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)

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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

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

Fall Revival

October 10, 2012

Who doesn’t like October?

It’s the “Andy Griffith” of the calendar months. Everybody likes October: the smells, the tastes, the colors and the cooler temperatures. I like October, too, but for less obvious reasons.

For starters, October marks the end of another long, sweltering, Southern summer. In October, the sun rises later and goes to bed earlier which means more sleep for us all. October doesn’t have the pressure of December nor the disappointment of January. It really is a near perfect month. As if these reasons were not enough, October also offers the best of college football, post-season baseball, earthy soups, knee-high boots, wool scarves and wood-burning fires (just to name a few).

It seems like there is a hardiness to life that falls fresh every October. Some sort of cinnamon-spiced optimism is in the air, a lightness of being, making the season plump and round with hope, like a pumpkin.

So, I ask again, “Who doesn’t like October?”

Well, truthfully, I don’t.

I know, I know. I just went through all the warm and fuzzy reasons why I “like” October only to admit that I really don’t like it all. I mean, I want to like it but honestly, my feelings are a corn-maze of emotions that have nothing to do with mums or hay bales. For me, October is a mixed bag of good and bad not unlike my child’s stash of Halloween candy; right next to the king-sized Snickers is a marshmallow circus peanut.

With October comes an emotional equinox in my soul. The “good” days grow shorter as the “hard” nights grow longer.  In other words, I’m not very happy. After the thrill of ordering my first pumpkin-spiced latte from Starbucks is gone, I begin to feel like the picked-over pumpkin patch at Old Baker’s Farm.

Why?

October is full of anniversary grief. My mother died on the most beautiful day in October. Two weeks later, my dad died. A few years after that, my marriage died on an absolutely, gorgeous October afternoon. It was my husband’s birthday.

Puffed circus peanuts.

The sights and smells of fall bring joy to most but offer painful reminders to me; harvest moons, leggy impatients, pumpkins, candy corn, leaf piles and scarecrows feel more like tricks than treats.

Before my parents passed, both labored for extended seasons in the ICU. I spent the entire month of October at Brookwood Hospital. Day after day, I drove across Red Mountain watching the leaves bleed fall colors. I sat in the ICU waiting room and watched Alabama lose to Tennessee on the third Saturday of that October. A week later, I watched the Red Sox beat my beloved Yankees in the ALCS. My mother died two days after Boston won the World Series.

It was officially the worst October ever.

It was a month fueled by hospital coffee (none of which was fall-flavored) and raw adrenaline. I left in the dark and returned in the dark. Rather than feeling like the sun was doing me a favor with the extra hours for potential sleep, it just seemed lazy. All of life was harder. I had no time to unpack sweaters or scarves once the weather changed. I chose tennis shoes rather than knee-high boots since I often had to run up five flights of stairs taking two steps at a time to make it to my parent’s side after a call from the nurse. There wasn’t a soup or a fire warm enough to comfort my stiff body after 34 days of living and dying in the ICU. The usual gifts of fall were not mine to enjoy that year and truthfully, October has never really been the same.

My mother had a birthday in October, so while she lay dying, I brought her presents. One of these gifts was a ceramic figurine of a happy, little scarecrow holding a sign that read, “Give Thanks.” It was hard to give thanks for a dying mother. It was impossible to give thanks when my dad died and by the time my marriage was gutted like a jack-o-lantern, I was hollow.

Losing both of my parents made me feel like an orphan. Losing my husband made me feel like a widow. The potential for gratitude-sucking sorrow and self-pity was (and is) great, especially this time of year. I am tempted to gorge my victim status like my son stuffs his face with Halloween candy.

But wouldn’t we both feel terrible if we did that…..again?

The word “autumn” means a time of full maturity (especially in the late stages of growth). I have been maturing and would like to believe this is my time to experience some fullness of that growth. I am ready to harvest a new season of hope. Jesus is the cause for this autumnal change in my heart. He is using my grief to do the impossible; making all things new. In allowing me to suffer and experience the reality of my deep need for Him, I have become the person I was always meant to be, my true self, my child-of-God self. He is making my faith complete through sorrow and providing a ministry of His Spirit experienced almost exclusively through heartache.

It’s a terrible privilege.

Part of my commitment to living “naked and unashamed” before God and man requires honesty. The purpose of honesty is not to be unapologetic but to expose my unbelief. The exposure will hopefully lead to repentance which makes fertile soil for fresh faith and freedom. However, it demands a discipline of grace to plant these seeds of faith. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11

A harvest of peace.

Wow.

I am ready to rediscover and reengage the beauty that is in and all around me. Since I am new at this, I’m not sure what naked honesty and unashamed living looks like. Remember, I am learning how to throw off my metaphorical fig leaves and return to the garden of my desires. Maybe living naked and unashamed will be a quiet introspection of my soul, a meditation on the miracle of mindfulness or a serious study of the Japanese Maple ablaze in my front yard. I have a feeling, though, it will not be that serious. I think living naked and unashamed will look more like jumping into a leaf pile, waking up to the first frost with wonder, thanking the leggy impatients for her endurance, drilling three holes into a pumpkin and bowling for gourds, gloating on the third Saturday of October, bullying a Red Sox fan and howling at a harvest moon (maybe Manny will howl with me).

I am going to learn to like October again.

Will there still be pain? Yes. Will I be tempted to feel like an orphan? No doubt. A widow? Before the day is over but rather than allowing it to lead to despair, I hope instead to invite Jesus to use my sorrow to reveal my design and satisfy my deepest desires for intimacy with Him.

I read this yesterday in Streams In The Desert: “Dear child, when you grow faint in the fierce fires of affliction do not try to be strong. Just be still and know that He is God and will sustain you and bring you through….God keeps His choicest cordials for our deepest faintings.”

He lavishes me with these choice cordials. In the fires of my afflictions, I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. My palette is refined for that of Christ alone and nothing else will satisfy; nothing.

I am as brilliantly changed as the leaves on the trees.

For this, I can give thanks.

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“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:18.

“For your Maker is your Husband – the Lord Almighty is His name.”- Isaiah 54:5.