Modesty, Shame, and a Korean Spa

For Mother’s Day, my daughters took me to a Korean spa. This was a wholly new experience for me- I was excited about soaking in pools of warm water and sitting in steam with my two girls. Then I learned something: you have to be naked. Fully unclothed. As a jaybird. Buck. Naked.

I did not handle this well. I had brought my swimsuit- but I was not allowed to wear it. I put on the short green cotton robe that was provided in my locker and just quivered.

I was raised to be modest, and since I was naturally shy, it went hand-in-hand. I am not sure I ever saw my mom naked, maybe once or twice. By accident. I never saw grandmothers in dishabille, even once my grandparents moved to live at a lake, my Grandma June did not wear a swimsuit.

Once, on my first sleepover with a friend, my third-grade self started getting dressed by putting my shoes and socks on with my nightgown. My little friend was puzzled, “Why are you getting dressed like that?” “This is how I always do it,” I replied. The truth was that as she started getting dressed, I was too embarrassed to do the same, so I started with the safest thing: shoes and socks. Of course, once it was time to take off my full length flannel nightgown and put on pants, I had to take off my shoes anyway.

Cover ups were worn to and from the pool, and when I was in drill team we were required to wear cover ups to and from rehearsals. We did not leave a dance rehearsal in our leotards and tights- we covered up.

Shorts were not allowed at school. They were not allowed at church camp- we sweltered in jeans in 100+ degree heat. When I went to college at a conservative Evangelical school in 1985, the same policy held: no shorts except in the gymnasium (no co-ed pe classes), intramural fields, or in the non-public areas of the dorms.

This was the norm in the 1980’s- especially in Dallas, Texas, where the Bible Belt influence is tenacious.

And to be completely honest- I dig a little modesty. I might be a mite old-fashioned, but I feel a jolt when confronted with booty shorts and crop tops. I don’t think I am judging the ladies who dress that way, but I feel uncomfortable, nonetheless. I once saw a really great political cartoon, in which the dichotomy of modesty and freedom in Muslim and Western culture is obvious:

I might fall closer to the figurative hijab or burqa, personally, and the cartoon above really brought it home to me. It’s about perspective, really.

But shame? That’s a whole different ball game.

Confronted with so much female nudity in the Los Angeles Korean spa- a clean, well-lit, secure environment- I could barely lift my eyes, which at moments filled with frustrated tears. I glanced surreptitiously- there were women both fatter and thinner than me, older and younger, darker and lighter, shorter and taller. There were abundant cellulite, lithe limbs, bellies stretched from childbirth, taut tummies, surgical scars, small breasts, large breasts, and in-between breasts. My body would have just blended in. No one would have given me a second glance, yet I just perched on the edge of the hot tub, feet sitting down in the hot bubbling water, robe wrapped tightly and clutched fiercely to make sure it didn’t gap. After a few scorching minutes in the steam room, I curled up on a sleep mat and let the heated floor send me into a sweet snoozy cat nap.

My daughters suffered no such self-shame, by the way.

I have given so much thought to the shame thing- where does it come from? It’s cultural, of course. Ad campaigns, tv shows, blah-blah-blah, on and on. But even more insidious is the way it creeps into the real conversations of the real people who impact our lives.

Like that drill team director who instructed us to cover up as we went to and from the gym or practice field and who also required regular weigh-ins at which all the officers were allowed to sit and comment on our weights as we stepped off the scales.

Once, without realizing I could hear her, a grandmother looked at my photo and commented to my father that I had gained weight. At fifteen, I had been so proud of that photo shoot and had felt very pretty. Until.

On another occasion, while hugging another grandmother tight, she disparaged her own body, saying there was too much too hug, how could my arms reach? I told her I loved her just as she was. Her reply? “Your grandfather would love me more if I could lose some weight.” I was thirteen…

and I believed her because that very grandfather would look out the window at their lake cabin and mercilessly critique the neighbor who, in her 50’s and then 60’s, liked to do yard work in her two piece swimsuit. Her body was fair game, both for its size (which was quite healthy) and its age.

Don’t mistake me- I loved (and still do) all of these grandparents. But somewhere along the way, their comments mixed with church and media messages to create a powerful and addictive cocktail of body and age shame in me.

 

As the mother of two girls, I tried to be very careful of what I said to them about their own bodies- I wanted them to feel comfortable in their own skins, and for the most part, they do. They didn’t have any problem stripping down to hop in the pools. But what I didn’t realize was that what I said about my own body was affecting them, too. That they were watching. They were listening. They were copying.

 

When I was visiting in LA just a couple of weeks ago, and I started the litany of body criticism, my older daughter looked at me with exasperation and said, “Mom, please don’t ruin this week with that. Please don’t go there. Please.” It stopped me dead in my tracks- I don’t just hurt myself when I clothe myself in shame. I hurt my girls, who have learned to love themselves, and who love me just like I am. It’s the craziest thing- they admire me. They respect me. And their adult selves have very little tolerance for my self-shame.

I guess body shame and body ownership are two sides of the same coin. I feel empowered when I am a little more modest. Some women are empowered by the burqa. Others are empowered by bikinis. We accept shame when we listen to the voices of the world, and when we let those voices supplant our own.

So, in my own voice, I spent time in my morning gratitude practice saying thank you to and for my body. Part by part: legs, knees, lungs, heart, eyes, mouth, womb, hands, belly…I acknowledged what my body does for me. With me. Sometimes in spite of me.

And just maybe, next time I will get in the naked pool. Maybe.

Mary Oliver’s Poems and Sacred Trees

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This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:

“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”

These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.

I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.

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And trees are, too.

This poem moved me to tears:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

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I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.

I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.

My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.

Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.

In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I  spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.

Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.

Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.

My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?

What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.

How Do I Love Thee?

Two nights ago, after a particularly devastating episode of “This is Us” (who am I kidding…nearly every episode is devastating when you’re either: child of an addict, recovering addict, married to recovering addict, estranged from a child, watching your daughter divorce, adjusting to the empty nest, a singer whose voice is in her past, struggling with body dysmorphia…), my sweet husband, who was sitting on the floor with our beagle, looked up at me with the most woeful, teary eyes. I climbed onto the floor and into his lap and we just cuddled and comforted. And with my arms wrapped around him, I wondered: Why? Why do I love him so? Why does he love me? Why? And not for the first time, I settled on this answer. Who cares why? It’s enough to know its truth.

We have, at times, even asked each other, “Why do you love me?” It’s an unanswerable question. This morning, I was listening to SuperSoul, and Pastor A.R. Bernard said that when we love each other for no reason- that’s unconditional love.

I mean sure, I can make a list of things I love about my husband. I love his laugh, his blue eyes, his easy access to deep and profound thought, his capacity for peace-keeping, his legs. I love the kind of father he is. I love how he wants to protect me from harm, whether it’s an advancing category five hurricane or a work colleague who is showing me something less than respect.

But why do I love him? I just…do.

I guess it’s what bothers me about making lists of why we love someone. This last Valentine’s Day, I saw one of those social media posts that tells you how to be a good parent. And you would put all these cut out hearts on your kid’s door with the reasons why you love them (specifically it said that, not “things you love about them”). And one of the hearts said along the lines of “You play basketball well.” And I thought…If I am a kid whose well-meaning mom said she loved me because I played basketball well, what would happen if I couldn’t play any more? What would happen if I couldn’t play well anymore? Kids want to know that they’re loved. Just because. Same with spouses. Just because.

Someday, my husband’s brain will be less sharp. His laugh will be creaky. His legs will be veiny. I know I won’t care.

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Elizabeth Barret Browning put it so perfectly in her famous sonnet, in which she enumerates the ways, not the whys of her love:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Truest, deepest love doesn’t have a reason. It just is.

What’s Your Superpower?

 

 

I just spent an empowering weekend. I arrived at Sunday evening feeling a great big mix of things: fatigued, sore, exhilarated, hungry, and hopeful.

It all started on Friday, when I saw this meme, and it said, “No one is you, and that’s your superpower.” And I thought, “Cool!”

It’s true- no one else is me. No one else is you, either.

Now, before you roll your eyes and say something like, “I wouldn’t wish being me on my worst enemy,” just stop for a minute. Really and truly? I used to think that way. Not anymore. Nope. Now I think like the little girl I was when I watched Lynda Carter spin until she transformed into Wonder Woman, using wits and beauty to foil bad guys. I think like the little girl I was when I watched “Electra Woman and Dyna-Girl.” I loved Batman reruns, especially the ones with Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl, who challenged the men in the room with her brains and pluck.

 

That little girl didn’t question her intelligence. She didn’t question her thighs. She didn’t say much, but when she spoke it was because she believed in what she was saying. That little girl was not afraid to bring questions to the table. That little girl didn’t wait for permission to climb monkey bars or explore on her bike or jump in the pool or lose herself in a novel.

Little girls still love Wonder Woman. Big girls do, too. We know it because of the resounding success of this year’s film. Diana Prince still calls to the feminine spirit of power. My daughter Libby, who works for a company that sends characters to kids’ birthday parties, reveled in it this weekend, playing Wonder Woman for an eight year old. Not Aurora. Not Cinderella. Wonder Woman. Amazonian warrior. With a Lasso of Truth instead of a broom of submission. A woman who is her own hero, not the damsel waiting to be rescued.

I am learning to be my own hero, too.

I attended my first political protest this Saturday, standing along a busy thoroughfare, holding up a bright yellow poster. I donned my own super hero costume:

to protect my thighs of power: undershorts. Because even in March, south Texas is hot and sweaty and thigh chafe is no joke;

to add spring to my step: yellow Converse of joy. Because who can feel despondent in bright yellow Cons?

To embolden my heart: a Wonder Woman logo across my chest. Because I am my own Amazonian warrior.

I rode Thelma, my bike, for over one and a half hours to get to the protest site. I am not sure why I did it, I just know that my heart spoke it and I listened. Something in my advocate soul needed to prove that I had the courage and stamina to do it. Bearing in mind that I am fifty years old, have had one knee surgery and two discs replaced with a steel plate in my neck, have two more bulging discs, and two  knees that now sound like crinkling cellophane when I go up stairs, this was no small feat. I hadn’t been on a bike in two years, except for one thirty five minute ride a week ago. I honestly don’t know why I did it. But I arrived to the protest out of breath, sweat dripping down my backside, and exhilarated. I chugged water then found a spot in line.

An organizer led a chant, it went like this:

Tell me what democracy looks like!

And we answered:

This is what democracy looks like!

 

 

With eleven year old blonde girls on one side, and a mom with heavily accented English on the other, we chanted and I got choked up. Because it is what democracy looks- and sounds- like: heavily accented or native English, young or middle aged, rich or poor. This was a gathering of diverse people. Toward the end of the event, a young dad came to me with so much excitement it couldn’t be contained in his body. He wanted to know how we had all gotten organized, and he was thrilled to see like minded people in what has traditionally been an ultra conservative community. He ended up bringing his elementary aged boys over to meet me and to take in what was happening. This was what democracy looks like. And by the way, the folks on the other end of the political spectrum have the same freedom to gather. Isn’t this a great country?

I managed to get halfway back home, and was grateful to my sweet husband for meeting me at a cafe to taxi me back home after a lemon drop martini and a turkey burger. At that moment, Diana the Amazon princess needed a ride from her rescuer because her legs were wobbly and her softer parts felt bruised. Hey, even super heroes need a little help every now and then.

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After a lovely and restful night, I drove (no Thelma on this day) and then limped into the cinema to revisit another childhood hero: Meg Murry in the film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time.” I don’t know that I can adequately describe what this book meant to me as an awkward, introverted, brainy, dreamy pre-adolescent with an even brighter little brother. Meg was a hero. She saved her dad with her courage and her brain. She visited dream planets by believing and being open. She was magnificent. Oprah did what she does- drop wisdom and grace, while Reese and Mindy brought humor and joy. My own heroes were invoked and quoted over and over: Jesus, Ghandi, Maya Angelou, Lin Manuel Miranda. I didn’t love the movie because it was a perfect piece of cinema.  I loved the movie because it was visually stunning, it celebrated diversity, it exalted intelligence, it honored love. After all, as Meg’s father discovered when his science experiment came to life, “Love is the frequency.”

The film continued the work that I think is underway on our planet. The work of soul and mission and caring.

As Mrs. Which, Oprah challenges Meg, “Be a warrior. Can you?” I felt the challenge in my seat in the darkened theater, too.

What’s my superpower? It’s a belief, down deep in my bones, that life is magical.

What are my tools? First, a listening ear. Then, my written words.

What is my mission, my personal legend, my work? To help others see, create, and accept the magic of their own lives.

Can I be a warrior? Hell, yes. Bring me my shield and my invisible jet. Let my heart be open. Let my soul be brave. Let my life have its own heroic tale.

 

Why “Christian Soldiers?”

 

I have struggled and struggled, trying to understand how so much of Evangelical Christianity has gotten entangled with the National Rifle Association. As our country tries to process our latest mass shooting incident, and I watch devout Christians on social media circle the wagons around their guns, all the while offering “thoughts and prayers” to the families who lost loved ones, I am baffled.*

Upon his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, when an apostle cut off the ear of a Roman soldier, Jesus admonished him, saying in the book of Matthew, ” “Put up your sword. All who take the sword die by the sword.” And though Jesus did speak of violence to come, it was the violence of persecution and martyrdom. Not war.

But as I meditated this morning, for some reason I found myself singing an old Sunday School song:

“I may never march in the infantry,

ride in the Calvary,

shoot the artillery. I may never

fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army. Yes, sir.”

There were hand motions, complete with a military salute. And I realized that somehow, over the millenia, we have equated faith with war and violence. There were the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the witch trials. After World War II, and during the Communist scare of the 1960s-1980s, many Christians wove patriotism, militarism, and Christianity into a camouflage fabric. The Constitution, and particularly its Second Amendment, have been granted the same reverence as the Bible, as though both writings, penned by a group of men in the late eighteenth century, are as inerrant and Divinely inspired as the Bible itself. After the Newtown shooting in 2012, English journalist Jonathan Freedland made this observation:

“If you really want to know why the US can’t kick its gun habit, take a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC. You don’t even have to look at the exhibits. Just study the queue. What you’ll see are ordinary Americans lining up, in hushed reverence, to gaze at an original copy of the United States constitution, guarded and under heavily armoured glass. It is no exaggeration to say that for many Americans this is a religious experience.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/21/sacred-text-us-gun-habit

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I myself have tried to gently discuss the idea that the Constitution is not above needing change, that in the 200 years since it was written, the world has changed and that elements of the document that was written so long ago could use revision. For a Constitutional Believer, that is a non-starter.

And then, there’s this: somehow, many Christians have come to believe that bearing an AR-15 is a sacred right, endowed by God and sanctified by the same Jesus who told Peter to put away his sword.

How did we get to a place where we are teaching seven year olds that being a Christian is equivalent to being a private in the United States Army?

Songs like “His Banner Over Me Is Love” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” reinforce this perception- Christians are here to do battle: battle against the people whose life choices are disagreed with, battle that requires a bump stock. We are an army, and armies need weapons.

The Armor of God that Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesians is this:

“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.’ Ephesians 6: 13-18.

Righteousness, faith, truth, readiness, salvation, the word of God. Paul says nothing about swords, bows and arrows, axes, slings, spears; or the modern day equivalent of handguns, rifles (bolt action or semi automatic), and shotguns.

I became truly aware of this conflation of militaristic patriotism and faith when I took a job teaching in a private Evangelical school in south Texas. I was required to lead my students in the pledge to the “Christian flag” along with the pledge to the Stars and Stripes. And though I had been raised singing about shooting the Lord’s artillery, I was flummoxed. I had never heard of a Christian flag. I felt sick. I began to really encounter this enmeshed belief system in which loyalty to America was synonymous with loyalty to Jesus. I  decided not to lead or say that particular pledge, having students do it instead while I quietly stood by. And since my eyes were opened, I have come to believe that loyalty to the Republican party is included there (I learned this when a Christian friend accused me of hating the country because I voted Democrat-the friend was not kidding). In the last two weeks, I have added loyalty to the NRA to the mix. Not for all Christians, no. But for enough.

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I have found myself wondering, amongst the money that is spent on guns, how it compares to money spent on feeding the poor. For each donation to the NRA, does the Christian gun advocate donate equally to a relief organization? Maybe.

In her blog “Just a Jesus Follower,” Anna Dimmel cites the New York Times:

“The NY Times recently published an article outlining the top 10 career recipients of N.R.A. The numbers speak volumes regarding the amount of control they have ‘bought’ inside our government.

It’s just gross.” It is, Anna. It really is.

America is not God’s Chosen Nation. That was ancient Israel. We are one of many great nations. God is not wrapped in a robe of red white and blue. Jesus doesn’t wear a camo hunting jacket and red trucker cap emblazoned “Make America Great Again.”

The Divine is greater than jingoism. Jesus would not have carried an AR-15. It’s time for some American Evangelicals to remember whom they profess to serve. Even more, it’s time for the compassionate, loving Christians to speak up. They can change the conversation if they will just gird themselves in that powerful and true armor of God.

Here’s Anna Dimmel’s blog:

 

https://justajesusfollower.com/2018/02/22/christianity-vs-the-nra-finding-a-different-perspective-on-gun-control-and-violence/

*In the interest of full disclosure- I am what some would probably called “lapsed.” Maybe “Lost” or “Fallen.” My frustration with some of the issues I have described here, along with the church’s treatment of women, and other more personal issues, have left me unable to face organized church. But I do love God. Jesus is a friend.

An Open Letter to The Christian Left

 

This morning, I felt I had to leave a Facebook group that I had, for the most part, been enjoying. I joined The Christian Left based on the recommendation of a college friend with whom I had recently reconnected. We both graduated from the same private evangelical Christian university, and it’s somewhat unusual to find alumni who share at least some of my crazy Leftist leanings.

I am a Liberal. There. I said it. I said it in Montgomery County, Texas. I said it as the rarest bird in my neck of the woods.

“I am a Liberal. That means I look ahead, not behind. I welcome new ideas without rigid reactions. I care about the welfare of the people: their jobs, housing, schools, and health; their civil rights and their civil liberties”

The above is a meme I have been seeing floating around in the cyberspace world, I have no idea whom to credit. It pretty well sums up how I see myself.

Most of my family is pretty Conservative- the Tea Party movement resonates for them. My neighbors as well. My husband wouldn’t let me put a Hillary for President sign in the yard for fear the house would be egged. My Obama campaign signs got ripped in half in 2012. I have cringed at the ugly  faces contorted with anger seen at Trump rallies, cried at the Nazi salutes being thrown. Shuddered at David Duke’s endorsement of Trump and his refusal to repudiate it. I have shaken my head at Betsy DeVos’ agenda and Paul Ryan’s sycophancy.

I have called and mailed and e mailed my senators and representatives, at both state and federal levels (Unfortunately, Ted Cruz thought I was writing in support and put me on a mailing list. I called his office pronto).

We donate money to Public Radio/TV, a local theatre, an animal shelter, a global humanitarian organization, an environmental advocacy group, and Planned Parenthood (because women need resources and if abortions are going to happen-and you’re blessedly naive if you think they aren’t- they need to be safe).

I really do try to walk, not just talk, my belief system. And I feel pretty isolated. So I was thrilled to learn there might be a Facebook community that shared my ideals and my open-hearted approach. For a month, I have been seeing a daily scripture, usually about caring for the less fortunate, and seeing mostly useful news stories about relevant issues.

Until this week.

The POTUS had his physical. And the one page where I thought it would be safe to read the comments became a mixture of sarcasm, body shaming, name calling, and hate.

Do I believe the official height and weight that they say Trump is? No. Does it matter? No. And I know some people would say, “It’s just one more lie on top of so many. It shows a pattern.” Yeah, I get that. But when there are two posts by The Christian Left in one twenty four hour period about his weight, and this photo leads:Image may contain: one or more people and text

When the comments are:

  • if that is true then I am the virgin Mary
  • Sorry, he ate the moon, it looked like a big mac
  • What, they are referring just to his ass?

Then we have a problem. I, along with others, tried to call TCL out on it. We tried to point out that there are bigger issues, even bigger lies, on which to focus. That didn’t go so well:

  • “Kimberly, take a chill pill…Venting is healthy. So many of us feel hopeless with the nuclear button threat. Too bad Kimberly only sees things her way. Bless your teeny tiny heart Kimberly, may it grow like the Grinch’s did.” That’s from a nice lady named DeeAnn, who, though she has never met me says I have a tiny and judgemental heart.

It’s no wonder we are not making headway, Liberals.

A third post on TCL’s page within the same time frame shows a photo of Trump with a signature and the caption “I know how to write my name!” Of course he does. This particular post was the intellectual equivalent of blowing a raspberry or calling “Nanny nanny boo boo.”

Where’s the smart and mature resistance, folks?

I have held such hopes that the left side would adhere to the former First Lady’s exhortation. That we could, by taking the high road, show all those haters at the white supremacist rallies and Tea Party functions that love wins (Thanks, Rob Bell).

Alas, that’s not the case. So I left the group, unliked the page, and headed over to my BFF (in my fantasy life) Brene’ Brown’s page. At the top? This quote from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr:

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

Truth. Silence is a betrayal. But we must choose our words wisely. Me? I will speak to injustice and call out cruelty, whether it’s from the Left or Right. I will speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). I really hope my like-minded brothers and sisters will too.

 

 

Between Shame and Ovation (Thoughts From the Wife of a Former Texas Youth Minister)

Sunday night, after a quiet day of reading and watching television while my husband stayed tucked in bed fighting off a cold, we watched the news together, and looked on in horror and recognition as a story broke about a pastor in Tennessee who had confessed to the 1998 sexual assault of a seventeen year old girl in his youth group. The news program showed footage of Andy Savage apparently remorseful, as he confessed to a megachurch audience. They gave him a standing ovation.

A standing ovation.

I have something to say about all this.

In 1999, living in the very same town (I currently live just five minutes from the church where Savage was a youth minister), my husband was also a youth minister. Though he doesn’t specifically remember Andy Savage, it’s likely they at least attended the same monthly youth minister luncheons that were held at the various churches around our town.

And in October of 1999, my husband stood in front of the congregation and confessed, at three different church services, a sex addiction.

There was no standing ovation.

Thankfully, he never touched a member of his youth group. His struggle was with the fantasy world of pornography and adult bookstores, not with the flesh and blood reality of teenagers.

I will never, as long as I live, forget the glare of the lights and the wide eyes of the church members as we stood on the stage, hand in hand, and Travis told everyone his deepest, darkest secret. This was a move that was required by the church leadership if he wanted to receive a severance salary.

Unlike Andy Savage, whose church leadership demanded silence, both of him and the young lady he abused, our church leadership insisted on full and public disclosure.

I don’t think it is coincidental that last week I downloaded a double episode of Oprah’s Super Soul podcast, with guest Brene’ Brown . The universe was getting me ready to see this story on the news and in my social media feed. Last night, on the way home from work, Brene’ spoke her mantra to Oprah: “You share with people who earn the right to hear your story. It’s an honor to hold space for me when I am in shame.”

As my husband stood in the sanctuary and, in a broken voice, told 2,000 people, most of whom were complete strangers, his darkest struggle, I felt like we had been raped. It was as if our clothes had been ripped from us, and we stood bare for all to see. My children also had to bear the burden of the sidelong (or worse, pitying) looks that were sent their way over the next few months as we struggled to keep attending the church where every room, every person, and every worship service sent us spiraling back into shame. Two years later, when I sat in a therapist’s office and told her this story, she was horrified and told me, in no uncertain terms, that we had been victims of profound spiritual abuse. I have often wondered how many men sat in the pews that morning and breathed great big sighs of relief that their own garage stash or computer files hadn’t been found yet. My husband got to be the whipping boy, the sacrificial lamb, for them.*

Is it any wonder I can’t do church anymore?

There has to be a middle place- somewhere between public shaming and standing ovations. A place where healthy confession is possible, accountability is attainable, and healing is administered for all.

I am beyond thankful that my own husband didn’t ever actually touch a kid in his youth group. We have a close friend, A.,  for whom that was not the case. Earlier in our church work, Travis was compelled to share his struggle with a fellow youth minister who, it turned out, was crawling a similar path. They went to the same support group together. A. didn’t come out unscathed, either. He molested a youth group member.

There’s a lot to think about here: impossible standards of perfection that set young men up for deep, internal sexual struggle; spouses who suffer in silence as they try to raise children and create the model home, knowing that they dare not speak a word because their family’s very livelihood depends on maintaining the veneer of holiness; how to maintain accountability that is safe for both ministers and their charges.

But standing ovations? No. Andy Savage has to make this right with a humble apology to Jules Woodson. She needs healing. Savage and the church leadership must stop making excuses and hiding behind the passage of time. Because I know that if my own experience is any indication, 1998 can feel like five minutes ago. Shame can rear its ugly head at any moment and utterly incapacitate you. I hope Woodson gets the love and joy she deserves. I hope Andy Savage can move forward in honesty. I hope his wife has courage and a couple of love warriors** by her side.

And I hope that his current congregation learns how to support, but not idolize, the penitent minister. I hope they know who the victims are and I desperately hope that they have compassion and love for all concerned.

May the Divine One breathe healing and peace on all of these broken people. And may we all know that we can be broken and healed, as well as being instruments of grace and healing.

 

*There was one particular family who sat in our shame with us. They listened as we cried, watched our kids while we went to therapy, and never gave us that pitying look. They know who they are, and they are blessedly still in our lives. Most folks just ignored us or tried to pretend nothing weird had happened. I get it- once you’ve seen someone’s nakedess, it’s hard to go back.

**Love Warrior is a phenomenal book by Glennon Doyle. A recovering addict, Doyle was married to a sex addict herself. She knows this journey. I highly recommend this book, which was fortuitously and prophetically given to me this Christmas by my eldest daughter.

 

A Little Bit Racist? Maybe…

 

I both laugh and cringe at the delightful song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the brilliant Broadway musical Avenue Q, in which Sesame Street-style puppets sing about making rent, having adult relations, and surviving existential angst in riotous, bawdy joy:

“Everyone’s a little bit racist
Sometimes.
Doesn’t mean we go
Around committing hate crimes.
Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.
Princeton:
Now not big judgments, like who to hire
or who to buy a newspaper from –
Kate Monster:
No!
Princeton:
No, just little judgments like thinking that Mexican
busboys should learn to speak g****n English!”
I really love those puppets. They’re calling it like it is: we humans are a little distrustful of folks who look and live differently from ourselves. Different customs, clothing, and speech (everyone’s a rittle bit lacist!) plague us all, if we’re honest.

But over on a different end of the racial conversation spectrum, I just finished a powerful book, Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things. I really like Picoult’s narrative style- it’s simple, clean, and full of rich metaphor. Her characters struggle with things that all of us encounter in the span of living a normal life: loss, faith, suicide, dreams. Those you encounter in her books are complex, full of contradiction and beauty.

small-great-things-hc-400w

Her books always affect me. This one almost physically hurt.

It’s about race. Right here, right now, in these United States.

There is no way to live in our contemporary society and be oblivious to racial tension. Every week it seems there is another shooting or violent attack. And most of us white people don’t want to be racist- we’re horrified by the very idea! But maybe…just maybe, this book posits…we are.

Small Great Things puts us into the lives and thoughts of a Black nurse (the capital B is Picoult’s device), a white supremacist, and a white Liberal lawyer. A baby dies, a law suit is filed. And everything that each of these three people thinks they know about how the races relate to each other is challenged.

The character I most identified with, not surprisingly, is the white Liberal lawyer, Kennedy: she’s toiling away in the Public Defender’s office, spending her days working so that all defendants have a shot at justice. She knows about the inequity of sentencing for Blacks, it’s part of why she became a Public Defender- she is on a mission to balance the scales. Her desire comes from what seems like a good and noble place: an acknowledgement that the system is flawed and her position is privileged. And yet…she takes her privilege for granted. She is made to realize that she sees Ruth, and other Blacks, as victims. And that makes them Other. Less than. In need of rescue rather than true equity. Kennedy reminds me of what it was to teach in a  public school in Texas, where so many different ethnicities pile into buses, cafeterias, and classrooms with no choice but to figure it out.

I really struggled to read the sections from the White Supremacist’s point of view. These pages were so filled with anger and vitriol, described in language that I could barely stomach, that I told my husband I didn’t know if I could stay with the book, even though I have such admiration for the author. But I read reviews that indicated that others had struggled with this character and his world view, but that the journey was worth it. And it was.

I remember one time, back in my mid twenties, living in Abilene, Texas, and telling my husband that “I never held a slave. And none of the Blacks living now ever were slaves. So why are they still angry? Why can’t they just move on?” I cringe now that I was ever so callous. I have learned about systemic and historical oppression, and what it does to a people.

The book’s main protagonist, Ruth, is a Yale educated labor and delivery nurse who is raising her son alone- not because she was an always single mother, but because her husband, a soldier, died in Afghanistan. Her experiences on a day of shopping, being tailed by TJ Maxx sales clerks, being the only customer required to show ID at the cash register, then standing at the exit while security checks her receipt against the contents of her shopping bag while the white shoppers all exit unimpeded, rang true to me. Not because I have experienced those indignities, but because when I was working retail as a high school and college student, that was exactly what we were told to do. The shoplifting training videos all featured Blacks as the perps. When African Americans wandered into the men’s clothing store where I worked, my manager would send me over with instructions to follow them.

How many times might I have said “Ya know, if those Black people would just lay down and be still, the cops wouldn’t have to shoot them?” before I understood that might not be so simple? That when your people used to wear chains and be sold, that subservience can be a tough pill to swallow? And that sometimes, you can say “Sir” and still be shot.

How many times have I, without realizing it, clutched my purse a little tighter when a Black man passed me on the street?

Growing up, my mom taught me that I shouldn’t associate with people of other ethnicities- it was okay to be polite to them at school, but that was it. When I made a new friend when we moved to a neighborhood in a Dallas suburb, she was worried that they were Italian (their last name was Peters for heaven’s sake) and Catholic. I had to plead with her that religious topics never came up, and that when I worked up my courage to ask what the family’s religion was, discovered they were Baptist, which was okay. When my neighbor, Mrs. Hogeda, invited me in one day and showed me how she was making flour tortillas, I had to lie to my mom about where I had been because her disdain for Mexican Americans was so strong. When I developed a crush on one, I thought the roof would collapse on the house because of her fury. Shopping at the five and dime among Spanish speakers was an opportunity for her to mutter about people needing to go back where they belonged.

I have even heard a family member recently use the word “wetback.”

And a completely different family member, whose rep I want to protect, shared the wisdom that the Blacks are happier if they stay in their own neighborhoods, schools, and churches. That particular conversation occurred when I was a young college woman endeavoring to figure out how race fit into my world view. And though I voiced respectful opposition to the idea that benevolent segregation was American or godly or right, I still found myself, for all practical purposes, living in an all white world.

Once, as a younger adult, I asked myself the question: Would I want to be black? And the answer was, without hesitation, no. Not because I believed Black people are inferior, but because I knew that to be white in America was, and continues to be, a position of privilege. I have never been tailed in a retail store. I have never been denied service in a business establishment.  I have never had to worry, when pulled over for a traffic stop, that I would be shot or arrested if I wasn’t appropriately deferential.

This week, a jury handed down an innocent verdict in the Philando Castile shooting. It’s one of way too many killings of Blacks by panicked police. The phrase my daughter pulled out of Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show commentary was, “Clearly, black people never forget their training.” The training that, for all intents and purposes, keeps the “Massah” relationship alive and well in the United States:

 

We tell ourselves that the race issue is complicated. But is it? Is it really? Or have we made it so because we are afraid to truly own what is happening in our country?

In the Oprah Magazine’s May issue, Oprah and her staff confronted the issue of race in America. With photographs meant to compel thought, such as white women giving Asian women pedicures or a Black child looking at a shelf of white dolls at a toy store, the magazine challenged us to think about the subtle daily discrimination that we take for granted. Topics like Southern shame (I’m guilty), refugees, and ethnic traditions are laid bare. In one of the articles, entitled “A Force For Good” by criminologist David Kennedy, the author quotes the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Terrence Cunningham, who said that “police had often been ‘the face of oppression,’ and needed to ‘acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.'”

http://www.oprah.com/inspiration/why-we-need-to-talk-about-race

Look, I am not targeting the police in this blog post. I get that they are under pressure and work in difficult situations. But Philando Castile should not have been shot. That jury reached the wrong verdict. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland should be alive. And we white Americans have got to start being honest: we clutch our bags tighter, we sometimes cross to the other side of the street or make jokes or judgements. We do. And yes, I know it goes both ways. But whites have power in this country, by virtue of being white. And we need to admit it. I need to admit it. Picoult says, in her afterword, “Most of us think the word racism is synonymous with the word prejudice. But racism is more than just discrimination based on skin color. It’s also about who has institutional power. Just as racism creates disadvantages for people of color that make success harder to achieve, it also gives advantages to white people that make success easier to achieve. It’s hard to see those advantages, much less own up to them.”

Back to Small Great Things: I loved the book. The storytelling was taut, the points of view were thoroughly researched and rang true and clear. The characters were raw and vulnerable, and nearly all learned and grew from the journey. My heart was fully invested as I read, breathless as the trial drew to a close. The stakes were huge in this book: career, college, reputation. The stakes in our real life America are even greater: Peace and Life itself. I hope we all can embrace change and growth. I am ready to embrace the philosophy preached by martin Luther King, Jr: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” May my small life affect change. Hallelujah and amen.

http://www.jodipicoult.com/small-great-things.html

 

 

 

 

Texas Girls Don’t Always Wear Boots!

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Recently, while perusing the gift shop area at a Buccees on I-10 between San Antonio and Houston, I found myself surrounded by Texas paraphernalia: earrings in the shape of longhorn steers, bluebonnet shaped magnets, bronze Texas star yard art (every block in Texas is required to make sure at least one house has one of these over the garage door. It’s a law, I am pretty sure. On my block, it’s the neighbor two doors down).

I attended my first rodeo a couple of weeks ago. I was pretty nervous, afraid the animals would be mistreated (they weren’t) or that the country music concert would grate on my ears (it didn’t). The animals were beautiful, the horsemanship phenomenal, and Little Big Town put on a hell of a show. I didn’t dress any differently than I normally do, and I wondered if people would stare at my bootless, hatless self and banish me from the grounds for not being a true Texan. But for every bona fide cowboy or cowgirl whose boots and jeans looked authentically worn, there was someone in spanking new Wranglers and fringe looking like an extra from a movie about a dude ranch, and for every one of them, there was someone like me- in soft pastel jeans or hipster skinnys or urban baggys. There were as many Toms, Converse, and Nikes as Justins and Tony Lamas.

I come from a long line of Texans. Though I was not born here because my Texan parents were temporarily living in Tennessee where my daddy got his first post-college job, I have been here since I was three, all of my memories are of living in Texas. I love my state (though it’s become a little harder lately, not sure if that’s because the politics keep shifting to the right or because I have just leaned a little more to the left), but there are assumptions that folks have about Texans that I would like to set straight:

We don’t all wear cowgirl boots.

We don’t all listen to country music.

We don’t all own guns and/or horses.

We are a pretty famous place. I guess it’s because of so many western movies, maybe our performers  like Beyonce and Matthew McConnaughey. Or maybe it’s because of George W. Bush. Being President during the 9/11 attacks makes you a household name, like Churchill or Roosevelt from WWII. When my daughter, who lives in Australia, mentions where she’s from, she’s always quizzed about all sorts of “Texasisms”

My youngest daughter’s Australian boyfriend is in Vietnam, and he just sent us a photo of a fast food joint called Texas Chicken. Basically, it was the logo from Church’s Chicken.

You can be a Texas girl without wearing cowgirl boots and listening to country music.

What we do do:

Texas 2

1. Love bluebonnets and have requisite bluebonnet photos: Right now is the time of year when driving on a Texas highway you’ll see families pulled over with their little ones squatting in the fields of bluebonnets. We all have these photos, except for the poor folks who live out in the panhandle. Bluebonnets don’t grow out there. Their kids take photos with tumbleweeds.

2. Most of us own at least one piece of James Avery jewelry: I actually own two charm bracelets (one for theatre keepsakes and one for family), an angel bracelet, a necklace, and a ring. My eldest daughter has just one ring and a charm bracelet, and my younger daughter has at least three rings, a charm bracelet, and a necklace. She jokes that all sorority girls are required to have at least one piece. I sort of took the ubiquity of James Avery for granted, until a recent trip to Arizona. While there, I received frequent questions and compliments about my jewelry. A Texas silversmith out of the hill country, James Avery makes beautiful stuff that has a distinct Texas aesthetic. I love mine.

3. We always clap four times when someone sings “The stars at night are big and bright…” Do you remember, in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” when Pee Wee proves he’s in Texas by singing the opening lyric and everyone on the street stops and finishes the line? That really happens here. It’s ingrained in us starting in our early education classes. However, on rare occasions, it flops. Recently I was in San Antonio for the state music teachers convention, having a drink at Durty Nellie’s Irish Pub. The piano player, knowing the room was full of music teachers, started the song. “The starts at night are big and bright…” Nothing. I think the music teachers needed a break.

 

4. Use the words “fixin’ to” and “y’all”: These are the best words ever coined by Texans. When a Texan visits a place for any length of time, the people around her will, without realizing it, adopt these words. Especially “y’all.” It is the perfect pronoun for a group of people. Inclusive and succinct. Gender neutral and much more pleasant than “you guys,” it works in any situation. “Fixin’ to” is what we say instead of “about to.” I don’t really know why, but I do know I like it better.

Texas 1

5. We all know where to find our area’s best chicken fried steak:  In my case, it’s either Mel’s Diner or Goodson’s Cafe, both in Tomball. Both of these restaurants bring enormous crispy steaks out, swimming in cream gravy. You never want to finish the whole thing, lest your rump get as big as the Texas panhandle.

texas 10

 

6. Texans have big open hearts to match our state’s big open spaces: Once you get out of our sprawling cities and suburbs, Texas is full of vast open scenery of all sorts- piney woods, beaches, desert mountains, dusty plains, and grassy prairies. It’s breathtaking, really. Equally so? Our kind hearts. Texans love to help folks out- whether it’s with food for the hungry, care for animals, or hugs for suffering kids, we just can’t bear to walk away when someone needs us.

But I don’t think that’s uniquely Texan. One of the traits that ties us all together, whether in Texas or Minnesota or India or China, is that people love to help each other. It’s how most of us are wired.

So whether you wear a cowboy hat, sombrero, or beret, look around today. Appreciate your home’s flora, music, and customs. Love your neighbors. And y’all come visit us here in Texas. We’ll feed you chicken fried steak!

 

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