Jun 6, 2007

Love Wash Over A Multitude Of Things

I don’t remember a time in my life I ever felt so hopeful. Maybe when I was young and naïve, and my life was ahead of me. But then life happened, and it was a long road down to disillusionment. But lately the road has swung upward toward hope. What, with marrying the greatest guy, building community together, and getting a book deal and paying writing work.

And I can’t help it but feeling scared at times. First of all, what bad thing is going to come and ruin it? When are we going to get struck with some horrible tragedy to “build our character?” Like cancer or a freak accident. Or a series of small things to undermine our marriage?

It’s ironic that in movies and books, the characters we love the most are those who face insurmountable odds, who endure hardships and heartbreaking loss. We call them our heroes. Think Frodo Baggins, Rocky Balboa or Ugly Betty. Some of them fail or even die. But we love them for their courage and strength. And yet we wake up every morning and want God to make things go our way.

But you know what actually scares me even more than those AFGO's: "Another F'ing Growth opportunities"? It's this. Success. What if my character stops growing? What if things get so good, and I get lazy? And that monster I know I can be comes out to scorch it all?

I had coffee with an editor friend who has worked with lots of big names in Christian publishing: authors, pastors, leaders, celebrities, et al. The editor had never seen someone achieve success who and not get corrupted or turn into a jackass.

When I was going through my dark night of the soul and hating God, I got a job at a church office. Yeah, har dee har har. My pastor was awesome. He got it, what I was going through. He listened, commiserated and understood. And proceeded to have a melt down and leave his job, due to his own issues and a lack of accountability. Know what's scary? That pastor and I had a lot in common: charisma, intelligence, and demons. He didn't have a team of accountability. Neither did I. But I wasn't leading a church. If I heard God say anything it was, "Susan, he's just a guy."

I've observed celebrities, leaders of every kind, turn into jerks and destroy their lives. Not because they're were any different than you or me, but because they didn’t have accountability: good friends who would be ruthlessly truthful with them. We all have that potential, for good and evil. And the more success and power we have, the more chances to really mess things up.

I’m not going to evade success to avoid becoming a Success Tyrant. You can be a Failure Tyrant, too. But I know I need an accountability system, Larry and I both do. It’s one of the reasons we’re trying to build a community around us, be it at church or our friends. We need it. So do you. Everyone does.

So, I’ve tried to learn to allow God to throw obstacles in my way. The other day, after a particularly deep time of meditation and quiet, when I started to fear what hardship might befall me, I remembered how I God has used everything unfortunate in my life to mature and change me. So in a moment of optimism I said, “Okay bring it on.”

A Series of Small Things

Larry and I had a bunch of people over, and they left a lot of beer. I told Larry I didn’t want the beer in the fridge because, well, I’m a recovering alcoholic. Larry took me by the arms and smiled: “You won’t drink it. I know you. I know you won’t risk what we have.” He meant it to be encouraging and full of love, but I suddenly felt unsafe. “He’s being naïve and grandiose. He doesn’t understand me. Love doesn’t conquer all. At least it sure doesn’t conquer alcoholism!” Plenty of people have loved their spouses, and kept on drinking. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been sober. Something could come along and trigger your addiction and Bob’s Your Uncle, you’re drinking again. Triggers like resenting my husband for not ‘getting it,’ or envying my friends who can drink with impunity; them I'm entertaining the idea that maybe now I could drink moderately. That’s why don’t want a six pack of Coronas in our fridge sitting there, just waiting for me to try it out.

Maybe Larry doesn’t understand alcoholism. But that doesn’t mean our relationship is doomed. It just means I need to educate him. So after being firm about it, Larry was happy to have it moved out of the fridge.

Well, we got through that small thing. And we’ll get through the next one as well. As long as we’re awake and alert.

Lost Objects

That afternoon I got a notice from the post office that I had three parcels waiting for me. I had been expecting a script, but not a parcel. Maybe my former landlords had sent me a packet of mail. So I drove to the post office to pick them up. They were boxes from my sister. I recognized them: It was my mother’s crystal.

When my mother moved in with my sister, her precious items came with her. By default Nancy got the dining room set and my mom’s Desert Rose china. This was a popular pattern in the 1940s when Mom got married. Mom said I could have her crystal and silverware.

Last Thanksgiving Larry, my brother Jim and I drove out to visit my sister’s family in Colorado. Mom gave me the wooden box of silverware to take home. Nancy brought out the boxes of crystal,hoping I could take them with me. But there wasn’t enough room in the car. Besides I didn’t want the crystal riding home in a car packed with three people’s suitcases. “Let’s wait until Larry and I move into our next place. I can get the crystal when I come out here next time.”

Well, there were the crystal boxes at the post office: covered in Priority mail stickers, and “Fragile” written on the sides. As I picked up one of the boxes, I heard the distinct sound of broken glass..

Hmm. Well maybe one or two glasses didn’t make it. I called Nancy to tell her the boxes had arrived, but that something was broken.

“Uh oh,” Nancy worried. “Did you open it up?”
I was too afraid to open them there. Fortunately Nancy insured the boxes. Well no worries, I only heard a little bit in one box. But then I picked up the other boxes to put in my trunk. There was that same ugly gut-wrenching shatter sound in all of them.

I wheeled all three boxes back to the post office.
“Excuse me, there’s some broken items in these boxes,” I called to the woman who had delivered the boxes to me. She ignored me and went into the back. I called out to someone else, a short Filipino man who shrugged. “You need a form.” He slapped one on the counter and walked off.
“Sir, I’m doing to need three forms!” I called out to his retreating back. He was gone for a good length of time, during which I read the form, which stated I couldn’t file a claim until 21 days after the date of mailing. Finally the man slumped back to his station, and started to call another customer.
“Excuse me, you were helping me with these packages.”
“Oh, yeah.” he sighed.
“Sir, this form says I can’t file if I can’t a claim for another 21 days.”
“Oh, yeah.” He sighed again.
I wanted to ask him why he didn’t just tell me this from the start. But what would the point of that be?

I got the boxes home. My sister called, nervous to discover the outcome. I told her I’d open them the next day. Frankly I was afraid to discover what damage was inside. After all it would be 21 days before I could do anything about it.

So the following afternoon, I opened the three boxes. One by one I pulled out the glasses. Some wrapped in paper, some wrapped in bubble wrap. And almost all of them were broken. Some shattered beyond recognition. Some had the stems snapped from the bowls. Gone.

I found myself howling with anger and grief. How had Nancy even packed these? Why did she mail them without telling me? What, did she just want them out of her hair? This was my inheritance. She had most all of Mom’s priceless stuff, and here she had sent off these boxes so carelessly. They don't make this crystal anymore. There was no way to get it back.

Larry walked in the door just as I was unwrapping the last hope … even a cocktail cup with no stem was snapped in two. Grief and anger gushed out of my mouth, like I had found my cherished cat, dead in the street. Larry bent down and put his arm around me as I sobbed. Poor Larry. I don’t know if a guy would feel the same way about family heirlooms, maybe it’s a girl thing.

I called my sister. What was I going to say? How could I say it and be real and honest but not hurtful? Yet there I was with none of the family heirlooms. How could she have done this?! She just sent it off, wrapped haphazardly, with no thought! This was supposed to be mine. I have nothing!

Nancy picked up the phone. And I cried in her ear, wept out my anger and hurt, how I felt my inheritance had been disregarded and thrown away. how I felt robbed of it, and well, just so heartbroken over it being gone. Part of our family history, gone.

And Nancy listened. She explained that it was a spur of the moment thing. She was thinking, Hey now Larry and Susan are settled in their new home, now they can have Mom’s crystal! But she had completely forgotten that she had packed it for a car, not for the postal service. She felt sickened at her error. And she reassured me that anything she had of Mom’s I could have. She wished she could go back in time and change things. She felt horrible.

I thanked her, but it wasn’t really about divvying up ownership. It was about the loss.

So we sat and talked about the things we remembered, associated with the crystal. Of Sunday dinners, of cousins coming to visit. In high school my friend Julia and I learned how to make crepes. We served them on the Desert Rose china and served Martinelli's in the crystal. The crystal that now lay in shards in front of me. I thought of my mom, and how hard she tried to bring some semblance of structure to our family. I thought of all those Christmas dinners she planned and slaved over, served on that china and crystal; each year the family drifting further and further away, but the china and crystal remaining on an ever-shrinking table. My mother is so frail today, she couldn’t cook now to save her life. She doesn’t have the strength to hold a pan or the memory to follow a recipe. Most of all it reminded me of my mother, and of a time when we were all alive and present and together.

Nancy and I sat and cried it out. I thanked her for listening. I realized it was a lot harder for her, to be the one who caused the loss; than for me, the one who absorbed it. I reminded her that I loved her far more than any crystal glass. So there was hurt and anger and grace and understanding. And a loss that we just had to grieve out.

A couple of days later, I saw the name of the crystal etched on the bottom of a snapped stem.
"Fostoria." I did an ebay search and found a vintage store that had our glasses! I called my sister, excited. "Buy it up!" She cheered. So a week later, Larry and I had dinner with the new replaced glasses.

Several days later I called Nancy to ask how she was doing, and to ask if anything I had said had hurt her. She said no, I had just said how I felt. I thanked her for her graciousness.

"And you know, Suzer. I feel closer to you from it. Like we walked through something big and painful, and did it the right way."
"Me too, Nanno."

That afternoon I was listening to a song by Sara Groves, “When it was over.” And I thought about how apt the lyrics were for us at that moment.

When it was over and they could talk about it
They were sitting on the couch
She said, “What on earth made you stay here
When you finally figured out what I was all about?”
He said “I always knew you'd do the right thing
Even though it might take some time.”
She said, “Yeah, I felt that and that's probably what saved my life.”

Oh love wash over a multitude of things
Love wash over a multitude of things
Love wash over a multitude of things
Make us whole

There is a love that never fails
There is a healing that always prevails
There is a hope that whispers a vow
A promise to stay while we're working it out
So come with Your love and wash over us.

I think of my life ahead, and the possibilities in my life, with Larry, with friends, with my vocation. I don’t want to shy away from the success or the sadness ahead. But I also know, the only thing that will get me through is that Love that washes over a multitude of things.
So come with Your love and wash over us.


Lisa Milton said...

That was beautiful Susan. Every bit of it.

[I am still cringing over the broken crystal.]

I find I am scared to death of success, more than failure I think. I am afraid that all the goodness will mean I am owed more crap too or that I will become a jerk. Or a bigger jerk.

I don't see any head swelling in the recent pictures - I think that's a good sign.

Thanks for writing this. I really needed this article today.

Ted and Lori said...

Oh Susan, it's so nice to have you back blogging. Thanks for sharing these things, the honesty and forgiveness in that conversation with your sister.

Annina said...

Wonderful, Suz. Apropos your choice to handle a loss with grace, I was just reading Viktor Frankl this morning, and in "Man's Search for Meaning," this is what he said:

"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

"And there are always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision...which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance..."

Anonymous said...

Hey Susan - it's Doug, I can relate - for my big birthday party 2 years ago, my step father sent me a set of crystal wine glasses from Poland that had probably been in his family for generations. He barely wrapped them at all, and I think all but one of two were shattered. It was pointless to even mention it because they would just get mad that it happened and I saw on the box that there was no insurance, and besides you know what a raging nut-job he is. I had to say very nice thank yous to them for something that was probably worth $500 that was completely destroyed....well, I guess I still have the case anyways, maybe someday I'll figure out a good use fo rthat- for not, it sits under my bed gathering dust.

Julie said...

Hey Susan,

If you have any other missing pieces check out Replacements, LTD. (http://www.replacements.com/). They're actually here in Greensboro, NC. My mom has used them to replace some of her mother's china.

Also, I cannot wait for your book.

Allen L. said...

Hmmm....regarding fear of success or how it changes people into assholes......
You know, this is all subjective. Your editor friend hasn't had celebrity or visible success, being behind the scenes and not craving the spotlight, she doesn't have to deal with it. She remains in stasis, perceptually. But, the artists she works with, as they become more successful, yes people change, sometimes they "appear" to be assholes, but really, it's just that they have a different set of rules to deal with. Rules that you and I don't have.
Here's an example: You know I have been doing these commercials for a certain company for the last 4 years. I have done about 15 now. About three spots back our regular director wasn't available and they were working with a new one. He was based in Santa Monica and "wanted to meet with me". When I got there, it became apparent that he wanted me to audition for him. He wanted me to read and put me on camera. I realized this pretty early and I had to shift the conversation from his power position to my welcoming him to our family. At that point he asked how many spots we had done. When I replied "13...I think", he pretty much shut up and never really talked to me the entire shoot. But that was fine with me. except that now it seemed like I had an atitude problem on the set. Since the director wasn't really talking to me. I then had to change gears and spend more time in video village to really cement my position as the "star". This put off some of the background (whom I am usually much more friendly with) and I could sense that there was a certain cloud of "he's the star" beginning to swell around me. But, I couldn't care about that. I had to maintain my relationship and status with the ad people and the company reps. It worked. I began to get the sense that they didn't care for the director either and used that opportunity to talk about how he wanted me to "audition". They were agog, from then on he was on the outs, never asked back and the spot was pulled because it was so poor.
I just went back again and had a blast, this time working with a top A-list commercial director from Tool. Once again, we had a little tension, he was put in the position of "how do I direct the star of these spots who has been doing them for 4 years?" But, I knew that was happening and decided, conciously, not to be "Difficult". I subordinated myself to make sure that the work was good and that I would be perceived as a team player.
Now, I ask you, when you booked that spot for McDonalds, where you are hysterical, do you deal with any of this? Not at all. We're just happy to get the work and hope we make some cash. Sure, success changes people, but, many times, for good reasons. There are different expectations when you are successful. People DO look at you differently. It CAN get to your head. You know what? I would have preferred if the box office people at Evil Dead the Musical in Toronto had just asked me if I was who I am rather than talk about the spots as I left. They weren't malicious, but it's just weird.
Of course, you HAVE to be gracious when you are recognized and, you know what, sometimes you just want to enjoy your sushi and a magazine. But, you can't. You have to smile and say thank you. It won't last forever, you know that, but it can be annoying, every once in a while. You know why? because it carries with it expectation. Because you are in their living rooms they imagine they can tell you anything, their opinion of your work, of the product, and they think they are very very funny. You have to just smile and deal, but, sometimes I just want to play poker, not have the whole table talking to me about hamburgers.
And, nobody's afraid of success. It's just fear that you will fail at being a success. "fear of success" is just psychobabble to make it feel better that one hasn't become a success.

rbcphotogirl said...

desert rose was on my table as a child as well... did you ever get the dishes? or was the crystal the only thing broken...

i think you're totally right about our state of being, we are either in a storm, coming out of a storm, or soon to see a storm... the important thing is to Honor God in the way we weather the storm... when we bring Him glory we have Success, no matter what the world thinks(yikes i'm dangerously close to talking too much "christianese"....) anyway - may your storms be filled with lifeboats, lifevests and fellow drownees.... and your non-storms be filled with these same people....


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