Sunday, March 31, 2013

Growing Up, Growing Old(er)

When I was in sixth grade, I read a dog-eared copy of Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. I found it in the school library, plain as day, but felt as if I should hide it (if not between butcher paper, then at least somewhere in the stacks, away from the prying eyes of the sixth grade boys). It was my guilty secret, a prepubescent Philosopher's Stone. Here at last, an unexpurgated and honest telling of my truest desire: Please God-- let me get my period. 

In a word (ok, in seven words): Please God, let me grow up. Now.

I was so quick to want to grow up. To be a woman. To be older. To skip adolescence altogether and race right into the next phase of my life. I was ready, and had been since fifth grade, when we got the first Talk; boys in one room, girls in the other. I have no idea what they said to the boys, but we girls got the Miracle of Life speech, the Changing Body speech, the Hormones and Pimples and Babies (oh my!) speech. 

All I could think was PleasepleasepleaseNOW! 

And it happened. Soon, or now, or close enough to not matter. I grew up, got older, moved from child to adolescent to woman in the blink of an eye, all with a stately and inexorable rhythm.

I think of this now, as I squint to read the not-so-fine print of my book or listen to the creaking of my  knees as I unbend less than gracefully getting out of my car. The infinity of my youth has finally given way to the dictates of entropy. 

I am old. Older. I am not sure if I am willing to concede the mantle of my youth quite yet, and trade it in for a lap blanket and rocking chair. I will not go gently into the afternoon, let alone that dark, dark night.  The sad truth, though, is that while I may rage against the dying of the light, the stranger that greets me in the mirror every day is fine with the dying of the hair. And it must be that stranger; it certainly can't be me

I remember looking at my mother (with all the condescension that only a twenty-something can muster for her ancient parent) when she declared she needed to have Work Done (the capital letters clearly underscoring her words).  She talked not just of hennas and highlighting, but of lifting and tucking and cutting. There were diets to follow and Exercycles to be bought (Not actually pedaled, however. Apparently, we lived within a magical force field where just owning exercise equipment was enough to realize its toning potential). Suddenly, there were creams and unguents littering her bathroom shelves, where once there had been suntan oil and cigarettes.

I listened to her, nodding and smiling (and hoping my derision was almost hidden well enough to make her think twice), thinking that I would never - never - stoop to such lows. I swore to myself that I would march proudly into my age, wear my wrinkles and folds and sagging flesh with pride. I will have earned those wrinkles and folds, damn it, every last one of them. I will be careworn and weathered because I will have lived my life to the very edges, never shrinking from adventure or passion. I would never cave to societal pressures or sadistic ideals of beauty.

She was at least a decade younger than I am now when she first made her declaration. Ugh. I felt no compassion for my mother, only pity. 

So now, I have grown into my age. The face in my mirror is barely recognizable at times. Those aren't wrinkles; they are chasms. There is paunch and spread. It is harder to see, harder to sleep. There are times when it seems as if I will spontaneously combust. I have conditions, and sometimes those conditions have conditions. I can no longer travel without carrying a pharmacy in my bag.

My body hurts, dammit. It creaks and aches and doesn't listen to my wheedling demands (as if it ever did, but at least way back then, it played nice and snapped back into shape with relative ease). There are now creams and unguents on my bathroom counter, along with appointments for highlights and hennas on my calendar.

This is not my body. This cannot be me. Can it?

When I was 11, reading Judy Blume, I wanted my period, wanted to be a Woman. Now? Funny: when I started to write this, I could have sworn it was going to be a scathingly sarcastic ode to menopause and aging. I could have sworn I was going to wax rhapsodic on wanting just ten more minutes of a different body-- younger, and firmer, more fit, more beautiful, more me-- the me I carry in my head.

Here's a surprise: I thought wrong. I wish less for something that I am not (for something that may never have been and certainly will never be again), and hope more for blessings and grace. And so I offer, not sarcasm, but a prayer:

God of infinite love and boundless grace, Let me see that the truest beauty is found in forgiveness, a kind heart and a gentle soul. Let me live a life that matters, with boldness and courage and faith-- which are far sexier than perfect skin or a toned body. These aches and pains and wrinkles that seem to have taken up permanent residence are not evidence of defeat, but my medals of honor of a life lived-- sometimes well, sometimes not, but lived, in all its messy glory.

When I was young, I wanted to be old(er). Now that I am, please, God, let me be myself.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Fear, Faith and a Really Big Sea-- an annual redux (times 3)

And so we have made it through one more circuit in the sweeping arc of that planetary dance around the sun. At almost full circle, it seems this particular essay of mine is becoming an annual thing. How bad could that be, though: an exercise that forces me to think about fear and faith and the part they both play in my life, the leaps that I have made and the stumbling around in the dark that I have done?  I have managed to navigate through my days with both faith and fear, though not in equal measure. The balance seems to be in favor of faith these days, and that is truly a thing of miracle and wonder.

It should come as no surprise that I have taken some long and twisty paths to get to this place. I gravitate towards the dark and twisty, and feel, somewhere in my head, or wandering around my heart, that life and things and lessons have more meaning if they are difficult to come by. While the shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, I prefer the road that diverges and is less traveled. We may eventually get to the same place, but the view, and the adventures in between, seem to make the journey that much richer (and the destination that much sweeter).

This year, I have less tested my faith than discovered it. Sometimes, I have had to rediscover it on a daily basis. My faith can be a tad quixotic. The glory, as I see it now, is that (at last, or at least for today) my faith has tempered my fear. Now, rather than lying cold and dank in the pit of my belly, ready to slither and coil outwards in a quickening spiral that radiates through me, spinning me madly, my fear is smaller, seemingly more docile and compliant. If it is not missing altogether, I at least have gained the ability to act upon my fear more realistically. More sanely.

The monsters hiding under beds and in closets may be real, but I have (hopefully) found better armor and more appropriate weaponry with which to defend myself. It surprises and delights me no end to find, in the tangled mess that is my current quiver, faith and hope are my most prized (and most used) arrows.

There is still much unchanged, or at least undifferent. It is still about fear, and faith in the face of that.  And it's about staring out at the vast and dark sea and being stuck and being afraid and having faith.  It's about being forgiven, at last, and forgiving, all in the same breath.

So the year turns, as it always does, and time flows in some holy and sacred river, and it is, once again, Passover.  There is beauty in that cyclical passage of time.  There is grace in getting to this season, again, of God's redemption.  Once we wandered a dark and empty desert, and then were brought home.  Once we were slaves, now we are free.  

Here's the post that sparked all this a few years ago:

I'm in one of those places: stuck, prickly, at the very edge of letting go, trembling with the effort to not tip over the edge into the abyss of the unknown, desperate to take that final leap of faith and soar towards light and wholeness. I am astounded, as always, when I think how inextricably intertwined my fear and my faith have become. I have heard (more times than I care to remember) that Fear (always pronounced with a capital F) is an absence of Faith. No. I think not. I demand Not. I am too intelligent--- God is too intelligent-- to demand unthinking blind faith like that, to insist that faith is a guard against fear.

Fear keeps the lights on at night and smells of sweat and tension and anxiety-- sharp and unpleasant. If the fear is great enough, it can keep me rooted and curled in on myself, covers pulled tightly over my head, unmoving. Paralyzed. Stuck. Tentative. Invisible.

But my faith: sweet and sure and graceful. It wraps around me like light, like breath, like life. It sometimes moves mountains. More often than not, it is just enough. Enough, not to beat back the darkness or vanquish my demons, but enough to put one foot in front of the other, to walk, however falteringly, forward. To know that, no matter what, I am enough, I will be ok.

And so, faith and grace being what they are, I think of my fear, and my stuckness, and I am reminded that it is Pesach (Passover). And in the midst of all of this darkness, there is also redemption, and release.

I got to tell the story of Nachshon at assembly a while back during Sunday school. It is my favorite midrash, I think. (For those of you reading this who are now totally lost in the tangle of my narrative, a midrash is a rabbinic story, a device used to fill in some of the blanks and the holes in the Torah. Kinda folkloric, they are the stories behind the stories.) So, Nachshon-- he was a slave with all the other Israelites who found redemption at the hand of God. He was Let Go, with a capital L and a capital G, brought out with a Mighty Hand. He packed and didn't let the dough rise and ran, breathless and scared and grateful, away from the land of Pharaohs and pyramids and crocodiles and slavery--- ran into freedom.

And then he got to the sea. He and 600,000 other un-slaved people. Stopped cold by the Red Sea. It was huge, and liquid and deep. You couldn't see the other side. It was so big you couldn't see any sides. Just wet from here to... forever.

And behind him, when he (and 600,000 others) dared to peek: Pharaoh and his army of men and horses and chariots. And spears and swords and assorted sharp pointy things. We really can't forget the sharp pointy things. Even at a distance, the sharp pointy things loomed quite large in the eyes of Nachshon and his recently-freed landsmen. Caught between the original rock and a hard place. Well, ok: between water and pointy metal stuff. At this point, I don't think anyone involved cared much about getting the metaphor exactly right. What they cared about was getting out from that perilous middle. Fast.

So Moses, because it was his job, went to have a chat with God. And just like that, Moses got an answer--- a Divine Instant Message. All that the Children of Israel needed to do: walk forward, into the Sea, that big, wet, deep forever sea. God would provide a way. "Trust Me," God seemed to say. "I got you this far, didn't I? I wouldn't let you fall now!"

And Nachshon and the 600,000 stood at the shivery edge of that Sea, staring at that infinite horizon in front and the pointy, roiling chaos of death and slavery behind them. And they stood. Planted. And let's face it: not just planted, but rooted in their fear and mistrust and doubt. They may have felt reassured by the image of God as a pillar of smoke or fire--- impressive pyrotechnics to be sure--- but the soldiers and the Sea were so there, so present, so much more real.

And then, in the midst of that fear and doubt, something changed. Nachshon, lately freed, trapped between death by water and death by bleeding, Nachshon did the miraculous-- he put one foot in front of the other and walked into the sea.  And the 600,000 held their collective breath, watching the scene unfold before them. Nachshon did what 600,000 could not: he decided to believe, to have faith. To leap. And tho the water covered first his ankles, then knees, then chest, then kept rising, until he was almost swallowed whole, he kept walking, kept believing. And just when it seemed that Nachshon was a fool for his faith, would surely drown in that infinite forever sea, another miracle:

The waters parted.

The Sea split and Nachshon, so recently in over his head, he walked on dry land. And the 600,000 breathed again, in one relieved whoosh of air, and they found their own faith and followed Nachshon into and across the dry Sea to the other side.  And then the journey truly began...

I pray to have faith enough to walk into my own Sea--- of doubt and fear and darkness. I want to walk and feel the waters part, to be released from the tangled web of thought that holds me immobile and disconnected. I have learned, again and again, without fail: when I take that step, when I find the grace and the faith to put one foot in front of the other, to trust, as Nachshon did, I am carried forward, I am freed from my self-imposed bondage. I am enough, and I can walk again on dry land to freedom.

I think I am finally learning to let go, finally leaving the desert, stumbling at last along a narrow bridge to light and hope.  There is fear; yes.  But there is also faith and grace and redemption.  Even for me, there is redemption. 

Once we were slaves, now we are free.

Chag Pesach Sameach.
Happy Passover

Sunday, March 17, 2013

And Miriam Sang.

And Miriam sang
God's song.
It flowed
Rising like smoke
Like a pillar of fire.
   And Miriam sang
   her brothers' song.
   Free at last, free at last!
      And she sang
      her mothers song,
      in velvet darkness and liquid as day
      A lullaby--
      A love song,
      her mother's song was.
         And Miriam sang
         the people's song:
         soft and loud at once
         and liquid still, and edged in smoke
         and wild
         Oh! so wild.
            A babble of song
            that lifted her feet
            and rang out--
            sang out
            with cymbal and lyre.
               Her voice rose
               Like smoke,
               Like air.
                  It soared.
                  And she sang the people's song
               Sang her mother's song
            Sang her brother's song
         Sang God's song.
      They poured forth from her
   as she danced.
The sea bed was rock-strewn
and dust
and blood now,
mixed with the dust.
And Miriam danced 
on sharp edged stone
and she sang,
her arms lifted, with cymbals
and timbrels
and ribbons of fire that caught the light,
caught the eyes of the people
as she danced them across the dry desert sea.
And she sang, Miriam did.
And she danced on feet that bled
arms lifted
and weary
with fluttering ribbons of color and light
And she sang God
   Singing faith
And she sang Moshe
   Singing freedom
And she sang her Mother
   Singing love
And she sang the people
   Singing celebration, singing fear.
And she danced
on feet that bled,
with arms raised in 
Weary and raw,
she danced on feet that bled
to a distant shore,
green and cool with a light that shimmered
   Like freedom
   Like love.
Miriam danced and raised her bloodied feet 
to stand upon the cool and green
No song, no cymbal
Just silence:
A final offering.
And into that stunning, that glorious silence,
she gave her weary body
   her bloodied body,
      her ribbons and cymbals,
         her vision,
            her voice.

            And God sang 
         Miriam's song
      and it lifted her, like fire
   and it filled her, like love

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Hosanna of Cold

Winter crisp,
sharp-edged glitter-
That leaf-strewn path,
once edged in gold and
a suddenness of blue
now lies
in silver and white and grey,
Startled by shadows.
I could not see where earth began and horizon ended,
but bare branches held up the sky,
and evergreen altars
laden with snow and the
remembrance of spring
God's voice danced through ice and air
that stung my eyes
and burned my lungs,
and I sang
There on the edge of winter,
As the sky
     the earth
          the horizon
with the rising of morning,
I sang an exaltation of
A hosanna of
my soul returned.