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I remember a pastor once telling me that children who have an attachment item — a blankie, a teddy, a snuggly — are more likely to grow up to believe in God, to grow up to have faith.

I’m sure this is a very slimmed down, oversimplified understanding of attachment theory, but I would think of it often when my boys were babies, when I was tucking them in at night, placing that blanket next to their arms, even if the parenting manuals — which I read cover-to-cover before my first child and accessed only by index and emergency with my second and third — said absolutely nothing should be with an infant in the crib.

I’d think of it again when I cushioned them with those blankies as I laid them down gently in those impossibly heavy car seat carriers, pulling their tiny chubby arms and hands under the straps, the ones I’m sure I’ve never fastened quite tight enough against their little shoulders. The American Academy of Pediatrics demands children be rear-facing in the back seat of the car until the age of two, and as I drove, not able to see their sleeping faces or tiny hands grasping their bouncing toes, I felt better if they had that blankie to squeeze, if they had that blankie near them.

Each child had a blankie by the time we left the hospital to head home for the first time, I made sure of it, one that was like the one I had growing up, fuzzy and soft on one side and smooth and silky on the other. I can still close my eyes and feel it beside me, feel it between my fingers, against my cheek.

That image of God as a big security blanket, is somewhere deep within me, and there are times, even now, when I can still fall asleep more quickly when I can roll up in a ball on my side, and summon that feeling of being tucked in and infinitely loved.

And yet, when I think back to my faith as a child, that foundational understanding of safety and love also tiptoed more tentatively around another image of God as the sleeping father whom you didn’t want to wake up or anger. I knew, or at least I was assured, that I was loved regardless of my choices, but I also knew it worked really well to stay within the bounds: to give the right answers in Sunday School, to sit quietly and not scribble my pen too loudly on my children’s bulletin during Sunday services. I remember asking Jesus into my heart as a young girl, maybe eight or nine, and then doing it, again and again, each time I heard the plea or was given the lecture, just to make sure. Just in case it didn’t take the first time.

Taught from a young age about original sin and my need to seek forgiveness, I’d pray for my sins to be forgiven and then do it again five seconds later, with a confession that I’d probably already messed up since the last time my soul was wiped clean. I heard that Jesus could make me as white as snow, but was deeply convinced I was constantly up to my knees and splashing around in my own mud puddle, so I’d better ask as often as I could. Though they were cushioned in love, my church’s teachings about total depravity — that I was thoroughly corrupt and still dealing with the aftertaste of Eve’s bitter apple — were an easy message to embed into my guilt-bent head.

I turn 40 in a month. The terminology of “turning” a number has always seemed a bit odd to me because I’ll only be one day older than I was the day before. It’s an anniversary of the day I was born, but I’ve been turning all along. I’m told of a softness, a welcoming release that often comes with age, with the growing older that happens day by day, and I’m starting to catch glimpses of it — especially when I allow white space in the margins of my life: when I choose reading and listening to a podcast over scrolling through my phone, when I take a long walk with my dog rather than timing myself on a jog, when I’m able to ignore the doubting, mocking voices perched on my shoulders long enough to write something honest and real.

Writer and Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr, talks of two halves of life and of “falling upward,” a transition that can happen around midlife when one begins to let go of the expectations of success and a perfectly crafted identity. To borrow a worn metaphor, it’s the idea that people often spend their entire lives climbing ladders of success only to turn around at the top of those ladders to realize they were leaning against the wrong wall the entire time. That wall, or the first half of life culture, Rohr tells us, is usually built by law, tradition, and authority. It’s built by family and churches that give us specific instructions for our safety and security.

Unlike some may first assume, this second stage is not synonymous with retirement or general ease of life: it isn’t the same as turning in an office chair for a beach chair or having a perfect relationship with your grown children. It’s less about place and position and more about posture. It’s a release of some of those things that may have become part of our foundation (shame, expectations, a legalistic idea of morality) to grab on to better things (mindfulness, release of expectations, the grace that comes from facing our fears head-on) that may be new or buried beneath the rubble that was our perceived growing “up.” It’s a painful falling down, only to find the comfort of that blankie awaiting once again.

I love this dichotomy — this idea of two halves of my life. It gives me energy, purpose, and relief. And yet, it can be tempting to feel a new, more enlightened type of shame. It can be easy to grow a bit embarrassed of that young girl, of that young woman, I used to be. “We’re all just walking each other home,” writes Ram Dass. I’ve held this image close for several years when I think of loving my neighbors, but I’ve also come to see that I’m not just walking beside others, but my past selves, too. I’m walking alongside that nine-year-old girl saying her forgiveness prayers ten times over in quick succession, beside that homesick 22-year old who signed up for a year in Europe and then cried herself to sleep many nights, beside that young mother tucking a blankie in the car seat beside her infant son rather than properly tightening the straps.

Like me, each day my children grow a day older. My first son is now approaching adolescence, my second’s head of golden, baby curls have matured into course, ash brown waves that he prefers to trimmed above the ears, and my youngest is in first grade and thinks he’s too old to be reading picture books, too old to need much advice. I joke that he’s been looking for his own apartment.

They still have their blankies, but they’re much more covert with them now. They don’t get packed in duffles for sleepovers or trip with friends, and they are rarely are dragged along into the car. Most days the blankies stay tucked down deep under the tangles of their unmade beds. But at night, when we read together, when we repeat their bedtime prayers and I stop to give them kisses on the cheek — up on my tippy toes to reach the one on the top bunk, stooping to reach the one on the bottom bunk, the youngest still allowing us to climb into his bed beside him — I see those blankies, thinning with holes and fraying edges, quietly emerge, tucked lightly next to their bare chests or pulled up near their pillows, near their still-soft faces.

Dana VanderLugt

Dana VanderLugt is a teacher and instructional coach. She is also pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has been published in Longridge Review, Seeding the Snow, and The Reformed Journal. She blogs at www.stumblingtowardgrace.com.

5 Comments

  • Karen says:

    Oh Dana…loved this…thank you!

  • Arika Theule-VanDam says:

    Dana, I love the way your writing evokes the emotions you’re describing. Longing, shame, fear, love, and all those unnameable aches that rumble in our gut and remind us that in our humanity we carry a spark of the divine. I’m grateful for this reminder today.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Your take on the Ram Dass quote “we’re all just walking each other home”— I’ve also come to see that I’m not just walking beside others, but my past selves, too— is wonderful and true. There are days where I walk home a small gang of me. :?) Some come in the house and stay the night; some hang out, waiting outside. Some go elsewhere not to be seen for awhile but who show up unexpectedly. . .

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