Monday, August 10, 2015

Thanks For Stopping By

A few minutes on the internet will provide a deluge of articles entitled, ‘An Open Letter to ____”. 

I loved the idea at first. 

After reading people’s open letters to rude customers, letter carriers with body odor, and parents of the screaming toddler at Applebee’s on June the 27th in Deluth, I’ve decided I’m tired of the open letter idea. 

Therapeutically speaking, I get it. We can’t always communicate with the people who offend or hurt us. I don’t know how many times I’ve thought of an excellent comeback when the moment has long passed. The old woman who gave me parenting advice outside Victoria’s Secret got a sound verbal lashing from me, but only later in my car. In the moment, I was too stunned by her forward remarks to do anything but stare. 

Sometimes it is necessary for our well-being to address the people and situations that have brought us harm. For example, I could write a few dozen open letters to ‘5th Grade Boys Who Tortured Me’ and ‘The Police Officer Who Told Me To Stop Dancing In the Public Fountain or He’d Call My Parents’. 

These kinds of letters help us process our feelings and move forward. 


These letters go unanswered. The best you can hope for is impacting someone wholly unconnected from the offending incident. Maybe someone will read it and decide not to ask a woman when her baby is due because they read your letter and now know that it isn’t an appropriate question to ask a stranger. 

You can civilize people, one open letter at a time. It’s terribly noble to feel that the situation has been rectified when the most that occurs is enlightenment of the general population. 

On a good day, I can be that noble. But in the dark jagged places of my heart, I want retribution. 

As I read the open letters to People With High Sodium Intake and The Cafe Guy Who Takes the Plug-In Seat When All He Does Is Read the Newspaper, I realize how often I fail to reply in a way that feels authentic. 

Civility is important and manners are necessary. However, hiding your feelings isn’t. 

In the past year I’ve been taught by my many, many therapists that your feelings are your own. You don’t have to apologize for them. You can let someone know that you’re angry without crossing any boundaries. Your behavior is still yours to decide, despite your feelings. 

I could have told the rude woman who told me I was parenting wrong that she had offended me and added to my stress. It would not have been kosher to slap her or make fun of her, or do any of the other things I later wanted to do. It would have been acceptable for me to tell her that I didn’t wish to speak with her, as she was a stranger and was crossing a personal line.

I think I’d be less likely to hold a grudge if I spoke up for myself. Looking back, I’m not as upset with the woman as I am myself. I didn’t react to her in a way that was consistent with who I am. I just stood there. 

Let’s write fewer open letters and instead speak honestly in the moment when the need arises, shall we? Candor can go far in rehabilitating bad manners and it also keeps us from taking subtle social abuses. 

For example, when I was pregnant with my first child, I hated to be touched on my stomach. A woman I worked with thought it was acceptable to rub my belly multiple times a day. Perhaps she thought I was a good luck troll. I seethed every time she reached out her hand. One day I’d had enough of it and when she touched my belly, I grabbed her left breast and didn’t let go. It’s one of my favorite stories about myself, but in retrospect it would have been better for us both if I had told her to stop the first time. 

The problem, of course, is what to say when an awkward moment arises. The solution, naturally, is to think through all the irritating events that are likely to occur in our lifetime and have candid material at the ready. 

And so, I present this field guide to my future self:

Navigating The Most Commonly Asked Questions to Mothers of Three Daughters

Wow, three girls? That’s a lot of hormones!

Yes, I suppose it is. You’re obviously a biochemist, why don’t you tell me how many more hormones are contained in my three female offspring than three of the male kind. What’s that? You don't know? I’ll walk away while you Google it. P.S. Blaming things on hormones is so Donald Trump.

Daddy better get a gun/You’ll have to fight off the boys with a stick.

This comment might be the most popular. It is hard to know if I should first attack the idea that boys will only be kept from my girls using physical violence, or the idea that Daddy would be the one to wield such weaponry. 

Authentic responses could include: Oh no, we’re pacifists; If a boy needs to be physically restrained from bothering my daughter, I’ll be the one with a stick while Daddy gets the rope; Only boys raised by cavemen would treat a girl in this manner; and my personal favorite, my daughter can speak for her own life and body. I’m just her backup and cheering squad. 

You should start saving now for their weddings!

You’re assuming someone will have them. What if they aren’t virtuous enough? What if I don’t teach them the way a wife should behave? What if they can’t cook? We just aren’t sure yet if our girls will have what it takes to catch a fellow’s eye. (Rolls eyes in most blatant sarcasm)

Also acceptable:

You do realize that’s an archaic tradition stemming from passing a woman from ownership to ownership, right? That’s when simply marrying a woman wasn’t enough. A man had to be enticed by the number of coins or sheep or acres of land that came with the deal. Throw a big enough party and the groom might forget he now has to feed and clothe the newly acquired baggage until she dies in childbirth. 

Has some potential:

I’m saving for her education instead; I’ll encourage her to elope; I don’t know if my girls even want to get married. 

Are you going to try for a boy/ Were you disappointed when the last wasn't a boy?

I cried SO MUCH when I realized I wouldn’t have a little lord of the castle. I was so depressed I had to take to my sick bed and was only roused when the doctor applied leeches. Again, what year is this? Once upon a rougher time, it was a woman’s responsibility to have a boy. They weren’t doing their part in life if they had only females or (gasp!) no children at all. I am sorry for the scores of women who went through life this way. But the world is no longer flat and a penis is not the only redeeming quality of a child. 


I don’t want a fourth child if it was a boy, girl, or solid gold future POTUS with a cure for scrofula.  The three children I have weren’t all in my plans, and I’ve still got my eye on the youngest. She might redeem herself by marrying into the ruling class, in which case I’ll retract that statement. 

Daddy might want to move out someday when you’re all on the same cycle!

Daddy will be welcome, and indeed encouraged to do so. He can start that practice as soon as he wishes. I’m all for progress, but I think letting women sit in a tent (fitted with air conditioning) sounds like a little slice of heaven. No parenting, cooking, laundry or work for 5-7 days? Today that’s what we call stay-cation. Leave my chocolate outside the tent flap and send someone to paint my toes. 

Do you get tired of the color pink?/ I guess you know all about princesses, huh?

I do get tired of the color pink because it is the primary hue available for shoes, bows, gymnastics attire, bathing suits, and training bras. Wait, also lunch boxes and pencil pouches and bedspreads. Don’t forget toothbrushes and Legos. We know about princesses because they're usually plastered on top of the pink backdrop. I don’t know much about Thomas the Train or Ninjago because those are only available in the ‘boy’ sections with the color blue. 

I like princess stories and I like pink. I love them both, in fact. I also love green and superhero stories. I’m quite partial to yellow. I’m a sci-fi fan. Most humans fall in their own categories of likes and dislikes. For the child who wants to wear all pink, I say do it with joy and don’t let anybody give you crap about it. For the child who has varied interests, I say wear a princess dress one day and an Iron-Man costume the next. Let purple be your favorite color today and black tomorrow and mint green the next. Because life is super boring when you wear/do/eat/think what someone else wants, and not what you want. Power to the pink; power to the unpink. 

Girls cause so much drama, how do you deal with it?
Emotionally unhealthy people and asshats cause drama. Want a number for a good therapist? 

Don’t you want to pass on the (father’s) family name?

Again, old habits die hard. It was A Big Deal in Years Gone By to have a son and heir. I don’t ascribe to those traditions. I love family history. I love it. I’m interested in my ancestors and where they lived and how they survived and who they married and who their descendants are. I think it’s important. But I feel that way about the men and women. I don’t take a ‘women are superior’ stance and only look through the eyes of matriarchy. I don’t only look at photographs of my father’s father’s father’s father (and so on). I’m the product of many men and women who had many different names. I’d be proud to hyphenate as a Cagle-Scott-Jordan-McGuinness-Stanley-Cooper and claim much more of my heritage than my current Scott-Cagle hyphenation allows for. For sake of brevity I have to chose which name or names I use to identify myself to the rest of the world.

I want each of my children to use the surname that fits their personality and needs. Right now I’ve decided for them what that is. When they reach adulthood, they may change it. They might take a name from a partner or even from my above list of Family Surnames. (Except my daughter who will marry into the ruling class and must do as she is told.) 

They might go by a single solitary name because life is short and being different is kind of fun. Maybe they’ll revise the practice of being known by your occupation or geographical location. One day I’ll be the proud parents of Moira Primatologist, Sabra Rain Paris, and Isla Basketball Coach-World’s Fastest-Runner-Fairy-California-Ireland-Disney-World. 

*In conclusion, random person at the mall, I’d like to say thanks so much for stopping me to comment about my life choices. It’s good to know that my genes are still at the top of the DNA pile. 

Now, isn’t it time for you to go home and cook a pot roast for your Overlord Husband? 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hank Leaves the Closet

I recently realized that I have a skeleton in my closet. I don’t know how I managed to pull off such a huge surprise. I’m not usually this crafty. 

Speaking of crafts, I love Pinterest. It’s a time-sucking, soul-fulfilling web of creativity and nonsense. It makes me think I really could make a maple bourbon reduction or sew a table runner to adorn the table I will craft from old barn doors. I’m honest enough to admit that I will never cook that reduction because I don’t buy bourbon and I don’t have the patience to reduce anything. Likewise, I’m not to be trusted with a hammer or the other tools necessary for building a table. For me, Pinterest isn’t about what is as much as what could be. I want to feel better about myself, as if I have a handle on my wardrobe, a plan for exercising, and a unique gift idea for every person. 

The skeleton grew stronger. I gave him a name. When Hank’s voice was too loud to ignore, I quietly acknowledged his presence and told him to settle down. “Hank! I’m an adult, I have responsibilities, and I can’t be seen talking to a skeleton.” I pinned expensive shoes and DIY projects while his clacking bones called for my attention. I pinned motivating quotes about perseverance. I pinned nail designs that I’m incapable of replicating, smacking Hank’s hand away from the doorknob all the while. 

What does Pinterest have to do with Hank the skeleton? They both thrive on what I want, rather than what is.

Eventually I could hear Hank’s voice louder than my own, and I was helpless. I didn’t realize how out of control my life was. Instead, I realized that most of my pins were secret. I didn’t want anybody to know what kinds of things I looked at. No longer was I interested in photography pointers or funny memes. Instead, I pinned recipes that embarrassed me. They contained things like Campbell’s soup and Cheez-Its. I have a secret Pinterest board called Mayday, chock full of desperation dinners and tips on how to make your hair look like you washed it this week. The secrecy was imperative. If nobody could see my pins about The Nutritional Benefits of Pop-Tarts, they wouldn’t realize I could no longer pack lunches or remember to brush my teeth.

Disclaimer - I have not lost my mind. Please continue.

2014 was the hardest year of my life. I’ve never been so ready to kiss a year good bye. I bid it adieu using colorful language that made my dad cough uncomfortably. Now that it is over, I’m ready to let Hank see the light of day. I’m hoping he’ll get lost and I’ll be done with Fantastic Five Minute Meal pins. 

I’ve spent much of the last five months in therapy. Part of my therapy included a brief stay at a mental hospital, several weeks of partial hospitalization, and one month in a residential treatment center.

How did I get so lucky? If you’ll excuse the technical jargon, I lost my shit. Not literally, though I’m learning not to feel smug about anything. The stress and depression and covering up and dragging on and hiding and getting up just to do it all over again…my gears stopped working. I used every tool I had to fix the damage. Turns out I didn’t know what I was doing. My life outside of Pinterest was as healthy as a closet-squatting skeleton. 

As a teenager, I struggled with an eating disorder. There are parts of my physical health that will never be the same, and the damage done to my mental health was even worse. I ‘recovered’ years ago and gained back the weight plus some interest. All I had to do was stay carefully balanced in the land of the acceptably weighted. If you’re too small, people whisper and you get frequent trips to the hospital. If you’re too big, people stare and you get dieting tips. I’ve spent the last 18 years trying to stay comfortably between these two camps only to realize I hate camping. Suddenly I wanted out. 

What I realized in 2014 is that my eating disorder never left. I packed it in a box and carried it with me from house to apartment to garage. I couldn’t throw it away; what if I needed it again? It was a treasured relic from my past. Hank is my old football jersey and homecoming crown. It was a sick reminder that I once had control over something. How would I know who I was without it?

Anorexia gave way to various forms of bulimia, which turned to overeating, which led back to anorexia. It was a game of Chutes and Ladders. I made progress in one area of life to slip backwards in another. My physical health got worse, my emotional health was abysmal, and I celebrated by indulging in another familiar form of behavior. 

When I was a young child, I used to hit my legs until they went numb and I had blue and purple souvenirs. I pinched until my skin came off. I scratched until I drew blood. It was usually in an effort to keep from showing emotion. When kids at school bullied me, I refused to cry. I wouldn’t have skin on the inside of my arm for a week, but I didn’t cry. By the time I used a razor, I’d been self-harming for years. Inflicting pain on your own body is weird, I know. Would you believe that it gives temporary relief? To the person who self-harms, it feels like releasing a pressure valve. It feels as though practicing the behavior makes it possible to keep going to school, keep going to work, keep showing up at church. 

By the time it showed up on the public radar, I was an adult. It didn’t occur to me that I was part of the cutting community. Self-harm was for emotionally disrupted adolescents. Cutting was a pathetic plea for attention, not something I did with nail scissors when I got stressed. I was quirky. I just needed to process my feelings a little differently than other people. 

Wave hi to Hank, ladies and gentleman! 

This is how I have dealt with my feelings for my entire life. Both the good and bad experiences I’ve amassed are subject to these practices. I sometimes eat more in a meal than someone should in a whole day. I sometimes don’t eat for days at a time. I sometimes cut too much and have to keep my feet bandaged. Sometimes it hurts to walk because I don’t have skin where skin is supposed to be. 

2014 presented me with challenges I never thought I’d have to face. Difficult circumstances this year led me to open that damn box and take out my old friend again. Stop eating? You got it. Bruise your legs? Sounds like a good plan. Hank is my Hero! If you stare at him long enough you start to forget the other issues life throws your way.

One night last September I couldn’t stop looking at a razor. I wanted to use it in a manner not intended by the manufacturer. I didn’t want to die, I didn’t even want to hurt myself. I just wanted the hurt inside me to find its way out. I couldn’t live another second feeling the weight of the incredible pain. 

I wanted the pain to ease up, but I could hear my kids playing in their room. On the other side of the bathroom door sat my three best reasons to call for help. I didn’t have enough love for myself, but I had it for my girls. 

It was humiliating. It was hard. It was emotional. And, until now, still secret. The recovery movement has come a long way, but not far enough for my peace of mind. I can tell someone I struggled with disordered eating and self-harm in the past, but it isn’t as easy to admit I currently struggle. People stammer and clear their throat and don’t know what to say. “So, you cut your skin with nail scissors? That’s cool. I collect stamps. Maybe you should collect stamps instead. I mean, there’s the occasional paper cut, but…” *cricket cricket* Or the dreaded, “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder. You look really healthy to me, are you sure?”

We don’t know what to do with uncomfortable situations. Not as individuals, and not as a society. We want to be happy. Anyone with a choice would pick being in love, having laughter, being at peace. Nobody wants to feel sad or angry or left out. Too much of our life is spent trying to make ‘bad’ feelings go away. It’s a dangerous game to play, and you’ll find that the other player always has a better hand. 

When you deny your feelings, you end up with a secret.

‘I just need a drink to make it through dinner with my family.’ 
‘I just need a new pair of shoes so I feel pretty.’ 
‘I just need to get one more work project completed before I can come home.’ 

It’s healthier, if harder, to say that you don’t want to have dinner with your family. Maybe they treat you badly. Maybe you treat them badly. It isn’t pretty to talk about. But it’s better than an alcohol addiction. It’s easier to buy new clothes than to admit you feel ugly. It’s easier to get a new haircut than to say you don’t think your spouse likes you anymore. It’s easier, but it’s not better for you. Maybe it feels better to stay at the office than come home. Maybe home is where the hate is. Why not be a workaholic? It’s better than admitting to the world that your private life is a private hell. 

I’ve gone to great lengths to ignore my feelings. How different would my life have been if instead of taking my pain out on my skin, I’d just punched the shit out of the bully’s face? What if I’d cried and let him punch me? Instead I denied that I felt anything. I thought my hurt was the enemy, so I sought to master it by hurting myself.

Without the trip to Secret Therapy Camp, 2014 was still without question the worst year of my life. Some days I cry to the point of making myself sick. Some days I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and the good life that must be around the corner. As you can see, I have it all figured out. 

I’ve stopped hurting myself even when I want to. I follow a meal plan that the therapist says will keep me from falling down the eating disorder rabbit hole. Some days I want to use the nail scissors and most days I want to step on a scale to determine how much I’m allowed to eat. It would be easier to draw a little blood and hate the way I look. 

It would be easier, but not better. 

Much like the One-Dish-Microwave-Easy-Cheeze-Tater-Tot-Hot Dog dish I most definitely did not pin on my secret Pinterest board. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

School Projects 101

Dear My Child’s Science Teacher,

You have assigned a project. I struggle to get past these words because I feel that any fellow parent would know them to be against the Parental Code of Good Form. 

Let me start by saying I appreciate you and the instruction you provide my child. I promise to always assume you are telling the truth about my child’s behavior and the merit of her grades. When she accuses you of not alerting her to the inevitability of a test, I’ll back you up. Yours is a hard job and I do not entertain the idea that I could do your job with anything but disastrous results. 

But you’ve assigned a project, ma’am, and I cannot imagine why I should be punished thus.

An Earth model to be completed in something other than plaster, other than styrofoam, leaning steadily away from clay, and containing the various layers of Earth parts that I’m ashamed to admit I don’t remember from my own school days. I think there’s ‘Crust’ and maybe something called ‘Mantle’. From there it gets hazy and I think ‘Magma’ but that might be from the chapter on Volcanoes. 

What precious rare substance are we to use to complete this Herculean feat? I briefly entertained the idea of an Earth model made entirely of cake, but was informed that you require this project to stay at school for a number of weeks, making edible materials out of the question. (Also in question was my ability to make the required cake layers in correct shape and without scorch marks, as my daughter lovingly pointed out.) 

Projects are thinly veiled attempts to punish the parent population for inattention to their children’s homework, I’m quite sure. You can tell I didn’t review the Earth plates with my child and her test scores reflect my indifference. After all, I learned this once upon a time, long ago, and no longer need to know the way the Earth works. I have Google. 

My daughter is nearing hysteria because her friends already have completed Earth model projects, or are soon awaiting their delivery from . Meanwhile, we struggle to find the unicorn fur and leprechaun gold needed to complete this design. My anxiety won’t be alleviated when we decide upon a material, however. Be it gummy bear heads or empty lip balm tubes, I won’t be able to assist my child in this scientific endeavor. 

The delivery date grows ever closer, mum, and I have no more ideas than when you first set the  assignment. 

I was born without a Crafting instinct. My therapist says I don’t need to be ashamed, but I’d be much obliged if you’d keep this information to yourself. I don’t color inside lines, I cannot make an animal out of cotton balls, and I burn myself every time I use a hot glue gun. When My Child was assigned a Kindergarten project, I assisted her with the ‘please ask your parents for help’ portion. I superglued two fake flowers to my hands and one to my hair near the temple. I’m no longer allowed to buy glitter in the state of Tennessee, and I don’t want to talk about it. 

Sure, we know the kids are supposed to build this Earth of their own accord. *Wink* But you’ve obviously forgotten the shame you feel as a mother when your child’s project is the only one without professional paint detailing and handblown glass flowers. I’m happy to provide markers, empty milk cartons, toilet paper tubes, and whatever else can be found in my house. I’m not even adverse to visiting the Craft Store if given enough time and Xanax to procure the necessary supplies. 

The fact remains that I don’t know what to do with the assembled components. I’ve tried deep breathing, visualization, and Jackson Pollock-esque techniques to achieve the artistic vision my child has set forth. Alas, it has never, and seems unlikely to ever result in, success. My own parents sent me to a school run by hippies. We grew flowers and perhaps other vegetation not approved by the Board of Education. We sang songs in many languages about peace and acceptance. We recycled during the Reagan administration. This was not a school of projects, but of feelings and unbridled creativity. To make an Earth, I would have painted my fingers blue and green and cupped a handful of alien figurines. I would’ve recited William Blake and received top marks for my philosophical interpretation that we are no more than pawns in the hands of a giant child goddess.

It’s of little wonder that without Craft nature or nurture, I can be of no help to My Poor Daughter. Her grade and her scientific future rest in your hands, oh Science Teacher. I therefore beseech you to leave off the projects for all eternity, forever and ever, selah, unless you are prepared to employ broader minded views of What Constitutes an Earth Model. 

I’ll get the alien figurines ready. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Indigo Stars

Last year I heard a song that arrested my heart. I know, that’s super dramatic. But I felt immobilized when I heard it, so the words feel genuine. 

Naturally I played it over and over again, just to be immobilized. One does, when one finds something worth being frozen for. 

Have you ever seen something that completely captured all the things you can’t even describe to yourself? 

Have you ever smelled something that replaced a feeling you thought you’d lost?

Or like me, have you ever heard something that made you realize for a split second that you weren’t alone? 

I love when it happens, even though it almost hurts. 

I think that for most of us there is a place where the leftover feelings, ideas, and emotional runoff gather. This isn’t the place where we stuff our tears at being called ‘fat’ on the playground. It isn’t where we leave our emotional abuse to rot and fester. It’s just the bits that didn’t get swept up as life went along. 

It’s the time you forgot about, when your aunt got you the present you wanted when your parents didn’t have money. 

It’s the stuffed dog you slept with that got left on the airplane. 

It’s the childhood aspirations to be an architect, a singer, an actress. 

It’s the accumulated sunsets on the beach and laughing until you feared you would wet your pants.  

All those milliseconds when you feel that everything is right with the world, or that nothing will ever be right again…they all go to this place I’m talking about. 

It’s a terrible, wonderful place that you don’t ever want to go to and don’t ever want to leave. 

If you’re still tracking with my esoteric ramblings, congratulations! You are in the running to be my new best friend. 

I just want to be really clear when I say I was arrested and immobilized by this song. It tapped into this place I’m talking about, which we might as well call the emotional rubbish bin. 

I was decorating my apartment last year with paper stars. We were in Galway, waiting for my parents to arrive for Christmas. I missed my sister, and so I played The Indigo Girls. We’ve listened to them for years, and they make me miss her even more in a masochistic way. Listening to them is like looking up an ex on Facebook. You know you’ll regret it because the feelings will overwhelm you. But you have to do it because…well, because you have to. 
The paper stars fell down from the mantle and I had to untangle them from the thread and try again. And then again, and yet another time it would happen. Meanwhile the Indigo Girls sang of love and monsters under the bed. And then, this:

‘There’s still my joy for Christmas day’

The music is haunting even if you aren’t perched on an orange swivel chair with tangled stars in your hand. 

But the words! Oh, the lovely words. I’m not going to list them all here, because you HAVE to go listen on whatever music platform makes you happy. But if your stars are all tangled tonight and you want a visit from the emotional fairy, here’s a snippet:

I brought my tree down to the shore
The garland and the silver star
To find my peace, and grieve no more
To heal this place inside my heart

The snow comes down on empty sand
There’s tinsel moonlight on the waves
My soul was lost, but here I am
So this must be amazing grace

One tiny child can change the world
One shining light can show the way
Through all my tears for what I’ve lost
There’s still my joy
There’s still my joy 
For Christmas day

It’s good right? You don’t know what it means, but you know what it means. This, my friends, is good art. It is many things to many people, and can still maintain its original purpose. 

I stood there, paper stars in hand, not wanting to break the magic of the music that now filled my  room. It was wafting out, creating a fog that penetrated my heart. 

What does it mean? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. I have to awkwardly admit that I understand it at a level that I can’t yet describe. 

So let’s awkwardly try, shall we?

The group that sings this version are lesbians. I say this not because I care that they are lesbians, but because it is pertinent. 

I’ve spent my life in church. Lesbians aren’t welcome there. Sure, if they USED to be lesbian, or maybe sort of thought about it or maybe they one time met someone who was a lesbian, they could come and testify about it. But an actual bonafide lesbian? Not welcome. 

It struck me that this woman who so beautifully sang this song about a child changing the world would not be welcome in the institution I served. Does that matter? It did to me, standing there in an Irish apartment, surrounded by someone else’s furnishings. 

The words speak of great grief, heartache, a lost soul. I identify with these feelings pretty strongly. I especially identified with this last year, separated from family and friends and not knowing where I’d be in a year’s time. 

Many people who don’t like church, hate church even, will stop by the place at Christmas. They get made fun of by the church crowd as not being faithful or genuine. In the same breath, they are lusted after to further fill the pews and the offering plates. 

‘If only they came all the time!’ We hear. “Imagine all we could do if they would commit to come all year like we do’. 

But lesbians aren’t welcome, and neither are a whole host of other people who do life differently. 

Some of my closest friends are lesbian or gay. I watched their struggles not only to identify with their own self, but to bring that into line with their Christian upbringing. It was and is heartbreaking to see the way they are treated. 

I’m not trying to make waves about homosexuality and Christianity. There are better minds than mine that can wax poetic/eloquent/crazy about those topics. 

But I do know that IF you believe Christ came into the world, he came to love. He did this in many ways, as love takes different forms. But love was the beginning and the end of the plan. 

I listened to this woman sing her soul up and out through her vocal chords, pour them out and lay them there while I stood frozen. 

For all the grief she’s been through, for all that her soul was supposed to be lost…there’s still joy for Christmas day. 

Why? Why would someone who is marginalized, demonized, dehumanized by the church that celebrates Christmas, want anything to do with this holiday? 

I’m 97 percent sure that she isn’t singing about her joy based on peppermint ice cream or Nordstrom’s sales. 

There’s an incredible longing here. I hear it every time I play this song, no matter how many times I play it, and it is overflowing my emotional rubbish bin. 

She is real to me, this singer. She didn’t write the words, but she chose them as her own. She claimed them, supported them, when she sang and recorded them. She is my best friend, my cousin, myself, and maybe even you. 

If you read my blogs, you’ll notice several themes. One is that I don’t feel at home in churches, particularly those in the American South. Never have, not ever in my life have I felt accepted or included in that institution. It isn’t because there is something wrong with Jesus. It’s because there’s something wrong with me. When I was a kid, it was because I was poor. Not truly really poor, but ‘we don’t go on the All Church Ski Trips’ poor. We had money for piano lessons, but not new clothes. We ate, we drove a car, but we didn’t eat fancy and we sure didn’t drive fancy. I waited, hoping that one day I’d have the issues ironed out and I’d be welcome. 

As I grew into the teenage years, my clothes were a bit better and our family car was a bit more posh. But I still wasn’t welcome. I wasn’t demonstrative enough for charismatics, too mystical for  traditionalists, too feminist for the reformed. I had no place in that place, either. I hung on, hoping that one day I’d have the issues ironed out and I’d feel welcome. 

As an adult, it was a nightmare. Maybe it still is. I’m too afraid to find out. I didn’t want to wear the right thing or vote for the right person anymore. None of that helped, in the end. I wasn’t welcome because I was me, and I am not welcome. To be myself and say what I want and question what I question means I’m not the right fit for any church I’ve ever attended. 

I can hear you saying, ‘Surely not! She’s being way too sensitive!’ or ‘Boo-hoo, you big baby. Nobody is perfect, no church is perfect, and you’ll never be happy if you expect it to be so.’

There’s validity to those statements. But there’s validity to mine as well.

When I hear her sing, I feel my own rejections again. That’s the part that hurts, of course. But then I hear her say with as much emotion as can be packed into a few notes, that her joy for Christmas day remains. 

A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

On Christmas day, the light of who Christ is and was and what he came to do breaks through so magnificently that no amount of heartache or rejection can withstand the onslaught of hope.

The soul responds to the hint of amazing grace. All souls do, in their own way. 

After all the tears, after all the rejection, after all the frustration and fear, there’s still my joy for Christmas day. I haven’t been able to attend church much since The Great Debacle of 2012. But this Christmas Eve, I’ll make my way to light a candle and remember the great day that gives me hope. 

I might not resolve the issues I have with church. The singer of the Indigo Girls might not ever want to resolve those issues, if she has them. But we both think on the meaning of the season and feel joy and peace wash over us, and it arrests us as we wait with stars in our hands. 

"There's Still My Joy"
(Beth Nielsen Chapman, Melissa Manchester, Matt Rollings)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advent 2013: Oh Holy Night

I've been singing Christmas carols for a couple months now, truth be told. I don't care even the slightest bit about singing 'Silent Night' in October. It threatens some people, you know, though I'm sure you aren't one of them. It seems unthinkable to some folks that Christmas carols can be enjoyed before December 1st. Relax. It doesn't mean I hate Thanksgiving.

I like carols, as I say every year. To me they seem full of magic in a way that startles me anew every October when I start singing them loudly in my car. It also startles other passengers in my car, and even passengers of other cars, as I am capable of singing quite loudly. 

My inner elf picks out a favorite carol each year. For whatever reason, a particular song appeals to me and I know that it is my song of the season. My inner elf has a name, and if you keep reading I'll tell you what it is. 

This year I've been obsessed with "Oh Holy Night'. It's an impressive carol in that you cannot sing it unless you've calculated just how high you can sing for the 'oh niiiight deVIIIIIINE' part, and then worked backwards. I've had many a tragic singing experience when I just sang my heart out with no thought for my vocal range. When this happens, I'm always worried that someone has placed a recording device in my car to better understand me in my natural habitat, and they'll show it to a room full of doctors in white coats who laugh and write down things in a notebook and all secretly poke fun at me for my passionate yet not so melodic rendition of 'Oh Holy Night' in the key of Way Too High. 

BUT! It is still a lovely song, even if I strangle a few of the notes. 

I literally (and I mean literally, literally, not the figurative literally nonsense that's going around) can't sing these lines without tears in my eyes: 

'Truly he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.'

The words strike me as rather progressive, and sadly, not an accurate portrayal of historical Christianity. 

My readers are both Christian and non, and I hear you both roaring at me. Be quiet, I'm talking!

Love, peace, brotherhood...these words get used by people on both sides of the religious divide. For some, they become the hallmarks of 'soft religion', i.e. that horridly dangerous religious pudding that people fall into when they just want to sin and not feel bad about it. Then again, they are the some of the most consistent words written about Jesus.

Whatever your thoughts on Jesus, you can hardly argue about the words attributed to him, that they were radically different for his day and age. They were for the most part kind words, soft words, comfortable words. 

I don't think it is a secret that I grew up in church, bled on her steps and cried at her doors. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, yes? I likewise devoted all of my adult life so far to 'the church'. I collected my paycheck there, I went to classes there, I took my children for ballet lessons there, I ate meals there, I even exercised and bought coffee there. 

I don't think it is a secret either that really, really bad things happened to me as a child and unspeakable things as an adult. Life is that way, I know. Nobody can expect perfection from an institution.'s say that I was chased out of church with a stick that was dipped in poisonous acid. Hey! No reason to be negative around the holidays, right?

What does this have to do with O Holy Night? It remains to be seen. But you want to know my elf name, so keep going. 

This Christmas carol was written by a Frenchman named Placide Cappeau. He was a wine commissioner who loved poetry, so he came up with these lyrics for his parish Christmas service. Placide decided, no doubt over a lovely glass of wine, that his poem was really a song. He asked a classically trained friend to help with the music, and so our lovely song was born. The musician was Jewish, however, which became a problem when the Church Powers That Be found out. No matter it was already a beloved French carol, it was now suspect and therefore A Dangerous Song. Placide put the nail in the coffin when he changed his religious views. 

The song was banned in church, but as that rarely stops the rabble-rousing citizenry, especially the lovely passionate French, it wasn't forgotten. 

It gained popularity among American abolitionists during our Civil War. The political issue of their day was, in their eyes, a spiritual one as well. They clung to the song as a source of hope. Like the Israelites waiting for the Savior, they would now wait for the moral tide to turn. The song boosted them during that wait.

Also of interest? This was the first song ever played over the radio air waves. A colleague of Thomas Edison was messing around with radio waves (as one does when one is bored) and broadcasted the song to very surprised newspaper offices and ships around the world. Some of them probably did fall to their knees, as the metal box that used to tap out messages was now playing music.

What do an abolitionist, an inventor, a Jewish composer, and a French wine commissioner have in common? They made people uneasy. 

In their own ways, they caused the people around them to question reality, to question morality, to question belief in what was and also what was possible. 

What is it about the words they loved that caused alarm? I think it is the words that make me cry. 'Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.’ They are alarming words, words that rouse you from your sleep. 

If you've ever been oppressed, you know the bitter taste it leaves in your mouth. Not because life is hard, but because sometimes life is so unbearably unfair. Oppression is what happens when you are silenced, when you are dealt a situation that you have no control over, when you are graded by a rubric you can't see. It smarts like sanitizer in a paper cut. It seems small, but the pain is acute. 

When I play a game with my kids (never Monopoly, as it is The Devil’s game) it isn't the losing that causes the most tears, but the cheating. When someone stands up by squashing others below them, it rouses primal anger. Losing is hard, but it is something we all understand. Even as we wail about it, we know that for winners to win, losers must lose. Maybe we will win at the next play, we console ourselves. Oppression has no fast fix. It is one thing to work by the sweat of your brow, but quite another when that sweat is whipped from you, mocked, and abused. The humiliation and inherent wrongness cannot be borne.

Oppression is a human evil, we all have done it on the playground or unknowingly by buying into a system of social class. The hard thing to realize is that it frequently happens in the name of Christ. 

If you want an example, go read about The Crusades. Need another? Slavery in America. Still more? Ask if your local church supports programs for the poor, for the fatherless and the widow. Chances are they'll direct you to the state programs, all while bemoaning the fact that the state programs exist. The State shouldn't take care of the poor, they say, The Church should! But as The Church doesn't have the funds...well...go fill out paperwork for Uncle Sam. But before you go, here…you can have a cup of dried soup and a pamphlet about Going To Hell In An Outfit-Coordinating Handbasket. 

In the movie, The Help, Hilly tells her maid that she won't lend money for the maid's son to get into college. Hilly says it is 'the Christian thing to do', because 'God doesn't give charity to those who are well and able.' God helps those who help themselves, right? Right? That sounds like the message of love and peace.

Most of us smarted at that scene, because it was so heart-breakingly unkind. But what about the more socially acceptable versions of Hilly's words? Do they fall from our lips onto the ears of someone who needs our help?

I read A Christmas Carol most years at this time. It always strikes me that if Scrooge's words about poverty and social justice could be posted online today, they’d get lots of favorable press. ‘Send them to the prisons where they can work, take away their food and let them die...then we won't have to worry about them anymore!’ I’ve seen versions of this across many media sources. Scrooge gives an eerie echo of our 'Christian' culture in the South when he says that he already supports programs for the poor with his tax money, so why should they expect any more out of him? After all, they are poor of their own choice, as he is rich by the same manner. If they want to be better off, let them do what they will to become so.

The Chains that bound Marley are the same Chains that 'he shall break'! It isn't enough to throw money at someone who needs it. It wasn't enough that the Emancipation Proclamation set people free. The law gives the order, hands out the money. But until the chains are broken, really broken, there's no change made. How long were slaves free before people of color were allowed to drink from the same fountain as whites? How long does a single mother receive food stamps and government housing before she realizes that she is the same quality of person that lives in Belle Meade? How long do we live alongside Muslim and Buddhist before we treat them as equals, made in the image and likeness of the Christ we claim to follow? Did that last sentence bother you? 

During the reign of slavery, it was very gauche to suggest that black people were, in fact, people. Same as white, inside and out, deserving of all the liberties we afford ourselves. It just wasn't proper, and many an old Southern biddy shook her head at the liberalism that had come into the world. 'What is this world coming to?' You can hear her say, 'In my day, nobody questioned their elders. If it was good enough for them, it's good enough of me. Give me that old-time fanaticism! Now, tell the slaves to bring my dinner.’

During The Crusades, you would be killed for having ideas of religious tolerance. It was Christianity for all men, if we rape and murder and pillage and plunder your entire kingdom to the ground. All in the name of Christ. Oppression is supposed to cease in the name of Christ, because his law is love and his gospel is peace. Instead we use that name to bend others to our will, to oppress and enslave. We help make the chains, just like Marley said. We lock them into place and applaud the wearer for knowing their place. 

If love and peace make you uneasy, or have no place in your religion, you should consider the idea that you aren't interested in Jesus, the Christ. This is fine, by the way, and its your right as a human to explore the vast philosophies and structures of thought that fill the world. Keep exploring until you find the one that suits you. Don't be afraid of exploring the options. The only thing to be gained by holding on to something you don't believe is self-oppression. Break your chains! 

Don’t just grudgingly allow that Muslim group to build a mosque in your town. If you believe in religious freedom, believe that it is their religious freedom to build their house of worship. Nobody asked you to attend their services and prayers. But what you must do, what you cannot ignore, is that they are your brother. They are your sister, and your neighbor, and it should be your joy and privilege to recognize them. 

I frequently think about what today’s progressive issues are. If I’d lived during The Crusades, would I have wielded a knife against the Infidel? If I lived during the time of slavery, would I share a meal with a black child? Would I have turned away from a public beating? Would I have heard Galileo give his treatise about the sun, or would I have closed my ears to his obvious heresy? Would I do what the vast majority of people did in that time, in that place, facing that difficulty?

We confuse tolerance and acceptance with approval. They are not the same thing. I don’t approve of cigarette smoking, because I think medical studies conclusively show that it is harmful to the body. But I have to tolerate the idea of it, because I’m not in charge of other people’s lungs. I have to approve at least in concept, the right of others to smoke, even if at their own peril. I won’t smoke, I’ll try to keep my kids from it, but if I say that people don’t have the right to smoke, I’ll need to admit that we also shouldn’t have the right to Oreos or too much television or even gas in our cars. Suddenly my idea of tolerance will broaden.

You have conviction? Good. Use it wisely. You have passion and belief in your cause? Wonderful. But if your convictions and passion lead you in the paths of hatred or war, you should stop using the name of Christ. Especially during this time, when the fabric between Heaven and Earth grows especially thin. All people feel the otherworldly magic of Christmas. Don’t deny them, or yourselves, the carol singing and the tree trimming and the Santa visiting. We experience the unspeakable love of Christ in ways that make sense to us. If its singing, we should sing. If its giving, we should give. If someone doesn’t believe in Jesus, the closest thing they have might be Old Saint Nick. Don’t despise the presence of love and peace in the word, no matter what face it wears. If you believe that all love comes from God, delight when you see it in the world. Delight when you see someone drop money into a Salvation Army bucket. Delight when you see a child laugh on Santa’s lap. Delight when your unreligious friend wishes you the compliments of the season. If the source of the joy is the same, why should you feel threatened? All things that give love and peace will in time point to the source. Believe in the source, and trust that the methods are used for a reason.

During this time we are reminded ‘Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace.’ What a beautiful song that gives us a gentle nudge, alarm bells to our sleepy soul, to remember that Christ came to love. To love. The action of love and the employment of peace are especially important at Christmas. They are the only things that break chains, both seen and unseen. If you want to make a difference in the lives of those around you, remember that Christ came to love. Christ came to give peace. He came at Christmas, and the mark left on the world is still felt at Christmastime.

Break chains by choosing over and again, day after day, to see love and peace in the world. Where it is lacking, supply it. Where it is needed, give in abundance. Where it is forbidden, stand high and sing, ‘Chains shall he break! For the slave is MY brother!’ and watch as the world struggles against her chains. Cappeau broke chains by suggesting that we have them. The composer broke chains by creating beautiful notes to accompany words he didn’t even believe in. The inventor dared to imagine impossible things. The abolitionist cared to dream of equality. They broke chains because in the presence of love and peace, chains have no place. 

People get mad when you try to break chains. I’m not tooting my own horn, mostly because I hate that phrase. But I think I was chased out of church because I tried to break a few chains. I wanted to ask questions. I suggested…or insisted…that The Church is often in the business of selling chains. I set off alarms, and the sleeping weren’t pleased. Their response made me feel oppressed, silenced, and judged by a rubric I couldn’t see. In the end, the only rubric I need to concern myself with is the law of love and gospel of peace. 

I pointed out a few chains to Scrooge. You might call me the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. That isn’t my elf name, though. It’s Mistletoe Ivysocks.