About a year and a half ago I wrote this.
Because I had read this and been so struck by it. I read it again this morning and was just as floored. It is haunting and beautiful and so very human.
I don’t really remember much about writing my small essay of a response. (We can call it a small essay, can’t we?) I was thinking about how to love myself and the refrain that I kept coming back to was: forgive yourself. I could love myself by forgiving myself.
It’s one of those small essays that people comment on more than the others. Which always surprises me because it was so easy to write and really, that’s what people go back to?
Thing is, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Because I remember that as I wrote, the real refrain was, forgive yourself for being the girl who must east--who wants to eat.
And instinctively, intuitively, I knew I could not write that. That to write that would say something about me that I was not ready to say—that at that moment in time I still wished I could simply. not. eat. Or eat less. That I still wondered what life might look like if I didn’t need so much food.
I knew I couldn’t write about forgiving the need to eat because what that refrain really said was that I still bought into our culture’s lie that because I couldn’t wrangle my basic human impulses, I was somehow less-than. Because I couldn’t rise above some basic needs—levitate beyond the pangs of hunger—I was not as good, not as holy, not as worthwhile.
And on an intellectual level all I could think was: holy shit. That our culture and media and advertising had left me, a relatively smart and independent and educated woman, with the notion that because I was actually human I was not as good—well that’s disgusting and terrifying and infuriating. But more than that, it is absolutely wrong.
I don’t write much about religion in this space because I think there is a big difference between religion and faith, and I was raised in the Catholic Church, where faith is a relatively personal and private thing. I will always be Catholic. It is my home and my culture and I quite like it. And much as I may rage against the politics of the church and call into question certain beliefs—the faith of it is the star I follow home. again. and again.
As a storyteller I recognize that there is no greater story than that of Christ. It is endlessly fascinating and interesting and layered in a way that constantly undoes me. It is ambiguous and at times oblique and I love that--I give thanks for the strangeness of it. It is not an easy story. Not easily told, not easily understood. It is a story that demands many leaps.
Any Catholic worth his salt knows that the immaculate conception refers to the fact that Mary was born without original sin (not that she conceived Jesus without having sex). And I gotta tell you, as a child original sin was one of those things that, well, frankly pissed me off.
I spent a lot of time thinking about it. So, wait, you mean, I started life from a little bit behind? I was already flawed and imperfect and less-than when I entered this world?
My eight-year-old-self was not pleased with this notion.
It’s always been one of my great failings that I try to order the chaos of this universe into a simple mathematical equation of give and take—more and less. I add up some numbers and take away others and assume that equilibrium is the product of a relatively simple set of numbers. So that original sin was a minus that put me into the negative before I ever even drew my first breath…I found that…upsetting. It is only now as I get older that I realize ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ If there is a perfect math than it is not for me to know or make sense of or even attempt.
The other thing we talk about a lot in the Catholic Church is the Holy Trinity. That God sent his only son—we hear that again and again. But you know what we don’t hear enough--talk enough about? God’s only son—that was Him. God came Himself, in human form, to experience human suffering. That he forgives us because he knows what it is to live this life. He knows the impossibility of it. Knows the miracle that is all of us getting out of bed each morning because life. is. Really. FUCKING. HARD. SOMETIMES.
And God knows that. The humanity of that. God was once man. Was once a boy who stumbled into manhood. Who experienced fear and probably love and who never knew a day past thirty-four.
Holy shit, you know? Because that is a story.
That is the story. And when I think about the reality of that, well I am nearly crushed by the gratitude I feel for the chance to live this life—what a supreme privilege. And I give thanks for a God who knows this, who understands this, who I imagine, respects our daily attempts to sojourn on against reason and sense and gravity.
I give thanks for a God who was once a man.
And isn’t that what original sin is? Humanity. The pat on the back saying, hey kid, there is no such thing as perfect, that’s not what this life is about. Your first mistake is out of the way, and that’s actually a gift, an invitation to screw up and make mistakes and be just as human as this life demands. Not to levitate above the base needs of this life, but to dive into the heart of them.
I give thanks now for who I was at eight years old—that little girl who questioned original sin. And I give thanks now, at nearly twenty-eight that I can’t think of a more lovely and perfect and grace-filled gift.
I give thanks that I ate as much as I did. For those six impossible years. Give thanks that I was never able to levitate beyond my base human needs. Thanks that that impossible, implausible time revealed my own humanity like nothing else could.
That I am who I am and I know what I know because of it.
I give thanks for forgiveness and divinity and the need to eat day. after. day.
photo by the inestimable emma hartvig