A divine setup

“I guess you just love Shirley more than me.” It was a pout, a joke, a literary reference, and a prayer, all in one.

Late at night after a gloomy, rainy-again day, a Terrible Tuesday, first day alone in a while, I was down on myself. All day I had felt like slacking off on the exercise, overeating, and reading novels.

I’d kept the tendencies in check. I let myself slack off a little. I didn’t do Advanced Yoga plus walking but I did walk for 40 minutes. And I allowed myself to be intermittent on the lap prayers — I don’t believe in boring myself or God with routine prayers — and, instead, held my attention on the faces that came to me when they did and blanked out the rest of the time. There was a lot of blank time.

The overeating, I limited to a DQ on the way back from the hairdresser, which I intended to eat at home but I foolishly chose a hot fudge sundae so it was mostly melted by the time I got to it. I considered this punishment for a totally inappropriate food choice. I wasn’t even hungry.

And instead of reading (another!) Daniel Silva thriller I settled down in the evening with a nice memoir, Blush, by Shirley Showalter. But this may have been a mistake, because in my self-indulgent/self-critical state, reading this memoir made me jealous.

Shirley, an acquaintance, is me but for a few differences, of course. Grew up a little Mennonite farm girl, a few years younger than me. The memoir is about the growing up. (Geez. She even helped with the milking, like I did.) And it is about the combination of match and mismatch between the Mennonite matrix that fostered her and the God-given uniqueness of her soul and spirit. She was born ambitious, not something little Mennonite girls were encouraged to be. She went on to become a college president and foundation executive.

This is a fine memoir. The thing is, I could almost have written it. Nothing is more disturbing to a writer than to read something you could have/should have/might have written, but did not, or have not yet, or could not quite manage to write because you are not quite that talented, or disciplined, or whatever. Especially when you are having doubts about yourself and your writing, which I was last night because I have been slacking off, above all, on the writing.

Moreover, Shirley’s ambition in the context of Mennonite disapproval of pride struck a chord with me. I’ve often thought that I might have achieved more in life if I’d been brought up Jewish. Or even Lutheran. I, too, might have become a college president! But, the thing is, Shirley did.

There is an incident in the book in which Shirley’s younger brother gets a bicycle that is nicer than hers and she tells her father, “I guess you love Henry better than me.”

That was the literary reference for my line, spoken to God. “I guess you love Shirley better than me” — since you let her have that life, which I almost could have had, and write this book about it, which I almost could have written. It was a joke because I knew very well that the envy would pass by morning and every life is unique and I liked mine just fine, thank you very much.

But the joke was on me. God answered that throwaway half-prayer immediately and directly. No sooner did I speak it than I felt a direct infusion of love through my heart that expanded out and inward, radiating through my body and into the night. For a long moment my soul brimmed with the kind of exuberant well-being that makes you grin and even laugh out loud, which I could do because I was alone.

I went to sleep wrapped in the love of God. I kid you not. That whole gloomy day, down on myself and childishly jealous of my sister, had been just another divine setup for a little wham-o Wow experience (cf. Help, Thanks, Wow, by Anne Lamott, another writer who makes me jealous). Today I am back to the writing.

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