All These Things Into Position

Once upon a time, I swooned for Radiohead. “Creep” was my soundtrack in anxiety-riddled days before I kissed my high school paramour goodbye and while I traded slides for combat boots. I hacked off my peroxide locks, dyed them aubergine and drank Mountain Dew by the two-liter because the new beau who seemed both too cool yet who liked me had sent me a mix tape with the song “Creep. “Few words hit chords so true to the weird vibrato of my soul:

I don’t care if it hurts
I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul

Radiohead “Creep”

I don’t care if the blade across my wrist hurts, the food hurts, disappointing everyone who thought I’d marry that boy from high school hurts.

I want to fast, to pray more, I wanna stop those pimples.

I want to be skinny with these breasts.

I want God to look upon me with favor. I want to be good but cool too.

“Creep” wrung from me the convoluted identity crises of a Christian college freshman, particularly a home-schooled girl. High school was spiritually and socially awkward for me. I tried to fast for a weekend once in my senior year. I went into my “prayer closet,” e.g. my bedroom with my Bible and a journal. I have a vague memory of an adult saying fasting wasn’t necessary (never mind the “when you fast” phrase out of the Lord’s mouth) but if I did, don’t sit around in sackloth and ashes. Don’t be a Pharisee for the rest of the family. I failed by midnight, which lingered in my memory.

I didn’t see all the fuss about Radiohead for years, though I absorbed them like a nicotine patch in the skin because my husband played OK Computer non-stop for months. Later “Fake Plastic Trees” came to thaw my high-functioning depressive states. (Self-diagnosing here, but I may exhibit symptoms of a high functioning bi-polar depressive. Ask me later about how crazy stress causes me to over stock the pantry via Amazon orders, or how I used to can fifty quarts of cherry jam even though we didn’t grow cherries.)

While we were in seminary, we tried not to be too pious but by the third year and with almost twenty grand on credit cards due to disasters ,I drove to the monastery ground with “Fake Plastic Trees” playing at eleven (see Spinal Tap.)

It wears her out
It wears her out

She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns

He used to do surgery
For girls in the eighties
But gravity always wins

And it wears him out
It wears him out

Fake Plastic Trees- Radiohead

My husband almost broke in those years. I had my first recognizable panic attack since college. He’d be gone ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day while I tried to support us, full time teaching on-line. We were worn out. So I just sat in our rusting van on the monastery grounds and let the song wail at me while I wept. Who gave two pennies that one of the monks had chastised me recently for driving up with “Tether” by the Indigo Girls leaking out of my windows?

“Matushka, keep the music holy on the grounds.” Aside: the term Matushka is for a deacon or a priest’s wife, a reverence for pious women. Hashtag failed.

For me, Radiohead is the soundtrack of personal failures. Radiohead, for all its acclaim and critical success, seems comfortable with imperfection, which is a sound starting place for reading Robert Saler’s All These Things Into Position: What Theology Can Learn from Radiohead. Because, in spite of all the praise my husband heaped upon Radiohead, I heard only licks or lines that expressed the dissonance of attempting a significant existence. — The reason I probably struggle with Radiohead is that I fall easily into the trap of living for significance. They always seem to dismantle it.–

Disclaimer, as Saler points out: this book is not what does a Christian read theologically into lyrics ( when it’s not there, so don’t be the ol’ evangelical who must reconcile “sacred to secular” as I once did.) This books unpacks what we can learn from a band with a history and a body of work that can be dismissed as uneasily as one dismisses a marriage that lasts 75 years.

Saler’s book is a series of essays that might stand alone, but are better together. After his back-grounding on the phenomenon of Radiohead’s fan base and artistry in the intro, Saler opens with an essay about the tension of being authentic in the marketplace. As a Gen-Xer, this would have once raised my ire. But as a good writer must do, he moved me from point A to point B on what it means to be meaningful in corrupt, consumer systems. This is a tension for the Christian. I grew up while CCM and evangelicals became power-houses in the American markets. I read the literary tripe and listened to the cheap, throw away music that barely passed as theological (mostly it’s love-pop rewritten with God instead of the boy as the central figure.) Only because of my very sheltered upbringing was I hungry for real art while my friends smashed their Smashing Pumpkins CD’s in the dorm halls of our Christian university. The barely disguised praise-love ballad made me itchy and willing to fly the bird.

As Saler names it, artists can cultivate success without sacrificing its progeny on the molech of money.

My cousin Caleb, a pastor of what he calls “a value-meal-sized” church in Indiana, raised this issue a couple of years ago. “When, not if,” he said, the government finds enough reason to strip churches of their 501c3 status because of financial abuse (ours not the governments), what will we have to show and say for ourselves in doing good instead of being the new country club? The Christian purse is busting with coinage. The trouble is how we’ve responded to this clout. As the Nones flee, citing the partisan – hypocritical – message of the Church, we look more and more like a club. We are the Order of Odd One Issue Voters, small supper clubs with religious themes, who sort into homogeneity that doesn’t even realize how it excludes the “other.” We are deaf because we are affluent enough that we can afford to be deaf.

Saler’s second essay is about consolation, or how hard it is to find and offer it in a dying world. If we’re telling the truth, chances are 100% all of us are going to die. This world is going to end. Every day something enormously painful and destructive blows up our news feeds. Fires in Paradise. War in Damascus. Hurricanes in the Bahamas. Shootings in Miami, Vegas, Dayton, et all. Immigrants locked up. Immigrants fleeing. Divorces. Sexual abuse and assault. Murder. Suicide. Cancer. Heart attacks. (It starts to feel like a new verse to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)

Which hurts more? Ten thousand people wiped out the week of Christmas in a tsunami? Or, watching a sister’s shock at coming home from Haiti just a few days shy of the earthquake that split the city streets of Port Au Prince? Or your friend keeling over dead from a heart attack at 51 with three kids? Or your sister dying of cancer, leaving behind little kids and a broken-hearted husband? How do we answer the questions all this pain brings? Saler notes that we Christians have trafficked in “cheap hope.” Having born witness to some of the personal tragedies in that litany, I’d testify that I’d choose a theology that descends into the complexity and chaos rather than oversimplifying what suffering is. Or beauty. Or what this one life is for. (I struggle with “one beautiful, wild life” right now. It’s been a crappy few years.)

If we cannot endure this life, with all it’s kingdom reality and connections to eternity, will heaven be a consolation?

Once while we walked to Liturgy, I asked my teen daughter, “But isn’t the idea of heaven hopeful?” Her answer, “Eternity scares me. It seems like a long time,” broke my heart, until I remembered my adolescent years and the fear that I’d be stuck singing saccharine tunes and feeling false cheer until I took advil for a fake smile. Imagine winning the Wonka factory and only eating sweets for eternity. Someone give me a gosh-darn leaf to nibble!

There’s something of sadness in all our lives, but what if we realized it’s holy? Holy sadness. Bright sadness, as we call it during Lent. Sober sadness. Sober deepness that is not nihilistic despair.

Heaven is not the easy solution to earth’s pain.

Robert Saler

Truth be told, we don’t know what heaven is. My venerable prof Dr. Wes Gerig said once he thought heaven would be whatever brought us joy- for some roller coasters. For him, ping pong. I imagined that out to eternity. It all felt so banal. I think it’s because there is so much pain and imperfection in the present, I can’t trade now for a fantasy of exquisite fun. That is what Christianity can learn from Radiohead. We need beautiful art, with artful deconstruction and beautiful dissonance, to help us bear the work of the present, which is bearing our crosses. Fantasy is all well and nice, but without addressing the reality of our human condition, it’s just escapism. And that only exacerbates the problem. This life has problems that need us to keep showing up for.

My husband said the second essay meant the most to him because it hit on the problem that seems to weigh down Radiohead’s members – ecological disaster. It’s what call them to metanoia or turning around. I thought it set up the penultimate point of the book: Saler’s insights on what Radiohead teaches us about salvation.

I personally loved the essay on salvation, maybe because I’ve finished Malcolm Gladwell’s recent season of Revisionist History wherein he discusses the Jesuit practice of descending into the particulars. For me, the particulars have been so fraught: how to abide with families anguished over death by suicide or kids in the grip of addiction or friends who respond to the hurt of infidelity by getting back at the spouse with the same sin. What of siblings who found it eased their souls to stop worrying about God and hell? What of my friends who are not cis-gender, straight folks but, man, they just miss going to church? Yet they can’t find a way to be attracted to someone of another gender nor to be alone?

Maybe because his last essay digs into the spiritual quandaries and the enigma of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I found that Saler’s final essay resonated most. It calls us to be malleable and sharpened in the flame as the Holy Youths (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendigo). In it he writes that Christ descended into our particulars and moved “beyond ‘ethics’ as a disembodied Christian formalist purity” which calls us to the “vitality of transgressive discipleship, one which makes the Christian vulnerable to the horizon of the neighbor’s need in a manner that eschews purity for connection and genuine service– the Christian, like Christ, as ‘the man for others.'” Or as Corinthians says, Christ becomes sin for us.

What of our call to cover over others’ sins, not hound after them?To hound is to be predator. To be predator is to see ourselves as bigger and to see others as vulnerable.

What really stung in Saler’s final thoughts was how hope is a kind of middle class consolation. The poor suffer. The rich don’t. The ones in the middle taste enough but also tend to buy into hope like a candy. Is hope is a thing with feathers? It can fly away at any moment. The suffering know. It sings a tune without words, like a soul-grieving dirge. And it can never stop. It can become a dream deferred. It can sugar over or explode.

What we peddle as Christians, we learn from Radiohead, is not innocuous mantras to chant. Mantras don’t ease the suffering of the troubled. What we offer is the Cross, Christ crucified, the capacity to carry crosses together, to do this so we don’t have so sleep alone with our heads in the dirt when we need to rest. But also that the Resurrection is real. We don’t know what it looks like yet, but it’s likely not be eternal ping pong. Nowadays, I’m okay with the kind of heavenly chorus where I sing when my lungs are full of breath, breathe prayer when they aren’t, or hang my head and sway, like I’m at a great shoe-gazing rock concert where the band connects the beautiful and the sorrowful like Golgotha, not where they want me to adore them in place of a true Savior.

The Nones Shall Pass

Why are so many people looking at the faith of their culture and youth and saying, “I’ll pass. Thanks.”?

I don’t know. I’ve spent a lot of time agonizing over this. I’m a camp counselor, a high school teacher, Sunday School teacher, mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, and friend. I struggle with the thought that all my family and friends may not have that transformative moment that proves God is real, loves them, and is waiting on them. Also that a relationship with God, as with any person, means showing up, as in worship, not just thoughts and prayers. I mean, I can’t say I love a friend when I blow off her for weeks, right?

I think and read and pray. On Sunday, I read Nicholas Kristoff’s Op-Ed “We’re Less and Less a Christian Nation, and I Blame Some Blowhards.” Then I listened to last week’s podcast of Orthodoxy Live with Fr. Evan Armitas and Fr. Anthony Savas on my post-liturgical run. I bookmarked Luke Beecham’s piece, The Prodigal Church to read for today. Each piece dealt with the steep decline of people who affiliate with Christianity. Pew calls these the “Nones.” (As an aside, it’s terribly hard to converse about the Nones when my own faith confession has nuns. It gets very confusing at times.) I have many more friends these days who are just plain done with faith. They are trying out atheism or humanism. I have my reasons for struggling with this, but this is not that blog.

When it comes to pondering this problem, I suspect the principle of what Malcolm Gladwell calls “coupling” is at work. Conditions of multiple forces are coinciding. Luke Beecham says we’re prodigal. The church is guilty of not truly being Christian. Dorothy Day said something like this in The Long Loneliness. She suspected that few people have met real Christians. Ouch. Gandhi too said more people would be Christians if more Christians were like Christ.

We Christians are doing soul-searching, or at least hand-wringing about this. What are some hypotheses?

Cause 1: Church+Republican Party
I’ve heard talk that the double-digit decline in religious affiliation is caused by the increasing identification with the evangelicals (thus all who call themselves Christians by association) with the Republican party. That party has cornered the market on the morality of abortion. But they are challenged when it comes to be whole life. Again, tomes have been written on this. This is not that tome.

Cause 2: Church + Intolerance

One of the reasons that family and dear friends cite for quitting religion is refusal to care for the poor, people of color, non-citizens and right now, members of the LGBTQ community. Oh, we say we care. Church goers give to charity at the highest rates. We send missionaries to other countries. I’m having a hard time seeing how the church is showing up for the current calls from our Black and Brown brothers and sisters. Most of what I hear about our efforts comes out like: We marched with Dr. King. We have friends who are different from us. We respected or even voted for Obama, before we voted for Trump. Lastly we don’t tell people who are not cis-gender they can’t come to church. — We just tell them the hospital is here to fix them. When they are fixed they can come to communion, or teach, or speak, or be around our kids. —

Why are people leaving the church? I ask them. I’m not satisfied with their answers. I know that’s because I don’t want to be. Maybe being a person of faith is like being a parent. Every couple that finally decides to have a baby after resisting it gets my “Awesome! You are going to love it. I mean it’s hardest thing ever. You’ll never sleep the same again and kids cost a ton, but welcome to the club.” I make it sound like we are miserable and want company, don’t I? But we aren’t. We have a powerful anchor in hard times and the good. God works in me. I change, verrrryyy slowly. But I do give up my hang ups. The sacrament of confession helps. The sacrament of marriage will definitely change a person. Holiness inches me towards wholeness.

So I am trying to figure out how to keep or recruit people to God and the Church. Having revisited a few clips from the (retired) BBC show REV, I proposed the following to my husband to chew on for a while: We’ve created consumer churches. Each Christian confession does it in its own particular way. We make ourselves a warm community and try to be convenient and inviting, but mostly to a narrow market. It’s no secret that Sunday morning carves up Christians on racial and ethnic lines, but also on socio-economics. We don’t want to worship next to someone who hasn’t showered recently, who smells of alcohol and body odor. It’s also divided on gender and sexuality. We do not want to explain the woman or man who always comes alone, let alone the two men or two women who come together every week. Maybe those people need to meet with the pastor. They need help.

We whisper this, suggest it, hint. Even if they are obtuse, they get the hint. “I don’t really belong here, do I?” What’s weird is that some of those people know they need it, so they stay. Others of us bear witness to the subtleties (or not so subtleties) of the loudest voices, and get angry. If church people don’t love the “weird ones” enough to touch them, be friends, look them in the eye or stop trying to make them into the same image as themselves, then of course, why should I trust those people? They want to remake everyone into their own image.

The hardest task of the faithful is love without secret ambition, vain conceit, or hidden motives. The greatest of the saints looked others in the eye, rather than turning away from their immorality. They covered over the shame that fellow priests and Christians heaped upon the cast outs. Right now, the LGBTQ community are our cast outs. We will touch them, with a ten foot pole of “counseling and conversion.” We don’t start with love. Everyone around them, even they, push back. Does the Church really mean it when it says we are to cover over a multitude of sins? That perfect love casts out fear? That the Holy Spirit has this?

Love is a harsh and dreadful thing. It’s so simple it’s complicated. Sometimes we mistake love for being a rainmaker and fixing. It’s why I want to “rain make” people into the arms of the Savior. Or trade my place there so they may have mine. As Dostoevsky’s Alyosha says to a woman who wants to love the whole world but can’t find love for her ungrateful, demanding daughter:

I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science.  Dostoyevsky

Love is a harsh and dreadful thing for us. Love calls us to descend into the particulars with people. We cannot do that with the wrong motives. If a person comes unwilling to be what we think they should conform to, we cannot do that work. When we can’t change them, we make a line between us and them, the deserving and undeserving.

What can I say? Maybe I am driving people away from God because I want too much for others to know God. Maybe I am loosy-goosy about “right and wrong” or the Church’s stance on this or that.

On the one hand, I try to unclench my moral ideas about how people should be. I try not to change my friends. On the other, I’m totally guilty of attempting hail mary’s for friends about to leave a spouse or a church. I happen to think social networks of the analog type prevent much of the descent of a person into isolation, co-dependency, addiction, depression, or suicidal ideation or or or or… any other personal hell.

I might not know the right way to love and be loved. I might have wrong motives or vain conceits. Trust me, I take these to confession. Indefatigable love feels very confusing at times. What’s a Christian’s role in helping others live their best lives? In helping others know that God knows them best. We are at best, orderlies and patients in the same hospital we call the Church.

Here’s my other theory about why people no longer affiliate with the Church:

Preemptive exclusion. I think lots of those leaving the church have asked, what would it look like to love so hard that I change? And what if the moral authorities in the Church blackball me for this change? And defame me for my intimacy with the outcasts?

So those people preemtively leave. It’s easier that way. You know what makes me sad? I think some other people are relieved by this self-deportation.

But some Christians try to stay, try to speak up for the dignity, personhood, humanity of their friends –who are “not moral.” What I am here to say is that I bear testimony to what I think are their good motives. They are called to be that part of the Church that looks without judgment and loves. I bear witness too that I see these people being silenced, overtly or subtly.

Instead of seeing that these people may be called to serve this way, moral authorities feel the need to dismiss, discipline, exclude, or ignore them. I ask this, have we considered that they might be carrying a great burden of all those leaving the Church? They are taking the risk that God has the other stuff under control. Because like it or not, not every person who needs the fullness of the Church and to see the face of God in other human beings will have the grit to stick out the callow bedside manner of the orderlies.


One Provocative Word

Jesus. It makes some people shudder. Jesus. It makes some people shout, or pray, or look away, or look upon. 2000 years of history, means that name evokes all the things, doesn’t it? It’s been weaponized and neutralized and lionized. So I run the risk of opening with it. But this is a book review of a memoir written by a man famous for leading off with Jesus and getting some decent results, even from college students about to riot or evangelicals about to pick a fight with him.

Fr. Peter Gilquist finished his final book, Memories of His Mercy, shortly before his death in 2012. He’d been writing and working in publishing for decades, including ghost writing Johnny Cash’s Man in Black, as well as a number of books about becoming an Orthodox Christian after years working with Campus Crusade. In fact, after the Kent State shooting, while he was chaplain on Northwestern University’s campus, the administration asked him to speak at a rally about to turn riot. Uncertain of what to say or how to begin, he simply started with Jesus.

In Memories of His Mercy, Fr. Gillquist recounts memories that shifted the direction of his life, with early vignettes reading like parallels to the stories of other athletes who became evangelists and pastors who became influencers. Where his story veers begins with putting family first, as a little church, and early on listening to a niggling urge to find the New Testament church. He and other chaplains working with Campus Crusade tried to create Orthodox Christianity 2.0, the evangelical edition, but ended up back where Christianity started. But this is not that book.

This is a book that reminds me of a memoir I helped edit: my grandmother’s memoir of her conversion and my grandfather’s before they fell in love at Bible college, of making love work when poverty and ministry test marriage, of snaking dirt roads of ministry. Fr. Gillquist writes like I imagine he talked. He tells a story, he draws out a purpose, he links it to the mercies of God. It’s never quite a homily, never just a memory, retold like someone else’s dream.

Once, while I helped my grandmother flesh out a chapter of her book she said to me, “I think your grandfather was a better preacher than Billy Graham.” I can’t help realizing how the Graham archetype permeated most of the mid-twentieth century. He was relatable, fatherly, loyal, and kindly, but driven by the urgency of the story of Jesus and how it might transform lives that had been milled in previous decades by the Depression and World War II. Fr. Gilquist’s early anecdotes vibrate with that icon of Christian evangelical, but the 60’s changed us all. He ministered to the young as a Campus Crusade chaplain but in his private spiritual journey, he linked himself to a group who wanted an ancient, wizened faith.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read his Becoming Orthodox, but when my husband and I tossed up our arms and said, “That’s it. I’m not an evangelical Christian anymore,” we ended up at a little church just exiting the group Fr. Gillquist helped to found and entering the Orthodox Church. In our case, the parish was one of the malingerers who came into the Orthodox Church of America, years after Fr. Gillquist and others came to into the Orthodox Church via the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in America. Both are the same church, different organizational leadership due to the USA’s salad bowl of cultures. Orthodox Christianity is worldwide and untidily organized by regions. I rather like it’s decentralized, broad sharing of leadership, but I digress. What I learned in Memoirs of His Mercy is a story that was both familiar since my husband and I left non-denominational evangelical Christianity to become Orthodox Christians at the same time as a whole parish on a similar trajectory with a longer arc, and yet helped to explain the relationship of a rather stodgy, eastern version of Christianity on a continent that is always trying to make everything new.

It’s a bit confessional, and time-bound to admit that I loved reading these vignettes because I have one or two degrees of separation from Fr. Gillquist. I had the joy of getting to know Fr. Peter Jon and Presv. Kristina as they transitioned fresh out seminary and music to the parish just before we trundled off to seminary. We came back to Indiana to find they’d ministered so deeply to dear friends who shared the heartache of still births. We too treasure the precious moments with Schmemann’s (in our case, Mat. Julianna) and Fr. Thomas Hopko. We love Fr. James Ellison who gets a cameo in the latter chapters. We get to rub elbows with him every summer at St. John’s Camp, a ministry out of St. John the Forerunner. And, we love our intimate brothers and sisters in the Antiochian Archdiocese as Fr. Gillquist honored his dear friends in the OCA. What I love most though is that this humanizes what it looks like to make marriages work, to make a slow, steady path of faithful service. We read the lives of those came before us centuries ago. Ever since the first time I read the line, “Mary stored up all these things up and pondered them in her heart,” I’ve looked for examples of the inner and outer journeys of faith of those who have gone before. This collection fills out the numerous tomes of Fr. Gilquist as an account of such faith. We can see how he writes with his own hands what it means to stay true to a full faith in this modern context, an Americanized version.

Finally, I love that Fr. Gillquist gives us a call to action by his life. Faith is a life-long commitment, a discipline. It’s an action we commit to, not a feeling.

An Embarrassment of Praise

Status: “It’s complicated.”

In my third year of teaching, my superintendent kicked off the year with an in-service, after which he pulled me aside in the hall and said, “You listen with engagement. You track the speaker, and respond.”

I appreciated the small notice. I hadn’t done anything so great, but what I had done acknowledged the value of his message to me. It was a human moment. At the same inservice, he’d said something that caused me pause: “Never praise a person in the middle of a crowd.” Essentially, he explained, it increases performance pressure. It makes the overachiever feel like they must always perform that way, which is too much pressure to live up to every day. It embarrasses the introvert or the cautious.

Praise always embarrasses me. No, I don’t flush red up my neck and into my cheeks anymore, but I never know how to respond.

Part of this is due to nature, part to nurture. I grew up in a world where praise was salt. My mom taught me to cut the salt in half from the first time I mixed granola at six until I left her house. This is to say praise too much praise could create a congestive condition. Save it as the flavor, a toast for only the highest occasion. My memories of being graced with praise or my behavior evoking happy tears are as limited as momentous life moments (though not the same as such events as graduation, marriage, childbirth).

I craved those tears and any recognition. Due in part to my eeyorish disposition of “Oh, okaaayyyy,” I believed all appreciation required hard work and high quality results. I believed this in the face of grandparents and teacher who thought such an idea was hogwash.

As a rule, only a handful of people had the ability to make me feel amazing in spite of myself. First among those equals is my paternal grandfather who always asked me to do the special song at his little country church, even though standing in front of strangers reduced my love of singing into cringy, terrified notes that devolved into crying and hugging my grandmother in the pew or on the piano bench, depending on whether she played that week. She was my other grand champion. They thought I could sing no wrong. — Aside: Grandpa couldn’t sing. He had a deep bass and a limited ear for the musical range. Famously, my grandmother threw the hymnal at his feet during one service during which she was playing piano. She wrote in her memoir that she shouted, “Learn the notes.” My grandfather didn’t give two hoots if he hit the notes, nor if I did. God loved him as he sang in his own key and preached a solid word. He trusted in that, and in me.

From my paternal grandparents, I experienced the closest I will come to the wonderful love of God. No strings. No demands. I adored them for that. But I knew intrinsically that my talent didn’t warrant that praise. I distrusted their faith in me. They believed in who I was/am, not something I did. Yet, my grandfather pressed me to do something that stung my cheeks, and I soon quit his call for me to do the special song.

I’ve been revisiting my veneer and trying to blow it up recently. Thanks, Brene Brown and John Bradshaw. From them, I’ve learned that my reaction to my grandparents’ unrelenting belief in me was actually a healthy shame, not a toxic one. It told me my limits. Yet it still had all the love of the universe tucked in it. My grandfather and my grandmother both had a knack for seeing people through heaven’s lenses. To them, I was a human being, not human doing, to paraphrase John Bradshaw.

But a person wants to be sure she is worth the praise. Here are times I was praised and felt I’d earned it:

  1. Scoring off the charts in kindergarten and skipping a grade for my reading and ability to recognize patterns. My parents talked about me like I was accomplished.
  2. Writing a paper in 7th grade that my dad (my teacher at the time) put high praise on. I had come to love writing so much it was the talent for which I longed praise.
  3. Just before I flew to Atlanta to help my aunt and uncle during a difficult pregnancy, my dad pulled me into a long hug and cried before he put me on the plane, which made me feel like my life and death would hurt or help others.
  4. Years later, my aunt wrote me such letters of love and support because I broke off a four year relationship with a boy everyone thought I’d marry. She covered over my shame.
  5. When my pastor “prophesied” that I would lead people to Christ.– Aside from writing, my other vocations have been helping others and being spiritually missional.
  6. When my Spanish teacher, Mrs. Yoder, and my grandmother’s writers group took note of a couple of small, somewhat normal achievements in speaking (in Spanish) and writing. Spanish acquisition felt like an extension of writing, as in, I was adept with language.

This is a strange list. It highlights the weirdness of growing up in an charismatic church as well as being privately and home schooled when that was mostly “new.”

Now for what’s complicated: I parented as I was experienced life, not as my kids needed. I withheld praise from my kids. Weirdly, I’m likely to offer a hug or back rub, which was not normal in my growing up years, yet I bet my kids would tell you that I’m anything but effusive with praise.

As this is a blog post about what I could have done better, this is a blog about how my kids have deserved more of the kind of heavenly, embarrassing, effusive, healthy “shaming’ love, that lets a kid recognize what limits they know and to differentiate not on the lines of being “unworthy” versus “but beautiful.”

When I read the previous 3rd passage of the Tao, I have complicated, mixed reactions. On the one hand, there is a false sense of accomplishment about my own modesty. –Some call this “the Dunning-Kruger effect.” I’ll let you explore that more, but in short it means that people often evaluate themselves as better than they actually are, except the people who have a knack for doubting that narrative.– I operate as such: bestow no undeserved honors. Instill modesty, mostly by withholding praise.

There’s a problem with this way of being. It creates a scarcity complex. It treats praise as a limited resource, which increases needless competition. Bountiful praise and unlimited love reduces the stunted hierarchy complex (think Dwight Shrute) and lets a person compete for their own personal best. They learn from healthy shame what limits they have. It’s a god-thing, to give love and grace with such bounty. In the safety of that love, we can confront ourselves honestly. Most people need to duke it out with their own ego. Or starve it. When we know we are loved, that much is expected of us out of love, we impose disciplines upon ourselves to become better versions of who we were meant to be.

I speak cautiously about when I say what I think this passage is that is this. It is about fasting from all indulgences of the ego. What a mature self learns is that there are times of unlimited resources and in that situation, we must learn to self limit.

Here’s my issue. What I know in my head becomes a control issue in practice. Because much of this is about fostering a healthy ecology. And doing so means relinquishing control over the whims of a season, knowing some years are more productive, some less.

God have mercy on my control issues.

The Mother of the Prodigal Has a Prodigal Heart

The Mother of the Prodigal

I.

I bore him. I housed his mind while it came into existence. I nursed him. I know his appetites, how hungry he is. He sucked my breasts dry, until the ducts seemed to cave and their interiors stuck to each other.

He’s driven by the beauty of things, by what he thinks the world owes him. I see him eye the door and the road, the end of the lane. He sits upon the gate and swings out when others open it.

He’s one foot out of the gate. His mind is down the road. He’s concocting his justifications, his plan. Where to go. Why he must. All self- delusion. What didn’t we offer him? What love did we withhold?

II.  

He collected his inheritance in a sandstorm. His father wept at the table as the boy left. I accused his father, my lover, my husband. 

Fool of a father. Long-sufferer. Fool. You Hosea. You Gimpel.

I’d never cuckold you, but you’d suffer that boy though you’d put me away with one accusation against my chastity. The injustice of your love for your boys. 

III.

She cried herself to sleep. A woman of her time is caught between the men: fathers and sons, lovers and beloveds.

She swore a little oath as she heaved herself to sleep. Trust not the princes and sons of men because men respect men alone. 

IV.

Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. Yet not. Beautiful and strange.

She claimed her right and named the boy before his father saw him. The midwife handed the swaddled ,squalling child to his father and said, Jacob.  

To name a boy child was to take payment for the thundering contractions, the muscles and power and pain from which she brought that boy into the world. What had his father to offer? Shuddering within her, whispering sweet nothings. A serving girl to nurse her while she swelled and waddled. Later, when he came home from the fields and the boys tripped under her feet, screaming, “Daddy’s coming. Hide!” 

He tickles and guffaws, gnaws his meat and potatoes then returns to the city gate, where he sat honored all night.

Here she cooks and scraps, weeds and dyes, wheels and deals. She masters the household so he can sit in the high places of respect. 

She bore witness to the minutiae of her boys. The older one: honest, simmering, saving. The younger one: wily, sneaky, spending.

She mothered. “Pick up your clothes. Dust yourself off. Do your part. Do your chores. Respect your elders. Do good. All the time. Do it for love. What you do speak so loudly it speaks love or ambivalence.”

Her eldest picked up the slack. Her youngest left the work to gad about. Until the day when the foolhardy chap slapped his dad on the back, “Pops. I can’t stay here longer. I need out. Give me my portion, and I will leave you be.”

V.

Not like he contributed much anyway. Except for the hole in their hearts, little changed after his father tied up the purse strings and heart strings. The boy trailed off, with a scarlet ribbon slowly unwinding for years before it twanged taut, so far off he’d traipsed. His father’s breath struggled, so she took her scissors and snipped. All those years of weaving and sewing taught her to anticipate a tangled knot or the weave of the garment weakened. She and his father strained with that boy. They made love tensile, ready to snap. Thus she cut him loose. 

A mother houses a child’s body. 

His cells remain in her veins. Shards of him, broken like glass, cut her. Can a mother see her son with eyes in the back of her head? No, she feels him in her flow, in her blood, through her lungs, her heart, her uterus. She cannot bleed him out. This is something no man can understand. She could only bend with her child. Her boy becomes the arrow, she the bow. She becomes the Nubian slave that the Pharaoh pulled backward. She might snap so he can fling himself beyond. 

What else am I but womb, bosom, belly, breast, milk? I wanted this? I wanted this. I also want to be an arrow. I want out. No, I want to house other children. I want my lover who wants me. 

She stays, the sheath for her husband’s sword. She who was the womb of the universe, all things to all, she wants to ask, to let fly this wish: give me a voice in the policy of things. Honor my contribution to the nature of things. Hear me.

And the reply is what men at the gate want her to know. The answer is silence.

She hears them chortle as she bleeds. “A woman is but a thing of feelings.”

Seems fitting to finish with this song:

The Way, Lying, and Meekness

I regretted every lie I told, every wordless deception. I was a compulsive, chronic liar in my tween and teen years. The stolen sweets. The feigned stomach aches. The raided test keys. The rolling up skirts when leaving the house. The hair bleached orange with hydrogen peroxide. The pop music taped off the radio and listened to at low volumes under my covers. The bodice rippers read in the corner of the library.

One of my most ignominious: In seventh grade, I aced my square roots test, but only because I found the answer key in the closet and copied out the answers. 

We are back to the square of things. I lied my way through adolescence. I think my child lies. Is there a root I can figure? In other words, did I cause this?

I teach high school. I teach all manner of teens who brag and hear out parents who lament the deceptions of these years.

Amalgamate the teens struggling with deception: Boys who lift cash from a sibling’s tips and a mother’s purse. The girls who sneak dad’s beers into their rooms to drink alone. Homemade aluminum can bongs tossed in the weeds. Burner phones. Vape machines. Altered charging cables. Juul pod caps hidden in old shoes. (Fork you, Juul) Sneaking out a bedroom window. Sneaking in the kitchen window. Not even coming home. Threatening to move out. 

I worry about my child. I worry about the intoxicating luxury of lies. Lies expanding like a roomy sweatshirt, baggy clothes within which to hide.

“When do you work this week?” The parent asks. “Not scheduled yet. I’m training and doing paperwork.” The child answers. The parent looks askance. For the third week in a row? For an hour? Where is your money coming from? Do you have sugar mama?

How’s a mom to deal with texts that say, “I’m out with this friend” but isn’t?

The evidence I’m accumulating out of this fear of lies has me flummoxed. Also angry, as in the kind of anger that covers my hurt at being treated like a sucker. I want to call these out. Instead I process it all out with trusted others: my therapist, my father confessor, and friends partied hard in these years and grew to be good. They sing in unison, “Wait it out. Be patient. Call for relationship.”

I feel like they are saying: risk being used. Suffer being made a fool for this time. Be meek.

What is meek? It’s Sit down, *****. Be humble. (Thanks, Kendrick Lamar.) It means be teachable. Endure injury. Be patient. In Les Miserables, it’s the Bishop’s candlesticks.

***** 

At fifteen, I lied to my parents about taping non-Christian songs off the radio. My mom found me listening to “The Man in the Mirror” and “La Bamba.”

My parents raided my room one Saturday while I was away. I came home to hear my father listening to “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” on on my boombox, which he’d plugged in next to the computer in the office. He acted like nothing weird was going on. Until he turned around.

Caught, I started talking fast, telling all the lies a scared kid tells:
 “My friend gave the tape of New Kids on the Block. She must have taped that.” Hilarious, because I was breaking the house rules having any secular music. I equivocated that NKOTB was less evil than Great White. Once bitten by this lie, my father seemed to jump back from me. It seemed like we stopped conversing meaningfully for months. I remember it like this: Every time I saw him, I quaked. I said hi. He said hi. Other than required or polite interactions, we said nothing to each other until four months into the impasse he pulled out cassettes of Queen from under the driver’s seat and told me not to tell my mom. He played me “Bicycle” and said it had been their song, back in high school, back when he wooed her while they worked together at Atz’s Ice Cream Shoppe.

Years later, I asked my dad why didn’t talk to me for months. He didn’t remember it that way. He thought we were just ships, slipping past each other on a dark ocean, no dangerous icebergs between us.

My parents must have recognized every one of my lies. When I was very young, my father spanked us for such behaviors. When I was a teenager, lying not out of fear but to get what I wanted, he changed tact. He became meek. He didn’t act out. He just stopped speaking to me, sometimes for days, sometimes longer. Later, we’d clear the air. I’d confess, and we rebuilt rapport.

 I wonder at his skill. How did he learn this meekness? How did growing up a PK, having heard over and over the right and the wrong, but having his own rebellious streak, how did he regain his conscience? How did he rebuild himself? I did it by ratting out other sinners. I became intolerant. I became anything but meek. Having once been a compulsive liar, I faced everything that reminded me of my demons.

I now punish my child vociferously. I barely speak to him. A little bell in my head rings. I think I haven’t spoken warmly to my son in months because I suspect him. I need to understand how to be meek. Because it isn’t the what of meekness that’s hard. It’s the how. 

*****

In the Beatitudes, the portion of Christ’s spoken word where he teaches the dispositions of being He says:

Blessed are the Meek for they will inherit the earth.

The thing about meekness is that it’s up against image. Give up on being perceived as good or pious. Meekness is about being made a fool.

What made me quit lying? The impetus was an accidental renege in a game of euchre (see obscure games popular among Hoosiers who went to Purdue University). I happened like this: I failed to follow suit in a hand, and my boyfriend called me out. It was a stupid mistake (see “Jack of the same color is the left bower…. Oh crap, lots of lingo for people who have never heard of euchre. Sorry.). Caught, I felt like a deer about to hit by a Subaru. I lied. I knew he knew and if he couldn’t trust me to own up to a stupid play in a game — it’s only a game– then how could he trust me in the big things? So I swore off lying, in place of owning up to that one dumb lie. But I carried that silly lie with me like buckshot stuck deep in my flesh.

I became the hammer of truth. When a friend started smoking, I told his parents. When he drank shot after shot of tequila at a New Years Party while I stayed sober, I justified ratting him out again because he was only sixteen.  I called out fellow Christians for years on behavior. Being good, I thought I had the responsibility to point others towards good. This is self-righteousness. See “Not Meek” where definitions are sold. BTWs,

I know that meek is a very religious term, kinda Christianese. But when I met my husband, I met a person who is truly meek. One of the first characteristics that attracted me to him was that he never corrected my silly spoonerisms and mis-rememberings. (He corrects me now. But that’s because some mistakes are like walking around with spinach in your teeth. I’d rather have it pointed out.)

When it comes to our kids, though. He is a meek man. He will say he’s had a temper. Sure. But still he’s meek. He’ll be made a fool covering over their missteps and guarding their dignity before he says anything against them. He’ll be silent and take their stoning before he lets them be struck by the missiles of others. I am still deeply attracted to this, even if I can’t make myself be as awesome as him. If I wrote a modern novel of the prodigal child, my husband is the father in that story. 

But I’m a teacher of high schoolers, aware of the cumulative negative effects of teenage immaturity. And it’s having a horrible effect on my parenting.


I’d better become meek, or I may lose my child. 
The trouble is, I learned to label all things. I don’t know what it means to live without clenching onto things, without proverbial rules and disciplines. All that comes naturally to me is the opposite of meek. The long-suffering nature of the meekness though is the zinger in the second passage of the Tao Te Ching. It’s below. Don’t be fooled. At first, it’s about the changing nature of dualities, which is a good lesson in itself. It teaches the shifting nature of a thing. If a thing it is beautiful, something else is ugly. Or good. Or bad. It’s as if we are trying to name, claim, identify. The dang slippery thing changes the nature of something else, or itself is changed. But really it’s about the Sage’s meekness and humility. Who is a sage but an ascetic? A monk who owns nothing. She who has no claim can claim no loss. She didn’t start and won’t finish the work. This is what parenting a teenager needs to become for me.

Like most good poetry, the wisdom is often in the zinger, the final few lines. 

He makes no claim/he suffers no loss.

My children are not my own. The Creator ordained them.

*****

“Your children are not your own. You may give them your love but not your thoughts… You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.”

On Children – Kahlil Gibran

The hidden truth of parenting is that is about the parents’ development, our slow continual maturation towards our better selves. Parenting changes us. We don’t really have as much control over our children as we should be developing over ourselves. We are learning to be long-suffering, loving, patience, kind, good, humble, MEEK. Below is the text of “On Children” published at http://www.katsandogz.com/onchildren.html

The Tao of Parenting

I have a pretty fantastical story to tell. But first this caveat.

When you read the story, you may want to dismiss it. After all, I was a child with an overactive imagination when it happened(I’m a writer, so what did you expect?) And, I’ve been a bit of a mystic all my life. I’m not so much a miracles type, though I believe they can happen. More so, I do believe in mystery, myth, metaphor, God. Maybe I was born this way. Maybe my parents laid the groundwork. Maybe I’m a mystic because of this little moment that happened in the middle of the night, which at first scare the bejebus out of me, then transformed me.

I woke up heart racing, like out of a nightmare I couldn’t remember. I was still papoosed beneath the quilt on the top bunk. I had this habit of asking my father to pull the sheets and quilt as tight as possible over me and tuck them deep between the mattress and the open springs that supported the mattress. BTW, this open spring system was a horror show for most of my life because if I happened to be on the bottom bunk, inevitably my long hair caught in the springs. There was no detangling. One simply had to rip that chunk of hair out of the scalp because the springs always won. It’s why, when I was little I begged for the top bunk, in spite of my fear of heights. On the other hand, the top bunk was justifiably the safest when accounting for creepy beings that lurked beneath the bed at night. That said, being shrinkwrapped between my sheets ensured no beings could infiltrate and do whatever these unknown beings did to fulfill their evil urges.

So there I laid in the dark, panicked from some dream I didn’t remember. If I cried out for my parents, I’d wake my sisters. That would result in reproach. Clearly I could not climb out of the bed because something was in the room. That something, I rolled over to see, happened to be a brilliantly lit, ginormous hand hovering in the center of the room. My heart thudded, then my head said, in some kind of audible voice: That hand is God’s hand. It’s too big to be any other kind of hand. It’s okay. You are cared for.

Do I realize now that this is anthropomorphizing the Divine, a spiritual being? Yes. But I was a little kid. I best understood God through that person of the Son, e.g. Jesus. As I mentioned my parents laid a solid foundation by being super into church. They took us Saturdays and Sundays to a church of Jesus people types who spent three hours on Saturday nights eating together, doing a lot of singing and then listening to the pastor go line-by-line through books of the Bible. Then we showed up the next morning for more clapping, hand-raising, Kumbayah moments followed by another hour plus long “sermon.”

I hadn’t seen many pictures of Jesus, aside from those in children’s books. Our church was okay with felt doves representing the Holy Ghost (we did not use the word Spirit) but not pictures of the Lord or of the Father. So actually, I had no reason to believe the huge hand was Jesus’. It would be too large for a real man. Nor would it be God the Father’s because I knew the Father didn’t have a body, yet there it hung. And I felt peace. Since I was a fearful, anxious child, this moment contrasted with my usual experience in profound ways.

So maybe it helps you understand why I became a lifelong mystic, even if my understanding of the Divine has changed over the years.

And, being a believer helps make sense of the nagging feeling I’ve had about being a small part in a profound schema. Having faith doesn’t give me all the answers, but having a relationship with the Divine, having a sense that the Divine is personal helps me. I’m not innately warm, nurturing or personal. I’ve had to train myself to get out of my head and connect with other beings as they need. Otherwise, my sense of relationship behaves in the most one-sided, self-oriented way.

If hurt people hurt others, then maybe it follows that cared-for people can care better for others. For my example, I offer my husband. He grew up in a house where he was doted on. His mother was adored. His father was loved. My husband has a reservoir of warm affection that consistently overcomes whatever aggravations he feels. My dad grew up with that kind of love and humor. My mom grew up with some of it, but also some pretty German baggage, which is like some of the Slavic stuff, where self-sacrifice, suffering and stiffness are values.

That wonderful hand in the air and the voice that assured me carried me through most of my life. It assured me of love and care by filling a void humans couldn’t. I wanted that for my siblings, my children, or pretty much anyone I’ve loved. I wanted my kids to experience the sense of love and mystery of the Divine. I think it helps to have such an experience to connect all the dots of being alive and having consciousness.

But here’s the thing. It’s not something I can conjure or control. I pray for that to happen to those I love. But others have to have their own relationship to the Divine. Since I’m clearly such an enlightened, slightly-loveable, curious and interesting person, it follows that everyone should experience life just as I have, right? Ha!

It’s the first principle of the Tao, which I realized I need to dig into after I re-read The Tao of Teaching this spring. I re- read it to lead a discussion among teachers, but as I read, I thought about how I utterly failed to apply its wisdom in my role as a mother.

I realized that I needed to dig into the Tao Te Ching from several angles. First just read the original, translated, of course. Then also, because I’m an Orthodox Christian, which is more Eastern than the flavor of Christianity I grew up with, I should read Christ the Eternal Tao (Hieromonk Damascene.) And since I want to write about this from a mother-child point of view, maybe I needed to read The Tao of Pooh. Then I could share my thoughts. So here they begin. Use or lose, as one wiser colleague of mine says.

First of all, what is the Tao Te Ching? I should not assume you know much about it because I didn’t for most of my life. It means The Way. It’s one of a few ancient ways of wisdom from China. Confucius offered another. To be sure, I’ve quote Confucius often to my students, but I’ve had the Tao distinguished from Confucianism as such:

Taoism- It focuses on nature and the mystery of all things. If one sees oneself as a small part of all, one has a better orientation towards the rest of creation. It’s easier to be at peace. Peace and humility unify us. Taoism stresses rest (verbal irony in that sentence construction?), lack of ego, humility, selflessness, and dispassion. I like this because the Eastern Christian teachers often believed that pride is one of the greatest pitfalls of humans and humility is one of the greatest virtues. When we are humble, we are not at war within ourselves or with others.

Confucianism, the other Eastern (Chinese) system of wisdom, focuses on what it means to be human, as an individual in an ordered society. It can seem more hierarchical and more about teaching social order or the social contract. It too contains wisdom, but seems less about the sacred and mystery. But I am not an expert.

I value the wisdom of both. As an Orthodox Christian, I realize that I understand them through an outsider’s lens, yet much of what is within them offers another doorway to the wisdom of my own faith. Reading the Tao gives fresh language to metaphors that have been rendered cliches or stale due to misuse or overuse or misunderstanding. Familiarity has bred this in me. If I don’t allow myself to see with new eyes, it may prove the old adage true. I may fall into contempt towards my faith.

So that said, I’m going to look at my parenting through the lens of the The Way by Lao Tzu.

Chapter One

Tao (The Way) that can be spoken of is not the Constant Tao’

The name that can be named is not a Constant Name. Nameless, is the origin of Heaven and Earth; The named is the Mother of all things. Thus, the constant void enables one to observe the true essence. The constant being enables one to see the outward manifestations. These two come paired from the same origin. But when the essence is manifested, It has a different name. This same origin is called “The Profound Mystery.” As profound the mystery as It can be, It is the Gate to the essence of all life.

Tao Te Ching 1

It brings me back around to that aforementioned mystical experience of my childhood and my will to impose this on my children. Because the first chapter of the Tao lines right up with the ineffable, uncontrollable mystery of God. He has so many names. How he brought about origins remains cloaked in mystery. In this Way, we have Father and Mother imagery (The Mother of God fits nicely into this. She becomes the means of one person of the Godhead becoming Incarnate.) In the Ineffable, or what the Way calls the “constant void,” we get essences or whiffs of what is infinite and unknowable. The “outward manifestations” are energies, where we see God at work. In life God is at work. But these are mysteries. I don’t get to prescribe to my children, or anyone. I can only hope they perceive these.

And this really bothers me. Turns out, I am not god. I have a long way to go to being transformed by the Divine. Another reason to meditate on it, I suppose.

The Speaker

began his power point with chortling satisfaction
regarding well his apocryphal vision
of the dire situation facing humankind. He fished
around in words by
Lewis, Nietzsche, Tolkien, Aquinas
like the caller with bingo ball in his hand, deciphering
faded symbols for the players to put together.
BINGO! I get it.

The speaker finished his power point so they jingle applause.
Most everyone zips up laptops and ripples out into the halls
But the lingerers line up, jittering for a fix.
Chewing on his words, gnawing on their lips,
needing answers deeper in his bones, if they can dig,
they offer up their particulars, “What should I…,”
“If this… then what?” , truth
They lamb onto the podium tying the speaker to it.
They follow him, a pied piper, until the next proof and answer session.
Observing from the back is the skeptic-cynic
Dismissing the speaker who conducted his presentation to feel this gratification.


A Contentious Woman

From first grade until high school, my parents expected me to memorize Bible verses. When I was eleven, my dad assigned Proverbs 8, which I found abstract and dull. I tried to persuade him to let me choose one of the later passages, one with the pithy two line sayings, but no go. Maybe he foresaw what would happen.

Invariably I read anything but chapter 8. There are plenty of easily absorbable lines to apply promptly to one’s living. I saw the need to become wise and so enjoyed verses like: “The wise in heart accepts commands but a chattering fool comes to ruin” and “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.”

Perhaps I should have re-read the bits about a loose tongue. Instead, I glommed onto one proverb, “It is better to live on the corner of a roof than in a house with a contentious woman,” and I weaponized it against my mother.

I had a penchant for self-righteousness. I used it often over the years. But as a peevish pre-teen, I perfected this. My mother made a convenient target. She was harried by raising seven kids. I could trigger easily with a churlish retort. When she rebuked me, I accused her of being angry “all the time.”

“Not angry, dear,” she responded one night after we’d discharged the tension. “I’m frustrated. Don’t confuse the two.” I had too narrow an emotional vocabulary yet. Anger, frustration. To me they were no different than yelling and having a curt tone.

“You yell all the time,” I’d say. But she hardly raised her volume, only her pitch.

In retrospect, I see how the mother I grew up with shouldered too much, trying to cover shortages of money, of time, of being good enough. I admire her now, but not then.

She stayed home but she was full partner with my father at Household, Inc. She made food stretch with clever casseroles, coupons and calculators. She managed our huge garden, sending us out in rows of tomatoes and carrots to weed and pick. She put up, which is the country term for preserving, hundreds of quarts of beans, pickles, tomatoes, peaches, and applesauce. She kept the diaper budget low by using cloth diapers. She garage-saled– yes, I just made that a verb– for our outfits. By the time I was in third grade, she’d delivered four of us, too many to afford private tuition at our church school on my father’s hourly wages. She and my dad went to the first home-schoolers meeting in Fort Wayne and she added home-educating to her daily duties. Perhaps because we constantly stomped through the house with dirty feet and left a wake of mess behind us, she maintained cleanliness as if the Bible actually said cleanliness is next to godliness. Within the next decade, she’d have three more living children and a miscarriage. She’d also live out of a small camper for nine months, trying to keep her kids from wilding while she, my father and her parents did most of the labor to build a proper house because my father had decided “no boy is going to pick up my daughters for a date in a trailer park.”

My mother managed the narrow margins with military style discipline. We learned to fold underwear and make a bed as if we had enlisted. When I skipped away from the kitchen, she usually called me back over my sloppy inattention. She knew when I didn’t dismantle the stove fully or move the sugar and flour canisters to wipe the counters beneath them. She lectured to justify why these steps were required after each meal. Mice. Ants. Varmints of all sorts. As I grew up, I resisted her. I felt the interior of our relationship and found her switches and buttons. I flipped them with a menagerie of tactics: psychological warfare against my siblings, argumentation, and sneaky behavior. I’d observe how her jaw quivered. She couldn’t cover cold anger, which I now recognize as an attempt to bridle her reactions. As her pitch rose one day, I lobbed the proverb at her.

“You know, the Bible says it is better to live on the corner of a roof than in a house with a contentious woman.”  

I see her stiffen in the kitchen of that new house. She’s dismantled the stove to show me the broth that had boiled over and pooled under the electric burner pans. She shows me why smoke curled off the coils- pancake batter from breakfast had slowly charred. Her perm curls are wound tight as a black girl’s. I register the hurt and see my aim was true. One time failed tp satisfy me. I slipped it in again and again in her presence. It took a few years to niggle enough at my conscience, to grind down my gratification into guilt. It took having my own children and hearing my voice mirror hers, all grit and frustration before I knew I’d grown up like my mom.

When my daughter was three, I bargained then hollered for her to pick up her toys while I cooked dinner. It took months to realize a preschooler simply doesn’t sequester herself in her room, efficiently tossing her earthy belongings into a crate and cheerily appearing at the table on her own. I sat blockading her door for a few weeks, telling her each item to toss next into the crates while I re-assembled wooden puzzles for her. She groaned and fiddled, made up excuses about bathroom and drinks while I kept guard. As I blocked the door, my warfare against my mom came back to me as if I’d assaulted myself.

I accumulated guilt upon guilt as I tried being a stay-at-home mother (and freelance writer to save my dignity as more than a mere domescile). I raged one night when I drove my daughter to Chicago separate from my husband’s band.

“Wait for us for supper. We want to eat with the band,” I’d told him earlier (this was the pre-cell phone era). When we arrived, the event staff said the band had left thirty minutes before to grab food. I drove around Chicago, angry sobbing. I’d been reduced to domescile, I felt. My daughter pleaded with me not to be mad at Daddy. Then I despised King Solomon or whichever sage penned those words. I was contentious. I was lonely. I was impatient. I wanted more. I wasn’t supposed to want more. I was supposed to be fulfilled as a stay-at-home mother, clipping coupons, babysitting on the side, mowing, managing the bills, gardening, preserving, handcrafting gifts, having playdates with the mom across the street, home cooking all our meals, sewing my own clothes.

It would take a few more years to realize how one-sided, how man-centered, – dare I call it misogynistic?-  that proverb (and many like it) is. I’d reduced my mother to “a contentious woman” without consideration of her dignity. She spent decades demonstrating such ingenuity and work ethic. I’d dismissed the causes of her frustrations. I’d reduced her to “a.short fuse.” While I never gave thought to her inner life was like. Who had tended her soul and encouraged her to become a fully creative, intellectual, actualized person? I’d sold out my own mother because I’d reduced her to a “just another woman, a homemaker.”

After I married, when I’d grown up enough to stop saying “I’m not friends with girls. They are so petty and emotional. I’m only friends with guys,” I realized I had come to despise the company of my own. It took deeper literature to teach me that a combatant sears herself when she participates with violence.

I see in my mother now as a kind of imposing woman. She had the capacity for authority, but my warfare, compounded with her generation of evangelical culture’s campaign, took her down, made her smaller than she could be. I wounded her. She might have been more. Meanwhile I reaped from the efforts of her generation. I credit her quiet work and my father’s outright encouragement for the capacity to mature into an imposing woman. I shrugged off a kind of soul-destroying imposition that the church around me fostered. And, I responded to my own nature. I never could be the nurturing model of femininity prized as the ideal of motherhood.

But also, I packed up some of my haints, the weird ideas that trouble me still. I reacted easily to the “should be” and allowed myself to grow shrill. My anger has 88 keys: pitched, shrill, throbbing,fuming, icy, irate, caustic, contrary, pissed off, inflamed, cold. I’ve skipped church to jerk the vacuum about while ranting at low volumes. My husband has shielded our kids from the tension by jumping into the circumference of my anger. He’d butts into my chores giving me no excuse but to discharge my emotional energy.

In this ecology my children had slack. They learned to slink away rather than brave my rants. They circled back to pacify me. But they’ve always sensed what I bottle inside, this tension within me. When they hit college age, they fantasized about moving out. They too preferred the corner of the roof, another roof but ours, to living with my contention.

Moving to the roof is a temporary solution, even when the roof is flat rather than pitched. It’s an isolation, not solitude. It’s far better for a person to get help resolving and repairing the tension before it becomes contention. I didn’t start getting professional therapy, or reading useful parenting books until my children were too old. And still, the tension within me is hard for me to understand. It reminds me of the story of the desert monk who approached his abbot for permission to leave his monastic community. He said the other monks drove him to rage. He asked for his own skete. Reluctantly, his abbot sent him to a cave with a bowl and basic sleeping items. Not long after, the monk lost his patience and threw his bowl against the side of the cave. It shattered. He returned in humility. It wasn’t fellow monks, but his own disposition that drove him to rage.  

I have years of soul work, confession, turning away from my passion, and I’m still learning to be calmer. Meanwhile that proverb, two short lines called wisdom, incited a false narrative. It put my soul in contention with itself. With each mistake of anger, I learned to despair, and to hate myself. The story I told myself about my mother, that she was her frustration, that was the story I’ve been telling about myself. I have no idea what my mother thought when she read that proverb. I know I think the worst thoughts. I despair. I cycle into “I’ll never improve. I might as well quit trying.” The problem is, there’s no grace in those lines. No grace for my mom, no grace for myself, no “seek first to understand.” I have to give up on that proverb (and a few that I think are actually more harmful and hurtful). I’m not sure where that puts me. I have to hope for some grace. I have to forgive my mother her trespasses which are so much smaller than her achievements. If I don’t, I’ll never forgive myself.