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.
This firstborn daughter of mine has kept me on my toes from that moment in a London hostel when the nausea and the swelling finally began to register as meaningful. Somewhere between the first anniversary in Venice and the train ride through the Chunnel, I had lost track of dates, and when I discovered I was already six weeks into motherhood, I had to lie down. She was already pulling me along into a new universe of stretch marks and neonatologists and caring so fiercely for another person that I left the hospital one day after my C-section just so I could stroke her cheek through a maze of NICU tubes.
This firstborn daughter of mine has been the most gracious of guinea pigs to a mama caught unawares. She has blossomed despite parenting mistakes and loved me through my hardest times, times I desperately wish I could uproot from her history and replace with flowers and strawberries and the dark pink everything that makes her world go ‘round. She has taught me more about grace than I could ever learn from books, and she’s the one who reminded my atrophied feet how to dance.
This firstborn daughter of mine continually impresses me with her patience, her focus, her enthusiasm, and her inside/outside/radiating-from-every-pore kind of beauty… which makes phases like this latest one particularly mystifying. Over the last week, when faced with gentle but logical consequences (of which I’m a firm believer) for occasional misbehavior, she’s dissolved into a roiling sea of self-deprecation on the spot. “I’m a bad Natalie!” she sobs. “I can’t do anything right! I’m only bad, never good! Nobody will ever love me!” My protests to the contrary are dashed against unyielding angst. I find myself for the zillionth time having absolutely no idea how to navigate the hurdles of motherhood and worrying that my head will go on strike due to poor working conditions.
This firstborn daughter of mine is so much like me that I want to look away. There is something so agonizingly familiar behind her eyes that I can’t stop remembering how I spent so much of my own girlhood drowning in self-contempt. I too wanted to be good but believed myself incapable; I too felt in my core that I was fundamentally unlovable. I am absolutely dumbfounded, though, as to how Natalie picked up the same thoughts despite completely different parenting methods, completely different cultures, and completely different lifestyles. To my knowledge, no one has ever told Natalie that she is bad or worthless or incapable at anything. We have always drawn attention to the traits we love about her. I am bewildered, but there’s no time to brainstorm in a tempest.
This firstborn daughter of mine, her mirror-soul storming in my arms, is pulling me through old territory in a new light. I can’t tell her the things I used to hurl at myself in the dark—you’re hideous, you’re evil, you’re worthless—missiles targeted at my own insecurities with something like satisfaction. The only thing I know to do is to remind her of the truth, so I draw tear-rimmed eyes close and whisper it into the turmoil… and it finally begins to sound like truth when I admit that this firstborn daughter of mine isn’t the only little girl I’m comforting.
You are lovely, inside and out.
You are capable.
You are irreplaceable.
You are loved.
You are loved
You are loved.
I’ve been doing a bit of blog spring summer cleaning over the last few days—super-gluing links, spit-shining categories, that sort of thing—and I found myself reading back over the first two years’ worth of entries while gravity slowly condensed in the room. My God.
The summer we packed up our lives to move to Italy, my head was unstable territory. I had been juggling four part-time jobs which suited me not at all, my plans for graduate school had been shot down for the second time, and I had stopped writing… which meant I was no longer checked in to my own life. On top of this was the vast unknown of our future. I was in my second trimester of pregnancy with Sophie, and the delay in getting our Italian paperwork had left us literally homeless and living off the generosity of friends.
It was during one unsteady weekend curled up in the guest room of our friend’s house that I started this blog. I was desperate for the outlet, the perspective, the satisfaction, and the community, though I couldn’t have articulated those reasons at the time. Blogging still only registered as a hobby (I had no idea how much the blogosphere had changed since our first fling; Dooce was now a verb?!), but it got me writing and connecting with kindred spirits again, just in time for the greatest upheaval of my life.
We moved. I adjusted piecemeal to the new culture. I pined for friends and set up house and gave birth, and somewhere in the rock ‘n’ reel of it all, depression yawned up underneath like a sudden sinkhole. I’ve had melancholic tendencies my whole life, but nothing could have prepared me for the following year and a half. I never admitted here on my blog just how bad my depression was, but the utter hopelessness in mind still left its imprint on posts about frustration, insufficiency, and unrelenting exhaustion. My personal journal entries delved into far darker territory, and reading over them now recalls the pain so intensely that my lungs flail against its memory.
Have you seen those “depression hurts” commercials with the sad-faced people blankly going about their daily routines? I only wish my experience had been so serene. For an eternal year and a half, my mind was trapped inside a darkness that I couldn’t measure, couldn’t make sense of, couldn’t get enough of a grasp on to fight. I couldn’t describe it without sounding crazy, so I tried to pass it off as allergies, nutritional deficiencies, standard new mom tiredness, even weather-related gloom. (In retrospect, maybe my doctor would have helped me more if I hadn’t done such a good job playing down the crazy.) I didn’t know how to ask for help because I didn’t know what I needed except OUT, and I didn’t have the courage anyway to admit my problems to our new Italian friend-quaintances.
I knew the stigma of mental disorders as faux illnesses, socially unacceptable displays of weakness. I had judged people before for not being able to “get a grip” and even for seeking counseling. So I kept the darkness within the walls of our apartment and only wrote about it on the good days… days in which I could handle getting out of bed and putting on some makeup, maybe even taking the girls to the park for ten minutes. On the other days, the not so good ones, life pressed in from all sides with an impossible weight, and continuing to breathe was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I didn’t want to survive.
Yet I did. No matter how unbearable the panic of being, I couldn’t leave my daughters or husband bereft, and flickers of hope from here in the blogging community helped me keep that resolve on days when darkness started to win. Encouraging comments from kindred souls. Liz’s virtual hugs. Nino’s information on long-time post-partum depression (up until then, I had never heard of it lasting beyond six months). Jennifer’s honesty about her own time in the valley. Prayers from people who read between the lines and got what was going on. Together, they lit the way to my freedom.
And now, more than two years on the other side of endless night, I’d like to follow Jennifer’s lead and show you a photograph from the very worst stretch:
It was taken mere days before I started to get better, and it kills me knowing that the me in the photograph had no idea. I wish I could slip back through a shortcut in time and promise her that spring is already there, even if she can’t feel it yet. I want to tell her that in a few short weeks, she’ll be tossing sun-drenched hair out of her eyes and chasing those sweet little girls through streets full of stories. I want to assure her that she’ll laugh again and that her daughters will forget the tears. I want to show her the beauty masquerading as a demolition project, the grace dissolving her terror of motherhood, and the art whispering promises, and I want her to see this next photograph of an August afternoon two years later on that same red sofa:
There is hope.
It was prayer request time, the same way every other Sunday School class of my childhood had ended, and I was trying to think of something innocuous to say. The previous week after my dabble in hyperbole, my teacher had prayed earnestly that God would calm my fears of dying a gory, cancerous death from my head cold. The rest of the 7th grade girls had nearly hyperventilated with snickering. This morning though, they simply looked bored. I wished I could master the look too, but I suspected it required mascara and/or cleavage. Also, it’s pretty hard to look bored when your bangs are pointing skyward in defiance of your otherwise flat hair (and all known laws of fashion).
Leah, the femme fatale of the group, finally raised a manicured hand. “I’d like to ask for prayer for my little brother,” she purred. “He’s struggling with jealousy because my parents won’t let him wear jeans to church.” She rested her hand just so on her stonewashed flares and fixed me in a catty stare. The other girls followed suit.
I wanted to die. Even a gory, cancerous death via head cold would have been preferable to sitting there facing down the 7th Grade Girls Sunday School Coolness Squad. I knew as well as everyone in the room (excluding our oblivious teacher perhaps) that Leah’s prayer request was a work of artisanal malice handcrafted just for me, but how was I supposed to defend myself? I was, after all, wearing a dress.
The last dress I had seen on any of my contemporaries had been two years before, and it had been a chic little number with barely-there sleeves and tailored lines. My dress, on the other hand, was designed with shoplifters in mind. The skirt alone could have concealed a bin of foursquare balls, the sleeves already resembled 3-liter bottles, and let’s not underestimate the potential of a colonial-era collar billowing over a repressed chest. In that moment, I thought what I had thought a thousand times before with all the determination of an Uncool Kid who has no other recourse: When I grow up, I will NEVER wear dresses.
I haven’t quite stuck to my guns on this one. My husband’s suits hang in front of a handful of sequiny formals I wore in college (and should probably relinquish to the dress-up bin), and I invested in an unpretentious sweater dress before job interviews last winter. However, dresses for church? Well, here’s a typical Sunday morning scenario from pretty much my entire adult life:
I open up the closet whispering, I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.
I take out a dress reminding myself, This one is actually cool; normal people wear things like this.
I put on the cursed garment mumbling through gritted teeth, Lo, I will fear no dresses for I am now a grown woman.
I look in the mirror.
I throw the dress into the back of the closet and put on jeans.
Something’s been shifting for me lately though. Maybe it’s having enough birthdays under my belt that I finally feel more like a bona fide grown up and less like a ten-year-old in high heels. Maybe it’s accepting my girls’ absolute refusal to wear pants because skirts are so pretty, watch me twirl, wheeee! Maybe I finally have the magical amount of distance from that Sunday School room with the catty stares and the loathing of all things poofy. Whatever the reason may be, I spent my birthday money this year on something that would have shocked my 7th grade self—something whimsical, orange (really, is there any better color in the world?), and decidedly dress.
Folks, I wore it to church this morning…
…and I didn’t even cry.
The storm hits, and I have been too distracted to notice the boiling clouds or cobble together a shelter until it’s too late. I am drenched in a fury outside of anyone’s control, at the mercy of merciless elements. Unwelcome memories soak me to the bone. Doubts thunder, and anger illuminates my universe in stark flashes. It is simply too much. My feet give out from under me, and I let the torrent sweep me away.
In these times, I don’t know which way is up, much less whether or not God exists. All I can see is the pounding blackness of my immediate reality, and I start to think that disavowing religion altogether might keep the storms at bay.
But my soul doesn’t actually want a retreat; it wants a fight. It wants a shouting match with someone who can stand up in the force of all my turmoil. It wants a defense from the one I sometimes believe orchestrates the storms, and it wants to be convinced that I’m blaming the wrong things. It wants answers for now and answers for then and answers tucked into the pockets of my future. It wants a way of belief that validates my logic and my experiences, my ever-racing mind and my ever-tired heart.
Above all, it wants peace… and here in the darkness of cloud cover, the anchorless tumult, and the weary absence of intention, I catch an unexpected glimpse of it:
“May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you wherever he may send you;
may he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm;
may he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you;
may he bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors.”
(from Common Prayer)
I’ve written before about how my childhood springtimes in Texas failed to coax any drop of sentimentality out of me. In fact, I couldn’t understand why so many people went into raptures around the end of March. Our primary spring imports were mud and allergies, and the weather’s slow slide from warm to really warm hardly seemed worth rhapsodizing. (It’s entirely possible, of course, that I could have put more effort into noticing the seasonal beauty, but I was always loyal to autumn with its crackling leaf piles and nutty breezes.)
Here in Italy, however, this time of year is like personalized catnip. Only a flimsy fondness for decorum keeps me from rolling around in every patch of wild daisies I see, paws flying and propriety punch-drunk on sunshine. Not only have I stopped minding when others wax poetic about spring, I’ve started my own list of celebratory ballad topics:
- The sight of freshly washed socks tiptoeing on the line rather than slung over radiators to steam dry. (If any of you knows Journey’s song-writing team, you’re welcome to direct them here.)
- The scent of my favorite lemon perfume laced with memories of Sorrento and excitement over this Easter’s camping trip.
- The texture of damp earth, the elemental weight of seeds between finger and thumb, and the whisper-touch of newborn plants.
- The sound of the girls’ laughter spirited away by the open air, waltzing in windows and back out to whirl under their footsteps.
- The flavor of 2011’s first strawberries, sorbet for dessert, and cherry blossoms dished up on periwinkle breeze.
What about you? Does anything about this time of year stir you into a feline frenzy and/or inspire you to poeticize socks?