Friday, March 25, 2016

An Easter Story

It's Good Friday, one of the most sacred days on the Christian calendar, but when I was a child I couldn't understand why it was named thus.  Why would a day when a holy man was crucified be called "good"?  Where was the logic in that?  Over time I came to understand that Jesus lived an incredible example by His incomparable courage in the Garden of Gethsemane, His calm forbearance of the betrayal of His friends, and the ultimate acceptance of His death, all of which were gateways to His subsequent resurrection.
As an adult, I've reframed Holy Week as a time not only for honoring events from the distant past, but also bringing to light what I need to learn in the present.  Now I fully accept that any rebirth in my life can only come through enduring something that's been uncommonly agonizing, accepting something I can't change, surrendering to the unknown, and ultimately trusting that even though I might lie in darkness for a while, Light always comes afterward.
When I was fourteen my life was in shambles.  Even though I was a straight "A" student, sang in musicals, participated in church events, and put on a brave face in public, I was also struggling with anorexia nervosa, chronic anxiety, and a budding addiction to over-the-counter stimulants that kept me awake at all hours so I wouldn't have to endure repetitious night terrors.   When I was in school, I could channel my nervous energy:  I helped my teachers after hours.  I rehearsed for plays and choir concerts.  I edited the yearbook  well after dark so I wouldn't have to go home and face another dinner that ultimately went to waste on my plate.
By the time summer rolled around, I was frantic.   Now where could I hide?  Most of the time, when I wasn't riding my bike or running at the park, I cocooned myself in the cool, dark basement, reading encyclopedias and paperback novels.  I hid my body in baggy clothes.  Hid my food in napkins, then deposited it into the trash when my mother wasn't looking.  Hid myself as best as I could, all the while knowing that I would eventually be found out, that Mom would yell at me for being too thin, that Dad would be angry about something I did or didn't do.  That no matter what, there would always be something wrong with me.
When we went on our annual beach vacation that year, it was a relief to spend most of the day outdoors, body surfing, building sandcastles, and crabbing in the lagoons around Kiawah Island.  But at night, I still couldn't sleep, couldn't stop thinking about how my older sister always managed to find a holiday boyfriend while no one seemed to notice I existed.  I couldn't stop dreaming about slithering snakes or mummies chasing me from one end of the Art Museum to the other. I couldn't stop wondering if anyone could really understand how it felt to be trapped in a body I hated.
On Friday, the last day of our vacation, I left the villa after dinner, telling my mother I was going for a run up the beach.  She didn't try to stop me, but her disconcerting look was code for don't you want to be with your family?  "We're going to play cards tonight, " she said.  "Don't you want to join us?"
"Maybe," I shrugged.
But I didn't. 
I'd rather run as fast as my legs could carry me to the south end of the beach where the inlet curled around the island and high tide often came in with pods of dolphin.  So I laced up my shoes and stepped out into the muggy southern air, both happy to be by myself and desperate for something I couldn't quite explain.  After running a mile up the coast, I started crying.  Tears fell down my face, blurring my vision, but I didn't care.  By the time I reached the edge of the island, I was physically, mentally, and emotionally spent.
I'm so tired of living like this, I thought, peeling off my shoes and tossing them near a sand dune.  As I walked in the sea foam that ebbed and flowed along the shoreline, I continued my silent conversation.   I can't live like this anymore.  I don't know where I belong.  I don't know who I am.  So God, please send me a sign that You hear me.  Please show me I'm not alone.  Please...I'm begging you.
For a while I stood and watched the sky, looking for a rainbow or a sundog or maybe even some God rays shimmering through the clouds.  But the sky was clear, the sun was sinking, and time was running out.  Looking back on that moment, I know I was desperate enough to walk into the ocean and let it claim me.  But I was also hopeful enough that my silent prayer would be answered, so I walked to the edge of the inlet and sat down, dipping my feet into the cool current.   For a long time I sat in silence, watching the waves, looking for dolphin, waiting for a sign.  There was nothing to buoy my faith.
Until I looked down. 
In the time I had been sitting there, the tide had gently washed away the sand and right next to me emerged a large, lovely conch shell.  I picked it up, then rinsed it in the cool water beneath my feet.  Turning it over to see if it was home for a little sea creature, I found that it housed a completely different kind of miracle.  For there, plain as day, embedded in a lush, lovely background of crimson and ginger was a bright, white cross.  I cradled the shell in my hands while I watched the horizon as the sun set behind the dunes.  The sky turned peachy pink, mirroring the interior of the precious gift I had just been given, mirroring a place that had miraculously opened up inside of me.
Then I walked back to the villa and into the rest of my childhood.
I kept the shell for almost two decades.  It sat on my bedside table all through high school.  It traveled back and forth to Miami through four years of college.  It was a harbinger of courage when I moved out on my own at twenty-one and rented a little apartment in Troy, Ohio where I felt like an adult for the first time in my life.  It was a talisman I held onto eight years later when I finally began to unravel the unhealthy motivations beneath my workaholism, eating disorders, and inability to have a meaningful relationship.  The shell more than buoyed my faith;  it was a miracle that kept me mindful of the fact that I was never alone, never truly hopeless, never unloved.
When I turned thirty I knew that I no longer needed the shell to remind me of who I am or where I belong, so I gave it to one of my first grade students who was traveling to the Carolinas with his family that summer.  I asked Andy to throw the shell back into the sea, to return it to the place where it had found me sitting on the shoreline, lost and alone.  I knew that someday someone else would need to find it, just as I had all those years ago. 

Earlier this week I was running, and out of the blue, tears started to fall.  It's not been the easiest month and I've done a lot of soul searching about many things.  Why I seem to live a cyclical life.  Why I often make the same choices, albeit for different reasons.  I've had to surrender a lot of what I thought I wanted in order to accept what is, and I don't much like it.  But who does?  We've all got our proverbial crosses to bear and this year, I've discovered that I'm finally ready to put mine down, to allow a part of myself to die to the dreams I once had so that I can be reborn into a something new. 
I just made the difficult decision to delete a novel I started writing three years ago, a fifth book in a series, for it reminds me too much of a past I've already healed, and I no longer want to write about characters who have long since been put to rest.   I've been watchful for what will fill this void in my life, this place that was once occupied by drama and unrest and most recently by long nights lying awake in bed, waiting for a sign of things to come.
I didn't have to wait long.
A few days ago, I spent a glorious afternoon in my garden.  The trellises were anchored, the flower pots set on the porch to welcome the warm, spring rain.  The backyard swing was put back together so it can be ready for long, lazy summer afternoons, and the raised bed has been prepped for planting.  While I was raking some leaves out of one the beds, I found something that had gone missing a couple of years ago, a stone I had found on the beach in Big Sur on a gorgeous Friday in September, a speckled gray rock with a lovely white cross in the middle which has become an anchor in my garden and a reminder of quiet miracles
With every yoga class I teach, I'm reminded that even our human bodies create a cross, the most ancient of holy symbols.  If we hold out our arms, they become the horizontal line; the space from the crown of our head to our feet, the vertical.  Where they intersect is in the heart, the place where everything begins and ends, the place of healing and love and grace.
And if we allow it, the place of infinite peace.