Tag: Abuse

18Nov

Cherry Tree Creed

I’ve hinted on here before about my rather extreme religious upbringing, but I’m hesitant to say much more about it. One part of me goes a little giddy at Anne Lamott’s quote, “If my family didn’t want me to write about them, they should’ve behaved better.” Yes, yes, yes! I cheer, until it comes to actually putting the ragged parts of my story into words and I inevitably whisper No. I can’t tell whom exactly my people-pleasing brain is trying to protect, but it balks when my honesty tries to reach back more than a decade. Some details are too ugly for the light of day.

Nevertheless, the way I was raised is relevant to who I am today. Painfully relevant. After all, the frequent religious apologetics classes and brainwashing camps were my introduction to doubting God’s existence. The behavior I saw in the churches and cults our family was involved with taught me about the tight-lipped smiling delusion so many people define as Christianity.  The forced hours of Old Testament reading every week took me beyond disbelief in God into the dark territory of hatred. You get the idea, at least in part.

I  spent most of my life under such a heavy religious terror that my sense of logic had to be locked up along with my emotions and honesty. The most redeeming thing that could have happened was when I gave up caring and let my doubts and anger tumble out of hiding. Depression helped, oddly enough. I already felt so low that keeping up my pretense of believing God no longer mattered. Deal with it, I told him. I may have tried punching him a time or two as well.

I see now that it had to be completely destroyed, that old belief system with its blackened stone walls and bloody gouge marks.  I had to lose enough hope to operate the wrecking ball myself. And slowly—slowly enough to be revolutionary in the we-could-die-and-face-judgment-any-minute mindset I had been taught—a new belief system is being reconstructed in my heart. It has floor-to-ceiling windows and an indoor cherry tree, and I suspect it will be some kind of spa once it is finished. There are no longer any shadowy nooks for shame, eternal damnation, party politics, or generational curses to hang out in.

A friend lent me The Shack to read a couple of months ago (the amount of time I’ve spent “forgetting” to return it makes me think I should probably just buy my own copy already). Reading it felt very much like having my rib cage pried open and all of my struggles with God exposed to the operating room lights… and then gently re-formed into such an expansive hope that my body has trouble accommodating it. Between the fresh perspective offered in that book (I can’t tell you how much I love that God reveals herself as an African-American woman) and the radical kindness of Jesus’s words, many of my questions are finally finding their perfect fit in answers — ones that don’t traumatize me or require me to suspend logic or darken my soul atmosphere. I don’t have everything figured out yet—for instance, I’m still searching for an explanation for the contradictory, violent God depicted in the Old Testament—but I am so relieved to finally have a creed that lets my heart breathe deep:

(I refer to God with female pronouns because in that way I  can comprehend her differentness from the patriarchal judge of my childhood.)

I believe that:

The Bible…
is a picture of who God is and what a relationship with her is like,
not a comprehensive encyclopedia for all the facets of existence,
and not a textbook,
and not a list of rules
(as if we could follow the rules anyway).

Free will…
means God values humans enough to give us the freedom of choice
and limits herself by not overriding those choices,
even the bad ones
(which hurt her too),
but always providing opportunities even through the bad choices
for us to clearly see her love.

God…
does not instigate tragedy, only works through and beyond it
as the life-force of the universe,
the energy, the concept of light, the goodness,
merciful enough to do away with justice
because she is love
(and not gender specific ☺).

Jesus…
is God in human form,
not a human with divine superpowers but human-human,
with emotions and needs and frustrations,
whose life flowed from his relationship with God
(who neither orchestrated his death nor abandoned him,
only worked incredible good through it).

The Holy Spirit…
is their divine presence—undiluted love—
landscaping the beautiful mess of our hearts,
the piercing loveliness we feel during a certain song
or a beautiful day or moments of profound peace,
always here and never finished.

Prayer…
is simply the ongoing dialogue
as the four of us live together,
acknowledging that the unseen is real
and that relationship is all that truly matters,
and that God cares…
which could probably be called faith.

Life on earth…
is a process that won’t culminate until all is made new,
blessedly temporary
(which I know when I agonize over the too-few hours each day),
but  a good time for the element of choice to get worked out—
a messy and necessary step for a God who respects us
and who continues to participate in our stories
outside the bounds of time and breath.

Then heaven…
will be all this as it was meant to be
without the violation of a single free will,
every heart finally connected to God’s,
finally capable of channeling her extravagant love
and enjoying complete creativity and fulfillment along with her,
seeing the beautiful face of our planet unscarred—
life on earth, redeemed.

And I…
am not a convert or a heretic
or a warrior or a one-size-fits-all
or a guest of honor on the doorman’s list
or a project to be finished
but one member of a completely unique relationship with the Divine
who values me enough not to impose rules or limitations
and promises  a never-ending process
toward fullest life,
beautiful change accomplished hand-in-hand,
and a love I am just beginning to absorb.

10May

Gentle Tsunami

I was walking home from the park three days ago hand-in-hand with my daughters, smears of frozen yogurt on our cheeks and playground gravel under our fingernails, when it hit me. Grace. Like a gentle tsunami, it washed over that moment. Then, at half-past-naptime in the afternoon. There, under the silver-glinted olive trees. My hands clasped with the two little girls who make me crazy with love (and sometimes just crazy)… and I whispered “Thank you” into the springtime sky.

Mommy with her girls 1

I remember another Sunday years ago when I sat in our church’s youth group after a particularly terrifying lesson. I was already a veteran victim of religious terror, and our church had raised the bar impossibly high with the unit study on demons when I was in 5th grade. Still, this particular Sunday’s message was the most frightening of my life: You are doomed to commit the same sins your parents did. It was an interpretation of Exodus 20:5 that many Christians accept, and it scared me into a hopeless panic.

“Please, God, no!” I prayed over and over like a character in a scratchy black and white film. “Please, God, no! Please, God, no! I don’t want to hurt my own children one day, I don’t want them to end up like me. Please, God…” I muddled through vague resolutions not to ever fall in love or get married, not to ever, ever make a baby. I was heartbroken. Damned.

In college, I met, kissed, and married my husband within ten short months, irreversibly losing my anti-marriage resolve. However, my fear was still alive. I felt it in the secret passageways of my anatomy every day of married life. I tasted its metallic bitterness. It compounded in my chest when I leafed through Anne Geddes books, wondering what kind of monster a baby would unleash in me. I did not want to find out. I adored children, so I was particularly cautious not to have one myself.

Another Bible study turned the tides. I worked through Beth Moore’s “Breaking Free” with a group of college friends and learned that faulty translation had created all this mess. Exodus 20:5 in the original language says that the “sins of the fathers” (oh, what a sinister phrase) are taken into account by God. As in, God understands how the misdeeds of older generations affect younger generations. Other Bible passages such as Ezekiel 18 go into greater detail on how people’s choices and consequences are solely their own… but this isn’t meant to be a Bible study. It’s the story of how my fear let out a surprised “Oh!” and vanished in a wisp of smoke.

That very next summer, I got pregnant with Natalie. And while I still had some freakouts and hyperventilations to work out of my system, I welcomed her to the world with a fuzzy, warm, king-sized happiness. I met my baby and turned into a mother.

Meeting Mom

Four years and two months later, I played with my daughters all afternoon at the park. We picked Sophie’s favorite miniature daisies and flew on pink horses that Natalie conjured up. We ran all the way home for a potty break and then back out for frozen yogurt topped with white chocolate, strawberries, and heaps of colorful sprinkles. We walked home giggling, and I realized with the full profundity of a once-afraid soul that God answered. For all my faults—getting frustrated with the incessant toddler messes, blocking out every third hour of the incessant preschool chatter, saying “We’ll do that later” far too often—I have been spared the pain of becoming an abusive parent. My own hurts are even healing under the skilled touch of grace. The fear is simply a forgotten nightmare; grace is my here-and-now. Grace is why today, I can hug those little girls with a heart full of our delicious memories and say, “Happy Mother’s Day to you too.”

Mother's Day toes
20Mar

The Family Stain

Now, I’m going to need to get your medical background. Does anyone in your extended family have a history of diabetes?

No.

Cancer?

No.

Heart disease?

Nope.

Anything else we should be concerned about?

No.

Well…

Except for depression and divorce and racism and sexual abuse and religious fanaticism and betrayal and lying and lying and lying and violence and does repeatedly buying into pyramid schemes count? Well, financial squandering then, and alienation and mistrust and selective ignorance and censorship and suicide and hate and always the secrets.
*****

Family history clings like a spider web this time of year. It comes with the clouds, draping over me like shreds of rubber cement. Or maybe it’s just this week, which has kicked my ass Chuck Norris style. Or maybe it’s this coming Sunday, Easter, which has always ranked as my least favorite of all least-favorite holidays (President’s Day and Take It In The Ear Day* coming in close behind).
*****

(Lapse in thought here. Both girls have decided to cry rather than sleep this afternoon, and the kitchen that was finally(!) clean(!) for twenty(!) whole minutes this morning has taken revenge by sprouting wok-shaped mold, and the computer I’ve been using since my laptop died has belatedly joined the writer’s strike, and I’m TIRED. Chuck Norris, etc.)

(I’m sorry. That turned out much more like stream-of-consciousness whining than the excuse-my-disjointed-thoughts disclaimer I intended. I’m off to take an absolutely necessary nap, and then? Please excuse my disjointed thoughts.)
*****

I know everyone’s got a messed-up family to a degree, and some of you are laughing right now because your family could SO take my family in a fist fight. But my history–the gnarly fabric of generational flaws–is plenty difficult for me to shoulder. I want it gone. Undone. Far, far away from me and my dear husband and my precious little girls. I often wake from nightmares, eyes wide as oceans in the dark, praying that I could just bleach out the stain of my name.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen, and it probably shouldn’t. Their mistakes, stark and magnified in my perspective, have taught me a lot of ways not-to-be. And Easter, that holiday reeking of ugly lace dresses in frigid, too-early mornings, of confiscated baskets full of candy I wasn’t allowed to taste, of back-to-back-to-back church activities and lengthy descriptions of Jesus’s death that I was far too young to handle? I have the chance to do it right with my new little family, and if not right, at least better. We can have giggly Easter egg hunts and celebratory meals with friends and sleeping late in a cozy, cuddly nest and so much love our minds will spin out into the stratosphere, far beyond nightmares, pain, and this inherited human stain.


* December 8th. Look it up! Or don’t.

4Feb

The Graveyard Shift

“People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children.” ~ Calvin, to Hobbes

An idea has been rattling around in my mind for a while now. It sounds simple enough and maybe even fun: write down some happy childhood memories to share with my family, past, present, and future. But it’s not so simple. Every time I think about it, seriously consider starting, I find myself waist-deep in an emotional briar patch.

I’m sure everyone has things that he or she doesn’t like to think about, but I’ve made repression a way of life. It’s a twisted art form, learning to cope with trauma by shoveling six feet of dirt onto memories. Unfortunately, the good often gets buried along with bad, so I find myself in my twenties barely remembering my teens, much less earlier times.

I stare at this photograph

Young Bethany - Hudson Taylor

and remember my cat–his name (Hudson Taylor), his affiliations (Mimi the PMS-y wifecat), and his hobbies (poetry, cross stitch, world travel)–but I can’t remember my interaction with him. I can’t remember rocking him or wearing yellow overalls or being six years old.

I find this photo

Young Bethany - Ballet

and can’t remember my first ballet class, my first year of ballet classes even. I don’t know if I enjoyed it or if I liked my teacher or if I was any good. I wonder how long it took for my knobby-kneed legs to learn French. (And plié, and up, and pas de bourrée, jeté battu…)

I come across this one (I’m the third from the left)

Young Bethany - Smoking birthday candles

and remember the way the girls laughed, my first batch of genuine friends since first grade. I remember the pranks we pulled and the atrocious poetry we wrote and the boys we used to giggle about, but I don’t recall who I was in junior high. I’m told I was the one who suggested we smoke birthday candles, but was I really that silly? When did I start pulling my hair up? What was my life like at home, away from my friends?

The answer to that last question is the reason I used to cry and shake and write “fuck” in my journal and think about the afterlife in very near terms. Then I went the therapeutic route, talking to close friends, writing everything down, turning my brain inside-out so the pain could float away on the breeze. At least, I hoped it would float away, and when it didn’t, I started shoveling.

I’m now realizing that I’ll have to dig around in the graveyard for even the happiest memories, and let me tell you, it’s a mess. Fragments of memory are scattered like misplaced bones. Unmarked graves hold mental snapshots, many of them moldy and disintegrating. The dirt clings to me for hours afterward, even when I don’t manage to find anything.

I’m so, so reluctant to dig deeper, down to where the whole memories and undiluted hurt lie intertwined. At the same time, I know how much the happy moments of my childhood will matter to my daughters, to my parents, and probably to me. I haven’t found the necessary strength yet; I’m still clinging pretty tightly to the idea that my childhood was 100% bad. But I know there were times of laughter and imagination and closeness, and I owe it to many to rediscover those moments. I owe it to myself.

If at first you don’t succeed…

28Sep

Disowning Regret

It stands out like a hologram from the pages of my journals:
Regret for being too innocent.
Regret for far surpassing the bounds of innocence.
Regret for being too shy.
Regret for letting boldness take over.
Regret for liking the boys I’ve liked.
Regret for rejecting the ones I didn’t.
Regret for being too melancholy, too low.
Regret for experiencing giddy highs.
Regret over my numerous emotions.
Regret over my compensating numbness.
Regret over being boring.
Regret over having fun.
Regret over every person, place, and circumstance woven into the fabric of my past.

I’m startled to see it pop out at me so clearly. Has it always been lurking between the pages of my past, waiting patiently for me to approach with open eyes?

An entire lifetime spent regretting myself…

This morning, I sat on the floor immersing myself in the ghosts of Bethanys past, laughing (at age 14, I decided I would marry my first boyfriend on October 20, 2003), aching (the Sunday my entire youth group stood in front of the church to promise abstinence for True Love Waits, I cried alone in the bathroom as the only teenager whose parents were unwilling for her to think about sex–even to pledge celibacy with all her friends), and wishing desperately for a time machine.

I wish I could protect the sweet little girl who learned about unfounded yet unrelenting, soul-crushing guilt at home every single day. I would tell her she was precious and wanted, that it was OK to smile and play and think that God liked her. I would show her that her beautiful little heart was anything but “hard, cold, and black” like she was told, that the daily accusations against her were untrue, that her deep little-girl wounds were not her fault. I would stop regretting my existence.

I wish I could give the excruciatingly lonely teenager a heaping dose of the love she lived without. I would tell her how funny she was in her blossoming creativity. I would hold up a mirror and show her how pretty she was, even (especially) with the freckles and red hair and too-long legs she hated. I would whisper to her about her intrinsic value and the luscious life ahead. I would give her reasons not to kill herself other than the sole terror of facing a God who, she was told, hated her. I would stop regretting how my goody-two-shoesness kept me from sneaking out at night to recapture my boyfriend’s attention.

I wish I could inject Valium into the college student’s frantically over-analytical brain. I would tell her to relax into the gentle process of learning, to enjoy each moment without dissecting it to death. I would give her the confidence to stand up to the guys who mistreated her and to unabashedly be herself with the ones who captured her affection. I would remind her to have fun dating, building friendships, learning, becoming an adult. I would stop regretting the fun and crazy side of my personality making itself known.

I wish I could extract the vast self-imposed disillusionment from the newly-inaugurated adult. I would help her see her fears and misgivings as the product of misguided childhood teachings. I would tell her that her perpetual doubts about love, capability, purpose, and belief were natural but not world-spinning. I would encourage her to enjoy rediscovering her identity, to face her life with courage and joy, to accept her new marriage as safe, to let herself feel at peace as a woman. I would stop regretting my imperfection.

I can hardly believe it’s taken me this long to realize that I’m a human and that that’s OK. I imagine most people realize this while they’re still in diapers or at least when their first smudgy fingerpainting is taped onto the fridge… not years after getting a minor in psychology or even more years of dedicated self-therapy or still more years of affirming friendships. (When did you find out it was perfectly OK to be you?)

Hello, my name is Bethany, and today I’ve stopped regretting Me.

I feel like a newborn being snuggled for the first time by ecstatic, weeping parents and thinking it the most natural moment in the world.

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