Ambivalence

I check my mailbox twice each day to see if my father has sent me a birthday card yet. I’ve been 20 for ten days. 

In my creative writing class, we’re learning about characterization in fiction. My professor says our characters will seem real if we make them ambivalent. Perhaps a female character is torn between waking up to train for a marathon in the mornings and sleeping in instead. She will talk to her friends about how she wants to run the race, and she will buy a high-dollar pair of running shoes. But when the alarm goes off at dawn, she’ll hit the snooze and pull the blanket over her head as the readers point at the page and cry, “Ambivalence!” 

I will walk to my mailbox like everyone else. I’ll smile at my friends and say, “Welp, I’d better see if I got any mail.” I might shrug first and peer into the empty box like I’m glad I won’t have to carry anything extra.  But I’ll come back later, walking slowly toward the mailbox as I imagine my father sitting down long enough to write my name on an envelope. And when the proof is there that he couldn’t do that, I’ll fight the urge to punch a wall or scream at the top of my lungs. 

The best stories have characters who aren’t sure how they feel about the people closest to them. Someone might love her sister dearly, but also resent her because she’s always been Mom’s favorite. She will develop an attitude about her sister in secret first. And if she stops loving her sister all together, she won’t necessarily say so. Her sister might never know the truth.

I called my father an asshole once. Maybe twice. But I said it more for me than for him. If he’s an asshole, there’s no real reason for me to get disappointed when he doesn’t send me a birthday card, when he does not love me. Empty mailbox? Good. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

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Yoga: Coming Out Clumsy

Three days ago, I put on some stretchy pants, took off my socks, stood on a yoga mat, and came out clumsy. I also had a panic attack.

If you’ve never tried yoga, do it! There’s this cool thing at the end when you just lie there and almost fall asleep. It’s beautiful! But I’ve also got to warn you: the room has mirrors, and you will catch a glimpse of yourself. And if you’re anything like me, this will be scary. Because you’ll have to see what you’ve been trying to hide from everyone else: yourself.

I considered running away before the class began. One person in the class was upside down when I walked in the room (yep…just… upside down…). Add that to the fact that everyone else looked a whole lot better in tights than I did, and that pretty much sums up the source of my discomfort.

We started in child’s pose, which basically means I was supposed to fold my chest onto my knees, place my hands palms-up behind me, and rest my forehead on the mat. I tried this for a split second and remembered, “Umm…I’m not flexible at all…” I knew I was about to look like a damn fool in front of other humans, and pulled out of the pose quickly. Everyone else was just beginning to relax, slowing their breathing and releasing the tension of the day.

Here’s another thing you might want to know about yoga: the instructor walks around to make sure everyone is doing the poses properly, and sometimes she will “adjust” you. Considering I was sitting up and hyperventilating, the instructor quickly noticed I was, in fact, not doing the pose correctly. She then had to convince me to do the pose under her watchful eye, which made me panic more. I just sat there a moment staring at the mat and saying, “I just put my head down?” What followed, as I jerkily gave into the pose, was truly the most ungraceful experience of my life—aside from that time I threw up on the school bus in the 3rd grade. That was pretty bad, too. (literal struggle bus…)

Thankfully, this first battle against self-consciousness purged most of the panic from my system and gave me the resolve to complete the goal I had tried to formulate at the beginning of class: be clumsy if you have to, but survive.

And survive I did! We did some kind of warrior pose that hurt my legs really bad in the middle of class, and then everyone else did this cool almost-upside-down thing that I wasn’t strong enough to do. So I put my legs in the air for no reason. When everyone started twisting their legs around into very confusing positions at another point in the routine, I stopped looking in the mirror, reverted back to my version of child’s pose, closed my eyes, and breathed until the panic subsided.

Before I knew it, we were doing our not-quite-sleeping pose at the end of class, and I was so at peace.

I don’t expect the next class to be any easier or that my muscles will be any stronger when I try the poses again. But the hardest part–coming out as a weak, frightened beginner–is behind me. Sure, I’ll have to come out again next Tuesday, and the next one, and the one after that. But it will be on a smaller scale each time. Eventually, I’ll stop caring what I look like or what other people think and just focus on the crazy thing my friends do on Tuesdays called ‘yoga’.

To the woman sitting alone in her pew

 

Dear Someone,

I messed up the liturgy this morning when I said “good morning” to you instead of “peace”. But you smiled and messed it up, too.

After the service you turned around and introduced yourself. This might have been the second time we’ve exchanged names since the beginning of my regular attendance at Gethsemane. Your ears have been the silent witnesses to my interpretation of the hymns (I’m sorry about the weird harmonies). I always follow your lead to know when I should kneel or stand. Without knowing it, you’ve helped me adjust to Episcopal worship just by being there. But somehow I can never remember your name. You’re a whole pew away.

Today I would have had you drink coffee and eat donuts with me, but you said you needed to get home to your husband. You said he doesn’t go to church. But you do. You’re there every Sunday, right in front of me. I have never tried to sit with you. I sit in a pew alone, too.

We parted ways at the edge of the aisle after you wished me a good week, but I thought of you while I sat in the fellowship hall where people were laughing and steam was rising from coffee cups. I thought of you when I was splashing through puddles and blinking away raindrops later this afternoon on the way to my car.  The life you live, the way you feel, why you came to Gethsemane—all of these matter to me. And your name. I care about your name.

In our brief conversation after the service, I tried to let you know that I come to church alone, too. You nodded your head in a knowing way, but I felt foolish because I don’t know your story.

But I wonder about all of us—we women who sit in pews alone. Unless I close my eyes really tight and cover my ears to the noise of the world around me, I cannot remember how I arrived where I am. I just know that one day I was sitting in the cushiony chair of my childhood church, and the next, I was looking through stained glass windows from a wooden pew as I tried to pronounce the word “Episcopal”. And I am only one woman. I only sit in one of the pews.

So many factors, the stuff of a lifetime, bring gals like us into pews alone. Questions, hurts, sins, friends. That’s how it worked for me, anyway. But I can’t tell by looking at the back of your head every week if that’s the case for you, and I don’t really need to know. I just know that our reasons matter because they get us there and they get us to the altar. Getting down the aisle sometimes takes a while, but the journey gets us out of our pews and into the line of other people with other stories and dreams that make them hungry for the Lord’s Supper. It matters that we sit in pews alone, Someone. It matters because we don’t actually sit in pews alone. Even when we do, we aren’t totally convinced this is the truth. If we were, why would we introduce ourselves and stray from the liturgy to say ‘good morning’? When we shake hands across the pews, we’re more than two women who sit alone. We know that. We might as well be friends.

When I feel like I’m the only one dealing with this thing called life, people tell me, “Things will get better from here.” My mom, who used to go to church alone, told me once, “This is not your life, Jessica.” And I believed her. So I thought I’d share that with you, Someone. Imagine me leaning across the pew to tell you that we’re not actually alone. Not for long. Because I believe the words I say in The Book of Common Prayer after I receive the Eucharist: “…You have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ….” I believe I am but one member of the Body of Christ. It’s kind of a group project. And even from your pew,  I think you know you’re in it, too. Let’s sit together sometime.

Sincerely,

The girl who sits alone in the pew behind you

 

 

 

 

How to Cuss

Last week, my root beer exploded  all over the carpet in Dr. Karnehm’s office. Today I took the most challenging exam I’ve taken since Physics in high school.  Right now I’m blogging instead of doing my homework.  Later I’m going to drink a milkshake instead of working out. The way I live is not always graceful. Sometimes I cuss.

Ain’t nobody got time for bad words at a Christian university.

Halt! Let me preface the rest of this with a simple statement: I love IWU. I really, really do.

But I don’t like it when “living in community” justifies living falsely for the sake of preserving the peace.

I don’t like it when “unity “means we can’t all be different.

And I really don’t like it when we’re so determined to be holy that we pretend we aren’t broken.

I keep telling people how much I want to grow, to get better. I keep telling people I want to be a “good” person. Every day I wake up and think of ways to be more impressive than I was the day before.

 But maybe I need to learn how to accept my brokenness first. I’ve got to start with where I am. I’m spilling root beer and blushing. I’m reading essay questions without knowing the answers. I’m blogging when I should be making a to-do list. Soon I’ll grab a milkshake. I am cussing.

 Behind all my jibberish about vulnerability and honesty, I’m hiding the fact that I’m actually scared shitless that someone might find out, “Wow, Jessica. You’re really, really messed up. When it comes to living life, you have no idea what you’re doing.” I’m scared shitless because being truly broken individual in a community of Christians is vulgar, profane. It’s like throwing out a few cuss words when everyone else is quoting Bible verses.  This makes people uncomfortable. This makes me guilty.

And guilty people have a few places to go. 1) to other guilty, dirty, profane people. Most of them are in hiding. But a few are out there.

And 2) The most vulgar place I can think of. The cross of Jesus Christ. I don’t go here enough.

 Jesus said in Matthew 11: 28-30: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

To totally put words in Jesus’ mouth: Come unto me, all you who cuss. You suck at life? You’re spilling root beer and BSing your tests and not doing your homework? Cool. Oh, how’s that milkshake you shouldn’t be drinking? You know what? Just keep walking toward me. That’s all I’m asking.

If I must cuss, it’ll be on the path that leads me to the Cross. Anyone want to come along?