Finding Love in the Present Tense

 

Finding Love in the Present Tense -- Ashley Hales -- The Mudroom

On the cusp of womanhood, we dreamt of boys who would sweep us off our feet, play the guitar, and in the sun-drenched summer days of southern California, carry a surfboard under muscular tanned arms. We wrote bad poetry and were waterlogged from long days at the pool. We ate cookies, drank Coke, and didn’t worry about waistlines while we spilled slumber party secrets. We traded best friend necklaces and dreamt of friendship that would always return like the rhythm of ocean waves.

We were 17 — babies in love. I wrapped telephone cords around my finger during those hours where we plumbed emotional depths. Conversations about the sunny future where our hopes and dreams always seemed to align perfectly. Soul mates. Destiny. Knight in Shining Armor. You name it — we trotted out each cliche, but they felt newly awoken in our mouths. There were novels written in kisses in those early days. But then there were budgets, moves, babies, and ministry that consumed all of our creative energy

Then, years later, there was the fresh newborn head smell that I willed my senses to remember. Each babyhood became somehow more precious because I realized how fleeting time really was. When before, I’d smirk at the coos from gray-haired ladies, now I realized I was well on my way to becoming one. By my third baby (I’m a slow learner), I had become used to the lack of sleep, the mess, the way motherhood pours you out from reserves you didn’t know you had. And I fell in love anew with blonde curls, sparkling eyes, and how I could fully be someone’s entire world. That my body, my arms, my attention could meet every need. 

Then there were the friendships forged over red coffee mugs, the ones where we owned our anger, our feeble steps of faith and doubt, how as pastor’s wives we felt broken, vulnerable, and confused about calling. How we just needed a date night to fall in love with our husbands again. How we vacillated between fiercely loving our children while also wishing they’d just leave us for a moment of peace. When we moved away and the miles separated us, I cried to you on the phone, shut up in my minivan: I didn’t know how to do life away from you. And now, you’ve lost your dad, I am miles away and I do not know how to hold up your grief that I cannot see. 

***

In the wide, gaping space of adulthood, we are in the present tense. We have left behind the years where dreams were curled in the future, little shoots of spring promise. We are not yet in the autumn of nostalgia, where the past has a hazy Instagram filter — where we only remember the baby smells and not the tantrum that cannot be fixed. Now, here, our feet are cemented in the present. 

There are some blissful people (I imagine) for whom the present tense is where they live, move, and have their being. For me, the present tense is not my immediate bosom friend. It is rather a spiritual discipline for me to chase beauty and sustained attention in the here and now. Finding the Kingdom of God in my laundry piles is not a cute way for me to hop on the hand-lettered, peony-picture-taking bandwagon. It is rather, a discipline to keep me sane when I hear the siren call drawing me back into a dreamland of the past or I start wishing for a different future. 

It’s easy to let self-pity have the final word. When the friendship ebbs, when the romance grows routine, when the baby keeps crying, I turn the inevitabilities of relational distance into an indictment that it is my fault. I am the failure. I cannot scurry enough, learn enough, be sexy enough, be gracious enough, to fill up all the cracks of belonging in my friends, husband, children. I have failed to be the world. 

There lies the rub: I have always wanted to be someone else’s entire world. But life keeps bumping into my self-centered idealism, scattering the rays of hope that I, like Juliet, will be someone’s sun. This fierce need to be all — though it can look like care and depth — is at heart, pride. It’s then that I need to get hit upside the head with a 2×4. Such a blessed knock out is a gift. It’s only then when I step back and say, good grief woman, you were never meant to be the sun, to have the world revolve around you, for you to be the source and sustenance of life. 

You were meant to be the moon — content to make your rotations, reflecting back glory, not a glory vacuum. But such a life feels claustrophobically small. It feels scary. It feels so counter to the “be yourself, do-it-all” mantra that is a white middle class woman’s birthright. Privilege has allowed me to stay in the dark awhile longer, to have the luxury to type words out on a screen. To see work as self-fulfillment. To not worry about the safety of my blonde children. To fret about square footage when others want daily bread. It’s time to redirect my attention to the sun. 

So, my friends, my children, my husband, my sisters across the world: I repent. I have been consumed by myself. I have carried your feelings and understood them according to my own narrative — even thinking myself such a great listener, so intuitive, so wise. I have inputted your pain, your grief, your dreams into a story where I have always been the heroine. We have dreamt dreams together, you and I, but they were not fully for you. They were always, at least in part, dreams about me. Here in the present tense, I want more for you. I want more for us. 

I want a Love that steadies, that is borne from the mundane, that floods hope in dark places. I know such Love will be the death of me. It was there at the end, when I bore down with each baby crowning, that I was sure I’d split in two, that there was not strength in me for a pain that redeemed. And yet, each time, minutes later, after the cursing, there was joy, laughter, and a newborn smell that was life itself. Dying to self is that same thin space, with a paper-thin veil between death and glory. But you see, Love has already given Himself for me. He has poured out Himself as a drink offering so that I drink the rich wine of God’s favor. I only pray that Jesus will be sweetest here in the present tense.

 

Image courtesy of the author.

Ashley Hales

Ashley Hales

Writer and Editor at aahales.com
Ashley Hales holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. But she spends most of her time chasing around her four children and helping her husband plant a church. She writes at AAHales.com and loves to make friends on Twitter.
Ashley Hales

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  • Fiona Lloyd

    Thanks for this, Ashley. I find it far too easy to get absorbed by self-pity and regret, instead of enjoying and celebrating life in the present. I berate myself for not being “enough”, instead of remembering that Jesus is more than enough for all I need.

    • Me too, Fiona, me too. May we see ourselves in the glorious light of redemption. Thankful for you.

  • This is so beautifully written. And thought-provoking. Learning to be in the present tense is a constant struggle. We want to be everything for someone else and at the same time want it all to be about us.

    • Exactly. Glad to know I’m not alone. Thanks for commenting, Kamsin. And thanks for the kind compliment about the writing. That keeps me going.

  • “It is rather a spiritual discipline for me to chase beauty and sustained attention in the here and now.” It really is a spiritual discipline that I still struggle with. You have voiced some of my own thoughts and feelings, so I understand what you are saying. Thanks so much for sharing you own struggles and your wise words. Blessings to you, Ashley!

    • Thanks friend, I am always so grateful for your presence here as a fellow traveler. 🙂 Blessings to you as you chase beauty!

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