The fortress

The day I walked through the doors of Gifford Grade School at the beginning of third grade, I entered my sixth school. By then, my father’s career in the military had taken my family from:

Gifford was a Lake Wobegon sort of town. It had around 600 inhabitants, and we lived there for three years—long enough to put down roots. We caught fireflies, got lost in  endless fields of popcorn, and actually knew people where we trick-or-treated. We skied down snow drifts, became Cub Scouts and Brownies, and sang for the residents of the local nursing home.

Then, Dad retired from the military, and we headed west in the station wagon, towing a travel trailer behind us. I loathed the forever place to which my parents retired and missed Gifford terribly.

At 11, I was on my way to my seventh school, and something snapped inside me. I had said so many goodbyes over the years that I couldn’t bear the thought of saying any more. So I addressed the problem by building a fortress that surrounded and protected me. By preventing hellos, it would prevent goodbyes.

It worked. It kept me safe—and very lonely—into adulthood, and despite my best efforts, still exists today. Occasionally, someone breaches the wall, but it’s relatively rare, and I wonder sometimes what makes it so effective, especially now that I no longer want it to be.

Recently, however, I was minding my own business at a coffee shop, when I turned to find a stranger inside my battlements, fiddling with a cream pitcher. I had no idea who he was, or how he got there. We exchanged a few sentences over the course of the evening, and went our separate ways. I was shaken.

The stranger appeared inside the battlements several times after that, and each time I felt a sense of joyful recognition that was completely inconsistent with how well I knew him. Then, one day, he skittered under the portcullis just before it closed and declared his love for me from the other side.

What am I supposed to do with that? Leave? The fortress?

I am intensely and inexplicably drawn to the stranger. Can I work up the courage to leave these walls I’ve come to know so well?

And will he be there if I do?

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Destiny, boys, and men

How I failed to meet my Destiny

As I was washing dishes in my teens one day, I looked out the window and “saw” a joyful little girl on a swing, her pigtails flying behind her. Perhaps, I thought, this was a visitation from a child I will have someday. I named her Destiny and thought of her often through the years.

I always wanted children, but married a man who didn’t, and it took us years to come to a compromise. He finally agreed that we could have one (and only one) child if I could conceive it without the aid of fertility drugs or in-vitro fertilization. In spite of the fact that I was in my late 30s, I conceived easily. But I knew in that intuitive way mothers often do that this baby was a boy. Since I had only one chance at motherhood, that meant I would never meet my Destiny.

Over time, however, the baby I carried managed to communicate with me in various ways, and I warmed to him. In fact, by the time I miscarried two-and-a-half months later, I would have been disappointed if he had been a girl. His purpose was clear. Like John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus, the first baby I carried prepared the way for the son I bore about a year later.

How having a son turned out to for the best

The fact that my child was male turned out to be a brilliant cosmic move that ensured that my family history didn’t repeat itself. My mother and I were completely enmeshed. I didn’t know where she ended and I began, I just knew that my purpose in life was to meet her expectations. I worked constantly to stay within the target area of her love—because falling outside it was life-threatening. Would she care for me if she didn’t love me?

My son and I will never become enmeshed because we are so different from each other—that Y chromosome is our continental divide. In this otherness, my boy has given me a new understanding of and respect for men. He has unwittingly taught me this:

Girls are born women. They begin nurturing soon after they can walk, and there is nothing remarkable about the fact that they eventually become mothers. Boys, on the other hand, are born boys, and thanks to my son, I know what an enormous metamorphosis it takes to turn armpit-farting, BB-gun toting megaburpers into daddies.

Today, witnessing daddies who deeply, compassionately, and meaningfully engage with their children sometimes moves me to tears. These men bear a message from the future that helps put my troubled mama-mind at ease.

“Don’t worry,” they seem to say while wiping their child’s nose with their shirttail. “Your son’s going to turn out just fine.”

Life, and how we move through it

As I walked through the forest on my son’s birthday yesterday, I reflected on how challenging life has been since the moment, 12 years ago, when he was born. At the same time, I’ve grown weary of thinking about how hard it’s been. Weary of feeling sorry for myself. Weary of My Story.

I realized that the past twelve years have felt like walking through chest-high water, which is something I used to do on purpose for exercise. There’s a much more efficient way to get through water. It’s called swimming.

Walking through the water of my life hasn’t exactly been a conscious choice. I do it because it’s all I’ve ever known. But I’m ready to find a more efficient and joyful way to move through life.

I’m going to sign up for swimming lessons.

A prayer to Phoebe

Phoebe (August 28,2005-March 15,2011)

Dear Phoebe,

I have never witnessed greater pain than I did at your funeral on Friday. I felt it in my body. There were times when I could hardly breathe. And Phoebe, I barely knew you. How much worse must it have been for your parents, who loved you more than life itself?

Please stay near them. Be obvious about it. Be clumsy about it as they adjust from the warm tangibility of your physical presence to the wispy subtlety of your spiritual being. Help them know you, not only as the five-year-old girl you were, but as the powerful spirit who loved them so much, that you agreed long ago to draw forth from them greater love, devotion, effort, and courage than anyone thought possible.

For more than two years, they tapped in to reserves that they didn’t know they had in their fight to keep you alive. And now they are empty. There is little left with which they can care for themselves or each other.

They must’ve concluded by now that the source of their strength was not entirely their own. It couldn’t have been, because caring for you in your illness required more strength than human beings typically possess. Assure them now that that source of strength is still there. Show them in a tangible way that you are still there. Remind them that we are still there to hold and support them.

The world as your parents knew it has ended. Help them deal with the absolute sacrilege that life will go on. Help them now to do the most courageous thing of all: to live without you.

Amen

Damsels, distress, and ethics

Like any young damsel in distress, I always dreamed that a knight on a white horse would rescue me someday. Didn’t matter what the distress was. Maybe it was my night to do dishes. Maybe I forgot to do my homework. Maybe my siblings were especially annoying that day.

Fast-forward to today, and I am actually experiencing real, grown-up distress. As always, I dream of being rescued and relieved of my burdens. But for the first time, I realize that it’s completely unethical to allow anyone to do it.

When you’re a damsel in distress, you’re in it for the rescue, not the knight. And that’s not fair to any man.

So I sent the knight away.

Truth, and where to find it

I was raised a fundamentalist Christian, and the Bible was our sole source of truth. It was considered inerrant, which means, in essence, that God dictated every word of it, and that it was perfect in every way.

It doesn’t take much scrutiny to discover contradictions and ethical quandaries in the Bible, and that’s not a problem if you consider it a book that was written over a period of hundreds of years by countless authors. But if you believe that the Bible is literally the word of God, these contradictions are a big problem that leads pastors everywhere to cherry-pick the bits that serve them and sweep the rest under the carpet.

Of course, as a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, Christian camp counselor, and resident assistant in a dorm at a Christian university, I cherry-picked, too. Only I swept much bigger things under the carpet—things I never understood. Like why Jesus had to die for my sins (the core tenet of fundamentalist Christianity) and communion (the idea of symbolically eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood grossed me out). Large cracks began to form in my faith, but on the whole, it still held together.

Then two of my former youth group kids died at the age of 17 and 18 in the same car accident and my faith crumbled. It took two decades to rebuild my cosmology, and I slowly found new sources of Truth. I no longer wanted to BELIEVE something was true. I wanted to KNOW it was true.

When I believe something, it calls on me to have faith. Like, say, that the Bible is literally the word of God. When I know something, every pore in my body opens to receive it and incorporate it into my being. Believing is an intellectual experience. Knowing is a physical one.

Long after Mike and Jill died, a woman in her seventies handed me a cassette tape and suggested that I listen to it. I did and knew there was Truth on that tape. Then I learned that the Truth was channeled. This posed a problem. If I accepted this new source of Truth, I would have to keep it secret. My fundamentalist loved ones would consider it satanic and fear for my mortal soul.

In the end, I decided to accept this new source of Truth and concluded that:

Truth is Truth, no matter where you find it.

This mindset has made it possible for me to find Truth in unexpected places. Like a quote by musician Marilyn Manson in the movie Bowling for Columbine, while dreaming, and while packing for a move.

Recently, I discovered my most cherished source of Truth yet: Shamanic journeying. Journeying provides a means of obtaining direct revelation, which is something I’ve yearned for all my life. Until now, the quality of my connection with the Universe was about as good as you can achieve with two soup cans and a string. I always longed for a hard-wired, broadband connection that provides me with a sense of direction and spiritual companionship. Journeying is it.

Again, I have found a source of Truth that I have to hide from people who love me. But Truth is Truth, no matter where you find it. And I couldn’t be more grateful for this one.