Broken (#2): Five Minute Friday

Five Minute FridaySometimes it seems that all of life is a conspiracy. Like when you just live for writing in community on Fridays but cannot stomach the thought of linking up in the very public world of Facebook. Lisa-Jo’s flash mob of writing for five minutes, no editing, no over-thinking, is the light at the end of the workweek tunnel and now I have to decide if the broken bits of me that keep my blog in hiding are brave enough to brave Facebook. If you love to write, or don’t but think it might help, check out the rules and join us.

I stopped writing when I was 19. A few short blocks away from the best pizza on the East Coast, a few short miles from the Connecticut River, a few short yards away from registering for writing class with Annie Dillard my freshman year of college. Regardless of any previous writing or publishing or being noticed, I stopped cold turkey and never looked back. Until now.

That mustard seed of fear grew into a tree large enough to shadow a decade of life. The fear of not knowing if I was good enough drove me to choose Russian literature and Calculus 2. (I wasn’t actually good enough for Calculus 2. That’s why I went for a liberal arts school, I had temporarily amnesia during registration.) I never examined the good enough question (Good enough for whom? And how are we measuring this? Who is the final judge? Good questions, I just didn’t ask them.).

I didn’t write for a decade. Sure, I wrote letters. My best friend informed me that I sent novellas rather than emails and elected to call me across eight time zones rather than scroll down that long. But in truth the broken bits inside of me that smarted from correction and rejection just refused to be held up to the light. So I shut up.

And today, after I thought I demolished that fear-tree in January with the simple click of WordPress publish button, those broken bits that bade me quiet starting shouting me down again. Lisa-Jo’s website is down so if I join in on this lovely Friday, I have to do it on Facebook? Where people who actually know me might see it? Where people who actually know me might ignore it? Or criticize it? Or roll their eyes and agree that I’m not good enough? Not a big deal—I’ll just miss a week and write with you lovely ladies again in seven days. Some of you have even given me the confidence-bolstering compliment of following me—so someone will read the post.

Or I can tell the anxious, broken part of me that it will be fine. That nothing I write will ever be mentioned in the same sentence as “published” again except when I click it but that doesn’t mean my voice has to hide. That brokenness doesn’t have to mean silence.

Did my timer really just ring?

Belong: Five Minute Friday

I’m writing with Five Minute Friday at Lisa-Jo’s today–the only thing that gets me writing these days!

My husband remarked to me this last morning of a week with temperatures soaring past 90, “I figured out one way Africa changed me. Everyone at work makes fun of me because I don’t wear shorts. It’s not conscious. I just don’t even think of it.”

Lest I mislead anyone, plenty of people in plenty of places in Africa probably wear shorts. But my husband, whose best friends weren’t other ex-pats when he lived on the coast in Kenya, absorbed a way of thinking that he isn’t even aware of most days. I have too. Shorts on grown-men make me turn away, as if I spied something forbidden, or at least very uncomfortable.

I haven’t owned a pair of shorts since high school. I occasionally try to run in my husband’s shorts on really hot days. It’s a circus. They aren’t much shorter than my running capris anyway, I have to constantly readjust the drawstring waist and I always give up before I planned to. I relax with other mothers on the playground or at Toddler Time or at evening VBS and I put myself on edge as I compare: not only am I the only adult wearing jeans in 90 degree weather, I’m the only one in a three-quarter length sleeve shirt.

I am used to a semi-permanent state of un-belonging (I borrowed that from another FMF post!). Only when I choose to unbelong in the Horn of Africa, it’s obvious. One local friend was remarked about all my ex-pat friends: “Oh, her nose makes her look Arab,” “She looks Lebanese,” “She must be from such-and-such a place.” She claimed a closer belonging for each person than they really had; most were from America, Canada or Brazil. After going around the room, she stopped at me and said, “You look Arab from the back.” From the back, of course, I looked like one long swath of pink fabric, covered from head to toe. But there we could talk about my unbelonging, my different attempts to belong, my conscious choices to not belong. I made those decisions all day long; they were both wearying and exciting.

I often taste that bittersweet unbelonging here, only it isn’t obvious. So we don’t talk about it.

A friend prayed for me the best thing I’ve heard since I’ve been home here. She said something and then said, “While she’s away.” I have no idea what she was asking God to do while I was away but I felt profoundly understood. Most people say, “Welcome home!” and pray for great things “while I’m home.” On some days, I know I have no home. On other days, I have many homes. But right now, I am away.

Last Monday night fresh basil sprigs sat tall in a glass on my counter next to the sweetest watermelon we’ve had yet. In a flash of inspiration, I knew I needed to eat a basil leaf on top of my watermelon slice. If summer has a taste, that’s it. I’m sure that foodie blogs or Le Cordon Bleu knew that the combination could take my breath away but I had never tried it. (I asked the same praying friend to try it and she told me, “That just ruined my watermelon. I ate a leaf.” We are radically different people which is why I love her.) There is no obvious marriage between watermelon and basil. So it is with me. I am at home and away. I belong and I don’t. Others might notice and they might not. You wear shorts, and I avert my eyes. It is obvious and hidden. I am American and I took shape in Africa. I speak English and I speak Somali. I am watermelon and basil. The unlikely combination is perfectly me.

Five Minute Friday

Present: Five Minute Friday

I’m writing with the wonderful community of Five Minute Friday at Lisa-Jo‘s today, on the prompt “present.”
Five Minute Friday

I bend and look in his eyes. How many times do I rush by? How many times do my words rush by, ignoring the pleading look on his face to be seen? Sometimes, when he feels deeply, he will lash out with a unique indictment of my inability to be present: “You don’t even look at me, Mama!” For him, it is the coup de grace, the ultimate betrayal of mother to child. I look right past.

His words stun me. So I bend. This perspective feels new, down here on the floor. I’m either on my knees or wobbling slightly in a crouch, seeing chocolate brown eyes that won me over in an instant, five years ago outside of Nairobi, Kenya. I’m often on the floor to play or to read or to stretch under the couch for the Thomas the Train that is slightly out of his reach. But if I am honest, I am not on the floor often enough to see.

To see how little children need a voice. To see how being present to another isn’t a gift that is reserved for grown-ups. To see that if I offered that gift to the little and the least of these, this world would be richer for us all. To see him, in all his weakness and all his glory. He is ready for me to see him, if I would just look.

On Keeping Sabbath

It hasn’t been three days since I’ve cleaned up my house or the tidbits strewn about. Yet there are three pairs of 4T underwear without a body in them littering my hallway, my living room and my kitchen. Underwear in the kitchen.

It might be from living my first year of college with a Jewish roommate. Or from watching Fiddler on the Roof and crying as Golde sings “Sunrise, Sunset” over the Shabbat candles. Or from visiting my aunt and uncle regularly on the Upper East Side of Manhattan while they showed me their neighbors’ lights on automatic switches so the Sabbath wasn’t broken. Wherever it comes from, I have a driving need each Saturday evening to get my house, and my life, together so I can rest on the Lord’s Day. I strive to end the day with a clean kitchen and laundry put away and at least no mysterious underwear acting as landmarks in each room. The need to be prepared for a day of rest is a blessing because I wake up on Sundays without the dishes blaring, “Attend to me!” or the toys acting as potential landmines. (If you’ve ever stepped on a Lego, you know the metaphor is not too far off.)

I like to rest from everything that takes up my time during the week—cooking and cleaning and doing and texting. What used to feel like a burden when I went to a Christian college and signed an “honor form” that I wouldn’t do any homework on Sunday has blossomed into the wide open space of rest. The boundary lines are indeed pleasant.

But last night I was utterly exhausted. The day had been mostly terrible. My husband and I had fought, an occurrence that we mainly don’t do 362 days a year. My kids had dumped out at least one thousand small objects from their appropriate bins while my husband and I talked it out. The pots and pans from lunch stood on the counter with dinner nowhere in sight. And those three pairs of underwear were laying claim to their territory. My house was not even close to the point of readiness when I collapsed next to my toddler’s sleeping head, breathing in deep the fragrance of his rest. I thought since I hadn’t showered after the pool or even brushed my teeth, I could just stay next to him for a moment before finishing the dishes and cleaning up the toys and maybe even making a trip to Kroger before half-off sale on cheese was over.

At midnight, my husband nudged me. Oh yes, we had promised ourselves an in-house date of eating salad and talking together after my other Sabbath preparations. “You missed our date.” He kissed me and I rolled over, unbrushed teeth and unwashed hair and snored on.

This morning I awoke before everyone and faced a messy house. A very unrestful house. A house whose mess taunted me with each step into a new room with a new mess to conquer. But a still, small voice offered this to me at 5:45 am: “You don’t practice rest because you got it all done; you practice rest because you never will.”

The cranky voice in my head hushed and I worshipped. Not at the altar of me, because I had checked off each thing-to-do on my list and had prepared well for the day of rest but at the altar of the God who never slumbers or sleeps. I stood in awe of the One big enough to tolerate the mess of the seven billion people currently alive when I pull out my hair over three pairs of Thomas the Train underwear. I rested in the presence of the God who does more than tolerate the mess—who takes the brokenness offered to him by us seven billion and lays a mosaic that speaks of the artist’s brilliance.

My own smallness was evident to me, not in a way that induced shame or self-loathing but in a way that evoked awe. Awe is often reserved for the vast and yet my own limitedness was a place of worship, a place of the sacramental. A sacrament, as defined by the Dean of the Chapel at my husband’s graduate school, is “a created thing through which God comes in mercy to help us.” So yes, my finitude became sacramental. These created limits, the need for sleep, the goodness of one day of rest, my very frailness is that through which God comes to help me. To help me know a God uncreated, without edges, without weaknesses. To help me know my own character. To help me experience the joy of all that it is to rest while someone else runs the universe. It never has been my job and never will be but by the end of six days of good and hard work, I can think too highly of my abilities. After bad weeks, I can degrade myself for all that I did poorly. Either way, it’s me worshipping or pouting at the altar of me.

Instead this day of Sabbath rest invited me to drink deep at the well of God’s infinitude and eternality. That he not only can handle seven billion people and an entire universe but that he has the attention and willingness to capture each tear that falls. Each tear. The invitation to worship recalled the other, more common definition of a sacrament: an outward sign of an inward grace. The grace today is that I rest. I rest in God. I cease acting like I can get my life together—or even get my physical house together—without grace. Without God. I live the reality that I am not and He is. I am not without end. I am not without need. I am not. But He is.

So this day, a hot June Sunday in Kentucky, I make a choice to not run the washing machine or scrub the pots and pans. I remove the underwear only because I know neither where it’s going or where it’s been. I pause and the pause, as in music, offers my week ahead the melody it needs to be beautiful, to sing of the One who gives it to me.