I live on a fairly busy street, busy enough that the first major thing we did with the house after we bought it was to install a fence along the front lawn. We’re also across the street from a cemetery and a tiny patch of conservation land that borders it. In a densely populated area, this open space invites some rather unwholesome behavior. I’ve never found a hypodermic needle in front of my house, but there are countless cigarette butts all the time, and last year I found an aluminum can converted into a pipe not used for tobacco. It’s the plastic bottles that are the worst, though—half of them are filled with snuff spit, a disgusting brown liquid I throw into the trash so fast I can’t even think about recycling them. This makes me wonder—if you’re going to the trouble to be so sanitary that you need to spit in a plastic bottle, perhaps you might take the next step that if you don’t want it near you, I don’t want it near me, or my kid waiting for the bus.
Last week, though, clearing out the junk as I always have to before I cut the grass, there was something else. Embedded into the grass closest to the fence was one wooden bead rosary. My mom is really into Anglican rosaries—she makes beautiful ones with agate and turquoise, almost too nice to pray with. Whether from the weather or from repeated handling, this one has been around for a while, and the crucifix that usually hangs at the front knot had fallen off. It’s also missing a whole set of beads on one side—Wikipedia tells me this is one “decade” to be used for the recitation of ten Hail Marys—this thing has been through a lot. I tried to wash it but the thread started to disintegrate so it’s now hanging it on my rear view mirror. It makes me feel very religious.
After finding it, I began to have all kinds of romantic thoughts about how symbolic it all is, so Christ like, so precious. Jesus is looking for me all the time—all the time!—even in my suburban lawn. And isn’t it wonderful. Sure, God is looking for all of us, but is God looking for me in the crappy part of the grass that always gets covered in trash? Really? With the Jesus torn off? Is this a metaphor for me losing stuff in the grass, or is it about my own discomfort with the person of Jesus? I could travel far on this.
What I hadn’t done with the rosary was actually pray with it. Actual prayer has a way of cutting through the sentimental stuff—it’s easy to parrot the more attractive parts of the Christian story, but actually believing it can be another thing. So I prayed. And the trash on the lawn came into view, and it wasn’t what I thought it was.
Usually, the internal trash on the lawn—the really gross stuff that is left behind after someone has had a big party in the woods, the snuff bottles and the beer cans—usually I think of that stuff as falling into the big political categories. Income inequality. My too-big carbon footprint, inactivity in the face of the racist prison-industrial complex, the indulgence of buying Chilean strawberries in the dead of winter. Blame, shame, and the intractability of injustice that, further stuck, leads me to get another beer from the fridge and watch some more TV.
Lately, though, and if I’m honest for the last number of years, something else has also been gnawing at me, which just feels lame and indulgent. The other trash in the grass for me is just my tired, solipsistic self-doubt, verging on loathing occasionally, but mostly just a generalized insecurity. It’s not just me, either—a while ago I had a conversation with a few female colleagues about an Atlantic Monthly article about the “Confidence Gap” between men and women—about the epidemic of doubt that many, many women struggle with, particularly in their professional lives.
This is backed up by data—how much less willing we are to apply for higher positions, about how anxious and uncertain we are about our gifts and skills. Men will apply for a position if they meet 60% of the qualifications—women won’t unless they’re sure they’re at 100%, and even then we apologize about our perceived shortcomings. I heard a story on NPR the other day, too, about why women don’t run for office—both democrats and republicans, we just don’t think we’re ready.
I certainly have my own share of self-doubt—the degree of panic I feel at pressing “publish” on a blog that has had its readership peak at 340 (not exactly a global phenomenon, saraiwrites)—speaks to my deep sense of uncertainty, of wondering whether there is anything worth saying, and whether I have the words for it in the first place. It’s vulnerability, anxiety at being judged, of fearing to be “in the arena” as shame researcher Brene Brown puts it, quoting Theodore Roosevelt.
Here’s another example.
We have a pickup truck. I find myself needing to rationalize it to myself and others—it’s so we can easily go camping, as we have a tent trailer that is rather difficult for the station wagon (despite having hauled it for 10,000 miles on our 2013 trip—see “Santa Fe, Flat Tire” for more info on that). So once in a while it falls to me to drive it, if I have something big to haul or if the snow is just too awful. When I drive the truck, I become a timid first-time driver. I worry I’m taking up too much space. I clutch the steering wheel with both hands, as though my white knuckles will widen the road. When my husband drives the truck—most every day, since his work is only two miles away and it’s a lot less gas than if I took it for my commute, it looks like it’s an expansive expression of power and traditional masculinity. But my name is on the loan, too, so the truck is just as much mine.
It’s not that he doesn’t worry about hitting other cars, it’s not that he doesn’t worry about his performance on any given task, but it’s that apprehension isn’t permitted to take center stage. The apprehension is a feeling alongside other feelings. For me, unless I absolutely have to do it, the anxiety looms larger than life—larger than the skills I had to begin with.
Which brings me back to the rosary in the grass. If God is really going to be looking for me everywhere, which is part of the whole Christian story, that work of loving and reconciling, the incarnation of God in Jesus. And it’s in that very moment of doubt, of hearing the high pitched voice in my head that has nothing new to say, that makes me crawl back under the covers, which is exactly when stuff shows up in my path and says, “Here! look at this! Something interesting just happened. Put on your big girl pants.”
So much of this comes back to vulnerability. The 91 year old with a broken ankle who talked about how many of her friends have died. My son, self-conscious and not wanting me to hug him in view of the school bus. My bishop, diagnosed with brain cancer a year ago. There is something about the vulnerability of in all of these that just feels holy. Like standing near a fire, you have to pay attention, you want to come closer. I’m looking for the places that my vulnerability demands not just my anxiety, but also my respect—to be gentle with myself, not to fall into the harsh (and somehow easier) silencing judgment.