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Author Archives: jennaclareallen

In Defense of My Friends Who Didn’t Vaccinate and For Anyone Else Feeling Beleaguered by the Media

Today I am feeling a bit weary. Generally speaking, I am thankful for the internet. It is an amazing and useful resource, not to mention a great source of fun; but I have to admit, I occasionally go through periods where I feel that it brings out the absolute worst in human nature. I occasionally go through periods where I wonder if we, collectively, as a nation, might just need a good spanking for the way we behave toward one another through our various forms of technology. I am frequently astonished to find that the first place to which people go when disagreeing with one another online is slander, vile language, name-calling and surprising cruelty. I am amazed by the frequency with which people refer to one another as “fools” or “idiots” or call one another “evil.” I am astounded by the comments people make about total strangers, saying things like, “You make me want to vomit!”—things they would never say if standing face to face with another person.

My husband likens it to road rage. He says the anonymity and safety of a car and the anonymity and safety of a computer bring out the worst in us. And I am inclined to agree. I can’t tell you the number of times this week I have seen words—so many harsh words—thrown around about, for example, people who are opposed to vaccinations. I have heard them called “selfish,” “irrational,” “crazy,” “fools,” “freaks,” (I have even seen, “should be sterilized!”) and a whole host of less polite terms.

Whatever happened to our ability as a nation to engage in rational discourse? At what point did disagreement with another person make the other person “clearly inferior,” to us emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, morally, etc? Since when did disagreement with another person become the only criteria for that individual being labeled a criminal, an ogre, a witch or a deviant? Doesn’t disagreement sometimes happen between two rational, intelligent people of sound mind who see the world in somewhat different ways? What has happened to the idea that two people may disagree and still show respect to one another—and even for one another’s ideas?

Are there good reasons to think that a person not vaccinating their child might be making a mistake? Yep, I would say so. And are there good reasons why people who oppose vaccination oppose it? Yep, I would say so. Do we have to be at one another’s throats about it? I don’t see why. The greatest manipulative tool modern media wields is the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) division of the world into “us” and “them.” After all, as long as there is an “us” and a “them,” there is always going to be sufficient fodder for another news cycle.

So, I just want to say that if you did vaccinate your kids, I respect your decision. I recognize that you vaccinated your kids because you thought it was the best and wisest decision you could make as a parent for their protection and safety and that you did it because you love those kids to pieces. And if you didn’t vaccinate your kids, I also respect your decision. I recognize that you did not vaccinate your kids because you thought it was the best and wisest decision you could make as a parent for their protection and safety and that you didn’t vaccinate because you love those kids to pieces.

Are there still questions that need to be asked and answered in the “vaccination debate?” Yeah. Definitely. It is an important subject and one that will probably be around for a long time. Do I question why people get so passionate about it? No, I genuinely don’t. Love for our children makes us pretty passionate people. Do I question why that particular subject has been such an incendiary one for Americans in the last several weeks? No, I don’t. But I do believe that the way we say something matters just as much as whatever it is we are trying to communicate. If it isn’t said with kindness, or at least civility, it usually can’t be heard for the ringing in our ears.

So, what if we take just a moment to get back to basics? What if we say: If you are gay, I respect you. If you aren’t, I respect you. Why? Because you are a human being. If you are a man, I respect you. If you are a woman, I respect you. Why? Because you are a human being. If you are a person of faith, I respect you; if not, I respect that, too. Why? Because you are a human being. If you are a pro-vaxxer, I respect you. If you are an anti-vaxxer, I respect you. Why? Because you are a human being. Liberal? Conservative? Fine. Good. Traditional med proponent? Alternative med proponent? Yep. Got it. There are reasons why both approaches make sense. Even if I disagree with you, I respect your ideas because you are a human being who inherently, intrinsically deserves the respect and kindness of other people. And by diminishing your value and worth as a person, I recognize that I would be diminishing my own value and worth.

Is it possible for us to disagree while at the same time affirming one another’s humanity? Yes. It is. But only if we are willing to really, truly listen to one another without coming to the table for the sole purpose of punching our own agenda down someone else’s throat or mocking others who “just can’t see the world as clearly as we can.”

There is no us and them, friends. There’s just us. We all want to belong, we all want to have a voice, and we all want to be treated with basic fairness and dignity. When we fail to acknowledge the humanity of others, we only depreciate our own humanity. And when we attempt to make fools of others, we only make fools of ourselves.

A Letter To Those Trying to Understand Depression and Suicide

One of the things I find most interesting about being a writer is that, most of the time, the things that most need to be written about are the things I least want to share with other people. Partly, that is because I am an intensely private person and, partly, it is because nobody with any sense likes to feel uncomfortable. I think that humans have a very real and natural tendency to mostly keep their struggles, troubles, difficulties and sorrows to themselves. If they are feeling weak, if they are failing, falling apart, lost, lonely or burdened, most people will go into their houses and shut the door, waiting for the calamity to pass and hoping against hope that they will never have to share their intense vulnerability, their loss or their failure with anyone else.

It’s a reasonable way to feel. None of us wants to seem weak because, ultimately, the thing we want more than anything else is to be loved, to be admired and respected. And the weak are hard to love. Their neediness, their clinginess, their walking-open-woundedness is messy and uncomfortable and threatening, not to mention just a real downer, man. And I get that.

It takes a really unusual person to be okay with discomfort—to be comfortable with just how uncomfortable a difficult situation can be. It is a rare, holy and much needed gift. And from the perspective of human history, there is probably a very good reason why most of us run from other people’s problems, from their honesty. On a very basic, elemental level, it is our “fight or flight” response kicking in, telling us to tuck tail and get the heck out before the tragedy or depression or attempted suicide or broken marriage or addiction or whatever it is oozes out and infects and endangers us and our families, too.

I wish that I was brave. I wish I could say with any degree of honesty that I am impervious to other people’s opinions about my weaknesses and that I am able to share my vulnerabilities and even failures without a moment’s hesitation. But sadly, that is just not the case. The truth is, I want to be loved and respected and admired just as much as the next guy. And so I mostly keep my losses, my weaknesses, my open-woundedness to myself. I would much prefer it if other people thought of me as easy-breezy, charming, funny, intelligent, confident and always, always, always competent. On my good days, I am several of those things. On my bad days, I am probably not any of those things.

Even so, though I want the love and admiration of others as much as anyone does, there are days when love and respect does not matter to me nearly as much as honesty; as much as the ability to be truly human. And today I feel the need to admit that what I actually am—more than smart or funny or clever or confident or any other trait that I could long to foster in myself or present to the world at large—is human. There are days when it is important to stand up for humanness. For brokenness. For messiness and dirtiness and icky-sticky emotions. Today, for me, is just one of those days. It’s been a messy couple of years on planet earth. And while I understand, more than I could ever fully express, what it is to be messy, I also understand what it means to have hope. And if I can give one tiny particle of hope to someone who is drowning in grief or sorrow or loss or depression, I would love to be able to do that.

Seven years ago, I became pregnant with my first baby. I had waited, well, my whole life to become a mom. Not to mention that I had waited seven years into my marriage, through three masters degrees and a doctorate (between my husband and me), and six moves. So, as I am sure you can imagine, it was a pretty big deal. I was thrilled. Beyond thrilled. Over the moon. I was smitten with that baby from the moment of his conception. And as time has gone by, I have only become more so.

Anyway, for the first couple of weeks of my pregnancy, I thought that everything was golden—until one morning, it wasn’t anymore. On day thirty, I woke up at four in the morning, vomiting. And I kept vomiting. For eight months. It kept going and going and going and going and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t stop. I remember spending hours and hours every day trying to lay perfectly still, not even breathing too deeply, because any time I moved, even a little, I began to vomit again. It was pretty much the worst. Thing. Imaginable.

I had a condition known as hyperemesis gravidarum. Which, as far as I can tell, is the latin phrase for, “Wow! That is an UNPRECEDENTED amount of vomit!” Something like one percent of women have that particular condition during pregnancy. As it turned out, I was one of the few, the proud, the lucky, the one percent. The condition was so severe that I couldn’t sleep at night, and if I did sleep for an hour here or there, my body would wake me up so that I could get back to the more important business of vomiting some more. I couldn’t keep water or food down—and by the time by my son was born I was so malnourished that two weeks after I gave birth to him, I was in clothes two sizes smaller than I had been when I got pregnant with him (and I was thin when I got pregnant).

I was so very ill that for every day of those eight months, I was too weak to even sit up. I could not get out of bed. And eventually, one of the valves in my heart decided not to work—there was so much strain on my body from the vomiting that my heart just couldn’t keep up. At six months pregnant, I was hospitalized. And then, to make matters worse, other problems developed: acid reflux from all of the stomach acid I was forever throwing up, terrible muscle pain from lack of sleep (which eventually developed into full blown fibromyalgia), serious blood pressure issues from lying down all the time, horrific back pain from de-conditioning. And on and on. I spent eight months in bed, so sick that I genuinely wondered if I would die before my son was ever born. I remember wondering whether the doctors would somehow be able to keep him alive if I were to die before term.

It was a mess. A beautiful mess, don’t get me wrong—after all, I got my son out of it. But still, a mess. I remember the exact moment that I felt the first reprieve from the terrible and debilitating illness that pregnancy was for me: at twelve or thirteen weeks, even as I lay in bed too ill to move, I could feel what felt like the flutter of butterflies inside my belly. It was beautiful. It was holy. It was good. I bubbled up with joy and thankfulness.

And then, again at fourteen weeks, one night at three or four in the morning, I felt what seemed like a gigantic man-foot kick me in the bladder and I giggled into the darkness. I woke up my husband, put his hand on the man-foot rooting around inside my gut. And we laughed as we lay there holding on to our boy, giggling in the dark, until we fell back to sleep.

It was the most beautiful, amazing, miraculous pregnancy that you can possibly imagine, and the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. Even so, I was so ill that my Ob/Gyn scheduled an emergency c-section at 37 weeks because he was just not sure that I could go on any longer. He was absolutely right to do so; there was just no way I could have safely delivered my boy all on my own. My body had nothing left. No sleep. No rest. No strength. No calories. No fat. No muscle. No endurance. Nothing.

After my son was born, the nurses brought him into our hospital room and placed him on my chest as I lay red-eyed and pale in my hospital bed. I was too weak to sit up or support him with my arm muscles and there were what looked like deep purple bruises rimming my eyes from…lack of sleep? Malnutrition? I was too weak to hold him, so my husband and mom-in-law and mom held him on my chest so that I could still cuddle with my precious baby boy. I spent hours kissing him and whispering to him about how long I had waited for him, about how precious he was to me, about how he was the best thing I had ever done. My husband held his little body in place as I nursed him, because I was too weak to hold him for myself. For the first four months after he was born, friends and family members stayed with us around the clock while our little family tried to recover from the trauma of the pregnancy and c-section and the fibromyalgia with which I now dealt.

We held our precious boy, staring at him for hours, snuggling, feeding, and kissing him, reveling in the taste and touch and smell of his skin, the sound of his belly laugh, the happy grunting noises he made as he ate. We watched him grow fatter and fatter and stronger and healthier and more beautiful with every week. And the joy and gratitude I felt were immeasurable. He was our miracle. There was no question that he was with us only through the grace and goodness of God. And I was absolutely certain that it was a miracle that he and I had lived through it. I had never been so happy. I had never known that kind of joy before. Yet, the sorrow I felt at the same time was unendurable. I could not shake it, no matter how hard I tried. No matter how disciplined I was or how hard I worked to move on, to recover, I could not escape the enormous ocean of grief whose waves washed over, knocking me on my face, time and time and time again.

And honestly, the insomnia that went with the depression magnified its effects ten thousand fold. Human beings who do not sleep cannot possibly be functional, capable, able, healthy people. The human body can not keep going without sleep. For three years, I did. not. sleep.

For the first two years after my son was born, I thought that if I disciplined myself to prayer, to the study of Scripture, to daily exercise, to time spent working with my therapist, to hours devoted to meditation and the singing of psalms of praise, to many hours spent with family and friends, that I would eventually get over what had happened. And I was insistent that recovering from this depression should happen without the use of medication.

For reasons I still cannot understand, it felt like failure to admit that I needed medication. What was worse, it felt like a lack of faith to go through so unremitting a depression to begin with, especially as I looked at and held and played with and laughed at the most beautiful baby in the world. I was so intensely blessed. I knew that without a doubt. I had a wonderful life, in spite of everything I had been through, and even in spite of the fibromyalgia I now dealt with on a daily basis. I was truly filled with a joy I can not even express and even so, the sorrow sat in my chest like a boulder too heavy to ever be rolled away. I was determined that with perseverance, patience, faith and an iron will, I could recover without medication. I was determined that I would not respond to the goodness of God with ingratitude. And depression felt like the worst sort of ingratitude.

After all, I had made it through alive, hadn’t I? I lived with a husband I adored, a precious son, I was blessed with wonderful friends and family. I had all of my basic needs met. My life was a truly good thing. And yet…I could not stop grieving.

And, honestly? Honestly? It was through a sort of insidious “Christian” philosophy and teaching that I had come to believe (without even meaning to) that depression was a spiritual weakness that ought to be overcome through faith. And even as my conscious mind openly rejected such thinking, my subconscious somehow allowed that kind of poison to seep in. There is no doubt in my mind that much of the time, the teachers, thinkers, friends, etc., that had lead me toward this view of mental illness had not really meant to teach that at all; many had not even wanted to believe that that was true. Even so, it remains, even in the twenty-first century, an incredibly destructive teaching (often times an implicit teaching) within many branches of Christianity. And it is an incredibly dangerous one. Frankly, though I rationally understood the truth—after all, I had known plenty of depressed Christians who truly loved Jesus and who were people of integrity and courage and strength—emotionally, I remained convinced that if I could just love and trust Christ enough, I could get through it.

You simply cannot imagine the determination and self-discipline I employed during that time: no matter what, no matter how debilitating the illness should have been, I relentlessly got up every morning, worked out, showered, dressed, went to therapy, spent time working on a novel, spent quality time with family, did housework, cooked, worked in my yard, spent hundreds of hours listening to sermons and worship music, ministered in my church, spent time with friends, tried to nurture other people, tried to think less about myself and my own sorrows. I planned out every minute of every day so that I simply would not have time to be a depressed person. On and on and on I worked at it. Reading everything I could find about how to treat depression, how to get on with it, how to overcome your “weakness,” how to be whole again. And I painstakingly applied every principle that I came across in my own life. For over two years.

And guess what?

It didn’t help.

No matter how hard I worked, I could not get over what I had been through. I could not recover from the grief and sorrow I felt over having been so ill that I feared that I might die every day for eight months. I could not get over the grief and sorrow I felt at the chronic illness I now dealt with. I couldn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.

I spent hundreds of hours, maybe thousands, in prayer, in reading Scripture, crying out to God for deliverance; for His help, that He would allow me to endure, that He would teach me to have joy in all circumstances, to be content no matter what happened, that He would listen to my prayers, that He would answer me; that He would bear me up; that He would let me hear his voice; that He would keep me from faltering.

And do you know what happened? Nothing. Not a sound. Not a word. Nothing. To this day, I don’t know why He chose to allow me to go through such a time of despair. To this day, I do not understand why He remained hidden for so long. There were times when the anger and isolation I felt were indescribable, unfathomable. There were countless nights where I lay in bed, fighting Him tooth and nail, screaming at Him in my heart. I felt rage. Blind rage. Through it all, He remained completely, utterly quiet. I wish I could tell you that I have it all figured out; that I understand why God operates in the way He does. But there are many ways in which He is a mystery to me.

Then one Saturday night, I lay in bed, sleepless, and realized that a plan of suicide had sprung fully formed into my mind. Without me ever having consciously engaged in suicidal ideation (in fact, I had always painstakingly turned my mind away from those kinds of thoughts) or made a decision to take my own life, my subconscious mind had made it for me. And I have to admit, it was a pretty good plan. Very neat. Very clean. No muss. No fuss.

I would send my husband and son out to run errands. And then put a sign on my front door for my husband to find when they returned telling him to turn around immediately without entering the house and drive our son straight to the home of our best friends. The note would instruct him to call 911 on his way back to our place. Then, after having taken care of the note, I would run myself a bath and lock the bathroom door (as a fail safe to make sure that there was no possible way our two year old could accidentally find me) and I would shut the shower curtain so my husband would not have to walk in and see my suicide first thing. And then I would slit my wrists with my husband’s grandfather’s straight razor and go to sleep, forever.

I lay there all night thinking about it. Considering it from every possible angle. Would it work? Was there anything I was missing? Was there a less messy way? A less traumatic way? Would my husband ever get over it? Would it ruin my son’s life? Would it be easier for my husband if I did it outside of our house? I thought and thought and thought and thought: systematically laying out the best possible plan to end my own life. And as I lay there, two things came into my head over and over again: first, if I went through with it, all of my friends, my siblings-in-law, my brother and sister, my parents-in-law and parents, my husband and son would never get over it. Never, never, never. No matter what. I was certain of that.

I thought about how, for the rest of their lives, every day would have a shadow hanging over it. I thought about how they would probably never feel truly joyful or at peace again, without at least some small pang of loss and sadness, and possibly despair. And that I would be the cause of that, forever and ever. I recognized, even as dangerously depressed as I was, that in some ways, I would not just be ending my own life, but theirs, too. And the responsibility of that took my breath away.

Also, no matter what had happened, no matter how pissed off I was at God, no matter how much I felt in that moment that He had failed me, no matter what I had lost, what I had suffered, what God had allowed me to endure, there was something that remained inside of me, telling me over and over and over again, ad nauseum, ad infinitum, (and let’s be honest, a lot of the time the voice inside my head was actually my husband’s voice calling me relentlessly back toward the light) that God’s love redeems all things, restores all things, recreates all things. There was something inside of me that kept telling me that no matter what, God’s stories have a good ending. What happens in the beginning and the middle is often a complete train wreck, but the end is always a thing of beauty. No matter what. No matter what. And that if I could hold on a little longer, I might somehow get to see the good ending to my story.

Something inside of me, something beyond the rational and beyond the tangible, told me that no matter what hell happens on this earth, His intention is to make something holy and beautiful and good out of it, even if we can not see it at the time. Something told me that if I could just stay alive long enough, God would heal me, in His time, in His way. Because that’s what He does, He heals. That’s who He is, the Healer. Something told me that God can make holy even the most unholy circumstances on the planet. Something—I am assuming it was the Holy Spirit, the grace of Christ—kept telling me that the bottom was solid. That the pit had bedrock at its base and that, eventually, I was going to stop falling and that, by God’s grace, I would land gently, back once again on solid ground.

The next morning, I got out of bed with a war being waged inside my brain and soul that I cannot put into words. I later had a psychiatrist tell me that when serotonin levels become dangerously low inside the gut and human brain, the brain actually starts sending messages that the person should just “go ahead and end it,” because the human body simply cannot go on functioning with serotonin levels that dip below a certain point. So, basically, that Sunday morning, while my broken brain was trying its best to kill me, my soul was fighting desperately, fiercely, savagely to keep me alive.

I got up and made a call to our worship pastor telling him that I would not be able to help with worship that morning. Later at church, a very odd thing happened. I went over to talk to him and thank him for being gracious about letting me off the hook and, for some reason, I told him very calmly and rationally that I was going through a postpartum depression and that, frankly, I didn’t feel much like worshiping God that morning. And that to be even more frank, in spite of how much I loved Him, I kind of felt like God was a big, dumb, butt-munch, jerk at the moment. And then it just all spilled out of me. I told him everything. Calmly and quietly and politely. It just poured out—like someone else was doing the talking for me.

I have no idea why I told him what I told him. I never say things like that. I never tell people personal things or what is really, truly going on inside my head. I just don’t. I am far, far too private for that. But for some reason, that morning, and perhaps it was because I was on the verge of death, I was completely vulnerable and honest about how broken I was and probably, that unwitting honesty saved my life.

Our worship pastor—who went on to become a good friend of ours—listened and listened. Instead of being shocked and appalled and disappointed with my lack of faith, he acted like he heard this kind of stuff every day. No biggie; join the club. In fact, he almost seemed like it was kind of blasé. I was astonished. After he listened to me talk for what seemed like five years, but what was probably only a few minutes, he said he was going to talk to his wife and have her call me after church. Nonplussed, I politely asked him why. “Because,” he said, “she went through a depression this severe after our second was born and I think you need to go to the emergency room right now.” I was surprised and a little incredulous, but I thanked him and said I would wait for her call.

A little while later, she called me and almost immediately said, “Run, do not walk to the nearest hospital, RIGHT NOW! I will meet you there in twenty.” And for some reason, the most private, quiet, independent, strong-willed girl I know, after two years and four months of refusing medication, broke down and went to the ER. My new friend met me there with Chipotle, magazines and juice and and we sat on my hospital bed and talked and laughed and goofed off and somehow found a lot of joy in the midst of some of the most awful circumstances. Then she proceeded to kindly—and in a very charming way—boss around pretty much every single person in the hospital. And for some reason, the doctors and nurses just grinned at her—like she was, indeed, very charming—and did whatever she asked them to do. I was floored. She stayed with me the entire afternoon and into the evening and made sure that I got the best care, the warmest blankets, the fattest pillows, the most frequent restroom breaks, the most private cubicle, the best doctors and the best drugs known to man. It was pretty bad-ass. And honestly, it saved my life. It saved my spirit. My soul. My brain. And definitely my body. She was a warrior-angel and for me, that day, she was the very presence of Christ himself.

For pretty obvious reasons, I really like that chick a lot.

Anyway, I spent four days in the hospital, talking to doctors and nurses and therapists and sleeping and praying and waiting. And at the end of it, they sent me home with a new psychiatrist and a big fat wonderful delicious bottle of antidepressants. Thank God. Those babies have kept me alive for almost four years now. They allow me to sleep every night. If I could, I would kiss them on the mouth.

Eight agonizing weeks after I left the hospital, I noticed the tiniest difference in my ability to deal with the sorrow. The antidepressants were starting to work, just a little. I could smile just a tiny bit more. Laugh a little. Snuggle my baby boy closer. Whisper secrets in his ear. I laughed at my husband’s jokes for the first time in a couple of years. It wasn’t much of a difference—the sorrow and anxiety were still enormous—but it was enough of a difference for me to hang on and resolve to stay alive for a little longer.

Eventually, through therapy it came to light that not only was I dealing with a major depressive episode, but also PTSD. Which basically means I was a pretty damn big mess.

It took another three years for me to mostly recover, one agonizing day at a time. And even today, I am not quite who I was before I got pregnant; I think I will probably always be a little different. I jump when somebody makes a loud noise. I am a little more easily stimulated than I once was. I was always a little sensitive to sound, but now I am certainly more so. My reflexes are faster. I succumb more easily to stress. I am just a tiny, tiny bit buzzy. And it’s so subtle that I almost don’t notice it, and yet I do notice it. And also, though the feelings of depression are very rare now, they are still occasionally present, though they are mostly associated these days with a certain—ahem—time of the month (sorry to embarrass you, oh, gentleman reader).

On the whole, I am just a little different, not so much so that most people would ever notice, but it is definitely there. And yet, there are good changes, too. Honestly, who I am now, having been through what I have, makes me a far more useful human being than I ever was before. I am, for instance, completely comfortable being around screwed up people and mentally ill people. I am totally fine with being with people in the midst of a crisis or a tragedy. I am comfortable with the elderly, the sick and the dying. Because I have been through almost all of those things myself. I know what it feels like. And more than anything, I understand that no matter who or what you are or the circumstances in your life, you always need to be treated as if you are human, as if you deserve dignity. As if you are yourself. And, perhaps most importantly, as if your problems are not anathema.

Even with the changes, the slight differences in temperament, I am nearly back to the me I once was. I notice it now every day: I can take a little more. I can handle more responsibility. I do not get angry or stressed or upset the way I once did. I can sit and read the news without weeping. I can concentrate again, finally, often for many hours at a time. For a while, I could not be in the same room with the news or, say, a serious movie, television show or action movie—for the longest time, it was just too much…static, too much chaos, too much adrenaline. Now, I can watch a difficult or intense movie without being affected by it overly much.

I am finally happy and playful and goofy and silly again. I sleep better than I have in years. And also, by God’s grace and kindness to me, I am wiser. And kinder. And more compassionate. Slower to judge things I do not understand. More patient with other people’s failings. Quicker to recognize that so many things are beyond our control. Less surprised to find that people are, well, people. And God knows I am stronger, because His terrible mercy allowed me to be broken in half and his unfailing goodness forged me back together.

I remember reading once that scar tissue is the strongest tissue in the human body, and that when a bone is properly set after being broken, it heals stronger than it was before the break. I can attest to the truth of both of these things. In some ways, I am weaker than I was before, more fragile (and I probably always will be) and in some ways, far, far stronger, because God’s strength in us is made more perfect through our weakness. I had a friend tell me once (after my son was born), that I have what she referred to as “the gift of spiritual triage.” In other words, I am completely comfortable with sitting in the middle of someone else’s muck and mud. And I think that is true. Other people’s shit doesn’t scare me anymore. I am not afraid of “catching it,” because I have already caught it. And by God’s grace I have been inoculated. And I am immeasurably thankful for that. For that very reason, going through what I have is worth it a thousand times over. I have always wanted to be a useful person. Now, in my own way, I am.

As for Christians and depression: the church still has a long way to go. It is still true that some well intentioned (or at least I hope so) Christian blogger is forever sticking his or her foot in their mouth. I still read on a regular basis that someone is preaching about faith and recovery from depression and how depression is sin. And blah. blah. blah. It’s misguided nonsense. Sometimes, yes, I have to turn my laptop off for a day or two. Shut it down. Walk away. Pray for patience and grace. And, thankfully, grace is a gift freely given, so it always comes.

One of the things I love most about the spirit of God is that He is never through with revealing the truth to us. He keeps peeling back the layers of his love. Gently, over time, as we are ready for it, He teaches His people more about the truth, about His heart, about His love for the broken and about how we may help heal the brokenhearted. And I recognize that, over time, He will reveal more and more to the Church about how to respond with wisdom and integrity and kindness and true compassion to those who are suffering with the terrible burden of depression.

I think that with every passing year, the church understands a little bit more about what depression is not: it is not a lack of faith or character or resolve or integrity or self-discipline. It is not a sign of emotional or spiritual weakness. It is not. a. choice. It is not something that can be ass-whipped with “the Sword of Good Christian Resolve.” It is a thing that happens, in spite of the very best of our very best efforts. A disease. An affliction. A result of living in a broken world. And yes, oh, yes! It is a thing that Christ can and will redeem, as He redeems all of Creation.

Yet, the redemption is one of being burned with fire. And pretty much no one is a fan of being burned. It is an unbearable pain. You should no more blame a person who deals with depression than you should blame a man on fire running from a burning building. In many respects, we live in a world on fire. It is not very surprising, then, when people are ignited by the flames. In fact, I would say it is more surprising when they are not burned. So, instead of casting blame, or causing shame in those who are already broken, what we as the church should do (and we are definitely getting better at it), is help put the fire out in any way we can, by any means necessary. And then we should sit and hold the victim and treat the burns, until such a time as healing can take place.

Lastly, to those of you who are depressed or dealing with suicidal thoughts: There is nothing wrong with you, except that you live in a fallen, imperfect world and you are working with a fallen, sometimes broken body and a fallen, sometimes broken brain. All of Creation groans, man, and it will continue to do until such a time as Christ restores it to its former glory. And He will. You can bank on it.

And also, being diagnosed with depression is no more your fault than being diagnosed with lupus or cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease or Crohn’s disease. You should no more push yourself to live without the appropriate treatments and medications than a person with heart disease should try and go without anesthetics during an open heart surgery or beta blockers and blood pressure medication after the surgery. Get the help you need. Whatever that help may be. Christ is endlessly merciful and compassionate. Far more so than anyone on this planet. He is not disappointed in you. He does not judge you. He is nuts about you. And he wants your health and restoration far more than you could ever imagine. So much so that He was willing to die in order to give it to you.

Last of all, I love you. Whoever you are. Wherever you are. You are not alone. I am a short facebook message away, as are millions of other people who are and will continue to deal with depression. You are not alone.

You are not alone.

God be with you and bless you and keep you, even to the end of the age. And may your heart and soul and body and brain be healed, both through the efforts of your family doc and through the work of the Great Physician. And in the meantime, friend: hunker down, take your meds, see your shrink, talk to your pastor, spend time with people who remind you of who you are and who you’re meant to be, and hold fast. The story is about to get really good.

Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Average

Somebody really smart said one time that we read to know we aren’t alone in this world. I think that writers write for the same reason. I know I do. Writing is the way I process life and try to make sense of what is going on in the microcosm of my own life and the macrocosm of life on planet earth. I write because I need to know that I am not alone. Yeah. Definitely. I need to know that what I do matters to somebody, somewhere, and, perhaps more significantly, that the voices in the world around me are not merely my own, echoing back at me from the jagged rocks across the canyon. The flip side of that is that I write because I very much hope—more than practically anything—that I will someday write something that will remind other people that they aren’t alone, either.

So this week, I have been mulling over the choices we make as parents and as career people and, ultimately, as human beings, and how we can live with assurance that those choices are valid. And, as is almost always the case, it was an incident in my own life that got me thinking about this stuff. And since I am convinced that we all need to know we are not alone in our vulnerabilities and uncertainties, I am writing about it.

It happened a few weeks ago at a social thing. Now, I should go ahead and admit upfront that I am a pretty sensitive girl. I don’t look like it and I don’t act like it, but I am. This incident involved this sensitive girl’s feelings being hurt by someone else’s words, so I am still trying to work through it—because we sensitive people are a little slow when it comes to working through stuff. So. I was at this party and I met a young woman who was sharp as a tack—an engineer who was just super-put-together. She asked what I do and what I studied in school and, when I told her, said that she wished she had done something easy like going to seminary and becoming a stay-at-home mom who writes books on the side. You can imagine the blow to my vanity. For about three solid seconds, I started to get good and pissed off. I literally bit the side of my tongue to keep the stalactite-sharp reply that came to my mind from escaping from my lips.

Now, the letter that James wrote says that the tongue is like a fire, and I totally agree. I find that the quickest way to start a wildfire—one that can potentially rage for years—is to make a comment (even unintentionally) that attacks another person’s person-hood—their ontology, their validity. And I am painfully aware that I am no less susceptible to starting forest fires than the next person, so any time I catch even a faint whiff of smoke wafting lazy-like on the breeze, I try to button my lips as quickly as I can before a tongue of flame blazes into an inferno the size of the state of California. So, I swallowed, took a deep breath, and swallowed again. Then I noticed the nervous way this young woman’s eyes were flitting around the room, and how her shoulders and arms were pulled in tightly against her chest, kind of like she was hugging herself. Then I remembered that she was sitting in a room full of strangers, and that—what was worse—the rest of us already knew each other and were, in fact, best friends. So, I took a second deep breath, and then another one, and said that, yes, becoming an engineer seemed like it would be insanely hard, and that she must be really über smart to have pulled it off, and that there is just no way I could have made it through an engineering program. I watched as her shoulders visibly relaxed. Then, because those words seemed both true and kind, I left it at that.

I wish I could say that, because I am such a ridiculously well-adjusted and internally secure person, I immediately forgot that it ever happened. But that’s just not the truth. It bothered me. Not simply because this new girl wasn’t quite sure if my life choices were valid, but because I am always wondering if my life choices are valid. I am always dealing with my own defunct humanity; my own existential and emotional uncertainties; my own slightly cracked soul. Since I am always grappling with those fears in my mind—and because human life doesn’t happen in a vacuum—I am pretty certain that other people must be struggling with the same questions and with the cracks in their own souls.

I had a conversation the other day with one of my best friends on a similar topic. About how, even as relatively self-confident adults, we both always find ourselves secretly hoping that people are really impressed with us; we hope that people look at our friends and marriages and career paths and the way we are raising our kids and our meta-narratives and the way we choose to spend our money and whatever else and think, “Wow, that old So-And-So really has it together.”

Now, this need may not look the way it did when we were younger and wore our hearts on our sleeves. In fact, I think that we do a much better job of concealing our need for approval and reassurance as adults; but still, this need is pretty deeply rooted in the fabric of who we are as humans, and I don’t think that anybody escapes it. And I also think (as do a bunch of other really smart theologians who thought of it before me) that it is probably there because once upon a time we lived in a garden called Eden, and we got to spend our evenings receiving a lot of face-time from our perfect, loving Creator. Back in Eden, the Creator gave us our identity and our security and very successfully told us who we are. And we accepted His pronouncements about us, because we understood intuitively that He was the only one who had the right to make them.

Then, when the Fall happened, we lost track of that perfect identity, that security, as well as our profoundly reassuring relationship with the Creator. And we have been wandering around our beautiful blue planet ever since, looking for someone to meet that most basic of human needs—someone who can sufficiently provide the ultimate answer to our ontological questions—and, sadly, not finding anyone who can pull it off. We humans seem to be always on the lookout for someone who can give us back our metaphysical security; inevitably, we are looking for it in the wrong places. God was the one who gave us our identity in the first place, so, it stands to reason that He’s the only one who can give it back.

So, how does this spiritual black hole of insecurity play itself out in my own life? Well, probably more ways than I can name. For one thing, I will probably never appear publicly in a bikini this side of the Pearly Gates (I mean, come on, I actually grew another human being inside my stomach). Also, and on a more philosophically significant note, I often find that I don’t innately possess the answers to how to properly parent my son and, strangely, it feels as if everyone around me is completely sure of the rules of the game. I find that I mostly parent one very deep breath at a time, whereas other mothers seem to parent from the natural wellspring of their indefatigable knowledge. I look at my little person with such wonder, with such complete and total bewilderment, and think, “Okay. I am going to try and feel my way through this one, son, because I have no idea why you are behaving in the way that you are. I am trying to understand you, W, and I just cannot figure out why you would want to bite the dog.”

However, in spite of how things look or how I feel, I remind myself that people who seem to have the answers rarely do, and that people who look the most truly confident in their abilities are oftentimes the most insecure. One of the ways that I most often recognize other people’s parenting insecurities is when parenting becomes a competition. It is a bizarre phenomenon, but one that is very real, nonetheless. Particularly in the case of motherhood. Don’t kid yourself. It is. At least, most people operate as if  that’s what they think… Usually, the cues are subtle. Not always, but often. Mostly, parenthood’s competitive nature is communicated non-verbally. Mostly, people won’t tell you that they don’t think you’re doing a good job or that they are doing a better job, unless you count what they are telling you with their eyes, with their body language.

I notice it a lot. I notice it at church on Sundays and at the library and the park, and pretty much anywhere where there are kids—and parents. To be honest, I don’t think I am capable of keeping up. And to be even more honest, I don’t think I am even interested in keeping up. Still, I do find myself asking “Why?” a lot. A lot. “Why don’t you throw birthday parties like that?” I think. “Why is W not involved in this activity? In that? Why don’t you invest thousands of hours of your life in couponing? Why don’t you get a job that most people view as a legitimate job? Why don’t you shop at five grocery stores a week, in order to ensure that you get the best deals? Why aren’t you passionate about discovering and implementing fun new macrobiotic recipes into your weekly meal routine? Why doesn’t your son know Spanish? Take tumbling? Faithfully do his poopy-doops on the potty? What is your problem?” I think, as I see this spectacular mother doing this thing, and that spectacular mother doing something even more impressive…I watch open mouthed, in stunned silence, as if being wowed by acrobats at the circus, all the while thinking, “Why didn’t I ever learn to do that?”

And yet, there is something inside of me that instinctively rejects living up to other people’s standards of what a mother should be capable of and of what a truly admirable woman should look like. And I don’t think that this instinctive rejection stems from my own desire to be autonomous or even from my own pride (although I do definitely struggle on an hourly basis with both of those things), but from something inside of me that says that other people’s standards for me and for each other are often simply the wrong standards. I think that there is something inside of me that recognizes that my true identity doesn’t come from other people’s warped and, frankly, dehumanizing expectations, but from God’s life-affirming expectations. For me, being around other moms is often a lot like looking through the pages of a fashion magazine: when you compare yourself, you inevitably come out of it feeling completely inadequate. And, also, just fat. And, what’s worse, until the comparing began, you actually thought of yourself as being pretty competent or attractive or having a nice bum or as being intelligent or stylish or…whatever.

I know that I am not the only mom (or parent) on the planet that struggles with this—not by a long shot. I see it in the body language of my girlfriends all the time. In fact, I often see them fearing that I am judging them, when, frankly, parenting generally leaves me far too tired and bemused to judge anybody. I often listen to the undercurrents beneath the words and the inflections between the sentences. I listen to the silences; and then, to the spoken words—to my girlfriends condemning themselves for working and parenting, or not working and parenting, or needing occasional peace and quiet even as they are parenting, or working part-time while they are parenting, or any one of a hundred other things, and I see them watching me—all of us—from the corner of their eyes. They are wondering what we are thinking. They watch us from under their lashes. They are fearful—as am I—of whether or not they measure up in the eyes of other mothers, of other people. It’s a lot of pressure, frankly. And that’s too bad, because being a parent has enough inherent pressures of its own.

“So, are my life choices valid?” I ask myself for the millionth time…

Most days, I feel pretty good about myself as a mom. As a person. As a writer. In fact, most of the time, if I step back from myself as a parent and evaluate—as impartially as a person can—whether or not I am doing a good job, the answer is, “Yeah. Certainly not perfect; I need some work in certain areas (I am not even close to being as patient as I ought to be). But yeah, I am actually good at this.” Most days, I am also able to recognize that what I write matters to other people. Maybe not to everyone. Maybe not all of the time. Maybe not even to most people. But sometimes it does. Sometimes I think it is even able to make people think a little or to make life just a little bit better or at least to make people smile for a second. Most days, I can listen to God speaking to my spirit, affirming and affirming again the truth about who I am. It is only when I allow the voices of other people’s (oftentimes strange and nonsensical) expectations inside my head that I begin to lose sight of what my life is supposed to look like and who I am supposed to be. And I will be honest, I do that pretty often. And when I do, I find that I have to go to a really quiet place and remind myself of the truth, and that human “truth” and God’s truth are oftentimes not that closely related.

When I look at what my husband and I identified and established as our ultimate, foundational values about a zillion years ago, I see that we have mostly remained true to them. Sometimes we have failed and sometimes those values have evolved, but, mostly, our life looks like we hoped it would. It is unquestionably true that our life is oftentimes messy and dirty and ugly and sweaty and very frequently uncertain. Yet, it remains equally true that our life is beautiful and valuable and fulfilling and chock-a-block full of love. Does that mean it works for other people? Nope. Does that mean other people affirm the goodness, the value, or the success of it? Not always. Does it mean that everyone thinks I am the world’s most amazing mom? Uhn-uh. Does it mean that I look exactly like Jackie Kennedy while doing it? Definitely not. Sadly, not even close.

I recognize, hopefully with patience and grace, that not everyone thinks I am great at what I do. I recognize, hopefully with kindness, that not everyone will see my career as a valid one. I recognize, hopefully with generosity of spirit, that a lot of people will think I am not nearly as impressive because I choose to be a stay-at-home mom and work from home. And I have learned the hard way that not everyone will understand that what my husband and I do is actually work—really hard work—and that we do not spend our lives lounging by a pool somewhere. The truth is, most days, we will work frantically all day long; most weeks my husband will work upwards of seventy hours and I will work upwards of forty. To add insult to serious injury, a vast majority of what we will create, we will not get paid for—other artists know the truth of this. And, then, perhaps most frustrating of all, I recognize that a lot of people who are not artists will think we spend our days farting around.

What’s more, there are many other areas of our life together that other people will question the validity of. For instance, we will probably go through life with any number of people questioning our parenting abilities; with people thinking we should be doing things differently; thinking that we are too strict or not strict enough; too structured or not structured enough; too demanding of our kids or not demanding enough—thinking that we just really don’t have a clue (which, if I am being honest, is probably a pretty legitimate evaluation).

Those realizations are tough and unquestionably disheartening, but they do not relate to the reality of who we are. They don’t really relate to the words that God would speak over us if we could still kick back with him in the garden under a purple and crimson sunset sky in the cool breezes of evening. I definitely struggle to remember that; I struggle to remind myself of the purity and truth of those words. Oftentimes the world around me demeans the validity of them, and I have to slip away to somewhere quiet and drink a scalding hot cup of tea and read from the Psalms or the Proverbs or my prayer book or from one of my favorite theologians until I can remember what the truth is.

One of the most important things I have learned my whole life long is that what other people say about us is not who we are.  We are not who people say we are.  We are not defined by the names we are given by others. Others don’t have the right to name us; only our Creator has that right. It’s what God says about us that counts, and God sees glory in us. He thinks we are pretty damn good at what we do, and at being who we are. He thinks it is so exciting if I decide that I want to be a surgeon and He is also equally sincerely delighted with my desire to be a stay-at-home mom who has a hole in the bum of her yoga pants. According to the Creation account in Genesis, He likes us enough to want to spend His evenings with us. And, what’s more, if the Incarnation is any indication, to spend every moment of His lifetime with us—and a thousand other lifetimes, besides. And the thing I find most fascinating and reassuring about the Creation account? God wanted to hang out with Adam and Eve, who were nothing more than farmers—real salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar types. Uneducated. Unsophisticated. Completely unaccomplished. And, as far as God was concerned, just perfect.

So, what about the engineer at the party? Is she right? Is my life easier than hers? Less impressive? Less legitimate? Is she smarter than me? Yeah, maybe. Probably. Honestly, I don’t doubt it. But, as a beloved theology professor of mine used to say all the time with a shrug (offering one of the most profound philosophical lessons I ever learned, by the way): “What’re ya gonna do?”

In part, it was through hearing those words on a near-daily basis for four years that I began to see that some questions are not worth asking. I learned that we are oftentimes simply asking the wrong questions, and that, incidentally, we waste a fair bit of time worrying about the wrong things. Consequently, I can see that my life isn’t significant because of its relative degree of glamour or success or based on whether or not I am accomplished or smart or impressive (and I daily thank the sweet Lord for that). In truth, my life is significant because of it’s implicit ontology. Because of its “is-ness.” Because it is.  Because it’s mine. Because God gave it to me. And, most significantly of all, because He called it “good.”

Am I a great mom? Honestly, I am not sure. But I do know this: I am W’s mom. I am the one he has—the only one he has; I am the only one who volunteered for the job and subsequently, I am the only one he needs. Honestly, I don’t think that anyone else could have been the very particular mama that W needed. He’s a really good, really tough kid, and I think that God gave me the emotional, physical and psycho-spiritual makeup to deal with both his particular brand of goodness and his particular brand of toughness.

Am I a great writer? Some days, I definitely think so. Other days, I feel grossly inadequate to do the job I feel like I have been given. Some days, I alternate on a bi-hourly, rather manic basis between thinking I have been given a special gift and thinking that I am a bit of a dufus, really. But I do know this: my favorite postmodern theologian and writer, Madeleine L’Engle, said that it doesn’t matter if a writer has a small, a medium, or a large-sized gift; it simply matters that she does the best she can with that which she has been given. As L’Engle sees it, it does not matter whether the gift you have to offer is small or great—as long as you are a giver of gifts! And I think she’s right. I can honestly say that, whatever I have been given, I try faithfully to use, to the best of my ability—to offer to others as a gift, to the best of my ability; and then, beyond that, I try to walk away from it and not to worry too much about the end result.

And lastly, if all else fails, I remind myself that we read and write and relate (and even compare ourselves to other people) out of a desire to know that we are not alone. So, the put-together engineering chick at the party? I am not a psychologist, but I would imagine that she was not evaluating my life choices so much as she was evaluating her own. I would imagine that she was not so much trying to denigrate the validity of my life, as she was trying to establish the validity of her own—to a room full of strangers. And, so, in my bumbling, stumbling, slightly soul-cracked way, my job was to try and help her establish it, and then to move on. And if I come out of it with my feelings hurt and my pride wounded? Well, then, I try to imagine myself lying in the cool grass of a garden under a purple-red sky late in the evening. I imagine putting my hands behind my head, feeling the blades of grass prickling against the backs of my fingers, feeling the breeze whipping over my cheekbones and brushing over my lashes and feeling the presence of God lying next to me. I imagine reaching over and sliding my small, cold hand into the warmth and solidity of His. I imagine the two of us lying side by side watching the stars popping up like glimmering kernels of popcorn across the night sky. Then, I just lay there, for as long as it takes, listening to what He has to say to me—about me—until I can remember the truth of who I am.

love is lightning, fire and light

love is lightning, fire and light.
it roars like lions, rolls like thunder;
vanquishes, but does not fight.
it is powerful, merciless, meek, mild,
dark, deep, fearsome. wild.
remains cool while burnishing; is gentle; bold.
gives birth each morning; is incredibly old.

love is sturm und drang;
still as night,
smooth as sleeping water,
blind; has perpetual sight.
it is holy and wholly;
small, great; contradictory, true.
does not defend itself,
never demands its due.

love teaches, listens, reflects, absorbs,
deepens, changes; stays its course.
forces our hand with its gentleness,
subdues our wills without remorse.
i fear it, long for it, turn to it, run away.
i am repelled, compelled, make threats,
offer curses, order its departure,
plead with it to stay.

love is born in a shed on a hillside,
sits on the right side of God.
it sweats, weeps, bleeds, prays in a garden.
is divine, human; simple, complex. odd.
the wise of the world always miss it,
i admit, tis a mystery to me:
that love can be so incalculably costly
and remain so utterly free.

© Copyright Jenna-Clare Allen 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Shut Up, Robert Frost.

I don’t travel well.  In fact, I would prefer not to travel at all.  I prefer intertia.  This is because I frequently confuse inertia with security.  I travel for three reasons:  1.) There are a lot of people that I love and I can’t seem to force them all to live in the same city as me.  As it turns out, I have very little control over other people’s decision making, and I hate that.  2.) My husband is a free spirit.  If he were any freer, we’d be living in a nudist colony, where he would spend his time running through the trees and I would spend my time hiding in the thickest foliage I could find.  He has this innate and utterly expansive spirit of adventure (which already exudes from every pore of Little Boy’s body).  Adventure to me means watching an action movie (i:e. bad adventure) or reading a book of historical fiction about Renaissance Europe while cuddled up under my red cashmere blanket (i:e. good adventure).  And, 3.) I love my husband and I want him to be happy.  It’s the least I can do.  He does a ton of crap for me.

In spite of my lack of enthusiasm—nay—cooperation, travel seems to happen with alarming regularity in our house.  My husband talks it up—a lot.  I say no—a lot.  I cave.  He dances and sings.  He doesn’t know the proper lyrics to any song ever written.  But this doesn’t stop his singing; not even a little.  We pack up our oh-so-sporty minivan.   We go.  I grumble.  I crab.  I’m a really bad sport about it.  My husband tries to encourage me.  He reminds me that mommy sets the mood for the whole family.  This is strangely true.  “Will I use my power for evil or for good?”  I muse.  I weigh my options, unsure of what will happen.  But thankfully (for the sake of mankind), I seem to have a pretty powerful conscience.

This weekend, our trip was to visit some of our belovedest friends.  We met in grad school.  Cory and I started together.  We were studying God, which is a pretty big and complicated subject, or so we thought.  We were (are?) both intense, contemplative even, and maybe a little too solemn.  We both tend to push ourselves from one difficult question to the next without stopping to catch our breath; racing from one measure of music to the other without enjoying the music inherent in the rests.  I hadn’t yet learned not to take myself too seriously.  Since then I have learned to laugh more often.  Hard.  At that time, we were both a bit reclusive.  He still is.  I am not so much. Okay, so maybe I still am.

He was brilliant, I was competitive.  I was quiet, he was quieter.  I talk a bit more now, he still doesn’t much.  I liked to whisper irreverent, sardonic remarks under my breath during class.  He liked to listen to them.  For no good reason that I can think of, besides the ones briefly stated, we were instantly fast friends.  We still are.  Two peas in a pod.  Or in a seminary.  Anyway, it’s been about seven years now.

It was strange.  I’m not usually particularly close to guys, or at least I hadn’t been close to a man besides my husband since I met my him.  But, for whatever reason, Cory and I just clicked.  He wasn’t married at the time, and then his beautiful wife came on the scene and I instantly fell in love with her, too.  The first time I met her, we just hugged each other so tightly.  It is not unusual for her to be one of the first people I think of when I wake up in the morning.  I often find myself homesick for her.  These are people who never fail to feed my soul and make me glad that I am alive.  Whenever I am with them, I will at some point pee my pants.  Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.  I have taken to just keeping a spare pair of pants around whenever I am with them.  It saves time.

These are people who never fail to make me laugh until I find myself wishing for a brief hit on a high grade oxygen mask and, as often as not, they make me laugh at myself.  They always make me think; generally in ways that I would not have otherwise.  They remind me to be good, to pray, to be kind, to be considerate when I don’t want to be.  They remind me to be thankful for whatever God gives and for whatever He chooses not to give.  They remind me that anytime I win an argument, love loses.  They share our passion for having good conversations about important things, as well as good conversations about really, really unimportant things.  And, only slightly less significantly, they also share our passion for cut-throat game playing, peppered with a decent amount of trash talk.

We drive down I-77.  J is happy.  Little Boy sings songs to himself in the backseat.  I glance down at my watch every few minutes, thinking about how I always get sucked into these things.  Thinking about how I should just put my foot down.  Thinking about how, if I did that, my life would end up being really boring.

“But I like boring.” I think.

“No you don’t, J-C!”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you’re an incubating Jacques Cousteau.  You just haven’t been born yet.  Your wings are coming, little caterpillar!” 

“Chocolate-covered horse shit!” I fume.

These are the two sides of my nature.  They are virtually always at war with one another.  I wish that one would just win and kill the other so we could be done with it already.  But if I am not mistaken, these spiritual struggles are part and parcel of what it means to be a person—to be a human.  And if I gave up these inner tugs-of-war, I would lose part of my humanity, not to mention the fact that I would become unbearable to live with.  In fact, I would become a monster.  And nobody likes monsters—except possibly for Maurice Sendak and Muammar Gaddafi (though for different reasons).  I am now contemplating all of this as we drive.  The things happening in my brain begin to verge on the philosophical.  Oh, crap.  It’s going to be a long three hours.

We spend the last hour on hairpin roads.  I am driving.  J makes a point of slamming his feet into the floor and hanging dramatically onto any handle he can find anywhere.  I send him dirty looks out of the corner of my eye.  I don’t dare do more; if I take my eyes off the road for even a second we will be airborne.  I internally grumble about what a good driver I am.

“How dare he act like he has a right to be nervous.”  I think, indignantly.

He does, actually.

I am not a good driver.  It’s not that I’m a bad driver.  I’m not terrible or dangerous.  It’s just one of those things I never been totally comfortable doing, on top of which I sort of drive on every road as if it were the Autobahn.  I am not a patient person and driving below seventy miles an hour is not something I am likely to do (I get more like my dad every day.  Interestingly enough, I also get more like my mom every day, too.  It leaves me feeling a bit schizophrenic.  And frankly, exhausted.  They are both complicated, though delightful, people).

In fact, this race-to the-finish is my general approach to most things.  “Get it done! Get it done!”  My mind screams.  Conversely, my mind also expects things to be done perfectly.  The first time.  An impatient perfectionist.  Yeah.  It’s as exhausting as it sounds, and this is possibly why I have a history of working myself into the ground.  That, and because I am a neurotic middle child with a practically perfect sibling on either side of me.

Oh, the humanity!

Oh, the psychology!

At any rate, eventually, we are there.  Cory and Mieke (pronounced Mee-kuh), whom I am much more likely to call Cora and Mike—mostly because I treat Cory like a faintly exasperating younger brother and therefore like the idea of calling him by a girl’s name (I admit that I am occasionally a little mean-spirited)–come  out onto the porch to welcome us.  We are all happy.  I am happy not to be sitting in a car.  J is happy not to have died in a fiery car crash.  Little Boy is happy to see new and strange people who will unquestionably agree that he is the golden orb around which the universe spins.  We go inside.  Get settled.  Eat good food.  Explore their little city.  Walk.  Talk.  Laugh a lot.  Sit in comfortable silence.  Watch the sky change from golden to orange to crimson to purple as the sun disappears over the edge of the earth.

All of these things are interspersed with trying to corral our errant offspring.  He is in a strange place with strange people and is very busy pointing out this fact—loudly.   Corinne and Mieke are patient and understanding.  I am slightly embarrassed, but only slightly.  He’s actually a pretty fabulous little boy.  They think so, too.  Mieke is expecting her first baby, so they know they’re getting a little taste of life after the blast.  Parenting is a lot like Chernobyl, I think, without the benefit of radiation suits.  At this moment, Coral and Mieke don’t know this, but they will.  They watch our child’s delicious weirdness with interest, and hopefully, a little fear and trembling.

I sleep in a strange bed in a strange (and frigidly cold) room, which is to say that I don’t sleep.  I get up feeling exhausted.  I look in the mirror and see the reflection of something which could easily be mistaken for a sleep-deprived wookie.  I consider a makeover, or possibly a facelift, sigh and flip off the light switch.  It’s better not to look.

I stumble for the coffeepot.  I am a coffee snob.  Cora is the least extravagant person I know.  Subsequently, there’s lots of Folgers to drink.  I have a suspicion that Folgers has somehow managed to harness a technology that chemically alters crude oil so that it has the appearance of coffee crystals.  This is one of many conspiracy theories that I like to nurse.  I love the excitement and intrigue of conspiracy theorizing.  I don’t actually believe in any of the theories, but I really want to.  It’s like those people who dream of doing the Ironman, except with paranoia.

Yeah.  Definitely, crude-oil coffee crystals.  I’ve got it all figured out.  I should have been a spy.  But then I would have had to travel.  It’s much easier to create a universe in which Folgers-related conspiracy theories are very possibly true.  That way, I cut out actually having to have adventures and I can merely fantasize about them in various psychologically unhealthy ways.  I prefer that.  Bilbo Baggins very astutely observes that adventures make one late for dinner.  And I really, really like dinner.

My delicately petted palate is deeply offended by Corina’s “coffee.”  I immediately get the world’s most terrible case of rot-gut.  I briefly consider reaching down my own gullet and pulling out my stomach just to ease the agony.  (I decide against it.)  Though usually a pretty tough cookie, I feel a bit squeamish at the idea of performing my own medical procedure, particularly with unsterilized hands and while eschewing anethesia.   So, instead, I mentally compose a touching death bed speech.  I will clutch both Cornelia and Mieke’s hands, whispering to them that I bear them no ill-will for causing my excruciatingly painful, coffee-related death.  Before I croak, I will make certain that Mieke understands that I do not hold her in anyway responsible for what has happened.   After all,  I know she loves a good cup of coffee.  Therefore, before the man with the sickle comes, I will make absolutely certain that I have lain the blame completely at Coraline’s door.

I don’t die.  Instead, the rot-gut remains with me for 24 hours.  We sit down to eat Mieke’s delicious breakfast.  I make fun of Corabelle’s cheap coffee.  He makes fun of my indigestion/ moral weakness.  I make fun of his fashion choices (i:e, the nausea-green sweetshirt he wears 498 days a year).  I run to the toilet.  Then run back.  More verbal sparring ensues.  J and Mieke patiently put up with this, occasionally joining in, though they mostly look at us as if we are badly behaved three year olds.

I yawn and stretch.  Munch on eggs and plain waffles, counting the hours ‘til I can go back to bed.  In a daze, I watch Little Boy smearing strawberries all over everything he can find.  I feel a bit grumpy and homesick, but I truly love these people, so I extend myself just a little.  I try to be patient. This doesn’t really work, so I pretend that I am patient.  Everyone seems fooled.

I engage.  I try to think a little less of my own importance.  It’s kind of nice, actually.  I feel refreshed by it.  I am reminded of how interesting other people are, compared to myself.

On Sunday, we go to church and listen to beautiful music.  I am transfixed.  The sermon is on the book of Daniel.  The minister talks about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  He says that God always appears in the midst of the fire.  That He is, in fact, right there in it with us.  I find these words profoundly comforting.  I am well acquainted with fire.  More acquainted than I would ever wish to be.

Afterwards, Coralee and Mieke take us for sandwiches and a walk by smooth green water.  J and Coreen climb around in trees and get soaked in the river.  They are at once grown men and small children.  It will always be this way.

Little Boy yells from his stroller about how badly he needs a nap.  Mieke and I walk and talk.  I wish for home.  And yet, I am very happy.

Eventually, we have to leave.  It will be dark soon.

I am glad to go and yet, I want to stay.

I drive home like I’m pursuing a career in the auspicious world of Nascar, thinking of Cora and Mieke the whole way.  J is content.  Little Boy gets his nap.  I am homesick for my house and for my friends living in the other direction.  The trip ends.  We climb wearily under our very own cool red and white sheets.  Sigh of contentment.  Just before I drift off, I promise myself that I will never travel again.

This morning I am at home.  Little Boy slept very late.  He is now playing with the fuzzy balls on my slippers.  They are probably the best purchase I have ever made.  We get hours of play time out of them.  Everything here is in apple pie order.  Just so.  I make my cappuccino.  Follow my morning routine.  I slept under my quilts on my lovely mattress in a room that was neither too cold nor too hot.  The house is clean.  There is a place for everything and everything is in its place, at least until J gets home or Little Boy throws up on it.  I do everything just as I want to.  No one interferes or objects.

It is totally and completely boring.

Things in my closet are arranged by color.  This is probably a metaphor for my life: I am always grasping to keep things safely within parameters that I can live with and easily control.  Nothing ever gets out of hand.  Or at least, that’s the idea.  My resistance to travel has absolutely nothing to do with disliking adventure—in fact, once you get me out the door, I will (paradoxically) travel the world if you aren’t careful.  Rather, it has everything to do with an almost compulsive need to keep things within steely fingers.  Every closet in my house is meticulously organized so that, if you open it, your eyes are greeted by the sight of pleasant symmetry.  In fact, I am probably the cleanest person you will ever meet.  Towels are hung  carefully aligned.  A method is used when folding.  Labels on boxes of food are arranged face outward.  Every vase and lamp has been chosen with absolute care and total attention to detail.  I have spent thousands of hours studying design and art and aesthetics in an effort to make life beautiful, pleasant and, mostly tellingly of all, safe.  Our house is a feast for the senses.  It smells good.  It is tasteful—unless the men in my life are home, in which case, it isn’t.  It is welcoming.  People like to be here.

Sadly, there aren’t many here now.

I am back to my normal life—Food.  Exercise.  Read.  Sleep.  Cook.  Clean.  Write.  I watch my usual TV shows: “The Office,” “The Tudors, “Glee,” “Bones,”  “30 Rock, “Modern Family,” “The Pillars of the Earth.”  On Friday, I go to the library and check out books by my favorite writers—just like I do every Friday.  I clean the house.  Walk with Little Boy to the park.  I am not on anyone else’s schedule.  Every game I engage in is played according to my own rules.  I always win.  Everything is perfectly neat.

I am bored.

I want to go somewhere.

See someone.

I do and I don’t.  But I know perfectly well that I don’t have to worry.  In a day or two, my husband will think of someone or something he wants to see.  I will say no.  He will cajole.  I will put my foot down.  He will try a different tactic.  I will cave.  We will go.  He will sing and dance.  I will grumble the whole way.  I will make him think I am a bad sport (while secretly delighting at the prospect of wandering around our Edenic planet).  He will never know the difference.  I am a really good actor.  As well as a fabulous adventurer, filled with vigor and bravery.  Actually, I really do remind myself of a young Jacques Cousteau.

We stay home.  Point, J-C.

We go.  Point, J.

And this is, strangely, a very particular order of its own.  Or at least that’s the way my mind arranges it.  It likes to keep things tidy.

Things R.E.M. Has Taught Me: Shiny, Happy People vs. Everybody Hurts Sometimes

I have a morning routine.  I don’t like for anybody to mess with it.  It sets the pace and the mood for the day.  I like for everything to be just so for a few minutes, because I know that, without question, the rest of the day will not be.  I start out slow and quiet.  I get up and make my coffee—a homemade cappuccino from a ten dollar coffeemaker (screw you, Starbucks).  My cappuccino is actually pretty amazing; I went through about ten pounds of coffee beans before I figured out how to make it taste just like a barista’s would.

I put my son in his high chair and fill his tray with cereal and fruit.  I kiss him.  Smile at him.  Don’t say much; just let him know that I love him.  Then I glance at email or Facebook, just to check in and see that everybody’s okay, and then it’s on to MSN and CNN and, when I’m feeling especially political, a quick look at the BBC page.  Finally, I write.  I prefer to write in the morning.  My mind is snapping with ideas.  All of my nerve endings are firing full-on and my eyes are as wide open as they’re going to get.  I am not one of those late-night creative types.  I’m one of those in-bed-by-9pm creative types.  At least, I would like to be in bed by then.  I fantasize about 9pm bedtimes.  In reality, it pretty much never happens.  At nine, my son is usually still running through the house with his underwear on his head, shrieking and talking to himself; shouting words that sound like “Thunderspice, Mommy!”  Besides, my husband doesn’t like it when I go to bed early.  He wants me awake and hanging out with him.  *Sigh*  So, I like to write in the morning.  If I am awake at night, it is very much against my will.

This morning starts off smoothly.  I even get to sleep an extra forty-five minutes.  Ka-ching!  I make my coffee.  Feed Little Boy.  On to Facebook.  Nope.  The site is down.  That’s a bump in the road.  I am a little annoyed, so I spend longer than usual browsing the MSN and CNN pages.  CNN is spouting its usual dire, hell-in-a-hand-basket news about planet earth.  I read.  I sigh.  Sigh some more.  I take a deep, steadying breath and then move on to the more lightweight coverage on MSN.  It has an article about “The Six Happiest Couples in the World.”  This should be a pleasant pick-me-up after reading about the intricacies of our faltering economy and all of the sadness and destruction which seem to wash like the waves of the sea over the middle east.  Okay.  Happy couples?  I can handle that.   I’m a chick so I’m buying.  I click.  I notice several things straight away.

First, each story is a hundred words or less.  It’s easy to sound happy and healthy in a hundred words, so I am slightly disillusioned.  Next, I notice that all six couples are wearing designer clothes and are ridiculously good-looking.  In fact, they’re not just attractive, they’re all really strikingly unusual looking—to the point that you find yourself sort of mesmerized by each photograph, while at the same time suddenly feeling that your own moderate degree of handsomeness is grossly inadequate.  I smell a rat.  Third, I notice that all six couples are very wealthy and exceptionally successful (we’re talking COO’s of fortune five hundred companies and owners of prestigious art galleries).  Oh, give me a break.  What do these people know about working hard on a relationship?  The most difficult thing in any of these women’s lives is trying to totter around all day on five-inch heels or trying to decide whether they will eat lettuce or…lettuce for lunch.  And I admit, that part would really suck.  Thank God I am not that attractive.  Too much responsibility.

I’m sorry, I recognize that it’s a bit uncharitable and I’m not proud of it, but I refuse to believe that people who look perfect when they wake up in the morning have to work hard at anything.  “I hate all six couples,” I think, unreasonably.  “This article is full of crap!”  I seethe as I read.  “They all look so friggin’ self-satisfied,” I say under my breath.  But it does get me thinking…

I have a pretty vivid imagination.  Thank you, Mama!  My mom read us thousands and thousands and thousands of books when we were kids.  She had us all reading at a really early age.  She’s an amazing mom—a woman I have always wanted to be like—and the gift of imagination is certainly one of the best a parent can nurture.  So, I start thinking about writing my own article, featuring our little family.  Are we happy?  Are we in the throes of deep, passionate love?  Are we wildly successful?

As I write this, my son is being disciplined for opening up the dishwasher (something he absolutely knows he is not allowed to do) and sticking his fingers in all of the pre-wash goo on the underside of the machine.  J is using his “stern Daddy voice.”  Little Boy is crying.  Next, my husband appears at the kitchen door carrying a bowl of cereal.  He sits down and spills most of his milk across the dining room table.  I always laugh at the most inappropriate things, and therefore immediately burst out laughing.  (I wish I would grow up and stopping doing this, but at thirty, I despair of it ever happening.)  My husband gives me a look which is at once a little hurt and utterly enraged.  “That wasn’t funny,” he snarls.

As he attempts to wipe up milk with his fingers, he shoots me a death-ray look and I choke, trying to swallow the hilarity within.  I spit a little cappucino onto the table and begin to cough, as java is propelled at the speed of light into my nasal cavities and maybe/probably up into my brain.  Now, as all of this is taking place, my son is throwing a fit because he wants Daddy’s bowl of cereal.  So J turns to correct him as another tidal wave of milk rolls across the table and onto the rug.  Little Boy bounces back quickly and races away to climb onto the dog’s back for a ride.  The dog, who weighs a good ten pounds less than my son, yelps in agony.

I have just changed my son’s diaper on our Persian-ish rug.  I believe that I have cleaned up carefully.  Evidently not.  Several jelly-bean sized poop nuggets have rolled off the discarded diaper and onto the multi-colored wool rug.  Amazingly, my husband manages to smash all three onto the soles of his bare feet as he races to save my son from the dog (or is it to save the dog from my son?).  My son shouts something unintelligible, falls off the dogs back, screams,  “Woof! Woof!” and then farts loudly.  I wish Annie Liebovitz were here to take pictures of this.  Where are my stilettos when I need them?  Maybe that’s why those beautiful women from the article on perfect love wear such high-heels.  Somehow, I doubt it.  Their kids probably don’t poop.

Next, I consider our attire.  Do we look dashingly elegant in a devil-may-care way—like the couples from the photographs?  I could be wrong, but I don’t think we have ever looked even remotely like the couples from the photographs.  Neither of us has ever even owned a designer knock-off, much less something legit… I am wearing what is certainly “casual early-morning attire” (i:e, pajamas).  My bottoms have various coffee and/or baby feces related stains and were once a sort of yellowy-green.  The green, or perhaps the yellow, has had a chance to age and the cotton is now the precise color of mold.  The orange tank top I threw on last night—while the word “SLEEP!” was roaring through my brain—could not clash more with any shade on the color wheel than it does with this one.  My son is wearing only a diaper and my husband has on boxers with the elastic torn out.  Yeah, we are one attractive, classy family, like something out of Better Homes and Gardens or—you know—MTV Cribs.  Why have I never thought of this before?

Next, I consider what romantic advice I would give.  The article-people suggest things like cooking together by candlelight or going out to dinner at a fabulous restaurant and slowly savoring your meal, knowing that your partner isn’t wearing any underpants.  What?

I think I would just feel ill if I knew my partner wasn’t wearing underpants while I was trying to eat my dinner.  Where did they find these people?  I think that my advice would be something along the prosaic lines of, “there’s nothing sexier than a man who can fold towels or knows his way around a vaccum cleaner.”

As for “romance:” in our house it passes for anything which can be hastily, stealthily carried out while our son is sleeping.   Shhhh!!!  Usually, our dates consist of holding hands and dozing through the super-high-quality programming and award-winning performances on the sci-fi channel.  We awake in the middle of the night on our sagging, coil-sprung couch from troubling dreams about enormous worms terrozing the inhabitants of arrid climates.  Our necks are sore, our palms sweaty and our fingers cramped.  For how many hours have we slept this way?  Should we even bother trying get up so we can make it into our bed?

I take mental snapshots as my mind sorts through all of these images.  Would any of them make it into a magazine?  Definitely.  If there was a magazine for the minimally-functional or the just-barely-making-it, we would be the feature article.   In fact, I would make a pretty darn good editor-in-chief of a magazine like that.  I’m kind of thinking of starting one.  The question is, am I too disreputable-looking to acquire a business loan?  I think I may have a blazer somewhere…if that would help.

Are we one of “The Six Happiest Couples in the World?” I find myself thinking again.  Well, define “happy.”  Does it involve early morning capoeira sessions, followed by champagne and botox for lunch and an afternoon reiki session?  Or is it my kid running through the house, making sounds like a hyperventilating monkey, leaving post-apocolyptic waste in his wake as he smiles like a cheshire cat?  Is it a twenty-two inch waist, or slightly worse-for-the-wear (there was a baby in there, folks) stomach muscles?  Is it a weekend retreat in our repurposed barn in upstate New York, or a dog hair-filled, hundred year old house awash with once-functioning baby toys?

I suppose “happy” means different things for different people.  If my life is to be measured by the standards of the shiny, happy magazine people, then it’s a real bummer, man.  But if I can lower the bar, or just change it altogether, I think it’s actually pretty great.  Not pretty.  But pretty great.  For instance, there are three red roses in a simple glass vase on my kitchen counter.  My husband brought them home last night with a piece of chocolate cake and told me that I am a wonderful mom.  He may have been lying a little.  But it was the best lie I’ve ever heard and the best compliment anyone could ever give me.  Strewn across every available square inch of floor space are the multi-colored, Chinese manufactured reminders of the three years we have had with our son—the son we dreamed of for nearly nine years; the son we planned on having before we ever went on our first date.  We had no idea he would be such a maniac.  On the other hand, he is far, far better than the greatest of our greatest dreams.

Our bedroom is still (halfway through the day) completely trashed.  It is littered with dirty diapers and nearly-dead pillows and clothes that the homeless would probably give away.  The crumpled red and white sheets on our bed are the ones we bought together at Wal-Mart when we were engaged.  They are so cheap that no one thought to count the threads.  They are so worn out and faded that you can’t tell that they were once printed with red roses.  They’re the sheets we have loved on.  Whispered our secrets on.  Laughed on ‘til we peed ourselves a little.  Hotly debated whether or not Brad and Angie really have a future together.  We have fought on them.  Argued politics and religion.  Been petty.  Been selfish.  Been selfless.  Pouted.  Forgiven each other.  We have given up on each other and started over, time and time again, while lying there.  Those sheets are the holy ground from which we have lifted up a hundred thousand prayers.  We have, from beneath their comfort, talked far, far into the night.  Cried on them.  Held each other forever on them.  Farted into them, and made our son on them (not necessarily in that order).

The cheap couches we bought together just before we married have not aged well.  They are not a nod to good taste.  They are certainly not a reflection of high achievement.  But, on the upside, they have lovingly cradled the asses of our favorite people in the world.  They have supported us as we sat—on the edge of our seats—in our living room at 1am, all of us shrieking at the top of our lungs because of the (metaphorical ) thirst for blood inevitably produced by game night (especially Caleb, Cory and I—we have competitivity issues).  I have nursed a baby on them.  We have had some of the most important conversations of our lives on those cushions and gotten to know our best friends in the world while seated there.  They cost three hundred bucks a piece.  We didn’t find them at a flea market on a weekend jaunt to Paris, nor did we have them lovingly reupholstered in handmade, silver dupioni silk by an interior designer—complete with generic european accent—named something like, “Anders,” or “Xavier” (no last name).  We just picked a color of cheap cotton duck that we thought wouldn’t show dirt.  It definitely does.

Are we one of “The Six Happiest Couples in the World?”  Yeah.  If one of those six couples can be poor, fairly unsuccessful, unquestionably disorganized, basically flea-ridden and in great need of a pair of toenail clippers.  If that’s the case, then, yes, absolutely we are.  I’ve met about a million people and—hands down—my husband’s still my favorite.  No one else can even come close.  No one else has ever made me look twice.  No one else has ever had a fraction of the allure that he has for me.  I’ve seen about a million lives and I’ve never yet seen one that has tempted me to pull the ol’ switcheroo.  If being a happy couple means your hair always has “natural” caramel and honey highlights and that you were “just born with these breasts” and make above six figures and have tantric sex under a waterfall in the tropics and your morning breath smells like hydrangeas, then no, we definitely don’t make it into the top six.  But even so, I think they’d have to let us slide in at number seven.  We may always wear our underpants when we go out to dinner, but still, we truly love each other.  Still, we are really happy.

Beat that, MSN.

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Any sound, lasting marriage will find compromise as its mainstay.  Anyone who says otherwise is not married.  “Compromise.”  Yep.  That pretty much sums it up.  Beginning.  Middle.  Present-day.  Future.  All of them are inexorably bound to one another by the superglue of compromise.

When I think about it, it is completely bizarre to me that my husband and I are married.  You would be hard pressed to find two more different people on planet earth.  If there were people on other planets, you wouldn’t find two more different people there, either.  What was it that brought us together?  Has kept us together?  I am utterly mystified.  But it is partly the mystery of him that I love so much.  The fact that I simply cannot plumb the depths of his weirdness is part of the joy and the attraction—it is also part and parcel of the endless exasperation.

If I were to catalogue for you the characteristics of my personality, the only thing you would have to do in order  to understand my husband’s personality would be to pick the opposite characteristics of the ones describing me.  I am meticulously clean—and not in a good way.  In fact, it is difficult for me to live in a house with a child, because children equal mess.  The only reason Little Boy and I are able to live together is because his baby messiness is eclipsed by the shining magnitude of his immeasurable cuteness.  Which, frankly, makes me worry for the future of any children we might one day have who aren’t cute…if we have a child who isn’t cute and is totally messy, what will I do then?  This is a question which floats around in the darkest recesses of my brain and which I would probably worry about a lot, if I let myself.  On the other hand, is there any way J and I could create a child that we would not believe to be absolutely beautiful?  I doubt it.  In fact, it’s probably hardwired into human DNA—you know, the propagation of the species and all that crap.

So I am Martha-Stewart-clean—in fact, I could totally take over that woman’s job, if only someone would give me the chance—and Little Boy and J and Bishop (our male beagle) are a whirling dervish of filth, endlessly spinning through my world, leaving the stench of man-ooze in their wake.  I walk through the house all day long, picking up the sticky, smelly droppings of the three of them, thinking to myself, “What in God’s name is this?”  There is no correcting it.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  At least not with J—I suppose he is too old a dog.  I am working on Little Boy and, so far, he seems responsive to the idea of being taught cleanliness.  Even as I write this, I am rubbing my hands together and laughing an evil laugh.

So there’s the whole cleanliness is next to godliness/prince of the landfill paradigm.  That’s pretty complicated.  “How do two such people live together?” you might ask.  And my answer to that is, of course, “I have absolutely no idea.”  Next, there’s the fact that two artists are trying to live in the same house together, raise a child and work on their different art forms.  I am an unashamed bibliophile.  It took me many, many more years than I would care to admit to figure out that people are a lot more important than books.  My husband, on the other hand, never sits still long enough to read.  Never.  I have never seen him read an entire book.  We’ve been together for nearly a decade now, and during that time, I don’t think he’s ever finished a book.  What?  What?

When I was a girl, I spent many hours dreaming of the books my husband and I would one day read aloud together by firelight.  There was a long list of them.  I had it all planned out.  I definitely didn’t realize that I would marry someone who would be a lot more interested in being outside, chopping the firewood to keep the blaze burning high and hot, than in being snuggled up to it, drowsily reading, inside, with me.  On my list of qualifications for a husband (of course I had a list—all women have a list) “love of literature” was numero uno.  In retrospect, I realize that other things like integrity, fidelity, honesty, kindness, etc., ought to have been higher on the list than “loves to read,” but I was young and…an idiot.  So how did I, a writer, marry a guy who isn’t the least bit interested in books?  I don’t have a clue.  Pheromones?

Conversely, my husband is a composer.  Music is the greatest passion of his life.  He loves it in all of its forms.  He is utterly open-minded about experiencing new things in music.  He doesn’t mind going to pretentious music festivals because there is always the off-chance that somebody really good might show up.  He wouldn’t mind it if there was always music playing in our house.  My favorite sound in the world is silence.  I really like music, in moderate amounts and in very specific forms.  I don’t want to hear what new composers are writing (except for my husband) because they all seem to be writing something that doesn’t seem to me to actually be music.  I go to concerts (think classically trained musicians/composers, not Keane) with J and sit…bemused.  “This is music?”  I think.  I glance over at him.  He seems to be enjoying himself.  I think he understands what’s happening.  He can appreciate what he’s hearing.  I don’t understand what I’m hearing.  I have no patience for the unfamiliar.  He embraces it; maybe even revels in it.  To him, new music is an adventure.  To me, it’s a bad ride after eating a chilidog: I feel a wave of indigestion and know that nausea and possibly diarrhea will follow.  He’s chilled out, laid back, just grooving to the…music?

Then there’s the way we relax.  I relax like a normal person: we go on vacation, I lay in a lawn chair on the blazing sand, listen to the ocean, doze, read a book, cool off in the waves.  I walk slowly down the beach, in the cool of the day, picking up the beautifully sand-polished white stones.  Normal.  My husband swims miles out to sea to frolic with the dolphins and jelly fish and great white sharks and killer whales.  He runs up and down the beach examining this and that species of shell, of sea life.  He wades out into water up to his neck, fishing pole in hand.  He dives down to the bottom retrieving sand dollars and sand fleas and the occasional stingray.  He sets up volleyball nets and plays ultimate Frisbee for hours.  He never sits down.  He never rests.  He never stares out to sea, watching wave after wave crest and fall.  If he’s awake, he’s moving.  Even when he wants to relax.  What?  What?

There is no question in my mind that if J weren’t married he would be doing something like climbing K2right now.  I, on the other hand, like reading a Jon Krakauer book every few years.  He’s basically a Libertarian.  I am just to the right of the left.  He is theologically orthodox.  I am theologically…evolving.  He likes fishing.  I cry when I catch one.  He is in constant motion.  I am still and quiet, almost languid.  He is a “let’s throw a party” extrovert.  I am a “one person at a time, please” introvert.  He likes to travel.  I am a full-time nester.  He likes things free.  My eye will always be drawn to the most expensive item in the store.  Always.  He wants adventure.  I want order, structure—redundancy, even.  He wants to climb a tree.  I want to take pictures of it and lay on a blanket beneath it.  He wants to live life to the fullest.  I am a lot more likely to write about life than to jump into it.  I am a southerner (for better or worse), born and bred.  He is midwestern to his toes.  He says yes.  I say no.  He says, “poe-tay-toe,” I say “poe-tah-toe.”  It’s an old story; you get it.

So, what brought us together in the first place?  I’m still not sure.  I think that we had a really strong sense of respect for one another.  That still exists.  I thought he would make a really great dad.  He’s much, much better than I thought he would be.  I thought he was one of the most loyal people I had ever met.  I was right.  He was the most honest person I had ever encountered.  I continue to be blown away by the only person I have ever met who always tells the truth.  Always; even if it is to his detriment.  He was the best friend I had ever had, the only person I knew who liked me precisely for being me without hoping I would someday turn out better.  He, remarkably, still thinks I’m great and, for some reason, believes I have turned out very well.  And the piece de resistance: we made each other laugh so hard.  He brought out this ebullient silliness in me, which had just been fighting to get out, and which the serious, scholarly part of me had, for some reason, been beating back in.  I wanted to be taken seriously.  Now I know better.  We still laugh until it hurts.  We are utterly ridiculous together and we have an entire language of complete stupidity that no one else would ever want to fathom.  When I am with him I am positively gregarious.  People who knew me pre-J scratch their heads in wonder.  I was never really myself until I met him.  Isn’t that strange?  I waited to be me until he showed up.

I think that’s probably the key to the whole enormous mystery of love and monogamy and all of that stuff.  I think that we humans understand pretty well that we’re not quite whole on our own.  So, am I saying that marriage is the only answer for an attempt at completeness?  Am I implying that single people are fundamentally lacking?  Of course not.  We become more complete any time we engage in any sort of significant human connection, whether it be romantic or otherwise.  But the cool thing about marriage is that it’s a built in life-long connection, until most of the rough parts of J and most of the rough parts of J-C arrive at a sort of smoothness, and we suddenly find that our constant compromises are a good thing, because we aren’t quite so rough around the edges as we were ten years ago.  And, without those compromises, we would have become less human and more…alien.  It may seem a strange choice of words, but I think it’s a good descriptor.  Without J’s continuous grinding on the coarse stone of me, I would have become less and less able to relate to the world around me.  I would have become like an alien—a stranger.  J’s “otherness” reminds me of the great parts of me, while also reminding me of the parts that could stand some fine-tuning.  It seems to me that this is where we get our old saying about our “better half.”  And it is in the midst of our constant struggle to compromise that we have that opportunity—to become more like the very best version of ourselves.

Do I remember this often?  No.  Rarely.  Mostly I just want my husband to put his bloody cereal bowl in the bloody dishwasher instead of leaving it on the bloody nightstand.  But I think that somewhere inside of me, I am always aware of what is going on.  I am in some way aware that with him I am a better me and that without him I would be less me-like.  Does that make it easier?  No.  Less painful?  No.  More tolerable?  Somehow, just a little.  So we compromise: I put the butter knife in the dishwasher, instead of leaving it (like he would), greasy and sticky on top of the butter dish on the counter.  He gets out a new knife and lays it on the butter dish, without saying a word.  This is one of many silent battles.  We’ve been doing it now for ten years.  And I think that’s what has actually kept us together: our (perhaps mostly subconscious) realization that we become more and more ourselves in one another’s presence.  More loving.  More beautiful.  More holy.

Ontologically, I understand this to be true, but on a much more visceral level, I really want my husband to go upstairs and clean up the “floor” (I know it’s under there somewhere) of his closet.  Will I ask him to?  Probably.  Will he do it?  Probably not.  Will we kill each other over it?  No.  Of course not.  We’ll do what we always do.  We’ll compromise.  And I know with absolute certainty that any person who is not willing to live with compromise is not willing to live in the reality of marriage.  I would rather have a relationship (even one that by its very nature compels me to change) than dream about one.  In the dream, things always go my way.  But even in the best of my girlhood dreams about my someday-husband, I always woke up alone.  In reality, I compromise.  And when I wake, J is here with me.


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