Misplaced Longing: What Should We Be Striving For?

Hello, my name is Jennifer, and I am a constant striver.  If there were a 12-step program for people who strive too much, I would certainly join.  In fact, I would want to make it a better program, fix anything that was wrong with it, and if there wasn’t anything wrong with it – by gum – I would find something, and fix it pronto.

I’ve often read that children subjected to instability from a young age will often grow up to be strivers and fixers.  My parents divorced when I was five, and from that time, I have been trying to get them back together.   Not literally – at least not for long – but inside me, in an attempt to mend my brokenness.   In the sudden whirlwind of changing homes and changing schools and absent parents (I was sent to live with my grandparents for a time) I felt I was at the center of a raging storm, and must have somehow caused it.  But nothing I did made it any better.  I got angry and scared and cried, but that didn’t change anything.

Eventually, I settled into a new life with my mom and sister, and regained some stability.  Yet, I retained the feeling that things could go wrong at any moment, and no one around me could prevent it.  So I learned to make things right myself, to make disaster prevention my lifelong project.

It began with striving for perfect grades in school.  If I got less than an A, I was very upset with myself.  And I had to keep the house clean when Mom didn’t feel well enough to do it.  If everything was tidy and in order, chaos could be kept at bay.   Mom – while loving and protective – was always the wildcard.  Sometimes she was happy, and sometimes miserable.    So I had to learn to keep an even keel, to be steady and strong for the three of us.

One safety net was my dreams for the future: for a time when I would be an adult and could have a different life, a more ordered life of my own where I was in charge and everything made sense.  Another was the many books that I read to learn how to live, how to behave, how to escape when the world was too scary.  I could be the heroine of a novel, a completely different person; I could try on different roles until one felt complete and real.

I have carried these defenses into adulthood, the belief that with enough striving I could make any situation better.  It has served me well in some instances, but hampered me in others.

It has made me want to shape life in a way that it can’t be shaped, to organize my life into submission.   It has made me believe, on some level, that because my life was painful and chaotic in childhood that God and the universe owe me an ever-improving future, with all the things I missed out on growing up.

But I know that’s not how it works; that no one gets to create their own life.  Sure, we do to a certain degree, but life always throws us curve balls.  The unexpected presents itself regularly; it is part of the plan.

Many wise people have said that all we can control is our attitude.  I don’t really care for this reality, because I want to control all events as well.  Somehow I got the idea that I know what is best for me: that I need certain friends, or I need to live in a certain house, or have a certain job.  That God wants me to have the full, brimming life of “normalcy” that I have been trying to recover since I was five.   But what God really wants, I believe, is for me to love him, and he wants my spirit to grow, and he wants me to let go of everything but him.

And he has his own mysterious ways of making these things happen.  Maybe he put me in an unsettled family so that I would learn – eventually – that he is my only safety net.

Maybe he takes things away from us, and turns our lives upside down, so that we will learn that he is our one true reality.  We are the living, breathing images of God walking upon the earth; each of us a sign of his love and beauty.

Nothing else matters.  Sure, it’s good to have goals and hopes and dreams.  And, I believe, ultimately, that God will help us make this earthly world a reflection of heavenly virtue and beauty.  But I believe that our souls are the main thing: the only real thing.  And he will do whatever it takes to wake us up, to remind us again and again to strive for the only thing that matters.

Our hopes may be dashed; we may not get what we think we need; but in the ruins of the life we wanted, we can see a glimpse of the life we need.  A life where we look in the eyes of others and see God’s loving spark within.  Where we look at the rivers that flow and the sun and moon overhead and we know that God is father and mother and sister and brother.  And we know him by knowing each other and loving each other.  We are each an eternal reflection of his loving, heavenly light.



My Mother’s Voice

When I was a child, there was nothing more beautiful to me than my mother’s voice.  She was a classically-trained soprano, and when she sang, my heart rejoiced. She had a lovely speaking voice too, full and expressive. Both as a mother and as a school teacher, she spoke with kindness, always eager to encourage and inspire.  Whether talking to her class of second graders or at home with me and my sister, her words were gentle and reassuring.  They have accompanied me through my life, prompting joy and easing sorrow.

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding.  (Baha’u’llah)

Mom died nine years ago, at the age of 72, from a sudden illness.  As I grieved, my greatest desire was to hear her voice one more time; to hear her talk about her abrupt departure from this life (had it surprised her?) and about her newfound joy in her celestial surroundings, and to hear her say – though, of course, I knew – how much she adored my sister and me and would always be with us. Although we had talked about many of these things during her life, and I knew how she might answer, my broken heart needed to feel her presence in a tangible, visceral way.

I found her voice — the sound I longed to hear — in a cassette of Irish folk songs she had recorded several years before, and I listened to it again and again, relishing her warm and playful performance.   And I found her face — the sight I longed to see  — in an old driver’s license that my sister discovered among Mom’s things after the funeral.  Mom was rarely photographed as an adult, and this photo — taken in late middle age — captured her radiant essence and gentle humor.  My sister seized upon this find, enlarged and framed the photo — which I had never seen — and rushed the gift into my hands.  When I opened the package, Mom returned to me in all her familiar sweetness, like a warm breath upon my face, reassuring me that everything would be OK.   It is, dear sister, the best gift I’ve ever received.

As the years passed, I slowly learned to let Mom go.  And the more freely I have relinquished her physical presence, the more profoundly she has returned to me in every part of my life.  When I talk to both friend and stranger, I sometimes hear her voice emerge from inside me.  There’s a similarity in our tone,  but more importantly, I feel the resonance of her heart within me, helping me to be the kind of person I want to be.   Mom had a way of making people feel respected; when she talked to anyone — adult or child — there was no one else in her world.  More and more, when I interact with others, I find myself intent on their well-being.   I want them to know that the simple kindness between us — the recognition of our shared humanity — is a gift that I treasure.

My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting.  (Baha’u’llah)

My mom’s love wove the fabric of my heart, every stitch a luminous memory.  Like the day we were driving in the country and she sang Ave Maria to me over and over again — laughing with each repetition — because it was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard and I cried “again, please, again!”  And the day she gave me My Friend Flicka –her favorite children’s novel — because she knew I was often lonely and wanted me to know the companionship of books.   And the way she loved animals and nature and helped us to protect every small creature — every injured bird, chipmunk, or turtle — that crossed our doorstep and wean it back to health.

Through Mom’s influence, music has long been my daily companion and helps me to appreciate the lyrical quality of life: words and melodies that move the heart; lights and shadows that dance in our eyes; feelings and desires that we all share — no matter what we look like or where we come from.

Mom taught my sister and me to look for the beauty in every soul.  As a Baha’i, she believed that God made humanity to live in love and unity.  She said that we all come from the same earth and grow toward the same sun, and that we are destined to live as one family — the fruits of one tree.  She taught us that people must learn to look into each other’s eyes and see this basic unity — across every border and barrier — until every child can grow up free of fear, alive in a world of love.

This is Mom’s voice in my heart — a song that never ends.

The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship. He Who is the Daystar of Truth beareth Me witness!  So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.   (Baha’u’llah)


Elvis After Midnight: Contemplating Our Obsessions

When I was a child, I had an early bedtime.  And once I was asleep, almost nothing could wake me up.

So decades later, it amazes me to recall a time in my life, around the age of 10, when my mom would regularly wake me from a sound sleep, often after midnight, to let me watch old Elvis movies with her. These aired on network TV, long before the advent of VCRs or on-demand.

Who initiated this ritual?  I don’t quite remember.  Did I plead with her to let me watch? Did she offer because she knew that I was as crazy about Elvis as she was? I can’t recall the negotiations, but I know that we must have reached an understanding that some things are simply more important than sleep.

A couple of years later, I had other idols, people closer to my own age. Teenage singers like Donny Osmond and Tony DeFranco, whose fan club posters covered my bedroom walls. What did I want from these boys who were strangers to me?  Why was I obsessed with them?

I remember lying in bed and yearning for something beyond romance, something I couldn’t name. I wanted to be taken out of myself, transported to a place where I was special and deeply cared for. And somehow these famous boys who made pretty music embodied this for me, as they did for many.

It wasn’t that I didn’t already feel cared for, that I didn’t feel loved. But life often hurt, life was often disappointing.  And I imagined being whisked away to a place where this wasn’t so.  For me, this yearning sometimes melded with something mystical, something almost reverent. I longed to unite with some one or some thing, to be part of something bigger than myself.

Isn’t this the feeling from which devotion of every sort is born? It starts when we are very young and we attach ourselves to many objects, some more deserving than others. Later, if we are lucky and persistent, we find an object worthy of these feelings.  A true mate, a passionate cause, a divine love that knows no bounds.  It is the spark that ignites our souls.

Teen Age Idol

Writing is Magic

When I was young, I didn’t know what to say.   I had feelings I couldn’t express, thoughts that seemed unformed.

When I needed to connect, I retreated into books. Spent entire afternoons on the couch.  Transfixed by Scarlett’s vanity.  Heartbroken when Rhett walked out.  Pulled into a world where words brought everything to life.

Eventually, I learned to speak more confidently.  I talked my mom’s ear off on car trips.  Sure that I knew things of which she had never heard.  She encouraged me, even when she might have preferred some peaceful silence.

In high school, I began to write.  Sometimes the teacher would read my essays aloud and classmates would look at me differently.  How does she do that?

Writing is enchantment.  Writing is magic.  And I was hooked.

As a young adult I sent a few stories to magazines.  Sometimes writing through the night.  Eventually a form letter would come back. Or nothing.  It wasn’t what they were looking for.

In journals I explained myself to myself.  Let it all out.  And I talked to those closest to me.  But I longed for more expression.  More connection.

Then the internet arrived, and I could suddenly write a long letter to a friend, and she would have it instantly.  But who had time to answer letters in such a busy world?   Most preferred the telephone.

Then blogging came along.  I didn’t understand it.  Wasn’t it for sharing baby photos and family vacations?  Didn’t sound right for me.

Finally, on a long weekend, I gave it a try.  I wrote a short post about my Baha’i Faith and my troubling introversion, responding to a WordPress daily writing prompt.

In an instant, it was online for others to see.  I felt hopeful.  I received a few “likes” and comments and encouragement to write more.  I saw what others were writing about and wanted to follow them.

That day, the world became connected for me in a new way.  And I am hooked.

I Want To Be the Little Girl Next Door

When I was 7 years old, I was in awe of the little girl who lived next door.  Her name was Darlene, and she was perfect.  Perfect face, perfect little nose, perfect composure in every deed.  It was like she had been 7 years old for a very long time, and knew exactly how to do it.  The teachers loved her, the kids loved her.  I loved her.

She invited me to sleep-overs at her house a few times, and one morning I woke up before her and looked at her while she slept.  Even unconscious, she was composed, her lovely arms framing her serene face, awaiting a glorious day.

I wondered what it would be like to be her.  To inhabit such a life, always knowing what to do, what to say.  I imagined it and felt a giddy freedom.  I would take a break from my confused self, my awkward stumbles, and proceed knowingly, confidently.

Sometimes, after we were together, I noticed I walked like her a little, even spoke like her.  I giggled.  It was like being on TV, playing a part where I knew all the lines.  It felt just right.

But I knew it wasn’t me.  As I approached my house, I became myself again, and that was OK too. I anticipated the familiar surroundings.  Mom making a good meal, even when she was really tired.  My adorable little sister, always ready to play.  And I felt lucky because no one else got to be me in that moment:  walk into this particular place and be with these particular people.  It was all mine, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else.

Yet I still desired to slip into other lives sometimes.  What would it be like to be that girl who could really dance?  Such beauty in motion.   Or the one with the perfect family, whose mom and dad came to all the school plays.   If I were like them, would I feel less broken, would I be happy all the time?

I never answered these question in any conscious way, but there were moments that gave me hope.   Like looking up from a book and seeing the sun shine though the trees, and feeling for an instant that it had come through me as well, filling all my cracks with light.


A Brand New You, Effective Tomorrow

My Own Little Bed

When I was 5 years old, my parents divorced and I was sent to live with my grandparents. I was not happy about this. My grandparents lived in a rambling house with many strange, drafty rooms and I, small and lonely, did not belong there.

I wanted my parents, my mom’s kind eyes and warm hand on my cheek; my dad lifting me on his shoulders, calling me Jenny.

But they lived apart now, and I was in this drafty old house until everything was sorted out, and then, I was told, I would live with my mom in a new place. I did not want a new place. I wanted things the way they were before.

But there were cats in this house; two Siamese cats. I liked cats, and sometimes they would let me pet them if I sat very still.

And I liked the little bed that my grandparents put in their own big room just for me. Their bed was huge and usually empty. They always came to bed after me and got up much earlier than me.

But my bed was small and cozy with lots of soft blankets, and about the same size as me. Sometimes as I snuggled in it at night, I could hear a freight train rumble past on the hill behind the house. I wondered where it was going. I was glad I was in my safe bed, and not out there in the cold night. As I drifted off, the house nestled around me, and I felt loved.

Childhood Revisited