Here in the Mid-Atlantic winter is wrapping up, coming to a close. While it is mid-February and we still see frozen precipitation of every kind (and least of all snow, sadly), there are signs that longer and warmer days are coming.
We have been walking the dog in the dark for what seems like months now, both morning and night. However, in the mornings we can sometimes see the inky twilight to the east and slowly spreading north and south. The river changes colors with the budding twilight. On weekends, we might even walk the dog in the daylight since we get up later. But not much later – we’re getting older and messed up sleep schedules aren’t good for anyone.
Nightly we comment, “Look how much light is left in the sky, and it’s [insert time here].” Every year, the earth completes its revolution around the sun. Every year as spring approaches, the Northern Hemisphere bows with a curtsy towards the sun, allowing our daily bath in sunlight to be a little warmer each day.
Next year at this time I don’t want to be blindsided by what seems like a yearly audit, or check in.
in my journal, January 28, 2021
Despite the excitement of a new season on the way, I will miss winter. And this year more than ever. The pandemic has brought my go-go-go to a halt in the best way. I’m learning how to regulate my erratic nervous system. I’ve been listening to my body and finally it doesn’t need to scream at me for me to meet its needs. Weekends have become a weekly staycation of sorts, where my to-do list involves a book, a fuzzy blanket, dog cuddles, and a couple good hearty meals that take longer than 15 minutes to cook. I view naps as a restorative exercise instead of a waste of time that showcases my laziness.
Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on.
I think if the weather allowed, I would want to winter forever. At least that’s what I feel right now. Endless rounds of coffee and reading, or coffee and writing, watching the snow (or ice) fall, bundling up in sweatshirts and blankets. At some point, we have to emerge from hibernation. Our skin and souls needs the sunlight, especially those final rays later and later in the evening. Our retinas need more input than gray, gray, gray.
I would say that winter will always be there for us, as a meteorological season. But will it? Climate change poses a real threat to this yearly probability. We will have to take the practices that allow us to conserve energy and appreciate nature into the future.
If anything, we can still find a place to winter deep in our souls. The cold and snow and lack of light, and not to mention the pandemic, are external drivers to help us find that place: nature demonstrates its practice to us. It’s a place we must return to if we are to grow and change as human beings. Recently I wrote in my journal, “I want my default setting to be positive and optimistic, to be able to be content but also curious.” Winter is a time of curiosity, of delving deep and doing some seeking. I equate the positivity and optimism with spring – the trees and flowers and grasses share that with me. That is when we do the finding – just as the leaves on the trees find their shape and reach east towards the sunlight.
It’s Sunday and the sight of the fluffy flakes calling outside is enough to bring tears to my eyes with the anticipation of rogue, anarchic mid-afternoon caffeine soon to hit my veins. As I wait for the coffee to brew, I lean against the doorjamb and observe that the shade of the heavy clouds matches the shades of the mighty river and the sidewalk in my immediate view, the only slightly melted snow – just a different sheen. Flat to eggshell to satin. Sky to water to ground.
I am absolutely giddy with the experience of the winter storm – forecasted but not always realized here in the mild Mid-Atlantic. I yearn sometimes for the snowstorms of my youth, the sheer joy of seeing my school district’s name scroll lazily across across the screen to indicate a day off. Very little responsibility lay in wait for me as a child on a snow day, except for maybe a few mundane chores – no shoveling, no driving, no cooking. Maybe that’s one reason I lean into winter. However, I do realize that memory is a strange animal and cannot always be trusted not to be hyperbolic in nature.
I have often heard talk of the nostalgia of snow, the way that we always imagine our childhoods to have been snowier than they actually were.
I fully embrace Mother Nature’s soft whisper that sweeps across buildings and streets and lampposts – a quiet directive to calm down, settle down, take a break. Tomorrow I know that because of the wonders (and annoyances) of the Internet and modern technology, I will have to teach anyway, but today I savor. I relish. I spend time keeping up with completely regular household chores like laundry and cooking and sweeping the floor, but only so that I can relax even more fully.
In the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, author Katherine May talks about how she welcomes a bad cold. Not because she likes feeling poorly, but because it gives her a concrete reason to take time off: “I love the inconvenience [of snow] in the same way that I sneakingly love a bad cold: the irresistible disruption to mundane life, forcing you to stop for a while and step outside your normal habits.” Society these days has a hard time giving people the space they need to take a break, and instead labels them weak.
I think the yearly sinus infections I suffered throughout adolescence was probably allergies gone neglected and awry, but I remember welcoming them. Obviously not because I liked feeling like my head was going to explode, or because I felt the occasional feverish chill, but because it was a good reason to not be active for at least a couple of days. I remember setting up my daytime camp on the couch in the living room, collecting a box of Kleenex, liquids like Sprite, and the pillow from my bed. At night I would make my way upstairs to my bed, and for those nights my bed felt so much cozier, like a warm hug. I was, and still am, someone who really was go-go-go and had a hard time relaxing, but those sinus infections would knock me down off my high-energy high-horse. And I relished in the relaxation it brought.
As an adult, I am learning how to recognize the “wintering” times – the seasons of life that could last years, months, or even just a few days, like a sinus infection. But beyond a concrete sickness, I’m learning how to take myself seriously and just say no, emphatically. To release myself from the pressure to perform perform perform, and go go go, despite what my body and mind are telling me – Stop. Relax. Recharge. Find a new normal. Find what’s next.
For the past several years, I’ve been on a journey to find what’s next for me. Biological children were obviously not the next step, and while parenthood could have been my path, I chose not to pursue it. How will I know what’s next if I keep clouding my vision with activity after activity, waking up and zooming through my day (or at this point, literally Zooming) and then crashing into bed at night, so tired and delirious because of being so busy?
I can’t. And I won’t. I need to create some space that I don’t end up filling with yet another obligation or hobby. A part of me is scared of what creating space will do. That maybe I’ll be lazy. Or heaven forbid, bored. I’m not sure I’m scared enough of boredom to say I have a phobia, but sometimes my actions speak otherwise. Boredom is good. Wintering is good. Contemplation and meditation can bring forth some of the most prolific work of our lives. What will mine be?
One of the most important things we are able to do as humans that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is reflect. We can look into the past and remember in order to make the present or future different. It’s how we learn about ourselves and the world around us.
These days, it’s all too easy to look back; in fact, there are apps like Timehop and Google Photos that do this for us. However, the narratives that are told again are not necessarily the important ones, the ones that inform our thinking. Often when I get a notification from Google Photos to “look back at this day,” it’s random pictures I took of my homemade dinner. Or a cute picture of the dog. Or a beautiful sunrise. But these aren’t the most important things we need to remember, to reflect on.
Oh man, was it that much better then? | We were left alone, we were proud of our pain
Fleet Foxes, “A Long Way Past the Past”
I’ve kept journals off and on since I was about 7. Unfortunately, the ones I still have in my possession that have somehow made it through two cross-country moves don’t begin until when I was in junior high. I came across my journal from when Aaron and I were dating and trying to decide when to get married, about fifteen years ago. We were young and it was a busy time. A confusing time. I literally felt like my whole life banked on a decision about something like whether to major in Spanish, or whether we got married in December or in June.
At that time in my life, I let myself receive narratives from others, and my own narrative was buried. However, at the time, I didn’t realize that my own desires and needs were nearly indiscernible. I told myself that because I was so young and inexperienced, I should rely on older adults to make decisions for me. So I took people’s suggestions and prayers and ideas and wove them into my own tapestry so I didn’t know where theirs began and mine ended, and in the end, I gave them credit for my life decisions. It was a relinquishing of precious autonomy and agency that I’m just now wielding back into my possession all these years later.
One the narratives I have told myself since going through infertility is that “I really wanted to be a mom my whole life. That’s all I wanted – to be a wife and mother.”
It’s not true. I’ve realized while fumbling through my memory that this narrative isn’t true. Not 100 percent. I think when infertility was fresh and raw, this was a comforting thing that I told myself. It helped me feel close to the only community that I had access to at the time: the infertility community, where people go to great lengths (and into great debt) to have a child.
However, as I was thumbing through an old journal, not sure what I was looking for but hoping to find something poignant to cling to, I found:
I definitely could be happy being just a mother and a housewife, but I feel like there’s this other part of me wanting to be unleashed to go fight in the world.
For some context, I was in the middle of my undergrad studies, Aaron and I had basically decided we were “it” for each other, and I was really struggling with my decision to pursue teaching Spanish over teaching math. This was also before all parts of people’s private lives and thoughts were made public, so I had no audience for my writing, outside of the things I would post on my Xanga (take that one to Google!). There were some years when I didn’t journal, no doubt because of the shitstorm of honesty it would have released. But that’s a topic for another time.
At that time in my life, getting pregnant was not something I wanted: “Pregnancy would be the least logical thing to do… to amount to.” I think that maybe I had been influenced by my mom who wanted me to graduate college before getting married and having babies. It’s something she didn’t do, so when we were all 10 and under and finally in school, she decided to go to college full-time. And the hits “Get Married After College” and “You Don’t Need a Man” was the song she sang all throughout my formative years.
Even when Aaron and I got married two years from the date on that journal entry, I remember pushing off all the people at church and elsewhere who were clamoring to know when we’d start trying for a baby. We’d only just been married! Our answer was five years from getting married. And, kind of like clockwork, we started trying about six years into our marriage. We waited for a lot of circumstances to line up – no more deployments or long separations, stable jobs, having paid off a lot of debt, et cetera.
So now that I work through all of that, it’s possible that the narrative I told myself as a salve was partly true. But only partly.
I have to trust 20-year-old Elizabeth who was writing for no one but herself, to chronicle her life and feelings. And damn, did finding that journal entry bring some perspective and remind me of the logical, sane, conscientious person I can be who has a part of her that needs to “go fight in the world.”
Some years down the line, I will remember saying things like these to myself, sentiments that are far from one another on the spectrum, and realize that I met myself in the middle. Both narratives and perspectives have a place. Which begs the question, How do you know where the middle is if you don’t know where you’ve been?
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.
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.
We are approaching the longest night and shortest day of the year. I always focus on the night part.
Winter twilight produces some of the weirdest light. Night comes on fast, especially if it’s a day like today where skies have been gray and heavy with frozen precipitation. At one point, there is still some light, and it gradually wanes until it’s completely dark. So dark, so quickly, that it doesn’t even let you remember when exactly became dark. But at the same time you know the exact moment.
Twilight, and more specifically winter twilight, is a liminal space. It’s a no-man’s-land, and in-between, maybe even an upside-down. There have been many times in my life that I would characterize as liminal spaces, where the edges and boundaries are blurred and it’s just me trying to find my way.
It makes sense that one would feel uncomfortable in such a space. Some would call it a time when you’re on the edge of a new beginning, but not quite there. Some religions might call it purgatory.
For the majority of my life, I’ve seen these spaces as purgatory, or even at times a special place in hell. Times where I was completely unsure of myself, questioning all of my life decisions and circumstances that have brought me to this singular point.
As humans, we wait very poorly. We are magnificently impatient. We want to hear the chord at the end of the song that resolves the melody. We think that somehow that will bring us peace.
But the growth happens in the liminal space. I think it’s probably near impossible as a well-adjusted human to become completely comfortable in the liminal space… though some can be very efficient and even enjoy long-term experiences in the liminal space.
Is it possible to see the liminal space extend before you and not be afraid of it? To not be rushing for the door on the other side of the room? To actually look at the things in the Room of Liminal Space and appreciate them? I think it is, but you have to get past the itching and biting of the discomfort.
I think after awhile in that Room, the fog lifts and the eyes adjust to a different kind of light. There still exists an awareness of an escape, the door that will release us across the threshold into the destination we have craved for so long.
That is to say, I think these times of uncertainty and perhaps purgatory may not be as bad as we think they will be. Take winter, for instance. In just a few days, the Northern Hemisphere will experience the shortest amount of daylight for the entire year. Where I am that amounts to 9 hours and 22 minutes of daylight. That is actually much more than other locations which may experience next to no daylight. If we look at this phenomenon through an asset-based lens, we see that there are then 15-some-odd hours of darkness.
Can we embrace the darkness? The lack of light that encourages us to hibernate and see inside ourselves? Twilight offers a road back into the cave of our inner selves. Of books and ideas and time without screens and technological distractions. Of cups of coffee over heart-to-hearts and journal entries and just thinking while falling asleep. Of prayer and contemplation and meditation. I think after this year, we could all use some of that no matter our place on the spectrum of intro/extroversion.
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.