My Reflection in the Dirty Pane Glass

my old house in Cochise AZ

When nightfall turned windows into mirrors, I used to look into one of the dusty old frames on the east wall and stare hard, willing the glass to produce a beautiful me, praying to God to let me see myself as I would someday be; beautiful.

The night-darkened window cast back a grainy romantic picture, and waved by the layers of dirt and oil, I could imagine in the shadows. I imagined a beautiful, grown-up girl in a pretty house.

I had to call my sister to ask her if we had a mirror. I remembered a small, round one that my dad used for shaving, but Heather would know the details. Yes, we had a mirror, she said. It was as I thought except I hadn’t considered that my chest would tighten and my breath catch as I tried to remember. The east wall, why was I standing there, what job was to be done along that wall? Nothing, Heather said, it was a tiny space between the front door and the refrigerator and I would have had to stand on my tiptoes to see myself in the window, but I must have done it many times, this I do remember. I did have a job in that cramped spot, that of baring my heart to God begging for beauty.

The prayers to be beautiful were constant. Poverty can feel ugly, and I felt the depths of it. I remember the day in Sunday School when the teacher asked us children to raise a hand if we knew someone more poor than ourselves. Apparently we were to pray for that unfortunate soul. I knew no one with less than myself, but raised my hand anyway, thinking that maybe the Cartmells had it worse but knowing deep they really didn’t, not missing the furtive glances my way. Why would a teacher ask such a thing? And there was my teacher at the elementary school who went round the class after Christmas asking each child to share what he received. I lied and made up gifts and everyone knew I lied. I vowed to never ask a child that question.

I could have been a child-leper, calling out ahead in a thin voice of shame, “Unclean, unclean.” Our shack made of corrugated iron and rough wood, dirt thick on the floor, a crude hole in the floor with a pipe for water serving as sink, and always undone~this, this was my shame and ugliness.

Long I’ve considered my childhood but just now have discovered something. What frightful thing I couldn’t put my finger on I’ve now marked. It wasn’t just that we lived in extreme poverty, that my mom was unstable, that my dad was the town drunk, neglectful and abusive, though these are frightful things. It was the disorder and the chaos and the filth.

Always dirty clothes, dirty dishes, junk strewn about, boxes stacked with items long-forgotten by all but the mice, piles of old construction materials in the side room anchored in the dirt, and how could I have ever expected to feel beautiful? Being raised in such a chaotic mess I wore it every day as my garment and I felt ugly.

I was haunted for years after I left my home in Arizona, too afraid to look deeply for the reason, afraid my memory was hiding something sinister. I was terrorized at night in my dreams and it was always that place, the mess, the demons of disorder that thrashed to get me. The nightmares were me as child straining under shame to make order and quickly present an unsullied home to a soon approaching visitor. Never was that mission accomplished before I woke in a black panic.

Beauty is ordered by God. I longed for it like the deer pants for water. It was not my vanity. God set the universe in order, and the stars that sailed bright by my window each night were exactly in their place, and the sun followed his path across the sky in a manifest pattern as if on some invisible line, and absolutely everything in all creation is meant to be ordered and this is beauty.

Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; the Lord of hosts is His name: “If this fixed order departs from before Me,” declares the Lord, “then the offspring of Israel also will cease from being a nation before Me forever.” Jeremiah 31:35-36

I’ve heard several people throughout my life share of growing up in poverty but never quite knowing how poor they really were. The common thread was that without exception these people came from loving families where there was a rhythm to life that included breakfast, lunch, and dinner, evening family time, whatever kind of order that particular family possessed. Their clothes were clean even if threadbare and simple, their tummies were filled even if with rice and beans every day. And that is beautiful.

I’m so grateful for the Arizona desert. Were it not for the mountains He called up, the stars He appointed to their place, the surety of the rising and the setting of the sun, the rhythm of seasons, I would have had no order and no beauty. I cannot express the comfort of seeing stars align into the Big and Little Dippers and Orion’s Belt, without fail. Though no trace of order could be found inside that rundown shack on Havasu Way in Cochise County, Arizona, all the beauty and sequence of the universe was beckoning me from outside–and so I lived outside as much as possible.

God answered my prayer. He eventually took me out of that place, and through a journey too much to recount, I’m a beautiful, grown-up girl in a pretty house, more beautiful than I could have imagined in that darkened window. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” These words from 1 Corinthians 13:12 are doubly meaningful.

Though He is far from done with me, God is steadily teaching me how to carefully arrange my home and my family life, and I am called to teach my children so they too can find beauty in the order, and whether rich or poor in dollars, they will be rich in beauty.

To appoint to them that mourn in Zion, to give to them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified. Isaiah 61:3

our happy home
[My new home full of light and love and laughter; and yes, that is my old home at the beginning of this post.]

{to be continued…I will share a most curious dream I had after I began this post last week.}

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16 Responses to My Reflection in the Dirty Pane Glass

  1. Oh my goodness. What an exquisitely written post, and heartbreaking. And beautiful. I am so glad God brought you out of that place.

  2. Mandi says:

    Oh Jen, That breaks and encourages my heart all at the same time. You are beautiful in every way, my friend! ♥

  3. Wow…I’m touched by this. A heart-breaking but also lovely and redeeming rendering of transformation. Thankful for what He’s done (and is doing) in your life, and seeing yourself for who you really are– as a beautiful child of God.

  4. heidi says:

    You brought tears to my eyes. I could see you, I’ve known you all my life, your name was even Jennifer and you were my best friend in the 4th and 5th grade.

    Bless you, my friend, for taking the time to see the ashes and now recognize His beauty.

  5. Jen says:

    Sarah, thank you; He saw me in the desert and covered me in the shadow of His wings…

    Mandi, so grateful for your encouragement!

    Anna, redemption. I was thinking last night of an old song I sang as a child: “I’ve been redeemed (echo), by the blood of the lamb (echo), I’ve been redeemed by the blood of the lamb, washed in the Holy Ghost I am, all my sins are washed away I’ve been redeemed.”

    Heidi, thank you for the tears and the blessing! They are healing and it’s one way we care for one another.

  6. It’s a beautiful post, it’s heartbreaking. What a long way you have come, and how you have transcended your past!!
    It’s like the lovely tales in “The Road Less Travelled” of how the grace of God can transform anyone, no matter what their beginnings.
    And what a glorious house. And what happiness on your children’s faces.
    You’ve come a long way, Jen–and it will be fun to follow the rest of your journey,
    Love,
    Anita

  7. Ann says:

    Jen!

    I guess I must have met you soon after you left Arizona behind? You are a strong woman to be able to process your past in such a way that results in this touching post. So glad I was part of your journey :-)

  8. Jen says:

    Anita, I’ll have to read some Road Less Travelled I think! Thank you for being a piece of this new journey.

    Ann, Yes, this was where I moved from before Michigan. And Yes, you were part of the good piece of the journey in rebuilding a life; I’m so glad the Lord blessed me with a friend like you and so many other special people. Thank you for reading and leaving your thoughts!

  9. Kristin says:

    Jen,

    I am speechless from the beauty of your words. Thank you for sharing your story. I am grateful to have read about your childhood and to see where you are today (beautiful, with a beautiful home and family). Your faith touches me and you sparkle brightly alongside all of those orderly stars that you gazed at as a child. With love, K

  10. Jen, your words hear brought me to tears- of sadness for that little girl who saw the order and beauty of her Father admist harsh circumstances, and of joy for how that same God has blessed you beyond what you ever asked for. Thank you for being vulnerable and real with us.

  11. Gina says:

    I so appreciate your transparency Jen, and I love the picture of God’s redemption in your life! What an amazing thing, you are amazing and God is amazing in you. Thank you for sharing your story, I know he is being glorified in it…beauty from ashes indeed.

  12. Jen says:

    Kristin, thanks for your beautiful words that always leave me with a smile! Thought of Daniel 12:3 as I read your comment~I do hope to “shine like the stars in the heavens.” So grateful to know you.

    Jane(halfmoon), I take vulnerability lessons from you, my friend! You always share tender things with such grace.

    Gina, Thanks, and you did mention my greatest hope, that the Lord is glorified in all things. And you also mentioned that other word that is at the forefront of my mind always: redemption.

    ~on another note~{Chris is working hard on the footage, can’t wait for you to see it.}

  13. tipper says:

    Jennifer-what a touching post-you made me cry-just as your beautiful words made the other commenters cry too. But your widsom impresses me most. I’ve never thought about it like you so clearly laid it out. You are so right-it’s the order, the love that you missed not the riches. Our Lord did indeed lay it out all in order that one thing is clear. And I’m so glad you are where you are now : )

  14. Jen says:

    Hi Tipper! Thank you for your words here. Hoping you’re having a wonderful Easter weekend. love to you, Jen

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