Scattershot

I have been frustrated the last couple of times by trying to work on coherent thoughts and losing concentration, time or energy about 2/3 every time. I don’t (at the present moment) feel like I actually have a coherent thought to get out, so maybe, hopefully, I won’t be disappointed 2/3 away through and pushing ‘publish’ with dissatisfaction and disgruntlement.

Relinquish. Receive. Beauty. Communion. Trust. Seek. Listen. Wonder. Witness. Confession

Previously, I had only one word for Sabbath, and that was ‘rest.’ I felt compelled by this being a concept God introduced along with creation, apart from the giving of the law, yet also distracted by “He is our rest,” and also, with frank honesty, a pile of to-do lists

Still, I’ve been fighting a building anger that I don’t have time to seek God. Even putting that into writing makes it obvious that “time” isn’t really the root issue. There are certainly things I don’t want to surrender that should be let go of — quite frivolous things, really, but all things standing by figure for the desire to be in control.

But there is also the problem that I have inescapably Grown Up. I passed the dread line of 30, I went and got a stupid doctorate degree. The starry-eyed time of dreaming about what life will be ‘when I grow up’ is quite passed, mostly, I think, replaced with the raw terror of running out of time. Realizing better now how incredibly fleeting time is comes the desire to ‘make something of it.’

Partly I think I swallowed accidentally while attempting to swim just a bit too much of the salty brine of school. The parts about having a defined plan, discrete goals, clear-cut deadlines, and then simply acting on them with puritanical industry. It was certainly pushed at me a lot, and looking around at that world, seemed to be the making of the sausage: audacity to declare the future, and then some dreadfully long hours to make it happen.

Looking at my life rapidly shrinking in front of me, I’ve felt a compulsion to define what I want and make it happen, like a properly educated individual (with very little actual living experience). But then infuriated by these attempts, because whatever else I do have, I have an ear I keep trying to tune closer and closer to truth, and none of the words I was telling myself had that tell-tale ring that guides you with the certainty of the North Star.

Do you believe that change can be forced by the outside in, or really only happens from the inside out? For me, this has not ever really be a question of doubt: absolutely, change only comes from the inside out. The outside in can throw up a veneer, it can pass to a quick glimpse, it can show an image. But to be the solid truth from bark to core, it has to be from in the inside out.

Somehow, though, I’d walked my way down a path of trying scheme appropriately to forge my outside circumstances thoroughly enough that my insides would transform (all the while give lip service to ‘of course, this must come first from the heart’). I hate how thoroughly we can deceive ourselves

That makes all of my to-do list a have-to, because I do have to — to obtain my objectives and my goals on my timeline by my strength. So rapidly I buy the lie it’s only responsible of me to do so. It’s an expensive lie, though; costly on so many different fronts.

Basically, what it comes down to, is the question of if life is taken or if it is received. If it is to be taken, there is no earthly rest to our labor at all. And if it is given, then the greatest attentiveness must be to the One Who Gives. It does you little good at all to be chasing after all these other voices while the One who is actually in fact handing you out your life is patiently trying to explain to you how this goes. As with that frustrated child on a party sugar-high who didn’t listen the first three times, and now is in serious melt down because of unforeseen circumstances, there is wailing that someone should have told them what was going on. No doubt the patient parent is holding their forehead and trying to hold their tongue

I read somewhere — or maybe heard? It maybe an Emily P. Freeman podcast — that the Sabbath is not taken; it is kept. All this weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth because there is no time to rest, only there is, only you keep giving it away for things less valuable. That was convicting for me, but not so much so that I didn’t keep trying to find better and better solutions for to-do’s and productivity and getting-these-monkeys-off-my-back.

With great grudgingness on my part, I felt goaded toward a book on “Sabbath keeping.”  I don’t know why other people always pull up children as examples of innocence and wonder. I remember being a child, and frustrated melt-downs and grudging obedience seem like much more apt embodiments of childhood. I don’t even care for the author and tone of the book (in deference to I suppose is the reason I don’t name them), but as far as I’ve read so far. . . well, more often than not, I find myself almost rolling my eyes. At myself. Because this does ring of the truth, truth I’ve already uncovered, already experienced, already known, already argued for — and somehow managed to deliberately and I suppose disobediently put aside.

Speaking of asides, I’m beginning to doubt if there is any value or applicable worth to practical techniques of surviving this life and turning oneself always back to God. Careful, I don’t mean those techniques or forms aren’t valuable, or that there isn’t any worth in trying to cope with this life and find God. I just mean, the more I look into it, the more it seems to me like these things are so individualized than to offer any assistance to anyone else. Their finders and keepers are have comfort and steadiness by them — joy to them! But it feels a bit like trying to wear someone else’s face. It only gets there by the life you live anyhow, and to pick up someone else’s and try it on. . . it’s strangely disconcerting, even though it’s a perfectly fine face.

I’ve tried several different iterations of counting blessings, or list makings as a way to journal, and I can keep it up (by effort!) for a few months, but never enough to make it life sustaining. Just a different type of chore. I suspect, should I ever find a rhythm that works for me, it will seem horribly odd and unlikely to others — just as how I sleep better in an un-made bed. I still keep leaning toward wanting to know what everyone else is doing (and so have a vague fascination with largely arbitrary ‘church calendars’), but I think it’s mostly because I’m trying to escape the work of figuring it out myself. I kind of want to take the easy way out and have the answer handed to me instead of doing the more honest work of seeking, which is where my only real answer will be.

What I do know is that I have a long list of things that I desire, that don’t seem to fit any of my carefully plotted goals. I just want them. And as soon as I issue the edict to myself to rest (which is a very hard fought war, even in the midst of sickness and ill health), I immediately revert to those things. When I declared today that I would rest, sabbath-style, today, and sacrifice my mouse-laid plans of accomplishment and needing — I had this little thrill that maybe now I could actually have time to read poetry.

That in itself was a little stunning.

I didn’t even think that was on my list of deeply wanted things.

I mean, I knew I wanted it, vaguely, in the back of my mind. It irritated my highly to recognize that some individuals get to spend vast swaths of their time — even, in many cases, earn their livings — deeply engrossed in “The Arts.” I want to be deeply engrossed in the arts! And I’m angry that I can’t find some way to square my industry and productivity and manufactured sense of responsibility with putting even half as much time as I want to into The Arts.

I’m not swanky. I’m not pretentious. I just want to.

Also, I’m angry that I can’t figure out a proper plan to allow me to.

But the Sabbath wasn’t just a time to rest. It was a time to look at all that God had done. If my artistic involvements are of God, I don’t need a 5 year, carefully delineated — in a bullet journal — with washi tape — plan of how I will get there. I need to sit down, shut up, listen to what God is saying, and receive what He is giving (up to and including  — wait for it — rest).

That looking to see what God has done, to me, is about beauty. It’s looking for and participating in the beauty, because the beauty is from Him. What are the beautiful (never mind if impractical) things to observe and do? Are those not good things for a sabbath?

Mostly, I’m in a dreadful hurry to write this down as a testimony to myself. A witness that at one point, I did too know better. That this is a thing that resounded with truth and should be held on to.

But also I am a little hesitant, wondering what a deliberate intent to look for God looks like for me. I did read a poem today, A Forest Hymn, and one line got stuck:

Ah, why  
Should we, in the world’s riper years, neglect  
God’s ancient sanctuaries, and adore  
Only among the crowd, and under roofs  
That our frail hands have raised?

 

Why did it get stuck? Because I’ve never felt I was adoring Him while among the crowds. Only ever in those ancient sanctuaries. The more people there were, the less I felt there was anything meaningful going on at all.

Curiously, to me, I have felt a little bit of that corporate worship — more so in the “higher” church services (if you can count things so). It’s curious to me, because I disagree resoundingly with so much of their theology. But I like their liturgy. I like the responsive readings and prayers. I like their more elemental music where we can actually hear our own hearts.

And in some fashion, I’m drawn to a liturgy for myself. I doubt the “church calendar” will give me any satisfaction. But I like the idea of a rhythm and framework to hide myself in, predictable but different, always there but speaking something different, that would give a home within the day. And I can’t imagine myself not giving in, again and again, into petty to-do lists and plans, if I don’t have a More Important framework to build around. If you don’t declare what is important, either someone else does for you, or you spend your time getting grey hairs chasing around minor stupid things that don’t matter in any real scheme of the universe.

Not passively observing. Actively declaring, and disciplining yourself to that confession, and by that I mean “not allowing the pressing importance of reading web-comics to de-rail all values and intentions.” Some things rightfully ought to hold more weight. I don’t mean we never get to unwind. But I do note, wryly, that if I can keep the electric siren away from me, I do seem to fall into prayer a good deal more often. Because I’m not so full on cotton candy and pork rinds that I can’t fit even one bite of pot roast in my mouth.

If life is a process of editing out the things that don’t actually give life and actively seeking the things that do, there are a good many changes that should be made, because there will be much (and immediate) rejoicing, is all. You feel better when you aren’t about to explode from eating junk food, even if it is ok to indulge once in a while.

What I do know was that when I was out of work for three weeks to do nothing but heal, I felt a good deal closer to God and instantly gravitated toward things that fostered that. But when I am busy, I keep doing all this crap that doesn’t help me at all and I feel very far from God — and by far from God, I mean it both ways. It’s so much harder to pray, and so much harder to have any sense that He is present.

It’s not a struggle of knowing the truth. It’s a struggle of pride, of vying for control, and of thinking too highly of my own priorities to put God in His rightful place.

Repentance does not come easily, but it is freeing.

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Maturity comes hard

I am working with two competing thoughts: how the search for “The Best” holds one back from the true depth and breadth of life and how “less, but better” rings true.

The search for The Best means that you don’t recognize the meaning of context and diversity. The Best means there is only one possible solution, instead of a myriad of delightful solutions. There is a right way, and many wrong ways; there is one good thing, and the rest are all inferior. In essence, you are talking about a mindset that leads to constant dissatisfaction that comes from falling short or settling for less than. It is also a mindset that discourages creativity and breeds comparison and imitation. It says the that you just have to pick from the best.

Endemic to this is pride. That you chose, built, bought, found or embody The Best. Along with this is judgement – on anyone who did not chose, build, buy, find or embody The Best. This also means competition. Maybe someone else did better than you in achieving The Best. There is also guilt, when, invariably, The Best is out of your reach. And there is also the inexplicable sadness you can’t quite pin down that The Best is not really a reflection of you, but of hand-me-downs you found washed up on the beach and thought were beautiful, but maybe in a strange, alien way that didn’t quite suit you.

The fear of missing out, the grasping, the imitating, the dissatisfaction . . . it tends to bury you under a pile of More and Stuff. Less, but better, the chant of Greg McKeown, is an updated version of Occam’s Razor, or: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. (That is, More things should not be used than are necessary.)

The trick is, what is necessary or essential? If you truly are ‘obsessed’ with your latest weight loss product, I suppose, to you, it is essential. In order to define what is essential to you, you must first define yourself. When I was a child, I thought this sort of statement was the epitome of stupid. You are you. Duh. What is there to discover? You’ve never been anyone besides you. Did you think maybe perhaps you used to be a different being and half of yourself got lost in the detritus? Well, live at least a quarter of a century, and suddenly that mocking rhetorical question seems quite pertinent and not at all rhetorical.

Surely, it would be essential to strive for the best — saith the chronic (and exhausted) overachiever. Tangle with a few serious health upsets, and suddenly “Survive first, deal with the aftermath later,” seems more reasonable. Somewhere between those two extremes is the quiet pondering that, since the world is irreparably bent toward a certain degree of suffering, is there a way to enjoy pleasantly as large a portion of life as one reasonably might?

Less, but better – to my understanding and current thought process – says that the context and complex situation matter. There isn’t Best, unilaterally. There is most appropriate given the circumstances. Younger me says that is a cheap cop-out from pursing Best, but older me says “the circumstances” are so complex as to require a set of encyclopedias, a few bi-lingual dictionaries, someone with an engineering degree, and a medical professional. It is by no means a cheap cop-out; it’s recognizing that all situations are unique, and therefore complex, and therefore need their own precise solutions — most definitely not someone else’s hand me down solutions. And “less” because basically, life is somewhat of a battlefield and the more complex moving pieces involved, the more opportunities for things to fall apart.

If you are, literally, employed as a house maker, by all means, spray your bed sheets with lavender infused vodka while ironing them, fold them crisply, and store them in cotton muslin bags in your neat and organized and lint free linen cabinets. That reeks of Best, and to some small part of me, sounds incredibly satisfying. In real life, just getting my sheets washed and dried in an approximation of a hygienic amount of time is trouble enough. I don’t have servants – the cook, the gardener, the housekeeper, the butler, the maid. Nope. Just me.

So how do we chose essential? By what makes us most happy? I shy away – this reeks of hedonism. Also, it’s very complicated. What makes me happy today may cause my tomorrow to be miserable. Do what you want to do really offers no guidance. I say this because it can be hard separate it out in the mind from the following suggestion: listening to what tugs at you inside.

That sounds like “happy” but it’s not “happy.” It’s recognizing that our aesthetics flow, in truth, from our values, and our values from our morals, and our morals from our understanding of God and the universe. Somebody else’s happy is not my happy, because it didn’t flow from my aesthetics –> values –> morals –> faith. Faith, as any carrier of it will tell you, does not mean being spared from suffering, because if you weren’t suffering, you wouldn’t need faith.

To attempt to illustrate: I feel immediate relief to be out in nature, and worn down the longer I am away from it. I value the natural world, I believe the less refined things are better than the human-processed artifacts, and at the base of it all, I believe in the God who created the world and find every houseplant I have a testimony to the Maker, it’s own act of worship. Lots of people like plants, and the natural world, but tracing out the whole path will give you a much better picture of how someone will interact with, display, or prioritize such things.

If you believe hospitality to be a priority, it will change the way you structure your house, your life and your days. If you believe your house to be your refuge and castle and domain, it will change the way you structure your house, your life and your days. One who believes the former and lives in the latter will be constantly uneasy, and vice versa.

None of us, I think, is so neat and clean as to have a tidy tree diagram of how our faith flows into our morals, into our values, into our aesthetics. More often or not, I think we are on a bit of a hide-and-seek: when we see something that seems right, we don’t really know why, we just find it Right. So the paying attention part of paying attention to what tugs at you is to better understand what the essential part of that is — the part that really matters. “That appeals to me,” is a feeling; “That appeals to me, because—” is an understanding.

“The Best,” unfortunately, does not ring of understanding. It is itself more of an emotion. “Less, but better,” the phrase I am currently finding a bit of an anchor in the storm while I scramble for my bearings, demands that I understand. What, precisely, am I attempting to achieve? Not generically; not hopefully; not vaguely; not eventually.

think I want to sew all of my own clothes out of linen, preferably dyed myself with dye stuff I’ve gathered personally. But, upon assembling my spec list, I find this:

  • Comfortable
  • least amount of time possible spent on laundry
  • durable so I am not constantly shopping
  • professional-ish, or I can’t wear them to work and that defeats the purpose
  • Able to accommodate the fact that my weight is not currently stable
  • Accommodate my body shape
  • Colors that I find pleasing
  • Preferably natural fibers, but willing to compromise on this if I can get items #1 and #2 met

Basically, that does sum up my specs needed, and in rough order of my current urgency. That spec list in no way lines up at all with what I thought I could define as “Best” – an idyllic sense of what I want the world to be like, not an honest assessment of what life is currently looking like or how to get where I want to be. The argument to move toward what I want my idea of clothes to be like is oblivious to the fact that I can’t have it all. If right now I want to have time to sing, garden, visit, sleep, paint, and be alive — and I can do some of those things if I don’t have a time intensive laundry routine or spend it shopping, again, then the value of idealized clothing plummets. The actual need is something that I can not think at all about, not a thing that requires intensive investment from me to accomplish. What I need is a basic work uniform that requires as little thought, time investment or discomfort as possible. Also, next, get rid of all other work clothes that do not meet that requirement, or at the very least, set them very deeply aside for such a time as the requirement changes. And do you know what a relief that would be? If there were only a week’s worth of clothes hanging in the closest?

Less, but better, means stop trying to be an all encompassing best. Don’t tell me what The Best breakfast is: write me up a spec list of what breakfast needs to be right now, and then we trouble-shoot to figure out how to come up with solutions for that. And then cut out all the other extraneous stuff that you are throwing energy away trying to do.

The shift from one to the other is more troubling and taxing on my subconscious than I would have thought, so while my conscious mind is ready to move forward, I suppose my subconscious needs this meandering path to pick apart and talk myself into it. Logic is by far not all that the world runs on.

Some people, apparently, get paid to write

Maybe I am a writer. Maybe I am supposed to be a writer. This is a strange thing to me, not part of what I thought was “me.”

One of the first things I read when I was sick was the journal by May Sarton that a patient had given me, Evelyn Klie. And I was intensely jealous. This woman actually made her living by writing? Like actually food and housing and heating and clothes? And then Emily P. Freeman talked about scheduling two days just two write and I was kind of in shock. It seemed like scheduling two days to eat ice cream. Wait – again, this is her job. She actually gets paid to do this. How can this be?

I realize that I have always thought writing was a thing I did just for me. Just me. Hence, the ice cream comparison. It seems – no, not frivolous. Self-indulgent? A luxury? I mean, certainly beneficial in small doses, but the idea that it could be considered a monetarily productive activity seems like foolishness to me. I get manufacturing. I get even health care, despite my recent frustration where I compare it to prostitution where we’ll only care for you if you have money. But I don’t understand being paid for art. I’ve never had the luxury of paying for art myself – creating it, even, is hard to convince myself to pay for the supplies. A spiral bound notebook can still be purchased for less than a dollar at the right time of year (return to school) and pens are handed out for free, and I can easily convince myself I’m not wasting much to fill them endlessly. But to be paid for my thoughts, words, ideas? Who has that kind of money?

But I guess people do. I guess technically it is a legitimate source of income. You would think that since I have several family members who have been paid for their words, published in actual print and in digital form, this wouldn’t come as such a shock to me.

But I always put my writing on par with my talking, and people tell me I talk so fast, and I feel like that devalues it – I talk and talk or write and write, and it’s just cheap. Stuff comes out, rarely planned, and probably not worth much. Who would pay for it?

The sneaky voice inside says, ah, but if you got to schedule two whole days just to write (!!), you could be deliberate. Intentional. Edit. Craft. Plan. You know, do it I on purpose, not just barf words out all over the place and see what came out. And do it well.

But it’s one thing to talk to yourself, and another thing to find an audience. The world is full of people talking to themselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that, and that by itself is a useful and valuable thing, and I do not in any way suggest that’s a waste. But there is an honest difference between writing to yourself and writing to your audience, and no matter what some well-intentioned people might have you to believe, your audience is never “everyone.” It just cannot be. So you have to do several things when you sit down to write:

  1. Figure out what you want to say.
  2. Figure out who you want to say it to.
  3. Figure out how to get what you are trying to say to the people who you are trying to say it to.

 

If you stop at the first number, you’re still really just talking to yourself. And that’s fine, but then you aren’t going to get paid to be a writer, or an artist of any sort, really. Note that I did not say you wouldn’t be an artist; I said you wouldn’t get paid to be one. And that’s the crux, is it not? Is this a thing you want to privately cultivate, or something to be monetized?

I cannot ever imagine myself getting paid to sing. Volunteer to sing in public, yes. I have done that already. You would be surprised how low that bar can be. I would love to be able to sing acapella and duets and to just sound lovely. But my innate music-ness is so low, that I cannot see myself being one of the fortunate few to be able to actually be paid to grace people with their presence. Non.

But writing? I circle around that like a carrion beast. But then fly off afraid of a larger predator. But then come back, because maybe not.

I know I can write. I don’t feel angry and disgruntled at the idea of doing for money the way I do when people suggest I sew or knit for money. Those things are valuable only in their sentiment, and no one, in the age of mass production, will pay what truly went into them, and it leaves me angry. That’s a home business I don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole.

Writing is different. The idea that someone actually read and appreciated the words seems like reward enough, and being paid for it on top of it an exciting bonus. And/or a mythological fairytale. But that means:

  1. Yes, you really do want to share writing, and not just talk to yourself. Also,
  2. Nope, you really would not mind being paid to do it.

 

I highly doubt I would ever be in the position to live, house, food, heating and clothes, off of income from writing or other art. But it does very much appeal to me how you can write when it is necessary to write, but the fruit of it comes later. That would at first glance seem to be a dissuasion, at least to most reasonable people, but I truly loathe the grind of having to show up a precise number of hours at precise times, the same every week, in order to get any money. Maybe the body and soul of some people does in fact work that way, but mine seems to follow more the varying cycles found in most of nature. Some days are rainy. Some are sunny. Some days the wind blows with gale force; some days the humidity stifles. To be most alive, I feel as though I need to honor the rising and falling, the stilling and swelling of my body and soul, and grinding through the unrelenting factory of the modern industrial age (including industrialized health care!! As though caring for human beings made in the image of God was simply piece work to by cranked out by the hour!), saps the strength out of me daily.

I know that there are days with writing where it is very hard, where picking the dirt out of your toenails seems like an impending distraction compared to trying to actually place words where they belong. That, to me, is the comfort of the fruit coming later, or the comfort I imagine, seeing as I’ve never had the privilege of being paid for my letters. Though today is hard, the past struggles are still paying off and tiding you over until the next labor is over.

But perhaps I do over-romanticize. I hear a good deal of writers complain about deadlines. Always deadlines! Always missing them! And all I can think is, and what of my over 7 years of college? What of being kept to a clock with another person sitting for you out in the waiting room, endlessly? It’s hard for me to take the complaint of deadlines seriously. Raging self- doubt? That’s my constant companion already. When you cannot take any of the complaints of a profession seriously, I would suspect it is a good sign your glasses are at least a bit rosy.

I still marvel that anyone can actually do that. Get paid to be an artist, enough to make a living. Or even half a living. I see that I am over-using the word ‘actually’, but I am truly having trouble grasping it. It’s never been a thing that I have been able to consider to be a real enough possibility to ‘actually’ reflect upon it.

Of the three things I defined above, I feel like the largest obstacle for me is attempting to grasp the audience I am trying to reach. I think the first and third things would still require a lot of work and effort, but I feel like I know how one would go about doing things like that, or places to start, or rocks to look under, or strings to untie. But I keep getting stuck on: who would actually want to hear what I have to say about anything? Fiction, nonfiction, spiritual, non-spiritual – I have a lot to say, sure. But who would want to hear it?

People say trite things about having family and friends read things, but I can tell you already, whatever I write, my family is most definitely not my target audience, and I know my friends well enough I would write them each something different. Writing to strangers is, well, strange. I don’t know them or what they need. Then you kind of wind up defining your audience by what you want to write, and that feels like a bit of an eyeroll. And not particularly honest, because if you don’t have an audience, you don’t have a payroll. But then there’s the trouble of finding the line between finding enough of an audience to get paid and being a complete commercial sell-out and no longer actually getting paid to be an artist.

This whole post seems stupid, but on the other hand, thinking about being a writer does seem to be a necessary first step to becoming one, although one has to be careful not to get bogged down there. The majority of writing advice seems to come down to: write.

 

Hold Up

Today has been a winter wonderland of a day, which has both made me guilty for not stepping outside and also has quieted me and made me pensive. It is not always easy to be still — often not — but thickly falling snowflakes have a way of settling a soul.

I remind myself that frantic activity is often used as a way of hiding from thoughts and feelings and struggles that one does not want to face, or have the resources to face. As a generalization, being relentlessly busy is a means for a troubled soul to flee or else it is a burden that will very shortly cause a soul to be troubled. Or perhaps both, because life is never simple.

I picked a book up the other day, an expose of sorts of Laura Ingalls Wilder — her life and her writing career, and her fairly insane daughter. I’ve known since I was a child that her writing was “fictionalized” — cleaned up, edited down, showing the things she wanted to show, not the things she didn’t want to show. But every time a book purporting to tell the actual truth comes along, I find myself holding my breath about a few things that I am surprised to discover I am urgently hoping to be true. I feel like I can’t breathe until I confirm (once again) that yes, that part was real. One of those things is Almanzo and Cap riding off into the great unknown in a desperate attempt to save the town. That has to be real. It just has to be real — and yes, it is real.

In stark contrast, I was flipping through someone I barely known on Instagram. He is either an adrenaline junkie or at the very least, wants to fictionalize his own life to portray himself as one. Because there is a difference between recklessness and courage. There is a difference between risking one’s life for the thrill of it and risking one’s life for the sake of preserving others. To my sadness, it seems that both have been romanticized to the point that one has to do a lot of digging through societal cultures and traditions to figure out what is really going on. Risking one’s life for the trill of it has been lauded to the point I can’t tell whether this fellow really feels the way he says he does, or if he is just very nicely parroting the cliche that he’s been told is glamorous– and really is about as destructive as a drug habit. And risking one’s life for the sake of preserving others has been so romanticized that there’s a terrible secret fear it isn’t really true — just the stuff of fantasy and legends, and “heroes” that have been celebrated at the cost of fictionalizing the darkness they have really been through.

As I’m coerced into a bit of quiet and stillness and a chance at some reflection, I remember Paul encouraging people to take note of those who live admirably and to imitate them. That passage always struck me as odd, because are we not just to imitate Christ? Sometimes I think I get a glimpse of an understanding, though. We are by nature comparers and contrasters, measuring, weighing, judging, describing, naming. And even, yes, mimicers. And, if I am right (which well I not might be), the young man who has embraced the Red Bull culture of “adventure” has not so very much done it on purpose as much as what he saw, he mimiced. It appealed to some part of him, even if it was the part of him probing for a way to escape or turn away from something else.

The harder thing is seeing that which we admire — young men riding in to possible death in a gamble there was hope out there somewhere, the courage to take the risk to care for the vulnerable — and observing how very much we fall short. Examining where we’ve turned from that which we know to be good and true, and setting our face to press toward that which is hard, but valuable. It requires a good deal of humility to face up to the fact that it is not excusable to flee from hard things, as though it would be inhuman to actually do such things.

Being busy is far different than producing value. Being reckless is far different from sacrifice. Imitating others is different than imitating what is good. Holding standards is different that pursuing excellence. Both can break you. I guess in some ways, the question comes down to, is it really Worth It?

To determine Worth It, one must return to what is the authority of their life. Power? Logic? Pleasure? For those of us who claim to seek follow Christ, the answer must be God. But that is a humbling, humbling thing. It is one thing to mouth “You are my king” and “I surrender.” It is another to examine your life and recognize all the ways and all the places where you don’t get to decide if something is Worth It or A Priority. That instead you have to accept what God says is Worth It or A Priority or when you are done, or not done, or when you rest or when you don’t get to rest.

The thing about God is, it seems like He’s modus operandi is to be unpredictable. And as human beings, we don’t really seem to like unpredictable. Unpredictable means we aren’t in control. Unpredictable means we are small. I was reading in John and Jesus is doing these wonderful things — an abundant catch for struggling fishermen, a beautiful healing of a person who had been paralyzed — and the reaction is fear, resentment, and in many cases an irrational pushing away. Because the only other reaction is “You are a holy and I am sinful.” And that is hard.

When God says “follow Me,” He is also saying, “stop following all of those other things.” The chapter I was reading in John seemed to be saying a lot of, “oh my goodness, you people have such a pre-occupation with the things of this world. Don’t you realize how terribly fleeting is? Don’t you realize what an occupation you need to have with the things that come after, the things that are not passing away?”

As we come to the end of a year and the beginning of another — an arbitrary marking, but still, a human marking nonetheless — the urge to introspect on what comes next can be nearly irresistible. Oddly enough, the examination of the previous year is usually squirmingly avoided. It reveals all that is small in us, all that is out of our control, all that we thought we had the power to achieve yet could not, all that we didn’t see coming, all that we have no authority to change.  When we think we’ll plan what our priorities will be in the coming year, what we will accomplish, what life will look like in 1 or 3 or 5 years, we are essentially trying exert control. . .on that of which we cannot control. It feels good, because power feels good. But it feels bad, because we know it’s a lie.

Almanzo assuredly did not write in his New Years Resolutions: risk life to save town. The Insta-chap may well write: hike all the highest mountains in this state. You might say they are both admirable, but when we stop to think how we’d like to be remembered or what might survive past the end of the age, it’s the action that could not be planned that leaves us most humble, most convicted that we are not the humans we ought to be.

I did not plan on being sick from September through December, rotating through viruses like a child choosing toys. It ruined lots of my plans, and my human inclination is to assert I won’t be sick any longer, and my plans will work. I confess to being very angry and resentful that so much of my last few years has been confined and crunched to being sick, and yet, still, I assert: this year I will not be sick. I will do things. I will transform my life.

Yet when I look around at the people or traits I admire, it’s the people who have lived small, held loosely, and understood the holiness of the ground that they were on without striving for “better.” I want to seize control, but what I admire is actually obedience.

I don’t want being sick; I want being healthy and marvelously in control of my own body. I don’t want sitting quietly and healing; I want to tackle my to-do list and achieve my goals. I don’t want feeling lost and adrift; I want moving with a purpose and a plan that gives me joy and a spring in my step.

Yet here I am, admiring those who can bear the adversity of this life without complaining incessantly (like I do), who can accept the changes of the reality of their life without fighting (like I do), who can see the mercifully hand of good even as their dreams are crushed or are quietly withering.

God doesn’t care. That sounds harsh, but I think sometimes we do need our breath taken away and to actually look at the naked truth. We’re the ones with the pre-occupation with this world, not Him. He’s busy trying to call us out of it, and we’re busy trying to crawl into it. The things that we think matter, don’t. Our priorities are wildly askew. The change of focus from ourselves on to God is a thing easy to give mouth-space to, easy to commend to others, and a slippery intangible task for ourselves, full of backsliding and doubts and being tossed by every light breeze.

If I seem to have stumbled here and there and back and forth all about through this post, I suppose I have a bit. My drunken weaving is not because there is nothing of importance to be said, but because I know there are no simple 12 steps to figuring life out, to seeking God, or to assure that next year will be better, or I will be better. I don’t expect that I can resolve to live the coming year full of courage and humility.  There is the sobriety of recognizing that seeking God means deliberately turning from or choosing not to do a vast array of things (including many things that are good). But there is little simplicity in it; we want the one simple rule, the law to live by. Instead there is the continual seeking of Him who will never be totally found in this life time. Day by day, moment by moment faithfulness does not well chart and graph out over a serious of lists and plans and years. Very little in the way of profound words will actually make it easier to lay your head down, easier to pick your body up out of bed the next day.

If I have said anything at all, I suppose I have really just offered the reminder that this life takes humility, demands sacrifice and calls us to stillness that we often irrationally resent. And as we recognize other people fighting against God’s goodness, holiness and power, we would do well to ask ourselves what is we’re afraid of and why.

I Cry Out

December 2008. Almost a full decade ago. Sure, let’s go for a whole decade. 2007. From then, till now. The things that have happened, the things that have changed, the things that haven’t. 22 through 32.

I was still being a “full-time sister.” My youngest sibling was 5. I organized the berry picking trips, made all the bread and pickles, ran the vegetable garden in all it’s sad un-glory, cut the hair of 9 brothers, helped care for my aging grandparents, taught myself pattern drafting for sewing, handquilted and learned to knit socks, cleaned house for a neighbor, and basically, was slowly losing my mind. This made sense when I was 16 and my mom was in the hospital for a month on strict bedrest, and I tried to keep the small but very full household running. . .but it had been making less and less sense with every passing day. 5 year olds don’t need their diapers changed. 7 year olds don’t need help dressing. 9 year olds don’t need to be watched to keep them from running out into the road. I knew this had to end, something had to change, but I didn’t know what, didn’t know how, and no idea how to start.

Guys, I just wanted life to make sense. I just wanted it to be meaningful. I just wanted to know that I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing.

 

3 jobs

3 degrees

7 clinical rotations

6 moves (2 of which were cross-country), plus about 10 weeks of being essentially homeless, sleeping on couches and never being quite sure where I was spending the night next week.

20 lbs on, off, on, off and on again

3 close compatriots married off, plus a sibling

3 grandparents died

1 life-threatening illness that no one can satisfactorily explain

3 friends divorced in one year, and one more almost did that year, too

1 aunt and 2 family friends died

A family acquaintance accused of murder now living on bail in my family’s house

A tornado through my aunt and uncles property

My brother and his wife having multiple miscarriages. Also, a friend miscarrying

Also, my brother and his wife in their third trimester, and more friend babies than I can count

2 cars

2 car accident plus breaking down in the middle of South Carolina mountains full of wild fires

Cooking for 14 to cooking for 1

never having my own room and never having a space to think and yet being alone to being two days of long travel away from anyone who even knew my name, and being alone and then back again to no space at all.

being white knuckled with stress and terror just driving to my grandparents to driving across the country and staying in a random stranger’s house

the majority of my fertile years

friendships tentatively forged, now distanced by miles; friendship that used to be close now waning even as the space between contracts once again.

 

. . . and back to living with most of my family. A different house. My youngest sibling is 15 now. My commute is 40 minutes. I don’t know how to take care of my body or what I can eat. I feel lost, like a fractured dream, where everything feels both real and wrong. Some things feel so familiar, yet so disconnected. Superficial and fake, but with a hidden meaning somewhere. I feel almost more disassociated from my body than I ever have before.

You guys, I’m tired. And confused. And somehow no closer to find that elusive thing called meaning. I feel like an indentured servant, perpetually. Almost all of my somedays have never happened, and so much time has passed by that I struggle to hold on to any hope that my somedays will ever happen. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I thought I just had to survive, get through to the other side, and then everything would sort itself out and make sense. Only now I’ve gotten through to the other side, hung on and survived, and nothing makes any more sense. And in some ways, I feel like I’m running out of the hanging on, the trust that somehow things will coalesce and make sense. Slogging through only works when you see the end in sight, and I can’t imagine any end anymore.

And I don’t even know who or how to talk about the things that burden me any more, I don’t even know how to talk to myself. Yesterday, as I flushed, I thought, “well, there goes one more uterine lining down the drain. I wish I could be the one to decide whether I wanted to keep it or get rid of it.” And then I stood there in the bathroom running through name after name and trying to decide if there was anyone on earth I could actually say that to. (In the end, I just had a quiet internal conversation about how we talk about how important it is to preserve a person’s choice – their autonomy – and yet there are so many things, like age, that feel like a loss of autonomy because you have no choice – that is, you are mortal, and low in power.)

I’m so frustrated to have gone through so many years, so many things, and still be struggling with so much of the very same things. Other times I suppose that probably one of the consequences of staying so busy you forget how to breathe is that you never really deal with all the deep-down struggles, and so they just resurface uglier than ever whenever you do happen to manage to come up through the water. And I’m somehow saddened that now, unbidden — this never happened before, ever — I find myself considering over and over how maybe one of the main points of this life is just to get us so wearied of it all that we are looking forward to leaving the tabernacle for the permanent dwelling. That it’s like my mom, complaining that the third trimester is there to make you look forward to labor, and just being done. That maybe this life isn’t about finding joy and rejuvenation, it’s just about pouring yourself out until there literally is nothing more to pour and the drink offering is found to be an acceptable sacrifice.

I don’t know any more how to ask for the things that I’ve asked and asked and asked for, and never heard an answer.  And I feel like I’m just getting better at slapping a smile on my face and not sharing what’s inside, or just withdrawing moodily. Because what can anyone offer? Humiliating pity or a belittling assurance? We all know that there isn’t really any answer. That’s why “questioning the meaning of life” is such a cliche. It’s something everyone struggles with, no one really has the answer for, and all of us are at least a little tiny bit afraid of.

Maybe we should be more quick to share the tears that brim and roll, and less inclined to lock away and hide. Maybe there is a fellowship in sorrow as much or more than in joy. But in the moment, when you’ve had more than you can bear, it’s too much to try to also manage the response of others, whatever they may be. When one more breath is an effort, so is one more thought, one more sound, one more word, one more expression, one more silence. So the grieving is silent, but no less powerful.

o, my life! what are you? not what i expected. not what i hoped. not what i thought. not what i meant. but what i was given. and that is something, even if it is not any of those other things. . . something to be respected, something to be treasured, something to be held. but still. . . a burden at times a heavy one pressing down hard. the third trimester, the drink offering, the prayer in the garden, the bitter gall that gives you the strength to call out, “my god, my god. . .”

 

 

 

Disasters all around

I see things through the filter of disaster.

If this turns into a dystopian society, will I still find this career meaningful?

If the house burns down with all my belongings in it, will I still be pleased with how I spent my money? (Note to self: also, get a good metal box for car title, etc.)

When we go hiking for 10 miles with a pack on my back, I think, isn’t it good that if we had to flee for our lives on foot, we are physically capable of doing so?

How many people could I put up, if there was a displaced people needing to be put up?

I could say it was the pessimistic genes I inherited. I could say that even reading history in grade school and high school, I was astute enough to notice that civilizations ebb and flow. Hard times followed by peaceful times followed by hard times. And if life seems like it’s been too good for too long, there must be a terrible disaster just around the corner.

But I think in a more honest inspection, I want my Joesph moment. Not that I want to be sold by my siblings into slavery and prisoned unjustly for decades. No; I just want my moment where I can say, “Now it all makes sense. Everything that happened to me was preparing me for this time.”

I tell myself, well, this is silly. Every moment is preparing you for every moment. God works a complex enough work that all of the things are interwoven and interconnected and nothing stands alone.

But the vanities of vanities sneak up on me, and I’m left struggling again to find some sore of theme or plot arc or resolution upon which I can hang some semblance of meaning. I know that in the big picture, it’s not about this life at all. But right now, I’m in the little picture, and I want to know that this is a deliberate drawing, not a mindless doodle or a dishonorable scribble.

And disasters in life are somewhat of a purifying fire. The irritating situations, the relatively minor miscommunication, the I-should-really-exercise-more-consistently, the I-guess-I’m-supposed-to-think-about-what-happens-when-I-grow-old-even-though-I-don’t-know-what-I-want-for-next-year-next-month-next-week. . .it all pales in the face of an honest to goodness disaster where basic human needs and immediate safety are paramount. The first world guilt that we could always be doing better — someone else assuredly is — narrows down to, essentially, decency: was I kind? did I try? Am I turning my back and hardening my heart, or am I doing what ought to be done even through the pain?

Romanticizing disaster? A little. I know enough of disaster to know how quickly it breaks me beyond tears, how rapidly I crumble under the weight of it. But I also know enough about disaster to have tasted some of the truth, and it changes you: the perfect little suburban home with the perfect little suburban life is ashes in my mouth. I don’t want it. I can dream up the perfect little rural life, and it’s far, far more tantalizing. . . but perhaps instead like eating just the frosting off the cake. You might think you want it, but really, it makes you sick.

I don’t want to live in a constant state of disaster. But I do wonder, I do take note, and I do uncomfortably shift. Waiting for disaster to come has a safe passiveness to it; you can’t prepare, because it could be anything. You just hold this glowy ideal in your head that your hour to shine is coming. But what if maybe I’m not supposed to wait for disaster to come to me; what if I’m supposed to acknowledge that there is disaster all around, and what if I’m supposed to rally out to meet it instead of quietly letting that be someone else’s problem?

The need is endless; we can’t drain the ocean. This I know. But I was talking to an elderly friend the other day, and we were talking about the change in culture. Health care now vs health care when the doctor came to your house. Customer service now vs then. Even how now the facility where I work is full of “SIP” rooms – shelter in place. Better to have a plan if there is an active shooter. And I said to her that the sad thing was, there was no way to fight back, to say we don’t like this and we want it to be different.

But I wondered later if that was truthful. Is there no way, or is it just hard and risky and exhausting? What if it means not washing your hands of disaster, because it hasn’t come to your doorstep yet, and what if it means putting yourself on the line? Not the wearing of t-shirts or the buying of “socially comfortable” products. But instead, using up your precious time off to go show up where it is needed to have a person, a human being, being present? What if it means taking a part time job instead of a full time job, making your future that much more insecure, in order to help those who don’t know what compassion means? What if it means showing up in the yuck, not giving graciously and comfortably from your bounty?

What if? Not definitely yes. Because when you’re already struggling for meaning, it’s wise to caution yourself against drastic courses of action, just as with not making major life decision from a place of acute grief. Life can’t always be someone else’s problem. But neither can it be something we do for our own glory or piety: the suffering of others is not about our own personal narrative.

It’s foolish to wish disaster into your life for the sake of it’s clarifying influence. At the same time, if you’ve sipped from that cup and have that awareness of what is really important in life, is it wise to ignore that? I don’t have an answer. All I have is the awareness that this line of thought is not a passing moment of guilt or idealism, but a deep undercurrent spanning decades. Maybe, in this time of life, it is a fire best left banked. But in the background, it is still there: I’m waiting for a disaster with my name on it, whether it comes for me, or I come for it.

 

Womanhood

I am outside on the porch, cussing the people who decided to set load-bearing posts on top of floor boards, my own ignorance in construction, the project-creep that continually blossoms before me, and my complete weakness in wielding a hammer in tight and awkward spaces between joists.

My sister is inside, sweeping the floor in the kitchen. Later, she’ll be trying to figure out a simple sewing project, the kind I made when I was about a third of her age. Where was her interest to learn sewing back when I would have given my eye-teeth for a sewing buddy? She is willowy and dreamy; she is an artist–she paints. She is sweet. Anyone who knows her, even in passing, will tell you how sweet she is. She has large, large eyes, and a scant amount of practicality that she barely knows how to wield. Indecisiveness is her bane.

My other sister is upstairs. She has feet like a hobbit, wide and thick soled (but still very ticklish when I have to wake her up in the morning). She has two very long braids that dangle to her waist, and yes, of course, freckles across her nose. She reads Shakespeare for fun, even though she’s not old enough to get a learner’s permit to drive. Right now, she’s perched on the edge of her bunk (the bottom one), writing a multi-page letter to someone in jail, but later she’ll go on an hour long walk in the woods. She’ll enjoy that walk all the more if it happens to be pouring rain; she loves the feel of rain pelting down on her. It can be hard to understand her when she talks, if she can barely keep the laugh out of her voice.

I started out in resentment that my sisters are not me. Why am I out here, cussing the porch by myself? Why doesn’t anyone else around here care about taking care of maintaining the house? Rapidly, I realize they don’t even know how to help if they wanted to. Why not? Ugly rants about the older children having to do more work than the younger children spring to mind, but that’s not true, either. I must have been only five, possibly younger, when I first started following Dad around when he did repairs, keeping track of his tools and anticipating what he would need next. If I wasn’t helping my brothers with their construction projects, I was surely watching. My sisters found that stuff boring.

Well, I found it boring to spend endless time sketching clouds and learning the names of their different forms, like my one sister did. And I had not enough patience for sitting for hours in the chicken yard training chickens to sit on my lap, or slogging through translating Shakespeare like my other sister. So I am the one out on the porch, learning through trial and error how to make home repairs.

Still, the resentment lingers around the edges. When I was her age—No. No, that way lies madness. I am not my sisters, and my sisters are not me. I chose the things that interested me, and the things that interested me most often did leave me covered in dirt and sweat, and my brothers granting me the dubious compliments that I would “grow up to be a man yet.” They take pictures of me wielding equipment larger than I am. But they also mock my interests in fiber arts, and refer to my short and stocky build as being troll-like.

But these same hands that are wielding a hammer and a chisel–these hands also cup babies, and bake cakes, and comfort suffering people. And I hear the defense and protest in my own voice–I am a woman. I am. I have worked long and hard to understand what that means, and still I’m not really sure.

I know it’s not about gender stereotypes or cultural expectations. I know that if I were as delicate as my sister with the large eyes, I wouldn’t feel more a woman. I know that if I were able to grow my hair as long and a thick as my other sister, I wouldn’t feel more a woman. And I also know with great vehemence that I do not want to be a man, that there are fundamental differences between us that I both cannot and do not want to bridge. I used to think my brimming with emotions was one of those differences, but I’ve found that even among women I feel more things, and feel them more deeply.

When I look in the mirror now, I do see a woman–I didn’t for the longest time. That awkward girl. I’m not sure what changed, or how to describe it, because I feel like it’s mostly in the eyes. Those eyes, there’s things behind them. I’m not sure I could quite say they’ve lost their innocence, because in so many ways I think in the context of my peers, I still radiate so much innocence it makes them uncomfortable. People still apologize abashedly for swearing in front of me, embarrassed because my lack of swearing is so conspicuous to them.

I tell myself stories, trying on different roles of “woman.” Some themes emerge. Some gentle longings for my future wax stronger. Still, the concept seems like a design made of smoke; the harder I grasp to understand it, the more elusively it slips away. Why do I feel the need to define it? Why do I feel uneasy that I might not have achieved it? Societies across geography and time have defined it a million different ways, but I’m not looking to fill a tintype of idealized perfection.

I guess I just stumble over the fact that He made us Man and Woman. The distinctness and delineation of the difference, yet without explanation, makes me wonder what the point was. Why two? Why not, say, six, or nine or fifteen? What was wrong with one? And if two is better, if we aren’t meant to be alone, then why are so many of us so alone? People complain about babies not coming with instruction manuals, but I grew up with a baby on my hip. I’ve taken care of plenty of babies. You get experience. But there’s only one me; and me came without an instruction manual, too. I don’t really expect that there can be a neat little dissection of all the little ins and outs of our personalities and life trajectories. . .but it would seem that there should at least be common expectations of being human, being a woman.

I have seen enough of life to know there isn’t one “right” way. That we reflect our Maker more like a kaleidescope than a mirror. And I strongly suspect my questions are less of questions, and more of a confusion of life being so much different than I assumed of course it would be by the time I was this age. And when life fails to live up to our expectations, we invariably go looking for what we did wrong or what we could do to fix it.

But some of it is not that. Some of it is that I still feel like a stranger inside of my own body, a feeling that my time of sickness only intensified. I am me. My body is this thing I’m inside of, driving around. How do you take care of this thing? Never mind basic house maintenance, the human body is a good deal more complicated than most people would lead you to believe, and I’m in a profession of taking care of bodies.

Some of it is feeling like, since the the things that I’m doing seem to be echoing hollow, I must be missing something about basic existence. And since I feel fairly confident that I am fulfilling the basic necessities of “human,” my “missing something” must be just a little higher up the chain.

And some of it is the empty feeling of being unable to connect with my “peers.” The people I’m supposed to feel most akin to seem like such foreign entities to me. I don’t want to mimic them. And I know I’m not one of those people who will ever be “popular” or one of the “in crowd.” But part of you wonders if maybe everyone else has figured out something about life that you haven’t.

And part of it is the sacredness. I feel like I have grasped at least some of the sacredness of humanity. And I believe there is a sacredness to being created as separate entities. But it becomes harder to understand when the differences created by God get all mixed up into the differences created by social constructs and twisted influences, half of which you drink down without realizing that’s what you’re doing. When you become startled by realizing you’re mad that other people aren’t like you or wondering if you should be more like other people — and yet, recognizing inherently that the differences are important, and valuable, and that none of us can be All of The Things, and so we must all find different pieces and roles to fill.

And I hesitate to post this, because it’s such a politicized topic. People have strong opinions and ideologies, to the point it can be difficult to actually communicate what one is thinking without  people jumping on to say what someone should be thinking or really are thinking but don’t realize it, or what is so wrong about their thoughts. But in some ways, I also feel like it’s all the more important to speak; because when those who are hesitant stay quiet behind those who are loud, it leads to a feeling of being alone, of no one knowing what it is they’re feeling like, of being lost. And I simply cannot imagine that there is no one else in the world who wonders what it means to be a woman, without fighting it, without chasing the world’s explanations, without having an agenda or a point of arrival, but simply in observation. We are different. All of us. Men from women, and women from women. And it’s not an accident or a problem. But what does it mean?

Maybe it is one of those things that is so simple that we are the ones that complicate it. Maybe “different” is enough of an answer. The quiet agitation inside me says the intent runs deeper than that. But the part of me that has seen at least a bit of life says that the thought is one that must be experienced to be known, not determined by logic or reasoned out. But I think it’s disingenuous to pretend the question isn’t out there, murmured in the background of our existence: what does it mean to be a woman?

Mr. Rochester is a Creep

Maturity is a hard thing to assess in yourself, and is made more complicated by the fact we don’t mature equally in all things. Maturity in responsibility and action, for example, is quite different from maturity in relationships. Maturity with managing money is far different than the maturity to understand the societal systems in the world.

One of the things I have struggled with is the mild addiction to being useful. As with anything, we can speculate all we like on the root of such things. . .I used to blame it on my particular parameters of my upbringing, until I read “Grace for the Good Girl,” and the author had been raised in a wholly different situation and yet seemed at time to speak thoughts right out of my head. I suppose, on a most simplistic level, feeling useful makes us feel more secure. People don’t get rid of, or treat poorly, or forget about, useful things. People value useful things. Being useful seems like a good, safe, meaningful choice.

Ultimately, of course, it’s drinking poison. Any love you earn (or think you are earning, or feel like you are earning) can be withdrawn the moment you stop being useful. And in the mean time, after the initial rush of pleasure at succeeding at being useful, it breeds all kinds of resentment and hurt and loneliness, and a raw inability to connect with people on a real level.

It frustrates me to no end that it is exceedingly difficult to see maturity in relationships modeled in anything. It would be amusing to see if you could get a “5 stages of maturity” in relationships, as a corollary to the 5 stages of grief. . . although the biggest corollary is probably just that it’s been found that the 5 stages of grief are largely not stages nor limited to 5. But off the cuff, it’s not that hard to start scribbling up a list.

There’s the “rescue me!” and it’s equally destructive cousin “I’ll rescue you!” How many stupid, disastrous tales have been told like this? It’s easy to take pot-shots at Cinderella and Snow White, but how about Jane Eyre? I like Jane Eyre, don’t get me wrong, and in many ways she was very responsible and mature and what have you. But she was out to rescue Mr. Rochester, to reform him, to save him from his blackened ways. Oh, heavens. Jane got to live happily every after, since that’s what her author wanted, but how many abusive tales can you start with that “save him” line?

Having long had to hoist myself and my own responsibility, I rarely recall looking for anyone to “rescue me!” But I clearly recall telling myself a good many lots tons of stories of “I’ll rescue you!” Horribly romantic and terribly stupid, it really appeals to the nurturing core of many of us–someone damaged and hurt and broken, and then redeemed and restored and healed by the saintly little woman who tends to him so sweetly and gently and faithfully. We’re just so good we melt the badness right out of them. No, we don’t. Life doesn’t work that way. But we’d like it to. We want it to.

I would guess that next on the list is the painful pairing of “I want someone to be useful to me/to be useful to someone.” Although it seems strangely even more twisted, and harder to ferret out. I don’t think I’ve often fallen into the trap of trying to keep someone around just because they’re useful, but I’ve nearly drowned many times in the black well of wanting to be useful, as I’ve mentioned above. There are more sad stories than I care to try to remember of children who felt their mothers only wanted them as long as they were useful, or their fathers. I would suppose spouses, but if you look around at the fairy tales, it’s mostly parents or step-parents or adoptive parents.

I think this is because there is an inherent power differential here. I mean, there is in the first example, too, but someone needing to be saved is an assumption of weakness. Someone needing to be served is an assumption of power. To be useful, someone has to set the bar of what constitutes being useful enough.

I don’t know what draws us to this. I know that I know I’m good at being useful, and that there is a satisfaction and a certain amount of pride in that. I don’t know why I tell myself stories about girl-winning-guy by means of usefulness. Why would it be a life goal, or a relationship goal, to be “useful”? Like a toaster. Or an adjustable wrench.

Perhaps this is where the thought comes in, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Maybe we think we won’t get anything better, so let’s go with this. But I find it terribly sad and still confusing, even though this is a place I still keep stumbling. Why do I need to be so useful? Why? For Pete’s sake, what do I think will happen if I don’t? Do I really think no one will want me around if I’m just “normal helpful” not “so helpful”? I can’t figure it out. But I do know that when I fall into the trap of “affection by means of usefulness” that I am always and continually smarting under the power differential. It’s not a healthy place to be.

There is also the “I want you/I can make you want me” pairing. Somehow, this one terrifies me the most, with no rational reason for that ranking. I know it exists, and that for some people it’s a drug, and maybe that’s the reason of my fear. I’m also afraid of ever getting drunk, and the lack of control that people who swear all the time seem to have. In my mind, raw lust equals lack of control, and being out of control of myself seems like a terrifying idea. Bad things happen when people lose control. All the more terrifying, then, that so many fairy tales (Disney or otherwise) are based off of nothing more than physical attraction.

The word “control freak” would not have been invented if fear of losing control were always a good thing. And the flip side to this issue, for me at least, is the strange conviction that “no one would ever look at me like that, anyhow.” This might sound more familiar as countless tales (most recently, I over heard it on Downton Abbey playing in the background) have this charming set up where the girl thinks she is too plain to be noticed and the boy thinks she is the most beautiful creature ever blessed with the breath of life. For every girl who thinks she is too plain to be looked at, there’s a death trap of falling for whoever insists otherwise, despite other completely unredeemable qualities. Insisting you are physically unattractive is not really a safe action either.

I guess with all of that, it might sound as thought I’ve bounced from one unstable and destructive relationship to the next, but no, not really. More the opposite, of prickling like a porcupine in defense and never letting anyone close. It’s just, as I see people all around me, all beside me, struggling to understand relationships, I feel more and more that we’re often shown all sorts of dysfunctional and destructive relationships passed off as “normal” and “healthy” and rarely are shown any sort of mature, respectful, mutually beneficial teamwork — something that is not about “winning” but is instead about building with each other.

One of the few examples I can pull up easily is the relationship of Wolverine and Jubilee in the first X-Men movie, were they just took care of each other. But that “doesn’t count” because it wasn’t good enough for Wolverine, who kept chasing the hot body (to his own misery). And I guess that’s the point. We all figure the hot guy won’t be happy without a hot girl, and the ordinary girl is just that — ordinary. Of course.

But why all these horrible cliches and stereotypes? Why is it that we think that fairy tales of princess and princes are more believable than functional, loving relationships? Do we know so little about functional relationships that we’re even incapable of writing them? We know there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship, but we’re so ready to accept terrible relationships as paragons. If any of my friends were hanging out with a Mr. Rochester type, I’d be telling them to get out now, and stop deluding themselves. Mr. Rochester is a creep, not a paragon of true love. Why can’t we imagine a paragon, even if we know we can’t achieve it? Why do we have to keep offering up really lousy things as though they were things to be chased after?

Maybe we don’t. I don’t know. I know the stories I’ve told myself have changed. And they’re getting harder and harder to tell myself, because when you grow-up out of the cliches, things are harder to imagine. It’s harder to imagine what a good team-mate would look like, because first you have to be able to honest with yourself about your own weakness are that you need help with, and honest with yourself about what strengths you have and how they actually should be used to help others.

It’s hard to grow out of wondering if you’ll ever be beautiful in someone else’s eyes, and into recognizing that you need encouragement to be brave enough to do the hard but right things. It’s hard to grow out of padding your relationship resume with how well you bake and the way you can handle minor home repairs, and instead understand that part of what I have to offer is really more about sitting down and having hard conversations. But the stories are about beauty and baking favorite cakes, not being too cowardly to do what is right and having to have hard conversations to clear up assumptions and hurts and miscommunications and differing priorities and values. And then somehow we wind up thinking we’re broken when we wind up having tearful conversations instead of baking sweets and singing.

It just makes maturity so much harder when no one wants to talk about what it is, and that turns maturity itself into a mystery. It’s hard, yes, but does it have to be a mystery on top of everything else? Maybe this is just something we need to talk about more, instead of leaving unsaid and left to nothing but speculation. Maybe we need more encouragement in what maturity is and how to move forward into it.

It’s a Pity to be Human

I’m holding the door open for the cat. It’s raining out, but the handmixer is running, and she hates the sound of it. Caught between two miserablenesses, she hesitates at the door, her ears laid back. I feel sorry for her and her miserablenesses, so I just stand there with the door open, watching her.

One of my brothers pushes past me, suddenly shoving his hand at her face, as though to scare her off the threshold so the door could be closed. She flattens herself to the ground, but doesn’t move.

“She wants to come in, but hates the sound of the mixer,” I explain, annoyed. I was busy feeling sorry for her, and he has no respect for my pity.

“Oh.”

But the ‘oh’ belies no understanding of the situations, because moments later, he steps past me and my open door, stands behind that cat, and nudges her through the door with his foot. Forced to chose one of the miseries, the cat dashes through the kitchen trying to escape the sound of the motor.

I am like the cat. I try to go outside to avoid the sound of the motors, and the people who are being morning people. It continues to rain, so I have to sit on the porch. Then a morning person comes out to be cheerful at me, and another brother comes out to start another motor (the ice cream maker), and my mom comes out, too, so she can offer helpful motherly advice.

“So much for my plot to escape the sound of motors,” I sigh, as the ice cream maker kicks on.

“Well, you can go someplace else,” my mom informs me. “The mixer isn’t running in the kitchen any more.”

“I know,” I say.

“The screened porch is cleared off now,” she continues to push.

“I know,” I repeat, irritably. I know. I helped clean it. The day I was practically doubled over with abdominal pain. You didn’t help clean it.

I am trying to escape the motors, and the rain. And also, I would like some pity, but these cheerful morning people have none.

***

Last night, my grandma came over, and asked me if I had a glowing halo. I stared at her at first, and then tried to cover my confusion by claiming full body luminescence. She was referring to the fact that I had just been awarded my doctorate degree, a fact so roundly ignored by people in this house that I had almost forgotten about it myself. My dad made a few jokes about it. One brother threatened to call me doctor, but I said he could only call me “doctor” while singing “Put the Lime in the Coconut.” He said it would be worth it to memorize the lyrics, but we both knew he wouldn’t. Mostly, two of my brothers will put in sly jabs wherever they can about how I would have to chose the degree with the most amount of school debt and the lowest salary.

Some of my family came up for graduation, but it mostly made the family dysfunction that much more apparent. A small handful of people, most of whom came along only because there was someone else to come along with, and a vague sense of guilt that they should want to be there. They spent hours upon hours sitting in a car, waiting through boring lists of names of people none of us knew, and cramming themselves back into the car. I got to see their miserable faces for a few moments, and I say miserable not as an adjective of the quality of their faces but of the expressions they were wearing.

Then I went to my friend’s graduation party, and sat quietly in the sunlight, watching her face light up again and again in the presence of her family and her friends. I watched her husband and her sister, dripping with pride and happiness. In the end, I walked myself back to my car a few blocks away, alone in a city that was both familiar and completely impartial to me.

***

This is normal to me. Not easy, but normal. Aside from precious isolated incidents, my memories of school, right from the beginning of my associate’s degree, are largely one bleak swath of loneliness. Of not fitting in with my classmates, and so always being the odd and awkward one in any group. Of my family not understanding why I would do such a thing, and only the more so once I moved a state away. The example set to me has always been, “if you move away, you’re the one making that choice; so you’re only getting the consequences of your decisions if it means you lose connection with people.”

I can’t say I really did any better with my brothers that went away to college. It seems far off, and your own life seems busy, and what do you say, anyway, when you’re a family of introverts who mostly socialize by sitting quietly in the same room? But I can’t say it’s an attitude I want to propagate.

This morning, my second attempt to get photos taken of me for graduation announcements fell through. And all though it hurt, I realized the feeling of a twisting knife wasn’t really about photos, or even about my imagined plans for my own little declaration of completion. It is more the pining to be understood, the pining to be celebrated, the pining to be noticed, the pining to have life go as I think it should rather than the way it predictably does. No, I don’t have a husband glowing with pride and happiness, taking pictures of me at my graduation party. No, taking pictures and sending out announcements is really no substitute at all. But it was something, and I didn’t want to have to fight for that something. Any more than I wanted to fight my family to come up and be miserable while they watched me walk across a stage and shake hands with a stranger.

***

The life we imagine doesn’t have us pausing hunched on the threshold between the rain and the tormenting motor. The life we imagine has a multitude of choices, some more pleasant than others, and always with the tantalizing assumption that if we’re very clever about dashing through the wet drops from the grey skies — well, that we’ll strike upon that golden scenario that is all smiles and no painful wincing. The life we imagine takes all of the best pieces we’ve seen from all the happiest lives, and mashes them together in this strange yet pastoral scene we tell ourselves is actually achievable.

The lives that we do have are pieces of joy and contentment that are beyond words, splintered apart by hurts internal and external, and wrapped up in painful obliviousness to what we are doing to others and even what it is that we ourselves need. And whether we like it or not, our brokenness is our humanness. We cannot escape the brokenness without superseding our mortal forms. Some mornings the pain seems more searing than other mornings, making our breath catch and our eyes unfocus in a lame attempt to ward off tears. But always it is there.

Maybe it’s faulty advice, but it is my advice: Don’t be ashamed of pity. Of giving it to others, of accepting it yourself, or even occasionally allowing the self-pity to wash over all of your raw places and then drip slowly away. You can even pity the cat sometimes. It’s okay.

Working and Waiting

For Christmas, I decided I wanted to paint a picture for my card. I’ve not really painted much, and most of what I have painted, I’ve not been very happy with. I’ve dabbled, occasionally, in plain pencil drawing — more often tracing over the outline from a photo and then practicing paying attention to shading. And people have told me, maybe more often than I realize, that I showed artistic leanings that just needed to be developed, and that I should taking drawing and such more seriously. But it’s work, and I don’t have time for work, so I mostly did nothing.

Anyhow, the Christmas card — since I had this idea in my head, very vividly, I decided I had to take this project seriously. So I did what I’ve seen described a million times before. I folded my reference photo in to a grid, and then drew a grid on my watercolor paper. Then I looked at each grid individually, and tried to represent what was in there. I was running out of time, so I only had two sessions to paint it — once for the general idea, and then again to build on details.

And you know what? The thing came out fantastic. I kind of didn’t even recognize it as my own handwork. Because when I actually applied some discipline to my efforts instead of slap-dash hurried attempts, well, who knew? I actually had some sort of talent buried in there after all.

Lately I have been thinking about my writing. Well, not really thinking about it, as much as finding it is on my mind, but having no clearly defined thoughts on the matter. The thing is, I’ve never really thought about my writing before. I’ve always just done slap-dash hurried attempts, and never really gone back to edit or refine. Never really did base planning work. It served it’s purpose in the moment, and it was good enough for me, but I’ve never really tried to apply discipline to it.

In the last few days, especially, I’ve been stumbling over half-birthed poems I’ve scribbled down places. Kind of tantalizing, but also the epitome of not really knowing what I’m doing. I need to find some sort of online course that walks you through the basics of poetry, of meter, of how to do on purpose that which I’ve only sort of felt around in the dark and taken a gut guess at.

The thing is, I don’t have anything at the moment that I desperately want to say. This is perhaps even one of the roots of my worrying over my writing — it’s not like me to feel at a loss of words, which I have for months. But I can’t escape the feeling that, like my painting, if I just applied some actual effort and discipline, I would be a good deal more impressed by what was revealed. And also, another disquieting feeling — that writing slap-dash wouldn’t be satisfying anymore. That it served it’s purpose, for it’s time, and will likely continue to serve in some kind of role. But that it’s no longer enough of a challenge to be amusing. That now I have to be writing “on purpose” to get that same feeling of satisfaction.

It’s a bit of the chicken-or-the-egg problem, though. First I feel like I need to have a topic (and perhaps an audience) important enough to deserve a little extra effort. For my painting, it was a Christmas card. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. But it does have to be more than a passing whim. One would think if the corollary were just a Christmas card, it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a topic worthy of effort. But I feel like I have nothing important to say, and my mind feels pitifully blank.

I don’t know where I will wind up with all of this, of course, but I feel like the prodding is getting more frequent and more meaningful. You have something here. You ought not ignore it. Put some discipline into it.

Okay. I will. But for now, I think still at the spot of waiting for the idea that’s worth the work.