Oh beautiful ache
that stretches with my children’s growing limbs
that curls around the need to hold them close as nursing babes
but sighs with painful joy to see them reaching out for life.
Oh beautiful ache
that stretches with my children’s growing limbs
that curls around the need to hold them close as nursing babes
but sighs with painful joy to see them reaching out for life.
[warning – do not plan to enjoy thanksgiving leftovers while reading this post. It involves plumbing problems…]
The last few days have not delivered the Thanksgiving break I was planning on.
I suppose I had some warning. This past Sunday, when a load of laundry flooded the basement due to a blockage in the pipes, it was a foreshadowing of the dangers of home ownership. But an evening visit from the Joe the plumber (his real name), and a few hundred dollars later, it was supposed to be fixed.
Three days later Joe was back. More laundry. More water all over the basement. He diagnosed a blockage in the septic tank. That would be a few hundred more dollars, and we couldn’t get anyone out until Friday, but it was still a manageable crisis. It seemed that only large amounts of water were a problem. We could still wash dishes, flush the toilet, even shower. We could make it a few days without doing laundry.
And I really needed that to be the solution because I didn’t have time for any more significant disruption of the household routine. Work has been so overwhelming lately that I regularly have to fight back panic tears if I let myself think past just the next urgent task. And then…Thanksgiving.
I love Thanksgiving. I discovered fresh turkeys and focaccia stuffing when we lived in Italy, and I am now embarrassingly proud of my Thanksgiving spread. I wasn’t cooking for a crowd this year – just my own little family and a dear friend from church – but still. It’s Thanksgiving, and that means The Works.
And I was already facing one challenge to this plan: a pesky little degenerated disk in my fifth lumbar region. It has been acting up off and on over the past few months. In recent days even the minimal exertion of 5-10 minutes standing on the hard tile floor in the kitchen prepping the kids’ school lunches leaves me with lower back spasms that take my breath away and make the task of holding back those stress tears a whole lot harder.
I defy anyone to successfully prepare a full turkey dinner without spending significant time on their feet. So, I bought a second gel-cushioned kitchen mat, said a few prayers, and started basting.
A couple hours in I could tell I was going to be hurting pretty badly by the time we sat down to eat – but that wasn’t the worst part of the day. That came when Princess Imagination yelled up from the basement. “Mommy! You need to get down here right now, there’s a big problem!”
I hobbled down as fast as my gimpy back would allow. This time the backflow was from Tyler’s shower. Ugh! I guess this problem is bigger than we thought. At least the septic people are coming tomorrow. Tyler might have to rinse the conditioner out of his hair with the garden hose (thank God for the unseasonably warm weather), but the septic flush would fix everything.
Looking back, I’m glad we were still under that delusion during our Thanksgiving celebration. We had a lovely meal with our friend, and we even washed up all the dishes – cautiously – without catastrophe. My back was definitely hurting, but I hoped that a good night’s sleep with good supportive pillows in strategic places would do the trick.
Then came Friday. I woke up to intense pain. And by pain, I mean that it felt like a metal clamp was slowly tightening on my lowest vertebra. Even sitting completely immobile hurt. But try telling that to two enthusiastic little bundles of love hopped up on no-school-holiday-weekend-time-to-decorate-for-Christmas excitement. The fifth or sixth time one of them jumped on me in an overflow of glee there were more than a few angry words.
And then the septic company came, flushed the system, and concluded that “No. There was no blockage in the tank. Your problem is in the pipes.”
Re-enter Joe the Plumber (I swear that really is his name). Some trained listening, some experimenting, and we had a third diagnosis. Somewhere between the exit from the house and the septic tank, the pipe was compromised. As in – it will cost $3,000 to replace it.
But not until Saturday. It was a full-day job and it was after 3:00 in the afternoon.
I was very aware that it was after 3:00 in the afternoon, because I hadn’t used the bathroom since the night before. We were in a strictly no-flush situation and our two little ones needed the full remaining toilet capacity.
Now, in the long-term the $3,000 is going to hurt a lot more. But in the moment, my bladder was competing with my lower back for which could crack my pain threshold first. Which meant that I needed to venture out to find a public bathroom…on Black Friday…with a spasming back…not having showered since Wednesday morning.
As I tottered to the car, I was not in the most thankful mood.
Then I turned on the car, and NPR was on the radio with a story about Syrian refugees.
I was suddenly aware of the relative irrelevance of the hardships of my week. But more, I was suddenly also aware of just how hellish life is for the millions of people living for months on end without modern plumbing.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees there are more than 4 million Syrians registered as refugees in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and North Africa – 4 million mothers, fathers, aunts, children – most are in refugee camps.
I have been hearing these numbers for months, and the numbers are overwhelming, but also a bit emotionally deadening. My mind and heart can’t grapple with the concept of so many people fleeing for their lives. The pain of that imagined fear is too much. I can’t simultaneously think of them a people with the same kinds of physical needs that I take for granted being met everyday.
Until just a few are not met. Until my dishes pile up in the sink because I can’t put any water down the drain. Until I have to plan my bathroom breaks around trips out of the house. Until I am conscious of the grease in my hair walking into a coffee shop to buy an over-priced latte as an excuse to use the facilities.
Then I am aware just how quickly we humans can feel dehumanized by the loss of running water. Just water. I still have heat, and shelter, and a freezer stocked with ice packs for my aching back, and every other comfort money can buy. All I lost was water for a few days, and I feel just a bit subhuman. A day that I have been looking forward to – the decorate for Christmas day that was supposed to be a special togetherness time for my family – was marred by stress, and snapishness, and impatience. A little physical pain, and a disruption of our domestic conveniences, and the spirit of patience, love, and joy that is supposed to characterize this season was palpably missing from our house.
Just one, temporary thing can make such a difference.
And more than 4 million people have lost everything. Perhaps permanently.
The moral of this story is supposed to be how I have been reminded to be thankful for all that I have, but honestly that feels rather shallow. If all I learn from the devastation visited on 4 million of my brothers and sisters is to be more grateful for the incredible bounty in my life, then I am a callous and self-centered beast.
Their suffering is not about me. It is about them. I don’t know what I can do about it, and that is a heart pain that weighs heavily on me. But I do know one thing.
I know I can think of them as fully human. I can recognize that the relative safety of a refugee camp is not a solution to their problem. I can reject any narrative that says I shouldn’t care. And I can keep caring until every man, woman, and child has a home again. A real home, with running water.
The sky was painted for my soul tonight.
The sweeping strokes of color draw me up
away from gravity of daily life,
and draw from me a sigh too deep for words,
too real to be confined to lines of frozen verse.
But I must try,
must let my spirit’s lover know that I have read his message
writ across this little part of heaven –
the only part that I can see, for now.
It’s hard to wait,
with leaden feet that trap me here upon this broken earth
It’s hard to see only a little piece of heaven
when I’m longing for that sweet fulfillment when I’ll see it all
and know that all is well
not just for me, but truly ALL.
But until then,
I have this sky
And in this sky,
In this soft, momentary gift of light
I know the soul of God.
I have been feeling pretty negative about bodies lately.
What I mean is that I have been visited by recurrent imaginations about how great it would be if human beings could somehow exist without physicality – without all the horribleness that comes from having all of our experiences filtered through the fragile medium of corporeality. In part this has been a reaction to my own body going through a bit of a rough patch. Along with some of the common annoyances that come with moving into my late 30s I have been struggling with an emphatic recurrence of chronic back problems. It feels like I should be used to this after twenty years of on and off problems, but this time I’m just done with the whole thing.
I am done with pain that invades my day (or my week) and prevents me from really enjoying anything that is going on in my life, no matter how good.
I am done with laying on ice packs and taking stretching breaks every hour in order to still be able to walk and to move my arms by the end of the day.
I am done with having to tell my kids “Mommy can’t do that” for things I really want to be able to do with them.
I am done with having to constantly check my instinct toward snappiness and irritation that has nothing to do with the people around me and everything to do with the nagging drain of aching pain.
I am just done with it.
Except I can’t actually be done with it because my back is what it is, and I can’t really live without it, and “doing the work” to live a posture-conscious lifestyle seems to actually be increasing the pain in the short-term. So, I just have to accept it and try to figure out how to be the person I want to be even in an imperfect and sometimes pain-filled body.
It’s not just my personal pain that is bothering me, though. Back spasms are nothing compared to the horror of what we humans are doing to each other’s bodies for a whole host of entirely insufficient reasons. I can barely get through a commute’s worth of Morning Edition without crying. Bodies removed in pieces from shelled apartment buildings in Gaza. Bodies being picked over by looters after being shot out of the air in their commercial jet. And we are not even talking any more about the bodies that were snatched from their school rooms and have been suffering the ravages of so-called “marriage” now for months.
And I can’t just be “done” with all of this horror either, because turning off my radio just makes me apathetic. It doesn’t do anything to heal all the broken bodies – or all the souls left behind in anguish by their loved one’s absence.
So, instead, I am writing. It’s not a very profound thing to do, and it probably will not make any difference at all to all the broken bodies and broken lives whose stories are breaking my heart every day. But writing is my therapy – my way to reach into myself and give my soul room to breath and observe and stretch and strengthen.
I guess for me writing is really more like yoga than therapy.
I’ve just recently taken up a weekly yoga practice again, which has provided a little help with the back pain. More than that, though, it has been encouraging me to reconsider my reactive rejection of the physical. My instructor repeats the same phrase each time she calls us to tune into our bodies.
“Become aware of your body and notice anything it might be saying to you, any areas of tension or discomfort. No judging, just awareness.”
No judging, just awareness. That’s a hard one for me. My instinct is always toward judging – not in the sense of a self-righteous desire to condemn, but in the sense of identifying the problem so that I can fix it. If some thing is wrong I don’t just want to be aware of it. What good is awareness? It just makes the pain worse because it removes the numbing effects of distraction. If something is hurting I want to conclude that it is wrong and then do something to fix it.
But in my third week of community yoga last night, as I did my best to breath into the mantra – no judging, just awareness – it finally started to sink in. The knot of pain between my shoulder blades was screaming for attention, and my response all day had been to frantically try to stop the screaming – through stretches and ice packs and finally a few ibuprofen tablets. Nothing was helping. As I sat in the stillness of a light-filled yoga studio, however, I stopped trying to adjust my position to relieve the pressure and I just breathed. I noticed the tension, and I accepted it, and I let it accompany me through the rest of the practice.
I’d love to say that this was some magic cure, but of course it wasn’t. I went to bed last night in pain and woke up with pain as my faithful companion.
But there was a change. I was no longer experiencing the pain as an invasive force that I had to resist with all my might. I understood the pain as part of my own body, and that makes a difference. When I was fantasizing about the escape from physicality I was rejecting the fact the embodiedness is fundamental to humanity. Pain is horrible – I will even be so “judging” as to say it is wrong – but that doesn’t make bodies wrong. Bodies are human.
And when this very simple truth finally broke through all the physical and emotional and moral frustration that has been tying me in knots, I immediately remembered a point from a sermon podcast I listened to last week. The pastor, Nadia Boltz-Weber – a woman who has walked her own rather convoluted path regarding what to do with her body – was talking about the way that the physicality of the sacraments speaks to her.
Having grown up very “low church,” sacraments were never a very central component of my faith. Christianity for much of my life has been much more about “what” I believe, or maybe “who” I follow. The “how” of historical religious activities has at best been in the background for much of my faith journey. But when Nadia talks about taking bread and wine, her voice crackles with emotion. The gratitude she feels for this practice throbs in the way she describes the miracle of physical reminders of God’s presence, in her gratitude for how God was and is embodied in fragile physicality. Eucharist is no formal, religious form – it is an intimate act of awareness. An intention to notice the way in which God tore away all divisions and entered completely into the human experience, including the experience of ultimate brokenness.
God’s participation in our brokenness is not a solution to the problem of human fragility and pain. I am starting to realize that maybe solution is not really what I need. Ways to prevent it whenever possible – yes! Always! But the fact that bodies break, that pain hurts – these are not really solvable problems in this time and space. What I need is a better ability to live in the physicality, a way to accept the pain, to notice it, and then to allow it to be part of me as I continue the practice of living. Yoga is helpful in this. A God whose broken body speaks to me every week, telling me that I am not alone is even more helpful.
At least one other thing is helpful too. When my son cups my face in his little hands as I kneel for a hug before leaving him at preschool for the day… when he purses his impossibly soft lips and presses them against mine for one more kiss… when he demonstrates for me with perfect childhood wisdom how essential it is for love to find expression in bodily contact… then I can remember again what a gift it is to have a body.
And by some miracle, tonight’s writing has been both yoga and therapy for my soul and my body. My back has stopped aching. Thank you God!
For some reason the Gigglemonster has been wanting me to tell him
“the story of when I was born, Mommy!”
This is a fun story to tell, of course, because it is such an intensely happy memory and it only gets better in the light of the delighted glitter in his eyes as he hears about his welcome into this world. On the way to school yesterday morning, however, it got a little tricky because he kept wanting more details. Plenty of such details exist — his was a nearly 22 hour labor — but those aren’t really details that are appropriate to tell my four-year-old. He wants more of the “Daddy’s eyes were full of happy tears” details, not the “Mommy used a lot of swear words Daddy had never heard her use” details.
Thankfully the drive is quite short so I made it out of the car without frustrating him too much by my non-responsiveness to queries about
“but how did I get out of your tummy, Mommy?”
All the same, the interchange has me thinking about what I will want to tell him once he’s really old enough to hear.
I will tell you the true story
the full story.
But this kind of fullness cannot be contained
in four-year-old words.
Right now I speak only of joy,
and happy kisses
and wiggling baby body clasped in my arms for the first time.
This is all true – one of the truest moments of life –
but the birth of that truth is
Full of nine months of expectation,
whose waiting time was filled with growing, and dreaming, and wordless lullabies of love sung from my heart’s beat to yours;
but also full of aching, and discomfort, and fears of all the what-ifs that stutter through a mother’s chest to interrupt gestation’s rhythm.
Nine months of connection formed in darkness,
of intimacy without words
of sensation that reshaped my life, as much as it was shaping yours.
This is a fullness so much bigger than a distended belly can contain;
a fullness you cannot yet understand.
And then, of course, there is the pain.
of bringing into light the beauty formed in darkness.
It is worth the struggle, of course,
that is part of the fullness of this truth,
but that great purpose cannot negate the pain.
In those moments of excruciating, time-has-stopped slowness
it seems so far from true
that life can come from something that feels like dying.
And it is so clear
the only clear thing in the haze
that it is unfair!
Unfair that at the end I have to work,
to grab my knees and push,
expel the source of all this joy turned pain.
There is no choice.
You won’t return to your true nature
transform again from pain to joy
until I push you out,
share you with the world,
loose the secret, solitary bond.
And this is why, someday, I’ll tell you the full truth,
why I will let the story come – like labor pains – in surges of discomfort, even pain.
The story of how truth cannot forever live in the dark silence underneath your heart.
The story of how love held tight inside is both sacred and distressing.
The story of how birth requires suffering.
The story of how letting go can usher in new life.
These stories are important
Because someday you will need to know how
are all part of this transforming life.
The last few days have brought me repeated reminders of just how painful life can be: friends facing health crises, a new (powerful) book about addiction and recovery, and story after story of people who have been hurt by churches or church people.
All this has made me wish I had the power to change all these pains – to heal both physical and spiritual wounds wherever I see them. Of course, I don’t have that power.
My second instinct is to wish that God would do it for me. And I pray, sincerely, for this to happen. But I also know that God is not my puppet, or my on-call Doctor, compelled to alleviate all manner of pain that results from the realities of a broken world. Sometimes horrible, painful, ugly things just happen and we can’t just snap our fingers and order God to fix the mess.
That raises a lot of theodicy issues, and those discussions are worth having, but today’s poem isn’t about that. It’s about the way that Christians talk about those horrible moments in life, and the way we offer each other consolation. We can’t change the pain, but maybe we can work on changing the way we talk about it.
Have you ever heard it?
that most hurtful Christian consolation?
“God never gives you more than you can handle.”
Have you ever been struck in the gut
when you are already curled up,
weak as a fetus,
around your all-consuming pain?
I know it’s well-intentioned,
an effort at encouragement,
a way to say
“you’ll make it”
with the extra certitude of FAITH.
Oh, I know the texts they quote
or Philippians 4:13,
But these are not the blanket promises that some so blithely represent.
They are not a fool-proof safety net to guard against the impact
They have to do with following the path of faith,
and having access to the strength for that path.
But… what happens when life stops you in your tracks?
when the thought of another step cannot even register;
when you are just trying to keep breathing;
and faith is not – cannot be – a task you must accomplish in this moment?
What if they knew
those pious well-wishers,
those good-hearted believers trying to honestly offer you hope,
that their words might push you off the pilgrim’s path?
Because, if their words are true,
then the problem,
is all your fault – your lack of faith.
The promise only holds true
if you are the one who broke it,
the one who walked away.
And now the dark blanket of shame must wrap around you too,
holding in the words that might release a bit of pain,
blocking out the light of love and true consolation –
one who supports.
But I have GOOD NEWS,
that sounds at first like gospel’s bad, ne’r-do-well cousin
God never made those universal promises:
that it will all work out for good,
that you will have the strength.
it might get worse.
your fear might materialize.
you might break down and not know how to put yourself back together.
And that horrible prospect
is my GOOD NEWS for you.
no matter how dark,
It Is Never Evidence That You Have Walked Away
That God Has Walked Away From You.
Because the promise God DOES make is:
God with us.
With us in the darkness,
with us in the tears,
with us on the cross
with us in the grave.
in some completely unexpected way
in NEW LIFE.
This will be a short one, I promise. It is basically just an introduction and then a short piece of writing I completed for a completely different purpose, that has since been hanging with me.
So, first the introduction. I have previously mentioned my small but wonderful Thursday morning bible study group, which has become a source of learning, inspiration, and friendship over the last 8 months. The format is fairly standard, but for those for whom this form of religious practice is not familiar I will briefly summarize its two elements. First, each participant completes the study preparation, which includes reading the text for the week and answering a number of questions about it that range from basic summarizing to deeper interpretation to personal application. Second, the group meets to share and discuss their responses, as well as to pray and just share our lives. It is an enriching part of my weekly routine, but nothing very unusual for those in church circles.
Last week, however, there was an unusual task included in the preparation section. We were reading Acts chapter 27, which tells the dramatic story of the shipwreck experienced by the Apostle Paul and over 270 other people during his transportation as a prisoner from Caesarea to Rome (If you’re interested in the context, here’s a link to the online text http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2027&version=NIV). As part of our reflection on this story, the study participants were asked to write a description of the emotional experience of one of Paul’s companions on the ship during the more than 2 weeks that they spent buffeted by a hurricane before being marooned on the island of Malta.
At first I hesitated at this task. In past reading I have thoroughly enjoyed some imaginative retelling of pieces of the Biblical narrative (The Red Tent comes to mind as a wonderful exploration of the feminine world that lies mostly obscured by the Biblical account of the patriarchs). I think it can be appropriate and illuminating to start from the limited information provided in Bible accounts and then try to “flesh out” the story with the human experiences and emotions that can sometimes be difficult to find in the theologically driven original texts. Nevertheless, I quail at the thought of attempting such an exploration myself. While I thoroughly enjoy the process of character development in my fiction, to engage in this process with actual historical events, and more than that with events that are part of the revelation of God, seems too far beyond my ken. How could I endeavor to achieve the necessary truth in such an enterprise?
And yet, the assignment was there, and after initial hesitation I couldn’t just completely rebel (I am a consummate rule-follower, after all). Once I capitulated I found that there were actually several points of contact to help with my engagement. The fact that the scene involved a ship-wreck helped provide a sense of background. I know from my seminary studies how in ancient middle eastern cultures the sea was associated with primordial chaos: the ultimate evil that is contained or restrained in creation, but which always threatens to break free. That would have possibly given a special terror to the prospect of death at sea. My own personal experiences of sea sickness also offered an entry point for my imagination. If I don’t take chemical aids to fight it, I am bent double within 20 minutes of riding even the gentlest swells — even the thought of two weeks of being buffeted by a hurricane makes me nauseous.
I had those two concepts in my brain as I set pen to paper, but not much more. Unlike my normal writing process I had no outline, no sense of where I was going. I just started writing. The result stunned me. It also reawakened in me a sense of awe about the power and deliverance in my faith; an awe that can sometimes be hard to hold on to in the tides of daily life. I hope it can offer a sense of anchor for you as well, or perhaps offer a sense of the screaming of the wind. So, with no further adieu…
This is worse than a nightmare, because it just goes on. Day after night, night after day, week after week. It starts to feel like this is the only reality there is, and all memory of land, of stillness, of quiet, of happiness, were all just a delusion.
I have vomited so much that I feel utterly empty inside. The smell of my own bile is part of my skin now; eating at my teeth; matted in my hair; I cannot imagine ever being clean again. The sickness is so painful I begin to long for death… until I look over into the water and I recoil back from its churning, gaping mouth. The salt stings my eyes as the wind lashes a wave into my face, and something in me screams, NO! I don’t want to be eaten up by that bottomless chaos!
The power of the smashing waves terrifies me, but it is the icy stillness beneath that grips my heart with a fear deeper and more paralyzing than I have ever known. How deep will I sink? Will I die before I am pulled out of reach of all light? Or will my last moments be the terror of total darkness and the scaly touch of unseen creatures as my lungs fight helplessly to draw oxygen from the water filling them? Even this current hell of sickness and fear is better than that fate.
Then I see Paul, that prisoner who somehow seems to gain respect even from his captor, the centurion, Julius. He has… peace. Somehow in this chaos of howling wind and biting rain… somehow despite the incessant creak of the boat’s timbers that cackle to my fears of the imminent cracking and tearing that will throw us all into the sea… somehow none of it affects him. He even smiles at me as he moves past and reaches out a hand to stroke the vomit-flecked hair out of my face.
His touch is miraculous. My stomach quiets. For the first time in weeks pain is not pulling my insides into a riotous ball. I turn and follow him, captivated, and see him take up a loaf of bread before turning to the mass of hopeless men strewn across the deck.
He doesn’t have to yell. Despite the despair that pulls each man in on himself, gnawing on his own misery and fear; despite the cracking, crashing noise that had battered our ears for days without end; when he speaks we all can hear. He speaks with total confidence of reassurance, of the promise of his God to save not just himself but all of us. It is unbelievable.
But I believe him. I feel myself mysteriously filled with the same stillness I see in him as he breaks bread and tells us to eat. I have seen him and his friends do this before, speaking words about remembrance of this Christ they follow. As I take a hunk of bread from Paul’s hand the words come back to me. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
I don’t yet know what I am remembering. But I will find out.