Ready to Exhale
- Margaret Becker Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2006 17 Jul
For years, Dove Award-winning artist Margaret Becker allowed life to push her along, while she bypassed dreams, aspirations, and meaningful moments along the way. Her new book, Coming Up for Air, chronicles her journey from an overall feeling of "disconnect" to a more satisfying, simplified, and fruitful existence. Using a series of short, journal-like entries, the book challenges women to become more self-aware and make definitive, positive life changes—to let go of outward expectations and pursue an authentic life.
I couldn't fully shut off the shower this morning. The head dribbled water for about an hour and then made the transition to fat, sporadic drips. It reminded me of the leak in my laundry room. It was the intermittent kind, easy to ignore.
Leaks are evil. I despise them. They are subtle and elusive. Behind the facade, they slowly erode away structure and integrity in secret—unhampered, unchecked. By the time the evidence of their hideous mission announces itself outwardly, the majority of the damage is done.
I learned this the day the damp spot on my ceiling at home swelled from a quarter to a pancake. I got up on the step stool to inspect. Tentatively raising my pointer finger to feel the level of dampness, I touched the pancake ever so gently. The brown patch gave way and all at once my entire hand was swallowed up into the netherworld of pipes and insulation.
Just one tiny push, and drywall rudely crumbled onto my face, sending me sputtering and swaying.
It's odd what you think about in moments like that. I had two distinct things on my mind as I clung to balance:
"If I fall and break my neck, how long will it be before someone comes to find me?"
I was miffed with the drywall. I saw it as a conspirator. All these years, I'd contentedly trusted it with its responsibility—to hide all those things I don't need to know about and to retain the magic of all those things I take for granted. Underneath our beautiful lives together, I washed enough towels and jeans to drain Lake Meade. It's seen me first thing in the morning without make-up, even naked. We had a relationship!
I trusted that drywall. I counted on it. I was convinced that if it knew something bad might be afoot, it would have immediately let me know. Not with some tiny indication, like the little dot of off-white stain that appeared about six months ago—no. Surely it could've served up the pancake a little more quickly, maybe thrown in an alarming color like rust or black.
When I removed my hand, I saw everything I didn't care to know about, and the knowing made me responsible to it.
That is how I feel about what's been happening since I "escaped" my former life. I poked a hole in the facade and now the drywall is crumbling down.
There seems no end to it. With each thought comes another, and then another. A million things connected to a million other things.
Things like permission. My "whens" and "ifs" are based upon permission. Waiting for permission to do something. Waiting for someone or something to give me permission—to live, to try, to be. I am a full-grown adult, yet somewhere in my pipes, I've been waiting for permission to flow.
At what age do you stop needing permission? And this permission, is it a leftover from the childhood mission, to "lay low and be obedient"? Did I learn it so well then that it is running through my entire infrastructure now, unable to retire itself? Am I so busy doing what's "right" and expected that I am missing the personal journey divinely laid out for me? The one I will learn from, enjoy, and be transformed by? Am I doing what I should be doing—for me? Am I in my rightful place?
I wonder if it's been easier to wrap myself up in expectations— other people's expectations of what my life should stand for, what it should look like—than it would have been to determine these things for myself. There is a certain degree of safety in relying on other people to do that for you. If you can't fulfill it, it is much easier to blame it on the "system" or the "expectation" than it is to admit that it was you, and you alone, who set the standard for yourself—and, perhaps, who failed it. It's easier, I think, to be safe than it is to understand your own personal life's infrastructure. It's easier to "not know" than it is to labor to learn.
It's why I believe we like ceremony and absolutes in areas that may need to be more spontaneous and interactive. It takes courage to have an ongoing, interactive dialogue about these things with Christ. It takes courage to make a determination and move forward or backward based on it. It takes courage to fail and adjust.
Am I that brave?
Am I . . . am I . . . am I?
I've got to turn it around and begin here:
I am . . .
I am undone.
It's a start.
I woke peacefully today. There's something about being undone that ends up being ultimately relaxing, like the feel of a sneaker when it's untied or last night's blouse strewn over a chair—they have function, but for now, they're just resting.
From where I sit, I can see herons busy at work securing breakfast. Gliding stealthily over the Gulf, inches from the surface, they hunt. The sight of their wings fanning up and down in slow motion reminds me of the way I fly in my dreams. Effortlessly. They sound like Adiemus' Adiemus. Regal, focused. Gracefully strong.
They have their mission: to eat. Every fiber of their being is fully present in that mission, that mission which is in this very moment. They are in the moment. They are living the present. They have no thought of yesterday, no worries about tomorrow.
In Thy presence is fullness of joy . . .
One suddenly drops perpendicular and pierces the water with hardly a splash. Seconds later, he exits with a large fish in his gullet.
Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feed them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! (Luke 12:24)
The eight-year-old in me wonders if the heron feels contented, or relieved, or accomplished. I wonder if that kind of dependence on the natural "playing out" of life under God's watchful eye is innate in wild birds. Is his presence so ingrained in their lives that they can trust it like we trust a chair to hold our weight—no question, no consideration—just second nature?
The adult in me has no idea how the hunting bird feels. I haven't had that kind of focus on the present moment in a long time. I decide I want to start making it a habit.
I have read that repentance is a sudden cessation of one direction the pursuit of another. To stop, adjust, and go another way. To cease and become, all in one action. I guess you could say the heron repented of flying and went after his fish.
I will repent of rushing and go after mine.
The sea has still not reclaimed what the storm dredged up. Old beach chairs, fishing nets, and a fresh crop of weathered shells and wood still litters the sand drifts.
I collected driftwood on my walk this morning. Branches and boards weathered smooth; I gathered so many that I had to stop three times on the route back, winded from the weight of them. There's something about their starkness that I can't resist.
I laid them out on the deck for now, but once I return home—unless Martha Stewart tells me what to do with them—I suspect they will go the way of Forbes magazine. They'll sit in a pile and wait to be the focus of my free time for about three years. I'll move them around my house until I'm embarrassed about them, and eventually I'll throw them out.
Every morning for days now I've been mentally picking at the mass that is my life, trying to find the one loose thread that will untangle the ball. I am looking for—I don't even know what. I walk the shore and ask myself indulgent questions like, "Am I happy?" "Have I accomplished what I set out to do?" "Am I the person I want to be?"
"Am I doing what I was designed to do?" "Will I regret not being more adventurous with my life?"
"Or have I become too safe?" "Am I hemming myself in?" "Am I making the best use of my life?" "Does what I am doing count for anything?"
I walk and pick, wondering if these questions are truly what pulled me here. Do I have a right to ask them?
And in my wondering, I go back to my basics—the things I learned as a child, simple techniques to solve most of life's problems. I remember my older sister Kate's sure-fire way to get to the bottom of anything. She'd get a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down its center, creating two equal halves. On one side she would start with the heading "Pros" and on the other "Cons." Like Walter Cronkite, she'd interview me to the tiniest detail, writing every answer down, making sure not to repeat a concept.
I wish she were here now. I can envision her with pen and yellow legal pad in hand. "What has gone good in my life" on one side of the long sheet and "What is bugging me (not so good)" on the other. Then on the next page, "Dreams that have come true" and "Things I still would like to try."
In the end, the "formula" would yield a simple number that gave the answer to the overall health of any situation. If there were more pros then cons, then you were all right. If you had more "good" things in your life than "annoyances," you were on the right track.
But the problem is that I don't know what to write in my columns. I don't even know what questions to ask. I'm not even sure if I have the right to ask them. Somehow, they seem on the edge of selfish, yet I know they can't be entirely so.
There's that permission thing again. I decide that I do have a right to ask.