Thursday, June 10, 2010

'Til Death Do Us Part

Ten years ago today, as I slipped into my new white shoes, I already knew that I was about to take the most important walk of my life. It was not the longest walk. It wasn't the most strenuous. It wasn't even the most scenic. It was, to put it bluntly, a walk into certain death.  Before I took my first nervous step through those double doors, I knew that this short stroll would be the end of me. When it was all over, I would be somebody new. I would have a new name. I would have a new identity, a new title, a new head, a new walking companion. That brief trip from the church foyer to the end of the aisle is the walk that overthrew my existence without even causing me to break a sweat—twelve deceptively easy steps to a total transformation. With the mere exchange of hands, of words, of rings, my life as I had known it was ending. Before God and hundreds of witnesses we made those solemn vows—'til death do us part.

Death? Must we bring up that subject at such a happy occasion? As it turns out, we must. Weak vows bring weak joy. Ours is a bond that only death may sever.

Nevertheless, we had anything but death on our minds as we drove off into the sunset after the reception, and death seemed a lifetime away as we set up house in the afterglow of our honeymoon. But at some point during the weeks and months that followed, "married life" began. In the midst of our newlywed euphoria, it was a shock to wake up one morning and realize how human the two of us still were. While so much changes—truly changes—in the course of a half-hour wedding, a good deal remains unchanged. We are new people now, right? So why do all our old sins and habits and selfish desires keep resurfacing? Although I knew that we were giving up our former lives to begin our new life together, it had not fully sunk in that I would have to die to myself again and again and again in everyday life once the ceremony had ended. Giving up our lives for one another did not end at the altar.

I had never fully considered how much of me was going to carry over into this new life. And nobody told me what a self-centered little pig I had always been. I didn't like letting go of my comfortable little routines. I was irritated that my plans might have to take a back seat to his plans. I wanted to make the decisions about how we spent my paycheck. This marriage business was not as blissfully painless as I had expected, and we weren't even talking about the big decisions yet—changing jobs, having kids, moving across the country. Living with roommates had been a cakewalk compared to this. I didn't make any 'til-death-do-us-part promises to them.

And that's precisely the point. Death alone may part us. But death, paradoxically, is also required to bind us together. It's death that makes all the difference.  

Death. It's a dark little word. But over the past ten years, we've grown to see more clearly how essential to a happy marriage death truly is. Many deaths. Daily death. Death in the little things. As my children have memorized, "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Love means a willingness to die. And die, am I thankful to say, we frequently did.

But if I was tempted to think I'd really died quite enough (thank you very much) for the sake of our happy marriage, I had no idea how much more I would be required to die to myself when the kids came along. The first weeks home with a newborn were, to put it mildly, a misery. If somebody had walked into my home and offered to take my firstborn child off my hands for the rest of my life, I would gladly have handed him over (and good riddance.) My busy job with regular hours, regular paychecks, plenty of positive feedback, and a fair dose of almost-instant gratification was hardly the best preparation for the full-time care of a newborn. Everything I'd enjoyed about my previous job was missing from this new one. The hours were wretched, the pay was nil, the feedback came in the form of screaming and disgusting messes, and I felt like I had nothing whatsoever to show for my hours of thankless toil at the end of each lonely day. I cried everyday for two weeks. And almost daily for some time after that. I'd never died like this before, and I couldn't imagine ever willingly doing it again.

But I was forgetting the end of the story: death is never the final sum in God's economy. When I lay down my desires, my needs, my hopes, my habits, my life for someone else, resurrection follows. And the resurrected life is, without fail, more glorious than the life that was laid down.

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." It's so simple that even my children understand the concept after a season of backyard gardening. And yet, how many times have I buried a seed in the ground only to stand there staring at the lifeless dirt and thinking, "Well, that was a waste!" The first show of green always seems to appear at exactly the moment when I've given up checking for signs of new life.

Those women who hurried to the tomb in the early morning were not marching triumphantly with "Welcome Back" banners. They were quietly bearing spices to anoint the dead.

Resurrection is a simple truth I still don't always easily grasp. But in sacrificing so much that is valuable to me—my time, my sleep, my comfort, my career goals, my belongings—to my husband or my children (or anyone else, for that matter) I will and do receive far more than I have given. Every sacrifice is like a seed planted; in laying each one down, in every little death I die, I am declaring my belief in resurrection. In the Resurrection. And after each burial, while I may be staring blankly at what looks uncannily like mud—like dust and ashes—the eyes of faith can see the trees that will spring from that earth, their branches weighed down by the fruit they will bear. Tending a household is very much like tending a garden.

And now, as I wait for the birth of our fifth child, I am, once again, waiting for resurrection. (Is it merely coincidence that the words tomb and womb are so similar?) In times past, bearing children could literally have meant laying down my earthly life. But even today, there is no escaping the lesser sacrifices involved: health, comfort, sleep, looks, strength are given over for the sake of my children. This is my body broken, this is my blood shed for the life of another. The suffering of childbirth is a small reflection of the cross itself. But, as Christ on the cross, we endure it not for its own sake, but for the joy set before us. In laying down our lives, we take them up again, more blessed than ever before. Greater love has no man than this.

In taking that walk down the aisle ten years ago in my new white shoes, I was approaching the altar to lay down my life. But that life was raised up new and glorified. It was a death and resurrection that would begin a lifetime of deaths and resurrections. All that I gave up "before God and these witnesses" has been replaced by greater and richer gifts. Beauty for ashes. And so it has been with every death that my husband and I have died for each other, and then for our children, throughout the past ten years. And so it will be in the years to come—'til death do us part.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Jackson Pollock, Eat Your Heart Out

Update: We found something to do on a rainy day!

My parents were cleaning out the garage this afternoon, and they sent me home with a big box of cans of tempera paint. But this was not just any tempera paint. This paint belonged to my father when he was a child. I guess that makes it sort of antique. Now, maybe that means I should have doled it out in minute amounts to keep it around for another 50 years. But, as you can see, I didn't.

I have no idea whether powdered Crayola paint from the 1950s is washable, but here's hoping. My boys discovered very quickly that they didn't need to mix the paint with water if they poured it onto pre-moistened sidewalks (courtesy of a week of rain). Ingenious, wouldn't you say? Surely there must be NEA grant money available for projects such as this. All I have to do now if figure out a way to transport these colorful children from the sidewalk to the bathtub without ruining the floors or my own clothes in the process!

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