Saturday, February 28, 2009

Shame Lifter: Replacing Your Fears and Tears with Forgiveness, Truth, and Hope by Marilyn Hontz

Tour Date: March 2, 2009

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It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Shame Lifter: Replacing Your Fears and Tears with Forgiveness, Truth, and Hope

Tyndale House Publishers (February 5, 2009)


Marilyn Hontz is a popular conference speaker and has been a guest on Focus on the Family’s daily radio broadcast. Marilyn is active at Central Wesleyan Church in Holland, Michigan, where her husband, Paul, is senior pastor. She and Paul have five children.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers (February 5, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1414318960
ISBN-13: 978-1414318967



The Seeds of Shame

Shame is a prevailing sense of worthlessness that leads to the false belief I am what I am. I cannot change. I am hopeless.

—Robert S. McGee, The Search for Significance

A vague feeling of uneasiness had been nagging at me all summer. I had been asked to speak at a fund-raising event for a Christian conference center, but even after I’d prepared my talk, the discomfort remained. The committee was hoping my talk would inspire people to give financially to their camp. I felt that pressure, but there was something else too.

Not only was I feeling nervous about speaking, I was already dreading how I would feel after I spoke. I knew that as soon as I finished, negative voices would bombard me; not from the audience; no, much worse—negative declarations from my very own self. Why did I say that? Oh, why didn’t I remember to say this? I hope the committee wasn’t disappointed. They probably didn’t reach their fund-raising goal because I wasn’t good enough to inspire the audience to give. I was all too familiar with these kinds of berating thoughts. They would continue long after the speaking event until I had buried myself under a pile of self-loathing verbal garbage.

Actually, this critical self-talk was nothing new. When I first started speaking to groups, I tried to explain it away as adrenaline letdown. It was true to a degree; adrenaline always goes way up when you stand before a crowd of people. It’s also true that it can come crashing down afterward.

Yet I suspected something else was wrong, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I knew that even if I heard only positive feedback from the audience, the inner pain would not go away. For some reason, I didn’t think I could ever measure up to what I thought an audience wanted from me. But I also wondered if I would ever measure up to whom I thought I should be.

The speaking event arrived on a sunny Michigan day in August. The spacious dining room was filled to capacity with women seated at round tables, each brightened by floral centerpieces taken from late summer gardens. The numerous large windows gave a panoramic view of the serene waters of Lake Michigan. A deep calmness prevailed on the surface of the big lake. It was a calmness I longed for.

Several of my friends had driven a distance to hear me speak, but even their supportive presence did not still my apprehension. After we were seated, servers set beautifully arranged salads and baskets of warm, fragrant rolls before us. I was hungry but couldn’t eat. It was then I realized I was surrounded by happy, chattering women who had no clue of my inward turmoil. Outwardly I appeared confident and totally put together. Just like the lake, my surface appeared calm and peaceful.

I watched the clock as the women ate. The program was running longer than expected. I’m going to be late getting up to speak, I bemoaned quietly to myself. I knew the lady sitting next to me was getting ready to take off for a trip to Florida the minute I was through speaking—she had made that perfectly clear. “My husband is already waiting in the car for me,” she had informed me. I felt pressure and very responsible that she be able to leave on time.

Finally I was introduced, and the emcee mentioned I would be speaking on “Learning to Listen for God throughout Your Day.” As I walked to the podium I thought, How strange: here I am talking about God’s voice, yet my own thoughts seem to drown out His voice after I finish speaking at events. I knew as soon as I was done I would internally hear these kinds of things: Marilyn, you forgot to mention a certain illustration. Or, Why did you tell the audience about that?

Even as I spoke, I kept remembering that a man was waiting in his car for his wife to get out of the luncheon so they could leave for Florida. You’d better hurry up, Marilyn! You don’t want to keep someone waiting. Don’t be a bother. I finally concluded my talk and noted that I was only a couple of minutes over the time limit. Good, I thought, now that woman can get out to her car and leave for Florida.

As I walked back from the podium to my seat and sat down, unexpected applause erupted from the women. The emcee quickly grabbed the microphone. “Thank you, Marilyn, for sharing with us today; you’ve given us some things to think about. It was very meaningful.” I stood up again to speak with the women who lined up near my table to talk to me. One by one, the women graciously affirmed my talk. I was a bit overwhelmed, as I was not feeling comfortable or worthy of their compliments.

Something happened, however, that was forever to change the direction of my life and the way I viewed myself. The very last woman in line said, “Thank you for your teaching today. That was the best presentation on listening for God I have heard, and I’ve heard several messages on that subject.”

I didn’t know what to say. I knew I was supposed to say thank you, but it would seem too prideful if I just said that. So as I looked at the floor I said, “Thank you,” and then added, “It was nothing.” At that point, the woman gently took hold of my arm. Her touch immediately made me jerk up my head and look into her blue eyes.

“Did you hear what I just said?”

“Yes,” I replied rather sheepishly.

“Well,” she continued, “I mean my compliments when I give them. Marilyn, do you know what your response reveals to me?”

I shook my head no as I waited for her to continue.

“Your response tells me that you live with a shame-based perspective of life.”

Shame. I don’t remember anything else she said or, for that matter, what anybody else said that afternoon. The word shame lodged in my throat like a vitamin pill that was stuck for lack of enough water.

Shame. I thought about that word as I made the hour-long trip home.

Shame. Was it true? Did I have a shame-based perspective of life? Driving home from that luncheon, I tried to sort through the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt, as I understood it, meant “I have done something wrong, and I feel terrible about it.” I knew I had not done anything wrong at the speaking event, yet I still felt awful.

I then went on a deep soul-searching journey, asking God if shame existed in my life because of a breach between Him and me. God, is there anything I need to make right with You? Did I do something wrong? Nothing came to mind. Silence.

Hey, can’t shame be a good thing? I asked myself. If used appropriately, couldn’t shame reveal something that needs to be corrected? Maybe it was okay that I had this “shame-based perspective of life,” whatever that meant.

At that point I didn’t understand the difference between guilt and shame. I had often heard people use the two words interchangeably. Guilt nails you on what you have done; shame, on the other hand, hits at the core of a person—who you are. Guilt says, “You made a mistake.” Shame says, “You are the mistake.” I wasn’t dealing with something I had done wrong at the luncheon (guilt). I was battling my own thoughts: I am not a good speaker; I am not adequate (shame). Healthy guilt has an element of hope attached—an error has been revealed, yet you are hopeful that a positive change will take place as you address your shortcoming. Shame often leaves you feeling helpless—after all, it tells you that something at the very core of your being is defective.

Just as I did not understand the distinction between guilt and shame, I did not realize that there are two kinds of shame. The first, healthy shame, prompts you to correct—or prevent—sinful behavior. Good shame reveals that you are not perfect and that you are not God. Healthy shame reminds you that you have limits and that you will make mistakes. It can act like the warning light on your car’s dashboard that reads “Maintenance Required.” It can help alert you that something is wrong under

your hood. So you stop, pay attention to the warning, deal with it, and move on.

For example, when I was six, I started taking accordion lessons. Not long after, my teacher explained that I would be expected to play “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” from memory at my first recital. For some reason (probably because of the title of the song), I procrastinated and hadn’t memorized the piece by the time the recital rolled around. Not surprisingly, when I got up to play, I messed up big time. I kept playing the same measure over and over until finally I just stopped playing. There was dead silence. I was very embarrassed. I knew I was supposed to have had that piece memorized, but I had not done it. Thankfully, neither my parents nor my piano teacher berated me after the recital. In fact, my teacher even gave me a little prize at the end of the evening! Still, the good shame I felt pushed me to be sure I worked hard before my next recital.

While my illustration of good shame was from a silly example of childhood, I am concerned about a lack of good shame in our culture. The number of babies born outside of marriage, marital affairs, and cheating—whether on tax forms or in the classroom—are all increasing. Unfortunately our culture has a growing tolerance toward these practices. Thousands of years ago the prophet Jeremiah gave a sad commentary on his culture: “They have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush” ( Jeremiah 6:15). We are losing our ability to blush as well. Healthy shame ought to lead us toward repentance and restoration, healing and forgiveness. Good shame, then, does have its place.

What I’m talking about in this book, however, is another type of shame. It’s an unhealthy, destructive form that author John Bradshaw calls toxic: “Toxic shame gives you a sense of worthlessness, a sense of failing and falling short as a human being.”

The results of toxic shame are serious and long lasting. “People affected by it judge themselves, rather than judging their actions. If they make a mistake or do something wrong, they judge themselves as bad, rather than judging their actions as imperfect. They live in terror of unexpected exposure—of others seeing them as they see themselves.”

These were the vague feelings of inner torment I experienced not only every time I got through speaking but in other situations as well. Unfortunately, toxic shame lingers and eventually becomes a part of who you are and what you do and don’t do. It paralyzes you so you don’t think you can move on.

When I returned home from the luncheon that day, I ran upstairs to the solitude of my bedroom and fell on my face before the Lord. “Please, God, show me if there is shame in my life.” Instantly a painful memory surfaced—one I had never shared with anyone except, in part, with my husband.

An unpleasant memory from when I was five; a memory I had buried but couldn’t forget. It was a secret I had carefully hidden behind a heavy door in my heart for many years. I was still pushing against that door with all my weight to keep it closed.

God came that afternoon, so to speak, and slowly pulled me away from that closet door and gently took me into His arms. I was so tired of trying to keep it closed. I didn’t want that door opened, but I couldn’t bear putting my weight against it any longer.

He was reassuring and tender as He held me and spoke very clearly to my heart.

Marilyn, it is hard for you to receive compliments. You do not feel like you are ever good enough. You act as though you are “affirmationdeficient”; no amount of affirmation fills you up. You are afraid you’ll be abandoned. You feel overly responsible for other people.

At that precise moment, I knew—my outlook on life was shame-based. Toxic shame was the reason for my continual vague feelings of uneasiness and inadequacy. The Lord began to reveal to me the secret stash of shame I had carried for many years. He invited me to remove the tinted glasses of shame that blurred and darkened my vision of whom He had called me to be. Gently, the Lord helped me crack open the door of a carefully covered secret memory I did not want to deal with. . . .

Can you relate? Do you ever have a vague, bogged-down feeling that something is wrong with you? Do you ever feel that while you’ve been told God loves you, He certainly must love others more than you? Do you sense that you can’t measure up to what people or God want from you? Do fears torment you and keep you from being a confident person?

Perhaps you feel a rush of anger whenever you feel put down so you lash out at the person closest to you. Or you might down an entire half gallon of ice cream after listening to your boss go on and on about how you should improve your time-management skills. Maybe you berate yourself for minor mishaps. Say you accidentally back into a neighbor’s mailbox. Even after paying to have it replaced, you continue to feel bad about it and indulge in self-berating thoughts. Why wasn’t I paying more attention when I backed out of the driveway? How could I have been so dumb? And every time you drive by that now-repaired mailbox you wonder how you could have been so brainless to make such an obvious mistake. By way of contrast, people who do not view life through the lens of toxic shame may back into a neighbor’s mailbox and while they feel bad, they can fix the mailbox and then move on. They do not continue to degrade themselves.

Toxic shame can take an outward event (like hearing a critical comment or backing into a mailbox) and turn it inward. It causes you to focus on yourself in a negative way. Instead of recognizing that you accidentally hit a mailbox, toxic shame can make you believe that you are a mailbox hitter and always will be. If you make a mistake while presenting a workshop for your company or church, you tell yourself, I’m not a good presenter. I’ll never be able to speak again. You believe the internal message and refuse to give another presentation—even though you are very capable.

Shame is bound up in who we are and not so much with what we do. Author Stephen Seamands writes, “Shame, though it may be triggered by something we have said or done, is about our being.”3

Many avenues lead to this destructive kind of shame. If you struggle with it, you may have had parents who were shut down emotionally and could not affirm you as a child. You may have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused. Perhaps you experienced an extremely humiliating and embarrassing situation and were teased about it. Or someone made fun of your body and to this day you can still hear their hurtful comments. These types of experiences breed shame. When this type of

shame is stuffed deep inside rather than addressed, it becomes internalized.

Once this toxic shame is internalized, it runs on autopilot. It can be triggered without anyone doing anything to you. Your own thoughts set it off! This toxic shame expresses itself as inner torment. Continual negative self-talk can be a dead giveaway that toxic shame is present in your soul.

Just as shame has many sources, it also manifests itself in different ways. Some people will try to dull the pain through addictions or eating disorders. Others will fly into uncontrollable rage over the smallest slight. Some will sink into depression and withdraw from others. Then there will be those who are so afraid of making a mistake that they fall into the pit of perfectionism.

Sadly, “some studies have determined that shame can be a key factor in suicide attempts.”4

If you struggle with feelings of inadequacy, perhaps, like me, you were not aware of or able to identify the root of these problems as shame. Until now! Dear reader, I long for you to recognize unhealthy, toxic shame in your life. Why? Shame seeks to paralyze you. Shame shuts down your insides. Shame cuts you off from truly giving to and receiving from others. But there is good news. Once you are aware of shame, you can reverse the atrophy. There is a cure! Perhaps you don’t struggle with shame but know someone who seems in bondage to an addiction or seeks to live as a perfectionist or is at an emotional standstill in life. Now, maybe, their struggle has a name—toxic shame.

The story that follows shows how shame can take root early in life and then, if left alone, grows effortlessly and stubbornly as a weed. Like a weed, it grows inconspicuously at first until later, when it stands taller than the life around it. In my own life, this harvest of shame produced bitterness and negative self-talk. Its most beguiling fruit, however, was that of lies—internal lies. Shame set me up to believe lies about myself—lies from the enemy of my soul. It can do the same to you.

If you or someone you love is struggling with shame, I hope my story serves as a helpful illustration. Obviously, your circumstances will be different than mine. Your shame may have very different roots, and it may not produce the perfectionism or inadequacy that mine did. Yet I suspect that the fear, anger, and disappointment we often feel inside is similar.

This is also a story of what I’ve learned about pulling out the root of shame and allowing forgiveness, truth, grace, and hope to grow in its place. In fact, I’ve included “How about You?” questions and action steps, called “Shame Lifters,” at the end of each chapter to enable you to identify the ways shame shows up in your life and then take steps to resolve it. Even if you decide not to do the questions and Shame Lifters, I encourage you to at least read through them since other illustrations of shame and hope are scattered through them.

If you’re not battling shame personally, these exercises may enable you to be a shame lifter and foster healing in a friend’s or family member’s life. In addition, turn to the appendixes on pages 189–197, which will help you recognize whether shame is a problem for you or someone you know.

While writing my story was often painful, my hope is that you will see some aspect of your story in mine and then draw even closer to the God who longs to be your ultimate Shame Lifter.


Fears and Tears

Human beings are born with just two basic fears. One is the fear of loud noises. The other is the fear of falling. All other fears must be learned.

—Ronald Rood, American naturalist

Fear took hold early in my life. It clung to me like maple syrup sticks to your hands after you eat pancakes. I tried over and over again to wash away the fear with my tears, but it didn’t work.

“You’re always crying. Quit being a crybaby,” my father would often say impatiently. “What is the matter with you, anyway?”

I was dubbed “Crybaby” early on and lived up to my title. I found the more I cried, however, the more my father distanced himself from me both physically and emotionally. Crying never really achieved what I had hoped for, but I couldn’t stop myself.

One night when I was four years old, I awoke in my bed and was immediately consumed with a fear of the darkness. I went to my parents’ room, stood by their bed, and cried. Nothing they said calmed my fears. “Marilyn, go back to bed,” my dad said more than once. Finally, he threw back the covers on his side of the bed and started toward me. I felt a firm grip on my upper arm. My dad pulled me down the hallway to our bathroom and snapped on the light. He shoved me toward the sink. The cream tile counter with its dark brown, spotted markings came sharply into focus. The ribbed, frosted windows on either side of the sink glowed from an outdoor light that cast distorted, prism-like patterns on the counter.

“If you are going to keep crying, I’ll give you something to really cry about,” my dad said. As he pushed my head over the sink, he grabbed a bar of soap and shoved it in my mouth. Over and over he washed my mouth out with the soap. The biting taste repelled me, and I cried harder than ever. I do not remember what happened next, but I do remember this: I was very frightened of my father. Just as the frosted bathroom windows contorted the outside light that was reflected onto the bathroom counter, so my father’s actions that night distorted my view of him even more.

I knew deep down my father probably loved me. After all, didn’t all daddies love their children? But I didn’t feel close to him. In spite of my fear of him, however, something in me longed to please him, and I desperately wanted his approval.

My dad faced huge pressures during my early years. He was a pastor and was gone from home a lot. At the time he washed my mouth out with soap, he was planting a new independent church without receiving an income. He was also working in the early morning hours at our local post office to provide for my mom, older brother, and me as best he could on his meager income.

About this time my parents decided that taking a vacation to visit relatives in Michigan would provide a break from all the stress of church planting. I was five and my brother was thirteen the summer we took that trip from our home in Southern California to Battle Creek, Michigan. By the time we neared the desert town of Barstow, California, I was crying. There were no seat belt laws in that day, so I stood up in the car and leaned over the front seat.

“I want to ride up front,” I announced through my tears.

“No, Marilyn,” my dad said. “You need to sit back down in your seat.”

“But I want to sit up by Mommy,” I explained.

“No,” was his firm response.

I melted into more tears. My crying continued until the car abruptly stopped on the right shoulder of the road. At that point my crying abruptly stopped as well. What was happening? I wondered. The next thing I knew, my dad had gotten out of the car, walked around to my side, and opened the door.

“Get out!” he ordered.

I hesitantly got out and stepped onto a very deserted desert road. My dad reached in the car and pulled out my little suitcase and set it on the road next to me. He then walked back to his car door, got in, slammed the door, and drove off. I watched in utter disbelief as I saw our car getting smaller and smaller on the road until I could no longer see it. I wailed uncontrollably. I was so frightened! I truly felt like he would never come back and get me. I don’t know how long I was left there, but I was certain there was no hope of seeing my family again. Sometime later my dad returned for me.

Thankfully, I don’t remember any other cars passing by, and I was probably not left there for long. Still, the memory lingers. My dad may have come back for me physically, but emotionally he had left me alongside that desert road.

A new level of fear began to grow in me, and I would wake up crying in the night for my mother even more often. While I could not express it at that time, what I was feeling was fear of abandonment. What will happen to me if I get left again?

My fears continued to increase after our trip and into the fall when I started kindergarten. I was so fearful of getting left again that my mother needed to reassure me over and over again that my dad would remember to pick me up from kindergarten. (My mother didn’t have a driver’s license.) It was at that point I developed my biggest fear of all—that my mother would die and leave me. She was my stabilizer in life, and I clung to her as much as possible.

Shame, mixed with fear, was beginning to send down new and stubborn roots into the soil of my very being. I felt shamed for being called crybaby and a fraidy cat by family members and others. Shame had the incredible power of taking those two phrases and weaving them into the fabric of my life. I believed and internalized those phrases until they became me. Instead of “shame on you,” I picked up the mantle of shame and it became “shame on me.”

Something was making me cry. I was carrying a deep, dark secret. It left me fearful, overly sensitive, and worried. Also, the fear of being left alone followed me just like my shadow did.

What was the matter? I couldn’t talk about it. So I cried instead. It seemed the more I cried, however, the less it helped; but still I couldn’t quit. Tears were somewhat like a comfortable addiction—crying felt good and temporarily relieved some of my anxiety, but it never quenched my soul pain.

My kindergarten teacher observed my tears as well. She informed my mother that I was fearful, lacked confidence, and cried easily. I overheard her tell my mom this as I sat nearby playing on the rug in her classroom during a parent-teacher conference. Later I asked my mom what the teacher meant by her words about me.

“Well, honey, your teacher said you are capable of doing the schoolwork, but many times you don’t think you can. You need to have the confidence to go ahead and try.”

Could I tell my mom at that point about my fears? Could I tell her that because she couldn’t pick me up from school, I was extremely afraid my dad would forget to pick me up after kindergarten? No, that sounded silly.

Could I tell her that my teacher frightened me when she yelled at the class and how I thought she wasn’t very kind? Could I tell her about a girl in my class named Donna, who accidentally wet her pants during school? The teacher made an example out of her. First she announced to the class what

Donna had done. Then she made a pair of panties out of paper towels and tape and held it up for the class to view. Donna was red faced, and I was humiliated for her. I didn’t ask why Donna wasn’t at school the next day or any other day after that. I felt her embarrassment. I knew why she never returned to school.

Could I also tell my mother about that secret thing that had happened to me months earlier, which had frightened me more than anything else? No! I decided not to share the fear that was troubling and paralyzing me. I didn’t want anyone to find out my secret. It would be safer that way. And so I cried and rocked myself to sleep each night. Those were the only ways I knew how to cope with my growing fears. My tears were simply voicing the unspoken fearful words of my fettered and cheerless heart.


1. Can you identify with having an emotionally distant parent? If so, how has that impacted your life?

2. Do you remember ever being shamed as a child? If so, how would you complete the following sentence:

I felt shamed when I ______________________________.

3. Psalm 39:12 (NLT) says, “Hear my prayer, O LORD! Listen to my cries for help! Don’t ignore my tears.” (By the way, ongoing tears may be an indicator that something more is going on inside.) How do you typically express your hurt? How might you bring your shame or disappointment to God?

4. Have you ever felt hindered by hurtful, destructive words or names that were said over you as a small child? What were some of them?

5. Do you now have freedom from those words, or do they still have their paralyzing grip on you today? Explain.

6. Are you dealing with any past or current fears? In what way?

7. In Isaiah 41:13 (NLT) God promises, “I hold you by your right hand—I, the LORD your God. And I say to you, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.” What hope does this passage offer you?

✺ ✺ SHAME Lifters ✺ ✺

■ Identify a secret that you have been holding on to or an ache that just doesn’t go away.

■ Why do you want to keep this secret hidden? Why do you think the ache persists?

■ Identify a person you could safely confide in. Pray for the courage and wisdom to bring this secret or hidden ache out into the light.

Dear heavenly Father,

Thank You for listening to my cries when I call out in the “darkness” of my soul to You. You cry with me and take note of my tears (Psalm 55:17; 56:8).

Thank You that You do not leave me by the side of the road in my daily struggles. You are there for me. You are emotionally and spiritually connected to me! Even if I don’t recognize Your presence, You do not leave me—nor are You ever in the process of leaving me (Hebrews 13:5).You will not, nor cannot, leave me as an orphan (John 14:18). Over and over You speak peace to my heart and say, “Do not fear; I will help you” (Isaiah 41:13).

Thank You that Your name for me is “beloved.” Your words never wound to destroy me. You speak only healing words of conviction, comfort, and encouragement. You value me and treat me with dignity.

Heavenly Father, You love me with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3)—the kind of love I know so little about, but desire to experience more. Thank You! In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The List by Sherri L. Lewis

Tour Date: March 1st

When the tour date arrives, copy and paste the HTML Provided in the box. Don't forget to add your honest review if you wish! PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT ON THIS POST WHEN THE TOUR COMES AROUND!

Grab the HTML for the entire post (will look like the post below):


It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

The List

Urban Books (February 24, 2009)


Dr. Sherri Lewis is an MD, author, ordained minister and conference speaker. She is the staff physician at a Georgia Department of Corrections’ women’s prison. She lives in Atlanta, GA.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.95
Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Urban Books (February 24, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1601629826
ISBN-13: 978-1601629821


Tick, tock, tick, tock…

There it was. The sound that had been growing louder and louder in my brain – until now, it was no longer background noise. Groaning, I rolled over in bed and pulled a pillow over my face. I peeked out and cast an annoyed glance at my nightstand clock, but it was digital, so it couldn’t be blamed for the relentless ticking in my head. No, it was my own internal clock – the proverbial biological one. And now there was an alarm to go with it. An alarm with no snooze button to make it stop. The AMA alarm. Today was my thirty-fifth birthday and I was officially AMA – advanced maternal age. The age at which my eggs, encased in my ovaries since birth, started to get old and decrepit. If by some magic I were to meet Mr. Perfect tomorrow and we fell overwhelmingly in love and got married within the next six months, then got pregnant right away, I would still be considered a high-risk pregnancy just because of my age.

I sat up on the edge of the bed and stretched my arms upward, resolving that today, I would celebrate my life with thanksgiving, hope, and faith.

Hey, God. Thanks for waking me up healthy, beautiful and strong this morning. Thanks that I turned thirty-five today…

And then, for no apparent reason, I burst into tears. Sobs actually. I rolled onto the floor and curled into a fetal position, crying like someone had died.

I guess someone had. The thirty-five year old woman I had dreamed I would be when I was a little girl. Married to a gorgeous, black Ken look-a-alike – plastic smile and all – with two beautiful children living in a castle on the hill with two ponies in our stable and a thriving career as a firewoman or a ballerina.

Okay, so I was seven.

But still. I didn’t expect to be thirty-five, single and childless. I was supposed to wake up to breakfast in bed cooked by my wonderfully loving husband and two beautiful daughters – all bouncy, bubbly and giggly. They were supposed to burst into the room and scream, “Happy Birthday, Mommy” and cover me with little girl kisses. My husband was supposed to kiss my cheek, say “Happy Birthday, Dear” and give me a knowing look that said as soon as the girls got off to school, he was going to really wish me Happy Birthday.

But instead, I was all alone in my king-sized bed. Well, actually on the floor next to it. I grabbed a pillow, then pulled the comforter off the bed and snuggled underneath it. I could see God looking down from heaven shaking His head. He’d elbow Jesus who would roll His eyes. They’d both look at the Holy Spirit as if to say, “Please, go help our pitiful child.”

I imagined the Holy Spirit swiftly coming to my rescue. He’d come and get under the comforter with me and hold me in His arms, promising to love me until my earthly husband came along.

“God, for the millionth time – why can’t You take it away? Just make me completely satisfied with You and You alone. If You’re not going to fulfill it, then take away my desire for a husband and kids.” I yelled at Him from under the comforter. I imagined the Holy Spirit hugging me tighter. I appreciated the fact that He wasn’t moved by my angry outburst. He loved me no matter what.

I relaxed in His arms. Imagined myself snuggling into His chest and instantly felt better. “God, why can’t You send me a husband just like You? Send me You wrapped up in chocolate.” How awesome that would be. To be married to a guy like God.

I must have fallen back asleep in His arms, because when the phone rang and I looked at the clock, it was two hours later. I wasn’t in the mood for the onslaught of phone calls from people wishing me happiness for my birthday. I should have gone out of town like I originally planned. Instead, I had let my friends talk me into a “Girls’ Day” – some big surprise they had planned. Much as I loved them, I wasn’t in the mood for surprises.

All I wanted to do for my birthday was be alone with God.

The phone rang again and I ignored it. I thought about getting up to do a quick half-hour Taebo tape. Maybe some kicking and punching would get rid of some of my frustrations. Billy Blanks had become my best friend in the year right after my divorce. There was just something about being violent and calling it exercise. I had joined a gym with a big punching bag that I pretended on a regular was my ex and his mistress. I got a reputation at the gym as the girl no one wanted to spar with and would never want to meet in a dark alley.

My stupid ex. This was all his fault. My marriage should have never ended. After eleven years he decided that twenty-one was too young to have gotten married and that he needed to see what else was “out there”…

Fresh tears flowed down my face. What in the world?

Was I really crying over my ex? Really? My divorce was final almost three years ago. I hadn’t cried over him, or even thought much about him in the past two years. Had to check the calendar when I got up off the floor. This had to be my hormones.

I guess it wasn’t my ex I was crying over. It was the fact that the marriage hadn’t worked. That I was thirty-five, divorced, childless, and oh yeah, hormonal.

My cell phone chimed to indicate that I had gotten a text message. I picked it up and looked at the screen.

Get up off the floor. Dry your eyes. Get dressed and get ready to be celebrated. I promise the day will get better, but you have to get up first. Happy Birthday. Please, girl – get over it. Thirty-five is not that old! Love you!!!

I had to laugh. My girl, Vanessa. I decided to take her word for it. Maybe the day would get better if I just picked myself up off the floor.


I pulled up at Vanessa’s house an hour later – fresh faced and comfortably dressed as I had been instructed. As I got out of my car, I took authority over my hormones as I did every month. I could overcome in most battles in my life, but once a month, the day before my cycle started, I wound up crying endlessly and reacting irrationally to the dumbest things. Amazing that a strong, successful woman – producer at the nation’s newest up-and-coming black television station – and experienced spiritual warrior could be reduced to such ridiculousness by some estrogen. Please, God. Not today.

Vanessa must have been watching for me, because before I got out of my car, she threw open the door and held her arms out wide, walking toward me. It was rare that her petite frame was casually dressed in jeans and a simple blouse. She was one of those elegant suit ladies who wore shimmery stockings and 4-inch heels with the perfect short, sassy haircut. In spite of her casual attire, her make-up was flawlessly done as if she was about to do a photo shoot. Wearing her signature brilliant smile, she sang out, “Happy Birthday, Michelle!”

She looked so happy to see me and her eyes were so filled with love that I burst into tears. A look of horror flashed across her face. “Oh no!” She shook her head slowly in disbelief. “Hormone day on your birthday? What was God thinking?”

I laughed a little. She took me into her arms and held me for a few minutes. Her comforting voice spoke directly in my ear. “Oh, Father, help us today. We take authority over estrogen gone awry.”

I laughed a little more.

She broke our embrace and grabbed me by the shoulders. “Fix your face, girl, and snap out of it. It’s your birthday brunch.” She rubbed my arm and smiled. “Actually you know what? It’s your party and you can cry if you want to.” I laughed more and sniffled.

I wiped my eyes as she led me into the house. Vanessa was my shero. She had kept me alive and sane during my separation and divorce. She was the ministerial counselor at our church. Through our sessions, I decided that not only did I want to live, but that life could be good after divorce. Not too long after she released me from therapy, her husband died tragically in a car accident. I could only hope I was half the friend to her then that she had been to me. Our losses and our relationship with God had bonded us together into one of the best friendships I’d ever had.

Vanessa’s house was immaculate as always. I was amazed that a single mother of two teenagers, full-time counselor and minister could keep her five-bedroom house perfectly clean without a housekeeper. I, however – single with no kids – couldn’t seem to keep my townhouse straight to save my life.

As we entered her two-story foyer, I looked above the winding spiral staircase and saw a huge banner reading “35th Annual Michelle Bradford Celebration Day”. Simultaneously, I heard several voices cry out, “Happy Birthday, ‘Chelle!”

At the foot of the steps stood my girlfriends, Nicole, Lisa, and Angela. I burst into tears again. Lisa and Angela ran over to hug me.

Nicole stared at me. “Are you serious?” She looked over at Vanessa who winced and nodded. Nicole picked up her purse. “I’m out. You know I can’t stand her when she’s like this.” She got halfway to the front door before Vanessa grabbed her.

“Stop playing, Nicole.” Vanessa put her hands on her hips.

“Who’s playing? I can’t stand being around her snotting and crying because a butterfly splattered on her windshield or Revlon discontinued her favorite lipstick color. Naw, I’m out. I’ll meet you guys for the big celebration later.” Nicole turned toward the door again.

“Nicole.” Vanessa put on her mother voice and evil eye that always snapped her kids into perfect obedience.

Apparently it worked on Nicole too, because she took her purse off her shoulder and came over to hug me. “Happy Birthday, Michelle. You know I love you like a sister, but dang – can’t you take the pills for this? I know God is a healer, but for real though, until your manifestation comes, you need some earthly medicine. ”

“Nicole.” Vanessa said it like Nicole had one more time before she got sent to her room for a time-out. Lisa and Angela disappeared into Vanessa’s massive gourmet kitchen.

I had to laugh. It was funny to hear Nicole using spiritual lingo. She had just gotten saved two years ago and was still a little awkward when it came to using spiritual terms.

She gave me a big hug, which set off a new flood of tears. “Dang, girl.” Nicole called into the kitchen. “Can y’all see if Vanessa has some olive oil or something? Shoot, some Crisco will do.” She looked at Vanessa. “Can’t you lay hands on her and cast out this estrogen demon so we can all enjoy our day?”

That sent me into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. When I laughed really hard, I couldn’t stop myself from snorting. Snorting the snot from crying made me cough until I could hardly breathe. Vanessa pounded me on the back.

Nicole stared at me and let out an exasperated sigh. “What a crackhead.” She disappeared into the kitchen to help Angela and Lisa with whatever they were doing.

I was glad Vanessa had only invited my closest sister circle for brunch. At least they all understood my condition. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder was what my doctor called it. Insanity was what my friends called it. Hell on earth was what I called it. Fortunately, it usually only lasted a day in my case. I hoped it would pass before the big celebration later Nicole had mentioned.

Vanessa led me to the breakfast room table and sat me down. Angela, Lisa, and Nicole emerged from the kitchen a few minutes later, each carrying a tray. Vanessa fastened a tiara onto my afro, wavy from being let loose from two-stranded twists. “Today, we’re celebrating you with your favorite things. Sit back, relax and enjoy.”

I looked down at the trays my girls had brought from the kitchen. There were finger sandwiches – peanut butter, honey and bananas on wheat bread – chocolate covered strawberries, mango slices, crab cakes, jerk chicken wings with rice and peas, fried plantains, and ginger beer to wash it all down with. I clapped my hands and laughed. “All my favorites. Kind of weird together, but still. It’s so nice to be loved and for you guys to know what I love.” I looked up to see everyone holding their breath, as if they were afraid I was going to cry. “Loosen up, guys.” I smiled. “This brunch is perfect.”

I frowned at two capsules filled with greenish stuff on the side of my plate. Vanessa answered before I could ask. “It’s St. John’s Wort. The herb I told you about. I picked up some at the health food store.”

I stared at the pills.

Nicole put a hand on her hip. “God gave us plants for natural cures so it’s not like you’re not having faith for healing.” She picked up the pills and shoved them at me. “Look, we’re the ones that have to spend the whole day with you. The least you could do is try them.”

Angela tsked at Nicole. “Girl, stop being evil. You’ll only make it worse.”

Lisa chimed in, “Yeah, Nicole. At least she can blame emotional craziness on hormones and it only happens once a month. What’s your excuse?”

Nicole shot Lisa an evil stare.

I obediently swallowed the pills, ignoring the organic taste in my mouth.

We filled our plates with my special treats. Everybody was silent for a few minutes as we started eating.

Lisa finally spoke. “So, Michelle, you’re thirty-five today. How does it feel –”

She stopped talking when Angela elbowed her in the side and shook her head. Everybody kept eating.

After a few minutes, Vanessa said, “Michelle, we want you to know that…” her voice trailed off.

Nicole rolled her eyes. “This is ridiculous. We’re all afraid to talk because we don’t want her to cry? I tell you what. Michelle, talk about what’s bothering you – what we know you cried about when you woke up and in the car on the way over here. Let’s get it out in the open and deal with it so we won’t be dancing on eggshells all day. This is supposed to be a celebration. Sheesh…”

Everyone stiffened a little and looked at me.

I stared past Angela and Lisa out Vanessa’s breakfast room bay window at the lake behind her house. The water moved slowly with the sun reflecting off it, creating a tranquil glow.

“Well…” I nibbled on a chocolate strawberry. The bitter sweetness of the dark chocolate blended with the natural sweetness of the strawberry. “I woke up alone this morning. No husband. No babies. And I’m thirty-five. This wasn’t the life I dreamed of. But I have no choice but to accept it.”

I took a bite of mango. Its tropical, tangy sweetness contrasted sharply with the strawberry-chocolate combi-nation. I wondered if being hormonal made my taste buds more sensitive. I watched everyone waiting for the tears as I continued sampling the fruit. I was more surprised than they were when no tears came.

I decided to continue. “I’ve asked God countless times to send my husband, but I guess He’s not listening. Or maybe He doesn’t think I’m ready. I’ve done therapy. I’ve healed and forgiven and realized my mistakes. I think my heart is ready to love again. But I guess He doesn’t.”

I stopped for a minute to listen to the wind chimes tinkling outside the breakfast room door. It was a breezy, spring day and I could imagine how sweet the wind would feel kissing my cheeks. I almost wanted to move the party onto the patio but didn’t want to upset Nicole’s allergies. Her sneezing and snotting, and my crying and snotting would make for a very bad day.

“It’s pure torture. Wanting something you can’t have. Craving something, needing something and it not being there. I’m tired of begging. I want to not want it anymore. Just focus on my career, my friends, and chasing after God and let that be enough.”

Angela and Vanessa nodded. Lisa shook her head like she couldn’t get with me on that.

Nicole reached over and took my hand. “See? That wasn’t so bad. If that’s the worst, we can talk about anything now.”

I smiled. “Yeah. Thanks, Nicki. You can be pretty all right when you want to be.”

Everyone let out a collective sigh of relief, myself included. Maybe today could be a good day after all. Nicole squeezed my hand. As much as she could be evil and blunt, she was full of love – that ride or die chick a sistah always wanted around to have her back. I looked around the table and appreciated God for my friends. Maybe I didn’t have a man, but I had some beautiful, strong women in my life that loved me. For now, that would have to be enough.

I looked out the window at the lake again. There was a long-necked duck with her babies trailing behind her on the water. “Look! Baby ducks.” I pointed and everyone turned to look out the window. “They’re so cute.”

And with that, I burst into tears.

Nicole dropped my hand and shook her head in disgust. “Crackhead…” she muttered as she disappeared into the kitchen.

Vanessa passed me a napkin and I wiped my eyes and blew my nose.

“Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.” Lisa got up and followed Nicole into the kitchen. They both came back a few moments later – Nicole carrying champagne and orange juice, Lisa carrying Vanessa’s crystal flutes.

Nicole set the bottles down on the table. “I’m not sure how smart it is to mix alcohol, herbs, and hormones, but it can’t get much worse than crying over baby ducks.”

Lisa cut her eyes at Nicole. “You were the one that wanted her to talk.”

Nicole answered, “How was I supposed to know there would be ducks on the lake?”

Lisa said, “All we had to do was –”

“Ladies!” Vanessa interrupted. “Chill.” Vanessa opened the orange juice and began filling the flutes. “Honestly, I think Nicole had a good idea.”

Nicole crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue at Lisa like she was five years old.

“In fact…” Vanessa topped off the glasses with a small splash of champagne. None of us were drinkers, but we always had a drop or two of champagne when we celebrated. I guess it made us feel grown, even though we always ended up throwing away almost a full bottle of the expensive stuff. “…I think it’s a perfect idea for a birthday celebration. Instead of going to the spa, shopping, and eating cake, every woman’s birthday party should be a look at her life.”

Nicole muttered, “Oh boy, here goes the latest Vanessa psychobabbleology. Just when I thought this party couldn’t get any worse.”

Vanessa ignored her. “Yeah. That’s exactly what it should be.” Vanessa stared into space as she pushed the cork back into the champagne bottle.

“What?” Nicole tapped her fingers on the table.

“Shh, she’s thinking.” Lisa smacked Nicole’s arm.

Vanessa handed each of us a mimosa glass and sat back down in her seat, the wheels in her brain ticking. “For a woman’s birthday celebration, she should be surrounded by her sister-circle in a safe, loving environment. She should look at her past and see where she made it and where she missed it. Look at her present and see where she is and where she wants to be, and look at her future and if she’s doing the right things to get there.” Vanessa nodded and smiled to herself. “Then her friends should celebrate her by telling her wonderful things about her, giving her affirmations, blessings and prayers to press her toward her future.”

Angela and Lisa nodded. “I like it.” Lisa said. She turned to Nicole.

Nicole shrugged. “Y’all know I don’t like all that touchy-feely, psychobabble stuff.”

Lisa rolled her eyes. “Lord, Nicole, can’t you get over yourself and help us celebrate Michelle’s birthday?”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it. I’m just saying…” She pursed her lips together and glared at Lisa.

“Okay, then.” Vanessa glared at both of them like they were about to get a beating. “Since Michelle has identified what’s bothering her the most, let’s focus on that. If there are other areas you come up with, we’ll deal with that, too. We’ll break away for an hour or two and everybody take some paper and write something special for Michelle. Michelle – like I said, take an honest look at past, present, and future and whatever else you need to get out, and then we’ll reconvene. Pick your favorite spot – out by the lake, in the sunroom, by the fireplace, wherever you can get comfortable. Okay?”

“But I don’t want to spoil whatever you guys already had planned for me just because I woke up hormonal and lonely,” I said.

Nicole sucked her teeth. “Please, girl. We had planned to watch all your favorite movies. Love and Basketball, Love Jones, Brown Sugar...” She looked around the room. “There’s not enough tissue in the house for that. Even though it’s warm and fuzzy, touchy-feely, this is way better than you snotting and crying all day over a bunch of movies. And we still have your surprise for tonight.” She looked at Vanessa with a nod of approval. “It’s actually a good idea.” She frowned. “Just don’t expect to be psychoanalyzing me for my birthday.”

Vanessa laughed. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I don’t think my years of training or experience have in any way prepared me for that.”

Nicole’s eyes widened with obvious surprise at Vanessa’s dig.

Lisa laughed. “Good one, V.”

“Whatever.” Nicole lifted her champagne flute and indicated for us all to do the same. “To Michelle and celebrating her life. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”

“Nicole!” Lisa, Angela, and Vanessa said in unison.

Nicole looked around at everyone and shrugged her shoulders. “What?” She lifted her glass again. “For real though, we love you, girl. I haven’t known God long, but what I do know is that He’s good. And faithful. And you’re a beautiful example of Him living and breathing on earth. And no matter what, man or no man, your future will be bright and beautiful. I’m looking forward to being a part of it.” She looked around the table. “Is that better?”

Everybody laughed and lifted their glasses. “To Michelle.”

And, of course, I burst into tears.