Jan 2, 2007

Lessons from Christmas

Larry and I started to do morning devotions for Advent. Advent is about waiting: and I wanted my Christmas to be spiritually rich. I wanted it to be about more than just getting excited about our trip to Portland or Larry to open his gifts. I wanted something to offset the stress of holiday shopping. I wanted it to be about the birth of Christ. Or more pointedly, I wanted to put myself into the reality of what the birth of Christ means: that God squeezed himself into a person. That God became incarnate. A vulnerable crying, pooping child who needed his parents. God putting himself at our mercy.

So what was I expecting? God to put me into warp-speed spirituality as a result of this? I didn't know what to expect, but I did remember one Christmas, shortly after I'd taking my faith seriously … I was maybe 18 then. I remember sitting in my parents' living room, reading the Gospels, and crying. And I don't remember over what. Maybe it was gratitude or wonder, or maybe longing. But most of my ensuing years, my spiritual life has been about wanting to get that longing back. I've spent so many years angry or bitter or over it. And I've wanted to get back to that place of longing for God.

So that's a hefty expectation for just a simple devotional. And the readings weren't all mind-blowing. In fact maybe noen of them were mind-blowing. But they've had a positive effect.

For one thing, it's just good discipline to wake up and give time to something other than the news on the net; or whatever emails I've happened to get that day. If I'm not an email junkie, I'm definitely email-dependent. And that's ass-backward, if I'm going to read my Word-a-day or the latest forwarded jokes attributed to George Carlin.

Second, it's been good just to set aside "real time" for Larry and me, first thing. The "tyranny of the urgent: things I gotta do that convince me they're so important I'd put them in front of God or Larry. Tasks that seem so important to focus on, that skip my quiet time, which could actually help me focus: not just focus, but approach those urgent matters with a wiser, skeptical and grounded mind.

So having a devotional, or quiet time, has grounded me and given Larry and me time to get grounded together. What's not to like?

The Hell of Self

The self that crops up in the silence. That's what's not to like. Larry said that marriage is 24/7 therapy, and he's right. You can't run or hide who you are. And the thing about this God becoming real, and flesh, and in my face, has sort of gotten in my face these last few weeks. And I haven't liked it.

For example: the other day I was driving west near one of the movie studios, and a car was stopped in my lane trying to park. Actually it had pulled into the parking spot but was too far into traffic. So I veered over into the lane to my left. No one was there, but there was a sports coupe racing toward me on the left, maybe a car length or two behind me. He started honking his horn and screaming at me, as he raced past me at maybe 10 miles above the speed limit. He was pissed that me veering over in his lane clipped his speeds from 25 above to only 15 miles above the limit. I waved him the peace sign. And that only made him angrier. We spent the next couple blocks riding side by side: him flipping me off and screaming, and me smiling and giving him the peace sign. By the time I turned off of the street I was crying and picturing the man dead in a gruesome car accident. I wanted to rip his head off, and the images were strong in my mind. I said it out loud, "God I want you to kill that man. I want him dead."

And then I started weeping. It was still with me by the time I reached home, and so I tearfully told Larry about it. He came and embraced me, comforting me, consoling me about the holidays bringing out the worst in other people. But not other people, me. I was disturbed by that man, but even more disturbed at how violently angry it made me. Wishing that man were dead.

That's me. That's the incarnation that's being revealed to me this Christmas: this is the all too human self that is me. And it's the asshole in the sports coupe, and it's you and it's all of us. And that's my helpless self that cannot help itself into goodness. Not without God coming down and being here.

We were watching a National Geographic special about the origins of Christmas. They interviewed some people, put them into a studio and put nice lighting behind them. And they waxed on about Christmas. One woman said Christmas was the one time people really look at each other and smile and they're their best selves. I thought, she must live on a giant dairy farm in Vermont, and Christmas is the only time she goes into town. The rest of the year she has everything fedexed to her farm.

Don't Go To Therapy Right Before Vacation

The afternoon before we left for Portland, Larry came home from a therapist appointment, and he was really down about it. That's all he'd say, was that he felt like a failure and a loser.

That's when I got up to embrace him. But I didn't have angry drivers in sports coupes to put the blame on. I initiated the meetings with the therapist, because Larry and I needed to learn how to talk about the hard stuff in our marriage. We are so compatible and mature. But conflict isn't easy for anyone. And I tend to dive in and he tends to retreat. And we've really had only one major issue: finances. "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"

Yeah this is a hard one, because it's about more than just money, but about who's in charge of our relationship. Apparently Larry never lacked for writing work for 25 years. Until a few months before we met. His friends attest to the uncanny timing of him hitting this slump when I came into the picture. What could it all mean? I don't know, because as long as I've known Larry (only a year) he's been unemployed or under employed, and in limbo about what direction to go. He's gotten freelance gigs here and there. But none pay well, none offer insurance benefits. But he's taken it, because he's had to.

It's hard to see him not get paid much, and it's worse to see him thrown around by the will of others. As much as I've brought up the subject, Larry's circumstances haven't changed.

Right after Thanksgiving I told Larry we both had go to out and get jobs -- any jobs, after January 1. I also said we needed to go see our old therapist, so we could learn how to talk about these things without alienating each other.

So I had my turn: I talked to "Rudy" about my frustrations and fears, and how I wanted to do things right with Larry. I wanted to learn how to encourage and motivate him, and not fall into being the resentful nag. It felt healthy and good. I felt encouraged.

Meanwhile, Larry was watching his 25-year career as a writer-editor die in front of him. And his wife was telling him to get a life. But I understood, too. I remember going through that very same death three years ago, and I told Larry about it. I had wept about it to my sister, and she replied, "Why don't you do acting as a hobby?" Like I could downgrade my life's pursuit to an after-school CRAFT. I wanted to yell back, "Why don't you be a mother as a hobby?"

I didn't want to tell Larry to go do writing-editing as a hobby. But I also knew that whatever death he was going through, something better could be born out of it.

"I know what this is like, Larry. I know because it happened to me. And I look back and think, that God torched my so-called acting and writing career was the best thing that happened to me. I started writing and performing things that mattered to me, because I stopped expecting to be compensated and acknowledged for it. And I was free. Yes God torched that life, and part of it sucked then and still does. But God spared me from a life of triviality. I knew that God was good." I knew that, even if Lar had to get a regular job and do his passions for fun and for free, he might end up doing the best work of his life.

"But this I know, Larry, I know God is good. I know it. I just know it."

I turned to the wall and wept. Because as I was saying it, I felt the reality of it absorbing into my skin. That God was so good. That God was so good to these flesh and bones of mine. That I was loved with a fierce and grand kind of love. And it was terrifying and good.

A few days later, Larry was offered a full time writing job. Not the most glamorous kind of writing, but it would be for causes he cared about, and with people who really liked him. Then he got an offer to edit a spiritual book. Not great money, but it was a start back down the road of doing what he really loved doing.

As he read the galleys and vented about how frustrated he was with the way people wrote about God, he got all fired up. He started to see how he could reshape the book. He got excited about what he was doing. I have never seen Larry like this before. All our courtship he was floundering, faltering, and losing his way. Now he was finding it, firing himself up, stepping into his calling. He was doing the thing that I guess was what got him fired up for the last 25 years. It was so terrific to see.

But then he went to see our counselor, who was going on information I had related weeks before: The Larry who was lost. I wasn't at their meeting, I only know Larry came home feeling like a failure. And I felt partly responsible.

So what happened in his session? Larry wouldn't say. He just said he felt like a failure. I embraced him as he had me. Only this time the bad guy wasn't the guy in the convertible, maybe it was me. Or maybe whatever in Larry's life had robbed him of his spirit to stand up and fight. I reminded Larry what I'd seen happen to him in the last couple weeks, with getting the job offer, and getting the book editing job that fired him up, I told him how excited that made me feel, how encouraged.

He nodded his head. And then we went to Portland.

We stayed with Larry's sister Dianna, and her husband Tony and their son, Joe. We'd been looking forward to this for quite some time, and we were excited to be there. Yes, the weather sucked and we slept on the floor. But it was Christmas, we were on vacation, and we got to relax.

Sitting around the kitchen table Larry's sister exclaimed, "Wow Larry, you got 16 comments on your blog about that therapist."

What blog?

I went to my computer and read Larry's blog. It was all about the counseling session he wouldn't tell me about. He made it sound like the therapist was telling him, unless he was making a lot of money, he wasn't supporting his wife. And then Larry pointedly asked his readerss: "Should I pursue my dreams, or money?"

Is that what Rudy told Larry: to pursue money and kill his dreams? Is that what Larry thinks I'M nagging him to do? And who are all these women chiming in, giving him advice: "WHO says you have to support your wife? WHO is asking you to forsake your dreams? WHO is behind this?

It was not a good moment for us. We talked about it, and he admitted he just threw it up on his blog without thinking, he didn't mean it to become a flashpoint. He felt bad that he didn't come to me first. But that blog still sits there, with a mushrooming list of comments back and forth between a few women who are deciding Larry's fate. And it sits there, evidence of me, the nagging wife, telling him to "get a frickin' job already!"

So this is Christmas, and what have you done?

I know what is true, Larry knows what I think about art versus money. You never kill off your art. But we can't expect the world to fund us. That's juvenile. And I was guilty of that childish notion that the world owed me my living. I was blindsided by the fact that my art stopped paying for itself. Wondering why it was happening. Hadn't God called me to do this work? Didn't he open the doors? What gave? And after all, it was What I Was Supposed To Do With My Life.

But I've come to accept that the world is unfair and is full of sadness and disappointments. But just because we aren't making a living at our passions right now, doesn’t mean we never will. However, until then we do it for fun and for free.

For fun and for free.

The Incarnation In My Face

Christmas was about the incarnation, God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. god showed up not as a fully developed human but as a crying, pooping, defenseless child, who needed people to feed him and protect him and love him. Jesus needed humans to help him grow up.

Here was the incarnational truth, showing up in my life this Christmas: Larry, the same flesh and blood, crying and vulnerable and making a mess; doing and saying things that hurt me or made me angry and defensive. And I thought of what Jesus said: "whatever yo udo to the least of these, you have done it to me."

And here was the incarnation in me, allowing me to love, forgive and understand. Teaching me to speak with grace and forbearance. Learn to love Larry in his failings and successes, and trust he will do the same for me.

The incarnation was also evident in the experience of being together. Watching movies, playing cards or going to Saturday Market in Portland. Watching Larry's sister Dianna and her husband Tony holding hands, after 18 years of marriage. Watching them make each other laugh and love on their son something silly. That was the incarnation. Not in just some profound idea of God becoming flesh; which is true and beautiful. But knowing that it changed us all, and that we experience love through flesh and blood. Not just some idea of love we can sing about or preach about, but a love that is active and in your face, be it laughing or playing cards or hurting one another and learning to forgive and be forgiven.
For fun and for free.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful piece of writing.

You know who Larry is. You've always known. You know it better than anyone. Larry's piece, and the subsequent responses, were about Larry being down on himself, and a therapist maybe overstepping his bounds. (I never do that. But I hear it about others.) This is Larry posing a question that has the answer written all over it, an answer you fervently believe in, because that's how you've lived your life all along, and what attracted him to you, and you to him. It caused a firestorm because it's something we're all wrestling with, to whatever extent: where is the demarkation between doing what we love and what we must, and who keeps moving that little sucker around?

You are a fabulous woman, Susan Isaacs (Glade Wilson). And no one with any sense in their head can think otherwise.

Sugar said...

I've cried over the gospels too. It was Mark. All the healing, so undeserved, so beautiful; I was sobbing on my lunch break. It was wonderful.

Susan, I also want to apologize for being one of the women who responded to Larry's blog. I am sorry if I hurt you or your marriage. I have strong feelings on the question that Larry posed, as I am going thru something similar. What I said was intended to help, but you know what they say about good intentions.

P.S. Congrats on the Burnside Writers thing! It's nice to see you getting credit for your work.

Post a Comment