I was about 10 years old, I think. And I was in the backseat of our car, as it was flying down a country road in the middle of the night. Everything outside my window was pitch black, except for the beam of the headlights illuminating the yellow road reflectors as they whizzed up to us and then quickly disappeared into the dark. My mom was gripping the steering wheel and leaning forward as she drove. Outside, the engine was at a high throttle. Inside, the car was quiet except for mom’s occasional, stressful whimpers and my little-girl prayers, whispered, “Please let us make it home.”
My family grew up driving “clunkers,” as my mother called them. Any manner of thing that could break would break and I don’t think we ever owned anything that was fully functional. This time around, and on this particular car, the radiator leaked like cheesecloth. But we didn’t have the money to fix it so we just tried to get by. When we were running errands around town during the day, it was easier. Just a few miles between places meant we could always park it warm and let the radiator cool off while we were shopping, eating, or whatever. Then, very casually – like it weren’t no thing – pop the hood open, and refill it from the assortment of old water jugs we kept in the trunk. On to the next place to do it all again. But when the errands were done, at the end of the day, the big test came. We lived about 20 miles outside of town, so we’d have to refill a few times during the leg home and we didn’t have the luxury of waiting an hour for it to cool between fillings. Mom would tell us that riding it hot all the way home without refilling it could break the block (Whatever that means. My mom had to know a lot of car lingo to drive clunkers), at which point we wouldn’t have a car at all. So, she would run it as fast as she could – getting as far as she could – down that country road, until the temp gauge had been sitting at that “H” for far too long, and then she would finally pull over. I would try to watch through the small space under the raised hood, but all I could see from inside the car was my mother’s pants lit up by the headlights and the silhouette of her rag-covered hand as she would gingerly try to remove the scorching hot radiator cap, so slowly at first, to let the steam and pressure out, but invariably releasing a volcanic eruption of residual hot water into the air as the lid was removed. She got scalded several times. She’d fill the radiator up with water and then plop back into the car, face dripping wet, smelling like steamy rust. Then off we’d go again. Flying. Whimpering. Praying. “Please let us make it home.”
I know when we talk about running “on empty,” it’s sometimes a different automotive analogy that comes to mind – that of having an empty gas tank or maybe rolling into the station on fumes. It’s a metaphor we usually use for feeling exhausted, running from Thing to Thing without having a moment to refuel. We feel like we’re stretching the ends of ourselves to try to make them meet. But this radiator memory came to mind and I think it suites dry motherdom well. The gas thing is “one and done,” fill-up and you’re saved. It might even include a nice, sunny stroll to the station with a gas can. But no lasting damage done. This leaky radiator business, though… it’s constant, perpetual, indefinite. You could be running hot for who knows how long. About to break your block.
My mom spent a lot of time in bed when I was growing up. I knew she struggled with depression, so I just assumed depression made you tired. Or maybe too sad to get out of bed. Both are true, I guess. What didn’t occur to me at the time was that what she was going through would affect me in any way, personally. I failed to make the connection, even 15 years later, as a young woman asking my doctor about some chest pain I had been having. She handed me a prescription for antidepressants. But I didn’t really want to take them. It’s not that bad, I told myself. So I just tried to breathe it out. The pains weren’t terribly crippling and… eventually they went away. It wasn’t until many years later, which was just a few weeks ago actually, when I was sitting in the ER late at night that I started to connect the dots.
The doctor came into the room and asked what was going on. I told him about the dizziness I’d been having for a few days, thinking maybe it was just dehydration or inner ear problems, when suddenly this thing hit me tonight like a downdraft: a racing heart, not being able to catch my breath, and the chest pain again.
“Well,” I thought he should know, “the chest pain has kinda come and gone over the years. I think I notice it flares up when I’m-”
I froze. The word hung in my mouth for a moment. Good Christian girls who trust Jesus aren’t supposed to feel this way. Are they? Not this badly, anyway. “…when I’m stressed.”
The grip on his pencil relaxed and he looked up from his paperwork. “What are you stressed about?” [Insert here a lip-quivering midnight confession to the Emergency Room doctor about the things troubling me of late]. And even as I was gingerly releasing the cap and letting off a little steam, I felt I was also diagnosing myself. It was embarrassingly obvious to me that what was gushing out of my mouth was indicative of what was ailing me.
His kind eyes looked into my welling ones and he said “Your vitals actually look really good. You’re 100% oxygenated,” he pointed to the numbers, as I burned those words into my memory, just in case I needed to assure myself with them later. “Outside of your racing heart, you look healthy. I think you’re just having a…” Now, he was the one hesitating, “…a panic… thing.”
A panic attack. Wow. In that moment, I was actually just relieved to hear I wasn’t dying. And as he handed me a pill and told me it might make me “a little drowsy,” that’s when I finally made the connection. Oh mom. This is a taste of what you went through.
When the staff found out I didn’t live far from the hospital, they let me drive myself home and told me I probably had enough time to get there before the meds kicked in. So, I chased my pill with a cup of water, and plopped into the car and prayed, “Please let me make it home.”
A few years ago, I was sitting in a permaculture class. The teacher was talking about biodiversity, and how different species actually benefit from each other’s company and take care of each other. One plant staves off certain bugs, one plant adds nitrogen back to the soil, low lying plants and beneficial fungi will live in the shade of the taller plants and be mulch for those taller plants’ roots. Flowers attract bees and the old leaves attract the worms and the worms feed the soil and they all live in this balanced eco-system, where they all work together to make each other thrive. She was making a statement to promote designing “food forests,” instead of mono-cropping (the common farming practice today of planting only one thing for miles and miles). Isolating a species cuts it off from its beneficial plant friends who would normally use all their unique characteristics to benefit the whole group. As I was listening to this gardening lesson, I was struck by how it was such a beautiful analogy for the body of Christ, the church – how we all have different personalities and giftings, and that when we bring our individualness into community together, we begin to benefit the whole group. In gardens as well as in communities, there is strength in diversity.
Back in the permaculture class, my teacher drew a circle. She drew dots along the line of the circle. These represented different species. She drew a line across the diameter of the circle, from one dot to the next, listing the different ways the plants help sustain each other. Back and forth she went, dot to dot, until the inside of the circle looked like a tangled spider web. “This is what resilience looks like,” she pointed to the web. “Resilience is directly correlated with connectedness. This is true in all of life, actually.” She said the more connected we are to our community, the more we will thrive and help others to thrive. Then… she drew us another, more somber, illustration: one sad, little arrow toward a lone tree and one sad, little arrow away from the same tree. In mono-cropping, she explained, one isolated plant takes in the nutrients it needs, expels what it produces and there is no sustainability. As it keeps trying to survive on its own, the soil gets depleted of whatever nutrients this plant needs and there is nothing to replace it, so the tree begins to get sick.
I held back hot tears right there in that room. I was already keenly aware that I was a sick tree. And it wasn’t necessarily a life I had chosen on purpose. Parents were distant and died young. Family far away. Co-workers were a thing of the past. Church for me had gone through transitions that slowly led the demographic away from any young families, so we started going to a new church with young families, but now we were the new kids. I’m introverted, a little shy and a stay at home mom in a circle of many working moms. It’s hard for me to meet new people or find the resources to meet with the ones I know. I was being told my resilience factor was low and it was resonating with me. God was telling me something was missing here. And my “H” light was agreeing.
The Saturday after my ER visit, I slipped away from the family and drove over to my friend, Kelly’s, house. Being a mono-cropped tree, this was an unusual thing for me to do. But Kelly is a very connective species. She has been faithful to text me occasionally. She’ll ask if I want to come over on a certain day to play Lego with the boys or “paint rocks or whatever.” The first time she asked me that, I laughed right out loud. I actually really love painting rocks. But I would never have suspected that anybody else did and have never known anyone who was awesome enough to turn a simple, secret joy into an invitation to hang out. I want to be more like that. Anyway, we had made plans a couple weeks earlier that I would come over this weekend, because her neighborhood was having a block party of sorts. She had a very cute table set up in her driveway, where she was selling drinks and snacks. We stood under her shade tent and chatted a bit while I watched the wind play with the cheerful table cloth under the vase of wildflowers. Then, she asked me to sit and stay awhile if I could. “I love your company,” she said so plainly. And I felt my heart in my throat. What a sweet thing to say to someone.
I’m not sure what it was about that afternoon that felt so restorative, sitting under the trees with the dappled sunlight playing on her straw hat – her laughter, her stories, the way she told me she’d been praying for me yesterday. She was an empathetic ear for me and I tried to be one in return. Her neighbors stopped by periodically to chat. One of them took her dog for a playdate with their dog. Big groups of folks on their bicycles would roll by on the way to the festival down the street. And I felt, for just a few hours, like I had been transplanted as a guest into her little eco-system. Whatever it was, it was some kind of Therapy. And it would hold me over nicely for a day or two, while I contemplated signing up for the professional grade.
What am I empty of, really? Is it Time I’m depleted of? Energy? Is a nap really all I need? More B vitamins? Could it be something deeper than that? Could it be an emotional exhaustion, a depletion of the heart? Could it be that I’ve focused plenty of energy Loving out, and pouring out and producing fruit, but maybe I have not been as focused on making sure I stayed connected to my Source of nutrients, or being loved in? If I am a dismembered part of a body, such as a finger that’s been severed from a hand, lying there alone, is it any wonder if I feel a little twitchy?
The restoration that Saturday was in my friend, but it was also way above my friend and all around my friend. It was in allowing God to love me through my sister and it was in feeling the love shared in her little eco-system. It was in taking a moment to just “Be Still” [from the Hebrew raphe, meaning “to be weak, to let go, to release, to relax”], and remember that He is God, that He is in control, and I don’t have to pretend to be. I don’t have to give in to my frets and fears and worries. I don’t have to take responsibility for or try to change what other people do. And if I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can pull my roots toward the forest of diversity and choose to seek out a supportive eco-system made up of prayer, good listening friends, and mindfully Being instead of Doing and straining. You know, I’m starting to think every struggle I’ve ever had always comes back around to Jesus and His very simple teachings. Love is what they’re all about. If we fulfill that, God says, we’ve fulfilled the whole kit and caboodle. If we can just get that right, the loving in and loving out, I get the feeling that everything else falls into place. All of the things I think I have to figure out or change – it all aligns when I focus on Love.
On those nights when the thoughts of inadequacy flood me and I cry out to Jesus, He is also crying out to me. “If anyone thirsts,” He cries, “let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
Rivers of living water! I picture the big Sacramento River just a few miles from my house. I google it and get choked up reading that it flows an average of 175,000 gallons a second. If this is a picture of Jesus in me, what an abundant contrast that is to the handful of cracked, pathetic milk jugs I’ve been dragging around in the trunk of my heart. As I come to Jesus [key word there: come], allow Him to water me, and abide in Him, He refreshes the whole eco-system of my spirit like a summer rain. He is my source – self-sustaining – a spring that never runs dry. If I can avoid looking to myself for sustenance, but instead point my roots toward Him – I wonder if I might feel less like I’m running on empty, whimpering and flying through the dark, trying not to break my block, and more like I am in a perpetual state of arriving Home.
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