Monday, March 24, 2008

As God is My Woobie

When I first went to Paris, in 2001, I didn't know whether my favorite museum would be the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay or the Pompidou Center, but I expected it to be one of the three. What I did not expect was to find my heart captured by the sculptures of Auguste Rodin at the museum bearing his name. The Musee Rodin is housed in the Hotel Biron, which was Rodin's home from 1908 on. The house and its grounds display sculpture after sculpture of Rodin's, as well as many by his famed mistress, Camille Claudel.

My favorite piece is "The Kiss," crafted by Rodin from white marble and depicting a man and woman entwined in a passionate embrace. It is breathtaking. But there is a second sculpture whose image has stayed with me over the years. It is titled "The Hand of God." The idea behind it so captured Rodin's imagination that he made several versions of various sizes, some from marble and some from bronze. The version at the Musee Rodin is hewn from white marble and depicts a pair of giant hands with two small human figures, one male and one female, curled around each other like yin and yang, cupped in one of the hands. The sculpture reposes alone on a circular table in a room on the ground floor of the Hotel Biron, a light and airy room with old windows whose panes are rippled so that the landscape takes on waves it doesn't really possess. I remember that day at the Musee Rodin, how I circled the table several times, captivated by the image of Adam and Eve cradled in the palm of God's hand.

The image of God's hand curled around two of His children, small and fragile and fetus-like, remains with me. It is the image I conjure when the painful moments of my life make breathing difficult, when I want to close blinds and lock doors and shut the world away. In these moments, I curl up on my bed in a fetal position and imagine that I am the one resting, warm and safe, in the palm of my holy father's hand, except that God's hand is not hard, cold white marble, but soft, warm Technicolor skin. This act of visualization comforts me, and if I meditate on it, letting the vision fill my mind until everything else is forced out, peace inevitably flows in, if only for a little while. After all, God longs to hold us like that, cradled in His giant, loving hand, larger than the universe. If only we would let Him do it more often.

***

For Christmas this year, my mother bought me the softest, warmest throw blanket I have ever owned. It is made from some kind of synthetic fabric that looks like chenille but weighs next to nothing. It also possesses the unique ability to generate warmth, almost like an electric blanket. I have spent this winter curled up under it, or wrapped in it.

A few weeks ago, on a frigid Sunday afternoon in February, my friend Scott came over to watch a movie. It was cold in my living room, which has hardwood floors and large windows that let in a bit of a draft. Five minutes into the movie, I paused the DVD player and ran to my room to get my blanket.

Scott laughed at me when I reappeared with it. "Is that your woobie?" he asked. In the 1983 comedy "Mr. Mom," starring Michael Keaton as stay-at-home dad Jack Butler, one of the Butler children calls his baby blanket his "woobie."

"Something like that," I told Scott, curling up under my blankie and making a sassy face at him, "and when I was little, I did have a woobie."

My childhood woobie was sewn from pink cotton gingham and soft flannel. My nana, my mom's mom, made it for me when I was born. It started out with a white eyelet ruffle and little yarn bows scattered across it. By the time I was in pre-school, the eyelet ruffle had worn off, and there was a big hole in one corner...the corner I wrapped around my hand...the hand of the thumb I sucked. Yep, I was a thumb sucker. Linus has nothing on me.

My "woobie" disappeared the same fall that I started kindergarten, during a weekend trip to Pennsylvania with my stepgrandparents. It was there when we packed everything to come home, but when we arrived back in Michigan, it was nowhere to be found. Like any five year old would be, I was devastated. I cried a lot, and I didn't sleep well for a few days. But like all children, I was resilient, and I quickly learned to rely on other things for comfort and security.

Years later, some time during high school, I helped my mother clean out the attic. We went up to the musty little room under the eaves of our house and were soon covered in dust. She had me sorting through some random, unlabeled boxes, opening them to see what was inside. Nestled inside one of them, I found my woobie. I remember throwing a bit of a fit at my mother, demanding to know how it came to be there. She confessed that it had been my disapproving stepgrandmother, who thought a five year old was too big to suck her thumb and drag around a baby blanket, who had engineered the deception. She said she had figured it was time for me to give it up, and that she might as well go along with it, but that she had been irritated that she had been undermined as a parent.

I took my woobie downstairs to my room, put it with the laundry to be washed, and generally reclaimed it. But no matter how much Tide or Downy I poured into the washing machine, it failed to relinquish the musty smell it had acquired over ten years in the attic. But I still have it. I could never throw it away.

My woobie is a symbol of safety and peace. It is synonymous with other comforting childhood trivialities - the feeling of my thumb in my mouth, the pink teddy bear that lost his eyes long ago, the swaying motion of a swing in a tree, the smell of my mother's perfume. But I have had to replace it with other things, like chai lattes and chopping vegetables, like worship music and Shauna Niequist's book Cold Tangerines, like walks on the lakeshore and brief respites in my friend Linda Gross's cheerful little office at work, like the mental image of myself curled up in the hand of God.

It doesn't matter how old we are; we all need safety and security, comfort and peace. It would be nice if those things came simply and easily, the way they did when they came in the form of a childhood woobie. Then again, if they did, perhaps we wouldn't value them quite as much. We might even take them for granted.

***

My life has been fraught with pain and tension lately, with circumstances that are beyond my control and harsh words that I can't seem to forget.  Cold Tangerines has reminded me that it is times like this, times of desperation and helplessness, that drive us back toward God when we have gotten too independent, too apt to take control of our own lives. Desperation leads us to pray, even if all we do is repeat Please God, please God, please God because that is the best we can do at the moment.

Cold Tangerines has also reminded me that in times of desperation, we think we will never be grateful for what we have suffered; we think we will never look back at the bad times with thanksgiving. We just long for whatever it is to be over so we can forget about it and move on. But the truth is that weeks later, maybe months or even years later, we will eventually find a way to look back and feel gratitude for what we've experienced, as terrible as it was while we were going through it. After all, this is God's way. He lets us curl up in His hand, safe and protected, with Him as our woobie, and then, when we've had a little rest, He stands us up on our feet again, a little stronger and a little wiser than we were before, and gives us a gentle push forward as if to say, See? See what I've made of your pain? Now go on, get back to your life and all the things I have for you to do. And we take a few tottering steps forward, then walk a bit, and then we're off and running. And every so often, we can look back and marvel at how far we've come.