How I hopped aboard the Lent train and gave up sadness on the ride to Easter.
How I hopped aboard the Lent train and gave up sadness on the ride to Easter.
On an ice-glazed morning, today’s reading thaws my cockles. Thanks again, Annie L:
When all is said and done, spring is the main reason for Wow. Spring is crazy, being all hope and beauty and glory. She is the resurrection. Spring is Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
Buds opening and releasing, mud and cutting winds, bright green grass and blue skies, nests full of baby birds. All of these are deserving of Wow—even though I have said elsewhere that spring is also about deer ticks—and everywhere you look, couples are falling in love, and the air is saturated with the scent of giddiness and doom. Petals are wafting and falling slowly through the air, and there is something so Ravel, languorous, reminding me to revel in the beauty of things wafting.
Only two months to crocuses.
“Sin is not the adult bookstore on the corner. It is the hard heart, the lack of generosity, and all the isms, racism and sexism and so forth. But is there a crack where a ribbon of light might get in, might sneak past all the roadblocks and piles of stones, mental and emotional and cultural?”
–Anne Lamott, “Help, Thanks, Wow” (p. 62)
The truth in this quote seized me from the pages of one of my Christmas gifts, but typed up on this 17-inch screen the words are damning. My heart is tender, too tender, and so I have learned, finally, to seal it up tight to keep the hurtful barbs of life and crushing betrayals from causing more cardiac damage. But then, at what point does guarding this most critical muscle give way to hardening? And isn’t a hardened heart far more tragic than a broken heart?
Living on pins, needles these past months since
Surviving a second heart attack in eleven years I’m finally
Beginning to relax,
Feeling better, better than back to normal, lighter, back to
Working at my
Marketing job for a
Publishing company, which isn’t all that creative but freed me to reserve my creative energies for
Digging into deep thesis revisions, finally finished, and now the joy of
Crafting it into a manuscript, because a friend who read it thanked me for
Revealing, in my stories, a gracious God, a
Loving God, the same one who let my heart keep
Beating in July, so that in November, this quiet
Morning I am
Sitting on my Crate and Barrel couch
Watching another Macy’s Day parade, my 49th, and
Sipping coffee my
Darling husband brewed, and I can see outside tiny snowflakes
Falling, and I can hear the egg timer shaped like a chicken
Ticking down the minutes for the pumpkin pie, my sweetie’s favorite, in the oven
Filling our home with cozy aromas after yesterday, a glorious, common day of
Nesting to give my babies, two teenagers who are still in their beds
Sleeping, memories of a normal holiday with their mother who loves them more than life still
Typing this little post,
Trying in vain to capture her gratitude by
Counting the ways she is blessed with gifts so good it’s
Embarrassing, so extravagant that all she can do is just be
So these ideas (you know, from Part 1 wherein I sang Amazing Grace with a naked stranger) began pinging around inside my head the other morning as I tooled around in my car between the bank and Target. In an effort to refocus my thoughts from Twitter, kid worries, my thesis and job woes onto Something Bigger than myself I turned the dial from NPR to the Christian station (which I can tolerate only about 10% of the time due to my saccharin intolerance, I’m a bad Christian).
<An aside.> But back up a minute. I’ve been inviting God into my writing life more. Okay, more begging than “inviting” him—to invade, pervade, take over my writing process. This practice was born in the midst of some pretty paralyzing writer’s block a couple months ago, and I’ve found that it has helped. But careful what you ask for, right? <End of aside.>
A turn of the thumb and forefinger, and lo, a David Crowder Band song shifted my attention to this idea about love—God’s love—that I hold to be true. Singing along into my imaginary steering wheel microphone elevated me, sweeping up my spirit, whipping with it my emotions and thoughts into an epiphanic dust devil.
He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
LOVES LIKE A HURRICANE, I AM A TREE? <holy swoon>
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
. . . And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.
[Swept, I’m swept, I’m bent, like a tree and this really happens as I steer between Chase and Target]
And oh, how He loves us, oh,
Oh, how He loves us,
How He loves us all
Oh, how he loves us oh, Oh, how he loves us…
I’m feelin’ it. I’m lifting my right hand, singing, with heart and soul and voice, having some church up in my minivan. God, He loves US! just wow!
And on the horizon of this ecstasy a giant writing prompt blob looms. I don’t veer, don’t get out of its way. I let it gobble me up in its path: The “we” who sing this very song on Sunday mornings in church, while singing, become proprietary with this love. We hoard it at the same time we can barely believe it ourselves, the small portion we can grasp even as it spills from little hands. From our little human-sized praise bubbles we proclaim, Abba loves ME ME ME, with the subtext not THEM THEM THEM.
That idea blob, which is morphing into this blogpost, began to take shape in my mind, forming into mental notes for me to assemble later on a page. I thought about those Christians, how all those “other,” churchier people tend to claim, deep down, that God’s love is reserved more for them, a blessing for their devotion, that it doesn’t apply to the ones they deem out of God’s will. They may *say* God loves everyone, but they really view “those other people” as more worthy of judgment than blessing—people who are gay, divorced, atheists, unfaithful, the people who advocate for the gay, the divorced, the unbelieving. People who aren’t them.
And I’m swept up with the compulsion to announce to *those Christians* this: that God loves “us” means God loves “THEM” too! Whoever “them” is to the singer of the song, proclaimer of this truth (“how He loves us”). Gosh, I will write this down, I’m thinking in my car. Thanks God for this epiphany, which maybe can help persuade those judgmental people who hate on my gay friends, maybe I can craft something that in writing will communicate that David Crowder’s song applies to the people not in the pews too.
So I’m in my car, my writer engine revving with ideas, and a dear friend, an atheist I love and admire enters my mind and I see that she, too, is covered in that wide blanket of love even if she doesn’t believe and even if she finds it irritating that I do. I can sing the song at the top of my lungs with her in my mind, lifting beautiful-M to the throne of the Most High on my quavery alto, and she can’t do a thing about it! God doesn’t just love “us” so. He loves HER too.
This calls for prayer.
Me, to God, at the stoplight to turn toward Target: Thank you, God, for this idea, these thoughts, these fresh perspectives. I will write about them. God, help me to remember these concepts so I can write about them later when I get home. [Oh. The arrogance.]
God, to me, as I pull into my parking space: Sure thing, Beth. And while I have your attention…
I pulled into the expanse of Target parking feeling relieved to have a clear writing direction for a change so I wouldn’t have to just sit there later curing writing time staring at a blank screen. I turned off the engine but left the keys in the ignition. I wanted to sit there in that sacred space and enjoy the rest of the song, when a nearby unfolding scene bumped the needle out of my groove. In my line of vision a woman, cig hanging out her mouth, pulled into a Handicap parking spot. Yes, she did have a tag, but she was smoking and looking pretty agile. I sat there and watched her get out of the car and for all my strength didn’t hop out, chase her down and tell her her legs or back must be feeling better. She practically skipped to the door. I fumed. Urrrg. Grrrr. The nerve of people! When that damn song rushed back at me like an irony-shaped boomerang. Oh, how he loves that handicap fraudulent woman oh, how he loves her. … I laughed at myself, burned up inside over my overinflated sense of justice, and went in to shop.
A half hour later, I steered my cardinal-red cart loaded with first world necessities when I noticed the handicap tag faker’s car again and realized she would have to make it into this part of my “inspired” blogpost. I had heard a song in a new way to share with people who (I felt) might need to have their perspectives tweaked, and God decided to tweak mine. He was good enough to remind me that as open and accepting as I think I am, there are plenty of people who make my internal list of judgement-worthy humans I find difficult (or impossible) to love. And who knows — maybe handicap spot skipper is recovering from chemo. Maybe she has a family member with ALS. Maybe she’s seconds away from needing a trashcan. Maybe … who knows? It’s none of my business. My only business where she is concerned is to show her love.
The song on the radio when I turned the key to leave sealed the deal, but, well, I didn’t make bold enough mental notes to remember the title. I was too busy praying for God to help me be a better lover. Steve Curtis Chapman’s catchy Love Take Me Over will suffice, its message just as effective as the song I forgot.
This is what I’m sure of, I can only show love
When I really know how loved I am
When it over takes me, then it animates me
Flowing from my heart into my hands
Love, take these words that I’m speaking
Love, take these thoughts that I’m thinking
Love, take me over
Love, fill up all of my space and
Love, stand right here in my place
Love, hear this prayer that I’m praying
Love, take me, Love, take me over
Love, take me over.
Certain church types are really into praise music. They engage in a practice that must strike non-churchies as silly, ridiculous, and maybe even a little embarrassing. They—okay, we—have this bizarre habit of singing at full voice, under the steeple with of all the peeple and also within the privacy of our own earbuds, songs to proclaim doctrinal tenets we hold to be true.
Just tonight, after my swim at the Monon I stepped into the shower room to hear a thin voice over the spigot din singing Amazing Grace, the Chris Tomlin version (9,466,900+ views, zowee). And yes, I joined in to harmonize with the naked stranger four stalls down as I lathered, rinsed, repeated. How could I resist? I mean, “My chains fell off, I’ve been set free”? Also, Elf.
As a matter of obedience and tradition, generations of Christians have sung hymns and other spiritual songs to connect the corporeal and the spiritual while recognizing the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Doing so is an act of worship, yes, but at its heart, praising musically is part celebration, part theologically acceptable mantra, driven home by Kevin Bacon in an impassioned exegesis of Psalm 149 in the city council scene of the 1984 classic Footloose.
And I think there’s another, more practical reason some of us engage in serial worship song singing: forgetfulness.
As Christians are we not supposed to operate from cell-level assurance of our status as dearly loved children? It’s what we preach. But as run-a-the-mill Earth dwellers with hoomin brains and limited capacity for memory we lose sight of the part about being created “in God’s image” and “a little lower than the angels.” For whatever reason we can’t help but insist on clinging to a self worth baseline that keeps us stuck feeling unloved, even unlovable.
Enter the psalmists and songwriters, who, since 1000 B.C., have penned songs to: 1) Help us praise God and 2) Help us forgetful sheep to remember that God’s nature is love. And this was before existential angst was invented.
By singing these songs in church, our cars, at home in private or with a naked soprano at the gym, we call on the lyrics to remind ourselves that we don’t completely suck; and when the lyrics are set to music we like, we are elevated to a state where we even feel loved and lovable, at least temporarily. If we can get that, if we can apprehend God’s love, we’ll have a chance of passing that love along to others, which pretty much sums up the greatest commandments according to Jesus:
Matthew 22:36-40 New International Version (NIV)
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Check back in a day or 2 for “Praise Craze Part 2: Love Take Me, Love Take Me Over, Especially When A Smoker With A Handicap Tag Pulls Into A Handicap Parking Space and Nimbly Skips Up To The Target Entrance While I’m Trying To Have Church In My Car With The David Crowder Band”
In other news, upon further examination it has been determined that “adulteress” was not entirely accurate. Turns out I was only a harlot and that, after more research into Biblical definitions and semantics, I apparently had it all wrong about adultery.
According to the author of a somewhat prominent Christian marriage site I’d rather not link here (hey, it’s a blog, not a newspaper), “modern Christians” completely misunderstand the word “adultery,” and I quote:
Here’s a simple test:
If a married man has sexual intercourse with his single secretary, has he committed adultery?
If you answered yes then you don’t know the definition of adultery.
He goes on to clarify the matter thusly: “The fact is that anyone who has sexual intercourse outside of marriage has indeed committed a sin (harlotry*) but if the woman involved is not a married woman then it is not called adultery.” He also says, citing Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance as his source (“the concordance favored by theologians”), that adultery refers to a specific kind of sexual sin: sexual intercourse with another man’s wife or woman who is engaged to another man. “That’s it,” the pastor-author says. “Nothing else.”
“It is impossible for a single woman to commit adultery.” Hallelujah. Thank goodness I’m a harlot. (Or was a harlot.) Harlot has such a nice ring, doesn’t it?, compared to “adulteress.” Harlot. I like the literary flavor. But wait, no. I was an adulteress and a harlot? Wait, what? Oh, man.
I do subscribe to the following idea asserted on another site representative of Christian thinking on the matter of “sexual sin,” namely that: “God created you with a purpose: To bring glory to Himself in an eternal love relationship with Him.” I love that about God. He’s such a lover. I also buy into the notion that “God invented marriage as a living metaphor for how He desires our relationship with Him to be.” My non-believing husband demonstrates this Ephesians 5 standard of marriage, driving me deeper into understanding of Christ’s complete and sacrificial love for His bride, men and women who follow Him.
25 Husbands, love your wives. Love them just as Christ loved the church. He gave himself up for her. 26 He did it to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her with water and the word. 27 He did it to bring her to himself as a brightly shining church. He wants a church that has no stain or wrinkle or any other flaw. He wants a church that is holy and without blame.
28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives. They should love them as they love their own bodies. Any man who loves his wife loves himself.
That’s the extreme to which my agnostic husband loves his Jesus-freak wife. Lucky me, eh? (And I also realize that the passage goes on to speak in terms of marriage applying to a “man and a woman,” but dude: I know gay and atheist couples loving their spouses in this Christ-like way better than many, many so-called Christian [male] husbands and their [female] wives. Don’t even get me started on the stats of violence and other forms of domestic abuse within Christian marriages.) But, in an article examining the question of why homosexuality, fornication, harlotry and adultery are sin I see clearly now that I really have no business being married. Specifically, this line:
“Homosexuality, fornication, harlotry, and adultery pervert God’s purpose for creating us and destroy the metaphor that represents the Holiness of our Lord Jesus Christ and the sanctified intent of marriage.”
So therefore, dear reader, anyone who has ever had sex outside of marriage—including before marriage, which, according to the Waiting Till Marriage website’s article 4 Cool Statistics About Abstinence in the USA, takes 97% of American citizens out of the running as marriage material—really has no business tying the knot.
Anyone who has ever had sex before marriage—probably most of my high school class and yours—shouldn’t have the right to be married, legally or otherwise. We, all of us, are—or were—harlots, fornicators. We have all, whether in thought or action, perverted the metaphor.
And right now, in Indiana, the handling of a particular piece of legislation singling out same sex couples grieves and infuriates me! When I think of my gay friends who are monogamous and have been in a committed relationship years for more years than my (latest!) marriage, gay friends who are single and more chaste before/outside “marriage” than I was, and more faithful within their unions than I and other Christians who have made poor relationship choices have been, I think this: maybe I am the one who shouldn’t be allowed to marry.
We Christians STINK! Sheesh. We’re such puritans and hypocrites! According to the article “Why Affairs Happen”, in Today’s Christian Woman, “As many as 65 percent of men and 55 percent of women will have an extramarital affair by the time they are forty, according to the Journal of Psychology and Christianity.” And ministry folk? Not great PR/witness there either. “A Christianity Today survey found that 23 percent of the 300 pastors who responded admitted to sexually inappropriate behavior with someone other than their wives while in the ministry.”
And that’s not even accounting for the different “types of adultery” (emotional, mental). Jesus said, after all, that “Anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Por ejemplo: guys from 12 to 102 drooling over barely-dressed young women in just about any television commercial and the February issue of SI, to say nothing of actual porn; women, too, oo-lah-lahing over Don Draper (guilty!) and Adam Levine (again, guilty!). But for some reason, straight-up hetero- gray area impropriety/meta-adultery isn’t as appalling to us church types as homosexual monogamy. Blame the ick factor (<<<compelling NUVO piece from Indy photographer Mark Lee).
It’s not same sex couples being allowed to marry that unravels the fabric of our society, it’s people. Assuming a sex-focused root-of-evil perspective, society has been unraveling for a long time. Remember Thomas Jefferson? Bill Clinton? JFK? If it’s sexual sin we’re fingering as the agent responsible for poisoning our otherwise pure society, then consider the legions of “lustful” senators, presidents, ministers, priests, etc. and other skeezy culprits keeping CNN, FOX News and SNL on the air.
If it’s true that “Homosexuality, fornication, harlotry, and adultery pervert God’s purpose for creating us and destroy the metaphor that represents the Holiness of our Lord Jesus Christ and the sanctified intent of marriage,” then maybe the Speaker of the House should reword the amendment to include language excluding from legal marriage in Indiana anyone who has ever had sex before marriage or outside of marriage. That would be the ideal. What say you, Brian Bosma?
And as long as I have my Bible open to Ephesians 5, I’m going to spend the day lingering on the first portion of the chapter: “Therefore, be imitators of God as dear children and WALK IN LOVE, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to god for a sweet-smelling aroma.”
I’m Beth, and I was an adulteress. I am a Jesus lover. I mean, I’m wild about him and can’t get over the grace and mercy it seems he has lavished on my life to an embarrassing degree—two splendid, healthy children, a comfortable home, a perfect cat, and a devoted and darling husband who still makes me swoon and laugh almost every day. I deserve none of these things. I deserve the opposite.
The ugly backstory: I am a 48 year old Christian woman who, when she was younger and stupid and tangled in a giant, paralyzing, gooey wad of grief and lonely confusion, committed adultery. More than once. I am the woman at the well. [I have to keep reminding myself that] Jesus loved my kind extra. I mean, I’ve been forgiven so, so much, therefore I love much. But the challenge in addressing these facts is to leave self-justification at the door, to write without those qualifiers “young” and “grief” and without self-soothing allusions to Jesus’s unorthodox, liberal social economy. Stupid, well, that’s a given.
I was stupid. And selfish and shortsighted. And I wasn’t that young, really. Old enough to know better. But it’s nearly impossible for me to consider—in my mind, in conversation, or on the page—without going into that old Christians are so judgmental/why do they have to rank sin? It’s all the same to God; he would have died on the cross for a “lesser” sin, like gossip or petty theft, even if only one human walked the planet, and all that other self-justifying, self concept-boosting I’m forgiven, no really! theological psychobabble. Unbridled self-flogging isn’t any more palatable, artistically or philosophically. Boring!
I have a Twitter friend who dared followers to write the scariest thing ever. On December 5, @jilltalbot tweeted: What essay would scare you the most to write? To put those words down. I’m starting mine tomorrow. Join me.
That was, oh, a whole 10 days ago, so 10 tomorrows later I’m on the challenge. I’m “writing toward my fear,” is how some other annoying Tweeter put it. Oh yeah. It was Sean Ferrell who ruined my writing life** when he said, “Write toward your fear. That memory or worry or idea buried inside, that truth about you that you hope no one discovers. The thing you wish you could forget about yourself. Write directly to that.”
But first, here’s a list of things I’d rather do than write about a topic by which I am just downright embarrassed and ashamed. I mean, oh my gosh can you believe anyone would type this AND publicize it?*** Everyone knows about it, though. So there. I’m awful. I’m the worst kind of sinner. My children will read this but they’ll know anyway, eventually–when someday their father tells them his version of our divorce, if they haven’t already guessed. I’m the prodigal daughter. I made a mess of things. It’s out. But again, here’s a sampling of things I’d rather do than put pen to paper about the thing I wish I could forget about myself:
But anyway, back to that bitch Jill Talbot’s* challenge.
Ehh, maybe tomorrow when I get back to writing my thesis. Yes, that’ll be my next thesis chapter.
*I mean this in the most affectionate way. You seem pretty rad. Thanks, Jill.
**You too, Sean Ferrell. Thanks. You seem lovely.
***I’m only pulling the trigger on this one in hopes that it might help someone else. Or maybe, like Ms. Talbot, “I need the risk, the urgency (in my life and in writing).” Whatever the reason, I’m already regretting it. But in the way I regret the moment I point my skis downhill on a really scary run, the second I lean forward, all my weight on the balls of my feet before the terror-thrill of the plunge.
I started writing these thoughts as an entry for a Thanksgiving season “giving back” essay contest my MFA program was hosting, but when I missed the deadline (over dread of rejection) I decided to make it mine.
Last month my girlfriend Brooke passed a few nights holed up in a Katmandu apartment, praying and fist pumping against injustice, ticking down the niggling hours her husband spent in Nepal brothels with prostitutes the age of my 9th grade daughter. He and two men from an organization called Tiny Hands* were there to gather evidence via interviews—and used condoms, when they could got their hands on them, yes-you-read-that-right—for local authorities to use in the prosecution of sex trafficking perpetrators. Brooke and Jeff are taking a year away from their real jobs as social worker and physical therapist to travel the world writing and photographing for a social justice travel magazine—first to Rwanda, then Cambodia, Nepal, Vegas and Cuba.
Kind of kicks the shit out of the cans of creamed corn and kidney beans I plunked into a grocery bag and placed on my front porch for a local church to pick up for their food drive a few Sundays ago.
And then some little girl featured on Christian radio, Gracie, just five years old, knocks me down. She got it in her mind after watching Cinderella or some such shoe-related fairytale that she wanted to collect 67 pairs of shoes for children whose parents can’t afford them. She handily exceeded her goal to the tune of 80 pairs to donate to this organization that exists to shod “orphan souls” around the world.
Kind of makes my one shoebox a year stuffed with underwear and crayons for Samaritans Purse to send as Christmas gifts to kids across the ocean look anemic, flaccid, half-hearted.
The same week I heard the shoe story on the radio, I stopped by Menards for supplies for a thesis-avoiding DIY project restoring a couple dated bookshelves, one for my son’s extensive book-and-stuff collection and one for my office. On my way out carrying a bag stuffed with multiple, unnecessary cans of paint and primers in various colors, I passed a cashier dragging a Volkswagen-sized box labeled “Wrapped New Toys.” Customers invited to donate new toys to kids in need took me back ten years: When my kids were little, the week before Christmas I’d have scan the toy room for toys they no longer played with, intending to teach them the value of sharing (and, conveniently, to make room in the clutter for their new booty due the 25th). We’d wipe down discarded cars, Barbies, dinosaurs, books and building blocks, wrap them in festive paper and bows, and haul them down Christmas Eve night and leave them outside the front door of the Hispanic church. That was fun. It now strikes me as presumptuous, and maybe even a little condescending. Our hearts were in the right place, but I’m sure it was more fun for us to play Santa than for the church secretary to be burdened with schlepping the heavy box inside (or to the dumpster, because how on earth would the gifts be disbursed or trusted to be safe?).
In an interview I read a few years back, Tom Hanks (or, I don’t know, maybe it was Billy Crystal) said the key to a strong marriage is to out-give each other, to out-generous your spouse. If every person in town would apply this principle to his or her sphere of influence—the gas station attendant beleaguered by lottery customers, the downsized mid-level management guy slinging fries since the banks ruined the economy, or even the neighbor across the street who never wants to wave back at you—what kind of sweetness would it lend to our lives? What kind of heaven on earth would we create if we out-gave the people who get under our skin and those we love, or those we love who get under our skin?
Which makes me think about the idea of applying the Out-Give-Your-Spouse thing to the greater world, but in reverse. As in, not giving back the garbage dumped into the laps of our experience. A Twitter acquaintance recently posted, “I wonder if Saab comes in a doesn’t-tailgate-me model,” to which I replied, “BMWs too.” What is it with import drivers, like the BMW that always seems to tailgate me down my own street on its way to its more affluent cul de sac?? I suppose they feel they’re entitled because, well, they have created a world in which they are. They’ve worked for it. It chaps my hide, hard, to be tailgated in my Toyota minivan by a shiny, spendy import (Mercedes drivers seem to show more consideration, however), but then I find myself doing the same thing to the timid Ford Focus driver creeping through the roundabouts that clog my city’s avenues. I growl from behind the tan vinyl wheel of my middle class vehicle, and snark, “C’mooon, man, drive!” I try not to cuss. I don’t even notice that I’m trailing closely, and for me it has nothing to do with entitlement but everything to do with impatience and bad manners. My own. And then I notice the silver headed driver and feel guilt pelt my stomach. And I think, B, how bout not giving back once in awhile?
So this week, three weeks from Thanksgiving, my Nepal sex traffic fighting friend and her husband are headed to Vegas for their next mission: helping and reporting on Cupcake Girls, an organization that shows God’s love by offering cupcakes (and other services, including medical, financial, dental assistance) to women who work in strip clubs and leaving tracts and judgment for other so-called Christians. Her blog post about the Cupcake Girls pricks me with a question: What will I be doing to show God’s love during the three weeks they’re in and out of seedy joints? In between dipping in and out of O’Malias for dinner stuffs, buying presents, painting furniture, obsessing over dust and décor in my home, and baking pumpkin pies, maybe I can look for small ways to give back and NOT to give back.
I’m just not in a position in the current stage of my life to afford, in time or money, the grand gestures. But that doesn’t take me off the hook to invoke a little heaven on earth, to give back blessings—of friendship, kindness, hospitality, generosity—with which my family and I have been embarrassingly showered. Even without the freedom to donate weeks and months of time or loads of money, it is possible to open my eyes to ways in which I can out-give my family and people in my community. Brainstorm:
GIVING BACK IDEAS
NOT GIVING BACK IDEAS
All in all, a long, meandering way of saying: Give back good stuff to the extras and main characters in your life story; harness and trash the bad stuff and negativity doled out or spoken into your life, which you might be leaching out without realizing it.
*Click for more information on Tiny Hands International.
To read the social justice travel magazine for which friend Brooke reports and photographs, click World Next Door.
“Like they don’t hear it at school,” you say. “Or say it themselves.”
Yeah, I realize teenagers are fluent in profanity—I was in junior high and high school once. But that doesn’t mean I’m off the hook from preserving for my daughter, 13, and son, 16, one pocket in their lives where an elevated level of gentility and decorum are modeled. Not that I’m genteel. But relatively speaking, I’m Emily Post.
In the car on the way home from school the boy will occasionally drop the f-bomb or other four letter words, and I can tell you his sister is genuinely offended. You see, the men in her life, well, for the most part, reserve their use of profanity for extreme situations, like severed limbs or totaled cars. Near tears she says, “Jack, why do you have to say that?” I call him out, remind him, “Gentlemen don’t speak that way,” and he says, “Mom, it’s just language.” And if this is as rebellious as it gets, I’m fine, but it’s just language?
Language is everything. Words have power.
I was raised to feel that cussing is the communication equivalent of open-mawed mastication, talking with your mouth full (AGGG!) or elbows on the table during a meal. In my home growing up, the following words were banned:
It was natural to hear our mother respond from the kitchen to a smashed or sliced finger, in an amplified voice: “ESSS! AAAICH!” You knew it must really hurt if she got to “EEYYYE!” Never once heard her spell out the entire word, or say it. And my mother was, and is, no Stepford wife. She’s zany, well read, and filterless in her comments and opinions, but consistent in her relentless avoidance of profanity. (Though since Dad’s death she tends to overuse the “pissed.” I think it’s her way of coping. Widows gone wild.)
My dad, an articulate gentleman marketing exec who also happened to have served in the Navy during the Korean war, wasn’t quite as controlled in his profanity management. In fact, till we could read we thought our mother’s name was “GoddammitRuthann.” But he never tossed around the more vulgar sh^t or f*#k. He was no milquetoast, though. He was Don Draper, not Ward Cleaver. [<<<YOU HAVE TO CLICK ON THAT ONE. You’re welcome. End of aside.] I’m betting the farm he let the saltiest words fly on the golf course or with his fishing buddies on the St. John’s River, contexts that strike me as completely appropriate for unrestrained language.
Another appropriate—prescribed, even—occasion for well-chosen profanity, IMHO, is written dialogue. If a character in a work of fiction (or non fiction for that matter), swears like a sailor, and art reflects life, that character must not be muzzled. To pretend that people don’t really speak that way is ridiculous (CBA, I’m mean you). I’m not talking gratuitous swearing, but it is far more believable to read unsupervised teens expressing horror or surprise with “Oh my God!” than “Oh my Gosh!”; or disgust with a villain with, “She’s a total bitch!” vs. “She’s a real meanie.” Even if it’s not my own personal standard for my own children—that’s how certain normal people are going to talk in certain situations. I mean, hell, it’s realistic.
If a character in my novel witnesses a family member being maimed or killed, or she’s attacked by a bully, she might say something stronger than, “Gee whiz! That’s really bad!” In fact, Allison Lynn, my MFA Long Form Workshop professor, recently called me out for putting unrealistically soft language in my young teen girl characters’ mouths. Her assertion was that they didn’t sound real, not true to life, that in the absence of adult supervision they’d be experimenting with the vernacular. Because that’s what kids really do. (Dammit.)
And so do many adults, writers in particular. And that’s fine; I don’t judge them. It sounds just right when they say it, and they’re usually strategic. I take no offense—except that they’re far more successful than I am, and I worry that my reluctance to cuss handicaps me, branding me irrelevant.
It’s not my responsibility to groom or correct anyone who didn’t emerge from my womb. It just doesn’t feel right for me. And, I think the trendy swear words sound stupid coming out of my mouth. Like miniskirts: they just don’t look good on me. But Alicia Silverstone sure could rock hers. And how gorgeous are Scarlett Johansson’s lips in crimson? I look like a clown in red lipstick.
And there’s this: when I swear my spirit zings a little, no doubt because of the Bible verse installed in my memory as a child that reverberates anytime profanity slips from my mouth or fingers. This one: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (NIV); and, from another version, “Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.” Each word a gift. I like that. Another translation says it thusly:
“When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you.”*
[Ask my husband: I am proficient in uttering “harmful things” with nary an f- or s- or b- or c-word in sight. But I’m working on it, constantly, and I strive to write in such a way that the words I choose will do some good. But that’s another matter. End of aside.]
I’m sure we’ve all heard, primarily from grandparents, librarians, and middle school English teachers, that “cussing shows a lack of intelligence” or is a sign of “verbal laziness.” There may be traces of truth in those statements, but I do believe there is power and exhilaration in the well placed f-bomb. Like, and we count on The Rumpus for such exhortations, on the mugs that sold out at the AWP conference in Boston quoting (the not at all lacking-in-intelligence or lazy) Cheryl “Dear Sugar” Strayed, seated next to Augusten Burroughs, concluded her presentation on the final night, with the charge to us eager writers to go forth and “write like a motherfucker.” Just freaking write was the point she was making, and her use of the electric MF word placed that advice in bold, punctuating it with a big loud exclamation point.
*Thanks, Cheryl Strayed, for the writerly kick in the bu#%. It was just the word I needed.
Obama quoted Scripture. Addressing the nation about the massacre of babies in an elementary school in a picturesque Connecticut town yesterday afternoon, he wiped a tear and invoked the Psalms. In a torrent of Where was God? Why did God allow this to happen? How can a loving God . . . ? ? ?, in the midst of such acute, searing heartbreak, are these words vinegar or salve?
In the absence of hope, the word of God. When there are no words, poetry.
I had a writing professor who recommended copying, literally, tangibly, work by authors whose style most lights your writing fuse. Pick an author, prop open a book, lay it next to the laptop, and type the words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters until, I suppose, some sort of osmosis (and muscle memory?) occurs. The professor is more a hardboiled fiction guy, so Elmore Leonard is an author whose dialogue, voice, rhythm, pace, and word choice he might be likely to transcribe in this exercise. When I finally get around to trying it for literary purposes, you’ll find me with David Mitchell or Anne Lamott next to my computer.
But this morning, the following words from the book open on my lap begged for this transcription treatment. In an attempt to absorb the heart of the words into my cells, I will type them out here. I hope it works. Today, it’s my next right thing.
Lord, you have assigned me my portion, and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices [my tongue rejoices? what does that even look like? how does that sound? it’s on me to figure it out!]; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.*
A Writer Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder (Bipolar, Peripartum Onset)
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