Feb 242010

Repentance is a fancy word used often in Christian circles. I don’t use fancy religious words, because I don’t think they explain themselves well. Also, fancy language tends make in people feel in-er and out people feel out-er, and I don’t think that’s how words are best used. I think words are best used to describe specific feelings and ideas and hearts as clearly as possible, to make the speaker and the listener, or the writer and the reader, feel less alone and more hopeful.

I used to be annoyed and threatened by the word repentance, until I figured out what it really meant for me. Repentance is the magical moment when a sliver of light finds its way into a place of darkness in my heart, and I’m able to see clearly how my jerkiness is keeping me from peace and joy in a specific area of my life.

Maya Angelou recently shined a light into the dark part of my heart where I keep my relationship with my mother in law.

In her latest book, Letter to my Daughter, Angelou writes about a dinner party she attended during her first trip to Senegal at the home of a very rich and sophisticated friend. As Angelou explored the decadent home and observed the elegant guests, she noted that they were all carefully stepping around the beautiful, expensive rug in the middle of the floor to avoid dirtying it. She became appalled that her hostess would be so elitist and shallow as to value her things above her guests’ comfort and convenience. Angelou decided to act. She stepped onto the rug and walked back and forth several times. The guests, who were “bunched up on the sidelines, smiled at her weakly.” Angelou smiled back, proud that through her boldness they might also be “encouraged to admit that rugs were to be walked on.”

She then joined the guests on the sidelines, her head held high. She had done what was right.

A few minutes later, the servants came out and quietly removed the rug from the floor, replacing it with an equally expensive one. They then proceeded to place the plates, glasses, wine and bowls of rice and chicken carefully upon the new rug. Angelou’s hostess clapped her hands and announced joyfully that they were serving Senegal’s most beloved meal “for our Sister from America, Maya Angelou.” She then asked all the guests to sit. Angelou’s face burned.

She had dragged her dirty shoes all over her gracious hostess’ tablecloth.

Angelou concluded her story with this:

“In an unfamiliar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions or lessons. The epitome of sophistication is utter simplicity.”

When Craig and I first got married, I experienced his family as an unfamiliar culture. They operated so differently than mine. Communication was different, celebrations were different, meal times were different, expressions of love were different. I found this to be unacceptable. To me, different meant wrong. I became, as I always do, personally offended and perpetually suspicious. In a million subtle and not-so subtle ways, I tried to change my in-laws. I suggested new traditions, I offered advice, I found fault with their personalities and marriage and their relationships with their children and grandchildren. I insisted that Craig and I pull away from them, based on the unforgivable sin that they were different than my family.

I dragged my dirty shoes all over my mother-in-law’s tablecloth. The one she’d spent decades carefully weaving.

My mother-in-law handled all of this gracefully, in retrospect. Tragically, retrospectively is the only way I can ever see things clearly. I imagine my refusal to accept her family hurt her deeply, but she gave Craig and me time and space to work it out on our own. She never pushed us. She never meddled. She bowed out, for a long while. It must have been a hard decision, one I pray I never have to make with my own son. I pray that my future daughter-in-law will be wiser and kinder than I from the start. She probably won’t be, though. She’ll probably be just like me. She’ll want to create her own weaving pattern, which might mean that she’ll need to turn her back on mine for a while.

As a young mother and wife, establishing a pattern that suited me was difficult. Learning to weave my own tablecloth required all of my attention. I needed time and space to establish my own rhythm and style, and perhaps my rejection of the old patterns was necessary to the discovery of my own.

True repentance is messy and it takes time, but that sliver of light is worth waiting for. And when it’s real, it sticks. Thank you, Ms. Angelou, for leading me to repentance.

I’m sorry, Nana.

You know I’m not big on advice, mainly because most days I learn what an idiot I was yesterday. This is hopeful, because it means I’m generally moving in the right direction. But it also makes it risky to put anything definitive in writing today. Even so, I feel safe offering this.

Mothers-in-law, enjoy watching your daughter in law learn to weave. When she makes a mistake, when she drops a stitch, allow her to notice it on her own. Tell her often how beautiful her weaving is. Be kinder than necessary. Bring her some tea. Be simple. Be sophisticated.

And daughters-in-law, notice the beauty of the rug that your mother-in-law spent a lifetime weaving. Remember that mostly, her pattern is firmly established, no need to suggest improvements. Be kinder than necessary, being mindful that the piece of art it took her a lifetime to weave, her masterpiece, she gave to you, to keep you warm at night. One day you’ll give your masterpiece away, too. Be simple. Be sophisticated.

“In an unfamiliar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions or lessons. The epitome of sophistication is utter simplicity.”

Feb 252010
Monkees…Ask and you shall receive. A guest post from Our Krystal….

Following Jake

I know that many Monkees are parents. A lot of you have beautiful young children and a few of us have teenagers and young adults. Being a mom has been the best lesson I’ve ever had in “I can do hard things.” It’s not all episodes of Barney around here, folks, now is it? I want to share the story of just one of my five masterpieces. I could share the story of Kendall who is just plain perfect, but instead I want to share the one about Jake. Nobody really believes all that perfection crap anyway.

My first son, Jacob Aaron Courtney, was the most beautiful baby ever born. He had a golden beautiful glow around him and he was perfect. That is how I felt about him for a long, long time. Jake was good and kind and smart and funny. He stayed that way until around his twelfth birthday. By twelve, he was still all of those things but he was also learning that when I said “you may not turn your hair blue” that came with the post script “until I leave this house to go to work, then knock yourself out.”

By age thirteen, Jake was suspended from school for three days for um…inciting riot (starting a food fight). He was also suspended for cursing. The principal said that the teacher said Jake told another student to “shut the hell up.” Jake said that was not, in fact, the truth. He’d actually told the entire class to shut the hell up. They were keeping him from hearing the teacher. He burned a table with a light bulb in shop class, got picked up by the cops for skateboarding in an apartment complex. Etc.

I was a single mom at this point in his life and up to this point I have to admit that I secretly laughed inside when he did things like this because I was such a goody-two-shoes that I never ever got sent to the principal’s office in school. I liked the rebel in my son. I still punished him for his crimes, but probably half-heartedly.

By high school, I was re-thinking my admiration. Jake became such a liar and a sneak that I had to quickly reel him in. In ninth grade he met his girlfriend, Megan. He loved that girl so much that he’d do anything to be with her. He also had found the nicest group of criminal minded friends to hang around with. They weren’t bad, they just dressed that way (riiiight). Well, as fast as he was learning ways to get around my rules, I was finding new ways to thwart his evil plans. I sat him down with a written list of rules. I explained that I really wanted nothing more in life than to be good to him and treat him nicely, but there were things he had to do if he wanted to continue to live in my house. The rules were simple. Get good grades, don’t lie, no porn, no sex, no drugs, no alcohol. That list might as well have said “please tear me up and ignore me.” The next step was to invade every area of his life. I had his locker searched at school (and the lockers of every one of his friends), my husband and I recorded his phone calls, logged his internet conversations, tracked his browser history and checked up on him when he went somewhere with friends by actually following him. I drug tested him regularly and randomly (he always passed, amazingly enough). This might seem extreme. It was extreme. But, you see, I had to. I love that boy. I love him with all of my heart and what he was doing could potentially get him killed. For example, if his girlfriend got pregnant…I’d kill him. This tracking and stalking did not come easy for us. Jake was sucking so much energy from our family. I was determined to not allow him to destroy us and he was determined to self-destruct.

By the summer before his senior year in high school, Jake was barely in the position to graduate the next year. He was still with the girlfriend and the chips on our shoulders were craters. I caught him lying once again and I reminded him that he could live by my rules or get out.

He said “ok, I’m going to live with dad.” I died. How could the baby I raised choose to live with his dad rather than live by my reasonable rules?

So I said “pack your stuff.”And off he went to his dad’s house. The second he left I cried and cried. And then our family became quieter and happier and we missed him but we were able to breathe.

He was there for almost 3 months before asking to come back home. I allowed it, but with the understanding that this is not a revolving door…this is his last trip back home. I reminded him that the rules hadn’t changed and he said that was ok. He missed our big noisy family and he wanted to be at home. It was a wonderful homecoming, for about two months. Things were back to normal quickly though. Only this time my husband and I were not ready to return to a life of following Jake. Instead, what we did was the complete opposite.

Jake’s new non-rules were these : You’re free. You come and go as you please but the house doors are locked at 10pm. You’re an adult. You pay for whatever you want. You want the internet? Buy yourself a computer and you can pay us to use our internet. You want money? Get a job. You need to go somewhere? Here’s the name and number of a local cab company. You may watch our TV as long as you don’t mind watching what we’re watching. Your drug tests will be regular and random, just as before. We still love you, but we don’t believe a word you say and now you have no reason to lie…try speaking the truth or not speaking at all.

He was FURIOUS with this new set of non-rules. But we weren’t. We stopped following, listening and prying. He stopped sneaking out, lying to us, hiding things. He started working, bought a car, paid his way in life, got fabulous grades in his senior year and he graduated. Jake’s now in college and he works and he’s good and kind and funny and handsome oh and he is still with that same girlfriend, Megan, whom we have all grown to love now that she’s not hidden away from us. He also became the son I knew he would be, that first day when he was born.

Raising Jake was the hardest thing I’ve done in life so far. The rewards for raising him the way we did have been so wide-spread. His younger siblings watched and learned through him and if they forget, Jake quickly reminds them that while it might not seem fair, they should just man-up and behave because the alternate route is no way to go.

I really believe that raising our kids is something we have to do our own way. I hope my younger kids decide to teach me gentler lessons in life. Whatever they bring, I’m ready!

Jake and Megan

Feb 262010
Gettin’ Her Ozella Up

I’ve decided to continue writing about my mother’s side of the family. Their eccentric ways have given me so much material, it would be criminal not to share more with you.

My grandmother’s name was Ozella Maud Spencer Cox. Family members and close friends called her Zell. If you think that just might be the most awful, countrified name you’ve ever heard, check out her sisters’ names: Mattie Lou, Annie Mae, Edna Dora, and Fanny Leona. Ozella married my grandfather, Willie Mack (Mack to friends and family), when she was 13 because it was a way for her to get out of the cotton fields. Can a girl get more country than that?

My grandmother Zell was a tiger! She was bossy, aggressive, and loud, especially when she was drunk. And she was drunk a lot of the time. They lived in a tiny Texas town where everyone knew everybody else’s business, and my mother was constantly embarrassed by her parents’ alcoholism. Ozella and Mack always fought while drinking, and Ozella often won. They had their fair share of vicious verbal arguments, but they also had knock-down, drag-out fist fights. Zell was a strong, large-framed woman, and poor old Mack weighed about a buck thirty dripping wet, so the fights were pretty fair. One time, she stabbed him. According to my mother’s account of the story, Ozella “gutted Daddy pretty good,” but Mattie Lou managed to “tie his stomach up” until the doctor arrived. I’m not entirely sure what that stomach tying procedure entailed, but it sounds gruesome. Another time, Ozella shot him in the leg. Don’t feel too sorry for old Willie Mack, though. He got his licks in. On weekend mornings, Ozella could sometimes be found sitting at the kitchen table holding a raw fleshy steak to a fresh shiner.

One of my favorite Ozella stories is one in which she loses her temper. Truth be told, the vast majority of Ozella stories involve her losing her temper, but this is a goodun.

My mother was the child of drunkards, but she was a well-dressed child of drunkards. Zell like to drink, and she also liked to shop. (My kind of gal.) So my mother wore stylish clothing while attending the podunk town’s little elementary school. One day, she went to school decked out in a brand new skirt that was flared and fancy. There was a large sitting rock on the schoolhouse play yard, and she and her friends used to sit on it during recess. That particular day, my mother sat on the rock and spread out her new skirt. She was proud of it and wanted to show it off to her classmates. She was holding her baton, one of her favorite toys, which she used to bring to school and play with during recess. Her friend Joanna came over to sit on the rock with her and accidentally sat on the edge of the skirt. When the bell rang to tell the children it was time to line up and go back inside, my mom jumped up off the rock before Joanna, and her new skirt ripped all the way to the top. My mother was devastated that her new skirt was ripped, and she was also embarrassed. The rip was so large that her undies were showing. My mom didn’t line up with the other kids. The teacher on playground duty, Mrs. Smith, walked over and told her through clenched teeth to GET IN LINE. My mom was carrying her baton while trying to holding her skirt together, and she refused. As punishment for not following directions, Mrs. Smith grabbed the baton out of my mother’s hand and wacked her on the back of the legs with it several times. Hard. My mom was crying and left school right then and there. Her legs were already black and blue by the time she walked home.

Oh, Lord, Ozella hit the ceiling when my mother came home in tears and told her what happened. She flew into a rage. She grabbed the baton out of my mother’s hand and they both got in the car immediately. Together, they drove to the school and marched into the principal’s office. Ozella stormed in with baton in hand and loudly explained to the principal, Mr. Jones, how Mrs. Smith hit her daughter with a baton and left marks, so she was on her way down the hall to show that teacher what it felt like to be beaten black and blue with a baton.

Now, here is the sad part of the story. The principal was able to talk Ozella out of beating the crap out of the teacher that left bruises on her daughter. It took some smooth talking, but Mr. Jones managed to do it. The abusive teacher didn’t return the following year, so she probably got what she deserved in the end. But still…I sorta wish old Zell had left a few bruises on the back of that teacher’s legs.

I think the reason I love this story so much is because it shows my grandmother fiercely defending her child, my mother. Most of my mom’s childhood memories are ones in which her own mother is the one doing harm. In this story, Ozella comes to my mother’s defense. In spite of her outrageous flaws, Ozella loved my mother and wanted to protect her.

Now, those Monkees who know me in real life are probably busy listing all the similarities between me and my grandmother. There are a lot of them, I know. When I get my Ozella up, bad things usually happen. But I haven’t stabbed or shot anyone. Yet.


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