Tag: Faith

6Oct

A Field Guide to Unfurling

“No one ever influenced Tolkien—
you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch.”
– C.S. Lewis

/ / /

Like most people who have grappled with their childhood faith, I’ve learned that I can’t base my understanding of God on what other Christians are like. Even the most pious of pulpit-pounders are still human, and the ones who claim the most loudly to speak for God are the ones who raise my highest defenses. My best strategy for avoiding spiritual disillusionment is to keep firm mental boundaries between who God is and how people portray him. However, I’ve also learned this: that when you see Jesus in someone, you don’t easily forget it.

Erika Morrison is one such person. To her, everyone from the homeschool mom to the homeless cross-dresser reflects one facet of an infinite God, and she lives like it. When I started getting to know her four years ago, her words somersaulted my perspective of Christianity onto its head. The way she defined freedom and art and identity and community made me want to exhale three decades of pent-up weariness and then invite everyone I knew to a dance party. This is a lady who believes down to her toenails that God wove our quirks and creative impulses into us not so we could spend our lives trying to overcome them in the interest of uniformity but so that we could fill the us-shaped voids in this world. You just try not busting a move as that realization sets in.

I wanted to introduce you all to Erika not just because she’s rad—though she absolutely is—but because her book Bandersnatch was released into the wild today, and this makes me glad for humanity. It’s her gift of sacred unconventionality put to paper (or, uh, Paperwhite), and I don’t imagine that many of us who pick it up are going to be the same when we put it back down. At the very least, we’ll be several pounds lighter in exhaled cynicism.

Now, without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Erika:

/ / /


Bandersnatch (Full Length Trailer) on Vimeo.

The cardinals make it look so easy. The honeybees make it look so easy. The catfish and the black crow, the dairy cow and the cactus plant, all make being created appear effortless. They arise from the earth, do their beautiful, exclusive thing and die having fulfilled their fate. None of nature seems to struggle to know who they are or what to do with themselves.

But humanity is the exception to nature’s rule because we’re individualized within our breed. We’re told by our mamas and mentors that—like snowflakes—no two of us are the same and that we each have a special purpose and part to play within the great Body of God. (If your mama never told you this, consider yourself informed: YOU—your original cells and skin-print, guts and ingenuity—will never ever incarnate again. Do you believe it?) So we struggle and seek and bald our knees asking variations of discovery-type questions (Who am I? Why am I here?), and if we’re semi-smart and moderately equipped, we pay attention just enough to wake up piecemeal over years to the knowledge of our vital, indigenous selves.

And yet… even for all our wrestling and wondering, there are certain, abundant factors stacked against our waking up. We feel and fight the low ceiling of man-made definitions, systems and institutions; we fight status quo, culture conformity, herd mentalities, and more often than not,

“The original shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out of all our other selves, which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.” ~Frederick Buechner

So, let me ask you. Do you know something—anything—of your true, original, shimmering self?

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10Sep

Book Stories: The Meme

No doubt you’ve seen it making the rounds through Facebook:

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t think too hard or try to give ‘right’ answers, just write down 10 that have affected you/moved you/caused you to neglect your family, job, and basic hygiene for 36 hours straight/invaded your dreams/ prompted you to abandon dignity in favor of cosplay* or fan fiction/necessitated the author’s taking out a restraining order against you.”

*Not a sex act, sorry. “Cosplay” is short for costume play, which is short for dressing up like something else, which is admittedly delightful and fun but almost certainly not dignified.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve bounced up and down in your computer chair willing someone to tag you so you too can compile your list. Such is the power of the meme that one is not psychologically able to start thinking about her 10 books until she has been granted permission to do so by social media. (Please tell me I’m not the only one with a compulsive respect for pointless or nonexistent boundaries.) To the relief of my list-loving heart, I have now been tagged (thanks, Rachael!), and rather than listing my ten books as a Facebook status, I wanted to introduce them here, Book Stories style.


(Eggplant nails at Erika’s request)

1. Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery

When I first read the Anne of Green Gables series as a girl, I only really liked the first book about Anne’s childhood and then the three final books about her children’s escapades. The middle books about Anne’s career hopes, love interests, and coming-of-age heartaches bored me… until one day, they didn’t. I was in between college semesters and boyfriends of my own when I picked Anne of Avonlea off my dusty bookshelf and cried right through the final page. L.M. Montgomery is magic, folks. (But you already knew that.) 

2. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I was still a newlywed, pre-babies and only about two inches into my recovery from fundamentalism when a friend recommended Blue Like Jazz. I read it aloud to Dan, a chapter each night before bed, and it was like discovering my right to breathe. It very well may have been the first time that I’d heard God spoken about conversationally, without religious jargon, as if he actually had a place in everyday life. This book is spiritual stress relief.

3. On Writing by Stephen King

I can’t remember exactly when I snagged this off the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but I do know that it’s scarcely left my writing desk since. I only pick it up to read when I’m working on fiction because a page or two is all it takes for story inspiration to rush at me like a telepathic kid out of a haunted hotel. I should point out that my preferred genre is not that of the good Mr. King, but damned if he doesn’t make my mind itch to create something new.

4. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss

I know, I know, everything about this book screams GIMMICKY! It was a crash course in entrepreneurship for Dan and I though. We got it a couple of years ago during our transition into self-employment, and while it did not catapult us into the ranks of “the new rich” or reduce our workweek to four hours, it did give us the gift of perspective. We now use terms like “batching” and “80/20” in everyday life (most often when trying to get out of housework, but still), and whenever I’m feeling discouraged about our rolling job situation, I let the FHWW remind me that we’re normal… ish. Not alone, at any rate.

5. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

I’m not sure what it says about me that the book I read most frequently for the pure joy if it was a high school reading assignment. To be fair to myself, though, it’s not like I go around toting Oedipus Rex on beach vacations or cracking open The Complete Works of Shakespeare on flights. Have you ever watched the darling film Il Postino where Pablo Neruda teaches an uneducated Italian postman about metaphor? This book is what taught me.

6. Hope Beyond Hell by Gerry Beauchemin

Over the year and a half following our move to Italy and Sophie’s birth, depression effectively broke down all my internal religious etiquette. I called up a friend from the States who I knew wouldn’t disown me when she heard that I could no longer believe in a God who made eternal torture the default destiny for humankind. She knew exactly what I was talking about and suggested that I read Hope Beyond Hell. I don’t think I’m putting it too dramatically when I say that this book saved my faith.

7. Field Guide to Now by Christina Rosalie

Christina’s blog is largely responsible for getting me writing again back in 2007. Her way of noticing the undercurrents of art in daily life and making poetry of their prose stirs up answering instincts in me. Hers is a creativity founded on intention and delight, and this book is one of my favorite things to read in the pre-dawn hours with a notepad and pen in hand. It makes me want to live and create and then live some more.

8. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

1130. That’s how many pages of small text my unabridged copy contains. And I loved every one of them. Often after work, the summer I was 18, I’d drive to an uptown Starbucks where I’d order a venti coconut frappuccino and sit in the sunshine to read… and read… and read. Dantès’s revenge is so complicated and satisfying to read that I didn’t know whether to celebrate or to cry when I reached the end. I’ll be reading this one again… next time I have an entire summer of afternoons at my disposal (ha!).

9. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

I almost don’t even want to talk about this book because it’s meant so much to me. Hope Beyond Hell is what saved my faith, but The Shack is what saved my heart. I first read it on a Sunday morning while Dan and the girls were at church. It was a day when all the weight of my fundamentalist upbringing was suffocating me, and I felt so wounded by Christianity that all I could do was lie on the sofa and reach for this book that a friend had lent me. And I met a God of love in it.

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) by J.K. Rowling

Roughly estimating, I’d say… oh, 99.81273% of the 10 Books lists that I’ve seen circulating on Facebook have included the Harry Potter series. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how deeply the story of The Boy Who Lived gets to us? The final book of the series came out right as we were moving to Italy, and I saved it to read in the hospital before and after Sophie’s birth. That was a frightening and larger-than-life time for me—having a baby three months after moving to another country whose language I did not yet speak—and Harry Potter & Gang’s story helped give me both an escape and the courage to stay.

All right, then. I tag YOU to share 10 books that have stayed with you in some way (even just here in the comments if you don’t want to go all Facebook-official on it). No right or wrong answers, remember, and if you have forsaken hygiene or dignity for the sake of those books, then know you’re in good company.

4Aug

The Gospel of Corset Removal

Starting this month, I’m going to be regular contributor to A Deeper Story, a writing collective that has been dear to my heart from Day 1. I had the unexpected and just plain awesome opportunity to sit down and chat with ADS founder Nish Weiseth this summer (over panini and gelato in Tuscany, no less!), and our conversation turned toward Don Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. Perhaps you’ve read it too, especially if you were one of the many hungering for “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality” in the early 2000s. It was a liberating book for me—engaging where most Christian books were preachy, thought-provoking where others tended to push agenda-laced answers—and Nish pointed out that the reason Blue Like Jazz was so compelling was that it framed theological discussion inside of story. No Bible-thumping. No argument-baiting. No dry platitudes or impersonal formulas. Just one person’s unique and intriguing experience with faith.

That’s what A Deeper Story is as well: a place where Christian spirituality is explored through the writers’ own experiences. It’s beautiful and relatable and surprising and mind-stretching, and I highly recommend poking around the site for a bit after you read my piece. You’ll see why it’s a community I’m delighted to call my own.

Now on to the story…

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

“Between two lungs it was released
The breath that carried me
The sigh that blew me forward”
– Florence Welch

At eleven years old, I had no notion of a drill sergeant except for what I’d seen in a passing clip of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., but I was pretty sure my ballet teacher fit the bill. As my class labored over our barre exercises, she paced the ranks, snapping commands like rubber bands into the smalls of our backs.

“Chest out! Head up! Stomach flat! Tuck that seat in! Breathe up and down, not in and out! No one wants to see your diaphragm move! Turn that leg out! ROUND ELBOWS, for the love! Stand tall, everyone! Taller!”

I adored my teacher despite her Sergeant Carter routine, and I practiced my posture daily at home. A real ballerina was a whipcord, long and lithe and compressed within an inch of her life. A real ballerina could corset herself through willpower alone. I cinched my ribcage tight in the mirror and watched each breath push my non-existent bosom upwards.

Perfect. As close to perfect as I was going to get, at any rate.

There it was in the mirror for God and so great a cloud of witnesses to see: the successful suppression of self. There was the proof that for all my excesses and deficiencies, all my shameful impulses and sins of omission, I could at least hold my respiratory system in check. I could breathe without breathing, and if I could do that, surely I could learn to pray without ceasing and do all things without grumbling and go a whole blessed hour without incurring the wrath of a Father who was perfect as I was not.

Forget Sergeant Carter; God was the greatest caricature of a short fuse that I knew.

///

Four years ago, my husband coaxed me out to the running trail below our house with promises of cardiac health and cute workout clothes. Our younger daughter had just started preschool, so my fallback excuse of “Sorry, got these two kids” (à la Jack Handey) wasn’t going to fly anymore. Besides, my fondness for that excuse was doing me no favors in the waistline department. Full of good intentions and the merry optimism of the ignorant, I laced up my running shoes and hit the track with my husband.

Two minutes later, I was hobbling at the speed of an asphyxiated snail, purple-faced and gasping for breath. It was one of the sexier moments in our marriage for sure. Dan jogged in placed beside me while I wheezed out my list of reasons why exercise is detrimental to one’s health and marital happiness, punctuating every sentence with an “OW.” I suggested he go ahead and put me on hospice care because I clearly wasn’t going to make it.

He suggested I try breathing.

When we made it home later that morning (no small miracle), I consulted Dr. Google about why running made me feel like my sides were being surgically removed with sporks, and I discovered that Dan had been on to something. Breathing was the secret, the Internet explained. Specifically, belly breathing. By keeping the air high and tight in my chest, I was putting stress on my diaphragm and depriving my muscles of oxygen. Instead, I needed to be relaxing my torso, filling my lungs to capacity, and then letting all the air out in an easy whoosh. If I did this, the Internet promised, my body would stop the gutted gastropod routine.

So I tried it. The next day at the running trail, I flopped my arms around to loosen myself up and then took a deep bellyful of breath. Immediately, air rushed into my lungs, whistling down dusty tubes and rousting cobwebs from long-forgotten bronchioles. I could feel it inside me, a blustering brightness that expanded until I thought I might float away. My stomach hadn’t ballooned so freely since the last time a baby had been in residence. (“Suck it,” I thought in the direction of passing runners with their hardwood abs and lack of pregnancy symptoms. “I’m learning to breathe here!”)

Exhaling was next, a conscious release of the breath I’d just taken in. I hadn’t realized that this would be the harder step, but instinct clenched itself around every precious molecule of air and had to be pried away one finger at a time. Ridiculous as it sounds, I had to whisper to myself that another breath would be waiting for me after I let this one go. I hadn’t used up all the air in our great green park. I could trust that no matter how far I ran or how extravagantly I spent each lungful, there would be enough left. There would always and forever be enough.

///

I don’t know what I’d expected from that first exercise in belly breathing, but it certainly wasn’t a total spiritual overhaul. You can’t learn “the unforced rhythms of grace” in one area of life, see, without it affecting all the others, and once I learned to breathe deep, I couldn’t stop.

I began to inhale truth about the destructive religion of my childhood and to exhale story. I let myself drink brimful from the kindness in Jesus’s voice and sigh from satisfaction instead of angst. Before my eyes, the God who had always been breathing down my neck faded away, a pernicious mirage, until I could finally see the God who breathes life into clay lungs, the one whose breath had been carrying me all along. “So spacious is he,” writes Paul, and I stopped right there on the page, unwilling to read on until those words had inked themselves onto my soul.

So spacious is he.

I hadn’t known.

Everything comes down to breathing for me now. Whether I’m running or praying or wrestling with doctrine or opening a blank page, the secret is in relaxing whatever I’ve got clenched—all my righteous restraints and illusions of control—and trusting that I can fill and release and be filled again. I think of it as a kind of life Lamaze, this focused refusal to hoard tension. Just like the hilarious “hoo-hoo-hee-hee” panting techniques I had to practice in childbirth class, it goes against my instincts. I feel unstable without my old fear and shame and exclusion-based doctrines to clutch, and the risk of taking each moment by faith unsettles me further.

Being able to relax in the company of God, however, is a gift worth every existential discomfort. So spacious is he that my lungs can’t fill beyond his capacity to provide. So spacious is he that I can travel from one set of perspectives to their opposites without losing his trail. So spacious is he that my days of corseting myself and standing ramrod straight at the barre are over; now it’s our time to run.

“Gone are the days of begging
The days of theft
No more gasping for a breath
The air has filled me head to toe
And I can see the ground far below”

image credit

15Apr

The Ride of Our Lives

“Self-employment is like nothing else on earth,” a friend told us three years ago when the job that had brought us to Italy ended. “One month, you’ll be feeling wildly successful, and the next, you’ll be praying for enough money to put food on the table. It’s a roller coaster. You’ve got to be prepared for that going in.”

We were. At least, we were prepared to the extent that I had been as a kid plunging into the dark of Runaway Mountain for the first time, gripping the safety bar and reminding myself over and over again that the coaster had never killed anyone. (I didn’t think…) Dan and I truly didn’t know what to expect, but we were sure that self-employment was the right direction for his career. We had considered other options, prayed at varying degrees of desperation, talked the whole thing over every which way we could, and finally wrestled our fears into a shaky semblance of trust. This was what my husband was meant to do, I was certain.

That certainty came at a heavy price for me though. On the last day of Dan’s day job, we found out that he would not be receiving his final few months of paychecks, that the tenants renting our house in the States were being evicted for failure to pay, and that our Italian bank account was blocked. I kid you not. If you can stomach a bit of raw honesty, here is an excerpt from my journal entry that day:

“I don’t know what to do with the tension curled up like a thousand knuckled fists inside my belly. I want to pray, but I keep thinking about what a friend going through tough times wrote on her blog this morning: “I still believe in the power of prayer.” Well I don’t. If you believe that praying effects change, then you have to believe either A) that we are convincing God do our bidding or B) that God is withholding his will until someone thinks to ask for it.

I’m much more willing to believe that prayer is simply a good spiritual practice for focusing and connecting our thoughts with God, but I’m so not in the mood today to commune. I need answers, both global and personal, for trusting that he will have anything to do with the outcome of the tangle we’re in now.

It’s not a good place to find myself.”

I think that I worked as hard on trust those first months as Dan did at establishing his new biomechanics business. While he was wrangling website code and traveling to meet clients, I was wrangling fears as thick-limbed as gorillas and traveling my own daily—and sometimes hourly—journey out of panic. At the time, I was working as an English teacher, which helped keep us afloat… but it also tugged the energy out from under me like a cartoon rug. I worked during the hours that my little girls needed me most, and Dan’s business trips made our home life a logistical nightmare. We were exhausted and strained and frayed all the way to the core.

I’ve found, though, that this kind of desperate, minute-by-minute living is the ultimate breeding ground for miracles.  Even as expenses continued to mount—our car’s epic breakdown, a drug operation being discovered in the basement of our rental home, and the Italian government booting us out of the country… all within the first four months of self-employment (seriously, Universe??)—we always had enough. We even got Disney World, and the kind of care that I felt from God during each last-minute upswing bolstered my courage enough for me to quit my job.

We’re three years into being on our own now—Dan an entrepreneur, I a freelancer—and I’m finally getting used to the ride. That is to say, my knuckles are no longer white and I am no longer actively preparing myself to live under a bridge. I would in no way call this experience easy. Having to provide work for ourselves, to keep forward momentum and always be on the cusp of some new possibility is exhausting. That’s the flat truth of it. However, we are also sustained by this work: by the thrill of doing what we love, by the freedom of directing our own time and energy, and by the unknown heights of potential climbing in the dark ahead. We are still sure that this was the right direction to take.

A family who has been friends with us for years finally asked this week what exactly Dan does, and we both laughed in understanding because “entrepreneur” is such a non-description. It means someone who starts businesses, sure, but that doesn’t exactly bring my husband’s day-to-day activities into focus. Actually, come to think of it, there is no such thing as a day-to-day activity in Dan’s world. There is only one day at a time and whatever menial or creative tasks will advance the project he’s pursuing. Today, for instance, he’s spending the morning on the computer working on Training Lot—a platform he’s setting up to help people make and market training videos online. Later, he’s going to join a pizzaiolo friend to film an authentic Italian pizza-making process, then he’ll put the video up as part of a publicity push to get votes for a startup contest he’s been selected to participate in.

Here’s my favorite of the promotional videos he’s made so far (though I might be unfairly biased toward those two bilingual girls of ours):

We’re on a part of the roller coaster right now that I think of as the Sideways Spiral of Death—you know, the part where the g-forces are sucking your brains into outer space and you’re doing your damndest to see through the stars and avoid throwing up if possible. This is all part of the startup process. I know this because we’ve been through it several times now, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Dan’s in the phase of trying a new venture that’s all momentum and effort and wild uncertainty, and I’m right there with him pushing past the exhaustion and clinging as loosely as we dare to the hope that this idea will be one of the success stories.

Only time will tell. It feels crazy vulnerable to be telling you all this. I’d much rather you think of us as stable and prosperous in this life we’re carving out for ourselves. I’m tempted to wait on telling you the self-employment stories until we have it all figured out (which we will someday… right?), but then I couldn’t give you the chance to be a part of them with us. And I would really value your companionship today.

Here’s how: If you took five seconds to open this link and click “like” on Dan’s video, you could help him advance to the next round of the Summit Kilimanjaro startup contest. He was already chosen as one of the top 200, and if he remains in the top 50 by Friday, he’ll be eligible for some awesome networking and publicity opportunities. He doesn’t have all the connections or financial backing that some of the other contestants are using to get ahead, but he does have a pretty great business idea, and your thumbs up would be a huge help. Really, five seconds. (If you then shared the link with all your friends on Facebook, we would both do a happy dance. Just saying.)

If any of you have struck out on your own before, I would also love to hear how the experience was/is for you. The more of us on this coaster, the more it will feel like a party rather than a death trap, non? And hopefully I’ll have a new miracle tale to share with you (quite literally!) in the near future.

7Apr

Open-Source Parenting: Adventure

The weekend before last, spring burst overhead like a cosmic dandelion puff. Sunbeams settled on our noses, songbird gossip tickled our ears, and last year’s snapdragons made a grand re-entry if only to outdo the wild daisies carpeting our town.

It was terrifying.

The first good weather of the year, see, held me accountable to a promise I’d made to Dan: that I would let the girls out to play. As in, by themselves. Without any form of parent nearby. At the little park which is only partially within sight and earshot of my window and which has a second street exit within neither.

I promise you that I have worked hard to curb my paranoid instincts about mothering. My imagination has always been a worst-case scenario handbook with an apocalyptic bent, and each of the girls has toddled at least once within a hairs breadth of tragedy; by all logic, I should be a vigilante-helicopter mutt of a mom. I try not to let the crazy limit my daughters’ development though, which is why I agreed that this would be the spring of going out to play. But oh, friends… the disasters that played out in my mind as soon as the girls left my sight. They were kidnapped at least three times a minute during that first hour.

Playground privileges
(That tiny speck of pink in the park is my heart walking around outside my body, NBD.)

The girls went out to the park every afternoon of the week, and while those accumulating hours of non-tragedy helped bolster my resolve, they still weren’t easy for me. Villains and bullies and natural disasters lurked in my peripheral vision every time I peeked out the window. I kept running a cost-benefit analysis on the girls’ independence; did their healthy development really outweigh the risk of whatever [unlikely] [but unspeakable] evil could befall them out there? Could I live with myself if something happened?

I don’t have any easy answers yet—and probably never will—but a little trip we took yesterday helped put things into perspective for me. The four of us were sitting around the Sunday lunch table feeling worn down and antsy from our week when we decided the only thing for it was to hit the road. Half an hour later, we were merging onto the highway, and half an hour after that, we were winding up to a little town we’d never visited before. No maps, no guidebooks, no agenda whatsoever (aside from gelato, which is my goal in everything).

Trevi

We only stayed an hour, but it was a gorgeous, living-out-loud kind of hour. Downtown Trevi is laid out like some kind of medieval maze, and we took turns choosing which direction to explore. The girls didn’t want to speak Italian—“We’re tourists today!”—so we snapped pictures and skipped and called to each other like the boisterous Americans we still are. I couldn’t stop grinning. Exploring like this might just be my favorite way to experience the world.

The girls exploring Trevi

It always has been, too. The way Natalie and Sophie were running down stone tunnels and peeking into courtyards of olive trees yesterday is exactly how I used to run down creek beds and peek into dogwood thickets as a kid. The neighborhoods I lived in growing up were so much bigger to me than they were to adults, who always let themselves be limited by things like road signs or propriety. I wandered and scouted and burrowed and built and destroyed and imagined and braved. My knees were perpetually scraped. I couldn’t wait to go outside. Knowing that there was a dangerous element to my explorations had only sharpened the experience for me, a sprinkle of chili on my chocolate.

I watched the girls bound up a twisty side path and thought of an article from The Atlantic that my friend Dunny sent me a couple of weeks ago. It’s long but well worth the read if you’re fascinated by this latest generation of overprotective parents (myself included) and how our preoccupation with safety might not be the best thing for our kids. The article features a playground in North Wales that is set up more like a junkyard than anything; old tires, mattresses, and tin drums are at the kids’ disposal, and a playground supervisor only intervenes in the case of actual danger—say, if a kid’s fire gets out of control. Do you know how much I would have loved playing there? Exploration and imagination were always far more thrilling to me than regulation-height swing sets; I suspect they are to most children.

I wrote in a recent post how I owe every joy of my adult life to the high level of independence granted me. This is not an exaggeration. Being able to chart the terrain of my own life from a young age is why I live in Italy today with an entrepreneur husband and two little girls who think anything is possible. Our life is full of unknown turns; we rarely know where the next month will take us, and sometimes our choices feel as helter-skelter as our wanderings through Trevi yesterday.

There is so much joy in a life of adventure though. The reality of risk heightens our senses, keeps our prayers earnest, and reminds us to appreciate. The low times provide contrast for the highs, and we learn as we go. We cultivate grace as a survival skill. We do our best to trust and to keep on trusting that we’re not doing this life alone, that divine love is holding us as surely as the ground beneath our feet. We look forward to new experiences, new places, new reserves of courage on tap.

I don’t want to be painting our lives too glibly here. If I were writing this on a day when our bank account was drip-drying, for instance, or when bureaucracy had us in a stranglehold, I would tell you how I sometimes petition the universe for boredom—just a little predictability, just enough of a nice stable rut for me to catch my breath. I know the truth though: living greatly means risking greatly. And the question I’m left with on this side of our weekend is… Could I live with myself if I didn’t let my girls experience this for themselves?

Unknown archway

Your turn! How do you cultivate a sense of adventure in your children? How much independence do you think is appropriate? Do you have any tips for parents like me who can’t help imagining sinkholes and trolls under the playground slide? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

30May

Django, Djesus, and PreDjudice

Last night was an accidental movie night. By this, I mean that Dan brought in his laptop and tablet and an impressive tangle of cables and I brought in my ironing board and iron and an impressive pile of shirts, and we sat down on the sofa to sip a drink before getting on with our evening’s work and forgot to get up until three hours later when the closing credits of Django Unchained rolled on.

Now, I’m a sucker for a good Tarantino film (our last accidental movie night can be blamed on Grindhouse being aired in English on Italian TV; how were we supposed to pass up that bit of magic, I ask?), and Django was every bit the ride from subtly intriguing to laughably outrageous that we expected. Still, I sat heavily on the sofa cushions when it was over, feeling like the breath had been knocked out of me.

It’s the subject of slavery, see. I’ve read plenty of books and seen even more films about it, but at a certain point, I just can’t maintain my protective distance any more. The tragedy of humans buying and selling other humans, stripping them of rights, and abusing them as they would never mistreat their in-animate property seeps into my lungs and steals the breath right out of them. If this were an isolated blot on the timetables of history, I could look at it more objectively, but the fact is that we humans, when given the power and the cultural approval to do so, willingly abandon our humanity.

I was born and raised in one of the original Confederate states, and while pushback against the Civil Rights Movement had pretty much dissipated by the time I came along, racism was—is—still alive and well in the South. Today’s racism doesn’t have the theatrical stamp of white hoods or riot gear; rather, it’s a stream of superiority running so silently through the community’s perspective that we don’t even realize it’s there. We don’t identify what’s really going on when we describe the black family across the street as “uppity” for driving a shiny SUV and the black family two doors down as “freeloaders” for relying on Medicaid. We don’t realize how frequently we use race to explain why something is distasteful to us—“Oh, you know, Mexicans and yard care…”—or how our assumptions about others’ income, education, personality, and reliability are fueled by prejudice.

I realize that this is a deep, complex issue that can’t just be laid out and then neatly wrapped up by a middle-class white girl with a blog. I have no love for debate and no desire to shame the people I grew up with over a bigger cultural issue. That said, one glaring realization stands out to me in the emotional aftermath of Accidental Django Night: The reason that traditional slavery no longer exists in the United States is not that we’re a more enlightened species now; it’s that brave people over the last two centuries fought and sacrificed and took unpopular stands and often risked everything to get one human right after another passed into law. 

Even worse, we’re still not there, still not to the place where all people are granted equality regardless of skin color or income level or sexual orientation or religious conviction. Straight, wealthy white Christians (of which I am one, I know) still control almost all legal and educational decisions for the country. Human traffickers still sell and trade lives within American borders. Hate is still harnessed everywhere from courtrooms to first-grade classrooms, and it makes me wish sometimes that I could just shrug off this broken human condition like an ill-fitting coat. I don’t want this bloodline of oppression and exploitation any longer.

In the end, though, this is a fundamental part of my faith. I have problems with many, many tenets of mainstream Christianity, but the concept of depravity is not hard for me to swallow. It’s only too obvious throughout the pages of history books and newspapers that humans, left to their own devices, turn into monsters. It is also obvious to me that without a higher power inspiring and nudging us along, we have little reason to fight our shitty inclinations. While I don’t believe that this higher power is limited to the straight, wealthy, white Christian God often portrayed by pastors of the same demographic, I do believe in a God who helps us rise above our natures. We supply the self-awareness and humility, [s]he supplies the soul-therapy.

Jesus talked extensively about the realm of heaven here on earth, heaven’s subjects administering healing and kindness and justice and grace, and I love that idea of operating within humanity as a citizen of something beyond. The flawed thinking behind travesties like the Crusades and Westboro Baptist Church is that our mission as Jesus-followers is to overcome others when in truth, our mission is to overcome ourselves—to ascend beyond our cruel and self-preserving instincts into the upside-down beauty of regarding each other as more important.

Granted, this mission more closely resembles salmon flopping up waterfalls than it does the calm spiritual levitation that last sentence might have implied. It’s exhausting, frustrating, and teeth-grittingly hard work not being an asshole (can I get an amen?), and considering how assholery begets assholery, there’s plenty of two-waterfalls-forward, one-waterfall-back action among those of us who interact with other humans. Still, overcoming my biological dark side is worth the manic fish routine to me. I’m willing to continue trying, continue aspiring to a perspective based on love because I believe with all my heart that it can change the world.

It might not be the reaction Tarantino was going for, but there you have it.

7May

Respectfully, No

We’ve always known that one of the biggest challenges of raising our children here in Italy would be religion. Here, Roman Catholicism is so entwined with the Italian culture that it’s practically a genetic trait. Everyone identifies as Catholic—even our irreligious friends who only darken God’s doorstep for Christmas Mass, even our grumpy old neighbor who thinks the Pope is a fraud, even the famously corrupt Berlusconi. But we don’t.

I suppose we’d consider ourselves non-denominational Protestants, which comes across as inoffensive (if annoyingly non-committal) in English. However, the term in Italian is evangelici, and the Vatican has repeatedly warned against the divisive strategies of Evangelical “sects.” With that one word, we’re painted as part of a subversive and politically sponsored movement deployed to steal ground from Catholicism, so we’ve learned to anticipate the awkward moments when new friends try to decide whether we’re cultish insurrectionists or just weird Americans.

Fortunately, Italians are as warm and welcoming as their food, and my heart swells a few sizes in appreciation for this culture every time someone initiates another respectful, curiosity-driven conversation about our differing beliefs. Those conversations are treasures for me, both because respect is such a commodity in these days of online mud-slinging and because I really do want to know more about what my friends believe, what fuels their spiritual journeys, what makes their souls tick. I’ve written before about laying down my own prejudices against Catholics, and I’m honored that they do the same for me. Friendship through diversity—it’s a glimpse of heaven on earth.

But I’ve also written before about my discomfort with religion being taught in the Italian public schools, and the older our girls get, the harder it is for me to navigate this cultural divide with confidence and grace. By law, we have the right to opt out of religion hour, and we do… though with some misgivings (especially because Natalie is sent to sit at the back of another class during that hour, which counts as illegal discrimination). One of the other mamas told me that the class teaches completely objective universal truths, and the slight sharpness underpinning her voice made me think that maybe we are being ridiculous, that maybe we’re sadly overprotective parents who are raising our girls to mistrust authority and fear differences of opinion. The religion teacher for Natalie’s class has been trying to convince us as well, assuring Natalie that the only thing they’re teaching this year is friendship.

Natalie spoke very carefully when she told me about this, using the same humble and slightly tremulous tone that poor little Willy Wonka used when he suggested to his tyrannical dentist father that maybe he wasn’t allergic to chocolate? maybe he could try a piece?

Maybe it would be okay to stay in the class because it’s about friendship? And we believe in friendship? And I don’t even have to listen? I could just be in the room?

Dan and I talked it over for a long time last night, knowing all too well that our daughters’ hearts will be affected in one way or another by our decision. We didn’t take it lightly. Though we both agreed that there is no way the religion class is objective (I mean, really), I thought that perhaps she could be. Natalie is thoughtful and intelligent, and even at eight years old, she might already have what it takes to filter various religious teachings through the lens of objectivity. Besides, we don’t want to force the girls into the molds of our belief system; we talk to them about what we believe of course, but we want their faiths to be personal and organic and informed. Maybe the class could be a good thing.

However, there is still the issue that religion is being taught as an academic subject. I agreed with Dan that second grade is too early to expect a child to differentiate between the universal truths of multiplication and spelling and the controversial gray areas of spirituality when they’re all being taught in the same format, graded in the same red pen. We would be putting our sweet eight-year-old in the position of either doubting her teachers or doubting her parents. I don’t want her to have to do either. I don’t want religion to be an issue at school. I don’t want to make my children question the whole academic construct, nor do I want to force them to take a stand for my beliefs.

Maybe we were just blowing everything out of proportion. Maybe if we stopped worrying and just let the girls attend religion class like all the other kids, everything would turn out fine. Maybe…

But then Dan brought up the one comparison I hadn’t considered—Sunday School at a fundamentalist Christian church. Would I let my children attend an hour a week of patriarchal teachings and expect that they could maintain perfect objectivity? Would I trust that doctrines of hell and atonement and salvation that I categorically disagree with would simply float past the viewing windows of my daughters’ minds and then dissipate? Would I really, honestly believe that my little open-eared girls could be taught dogma without any of it taking root?

No. Nonononononono. I wouldn’t even take the chance. And even though my experience with fundamentalist Christianity makes me think it is so much more potentially damaging than any other religion, and even though I respect my Catholic friends and don’t feel I’m in any position to call their beliefs harmful, I can’t simply decide that my girls will be vulnerable in one religious classroom but not in another. I can’t pretend that conflicting descriptions of God will affect them in one setting but not in another. Either my eight-year-old is already strong enough to hear all religious perspectives with curious detachment, or we should still be guarding her spiritual merge lane as best we can.

The Sunday School example settled the question for me. In future years, we probably will let the girls decide whether or not to attend religion class, but second grade is too soon for us. We had a family conversation about it over breakfast this morning, Natalie obviously disappointed and me feeling like Sauron himself but our hearts on the same page. Dan and I explained to the girls that our family believes some things differently than their classmates’ families do and that that’s okay—we’re all trying to follow God and do good and love each other well—but that we’d prefer them not to learn religion at school for now. I’m not sure the reasoning made sense to them, but both girls accepted the decision; we spent the rest of breakfast talking about saints and songs and the different things people believe, holding tight as a family to the value of respect—both for others’ beliefs and for the sacred spaces of our own hearts.


Photo: Basilica Papale di San Francesco in Assisi

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