On Strength and Weakness {Lent 2014}


I am not used to living in my own strength.  

I've never been in this place during our six years of marriage, during my three decades of life, where I am the strong(er) one.  Depression, an eating disorder, illness, stillbirth -- these battles crushed me.  And the messages I was grown on, the ones that leeched deep into my core despite their untruth, agreed.  My name is Beth, and I am a problem.

It has taken me years to realize that I was not (am not) a problem, even when I struggled, even when I floundered and the the salted waters closed above my head and it took the hands of others plunging into the depths to bring me back to air because my muscles were too atrophied for swimming.

I have spent [too] many of my years longing for death -- not in an I-have-a-plan sort of way, but just wanting to be dead, for this charade to be finished.  I am grateful for the ones who sang me back to Life.

All this to say -- I have become accustomed to the being the weaker partner.  And our culture and our western church are inclined to agree.  I am, after all, a woman.

* * *
 
My husband is not well.  He lives in pain without relief.  The doctors have neither remedy nor answer.  He can no longer work.  The future is a question.
 
I find myself given an excruciating opportunity to feel something like what he felt as he watched me struggle for all those years.  Now I am the strong one, the one helpless to do anything but witness.  Now I am the one plunging a hand down after him as the ocean of tragedy tries to claim him.  
 
I do not know if I am strong enough for this.
 
* * *
 
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  I grew up Catholic, raised on mystery that no one quite knew how to celebrate or speak of.  As a child, I was ashamed of wearing the Lenten ashes on my forehead.  As a teen and young woman, I embraced them.  Even before I had awakened, the ashes spoke to me, whispers of something deeper, of joy blooming from pain. 
 
I haven't worn the ashes in many years now.  But they still call to me.  Perhaps you may remember that this blog used to bear the tagline "beauty from ashes."  Three decades of dwelling more pain, disappointment, and sorrow than in the joy and the light have taught me to embrace the fact that the earth is more fertile after it is burned, that spring cannot bloom without the frozen winter.
 
Last night, I burned my own earth.  Because the ground I have been walking has grown over-hard and unyielding.  It is growing fallow, because I am resisting the turning of the wheel.  I didn't mean for it to be so, but my daughter's death inside me was the last straw.  I grabbed hold of the metaphorical steering wheel of life and resolved to never let any hands but my own on it ever again -- not God's, not the hands of love or friendship or joy.  
 
I would pilot my own ship, no matter the consequences.  
 
In some ways, this has been a good thing.  It has made me less lazy, less good-things-come-to-those-who-wait.  Because of this, Made was born, and my soul awakened more deeply.  I believe that my son will reap the priceless benefits of parents who refuse to live numb.
 
But in other ways, it has been very much a not-good thing.  Because this clutching at control?  Another word for this is fear
 
And a life lived in fear . . . well, what kind of life is that at all?
 
* * *
 
I think that we in the western world have been conditioned to believe that control is strength, a virtue.  In American, we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, after all, white-knuckled and sweating. 
 
But what are we pulling ourselves up to?  More money?  More sex?  More square footage?  More power for the sake of more power?  More [false] youth?
 
These have become the American Dream, it seems.  I hope I am wrong.  But I don't think I am.
 
* * *
 
Traditionally, our Lenten fasts have been populated by fealty sworn to ego-stroking self-abnegation.  At least, mine have.  One year I gave up chocolate, for example, and another year it was Skittles.  And while less candy was certainly beneficial for my health, my fasts have not ever dealt with any of the actual dark chinks in my soul. 
 
This year, therefore, I am giving up fear.  Because fear is ruling me.  It literally contracts my muscles, pulling my spine down and down until my body is curled into the tightest ball and breath is hard to come by.
 
I am afraid of my child dying.  Of my dying, or my husband's.
I am afraid of illness and accident.
I am afraid of failure.  I am afraid of success.
I am afraid of falling behind, of running out of time, of not spending myself wisely, of coming to the end of my days and tasting only regret.
I am afraid of silence and stillness.  
I am afraid of hurting.
I am afraid of the God I read of in ancient texts.  I am afraid that there is no god. 
 
 
Last night, I tremblingly scrawled my fears onto paper, and then burned the paper away to ash and painted the ash into art.  
 
I am planting the seeds of my sorrow.  I do not know when their spring may come, but I hope that I will recognize it when it does. 
 
* * *
 
What is strength?  Is it gritting one's teeth and pushing/pulling/straining, tendons bulging as one forces victory?  
 
Maybe.  Maybe sometimes.
 
But I think there is another kind of strength, too.  The kind that gathers the ashes with blackened palms and uses them to fertilize the heart.  The kind that watches a loved one's struggle and, stretching out a hand to help, knows that the hand can only help it the drowning one decides to take it.  The kind that folds, skin on skin, into weakness, into life's inevitable pain, and says, welcome, lover.
 
The kind that sets flame to fear, when the burning feels (ironically) like terror, because letting go takes more courage than holding over-tight and the sensation is utterly unfamiliar.  
 
The kind that allows all things, sits with all things, embraces all things.  
 
I do not know if I am this kind of strong 
 
yet.
 
(this post was originally published here.)
literally painting my ashes into art with Christine

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