Posing as Flowers

I noticed the dandelions in the backyard one morning after I stumbled downstairs for breakfast. Peeling back the thin white dining room curtains for a better look, I saw my mom’s blue bathrobe in the corner of my eyes. She was seated at the table sipping coffee and scrolling through her phone in a half-awake state. “Look at them!” I said, jerking my thumb back toward the window. “They are so…beautiful.” I removed my glasses to wipe off a smudge. “I know,” she said, glancing at the view through her own glasses. Her eyes were tired. “Those purple flowers are pretty, too,” I added. She nodded and turned back to her phone, and I think we both forgot that some pretty things are only weeds.

—–

In children’s church, the Sunday school teachers helped us make colorful evangelism bracelets. Each colored bead represented part of the Christian story. Black for sin. Red for the blood of Jesus. Tell your friends the good news, they said. Jesus can save them. They asked to raise our hands if we’d ever told someone about Jesus. Another show of hands if we’d ever led someone to salvation. We reviewed the colors. Green for growth in Christ. Yellow for the light of eternal life in heaven. We were never going to die.

—–

Just below my neck I have a large scratch where my cat tried to claw her way onto my shoulders after a sudden gust of wind in the backyard frightened her yesterday. She’s an indoor cat if I’ve ever seen one, but I have this ridiculous fantasy of her obediently walking on a leash beside me along the sidewalks in our neighborhood. But simply put, we’re not there yet. Although she’s stopped trying to Houdini her way out of the harness (thanks be to God), she’s apparently only interested in “walking” from the dandelions near my feet up my body to my shoulders—where she tries really, really hard to climb the siding and get in the dining room window. She eventually flopped over on her side, twitching her ears at the birds chirping on the power lines humming above us. I sat down in a place that might someday be a flower garden and rested my back against the siding. Kitty crawled behind the small of my back and tapped her tail suspiciously. And we sat there together in the weeds for a half hour. And I smiled.

—–

I can remember watching my dad walk around the yard with a container of weedkiller, spraying away all the color and stopping occasionally to wipe sweat from his brow or rub a sore spot on his lower back.  I don’t know what he’d do if he drove by my mom’s house on Taylor Street and saw that we have the only yellow yard in the neighborhood. And I don’t know what he’d say if I told him it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

—–

            When I was 14, I hit the peak of my life as a devoted evangelical. I spent hours enthusiastically typing a speech for eight grade graduation, and then spent hours more practicing the delivery in my room. The day came, and I wore black dress pants and a pink shirt, modest as ever. I stood in front of my peers, their parents, and their parents’ parents and told them all how Jesus was the only way to find fulfillment. The speech was at least five minutes in length. I don’t know how many of my classmates converted that day, but I remember how sweaty my armpits were when I returned to my seat. I felt like I’d been pulling weeds.

—–

I took Kitty inside when the sun slipped behind a bunch of grey clouds and shadows spread out across the yard. Ambulance and fire truck sirens wailed a few blocks in the distance, and I watched the neighbors’ tree interlock its branches like fingers in the cool breeze. Long strands of grass swayed, silhouetted against glorious dandelion moons.

—–

            When I went to Chicago for the first time last spring, my family saw some gay couples walking together through the city. I remember how nervous I was to tell my mom they didn’t bother me. That may have been the first time I actually saw two people together and not some “abomination.”

—–

            As I think about my childhood in a Christian family, it seems to me like I learned early on to respond to the world the way the church wanted me to. The church said political party, I said “Republican.” The church said Islam, and I said “tear down that ugly Mosque.” The church said sin, and I said “I’m sorry.”

           And then one day I just stopped saying all of that.

 

—–

            I stretched my legs out in front of me and took a picture of my tennis shoes in the grass. I wanted to remember that moment, that happiness of being quiet and alone and outside. I decided to be glad my meds were working and that spring had arrived. I gave myself permission to just shut the hell up for a while and be okay with having so many questions. I wondered how we can be so sure we speak for God when we say what is good and what isn’t good. I wondered why I never realized dandelions are good and that gay people are not bad. And then I wondered how we can throw an evangelism bracelet at someone we’ve never met and beg them to consider our take on deity and eternity when even the best of us are merely posing as flowers.

 

 

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An exercise in shame

 

Shame was something I didn’t really know about until I saw my father lying in our driveway two summers ago, completely drunk. From the dining room window, I listened to him gag and vomit, watched him flop over on his side to dry heave until he was completely empty. He left a trail of puke from the porch to the gravel drive, where I sometimes parked my car back then. The smell of vodka didn’t disappear for a few days. And even after his drunkenness had passed, when he could stand on his own two feet again, his face swelled and wrinkled with guilt and sorrow for all he had said and done.

His behavior that night stemmed from a secret self-loathing and unhappiness that baffled me for months after I saw it manifested in such an ugly way. The image of his shame is printed deep in my mind, haunting me on days like today, when I recognize similar pain and confusion in my own heart.

I’ve been wondering lately how people learn to love themselves. I believe people are mostly good, or at least mostly sad that they can’t always be good. But my grandpa says everyone is bad. He’s says that we show our nature in the choices we make. I thought about that earlier tonight as I spread out on the bathroom floor and stared at the ceiling. I felt the badness in me. I thought about my grades and my family and all the ways I’ve disappointed the people I love the most. I gagged a little, wishing I would throw up like my dad. Why  are we all so unhappy? I wanted an answer. But the shame just bounced painfully around inside my chest, and I stayed there until I felt my cat chewing on the hand I’d placed over my eyes. Then I took a deep breath and stood up.