Grace as:

18Jan

Grace as: Winter’s Skin

The air sinks its teeth into my cheeks the moment I step outside. Clouds are skating across a slick white sky, and the mud still smells faintly of snow. I don’t want to be out of doors. To be honest, I barely want to be out of bed. Some ancestral instinct in me beats to the tune of hibernating bears, and I would sleep the winter away if I weren’t wrapped in skin instead of fur, if these lungs didn’t ache to be filled to capacity.

I’m only human though, and that’s why I find myself out in the live of winter, my feet shivering in a pair of RealFlexes. I need to remember how to breathe.

In the past, I’ve pounded my feet against the trail visualizing inches of my waistline trampled underneath. Other times, I’ve trained for shock factor, imagining how those who really know me would react if I could complete a 5K. (For reference.) I’ve chased endorphins and given up when life has crowded too close. I’ve run to blow off steam and run to spite myself and run to prove something and run to change everything, and only today am I running simply to feel alive.

Winter skin

There is no agenda except for this, the ice-tipped air driving dust out of my bronchioles and startling my circulatory system awake. My face tingles in its own personal sleet storm and then, as my feet find their rhythm and my heart shakes away the last vestiges of hibernation, begins to warm. I remember what I’ve learned about myself over the months on this very trail—how my natural reaction to exercise is panic, how I have to unclench my fingers one at a time and coax my lungs into exhaling with promise of unlimited refills. I remember how to let it all go every other step and trust that there will be enough for the one after.

I run until my lungs and my heart and my winter-flamed skin understand this as grace.

“and she’s glowing with her light
she’s glowing with her light
embracing her strength with her final bite
winter is winter is winter is
here.”

 ~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via Twitter, RSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

Grace as: Permission to Celebrate

Grace as: Role Call

5Dec

Grace as: Role Call

“If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” ~ John Irving

It all started crumbling at the mention of a playdate. One of our girls is going through some social disconnect at school, and Dan very reasonably suggested that we invite one of her classmates over to spend an afternoon. “You don’t have to do anything,” he added more reasonably still. “In fact, why don’t you take your laptop and go out somewhere to write while I watch the kids?”

At which point I, very unreasonably, began to cry.

~~~

More than a decade has passed since I asked fundamentalism to move out, but I’m still finding his records scattered through my collection. One of them is called Roles, and I don’t mean to play it, not exactly, but its strains are so familiar that my hands move to the needle like a sacrament. One moment of scratchy white noise, then the old refrains start up, pricking at nostalgia as they go.

You are a woman, the record croons in gentle condescension. You were designed to be your husband’s helper, the keeper of his home, and the caretaker of his children. This is your place, the place you were tailor-made for. The music begins to waltz through the corners of the room, brushing across smudged windowpanes and stirring up dust bunnies. The notes touch down heavily on the notebook where I scribble my goals, and I cringe as the song turns sinister.

Shame on you, shame on you, so much shame. Your ambitions are unforgivably selfish. Not only are you neglecting your duties as homemaker, but you ask your husband to give up his valuable time and help you. You ask the family you should be serving to accommodate your dreams. You put your energy and attention into writing instead of hosting play dates, and it is your fault your daughter is struggling in friendship. It is your fault your husband has so little leisure time. It is your fault you have to fight your own mind for confidence. It’s time to give up this charade of individual purpose and passion. You are, after all, a woman.

By the time the melody fades away, my sense of self has faded too. I wonder wearily why I ever asked fundamentalism to leave when he’s the one with the ready answers. I wonder how long I’ll have to channel June Cleaver before my soul stops trying to escape. I wonder what, if any, is the point of me.

~~~

Who I am now is a gift, pure and simple. When fundamentalism moved out, freedom and choice and the unique beauty of personhood moved in, and the one-size-fits-all role of woman was replaced with my very own skin. I can’t express just what it means to learn that I, as myself and no one else, am valuable… though truthfully, it’s such a fantastical notion that it doesn’t always stick. Some days, I dismiss it as too good to be true, and other days, old records dismiss it for me. Even the mention of a responsibility-free playdate can trigger a mental landslide, adding support to my fear that this identity is only a façade.

When Dan mentioned inviting a friend over, he had no idea that my mind would snap first to the disaster zone that is our girls’ room, then to reluctance over cleaning it, then to guilt that it isn’t already clean, then to capital-g Guilt that my housekeeping failure is damaging their friendships, then to capital-everything GUILT that I’ve been following my call to write rather than my role as ‘50s sitcom housewife—compounded by the fact that my vastly superior and male husband was offering to watch the kids for me—and finally to utter despair. (Surprisingly, it did not make me feel any less like a worm when he apologized for the misunderstanding. Does the man have to be so kind?)

This is grace though—that I can listen to the Roles record play like an earthquake in my heart and feel my life discredited from the inside out, that I can spiral down into a trapped, hopeless, and shamed shell of myself, that I can reabsorb the bone-deep lie of inferiority… and then, even with tears still blurring my vision, that I can recognize the prison of old mindsets as the real façade, square my uniquely beautiful shoulders, and march out.

I am, after all, a woman.

~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via TwitterRSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

Grace as: Permission to Celebrate

28Nov

Grace as: Permission to Celebrate

 [Photo: circa 2009
Nisse hats: Danish, via the whimsical Rachelle Mee-Chapman
Sophie’s pantslessness: Her idea]

I’ve never set foot inside a church that seemed entirely comfortable with Christmas. Their relationship always strikes me as more of an uneasy truce, one side agreeing to adopt a festival with pagan origins, the other agreeing to be picked apart at Bible studies and put back together as a subdued and thoroughly de-Santafied version of itself. A sermon on “the true meaning of Christmas” is usually a given, though even the pastor starts to squirm when it comes to discussing practical applications. It’s easy enough to condemn materialism from the pulpit, but few clergy are willing to look into the eyes of their congregants’ children and denounce Christmas gifts as evil.

Not to say that doesn’t happen too. Our family didn’t celebrate Christmas for years, and I still have Christian friends who see the tradition as unjustifiable. After all, Christmas isn’t in the Bible. Jesus’s birth? Yes. A bank holiday to commemorate it? No. For so many Christians I know, red and green are the team colors of GUILT, and even just enjoying a glass of eggnog can set their minds scrambling to find a moral, a Scripture reference, something to assure them Jesus would approve.

And I get it. I do. I am an over-thinker at heart and a religion-wrestler by birth, and I have grappled plenty of times with the web of cultures, histories, and traditions linking the Nativity to roast goose. To be honest, I have trouble enjoying anything if that enjoyment hasn’t been earned or justified or sanctioned by a higher power, and the holiday season is especially great at breeding angst. My fellow serious-hearted belief-wranglers? Consider this a virtual fist bump. (And to those of you whose hearts are naturally merry and light, feel free to commiserate—or whatever cheery thing it is that you do—with my husband and/or play him with cookies.)

I remember the day I let go of the Christmas debate though. Dan and I were at a Bible study, and the leader opened by asking how we thought consumerism fit with the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps because it was such a loaded question or perhaps because it was the tipping point at which a phrase like “the true meaning of Christmas” goes from annoying to nauseating, but I realized that I was done. Done trying to legitimize the joy I felt in picking out gifts for loved ones. Done hunting for Bible verses to sanctify the fun of putting up our imperfect little tree. Done vilifying Santa Claus and the Whos of Whoville and every cautiously cheerful cashier who wishes me “Happy Holidays!” Done debating, done nit-picking, done shouldering assumed guilt, done.

Here’s the thing—The Bible makes no mention of December 25th, but it does talk extensively about being part of our communities, taking an active and empathetic part in each other’s lives, extending love at every opportunity, and living with joy. It talks about opening our eyes to wonder and lavishing generosity. It tells us that the details of everyday life are made holy by the who and the how rather than the what (“TURNING THIS SHIT HOLY,” as Momastery puts it), and that a life lived in cahoots with God is spacious, expansive, and freeing. Paul calls it “The new country of grace.” I call it “Let’s get some rum in this eggnog already!”

All of those times I’d thought I was wrestling with my conscience, I had actually been wrestling with the restrictions and anxieties woven like a dark pattern through church tradition. That guilt was never mine to own because what I truly believe—what my soul and the divine glow in it whisper to me as truth—is that we were designed to love the liturgy of candlelight and cake. Whether you observe Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus, it doesn’t really matter, does it? There is so much joy wrapped up in the practices of giving and inviting and feasting, grateful remembrance and togetherness, and it is a gift straight to the core of my too-serious heart that I have God’s personal permission to celebrate.

~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via TwitterRSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

6Nov

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

~~~

At first, I saw only the string of miracle-buoys in our wake—the friends whose windows of hospitality had perfectly coincided with our needs, the airport officials and new olive-skinned neighbors who had made our move as smooth as choreography, the precious immigration documents issued like stepping stones just as we needed them, and finally, her, our Sophie-girl, born as plump and serene as a Budai the day after the local maternity wing opened.

We had followed our heart-pull across the sea to Italy, and I knew we were living the stuff of story with a brilliant Narrator whispering plot twists into being. I could have gone hoarse tallying up the good in our lives. I knew how much I had to be grateful for, I knew with all my might, but that wasn’t enough to stop black water from spilling over the sides of my mind. In retrospect, I realize I should have expected this, made some kind of provisions. After all, there was the toll from mothering a two-year-old throughout an exhausting pregnancy, the depletion from several months of suitcase-living, the strain of our move, and the cultural obstacle course I faced every time I left the house. Once postpartum hormones swept in with their rusty machetes and guerilla raids, I fell straight down a year and a half of the darkest mental dark.

There are many kind souls in my life who would have helped me had they known, but the bars trapping me at the bottom of my own mind were so very thick; I simply couldn’t reach beyond them to ask for help. To this day, I still don’t know what I could have asked loved ones to do for me short of a lobotomy. I felt isolated and unlovable, incompetent and crushingly sad. I knew that my own un-wellness was hurting my family, and the guilt magnified my sense of hopelessness. I could almost taste how completely my faith had abandoned me.

While I would never want to relive that year and a half, I can now see the fairy lights projecting their faint, ethereal ballet through the deep of it. I was never alone; I just hadn’t met God-is-Love yet, didn’t know to recognize the flickers of peace and beauty as gifts rather than flukes. That recognition would come in time, gently, free of the urgency or harsh exactitude I’d always associated with religion… and in the meanwhile, I had her.

The beginning of cannibal kisses

This wonder-baby of mine, she started smiling on purpose at three weeks old. I can’t tell you what that did to my heart except to explain that I was on the last precarious edge of overwhelmed, home all day with two tiny children and next to no energy. I was reeling from the impossibility of mothering two little girls well, their needs and fledgling complexities cupped like live minnows in my hand… and then my newborn grinned wide into my eyes. I’ve never met a person in my life with such uncontainable joy, and when she would nestle up against me, all milky contentment and round-cheeked delight, I could breathe again.

Sophie didn’t heal me—that was never her role—but she lifted me out of my own heaviness more often than I can remember. From the very beginning, she lavished affection on her big sister, assuaging some of my mother-guilt and forming a sweet sibling bond. She brought laughter back into our home, cultivated silliness, and adored without reservation, and not to cheapen her personhood or individual significance in this world, but I can’t help seeing her as a gift.

Sunbeams in the darkness, love when I felt unlovable.

Grace.

Sophie turned five last Wednesday, and I still can’t wrap my brain fully around the idea of my baby in kindergarten, chattering a thousand Italian words a minute with her best friends, trailing golden hair like a comet on the swing set. I still snack on her cheeks before bed—our own darling and slightly disturbing Cannibal Goodnight—and she still hugs wholeheartedly. However, she has grown so thoroughly herself that I can’t lay claim to her the way I did as a drowning mother five years ago. I no longer need to, which is a gift for us both. Now, I’m simply grateful for these years we get to coexist, to imprint our unique brands of struggle and beauty on each other’s lives, and when I look back, I see her babyhood as a miracle-buoy floating in our wake.

Five-year-old smiles~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via TwitterRSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

3Nov

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

The amount of glitter covering our house right now is fearful and wonderful to behold. I’ve dusted purple sun-shards off the sofa cushions, rousted them from behind the television, and swept them into iridescent mountain ranges, but our house still channels a Disney diamond cave. I imagine we’ll still be catching jeweled glints from the floorboards six months from now, and the thought charms my whimsical side as much as it horrifies my inner June Cleaver.

If not for the glitter, you might not know that anything out of the ordinary happened at our house this week. Of course, that’s counting on your not noticing the tray of leftover caramel apples on the kitchen counter or the bags of crumpled giftwrap waiting to be recycled. You’d also have to mistake the heavy brocade of fatigue draped across my forehead for sleep deprival or sun damage instead of what it actually is: introversion, post-party.

We had twenty-six children in our living room on Wednesday—twenty-six(!) children(!) in witch capes and vampire teeth brandishing fistfuls of glitter and construction paper while their parents chatted in the wings. I hadn’t expected all twenty-six to accept Sophie’s 5th birthdoween invitation, and while my heart warmed at having so many of our neighbors and friends under one roof, my personality had to fight hard for stable footing.

This is the tricky thing about being a textbook introvert who strongly values relationships. I’m always searching for the balance between life-giving alone time and love-strengthening social time, but sometimes circumstances don’t measure out the magic proportions. Sometimes, say, I find myself standing behind a locked bedroom door with a freshly burnt finger, wet glue on my jeans, and the shouts of two dozen sugar-high kindergarteners bouncing off my eardrums while I try—as my friend Erika would say—not to lose my freaking shit.

And right there, in the chaotic dark, is where religion most often becomes real to me. If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you know I don’t mean the kind of religion that happens behind church doors or sanctioned by committees, but the kind that meets us on unexpected roads and whisper-nudges our hearts, the thrillingly unorthodox reality of God-with-us that I can only seem to glimpse through my peripheral vision.

That’s why I wanted to tell you about the party, about the moment I stood behind a locked door with drained batteries and flat-lining hospitality and whispered “Peace, peace, peace,” and about the following moment when I unlocked the door to a wave of noise and color and four-walled chaos and felt it. Reserve power tingled all the way to burned fingertips and overloaded eardrums, and a sense of calm spread like mood lighting through all the tapped-out corridors of my mind. Friends, I stepped out of that room directly into a pile of glitter, caught a toddler swinging from the bunk bed, smelled grilled cheese on the verge of charcoal, and was cornered by four miniature witches asking a total of thirty-two questions at once… and not an ounce of shit was lost.

~~~

I’ve never once in all my life understood clearly what we Jesus-followers mean by the word “grace.” In Sunday School as a child, I absorbed the idea of grace as undeserved divine kindness that I should forever be working to repay, a guilty obligation we owe to God. That understanding didn’t sit well with me, and I’ve gravitated toward more beautiful and hopeful definitions over the years. However, none of them quite explains the quality that I sense when I brush up against the divine—that electric pulse of all-made-right-ness which fills the depleted parts of my personality, underwrites my true self, and consistently bowls me over by how it sees worth and makes beauty and flips expectations on their heads for the sake of greater love. It’s not the kind of thing to be summed up neatly in Webster’s.

I want to understand this word better, to graze its contours with my palm and catch its molecular dance-beat, to track it into the wild and record strains of its native tongue. I know instinctively that grace—whatever and however it is—has everything to do with who I am today, so I’m going to be exploring this more here over the coming weeks. I have no agenda except to try and capture my own peripheral glimpses, whether they be of glitter in the floorboards or windswept lines of song, and I would love it if you joined me for this adventure. {You can get automatic updates by RSS or email, and I’m honored as always to hear your take in the comment section!}

  ~~~

What do you think? Does “grace” hold religious connotations for you, or do you have a different definition (or impression, or story, or empty question-space)?

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