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I’ve noticed something lately that I wish I’d noticed a long time ago. Maybe if I’d been listening in church as a kid I would have learned it then, but I was too starry eyed– staring at the blues in the stained glass, dreaming about all the things there were to dream about. That’s what church was for me: a time to dream. And believe. And feel tucked into community between my loving mother and father, to harmonize on good old fashioned hymns, and to take the Holy Eucharist and really believe I was having a feast with my other loving parent: The Big Guy. Who somehow could make himself small too, wafer and wine-sized that fit into the cup of my soft little girl fingers. I was always so thankful for that. It was the thing that stood out for me Sunday after Sunday: God could be bigger than the night sky, and small enough to rest on my tongue and be swallowed down with sweet communion wine. I learned to be grateful because of the Holy Eucharist.
Somewhere along the line, I started expecting things to happen. And I lost much of my gratitude. I guess they call that entitlement. It’s a highly unattractive quality, and one to skip at all costs if you can. I started to get easily angered when the smallest hardships would happen. Not the big things– those I took in slowly; piece meal. I had faith that the Big Guy would handle that stuff. I just had to pray for grace and for God’s “will” to be done. That was what my sister, mother, and grandmothers told me, and I listened. It was a much easier prayer than, “Gimme gimme gimme.” But the small things…were another ball of wax. I’d stub my toe and fling the F word. I’d lose my place in line and want to make “a federal case” about it, bringing in words like “justice” and “fairness” and “wrong.”
Maybe it was because my parents had been brought up during the Depression and wanted my life to be light and blithe, but I don’t remember being taught the lesson that life is not fair. There is no such thing as “fair.” And if you think there is, you will suffer. When people were mean to the little guy, I’d barge in and try to come to their rescue. Or at least sit with them at lunch if I didn’t feel so brave. When a kid would cheat in class and get an A to my B (especially when they cheated off of ME), I would fume in my diary, and fume in the school halls, and fume in general. Sometimes I’d take it out on my Bichon Frise during our obligatory after-school walk around the block. I’d tie him to a tree, and climb it and hide from the world.
Somewhere in the mix, my very best friends’ lost a sister and a father to cancer, and I realized that the safety I felt standing between my mother and father at church was not the rule. It was the exception. I was mad at the world. Life wasn’t fair. I did not feel grateful at all. I felt duped. The Communion wafer only worked in church. So that meant…I was mad at God.
I brought my anger to a teacher in high school. He said, “Well if you’re angry with God, that means you believe in Him.” That really pissed me off. I didn’t want to believe in a Creator who would be unfair. And I took a long break from the whole mess. I was mad at God, period.
I travelled around, studied other religions and spiritual texts, asked a lot of questions, and started writing books as a way to sort things through. And somewhere after the birth of my first child, when everything was so pure and full of wonder and mystery and total surrender, gazing into the miracle of birth and new life, I realized…I wasn’t really mad at God. I was mad at institutions: school, family, church, society. I felt like I’d been lied to. Things didn’t all add up if you showed up a certain way in life. They just didn’t. There are no promises, no matter how good of a person you are, or how bad of a person you are. Life happens. Life is daily. And life is painful. And beautiful too.
And the only thing that made any sense at all was something that glimmered and winked at me from my past. The Love message. The Final Commandment. So I took it and ran. I wanted to forget about unfairness and suffering. I just wanted to know what it was to live that final commandment. I wanted to Love God, and my Neighbor, and maybe even in-so-doing…I’d learn that last little piece: I’d learn to love Myself.
By and by, I had another child, and both of them grew, and I started to see them raging against a stubbed toe, or a mean girl comment to the underdog, or an injustice in the classroom, or a bad call on the soccer field, or any number of “unfair” things life dished up. And I sat them down and said, “I wish I’d have learned this a long time ago: Life is neither fair. Nor unfair. Life is just life.”
They looked at me like I was an anarchist. And maybe living into the Final Commandment renders a person just that.
“Stop expecting things to go a certain way. Just love. Be love. Forgive. And love some more,” I said with the fervor of an Evangelical. Maybe not the best way to sell a teen on something.
It fell flat. In a kid’s mind, there’s no muscle in that way of thinking. Because school teaches us that life is structured and the structure keeps us safe. We get rewarded for certain behavior, and punished for others. If we work hard, there are rewards. If we look the part, we will be rewarded. If we have certain types of friends and excel at certain types of activities, we are rewarded. There is no Worst Student award. There is no So You Had a Bad Year award. There is no You Sat on the Bench award. There is no You Eat Lunch Alone award. You Didn’t Get Into Any of the Colleges You Applied To and Yer Going to the Community College award. And yeah. That sucks. And the very best mothers, and teachers, and aunties will tell you: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
But I want to teach something different. I want to say that there aren’t lemons and there isn’t lemonade. It’s all in your perspective. That’s all. For that I can breathe deep. Feels good, doesn’t it.
So what does that look like in daily life? Here’s how it played out last week and why I’m driven to write this post this Saturday morning in Montana, with the kids still asleep and no one rushing yet to get anywhere, on time, in uniform, to perform, to “battle,” to win… Even when I say that it’s not about winning. They hear Blah blah blah. For now they are just quiet, and breathing, and warm in their beds and I’m on my second cup of tea, in my pajamas, with nowhere to go. These are the moments to really receive what the week may have taught in the way of lessons. And I got served up a good one.
I was having lunch with a friend and she was telling me about her divorce settlement. She’d just finished her last mediation and she said it was the bravest she’d ever been. They didn’t have the money to hire lawyers, so they negotiated the Parenting Plan, and all the division of assets, including the house, stock, back taxes…all of it…without any real legal counsel. Just the mediator making sure they didn’t decapitate one another in the process, making minor suggestions based on who was crossing their arms in front of them and sneering. “It was terrifying,” she said. “But I got everything I wanted. With the exception of my marriage. But I guess that’s been over a long time. It’s like a death, though. You have to grieve. You can’t skip steps.” She sighed. “But I think I came out okay in the settlement. The mediator seemed to think so, anyway. And my mother.”
“Thank God,” I caught myself saying.
She looked up at me with a sharpness in her exhausted, cried-out eyes. “You know…why do we only thank God when things work out the way we want them to? You know what I’ve learned in this whole divorce experience– watching my kids lose their core family, watching them have to accept another woman into their lives, watching them feel embarrassed in front of their friends, watching the break down of what was for years such a strong foundation…like trying to hold water. Impossible. You know what I’ve learned watching that water drain through my fingers no matter what I do to be a better vessel? We don’t learn from the good times. I didn’t learn anything from nice vacations to the tropics or years of perfect Christmas card photographs, or theme birthday parties all recorded for posterity’s sake to show what? That we had something precious and beautiful and powerful and unshakeable? No. It didn’t end that way. And what does that mean? That we’re all fucked now? That nothing from the past was real? And that nothing in the future matters because the water fell through our hands and we couldn’t do a damn thing about it? No. No. No.”
Her face was red and her breath shallow and I wanted to hug her, but I was sort of scared of her. I’d never seen her so strong and present. So I just sat there, waiting. I knew I was about to learn something big if only I had my mind open and my heart wide.
“I’ve learned that the best Thank God we can utter is when things DON’T go the way we want them to. When life serves up total and utter SHIT! That’s the time to drop to our knees and say, Thank you, Lord. Thank you. Because that’s where the lessons are. That’s when we grow. That’s when we can really understand what it is to love in its most pure and simple way.”
I could feel myself resisting it. Why don’t we want this to be true? What are we so scared of? I remembered the last night’s sunset and how it yielded to star after star popping into sight like, “hey– I was here the whole time, you just couldn’t see me. Maybe you could remember a thing or two about holy mystery and all that dreaming at church you used to do.” I had felt gratitude that night sitting there, parked by the meadow, watching night come. But being grateful for divorce? Or cancer? Or death? That takes a master. Doesn’t it?
I gave it a whirl. All week when things came up that I didn’t like or that felt uncomfortable or dangerous or just all wrong…I mouthed, “Thank God.” When the toilet, dishwasher, and hot tub all broke in the same day, I mouthed, through clenched teeth, but still: “Thank God.” When I found a pack rat nest under the hood of my truck and black smoke billowed through the tail pipe, I screamed, “Thank God,” but it kind of sounded like a swear word. Still. When my kid threw up at school, I said, “Thank God,” and stocked up on chicken broth. When I tried to release a mouse into my yard rather than snapping its neck with a conventional trap, and my dog attacked it…I whispered…”Thank God,” but with a question mark. I decided there is no right Thank God. It’s just an openness to the flow of life being exactly as it is, and even exactly as it should be, if you believe in should. Or design. But even if you don’t, gratitude busts through suffering, and I think we could all use a dose of that.
I’ve decided to try to get back to that little girl in church who didn’t necessarily need things to go a certain way. In those days, I had the safety of my mother and father and this Creator called God that the minister promised existed and on top of that, loved me. That was all I needed. That kind of blind faith is what I want back. I don’t know who or what God is. I’ve had hundreds of ideas about this subject for years. When I was little I used to say, “But who is God’s God?” I don’t want to have questions like that any more. I like the mystery. I often say to my kids, “If we’re supposed to know, we would. Just receive the message. Just love. That’s hard enough.”
But does it have to be so hard? I think the way to it being easy is in the spirit of what my friend taught me this week. If we can find gratitude for EVERYTHING and I mean EVERYTHING, and receive it as a holy gift…well, I dare say, with tears in my eyes and the tea kettle telling me there’s a third cup for me this fine Montana morning…that holy gift is the gift of freedom. May you have thanks for everything that makes up this day. And may you feel free in it.