Monday, February 21, 2011

Let Me Ride on that Long Black Train

“Between stimulus and response there is a space.”

Standing in front of the shoe racks at TJ Maxx blows my brain. I act like somebody under the influence. Somehow when I get in front of shoes, new shoes, all in my size, in so many different colors and shapes and feels, my heart beats faster, my face breaks out into a smile all on its own. Without even knowing what’s happening (isn’t that the language we all use when we want it not to be our fault?), I’m taking off my tennis shoes and pulling up my sweatpants to try on the Naughty Monkey electric blue platforms. (And with what am I ever going to wear those? The turquoise bustier?)

Sometimes, there’s nothing quite like an hour in TJ Maxx trying on shoes to lift the spirits. Julia and I went one lunch time, and ended up trying on every 9.5 shoe on the rack. The more ridiculous the better: the thigh-high, black suede pointy-toed boots with ankle chains, yes! The purple Converse with 70s peace emblems, you betcha! The taupe Jessica Simpson five-inch wedge with striated gladiator straps that wrapped around Julia’s ankle and calf so that she looked like she was wearing a fish! We were guffawing when she grabbed those off the rack. Then she put them on. We both tilted our heads, and said, disbelievingly, “You know . . . those are kinda cute, actually, in a really weird way.” But, onto the BCBG zebra-striped Mary Janes with waffle sole.

When I’m with Julia, I can be the responsible parent, and leave the store with only the black Spandex sliding shorts we came in to buy, with maybe a cute black casual jacket thrown in because the one she’s been wearing for two years is now a charcoal grey she’s washed it so many times. But, when I’m on my own . . .

I know the Madden Too pumps with the wavy back detail will fit my feet like a glove. I don’t even really need to try them on. Ditto for the Madden Girl black-and-white tiger print platform peep-toe with maroon heel and a maroon leather rosette on the toe. Not so sure about the AK red square-toed with the gold buckle. Sometimes, the square toes cut across the ball of my foot. Wish I could wear those ballerina slippers from Ralph Lauren, but my arches are so flat, my feet splay out like a retired mallard who’s served lunchroom for the past twenty years. At least they did last time I tried on a pair like that. But, hang on . . . maybe . . . Nope. Still flatter than flat. And are these really Fossil biker boots in a really impractical cream? Hyperventilate . . . rip off the dove grey Bandolino puss-in-boots ankle booties.

I may be exaggerating, but not by much.

Time slows down; an hour feels like fifteen minutes. I emerge from the Maxx, sweaty, hair flyaway, slightly queasy, like I’ve just eaten Thanksgiving dinner. I always have at least two pairs of shoes I do not need but that make me happy to see on my feet clutched in my little paws.


What is it about me, when the shoe is on the foot, that I do not stay at “Oh, that looks good” and just enjoy the sight of it, and the snug feel of the leather against my instep? I just about always engage in a dialogue of commentary and negotiation. Despite my promises to myself when I pull up to the store that I will only look, I’m almost helpless when I go inside and stand in front of those racks. The colors, the designs, the shape of the heel, the gleam of the patent, the buckle design so artfully placed, and the drape of the leather on the boot. I know I’m going to buy something.

I do have that moment of mental and emotional balance, when the shoe is on my foot, and I’m looking at it in the little mirror that’s angled beneath the bench, when I see it and think, “Oh . . . that looks good.” Then the thoughts come and I’m off down the slope: “It’s only 19.99. I don’t have quite this color of orange. (How many orange pairs of shoes does a person need?) It’s only 19.99. It looks so cute. What’s one pair of shoes? I’ve worked hard this month. I can spend a twenty spot or two or three on a pair of shoes.” It’s hard to put up much of a fight when the voice inside your head is your own. Consequently, I try to limit my TJ Maxx episodes to less than one a month.

For each of us the impulse is different. I’ve shared my shoe obsession. It’s almost laughable, and relatively inexpensive. But still, at the end of a TJ Maxx binge, I feel foolish. Like I’ve been caught eating frozen custard straight out of the carton, with a soup ladle, while I lie on my bed on top of clean, crumpled laundry watching Premier League Soccer on a weekday afternoon.

There’s a definition for this kind of behavior. Health professionals define this as “impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships.” It can also manifest itself in cycles of relapse and remission. That’s the definition of addiction.

The hard part about giving this a name and a set of symptoms is that then a person who likes French sandals on QVC, or crack mainlined, or Russian girls with horses, or chocolate mint chip by the gallon, or blackjack at the high roller tables, or cutting their arms above the cuff level, takes refuge in their disease. Once there’s a definition with symptoms and causes, there is no way to be other than diseased. The sufferer, or victim, or body possessed by evil spirits, has no choice other than the cycle of abstention and relapse. When, after a period of time in which we’ve been so very good and under control, the urge hits, with a renewed ferocity, to click through, or shoot up, or eat out of the five gallon bucket, or run the credit card, or reach for the blade, and we give in, it’s to be expected. All part of the disease. Abdication. Inevitable.

I’m almost certain I don’t buy that. By that, I mean the notion that relapse is inevitable. (I do buy the notion that close proximity is almost more than some can bear. That merely being in a home with the Internet is like a magnetic force for some. But inevitable? That I can’t accept.) Inevitability violates the basic tenets of agency and free will. No action is inevitable. There is always a space between the invitation and the action in which we get to decide our response. Granted, some of us have made that space so small, we’re actually Pavlov’s dog. But there is still a space.

Perhaps the hardest, gut-wrenching work of building a soul is that work that’s done in the infinitesimal space between impulse and action—denial, restraint, keeping a promise, deciding to be Lot instead of her. The hardest work is sitting in front of the computer looking at the screen and knowing that if we put our hand on the mouse and click on a few links, it will take us to what our body, our mind, even our spirit seems to be craving at this moment. Yet, we stay our hand. Or we listen to the voice in our head, which, irritatingly, sounds like the voice we love the best (our own), telling us something about just this once, won’t hurt, deserve it, horrible person, good person, useless to resist, can’t help it, how bad can it be, addicted. And off we go, tumbling down the rabbit hole into a black oblivion, from which we’ll emerge hours later, flushed, hair in an electric halo, clutching whatever version of crocodile T-straps, size 9.5 rings our bell.

Even if we capitulate, we will confess, if pressed, that there was that moment when the thought did cross our mind that perhaps this was not the best . . . . In the space between impulse and action, we hear clearly the question and we know the appropriate response. For a brief moment, we see clearly the path before us. There is a moment of repose—always—before the battle begins.

It’s before the reasons, the justifications, and the release of hormones, taste buds and chemicals flood our brains to influence us. It’s before we sit down at the computer, before we pull up to the front of the store, or open the fridge. It’s where the thought first crosses our mind. It might show like a bat flitting through on the first fingers of dusk. Or, if we’re deep in the trenches of unrestrained desires and impulses, it comes pounding on the church doors like a stranger begging sanctuary. In those moments, we might feel compelled to grant entry, giving in to the lie that there is no other way. But, if we’re honest in heart, there is always a moment of rest, in which we are neither acting nor acted upon. In that moment, we get to choose again, anew.

Title: from “Long Black Train,” by Bill and Maggie Anderson.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Take Yourself Out of Your Mind

There are certain things I just can’t do. 1) I can’t fake tan. I tried once, about 25 years ago when I was an undergrad in college. I went to Electric Beach, and stood in front of the tanning bed, just shaking my head. The entire time I was lying there, I was thinking, “What on earth am I doing? What has come over me?” 2) I can’t drive a mini-van. When it came time to get a second car, back in 1998, when we only had 2 kids, I tried. I really tried to drive a mini-van. We test drove every version on the market. Not even the apple-red Town and Country with leather seats could stop the tears. “Please Kev, don’t make me drive a mini-van. Please. Please. I just can’t do it.” 3) I can hardly wear lingerie—at least not without protest, huffing, puffing and adjusting, and whining, “This is so ridiculous. Who on earth designed this thing? There’s no bottom to it.” At which point I rip it off, and, standing naked and utterly floppy, breathe a sigh of relief, “Whew, that’s better.”

Lately, I’ve taken to wearing really bright colors. They make me happy. They make Kevin shake his head and smile. Sometimes he even laughs out loud. My church outfit yesterday was a burnt gold sweater; an orange, purple, hunter green, brown and yellow plaid tulip skirt; gold stockings, and brown and tan Poetic License shoes with a brown and purple rosette on the toe, finished off with a gold tassel. If I had a piccolo, all the children would have followed me down the aisle, out the doors and into the East Union Canal.

I don’t know why I can wear the United Colors of J.Crew, Anthropologie, and Benetton all in one day, but not the turquoise bustier. It’s just part of the picture of me I carry in my head. Somehow tans from electrical sources, mini-vans no matter how grand, and turquoise bustiers are not part of my definition of myself. They’re not how I see me playing out in my head.


It’s no mistake that John came, wild and woolly out of the wilderness, crying “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I don’t think John meant for the Jews to turn from sin. I’m sure there were your garden varieties of usury, adultery, hypocrisy and prideful neglect going on in the shadow of every synagogue. But, that’s small change compared to the change John asked of the Jews. He wanted them to change the way they thought, the dreams they dreamed. He wanted them to demolish the very form of the Messiah on which they had pinned their hopes. Only with a changed mind could they actually “see” this Jesus, who looked, for all they knew, exactly like “Joseph’s son.”

The Greek root of the word “repentance” denotes a change of mind. Given this etymology, at the heart of all repentance is the work of changing what’s in our head. It’s about putting in new ideas about God, about ourselves and about the outside world. Paul says it this way: “Be ye not conformed to the world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Ryan Bingham told me this morning to “take yourself out of your mind, away from everything [you] say you are.” It’s different words for the same idea. The change we seek starts with a repentant mind, dismantling the ideas and visions that prevent us from experiencing the truth of the life before us.


Perhaps the hardest idea I have ever had to repent of or rewire (if the word repent makes you feel too guilty) was my ideas about and reactions towards marital intimacy. That’s a cryptic way of saying, I came with baggage. It wasn’t like the first time between Kevin and I was a tabula rasa. How could it have been, if you grew to physical maturity the way I did.

In my head was a swirl of experiences, doctrines, faulty wirings, protection mechanisms, and object lessons. On the one hand, I had been taught, beginning when I was very young that “Sex before marriage is wrong.” Sex, in this case, meant any kind of touching that went beyond the one-piece bathing suit we were allowed at the time. If you did have sex, you were spoiled goods. On the other, very deviant hand, I had a brother-in-law who hadn’t heard about the bathing suit rule; nor the social taboo of taking sexual advantage of your family members. So, as a young girl, I learned to stay very, very still and not make a sound. On one level, I didn’t want this to be happening to me, but on another, my body seemed to want what my mind and heart said was so very wrong. I learned to distrust those physical feelings. I became afraid of that swelling of passion that welled up so naturally in my very young body.

A few years later, I experienced, with a giddy sweetness, teenage first love: holding hands, kissing, staying out late, leaning against fence posts and walking on walls at midnight. Young, lithe bodies, completely unaware of what it was we could be leading to, always a little breathless, always watching the clock. And always a “no, not there” ready as a response in case the hands wandered too low.

It’s a hard mental jump from “no, no, no” for twenty-four years to “yes, yes, yes.” For some women, especially those of us who’ve put protections in place, it’s not a jump we make easily. It can take years. The wires are set deep. A friend of mine’s daughter spent part of her very beautiful wedding reception in tears because she knew that as soon as it was over, she would be getting in the car with her new husband and then they would be having sex. Whatever that meant!

I had a hard time getting over the habit I had learned of becoming very still and quiet, of almost watching myself from outside of my body. I didn’t know how to ride the passion. Whenever I felt it take me, I clamped down tight, remaining completely and utterly under control. I couldn’t divorce myself from the idea that wanting sex was somehow wrong. Enjoying sex without a hard pit forming in my throat was almost impossible. I had to be either really sleepy or really on vacation—moments in which my brain turned off. The thoughts in my head were more powerful than the feelings within.


How do you put a new script in place? How to accept a Messiah who heals on the Sabbath and raises people from the dead? Instead of gathering up armies, he says he has come to “heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, . . . to set at liberty them that are bruised.” When you have thought for so long that when the Messiah came, he would liberate you from your Roman invaders, how do you root out that idea and replace it with the notion that He comes to liberate you from your worst self? Even if you really want to believe, even if you’re standing on the banks of the river, toeing at the mud and testing the water, how do you stop the thought, which comes unbidden, as if by rote, “Oh . . . that’s just Joseph’s boy.”

I read a romance novel. You have to know that’s another one of those things that’s not part of my self-definition—me, the feminist, career-woman, weight-lifting, no hairstyling or homemaking skills person who wishes she grew up on a farm and could ride horses at a full gallop. I don’t read romance novels. Or at least never confess in public to reading them.

But one day, about eighteen years in, I was at the library prowling through the stacks. I must have taken a wrong turn and ended up in the Romance section, which merges with the Mystery shelves. On one of the display shelves, there’s this book, some kind of historical romance. On a whim, I pick it up, see that it’s one in a series, find all the books in the series, and then shove them face down between two hefty tomes of non-fiction I’ve also selected. I choose the self-checkout so that the clerk doesn’t see me taking home pastel-colored paperbacks with images of pearl necklaces or swans or a Regency folly. (I also took them back through the drive-through book drop so that I wouldn’t be seen carrying them back into the library.)

Guess what I met in the pages of those Easter-basket books: a new script. I finally read the words that showed me a better way to react to the feelings of passion and arousal. The women in those books didn’t freeze up. Perhaps at first, because of course that’s what a morally respectable Regency lady does, but even in the freezing, she’s admitting that she enjoys the feelings that are surging through her, that she wants his hands on her, that she wants to feel his body against hers, that she wants to touch him.

When I first read those passages, I had to stop and read them again, not quite sure of what I was reading. Then I had to stop because my idea of a woman inside of sex had been blown apart. Here was a good woman who welcomed those feelings, who didn’t feel the need to repress them and to knock down the hands that moved towards her. I had never seen a different way of being other than my own. I had never had that conversation with anybody before. The intimate, spoken word doesn’t come easily to me. (I think it would be a conversation more easily had if I were slightly drunk; a little less inhibited. Seeing as I don’t drink, that options not really open to me.)

Maybe I’m just really slow on the uptake, but, for the first time in my life, I could see another way of being inside my own body. I must have read a dozen of those romances in about a three week period. (I’m a very diligent student). As I read, I repented, in the truest meaning of the word, of the idea I carried with me of myself as a sexual being. I removed the idea that had taken root at such a young age that sexual arousal was something to fight against and to ward off. In its place, I planted, very tentatively at first, the notion that sexual arousal was to be welcomed, embraced and moved into. At first, the old feelings of restraint would well up inside me, the old wiring working like it always had. But, I knew, because of what I had read, that restraint and closure weren’t the only reactions available to me when I became aroused. I deliberately chose to feel another way.

It has made all the difference, replacing this tightly held but incorrect idea, with something I never before had supposed.


What other ideas are there, grasped tightly in our monkey fists, that if let go, would open up avenues of experiences we haven’t yet supposed? I’ve thought of a few, centered around the triumvirate of God, self and community:

  • In order to be a “good” member of my church, I must be completely satisfied with all it contains. Or, conversely, in order to be a “good” church, it must satisfy all my needs.
  • Blessings come only because of my obedience to the commandments.
  • God watches me with a critical eye.
  • I am a bad person—because I only tolerate, not full out love, some of those around me; because I tend to examine before I come to know, and for some ideas that process can take years; because I don’t know all that I should know; because I don’t care to know some things; because I can no more get excited about the Adult Session of a regional church meeting than I get about matching socks.

About two years ago, at the age of 42, just past the Benjamin exit heading north, I had a realization. I was driving home from Colorado with my family, having spent the Fourth of July weekend with the cousins in Boulder. Kevin was driving. I was slumped in the passenger seat, mulling over I don’t know what. Out of nowhere, like the dew, an idea settled in my chest: “I am good. I’m a really good person.” I thought about why I was a good person. I was honest, kind, hardworking. I was compassionate, generous, committed to my family and to keeping my promises. I was thoughtful, tolerant and enthusiastic. I embraced difference and tried not to let my weaknesses get in other’s way. I loved this earth, its Creator, and worshipped my thanksgiving.

I looked across at Kevin and said, in a voice that must have sounded a little bewildered, “You know, I’m a good person. I’m a good person.” He looked at me with this puzzled expression, “I never thought you were a bad person.” “I know,” I replied. “But I did.”

I had thought, because I did not automatically want what I was told to want, because I questioned what others took upon themselves so easily, because I tended to tilt my head and narrow my eyes when some spoke or acted around me, because some commandments were hard for me, that I was somehow rotten at the core. I didn’t see then what I know now: that my particular feet and mind and heart would always journey in this particular way.

Once again, it has made all the difference, replacing this tightly held but incorrect idea, with something I never before had supposed.

Title, “Change Is,” by Ryan Bingham.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Girls in Their Summer Clothes

Christian, who entered his phone number under the name “Boy of Destiny” in his father’s phone contacts, left his car key hanging in a locker of the Visitors’ locker room at the high school he played against in Friday evening’s game. The key is laser cut and apparently will cost $500 to replace. (Maybe our car dealer friend told him this to impress upon him the need to not lose the key).

So, once Christian gets off the team bus after the hour drive home, to discover no key, he calls in a panic. I spend the midnight hour scrolling through the high school’s directory, trying to match Head Custodian names to listings on DexKnows. Finally, Saturday morning, I stumble across Assistant Principal Stacy Salmans. How many men can there be named Stacy Salmans in one valley? So I call his home and talk to his wife.

By a series of nice-people-in-the-world events, Stacy Salmans’s wife calls Stacy Salmans who calls Athletic Director who leaves his house on a Saturday morning to travel to high school in neighboring town to retrieve Boy of Destiny’s key from the Visitors’ locker room. (Now, I just need Athletic Director to come walk University Avenue with me to try find Boy of Destiny’s basketball shoes which he left on top of his car this afternoon after practice as he pealed out of the school parking lot. Somebody else, other than Boy of Destiny, is now enjoying a pair of black 10.5 Nike Hyperfuses. I kid you not.)

So that’s why on a Monday morning, I am driving 45 minutes one way to Westlake, which, true to its name, is on the west side of the lake on who’s east side we live, with no way around it except around the north end. An unusually warm three days has melted the snow, revealing a winter landscape of blonde white winter grass and silver, ruffled winter ponds. I’m enjoying the drive.

There’s something soothing about driving when there’s no kick-off I’m racing to meet, no kids behind me controlling the iPod and jolting my synapses by only playing about one-third of every song. (Just as I figure out what words to sing they’re onto the next one. Drives me nuts.) It’s just me and the highway, in the middle lane, with my own iPod playing Pearl Jam, as it happens to be this morning. I can feel the warmth of the winter sun on my chest as it comes through the windshield. It’s a feeling I haven’t felt in snowy months. I’m smiling.

Our valley is benefitting from Obama’s federal dollars infusion program. Well, at least Layton Construction seems to be benefitting. They’re building miles and miles of new freeways along the same stretch they just rebuilt five years earlier. (Boy of Destiny is now breaking in his Kobe Zoom VI’s (look them up) by running up and down the hallway, and asking me as he sprints by, “Can you feel that wind?” I think he might have purposefully left the Hyperfuses on his car just so that he could get the Venominators.)

The highway I drove that morning is actually brand new. It’s misnamed Legacy Highway, and cuts a wide swath through historic cattle pastures and river lowlands. Along its sides have sprouted Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee housing developments: cul-de-sacs hanging like phalanges off a central spinal cord, filled with 3-garaged, 4-bedroomed, 5-bathroomed natural-colored stucco homes with a panel of river rock somewhere and mock-Monticello columns framing the entryway.

The yards to these homes are neat and orderly. The barbeque has its winter cover on. The Russian doll bicycles, each a little bigger than the one before, are stored, step-like, in bicycle racks. The Little Tykes slide is still bright orange, and the trampoline’s royal blue pad covering the springs is neatly tied. All this on 0.28 acres. These are the newcomers to the landscape, taking advantage of underground utilities, sound barriers with mock-Anasazi figures etched in relief, and a convenient on-ramp.

A few miles along, on the other side of the highway whose major legacy seems to be the destruction of natural habitat, sits another house. I’m thinking it was built back in the 1930s or 40s when Center Street ran straight out of the south side of Lehi and from the back pasture of the house to the tie-up outside Lehi Rollermills was a 25-minute horse ride.

The style is a version of a Dutch Gable, with a glass-paned sunroom on the back, and an overgrown orchard to the south. The front path runs straight from the road to a wide, shaded porch. To the north runs a hedge of trees, maybe poplars or Russian olives, which seem to stand along what must be the irrigation ditch. In the west field behind the house, the RV is parked in what seems like the spot of the last 17 years and counting. I can’t see how it’s getting out of there. I think the highway took out the west fence with its gate. To the south was, I am thinking, the horse pasture or alfalfa field. Now, it’s home to the legacy—a concrete behemoth of a shortcut for those drivers not wanting to meander through one-lane Main Street with its traffic circles, railroad tracks and 2 stop lights.

I have wondered about this house each time I’ve driven by. The symmetry of its placement has been destroyed. It looks like those pictures of hotels in the aftermath of an earthquake with the back wall torn away, where you can see the interrupted lives of the people unlucky enough to check in the night before. For this house, the privacy and solitude just got ripped away for convenience sake. Instead of a comfortable country mile between neighbors, now 300 cars an hour pass by not more than 150 feet from their kitchen door.

We’re close enough to see that they’re hanging the artificial grass outdoor carpet over the porch railing this morning, and that somebody left their muddy boots on the steps; that they just tossed the Christmas tree out the back door when they were done with it; and that the south side of the house, which was hidden from Center Street by the orchard, has served for decades as the resting ground of gas cans, farm contraptions, broken hoses, and empty 5 gallon fruit tree buckets. If I drove slowly enough, I swear I could see whether or not they need to water the geraniums on the kitchen windowsill. Poor things: they’re on parade.

I actually apologize to the house when I drive by—and wonder what has changed since voters in SUVs and F150s approved the bond. What sounds have been replaced by the slightly venomous hiss of night tires on concrete? What moon shadows used to shimmer their trail through the marsh grass to the kitchen window? No more neighbor’s barnyard light blinking in the poplars through the south pastures. All gone now—to ease the commute of people who want to live in their own solitude west of the lake.

I also wondered, as I drove by: If that were my house, and suddenly my thirsty geraniums, my muddy hunting boots, and my porch furniture left to overwinter and develop mildew on the back deck, was on display, would I clean it up? Would I put back the plastic grass runner on the deck as soon as it dried? Would I paint the peeling wood trim, or rehang the rain gutter and scrap the ploughs?

No. I don’t think I would. If providing bins for boots and recycling five-gallon buckets weren’t in me to do for myself when hidden by a row of Nordic spruces, I probably wouldn’t be able to summon up the energy to brighten the view for the unwelcome strangers who drive by. In fact, I’d probably let it get just a little worse. Serve them right.


I don’t even know why I wrote this. I just felt bittersweet, driving that day. A peaceful stolen few hours, with a winter sun that was warmer than it should have been, on a road that was smooth and sleek in its newness. And then, that house.

Seeing it evoked the regret that always fills me when I see a freeway or a gilded glass and faux marble hotel wrapped, tumor-like, around the decrepitly proud bones of a Queen Anne mansion. Similarly, I flinch when I see that self-contained former farmhouse with stained-glass window in the front white gable and a rose-lined path that runs into a twenty-foot retaining wall because zoners and planners and voters decided that that particular front garden, circa 1872, was the best place to put Exit 372A. Fills me with visions of bones and dreams.

Title, "Girls In Their Summer Clothes," by Bruce Springsteen