Andrea Palpant Dilley and I met at church in Austin, where she led my writer’s group and cheered on my work when I most needed it. I’m so grateful for her voice, her generosity, her friendship, and her willingness to be here today.
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Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art
A few weeks ago, I had one of those difficult days in which I found myself looking at the clock every few minute waiting for the hours to go by. My 4-year-old was throwing fits worthy of Shakespeare—with wringing of hands and wailing—and my 11-month-old needed constant attention. Whereas I usually find some desperate, endorphin-driven pleasure in the act of creating order in my house, I found no joy in the dishes and the laundry. The day put me in such a depressive state that I started thinking about Sylvia Plath and how she put her head in an oven, not because I felt suicidal, but because I suddenly understood the profound loneliness of motherhood and why a woman might ponder such a horrifying end.
I felt, too, the unrequited love of parenthood, which demands that I give myself to these little human beings who most of the time don’t give a s*** (and shouldn’t really) about my sacrifice. On this day, I found myself wanting to live someone else’s life at the same time that I wouldn’t trade mine for the highest price.
When seven o’clock arrived, finally, my husband came home from work. He put our eldest to bed while I changed the baby’s diaper and clothes, turned on the sound machine in the bedroom, and then sat down in the rocking chair to breastfeed. As I rocked there in the dark, almost limp from fatigue, I sang the hymn I sing every night while I put the baby to bed: Be Thou My Vision.
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.
I grew up on this hymn. I sang it in the pews of an old Presbyterian church, standing in the company of two hundred people whose collective voice lifted me out of the sanctuary and gave me the deep, satisfying sense that I was part of the communion of saints. I sang it, too, at a once-a-month, informal church get-together called “Sunday Night Sing,” which my ex-hippy father led with his guitar and harmonica while sitting on a beat-up floral sofa in our living room. The rest of us sat around on the brown shag carpet, eating my mother’s homemade maple bars and reading lyrics off of printed song sheets.
When I went off to college and started nannying for a man who lost his wife in a head-on collision, Be Thou My Vision was the hymn he remembered her by and also the one that his children performed at my wedding years later. They stood beneath the high mahogany beams of my childhood church and sang a song that made me cry.
At the time, I had no idea that I would struggle with a perennial inability to live up to the words of this hymn, both as a mother and a writer.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine inheritance, now and always
As a stay-at-home mom, I wear pajamas during the day, call myself Director of Butt Wipes just to feel important, and work hard every week to protect some modicum of professional activity. During the last few years, I wrote a book in those precious hours of writing time.
In the days leading up to my publication date, I sat at my desk scouring over the manuscript in a final proof read and imagined that having a book in print would somehow give me a secure sense of personal identity. Standing on the other side of publication, I can tell you honestly that the book has been a disappointment in all the right ways and all the hard ways. When the box of glossy-covered books showed up on my doorstep, I expected fireworks but found silence. I did 30 radio interviews that failed to spike sales. I did readings as often as possible, one at my alma mater. Even when the auditorium filled to the point of standing room, I still felt dissatisfied.
Even now, I find myself caught in a series of endless hypotheticals that “seek man’s empty praise:” If only my book would sell better. If only I were better connected. If only I had another contract. If only I were as talented as that author. If only I blogged more often. If only my children slept (for the love of God, please sleep!) so I had energy to write.
I imagine a series of concentric circles where everyone else sits at the epicenter and I roam the outer rim, struggling with an ongoing desire for entrance to the inside. When I fight my way in to the next stage of concentric circles, I find it wanting, and when I find it wanting, I’m forced back into a lesson that I’ll learn and relearn over a lifetime: my sense of identity and self worth have to derive not from some illusory inner circle but from the more enduring inner sanctum of faith.
Thou and thou only, first in my heart,
High king of heaven, my treasure thou art.
That night as I sat in the rocking chair breastfeeding, I sang the hymn as much for myself as I did for my child and thought, “What am I chasing, and why?” I felt a sense of emptiness, a hunger for purpose and value and worth that went unsatiated by the mind-numbing tasks of motherhood and even by the privilege of publishing a book.
For some reason, the priests of the Old Testament came to mind. I imagined the high priest of the tabernacle in Jerusalem stepping inside the temple once a year, dragging back the veil of the inner sanctuary, and waiting in silence to sense the Holy of Holies. For my part, I had nothing but the inner sanctum of a dark, dirty bedroom that smelled of rancid diapers, and yet as I rocked, slowly, quietly, it became the temple of God’s giving, the holy space of loneliness.
As I came to the last verse, I looked down at the baby and thought, I will sing this hymn at your bedside as long as you’ll let me and maybe even then, when you’re fifteen and don’t want a lullaby anymore, I’ll sing it to you anyway, in silence. I will pray then what I pray now: that your worth comes not from what you might accomplish (like a book) nor fail to accomplish (a bestseller), not from unrequited love (your children) nor requited love (your husband) but from the simple fact that you are made in the artful image of God.
More than anything else, I will pray that you set your sights on the far horizon, pass by your mother’s failures, and find truth in the simple knowledge that you belong to the far country.
High king of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my vision, O ruler of all.
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Andrea Palpant Dilley is the author of Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt, which tells the story of her crisis of faith, her departure from the church, and her eventual return. She lives with her husband and their two daughters in Austin, Texas. To connect with Andrea, visit her on Facebook.