Courage

I’ve seen in several places recently, a false and damaging idea repeated about what courage is and how it works. It goes something like this: there is some man or woman out in the world who, being placed in a sphere of influence or at an intersection with a group of people who disagree with him, holds an unpopular opinion and refuses to back down. The commentator upon this scene gives the opinion that this person ought to have shown courage by capitulating to the group, or that the group in fact showed courage by standing up for what’s right. Inevitably, the situation ends with nothing going the dissenter’s way. He has stood for what he believes to be true to no avail. In the opinion of the observer, truth and righteousness have prevailed and the dissenter deserves to be cast by the wayside, along with his unfortunate opinions. The courageous mob lives to fight the next battle. 

If I had only encountered this idea in one place, I would have laughed it off, but I’ve seen it over and over in the last several months: this legend of the “courage” it takes to be on the winning side. It’s always about some current cultural battle: arguments over gay rights or white privilege, for example. Never mind how laughable it is that a pro gay rights or anti-racist agenda could conceivably be considered the underdog position in this country, just leave aside what the scene is about and focus on who is doing what in which place. Can you honestly tell me that one man, standing alone against a mob is exhibiting cowardice? Or that a mob, speaking the widely accepted cultural narrative for which they will receive no blowback whatsoever, is exhibiting courage? 

No, friend. Disagree with the man if you will, but he is no coward. It takes a lot of courage to do what he did. 

I was reminded of this the other day when this quote about Saruman came on as we were listening to the Two Towers: 

“anyway I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean.”

The hobbits are comparing Saruman and Gandalf, both wizards. Saruman has just lost his bid to try to capture the ring by sending a band of his orcs to kidnap two hobbits (whom he hopes are the hobbits with the ring, but alas, are not) and attacking the stronghold of Rohan with his enormous orc army. While Gandalf, after being sent back from the dead after his battle with the balrog under Moria, rides alone back and forth across the plains of Rohan to muster aid to Theoden, king of Rohan. 

C.S. Lewis says this about courage in the Screwtape Letters:

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. ”

I’ve been thinking about this idea as I’ve been thinking about courage lately; that courage is “the form of every virtue.” In this climate, it takes courage to be truthful about what you believe, if those beliefs in any way deviate from what is currently acceptable. Why does it take courage? Because right now, if you disagree with the racial narrative, for instance, you see the violence being done to others who have disagreed. You are seeing people get attacked online, and be alienated from their friends and family members. You’ve probably heard about people losing their jobs or being forced into racial sensitivity training at their place of work. If you disagree, you are probably scared. Telling the truth about what you believe, even if it’s counter-cultural, has real-world consequences. Just ask Bret Weinstein. 

Another example, nearer to my heart at the moment, is how much courage it takes sometimes to hope. We arrived in Birmingham on Thursday afternoon to the news that our dear friend Chris Scherf got a diagnosis for the cancer that has ravaged his body in a shockingly short period of time. He’s had it for a long time, according to his doctors, but it only took weeks for it to start shutting down his organs after he found out about it. Once it was advanced enough to cause pain, it was too advanced to cure. 

With the diagnosis came a great sense of hope; a crushing, unbearable hope. In fact, earlier in the day, word had come from MD Anderson hospital in Houston that they had looked at Chris’s sample and couldn’t make a diagnosis. They were basically giving up. They had a few more stains to look at but didn’t expect it to reveal anything new. The choice had been between a catch-all chemo or hospice.

A few hours later, Chris’s oncologist came rushing into his room and almost shouted the news: Follicular Dendritic Cell Sarcoma. And they had the chemo drugs to administer the next day. 

But. 

No one knows what will happen to Chris’s body on chemo. He’s weakened, frail, in pain all the time. It’s hard for him to eat. It’s easy to look at that and tell yourself it won’t work. It’s easier in this moment to abandon hope for his recovery because when you hope, you allow yourself to think about the good things he might have again and the good things he might be for the people who have depended on him. I hardly need to elucidate those for you. He’s young, he has a beautiful wife and four small children. He’s beloved by many, and wise, and gentle, and selfless. We want him to live. We petition God for his life from moment to moment. 

It makes the grief that much harder to bear if hope gets taken away. It’s easier not to hope. It takes courage to look that hope in the face, and to bear the potential pain of it. It takes courage to be more human rather than less – to look loss in the face and own your intentions, your mistakes, your bad feelings, and the truth of things – and hope for good anyway.

What Christians are doing is looking not only at this life, but beyond it. We believe that death has already been defeated. Did you know that in the account of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it says that people rose from the dead after Christ’s resurrection? I love that image. Some true thing was happening that couldn’t be contained, though it’s meant to come in its fullness later, after time. Life was bursting out from his resurrected body and it would not be denied. A higher reality than what we can see was showing through the cracks of this dark world.

I love Tolkien’s stories because they are full of people who have courage. Sometimes all it takes is for one man to stand against whatever is coming, knowing it could mean destruction, to give everyone around him the courage to keep going. I’m not saying Christ was doing something metaphorical. I believe He is God, and that He is alive. I believe He was ushering a higher reality into the darkness of our present world. But whatever else it was, his death took courage and all courageous deeds mirror and complete His.

Our dear friends are exhibiting great courage right now. They are staring suffering and death in the face and believing it will not end them. In fact, they are – like my favorite Tolkien characters – unchanged in their personalities, humility and humor as they endure this suffering and fear. I don’t want to suffer, but when I do, I hope to face it like this.

The Shunamite

Elisha and the Son of the Shunammite Woman, by
Jan Sluyters

Two prophets

Two widows

Two boys who died

Two men of God, spread cruciform upon the dead – hand to hand, eye to eye, mouth on mouth

Breathing back the breath of life

To bring hope back from the dead.

Two desperate women, standing aside, praying for a miracle

What does it mean? 

That it was repeated, twice in a row

Elijah and Elisha

I can see his sensitive hand, still

The curious Asian curve of thumb

I can feel its heavy, warm weight in my own

I’d never held his hands

(Of course I’d never held his hands)

I think about how stark it is to die (and we are always dying)

Boundaries blur and are erased

Frailty exposed to the outside world – the mess too big to contain

We rubbed his twitching feet, we held his warm, dead hands, we kissed his distended head, we whispered in his ear

All the things we wish we would have said when he could hear us

(you are my best friend, too)

Would he have wanted it, then?

Did it matter?

In the end, I felt Jesus spread himself on top of Ray like a prophet 

I whispered it in his ear

Jesus is here. He is right on top of you. Can you feel him breathing your breath?

So near. (too near?)

In the end, we cannot keep our selves from him

He is near. 

Eye to eye, hand to hand, mouth on mouth

Breathing in death, breathing out life

In the end, even our deaths are his

What does it mean?

In our most frail. When bodies uncoil.

When we are unable to contain the blood, the piss, the spit, and the shit

He is most near. 

To bring back hope from the dead.

Beyond All Hope

It’s late October, 2020. A nail biter of an election looms. We’ve been boxed out of the public sector for months, unable to go to many of our favorite places because of COVID restrictions. Many of our rights have been taken away for months on end. Our churches are closed or tightly restricted. People who formerly got along are fighting. There is violence all over the country. There’s an ideological war going on constantly. The days are getting darker.

This week, one of our best friends is in the hospital, with cancer, and his body is shutting down. He’s actually, with his wife, the legal guardian of our children in our will should we both die – a relic from when we had only one child and lived in the same state that we have yet to rectify. He’s far away, lost in a stupor of pain, unable to text or speak on the phone. Turning over in bed is painful for him. We can hold onto him only through our prayers, in our shared connection with Christ, and through his wife my dear friend Sarah. 

Four years ago at this time we were facing another contentious election. Another best friend – the godfather of our children – was in the hospital, with a cancer diagnosis that left little hope of his survival. The last time he “liked” an instagram photo of mine was on Halloween. He died on Thanksgiving Day 2016. It feels eerily, horribly familiar. While Chris’s cancer isn’t the same as Ray’s, and we expect and hope for healing and a long life so Chris can father his children, some days are very dark indeed. 

I know you all feel it right now, even if no one you love is dying. It’s a dark time indeed. Personally, I don’t think any big problems will be solved with this election. I hope some of them will, but I’m afraid of what the alternate reality holds. I’ve never lived through such a scary or helpless-feeling period of time. I know it’s the same for everyone else. 

This time last year I found out about this podcast – Amon Sul – from a fellow Tolkien nerd. He said, “it’s Orthodox priests talking about Tolkien” and I had never heard a lovelier sentence come out of anyone’s mouth. While it isn’t strictly Orthodox priests (Father Andrew has guests from the Orthodox church, academia, and even the military on the show), it’s seriously some of the most beautiful theological, symbological, and literary talk available in the world. Every episode is like:  ‘’Ah! the green smell! It is better than much sleep.”

In one of the most recent episodes, Dr. Lisa Coutras does a deep dive into the story of Turin Turambar, which, if you have read the Silmarillion, you know is a very dark story. It is a story Dr. Coutras says she finds beautiful, which is odd, but the reason is so moving. She loves the story because it’s a profound example of what she loves – and what I love – about Tolkien, and that is his sense of hope in the face of great darkness and impossible odds. 

artwork by Alan Lee, from the cover of Children Of Hurin

In fact, after hearing that episode I started thinking about how on Henry’s and my first date, (Thai food in Glen Ellyn followed by a flute recital at Wheaton), I quoted to him a line I had read that day from the Silmarillion whilst eating lunch in my car on my break at the “I Sold it On eBay” store. And he cried. 

I don’t remember the story, and I can’t find it now, but I remember this line, “beyond all hope.” It’s so piercing you want to read it again and again. It’s the reason I read LOTR every year. Hope is the virtue uniting every one of Tolkien’s stories. Real hope. Hope in deepest darkness. Hope in the face of certain torture and death. Hope written by a man who lost his whole generation in the trenches of WWI; who was spared (I think, so he could help save a people yet unborn [me]) because he got sick and couldn’t fight. Mighty and mysterious is the hand that preserved JRR Tolkien and formed him into such a sword. Did he know he was a man like the heroes of his stories? Hope, that sees somehow beyond all hope. That somehow, we will come out into the light of day. 

Hope is elemental. There’s nothing similar to, but more pure than hope. You can’t reason your way to hope, nor prove to someone why you should hope. Sometimes you must choose to hope, as Aragorn does repeatedly in the face of impossible odds. Sometimes, hope is bestowed for a moment, as when Sam sees a star in the middle of Mordor and remembers that there is something beyond him and untouched by his troubles, and he is at peace.

 

Frodo And Sam On The Path To Mordor by Forestina-Fotos on Deviant Art

Henry cried on our first date because he was a mere 2 years into his long battle with chronic fatigue syndrome and had already given up on getting answers. The quote reminded him that he could hope, and that hope was not wrong. I think sometimes we need permission to hope for the good things we want for the world and for our lives – health, wholeness, freedom from pain, children, friends, marriage, peace. Henry has not yet been healed of his illness (although he got a red-headed wife as a result of that date). He’s finally getting treatment that’s starting to help, but even if he wasn’t, hope never dies. In fact, that’s what sets us apart from the “heathen kings.” We hope. 

We hope for healing of many things in this world: cancer, stupid elections, broken relationships. And we hope for the day when the battle will be over, when all wrongs will be righted, all pain made meaningful, every tear wiped away. We hope in the face of darkness, beyond all hope.

Homeschool Is Magic*

To homeschool or not to homeschool? In years past, a stray encouragement on Facebook to parents who were thinking about it but not sure they could do it may have elicited little response. But because we’re having a moment right now, and it’s politically correct to say we should shove ALL kids in front of a screen all day to somehow protect the “rights” of SOME unfortunate kids who have no choice, it’s now highly contentious. Hasn’t everyone been saying for years that it’s a broken system for many kids? Has throwing my tax dollars at it changed anything in several generations? Haven’t we all been nail-biting over school shootings and bullying for a decade? I don’t get it, because all I want is to be encouraging to those few people out there who are trying something new.

I was homeschooled for eight years. I had an amazing Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. W. Then my first grade year was marked by almost daily bullying by a male teacher who disliked me. I think he was tired and I made life more difficult for him by finishing my work early and asking a lot of questions and having my own strong opinions. I remember him sending me to the sink in our room by myself to wash out his dirty microwavable soup cups. When I gashed my finger on the edge of one of the cans, I could feel the waves of guilt rolling off of him as he walked me down to the nurse’s office. He probably couldn’t even pinpoint why he disliked me. 

In second grade, I hung out with Annette – who knew how to read an analogue watch and had estimated the length of the track around the playground. She set a goal for us to run a mile every day by portioning out a certain number of laps around it to each recess period. I also played kissy-kissy with the boys. Mrs. Sebasty read us James And The Giant Peach. I could not wait until that time each day. I was also given a LOT of busy-work to do – mostly alphebetizing words – when I inevitably finished my work before many of the other kids. Annette was always bent over her own busy work as well; most likely quadratic equations.

this is a photo I took the other day of the boarded up middle school across the street from us

When I went back to public school as a junior in high school, my experience there was similar. My health class teacher turned the speed on my treadmill up as high as it would go when he visited my P.E. class one day, which caused me to fall and scrape my knees. They oozed and wouldn’t heal for months until I debrided them myself in the bathtub. I nievely parroted “whore corps” (a popular slur for the color guard) to the band teacher – having heard it from the little brother of one of its members – in a move that would have me moping around his office for days trying to work up the nerve to apologize. His daughter was in color guard. My crowning achievement was mis-repeating a joke my friend Lindsey told in our honors English small group of four. The one Jewish kid was arguing about the Bible passage we were reading (he had been told not to argue theology, but to discuss literature). She had said, “get this Jewish kid out of here,” and we had all laughed – him included. I quipped to the whole class when the teacher repeated this instruction: “Yeah! Get This Jew Out Of Here!” 

I will never live it down. 

The overwhelming memory of my time in school is one of dehumanization. I was already prone to anxiety and depression, but the constant repetition of my days at school, being herded like cattle from one place to another in a windowless building with thousands of other depressed kids made it much worse. I made it through despite the system, and because I already had a lot going for me. I could sing, which put me in the top choir automatically and gave me an instant group of friends. And I was a good student. I quickly learned to dumb down my vocabulary and my heightened sense of morality so I could have friends. I was still the girl who got apologized to when someone else got drunk at a choir party, but what are you gonna do? 

My 8 years of being homeschooled was far from idyllic. My mom was struggling with an undiagnosed chronic illness that kept her from sleeping or eating well and left her in pain much of the time. She got down to 80 lbs at one point. My dad was moving us around and traveling half of every month sometimes, just to get that next raise and keep the family afloat financially. They felt morally obligated to educate us themselves, despite the toll it took. It would have been far easier for her not to do it all while still paying into the public education system we weren’t using. I was lonely sometimes. We have some gaps in our education. And when they put us all back in school the same year, it needed to happen for the sanity of our family. 

I’ve known I wanted to get married and have a family for a long time. Since I was a little girl. Most of my other desires have been subservient to that one. It’s not morally better than someone else’s choice, it’s just what it is. For a long time, I didn’t think I would homeschool my kids. In my 20s and early 30s I harped on all the negatives I associated with homeschooling and how I didn’t think I was cut out to be a teacher. Then I actually had children. 

It’s hard to describe what I mean when I say that, because what I knew the moment I gave birth to my first child defies description. Maybe I’ll try to write more about it someday. From that first moment, through their early childhood when I was drowning, until this day, I have had the sense that there was no going back. Until you hold that baby you’ve just pushed out of your own body, you don’t realize what a weighty thing you are doing.  You don’t realize it in pregnancy, even. All my ideas of who I planned to become and how I was going to conduct motherhood got dismantled in that moment. A new person has just entered the world through you, and he’s a real person, not an idea. And then you give up your sleep and your body and your autonomy to keep that person alive. To me, it was crazy that I would send him away from me for 6,7,8 hours a day to be shepherded by government employees a mere 5 years later. So I could do what? 

When you spend that much time with your child, so much so that you know what they want before they can say it with words, it changes you. You want the best for him. I don’t know. I guess I was just confident enough to insist that I was the best thing I could give my child. Who else on earth would be willing to give him more than I was? 

Here’s what I did get “in homeschool:” stories. Stories, stories and more stories. My mom read The Chronicles of Narnia to us and my life changed forever. My imagination exploded. My memories of that time are filled with running around outside in the woods and in our backyard exploring. Getting muddy. Inventing stupid new games. Playing Indians. Playing dress-up. I read so many books. I was reading all the time. I was also writing, without anyone prompting me to write a word. I was drawing, and painting, and sewing. I would bake a cake in the afternoon from scratch, just because. My mom didn’t pull out the pristine baking set, don a flowery apron and gather us lovingly around to let us all “help” her bake. She didn’t have to. I knew how to read and I was interested, so I did it. I also microwaved an aluminum pan for like 5 minutes and then grabbed the handle. I did get burned, but I’m still baffled that the microwave survived it.

I learned to play the piano and take care of horses. I sang in church choir and learned to play the guitar. I wrote a song or two. Those years, despite being sometimes lonely and sometimes sad and angsty, were filled with room to breathe. There was quiet and order in our house, and there was enough to do and to think about without a lot of lessons or homework. Even if I didn’t get the perfect education (what constitutes the perfect education?), I did get those priceless gifts. Not to mention, the gift of parents who stayed married and who lived according to a creed they believed outranked themselves.

I ended up being one of 12 valedictorians at my public high school. It’s silly, and I shouldn’t have been there because I wasn’t getting A’s in calculus like the other kids, but that’s just to illustrate that I kept up pretty well when I went back. I also had plenty of friends, just so you know. And then I went on to get into a very competitive college (their most competitive program, in the most competitive slot if you want to know) and aaaaaaalmost pulled off a Cum Laude (damn C in Philosophy 101. Boy problems). I wasn’t actually trying for any certain grade either. 

But you know what I would really be proud of, if I had done it? Starting my own successful business. We have come to have all these marks of success that are laid out on well-tended paths, and those are fine. It’s hard to become a doctor or a lawyer in many ways. But it takes guts to be different. It takes a lot of stamina to keep doing something people don’t understand and won’t support you in. It’s hard to stand out and flap in the breeze, not knowing if you’ll actually achieve what you’re trying to achieve; but that you believe you should be doing because it’s what you were made for. 

My mom was doing something remarkable, and I know she blames herself for the bad parts of it. I don’t think she realizes how profoundly her choice to homeschool me has shaped the way I think about the world. When I say we can be innovators I don’t mean that every family has to homeschool. It’s not feasible for my neighbor – a single mom of 5 kids who works nights as a nurse’s aid – to homeschool her kids. I know they’re unavoidably alone most of the day right now for school, and I feel for them. Some of them, the younger ones, come over to play with my kids almost every day and I’m so thankful for that.

What I mean is what I quoted in a previous post: “Genius is as ordinary as dirt.” Homeschooling is one way of getting out of the way of the genius that’s inside every human child, and/or helping it to come out. I remain firmly convinced that even such simple changes as more free play and more time outside and in nature can work wonders for kids who are having a hard time academically or emotionally. I spent enough time in and then out of school to know that most of it is busy work. No offense to the great teachers out there, but a lot of the time I spent in school was social time, or filling-up-time time. What if (just as one example) kids could interact with nature in a meaningful and personal way every day, rather than spend so much time inside and bored? And what if some of those same kids could be left with enough time outside of formal study to think about and pursue their own ideas? It’s the “accidents” of the school systems that have given us our most celebrated geniuses like Einstein. What if we are missing out on a hundred such geniuses who could have helped solve our environmental crises because we’re insisting this broken system is the only system? 

When I encourage parents who have thought about homeschooling to do it, and tell them it’s not as hard as you think it is, I am trying to “be the change,” and all that. I’m telling you from the mere first steps past the other side that you CAN do it – whether it’s homeschooling your own kids or forming a small school for your neighborhood, or helping an inner-city mom who has just HAD IT to take back the power. (I know someone who is doing this, and I am beyond amazed by the few Black mamas I know out there who are going against what all of their friends and families are doing to homeschool their children. That’s true pioneering and it’s fearsome to behold.)

science experiments on Sunday evenings at the dining room table

I’m here to tell whoever wants to hear it that it’s worth it. Once you’ve done something hard and scary and lived through the self-doubt and the criticism and you’ve prevailed (sometimes all that means is not giving up), you feel powerful. You feel more human. You feel like you can do what you were made to do. That’s the thing I want more parents and more kids to experience. Yes, you can get a better education through homeschooling than in public school. You can also get a worse one (just saying). But the best thing about it, in my opinion, is the thing it will teach you and your kids when you do it: 

You can change your life. You can create new things. You have the power to work hard and be diligent and all sorts of opportunities will open to you. There are countless examples of this throughout history. You can innovate. You can think for yourself. There is genius inside of you, and you are not like anyone else. And yes, the world needs you. It needs the fullness of all you can be. 

*homeschool is not magic, but it can be pretty remarkable.

Zeraphath

I am frightened and lonely. I hate to post things like this for fear that my dear friends will take it as an indictment of them, but I have been lonely for most of my life. The longing for home has at times felt gloriously fulfilled, like on my wedding day, but those times are rare. 

We have lived in Michigan for almost 6 years, and despite my bright hopes for our future in Detroit before we moved at the end of 2014, we have neither lived in the city of Detroit nor ever felt at home anywhere around it. 

That’s not to say that I don’t love Michigan. It’s very beautiful. We have found good friends here everywhere we’ve gone – even some best friends. But we have found Michigan to be a desert, or a land in the grip of a spiritual famine. And I have been no rainmaker. Living here has not been the triumphant procession I imagined. It has been a proving ground for my soul. Almost every group we’ve tried to attach ourselves to, regardless of how great the people are, has seemed closed to us. People have their own families and plans. For long, long stretches of time there was no one who would show up to a party if I threw one. We still ache for our kids, who don’t have a group of friends. We routinely ask God what we are doing wrong or not seeing. This seems to be the best answer we’re going to get. 

There is as much famine behind and before us as there is right here. There’s no going back to old communities that have changed, and no promise it would be different if we went somewhere new. We have no family nearby, and my parents and sister live overseas. We lost a best friend and our children’s godfather to cancer in 2016, and just found out this Summer that another best friend has cancer. Both too far away for us to share their burden in any meaningful way. All around us it seems are lies and violence, and the fabric of a just and tolerant society is fraying beyond repair. Sometimes, despite my better judgment, I look into the future and fear for my children, for what kind of life they will have. I want to have hope, but I can’t manufacture it. I can only cling to the hope I know.

The Widow And The Uncomfortable Miracle

I stumbled across this half-finished post the other day. I wrote it when I was pregnant with Cora (#4) – one of the darkest times of our sojourn here. It feels as true now as it did then. How terrifying it feels to be a woman sometimes! How vulnerable you feel when you have small children totally dependent on you. Especially when you are carrying or nursing an infant. Especially when the world feels so scary and there is no comfort nearby. 

I often think about this woman, the widow at Zeraphath. I feel like I know the utter hopelessness she feels, even though I don’t, not really. I picture her with her small son, at the mercy of the men around her. I can imagine the ancient world during a famine. It’s terrifying. I picture her as down and out long before the famine hit. Or newly widowed and scared out of her mind. She’s just a day away from one violent man deciding she was his to do what he wanted with, unable to physically protect her son. And then, as famine set in, the new fear that nothing mattered anymore anyway. They were going to die and there was nothing she could do.

For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “the jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.”

And then came the prophet Elijah. Another man, telling her what to do. What could this man do to her that would matter? But he must’ve been different, this wild man out of the wilderness. Did the woman know that the Lord had commanded her to feed Elijah, as God told him? She doesn’t seem to know it, but she calls him the Lord Elijah’s God. And she believes him when he says to feed him, that the Lord would not let the flour and oil run out. That, or it really doesn’t matter that much if it doesn’t work, so she might as well do what he says. Was it faith, or just exhaustion that compelled her?

She’s come to mind again today as all the darkness is closing in and I feel like I can’t breathe. Where was that faith I had a few months ago? I can’t find it at all. Right now, I feel like if I have to live here another minute I’m going to go crazy. For whatever reason, though I’m not physically starving, I feel like that widow about to make my last meal and starve to death with my kids.

Not that a little flour cake is much to live on, either. It’s starvation fare – it’ll barely keep you alive. There was no abundance promised, just that little bit of flour and oil until the Lord sent rain upon the earth. And if this is a promise to me – that the flour and the oil will not run out until the rain comes – what do I take to be the flour and oil? Just the barely-enough energy and money to keep going through each day? No frills, no extras, no friends or community, no intimacy? No abundance or eating my fill?

But she did it. It was the only thing standing between her and starvation. She had the word from the prophet and the evidence in her face every day. She prepared those little cakes for herself and Elijah and her household for many days. That was it.

And it was a miracle.

Is this the miracle we’re supposed to look for? Is this all the faith I am to have left? Not that God is going to do big things for me, and through me? Just that I may keep on feeding myself and my household a meager, miraculous bread? And the promise of rain? No mention of when, or for how long we will have to subsist. Just that rain does come eventually.

I so want big, miraculous things to happen, and I want to be the instrument of those things. I don’t know about you, but we could use a Euchatastrophe* right now. But we have learned how to subsist when we could not thrive. I have learned to accept the miracle of a little bit of what I need, right when I think I am going to starve, and the promise that, sooner or later, rain is coming.

*”I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (….) – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.

― Tolkien, from Letter 89

What I Got When I Embraced Mortification (and Hanson)

It’s September 2017. Birmingham Alabama, Iron City music hall. My first Hanson show. I am wearing a loose dress, birkenstocks, and a BACKPACK. I haven’t been able to eat my dinner. I have to pee, but I am not leaving my spot because I don’t want to miss their entrance. I am about to be in the same room with three men I purposely avoided for 20 years and I’m about as filled-up with feelings as it is possible to be. 

For anyone who hasn’t read the whole post from 2015, here’s the short version: in 1997 I learned about Isaac (16), Taylor(14), and Zac(11) on VH1 while babysitting.  I was 15. I instantly developed a devastating private obsession with them – and a heavy-duty crush on Taylor – that made me wonder if I was actually going crazy. Sometime in 98 or 99, I threw away their first album, “Middle Of Nowhere,” when I couldn’t take it anymore. I made it seem like I did it because everyone in youth group was throwing away their Nine Inch Nails albums and such. The truth was much more embarrassing. For almost 20 years, I was not able to see a picture of them without getting back that old crazy feeling. 

But in 2015 I’d had enough. We had just moved to Michigan, I’d had my third baby two weeks after moving in an emergency situation that left me bone weary and fearing I would no longer be able to have children. We’d left our community of 15 years and come to a place where we knew no one. We had few friends. My weight was the highest and my confidence the lowest it’s ever been. There was nothing left to lose. So I got out the old YouTube and I starting searching.

Not A One-Hit Wonder

For the uninitiated, it may appear that Hanson was a one-hit wonder. If you’re old enough, you may remember the ubiquity of “Mmmbop” in 1997. This was before the internet. For a month, I spent every night in my parents room listening to the “top 9 at 9” on U93 South Bend on their clock radio because I knew “Mmmbop” would be the number one song, but I didn’t want anyone to know I was listening to it. That song will always give me a visceral recall of dusk and crickets and loneliness.

After a second hit single, “Where’s The Love,” that year, and another single from their second record – released in 1999 – “This Time Around,” (which I don’t remember ever hearing on the radio), they disappeared from public view other than an odd press release in People magazine or an appearance on TV, as far as I knew. I still thought about them often enough, wondering what they were doing. It wasn’t quite the frenzy of prayer I subjected myself to around 97, trying to stave off insanity, but of course if Taylor came to mind I had to pray like my sanity depended on it. I will never forget where I was (foot doctor’s office on Summer break from college) when I caught the tiny thumbnail announcement on the back of a “People” that Taylor had gotten married to a girl named Natalie Bryant. I had known it was coming sooner or later; I’d just assumed I would have more time!! He was only 19. (I have come to have such respect for the Hanson wives, by the way, what little we get to know of them. Natalie is an inspiration in her own right).

One friend told me they were still touring and writing new music and that his friend had just seen them at the House Of Blues in Chicago. My sister knew a girl who had written a research paper about their experience in the music industry. They were traveling around to colleges with this documentary they’d made called “Strong Enough To Break.” 

Hanson Deep Dive

Can I just pause here and say that, if for no other reason (but there are PLENTY), the brothers Hanson are worth investigating because they are total outliers. If you can open your mind to this – and I think you should – they are an embodiment of the idea that, as John Taylor Gatto says

“…genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.”

They come from a family of 7 kids, they were homeschooled, they started playing together as a band when they were 11, 9, and 6 and they stuck with it for 5 years (which, for a kid is like eternity). They did some very ballsy things like cornering a music executive at South By Southwest to ask if they could sing for him. I always think, who is this mysterious Mrs. Hanson and can I meet her someday? For the three of them to have this vision, she had to have it too.

They started their own website in the late 90’s – an actual ISP – which they kept when music executives told them they didn’t need it. It proved to be – as with many technological advances they either helped pioneer or adopted early – one of the ways they kept their career afloat when the music industry turned against them. 

When their record label got bought by another company, and that company refused to promote their second album very well and told them their careers were over, they took their earnings and started their own record label. I don’t have all the details about this by heart, but when they finally ended up putting out their third album, “Underneath” (five years and hundreds of songs later), it was something like the highest selling independent record that year. They’ve built several businesses, events, and non-profit organizations, and continued writing and doing live shows all over the world at a breakneck pace. 

That’s all peripheral, though. Their real genius is in songwriting. You might know them from Mmmbop (which they wrote as little children I might add), but the rest of their work speaks for itself. And there is a TON of it. In my opinion, you should give it a listen and let it speak to you.  

Back To My First Concert

So anyway, in 2017, I sort of expect that when they hit the stage it’ll be like when I did the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Which was, probably when I was 13, at a homeschool skating party in LaPorte, Indiana. Shelley Foster had been chatting with this new boy; a good-looking, self-possessed kid a bit older than me who had shown up at our monthly event where no new boys ever came. I truly must have been goaded at her or I must have responded to an inner dare because I ordinarily would never have openly approached a cute teenaged boy without an intermediary. It’s the only time I can remember having done so. 

I was ill. 

Like, seriously. I felt like I was going to throw up.

(Funny aside here. One of the things I did in preparation for the Hanson show in 2017 was to buy the official Hanson biography from 1997 on eBay. One of the best parts of this book is when Taylor is describing how it is sometimes difficult to talk to the girls who come to their shows because they’re screaming so much you can’t ask them any questions. I still laugh out loud at the image of Taylor kindly trying to talk to a girl who is literally screaming in his face.)

At that homeschool skating party, I experienced – in the midst of my terror – a wild exhilaration for having mustered my courage. Oh my gosh. Teenaged boys…amiright? Only to be dashed back to earth to find out it was his younger brother being homeschooled and did I want to meet him? But still. I did it.

And now, here I am at Iron City, and not much has changed except one husband, 3 children, 20 years and 50 lbs., waiting to feel annihilated. And then suddenly they’re there onstage, and the crowd is roaring, and I just…I don’t know. I forget myself. In a good way. I know right away I should’ve done it years ago. There isn’t a single nanosecond from the time they walk onstage until they belt out the last notes of “Rockin’ Robin” acapella that I’m not enthralled. I sing, clap, jump and pump my fist in the air, and I have NEVER been that kind of person. 

Words cannot describe the light, sparkling character of that show. It was like a wide open sky, a big effervescent bubble of joy expanding upward and out into the night, pulling my heart right along with it. It was a “swift sunrise over a far green country.” For two hours, I got to put myself aside while they took over and it was the truest rest I’ve had in a very long time.

Walking Into Embarassment

I guess this is the thing loving Hanson, and yes even having a crush on Taylor, has done for me: I have been invited to walk into embarrassment and find I could survive it. It continues to be the perfect foil to my envy-stricken self. Was it ever “cool” to be a die-hard Hanson fan? Not the way I do it (come on…a BACKPACK?). I was never a screamer, or a stalker, but all the rest of it that’s true of their other fans is true of me too. Was it ever “cool” to be one of the screaming girl horde? On the contrary, I couldn’t even look at a Hanson poster much less put one on my wall in my embarrassment. How cool is it now, when I’m almost 40? Zero. Negative cool. 

Here’s the thing about embarrassment that I just learned: it can be the cover for evil. I just read this book “People Of The Lie, The Hope For Healing Human Evil,” by M. Scott Peck. According to Peck, the foundation for a healthy psyche is summed up in this quotation of St. Therese of Lisieux: “If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.” I would expand that definition to say “for other people” as well. According to Peck, the opposite is also true. What evil does is hide from the world, and from itself. It can’t bear the light of truth or reason.

I found it helpful to read his observations on evil, because it’s not something you can easily pinpoint in yourself or in someone else. Most evil isn’t flashy, it’s mundane and boring. You know how when you’re around some people you feel easily confused about why they are so off-putting because nothing about them seems like it should bother you? You have an aversion to them, but you are convinced that everything is your problem? Or when you’re unable to reconcile in a fight with another person because they just can’t or won’t see things from your point of view, and if they would just understand you they’d realize you didn’t do anything wrong? 

Yeah, that’s evil. I know, because I just did it yesterday to Henry. In the car. On the way to church.

Flannery O’Connor, puts this idea in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” So often, we cling to the appearance of “being good,” to acting good and being good at things, because we can’t bear to see ourselves as we really are. We go to God or to church or to social justice, etc. (or all of the above) because we are trying to get as far away from our own badness as we can. It’s often the true misfits of this world who understand this first. Hence, the beatitudes.

I had never really thought about what it meant that I was too embarrassed to be the screaming girl or to admit that I had a crush on Taylor. But I think I finally got something right because of the light and life that has come into my life when I decided to be mortified. I could have gone on the way I was, trying to ignore him, and them, but I miraculously didn’t. Maybe it’s never going to feel “good.” Being willing to be displeasing to myself, and to see reality the way it is is a necessary part of becoming more human. Sometimes a hard-won triumph feels kind of shitty. 

This thing with Hanson isn’t the thing that has ruled my life (contrary to how I make it sound), but it has become kind of a catalyst. Once I went back to that point where I had refused to be embarrassed and admitted I was just like those “other” girls who were totally obsessed with this guy, I realized I had some grieving to do, which was in itself also embarrassing. But it was like cleaning out a bunch of rooms that were stuffed with junk. I still do grieve over it sometimes: that time in my life, the things I’ll never have, the person I didn’t become, circumstances beyond my control. But that one little turning – that facing the truth that Taylor is a real person and I wanted his attention but would never have it, and pressing through the embarrassment to admit it to myself (and now the internet) – has made all the difference. The more firmly I keep it turned, the more light I let into those rooms. 

You’ll never believe this, but it was Tolkien who helped me understand what was happening to me in this passage from The Fellowship Of The Ring. When the Fellowship leaves Lothlorien – the realm of the Elf-Queen Galadriel – Gimli the dwarf has had an experience of beauty that left him grief-stricken. He’s seen Galadriel and Lothlorien and he’ll never be the same.

“Gimli wept openly.

“I have looked the last upon that which was fairest,’ he said to Legolas his companion. “Henceforward I will call nothing fair, unless it be her gift.” He put his hand to his breast.

“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Gloin!”

“Nay!” said Legolas. “Alas for us all! And for all that walk the world in these after-days. For such is the way of it: to find and lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream. But I count you blessed, Gimli son of Gloin: for your loss you suffer of your own free will, and you might have chosen otherwise. But you have not forsaken your companions, and the least reward that you shall have is that the memory of Lothlorien shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale.”

“Maybe,” said Gimli; “and I think you for your words. True words doubtless; yet all such comfort is cold. Memory is not what the heart desires…”

Image by @cnngptrai

What Happened After

Facing my fear and grief freed me to really see Taylor (and Isaac, and Zac) – not just idolize him – and to hear their music and be changed by it. There was work being done that I wasn’t doing at that concert. I only brought myself there, and that was hard enough. I never expected any kind of resolution. I expected to feel something like indifference or arrogance, I’m ashamed to admit. You know how you can tell when someone is performing disdainfully? It’s not a nice feeling. I expected to feel something like that, but it was the opposite. It was all generosity and humility and joy. I don’t know how they do it. It’s probably about who they are as people. I started out admiring them as boys and nothing I’ve ever heard them say or heard about them doing has changed that. My admiration for them has only grown. 

We crazy, female Hanson fans say it all the time: their music has gotten me through some very low points. It is uniquely inspiring. And I really mean that. I don’t get inspired that way or feel that kind of optimism easily. They are relentlessly kind, and humble. They are relentless, period. They embody the best things about manhood. They are a force for good that I would have missed;  that I did miss for a long time. I wouldn’t be able to say this about many other public figures. They should be as big as U2, and we wish for their sake that they were, but it doesn’t truly matter. They are always working, always hoping for the best, always grateful for what they have, always trying to impart hope and joy and meaning to those who are listening. 

In these dark days, I can imagine what a difficult job that must be and I’m even more grateful. 

When you become a fanclub member, you get access to all kinds of cool stuff. They do a lot for their fans. One of the things they do is throw a big party to celebrate “Hanson Day” in Tulsa (May 6th was declared Hanson Day by Oklahoma’s then-governor Frank Keating), and you can only get tickets if you are a member. I have never been, but it’s full of special workshops, game nights, concerts and more. I was watching some footage of a big announcement on Hanson Day a few months ago. They were announcing more tours (since canceled because of COVID) and more studio albums. It’s been several years since their last studio album, “Anthem.” (don’t let that fool you. They’re constantly writing new songs). The new album, scheduled for release in 2021 (if 2021 even happens), is called “Against The World.” I was struck by something Taylor said during that announcement.

(I know none of you care, but I know I’m harping on Taylor a lot. I just need ya’ll to know that I think they’re all amazing and talented. And I love them all like the big brothers I never had. They all say and write and sing things that inspire me and give me hope.)

Here’s what he said: “it’s not just us *pointing to himself and his brothers* against the world, it’s us *pointing to himself and the audience* against the world.” I thought, how beautiful is that? He could be saying the first thing and we would all accept it. But he’s taking his talent, beauty, and power and throwing in his lot with us – arguably misfits. He’s saying he’s on our side and he’s sticking with us. If that’s not an emulation of Christ, I don’t know what is. 

I’m just so grateful.

Here are the lyrics to a new Hanson song that was written and released this Spring/Summer on their Members only EP “Continental Breakfast In Bed,” (which is currently sitting on top of my Bose). I wanted to share it because it perfectly expresses how I feel in the world right now. How so many of us feel. You can hear some of it on their YouTube channel, but I think you should just become a member so you can own it, and see what you’re missing.

It’s called “All I Know.” 

I hear my shoulders beg for rest

I can feel my beating heart pounding inside my chest

and I fear the future, so I hold it tight

turn my ear to listen, but I can’t hear a word tonight

So I try

and fail to get there

and I’m sure

that the end is coming soon

But with all I know

all I know

is not enough

I have kept my secrets

but I’ve told few lies

anyone can see the man that hides behind these eyes

Like an unknown question in an unseen light

too many reasons

hang over me tonight

But I try

and I fail to get there

and I’m sure

that the end will find me soon

with all I know

all I know

is not enough

It’s not enough

I’ve had enough

I’m tired of this kind of living

It’s not enough

something is bound to give in soon

I’ve had enough

I’m tired of this kind of living

‘Cause all I know is not enough

I’m done with living

in the past

where anything I’ve done that’s good I doubt will ever last

well, I’ve earned my reasons, anyone can tell

but I’d be gladly parted of them for a chance to finish well

So I try

and I fail to get there

and I’m sure

that the end will be here soon

with all I know

all I know

with all I know

and all I know

is not enough

Goldberry Is Waiting

I have a problem. I’ve had it my whole life. It’s that I find men to be compelling and beautiful. Of course, not all men at all times. Not most men most times, truth be told. But when I’m going to get all choked up by something; when I’m going to feel that heart-growing-two-sizes-too-big feeling it’s going to be about some man.

I know, it sounds ridiculous. Especially in the current state of things out there. Men…beautiful? I can’t help it. I know it sounds like I’m off in a corner with my fingers in my ears. Trust me, I’m very aware of what everyone is saying about “toxic masculinity.” It’s just not that interesting to me because, for all that men end up being the ones to do some horrifying shit, they are also extremely glorious when they are doing what they are made to do. I see it. I feel it in my bones.

I am curious to know what makes Woman so great, if anything. It has to be more than the girl power mantra. I honestly don’t see myself changing the world. I’m having a hard time just losing the baby weight. Also, women at the apex still want to be mothers, and motherhood is just down and dirty work. If men and women are basically the same, and women are as good as men at everything, and if all we want is to compete with men, then why would Lady Gaga want to have a baby? What’s in it for her? She’s already at the top. 

On the flipside, why then would I ever feel like I needed something more than just being a wife and mother? There are certain circles where I’ve felt pressured not to have dreams of becoming anything myself (with whatever is left of my life force). Why would I have cried when I was little over not having a penis (true story. Thank God I was born in the 80’s), but have grown up to love being a woman? I wouldn’t trade it. Why would I revisit this theme so often in life, even though I am proud of bearing four children and I am proud of what I do? I regularly cry over not having the drive of a man. I am envious of certain men to this day, and I wish I could get over it. Maybe that’s the torture inherent in being a woman.  Maybe the sadness of clearly seeing but not being able to possess whatever it is about men is an essential thing about womanhood. Or maybe it’s a curse and it’s meant to be undone someday. 

As I’ve said, I don’t find much that’s useful in our culture about this question. But I have found Tolkien. And Tolkien, though he doesn’t write very many women, writes women profoundly. I listen to LOTR every year starting in September, and in recent years I’ve been more and more moved by his description of Goldberry. Goldberry is the wife of Tom Bombadil, Master of the wild woods on the borders of the Shire, where the hobbits live. Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam get rescued by Tom several times in the early part of the first book and this passage is just after their first rescue as they come through the dark woods to the house of Tom and Goldberry (emphasis mine): 

“Then another clear voice, as young and as ancient as spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills, came falling like silver to meet them:

Now let the song begin! Let us sing together

Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather,

Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,

Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather, 

Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:

Old Tom Bombadil adn the River-daughter!

And with that song the hobbits stood upon the threshold, and a golden light was all about them. 

 the four Hobbits stepped over the wide stone threshold, and stood still, blinking. They were in a long low room, filled with the light of lamps swinging from the beams of the roof; and on the table of dark polished wood stood many candles, tall and yellow, burning brightly.

In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water lilies were floating, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool. ‘Enter, good guests!’ she said, and as she spoke they knew that it was her clear voice they had heard singing. They came a few timid steps further into the room, and began to bow low, feeling strangely surprised and awkward, like folks that, knocking at a cottage door to beg for a drink of water, have been answered by a fair young elf queen clad in living flowers. But before they could say anything, she sprang lightly up and over the lily bulbs, and ran laughing towards them; and as she ran her gown rustled softly like the wind in the flowering borders of a river.

‘Come dear folk!’ She said, taking Frodo by the hand. ‘Laugh and be merry! I am Goldberry, daughter of the river.’ Then lightly she passed them and closing the door she turned her back to it, with her white arms spread out across it. ‘Let us shut out the night!’ She said. ‘For you are still afraid, perhaps, of mist and tree shadows and deep water, and untamed things. Fear nothing! For tonight you are under the roof of Tom Bombadil.’

The hobbits looked at her in wonder; and she looked at each of them and smiled. ‘Fair lady Goldberry!’ Said Frodo at last, feeling his heart moved with a joy that he did not understand. He stood as he had at times stood enchanted by Fair Elven-voices; but the spell that was now laid upon him was different: less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to mortal heart; marvelous and yet not strange. ‘Fair Lady goldberry!’ He said again. ‘Now the joy that was hidden in the songs we heard is made plain to me.

O slender as a willow wand! O clearer than clear water!

O maid by the living pool! Fair river-daughter!

O spring time and summertime, and spring again after!

O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves laughter!’

 Suddenly he stopped and stammered, overcome with surprised to hear himself saying such things. But Goldberry laughed.

‘Welcome!’ She said.’ I had not heard that folk of the Shire were so sweet-tongued. But I see you are an Elf-friend; the light in your eyes and the ring in your voice tells it. This is a merry meeting! Sit now, and wait for the Master of the House! He will not be long. He is tending your tired Beasts.’

The Hobbit sat down gladly on low rush-seated chairs, while Goldberry busied herself about the table; and their eyes followed her, for the slender grace of her movement filled them with quiet delight. From somewhere behind the house came the sound of singing. Every now and again they caught, among many a derry doll and a merry doll and the ring a ding dillo the repeated words:

old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow;

bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.

 ‘Fair lady!’ Said Frodo again after a while. ‘Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadill ?’

‘He is,’ said goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.

Frodo looked at her questioningly. ‘He is, as you have seen him,’ she said in answer to his look. ‘He is the master of wood, water, and hill.’

‘Then all this strange land belongs to him?’

‘No indeed!’ She answered, and her smile faded. ‘That would indeed be a burden,’ she added in a low voice, as if to herself. ‘The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belonging each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest. waiting in the water. leaping on the hilltops under light and Shadow. he has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.’

A door opened and in came Tom Bombadil. He had now no hat and his thick brown hair was crowned with Autumn Leaves. He laughed, and going to Goldberry took her hand.

‘Here’s my pretty lady!’ He said, bowing to the hobbits. ‘Here’s my Goldberry clothed all in silver green with flowers in her girdle! Is the table Laden? I see yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread, and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries gathered. Is that enough for us? Is the supper ready?’ 

Photo by JinxMim on Deviant Art

The way Tolkien writes about women is intriguing. I have always loved Eowyn’s story, since I saw the trilogy of movies in college, although the girl power message was lost on me then. There’s a lot I resonate with in Eowyn’s story. I even named my daughter after her. She has a high destiny, for one, and she’s broody and full of despair, which I love. I can completely relate to the feeling of loving someone from afar whose love you are not destined to have, no matter what great thing you do. 

I honestly don’t know how Tolkien gets to the heart of it. It’s true as he writes it; women do want to be useful, we want to be able to fight like a man. We want glory, and we want the admiration of admirable men. Is that so much to ask?! From one angle, the story of womanhood is a story of feeling thwarted and of learning to be content with what you are given. I don’t know, maybe that’s just the story of mankind. 

Two other less attractive angles on womanhood from Tolkien:

Eoreth – the woman from Minas Tirith – who can’t stop talking. Her self-importance about the small part she plays in the war is insufferable and lifelike. She’s funny, and also cringy.

Then there’s Shelob – the giant spider-she-monster who lives in caves on the outskirts of Mordor and whose only delight is in feeding on flesh: orc flesh mostly, but man, elf and hobbit when she can get it. After she stings Frodo, Sam wounds her and drives her away with his Elvish blade when she attempts to use her body to squash him. Shelob is the spawn of Ungoliant, one of the oldest followers of Melkor – the original rebel against the maker of Middle Earth. What Ungoliant wants is to consume all of creation. Her hunger is never satisfied. Either Tolkien’s imagination of this is a revelation, or he had experience that informed it. Whatever it was, I find it in myself. Apart from the healing work of Jesus, I am not sure if anything would ever be enough for me. 

In fact, I was once given this vision in prayer: my mouth had become a black hole, sucking in everything I saw. Wherever I turned my head, everything in front of me was sucked into my gaping maw. In my distress, I wondered what could ever turn it off. Was I destined to only suck everything up? The answer came when Jesus appeared, turned me to himself, and kissed me on the lips and when He did, my mouth turned into a normal mouth.

But I digress. I don’t need to search far for my pitfalls. I see the folly of Eoreth in myself, and I know that but for God’s grace I would be a Shelob. I feel keenly the longing of Eowyn, and I hope that in the last hour of despair I would act with honor and strength as she does. I feel the sad sweetness of relenting to a lower destiny as Eowyn does when she falls in love with Faramir. Some of Eowyn’s story shows what glories womanhood holds. 

But Goldberry and Tom Bombadil are something else. 

I can’t even say that I want to be Goldberry, but there’s something about her that calls to me. There’s something about the picture they create together that feels like home. For one thing, Goldberry is waiting. That seems to be one of her things. Goldberry is not Tom Bombadil. Goldberry is not master. The charms of Goldberry are almost entirely hidden, unless happened-upon by lost, frightened and weary travelers. For the most part, her beauty is lavished upon Tom Bombadil, and him only. And yet, it’s silly to think of Tom Bombadil tromping around and singing in the old forest only to come home to a cold hearth. Gathering lilies was his most important business, not rescuing wanderers.

Is this the final magic of me? Of Woman? In some sense, in a very large sense, there would be no Man without Woman. The men I admire wouldn’t do what they do without the women in their lives. One of the few places we have in this sad realm (where men don’t have much opportunity for swordplay) where I have often beheld the glory of Man is in a performance of some kind. It was after a rock concert that I realized something: 

Receiving isn’t passive.

That room and that performance was magical as much because of me as because of the performers. Without me, what would it be? A performance is as much of a dance as anything else. The performers bring expertise, talent, and will, but without open hearts the message is lost. Without someone to receive it, is there really a message? 

The picture of Goldberry isn’t glorious because of what she does. Although the practical part of me knows how much work it would take to have a lovely supper ready, be slender as a willow wand, [ancient and new as spring] have downy mattresses and white woolen blankets ready for guests in spotless rooms and be tending lilies in pots all winter. Her glory is in what she IS. 

“Fair lady Goldberry!’ Said Frodo at last, feeling his heart moved with a joy that he did not understand. He stood as he had at times stood enchanted by Fair Elven-voices; but the spell that was now laid upon him was different: less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to mortal heart; marvelous and yet not strange.”

My whole being gets pulled into the longing for man, the beauty of man. I want to be joined to it, somehow. And, in some moments I think the answer must be to be like it, to work hard, to be visible. It’s so hard not to want to be visible. Not to want to put all my hopes for wholeness into the idea of recognition and power. Men seem to be able to get it so easily. And I have been told my whole life that I should want it above all things. But I find myself torn, and the path I have chosen means I am hidden. I find myself doing work that no one will ever see, and which may not show forth fruit for decades, if it ever does.

When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be famous. I still want to make something beautiful that makes an impact on the world. Me, myself, not just through my body. In the past, in my bitterness I have thought, “anyone can get knocked up.” I have some talents, and some will to succeed. It often feels like I am letting it all atrophy. I had a friend ask me recently if I ever regret that I never did more with my voice. The answer is yes. Of course I do. But if I had done that, what other thing would I now regret? Men can have a career and a family. Women often can’t, or they find that the split is too great and they don’t want to. I honestly don’t know what the answer is.

But the more I go about life, the more I think this: 

In the end, anything worthwhile you do, you do as an instrument. Inspiration is ultimately revelation. It comes from outside of you. All you can do is be faithful to the vision you have been given. I do have a quibble with the difference between pregnancy and giving birth and writing a poem, or a song. One is decidedly more enjoyable for the doer. But in the end, they are both creative acts and they both require submission and sacrifice. Who am I to insist that I will only be this kind of instrument and not the other, or to say that I should have been given this kind of creative work to do and not the other? Who am I to say that I can see its fruition? What fruition there is lies beyond the edge of time.

I will never forget the moment my photography 101 prof asked us to say if we thought the camera was male or female. I’m sure none of us had given it one thought. As student after student gave their opinion that the camera is male for this or that reason – most of which boiled down to the shape of the thing – I got more and more sure they were wrong. I ended up giving what Greg later said was the most heartfelt? passionate? decisive? (maniacal?) response he’d ever heard. All I know is I was, and am, sure of the answer.

The camera is female, and here’s why:

The camera doesn’t spit anything out, and it doesn’t give the raw material for anything. It takes light and time into itself, which is to say it takes in mystery. One, holy moment in time takes shape in the dark secret of the camera’s body and is delivered to the world as a work of art.

No sooner do I say this, than I find it’s what I’m doing, what I’ve always been doing. I’m not on stage, I’m down in the dark looking at the man on the stage in love and compassion, giving his work meaning. I won’t be that spider; I won’t gobble up the world. I was made to take it in, to understand what I am seeing with love and compassion, and to hold it inside myself. I am there to make a home. Do you see what I’m saying? Sister, do you know what it is you’re doing?  

You are giving the world meaning. Without you, there would be no world. 

What could be more lovely?  

The Weakness of Parenting a “Strong Willed” Child

Church this week went like this: We got there slightly early because I was the reader and Henry played cello. The kids settled into a pew, took out their paper and all the pencils and offering envelopes in the pew back holder. They began their normal ritual of paper airplane making, fighting and coloring. Wyatt continually wanted my attention as I tried to listen to instructions and have a quick conversation about the reading. The service started but the loud talking and fighting didn’t stop. Many times, I had to lean over to have word with them or stand in between them and Wyatt often had to be asked two or three times to show me he was listening. Nothing I did made much of a difference in their behavior. Then it came time for the kids to gather up front to be dismissed to their classes. After months of battling to get them to go to Sunday school, because we knew it would be good for them to make friends, Wyatt has decided he no longer likes it. So, as I am trying to keep hold of Ginny’s hand and assure Gilead I’m coming with them, I’m trying to pull Wyatt along and let him know it’s going to be okay.

He’s screaming and red-faced, holding onto the side of the pew with his other hand and digging in his heels in the middle aisle. I’m the last mom there – the only person left standing in the front of the whole church – and this is what’s happening. I wish I could say it’s not normal but it, or something like it, happens every single week. There’s always screaming and whining. It’s constant at home as well. On our way to the class in the parish house, I have to reassure him every two steps in order to get him to come. And then there’s a dog. It’s in a cage, behind a fence, but he believes it’s going to be inside the house and this starts up a whole new round of whining, all the way up the stairs. Once we get to his classroom and seated, he’s fine, as I knew he would be.

Later, at the all-church lunch, we end up sitting outside with the overflow crowd. The problem is that the dog is there too. It’s on a leash, surrounded by other kids (who are all thrilled, by the way), but Wyatt is beside himself with fear. It’s impossible to carry on a conversation or eat my own meal. He can’t be reasoned-with. He’s screaming and crying; genuinely terrified.

By the time we finish our meal, I am exhausted. I am ready to go home. There’s nothing anyone else can do to help me, and I can’t participate in the social scene there at the church picnic. And this is what most of our outings are like – even if it’s just going out in our yard.

Wyatt is often the only kid in the whole place who is afraid of something, like the dog, or doing something, like screaming and whining that sets him apart from all the other kids. For this reason, as well as how we are often left to deal with his outbursts, we feel singled out, left out, embarrassed, and like failures.

But I don’t describe this to get pity. Much less do I want anyone to figure out his problem for me. I felt like we’d already been through the same thing with Gilead, just about different issues. We were told he was hyperactive by nursery workers. He was always the kid hurting other kids at a play date; mortifying me. I’m somewhat inured to the embarrassment of Wyatt because I had already had to accept it before. Gilead grew out of some of that. I have a feeling, however, that Wyatt is always going to be a challenge. I don’t have time to go into all of my intuitions about him here, but he’s a unique challenge. He doesn’t seem to fit into any boxes. I love him so dearly but he exhausts me and there often is no logical solution to any given problem with him.

And yes, we’ve been given lots of advice. All over the map. In fact, it’s almost excruciating to come up for prayer because inevitably, advice follows. It’s always well-meant. But do you know how hard it is to be in this position? If you do know, then you really know, I bet. You feel my pain and embarrassment. If you don’t know, it’s okay. There are other issues in your life I don’t get.

In every church I’ve ever been in, even the ones heavy on the prayer ministry, and with almost every Christian person I’ve met the response to someone hurting, openly needy and asking for help is usually the same: concern and well-meant advice with a sprinkling of prayer. It’s highly unusual to meet someone who can bear to sit with you in your pain and accept you and what’s happening to you.

Do you know that it is a much, much harder thing to receive help than to give help? That’s why we give each other all kinds of systems for parenting. It’s a lot less scary to sit in a seminar or read a book and implement a system than it is to confess that you don’t know how to help your kid. To suffer the embarrassment of their public bad behavior and then have the humility to say you know you need God’s help and ask for prayer.

I have to confess that I’m so tired of advice. I am tired of self-righteousness in Church.

Yes, advice can be helpful. Yes, sometimes someone sees something in a way that you can’t, and God can use their words. More often, it confuses the issue. It makes me think that if I can just pluck up enough determination, I can really turn this thing around. It points me away from the truth.

What’s that? What truth, you say?

Well, I’m beginning to see this weakness-as-strength thing as the all-pervasive truth. Maybe the only truth there is in the universe. If it’s true that I come to Jesus with nothing morally, and that even the good I do is tainted by sin (this is what Romans says), then it’s true in the realm of parenting as well. Even my good intentions, even the good I do toward my children suffers the same fate.

And what does Romans say about all that? “There is now no condemnation.”

No condemnation

I have to tell you, those rules and systems and pieces of advice feel a whole lot like condemnation. Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Why do we keep giving each other advice instead of giving each other ourselves? Because it’s easier. It’s less scary. It’s less time-consuming. It’s less humbling – especially when you can get yourself in the position of teacher or advice-giver. And then you start to get a whole church full of advice givers. I know. I’ve done it and have aspired to do it for many years. I’m just as guilty as anyone else in church. But I am truly, truly sick of it.

It took me years to unlearn some subliminal messages about the nature of God because of what I thought I was hearing from authority figures in my life: that I had to be good for God to accept me, that He was mad at me or couldn’t hear me when I prayed to Him because of sin in my life. I definitely don’t want to start seeing God as advice-giver, because he’s not.

The only parenting model I want to follow is the one I’ve been shown in Jesus. And I hope someone on the periphery of the church is going to read this and that they will be able to hear past how those words sound, because this really is good news. I talk church talk because I’ve been steeped in it. But anyway, God has never parented me this way. Jesus has never befriended me this way.

This morning, in the shower, I found myself trying to strip this down to its most essential question. Can I love Wyatt even if he never changes? I feel so unworthy, so inept. And most of the time, too tired. And then, on the heels of that, Jesus can you love me even if I never change?

Do you love me even if this is all there is?

tully
Did anyone else make their husband take them to see Tully on Mother’s Day? No? That was just me? Well, I have to say that it definitely struck a chord. I would recommend it. 

I didn’t need any kind of supernatural answer to that question, even though I did feel His presence in the answer. Because I already know the answer. It’s yes, of course. He goes before me. He loves me into being human enough to love him back. He’s NEVER given me a set of rules to follow. In fact, this religion is hard to understand from the outside because it isn’t, properly, a religion. It’s devotion to a person. And that person came to die, to be humiliated, to suffer for me. He’s only calling me to do for Wyatt what he’s done for me. Not manipulate him into having better behavior, but actually to pour myself out for his sake, so that he can be changed by love. Do you see the difference? One of those things is primarily for my sake – so that I can not be embarrassed by Wyatt’s bad behavior, so that my life doesn’t have to be so interrupted. The other is a labor of love. It requires me to see beyond the bad that Wyatt is doing right now in order to call out his true self. It requires me to put down my agenda in order to sit with Wyatt and really see him. It requires that I put aside my own needs sometimes because he needs me to calm his fears and correct his wrong ways of thinking. It means I have to cuddle when I want to put him in time-out. Or, more often, do both. It requires nothing less than a kind of death; to me. To self. Because if I don’t do it; if I refuse to suffer for Wyatt, then Wyatt suffers for me, for my selfishness.

I realized yesterday this principle can pretty much be applied across the board. I like the line “if it’s us or them, it’s us for them” from the Gungor song Us For Them. Maybe that’s something of what it means to be a spiritual parent to someone whether or not you have a biological child. It’s certainly what it means to follow Christ. I’ll just channel Tim Keller here and say that this is therefore the only absolute truth claim it’s safe to make. That’s why we get so dogged about it, us Christians.

And I have no hope of doing this on my own.

That doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless. On the contrary. It’s just scary because I can’t put any hope in my own performance. I have to put it all in Christ and what He’s done. Even when I can barely hope. Even when I can’t pray. Even when I can’t see the truth.

But thank God, right?

The Great Thing About Giving Up

 

back-view-backlit-city-847483

I’ve done a fair amount of giving up in life. A few days ago I wrote about having given up at music in college. I gave up trying to run and grow my own business. I give up on healthy diets all the time. I’ve given up coffee too many times to count (it’s easy! I do it all the time!).

To be fair to myself, there were some extenuating circumstances in some of those instances. I probably could have put in some more effort or gotten some counseling to help me not give up. Or, I may have needed to lose some of those things to figure out they weren’t right for me.

However, this isn’t the kind of giving up I had in mind when I wrote this title just now. The “oh well, I’m no good at anything anyway.” The Eyeore Mindset I have spent time perfecting. Nope. Here’s what I mean, and then I’ll get to the good part:

I have often had it in my head that, in order to have a sense of self or a sense of worth, I had to be going somewhere. It was okay that I hadn’t gotten there yet, as long as I was on my way in some way. As long as I was making, or re-making, myself by my own rules and following my own heart, I was doing just fine and I could look people in the eye and tell them I “wanted to be a jazz singer” or I was “planning to go to film school” or I “owned my own jewelry business.” When really what I was doing was nannying and working two part-time jobs or half-assing my way through a music degree I hated and wasting my Dad’s money. As long as I had dreams, I had something. I had some kind of future to which to pin my identity. As long as I was in transit to something acceptable, I would be fine for now. And I knew that as long as someday I made it, someday I got to where I’d imagined I would be, I would finally feel at peace. Every celebrity memoir I’ve ever read is the glorification of that drive. I’m listening to one right now. It’s hilarious.

Then later, I pinned my identity on becoming like the mothers I saw around me with 12 perfectly clean children who all spoke Latin and Greek and played classical piano by the age of 8. I had to be eternally pregnant but thin and with-it. I had to be commanding with my children but yielding with my husband. I had to bake my own bread! But it had to be gluten-free. I had to breastfeed until age 7 but still look bangable for my husband at night. Not to mention family prayers three times a day.

Except that’s all complete crap. And I repudiate it. I choose to be a loser. Why?

Well, for one thing, the target shifts every time you attain something. Listen to any podcast made by any famous person. That, or it’s the opposite of what you wanted, or it’s transitory. See Jonathan Brandis.

Those “dreams?” The ones all the Disney princesses sing about? I don’t know how they make anyone happy!! They’re a crock of shit if you ask me. I have some really successful friends. And I know without having to ask them that it’s probably scary and lonely near the top. I also know that they still need all the same stuff I do and have all the same fears. I also know they probably still aren’t doing what they set out to do. I mean, who does that? Like 1% of people. But so many of us still believe that the attainment of something will make us happy. I know I do most times. It’s the gospel according to the whole world. And I include in that all the bullshit that gets thrown your way when you’re a mom. Yes, make good decisions for your children. Yes, be thoughtful. But all the rest? Repudiate it as often as possible. IMHO.

Now, here’s the good part.

When I am at my lowest point; when I can admit that I have utterly failed to do the things I had set out to do at 15, or 24 or 30 and that it’s too late to do them, I’m free. I don’t mean that I think I will never take up a new skill or create something new or get better at piano – or even write a book! I don’t mean that I give up on my kids and on giving them the best I can. I mean, I will never be famous. I will never marry a Hanson. I will not be a jazz singer or a rock star. It’s unlikely I will go to film school. And my kids aren’t going to be well-rounded geniuses. So be it.

When I am at the end of myself, I am finally free. And it’s not a free-fall. Honestly, I feel like I can breathe for the first time in a long time. When I finally admitted that the problem isn’t the money and it isn’t the house and it isn’t that I never had a career – it’s me. The problelm is me…it was a weight off my shoulders.

And yes, you may have to grieve some of it. But sister, you don’t owe anyone anything. Not even Jesus.

Now go outside and breathe. Stand in the sun. Take a walk. Stop thinking about your disorganized pantry. Give yourself permission to accept that you aren’t a broadway star, and cry about it if you need to. And then cry about how badly you fucked up this morning with your daughter. And then just be in that moment with Jesus and let him stand there with you. And you’ll know what to do next.

 

 

Blessed Are The Losers

I am a loser.

Wait. Hang on. Don’t rush to tell me I’m not, that God loves me, that He made me for a purpose. I know all that.

I don’t come here boldly proclaiming my loser status to get sympathy or disagreement from anyone. I say it because one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen at church was when a man stood up and, as he was introducing a man who is a recovering alcoholic who had gotten help from our congregation, stated that he was also an alcoholic. Kind of as an aside. Like everyone should know that about him. And let me just tell you, there’s a world of difference between these two men. The guy who was doing the introducing has a much higher socioeconomic status and mental capability than the other. But with those four words, “and I am too,” he leveled that.

I say that I am a loser because we have lost sight of our ability to accept weakness in this country and as a Church. And I think, after struggling through this for many years now, I am starting to understand something. My strength lies more in my weakness than it does in anything I can do well. And I think the same is true for the church.

I’ve never felt like a winner, honestly. There were a few times when I felt proud of an accomplishment, or a piece of art I had put my heart and soul into felt like it came close to what I’d envisioned, or my personal appearance was close to satisfactory. But precious few. And those were mostly – if not all – before I had kids. I’ve written about this before: I’ve never been poorer, fatter, or felt more out of control of myself and my trajectory. It all got taken away from me: starting with financial freedom and stability, continuing on to the ruin of my body, the loss of solitude and the loss of mental and emotional space to create anything. I’m basically a dry husk.

And now I’m entering into a brand new arena of failure: home schooling. Vast new worlds full of beautiful women with well-behaved children and perfect kitchens and nature corners have been unveiled to me. More of them than I ever could have imagined existed.

And what is it all worth? I’m here to tell you: nothing. It’s all bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong. I do love beautiful things. I love order and peace. I love to put a good meal in front of my family with nice serving dishes and I believe those things are important…in their place.

It’s just, when does it stop? I love Charlotte Mason (insert other education method here, if you’re into that sort of thing) because she says some of the truest things about children and people. But if I read her words and immediately identify ten MORE ways in which I am failing and can never hope to not fail at, what has this method done for me? It has become death. This particular law has become death to me.

You can see it anywhere: take weight gain or diets. Fat acceptance movement notwithstanding, you’re not going to convince me that it’s better and more healthy to be large than it is to not be large. But the alternative to not accepting being fat is some combination of judgment from the world and working really hard without feeling like you’re getting anywhere. Cuz most of us aren’t going to look like Heidi Klum no matter how hard we work. Especially not after 4 babies. And even if I think you look as good as Heidi Klum, chances are you don’t feel like Heidi Klum.

pinafore
I spent a good amount of time last Summer salivating over this dress, and looking like this in this dress. I think it cost something like $700 when it was being sold.

I’ve been told, in various ways by various people, to press in to the hard things. When my kids aren’t behaving well, when I’m feeling overwhelmed by motherhood and homeschooling. Even in my spiritual life – in the transformation Jesus wants to do in me. Is that good advice? Yes, of course we have to do things that are hard sometimes. And sometimes that’s what Jesus does want.

But stepping back, all too often it creates a harsh culture for anyone who doesn’t fit in. What about those good things you want me to press into if I can’t do them very well, or worse, if I can’t manage them at all? Suddenly I am on the outside looking in on the small group of people who seem to be able to do them OR I am lying so I can stay on the inside. So I can continue to be in the club.

I’ve seen it happening with breastfeeding, co-sleeping (or not co-sleeping), attachment parenting (or Babywise), healing prayer (or rigorous Bible study), various theological differences, worship music styles, weight loss or diet choices, home birth (or hospital birth), vaccinations (or non-vaccinations), home schooling (or even which homeschooling method you choose), the list goes on and on and on… And that’s just in the tiny little Christian bubble I’ve been part of for so long.

What I think I’ve found out, from the perspective of a chronic outsider (don’t mind me. I’m an Enneagram 4. It’s just how we do.) is that sometimes people give a lot of advice from a place of strength. They’re actually really good at something and it’s natural to them. They have people asking them stuff and it’s life-giving to help out. The problem is when it becomes a gospel. When it supercedes THE gospel.

Sometimes people aren’t as in tune with their weaknesses as I am right now. Or they don’t want to admit them. Hi, I’m Jenn. I’m 36 and never had a career. I dropped out of the conservatory of music at Wheaton. I never went to film school like I said I was going to. I never moved away from my college town until forced to by God. I have spent the last 7 years overweight and chronically yelling. I am socially anxious and awkward. I struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts even though I believe in Jesus. I was not the purest of pure going into my marriage. I struggle every day to be present to my children and most days I lose or give up on that battle. I don’t read my Bible all that often or pray every day. I say I am home schooling but we aren’t doing very much. My kids are often rude to people and they fight with each other. They are scared of new people and new situations. I hate letting my kids cook with me and only make myself do it rarely. I still can’t play a B chord on the guitar. I let my kids watch tv every day. I let my boys play Minecraft several times a week, sometimes for an hour or more. I’ve read three novels this week. Not literature novels. And not out loud to the kids.

Do I say this to say I’m not good at anything? No, I don’t think that. I also don’t think I’m worthless or not good at anything. Honestly, I don’t even think these things are my worst failings and I certainly don’t think they keep Jesus from me. But they are true. And I’m not proud of them. And I think that’s a perfect place to start.

But here’s THE gospel if you wanna hear it: it’s all that bullshit turned on its head. Jesus divested himself of all the power, strength and beauty he had. And of his life. Jesus became a loser, like me. And He told all the other losers that they were blessed. And then he got a bunch of losers to follow him because they had nowhere else to go. And those are pretty much the only kinds of people, still, who are willing to follow him. But they changed the world.

 

 

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