Tag: Freedom


Conservative Hippyism

Dan turned on Audio Adrenaline this afternoon just especially to annoy me as I finished cooking lunch because he loves me so.

Remember this?

I used to like them because even though they were Christian (a requisite for my mid-‘90s music collection), the long-haired bass guitarist used to paint his nails. SUCH A REBEL. Anyway, I hadn’t listened to them in 150 years or so, and some of their lyrics startled me today:
“You can take God out of my school
You can make me listen to you
You can take God out of the pledge
But you can’t take God out of my head.”

I was still brainwashed a good conservative Baptist girl when the issue of prayer in public schools stirred up tremendous controversy in the church. I earnestly believed what I was told: that you would be arrested for having a Bible in your backpack or praying at your desk. Of course that was simple misinformation, spread in hysteria by panicked churchgoers. (If any of you are interested in the actual details of Supreme Court rulings, here ya go.) It never has been and probably never will be illegal to pray in schools; it just isn’t legal to force everyone else to participate. (I am so tempted to go ask the hysterical doomsayers of my childhood how they would have reacted if it had been Muslim prayer or Native American rituals or Wiccan chants being banned… but I guess that is just the heathen in me.)

The subject launched Dan and I into one of those long coffee-fueled conversations that remind us how glad we are to be on the same page. (He calls us “conservative hippies,” a fabulous description for two people feeling out the balance between standards and open mindedness.) We’re coming into that delicate stage of parenting where our preschooler absorbs every word she hears and works it into her own context of the world, and I desperately want to protect her from all the damaging teachings I grew up with. For Dan, who grew up in a different (and more, uh, functional) culture, the challenge is in noticing all the subtle hints of religious dogma that pop up.

For instance, I was reading a new picture book to Natalie today—a gift from relatives who no doubt found the story wholesome. However, I almost threw it away when we got to the page when the spoiled little mice realize how ungrateful they’ve been and start to cry. “I’m so dreadfully ashamed of myself,” sobs the girl mouse, who had refused to eat her parsnips on page 6. Wham. One little sentence packing a life-long punch of obligatory guilt. I know it all too well. (I decided not to make a big deal out of it at the time and finished the story—Natalie has a few years yet before she needs to learn about the religious-cultural doctrine of shame—but that book is never going back on her shelf.)

Dan reminded how much of this idea of making oneself miserable to be moral comes from ancient Jewish culture, and later, Roman Catholicism. (It’s not, by the way, from the Bible. In fact, Paul wrote a lengthy letter directly to the Romans explaining that forgiveness was God’s job, not theirs, and was free, free, free, free, and did he mention free?) It’s incredible to me that shame, a monumentally damaging emotion, is held up as a hallmark of holiness in so many circles.

I’m still unsure how to cultivate the spiritual side of my daughters in a way that will be relevant to them now. I can guarantee I will never be hammering the concept of obedience into their heads as the path to preschool Godliness. (We do teach them to obey us, by the way, just not in the vein of “morality is the point of life, now clean your room.”) Neither will shame or deeply burrowing regret ever be sensations we teach them. We’ll let them read the Bible in time, once they are able to process context and applicability, but there will be no gruesome history lessons for now. (Do you know how many Noah’s Ark-themed gifts I’ve had to throw away? I would like to punch whoever keeps insisting that the story of worldwide homicide and destruction is good for kids just because some animals were involved. And Jesus’s horrific torture, murder, and abandonment by God? They deeply traumatized me as a young child, and I am not willing to put my girls through that at such sensitive ages, no matter how foundational the story is to our faith.)

That only leaves the question of what do we teach them now? I still find myself a bit undone spiritually, decades of righteous BS unraveling while my true un-churchy beliefs begin to form. I feel bad that the girls are not benefitting from a mother who has her own convictions figured out like the mothers of my past all did (or pretended to), but perhaps my honesty in the matter will be enough. Maybe my lack of pretensions can accomplish what severe doctrine failed to do for me: inspire their spirituality to grow and breathe and seek out the truth with confidence.


Loose Woman

Ballet is a foreign galaxy the first day. Everything is wildly unfamiliar—the sharp odor of sweat on metal as clammy hands grip the barre, the buttery resistance of Marley floors beneath scuffing feet. Your ballet slippers are far from pretty, at least up close. They are the color of nausea, scrunched up with too-tight elastic, and the suede soles feel misplaced. You point, you flex, you wobble on tip-toe. These are not your feet.

The first exercise, the plié, sounds like a joke: Bend your knees, straighten, repeat. If this is ballet, you’ll be dancing Swan Lake in no time, floating across the stage in your tutu and natural bendy-kneed ability. But of course it’s not that easy. Your dance teacher is suddenly a drill sergeant, and you are smacking straight into the many hurdles of gracefulness. Shoulders back. Hips tucked. Chin high. Spine stretched. Head tilted. Arms curved. Neck straight. Legs turned out. Stomach pulled in. Breathe small, straight up and down, up and down. Never let your diaphragm move. Tighten, tighten, tighten, tighten, tighten.

At first, you feel claustrophobic inside your own muscles as they contort into new positions. Your brain is locked in a grimace, trying to convert unfamiliar French terms into movement into some semblance of beauty, and you feel exactly like a duck. But after awhile (maybe months, probably years), your body adapts. Your feet expect the pressure of elastic and blister tape. Your rib cage compresses obediently, your head tilts the right direction by instinct. You turn out, tuck under, stretch up, suck in, and learn how to survive on stringent tastes of air.

When I was ten years old, I placed second in a mile-long running race against thirteen-year-olds. I ran in my Keds (remember those?) and was hardly winded at the end. When I was thirteen, I participated in the same race again—this time with running shoes and a title to uphold—but gave up halfway through. The stitch in my side was so bad that it took me a good thirty minutes to limp back. When I was fifteen, I quit ballet after realizing I didn’t want to do pas de bourrées for the rest of my life, but my body was already trained to be a tight, leggy ribbon, and so it has stayed.

Two years ago, after weeks of lunchtime workouts, I was able to complete five minutes on the elliptical machine. I had worked hard to make it that far, but I couldn’t celebrate. I just looked around at the college girls in their hot pink sweat pants, their round butts emblazoned with “sexy” and “angel” in glitter, breezing through their second hour of aerobics. Why was I such a wimp after years of intense physical training? Needleholes of painful light pricked against my eyelids, my forehead burned, and I resigned to becoming a couch potato forever.

I’ve moved far away from the galaxy of ballerinas. Their lipsticked self-control, their masquerade of effortless grace no longer apply to me. But as I’ve moved farther down the path of joy and spontaneity and chocolate cake and yoga, I’ve started realizing how starved I am for breath. All these years, I’ve been sucking in my stomach instead of air. I’ve lost my ability to run; I don’t know how to relax.

So I’m relearning how to breathe these days. I rest my hand on my diaphragm and will it to move, to draw in air instead of blocking it out. I relax my way through the sputtering of unused muscles, the pain of fresh oxygen in dusty passages of my lungs. I loosen and loosen and loosen and loosen, and my gray barnacled control begins to chip away. I want to run again, and I think, If I can be a real, live person who can love, adapt, and dream in Technicolor without air, just think what this life will be once I learn how to breathe…

Just think!


Eat Me, Uncle Moneybags

Growing up, I learned to hate the song “Count Your Blessings.” (Please tell me some of you are old-fashioned enough to know it too?)

Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will be singing as the days go by.
(Lyrics by Johnson Oatman, a 19th century preacher who probably got beat up a lot as a kid)

No matter how many times I sang it, its birthday wish mantra never worked. The magic elixir of contrived thankfulness turned stale when I swallowed it, and nothing ever got better as a result.

Dan and I lay awake in bed far, far too late last night talking (a bad habit that’s always been too delightful to shake) about the life we could be living right now had we just accepted it. We wandered through shadowy conjectures of a big suburban house and a six-figure salary. Bulging pockets. Unlimited comfort. Dollar signs popping out of our eyes just like in cartoons. We have been so tempted some days to quit our grad-schooling, world-traveling teetertotter life and grab the easy one dangling very much within reach.

But no matter how beautiful the bait looks, we know we are happiest as free fish with the whole ocean to play in. We need adventure, he and I, even if it sometimes looks like instability. Money matters so much less to us than experience… though, admittedly, a lot of experiences are easier to come by with a fat wallet.

I’ve been skulking on the outskirts of panic lately, and it helps to keep all of this in mind. It is so easy to feel lost in a new culture, especially with talk of moving to a different city soon. Especially with quickly growing babies and quickly disappearing time. Especially with the kind of urgent, helpless inspiration my brain manufactures without warning. Especially when unexpected expenses converge like thunderheads over water and more water, no dry land in sight. It’s the price of diving headlong into the ocean.

So I beat myself over the head with logic and lecture myself with my own beliefs. Keep everything in perspective… and This will all be worth it some day… But for all the mental haranguing I do to keep myself on track, the only thing that truly brings me out of dark moods is thankfulness—spontaneous and unplannable. It happened today when the girls woke up from their naps together with that gorgeous, sleepy glow of afternoon dreams. I looked at their faces, and simple as that, I was floating. To be able to know these vibrant little people, to be able to kiss their cheeks and read them bedtime stories and add beauty to their eternal souls was like a living in a sudden song. Unexplainable joy.

That’s how thankfulness got me out of our tightly-walled house and into the sunshine today. The girls and I had to go out for a necessary purchase—strawberry gelato with two spoons—and a playground date. We really had no choice but to have a perfect, panic-free evening once I realized how ridiculously, extravagantly rich we are together.

At the park - Natalie

Of course, later came a particularly fussy bathtime and dirty dishes and the dull thud of reality and the fear that everything good about my day was horribly cliché…

But if sunwarmed giggles with these two and overwhelming lightheartedness become cliché for me, I will have more to appreciate than Uncle Moneybags or even Johnson Oatman himself could ever count.

At the park - Sophie


By the way, and on a completely different topic, I wish everyone in the world could get a chance to read this.


Shouting in a Meadow

Writing publicly about religion makes me cringe. And hit delete buttons. And back s-l-o-w-l-y away from the computer as if the Inquisition itself were making a digital comeback with online dudgeons and high resolution torture devices and glinty-eyed execution-bloggers.

So I can be a tad dramatic. However, I’m starting to realize how much I still censor my thoughts to stay away from explosive topics like U.S. economy and home schooling and Ashlee Simpson and, of course, religion. I know that whatever my thoughts on the subject, I am sure to offend someone, and the prospect makes my insides wilt.

The thing is, though–I still don’t really know my thoughts on religion. I wrote a while back about the immense loneliness and confusion of finding I don’t like God. Now that I’ve had some time to marinate in that concept, I realize that what I actually dislike is my view of him. The portrait of God in my head is painted primarily in crap, and I was exhausted of sifting through it for the occasional fleck of real color.

Back in January, I indulged my inner heathen and scribbled the following during church (because that’s how I roll, yo), but didn’t show it the light of day for fear of Inquisition, etc. Now, though, I find it incredibly important:

 I can’t hide nearly as well in a tiny church. In this child-sized room, loosely populated by friends and hardly anyone else, I find I’ve lost my invisibility. I can’t fade comfortably into the woodwork. I can’t ignore the voice of reality in my head: “You’re a fraud, you’re a fraud, you’re a fraud”–sing-song, like those infuriatingly perfect Disney princesses.

I feel so out of place sitting in church with my overflowing suitcases of questions. Baggage doesn’t belong here. I don’t belong here. I know where I want to be though: an enormous open meadow, fiercely guarded on all sides by mountains, muffled by waterfalls and wind and the complete absence of other humans. I would SHOUT! my questions, all of them, as loudly as my lungs would let me. And God would be right there. He would answer and put my heart back in place and be real to me again.

Where am I supposed to find God in my claustrophobic world where life is whatever fits between walls and ceilings and floors? My questions are too big for home, for church. They are certainly too big for other people, and I’m floundering under the belief that they’re too big for me.

And then I filled pages with those questions–deep, aching ones that I had to rip out and lay bleeding on the paper.

Since then, not a single question has been answered. However, I’ve been able to step back and see the dung-smeared portrait and survey the multitudes* of people with their widely differing ideas that they call “doctrine” and “truth” even though they’re really just interpretations.

When I first read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian several years ago, I remember feeling like a huge weight was lifted–that weight being the dogmatic rightness of traditional American churches. McLaren proposed that the church’s tactics were outdated and irrelevant to today’s people. Duh, I know. But it was a revolutionary idea to me at the time, and I lost approximately 300 pounds the moment I accepted that church was not the same thing as religion.

Then I read Donald Miller and John & Stasi Eldredge and Eugene Peterson and went down 15 emotional dress sizes and started smiling when I thought about Christianity… the real thing, not the big-haired pastor kind. But I still have a LOT of pre-conceptions to sort through. I mean, I was practically brainwashed into a certain brand of religion as a kid, and it’s not easy figuring out which of those teachings–if any–have merit.

(Note: Here comes the part with the cringing and the wilting and the slowly dislocating of very important limbs on an html rack.)

Maybe this is common knowledge to most people, but I was in college before I learned that the Bible–militantly defended as a sacred text–is just a compendium of stories and letters and historical records compiled by various groups of men, copied, lost, translated, retranslated, reretranslated, and printed off for people to make of it what they will. The Bible covers thousands of years and many different cultures, yet religious leaders pull out certain lines and call them “precepts.” Mennonites with head coverings? Christians who won’t eat pork? Churches that don’t allow female teachers? All bits and pieces pulled from ancient cultural laws and applied to now.

I’m not saying the Bible isn’t important, though its history does raise a lot of difficult questions for me. I just wonder when church-goers stopped reading the book of Matthew: “You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do.”(23:8-10, The Message) Self-proclaimed religious experts threaten dire consequences for veering from their explanations of “truth.” They warn against any spiritual search outside of the Bible (just mention yoga to a group of Southern Baptists, and watch the paranoia about “New Age” practices; seriously, you’d think yoga involved slaughtering kittens at midnight over a bubbling cauldron of fermented demon juice). They loudly condemn people with different beliefs to a future more horrifying than death. They set up a hierarchy of sins (homosexuality! abortion!) and prescribe rituals for holding onto salvation (morning devotionals! prayer before meals!).

I feel the wind knocked out of me just typing this paltry list. The aggressive application of “doctrine” does nothing to alleviate my soul-thirst. What does refresh me is art. Creativity. Beautiful movies, beautiful music, beautiful books. The great outdoors. Talking to people with giant hearts. Random acts of kindness. Intimate discussions with small groups of friends. Quiet. Sometimes the deliberate peace of Buddhism, sometimes the grandeur of Catholicism, sometimes the passionate worship of Pentacostals, but usually no organized religion at all.

Sometime, I hope to be able to add the Bible to the list of things that fulfill me spiritually. I just need to get further away from the cultural classification of God so I can read each “book” as it was meant to be read at the time and take my own truth from the words.

I just deleted that last line and retyped it a thousand times, by the way, because I’m a scaredy-pants. I know the pastors of my childhood would accuse me of “relativity” and “denying the truth,” and my pants are most definitely scared. But I’m trying to stay real and honest because those rusty hinges in my head are creaking open, and I want others to see the wide, untamed meadows beyond the gates of traditional Christianity–meadows with room for dancing wind and wildflowers and the hard
est questions coiled inside.

* Bonus point for using a Biblical term!!

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