Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Am I Not Pretty Enough?

In writing Last Call for Sin, I tried to find the linguistic equivalent of a masculine slut. Couldn't find the word. Julia suggested "manho," but I rejected that as just a derivation of whore, which, because we have to put "man" in front of it, denotes we think the category is innately female. Sort of like we used to say female doctor, or male nurse. It got me thinking about the linguistic devices, about words, about ideas that don't have words to them, and that if there are no words, then the idea doesn't exist.

Case in point: When I was an undergraduate at BYU, there was a name for some women, Molly Mormon. There was also a name for certain men, Peter Priesthood. There was, however, only one gender that could fit the notion of a "special spirit." A special spirit is always female. The term tacitly implied a larger, female subject complete with patchwork scripture case covers, shimmery eye shadow reminiscent of Ariel under the sea, and sensible shoes. To call a man a special spirit would be committing the same semantical faux pas as the speaker who says, Man being a mammal breastfeeds his young. A Mormon audience would know you have used the term incorrectly.

As well as being female, a special spirit is, if not ugly, at least sufficiently plain as to have few physical redeeming qualities. A beautiful woman may be a Molly Mormon; she just hides herself behind gathered waistbands, floral skirts, curled bangs (fringe), and nylons even in the summer. A beautiful woman can never be a special spirit; her beauty alone gives her valued status in a society which supposedly regards all as God's children--except, we reserve special names and linguistic values for some of God's special, ugly daughters.

Given this identification of special spirit as female, Mormon men can, apparently, not be ugly. They might tote all four standard works and Preach My Gospel, wear their mission shoes, and talk in that distinctive sing-songy post-mission cadence, but they cannot be ugly. Traditionally, the absence of a name signifies the absence of a concept. We Mormons have no word for ugly, non-interesting, non-marriageable and therefore non-valuable men. Therefore, we have no ugly, non-interesting, non-marriageable, non-valuable men.

In fact, I'm not sure the ugly man as a concept exists. Even Quasimodo found somebody to love him. The ugly man-beautiful woman literary/cinematic motif may speak heroically of the capacity of women to look past the obvious. It does not, however, speak any hope to the ugly woman. As a special spirit who has not been chosen, she is semantically and physically barred from any valuable inclusion into society. Should she marry though, with her husband's name and protection, she will be allowed to enter the social conversation. After all, if he finds her attractive enough to marry her, she must have some redeeming qualities, even if they are not physcially apparent.

Truth be told, women know that merely being brave, virtuous, kind, always interested, compassionate, loyal and trustworthy isn't enough. (That's why men have dogs) They must be beautiful in some way to be valued by men. Hair, eyes, legs, butt, hands, smile, skin--something has to be attractive. If they aren't, and a man chooses them anyway, the man's masculinity is bound to be called into question.

A male friend of ours is married to a large woman. Doctors would call her obese. Most people would groan inwardly if they saw her coming down the aisle toward them in a plane. She does have a beautiful face though. It's her face that rescues both her and her husband. Her face marginally excuses her from the offense of her body. Her face also allows other males to almost understand why her husband would want her. Without her face, her husband would be without excuse for finding her desirable. He would find, instead, his masculinity doubted and his maleness questioned. Whenever we meet this couple, somebody (normally a man) is bound to remark later on the courage it must have taken "George" to marry somebody who looks like that. I think they mean the courage "George" just have had to marry somebody others could surely not have wanted. I wonder if it occurs to them that "George" is not much of a looker either. He did play on the high school basketball team. But, he's not much of a looker either.

In Shakespeare's play, All's Well That Ends Well, Helena tries to hook up with Bertram, a beautiful man about court, asking for his reluctant hand in marraige and then following him into battle to make him love her after they have been wed and he skips town.

I don't blame Helena. Bertram was a looker. Helena herself desribes his physical attributes with the proficiency of a love-sick swain: She loved "his arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls." Helena, on the other hand, is described as beautiful only once. The rest of the time she is wise, constant, young, courageous, skilful, virtuous. Had she been born Mormon in the late twentieth century, she could have been a special spirit, save only for her beauty, which means she's really a Molly. She might have been one of those girls whom mothers love and sons initially detest--something to do with their "great personality." Throughout the play, Shakespeare deliberately avoids much mention of the physical Helena to accentuate the superficiality of Bertram's aversion to what was a magnificent creature.

You see, Bertram doesn't love Helena initially. He has grown up with her. He despises her as "a poor physician's daughter," and is unable to see her "wisdom and constancy," all these qualities that are so obvious to others. Only after she reveals herself to be pregnant by him in the old Tamar and Judah bait-and-switch, and after he realizes others think she's just heavenly, does he love her. And how does he describe his new love, with language of comparison. He calls her, "she whom all men prais'd." It seems that because other men valued Helena, Bertram felt he could love her too.

I understand Bertram's reluctance to love a creature who has no social approval. When one does choose to love, it is comforting to know that the person you love is respected and admired by others. Knowing that the other has induced love and admiration in others confirms the wisdom of personal choice. Often, there is no valid reason for the thesis of love that springs suddenly to life. Sometimes, it's just that you saw them from across the room, and noticed a smile. And there it is. Other loves and lives give support to the new idea, show the lover that the beloved is real, capable of giving and receiving love, worthy of devotion. While others' opinions do nothing to change the inherent nature of the beloved, they do make the lover feel not quite so lonely. Thus, Bertram comes finally to see his Helena for all she is, only after he sees that others love her too.

Lucky for Bertram, the woman who choose him was, in addition to other qualities, beautiful. Even if she hadn't been, because she had the power to choose, she was, by definition, valuable and non-ugly. Therein lies the rub: when one has the power to choose, one can never be a special spirit. It's the power to choose, to flip through the catalog, that transforms. Which is why, in our culture anyway, there is no linguistic device for an ugly male. Simply put: they get to pick; we get to preen.

(Title: Kasey Chambers, Am I Not Pretty Enough?)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Last Call for Sin

A few weeks ago, I sat on a bench at the edge of the San Diego Harbor, between a decommissioned air craft carrier on my right and possibly a German tourist couple on my left, judging from the short dark socks and open-toed leather sandals with velcro straps. The sky was almost dark, the lights from the naval base across the bay reflected in the water. The air was warm, a warm I hadn't felt in months of the winter that still kept us company in Utah, and my arms were bare to the breeze. I was on a work assignment in San Diego, but ran unexpectedly into the quiet that stretches the mind as I sat there on the bench.

The thoughts that ran through my head were about sin, and the beautiful necessity of it. I believe what I texted to Kevin was, "thinking about the blessing of sin." I was thinking about doing wrong, doing that which we know and feel is wrong. And the consequences of it. I was thinking of how we teach sin and the need for a Saviour to our children and to each other. I was reviewing my reactions to other's mistakes, and what that reaction signified about the doer and the action, about my notion of error and sin, and about the place that that error will assume in the doer's life.

I found myself wondering whether I would prefer children or a spouse who had made mistakes, even monumental, public embarassments, and picked up and moved on, or a life where the child and spouse had done it almost right their whole life. Right enough not to go to the bishop's office, but to take care of it privately in the back office of the soul. My brain thinks, and my heart seems to concur, that I prefer the person capable of making, living with and recovering from monumental mistake.

I would like to live with somebody who knows, for a fact, that they are not and have not and will not always be right. (I also think Kevin would like to live with somebody like that.) There's a smugness about those of us who have mostly got it right. Who sin in small increments, mostly of omission. In a way, perhaps, the Catholics have the right idea: a weekly confessional, where we acknowledge, "Forgive me father, for I have sinned." There's something quite humbling about having to kneel and confess publicly. I know we're supposed to bring this repentant, reflective heart to the altar each Sunday but realistically, . . . There is something to be said for the public error, on display in the stocks in the village square. It forces a redefinition of self, to those brave enough to think on what they have done.

For me, the "wages of sin" and perhaps the most difficult part to deal with is the struggle to define self that inevitably arises after error. The struggle becomes to reject the definition of self that defines you in terms of what you have done rather than for the capacity within you that allows you to do what you did. For example, I am a child abuser. Or, I am a parent who can get so angry that I hit my children hard enough to leave a hand print. I am a slut (or whatever noun one uses for a man). Or, I am a person who loves the feel of other's bodies and finds intimacy hard to resist. I am an egotistical workaholic. Or, I can easily ignore the needs of my family and children because I devote so much time to my work/church/hobby, which I think is really important. I am a liar and a thief. Or I have within me the capacity for great dishonesty, particularly when it comes to other people's money and the opportunity to take lots of it without much work. I am a sloth. Or I have tendencies to want other people to support me and my family so that I don't have to work.

Defining ourselves with nouns creates a sense of permanence about that particular state. Thief, liar, slut, abuser, egotist, sloth. It's almost as if that tendency which came out in a particular action or series of actions defines ourself. Then it's hard to shake a definition. Particularly a bad one. As Julia Roberts says in Pretty Woman, "The bad parts are easier to believe."

I think that's what the "chains" are that bind us and drag us slowly down--coming face to face with our bad parts. Then, being unable to live with the tension inherent in a self-definition that includes both the capacity to do great good and horrible wrong. To know that we are capable of things we never thought we would do. Sometimes that knowledge is more than we can bear. Consequently, we allow those actions, for which we generally feel great remorse, to define who we are and what we will be.

Yet, even in the personal struggle after sin to know that we are, inherently loveable and good, there are great blessings. There' can be a consequential humility and a softening that comes with the realization that your world isn't exactly what you think it is. If we humble ourselves, admitting it was us (and not the wife, nor the child, nor the boss, nor even the devil that drove us to it), we become infinitely better. We know more now. We become more patient in the face of other's wrongdoing. Hopefully wiser in the face of similar situations. There's a blessing of longsightedness that comes as we see that today is not the day we get it all right. Neither will tomorrow be that day. If it's our children's error we look at and love through, we gain a sense of what God must feel like as he parents us, his great patience and love as he fathers us through our sins. That has become brilliantly clear to me.

The greatest blessing of all perhaps is that there are things we cannot know without sin. Without sin, there is no need for the Saviour. No need to know him, to supplicate, to bend and speak. No way to feel that flare of recognition when you hear the words, "Oh to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be." No way to feel the emptying of despair, the quietening of fear and anxiety, the flowering of new space that opens inside. No way to recognize and come to know a power larger than self, something kinder, more tolerant, more loving, more forgiving than we had ever imagined.

I would like to live with people who have felt that amazing grace. I would like to be in the middle of people who realize that error and consequent sin is not always, or even mostly, the result of a depraved soul. Who, because they have had to look at themselves in the hours and weeks after, they realize that the heart of the average sinner is not the black hole we have been taught will open up in the middle of us. Who realize that perhaps the "wages of sin" that we preach about is not the obvious shake of the alchoholic's hand, but the struggle of self-definition, once we realize that we too are capable of mistake, of error. I would like to be among people who have chosen to believe the good news about new creatures. I would like to live with people who have come to know themselves for who they are, for the great good they are capable of, despite. And who, because they have known that grace, are able to extend the same to others.

(Title: The Killers, from "All These Things That I've Done.")

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why Not Something Truly Fine

A few weeks ago, we were leaving the basketball arena, after watching the last game of the college season. Fans were still mingling out in the main hallways. As we rounded the bend toward the doors where we usually exit, there was a couple sitting on the floor right by the door. A young married couple, the husband holding a child on each knee, a baby and a toddler. The parents were in hot "discussion." I could hear their individual voices above the noise of the exiting crowd. She was saying something about, If I were in charge, and you said we would meet in the parking lot. And he was saying something about, But you said, and we agreed.

It was one of those moments where Julia normally has to nudge me and say, "Mom, stop! You're staring." I actually slowed down, then turned around and watched for a minute. I think I continued walking backwards, but I might have stopped altogether. The husband was holding onto the children like one would one of those padded arm things the canine unit trainer uses to teach a German shepherd how to take down a fleeing fugitive. One padded child on each arm.

I walked to the car wondering if that was how this couple wanted their life to be: sitting on the floor in the middle of a basketball arena arguing loudly about who was supposed to meet where in what parking lot while hundreds of people walked by and their children listened. If they stopped and considered, would they really want to be living their life that way? Why would they want to be married to each other that way? Because at some level, whether it's a deep desire to have a drama-filled life, or their sheer inability to imagine a life different than that they live now, their sitting on that very public floor was a choice.

Last week in Las Vegas, we stopped to fill up the car before heading back to Utah. The boys were in the MacDonalds built into the gas station buying lunch. I backed the car into a parking space next to the station, and right into the middle of a domestic dispute. The couple in the truck next to me had perhaps lost too much at the tables. Whatever it was, their argument was strung with profanities. Every second word started with f, and it was used as every part of speech imaginable. The woman got out of the car. The man followed her, alternately threatening her and telling her to keep her f----hands off him. He pushed her against the truck. I got out of my car, looked hard at them. They walked around to the back of their truck. I thought about calling the police. He pushed her again. She cowered and moved, incredibly, toward him. He threw her off, got into the driver's seat, swearing the entire time. She got into the truck with him and they drove off. To California, judging by the plates.

When I walked through the doors, a father surrounded by worried kids asked me what they were arguing about. I told him something about his money, her car, don't touch me, etc. He said he would have gone out there if it had gone on any longer, even though he was outweighed by about 75 pounds--by both the man and the woman. Then, as we both got drinks out of the cooler, he said, "Well, we can pray for her." I said I would. I believe he has.

I thought as I drove (and prayed) the five hours back to our hometown about that couple. About what would possess a woman to get into a truck with a man who could do her serious bodily harm. About what would possess a man to think that that kind of behavior was acceptable, in any situation. The couple in the basketball arena came to mind, arguing on the floor with a child in each arm. I wondered why it was they thought that was an appropriate way to be married to each other. I wondered at the emotional muscle memory one develops when the default setting in one's response to each other is confrontation. It's sort of like choosing as the base font for your marriage Courier 10-point when there is Garamond, Georgia or Century Schoolbook. Even the perfectly serviceable Times New Roman is better than Courier. Who wants to be married in Courier, to be loved and love in the blockish, mono-space font that smacks of WP 2.0, the blinking green cursor, and Alan Ashton's very first efforts?

Partnered love is a choice. For me, partner love is a different kind of love than the love I feel for my children. Unlike my mother love, it didn't take root in me. It didn't force its helpless way into my heart with that first angry cry. Partnered love, or married love as mine is, is for me a chosen love. Because it was my choice to love Kevin (okay, his calf muscles and dark, curly hair helped considerably), it can also be my choice not to love him. Choosing not to love--well or at all--is the equal and opposite reaction to choosing love. It is the other choice that makes our loving another an exercise of our free will.

Some might read this and say, "But no, we were meant to be; we were destined." You can choose to frame your love story as "falling in love." You might even feel as if you had no choice but to love your partner and to be with him or her forever. In other words, you were just a puppet in the grand play of love. Puppetmaster aside, or whatever wizard (kindly or disturbed) is yanking the levers behind your curtain, there are very real moments when you choose to stay, to love. The second week, or the seventh year, or the twenty-third and the fifty-ninth, you choose to stay. Either because you promised, or you cannot imagine another way of life, or because you don't want your story to be the alternative, or because you still believe in the two of you. Whatever the motivation, you choose to stay.

I'm thinking that if I choose to stay, I might as well choose to love well. I might as well love in Garamond, if I'm going to love at all. I might as well choose my response, rather than being stuck in, "He drives me crazy." I might as well choose my words, rather than reacting in the default sarcastic response, or shrug of the cold shoulder. I might as well choose to bend if my staying rigidly upright is for no other reason than I don't want Kevin to see me bend. I might as well choose to imagine what could be, what it is I want and need, and speak it across to him in the dark of early morning, or in the plain light of day across a bowl full of snap peas from Costco. I might as well choose to to say those words that will cause Kevin to look across at me in bewilderment tinged with hope. I might as well hold up his good and excuse his bad. Odds are better than even, he does the same for me.

After all, what do I have to lose? A hallway in a basketball arena, the parking lot of a Chevron in Las Vegas, and the cold side of a bed as I lie listening to his breathing as he listens to mine. I've spent a few hours like that. I don't want it, that love, ten-point Courier-style.

(Title: Nanci Griffith, Truly Something Fine, on Clock Without Hands)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Lepers in My Head

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

Until last night, when it broke in two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 6, 2009

Never Knew The Best Was Yet To Come

I've been thinking lately about what I've learned because I gave birth and am raising four children. Certain things are pretty obvious. Like, going to the park becomes so much more enjoyable once they learn to pump themselves; and that breakfast, lunch and dinner can be eaten in any order. Or that a king size bed is a necessity. I have also learned that 18 years is not such a long time. It seemed so long when Julia was two and Christian just born. But now when I think that Julia is only months away from graduating, my chin starts to tremble. (We are thinking about changing the rules. We will double date with her until she's 30--which means she has to be in by 10.30 because that's when Kevin falls dead asleep.)

There are other truths though that I've come to see take root in me because I am a mother. This is not to say that they cannot be learned in other ways. It's just that the arena of mothering forces me, if I am willing, to become a better person in a far shorter period of time.

I've come to recognize that mothering is part of a woman’s nature. Whether we give birth or not, being a women means living with the urge and pull to mother. I find it significant that the name given to our first woman indicates she is "the mother of all living." While mother is not all of me, it is a significant portion of me that colors the way I look at the world. A mother's eyes see differently; they notice more; they notice need; they notice others.

Mothering is also a community effort. Or at least it has been for me. Like the infant Moses, whose mother and sister offered him up to the river, and whom the Pharoah's daughter and her ladies raised, mothering even one child is done by more than one woman. I know for a fact that my children and I need more than just me in their life. I have worked away from our home at various periods in the past decades. My children have been watched over by women, wonderful women, whom I, in turn, have watched. I have learned from these women in my life.

When I was in law school, Adam and Seth could be found in the arms of Neng Lao, a four-foot nine Hmong woman who took them on bus rides to nowhere and back, on stroller rides around the block, and car rides to the park, perched on a cushion from the couch because she couldn't see over the dash of my car. She sat cross-legged on the couch, one boy on each side of her solid, diminutive lap, reading stories and continued reading long after they had both fallen asleep. They knew, with some familiarity, the ghost stories her father told her during her childhood years in a refugee camp in Thailand. Our lives were blessed by her quiet and calm influence in our home. And, I am a better mother from having seen her comfort and steady my sons.

Others can teach my children what I cannot. Because of who I am, I cannot do certain things well or easily. I was raised in a school system of school uniforms, no makeup, and pigtails until we were eighteen. Julia had to learn to fix her own hair and put on her own make-up ever since she realized hair needed to be fixed and that women wore make-up. Christian gets up on his own and fixes his own breakfast during the winter. It's just so cruel to get out of bed in the dark. (Come summer, I'm a lark.) So, because I remain under the covers on cold, winter mornings, I am grateful to women of simple faith, of unrestrained happiness, of cheerfulness. Those things I cannot always show my children, and those are attributes they need to see.

I have learned from Elise, a Nordic blonde with precise enthusiasm, the peace that comes from a clean home. By watching her, I have learned how to make my house a place of order. Not that it comes naturally or easily, but, as Christian said one morning while he was handwashing his white shirt because he had forgotten to put it in the wash and I had not actually done any laundry, “I like the results of work. I just don’t like while I am actually working.” Because I am like my son, we have had to learn from Elise how to work in our home.

Being a mother has taught me to be more of a steward, and less of a master. Together with Kevin, I am merely a steward of the souls of these children. Like Hannah's son, our four children have been "lent to the Lord" since their birth. My responsibility is to give them room and light to grow into what they have inside them. Making right appear attractive is part of my responsibility. Teaching, showing , demonstrating correct attributes of divinity is also. They need to know love, tolerance, patience, gentleness, generosity of spirit and abundance, beauty so that they will recognize their Father in Heaven in their life, and will want to turn to him as a matter of course. They need to know a parent who is slow to anger, a God of abundance and mercy. (And that is why I am glad Kevin is their father!)

I also know, with a certainty, that my body is part of my motherhood. It is a remarkable treasure. It has taught me important lessons, and given me unforgettable experiences. The tumbling of a baby in my womb. The feel of the little hand that rests so naturally in mine. The sheer relentless pressure of trying to deliver a child. The warmth of my husband's body curving next to mine.

If I listen to my body, it can teach me. I know that my body, after periods (euphemism for years) of inactivity, yearns to move. It has taught me that action brings forth blessings and quiets hopelessness and discouragement. That people, bodies and souls, can return to the right position quite quickly; far more quickly in fact than it took to get them out of kilter in the first place. My mother’s body has taught me that, generally, other people’s needs are more important than my own. I have learned that fatigue is really, quite often, just a state of mind, that my body can endure far longer than my mind is willing. I have learned that meeting the needs of those around me allows me to feel that my life has significance. And for me, a significant life has come to mean a life spent meeting needs: community needs, children’s needs, husband’s needs, needs for a better soccer program. That work helps lift and improve the lives of others. Just as I offered my body as a place for children to grow, so I offer my life as a place people may come to find refuge, strength, peace and happiness.

I also know, because I am a mother, that joy is the guaranteed suprise attached to mothering. I never thought I could love as I love my children, and their father. To think that, perhaps, my parents feel about me as I feel about my children is remarkable. To think that divine beings feel about me as I felt about Seth when I saw him running around the track one Friday morning, long legs pumping in the morning air, running for all he was worth in the Hershey meet, trying so hard to keep his form during that last 100 meters of the 400 metre sprint. My heart burst, even my bones seemed to swell. I recognized in his determined face as he rounded the turn for home the same determination the newborn nursery nurse saw when she said, “Hey, look at this one. He’s trying to hold his head up.” Seth was hours old. They come as they are, these remarkable creatures who live in my home.

And they come with love attached. Children are remarkably resilient and forgiving. Poor Adam thought his name for the first few years of his life was “DammitAdam.” But I, by some large and forgiving heart, am his favorite person in the whole world (besides his cousin Thomas). I also believe that God’s special blessing rests upon first children who must bear the brunt of our clumsy efforts to raise a quiet child. Because I have seen Adam and Julia love me still, I sense that God’s love for me is similarly remarkably resilient and forgiving.

Last of all, motherhood has shown me to be a far better person than I imagined. For the capacity to see myself for what I can be, and for the time and space to develop into that, I am grateful.

(Title: from Dixie Chicks, Lullaby on Taking the Long Way (the best lullaby I have ever heard))