As a Child Rests

As a Child Rests April 1, 2016
Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child, American, 1844 - 1926, c. 1905, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection
Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child, American, 1844 – 1926, c. 1905, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection


I will never become a grown-up, because I don’t like hot drinks.

When I was a little girl, I tried to drink hot chocolate after coming in from the snow, but it burned my tongue every time. I let it cool down and then drank it, but it was neither warm nor comforting; regular chocolate milk was much nicer. Along with every child my age, I watched the BBC’s dramatization of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe when PBS showed it, and salivated at Edmund’s mysterious hot drink. The taste I imagined was like a melted caramel candy at warm soup temperature, not warm enough to burn the tongue or scald your fingers. I was sorely disappointed many years later when I received a copy of The Narnia Cookbook and found that Edmund’s special drink was hot chocolate, and it still burned my tongue. It was, in its way, more disappointing than finding out that Turkish Delight was lukewarm perfume-flavored jell-o.
I used to watch my mother and father sipping coffee after supper. I knew that the true mark of a grown-up was enjoying coffee, not only a hot drink but a bitter hot drink. Grown-ups did not chug their beverages and run outside to play; grown-ups sipped them and talked about politics.
When I went to graduate school I was determined to be a grown-up, so I bought a large container of instant coffee and a travel mug. I brought a nice hot mug of instant coffee to class the very first day, and I tried to sip it in a grown-up way while I listened to a lecture on pre-Socratic philosophy. Of course I couldn’t keep it down at all; I gagged on the first sip, and spilt foul-tasting hot liquid down the front of my sensible new blouse, the one I was determined to keep nice. I will also never be a grown-up because I always spill staining liquids on my good clothes. Coffee stains and grease stains are ubiquitous for me, like Oscar Wilde’s carnation.

I didn’t want to waste my coffee, so I kept trying to convince myself that I liked it. I didn’t. Nothing could make me like hot coffee, and especially not hot instant coffee crystals. Finally, I gave up and used the coffee as a beauty treatment. I was staying in the off-campus graduate students’ dormitory, and the women’s floor of that dormitory had a bathtub that no students ever used because of the ominous rust stains near the drain. But I knew the tub was safe, because I cleaned it myself. I got bleach from the janitors’ closet and scrubbed it meticulously once a week. So, no matter how crowded the shower room got, I always had my own private tub for long soaks. I had read that models rubbed coffee grounds on their legs for cellulite, and I decided to take a bath in coffee for the same effect. I poured the whole canister into the hot water, and I read H. G. Welles in the bathtub for about an hour when I should have been going to bed. I will also never be a grown-up because I never go to bed on time, and because I believe the nonsense beauty treatment tips I read about in magazines.
After my soak, I went to drain the tub and realized that the rubber stopper was stuck. I couldn’t get it out, and I couldn’t see to pry it open because the tub was full of coffee. I tried for several minutes. I couldn’t face the idea that I would have to wake the RD and explain to her why the dormitory bathtub was filled to the brim with rapidly cooling full-strength instant coffee. I can never be a grown-up, because I never have the sense to ask for help when I’m stuck. Finally, I held my breath, closed my eyes, and dove underwater. I pried the plug out with both hands and came up triumphant like the Lady of the Lake, bathtub plug in upraised hand, coffee dripping from my flowing hair.
That night, I couldn’t sleep.
I will never be a grown-up because I always get into situations like this and I never learn my lesson.
I am not a successful woman, but the times I have been the most successful were the times that I did not try to be a grown up. I did what I liked to do, passionately and with discipline, but with no regard for whether it was the proper activity for a grown-up. I gave an aesthetics paper, on my favorite horror films, at a serious philosophy conference. At one point I ended up performing my impression of the twins from The Shining saying “Forevah and evah and evah” since several of the serious philosophers did not watch horror movies… and I received a great deal of positive feedback from people far smarter than I am. If I had tried to sound like a philosopher rather than like Mary Pezzulo doing philosophy, I wouldn’t have had a thing to say. I write about dinosaurs and how much I hate hot coffee, and people listen and read. God help me if I tried to write about anything important. I drink cold coffee with enormous amounts of sweet creamer, or cheap wine mixed with Sprite, and I never burn my tongue. I have a great deal to learn about who Mary Pezzulo is, but Mary Pezzulo is not a grownup and she is better off for not being a grown-up.
A child on her mother’s lap does not pretend to be important; she simply is. There is nothing in the world more important that a child, and a child does nothing to earn that. And in the eyes of God, every human being is a baby in the lap. There is no virtuous act I can perform that would make Him love me more, because He loves me eternally. There is no sin I could commit that would take away one ounce of God’s love for me. I am the worst of sinners, of course. But if my sins were worse, or more spectacular, or more repulsive, it would not make a difference in how much I am loved. If I were Dismas hanging on the cross, publicly tortured to death next to the Savior of Mankind, Him deserving none of it and me deserving a thousand times worse than the worst execution the Empire could invent– even then, a word from Christ, and I would be made a saint. Because He loves me that way. I trust through the virtue of hope that He will make me a saint, in spite of my sins and never even minding that I have failed to grow up. Because He loves me, because He created me to be the kind of being who is worthy of that much love. And you, the reader, are exactly the same. Right now, just as you are. The Heavenly banquet, the wedding feast and the bridal chamber are for you, personally, if you wish. You do not have to be a grown-up. You do not have to meet some worldly standard. You need no promotion, no honors, no unstained suit, no travel mug of hot coffee. There is one standard that matters, the standard of love. In Love, you will be radically transformed, but you will not become a grown-up who meets the standards of the world. The saints are the most eccentric cast of characters imaginable, and they are all children.
It’s the most hackneyed advice I could give, but I give it anyway: grow where you’re planted, grow in love, and continue to be yourself. By all means grow deep, but never grow up. Measure yourself by love and learn to flow deeper into love. Don’t measure yourself by standards like being a grown-up, because in the only Mind that matters, grown-ups don’t exist. And for Heaven’s sake, drink your coffee cold.


(Image courtesy of The National Gallery of Art)

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