Rest for the Betty Draper in Me

In my dreams, I can breathe underwater. In my anxiety-crippled reality, I just discovered that […]

Stephanie Phillips / 6.12.17

In my dreams, I can breathe underwater. In my anxiety-crippled reality, I just discovered that a thing called secondary drowning exists. Yay! NEW WAYS (FOR MY KIDS) TO DIE THAT I HADN’T HEARD OF BEFORE.

We’ve been in Sydney nearly six months and there are countless “favourites” among our crew: the local, world-class zoo; Sunday morning ferry rides into the harbour for church; the amusement park fifteen minutes from our house; water views at every turn; late-afternoon trips to the beach. But one of my greatest thrills occurs every Thursday, when the local weekly paper is delivered to our mailbox.

Perhaps it’s my advancing age and declining savviness that have brought me to this point, but I don’t care: if loving the Mosman Daily is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. Forget my days of poring over the seasonal sartorial recommendations of InStyle; you won’t find me spending hours at the bookstore perusing Us Weekly like I did throughout my twenties. Nope, none of this compares to an evening on the sectional with a glass of wine and the paper in hand as I get to my favorite part: the crime section.

Here’s an example of a standard entry:

A man was asked to leave a hotel by security as he was observed to be intoxicated, police said. He allegedly loitered at the entrance for a while and refused to leave on May 17. He then allegedly took a security guard’s glasses away before throwing the glasses on to Falcon Street.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Mosman Daily’s crime report.

Clearly, this suburb where we’ve set up shop is not in the throes of the hard-knock life. As one acquaintance put it, we’ve “landed on our feet.” There are quite a few expats here, as well as a striking amount of wealth. We fit into the first group while enjoying the housing benefits of the second thanks to a generous allowance from my husband’s company. In fact, when I look around (without listening; the Aussie accents would throw this comparison off) I’m reminded a bit of America in the 60s and all the apparent ease of a Pleasantville-type existence: great schools, clean streets, clean-cut denizens, low crime. There has to be an underbelly, right?

It’s the cynic in me, to be sure, that enjoys this sepia-toned life while questioning its validity. This is why my favorite scene in Mad Men was the one where Betty Draper slapped another mom in the grocery store and became that week’s spirit animal for me. People can keep up appearances only so long before cracking under pressure! A life of floral housedresses and lemon-scented countertops and a perfect-from-the-outside marriage eventually, according to the Mad Men narrative, gives way to divorce, shopping slaps, and a diagnosis of lung cancer that leads to the one thing Betty ever fully embraced about life: death.

Grim, maybe. But if it’s too good to be true, then…it’s probably not. True?

I don’t know, guys. Maybe my slap is right around the corner, but there’s something about our life here — a life I fought for a year before grudgingly assenting to — that is sanding away at my cynical edges. That’s softening my sarcastic bent. Not doing away with, mind you — I’ll always be an American. But there is something fascinating about historical and geographical contributions toward a nation’s psychological profile, and back in the States, our capitalistic American dream often translates into a performance-based culture in which no ladder is too high to climb. It’s exhausting, and it doesn’t end in the corporate world, but trickles all the way into Pinterest and unofficial parenting competitions (stay tuned for this year’s Father’s Day edition!). In Australia, parents don’t rush through Target on February 13 in a mad dash to procure enough Valentines for their kids’ classes, because they don’t hand them out here. Slow clap. The two birthday parties we’ve attended were informal affairs with hot dogs on the grill (sausages on the barbie) and homemade cakes, not a Frozen-themed ice-castle-replica-centered soiree inside an event space littered with a DJ, $50 party favors, and a life-sized Olaf who gave rides on his tagalong unicorn. An Aussie friend told me recently that the idea of a climb upward is a bit gauche here, as there’s more appeal in the narrative of struggle. Interesting contrast to our American sensibility that seems to outlaw such a prospect.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m used to looking for rest in all the wrong places — the next achievement, my kids’ well-being, a suffering-free existence — and life in America was only too willing to affirm that search. Which makes life here in Australia…well, it makes it exactly what it was meant to be. It reveals it to be exactly what all things are when they come from the hand of a good God: a gift. Specifically, Sydney is a place where we seem, daily, to be called into rest.

And I mean this in a very literal way. By the time we left Atlanta, I was relying on some sort of pill to fall asleep. Every night. Here? I haven’t taken anything since the day we landed. #humblebrag, or Holy Spirit?

Lest I appear out of touch (too late) or haughty (I’m not meaning to imply that God sent us to Australia because he loves us more/this is heaven and the rest of you are left behind as The Remnant, though it’s a theory worth exploring), I am fully aware of some of the drawbacks of Aussie living. All y’all back home are, like, really far away. I had to wait hours before my texting buddies found out about #covfefe (the wait was interminable until I fell asleep; then everyone talked about it without me). There’s our tony enclave’s lack of diversity (unless you count my Swedish hairdresser). I’m going to need to speak with someone about the real definition of bacon. I am definitely not prepared for Christmas during the summer and the images of a speedo-clad Santa that it evokes. And don’t even get me started on my recent elevator (lift) altercation with an elderly woman who basically verbally abused my son (the olds are mean here! #iwontho).

And there’s the fact that we’re all still the same people here that we were back in the States, inconveniently. I am sure my children, for example, would have enjoyed the benefits of a post-relocation Mommy Personality Change most days. Instead, I’m breaking down in IKEA followed by my older son breaking down in ALDI (retail is fast becoming a four-letter word in our family), and the ambivalence that defines my parenting endeavors is alive and well every time a tiny voice shouts “Play with me!”, shooting both warmth through my heart and shivers down my spine.

Brokenness and sin don’t need plane tickets to follow me across the world. My children suffer constantly and cross-hemispherically from my inability to stay in the present and the anxiety that drives this tendency. I struggle to delight in them, in the moments, and I can’t even get to the part where I know he’s God because I am incapable, it seems, of just being still. Always have been. But I am changing. I am being brought into each moment, through one part mindfulness techniques, one part helpful books, and all parts grace and its rescue strategies, which are unconstrained by plane tickets as well. I am being captivated into stillness by panoramas that demand to be beheld, sweeping vistas of ocean, brilliant sunsets, lapping waves. By even more awe-inspiring images, specifically that of my older son being set free alongside me, incrementally and sporadically, from anxiety and the limitations of a spectrum diagnosis while becoming a treasured member of a mainstream kindergarten class at a lovely school and thriving. I can’t think about it without crying.

“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength,” Isaiah proclaims to us across the millenia, and never has the rest part of that promise been more resonant. In the strangest way even the returning part is true: it feels as though we are returning to a simpler way of life after a season of struggle back in the States. And as I write that, my cynical self wonders when the other shoe will drop. 

Isaiah is ready for my cynicism. “But you were not willing, [girl]” he continues in the lesser-quoted second part of the verse, and cites how the Israelites arranged for their own rescues and, therefore, their own demise. Once again, across the millennia, I hear the echoes resonate through my own life. And I watch as grace, which because of what happened specifically two millennia ago on a hill, makes no room for my demise. For my flailing prior to drowning.

I think of it every time I hear Washington’s (historically fictional) invitation to Hamilton, who thought he was being summoned for a scolding. Story of my life. Instead, he was being welcomed for a rest. “Relax, have a drink with me,” beckons his Commander, and I feel the same welcoming breeze through my life: on Sundays, when I hold my palms upward during the benediction and feel that weightless weight that presses into them week after week, Spirit and air. I feel it as I push endless pounds (kilos) of stroller and child uphill toward school and anxiety laps at my edges and frays my nerves, then the view to our right opens to reveal mountain and sea and the little one below me, in response to my frustrated pleas to his brother to hurry up, sings, “Silly Mummy!”

Silly indeed. Ridiculous, actually, to have prayed for years for a beachside home only to be given it decades later on another continent and to have feared it was anything other than grace. To fear that, whatever may come to us here, it could ever be anything but grace. Pain is God’s megaphone, according to C.S. Lewis, but he also wrote that “God whispers to us in our pleasures.” For now, at least, we hear that whisper, the wind of a Spirit that answers my fears — about secondary drowning, and all forms of living — by teaching us a different way to breathe.