Monday, May 28, 2012

Desperately Seeking Serenity

I live in a house where something is always broken. Right now it's the ice maker, the washer, and the dishwasher. It's very frustrating because I need to have order in my life, but I feel like I constantly live in chaos. At first I thought the house was haunted and then I realized that it's a much simpler problem. Regardless of the cause, it drives me crazy because I feel like everything around me is conspiring to drive me crazy. I don't remember actually praying for serenity, but I must have because everything around me seems to be trying to give me a crash course in Serenity 101. Isn't that the way it works? When you ask for a virtue, the universe gives you situations to test you. That's precisely why I never prayed for patience! I don't want the tests, but I guess they are just part of the process.

I'm pretty easy to please. At least I think so. All I want is to be able to go to any appliance and have it immediately turn on or to walk in a room and not have to pick up something off the floor or put a cup or dish in the sink. I've practiced deep breathing so much that I'm about to hyperventilate. I pray and meditate each morning and I do a daily devotional. I run and do yoga and on less evolved days I scream at my family. I've reminded my husband that said items aren't working properly until I'm blue in the face and I've pretty much done everything I know to do, but there is one thing I haven't tried. I haven't just accepted things. Yes, I want to live in an orderly home, but that's not my reality. My reality is I live in a chaotic world and I have a messy, but loving family. My life is not an organized, neatly ordered museum although I want it to be. I can't control anyone or anything other than myself. Tomorrow I can call a handyman and have him come and fix those things that are broken or I can just wait until my husband gets around to fixing them because eventually he will. I can also walk around the little messes my family leaves behind. My personality wants to immediately fix things, but isn't that what others expect? Why do they need to do their part when they know I'm going to do it for them?

As I sit here writing this, I see several items that need to be returned to the kitchen and the washer is leaking onto the freshly mopped floor, but I'm not going to get angry nor am I going to get up. I'm going to continue to write and sip Lady Gray tea from my favorite mug. I'm also going to enjoy these Chai cookies that are calling my name. If this house comes crashing down around me, so be it because I'll be at peace. Oh my, maybe I am actually learning serenity.

Just now my daughter Lyndsay came behind me and started braiding my hair. Feeling her fingers move deftly through my hair is relaxing and feeling her kiss on my cheek is priceless. I guess it doesn't really matter that she's left her dirty clothes on the bedroom floor and an empty carton of Chunky Monkey ice cream on the table. Maybe the lesson is finding little pockets of peace in the midst of the chaos.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Trying to Resuscitate a Dead Thing

There is probably nothing sadder than seeing a person trying to resuscitate something that is dead. I remember once seeing a mother leaned over her adult child begging and screaming for him to awaken, I, along with everyone else present, knew that his soul had already left to begin its journey home because all of the signs were there. Yet his mother held onto his lifeless body, wrapping her arms around him, hugging him to her bosom, and rocking him as she called out for a miracle, tears streaming down her face. This was a woman of faith who believed that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”, yet she wanted her dead son to come back to life. Although I hope to never experience her pain, I know in my own life I have tried to bring back to life those things that have died.
            There have been many instances when I have continued to pour out my time and energy hoping to regain the magic that once existed. All of the signs of death were present: I no longer felt joy, and subsequently, spent a great deal of time crying, the situation was not growing and moving forward, and I found myself dressing in dark, somber colors that reflected my mood. Although I knew deep inside it was dead, I kept hoping for a miracle that would somehow bring it back to life.

I am a persistent person by nature and I don’t give up easily. I once had a professor tell me that I was a bulldog because when I bite into something I refuse to let go. Instead I keep wrestling it until I feel that I have won. The problem with this is that sometimes some thing’s just aren’t worth fighting for. Too many times I have exhausted myself trying to make a situation work, when clearly it was over. Like the mother, I’ve tried to will life into something that is no longer living.
              I have done this with relationships and jobs, with projects and people. I find this surprising because as a writer I understand the importance of revision. Things only become better after eliminating those things that no longer work. It's not just with writing. I see it in other things, too. Although I’m not much of a gardener, I am trying to grow a few things in my backyard: flowers, tomatoes, strawberries, and herbs. Nonetheless, I completely get the idea that with nature sometimes you must prune in order to get new growth. But that has not been a philosophy I’ve lived by. Unfortunately, I have watched the dead choke out the new opportunities trying to bloom in my life.  I have been so afraid of what could come next that I desperately held on to what I knew, even though it no longer thrived.

This week’s questions revolve around those things that may need to be cut away in your life. Take a moment to answer these questions truthfully:
1. Is there anything in your life that you are holding onto although you know it is no longer growing?

 2. Why are you refusing to let go?

3. There is a great deal of talk about fright and flight but all too often fear paralyzes us      
and makes us stand still, too afraid to move forward in life. Do you think fear is preventing you from weeding out the dead things in order to make room for the new in 
order to move forward with your life?

4. If so, what exactly are you afraid of?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Reclaiming Our Identity

          As women we tend to give so much of ourselves away in relationships that at times we lose our identity. Because we are so nurturing, we naturally put others needs before our own. Day in and day out we wake up and pour ourselves out like libations to others and we forget that in order to thrive we must save something in reserve for ourselves. Why is it that we feel so guilty holding back just a little bit that’s off limits to everyone and everything else?
            As younger women we are so focused on creating a family or establishing ourselves in the work place (or both) that it’s easy to become consumed with creating order and joy in everyone else’s life, while neglecting our own inner world. We ask ourselves: Is our home clean and comfortable?  What new recipe can I try for dinner? What fun thing can I plan for everyone to do this weekend? Am I pulling my weight at work? But often we ignore those questions that tug at our souls: What would bring me joy today? When was the last time I really laughed?
            I write from the point of view of both a former participant and an observer. You see years ago I almost lost my identity. It was encouraged and in some perverted way expected. Let me explain. My husband’s name is Lynn and years ago when I first moved to his hometown people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t remember my name just called me by his. I was so enamored to be his wife that I didn’t complain, but one day I had an epiphany. I realized that I was a whole, complete person before I ever met him and that to name a thing is to give it power, so I took my name back. I only answered to my given name. I refused to be Lynn, sweetie, baby, honey or anything but Michelle.
            During this time I was working full-time and raising two small children and a teenage stepdaughter. On top of all these responsibilities, I was on several church, community and work committees. Needless to say I was exhausted. It felt like I never got a moment to myself. Even when I went into the bathroom someone would come knocking on the door trying to get my attention. Although I loved my family, all I wanted was to be left alone, and I felt guilty about it.
            I soon learned that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Once I was shopping with a teacher friend of mine who needed to pick up some shirts for her husband. As we walked through the department store she saw a pair of sandals that she really wanted, but she kept rationalizing why she couldn’t get them because they were so similar to a pair she already had at home. After going around and around with her, I finally grew weary and asked her the one question that ushered us to the checkout line: “Exactly how many white shirts does your husband have?”
            Take a moment to honestly answer these questions:
            1. Have you ever felt guilty taking time away from your responsibilities?  If
                 the answer is yes, why do you feel bad about taking care of yourself?
            2. If you could have one whole day where no one needed you to do anything
                for them, how would you spend that day?
            3.  Think back on your childhood, what one solitary activity did you enjoy
                  the most ? Was it reading, coloring, baking In an Easy Bake oven,                     
            4. Can you commit to spending an hour alone this week doing this favorite                      
                 childhood activity? Although it’s tempting, resist the urge to invite anyone
                  to join you.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Struggling to be the Proverbs Woman

Honoring Mothers for Their Many Virtues

Happy Mother’s Day!

When I was asked to be the speaker for today’s program, I prayed to God “Lord give me a scripture ‘cause the last thing I want to talk about is the Proverbs woman. It’s so overdone. All the time I hear single men say, “I’m gonna find me a Proverbs woman,” and I’ve heard more than enough references to this biblical woman in my life. Quite frankly I’m tired of hearing about her because she’s just so darn perfect!
A couple of weeks ago Sue Hawkins called me to share the theme that was selected for today: “Honoring Mothers for Their Virtues” and, of course, I wanted to be obedient and speak along those lines, but God kept redirecting me back to Proverbs 31. When I sat down to write out my talking points for today, God directed me to 2 Samuel 22:31 to remind me that His word is flawless and although I may have thought I had something to say, there is something else that God wishes me to say. And because obedience is better than sacrifice turn with me to Proverbs 31:10 .

Although the Book of Proverbs was written by King Solomon, the latter part, especially Proverbs 31 has been attributed to King Lemuel who learned many things from his very wise mother. It’s interesting that these two very successful men-they were kings afterall- chose to compile what they knew about the virtues of a mother and a Godly woman.
We don’t know anything about King Lemuel’s mother other than she taught her son well, but we do know about King Solomon’s mother. You’ll remember her. Her name was Bathsheba and she was that adulterous woman who was up on the rooftop bathing and submitted to the sexual advances of a powerful man while her husband was away defending their country. Yea, that Bathsheba, King David’s lover who became his wife after she got pregnant and the king killed her husband. But I’m not going there now. We’ll come back to her. Let’s talk about sistah girl here in Proverbs.

She’s a virtuous woman.
She gets up before day.

She brings home the bacon, fries it up in the pan, and never ever let’s you forget you are a man—remember that commercial?
Anyway, she invests in real estate.

She’s eats organically because she has a garden that she feeds her family from.

She works out—her arms are strong
She sews and decorates her home

 She holds down a full-time sales job and she even has time to volunteer feeding the poor and helping the needy.
She helps her husband so that he is successful with his career and held in good esteem in their community.

Oh yea, and she doesn’t gossip. Ugh oh!
Whew! She exhausts me. I’m intimidated just reading this and I know that there are some women in this room who feel the same way if we were completely honest. It’s hard to measure up to her because she is just so…PERFECT!

It’s bad enough that every time we turn on the TV or pick up a magazine we see this ideal image of beauty that none of us measures up to. The world tells us that we have to be this tall and this thin and we must use this makeup or face cream. Wear this designer to be considered beautiful. We’re either considered a helicopter or dragon mother if we’re involved in our children’s lives or an absentee parent if we’re not involved enough. It seems the world is always judging us and then we turn to God’s word and there it is.
Proof that our biggest fear is true.

We don’t quite measure up to his ideal after all, we think.

We’re not the woman described here. How can we be? That’s just too much pressure.

We know deep down in our hearts we’re not her, but we keep trying and we keep striving and that’s what I want to talk about today.
Yes, we honor mothers today, we honor mothers for their virtues, but let’s first address the elephant in the room. You know that big topic that nobody wants to talk about.

Pastor I bet if you had the ability to read minds you would be let in on a dirty little secret that every woman in this room shares. If you asked one question and every mother had to answer it honestly I would wager that every mother in here would say the same thing: “Pastor, I’m tired.”
“I’m tired of trying to be all things to all people.”

“I’m tired of trying to make ends meet.”

“I’m tired of being the designated driver in life.”

“I’m tired of trying to make a way out of no way.”

“Don’t ask me to serve on another committee or do another thing because I can barely hold it together.”

She might turn to you and open up her Bible and point to chapter 31 and say “Pastor, I can’t keep up. I can’t be this woman.”

For many mothers, the best Mother's Day present would be to be left a lone for a while so she can rest.

When I was a little girl I would see my mother worrying about money. She would tell me “Shell-belle, we gotta make ends meet.” For the longest I thought ends meat was something you could actually make like pot roast or meatloaf. I didn’t get the rope metaphor. She was trying to hold it down by herself and at times it got tough. There was this one time when it was almost time to go back to school and I needed clothes and supplies and she had more month than she had money.
 She was a teacher and she was off for the summer so it would be a while before she got another paycheck. What she did was answer an ad in the newspaper requesting workers to work in a hose factory. “How difficult could that be?” she thought to herself, and she left me with my grandparents and she went off to her part time job. What she didn’t realize was that she wasn’t packing pantyhose in little egg containers, but she was hired to wrestle large metal hoses, the kind that get hooked up to machines, into huge cardboard boxes for shipping..

I saw my mother last weekend when she drove from Indianapolis to Chicago to attend a book event that I had. She told this story to some of the women there and we laughed until there were tears in our eyes. But it wasn’t funny all those years ago when she came home bleeding from the places where the metal hose had cut into her hands. She wasn’t laughing when she had no idea how she was going to make ends meet and she was desperate to do just about anything to put food in my belly, a roof over my head and clothes on my back. She didn’t feel like the Proverbs woman then, and as a matter of fact, this Proverbs woman was just one more painful reminder of how she didn’t measure up to God’s ideal.
But isn’t it wonderful when we look again at this scripture and realize that this is not a snapshot of her life. This is not what she tried to do at one time-- say on a Tuesday. This was her life over a period of time. From her youth to her old age,  and it is her fear of the Lord that enables her to do all of this over her lifetime.

I don’t mean shaking in your boots fear. I mean an understanding that God’s word will not return void. Let me explain. As a child I was afraid of my grandfather. Not that he was a mean man. He was actually very kind, but I understood that there were expectations of me and if I did not follow them then I would have to answer to him. This is the fear our Proverbs woman has. The understanding that God has an expectation for her to live up to all that she was created to be over the many seasons of her life.

As a teacher and a writer many of my students get confused when I mark up their papers because they’ve used the wrong verb tense when writing about literature. You see whenever you write about a character in a literary work, it is important to use the present tense. Although you’ve already read the story in the past, it might seem that you should use past tense verbs but that is incorrect. The reason is that the character in the story is always performing the action no matter when it’s read. For example, when you were in school and read Romeo and Juliet they were star crossed lovers and when your great-great grandchildren read the same story they will still be star crossed lovers. Hence the need for the present tense because the action in the story is always happening right now.

When we look back at our Proverbs woman we see that this ode is written in the present tense. She is doing it now, but not right now. Whether it was the year 12 or 2012. She is doing all of these things, but not all at once. That’s an important distinction.
Remember I told you I that the book of Proverbs was written by King Solomon whose mother was Bathsheba and that I would come back to her. Turn with me to 2 Samuel 12:11.

We all know the story of King David and Bathsheba. Here she was a married woman who submitted to the charms of a powerful married man. She stood by as her husband was killed and she was pregnant with another man's baby. What she and David thought they had gotten away with was discovered when Nathan reported that God was angry and that the baby would die. Yes, this scripture is told with King David as the protagonist, but we have to look deeper and see that Bathsheba was suffering, too. Finally after the baby dies, the word says that David comforted his wife and she got pregnant with another child whom they named Solomon.

I tell my students it’s important to read the whole book and that’s what we have to do here. The famous black playwright Lorraine Hansberry has a quote in her drama A Raisin in the Sun that says “if you’re going to measure a man, measure him right”. I think this applies to how we measure ourselves in comparison to this Proverbs woman. We need to measure ourselves right. We can’t continue to hold ourselves to an ideal that’s just not realistic. It’s like determining who won the race before it’s over.
If we were to take a snapshot of Bathsheba at this moment in time she was hardly a virtuous woman. She was anything and everything but that, but it was her son after all who compiled this book of the Bible. 

When we look back at this Proverbs woman, the line that speaks to me is give her the reward she has earned. Look around. There are women in here with some stories. If we took a snap shot of their lives at just one point each of them may not have been a virtuous woman who felt she was worthy of honor. When we look at ourselves we may realize all of the things we don’t do right and we feel that there is no way that we should be honored. We know how we've failed. But our ways are not God’s ways and if we measure a woman by His standards than we must measure her right.

We measure mothers because of their virtues and it is for this reason we honor them. We must first, however, understand what this word means. Because of our Puritan upbringing we assume virtuous means chaste or virginal, but we know Bathsheba’s story and she was neither of these. So maybe this word means a little more. 
A quick glance in the dictionary will tell you that virtue means uprightness, rectitude, it also means inherent powers. For example, by the virtue invested in me, and lastly it means because of. So I say today we honor the virtues of mothers… because of.

We honor them because of them going on when they were tired.

We honor them because of them taking care of us when we were unable to take care of ourselves.

We honor them because of their faith.

We honor them because they moved beyond the circumstances of their lives and created the best life they could for each of us.

We honor them because of…
And we turn again to this Proverbs woman, instead of feeling inadequate next to her. We see that she is a promise of all we can be if we keep living. She is a reminder that we are just what God said we are, “fearfully and wonderfully made”.

In closing, I want to share a story with you about a large temple in Thailand. In this temple there stood an enormous,  ancient clay Buddha. It wasn’t beautiful or even well crafted, it was just old. For over 500 years it had been revered because of its longevity sheer longevity. Violent storms, changes of government, and invading armies had come and gone but this statue had endured.
At one point, however, the monks who tended the temple noticed that the statue had begun to crack and would need repair. After a while one of the cracks became so wide that a curious monk took his flashlight and peered inside. Imagine his surprise when he realized that inside this old, ugly, broken down clay statue was the largest pure gold image of Buddha that exists in the world. What happened was that this shining work of art had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest and after a time people had forgotten that it was actually gold inside. They thought that what they saw everyday-the old  broke down clay statue- was really what it was.

Isn’t that our story? We get mired by the much and mess of life that we forget that we could possibly be worth anything. We think we don’t measure up and we don’t believe God’s word about us. But we’re gold underneath all this because we are, after all, made in His image.
And it’s that goldness that goodness that we celebrate today. It is your virtue we honor. We honor you because of….Happy Mother’s Day,  Proverbs women!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sister Showdown in Grocery Store

Y'all I almost lost my Zen this afternoon in Wal-Mart. It wouldn't have been pretty either. You see I was waiting in the checkout line and this woman rolled up on me and gave me colossal attitude. Although I can't remember exactly what she said, I do know the tone was nasty and I envisioned myself snatching her by her mangy hair and beating her to a bloody pulp right there by cashier #3. I was truly about to set it off in Wal-Mart! Of course I would have had to call my husband to bail me out of jail and I know my children would have laughed unmercilessly for the next fifty years and without a doubt someone would surely include the story in my eulogy, shaming me even beyond the grade.  So instead of beating her, I took several deep breaths and tried to calm myself down.

Even as I was walking toward my car I was angry. Inwardly I was hoping I would see her in the parking lot so I could give her a piece of my mind, but then I had a thought: Maybe her day had been like mine. Maybe she was just as tired as I was and still needed to go home and cook dinner. Perhaps she was short on cash and was trying to figure out a way to go home and explain to her family that she just didn't have enough money to get what they needed. Maybe she was in pain, physical or emotional, or maybe she was just mean.

Could it have been that she felt blue because every magazine on both sides of the checkout lane touted all of the ways she was inferior? Not sexy enough, not young enough, not thin enough, therefore, not good enough. Whatever the case was I know I needed to feel love and compassion for her. Somehow. But I didn't. Not at first. But eventually that little spark ignited in my heart and I felt that she was my sister. No we are not related biologically, nor do we share the same race or socio- economic status. We may or may not belong to the same religion or political party, but we are the same gender and sisters need to remember how to stick together. I, for one, am sick and tired of seeing women on reality television disrespecting each other. Worse yet, I'm tired of seeing it in real life. I'm tired of the cattiness, the backbiting, and the unnecessary attitude. I'm often left dumbfounded asking myself where is the love?

We women are so beautiful. We are creative, intuitive, nurturing, and always hopeful. When did we stop encouraging each other, choosing instead to tear each other down insult by insult? Hurtful act by hurtful act. At what point did we lose compassion for each other, forgetting to understand that the load is not spread equitably, so sometimes we may need to help our sister out by carrying it for a while or speaking life to her as she struggles beneath it.

 Recently, while teaching a lesson on connotation and denotation I asked my students to list all of the words they could think of to describe a woman. Easily we came up with nearly fifty words and most of them were negative. Why is that?

I'm glad I didn't beat the poor lady in the store although it would have made for good TV. Can't you just see the security camera video? Instead I'm celebrating her for all that she is as a woman and I'm choosing to call her by her name: mother, daughter, sister, aunt, grandmother, cousin, friend.