Beauty from ashes

Scan 34There’s this picture I took when I was younger after one of the Malibu fires burned up my neighborhood.  Charcoaled ground punctured by sharp green needles of grass.  You know that old saying, beauty from ashes? I’m here to tell you it’s true.

When my sister, Ellen, was in her last months of life I made her a promise. “When you wear one I wear one,” referring to the diapers she would soon require.  The day came, and it was as horrible as you could imagine. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,”  she slowly moan-mumbled.  My mom and I held her and cried with her; then we strapped the scratchy, absorbent nightmare onto her graying, atrophied, weary body.  I was sixteen, she was fourteen.  It’s still confusing, how could the God I know and love allow (or cause) a 14-year-old to feel all those feelings?

Abruptly, her sobbing stopped.

“Now it’s your turn Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire.”  Her voice sounded like a weepy Julia Child at the end, I have no clue why.  Though it probably had something to do with the decade of chemical and radiological abuse to her brain.  She would get stuck like a skipping CD, moaning “oohhh” in front of certain words.  “Claire” was one of them.

So I stepped into the same nightmare she did, and did my best supermodel impersonations up and down the hall for her (I am nearly six feet tall, after all). Then a little diaper dance.  Her slow, weepy Julia Child laughter barrels down the brightly lit hallway, still.  I can still see her head tilted back in that gray hospital bed.  A human heart never felt bigger that in that moment.  Our tears were transformed.  The charred ground that brain cancer and impending death left behind suddenly burst alive with love and laughter.  Each cackle and joyful boogery snort punctured the darkness, allowing the solemn scene to morph into a comedy of life and love.

Today I pray over the charred remnants of our lives.  If I remember correctly I took the photo less than a week after the flames died down.  I don’t know how long you’ve waited for those little green shoots of life to surface again, but I promise you— they will.  They have to.  Maybe you just need new sight with which to see them?  I pray for that, too.  Maybe your fire is still raging?  I’m so sorry.  I will pray for the cleansing and cooling power of a good rain.  Cling to the hope that beauty springs forth from ashes.  Don’t let go.

And please, do try to laugh a little. No matter how brutal the scene before you, there’s always room for a teary-eyed smile.

 

 

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Don’t smile!

“Hey!”  I look at her with my head slightly tilted down and a devious smile, sometimes furrowed brows depending on how much sass she needs from me.  “I said NO SMILING!!!!”  She cracks, then erupts, I smile and then exhale.  Inhale.  Then exhale.  Immediately we’re taken down from Code Red to Code I Enjoy My Daughter Again.

Do you ever use that reverse psychology phrase “don’t smile!” on your kids?  I do.  One of my daughters has a lot of feelings; a lot of really strong feelings that mostly lean towards the angry end of the spectrum.  When I can’t seem to crack her with love or logic it’s is my go-to phrase, it always works.

This morning I woke up angry.  No, that’s not true.  I awoke happy and ready and early.  Only after the eldest daughter woke up the younger daughter, who then woke up the baby boy was I angry.  The day slammed into my face before I had my 10 min of centering and praying, and I was pissed, a notch above angry.  No amount of love or logic could snap me back to realityUnknown Imagine a big, angry, hungry, mean troll sitting in the living room stewing in resentments at the bouncing, noisy, wonderful monsters pulling kitten tails and mashing scrambled eggs into the rug.  (I’m able to speak with a filter of amusement and love over them now, but such was not the case at 7am.)  That was me.  I tried positive self talk, I tried reminding myself of the Truths: your worth is not determined by how well-behaved your kids are.  Your worth is not determined by whether or not you are peaceful and joyful. You are a great mom and your kids adore youYou are a good woman.  You make bad choices, you are fallible, but YOU are not bad.  Didn’t work.  I tried praying, didn’t work.  I tried yelling and threatening and waving around my big troll stick, things got worse.  Breathing works a little in a pinch.  This morning it didn’t.

Then I remembered hearing about a type of meditation/breathing exercise where one inhales, then exhales with a smile.  I tried it.  I cannot begin to describe how hard it was, disgusting is almost the word I would use.  So forced, so fraudulent!  For a split second I contemplated giving up, explaining to myself that the day was just done already—at 7:10am.  You’ve done everything you know how to do, nothing is working, so stop smiling already, sit in your troll chair, and eat, and yellToday, these feelings are absolutely facts.  I’ve learned though, that the bad feelings I want to run away from are the exact ones I need to grab onto and wrestle around until I’ve stared into them and then honored with a “good game” and a high five.  I looked over to David who was sitting holding the baby with the other two hanging off of him, “I just tried this breathing technique,” I explained, “where I inhaled and then exhaled with a smile, but it was SO HARD.  I want to be angry.  I don’t want to choose joy and love.  Why is it so easy to stay angry and so hard to smile?”

“Don’t smile!” He replied, head tilted down a little and brows furrowed.  I cracked, and then erupted.

How hard it is to choose Joy and find Love!?  How hard it is to believe that the God of Moses, Jacob, and Mother Theresa is big enough to crack into our shitty days and cause an eruption of love so deep we don’t want anger, fear, or anxiety anymore?!  It was embarrassing to tell David that I was actively choosing darkness, but then he got to shine his light of love onto it!  Code Red, to Code I Enjoy My Daughter Again, to Code This is a Good Day.

 

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Three secrets

IMG_6573One of the first homework assignments my therapist assigned me was to write down all my secrets on a sheet of paper.  I don’t remember if I wrote down the three that had haunted me for so long, though I probably wasn’t brave enough at the time.  “I don’t need to see them,” she reminded me.  “Then we will say a little prayer over them and shred them all right here in the office.”

The pretty part of me was thinking, no biggieI’m an open book.  I’m vulnerable.  I’m genuine.  I’m real, always have been.  The problem was that I had not always been.  It’s a nice thing to tell oneself, that people really, truly know you; and if you ask the people closest to me I believe they would tell you that unredeemed Claire (read pre-rehab) was real and deep.

Maybe I wrote things like:  I wasn’t a virgin when I got married.  I stole more than just five pills from David.  I’m an adulteress (not literally, but then again, I guess maybe literally?)  These were things that at least one person, if not many people, already knew though.  They were my pretty enough secrets.  We did the exercise and I remember thinking, wow, what a great exercise, what a brilliant starting point to begin my journey to healing and redemption.  It was, too. I remember seeing themes and threads on my page that gave us real insight into where most of my shame was burrowed.  Like I said earlier, the pretty part was okay with most of the dirt, but three stains remained and I just couldn’t get them clean.  No amount of charm or beauty, no amount of “vulnerability,” no amount of service work or prayer or church or working out or good house-cleaning or good child-rearing or altering reality was working.

So a little over a month ago, while journalling about the discord inside meIMG_6574 and how confusing it felt, the three things nobody knew popped into my head and out of my pen onto the page.  I gasped.  That deep deep deep part of me, the ugly self was ready.  Right then and there I texted my husband, David and asked if we could talk.

“I have three secrets, and I am flipping out…”

The following poem was written right after that exchange.

***

Three secrets.

I had three.

But after

decades

of applying

layer after layer of cement on top of them

 

I ran out of cement

and I couldn’t keep up with the labor costs

and I’m pretty sure others could smell

the corpses

too.

 

And I love myself.

 

“I need to tell you three secrets” I said.

“Give ‘em to me” he said.

1

2

3

 

Now, instead of  avoiding the deep chasms in the pavement

instead of fearing what the uneven surface would do to my wobbly ankles

I get to dance

with freedom

with him

with them

 

And I am fully known

 

“I love you still!”

 

Then I exhaled for the first time in my life.

***

Some of you, like David, might not have the kind of secrets I had.  His were smaller, daily shames about small daily failures and comparisons.  They still defined his worth, just like mine did, and to him, they weren’t small.  Or maybe you’re like me, and you feel like there’s just NO WAY someone would still love you or choose you if they knew.  Maybe you’d love to tell your secrets if you only had someone to tell?  I will pray that we all have someone with whom to share our secrets.  (Side note: way to go Catholicism RE confession)

Your ugly part, your stains that won’t wash out, your shame— Jesus has been dying (and actually died) for you to let him run it through his washing machine.  I never understood why the song “Amazing Grace” captivated the ages until last month. Maybe it’s the deepest need we have, this need for Grace?  The need to know that despite all the secrets He still chose and chooses to love us, delights in loving us? If the Force of the Universe loves me, then surely others can?  Surely I can learn to love myself?  Surely, this would change the world.

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