Monday, June 21, 2010

Peacocks are Pretty

When I was a little girl I used to twirl around and pretend I was a ballerina because I thought ballerinas were the most beautiful, graceful human creatures I had ever seen.  I wanted to be a ballerina and for a few exquisite months was able to take ballet lessons from Miss Sheila at the YWCA Armory in my little town.  Which meant my hard working mama needed to stop what she was doing and take this 5-year-old ballerina wanna-be to those lessons and wait around until they were done.  That didn't last long, though, because mom's rule was that if I didn't practice 30 minutes every day she wouldn't spend the money on those lessons.

Well, I couldn't practice 30 minutes a day on anything besides playing so the lessons stopped and my dreams of being a ballerina were limited to the amount of twirling I would do through the house and in front of the big mirror in the bathroom.

Inevitably as I twirled, I would ask my mom to 'look at me' and then want to know if she thought I was pretty.

My mother was and is one of the most beautiful women I have ever known.  She isn't beautiful from outward fussing about makeup or clothes.  Back then she wore old house dresses and only put on lipstick when we went out of the house to town or to church.  I can still remember watching her opening the lipstick tube and twisting the bright red out and circling her lips, smacking them just once.  Perfection.  That's all it took!   And she had beautiful wavy hair and elegant, upright posture and the most luxurious voice and a laugh like wind chimes - the lower, mysterious ones that I have hanging all around my home now.

I worked for years to be able to answer the phone and say 'Hello' the way she did.  She used to work as the church secretary and a family story was when she answered the phone with that sultry 'hello' and the man on the other end of the line, who had been attempting to contact his favorite watering hole, confessed he had the wrong number but was sure glad he mis-dialed a house of God just to hear that voice.  I am proud to say that now I do answer the phone with my mother's voice and my daughter is following in her footsteps, too.

But, when I was twirling and stopping to ask my beautiful mother if she thought me pretty, her reply was always the same;

'Peacocks are pretty, but they have tiny brains.'

I knew she was teaching a lesson about being humble and to value things other than outward appearances.   I knew she loved me.  I knew she was encouraging me to be smart and kind and good. I knew that she did not admire women who were too focused on the outward - clothes and makeup.

And I still wanted to be pretty.

Like her.

I didn't stop asking because like most little girls who were beginning to see glamorous women on the television I was very much aware of what was considered beautiful and wondered how I compared.  And every time I asked, the response would be the same....'Peacocks are pretty'.

Did my mom think that pretty always meant not very smart?  Which did I want more; smart or pretty?  Did it have to be a choice?  Couldn't anybody - ever - be both? 

Eventually I started junior high and had to start figuring out those answers on my own.  There were pretty girls with beautiful clothes.  And makeup.  And a mother who couldn't afford the one and wouldn't allow the other.  Somehow I had to learn to fit in and honor my mother as well as my dreams of having it all. So I did what most 13-year-old girls do to fit in; I packed makeup in my bag and rolled my skirts up past my knees as soon as I left the house. Eventually, as is always the case, mom caught the tell-tale smudges of mascara and knew that she had lost a battle.  But she won the war by allowing me to wear as much makeup as I wanted as long as she couldn't tell I had it on.  

I was convinced that prettiness and small brains were not necessarily hand-in-hand commodities. After all, my mother was both.  A girl could be very smart, kind AND pretty.  A girl could also be very pretty and very silly or, worse, beautiful and cruel.  There were choices and my mom had given me the gift of making them.


I wanted my mama to tell me I was pretty, but she did me one better.  She convinced me I was beautiful and worthy and could do anything I chose to do.  She encouraged me to work hard and was happy for me when I played hard.  She supported me in every decision I made and loved me through all the many mistakes.  She gave me her shoulder to cry on when my heart was broken and she talked me through my fears of getting married again when I had met my soul's match on earth.  Mom encouraged me to be a good and loving and consistent parent with my two beautiful children.  When I was being a selfish partner, she called me on it.  She even was there to help me decide when I had 'enough' and should climb off the corporate express train and become my own non-career person.

My mom taught me the really important lessons in life.

Peacocks certainly are pretty and not very bright.

And I am not a Peacock.

Thank you, Mama.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Mercy On Me

I have gone to church most of my life.  My first memory of church was, almost literally, the little church in the vale.  It was a tiny, old Methodist church tucked well back a country road surrounded by woods and an ancient graveyard.  It was so quaint that it had two entry doors, one on each side of the church facade.  Only one door was used,  but there were two for that once-upon-a-time when women and men were required to enter into and sit in church separately.  There was still an ancient group of gentlemen that maintained their lifelong pews on the left-hand - mens side - of the church.

I loved going to church.  I loved the dusty/musty smell covered up with furniture polish from the cleaning earlier in the week.  I loved the coolness of the church basement where Sunday School classes, Christmas gatherings and wedding receptions were held.  I loved that my mom was the piano-player which allowed the 4 of us, my brothers and I,  (my father never went with us) the freedom of drawing on the bulletin, slouching, and staring at other people, which most children are expressly prohibited from doing and going into the giggles unchecked during the hymns.  I loved the way men and women dressed up - farmers during the week wearing their Sunday best to include all those hats.  I loved running around in the cemetery playing tag while the adults were filing past the preacher saying their say.  I loved the food that was laid out for potluck dinners.  I loved the way the adults would fuss over the children.  And I especially loved the music.

I was steeped in the old rugged cross in the garden of prayer, the rock of ages on sinking sand, being able for bringing in the sheaves,  and Christian soldiers marching as to war, then on to Zion.  I still have the old hymnal - barely an inch thick and dated 1944 - and thumbing through the pages I can hear, even today, the bass cadence of that east wing of old men singing 'Oh, come, come, come, come, come, come.....' while the rest of us were finishing the invitation to 'come to the church in the wildwood....'

There was a revival held one summer to convince us all of the fire and brimstone that was waiting if we didn't beg for the Mercy of the Lord as we lay down our sins at His feet.  I may have been all of 5 or six, but was acquainted enough with the ways of the church to understand the gravity of the alter call.  And to my mother's dismay and impotence to stop me (because she was busy rocking the rafters with her piano playing) I walked up to that altar several of those nights of that revival to admit that I was a sinner and beg that He have Mercy on Me.

I am not sure whether mother finally convinced me that repeated responses to altar calls were, basically, overkill and that Jesus did indeed know my heart and I could just relax in my seat for the rest of the revival.   But after a few repeat visits, I finally did keep my seat.

I was moved.  I wanted God's Mercy on Me.  I wanted to live in heaven and I wanted to be a good girl now, above all else.  It was only years later that I would remember with embarrassment and some shame those trips to the alter and wonder what could all those adults have possibly been thinking letting a small, crying child go up repeatedly to an alter asking forgiveness? 

Eventually, like many young people who grew up 'churched', I found  myself wanting to 'steal away'.  But this was now stealing away from, as opposed 'to' Jesus.  Somewhere along the way, the mortification I felt personally by all that begging for Mercy as a child translated into an anger, then disdain for the preachers who could so terrify a child into thinking that she was a black-hearted sinner who needed to be washed clean by anything, let alone blood.

It was only when Lauren was born that I knew I wanted my children to grow up with the church as a foundation.  Even though I had begun to veer from the path of a professed Christian,  I wanted my daughter to know the prayers and the songs, the stories and the traditions that were in and at the heart of me. 

I wanted her to understand that what moved me most about the message of the church was not fear, but Love.    I wanted her to know that Love was the only thing that really means anything in this world and was, really, the only thing we are 'commanded' to do.  In each of those 10 commandments  Love is the foundation.  I didn't want her frightened about the sinning and the blood and the dying.  I wanted her touched  - and led - by the Love. 

I was recently reminded that the beginning of my true, personal spiritual quest came when I was in my early 20's in the form of a book about a seagull named Jonathan. I resonated with the message and understood that there was truth there.  The book was written especially for 'people who know there's more to this whole living thing than meets the eye.'  Jonathan wanted to spend his time learning to fly - to soar - rather than merely existing.   So do I.

Throughout my spiritual journey I have studied various world religions and become aware of the similarity of most as well as the shared Genesis of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  I was particularly struck with the truth of a quote credited to Martin Luther King, who formed the first Protestant church.  He said, 'No one can do my dying for me, therefore no one can do my believing for me.'  Amen to that!  Interpretation seems to be something that can't be told or given, but must be personally made.  I am convinced there is no one 'true' religion yet have never* questioned the ever-presence of one eternal (non-anthropomorphic) God that loves unconditionally and never punishes.

I say I am 'Buddhistian' because the tenets of Buddhism ring most clearly true to me except for my unshakable belief in God and God in us.  It is the lives - not the deaths - of the Masters that move me and for that reason I identify myself also as a 'Christmas Christian'. 

Recently I attended a funeral of a good and faithful servant of the church.  During the service the unanimous prayer to ask God to 'have Mercy on Me' was begun and I was shaken to my core.  Just as it seems ridiculous to ask the ever-present God, source of all things everywhere, to 'be with me' in prayer, so does it feel insincere to ask an unconditionally loving God to 'have Mercy'.  It dawned on me with the brilliance of sun in the morning that the one to whom I should be asking Mercy was ME, for in my life I have been my own worst critic and enemy and have rarely shown myself the loving kindness that Buddha suggested or that Jesus spoke of when he said to love our neighbors as we did ourselves.

God have Mercy on me?   Not even close.

But.

Loving God, help me to feel and know your presence in all things.

And.

Ruth?  Have Mercy on Me.



* Okay.  Once.


 

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Wedding Tears

I have a friend, a Facebook friend named Ruth who I haven't actually met but have fallen in love with through her whimsy and through what I can only call her kindred spirit.  She uses the term 'wedding tears' when she reads something that touches her, or at least that is what I am assuming.  When she writes those words, there is absolute recognition of what she means in the very heart of me.

Wedding tears. Oh, have I shed many of those in my life.

Happy.  Sad.  Joyful.  Pensive.  Hopeful.  Wistful.

Weddings have always been a mystery to me even though I have attended several, participated in a few, had 2 of my own and been the MOB for one.  But the mystery has changed definition along the way, along with the tears being shed.

My name is Ruth and I was a wedding cynic.  My first actual 'wedding tears' were tears of anger.  What was all the fuss?  People who really didn't know each other that well were promising until death did them part and I didn't really think so.  All that money and all those people and all those guests celebrating something that probably wouldn't last as long as the toasters they were getting.  Oh, I was jaded, alright. 

I didn't start that way, of course.  I believed in all of it.  I was the little girl that walked 5 miles into town with her mom and stood in line on sale day for the doors to open to the toy store where I could buy a wedding dress for my Barbie.  The only 'store-bought' clothes she ever had.  And I wore the slip on my head and clutched the bouquets of dandelions picked for imaginary weddings.   I watched the movies and fell in love with all the leading men and cried at all the happily-ever-afters and believed they were true.  I watched Sound of Music and knew that two people could love each other that much.

But I was newly divorced and hurting and thought that marriage was a hoax perpetrated on those little girls who grew up wanting to be those brides and not really thinking about what 'ever after' really meant, happily or not. 

Angry tears led to heart broken tears.  My best friend was in love and marrying someone I didn't know very well.  I was afraid for her.  I was afraid I would lose her.  I was afraid of her getting hurt.  And I wanted the dream she was buying into.  She was very much in love and seemed to know what she was doing (she is still married, happily, all these years later) and I wish I had any hint of a clue to the mystery.  My heart was breaking for a thousand reasons.  She was so certain and I didn't know what that felt like. I was sure I never would.

Then the tears became scared tears.  I was getting married again to a man who was my best male friend and who wanted the same things I wanted and who was as insane as I was to be getting married on a dare 2 weeks after we decided that getting married was probably a good idea.  What were we thinking?  I don't think anyone who knew us would have bet we would be married 6 months later and that included both the bride and the groom.  Like I said, what were we thinking?

But the marriage 'took'.   Moves were undertaken and houses were purchased, Children were born and raised.  Fights were fought and reconciled.  Separate ways were taken then merged again.  Friendships were made and lost and kept.   Parents aged and died.  And 28 years later we are still together.

Tom is still my best friend and the love of my life.  And along the way, through him,  I have learned something about the mystery of marriage.  It is no longer something unexplainable and obscure, but that which is sacred, which is what I always missed before.  I didn't ever really 'get it' about marriage being a sacred, astonishing thing that two people enter into and that changes them forever.  Before it was just 2 people making promises they probably couldn't keep.   Now I truly understand that the two do become as one, if entered with eyes and hearts wide open.

And it is through Tom that I finally understand the mystery of Grace.  Unconditional, forgiving, always growing, undying, forever-after, forever-more love.

Lauren, my precious daughter, got married a year ago and I went through all the emotions, once again, for her.  Did they know each other well enough?  Did they love each other with their eyes wide open?  Did they know what they, individually, wanted enough to forge what they wanted to be as a couple?  Did they understand the sacredness of the commitment they were making to each other?  And I came to the conclusion that none of us really understands a thing until they experience it.  I knew that this young couple loved each other with a resolve and wanted the same things the way her father and I did.  I believed in them as individuals and could do nothing other than believe in them as a couple.  They will be their own family and they will experience the same things their parents and the rest of the worlds' couples have experienced throughout time.

Isn't she beautiful?  The light of my life and the center of my heart.  Remember the picture of me after the slide?  And the expression on my face.  Yeah.  She got those from me......

It is a mistake when we wish couples 'happily ever after' because that is untruthful and unfair.   Now, when I go to weddings I wish the couples one 'simple' thing.  I wish them everything.  Joy and sorrow. Laughter and tears.  Good times as well as hard ones.  Gain and loss.  Victory and defeat.  Because that is what life is made of and if a couple can expect to experience all of it together, then, truly the two will become one.  And then I cry for all that they will go through, all that I have wished them.  All I know they will experience together.

Wedding tears.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Birthdays and Tiaras

I recently had a birthday.  Most of us do.  But for some reason not everyone is as in love with their birth day as I am.  And I mean, I am in LOVE with my birthday.

I was born in May in the drowsy mid-50's in a sweet little town in Indiana.  We lived on a farm, though we weren't farmers.  We were just the renters, but the farm was working all around us.  Cows and tractors and lots of fields full of growing things.  Woods to explore and creeks to ford and all the time in the world to do it.  Winters were cold and white and creeks and springs and wells froze solid.
But May was my birthday month (and my Mom's and older brother's) and it was made for me.  It was a time when the first of May was still celebrated as 'May Day' and children made baskets for hand-picked flowers and hung them on doorknobs.  (I don't think anyone anywhere does that anymore.  But I remember it).  I felt that the whole month was made to celebrate my birthday.  And I knew that, no matter how drab the month may have started,  by my birthday the whole world would be the most exquisite green.  Only much later did I discover that the gem stone for May was the Emerald, which was only fitting; a green stone for the greenest month.

My earliest memory of a birthday may just really be of the pictures I have seen taken of that day.  Mom dressed me in a navy blue dress (made out of her wedding dress!) with a white lace Peter Pan color, black tights, white anklets and black Mary Janes.  We went to a park and had a picnic.  What I remember was a huge slide that did a twist and a turn before it deposited me laughing out loud at the bottom.  I know this because the picture shows me with this amazed, smiling, open-mouthed look on my face emerging from that slide.

I have spent most of my life with that look on my face.

Somewhere along the way birthdays got unpopular.  People didn't claim their birthdays or didn't want anyone to know it was their birth day.  I never 'got' it, but I played along for many years.  I pretended that I didn't really care.  Birthdays were narcissistic events or at least proved you were getting older, which wasn't a good thing,  and should be ignored. I hated it, but I went along with it.

Until I turned 50!  Five - Oh.  Something about 50 needs to be celebrated.  I threw myself a girlfriends' party and asked everyone (God help me, I did!) to wear red hats and my friends, being the  amazing group of women that they are - all of them - did!  (I am actually a little embarrassed about that, now, but at the time I thought it fitting.)  And my husband, who is the love of my life, actually planned a surprise party for the next night and all of the women who were with me the night before came BACK the following night with their husbands for Round 2 of Ruth's 50th. 

The cat along with the red hat were out of the bag.  I couldn't pretend any longer that I didn't care about my birthday and decided that, no matter where I was or with whom, I would love my birthday out loud along with all that it meant.

Because my birthday meant that my mother, who loved me so much that she prayed for a little girl to come into her life, had an answer to her prayer.  My birthday meant that I got the chance to come here - to this beautiful planet - to learn who I was and figure out why I was here. It meant friends and school and first kisses and swimming lessons.   It meant I could meet Tom and learn to love him the way he always deserved to be loved - and to be loved unconditionally by him.  And it meant that I could give birth to my own precious babies and finally know the indescribable love that my mother felt for me.  The circle was complete.

So, somewhere along the way, when I was celebrating another birthday - usually on the road in some kind of meeting or training class - I let people know it was my birthday and that, if I could, I would wear a tiara all day long in celebration.  When asked another year what I would do for my birthday I mentioned the likelihood of yard or housework, but always with that imaginary tiara in place!

And this year my very precious friends made that tiara a reality.

Thank you Jenny.  Thank you Helen.  Thank you Tom.  Thank you Lauren and David.  Thank you mom.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.  This life hasn't always been easy, but it has always been an adventure just like that spiral slide.  What more could we really ask for?
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