One to Grow On

I dreamed I lived in a manufactured home.

There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. Growing up in rural America, one encounters quite a few of these. And let’s just say, trailers ain’t what they used to be.

The Dream

We were having church in my bedroom (paging Dr. Freud). The pastor was an extreme personality, seemingly convinced of his own importance and that of his message.

It was raining.

Distracted from the sermon, I reached out to touch the glistening wall to find the rain was seeping through, forming little rivulets of water running down its length. I was momentarily concerned, though not panicked. I looked back at the pastor who was giving me the “stink eye” for not listening to him as I should. At that moment, we heard a creaking noise. Everyone turned just in time to see the wall give way, like in that Buster Keaton flick, separating from the entire structure and falling in one big, flat piece in the yard.

Again, I was concerned, but not panicked. In fact, the whole thing seemed oddly curious to me, the thought that my most private sanctuary, the place I felt safest, was really just one flimsy, rain-soaked wall between me and the whole, wide world.

And there you go.

Living a lie

I spent a lot of years propping up a deteriorating trailer wall. I painted it, hung pictures on it, and made curtains for the grimy window. I did my best to “bloom where I was planted.” But nothing real can grow in an illusion. The best you can do is a fake ficus tree in a raggedy wicker basket shedding that weird stringy stuff that sort of looks like shredded wheat.

I don’t believe dreams are particularly prophetic, but I do think they can reveal a person’s emotional state. When someone tells me about a dream, I ask them how they felt. What was the predominant feeling throughout the dream?

Gazing through an emotional lens, my dream suggests I’ve lost many of my illusions of safety and control in recent years, so many that I’ve almost gotten used to it. Almost. To tell you the truth, I’m surprised the roof hasn’t caved in.

But you know what? It hasn’t.

Nowadays, when it rains, everything gets a little wet, but with all the open space, it dries off in no time at all. And, man, you should see my garden.

Photo by Arno Smit on Unsplash

No More Mrs. Nice Christian

Forgiveness is a thing.

Let’s put the whole “it’s good for you” aspect aside, for a minute. Let’s file that away with the accompanying “don’t give that person a place in your head” whatever, whatever. Don’t get me wrong; those are good reasons to forgive.

Of course, judgement and wrath are set aside for God, alone, because He’s the only one who knows the whole story behind everything; so, there’s that. And let’s not forget all the crazy-terrible things He has forgiven all of us, not to mention the astronomical lengths He has taken to reconcile us to Him.

I’ve been reading 2 Corinthians, lately, with some unwanted, unwelcomed, unforgiveness bouncing around in my heart.

A close friend kind of stabbed me in the back, several months ago. Well, that’s how it looks from my perspective; ain’t that always the way? She has a perspective, too, and I’m sure it is quite painful for her, as well. Recently, she’s been ghosting around on my social media, “liking” a few of my posts.

The nerve.

The nature of the offense was such that I cannot fathom in what universe we could ever, ever be any level of friendly, ever again.

“Why didn’t you ‘unfriend’ her,” you ask? Because that’s a mean and petty thing to do, and it made me feel good about myself to grant her access to my awesome presence, even if I had no intention of interacting with her.

How magnanimous of me.

But this isn’t about me, at all. Like everything, this is a matter of the heart: my heart, her heart, and God’s heart.

  • Yeah, it’s unhealthy to carry this anger around, because it affects everything and everyone in my world.
  • Yeah, rehearsing a thousand tell-offs in my head leaves little room for the good things that could take root and grow there.
  • Yeah, judgement is God’s job. It is so not mine.

But here’s the kicker. As a self-confessed Believer and follower of Jesus Christ, I am a representative of God’s love, mercy, and redemption to a very broken world. I can blah-blah the Bible all day long, but the walk always speaks louder than the talk.

For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.

2 Corinthians 2:17 (NKJV)

I won’t lie. The conflict is a complicated one with a lot of socio-cultural, buzz-topic overtones. I can’t see a middle ground in this, at all. Maybe the answer is to just let her go. “[P]eddling the word of God,” at least to me in this instance, means selling His word short in the name of playing nice. She wants to take the humanist high ground, and I desperately want to let her, but something inside me says it isn’t right. Reconciliation requires forgiveness, but forgiveness does not necessarily precede reconciliation.

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

She’s letting me know that she’s ready to forgive, but her forgiveness has a condition. The condition requires an insincere representation of my faith, and my faith has only recently recovered from a major hit. My legs are still shaking, but I’m standing, nonetheless.

Forgiveness isn’t about her and me, it’s about God and me. Forgiveness isn’t about right and wrong, it’s about trust and obedience. Forgiveness clears the debris of my pridefulness so I can continue down the narrow road toward life, and more than anything else, I want my life to speak in the sight of God in Christ.

Photo by Ronny Sison on Unsplash

Telling Stories

I love story-telling.

NO, not when your child tells you, with cookie crumbs all over his shirt, that he DOES NOT know where the box of gingersnaps could have gone. I like the shared stories, the ones about you and me and the things we’ve been through, together. Mr. Murphy is a great story teller.

Journaling is a thing I do; I’ve done it, practically, since I learned there was such a thing. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Elmore, at Oakmont Elementary in Dickson, Tennessee, had us write a few lines, in class every morning, under the title: “Morning News.” After that, I couldn’t stop.

My journal is my story, but writing and telling are very different things. In a way, my fingers are better at speaking than my mouth is (my mother is somewhere laughing right now, because she knows how much I talk).

Now that I’m back in Tennessee, I occasionally run into people I haven’t seen in decades. What happens first? We exchange stories. An old friend will tell her story about what’s happened to her, and I will tell her my story, too. We will definitely tell the stories of our friendship, long ago, like a foundation on which to build new stories. This is a cool thing humans do.

Everybody has a story.

Our stories define us, embolden us, bind us to one another, and help us make sense of our struggles. Every group–whether family, friends, or colleagues–should nurture a collection of stories. They remind us of who we are and what we’ve achieved or lost. They point us in the direction our hearts want to go. Like my journal, our stories help us sort the good from the bad, so we can see where we’re going, as well as how and with whom we prefer to travel.

God invented story-telling. And, of course, His stories are the best. I wonder how His story of me begins:

Once upon eternity, I made this funny little girl. She was so hard-headed that she could never grasp how much I loved her. One day . . .

Runnin’ Scared

Nightmares are different when you grow up.

Like so many other kids, I had my share of nightmares when I was little. My earliest dream memories consist of scary things, because to my little-kid self, the world was a scary place. I was terrified of being left on my own, somewhere strange, with people I didn’t know, and my childhood dreams reflected that.

There was, of coarse, the Booger Man.

The moniker varies, slightly, depending on local tradition. Some call him the Boogie Man, like in Tim Burton’s ode to the holidays, “The Nightmare before Christmas.” But in 1970’s rural South, he was big; he was bad; he was a booger. And I fled him, nightly, from one back yard to another, from one dark room to another, until I got old enough to appreciate true paranoia.

Those awful, childhood creepies usually followed the same protocol: the chase that never ends, the inability to move or scream, the closing darkness, and the serious lack of help. Evading a giant booger was the high-stress situation that most mirrored my waking fears.

Even though I no longer dream of the traditional monster or dark figure that pursues me for reasons that only monsters can have–food, fun, or just because that’s what they do–I still suffer nightmares that are rarely terrifying in the classic sense. I no longer fear a creature that seeks to devour me; yet, I am often subject to situations that can consume me just as surely as any number of hungry beasts.

Here’s a common scenario:

I call this one the “End of the World” scenario. I’ve had this nightmare so many times, it finally stopped being scary. My personal apocalypse almost always features a tornado, a big one, coming to destroy us all. After countless near misses and close calls with impending doom, I began to recognize when a dream was turning in that direction. When the big tornado showed up, I would think, “Oh, this again,” at which point I would calmly save the town and wake up, unimpressed.

Here’s another:

This one I named “Go Home.” In this particular dream, I was always trying to find my way home. Whether I was at school in the dream, or visiting a friend, or running errands of some sort, a moment would come when the skies would grow dark, and all the streets would suddenly look the same. Many times I was completely lost without help or transport. Even though the “lost” theme was quite disturbing during its formative era, I eventually put this one to bed, too (get it–nightmares, bed–get it?). Sorry.

Monsters are Monsters

Boogers come in all shapes and sizes (ugh, gross). But grown-up nasties are a bit more terrifying than the child-conjured fear-demons of my youth. The stresses of childhood are simple ones, personified by a menacing figure chasing down a quick bite. In many ways, the horrors of adulthood are spectacularly worse. Adult fears are much more complex, manifesting in the midnight hours as disaster, loss, confusion, unpreparedness, and the occasional naked social event. To me, these things are way more frightening than a mere creature coming to eat me.

Evading ravenous, drooling monsters is an everyday event in the adult world. I can slay a dragon before lunch without breaking a sweat. You probably can, too. Nah, big ugly demons are no problem. How about a job interview? Now, that’s scary. Here’s one many of us can relate to: credit card Christmas. Mmmm, now you’re talkin’. Wait, I’ve got one more: open house at your kids’ elementary school. Yeah. You’ll never have a good night’s sleep, again. Children, money, work, bills, that’s the stuff of real nightmares. 

Sleep tight!

Where’d You Go?

One day, I realized that I was invisible.

The Situation

Getting married, having babies, gaining a considerable amount of weight, and crawling way up into church culture, brings all the elements of human invisibility together for many women. It did for me. I watched myself fade into a vapor, and I was powerless to stop it.

We rarely vanish all at once. It starts with smaller sub-groups within one’s circle of influence. Marriage makes us immediately invisible to a certain group. Having children drops one off of several party guest lists. Excessive weight gain cancels us out of all respectable summer activities, at least the ones that don’t involve children. Church culture is more of a safe haven than a contributor to invisibility, but there’s a certain amount of social stigma, there.

For a long time, most of my human interactions consisted of people  wanting me to do things for them, so I decided to make that work for me. I cleaned houses, professionally, for over ten years. Invisibility is a real plus when scuttling around behind people, picking up after them for cash.

There were good times. My kids seemed happy, so, okay. We were making reasonable bank, and everyone was warm and fed, so I counted myself blessed. As long as everyone was taken care of, being invisible wasn’t that bad.

Then came middle age, the biggest eraser of them all. By the time I was thirty-eight, I was well on my way to nothing. At forty-two, I vanished altogether.

Invisibility Checklist:

  • All of sudden, my whole life is wrong. Life is tough when nobody can see you.
  • Who owns these horrible clothes in my closet? Invisible people pay little regard to personal appearance.
  • I can’t stop over-reacting to everything. When nobody listens, one tends to shout.
  • I struggle with feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy. Nothing plus nothing equals nothing.
  • Occasionally, I have bouts (seasons) of intense anxiety. When others can’t see you, they walk all over you which is very stressful.

There’s little worse than unsolicited invisibility.

Don’t Stop Believin’

Your crazy, crazy brain tells you all kinds of foolishness when it’s being knocked about by wildly fluctuating levels of estrogen. Don’t listen to any of it. Fix your eyes on the horizon and avoid greasy food. Never walk too close to busy traffic. Being invisible, they’ll run right over you and never even know it. Always take a friend, hopefully, one who can still be seen by the general populace: young, attractive, wealthy, athletic, educated, big hair, pet dog, something like that.

Funnel your hysteria into a positive endeavor. I went to college. Ever since then, I’ve been somewhat visible. It’s probably just a confidence thing, right? That’s what I want to believe, anyway. Whenever I speak, people will now acknowledge me, listen to me, engage me intelligently, stuff like that. Poof! I’m visible again. Go figure.

I’m not saying college is the answer for everybody, but it was a big part of my solution. I’m definitely not saying that I’ve fought like a beast through all of this, or that I’m totally proud of how I’ve handled it, so far. I wish. But it sure feels good to walk through a crowded parking lot by myself.

More Than a Feeling

A strange thing has been happening in the American Christian Church. Well, not that strange, it’s been coming on for so long, now, we should be quite accustomed to it: emotional-experience-based worship.

Settle down everybody.

My family is–or has been, more or less–Baptist. My ancestors are deeply southern, hailing from Arkansas, Tennessee, and the Carolinas (as far as I know). Church has always been a big part of my life.

After a stint of adolescent disobedience, I married and was ushered into the Charismatic Renewal of the 1980s and 90s. Friends, when it was good, it was great, and when it was bad, it truly sucked.

My first exposure was the New International Version of Christian scripture, the NIV translation of the Bible that is so popular, these days. As much as I love Elizabethan English, the NIV brought God’s word to me in a language I could connect with on a deeper level. Of course, I began attending a charismatic church. We dropped that designation quickly, becoming known as a “nondenominational” church. Sometimes I wonder if that was an innocuous sounding attempt to distance ourselves from the lunatic fringe.

But, I loved it. Church was like a party, and our leaders were enthusiastic to make it so (Jean Luc Picard flashback). We usually met in homes, instead of the church building, during the week, and we came together on Sundays to “celebrate.” This was very different from the austere worship of my childhood church days. Oh, and “worship” in the Baptist church means the entire formal church service. In nondenominational church, “worship” means the music part of the service.

The Cult of Entertainment

We find ourselves in a society that is addicted to diversion. We feel deprived if we cannot find something to do or say or stream or eat or play or visit every moment of our lives. Increasingly, we interact with social media more than we interact with living, breathing, human faces. We consume products and entertainment at a staggering pace. I don’t know, maybe the church got tired of waiting for God to do it, or maybe we rationalized becoming part of this ridiculous game show so we could help Him grow His church, because He clearly needs our capital campaigns and tithing pep rallies. Those and probably a thousand other well-meant intentions got us here.

Where Are We?

In attempting to out-brand each other in our commercial culture, a weird metamorphosis has taken place in the American Church. Worship has become a business. And the business of the church, by and large, is to peddle emotional experiences to an increasingly immature and desensitized audience. I personally know a pastor who arranged for an adult lion to be brought on stage during a youth service. But it takes a lot to hold the attention of teenagers these days, right?

Here’s the Good News

That ship ain’t gonna sail for much longer, and good riddance. It looks like the show is over, brothers and sisters, and it’s time to step out of the boat, because she’s going down. Christ will return SOON for His Bride, and I know she will be radiant, powerful, and pure. Such a change can only come through fire (persecution and suffering–Connie, don’t say that!) and a sober heart of repentance. We know from His word that the hard times are coming, even upon us at this very moment. Brands, concerts, conferences, and missionary shock-trips to Africa won’t be enough to keep us afloat in these turbulent times. Get ready to jump ship, meet the whale, pray, and wait for further instructions.

How’s Your Heart?

Five years ago, today, I was having the worst day of my life.

In a desperate attempt to save my marriage, I may have contributed to its demise. College seemed like the answer. School was a place where I could go to feel like I was actually good at something. With a degree, I could get a job that didn’t involve cleaning someone else’s house or raising someone else’s kids. My husband could finally take a breather and find something that would make him feel smart, too.

How very wrong I was.

Five years ago, today, I learned that my husband was in love with somebody else. If you’ve ever been standing in those shoes, you know what a shoe-full of poop feels like. The stink of loneliness and despair can linger interminably. There’s a reason divorce is considered by many to be worse than the death of a spouse. If somebody’s dead, you don’t have the torment of interacting with each other, after the fact. I’m not saying that I wish death on anybody, I’m just saying that, of the two options, death is more final and less drawn-out (like torture). If somebody’s dead, the other can reminisce fondly, later, after the horror has subsided.

But divorce brings out the ugly you can never forget.

Five years ago, today, I was at the end of my rope. One of the worst things I could imagine actually occurred, but I lived to tell the tale. Sure, my heart breaks each time I think of my disillusioned sons. Sometimes, I don’t put up a Christmas tree. I miss the people I used to call “family.” There’s just too many sad aspects to recount. But we’re all okay. We survived it. Life is that way, and my life has been a good one.

I’ve wondered many times why God let this happen, especially when His Word says He hates divorce.

Things happen because things happen. Taken in context, the second chapter of Malachi warns if you dis your wife, the consequence is the divine cold shoulder. Sneaking around with another person, while you’re married, squarely falls into this category, I think. If God ever goes silent on me, like, the hardcore vacuum of “I’m praying but nobody’s listening” kind of silent, I honestly don’t know what I would do to regain His heart. Examining my own heart would be a good starting place. But God’s love never fails, so there’s hope for the inconstant.

Five years ago, today, it seemed like the end of the world, but it wasn’t. It was the beginning of something new. The Hound of Heaven is always dogging me toward His purposes. Whatever sorrow, whatever pain, whatever loss overtakes me in this life, I am encouraged and comforted that Abba has been, and will be, faithful through it all.

Yule Survive

Christmas- YES

Everybody smile!
  • watch Miracle on 34th Street–the original, please
  • and Elf 
  • drive around looking at lights and other cool stuff
  • bake
  • kiss Mr. Murphy, mistletoe or no
  • put rum in my eggnog
  • spend extra time with people I love
  • meet and greet some new people
  • Embarrass my nieces and nephews (my own children are now immune)
  • laugh really hard

Christmas- NO

Really cute gifts lose their cuteness when you’re crafting handmade candy boxes until the wee hours.
  • buy all the things
  • worry
  • go to functions I don’t like
  • pretend that I’m happy all the time 
  • feel obligated about silly things that don’t matter
  • chastise myself for not sending cards
  • discuss politics
  • engage in complicated (needless) posturing behaviors

REMEMBER!

Answer all condemnation-laced questions with: “I don’t know.” It is so much easier than trying to explain. 

Examples: 

  •  “Why didn’t you put up a tree this year?
  • “Have you finished your shopping?”
  • “Yuck! You really like fruitcake?”
  • “What’s in this dressing?”
  • “But I thought you were bringing the Ambrosia Salad.”

Better yet, silence. Just stand there and smile, then ask them where their kids are. 

Image result for wreath cartoon drawing

Always Dogs

Okay, so my first pet memories are of cats. We had a cat who put her kittens in my baby bed every night. It felt safe to her, I guess. Cats are weird. My grandparents had several chihuahua dogs, but they were kind of grumpy around little kids, so I shrugged it off and tortured them, anyway. There was also a Siberian Husky that was either run over or stolen. I was very young at the time, so that particular concern must have rated incredibly low on my list of terrifying things. If the incident in question had been more terrifying, it probably would have left a deeper impression. That was my early childhood: basically, running and screaming from one terrifying thing to the next.

When we moved to Dickson county, we had all kinds of dogs . . . and cats and chickens and cows and horses. That was when I had my Always Dog, the dog of my childhood, the friend who watched me grow up and loved me, even when I was the worst. She was something of a shorter-haired collie mix. She was black all over except for a white spot on her chest. My grandfather called her “Black Gal.” Yeah, it’s super racist sounding. I was a little kid in the 1970s deep south, okay? Cut me some slack. Anyway, she seemed to live forever, maybe because she wasn’t that much younger than me. When Black Gal died, I was devastated; my childhood was over. There was no reason for me to come home, anymore. I moved into my first apartment the following spring.

When my kids were little, I lived with them through their Always Dogs: Jack and Gracie. Jack was kind of an awful dog, the sort of dog you love because if you don’t, no one else will. Gracie was his younger sister from a different litter. He was a rat terrier, and she was a terrier/chihuahua mix. Jackie had something of a personality disorder which made him, forever, a work in progress, but Gracie was the sweetest little thing. When Jack died, she grieved for him under my grandfather’s bench for months. After our family fell apart, I brought her with me to Nashville where she lived for a year and a half before going to sleep. Letting go of Gracie was terrifically hard for me. She was the last tie to the family I never had.

Now that the Always Dogs have all gone to doggie heaven, I can’t seem to make myself want another one. The new dog will either fall short of the beloved memories of dogs past, or it will become the greatest of all dogs, the great dog love of my life. In both of these scenarios, I appear to be the loser. Either I’m stuck with another love-challenge for a decade or so, or I will end up mourning myself to death over incredo-pooch. There is a third option:

The dog in question could outlive me.

This is definitely a new card on the table of pet ownership. Saying good-bye isn’t my favorite thing. In fact, I’ve become quite artful at dodging the disagreeable practice, altogether. If a good-bye is in our future, and you suddenly don’t see me so much, it’s because I detest good-byes and all the emotional protocol that goes with them. Why can’t we just pretend we’re going on vacation, or something?

With a dog, this is impossible, unless you don’t have a soul. Abandonment is never an option. Dogs don’t understand: “It’s not you; it’s me.” So, in my world, saying good-bye to a dog means somebody’s dying. What if the next dog good-bye is the one where the dog wonders, “Where’d that old lady go?” What if I’m the one who doesn’t come home from the trip to the doctor?

For questions such as these, my usual response is somewhat hedonistic. Life is for living, and living involves loving, and loving is painful. BUT the pain is always worth the loving, and life isn’t life without love. Mr. Murphy says I think too much, but I’m a writer and that’s what writers do. We watch, and we think, and we shape the world to suit our stories. We overthink everything, and then we toss it all in the trash to start over. Starting over is what I’m into, right now, so maybe it’s time to think about getting a dog.

Finding You

I looked everywhere, but I could not find my great-grandmother’s wedding ring. Sentimentality skates dangerously close to hoarding, too close for me to get overly involved with ‘things,’ but this was different. This is part of who I am.

Edward and Louisa Deaton, ca. who knows?

It’s a little sad that I don’t know more about these people, but they are my forbears, part of the genetic pool from which I sprang upon an unsuspecting world.

Louisa (called ‘Loo-eye-zer’) Deaton is my mother’s father’s mother. Say that three times real fast. She had eight children, a conservative number for turn-of-the-century Arkansas. You know you come from the impoverished, rural South when all the old family pictures are of frowning people standing in a dirt yard. Compared to the people in the rest of my old picture  collection, these two actually look uptown. I guess they were headed to church–or a funeral.

The realization hit me, something like a year ago, that I hadn’t seen the ring in a while. I was sure I had put it in an old, old jewelry box. I have two of them. Again, the history on these two objects is a mystery to me, as well.

I know, I KNOW I emptied BOTH jewelry boxes, went through old bags and purses, and anything else that might hold my little treasures, but nada. I grieved in my heart and moved on.

Sigh.

Look at them, the ghosts of country people past; look how disgusted and disappointed they are:

What’s up with all the white shoes? It must have been a thing. Apparently, bras were out of style.

Nah, they looked like that, anyway. Hey! I see some grass, there.

You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friends’ noses. No, that’s not how it goes. Wait, okay, you can pick your friends, and you can pick your family, hang on, you can’t pick your family . . .

Nevermind.

What I’m trying to say is, your family is your family. Love ’em or leave ’em, they’re a part of you, whether you like it, or not. Maybe they embarrass you. Maybe they don’t like you, very much. Maybe they wear white shoes and go freestyle. If you don’t love those people, you stand a giant chance of wandering around for the rest of your life, trying to figure out who you are. To me, that’s a lot of time wasted, time that could be spent loving and living and learning and giving. I made a little rhyme.

Of course, these people were long gone before I was even born, but I have pieces of them: keepsakes, stories, pictures, and DNA.

Two nights ago, I remembered the lost ring, so I thought I would look one more time. Guess what?

I don’t know how I overlooked it, but it was right there in that jewelry box, all along. Go figure. It’s a beat up little number, a poor woman’s ring, but it means the world to me. It’s thin and worn and misshapen from plowing, sewing, scrubbing, and raising eight children on practically nothing. It was a part of her, and she is a part of me. Sure, it’s just a ‘thing,’ but it connects me to who I am, and where I came from. I’m an American writer, straight from the dirt-yard, white-shoes, no-bra-wearing South.

Who are you?