Monday, April 27, 2009

If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body

Having a woman’s body seems to mean special tutoring in life and death. I have been pregnant five times. Each pregnancy ended in a surgical procedure. Four times, my stomach and uterus have been cut open to retrieve in all their bloody splendor, Julia, Christian, Seth and Adam. Each time I have entered the mother’s valley of death, bringing my body under the knife, to lie still as someone cut into my flesh to release the life from my womb. What should be a joyous moment is full of fear for me. I lie on the operating table trying so very hard to be brave. But I am always petrified, and my body knows it: my pulse races, I hyperventilate and vomit in an allergic reaction to first the anesthetic and then the latex gloves. My eyes fill with tears. I really just want to run away. Yet I have no other choice if I want the life within me to live. (I don’t go into labor because of a tipped pelvis.)

As I lie on the table, my mind fills with the image of Annie Dillard’s tomcat, who would jump through her window at night covered with the blood of his kill. When she awoke, she found herself “covered with paw prints in blood; [she] looked as though [she] had been painted with roses.” She would ask herself, “What blood is this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth.” She never knew exactly how to read that midnight canvas.

And I never know when I am on that table exactly what is happening to me. Am I the site of some unspeakable horror or some unspeakable joy. Paradoxically, I am both: an open womb, a uterus pulled out of my abdomen; an immense pressure, a sucking rush, and an indignant cry. Only after I place my swollen, reluctant body on the table can I hear those first sounds of life. And no, the recovery is not swift in return for my heroism. My stomach is still bisected, the nerves endings are still cut and need to learn to stop screaming. My bowels are sluggish from the epidural, my head still pounds from the reaction I knew was coming.

As I battle these symptoms, my body begins to make milk for the child who needs to be fed. When I am barely coherent, unable to sit up, the nurses bring him to me. “He’s hungry,” they say. “Put him to the breast.” So I struggle upright, ignoring the burning incision that bisects my abdomen, to cradle the little body that was so recently inside me. I turn his mouth to me and do for my son what he cannot do for himself. But, in my insignificant bodily suffering, my spirit is tutored somewhat in that messianic admonition: Love thy neighbour, love thy son, the flesh of thy flesh, more than self. I come to understand, a little, how the Saviour would take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death, which bind his people. At times, the demands and duties of this life take precedence over the travails of the body.

The other pregnancy ended in death. It was a long November Monday morning when I labored for ten hours, knowing that the end would produce only a misshapen fetus, that my body knew in its wisdom to expel. While my body tried to perform the labor it knew was necessary, my spirit keened. Medicine calls it a spontaneous abortion, but I called it . . . Actually, I don’t have a name for that desolate feeling that covered my spirit as my body labored. I only knew my baby would not be born the same time my Emperor tulips were scheduled to appear. I knew I could put the baby name books back on the shelf and stop doodling “Nicholas Kevin Santiago” on old receipts. I knew my sister-in-law and I would not give my parents their twelfth and thirteenth grandchildren three weeks apart. But most of all, I knew I wanted with all my heart to have another child, and I grieved for what was not to be.

But I did not grieve alone. In that valley of desolation brought on by physical travail, I believe I was sent angels to succor me in my infirmity. My sister who rubbed my back, changed the bath water and who, while I was at the hospital, cleaned my house, did my laundry and fed my children. A nurse who looked at me with compassion, said, “dear, sweet Tess . . . how sorry I am you are here.” A doctor who, sensitive to my pain, chose not to make me endure a surgical procedure in the sterility of his office. Rather he gave me anesthetic and blissful ignorance as he cleaned my womb of what had been the promise of a child. Women who knew, who had labored in a similar manner in vain, their eyes looked at me with a tenderness. Mostly, I was given a husband, who held my hand and stood by, waiting and watching, feeling helpless to stop my pain, wishing he could endure it for me. Who waited for me in surgery, and whom I found sobbing in his office three days later: he too had lost a child. Faced with all my pain, no one had noticed his. We felt the healing arms of the Saviour around our hearts that week: our neighbors’ tears, faint whisperings of another child in time, lessons in patience.

Could I have had my heart so broken another way? Probably. Would I have come so heavy laden and willingly to the Saviour? I don’t know. I do know that the death of that small, misshapen body ultimately brought light to my soul.

I cannot help but think as I remember those births and misbirths, that this body that makes us human also can make us most divine; that the peculiar pains of a woman’s flesh teach her exquisitely, intimately. What they teach she cannot know before hand, or even know that she needs to know. But when the pain subsides (or is grown accustomed to), she realizes sometime during the darkest of nights, or mundanest of mornings, knowledge has descended upon her like the dews from heaven and enlarged her soul.

Unfortunately, it has probably also enlarged her hips and thighs. If she’s anything like me, she bears the physical scars of that battlefield. The burst blood vessel on my left cheek appeared during labor with Julia. It still spreads spidery-red fingers across my cheekbone. The root canal brought on by Christian’s pregnancy left me with a porcelain crown. Two seven-inch scars bisect my lower abdomen (two children per scar). Stretch marks ornament my breast and hips like silver ribbons. My hips are wider, my feet an actual size bigger. My very bones have expanded in response to my mothering. Some of the effects are, blessedly, temporary, just for the moments of pregnancy: the bleeding gums, the weakened bladder, the hair that falls out in clumps, the aching hips. These pass in their time, but the memory remains.

In that memory lies the glory of this earthly body: though we may be resurrected in a perfect frame, the lessons taught me by my mother-body will rise with me. The sacrifice, the pain, the fear and faith of my mothering will sink into my soul and remain with me in the eternities. My spirit and this woman’s body inseparably connected constitute my fullness of joy. Time writes its messages on all of us. For me, (and for all those other middle-motherhood women for whom ruffled-skirted swimming suits have become de rigeur), our very bodies have become our books of life, an account of our obedience or disobedience written in our bodies.

And to what have we been obedient? To the purpose for which we were made: to provide a body and a safe haven to the spirits entrusted to our care. If we mother well, we wear out our lives bringing to pass the lives of others. Of the physical fruits–our wider hips, our flatter feet, our sagging breasts and rounder buttocks–we need not be so ashamed. In a better world, a kinder, more saintly world, a mother’s body would be kindly regarded, with respect and honor, for what she has given, for what she has done.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hey Babe, How About It?

Sometimes I get nervous when I see an open door,
Close your eyes, clear your heart . . .
--The Killers, Human.

Last week at Kevin's uncle's funeral, Nicole, his beautiful and single sister, asked a circle of us about what she should do. The issue? She had met and come to know a man who is not part of our faith. I gave her a quick answer. Here is my longer, more considered one.

YES . . .

Because being 29 and capable of organizing large corporate events on any continent is brilliant. Because being 29, a college graduate, a returned missionary, a vivacious friend, and a faithful Saint is fine (not the “Fine!” your brother uses when things are NOT really fine, but truly fine, as in Nancy Griffiths’s, “Why not something truly fine.”). In any other place on this earth, except this small culture, you are more than a man could ever wish for.

Because you want to be loved by somebody whose natural movement is towards you. To be wanted and desired and longed for is delicious. To have his radar tuned to when you walk into the room is glorious. To have you be the one who quickens his pulse is thrilling. You shouldn’t have to persuade somebody to love you and want to be with you; it should be his instinctive response to your very nature. You can’t buy that. It can hardly be learned. And to think that you have been reduced in the past to trying to talk commitment-phobic, apparently “upstanding” but really very little men of our own faith into even considering what should be a thrilling prospect is disturbing. (Let them rot.)

Because you want to be loved by somebody who is thrilled by you, all of you. Somebody who will smile at your germ phobia and remember to bring hand sanitizer and dental floss when you forget; who will blithely order you dairy free salad with dressing on the side; who loves your nest of hair and your unshakeable notions of how things are supposed to be; who smiles, like your brother does, at whatever will be your equivalent of my 80 pairs of shoes. To him, you–phobias, hangups, foibles included–are his best; his a la carte; not what was left over at the back of the $5.95, all-you-can-eat marriage buffet.

Because when you find yourself (you who didn’t kiss until after your mission (if your stories are to be believed!)) kissing in the streets of Brussels, and it feels completely normal, you’re on your way to being “naked and not ashamed.” You’ll be able to make love, give birth, wipe up vomit, and give enemas in comfort.

Because the price of somebody who makes you laugh, who fills your thoughts, who makes you float, and who feels close when he is actually far away is far above rubies.

Because we don’t hold the copyrights to faith, prayer, loving children, loving God and his son, the capacity to change and repent, the desire to do good, the drive to love and lift, good cheer and good humor, patience, loyalty, tolerance and virtue. We just have easier access to learn how to do and become those things. The actual capacity to become, in the face and embrace of truth, is hardwired into every soul who ever draws breath on this earth.

Because there are no guarantees, no set ways of doing and becoming–only doors that open and choices to be made. Even 100 percent, married in the Salt Lake Temple in the largest sealing room by a General Authority complete with an initial as his first name is no guarantee. It’s not even a destination. It’s just a starting point. The generous God I know, who has missionaries (for the living) and temples (for the dead) as integral parts of his plan, obviously recognizes those various starting points, all of which will, if we choose, end up at the Coliseum (or the House of the Vestal Virgins, which is just to the right of the Coliseum, and so still qualifies as Rome).

Because at the heart of our doctrine is that all souls journey toward God, and that moving towards is the essential movement of this earth. For most of us, particularly those born in the Wasatch front, the ability to check the culturally appropriate boxes of baptism, mission, temple, marriage at the culturally appropriate times is mostly due to geography and birth. To say that one particular time table or sequence of journeying is the only way denies the basic principle that “all men and women are alike unto God. ” (This mind set makes those previously mentioned missionaries and temples seem like the participant ribbons handed out to make children feel better about not winning the blue.)

Because if you can get jettison the limiting idea in your head about how things are supposed to be and how you envisioned it would be, and actually experience what is, you will be able to see the hand of God.

Because the chance to love somebody and to be loved is a chance you should take. Sometimes the right explanation is the simplest. Perhaps meeting Meindert was not an elaborate test set up by a cynical God to see whether you would be able to resist temptation (in the form of sincere love) and hold fast to your principles and promises with the reward being that you would get to rove through the singles wards of Salt Lake trying to find a 30-ish-year old man without serious hang ups who actually likes women and would be able to settle on one in particular. (Sign me up now!) Instead, perhaps meeting him was simply the meeting of two souls, from different parts of the world, who fit. Now, what to do with that fittedness? One of my favorite songs right now suggests, “Close your eyes, Clear your heart, Cut the cord.” I second the motion.

(Title: The Killers, from Romeo and Juliet.)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bless the Broken Road

With the exception of 1984, when I spent a year in Dubbo, Australia as an exchange student where there was no local congregation within 35 miles and I couldn’t drive, I have been to church every year for about 49 weeks out of every 52. Roughly speaking. This means I have been to at least 2058 Sunday services and 2058 Sunday School classes–not counting youth meetings, firesides, pioneer treks, Girls Camp, and mid-week Primary sessions. I am not alone in my consistency. People in my neighborhood go to church just about every Sunday too. Regular as a five minutes slow clock, we file in, children in tow, honey nut cheerios in bags, roasts in crock pots and rolls rising in ovens (for those who know how to make dough). Every week for years, we do this, until the children grab their own fruit snacks on the way out, and it's texting that keeps some of them occupied through the service.

Every week there’s a discussion of some truth that, if actually believed and applied, would change the nature and quality of our lives. (By this I mean the undiluted, unpolluted gospel of good news, not the philosophical human ramblings infrequently mingled with scripture that can fill a room with theological smoke screens so thick it’s hard to find your way out.) Looking around at the people I worship with, myself included, it’s not apparent that we actually believe most of the stuff we hear every week. Because, when we go home, nothing’s different, nothing’s changed.

I lay in bed last night thinking about what truths, if we actually applied them in their purity, would change the way we live, and teach, and interact with those around us. Here’s a few:

“Of you it is required to forgive all men.” Imagine if we could take the offense, either done to us or by us, and lay it down. Just leave it, and walk away–like Lot leaving Sodom. Instead, most of us look backwards, like his wife. We take the offense, carry it around with us like a favorite doll, wear it to shreds with our talismanic touchings. By so doing, the action takes a power and significance far beyond its natural reach, precisely because we allow it to continue in our lives. We go back. We scratch. We make it bleed again. The scar gets bigger. The divine mandate is to forgive. It is a requirement. Not an option. I don’t believe (but I am still thinking this one through) it means forgive when we are good and ready, once we had a few months or years to really soak up the injustice that has been done to us. It means now, quickly, before the offense and the accompanying resentment/disappointment/pride cankers our soul. Imagine the peace such a laying down would bring, and the space and energy that would open up to be used in other ways.

“Free to choose liberty and eternal life.” One of the hardest truths to accept is that our lives are what they are because we chose them to be that way. Perhaps not as children, but certainly by the time we have reached our adult years and are into the long haul of marrying, raising children and earning a living, we live the way we have chosen to live. This means, for example, that our marriages are what we choose them to be; we have acted/inacted/reacted our way into the current state of the relationship. Some refuse to acknowledge this hard truth; instead we blame our parents, the economy, our spouse, our children, our boss, the hard luck genes that seem to befall us, or the unfriendly world that does not recognize our brilliant talents which go financially unrewarded and unappreciated. Accepting this principle as true means accepting that we, ultimately, are responsible for the state of our own lives. Perhaps we would not have chosen a particular outcome if we could have seen that “that” was the outcome, but by choosing to live a particular way, to react in particular ways, to draw lines in particular places, the accumulation of those choices leads inexorably to “that” particular place. Lucky for us, this principle is constant. No matter what our previous choices, we can still choose liberty starting now.

“Earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.” A few weeks ago, five members of our valley were sentenced to various terms in federal prison. Their crime: they manipulated a peaking real estate market by recruiting straw buyers to buy and flip high-end properties. A mortgage company with connections to lenders, a real estate agent with access to the MLS, an appraisal company, and a title company joined forces in a conspiracy that devastated an entire neighborhood, causing property values to spike, tax evaluations to double, homes to be left empty after the income stream dried up and mortgage payments couldn’t be made on homes that were mortgaged at twice their actual value. I do believe that those individuals had also been to about 2,058 worship services. So, what didn’t sink in about earning a living through one’s industry, about the need to actually invest energy and labor in a somewhat proportionate, legal manner in order to earn a living?

“Bring to pass much righteousness of their own free will and choice.” Can it really be that my Christian commitment is fulfilled by ten percent (gross or net, depending), three hours on Sunday, one lesson a month, and three visits. Surely not.

"The earth is full and to spare," meaning there is enough, there’s always enough. Enough time, enough talents, enough money, enough food, enough influence, enough compassion, enough resources to do what needs to be done. There is no need to hoard, to pinch, to hold back just in case.

Remember the scene when the Elisha looks out over a valley filled with opposing armies. He says, “Fear not, they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” Despite this truth, we color the world dark. I don’t know how many meetings I’ve sat through where the tenor of discussion has been the world is going to hell in a handbasket. That society is hanging by a thread, and if we’re not careful, we will be swept up in a wave of sin that will overcome the entire earth. Batten down the hatches; lock your children in the basement; and . . .

Yet, when I travel, I invariably meet goodness: a former engineer now cabbie from Turkey who drove me around San Diego, telling me about his children, his wife, his good life in this new country; a salesman on a flight from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town who witnessed to me about the prayer meeting he had attended with thousands of other South African men, and about his daily Bible study that guides his life; my high school history teacher who, twenty years after he taught me, continues on in the same classroom with the same enthusiasm and encouragement he gave me. Where I live, I am invariably surrounded by goodness and beauty: the plum trees left standing in the planting strips of a demolished Motel 6 who have burst into pink-blossomed beauty simply because it is spring (finally); the brilliant invention of the Internet that allows me, a working attorney and a mother, to draft and file documents from home and thus be available; the ladies on my indoor soccer team, all of whom are Hispanic except me (in married name only) and with whom I can hardly communicate except for the crucial “Passela, passela.” Why, when there is so much goodness, so much beauty to contemplate, do we choose to look down, to look back, to look out with fear? We forget a corollary truth that if applied would color our world differently, with light: Doubt not, fear not, but be believing.

And others: A soft answer turneth away wrath. Take my yoke upon you that your burdens may be light. Judge not that ye be not judged. God is love. I, the Lord, remember them no more. All are alike unto God.

In the face of such potentially life-altering truth, week after week, year after year, I continue on, sitting two rows from the front on the left side, waving to Kevin as I come in, singing the hymns, checking my name off on the rolls. Showing up is the easy part, the public display, and, in a way, the deceptive part. It can fool me into thinking I am living the Christian life.

Sitting and listening and making pithy comments doesn’t do the actual work of changing hearts, of choosing better, of doing and becoming. Standing up and bearing solemn public testimony of restored truth and an infinite Atonement only goes so far. If we’re still hoarding linty sins in our pockets along with every slight inflicted upon us by our parents and siblings, which apparently gives us permission to perpetuate patterns and traditions of living that haven’t worked in generations, we’ve missed the point. If we’re still looking out the window at what appears to be an obviously evil world, and, filled with fear, we send our children out to do daily battle with Satan’s demons, we’re moving with our eyes shut. If we’re still fighting, bickering, sideways sniping at our husbands or wives, and certainly our children or trying to find a shortcut to earning a living, wanting instant, easy results with little effort, we’re living in a theoretical vacuum. It might be better, and a whole lot more honest, if we just stayed home.

(Title from Rascal Flatts, Bless the Broken Road)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

No Other Names

He was like nothing we had ever seen before. Our babies came out blonde, lithe, olive skinned. We hardly recognized this little stranger who scowled at us from beneath a dark brow as he dangled from Dr. Klein's hands. He came into the world covered in fine dark hair, skin red as Southern Utah dirt, with rolls across the back of his neck and two jowls resting on his collar bones. He also came nameless . . . and remained so for several days. We have a picture of him propped up on my legs in the hospital bed with a list of names in front of him: Reuben, Asher, Charles, Caleb, Brock, Maxwell, Isaac, Luke, Ethan, Elliott, Owen, William.

He had turned slowly in my womb, about once a day, like a pig on a spit. I felt his presence as dark, and big. I told Kevin as much. This one's going to be different. But what name? What to call this fourth child? (Quatro?) What name would capture his essential self and bring to life what he already was and would become? Caleb's a good name . . . sort of strong, sort of middle linebackerish, until I read that it meant "faithful dog." Charles was considered, except my sister Margo actually had a dog named Charles--who was very faithful. Nicholas surfaced early and then subsided, drowned by the sibilant s which seemed too soft for this one.

We called him Adam--man from the red earth, a new creature. In hindsight, we named him well. His essential elements are earth, and body, and passion. The tongue is always out; food is eaten with hands; the face is never clean. Total and absolute immersion in life's physical movements and pleasures is Adam' s hallmark.

There were no such deliberations with our third child. As soon as I read the passage in Genesis, I knew. This was the name, and the name was the child, and the child was the blessing. A holy trinity of sorts, grace made flesh, a mother's longing, a Father's grace, the union of love and longing taking root in my womb.

I'd wanted. Like the woman who touched the hem of Christ's coat, I'd petitioned the Lord: "Send me a child. Send me a child." But, ashamed of my petty wantings, a third child, when some women have nothing, I sent my requests silently, on the back rows of my prayers. An option to be considered, if the Lord had nothing better to do with his time.

I'd waited. I waited through the excitement of each month and the disappoinment as the blood flowed healthy red. I waited as anticipation turned to sullen resentment. And then, slowly, after two years, I waited in hope. In fact, I had forgotten I was waiting. All I really did was hope; hope that the Lord would grant a dearest wish; hope that one day we could have a William or an Anna; hope that the child would come.

Here he was. Quietly, without ceremony, without asking, without telling, he took up lodging. I spoke to him, rubbing my stomach: "I hope this time you can stay. I hope this time my uterus walls feed you well. I hope this time my blood is rich with nutrients. I hope your cells know how to divide and grow. I hope your heart has four chambers pumping with determined abandon. I hope this time you can stay to be with us."

I read of another woman, another mother, the very first, who felt that same way, who had lost a child and been blessed with another. "And she bare a son, and called his name Seth: For God, said she, hath appointed me another seed." Eve and I knew what to call our third son. We called him Seth, so that whenever we say his name, we remember.

There's something in a name. Something more than a collection of syllables that make a distinct noise. There's something in the sound, and the shape, and the meaning that gives body to spirit, that calls up and makes flesh the very meaning of a person's life.

In Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, a family of American missionaries arrives in the Congo just prior to the fight for independence. The four daughters set about learning (or not learning, depending on their inclination) the Congolese culture. Adah, the brilliant and crippled part of a twin set, learns to speak the native language from Nelson, a young orphan. She discovers that underlying all the Congolese categories is a common root word that denotes being. But Being is asleep until touched by the power of the word:
Nommo is the force that makes things live as what they are: man or tree or animal. Nommo means word. The rabbit has the life it has--not the rat life or mongoose life--because it is named rabbit . . . . A child is not alive, claims Nelson, until it is named. I told him this helped me explain a mystery for me. My sister and I are identical twins, so how is it from one single seed we have two such different lives? Now I know. Because I am named Adah and she is named Leah.
Could I have turned out anything but the way I am, living as I do with this name of mine: Tessa. It's a strange one. In South Africa, people are fond of calling glossy, black Labradors Tessa. In this country, people think its Theresa. I've gone my whole life being called by a name that most people get wrong the first time. But I'm always the only one in the room--most of the time. At least I used to be. There are a few Tessa's about 25 years younger, but none my generation. This "Tessa" sound is the positive affirmation of my existence, reserved solely for me, chosen especially to name my characteristics and breathe life into my being. Whenever I think of it, I think only of me. The sheer sound of it creates my own space in the world and allows me to become. Tessa is my nommo and I have the Tessa life because of it.

It is easy to live with and grow into the name one is given, trusting your parents were inspired to name you well. It is another things entirely to willingly take another name upon yourself, to add to your base level, to deepen the meaning of your given name and to enlarge the boundaries of your life.

I did not want my husband's name when we got married. I thought his name had nothing to do with me, and besides, I didn't know anything about his name. What did I know about being a Santiago? I'd never been to the Bronx, let along Puerto Rico. I offered him my name. (He seriously reconsidered me as a marraige concept.) He said, " If you don't want my name, then you can't have me." I wanted him--enough to take upon me his name. So, I signed both names to the register and have been using both names ever since. That new Santiago name became the symbol of my faith in this man, and in a God who would have me paired. This now not-so-new name I've been living with for the past almost twenty years keeps me rooted and connected. It reminds me of my covenant to love him, to honor him, to help him as we live together. It is my beginning point, my expansion point, the level below which I cannot go, and my destination.

I suppose others have names that are their own personal struggle: Wife, Husband, Father, Neighbor. These are mine: Santiago. Mother. Woman. Saint. I have taken them upon me. Santiago, upon my marraige. Mother, upon each of their births. Woman, upon mine. Saint, at my baptism. Now they are mine, part of the Tessa life. They do not always sit easily.

These names of mine require me to call up from my inner being a person so much more than I am now. They require me to unpack and repack my soul, making space in my life for these names to take root. They are my touchstones--the names upon which I can test my own purity. They reveal me, in all my foolishness. They also reveal in me my fondest dreams and sweetest desires: that my children will grow well, that they will learn to love this world as I do; that I be and do good; that I will be better next time. These names I have taken upon me are reminders of my most honest moments, when I was sweet and pure, filled with good intent.

These names are for me, the hard words of the Good News, the purifying agents, the sword that comes to cut me asunder and to make with the pieces, should I do desire, a new creature. They bring to bloom, waiting through drought and disinterest, the life God has seen for me. I can throw myself against these names; I can shrug my shoulders with heaving motions hoping the mantle will fall to the ground. I can deny I ever took them upon my shoulders. Or, I can submit to what taking these names requires me to become. I can just give in, and reach for the yoke, hanging my weaknesses, my pride, and my postures on the stable wall.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Take Me Away II

Today I finished "Take Me Away" after letting it sit for about three days. Initially, I had wanted to include a section from the latest book I had finished. It served as the stepping off point for the blog. But, as it turned out, only a fraction of a line made it into the finished piece. Yet, the passage is so beautiful, I am going to post it on its own. The last image causes me to catch my breath. The writer has captured the moment when one decides to push through into the unknown, dragging our fears courageously with us.

It's from The Year of Jubilo, by Howard Bahr. The novel is set after the end of the Civil War, as defeated soldiers return home to villages and towns ravished by war and still occupied by federal forces. Gaiwan Harper, the protagonist, returns home to find his father Frank deep in the grip of dementia, and watched over by his Aunt Vassar, who has never married. The scene I am quoting occurs when Vassar stands in her hall and looks through the front door at her nephew and his companion:

Forty years ago, Vassar Bishop had watched as the boy, not even named yet, emerged from the agony of his sister's labor. Vassar heard him draw his first breath and make his first complaint against the light of the world as if he'd been awakened from some deep and comforting dream. She has seen other newborn creatures--cats and dogs, horses and cattle and men--do the same, and she always watched with wonder and not a little envy at the pain and privelige of engendering life. She had thought that creation held no puzzles for her, but on that distant morning she looked at her nephew lying on the bloodied sheets--hairless, squirming, still wet, flushed and wrinkled like a boiled squirrel--and thought to herself My God--he is too raw by half, he is not finished yet, and now on this twenty-fifth day in June 1865, she was still thinking it: He is not finished yet, not by a long way, and he is as much a stranger to me now as the day he arrived.

So she lingered in the hall and watched the two old soldiers talking on the porch in the illusory peace of a Sunday afternoon--old soldiers indeed, who were not really old, who have been but children once, and that not long ago. At last she turned away, fumbling in her sleeve for the lace handkerchief, wishing for the instant that she had a vial, just a vial, of laudanum to ease the passing of the day. But the blockade had put a stop to that, and she supposed she was glad, though in trying times she missed the sweet elevation of the poppy. In any case, she had no choice now but to push against the hard edges of reality. So, she daubed her eyes with the handkerchief, and turned away, and set her shoulder to one of the big pocket doors that opened into the library where old Frank Harper had his desk. The door rumbled sullenly in its track, and the various smells of the closed room greeted her: dust, mildew, the odor of old books bound in crumbling leather, of trapped sunlight and time. Into this she moved, her skirts rustling like the wings of frightened birds.

Take Me Away

Last Wednesday, I surfaced to semi-consciousness at about 6.45 in the morning. My eyes felt grainy and my mouth dry. I’m sure, if there had been a mirror on the ceiling (we don’t have that kind of bedroom), I could have seen my hair resembling some creature out of a Jim Carrey daydream. I had worked late the previous evening, into the morning hours trying to finish some discovery responses that were due at the end of the week. Kevin had been in Chicago since Monday and wasn’t due back until late Wednesday evening. His side of the bed was strewn with files, and my laptop. The forty-four ounces of Diet Mountain Dew I had consumed at 1. 30 in the morning were pressing against my bladder. (It was one of those moments when I always wish that somebody could go to the bathroom for me.) I tried opening my eyes because I could hear the high schoolers up and moving around. The eyes didn’t want to open. With a groan, I rolled over and off the side of the bed and did the tight-hamstring shuffle towards the bathroom.

About two hours later, I returned home after having dropped off the elementary school boys. In those two hours, I had started and moved (but not folded) laundry, made breakfast (for two shifts), made school lunch, finished homework, practiced spelling words, researched Hod Saunders for the fifth grade Wax Museum, found clothes to wear, matched socks (or close enough), checked email, eaten breakfast, taken the garbage and recycling bins down the street for pick-up, read part of the newspaper. As I walked into the office to start again on the discovery responses, I realized it wasn’t Thursday like I thought it was. It was only Wednesday, and there were two more days of the week to go. Right then I was gripped with an overwhelming urge to read. . . . The thought of going back to bed with a book, and reading until the sun had made its way over the mountains behind us to shine through my kitchen windows was almost irresistible.

Ever since I was a child, books have been my escape, my way into another world. They still serve the same function for me. I suppose you could say books are my drug of choice. Some choose alcohol; others use prescription drugs; still another group goes shopping; and most of us eat. I choose books. You can measure the stress level in my life by the number of number of books I am reading and the size of the cold sore on my lip. The more stress I am under, the more books I read . . . a different one in every bathroom. Bathroom breaks turn into mini-vacations. (Certainly the twenty or so books I checked out of the library late Monday afternoon were a good indication I knew there was adrenalin ahead.) By the end of an evening, I long to read, to pick up the book, and to lie in bed, in the pool of light, darkness everywhere else in the house, other bodies breathing sleep, just me awake.

I can read for hours–if I can make it past that initial wave of sleep that threatens to overtake me. Somewhere past one in the morning, it becomes a guilty pleasure. I start promising myself that I will turn off the light at the end of the chapter, and then when I reach a round hundred numbered page, and then when I find out what happens to Bushrod at the Battle of Franklin. And then it’s so close to the end, it hardly seems fair to leave the characters where they are. So, I finish the book, at 2. 13 in the morning. Even then I am loathe to turn off the light. I don’t want to go to sleep because going to sleep means, inevitably, waking up.

I know my adult post-midnight need for narrative, for story, is less about appreciating the brilliant turn of phrase than about a need to postpone tomorrow. Not that tomorrow will be awful. It’s just that I know today; I don’t know tomorrow. I don’t know what it will bring. I don’t know its shape, its smell, or the rhythm that will develop as the day goes on. I don’t know what phone calls will come, what dogs will do, what children will forget and need, or what food will beg to be eaten. So, I read, late into the night, to put off the anxiety of the unknowable tomorrow. Yet, when I wake the next morning, it is always bearable, always familiar, the rhythms of the day well established and known to all of us in the house.

The unknowable tomorrow always seems that way–familiar and knowable when I come face to face with it, littered with people sent into my path, words and comments that make me smile, songs that cause my heart to swell, and a glimpse of early spring snows so smoothly white against a cerulean sky, my eyes can’t help but be pulled upwards. It’s my projection of the unknown that causes the anxiety which can rise up like bile to color even the present too dark. In a strange twist of too-vivid imagination, I retreat to books to escape the knowable present because I cannot face an unknowable, uncontrollable future.

In my first jury trial, I was gripped by a constant terror that filled me for days. I was completely out of my depth with little experience. I had no idea what the outcome would be, and spent the nights out of court reading books about what I should be doing the next day. When I woke in the morning, (the trial went for a week), I couldn’t quite believe I was still breathing. When I stood up to ask my first question during jury selection, I thought my heart would stop completely. But it didn’t. It kept beating, my lungs kept breathing, and I kept on living. The potential juror answered back. The world kept turning on its axis.

Through five days of jury selection, opening statements, direct and cross examination, I kept breathing and my heart kept beating–-much to my chagrin. I was so afraid I could not look up, look ahead, or beyond. It was all I could do show up in that court room. So I showed up (nicely dressed in Dutch courage) and let the day come at me. Through exhibits messed up, and failed attempts to enter items into evidence, and a very patient judge, and even more patient jury, I did my best . . . which was not very good. In the midst of my flailing, like a beached legal walrus, co-defendant’s counsel helped me get items into evidence, asked the questions I forgot to, and provided curative objections. I couldn’t have imagined such an outcome. It was beyond my imagination, beyond my power to conceive, but not beyond His.

Sometimes in our lives, it requires tremendous courage and nerve to simply show up, to be present in that particular day. To be completely and utterly present in the days in which you realize your business is failing and you will have to declare bankruptcy; in that particular day when it sinks in that he is leaving you and your children and you will be divorced; in that day and the days that follow when you realize that you cannot live with this man any longer and that you need to make a new life; in the days that you look at your children and their choices and weep for them and continue to love them; in the days after death; in the day where you take your beloved’s face between your hands and ask them about “us”; in the days where there is eleven dollars and fifty-seven cents in the bank and no milk until the end of the week; in the day you lose your job and the months of unemployment that follow. Those days that we never thought would be ours, that we could not have imagined--those are our most important days. We need to be in them, not floating in the unknowable tomorrow, or hiding from the knowable present.

We must be brave enough “to push against the hard edges of reality” that fill those very important days. We need to be fully present in those days, without books, drugs, drink, food or whatever you choose to dull your nerves and slow your responses. The sheer nerve it takes to allow the adrenalin and fear to rush through you, to sit in those feelings, is tremendous. But, if I don’t run, if I just stand, and allow it come at me (whatever it is), if I don’t fight it, I have experienced a sensation similar to standing in the ocean up to my neck in front of breaking waves. I can stand and fight the wave, choking on burning salt water. Or, I can accept that I will be moved, that the water will take me. So, I let go of my tiptoe tenuous hold on the ocean floor, and I am lifted up by that brute force in a motion surprisingly gentle and calming. Soon, I am back on the ground, and preparing for another wave. For that moment though, at the crest of the wave, I can see horizon, and the world is still.

As a new lawyer, I discovered, on the other side of the fear and anxiety, a world filled with helpers sent for one struggling attorney. They were my horizon and my moments of quiet. I could not have found them though if I hadn’t been in the courtroom, filled with fear and adrenalin coursing through every gland in my body. That was the day in which I needed to be present. Yes, it turned into five very long days, but each day was sufficient unto itself. The concept of tomorrow was too much for my inexperience; so I thought only about that day and what needed to be done for that day. In other words, I took “no thought for the morrow.” If I had, I would have been completely overwhelmed. I thought only about the next hour, or the next witness, or the next piece of evidence that I needed to get in. Not that I knew how to do much of what needed to be done. But, I learned, because I was fully present in those days, knocking against my hard reality, that there are those who know how to do what needs to be done, and if they don’t know, they know somebody who does. Invariably, those helpers show up.

(Title: Dixie Chicks, from “Cowboy Take Me Away”)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Watch Over Me

Last week I read the following passage in Elizabeth Berg's Durable Goods . It's the voice of Katie, a twelve-year old who's lost her mother to cancer and lives with her father, a man prone to violence and emotional distance, on an army base in Texas. She describes how her friend's mother invited her to cook with her:

"You can help me bake, she says. "I've got to make a cake today."

I shrug. "Okay." I like helping Belle. Even when I'd never broken an egg before, she just went ahead and let me do it.

"I might mess up," I warned her, the shame already curled low in the bottom of my belly.

"Try it," she said. Her voice was as comfortable as a quilt. I held my breath, cracked the shell against the side of the bowl. The yolk smashed; pieces of shell fell into a bowl with it. I was so sorry, and feeling scared to look up, and all she did was give me a clean bowl and another egg. "Try again," she said, and walked away. She started humming. Country western was what she really liked.

"But I messed up," I said.

She stopped singing, came to stand by me. "Do you like scrambled eggs?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Well, you didn't hardly mess up, then."

I had to keep my smile tight, so much was in me. And that wasn't all. Next she said, "You know, if you didn't like scrambled eggs, you still wouldn't have messed up. You're just learning, Katie. That's all. You go ahead and mess up all you want. Hell, I got a million eggs. They're on sale over to Piggly Wiggly."

I didn't do anything else wrong. I figured I might not. I'd been taught tenderly, and that's how a lesson stays. I can separate eggs now, one-handed. It's all Belle's. It's so easy to go the other way. One of the reasons I have trouble with math is that the teacher punishes you for being wrong. When you miss too much, he draws a circle on the blackboard just above the level of your nose, and then tells you to put your nose in it. Naturally you have to be on tiptoes to do it. He has to stay there til your leg muscles feel shaky. He divided our class up the third week of school into smart, middle, and dumb groups. All that trouble I have with numbers this year, that's all Mr. Hornman's.
The clause, "I had been taught tenderly," stayed with me. I turned it over and over, thinking, in particular, about how it is I can tenderly teach my children about making mistakes and turning away from their bad choices toward better ones. I thought of how God tenderly teaches me how to choose correctly, of how many clean bowls and new eggs he's given me over the years.

"Hey, girlie, you know that impulse you had to put your arms around your son when he was in the middle of his temper tantrum. The feeling that comes over you to take him in your arms. That one you don't give in to. Next time that happens, give in to that feeling. I know he's just thrown all his Lego models to the floor in a fit of anger, or he's thrown the remote control through the screen door. Take him in your arms. He needs to feel your touch. He needs to feel you love him. Here. Here's another dozen eggs, and a couple bowls."

"Here, Tessa, try again. You're still learning how to be married. That parting shot about honor, word, arriving home late etc., etc., . . . that wasn't nice. Here's another bowl and another egg. That week of withholding, of the dividing line down the middle of the bed. Not so good. You know better than that. Here, take this 12-pack of bowls (disposable) and this carton of eggs (triple layer from Costco) and give it another shot. I think you're going to need them all. And don't you worry, I've got a million bowls where those came from. I own the factory."

Not once in the offer of the back-up equipment is there a hint of sarcasm, a rolling of divine eyes, or the huge parental sigh that means, "Give me strength!" Or at least not where I can hear. I honestly believe He ignores my bad behaviour--most of it anyway. Blesses me for good, and ignores the bad. Not really that He's turning a blind eye; just that's He's not reacting to the deed.

I think God knows that the natural consequences of error will take their toll in their own time. I'll feel initially that surge of indignant pride, then the creeping of shame, then the upswelling of remorse. Hopefully, those currents will move me to reconcilation. If not, I'll live with the separation caused by wounded pride, with the silence and awkwardness that follows hurt, with new ways of talking and acting that strain and force. I'll feel that oily pool in the pit of my stomach that sloshes to and fro when I see those I've wronged and think back on my behaviour. It will be my daily companion, until I turn away from my little stance I've adopted and back towards those I love, or until I get used to it and think that that's just how life is. He know those feelings are the natural consequences of my action; that's just how I'm built; how we're all built. Those currents, to an honest heart, are enough to change behaviour.

There are other natural consequences. A teenagers feels the natual consequence of not passing two classes--he doesn't get to finish the soccer season. A habitually fast but errant driver loses the privelige of driving, not because God wanted him to, but because the state mandated it. A couple cannot pay their bills--because she went shopping three times in the last week to ease the anxiety caused by their finanical straits. These consequences reinforce the error of the original choices. Some might call them the wages of sin. But, to me, God's not standing in the payroll office. It's the systems and structures we're a part of that exact their impersonal toll. I have never felt God gleefully dogpiling on my sin. All he's ever done is give me bowls and eggs, and told me how to find more clean bowls and unbroken eggs, because he knows I'm just learning.

The question then is, if God can do this with us, why can we not do this with our own children? Why do we react in a freeze of disappointment when our children do wrong? Why do we treat their mistakes like a federal three strikes, you're out plan? Our homes become a zero tolerance zone where mistakes are etched on the kitchen door next to heights, and punishments dealt out according to some scheme entirely of our own devising.

Remember those cataclysmic moments from your childhood when you've been running carefree, arms going faster than your legs, head looking back, laughing, as you outrun your pursuer, and then suddenly you're on the ground, your knees are slammed into asphalt, the palms of your hands are tearing even as you realize that you've fallen, and the shock of the impact makes you breathless. Then the pain fills you, spreading from your stomach in a sickening wave. All you want is to go home. Just home.

Did that ever happen to you when you were out somewhere, say a barbeque (or braai) at your parents' friends house, and, after you've fallen, you looked for your mother or your father? There they were, across the lawn, drink in hand, or maybe a piece of boerewors (sausage) hot off the grill, dripping grease. So, you walk across the lawn, hopping and holding, trying not to let the blood trickle too fast down your calfbone, trying not to cry too loudly. Remember that look when they saw you, that moment when their world freezes, and seeing you, they respond? The cup goes down, the sausage is laid carefully on the brick wall, their knees bend, and their arms go out wide. And if they're South African, they say, "Ag, shame! Come here, lovey . . . "

Brings to mind the image of a hen gathering her chicks, taking her children beneath her wings as the rain starts to fall. I'm thinking that the posture of bended knee and open arms is where I must be when I face the errors of others, especially the errors of those I love and look after; that my part in their progression has less to do with circles on boards and punishments etched into door frames, and a lot to do with keeping a supply of eggs readily on hand, and clean bowls by the stackfull behind pantry doors.

(Title: Bernard Fanning, Watch Over Me)