Body and Soul: of mundane miracles and secular sacraments

This was my first post to be Fresh Pressed. I hope you have enjoyed my summer re-runs. Stay tuned for a new post in a day or two!

~   ~   ~   ~   ~

Like all good little cradle-Anglicans of my day, when I reached the age of 12 I signed up for Confirmation class. We met crammed into a too-small but oddly symbolic “upper room” off the church balcony. I remember exactly two things from my weeks of Confirmation prep. The first is the lesson where we read and discussed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The minister who taught the class took it upon himself to challenge us with some liberal theology, and pressed the point that perhaps there was more than one way to make a miracle. Perhaps Jesus didn’t conjure extra loaves and fishes out of thin air after all. Perhaps when the members of the crowd observed one person sharing the provisions he had brought, they were inspired – or shamed— into digging into their packs and bringing out their own secret stash of snacks to share. It had never before occurred to me that people might be invited to participate in the making of miracles. Indeed that we might be expected to participate. That perhaps that was how miracles really happened.

I also recall learning about the sacraments. I learned that Roman Catholics recognize seven sacraments, but that Anglicans observe a sort of “sacraments light”—zeroing in on Baptism and Eucharist. Mostly I can still hear the priest repeatedly intone—“a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace.” Kind of like sharing your picnic lunch with your neighbors to show that you are a community.

After Confirmation I promptly stopped attending church for most of my teen years. There was no noisy rebellion on my part—mostly I just had lots of other ways to spend my time that seemed far more relevant and interesting than my parents’ church. As a young adult I found my own way into a faith that was mine, not just a parroting of my Sunday School and Confirmation lessons. And I grew to appreciate more and more what it meant to do things that were visible and external as a reflection of what was going on invisibly and spiritually within.

When I turned 40 I had a huge celebration. Forty is a milestone birthday at the best of times, but it is often celebrated with a wry sense of doom and despair. (“Oh no I’m getting old…”) For me, 40 was a really big deal because I wasn’t dead. I had, by contrast, spent my 38th birthday in galloping kidney failure, being readied for what was very nearly a one-way transfer into intensive care. Through a series of miracles supported by the participation of various members of the medical profession, I did make it back out of intensive care and into the world, but not before I had battled temporary vision loss, taught myself to walk again, and recovered from brain trauma.

Catastrophic as that particular illness was, it was not the first time my body betrayed me. The truth is my body has a long and tiresome history of betraying me. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of two, and spent most of elementary school sidelined in gym class with painfully inflamed knees. After a teaser of a remission period during my teens, the arthritis came back in full force just as I was poised to graduate from university and start a teaching career. As if my bodily betrayal was not enough, one of my professors heaped coals on the fire of my frustration by musing to my face that “perhaps I should consider a less physically demanding profession” than the one in which I had just invested five years of preparation.

Then, in a whole new set of bodily betrayals, my attempts to have a child were thwarted by repeated failure. My first two pregnancies ended in early miscarriage. Surgery for an ectopic pregnancy went wrong, and I nearly bled to death from an internal rupture. My fourth pregnancy ended in fetal death at 12 weeks, but I didn’t miscarry. Apparently my body couldn’t even get miscarriage right. While I did eventually succeed in carrying two children to term, my eldest was born after an extraordinarily long and difficult labour that resulted in a caesarean. The technical term for this particular bodily betrayal was labour that “failed to progress.”

So by the time I hit 40, my relationship with my body was strained at best. But in spite of all the trouble it had caused me, I was still alive. That seemed worth celebrating. I wanted to make peace with this body that had failed me so many times, but that had also rallied from so many close calls. Like an old Timex watch it took a licking and kept on ticking.

So I got a tattoo. I had been contemplating the notion of a tattoo for about three years, but took a while to decide when, what, and where. Having decided on my milestone birthday as a perfect “when,” I found the “what” while gazing around my living room one evening are realizing that ALL the artwork on my walls bore the images of loons—a creature that has always held significance for me. I chose the image of the adult loon with its baby riding on its back—an image that reflected for me the extent to which my body—and my life—had been marked by my journey to, and through, motherhood.

legAs to “where,” I opted for a spot halfway up the side of my right calf. I reasoned that in this position I could show off the tattoo without getting half naked, but could keep it hidden if that was appropriate in a professional context. I assumed, in fact, that I would want to keep it hidden at work. It oddly didn’t dawn on me at the time that hemlines might rise.

To my surprise, I gradually became less and less concerned with when it might be “appropriate” to let my tattoo be visible. I started wearing shorter skirts to work and not caring who saw the tattoo. Somehow, making my body a canvas for this work of art made me more comfortable in my own skin.

I didn’t think about the tattoo as a sacrament at first. Over time I began to realize that what had felt at first like an act of belated adolescent rebellion held a much deeper significance to me. Curious about what motivated other tattoo bearers, I read and heard deeply touching stories—tattoos marking the death of a loved one, tattoos marking a significant life event or choice, tattoos remembering a lost friend, tattoos marking a battle with disease or addiction, tattoos enshrining a powerful memory. I came to understand that I had marked my body in this way as an outward and visible sign of a truth that I couldn’t really put into words, but that I carried deep within me.

Between my 40th and 45th birthdays, my inner truths underwent a profound transformation that culminated with the outward sign of divorce. Searching for the right ritual to mark this transition, I knew it was time for another tattoo.

This time I approached the tattoo more consciously as sacrament. This time I also knew immediately and intuitively what the image would be. Another loon, but in the aggressive stance—wings upraised—of a loon that is charging an enemy. I’ve been charged just so by a loon, while inadvertently canoeing too close to her nest. They are powerful creatures—and bigger than you think—especially at close quarters in their threatening “don’t mess with me and my babies” posture. This tattoo is quite large, and is centred between my shoulder blades. I have to twist and crane in the mirror to see it myself, but I am always conscious of it—always sensing that it pushes me forwards and gives me strength.

Someone once remarked that the image reminded them of a phoenix rising—an apt coincidence, since the inner transformation that the image was crafted to represent was very much a rising from the ashes of my failed marriage—an emergence of new life in the wake of grief and loss.

Now into my 50’s, I continue to negotiate a tenuous truce with my unreliable body. Most recently, my left hip joint has betrayed me utterly, and for its troubles been banished from my body once and for all in favour of a slick new titanium and ceramic replacement.

It’s hard not to call the outcome of this surgery a miracle. After taking painkillers day and night for I don’t know how long, within two weeks of being rolled out of the operating theatre I no longer needed any pain medication. None. Is it a miracle that the research has produced a prosthetic hip that works and an effective process for inserting it? Is it a miracle that my surgeon was skilled, or that his team provided me with such a comprehensive preparation?

I went into the surgery knowing exactly what I would need to do to contribute to my healing: I would need to haul out my own resources and apply them to my healing process. Provide my own loaves and fishes. Perhaps it’s enough of a miracle that after all the times my body has said “I quit,” those resources are still there.

Maybe I should get another tattoo.

back

Honestly Daily Prompt, I sometimes feel like you are stalking me. This is not the first time you have posted a prompt just AFTER I have posted something relevant to that prompt. So although this was originally posted on November 23, I am linking it to the December 1 Daily Prompt: “Tattoo…You?”

Advertisements

Seeing the whole picture

Albert* was one of the old-timers who sat at the back of the room, moseying their way through high school on the extended plan. To be honest, I suspect that the unspoken consensus among my teacher colleagues was that Albert’s chances of graduating were pretty slim.

In a small Manitoba town in the mid 1980’s Albert’s outward appearance was guaranteed to evoke judgement.  He wore threadbare t-shirts with rock band logos, torn never-washed jeans, and long greasy black hair, perpetually falling in front of his eyes and draped across a complexion ravaged by adolescence and poor nutrition. I never knew whether he lived in town or commuted from the Reserve up the highway. I suspect that there was some degree of undiagnosed Fetal Alcohol Effect in Albert’s story. The teachers who attempted to teach him Math and English despaired over his erratic attendance. But I was the Art teacher, and Albert, I discovered, was an artist.

Albert’s attendance in art, while far from perfect, was somewhat more regular than his attendance in his academic courses. He sat in the back corner of the art room, head down, eyes hidden by his heavy black hair, deeply entranced by whatever project I had conjured up for the week.  Whatever the assignment, Albert produced something beyond my expectations.

In a big city school Albert might have had the option to rack up all manner of high school credits in a comprehensive arts program. But all I had to offer him was one credit per year of his high school career. And at the rate he was going he was going to run out of art options before he ran out of years.

The more I got to know Albert, the more I ached over the disconnect between his artistic talent and the way that everything else about school conspired to beat him down. I wished there was something more I could do provide him with some validation.

One day I had a brainwave. Remembering that there was a process to create a special project for credit, I proposed to Albert the idea of creating a mural. To my delight, he agreed.

And then the bureaucracy began. First the principal hemmed and hawed. He was not a man given to making decisions if he could possibly help it. I suspected that, had Albert been a more conventionally studious student, the answer might have come quicker. Eventually consent was given, on the condition that I consult with the School Division office regarding the acceptable kind of paint to use on the school walls. After another lengthy runaround, I was informed by a bemused Director of Facilities that ordinary latex paint would be just fine. For a location, we agreed on a boring segment of hallway that joined the two wings of the school.

All that was left was the matter of the mural composition. Fearing that I was going to have to go to battle to defend Albert’s artistic freedom, I asked him to draft a prototype on paper before starting. I waited nervously to see what Albert would come back with, scarcely able to imagine what he would propose. Given that his overall school experience had been less than uplifting, I envisioned something dark and angrily abstract.

Albert sought me out late one afternoon. “I’ve got my picture for the wall.” He unrolled a sheet of poster paper, and revealed, to my astonishment, an exquisite sketch of a unicorn, rearing up on its hind legs in front of a backdrop of lush green forest. I said all the right approving things, but all I could think was “where did that come from?!”

Albert toiled for weeks, painstakingly recreating his work as a mural that spanned roughly 8 feet of hallway. The result was stunning. The other teachers didn’t say much, but once in a while I would catch them looking with veiled astonishment and grudging respect at Albert’s creation. Whatever else they might have thought about Albert, we all saw a part of him we had never imagined was there whenever we passed through that hallway.

I only spent two years at that school, leaving for a position in the city before Albert graduated. I don’t know if he ever did. I have always wondered what became of him. I hope that he found something worthwhile to take him far away from that town. I went back myself a few years ago, and had occasion to walk through the halls of the school.

Albert’s mural had been painted over.

It broke my heart.

When I knew I wanted to write this story, I combed through my albums in search of the one photo I remember taking of the mural. I couldn’t find it.

And it broke my heart all over again.

paint-wall-lg_A2

 

*name has been changed.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Daily Prompt: Does it ever make sense to judge a book by its cover — literally or metaphorically? Tell us about a time you did, and whether that was a good decision or not.

The size of now

The future is a very big place.

I know this to be true, because I have spent a lot of time there– typically getting lost in the big-ness of it.

It’s an easy place in which to get lost, in part because there are no reliable maps. Geographically speaking, the future is akin to those oceanic margins that cartographers of old so helpfully labelled “Here be Dragons.” Indeed, there may well be dragons. Or baby unicorns. Or giant radioactive sea slugs. A big problem with navigating the future is that, not only is it immeasurably big, it is also many. If I start from the point in time where I stand right now, I can see a multitude of possible futures, each one uncharted, each one spinning off into infinite combinations and permutations that shift and sway with each forward step.

here-be-dragons

Granted some of those possible futures are more probable than others. Given what I remember about the science of probability from high school math, I would put my money on the giant radioactive sea slugs before I would trust in the odds of a big lottery win. Especially since I don’t buy lottery tickets. But the fact remains that even the most well-informed prediction is no guarantee that something I anticipate is actually going to happen. And as for wishes

I’ve made a lot of wishes. I’ve wished on stars, wished on birthday candles, wished on trains going over bridges and coins thrown in fountains. I’ve wished away a lot of perfectly good nows in pursuit of some pretty nebulous what-ifs.

You know what I mean, because you’ve done it too.

Things will be better when…

I would be happier if…

I just need to hang on until…

But the future is a big place. So big that we can wander there forever without ever finding our way to the precise whens and ifs and untils on which we have staked our happiness.

herebedragons

“Here be dragons” was intended as a caution to the wayward mariner who dared wander beyond that which was known. It has taken me into my 50s to embrace the realization that all I can ever know for certain is now.

And, unlike the future, now is a very small place. Small, and surprisingly manageable.

It took me five decades of wandering lost through the dragon-territory of what-if and if-only to fully appreciate the size of now.

Now is the size of a single footstep.  Now is the size of the first word of the conversation you are dreading. Now is the size of the registration form for that course about that thing you’ve always imagined learning how to do.  Now is the size of picking up the phone to call the travel agent, the real estate agent, the divorce lawyer, the tattoo artist, the friend you had the falling out with. Now is the size of a single push-up. Now is the size of the word “no” when you would previously have said “yes.” Now is the size of the word “yes” when you would previously have said “no.”

Now is a place small enough to navigate without a map, because you can see all the way to the edges from wherever you stand. And you hardly ever see dragons.

 

 

Body and Soul: of mundane miracles and secular sacraments

Like all good little cradle-Anglicans of my day, when I reached the age of 12 I signed up for Confirmation class. We met crammed into a too-small but oddly symbolic “upper room” off the church balcony. I remember exactly two things from my weeks of Confirmation prep. The first is the lesson where we read and discussed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The minister who taught the class took it upon himself to challenge us with some liberal theology, and pressed the point that perhaps there was more than one way to make a miracle. Perhaps Jesus didn’t conjure extra loaves and fishes out of thin air after all. Perhaps when the members of the crowd observed one person sharing the provisions he had brought, they were inspired – or shamed— into digging into their packs and bringing out their own secret stash of snacks to share. It had never before occurred to me that people might be invited to participate in the making of miracles. Indeed that we might be expected to participate. That perhaps that was how miracles really happened.

I also recall learning about the sacraments. I learned that Roman Catholics recognize seven sacraments, but that Anglicans observe a sort of “sacraments light”—zeroing in on Baptism and Eucharist. Mostly I can still hear the priest repeatedly intone—“a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace.” Kind of like sharing your picnic lunch with your neighbors to show that you are a community.

After Confirmation I promptly stopped attending church for most of my teen years. There was no noisy rebellion on my part—mostly I just had lots of other ways to spend my time that seemed far more relevant and interesting than my parents’ church. As a young adult I found my own way into a faith that was mine, not just a parroting of my Sunday School and Confirmation lessons. And I grew to appreciate more and more what it meant to do things that were visible and external as a reflection of what was going on invisibly and spiritually within.

When I turned 40 I had a huge celebration. Forty is a milestone birthday at the best of times, but it is often celebrated with a wry sense of doom and despair. (“Oh no I’m getting old…”) For me, 40 was a really big deal because I wasn’t dead. I had, by contrast, spent my 38th birthday in galloping kidney failure, being readied for what was very nearly a one-way transfer into intensive care. Through a series of miracles supported by the participation of various members of the medical profession, I did make it back out of intensive care and into the world, but not before I had battled temporary vision loss, taught myself to walk again, and recovered from brain trauma.

Catastrophic as that particular illness was, it was not the first time my body betrayed me. The truth is my body has a long and tiresome history of betraying me. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of two, and spent most of elementary school sidelined in gym class with painfully inflamed knees. After a teaser of a remission period during my teens, the arthritis came back in full force just as I was poised to graduate from university and start a teaching career. As if my bodily betrayal was not enough, one of my professors heaped coals on the fire of my frustration by musing to my face that “perhaps I should consider a less physically demanding profession” than the one in which I had just invested five years of preparation.

Then, in a whole new set of bodily betrayals, my attempts to have a child were thwarted by repeated failure. My first two pregnancies ended in early miscarriage. Surgery for an ectopic pregnancy went wrong, and I nearly bled to death from an internal rupture. My fourth pregnancy ended in fetal death at 12 weeks, but I didn’t miscarry. Apparently my body couldn’t even get miscarriage right. While I did eventually succeed in carrying two children to term, my eldest was born after an extraordinarily long and difficult labour that resulted in a caesarean. The technical term for this particular bodily betrayal was labour that “failed to progress.”

So by the time I hit 40, my relationship with my body was strained at best. But in spite of all the trouble it had caused me, I was still alive. That seemed worth celebrating. I wanted to make peace with this body that had failed me so many times, but that had also rallied from so many close calls. Like an old Timex watch it took a licking and kept on ticking.

So I got a tattoo. I had been contemplating the notion of a tattoo for about three years, but took a while to decide when, what, and where. Having decided on my milestone birthday as a perfect “when,” I found the “what” while gazing around my living room one evening are realizing that ALL the artwork on my walls bore the images of loons—a creature that has always held significance for me. I chose the image of the adult loon with its baby riding on its back—an image that reflected for me the extent to which my body—and my life—had been marked by my journey to, and through, motherhood.

legAs to “where,” I opted for a spot halfway up the side of my right calf. I reasoned that in this position I could show off the tattoo without getting half naked, but could keep it hidden if that was appropriate in a professional context. I assumed, in fact, that I would want to keep it hidden at work. It oddly didn’t dawn on me at the time that hemlines might rise.

To my surprise, I gradually became less and less concerned with when it might be “appropriate” to let my tattoo be visible. I started wearing shorter skirts to work and not caring who saw the tattoo. Somehow, making my body a canvas for this work of art made me more comfortable in my own skin.

I didn’t think about the tattoo as a sacrament at first. Over time I began to realize that what had felt at first like an act of belated adolescent rebellion held a much deeper significance to me. Curious about what motivated other tattoo bearers, I read and heard deeply touching stories—tattoos marking the death of a loved one, tattoos marking a significant life event or choice, tattoos remembering a lost friend, tattoos marking a battle with disease or addiction, tattoos enshrining a powerful memory. I came to understand that I had marked my body in this way as an outward and visible sign of a truth that I couldn’t really put into words, but that I carried deep within me.

Between my 40th and 45th birthdays, my inner truths underwent a profound transformation that culminated with the outward sign of divorce. Searching for the right ritual to mark this transition, I knew it was time for another tattoo.

This time I approached the tattoo more consciously as sacrament. This time I also knew immediately and intuitively what the image would be. Another loon, but in the aggressive stance—wings upraised—of a loon that is charging an enemy. I’ve been charged just so by a loon, while inadvertently canoeing too close to her nest. They are powerful creatures—and bigger than you think—especially at close quarters in their threatening “don’t mess with me and my babies” posture. This tattoo is quite large, and is centred between my shoulder blades. I have to twist and crane in the mirror to see it myself, but I am always conscious of it—always sensing that it pushes me forwards and gives me strength.

Someone once remarked that the image reminded them of a phoenix rising—an apt coincidence, since the inner transformation that the image was crafted to represent was very much a rising from the ashes of my failed marriage—an emergence of new life in the wake of grief and loss.

Now into my 50’s, I continue to negotiate a tenuous truce with my unreliable body. Most recently, my left hip joint has betrayed me utterly, and for its troubles been banished from my body once and for all in favour of a slick new titanium and ceramic replacement.

It’s hard not to call the outcome of this surgery a miracle. After taking painkillers day and night for I don’t know how long, within two weeks of being rolled out of the operating theatre I no longer needed any pain medication. None. Is it a miracle that the research has produced a prosthetic hip that works and an effective process for inserting it? Is it a miracle that my surgeon was skilled, or that his team provided me with such a comprehensive preparation?

I went into the surgery knowing exactly what I would need to do to contribute to my healing: I would need to haul out my own resources and apply them to my healing process. Provide my own loaves and fishes. Perhaps it’s enough of a miracle that after all the times my body has said “I quit,” those resources are still there.

Maybe I should get another tattoo.

back

Honestly Daily Prompt, I sometimes feel like you are stalking me. This is not the first time you have posted a prompt just AFTER I have posted something relevant to that prompt. So although this was originally posted on November 23, I am linking it to the December 1 Daily Prompt: “Tattoo…You?”