It’s okay to step away from something, even if you’ve been doing it for years. Especially if you’ve been doing it for years. It’s something I’ve been trying to tell myself. Unfortunately, some of my time that I’ve rediscovered as I’ve stepped away from commitments is steeped in guilt, kind of like the half-drunk mug of tea I left sitting on the end table last night.
I look at it, realize that it’s very uncharacteristic of me to just leave things like that around the house, undone, but then it only takes a minute to clean it up and get on with my day.
There’s always a new day, and a fresh pot of coffee.
That’s what it feels like to strip away the patina of the calendar – like that first sip of coffee. Though I’ve been looking at clocks and calendars my whole life, it feels new to look at a clock and not be rushing to the next commitment. To take that first sip of the morning and not be immediately pouring it into a travel mug.
Fresh starts were good; that separateness was where you could feel yourself, where you could learn who you were apart from everyone else.
Don’t be deceived that this is easy. Lots of people go around telling people that all you have to do it say, “No.” Emphatically. Like you really mean it. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have scores and scores of people in this country tired, beat down, exhausted, and fatigued from every day life.
I get that we’re in a pandemic right now, almost a year on, however this state of affairs only serves as a magnifying glass for this huge dare-I-say ridiculous and out-of-hand societal problem of “yes.”
I sit here, sipping my coffee, and this is the morning when my work-from-home dream ends. Never again in my career will I experience schools shutting down for a global health crisis (at least I don’t anticipate another pandemic…. but we’ll see what the Universe has in store). Never again as a public school teacher will I commute from my kitchen to my office, never having started the car or stopped for gas or even put on makeup like I used to.
The pandemic has helped me say no when I felt like I couldn’t. When I really, really, wanted to, but felt like guilt was holding me down. I was forced to just… stop. And breathe.
As my sister and I reminisced in a conversation recently (podcast episode to be posted this week), 2020 was a year. But it was also a good year. Which feels weird to admit. BUt one of self-reflection and growth and learning to say “no” and damn the consequences.
My whole life my identity has been wrapped around my activities and accomplishments. While it may look great on paper, my propensity for filling up my calendar is actually an attempt to fill a large gaping hole that is hungry for Guilt. And Self-Sacrifice. The only way for me to feed Guilt is to sacrifice my own self-worth and sanity. And I did it, for years.
And did you see the verb tense I just used? “And I didit.” Past tense. Not present perfect, not past progressive. But past. Because I’m done feeding that monster. I’m beginning to fill up that hole with reading and walking and pondering and conversations and relationships. Soon there won’t be any room at all for Guilt and its companions.
I am a worthy, capable, loving, generous, compassionate human being with or without filling up my calendar and saying yes to all the things. You are a worthy, capable, loving, generous, compassionate human being with or without filling up your calendar and saying yes to all the things. Let’s make our default “no” and carefully and cheerfully say “yes” to a few things that we can do well, and with that we will snuff out Guilt.
Over the past seven years or so, I have been made acutely aware of my body. At first she seemed like a stranger to me, someone you pass in the night but can’t quite see past the darkness and shadows.
It’s quite ironic that I was so separated from my body because I am tall. I take up a lot of space, all 5’10” of me. I have big feet (size 10-10.5), relatively broad shoulders, a large bosom (though pretty proportional to the rest of me), and in general I have always been aware of the space I take up, but not necessarily been in sync and felt unity with my own body.
On being tall & taking up space
In conversations that date back to my years going through puberty, my aunt and I explored some of these feelings I had about my body. I felt I was too tall; she said I was beautiful. I thought my feet were too big; she said that if I didn’t have big enough feet, I would fall flat on my face. I guess this is probably true. But her messages about my body seemed to contradict the jokes I heard from other family members; namely, the ones about my shoes being pontoons and the cups of my bra drying above washer being soup bowls. Those comments were made in jest, for sure, and not meant to harm at all. But seeing as I am the only person in my immediate family who seems to carry the Scandinavian genes more than the others, it really made me super aware of the space I took up. And you can understand why during those years, I began to dissociate my self from my own body.
Recently I attended two consultations with plastic surgeons. I was interested in getting a breast reduction. I spent hours pouring over before and after pictures (I have never seen more boobs in my life….), comparing my breasts to headless women who kind of looked like me. I imagined the types of clothes I’d be able to wear, including cute lacey bras that resembled small ice cream cups rather than soup bowls. I imagined getting the surgery during a long break from work and healing up before a beach vacation, ready to take the ocean with my new & improved perky boobs.
Throughout this process of consultations, I had conversations with my insurance company about the surgery. I got a letter of medical necessity from the chiropractor. Even when the procedure may not have been covered by insurance, the money really wasn’t an issue either way. We could have saved and made it work, if I had really wanted it.
A switch flipped in me about such a radical surgery. On the surface, it seems relatively harmless and it seems people get plastic surgery all the time. However, in the few months I spent obsessed with this idea, I began to get attached to my boobs (emotionally…). I saw them in a different light. I began to mourn their loss and eventually decided against a breast reduction.
On being infertile
Nearly seven years ago now, we began trying to conceive. As we know from other posts on this blog, it didn’t work. And in that process, the dissociation I felt with my body that began in adolescence only grew more pronounced. I began to resent and even despise my body. It’s a very uncomfortable state to be in because you can’t really get away. Thankfully I didn’t choose to engage in self-destructive behaviors, though I can imagine for some people that that would seem like a way out from those feelings.
It took a lot of therapy and research, even surgery (to diagnose and remove endometriosis) to help me heal. It took a rewiring of my brain when my period would start, that instead of absolutely hating my bum uterus* and emotional pain it caused me for so long, month after month, I just accepted that this is my body right now. I’m still in the reproductive, “child-bearing” phase of my life, and it is possible that very soon I will enter what is known as perimenopause. I decided that I can’t just hate on myself for the next 10-15-20 years until my body stops bleeding every month. I have to accept myself, come back into myself, and act like I love myself.
*I was misdiagnosed – I do not have a septate uterus. It turns out that I had benign uterine polyps and stage 2 endometriosis, mostly occurring in the deep cul-de-sac. I had a D&C to remove the polyps and excision for the endo. 2.5 years on, I feel pretty good, though I suspect the polyps might be coming back.
On being a sexual being
They say that women lose some of their inhibition around sex in their 30’s. I’ve not read up on the reasons why, but from personal experience, I could say that the previous two experiences of being tall and being infertile have had something to do with it. Once you peel back the layers of why your body & soul are disconnected, it’s really hard to not keep going, keep discovering, staying curious about yourself.
My journey with my one and only body has also been spiritual, which necessitates an analysis of my previous spiritual experiences and an examination of the things I was taught about my body. If being tall, having big boobs, and being infertile made me feel shame and embarrassment about my body, then learning that my body, literally the existence of it, could be tempting for boys and men or inherently sinful certainly did nothing for my self-esteem.
What has done something, in fact a lot for my self-esteem is engaging in exercise, especially long-distance running and yoga. Concerning running, there’s nothing quite like completing a marathon and realizing that your own body took you that far. It’s impossible to not feel proud of yourself, to shed the self-consciousness about what you might look like running 20 miles on country roads during training.
Yoga has by far been the most transformative experience, and the most daring I must say. In some Christian circles I have been a part of, yoga has been looked down on and considered “giving the devil a foothold.” I will be honest, though: the conservative Christian rhetoric surrounding women’s bodies, pregnancy, and infertility did very little for me as far as healing was concerned. (I have written a lot about that here, here, and here.) So I decided to explore elsewhere.
Forgive my facetiousness, but as it turns out, I have not turned into a witch or a Satan worshipper. I have, however, developed a broader sense of spirituality that I needed at the time which also includes my sexuality.
In Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about the need for a new approach to sexuality as Christians. She makes a clear distinction between purity and holiness (hey-o those are some buzzwords!) that helps validate my journey to uniting my own body and spirit:
Purity most often leads to pride or despair, not to holiness. Because holiness is about union with and purity is about separation from.
This brings me to the last practice or habit I’ve explored to help me come back into my body: reading. It’s been a way for me to round out my experiences of intense emotions, to inform my journey going forward. I have found that the topics of books I have read that have helped me realize a deeper connection to my own humanity include sex within the Christian world (Shameless: A Sexual Reformation), sexual health (Come as You Are), endometriosis (The Doctor Will See You Now), Jesus as a husband (The Book of Longings, post here), women’s health (In the Flo, Womancode), spiritual memoirs written by women (The Very Worst Missionary, Out of Sorts, Inspired, and Christian mysticism (The Universal Christ). While these topics might only seem marginally connected, the reflect the interconnectedness — union — of who we are as humans – complicated and complex in our sexuality and spirituality, in our body and our soul.
I don’t mean that the act of not drinking is so difficult. I mean, it can be, especially on the Saturday of a long weekend where I just feel good all day, and what could make it better besides a lovely cocktail or two? In all honesty though, overall it hasn’t been difficult for me to choose to not drink.
That said, after posting this at the beginning of November, the de facto start to the American holiday season, I did imbibe on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Neither time was crazy. I had maybe two glasses of good wine. No hangover, not really any disrupted sleep. But it felt empty. Kind of pointless without the high.
So since Christmas Eve, I’ve abstained. And the difficult part has been the actual state of being sober. The fact that I’m not using alcohol as a proverbial lidocaine to numb my feelings feels a bit like drinking water from a firehose. Emotions are no longer dampened or delayed. They scream in your face, wanting attention, wanting to be dealt with and examined. Right. Now.
Sobriety and self-regulation go hand-in-hand. In my experience (your mileage may vary), you can’t navigate one successfully without the other. It doesn’t have to be sobriety as in abstinence from alcohol, either.
Back in March of the ill-fated year of 2020, I remember feeling like finally all my hard work in therapy had paid off because the world was closing in around us (that’s quite hyperbolic… but that’s 2020 for you) and I felt sober of mind. I felt like I could see the world from up above, and observe my own actions and thoughts rather than be my actions and thoughts. And it was freeing and overwhelming at the same time.
I remember thinking that even beyond work done in therapy, I had come a long way, being able to withstand an undetermined amount of time of isolation at home. Uncertainty everywhere else. I’d come a long way from the child or teenager who when she just couldn’t stand it anymore (pick whatever it you want) she went to her room and slammed the door. Or walked out of the house and slammed the door. I slammed doors a lot.
The slamming of a door, proverbial or literal, is a symptom of emotional dysregulation. As a teenager, I let the annoyances, sadness, and frustrations pile higher and higher because “You will be Little ladies,” and “You don’t need a nap during the day,” and “I’ll give you something to cry about,” and “Do you want an attitude adjustment?” Instead of trying to enter the conversation, I was intimidated by whatever consequence awaited me (and I assumed there would be from prior experience). So I just grinned and bore it. Or didn’t grin. But definitely had to bear it. And then it would get to be so much that eventually I would yell so loud and slam the door so hard and cry so uncontrollably as I walked as fast as I could to my friend’s house across the church parking lot and present my emotional dysregulation volcano or dumpster fire or whatever metaphor you want. I made it someone else’s problem because I wasn’t given the skills or the safe space to practice. There was very little room for error, and especially since I was a high-achieving, super motivated student and responsible member of the family.
So now as a grown-ass adult, I am doing my best to realize when I am getting ready to slam a door, and being completely sober can make it even more difficult. But I don’t like slamming doors, or yelling, “I hate you!” or “I never want to see you again!” or “You don’t understand me and you never will!” so I try my best to make sure it doesn’t happen.
I’m still learning how to self-regulate. The third week in January, a four-day work week I might add, was one of great emotional dysregulation. By that Friday night, every single grief, worry, sadness, emotion was turned up loud. And the only way I knew how to navigate it was to just pull the plug from the wall. I’m still learning how to turn the volume dial.. like back in the day when you got a new boombox and the volume or tuner dial were oh-so-sensitive. Or when you accidentally gun the rental car out of the airport parking lot. Nothing under 90, amirite?
The problem with using alcohol or any substance to soothe is that the practice of regulating yourself is delayed. You might think, Yeah, I need to work through this, but not tonight. It’s been a week. I’ll relax tonight and deal with it another time. But doing that is only putting a kink in the hose. It’ll straighten itself out at some point and then where will you be?
I think one reason I don’t turn to alcohol when I’m confronted with negative experiences or emotions is that it isn’t my only coping mechanism. I think this is key. I write. I read. I go for a walk. I go for a run. I message a friend. I have other ways of turning down that dial, and those things have aided in my entire journey with alcohol.
I think I underestimated the effect that reading so much would have on me. I forgot how a book can climb its way into your soul, into the very threads which weave you together. Upending your memories, thoughts, feelings, relationships. Turning over new stones of discovery and wrecking you in the very best way in the process.
At least that’s what reading’s done for me.
Some books go fast – I’m a witness to a story and being entertained. Other books train me to run faster and jump over hurdles I’d never encountered before.
Sometimes you see yourself in the characters. In this latest one I’m reading, Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy, the timeline that constantly jumps around actually makes total sense. Franny Stone, the main character, is 34 years old. Just like me. She has endured many traumatic events that I never have, but all within a day or a week or a month I can revisit so many versions of myself, replay hours of scenes in my head, recreate complete environments as if I were a computer program. The mood and tone this book engenders has tapped into some deep shit, that I will say.
One super unexpected result reading has had is that my creativity is blooming again. Other factors might include (but not be limited to) less screen time on my phone; more going for walks around town; less alcohol flowing through my veins and disrupting, well, everything; working through therapy and mining and carrying out all the things in my soul, beautiful and banal, enticing and eccentric.
I feel so much like who I was right before puberty and who I became right after – all the feelings of impending womanhood and adulthood and potential mothering all wrapped into one. A giant ball of creativity and longing that looks tangled, makes complete sense to me, but that the world wants to see wrapped nicely and symmetrically into a ball.
I also love the way our psychological journey can mirror our physical journey, and that’s what I see with Franny in Migrations. She’s on a quest to witness the last migration of the arctic tern, come hell or highwater (quite literally) and there are stops along the way that trigger memory of events from her childhood and young adulthood.
The moments I create in my own life mimic the stops I take along the way of my own migration. Midwest to west Texas to Mid-Atlantic, all physical places that mimic big changes in me as a person. Maid to mother to crone, the last of that list yet to be seen. It’s all connected. The things I create and bring to fruition in the world (read: not babies) will be the joys of my life, enmeshed with the experiences and individuals who helped me bear them.
I have to respond to the depths of my soul that cry out for air, that want to be made and created and shared. It’s creativity for creativity’s sake, yes, but also for my own life’s sake.
I think so many people across God’s green earth would agree with the sentiment of “Good riddance, 2020.” “Peace out.” “Fuck off.” “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
Twenty-twenty was a year. And damn, does it feel good to be about three weeks away from it, to have 2020 growing smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. One of the things I mutter under my breath as I drive away from the shitstorm that was 2020 is, “It’s the year you will always remember but the one you want to forget.”
However, I think there is a danger in really taking that to heart and erasing 2020 from our collective human psyche. Just like anything we put on the Internet, it’ll still be there forever.
I think many people, perhaps for the first time, experienced long-standing grief and trauma at all levels. To some extent, that grief and trauma are not quite done with us yet. The thing is, processing all that has happened and bouncing back to some sort of normalcy can’t occur if we pretend it never happened.
Historically (and not-so-historically), Americans are really good at pretending shit doesn’t happen. So much I could say here, but let’s talk about death and related rituals for a second. Towards the middle of the 1800s, we started outsourcing death and all its routines to undertakers and funeral homes. People used to prepare their own family members and loved ones for their eternal resting places, but that practice now seems absolutely absurd and, well, morbid.
We purposely distanced ourselves from the very practice that may have made the process of grief easier to begin by seeing our deceased loved ones and touching their bodies in order to prepare them for their burial. Instead, we may or may not see them die, or immediately after they’ve died, and it’s not until they’re pumped full of chemicals and hair and makeup done that we approach them.
For a long time, I was freaked out by seeing the deceased in an open casket in a mothy, poorly lit funeral home, attended by men in suits whom I did not know. I thought that after years of this aversion, I thought I should just “get over it” because it seemed silly. Did anyone else feel that way? From my second grade teacher Miss Renfro’s visitation when I was ten (which was on the heels of my uncle’s unexpected death earlier that year) to my great-grandmother at age 12, to my grandparents at ages 19, 26, 29, and 32, I really thought something was wrong with me.
As it turns out, embalming bodies is just unnatural. By definition. And no wonder I had such a hard time working through my grief – my loved ones were made to look as they did, in life, while they were breathing and walking and laughing and talking. But they were not alive. And had we had different practices surrounding death and what comes after it until they, or their cremains, are lowered into the ground, maybe I would have not needed so much therapy. (Debatable…)
The point is that the farther we get away from the events that hurt us, the less closure we have, the more we close ourselves off, the longer it will actually take us to even begin the healing process. Sure, that Year from Hell might look great as it disappears into the headlights and sunset behind us, but it might come back full-force as we’re trying to get to sleep, or when we see a picture dated “2020,” or when we remember a birthday or holiday from that year.
There is a different level of comfort for everyone when it comes to naming and claiming our grief. I think that’s a natural part of who we are as humans. We’re all on this journey together, but some of us travel through deserts, through tundras, through lush forests – that is, all of us have different experiences that may help or hinder our moving-forward.
But we have to. So many have hope that 2021 will be a better year. I think it really can be, but only if we truly allow ourselves to grieve, process the pain (and the joys! I’m sure you have at least one) and gently close the door with a wave and understanding smile instead of slamming the door and shouting expletives. Let’s give 2020 the leave-taking that it, and we, deserve.
Why is it that my heartrate increases and my breathing become jagged when I come across evidence of a previous version of myself — that is, the one that wholeheartedly committed to the Pentecostal evangelical way of doing faith?
I feel so many things when I hear the jargon, see smiling people worshipping together, come across songs I used to feel a lot. It’s almost a feeling of what I called “conviction” – a little emotional ping that told me that I was temporarily out of bounds and needed to repent, find something wrong that I was doing, and get back in line.
I measured my “success” in my relationship with God in early-morning bleary-eyed Bible study, or a worship service where I was moved to tears (read: every single one), or the feeling that I was being prophesized over, and that that prophecy was for me at that moment.
To be clear: I don’t deny many of my experiences. I don’t deny many of the relationships I built with other people during this time. I don’t deny the musical and spiritual growth I made from playing with worship bands for a decade. But now at this point, I feel a certain grief over the “believer” I was. The beliefs I unequivocally adhered to. The people I hurt over disagreements about theology, intentional or unintentional. The people I excluded because I did not agree with their “lifestyle.” The people I thought I had a right to convert to my way of Christianity when I had no business doing so – in their country, no less. I grieve the power I gave over to others in the name of “accountability.”
There is so much now that I don’t know. I have a lot of doubts. I thought I had come up to the top of the hill already, but recently I think I came just to a plateau, and now I have resumed climbing. There is so much to uncover, so many beliefs to examine. The more I continue in this journey, the more I think that this is part of the human condition.
I had a deep insecurity throughout those years spent in conservative Pentecostal evangelical churches. I was young, married, without a lot of money, spending a lot of time away from my new husband, with whom I “sinned” before marriage. The insecurity also came from experiences where extroversion was valued and even seen as godly. I am not an extroverted person.
Sometimes I can tend towards that end of the spectrum, but in general about my faith (and most of my life in general), I am introverted. I like to turn things over in my mind and heart before I express it to others as my truth. Instead, I was encouraged to just take a leap and the Holy Spirit will catch me. I was encouraged to put myself out there, that the person I was would be made better. Which also infers that the person I was wasn’t good enough. Good enough for God? Or good enough for other people?
My heart hurts. I never could have foreseen a grief over a time in my life related to my faith. I really and truly thought I had it all figured out – about sin, about God, about salvation, about heaven, about hell, about Roman’s Road, about mental illness as a Christian.
It all started to unravel when I learned of emotional abuses committed by pastoral staff, and how they were allowed to be perpetuated mostly because no one else really knew. The victims of this abuse had no power to respond. And not just in one church by a couple people, but in completely different areas of the country to many people. The unraveling continued with our unsuccessful journey to having children and the refusal to pursue parenthood. The latter seems to be a covert affront to American Christian culture.
I do have hope, however. I have hope because of many, many people I know from all over the country who claim to follow Jesus and their actions match. I have hope because I have had some wonderful pastors from different backgrounds and of different ethnicities who attest to the one-ness of God. I have hope because I’ve seen many of my predecessors for whom God and faith were real, and they practiced it.
Through living in different parts of the country and encountering all sorts of Christians, I have hope. The faith I practice is not contained in one type of building with one type of music and one type of preaching in one type of vernacular. It extends far beyond where I can see, beyond time and space and language. It’s in nature, in the air, in the clouds and birds and animals, and especially in domesticated ones. I see it in a shared meal with friends and through created traditions. I see it in fresh food pulled from the oven and in books I read by lamplight. I see it in the compassion and humor of my students, still teenagers trying to figure out their place in the United States, and the world at large.
I want to look forward instead of looking behind. There are new spiritual experiences to be had with new contexts and new interpretations of our shared texts. That there is a “successful” way to practice faith is an American fallacy. Adhering to any faith, no matter what it is, is not about reaching the top of the mountain finally. I think it looks like a constant push-and-pull, sometimes a tug-of-war.
…being people of faith isn’t as much about being right as it is about being part of a community in restored and restorative relationship with God.
I look at houses online, a lot. Maybe too much. Sometimes I look at houses in my neighborhood, sometimes in my hometown. Sometimes I look at houses in places I’ve lived before. I pore over lot size and price per square foot and judge the lighting or staging I see. But mostly I imagine what my life would be like in another place.
If I were to sketch a pie chart that shows the time I spend living in the past, present, and future, it might look like this:
Past and Future live in my head rent-free, and they never leave. Just like I have been for the past almost-year, they are hunkered down, their butts have made inroads on the couch cushions, and they’ve been raiding the pantry. To be fair, I live there with them. I even made them food and bring it to them while they remain couch potatoes. I bring them a blanket when they’re cold, and water when they’re thirsty. But if I’m being honest with you, Past and Future need to be evicted.
It is difficult for me to settle down and live in the present, and the time I spend looking at houses online is a symptom of that. If I have a goal in my head that I want to read on the couch with a cup of tea in the evening, it will take me at least a couple hours to get there. And even when I physically get there, it takes me more time to quiet my mind. (I know you’re going to suggest meditation…. line up behind my therapist for that one…)
Once I’m in the present, I enjoy it. But there is a constant buzzing in my head, maybe anxiety, maybe not. It’s like I’m afraid of getting caught in the Matrix again and losing my awareness. I’m hyperaware.
I was thinking about why I might be like that.
Growing up, I was always thinking about the future. It was an imperative put on me by my parents. We talked about it a lot – how to be successful in school, how important college was, how education was the way to have financial success (we did not have a lot of money for a long time). I think that mindset paired with an active imagination served with a healthy dose of anxiety spurred my mind into overdrive, and thus creating thought patterns that stuck with me for 30+ years.
I think it’s time for new thought patterns. Ones that allow me to fully enjoy the present without worrying about tomorrow. A caveat is that yes, it is important to think about the future at times – that’s how I keep things like my car maintained. I can’t just not get an oil change; I have to plan it. Or keeping food in the house so I can cook good meals. Or adding money to my investment accounts so we’re not broke in retirement.
But truth be told, those action items do not take much time. The energy I spend taking care of those and similar things can be compressed into minutes, honestly. Maybe a couple of hours. But not during the day when I’m trying to focus on work, or at night keeping my awake during a holiday break.
I see the habits and ways I’m spending my time right now as how I will spend them, forever and ever amen (a-woman? JUST KIDDING). For example, if I really dive into reading more books for 2021, in my mind I think, I cannot “let myself go” because I will become addicted to reading and then I won’t want to hang out with people so then I’ll lose friends and then I’ll be really upset and lonely.
Um, what? All of that doesn’t even make sense. It’s irrational at its core. Each part of our life is a separate phase – a season – a gift. I am in a new season right now where we are in a, say it with me, glo-bal pan-dem-ic. There is a lot happening that is not “the norm.” And it won’t last forever.
I read a lot of memoirs and biographies. Currently I’m a bit obsessed with the quest for the Northwest Passage in the Arctic in the mid-1800’s and all the fun and folly that come along with it. There are sailors who devoted upwards of 40 years to their sailing careers. Some of them were lucky enough to live into their 70’s and 80’s. While they spent 40 years doing one profession, per simple arithmetic, they didn’t spend their whole lives doing the exact same thing at the exact same pace in the exact same way.
I think having that realization can help me get over this hump of spending so much time with Past and Future. If I stop my irrational spiraling way of thinking in its tracks, I can probably spend a lot more time with Present. Let’s try it. And maybe my pie chart will end up looking more like this:
Let me start by saying, Wow. I was blown away by this book by Sue Monk Kidd, who also wrote the best-selling Secret Life of Bees (which I have not read). The Book of Longings was really a book I have needed in my life for a long time, though it was just released. It was my first finished book of 2021, but one that will be on my mind for a long time.
Beyond the review of the book, I can say that I think I know why my therapist might have recommended this to me. She often recommends literary fiction, some of which I have read to the end, some of which I have DNF’d, and some which I have avoided, like Book of Longings.
I have been on a faith journey my whole life, beginning from the time I was four years old and our neighbor Anna Rushford invited my family to church, the church right across the alley. It happened to be a United Methodist church, and this faith tradition was heavy on both sides of my family. I had even been baptized in a different Methodist church when I was only 2.
Fast forward to now, when I’ve been a Christian for 30 years, having been a member and at times heavily involved with different kinds of churches, all the while with questions in my mind about who God is and what his relationship to me looks like. I also recently have been questioning where Christians get some of the ideas they do about the Bible, and then decide that what they have learned is the only way to interpret it, and THEN use it to degrade, judge, ostracize, and ignore others. That I’m angry about.
Besides the religious aspect of Book of Longings, I thought a lot about the plight of women rich and poor in the first century. Though my life looks quite different than women of that time, I can relate to so much. What I can’t understand because of my own time, place, and privilege, I can imagine. No matter the social station of different phases of life of our main character, Ana, she experiences tragedy and silencing of her voice. She has deep emotions and desires that are often in conflict with each other. Her experience showcases many aspects of the general human experience.
I did cry at a point in this book, and if you’re not familiar with the story of Jesus or if you haven’t read this book, stop reading! I saw Jesus’ betrayal and death through new eyes, but really, eyes that might have been there. I knew there was a group of women including his mother and Mary Magdalene, but never in my life had considered that his wife would be there, nor that she might have just barely made it back after a long absence to see her own husband put to death. For some reason, witnessing that momentous event through new eyes had a profound impact on me.
I know what love is, and I know what it looks like in the context of my faith. I believe that two people can be brought together for not only love, but for companionship and the betterment of the world. And I know what it feels like to be separated from that person for long periods of time. I know what it feels like to just have to get my voice out – that’s why I write. But I write on a screen, not on papyrus.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s all connected. For a long time, I have compartmentalized many things: my relationship with God, my experience as a woman, my sexuality, my wants and desires for life. But it’s really all related and part of my human experience. I think just as the Trinity – Father God, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit – cannot be separated, our body and spirit cannot be separated.
This union of elements for me has been a new experience, and one I’ve desperately needed as I find my way in the world as a woman with a body and a soul and as a woman without children. When I go places, I take both my body and my soul with me, always. When I experience happiness, it flows through my mind and also my body. I first learned about what the world was like through my body (attachment theory). How then can my body be separated from my mind or soul?
Today we still return to our roots in times of crisis; we look to the stories of our origins to make sense of things, to remember who we are.
In Inspired by Rachel Held Evans
Returning to my roots is not an option for me – I must do it. That means returning to the stories that shaped my childhood and my first views of the world – the stories of the Bible. For several years I have been the absolute worst scholar of the Bible, and maybe it’s just as well. The scholar hat really isn’t fitting well, and that’s okay. I just have to come at it from a different angle. I’ll get back there with time and care. It cannot be forced.
In all, The Book of Longings did something for me that I have needed – it has given me a context for understanding Jesus in a way that I can understand and relate to on a visceral level, in a way that can easily bypass my brain and all its questions – through the love of another human.
As we near the end of 2020, this is the time I can look back and catalog in my mind my experience with reading this year. Without a doubt, a pandemic will naturally give some more time to read, and that’s what happened to me. We are not super extroverted social people in the first place, and generally do spend a lot of time at home, but a pandemic helped us solidify that more as we opted to stay inside. In addition, for the majority of the past 9.5 months, I have not had a commute, which saves not only the 50 minutes driving to and from work, but the time I spend packing a lunch, getting my bags (yes, multiple) together, et cetera.
I could have chosen to do many other things with my extra time. I could have done more yoga, gone to the gym (when it was open), I could have made lavish breakfasts, learned new makeup application techniques, spent more time in my craft room. But instead, I decided to read.
When I was younger and looked at the way other members of my family devoured books, I remember thinking about how they would just spend so much time with… themselves. In a world that may or may not really exist with a story that is not true. In my mind, that was a waste of time. Why would you keep your nose in a book so often when you could do other things?
I think some of my motivation to not read was from guilt and fear. I felt guilty, sitting on my butt reading for hours on end. Surely there were chores to do! Things to cook! And then when I became old enough for a job, there were hours I could work. So work I did, and for probably at least 8 years of my formative years, I did not spend them reading in my spare time.
I also felt fear. The good ole FOMO existed before social media, and already I had some tenuous relationships with friends. If I didn’t pounce on an invitation to hang out, would I have said friends for long? (My tenuous relationships mainly resulted from my own actions… I was part drama queen, part Stage 5 clinger).
I could go on about how these two states of being – fear and guilt – have dominated my life since I can remember.
So here we are. It’s the end of 2020 and I’m almost 35. I’ve read or DNF’d 62 books. My goal was 40. What happened, besides having more time?
I became motivated to read more because of a few things:
1. Numbers. I like crunching data and seeing progress. Goodreads provides a perfect place to track my reading and even get more recommendations. I forget things easily (maybe adult ADD? Who knows…) so Goodreads helps me remember a good book I saw or heard about.
2. Booktube. Yes, this year I finally bought a one-way ticket for a ride down the worm hole to Booktube. Some of my favorites are Peruse Project, Jen Campbell, Reading With Moe, and Elliot Brooks. One of the motivations for any activity that we humans have is community – not feeling left out. I love watching these women talk about the books they love, don’t love, and even about books they’ve written.
3. Conversations I have can have with others. I mentioned in an earlier post about how when you read, you have so much to talk about with other people! Even if you’re just talking about a genre that the other person doesn’t like, there’s bound to be something to connect about. Aaron and I have even opened up new conversations between us because now that I read fantasy, I know more of his “language” when it comes to books. Book clubs are fun, too!
4. Personal insight. Usually in every therapy session, my therapist asks what I’ve been reading. We talk about it, she gives me recommendations, and I’m left to think about a particular book’s influence on my life. Sometimes I surprise myself with the things that annoy me in a character, but then realize that those are also the same traits I dislike about myself. Or, I see a type of character in a new light, like a villain who had some sort of trauma that made them the way they are, and it sparks compassion. When we practice compassion or understanding with fictional characters, we can then transfer those attributes to real people in the real world.
5. Exposure to new ideas. A world where there is a magic system based on metals? (Allomancy in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn) A world where the guy who is hired to kill monsters is actually the most well-adjusted character? (The Witcher) A space suit made by and for humans? (Jack Glass) A memoir that discussed the possibilities of cultivating an urban garden? (Farm City) An epic love story where a woman travels through strange stones? (Outlander) These are all new ideas that are worth pondering and exploring more, at least for me. My world is expanded, even from sitting on my couch under x blankets, wishing for a pandemic to end.
I have no idea what 2021 will look like as far as reading is concerned. As demonstrated in my November reading posts, I am awful at planning what I will read besides the book club I’m in. I don’t want to the emotions of fear or guilt to spur me to read any book. I will be bringing in the new year with our local library’s winter reading challenge, which this year is accompanied by my other favorite activity – running. What’s better than that? Reading and then a run to either listen to a book or think about what I read? You decide.
If I were to choose a playlist of songs to make up the soundtrack to my biography, at the very top of the list tied for first place there would be classic rock and Methodist hymns. The top artists would be Heart and Charles Wesley. The former as a nod to the music I was raised and the latter as a testament to the music that played over and over in my head after church on Sundays. Both formed my spirituality.
I owe so much of my literacy development and my mad sight reading skills to having to read out of a hymnal in church. From the tender age of five I was singing along to hymns in church accompanied usually by the organ. We sat in the third row towards the center, so I generally wasn’t within the proper angle to see the organist plugging away at her work, but I was mesmerized nonetheless. If I remember correctly, I sat between my grandma and my mom. Or sometimes between my grandma and my sisters. If I remember correctly. But for sure I knew that my grandma was on my left, at the ready with Mentos or Winterfresh gum.
We would mark the hymns ahead of time with little ribbons by looking through the bulletin. I remember the anticipation of singing a hymn I loved. I adore hymns for so many reasons, only one of which is how beautifully the chords move through their progressions and carry a swelling and then fading melody. Then of course how many verses rhyme. I especially love the way that it’s easy to harmonize – the only question for me is which note I start on. To find this I hum along while the introduction is played and that usually sets me straight. I love to be a sole chorus of altos in a sea of sopranos and tenors and basses. I love hymns so much that I may have swiped a hymnal from the church I grew up in, and still have it on my shelf to this day. Truthfully, I probably borrowed it to practice songs on the piano and then forgot to give it back.
Hymns were my prayers, and some 30 years after beginning my formal journey in organized religion, I realize that. In the fine print below each hymn, you can see from where and when the words and music originated. My favorites are the ones where the words come from a translation of Latin from the 9th century (like “O Come O Come Emmanuel”) or when a hymn was written during a pivotal moment in history like the Civil War. But it doesn’t have to say “written during the Civil War”; I know that the years of 1861 through 1865 bear significance. It meant a lot to me that I was also singing the same choruses as my spiritual predecessors from ages ago.
I often committed words and music of hymns to memory. This will happen after you sing something so many times. Not only does repetition play a huge part, but so does the context in which you sing the hymn. We know from modern brain science that the body remembers first – whether an event was traumatic or not. It makes pathways from sights and smells, warmth and cold. This is how I made memories with hymns. I know that “For the Beauty of the Earth” is usually sung in the spring, with spring banners and colors adorning the church, trying to decide if I would wear a raincoat to cross the alley to church or just run for it. Memories of Christmas Eve hymns like “Silent Night” are laced with the scent of tiny candles blown out, and during the late service my belly would be full from a dinner with family.
Just like Scripture I’ve memorized (which by the way, isn’t much: I kind of suck at memorizing just words out of context), hymns will come back to the forefront of my mind at different times. During this time of Advent, the song “O Come O Come Emmanuel” plays in my head over and over. I find myself searching for the newest renditions by artists like Piano Guys and Gungor. I listen, and satisfy that craving for a comfort that’s enveloped in a minor key, Thys and Thous, and a predictable rhythm. I also find nuances I’d never noticed before and appreciate the song through fresh ears.
Many years after my first foray into church, I decided to begin attending a new church of a very different denomination than the one I grew up in. This church did not sing many hymns during their worship services, and if they did it was accompanied by drums and lights and not a lot of harmonies. To my knowledge, the only organ was a small one that hid in the corner of the platform, collecting dust.
In that tradition I learned many different types of music and worship that were much more “extroverted,” or so it seemed. Hands raised, voices crying out, sometimes even with non-English and non-other-known-language utterances. Lots of repetition of the same phrase became a very emotional thing, and as a teenager who had always been moved by music (apparently I was rocking to the beat by 8 months old) I took it all in.
However, it was odd to me at first. I never felt so much emotional while singing in church before, not unless it was at a funeral. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t emotional about God, however, or didn’t care as much or wasn’t as “saved” as my new fellow congregants. I know that now.
I slowly picked up on the culture of the new church – one of valuing extroversion, that revered people’s willingness to pray out loud in front of people. We held hands, and I learned to pray out loud very long prayers. With lots of Lords and Gods and Jesuses. I think I prayed like that because to some extent I was being authentic and I wasn’t afraid to do it, especially if I felt comfortable with the group. It was my way of being like the leader I’d been in my Sunday School classes, being the teacher’s pet.
But I also think I prayed like that because it’s what was valued and seen as “real” prayer. For some reason I began to think that all the praying I’d done before wasn’t good enough, or sincere enough. And God surely would answer prayers were I was bold enough to speak out loud to a group. Apparently praying in my head just wasn’t enough anymore, and that was the beginning of my turning away from what I grew up with into a new denomination that would dominate my ways of thinking and being and interacting for about a decade.
What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe?
I have since returned to the tradition I grew up in. When we moved cross-country and returned to civilian life, I needed something different. I have a lot, lot more to say about my experiences in right-wing evangelical church. It turns out many people do But in unpacking the hurt and shame and uncertainty and division of my spirit and my body, I have found that the prayer I have felt comfortable doing is the right prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer prayed out loud with my church family is the right prayer. The Apostle’s Creed recited aloud is the right prayer. The brief silent prayer after communion is the right prayer. The “graces” we pray before meals in my house are the right prayers. The prayers I follow along with during a virtual service while also cross-stitching or crocheting are the right prayers.
I have also realized that the hymns I sang and memorized were prayers. I was actually praying so much when I was singing. And if part of meditation is sitting on a line or song or idea for awhile, then I was meditating too.
I’m sad that for many years I taught myself to reject the faith and mode of worship I developed as a child into adolescence, that I inherited from both sides of my family, that I celebrated in basements of country churches. I learned to look down my nose at my supposedly unenlightened friends and family who just didn’t have enough of the Holy Spirit… yet. I told myself I was better than they were because I prayed out loud and sang loud songs with drums and electric guitars and listened to sermons that were 45 minutes, not 15. And I had extreme guilt if I couldn’t “convert” my friends and family, who had a faith and belief of their own, to my new way of thinking. However, as Rachel Held Evans writes in Faith Unraveled, “We are saved by a restored relationship with God, which might look a little different from person to person, culture to culture, time to time.”
I’m also kind of angry at the leaders and people in those churches (yes, I attended more than one) for encouraging the elitism, whether they knew it or not. They preached that their version of Jesus is the only Way, and also that the way we worship Him is the only Way. If you disagree with the sermon or theology presented, or think about Jesus in multiple historical contexts and perspectives, there’s probably something you need to be sorry for during that really emotional song that’s played after communion.
When I rejected my original mode of faith I also had to grieve it in context. I missed old creaky pews and hazy sunlight streaming through stained glass. I missed old hymnals and pipe organs. I definitely missed short sermons and the simplicity of a hymn, which if you study them, you will find that so many are much more theologically sound and linguistically complex than they are given credit for.
What a comfort to know that this loving and merciful God will not be disappointed, that his word falls over the earth like rain, covers it like snow, and nourishes it for an abundant harvest. What a comfort to know that God is a poet.
I don’t think everyone gets the chance in their lives to “come home” to the faith they had as a child. I think many people didn’t have a faith home to begin with, which is fine, or their home was unstable and emotionally manipulative or even abusive. But I had a really great home of faith and religion in my formative years. I had many healthy experiences that taught me about the Bible but also about being in community with others. In the process, I gained a large understanding of literacy and musicality. I was taught so much by loving and reliable Sunday School teachers.
Fortunately I was able to come “home,” and it was the right choice for many reasons. I wasn’t sure what I would find among creaky pews and old-church-building smell and the organ and hymns and robes and seasons like Lent and Advent, but I knew it was a good place to start.