The truest thing I said in my 20s was, “I think I need a hug.”
After hours of analyzing and agonizing over my depraved state of existence, one sad night I realized no one had actually touched me on a regular basis in years. No hugs, no kisses, no pats on the back—except maybe at work, and those were the worst kind. I was operating to avoid living, and this meant life fit neatly on a piece of paper but I still couldn’t eat a chicken dinner without the Fancy Diet Voices taunting me with every bite. It meant that life was swirly and confusing, as it ought to be for most 24-year-olds. I’m convinced the only way to get through your 20s is to buy good coffee creamer and moisturizer. Other than that, I’ve got nothing.
Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted a dog. Someone who would hug me whenever I needed it. Someone who was always happy to see me and never grumpy or irritable or depressed or distracted. I spent at least two years agonizing over the decision and being so full of fear that I’d be the worst Dog Mommy ever until finally one day I saw a hunched ball of white fur on the Internet. And like all good Mommy’s I didn’t pick my baby, but my baby found me, and so I drove out to east Texas where there was a woman rescuing dogs from the filthy people in town who ran the local “shelter.” It’s not a “shelter” when you give people three days to find their dogs before you put them to sleep, and that’s putting it nicely. This lady and her hotel developer husband turned their retirement oasis into a 24/7 reminder that no one ever really retires if you’re paying attention.
The first thing Georgia did when I met her was start sniffing the ground for her family, to find her way back home. I knew exactly how she felt. I got on the ground next to her, she walked up and put her head on my shoulder.
“I know,” I said. “I’m your Mama.”
She was spayed later that week, and in the meantime I went and spent every last cent I had on buying a bed and bowls and a collar with my phone number on it. When I walked up to the dog run, in a flurry of happy, stir-crazy orphan dogs, my little pup sat regally like a good shepherd, watching for me. If I’d had a conversion van, I would’ve taken ten more dogs home with me that day, but all I had was a Honda and my roommate for moral support.
You know that video going around of dogs when they get rescued? It’s not just coincidence. These dogs know when they’ve hit the jackpot. Georgia smiled the whole way home and soon I began teaching her the ways of the Smothering Hug and early morning song writing. Our first walk was going to be the very best walk because I was going to be the very best Mom. I took her to a lake with a trail that looped around it. Turns out, this display of affection turned her into a Panic Attack Combat Crawl Machine, much to the chagrin of all the perfect people who had decided to visit the lake that day, too. They scoffed and I stared with big Laser Mom eyes.
I know how it feels to be overwhelmed and out of place. Sometimes you just need someone to sit next to you while you get your handle on life again. So that’s what we did. We also took everyday life a little slower, except on the hugs. We hugged every day, all day. And it was exactly what I needed. Soon she was hugging my side when she saw bad men coming down the street. She was draining my bank account because Good Orphan Dogs are often neglected and have infections that need caring for. But I didn’t care. We mattered and we were worth the extra money and extra working.
I wasn’t always a good Mommy, though. Sometimes when I was tired I’d get so angry at her for waking me up or for being needy or for getting a stomach infection. How could one dog be so needy? But it was OK because when I remembered how much I loved her, her neediness didn’t matter anymore. And this is where I started to show up in my own life and start asking questions about things that made me happy and sad. And I started to feel brave enough to start asking God some questions instead of hurling insults and defensive platitudes at Her.
“OK, You’re out there,” was my first step of faith in my 20s.
I admitted it—God was out there and it was OK if I didn’t believe all the right things at the right time in the right way. My Fairy Godmother had shown up countless times to ask me questions and remind me to smile at people because it brightens their day. So maybe God was out there, too. Crazier things have happened.
After being dragged around for years by non-denominational Goose Heads who needed me to “just have a little more faith,” I knew God wasn’t going to show up for me in a place that was more concerned about electric guitar strings than a robust Theology for Feeding the Poor. I had all the head knowledge possible about where I might like to hear a good sermon, except the thing is that sermons aren’t really the main show when you’re not attending an Evangelical Theatre Weekend Special. Sermons are saved for last and kept the shortest because they’re the least important.
What’s more important, I learned, is the Sacred, the Mystery of showing up with imperfect people and saying prayers that you’re not quite sure will work today, but you pray them anyway because they remind you that you’re still alive. As a faithful student of all things brainy (and not emotiony), I kept trying to get someone to just explain “It” already, but that’s the interesting thing about Catholics and Orthodox folk. They know there’s only Guidance, no Driver’s Manual to hand out.
So I did what I do best. I observed and I judged the hell out of these people for a while. It’s what you do when you’re capital W Wounded. You just have to hope the people around you know how to be patient while you learn not to beat yourself up. If we weren’t here on Sunday morning to hear a sermon, then what was the point? I learned all sorts of interesting things, but mainly that this thing called Holy Tradition has a beautiful place in the life of us human beings. Even if you aren’t Christian, having a tradition that claims you and that you claim, too, is one of the deepest forms of identity a person can have. So in the Orthodox Church where I was hanging out, there were tremendously beautiful oil paintings and pictures of Jesus surrounded by candles sticking up in the sand. And pictures of Mary—a woman!!—of all things.
I knew that God wasn’t a He or a She, and that we humans had to give God a gender in order for God to make sense to our tiny human selves. And I knew that God didn’t mind if we only called God a Him or only a Her. The point was to get closer. And so I began asking a lot of question about this mystery (not mastery) of faith and how Mary was so incredibly consequential to the entire Jewish prophecy being fulfilled. Why didn’t we like her growing up? Why was she a bother to our Christmas Eve services with acoustic guitars and floating spiritual hands? Well, because she doesn’t quite make sense. But if you think of Jesus being human and divine, then he had to have a human mother. And for God to save all mankind, the person He chose deserved a teeny, tiny bit of reverence maybe.
I learned about the Communion of Saints and how we’re all joined to Christ’s Body, which means that the tiny morsel of faith I might carry in my back pocket on good days is joined to the brave heart of Saint Joan of Arc and to Mother Teresa and even that annoying minister who insisted I wasn’t lost at all. Prayer exploded for me when I thought about this. God is the God of the living, and that means the living includes those in heaven and on earth. And that these people are praying and worshiping God in glorious silk robes and eating food that doesn’t go straight to their hips.
“You know, a good Jewish boy listens to his mother,” a friend told me.
It’s not that the saints in heaven or even Mary make anything happen. It’s that they join you by your side, like the Prayer Ladies at church when you’re sick. And they ask God to help us figure out what’s going on, or maybe to just throw us a bone and we’ll promise to get the lesson next time around.
Since I like effective prayers, the Real Prayer Warriors, and not the meek and gentle folk that Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount, I went straight to Mary. I like powerful, influential people and I’d like to think they like me, too. At the time I was an editor masquerading as a publisher, and I decided I was over it with a capital O the day my boss accused me of editing something wrong on purpose. Not to mention, I lived in the suburbs and there was no one to date.
One night I walked into the Orthodox church and stared up the Holy Mother and said, “You gotta help me out. Will you see if you can get through to Him?” I remember pushing as hard as I could from the center of my chest and really trying to feel my prayer going up into heaven while Mary was holding my hand. I petitioned a ton that night, and I lit candles.
Two weeks later I had a new job with a fancy, faith-filled pay cut and a Dallas zip code. I was ecstatic and left my insulting job in a blaze of glory with no notice whatsoever. No one calls me a bad editor and gets away with it. While in the flurry of packing for my new job and dreaming of finding a fancy boyfriend, I felt the wind knocked out of me:
“Not so fast, little lady,” the voice said.
“Don’t think you can just not acknowledge what happened,” the voice said.
Oh, damn. She’s right. I asked the Holy Mother to pray for me and THE VERY NEXT DAY I got a call for a first interview.
“You’re right,” I said. “That’s some pretty fast turnaround. I won’t forget it.”
And this was another way I started to show up in my own damn life.
The idea that a woman had a holy purpose and calling that took center stage in the Greatest Story Ever Told made me feel a little better about having lady parts.
Over time, more things began to show up in my life, like messy friends. And not the kind who think they’re messy because they missed a quiet time last week. But the kind who live in a trailer in the desert on purpose and have fifteen Ebay stores that generate enough money for food and water. And then the really good people show up whoshoot from the hip because that’s the best they’ve got. The kind who aren’t trying to size me up for next week’s Bible study.
Soon I had a terrible, awful realization that God is Love but also Truth, and that the Truth is scarier than Love sometimes. And that meant that I had to keep going to counseling and crying at night when I uncovered more truth that just wrecks a person over and over again. But I know now that Love and Truth come as a packaged deal and so you have to put up with them and look at both real honestly. Truth means you’re proven wrong sometimes and on occasion you’re as right as right can be. And I went around and around with this until I realized that there is no ground in heaven because we probably won’t have feet. We’ll just be kind of floaty with our best dog friends by our sides.
This is the story I decided to write this morning because Georgia woke me up at 4:30 a.m. because I think she missed me while I was out of town. And I got to thinking about how she knows she can pester me to rub her belly even when I’m tired because she knows I love her no matter what. And that’s when I realized I probably had some things to write before the sun came up today. So here I am, sipping coffee and thinking about how a Dog I named Georgia and the Virgin Mary took center stage nearly six years ago and got me to show up in my own messy life.