Shame was a language I learned early, right along with how to say “please” and “thank you.” There was an unspoken etiquette we learned growing up in the Southern United States. The tea should be sweet. You should address people older than you as “ma’am” and “sir.” I knew the taste of collard greens and banana pudding, as well as the proper use of the phrase, “bless her heart” to camouflage your disdain for someone in a prayer. We were known for our hospitality and kindness. We were always polite and proper—to people’s faces. Appearances mattered, often more than anything else.
I spent a good bit of my childhood being lulled into summer evening bliss by the rhythmic rocking of wooden chairs and the tinkle of the wind chimes hung on a long porch. My sister and I spent days down by the creek, running as fast as we could past our grandpa’s beehives. Our hands were stained from the red clay and black muscadine juice, calloused from shelling peas and stirring pots of beans.
But during those lazy afternoons on the porch, the stories flowed like molasses, sweet and sticky in the summer sun. Oh, that girl down the road the got married a little young. We all knew why. That neighbor had a liking for the bottle, everyone said. Shh, don’t say it too loud, someone might hear you. But wasn’t there a guy in school whose momma just got out of the hospital? You know, for taking too many pills?
If you stepped outside the cultural expectations, you would be the talk of the town. One thing I never learned was the language of grace. We were never taught to talk about all our failings or about the healing we can find when we say it out loud. We didn’t know what life could be like when we admitted our mistakes and asked for help. We just knew to sweep the dark corners of our lives under the rug, afraid someone would find out and whisper about us, too.
It was never said explicitly but the implications were clear. Don’t let people see your weaknesses. Manners matter more than transparency. And, for goodness sake, keep up appearances.
When I started attending church in my teens, I wrapped a new layer of right actions around me like a bullet-proof vest. I knew just what to say and do (and what and who to avoid) to appear like the best Christian. We talked all about a personal relationship with Christ, but what I really gained was another set of standards I needed to uphold.
Years later, after lapses that certainly made me the talk of all the good folks I knew in my church days, I longed for Jesus but I wasn’t so sure about his people. I knew I was a horrible mess and I was hungry for someone that could offer me more than appearances. I’ll never forget the kind people that poured into hurting students in the college ministry where I finally discovered a different dialect. They replaced the language of failure, shame, and secrecy with words like vulnerability, lament, mercy, and restoration...
When I first started practicing Centering Prayer in earnest, focusing on a sacred word to bring my thoughts back to the Presence of God, I daily focused on the word beloved. I was struggling to see anything good in myself. Borrowing from the teachings of Brennan Manning, I imagined crawling up in the lap of my loving Father. Something still felt amiss, though.
Living in Dhaka and learning the marvels of the Bangla language expanded my prayers in a way I never expected. The word for father in Bangla is “Abba,” that same loving name Manning uses for his Father God. “Amma” is the word for mother, but there isn’t a separate word meaning “parents.” Instead, Abba-Amma (or the more informal Baba-Ma) is used to signify parents, the combination of mother and father, the ones who are everything to the child. The distinct-yet-inseparable persons make up all the child needs.
I prayed in this way, calling God my Father-Mother, my good parents, my everything. And I breathed in the belief that I was their beloved.
For a long time, that’s all I could pray: “God, help me see you as good. God, help me understand your love for me.”
I don’t remember when the shift first happened. I just noticed when it had. I would see the face of others I loved while I sat silently anchored by the word “beloved.” I would hold onto the pain I knew a friend or family member was experiencing like I could take it away for a moment. It was as if I could sense God saying, “They too are my beloved; now help them see it.”
The sense of God’s love for me had seeped down deep into my bones and I didn’t need to ask God to show it to me anymore. I could hold out that hope for others. I could see the way we’re all connected to each other. I could clearly see, as Desmond Tutu said, that: “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life....”
The heaviness that settled over my chest that morning was as dense as my husband’s weighted blanket tangled around my feet. I kicked off the covers but the anxiety wouldn’t lift. It was one week into the Coronavirus crisis that had settled over our country like a dense fog.
It started on a normal Thursday when I picked the kids up from school. Headlines were trickling in about rising virus cases in the U.S. but when news came that afternoon of immediate school cancellation, we all felt sideswiped. The torrential news that followed overwhelmed me so that one week later I was lying under its weight.
Shame was another layer of heaviness over the anxiety. My husband still had a job, something I couldn’t say a month and a half earlier. I already worked from home so, while days now became a complicated balance of work, entertaining and educating the children, and keeping the house quarantine-clean, I still was able to work. We had the ability and privilege to stay home; others weren’t as fortunate.
My heart grew heavy with worries for friends stuck abroad or separated from their family, others who had to leave everything to return to their passport country, and our friends who still work among the rural poor and refugee communities in Bangladesh—the truly vulnerable. We had it easy compared to what we could have known had this happened a year ago when we were still living in Dhaka. The guilt said, “Shut up, you have nothing to complain about!”
But my children’s eyes told another story that shattered my heart. They were no strangers to living in limbo. While many of their friends in their suburban Georgia school were learning lessons for the first time about battling uncertainty in highly scheduled and planned lives, my children had become pros in the last few years. And their little hearts were weary.
hey were just six and eight when we told them we were moving to India. Once the shock abated, they were excited to dazzle their friends with stories of monkeys and cows in the streets. The first blow came when we were delayed by a few months due to visa issues. Then, after both my husband and I had quit our jobs in the U.S. and our house was ready to go on the market, the path to India completely collapsed.
Our lives became a series of delays, cancellations, rerouting, and waiting. Throughout the journey to our new home in Bangladesh and unexpectedly back again, we learned the hard way about living in the land of the unknown.
Living in Bangladesh, our family learned what it felt like to feel socially distant—separated from our family by 8000 miles but also from our neighbors by a language and cultural barrier. We knew loneliness well. Monsoon rains and protests would keep us isolated in our flat for days. We were constantly adjusting to new norms and the coursing emotions of culture shock that would strike unannounced. Our son asked us weekly when we would return to life as usual, longing for the familiarity of the U.S.
That was…until we told him we would be returning “home” after just a year and a half. Then he cried, “but Bangladesh is home now!” The bittersweet swirling of emotions didn’t end when we returned to our passport country either. We stepped into what we thought would be life as usual and found that we couldn’t ever go back. Georgia didn’t feel like home anymore and we had to start all over again. We then struggled through eight months of my unemployment and were barely a month into discovering a new normal…that the pandemic had upended again.
I was telling a friend how it pained me to see my kids plunged back into the void. My son’s angry outbursts masked his frustration at being isolated once more. My daughter’s thinly-veiled anxiety at possibly never going back to the school she was just becoming comfortable in was obvious when she emerged late at night, unable to rest.
“Write about it,” my friend said. “Everyone is feeling the strain of the uncertainty now, too. Tell them what you’ve learned.” And, you know, it made me feel so much less alone to think of it that way. We’re all in suspension together and no one is going to come out of this current crisis unscathed.
All of America is learning what it means right now to live in transition—stuck between the life they knew and an unknown future. We don’t know what tomorrow holds and each day there is plenty of fear waiting to tighten its stranglehold on us. This isn’t a transition any of us chose. But as I preach the lessons to myself that living in a state of limbo taught us, here’s what I know...
None of the ladies in my family shrink back. Distinctly southern, full voices fill the room when we enter. We’re known for our loud laughs and warm embraces. We aren’t afraid to speak our minds and take the lead. We see a space and fill it. We see a need and fill it. I never grew up with the misconception that, as a woman, I wasn’t capable.
I grew up with a mom who worked equally as hard outside the home as my dad to provide for our family. She worked full-time as well as nights and side jobs at various points in mine and my sister’s childhood. Despite that, I remember her being present at every event. Each dance recital or band competition, game or school function. She showed up. She volunteered. She was known and beloved by all my friends. She appeared to do it all with ease.
I’ve always prided myself on being part of a line of strong women. It wasn’t until I was a young working mom myself, wracked with anxiety brought on by all the things I believed I should be doing but couldn’t manage, that I realized a weakness I inherited, too. The waters of all the expectations I placed on myself were rising higher than I could swim. I was going under.
When I started admitting my feelings of failure, the women around me echoed back my anxiety. “Why can’t we do it all?” we said. We all felt weak, believing the strength of a woman meant being all the things to all the people all the time.
My mom admitted the disquiet she lived with as well. She never let us see it as children, but she struggled to keep her head above water, too. When I looked at her as a real person and not just Supermom, I saw the crack in the facade, the weak place I’d missed before: her inability to rest.
Just like the women before me, I was weak when it came to caring for myself...
The new leaves look as small and fragile as a baby’s fingernail. I smile in wonder as I water the miniature umbrella tree that sits as a quiet reminder to me in my window sill. The bonsai sits soaking up the morning sun doing its slow work. Changes are subtle and take days to notice. It looks like nothing is happening for a long time; then suddenly what appeared dormant emerges.
I am the farthest thing from a gardener. Though I love plants, I can’t keep them alive. Yet, after years of admiring the bonsai garden at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit which I visit several times a year, I finally bought one of the minuscule trees last year. I took great care the first few weeks to make sure it was watered and fertilized. In short order, the leaves drained of their color and started collecting in heaps around the base of the tree.
I read more about the specific type of plant and realized I was over-saturating it. I purchased a humidity tray to keep subtle moisture always nearby. I started watering it only once a week. Yet, I feared it was too late as the branches remained bare for weeks. I kept pouring water into the ceramic, turquoise base every Monday. I didn’t think there was any hope for the weepy branches, but I kept trying.
And then one day as I was watering the apparently dead tree, I saw those tiny leaves beginning to emerge. Something had been happening beneath the dark, moist soil that I couldn’t see. Life had been pulsing inside the branches all along, quietly, imperceptibly.
I started working on a rule of life four years ago sitting under the high arches of the very same abbey church where my little bonsai started its life as a sapling. I sat at the monastery and dreamed of a well-ordered life like the ones the brothers who live there know—one that prioritizes prayer and community, faith and action. One that finally makes sense.
“A rule of life aims to create a framework for being and becoming, rather than checking something off a list. Practical and spiritual goals fit into this framework as prayer and Bible reading can get sidelined into another item on the to-do list.”
I first learned about living by a rule at the monastery but found that followers of Christ have been creating personal rules individually and in community for years. St. Benedict himself, who wrote the most famous rule which orders the life of monastics around the world, summarized the rule as “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”
I’ve struggled to complete or live by a rule in the years since because it feels rigid in my ever-changing life. I would get a draft together of spiritual practices I wanted to pursue and ways I wanted to fix my life around anchor points that didn’t shift when my circumstances did. A few months into the year, just like with resolutions or goals, I would abandon the attempt, only to try again later. Continue Reading