A Grace That Shatters: a Wild in the Hollow Guest Post by Ashley Hales
Blogging is amazing to me. Once in a while I read something and think: I didn’t even pay for that! It’s just out here for free. It is a complete honor that Ashley Hales would share her words here, and y’all, she is a glorious and genius writer. The Wild in the Hollow series of posts are here so you’ll know you aren’t the only one who feels broken, but this story from Ashley is yet another one that shows us the broken way home.
She sat sullen-cheeked and tore off her string cheese into wisps, stringing them out slowly over the lunch period. She was a dancer with a culture pressing in on her to see scale numbers as the enemy, to slither into small costumes and press her dreams down like the lambs wool stuffed deep inside her pointe shoes. She wore her desire to be perfect right into her body.
So we all followed her to varying degrees, packing smaller lunches, or watching we only ate the healthy stuff or saying no to sugar. This was before the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of fad diets and the Instagramming of gorgeous bodies. This was how perfectionism stole itself into our hearts at 13 and rooted deep, that said this was how we’re supposed to be whole. Our bodies became another way to earn a 4.0.
So hips and breasts and the burgeoning soft places were sucked in and patted down and hidden. Our womanhood wasn’t perfect, only a skinny, muscular boyishness. We danced and cheered, our bodies tight and muscular in their youth. Inside, comparison ruled as our eyes were opened: there was always someone smaller, more attractive, more talented. I thrilled knowing how very small my cheerleading skirt size was. When I was small enough to be on top of the cheer stunts, I felt like I’d made it.
And then I fell off the stunt, in the middle of a huge competition and my perfect record was shattered. My mind was elsewhere — my boyfriend had broken up with me that weekend — and my body followed. I fell apart. As much as I’ve tried to separate myself from my body, my inner self has always manifested itself through my body. There’s no escaping the interconnectedness of body and soul. But I’d learned early enough there was always someone prettier and more successful, but I could win by playing the intellectual card. So I went and got a Ph.D. I moved around the world. I lost weight from all the walking between home and classes.
Again, my body became another product to perfect. Another way to show I was worthy of love.
Sometimes the Kingdom breaks through in helplessness found on linoleum floors. Sometimes the Kingdom breaks through in little cracks through perfection that finally shatter the whole thing. Yet I kept bending over to pick up the broken shards and try to remake it — as if by trying to salvage brokenness I could pretend to be perfect. We waver between living with our lungs pumped full of real, abundant life and running back to the string cheese and the dress sizes.
The other week, I took my four kids (age 8 and under) hiking. Last summer we conquered little mountains together, my brood and I. And I always felt closer to God there in the wilderness, encouraging the littles to take another step, watching them climb and finally be free in all their boyhood. We’d get to the top and the pines would point straight to heaven and I could finally breathe. My body moving in rhythm with a task to accomplish, with my eyes on my boys rather than myself. Having left behind the wildflowers, mountain breezes and mountain streams of Utah, I looked over the dustiness of our next hike, back home in southern California. Everything was a disheartening brown. We walked up paved paths until we found the dusty trail to robbers’ cave. I forced my mind to find the gifts in the disparity between mountain paths and paved roads. So with each step we dreamed of stage coach robberies and hidden treasure in the cave we were hiking to.
But then a few miles in, the whining started. There wasn’t enough water or snacks and my 3-year-old was hiking in Ugg boots. In August. With one baby strapped to my back and my 3-year-old often clasped like a monkey to my front, I had become a pack mule. I sang songs for them and hustled ahead to keep a quick pace for them to follow. And then I turned back and saw my eldest carrying his youngest brother on his back.
Right in that dusty brown wilderness there was abundant grace: an elder brother using his body in service to his younger brother, a patch of shimmering green aspens, and a little spot of morning glories determinedly blooming right there in the barren spaces.
My body doesn’t need to be perfect. My body can move. My body can do hard things. My body can hold and nurture. Yes, I’m broken, with scars from bearing down and pushing out children into the light. Yes, I’m broken when my eyes still roam and I want magazine-perfect abs. But right there blooming in the dust was surprising grace, and kindness, and the ability to move, to take another step. My body can be a vehicle for praise, a response to a grace that shatters me and puts me back together all at once.