We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed.
I have not lived with enough of my life on the line.
My name is Maria and I’m a hoarder. I hoard all my creature comforts.–My closet is overstuffed with clothes that belong to the poor. My pantry with food that belongs to poor. My book shelves, my nightly sleep, the soft full flesh of my body bespeaks what I hoard for myself.
I am not living simply. I’m not living as one who has no place to lay her head, as one who draws children with an open heart, as one draws to herself in the night to pray, as one who shows up for the outsiders. The lectionary always challenges me. Today’s was I Cor. 6:1-10. Particularly verses 3-6.
When have I born stripes? I’ve not walked in the risky demonstrations. When have I been accused of too much patience? Certainly my own parenting and my heart reveals to me that I am mostly angry, impatient, and over eager for things to turn out my way.
When have I really faced great need? One or two weeks of life with no food is nothing compared to what my friends have faced. I’ve never taken all my young children, my bills and bank statements to give an account that I need SNAP benefits. I’ve not sat, like fellow seminarian lives or the families who came to eat with us at my childhood church or at Raise and Restore, with impatient children who cannot understand why they must sit under glaring bulbs in rooms with old toys and magazines.
While stress has marked itself in my life, it’s always been bearable, not so costly that I have chemo every few weeks, have painful injections, have siblings with crippling mental illnesses.
I’ve never been imprisoned for doing the right thing. I’ve never been shot at with canisters of pepper spray or rubber bullets or endured a sound cannon.
I keep making excuses about why I’ve given up on the idea of night prayer. That must change.
I’ve been lax on my fasting because already my health demands such restricted options. Yet, I’m not starving. I look like a traditionally build American woman. (I have curves.)
I must go deeper into my faith and yet, like the good examples of saints living and dead, I must do so without giving offense.
In this day and age, when everything is outrage. Especially cheap speech, which this post may be. Aren’t many of my blog posts? There’s only one path clear to me. Write stories. Write how I’m working on living repentance when I encounter the words of the Bible like this. I must live the gospel like Dorothy Day, Saint Maria of Paris, Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr, Saint Alexander (Schmorrell), Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Fr. Moses Berry, and dozens more, both living and dying.
How are you living for resurrection? Who provides a sound example? Let’s converse? Email me your stories, so I can go deeper. What principles do you live by to go deeper and yet bring as much peace, as little offense, without compromise?
When you listen to the sounds of a 911 call, what sensations shoot through your body? Here’s what happens to me. The skin on my skull seems to retract.
I feel the skin across the entire top of my head begin to tingle. It feels like a spirit grabs my hair and yanks on it. Not painfully but shockingly.
I felt this when I listened to the 911 call from Breonna Taylor’s apartment. When I saw the white men standing with their rifles waiting for Ahmaud Arbury to run around their car. As a fellow runner, I think about what I would have done. One day I would have bossed that situation. On another day, I run a wide swath away from them. I’d avoid. It depends on what my gut told me would allow me to survive. I’m a woman. Ask me about running up to white boys in drug deals at dawn in my local park or bears or unleashed dogs or that one strange male or that white woman in her huge pickup who really guns it in front of me to order her McDonalds.
I feel this when I see the bullets popping into Jacob Blake’s back. I feel the shivers cross my head, flood down my spine, and meet the flutters in my chest.
When I laid flat on the grass for nine minutes during a demonstration listening to the recordings while George Floyd was dying, when I watched Eric Garner choked to death and remembered how it felt to be tossed around while my van flipped and spun and I thought of Freddie Gray being tossed around in the back of the police van, I felt my whole head retract as if some deity grabbed me by my hair and screamed me into fear. ‘Wake up, girl.”
A few weeks ago, we were up late. A drunk white woman invaded the house of a neighbor, who was an immigrant, as suggested by his language levels. It was past midnight. We were already on watch because we’d heard the police bang on the door of the house next door. They politely helped the white kid who’d been dealing drugs on the street for a decade into their car. But when they sent a squad car for the immigrant father and his kids? Not so much. They seemed more brusque. We sat in the dark on the grass keeping vigil for him. Meanwhile, I felt an other worldly sensation. The world reeled. I felt heat in my chest climbing my spine like when I heard Philandro Castile disclosing calmly to the police that he had a legal weapon, only to hear his girlfriend call out as the police acted out of context and shot him.
Listen. I don’t hate blue. I have friends on the blue line, cousins, men I respect. It hurts that now they say things like “We don’t see things the same.” Somewhere, they started believing I hate them. Why? I haven’t posted against them. I sought out their side in relevant cases.
I am left to guess. Is it because when they carry and have a precedent that exonerates them on the fifteen seconds before they flick the finger, pull the trigger, but the person dead or injured on the other side is judged for any or all things done (or what others did around them). When this happens, we know we are not talking about justice or protection by the people for the people. They know something isn’t square. We know too. The middle men (politicians and pundits) pull together against the rest of us. The rich and powerful are like the Mad Men.
Graham V Connor
Stand your ground.
The New Jim Crow-The old Jim Crow
The KKK-Lynchings- Slavery
We poor-poor. We don’t have any sway. How did we get to a place where corporations can donate to the politicians like people and that somehow we think the market will have moral correctness (but it’s a blind system created by people just like the algorithms of social medias which are now dividing and conquering our family systems)?
I keep thinking of the people who have seen the failure of the “believers” who are now done with the idea of the divine. The good Samaritans are the pagans, the not religious, the done with God. They stop everything to advocate, to march, to pick up what is broken, to pay from their pittance to try to save a life. I want to hold them close. I admire how they enter the suffering of the world. They are the Simons who picked up a stranger’s cross. They picked up a foreigner’s body. Like the story of the Good Samaritan, they were the immigrant who picked up the victim on the side of the road.
I have this to say:
Hey. All you poor and powerless. Please let me stand with you. I have nothing to give. I’ve had it better. But here I am. I will stand with you. My kin may reject me, but I think this is where my God-made-human would have been. To paraphrase my sister, if that’s not God, then that’s not a god I worship.
I’m strident about this. The God I serve risked everything for the prostitute. The cripple. The immigrant. The Samaritans. The menstruating woman. The lepers. The kids who were told to be seen and not heard. The poor.
He didn’t hate the others, the rich and powerful. But… they had it all.
In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man had it all in life. Lazarus had nothing in his life. In the parable, Lazarus makes it to heaven, not on anything he confessed or did but on sheer love from his Creator. The rich man who had every chance in life went to…. well… to the bad place.
God honored the poor, as the Scriptures promised.
Tonight, Sept 23rd, when the Grand Jury did not charge any of the three officers present at the death of Breonna Taylor, tonight this nation’s powerful tried to alleviate their consciences over the likes of Breonna Taylor. They knew this would come. Weeks ago, they paid for another Black body with 12 million dollars but not justice.
Tonight, we’ve been accused again by our own broken system that favors the powerful. May Breonna see heaven. May we on earth work for the salvation of the powerful by holding them to restorative justice when they have used power for the powerful.
I hear lots of people say, “Don’t vote for the lesser of two evils.”
I don’t believe “The Lesser of Two Evils” fits this election. I’m not talking about political parties. I’m talking about candidates. One speaks calmly into chaos. One builds coalitions with those who are unlike him or don’t like him. He does democracy. He negotiates this for that, making changes within a system where there as many “right” opinions and ways as citizens.
He doesn’t name call.
His personal values inform him, his policy, and his actions. He doesn’t beat, berate, belittle, or starve out anyone who disagrees. He doesn’t make policy or appeals based only those who like him.
I don’t agree with many parts of his party’s platform. I haven’t for years, but I live in a democracy. I have to do the work too. I must write, call, and meet with leaders to show them the changes I want. I can support financially or with other volunteering, which I do minimally because I’m not sold on our parties and their platforms. I have supported third parties that I prefer more, but the two dominant parties have a choke hold, at least here in Indiana where a Democrat and Republican have to sit next to each other while checking in voters, while voters submit their ballots, and if they need help with a machine. No other parties have to be represented. It is what it is. It seems to me that I have to work for the change inside the system of two for now. For this election, I am focused on the candidates.
I will choose the noble one. It’s evil versus noble. I know because I experience and hear my students say that family and friends now land like vultures on each other’s stated values.
Here’s a cherry-picked list of my own. When I say “taking care of the poor,” they say (again) “The poor don’t work hard enough.” When I say we have housing/income/educational/legal system-wide inequities among races in this country, they say the stories are dubious, the data misconstrued.
When I say I’m caring for the alien and the stranger (biblical language for immigrants and refugees), they say they came illegally to take what’s ours. When I support women’s rights to get an education, stop being objectified, and to get equal pay for equal work, they say women should be in the home and dress more modestly.
When I teach to provide a quality education for all kids, they say “the schools are full of secular thinkers trying to indoctrinate our children and create a nanny state.”
When I say our LGBTQ friends deserve equal dignity and rights, they say I’m contributing to the disorder of society. (They are implying a far worse, Old Testament punitive system.)
I cherry-picked. I won’t go on with the she said/ she heard that’s been with me since my childhood here in the Rust Belt. Here fine religious folk believe that sparing the rod (not spanking) spoils children. In other words, a spanking makes for good character and conviction.
Only, it doesn’t. Too many I know were “scourged” out of love for not being unquestioningly obedient, even if the obedience was superfluous. They were rebuked for being children. I heard “children ought to be silent” all the time while I grew up, usually at one of my grandparent’s homes. For some reason, fine Christian folk think harsh punitive measures can fix problems. They long for the old authoritarian means to get what they think is needful. Right now, I’m witnessing memes from such folk about getting out on the streets and giving people a good beating.
They want a tough, patriarchal, authoritarian boss. But they don’t want to be controlled. Control others. But you aren’t the boss of me. Now that I’ve been in a healthy marriage with a non-controlling partner for a quarter of a century, and around his very strong but non-controlling family, I think of my paternal grandfather, who just didn’t try to control me while I lived with him. He showed me love. When he disapproved, I knew it. He did so with love, not shame. I saw in my husband what I adored in my grandfather. And I think it’s taught me there’s a better way to build family, then community, then nation. Systems don’t have to be authoritarian. That’s what I appreciate about democracy. If it’s healthy, it requires that we work with each other, in spite of our differences. I think one of the candidates doesn’t just work for himself. The same one is not nepotistic. One accepts the slow, messy, good work of compromise.
It’s not a matter of the lesser of two evils.
I call for a culture of perseverance. Let’s work patiently towards a healthy, safe, equitable country for all our residents. Let’s recognize nations are just another system in a world of systems. This or that one does not manifest the will of God.
There are hierarchies of who does what. The more we condense the distance from the bottom to the top, the least to the greatest, the more we get to making a place reflective of the kind of loving parent, or leader we’d all prefer. Let’s go for leadership that opens its arms to the prodigal and the prickly, do-gooder.
I think one candidate has decades of proving it can be done.
We’re living in a pandemic while refugees flee their chaotic authoritarian governments, populations try to get better educations, jobs or housing, and others just want to live in a place where it’s safe.
I think one candidate will speak calm into the chaos. I think it’s a question of goodness in the face of chaos.
But chaos is manic. It can be sexy. It trains the brain into high highs and low lows. It’s juiced. Goodness is often too bland to taste. Especially when our sense are re-jiggered for all the screaming artificial flavors, smells, salt, and fat.
A few weeks into the pandemic, our school leaders popped a release valve on the teacher stress. They let us take the last hour on Friday for a “mental health hour.” Nothing was ever so needful. For the first time in years, I slowed down.
My husband and I often walked six or eight miles before heading home to cook dinner together. We couldn’t go to breweries or go out. We often joined the older couples poking about in old leaves and near rotting trees, hunting for morels. I held out hopes that I’d find my first one. I’d hoped for years to master the ultimate art of scavenging.
Morels hide. Their seasons are usually short in Central Indiana, often over by mid or early April. Yet cool, damp weather lingered into late May, and the old men poking at the ground and stooping for a side view, had bags with morels swinging from their wrists. I hesitated to ask their tricks, since the mushrooms fetch up to twenty dollars a pound, unless one takes the time to appreciate the treat by frying them then savoring their earthiness promptly.
A morel was the first mushroom I ever liked. I ate it to please my soon-to-be in-laws. I ate it as an act of grace. No thank you hadn’t worked. Neither had, “I’m not really a fan of mushrooms.” The hot butter fried morel I nibbled a bit from tasted like… a revelation. I do like green eggs and ham, I joked. I downed that one morel and longed for a second, but there were only a handful and someone told me it had taken the whole afternoon to find those. No one told me how expensive morels were but I’d scavenged and gardened most of my life. I could remember the whine of mosquitos, the brambles and mud, the mental boredom. I knew to hold the taste of that one on my palate for as long it would linger, the way one doesn’t pop a mint after that certain wine.
My husband and I didn’t look hard enough or slow down long enough to find a morel. The older couples’ slow pace favored them. Besides we felt like interlopers, scampering ahead of them by yards, hoping they’d not cleared an area already. Finally, we’d give up and carry along with our deep talks, trying to get back by six to roll sushi together and enjoy beers.
Having the Talk (Again and Again)
One of the early hikes, we returned to a talk we’ve had since the first time we traveled away from our baby daughter for a night. What were our end of life directives? Our daughter is a mother now, so we don’t seal envelopes with letters for the grandparents telling them who has agreed to take custody of our children in an unforeseen event. We talk now of slower death, the kinds that usually come to those hitting middle age. The ones that require decisions.
On the East Coast, COVID was killing people our age, not just the elderly, like my mother-in-law who lives with us. Having lost my thirty-three year old sister to cancer in recent years, we knew that we’d need to have medical decisions makers. Rarely does dying fit neatly into a package where one can initiate a DNR that fits all circumstances. COVID required too many young people to be intubated. Many recovered. Many died.
After my sister’s diagnosis, she considered who to appoint to help her husband make the fraught decision, when to stop treatments and start palliative or hospice care should she become incapacitated. She didn’t want someone to demand all measures to save her life. Just because medicine can, doesn’t mean medicine should. We talked about how everyone will die. How could she and her husband make a wise decision that enough was good? That was the objective.
Because of her diagnosis, I switched my master’s thesis from writing about monastic women to end of life issues. Coincidentally, our parish was planning a cemetery with another parish, wherein we could be buried naturally, which we learned was more financially sound, environmentally responsible, and religiously traditional. Nevertheless, it was culturally bizarre. What living congregation wanted to train to prepare a community member’s body, which includes everything but the pseudo-medical process of embalming (draining blood, filling veins with temporary preservatives, and using a trocar to puncture organs so they don’t pop from bacterial growth.) My sister and I talked often over the four years she survived. We revisited her end of life directives and what it would mean to have a quality of life. She worried about the half life that cancer would bring. I wanted her to live until she died, not worry about the moments of indignity that dying wrecks upon us.
Neither my sister nor I approved of the fanatical pro-lifer-ism of Terry Schiavo’s parents or other cases where a family insisted upon prolonged measures to keep a heart pumping, lungs breathing or organs stable while holding out for a miracle, or a cure.
Both of us struggled with crushing depression and talked about our ideations. She’d never ideated until cancer. Hers came in year two, when she’d dehydrate because her reconstructed sphincter proved a poor plan compared to nature’s. Also, she faced a daily existential threat on her life. Mine lacked any of that acute or excusable reasoning. It began in high school, but my sensitivity seemed to be a thing I’d been born to, like the sparks flying upward. Every broken relationship, each failure, amplified by a suicide attempt by a beloved person re-ignited my ideations. Then, while I was learning to mother and to teach I overloaded my system with anxiety. I felt scar tissue sticking to my insides, stiffening rather than expanding my heart. I’d curl into the cold tub, weeping for hours, trying to get my lungs to relax and take in a whole breath of air or expel the last breath. I commonly believed that I would enact such extensive damage on the tender souls of my children or the psyches of my students that it would be better for me to expire than to try.
The Shame of Acting
When I was twelve or so, someone made me a lead in the church Christmas play. I played an angel, and they made me wear huge wings. I lacked acting skills, so the director constantly told me to be more “over the top” and stop worrying about what felt natural. By dress rehearsals, I gesticulated and shouted as directed. I can’t recall how many performances we did- between two or three, I think. At the end of the first performance, my cousin told me that I’d whacked my wings in his and other’s faces constantly. I never realized. I’d thought I nailed all my stage directions. Instead, I learned that I’d hurt kids and flubbed up. Maybe the reason people had laughed so much had more to do with the wing-slapping than my well-delivered, campy lines.
Sure, I could follow directions, but even then I just hurt people without trying or knowing it. I wanted to quit the play, but my parents said I had to finish. I did it without the bang-a-rang joy. I acted with stones in my heart. The emotional memory imprinted well into adulthood. Though I improved over performances as the angel, I never perfected my performance. Analogous to the play, I learned to parent and teach. I could cook nutritiously, clean, read, teach them to read, teach them to debate, to write, to know grammar, but I kept myself on a regime, controlled, cold, and authoritarian aiming for perfection. A perfectionist cannot help others relax into themselves, to discover their own limits and realize their own goodness.
In her book The Guardians, Sarah Manguso talks about what it took for suicide to become unattainable for her. She writes heart-breaking tales of an estranged friend who died by suicide after surviving for so long a similar mental illness as hers. She’d let life drift between them. Then he died. She reviewed their friendship, her life, their similar treatments and medications, their relationships with others and in the end, what made him feel so alone that he thought the world would improve without him. The turns in her life, and his death, made suicide unavailable to her, she said. I clung to those words. I go through long stretches where I believe that suicide has become unavailable to me. I am able to regiment life, keep away from too many emotional mudslides, and I have just enough to enjoy that I can push off the constant stream of criticism in my head. When I don’t feel much like a fuckup wreaking havoc on my loved ones, I imagine living till I get hit by a car on a run, or get cancer, or something. I never imagine myself living to a ripe old age.
End of Life Directives
“I hope I live long enough to repent,” said my husband, a priest. I bookmarked a phrase repeatedly used in our prayers “Grant, Oh Lord, a long life of peace and repentance.” It sounds Ortho-Christian-speak to me. When we’d reviewed what we expected of each other, should one of us get COVID bad enough to be hospitalized, I told him I wanted to know what he meant by “live long enough to repent.”
I hope I confess and die. What did he mean by needing to live long enough to repent? He spoke of the beautiful weeks of life review he’d spent with his father. Dean died of pancreatic cancer just after our tenth anniversary. My husband spent most evenings after work with his dad. He played music, prayed, read Psalms and listened to his dad review his life. He stayed while all manner of visitors dropped in- men at his church, neighbors, friends, previous employees, even Dean’s kids friends came. He cleared up what conflicts remained in his life.
When Dean died, hundreds of people came to his funeral and visitation. He’d only ever been a factory worker, a janitor, and gone to a small church. The line of visitors suggested he ran for public office, was someone’s beloved teacher or a minister. So that is a life of repentance, I thought. Dean was a good man, not perfect. In family lore, he was the dad hollered at his kids’ coach. He made some barbed comments at times. He hung a sign in the vestibule one year that read “If this place were an airport, squirrels would fly.” He admitted how annoyed he felt when he had to replace a cord on a vacuum because an employee never learned to wind it up right, or when his grandson opened the sun roof on the new leather-interior Camry and it rained all night.
We joke about how much Dean we see in his progeny. When my husband, his brother or sister get wound up over something that others shrug off or when they’re over protective of their kids, we joke, “Okay, Dean.” They laugh at their mistakes and move on, whereas I tend to curl into a ball, sign up for confession, and hope that this time, a car hits me right after. Dear God, let me die in a state of grace.
Conditions to Make Suicide Unavailable
I was thinking about this again this week because I’ve had a long stretch here, almost a year, when things have been pretty okay. Having a grandkid has been good medicine. But being isolated from people, where I couldn’t hurt them also helped. Now I’m about to launch the book that could be well-received or explosive. And, there’s a relationship-bittering political-social sickness that I sense permeating every interaction. We are necessarily distant so much that old safe friendships have broken into us-them. It feels like it’s no longer Christian to do works of kindness. For instance, it’s divisive to put on a mask. It’s political to advocate for the alien and the stranger. It’s a false gospel – social justice or political- to talk about race or rights for LGBTQA folks. We unintentionally sin in picking fights. Or, we quietly opt-out of family, friendship, church, even marriage. I’ve had people who once swore we were siblings in the Church now talk about civil war against other Christians who are just too __________. (Okay, liberal. Liberals don’t seem to talk about war but I’m not sure cancel-culture is any less violent. It’s psychological warfare. It’s ghosting.) I’ve become so weary that I have given into polarization. What do I do when I sense a loss of goodwill with someone for the simplest acts of kindness? I sense that I’m whacking someone in the face somewhere without even knowing it. It’s too much, or not enough. I’m not built for this world. I’ve spent years trying not to cancel myself, trying to figure out those dispositions like my husband’s and his dad’s. They were peacemakers. They live, make mistakes, repent. Repeat. Die when one dies.
With my anti-suicide training this year, I learned about the early Christians who went to confession then found a way to “martyr” themselves. (Just now making an odd observation that I declared I wanted to be martyred when I was something like eight years old. Hmmm.) This level of perfectionism lacks grace for myself let alone others. What I haven’t learned is how to check the voices in my head that grant me resilience for my own disposition, let alone this fraught moment in history.
My therapist keeps asking me to check the negative voice in my head. I can remember it as far back as my memories go. I have closets and chests full of mistakes that I try to remember, so I don’t make them again. I’m not sure who I am, if I’m not fueled by shame or discipline. I swing in extremes. I try not to slow down too much, because that’s when my brain begins to entertain the shame voice. So I run, read, learn, cook, eat, drink. I waterboard my negative voice with intense “healthy” activities. Then I write. I slow down, and like prayer, I center on the heaviness within me. I speak it out. It’s not repentance strictly speaking, but it’s not NOT repentance. I write a lot of intimate and embarrassing stuff. In my writing I learn to bear a little more shame. That makes it more possible to live a healthy, repentant life.
None of us knows when we will die. What does it mean to live a life of repentance, a life in the present, self-less, unself-conscious, not punishing one’s self or others, and not self-serving? Truth be told, I have no idea. I’d prefer to burn out trying to be harder on myself than others, but too often, hard on one’s self reduces kindness to others. So also some self-care and self-love talk doesn’t develop awareness of others.
The point of this all is to confess. I want to live balanced in the world but I have no idea what it means to be balanced. A life of repentance for me will be living all the mistakes and getting used to imperfection. I’ll probably bear shame until some ripe old age. (Fate likes to push me to extremes like that: moderate imperfection being one.) God grant me the grace to bear fate.
I’m writing this because many people who know me have bid for me to read and educate myself about why anti-racism is dangerous and wrong. Here is why I’m not spending my energy on listening to the contrarian voices coming out of White academia and cultural thought.
I’m saving my energy to read, understand and listen to voices on race that don’t promise to affirm ideas I grew up with. I am suspending exploration of texts that assert that racism is overblown, that America is better (since?) or that the current scholarship and rhetoric about being antiracist is harmful. I’m spending more of my energy on books, podcasts, movies, shows, and music that help me get to know my friends, students, and neighbors who are also People of Color.
Why? A little Context
To a small degree, I’ve been at this, off and on, since I married my husband twenty five years ago. In 1995, he found it supremely uncool that I thought rap and hip hop were tasteless and had little idea about Black history aside from Harriet Tubman, Dr. King and “that lady who refused to sit on the back of the bus.” So he steeped me in Public Enemy. He pressed me to read Malcolm X and Dr. King. He challenged me to watch Boyz N the Hood and Spike Lee movies. He made it clear that admiring Dr King and liking one song by In Living Color did not count.
We took it slow, but intentional. In the grunge era, he took African-American studies classes after which we made a pact to buy our kids toys that represented all skin tones and to teach them to use crayons creatively to represent all skin tones. We chose art from all manner of artists, so our house looks like a hodgepodge of what’s beautiful in many cultures. We talked about race (and gender) with our kids. By ten, they’d both seen Spike Lee’s version of Malcolm X and knew Lauren Hill by heart.
I prided myself on this intentionality. But I kept my kids in communities where it was hard to befriend Black people. I tried to make up for it by setting an example as a teacher. I interrogated the literature I taught and ensured that more that half of it be written by and about other ethnicities and races. “There is no frigate like a book,” wrote Emily Dickinson, and since I couldn’t sail out of my small Hoosier town with its majority White schools, White neighborhoods and White churches, I was going to have to make up for my life with books. I used them to take up the spaces for the friendships I should have been nurturing.
In the Space Where It Started
All the while, I turned over a memory from my school days when I thought I had been pretty good friends with the one Black girl in our church. We’d been friends since elementary school. Between our childhood games and high school, I increasingly fixated on the fact that she was the only one of the girls in our church school who was different. I’d wanted to understand if and how that mattered but she generally seemed to like most of what I liked. I figured I was making up stuff that wasn’t there. She copied all her New Kids on the Block tapes for me, since I wasn’t allowed “secular” music. When I went to her house, we ogled Donny and Jordan and debated which one of those NKOTB poster boys was hottest. I paid little attention to all the other posters and magazines she had. Our friendship proceeded apace through early high school. In our junior year, it broke. My boyfriend used the N-word in front of her one night. At that moment,I cut my breath sharply. Seconds later, she slammed out of the car. I chastised him, but he shrugged it off saying, he’d forgotten she was Black, that he didn’t think of her that way, and that she’d forgive him because he’d known her all his life. I abandoned him at the entrance to the pizza joint where we were meeting up with other friends. I chased her into the bathroom and apologized for him. Another of our friends, a white girl, shooed me out. I didn’t understand why one White girl could stay to comfort her and I couldn’t. What I didn’t see is that I had made a choice. I prioritized my relationship with my boyfriend. I nurtured that. I wasn’t able to hear or understand why his N-word usage had reduced her to tears.
I’ve turned this event over in my mind for thirty years. I’ve always wanted to understand why that happened. In some ways, it echoes with my friendships. Not the N-word part, but sense that I can never be close with my Black friends. Also, I can’t build the same rapport and trust that with my Black students that I can to help my White students.
I suspect I need to listen to a plural of accounts over a long, long time to understand the accumulation of experiences that have ground down my Black friends and students.
Yup, Proof that I’m Still Not There
The events around George Floyd are a prime example of why I still have work to do.
Last Saturday I listened to all eight minutes and forty-six seconds of the recording of George Floyd’s death. I’d seen parts of the recording, like when he calls for his mother, but I’m not interested in traumatizing myself with violence to prove that these deaths are bad enough. I’d seen enough to find it undignifying to watch George Floyd suffer and die. I didn’t look at the officers but I’ve heard reports describing how casual he seems as he suffocates to another human being.
I keep hearing Black men and their mothers say something like: “When he called out for his momma that broke me. That’s when he knew he was going to die.” I’ve listened to march organizers shudder as they describe it and talk of their own bi-racial children. I’ve heard Black mommas talk about it on podcasts. I heard it again this morning on a weeks’ old Code Switch episode that I’ve been storing in my queue while I tear through all the books on race.
Until this morning, I didn’t hear, really hear, what was going on in my head compared to what those mothers were saying. This time, I interrogated myself. Why hadn’t I assumed that he’d known he was going to die? Because of my other assumptions.
I assumed that Floyd had called out for his momma because he wanted to humanize himself to those officers. He was calculating that they’d let up if he could seem like them, a person with a mother, a mother who might not see him again. Even though I’d heard his mother was dead, I still interpreted that moment as a moment of calculation, instead of fear and dying hope. Literally dying hope. I also realized that I would have made that calculation and called out for my mother or father in the belief that no person could be so unfeeling that they’d actually kill me. I would say, I thought, so that at least they’d stop torturing me.
It hit me that I was projecting my experience on George Floyd. I projected that he was calculating instead of reacting instinctively as a man dying. I started thinking through interactions I’ve had with students and parents. How many times had I contacted parents or a student outside of class to discuss plummeting grades and asked questions like, “What is happening at home or in your life that is affecting how much time and energy you are spending on school?” I’d be met with silence. I felt stone-walled. Or excuses. I felt lied to. A student might give a litany of health issues, deaths in the family, past bullying, parental job losses, always different excuses over different conversations. I’d call a mother and meet a momma bear who defended and excused her student. I’d always figured these were calculations.
All the while I ignored what I’ve learned about race, poverty, trauma and stress. I’ve read enough to know that stressors are multiplied in Black and low-income households. Still I projected that these people intended to manipulate me, to shut me, out or take advantage of my discretionary privilege as the teacher. It’s weird to realize how little I assumed I might do the same thing if roles were reversed. I assume my intentions are moral and good, but theirs? Why don’t I assume that they are doing the best they can in the circumstances? Or that their pain is just pain, not manipulation?
Sitting with this, after having spent years trying to read, to teach, to pay attention, taught me that I still have not spent enough time seeking to understand. I have Black friends, but not close ones, even though I really admire those friends. I wonder if we can get close if I don’t seem to understand their full selves. I don’t understand them because I’m not spending the time listening instead of projecting. Also, I still nurture my native, comfortable culture more. How on earth is someone supposed to trust me with their authentic self if I am steeped in the ideas and aesthetic that has always made me comfortable? That old saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes? I’m not sure a mile is enough if I had to hear the same observation five times in three weeks to realize I was thinking very differently about George Floyd.
Why Be Partisan?
I hear often that we live in one of the most polarized periods since the Civil War. While that’s hard to prove, I will say that recently I’ve damaged a lot of relationships because I’m doing this. I don’t like to be unliked or to enrage others. If I didn’t see how other families are also cracking, but new friendships and new possibilities are forming, I would not be telling myself, “You gotta keep at it, probaby for years, and their issues with race affect you, but they are not your fault.”
The cost of change is real, but I have to pursue change. For too long, I’ve suffocated the voices of those who’ve begged to be heard. I need to understand them because I operate in some institutions that still wound children and souls. I’m a teacher puzzling how to educate those kids who previously were not admitted into high ability classes. Some of my students struggle throughout the year because the stressors overwhelm them. In the past, I would have said they are not fit for this course. But they are. They have the ability, just not the support system (from me at least). I teach alt ed courses as well. In the past, I’d have said that such-and-such student needed suspension or expulsion, which spirals into greater stressors and barriers for that student. Now I’m trying to figure out how to educate each of the kids. Each can achieve more, if I’m patient, and I don’t project failure onto them.
I’m also a priest’s wife in the Orthodox Church. While my neighborhood has finally begun to feel more diverse- I have lots of LatinX and some Black neighbors mixed in with working class White folks- my church has almost none of those people visit, let alone return. Our congregation is mostly well-educated and White. What would happen if we started inviting my neighbors to church? I don’t know because it would make our parish a very different culture. When “different” people have come in the past, they’ve been held to standards that often result in them leaving after a few months. It’s easy to say they are just too different and self-selected out of our culture. We haven’t asked if our culture is healthy and welcoming to all God’s people.
Standards I’m Measuring Myself For
I represent two institutions that have work to do. It’s not just about people dying or the police. It’s about institutions that need the people who operate in them to shift their entire perspective. I will know if I’m “being the change” if I fulfill or help bring about the following standards: (I set these goals for myself after much reading).
I have many relationships in my neighborhood.
I remain a resident in a diverse neighborhood.
I nurture lots of friendships to deeper levels among people who didn’t grow up like I did (low income, working class White) or who are not like me now (White, cause that isn’t changeable and my middle class, educatedness).
More POC and low-income people will feel welcome to visit and return to my church. I will befriend these people.
My parish family will also befriend and welcome these people.
More of my school’s students of color will be placed in high ability courses.
We will reduce our suspensions and expulsions across the board but pay close attention to how many of those are students of color and examine ourselves in regular, sustained discussions about why that’s happening.
I will stop projecting on families and students what I think their motivation or situation is.
I will listen carefully and ask lots of questions, even of my White peers, to understand why White peers resist or fear. (Yes, fear. In recent weeks, Orthodox friends expressed negative reactions to our presence at demonstrations because they believed that Black people want to force White people to bow to them or that Black people mean to oppress White people. Just saying what happened.)
This is only the beginning of the list. I will need to add more. Proficiency is one thing. Excellence is another.
Why my career is getting hot now that I’m an empty nester
At college orientation almost thirty years ago, I leaned against the wall and observed the people swirling around me. As I made mental notes of the scene, a portly professor approached me. “Are you a psychology major?”
“Nope, Journalism.” He raised his eyebrows. He thought I would be one of his students, but it made sense, he said.
I went to college determined to be a writer and being a journalism major appeared to be the clearest route to supporting myself while pursuing my dream. Supporting myself mattered because I considered myself a feminist, albeit an evangelical, conservative one. I figured I’d get married out of college, but for women with career ambitions in my milieu I’d have to justify my career with accomplishments and money or I’d be pressured to step out of the workforce. My family and my boyfriend’s family emitted signals about my dreams. They were at best ambivalent. And while not openly hostile, they were at worst critical. They nodded “we’ll see” and spoke praise for the women who worked until babies, then stayed home. The most praise-worthy of these women ended up like my mother, homeschooling moms. It’s how they earned their keep. While I admired them, I’d witnessed that version of womanhood firsthand. I could imagine it for my kids, but not entirely for myself. I wanted my own career path. I wanted marriage and kids in balance with adding my own verse to the conversation.
What I imagined for my professional self started with a few years as a journalist. I may freelance on the side but ultimately, I’d write books. So far, I’ve failed at those goals. If my career path looked like I imagined, its analogy would be climbing. I expected the training, some failures and setbacks, but not due to my femininity. As I approach fifty and reflect on why I haven’t free soloed my first book yet, I have to map what held me back. I made a few training errors but most of my setbacks seem to be psychological, largely based on how I grew up.
I took to accounting for this after I read Caroline Kitchener’s piece on how COVID is pushing women out of the workforce. The acute reasons women are being pushed out, lack of daycare and camps, haven’t changed much in the thirty years since I went to college. In fact, much of what dissuaded me from my goals factors into why so many women have the same problem. The reasons our careers look like journeys that snake around, curlycue, climb, drop, or hit deadends is how we share similarities in our cultural conditions.
I asked women on my facebook page to map their careers and label when they climbed and when they dropped off. One woman sketched a steep climb out of college and through grad school. Her highest peak hit at marriage, then her career dipped and climbed in smaller peaks, steeper troughs. She labeled her dropoffs; health problems, divorce, money problems related to health problems. She’s younger than me, a millennial, with no kids yet. She may not experience what affected me, but she may, just with different tactics.
I felt pressured to stay home after kids. You don’t want the nanny state raising your kids, they said about daycare and public schools. Some millennials may have willing partners who contribute equally to household chores and child nurturing, but I have millennial friends with husbands unaware of how to contribute equally. These men were raised by parents who praised men for supporting their families by working, mowing, grilling and doing the occasional bedtime routine. The conditions in which we grew up shaped how much value career women earn. (Perhaps this is why women’s salaries remain at 81 cents on men’s dollars?). These norms come through systems, family, ethnic culture, and religion. They shape our political will. After all, we live in a democracy. It may be dysfunctional, too hierarchical, but what we do inside our personal walls affects the political will of our leaders. We have agency, at least some.
I’m working my way through Mrs. America, the limited series about the ERA and Phyllis Schlafly. In it I am reliving cultural norms in which I grew up. I’m reminded that women like Schlafly and her supporters intensified pressure on girls and women to view motherhood as the loftiest career goal. I’m not evangelical anymore, but I’m still religious. Even in my current religious tradition, pockets of women have to shirk the ideology of one ideal womanhood: the dutiful, sacrificial wife and mother. I understand why some girls shimmy out of the long skirts and marriage and pull on the career suit. I suspect an enormous block of women who know they can do both have to sort out why doing family and doing a career feels like we’re asking to “have it all.” We’ve been cheekily told we’re asking for too much. But we aren’t.
I married young, left college incomplete and got pregnant months into my marriage. I calmed myself with the thought that I could still freelance. Oh, if only I had known that freelancing can be as much a soul-sucking abyss as a toddler, I might have put that dear sweet girl into daycare and hustled my heiny back to college. But I’d been raised under the auspices of the well-worn chapter of Proverbs. It presents the woman of worth as someone up before even the servants and asleep long after the kids and hubby are snoozing away. In my youth, I pointed out that the woman seemed to be the financial provider for the household while the husband sat on his duff at the village gate handing out free adjudications. If I just worked hard enough at kicking off my freelance career, I’d be fine.
My husband championed the idea. He grew up far less conservative and thought “career Maria” a splendid pursuit. But he was not trained as I had been at housekeeping– my mother trained me at an Olympic level. She taught me gardening, canning, couponing, garage-saling, marketing with a calculator, cloth-diapering, weekly dusting, sewing, and army-approved bed making. Though my husband cheered for me, neither of us knew enough about our preferred vocations- his music career and my writing one. I couldn’t write a query letter to save my life, and I just didn’t have the training to edit my drafts. (This is still a work in progress for those of you with an eagle eye for my verbose style and length.)
One baby, four gently used editions of Writer’s Digest’s annual publishing guide, and many homemade candles later, I realized I had to go back to college to get real training in another career path. I was wasting our non-existent budget surplus on arts and crafts to quiet my creative energy. That’s when I had to face my next psychological barrier. It felt like a transgression to put my daughter into daycare. My mother stayed home. She schooled us. The first weeks of daycare, my daughter stood at the window waving until I drove out of the parking lot. I’d blown her a thousand kisses and looked back over my shoulder enough times that I felt sure God was judging me. I’d be turned into a pillar of stone, cold from heartbreak. When my father told me, “It’s okay. It’s not like when you were young and people could live on a single income,” t I let go the guilt.
One English degree, another child (in a criminally cheap daycare) and a teaching job in a private school, and I’d restarted a career path. I never wanted to be a teacher, let alone in the K-12 system. If my son’s daycare hadn’t been a mere $75 dollars a week and my daughter’s tuition free at the private school where I started, I wouldn’t have stayed in the workforce. I earned $19,000 that year. A public school teacher started at about six thousand more than that. I’d made it to that point due to family. Several cared for my infant because our county lacks adequate daycare to this day, especially for babies under a year.
What struck me in Kitchener’s piece is that the married women she profiled also have husbands ill-trained to be their children’s care-giver. Even when their wives have better economic job opportunities, the women step out of the workforce. What set my husband apart, and yes, I know I am very lucky, is that he had the will to learn. In the early years, he had a higher paying job than me though. He worked at the USPS. His job required no college and he made 125% more than me, and had he stayed, nothing would have changed. When he left the USPS in 2006, he still made more than I currently make in teaching, even with my master’s degree.
I can’t decide if my career trajectory climbed or plateaued when I chose teaching. I chose it because someone would have to take care of the kids in the summer and be home after school. As a woman, I should want to be with them. And, I did, but not full-time. I knew my husband had more of a nurturer’s heart. I thought my heart would grow more patient and interested in them if we had some time apart. My husband reacted with deep interest in what made me murmur “uh-huh, yep, cute, interesting,” until I grew bored and asked, “Did you put away your toys?” but I’d been conditioned that I needed to fix myself and stay home when they were home. I realized the problem at the time, but I didn’t know how to push back at it.
The seeds of my partners load-sharing began when I took a position closer to home. He’d pick up the kids from school and daycare so that I could advise the high school journalists. My husband was the single greatest factor in re-railing my career. Then again, one of the reasons I married him and not one of the typical boys at our Christian college was that he valued my feminist leanings through action. He trusted me
Mr. Maria, if I can call him that, took another risk, not unlike many women’s risks, but leaving the workforce to go to seminary. He meant to support my prospects in a writing career, but that wasn’t his reason for taking a steep jump off his career cliff. While he finished his bachelors and masters, he let me support the family on a teacher’s salary. Afterwards, he was paid less than I was in my first teaching position. We both schooled our kids at home or through classical academy cohorts, but he did most of the caregiving.
I struggle to say this, because I have only my experience and the anecdotes of Jen Hatmaker and a few others to verify, but we had to leave mainstream evangelicalism to get there. It wasn’t the reason we left. It just wore down too many parts of me, which is another topic, but before my husband ever thought of seminary, we discovered we no longer fit into evangelicalism’s theology, or its cultural pillars. As we questioned the theological dogmas and praxis, I gained a freedom in my womanhood. Whereas I’d once wanted to be the kind of woman tucked in the backstory of the scriptures I’d read, I returned to my childhood longing to be a force for the Gospel and social good.
I never was the kind of mom that my financially-secure friends are. We couldn’t afford the clubs. Skeptical of the church, I skipped VBS. Too young and rural for structured playgroups, I hung out with other young mothers in our backyard blow up pools in the backyard. We never could afford organized sports. I imagine plenty of women with the same barriers. Throw a job or career into the mix, and I was sure that any margin for family time would begin to disintegrate. Thinking back on this, I wonder about and at those women who parent solo or co-parent with an ex. It takes a plural of options and buttresses to achieve a smooth career trajectory. I drew from the options available to me. I ended up with a non-traditional teaching position (in a virtual high school) and a husband working from home. And time. It took years for me to feel free to be bi-vocational and feel unified. When our kids were in middle and high school, I finally could pursue both teaching and writing as vocations. In fact, only when those fell into placem and our financial situation became less precarious, could I unite those passions. I returned to school for my MFA in writing in my thirties. My degree allowed me to start teaching college-level courses in our high school. I returned to writing and publishing. When I came back to where I left off almost fifteen years before, I understood why I didn’t make it as a freelancer. Freelancing, like a lot of gigging, is an act of desperation for many years before there’s stability. — To make matters more complex, I’m still the source of health income and retirement for our household because ministers are largely “self-employed.”– Another piece I read recently in The Guardian affirmed why I would have to continue teaching as I write. Writing is a vocation for a person with a trust fund, or sugar-daddy/mama. Also, not having kids helps. Mine grew up. The youngest just moved out.
In my early teaching career, colleagues who had babies usually took years off from the workforce. When I taught at my first virtual school, women could have babies and remain on staff. They could hire a part-time caregiver or work out a situation with a partner or parent. They could stay home and not give up their careers. It took a while to realize this. The first two years in the virtual school model — it was novel in 2006-2010–, women without children marveled at the number of mothers-to-be at our staff meetings. They commented on how this could hamstring careers. While parenting and working full-time from home, where we often worked longer hours, demanded creativity, it also afforded flexibility to do both.
The flexibility to work from home in a meaningful career may be a good side effect for a precious few after this pandemic is over. But it will only be a precious few unless we change the same cultural norms that needed reform before this started. We need partners who practice equity in parenting, housework, and nurturing. We need partners who value us for our whole selves. We probably will have to trade times with our partners when one takes on more of the work in the home and with kids while the other pursues a goal. It’s on women to ask for what we need of our partners and our civic leadership. We need affordable childcare and healthcare. We need flexible options for work and when those cannot include work-from-home, we need to empower ourselves to get the education, chase the circumstances that work for us, or to be at peace with what is available. I’m not a big proponent of having it all right now. (Try that with your appetites and you’ll quickly discover yourself getting unhealthy.) I don’t mind the lean times or holding patterns. But if they had no reprieve, if I had to stay at home for twenty plus years to raise kids, I would be cowed in trying to re-enter the workforce, let alone have a career. To quote from Langston Hughes, a part of me would have dried up like a raisin in the sun, festered like a sore and run, or just exploded.
Sexual Assault, Racial Inequity and Christian Systems
Sorry for the world’s most technical sounding title.
But seriously, folks.
Yesterday about a 100 people showed up for a short impromptu march in my little town. An hour or so beforehand, the organizers contacted my husband to speak. He addressed the mostly white crowd, first with the admission he did not know what it is like for his black, brown, and LGBTQ neighbors and friends to live in their skins. He doesn’t have to time his outings for daylight, or look over his shoulder when he goes for a run, as his neighbors do. He mentioned that even I, his white wife, had more to consider before heading out than he could imagine. I appreciated the nod to gender, not because I’m as vulnerable as even my black/brown/LGBTQ neighbors and friends, but because there are parallels between sex, race, and gender when it comes to power in the systems in which we live. These are ongoing problems I am processing, often on my long runs, and Ahmaud Arbery’s death sealed them together in my head space.
I feel like when I bring up these topics on social media, I get a metaphorical teargassing from the “I’m not a racist and not responsible” crowd. I want pause and collect.
We have an on-going problem. I’m responsible for doing my part to fix it. I’m not doing enough. One thirty minute march and a few social media posts is too convenient. It means I have privilege. While I have a plan for anyone who tries to assault me on a run, what is my plan for preventing my neighbors from the onslaught? So, I’m working with more formal groups to address the problem in my region, in our Church, and in myself. It means a lot of listening and reading. I’m good at the latter, working on the former.
I happened across an article today, while trying to contextualize a priest in my faith confession commenting on a friend’s post about the outside groups showing up at BLM demonstrations around the country. What else had the person said and with what intentions, especially when I clicked on his Facebook profile and discovered he was a priest? He’d posted several articles on sexual assault as it relates to Christian biblical interpretation and church practice. He didn’t comment much, but I found both articles thought-provoking (see “A Tale of Two Rapes”) but the central points of “Compliance is not Consent,” about sexual assault by pastors, as well as their churches responses to it, made salient points that could be translated to race and church systems.
Power, sexual abuse/assault, race and church systems
The article focuses on sexual assault in notable evangelical churches. They are dis-aggregated unlike the Catholic Church so it’s hard to holler and make movies like we did about the wide-spread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. But it’s there, and it’s as swept under the rug as in any church. I am an Orthodox Christian woman and clergy wife, I know of far too many cases in my own Church. The problem is global. We ought to be asking “why?”
As I read Jules Woodson’s story and thought about author Abby Perry’s central points about how Christians use the words sin and forgiveness, as well as how we disavow the current terms of “systems” and “systems of power,” I saw parallels in how we think and talk that allow us to perpetuate both sexual abuse/assault as well as racial injustice within our faith traditions. These keep Christians from doing the gospel work of healing and reconciliation for the life of the world.
What we mean when we talk about sin and forgiveness
One of the main points of the article is that Christians tend to make sexual, gender and racial problems about “sin” instead of crime. Sin is one of those words that has too many meanings. I can sin by thinking someone is a fool, by overeating, by using most or all of my money for my own good life, by refusing to consider how my consumption and waste make another person’s life miserable or by assaulting or killing. When it’s convenient to us, we think “If it’s a sin, and people are prone to sin, then what must be done after sinning is repentance and forgiveness.” We have hierarchies of criminal behaviors, and then we have sins. Too often, the former is relegated to whether the human justice system will intercede. What’s worse, is that sometimes we Christians so like our systems and leaders that we protect them from being charged as criminals.
If it’s a sin, a mere sin, then most of what we expect of the sinner is to repent. Of the target, we expect forgiveness. What shoddy, incomplete Christianity! It’s ignorant of what repentance is. It’s not a “sorry” sermon, a “stepping down” or taking a break, a written apology and some therapy. If that is all repentance is, it leaves the perpetrator (usually one with more power) unaccountable because they did not even begin to repair the damage to the target. Correction and reconciliation can’t happen if that’s the process.
This is the second critical observation from the article. Congregations who like their pastors get a pass. They can forgive the sinner (and hate his sin) but not ask how this happened in their community. They don’t examine the way they do things, the assumptions made about the powerless who became the targets. Why are women vulnerable to being targeted their community? How did some get the power to exploit others? What are the underlying assumptions and are there explicit checks and balances? If the community fails to do the deep work of its own repentance and fails to ask how did this happen to one of the least of these among us, then it will happen again. But worse, they’ve failed to minister to the target.
As Perry and Woodson point out, ignoring the target (or the powerless) creates a strange paradigm where the trauma becomes an unfortunate side affect. The kind of thinking I’ve witnessed and participated. It frames the situation like this: “We live in a broken world. He repented. He’s only one of us, a sinner too. The best thing for (the target) is to forgive and move on.” Ostensibly, we’ve just isolated the traumatized person and told her (him/them) that she’s on her own. Get therapy, if you need. Get what you need to forgive. Thus we heft the work of reconciliation on her (again, or him/them). If s/he, or they speaks up, s/he or they often become targets a second time. This time the crowd is likely to try to silence them with “You haven’t truly forgiven.”
Thus the system remains warped. As the article points out, many pastors who’ve committed this crime give a public apology and remain in some form of leadership, because the rest of the congregation forgives them. As Woodson says, “The powerful often overlook the powerless, and can afford to do so at little to no cost to themselves.” This sums up what people on the internet are talking about when they talk about privilege.
The existence of authority or church hierarchies is not an inherent evil, but a refusal to acknowledge and steward power well is.
Abby Perry “Compliance is Not Consent”
Systems are not the cause of the problem. Hierarchies are not inherently evil, as Perry notes. But they can break. They can have a hairline fracture, a chronic illness, a slow growing cancer.
As Perry writes: “The goal is not to induce guilt over power or authority, but to consider the systems in which we exist and ensure that they are not harming the vulnerable. Christians must steward authority for the good of others.” That’s when I’m sure that there’s a clear parallels to crimes and sins against black and brown people perpetrated in our churches.
Churches have authority. People leave when they no longer trust, therefore remove their faith in that authority. People are leaving churches at record rates in the USA. Churches may not have authority in the future. Authority isn’t inherently evil. It gives us direction. It can unify when used well. Good usage, though, is predicated on the support of the people. They will respond when authority is used to uphold systems that not only don’t harm the vulnerable, but actively heal, protect, and serve the vulnerable and powerless.
For this reason, I despair when I see systems of authority that oppress, harm, or simply dismiss and ignore the current LOUD pleas for us to listen. Listen beyond your assumptions, listen beyond the borders of your comfort zone, don’t make them yell and scream and break things to be heard (you don’t like the noise and destruction either). Listen. Learn. Learn what it takes to be a healer, a defender, a servant. You can’t ignore the servant language of the New Testament. If you are an Orthodox Christian, you’d have to be tone deaf to ignore the call for the Church to be a hospital. If you’ve read the Psalms, you know that defenders of the helpless are those whom God honors. It’s not enough to say, “I’m not a racist” or “I honor women” or “Of course LGBTQ people can get to heaven, but.”
Last weekend, the first weekend in May, a polar vortex frosted my newly planted gardens. The hosta leaves looked like frozen cucumbers. We know that frozen cucumbers don’t taste good and look like canned nopalito cactus. I love the cactus in the glass dish, but it’s a bit slimy, like when my mother’s snapped a bit off of her aloe to put on my burns. I don’t know if there’s hope for my hostas. It’s been a warmer week, but most of them hang there like bruised, boneless appendices. Who’s winning at the good news? (Besides John Krasinki). I mean, the gospel. I don’t know about you, but for me the good news feels so distant. It’s usually not communicated in the terms like, “you are loved because you are loved because you are loved because you are loved.”
I am prognosticating here, but I suspect people feel all kinds of not loved. We all want perfection in ourselves. What if our perfection is being ourselves? Loved as you were created. Known as you truly are in your secret places. I am not sure most people can hear the gospel if they think they won’t be loved in spite of what they fear about their own imperfections. When did the Christian tradition stop with a starting point, you are loved because you are loved because you are loved. Or because I made you as you are as you are you.
Sorry, Christians. Your messaging isn’t getting through. While you wring your hands about that, how about not. How about just listening? How about sitting quietly with others, not starting a focus group, a study or committee, or a data study. There are some things big data cannot solve. Not yet.
Why don’t I feel loved because I’m loved? It’s always about not measuring up to a standard. The beauty of being loved as I am, the miraculous revelation of it all, can’t become personal when I start with, I am not enough because I’m not enough because I’m not enough. Why? Because I all know I am inadequate. I suspect this resonates for many others. In our lonely silos, we sit under the cold crush of this. We are like the leaves of a frozen hosta leaf or cucumber slices left in a refrigerator that is set at a temp too cold. We are never enough these days. Women can work and keep all the tabs open and still not perform as nurturers. They expect their kids will grow up and need therapy. They fear their partners will find out they aren’t good and throw them away. Men can try to be empaths and help with children, but still be overtouchy and receive feedback from employers that they are not productive enough. They will be accused of all kinds of inappropriateness because they couldn’t perceive adequately to do well in every quarter.
We all feel like we might be sinners in the eye of an angry crowd or God. What are you ways of feeling inadequate? Does your spiritual confession give you some good news? Or is it always telling you to work on your own transformation? What if it told you, you don’t have to get better? What if our faith confessions started with, “you are loved because you are fine as you are because you are loved as you are because you are loved?” What would happen to you if you heard first that you are loved? Would you shrivel up under all the pressure or would you feel free to be what the current parlance calls, “your best self?”
“I just feel so much shame that I can’t do something my body was made to do,” my friend said, when I told her I’d send her a copy of Dr. Nicole Rocca’s Under the Laurel Tree, which I just finished.
“If you want it,” I added. I’m self-conscious that offering a book might be as burdensome as other unsolicited fixes. It’s hard to hold the space with a friend who has shared discreetly about her fertility treatments. With my friend, it’s harder because she’s the kind of tough cookie I admire. She competes in ultra marathons and Ironman competitions. She is a step mom, a health coach, and academic advisor for at risk high schoolers. She and her husband keep faith, and they hope. And, yeah, maybe it’s just me worrying for her, but I thought I detected an ache in her voice. I imagined how that grief for the child that isn’t became a shadow in her relationship with her husband, the step kids, her mom, and her own body.
I offered to send the Audible copy because Dr. Roccas has a great radio voice. She intones the humor, hope and hurt without sounding wounded. I get the sense she’s a compassionate, tough cookie herself. Of course, part of the “voice” that makes this book such a valuable resource is that Roccas’ writing is spot-on. She establishes immediately that infertility is a grief. And we humans don’t handle grief well. We excel at stumbling, bumbling and being weird around it. Right away, Roccas walks right up to the weirdness: the lack of happy endings, the unexpected reactions of others (like a sudden layings-on of hands in prayer,) the strange prescriptions and the well-meaning busy-bodyness peculiar to this grief.
I dared to offer the book because I think it shines light and should be on a hilltop. Nevertheless I shied away from offering it to my friend because prescriptive suggestions tend to stifle healthy relationships. Nevertheless, I persisted. I think she’ll read it and I hope it helps. But, it probably would help the rest of us as much or more than the couples we know dealing with infertility. I will recommend it over and over, to priests, ya-yas, friends with quivers full of kids, and single people. Why? Because if you haven’t experienced infertility, you probably know someone who has, or you will. It’s on the rise around the world. It helps to have someone like Roccas invite us into some very intimate spaces. She uses personal quotes, diverse perspectives, healthy questions, sage advice and sound research, which she anchors in spiritual tradition. If we have ears to hear, this book will help us better empathize and make better choices about what to say and whether to offer “fixes.”
Roccas centers the struggle with infertility through of the lives of Joachim and Anna, Mary the Mother of God’s parents. Their story in the Protoevangelium of James didn’t make the canon (for sound reasons regarding text sourcing), but their narrative ties together all similar Biblical accounts–Hannah and Elkinah, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Rachel and Jacob, Abraham and Sarah. Most of those stories are fraught with jealousy, assumptions, shame, marital tension and a narrative style that renders invisible those intimate moments that could provide saintly (or unsaintly) examples of what to do, or not to do. The Protoevangelium provides a more robust narrative.Roccas unpacks it Joachim and Anna’s world, seeing them as a couple and as members of a community. She also meditates on their personal responses to childlessness and how it affects their relationship with God. We learn how men too grieve and how to hope. Roccas lets us peek into other married couples intimate thoughts. She gives us examples of how to support or be supported.
In dividing the book into two parts and providing a helpful appendix, Roccas addresses all forms of infertility, including situations that seem invisible to the rest of us. Infertility shows up in more than just childless couples. It often affects couples who have one or a few children, those who have conceived but suffered multiple miscarriages. Some singles experience a kind of infertility grief while waiting for the right partner. As a priest’s wife, I see the young men and women fretting for a godly partner and hoping it won’t happen too late to have kids. I know of couples who’ve suffered multiple miscarriages and admit a tinge of bitterness that other families grow so easily. The culture of some parishes celebrates the large family, which has a peculiar side-effect of amplifying the shame of not being good enough to have the right number of children. Dr. Roccas writes (and narrates) with grace about the awkward, painful, sometimes sweet ways that the Church makes the experience of infertility more complicated.– Along with the usual slog of kale diets, essential oils, or specialists, we church-goers add in fixes like “Have you prayed at this monastery?” “Tried this prayer?”– Then there’s small talk, ministry planning or comments from clergy or other couples about the central importance of (nuclear) families and the right number of children. (In her appendix, Roccas offers scripts and ministry planning suggestions to make space for those who cannot have families.)
In the latter part, Roccas orders the stages of infertility– shame/comparison, separation, anger, bargaining, and thanksgiving– in such a way to address both positive and negative potentials with each stage. Separation comes after shame and could result in dissolution of marriage or faith. Anger can be consumptive or healthy. Yes. Actually healthy. Bargaining, too, is not the sin we’ve been told it is. If we give ourselves permission to aim our anger rightly, to bargain with God and not give up, and to know that the danger of separation (between spouses or between individuals and God) are real, then perhaps new streams and rivers can flow, where grief can drain away. Then the energy that we wanted to spend on raising children can be channeled into thanksgiving, a new purpose as a couple and as individuals.
I could have used this book a thousand times. I’ve listened, mostly poorly, to many loved ones with various complications during infertility. One couple suffered over fourteen miscarriages, during which they spent a fortune on physicians, tests, treatments, and then adoption. They so longed for a baby, they asked whether surrogacy was an option. Another couple tried for years. They took custody of their godchildren and thought they’d spend their days parenting those kids, only to lose custody. Their heartbreak grew with the loss of their son through miscarriage, then total loss of fertility. Another couple buried three pre-term babies. Several loved ones conceived and gave birth to one child, then grieved when they realized that child would bury them alone some day. I never knew what to ask. I wish I’d started with a simple “How are you?” Mostly I stayed silent and probably gave them the sad doe eyes that just don’t help. I thought I was afraid to remind them of what them of what they probably think about daily. I think I kept quiet because I wouldn’t trust myself not to ask a more stupid follow-up question or that I would quit listening when their pain became heavy for me. In each situation, those couples have struggled but also succeeded in re-envisioning their purpose together. As I listened to Roccas talk about how couples learn to respect their different ways of grieving and how they find a new spiritual purpose together, I thought about how that’s true of my husband and me. At our wedding almost twenty five years ago, my grandfather prayed for us saying, “Give them a great spiritual purpose” and we took that to heart. It’s a conversation we’ve returned to many times- in becoming Orthodox, in going to seminary, and now with our empty nest. In one more way, Roccas instructs us through the hard-learned insights of those who grieve. It’s a reminder that our peculiar positions in life may always be used to strengthen the whole community.
I tried to record a podcast of this review, but I’m not savvy enough with my free software. So nudge nudge, I need a great tutor. That said, I listen to Dr. Roccas’ current podcasts on writing and “Help My Unbelief,” which both show I have much work to do on voice. I wish I’d asked for a photo with her at the writing and podcasting conference I attended last June. Alas, I’m also terrible at networking.
Once upon a time, I swooned for Radiohead. “Creep” was my soundtrack in anxiety-riddled days before I kissed my high school paramour goodbye and while I traded slides for combat boots. I hacked off my peroxide locks, dyed them aubergine and drank Mountain Dew by the two-liter because the new beau who seemed both too cool yet who liked me had sent me a mix tape with the song “Creep. “Few words hit chords so true to the weird vibrato of my soul:
I don’t care if it hurts I want to have control I want a perfect body I want a perfect soul
I don’t care if the blade across my wrist hurts, the food hurts, disappointing everyone who thought I’d marry that boy from high school hurts.
I want to fast, to pray more, I wanna stop those pimples.
I want to be skinny with these breasts.
I want God to look upon me with favor. I want to be good but cool too.
“Creep” wrung from me the convoluted identity crises of a Christian college freshman, particularly a home-schooled girl. High school was spiritually and socially awkward for me. I tried to fast for a weekend once in my senior year. I went into my “prayer closet,” e.g. my bedroom with my Bible and a journal. I have a vague memory of an adult saying fasting wasn’t necessary (never mind the “when you fast” phrase out of the Lord’s mouth) but if I did, don’t sit around in sackloth and ashes. Don’t be a Pharisee for the rest of the family. I failed by midnight, which lingered in my memory.
I didn’t see all the fuss about Radiohead for years, though I absorbed them like a nicotine patch in the skin because my husband played OK Computer non-stop for months. Later “Fake Plastic Trees” came to thaw my high-functioning depressive states. (Self-diagnosing here, but I may exhibit symptoms of a high functioning bi-polar depressive. Ask me later about how crazy stress causes me to over stock the pantry via Amazon orders, or how I used to can fifty quarts of cherry jam even though we didn’t grow cherries.)
While we were in seminary, we tried not to be too pious but by the third year and with almost twenty grand on credit cards due to disasters ,I drove to the monastery ground with “Fake Plastic Trees” playing at eleven (see Spinal Tap.)
It wears her out It wears her out
She lives with a broken man A cracked polystyrene man Who just crumbles and burns
He used to do surgery For girls in the eighties But gravity always wins
And it wears him out It wears him out
Fake Plastic Trees- Radiohead
My husband almost broke in those years. I had my first recognizable panic attack since college. He’d be gone ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day while I tried to support us, full time teaching on-line. We were worn out. So I just sat in our rusting van on the monastery grounds and let the song wail at me while I wept. Who gave two pennies that one of the monks had chastised me recently for driving up with “Tether” by the Indigo Girls leaking out of my windows?
“Matushka, keep the music holy on the grounds.” Aside: the term Matushka is for a deacon or a priest’s wife, a reverence for pious women. Hashtag failed.
For me, Radiohead is the soundtrack of personal failures. Radiohead, for all its acclaim and critical success, seems comfortable with imperfection, which is a sound starting place for reading Robert Saler’s All These Things Into Position: What Theology Can Learn from Radiohead. Because, in spite of all the praise my husband heaped upon Radiohead, I heard only licks or lines that expressed the dissonance of attempting a significant existence. — The reason I probably struggle with Radiohead is that I fall easily into the trap of living for significance. They always seem to dismantle it.–
Disclaimer, as Saler points out: this book is not what does a Christian read theologically into lyrics ( when it’s not there, so don’t be the ol’ evangelical who must reconcile “sacred to secular” as I once did.) This books unpacks what we can learn from a band with a history and a body of work that can be dismissed as uneasily as one dismisses a marriage that lasts 75 years.
Saler’s book is a series of essays that might stand alone, but are better together. After his back-grounding on the phenomenon of Radiohead’s fan base and artistry in the intro, Saler opens with an essay about the tension of being authentic in the marketplace. As a Gen-Xer, this would have once raised my ire. But as a good writer must do, he moved me from point A to point B on what it means to be meaningful in corrupt, consumer systems. This is a tension for the Christian. I grew up while CCM and evangelicals became power-houses in the American markets. I read the literary tripe and listened to the cheap, throw away music that barely passed as theological (mostly it’s love-pop rewritten with God instead of the boy as the central figure.) Only because of my very sheltered upbringing was I hungry for real art while my friends smashed their Smashing Pumpkins CD’s in the dorm halls of our Christian university. The barely disguised praise-love ballad made me itchy and willing to fly the bird.
As Saler names it, artists can cultivate success without sacrificing its progeny on the molech of money.
My cousin Caleb, a pastor of what he calls “a value-meal-sized” church in Indiana, raised this issue a couple of years ago. “When, not if,” he said, the government finds enough reason to strip churches of their 501c3 status because of financial abuse (ours not the governments), what will we have to show and say for ourselves in doing good instead of being the new country club? The Christian purse is busting with coinage. The trouble is how we’ve responded to this clout. As the Nones flee, citing the partisan – hypocritical – message of the Church, we look more and more like a club. We are the Order of Odd One Issue Voters, small supper clubs with religious themes, who sort into homogeneity that doesn’t even realize how it excludes the “other.” We are deaf because we are affluent enough that we can afford to be deaf.
Saler’s second essay is about consolation, or how hard it is to find and offer it in a dying world. If we’re telling the truth, chances are 100% all of us are going to die. This world is going to end. Every day something enormously painful and destructive blows up our news feeds. Fires in Paradise. War in Damascus. Hurricanes in the Bahamas. Shootings in Miami, Vegas, Dayton, et all. Immigrants locked up. Immigrants fleeing. Divorces. Sexual abuse and assault. Murder. Suicide. Cancer. Heart attacks. (It starts to feel like a new verse to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)
Which hurts more? Ten thousand people wiped out the week of Christmas in a tsunami? Or, watching a sister’s shock at coming home from Haiti just a few days shy of the earthquake that split the city streets of Port Au Prince? Or your friend keeling over dead from a heart attack at 51 with three kids? Or your sister dying of cancer, leaving behind little kids and a broken-hearted husband? How do we answer the questions all this pain brings? Saler notes that we Christians have trafficked in “cheap hope.” Having born witness to some of the personal tragedies in that litany, I’d testify that I’d choose a theology that descends into the complexity and chaos rather than oversimplifying what suffering is. Or beauty. Or what this one life is for. (I struggle with “one beautiful, wild life” right now. It’s been a crappy few years.)
If we cannot endure this life, with all it’s kingdom reality and connections to eternity, will heaven be a consolation?
Once while we walked to Liturgy, I asked my teen daughter, “But isn’t the idea of heaven hopeful?” Her answer, “Eternity scares me. It seems like a long time,” broke my heart, until I remembered my adolescent years and the fear that I’d be stuck singing saccharine tunes and feeling false cheer until I took advil for a fake smile. Imagine winning the Wonka factory and only eating sweets for eternity. Someone give me a gosh-darn leaf to nibble!
There’s something of sadness in all our lives, but what if we realized it’s holy? Holy sadness. Bright sadness, as we call it during Lent. Sober sadness. Sober deepness that is not nihilistic despair.
Heaven is not the easy solution to earth’s pain.
Truth be told, we don’t know what heaven is. My venerable prof Dr. Wes Gerig said once he thought heaven would be whatever brought us joy- for some roller coasters. For him, ping pong. I imagined that out to eternity. It all felt so banal. I think it’s because there is so much pain and imperfection in the present, I can’t trade now for a fantasy of exquisite fun. That is what Christianity can learn from Radiohead. We need beautiful art, with artful deconstruction and beautiful dissonance, to help us bear the work of the present, which is bearing our crosses. Fantasy is all well and nice, but without addressing the reality of our human condition, it’s just escapism. And that only exacerbates the problem. This life has problems that need us to keep showing up for.
My husband said the second essay meant the most to him because it hit on the problem that seems to weigh down Radiohead’s members – ecological disaster. It’s what call them to metanoia or turning around. I thought it set up the penultimate point of the book: Saler’s insights on what Radiohead teaches us about salvation.
I personally loved the essay on salvation, maybe because I’ve finished Malcolm Gladwell’s recent season of Revisionist History wherein he discusses the Jesuit practice of descending into the particulars. For me, the particulars have been so fraught: how to abide with families anguished over death by suicide or kids in the grip of addiction or friends who respond to the hurt of infidelity by getting back at the spouse with the same sin. What of siblings who found it eased their souls to stop worrying about God and hell? What of my friends who are not cis-gender, straight folks but, man, they just miss going to church? Yet they can’t find a way to be attracted to someone of another gender nor to be alone?
Maybe because his last essay digs into the spiritual quandaries and the enigma of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I found that Saler’s final essay resonated most. It calls us to be malleable and sharpened in the flame as the Holy Youths (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendigo). In it he writes that Christ descended into our particulars and moved “beyond ‘ethics’ as a disembodied Christian formalist purity” which calls us to the “vitality of transgressive discipleship, one which makes the Christian vulnerable to the horizon of the neighbor’s need in a manner that eschews purity for connection and genuine service– the Christian, like Christ, as ‘the man for others.'” Or as Corinthians says, Christ becomes sin for us.
What of our call to cover over others’ sins, not hound after them?To hound is to be predator. To be predator is to see ourselves as bigger and to see others as vulnerable.
What really stung in Saler’s final thoughts was how hope is a kind of middle class consolation. The poor suffer. The rich don’t. The ones in the middle taste enough but also tend to buy into hope like a candy. Is hope is a thing with feathers? It can fly away at any moment. The suffering know. It sings a tune without words, like a soul-grieving dirge. And it can never stop. It can become a dream deferred. It can sugar over or explode.
What we peddle as Christians, we learn from Radiohead, is not innocuous mantras to chant. Mantras don’t ease the suffering of the troubled. What we offer is the Cross, Christ crucified, the capacity to carry crosses together, to do this so we don’t have so sleep alone with our heads in the dirt when we need to rest. But also that the Resurrection is real. We don’t know what it looks like yet, but it’s likely not be eternal ping pong. Nowadays, I’m okay with the kind of heavenly chorus where I sing when my lungs are full of breath, breathe prayer when they aren’t, or hang my head and sway, like I’m at a great shoe-gazing rock concert where the band connects the beautiful and the sorrowful like Golgotha, not where they want me to adore them in place of a true Savior.