"There's something wanting in me. I see you loving Henry, and understanding him better daily, and I know that death wouldn't part you in the least. But I—Is it some awful, appalling, criminal defect?"
Margaret silenced her. She said: "It is only that people are far more different than is pretended. All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don't fret yourself, Helen. Develop what you have: love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all—nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be. And others—others go farther still, and move outside humanity altogether. A place, as well as a person, may catch the glow. Don't you see that all this leads to comfort in the end. It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences—eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey."
Howard's End. E.M. Forster, page 267.
I hide things under our couches. A few years ago, when the couches had skirts, I hid unassembled, wooden cut outs under the couch. When I first got married, we had a Christmas workshop every year in our neighborhood at the local church. Lured by the finished products of women who can turn ribbon, bottle caps, baling wire, and their grandmother's corset into a chandelier, other unsuspecting women would preorder unassembled, unnailed, unsanded, unpainted pieces of wood to make up into Rudolf, Santa, cherubic pilgrims, a covey of American flags, or possessed-looking rabbits. This we did together in the church hall, sharing Styrofoam dinner plates with dots of paint and birthing stories. I dutifully ordered projects every year. Sometimes I finished; mostly I didn't. The unfinished pieces went under the couch; the finished pieces into some cupboard where they sat, remembered weeks after the appropriate holiday when I caught glimpse of them while I was looking for weed killer. I should throw them out, but, if I do, it's like admitting some kind of failure . . . that I tried this way of life and lost.
Wooden porch figures, pistachio jello salad, marshmallow fluff, tuna noodle casserole. . . I've tried.
I do not believe in the Boys Scouts of America—at all. I don't think it should be part of the church program (unless and until there's an equal organization for young women), and I definitely don't think the church organization should be used as a fundraising organism for this private organization. I'm actually appalled that people visit my house, in their capacity as church workers, to ask for money for the Boys Scouts. I fail to see the connection between an Eagle Scout and the driver's license. I do not believe that not having food storage will prevent me from entering heaven. It will help us when and if Kevin and I both lose our jobs at the same time and the dainty supply of Italian parsley, tomatoes, cilantro and basil from the pot plants (bruschetta anyone?) has run out, and we need another source of food with no cash to pay for it. But I don't know about getting into heaven because of barrels of wheat and powdered milk. (I still might be horribly surprised when I find out that's one of the questions.)
I question why white has become the only color in which one may attend church and participate in the sacrament, and why it is that sister missionaries need to look like nuns. Twenty years later, I still miss sleeveless shirts and strapless dresses. I don't think bikinis are immodest, and think every women, of any shape should feel free to wear one. Most Saturday evenings I sigh, thinking of the next morning. I would like to be cremated and spread over my flower gardens, while the Dixie Chicks sing "I wanna touch the earth, I wanna break it in my hands, I wanna grow something wild and unruly," followed by Queen, "I was born to love you." I couldn't think of greater tombstone than a big old maple growing up through me. . . . All these things are under my couch.
Yet, my sleeves have sleeves, Christian wears white to bless the Sacrament, I buy at the Macey's case lot sale; the first son got his Arrow of Light, the others play soccer, baseball and basketball on Wednesday evenings. I wish I could sing in the choir, but can't read music and can't sing high enough to just sing soprano, and Kevin's gone every Sunday anyway. But I schlep these other things with me. I sense, as Helen did in Howard's End, when she spoke of her inability to form a lasting relationship with a man, "There's something wanting in me. . . . some awful, appalling, criminal defect?"
I've paid lip service in previous posts to the idea that we are all God's creatures; we're all part of the menagerie that makes up his animal kingdom. When I tell that story, in my mind, unarticulated but assumed, is the notion that I am the horse, or the zebra, or the sable antelope. I'm never the warthog, or the anteater or the chameleon. There are times though when I come face to face with the opposite "colour" and I retreat. Last Sunday, by the end of Sunday School, I was quivering, feeling "fight or flight" rising inside me, my little warthog tusks shaking. The initial impulse is to run. Wanted to howl with Bono, "I wanna run." Mostly just run to a space that feels comfortable, where I don't feel out of sorts, where I am enough, where there is space for my cripple-crabbed response to the divine question.
Mostly I want to flee when I come up against a person who knows, with certainty, just exactly what the answers are, and just exactly how life should be lived. The question in Sunday School last week was, "Well, wouldn't you want to avoid all the pain and suffering associated with sin?" Offered, rhetorically, as if the only appropriate answer was, "Yes, of course (idiot)." My response, unexpressed, felt like the wrong response. Like the offering a warthog would bring to the animal banquet—a decaying log loaded with woodworms, fitting to her but appalling to everyone else.
The thing is I just don't know so definitely. Sometimes the only way to know is through, through whatever it is that haunts you, follows you, dogs you. And in the getting through, there is bound to be sorrow, pain, and then knowledge. My favorite article of faith, the one I hang on to, is the ninth: That God has revealed, that He does now reveal, and that He will yet reveal. Things will change. One of my favorite prayers is "Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief." It is a frequent plea. Ideas of which I was so certain, confident, sort of like the shocked "my child will never bite anybody" you utter when the childless you watches a nephew bite down for the first time, are waning. The things I do know I gather, in a smallish basket—stones that shine with a brighter, distilled light: that God knows me, and sends people, ideas, books, music, animals, young children, skies, mountains, water and wind to help me. That I can be sent to help others. That life is most meaningful when I help, when I am part of a community. That God still speaks. That I may try again, if and when I feel so inclined, hopefully sooner than later, but never too late. That at the center there is light and truth which is accessible to us all, and which will embrace and heal.
Some tell stories of their spiritual experiences with a beginning and an end. It's neater that way. Makes things more certain—definite beginning, definite ending, definite meaning. Somehow, I always find myself in the middle, always reshaping, always having to give up and to rethink, constantly paring away at the story I thought I found myself in. If I wrote a journal, the narrative would not actually be narratives at all; rather, personal essays, short, lyrical pieces of experience/emotion/fact/observation surrounded by attempts to make sense of the moment. Less absolute, less certain of universalities. More filled with moments of light that apply only to me, my personal brush with grace and revelation. Instead of the novel I supposed I would be able to draft of the things of which I were certain at the end of my life, I think I might be reduced to a haiku—just seventeen syllables but worth every sound.
So, knowing as little for sure as I do, I am shaken sometimes, when, armed with my little collection of pebbles, one cherry blossom, and a winter leaf, I come face to face with an apparent arsenal of absolute certainty, the entire greenhouse of a spiritual Home Depot as it were. I find myself lacking that attribute, and wondering if my soul, engineered as it is, is sufficient for the exacting devotion that seems to be required by those around me. The very same day I posted "Ready, Ready, Ready to Run," in which I said that I know now why Christian organizations build wells before they teach doctrine, I read a woman's account of paying her tithing in which she stated that she would rather have the living water of Christ than water in her pipes, rather have the bread of the Saviour's body than food on her shelves. On reading that, I remembered what I had written, and gave the deep sigh that normally precedes some serious soul searching. I spent the day wondering where was I that I wanted real water first; that I am wary of either/ors, and that my initial reaction was to wonder why she hadn't approached her family for help, or at least the local congregation. (The bishop's storehouse is always full). At the end of such wondering, I always feel less than enough.
Last year, I came to a spiritual resting place of sorts—a place where I needed a decision about the kind of faith and religious experience I would have, and whether I could have this faith within the collective arms of my church, or on my own. Plainly put, I did not want to feel "not good enough" anymore. I needed to identify the source of that feeling and try to move away from whatever black hole it lived in. But, I knew my reaction could not be to throw the baby out with the bath water, reject the good because of the unpleasant. I took out all kinds of doctrines and beliefs and turned them over, one by one, just like looking through the heap for a good fish at the market. Some I realized I didn't know about. Others I knew with as much certainty as experience had given me. Others were, if truth be told, not yet important to me. I looked at practices, and communal tendencies, trying to separate doctrine and culture. I "sat" for a long while, sitting, thinking, listening. I imagined life with, life without (a hard prospect when I have never known without). I came to certain personal conclusions about the kind of person I would be, about the voices I would listen to and the places I needed to be to be found about my Father's business.
I suppose I came to the same place Margaret did, when she advised her sister, "Develop what you have." Like Margaret's lack of love for children, there are certain things I do not love, that I will never get used to, that rub me the wrong way in this faith in which I worship. (Like I said, I love the ninth article of faith). But this faith has given me things I cannot imagine living without: like knowing we have heavenly parents who watch for us, that my soul is eternal, that this body is for pleasure and pain, that we are allowed to ask questions and answers will be given, that progression and existence is never ending, that joy is the ultimate design of this existence, that the souls of my children and my husband predate me and my involvement in their lives so I must be courteous and kind, that learning to choose well is perhaps the greatest skill I could acquire.
So (I'm not resisting well the literary urge to wrap this up in a conclusion and pull out an obvious moral), I'm learning to live in my space with my leaves, pebbles and blossoms, and allowing the others who file in with me at 9.00 a.m. to bring whomever and whatever they need into their own. It's not easy; not easy to come face to face with those "eternal differences" and not find myself either morally deficient or superior. I'm thinking I need to let the ideas/words/assertions come to me and let them flow over me, like water or good memories, feeling the need, the necessity, the desire, just as fervent as mine, to believe.
Title: Mick Jagger, "Old Habits Die Hard"