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)


  1. Hey, Tessa--I don't know if you remember me, but this is Kate Jones; I moved out of the ward about a year ago. Anyway, I stumbled across your blog and just wanted to tell you how much I love it. I always loved your Relief Society lessons and now I can get your insight from Louisiana! :) Anyway, just wanted to de-lurk and tell you that your post today hit the spot for me...

  2. Hi Kate:

    Nice to hear from you. How's Sam, and how's Louisiana? I've always wanted to head to the deep south. Never been there yet.

    I'm glad you like the blog. It's my first venture back after years of just legal writing. Hopefully I can keep at it.

  3. It was what I needed today too. --Emily M.

  4. I found you on another website and I'm so grateful- you are a beautiful writer. I teach cooking classes part time and the story about cracking eggs caught my attention right away because I've used similar words myself many times, but the analogy of breaking eggs to life will stay with me a long time. Thanks for sharing the book, your insight and yourself. I'll be certain to have plenty of eggs around, and not just in the kitchen.

  5. Hey Tessa -- This is Sarah from law school. I just came across your blog tonight when preparing an RS lesson on stewardship and looking for an article you wrote on duty to rescue to quote . . . anyway, I really like your blog and this post, especially, today. So keep writing! I love your writing style and insights.

  6. I just came across your blog via a link to it in a comment on CJane's blog today. Wow -- you have no idea how much I needed this.

    Parenting my 15 year-old, easily heartbroken and struggling-to-find-acceptance son is stretching my confidence as a parent. Thank you for the reminder to be patient.

    I will keep cartons of eggs handy.

    Thank you and Bless you.