Tag: Freedom

20Feb

Zumba vs. Shame

(My five-year-old, author and perfecter of the gratuitous shimmy.)

It happened the moment I saw her—somebody’s petite grandmamà, her hair precision-curled into ringlets and her tank top neatly pressed, shaking her booty without inhibition or anything close to synchronization with the sweaty salsa tune thumping over the speakers. I watched her through the studio window for no more than two seconds before the joy of her giddy soul-groove accomplished what months of considering and researching and YouTube tutorial browsing had been unable to give me: a transfusion of fearlessness.

At the start of the very next Zumba class, I was there, on the other side of the glass this time, shaking in my Reeboks and wondering how many seconds I had left with my dignity before it fled the premises in shame.

See, this white girl can’t dance. I took classical ballet for seven years, during which I heard constant variations on “You’re too uptight!” That’s right. Too uptight for ballet, which is pretty much like being too smart for Mensa or too brave for Red Bull space-jumping. My brief encounter with a hip-hop choreographer made her cry. I have rhythm, sure, but it’s the kind that leads to careers in metronome programming and dictatorship, not to truth-telling Shakira hips.

It goes deeper than that too. My shocking inability to get a groove on has every last one of its roots coiled around a philosophy of body image that I would like to call The Shamemonger.

You’re not going to hear the word “shame” directly from The Shamemonger’s lips unless she’s reading from the King James Bible. No, you’re much more likely to hear the terms “modesty” and “purity” and “stumbling block” and “inciting lust,” each one spoken with a pulpit-wagging finger. You will never hear her directly instruct you to hate your body, but she will urge you with every persuasive tool in her arsenal to hide it and repress it and blame it. The Shamemonger markets to females alone, teaching us from as early an age as possible that our bodies are corruptors. If our shapes or our movements or the very skin on our bones attract notice, we have instigated sexual sin, and the responsibility for that sin rests on our souls.

The result is that young girls under The Shamemonger’s tutelage grow up, as I did, with all of that weight pushing back against our natural development. We hunch over to smudge our silhouettes. We mechanize our walking patterns and restrict the confident flair out of our movements. We view all men as weak-minded and predatory and sexuality as a dangerous, shameful thing to possess. We hate our bodies like we hate nothing else on God’s green earth and then wonder why marital intimacy is such a struggle.

God have mercy. Like Brené Brown pointed out in her TED Talk last year, guilt is understanding that you have made a mistake while shame is believing that you are a mistake, and the philosophy I grew up with falls squarely into the latter category. The idea that my body is inherently bad leaves no room for resolution or redemption; the only possible outcome is self-loathing… Unless, of course, I decide that The Shamemonger has it all wrong—that her lens of fear and insecurity have warped the truth of our bodies’ precious value into something unrecognizable and grotesque and wrong as wrong can be—and decide to start pushing back.

Enter Zumba.

The music starts, and it’s like thunder. It’s like sassy, syncopated thunder, and gravity jumps out of its way as it rolls through the room. The instructor is already Merengue-marching, and my feet join in even though I don’t know the first thing about Merengue, even though I won’t know it’s called Merengue until I look up the moves at home. It can’t be helped; the rhythm has me now.

The dance studio is packed to the gills, its walls expanding with each collective breath just to contain our energy. At least a hundred pairs of hips are scooping figure-eights out of the air, and we’re so far beyond personal space restraints, so thoroughly inside each other’s orbits that I’m able to catch the stocky middle-aged mom next to me singing under her breath, “I’m sexy an’ I know it.” This makes me happy in a way that can only be expressed through a gratuitous shimmy.

Every single shape, size, color, and age group is represented in the room, from the 70-year-old gentleman wobbling to the beat to the group of third-graders in karate uniforms bouncing along on the other side of the glass, and everyone is grinning and sweating and cheering and grooving, and it’s a little bit of heaven right here in the gym. Propriety? Well, it went packing when gravity did, but dignity is in its element here.

And that’s the thing—there is no shame in this room, no time for self-consciousness, no room for criticism. We are dancing in unabashed celebration of these strong and strange and uniquely wonderful bodies we were born with, and is dignity anything less than this very recognition of our worth?

I know what The Shamemonger would say about Zumba—if she were able to articulate much of anything through compulsive gasps of horror, that is—but I don’t care to challenge her on it. She’s held my focus for too many years as it is. True, her lens of fear and insecurity isn’t going to dissolve from my vision overnight any more than I’m going to become the newest salsa superstar, but these twice-weekly forays into sweat and joy and fearlessness are pushing back more powerfully than any other argument I could make.

8Feb

What I Know to be True

The sky shifts and stretches, and sunlight spills through the elongated gaps. It’s still too hazy to see the mountains, but light is reflecting off a hundred smoking chimneys and dancing on a million silvered olive leaves, and I think I might take my coffee—a regrettable but necessary second cup—out into the joy of it. I make it nearly two steps onto the balcony before my Texas bones start shaking in protest. Sunny or not, this is still the crux of winter, and I in my morning zombie trance am no match for the cold.* I retreat to the kitchen table, backhand a swath of crumbs out of my way, and sigh long and deep.

* Disclaimer: I realize that my calling a sunny Mediterranean winter “cold” is causing some of you to smash your heads repeatedly into your desks right now. I apologize for any resulting trauma and invite you to come sunbathe on our balcony at your convenience.

I’m in so many mental ruts right now, ruts within ruts, that it’s hard to distinguish which one is suddenly closing the walls of our kitchen around me. My eyes wince across the trail of soup pots and mixing bowls waiting to be washed. In the next room, laundry is draped over radiators to dry; another load sloshes in the washer, and my lungs feel like they’re wrapped in damp socks. Chores multiply like rabbits around here in the winter, and beating them off with a broom could be my full-time job. I wonder if it is. Last week while reading a picture dictionary to Sophie, I asked her if she knew any janitors, and she answered brightly, “Yes, you!” And yet our floors still feel like syrup and sand and one has to use parkour to navigate the guest room and mealtimes feel like punishment.

This is a doozy of a rut, this resentment of my domestic life and its endless repetitions of damage control. Home should feel like sanctuary, so I try to distract myself from the messes spawning like video game villains across my universe. However, distraction turns out to be its own form of rut; my mind wanders and flits until I realize with a jolt that I haven’t felt my own soul’s pulse in weeks.

I should have picked up on it earlier, the very minute that the dust congregating on our windowsills became a universe to me. Even as I say that though, I recognize that I have no easy answers for how to push back at the shinkwrap, how to keep filling my lungs with the air of a wide wide world while the four walls of our house clamor so loudly and the cold seals them shut.

Yesterday, I read a bit from two women whose words light fires inside of me, and for those ten minutes, my heart remembered how to move again. It pumped away my zombie fog and stretched out, out, beyond our sleepy Italian valley and the mountains standing guard, out across oceans, out past the stars. My universe expanded to make room for eternity, and the only thing I could ask beyond that is the strength to hold onto it more than ten minutes at a time.

I’m writing now from the bittersweet place of awareness without answers, trapped in a rut with eyes full of stars. I know who I am—the true me, the eyes-wide-open me who isn’t afraid her life’s work will boil down to laundry—but I’ve never worked out just how to keep those fires lit. One of Shame’s favorite adjectives for me is “selfish,” and I hear it now in the clacking of the keys while the soup pots go unwashed. I hear it in the turning pages of a book and in the stillness of attempted meditation, in any pursuit of my own personal peace. The clock becomes a rushing sound in my ears, and I scramble to get back to the duties that pile around my vision like blinders.

Or… I write, because Shame is not going to stop advancing any sooner than the laundry pile is, and if I’m willing to hinge my worth on damage control, why not start with the soul-damage? Why not battle to climb out of the rut instead of battling to keep it mess-free?

This isn’t just a rhetorical question; I know the answer, and the answer is Shame itself. Shame is the bully pinning us down while taunting, “Why don’t you just get up?” Shame is the dictator citing himself as the source of truth. Shame is the fear profiteer. Shame is what makes us feel unworthy to fight the burden of unworthiness, and how do you pull yourself up from that if not by looking the bully square in the eye, saying his name out loud—S C R E A M I N G it if necessary!—and informing him that he no longer calls the shots?

Here is what I know to be true:

  1. No one will die if the dishes go unwashed until tomorrow (although I reserve the right to boycott the kitchen in the meantime). Repeat: No one will die.
  2. My soul will die, slow and purpling like frostbite, if I don’t allow her the unhurried time she needs to connect with God, refresh her focus, and do what her heart is nudging her to do.
  3. Sometimes that will mean half an hour; sometimes it will mean the entire day.
  4. That is not selfish.
  5. It’s not selfish because a whole and peaceful me brings direct good to the world around me, even the little one within our walls, while a resentful and distracted me spreads negativity.
  6. It is much easier to keep eternity in my perspective when I’m prioritizing the eternal things—soul-ties, relationships, art, justice, kindness—and letting Mount Laundry take whatever energy I have left over. Not the other way around.
  7. Shame has no redeeming characteristics. Not a one. I will gain nothing by listening to it, ever. That voice sneering at me that I’m selfish and worthless and a big fat failure? deserves no acknowledgement other than a big fat ass-kicking.
  8. Shame might masquerade as a bully or a dictator, but I can always recognize Truth; it’s the one shifting and stretching my mind, spilling light through the elongated cracks, lighting fires, imparting courage.

~~~

What do you know to be true despite Shame telling you otherwise? 

17Jan

Lightening

I’m startled by my own weight when the alarm rings and dragging myself up through gravity feels like dueling a rip tide. This isn’t the kind of heaviness that spins the needle on our bathroom scale, though I’m surprised it doesn’t; it feels so tangible, a lead apron clinging to my bones.

I don’t need a scale to tell me I’m off the chart in soul-kilos though. I recognize the heft of each and every piece in this baggage set—

fear of who might be lurking on the other side of a shadow

anxiety over a future that refuses to be planned

disoriented terror that flits from potential disaster to potential catastrophe

every opinion formed about me that I’ve accepted as my identity

every opinion I’ve formed of others that reflects more on myself

dependence on a houseful of breakable, stealable things

my list of wants and the moving target at the end

this worry I carry around like a custom-fitted brick around my heart

stress, stress, stress

and my arch-frenemy, the compulsion to Fit In

They’ve traveled with me into the new year, and here I am, startled by my own weight when I try to lift myself out of bed, up from the table, off the sofa. It’s too much, it’s all too much, and the truth I’m trying to lift my head enough to see is that not a piece in the set is mine to lug around.

I’ve been wrestling with my “one wild and precious life” more than usual lately, and some Big Thoughts are coming to the surface, some surprising twists of perspective that I need to spelunk properly before I share. If I’m a little quieter than usual, that is why; spelunking is a mysterious and silent art, after all. I do know this though—each step back to take in a new angle is a step closer to returning a lighter woman than before.

28Nov

Grace as: Permission to Celebrate

 [Photo: circa 2009
Nisse hats: Danish, via the whimsical Rachelle Mee-Chapman
Sophie’s pantslessness: Her idea]

I’ve never set foot inside a church that seemed entirely comfortable with Christmas. Their relationship always strikes me as more of an uneasy truce, one side agreeing to adopt a festival with pagan origins, the other agreeing to be picked apart at Bible studies and put back together as a subdued and thoroughly de-Santafied version of itself. A sermon on “the true meaning of Christmas” is usually a given, though even the pastor starts to squirm when it comes to discussing practical applications. It’s easy enough to condemn materialism from the pulpit, but few clergy are willing to look into the eyes of their congregants’ children and denounce Christmas gifts as evil.

Not to say that doesn’t happen too. Our family didn’t celebrate Christmas for years, and I still have Christian friends who see the tradition as unjustifiable. After all, Christmas isn’t in the Bible. Jesus’s birth? Yes. A bank holiday to commemorate it? No. For so many Christians I know, red and green are the team colors of GUILT, and even just enjoying a glass of eggnog can set their minds scrambling to find a moral, a Scripture reference, something to assure them Jesus would approve.

And I get it. I do. I am an over-thinker at heart and a religion-wrestler by birth, and I have grappled plenty of times with the web of cultures, histories, and traditions linking the Nativity to roast goose. To be honest, I have trouble enjoying anything if that enjoyment hasn’t been earned or justified or sanctioned by a higher power, and the holiday season is especially great at breeding angst. My fellow serious-hearted belief-wranglers? Consider this a virtual fist bump. (And to those of you whose hearts are naturally merry and light, feel free to commiserate—or whatever cheery thing it is that you do—with my husband and/or play him with cookies.)

I remember the day I let go of the Christmas debate though. Dan and I were at a Bible study, and the leader opened by asking how we thought consumerism fit with the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps because it was such a loaded question or perhaps because it was the tipping point at which a phrase like “the true meaning of Christmas” goes from annoying to nauseating, but I realized that I was done. Done trying to legitimize the joy I felt in picking out gifts for loved ones. Done hunting for Bible verses to sanctify the fun of putting up our imperfect little tree. Done vilifying Santa Claus and the Whos of Whoville and every cautiously cheerful cashier who wishes me “Happy Holidays!” Done debating, done nit-picking, done shouldering assumed guilt, done.

Here’s the thing—The Bible makes no mention of December 25th, but it does talk extensively about being part of our communities, taking an active and empathetic part in each other’s lives, extending love at every opportunity, and living with joy. It talks about opening our eyes to wonder and lavishing generosity. It tells us that the details of everyday life are made holy by the who and the how rather than the what (“TURNING THIS SHIT HOLY,” as Momastery puts it), and that a life lived in cahoots with God is spacious, expansive, and freeing. Paul calls it “The new country of grace.” I call it “Let’s get some rum in this eggnog already!”

All of those times I’d thought I was wrestling with my conscience, I had actually been wrestling with the restrictions and anxieties woven like a dark pattern through church tradition. That guilt was never mine to own because what I truly believe—what my soul and the divine glow in it whisper to me as truth—is that we were designed to love the liturgy of candlelight and cake. Whether you observe Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus, it doesn’t really matter, does it? There is so much joy wrapped up in the practices of giving and inviting and feasting, grateful remembrance and togetherness, and it is a gift straight to the core of my too-serious heart that I have God’s personal permission to celebrate.

~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via TwitterRSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

20Nov

Day In and Day Out

A few days ago, as I was rummaging around in the darkest corner of our fridge for the ginger, I found a granddaddy long-legs, its limbs pinched around itself like a claw. It was so unexpected and out of place—this arachnid death-tableau in the crisper drawer—but it struck me immediately as a totem, an image bearer for the memories that have been creeping around my consciousness on skeletal legs these last several days.

I’ve grown unaccustomed to bad memories, healed as I am by years of color and distance and impromptu dance parties. Yes, PTSD is a zombie escape artist who rears through the packed earth every so often to feast on my brains, but the breakouts have become rarer with time, and I simply wasn’t prepared to feel the past whisper-scraping up to me again.

It’s like this:

First, the sound of a lock turning from the inside; stealthy intentions grating against rust. I know what comes next, but I’m slow to react, seconds too late to stop the iron-plated door from sucking suddenly open. And there it is—a memory no longer pinched around itself but extending its claw legs, freezing me in a moment I once fought hard to escape. My perception of the world fractures, and I become the spectator and the victim at once. I relive all the helplessness I felt as a young girl in extreme emotional and physical pain, and then the helplessness of regret. I should have known it wasn’t right. I should have told someone. I should have fought, tooth and nail and voice and soul. Why didn’t I fight?

I know that letting myself get sucked back into that room only does me harm. There is no redemption in unanswerable questions, and their cobwebbed pain will cling to my skin for days after I leave. I do leave though, on the strength of repeat forgivenesses and the strain of personhood that runs deep enough to wake me from dreams. In this case, it wakes me to compassion, and I turn my anger from the child who didn’t know better, who had been taught wrong-as-right and don’t-tell-a-soul all her life. My anger turns away from my former abusers as well. They deserve my anger, certainly, but I’ve expended plenty on them in years past, and grace gives me room to breathe.

As my anger fades to the bigger picture—to religious despotism and church-sanctioned cruelty and this messed-up world where anything can be justified with enough jargon—my memory-cell fades from view, and I hear the door thud shut as if from underwater. There are other doors, of course. Perhaps tomorrow, or next week, or even an unguarded moment later today, I’ll hear the scratch of spinneret against doorjamb and scramble first to hold the past shut and then to escape it. This is the reality of life after trauma.

But there is also LIFE after trauma, a spacious world of possibility surrounding and surpassing moments of regression. In fact, that’s what I most wanted to put into writing today—that the very best way I’ve found to keep bad memories at bay is to invest myself in the present. Looking into my daughters’ eyes just to study their blue, to count the laugh lines ringing their irises… Folding the laundry with fingertips attuned to the interplay of threads, each filigreed whorl of cotton… Holding the bitter of coffee and the sweet of cane sugar on my tongue a few seconds longer… Pressing snooze to slide like a puzzle piece into the curve of my husband’s back, to soak in our collective warmth before the day… Turning the music loud in my earphones and feeling, with all my heart, the beauty of this unpredictable, compassion-won life I’m living.

21Sep

Finally Free[lance]

The thing about a season of wild change is that every new morning feels truly new. It’s like we’re starring in a coming-of-age movie about our own life (with a moving indie soundtrack hand-picked by Zach Braff, of course), and absolutely anything could happen just around the next scene change.

One of my school-mom friends told me the other day about her brother taking an incredible high-paying corporate job in the States ten years ago. He and his pregnant wife uprooted their lives here and moved to the US… just in time for September 11th. The corporation who hired him went under in the aftermath, and he and his wife suddenly found themselves income-less in a foreign country. (Oh how sinkingly familiar this sounds.) Instead of just snatching the first menial job he could find to get back on his feet, though, my friend’s brother took advantage of the upheaval and enrolled in a photography program with a small stipend. One decade later, he is doing what he truly loves instead of dashing to endless meetings in a company car. He and his wife are still living out their dream of raising their children in the States, and they’re doing well enough to spend summers vacationing in Italy.

Our situation is much nearer the beginning of that story than the end, but I couldn’t help nodding enthusiastically because we’re already seeing how unemployment is the best thing that could have happened to my husband. He is already set up as a freelancer and doing support work in a field that makes his brain light up with ideas, and he’s turning some of those ideas into the start-up he’s been dreaming of for years. Finances are a day-to-day tango right now, but there is always just enough, and it’s becoming ever easier to leave tomorrow in the future where it belongs.

Our coming-of-age movie probably looks like a surf documentary put on by the Jackass crew—our family clinging to a tidal wave of uncertainty for all we’re worth and hurtling toward anywhere—but I can personally confirm that it feels like liberation.

The red flag side
(Photo from the beach in Porto this summer.
More coming soon to a blog near you.)

30Jul

Breaking the Rules

I’m sitting halfway out of an open window, bare feet double-dipped in sunlight, espresso and milk on the rocks in my favorite mug. It’s just what I needed after a week of sulking weather and self-doubt. It’s also the first time in awhile I’ve been able to sit and corral all the little thought-bytes sifting around my soul, and seeing the bigger picture of what I’ve been processing piecemeal lately is its own kind of sunlight therapy.

Here’s the thing—

If traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible are true, then I am a better parent than God is (even when I’m grumpy).
The “good news” is just one facet of the worst news imaginable.
Free will is a test designed to fail.
There is no such thing as unconditional love.
The end justifies pretty much any means.
Jesus was a terrible evangelist.
It really is all up to me.

I have done enough mucking around in my soul over the last decade to say this with absolute certainty: If traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible are true, then I want nothing to do with God.

Nothing.

My philosophy professor in college taught that we are only motivated by a desire for truth, and I want to argue with him as strongly now as I did at my desk nine years ago. The idea that a God whose master plan involves eternal torture for most of humankind might really be truth is the thought that sends my spirituality into hiding the most quickly. If it’s true, then I’m damned anyway because I cannot—and would not, even if I could—love the orchestrator of infinite cruelty.

The spin on all of this is that I have felt God. I’ve looked miracles full in the face. I know the thrill of a nudged heart, the mystery of peace replacing panic, and the deep-rooted sparkle of love breaking rules, and the rule it’s breaking down right now is that I have to choose between my own conscience and truth… or at least other people’s version of truth.

Here in the sunlight, this statement doesn’t seem to carry the weight of all its sleepless nights and shadowed days, but I’ll say it anyway: I believe in God. This belief isn’t a thing I can dismiss any more than I can will away cloudy Julys or untannable skin or a questioning mind, but I’ve come to recognize it requires sacrifice on my part. I have to give up the notion that any of the seven translations of Bibles on our bookshelf is a perfect, untouched directive straight from divine lips. I have to let go of the mental hierarchy we make of religious leaders/teachers/authors with us laypersons on the rung marked “Irrelevant.” I have to say goodbye to my reputation as a good Christian and welcome labels like “heretic,” “apostate,” and “disturber of the peace.”

In essence, I have to give up the three things much of Christianity is built on—Bible worship, traditional teachings, and the appearance of holiness. I would never have imagined sacrifice for the sake of my beliefs looking like this. (Avoiding miniskirts and cigarettes? Well duh. Martyrdom? Sure. But voluntarily free-falling off the edge of orthodoxy? Uh… no.) However, if my path lies somewhere outside of traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible,
and if Jesus was a glimpse of the true God,
and if the heart-nudges I’ve felt are merely previews,
and if unconditional love matters, wins, is
then I’m willing to give up everything I’ve ever stood for—and then some—to find out where this belief will take me.

If I’m not mistaken, this is what they call faith.

 

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