When planning our honeymoon, the very first thing that Troy and I did was to lower our expectations. It became obvious pretty quickly that my fiancé’s meager income, as a full-time employee of Barnes and Noble, combined with my miniscule hourly wage as a part-time publicity assistant for a small book publisher, was not going to fund a backpacking tour of Europe or a week long stint in Hawaii at a luxury beach resort. “We have friends willing to rent you their cabin in the Smoky Mountains,” offered my dad. “That’ll be fine,” we decided ready to move on to other more pressing matters regarding silverware patterns and the thread count of our future bed sheets.
It wasn’t until the big day got closer, however, that Troy and I both became truly excited about our upcoming trek to North Carolina. With all the stress and wedding preparations behind us, it would feel awesome, we thought, to finally relax and soak in the peacefulness of quiet and nature. What I anticipated, throughout the entire twelve hour drive up there, was to find the winding roads, the dense forests, the isolation, dreamy. I envisioned us reading side-by-side on a porch swing, taking long evening walks and eating by candlelight.
Hot and exhausted, we finally, around dusk, arrived at the cabin - that picture perfect, cedar scented retreat from all of the hustle and bustle of Chicago. Leaving our luggage and empty diet coke cans in the air-conditionless Honda Civic parked out front, we ran eagerly inside for a self-guided tour. It was lovely - quaintly rustic and obviously well taken care of. Out back was a deck with patio furniture. On the walls were family photographs and framed needlepoint samplers. We were alone, far away from traffic, the sound of sirens, other people. I mean, really…no other people were around - no neighbors, no tourists, not a soul within earshot. It was just Troy and me, Troy and me by ourselves, and the sun was going down rapidly.
Wait! Sh-h-h! Did you hear something? Something like a grizzly bear, maybe? Oh how silly! How ridiculous! “Honey, be a dear and go out there in the dark to get our suitcase.” My brand new spouse, bless his heart, took a big deep breath, bolted bravely out the door, grabbed our stuff from the trunk and was back inside in seconds. Should we rent Deliverance tonight? He asked facetiously. And then we laughed, but just a little bit because to an urban couple secluded in the woods that sort of a joke is only kind of amusing.
In my fantasies about that once-in-a-lifetime vacation, our first get away as husband and wife, we weren’t terrified by all the creepy nocturnal sounds we could hear but not see or interpret, there wasn’t a vicious swarm of bees hovering menacingly around my head on our hike by the waterfall, there wasn’t a three page long check-list of chores to complete in order to get the cabin ready for it’s next renters, we didn’t run out of things to talk about and we certainly didn’t become so stir-crazy and city starved that we drove all the way to Atlanta where my parents were staying for a conference and spend the night with them in their hotel room. It’s remarkable, isn’t it? How efficiently reality can rub the luster off our idealism. What you hope for isn’t always or, let’s face it, isn’t usually what you get.
If there is one thing that has dawned on me (slowly but surely) about family life, it’s that everything, every situation and experience, should be swallowed with a big old, sobering grain of salt. And though it sounds pessimistic, I can assure you that such pragmatism has saved me on countless occasions from throwing the proverbial baby out with the whining, moody, spit-up-ey, peed through, “gotta leave early because it’s nap time” bath water. By assuming all will not go smoothly, I am much less often discouraged and much more likely to appreciate the little victories woven into the over all frenzied existence and pace of being a raiser of children. If you make it out of any errand, vacation or excursion alive, for example, and still speaking to one another, without having to write a check for something that got broken, or to publicly apologize to store employees, other parents or (hypothetically speaking of course) a roomful of patrons at a Bob Evans restaurant for a sticky, syrupy mess your kids made or a high pitched outburst, you can consider that outing a grand success and be thoroughly pleased with your accomplishment.
I believe it is a positive thing that Troy and I have become calloused, by way of multiple blows to our vulnerable agendas, to the biting annoyance of “let-down.” My children, however, …well, they don’t really get it yet. “How could God let this happen!?” My son, Elijah, once wailed when our anticipated outing to a McDonalds Play Land was foiled by a dead car battery. I can see them writhing internally when unforeseen circumstances bar their pathway to that one item or event they just know will trump all prior gifts, parties, play dates, etc. in terms of coolness and I can empathize with them to a point but tire quickly of the theatrical, sackcloth and ashes reaction we typically see around here when disappointment rears its mean and unjust head. Inevitably, I pull out the old, “Life isn’t fair, get used to it,” speech, which they never take to heart just as I never processed it when my own mother performed it two decades ago. Patience and long-suffering are only learned, are only earned, the hard way.
It’s no secret that I struggled awhile to apply this recently acquired, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit" approach to Orthodoxy, specifically in regards to our attendance of services. I had to spend approximately 288 Sunday morning liturgies shushing, rocking, nursing, redirecting, wincing, warning and biting my cheek in frustration before I finally accepted that all of those distractions were, for now, necessary for my long term maturation. I’d been a feel good junkie for as long as I could remember and rearing children in the Church did a bang up job of teaching me to separate emotions from discipleship, that Christ’s commandment to, “Follow me,” meant, “obey,” out of love, not chase relentlessly after soul soothing, heart warming validations.
In the dryness of just showing up each week, of exposing my family to the ancient prayers and hymnography of Orthodox Christianity without any guarantee that I, myself, would be able to concentrate or reflect on the mystery of the sacraments, I passed through a more shallow and romanticized belief and into the rigors of unconditional and lasting devotion. It wasn’t until I stopped expecting and depending on immediate spiritual gratification that I developed a true and rooted confidence in God’s perfect (and often maddening) mercy. It seemed, initially, like motherhood was going to have a stalemating effect on my faith but in all actuality, it instilled courage, groundedness, flexibility, and an unflappability imperative for staying focused in the midst of life’s turbulent ups and downs, where before there was only skittishness and doubt.
Every once in awhile (BAM! out of nowhere), I get completely bowled over by an overwhelming sense of Christ’s actual presence among us, within us, working through us – like during a pre-sanctified liturgy when I stood tearily in the communion line behind my mother watching her receive the Eucharist or when chills passed down my spine during the Holy Friday reading of the Ezekial passage about the dry bones (“Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.” Ezekial 37:13).
I attended our local book club last week made up mostly of women from my parish and right there in my parent’s living room could hardly breath so thick and heavy was the sensation of paradise mingling with earth in the honesty and purity of our discussion about life and death, loss and forgiveness. The fact that these satisfying gems of enlightenment are not always tied to my ascetical efforts or attempts at conjuring up a geyser-like gush of giddiness for all things Orthodox, affirms that God’s grace is not limited by or contingent on my own failures and successes.
Eleven years ago, I envisioned myself being healed by our conversion and by my giving birth to our first child. In my fantasies about those significant milestones, I’d be freed instantaneously from selfishness, jealousy and insecurity, as one held captive by chains has the potential to be liberated by but a turn of a key. Never did I factor in a prolonged period of intensive training designed to build up my endurance. I’ve had to relinquish my skewed presumptions about what piety looks like, sounds like and yes, what it feels like, which is often like passing through a hot and stagnant desert dotted with cool and refreshing streams.
It is a hard, demanding, sometimes grueling journey, but one we travel hand-in-hand, carrying each other, encouraging one another, motivated always by the footprints of those who walked before us and stayed the course. My salvation is all wrapped up in this conviction that now is when we toil in preparation for the judgment and resurrection to come. I didn’t get what I hoped for (Hallelujah!); I got what I needed, and how rewarding, fulfilling and nourishing is becoming more Christ-like and durable, through the wisdom and compassion of God and His Church, than you ever in your wildest dreams thought possible.