I like to think of myself as a bit of a hobbit–because I can be the same old boring and quiet person day in and day out until out of nowhere…
I hurl an apple as hard as I can with a Tarzan-like scream at school bullies.
I try to break down the door someone had curtly slammed on my nose and wake up my entire dorm floor throwing myself at it.
I calmly and coldly stand still in front of a car threatening to run me over because he is driving on a sidewalk illegally behind me and it pisses me off.
I stand between two men about to fight and break it up even though my BABY is strapped to my chest.
I personally chase down on foot a bunch of football players on ATV’s throwing water balloons at people with that same Tarzan scream because one landed inches from my ear.
These are things I actually did. There are more stories like that too. If something gets me killed one of these days it’s definitely going to be my crazy out of nowhere volcano temper. Sometimes I think the only thing that saved me was that no one ever expected it from me. I always used to just shove those events back in the dark recesses of my mind as quickly as possible. I probably wasn’t going to do that again. Right? And I never really wanted to ask myself why they had happened at all.
Secretly, I have often thought of myself as a grumpy slob who would rather just live in a cave with cats (and probably resemble something like the crazy cat lady in the Simpsons who throws her angry cats at people for no reason at all) and a good coffee machine and maybe some books and video games. And some rocks to throw at squirrels. Because I think I am a horrible and selfish person. I only have good qualities because other people seem to want them and I seem to want other people in spite of myself. So I have been angry at everyone. And no one. And mostly myself.
Once, when I was at a a big church conference, there was a sermon on the power of healing people through faith. I don’t remember much, other than that at the end there was this opportunity to experience one of the most beautiful sacraments of the church–being anointed with oil. I sat and listened and casually noted that I had no physical needs for healing. I watched friends go down for healing who had cancer, or migraines, or various other needs. But to my own astonishment, I found myself walking down toward one of those doing the anointing. I had no idea what I was going to say. These are the words that came out of my mouth:
“I’m so angry I can’t bear it. I’m angry every day and every night and I think I hate everyone. I’m. Just. So. Angry.” A torrent of unexpected tears came, as I sank into my own horror at myself, and the relief that came at admitting to the acrid secret that tore at me constantly.
He awkwardly told me that my need wasn’t really what they meant by healing, but he prayed with me anyway. He gave me no anointing. I walked away feeling empty and really unsure of why I had felt compelled to go down. And my own words were a shock to me. The angry cat lady was a thought I barely acknowledged even to myself. I shook off the tears and emotion and put the awkward healing prayer I didn’t need behind me.
Years later, after getting married, 3 moves, 2 kids, and a lot of realizing that I seem to be discontented pretty much wherever we were, it happened. I was sitting at a ladies lunch with friends listening to the story of another friend. She told a story similar to the one I had as a kid. She had moved to a new town and it hadn’t gone well. She eventually learned how to fit in and got new clothes and a great hair-do and became student council president and was successful in so many ways. (I know her own story was one about the follies of chasing approval by other people, and painful for its own reasons, but those things faded completely in the light of my own regret at my own life). It cracked me wide open. A hurricane of jealousy and hatred and rage filled me in that moment so that I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move.
Her story was not my story, and I wished it was. I was never popular, and never managed to look particularly cool or beautiful. We never had much money and my clothes were either used or from Wal-Mart. I had some academic achievement and a handful of friends and I knew that should have made me feel blessed. But in so many ways for so many reasons, some real and some imagined, and some so bad I’d never told anyone, I felt cheated. And in that moment of jealousy and anger I was so ashamed that I couldn’t move on from these things. I put my head in my hands and cried great big ugly tears.
When I was small, there were these two beautiful trees in the back yard of our parsonage home. They stood next to a big chain link fence that divided our yard from the highway and the train tracks that lay on the other side. My brother and I each claimed a tree as ours. We used to climb up into our trees, hang on with one arm and wave and yell things at the conductors of trains that passed. One day one of the parishioners cut them down. All that remained were stumps. Someone claimed they were ugly and too close to the gorgeous (*cough) chain link fence back there. My young self didn’t understand at all, didn’t they ask if those trees belonged to anyone? I visited the stumps afterward, like grave stones. I talked to them (Ok, I know I’m admitting something about myself right here, but I also talk to my cats, my lamps, and oh whatever–I like trees and I talk to them.) I told them I missed them and I was sorry.
Years later, there was this tree in the front yard of the next parsonage we moved to. It was this enormous Maple tree that turned the color of fire in the fall. I loved that tree like a dear friend. But it only ever had leaves on half of it’s branches. The other half were dead and bare. It was broken, but in a way I delighted in forgiving it for. It was like me. Beautiful and Ugly. Dead and Alive. Awake and Asleep. I adored it.
One day, driving back from school with Mom, I came home to find it cut down and sliced up into pieces on our front yard. It’s sap was still visibly oozing and dripping down the slices. Like blood. I picked up both of my feet and slammed them into our car’s dashboard when I saw it. And I screamed something like “OF COURSE THEY WOULD OF COURSE THEY WOULD BECAUSE I LOVED THAT TREE! OF COURSE THEY WOULD!”
I think my mother almost drove into the curb in surprise at my outburst and complete change in demeanor.
Someone told me the tree was rotten inside. That it wasn’t any good. I think I said, “Oh, sure. I guess that makes sense. It’s just sad.” Inside I felt murderous. The people who killed the tree were the same people who had shut one of my cats in a room alone while my family was on vacation. He had died slowly of dehydration and infection as a result. I wasn’t exactly trusting of their respect toward living things.
It was the lack of control of my life that drove me crazy. My family didn’t own very much. We borrowed most of it. House, trees, furnishings, carpets, bathrooms, yards. Other people could decide at a moments notice there needed to be a change, or something had to go. And no one ever seemed to care or ask me how I felt about things. But I was also sure that it wouldn’t take anything too out of order for me to get my Dad fired or at least very very embarrassed. So I held it in and smiled at everything. And when I wrote in my journal sometimes I wrote so angrily I tore holes through the paper with my pen. And I secretly whispered to trees that I loved them and that I was on their side.
As an adult, I once had an ESL student tell me she thought I was the happiest person in the world. I laughed and without thinking said, “Oh that’s probably just because I’m from the MidWest! We all smile there. Even when we’re not happy at all. It’s pretty creepy actually.” I looked at her blank stare and realized it was probably the wrong thing to say. “Ha, ha, hey creepy! That’s a great word. Anyone know how to define the word creepy?…”
Smiling when I didn’t mean it had gotten to be a lifelong habit. And hating people who wielded any sort of power had as well. But it was buried so deep I could only find it in a moment where someone was throwing water balloons at me or hitting my face with a door. But it was unmistakable. I did not believe that the vast majority of people were on my side at all.
At that moment, the one where I was crying big ugly angry tears after my friend told her story, I felt a gentle touch on my head. I looked up to see the face of a lady at my church, smiling with so much compassion it melted my resentment in a moment. She had neat curly hair and square glasses perched on the tip of her nose. The eyes behind them were so kind. She didn’t ask me what was wrong or make me tell my story. She held my head in her hands and she prayed with me. And then, from her purse, she pulled out a vial of oil. She anointed me and asked God for healing.
One touch, even far after the fact, from one person willing to accept my anger and sadness and have compassion on it took this huge weight off of my shoulders I’d been carrying for so long. She didn’t make me prove I deserved compassion, like so many other people, or weigh me or judge me in any way. She was Jesus to me like that man at the conference had failed to be. Or the tree killers, the cat killers, or that guy driving his car on the sidewalk behind me.
Two years ago I got to plant trees in the backyard of the house I bought with my husband. My kids and I watched as the tree guys put them in the ground and tethered them to posts. “Look mommy! Baby trees!” squealed my oldest. I smiled, a real smile, and gave him a squeeze.
“Yes kiddo. We’ve got to take care of them as a family. They’ve got a lot of growing to do, but we’re going to help them.”
When all my family was asleep I snuck out into the backyard that night to water the new trees. I touched each one and let their leaves brush my cheeks. I whispered to each one.
“We love you. You are ours. We’re going to take care of you.”