It truly is grace

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I’ve known about this for a couple months, but the official issue of Writer’s Digest came out last week with my name listed: First Place Winner in Inspirational Writing Category! When I decided to attend the Elizabeth Berg Writers Workshop in Positano, Italy, last October, it was a huge leap of faith — telling the world I was serious about this writing thing. Elizabeth was at least as kind, generous, talented and intuitive as I imagined. Positano was more beautiful than any place has the right to be. The women who attended with me are fun, talented, interesting, and became friends. And if that was all I got out of it, well, I’d be the most fortunate person alive. But all of that beauty pales in relation to the wonder of the ways God led me to face my grief and anger and helped me find Him again. The ways He showed me grace.

If you have a little time on your hands, read on. I’ve published the complete essay below. I hope you enjoy!


Amazing grace

Lost, I wander down Positano’s serpentine winding roads, pulling in my toes and elbows as maniacal men on motorbikes speed past, honking their horns and weaving between two cars passing in opposite directions on a road barely wide enough for one. I am drawn to the crates of limone, peaches and braided onions taking their afternoon siesta, lazily awaiting transformation into culinary delights. A girl, whose long bronze legs aren’t obscured at all by her tiny miniskirt, kisses the cheeks of the brothers who run the fish shop, then climbs on her moped, leaving as quickly as she came. Now, though, she holds a white plastic bag sagging low with dense, moist meat.

Minutes later, I slow, stop, then sit on a sun-warmed, salmon-colored bench, transfixed by a woman across the piazza. In between bodies of darting boys, scrambling for the orange ball — a kick here, a header there, triumphant shouts, men in white shirts smoking on benches as they watch — she sits, massive bosoms spread as wide as her legs. These aren’t boobs, mind you; there’s nothing sexual about them. Lounging against her stomach, they’ve nurtured babies and gotten in the way of her kneading bread. Sighing, she takes up residence in her doorway, watching everything and yet nothing. Her knee-high pantyhose fight the urge to roll down her calves into her orthotic shoes. The elastic waist of her black polyester slacks cuts into her flesh beneath the embroidered pink flowers burgeoning across her chest. Forearm resting on her knees, still spread widely, her weariness echoes my own. She’s maybe 65, with coal black hair, the places where her face would be wrinkled made smooth by years of eating good food, made with oils and butters and fats. Nothing self-conscious in her manner, she is stolidly unaware that anyone would notice her. She is heavily present, loudly quiet, taking up all the space in her little corner of the world.

I want that, I think. To be solid again. Real. For months, measuring now more than a year, I’ve been lost. Oh, I can find my location on a map, but since my mom quit fighting the cancer that consumed not just her body but also my understanding of who I am, I’ve wandered, free of her anchor, devoid of direction. I wander quickly, mind you — racing from cheering on my daughter in backstroke to perching on aluminum bleachers as my son dribbles down the basketball court. I careen into the driveway, leaving the car running long enough to revise a client’s ad and answer three more e-mails, then head to the grocery for Pizza Rolls for dinner. I fill up squares on my calendar as quickly as the lifeblood drains from my soul. I replay over and over a conversation we had right after my mom’s diagnosis. “It is not tragic,” she insisted, “for a 70-year-old woman to die of cancer.”

“You are so wrong,” I muttered, as daughters have since time began.

The orange ball bounces my way and I jump out of its path. I turn away, beckoned by the sound of the sea drifting over the wall that surrounds the plaza. Roosters crow, birds call, and motorboats circle the deep blue, teal at the edges, that gently fades to the clear blue of sky, anchoring the majestic cliffs adorned with sorbet-colored buildings, clinging, climbing up the hills. The light here surrounds you, seeming to come from all sides. The life here surrounds you, seeming to come from all sides. Like the embrace of a mother. The softness of bosoms that nurtured babies and got in the way of kneading bread. A mother nothing like my own, yet completely mine.

How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me

Hidden from view by the twists and turns of the stone stairway, cooler here in the shadows, I stop to peer through a rusted red gate, topped with a starburst of metal points, and I notice the jewel-colored tile cemented into the wall next to it. Number 11, it reads, crossed out with ochre paint, the numero 13 roughly stenciled below. A thing of beauty now marked and ugly. Redefined. What happened?

A very good question, my God whispers into my soul. Why have you changed, baby girl?

I picture my mom’s face, her bald-baby-bird head tilted up but no longer in need of sustenance, lips crusty, the whites of her eyes yellowing as the plastic bag beside her ceases to fill. My sister and father and two family friends sit in the kitchen, methodically lifting bites of meatloaf and buttering the rolls left behind by Mom’s friends, glancing occasionally into the next room, where she lies. My sister’s fork stops moving. “I think she stopped breathing.”

It’s just like my mom to do it this way. Two days earlier, as I sat beside her, she awoke, her brain poisoned by her body’s toxins, eyes crazed: “What are we gonna say?”

“What do you mean, Mom? About what?”

Dad rushed in, and looking from him to me to him to me, she insisted, “We can’t say ‘surrounded by family and friends.’ Promise me. Promise me!”

Her biggest fear was underlined by the standard obituary boilerplate: that we would have to watch her go. That that moment would be tattooed onto our psyches, indelibly scarring even the deepest layers. That her last act on earth would harm us rather than help.

My sister’s face traced by silky tears, she clutches Mom’s hands. “You did it, Mom. You did it well! I’m so proud of you. You did it!”

All I can do is gulp in sobs of air. I feel the nudge of my God, offering comfort. As he whispers, Oh, my sweet child, I shrug away his embrace, turning instead toward the relentless, stinging pain of the needles tattooing the image of her still form in pure, vivid color deep inside my mind.

I once was lost…

Another day in Positano, I walk down hundreds of stone steps toward the beach, peeking in doorways, looking behind the public façades for what is hidden. Green gates reveal empty crates jumbled in the corner, broken bottles, smelly trash. Water settles in the grout between misshapen stone blocks and I step around the puddles, pausing to give my aching knees a rest, letting the breeze dry my sweat. A man exits a courtyard (“Ciao, ciao-grazie”), and I consider sliding through the gate before it latches, stepping through the rooms to finger the softness of the worn towels and aprons fluttering on the balconies. Instead, I turn and let my eyes rove over his white shirt unbuttoned halfway down, sleeves rolled up, torso long and lean and trim and lovely, before he folds himself into a miniature military-looking truck and lurches down the crowded street, clutch popping and brakes squealing in protest.

I round another bend — they’re all bends here, no straight or level paths — and a shockwave of beauty presses me back to the wall. The tableau before me is spread with orange tiled terraces with curvy iron tables. Fuchsia bougainvillea climb and preen on this stage, gaudy showgirls begging for attention. The peach and pink and salmon and butter and gold and cream buildings with striped awnings beckon from their perches, while, inside, tourists sip bellinis. Lemons ripen in the sun and olives fall from their gnarled trees onto stretched, waiting nets. Relaxing my shoulders, I turn my face toward the sky, stretch my tight neck from side to side. Envisioning myself open, stretched open waiting to receive, I am able to breathe again.

I duck into a church, where street sounds are hushed and air stifles and Italian women genuflect, loudly kissing their fingertips and offering the gesture up to God. I automatically look up, to the tops of the beams and jewel-colored glass, knowing that the builders of these churches hid tiny details up high, where they could be seen only by the eyes of God. I see nothing, but I know He does. I can’t hide from Him forever. Closing my eyes, suddenly filled, I drop my chin and pray. Lord, I cry. That’s all — one word — Lord. In a rush of emotions lacking coherence, I quietly offer it up to Him, what little I have to give.

…but now am found

The shops here beckon through tiny doorways. As white linen shirts flutter from hangers, silken scarves dance across baskets of fragrant lemon soaps. Shop owners greet me, so obviously a tourist, in my own language. Around me, couples discuss purchases in French, German, English and Italian. Behind glass cases, cheeses lie down with salamis. Mouthwatering smells of spicy paninis and buttery pastries filled with chocolate or peach further crowd the narrow pathways. Trinkets hang from placards as foreigners grab up postcards and wine stoppers with shaky “Positano” lettered around the pastel scenes. At the top of a hill, I find colorful tiles and bowls and olive oil containers, painted by hand with lemons and vines and intricate patterns. The women in the back stop chattering in their expressive, fluid ways long enough to nod hello, then go back to their tales of men and children and love and loss, voices swelling and expanding to fill the space.

Mom would love these tiles, I think. She was always the first person I bought for, her gifts the easiest and most obvious choices. She knew me the same way. I ask a shopkeeper, “Quanta costa?” What’s the cost? Will this loss simply change me or completely define me? Help me, Lord, to find value again — not just outside but within.

So very tired of navigating alone, I buy a ticket for the orange bus that will take me back. I hope. The driver doesn’t understand my question, but on impulse I climb on anyway, believing the bus to be pointed in the right direction. As we climb up and up, curving around cliffs with stunning buildings stretching toward the heavens, I feel lighter. We pick up speed as we near my stop and fly right on by. My stomach lurches, dropping down the sheer mountain faces into the sea. No, I decide. This is an adventure. I can do this. I take a deep breath to slow my rapid heartbeat and sit back. Minutes later we reach the turnaround which positions the bus the right way to follow the one-way (down) road, and within moments, the bus stops just feet from the entrance to my hotel.

Va bene. “See, it’s all good,” I hear Positano remind me. You just have to be willing to take chances now and again. Let the vibrant colors thrill you. Stop trying to make out words; listen instead for nuances. Kiss noisily, grasp shoulders and stand close to those you love. Savor delicate flavors, letting them thrill your tongue. Hurry all you want; get where you need to go. But once you’re there, once you finally arrive, linger. Open yourself, even to the pain. Because although the streets are busy and crowded, they run in both directions. And when you open to let out the pain, good things come rushing in. The outside world hushes and you find yourself behind that façade, in that secret place where not everyone can go, head nestled on that ample bosom, a beloved child once more.

Was blind, but now I see.

15 Responses to “It truly is grace”

  1. I wish I could give words to all the things my heart is feeling right now, but instead, all that come are tears.

    If I don’t read another word today and if I forget everything else I’ve ever known to be true as Monday rages on, If I just can remember this:

    “Hurry all you want; get where you need to go. But once you’re there, once you finally arrive, linger.”

    Thank you.

  2. Lisa Wheeler says:

    Well done. Really, really well done.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Beautiful. Your writing, but also your story. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Julia Byers says:

    This is so beautifully done. Your descriptions are the type that you have to slow down to read–like eating a rich dessert, I wanted to just sit here and enjoy them, rather than rushing through. Thank you for posting your story, and congratulations on winning!

  5. I am so very blessed to finally read your beautiful writings that WON the coveted Writers Digest!
    Your words were so rich and so alive with color and imagery I was with you Kelly as you made your way through Italy. Your journey is much my own with loss and grief and separation from our GOD for whom we love but do not often understand. I watched my Mother die this year, take her final breath as geese flew across the February sky. My Father curled into himself and cried out, clutching her as I wrapped my arms around his back and pressed in. I did not watch my baby brother take his last breath less than eight months before, I just wrote songs of his journey “The Longest Goodbye” and cussed out loud with the pain as they played the song in a church full of weeping people. God and I have long had trust issues, yet he has ruined me for any other. I cannot run to Buddha or booze or to Tahiti to ease my pain. Yet for the first time in my life of Riley, I couldn’t find him anywhere. I sat in the storm and felt chilled to the bone. Life turned me raw and I had my “Lt. Dan”* time of having it out with GOD. In the pain and poisons of my mind I found a calm after the storm and though I have yet to find myself again, we are back on speaking terms.
    Your beautiful story, your journey of return in his grace was another moment of healing for me. The fact that you found my music and we connected this past year has been a gift and even though I had not read this piece of writing before today I felt a kindred with you, a calm place of safety with one as kind and tender as you are. I call you friend and now I know why.
    I am thankful to God and I am thankful for you. My love, Lynn
    * From the movie Forest Gump

    • Lynn, we may not always see/feel God, but when he connects me with people like you, all I can do is breathe a grateful “thank you” to Him. I have plenty of doubts, but never about whether He’s there. And friends like you are a sweet, sweet reminder that He gives us beautiful gifts to help us see Him. Love to you. xo

  6. Kris says:

    Oh Kelly….
    Yours is a beautiful story.
    Thank you.

  7. Mona Clouse says:

    Kelly, your writing was just awesome. I felt like I was with you feeling what you must have been feeling, smelling the air with the pungent foods or the rotting smell of trash and watching the big “Boobed” lady. I felt your sadness and confusion with your feelings, yet, you made this place so far away, come to life. I’m so glad you won and also that you shared the story. I always liked your parents, though I only knew them a little. Mona

  8. Leah says:

    This is such a beautiful essay and post – thanks for sharing. I love your writing and am looking forward to exploring more of your blog and also your latest book (congrats!). I read your post on Addie’s website today and, as a musician/writer/freelancer/mom/arts administrator was curious both about the ways that you break out of more traditional ways to pray as well as how it was for you to take that initial plunge into “being serious about this writing thing,” which I have just done recently. (My blog is still very new – just a week old although I’ve been working on posts for the last several months – and explores the intersection of faith, depression, and motherhood: http://leahswannhollingsworth.com/) Anyway, thanks for your writing!

    • Leah, I’m impressed with what I’ve read of your blog so far. In my book, all of the “upside-down” prayer techniques really focus on ways to get unstuck. Taking the focus off of your own problem when your prayers grow stale; breaking down a complex situation and just praying for one part, trusting God to carry the rest; using your particular viewpoint (experience) as a way to pray for someone else; leaving room for white space (hearing from God and leaving room for Him to work), etc… There are 22 chapters, so there are more ideas than that :-). But basically the book describes ways to take artistic concepts or techniques to focus your prayer in a new way and try to see God in it all. Some of my earlier posts on this blog are more closely linked to that topic than some of my later posts.

      Taking that plunge is scary, but if you know in your heart that you are serious, just keep working and treating it that way. I’d already been writing and blogging and trying to find an agent for my book idea when I took the plunge and went to Positano. That was a huge step for me, but there are so many smaller ones. Start introducing yourself as a writer (I added it on to my other job description so it felt less phony — “I’m a graphic designer and writer”). Let your friends and family see you putting time into it. You’re already doing it with your blog. Keep asking God to guide you in the right direction and you may be amazed at what He puts in your path. Good luck, and please stay in touch!

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  10. […] post, I’m seeing the secondary benefits of some of these connections. For example, I attended a workshop with Elizabeth Berg a few years ago—and now one of her blurbs graces the front cover of my […]

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