Repentance is a fancy word used often in Christian circles. I don’t use fancy religious words, because I don’t think they explain themselves well. Also, fancy language tends make in people feel in-er and out people feel out-er, and I don’t think that’s how words are best used. I think words are best used to describe specific feelings and ideas and hearts as clearly as possible, to make the speaker and the listener, or the writer and the reader, feel less alone and more hopeful.
I used to be annoyed and threatened by the word repentance, until I figured out what it really meant for me. Repentance is the magical moment when a sliver of light finds its way into a place of darkness in my heart, and I’m able to see clearly how my jerkiness is keeping me from peace and joy in a specific area of my life.
Author Maya Angelou recently shined a light into the dark part of my heart where I keep my relationship with my mother in law.
In her latest book, “Letter to my Daughter,” Ms. Angelou writes about a dinner party she attended during her first trip to Senegal at the home of a very rich and sophisticated friend. As Angelou explored the decadent home and observed the elegant guests, she noted that they were all carefully stepping around the beautiful, expensive rug in the middle of the floor to avoid dirtying it. She became appalled that her hostess would be so elitist and shallow as to value her things above her guests’ comfort and convenience. Angelou decided to act. She stepped onto the rug and walked back and forth several times. The guests, who were “bunched up on the sidelines, smiled at her weakly.” Angelou smiled back, proud that through her boldness they might also be “encouraged to admit that rugs were to be walked on.”
She then joined the guests on the sidelines, her head held high. She had done what was right.
A few minutes later, the servants came out and quietly removed the rug from the floor, replacing it with an equally expensive one. They then proceeded to place the plates, glasses, wine, and bowls of rice and chicken carefully upon the new rug. Angelou’s hostess clapped her hands and announced joyfully that they were serving Senegal’s most beloved meal “for our Sister from America, Maya Angelou.” She then asked all the guests to sit. Angelou’s face burned.
She had dragged her dirty shoes all over her gracious hostess’ tablecloth.
Angelou concluded her story with this: “In an unfamiliar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions or lessons. The epitome of sophistication is utter simplicity.”
When Craig and I first got married, I experienced his family as an unfamiliar culture. They operated so differently than mine. Communication was different, celebrations were different, meal times were different, expressions of love were different. I found this to be unacceptable. To me, different meant wrong. I became, as I always do, personally offended and perpetually suspicious. In a million subtle and not-so subtle ways, I tried to change my in-laws. I suggested new traditions, I offered advice, I found fault with their personalities and marriage and their relationships with their children and grandchildren. I insisted that Craig and I pull away from them, based on the unforgivable sin that they were different than my family.
I dragged my dirty shoes all over my mother-in-law’s tablecloth, the one she’d spent decades carefully weaving.
My mother-in-law handled all of this gracefully, in retrospect. Tragically, retrospectively is the only way I can ever see things clearly. I imagine my refusal to accept her family hurt her deeply, but she gave Craig and me time and space to work it out on our own. She never pushed us. She never meddled. She bowed out, for a long while. It must have been a hard decision, one I pray I never have to make with my own son. I pray that my future daughter-in-law will be wiser and kinder than I from the start. She probably won’t be, though. She’ll probably be just like me. She’ll want to create her own weaving pattern, which might mean that she’ll need to turn her back on mine for a while.
As a young mother and wife, establishing a pattern that suited me was difficult. Learning to weave my own tablecloth required all of my attention. I needed time and space to establish my own rhythm and style, and perhaps my rejection of the old patterns was necessary to the discovery of my own.
True repentance is messy and it takes time, but that sliver of light is worth waiting for. And when it’s real, it sticks. Thank you, Ms. Angelou, for leading me to repentance.
I’m sorry, Nana.
You know I’m not big on advice, mainly because most days I learn what an idiot I was yesterday. This is hopeful, because it means I’m generally moving in the right direction. But it also makes it risky to put anything definitive in writing today. Even so, I feel safe offering this.
Mothers-in-law, enjoy watching your daughter-in-law learn to weave. When she makes a mistake, when she drops a stitch, allow her to notice it on her own. Tell her often how beautiful her weaving is. Be kinder than necessary. Bring her some tea. Be simple. Be sophisticated.
And daughters-in-law, notice the beauty of the rug that your mother-in-law spent a lifetime weaving. Remember that mostly, her pattern is firmly established, no need to suggest improvements. Be kinder than necessary, being mindful that the piece of art it took her a lifetime to weave, her masterpiece, she gave to you, to keep you warm at night. One day you’ll give your masterpiece away, too. Be simple. Be sophisticated.
This post originally appeared on momastery.com/blog on January 11, 2012.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Glennon Doyle blogs at momastery.com/blog.