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.”

 

 

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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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