Conflicted Holiday Recollections

The holiday commercials and Hallmark movies have started. You know the ones: loving couples presenting each other expensive cars in snowy driveways, smiling families in matching jammies caroling around exquisitely trimmed spruce trees, tykes in designer ensembles waxing adorably poetic on Santa’s lap, true love finding its way to the nearest perfect size two blonde with blindingly white teeth. You can practically smell the peppermint infused cocoa wafting out of your flat screen.

You know what, though? For a lot of us, Christmas doesn’t look anything like a made-for-TV movie or an Instagram post. For a lot of us, Christmas is just one more traumatic day of disappointment or painful memories. My holidays now are awesome and full of love. But it was not always so.

From the outside my early childhood must have seemed picture-perfect—cute suburban house, late-model car, accountant dad and homemaker mom. All of us handsome, all of us dressed in pretty clothes, living in the cute, newly furnished abode of the young married.

My early years were punctuated by childish giggles and my father’s big belly laugh. I know this not because I remember it, but because I have seen photos of myself with my parents and the first of my two younger brothers:

sitting atop my young father’s shoulders wearing only a diaper as he reclined on our couch;

diving into my first birthday cake, hands first, head topped with pointy cardboard hat;

playing in the surf on Charleston, South Carolina beaches;

cuddling with my brother, Lance, on the couch;

tossing a ball with my mom;

riding our shared Big Wheel;

playing with a puppy in our little apartment on Christmas morning.

These are the little moments that make up our stories, aren’t they?

Their sounds still live in my memory: splashes and giggles, the crunch of big plastic wheels on grey pavement, puppy yelps…

Chad and puppy 1975I was fortunate that in my earliest, toddler and pre-school days, I lived in a healthy and loving family. My mother and father fell in love while attending college in Lubbock, Texas. Having grown up in families that were well-loved and respected in the windy, dusty, conservative town, they had met at the Church of Christ Bible Chair, an inexplicable name for a building near Texas Tech University, where students met to eat snacks, play games, study the scripture, and find spouses.

When I was young, I spent hours laying on my tummy on our den’s gold shag carpet, poring over each and every page in my parents’ wedding photo album. I especially loved the picture in which my mom looked contemplative as she held her prayer-posed hands under her chin, a slit cut in her white kid gloves, made so that the ring could be put on her finger, clearly visible. My dad looked so handsome in his black tux, and I loved a particular photo of him with all his groomsmen, walking with arms linked and big laughing smiles on their faces. My mom had never stored her dress, so I could go into the closet and pull it from the rod and hold it up to my little body, caressing the appliqued roses and rustle-y organza.

She was beautiful; with big blue eyes, golden olive skin, blonde hair coiffed to perfection, and impeccable style in clothing, she was a knock out who grew even more beautiful in the first years of marriage and motherhood. She had that glow that happy women have.

The only boy among four sisters, my father had served in the United States Navy, which was a matter of immeasurable pride to those very sisters, and rightly so. Dad marched in the band at Texas Tech and graduated with an accounting degree just three months before wedding my mother.

So much joy, so much promise.

Recently, while sorting through boxes of keepsakes in my attic, I found two letters that must have been kept in my grandfather’s belongings, letters that I don’t recall ever having seen. In the first of these letters, written by my mom to her family just two weeks after her nuptials, she tells of all the small joys and travails of a newlywed couple: an apartment without air conditioning, burning her fingers while learning to cook, her fear of ironing my dad’s white work shirts, so sure she would scorch them. In the second letter, the one that cracked through every defensive wall I ever erected, she writes home to tell her family what young motherhood was like. There was such joy in her description of my eating preferences (apparently, I loved green beans) and my irritation with a particular orange bird that swung above my head on my crib mobile. She told of my sleeping habits and my quiet nature. The letter was full of hope, she was brimming with love for her husband, for me, and for the life she was starting.

I know very little about their courtship. By the time I was old enough to hear stories of drive-in movies and malt shop jukeboxes playing Elvis songs, our little family had started to unravel. Laughter was becoming less and less present, replaced by yelling and stony silence. Something changed for my mom. In her mid-twenties, depression and mental illness intervened. Opioid addiction got its hooks into her as she attempted to cope with her demons.

Mom diligently built a network of doctors and dentists from the various suburbs all over DFW. I spent many hours with my little brothers in the back seat of the Pontiac as we visited doctor after doctor, left to mind ourselves in waiting rooms while my mom wove stories of pain both real and imagined so that she could get a hookup with meds. When a doctor cut her off, she found a new one. Back in the 1970s, doctors didn’t seem to be as aware of the substance abuse problem, and it took them a lot longer to realize what was happening, so for years she swallowed these pills, with no one the wiser.

My mom on hydrocodone was not a pleasant woman. She had three basic modes: slurred sloth, benign narcissist, and raging monster. Most of the time she was in that middle place. She could not help us to get ready for school, she could not fix breakfast, she could not do laundry, she could not wash dishes, she could not she could not she could not. I learned to live with this mom, she neglected but she didn’t hurt. I figured out how to make delicacies like Frito pie and tuna casserole, I could open and warm a can of green beans. I made Kool-Aid by the bucket in a blue plastic pitcher, I got my dad to show me how to work the washing machine. I checked in on my brothers at school. I was no mother, but I did my best. And I brought my imperfect best to the raising of my own children and the creation of our own precious and joyous festivities.

Kim and Daddy 2-70

It’s hard, at holiday time, for me to wax nostalgic about my childhood. The earliest Christmases were all they should have been, I know, but they simply deteriorated as Mom did. So I didn’t bring beloved traditions with me as I raised my own family, I don’t have treasured family keepsakes to decorate my mantel or hang on my tree. Just yesterday, while unpacking all my decorations, I broke a bell saved from my eighth-grade year, a little caroler that had come in a box my choir teacher checked out for me to sell as a school fundraiser. I had two bells left that I couldn’t sell. This was one of them, the only remnants of my own childhood Christmas decorations. My husband held me as I processed, unable even to cry as I said goodbye to a tschotke that held such conflicted significance for me.

With a lot of love and grace, I healed. Now, I look forward to the holidays. But I know it’s sad sometimes, for me. And for others. Take a moment to slow down, see those around you. Notice melancholy. Clasp a hand. Say a blessing. Lend an ear. Withhold judgement. Share a meal. That’s how we can make it truly the “most wonderful time of the year.” Love to all.

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I’m Outa Here.

Fruit Salad, Laundry Soap, and Evolving Faith

It has long been my practice to write small observations about the little magic moments found in daily life. I try to keep mind and heart open to signals that the Universe, or God if you prefer (perhaps even Goddess), places in my path; sometimes connected to what I see in nature, perhaps a song, or a memory. For months I have been bumping into Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in such random and frequent encounters that I decided the Universe has something to say to me through her life and work. Based on beloved author Liz Gilbert’s MO I bought a biography to read and started an index card file for research about Shelley’s life and work. Someday, maybe it will be a book.

Today, the signal is all about the Fruit of the Spirit (I capitalize because sometime in my distant past a preacher instructed that this phrase is a proper noun, and so must be appropriately capitalized- I have no clue of the veracity of said pulpit-granted grammar lesson).

I don’t really know why, but I was singing the old vacation Bible school song about the Fruit just a day or so ago. While standing in the shower, my mind chanted them all, with the little melody:

Love

Joy

Peace

Patience

Kindness

Goodness

Faithfulness

Gentleness

Self Control.

I remember another sermon in which a pedantic preacher spent a ridiculous amount of my Earth time parsing whether the Fruit was singular or plural, his point being that they were a collective, and that you’d better excel at all equally if you wanted to be in God’s good graces.

Sometimes we major in minors, yes?

This morning, after my recent reminiscence of the Sunday School ditty, I was scrolling through Facebook and two friends’ posts showed up consecutively with the Galatians scripture embedded in lovely green graphics. Same verse, identical color scheme, different art.

A signal, I think. This may not head where you’re expecting, by the way.

C of C

For, you see, I consider myself a “Recovering Christian.” I grew up in a conservative evangelical tradition, where adherence to scripture was valued (which can be great), but what adherence meant was subject to a preacher’s interpretation (which can be awful). It was drilled into my heart and mind from the time I was very small that it was my duty to save souls. The church had mounted Matthew 28:19 above the exit doors, admonishing us as we left the carpeted lobby to head among the heathen masses:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

I carried with me a deep fear and painful guilt that I was supposed to offer Jesus and the church’s “Five Steps of Salvation” process to every single person I met, and for an introverted soul who deeply wanted to please both Jesus and my church leadership that was an unbearable burden. I stumbled through some door-knocking, invited kids in the neighborhood to Bible class, stammered through opening conversations about Jesus with school friends. Scary. Through junior high and high school, I struggled with one-one-one evangelism, and slid right on into college that way. In my small private church college, it was a little easier. Pretty much everyone was already a baptized believer; but I was introduced to a new gospel: the gospel of Amway.

“Do you know anyone who might be interested in making a couple extra thousand dollars a month working 8 to 10 hours a week?”

“I was wondering if you could give me your opinion on a business I’m looking at. I really value your opinion and could use your input.”

“Well, sure, we do sell Amway products, but that’s only about 20% of what we sell. Everything else comes from over 2,000 other companies, most of which are ‘Fortune 500’.”

I fell in love with a boy who did Amway. He had signed up before we met. Here’s how it went:

Respected college professor was supplementing his small Christian college salary with the multi-level-marketing scheme (and who can blame him, really?), got his son involved, his son approached Travis. Travis, being a people-pleaser, said “Sure!” And so our first six years of marriage were spent trying to make this crazy thing work.

I mean, it does work for some people. It does. Good grief, our current Secretary of Education bought her way into the Presidential cabinet with her Amway family fortune.

Amway

Amway provided an automatic circle of friends, which was really cool for this introverted young woman. We gathered for weekly meetings to account for progress, sat together at church, enjoyed monthly potluck suppers. We attended conventions at semi-fancy hotels and paid registration and room fees that we didn’t have the money for (but it was an investment in our future so our sponsor helped justify it). Attendees sang patriotic songs- several times I delivered Sandi Patty’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” to open the festivities- flags were waving, tears were shed. Many wore red, white, and blue. There was lots of testifying about how the Lord had blessed our endeavors. Guest speakers dangled tempting photos of tropical vacations and reminded us how much easier it is to tithe when you’re rolling in the big bucks, part of the allure of the health and wealth gospel. The pain of it, even now, is that love for Jesus, love for country, and love for wealth were so enmeshed that my faith became clouded. It’s easy for that to happen when you somehow believe that God is going to bless you with cash if you just keep working the plan; then He doesn’t. The Fruit of the Spirit had a hard time flourishing in the garden of my troubled heart.

Amway nearly destroyed us. It really, really did. There was an underlying message that if you truly loved your family, you would overcome your discomfort and approach everyone about joining you, so there we were, twenty-ish years old, both with horrible self-confidence issues, trying to pay bills and buy shoes for the baby, and honestly no credibility whatsoever. I did what I was told I should and kept reminding Trav to make the phone calls. He called, usually without success, and became discouraged, which I interpreted as “You don’t love me and our daughter enough to overcome your discomfort” and I wouldn’t make the calls myself because I was an introvert, dammit, and besides it’s the man’s job to provide for the family (I tell you- I was a different person then). We would consider bailing on the whole thing, then he would say he did want to keep it up, so the whole cycle would begin anew.

Then there’s the whole recruitment thing. I don’t make new friends easily these days. I didn’t back then, either. I would meet a lady and think she might make an awesome friend, but I would either spoil it by using an Amway approach line, thereby cutting off all hope of future conversations, or I would just chicken out and not approach at all because I knew that at some point I would have to bring up Amway.

Travis and I didn’t trust each other, we didn’t trust ourselves, we spent money that should have been spent feeding our child on extra products or convention tickets, we risked friendships. Our marriage nearly caved. We watched another couple in our group disintegrate under the pressure, that was when we knew we couldn’t do it anymore. We confessed to our sponsors, and they lovingly told us that if they had known how we were struggling, they would have helped. They would have advised us differently.

So here’s my takeaway from Amway: I was not living a life, nor setting goals, that were true to my real self. I didn’t know who that self was just yet, so I let other people define it. I spoke affirmations that I now know were in complete contradiction to my deepest nature. I dressed like and aligned my politics and religion with those peers, I played tapes about building a business when I wish I had listened to music instead. I paid babysitters and gave up valuable evenings with my sweet little ones, all so that I could sit in strangers’ living rooms trying to sell them the dream and a starter kit.

Amway wasn’t for me. Around my fortieth birthday I realized church wasn’t for me, either. The church, like Amway, nearly destroyed us as well. Stories for another day. But authentic friendships? For sure. The rabbi Jesus? Absolutely. These days, I share a different good news; which is that we are all capable of meeting the Divine One in our own way, in our own time. No church or preacher required, though I know that many, many people find great joy in both of those things. But you know what is needed, sorely needed, in our world? Those Fruits. I believe that when we spend time where the Divine One resides, we cultivate love, joy, peace, and patience. We harvest kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

Courage-to-be-still3

Now that I am fifty-one, I don’t quite follow the rules of the 1970s little girl Christian that I was, nor do I adhere to the 1980s dutiful Amway salesperson. When I was a youth, I recited, “See and save. Seek. Save.” In the Amway days, my mantra was “books, tapes, and meetings.” Now, it’s “Be still. Be still. Be…still.” I know which one resonates deeply with my soul, and I won’t let even the promise of a yacht or my own island in the Caribbean move me from it again.

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