Constants for the Wanderer, Faith

Oil and Water (or What Happens in Church Does Not Stay In Church).

The oil clings to everything. It is an intrusion; it follows me home, persists, demands decisions. To be rid of it, scrub the skin. But I do not want to be rid of it; it recalls too many things hallowed. I am not ready to reach up to my forehead and, with one simple swab, remove it.

It has already begun its migration. I’ve touched my face, hugged myself tightly, brushed my fingertips along my daughter’s hair. The oil is omnipresent.

I’ve inhaled this before, as it wafted up from a street vendor’s table, usurping the stalks of Black Love incense and the low-end imitations high-end fragrances. I have seen it in a twist-top vial, its name hastily scrawled and Scotch-taped to the front. Frankincense, it reads, or maybe myrrh.

* * *

In the car, we are three women leaving a service of confirmation: grandmother and mother and child. The windows are rolled against the cool night air, and the fragrance rushes ’round floor and ceiling. It occurs to me then that, like so many things at churches, the oil is decidedly masculine.

I am thinking over what was said, deciding whether I feel betrayed, wondering if everyone’s looks of concern afterward meant that, now, they see me as a danger to myself.

They would not be entirely wrong.

Scent is an association. We are our associations.

The last man I dated smelled of deodorant and fabric softener, which means, for better or worse, I pine for him as often as I pass any clean man in freshly laundered clothes. Before him: a man whose scent recalled potting soil; for eight years, I tried to plant sustainable things. I do not remember the smell of the preceding man — perhaps line kitchen and bar soap; I was rarely with him and, at the six-month-mark, eager to leave. And my first boyfriend, the 24-year-old I dated at 18, always smelled of an oil, something airy, almost unisex, rarely overpowering.

My father smells of aftershave and cologne with aggressive top notes. What he wears is not oil- but alcohol-based. It absorbs, burns off, rarely lingers.

* * *

The five of us who had taken adult bible class for three weeks stand gathered ’round the altar when called. Our regional bishop, having traveled from the Midwest for this purpose, is seated, a pillow at his feet. This is where we are to kneel when it is time. He takes the three on the left first; they are being received, not confirmed. They are already of this denomination and now they are joining this parish. They, like 98 percent of our small congregation, are white.

My mother and I are aloft, on the other side of the aisle. In our 30 years of churchgoing, we have never been part of a denomination. I am here because I like the liturgy. I am here for the parts of this I can comprehend — and also for the marvels we are happy to leave unexplained.

There are four priests in front of us, standing at the seated bishop’s right. On his left is our pastor. He has instructed the four to impart “a word” to each of us, if they feel led.

I know what is coming.

The three people being received kneel when called, and the bishop presses a cross of oil onto their heads. He tells them about their lives: you are hurting; you have a gentle spirit; you’ve overcome something insurmountable; you are going to serve faithfully here. He has lifted a veil on their futures, glimpsed in, and backed away. They are discreetly weeping, but mostly composed.

Prophecy makes me uncomfortable. It has since I was nine and a young visiting minister stopped mid-sermon to ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him: an author, and he told he several things: that I would not be like other children, that I would write many books, that I would never have a day of lack. It was recorded and I kept the cassette till college.

I do not like predictions; they apply an uncomfortable pressure.

I am 33, unpublished, and I often feel invisible, the very definition of ordinary, even as I know I am not.

Also, I have not been behaving. If obedience is better than sacrifice, my life is often a landscape of lack. I have tried out autonomy, doing as I wish, loving who I want, in whichever ways seem right. I have not followed the letter of the law.

So I know what’s coming.

* * *

In the churches of my youth, prophecy began with “I hear the Lord saying,” and ended with any number of messages, though the most memorable were “rebukes.” No one wanted to be rebuked; it meant someone would have to “pray a spirit off” of you — and there were spirits for everything. Spirit of poverty, spirit of promiscuity, spirit of depression or rebellion.

I had few greater fears while sitting in service than when a minister paced the aisles, pointing out congregants and calling them to stand or walk toward the pulpit for prophecy.

This is, in many measurable, relief-filled ways, a different kind of church.

But I know how I live. The blank after, “I hear the Lord saying…” could fill with flotsam fairly quickly.

I kneel when it is time. The bishop rests his hands on mine, says that what he sees is compassion. This is not what I thought was coming: he says that I have a good heart.

There are other things about hardship, how I’ve seen some, how I’m likely to see more. And then, it becomes about men. Perhaps I’ve been abused; abuse comes in many forms. He says that I do not trust men, that it is hardest to find love in men who have not been fathered. “So many men haven’t been fathered….”

There is more, but I am crying and thinking and wondering where You are. I am wondering if even this can be trusted, when another priest jumps in to say I’ve been searching here and there for comfort — any kind of comfort. The comfort God gives will not leave you, he says.

This is what I expected: to be told, in front of onlookers, that I have unresolved father issues, that I’ve become the classic looking-for-love-in-all-the-wrong-places cliché, that I need, in some fundamental way, to change.

The priests are not wrong.

Yet another chimes in and says that a wall I’ve built is breaking tonight. This, I have also heard in churches before. I have heard about my walls, everywhere, for all my life.

I am no skeptic. But I do not like feeling so exposed. And I do not understand why anyone would want to be told by relative strangers, before a cloud of witnesses, what lies in the reddest, sorest recesses of her heart.

The bishop says he feels led to embrace me and when he does, as all look on, I cry a bit harder into the folds of his crimson and ivory vestments. I am not sure why; I am exactly sure why.

This has been my experience of faith: to remain ever uncertain and to be certainly present.

In this way, I, myself, am the oil, meant to stain and to blur and to stay.

* * *

Lord, You’ve been a long haul, and I’ve been resistant. Your burden has not felt light. To feel as weightless and unyoked as I should, I would need to more of what happens in church demystified. Prophecy has always made that difficult, itself an act that mystifies.

You know better than most that I do not mean to be resistant. Were I a simpler woman, I would float along the water, or better, I would walk upon its surface. I’d let you bear me up. Were I uncomplicated, all the wounds that were reopened would be healed in the rushing current. Instead I am a slick, amorphous; I am moving in ways I can’t control.

And yet again, I’m left asking You: can living water ever commingle with oil?

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Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting, Uncategorized

Dovetails.

1.

The last time you were here, you left an open pack of tube socks in the trunk of my car. It’s still there, two weeks later. It will stay there until you return.

I often feel responsible for the things that remain when you leave. There are imprints of you where I do not want them and one beaming emblem of you I could not live well without. I am accustomed to keeping things safe till you reclaim them. I suppose I will continue to; it does not seem to do me much harm.

I can say this without animus now, but it is not always as easy as I lead everyone — including myself — to believe.

2.

Loving anyone other than you had long been an alien concept. Twelve years long, if we’re honest. We were only together for eight (nearly nine) but even when it ended — even during the pregnancy, when I hoped and I prayed that alone or reconciled to you would not be my only options — I did not truly believe I’d fall in love again. I would not let myself, not if this was how I’d feel at love’s departure.

But what could I tell my daughter of love if I could not remember its shiver? How would I hear her fawning first brush with a tremulous hand if my own palms knew only a craven kind of emptiness? How could we parse her first heartbreak if I never let go of mine?

3.

This is the supernova, the white burst, the back-pressed-to-wall, the unending kiss, the lips that won’t leave yours even to whisper, the words you get to roll on your tongue and relish the fact that they were once, just moments before, not your own.

You are holding them now. You are holding him now. And being held and being held and — Father in heaven — being held.

It hardly seems sane, for your arms to know an embrace other than your wriggling toddler’s, to know kisses other than the ones she sees fit to bestow, in boredom, in blessing, at bedtime.

And it isn’t sane, really, or sustainable. It peters as quickly as it popped, a fire in a lidded jar now. And this great, ghastly, heart-pounding, promise-eating love is swallowed up in air, in sky.

4.

Weeks ago, Father John, the eldest priest in our small parish, preached of love.

I wanted him to say something sense-making about women like me, alternately afraid and excessive, who understand love simply as being someone’s priority. I wanted him to tell me how such a low bar could be so difficult for some men to clear.

But I wasn’t entirely listening. I was thinking of all the things and people to whom I’d come second and third and sixth. I was wondering whether or not I was worthy of preference, whether it was fair or childish to expect to be preferred.

“You know that passage, that 1 Corinthians 13 that people like to read at weddings? That’s God’s love. Agape,” he said with a wave of his massive hand. I watched him shake his head, as if all we romantics were a bit misguided.

Father John moved on quickly; for him, this was just an aside.

For me, it was a lifeboat.

Someone else would find this alienating, this idea that we should not use agape love as a matrimonial blueprint because we could not possibly erect it properly and would feel as if we were failing whenever a window shattered. Someone else might scoff at the notion that we shouldn’t strive toward a perfect, selfless care for our fellow man.

But all I could do was think of my own loves: often impatient, sometimes insecure, disinclined to hope or believe all things, occasionally self-seeking, and certainly — if nothing else — susceptible to failure.

I leaned back in my seat, and I sighed relief.

5.

How do we do this? How does anyone do this?

6.

I used to believe I would never be rid of you because you were my predestination. Then I thought I could never be rid of you because of our girl, who looks back and forth between us, whenever we’re together, with calculating eyes.

You make moving on difficult, because you are a kind amnesiac: giving and grinning and hoping to catch us, even as we flutter on, mostly without you. For all your texts, your calls, your checking in, you do not remember — and sometimes do not even accept — what you are not here to witness. You will always believe that I am the keeper of things you happen to leave behind.

I am your safe deposit box. I am your cage.

7.

The other one was elegant, an autodidact, confident in ways I couldn’t imagine, calm in a manner that requires discipline not artifice. He was meant for a family — but he was not meant for mine.

Of all the things that are difficult to accept, this is perhaps the hardest.

He, himself a cage, a keeper of things left behind, always treated me like a bird who’d forgotten the grace of flight.

We who understand what it is to be a series of gilded, bloodied bars want nothing more than to bend them for others. We are the freers, even at our own expense.

8.

I used to be a woman of many compartments. But motherhood makes you an open space. Anyone you love must stand on your floor and face the things and the people you once had an inclination to hide.

There are no fallout shelters. There is no time to assuage hurts, massage egos. No strength for mediating others’ aughts, for carrying burdens larger than those upon which we’d already agreed.

Everyone’s interests must dovetail. Or else, the only door stands open. All are free to exit at will.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Prayer

The Antithesis of Faith.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. — Hebrews 11:1

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God. — Psalm 42:11

1.

The grocery cart is an ice floe, every row of overpriced food an isle to be sailed past without much autonomy. To be underemployed is to live without oars; I turn where the tide and the wind allow. Often, I think of You as the Wind: favorable, then fierce, and at times, capricious. This is difficult to admit as my eyes glaze over at the cost of four quarters of butter, as I grip the cart’s handle in abject panic, as I calculate the total in my head. In those moments, I do not want to feel tossed or untethered or tested. I do not want You to be as impossible to grasp as a gale.

For so many other believers, You wouldn’t be. For them, when there is too little left to budget, You become the multiplier of fishes and loaves. Right there, in the long stretch of frozen meals, You fill their hearts with manna. For them, You’d become a testimony bellowed into a microphone, echoing through a revival tent: It was only at my poorest that I learned You own the cattle on a thousand hills! It was only when my own hand was empty that I could accept the provision in Yours.

I am supposed to sing a reassuring song about the physics of faith (when praises go up, blessings come down).

But this is not where I live.

It isn’t that I don’t believe. I do. Of course I do. It is a logical step for those who create to believe that things much larger than themselves have also been created. And it is necessary for those who understand guilt to believe in the work of atonement. I feel ill at ease imagining a life over which I must assume totalitarian control and sicker still at the thought that whenever and wherever we die, our stories end. No, doubt has rarely been the deterrent.

2.

Every once in a while, we went hungry. Those were the lonely years, when we lived in an oversized and underfurnished house, and the congregants of our church considered my family to be spiritual stalwarts: the husband, pious and devoted; the wife, fiery and dynamic; the daughter, creative, aloof. For them, we were emblems, were ministers. For them, we were a comfort, a mirage of peace and safety when, in their own homes, destruction felt imminent.

But they never knew how often our home felt combative, despite the absence of physical aggression, how at the sound of the husband’s ticking engine in the driveway, the daughter crept into in the darkness of her room on the third floor. They wouldn’t have understood the way she stared at the pacing shadows, two dark and darting foot-falls, scuttling like rodents and obscuring the yellow slit of light from the hall. They couldn’t have imagined what it was to feel imprisoned by someone else’s prayer or how it could throw into turmoil the daughter’s concept of who You were.

The husband would leave within a year of those last instances, when he took to praying in tongues outside the daughter’s door as though he was an asylum guard in charge of a girl possessed, and when he called her out of that room once to ask if she was “bringing evil into his house.” These were the last of many years they’d spent locked in an epic battle, each round fought when her mother wasn’t home, each accusation a dagger, a wound, a scar that would, in some small way, shape the woman she would become.

Before he left, from time to time, he would neglect to buy food for three. He ate at home less and so did the mother and daughter. The contents of cupboards would thin; the shelves of the fridge emptied. It was preparation for the months to come, when the daughter would begin to support herself and the mother with the money from her work-study checks and her summer jobs in retail and reception.

The mother would tell the daughter that You sent her home after college to help her through the divorce. And the daughter believed. For four long years, she believed–just as she’d secretly wondered, after hours of listening to her stepfather’s prayers, if she had, inadvertently, brought evil into their home.

They’d each seemed so confident.

This is, I suppose, what happens when some children come to know You through their parents. It begins as a tangential acquaintanceship; we understand that we need to know You but let our parents do most of the talking. We trust their instincts, their judgment. It never gets personal until it needs to, until we need You–but by then, we’re struck by our own uncertainty of who You really are.

Are You a God who believes our enemy when he insinuates that we should be exorcised? Are You a God who plans our purpose and only reveals it to people other than us? Or are You the other things we imagine You are: mind-reader, romantic, redeemer, refuge, lighted path?

3.

It began as an atom, a nodule of resistance nestling inside me like a pebble at the base of a well. I didn’t feel it, even after I sensed it growing, never acknowledged it as I scrawled small notes onto church bulletins or wept openly, not over Your goodness but because You were so chatty with others and impossibly silent with me.

When I tell the story of how I became a single mother, I do not start it here, with the atom. But these are the particles inside it: a profession of faith at the age of eight; a number of folks advising me of the various ways I should let You use me; modest clothes and earnest gestures, tepid prayers; a semblance of sound morality; the realization that most of my faith felt merely mimicked, followed by a waning trust in others who insist that they’re speaking on your behalf.

No. Indeed, doubt was never the deterrent. The antithesis of faith, for me, has always been hopelessness.

I felt the least hope when I believed You’d decided You would only tell others what I needed to do with my life. I waited to hear You say that I’d finished fulfilling Your promise to my mother, that I was free to go discover the other things You’d placed me here to do. But with every year that passed, this pardon seemed less plausible. Maybe it wouldn’t be me You told at all, but my mother. Maybe You’d sent the message and I missed because I didn’t know the sound of Your voice. Maybe I’d never know it. Maybe there was no voice, but only the bible, and all this time, I should’ve been decoding that for answers.

It wasn’t even not knowing. It was the fear that I’d never know, that I’d been betrayed or duped or terribly misguided, that I still am. It was when, every time I tried articulating any of this, all I got in return was, “Did you pray about it?”

There’s a desperation, a terror, in the idea that the God of my fathers (and mothers) is all that there is. Who You are to them is not who I need You to be, for me. But for the longest time, who You were to them was all I believed You could be.

And this is how I came to make a few choices of my own: a master’s degree, a teaching career, a well-intentioned courtship turned secular, and several years later, the baby, the hunger, the jobs that pay pennies, the re-turning of my face toward the Wind.

It’s still true I do not like being tossed and that, despite our long history, confidence in Your intent to rescue me isn’t my first response to hardship. I am still working hard to maintain hope, to believe in the unheard as well as the unseen. But if this is who You are, I will not resist the gusts. May they carry me closer to You, may I glimpse Your face in the dust that dances up and stings the eyes. Be the gale, and I will be Your feather. Be my reinvention, and I will teach my daughter to know You for herself.

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Faith, Nonfiction

The Totem.

When you’re twenty, I’ll tell you what things were like just before you turned two: how I felt like a totem pole being whittled by the Carpenter, how the bits of my life that were once so green and life-giving began falling like scallops of wood ’round my feet. I will tell you how unsettling it was to watch them rest there. These shallow wisps that were once so inextricably affixed, firm ridges of root and of bark, were now curling, lifeless and inconsequential, lifted and scuttled farther away on even the mildest of winds. There, a longtime friend. There, an unfulfilled desire. There, an entire branch of the family tree.

I was once indistinguishable from other oaks. My functions were fully understood. I was beauty and shade and breaths of fresh air. I was considered suitable for climbing, a welcome place to rest. Stalwart, I could always be found where seekers of solace had left me. Immovable and silent, I was ever their refuge, their asylum.

No one considered this could change, least of all me. It wasn’t foreign, transformation–not entirely. Every autumn, I’d watch myself and others turn. We were rouges, then dusks, then maize. And soon we were naked and barren.

But this was nothing compared to the cracking of skies, to the virulent force that struck me as though I had wronged it. Perhaps I had. I spent those first days claiming fault: I wasn’t attentive enough. The shade I provided did too little to stave off the sun. Maybe my branches cracked and snapped under the weight and expectation of climbers. Maybe the lightning was lonely and cursed me for being so passively grounded, so unfailingly accessible.

It didn’t know these were not things that I wanted. It comprehended as little of my life as a tree as I knew of its need for a crackling rampage. I have heard that it does not aim, that it smites wheresover it will. But it is hard to believe, when I wince at the memory of a trunk rent in two, of the tremulous roots’ bewilderment, of the ground’s utter fright as it crumbled. It’s impossible to imagine that the bolts move without motivation, that they are not willing agents in such acts of irreparable destruction.

I nearly died when lightning toppled me. I can tell you this now that you’re twenty. When I was 32, I learned that the absorption and transmission of oxygen are necessary performances but are not the crux of a life. I lay there for hours, for days, still alive, but the purpose of life had eluded me.

It is never the lightning that kills.

For me, it was the pitying looks and the scorn, the whispers, the warnings of the fallen tree, with one perfect burst of fruit on its withering branches. Beware lest it obstruct your path. This kind of decay is contagious.

Were it not for the Carpenter’s carving, I am not sure you’d have much of a mother. I would’ve loved you on what was left of my confidence that, as a tree, I was capable of cradling the fruit I had borne. I would’ve gazed at you with rootless adoration. But I no longer knew who I was without sturdiness, greenness, or shade. I was little help to anyone then–and all those who’d once come to me for friendship or familial love began to notice. They’d pluck up the bits that hadn’t begun to rot and they’d try their hardest to replant me. But I was no longer amenable to their insistence that I thrive on their terms. I was starting, very steadily, to pull away.

None of us knew then what I would become–none save the omniscient Carpenter. His eye caught only what could be restored; His hand sloughed all evidence of harm. For a time I felt stripped; there was nothing. Even with you nearby, I felt alone.

Carefully, He swept away the excess. He pared and cored and whittled till I became a statuesque testament, a living narrative of restoration. I had been more than salvaged. I had been re-purposed.

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Faith, Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction, Parenting

How Deep the Mother’s Love for You?

I think that, now, you may love me more. It is possible that the older you get, the more you understand our relationship, and how it’s predicated on the faith you seem, at times, to know far better than I do.

I have watched you at church, where I didn’t regularly take you until you were well over 18 months old. When you raise and wave your hands and your face is awash in beatific reverence, I know that you’re mimicking nothing, that whatever gestures of worship you extend are yours, untaught and unrehearsed. To your guileless toddler mind, I will never leave you or forsake you is less a stray line of dialogue in a holy narrative and more an earnest incantation, a promise, a governing tenet, a truth.

With every day that you open your eyes and find me here, inches away in a bed we share, your confidence grows. I can be your dim earthly reflection of God. Ours can be a fixed and unquestioned bond. Your mother can be immovable.

This confidence has been slow, gradual, earned, but the affection that now attends it is unabashed. I have waited for you to comprehend the fathoms of what I feel for you. Every embrace is an echosounder; every kiss is understood as another nautical mile. But I suspect it will be years yet before you discover the truth of this mystery.

How deep the mother’s love for you? Like the Father’s (and your father’s), it is floorless.

In just over a month, you will be two. But if anyone were to ask me, you’d be 200, a Highlander, a water sprite, a warrior, iridescent and timeless. You have been with me a kind of forever. This is the thing so few really know about children. You presage yourselves, whirling around in the twisters of DNA and dust that compose us. And we know, long before we know, that you might someday be and also that you may never exist as more than the cells that encase the nuclei of promise we could never live long enough to see fulfilled. In this way, when we are aware of ourselves and invested in you, we will always know more of you than you know of yourselves.

Every day, mothering you takes fresh meaning, issues new instruction. Consider, for instance, the meals and how we divide the portions. We eat in genial silence, exchange smiles around our chews. But when our allotments dwindle, you do not entirely trust that I will leave you with more than you need. You stuff all that remains into your tiny mouth, so that you become, for a moment, a puffin. Your eyes grow wide and unsure. You wonder if I will be angry, if I will mistake your self-interest for greed. You needn’t fear; it’s my job to know that you are not selfish, but hungry. It’s my mission to feed that which quickly hollows, a longing that is not meant for food.

At this age, you are insatiable, acquiring time, numbers, language, love and hoarding them for a future you’ve no way to know. I am beginning to understand that more than anything, my role is to reassure you:

I am not here to take but to give. 

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Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting

Things We Whisper, Things We Shout.

There are the nothings, either sweet or scolding, offered in the cool of an afternoon or hissed in the heat of a moment. There are the alleluias, the Celtic Gloria, the antiquated verses of crescendoing hymns. There is the fact that you are beautiful–without modifier, without exception–and that you are also capable. There is the secret to accepting compliments: be gracious and thankful; feel no obligation to volley them back to their givers. Your only imperative is not to be smug. There is the advice my mother gave me: there will always be someone more skilled or more lovely than you. And there is my amendment: that is an inconsequential thing. There are confessions, of risk, of a fluid faith, of profound uncertainty. (I do not often deal in absolutes; I have been, too often, proven wrong.) There is God as we imagine Him, in visions: yours is of a massive hand stroking the crowns of children’s heads and leaving streams of gold dust in its wake; mine is of a listener, a philosopher, whose riddles will woo and thrill and confound me well into eternity. There is the confession that I do not mind not knowing, that though I trade in scholarship, daily darkening the halls of academe, I feel safest when I am unsure, when I am not so arrogant as to claim that I know better than others what should be right for all. And there are the scraps that swirl on the wind, debris upon which the wisdom of ages is scrawled. We catch them, like lightning bugs, like butterflies, pull them apart, read their wings. Sometimes, love is haggard, one tells us. Its garments are sooty and tattered. We nervously pass it on sidewalks, afraid to open our purses as it dares to ask alms. It retreats into alleys under our scathing gaze. We deny it its work and its glory, unable to recognize it as it is, unwilling to touch it long enough to brush the embers from its medals. Love rarely comes in gleaming armor. Love hobbles up, discharged from war.

These are the things we whisper, when you’ve climbed my legs and torso like a tree, used my arms as sturdy limbs, and dangled.

The things we shout are fewer. We need only raise our voices in accordance with the stakes. And too few things in the life I’m fashioning for you prove dire enough to necessitate the noise. Still, we are more than able of turning ourselves into cannons. Our hearts are as volatile as powder kegs; they are riled by hate, ignited by injustice. We do not like to be told who we are; when we are underestimated, we are ferocious. If ever your rights are threatened, know that I will roar for you–and that sound that will escape this bodily cage where I’ve kept it corralled, will be like nothing you have heard or are likely to hear again. Of a truth, the time is nigh, the day is close at hand, when I will lower you from the limbs where you love to perch and tuck you safely into the cavern I’ve prepared. You will dip your fingers into the well of a mortar and streak my face with the indigo you find. We will kiss and, before we part, we will howl like Dahomey, like wolves up toward the open ears of moons.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting

Reconsidering Mary, Mother of Jesus.

My mind can finally fathom Mary. Not her bypassed virginity nor the angel that quelled her fear, not her courage, her confidence in God’s peerless, perfect will nor the charm it must’ve taken to cajole her husband into journeys and mystery and a cessation of questioning.

It is in but one way that I can access her—finally, after all these years of believing her to be beyond my grasp—and this way seems the most significant of all.

I know her by her surrogacy, by the way it feels to give birth to a child to whom she believes she can never stake full claim. I recognize the oddness of feeling a strangulating sense of impermanence, even as I bathe her, feed her, infuse her language with manners, even as she becomes a warm somersault in her sleep, her tiny hard-heeled feet using my body as her gymnast’s mat. Even then, in her sleep, when she feels closest, if only by proximity, I never settle into an impression that she is entirely mine.

Instead, there’s a strangeness, an isolation, in loving a small, breathing parcel who feels so unfamiliar, so separate, so intended for a purpose that sits apart my own, so certainly on loan, and so expected to grow impatient with my heart as her holding pattern, as a velvet-lined cage with a door that will surely stick.

I cannot imagine raising Jesus. This is where Mary seems preternatural. This is our point of departure, for I know that even with a husband who loved me enough to completely overlook that his firstborn is a changeling whose presence is owing to a God he’s never actually seen, and even with the other, more normal children I could pin to the ho-hum, incontestable work of biology, I would not have known how to behave like a mother to him. I wouldn’t have known how to chastise him, wouldn’t have believed I needed to, him understanding God and thus understanding His expectations far more fluently than I. I wouldn’t have known how to love him with reckless abandon.

This is difficult enough with my daughter, who came to me in the most undramatic of ways. No tangible angel preceded her. No voice from heaven boomed. She is not the Son (or Daughter, as it were) of Man and so I can’t possibly feel the pressure Mary must’ve felt to get raising her “right.”

But I feel pressure just the same, not to smother her or to grow too dependent on her company or to make myself her barnacle. She is happy and well-loved; of this I make certain. And she cannot know how motherhood feels, not like an all-encompassing state, not like an eclipse of the light that shone before it, but at times, like only a sliver, like a condition that constantly moves so that it is difficult to pin down, to apprehend, to treat.

And so, I suspect that I do what Mary must’ve done. As often as I can, I abandon the morrow and ignore, for now, the woman I see in the eyes of the girl. I listen to her, noting the cadence and questions that lift at the ends of her prattle. I listen, so that I might know her and, in knowing her, earn her lifelong confidence. When she is ready to flit off into a life I cannot imagine, I believe I will understand why. This is far more important than feeling like she is a wind that I can possess.

I invest, for even my shortcomings have something to teach her. I warn her of the world that awaits beyond my arms and our door. And more than a daughter, I interpret her as an ally–for this is a relation that can remain unwavering. This is a kinship we are never meant to outgrow.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting, Prayer

Get Real, Get Right.

Like Truman, I had walked to the end of a soundstage, expansive and domed, a manmade construct where I’d dwelled since the day I was born. I followed a once-holy script, so weighted with rewrites the original text seemed illegible, and in its appendix, a map of circuitous arrows. This was a province governed by a trumped-up paranoia, a place where God watched like a hawk with the imperative to smite at any time. He sat high and looked low and, though he was love, He was also a wielder of swords; just the threat of one’s wing or the promise of another sword’s knighthood, whole lives could be held in check. Though the God they’d confined to this land necessitated lifelong service to the poor, the men and women who believed themselves His ambassadors amassed wealth at the people’s expense and boasted often of their riches to impoverished congregations.

These leaders were not like John the Baptist, wild-eyed eccentrics momentarily stricken with doubt but ultimately willing to die for their gospel. They were not like Moses, weary and at times uncertain but obedient even after 40 years of wilderness.

They were more akin to Ananais and Sapphira, apportioning unto themselves not just money, but truth and hope, compassion and power, which belonged to an uncompromised God and, in turn, to an underserved people.

At the edge of the world, at the age of 25, I clawed free, broke through an uncharted dimension. On the journey, many people passed by, headed into the land that I’d left.

I didn’t warn them of the sanctimony that would meet them there, did not tell them that though its pew-sprinting, alter-fainting, frothed-mouthing practices may seem the height of religious freedom, they were not headed for liberty but instead a new snare.

Beyond the only world I’d known, I met many obstacles. Uncharted terrain is always treacherous. I stumbled through jungles, nearly missing the garroting vines. I fielded the unbidden questions, the doubts, the stalking of betrayals so intense I longed for amnesia. And eventually, it came.

I forgot the kind of God I used to worship, a deity diluted and delivered on tin trays through the slats of a confined life. I forgot how it felt to be shackled.

There were seven years of vertigo. Mostly silence. Neither God nor I seemed angry, but we made little effort to connect.

I emerged with a girl, tiny and worshipful in ways that reignited memory. She sways at the lilt of a hymn, lifts her eyes toward a heaven she recognizes, stretches her lithe little arms at the crooning of cantors, opens a door.

I know that, in order to effectively mother her, I must talk to the God she knows, must engage in a faith like hers, must love without suspicion.

So I take her to–of all places–a VFW hall, where men in robes make the sign of the cross over their hearts and minds. A jazz guitarist and his wife lead songs that initiate conversations with God, rather than discussions with each other about how they should converse with God–or how they should feel while doing so. The holy eucharist is shared every week, and questioning is welcome. It is an entirely unfamiliar place. I approach it as the refugee I am, with guardedness and more than a little fear. But louder than the din of my doubt is the prospect of hope.

I am learning unabashed belief from the little girl, whose eyes grow wide during worship, who ceases her busy tinkering during prayer, who smiles at the priest who crosses her before I partake of the sacrament.

These days, I follow her lead. Later, she will follow mine. And someday, she will walk to the edge of the world and feel confident she knows the God who is beyond it.

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Faith, Nonfiction

Leap.

By manipulating the shape of the body in freefall, a skydiver can generate turns, forward motion, backwards motion, and even lift.

A wounded deer leaps highest. — Emily Dickinson

On its surface, this day is no different than others. It adheres to the same 24 hours as all the rest. The sun rises and sets at hours consistent with those in the days surrounding it. It does not break from established weather patterns, does not undo the laws of gravity, does not defy velocity. It is but a day.

But I tell you of a truth: we are made for risk. We are made for the meticulous building of traditions and for the very sudden breaking from them. Listen, feel the hard gallop of blood through the veins to the heart through the veins. This is how were meant to move through this, the only life we’re given: quick, but with deliberation, forceful and regenerative.

We were meant for leaps, for freefalls–and just in case our fears make us forget, just in case the trappings of acquired finery cause a kind of amnesia, God occasionally grants us this: an extra revolution of earth ’round sun, a 366th opportunity to do what should be done daily.

Leap.

You will not perish. You will kiss lovers you would not have known, if not for the casting off of cynicism. You will break ground that, undoubtedly, would’ve been colonized later, by someone else who understood what it meant to manipulate a fall, a failure, in ways that become strengths. You will triumph where others see only defeat. You will tilt your head, close an eye, squint, make viewfinders of your fingers and gaze at the figure before you in the glass, gaze until she becomes someone to be revered, someone different than she was in years, in days, in moments before and who will be different still in the days to come. You will finish a thought, a deep, a pursuit once discarded–reconcile with a decision long past.

You will take your children–biological, imagined, mentored–and pull them close with the sound of your lowered voice. Say, you may feel fixed as stone, but you have the freedom of vapor. Say, I have heard that, in the air, we become zephyrs. But this can only be confirmed though the leap. Say, I love you. This should matter. This should be a propulsion. When you feel yourself sinking, spread your arms, let your heart unfurl like a bolt of raw silk, and trust that love’s current will carry you.

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Faith, Nonfiction

Gradient Grace.

The gift is stunning, arrayed in scarlet satin, adorned in gilded bows. Here, says the giver, presenting it with relish. I have chosen this especially for you. I am giving it according to your need. There is no other occasion, no other motive.

You believe him; your need hastens that decision—for as you open the decadent package, you see it is a platter piled with money. There is no promissory; this is not a loan.

You fall at the giver’s feet. I am overcome. You kiss his ring, tell him he is a pillar, a paragon. I do not know what I would do without kinsmen like you.

But it is only this last part that perks the ear of the giver. There are others? I am not your only source? I am not your sole rescuer, your singular kinsman, your only salvation?

You are not my salvation at all, is what you think, but before you utter words, you rise and stand at full height. No. Of course you are not, you state with certainty, for the people who love and care for you cannot be numbered, even if they do not have the means to help you stave off your personal hellhounds.

The giver is deeply displeased. He reaches into his satchel and brings out a cluster of cords. Here are my strings; they are many. Accept them along with the gift or you will depart with nothing.

You remember your pining for more than the crusts of bread, for a well-soled shoe, for the luxuries of a parlor’s grooming. You wince at the echoes of creditors, cringe at the memory of the computerized self-checkout voice barking a grocery total that staggers you. You calculate the balance of days that your daughter will spend wearing diapers.

I will fasten myself to your strings, but only for a time.

The giver grins. Then this is to be an indentured servitude. I will alert you when the racks of my conditions have been cleared.

Years later, you still rub your wrists. You are better off; no one is after you. You can walk with your head held aloft, owing nothing. For all intents, for every purpose, you are free; you’ve the papers to prove it. But the cosmic damage has been done.

Now, when anyone offers to help you, you are wary. You recoil from beautiful packages; you tremble at the hand that proffers an unearned check.

Every generous gesture is greeted with a bemused half-smile and a polite, but resolved, “No thank you.”

It is better to give than to receive. It is easier, too.

They mistake it for pride, the new givers. Just learn to take a compliment, a gift. No reciprocity is expected, they insist, their patience wearing thin.

But they do not know the grace it requires to accept without distrust. They do not know how desperately you have to parse your gratitude. It must be pulled from the uncompromised parts of yourself; you must find it in the unbroken places, where the last giver could never seem to shatter you by calling you a “user” or an “ingrate.”

It amazes you that you are even still capable of such grace, and anyone who knew the serfdom you’d escaped would grant you the gradation you will need to achieve it. You will learn to open your hand, without expecting the sting of a lash. You will recall the small flourish of curtsies. But you will not apologize for the years it may take to do so. And you will never again be so clouded by need that you will extend your gratitude and graces to wolfish givers.

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