I was in the car with my family, and as usual, listening to our favorite soundtrack, Pete the Cat (music from the Amazon Prime cartoon, based on the books by James Dean). The music bopped along:
“So you’ve fallen down playing tag
And you’ve bruised your right elbow
Now you want to stay inside
You just wanna hide
But when you’re ready, give it another go”
My 19-month-old son yelled excitedly from the backseat: “PETE!”, identifying Pete’s voice.
Then another voice sang the second verse:
“So you’ve slipped off your surfboard
It feels too dangerous to be brave
But if you lay out in the sun ‘til that feeling’s done
Before you know it, you’ll be back on your wave”
My son called out excitedly from the backseat, naming the singing platypus: “Gus! Gus!”
When all the Pete the Cat characters joined in for the chorus, both of my kids named each character’s voice they heard: “EMMA! CALLIE! BOB! GRUMPY!”
We all sang the chorus together:
“It won’t be scary forever
Take things at your own pace
Put your brave face on and dust yourself off
And get yourself back in the race”
All of a sudden, my emotions got the best of me. I started laughing and crying all at the same time. My 4-year-old daughter noticed: “Mommy why are you crying and laughing. You’re so funny.”
They kept singing, while I kept laughing and crying. I laughed because my 19-month-old refuses to speak his sister’s name, but shouts out the names of his favorite book/cartoon characters when he hears their voices. (Little brother’s revenge for all that big sister ruckus). I was crying because, well, the song touched something deep in my soul. You know you’re a parent when a cartoon cat can speak to your soul’s longings.
The song “Not Scary Forever” is featured in the episode, Pete the Cat: Cat City Safety Patrol, where Pete encourages his friends to take a break after something scary happens. In the song, Dennis the Turtle falls down and bruises his elbow, then goes inside to hide for a bit. In verse 2, Pete the Cat falls off his surfboard and then sits on the sand for a bit. In both verses, Dennis and Pete sit for an extended period of time as the sunlight changes from midday to evening. After letting the scary incident subside, Dennis is ready to go back outside, and Pete is ready to go back in the waves.
The cartoon may be designed for children, but it sure applies to us adults. Yet, we aren’t as good as the turtles, cats, and kids of the world in listening to such advice. When something scary happens to us, do we take time to process the event? Do we allow ourselves the time to heal? Do we give ourselves time to rest?
The chorus of the song encourages kids to “put their brave face on and get yourself back in the race.” Yet what it doesn’t tell kids to do is pretend the event wasn’t scary. It doesn’t tell kids to smile through it. It doesn’t tell kids to go immediately back out there and pretend that everything is fine. It doesn’t tell kids to power through.
I wonder why we can be so good at helping our children process these scary events, but so terrible at helping ourselves process them. When our kids fall down and scrape their elbows, we let them cry in our arms. We mend up the boo-boo with band-aids and kisses. We talk through the scary incident. Do we help other adults do this? When we go through a scary incident (like living, working, and surviving a global pandemic), do we allow each other to cry in our arms? Do we give ourselves time to process what’s happened to us? Do we mend up what’s been hurt? Do we even know how to mend the wounds of grief, loss, worry, and upheaval?
What brave face do we put on?
When we speak of putting on a brave face, we normally mean that we’re plastering on a smile. We’re going back out there. We’re powering through. We’re tough. Nothing gets us down. We can do this. This is perfectly fine. I’m great. See my smile?
Is that really a “brave” face? I venture to say it is not. Is it brave to hide behind a smile? Is it brave to say, “I’m fine” when you’re not? Is it brave to pretend like you’re handling it all, when you are struggling?
In the cartoon, Pete’s brave face is not when he’s surfing a wave, but when he’s sitting on the sand after having fallen down. In my life, the bravest face that I’ve had this year was when I said, “I can’t do this. I need to rest.” My bravest face was the one that was the most vulnerable, the most authentic, the truest expression of myself and my needs.
Every year for the celebration of Epiphany, my church hands out Epiphany Star words. Every person gets a star with a word on it, which is meant to be a guiding light for the upcoming year ahead – just as the Christmas Star guided the Wise Men to Jesus. When I picked up my 2021 star, I groaned. This Star Word was the last word I wanted to read. I was planning to head into 2021 with renewed hope and promise. Instead, my star word was COURAGE. “Crap,” I said aloud, “What in the world do I need courage for now?”
7 months into 2021, I have come to live into that word, but in a way different than I anticipated when I turned over that star on that fated day of Epiphany: January 6, 2021.
After spending a good portion of Winter/Spring 2021 in quarantine from COVID exposures, after spending time caring for families who grieved, after a year of leading online worship, after a year of preaching hope in the darkness, after caring with all of my heart, mind, soul and strength for my children, my husband, and my congregation, I put on the bravest of brave faces. I admitted the thing that scared me the most: I need a break. I don’t’ have the strength to keep doing this unless I care for myself. I need to put on my own oxygen mask.
In March, I applied for a Sabbatical. (The Presbyterian Church (USA) encourages churches to grant sabbaticals to pastors who have served in a call for 7 years – I celebrate 10 years at my amazing church this year). As I typed up my proposal, I felt vulnerable and exposed. I was admitting that I was tired. I was admitting that I was close to “burn out.” I was admitting that I needed help.
Like many in caregiving professions, I’m not the greatest at caring for myself. Caring for others? That’s what I do. Caring for me? Well, I always thought there would be time for that later. It turns out, as that Courage Star told me: later is now.
I put on my bravest, most vulnerable face, and I hit send on the proposal.
As I did, I thought of the great Prophet Elijah. There’s a story in 1 Kings 19 that comes in between two of Elijah’s most famous works as a prophet. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah defeats 500 prophets of Ba’al. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah hears God in the sound of sheer silence. But we often forget what comes in the middle. We often forget that brave face of Elijah when he admits that he is too tired, and he can’t do it anymore. After defeating the prophets, Elijah flees Ahab and Jezebel’s wrath and heads into the wilderness. He sits under a broom tree, proclaims, “It is enough; now, O Lord take away my life” (1 Kings 19:4). He admits he just can’t do it anymore. Then something truly amazing happens. He falls asleep. When he wakes, an angel brings him food. Then he sleeps some more. When he awakens again, an angel brings him more food. It’s only after Elijah admits his exhaustion, only after he sleeps, only after he eats, only after he cares for himself, that he can make that journey to Mount Horeb to meet God. Only after he hears God in the sound of sheer silence can Elijah go back to serve, preach, and heal.
God meets us in those bravest of spaces: the space of enough, the space of rest, the space of silence.
Within a few hours of sending my proposal to Session (church governing board), I received emails and texts of encouragement and support from our Elders. It turns out brave vulnerability can not only help us find the rest we need, but can also bring us closer to one another.
Dennis the Turtle concludes “Not Scary Forever” in the final verse:
“When I get a little nervous,
I’m gonna look Mr. Fear in the eye
With my friends, I’ll be ready,
Because they help keep me steady.
I won’t just stand up, I’m gonna fly.”
Put your brave face on, friends. I guarantee that when you “take things at your own pace, get yourself rest, God will be there in that space.”
You can watch “Cat City Safety Patrol” on Amazon Prime – second half of Episode 1, Season 203.