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October 21, 2020

Kitchen Cart

I don’t know about you, but my house is plagued with piles.
8 min read

I don’t know about you, but my house is plagued with piles. Piles of papers, piles of toys, piles of random objects that seem to have crept into my life with no intention of creeping out. Some days I cast my eyes about my cluttered domain and want to scream in frustration. I have not always lived like this, I insist. I used to be so orderly. In charge.

These days I hope that I get to the stray cheerios on the floor before my 8 year old autistic son does, or he will undoubtedly eat them. (Same goes for leftover pieces of bacon from breakfast and the jury is still out on whether my husband joins in on the scavenging).

A few days ago I hit my limit and decided to use my precious baby sitter time to tackle one of the storage carts in my kitchen that had devolved into a Pandora’s box. I eyed the blender, tissue, and sunscreen sitting on top of the cabinet, wondering whether I was equal to the task of sorting and tossing the eclectic contents within.

Without going into the gory details, let’s just say I planted my feet and met my foe in battle. I took everything out of the kitchen cart, decided what needed to stay, and put only those items back in. Suddenly I had extra room for covid sanitizing supplies that were messing up a different space in my kitchen. Yay. This effort at organization was going better than expected.

A couple days later I was standing in the kitchen when I suddenly heard a loud crack. To my dismay, I discovered that the inner shelf of my pristine cart had given way, spilling all of its contents onto the floor. Honestly, I think I would have viewed the disgorging of a movie soldier’s guts with more aplomb. Though I had managed to capture enemy territory before, doing so again seemed impossible

How am I going to fit all that stuff back in there? Do I even want to try?

Really, there was no choice. Ignoring the debacle was hardly going to work, as my kitchen funnels more of our family’s traffic than any other part of the house. So I sat down amongst the shambles, found the bracket that had slipped its spot, repositioned it, and put everything back in—but not in exactly the same manner. This time I stored the heaviest items on the bottom of the cart and reserved the shelf space for lighter objects. I was trying to learn from the experience so as not to have to repeat my efforts. It seemed only logical.

Now I find myself thinking: why can’t the same logic apply to inner healing? When some incident slices us open and our emotions spill out, why can’t we just stitch things up with some meaningful changes and move on? Why must we revisit the things that have hurt us again and again, as if we were continually walking on a path strewn with leftover pieces that must be picked up?

These questions are especially relevant to me right now because I have had some memories from middle school unexpectedly resurface. Middle school. In a few months I will turn freakin’ fifty and this is where my brain takes me. I can see the face of one person in particular—a classmate—saying something that cuts me to the core. I can remember how I couldn’t have seen the comment coming. Not in a million years. And I can remember my father reiterating the remark some time later, proving to my heart that it must have been true if two people independently observed the same thing.

I can also remember sitting in Spanish class, my eyeglasses fogging up as my body flushed with heat—my first panic attack. And I remember throwing up in a bathroom stall, overcome by anxiety.

I also recall being so confused. Up until the fifth grade, school had been such a joy for me. I was reasonably well liked, good at academics, very involved in gymnastics, happy. After the panic attack, my healthy mind and body vanished. I suffered from symptoms that kept me out of school for several weeks. Looking back, I am sure they were psycho-somatic, nothing a blood test would show. That didn’t mean my poor mother didn’t cart me around to various doctors looking for an answer. Nor did it mean that my illness wasn’t real. Simply put, I was going through puberty and needed psychiatric help to transition safely from one state of being to another.

We belonged to a sect of Christianity that didn’t espouse such intervention.

I might as well have asked to be flown to the moon.

In my own way, I did go on a very long trip, because when I finally started attending school again regularly, everything had changed. On a molecular level. Having gone through their own core transitions, my classmates had reorganized themselves and formed different bond structures. I was most certainly, abjectly, at the bottom of the heap now. A sickly, yet smart (probably annoyingly so) girl who had stayed a girl when most everyone else had moved on to becoming adolescent men and women.

Thank God for the rare individuals who saw through my troubled exterior and loved me anyway. Funnily enough, one was a very popular boy, who needed someone to really listen to him (I could do that). The other was a smart, strong, sensitive girl who struggled with her weight and had no father. (She understood pain.) In their own way, these two friends parented me, offering emotional grounding when it was in short supply. I wouldn’t have survived without them (or the separate phone line that happened to run through my room).

I guess my big question now is: what do I do with all these exposed memories?

I think I have one answer from the Scriptures that I don’t exactly like. You might not either, if you find yourself in a position similar to mine.

The last two verses of Psalm 139—easily the most contemplative piece of writing in the entire Psalter (if not the whole Bible itself)—end with the poet inviting God to do something very daring and specific:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

Try me, and know my anxious thoughts,

And see if there be any grievous way in me

And lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24 ESV)

When I read these words, I imagine a person lying supine on an operating table, offering a scalpel to a surgeon standing over him. “Have at it,” the patient says, fully awake, “remove whatever you think should go.”

Uh….where’s the anesthesia? What’s the diagnosis? Prognosis? HOW EXACTLY IS THIS PROCEDURE GOING TO GO?

No answer. Just the surgeon’s kind and knowing eyes peeping out over his mask at me, (yes, I’ve become the patient). Do I trust him?

Looking at the original Hebrew in our text might help with the hyperventilating at this point. The first set of verb couplets, “Search” and “Try,” are set up in a parallel structure to each other. The search word (cha-KAR) conveys a sense of thoroughness and sincerity, whether applied to a tangible (ex., a piece of land) or intangible (a person’s thoughts) object. Jesus’s images of a woman sweeping her house for a lost coin or a shepherd abandoning ninety-nine sheep in search of one hit the nail on the head (Luke 15:4-10). I don’t think it’s any accident that this verb appears most in the book of Job, whose protagonist famously searches his soul chapter after chapter, in an effort to prove whether he, or God, will be justified after all of his suffering.

“Try” (ba-CHAN) is a verb associated with a refiner’s fire. Think of dropping a piece of metal into the fires of Tolkien’s Mordor, which would cause any impurities in it to rise to the surface. Apply heat to the human heart, and the same thing occurs, like it or not. According to the psalmist, what the refiner’s fire exposes are “anxious thoughts” (sar-a-PAI). The latter is an unusual word, appearing only here and in Psalm 94:19. I’m not sure what to make of that distinction, except to say that it feels as if something rare and beautiful is going on between the poet and God, however painful. Whatever process they are experiencing together is taking them to the nitty gritty. No human walks away from that unchanged. No God is seen the same after.

Indeed, as the psalmist concludes his poem, he knowingly links the hand of the hurting human and the hand of Almighty by means of a small word: grievous. I believe readers of the original text would have immediately been carried back to the world of Genesis, where God himself grieves by means of this same root-word (at-ZHAV). The precious human beings which he has created have descended into deep violence against one another, so much so that he is sorry he ever made them (see Gen 6:6). Notably, God uses this same word to curse Eve in childbirth, suggesting that she, and he, now share a bond of pain as bringers of life into the world.

You may be thinking: all this is well and good, unpacking the mystery of how we cannot be severed from God as we descend into the pain of the past. In fact, we are more than ever connected. Or perhaps you cannot absorb what I am saying at all, you’ve been knocked off your feet so bad.

If you can hear anything at all, hear this: there is a way for you through this. The scenes that have been ripped from behind you to play in technicolor before you have a purpose. God doesn’t play games with our hearts, much as we might be tempted to believe so (and believe me, I get so tempted). One of two things is happening to you: either you have been triggered by a broken world that has caused a jagged memory to cut you this way and that. Or God has intentionally brought it up himself. Either way, he can use it for your good. To lead you—as the psalmist prays—in the way everlasting

If you look up “everlasting” (oh-LAM) in a Hebrew dictionary, the entry will be very long, as this word encompasses many different ideas, from a long span of time to the concept of the whole world itself. However you look at “the way everlasting,” the psalmist is asking to be transported from the agony within himself to a place of freedom and healing outside himself. Somewhere he probably can’t even imagine in his current state. He just hands the scalpel to the surgeon and says, “Get me outta here.”

Let me share with you the two things that have happened since my middle school memories have surfaced, whether by “accident,” or divine design (I’m betting on the latter). They may seem like small things, but actually they’re huge in terms of their potential for inner transformation.

First, I gained a new vantage point that allowed me to see with greater clarity just how ruined I was by my classmate’s and father’s comments. I’ve always appreciated how much they hurt, but never how much they interfered with my fledgling understanding of myself as a young woman. It was as if those comments poisoned the well from which I would drink for years to come. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Merry and Pippin grow taller than most other hobbits because they drink an Ent (towering tree creatures) drink. I did the opposite, becoming frozen in a shriveled and stunted state.

Second, I repented of self-hatred. Because that is what had developed in me as a result of all that poison. To tell you the truth, I’ve always known that the self hatred was there, I just couldn’t see what was wrong with having it. It wasn’t like I was hating anyone else—“just” me. But now I see that with God there are no “justs.” I’m not starving anyone else, just myself. I’m not cutting on anyone else, just myself. We would all recoil from these self-harming statements. But somehow the more abstract ones slip through. Maybe it’s because I parent a special needs child that I perceive how hating is never okay, no matter whom it’s directed at, for whatever reason. It was time to tell God, “I’m really sorry for that,” and come out from under the weight of all that self-loathing.

To return to our initial question of why we have to go over the same bit of emotional healing again and again, my reply is: Don’t be fooled. I don’t know what’s coming next in terms of molding my self image as a woman (yes, it’s still under construction), but I do know that I am hardly the same person who went through this the last time. And I want to encourage you, whether your shifts are microscopic or seismic, that neither are you. You are going to face this next round of healing as a different creation, one better equipped to run the paces God is taking you through. Because he wants you to win this race, crossing the finish line as one who knows they are loved—all the way down to their heaven-blessed bones.