Thursday, March 6, 2014

On Strength and Weakenss {Lent 2014}

I am not used to living in my own strength.  

I've never been in this place during our six years of marriage, during my three decades of life, where I am the strong(er) one.  Depression, an eating disorder, illness, stillbirth -- these battles crushed me.  And the messages I was grown on, the ones that leeched deep into my core despite their untruth, agreed.  My name is Beth, and I am a problem.

It has taken me years to realize that I was not (am not) a problem, even when I struggled, even when I floundered and the the salted waters closed above my head and it took the hands of others plunging into the depths to bring me back to air because my muscles were too atrophied for swimming.

I have spent [too] many of my years longing for death -- not in an I-have-a-plan sort of way, but just wanting to be dead, for this charade to be finished.  I am grateful for the ones who sang me back to Life.

All this to say -- I have become accustomed to the being the weaker partner.  And our culture and our western church are inclined to agree.  I am, after all, a woman.

* * *

My husband is not well.  He lives in pain without relief.  The doctors have neither remedy nor answer.  He can no longer work.  The future is a question.

I find myself given an excruciating opportunity to feel something like what he felt as he watched me struggle for all those years.  Now I am the strong one, the one helpless to do anything but witness.  Now I am the one plunging a hand down after him as the ocean of tragedy tries to claim him.  

I do not know if I am strong enough for this.

* * *

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  I grew up Catholic, raised on mystery that no one quite knew how to celebrate or speak of.  As a child, I was ashamed of wearing the Lenten ashes on my forehead.  As a teen and young woman, I embraced them.  Even before I had awakened, the ashes spoke to me, whispers of something deeper, of joy blooming from pain. 

I haven't worn the ashes in many years now.  But they still call to me.  Perhaps you may remember that this blog used to bear the tagline "beauty from ashes."  Three decades of dwelling more pain, disappointment, and sorrow than in the joy and the light have taught me to embrace the fact that the earth is more fertile after it is burned, that spring cannot bloom without the frozen winter.

Last night, I burned my own earth.  Because the ground I have been walking has grown over-hard and unyielding.  It is growing fallow, because I am resisting the turning of the wheel.  I didn't mean for it to be so, but my daughter's death inside me was the last straw.  I grabbed hold of the metaphorical steering wheel of life and resolved to never let any hands but my own on it ever again -- not God's, not the hands of love or friendship or joy.  

I would pilot my own ship, no matter the consequences.  

In some ways, this has been a good thing.  It has made me less lazy, less good-things-come-to-those-who-wait.  Because of this, Made was born, and my soul awakened more deeply.  I believe that my son will reap the priceless benefits of parents who refuse to live numb.

But in other ways, it has been very much a not-good thing.  Because this clutching at control?  Another word for this is fear

And a life lived in fear . . . well, what kind of life is that at all?

* * *

I think that we in the western world have been conditioned to believe that control is strength, a virtue.  In American, we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, after all, white-knuckled and sweating. 

But what are we pulling ourselves up to?  More money?  More sex?  More square footage?  More power for the sake of more power?  More [false] youth?

These have become the American Dream, it seems.  I hope I am wrong.  But I don't think I am.

* * *

Traditionally, our Lenten fasts have been populated by fealty sworn to ego-stroking self-abnegation.  At least, mine have.  One year I gave up chocolate, for example, and another year it was Skittles.  And while less candy was certainly beneficial for my health, my fasts have not ever dealt with any of the actual dark chinks in my soul. 

This year, therefore, I am giving up fear.  Because fear is ruling me.  It literally contracts my muscles, pulling my spine down and down until my body is curled into the tightest ball and breath is hard to come by.

I am afraid of my child dying.  Of my dying, or my husband's.
I am afraid of illness and accident.
I am afraid of failure.  I am afraid of success.
I am afraid of falling behind, of running out of time, of not spending myself wisely, of coming to the end of my days and tasting only regret.
I am afraid of silence and stillness.  
I am afraid of hurting.
I am afraid of the God I read of in ancient texts.  I am afraid that there is no god. 

Last night, I tremblingly scrawled my fears onto paper, and then burned the paper away to ash and painted the ash into art.  

I am planting the seeds of my sorrow.  I do not know when their spring may come, but I hope that I will recognize it when it does. 

* * *

What is strength?  Is it gritting one's teeth and pushing/pulling/straining, tendons bulging as one forces victory?  

Maybe.  Maybe sometimes.

But I think there is another kind of strength, too.  The kind that gathers the ashes with blackened palms and uses them to fertilize the heart.  The kind that watches a loved one's struggle and, stretching out a hand to help, knows that the hand can only help it the drowning one decides to take it.  The kind that folds, skin on skin, into weakness, into life's inevitable pain, and says, welcome, lover.

The kind that sets flame to fear, when the burning feels (ironically) like terror, because letting go takes more courage than holding over-tight and the sensation is utterly unfamiliar.  

The kind that allows all things, sits with all things, embraces all things.  

I do not know if I am this kind of strong 


literally painting my ashes into art with Christine


  1. Mmm hmm. Strength on the other side of the shell. Strength in the tension. There is a Buddhist teaching that goes something like this…do we carpet the earth? or do we learn to wear shoes? Wishing you good leather soles, my friend, to stand in the reality of weakness, pain, fear, mortality.

    1. thank you, my friend. the word "reality" stood out to me in your comment. maybe that's at the crux at the's time for me to start living in what is, not in the life I thought I had coming to me.

  2. I burned some ash to make art to bid my fearless year (2013) farewell. I still deal with fear, because it is strong and the roots go deep and it is wily and the tendrils find cracks in my defenses. I think we must tend to our quaking souls daily and nourish them with those ashes of the fears we are constantly pruning. I'm glad you are choosing yourself, choosing the questions, choosing to plant anew. And I'm glad you are sharing the journey because it's a precious reminder that we do not walk alone.

    1. "we must tend to our quaking souls daily" <~ oh Jamie, I love this. and you're right...that it's a daily task of pruning. it's easy for me to believe it's a once-and-done deal. if only it were that easy. xo

  3. Strength can be mistaken for being in control. But we find true strength when we rise up from our wounds, weakness and failings. Paul said, "when we are weak, we are strong." I think it is when we recognise our true self, we find strength.

    1. thank you, dear lady. (I see hints of Immortal Diamond in there! can't wait to hear how you're enjoying that.)

  4. Speechless. That was amazing. I'd like to burn fear as well. I can only imagine how invigorating it must have felt to watch your fears burn.

    1. thank you, lovely. it was invigorating...but only after the terror subsided. I think I burned my excuses, too. gulp!

  5. i read john 1 in the message this morning, so your ash painting especially speaks to me. and the rest of your words here are just beautiful, in an aching way.

    1. thank you! the soul runs so deep, doesn't it?

  6. Dear Beth, what joy to find your post next to mind in the Imperfect Prose linkup...not that I need an excuse to visit your exquisite writing. so many things resonated here...I had my first experience with Ash Wednesday this past week..and it ignited something within my heart. So glad to see you painting with the ash of what kept you bound and to step forward with those fears burned away...I pray that you will be all be held fast in his hands, in the midst of the holding up, and the crashing waves.

  7. My daughter died inside my body, also. I can not remember putting it exactly that way before. I am going to join you in painting with the ashes today. It is so rich, so rich, so rich. I plan on potting a spider plant baby today and somehow, this painting with ashes seems like the perfect companion to that. I may even do it outside. Like... wow. So many possibilities. Thank you for that!

    Beauty in the ashes. Dust returning to the earth in a slightly different form.

    I'm so grateful you were right above me in the Creative Every Day Linky. Synchronicity rocks.

  8. This year was my first experience with ashes. I longed to be a part of a community that was unafraid to live their mortality externally. Thank you for your beautiful transparent voice. We need you, we need the authenticity of suffering love lived real. Blessings on you as you journey your way through these days. I will listen for your voice. -Christina


"I am glad you are here with me."
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King