I recently read Alan Brennert’s novel Moloka’i and enjoyed it thoroughly. It is set around the turn of the century in the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. To control the leprosy epidemic, everyone found infected with the bacteria, was sent to live in isolation there. For many patients, that isolation lasted their whole lives.  Historical fiction like this is my favorite genre, because it appeals to me on two levels. The reader in me gets lost in the story, while the scholar in me absorbs all sorts of new historical facts and trivia to bore my friends and family with later. In my nerdy opinion, historical fiction is the perfect combination of fact and fiction, research and escapism, a fabulous two-for-one deal.

However, reading the novel reminded me of an experience I had a couple months back. It made me think about historical fiction in a more personal way, because it wasn’t in a book anymore. At a cocktail party in my neighborhood, I saw all too clearly how our own personal historical fictions influence the stories we tell ourselves each and every day. While the fiction is probably harmless most of the time, it may actually cost us something valuable in the long run: our ability to see ourselves as we are today.

As Tim and I walked up to our hosts’ front door, he reminded me that I was his wingman. I wasn’t allowed to go mingle, if he didn’t find a buddy to talk to. He doesn’t usually worry about that happening, but this wasn’t our normal social circle, so I acquiesced. For my part, I straightened my skirt and checked my make up one more time. I was as ready as I would ever be. I knew we were both responding to some personal insecurities, but figured our secrets were safe with each other.

So imagine my surprise when our hostess asked us to put on a nametag, complete with three adjectives that described us in high school. It was, after all, a fundraiser for a youth organization. Oh boy, I thought, but honesty was probably the best policy here as anywhere else. Tim jotted down Lone Wolf, figuring that pretty much said it all, while I scrawled geek, klutz and swimmer under my name. We looked at what the other had written and shrugged. We’ve been together for so long and shared so many stories from our childhoods that we knew exactly where the adjectives had come from and accepted them as some approximation of the truth. I knew that after several moves, Tim had only a few friends at any given time growing up. He frequently ate alone in the cafeteria, and spent many of his afternoons, kicking a soccer ball at the backyard fence, scoring goal after game-winning goal for an audience of one. He knew how awkward I had felt as a child, skinny and freckle-faced, more at home in water than on land. He’d counted the scars I still have on my body that testify to the face-first, flat out falls I took on the black top, off bikes and into thorn bushes. He has also tried to heal the scars on my psyche from years of feeling inferior to so many of my peers.

So we stuck on the wounded egos of our teenage selves and started to mingle. I couldn’t believe all the casual friends and acquaintances we met, who were apparently all popular, smart, beautiful and athletic. Honestly, the ratio of class presidents, cheerleaders and homecoming queens to the rest of us was a little ridiculous. But what was even funnier was how they responded to our nametags. They thought we were kidding, or at least really exaggerating who we used to be. I assured them we were not. They thought we were “one of them,” and until that night, I had thought so too.

Not a single person at that party would have pegged Tim for a lone wolf. At this point in his life, my husband is known as “Coach Tim” to a large swathe of the under-15 population in our community and their parents. He’s spent years coaching our kids’ sports teams, from softball to soccer. He is sarcastic and funny, hangs out with the guys, but prefers to chat with the ladies. And as for me, I haven’t tripped over my own feet (much) since my second child was born, and I have become a fairly self-confident and capable woman, athletic even, since discovering Pilates.

The night was fun, but I didn’t love reliving my past. I put those words down, thinking they were harmless, that I had moved beyond those labels and memories, that they were “history” and I know Tim did the same. But when we reflected on the last things we had done before we walked into that party, we saw the evidence that our past is hardly history at all. He was making sure that he wouldn’t be the lone wolf, and by adding another layer of lipstick, I was re-arming myself against the superficial judgments of other girls. Despite twenty years of love and success, our historical fiction is still a palpable presence in our lives.

Does anyone ever get over who they once were, and thought they might always be? Is it worse for the class presidents, valedictorians, or homecoming queens, who perhaps never lived up to the promise of those early days? I don’t know the answer to that. My story runs the other way and they aren’t exactly the kind of questions you’d ask a casual acquaintance over a glass of wine at a cocktail party.

By the end of the novel Moloka’i, a cure for leprosy is found and the patients are free to move back into society, leaving their “shameful” past behind them. But virtually no matter where they go, they face prejudice, scorn and outright discrimination. There are no jobs for them, no places to live, and frequently no family willing to love them. They are technically “free,” but they are bound by their past and the evidence is written all over their bodies and souls. A few of them find the freedom they seek, but many of them return to the leper colony, Kalaupapa, where they are known and loved for who and what they are.

As I read this book, I was taken back to that cocktail party and the way our histories can continue to haunt us. Thankfully, for the most part, I am free. I laughed with everyone at what my nametag said. I am no longer that geeky girl, who lacks the self-confidence, courage and grace to be fully herself. However, when I went home that night, done socializing with the world at large, I was glad to be alone with Tim, my own personal Kalaupapa, where I am known and loved for who I was and who I try to be today.

The other night, my little Molly Grace came in at suppertime. She was muddy bedraggled, and limping a bit. This is not unusual. Molly and Finn frequently come in to supper, covered in mud and grass-stains. They are often limping too, but they almost always have silly-looking grins plastered on their faces as well. But something was different this night. Molly’s cheeks were dirty and tear-stained and she couldn’t really talk, without starting to cry all over again. When I asked if she was hurt, she shook her head, so I just hugged her while I ran a hot bath, figuring a little love was the best remedy for what ailed her and I had a pretty good guess what it was.

To say that our cul-de-sac is a little “masculine” would be an understatement. It is athletic, dirty, physical, and loud. If you set foot on our front grass, you are signing up for a full-body, contact version of whatever sport is being played. The six kids who share the front yard (3 of ours & 3 of theirs) have invented more games than I can count, but all of them allow, perhaps even encourage, tripping, tackling, kicking, goal-scoring and shoddy refereeing. Usually, there is another little girl out there to balance the feminine factor, but that night, Molly was trying to hold her own, against the aggressive gamesmanship of at least 4 much bigger boys. She is not one to give up, but she cashed in her chips early that night. Luckily, the only serious injury was to her pride and sense of justice.

She just kept repeating, “Those boys are just so hard.” She didn’t have another word for it and I didn’t think I should label it for her.

Her experience reminded me of a movie I watched last week called The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, starring Brad Pitt. Despite his box-office appeal, I don’t think it did very well and I am not surprised after seeing it. It’s not what you’d expect.

The movie opens with these lines, spoken in a young woman’s, beautiful, lilting voice.

            There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You  have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself, accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked, accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself and others to please it too, likes to lord it over them, to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is smiling around it and love is shining through all things.  They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

You don’t know to whom she is speaking or why, but as I listened, I didn’t care and that was the trick to enjoying the movie. You couldn’t care about the details, like plot and resolution. You had to absorb the images and the allegories. This was not a family drama; rather, this was the tension between human nature and grace personified, in a human family, a mother and father and their sons.

The father is not evil. That would make it too simple, too familiar of a story. The father is just human: disappointed in and proud of his sons at the same time. In love with and frustrated by his beautiful, but silent wife. Engaged in and stifled by his job and his dreams in equal measure and as such, he is mercurial and unpredictable. He is laughing and affectionate one moment, but angry and rough the next. The more he pushes his boys to love him, the further they pull away. It sounds like many fathers I know, including my own thirty years ago.

The fear in his sons’ eyes might be his fault, but I sympathized with him, because it is not a level playing field. He is married to grace incarnate. The mother is always loving, affectionate and kind. She is playful, and whimsical. She is seemingly perfect, but not in any way that makes you distrust or despise her, because unlike the ‘perfect’ women we know, it’s not a sham. This woman is not meant to be one of us. She is meant to be grace: for these boys, for this man, to save them from their human nature.

Her grace cannot save the father, but her sons can’t help but be affected by the love that pours over them every day. In one of the few scenes where she speaks at all, she tells them, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”

The young boys try; you watch them struggle with the humanity inside them and the grace they’ve been given, which never fails. The eldest son, who has born the brunt of his father’s all-too-human pain, struggles the most to live out his mother’s message of grace. He says to his father in a moment of anger and confusion, “I wrestle with you inside me. I am more like you than I am like her.” And you can tell he is saddened by that reality.

My son is 13, about the same age as the boy in the movie, when he has that conversation with his father. I know that he too struggles within himself to be a gentle man, the kind of man we want him to be: strong and sure of himself on the playing field, or in the classroom and yet ever mindful of the gift of grace he’s been given and which it is his obligation to bestow. When Molly came in crying that night, wounded, my first impulse was to go out and lecture Finn (and his friends) about looking out for the little ones. But remembering the The Tree of Life stopped me. Grace can’t be forced. It can only be given time and time again. It works best in silence when it wants to heal, to inspire, to love.

Those boys were working out their human nature with each other and my little 9-year-old girl got herself caught in the crossfire. It isn’t the first time and I don’t think it will be the last. She’s got her own little humanity to work out, even if her middle name is Grace.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you probably know that I have a daily prayer practice. I’d like to call it meditation, which sounds so much cooler, but I’d be lying. I don’t light incense, or chant. I don’t clear my mind. I am much more likely to have a thought, follow it and watch it unfold. However, I do breathe deeply. I do invite the divine presence (s) to be with me. I do try to be honest about my life – what I’ve done and failed to do, what has made laugh and/ or cry. I look for patterns, try to find perspective, and ask for grace. Having a serious prayer practice isn’t nearly as holy, or pious as it sounds, but I do know that it’s useful, or has been for me.

On my best days, I have an hour before my family wakes to sit and pray. But most days aren’t my “best days,” so more often than not, I get 30 minutes or so, and on the weekends, I might neglect to set the alarm and take what I can get later on. But last night, I did something that I have never done before. I was tossing and turning; it was close to midnight and I reached over and turned off my alarm, not because I wanted to sleep in (which I’ve done often enough before), but because God and I had had a bit of an argument the day before and I wasn’t sure I was ready to talk to Him yet. In short, I was planning on giving Him the silent treatment.

He, however, had other plans. I woke up this morning and thought to myself smugly, “Ha! I showed him. I slept right through our time,” but when I looked over at the clock, it was precisely 5:58 a.m., the exact time we begin every morning. Ha! He showed me. He seemed to be saying, “Whether you planned to speak to me or not, you’re up, so you may as well.”  I’ve been doing this for long enough to know that He was right, so I got up and began my prayer with equal parts relief and trepidation.

The danger with giving someone the silent treatment is that you’ll stay there for far too long. I think that there is a time for silence when you’re angry, when you’ve gotten past the point where words are useful, and they’ve become blunt force objects whose sole purpose is to injure and maim. Most of us have probably learned where that threshold is and can hold our tongues. However, the silent treatment is a different weapon all together. It’s meant to punish the other, but more effectively punishes us. While we might stop speaking our thoughts out loud, we typically launch into self-justifying monologues in our own heads, rants of George Carlin-esque proportions. We inflate the righteousness of our own position, while reducing the other person, usually someone we love, to an insignificant speck in the cosmic scheme of things. And then there’s that awkward moment when you do have to speak again, when you have to let go of your anger, and find a way to move on.

You can see why this might be a problem when your adversary is God.

So I sat on the couch, closed my eyes and sighed. The rants, the anger, the dirty looks are useless when your opponent is Love, boundless and unchangeable. There is nothing I can do that will hurt Him. Even if I’m angry, if I stamp my feet, and try to run away, I can’t. There is nowhere I can go that isn’t in the palm of His hand, inside the circle of His arms. The silent treatment is useless against unconditional Love.

So when I got over myself and began to speak again, He was there, waiting patiently for me. There was no awkwardness, no apologies needed. He was ready to listen, willing to hear whatever it was I had to say. And so I tried again to express what I was feeling and I tried even harder to listen to what He might have to say on the subject. No, I’m not a mystic, or a religious nut. I never hear His voice, or words coming down from the Heavens. But I hear Him all the same, if I am paying attention. If I am open to it, if I am aware, then His response unfolds in the every day occurrences of my life, in something I read, a movie I watch, a conversation I have. Sometimes, He even deigns to speak through a Facebook post.

After thinking about it, I’ll probably try to avoid giving anyone the silent treatment in the near future. Silence?  Yes, as long as it’s necessary and helpful. But mute anger? I think I’ll pass. And I hope that the next time someone (probably Keara) tries it on me, I’ll react differently. I hope I can take a lesson from God’s playbook and remain uninjured and unoffended. I’ll try to communicate that no matter how far she goes, my love goes farther and that I will be waiting here patiently, ready to listen, no apology necessary.

That’s what Love does, or so I’ve heard.

The other day, Keara and I were working around the house, doing some baking, cleaning and sweeping and I asked her if I could put on some music. If it doesn’t need to be quiet, I like to have a soundtrack to my life. When I am doing my serious house cleaning, I crank up Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and sing along to “PYT,” while I wash the windows, and scrub the floor. If we’re out by the pool, then our neighbors are sure to hear Jack Johnson, or Donavon Frankenreiter blaring. Doing dishes after dinner calls for something more pensive, like Norah Jones, while road trips bring out the country music fan in me, old school stuff like Willie Nelson and Eddie Rabbit.

So Keara acquiesced to my musical request as long as I didn’t put on “that guy,” she said with an eye roll.

“What guy?” I asked innocently. And really, I was innocent. I didn’t know which one of my male singer-songwriters she was objecting to.

With the patience you use with a toddler, she looked me in the eye and said, “You know Mom, the ‘orange sky’ guy.”

Oh, “that guy.” I shrugged casually and said, “Sure honey, no problem,” while I rapidly deleted “that guy’s” name from my Itunes search field and carefully chose another band instead.

“That guy” she was referring to was Alexi Murdoch and my daughter has a serious aversion to him. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate his music, or his low, melodic voice. For a teenager, she has a surprisingly diverse and advanced taste in music. It might be her 5+ years of piano lessons, but I’d also like to think it has something to do with our refusal to ever purchase Kidz Bop albums, or allow boy bands in our home. But despite her appreciation for his talent, she can’t stand listening to Alexei Murdoch. We burned her out on him last year. If she has to hear “Orange Sky,” or “Wait for Me” one more time, she thinks her head might explode.

I turned on The Black Eyes Peas for Keara that morning, instead of “that guy,” but I slowly drifted out of the room, and let Alexi’s music play freely in my own head. It filled my heart and mind and brought back a flood of emotions, both good and bad from last year, when I played him almost without ceasing. Every morning when the kids woke up, I would have his album Time Without Consequence going in the background. Most days when Tim got home from work, I would put on one of my favorite tracks and we would slow dance in the entryway. It was my way, our way really, of centering ourselves on what was truly important, as we transitioned in and out of the painful realities of our days.

Last year, our business was struggling to make ends meet. We were trying hard to find solutions to problems that felt very far beyond our reach, and we had to rely heavily on business contacts, friends, and family for guidance. But mostly, we had to rely on each other and together we relied on Alexi. His music seemed to speak to us, to articulate what we were going through, and to remind us of what we needed and what we needed to be doing. So each time we listened to “Orange Sky,” as we held hands, heart to heart on our entryway dance floor, or looked at one another across the dinner table with tears in our eyes, we heard, “Here is what I know now, goes like this… In your love, my salvation lies…oh you know I am so weary and you know my heart’s been broken…When I am alone, when I’ve thrown off the weight of this crazy stone, when I’ve lost all care for the things I own, that’s when I miss you, you who are my home and here is what I know now: in your love, my salvation lies, in your love, in your love, in your love.”  We remembered that love, the stuff that exists between us and within our family, would be our salvation, no matter what else happened out there, beyond the walls of our home.

I heard a story once about Roberta Flack and the song she made famous in the 1970s called, “Killing Me Softly.” Maybe you remember it. The story goes that she went to hear Christopher Cross sing in a nightclub and that as she listened to him, she had this surreal feeling that he had been inside her heart and mind. “He sang as if he knew me in all my dark despair” and that his song was “telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly with his song.”

Alexi Murdoch is my Christopher Cross. Without him, and that album, Tim and I may not have been able to articulate what we needed from each other. And we all know that if you can’t name something, then you have little chance of ever finding it. How can you look for something that you don’t even know exists?  So sometimes we were clinging to love for our salvation, and other times, we would listen to “Wait for Me,” and ask the question, “So if I stumble and if I fall and if I slip now and lose it all and if I can’t be all that I could be, will you wait for me? Please wait for me….” Alexi expressed our deepest longings and fears, as we faced some of our lowest points in our twenty years together, but he also gave us the words and the melody to find peace and hope in those moments as well.

So as I came out of my reverie last week, to the sound of “Boom, Boom Pow” in background, I thought of Keara and her distaste for Time Without Consequence. I can’t really blame her for it. I am sure it is more than just being tired of the songs. The music must carry a subconscious weight for her as well. But instead of finding solace in the profound truths in the songs like we did, she simply witnessed the emotional response, which probably looked a lot like grief. No matter how much we tried to protect the kids from what was going on, as the oldest, she probably understood more than we thought. Alexi Murdoch will probably always mean heartbreak to her, while he will always be “killing me softly.” Whenever I hear those songs, until the day I die, they will always speak of the greatest truths I know.

That love waits for us to become who we are meant to be, no matter how long it takes.

That in love our best hope for salvation is found.

That with love, I am home.

Thank you Alexi.

And as a mother, I hope that someday Keara finds a soundtrack for her own truths as well.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Alexi Murdoch’s work, I’ve included two links to youtube, where you can listen to “Orange Sky” and “Wait.”  My snippets of lyrics don’t do justice to the poetry of the songwriter.