Monday, October 29, 2012

My First Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

"As much as we may long for the simplicity of a single definition of 'biblical womanhood,' there is no one right way to be a woman."
                         ~ Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood

I don't normally write book reviews.  I like to think that what I do here is just tell stories about everyday life, hoping to catch moments that hint at larger truths.  But because this book is important to me and the faith I am growing into in my adulthood, because this book is also about using everyday stories to get at a larger truth, and because since finishing this book I cannot stop thinking about it, I could not help sharing my thoughts about it.

By chance, I was offered an advance review copy of Rachel Held Evans' new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on the Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master.  I read it slowly at first, thinking over each chapter, but as the momentum of her project grew throughout the book, so did my eagerness to keep turning pages.  The book reads as part anthropological experiment, part diary, and part bible study.  Inspired (or perhaps confused) by the idea of modern biblical womanhood, Evans has devoted a year to researching and living out this biblical womanhood ideal as literally as possible.

In addition to ten rules she agrees to follow throughout the year (ranging from modest dress to submitting to her husband's will in all things), Evans chooses a specific virtue to focus on each month.  Gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence, and grace: each month she digs in to the meanings and implications of one aspect commonly associated with the idea of biblical womanhood, gathering scriptural references and historical perspectives on the virtue, while also creating experiences that allow her to try out the physical incarnation of each aspect of this feminine ideal.  At the end of each month's chapter, Evans examines the story of a woman from the bible who exhibited the trait she has been studying for the past thirty or so days.

By adopting these experiences, everything from sitting on a roof and camping out during her time of uncleanliness to observing traditional Jewish holiday rituals and spending a weekend of silent reflection at a monastery, Evans is able to examine this issue from within the arc of a story.  The experiences, and inevitable misadventures, she has while trying to act like a true biblical woman give us both the fodder that makes Evans an easy target for critics and the substance that provides for a real transformation that this author-as-character displays within the pages of the book.  Coupled with the casual, direct narrative that makes this book read like a diary and causes us to feel at times as if we are peeking in on something we're not supposed to see, the monthly tasks Evans has assigned herself have us laughing, cringing, and cheering along with her. 

It is exactly at the honest and often awkward moments Evans describes that early rounds of criticism are aimed.  Evans has been accused of mocking the bible by her hands on approach, often by people who have not actually read the book but who are basing their reactions on the premise itself.  I understood that the organized Christian church at large was never going to embrace this book because they have come to equate the idea of biblically prescribed gender roles with the male dominant church and home leadership hierarchy that they believe is unquestionably God-breathed.  The tradition of patriarchal leadership is so deeply ingrained that many in Evangelical church leadership cannot fathom entertaining a reevaluation of this interpretation without expecting a baby-with-the-bathwater type loss of everything they believe.  So it comes as no surprise to me that critics have attacked both the book and its author whether or not they have read anything beyond the blurb on the back cover.  This book would necessarily seem dangerous to those whose faith is, at least on some level, contingent on God prescribed gender roles.

And that is truly a shame because what Evans reminds readers in A Year of Biblical Womanhood is that biblical womanhood, as it actually worked in biblical times, does not even remotely resemble the 1950s inspired ideal advocated today.  As Evans notes, "Despite what some may claim, the Bible's not the best place to look for traditional family values as we understand them today.  The text predates our Western construct of the nuclear family and presents us with a familial culture closer to that of a third-world country (or a TLC reality show) than that of Ward and June Cleaver." The picture of biblical womanhood, as it appeared in ancient Israel, was one in which women were property of their husbands, girls were property of their fathers and could be sold into marriage or slavery (whichever would bring a higher price, of course), men regularly took multiple wives and often also kept slaves and concubines who were expected to be sexually available to them, widows were expected to marry their husband's brother, and rape victims were either stoned to death or expected to marry their attacker.

Obviously, this is not the biblical womanhood the modern church intends to reclaim.  Evans gently pokes at this wound, this uncomfortable revelation that biblical womanhood, as it's peddled today, doesn't really exist by examining other traditional faith practices.  Who would know more about modesty than the Amish and Quakers?  Who could teach silence better than the monks?  Who could address the thorny issue of multiple wives better than modern day polygamists?  Evans does not intend readers to adopt the rituals, faiths, or lifestyles she researches.  She does not suggest that present day Christians should begin to live by Old Testament laws.  Rather, she highlights the fact that Christians, men and women both, are supposed to be governed by the freedom of grace, not legalism, an obsession with standards, or a rigid adherence to conformity.

God did not leave us a ruler by which we are supposed to measure the length of our skirts. He left us a ruler by which we are supposed to measure our intentions, and that is a task much harder to achieve and almost impossible to quantify.  It is much easier to acquiesce to the safety of rules and regulations.  Thou shall not show your thigh is much easier to police than thou shall not have a self-seeking spirit. 

For me, the genius of A Year of Biblical Womanhood is that Evans does not write as an authority preaching to the eager masses.  She writes as the humble seeker.  She writes it as one who is honestly asking, "Is there one set way God expects women to behave? And, if so, why doesn't anyone agree on what that is?"

By coming to the project with curiosity and vulnerability, Evans does not simply discuss the twelve monthly virtues but lives with them, bringing them to life in her closet and her kitchen and her bedroom.  In openly learning, questioning, and confessing her shortfalls as they relate to her list of virtues, Evans shows us a shift from the formulaic, stereotypical view of each virtue to a more nuanced and layered understanding.

Gentleness does not mean scouring away boldness and replacing it with unwavering timidity; instead gentleness "begins with strength, quietness and security."  Domesticity is not synonymous with female divinity, and yet cooking can be a kind of divine meditation.  Valor can be reclaimed from Proverbs 31, and cries of eshet chayil can be voiced as an anthem rather than an assignment.  Marriage and family, though both lauded callings, must be remembered as secondary because, as Evans reminds herself: "As a Christian, my highest calling is not motherhood; my highest calling is to follow Christ.  And following Christ is something a woman can do whether she is married or single, rich or poor, sick or healthy, childless or Michelle Duggar."

Ultimately, Evans' resilient faith points us back to this ultimate truth again and again throughout the book. Though she writes powerfully and authoritatively on scripture, tells an engaging (and funny!) story, and makes compelling arguments for a new approach to gender roles within the church, it is her ability to turn the spotlight back on the individual reader's life that makes A Year of Biblical Womanhood truly exceptional.  In each chapter, I found myself searching my own heart and remembering that whether I do it from the end of a spatula or a scalpel or a pen, my true calling as a woman is to bring glory to God. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Meditation on Gratitude

 The landscape of my mornings is grey, industrial.  Walls of semi trucks hem me in on the freeway in my predawn commute.  The light comes in thin beams and pools, from hundreds of headlights, taillights, street lamps, but it is feeble, spotty, shifting.  No match for the darkness that sprawls across the horizon.

Everything looks grey in this half-light, and with the color all gone out of everything, the buildings and miles of asphalt seem to dominate my field of vision.  The walk from my car to the office is a concrete maze, long serpentine swaths of sidewalk, walls rising up around me on all sides, everything that same grey.

I arrive cloudy, as if all that grey has bled onto me a bit.  The morning is half gone by the time I realize my face has settled into a vaguely grim expression.  A hardness around the eyes, lips pressed into a thin line.

{Image Credit}

It's not just the tangle of traffic and the dark mornings.  Somehow lately a creeping, pervasive sense of dissatisfaction has settled over me.  I greet the day already behind, feeling the world owes me some debt it has not made good on.  It seems there is never enough, not enough time, not enough money, not enough rest.  Slowly my default has gotten reset to not enough, and yet it is suddenly that I notice it,  when I catch in my mid-morning reflection the grim expression my face has adopted.

I know the prescription for this creeping malaise, know it because it is a solvent for most maladies of the spirit.  But it must be applied daily.  Every single day without fail because as soon as you stop, the malaise begins to build again.

I start with the view outside my window, where the sun is high and the world has regained its color.  The trees shimmy in the late October wind, the pedestrians stream by, the cars slide along in a blur.  Everything is life and movement.

Then I move on to my hands, watching their understated brilliance as they flex and release these ten healthy fingers.  I feel the air come in and out of my lungs, breathing as a conscious act, breathing as a prayer of gratitude.  The muted purr of respiration is a lyric I sing over and over, finding the reverence in the unwavering repetition.  I am life and movement, a masterfully built machine whose own mechanics remain unnoticed unless they falter.

I am breathing in and out a prayer of gratitude for my life, these eyes that see, these hands that clutch and lungs that gasp.  I am beginning the slow work of resetting my default, recovering the wonder of being alive, of being given another day to breathe prayers and pump blood in and out of the pulsing knot of muscle in my chest.  It is one small treatment, a dose of gratitude.  In my mind, I say the words thank you for giving me this day, and in saying it try my best to mean the day I have been given, grey and traffic and all, not some other imaginary perfect day.

It is a beginning, and for today it is enough.  Thank you for giving me this day, grey as it began, green as it became, black as it will end.  I've been too long away from the medicine of simple gratitude, and my spirit has grown cloudy.  Tomorrow will need another dose.  And the day after and the day after.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Camels Through the Eye of the Needle

He sits in the swing, punching buttons on a calculator, dressed as Thor in his new Halloween costume.  Every time the calculator gives him a correct answer, he lets out a gleeful, surprised little gasp.  "This thing is so smart!" 

He turned seven this weekend, and the oversize calculator was a gift discovered after the others.  "What's this?" he asked, pushing the package toward me.  "Well, it's a machine that does math," I said.

"What? It does math? Show me!"  He laid his Thor hammer down on the table and pulled open the package.  Once he had retrieved his prize, he punched at the buttons, trying to produce this computational magic.  His cape was caught on the back of his chair, a twisted red spiral behind his barely seven year old head.  I unhooked it and smoothed it behind his back before reaching over and hitting the power button to amaze him with the appearance of the zero in the calculator's narrow screen.

The innocence, the wonder of discovering something as everyday as a calculator, thinking it a magic machine, while wearing a super hero costume - well, it had me a-flutter with maternal ooh and aah type fascination.  I looked at my son as if I had never seen him before, as if we were just meeting.  I remembered all at once how many things I tell him every week, no every day, that he has never heard before.  How many words his father and I define on any given day, how many concepts we explain.  I remembered, suddenly and with a keen sort of nervousness, just how much we are shaping the person he will become. 

"See," I told him, punching the buttons as I went, "If you add four and seven, what do you get?"


I pressed the equal sign, and the number eleven appeared on the screen.  I didn't think he could be any more amazed by the fascinating technology, but then he read the package and reported breathlessly that this magical machine was solar powered.  "I'm taking this thing outside, where it can charge up," he said in a reverent voice.

                                                                                             ~  ~  ~

Sometimes, when I'm on the freeway driving in to work, I will top a hill and see the tangle of traffic ahead and think not just how long my trip is going to take, but how many people there are in this city.  As a number, on a page, it reads like a ranking.  We are this big of a city, and that's supposed to mean a variety of things about what's available here.

But some days, I realize that all those numbers, all those digits crowded around a comma or two, are flesh and blood people.  I see the cars on the freeway and remember that they are all holding lives like mine.  And then I think about how many cities there are in the world, how many lives.  It's an incalculable weight, that number of people, when seen as not a number but as actual lives being lived simultaneously on this big old rock.  Just thinking about it can give me a rattly, anxious breath.  So many souls clinging to the gift of their existence just as fiercely as I cling to mine.  And so many of them going to sleep on dirt floors, or with stomachs aching from hunger, or with the axe of war slicing through their lives indiscriminately.

My mind can't be wrapped around it, the vast pool of humanity.

I can't seem to see beyond the end of my nose most days.  Thor and his calculator dominate my view, Thor and his little brother and their father.

As he sat on the swing tonight, our little Thor would punch in numbers and ask me how to say them.  "What is eight with six zeroes behind it?"  I would answer, "Eight million," knowing that I could not begin to describe what eight million of anything means.  I remember reading once that it would take something like ten days to count to a million, assuming you spoke one number per second. 

I looked at my son tonight and felt distinctly unequal to the task of preparing him for life on this planet.  How can a person who struggles so much with having a comprehensive worldview somehow raise a son who can see beyond the end of his own nose? If I have my head so mired in American values and privilege, how can I teach these boys to have a broader view?

As he asked me numbers, I wanted to tell him the bits of trivia his father would have said, like 50,000 is the number of light years to wherever or eight million is the number of cells in a so-and-so.  But instead, I let him get his fill of his calculator, calling out numbers on cue and smiling at the little boy in a Thor costume playing with a simple discount store calculator as if it were an iPad or a Game Boy.
When he tired of the new toy, he climbed in the hammock beside me, his cape pooled beneath him, his arm wrapped around my waist.  "Do you know how lucky you are," I asked him, "To be born in this country, at this particular point in time?"

"I know," he answered, "Because now we have solar calculators and people didn't always have those."

"That's true.  But also many people in the world even today will live and die without ever seeing a calculator.  Many people own nothing but the clothes on their back.  Many, many children can't afford to go to school.  In some countries, children are forced to work terrible, hard jobs.  And I don't know why those people were born where they were born, and you and I were born into a place where we have plenty to eat and a warm home and more toys and games and gadgets than we will ever need."

He thought on that for a few minutes, and I thought on how the lives I was telling him about were as abstract to me as they are to him.   And we swayed together in the hammock and held on to each other and felt too small and also too large in our own delirium of self importance.  Then, we were called away by the little brother, and it was time to think about getting dinner together.  The moment was gone, and as I walked back into the kitchen, I couldn't help but think about that camel trying to squeeze itself through the eye of the needle.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Letter to the One

It is now the way it's always been.

I step out of work, and I am already dialing your number.  All the way home, until the moment I pull into the garage and know the connection will get patchy, I am talking to you.  And then I come in the door, still finishing my sentence because it doesn't matter to us if our voices are bouncing off a satellite or bouncing off the refrigerator doors.  What we did, what we read, what we thought.  Every aggravating moment of the day we have spent apart is told as if, by telling, we can somehow import each other into those moments.

It's always been this way for us.  Together, the upended world gains equilibrium.  Apart, we still move through the world, but stiffly, awkwardly, as if the gravity's off.

I cannot say why we are drawn together like this, though I can list reason after reason that I should love you. You are brilliant, you are kind.  You are genuine, you are forgiving.  But none of those are why I love you.

I daresay it's more pragmatic than all that.  We are simply carved from the same stone. 

It's been this way since we met, nineteen years old and just friends, of course.

Perhaps it started those nights we tried to drop each other off only to sit in the car together, parked in the driveway, talking until the promise of the sun touched the horizon.  One of us would begin to say goodnight, a hand reaching for the door, then the other would start another story and we would both settle in, crack the window, root around for one last cigarette.  Funny to think we used to smoke cigarettes together, back before marriage and house and parenthood.

But once the sun started threatening its arrival, we would reluctantly say our goodbyes, looking pale in the watery, predawn glow.  Then we would sneak home, exhausted and giddy and strangely peaceful at the same time.  I remember being caught at the door by my father one morning and swearing solemnly, "We were only talking, daddy," knowing how much a manufactured excuse it sounded.

It was a slow revelation for us both that we were not just friends, if we told the real God's honest truth.  It came sneaking up on us, me first and then finally you.

The night before we got married, I was so nervous.  I stayed up packing and re-packing for the honeymoon, pacing, laying down in bed only to jump back up and pace some more.  All the next day, I bit at my fake nails, checked the clock, pushed food around on my plate.  Until it was time to walk down the aisle.  And then, I felt awake and calm and just so ready to be next to you.  My memories of our wedding are all of you, the way your tux felt and the way you looked at me and the way your hand felt in mine. 

It is now as it's always been.

You are working tonight, and I am not myself without you here.  You know that.  I just wanted to say that nothing has changed.  I mean, everything has changed since the teenagers we used to be talked the night through. But the same pull that kept us strapped into a pair of Ford bucket seats still has hold of me.

It isn't entirely reasonable, this need to be near you.  But it just is, for whatever reason, so let's keep leaning into this thing like we always have.  Anyway, I don't think we have much of a choice in it.  It is now the way it's always been.

I love you.  Goodnight.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Unsolvable Riddle of the Working Mother

Through the phone he sounds like a baby still, his voice all treble and long vowels that twist up, sing-songy, with excitement.  That voice, disembodied and modified as it filters through my earpiece, reminds me of the two year old version of this, my oldest, son.  I see him in brand new glasses, so tiny in my hand I could not believe they would span his face, and his hair long and shaggy as it was back then.  And he is talking with a soft lisp in the background of my phone conversation with his father, this almost seven year old boy, and as I listen, nodding, I am marveling at how young he sounds.  Still such a small thing, so easily crushed and just as quickly puffed back up with joy again.

He tried out for a part in the first grade play this week.  He worked all week to learn the story of Francis Scott Key, reciting the story of how our national anthem came to be, and his father would say, "Yes, that's good.  You remembered all the parts, but do it one more time and speak slowly."  Then our boy would stand there, so tall and straight, eyes wide beneath the sixth incarnation of eyeglasses since that toddler first learned to wear the things, repeating the story of the famous flag waving in the dawn's early light.  Each word so carefully reigned in, except the name Francis Scott Key, which always came out a-jumble.

In my mind's eye, I saw him getting up in front of the class for his audition, saw his words tumbling out, tangling up in each other in his excitement.  And I laughed under my breath, knowing his eagerness would overtake him as it always did, knowing he would remember every little detail, that  he would move his hands just like his father does and he would be wonderfully animated.  He would get all the rest of it right and yet his words would come tumbling out and bumping into each other no matter how many times he'd practiced it s-l-o-w-l-y.

~ ~ ~

The elevator stops at every floor to let someone on, beeping cheerfully as it opens its doors to welcome new passengers.  By the time we reach the main level, we have all shuffled close enough that our bags and the jackets slung over our arms are brushing the backs of the strangers in front of us.  It's been spitting rain off and on all day, the perfect recipe for a long Friday commute home.  The lumbering elevator is just one more thing standing between me and my boys.  The lumbering elevator and every other working stiff stuck in a car on northbound I-35 between downtown and suburbia.

Hurry up and wait.  We run to our cars to sit on the thin upholstery at 15 miles an hour.  Adjust the air conditioner, fiddle with the radio.  I yearn north and east, ten miles down the road to where my family waits for me.  I talk to Sam on the phone to pass the time, and our oldest is saying in the background,  "Don't tell her, dad!  Let me tell her!" And I know from his excitement that he got the part, that he remembered all the details and rushed through the audition and got the speaking part in the school play.  In the center of my chest, heat gathers: my pride is a warm constriction around my heart, a sweet pain in my chest.  The sedan in front of me taunts me with emotive break lights, moody syncopation that reminds me I am not home yet.

~ ~ ~

The internet tells me Michelle Obama wore a gown by a designer named Tracy Reese when she stood in front of her party's convention and named her most important role as "mom-in-chief." I learn that she kept the couture grounded with J Crew heels, and that those same heels can be mine for an every-woman special price of $245.  But, it seems, the internet hasn't decided what to make of that mom in chief business. 

I drive home thinking of the politics of motherhood, a race no woman wins no matter which side she campaigns for.  My own discount pumps are nearing the end of their life, and I know that even before I've hugged my boys, I'll have slipped them off and kicked them recklessly just out of the walkway in the kitchen.  They've been pushing on the old unhealed wound in the arch of my right foot, but what can I expect from a pair of shoes that cost less than the tax on the first lady's version of discount footwear.

And as soon as I'm free of the shoes and my feet stretch out, flattening into the cool tile of the kitchen floor, my boys will see me and scream Mom! as they run for me with arms open like some happy reunion scene in a movie.  They will bowl me over with hugs, and Sam will wait, just a little begrudgingly, for his own hello kiss while our kids press their dirty t-shirts against me and repeat mom, mom, mom over and over again.

I cross the threshold, step from one role to another, and become mother in the twenty steps from car to kitchen.  All the reassuring protocol of the professional world dissolves, and though I should feel the weight of responsibilities lift from my shoulders, instead I take on the tremulous identity that is both infinitely lighter and heavier all at once.  This is by far the trickier role, and also the more rewarding.  And there is something more, something ingrained about it.  This is who I am.  I must perform certain duties as mother of these children, but ultimately I am so keenly, starkly myself with them that I realize how much more of myself I understand now than I did before I had children.  They were part of me, and it feels as if they still are, though they prance about on the outside like the umbilical cord is not still pulling at my abdomen.

This is coming home.  This is coming home to myself, kicking off the outward face and wrapping my arms around my life.

I imagine the first lady slipping out of her for-the-people heels, too, replacing her designer gown with some elastic waist pants and putting on her mom-in-chief hat.  I wonder which part is the slow elevator ride for her, which part is the Friday traffic.  What keeps her from her children so long she starts to yearn toward them like a magnet being held an inch from the refrigerator door?

I relax into the arms of my boys, breathe in their dirty hair and pat their little backs.  All evening, we do nothing but play, lounge, read stories, and have music around us.  Nothing productive is done and yet we fall into bed, tired and half-smiling still.  In the morning, the boys will climb into our bed and burrow beneath the covers.  I will feign irritation, but secretly I will breathe a contented sigh so deep the knots in my shoulder will unclench and disappear into my pillow.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Send a Poet

“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
               ~ C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
I've been circling around this question of pain, the age old why-do-good-things-happen-to-bad-people routine.  I've been pacing around it like a Schnauzer who's found the femur of an elephant, sniffing at it, trying to get my teeth around it.  Maybe if I turn my head this way, position my teeth just so, I will finally get purchase and be able to lift this giant thing.

But I can't my teeth around, can't get my weight underneath it.  Can't get my head around it all some days.  I know the official church line on the subject, the prepackaged statement we throw at each other to get each other to stop talking about uncomfortable things.  But I have grown resistant to prepackaged statements, having been exposed to them so many times it's as if my body has created an intricate string of antibodies to disarm them on sight.

And when I look at this problem, when I lean into the question of "why so much pain in this life?", the well of unsure and tremulous thought it opens is a vast, echoing cavern that leads deeper and deeper into the heart of what it means to be a human being.  I think to shy away from this question, to throw glossy answers at it or repeat "God is good all the time" at it, is to pretend this world and our lives are something that they're not.  Pain is stitched into the fabric of human existence, braided in with the good in a way that is profoundly inseparable. 

I forget that.  I always forget that until I am in a season of pain.  And right now, I am lodged in a season of heartache and disappointment, watching my one-time due date approach, arms wrapped around my silent belly, feeling profoundly empty.  It was Good Friday when the doctor told me our baby was gone, and I went home to wait out the inevitable conclusion.  While the Easter choirs were singing their hallelujahs, I was swallowing at the bitter lump of why me stuck just below my voice box.  And now, we watch November 4th approach with empty arms and dislodged hope.  No second chance growing inside me, no round replacement tummy to wrap my hands around protectively while we wait.

Perhaps, as Addie Zierman says, "this is not a question to be solved in a 28-minute sermon. It should be an art installation. A book of poems. A sonata."  I think of the movie Contact, when Jodie Foster's character witnesses the indescribable beauty of a cosmic event far from Earth and says, in a voice tinged with awe and even fear, "They should've sent a poet."  Her character, Eleanor, has been campaigning to be chosen for the trip, promising that she is fluent in the language needed to catalog this voyage, the language of science, of facts and calculations.  And when faced with the very thing she has spent her whole life preparing for, Eleanor realizes her inability to describe it, needs a new language to even begin to do it justice.

{NASA image of the Eagle nebula}
To tell the truth, I think I always knew the problem of pain would never be solved through logic.  I felt it instinctively when I heard a song that stirred the deep sadness in me and yet overlaid it, somehow, with quiet beauty and effervescent joy.  Addie Zierman says, "There is a place, of course, for logic and reasoning and well-spoken sermons in the world of faith... But we also need art, that cloudy, undefinable thing that cuts like a laser into our souls. We need more than just worship songs, we need music, beautiful and complex and haunting and loud. We need more than how-to books on Christian living. We need poetry and fiction, the stories and songs that move through our dry hearts like rain."

We need these stories and songs because, although I don't know if we will ever intellectually understand why a God who is good would allow us to suffer, I believe through stories and songs we can release cries of mourning, reclaim beauty in times of healing, and remember there is still life beyond the point of initial grief.  The story continues and there are more pages to be read, even after the hero is given to the sword. 

A music teacher once told me that music theory does not prescribe what makes beautiful music; it only attempts to describe what humans have found for centuries to be music that is pleasing to the ears.  There are guidelines we follow most of the time, except when we break them, and the only real rule is "does it sound good?" because music that sounds good is good music. I think this problem with pain might be the same kind of thing.  We create these theological responses to questions that, despite our pride in the words we've strung together, only ever manage to vaguely describe what we think is going on.  We are no closer now than we've ever been to having the right words to say to a grieving widow or a jilted lover.

I don't think that art will give us answers anymore than logic has.  I don't think art can explain the existence of suffering.  But I think it can illuminate, to some degree, the purpose of suffering.  These things don't exist on their own, joy on one hand and sadness on the other.  They exist on top of each other, woven throughout each other.  We feel sadness because of joy, joy because of sadness.

And we see that perhaps most clearly when we read a lovely poem written about tragedy, or when we hear a haunting melody that raises the hair on the back of our arms.  We see such beauty in the portrait of a melancholy woman.  We find, in these creations born of sadness and ache, the phoenix rising from the ashes.  We remember how we laugh through our tears, how we hurt and ache and think we will break but how, miraculously, we do not.  How we fall down and then get back up.  And how, when we are back on our feet with gravel still pressed into our shins, the pulse of blood in our legs doesn't just hurt.  It also reminds us, with its throbbing insistence, that we are alive.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Peeled Away

"The very first tear he made was so deep and I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you've ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away."
C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
{photo credit
 The light has changed now.  It hits us at a different angle than last month and feels somehow a watered down version of its summer self.  This new slanting, fragile light is giving up more and more ground to the darkness, edging in more slowly each morning and evaporating earlier every night.

I prepare for fall like a seasoned traveler, lacing up my shoes and pulling on a comfortable sweater, because I know it will take me on the familiar journey deep into the labyrinth of memories this season evokes.  I can smell it coming, and I swallow hard to dislodge the knot that gathers in my throat.

This is the month when I celebrate the birth of my husband and both of my boys.  Just seeing the word October on the calendar makes me sigh a little to myself.  I come to this month warmed through from the long summer, skin just beginning to release that last round of heat it absorbed at our final trip to the pool.  And I come to October restless and willing, already in transition and eager for change.  I come to this month anxious to shed the skin of another year gone by, ready to change the number of my age along with everyone else in my family, though it's not my turn, not this month.

I come riding in on their month of transition, having adopted it as my own because they cannot all become a year older together, all in one month without me.  I come in, kneeling, wishing for a moment like Eustace had in the The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Aslan peeled away his scales to reveal pink, perfect skin.  In some ways, I am always waiting for that moment, but this month especially it feels possible, feels near at hand.

So I come in with birthday party plans and gift ideas, with memories of the first October spent with each of my boys.  I celebrate my re-birth month, the month I became a mother, twice. 

Fall is not even cold here, and yet it still manages to smells like fall when the light begins to change.  I step outside, and the breeze blows in that smell, and I breathe it in like it can explain itself, like I can discern its precise recipe if I only take in enough of it.  But whatever that smell is, it makes me deeply nostalgic, not for a place or a time, but for a feeling.

It is a feeling that has coexisted with so many of my fall rituals and beloved holiday plans, that I begin to look for it in the spreading of the nice tablecloth or the smell of pumpkin and cinnamon baking in the oven or the sound of scissors slicing through a sheet of wrapping paper.  But I realize that the feeling is evasive, fleeting.  Those rituals don't guarantee the feeling; they just happen to have occurred many of the times when that feeling was settling over me.

That feeling is, as close as I can describe it, contentment.  Looking around at the people you love most, stopping to see them, really see them, and being overcome by the knowledge that, at that particular moment, you could not ask for anything more.

Perhaps because that feeling has found me more often in the fall, with its string of birthdays and holidays, I come to October ready for it, asking to be baptized in it.  I am ready to have the scales of the mundane, of the ungrateful and unforgiving string of days, cut from me.  I come to this season with the trembling glow of anticipation on me, craving that moment of stillness, of rebirth into my own life, that will for one brief moment grant me eyes fresh enough to see its true beauty.  May my scales be peeled away this year, again and again.  May all of ours.