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Loophole People

I hate shopping. It seems like most men would love that in a wife, but it drives my husband crazy. This is how shopping works at my house. My husband and I and our two girls pile into the truck. We head out to the local warehouse club with abandon. Going up and down the aisles, my husband is a prodigal father, lavishing extravagant gifts on his daughters. My girls are still young enough to light up with excitement over cereal that turns milk green and candy that makes tattoos on your tongue. I get caught up in the moment, but still manage to maintain a voice of reason. I routinely veto four or five items per trip. “Last time, they didn’t finish that and we had to throw it away.” “It’s really a lot of sugar; can we get something besides junk food?” “We still have two boxes of that at home!”
About halfway through the store, I realize with dread he’s about to turn his attention to me. “What did you get for you, babe?” Oh, I’m all set. “How about some chocolate?” “Nah, I still have some at home.” “Look, you haven’t bought this in a while.” Somewhere around aisle six my stress hormones kick in. Cortizol and epinephrine rush through my body with dramatic effect. My heart beats too fast, my arteries widen, my lungs take short, shallow breaths. Power courses through me until I feel big enough to knock all the food off the shelves and run all the way home, but I quietly stroll along as if nothing is wrong. When my confused brain doesn’t get the reaction it needs from my intractable body, the opiates come. My daughter calls this ‘shut-down mode’. I can be rounding a corner, faking it. I can be in the middle of talking and laughing with my family and suddenly I’m gone. I’m floating above my body, out of reach. My brain has produced pain killers for a pain that is as invisible as I feel. My daughter pulls hard on my arm, “stay with me, Mom”, she says.
I know what causes it. I’ve lost the ability to Need. You see, my twelfth birthday present had a profound effect on me, though not the one my mom intended. I can still fill up a blank page with wishes: a kayak, a piano, a trip to Disney World with my family, OK, maybe a motorcycle. My want button still works, but my need button is broken.

And why are you anxious about clothing?
Observe how the lilies of the field grow;
They do not toil nor do they spin,
Yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory
did not clothe himself like one of these.
But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today
and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace,
Will He not much more do so for you,
O men of little faith?
Matthew 6:28-30, NASB

God promised to clothe me. From the time I left home until the time I married, I spent almost nothing on clothes. As my clothes became stained and worn I just wore them anyway. Sometimes at odd intervals, a friend would come around with a big, black, plastic bag. “I just went through my closet and decided to get rid of some stuff. Why don’t you see if there’s anything you can use?” I remember the awkward days of middle school when we had painfully little money. I knew what it felt like to be tormented, teased, pushed, hit, kicked, even spat on by my classmates. I knew it had a lot to do with my clothes. Is that what God meant by His promise? Through what divine loophole did I slip?
When I got married, I moved into my husband’s small one-bedroom apartment. I moved my clothes into his newly-emptied drawers. My underwear made him angry. He held up the stringy elastic with loops of cloth hanging down and began to boil inside. He grabbed all my underwear and flung it into the trash can in disgust. He looked deep into my eyes and said intensely, “We’re not that Poor!” We immediately bought shiny, new multi-packs of underwear from the store for me. “You’ll never be that Poor again,” he assured me.

Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow,
Neither do they reap, nor gather into barns,
And yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are you not worth much more than they?
Matthew 6:26, NASB

God promised to feed me. Yet I remember hungry nights. I remember looking desperately through empty cupboards wondering what I could feed to my precious, hungry little sister. Is that what God meant by His promise? I hear preachers claim this promise again and again. “God will always feed you, there’s no need to worry.” Yet, I know that millions of children go to bed hungry every night. Thousands starve to death with bloated, empty bellies. As I now sit fat and happy in my middle-class American life, I can’t help but think about these ‘loophole people’. No amount of personal un-Wishing will fill their hungry stomachs. What is God’s explanation for that? What Grand Unification Theory of Infinite Justice can reconcile these mutually exclusive truths? God is all powerful. God cannot lie. God promises us safety. We are not all safe.
What loophole did I miss? Did I not have enough faith? On the contrary! Faith is all I had. My faith was much stronger when I was completely helpless, completely dependent on God’s favor. I like Job, question God, pleading for an explanation. Like Job, I will not, cannot curse Him. I know and have experienced His Goodness. I believe an answer exists, one that I cannot yet understand. At the end of his pain, Job received an answer from God, but not a real one. God never answered Job’s question. He stubbornly refused to answer.
In the same way, I have received an answer, but not an explanation. My answer came not from a cloud, but from a gentle whisper. God’s answer to me is clear, even if it isn’t satisfying. God simply answers me by saying, “Hold on to that Faith, Lisa. It’s what got you through.”

My Piano

When I was seven years old, my father bought me a brand new piano. It was an amazing gift for a child so young. I loved every key of it. I loved the discipline and stubbornness required for its mastery. I loved the powerful simplicity of its technique. I loved the way my emotions flowed freely through my fingers when I played, voicing my feelings in ways that could be heard and remembered. I loved my piano.After my family broke up, somehow, amazingly, my piano found its way back to me. It was the most ostentatious element of the many humble places we lived. My mother recognized the importance of my piano in my life. Somehow, though we couldn’t afford lessons, we managed to keep it properly tuned. We closely monitored the humidity and lovingly polished its shining wood finish. During this period we moved more often than once a year, but my piano always moved with us. It was a symbol to me of the real family I once had. It was a future piece of the real family I would one day build again.When I was sixteen I left home for good. Mom made it clear to me that my piano could not stay. School rules prohibited me from taking it with me to the dorm. My piano needed a home, so I turned to my aunt for help. She had an older piano which she was dissatisfied with. She loved to play; she had taught me several songs. She would take care of it for me. She knew what it meant to me.I could not come back for it for a few years. When I finally had a real home, I returned for my piano. My aunt ran out to meet me and said, “Lisa, you’re going to be so angry when you see what the boys did to your piano!” She led me to a basement room where the shell of my old friend stood, smashed to pieces as if with hammers. It was damaged beyond repair.As an adult, I found it easier to hide my anger than before. Listening to my aunt’s rambling explanation, I was astonished by her lack of remorse and personal responsibility. “You have no idea how hard it is for me to live with them,” she said of her own sons. “They are horrible!” As a child, my aunt had seemed larger than life to me. To my grown-up eyes, she was small and weak. I had mistakenly believed that because there was no violence there, her house was whole. Now I realized that the circle of my aunt’s world was small and growing ever smaller. Her insanity, though less apparent than my mom’s was just as insidious. Finally, my anger hung limp at my side like a broken arm. With whom could I be angry?Could I be angry with my cousins? What about her oldest son? He was much closer than a cousin to me. He was like a much younger brother. In some ways he was like the son I would never have. I was already thirteen when my cousin was born. My aunt’s pregnancy was the first one I was able to watch up close. We spent many hours talking about what life would be like for her when the baby came. She showed me pictures of fetal development, explaining what was happening at every stage. I looked forward to his birth like Christmas, counting down the days! When my aunt and uncle finally brought home their precious bundle from the hospital, I thought my heart would burst open with joy and pride. I slept on their couch for two weeks, helping. I woke through the night to bring him to her for feedings, diapered him, rocked him, sang him silly, made-up songs full of his own name, and generally marveled at his perfection.My cousin was a second chance for me. I felt already badly damaged, bent and unable to be straightened again. My cousin was fresh and whole, smart and alive. He was someone like me, from my neighboring gene pool, with a shot at a real life. Surely growing up in a home with two parents, a home without violence, my cousin could make it. He was my do-over. I couldn’t be mad at my cousin any more than I could be mad at myself.In the years that followed, I grew away from my family. For several years I wandered the planet; literally and figuratively traveling half-way around the world. It was as if I thought physical distance could remove me from the stinging pain of the childhood abuse I had suffered. No matter where I wandered, the pain wandered with me. It grew duller but deeper as the years passed and I grew expert at ignoring it.Eventually I started my own family and put down roots. I wanted stability, wholeness and sanity for my children. Now, I have lived in my house almost three times longer than I have ever lived in one place in my life. Sometimes, the roots I have always longed for pull me down too deeply. I think wistfully about running, packing up with my family and taking off to somewhere new, where the bad feelings and memories will be temporarily unable to find me. But my love for my daughters pulls me back. I want better for them, like I wanted for my cousin.About three years ago I got an unexpected call from my sister. Early that morning they had found my cousin’s body. He had gotten up before daylight and downloaded instructions on the internet for tying a noose. He had gone out back to the woods we had once loved so much, and hanged himself from a tree blind. When she found him, my aunt vainly pushed up on his legs while her new husband tried to loosen the rope from my cousin’s neck. She yelled, screamed and cried at him, ordering him to live. But it was too late. His brain was damaged beyond repair.Even as I write these words, my feelings elude me. I feel nothing. I feel empty. I hope one day my heart will heal enough to feel sad about my cousin. I hope one day to find a sense of meaning in his selfish act. The injustice overwhelms me. With what cosmic agency can I lodge my complaint? With whom can I be angry?To resent means to feel again. I want the opposite. I want to relieve, not to relive. Having individually released and forgiven each person who hurt me, the burden of my pain remains. I’m stuck in a way I don’t understand. My pain stands as a barrier between my God and me, preventing me from fully feeling and accepting His Love. Who is left for me to blame? At whom can I point my angry finger?

Kobayashi Maru

In Star Trek© II there’s a scene from a Star Fleet© Academy training simulation. The cadet doesn’t know it, but the simulation she’s in is a no-win scenario. No matter what action the cadet takes, she will lose. It’s called the Kobayashi Maru and it’s a requirement for graduation. The test is designed to see how the cadet faces death. Admiral Kirk tells her “The way we face death is at least as important as the way we face life.”
I have one memory that particularly haunts me. It’s not the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it tenaciously holds me in its grasp. It’s my Kobayashi Maru. When I was about fourteen, I was afraid of two people. I was afraid my brother would stab me with a knife and kill me. I don’t remember how I came to feel this fear, but I clearly remember feeling it. I was also afraid of my mother. I was afraid she would kill me by stopping me from breathing. I was afraid she would either hold something over my mouth and nose, stopping my breathing until I died, or that she would strangle me by putting her hands around my throat and pushing down until I was dead. Sometimes, she acted out killing me without going all the way. I could see that she desperately wanted to kill me, but that she was too afraid of the consequences to do it.
One day I made one of them angry. Really angry. Try as I might, I can’t remember which one it was. My memory fails me at that point. There was one safe room in the house. It was the only room that had a lock on the door. It was the bathroom. If I could make it to the bathroom, I could live. When I knew I was in danger I ran as fast as I could, and I made it. I just barely closed the door and locked it. The big angry person outside the door couldn’t get in, and I was safe. I sat down on the floor with my back against the wall and hugged my knees. I waited for the angry person to calm down, give up, and go away. They always did.
I waited and waited, but the pounding on the door didn’t stop. Instead the pounding and yelling grew louder. I sat there watching the door shake. The door began to strain. I nervously eyed the door jam by the lock. It began to bulge. I started to cry. Maybe I wouldn’t make it. Maybe the angry person would get in. Maybe I would die today.
I sat there crying and rocking and hugging my knees. I was terrified. Soon I realized I was crying too hard. I couldn’t get enough air. I gasped and gasped, but no air came. The harder I tried to breathe, the more I suffocated. I had hyperventilated.
I knew what to do when you hyperventilate. I was always the one who knew what to do. When you hyperventilate, you’re getting too much oxygen. You’re supposed to breathe into a paper bag. This tricks your body into thinking that you are breathing, but by taking in your own exhaled carbon dioxide, your body is able to bring the level of gasses in your blood back into a normal balance. Once you have a normal level of oxygen in your blood, your autonomous nervous system gives your lungs permission to breathe normally again.
I knew what to do. I needed to go to the kitchen and get a paper bag and breathe into it. It was simple, but it was impossible. If I unlocked the door and went out, I would probably die. The angry person was still outside the door, still pounding. I couldn’t go out. But I couldn’t stay in. I was there alone and I couldn’t breathe. My hard breathing only created a feedback loop which made breathing even harder. I was becoming dizzy and the edges of my sight were starting to blur. I began to think that if I stayed in the bathroom, I would die anyway. They would find me, dead and cold on the bathroom floor after they broke down the door because I had stayed in way too long. It was a no-win scenario. There was no solution. Kobayashi Maru.
That was the day I got my first headache. My headaches are like a toddler having a temper fit. The toddler lies down on the floor of the grocery store and screams, and the mother can’t go on until the toddler lets her. When I get a headache, my world stops. I can’t pretend I’m OK. All I can do is take painkillers, lie down on my bed, sandwich my head between two pillows and wait. I rest, I pray, and I submit to the pain. Sometimes I wake up in the morning after a headache ready to take back the reins of my life and discover that the headache is still there. It says, “I’m not done yet, you’re not ready yet, you haven’t learned yet.” Headaches are time-outs for grown-ups. I always come away from a headache a little bit smarter, and a little more determined not to get one again.
I get headaches when I’m in no-win scenarios. I get a headache when I’m forced to make one of two impossible choices. I get a headache when I’ve committed to do two things, but only have time for one. I get a headache when I’m forced to choose between two people I love. I get a headache when I’m forced to choose between being true to myself and being true to my Maker.
That last one is not real. It’s a figment of being raised by someone who told me what to think, what to want, and how to feel. It’s a phantom pain from an emotional limb that was amputated long ago. My head knows that God accepts my feelings. He created feelings and He expects me to feel them. My head knows this, but my heart denies it. So the headaches still come.

All That Glitters

       My mother’s father is a very quiet man. While serving his country on a minesweeper in World War II, he learned several important skills that he still maintains to this day. He learned to eat rations. He learned to take 90 second showers. Most importantly, he learned to keep his head down and his eyes deep to avoid explosions.
     My grandmother, his wife, had toxic relationships with all five of her children. Her youngest daughter, my aunt, lived with her parents for several years without once speaking to her mother. They used grandpa as a giant human sticky note for the most important messages… “tell your wife I’m going out of town”… “tell your daughter I have cancer.”
     Like I said, grandpa never had much to say. Once when I was a young driver he gave me a piece of good advice. It was summer and grandpa and I were driving to a local strawberry farm to pick berries. I was still a little nervous about knowing when it was safe to pull out into traffic. Grandpa said, “If you wait long enough, it’ll be clear.” I call that Grandpa’s Law of Traffic. I got another nugget of wisdom from my uncle one day about kids’ art projects. I call it My Uncle’s Law of Glitter. He said, “No matter how much glitter you have, it’s too much!.” I have kids of my own now and I know how true that one is. I’ve got my Grandpa’s Law of Traffic and My Uncle’s Law of Glitter on a special shelf in a room inside of me. It’s my “I Wish I Had a Dad to Give Me Good Advice” room. There’s a lot of good stuff in that room: Aesop, Solomon, Tolstoy, the Reader’s Digest. I’ve been making deposits there since I was a kid.
     Since Grandma died, Grandpa started sending me Christmas Cards. He writes four words: “Merry Christmas, Love, Grandpa.” Grandpa turns 90 this year. I wonder how many more Christmas card’s there’ll be from him.
That makes me think about my dad. I see my dad regularly: about once every five years. We usually spend two days together. After two days we run out of things to say and one of us looks up and says, “Well, I guess I’ll be going now.” My dad’s now in his late sixties. I wonder how many more days there’ll be with him.
      I get jealous when I think about my dad. I’ve held a grudge against all girls named Melissa ever since the day my dad married her mom and she got to be with him instead of me. That marriage didn’t last very long, but I still feel jealous when I think about her. I’m jealous of the guys my dad worked with in the factory. They got to hear his corny jokes and his silly laugh day after day. My dad always laughs harder at his own jokes than anyone else in the room. Those guys had no idea what golden nuggets those laughs would have been for me. How I would have traded almost anything to be there to hear them.
     I guess the truth is I really miss my dad. I miss him in a way that even being with him cannot fix.

The Fire

Outside.  Running down the hill in my bare feet.  Cool grass between my chubby toes.  Warm sun on my round face.  I was a good girl.  I was a smart girl.  I was a pretty girl.  They all said so. 

Inside.  The special room.  Straight even lines on the carpet.  Clear plastic on the couch.  Glass shelf.  Shiny things.  They were for looking not for touching.  One was round and clear and sparkly.  I wanted to hold it.  I imagined picking it up and feeling its weight in my hands. Oops.  Warm heavy feeling in the back of my pants.  Accident.  Other things on the shelves.  One looked like a deer.  It looked very pointy but I wouldn’t touch.  I would just pretend.  Grown ups talking.  They liked to do that.  That child is old enough to sit on the toilet like everyone else.  If that were my kid I’d rub her nose in it.

My arm pulled HARD.  We walked FAST to the bathroom.  The door slammed SHUT.  Her face was RED.  Her voice was LOUD.  Her hands were SHAKY.  Her words came FAST.  My pants came off rough.  Her hands held me down.  Bad smell.  Warm smelly poop on my nose, my cheeks, my forehead.  Final raging words:  “IF YOU ACT LIKE A DOG I’M GONNA TREAT YOU LIKE A DOG!”

At that moment a new sensation burned in my heart that I had never felt before.  It started as a spark, then grew to a small flame, and finally became a raging wildfire.  Before I knew it the forest of joy, love, and optimism that grew there became an empty, smoking landscape.  The hungry fire consumed every inch.  Although good feelings would take root and sprout again, they were mere shoots, not the tall glorious trees that once grew.  And the fire’s name was Shame.

The Love Shield

My mom has a love shield.  It’s the most intricate contraption you could ever imagine.  I think about her spending her life sitting in a corner, surrounded by her narcissism and her happy self-messages, adding convoluted contrivances to her love shield.  With its whirring gears and rotating levers, her love shield is designed to deflect all forms of true Love.  It is amazingly effective.  Her love shield has finely tuned filters that keep out all but a few messages.  The only messages allowed in say ‘you are right, as usual’, ‘you always know what’s best’, and ‘people know how good you are’.  These messages sound nice, but they’re not true Love.  These messages aren’t what she needs, but what she needs she cannot hear.  When faced with true Love, I’ve seen Mom lie, storm out, hang up, and run away.  I’ve watched her literally put her fingers in her ears and yell, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!  I’M NOT LISTENING!!”

            I know this because I Love my mother.  In my imagination I walk over to my mom and pick her up like a small child.  I hold her in my arms and smooth her hair.  I promise her that everything is going to be alright, that I will take care of her.  In my waking dream, I see her for who she is and she sees, really sees me.  I hold out my heart full of true Love to her and she takes it.  My Love makes her strong and God puts his arms around us, one arm around her shoulder and one arm around mine.  He looks down at us, draws us close and smiles.

            Now that I know about love shields, I see them everywhere.  Babies are born without love shields, but few adults lack them.  The woman who talks too long and too fast has a love shield.  She keeps her listeners so lost along the path of her words that they are too confused to understand her message and make a true connection.  The man who works too much and comes home grumpy has a love shield.  More than anything, he fears that if he gives his family the chance to really know him, to really be with him, they might Love him.  I see teenagers carrying love shields.  Some even literally cover their hair, their clothes and their bodies with spikes.  Like barbed wire atop a security fence, the spikes say, “Keep Out!  Fear me.  Hate me.  Even laugh at me.  But whatever you do, don’t Love me!”

            I have my own love shield.  I drag it along after me like Linus’ security blanket.  Although it’s smaller and less effective than my mother’s, it’s there for me when I need it.  I use my love shield when I hear a true compliment and my head turns it into a lie.  I use it when I hear true, loving correction and my heart closes up too fast to let it in.  I use it when I read, or even memorize passages of Scripture that my spirit is not yet ready to understand.  You see, God is the most effective Love thrower of all.  He bombards me daily with true, straight, unbroken arrows of Love.  Sometimes my arm grows tired of holding up my shield.  I slip, and one of God’s arrows gets in.  I read something I’ve read a hundred times and suddenly get it.  Someone says something I’ve heard before and it miraculously makes sense.  I sing the same old song and the words unexpectedly jump off the page at me with a whole new meaning.  That’s God’s Love getting through.

            Because I am a practical person, I realize that I’ll probably have my love shield until I die.  But I am actively working to destroy it.  My hope is that by the time I leave this life my love shield will be so chipped, so abused, so cracked and so small that it lies neglected in a corner covered with dust.  I’ll gladly leave my love shield behind me here on earth.  I won’t need it anymore.

How to Tell

My mom was careful to hurt me in ways that did not show.  During those years we attended church three times a week.  We sat on our pew with clean clothes, neatly combed hair, and Sunday morning smiles.  Mom was an enthusiastic Sunday school teacher.  She was eccentric, but accepted.I was surprised when one day she made a mistake.  She hurt me in a way that was as plain as the nose on my face.  One day, in a fit of rage, she pinned me down and rubbed all the skin off my nose and cheeks.  The wound was large and the wound was obvious.  They could Tell.The long looks I took in the mirror removed any lingering doubt.  Someone would notice.  Someone would ask.  That knowledge filled me with an indescribably twisted mixture of hope and terror.We went to church as usual and of course we pretended my wound wasn’t there.  And like the emperor’s new clothes, when we pretended, everyone else did too.  Everyone pretended except for my youth minister.  I’ll call him John.John pestered me about my nose.  He ignored all my brush-offs and dodged all my lies.  He told me it didn’t look like I fell.  He told me bumping into a door couldn’t possibly do that.  He told me he wanted to know.  He wanted the truth.  He begged me to tell him.So for the first time in my life, I Told.  I Told everything.  John inhaled with a short, swift breath.  Then he was quiet for a long time.  A look of curiosity flashed across his face, then confusion, and finally he smiled.”Good”, he said.  “You probably deserved it!” When John walked away that day I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life.  I Believed him.  More than two decades passed before I ever Told again.

13

When I turned thirteen, Mom was happy but we were out of money.  We had been out for quite a while.  We looked in all the hidden places.  We looked under the cushions and under the rugs.  We shook out the piggy bank and checked under the seats in the car.  We had just enough.  Mom was in ‘adventure’ mode and life was good!  My sister and I piled into the car with her and we rode down to the corner store.  We had enough gas to get there, they had ice cream cones, and I was holding just enough to get them!

            I walked over to the ice cream counter with my big sweaty double-handful of coins.  I plopped them down on the counter.  It was mostly pennies, maybe a couple of nickels and a dime.  Mom cleared her throat, “We would like three single scoop ice cream cones, please.  We’re celebrating my daughter’s thirteenth birthday today!”

            I don’t know the name of the lady behind the counter.  I wish I did.  If I could choose one stranger from my childhood to know, to thank, to take to lunch I would choose that smiling lady behind the ice cream counter.  I’ll have to call her Jane.  Jane looked at us.  She looked at our money, our clothes, and our eager faces.  She hesitated, and then smiled.  “Oh boy, thirteen”, she said “Happy Birthday!  But single scoops just won’t do….  Make them doubles on me!” 

            Tears welled up in my eyes and fireworks went off in my brain.  Jane LIKED me!  I don’t remember what Mom and my sister got, but I got mint chocolate chip and peppermint stick.  It sounds funny, but that was the best birthday present I’ve ever received.  Jane’s gift was more than ice cream, it was inspiration.  I instinctively knew that Jane’s gift came directly from God.  Before I had finished my green and pink double, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up:  Generous. 

            I love to be Generous.  I love to give in sneaky, secret ways.  I love to give to people who need it.  I love to give to kids.  I hope someday I’ll give a gift like Jane gave me; a gift that makes a difference.  I realize that when it happens I probably won’t know it.  That’s a lesson Jane taught me.  Thanks to Jane, I give without reservation and I give without apology.  And I never, ever worry that my gift is too small.

12

Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  Honor your father and your mother which is the first commandment with a promise; that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land the Lord is giving you.”  I’m 41 years old and I can’t tell you what that verse means.  I can’t tell you because I don’t know, even though I desperately want to.  I know what it doesn’t mean.  It doesn’t mean what I was taught.  My mother translated this verse for me very consistently over many long years.  I can’t remember the words she used, but I can tell you the message I got.  The words were sometimes confusing, but the message was loud and clear.  Children obey your parents”.  That’s the easy part.  Anyone can obey.  Your mother tells you what to do and you do it.  Honor your father and your mother”.  That’s the challenge.  To honor means to want what she tells you to want.  To honor means to feel what she tells you to feel.  If you do this, God loves you.  If you don’t, He doesn’t.

On my twelfth birthday my mom called me into her bedroom.  She held a blank piece of paper and a pen in her hands.  She smiled an overly-sweet smile at me.  “Lisa”, she said, “I have a very special birthday present for you this year.  This is what I want you to do.  Take this piece of paper and go to your room.  Write down everything you want.  Make the list as long as you want.  Write down everything you’ve ever hoped and wished for, even a very little bit.  When you’ve done that, bring it back to me.”

I did what she said.  I came back and handed her my list full of dreams.  She pushed the paper right back to me and said.  “Now this is what I want you to do.  Go back to your room and look at the first thing on the list.  Really think about that thing.  Think about what’s wrong with it.  Think about it broken and dirty.  You don’t really need it.  It’s useless.  It’s more trouble than it’s worth.  Think about it that way until you don’t want it anymore.  Then think about the next thing on your list the same way.  Do it with everything, the whole list.  When you’re finished you’ll have my gift.  My birthday present to you this year is the secret to happiness.  It’s Contentment.”

 So I went back to my room.  I did what she said.  I went through my list.  And I un-Wished myself.

10

The day my mom loaded up the station wagon was the worst day of my life.  The shrill screams and rough shouts from their most recent fight were still ringing in my mind’s ears.  The red puffy welts and swollen bruises had faded from her face and neck but not from my memories.  An empty achy void had been hovering over the house ever since he left.  I desperately wanted and needed him back.  With every aspect of my mind and frame I hoped, wished, prayed, and willed him back. 

 

So I just stood there in stunned silence as my mother crammed more and more seemingly random items into the tiny spaces of air left inside our imitation wood-paneled station wagon.  A jumbled mess of towels, pots, jeans, crayons, and Bibles pushed hard against the windows.  Lingering table scraps of the bounty that was once our home.  She rambled on giddily, indifferent to whether or not anyone was listening.  There was just enough space on the back seat for the three of us kids to sit.  The floor was buried but we’d just have to make do.  The front passenger seat was full, but that was no problem, she’d just sleep sitting up!  This was an adventure!  Lucky Lisa would get to sleep on the front passenger floorboard.  We could put a blanket down.  It would be like stowing away on a pirate ship. 

 

With each rambling word, the lump of lead in the pit of my stomach grew heavier.  Finally she turned and gathered the three of us into her intimate circle. 

 

“Lisa”, she said in a child-like sing-song voice, “your tenth birthday is a very special birthday and I have a very special present for you this year….  We GET to move back to Michigan!”

 

Slowly it dawned on me what she meant.  This meant I would never see him again.  I wanted to run away.  I wanted to scream.  I wanted to lie down on the ground and kick my feet and cry like a baby.  But I just stood there staring at her feet squeezing my fists until my anger boiled up inside me like a volcano spewing out over my terror.

 

“But I don’t WANT to move to Michigan!” I finally bellowed.

 

“YES YOU DO, YES YOU DO!!!!!” she screamed. Her face was suddenly red with rage and she stood over me shaking, ranting, screaming into my face.  “YOU HATE IT HERE!  YOU’VE ALWAYS HATED IT HERE!  DON’T YOU SEE?  THIS IS FOR YOU!! IT’S ALL FOR YOU!!  WE’RE ALL DOING THIS FOR YOU!  NOW YOU CAN BE HAPPY!!!”

 

So that was that.  I got their divorce for my birthday.  We squeezed into the station wagon, gassed up and moved to Michigan.  It was four years before I saw him again.