Every day my 10-year-old son brings home a vocabulary word we’re supposed to discuss over dinner for his homework. They are called “Dinner Plate Words” and after we talk about it he writes out two sentences using the word. Recently his word was “vulnerable.” He read a definition out loud: “A state of weakness; open to attack.” He composed the sentences fairly quickly. I recall one said, “The mouse was vulnerable after the cat attacked it.” His next sentence also mentioned an attack or some other kind of struggle.
I wanted to tell him there is another way to be vulnerable, but I wasn’t sure he would understand if I tried to explain the emotional aspect of the word. Maybe I hesitated because I myself am newly confused about it and have much to learn.
Several weeks ago I attended a writers’ conference and a panel moderated by a writer whose work I’ve only just come to know despite the fact that his publishing career spans nearly 40 years. We’d met briefly through a mutual friend a few weeks earlier so I would call him an acquaintance. After the session ended I waited until the usual post-talk crowd dissipated. I wanted to say hello and further comment on a question someone else had asked. When it was all clear I approached the writer. He looked at me, then touched his fingers to his lips and held up his hand in greeting. My heart thumped hard, flipping a full somersault in my chest. I paused and checked my steps to make sure I wouldn’t fall over. What in the world was that? I managed to compose myself and make my comments, but this question has occupied me ever since.
At first I took the easy route: Oh, I have a new crush. But to use the word “crush”—a silly one, especially at my age—would be to play around quite dishonestly with language. If “crush” were my Dinner Plate Word I’d have to address this definition: “a temporary romantic attraction.” It sounds wrong, like a childish equivocation. I know I am avoiding something and I am too old to not recognize this feels bigger than a crush—and more important.
This I know for certain. When the elder gentleman touched that kiss my way, he had me. I don’t know if he knew it, but he had me. That was it. I loved him from that moment on. I have no idea what he really thinks of me. And I know absolutely nothing about him. He could have a reputation as a notorious flirt for all I know but it really doesn’t matter because all I can speak to is what’s going on with me. Why did my heart react this way?
As any flawed human would do, I sifted through useless, common notions (maybe he reminds me of a grandfather, or I’m star-struck by his celebrity) before I challenged myself to think higher. The piercing, needle-to-the-heart epiphany came when I finally thought of this: I had been floored by a moment of grace.
What is grace? It is love where it does not have to be, where there is no reason for it. I see grace in acts of affection that occur without explanation—just as the grace God bestows on us every minute of every day. Grace is the love, unconditional and whole, God gives us for no other reason than we are who we are. I think of the John Legend song lyric, “All of me loves all of you/all your curves and all your edges/all your perfect imperfections.” I know the singer is thinking romantically, but I always hear God, a God who loves me, in those words. This love carries me through my days. I ride it like a river coursing through my being. It never occurred to me how it could suddenly flow out of me, undammed and free.
I can only think my years of exploring God and the human spirit have brought me to this place where my heart is open, quivering and accessible. I am open to love. And now my heart is as exposed and vulnerable as a child without a coat in the rain. Where is my mother mode, my need to cover it up, to protect it? We’re supposed to love, love everyone. While this fact usually prompts a discussion of how hard it is to do that, my moment in the conference center made me realize I’ve come to a point where I have no choice in the matter. My heart loves. It is frightening. It is exhilarating.
This is a dangerous way to be. Even to write this is dangerous because there are so many misconceptions about love. We are quick to categorize—romantic love, filial love, platonic love. We think in terms of marriages, affairs, relationships, and friendships. But I’m only concerned with the love mentioned in Isaiah 43: “…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,” and the love Christ commanded, that we love one another as we love ourselves. Somehow, I think, we’ve led ourselves to believe this love is polite and sedentary when in reality it can dash boundaries and crush them to dust. It leaves us exposed—vulnerable.
So this small act, the touch of a kiss and not even a real kiss, has set me whirling with its essence of grace. How can I return it? And not necessarily to this person—I mean can I return it, unconditionally, to every one I meet? The answer, whether I want it to be or not, must be yes. In one moment love knocked me over with the force of an oceanic wave. I have risen, a total wreck—covered in sand and salt and seaweed. But I recognize I must get up and pursue the living water even as it retreats. I will dive into its heart. I am willing to drown.
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