Teresa of Avila once had the devil appear to her while she was sitting on the loo. Her pants were around her ankles, her face a mixture of piety and carnal instinct. For at that particular moment Teresa happened to have a prayer book in one hand and a cinnamon roll in the other. The devil- as Eugene Peterson tells the story -began berating her sanctimoniously. To which Teresa responded: “The sweet roll is for me, the prayers are for God, and the rest is for you.”
I’m in the process of teaching my little sister to drive. She is apt and appropriately confident. She grips the wheel with both hands while I sit on mine and give pointers (“turn signal, please”; “you can go a little faster”; “No, not right ‘right’- ‘right’ as in go left!”; “dear heavens!”; “well it’s a good thing poor Mr. McGregor is still spry on his toes, now isn’t it?” ). My backseat input is always the kind a student tolerates but a wife- I learned recently- doesn’t exactly appreciate.
On these drives, I have to look twice at my sister to remind myself that the child I knew is now a young, beautifully capable woman. She’s nearing the point of taking the wheel in a new car, stealing a forlorn glance at that faithful clunker called “childhood” which we all trade in, then leave behind.
Mine was a youth of sunsets and tree forts; a stuffed whale named Humphrey, backyard hamster graves, worn paperbacks, a Jeep with it’s windows down, that awkward first kiss, precociously highlighted Bibles, a thrice broken heart and the ominous feeling associated with too much cheap vodka. It easy- tempting even- to divide my memories into the “goods” and “bads.” The latter category is blessedly sparse (though that may account for my shortcomings as a writer). But there’s something inevitable about the transition from ‘child’ to ‘grown-up,’ something that’s burdened with more nostalgia than having to now clean up your own mess. It’s a bit like I’m driving for the first time; but the devil is in the passenger seat berating me because I don’t have both hands on the wheel. And I haven’t a clue where I’m going.
Annie Dillard once shared a story from heaven’s throne. It was a day of great rejoicing. For God had just parted the Red Sea then closed it on the Egyptian army; Israel was free and the angels celebrated. They danced, they sang, they praised the Lord for his victory. But God was nowhere to be found. Eventually they asked the archangel where he’d gone.
He’s off crying, Michael replied.
Because hundreds of his children just drowned in the Red Sea.
Life is an awful lot like St. Teresa and the loo. It’s a prayer book and a donut, which both feel like indigestion. We want to draw lines down the middle, to separate the taboo from the glorious, lost from the found. But every ant that drowns is a thorn in the crown. And- try though we may- it’s not possible to separate the good memories from the bad. Because they intersect at the meeting of heaven and earth where they together form a cross; you can’t have one without the other. And if the cross was anything, it was Jesus showing us how to take our hands off the wheel and give Satan the finger before driving off a cliff. I don’t mean to be crass. But the pursuit of sainthood can be poignantly reckless.
Driving lessons have become a way- for me- of telling the devil to take all my memories and then watch as he refuses. It’s a way for standing up in the loo, wiping my butt and leaving with my love for God in one hand and love for all things good in the other. Watching my baby sister drive has become a way, not of reckoning with the past, but indulging in it. Realizing that ours is a God who turns shit into daisies. And it’s so fun to see the devil perturbed.
You look like a fool, he tells me.
Indeed I must and perhaps I do. But grace is a fool’s game; even Paul said so.
And so is childhood, so is driving, so are so many things. But it’s a game I’m willing to play and a road I’m willing to drive, sitting on my hands, watching another’s childhood begin fading in the mirror. For God said it was good, and it is good, and it will be good. We can take our hands off the wheel. And, sitting upon the loo, we’ll watch the devil lose his own game.
Nonetheless, all things considered, it is a good thing that Mr. McGregor is so spry.