Excerpt from Nichole Nordeman’s book, “Love Story: The Hand That Holds Us From The Garden To The Gates”.
Chapter entitled: Mary
Things to Write in Wet Cement
I WAS TELLING my therapist recently about my terminal case of people pleasing and how easily paralyzed I am by the faintest whiff of disapproval. It’s just so absurd. But so very real. Even the slightest smug, judgmental glance from Martha across the restaurant (an immaculate woman who is not digging her toddler’s mac and cheese out of her bra) can send me into a tailspin, resulting in one of two scenarios: (A) I will limp behind her all the way to her Lexus, apolo- gizing for being such a frayed mother with misbehaving children and a woefully inadequate bra, or (B) I will quietly explain to my kids, through a steeled jaw, that we do not care about that mean lady. She is not a Christian. And the first one to make a voodoo doll out of french fries in her like- ness gets a sucker. Then I will excuse myself to retrieve the promised sucker and let the air out of her tires. I am not going to be diminished by a woman wearing seven-inch eyelashes and chewing Prada gum.
In these moments, my best friends across the table are well rehearsed in lovingly mouthing Let. It. Go.
Excuse me? A total stranger has frowned at me with slight disapproval? Who lets it go, I ask you??
Oh. You do.
I swear to you, I don’t know how this came to be. Both of my parents raised me to rise above petty insecurities that might tether my self-esteem to someone else’s opinion. To follow instinct and not crowds. To shrug off criticism and condescension and pay attention instead to who I know I am and, more importantly, who God says I am.
I vaguely remember being that person once.
But I felt something dramatically shift in my self-esteem when I became a recording artist. Before that, I was a career student, during which and certainly after which I was a career waitress. I felt pretty okay about being a waitress because I was good at it, and everyone agreed on that point. I have a black belt in multitasking and could take simultaneous orders for seven tables, never write a single thing down, bring out the hot food in a timely manner, and suggest an appropriate wine that would complement the linguini. When my customers felt I had served them well, they rewarded me with a generous gratuity. The end.
Nobody sped home to blog about my performance with the parmesan grater. I never tweeted a favorite passage of Scripture that really inspired my shift. Nobody had to slap a marketing sticker on the front of my apron to sell me to the customer, and I did not spend two hours in hair and makeup before Meatball Monday.
Then one Saturday night in Santa Monica, I got my shift covered so I could enter a songwriting competition with a song I wrote that was around sixteen minutes long. The judges let me win so that the song might mercifully end, and less than a year later I was hauling all my possessions to Nashville in my ’96 Chevy Cavalier to work on my first solo project. Collaborating and recording music was a high like none other I had known. I didn’t think I could ever be happier or more fulfilled.
But once I finished writing and dreaming and recording, I was suddenly noshing on a steady twenty-four-hour-a-day diet of someone else’s opinion of my music and my life. I was terrified about what was being spoken, written, critiqued, and picked apart as I slept naively through the night. I could hardly function from the paranoia. I was frantic for everyone, from the radio station to the mail room, to love and adore my fledgling new music, and that just wasn’t statistically possible.
Now that I have the embarrassing gift of perspective and an ounce more maturity, I can easily roll my eyes about this painful chapter. I’ve heard the claims that artistic people are a wee more insecure than the rest of the humans on our planet. I have to agree. I would add self-absorbed.
I think when you choose to live your life and your art pub- licly, you also unknowingly plant the small, inevitable seed of narcissism in the garden of your heart. Whether it grows into the kind of thick and impenetrable jungle that’s begging for a machete or simply sprouts up as the occasional weed that needs a good tug is a matter of what your sprinkler system looks like.
In response to my obsession with other people’s opinion about my life, my therapist shared with me that the average amount of time a person spends thinking about another person is around eight seconds at a time before he or she starts thinking me-related thoughts again. That’s it. Just eight seconds. Even if it’s your mom. Or your spouse. Or the news about your pastor’s wife’s cancer diagnosis. It’s not that we are incapable of empathy, but eight seconds is about all our self-absorbed leachy little human souls can manage before we begin sucking on our own skin again, trying to get drunk on ourselves.
In other words, Nichole, nobody thinks about you that much, sweetie pie.
I glanced up at him from my text.
I’m sorry, I sniffed, were you saying something? Was it about me?
My preoccupation with self and the approval of others began at an early age. Some of those memories are still clear enough to snorkel in.
I attended a small Christian school, and in the fifth grade my teacher wrote my name on the upper-left corner of the chalkboard, the section reserved for criminals, ne’er-do-wells, and kids who played with matches. It was the first and only time this happened. I was probably talking out of turn or braiding my friend’s hair when I should have been locating the capital of Nebraska on a map. No biggie, it was a gentle warning in chalk. He didn’t cane me on the knee pits. Besides, the chalkboard ordeal happened to lots of the other kids all day long.
Just . . . not to me.
I still remember that devastating, bottomless feeling of failure. I looked straight down at the US map on my desk while large lakes of tears pooled inside my pink glasses, observing, in my distress, that Nebraska suddenly had a coast. With such a public failure, word would inevitably spread before recess, which meant I had exactly two hours to find a quarter for the pay phone and re-enroll in a different school. It was over. How did these people expect me to carry this reputation into the sixth grade? Why didn’t I just go ahead and start handing out cigarettes after lunch?
Years later, when I was sixteen, I called my mom twenty minutes before my curfew. I was at a friend’s house, and it had begun really storming outside. The car I drove that summer was a Jeep Renegade with the hard top off—because that is the law, if you own a Jeep during a Colorado summer. The open air is far too glorious to legalize the use of windows. The weather guy was saying that the rain would continue for several hours, and I told my groggy mom on the phone that I didn’t really want to drive home in that open-air Jeep during a storm; I wanted to sleep on my friend’s couch instead. She agreed, thanked me for calling, and said she expected to see me first thing tomorrow.
When I strolled in the next morning with my 7-Eleven donut, right away I knew something was horribly wrong. Both my parents looked like they had crawled out of a Tim Burton movie, all crazy limbs with wiry hair and black beady eyes darting around like roaches. Tossing the phone to each other. Pacing the floor. Pressed up against windows. Rubbing their temples with their roachy fingers. Trying to Lamaze breathe.
I stood there for a few seconds eating my donut, observing this madness with a growing unease, until I said in the small- est voice possible, “Hello? Everything okay?”
It was so very not okay.
My mom, who could never even really pull off a decent spanking when I was little, suddenly lunged at me with some insane pile-driver move followed by an epic sobbing attempt to kiss my face off. My dad initially just glared across the kitchen like, Well, how nice of you to join us, young lady, and how are things going down at the METH LAB this fine morn- ing? Then he moved in with bone-crushing hugs while my mom resumed the punching/kissing bit.
It took us a very short time to figure out that Mom had answered the phone in a deep sleep the night before and had no memory of our conversation. No memory of the rain. The friend’s couch. The responsible daughter who called be- fore curfew. Actually this came as no real shock to anyone because the woman could sleep through the Pasadena Rose Parade. On a float. My parents had been on the phone since daylight trying to locate me, calling hospitals and morgues, well-known cult compounds, and anyone they’d ever met, including those they might have chatted with on a plane for five minutes. I barely beat the sheriff to my house.
Within a few minutes of solving the mystery, they col- lapsed into the exhausted laughter of fresh relief while my mom kept doing the “I coulda had a V8” smack on her fore- head. Such a silly goose!
Hey, it happens, chuckled my understanding dad. What a dang hoot!
I was livid. LI. VID.
I didn’t speak to Mom for hours and hours. Maybe days.
I was sure that all of Douglas County was under the (albeit brief ) impression that I was one of those sketchy teenagers, out until dawn with my smudgy black eyeliner, sitting in a mall parking lot with public school kids listening to Depeche Mode. And doing God knows what else. All the parents, all the teachers, the ER nurses, and morticians thought that I was THAT kid. And I was anything but that kid. (I was that kid much later.) My entire reputation had been dragged through the gutter because my own mother was too sleepy to remem- ber how perfect and responsible I was.
With my hypersensitivity to the opinions of others, and my determination to maintain a certain image among those who know me, might know me, used to know me, or by chance happened to pass me once on the sidewalk, it’s no surprise that I have a particular admiration for Mary, the mother of Jesus, and an appreciation for what it must have cost her teen- age heart to bear the weight of the whispers.
We think of Mary with the greatest respect—when we bother to think of her. Usually that happens at Christmas (and if we are honest, usually only at Christmas, unless maybe we’re Catholic). We start reflecting in earnest about the girl who gave us Jesus. Like so many of the most beloved charac- ters in Scripture, she has become spectacularly simplified. It’s an inescapable part of our Christian culture. Ask a child what color Elmo is, and he will say red. Ask him about the color of Mary’s robe in the manger scene, and he will say blue. Church nativity plays and artists’ renderings for years have given us not just Mary’s wardrobe but her posture as well. Kneeling. Hovering. Glowing. Beaming. Adoring.
But let’s get real. This is childbirth, folks. Where is the tsunami of sweat? The fresh claw marks on Joseph’s arm? And I have yet to see an artist depict what the straw beneath Mary would really have looked like.
I’m not going to waste valuable ink trying to paint a more realistic birthing picture. You’ve heard the stories. If you aren’t a mom, ask one. Then watch for this universal response. She will shudder a little and then exhale sharply through pursed lips and mutter something like, “Totally worth it . . . totally, totally worth it.”
I was flooded with Mary thoughts as I saw my neighbors’ teenage daughter the other day. She is a sweetheart, totally trustworthy, and a great baby- and housesitter. Watching through the window as she walked her little dog, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be about her age, going about your business, housesitting for a neighbor one minute, and nine months later find yourself entrenched in fresh animal manure, bearing down in labor and slicing the darkness with a scream too primal for filmmakers to ever really replicate convincingly.
The birth alone is enough reason to honor Mary. Her emotional journey is another.
Apart from the arduous trek to Bethlehem, some other familiar themes present themselves in her story. Her fierce obedience, her courage and raw sacrifice, for starters. Her circumstance was so unthinkable. So unfair, from my per- spective. From her Magnificat in the gospel of Luke, we know that her soul magnified the Lord and that her spirit rejoiced when she learned of her role in God’s gripping love letter to the world. At some point she understood (at least in part) the priceless honor bestowed upon her.
It just makes me wonder when, in her teenage heart, she reconciled that same honor with all the dishonor she would endure. I wonder if before acceptance, before resolve and joy, she felt even a little dread. I wonder if she cared about the whispers.
I wonder if she ever wished she hadn’t been picked.
Like that moment when you’re lined up in gym class. Speaking for myself, I do my best to block these memories. I am the least athletic person you’ll ever meet. Walking upright is a daily miracle that I celebrate. I was equally uncoordinated as a child and teen. This is a matter for another time, but why do gym teachers make such a colossal event out of singling out nonathletes? I don’t remember my choir teacher saying, “Okay, folks! Everyone who’s an awesome singer, line up over here, and we’ll call you the captains. Then you may select your teammates from the devastating options of nonsingers in this other line, a virtual wasteland of tone deafness. Good luck, everybody! And remember, we’re all winners!”
This absolutely did not happen in choir class. Not in al- gebra either, I noticed. It was just another special perk of PE.
I knew in any lineup for a kickball game, it was all over for me. I was the least likely to do anything respectable on a gym floor, except possibly clean it. I prayed fervently for the Rapture every single time. There is nothing worse than being singled out and asked to display your insecurities and weak- nesses for all. Time and time again, the nonathletes’ anthem rises up from the gangliest of us. Dontpickme. Dontpickme. Dontpickme. That day when Mary found herself shaking in front of the towering, fearsome angel and finally understood the reason for his visit, I wonder if the first echoes of that anthem might have been stuck in her throat like a frantic internal whisper.
Dontpickme. Dontpickme. Dontpickme.
I wonder when exactly she came to terms with what it would cost her emotionally and socially. No surprise, that’s the part of Mary’s story that really levels me. I would honestly rather give birth in a barn, without an epidural, than have to tell people that God got me pregnant and face their ridicule day after humiliating day. To have to watch my parents’ faces, torn between the desperate need to believe me and every- thing that common sense is asking of them instead. To shuffle around the streets with a growing belly and the very lonely knowledge that it’s the Messiah who’s kicking my ribs. Those are situations my pride would just never allow. I would have to scream, instead, from every thatched roof, “JUST YOU WAIT, SUCKERS!!! JUST YOU WAIT!!!”
This would be why Gabriel might, in great haste, lose my address.
It’s also why, for me, the heart of Mary’s story is her aston- ishing humility. Humility as both an initial response and an ongoing choice. That’s a new idea for me. I think of humility as something you have or do not. Like DNA, camping out on a chromosome. Humility is like a dimple or a widow’s peak. It doesn’t respond to effort. It just is.
I don’t think about people choosing humility. I have trouble putting myself in Mary’s sandals as she woke up every morning, splashed water on her face, and opened the door to a community snickering about her “situation,” and then choosing humility. Her decision to diminish herself enough to make room for Jesus makes me want to cry.
My teenage memories are too fresh perhaps. Here’s a recap. Me: the sun. You: orbiting.
I wonder if she had any normal teen moments in the face of all this. I can’t help but think she may have wept some bit- ter tears in her mother’s lap despite how her soul magnified the Lord. I think maybe her mother wept a little too over all the normal and wonderful moments they would never know together. The wedding. The children. The traditions and memories. The stuff of moms and daughters. Instead she watched her baby, heavy with another, climb on a mule and head into the darkness toward an unknown future. A future where mothers don’t hold the hands of daughters in labor. Or rock their grandsons. The death of even a routine dream is still a death.
Perhaps Mary, having understood the magnitude of being hand-chosen by God, was still looking over her shoulder once or twice on the way out of town . . . watching her simple hopes dissolve as the night swallowed her. Maybe her head was able to process the intellectual knowledge of God’s amazing favor, but surely it took awhile for her heart to catch up. But that’s okay, isn’t it? To feel reluctant in the face of the extraordinary dreams of God because we’re having a little trouble prying our fingers off our own dreams for the weekend? I live there.
Like everyone else, I think of Mary at Christmas. But my images of her aren’t always of her trembling before the angel on her bedroom floor. Or in a stable, backlit with candles while pressing her beautiful baby to her breast.
I picture her, instead, standing alone at night, in the middle of a construction site. Almost alone, that is. I watch her pick up a small stick in the street, step over the warning cones and caution tape and kneel down at the foundation of what will one day be a beautiful chapel. She knows she will never see its walls or its stained glass. She will never sit in its pews or kneel at its altar. She won’t ever experience firsthand the tears of worship and the joy the world will offer the baby inside her. Somehow she knows this. But for a moment in history, she kneels at the founda- tion of it all, with the hope of the world sitting on her bony shoulders, the question and crisis of all mankind begging for an answer.
I watch her find a fresh square of wet cement and then freeze for just a moment, hovering over it. For more than eight seconds. She closes her eyes and breathes in the night air. Then, with a fresh and trembling courage and the small stroke of a twig, I watch her scrawl the word yes.
The yes that will be etched into the foundation of the world for all time.
The yes the angels breathlessly awaited.
The kind of yes that is deaf to opinion or gossip or petty concern about reputation.
A yes that is immune to self.
A yes that isn’t even concerned with the details of the question . . . because God is the asker.
She turns and wraps her shawl around herself against the wind. It’s blue. And she continues into the dark alone. Almost alone, that is. And then I hear her whisper.
Totally worth it.
Totally, totally worth it.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:38 niv1984)
“Be Born In Me”
Lyrics from Music Inspired by The Story
Everything inside me cries for order, Everything inside me wants to hide. Is this shadow an angel or a warrior?
If God is pleased with me, why am I so terrified?
Someone tell me I am only dreaming, Somehow help me see with heaven’s eyes.
And before my head agrees, my heart is on its knees, Holy is he. Blessed am I.
Be born in me, be born in me.
Trembling heart, somehow I believe that you chose me.
I’ll hold you in the beginning, You will hold me in the end.
Every moment in the middle, make my heart your Bethlehem.
Be born in me.
All this time we’ve waited for the promise, All this time you’ve waited for my arms.
Did you wrap yourself inside the unexpected
So we might know that Love would go that far?
I am not brave, I’ll never be;
The only thing my heart can offer is a vacancy. I’m just a girl,
Nothing more, But I am willing. I am yours.