Grace in Goofiness

My parents have three daughters and a son. We girls were, and are: rule-followers, studious, somewhat-to-highly […]

Carrie Willard / 7.19.16


My parents have three daughters and a son. We girls were, and are: rule-followers, studious, somewhat-to-highly anxious, bookish. Two of the three of us skipped a grade and became valedictorians of our high school classes, while the other was the salutatorian, and all of us were the kind of students that teachers would leave in charge of the class when they had to step out in the hallway for a moment. My brother, on the other hand, might have been the reason that the teacher had to step out for a moment, most likely to have a good laugh out of the sight of the other students. He was, and is: charming, hilarious, and an outside-the-box thinker. (He’d probably like me to point out that he was class president, too.)

When my brother and I were toddlers, my parents could track down trouble by hearing me laugh at my brother. They called it my “trouble laugh,” and it struck fear in their hearts like a tornado siren strikes fear in the hearts of people who live on wide, open prairies. Like a tornado, my brother could be just around the corner, wreaking havoc on an otherwise calm and peaceful landscape. Like the time he threw a glass jar of popcorn kernels down the basement stairs to a concrete floor, which my mother had just spent all morning cleaning. Hilarious. Or the time he took apart a bed in my room, starting with the sheets and blankets, and then dismantling the bed frame itself. Electrifying. Or the time he went a step too far and started playing with knives in my grandparents’ kitchen, but my grandparents’ ears hadn’t been fine-tuned to the trouble laugh yet, and I had to go tell them, hands on my hips, through my own giggles, that “it isn’t funny, you know.”

By the time we were in our early teens, my sisters were adults and out of the house, and so it was just me, my brother, and my parents. On one family vacation, several states from home, I remember waiting in line for a restaurant table or tourist attraction. My brother was in high-antics mode, jumping around, singing to himself, and trying to break down my serious, eye-rolling facade — just itching for a trouble laugh. “You’re embarrassing us,” I told him through clenched teeth.

“Why?” he asked. “You’re never going to see these people again.


Now that we’ve (allegedly) grown up, I’ve learned not to leave my phone lying around in his presence, because when I retrieve it, it will be full of goofy selfies that he took. My husband has to leave the room when my brother pulls up youtube videos he’s been saving for me, because I laugh until I can’t breathe. My children adore him. On a recent walk around our neighborhood, we found a construction sign lying on the sidewalk, near an orange construction fence. “Read that,” my brother told his nephew, my oldest son. “Con-struc-tion Zone,” my son sounded out. “Well, that shouldn’t be there, because this is not a construction zone,” my brother aid, in all seriousness, and tossed it over the construction fence. My sons laughed so hard they could barely breathe. They’d only seen someone do something so insane as tossing a sign over a fence in cartoons.

During a recent family reunion, we gathered around a restaurant table for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. My teenage nieces are carbon copies of their mom and me — scholarly, serious, and rule-bound. If they were bored by a week with older grandparents and younger cousins, they never let on. It was our last evening together, and I saw a dangerous gleam in my brother’s eyes. I overheard him say to my nieces, “When are you ever going to have the chance to do this again?” It was the same tone from twenty-odd years ago when he’d said, “We’re never going to see these people again.

“What is it?” I had to know.

They were already scooting their chairs away from the table. “There’s a chocolate fountain,” my brother said. “And her favorite food is uncrustables,” he said, pointing to the pre-packaged peanut butter sandwich my niece was eating. “It’s just begging to be done.”

They returned to the table with chocolate-covered broccoli, a chocolate-covered chicken strip, and as promised, a chocolate-covered uncrustable sandwich. I had to admit, I was impressed.


My sister, mother of the teenage nieces, leaned over to me and said, “The girls need more of this in their lives,” and I could see what she meant. We could all use a gentle nudge toward goofiness, especially when the goofiness isn’t hurting anyone. (The broccoli, for the record, did not go to waste.)

It just so happened that we came home to church that Sunday to the reading about Mary and Martha in the Gospel. Like many women, I have a really hard time with that reading, and I will admit that I often don’t like when men preach about it. But I don’t really want to hear about it from women, either. I feel like I’ve been in both Mary’s shoes and in Martha’s shoes, and I suspect that if a woman had been recording the gospel, she might have remembered to include the part where Jesus said, “If you’ll just sit down for a few minutes, we’ll all help you with the dishes later. I promise.” Or even, “Hey, thanks for doing all my laundry and cooking that meal. High five. Take a load off.” Instead, we get the shaming of the shamer, and I’m going to admit that it yanks my chain.

As a mom of young kids, I feel like Martha a lot. Sunscreen, bug spray, required camp t-shirt, school uniforms, dentist appointments, permission slips, dishes, laundry … I don’t make up tasks just to aspire to some Pinterest-worthy photo op of a weekday morning. I have to work, my husband has to work, and my kids need a place to be during the day, and those places have rules for good reason. I regularly fail to live up to those rules, and I never make the beds, but somebody has to try or we all get kicked out of day camp and WE CAN’T HAVE THAT, JESUS. I’ve considered the lilies of the field and the birds in the sky, but that doesn’t change the fact that zoo camp requires the orange t-shirt, and chapel uniforms are required every Wednesday at school.

I’ve also felt like Mary, when I just want to finish listening to something important that someone is telling me, or even just chew my toast before someone whisks away my plate, and I just want a little peace to make that happen. The Mary and Martha story feels like the original Mommy War, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Because the story goads me so much, I try to pay attention to it instead of turning away from it. I wonder how I would look at the story if Mary had a serious intellectual disability. Or if Martha had a serious obsessive compulsive disorder and couldn’t help herself. What demons plagued them both?

When I’ve been a little too Martha, my brother has brought out my inner Mary. “We’re never going to see these people again” means that I can take off the load of other people’s expectations of seriousness and bookishness. “When are you ever going to have the chance to do this again?” reminds me to get out of my straitjacket of rules and laws and to dip myself into grace and goofiness.

I’m not looking for redemption in the rules, but I understand that somebody has to keep track of the immunization records and calendars, or we’ll have a feral child situation going on. I will look, though, to the Teacher who reminds us to slow down and listen. I’ll look for more opportunities for grace and goofiness and joy like a (chocolate) fountain. I’ll listen for my own trouble laugh again, and try to remember that I’m forgiven for both my rule-bounded-ness and my goofiness.