Tag: Remembering

22Oct

Family Resemblance

The speaker this past Sunday morning came as close as anyone ever does in our quiet Italian-Brethren church to thundering from the pulpit. My ears, grown allergic over the decades to Preacher Voice, clamped down in a protective gesture around my mind so that I only caught snatches. Something about how the people sitting in the back were showing indifference to God. Something about the proper protocol for coming to meet with the King. Something about all those noisy children, the heads of households not taking enough control. 

I didn’t hear any more; I just saw. White, then red, then white again. The speaker’s words had flown direct as an arrow from his front-row domain to my pew in the family section at the back and pierced old wounds of mine with uncanny precision. I might have gotten up and walked out if that wouldn’t have seemed to reinforce his point. Besides, far too much attention was already being directed to the back, to We The Young Parents, to we the irrelevant and the irreverent. The last thing I wanted was additional scrutiny. I just wanted the Sunday morning spotlight to lose its fixation on me.

For a university writing class nearly ten years ago, I wrote a poem called Preacher’s Kid. I cringe now at how one-dimensional and bitter it comes across, but the creative exercise provided relief that I dearly needed at the time. In it, I strung together the many dos and don’ts that had dictated my childhood behavior at church. Clothing, facial expressions, speech, movements—every last detail of appearance was accounted for and regimented under the eyes of God. If I didn’t wear a frilly enough dress or if I ran in the hallway or if I didn’t sit close enough to the front or if my younger siblings made noise while in my care, it was counted unto me as unrighteousness, a personal affront to the King we had come to impress.

No matter how many times I heard 1 Samuel 16:7—“Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”—I sensed that it didn’t hold any water inside our church doors. Appearance was everything when it came to communal encounters with God. Wear the wrong thing or use the wrong jargon or lift your hands during the wrong song, and you could dismantle the painstakingly curated spiritual atmosphere in one fell swoop. And we children, with our high energy levels and short attention spans, were the worst offenders. At least, that’s how I understood things. It’s hard to sort out in retrospect which guiding principles of my childhood were church policy, which were merely the opinions of church members, which were unique to my fundamentalist family, and which were constructs of my own vivid imagination. The result was the same however: I felt welcome in church only if my appearance fit a particular mold.

Do you know what that kind of thinking can do to a young girl? How deeply it can lodge the barbs of conditional love into her frame of reference? How much anxiety and shame it can infuse into her perception of God?

I could recite dozens of New Testament passages from memory as a girl, but only as an adult did I start to catch sight of their protagonist. Jesus, teaching his followers to approach God with as much simplicity and honesty as they could muster. Jesus, holding up the disruptive children his helpers had shooed away as examples for the adults to follow. Jesus, scandalizing the religious community by choosing people over protocol. Jesus, encouraging soul-thirsty crowds to stop worrying about what to wear.

The Jesus I found in adulthood gave me permission to unlearn all those crushing childhood lessons about God and love and religious etiquette. Still, old habits die hard, and I’ve never stopped having to consciously shrug off appearance anxiety when I walk into a church. Sometimes, fellow churchgoers help me shed that burden more easily with their wide-flung smiles, the way they dote on my girls, or their delighted off-pitch singing. Other times, well-meaning congregants can make things worse, such as when they pointedly insist that I study up on Christian modesty or when they rate my devotion to God by my proximity to the stage.

In my six years here, I can’t recall seeing Sunday morning’s speaker ever sit in the section of the auditorium that has him so fired up… but I have logged plenty of services in those back few pews, and when I look around me, this is what I see:

I see babies—fussy babies, giggling babies, babies trying to share slobbery bites of cookie with each other, babies shrieking with the joy or indignation of any given moment, babies missing their naptimes, babies who want more than anything in the world to try out their awesome new walking skills on the center aisle. (Every once in a blue moon, I’ll even catch a baby sleeping. Their heads of household always look distinctly relieved.)

I see children intent at work on coloring books, children singing along to hymns they only half know, children like my serious-minded eight-year-old absorbed in storybooks, and children like my energetic five–year-old dropping Zoobles under the pews and occasionally forgetting to whisper. I see children quietly snuggling with their parents and children vibrating with pent-up enthusiasm. I see children who picked out their own outfits for church.

I see their parents—moms rocking spit-up stains on their sweaters, dads trying desperately to guess which toy their baby is squawking for, couples who were twenty minutes late getting out the door but came anyway. I see the sleep-deprivation pouches under their eyes, the ripples of annoyance that our church has no nursery, the complete adoration they feel for the small squirming humans next to them, the effort that goes into managing their children’s church experience while trying to have one of their own.

And I see myself, a girl who spent years sitting in the front rows for all to see and to evaluate, a woman who now clings to the truth of unconditional acceptance even when it goes against policy, a mom who is unwilling to perpetuate the same cycle of legalism with her own children, and a church member who sees Jesus most clearly in the merry disruption of the back pews.

We don’t come to church to “meet the King,” a phrase implying pomp and ceremony and a discouraging sense of rarity. Neither do we come to church to shine spotlights on each other’s weary heads. Instead, we come to church the way families come together for Thanksgiving dinner, a welcome reunion of relatives who wouldn’t necessarily want to live together but are nonetheless united in their enjoyment of the feast.

That’s how I got through Sunday’s sermon in the end. I stopped picturing the speaker as legalism’s bowman and instead thought of him as an eccentric great uncle who is so far removed from childhood that he can no longer remember why we allow children at the table. Maybe pomp and ceremony are what get him out of bed on Sunday mornings, and those of us with our focus ping-ponging between devotion and dropped Cheerios tarnish some of the glitter for him. Maybe he has the same allergic reaction to crying babies that I have to Preacher Voice. Maybe the spotlight has too often lingered on him and he felt he needed to redirect the flow of criticism. Whatever the case, he was simply trying to promote the conditions that help him best enjoy the feast. He wasn’t purposefully seeking to hurt or alienate anyone.

So there we were on Sunday morning—the squealing babies, the rambunctious kids, the distracted parents, and the irritated great uncle—gathered around a common table to savor different elements of the same celebration. My ears stayed closed (sometimes keeping the peace requires turning down one’s hearing aid for a while), but my eyes stayed open, and you can’t continue seeing red for long when you choose to focus on family resemblance instead.

18Oct

Back When Jesus Wore JNCOs

In the end, I don’t know which is harder for me to process: my trigger-happy cynicism over religious light and sound shows, gimmicky church programs, and spirituality styled as peer pressure… or the fact that each of those things was beautifully instrumental in helping me survive my teens.

~~~

This is not something I’d ever imagined myself writing about. Religion has the power to stir up Big Feelings like few other topics do, and those times I do venture to share my own patchwork spirituality leave me with what Brené Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover.” You would not believe how many naps I need after posting my thoughts on gender equality in the church or showing glimpses into my fundamentalist childhood. I agonize over how others will take my beliefs, those delicate links of conviction and hope forged from a painful past. Even if readers think I’m crazy, I long for them at least to understand my heart.

But what happens when I’m the one recoiling from the crazy?

However fragile I may feel after opening up about my current beliefs or about the ones forced on me long ago, it is nothing compared with how I feel about the period between. If I even so much as look at one of my journals from the mid to late ‘90s, the emotional reaction that comes over me is not unlike that of Sideshow Bob stepping on a series of rakes:

Those were the days of second-wave Jesus freaks—long-haired Christian rockers with chains swinging from their low-slung JNCOs, curvaceous pony-tailed cheerleaders with fish decals on their convertibles, goateed pastors who turned youth group annexes into coffee house/rave hybrids so that kids could meet God over steaming bowls of cappuccino in the trippy purple of black lights. And I loved it. There is no getting around or glossing over my fervor for the Evangelical Christian culture of the ‘90s; I was all in.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the ways I embraced my affiliation with that era:

  • By performing interpretive dances to Jaci Velasquez, Jars of Clay, and Newsboys songs with other members of my church youth group (thanks be to God that were no camera phones or Vine accounts back then)
  • By memorizing every word in the neon green CD inserts of my favorite bands, often while doodling chest hair and ballpoint-black nail polish onto their photos
  • By dutifully filling out every page of my spiral-bound teen devotional (though I was stumped by the just-for-fun activity page on “emoticons;” :I clearly stood for Indifferent, what the hey were the others supposed to be??)

 Student Plan It Calendar 98-99
You guys. I even still have the CD.

  • By re-selling boxes of a newfangled food product called Krispy Kreme to fellow churchgoers to raise money for my Teen Mania mission trips
  • By journaling all sorts of cryptic poems and drawings so that if I was ever martyred at a prayer rally, people would be able to take great meaning and closure from the symbolism therein (though it’s hard to remember what I thought a bereaved community would get out of a poorly sketched Garfield asleep on a lasagna of souls)
  • By closing my eyes in a darkened room full of thousands of teens and fearfully loud, wonderfully loud music and feeling the promise of heaven reverberate through me with each strum of the bass guitar

The teenage years were incredibly hard for me. Even in our church youth group, I was a social leper, my naivety from growing up a homeschooled fundamentalist not exactly scoring me points with the cool kids. I participated in everything I could, but friends were few and far between, and my most Christian-y peers were often the cruelest to me. Things were no better at home. The reality of our family life drove me to suicidal face-offs with God, his imagined replies transcribed in words-of-Jesus red ink on journal pages spotted with tears. My chest wasn’t growing fast enough, my on-again off-again boyfriend was playing me like the relational chump I was, and the version of God my parents subscribed to hated my stupid teenage guts. My life sucked… if, of course, you were to raise the word “sucked” to the power of three hundred and add liberal doses of misery and hormonal angst.

I could have looked for solace is so many other places—substance abuse, promiscuity, a knife sidling quietly up to my wrists—but instead, I found it in the earnest energy of Evangelical teen culture. In a stadium pulsing with electric passion for God, I was no longer the leper my classmates thought I was or the rebel my parents thought I was but a piece of kindling in a collective bonfire. The hype lifted me out of my sad self and into a strobe-lit imitation of heaven where I could see Jesus in his Doc Martens and ponytail and kind brown grin. I could believe that he might want to share a bowl of cappuccino with me.

It would be easy for me here, on the other side of decades and spiritual upheavals, to say that none of it was real, that it was all a show designed to make kids like me believe we were experiencing God. In fact, that is more or less my typical response to memories of that time. I cringe that I could have been such a chump in matters spiritual as well as romantic. I’ve stifled all impulses to write about it until now; my embarrassment was too raw, my feelings of betrayal by the church too sharp.

This is unfair to my experience though, because no matter what motives or soundstage techniques went into the creation of my teenage spiritual haven, it still sheltered me. I found more peace and joy singing along at a DC Talk concert than I ever did between the gilt-edged pages of my Bible. Grunge-themed devotionals kept me safe from the lonely dark of my room, and black-light Jesusfests from the demons haunting my Saturday nights. Until I was far enough removed from my childhood to begin understanding it and dealing with its repercussions on my life, youth group leaders in spaghetti straps filled in the gaping blanks in my heart that had told me for years I was unlovable. WWJD bracelets identified me as an insider no matter how the other kids saw me.

I have little patience these days for churches or organizations that wield God as some kind of party trick. When I look at trendy Christianity, all I can see is a glaring lack of authenticity, and I wonder if anyone can possibly get anything real from it. As reluctant as I am to admit it though, I know the answer is in the affirmative. I got something from it. Once upon a time, the same hyped-up, choreographed, style-conscious approach to God that I find so distasteful now is what kept my battered teenage heart from drowning. Life sucked, but Doc Marten Jesus cared. It was enough.

~~~

Linking up with Addie Zierman today in honor of her new release When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, which I can’t wait to finish reading. (I might need to bust out my old WOW 1998 as background music first.) If you could relate to my post at all, then chances are you’re going to love her book as well; make sure to check it out!

15Oct

Nostalgia vs. The Substance of Now

We hear fireworks in the night but can’t see them. Though each boom and popcorn-crackle reverberates through our open windows, no light reaches high enough to clear the row of apartment buildings in front of us. I’d be all for shrugging off the disappointment, but my mind has already snuck down the street to our old house with its legend of a balcony. We used to stand there under the stars with the tip of my beloved Van Gogh tree beckoning the moon and watch no less than a dozen firework displays at once, the surrounding region our own personal snow globe. We could communicate with the weather from there—whisper to the first tentacles of fog slipping around church steeples, harness the green-eyed energy of summer storms, rub the golden hours between our fingers. My goodness, but I miss that view.

Once the pages of memory start turning, stoic indifference is almost impossible to keep up, and my nostalgia over fireworks and gold-tipped fog quickly turns into something sadder. The scent of heaven still lingering in my newborn daughters’ skin is a repeat offender at times like this. Could any memory possibly be more heart-wrenching after a day in which I have snapped at those same daughters for fighting over board games when they were supposed to be doing their homework, on a night when their legs seem to have grown longer than their mattresses and their hair forms sweat-tangled updos on their pillows?

Other memories stand at the ready too, each unwrapping its own flavor of longing: Firelight painting gold on the walls of our snowbound house in Delaware. Herds of zebras grazing below the hilltop where I journaled in the South African sunrise. Pecans nestled throughout a Texas-sized backyard like autumn Easter eggs. My heart blinking in delight the first time Dan met me at my front door with a kiss. Our girls (ours!) laughing past the point of motor control on the teacup ride at Disney World.

These sensory treasures are now rooted permanently in the past, and I feel what would be regret if not for the comforting sweetness in the center. I know that I’ve been at least a marginally responsible moment-enjoyer; every one of my fond memories exists because I welcomed it in person. No, regret has no place in nostalgia.

I’m still in the grip of a hollow sadness though, as though a balloon has inflated in the base of my throat, and I’m unwilling to let this be my final reaction to nostalgia either. Sometimes I feel like my truest profession in life is that of a war strategist against sadness. It targets me from so many angles, triggered by things as insignificant as the smell of oatmeal cooking or the sound of fireworks in the night. I can’t predict it and may never be impervious to its sudden charges. I can, however, fight back, so I take on my memories tonight with the biggest force of reality I can muster.

First, I coax my mind back to the present. The sum of my former lives is too much to take on at once. This is about now—this new house, still startling me with ways it is unlike our old; these precious family members sheltered inside, still startling me with ways they are unlike my impressions of them. This is about change, how I so readily dive into it without remembering how hard it always is in the end. I did it this summer, throwing myself into our move with gusto, never considering just how fiercely I would miss the familiar floor plans of the past. Now that we’re here, my heart keeps looping back on itself; it’s no wonder I find myself tangled.

The fireworks continue just beyond my reach, and I lay our former home life to rest in my mind. There were so many reasons we needed to move, issues of cost and architecture and utilities; it helps to give a slight nod to each from time to time just to acknowledge that we made the right decision. And then there’s the Van Gogh tree I so dearly loved; our landlord unexpectedly cut it down two days after I took that photo. I’d had no idea I was posting its obituary.

The tree reminds me that nostalgia is so often a revisionist history. There never were any Good Ol’ Days when all the magical elements of the universe came together at once. There was only ever the beauty and struggle of everyday life, followed by change and then by a different set of beauty and struggle. Those newborn babies I miss so much were accompanied by sleep deprival and postpartum depression. Those South African sunrises were followed by grueling days of physical and emotional labor. Those holiday nights we stood on our old balcony drinking in the display were often tense with frustration and frigid fingers due to problems with the house. The struggle was always alive and accounted for, just as the beauty is now.

I consciously turn my thoughts toward our newest version of everyday. We’re still getting used to it of course, but I can already begin to pick out the elements that will one day reshape themselves as nostalgia. Our neighbors, for one. We’re lucky enough to share this little complex with sweet and generous families who are well on their way to becoming friends. And then there’s my new kitchen, so spacious (at least by Italian standards) and gorgeous that I feel like I’ve won the culinary lottery. I will always remember this as the house where my girls grew into bona fide big kids—Sophie putting on her new purple glasses and trotting off to first grade, Natalie devouring Boxcar Children books with a reading lamp after her sister goes to sleep. This darling white writing desk is where I might actually finish the book that’s been simmering in my imagination the last ten years. This apartment is where our daughters’ childhood memories may one day come to roost.

These are the days of marathon training, walks to the bakery before lunch, pirate stories at bedtime, and family Uno championships. Likewise, they are the days of unreliable hot water heaters, occupational uncertainties, relational challenges, and tendinitis. Nostalgia won’t want me to remember the second list, but this is what gives the everyday its substance and meaning: struggle and beauty together, light and color blooming in the dark.

Acknowledging this is enough. My sadness retreats amid a shower of sparks.

Orange sparkles

21Mar

From the Other End of the Power Spectrum

Trigger warning: child abuse.

We were at a dinner party some time back when a conservative Christian dad at the table joked about how many hours he had to wait after his babies were born before he could begin spanking them. I immediately focused on my lap, not trusting myself to look at the man. I was afraid that one more glimpse of the self-satisfied grin on his face would sever every attachment I had to civility. I twisted my napkin into cardboard and tried not to listen the precious dinnertime chatter of his little girl with mine. Even after all these years, a child’s laugh can undo me, and no one wants a dinner party to turn into a nuclear meltdown.

I still think about what I would have said to the man had I been unable to keep a lid on my thoughts that day, but it’s a futile conjecture. For one thing, common sense says that no one’s mind is likely to be changed by a dinner party debate. For another, conservative Christianity usually holds that men’s opinions and theological interpretations are superior to those of women; God-given authority is a trump card that would have rendered my hand ineffective from the beginning. However, the most disturbing reason my words would have been discounted that day is that I have lived through child abuse. I would have been viewed as emotionally compromised and irrational because I have intimate knowledge of the topic at hand.

In the thirteen years since beginning to work through the repercussions of my childhood, I have heard two common reactions among fundamentalist Christians when the word “abuse” is attached to fundamentalist Christian practices:

  1. “I’m so sorry that you were abused, but your situation was extreme; what I do isn’t abuse.”
  2. “You have a distorted and psychologically imbalanced perspective of what constitutes abuse; you are making up this victim mentality for your own selfish gain.”

One response sidesteps blame; the other flings it back. Neither acknowledges the victim’s validity as a first-person witness or the relevance of his or her first-person pain.

Perhaps I should take a step back and clarify what I mean by abuse, especially within a Christian context. I work by a very simple definition of “abuse”—using a position of power to harm another person.Therefore, sexual abuse is forcing sexual harm on another person, physical abuse is forcing physical harm on another person, and spiritual abuse is forcing spiritual harm on another person. The first example is universally accepted as horrific, but the latter two are especially prevalent within fundamentalist religious lifestyles.

Take the concept of “divine authority” assumed by many church leaders, husbands, and fathers, especially throughout the Patriarchy Movement in which I grew up. Wielding a position of spiritual power, these men can manipulate their congregants or families into serving them, submitting to them, and accepting their every word as truth. Actually, I see very little difference between spiritual abuse and the more mainstream emotional variety; they both employ shame, withheld approval, verbal aggression, and intimidation. Spiritual abuse is simply emotional abuse on God’s letterhead.

The harmful effects of spiritual abuse might be difficult to quantify, but they’re real enough to those who face the herculean task of working through them. I can personally attest to just how mentally and emotionally draining it can be to push back against the teaching that you are inferior in God’s eyes. Imagine having your sense of who-you-are systematically destroyed while your protests are decried as sin and then having a new, subservient identity installed in its place. No more freedom to think for yourself or make your own decisions, no relief from the fear that you will anger God (or his henchmen), no confidence, no autonomy, no self-worth—these are the effects of spiritual abuse, and no matter how often the term “godly authority” is thrown around, bullies are bullies are bullies THE END.

Physical abuse is a less obvious practice of fundamentalist Christianity, but brave souls like Elizabeth Esther have done much to raise awareness of the parenting techniques often endorsed as God’s will and focused on breaking the child’s. By spanking their children for infractions ranging from direct disobedience to grumpiness, many parents believe that they are training them in accordance with the Bible, and some actually believe that spanking will save their children from hell. While I grant that most parents would never take this philosophy to the extremes that have landed a few families on primetime news, and while I do not think that spanking one’s children indicates a lack of love, I would like to bring up the following points that shape my thinking on the topic:

  • Can we be honest that “spanking” is simply a euphemism for an adult striking a child? If a child repeatedly strikes another child, whether it be with a stick or a pipe or his hand, we call it “hitting.” If an adult does the same to another adult, we call it “beating.” When an adult does it to a child as a disciplinary tactic, we call it “spanking” and often overlook violence that would disturb or anger us in different settings.
  • Inflicting physical pain on children can certainly condition their behavior and subdue their independence as promised by spanking proponents like Michael Pearl, but it neither imparts a change of heart nor teaches anything specific about the behavior being punished. Some parents say they are teaching their children self-control, but spanking is not a natural consequence of any choice a child might make, so I would argue that their children are learning coping strategies rather than genuine self-control. (Protective coping strategies I picked up as a child include lying, redirecting attention toward a sibling, and hiding.)
  • While some Bible verses from the Old Testament book of Proverbs can be (and are) used in defense of spanking, Jesus both speaks at length about and demonstrates in person what loving our fellow human beings should look like. He preaches non-violence and inspires people to changes of heart through kindness. He flips notions of power and authority on their heads, and just in case we might not think his teaching applies to how we treat children, he gathers a group of unruly kids into his arms and tells us that his kingdom belongs to them. When in doubt over the Bible’s seemingly contradictory teachings, I go with Jesus.
  • Spanking depends on parents’ sheer physical dominance (or, in the case of older children/teens, parents’ ability to withhold food, shelter, human interaction, etc.) to purposefully cause pain to those in their care—using a position of power to harm another person. Beyond the fact that this sends a deeply confusing message to children, who themselves are not allowed to use physical dominance to get their way, it fully fits the definition of abuse.

I realize that criticizing a popular parenting technique like this is not too far off from coming unglued at a dinner party. To be honest, I’ve put off writing about this for a long time because I didn’t want to face the effects, both the emotional strain of dialing up my childhood and the potential backlash from parents who feel attacked. It would be fifty shades of hypocritical for me to tell others what they should believe and how they should raise their own children, and “abuse” is not a word that can be applied lightly. I’m wading through serious territory here.

But the seriousness of abuse is precisely why I’m taking the chance to speak up today. Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week is bringing survivors out of the woodwork, and I’m standing up with them—not because I enjoy playing the poor pitiable victim or because I want to spread another layer of guilt on this grace-starved world but because the truth matters. You deserve to hear the whole story, the practical conclusion to bookshelves’ worth of theory, the reality on the other end of the power spectrum. You deserve to know the emotional impact of philosophies that many people accept as God’s will despite their misgivings.

In turn, I trust you to accept my perspective as valid rather than irrational or compromised by my being “too close” to the subject. This isn’t an FBI investigation we’re talking about; it’s life. It’s experience. It’s the intersection of theology and practice, the correlation between what we believe and how it affects others. If we believe in a God of love and grace and peace, then we need to be closely examining philosophies that produce the opposite, and that means listening to the uncomfortable stories, taking them to heart, and working to right wrongs however we can.

Here is my own uncomfortable story: I am a survivor of child abuse. Under the approval of fundamentalism and the Patriarchy Movement, I endured years of severe spiritual and physical abuse, including some that veered over the line into sexual abuse. I helped the perpetrators to cover it up, even when instinct screamed at me to protect myself and my younger siblings. (That dinner party joke about spanking infants is no joke, and I don’t know if I can ever fully forgive myself for the things I enabled through my silence.) I grew up fearful and ashamed, with helpless fury often spiraling downward into depression. I battle those same feelings in adulthood, with the addition of panic attacks and other physical manifestations of PTSD, and there is not a single aspect of my daily life that is not affected in some way by what I endured as a child. Not one.

My saving grace has been a long, slow discovery that God is not the mastermind behind my abuse. I’ve had to shed thousands of assumptions along the way, prying my clenched fingers from fears and shames that I had thought were part of my identity, and there are thousands still to go, but I know that the divine source of light and love is not responsible for the way power was used to hurt me all those years. I do struggle heavily with why God allowed the abuse to happen, but it comforts me to think that he didn’t send down preventative lightning bolts from heaven for the same reason that he didn’t make me spend the rest of my life in a falsely constructed identity: because he does not abuse his power. He doesn’t force or manipulate or use his position to demand subservience. He is about as far from the patriarchal standard as a deity could get.

And in coming to recognize this, I’ve been able see ways in which God was with me all along—providing moments of comfort and flashes of joy, stopping me at the brink of suicide, guiding me toward a life far, far away from my past and its triggers where I can heal in peace. I know it doesn’t make sense to some people that I would have anything to do with the God whose name was plastered all over the abuse I endured. However, uncovering God’s real identity is helping me more than anything else to uncover my own, and if this makes me emotionally compromised, then I’ll wear the stigma proudly.

This is my uncomfortable story, this is my song. (Part 2, about parenting after abuse, here.)

~~~

More uncomfortable story-songs from this week:

The Day I Died by Caleigh at Elora Nicole

Paved With Good Intentions by Hännah Ettinger

God is Love by Sarah Moon

The Cult That Changed Everything by Kiery King

How Spiritual Abuse Has Affected Me by Jessica Bowman

Spiritual Abuse and How It Shaped My Identity at Defeating the Dragons

After Steubenville by Ann Voskamp

14Mar

Proof, Revisited

I had planned a special post for this week—a blog entry about my daughter Natalie that I originally wrote in 2009 and then reworked for submission to a potential writing gig the following year. (Yes, “potential writing gig” is just a dignity-preserving way to admit that the story was rejected, but perhaps you could indulge me by pretending it means something more glamorous, say, a prestigious job offer that I was forced to turn down because it interfered with my sparkling social life.) The document has been languishing in the Looking For New Homes folder on my hard drive ever since, so I decided to give it a home here in honor of Natalie’s eighth birthday last week.

However, every day that I’ve tried to publish it so far, my fingers have frozen on me much like a throat clamping down to stop painful words in their tracks. I couldn’t understand why at first. The story is about my honest struggle with new motherhood and the love that eventually bound me to my daughter. It’s authentic and ultimately positive, two of my highest aims in writing, so I couldn’t fathom why the post-production crew in my heart kept stalling.

Another read-through today though, and I understand. I wrote the post when Natalie was four and we had been in Italy just one and a half years. Dan grew up in Italy, so he had settled back into the culture like a man coming home, but everything from the pace of life to the words on our grocery receipt was new for Natalie and I. We were one and a half years into total cultural upheaval, I was one and a half years into severe postpartum depression, and our mother-daughter relationship was at an all-time low. She was an energetic preschooler; I was struggling just to get out of bed in the morning. We clashed constantly, and I had no reserves of patience or perspective left from which to draw.

Reading back through the entry sends me traveling to a time that I would eagerly erase from our memory if I could, a time that left barbed wire imprints around my rib cage and temples. Revisiting it is painful in a way I wasn’t prepared for. We’ve spent this last week celebrating eight years of Natalie, my sweet, creative girl whose enthusiasm for books and curiosity about life fill an endless well of shared interest. Our souls have discovered their kinship, so it pains me all the more to look back on a time when I was not enough myself to appreciate all of her self. I regret the mother-I-once-was more fiercely than anything else in my experience.

However, camping out in regret is no way to live and certainly no way to move on. Grace nudges me to look back with softer eyes and recognize that at each stage of my rocky road to motherhood, I did the best I could. Even on those gray, gray days when I felt like I could not possibly go on living until the next, I still got out of bed, still made breakfast, still snuggled up for storytime, and it was for her. My love was feeble, but it was very real. It is very real. The same elemental strain pulses through my veins today, and it’s why revisiting the darkness of four years ago causes me to flinch. It’s also why I’m finally sharing the post, because proof of love is not in perfection, not defined by the glossy, Instagramable moments when the sun is shining and birthday cake on the table; it’s in the whole story, the mess and the grace, the regrets acknowledged and then gently ushered to the back row.

Here it is, home now:

Read More »

27Nov

O[ur] Tannenbaum

Last weekend, the fog drew around our house like a heavy silver curtain. Sophie was sick and Natalie’s school was on strike*, so we had the deep-settling thrill of burrowing into our own little world for a day or two. The girls had been reverberating for weeks with pent-up holiday cheer, and even my no-carols-before-Thanksgiving resolve had crumbled in the home stretch, so it was clear to everyone how our hibernation weekend should be spent.

* Clarification point #1: Kids here typically go to school six mornings a week and get out at lunchtime; it’s inconvenient and awesome all at once. Clarification point #2: Schools go on strike in our district about twice a month, each one formally announced ahead of time. Again, inconvenient + awesome.

Our Tannenbaum - 1

We bought this tree seven years ago for Natalie’s first Christmas. At the time, the three of us were living on a single graduate school stipend, and fresh-cut pines were up there with cable TV and new shoes on the Hierarchy of Unnecessary Expenses. However, the Martha Stewart Holiday Collection went on sale at our local K-Mart, and our baby’s squeals of joy right there on Aisle 5 decided for us. It was nothing fancy; we knew our tree would never evoke nostalgia for either Appalachia or Anthropologie, but the point was that it was ours.

And is it ever ours. Though our collection of ornaments has grown steadily over the years, only two of them—a set of crystal love birds from Dan’s grandparents—actually match. Ours is a tree of keepsakes and fingerprints, cross-stitching and salt dough. We have a wooden bell that Dan colored with markers when he was in preschool and I blotched with melted candy canes a few years back. We hang it anyway. There are the two cartoonish and slightly disproportionate Loch Ness monsters I coaxed out of modeling clay for the girls to remember our summer in Scotland. Natalie hangs hers next to a pony she once made out of pegboard beads and strung up via a hair ribbon with an artist’s pride. Meanwhile, Sophie chooses a single branch for a series of paper hearts displaying a four-year-old’s scissor skills and enthusiastic joy.

These now-dusty limbs sport chocolate lips and jingle bells, felt daubed with formerly-hot glue, a couple of miniature storybooks shellacked into submission, and a rocking horse that may or may not have been through a war… and each year that goes by gives me greater satisfaction in declaring that what our tree lacks in fashion sense, it more than makes up for in memories.

Admittedly, I still pause every time I wander into the Christmas section of the party store. I can’t help scanning the shelves of baubles and lights and blown-glass snack foods—seriously, why are those a thing? and why do I want them so badly?—and imagining our living room transformed into a magazine spread. It’s easy, far too easy, to envision how a cartful of decorations would change our lives. Don’t we want our holiday pictures to reflect perfection? Wouldn’t our daughters’ experience be improved with icicle lights or topiaries or at least an identifiable color scheme?

Last weekend, as the fog wrapped us tightly into the warmth and music of our living room, I remembered as I do every year why I always leave the Christmas aisle with an empty cart. This tree of ours, with its missing PVC needles and mismatched lights and homemade ornament parade, holds a magic all of its own—a magic all of our own. It glows with our family stories and preserves evidence of our personalities, our creativity, our thumbprints. The girls reminisced about each ornament as they chose the imperfectly perfect spot to hang it, and when we were done, it was like someone had hung a sun in the room; all we wanted to do was bask. 

Our Tannenbaum - 2

~~~

Do you ever struggle with holiday-decoration-envy?

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.

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