Good Friday: A Broken Hallelujah

The first time I ever heard Jeff Buckley perform Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, it became the song that runs through my head whenever I think of Good Friday. I know it’s not an intentionally Christian song, but music, like all art, is open to interpretation. And when I hear Jeff Buckley telling us so beautifully that “love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”  I envision the passion of Christ.

I grew up in the Catholic Church, so I have been witness to imagery of Jesus’s infamous last walk and his subsequent crucifixion from my earliest childhood. I went to a Catholic college, where I studied medieval and renaissance art as part of our core requirements. And I have traveled to many very old churches and cathedrals in places like Spain and Portugal and France. I have seen some pretty gory Jesus pictures, and when I think of the Jesus of Good Friday, it’s not Happy Anglo Jesus that I see.

Not this Jesus.

Not this Jesus.

creepy jesus

Definitely not this Jesus.

It’s a beaten and broken Jesus that comes to mind, with a rope around his neck, bowed down under the weight of the cross  that will torture and kill him.  It’s not a pretty, or a comfortable image.

But it is an image of love. Whether you see Jesus as God, man, myth, or some combination thereof, the story of Good Friday is the same: it is the story of a good man who chooses to be vilified, shamed, beaten, tortured, and killed because he believes that in doing so, he is saving his people. That is love, and for me, Leonard Cohen describes this kind of love — what I think is real love — the best.

Because love isn’t a victory march. We like to think it is. We like to think it’s a feeling, and a triumphant and beautiful one at that. We like to see it as a power that overtakes us, and pulls us powerlessly but beatifically along its course. We like to think that love is something that exists in and of itself. It isn’t.

Love is a choice. When it is at its most powerful, love is raw and deliberate and difficult. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of his people. It can be as simple as a mother watching her child walk into kindergarten, even though her every instinct is urging her to hold that baby in her arms and never let go. It can be as mundane as a middle aged married couple mucking through the routine of their daily lives together, not because of romantic magic but because they chose one another and know that they belong together. And it can be as heartbreaking as a family holding the hands of a dying loved one, telling him that it is okay for him to let go, that they will survive without him, even though they can’t imagine how.

That first day of kindergarten is really hard!

That first day of kindergarten is a tough one.

I’m not trying to say that there isn’t joy in love — there is. That is where the hallelujah comes in. Because when we love, when we willingly let go of part of ourselves on behalf of someone else, we are unleashing the most glorious power in the universe.

I know that sounds like hyperbole. I am prone to exaggeration. But this time, I mean it. Because really, what else has kept the human race going through all messiness we have created? We have emerged from absolute horror time and time again, because there have always been people who have chosen love, time and time again. And for me, there is no greater symbol of this than the Jesus we see on Good Friday.

Love isn’t a victory march. It is a cold and broken hallelujah. And whenever I think of what happened today in my Church’s tradition, I know why I continue to believe. Easter may be the foundation of our theology, but Good Friday is the essence of what it means to be a Christian — and a human.

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And on a side note, you have to be a pretty talented composer to create a song that can remind a person (at least this person) of both Shrek and Jesus.

Flaunting Failure: My Messy Beautiful

Like most people, I don’t really enjoy bragging about my failures. I recognize them, and feel what is probably an excessive amount of guilt for having them (I’m not Catholic for nothing), but I prefer to keep them on the down low. They are not my favorite topic of conversation.

So it was as astounding to me as it would be to anyone else when, a few weeks ago, I found myself emphatically, almost eagerly, telling my daughter that I make bad choices and really big mistakes every single day of my life.

“Mommy is, like, a huge failure, sweetie!” I told her brightly. “I mean, I told Daddy to shut up this morning! That was really bad! And I yelled at the dog because he ate grass and puked on the new carpet, and then I yelled at Daddy again because I had to clean it up! And I forgot to pack your lunch that one time — remember?! I forgot it and I didn’t bring it until lunchtime was almost over and when I got there, you were crying in the cafeteria line? That was a really bad choice that mommy made.”

There was that time when my house looked like this.

There was that time when my house looked like this.

I stopped there, because the flow of my thought process was moving toward previous boyfriends and hangovers and tattoos obtained in foreign countries, and that whole lunch incident really was blemish enough on our mother-daughter relationship. We have plenty of time for all of mommy’s more spectacular failures to make themselves known.

This overflow of honesty might have been excessive, but it was not without purpose. Because it was in response to my baby girl sitting in the bathtub sobbing, wailing that she “wanted to be good ALL DAY and not just SOME of the day because you, Mommy, ALWAYS make good choices and NEVER make bad choices.”

How else could I answer her? I don’t always make good choices. I do make really big mistakes. I am never, ever perfect ALL DAY.

My daughter is on the Autism Spectrum. For the most part, her differences manifest as odd but charming quirks. However, there are times when the world becomes too much for her.  She has a certain rigidity to her expectations from life, and when life doesn’t conform to those expectations, she becomes overwhelmed. When she becomes overwhelmed, she becomes defiant and angry. And when she becomes defiant and angry, she begins to feel guilty, which leads to more defiance and anger until it all comes crashing down and she is empty but also somehow devastated by what she sees as her failure to be good.

That’s a lot of feeling for a five-year-old.

My heart breaks for her when she starts to fall down the Autism rabbit hole, and when I found her crying in the bathtub that night it was shattering to see that, this time, she was tumbling down because she was comparing herself — negatively! — to me. And it made me think.

I don’t like to broadcast my mistakes to the world at large, and I really don’t like to broadcast my mistakes to my children. As parents, we feel compelled to serve as an example of the kind of people we want our children to become. We want to be their heroes. And I think a lot of times, we strive to hide our faults from our children in order to meet the expectations we set for ourselves.

But the thing is, I don’t want, or expect,  my children to be perfect, or even almost perfect. And I don’t want them to grow up to become the kind of person who feels that perfection is expected from her. I want my girls to try new things, to succeed sometimes and to fail sometimes. I want them to know how to own up to their mistakes and to try to make things right. I want them to be able to forgive themselves for not being what it is impossible to be. Above all, I want them to know that they are both messy and beautiful, and wholly — overwhelmingly — loved. And they will never learn any of those things if I don’t teach them.

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I have written before about losing my mother at a young age. It was hard to lose her. It is still hard to not have her. These things are true for anyone who has lost a parent. But one of the things that makes losing a parent when you are young especially difficult is the fact that you never get to know her.  She is always as she was to you when you were a child: perfection, and everything.

My mom would have been a hard act to follow, no matter what. One summer, she spent 6-hour days at the pool with a portable chemo pump delivering toxins directly into her bloodstream so my brother and I could enjoy our summer. She once fell and broke her neck in the morning one day, and that evening she showed up, neck brace and all, at a fashion show where I was modeling First Communion dresses. I have to bite my tongue on the F-word when I stub a toe, but breast-turned-bone cancer never even elicited a “damn my life” from my mother.

As far as I can remember, my mom was as close to perfection as a person can be. She never had the chance to prove otherwise.  I have spent much of my life feeling as though I will never, ever measure up to her — and now that I am a mother, I know that’s not what she wanted for me. It isn’t what I want for my own children.

* * *

So many of my parenting decisions have been made based on my desire to have the mother-daughter relationship with my girls that cancer stole from me and my own mother. Mostly, these decisions have had to do with being together — just existing in the world with them —  as they go through life’s big and small moments.

But behind all that is also my desire to be real for them. For us to grow together as a family, and to know that we love each other always, unconditionally.

And that night with my daughter, when her world was crashing down around her because she wasn’t good all day long, reminded me that sometimes, showing your children your failures also means that you are teaching them how to love themselves and others.

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 This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

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The World Belongs to Such as These

Last Sunday, my five-year-old and I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon together, just the two of us, at a local indoor pool. With a younger sibling at home and a full day at school, time spent one-on-one has been rare this year. I’ve missed her.

My girl has a prolific imagination and spends most of her unoccupied time making up or enacting stories. As she has been learning so many new things this year, I have had the gratifying pleasure to observe how she weaves the new facts and ideas percolating in her brain into her stories and play.

So when we packed up go to the pool, I was interested to see her stash three princess figurines, three plastic cupcakes and a baby doll into her toy bag. I never really know where she will go with things.

When we got to the swim center, she headed straight for the baby pool, where she began setting up a scene. First, she brought out the three princesses and lined them up along the side of the pool. She placed a plastic cupcake in front of each. Then she went to her bag and brought out her baby. She carefully cradled it in her arm and carried it into the pool.

And then she baptized that baby, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen, using water consecrated with chlorine and the contents of a half-dozen swim diapers.

When I asked her about it, she explained to me that she had learned about baptism in her religious education class that morning. She told me that baptism is how we become a part of God’s family. And because she loves her baby doll, she wants her to become a part of our family. Therefore, a baptism was clearly in order.

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It was an achingly sweet moment, the kind that reminds parents that bringing their child into the world really was the best thing they have ever done. It made me proud of her. It also made me reflect on and appreciate the best thing children do for us — allowing us grown ups to witness the fertility of their minds and the largess of their imaginations.

Most of us recognize the story from the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus urges his disciples to bring the children to him, because “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” It is a story that tends to be linked to the idea that what is most valuable in children is their innocence and unworldliness. It seems to imply that children, in their dearth of experience, are better able to absorb the teachings of faith, and indeed of the world around them. I don’t believe that this is a strictly religious way of thinking. There is a common tendency to think of children as blank slates waiting to be written upon.

Children are certainly unworldly. There is necessarily an innocence to the way they approach their world. They have no basis of comparison. They have no prejudice. Their minds are open. They are open, but I don’t think they are waiting, passively, for us to shape them. 

If I have learned anything about children and the way they approach life, it is that they do so through constant questioning and experimenting. They are endlessly pushing the boundaries of their universe. And these attributes apply equally to the way they understand faith and the way they process new facts.

When I think of my daughter, who is at that perfectly ripe age when the concepts of faith and fact are just coming within her intellectual grasp, I see nothing passive about her approach to the world. All I see is activity – a dynamic, unrestrained pursuit for more knowledge, a constant pushing and stretching of the limits of her understanding.

I hear her asking why, and no matter how thorough an answer I give, I hear her asking why again. I see her acting out, and re-enacting, what she is learning so that, through interpretation and experience, it becomes a part of who she is.

When I think of the idea that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” I don’t see it as a calling to submissiveness or innocence. I see it as a calling for us to approach faith — and reason — like children do – with flexibility, enthusiasm, ceaseless questioning, and a mind with ever-expanding boundaries. Those are the best things that children have to offer the world, and we adults should not forget that.

After my daughter finished her charming baptism by pool water, as I was thinking about the profundity of what her mind, and the minds of all children like her, will bring to our future, she reminded me of something else.

She tossed her baby to the side of the pool and, splashing, shouted, “Mommy, that boy FARTED! He made BUBBLES in the WATER!” While I blushed and suppressed my silent laughter, I reflected on the next best thing children have to offer the world: their uninhibited appreciation for bathroom humor.

Life is best lived with curiosity, questioning, a mind without boundaries, and the ability to laugh at our bodily functions.

The Soldiers Marched to War

A few weeks ago, my five-year-old daughter stood for the first time on a stage, facing an audience, with a role in a play and her very own line to speak:

And the soldiers marched to war.”

It wasn’t a real play, just a narrated reenactment of Disney’s Mulan, produced by a county summer camp program. I had watched her perform before, lined up with her nursery school friends, wearing paper bag Indian costumes, singing songs about turkeys and pilgrims.

But something about the sight of my little girl craning her neck to reach the standing microphone and then belting out her line, boldly and proudly, caused a body slam of confused emotions – pride, nostalgia, anxiety, relief, and that strange feeling of loss that parents can feel even when holding their child in their arms.

It was the same moiling brew of emotions that I have found myself tampering down at random moments ever since the summer began with full time kindergarten waiting for us at its end. So I was familiar with those feelings, but rather surprised by their force.

I can’t say exactly why that one moment of my daughter’s performance was so emotionally powerful. Perhaps it was simply the sight of her, singled out in the spotlight, so small, yet so confident and capable, on that big stage.

Perhaps it was the line itself. I tend to think in hyperbole, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to compare our school years to war. My own memories recall that time as a series of battles of who is in and who is out; who is good enough and who is somehow lacking. It’s a never-ending game of social King of the Hill, and my baby was about to march innocently into it.

***

Going into parenthood, we already know from our own experience that growing up is hard to do. What we don’t know is that it’s even harder when it is happening to our children.

They start out so small, so squishable, with curlicue bodies and necks that seem to be made of pipe cleaners. They don’t cry; they mewl. Everything they do – every yawn, every jerky kick, every sleepy half-smile – is miraculous. To feel their weight on your chest is to be branded forever with love and possessiveness for that person in that body. And forever means that even when you are ninety, and in a nursing home, and your sixty-year-old son is holding your hand, you are longing to hold the infant you bore decades before. I have that on my grandmother’s authority.

Yes, boys and girls, this is what your mother sees every time she looks at you.

Yes, boys and girls, this is what your mother sees every time she looks at you.

Which is why hugging your five-year-old goodbye, and sending her off into an educational system that can nurture and teach, but can’t ensure that she always has a friend to sit next to at lunch, is such an overwhelmingly emotional thing for a mother to do. Not just because that world can be scary, but because entering it represents yet another step your child is taking away from you. Their independence is at the same time thrilling (and freeing!) and heartbreaking.

***

These are the feelings that have followed me throughout the past few months. They are the feelings that I know will overtake me tomorrow, when I drop my kindergartener off for her very first day of elementary school.

But over the last few days, as I have found myself thinking almost non-stop about this looming change in our lives, I have come to understand one other thing. That with every step our children take toward their own independence, they are both walking away from us, their parents, and walking toward us.

I will never hold my newly born first child in my arms again. Even though there are moments when I ache do so, that time has passed. But as my daughter becomes more independent, and as I become less necessary to her, she will become completely herself. And as she grows into the person she was created to become, I have the good fortune not only to witness her transformation, but also to meet her, as equals, at the other side of it.

So tomorrow, as I stifle my tears at the loss of this part of my baby girl’s childhood, I will be reminding myself that the only gift greater than the birth of a child is seeing that child shine in the light of her own fulfilled potential.

We’re All Stories in the End

Last week, I had one of those experiences that all parents dread. I was sitting in the radiology room at an urgent care center holding my hacking, wheezing little girl in my arms, waiting for the technician to rig up the x-ray machine so my very petite child could reach it.

Our entrance to the clinic had been theatrical — I came in running, my daughter clinging to my neck and hips, as thunder boomed and shards of lightening sliced the horizon behind us. A massive storm was breaking.

When the x-rays were finally completed, they confirmed the doctor’s suspicion: my daughter had bronchitis and early stage pneumonia. It was our second day of vacation and things weren’t going quite as we had planned.

The following day, I was walking up and down the boardwalk leading to the beach with my two-year-old. She was naked but for a swim diaper because, for some reason, her swimsuit was oddly alluring to bees. In the span of just a few minutes, two bees had attached themselves to the fabric and settled in, almost as if drawn there by a force beyond their control. She panicked, so I yanked the suit to the ground and tossed it several feet away. The bees fled, but there was no way my baby was getting back in that suit without a fight. She revels in her nudity.

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Making the best of things

My five-year-old was wheezily building sandcastles because, despite her terrible cough, she was determined to fulfill all of her vacation plans. The little one — whom we had thought to be fearless — was terrified by the waves. So up and down the boardwalk we strolled, scuffing through the sand and noticing the little things, like bottle caps in sand dunes.I found myself thinking, with a laugh, “Well, in a few years, this will be ‘the vacation when Michele had pneumonia, and Norah was a Siren for bees, and I spent much of my time looking through the cracks of a boardwalk.'”

We did lots of other things — we saw dolphins swimming, we hiked in one of the most beautiful state parks on the East Coast, and, most importantly, we spent lots of time with my sister-in-law and her family, who live too far away for us to visit regularly. But those unexpected incidents were foremost in my mind.

Bees like balloon prints

Bees like balloon prints

It occurred to me then that the moments of our lives that we hold on to are most often those moments that came unplanned and were unwanted. Because those are the moments that we relive — and retell — over the years.

So much of life is in the telling — sharing our stories about the events that shape us. The good times are priceless in their own way; they bring us joy as they occur. But the challenging times, the unexpected incidents — the rainstorms, the lost luggage, the massively bad days — they make us reflect. They take us outside of ourselves and, in reliving those experiences, they open us up to a greater appreciation of the humor we can find in our own foibles and moments of distress.

We really are “all just stories in the end.*” It’s how we interpret those stories and how we share them with others that make them great.

 ***

“We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best.” Dr. Who

*I’m only a budding Whovian, since I have just now started to watch the show, but I’d like to thank my friend Amanda at Bluestocking Rambles whose Facebook posts got me interested. My dad, too, since I remember the show from my childhood because of him.