That’s what I was taught from the beginning, that the shards of glass ripping his back to shreds, the iron spikes hammered into his wrists, the agonizing hours on the cross as his lungs collapsed were all my fault. It sent me into hysterics as a young child. Hearing the unthinkable details of Jesus’s suffering and then being told I was responsible was too much for my heart to handle intact. Jagged, uncontrollable laughter spilled through the wound, and my guilt doubled. No punishment was enough.
“Jesus died for your sins.” I swallow hard every time I hear this line at church, wondering what concept it is shaping in my daughters’ minds. I know that many people take it as a message of hope and love, but I have trouble seeing the barbarism behind the statement. Death by torture is somehow the sacrificial equivalent of my imperfection? Is it not enough to acknowledge my need for redemption without also accepting the blame for Jesus’s death? More often than not, these questions have led me down a spiral staircase of doubts from which I couldn’t see hope, not even a glint, through my anger at God for orchestrating such horror.
I can’t turn off my mind or cauterize the raw edges of my heart against pain, but I have learned to look through new eyes. A few years ago, my friend Rachelle Mee-Chapman’s article Your Kindergartner Did Not Kill Jesus, and Neither Did You helped me see the Easter story as a powerful continuation of Jesus’s life rather than a violent tit-for-tat. Gerry Beauchemin’s book Hope Beyond Hell showed me a God of love instead of torture. Other resources, music, and open-minded conversations have helped me find a third path beyond blind acceptance of religious dogma and angry rejection of the whole Christian construct. I can now love Jesus honestly, without having to shoulder or celebrate his death.
I admire those of you who make sacrifices during these forty days in order to draw closer to God, and I want you to know that I respect your ashes. They aren’t for me, though, at least not in this stage of my life. I’ve spent so long pinned in the dust by Jesus’s suffering that meditating on it now would be like returning to a prison. Perhaps I will be able to do it one day when my new perspective is strong enough to cocoon old wounds. But for now, I’m focusing on words and life instead of sin and death, meditating on the kindness Jesus taught rather than the evil he suffered. My soul was designed not for guilt but for grace—bright, sweeping, extravagant grace that becomes especially personal to me when I meet with God here on this third path and (s)he loves my split heart a little closer to wholeness.
Photo of Vesuvius snapped on Easter morning 2010
A difficult-to-replace light bulb in our dining room burned out this morning just as I was sitting down to teach an English lesson, and the day never really recovered its glow. Between heavy-handed clouds and a tricky relational situation, the hours slumped by with my mind sticking increasingly to the soles of my feet. Some days are just downers.
But you know, every time I catch myself brushing off a bad day as no more than a 24-hour inconvenience, gratefulness swoops the air from my lungs.
Nearly three years ago, I wrote the following journal entry:
I found a pocket of calm today, but it doesn’t suit me. It’s the kind of calm that comes from heartsickness rather than peace, and I can tell I’m not fooling anyone. I’m in a low place right now. Really staggeringly low. Last night in bed, I told Daniel, “I can’t find my heart anymore,” then my eyes clamped shut. He whispered, “I miss you,” before falling asleep, and I lay awake most of the night feeling heavier than I thought was possible.
I see strange shadows inside my eyelids these days, as if everything familiar has become frightening. Writing requires me to rip words out of dental cavities, one at a time, and I don’t have the pain tolerance to finish what I manage to start. Smiling takes even more effort. I feel horribly alone, but I still crave loneliness. The freedom to hide. Not having to fake sanity for my family’s sake or to force insanity so someone will help me. I want a respite from the world’s problems, starting with my own brain.
At least I put on makeup today in honor of Natalie’s birthday. That’s something.
Alzheimer’s runs in the female line of my family, and I’m bracing myself for the day when memories begin to trickle through my fingers, but no matter how many years I live or how many senses I lose over the course of them, I will never forget what it felt like to wake up suffocating, morning after pitch black morning. I will never forget the way depression tortured my mind into believing it wasn’t depression at all, only some mental inadequacy. I will never forget how bad days back then teetered on the serrations of a knife.
Today wasn’t one of those days, and for that, every inch of my muscle memory breathes gratitude. Today, a light bulb burned out, and the weather glowered, and I had a few frustrating conversations… but I had some great conversations too. I sat on my husband’s lap at the dinner table and grinned kisses to the delight of our children (and eternal embarrassment of our teenage house guest). I read stories with the girls and chased them shrieking around the house for tickle wars, and I tucked them well-loved into bed. I accomplished things that I’m proud of—you better believe that cleaning the kitchen is up there—and laughed often.
Bad day? I think not.
Last September, Sarah Bessey shared an incredibly touching post about the prayer of a two-year-old girl when she didn’t know how to express hurt over her parents’ failing marriage. The little girl simply prayed through her tears, “Jesus. Mommy. Daddy.” and trusted that he would understand.
Perhaps that post touched such a deep chord with me because I don’t know how to put words to prayers either. In the religious culture of my childhood, prayer was a minefield requiring spiritually PC language and doctrinal gymnastics while we conjured up select interpretations of scripture like robed genies to our aid. Talking to God required as much ceremony and flattery as approaching a volatile dictator; it was more strategic groveling than anything, and it wounded me all the more for being labeled as love.
I knew the right words, but they came to represent a complicated and soul-mangling kind of subservience to me. Even now, if someone puts me on the spot to pray aloud, I can feel the old scripts grind into my heart with muddy boot heels. (Hopefully, no one notices me tripping flat over the initial “Dear God…”) For all my belief in a rule-breaking, boundlessly loving God and in miracle answers, I still can’t bring myself to frame requests with words. I won’t go back to groveling for scraps of divine favor.
So I feel prayer, and I soak it in through my headphones, and I breathe it on the open air, and I feel our connection the way I sense light through my eyelids. However, none of it quite replaces the intentionality of conversation… and so I turn to this.
Jesus. The friend being torn slowly apart by divorce proceedings.
Jesus. The friend heartbroken by infertility.
Jesus. The loved ones facing major life decisions.
Jesus. Our own major life decisions.
Jesus. Our finances.
Jesus. Our marriage.
Jesus. This complicated soul-life I wrestle and grow and wake with.
And I trust him to understand.
Our house is an infusion of morning sun, all the shutters I closed as tightly as my own rib cage last night wide open and relieved. They hadn’t really reassured me anyway.
We got some more horrible news over the weekend, and then there was a break-in in our neighborhood (“A house just like yours!” blurted a friend caught up in the momentum of her story), and my dreams have leeched blackness from the night. In them, there is malicious stealth and violation, and the fear is thick enough to suffocate my lungs into waking. I lie awake at 2, at 3, at 4, straining for sounds I don’t want to hear. I am afraid all the bright day of night’s return.
I have never been afraid in this house before, and I had hung hopes on the theory that my nightmares were connected to place—the apartment building where the prostitute was murdered while we slept, the house harboring tales of demon possession, the bedroom with lace curtains which never stopped flickering after a neighboring house burned down. When I was a child, night was terror, my imagination weaving torture and shame into my already overburdened subconscious.
I am no longer a child though. I am years and continents removed from that darkness, and I had temporarily forgotten this way of breathing sharp through the wee hours. I had forgotten that closing the shutters only serves to trap me in with my fear. My fear… and hers.
My little daughter, my bouncing Sophie with the sunbeam hair and the bedroom still covered in 4th birthday balloons, is having nightmares too. She tells us the details, and I comfort and soothe and then wage midnight wars against her monsters as I lie sleepless and shaking from mine. If you want the raw truth, I lie there daring God to treat her differently than he does me. I rage through the stifling dark that if he fails to protect her precious mind too, she will turn out like me, and for all of the threat I want it to convey, it always ends as pleading. Please, please, please, leave me to brave my fear alone, just come through for her. Just let her have peace.
I have never been a fighter; my soul shrinks away from violence, and you would not believe the amount of Pepto-Bismol necessary to get me through any kind of confrontation. But this is something different. When it comes to protecting my daughters from harm, I would dash into battle brandishing the nearest available cooking utensil. I would face legions alone, no hesitation. I don’t know how to stand between the night and our minds though. I don’t know how to protect my little girl from the darkness of this imagination we share. I just wish I could lock the expansive light and serenity of this morning in with us when I close the shutters tonight.
Sometimes I just need to slip outside in the deep breath between day and night.
Dusk is scuttling across a fickle moon, and the wind is a blue-gray cat; I feel her prowling in my bones. The arched conifer that always makes me think of “Starry Night” dances in silhouette while windowpanes flicker and flame across the valley.
This time of day has always held witchery for me. It loosens my grip on reality, tilts wildly under my feet, and turns my eyes giddy and galaxy-bound. It once sent me sprawling in a forest during Capture the Flag, and my clearest memory of that evening is not being able to find my way back up in the whispering half-light. I hated the dusk then (as a freshly face-planted teenager well might), but tonight, it thrills.
I’ve been needing an escape route from the drudgery I’ve wallowed into lately, and a cosmic tilt-a-whirl seems to be just the thing. My bones have needed to prowl. My silhouette has ached to dance. My eyes are long-overdue for a spin up and up, past street lamps and clouds and thought and into the starry ether beyond.
August 3rd slipped by this year without a hint of fanfare (unless you count a dirty house as a celebratory tradition); it was a normal Wednesday in a normal workweek in a normal summer, and it completely slipped my mind that this normal was once the sheer unknown gaping underneath.
Four years ago, we packed our lives into a motley assortment of boxes and tracked a thing with feathers across the Atlantic. Through miracle and determination, Daniel had found a job here that fit his abilities perfectly, and the opportunity to finally, finally take on our dream was marvel and terror at once. Some nights, we danced in a buzz of ideas, lit from the inside out with the champagne-glow of adventure. Other nights, we lay creased in thought, my hand resting on the precious variable in my womb as the whens and hows circled like vultures overhead.
There was no gingerly edging off the beaten path, no feeling out each new step from the safety of solid ground, no road signs assuring prosperity in 4,500 miles. All we had was the blank expanse of possibility and the faith to leap, spurred on by knowing our options boiled down to courage or regret. We took the leap, and on August 3rd, 2007, we landed on Italian soil to begin forging our new normal. In the four years since, we’ve settled into the comfort of friendships and routine, language becoming ever less of a barrier and the Italian culture sinking ever deeper into our bones. It’s more than we could have hoped for when we boarded the jet back in Philadelphia…
…which makes this new drop-off all the more dizzying.
Daniel has turned in his job resignation. It was necessary for a variety of reasons, and it was time, but oh. We’re here again with the buzzing ideas and circling questions, minus one occupied womb and plus one meticulously written business plan, and while there are possibilities that make our heads spin with goodness, they’re still only possibilities. Our now-normal has a windblown pang to it. I keep taking mental inventory against my better judgment and trying to work out which facets of our life—home? church? friends? money?—will still be in place come Christmas. My heart balks as the calendar pulls us forward.
Never mind that we wouldn’t be here in the first place without that leap off the edge of reason; I don’t want to do it again. I don’t want that momentary weightlessness above the dark pit of my imaginings. I don’t want to have to rely so completely on a divine intention I still have difficulty trusting (and sometimes believing at all). I just want someone who can peek into the future and put a stamp of guarantee on our steps before we plunge into them. I would like the risk eliminated altogether, thankyouverymuch.
But if I’m honest with myself, it’s only the narrowest bit of my mind that’s clinging to the notion of safety. The broader scope of who I am recognizes that ours, like any good story in the making, runs on the cogs of adventure. These tenuous days swinging between doubt and hope are paragraph spaces in an unfolding work of art that teaches us to live as protagonists rather than as background filler, and the process is nothing short of exhilarating.
It seems clear that August 3rd has served its time as a memorial to our story and is now ready to pass on the honor to a new date, a new landing—whenever and however it may be.
Sophie is wailing, “But I wanna sleep with the verminnnnnnnnn!” and I am saying, “Sorry honey, but you got to sleep with the vermin last night, and you girls have really got to stop fighting over it, especially considering the vermin is mine” when it occurs to me that this is not something a normal family would discuss at bedtime. Or ever.
The pestilence in question is a plush pastel snugglebug that a high school friend gave me to commemorate our mutual loathing of Kafka. His novella The Metamorphosis was part of the curriculum in our AP English class, and the opening line was sufficient in itself to scar me for life: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” If your muscles aren’t violently twitching themselves out of your own skin right now, I’m not sure we can stay friends.
However, even with the squeam factor and the bedtime squabbles, I hold my vermin dear, and this is why: in that same AP English class, I received my first D.
It was only a couple of weeks in. I had been coasting along on the natural rapport I’d always shared with academia (not counting math, of course), cranking out essays that met my teacher’s checklist of requirements. And then, wham—my first D, branded onto my analysis of Knowles’s A Separate Peace in red ink. My teacher, understanding me far better than I knew, called me over after class to explain. I could do far better, she urged. I had been churning out the bare minimum I needed to maintain my GPA, but my writing had carried the dead weight of a chore. “This will be easy to remedy,” she assured me with a smile.
That was the day I began to see the English language as a flea market of unsung treasures. I sat down to write my next assignment with new eyes, turning other people’s words over in my palm until I found a new fit for them. Living books reached out for living responses, and checklists became nothing more than display cases. I still have my papers from that class, tucked into a manila folder for posterity and the occasional re-reading, and my essays after that D reflect the joy of writing which later inspired my switch to an English degree program (after two false starts) and breathed this blog into life and continues to tug me like a tango partner to the page.
The final exam in that AP English class twelve years ago was an analysis of Kafka’s use of distortion in The Metamorphosis. Even if the topic hadn’t sent my delicate sensibilities into convulsions, each of the book’s characters was deeply unlikable, and I let my loathing for it all carry my essay past the cut and the dry. It received an A+, but that’s not what compels me to steal my plush vermin back from the girls’ room when they’re not looking.
No, I forego the inspiration boards and idea forums and artistic e-courses and instead use this adorably revolting toy to remind myself that a heart-blank page is easier than I think to remedy.