Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sunday Blues

Sunday was my least favorite day of the week as a child. But the misery began on Saturday night when Mom would load Renee and I in the bathtub together. This always involved a fight as neither of us wanted to sit at the back of the tub where we had once seen a huge spider lurking. I hated joint baths. The rare occasions when I got to bathe alone I could take my time and make bubbling parachutes out of the washcloths and a boat from the floating bar of Dove soap. But with Renee in the tub, and me trying to scoot as far away from the spider corner as possible, there just wasn’t room for any play. Saturday night baths were about efficiency—get us in and out as quickly as possible.

Out of the tub, powdered and in clean jammies, it was time to begin the tortuous task of having our hair set. First, Mom plastered our damp locks with a pink goop called “Dippity-Do.” Then she would twist stands of hair into pin curls which she secured with two intersecting metal “clippies” until our entire heads were metal-plated. Renee sat perfectly still, smiling like a model as she anticipated the beautiful curls she’d have the next day. I squirmed. I scratched. I complained that the clippies were digging into my ears. Mom would appease me by installing strips of cotton over my ears and finish off her work with an itchy hair net to hold everything together. Then, it was off to bed.

How a kid was supposed to get comfortable on a head full of metal was beyond me, but it caused me to wake up in a foul mood the next morning. Renee was up early, flouncing around--ready for Mom to style her lovely curls—which would last about an hour in her fine, stick-straight hair. I sat by glumly, naturally curly hair invigorated by a night confined in clippies, knowing I was doomed to a "do" that would last a week no matter how much I tried to brush it out.

I found Dad on the couch in his pajamas, reading the Sunday paper. I hurried over and claimed the comic section and took it to the Private Library to read in peace. Mom was in the kitchen making bacon and eggs and called to us to get ready for Sunday school.

Ugh. Sunday school. The one day where Dad did not rush off to work and the sun always shined; the day I had to wear clothes I hated and be bored to tears in church; the one day that my favorite program, “Davy and Goliath” was on TV.

I reluctantly dressed in my slippery, lace trimmed socks and patent leather shoes, dismally pulling a dress over my head. It didn’t matter to me what dress I wore—I hated them all. Renee spun around in hers, preening and glowing, and clearly feeling pretty. I made black heel marks on the linoleum on purpose.

Mom served us soft-boiled eggs in the shell. She cut off the tops of the eggs and put them in tiny shot glasses along with buttered toast cut into strips for dipping into the yolk. As I ate, I studied my shot glass thoughtfully. It showed painted cannibals dancing around a black cooking pot that contained a desperate looking white guy who was waving his arms over his head. Around the glass was printed, “Down the hatch.” I shuddered and kept dipping.

All too soon we heard the church bells from down the street and that was our cue to leave the house. Mom handed us each a strip of bacon wrapped in a paper napkin which we nibbled slowly as we walked—hoping to make the salty, greasy goodness last the whole 3 blocks to the church. We took the side door down the steps to the church basement and found a seat in the semi-circle arrangement of chairs around the old upright piano. Though I loved to sing on my own, I did not like singing at church. When they asked for requests, I chose “America the Beautiful.”

“That is not a church song,” the teacher corrected with a frown that clearly said, “Shame on you—you know better…”

“Then why is it in the Sunday school song book,” I retorted in my head and sighed, resigned to more verses of “Jacob’s Ladder,” a song which made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Things picked up when someone requested “Do Lord.” I sang loudly, inspired that the Lord might “remember me--oh Lordy.” I thought a bit of clapping was in order for this number and so I put my hands together. The other children stared at me and a teacher, who clearly believed such displays of enthusiasm were not fitting for the Lord’s House, shook her head at me disapprovingly. Further deflated, I slumped in my chair squeaking my bare legs against the cold metal, and busied myself with the task of retrieving my damp, bunched-up socks that had gathered inside the arch of each foot. I got the distinct impression that God did not approve of children.

I yawned through the Sunday school lesson, half-heartedly filling in the coloring page with an assortment of broken crayons. My favorite Bible story was never featured—the one I read often at home in the big book of Children’s Bible Stories I had gotten for Christmas. It was about wise King Solomon who had to figure out who a baby belonged to when two mothers both claimed it was theirs. King Solomon said, “Bring me a sword and I’ll divide the child in two.” [shiver] And the baby’s real mother said, “No, oh King! Don’t harm the child—let her have him instead.” And the mean other lady who was lying the whole time said, “No! Let neither of us have the child but divide him in half.” [gasp] Solomon saw right through the whole thing and gave the baby to his real mom who was willing to give him up so he could live. It was a great story with lots of excitement. I don’t know why we never got to read it at Sunday school.

At the final “Amen” of the Lord’s Prayer, I bounded up the church steps taking care to make my uncomfortable shoes smack as loudly as possible on the bare floors. We went straight to the back pew on the far right—which our Gram maybe owned. She never sat anywhere else. Grandpa was there, too, and he gave us peppermint Lifesavers and pens from his sport coat so we could decorate the bulletins.

If the music downstairs was lifeless, the music upstairs was painful. The organist attacked the piano with such vigor and inaccuracy my ears hurt. I tried following along in the hymnal but couldn’t sing the erratic melodies. My Gram didn’t sing, ever. She just sucked on a cough drop and smiled at me. She didn’t believe in “making a joyful noise,” I guess.

My grandpa slept during the sermons, though I don’t know how, because sometimes the minister was inclined to yell. It was our job to poke Grandpa when his eyes closed before he could snore. I crowded close to my Gram who kept me busy with hand games that she must have made up. One involved her holding her hand open and me, trying to poke my finger in her palm without her catching it. Another was a sort of stacking game that any number of people could play. She’d put her hand on her knee, then I’d put mine on top: Her hand, my hand, her hand, my hand. The hand on the bottom had to slide out and go to the top of the hand pile. The game went faster and faster until you forgot whose hand was whose. It was great fun. I loved my Gram’s soft hands with their big, blue veins and bright red fingernails. Playing with her was the best part of my day.

One Sunday, when church was over and we filed out to shake the minister’s hand at the back door, I asked him a question that had long bothered me.

“Who made God?”

The minister looked a little puzzled, then embarrassed. He laughed and smiled at the other people waiting in line behind me. He didn’t have an answer. I knew it: God was about as real as the Tooth Fairy. Church made people sleep and waste a perfectly good morning. I didn’t have much interest in a God like that.

Sunday afternoons were a continuing test of endurance. It was a time for adults to nap and for children to amuse themselves quietly. There was nothing on TV but golf—all the good stuff had been on while we were at church. Our neighboring playmates, the Barrys, spent every weekend at their grandparents’ farm. The only one left on the block was their melancholy beagle, Rover. The sad little dog took his family’s absence hard and would sit in the front yard, nose to the sky, howling long and mournfully the whole time they were gone. I tried, on occasion, to cheer him up, but was never successful. Rover was sure a loyal dog.

The one thing that redeemed the long morning and endless afternoon was Sunday night. The countdown began with The Lawrence Welk Show—something we kids had to endure because the adults liked it. (And because we only had one TV, black and white, that got one station--NBC's channel 7. I did have to admit, after year's of viewing, that Bobby was awfully cute dancing with Sissy and wouldn't I have fun with Lawrence’s bubble machine?) I scooted closer to the TV to watch the lengthy commercials and scant programming of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I watched breathlessly as white-haired Marlon Perkins teetered off camera to let his handsome young assistant, Jim, wrestle a boa constrictor into a cage so they could relocate it far away from a village. Then I learned that Mutual of Omaha would protect us from calamity of all kinds if we signed up for their insurance. (And they were very convincing with their Indian-chief-in-a-headdress logo. I told Dad we should get that insurance. He told me that wasn't the kind grandpa sold.) Some nights, Mom would make us TV dinners which we got to eat on folding TV trays in the living room while we watched our favorite program of all—Walt Disney! I carefully peeled back the foil and ate every bite of the pressed turkey and soggy cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes (that were sometimes cold in the middle), peas and—finally—the two bites of dreadfully hot chocolate pudding cake in the dead center of the tray. It was a feast fit for a king!

I’d made it through another Sunday. And the best part: Tomorrow was Monday and it belonged to me!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Bird in the Hand is Better

Every bird in Ashby during the late 60s should have been far more concerned about a pixie-haired philanthropist than any number of stealthy predators on the prowl. Back then, I could have taken you down any street or alley and pointed out every bird’s nest in town. No tree was too daunting—tall spiky evergreens, spreading oaks, and spindly poplars—so great was my zeal to keep track of the local bird population. My studies were not without hazards. I fell out of trees, was pecked, dive-bombed, and pooped on more times that I can count. Bird watching, Dawn-style, was not for the faint of heart. Yet, this was not a school assignment. No one paid me for my efforts or seemed remotely interested in my findings. This I did for myself: I loved birds and wanted one for a pet.
I spent hours watching the birds in our yard. I noticed that robins hopped with both feet together but blackbirds alternated steps like a person walking. I learned the calls of mourning doves and chickadees and tried to imitate them. I admired the oil-spill sheen on a starling’s neck and the sneaky way that nuthatches managed to hide just out of reach around the trunks of trees, hanging upside down as they went. I tore apart endless loaves of stale (or fresh if need be) bread and scattered it on the lawn to see who would show up for lunch. Then I observed where the sated birds flew to nest. For my real fascination was with eggs—that was where the fun began.
Naïve sparrows returned year after year to make a nest in the eaves of our neighbor’s garage. If I leaned my bike against the outside wall of the garage and stood on my tippy-toes on the banana seat, I could reach up under the edge of the roof and feel around in the dark, spongy dampness of a row of nests. I would grope blindly until I located the warm smooth eggs. Sparrow eggs are tiny, light brown and speckled, smaller than a jellybean. Robin eggs were a bit larger and were my personal favorite with their brilliant turquoise hue. One time, just once, I couldn’t resist and took a single robin’s egg for myself. I knew I had to keep it warm if I wanted it to hatch, so I carefully wrapped it in a Kleenex and placed it in the breast pocket of my jean jacket, determined to be a good little bird mommy/incubator. Bird mommies, however, do not climb around on baseball grandstands. Later that day, having forgotten my surrogate responsibilities, I was swinging around the wooden bleachers like a chimpanzee, hoisting myself up to the highest row of seats when…squish! I felt something hot and wet against my chest. I put my hand into my pocket with a sinking feeling…egg yolk.
I thought I’d have better luck with hatched baby birds. One day I was sitting on my grandparents' back step and I noticed a pair of sparrows slyly smuggling beakfuls of bugs into the garage through a ditch they had worn in the dirt floor. I sneaked inside to see who they were feeding and spied a nest up near the ceiling rafters. I pushed a spare tire against the wall and climbed up for a closer look. From the tire, if I put the bare toes of my right foot against the dirty windowsill, I could just reach the nest with the tips of my fingers. Then, if I tilted my head sharply to the left and ignored the shingling nails that were gouging my head, I had a decent view of four baby sparrows. They didn’t seem the least bit afraid of me and I stroked their wispy heads with a careful finger, brushing the lice off my hand onto my shorts. I worried that my grandpa didn’t leave the garage door open enough for the parents to come and go as they pleased and, because of this, the babies weren’t getting enough to eat. I saw how they fought whenever the adult birds came to feed them and realized they needed my help. Without me, they faced sure and certain starvation. So…what to feed baby birds? Worms! I dug around the moss roses in the side garden and found a few fat night crawlers. They were covered in dirt, so I washed them with the hose. The dousing rendered the worms a bit listless which was to my advantage as I only had one hand to hold them as I re-scaled the inside of the garage wall. I dangled one hapless victim over the baby birds’ hopeful mouths and gasped when one eager little fellow nearly choked to death on its wiggly, unwilling dinner. I quickly reeled in the worm from the bird’s throat and climbed back down to reconsider my options.
What does the mother bird do in situations like this? She chews the worm. There were some things I was just unwilling to do and I had to draw the line here. I went into the house and asked my Gram for a knife. She didn’t even ask what I wanted it for. She handed me a butter knife, for safety reasons. I plopped down on the sidewalk outside and set to my grim task. It is no small feat to chop a squirming earthworm into baby bird, bite-sized pieces with a dull knife, but I did it—brushing beads of sweat from my brow as I worked. This was a necessary evil, a labor of love. The baby birds gobbled up my latest offering with relish and, though I was pleased, I was unwilling to repeat the gruesome process. I tossed the leftover [relieved] worms back into the garden and wiped my sticky hands on my T-shirt. What else? What else could I feed them that would taste as good?
I returned to the house and asked my Gram for stale bread. “Just help yourself,” she said, pointing to the fresh loaf of Wonder Bread on the counter. I took out two slices and then checked the fridge. Protein, I needed protein to go with the bread for a balanced diet. Peanut butter? Nope, too sticky. “Gram, can I have some bologna?” I asked. “All you want, dear,” she called without coming out to see what I was up to. I made a sandwich with the bread and meat, carefully removed the crusts, and cut it into teeny-tiny, mini-sandwiches. The baby birds’ black eyes twinkled when they saw my dirty face appear above their nest. They dutifully opened their yellow mouths, sticking out their pointy tongues, eagerly anticipating the next course. Unfortunately, the first bird in line gagged on the parched entrée, so back to the ground (and drawing board) I went. Apparently birds lack sufficient spit for conventional sandwiches.
“Gram? Can I take a bowl outside?” I yelled from the kitchen. “Sure, honey,” she replied, engrossed in her game show. I filled one of her good bowls with water and carried it to the garage. I carefully dipped each tiny sandwich in water and climbed back up to the nest again, teetering on the wobbly tire, nicking my scalp on a nail, and holding my breath in the effort of the ascent. The babies loved their soggy sandwiches and kept asking for more. When I finally ran out and left for the day, I’m sure the mother bird was surprised that no one bothered to fight over the bugs she offered. All she saw was her fuzzy-headed infants asleep with tummies so distended they looked like they would burst.
Another way that I helped the local bird population was to teach new fledglings to fly. How they ever managed before I came along was certainly a mystery! Didn’t the mother bird realize what she was setting her babies up for when she allowed them to leave the nest before they were ready? I made it my mission to save the adolescents from hungry cats and untimely death against the windshields of mindless cars. I would make a pet for myself, teach it to eat from my hand and, in exchange, it would become tame flying back year after year to my bedroom window to thank me—maybe even sit on my shoulder and people would be so amazed: “There goes the girl that tames birds and has them eating out of her hands,” they would say. If only it worked out that way.
I guess I tried taming at least two dozen birds in various stages of independence. And without exception, with the best care a 9 year-old could provide, they died. My parents tried to warn me: “Once you touch a baby bird, the mother will not come back to it.” Naturally, I didn’t believe them for, to do so, would be to acknowledge that I had sentenced to death many, many baby birds with fickle parents. My intentions were noble—I fed each charge my special Oscar Mayer sandwiches dipped in water. I provided a nice cozy box lined in cloth rags for sleeping. But the next morning? I found the bird dead—cold and stiff, feet to the sky, just like in the cartoons. I cried genuine tears of loss and disappointment. I gave each a proper burial complete with eulogy, Scripture reading, and a bouquet of wilting dandelions.
As an adult, I am content to watch birds in my yard flitting from tree to bush singing their little hearts out. I no longer lust after one for a pet or wish to hold it in my hand. I am glad that God, in his infinite wisdom, saw fit to make birds so hardy and prolific—relieved that one young girl was unable to single-handedly wipe out an entire species with her good intentions. that a nest up in that tree?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Have I Got a Deal for You!

I was born trying to sell stuff. I probably appeared in the delivery room yelling, “Can I interest anyone in a slightly used placenta?” Before I could talk, I toddled around singing commercial jingles—recognizable not from the lyrics, but the tunes. I did not know the meaning of the word “shy.” No one was a stranger to me. They were, no doubt, all potential customers.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone then that, as soon as I could thread together a convincing sentence, I wanted to sell something—anything. It wasn’t just that I liked money, though I certainly did, it was the idea of supplying some sort of demand, the fame and satisfaction that came from giving people something they really wanted. My sharp little eyes were always on the lookout for a marketable item.

One of the first things I remember considering for retail was a treasure I found in a local slough behind my Gram’s house. (For those of you who don’t know what a slough is, it is like a marshy puddle in the middle of a field, commonly referred to these days as A Wetland.) This slough drew me like a magnet. Part of its intrigue was the rumors that surrounded it. We kids were told that a man had wandered into the center of the slough and drowned. Another man had tried to save him and he drowned, too. Naturally, that drove me to get close enough to find out. My fear of water, and subsequent terrible swimming skills, kept me skirting around the perimeter for years, just enough to soak my tennis shoes and startle up a stray duck or two. One day, as I was crawling around the bog on my hands and knees, I saw something that nearly made my heart stop with joy. There, in one rather large puddle, were tiny golden creatures swimming and shimmering in the water. I watched them for a long time wondering what they could be. And then it hit me: Here lay untold riches that were mine for the taking! I ran home to get an ice cream pail and lid and convinced several neighborhood children to join me. We laid on our bellies for hours (well, I did—the others lost interest in the summer heat and went home despite my promises of wealth) lowering the plastic lid just under the surface of the water and quickly drawing it up again when the gold critters navigated across the top of my trap then I dumped my precious cargo into the pail and started over: Dip and dump, dip and dump. When the pail was fairly bursting with life, I headed off to the local bait shop and proudly displayed my catch to the proprietor.

“Well, what have you got there?” queried Hardy Hardinson when I thrust the bucket in front of him with a flourish.

“Baby goldfish! I’m going to sell them.” I could barely contain my excitement as I brushed my sweaty bangs back from my sunburned face.

He leaned in for a closer look. “Oh, those aren’t goldfish!” he proclaimed, suppressing a smile. “They’re mosquito larvae.”

“Mosquito larvae?! There can’t be any kind of demand for mosquito larvae,” I thought with a sinking heart and even redder cheeks. “Even if they do look amazing the way they wiggle in the water.” I trudged sadly back to the slough and dumped the larvae back into their puddle—so they could live to reproduce and make more mosquitoes.

Another day, I was tramping through that same slough into the woods beyond, kicking up the piles of dead leaves that covered the ground. My foot kicked something hard and I bent down to inspect it. Not only did I love every living thing that crept upon the earth, I also had a great fascination for rocks and was always looking to add to my collection. But what was this? A lump of something rough and pock-marked, dark gray in color. “A moon rock?” I hoped, my breath coming in short gasps. Visions of Apollo space missions filled my head. Not likely. “Pieces of a volcano?” I wondered next, but no…there wasn’t so much as a hill for miles around. Suddenly I realized what I was holding in my hands—a real live, genuine FOSSIL!! I dropped to the ground and starting digging. There were more! The fossils were everywhere! Surely they were worth a lot of money, or at least fame for having found them. A museum would probably want to buy them from me and I’d be on the news! I spent the whole afternoon digging and piling up the precious remnants of the past before I decided I needed to go home for supper. I piled brush on top of my treasure to conceal it and took just one along with me. I could hardly wait to show it to my dad. He took the fossil and turned it over in his hands before announcing that I’d spent the day gathering worthless coal cinders, not priceless fossils.

Probably the worst deception I ever experienced in my quest for riches occurred one mild winter day. I was outside playing with the neighbor boys when we discovered an amazing thing on top of a snow bank that lay against the garage. Small, perfectly round SEEDS of some sort, the size of peas. I ran to the house for a Wonder Bread bag and we spent most of the morning collecting handfuls of the special seeds, speculating how we’d sell them in the spring and make loads of money. Some of the seeds were compact and damp. Others burst into powder if you squeezed them too hard. “Be careful with them,” I warned the guys.

When I went in to lunch, I pulled off my frozen mittens, wiped my nose on my shirtsleeve, and took a handful of seeds out of the bag to show my mom. “Those aren’t SEEDS, Dawn Marie,” she chided. “That is rabbit poop! Now go wash your hands!” Another dream dashed…

Every summer we used to go to a cabin on Lake Darling in Alexandria that belonged to my great-grandma’s sister. I loved going to visit Aunt Victoria and Uncle Fred in their cozy little house that was like a museum. It was so clean and filled with knickknacks and doilies on all the furniture. Whenever I had to use the bathroom, I’d take my time—admiring the spare toilet paper rolls sporting their own knit sweaters as they waited on the back of the toilet. Then I’d sneak a peak into the adjacent master bedroom to stare at a clown-faced doll in the middle of the neatly made chenille bedspread. My aunt had made this doll with a plastic face and bendy limbs made of bunched up, satiny fabric. I thought the doll was fascinatingly scary and never missed an opportunity to thrill myself by looking at it.

But the best part of any visit to the cabin was getting to see my cousin Bobby Jensen, who was the only grandson of my aunt and uncle. He lived with his parents and two older sisters far away in The Cities and everything about him delighted me. Blond with brilliant blue eyes, flawless teeth, and a deep tan, Bobby was younger than me, but a perfect playmate with his charming, sanguine personality. His two older sisters, Jane and Janet, were equally darling and nice, but they mostly wanted to lay around and work on their tans and talk about boys—things that held no appeal for us. So Bobby and I found our own fun. We’d start out at the kitchen counter, eating Aunt Victoria’s homemade raised doughnuts and drinking Kool-Aid out of tall, aluminum tumblers. I can still smell the rusty well-water, the tang of the Kool-Aid, and the taste and feel of the cold aluminum cup against my teeth. I would drain my glass, lick all the icing off my fingers and try my best to look hungry, hoping someone would offer me a second doughnut. To my knowledge, they never did.

Then, Bobby and I headed off to the Great Outdoors. On this particular day, we were poking around the grassy bank of the lake, digging our toes into the sand wondering what to do first. Skip stones? Look for clam shells or lucky red rocks? I always tried to distract Bobby from the idea of actual swimming since I didn’t want him to know I was scared of the water, so I was off the hook when a frog suddenly leaped out of the grass and dove into the water. I immediately thrust my hands into the shallows and held the animal aloft, frog pee running down my wrist, as it struggled to get away.

“Isn’t he a beaut?” I exclaimed, stroking the clammy head between its bulging eyes, feeling its heart pounding against my thumb as it struggled to get away. Bobby agreed that he was a keeper. Just then another frog leaped into view. And another.

“Holy cow—they’re everywhere!” Bobby shouted, as excited as I was.

“Run and get the minnow bucket,” I yelled as I quickly snatched another frog with my free hand. “Hurry!”

My younger sister, Renee, came over to see what we were doing. “Catching frogs,” I scowled, thrusting one into her face and she leaned away, matching my look. “Leave us alone.” I wasn’t about to share my darling Bobby with her or have her horn in on the fortune we were going to make when we sold these frogs to a bait shop…or maybe a science lab.

I don’t know how many hours we slogged up and down the beach that day, waving at neighbors who were out fishing and doing lawn work, completely oblivious to our blatant trespassing and poaching, but I think our grand tally for the day was close to one hundred frogs. We sat down on the dock to inspect our captives. They were literally standing on each other’s faces, trying to get air, desperate to escape. We discussed what to do next. If we sold them to a bait shop, they’d die. If we sold them to a science lab, they’d be tortured and experimented on…and [gulp] dissected. There was only one thing to do: We opened the trap door of the metal bucket and set them all free. And a glorious exodus it was, too, with one hundred leopard-printed amphibians of every size clamoring for freedom. It had been a good day, even if we weren’t any richer for our labor. One of these days, I was going to strike it rich—I knew it. If I could just find something to sell...

Monday, February 23, 2009

All the King's Horses

I've always liked this nursery rhyme. I fancied the idea of horses and soldiers trying to piece together a shattered egg. But even as a child I couldn't help wonder: What was Humpty Dumpty doing up on that wall in the first place? Before he ever hoisted his delicate little orb onto that precipice he was doomed. Did he think he was covered in titanium instead of a calcified shell as thin as paper?

Like Humpty, we are all far more fragile that we like to suppose. Reality: We are born vulnerable and we remain so as long as we wear this cloak of human flesh. And, dare I suggest, not only do we arrive on the planet weak...but also broken?

In our social economy, image is everything. We value self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-reliance. We eschew words like dependent, needy, weak, or disabled and yet, in the secret place of our hearts we know those describe us. So we pretend. We cover up. We hide. We suffer in silence to protect our precious image—the one that no one actually believes; hoping others are too busy with their own facades to notice our crumbling masks.

I'm convinced some of the worst of the great pretenders are people who call themselves followers of Christ. Because we are associated with the One Perfect Man, how dare we besmudge His name by revealing…flaws. And I wonder, could this be the very reason many unbelievers are repelled by our "testimonies of faith?" What if, instead of promoting my own false persona, I was honest with you and told you all about what really goes on in my life? What if I disarmed all critics by telling the truth? What if I dispelled the Model Family Myth I hoped you believed and told you that our sweet, little family has been touched by anxiety and depression, addictions, learning disabilities, rebellion, chronic illness, autism, lying, cheating (and probably most of the same temptations as you and your family have experienced behind your carefully guarded doors?) What would you think of me then? Would you be shocked? Or relieved...

Three times the apostle Paul begged God to remove something from his life that he referred to as his "thorn in the flesh." Though theologians have debated for centuries what this thorn was, it remains a mystery. Paul said that, after the third time he talked to God about it, God answered him:

"And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me." (2 Cor. 12:9)

Wait…what?! God wasn't going to remove Paul's difficulty and let him live a victorious, carefree, example-to-others kind of life? No. God told Paul, "My grace is all you need in this challenge. My power shows up best against the backdrop of your weakness." So Paul concluded that his weaknesses were something to boast about and broadcast. Not his academic credentials or his impressive resume or his noble heritage—his weaknesses, his shortcomings, his frailty. Because then, and only then, could the power of God reside in him and be perfectly displayed. Only then would God get the credit for a well-lived life.

All of you who share my Humpty Dumpty Complex would do well to bear in mind another famous quote from our friend Paul who said:

"We have this treasure in a fragile vase of clay, in order that the surpassing greatness of the power may be seen to belong to God, and not to originate in us." (2 Cor. 4:7)

We can pray all day long, "Show me your glory, God! Let others see your light through me." Problem? God is not in the habit of sharing glory with vain, self-promoting creatures. He wants us to acknowledge that we are nothing more than clay vases; broken, cracked—even disposable—save for one thing: We contain the unspeakable treasure of His power. God did not choose golden goblets studded in precious stones to display His greatness. Like Adam, whom He formed of dust, God chose dirt—human DNA wrapped in skin—and blew into it a glorious fortune that could never have originated with the vessel that holds it.

So let's start with some honesty, shall we? Is it possible to learn to rethink what strength really looks like? Me, sitting around on a brick wall, wrapped in nothing but my own eggshell, ready for God to display His power through my imperfect, broken-beyond-repair life—no longer promoting myself as the answer to anything but accrediting Christ, the face of God, whose treasure I hold. Who else can make sense of the puzzle pieces of my life and produce a beautiful picture? That beats the heck out of anything Mother Goose ever said and, the best part? It's not a fairy tale.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Making of a Mommy

I'll never forget the first time I saw her; a little head covered in the faintest silky down, rosy skin, a tiny face peeking out from a well-worn, hospital-issue flannel blanket. They handed her to my young husband and I and we marveled at how perfect our daughter was, crying tears of joy and gratitude.

Motherhood was never something to which I aspired as a child. I played with frogs, not dolls, and climbed trees instead of sitting in the shade dressing Barbie and her friends. So I was completely unprepared for the all-consuming passion and obsession I would one day feel for my own children. I loved everything about being a mother—feeling the baby kick and turn inside me, nursing, bathing and rubbing lotion on each individual finger and toe. I memorized my baby's face while she slept, brushing hair back from her forehead and beads of sweat from a button nose. I'd trace the shape of my son's ear with my finger as I nursed him, marveling at how absolutely perfect he was—and that he was mine for this brief moment in time.

Babyhood gave way all too quickly to Toddlerhood with all its complexities and wonder. I celebrated each milestone in my own overly-sentimental fashion—crying at the sight of a new tooth at six months and, again, at the loss of that same tooth six years later. I delighted in the development of language. At last! I could communicate with this amazing little human who is my child.

I reluctantly surrendered my children to the Institutions that Educate but not without remorse. I made the most of each lazy summer day and cried the first day of every school year when I'd send them off with their new pencils and backpacks, jealous that their teachers got to spend the best part of every day with my favorite people. Years of piano lessons and T-ball, swimming lessons and wrestling meets progressed to drivers' training, sleepovers, and Prom. And, before I was ready, graduation and college, engagements and weddings popped up out of nowhere. My child was grown. But a marvelous thing happened along the way: My child became my treasured friend.

This past August, I found myself with my daughter/friend in the birthing suite of an unfamiliar hospital. Her darling husband and I were to be the support team that helped her deliver their first child. She had the birth plan all mapped out and had prepared herself in every way possible, reading and taking classes, in order to give this baby the best possible start in life. But, as best-laid plans are wont to, things did not go as planned. First there were hours of excruciating back labor that didn't seem to be doing much to dilate the cervix. Then, on a routine check with the fetal monitor, it was discovered that the baby was in distress. The heart rate dropped dramatically with each contraction.

Minutes dragged into hours with little progress. I sat on the edge of my daughter's bed, mopping her forehead with a cool cloth, stroking her hair, trying to distract her from the sound of the baby's erratic heartbeat on the monitor. My son-in-law stood at the foot of the bed, rubbing his wife's aching legs. We exchanged concerned glances, wishing there was something we could do to help. She refused any medication for pain, not wanting to further jeopardize the baby's delicate situation. She panted through each contraction on her knees, showing more strength and courage than I could have imagined possible, thinking only of her baby's welfare. I leaned over my daughter's damp head and sucked in the familiar smell of her hair, comforted by the ritual of 26 years of head-sniffing. I wanted to take the pain. I wanted it to be over. I didn't know what would happen to my daughter if something went wrong with her baby. I wished there was more air in the room for all of us to breath.

I found myself day dreaming about my four little girls and reflecting how, unlike their own mother, they had always loved babies. Out in public, they would maul every strange infant they could reach and paraded around our house with dolls under their shirts, pretending to be pregnant. My oldest stood up at her Kindergarten graduation and announced her career aspirations proudly to the whole gymnasium, "I want to be a Mommy." The much anticipated moment was upon us.

After what seemed an eternity, the midwife consulted with an OB-GYN who suggested the water be broken and the pace of labor immediately intensified. The contractions came harder and faster, and my child had to gasp through each one, defying her body's demand to push. Centimeter by centimeter, literally hair by hair, the child came forth. Suddenly a tiny face emerged, disgruntled and a bit surprised, as the team quickly applied suction to the scrunched little visage, unwinding loops of umbilical cord from a mottled neck and trunk. The rest of the baby's body slid into view and my son-in-law cheered, "It's a girl!" I was laughing and crying all at once. Relief, inexpressible relief, flooded over me and I felt the need to sit down. My daughter had become a mother. From my chair to one side I watched the miracle unfold; a young woman and a young man held their newborn for the first time, marveling at how perfect she was, crying tears of joy and gratitude.