A GENTLE ROCKING Elizabeth Willis Barrett February 8, 2010
Betsy had four words to say and they were, “I Can’t Do It!” With that she stumbled recklessly out the back door, letting the screen door bang behind her. She took giant staggering steps onto the dried winter grass as she punched her fists at the heavens. “I can’t do it!” she said again, this time in a wail directed at the innocent, unruffled blue sky.
“I can’t be everything You want me to be. Or even everything I want me to be. I’ve tried and tried and I just can’t do it. I give up! I’m done! You might as well take me now.”
The final straw—now, why do people say “the final straw”? Oh yes. It was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. What a picture! Betsy could see that illustrious camel brought down with just one more tiny strand of straw. His belly would be o tnnj’’’he ground with his four legs outstretched in all directions and his load of straw would be slipping off his back and scattering in the wind. That image might be hilarious at another time. But not now.
Betsy’s final straw had been a bowl of Frog Eye Salad—a very large glass bowl full of Frog Eye Salad that had slipped from her already busy and behind-scheduled hands. It had crashed to the kitchen floor and splattered everywhere. The making of it had taken a long time and now it lay unusable clinging to every visible kitchen surface. Instead of cleaning up the mess, all Betsy could do was run out back and scream at the heavens.
In the giant scheme of things, a destroyed kitchen was quite a little thing, but today when Betsy added everything up, the sum was failure.
For one thing, she had been late for her dentist appointment that morning because she hadn’t planned for traffic. Then after she finally got there, it took four shots and a good dose of laughing gas to settle her down so the dentist could prepare her tooth for a crown. A very expensive crown, the temporary of which was making her whole mouth hurt at the moment. She hadn’t paid the water bill so a pink slip had come in the mail with a threat to turn off the water. Embarrassing! The money was there but she couldn’t seem to get around to paying a little tiny bill that would take about five minutes. And what else?—Oh yeah! The worst part of all: her son was sleeping in his car. Crazy. He’d rather sleep in his car than live by her simple rules: no drugs and no taking money that doesn’t belong to you. And Andrea was mad at her—she didn’t know why. Something she did—hadn’t figured it out yet.
All of this she yelled at the sky until she was beginning to feel like the fat kid on the movie Goonies who confessed to everything he had ever done while his captors looked at him in wonder. And there was more.
“I’ve eaten every Almond Joy I could get my hands on today,” she bellowed, “It was a lot because no one else likes them and they come in the Hershey’s chocolate assortment and my waist is five inches thicker than it was in college.
“And I made just one New Year’s Resolution—ride my bike everyday. Easy. And I haven’t even done that. Not even once. And it’s almost March.
“Besides that, I can’t teach that Sunday School class You gave me. I try to prepare the lesson ahead of time but every week gets so busy that I’m always trying to finish up a minute before it starts every week. And do you know what—I might as well say it all—I’m not sure I like the kids in there. They don’t listen. They don’t participate. They keep texting on their phones. How would You like to teach them?
“And the baby I saw yesterday at the eye doctor’s office. I didn’t like her either. How could anybody not like a baby? Especially one you didn’t even know. I imagined what she was going to be like when she finally made it to High School and things didn’t look too promising. It was probably the dad that was holding her that made me so judgmental. But what was I doing having thoughts like that?
“And the house. Have you seen my closet? It’s jammed packed with stuff. Just stuff. I want to dig it out but something else always seems to be more important. And there are rings in the toilets but no rings in the doorbell and the cookie jar is empty but the dryer is full.”
Betsy’s ranting got down to a whimper. “I was supposed to send flowers for Anthony’s wife’s funeral and I couldn’t even do that. He’ll think we don’t care about his sorrow and it’s too late now. I didn’t go to the last five wedding receptions we were invited to either. I could have at least sent a card but I didn’t. So now when I see the brides’ mothers at Safeway or Kohl’s or somewhere, I’m going to have to act like I never got an invitation at all. I’ll have to put my face in that sincere ‘Really?’ expression that is supposed to mean: ‘I didn’t know your daughter got married. If I had known and if I had received an invitation, nothing could have kept me from it. Absolutely nothing.’
“What’s more, I can’t keep plants alive. I try to water them every week but I skip weeks here and there and I only buy pothos for crying out loud. Anybody in the world can keep pothos alive. But not me!”
And with that final confession, Betsy threw herself on the ground with her legs splayed and her arms outstretched—overburdened-camel-like—and her hands dug into the ground on both sides of her prostrate body. In her manic state she still had enough sense to hope the dog hadn’t left anything right where she had decided to throw herself down. But what did it matter? Her usefulness was gone. She howled like a mournful coyote, sick of life. Betsy knew that if she waited just a little while, the clouds would gather, a storm would cut loose and lightning would obliterate her. She could only hope.
But the only storm was the one inside her that raged and raged…….until she heard a quiet sound. It wasn’t the wind for the air was still. It wasn’t the dog—he was inside in his crate. The kids were at school and her husband was at work. She looked around to see if any neighbors were watching her which would have been very awkward. She’d have a lot of explaining to do. But she didn’t see anyone.
Again the sound came. It sounded like “Hush”.
“What?” Betsy whispered.
“Hush,” it came again.
So Betsy obeyed. She gathered her once flailing limbs and sat up, brushing the dried grass from her face and hair and taking a few wisps off her tongue. She put her full concentration into listening.
“Hush,” came the voice. “Hush…hush…hush.” Betsy closed her eyes and felt loving arms being wrapped tenderly around her. She was being held and comforted and gently rocked like a fretting child. The calming voice soothed away her fury.
“There, there, there,” it said. “Be still, be still, be still. You are so loved, so loved, so loved.”
“Ahh,” Betsy breathed, her eyes still shut.
“Shhh. Shhh. Shhh,” cooed the voice. “Everything is going to be all right, all right, all right. You are so loved, so loved, so loved. Shhh. Shhh. Shhh. Be still, be still, be still.”
Betsy swayed to the rocking and felt the love of the Great Creator surround her like a comforter, warm and soft. She sat there, sat there, sat there, loved, loved, loved.
Her eyes slowly opened to a world changed. What peace! What calm! She gradually stood up and dusted herself off—her new self, her loved self. What could matter now after the arms of Heaven had cradled her and she had heard crooning words of love? She slowly walked back inside after one more look at her place of renewal. Then she took a rag to the kitchen and started cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, serenely, serenely, serenely. And all was well, well, well.
This life offers so many opportunities for learning if we keep our eyes open and pay a bit of attention. I’ve learned much from books and classes and newspapers and TV but I think the most important things I’ve learned, I’ve learned from friends—dear friends who don’t even know they are teaching me.
For instance, I used to pump gas into the car by holding onto the handle of the pump until I heard the click which meant it was full. For some reason I was afraid to push down the lever that lets you walk away while the gas is still pumping. Maybe I thought that it wouldn’t stop on its own and gas would gush out all over the cement and someone would come by with a match and blow us all to smithereens. But then I happened to pull up to a gas station where my friend Lynn was filling her car. She deftly pushed in the lever and stood there talking to me hands free!
“Hey, Lynn uses the lever,” I said to myself, “I guess I can, too.” And from that moment to this, I have used the lever and let the gas dispense without my hands right there to stop it. Now I can write the Visa transaction into my checkbook during those long minutes. Only, of course, if I have put my purse in a strategic place so I don’t have to climb into the car and slide across the seat which could also potentially cause a spark and blow us all to smithereens!
Another fear I have is that of turning left. Most of my fears it seems do involve cars. Just to get out of our neighborhood, I have often turned right even though my destination was to the left because the traffic was so heavy and intimidating. But when I was leaving my house with my friend Stacey who was driving us somewhere in her car, I quickly noted that she turned left onto busy Baseline—even though the road wasn’t clear for two miles in either direction. She turned left into the left turn lane. Hmmmm. I had been taught in one of my traffic school experiences that you aren’t supposed to do that. That is the left hand turn lane for the cars already on the main road. But Stacey used it to pull into traffic from our side street. Stacey isn’t the most courageous of all people so I figured that if she was brave enough to pull out into the left turn lane, then I could be, too. That maneuver has saved me many needless right hand turns and a lot of stagnant minutes waiting for traffic to die down. Thanks, Stacey!
One dear friend has taught me about the futility of anger. Long ago Jeanne decided that she didn’t like how being angry made her feel so she chose to never be mad. She’s had as much cause for great irritation as any of the rest of us, but by some brute force of will she has chosen to delete anger from her life. I haven’t incorporated that knowledge into my behavior yet, but it is something I would like to work on some day—some calm, peaceful day when no one is aggravating me.
On one un-peaceful day when I was full of aggravation toward a friend over a business deal, she taught me that our feelings about the situation didn’t have to affect our friendship. She did it with kindness and maturity. And another friend, Leslie, taught me that it was OK to give myself a birthday party. So I did and it was really fun thanks to all the dear friends who allowed me to be so self-indulging. Aging has been rather easier since then.
Along with everyday sorts of things like where to find the best bargains, how to take better pictures or what to fix for dinner day after day, I have learned from friends as they have accepted widowhood with cheerful participation or borne physical limitations with poise and determination.
I have also learned from friends the power of faith. When Fay had the heart breaking experience of delivering a full term but still-born child, I could imitate her spiritual strength when two years later our beautiful baby son only lived one day. In addition to coping skills for heartache, I have learned from friends that a forgiving heart can save families and that a listening ear is better than a psychoanalyst.
Friends have taught me about joy, encouragement, solace and understanding. They have also taught me about humility, as when one friend confided to another, “Elizabeth has a lot to learn.” Actually, she was only a semi-friend and after I’d heard that she said that, I was even ready to cross her off my semi-friend list. I was offended as we often are when someone says something true but offensive. (Of course, that was before I learned from another friend—and finally internalized—that choosing to take offense is ridiculous.)
Maybe I’ve learned the most from that friend who didn’t mind saying what she thought. I did have a lot to learn and I have lots to learn even now. It’s a good thing I still have wonderful friends to help teach me.