Category: Faith (awkward)

In case you haven’t put it together from reading about my repeatedly patching the inner thighs of my jeans and marching around the neighborhood with a gaping crotch hole in my exercise capris, I will just straight-up tell you: I am a hot mess. My family and I are used to this state of affairs and had been getting by (one day at a time) until an unexpected opportunity shone a spotlight on the steaming disaster that is my wardrobe — and my self-image.

It all started last month when I received an email invitation to apply for a work-from-home editor position at a local publishing company. That very morning my daily devotional had discussed not wasting one’s talents — something that I worry about a lot as an unemployed mother in a household where money is always tight. I adore staying home with my children and have relished being able to focus solely on disappointing them since the magazine I had copyedited for the past 14 years ceased publishing, but the timing made me think this new opportunity might be God’s calling me to do something more. So I updated my résumé (realizing I needed to add my email address to the antiquated format), researched how the kids are writing cover letters in the new millennium and then turned my attention to my most unnerving concern: costuming.

I have never been good at the professional-woman charade. (Surprise!) At the end of my final semester as a magazine-journalism major in college, my classmates and I had to dress up and present our portfolios to a panel of professors as if we were at a job interview. I wore a flowy boho frock my mom had sewn, prompting my instructor to tactfully comment that my “style” (as if my getup were anything more intentional than a desperate attempt to camouflage my girth) might be OK for a creative position but that I’d probably need to wear something more conservative in a corporate setting. Fast-forward 25 years and I have a closet full of flowy church-lady skirts and hard-worn jeans — nothing remotely appropriate for the workplace. I was going to have to break down and buy myself some pants. Dress Barn, here I come!

The pants turned out surprisingly flattering for having been bought in a “Barn,” and when I got them home I realized why: The front pockets were pretend. I’d heard about this phenomenon from a friend who’d recently reentered the pants market, but I never dreamed what a difference that design innovation could make. It turns out the reason I look so portly in jeans isn’t my spare tires; it’s all those unsightly functional pockets!

In retrospect I don’t know whether my fancy pants actually looked that svelte or my vision was blurred from their eye-watering chemical-dye odor. After laundering, they still stunk and also developed some weird spots where either the detergent didn’t get completely rinsed out or the dye faded. I tried wiping the spots with a damp paper towel and the dye stained the towel. Great. So in addition to feeling self-conscious about my stench at the interview, now I had to worry about keeping my rump dry and avoiding any white chairs. This kind of pressure is why I don’t leave the house.

After much agonizing over my dearth of professional-lady tops and footwear, I finally cobbled together an ensemble that I hoped made me look like I had half a clue. Then it was time to wipe the quarter inch of dust off my portfolio and pull together some writing samples. And that was when I discovered something even more surprising than the slimming effect of pocketless pants: I’d written some pretty good stuff. In the 16 years that I’ve been home forgetting to put detergent in the washer, sending people off to dental appointments on the wrong day and failing to turn in permission slips on time, I’d forgotten that I used to write long, complex articles about veterinary practices (I even traveled by myself and spent days observing, taking notes and interviewing doctors) as well as manage the daily operations of various magazines. I have since grown accustomed to thinking of myself as a lazy, disorganized scatterbrain. But the thought that I once WAS competent gave me hope that maybe, with my new pants, I could be again.

So it was with renewed confidence that I went to my first job interview since 1998. Despite my dismay at learning it was only for screening purposes and there would be a follow-up (dammit — ANOTHER outfit!), it went well. If only I could say the same for the second interview. As I learned more about the responsibilities and challenges of the position, my self-assurance faltered, and at one point the interviewer said, “You have a scared look on your face.” You would too, lady, if you’d seen the premonition I just had of attempting to carry on a conference call while my 5-year-old pulls down her pants and asks me to have a look around down there for no reason that I can comprehend. Because that kind of shit goes on here ALL THE TIME. (And you people wonder why my brain is broken.)

Though I was pretty sure I didn’t want the job in light of the aforementioned scenario, the next day I worked diligently to craft a thank-you email that attempted to salvage the interview. Then I rested assured that I had done all I could do to faithfully pursue the opportunity and left the rest in God’s hands, trusting that if it were God’s will for me to get the job, God would enable me to do it despite all the potential problems and Maribeth’s inevitable nudity.

It is without the slightest disappointment that I report I am still unemployed. The money would have been nice, but the freedom to devote all my mental faculties to letting down my family (no, I didn’t wash your black leggings and yes, we are seriously out of Cheez-Its) is priceless. Plus, every day is casual Friday.

Faith (awkward) Fat pants

Ever since I dropped the stinky truth bomb that we’re all gonna die, Heaven has been a hot topic in our house. Because idiot that I am, I didn’t think about how little comfort the concept of eternal life would be without any understanding of Paradise. (Thank God children are so naturally inquisitive; you don’t realize how many gaps are in your curriculum [as my eloquent friend Brent put it] until your kid expresses surprise at, for example, the revelation that her dad also fathered her sisters. Who knew?) Until recently I’d glossed over death with euphemisms about going to Heaven to be with God and Jesus, which Maribeth accepted without further explanation. But once she learned she was going to have to go there someday, she wanted more details.

Maribeth’s introduction to faith has come first through the prayers we say at bedtime, during which I have tried to instill an “attitude of gratitude” by thanking God for specific blessings but which Maribeth has interpreted more as a daily review, sometimes including in her list of items she’s thankful for: “I frow up” and “I was naughty to Ella.” We also have a few children’s books about Jesus and a CD of Sunday school songs that she likes to sing. Even so, and though I should have been prepared, I stammered around a bit when she asked, “Who is God?”

“Well, God made us. God is our heavenly father and our heavenly mother,” I replied. “God is love.”

“Oh — just like you, Mommy!”

(Yes, just like me, even though I’m pretty sure God doesn’t lose God’s mind and screech: “PEOPLE. Put the DVDs BACK. IN. THEIR. CASES!!!” and “I am going to ground you from EVERY ELECTRONIC DEVICE IN THIS HOUSE if you don’t STOP LEAVING YOUR DIRTY CLOTHES IN THE BATHROOM!!!” But in all fairness, I don’t think God experiences the hormonal fluctuations that on some days make me feel like everyone I interact with is scraping off a piece of my soul with a rusty potato peeler, either.)

During the past week I’ve had to field random questions such as “Is God a guy or a lady?” “Are there dinosaurs in Heaven?” and “What is Heaven?” Since she was distraught about dying when she asked the last one, I really wanted to sell her on the land of glory. But “a wonderful place where nobody ever gets sick or hurt or sad” wasn’t cutting it. Nor was “I’ll be there; our whole family will be there!” So in desperation I racked my brain to think what would constitute bliss for her and resorted to “I bet you’ll be able to go swimming there.” [squeal] “And probably go to the beach.” [another squeal] “And there will be all kinds of music.”

SOLD. (Whew.) “I’m going to play the trumpet! Mommy, what instrument are you going to play?”

Before I had to scramble to comfort Maribeth, I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time imagining what Heaven might be like. Occasionally in spring I’ve thought, In my Heaven, the trees would always be flowering. On vacation in Michigan years ago I saw a small cottage with a yard that was entirely taken up by flowers and thought it would be a lovely Heavenly abode. If I were pressed to list a few perks I might hope for, I’d include:

  • No more sweating, scrubbing, showering, shaving or going to the bathroom.
  • The ability to fly/teleport.
  • Access to books and time to read.
  • The ability to truly see the past, including historical events and the lives of people I love.
  • Babies and small children to care for. (I know that seems weird, but I can’t imagine true joy without babies and children.)

Of course, meeting Jesus, being reunited with my loved ones, and the absence of suffering would be enough. For me. Maribeth, however, is counting on a pool.

Maribeth: “Are you sure you want to go swimming in Heaven?”
Me: “If you’re going to be there, sure!”
Maribeth: “Will we need swimming suits?”
Me: “I don’t know if we’ll need swimsuits.”
Maribeth: “I think we’ll need swimsuits.”
Me: “What will your swimsuit look like in Heaven?”
Maribeth: “I think I’ll take that old polka dot one you got me at Walmart.”

OK. We’ll save the adage “You can’t take it with you” for another day.

What are your Heavenly hopes?

 

Faith (awkward) Parenting (sloppily)

The other day I was reevaluating my life in the Sam’s Club parking lot. My introspection had nothing to do with the milk, hamburger or Craisins (seriously, if you buy Craisins anywhere else you are being robbed) for which I make a monthly pilgrimage; this was just my everyday “DEAR GOD I’M DOING IT ALL WRONG WHAT WAS I THINKING?” musing. I don’t know exactly what route my self-doubt took from “You shouldn’t have bought that giant box of Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuit Mix even though it was such a good deal because it’s so unhealthy THINK OF THE CHILDREN” to reconsidering everything I’ve written in this blog, but the mental maze ended with a loud, clear: “YOU ARE MAKING A FOOL OF YOURSELF.”

Cringing inwardly at all the unsavory tidbits I have revealed to a sometimes double-digit audience of people whose good opinion I crave, I paused and took a deep breath, then mentally defended my actions. “I am sharing what has mattered to me in case it resonates with or at least briefly entertains someone else.” Then I shut the van door on my Craisin cache and moved on to agonizing over whether I should return a necklace to Kohl’s or go to the bank. After all, it was a warm day and I had a backseat full of milk and meat, but on the other hand, Kohl’s was right across the street, and I hate having a merchandise return hanging over my head… What to do? What to do?

Eventually I decided to pop into Kohl’s and get the return over with while I was out of the house and halfway presentable (because on many a day that is way too much to require of me). As this was not a Kohl’s that I frequent, I parked on the wrong side of the lot and had to ask a clerk where the return desk was. I slogged across the store, half wishing I had brought my 20 percent off coupon and half glad I didn’t since I probably shouldn’t be buying anything anyway (because “DEAR GOD THE FINANCES I’M DOING THAT ALL WRONG TOO”). I stepped up to the return desk, looked over to the left and was surprised to see a friend whom I typically run into every few months or so at our local Walmart or Target. We laughed at meeting up so far from our usual haunts, completed our transactions and paused to chat.

Then she brought up my blog, and I started to feel squirmy. It’s one thing to air my dirty laundry in cyberspace and quite another to discuss it face-to-face. She said, “I really liked your post about your faith” (which I have been uncomfortable about sharing because like everything else in my life, my faith is a disheveled mess) “and about eating and exercise” (another one that makes me wince) “because I struggle with that … and I passed it on to a friend who struggles with it too.” That’s when I realized this was a holy encounter — not because I had any profound wisdom to offer (my recovery is a labyrinth that I repeatedly sit down in the middle of with chocolate, donuts and Rotel dip and the attitude, “Screw it; I’ll just live here”) but because this is about as close as I get to hearing the voice of God: in what many people would consider a coincidence.

Despite my efforts (sometimes intense, others lame) at prayer and discernment, I have never heard from a burning bush (which is probably for the best, as I don’t like going barefoot anyway). Looking back on my life, I trace God’s hand through unusual timing and circumstances. For example, I got my first job out of college after one of the journalism school deans inexplicably called to tell me about an editorial assistant position at a woodworking and home-improvement magazine. I was not a standout student nor interested in this subject matter, and though my career got off to a less-than-glamorous start with a boss who evidently longed for a Mad Men-style office environment (while earning my journalism degree, I never dreamed that I would someday be taking dictation, complete with the tricky words spelled out for me, and then typing up letters with my initials at the bottom so the recipients could see that the editor was far too important to type his own correspondence), this job provided valuable experience and great opportunity for advancement, free home-remodeling projects, friendships that have lasted more than two decades and, long after I left, several work-from-home editing gigs thanks to one of my former coworkers. Only in hindsight could I see what a huge blessing that job was, and it all started with a strange phone call.

After moving on from that company to a higher-paying position (from which I was laid off when the magazine was sold six months later) and then spending two miserable years at another job, I took a big pay cut to escape to a humble editorial assistant position at a veterinary magazine (despite the fact that when it comes to animals, I am emotionally crippled); a couple of months later, the managing editor left and I took her place. Years later when I had become a stay-at-home mom, she gave me lots of generously paying freelance work. Chalk that job up to another well-timed blessing in disguise.

I also see God’s hand in the timing of my kids. It took quite a while to conceive Ella, but I made lots of wonderful friends in her kindergarten classmates’ mothers — women I wouldn’t have known if she had been born as soon as I would have liked. Kate, on the other hand, was gestating only weeks after I informed Chris “Oprah and I have decided we should have another child” (because that day her show was about declining fertility — thank you, Oprah; because of your prompting, the world now has another great advocate of justice).

And then there’s Maribeth (and this is where I come out as a religious kook). Though I’d always wanted at least three children (reasoning that that way if one flakes out, at least the remaining siblings have each other after Chris and I are dead), my grief over my mother’s death and my body-image obsession killed that dream — until one day I thought I felt God suggest we have a baby (actually I thought God said we would have a son, but I was deep into fundamentalism at the time, and a male heir was the de rigueur Old Testamenty blessing). At that time I did not particularly want another child because I felt like an inadequate mother to the two I already had, but I surrendered to the idea and told Chris what was going to go down, saying that if it happened it would have to be a “God thing” because I hadn’t had a period in years and we would not use any extraordinary measures to conceive.

Thinking I would soon be with child, I immediately quit caffeine and scaled back my exercise. As I waited, my desire for a baby grew, but nothing happened for two years (well, nothing except little divine reminders to keep hoping). Finally, I found out I was pregnant (Huzzah! The prophecy is fulfilled!) and told my in-laws and friends my miraculous story, only to discover I was carrying a blighted ovum and would soon miscarry.

That miserable process almost sent me into despair (because when the going gets tough, I say, “SCREW THIS”), but I decided that to give up would be bowing to fear. Two months later I was pregnant again, and now we have Maribeth. Whether she’s truly a child of prophecy (after all, she’s no male heir) or just the fulfillment of my original dream to have more kids, she’s an indisputable blessing.

It would be nice if the story ended there and there were no more WTF moments (such as two subsequent miscarriages a couple of years ago) to challenge my faith. But then I might be an insufferable spiritual know-it-all. Instead, I’m an often indecisive, sometimes fretful, frequently frustrated, ultimately hopeful Christian who’s grateful to occasionally wander onto holy ground, even if it is in Kohl’s, and even if it’s only for a few minutes (because I’ve got to get that meat and milk in the fridge). To my friend who stood there with me: Thank you for your divinely timed words of encouragement. You touched my heart, refreshed my faith and renewed my resolve to risk sharing in the hope that, if nothing else, together we might bring some meaning to the mess.

Faith (awkward)

If I were going to rate this Easter (don’t you do that?) on a scale of one to 10, with one represented by jelly beans (which are garbage candy) and 10 by Russell Stover dark-chocolate-enrobed Lemon Cake Eggs (I know it sounds like a weird combination, but the recipe for this confection was divinely revealed to Russell himself by an angel along with the message: “Do not be afraid; this will be delicious,” and the angel was speaking absolute truth), I would put it at a five (represented by a small but at least solid and not waxy chocolate bunny). I accept 90 percent of the blame for this mediocre showing; the other 10 percent I will divvy up among Walmart, Target and Maribeth.

For guilt-free, effortless joy, nothing can compare with the Easter celebrations of my childhood, when I could count on a pink-bow-festooned basket of goodies with my name on it and a big dinner that included Grammie’s cute-not-creepy bunny cake with coconut “fur” and jelly-bean eyes. In those days, the only drawbacks were that the chocolate bunnies, though large, were hollow and that we had to be dragged away from our baskets to church, where we would sing “Up From the Grave He Arose” and “Because He Lives” (songs that still make me think of Grammie) and then my cousin and I would spend the sermon competing to see who could hold her breath the longest. (I now realize that long before the devil invented the Internet, he created watches with second hands to stunt children’s spiritual development.) Intellectually I knew the holiday was about Jesus’ resurrection, but it was gathering with family that filled my heart.

When I was a young adult, the basket ceased to matter (I could — and did — buy my own treats, and those bunnies were SOLID) and church became optional; if I went, it was out of a sense of tradition and obligation. Family dinner was still the high point of the holiday. The location and cast of characters changed, as aunts and uncles and cousins moved away or became busy with their own lives, as grandparents passed away and my brothers and I married, but my heart only grew fuller as nieces (and eventually daughters) came into our family. Watching the little cousins we had created play together was even more fun than I’d had with my own cousins.

Then my mom died, and the family scattered. Though we gather for dinner every couple of months, we no longer celebrate Easter together; differing beliefs and schedules have left each individual family to forge its own traditions. I do not like this. The very definition of tradition involves doing something a certain way for a long time. Filling baskets and hiding eggs are fun, but without the rest of my family, Easter dinner feels hollow. I feel hollow.

This wasn’t a problem several years ago; I had experienced an awakening of faith and seriously embraced Ash Wednesday, Lent, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday for the first time. I remember watching the clock until midnight on Holy Saturday and feeling tremendous joy that Easter Sunday had finally arrived. The worship service was transcendent; I felt like I finally “got” what it was all about and from that point on life was going to be full of miracles.

That Easter is now a fond memory, and I look back on the faith I had at the time as I would regard a small child — pure and adorable, but too undeveloped to cope with the real world. It’s easy to believe God is in charge and everything is going according to the divine plan when you’re not thinking too hard about suffering. But real Christianity leads you into suffering with the world, and I’m weak and childish enough that suffering messes me and my faith up. Rather than pure and adorable, my faith is awkward, pimply, lazy and sometimes sullen, still too immature to grapple effectively with harsh reality, but (I trust) still growing, though excruciatingly slowly.

In the years after my wonderful Lemon Cake Egg-rated Easter, I participated in Lent to various (dwindling) degrees. After having Maribeth (whom I adore and count as one of my greatest blessings), I found it difficult to spiritually soar when I was so firmly grounded in diapers and tantrums, and for some time now I have absolutely dreaded Lent. It sounds whiny, but I feel I have reached my limit for self-denial and am too weary for another “journey.” This year my Lenten practice consisted of reading an e-mail devotional strictly out of a sense of obligation; I had no desire for Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services. I spent Holy Saturday watching a lot of TV before determining at 8 p.m. that Kate needed to go shopping for church shoes. (This is why I am assigning Walmart and Target some of the blame for this lackluster holiday: The shoe departments of both stores had been ransacked and were a severely depleted mess. How dare you, sirs.)

Easter morning started out joyful but soon deteriorated into stomping and screaming (Maribeth’s, as five minutes before we needed to leave for church, she decided her sandals were unbearably “weird” feeling) and stupidity (mine, as I attempted to squelch her fit by threatening to give her chocolate bunny to “some other kid” — which was as ridiculous and ineffective as I’m sure it was displeasing to the Lord). Church was lovely (and I was moved to tears when the benediction instructed us to go forward in peace — a quality so desperately lacking throughout this guilt-ridden season) but afterward Maribeth still had a lot of rage left to spew before she ultimately stormed up to her room, yelling something about “never” and “family,” slammed her door and passed out on her bed (and I did thank God for that little Easter miracle).

That evening we watched the first episode of A.D. And it hit me, as Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas went about their day while, far in the background, Jesus hung on the cross: Their appalling disregard for his agony was only slightly more callous than my attitude this Lenten season. Finally, something had touched my heart. It didn’t feel like guilt; it felt like grace. It didn’t fill me up, but it felt like a start.

 

Faith (awkward)