Vanity: I Look Like a Basset Hound

Lately, when I catch a glimpse of my face it appears to be melting like candle wax or colorful taffy in the hot Florida sun.  It evokes the hollow horror of Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.” Since I haven’t taken any LSD, I figure this droop must be part of aging.  I spoke with my doctor about the way my origami shaped eyelids are folding in on themselves, and she said that she thinks I could qualify for the medically-necessary surgery to put them back in their proper place so my vision isn’t impaired.  I didn’t know whether to feel validated by her comment or virtually hopeless.

Earlier that day I was speaking with a friend who is teaching a class on the Book of Ecclesiastes and he mentioned its humanistic view of vanity which goes beyond society’s obsession with appearances.  The only thing I knew offhand about the chapter is the passage that begins “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

It reads like beautiful poetry, a cadence of simplicity making sense of a senseless world: “a time to be born and time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,” (Ecclesiastes 3: 2-3).    A time to be young and cute with body parts in their proper spot and a time to have your eyelids tied up with thread so you can see every new crevice of decay.  Somehow that line must have been edited out.  I suppose for the sake of brevity, not lack of validity. Read more

Battling Between Balance and Busyness

When my son was seven years old, he was trying to balance.  One minute he was excitedly saying, “Look, mom, I found the spot!”  Moments later, mid-wobble, he said, “Oh, wait.  I lost the spot.”  Of course, it was losing it I related too.

Somewhere in the zig-zag of daily life is the sweet spot where we teeter in balance between work and rest, fun and fulfilling, and, social and silence.  It seems sometimes like we live in a world of extremes.  We have tiny houses and McMansions, hoarders and minimalists, and fast food and the slow-food movement.   There is polarization in almost every category of modern life. Perhaps it is our obsession with busyness, where this extreme has become most evident.  Busyness has become a badge that says my career is at a crescendo, my family is an extracurricular expert, and my personal life is a page-turner.  But are we really living a harlequin-romance novel amidst kids and career, or are we huffing and puffing from here to there, texting our spouses our agendas and their assignments, as we scurry our kids to their next activity?

The other day I was rushing my son to an orthodontist appointment when I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the car window I was squeezed between.  To my dismay, I was only wearing one hoop earring.  I looked like a rogue pirate without the talking parrot companion.  Instead, I had a teenage boy who doesn’t speak as my counterpart.  He only repeats “okay,” “I know,” and “fine,” as a series of responses.  “Polly wants a cracker,” has become, “Mamas going to go crackers if she doesn’t hear a complete sentence soon!”  (But that’s another conversation for another bottle of wine, as a good of friend of mine likes to say.) Read more

Fear, Fullness, and Underwear

I never understood the advice on public speaking about imagining your audience in their underwear.  Maybe it’s because I don’t multitask well but I can’t imagine talking about God’s mercy while also trying to focus on an array of undergarments. Besides, it’s just creepy. While the intent may be to make the speaker more comfortable, I can’t think of anything more uncomfortable than a room full of people wearing only bras and briefs.

I considered the absurdity of that advice while trying to identify what would make me most nervous about public speaking.  I figured if I addressed any unease, I would be better prepared. I wasn’t overly concerned about a word stumble and since I fell on my face in Kindergarten, I figured I had gotten that out of the way.  What I realized made me the most nervous was that I would hurry through, wish the moment away, and just get it done. The worst thing that could happen would be that I would miss my own talk by not embracing every moment with my fully clothed audience.  It is a gift to speak about mercy.  I wanted to be present. I wanted to experience the joy of it.

It made me realize how often in life I have shrunk from the fullness that God created.   I have held back.  Blended in.  Been too careful.  Too many times, I have listened to fear over the only one who can deliver me from it.  “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,” (Psalm 18:2).  I’ve always had a relationship with fear.  Maybe on some level, I thought if I kept it close, it would keep me safe.  But fear doesn’t keep us safe, it keeps us small.  It keeps us living in the shadows when God has called us into his light.  By trading fear for trust in God we can live in the freedom of his truth.  “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety,” (Psalm 4:8).  With God, we don’t need to be afraid.  He is strong enough to carry us through our suffering and merciful enough to heal our hurts.  Having a relationship with him doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen.  It doesn’t mean that we won’t fall on our face or some creepy person won’t picture us in our underwear.  It just means that with him, through him, fear is a farce of the devil’s making.  We don’t need strategies and sayings to make us courageous.  We simply need to trust that God has us in the right place to carry out his plan in our lives.

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You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Virginia Slims cigarettes used to have an empowering ad campaign directed at women, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”  If we ladies had come a little farther they would have left off “baby,” but it was the seventies and that’s as far as we had come: an anorexic cigarette, marketed specifically to our gender, empowering us to “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.”  (That was another ad campaign for Enjoli perfume).

Personally, my idea of “coming a long way” has nothing to do with being someone’s baby or frying bacon.  Our world perpetually bombards us with messages meant to define the standards by which we measure our worth, success, value, and attractiveness.  These cultural norms permeate everything from what we put in our coffee to what we ink on our bodies.  A renaissance woman’s body would be considered chubby by today’s trends, just as the waifs of the eighties are considered a wisp of the athletically acceptable body type of today’s ideal woman.

And where is the God in any of it?

Would he measure how far we have come by what we smoke?  Or how we smell? By how we look in a pair of lululemon leggings? Or how capable we are of having a successful career while we fry bacon for our families?

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Sin: Hold the Mayo

I am not sure how it started.  I think there was a picture frame hanging on the wall that I thought was too small.  In an attempt to fix it, I moved every single piece of furniture in my living room and adjacent dining room.  Even though I feign weakness when there is something to lift that weighs more than three pounds, if there is furniture I want to move and no one is around to help, I become the unknown twin sister of the Incredible Hulk.  Of course, it’s not pretty to turn the color of the jolly green giant but to be able to move ginormous slabs of wood around the room, one has to sacrifice vanity for vein-popping strength.

I know you aren’t sure where this is going because that’s how it is when you move furniture from wall to wall trying to see what looks best.  You try one thing, decide it’s meh, flex the muscles, and drag it in a different direction.  It’s really a lot like life.   One little crooked sin that we tell ourselves is just a small defect becomes a catalyst for chaos.  We ignore it and focus on all the righteous things about ourselves – we don’t beat our children, we call our mothers, and we return the shopping cart to that little island that is nowhere near our parked cars (most of the time).  There are a lot of things we do right – that makes us good people.  Since we figure sin is inevitable, we minimize our particular habit of hurting God.  What’s one measly sin – usually the one we make over and over again – really going to hurt?

After purging the china cabinet, armoire, and buffet of their contents so that nothing would break when huffing and puffing furniture to different walls, the house looked like a hoarder’s delight and a husband’s horror.  But, I knew it could be made tidy again and began the tedious work of putting tchotchkes in their place. That’s when I noticed a giant scratch traversing the floor from my living room to my dining room.  It read like a road map of a wayward wife who watched too much HGTV.    So smitten with all that I had done right in the room – the balance, scale, and symmetry I created – I ignored the scratch.

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Wrinkles in His Will (and some tips on boiling corn)

I was talking to Jesus one night before bed and told him that his will for my life appears fairly willy-nilly.  What are we really doing here, God?  This?  That?  Does it even matter?  It’s as if he thinks I can read the signs he sends.  I can’t even read a map much less fold one, so why he thinks I can discern his will is a mystery to me.  Still, I come back to that longing to know.  It’s like a kid the night before their birthday trying to figure out what their gifts will be.  It’s a sleepless mix of exhilaration and anticipation and longing for the relief of just knowing.  What a gift the knowing would be.

The next morning, my son had an appointment to have his high school senior pictures taken.  I had reminded him the night before that mama doesn’t iron and he needed to have his clothes ready.  When I saw him half-dressed in a half-ironed shirt, I was wholly annoyed.  He explained that he had ironed his shirt and the wrinkles weren’t coming out.  He said he was going to wear it a bit and that would make the wrinkles come out.  Lord Jesus, I am supposed to send this child to college in a year?  I told him to give me the shirt and I would iron it.

It’s not that I am unwilling to iron, it’s just that most things that have to do with domesticity fail me.  The day before I texted a friend to ask how long to boil corn (10 minutes).  It’s frustrating to do things that we aren’t good at.  When I was a little girl, all I wanted to be when I grew up was a stay-at-home mom.  I know in today’s world that is terribly lame but that was my wish, my will.  While I’ve been able to do that and mostly love it, I can’t say I am particularly good at it.  So, there I was ironing the already-ironed shirt wondering why the heat and the pressing and the willing weren’t working.  Since we were running short on time, I called a friend for advice.  She reminded me she was in a different time zone and still asleep.  I explained my domestic emergency and necessary disregard for her slumber.  She suggested that I spray the shirt with water.  It turns out the spray bottle under my sink is a mix of soap and water so when I sprayed the shirt it bubbled up like a wound doused in peroxide.  I just can’t imagine things like this happening to June Cleaver.

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Mercy at the Bus Stop

I was doing my teenage Uber driving duties and thinking about the advice that encourages parents to talk to children in the car.  After all, they are a captive audience, don’t have to make eye contact (because God forbid, we have any of that), and both parent and child are physically restrained –that might not have been among the reasons listed but it does seem worth noting.  We were on the return portion of our journey into silence and I was lamenting the misery of it when I looked out the car window and saw a man sitting on a bus stop talking to himself.  Our eyes met and for a moment he silenced.

He was smoking a cigarette in the mid-day Florida heat.  I checked the temperature on my dash and it read 98 degrees.  I considered my relative comfort in the air-conditioned car and the ice cream in my freezer I planned to eat when I arrived home as a consolation from both the heat and the unwelcome hush of angst that tormented my drive.  I recalled the smoking man in the intolerable heat, sitting in solace, speaking to himself.  I thought of that moment our eyes met, and how for the first time that day I felt seen.  It mattered not to me what I was seen as or how I might have looked or what he might have thought of me. The moment reminded me of the universality of God’s mercy at a time when I felt somewhat desperate for connection.  I don’t know what he saw when he looked at me, but through him, I saw a reminder that suffering is not the only thing that is universal, God’s mercy is too.

While I consider my circumstances are likely better than his – the reality was at that moment, I felt as miserable as I perceived him to be.  It’s easy to compare ourselves to others.  We have standardized what we consider justifiable levels of loneliness, pain, emptiness, and grief, and if it doesn’t fall on the spectrum of horror or woe that we heard on the latest podcast then we feel like we need to buck up and go write in our gratitude journals.  Before I understood the mercy of God, I would have thought the same thing.  There were so many times that the pain and challenges in my life became a wedge in my relationship with God because I didn’t think I had the right to seek his mercy.  I didn’t bring God what appeared to be trivial and trite by the world’s definition of suffering because it felt too small and I had been given too much.  The problem with that thinking is that it separates us from God and from the mercy that heals, comforts, and forgives the wounds in our heart.  We may not be worthy of God’s mercy or deserve it.  Regardless, it pours out of him – a gift of unfathomable consolation that we choose whether to accept.

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Sunburn and Silver Linings

The last day of vacation I woke up with a tingling feeling on my lips.  When I looked in the mirror, even through the blur of twilight I could tell they were noticeably fuller — like the fairy godmother of plastic surgery had visited in the night.  I checked different body parts to see if she had generously waved her wand in other places too.  Sadly, it was just my lips.

As lucidity set in, I realized that my pink pout was the result of a sunburn from a long day of scalloping with friends and family.  I had taken the necessary precautions to protect my skin.  I wore a sunscreen shirt, a hat, and covered my face in so much SPF that I looked like a geisha on holiday.  Although I remembered the SPF lip balm and even reapplied it along with my milky white sunscreen, it was not enough to protect me from hours of swimming and sunshine.

I cringed thinking of the resulting sun damage and started down the long twisty road of lament and regret I know so well.  Then, for the love of mercy, I had a thought that I have considered often recently.  It framed itself as a question in the highlight reel of my mind:  Why would you ever think you would get through life unscathed? 

Life is full of losses.  We lose money.  We lose jobs.  We lose time.  We lose things that are dear to us.   We lose people we love.  We lose. No one likes to lose either.  We live in a world that tells us life is all about the win.  We are encouraged to minimize cost and maximize gains.  While that makes good sense in a lot of sunny scenarios, the reality is, sunburn or not – none of us get through life without experiencing a burn.  Accepting this as part of our humanity somehow dulls the sting of it.  Perhaps, so much of our suffering is exacerbated by our resistance to it.

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Discernment: Yes, no, or know

By definition, the word “no” has a negative connotation.  It conveys restriction, refusal, and denial.  It’s a flashing red light blinking a warning to stop.  It’s a shut door.  The end of a discussion. A command to pause.

I grew up in the eighties when war was declared on drugs, and the best-known weapon was the three-word slogan, “Just say no.”  I heard it from Nancy Reagan.  It was espoused on popular sitcoms like Punky Brewster and Diff’rent Strokes.  I read it on bumper stickers and posters.   Just. Say. No.

Easy peasy.  No was encouraged.  It was advocated. It was celebrated.  Like some algebraic equation, a negative turned into a positive.  But like all ad campaigns, it ran its course.  There was a new decade, new millennium, new drugs, and of course, new wars.  “No” is once again true to its definition.  It’s for the slacker.  The one who refuses to lean in.  The people who have limited constructs and little ambition.

Yes has become the world’s drug of choice.  We are encouraged to go all in, have it all, and do it all.  All for what?  At what price?  This 21st-century spin is blurring priorities.  Everything has become important.  Everything has to be done.  It’s encompassing, egocentric, and exhausting.

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Whale of a Summer: the Good Life

I got the new Vineyard Vines catalog in the mail.  One of its pages teased:  92 summer days ahead.  I couldn’t help wonder if whoever wrote that sent their kids to Catholic School.  I checked my own school calendar for accuracy and calculated we only have 68 days of summer.  How’s that for a penance?

I don’t know why this struck me anyway.  Maybe it was all the crystal blue water splashed on the pages selling pastel-colored polo shirts for $85 a pop.  But, I couldn’t stop thinking of that number.  It was so finite.  So, use it or lose it.  While summer has not officially started, I can’t help but feel a little panicked about its inevitable passing.  It reminds me of how fast all of life is passing.  I wonder how many whale logo purchases it would take for me to slow down and have some of those carefree moments like the people in the catalog.

I was grateful to Shep and Ian for reminding me to embrace the days ahead that sprawl out like a bath towel on the beach.  Too short.  While I don’t love lists because I can never find them after I make them, I made a plan for summer that would make any whale smile.

Forget about being mindful:  Lord have mercy. There is so much pressure to be in the moment.  I lost a great bulk of my mind during childbirth and what’s left of it doesn’t want to focus on putting a fork in the dishwasher.  Most of what I do is just not that interesting and I know that would probably make Oprah sad for me.  However, the season of life I am in is hurried and hectic, mundane and meaningful, and relies heavily on mercy and grace.  So, I don’t have a lot left for mindfulness.  Instead, let your minds wander.  We use to do this as children — boredom would breed great imaginings, inventions, and undiscovered places.  Let your minds drift away to a happy memory, a hope for the future, or a childhood dream.  This makes putting a fork in the dishwasher so much more pleasant. Read more