Bodily Tyranny

It made sense to me, laying there in the dark at two in the morning, after I remembered that moment in the kitchen, a few hours before, when he’d casually mentioned that he’d mixed his regular coffee into my leftover decaf.  I’d been just finishing up a reheated mug of it while cooking our dinner.  “Oh well,” I thought, “it’s just half-caff, shouldn’t affect me too badly.”

After prayers I went to bed because I should, not because of any tiredness gathering in my eyes.  I picked one of the five books on my nightstand, The Boys in the Boat, and started reading.  Since it’s a rowing book, and I rowed for six years, I thought it was the tense racing narratives that had me so alert.  My heart pounded as I read of the final sprints in the Olympic qualifying races; I could feel that pain and my lungs tightened in empathy, my legs stretching taut under the sheets.

Hours were passing, but I kept reading.  I was waiting for my body to signal me to sleep; any pinching around the eyes, any blurring of letters, any yawning.  None came.  And then I remembered what he’d told me as I deglazed the pan the sausages had been browning in. Half caff.

Then one toddler woke up, then the baby, who decided that he was also going to feel inexplicably chipper in the wee hours.  There were some hours of rest, maybe two of them, before the baby awoke at six.  All the tiredness the half caff had repressed had all piled up and settled on me like a ton of bricks.

Henri 153

This picture was taken after laboring throughout the night and day and finally holding my dear Henrik.  I remember trying to smile but finding that I had only semi-smile-twitches left in my facial muscles.  My eyes felt like they were being pulled shut by invisible cords.  I was so full of joy and wonder and exhaustion.

I am still there.  At four in the morning I stroked my baby’s curly hair, even as my body screamed for rest.  I slogged my way into the boys’ room to comfort one who had cried out from a bad dream.  Parenthood has a way of subjugating the tyranny of the body’s wants and sometimes its needs; suspending them indefinitely, but it covers that insult to bodily comfort with sweetness and baby breath and the way a child sighs with joy when they are safe within our arms.

It is eleven thirty, and I’ve had my cup of decaf coffee (though I was greatly tempted to suppress my tiredness with the regular stuff), and have accomplished nothing except feeding my boys and monitoring their playful destruction of the house.  Oh, and writing this, of course.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent.  It’s a far way off yet, but last year I participated in it in an introductory way, my priest encouraged me to fast Wednesdays and Fridays, since I would be doing so without my family.  Orthodox Christians fast from meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, and wine for the 40+ days of Lent, and I was amazed at how hard this diet was for me just two days a week!  No cream for my coffee nor butter for my toast.  No eggs.  And that was just breakfast!

My body wanted what it wanted, and it wasn’t used to being told “no”.  My body craved fat and protein; I missed cheese.  But like getting up in the middle of the night to comfort a child, it was time to tell the body no, and attend to the growth of things that don’t thrive in times of satiation and comfort; self control, humility, discipline, and meekness.  And the amazing joy and bright celebration of the feast at the end, Pascha, a wild frolic of meat and cheese and eggs and laughter; was only so sweet because of the bitterness that went before.

It’s like in rowing, when you’re halfway through a regatta and all you want to do, really, is die.  Just die and make the pain searing through your muscles stop.  But you keep slicing those oars into the heavy water, keep pounding the burning muscles in your legs, back, stomach, shoulders, and arms, in lung-crushing repetition.  You do it for the sweetness, at the end when the crowd is roaring and the air horn heralds your finish and you can flop over your oar handles and dry heave, so glad to have stopped, just stopped that torturous pain.  And when your legs and arms work again, to stroke back to the docks, to a pat on the back from your coach and medal around your neck and a hug from your double.

The sweetness, the prize, the thing that makes the “no” worth it; it calls us out of the plush arms of daily comfort and ease.  It calls us to be more than the collection of demands of our bodies and spirits.  But there has to be a prize, there has to be a yes at the end of no; whether it is a comforted baby, a medal, a feast, or a deep-seated sense that something wrong has been set right, and let us press forward to attain it.

But…I’m Already Happy…

IMG_4721It happens, now and again, as I scroll through my Facebook feed, to encounter a dangling carrot.  The dangler, or angler, or lifestyle salesperson, or multi-level marketing pitch-er, croons a solution and jiggles the carrot.  This presupposes that I have the problem they’re ready to help with.

I’ve never been a fan of motivational posters; I mean does anyone actually feel more heroic or brave or encouraged from reading some cliche splayed across a rugged mountain scene, with some self-actualized hiker standing at the edge with his fists raised double and high?

So when friends, acquaintances, and high school buddies post a triumphant selfie, product in hand, and then talk about wellness, no more migraines, boundless energy, community, opportunity, financial freedom, balanced chakras, vacation money, bonuses, Lexuses, joy, bravery, DREAMS, hot tubs, and talk abysmally about J-O-B-S (yes, some actually do spell it out like it’s a dirty word) that are implicitly heinous, life-wasting occupations for the cowardly, blind, subservient miserable masses, I find I genuinely have no understanding of what sort of fish is hungry for that bait.  And why, to me, it looks like a neon, rubber worm with a barbed hook inside?

And then I know it; you don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch.  If the fish is well-fed, even the flashiest of bait isn’t tempting.  See, I’m already happy.  I’m not hungry for that oddly-luminous, sparkly bait.

No, they’re right, I can’t afford to travel the world, nor drive a Lexus, nor buy a fancy hot tub, nor receive massive bonuses, but what I can afford to do still astounds me.

We can drive to the ocean, folks!  THE OCEAN!  Where I grew up in Montana, the ocean was several hundreds of dollars and hours upon hours away.  I didn’t see one until I was seventeen.  I get a thrill every time I see it, and getting tossed around in it’s rocking and rolling waves is pure joy.

And, seeing those dear faces, I get to have kids!!!  Lots of them!  I know so many folks whose bodies don’t have the ability to bear children, and that breaks my heart.  I don’t take it for granted that this unfathomable blessing has been given to me and my husband.

Every single day we eat and have clean water to drink!  There is a group I’m a part of in Facebookland called “Real Hope For Haiti“, and they regularly post pictures of incoming patients; little kids swollen from kwashiorkor (malnourishment), and ask for prayers for critical cases.  My eyes fill with tears.  How could I not be grateful, so very thankful for our daily sustenance?  It converts my hunger into hunger-to-help!  Keep your protein shakes and moon juice and algae-aloe-smoothie miracle powders; I’m astounded to have the food I have!

A lot of the pitches have three themes:  autonomy (you’re in charge, you own a business, you decide your hours), wealth (commissions, bonuses, free cars, cheaper or free products), and altruism (you’re helping other people achieve their dreams and/or improve their health) to make the first two seem like mere side benefits.  You can get the glow of a hero and the bank account of a CEO, all in one!

I almost feel bad for not having the problems they’re ready to fix; or in a lot of ways, I don’t see my particular sufferings in the same light as they do.  I don’t automatically assume that hard financial times are an altogether bad thing; they can be a crucible for one’s character, teach one frugal habits, activate humility, and make identification and empathy for the poor an immediate thing.  It’s hard to look down on someone you’re standing next to.

One seller posted accusingly, “Why be sick?  You can be free of that if you use essential oils, duh!” (my paraphrase).  I wonder how Job would have heard that, in his ash pile, covered in boils.  “Oh, so it wasn’t God allowing Satan to sift me?  I just needed tea tree oil?  Astounding!”  This sort of triumphalism in regards to health is the oddest bait of all of them.  The Bible says far more about the connection between our passions (envy, lust, resentment) and our bodily health than it does about what we put into us.  Even then, we’re cautioned from assuming a cause/effect outlook:

“His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened that the works of God would be displayed in him.”  -John 9:3

We can’t rummage through God’s toolbox and eject the tools we don’t like.  They may be just the right ones to fix something in us that is very broken.

I stood in front of a room full of sixth graders and asked if I could share my favorite inspirational platitude.  They nodded, grinning because I had already proven myself funny and odd.  “Die” I said, raising up my hands to make exaggerated quote marks for dramatic effect.  “Shouldn’t I embroider it and border it with flowers; wouldn’t that be lovely on the wall?”  They laughed and maybe they didn’t know what to think.  “Dying to myself, my desires, dying each day, even imperfectly, always, always leads to joy.”  I asked them how they could die each day; in what ways could they deny themselves in order to serve others or Christ?  They had really good ideas; they may have had some dissonance, sure, because our culture swaddles youth with soothing words of self importance and self fulfillment and such.  No one tells them to “die”.

But we do seem to tell each other how to “live”, how to be happy, how to digest our food better via pills, how to melt fat around our tums with body wraps, how to use our social networks as ladders into our bright futures, how to be successful and bright and better looking, and brave.

How come no one is telling each other to die?  To embrace unavoidable suffering with an obstinate love, patience, and trust in Christ?  To see limited finances as a gift from a wise Father?  To not buy hundreds of dollars worth of pills and wraps and creams and oils, but rather to give that money away so toddlers can not swell up and die?  Because that kind of stuff gets my attention; that scratches where I’m itching.

 

Affirm My Narrative, Please.

The priest said that he had only ever met the victims.  He wondered where all these crummy types were who were willfully hurting, using, and oppressing his parishioners.  It seems they were all elsewhere; he’d only met the people grievously injured by them, righteously bearing their crosses of undeserved suffering.

The most dangerous thing you can do in a relationship is to challenge someone’s narrative; to challenge their story about themselves, however gently you might do so.  Our narratives are tailor-made, and the tailor is too often deceived.  We remember with affection all the good we do (or intend to do, someday); we glance away from our errors, our sins, the ways we’ve pained others, besides, we remember how provoked we were, and really, it’s understandable.  If only people knew how much we constrained ourselves they’d appreciate our self-control.  Too often our friends nod comfortingly, they empathize, they echo back to us, and they soothe.  It’s seen as the good office of the friend, to be supportive no matter what.  Affirm my narrative, please.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.

-Proverbs 27:6

As iron sharpens iron,  so a friend sharpens a friend.  

-Proverbs 27:17

 

What a good and painful gift it is to have a friend who lovingly dares to pierce our narrative; to say, “No, the plot did not twist in that way; you were at fault and you remain so.”  Then we have to play back the reel, removing our pride-tinted glasses and/or our blinders.  We, if we are brave and humble even for a moment, have to see our narrative ring false.  If we can bear that without shoveling excuses or justifications over our turned shoulders, we approach honesty, then guilt, then repentance.

But it could, and it often does happen, that instead we dig in our heels; we believe our narrative as infallible.  We regard the wounding friend as the enemy; we see their words as weapons and not instruments of healing.  We seek and find a soothing balm in understanding friends; ones on “our side”.

The friend who dared, who risked on our behalf to enlighten our darkness; they are left to watch us carry on in most-certain wrongheadedness and willful pride.  They have a double portion of hurt, for they offered in love to help us see that which was destroying us.  They tried to deliver the medicine for the sickness; unpleasant medicine, to be sure, but needful.  They were then wounded in turn, in anger, for daring to question our narrative.

Lord have mercy on us and make us humble; finding in the wounds of a friend Your own loving correction and faithful leading.  Make us brave to see clearly, and to love fully.408196_10151676557058352_643068089_n

Make Room

There were red lentils spilled across my floor and the perpetrator was in tears.  I had ripped a bag of wheat berries and those too littered the tile.  Babies crying and I really just needed to get the coffee going; I craved that warm fragrance in the air and the promise of a moment sitting down and sipping.  Two emotionally-charged family issues were taking turns churning in my heart.  Both babies wailing at once and the phone  rings.  My friend whose daughter would be taking sewing lessons from me on the line asking if I’d like to re-schedule as they hadn’t procured fabric.  “YES” shouted my rather frazzled heart, but my mouth formed other words of “No, come, we’ll figure it out”.

I swept up lentils, tended to my fussy babies, and prayed; it’s the simplest prayer and all-encompassing:  Lord, have mercy.  It doesn’t mean only “Lord, forgive me”, it means, “Lord, HELP!”, “Lord, let Your good intentions in this moment of suffering bear fruit!”, “Lord, protect me from sin and error”.  I love this useful prayer which has helped millennia of Christians.  Because sometimes I’d just rather run away from my day and hide in a closet.  With chocolate.

She sewed along a marker line I’d drawn on the fabric and gleefully examined the small stitches.  “I did it straight!”, she exclaimed, and I smiled.  She quickly learned to work the machine and soon had finished both a doll blanket and a small pillow.  We shared a plate of cheese, crackers, and apples together with my friend and her other two children and there it was; that sweetness, that undefinable feeling of Christ’s Presence among us.  I had been able to pass on a simple skill to an eager learner, mess and all.  We figured it out, God giving timely grace.

I was glad that I had not heeded the fear that had lurked in my heart this morning, when everything was going wrong at once, the fear that said, “Look, you can’t even manage this day and these children well; you certainly have nothing to offer to another”.  My foe doesn’t attempt grandiose temptations much anymore, but sly, practical ones.  “Because of this hardship, you really shouldn’t expect of yourself to help with _____”.  So it goes.  I am learning to hear that cajoling, wheedling, whining, nag for the enemy that it is.  I cross myself, I pray “Lord have mercy”, and place my thoughts elsewhere.  As I’ve heard it said, you can’t control whether a bird lands on your head, but you can control if it builds a nest there.

Over on Facebook and in the news there’s been quite a bit of ugliness about the refugee situation following the attacks in Paris.  I have been appalled by what some fellow Christians have said.  Behind a lot of the blistering words is fear.  Fear that some bad guys will get in; that they’ll hurt us.  That we won’t have enough aid to help the hurting, wounded, and needy among our own citizenry, much less refugees.  Sure…if we waited for the government to do all the work, we’d be in a bind.  But…we’re the church, we are the hands and feet of Christ; how can anyone stop us from giving?  It’s devastatingly simple:  give sacrificially, make room in your hearts and lives for others’ needs.  A complex problem can have quite simple solutions, if we decide that helping one person at a time might actually change things, instead of whining about the problem from our sofas in tandem with the talking heads, casting blame and pointing fingers and really doing nothing to help.

And what if they do hurt us?

We remember that Christ washed Judas’s feet knowing that he would be betrayed unto death by him.  We remember God’s mercy on Saul, the murderer and persecutor of Christians, how God made him into Paul, a man who would go on to give his life in martyrdom.  We remember our own sins, our own failings, and we cast a more merciful gaze outward.

We need to make room; our brothers and sisters are coming.

Come, we’ll figure it out.daily2

 

 

My Right To Die

Standing in line to pay, I was boiling angry.  A woman had shouldered herself right in front of me; physically moving me so that she could be first.  All sorts of scathing monologues were writing themselves in my mind, my favorite being, “Ohhhhh,” touching her on the shoulder and crooning sarcastically, “I’m so glad that you let me know how much more important you are than me.  How could I possibly expect you to wait in line like the rest of us commoners?”  It gave me some dark pleasure to then imagine a kung-fu scene in which I karate-chopped her purchases to the floor, all the people cheering.  Justice!

1920534_10152247494038352_1265178566_n We want the rules respected, don’t we?  We want to see cheaters and line-cutters put in their place.  Sports have referees for a reason.  Even checkers can’t be played if suddenly one person decides he wants to use the white spaces too.

There are rules, and relatedly, there are rights, and we tend to take them very seriously.  They are the fuel behind major movements and even wars.  They can draw lines in the sand between us and others, some shouting about a mother’s right to choose, and the others about a baby’s right to live.  One camp argues that marriage should be definable by two people’s love and commitment, another that marriage is only to be between a man and a woman, having been God-designed that way, as is His right as Creator.

Day-to-day though, our sense of our rights forms a smaller orbit.  It’s that inner irritation when there are only two check-out lanes open, lines four people deep, with workers seen chatting away, unwilling to open more registers.  It’s the waiting room angst.  The tense mood on an airplane stuck on the runway for hours.  People start mumbling, rolling their eyes; their “right” to be attended to promptly is not being honored.  A car whips into the parking spot that another driver was clearly signaling to enter; indeed, almost all road rage sparks from someone trodding on someone else’s rights.  Closing the orbit more and it’s the wife’s ire that her husband isn’t washing the dishes after she cooked the meal; it’s her inner rant going something like this: “I should be the one stretching out and relaxing, not him.”  My rights.  Mine.

It was a while back, when praying or contemplating, I don’t remember which, but a word came born upon my thoughts:  die.  There was a relationship at the time that was peppered with grievances of my rights.  I had many reasons to take deep offense, to demand my due; I was quite provoked.  Every secular counsel would have been to stand up for myself, to get the negativity out of my life by avoiding the person, to think about me, my rights.  But…die?  Die to self?  Die to demanding my rights?  There was a resounding yes, an inner warmth, even a joy as I gave that thought space to grow within me.

Our world knows little of the joy of self-denial.  We are encouraged to buy, to accumulate, to improve our physical selves, our marketability, to make a name for ourselves, to strive, to climb, to self-actualize, to get what we supposedly deserve (wealth, recognition, respect, or even simply our own way).

So, what if I died a bit daily?  Died to all these nagging rights of mine and all their hooks and barbs?  What if I sent my Record of Wrongs through a paper shredder; what if I dared to forget my injuries a bit, and focused my energy and strength on loving well?  When a resentful thought came into my mind, what a delight to be able to let it find nowhere to rest.  It could slide right off of me, it really could.

Ever since the Resurrection of Christ, death has been a gateway to life; true, brilliant life.

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”  -Luke 9:23-24 ESV
Think of what a discordant note this makes with contemporary thought about our rights.  Our sense of justice conveniently ignores our own failings and focuses outwards, to the offenses committed by others.  We really are called to live in a manner exactly the opposite of this; we are to “keep our eyes on our own plate” as the Orthodox say, and to consider others as better and holier than ourselves.  Instead of focusing on our rights, we should be keenly aware of our sins and the determined routing of them when they become obvious to us.  Others’ offenses, when they become plain to us, become another opportunity to exercise dying, holy forgetfulness, and true forgiveness.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  -Matthew 6:14-15 ESV

What I did not expect in all of this, especially in the difficult relationship, was that God would bring about justice in a beautiful, healing way.  When I agreed to die, He enabled me to live.  When I did not demand, He delighted to give.  The testimony of my, though very imperfect, sacrifice caused a change in the relationship, and the person who had grieved me sought my forgiveness without me ever having to name the offense.  I was quite floored, honestly.  And since God had enabled me to let their offenses take no bitter root within me, my heart was already full of love and not resentment; there was ready grace and no debt to satisfy.

shortstory9I have so very far to go yet, in this dying to self, to my rights, to my own way.  But the joy that follows is a very good bait to advance further on in love and holiness.