Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Lepers in My Head

We live in a sprawling, Frank Lloyd Wrightesque mid-fifties home, complete with the necessary flat roof that leaks. One of the magnificent, by accident, features is a twenty-foot tall rubber tree. A real, live, honest-to-God rubber tree growing in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows in what we call the red room (bright red couches). I think it broke its pot about forty years ago and has been growing happily ever since--spreading down, down, down to get water from the outside, and up and out, out, out, until its branches reach the ceiling fan in the middle of the room and I hunt down the saw from the fort to which the neighborhood troop has appropriated it, and hack away. After surgery, the tree weeps sticky white milk all over the furniture for a while, I put paper towels on the ends, and it goes back to growing.

Until last night, when it broke in two.

I should have clued in when Clementine, the bulldog with several neuroses (one of which is a fear of things that she hasn't seen before), wouldn't stop barking. I, of course, just opened our bedroom door and shouted at her to "Give it up!" I didn't pay any attention to the fact that outdoor lights were on at one in the morning. But Christian, up with swimmer's ear from too many high dives last weekend, looked outside, heard the dog, saw the lights, noticed in which direction Clem was barking, and looked into the red room to see it filled with the top half of a tree. "Ah, Mom," he says, in a rather confused voice by the side of our bed, "I think the tree just fell down."

And she had. She (such green shiny leaves are surely a she) had the courtesy to fall completely around the cockatiels' cage which sat beneath her branches, thus sparing their lives, and the lives of their eternally unborn children in the eggs that Pretty Boy (thought she was a boy) continues to lay with enthusiasm but not much continued warmth every spring. And then, just so that we would notice, she reached out and turned on the outdoor lights from the switch beside the door as she fell. To her credit, Clementine noticed. (I also know the answer to the question about whether, when a tree falls in your front room and nobody hears it, does it still fall. That would be yes. Because you have to spend the next day cutting it up.)

I lay in bed for about an hour afterwards thinking about that tree. Thinking that the tree lived happily for forty years, until we bought the house, and now it's dead. Acknowledging that about seven months ago, the arborist we brought in to prune the maple and black walnut trees outside told me the rubber tree needed help; otherwise, we would lose it. Confessing that I had noticed that the wire which the previous owners had strung around the trunk and nailed to the corner of the tree to keep it upright seemed to be slicing into the trunk, like a garotte. Also, cutting myself some slack because (I am not kidding about this), just as I was getting ready a few weeks ago to call said arborist, his face flashed across the ten o'clock news as having been apprehended in Pennsylvania with his two young children whom he had whisked away out of the legal custody of his ex-wife. So, no arborist, at least until he makes bail and his ankle bracelet allows him to travel beyond the confines of his apartment. Not that we need him now!

Of course, the post-midnight thoughts didn't stop with the rubber tree. I also went to the Christmas tree that is still lying on the balcony off the red room, with the lights still wrapped around its branches. I dragged it out there about three weeks, fully intending to take the lights off outside so there wouldn't be so many pine needles all over the floor. Then it snowed, then basketball had its tournaments, and softball and soccer season started, and then it snowed again. So, it's still lying there, complete with stand and lights, in mid-March.

And what about the broken skylight (which had to be special ordered), and the two by three foot bucket of unmatched socks that has taken up a permanent position in our bedroom. The post office won't deliver our mail anymore, because the mailbox blew/fell/was pushed down about two weeks ago. We didn't notice the mail hadn't been delivered for a few days, until I went down the driveway, and saw the mailbox on its side. Apparently, the mail carrier cannot get out of his truck to put the mail in the box on the ground. (We also have a fully functioning newspaper holder at the federally-regulated height, which apparently the newspaper delivery person cannot reach and so continues to throw the newspaper on the driveway). So, now we have to go down to the post office to pick up our mail, until we get the mailbox fixed. And, let's not forget the fridge that broke down about two weeks ago, which is still sitting on the trailer in the pasture, because there's some law against freon. And spring is arriving, and I didn't deadhead last fall, and now I look outside and the deer didn't eat as much as I was hoping they would during the deep snows . . . .

I lay last night listening to "the lepers in my head." It's a line from U2's song, One, that I heard on my drive from St. George to Las Vegas last Saturday night. I was thinking about my beautiful friend with whom I had spent Thursday night in a hot tub in Boulder City. Of the six or seven women there, she was, hands down (some, but not all, eighteen-year old, non-childbearing, hips excluded), the trimmest, fittest, most beautiful woman in that jacuzzi, and yet she covered up her body, disrobing only when she was almost beneath the water. I was wondering as I drove what voices she had heard to make her so reluctant, so uncertain. Wondering about the words she had heard, had listened to, had carried around with her until they became her notion of what she is. Just as I was having these thoughts, the line from the song, "have you come to play Jesus to the lepers in your head" came across. I thought, "That's it, We have lepers in our heads." As I lay last night rolling around in my bad company, I knew I was visiting the lepers in my head.

I don't know how it works for you, what your particular voices say. I think we each have our voices that whisper to us our deepest fears in places and moments only we can hear. Some of us have voices that demand perfection, that refuse to tolerate even the slightest sign of weakness. Other have voices that crush any sense of self-worth that threatens to rear its humble head. My personal evil companion used to whisper to me about neglecting my children, about being less of a wife and a mother than I should be, about my selfish desires that make me choose work over my children; about being so proud and full of myself that staying home is not good enough for me.

I have managed to gain perspective on some of these voices. I see my children, older now. And they are good. Through their own good choices, through their own indomitable spirits, they are good. I have always loved them fiercely, desire to work notwithstanding. I think they know that. I don't worry so much about them now, realizing perhaps that I cannot choose for them, and they will become what they choose to be.

However, I still have voices that follow me. Ones that tell me how useless I am at home, when I've tried a hundred times to clear away the clutter and my sister Laura can come into my home and with a few deft movements of her long, thin fingers rearrange, straighten and make the furniture cosmos fall into peaceful place. She does it so naturally, so unconsciously, without even trying, almost like breathing, while I bring on a migraine trying to avoid the ten minutes it will take to strip the Christmas tree of its lights.

So, what did I do, in the midst of my "am I a good mother/good homemaker" crises? On some of my drives home from work, I pictured my children's faces, and began to cry and pray that I wasn't making some eternal mistake. Some weekends, I've been known to go postal (not the postal that can't get out of trucks to bend down 18 inches to deliver mail): I ride my children, I scream at my husband, I make them organize basements, and sort through clothing for charity. I insist that that everybody attend all the sports games, and all the grocery shopping, so that we can have mandatory family togetherness and be close, reeeeelly close. Other days, I just ache with feelings of insignificance, of loneliness, with so much to do and none of it really significant.

These are all very real voices. But if I am to continue and to progress, I cannot listen to them, unless, by listening, I sense I must change, grow, become better and can see a way how. If all I become is more confused, more desperate and more afraid, the voice is of no help at all.

There are other voices though that I can choose to listen to. They're always around me. I just have to notice and choose to believe. Reading an article by Christine Durham, now Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court, I run across a quote from Brigham Young to his daughter Sara. As I read the words, I know it is not by accident I have picked up this ten-year-old magazine and decided to read the article: "Daughter, use all your gifts to build up righteousness in the earth. Never use them to acquire name or fame. Never rob your home, nor your children. If you were to become the greatest woman in this world, and your name should be known in every land and clime, and you would fail in your duty as wife and mother, you would wake up on the morning of the first resurrection and find you had failed in everything; but anything you can do after you have satisfied the claims of husband and family will redound to your own honor and to the glory of God."

A Father who loves me and watches me cry heading south on I-15 has laid this pearl in my lap. I choose to pick it up, type it in 24-point font, and stick it on my bathroom mirror. It's a voice that makes sense to me personally; that reconfirms what I have felt time and time again about my talents and my life.

I can also listen to voices that love me. Sometimes Kevin will look at me . . . I might be just out of bed, hair rumpled, mascara under my eyes, or dressed in wool with Italian leather on my feet--it doesn't really matter to him. And he'll say, "Mmmm, you are one beautiful woman." Now, I know what I look like, especially early in the morning. And I know he's just seen me in my not-so-glorious, gravity-compliant, mid-forties nakedness. I could, as I have often done, think, "Oh please, have you looked at me lately?" But he really believes that I am. To him, I am absolutely beautiful. It's more than just smoke and mirrors, or a ploy to get me back in bed. I'm really beautiful to him. He tells me that, over and over again. What a gift.

I can choose to believe him, to carry his words with me. (Heaven knows I'll need them: every time I see my dad, he says, "How's my big girl?" Truthfully, compared to the other sisters in the family, I am the big girl in the family. But, if I were greeting my child, I probably wouldn't greet my girl-child, no matter how old she is, with a reference to her body size.) I will, undoubtedly, hear other voices in my life. As I lie in bed late at night, they come to visit, or I go visit them, these lepers in my head. Other voices are a fact of life. What we do with them, whether we let them stay and take up lodging in our heart and in our mind, is one of the most difficult choices we will have to make.


  1. Oh sad day about the tree. Loved this post. You're amazing Tessa.

  2. Nic,

    I feel like the reverse of a tree hugger. And just wait until the sound of the chainsaw tonight, in our living room! It's almost funny if it wasn't so tragic.

  3. Hey Tess, you are one beautiful woman! I am writing this from Alan's computer but this message is from your most admiring biggest sister. I AM bigger than you and would like you to remember that! Dad says the same thing to me - and I think he is complimenting me about my greatness... we share the same genes so can only be beautiful! And your kids are perfectly wonderful... Keep writing! It is a gift to all of us! And sad about the tree... but we all come and we all go on...