How do you feel about me now?
I was talking to an old friend the other day, and when I asked how he was, he said, “I’m getting by.” “Getting by? Not tearing it up, not taking ‘em down, and taking names?” I joked. “No,” he replied too dryly, “not at my age.”
“Well, how old are you now?” I inquired playfully. “Eighty-three,” he said. “Oh,” I paused. “And, I tell you, Nat,” he continued, “I don’t know about these last twenty years. I just don’t know what happened to me. Never imagined my life would turn out like this…” he spoke, trailing off.
His talk prompted me to wonder about the girl I once was, the woman I used to be, the mother I had imagined in myself at the outset, the scholar I prepared, the indefatigable friend I was to my peers as a teenager, the filial duty I felt in my youth, the honor I ascribed to my vocation as an educator, the family I tried to create. I have changed too, I realized. These last twenty years have been markedly transformational for me as well. As I considered, I saw in all of the things I tried to do how my spirit and my faith walked alongside my life unfolding as companion and guide and interlocutor.
At each step along the way, my faith both informed and framed the meaning of my choices and my disposition toward the outcomes of my efforts. For a long time, there was a harmony and an alignment between my meaning, my disposition, and my experience of living purposefully. But then, sure as rain, the wheel turned, and I began to lose clarity on that alignment. The idealism I had brought to each of my roles and endeavors was tested and tried as a matter of course. But, in some instances, the trial was egregious.
I concluded that some disappointments run so deep they change who we are. Some wounds are structural enough that they scar the tissue permanently and alter the curvature of our spines. Some blows are so devastating that our speech transforms and our thinking must be rewired to survive. Whether they are inflicted by the self or by others, whether by accident or intent or illness, injury has a common thread – it calls the Spirit to awaken and challenges it with the question: “How do you feel about me now?”When I had a six-month old baby with a special medical need, my husband lost his work. I was tasked to teach not only my full-time load but an overload of four to five courses per term. I calculated that I taught two and a half full-time loads for the college. It was the same year I applied for tenure and wrote my first book. I nursed my child and never missed a feeding. I felt like a warrior, even though I had developed a chronic strep infection in my ears and eyes. In the springtime of that year, when I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel, I got a phone call telling me that a member of my family was going to jail, and I discovered a whole new world of hurt as I learned to navigate the ropes of criminal justice. When my book was published, I showed it to another close relative, who said, “Well, you’re no Sarah Pailn. Hers has sold x number of copies…” I would remain the sole full-time earner in my house for eight years.
I stood presenting my professional work and life in the front of a crowded room at an invited job interview for a job I had not myself solicited. I was excited by the opportunity because my work as head of house, despite the overload, was insufficient and baldly underpaid. I was surprised in the morning of the interview when I learned that my resume and electronic portfolio had not been distributed or viewed by any of the search committee members. I was confused when I never met the committee convened together. I was troubled when I walked unescorted back and forth between individual faculty members’ offices. I was alarmed when I learned I had no appointment with a dean. I was pierced at the research presentation part of the day when one of the principle members of the search committee stood up and said boldly, I don’t see how you are a theologian or how your work makes any difference. It was to me an inexplicable, uninterpretable, public assassination attempt, and I had the humiliating task of trying to respond with dignity as I came to understand that I was the female-equal-opportunity-employment candidate. It happened at my beloved alma mater.
I started having horrendous pain in my back and passing kidney stones regularly, roughly around the same time. I was diagnosed with Medullary Sponge Kidney disease, a painful and chronic congenital disorder in which the ducts of the kidney are spongy and pocketed. The result is insufficient filtration and distribution of minerals, subsequent stone formation, calcium deficiency in the body, and sometimes calcification of the kidney itself. I saw images of my kidneys, filled with bright white calcium stones as numerous as the stars in the night sky, and I realized… oh, this is going to be for the rest of my life. These scans are the crystal ball, showing me in each little spot of light a future of exhaustion, pain, trips to the ER, surgeries.
Worse than the disease was the basic confusion, frustration, and, in fact, irritation my family often showed me when I would collapse on the floor. I would hear muttering: Why doesn’t she just drink more? Why doesn’t she just eat better? (as I vomit up another glass of water.) Why is she so tired? She just lays there like this all the time… (as I heard complaints about the missing toilet paper, the fork that has been insufficiently cleaned, or the cabinet I haven’t wiped out.)
Still, I worked in good faith, trying to keep it up with a brave grin, until I learned that colleagues were being dishonest with and about me, for reasons pertaining to their own positioning. That’s when I think I started to change what I valued. My staple, my energy, my investment… for what? Overtime? Well-organized cabinets? Does my disease annoy you? Here, I discovered the moment when the alignment of action + value and energy + meaning began to fall apart for me. And, here, I began to hear the Great Spirit asking: “How do you feel about me now?” And, I find myself stammering even still, “Who are You, Who turn out to be so different from anything I have heard?”
As Mary Daly so poignantly described of the foreground, I have begun to see it in its true light, and as the background emerges, the value I have placed on so many things in the foreground no longer matters. In my case, after all the career investment of my life’s energy (that I now understand to be much more limited than before and which was invested for the good of family and church and institution and society), I discover I am working in a system whose main outcome for the overwhelming majority of mid-range students is simply debt. This is the stuff of spiritual crisis.
But, sitting here long enough in the new vision, I find I am not disturbed.
As the nicety of my past self sloughs off, I come to understand that lots of things were not so nice. Treating problems kindly for the supposed sake of others, for convenience, for safety, or out of fear was and is a course of conditioned compliance. The cleanness of role acceptance in family and professional relationships is not in fact cleanness but make-up masking corruption. Participation in structures of inequity is not a demonstration of good faith but rather of faithlessness in oneself and others as responsible co-creators and potential agents of change. The disturbing crisis is not born of new vision but rather of complicity despite new vision. Naming a problem is not the same thing as creating one.
Yes, these twenty years have produced something very different from what I had imagined. I am sure the next twenty will do the same. And, I am grateful. For, I hear that Spirit asking me, “How do you feel about me now?” And, I realize, I am listening. And, I realize that here lies perhaps my first-ever, genuine opportunity for real faith, truth seeking, and an exercise of my nascent human courage.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.