Boilerplate

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Prospect Park, Brooklyn

I am a lawyer.  This means that I think about future contingencies and the probability of bad things happening and how to protect against bad things happening that have not yet happened. It’s a dance, this protection of bad things.  I run around carefully laying down arrows before people’s feet, like “don’t go this way!” or “HEAVENS SWEET MARY DO NOT TAKE A LEFT.”

I write a lot of contracts.  Sometimes I scowl and shake my head at innovation or even compassion because of the inadvertent layering of future bad things atop the good.  I sit in meetings and scratch my head and answer text messages from ladies named Sharon.  Think of me as some muttering old professor, always trying to create walkways over water.  Bridges over bombs.  Pathways around trouble.  I talk to myself while walking toward the bathroom.  Maybe that’s why no one takes me to lunch.

But here I go referring to bad things and good things like I’m some hand-wringing evil avoider.  It’s just merging companies or buying widgets and no one is dying.  And let’s not kid ourselves. I’m in Target at lunch buying socks for my kids who always manage to lose their socks.  I am no superhero, and my job isn’t that important. Except when people are fired and laid off and punished for the color of their skin.  Or when someone works so very hard to build something from nothing, only to have that something vanish because of a deal gone wrong.  Every penny they worked for is just ripped out from underneath them.  It’s all just boilerplate on a page that no one reads but the lawyers.

I do.  I read those words. I’m in a profession people turn to when there are problems, real or in the future. In some small way lawyers are a tool to avoid these atrocities, and are paid to fight against such wrongs when they surge. So it’s only natural that when I see something, I rush on past it to the next thing, and imagine how that thing will be avoided by some reworking of this thing.  It’s no wonder I imagine my children in college and believe they’ll never pass Chemistry. How could they, really, when we spent two hours with dolls and imaginary tea parties and I let them skip bath and now we are all just lying in one bed with unbrushed teeth atop each other snoring.

I often can’t just let life be. To lie in bed and look at leaves fluttering to the earth, or live inside of love without the fear of it being crushed.  I try to write out my current station in life so clear that it cannot be ambiguous, or terminated without cause, and will withstand the scrutiny of any judge.  And yet life is not a contract.  Even contracts we make between two people and God, as any family lawyer knows, can be broken. And we are left only with today – shreds of us, really – floating along.  And when we collect all those pieces to form a life again, we begin wringing our hands at what it all means, and what future is to come, and whether we will again be ripped open like a deal gone south in a smoky back room.

I didn’t read the boilerplate.  The love will someday vanish.

And yet God tells us to not worry, us goofy little humans.  For if he cares for the ravens, he cares for us.  His yoke is easy and his burden is light. The same language is repeated throughout the scripture that we are and will forever be taken care of. The edges will be made smooth.  The pathways straight.  “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28.

There are times that I fear the future, when flakes of me fall like snow and I panic at the thought of losing myself again in the weather.  And yet I cannot write a life that suits me.  I cannot create an air-tight pathway that my legal brain craves.  What I can do is trust, and pray harder than I expected, and smooth out the rushed and harried edges of my heart.

The other day I walked along the long pathways of Prospect Park on the edge of a rain, holding the hand of the One Whom I Love, and for once didn’t worry about the future.  I felt solid and calm. I knew this is all I care to be, and all I care to live, and all I care to do.  And in the echoed and narrow aisles of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral with scaffolding covering the stained glass like an apron, I grasped his hand and whispered to God that I am thankful this torn and beautiful life, just a drop amidst a congregation dripping.  For outside these holy walls where two-dollars-will-light-you-a-candle is a Burberry store with four-hundred-dollar scarves, and people drenched with greed, and yet I am on the inside of love.

I am a lawyer.  I worry about how current things affect future things.  Yet at the same time I am learning to not worry.  For I am a daughter cherished. His hand has written the most perfect contract that cannot, no matter how much I scrunch up my nose, be terminated.  And this allows me to rest in the knowledge that the good can outweigh the bad, and love wins.

My friends.  Those intellectual and hollowed.  Those working and labored.  Stop worrying about the protection of your current status.  God is the arbitrator and the judge.  The prosecutor and the defender. We have but to lift up praises to the heavens, and offer ourselves as consideration for such a lofty gift. And in return we receive peace, amidst our toiled human instincts and flawed minds.  We can finally come to Him, the forever and the infinite; the never and always.  Despite our drenched hearts that fear love. Despite our minds that tear at things.  Despite our very selves.  We can finally rest.

Was Jesus Beautiful?

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One of Chris Bohjalian’s characters in Midwives dressed two-clicks above.  You can wear wrinkled slacks and smell like used cigarettes if you want, but I’m showing up in heels, my blond highlights blowing past you in the dust. Being beautiful is the closest thing we know to power.  And in this world, power is life.  So yeah, I get it.  I understood the urge to hide what’s inside and cover it all up with a jacket.  Our insides are dark and insecure, and the meek don’t live long in this bitter place.  You can say all day that beauty is skin deep and only comes from the inside, but when you want a job on 11th Avenue, you shed that fallacy and get with the program.  Bust out the Bergdorf suit.  The black one that makes you look slim and intimidates the competition.  Because you only have one shot and one first impression. Wear quelques fleurs.  Buy Burberry. Make it count.

So it makes total sense that Jim Caviezel got the part of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ.  He’s stunning, really.   Just peer into those brown eyes and neatly-trimmed beard and tell me you wouldn’t want to listen to that man talk just to see his mouth move.  Who wouldn’t want to see Jesus with straight teeth and soft skin and strong biceps?  It makes us cry quicker and weep more deeply and feel more connected with a man who is attractive. It’s more tragic to see Marilyn Monroe die than some prostitute from the Fifth Ward. Because Marilyn was beautiful, which to us means she was more worthy.

And yet Jesus was not beautiful.   “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces,
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” Isaiah 53:2

I thought of the Sermon on the Mount, where the poor in spirit inherit the Kingdom of Heaven and the meek prevail.  Where we should be less attuned to beauty and its false sense of security. Jesus turned the whole world on its head, and suddenly all we ever saw as value just fades like blood from a cut that bleeds in a bathtub with a champagne glass and a handful of pills.  What a waste of a beautiful life. 

And I stop in my tracks, with my expensive blond hair and a diamond burning a hole in my finger.  I rip the pearls from my neck and they spray around the living room like popcorn in a movie theatre, dirty and scattered.  I stand with my head thrown back and scream at darkness, this dying and rotting skin holding up my broken heart.  Beauty can’t be trusted.  We gravitate like animals to what we believe will breed more cleanly, and will produce a more perfect fruit.  Yet as we click toward this devil, who lures us so strongly in the name of self-preservation, Jesus stands.

He looks at all that caged-in ugly, and we are suddenly free.  And I am filled with awe.  Because I have never before been faced with such raw power.  Something that grips my insides and holds still my heart and quiets my rage. A power to raise the dead and clean wounds and move mountains.  I’m not worthy, as all this darkness pours out at his feet, from my blond roots to my trembling fingers to the buttons on my Bergdorf suit, and there surrounded in pearls on the floor I lay all my shit bare.

I just lay it all out bare at his feet and weep.

We should all strive for “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”  1 Peter 3:3-4.  Past the skin and the suit and the jacket of insecurity, there is great peace.  I want that peace to penetrate through these blue damaged eyes, two-clicks above this world, walking tall.  As it turns out, beauty is not power.  But God’s power is so exceedingly beautiful.

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Photo Credit:

The Passion of The Christ: Philippe Antonello

Rapids

We are all just swimming upstream.  The moment the wind calms and the food is plentiful and the credit cards are paid off, gusts once again sweep you off your feet.  They swell and pull at you and whistle uncomfortably in your ears.  Kids grow louder.  Your temper grows quicker.  The laundry piles and bills and coping skills get all worn and tattered by all that beating.  Life passes by in a streak of runny watercolor because your vision is full of rushing tide and debris.  Some folks can keep up, with their heads to the sky and their heart full of prayer.  You roll your eyes at those people. It’s all you can do to just keep looking forward, wiping the water from your tired, red, tear-stained face.  Funny thing is, you didn’t even realize you were paddling so hard until you look down and see the white caps of the rapids. Oh, for a moment of peace.  For the winds to calm.  Just a tiny second for your arms to rest.

I think now I’m supposed to talk about trusting in God’s everlasting arms.  To let Him do the fighting and you just roll back in a starfish float like my daughter’s swim lesson and allow all your earthly burdens to melt away.   That’s about the time I stop reading, because I’ve got things piling up and I just can’t hear any more about letting go.  I’m not into vague fuzzy lessons on how we are all masters of nothing and should quit fighting.  If I let go, I’ll drown.  I don’t know about you people, but I just don’t have the luxury of letting go.

So I build up endurance and keep on swimming.  I’m getting pretty good at setting my sights on the distance and finding friends to help make the journey palatable.   I’m growing strong, and confident, and feel I have this life thing figured out.  I thank God for strong arms and a fighter’s spirit and think I’m doing my duty.

But then the storm comes.  Not the everyday storm that makes my lungs sting and my thighs ache from paddling so hard, but the black storm that hits me in the chest until I cry out of fear and pulls me into a hole and makes me think this is so unfair.  I’ve worked so hard. I’ve been fighting the current.  I thought I got this, but now I can’t see or breathe and I’m drowning.

It is then you begin the slow descent to the bottom.  It’s a moment when time stands still, and you have the most peaceful conversation with your creator.  You aren’t pushing.  You aren’t moving.  You aren’t wiping water from your eyes or trying to take in side breaths.  You are simply lying there on the bottom of the river, watching all that rushing water above.  The ironic thing is that fear is surprisingly absent and your heart is strangely full.  And it hits you.  God truly is more powerful than the river.  His hands calm the winds and open your eyes and move the boulders, but all this time you were resisting.  He puts you in a place to allow you to see this abounding truth, even when you were fighting with your fists and elbows and words against it.  I will show you my love even when you don’t want to see it.  Even if it takes you to the brink of death.

When you rise up again, gasping for air, you are astounded by the beauty you see.  Your tears are clear, for through them you can see brilliance.  The winds blow, but they don’t suck you down.  There is a purpose to this struggle.  And just like that, you find yourself letting go. You didn’t read it in some devotional or have it handed to you by a priest or hear it in some sappy Christian song.  You let go because you were there at the bottom of the water, and rose up again.  Because you felt such an overwhelming peace.

Let the gusts come.  No bother.  You can take it.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,  because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”  

James 1:2-8

http://www.flickr.com/photos/16120271@N03/3823782148/

big apple of ambition

Recently, I friended an old high school acquaintance on facebook who turns out to be a creative director in an amazing ad agency in New York City.  Like Don Draper status with Emmy-winning commercials and fancy ties.  I looked down at myself, sloppy and tired, brushing the cookie crumbs off my pants.

Is this really where I wanted to end up?  Is this the woman I thought I’d be?

My mind was consumed with thoughts of the past as I unloaded the dishwasher.  Memories of television and fake eyelashes and In Touch magazine photo shoots.  People doing my make-up and eating at fancy places I could never afford. I thought of poor Martha Stewart, who didn’t like us much, but had such fabulous collections of things and a bubbly, youthful laugh.  I thought of the endless cabs and the fleeting second of fame and what it was like to feel special in this world.

I yearned to live there, then.  The Big. Ol. City. where the lights were always burning and air thickened in the summer – a mixture of urine and exhaust and pure, uncut talent. “What’s a working girl to do?” I’d say to myself as I rounded 24th Ave, my future yet untold.  Maybe I’d meet my husband for drinks, or coffee, or try that new vegan place uptown. My hair would be blond and my legs lean.  It’s not like everyone can run off to the Hamptons when the temperature rises.  I’d gut it out.  Because I’m a southern girl, and I can handle it.  I’d find my place in that rat race, settling down in a nice hole somewhere, munching on crumbs.

I remember being on an interview, sitting down with a bunch of marketing executives on 6th Avenue, my first child belly-flipping around in my abdomen and making me nauseous.  She was just the size of a bean then.  I think she was trying to tell me something.

My son suddenly awoke from his nap crying, ruining my perfectly good daydream about Dean & Deluca chocolates.  His pacifier had fallen to the floor and tears were streaming from his red, tired face.  The moment I picked him up, his arms curled around my neck like I might leave him forever and this was our one last embrace.  His head of thick, blond hair buried into my chest, and he let out the most peaceful coo.  I stopped what I was doing, carried him to my bedroom, and let him lay on my chest for a solid hour and a half.  He turned his head and sighed and flipped a few times.  I think he was as happy as he ever was in his whole two years of life.  As I lay there, rubbing his back, I let my mind rest on what might have been.  Or what I might have missed.

I chose this life.  You can hear the katydids screeching their evening refrain in the oaks and wonder if the tomatoes are getting enough water.  I eat farm eggs and bake bread on Mondays and hang clothes on the line.  Instead of going to court or summarizing deposition transcripts, I ask my husband about his day.  I make sure the toilet bowls are clean.  I find time to write. It’s the life I wanted, and one I fiercely fought to have.  But it’s not cosmopolitan.  No one cares if you wear designer jeans or have red underbellies to your high-heeled shoes.  No one in Austin even wears high-heeled shoes.  Why would you, when flip flops are much more comfortable, and you’re just headed out for Migas anyway?

My son woke up and we played the tickle game.  I did laundry.  I made macaroni and cheese with a breadcrumb topping.  My son wore one of my old hats and tried to dig ice from a Whataburger cup, which made me laugh.  My daughter and I stayed up late eating warm banana pudding.  My husband was out of town, so I let my daughter cuddle up in our down comforter with me, turning over sometimes in the middle of the night just to touch her arm.  Just to make sure she was still there.

Somehow I don’t think I’d get these memories living in the land of great hopes and expectations.  I’m not sure my soul would be rested enough.  I’m not sure my children would find their way.   It’s not home.  It’s not warm and inviting with room to breathe.

This is the place I want to live.   This is the life I choose.   Thank you, God, for leading me here.  For letting me float inside this quiet peace, amidst the wildflowers and artists and fields of expired ambition, gently blowing away with the wind.  Past the inland sea oats, whispering by the Indian blankets.  Far off into the hot, Texas sky.

Rising

Every Monday, I take off my wedding ring and pull my hair back in order to mix, pound, and watch bread rise through the dark oven door.  I always need to control something, and my two-year-old never listens.  So bread has become my new muse since leaving the corporate world.  Watch out, Julia.  Here I come with this hard crust and soft center business, all up in your junk about how Parisians do it best. So says the woman who used muffin mixes and bought canned biscuits.  I shudder now at the thought of my former self.

The old me wore heels and rushed off to the office, saying things like “well that’s a bifurcated approach” and “I hope we don’t bust our E&O deductible.”  I never used yeast packets except for holidays, and couldn’t understood why things never looked like magazine photos.  I was harried, and short-tempered, and wondered why my husband didn’t pitch in more with the kids.  I was juggling a career and a novel and small children and, well, I didn’t have time to wait hours for things to rise, for goodness sakes. I scratch my head at that woman now.  I pity her a bit, running around and around the wheel at a dizzying pace.

My life is simpler now.  I am settling into a new routine.  I complain less.  I sigh less.  I try to hug my children more.  But most of all, I’m grateful.

I used to think staying home was akin to bondage, where men secured all the power and the women were forced to perform menial tasks.  Who is John Galt? was framed on my desk, as if to remind myself to keep fighting against the machine. Stay-at-home mommies wrung their hands about potty training and play dates and had nothing interesting to talk about.  They wore flip-flops and gym shorts and all went to Starbucks after carpool talking about reality television.  I went to law school.  I defended the Federal Government.  I’m a fighter.  Women before me forged a rugged trail for me to blaze through.  Plus – it was good for my daughter to watch me working, so she could witness first-hand one who could do it all.  I could buy bread at the grocery store.  Right?  Anyone give me a hell yeah?

But one day, I quit running.  I realized that my life was out of balance, and I longed for peace.  So I quit my job, and bake day firmly settled over our house like a bad coat of dust. Maybe it was to fill the house with an aroma of warm wheat.  Maybe it was so my daughter had memories of always having fresh bread.  But when I really dig down deep, I think it was just my way of working things out.  To put my frustrations into tangible form.  I punched and kneaded and watched the first few batches bubble up or not rise at all and wondered how I’d make it in this new life.  But I kept trying.  There was always next Monday, after all.

I’m so very thankful these days.  I piddle around the house.  Sometimes I take a bubble bath after I drop off the kids.  I take long walks and pray for wisdom.  I make up songs with my daughter and let my son pick me flowers on a Tuesday afternoon. I used to laugh at those mothers.  I used to think they were crazy.   I was built for more than this, I thought.  While waiting for a new batch of bread to rise the other day, I took a walk in a wooded area around our house.  I heard the snort of a deer not ten feet away before she went running off at breakneck speed.  I laughed out loud, scared to death of a deer.  As it turns out, this is enough. I’m finally hitting my life’s stride.  I finally feel ready to stretch myself in ways I never did before.

I’ve learned that one has to feel bread dough to know whether it will turn out okay, regardless of what the recipe says.  You have to pat and form and squeeze it beneath your fingers.  You have to knead and pull and give it time to grow. To let the yeast mix with the warm water and sugar.  To rise.

Sometimes you just have to push the pause button and take it all in.  Long measured breaths.  One ingredient at a time.  Then, you’ll start to see how God is working all around you.  How he softly calls you to do something greater, and bigger, and more glorious.

A friend told me to cover my dough bowl with hot tea towels, which was an excellent tip, and I rub risen loaves with water to form a harder crust.  Just for looks, I sprinkle the top with oats.  I love every part of baking bread, from the smell of the yeast granules to the way the molasses runs down the heap of sticky dough like dark rivers, to the moment I pull it out of the oven and my family comes rushing over, asking for butter.

I am so grateful for this moment in time to walk slowly with my hands behind my back.  I am allowing my words and thoughts and the meditations of my heart to slowly expand, growing into myself with each passing day.  I am praying.  I am listening. I am rising.

peace for the wandering soul

I have always been surrounded by wanderers.  I swim amidst thinkers and singers.  Artists and tinkerers of all kinds.  Whether they have spouses or partners, dogs or made-up friends, these are my people. I’ve always been drawn to those who challenged life.  Pushed back the limitations. Created things.  I look at kids nowadays, forced and squeezed into certain stereotypes.  What a shame to be so pigeonholed.  What a waste to not absorb it all.

What’s come of the wonderful patchwork of friends I’ve gathered along the roadside is a realization that I’m a bit of a loner.  That my faith defines me in a different light.  The fact is that I’m surrounded by non-believers, whom I love dearly.  I’d gladly sit for hours through nights and storms with these dear friends, despite our differences, holding their hands and crying into their pad Thai noodles.

I want to tell them what I have learned through so many hard lessons.  That peace is possible.  That God simply loves.  Yet I’m forced to cut down so many negative stereotypes of faith, like hacking through a rainforest, that the message is lost.  I won’t send sappy emotional poetry about how Jesus Saves.  I won’t drag someone to church and make them sing Rock of Ages.  I won’t tell someone in the grocery store I’m praying for them, because I know that won’t make any difference for them to hear.  In fact, it will have the opposite effect.

And yet I pray for them all the same.

I think the problem with religion is there are too many people that think right-wing crazies and Rush-Limbaugh-for-president folks (and the bigots and the bible-thumpers too, if you’re counting) are all lumped together in one ball of dough.  They all bake up into one hot and crazy loon that is not to be trusted.  I don’t feel like a crazy loon.  I don’t take the written word literally and like to question established truths.  I thought Origin of the Species was brilliant and totally understand people scratching their heads at the thought of Noah building a large ark whereby eight people and a billion animals be-bopped into it two-by-two and floated along the entire earth for a few days.  Yet I still think God is real.  I still believe he guides and directs my life.

You don’t have to consider yourself a member of the crazy tribe to have faith.  You can believe in metaphors, or think that our ancestors didn’t look like us, or that there is a plausible life form outside our solar system.  You can believe Jesus was a great teacher. Or, like his father, a great healer, without surrendering your soul to stupidity.  People who are blessed with great big thinking brains – the ones who analyze and process and deconstruct problems like science experiments – have a difficult time with faith.  It is outright inferior to accept something because we are told to.  Because it’s the right thing to do. Because everyone’s doing it.

We are more than this. 

But sometimes, in your lowest hour, faith comes upon you like a whisper.  A small breath of truth that tells you that you cannot survive the winter alone.  That you must be able to let go of your demons and fall effortlessly into the arms of God.  One who can keep you safe in those cold, bitter nights.  One who accepts you right where you are, and forgives all that went before that one moment.

It’s hard to explain to my fellow intellectuals, who say they feel silly praying to a popcorn-covered plaster ceiling.  To sit alone in one’s thoughts and think there is a God above, somewhere in some celestial heaven, watching nations get torn apart or seeing people drown a slow death, lost at sea. 

To these people I just say – have patience.  Don’t give up at least considering that this man people have revered for so many hundreds upon thousands of years wasn’t just some random bloke with a beard and dirty sandals, but that there was meaning to his words. That forgiveness really is possible.  That peace happens.

Because deep down, that’s what’s holding us all back. Fear that we’ll be found out.  That our insecurity will surface like a helium balloon and we’ll be the ones left with our pants down.  But God cares not of this.   We all start out from different places, with different gifts, and with different hearts.  Some that profess to believe, and hate Darwin to wit, might not actually believe in much after all.  All those pot luck casseroles and church committees for nothing. For regardless of where we are in life, or how silly we feel entering this new world, naked and starving, he simply forgives. 

I believe that God is real.  That he loved us enough to deliver a son to this earth to die for our behalf.  This I believe despite having one of those big ‘ol thinking brains.  I like to drink a cold beer and laugh at good, hearty jokes.  I cut other people off in traffic.  I might not take all written words – even some in the bible – literally, but I think God’s okay with the fact that we can question and explore and investigate.   That we can still buy groceries and walk the dog and live in this crazy, silly world of heartbroken people, and still make a difference.

Yes, I’ve heard that still, quiet breath.  When my life was screaming for mercy and chains wrapped around the walls of my heart, closing in faster than I expected.  When I stared death in the face and told it I wasn’t ready. It was in that moment I poured out tears of guilt and shame.  And that, my friend, is what grace is all about.

Pray for peace, my wonderful beatnik friends.  If you can’t manage that, try to keep a sliver of your heart open, so someday, you might find the room to believe.  And then, peace can start to happen.