Monday, February 23, 2009

If You Call, I Will Answer

I was sitting in a restaurant with our boys a few months ago. Seth asked me whether there were free refills. I said yes. Christian, said, "Why don’t you ever just fool around with them. Tell them no, when it’s really yes?" I responded, “Because there are refills.” “Yes, but you have the power to really fool them. They believe you. You could so easily just lie and fool him.” I replied, “I could, but then Seth would grow up to believe that authority cannot be trusted, that it doesn’t have his best interests at heart.” I explained to Christian that how Seth hears me respond to him is how he will interpret the voice and desires and heart of his heavenly Father. And I want him to know that God will give him answers, straight answers, when he needs them. That he can go to him when he needs to. That he will be listened to. “I suppose,” I said to Christian, “how Seth thinks of me is how he will, most easily think, of God.”

Mimicking or echoing the divine is not easy, particularly when it comes to parenting. Sometimes, what I need God to be and what he is are different things entirely. So, I choose the story of God that best suits my purposes--a little selective editing. For example, it is initially easier to parent if the God we teach and subsequently model is a god of swift and divine retribution; a sort of Old Testament deity but without the patience that allows children to wander for forty years. If that is the God I model, then I can teach my child that the moment he hits his brother, or steals the dollar bill from the change pile in the car (probably would have to be a 20 spot before I'd notice), or orders iTunes without asking, he's sinned and there is a punishment attached. In good conscience, I can send him to time out, or spank him (but not in America), take away his phone, or, at the very least, cold-shoulder him until he grovels himself back in my good graces and riding shotgun. Swift, neat, dispassionate, with little discussion and time, lots of lonely time, for the errant child to sit in his wet diaper (figuratively or literally) and think about it.

Far more difficult to actually parent the way God seems to parent me. With an intimate patience, and a longsuffering goodnaturedness that seems to forget easily and bless often. With a soft touch that doesn't seem to do much more than remind me I am far better than this particular action, that I am loved, and that tomorrow we will try again. If tomorrow doesn't go well, there is always the day after. And yes, Tessa, I do see your heart. So, you can keep your cell phone, your iTunes, and your turn riding shotgun. P.S. Consider giving the dollar back and paying for the songs. You'll feel better about yourself and will be able to look your mother in the eye. P.P.S. Please remember when you feel distant from me, that you put yourself in time out, not the otherway around. I would love your company.

If I am to use this more divinely accurate but more perplexing and less apparently outcome-determinative parental style, then my interactions with my children become more like conversations and less like interrogations. Upon discovering a child's error, I cannot resort to the stiff-armed, one-handed wrist pull that throws a child into his bedroom and slams the door behind him. Neither can I use the slow, quiet, death voice that speaks at a funereal pace, one staccato word at a time (unless, of course, as happened last weekend, the child's friend has just crashed through the skylight in the guest bathroom and fallen ten feet to the floor below while I am at Julia's varsity basketball senior night; then I am fully justified in using the death voice). Say goodbye to shouting louder, higher and longer than the child in an attempt to win the argument, or resorting to banishment in a lonely room without dinner or cell phone.

I've never once felt those tactics at work in my relationship with the divine. Truth be told, if I am to model for my children, a divine parent, then the only power play left in my posession is a simple invitation. I can invite my child to a particular action, relying on my relationship with her, the connection I have developed over years of days and nights, and afternoons in the car, on the couch, at the pool and on the soccer field. I hope she knows I would never intentionally lead her astray, that she remembers I have advised her well in the past. Then, after extending the invitation, the faithless part in me, holds my breath and watches as she chooses. Mostly right, sometimes wrong, always her choice.

It's a hard way to parent like this. I have to take very long breaths. The earth-bound parent in me wants to ensure my children always choose what I think is best. I would like to force them to heaven; and if not to heaven, at least to a good four-year college, preferably on a scholarship. (Personally, I have never responded to force, or even the suggestion of coercion, so I should be able to recognize that my children, raised by me, would not either.) Mistakes are inevitable. Children will not choose as I would for them. They will not always choose to use a knife and fork. They will choose to run across a skylight on their neighbor's roof--and sometimes will fall in (if the retribution angel is on duty). They may also choose to reject, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, their parent's God. They will be crass, cruel, selfish, dishonest and lazy. They will also be kind, sensitive, beautiful, clean and faithful. Sometimes even on the same day. The least we can do is be there, even if longsuffering and patience seem a bit beyond our grasp.

A cherished moment from the last month: Julia and I in my bedroom, Julia on the edge of the bed, me on the floor between her legs, talking as she plays with my hair, making braids and contraptions a la Cindy Lou Who. Talking about my high school and hers, about my boys and hers, about my kisses and hers, about changing selves and making new circles, about loneliness and longing. She can't look me in the eye, but she can play with my hair, and swat me upside the head when I go too far. She came to find me that afternoon brush in hand, as I sat on the floor in my bedroom, and she plonked herself down behind me. The invitation was given a day before. I made sure I was in the vicinity (matched enough socks for Bush's army). It took her awhile, but she came to find me. Just like I've always gone to find Him.

(Title: from Barenaked Ladies, Call and Answer (minus the last verse, which undercuts my point entirely))

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Sense of Wonder

This week I'm reading The World Made Straight, by Ron Rash, a novel set in the Appalachian mountains, with trout streams, tobacco fields, rented trailers, and ghosts of the Civil War that rise up to a confluence. This morning I watched as Leonard, a teacher brought low, remembered his mother who used to sit on the front steps of their home and stare at the mountains "rising beyond their pasture." She explained to her son why she did it: "Sometimes a Bible or church isn't enough. That's why there's need for a world in the first place, son."

I know what she means. I don't know what eternity is. I know the theological concept. Can quote you verse (scripture and/or hymn) regarding it. But I don't know what it is. Nothing to hang the idea on, to make it real. Is it an unending round of matching socks? Despair. Is it one long frozen vanilla custard with raspberries and cashews? Delicious, but not all day everyday. Yet, I'm supposed to long for it, to plan my life around it. But to actually know it, to understand, that's another thing entirely.

There are moments though when I feel eternal. I feel space and time swirl around me, through me, and out of me, pouring through the top of my skull which seems to have been split wide open and made me a part of something so much larger than I could ever imagine.

The winter scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, starting, I think, with a mouth organ's mournful notes, counterpointed with the axes hitting the logs. The brothers have become lonesome polecats, and then Caleb rises up on his toes and swings the ax, over his head, cutting down and through, and then pirouettes, and suddenly he's moved from the stream, through the snow, swinging that ax, simultaneously a warrior king and a backwoods farmer. The first time I saw this movie I was about eight years old. That sudden, ax-swinging movement still chills me. I wanted to be the ax, to swing the ax, to move like that in such controlled, straight, powerful lines. I still do. I want to be Sarah McLachlan's voice rising above the bass in Barenaked Ladies' God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, "Star of wonder, star of light. . . " I would like to be able to sing like that yes. But more, I want to actually be that voice, to slide up and over the underlying melody. Like the sun breaking loose of the horizon.

The expression on Jackie Elliot's face, a coal miner from North-eastern England, when his son, Billy, who has chosen to go into "the bally" explodes onto the stage in a flurry of feathers, and the muscled lines of a grand jete. I wept for that fraction of a second which showed a father's disbelief that such a creature, such a beautiful creature, could be his son. That eternal, life-shattering moment when life reveals to the father the vision of a son he hasn't been able to see.

The first seventy seven seconds of Where the Streets Have No Name with the beat that builds and then the most beautiful voice in rock lets loose with the primal moan, "I wanna run." I'm driving my motherly SUV down snowy streets, to futsal practice, to basketball games, to the library, and the organ starts, then the beat that comes from the background, guitar, bass and drums . . . the hair on my arms stand up straight and, if you were watching me across the intersection, you'd see a smile building on my face, my eyes closed, my head bobbing, and then my hands, which don't even know how to drum, trying to become that rythm. To be drum and bass and organ. Happens to me every time I hear it. Like the top of my head just came right off and I've floated out into the universe.

Watching Christian take off from the foul line in a game last week. He was bringing the ball up the court, caught the defense napping, and sensing a moment, he drives past the post player, and takes from off the foul line, like a triple jumper or the Jordan icon on his socks: one, two, into the air, long legs split into a v, up, up, up and down, ball held in his palm and then pushed lightly to bump off the glass, two inches above the rim, through the hoop, while Christian lands in a pounce on the floor. Time slowed, the whole gym watched as this creature, suddenly more animal than fifteen-year old boy, became beautiful. (He told me later, when I asked him about that move, "I thought, 'Woah, I took off really early, I better stretch.''') When he was in the air, in that moment neither coming nor going, just there, I held my breath and sensed eternity.

A post-midnight house, with sleeping bodies in beds, lights off everywhere, except maybe over the sink, a cup of rooibos tea in hand, curled up on the leather couch, book on the arm, listening to the noises of a night house. I've spent so many nights in my life in that exact same position at that same time, that, if I am very still, and all I hear is my breath and the same heart that has beaten inside me since before memory, it is hard to tell whether the breathing coming from the other room is my father or my husband; am I seven, nineteen or forty-two?

Can I be all three? Because, sitting still on the couch in my forty-two-year-old body, I can still feel, say, the hot flush of shame that fills seven-year-old bodies when they realize they are wholly out of step with the majority, that what they thought was normal was, in fact, quite startling. I remember taking my mother's hand to cross the Main Road in Claremont, spacing my fingers to fit between hers, feeling the warmth of her palm cup against mine. Adam holds my hand as we run through the parking lot after the game (not as often as before but sometimes still) and when his little fingers fill the curves at the base of mine, for a moment, I cannot quite tell whose hand is whose. Contemplate the wisdom in having a mother who was also once nine and remembers it in her bones and blood. For I do remember much, and it runs through me like it was yesterday, today and tomorrow at the same time.

Stopping a soccer ball that has been passed to me, centering in a matter of two-tenths of a second, bringing my right leg back on a pendulum and connecting with the solid thwack, top of my foot snug against the center of the ball, head over the ball, to feel it fly in a rising arc into the back of the net. Nine times out of ten, I hit the ball off center, I stop it too soon, my balance is off, I whiff it completely. But sometimes, serendipitously, when balance, timing, pendulum swing and force combine perfectly--magic. I'm not Tessa, not mother, not saggy but getting back into shape. I'm just a perfect pendulum on a perfect course towards the utter center of a motionless ball. I've never resorted yet to stripping off my shirt and showing my black sports bra (underwired, admittedly) to the crowd. But last Friday night, when it happened, I did a little skip on my way back to center field. A small moment of perfection, in the midst a little bit of a pulled hamstring, a large amount of wire, and lining up, after the goal, off-sides.

Standing at the tip of Africa, at Cape Point, watching the ocean currents tumble over each other to crash against the rocks 500 feet below, leaving trails of white foam laced across the horizon. A relentless movement of mass and water, swelling, swelling, swelling, then crashing, in patterns older than time. The same rise and fall, the same movement of mass and water within me, as, pregnant for the first time, I felt Julia move. Across my naked belly stretched taut, she left traces of her tumbling, raised edges, sudden furrows, and deep within, flutterings and bruises of motion that told of things to come.

Always, always, and mostly, only, with my body do I feel eternity. Not in a verse, not in a phrase, but in my bones, and my hair, and my skull. Like Leonard's mother, at the feet of what is is most often when I touch the hem of what might or will be.

(Title: Van Morrison, A Sense of Wonder)

Link to Seven Brides Scene:

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Brand New Story

People talk about stepping out into the darkness as the ultimate act of faith. They've started too far down the faith ladder.

Looking into the space of our own lives and wanting another world is the first faithful step. When we look into the space of what is not and wish it was requires vision and courage. Finding the words that give life and breath to that vision are perhaps the most difficult words to find. Speaking that word out loud is, many times, the most faith-filled step we ever take (Especially when we have to say it looking into the eyes of one we love). And, looking across into somebody else's space and wanting to build there but refraining is love made flesh.

It requires great courage, even faith to verbalize the feelings of your heart, to make real the visions that exist only in your own mind concerning the space in which you live. I am a reluctant speaker of things of the heart. I come awkwardly to the space between Kevin and I, reluctant to plant the seed of my vision, to speak out loud. When I fail to speak, either through reluctance or fear, I reveal my own faithlessness. The immutable truth is that only once the words have been spoken is there any hope for new growth. Failing to speak means living with unspoken desires, with unspoken dreams, when, for want of a little faith, we can articulate and thus give birth to a better relationship.

Last year, I spoke with an old friend in South Africa, with whom I had played netball and waterpolo through high school. I asked her why her marraige works for her. (She had married an American, like I had; unlike me, she had persuaded him to live in South Africa) She said, "Tess, I won't accept anything less than passion. I have to be passionate about life, about Brian, about my practice. If I'm not, it's not worth it. So, when things get low, I tell him, 'This thing between us,'" and she drew the outlines of a circle in front of her with her hands, "'it's not enough. I need more. I need it from you. What are we going to do?'" When she drew that circle with her hands, I imagined their realtionship like space, and Tracy like a god who looked into the infinite cosmos and said, "Let's create a world here in which you and I can live. Once she had spoken, together she and Brian worked on recreating the marriage space they live in. And it began with a look into the space of their marriage and those words.

My most painful but significant parenting error involved this interplay between space, words and creation. In particular, it involved another's space, not mine to build in or even have visions about. It came at Julia's expense, but to the benefit of her brothers who followed after her. Julia's my daughter. She's almost 18 now, but then she was only 7--then being the months I moved into Julia's space, like an invading Hun with a scorched earth policy.

In first grade, Julia and I ran into reading, which had always been as easy for me as breathing. I cannot remember a time when I couldn't read. I pushed her. Hard. We would spend hours with books, me telling her, "Just blend the letters; sound them out. Come on. It's easy. Concentrate." Round and round we went, her little blond head and bright blue eyes trying as hard as she could to make sense of the letters on the page; me rolling my eyes, raising my voice. She would tell me, "Mom, I am trying. I am trying." Finally, it sunk in. She was really trying. This reading thing that was so easy for me wasn't easy for her.

I finally realized it doesn't work for her like it worked for me. This is a different creature. Her soil, her fundamental elements, are not Tessa. She is Julia. She preexists our relationship on this earth. Her spirit has always been. She is far bigger and older than my mothering of her.

Thankfully not too late, I realized that in the space provided for Julia to grow up in and make of her own raw materials a beautiful world/girl, there is no room for my version of what I expect or think she should be. My vision of what a daughter of mine should be has no place in that space which is hers and hers alone. I gave up title to her space, moved out my ideas of what she should be (based mostly, in all honesty, on my own experience and strengths), and provided for her a space to make Julia flesh. What a joy it has been to be her mother, to have this wonderful creature in our home, to watch her grow and become.

As I think about space, about words, about the faith and courage required to speak out loud and to invite a better world, or to remain silent, I remember Tracy's hands. The way she drew a circle in the air before her, palm down, fingers outstretched. They evoke the blessing circles drawn by her Jewish sisters who light the Shabbat candles every Friday evening. I've used the same motion myself, over my swollen belly, simultaneously easing the ache of an almost-ready child pushing against my hips and bladder, and drawing strength for what is to come. Women's hands weaving through space, gathering in, moving around, pulling together, calling for light, welcoming the sabbath, a new marriage, or a child. These movements, like the words, are as old as time.

There have always been circles. There have always been words. And before it all, then as now, there is space. Space for one more, space to turn around, space to repent in and to begin something new, space for grace to enter a cold heart, and space in which to speak and to create new worlds.

(Title, from Bee Gees's song, Words)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Save My Place in the Strange Parade

Have you ever wondered what sort of mood God (or the divinely appointed design committee) was in when he created the giraffe Or what about when he/she decorated (after all, we are talking about interior decorating here) the zebra and the clown fish? Sometimes, I think they were just in for a good laugh, hence the duck-billed platypus. Or maybe it was at the end of that long sixth day (Genesistically-speaking), and he was running short of whatever cosmic playdough he used to create animals, and decided that just one spot of red would have to do. And then only periodically. Viola! The female baboon.

Maybe he let an apprentice creator work on the elephant and she made his nose way too long, but God didn't want to hurt her feelings so he just let the elephant be--way too long nose and all. Just in case the elephant got to thinking all animals with tusks should have long noses, he took the warthog he was working on and slammed that clay figure into the wall, so that its nose ended up two inches from its brain. Then he breathed life into both of those creatures, put them gently into the same neck of the veld behind a few baobab trees, and stood back to watch. The first time and elephant and a warthog spied each other, they both did a double-take and said, "What on earth . . . ." I bet they walked away from each other that first time just shaking their heads in disbelief, those big elephant ears a-flopping, that pea-brained warthog mind a-churning: "What on earth was that? And what is it doing here?"

I have a hunch He did that on purpose. I know zoologists say that each creature evolved in a way perfectly suited for its particular environment in order to maximize food gathering and progeny making activities in a formula inversely proportional to enery output. (Or something like that). But this is my story, my creation myth that helps me make sense of my world.

I think these weird and wonderful, bright and beautiful creatures that found their way onto this earth during those fifth and sixth adaptive periods were more than just economically-advantageous mutations. They were and are signs and symbols, metaphors and mirrors of just what is needed to be "good." Together, the long and the short, the black and the orange, the billed and the spined were good, so "very good" (Gen.1:31)

Contradiction and opposition are "a natural part of the human experience, something God uses for his redemptive purposes. Life is full of polarities and is made full by them. We struggle with them, complain about them, even try sometimes to destroy them with dogmatism or self-righteousness or a retreat into the innocence that is only ignorance." I think about this statement often. Ruminate on it. Bring it back to chew on when I've come headlong into another's obstinacy, or stubborness, or sheer refusal to see things my way. "You," I think to myself, trying not to let my eye go squinty to give away my chagrin,"are my opposition. And I am yours. You and I together might just redeem each other."

In particular, I am often left quiet and squinty-eyed when it comes to my local congregation and the people who sit next to me in the pews, who teach my children and organize activities for my teenagers. You see, I worship in a neighborhood church. I go to church with many of the people who live around me. I'm coming to believe that participating fully in my faith's local congregation just might have the most to do with making me truly Christian.

A few years ago, I worshipped along side Donna, my neighbor before she left the area. Donna and I spoke most easily to each other when we were down on our knees--in mulch. I didn't really see her in the winter, except when she played the piano for the choir. I could hear her practicing on her gleaming black grand, notes spilling through her vertical blinds onto the snow. In the spring our thoughts turned to annuals and container plantings and whether the willow tree needed pruning so that the sprinklers can reach the northwest sliver of grass. We shared discoveries of unusual colored gazanias at Sun River Nursery, and discussed whether a fruit tree might look good demarcating our shared strip of lawn between the two homes.

One Sunday morning, we're sitting in adult Sunday School discussing what our individual responsibilities are to those around us, particularly the poor. I'm of the philosophy that you give without judging whether or not the recipient deserves to receive. You give if you have. As far as I'm concerned, the measure is taken of the giver, not the receiver. I give an impassioned speech about the earth being full, about there being enough and to spare, about taking no thought for the morrow, about seven loaves and two fish, and mystical multiplication plus godly leftovers.

Donna raises her hand from across the room and says in her measured tones, "Now we have to be careful about what we give. People sometimes make bad decisions. They're where they are because they choose themselves into that place. They need to learn to stand on their own to feet. You can't change somebody until they want to change. Sometimes its best not to help at all." I had to concentrate to keep my mouth closed, and my eyes wide open. My pea-brain warthod mind churning, "What on earth Donna! What kind of creature are you and what are you doing here, worshipping with me?" I thought we were kindred spirits, gardeners who wanted nothing more than a full blooming perennial border with annual containers of orange zinnias for all of God's creatures. My neighbor, unbeknownst to me, is an elephant with her trunk firmly wrapped around Ronald Reagan's version of Christian charity.

I could dismiss Donna's comments out of hand as a complete misreading of one's communal duties. But that would mean dismissing her entirely. It would mean removing any space within my heart and my life in which she could stand unassailed. It would mean that only people like me are really members in full intellectual fellowship. Seems a little monochromatic. So, I have to expand my notion of what is acceptable in God's kingdom. I have to learn to embrace difference--not just in the easy outer indicators, but in actual bedrock philosophy. I have to come to believe, actually believe and make adjustments because of that difference, that both Donna and I are worthy for the kingdom, that there's space there for both of us, and that we are both absolutely necessary.

This mental work of recognizing and allowing for fundamental opposites is perhaps some of the hardest soul work I will ever do. I would expect such opposition from say, a card-carrying member of the NRA (oh wait, my brother-in-law has a concealed weapons permit), but from somebody who worships in the same chapel I do, reads from the same holy books, and prays to the same God. . . . It's like seeing that elephant come drifting ponderously across a warthog horizon. It's a meeting that shakes what I've held to be true; that forces me to examine my closely held beliefs; that makes me realize that perhaps what I hold to be self-evident is, perhaps, self-created and evident only to myself. And ultimately causes me, if I am willing, to expand, beyond certainty, into good.

(Title: Marc Cohn, Join the Parade.)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lay Down Your Arms and Surrender to Me

I am a reforming scorekeeper in the midst of changing a lifelong habit.

By that I mean, I notice who last took out the garbage, did the dishes, fed the dog and the birds (no-one), shoveled the driveway and the steps leading to the front door. I know whose house we had Thanksgiving dinner at and Christmas Eve and whether these were complete dinners and several hours, or just pop-ins and about an hour--which makes a significant difference in how the balance sheet reads. (I thought that when my parents moved from South Africa to a house around the corner about twelve years into our marriage that it was entirely proper for me to announce that because we had spent the past decade of holidays at Kevin's family, that we would now be spending the next decade with mine. The smile on his mother's face when I told her did not quite reach her eyes.) When the balance sheet of our marriage starts to tilt out of my favor, equilibrium is easily restored with a pair of Franco Sarto shoes, preferably T-strap or Mary Jane-style with 3-inch heels.

I have applied that same rationale to our sex life, doling out favors and encounters with the frugality of a New England spinster, determined to make it through the winter with most of her dried apples intact. I have a few ideas where that approach to sex (and scorekeeping) came from. Probably a mixture of things, including being the fifth child of seven who crept downstairs in the middle of the night to eat one more bite of the smoked pork chop that was my favorite and that I knew would be gone when I got downstairs in the morning; a conservative, religious upbringing in which we abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage and therefore any kind of knowledgeable discussion of sex prior to marriage; hundreds of lessons on the worth of moral virtue and the benefits of coming home dead on a shield rather than losing said virtue; and a complete lack of frank conversation about sex after marriage outside of the marriage relationship (probably a mixture of cultural and familial norms).

As a result of this upbringing, I have had notions that married sex between Kevin and I was something he earned, something that I gave in to. Even after marriage, the delectable ramparts of my body were to be scaled, preferably with scaling ladders and hooks a la a Spanish walled town in a Richard Sharpe novel, while I, sometimes halfheartedly and sometimes viciously, poured hot oil in his general vicinity. (There have been nights (mostly afternoons, and always on vacation) when, wonders of wonders, the town gate, as it were, was serendipitously left wide open and Kevin waltzed right in. But a good girl doesn't confess to those; it must have been a night watchman's error.)

After reading about another couple's year-long, sex every day, experiment, Kevin's employee's wife gave her husband 365 days of "loving" for his birthday. We'll call him Mick, and confess that he was over the moon for the first weeks. Imagine, about ten years into your Life Cereal and 1% milk with the occasional French toast and strawberries with whipped cream for breakfast marriage, that your wife declares open season. No working it, no keeping your hands in the appropriate regions until the appropriate time, no risk of the inadvertent squeeze of the belly fat that changes what seemed a promising moment into her sucking in her tummy and moaning, "Oh, I can't stand this body. I don't know why you even find me attractive. You just want to make love to me because I'm all you have. You wouldn't choose me if you had a real choice." No turning of the body away from the hand (whose owner has just come home from work and has barely made eye contact let alone asked her about her day) that is working its way around the side of her for a little grab of what, in the local university's locker room about twenty years ago, was referred to as "gahoop." None of that. Just the sure thing, every day.

Mick kept Kevin apprised of the developments. I lived the life of the sexually rich and proliferate via proxy. Some revelations were surprising. Like, how, when he returned home at two in the morning after flying in from Des Moines and Tiff was up and waiting for him, the idea of making love made him groan--with fatigue. How, it's better to be showered and clean shaven. Some not so surprising. That the level of conversation they now routinely engaged in was significantly more intimate than those which had filled their weeks for years. Dreams, goals, desires, fears, not just children, or bills, or duties, or repairs. Is it any wonder that, during the sure thing, Tiff came on board with one of Mick's business ideas and they are building, together, a home-based business?

One observation Mick made changed the way I live. He said to Kevin, "Kev, do you know how things change when the answer is always yes? When there is no doubt about whether you will be making love, then there is no second guessing about motives. No wondering about why I put my hand on her head and stroke her hair. No shrugging my hand off her shoulder as we sit next to each other on the couch, because that's the first time I've touched her all day and she thinks that the only reason I'm doing it is because I want sex. When the answer is yes, I am free to love her and to show my love for her. And, she is free to accept it. To know that I'm touching her because I want to touch her. Because, at that moment, touching her makes me happy."

I have thought about that for months now: the answer is yes.

What if, with regards to your husband or wife or partner, the answer was always yes. What if your natural orientation and instinctive response to them was "yes." That when they came to you with a question or a dream or a hope or a need to make love, you answered yes. That when he reached for you in bed, in the middle of his dream state, you didn't lie very still and pretend to be asleep, or push his arm or pelvis away from you with a snort and put the pillow between you. What if, when he reached for you, you rolled into him, you laid yourself along him, from ankle bone to knees to pelvis- stomach-chest, your feet and hands entwined. What if? What if, when that hand reaches for you in the kitchen, you turn to it, and place your breast in its path, and push your hips against his, and grin at him, as you make spaghetti sauce. What if? What if, when he came to you with his dream, you listened and believed, and sat with open heart, not counting hypothetical, future losses as if they had already occurred. What if there was no score to keep, no balance sheet, no ledger of late home-from-works and sex only last Monday? That when you saw him or her, your whole body said, "Yes."

Tina Fey, in an interview, described her experience working improv comedy in Chicago. She said that the success of improv is "about saying yes" to the person across from you. "With improv, the focus is clear: You're supposed to be listening to the other person so you know how to respond. Improv involves a lot of agreement. It's all about saying yes to the person you're across from, because if you don't say yes, the sketch is over."

Admittedly, yes is a vulnerable place to be. There is no currency on the yes exchange: no sex for trade, no shoes for garbage. There's only a common fund made up of the two of us. Being in yes makes me turn toward, makes me want to believe, makes me hope and look forward, makes me grin and shrug, makes me dance to Saturday Night Fever, makes me stretch full length along his body in the dark of the night. Yes makes him valuable to me, precious, and creates a space when he is gone. In yes, I am his answer; he is my question. Truth be told, I am growing accustomed to yes and coming to believe it is the only place to be for our particular sketch to go on.

(Title: From Eddie Vedder/Pearl Jam's, Soldier of Love)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Carry On My Wayward Son

I had a vision a few days ago . . . an honest from God vision just as I was walking from my bedroom past the bathroom door into the hallway. I had been lying in bed thinking about a class I had to teach that Sunday. Prayer. And not only prayer, but a rather prescriptive way to pray so that our prayers can become more effective, as if there's an efficiency quotient by which one may measure our output and God's response on a scale.

Not a comfortable topic because I have felt, for years, that I pray incorrectly. Not with sufficient fervor, not with the intimacy of a best friend confiding the happenings of the day. More rote. Like a list, or a report to a superior officer after a successful/disastrous mission into Gabon. When I hear people talking about how they have poured out their hearts to God, how prayer is their favorite time of the day, a respite from the world, I can feel my eyes narrow and my head tilt and, simultaneously, my mind wonders and my heart wants.

I sort of envision myself as praying sideways, my prayers attached like footnotes and appendices to the really weighty matters of the day--crazed gunmen in Virginia and dictators in Zimbabwe, the definition of marriage in the California legislature, a child lying maimed and broken on a Thai beach. When you're accustomed to praying cripple-crabbed, it's a little difficult to suddenly turn face forward and straightout ask, "Oh, and, by the way, I really need . . ." Straightout blessing asking is fraught, at least for me, with the emotional calibrating of whether my recent prayers have been of sufficient intensity to warrant me asking for this particular without a severe loss of integrity. And, by then, I'm just a deer in the headlights. Frozen. Inarticulate.

So, it was with these thoughts wafting through my early morning mind that I stepped out of bed and past the bathroom door. And then I saw . . .

My two sons, Adam and Seth.

Adam is 9. He eats with his hands. Starts out with a fork, but by the end, his fingers are in his food, and in his mouth, feeling and tasting the runny yolk of his morning eggs. He angers with his whole body. His head shakes, his feet stamp. His hands throw things. He loves with his whole body as well. He has only just given up twirling his fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck while he talks to me. When he speaks to me, he lies across my lap, and his hand reaches up to turn my face to him. He speaks, and requires me to listen, with his whole body. One of his hands on either side of my face, his own face inches away from mine, his dark brown eyes looking into mine, gauging my reaction. There is a moment in every day when Adam lies across me, whether on the couch, or in his bed, or draped across my shoulders and the office chair as I type. When I am particularly short with him, he has been known to shout in anguish, "But that hurt my feelings. You hurt my feelings." It sounds like I have hurt not only his feelings, but his liver, his adenoids, his femur, even his prostate--although that shouldn't really come into play for another 50 years. That is how Adam likes to speak to me, and how he needs to be listened to.

Seth is a cool glass of water. Grey-eyed, dishwater-blonde hair. He starts a conversation, without apparently checking to see if I'm listening. Just starts talking. Mostly from the other couch. At a distance. Sometimes, he will sit next to me, his thigh touching, ever so slightly, mine, his hands busy shooting a basketball in the air, his eyes watching his follow through. But he talks. In questions and observations. About how a country determines the value of their currency; about the inanity of the ban against tackle football at Wasatch Elementary; of how he won the Geography Bee because he got less wrong than the others, and that was pretty sweet because he only went there for the cookies they handed out afterward. I don't believe I have ever heard him use the word feelings as it relates to himself. Still, he seeks me out . . . for his thigh-slightly-touching, hands-busy, eyes-somewhere-else, sideways-grin conversations.

I saw both these bodies, and I saw myself. Listening, as needed. Listening, because these were my sons, and I would listen to them however they chose to speak to me. I can listen so closely to Adam I feel his words breathe against my face. I can listen, head tilted, both of us staring at a point in the middle distance, to Seth. I listen as needed. I don't measure one against the other, and condemn Adam for his inability to reign himself in, or mark it against Seth that he cannot loosen up. They are as they are.

In that moment (you know those moments when time expands and you think you've been still for minutes/hours, but your foot hasn't quite hit the carpet at the completion of a step you took, what seems like, yesterday), I knew I didn't prefer one over the other. That I would talk to Adam and Seth for as long as they wanted to talk to me, in whatever way they needed. No prerequisites. I knew I would never, in my purest mother heart (we all have days), turn from the one who does not speak to me in the way that suits me most.

Then I heard a voice, "And neither would I."

With that, I walked down the hallway to start making Adam breakfast.

(Title of the Post comes from Kansas song that was playing on iTunes as I wrote this. Seems appropriate.)