It’s what people say when you’re at an uncomfortable height. It’s advice and admonishment. It’s a warning against the inevitable void that will entice you to fall. It could be a bend from reality, a willful ignorance of what actually exists.
At some point, we have to look down and get real. We have to accept reality and take responsibility for our fear. And then we have to make a plan to face and conquer it.
I think this looks different for everyone, but I can surely tell you what it isn’t, especially as we move into what I call the “post-COVID” era. It’s not: not taking care of your body, not nourishing your mental health, not encouraging and lifting up others, not showing gratitude, not driving dangerously on the morning commute, being a continuous source of negativity.
This global experience is tragic, yes, but as Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward, “Life is inherently tragic.” It’s a fact that too many have either not realized or blatantly ignored. What I see is an experience that has the potential to bring us together as humans. With seven billion people on the planet, what experience do we all have that is actually similar? Welcoming new life, grieving death, filling our bellies. That is what we all share, and can also be described as the human condition.
This is a unique time to be alive. But with this unique landscape comes unique responsibility. We have more evidence now than ever of what trauma can do to a person. We have multitudes of resources for mental health. We have the potential to be connected to practically anyone anywhere in the world.
What does “Don’t look down” look like right now? It looks like us harnessed in safely to the side of the mountain, prepared with all our gear. Helmet, rope, someone who can help us in an emergency. It looks like knowing how exactly high up we are and accepting the possibility that we are in a dangerous position. It looks like having enough training to be able to help another climber navigate to safety instead of being the reason they fall.
Earlier this week, my husband made the decision that we were not going to church today. I was totally on board with this, and very happy that I did not have to make the decision and the argument to go along with it. It’s not that we hate church; it’s just that the church in general worships mothers and traditional gender norms. The liturgy in our church has been more inclusive in recent years, but in general it’s just better for our mental health if we opt out.
So we did, and I had a fantastic day. The thing is, though, that correlation does not equal causation. Therefore while I had a chill morning of coffee and reading and thinking about planting flowers, the calm did not necessarily come from staying home from church. It’s all much more complicated than that.
It’s been five years since we decided to live life without pursuing parenthood, and seven years since we actively started trying to have children. Mother’s Day throughout those years has been tough. We are very thankful we have both of our mothers, but I’ve lost both grandmothers and my great-grandmother within the past 5 years. That grief plus the very intangible grief of infertility led me down a path of self-discovery that’s been often strewn with falling rocks, boulders, and paradoxically some of the most beautiful views.
I’ve been slowly finding my place in the world as a mid-30’s married woman with no children. You’d think that it’d be pretty easy to fit right in considering half the world’s population is women or people with a uterus, and my station in life really is not as marginalized as many I am acquainted with. However, in our arguably dominant microcosm of America, the pressure is on to be so many things all at the same time. Space is not held for those who want to tread their own path in life – we have to make the space ourselves, and usually that comes at a cost.
The cost for me, well, I’m not too sure what it’s been. Maybe friends. Maybe closeness with some family members. Maybe other opportunities. But now I’m at a point where I tell my story and make my own space. We had a “community circle” type of professional development recently at work where we had to answer the question, “What is a failure that you cherish?” Many people mentioned failures in school, in previous jobs, those sorts of things.
Whether or not people felt comfortable hearing it, I mentioned that infertility was a failure that I cherish for reasons that were shrouded in a fog of grief even a couple years ago. To this day I still can’t quite discern the reaction I felt from my fellow teachers – surprise, apathy, pity – but truly, I don’t care. I stated my peace while sharing just enough. A couple people told me “thank you” for sharing. I can’t say that I could have done it as gracefully a few years back. Maybe even as recently as six months ago. Self awareness and development is hard work, yo.
That’s how I feel every time I meet a new friend or new colleagues after being assigned a new work location. I’m always so glad people are meeting me at this very moment and not a minute sooner. I have more to offer that’s going to benefit other people. I don’t overshare. I really don’t give too many shits about what people think, but not in a self-destructive kind of way.
And that brings us back to Mother’s Day. Mostly today I felt like I was adjacent to the party, willingly hanging out on my own instead of feeling pushed out or shunned. That has a lot more to do with my own attitude and feelings toward this day than it does how people treat me. I think it was luck that intervened when I didn’t hear an ill-placed Mother’s Day wish, not people being mindful of whom they were extending Mother’s Day wishes. It was refreshing to not feel bitter or judge-y or torn-up. It was a feeling of, “I see you guys are having a good time celebrating your ability/choice to have children, but I’m not part of it and it’s okay. In fact, I’ve chosen to not go all in for this party.”
After doing hard work, I can be comfortable on this day. I can go out in public and not be walking on eggshells wondering how someone’s well-intentioned wishes may affect me by throwing off my whole day. If I do feel any ill effects, I lose minutes instead of afternoons or evenings. Most importantly, I’ve now mastered the training needed to hold space for others who feel othered.
Mental illness is a bitch. She’s the shadow behind you when you look in the mirror. She’s the one who whispers, “I’ll always be with you.” And she’s not wrong.
I had a stark realization that this will forever be with me. I can’t shake it. You name it, I’ve tried everything. Prayer. Medication. Meditation. Yoga, all kinds. Therapy. Hot baths. Cold showers. Running marathons. Running in the woods. Retreating from the world. Writing my thoughts with pen and paper. Turning up the music so loud I can feel it in my bones. Playing “Moonlight Sonata” with all my heart and strength. Focusing on work. Distracting myself with alcohol, sex, TV. Watching sunrises and letting the hope of a new day dawn. Scanning sunsets for ways to make the light last longer so I don’t have to start over.
I guess there are things I haven’t tried. Drugs. Cigarettes. Sleeping around. But I know better than to dabble in those painful pleasures. There’s an indelible line that I won’t cross, a glass wall. I’ve been observant enough to see others go down that road, and to then see the pieces of themselves that come out on the other side.
When I was a young teenager, when all these ups and downs were new, the roller coaster was admittedly a little intoxicating. I felt such strong feelings as the pendulum swung and caught me in its arc. Back then I thought it wouldn’t last forever. That it was part of adolescence, a rite of passage that a percentage of people went through. It wasn’t treated seriously, and I surrendered myself to the god of achievement. I flayed my heart open on its altar, all for a chance at acceptance. And it delivered, until it didn’t.
As a young adult, freshly and acutely aware of my responsibility to the world, I realized that the dark clouds weren’t going away. Oh, I desperately wanted them to. I thought there would be a wind that would finally blow them away. I was taught that if I prayed enough, had enough faith, really truly believed that God could heal me, that it would be gone. But I still trusted in science, in sound logic, in the words of people who were smart and got degrees in things like medicine and counseling.
I opened myself up to a counselor at the health center at my university. I tried Prozac and then Celexa after Prozac gave me crazy nightmares. Finding a medication that worked was not easy, but it was worth it for the relief I felt was coming. There was a moment where I thought, “Will I have to take these for the rest of my life?” A big component of the depression and anxiety back then was situational. If only I could get into some new situations, things would be better.
Situations arose, but not necessarily good ones. Depression and anxiety found me in the valleys of military life and infertility and losing loved ones. Anxiety found me at their gravesides, worried about my fate, wondering how their genetics might live on in me. Still, I thought I could pray it away. Or that if I could just get through the grief, happiness and freedom from illness would be waiting on the other side.
I’m here to tell you that they’re still here, those long-suffering companions of mine. Maybe a therapist would say that I shouldn’t personify them, that doing so gives them power. But they’re part of me. I see my reflection in the way they enter my mind, color my vision, convince me of half-truths. They already have power, but their power can be measured and analyzed only in the light. The dark casts shadows that hide their true form.
And the truth is that they’re not going away. The spiral can still catch my heel as I struggle to get free. It can still tap me on the shoulder when the sun is shining and I least expect it. Or it can be a black hole, and drag me down so deep that time stops and it feels like I’ll never be free.
Today I had one of those spirals take me down. While I’d been entwined in its throes before, it hits you the same way the exhilaration of zero g’s hits you on a roller coaster. It can feel like a slippery oily hug, comforting like a blanket but snuffing out the light when you turn your head to catch your breath. It can make you think that the present experience is all there is. You stand on the porch and look at the storm as it comes for you. There’s a beauty in the power, and colors become saturated. That pendulum falls and catches you and pulls you along effortlessly. You know after the storm, there will be sun. It’s the law of nature. No matter the damage from its path, the sky will turn from sickly green to scary gray to brilliant blue, all within a matter of minutes.
These forces within me are as much biological as they are psychological. I have been the constant in the Universe’s fucked up experiment. I know this because of all the things I’ve tried to “fix” it. And nothing fixes it. So it must be inherent in me. So don’t feel pity for me, don’t try to tell me that it’s not me. It is me. And the sooner I realize it, the sooner I can treat it, the sooner I can come to terms with it and try to find its blind spots.
I can sleep at night knowing that I will come through; I always do. There’s never been a time I’ve seriously contemplating taking control of that outcome. I can rest my head on the pillow knowing that I will never pass on this shitty biology, these genetic curses. The students and children I work with see the best of me. They see the strength that rises from the ashes of the Universe’s arson on my soul. For those things I am grateful.
When you are a child, the eighteen years you spend as a child feels like eternity. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, I can’t wait until I’m out on my own. Until I can do whatever I want. When you’re an adult, the years you spent as a child grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, and all those worries and desires seem insignificant compared to the worries and desires of adulthood. However, something I’ve observed and learned in my own experience is that the years we spend as children drive the trajectory for our adulthood, maybe forever.
Recently I cried myself to sleep. I don’t say this for pity or sympathy or to be dramatic. It’s just a fact. I cry a lot – when I’m sad, when I’m happy. Basically anytime I’m moved emotionally, I cry. Sometimes the most appropriate and safe time for me to show that much emotion is in the dark, amidst the white noise of the fan, wrapped in blankets and comfort. While I’d cried myself to sleep many times in my time on Earth, this most recent time felt new. Instead of spiraling down, down, down to the pit of hopelessness, I began telling myself a narrative, a story if you will. I began parenting myself.
We all internalize the narratives and stories that our parents tell us, either verbally or nonverbally. They weave narratives with their actions, words, stories about their pasts, how they react to our transgressions and moments of impatience. We go out into the world with these stories that seem to be complete. As time goes on and we experience life for ourselves, we begin to find the incongruencies and missing parts of those stories. This can happen whether we grew up in the most loving, supportive household, or if we fled from an abusive home when we were young, if only mentally. It’s not a matter of the type of home that bore us as children; it’s the activation of our unique DNA, which can experience and receive a story from our own lives.
I looked at The Other…fragile, exhausted, disillusioned. Controlling and enslaving what should really be free…trying to judge her future loves by the rues of her past sufferings.”
I found myself soothing myself in my own head. I soothed the four-year-old Elizabeth who couldn’t quite grasp abstract concepts and reasons for “why,” and I soothed the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth who, with her smart mouth, drummed up a retort to pretty much any comment or directive. By soothing all the versions of myself, my almost-35-year-old self could then take a deep breath formed around a resolution and drift off into a restful sleep.
I’ve been in touch with the young Elizabeth more in the past couple of years than I ever have been. Maybe it’s the distance that makes young Elizabeth clearer; maybe it’s the reflection and retrospection I employ to look at my life in the past. As I soothe those other long-gone versions of myself, I feel a healing taking place. A rebirth, a mending.
Just as I need to reassure my inner child, I also need to steel my present self. Recently during a yoga practice, I was astonished by a meditation given at the beginning of a practice. Esther Ekhart, the yoga teacher, brought attention to her legs and arms and body and made the point that when we remember how strong our bodies are, we can remember that we are adults and we are able to take care of ourselves. When we aren’t in the present, we’re stuck in the past and in the future. For us, our inner child sometimes lives in the past and reminds us of past hurts and follies.
Paulo Coehlo, renowned and beloved author, says in By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, “Remember that human wisdom is madness in the eyes of God. But if we listen to the child who lives in our soul, our eyes will grow bright. If we do not lose contact with that child, we will not lose contact with life.”
Therefore, we cannot ignore the inner child and we cannot let them play us like a violin, either. There has to be a balance. Just as a parent shows their children a balance of love and discipline, we must do the same for ourselves. It’s a way we can become whole.
This week I finished the novel On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by poet Ocean Vuong. There was so much to unpack in the beautiful masterpiece that was that book (you can read my review here – no spoilers), but one thing that triggered my subconscious. The narrator has a close relationship with his grandma, and it made me think about my own grandmother. I was lucky enough to have close relationships with both of my grandmothers, but the following is about my maternal grandmother, who in 2018 left her painful and deteriorated body for something much better.
She was waiting for me, and that was the realization I had when my mom let me know that Mimi was declining fast and now receiving hospice care. When we got there, she was in her bed and though I’d never seen someone dying in person before, it was evident that this is what was happening to Mimi. She hadn’t eaten or drank anything since Monday, and by this point it was Friday. I expected her to have a breathing mask and/or IV, but she didn’t. She was shaking a little back and forth, and her eyes were slightly open but cloudy. Her mouth was devoid of her dentures, and her breathing was labored. My sister and I sat on opposite sides of her bed and told her close to her ear, “Hi Mimi, it’s Elizabeth.” “Hi Mimi, it’s Emily.” When she heard Emily, she tried to say her name and a tear fell from her right eye.
Since my other grandmother passed in 2016, I had grieved partially by reading every book I could get my hands on about death, dying, and what happens to our bodies in the process. I felt more prepared to be with Mimi. It wasn’t creepy or weird or anything… it was just.. her. I also knew that even though she couldn’t respond, she knew we were there, and she knew who we were. This was a huge blessing since she’d been suffering with dementia for years, and really declined in the last few.
Emily and I spent some time talking to her, recounting memories amidst big heavy tears and sobs. We both spent some time by ourselves with her. I thanked Mimi for taking me on my first trip out of state to Arizona on a plane, because it ended up changing my life and gave me a heart for travel. I thanked her for paying for my piano lessons, and I told her I recently got my piano tuned, finally.
I told her about the three big lessons she taught me: 1) you have to like what you see in the mirror; 2) there’s something good in everybody; and 3) everything happens for a reason. In going through infertility, I really hated remembering that last one. I refused to believe in my darkest days that God not giving me a baby was for a reason. I’ve since healed enough to come around. Lastly, I told her that if she needed to go, it was okay. I felt a release and an acceptance that she was going to die soon.
After releasing some emotion and having separate time with her, Emily and I washed her face with a washcloth, put on some night cream (even though she had lost so much weight, she had almost no wrinkles! we told her she’d be happy about that), and put on some lip balm. Out of muscle memory, she puckered her lips as if she were putting on her rose gold Mary Kay lipstick she always carried in her purse. We also used a swab to moisten her mouth and she seemed to appreciate that. We held her hands, and when she got too warm we put her arms outside of her blanket. We made sure to monitor her because if she got too agitated we could call the nurse to administer medication.
Eventually we left, and it was hard. It was actually Emily who encouraged me to stay longer. But I was glad in the end to have taken care of her, though it would never be equal to all the times she took care of me. Emily and I told her that we’d gotten her ready for bed, and that for her to get some rest and we’d see her in the morning.
As we were leaving, the hospice volunteer came and for the few minutes we spoke with her, I sensed she had such a deeply compassionate and sweet spirit. She said she just loved Eileen, and couldn’t wait to get off work to come see her. She said she was going to play her some gospel and praise & worship music, and I was grateful that she’d have a companion for the next few hours.
At around 3 in the morning, my mom came into the room where Emily and I were sleeping and told us that Mimi had passed away around 2:30. Did we want to go see her one more time before they took her away? She wanted to make sure to ask us just in case. We said that we were okay and that we didn’t need to go.
And then we wept, for Mimi’s passing, and for the realization that she waited for us. And for that I am so grateful.
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 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.
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.
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.