reconciling things

“Allow it all to happen: beauty and terror…” Rilke

It was right after daily Mass that I decided with an hour to spare I would feed my vanity and get a pedicure. Ordinarily I am a low-maintenance girl. My morning routine takes about 10 minutes, no lie. But a pedicure makes me happy and is really the only way I am wearing sandals in the summer. It’s vanity. I could have used a homily on modesty at that Mass.

I was sitting in the salon chair, mindlessly scrolling my phone because I forgot my book, which makes me look smarter and more sophisticated than others there and therefore feeds my ego. I joke, but it’s also kind of true. I refuse to read the fashion magazines, because I don’t need to add insecurity to the vanity I am there to feed. The only option is to feel superior reading Camus. Come on. You know you have your things that make you feel slightly better than others. I could have used a homily on humility too.

So, I sat there scrolling my phone, which rather than making me look superior just made me look like a bored millennial. Oh well. But, I was listening to the room. And it was chatty that day. It started out with some complaining about kids in general, then grew into complaining about adult children. One lady was about to go to a family reunion type function and getting the adult children to participate in whatever way she thought they should was not going well. Through the conversation it came out that she had sons. Well, she had daughters too, but apparently they had a smidge more sense than her sons. Another lady chimed in. She also had sons! In fact she had two! Back-to-back! And weren’t sons just the worst. The gallery practically erupted with tales of how difficult and stressful and just-plain-awful it was to have sons. They broke everything! They ate everything! They were so irresponsible! They needed constant supervision, because they could not be trusted to follow through on anything!

This attitude carried on to one lady’s husband. Men, amirite?! They are just so terrible. “Before I left today I had to give my husband some jobs to do. I told him he needed to do XYZ before I get home. Do you think it will be done when I get home? Probably not, but at least maybe it will keep him out of trouble.” Cue general laughter and agreement. Tsk, tsk. Men.

The tone of the whole salon was that superior way of knowing and solidarity. Oh, yes, we too have clueless men in our lives who need supervision and instruction constantly and sons take after fathers, as you know.

I could bear it no longer. I said (in my nice voice, I swear), “Hold up. Boys are amazing! I have seven sons and they are nothing like you are saying.”

The response was as you would expect, “You have HOW MANY SONS?! How dreadful!”

Yes seven and two daughters. And they are delightful.

The woman who instigated the son bashing while having her acrylic nails filled said, “Yeah, but I had to raise mine alone.”

If you have never admired my self-restraint, this is your moment to do so. I refrained from saying, “Same!” accompanied by a snide ”get over yourself.” She obviously needed that one-up and I just let her have it. Instead I said how great sons were because a mom needs someone to rely on and boys bring some wonderful energy and joy.

The lady going on vacation to see her kids suddenly agreed. Yes, sons were great. Hers were grown, but of course they are so helpful. They come back to help with firewood every year and they still check in.

Another lady added that she too had a great son who was wonderful to her and treated her so well.

Me, too.

Me, too.

The praises for sons started a new wave of conversation as each tried to one-up the other on the most recent helpful thing her son had done.

I smiled and went back to scrolling my phone. I had said enough.

It is true that I have not had the greatest experiences with men in my life. I don’t have many stunning examples of true masculinity to personally admire (there are exceptions and you know who you are). But, you will never hear me bashing men in general. You will never hear me use the phrase “toxic masculinity.” I am a divorced woman, recovering from a long history of trauma. But I do not blame masculinity for any of it. I am zero percent jaded about men.

I don’t even believe toxic masculinity exists. Masculinity is the way men image God on earth (Femininity for women, but that is for another essay.) and God is good. Masculinity is strong, confident, protective, compassionate, grounding, reliable, faithful, dangerous (to borrow from Jordan Peterson). If a man is showing improper aggression towards the weak things of the world, if he is cruel, careless, unfaithful, violent, unreliable, or insecure it is not masculinity to blame. It is a lack of masculinity. You can go ahead and fight me on this. I have seen this in action so much that I know what it looks like. That man needs to start embracing more true masculinity, not less. Getting in touch with his feminine side will not fix him.

There is almost nothing more beautiful than true masculinity. That kind of energy is what the world needs. When masculinity is present in a situation, everyone feels more comfortable. Everyone can relax. And it draws to itself true femininity. What it disturbs is ambiguity. In my personal opinion, the world has far too much ambiguity. That any given thing be given proper distinction is a sign of health and wisdom. Confucius said that the beginning of wisdom was to call things by their proper name. Defining things and living within that truth is beautiful—including allowing our sons (and husbands and brothers and friends and neighbors) to live within the beauty of their masculine selves without the condescending tones implying what a trial it is to have them around.

I don’t imagine I have a lot of men readers. But if any are reading, listen to me, masculinity is wonderful. Embrace it. Be good and be dangerous. Be strong. Speak your mind. Cultivate your passions. Protect the weak. And reject any narrative that says that in order to be safe you need to be less manly. Bosh.

I would assume I have mostly women readers. Can I encourage you to help change the narrative? When you are sitting in the salon chair (or out to lunch with your girls or in your online forums or at a playdate) and the men-bashing begins, stand by your men. Find something to praise. One little sentence or two about how great that manly energy is to have around the house and you can redirect the course of the whole conversation. You can help those women around you to see the gift of masculinity. It doesn’t need to be preachy or defensive. It just needs to be true. Truth wins. Don’t be afraid to speak it. This is truly feminine (but that is for another essay).

As previously discussed here and here and here, life is hard. And it takes nothing away from God’s absolute goodness to say that. But, also, there are so many beautiful things in life. So many smiles from the Lord. So much tenderness. So many tiny and innumerable reasons for joy. The world is far more incredible and delightful then we sometimes feel it is when we get wrapped up in the cares of this world.

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Recently two of my young children pooled their money and ordered long desired Lego sets from Amazon. They read the estimated date of delivery and immediately started counting down the days. Every day they said, “Mom, just X more days!” I knew to what they were referring without them having to say so.

As the window of delivery arrived they asked if they could check the mail. It was 7AM. No, honey, the mail has not arrived. It’s too early.

Now can we check them mail?

No, it’s only 10AM. The mail has not been delivered yet.

Now can we check the mail?

Still no. I mean, you can check, but it is not here yet.

And so it went all day long. They sat on the stairs with the best vantage point of the mailbox. Waiting, expecting, any minute now. Every time I passed them on the steps I had to walk around them and step over them as they waited with so much anticipation.

But the toys did not arrive the first day of the estimated window. They were bummed. But, surely tomorrow! Tomorrow they would arrive. And the whole thing was repeated on day 2. At one point I got a little exasperated. “Guys! Waiting by the window will not get your packages here any sooner. Go do something productive!” Reluctantly they decided to play outside probably because 1) they didn’t want me assigning them a chore and 2) they could spy on the mailbox outside without annoying me.

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Do you remember TV from the 80s and earlier? Do you recall how each episode or made-for-tv-movie had a beginning, a middle, and an end? Whatever conundrum our protagonist faced was neatly wrapped up by the end of the show. Things eventually worked themselves out. Things fell into place. And in the most wholesome iterations, there was a little monologue moral set to gentle background music. It let you know the show was about to wrap up, lessons were learned, and the good guy wins in the end.

The grownup version of this is the quintessential Hallmark movie. Things may be messy and awkward, but around the 1.5 hour mark you know that things will fall into place, good will triumph, and everyone will smile along with the perfect montage.

I wonder if being raised on a steady and vapid diet of this has contributed to a generation or two that are just waiting for the day that things fall into place. As soon as xyz happens then everything will begin to get easier. As soon as I accomplish this one thing, my life will make sense. My life will really begin as soon as I do this certain thing or as soon as this other thing happens to me. It’s bound to, right? It’s in all the entertainment and content we consume. Shit works itself out.

Except it doesn’t.

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“It is the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet tender joy.”

Dostoevsky, The Brother’s Karamozov

The West calls it divinization. The East calls it theosis. It is the journey, goal, and purpose of the Christian life lived out in this world, getting us fit for the next. “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God,” to quote St. Athanasius. The whole sacramental life, one long process of healing.

Although the stain of original sin was dealt with at my baptism and although Jesus imprinted my soul with an indelible mark as his, living in the truth of this takes a lifetime. A lifetime of learning what it means to belong to him. A lifetime of learning to trust, a lifetime of discovering what it means to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4)

I am healed. I am also healing. Slowly.

Recently my body reacted so badly to stress that it has taken me two months to put the pieces back together. The alarming rate at which my body rebelled and the unusual ways it rebelled, even made one of my doctors comment, “Are you sure you haven’t been reading the book of Job?”

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I am the daughter of pastors. I am the granddaughter of pastors. I am the great granddaughter of pastors. When I got married I was a pastor’s wife. I was soon after ordained and became a pastor myself.

And now I am a Catholic.

How does this happen? Well, I have shared about it in multiple posts and this video. However, the seeds of my conversion go back to my childhood—way way way back into my childhood.

I have the most intentional parents. They do things for a reason. There is no “we do this because this is the way we do it” about them. Ask them about almost anything from why they put their TV where they did to why they chose to homeschool their kids and they could produce a paper on why. (Not to infer that everything done with intention is correct, but a heck of lot better than going through life without intention.)

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Dear children, my children,

There are some things in life that are scary. You won’t want to face them. Sometimes those things are outside in the big confusing world. And sometimes they are inside, in your big confusing heart. Wherever they are, you must not be afraid to face them. There will be a deep temptation not to face them. It is much pleasanter to turn away from them or to pretend they are not there. That can work for a little while. Alas, eventually, you will come face-to-face with them. The day of reckoning is so much worse than if you had just faced them in the beginning.

The other side of that scary however is so much fruit. Jordan Peterson says, “That which you most need to find will be found where you least wish to look.” Children, if you want to find the treasure, you will have to dig through some mess to find it. Have courage.

Jordan Peterson goes on to say, “It has been known for decades, explicitly (and forever implicitly) that self-initiated confrontation with what is frightening or unknown is frequently curative. The standard treatment for phobias and anxiety is therefore exposure to what is feared. That treatment is effective—but the exposure must be voluntary.”

This means that I cannot force you to face scary things or to ask hard questions or to dive too deeply into your own heart. That is your job—and your joy as well. Because if you ask tough questions from the world, from God, from yourself, you will get real answers. True, they may not be the answers you want. But truth is always more beautiful in the long run than a half-truth or an outright lie.

My children, never live a lie. Never say one. Because what you say and what you do must match in order for you not to lose yourself. Speak what is transcendent—true, good, and beautiful. Then, please, I beg you, have the courage to live what is true, good, and beautiful.

I was thinking of the hard questions I did not ask of myself, of God, of the world or of others who I let into the deepest parts of my heart. I am no great model of courage now, but when I was your age, I was even more cowardly. I was afraid to ask questions for which I didn’t want to know the answers. Before I got married I asked questions—about externals. Very pragmatic and outward things. I did not ask deep questions of my own motives and desires. I did not ask deep questions of your father either. I was afraid to face myself, him, my family, the world at large. I was just afraid. I let that fear guide me and I didn’t have anyone in my life to say, “Ask the damn questions! Dig until you are satisfied and until you find beauty.”

So, I am telling you now, dear children. Ask. Dig. Do not be afraid of the questions, the answers which Rilke says you may not be given, because you would not be able to live them. But if you keep living the questions you may live your way into the answers.

You’ve seen the memes. Maybe you have posted them. You know the ones that the punch line goes how you have never really been tired before you had kids. The exhaustion of new parents is the literal worst.

Except then you have a toddler. You’ve heard the jokes and maybe seen the books about how toddlers are assholes.

Then there is the sucker punch of the threenager. Worst than terrible twos, so I am told. But, just wait…soon they will be five. And on it goes. Wait until they are in middle school. But that’s nothing. Wait until they are teenagers.

And if they are girls you hear, “Oh, the drama of girls! Daughters are such a storm all the time.” But, if you have boys you hear, “I so don’t envy you all those boys around. The mess! The noise!”

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Anything…when idolized and leveraged for the sake of control or avoidance…can spin out of control and become addictive and problematic. Even the behaviors and attributes we consider noble and good.”

Matthias Barker, LMHC

Our family is at a new stage of healing. There is a dumpster in the yard. A big one. It’s an eyesore, but this is what healing looks like. Healing isn’t linear, tidy, pretty, or picturesque. There is no Instagram filter that will make it look respectable. There is no pithy quotes, hashtags, or sound clip that makes it fun.

My exhusband has so many gifts. You could scarcely find someone more talented. However, as with many people who have creative genius, there comes a degree or two of madness. For the past three years I have scarcely looked in my garage, attic, basement, or barns. I literally did not have the emotional bandwidth to face the madness. (Do you monitor your emotional bandwidth? Do you notice that when you are operating at full capacity, that everything runs sluggishly?) Remnants of projects never finished, dreams that never got out of the clouds, plans without possibilities—all just shoved everywhere in ever nook and cranny.

Also, as with many people who grew up under communist regimes, who stood in breadlines, whose core memories are doing without basic necessities, there is a tendency to hang onto more than is needed, more than is healthy, a visible sign of the unresolved trauma and fear. What if someday we won’t be able to find xyz? Never mind that it could just be rotting in their own hands because they have not the need for it or the means of using it.

Add to the mad genius and the childhood trauma inflicted by communism, alcoholism. There you have a perfect storm for disordered living out of a disordered mind. (There is a show on Lifetime…)

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This last Sunday the Gospel reading in the Liturgy…I have been thinking about it ever since. It won’t let me go.

I have been pondering the Paralytic who laid by the pool of Bethesda, waiting for the angel of God to stir the waters of healing. We don’t know his name. In Scripture he is defined by his condition. That and the fact that he lay by the edge of the water for a long time. We don’t know how long. We do know that he had his condition for 38 years. He had no one to put him in the water. So, he just hung out there with his longing and his paralysis, watching other people be made well.

I wonder if he felt jealousy or resentment? Perhaps. I would like to think though that he could see others make it to the water first and cheer for them and say, “I am so happy for you” and truly mean it. I will persist in imagining him that way. The idea of a bitter and resentful man who had contempt for those who are healed simply because it could not be his has no appeal for me. I would rather believe he was inspired with hope than throwing an inner tantrum of “When is it going to be my turn?!?!”

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