Lately the world seems like it’s spinning out of control. People who in years passed could “agree to disagree” now act ready to destroy anyone who fails to share and to celebrate their point of view. So, in large part, I’ve gone pretty silent. I think many people have; that makes me weary and sad. And confused. No matter which way you go, it feels a little dangerous out there.
When I was a girl, I can remember sitting quietly in a chair at my grandmother’s, listening to my Daddy and my uncles talk animatedly about politics, religion, how high the mower blade should be set so the grass won’t brown out in the summer heat. Their voices would raise and lower, there were long pauses. Then they’d talk over each other, louder and louder, things like, “Nonono, you got it all wrong on that one …” It was bold, lively, and strong. One thing it never was is hate filled. Or mean.
When they’d finally had enough–because no minds were changed during their debates, or if they were no one admitted it at the time–the men headed to the kitchen for another cold beer. I was still in my chair; I could hear them popping off the beer caps and laughing together.
For me as a kid there was something so reassuring and grounding about those eavesdropping episodes. I learned that the people I loved most could fiercely disagree, and still throw their arms around each other. I learned that when hearts are good and true, the opinions carried by those who love each other do not stand as executioner of relationships when positions don’t line up. My Uncle John and Uncle Jim, Uncle Ferd and Uncle Leo were no less connected to me and mine after those conversations than they were before. In fact, the experience of being a seven year old “fly on the wall” taught me that these moments were the fire that forged stronger relationships, not weaker ones. Those men were staunchly opinionated, but they could also laugh at themselves when they needed to. Looking back I realize that I learned something else on those afternoons at grandmother’s: to not take myself seriously.
Today, Uncle Leo is the only one still with us. I was thinking about that crew this afternoon, and I wonder: are there still people on this planet who engage in Sunday afternoon discourse, where they share ideas and different points of view with passion, but with no fear of retribution or retaliation? Are there people out there, anywhere, who love each other enough to risk disagreement? Are there people it’s safe to trust? Can anyone disagree without becoming the enemy, or being verbally belittled? Is it safe to be oneself anywhere?
I don’t know the answer. But here’s what I wish: I wish every kid could climb into a chair in their grandmother’s living room on a Sunday afternoon, and listen to the men in their lives verbally duke it out. Then I wish they could observe those same men head to the kitchen for a cold drink, laughing and cutting up as if nothing had happened. Because the truth is, so much happened. It’s a heart-deep lesson about how people truly love, how they navigate, how they get into and out of verbal challenges with their relationships, and their integrity, intact.
And it’s about the importance of leaving the grass at least four inches long in hot weather.
There are countless books available that promote ways in which we can heal our Selves. Some books are dedicated to traditional medicine, some prescribe alternative or holistic treatment, some are based on a myriad of psychological approaches, and some reveal processes and rituals of ethnic or religious origin. Each of these practices holds at least an element of validity, and all share in a common goal: to bring us to holiness.
The word holiness takes many by surprise. It causes some to pull back in reaction to a word that has traditionally been tied to religion. But holiness actually means wholeness; being truly whole. Knowing the truth about who we are, feeling loving and gentle toward our authentic Selves. We can call it many things, but when we reach this place of wholeness we are, indeed, holy.
There is nothing sweeter than a new baby; in its presence our entire demeanor changes. We speak in hushed tones; we walk softly, we move slowly, touch gently. We feel a reverence for the newness, the sweetness, the innocence of this tiny being. We are in awe of its perfection. We are beholding a holy one. And we are remembering our own holiness.
We learn, very quickly, to “become” whatever the rules say we must. We are good little soldiers, good children …we follow directions, or not; but the world continues to shape us, and teaches us to lead with our acceptable “‘personas” − caricatures of who God created − that carry us far from the holy selves who arrived here in the beginning.
And now, during this season of holiday, “giving” is in full swing. We watch the children in our lives, and the child in each of us awakens. We are, once again, those newborns; we are those “holy ones.” We embrace the chance to participate in a tidal wave of open hearts, of tender thoughts, and of uplifted ideals. We are individuals, certainly; in addition, however, we are a collective of all the things we ever imagined, of our deepest held dreams. Our wildest sacred hopes take wing in the December air. Is it possible? Could it be? If only … just maybe .… this is the stuff we’re made of; it’s the stuff of miracles.
The world has taught us to forget this, but it is true. This season of remembering takes us home to that truth. How sweet, how holy a world it will be when we choose to stay awake; to stay connected with our “original truth.” For that is, after all, where our holiness resides.
Women all over the world are dealing with separation and divorce. Many believe they are alone in their relationship drama; they think theirs is a unique situation, a solitary journey, with no hope at the end of the road.
I want to spread the word that we are a global community of women whose hearts have been softened by the breaks they have endured.
I met my husband our freshman year in college. We were both singers in a rock band. I can think back and realize that I had two visceral responses: revulsion and connection. That might sound strange, but I don’t think it’s unusual for a girl who had no clue what a “gut feeling” was, or what to do about it. Most of us – if we’d followed our guts in the first place – would not have made the choices we’ve made.
First rehearsal he was big and hairy, the center of the universe, he cracked jokes and tuned his guitar with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The first time he ever talked to me, he called me “Babe.” Normally that would have turned me off completely. But from him it was a fish hook, and I was a carp.
He was a charmingly thoughtless boyfriend, sweet but self-centered, and stayed drunk or hungover most of the time. In my purse I carried a big bottle of aspirin and a roll of Tums, because he needed them on a regular basis. He was a popular guy around campus, a reckless boy who was driven by booze, cigarettes, and rock and roll. I’d led a small, cloistered life. In my mind, I was walking on the wild side. We had sex early on he was my first. We used no protection. It was the sixties, and society said l-u-v was free. My woolly boyfriend and I got married in September, less than a year after we met. I was Catholic, and pregnant. He was Southern Baptist and he was nineteen. His father had to sign for us to go before the judge. We were perfect together, a match made in a textbook on dysfunction and codependence.
I was born in the late 1940s, so I had this idea that love conquers all (though I’d never seen it happen), life could be beautiful (though so far for me it hadn’t been), and that babies were the glue that holds things together.
We were nineteen and twenty when our daughter was born. Our son was born two years later.
We were married for almost twenty-five years. We divorced in 1991, and since then I have allowed myself to see – through therapy and self-discovery – how rose-colored my glasses really were.
The first thing I had to come to terms with was the fact that my husband and I were in two different relationships. I never thought about cheating because it’s not in my nature to cheat. He thought I was cheating all the time, because he was a cheater. So he accused me, and I comforted him.
There were sweet moments, the times “between the cheats.” During those periods he was like a little boy making me laugh, unsure of himself, needing to talk, take long walks holding hands, calling several times during the day. It wasn’t until the marriage was over and I was in therapy that I was able to recognize the pattern of adultery. You could chart it on a graph, like the Dow Jones report. When my therapist made me see it, when it finally registered, inside I let out a birthing cry that, though it’s grown quieter through the years, is still there.
In the end my husband was so deliberately cruel, so public in that last Big Affair, that I literally felt myself going crazy. I was convinced that he was setting me up to kill myself. I went so far as to write my attorney, my brother, and my therapist, assuring them all that if anything happened to me, it would not have been by my own hand. Yes, I was a little paranoid; I quit going to the grocery store because I was certain that the shoppers were whispering to each other about me through the shelves of soup cans. My eyelashes fell out, my hair dropped in clumps, I didn’t sleep for days at a time.
I started writing a lot. I bought an old IBM selectric, and taught myself to type so I could go faster. I wrote frantically; sometimes I would start at suppertime with a bowl of cereal on the table next to me, and find myself still writing when the sun came up. The cereal had turned to mush, and the floor was covered with pages. I had to get it out of me, had to park it somewhere. And so I did. It was cathartic, the writing.
There are so many facets that go into making us who we are. Through the years we chip off pieces of ourselves in order to stay small enough for the love we’re in. But when we find ourselves alone and our heads begin to clear, those pieces we’d abandoned show up again. It shocks us, because we never made a conscious decision to surrender them at all.
When I moved out of our home and into my own place, it was the first time I had ever lived alone. I was startled when I realized that I didn’t know what kind of music I liked. Music played in our house all the time, but the choice was always his or the kids and I went along with it. I mean, I enjoyed it enough. But now it was my choice. I had no idea. He kept the CD’s, so I went to Tower Records and wandered around for a couple of hours. I looked at everything. I listened at every listening station. I ended up buying Enja, Muddy Waters, and a Big Band compilation.
They say that time heals wounds. I don’t believe it. I think time takes us farther and farther from the source of our wounds, but it’s up to us to heal ourselves. That was my goal – to heal myself without turning my heart to stone.
My journey over the last decade or so has taught me a lot about who I am, and about the process of getting to here from there. In fact, now when read I what I wrote back at that kitchen table, I am stunned by the story written there. Who was that woman? Can I have been she? It feels remote, mostly disconnected from me. Yet the remnants of that past continue to color, in a variety of ways, the days of my life now.
For example, I’ve learned the subtle but profound difference between loneliness and solitude. During the first days, weeks, months of my independence I was embroiled in the seas of loneliness and longing. Stay with that long enough, it will wear you to the bone. There comes a time when you literally have to say, Okay, I’m giving notice to the both of you: Longing, you have visiting privileges, but you can no longer live here. Fifteen minutes, once a week, that’s it. Loneliness, you have two hours to leave. Pack up and get out. I have two new roommates moving in today. Their names are Comfort and Solitude.
Comfort was tricky. I had spent my life creating comfort for others. I couldn’t wrap my brain around how to do that for me. My therapist said, “Cece, make a list of the things that you would do for a friend who is going through what you are. Then do all those things for yourself.”
At first I was self-conscious. But I made my list. Flowers, massages, facials, pedicures, a nice meal out after church on Sunday afternoons. I literally felt guilty for being kind to me. I had to be deliberate, fight the resistance; for many, many months it seemed totally unnatural. Today it feels normal, and I know that it’s that very self-nurturing that has kept my heart soft, my spirit hopeful. I can tell you honestly that today I am able to see the goodness and the possibilities in life. And what I now know is that an empty glass cannot fill others. When we don’t fill ourselves first, there’s nothing to spill on anyone else.
Solitude bears a special quality. There’s a freedom to do, be, or say whatever the heart calls for. No ridicule. Linen cases on the pillows, starched and pressed; waking in the pre-dawn and lying in the quiet, listening to the birds in the crabapple; rolling out of bed and taking time – personal, quiet time – to wash face, brush teeth, open curtains, peer out at the day. So far, no word has been spoken. None are needed. Look in the mirror. The message is clear: you, and all your choices, are welcome here.
Have you ever considered the pristine beauty, the mystical significance of an empty bowl? Or even the hands that created the bowl itself? I hadn’t, until this past weekend.
An empty bowl is an important symbol in Buddhism. The bowl points to the monk’s way of life; they go from the monastery into the village each morning, bowl in hand, and ask for alms from the lay people. Whatever they receive, food or alms, is prayed over with thanksgiving, and counted as “enough;” “plenty” for that day.
As a prompt during a writing class recently, we were asked what we would need to fill our bowl.
I sat with my hand holding a pen, suspended over the page. My mind was blank. Just when I thought, “This is not working,” I heard my father’s voice.
My dad used to say, “Your mother could feed a family of eight on a potato and an onion.” And looking back, I realize that’s exactly what she did. She’d dice them, and boil them in a large pot of water; season them, and leave them to simmer on the stove. She’d put small pieces of Velveeta on the collection of bread heels, and run them under the broiler just long enough for the cheese product to melt across the surfaces of the bread, and start charring around the edges.
We loved potato soup night. It came after meatloaf night, and was followed by fish stick night, which was always on Friday. There was also tomato soup and grilled cheese night. There was bean and cornbread night, which was followed by chili night, because the leftover beans went into the chili.
When I recite the menu − this litany of how my mother fed six children on my dad’s hard earned but meager income − I am struck by a couple of things:
Regardless of where she kept her heart, regardless of how disconnected she seemed from the rest of us, she got up every day and did what needed doing to keep the children fed.
The process of creating a meal is a spiritual act. It is a prayer. Just saying grace over two such ordinary things as a potato and an onion − trusting that these will become the loaves and fishes on your children’s plates − that is a mother’s hope. An act of faith.
And I will say that doing it once makes it an event − marks its significance above the commonplace. But through my years of growing up, sitting as I did at that table every night, I can tell you this: the miracle of plenty was ever present there.
So when I consider what will fill my empty bowl, I humbly request one potato, one onion, and the power of my mother’s prayer.
It’s funny how, when I think back on that night, I can see the silence was bigger than anything else. It was bigger than the darkness. It was bigger than the moonlight that dappled the room with lacey patterns through the curtain at the front window. It was bigger than him, sitting on that sofa. It was bigger than me, standing in the doorway. That night, everything seemed bigger than me. The clock ticked. The children were upstairs sleeping but I swear I could hear them breathing. Soft, rhythmic, surrendered. But there, in that little living room: Silence. He sat. Across the room, I stood.
“How much of you did she have?” The words hung in the air like balls, floating on water. I heard them, then realized it was my own voice.
“She had all of me.”
In the room: Silence.
In my head: A sort of screaming that, though through the years would grow faint, would never, ever stop.
No one tells you that your moment of confirmation, of validation, can also be the single most horrifying moment of your life. What do you do, once you hold the truth? Where do you go with it? What pocket do you tuck it into? Do you take it, like old ticket stubs, and paste it in into a scrapbook? Do you also glue pictures of your heart, the night it shattered?
Strength is sometimes overrated. But in the end, it’s strength you need, if only to find your bones, and tell them to stand up, to move your body forward, mind your broken heart, and – because you have not yet been given a pass to leave the planet – carry on as best they can.
This road it’s
To ride the dream
But in the in between
The blacktop seems to go forever
The days come
The days go
But it’s the nights I live for
Sometimes there’s a
Who makes it even better
Now the band’s kickin’ off
I’m walkin’ on
Crowd’s goin crazy
We’re killin’ this song
There’s a girl in the second row
She’s holdin’ a big old sign
Says I heart you
Baby don’t you know that I heart you too
Cause I know Oooooh
I couldn’t do what I do without you
This song is a shout out to
The girl in the second row
She’s on her feet
She’s dancing reaching out her hands
And I can almost touch her
Then some nights
Like this night
The whole room disappears
And we’re alone and singing only to each other
I know it’s a gift
Moments like this
They keep me lovin’ this life I live
I know it’s a gift
Moments like this
They keep me lovin’ this life that I live
This song is an I love you to
The girl in the second row
I’m sitting at my kitchen table, studying the palm of my hand, and waiting for snow.
The house is warm, but my nose is cold. The wintry chill around the edges of the house drives me to the center so I’m here, at this table. And thinking of building a fire.
But these lines. They’ve been on my palms since I grew hands while in my mother’s belly. Had I known them to reveal things, had I known there was a map, I might have done life differently. I might have checked the highway that starts at my wrist and curves up to the center-point between my thumb and forefinger.
I would have read the road signs held in the two that cross from left and right.
Years ago I went to a palm reader in New Orleans. I was newly divorced and trying to figure out how to navigate in the world as nobody’s anything. The palm reader looked at my hands, traced the lines she saw, and nodded.
“Three children.” I shook my head.
“No. Only two. Two children.”
“Oh well,” she said, still looking at my hand, “You will have a third. There are three children here.” She looked up and smiled.
I paid, left as quickly as I could, got outside, leaned against the wall, folded into myself, and tried to breathe. Apparently my palms didn’t show the complete hysterectomy I’d had the week of my twenty seventh birthday. There would be no more children. But I could still feel her fingernail tracing that line. I looked at my palm. How could she see that? How did she see the one I lost? How is that written there? I choked back sobs, slouched against a building in the French Quarter. I’m teary now, just writing the words. So be it. The question I had, and still have, is this: is my story really written here? Right here? And how I could never read it, never even know it was here to be read?
I had wanted a house filled with children, but looking back – even through the grief of loss – I can see it all came together exactly as it should have.
Life is a fascinating tapestry of love and its heartbreak, growth and its pain, choices and their consequences … and the freedom to know that all things work for good in the hearts of those who believe.
So I sit here, check the weather forecast, watch The King’s Speech, and … realize that I’m idly running my finger across the line. The one that told her there were three. And I remember: whatever any of us might think we know about anything, we don’t know everything … we simply cannot. We’re inside it, looking out. There’s a certain relief in that, really. And how exciting it is to be aware that there’s always more to learn, reasons to wake each day, eager to wrap our arms around this miracle of life.