“Are you happy Mama?” my daughter Lucy asked me, thumbing her fingers in a circular motion. “Are you happy?” I stare at her face, so much bigger than it was last year, her eyes bigger, nose longer, and her just being four. It is my birthday. I pause, try to collect myself, finally smile and say yes.
We compare hands, read palms. I show her where her life line is. It curves round and big like a harvest moon. It breaks off in three places. She furrows her brow. I tell her that doesn’t mean that her life will be short, rather she’ll have different paths to choose. My fate line is dug deep into my own skin, creasing it. The book we’ve been reading says that means I will not escape my own fate.
I read her the book, The Giving Tree. I read about how the tree gives up its life for the boy it loves, and gives away its limbs, branches, trunk, everything but its stump all for the boy, and he is happy doing so. It makes the boy happy. I wonder…what will I leave behind?
There aren’t many things I remember from my early childhood. My very first memory was of me as toddler, lying at the bottom of a row boat in the lake on a family vacation and letting the waves wash me to sleep. My mom later told me this was the only way they could get me to sleep. I didn’t like being away from home.
Another early memory I have is from Sunday school. I was maybe 5 or 6 years old and we had just gotten done singing Kumbaya at vacation bible school. I, along with my three sisters, was at a Chinese Gospel Church because it was a free program, and our parents couldn’t afford to send us to the bible school of the Catholic Church we attended. I remember the Pastor telling all of us children that God had called us. That He had named us His own. And that we all had a special purpose. But what really got my 5-year-old attention was when he told us that we were loved – no matter what – and that we were all brothers and sisters in Christ, and that we were to treat each other accordingly. But that one phrase that he said, that we would be loved “no matter what” rolled over and over again in my mind. No matter what? Now I had two sisters at the time, one older and one younger, and one would be born much later, but no matter what? My older sister didn’t like it when I took her toys and my younger sister didn’t want to share. No matter what? It would take me many years, approximately thirty more years, to come back to this thought, and realize that it is true. God does love me, and all of His children, no matter what.
When I was little we went to church and Sunday school and I liked it. Sunday school especially. I liked the CCD classes and what they taught. But I have to say I didn’t love going to church. As a child there were so many other things to do. I’d look out of the stained glass windows, the light beckoning me to go outside and play.
As I grew older, I did not learn about the limitless love or forgiveness of God. Those days of Kumbaya were over and I was now taught that God punishes. That God is watching you (and that was always said in a menacing voice). And that God does not forgive. That God turns his back on you. I never heard that Jesus had died on the cross for my sins or that I was loved, unconditionally. It was a strict religion I was taught, and I couldn’t see where I fit.
My faith wasn’t growing or being nurtured. But I went, because that’s what we did. At 16 I got confirmed and after that my dad told all of us girls that it was our choice now, whether we went to church or not, we were adults in the eyes of the Catholic Church. So…well, you may have guessed it. I stopped going to church altogether. I hung out with my friends. I got into trouble. Lots of it.
I got into so much trouble that I ended up pregnant and having an abortion. I was kicked out of my family’s house. I was….lost. Instead of turning to God, I turned my back on Him. I was done with Him. I was only 17 years old.
My life was difficult after that. I went from one bad relationship to the next. I didn’t have any sense of self. I was abused, both by myself as an anorexic and bulimic teenager, by friends, and by those I thought loved me. I was date raped once and didn’t tell anyone. I held down four jobs and attended a business college, hoping to one day get a good paying job so I could pay the rent. I looked at my other friends, away at college, paid for by their parents, partying, having fun. I think I was forced to grow up too fast. And I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had done. It was a mistake, but I couldn’t reverse that tragic decision. I was the black sheep of the family. Well, me and my Uncle. The murderer and the gay man. What a pair we made. Who would want us? Would God want us? Love us “no matter what?” I certainly didn’t think so.
Why do I tell you all of this? So that you can know where I came from. I was in a very dark place. A place without a sliver of hope. I have always been a writer, so I took my pain out on the page. I wrote a poem called “Choice” about the abortion and a returning phrase in that poem was “God is not in this room.”
But you know what? God was in that room. Since I’ve let love into my life, let God into my life, I’ve discovered that God has been everywhere with me. Everywhere – even in darkness. In Psalm 149 11-12 it states that:
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me, even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
But I didn’t know that then. Fast-forward ten years and I’m married now. No kids yet, I am still scarred from my experience as a teenager and it has run its course through my body like a poison. Like a cancer. I felt I didn’t deserve kids. Why would God bless me with a child, when I made a decision to take that child’s life? No, it wasn’t going to be for me. I had gotten married about four years prior and since getting married in one year I gained 100 lbs. I’ll repeat that. One Hundred Pounds. I was depressed. I didn’t want to be touched; I didn’t feel I deserved love. I realized then that I didn’t love myself.
I recalled myself as a pre-teen. I was an awkward, clumsy, overweight girl with glasses too big for her face. Now I am still most of those things, but my glasses now fit my face.
One of the things that stands out to me from that time was my bathing suit. It was red. Red with white polka dots. Where my stomach protruded the white dots grew large as globes. That was my first one piece bathing suit. I had grown past the point of cutesy two piece bikinis. I had grown curves in the years between twelve and thirteen. Curves that made my once stick-thin body look more like a candlestick. It was tight, but Mom said it should be, that a bathing suit needed to be tight so it wouldn’t fall off, but I knew. I knew she had gotten me a size smaller to try to contain my fat. Everywhere I went that summer the pooch followed me. That’s what girls said it was called, a pooch, even though I thought a pooch was a dog. Even at our summer home, away from the taunts of the school kids, the pooch was there. I would see it in the shadow as I walked down to the beach, I felt it when I tried to get into the inner tube I had gotten into the year before with no problem. Even sunning on the deck the pooch felt heavy, with the hot sun penetrating that red suit. I retreated to the cabin, read a few comic books, then went into the bathroom and looked face on at the pooch. It was radiant. I thought I saw beams around it, probably just from the sun in my eye. I remembered a picture of the Virgin Mary that was in my bible I had gotten at my first communion. She had beams around her, golden beams that radiated light. I looked down at my belly and wondered if perhaps this was my gift from God, like the Virgin Mary perhaps I was holding the world. I cradled it and wondered.
My parents were wonderful; they accepted me as I was. They loved me unconditionally. The problem was, I looked in other places for love. Places not of God. Had I only looked to the Creator at that point in my life, my life would have been different. But then God perhaps couldn’t use me as he will now, with my past, my tarnished history. Perhaps I can help someone who was like me. Perhaps I can help my daughters take a different route.
A sin hangs over you like a cloud. Just like a lie never goes away, it’s always weaving its web into other parts of your life; a sin does the same thing. A sin left silent, un-confessed kind of just buries itself in you and emanates through other parts of your body, outward, until you are wearing a mask, for me it was my “fat suit”…to be my shield against any more hurts. I told you it was dark here. I found no reason to get up in the morning other than to go to work so I could pay the bills.
Some things were good. I graduated Business College and had a good paying job. I was also going to DePaul University for my Bachelor’s degree. I had started writing again, something I had given up for the past 10 years. Then, one day something happened. I got a call from my professor asking me if I’d like to go on the class trip to England to study the cathedrals. She had thought of me for this trip, although we had never spoken about it. She needed more people to go and thought I would be a good resource. We had always worked well together, but I had no interest in the cathedrals. However, England itself sounded pretty cool. She told me what the cost would be and I said I wouldn’t be able to afford that. The trip was to leave in about two weeks and I couldn’t save up that much by then. She said I qualified for a scholarship and she would see if I could get that awarded to me to help cover my expenses. I told her to go ahead and put in the paperwork, but I wasn’t holding my breath. In the meantime she sent me the itinerary.
It was a quote by Saint Augustine that was printed at the top of the itinerary finally convinced me that it was “fate” for me to go (later I would see that it wasn’t “fate”, but God Himself):
“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” ~ Saint Augustine
The next day I got a call that I was awarded the scholarship. I applied for my passport and had to expedite it to get it. But I got it and I was all set. I was going to England. I had never been overseas before, and especially not with 12 other strangers. This wasn’t the type of thing I “did”. But I went.
As I walked into the first cathedral on the trip, I held my breath. It was beautiful. The gothic architecture was gorgeous, yes. The fact that this building had been standing there for hundreds of years. But there was something else. I felt something here. I started to feel God again.
Throughout the trip as we headed toward Scotland we visited many beautiful cathedrals. To describe them won’t do them any justice. I saw many amazing sights. But the stained glass window at York, which was made up of many pieces of white, grey and black glass, really humbled me. I started to see that through these dark shades, through the black, through the murk, the light did shine through. And that perhaps there was hope for me. I felt God, and that was the start of it. I began slowly letting Him seep in, and perhaps it was the Holy Spirit working through me, I think it was…but the world started looking different to me.
One of the themes that really interested me during that trip, and still does, and is ever-present in all writing I do, is the juxtaposition between darkness and light. At the beginning of our journey, at 3:50 a.m. Chicago time, 9:50 London time, as our plane was descending, sun burst into the plane, shining like a spotlight over each row, slowly moving across each person, asking – “Who are you?”
So the sun lit our way from before our plane even landed. Although there have been obstacles along the way, we have overcome them. There are many quotes about this concept, both biblical and otherwise. Some you may have heard of, and some of my favorites, are:
“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” ~ Charles Austin Beard
“All the darkness in the world can’t extinguish the light from a single candle.” ~ Francis of Assisi
“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those
who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” Matthew 4:16
“When Jesus spoke again to the people, He said,
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness,
but will have the light of life.” John 8:12
Here is a poem that I wrote in England exploring the theme of light and dark. This was written while viewing a stained glass window that was composed entirely of grey and black glass.
The Chapter House in York
Windows enclose me on all sides,
making darkness impossible.
Grays and blacks turn to light as
stars explode within me.
I walk out of the chapter house
and curl up into my soul.
The drafty corners become warm
with heat and a candle burns
deep within this house of mine.
Breathing is automatic,
becomes a chant, a hum.
I close my eyes to shut out the goodness of the light in order to hear the guide.
Light illuminates the windows,
pinwheels of color –
greens, purples and yellow
divided by red.
A priest’s words echo and
vibrate throughout this house
Be not afraid.
The chapel bell rings,
echoes like a fine glass of wine,
thin and round and bold
shouts come back,
Even footsteps echo here,
always returning back to their
source, after touring
through the air, sharing their
crispness with us all.
Grays glow through the stained glass
showing even shadows can shine
At the end of our trip we traveled to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, a place where some say Christianity was born. In 645AD Saint Aidan came from Iona and chose to found his monastery on Lindisfarne. The Christian message flourished here and spread throughout the world. Twice each day the tide sweeps in from the North Sea and covers the road. So if you miss the last tide of the day, you are stuck on the island. It was quite an experience, we stayed overnight on the island and it was my favorite part of the trip. Looking out at the North Sea it just was amazing. I went on a hike alone toward the sea and looked out on the vast body of water. Out of nowhere a horse came up to me, very quietly and gently. It extended its head out to me and I touched its nose. It is difficult to describe that feeling, but I felt God’s presence in the appearance of that horse.
I think that during my trip to England is when I stopped living day after day, doing the same old thing. This shock out of my normal life helped bring about the start of seeing. As we visited every sacred site, one cathedral after another, my eyes opened wider and I started to see the things that really matter. As each day passed, each step I took brought me closer to God.
I was amazed that God had brought me so far just to find Him again. He had planned this out, had made it come together so perfectly, so that my eyes would be opened. This trip I began to see as a pilgrimage to seek God. I wasn’t there anymore for the English pubs, although the beer was good. Or for the historic sites like Stonehenge. I was there for the light. I was there to seek God. Going on a pilgrimage is said to erase sins, renew your soul and transform you. It can be a rebirth. I had hoped for that, somewhere deep down, when agreeing to go overseas. I had hoped, but didn’t think it would really happen. Not for me. But I see now that it did. It’s so much easier looking back and seeing all the places God has brought you to and through than when you are in the moment.
I think that going on such a pilgrimage requires having an open mind and heart. This transforms us, and we come alive. I’m not sure that we all need to travel to obtain this awareness, but that was the way it was for me. In the book “Sacred Mountains” the author, Edwin Bernbaum says that seeing a sacred site, like a cathedral, has the power to transform lives. He goes on to say that our encounter with the sacred frees us from our usual conceptions. By awakening a sense of the sacred, this makes us aware of a deeper reality, connects us to the world and makes our lives more real.
This trip to England is where I first began to feel like a child of God.
…I am one with this building
of stone and glass.
One of God’s children.
I left England a new person. But like anything else in life, nothing is a “ta da!” overnight transformation. Things like this take time. Love takes time. I slowly started being the person I was meant to be all along. I started seeking God, instead of Him seeking me (I have this picture in my mind of God trying to work out the whole trip to England; he must have been pulling at His hair for how stubborn I was!). I began reading His Word. I was hungry for it. Thirsty for the balm of His words.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.”
~ Marcel Proust
This is what was happening for me. I was given new eyes to see with. I didn’t know yet that there was healing to be had for me. That would come later.
I confessed all of my sins to God, and I felt so much lighter. I started praying to Him, and thanking Him for all he’s done for me. All he’s given me, despite all I’ve done, and the sins I have committed. I started reading Christian literature and one book that truly transformed my thoughts is “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren. I’ve realized that I always had the heart of a Christian. When we lived in the city I would fill up brown lunch sacks with food and nourishment for homeless people I saw on the street. I would stop my car as I was getting on the highway and hand them a bag, I usually had them waiting in my car for such an occasion. I would put inspirational quotes in the bags. I would pick up people walking home in the cold after a concert and drive them home. I looked out for others, and I thought this just made me a “good person”, but now after learning more about Jesus, I realized that by helping others I was doing the same for Jesus. I was showing that unconditional love to others. I’m not saying this to brag about my compassion, what I am trying to say is that I now know the importance of these acts of kindness. For whatever I do for one, I do for Jesus.
“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25:45
I came to the conclusion that I want to follow Him, and that I have the heart of Christ within me and that was coming out. Now that I know so much more, my life does have more purpose. I was never doing these things out of obligation, but my heart wanted to do it, but still there was something missing. Now I know what it was. It was God in my life. And now I’ve let Him in.
God blessed me and my husband with two wonderful girls after that trip to England. Each time I knew it was a gift from God, I could feel that He had entrusted me with two of His own and that they would do great things, too. Having my daughters also brought me closer to God. How can you look at a delicate newborn baby and not see God within her? I felt the urge even more then to become closer to God, I knew I had been given an amazing gift.
About a year later, after having prayed diligently to find a church where I felt I would belong, I met a friend through Freecycle – she is also a writer and I was giving away some writing books. She happened to work at a church. I thought – ok God, what are the odds? So I offered to bring the books by and went to a church service. It took me some time, and some exploring at other churches, but I finally found a church to call home.
Then in November, 2008, I gave my life to Christ. After that my life really started to change. I started to pray for the will to not overeat.
As I said I had been depressed and to fill that void, that “God-shaped hole”, I would eat and eat and eat until I was numb. I was good at it, too. Well, now that I was made new, I needed to change that. I knew now that to overeat was to almost have another God, to worship something else other than Him. Food was my idol.
So I started praying before I ate for the wisdom to know when I was full. After I ate I prayed for the strength to not take another bite. I started reading my Bible when I felt the urge to eat, and I started nourishing myself on the Word instead of on food. And I began to lose weight. I prayed that God help make me healthier. I now had two girls to care for and I wanted to be around to see them grow up. At over 300 lbs., I wasn’t going to live long at the rate I was going. But God was working in my life, and I slowly starting losing more weight. I had the urge to exercise, and so I began doing that, too.
Then, and I know this is a “God thing”, because I hated running and would not run unless I was chased, He put it on my heart to want to start running. As well as stubborn, I can be competitive, so I took on the challenge, and started training to run a 5k. My training was such that it started out slow; only running for 30 seconds at a time, and bringing that up to eventually run for 40 minutes straight. Every time before I ran I would pray for the strength. A mantra ran through my head, “God’s got this” I would say as I ran. I let it all go and I was able to not only finish my training, but I’ve ran 5 5ks so far this year since. I never thought I would be a runner. But God has brought me to some amazing places. He has also delivered me from some pretty terrible, dark places. And I can’t wait to see where He’s going to lead me next.
I’ve only spoken some of the most life-changing events God has brought me through. There are so many more. I love the image of the tree of life, because that is how I view my journey in faith. My faith is like a tree trunk, and the foundation, the soil, is God and His love which feeds me. Then each branch of the tree is another area where my life has been transformed and twisted into the right shape. One branch is my marriage, once headed for divorce, now married 12 years this March. Another branch is my children. Another branch is my heart. And it goes on and on, and the tree grows taller and taller with each year. God isn’t done with me yet. I’ve got a lot more transforming to do. I see this as a life journey. And I’m always on the path to Him.
I see now that my past served a purpose. It gave me an understanding I wouldn’t have had before. It made me empathetic to others. It also brought me closer to God, searching for Him as I searched for healing and relief. But my past is no longer, it is gone. However, it can be redeemed through Jesus Christ. I have found healing, I have found a balm.
I learned that God doesn’t want us all walking around with these bruises from the past, covering up our wounds and trying to heal ourselves. It doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t want us to walk around with past sins already forgiven. When your past starts to torment you, bring it to the Lord. Never go back to where you’ve been. Always move forward.
Our wounds are like Jesus’ wounds. They make us understand, make us have compassion for those who may have walked in our shoes, or are struggling with something that we struggled with. Our wounds will not bruise us, but will make us more into the person that Jesus wants us to be.
I used to think I would be scarred forever and I lived in the light of my past. It’s only been recently, through my faith journey, that I am learning to live in the light of hope and faith, and learning to trust God’s will for me. As a Christian, I am not to look to this world and its rules – they no longer apply to me. I live with Christ in me. I will live for Him.
I’ve been remade. This is one of the many promises of God. I am more than the past mistakes I’ve made, I am more than that terrible decision to end a life. I’ve gone through the past almost 20 years living with that pain, regret, and letting it hold me back. I have been dead myself, in a sense. Do I deserve this sentence? Some of you may think so. Some of you may hate me. I have hated myself many times. But….He forgives me. He has cleansed me of this awful sin. And He knew that this would happen, and it has made me who I am today. And I will be redeemed.
I’ve also discovered that God has always been with me, even before I was born. He did call me, and named me His own. He was there even in the darkness, in that dark clinic room when I was 17. He was there in that rowboat on the lake when I was a baby, being gently rocked to sleep. He was present in the wind that rocked the waves that lulled me to sleep. He was there in the waves. He is always there. I like to think that the waves have washed me clean. And I am thankful.
God was with me then. And he will be with you, too.
I’m telling you this because all bad works for good, and if I can change your route, the path you might take, then my job is done, God’s job is done.
I have a wonderful life now. I have a loving husband of twelve years, two beautiful, healthy daughters, I’ve achieved an 85 lb. weight loss so far, I have a supportive family and network of friends. What more could I want?
Just like George Bailey from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” I sometimes get thinking that I deserve a better, bigger, more Wonderful life than I already have. The same good old stuff starts to look old after a while. Sometimes, if left to my own devices, I can find so many things to complain and worry about. I think all of us can. We don’t like our boss, our job, our car, our life. If only I were just 20 pounds lighter, 4 sizes smaller, or $100,000 richer. If I were out of debt or made more money. If my hair were longer, if my eyes were brighter..if, if, if, if, if. But what about what IS? Even in the rain, God made the day perfect. Why not just enjoy it.
Matthew 6:26 says: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”
Just like the diamond stones in my ring, sometimes life just needs a little polishing. I am getting out my cloth, counting my blessings, and thanking the Lord for all He has given me.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:15 ESV)
Faith is what drives me to live full, and what helps me to not give up. I can achieve my dreams, I have faith that I can and I will take that unknown step into the darkness and know that it will all turn out right.
And perhaps I will even be taught to FLY.
Today I am hopeful that I can continue down this path and make the right choices. I know that God is watching over me and helping guide me. I know that with a lot of faith, and a little bit of hope, I can reach my goals. If you are where I was, please know that there IS hope for you too. There is enough hope to go around.
And yes, Lucy. I am happy.