My Christian faith started evolving 25 years ago, but the kernel or promise of change was embedded in my heart since childhood. The catalyst for my transformation was the fire of grief, which cracked me open and left me exposed. Community, in the form of women’s friendship and wisdom, tended me, planted me deeply in cool soil, and gave me room to grow.
My father died when I was 18. I was in college at an Evangelical Christian school. In the following year, I attempted suicide. My family of origin slid into a state of alienation from each other. I was angry and bereft, rude and out of control. I struggled against everything and everyone.
Something essential in me prevailed and was witnessed. Other women saw it. I received compassion and insight from female professors at the college. They brought me to church, a woman-lead Episcopalian congregation. They taught me about feminism, new-to-me theologies, women’s perspectives and experiences conveyed by women authors in narratives and poetry. I learned about the entanglement of Christian religion with colonialism. I reached out and met other female students wrestling with the same ideas and stretching into their own awakenings. I prayed and played with God alongside the guidance of an eclectic and faithful spiritual director.
Among the many books I read, were Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. Those two books depict the life of Bertha, the first wife of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. He locked Bertha away as a madwoman, but before she met him she was free, roaming a lush paradise, beholden to no man and no other way of being. Ultimately, Jane Eyre tells us, Bertha burns down the house that is her prison, and her life ends in the flames.
This character captured my imagination as an icon for the divine. She was a depiction of God before and after men’s language and power structures locked the divine into dogma and authority. I started to perceive and honor the divine as the “Madwoman in the Attic.” I composed a story about hearing Her in the house made by men and sneaking up to her door.
After college, I struggled in the ways that many recent graduates do. Adjusting to the independence and responsibilities of an adult is challenging. The community that I’d known was gone, each woman to her own place and work and relationships. The books remained but a group that lived in response to those words, perspectives, and visions did not exist. There was no “there” there. I yielded to daily life. I found connection and fun with new friends. I misplaced the vitality and piercing perception of my early twenties. I harbored the icon of the Madwoman in my heart and lodged myself on the threshold of her room.
A few weeks before my thirtieth birthday I moved across the country to Seattle for graduate school. It was my fresh start, far from my family, my personal history, the church I grew up in, the politics I did not subscribe to. The Madwoman resurfaced in my graduate studies and occupied a central role in my thinking and writing. As I drafted my thesis I heard Her call. She did not reveal Herself to me in the upper room of the house, which I had hoped and expected. Rather, She bid me retrace my steps and meet Her in each person I met as I traveled back down through the house.
I had received a call. I had conviction and vocation. There was vitality and vision, again!
Within a month of receiving approval of my thesis, I married. Within a year of marrying, I gave birth to a son. Not long after that, I recognized that the marriage was over, but it was years before we separated and the divorce was finalized. Those were lean years of providing the single source of income for our family. Those were committed years of tending my mental health with therapy and medication. Those were learning years of finding spiritual community in a group of pagan women. I considered it a tentative descent from the Madwoman’s attic.
I am 45 years old. I’ve returned home to Seattle from Evolving Faith ‘19 and the Madwoman’s call is renewed boldly within me. Perhaps she is more precise, now, or perhaps my ears have cleared to hear. She says, “Perceive me in everyone you meet. Everywhere. Do not be bound by walls or ways or words. Burn down the house.”
I don’t believe that God is crazy. Nor do I believe that God is locked in conventional theology, dominant culture, or approved religious practices. Burning down the house does not threaten God, just like composing other narratives or engaging new-to-me theologies or participating in previously unfamiliar communities doesn’t threaten God. Burning down the house might set me free to meet God, newly; to honor God, newly; to meet and honor you.
There’s still no “there” there, for me. I don’t have a local community that I can simply join for resonance and support, teaching and service. I miss that. I understand, now, the best parts of a house of worship. Even so, I proceed. I am making it up as I go, one step at a time, down from Her attic and into the company of Her people, who are everywhere.
In November 2016, my bestie G was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer. We were relieved, in a way, to have a diagnosis for the disturbing symptoms that had been disrupting her mind, relationships, and daily life for months. But... cancer.
In an effort to cheer myself, and cast some hope into the future, I purchased some decorative papers to make a journal for her. But the days were so full of worry, fatigue, and challenge after challenge... my energy and inspiration pulled away. The book didn't get made.
Two years later, G is cancer-free! She is restored to her full and healthy self. Her family, work, and other relationships, all share in the gifts of her renewal. We are all relieved. We are reconnected. The tenuous thread of life, its preciousness, G's preciousness, made obvious by disease, remains close in our hearts and minds, even as we resume the usual and mundane of our day-to-day.
Finally, I am making her book. A token of love and celebration. For her birthday.
This is what 40-ish years of friendship looks like!
But what do I see? In my vanity, I see me. I see pudgy fingers, too full face-chin-neck, an oversize sweatshirt stretched over the too round belly. I see fluffy white old lady hair. This is not the me I want to see. This me doesn't look like... me.
Little N picks on me mercilessly about my current weight and size. He calls me "fatty" and criticizes my too big butt. His father, L, didn't talk to me exactly that way, but he, too, made it clear to me that I didn't look the way that he wanted me to. According to him, and to Little N, I used to be beautiful. I must complete an ambitious series of changes in a short amount of time in order to be beautiful... and worthy, and not teased or criticized, and good enough, again.
Usually I can resist the harsh criticism of my appearance. I can say back that I'm working on my health and that human bodies change with age. I can tell myself that the ideal they are comparing me to is a societal norm and unrealistic. But then I see a photo of myself and I'm startled and sad to see what I've become.
I don't like how I look.
I don't need to look young. Right? I need to look like me. So what does "me" look like at 40+? What do I want my physical appearance to convey to my partner, my friends, my critics, and everyone else about myself?
I want to exude qualities like: capable, competent, strong, smart, creative, present, attentive, real, genuine. Translating these things into cultural or societal parlance is tricky. Because so often they are only seen as young and thin. I'm not getting younger. I may get thinner but I doubt I'll ever be thin again. So how and where do I, as me, show up?
There's another piece to this besides how I look. I'm 43 and a half. My father was 44 when he died. So I've set myself a goal of practicing good health habits in such as way that they're my baseline lifestyle by 44. Roughly six months to adopt all the good information I've learned from the naturopath and therapist and make it mine. Make it me. Six months to transform my body inside and out.
It took years for my body to take on its current appearance. Years of struggling with an unsupportive spouse. Working dead end jobs. Wrestling with my mental health. Comforting myself with food. Flailing in the absence of the skills and information necessary to make my body healthy.
So I don't expect six months to return me to a lithe 120-ish pound size four with a lustrous bob and stylish clothes. I do expect to improve my bloodwork for sugars and cholesterol. Shed a few pounds. Drop a size (or two...). Decrease my windedness. Increase my stamina. Live a more active lifestyle. And generally feel more like me.
My hope is that when I feel more like me, then I'll look more like me. A makeover from the inside out. Where the inside is more important and urgent, and the outside is granted patience and grace. From me, to me.
Ms. G and I have known each other since we were little girls back in Boston. This photo was taken 11 years ago on my wedding day (of my doomed marriage...). Since then we've had children, I've gotten divorced, she beat a rare blood cancer.... It's been months since we had a good long visit and Sunday night she came over and we caught up on everything. (sigh)
I'm grateful for my dear friend who has seen me at my best and worst, ordinary and ornery. I'm grateful for time with her on a given evening and the time she's been in my life. I am grateful.
Out of the Attic
This blog started in 2006
on Blogger as
Out of the Attic.
I began posting here in April 2014. Please visit the original site for the rest of the story on topics like: