Sometimes, things that are familiar become unfamiliar. Something that you’ve long known with clarity and keenness becomes to you opaque and filmy. Usually, it’s gradual, this process. A quiet shifting of tectonic plates in the dark deep spaces of the earth. Microscopic movements far beneath your feet. Other times, it can be swift. Something that had always been yours to hold turns, in an instant, to quicksilver in your hands. You look down in wonder, in amazed silence, your mouth a small O, as it rushes between your fingers and departs from you forever.
What happened to me was both fast and slow. A few years ago I was in church on a Sunday morning, singing a song I had sung at least a dozen times before, and found I was suddenly unable to sing. Something that had been churning within me for years, maybe even decades, rushed up all at once and the words turned to ash inside my mouth. It didn’t scare me. Nor did it cause me much alarm or discomfort, really. Rather, there was the sensation of stillness and quiet clarity as the words of Emily Dickinson arrived in place of the song, as though they were a small pebble tossed out over still water, epiphanic circles rippling.
I’m ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs—
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I’ve finished threading—too—
Dickinson’s life should have been simple. Straightforward. She lived in nineteenth-century New England and the expectations for her life would have included nearly nothing more than to marry, bear children, and attend church services on Sunday mornings. Not unlike the expectations for mine, one hundred and fifty years later. But with this poem, Dickinson emancipated herself from the Puritan claims of her family, her church, and her society with one bold line. I’m ceded, she says. I’ve stopped being Theirs—”
The song we were singing at church that day was called “Pour Me Out,” and there’s not much to it:
Pour me out,
Pour me out,
All I am is Yours,
All I am is Yours.
Those lines repeat three or four times before moving into another verse and finally the bridge. Our church seemed to like it. We sang it fairly often, anyway, and I’d never had a problem with it before. It was, after all, a song I’d essentially been singing my entire life, beginning as a young girl coming up in the church my father pastored. Pour me out. All I am is Yours. For as long as I could remember, even as early as six years old, I’d understood that my desires and dearest wishes were ontologically selfish and that I would have to pour them out if there was to be any hope of filling myself with God’s desires for my life.
In theory, I’m on board with this. I’ll even admit that I am, in fact, quite selfish. And that in order to do things that are not selfish, things that are big and benevolent and kind, I have to sacrifice. I have to do things I don’t want to do. I have to give up, say, my blanketed berth on the couch in front of the fire to help our neighbor bring in her groceries. I have to drive across town through traffic—something I despise doing—to take a meal to a friend who is sad. You could call this “pouring myself out.” I’m okay with that. I’m okay with pushing past my self-indulgent inclinations to help a neighbor or cheer a friend.
But here is what I’ve discovered I’m not okay with: As a young child in the church, the messaging I received was both oblique and overt. To be a Christian meant that I must always be a helper, even if—perhaps especially if—helping involved things I did not enjoy or wish to do. It was part of the job description and God, it seemed, was fond of setting before me tasks I found particularly loathsome. Saying no was rarely, if ever, an option. One must pour oneself out, after all. This was how God tested us; it was how God would assess whether we were willing to sacrifice our time and our energy and our innate selfishness.
As a young girl in my church tradition, there were other things to contend with as well, also oblique and overt. My primary, if not sole, purpose in life was to one day be a mother and a helpmate to my husband, not unlike the expectations for nineteenth-century women. Throughout my childhood, these messages converged and conflated and I saw them made manifest in the women who bustled around the church office each week, folding bulletins and making fliers. I saw them in the women who taught all of the Sunday school classes and decorated the sanctuary for Christmas and cleaned out the church basement. I saw them in the women who made the batter for pancake breakfasts and soaked the beans for the chili suppers. I saw them in the women who showed up early and stayed late and never complained.
At home, I saw my own mother, who did all of these things, plus all of the laundry and all of the cooking and all of the cleaning and all of the driving to and from gymnastics practice and piano lessons and track meets and doctors appointments and helped with homework and made cupcakes for birthday parties and cocktails for my grandparents and rarely seemed to rest and never complained. My mother also suffered a massive stroke when she was fifty-four and never fully recovered.
Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace —
Unto supremest name —
Called to my Full—The Crescent dropped —
Existence’s whole Arc, filled up,
With one small Diadem.
Like Dickinson, I was baptized without a choice. A place had been set before me and I had pulled up my chair and tucked into the meal because I thought it was the only one being offered. It took me years into adulthood to understand that there were other options. And more still to find the courage to swivel my chair and stake a claim at a different table. This time, consciously, of grace. Dickinson’s Diadem conferred glory upon her. She baptized herself. She was a poet and, called to her full, she saw her lesser form fall away. The Crescent dropped and she claimed a new space for herself in the world.
What settled over me that Sunday, when I stopped singing, was the realization that I had, over the years, like so many of the women I watched as a child bustling between the pews and putting out poinsettias for the Christmas cantata, been pouring out parts of myself that exceeded the selfishness the song contended with. I hadn’t only poured out my selfish desires so I might be free to participate in the healing of the world. I had poured out all of my desires. I had poured out everything.
Even as I began to discover that there were other possibilities for my life beyond the domestic duties I’d envisioned and engaged with enthusiasm, I continued the pattern of pouring myself out ad nauseam. In my twenties, I offered to lead a small tutoring ministry for our church that ballooned to include a weekly after-school club, a Christmas block party, and a week-long day camp in the summer. There was talk of turning the whole endeavor into a nonprofit, and it required endless coordination, energy, effort, and planning. It was exhausting. But I pressed on. I kept going and kept going and kept going because that’s what I was supposed to do.
By that point in my life, I was sensing some latent vocational yearnings that longed for excavation, but I didn’t make the time. How could I? When something was needed at church or in our community or anywhere else, I always said yes. Not because I didn’t have boundaries but because I believed, wholeheartedly, that this was my bounden duty. My husband, on the other hand, didn’t have the same conviction. He helped with the after-school club, and he volunteered his lunch hour at the day camp, but his job and vocational pursuits came first. His efforts outside of work and other recreation were applauded and celebrated—What a guy! So involved!—while mine, which far exceeded his, were unexceptional. Boring, even.
Again and again and again over the years, I gave of my time and my enthusiasm, my late afternoons and my early mornings, my organizational skills and my limited social energy, relinquishing personal desires and reparative time because it was what I believed I was supposed to do. The messaging had worked. But in that moment at church, as the congregation continued to sing, something shifted inside me.
I step down from the throne of my heart
Saying all I am it was yours from the start
Casting down my crown at your feet
All I am is yours
I couldn’t sing because I didn’t know how to say that I was casting down my crown and picking one up at the same time.
My second Rank—too small the first —
Crowned—Crowing—on my Father’s breast—
A half unconscious Queen—
But this time—Adequate—Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown—
It seems impossible to choose a Crown with Dickinson and lay one down at the same time. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe there’s a way to embrace self-sacrifice and still stake a claim of dominion over my own life. I’m sure it can be done. And I could probably figure it out, but I don’t think I should have to. I don’t think it’s my job alone. That job really belongs to the church, which for centuries has inculcated a culture that encourages women to give of themselves in ways that are wildly disproportionate to what’s been asked of men. My job is only this: to step with Dickinson into my fullest, truest self; a self marvelously and mysteriously imbued by the ground of all being, the Spirit of God.
Which might mean taking a pass on that song for a while and letting the men sing it alone. Not because men are more selfish than women or because women needn’t be self-sacrificing but because women have already poured out enough. I have already poured out enough. I no longer believe in a God who siphons off our strength and inmost yearnings under the guise of excising selfishness. I don’t need to rid myself of everything that interests and enthralls me in order for God to fill me up. I choose instead to believe in an expansive, expanding, generous God who fills and fills from every side, benedicting my deepest desires and calling me unto the supremest name. And from the abundant wellspring of this lavish God, I baptize myself.
Cover image by Pro Church Media.