Excess and Ashes

When is the last time you bought something for yourself? Today? Yesterday? Last week? For me, it is usually no longer ago than “last week,” and that is hard for me to admit. It is, I think, an admission of my selfishness. I buy not because I lack anything but because of some perceived deficiency or because there is some further convenience I crave or because of some less definable hankering that urges me to amass more things for myself. 

And it makes me angry that I do this. Not only is it selfish, but I also believe it is degrading, both for me and for those I exploit in order to buy often and cheaply (think underpaid factory workers, poor environmental standards that lead to health hazards and climate change, perpetuation of unequal wealth distribution, etc.).

I recently read an article in The Anglican Theological Review because the title seemed to speak so directly to me: “The Struggle for Human Dignity in a Consumer-Oriented Culture” by Beverly Eileen Mitchell. Mitchell writes:

In the United States, a leading player in the global economy, too many of us have overspent, going into debt to buy according not to our basic needs, but to manufactured wants. What is insidious is the growing link that has developed between our sense of identity, value and worth and the products we purchase. We no longer buy products simply for themselves, but because we fall for the illusion that they will enhance us or make us into who we would like to be and fear we are not.

In what way did I imagine a new tablet cover would “enhance me”? Did I buy a fancy tea kettle that heats the water to specific temperatures for various kinds of tea because I needed it? Certainly not. I could argue that I bought these things for the added convenience they provide in my life; in fact, that is how I justify the purchases to myself. But I think, if I don’t want to deceive myself, I must also admit that I bought them so that I would look a certain way to others, so that I could bolster up my image of myself as a smart consumer or a tea aficionado or some such foolishness.

I want to be a real person. I don’t want to buy because I’m told to, and I don’t want to cut myself into some prefab shape so that I can be acceptable to society.

In fact, isn’t a prefab person often something of a turnoff? Isn’t someone who is uber-fashionable/always “put together”/always ready to show off their newest electronic marvel, isn’t that person somewhat unapproachable? Do the clothes I put on in the morning make me look good? I think so. But is it possible that some of the choices I make when I am getting ready for the day–when I am putting together an image of how I want to present myself to the world–actually make me seem aloof or arrogant? Could it be that the way I present myself turns some people off from talking to me, smiling at me, sitting next to me on the bus?

What I really want is to be down-to-earth and open. I’m not very good at this. And much of it is my own fault. I put on armor all the time. It’s an armor made of things: my clothes, my electronic gadgets, my choice of highly marketed snack or beverage, even my damn tea kettle and tablet cover. I want to say there’s nothing wrong with looking good and feeling confident, but shouldn’t this be innate within us, as individuals created by a loving God, not a confidence and beauty we must manufacture with all the stuff we buy?

So for Lent this year, I’m choosing to abstain from the culture of superfluous spending. For forty days at least, I’m going to step back and stop. I’m not going to buy anything for myself.

I’m a fan of the band Giants & Pilgrims. They’ve got a new single out for Lent this year, and they’ve posted it online along with a short reflection by pastor Jeff Cook. It really spoke to me, and I hope you’ll take a moment to listen as well, to start off your Lenten season with a deeper contemplation of what it means to be a soul in a body, what it means to subtract the excess, and what it means to celebrate with ashes, which are a symbol of destruction–something we may need to do to our insatiable desire to buy. The reflection is first, followed by the song:

http://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=3531241630/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/artwork=small/transparent=true/

L’Engle and the Child Still within Me

I’ve been re-reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water with my mom, and this week, I read this passage from her chapter “A Coal in the Hand”:

Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. And to be able to be childlike involves memory; we must never forget any part of ourselves. As of writing this, I am sixty-one years old in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-one, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and…and…. If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.

The way this hits me is as a call for grace–grace for ourselves, our selves, past and present.

It’s so easy to glance back and blame/condemn/scold/dismiss my past selves for their foolishness. And it’s amazingly difficult to love who I was in the midst of my biggest mistakes. But I think L’Engle is on to something: I cannot be whole if I cannot love myself with God’s love–even as time gives me the hindsight to have a thousand if-only-I-had…’s.

I must set the tearful, timid, selfish girl that I was at five upon my lap, let her rest her head upon my shoulder.

I must wrap my arms around the lonely, self-deprecating, depressed college student and hold her tight, as she so needed.

I must hold the hands of the laboring mother and look deep in her eyes and say, “It’s okay, it’s not your fault. This failure doesn’t make you a failure, doesn’t void your motherhood and womanhood.”

I must forgive myself for the things that are most difficult to let go of because all these selves are me: I am the result of them; their lessons are mine. Their thoughts and cravings and perspectives are under my care, and they flesh me out into a roundness of cold and hot and happy and sad and gut-wrenching and fist-pumping and still, slow breaths.

If I forget who I was, I truly am diminished. If I hold all of me and accept all of me and forgive all of me, I grow to fill the wholeness God intended for me.

What Do You “Do”?

A couple of weeks ago, Zach and I met an older man at church, a retired pastor. He introduced himself and asked what Zach does (as most people ask us when we meet them). Zach told him he’s a PhD dissertator in literature. The man responded with the usual befuddled look and the joke, “So when you graduate, what coffee shop will you work at?”

Probably hoping for something more normal, he asked me the same question. I told him what I tell everyone these days: “I’m a poet, and I also spend a lot of time at home with Ramona.” Well, he didn’t even have a joke as a comeback for this response; a blank stare was all he could muster. When he introduced us to his wife, he told her our names and said Zach was a student. He said nothing about what I “do.”

How I choose to present myself to others may be a conversation killer, but I still feel like it’s really important. Because, while I feel called to my work as a parent, I don’t think it’s my motherhood alone that defines me. In fact, of all the labels I wear, the one I consider my primary occupation is poetry. It doesn’t make me any money, but it fulfills what I think of as my purpose.

It would be easier to just tell people I’m a stay-at-home mom, but I don’t think that tells the real story of who I am. I also believe that words have power, and if I mislabel myself for ease of conversation or to be accepted, I won’t just be changing others’ perception of who I am. I will change my own perception of who I am, and in doing so, I will be changing who I actually am.

The are a lot of ways that I can be true to who I am: what I wear, what I spend my time doing, who I choose to be associated with, what I do with my money…and also how I talk about myself to others–not omitting parts of who I am, not belittling what I do, not treating myself with disresepect, but being truthful, wholly, even if other people don’t see the value or beauty in that truth.

A Woman, her Bible, and the Church of the Male God

“Whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.”
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

Recently, I took a little time away from the Bible. It seemed every time I read it, I found not love but judgment, not freedom but bondage to a God who favors men. I would read the Bible and hear the voices of men only, the history of a patriarchy that excluded me as an equal partner in life and spiritual wisdom. But now I have begun to read the Bible again, and what has brought me back is a new translation—new to me at any rate. I have been reading The Inclusive Bible, a translation by Priests for Equality, a program of the Quixote Center. This translation speaks directly into the feminine wounds I harbor—feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, a sense that I am less valued and less wise and less worthy simply because I am female. The Bible I had been reading (translations like NIV, RSV, and The Message) added salt to my wounds by ignoring the feminine in God, glorifying the male by speaking of God always as He, and using words like man and mankind to supposedly refer to all people (which, if it doesn’t exclude women—though I think it does—at the very least makes women feel swallowed up in words that turn first and always to the masculine). There are few Christians who would claim God is male, but, as Sue Monk Kidd put it, “How many times had I heard someone say ‘God is not male, He is spirit’?”

I read this in the preface to The Inclusive Bible:
“‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me,’ says the old proverb. We now know that this is a lie. Words can wound, alienate, and degrade people. Language can also affirm and express love. Care for language is a show of concern for people and a revelation of the attitudes of the speaker…. Church language is predominantly masculine. Male terms, images, and stereotypes, so-called sexist language, dominate church expression. Such usage is no longer adequate. It is time to build gender equality into the very fabric of the church life. The effort to build new gender-balanced ways of speaking helps to educate us toward greater equality for women and men.”

In these translators, I found a group of Christ-followers who had seen my hurt, the hurt of women as a group, and they had responded with many years of hard work and dedication to the God we believe in—a God of love for all people, a God who created all humans, male and female, to be like God. The translators created a Bible that spoke to me, a woman, rather than excluding me from its every page through a constant barrage of male-centric vernacular.

One of the most beautiful moments for me when I started reading The Inclusive Bible was when I came upon this passage from Genesis 17: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, YHWH appeared and said, ‘I am the Breasted One. Walk in my presence and be blameless. I will make a covenant between you and me, and I will increase your numbers exceedingly.'” I thought, The Breasted One?? What a crazy way to translate one of the names of God! But I love it! I totally get it, and in this context, it is a perfect picture of what God is to us—One who nourishes, One who brings new life! For those of you who are as startled as I was by this translation, there was an interesting footnote about how this is one possible meaning of El Shaddai, based on the Hebrew word shad or “breast.” But I’m not going to try to convince you if this turns you off. For me, it was a wonderful, perfect, life-giving translation. It announced, “God is not only Father; God is Mother, too!” And as a mother myself who went through the hills and valleys of breastfeeding, I was moved greatly by a God who would claim the image of a breastfeeding mother as a picture of the divine.

Some days, I wake up and say to myself, How did I get here? How did I arrive in this day with convictions so vastly different than those I held a few years ago? I turn to Jesus walking beside me and say, How is it you seem so different to me today than you did yesterday, and yet I still know you to be Truth, Love, Grace? And then I think about Christian Wiman’s words—”even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change”—and I am comforted that God is big enough to hold my past and my future, that the Truth is strong enough to be present in how I used to see God and how God comes to me now in fresh language, out of patriarchy and into feminism.

Deep Song

Sometimes when I wake in the morning, the first feeling I have is like a stone in my stomach. Sometimes the weeks gather in questions, stones gathering together as they rumble through the mountains of my body. Sometimes I lose the rhythm of the Deep Song.

And then, in loneliness, despairing the depravity of the world and the deep craters in me, I find myself sitting at a picnic table under a great, wide elm as my daughter plays just there, at the playground. Suddenly, I am present, drawn back into the green. I stretch my neck back, draw my eyes into the thin, serrated leaves. Light plays through them, layer upon layer of leaves, creating every shade of brightness.

A small breeze, a chill of cloud. A deep sigh, and I hear the beat. I rise, rest my head on the elm, and hear the drumming of the world, the beauty of the things that grow.

I am one of them.

Wandering through Summer and My Soul

This summer has been cold. And already it is August. I’m sad to see the ragweed in bloom, to think of a waning harvest at the garden, the planting of fall beets and cauliflower. Even though summer is my least favorite season, I cherish the temporary cessation of other responsibilities. But, as always, summer passes with as much bustle as any other time of year, with trips and projects that have been put off until this “less busy” season.

Summer also usually brings a slowing down of my productivity in reading and writing, in mining beauty from within myself. Instead, it’s a time of gathering from the outside: camping, swimming, traveling, experiencing. This summer, however, I feel that I’ve also been able to continue to look inward, even as I experience more of the outward.

I have started reading The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd and, as always, I have found in her work such a resonance with my own thoughts, discoveries, and struggles. She writes:

Somewhere along the course of a woman’s life, usually when she has lived just long enough to see through some of the cherished notions of femininity that culture holds out to her, when she finally lets herself feel the limits and injustices of the female life and admits how her own faith tradition has contributed to that, when she at last stumbles in the dark hole made by the absence of a Divine Feminine presence, then…this woman will become pregnant with herself, with the symbolic female-child who will, if given the chance, grow up to reinvent the woman’s life.

I find Kidd’s birth imagery a little distracting and ironic because it was the process of giving birth and the months of breastfeeding which followed that woke me up to the “limits and injustices of the female life.” I became ripe for change in the pain, the loneliness, the dark of a motherhood void of the Feminine Divine. I am ready for the journey Kidd describes. I have, in fact, been on this journey now for nearly two years—discovering God as Mother, discovering feminine strength—though this is the first time I’ve recognized the connection between what I’ve experienced and the drive I feel to become a stronger, more true, more uninhibited version of myself as a woman. 

And I am happy to experience the winding journey of summer alongside the winding journey within myself, leading me onward towards discovering and redefining myself as the days grow shorter and the leaves begin to dream of the first blush of autumn.

Green Hills and Desert Valleys

For much of my life I thought myself unhappy. I thought that I’d be happy once the “next thing” happened. I tried to fight this feeling, made the tagline of my life, “Endeavoring to live in ‘now,’ not in ‘soon.'” I struggled greatly against pressing ever forward to some future place where I’d finally feel fulfilled.

This has changed in the last two years. Before Ramona was born, I believed having children would be the thing that finally completed my happy scene. It was the “next thing.” After she was born, I was, for the first time I think, legitimately unhappy. Not depressed, just miserable. I found myself finally and unavoidably confronted with my great depravity, with my insatiable desire for ever-greener pastures.

Here I was, living a dream of mine, and I was full of bitterness: giving birth had been a waking nightmare, breastfeeding was painful and stressful, and the always, always-present demands from Ramona became infinitely taxing. I had crossed over the green hill and found myself in a vast desert valley. And it was here, in this desert, that I gave up on looking forward to better days. I realized that the future holds no unbreakable promise of greater happiness—it may in fact hold greater pain. It’s a thing I always knew in my head was possible but never believed in my heart would come to pass.

As day by day I began to fall in love with Ramona (the nature of her birth did not allow for that instant connection some mothers experience after giving birth), I also experienced sorrow upon sorrow. When Ramona was a week old, there was a death in the family. Around that time breastfeeding took an awful dive and we resorted to pumping and dropper feeding. I became very nervous about Ramona’s feedings, and when she had a nursing strike a few months later, I began a hard journey through delayed letdown issues that never really resolved for as long as I was nursing her. I felt lonely and isolated from other mothers; I had a hard time figuring out how to balance mothering with my own personal needs. I wrote a whole series of heart-sore poems like this:

Eve, Fallen
Somehow—between baby showers and birthing class—
I missed that when this bewildered sea creature
wails her awakening to the world,
she will demand my breast at each hour,
creasing and blistering until, in infant’s Eucharist
she drinks blood from my nipple:
drains milk and life from me
so I shiver and fold like a dry leaf.
My eyes hollow, even my heart
hollows as I kindle
this tiny flame that was lit from the ashes
of my body. She nestles clenched, anxious,
lost in this cold world;
I am all pain and weariness. But I am also
mother, feral instinct,
fierce protector.
I pull her toward my warmth; whisper,
This is the good place. I’ll hold you tight ‘til it’s better.

But as all this was unfolding, I was also learning finally how to live in the now, how to be thankful for the beauty still present in my life, for the simple things: a glass of cool water; clean, folded diapers; a ray of light piercing through the living room curtains; blue snow glimpsed out the window during a late-night nursing session. I thought to myself, Perhaps things will get better. But maybe they won’t. I’d be a fool to not search for light and loveliness in my life right now.

And so I found the grace in all that pain. In many ways, my life is easier now. But the lesson has stayed with me: revel in whatever beauty is in this one day, this one moment, even if the big things are all going wrong, even if I’m crying in pain or screaming in frustration. Acknowledge the beauty; it’s there—and it is the only guaranteed good because tomorrow might be greener, or it might be a vaster desert.

If I can let the light in on the dark days, I will be all the more able to bask in the light of the best and brightest days.

I have let go of wistful dreaming for the future. I realize sorrow is probably lurking somewhere in my future, sorrow that may match that of the past. But I don’t dwell on that either. Instead I take the gift of today and do my best to be ever thankful.