A Flaming Sword cloaked in Righteousness, seared onto hearts in the name of God–
words of warning from Godly Men to those who dared to question–
words of finality from mother to son, told to stay away forever–
words of sorrow from son to daughter, excising her soul–
words of anger spilling down to a sister, ripping her spirit–
words of what-might-have-been echoed to an unborn baby boy–
words that closed doors, severed ties, starved flesh, erased memories,
murdered love itself
while heads were turned away
Dark tears fall into a puddle below
Puddle to stream to river to ocean
Midnight blue oceans
Filled with inky tears from hollow eyes
My children are drowning and crying and afraid
Shackled, I am screaming for help…
But nobody hears
“Shut UP . . . and have fun!”
This almost perfect recipe for life itself is compliments of that great philosopher and nervous boater, my mother. Though she would not think so, I think it captures the essence of what we should be doing on this earth while we’re given the chance. It was delivered to my siblings, me, and my college roommate on a very fast, almost deafening boat ride on a particularly choppy bay down the street from our house, with my daddy driving the boat, my mother in the passenger seat yelling at him to slow down, and all of us packed in the tiny stern of the boat, convulsed in laughter, tears rolling, crossing our legs in discretion.
It’s funnier if you knew my mother. I’m sure she was a little frightened by the waves and the speed and maybe a little mad at Daddy for “going all out” to entertain the troops in the rear at the risk of our very lives. To her, our uncontrollable laughter was the breaking point, the final straw, the match that lit the fire, and every other cliché in the Encyclopedia of Clichés. She had had it with all of us. So she did her “Slow Turn,” created and perfected through years of raising three young whippersnappers; pulled herself up to full sitting position in front of and above us; and let it fly. “Shut UP!” (That had always been a BAD phrase in our house.) “And have fun!” (She had to add that, of course, to soften the blow lest my visiting roommate think she had used that bad phrase before.) Well, we all, my roommate included, fell into the floor of the boat holding our stomachs and screaming with laughter. Daddy had heard her loud, insistent, I-MEAN-it command and her sweet, equally insistent invitation to enjoy ourselves in the process—-and he started convulsing while trying to steer the boat.
I will say–the day did not quite end with the same level of hilarity as on the boat ride, but we did smile often through a quiet little dinner with Daddy. Oh, how we all loved our inimitable mother! One-of-a-kind.
“Either get busy living or get busy dying.”
I ran across this little gem of a directive several days ago, and it has been rambling around in my head since then. “Best practices” distilled. Right now, it’s very early morning, and I’m sitting by the fire in my pajamas, looking through my east-facing window into the dark sky outside. I see the remnants of God’s lesser light in one of my favorite moon phases, what I have always called a “fingernail moon,” and a single star to the east of it. I am tempted to recite the childhood verse with a twist:
Star light, star bright
Last star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight
Now, I look up and it’s gone. In the time it took to type those few words and think for a minute, the moon and that lonely little star were lost from my view, covered for the remainder of their short life this morning by clouds.
There are many wishes in life, some are frivolous, some are substantial, and some are those prayers we pray fervently on our knees and under our breaths all day and night, day after day and night after night. Some wishes come true with no effort from us, while our eyes are closed, and are seen as gifts from above; others require grinding, energy-sucking, exhausting effort on our part to have even a chance of coming true. But the time comes when, wish granted or not, we must accept what we are given and get back to the business of living authentic, integrated, useful, meaningful, peaceful lives. We must return to ourselves . . . because when you go missing there, you go missing everywhere.
Sometimes we leave our place at life’s table. When we return, we may come back to shuffled chairs and some different people. If our chair is still there, we need to take it, even if it’s in a different place—-settle in, greet old friends, meet new people and listen to their stories, ask politely for someone to pass the green beans and mashed potatoes.
Because—finally—we are hungry again for life.
My mother’s birthday. Oh, how busy I would have been today if she were still here! Mother had a deep need for people she loved to celebrate her on her actual birthday. And we always obliged, no matter what we wanted, needed, planned to do on January 5 of each year. That little dynamo of a woman adored being adored. And we had no trouble adoring her.
My husband just came over to kiss me goodbye before he left for work, and his eyes fell on the first words on this page. His comment, “Your mother’s birthday—where’s the bread?” made me laugh. We could cook ourselves into oblivion on Thanksgiving as Mother presided over the festivities—huge turkey and turkey breast, mounds of cornbread dressing, spinach madeleine, sweet potato “bomb,” cranberry sauce, “pink salad,” and various pies strewn from counter to buffet to table, all the special dishes she liked to have on holidays. Those of us who cooked and tried to clean up as we went along were almost too exhausted to care much about eating when it was finally ready. But eventually the huge meal came together at last. Year after year, we would all stand around the dining room table and hold hands while my husband Randy thanked God for our family and asked Him to bless the food. When he finished the blessing, everyone would echo his “Amen.” And the first comment following that “Amen,” sometimes before we even sat down, would be from Mother——“Melinda, where’s the bread?”
Mother and Daddy were our loves. When Daddy died on April 4, 1995, our original family circle of five broke for the first time, a circle we had desperately tried to protect through 19 years of heart attacks and heart surgeries. We were stunned, almost embarrassingly inconsolable. Even though we certainly knew our family as a complete circle was on borrowed time, the severing of earthly ties to our precious daddy made our weeping on the outside a classic understatement, a mockery almost, to the vast flood of tears ravaging our hearts. The remaining four of us were devastated, especially our mother, who fell quickly into a profound, expected, and thankfully brief depression. Daddy had worshipped Mother–taken care of her, pampered her, protected her, substituted for her in some ways. Mother was lost without him. I was teaching high school at the time but moved in with her across town for two months, leaving her only for the hours I was required to be at school, while my husband, working a difficult and exacting job of his own, took care of our home and family—a daughter in college, a daughter finishing the final two months of her senior year in high school, and a son in middle school. It was not easy, but it was redemptive. We all learned lessons, sometimes without even realizing it, and one of those took hold with me. Redemption is never easy. It is always and only achieved by walking the difficult path, the inconvenient path, the rock-strewn path, with heartache after heartache along the way. Mother knew redemption well with her children, knew each of our weaknesses and faults, could turn on us, bless us out, pinch a nerve in our necks, or just give us “the look.” She might remind us of our misdeeds from time to time, might discuss our patterns of behavior with other family members if she was concerned we were headed for wrong choices or pain-producing consequences, but we always knew we were redeemed and restored in her heart. She loved us fiercely in spite of our flaws—or maybe because of them. A mother’s love. We understood that power of love and redemption and loved her back.
For today—January 5, 2016, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the season that made her so happy—I want to say Happy Birthday, dear Mother. I miss you so.
I apologize for my last post. My college roommate said she hated it—that I should never to do that again. After a brief rehab session with my precious husband, I am better. But I do think I have, for the first time in my life, fallen to the ground, face down, eyes closed, darkness surrounding and coursing through my veins, desperate to escape the crushing sorrow and limitless emptiness. It’s a scary, scary place to be. But I also believe in a God who loves me and wants more than anything to pick up my limp body and mind and spirit and just enfold me in His arms. After all…..Darkness—utter and total and hopeless—is God’s perfect canvas.
I have cracked one eye slightly, though, and discovered I am alive, I can still only see through that glass darkly, but I can see—I really can—a few pinpoints of light. Just a few—like when dusk settles in on a cloudless night and you see the very first stars. They’re tiny….and they don’t seem to make much difference, actually. But then another tiny light catches your eye to the east…..and then another to the north. And before you know it, the sky is twinkling with all sorts of possibility, all manner of hope, thousands and thousands of tiny angels peeking through. So I know God has begun His painting of a new me, much like He paints the sky, new every night and every day. He will continue painting, inspired by the utter darkness of my canvas, even while I sleep. I don’t have to watch Him paint—just trust his unfailing and exquisite artistry and remain willing to look in the mirror when He’s finished….and smile.
I have a habit that my friends, except for one or two, find strange. I love to wake up in the dark, especially when no one else is awake. I have my standards, though. As my sister and I have said, we’ll get up in the fours, but we refuse to get up in the threes. Must be genetic from our daddy, but we consider it a gift. This morning, I looked east out the bay of windows that frames our pasture to the early morning sky, just as I always do. But this morning, I saw the beginnings of a sunrise unlike any I had seen before. Only a ragged ribbon of light, intensifying more slowly than most sunrises, but brilliant—unique and brilliant. My little photograph does not begin to capture how breathtaking it was, but here it is:
That strange light—unusually, almost eerily, prolonged in place this morning and coming after this unusual, eerie, and prolonged darkness—has to symbolize something. I truly don’t know what at this point, but I’m willing to listen and receive. And I thank God for supplanting my will with His own.
As the last day of 2015 slips away, I am moved to share my truth with whoever shows up in this space. I have been emptied this year. I wandered into a dark and deep wilderness with no food, no water, no nourishment but God Himself. I have called this strange emptiness Perpetual Lent, not because I felt deprived by it but precisely because I want to maintain it. I realize now my emptiness was necessary, so I could be filled once again with God’s Peace. Along the path I traveled, I have found it quite amazing to see who has shown up, as well as who has not. But I can never thank enough the ones whose precious faces I see before me now. You are light in the darkness to me. You are the next step on the path. You are water for my thirsty soul. You are Christ in my life.
In living the dark days of this year, I have had a remnant of scripture flow through my head which distills and captures the essence of God’s message to me during this heavy season. Other verses might seem more appropriate for different parts of me that He needs to repair, but this is The One: For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now we know in part, but then we shall know the whole. This year, I have had the dearest hearts in my life “remind me of what I know.” You know who you are. You have held me still, you have chiseled off my chains, you have unlocked my prison door–and I will forever be grateful for your abiding love, for your gift of freedom, for your unwavering insistence that I just rest in the arms of the One who loves me best.
I pray today with groanings too deep for words, but I will give life to a few in front of you—Lord Jesus Christ, seize my heart and make it your own. Only you, only you…..only You.
The end of the beginning…
Long ago, in seemingly another lifetime, a young man gifted me with this phrase, and I’m sure threads of his story will surface from time to time throughout the life of this blog. He had no idea that what he was saying was profound—but it was. His name and distinguishing characteristics are not really important. But his story is all-important, one of defeat and of hope, of hate and of love, of evil and of good.
But—enough about that. We’ll come back to it later.
The phrase is so precious to me because it states precisely where I am in my life, and, according to some people who know, writing should begin there. While the word “end” can make us cast our eyes—possibly blurred with tears—downward, the word “beginning” piques our interest enough, just enough, to give us the hope and the strength to look up. The mere utterance of the word can dry our tears and unlock the proverbial shackles forged by the past. That’s where I now find myself, and that’s where my writing will begin.
Until I was approaching my fifth birthday, I had an imaginary playmate. Her name was Fifi, and I was absolutely convinced she was real. I remember my mother setting the table with three places for my daddy, her, and me (my baby sister was still in her high chair eating what was called pablum in the fifties), and I started crying because Mother had “forgotten” to set a place for Fifi. Wise woman that she was, she went to the kitchen without a word and brought back a fourth place setting for my friend, although I’m sure she was secretly thinking, When is this child going to give up on this Fifi nonsense? It’s KILLING me—and, besides, people are thinking she borders on crazy! Eventually, Mother’s wish came true; we moved out to “the country,” and, with so many new places to explore and new friends to take with me, Fifi disappeared. I don’t remember being particularly sad at that point—because my little world, small as it was, had literally grown huge overnight. But now I wish I could find her again. The end of the beginning.
I have taught writing in some form for decades, but oddly, until now, I never fully realized its distilling power for solace and for Truth. There may be times that I cannot tell you everything because I would be invading spaces that are meant to be sacred, but, in those times, I will simply fall back and let the story tell itself. After all, sometimes raw, concentrated, unvarnished Truth surfaces in ways we never dream. And, as it weaves into this story of many ends and many beginnings, I hope my writing will, like Geppetto’s wooden boy, become real. Real, indeed.