Blue-Eyed Baby Jesus

December 18, 2014

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One of our family’s annual Christmas traditions is setting up my mother’s handmade ceramic nativity. Actually, I’m the only one that sets it up. My kids watch because I won’t let them touch it.

Welcome to my merry madness.

The reason they can’t touch it is because this nativity is special. It represents one of the only happy memories I have of my mother—let’s just say she was on the naughty list. Because of her personal demons, there weren’t many moments of ‘heavenly peace’ in my home but this was one of them. And every Christmas, my children watch me become as neurotic as my mother as I carefully resurrect this childhood relic from its cardboard vault and meticulously unwrap each piece, careful not to break the fragile memory of my mother.

When I was six years old, my mom made this nativity out of chalky lumps of clay. She cast, fired and hand-painted each piece to her idea of perfection. It was a painstakingly slow process. Each figurine sat upon its own pedestal, receiving my mother’s undivided attention. Regularly, she sponge-bathed the little nativity people, keeping them in pristine condition as she painted. She filed and smoothed their rough edges and at the end of every day, she inspected each piece with her careful artistic eye. She gave special attention to the newborn babe and I wondered what my life would look like had she given as much care to me.

I was jealous of baby Jesus.

It may seem cruel to write about one’s mother this way (mine has passed) but I have writer friends with entire novels waiting to be written about their mothers. Let’s admit it. Mothers are lightening rods of emotion, even if you have a good one. And my mother was the equivalent of standing barefooted in a puddle during a thunderstorm while holding a 20-foot metal pole.

This nativity was the one “holy night” of my childhood and my candy-covered kids aren’t about to touch it. As a child, I was allowed to watch but not participate in my mother’s nativity creation. And now my children do the same; they look on while I unpack Jesus and the gang along with a lifetime of hurt. We drink hot cocoa with peppermint sticks as the scene unfolds.

I pour Schnapps in mine.

My mother was an artist. Her “studio” looked like a Category 5 hurricane had blown through it, and it had. By my account, she was the storm of the century. Tables were buried under hundreds of tubes and half-empty bottles of paint—some had caps, most did not. Pools of dried paint covered the surfaces and floor leaving a road map of past projects. One puddle was from her ceramic elephant phase. The green stain was a three-foot leprechaun. One year everyone got metallic-gold praying hands for their birthday. I had to dig mine out of the back of a closet whenever she came to visit. One Christmas my mother made adorable little Santa boots filled with chocolate treats for my third-grade class. To my horror, she walked into my classroom carrying them in an empty Miller Lite cardboard case, half of which she must have drunk before arriving. She smelled like the Santa at my dad’s office party.

She had a kiln that sat in a dusty, dark corner of our garage. It looked part lunar module, part nuclear reactor. I stood on a footstool looking down into its belly wondering what would happen if I fell in. Would she even notice? What if I was one of her precious projects? Would she put me on a pedestal and gently tend to me like she did baby Jesus?

Every project required new materials; the tips of used brushes lay ruined from the dried paint of her last piece. Dried-out sponges, pencils with broken leads, half-empty glasses of gray water and her sanity were strewn all over the room. Along with her creative flare came a burning inferno of crazy. But while she painted, she was as calm as that storied silent night. She summoned beauty out of those lumps of clay. It was the only time she seemed extraordinary for something other than her madness.

I remember watching this nativity come to life before my eyes. The most vivid memory is that of my mother bedazzling the magi with faux gems and silver beads. I wondered if they were real jewels. No, of course not. She would be wearing them if they were (my mother had a gift for gaudiness). Once she had several smaller pieces of tacky jewelry melted down into one giant piece of tacky jewelry that she proudly wore on her middle finger. It gave her bird-flipping a certain pizazz. I watched with amazement as she glued each bead to the magi’s crown. I leaned in for a closer look and to my complete surprise, she asked me if I would like to help. It was the first time I’d been invited into her creative world. “Just one tiny little drop,” she whispered as if not to wake the sleeping baby Jesus. She demonstrating the technique with a toothpick dipped in glue. She allowed me to do the rest. I carefully placed each bead in just the right spot. “Like this, Mama?” I asked, hopeful to have done it properly. “Yes, that’s right, honey.” And it was for a moment.

I continue to unpack the box, trying not to get distracted by the wrapping-paper newsprint from 2004—the year both my mother and father died. I inspect the magi and his gift, admiring the beads I glued on, still there after 38 years. Every season a few of the nativity characters take a hit. How? I do not know. It sits unmoved in a box in a bin in a closet. And this year was no exception—the shepherd lost his staff and the lamb, a hoof. Most of the pieces have been broken over the years. However, nothing is beyond repair.

If only hearts were that easy to mend.

Every year as I set up the nativity scene, I have the same dialogue in my head. My mother had her own lens on life as most artists’ do. My mother saw Mary as a bleach-blonde bimbo. “Good grief, look at this,” I scoff. “What was she thinking? Didn’t she know these people were Jewish?” Mary has black eyeliner, blue eye shadow and cat eyes. She looks like a tart. Yet I handle her with great care.

Next are the magi, two of which are divas. One looks like a pimp and the other, a drag queen donned in hot pink, a feather boa and a diamond-studded headdress. The tallest, most majestic of the three magi looks like King Jesus, which I really love but never noticed as a child. I wonder if she did this on purpose. It’s one of those discoveries you make later in life that forces you to rethink what you thought you knew. There are sleepy shepherds, an angel, camels, an ox (minus one horn—that damn box) and wanderers–what appears to be the little drummer boy and a clarinet player from a bluegrass band although he could be Little Boy Blue. Most interesting of all is baby Jesus. He is blonde and blue-eyed like Mary (which makes sense), looks nothing like Joseph (which also makes sense) and is laying on a bed of hay with his arms spread wide, just like he would do one day on the cross. Standing over him is the magi, “King Jesus,” robed in royal red, diadems and fur. For a second, I see what she sees.

The nativity is beautiful, weird and complete.

I stand back and admire her creation. I love that it’s so “her”—flashy, colorful and strange. My kids stare at it with both wonder and confusion, like I do. Yes, this is in part who we are. Unbelievably, despite her chaos in my life, all is calm and all is bright. I’ve learned to let my kids help me set up the nativity scene in recent years. I even let my youngest play with baby Jesus until I found him in the bottom of her fish bowl. She said she wanted to see if he walked on water. Fair enough.

I guess what’s great about this nativity, besides the fact that it gives me one good memory of my mom, is that it connects me to something bigger. Not just the story of my past or my family, but it’s the story of all our pasts, all our families, the story of a real baby broken to save us from our own brokenness. This strange cast of characters–the wanderers, the divas and unwed mothers–could be members of any family.  The boas, feathers, and fur are what make it look like mine.

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Freedom

October 13, 2013

I can’t think of anything to write today. I have a weekly deadline to produce a blog post for Restore Ministries and even though I’ve written three drafts, I’ve deleted each one because after reading them, I thought to myself, “Gosh, who is this person? I don’t like her.

Why is this so hard today?

The topic is “Living in the Freedom to Believe.” Oh, wait! Suddenly I realize why this may be difficult. This is the last thing the devil wants us to be thinking about–the gospel and freedom. So I pray, “Jesus, help me write something that will encourage us to have a biblical understanding of belief.” I realize I’m not really qualified to do that, so I pray again, “Jesus, help me write about belief.” Still, something doesn’t seem right, so I pray once more, “Jesus, help me.” Then it dawns on me…with my eyes closed, hands open, I whisper, “Jesus.”

I can write about what I know, and that is Jesus.

The Bible says that it’s not enough to believe in Jesus; even the demons do that (James 2:9). Belief requires repentance. And to be clear, repentance is not just telling God you’re sorry for what you did but that you’re sorry for why you did it. The sin is in the unbelief, as much as the behavior. True repentance doesn’t say, “God, I’m sorry I complained all day about how hard the writing process is and that I squandered my gift.” It also says, “I’m sorry I felt the need to produce my own righteousness by being an extraordinary writer.”

Last week I wrote about how our need to repent is grounded in forgetting one or two things about the gospel: 1.That God has given me the righteousness of Christ and/or 2. I have a loving Father who’s given me everything needed for this life.

So, once I repent, then what? Belief.

Believe in the gospel. What does it mean to believe? First, I know what it doesn’t mean–it doesn’t mean that I’m not scared or disappointed or angered by the harder moments in life. It doesn’t mean that I call ‘bad’ circumstances ‘good’ when they aren’t–marriages should survive, a paycheck should come, a 36-year-old mother with three small children should live. Belief means that when all of these emotions are in play–anger, confusion, heartache–I am sustained by God. It means that I believe Jesus and take Him at His word in spite of my pain.

Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” [John 6:28, ESV] And what are we to believe of him? That my righteousness is in Christ and that because of Jesus, I have everything I need in this life–this one, not just the one that is to come, but right here and right now: without a spouse, without an income, without a cure, without savings, without a resolution.

Believe is, after all, a verb and not an emotion. But tell that to my heart. The act of believing means that I accept the truth of God as Provider and Provision as if it really is true and apply it to my everyday life. But as we all know, this is done imperfectly, especially in a crisis. When I am faced with an overwhelming situation, my truest theology is exposed.

This fall my seven-year-old son is playing on a youth football league. Football is his passion. His wardrobe consists of various jerseys from his gridiron heroes. Anything that doesn’t have a number and a name on the back is considered “church” clothes. Honestly, I had concerns about him playing tackle football because of his size. He’s adopted from Guatemala, and even though he’s an average-sized kid for his culture, he doesn’t quite measure up to the biggie-sized American boys on his team. What he lacks in height, he makes up in heart. The first game of his season came with a great deal of anticipation. These boys practiced seven hours a week for a month. After sixty minutes had come and gone in his first game, he didn’t play a single down. I was in tears behind my sunglasses. After the game, none of us knew what to say to him. Finally, my daughter offered, “Buddy, you look so cool in your uniform.” He didn’t say a word on the long drive home. Later that night, I emailed the coach to ask why he hadn’t played. The coach apologized and said it was a mistake; he called it “first-game glitches” and promised to make it up to him in the next game. A week later the same thing happened; he played two downs. Several other boys never made it on the field. I was upset but remained quiet because my son was happy about their win. By the third game, however, after only participating in the last play of the first half, I was furious. You know that “warning light” you get when you’re about to say something you’ll regret? Well, I ignored it. As we left the field, I approached the coach–who was all smiles because of their undefeated record–and asked to speak with him privately. I told him that, if he thought playing the same boys on both offense and defense during each half of every game while other boys sat on the bench was something to smile about, then he should reevaluate his priorities as a coach. Then, I told him that his obsession with winning had clearly made him lose sight of the purpose and privilege of coaching. I finished by saying that the weekly six-hour investment these boys (and parents) make was not worth the poor return.

Are you uncomfortable yet?

See what happens when I forget that the condition of my son’s heart is not my responsibility? I get ugly and mouthy.

I didn’t only forget the gospel for myself, I forgot it for my son. Have you ever done that?

I went to bed angry but unsettled, and a subtle shame snuck up on me. By the time I awoke the following day, I felt sick inside. Rather than having cereal for breakfast, I was about to eat crow. I realized the reason I was disturbed was because I worried about how not playing was affecting my son. He’s a boy in a broken home. He’s also aware that, because he’s adopted, someone who should’ve wanted him didn’t. He wrestles with rejection and anger. I was so bound up with fear that my son wouldn’t have what he needed from this experience–or worse, that it was doing irreparable harm. My nail biting kept me from entering into the experience with him. I was as much of a spectator of him as he was the game.

In my unbelief, I thought I could fix the problem by “talking” to his coach, but all I’d done was take off my robe of righteousness in exchange for a filthy rag. I wish I had taken that rag and stuffed it down my throat instead.

I didn’t believe that God is my son’s righteousness. I forgot that his identity is not in his broken home or his orphan status but in Christ Jesus–solid and secure. I didn’t believe that God had given him the resources to cope with this disappointment. I didn’t believe that God could be using his pain for a greater and glorious purpose that will serve him beautifully in his future. I didn’t believe in anything other than the sharpness of my tongue and my ability to use words like weapons.

I called the coach and apologized. I kept it simple because that’s what coaches do. I strapped on my “big-girl’’ chinstrap and said, “Coach, I’m sorry for what I said last night. I was wrong and it won’t happen again. Will you forgive me?”

I wanted to say, “You see, I’m worried about my son. He’s already endured so much pain and I’m afraid that not playing him is crushing his fragile spirit. He needs this and you aren’t giving it to him.” But I knew that wasn’t repentance, so I didn’t. The coach said, “All is forgiven.”

All is forgiven. All is secure. All is provided.

My son’s team is undefeated after seven games. He plays regularly and even scored a touchdown last week. I later learned that he’d been kept out of those earlier games because the opposing teams were so big that the coaches worried he might get hurt. Ahh, humility. I’m glad I didn’t know because the experience allowed so much unbelief to be exposed in me. “It’s His kindness that leads us to repentance.” [Romans 2:4, ESV]

This day, I choose to believe that Christ is my righteousness and not how I respond to disappointment. I choose to believe that God is a Good Father and that He’s using everything for my good and His glory. In other words, I don’t have to make a way for myself (or my child). Will I forget? Probably by the end of the day, maybe even the hour. That’s why I stay in the Word, not so much that I won’t sin (though that’s the idea) but rather when I’m tempted to unbelief, I know the truth from the lie.

     “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” [Galatians 5:1, ESV]

I’m free to try and fail without either defining who I am or how I live. I’m free to believe.

I recently started working for a counseling ministry in Birmingham, Alabama called Restore Ministries. My first assignment was to write a response to a dynamic bible study called Idol Addiction created and taught by Restore’s co-founder, Julie Sparkman. I am writing about Chapter 5, titled “Remember, Repent and Return.” The lesson deals with the biblical beliefs that as children of God we possess the righteousness of Christ and that we are well-provided for children of God. And since we’ve been given a perfect standing and an equally perfect provision, we can live like heirs rather than orphans.

I wrote this piece while twisting and turning with my own unbelief. Every word I penned was hard-earned and fought for, not by me, but by Jesus. During the week of my deadline, I found my back against the wall emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually. My personal circumstances were being crunched by external pressures making this writing assignment especially difficult…and needful. I wrestled with every word until a divine mercy transported my spirit beyond the temporal and terminal into the eternal. How? The gospel sank in, like way in. I found myself trusting not in “things seen but unseen,” believing God’s Word over my cynicism and circumstance. It was grace, mysterious and inexplicable, like grace always is. 

It was another step towards my true self, my child-of-God self.

 

 

Strong Flesh, Weak Memories

As I get older my memory fades. My children love to remind me of the things I’ve forgotten.

“Mom, you forgot to send a check for the book fair.” “Mom, you forgot to sign my permission slip.” “Mom, you forgot to put peanut butter and jelly on my sandwich, I only had two pieces of bread!” (Yes, I did this.) It’s usually small stuff that doesn’t cost much in the way of negligence. But one thing I cannot afford to forget is the gospel, it is the “life” within my life. When my aging brain is unable to dial up my “to do list” or why I’m at the grocery store it’s one thing, but to forget that I have a righteousness before the Holy God of the universe is another.

Forgetting my perfect position in Christ costs me more than a wasted trip to Publix; it costs me a night’s sleep, a fight with my husband, humility in relationships. It costs me peace. Not long ago, I texted my oldest daughter to ask when she would be home from a night out and she replied, “I’m waiting on you to pick me up.” Oops. I forgot. I forget constantly and not only about carpools but about my Christ-righteousness, especially when another mom has waited 20 minutes for me to collect my child. I forget the gospel when I look bad. I forget because my flesh is strong and my memory is weak. When I “blow” it, I scramble to recover my lost credibility. I begin to clothe my shame with filthy fig leaves, it looks like this: “I have five kids, you know…I’m a single mom…I’m not used to this new school schedule.”  Then, I remember 2 Peter 1:9 that says when I lack faith I am “nearsighted, blind and easily forget.” So, I’m off the hook, right? Well…yes, because God knows this about me He has provided a remedy for my strong flesh and weak memory–Jesus–but it requires a knowledge of Christ and with that, my repentance. Instead of covering, I must welcome the exposure. Then, it looks like this: “Jesus, I did it again. Help me to live like I believe that my righteousness is in you.” This is true repentance, not just a “mending” of my ways because my sin runs much deeper than that, it’s a cry for rescue from my unbelief.

Repentance is admitting that you don’t believe the gospel in two ways: either you forgot that you have a righteousness through Jesus (like I did on the infamous “bread sandwich” day) or you forgot that you’ve been given all you need for life and godliness. I forget this too, almost on a daily basis. Just yesterday I had a friend say to me, “Michele, if God were to show you and me the factual forecast that, of course, shows a magnificent bottom-line for us, I dare to guess, we would not be disappointed.” You know why she had to tell me? Because I forgot that I was a well-provided for daughter. I forgot like I had some sort of spiritual amnesia and not just a bump on the head. She grew very sad watching me frenetically scramble around securing all that’s “mine.” I was acting like an orphan so she reminded me that I have a heavenly Father running towards me with open arms. I had a choice in that moment, I could keep pilfering the air or I could breathe in Christ.

I like the way The Living Bible puts it, “For as you know him better, he will give you, through his great power, everything you need for living a truly good life: he even shares his own glory and his own goodness with us!”

Really, Lord? Can this be true?

“I will supply all of your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” [Phillipians 4:9 NIV]

Hmm.

It really changes everything, doesn’t it?

So, I repented of my unbelief, “Lord, forgive me for forgetting that I already have been given all I need in spite of how things appear; give me clarity beyond my vision. Forgive me for taking matters into my own hands; I forgot to trust you. And Jesus, the next time I feel a wave of panic wash over me, make me remember that my righteousness is in you, and I have everything I need.”

What if I believed that I am a well-provided for child of the King?

“Let the beloved of the LORD rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the LORD loves rests between his shoulders.” [Deuteronomy 33:12, NIV]

I want to stand securely in the righteousness of Christ, allowing His peace to be my shield from shame and worry. Only God can show me how to rest “between his shoulders.”

It’s all grace.

 

 

“But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, He made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves.” [John 1:9, The Message]

For more information about Restore Ministries or Idol Addiction go to: http://restore-ministries.org/

 

Borrowed Shoes

September 13, 2013

My family of six recently moved to a new home. Everybody knows what’s involved with that so I’ll skip the part about what a pain it is. Four weeks after moving, I finally got to a point where I thought, “OK, I can live with this” and resumed my previous life. However, five boxes remained untouched. Since they contained items like wedding pictures and books on parenting, they were easy to ignore but on a whim of wild ambition, I started unpacking again today.

Jacked up on caffeine and raw determination, the first box was easy to tackle. “No, Michele,” I’d tell myself, “you may NOT stop to look at your sixteen-year-old’s preschool crafts. Keep moving, stay focused.” I resolved to finish. In the meantime, my kids were running in and out of the basement taking full advantage of my single-mindedness.

“Mom, can we….”

“Uh-huh,” I said never looking up from a box of books on marriage. I don’t need these anymore.

A few minutes later another child, “Hey, Mom, would it be all right if….”

“Yep,” I’d say without hearing the end of the question. I was too focused on color-coordinating my bookshelf. Instead of listening, I debated if the teal-colored books should go with the blue books or the green books or should they go in a category by themselves between the blue and green books. No, that would be too predictable. Hmm, I wondered.

So while organizing white books with black titles from white books with red titles, my kids wreaked havoc on my home. It looked like two F-4 tornados had blown through the front door. With a massive cleanup effort needed upstairs, I continued to de-clutter downstairs. Only one box remained. While removing newspapers from 2004 (the date of my previous move), I took a quick inventory of the box’s contents to consider where everything should go. At the bottom of this cardboard vault, I found something surprising. It was a studio-portrait of me when I was five. I’m wearing pigtails, a pink frilly dress, black patent leather shoes with white ruffled nylon socks. Around my neck is a heart-shaped pendant with a pearl in the middle. The best part? I’m poking my lip out as far as it would go without getting it “smacked off my face.”

In the portrait, I look exactly like I felt.

There’s a reason why this portrait is on the bottom of a twice-neglected moving box–I hate it. I remember that day vividly because just before the picture was taken I had a meltdown. Why? Because I’d never worn a dress before. In fact, my mother had to buy the dress for this portrait. And it wasn’t just any dress. No, it was the Shirley Temple of all dresses. I’m not even sure why we were making portraits anyway; we’d never done one before or haven’t since. The shoes were borrowed because the soles were scuffed and worn but I’m certain they’re not mine. I had boots that I wore with everything including shorts. And as far as the necklace? It could’ve been my mother’s or my sister’s but again not mine. The only piece of jewelry I owned was a mood ring that I thought catapulted me right into adolescence. My mood on that day? Is there a color for “rage”?

I’d like to ask my mother, “Where did the idea of this portrait come from anyway?” I had seven, yes, count ‘em, SEVEN siblings. None of them were having their pictures made. Just me. My mom and dad weren’t having their portraits made either. I think this whole idea was a ruse by my mother to capture an image of the little girl she always wanted but never had.

I would have no part of it.

I was a tomboy. I liked to fish with my dad and could bait my own hook. I had a dirt bike, a pocketknife and could proudly say that I never owned a Barbie or a stupid baby doll…I mean, a baby doll. So what was I doing in a pink dress with pigtails? Where were my Hee-Haw overalls? “Why can’t I have my portrait made in those?” I remember asking. Whatever my mother said was drowned out by the sound of earthquakes and plane crashes because I was wearing a dress. There goes my street credibility with the boys I’d recruited to play football in my neighborhood. When they saw this picture of me over my mother’s mantle, I’d be the laughing stock of our team or worse; I’d be reduced to a cheerleader.

My extravagant aunt must have played a part in this because the portrait sitting was in her living room. My mother and Aunt Gene (not really my biological aunt) were always nursing some newly-hatched nutty scheme; think Lucy and Ethel. Aunt Gene worked in the gift-wrapping department at Gayfords, which was the equivalent of a 1970s Belk. She gave the prettiest presents although her gifts were never anything I wanted. I asked for a spacesuit like the astronauts wore on the moon but I kept getting scarves. Aunt Gene was redneck royalty, her parents were some kind of Appalachian aristocracy. She was COUN-try with a touch of couture. She always dressed as if she was going to a beauty pageant–hair, heels, hose, all done to perfection. Gene had a son named Ezra Clayton. Yes, Ezra Clayton (you can’t make this stuff up). In his mid-twenties, tall but not lanky, blonde and blue-eyed, he had a “big personality” like his mother. Aunt Gene and Ezra Clayton both had high-pitched, nasally Tennessee twangs–Fran Drescher meets Paula Deen. Aunt Gene’s husband, Uncle Wade (again, not really my uncle…whatever) was a mean man. He was the foulest person I’ve ever known–nasty, obnoxious (like my dress) and heartless. He cursed, drank and smoked habitually. An ex-Marine with a purple heart from Vietnam, Wade was nearly deaf from a hand-grenade blast that also took his legs. He hated everybody. He especially hated his son, Ezra Clayton. He was emotionally and verbally abusive to him publicly. Who knows what happened behind closed doors. Ezra Clayton somehow maintained an amazing sense of humor and joy. When I remember him, he’s always smiling which is what I refused to do on this day–smile.

While Mom poured another Bloody Mary and I screamed “bloody mary,” my cousin (who was not really my cousin because, remember, my aunt’s not really my aunt) came to the rescue. Mom was screeching about sitting fees and how I better find a way to put a “ #!*damn smile” on my face because she paid “good” money for the photographer when Ezra Clayton slipped into the room. He took my mother gently by the arm and escorted her out while whispering in her ear. After she was gone, he stood quietly with me. I was sitting on the floor carving the Pittsburg Steeler’s Franco Harris’ jersey number, 32, into the side of “my” shoe with a bobby pin pulled from my hair.

Ezra Clayton was a gay man who grew up in the South. He knew about pretending to be something you’re not and how bad that feels. Even though I was only five, I knew he was gay and I sort of knew what that meant although nobody would talk about it openly. He lived with his boyfriend, Leon, who bred hundreds of exotic birds in their house for a living (no, I’m not making this up). Leon stayed home with the birds while Ezra Clayton worked as an ER nurse.

I thought this portrait idea was for the birds. I felt like giving the photographer “the bird” which I knew how to do because I watched my dad exchange middle fingers with the elementary school crossing guard daily for years. When I was younger, he nearly hit her during carpool and she evidently had a hard time forgiving him for it.

I sat silently holding my photogenic charm hostage.

While my mother raided Uncle Wade’s narcotic stash (thanks to a tip from Ezra Clayton who knew mom preferred Vicodin over vodka), my fake cousin joined me on the floor. Every inch of his six-foot body twisted on top of itself like a pretzel so he could sit eyelevel with me. Through angry tears, I looked up to see him sulking. I asked why he was sad and after a long pause he said, “It’s such a pretty dress. I wish I could wear it.”

Stunned silence.

Then disbelief. Wait, did he just say that? Yes, he did. I looked around to see if anyone else had heard him too but no, just me. I pictured this tall Beverly Hillbilly-of-a-man wearing this ridiculous, pink Little-Miss-Muffet-of-a-dress. I snickered. Ezra Clayton was trying to make me laugh but because I knew he was serious about the dress, I laughed even harder. We sat together until our giggles were gone. Then he told me that I wasn’t going to win this battle with my mother and the sooner I could get it over with the better off I’d be. I told him I felt silly. He smiled and said, “I know and one day you will laugh at this…but not today.” I held on to those words while I sat for my portrait.

One day, I’ll laugh.

Looking at this picture, I realize my face says it all. I don’t belong in those clothes. Even though I wore the dress and the shoes and the necklace, I refused to wear a smile. Honestly, I cringe when I look at this portrait because I remember how badly it felt to be in that dress. I feel sorry for that little girl. I’ve become an observer much like the photographer on that day. I remember my mother’s stubbornness, her drunkness, and how awful it felt to look like something I wasn’t. Mostly I remember the helplessness.

There’s more than an unpacked box here.

As I look at the portrait again, I’m beginning to see something different. I see a little girl being true to herself and my feelings change. I admire her tenacity and authenticity. I see the silent protest she is staging with her eyes. If she could hold a sign it would read, “I’ll never act like something I’m not.” But I will. And I’ll do it again and again. The difference being that when I do, I’ll know I’m in borrowed shoes. Sadly, I’ve put myself in worse situations than my mother did with her fantasy photo-shoot that day. I’ve played the part of orphaned child, jilted wife and martyred mother to name a few. I don’t belong in those “clothes” either; those filthy rags feel worse than frilly dresses. It’s easy to pull off the whole “boots and shorts” look when you’re five but not when you’re 40. It’s even harder to pull off the “freelance-writer, divorced woman, still-a-tomboy-at-43” look too, but it is who I am.

This portrait helped me remember.

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John 1:11-18: He [Jesus] came to his own people but they didn’t want him. But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, He made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves. These are the God-begotten, not blood-begotten, not flesh-begotten, not sex-begotten.” (The Message)

A year ago, my dermatologist told me that if I wasn’t more careful in the sun it could kill me. After spending a lifetime barefooted and sun-kissed on the champagne shores of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, this was devastating news. However, when my doctor showed me the pathology report of four pre-malignant biopsies, I was ready to move to the Alaskan tundra. Instead, I bought a hat, an umbrella and a case of zinc.

But one week this summer while visiting my sister on Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia, the siren call of the sun wooed me to its wiles. The heat on my skin felt like a scandal. Day after day was spent on the beautiful waters of mountain lakes. I knew I shouldn’t have been in the sun but I couldn’t tear myself away. “Just a little longer,” I would tell myself but then ten minutes turned into twenty, thirty and so on. Even though I could hear Dr. Martin’s voice in my head over the roar of an Evinrude 80, I threw caution and my spf 90 to the wind. At the end of the week, I was full of regret. My body was burned and my conscious seared. So, in a moment of reason and resolve, I penned the following:

A “Dear John” Letter To The Sun:

This letter is difficult to write because it’s hard to know what to say. Though I’ve pretended this day would never come, somehow, I knew it was inevitable.

Let me begin by saying that I love you. I have loved you from the start. Nothing makes me feel like I do when I’m with you. And it’s not only the way you make me feel but it’s also how I feel about myself when we’re together. I am younger, more vibrant.

You shine; I glow.

I want to believe that our affair is different from that of others, that somehow I won’t fall victim to the consequences but the truth is, it isn’t and I will. Your power over me is intoxicating. When we’re together, I’m lost in the haze of your heat. My body melts for you; it swells from your touch.

I thought if I indulged, then I’d be satisfied but I discovered that the more I’m with you, the more I want you.

Yes, I know I’ve said this all before but this time…well, this time something has changed. I have changed. You’re no longer good for me and in spite of how wonderful you make me feel, the truth is that you can be oppressive and unbearable. Your effect on me is devastating.

Although, the past few days together were wonderful, I will suffer from the consequences of those indulgent moments for years to come. Yes, I admit that with you everything seems better. I am still tantalized by your touch and truly, nothing compares to the way you make me feel. But that, in part, is why our summer romance must end.  It was wrong of me to give myself to you like I did. Your kisses are stamped on my body like a tattoo, permanent reminders of a reckless folly. I’m to blame. I forget that along with pleasure often comes pain.

For this reason, I cannot be with you like this anymore. I’ve been exposed and with knowing comes regret. The risk now outweighs the thrill.

This isn’t easy. You’ve been a part of me for so long that I can hardly imagine my life without you. Tomorrow things will be different. I won’t give myself to you nor will I allow you to give yourself to me. I will resist your charms. My want will stay in the shadows, burning for you.

I am sorry it has to be this way.

Michele

28e263d3ebfb7cebd183914a788cc40a Love For The Sun

I read an article yesterday titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Write.” It’s exactly what you’d expect. As I read, however, I waited for a twist at the end that said something like, “Some of you wake up to colorful metaphors, the sun rises and brings with it glowing similes. Your waking thoughts are tethered to a stream of consciousness from the night before. You, dear friend, must write.” But it didn’t. Instead, it said, “Do us all a favor and please don’t write because even if you are one of the few who are good at it, you won’t get paid, you won’t finish and you’ll never feel satisfied. The end.”

Huh.

I didn’t mind the brutal honesty. Lately, I require much less to hang up my stylus forever. Besides the sneaking suspicion that I suck at writing but none of my friends have the courage to tell me is the burden of perfectionism. If I can’t write something better than the last good thing I wrote then I won’t try to write at all. And even if I should be lucky enough to produce something decent it will still feel like a fluke despite any previous successes. So, I avoid writing altogether which according to the article is the right choice anyway.

Writing is hard. Every amazing writer agrees except for this one award-winning jerk who said that when writing gets hard it’s time to quit. I wonder if he feels this way about everything in life or just writing? Writing has always been hard. Words don’t effortlessly flow out of me. I work really hard for rhythm and context and honesty and character. For example, I’ve spent thirty-two minutes writing these last three paragraphs and chances are good that I won’t finish this because it’s junk.

The thrill of the moment when the story first explodes onto my imagination lasts about as long as a road-stand firework. The bang of the original idea just doesn’t have the sizzle to keep me going for very long, so it becomes work. A writing project that started out as a “love-child” ends up feeling like an orphan. I know people say that anything worth having is worth fighting for but I am beginning to wonder with writing.

I haven’t even mentioned editing. I edit and edit and edit somemore. Editing is endless. I have compared it to tweezing your eyebrows. If you don’t know when to stop, you won’t have anything left. After I am done obsessing over a piece, it looks like the Betty Davis of manuscripts. If there was a Compulsive Editors Anonymous, I would be president and would have changed the name several times.

My need to write has ruined perfectly normal parts of myself that previously existed in mindless simplicity. I once looked at a sunset and enjoyed its majesty but now I wonder how I would describe its glory to a blind person without using adjectives that involve color. The result? I don’t enjoy the sunset anymore. Instead, it’s become a private game of Words With Friends but I am my only friend. Writers are inward like that. Writing has stolen the blank look off of my face because there is always an unfinished story in my head. I can’t even write a simple email without an edit or two.

Not only has the burden of writing ruined my ability to simply observe without commentary, it has also wrecked my ability to read without opinion. My obsession with writing detail has robbed my ability to escape into a mediocre story. As I’ve become a better writer, it’s been tragic to discover that some of my favorite authors are average storytellers. It’s like realizing the truth about Santa or Lance Armstrong or the war in Iraq or that your aunt is really your mother and your grandmother has been raising you like a daughter. I used to read books with the same ease that my golden retriever drifts in and out of sleep; frequently, effortlessly. Now, I can’t read without noticing the punctuation or how new characters are introduced into a story. I used to read without concern over cadence but now I regularly toss books aside for a lack of timing or thoughtful sentence structure. I’ve lost the ability to read without editing.

I just want to watch a sunset again. I’d like to be able to read a cheesy romance. Is it too much to ask for an email just to be an email and not a novella?

The writer of the article is right; most people can’t write well. It’s hard work to break a concept into manageable ideas so that the reader doesn’t have to work as hard as you did to write it. It’s really hard. It’s even harder when you’re compelled to do it on everything from a text to a blog entry.

So, why do it?

I don’t know. It has something to do with my design because I’ve been writing ever since I became aware of myself. There’s also some kind of power involved. I need to summon emotion. I want you to feel something when you read what I’ve written. I want to flush as I write it and I want you to blush as you read it. I want you to feel something you’ve been aching to feel.

Are those reasons to stay up until 1:00am writing a story I won’t even like in the morning?

Again, I don’t know.

My life is hard. Why would I willingly introduce another hard element like writing into my already difficult circumstances?

A year ago I wrote the following:

The other day, after a friend called me a ‘wordsmith,’ I glowed for days like Moses after he saw God in the burning bush. I enjoy summoning words as much as an evangelist enjoys a good altar call. I love liberating starchy nouns and rigid verbs into more believable conversation. It’s like proselytizing Presbyterians into Charismatics. It brings me joy. I do realize, however, that simply thinking about words all day is not what makes one a good storyteller. Being able to pull those words out of the lofty space in my head and arranging them in a way that produces beauty and context is what makes one a writer. Writing is the thing that I do that makes me feel the most alive. I am able to give my grief, joy, hopes, rage, humor and imagination a dimension and depth that did not exist before I poured them out onto a piece of paper for someone else to hold and feel.

I fear I’ve lost that joy. Maybe this is what was meant by “when writing becomes hard, it’s time to quit.” If it’s true that writers must write, then maybe I won’t. If I truly am a writer then I won’t survive creative celibacy. My hands will start to tremble, my eyelid will twitch. I’ll drive by bookstores that aren’t on the way home. I will eventually be devastated by my writing wants and needs. But if I cannot NOT write then I choose that. It would be easier. Regardless, I need to know. Maybe the article is right: maybe I shouldn’t write.

So, I quit. My mind is a blank white page. With that said, I’m never writing again…..starting now.

One more thing, why is it my responsibility to write anyway? It’s not like I ask to wake up thinking about the best way to say “that” without using the actual word. Instead, I’ll use my newly found free time peeping into the pretend lives of people on Facebook.

Goodbye writing, I don’t need you anyway. Time will tell (or should it be, “and time will tell”?). Damn it.

Why don’t I ever know when to stop?” – Betty Davis

Valentine Rewind

February 15, 2013

I awoke to a friend’s text yesterday morning that read, “Don’t let this stupid retail-manufactured day upset you.”

I replied, “You can bet Cupid’s bare-bottom I won’t.”

Valentine’s Day.

It’s impossible to ignore especially since I spent most of the previous night stamping and stuffing 64 Valentine cards with tattoos and candy. Consequently, I went to bed after midnight, so getting a text before my morning alarm was not my box of chocolate. Knowing I had another twenty minutes to sleep, I closed my eyes and drifted off again immediately.

Suddenly, there was a pounce on my bed.

Then another.

I could feel a soft, warm voice whisper in my ear, ”Hey, Mom, it’s Valentine’s Day,” like it was his and my little secret. “Mommy, wake up! I have a surprise for you, too!” said my happy-morning child. I’ve turned my kids into occasion-crazed junkies. We celebrate everything around here; I make big deals out of even the smallest of things. “OK, OK!” I said and asked for a few more quiet moments to wake up slowly…..and alone. They agreed but only after a hot chocolate deal was brokered.

I rolled toward my bedside table, fumbling around for my glasses when I felt something unexpected. It was a vase. I sat up and to my surprise was greeted by a dozen white roses. If they could speak they would’ve said, “Good morning, beautiful.” That’s how they made me feel anyway. Next to the flowers was a note that read, “Mom, of all the things you could’ve chosen to do in life, being a mom probably required the most patience, the most sacrifice, the most love. And that’s what you’ve given. The most and the best of everything. Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.”

Wow.

As if that wasn’t enough there was also an invitation from my little man asking me to be his valentine along with a love letter and a Hershey’s kiss. Wonderful homemade cards and candy-coated affections filled my entire morning.

Love was in the air. No one fought over school snacks or who sat where on the way to school. It was a divine blessing bestowed by St. Valentine himself. Even as we said goodbye to each other in morning carpool we did so with such serious devotion that my son responded, “Geez, it’s not like I’m going off to war. I love you all, too.” We all laughed. His words reminded me of something Rumi wrote, “Wherever you are, and whatever you do, be in love.” I like that we aren’t afraid to “be in love.” And in doing so, I discover yet another way to live “naked and unashamed.” What a mercy on a potentially difficult day.

You know that part of the Lord’s Prayer when Jesus asks for God’s will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven? I feel like that happened in my home yesterday.

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“That which God said to the rose, and caused it to laugh in full bloom beauty, He said to my heart, and made it a hundred times more beautiful.”

 

 

When I was in third grade, there was an abandoned house falling apart in the woods behind my elementary school. It was painted green like Depression Era glass and the roof had halfway collapsed evidently from a witch’s brew gone bad. It was creepy like Boo Radley’s house. One day during recess my friends dared me to look through the front window and give a full report of all I saw. We had been told by a reliable fifth-grade source that on the other side of that window was a casket in plain view. This seemed reasonable since after my grandfather died his body laid in his casket in my grandmother’s living room while everyone sat around eating potato salad like he wasn’t lying there dead.

With my heart pounding out of my chest, I started toward the house. The front door stood ajar. A shutter hung lopsided by a single nail. Dappled light filtered through the canopy of trees overhead. The shattered windows held broken shards of glass that caught the light at odd angles giving me the same spooky feeling I’d had at the House of Mirrors at the state fair. A pair of glowing eyes glared at me from underneath the wooden front porch stairs. Certain it was the devil himself, I looked back at my friends to make sure I had eyewitnesses to whatever happened next. I was five feet away from becoming a schoolyard legend.

I took a step. Did I see something move?

The sound of cracking branches underfoot sent my adrenaline soaring. Sweat poured down my back. Just as I’d put my foot on the first step of the porch stairs, one of the boys in my class jumped out from behind a rhododendron bush and scared me. Without thinking, I cocked my right arm and punched that kid right in the face. Blood splattered everywhere. It turned out that the only bloodstain in that rickety old place was from Jason Smith’s busted nose.

That was the first time I understood the power of unchecked emotion. I also learned fear felt a lot like rage. It would be the first of many self-discoveries.

Yesterday, I experienced another epiphany and it came as a surprise only to me. While texting with a friend about her sometimes overly theatrical husband, I defended him by saying I understood his need to embellish emotions. Because he and I grew up in similar homes, explosive and unpredictable, we experience our feelings more acutely than others. We’re not dishonest but we are intense. We articulate life as we perceive it, with a passion not everyone understands. We’ve been conditioned to feel everything but show nothing.

We’re dramatic in the most understated of ways.

However, you wouldn’t suspect it because, on the surface, we’re both as easygoing as people get. He’s a calm, cool, collected guy—not even a hint of Charlie Sheen. Similarly, a friend says she can hear the ocean when she’s with me. We are lords of our emotions…most of the time.

I earned a PhD in Self-Control from the School of Survival while growing up. It was a graduation requirement if I was to matriculate beyond my family’s pedigree of mental illness and addiction. I wanted to be a first generation fighter; I was determined to be sober and healthy, however, doing so required conflict. There are deeply trenched places in my soul from the emotional hand-grenades lobbed at me as a kid. So, when I read in Brennan Manning’s book, The Wisdom of Tenderness, that “suffering will either make you bitter or tender,” I wanted to be tender. As a result, I feel more than most which can sometimes be a burden on those I love.

It’s a lovely way to put it, isn’t it, “Feeling more than most?”

Of course, I know I’m intense; I live with myself (which isn’t always easy), but what I didn’t know was the toll it takes on those who experience life with me. My closest friends help bear the burden of the emotional violence done to me. In doing so, there’s a sense in which these safe people in my life are making up for the other lousy people in my life. Yet, sometimes it’s hard on them to watch me retch and writhe with raw emotion.

With these uncomfortable truths in mind, I listened to my friend share her husband’s most recent hysteria—an auto accident involving a 23-car pileup that turned out to be a dent in the driver-side door. I remembered her words to me earlier in the week, “You’re a good storyteller.” In the moment, she was paying me a compliment, so I blushed and feigned humility. I am a writer, after all, and it’s my artistic obligation to beautifully emote and perfect the art of hyperbole. However, as she continued sharing about her husband’s gravity towards grandeur, I couldn’t remember if she was talking about him or me. Doubt and shame began to creep their way into the space between my head and heart. Suddenly, I felt like I had spinach in my teeth but no one had the courage or kindness to tell me. Then she sealed my doom, “If I’m not on the phone with you, I’m on the phone with him. It seems like one of you is always in crisis.” With those words a veil lifted; my eyes opened. Shocking like the ending of The Sixth Sense, I saw myself with horrific clarity—how needy I can be in my pain.

I felt naked, the bad kind of naked.

Shame tempted and taunted me. “See what happens when you’re vulnerable and share your pain? You become this gross, needy thing nobody wants. You’d better think twice before you do that again, dummy.”

Like Eve, I immediately began looking for a place to hide. I wanted my fig leaves. So, I did what all of us do, I made excuses. “You know,” I said, “I didn’t grow up with normal people. For most of my young life, talking meant screaming, happy meant manic, quiet meant danger and peaceful meant dead. I’m hard-wired for extremes.”

I could hear her blinking on the other end of the phone.

Didn’t she know I had to find obscure but dramatic ways to get my needs met? My mother’s demands were so relentless and so severe that very little else got noticed in my home. The trick was finding a way to be seen and heard without competing with my mother. Eventually, I learned to respond to the overwhelming circumstances in my life in the most underwhelming of ways.

I became a Master of Measured Emotion.

My mother would scream and I’d stare back like I had a face full of Botox. You’d never know the inside of my heart was a cauldron of conflict. With emotions rolling to a boil, my anger bounced around inside of me like the lid on the rim of a steaming pot.

One afternoon, I walked in from school to hear my mother screaming, “I’m leaving and never coming back!” Fresh on the scene, I handed her the keys to the car and calmly said, “Go, then.” My dad and uncle stared speechless, stunned by my audacity. Mom wrapped a scarf around her strawberry-blonde hair, neatly tying it under her chin as she walked toward the door. Other than the click-clack of her three-inch heels, all else was quiet. Before leaving the room, she whirled around and announced, “If I leave now, you will never see me again! You will ALL be sorry when I’m gone.” I doubted anyone would be sorry as much as I doubted her promise to never come back.

As the door slammed, my uncle whispered to me, “You’re one cool cat.”  He was right; I was composed because it allowed me to survive not just my mother’s histrionics but my own emotions, too. Over the years, like any cat worth its nip, I mastered the art of slinking about my house without ever being noticed but when needed, I found ways to scream without ever raising my voice. This was one of those times. Truthfully, I didn’t want my mother to leave but I couldn’t allow her to manipulate me with her threats either. My spirit curled into a fetal ball, rocking inside of me. She had left before…for six years. She could leave me behind, but would that be so bad? Fear and guilt were now tangled up like sheets around my feet. I was scared of being abandoned but exposing this vulnerability to my mother terrified me more than her leaving.

She drove off in her 1975 Buick LeSabre, kicking up a cloud of dirt as she peeled away. The tiny rocks flung from her screeching tires pelted my twelve-year-old body like war-zone shrapnel. I stood in the front yard watching, wondering if she would come back. A part of me wished she’d keep her promise and stay away forever.

This is why I’m needy in my pain,” I thought to myself.

After justifying it in my head, I felt better about the exposure with my friend. Then I remembered a counselor’s admonishment from a year ago when my husband filed for a divorce. Her words entered my thoughts with the subtlety of a bullhorn. “Michele, I know you are in a great deal of pain but your cries for help are so vivid and so graphic, they send us all into a panic. We have to counsel each other after we counsel you.”

Ouch.

It was the worst pain of my life. Divorce felt like death. If it makes a holy God sick to His stomach then imagine what it does to the human heart. “Soul-shattered” described my condition; I needed help. All those years of pressure-cooking my feelings resulted in overwhelming strain. The bouncing lid was about to blow.

Sometimes the survival skills you develop as a kid are hard to unlearn as an adult. The sting of my friend’s words, “If I am not on the phone with you, I am on the phone with him,” at first made me regret not keeping a lid on those emotions. To my surprise though, I remembered my new calling to live naked and unashamed before God and man. I had a sudden urge to be kind to myself and to welcome this estranged part of me into my life. I struggled to remain vulnerable, though. Wavering between self-loathing and self-acceptance, I didn’t know what to do, so I made a joke. I said to my friend, “Your husband and I are closet drama queens.”

These words felt like an earth-shattering confession to me. Yes, it was couched in a joke but it was an admission. I thought a breaking-news ticker would scroll across the bottom of CNN and the Emergency Broadcast System would issue an alert. Instead my friend responded, “Yeah,” like she was making a grocery list or reading someone else’s blog.

“Yeah?” I wondered. I had bared my soul and all I get is, “Yeah?” Torn between pride for being so bold to state what only turned out to be obvious and shame for becoming my mother, I attempted to explain why I feel this way.

My parents screamed. Stuff was thrown. The police were called.

My friend was pinning boards on Pintrest.

Since she clearly hadn’t heard me, I explained again how the ordinary feels banal because I didn’t have a normal childhood; my divorce didn’t help either. Despite my pontificating, she remained unmoved, and her lack of reaction consoled me. She said, “I know. Relax. You’re loved.”

I had wondered what the implications of soul-streaking would be (and they were clearly something like this). I am really not a drama queen but there was freedom in confessing my melodramatic malady to my friend and there was relief in her acceptance. Grace is teaching me to look at my nakedness—the girl with unfiltered emotions, scrappy fear, feigned ambivalence, and needy desperation—and not to be ashamed of her. In doing so, I take another step toward becoming my true self, my child-of-God self.

I reconsidered my assignment to live naked and unashamed. Realizing this latest exposure was yet another opportunity to feel comfortable in my own skin, I allowed myself to go down to my true desire: wanting to be fully known and fully loved. If I take this desire to anyone or anything other than Jesus, I’ll be met with frustration and futility. But since my passions are safe with Jesus, I offer myself to him in those deep longings. Wanting to be seen and known is a good thing; maybe that’s why God gave Himself the name El Roi, the God Who Sees. He knows we need Him to cup our faces in His hands, stare deeply into our eyes, and see all of us. He must be the One to pull back the many covers, lay us bare, and cherish every inch of our frame.

A God who sees is a God who knows, even a not-so-drama queen.

Love After Love

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

— Derek Walcott

The Remains of the Day

December 19, 2012

I wrote this two years ago. It seems right to post it again while I recover from neck surgery. I’ve changed the title and I even tried to tweak the content but the literary gods would not allow it. Hope you like it:

The Remains of the Day

I took eight kids ice skating. It was so much better when I imagined it in my head. The day started off great. As I drove around town collecting children, I was singing along with the radio, showing off my Justin Bieber trivia and cracking grade-school jokes.

“Hey, why are teddy bears never hungry?” I asked.

“Um…….beeeecause…….?” wondered my eight year old out loud.

“Because they are always stuffed!” I said.

Laughs.

Encouraged, I continued, “Hey, what do you call a dinosaur that sleeps all the time?”

“Boring. Like these jokes,” heckled my teenage daughter.

“Noooo,” I said while making eye contact with her in the rear view mirror, “a dino-snore!”

More laughs. Squeals from the toddlers and rolled eyes from the teenagers.

“Tell another one, Mom, tell us the one about the cow!”

Blushing with false humility, I conceded, “What do you call a cow in the Hundred Acre     Wood?” I watched my thirteen year-old put on headphones while the rest of us chimed in perfect unison, “Winnie the Moo!” I did, however, catch her crack a smile.

I was feeling unusually optimistic and invincible on this particular day. Maybe it was the Christmas holiday infusing my heart with hope. Maybe it was the grace to rise above personal pain for a few hours. Maybe it wasn’t that complicated at all. Maybe I just felt happy because I was doing something other than laundry. I am not like Ann Voskamp. I find it impossible to discover transfigurational glory in the matching of socks. For whatever reason on that morning, my enthusiasm was genuine.

By the time I was driving home, however, I realized I’d been overzealous in my optimism.  Also, I had grossly underestimated the affects of sugar and caffeine on small children. I was exhausted. At five o’clock as the winter sun began to set, fatigue cast a shadow on my mood. Rather than telling knock-knock jokes, I enforced a strict “no talking” policy while children were returned to their homes. I had thrown my hoodie over my head like some perimenopausal, middle-aged thug. I looked as if I’d narrowly escaped Dante’s Ninth Circle. My eyelid was twitching. I sat staring off into the afternoon traffic like I was looking for my lost soul.

It had, after all, been a rough day. Granted it was not “rough” in a Third World sense but in a First World, single-mommy kind of way. After having laced eighteen skates, bought nine cups of hot chocolate, tied ten scarves, recovered one lost glove and made twenty-six trips to the bathroom….all on skates, my maternal ambition had melted. Somewhere between this Groupon “Deal of the Day” back in November and driving home that afternoon, I wished I had been run over by the Zamboni.

One of the reasons why my Nancy Kerrigan fantasy turned into more of a Tonya Harding reality was the four buses that showed up from the YMCA. Children poured out of those buses like ice cubes from an automatic ice maker. Besides contending with the 60 latch-key kids from the Y, there was also the “professional” skating crowd. They ranged from four-year-old ice princesses whose mothers watched from the bleachers with gluten-free snacks, home schooling manuals and binoculars to a forty-year-old man in a lime green, full-body leotard.

He required an explanation on the drive home.

Then, there was the small minority of the rest of us who simply had the good intentions of making a memory for our children without checking the event calendar on the Ice Center’s website. Clearly, it must have been “Paroled Kids Skate Free” Day because for the next two hours, my kids were bumped, shoved, trampled, run over and used as human catapults. I didn’t even see the eight year old and older crowd that I’d brought with me. At one point, an ambulance showed up and carted some kid away on a stretcher. My four-year-old asked, “Is that Laura?” I gave an ambivalent shrug and sipped my coffee never taking my eyes off of the guy in the leotard. I figured if it was a child with me one of the other kids would show up complaining, “Why does she get to ride in an ambulance?” or “I want a neck brace! Don’t you know the homework I could get out of with a neck brace?” I just hoped for the best while I wondering if that guy bought his man-size leotard online or in person.

Somehow in the middle of all this insanity and just as I was wishing that a disgruntled Olympic hopeful would crush my skull with a crowbar, I ran into a friend from college. We spent the next 90 minutes talking about the ironic and unwanted twists and turns in our lives that were (very much against our wills) making us better women. Between nursing bruises, handing out cash like congressional lobbyists and directing children like traffic cops, we unpacked our lives. My friend asked me what it was like to be a single mother of five, a new job description for me. I said, “It’s like drinking water from a fire hydrant.” I asked her about the difficulty of having a chronically unemployed husband. She confessed, “I blame him for everything that’s wrong in our lives.”  Having found a kindred soul in one another, we shared all we could until each of our tired children made their way back to us. Realizing our time was over, we unlaced skates, bandaged blisters and agreed that grace isn’t overrated and Jesus really is everything He’s cracked up to be, despite our hardships. Finally, with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” blaring over the sound system and exhausted from the energy required to do what was the emotional equivalent of a triple-toe-loop while managing toddlers to teenagers, we said our goodbyes. I had skated a nearly perfect routine as a mom in that everyone had fun and no one was going home in a neck collar (not every kid that was there can say that) and aside from losing my three-year-old at the very end of the day, I felt accomplished.

Gold-medal mommy material.

Four stops and one hour later, I was finally approaching the last exit off the interstate. My hands had thawed from the frigid air inside of the skating rink and I could almost feel my feet again. I was thinking about steeping myself in a hot bath to wash away the stress of the day. I imagined how good it would feel to slip between the cool sheets of my soft bed and fall asleep. Then, I saw her. This waif of a girl, a teenager,  sitting cross-legged on the frozen ground at the bottom of my exit ramp. She, too, had a hoodie over her head. I wore mine to put a barrier between myself and the juvenile annoyance in the back seat but she wore hers to put a barrier between herself and the whole world. Even though her body was buried in oversized clothes and addiction, this girl’s frail frame was no match for winter’s cold.

She held a sign that read, “Please help. God bless.”

I felt around in my purse, pockets and cup holders for money. I drove slowly trying to buy myself more time to gather loose dollars and spare change. As I finally came to the stop, I was frustrated because all I could find wasn’t nearly enough. Most of my cash had been spent bribing my children with food and drinks in exchange for my grown-up conversation at the skating rink. I even asked my eight-year-old to give me back the dollar I’d given her thirty minutes earlier to stop talking. I’m not sure why but I felt desperate to help this young wisp of a girl. I wanted to give her my keys and my hot bath and my cozy bed but all I had left were the remains of our day. Embarrassed, I rolled down my window and handed her the cash. I said, “I’m sorry there’s so little.” As we exchanged the money her fingers skated across my hand like one of those tiny ice ballerinas I had seen earlier. Her fingers were thin and fragile as if they were made out of paper mache. I was surprised by her delicate touch and without thinking I held onto her hand. It was only for a second. I wanted to replace some of the dignity that had been stolen from her with the willingness of my own touch. I hoped my gesture was worth more than my spare change because I wanted her to feel me noticing her behind her hood and her shame. I waited for a chilly response but with her hand in mine, she lifted her head and looked at me with hollow blue eyes. Her face was beautiful and her skin looked translucent like bone china.

Then she smiled.

I smiled back and drove away.

It’s possible that she had a bigger wad of cash in her pocket than I did. I can hear some cynic say, “Well, you know, she probably bought liquor or drugs with that money.” I hope she didn’t. I had no guarantee that she wouldn’t but what I did know was that something is badly broken in that young girl and that badly broken thing forces her to sit in the freezing cold, stripped of all her dignity and ask strangers for money. She didn’t have to prove to me why she needed my kindness or that she wouldn’t abuse it. What she did with my offering didn’t determine if I should give it.

So, there I was driving home with my hoodie over my head, staring into traffic like I was looking for my lost soul when I saw one. Perspective is a gift. I don’t always get it. I don’t think the guy in the lime-green leotard gets it either but, today, I was touched quite literally by a lost soul. In those empty eyes and in her brief touch, I could see and feel the winter kill of her spirit. That young girl could have easily been any one of us and, in a sense, she is and we are. She felt as kindred to me as my friend from college.

As I was driving away, I looked back in the rear view mirror and saw that vapor of a girl sit down again on the cold ground, continuing to hold her sign. Also in my mirror, I could see the happy and laughing faces of my kids safely where they belonged. I pulled the hoodie off my head and made myself vulnerable again to the needs and noises coming from my back seat. When I got home, I took a hot bath. I fell asleep in my king-sized bed under layers and layers of velvety blankets. I did so, however, with less of a feeling of accomplishment and entitlement simply because I’d taken my kids skating but more so with a sense of humility and gratitude.

The next day, Christmas Eve, I returned to the stop sign where she had been sitting to give her one of my favorite blankets but she was gone.

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It’s the fourth week of November and everybody knows what that means, it’s Iron Bowl week. Oh yeah, it’s also Thanksgiving, but more importantly it’s time for what’s considered to be one of the best and most hard-fought rivalries in all of sports. Now, if you’ve never lived in the South, then none of this will make sense but if you have or do, enjoy. I wrote this a few months ago and  I thought it’d make a nice post while I recover from surgery. Hope to be back with some freshly pressed thoughts soon-

 

Over the Top

 

In 1982, with two minutes left in the game, would-be Heisman Trophy winner, Bo Jackson, jumped over a thousand pounds of defensive linemen to beat Alabama by one point in the Iron Bowl. The final score was 23-22. I was a sun-freckled, pony-tailed, 12 year old girl on that cold November day.  A crimson and white shaker hung limp in my hand, fallen between my feet like the tail of a scolded dog. Until the game clock expired, I wholeheartedly believed Bear Bryant would lead my team to victory in his last Iron Bowl game ever. However, as time ticked down in Armageddon fashion, college football’s winningest coach fell on the sword of rivaled fate. When the game was over the sun went dark, the oceans dried up, people drank Pepsi instead of Coke.

 

Everything felt wrong.

 

Though I was just a child, I had a head full of grown-up profanity. I sat with my jaw unhinged to the floor. The TV made unintelligible noises and our family room felt like a funeral parlor. In a fit of crimson rage, I stormed out of the house through the back door, then the screen door, slamming both as I passed. I don’t know how to explain what happened next, maybe it was the Auburn fight song that made me do it, but without any premeditation, I began kicking our aluminum screen door. It was the kind of door made with aluminum across the bottom and a screen on top. With every kick there was greater satisfaction. It was not until the bottom half of the door hung by a shred like a child’s loose tooth that I realized what I had done. I felt a wave of dread wash over me as I gawked at the demolished door. It looked like it had been half eaten by a T-Rex. The upper screen was the only part spared from the carnage. Now mostly untethered, it bounced lazily on the wind like a dress on a clothesline. Suddenly, through that flapping screen, I could see my dad watching from the other side. I didn’t notice him before but as my eyes began to refocus and adjust, I saw him standing there like Boo Radley behind Jem’s bedroom door.

 

He had seen it all.

 

He looked at the screen door, looked at me and walked inside. I stood frozen like a criminal caught in the act. The white hot spotlight of my dad’s attention felt like a search beam cast down from an overhead police helicopter. I imagined snipers in the azalea bushes surrounding my yard. I dared not move. I did, however, begin to make a case for myself. I thought maybe I could plead insanity. After all, it was a traumatic loss and even Bear Bryant looked disoriented. Not only that, my mother was certifiably crazy and for once, perhaps, this could work to my advantage. Between the dramatic loss and faulty genes, I believed an argument could be made that I was a victim of forces greater than myself.

 

“Michele, come here.”

 

The bark of my name snapped me back into reality. The sound of dad’s voice caused my posture to stiffen. I took a deep breath and stepped through the enormous hole in the door I had created with my right foot. I slinked into the house like a naughty cat. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table with a pencil and paper. I took the seat farthest from him. He said, “It’s okay to be passionate. It’s okay to get angry but it is NOT okay to lose your temper.” Then he slid the paper across the table towards me, handed me the pencil and said, “I want you to write ‘I will not lose my temper when I get angry’ two hundred times.”

 

“What the…!?” slipped out of my mouth.

 

Then, I remembered the helicopters and the snipers. “I mean, yes, sir” and began laboriously dictating my penitence. As I wrote, my only comfort was the hope that the defensive linemen who had allowed Bo to go over the top were writing, “I will not lose the Iron Bowl in the last two minutes of the game” one MILLION times.

 

For what felt like the three hour drive from Auburn to Tuscaloosa, I wrote. When I reached the two-hundredth sentence, I penned it as neatly as my now arthritic hand would allow. Then, as an act of resilience and triumph, I wrote it again. Two hundred and ONE.  I wasn’t going to be outdone by my dad or Bo Jackson on this day. When I finished, I laid my pencil down and slid the paper back across the table towards my dad. While I made restitution, he sat drinking hot coffee and reading an article in the Mobile Press Register. The Register’s headline the following day would read “Over The Top Bo” but the only thing “over the top” on that day was my anger. Noticing I finished, he folded his newspaper and turned his attention to me. He looked over each sentence as if it might be different from the other hundred or so. When he came to the last page, I watched him read, “201. I will not lose my temper when I get angry.” Burying a smile, he pushed the papers away, looked up at me and asked, “Well, have you learned anything from all of this?”  I replied, “Yes. I learned not to lose my temper when I get angry.” Since I had just written that two hundred and ONE times, I knew that was the answer he was looking for but in reality, all that I really learned was that football will break your heart and Pat Dye must have sold his soul to the devil.