Woman Up

Here’s a fact you probably haven’t thought much about: there’s no real female equivalent to the concept of “emasculation.” Being “woman enough” isn’t really thought to be a stressor on the psyche, in the same way that being presumed as less than masculine is for men; being woman isn’t aspirational, isn’t a badge of honor. Being a woman is a lowly state.

Point in case: nearly every childless woman I know speaks of invasive questioning about why she doesn’t have children. Women with just one child are similarly subjected to scrutiny about why they won’t have more than one. And women with two or more? Suddenly the narrative shifts: we are told to close your legs or “jokingly” reminded how babies are made. You see this play out in virtually every field of life for women: slut vs prude, married vs single, working mom vs SAHM, curvy vs skinny, curly hair vs straight hair, and so on. Whatever makes a woman “enough” is whatever we aren’t doing.

At this point, it feels self-inflicted too. We’ve bought into the idea that we will, in fact, never be “enough” that  we eventually pit ourselves against the world. It doesn’t matter how many boxes we check. We’ll never check all of them, will we?

I’ve written before about my own struggles with self-esteem, body image, eating disorder, and dysmorphia. These struggles are commonplace in women, shockingly so. Nearly every woman I know agonizes over what she eats to an extent that, I suspect, would boggle the minds of the average man. Swimsuit shopping is a battleground. Is it any wonder that we alternate wildly between weaponizing (and monetizing!) our bodies or hiding them away in shame?

For me, lately, this struggle has manifested again, not in disordered eating, but in motherhood. I also don’t know a single mom who doesn’t agonize about her decisions, endlessly worrying about safe sleep, feeding, birthing styles, educational styles, and on and on. None of us will be mom enough, in the end. But God help us, we’re going to try. 

I had found that my self esteem was, generally, on the upswing, even during pregnancy. I felt healthy, strong, and, if I didn’t exactly find my curves sexy, I at least didn’t obsess over them like I used to. I felt more at peace, at home, in my own skin. 

And then breastfeeding started again. I had a miserable time breastfeeding my first, and had no end of angst about it. After finally healing from that, I found myself at it again, and this time, it was going pretty well. I wasn’t exclusive, but it was infinitely better and more peaceful than my first go at it. 

And then it wasn’t. For no particular reason, my second just didn’t want to nurse anymore. And I did something I’d promised myself I wouldn’t resort to again: I pulled out the breast pump. No shade to those who pump, or even do so exclusively. But for me, that awful machine had become a symbol of failure and misery, and my inability to provide nourishment for my child on my own. It reminded me of hours spent in tears, trying supplements and taping tubes to my breasts, trying to make this “natural” thing click for me, the way it has for millions of women since the dawn of humanity.

After my first pumping session, I went into the kitchen and sobbed. I felt like a failure. My body had failed me again. Like it always had. This stupid old sack of skin couldn’t complete the most basic of tasks asked of women: to be beautiful, to be skinny and curvy in the right places, to be effortlessly sexy, to give birth easily and naturally, to breastfeed those children. A deep well of shame and loathing I hadn’t tapped in years rose up, drowning me.

To be honest, I’m still treading that water. I want to believe that my body is still strong, to focus on how quickly I recovered this time, how much more in tune with my signals I am, and also recognize that my baby is strong and healthy, developing readily, happy and whole, and that, itself, should be a sign that I am doing a fine job. 

But, cards on the table, I don’t really believe that. I believe it for you, friend, loved one, stranger. But me?

I’ll never be enough by these impossible standards. And no matter how I try to let them go, it only takes the sound of that machine pumping to put me right back into the box I was wrestled into by a culture that doesn’t even have a word for it. Woman up. Who even can? 

Good news for the burnt out

I don’t think too much about Mary. She’s not revered in Protestant circles to the extent that she is in Catholicism. But still, at Christmas, it’s hard to avoid her image, pregnant and riding a donkey, inhumanly serene. Haloed in glory and perfectly put together after giving birth in a stable. Her hands and face always soft. Always gentle. The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes. And mother Mary, well, she was immaculate too. Always.

I gave birth two months ago. I put my baby in a wrap and go on daily walks with my toddler, who has been desperate for attention and stimulation outside of the home for months, even before the baby arrived. I catch my reflection in a window we pass by. I haven’t worn makeup in ages. I tie my hair up in a nest on my head, lest it get spit up in it. I feel like half a human. (Having my abdomen cut open for the second time in four years does that.) And here I am, adorned in long skirt, carrying a baby tied to my chest, wrapped in a poncho to keep us both warm, dark circles under my eyes, struggling to keep up with my toddler, and I think, “I bet Mary looked like this when she was heading home.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Bible doesn’t actually say that Mary gave birth in a stable, just that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn (or guest room, depending on your interpretation of the Greek). In fact, in the ancient near east, animals weren’t kept in stables as we think of them. It’s likely that the Holy Family were actually in a house belonging to a distant relative, staying on the bottom level where animals were housed, which wasn’t terribly uncommon at the time. It might shatter our cozy Christmas image, but I don’t think it changes the underlying point of the story; Christ was born in humility, in a place that wasn’t his home. And something about giving birth in the home of strangers actually brings Mary closer to home to me.

There’s little to no dignity in giving birth, no matter how you go about it. It’s stressful having doctors and nurses you’ve never met attending the process, but to be surrounded by people you don’t know, in a place far from home, unsure of the future… it sounds miserable. Mary was probably only 14 or 15. Her pregnancy was unplanned. Her husband probably had lots of questions and confusion about the conception of this baby she was carrying. She probably did, too. She had no midwife walking her through the process. Heck, even having modern scientific advances, the strange and miraculous way our bodies grow and nourish life, this uniquely feminine act of literal life-giving is still deeply mysterious and sometimes quite terrifying. Did she have morning sickness? Braxton-Hicks contractions? Did she labor for hours or even days? Did anyone in the house help her deliver? Did Joseph hold her hand? Did the infant Jesus have a good latch? Did her milk come in on time? Did she tear? Did she suffer from postpartum depression? Did she cry in the wee hours of the morning, overwhelmed by hormones and the feeling that she was truly the only person in the world going through what she was?

The only thing we know about Mary’s mindset is the Magnificat, in which she thanks and praises God for His great redemptive story and her own role in it. But even accepting God’s calling doesn’t mean one doesn’t have bad, doubtful, depressed days. It certainly hasn’t for me. I approach this holiday season after much of a year spent in quarantine––a year full of grief and disappointments on every level, ranging from family death to breakdowns to job loss to racial injustice to losing our community, where in the midst of that, the relentlessness of parenting never stopped––the potty training, late night wake ups, morning sickness, exhaustion, tantrums, meltdowns, thrown toys, refused dinners, back talk, Braxton-hicks contractions, dirty clothes, messy hands, and anxiety over screen time––were endless. There were no weekends, no vacations, no breaks. My first son was unplanned. I have never regretted his life, but I have wondered how different life would be if I’d had more of a choice in the timing. Did Mary ever feel that way? Did Mary ever wish this season of her life was different? Did she ever get to the end of the day finding that she’d hit rock bottom in her burn-out and the only thing she had to look forward to was another day of grasping the rope she was clinging to, and hoping that the burn-out had an end.

I bet she did.

As a good Protestant, I don’t think Mary was anything other than a human, a mother, much like me, doing the impossible and never-ending work; that sacred task, of parenting a child. A child more incredible than most, yes. But even though Jesus was fully God, he must have been fully human too, with all of the bodily fluids and frustration and late nights that entails. And I think in those moments that maybe this life of mine, this season, this burn-out, isn’t so far from the sacred after all. That perhaps nine months of quarantine with a toddler, a difficult pregnancy, and now a new infant brings me closer to the heart of Christ than any candlelit Christmas service and softly cooing choral arrangement of “O Holy Night”. That Christ didn’t come into the world from a warm temple or cushy palace for a reason.

This is the Good News. Christ is here with us, not just in the sense of being human, but in the sense of being right in the middle of the mess––in the shit with us, as Scott Erickson puts it––He is here, even as I make never-ending peanut butter sandwiches and change never-ending diapers and sit up during the endless, endless nights. This is the Good News.

On the election and loving others

Art by Mark Weber

Last night, before the election was called, I watched John McCain’s 2008 concession speech, which had evidently resurfaced in viral fashion. I found myself tearing up as I watched this man graciously urge his supporters to support the President Elect, Barack Obama, and work together with those they disagreed with for the betterment of the country they all loved. 2008 was the first election I could vote in. I voted for McCain.

It was the first and last time I voted along any political party lines. In 2012 I supported Ron Paul from start to finish, and have proudly been nonpartisan since, voting sometimes for conservatives, sometimes for liberals. I’ve experienced the phenomenon of my stances on certain issues evolving, such as LGBT+ rights and gun control, and my understanding of the complexity of others becoming more nuanced, such as abortion and immigration. By 2016, I supported Bernie Sanders, yet ultimately voted for Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate.

I’ve made no secret about the fact that for the last four years, I’ve hated this administration. The chaos, the lack of professionalism, the lies, scandals, and hypocrisy… and that’s PUTTING ASIDE politics.

As someone who has grown and changed and has never neatly fit into a political box, I’ve always firmly believed people can bridge political differences. Some of my closest friends and I disagree on key issues, yet I have always believed we ultimately want the same things, and merely disagree on the means to achieve them. (Yes, this even goes for deeply emotionally charged issues, like abortion.)

But my problems with Trump and his admin have never been––primarily––political. (Yes, I’ve of course taken exception to his stripping of environmental protections, the awful treatment of migrant children, and rolling back protections for LGBT people. But I would take issue with those acts under any administration, as we all should.) My issue with Trump was more centered on him as a person; his proud Philistianism, intellectual incuriosity, bullying tactics, disrespect, pride, boasting, arrogance, misogyny. As others have said better, his White House had no pets, no music, no poetry, no cuisine. It was like watching Biff from Back to the Future hold the highest and most respected office in the land.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the arguments for this ridiculous bully. Yet I still have a bad taste in my mouth when I see posts or sentiment saying everyone who voted for him is a racist or upholds what he stands for. This is partly because I have been Republican in the past, and partly because I know and love many people who are Trump supporters, people who would and have been there for me through thick and thin, who don’t ask who I voted for before offering me a helping hand. I think shutting the door on those people is harmful, and we’ve seen the results of such divisiveness for four years. Voting for someone you disagree with; even someone you find personally disgusting, doesn’t automatically mean the person is evil. While I think the issues with Trump go far beyond politics, most people who supported him that I personally know didn’t do so because of his personality or rhetoric. For many people, it’s because they feel trapped in a two party system that doesn’t represent much of anyone (Heck, I don’t know any liberals who actually like Biden––the best anyone can say about him is that he’s not Trump), or because they are single issue voters in a time when dissent from party-towing just isn’t allowed. I know a lot of people who vote Republican ONLY based on one or two issues, like abortion, even if their other leanings are actually liberal. (Heck, I used to be one of them.)

The point is, I think this is a complicated time for us as a country. Yesterday, I went out by myself for the first time since having our son, and the atmosphere was positively festive. It really did feel like Christmas––everyone was happy, excited, and friendly––all because Trump was voted out. And while I’m excited at the prospect of this immature tyrant leaving office, I also think it’s narrow-minded to think the things he brought to the surface in this country are going to go away with him. We’ve had these problems forever, we just see them more clearly now that they’re all over an official government Twitter feed. And we can’t swallow the lie that there’s no middle ground possible, no way forward for a divided country.

This whole year we’ve seen the message that “we’re all in this together” and laughed at it. We aren’t all in this together. Rich people don’t know what poor people go through. Men don’t know what women go through. White people don’t know what Black people go through. Washington liberals don’t know what blue collar conservatives go through. But we have to keep trying to bridge those gaps, remembering that we are all people, first and foremost.

During the last election, a friend of mine, someone I considered close, unfriended me––not just digitally, but in real life––not because I voted differently than him, but because I had the audacity to suggest that we could love and find common ground with people who supported Trump. He essentially rage quit on me because I called for grace. It’s stuck with me for four years and I’ve never stopped mourning it. I was as disgusted as the next person by Trump’s behavior, rhetoric, refusal to denounce domestic terrorists, family separations. But I also get why some people, good people, felt they had no other choice than Trump. The first step to working with those people is trying to understand where they are coming from.

When we dehumanize our political opponents and transform them into enemies, it’s easy to pretend we are fundamentally different creatures. But we aren’t. We all want security and justice and safety. We just disagree on the means and methods to get there. And as the rhetoric surrounding those things becomes more divisive, things will only get worse, no matter who is in the White House. We can’t fix this country, its latent sexism, injustice, racism… until we recognize that. They’re part and parcel to the same damn problem.

I’m happy Trump will soon be gone. More relieved than I thought possible. But he’s a symptom. We need to start treating the disease.

Suggested reading: I Love You But I Hate Your Politics by Jeanne Safer

Come Emmanuel: On Colonialism and Advent

Advent has never meant a great deal to me. Growing up Pentecostal, we never lit candles, and even though church was a central part of my life as a pastor’s kid, I can count on one hand the amount of Christmas days we actually read the Christmas story. I love the season, love the nostalgia and baking cookies and looking at lights and so on, but connecting all of that to Jesus is always tough, though I’m not one of those people who has to go around saying, “but Jesus was born in the spring!” because I don’t think it actually matters a great deal, so much as the fact of that he was born at all. But the celebration of Advent, longing for the savior’s arrival, that’s never been a big deal to me.

As a kid, I never understood why we prayed for the Lord to come soon. I grew up in the heart of the Left Behind hype, so Jesus’ return sounded horrific to me, a time of terror and natural disasters and Purge-like anarchy,  not something to celebrate and actively pray for. And while my theological understanding of such things has definitely changed, to the point that I more subscribe to partial preterism (the idea that some of what is prophesied in the Bible, particularly Revelation, has already occurred), I do believe that we are living in a second advent season; no longer waiting for the Messiah, as ancient Israel was, but waiting for His return and a time when all creation will be redeemed and restored.

But I admit, living a relatively comfortable life, mostly happy with my needs more or less provided for, with a lovely family and good books and hot tea and summer flowers and rainy December days… I don’t find myself exactly longing for Christ’s Advent. Being honest with myself, I find myself in a lot of sympathy for 8-year-old Karly who was so freaked out at the thought of the Rapture that she’d actively pray for Jesus NOT to come back tonight. While my faith has certainly changed and matured since then, sometimes I do find myself hoping for just another day, another year, another decade, living my mostly-comfortable life. Sure, I struggle and wrestle with anxiety and depression, but what’s the alternative? Just wanting to die? That’s certainly how many Evangelics make it sound.

I just came home from a ministry trip to Uganda. It was a rewarding experience on several different levels. There is a lot of natural beauty there, a lot of fertile ground, and wonderful, joyful, spirit-filled people with a rich culture full of dancing and music. And I was incredibly convicted that we, Westerners, just saw all of that and decided, “this is ours for the exploiting”. My heart hurt a lot of the time I was there. Not because I, directly, or even necessarily my own ancestors did this, but because I still feel culpable. I still benefit from a system that was carried on the backs of slavery and colonialism. There’s a desperate desire in Uganda to keep up with the Western world, so everyone, for example, has a smartphone, but there isn’t basic infrastructure in place, like proper drainage, waste systems, or roads. Women have perfectly styled hair but children drink dirty water. It’s heartbreaking.

And it’s not because the Ugandans have done anything wrong. They are just trying to keep their heads above the water in a world that used them miserably and then tossed them away like so much rubbish piled in the streets. I felt repentant during my whole trip, because I know I’m as culpable as anyone else for the state this beautiful country is in, and found my soul very truly aching and longing to see what the country could have been, had it not been carved up for profit. I’d love to see what their architecture and technology could have been like, what their lovely countryside would be if it weren’t peppered with plantations and their people could be if not bent under the weight of poverty.

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A snapshot of the Ugandan countryside between Entebbe and Kampala


But… I’ll never know. Perhaps, and I hope, that Uganda and other countries in their same situation get handed a better deal in this life. Perhaps in a few decades or so it will get a chance to become the country it should have been. I certainly pray for that. But you know what else it makes me pray for? Christ’s advent. I don’t know what “Christ’s return” necessarily looks like, because I’m not a Biblical literalist. But I know that the restoration of creation is part of it. I don’t think God calls us to cast off thwis broken world like so much trash, but to work towards the restoration of it until he redeems it fully. And what a day that will be, when the sins of white supremacy and colonialism are washed away! When places like Uganda are restored to the fullness of what God intended for them, and the scars we carved deep in this earth are finally healed!

Christianity was a religion formed out of deep oppression, and I suspect that most of its basic tenets are really only understood from that posture. It’s hard, living in relative comfort and security, to long for a redeemed world, because you’re pretty comfortable with the cards you’ve been dealt. But when you see firsthand the cost of our sinfulness, it’s a lot easier to want to pray for God healing the world. It’s a lot easier to pray for Christ’s return. So, this year, I am longing for advent, and praying, and hoping.

“O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appears…” These aren’t just some words about the Hebrew exile. These are some words about us, and our longing for a savior who rights the world’s wrongs, once and for all. Captive Israel is also the United States. And it is also Uganda. It is all of us. We are all mourning in lowly exile, separated from God by our sins. But soon, the Son of God will appear.

“Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Jesus is King

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This past week there’s been a lot of ink spilled in the Christian community about Kanye West and his apparent conversion, as demonstrated by his new album, Jesus is King. As a Christian, of course I’m happy when sinners come to Christ. If Kanye West is following Christ now, then praise the Lord. That’s amazing.

But you know what’s more amazing than proclaiming the name of the Lord? Living like you believe it. I’m not passing an indictment on West’s behavior; I am not in a place to judge him or whether or not his life has been transformed. But in this country, about 75% of the population proclaims they are Christian. Maybe that means they never attend church, but they are still identifying with the faith. As much as I see people claiming that they know West has had a full conversion because, “He would never risk his career like this,” I gotta say, proclaiming yourself to be a Christian is actually an incredibly low-risk move. No one’s career would be in jeopardy over this. Literally millions of people claim they are Christian in this country every day. Anyone can declare they are a Christian and continue living however they like.

What is risky is actually living like a Christian. Selling your possessions and giving the money to the poor, as Jesus commands us to do, is risky. Loving your neighbors as yourself and praying for those who persecute you, as Jesus commands us to do, is risky. Forgiving others 70 times 7 times, as Jesus commands us to do, is risky. Standing up against injustice and hypocrisy, helping the disenfranchised, and empowering the marginalized, as Jesus did… that’s risky.

I was thinking tonight of one of the last times a song really moved, really convicted me. It was another well-known black rapper’s unexpected hit: “This is America” by Childish Gambino, an absolutely chilling indictment on racism, police brutality, mass violence, and injustice. As far as I know, Childish Gambino’s alter-ego, Donald Glover, doesn’t claim any particular faith. But it still rang more profoundly Christian to me than all the hollow “boyfriend Jesus” songs that the Christian music industry can manufacture. I felt more convicted listening to Glover’s song than I have a “Christian” song in ages. All Christians with ears to hear should have been.

As much as I can and do admire those who praise the name of the Lord publicly, any charlatan can do that much too. Being a Christian is about more than Jesus making you feel good and singing songs about him being the bestest boyfriend in the world. When push comes to shove, faith is work. If you truly have it, then your works will show it. And while we have a large portion of the population ready to claim it, there sure doesn’t seem to be a proportional amount of people willing to live it. If that same 75% of Americans who claim to be Christian really lived like they believed it, I daresay no-one would die because they couldn’t afford their medications and no kids would be kicked out of their homes. Women and minorities certainly wouldn’t have to fight for equality, and school shootings wouldn’t be a commonplace event, and there would be no homelessness or poverty or kids going to bed hungry or afraid. We wouldn’t have to march for anything, because our brethren would provide what the government can’t or won’t. But… as we can see if we take a step back, that clearly isn’t the case. Christians there may be in abundance, but Christ followers seem to be in short supply. And with that in mind, it’s hard for me to get excited about someone else who talks the talk.

So no, I don’t believe making a record that merely says, “Jesus is King” is a risk. What’s risky is living like you actually believe Jesus is king. And I sincerely hope Kanye West does. I hope one day, we all do.

What Fictional Toys Taught Me About Life

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October 29, 1996. My older brother and I have been given a new video by our aunt, who has come to visit on the occasion of our little brother’s birth, four days prior. The video is Toy Story. We’ve put it on because our parents are at the hospital with our brother and our aunt is cooking for us upstairs.

The movie is coming to a close. We pause it because my dad has just come home. He wraps my older brother and I in his arms and he’s crying. Our new brother has died. Baffled six year old me lets my dad hold me and struggles to wrap my mind around what I’m seeing and hearing. I’ve never seen my dad cry. That baby I just met in the hospital a few days ago… he’s never coming home.

My dad leaves after some time, and my older brother, trying to be brave and big for both of us, puts the movie back on. It ends. I barely remember watching the rest, but I do know after the credits run out, my brother put the tape in the rewinder. “That was a good movie, wasn’t it? Why don’t we watch it again?”

We ended up watching it at least one more time, though it could have been two or even three more times that day. Neither of us really remember. We were adrift in an adult world, two kids whose innocence had suddenly and abruptly been shattered.

Toy Story became really important to the two of us. When my older brother got married, he asked me, his Best Maid, to dance with him to a special song: “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” the iconic theme song of Toy Story. It seems appropriate, in hindsight, that Toy Story was the movie of the day, and not some other animated film.

Toy Story is, in many ways, a story about coping with life’s changes and losses. I reflect on this after having seen Toy Story 4, the most recent and definitely final entry into the series, which still carries on this theme. The first film deals with our central hero, the cowboy doll, Woody learning to cope with a shifting zeitgeist in the world he knows (ie. a cool new toy, Buzz Lightyear, taking his favored spot in the eyes of his “child,” Andy. ) The second film deals with Woody finding out he is a valuable collector’s item, and struggling between wanting to be loyal to his loved ones (Andy and his old friends) and do right by the new friends he has met (his fellow collector’s set) as well as coping with his anxiety over being eventually forgotten about or abandoned, a fate most toys eventually meet. Toy Story 3, the big tearjerker, is about Andy growing up and going to college, and eventually passing his toys, including Woody, onto a new child, Bonnie, who will benefit from them more. And Toy Story 4 is, (spoilers), about Woody coming to accept that it’s okay that Bonnie doesn’t actually need him, and letting go of his own need to be needed by her.

While Toy Story 4 maybe wasn’t strictly necessary, since the third film wrapped up the toys’ journey with Andy, there was something profound about following the story to the conclusion it reaches for Woody. After all, it was never really about Andy. Even Tom Hanks, who voices the beloved cowboy, said that his last day filming was “terrible” emotionally, because this fictional toy and his story had come to mean so much to him. And no wonder, since Pixar, in their many subsequent films since 1996 (Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Up, Inside Out, Coco etc.) have literally turned the marriage of adult themes with childlike joy into an art form. While Toy Story 3, in particular, seemed handcrafted to pack an emotional punch––after all, the original audience for the first film, such as myself, were going through the process of becoming adults and putting away our childhoods, same as Andy––Toy Story 4, deals with, I think, an even more mature concept: that all things come to a close. Woody eventually chooses, at the end of the film, to leave Bonnie, who no longer “needs” him, and join his long lost paramour, Bo Peep, in traveling the countryside, making other children happy by uniting them with new toys. This provides a surprisingly cathartic bit of closure, both to Woody’s character arc, and to my own personal experience with the series.

Though Toy Story 2 came out when I was still pretty young––and I mainly saw it as a fun follow-up to the first film, without the personal emotional baggage––Toy Story 3, as I said, hit me where it hurt, at a time in my life when its themes were particularly relevant. I was 21, fresh out of college, not sure where I was heading. My older brother married with two kids, and me wondering if my life and shiny new degree would go anywhere in particular. Between Toy Story 3 and 4, though, my life started shifting too. I’m now a wife and mother. I saw in Woody’s desire to take care of Bonnie, my own desire to protect my son. And when Woody’s time came to say goodbye to Bonnie, I saw the future ahead of me. One where I will say goodbye to my son, and he will, perhaps, go to college and gift his most-beloved toys to other children. Even more, I saw the inevitability of the changes life brings and of having to let go of a past that will never return. My older brother and I were once the best of friends. He used to protect me and put on Toy Story after we received awful news. Now things have changed. Our lives are in very different places. I have mourned and wept over the life and friendship we used to have, and prayed for a day when everything could “go back to normal” again. Like Woody, I missed the way life used to be, when things were less woeful and decisions less hard. But, like Woody, I also see I have a choice. I can continue fruitlessly hanging onto the past, like Stinky Pete, the villain who wants Woody to go into a museum in Toy Story 2, where nothing will ever change and you will never be hurt or abandoned, or I can accept that life is about changes, like Bo Peep, who resurfaces in Woody’s life in Toy Story 4, her delicate porcelain broken, but her spirit alive and excited for life’s adventures and the opportunities it brings to give joy to others.

As Tom Hanks said in his interview about his final day voicing Woody, these films, about toys, are really about being human. Being human is about growing and changing. Toys can’t do that. But they become powerful symbols to tell this story, because they are the one thing that all of us, eventually, have to leave behind. The past is the past. It’s time to say so long to it, partner.

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Consent in Context

“Consent is everything,” I recently read in a comment to a Facebook post. In the wake of #metoo, it has been revealed that men in high power positions, in virtually every field—from the Catholic church, to Hollywood, to fine dining, have abused their power and sexually victimized others— I’ve written about my own #metoo experiences. Virtually every woman has been harassed in some manner, and we are the lucky ones. We haven’t been outright assaulted or worse. So, I am glad to see people finally standing up to say this behavior is not acceptable from anyone. Not even the president.

But still, “consent is everything” is a stance that gives me pause. You remember the Pixar film, The Incredibles, right? Of course, you do. It’s one of the best superhero films ever made. There’s a defining scene, towards the beginning of the film, where our superhero, Mr. Incredible, saves a suicidal man who jumps off a building. In a darkly ironic twist, the man later sues, claiming he did not want to be saved. As absurd as this scenario may seem, it’s actually got some basis in reality. There have been many cases where victims have sued EMTs and good Samaritans for taking life-saving measures, such as CPR that resulted in broken ribs (many states now have “Good Samaritan” laws to prevent this from happening). Sure, their life was saved, but they didn’t ASK to be saved, now did they?

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Sure, but the “consent is everything” stance is referring to sex, right? No, actually. I saw this comment on a post about not making children hug family members. Children deserve, the argument goes, say over their own bodies. This makes perfect sense, of course. I don’t like hugging people I don’t know well either and would hate to be forced to do so. And children ARE more likely to be molested by relatives than strangers, so this seems like commonsense advice.

But what happens when this logic starts to stretch to things not remotely related to sex? What about bodily autonomy when it comes to your child’s first haircut? Or dressing themselves? Does a toddler really get say in that, when they just barely grasp that they even have their own unique body? Some say yes. It’s their body and they should get final say. And it’s pretty inconsequential, isn’t it? Hair grows back. And going to the shop dressed as princess Batman in a bathing suit certainly isn’t going to harm them.

But what about medical decisions? Shots? Invasive exams? Surgery? Does your child get final say in that too? This is the problem with the “consent is everything” stance. Obviously, there are times when, as parents, we have to sacrifice our child’s bodily autonomy to something more important: their own well-being. Sure, for most people, this probably isn’t a revelation, but I’ve recently seen posts on social media referring to the lack of consent people (mostly children) get for certain medical procedures (anti-vaxxers, in particular, have latched onto this rhetoric). Clearly, the very sound advice that people should be in control of their bodies starts from a good place. But the all or nothing “consent is EVERYTHING” approach can veer into territory it isn’t meant to be in.

And even in the confines of sex, consent isn’t always a black and white issue. For most couples in established, healthy relationships, consent is nonverbal, and often assumed. But, even in longstanding relationships, sometimes there needs to be clarification. That’s why certain sexual subcultures use safewords. Even after several years of marriage, my husband and I still have to verbalize a “no” sometimes. And we know each other pretty well. I can’t imagine assuming that a complete stranger should just know what I mean without actually saying it. I don’t say that to victim-blame. Obviously, a stranger should know what rape is and that it’s not okay. But I do believe there’s a nuance in scenarios where consent is or isn’t given that isn’t often discussed. I’m not talking about a creepy, Robin Thicke “Blurred Lines” scenario, where “your eyes say yes but your mouth says no.”  I’m talking about a more “your eyes and body say yes, and you aren’t saying no, so I guess it’s yes” scenario. Because, so often, those end in, “you should have known that meant no.” Consent IS important in these scenarios, to be sure, but how do you establish it in these scenes without some kind of legally binding agreement beforehand (hot foreplay, I’m sure)? I don’t have the answers to that, but merely want to state that, maybe, this all or nothing, “consent is everything” approach has its heart in the right place, but isn’t actually practical.

Recently, I saw a comic from an artist I follow, about “Sleeping Beauty” being a problematic story because the prince doesn’t ask for consent before kissing the princess. In this artist’s updated version, the prince just lets her sleep. In the comments section, many were applauding this new approach to the story, but, as a fairy tale enthusiast, it bothered me. “I don’t know,” I wrote in the comments, “I’d rather be kissed without consent than be cursed to sleep forever.”

Consent is important. But context is everything.

When the Heavens Are Open

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I look down at my son’s face, asleep, already his fat, full cheeks are losing the roundness that defined them from day one. I can see that when he is older, he will have his father’s head, an oval, narrow, strong. My son’s breathing slow and steady in my arms. Not many more nights like this ahead. His crib packed away, just a few days ago, in favor of his now-beloved twin bed. The bed he will sleep in until he leaves home, I believe. I picture many nights ahead, where I lay down with him on that very bed, to soothe a fevered brow, to ease the pain of his first broken heart, to read our favorite books together, to apologize for my failings. He sleeps on now, a baby still, not yet two years old, but growing every day, with quiet breaths, no longer milk-scented.

While I look over my son, and wonder at the days ahead, and wish very much for sleep, my friend gets the news that her long-awaited baby, the one she was told might never come, stopped growing inside of her. And I don’t know what to think. I roll out a mat, lay myself on the floor, and weep for the sleepless nights she’ll never have, while begging God to reverse this mistake. He hears my cries. But her baby still dies.

When my brother died in infancy, my father penned a piece entitled, “When the Heavens Aren’t Open”. The title always stuck with me. But I don’t think the heavens are closed. The heavens are open, but I have no idea why, why some are called up while others are not, a selection process inscrutable to me. I felt in my shoulders, the tension release, and a hand laid on me in that dark, empty room where I lay on my mat. “You have to trust me,” He says. I trust, yes, as I lay my son down, that those breaths will keep going, by His will, and His alone.

A Tale of Two Bodies

I’ve written a lot about my struggles with self-image. In many ways, it’s been a pretty defining theme in my life. From the time I was eight years old, I felt uncomfortable in my body and with how I looked. This has manifested itself over the years as intense struggles with binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, and body dysmorphia. I’ve never understood the phrase “your body is a temple”. My body felt like a trailer park after a meth raid. When I was thin, I was never THIN ENOUGH. When I was fat, I was embarrassed and wanted to disappear. Clothing shopping invariably ended in tears. PE class was a nightmare. I have spent more minutes of my life than I care to tally staring at myself in the mirror, pushing and prodding and sucking in and lifting and crying.

But something has begun, slowly but surely, to change.

Perhaps it’s being on medication. Perhaps it’s just being healthier.

But over the last few months, my perspective has shifted, I hope, for good.

It started simply. I began to start working out, in earnest, and not to look a certain way, not as a punishment for eating “bad” foods, but to get healthier, to have more stamina, to enjoy life more. I began to eat more fruits and vegetables and started cutting back a bit on nutritionally empty foods. I began to read my Bible more. I began to ask for help to see myself in a better way. I began unfollowing people who posted negativity, I began taking French lessons on Duolingo. I started making a point to get outside more often with my son. I started following body positive accounts on Instagram.

Then my husband made me a bet; to see if I could go the next year without saying how afraid I was that he would think I was ugly, if I could at least pretend I believed he thought I was beautiful, for one year. I thought it was a mean bet, an impossible one. But I wanted to win. Because I know the value of sharing healthy self esteem with my child. I know how much better I am as a mom, wife, and person, when I don’t hate myself.

Then Rini Frey, a body positive instagramer, posted a message that was so simple but somehow so effective for me. It cut through all of the platitudes I’d been struggling to repeat to myself for years that somehow never worked. It was this: I don’t have to love my body. I just have to appreciate what it does for me. I have to appreciate that it houses me, that it gets me where I need to go, that it gets the job done. I don’t have to love everything about it. Reading that was freeing to me in a way I can’t describe. I am so much more than a body. There is an oft-quoted line, (often misattributed to C.S. Lewis––actually it’s found in the works of several other authors, such as George MacDonald and Walter Miller), that says “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” I like that sentiment. It’s not that my material body doesn’t matter, but that it is merely the housing for what’s inside. I don’t have to love every aspect of it in order to appreciate that it holds me now.

But, perhaps, the most powerful realization about my body was purely material. I don’t often bathe my son. His dad usually takes care of that, as we have divided up various childcare tasks and that lot fell to him. But a month or two ago, it fell to me. As I was bathing my beautiful boy, and he was sitting there, enraptured by bubbles and toys and the wonder of this world, still so new and exciting to his eyes, I realized something. He’s not built lithe and athletic like his father. He’s built strong, even stocky. Like me.

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My son and I at the Getty Villa in August

 

I still tear up when I remember how beautiful that realization was. How I passed on this thing I have hated and fought for so long to my son and on him it is a thing of pure, undisguised beauty. It is worthy. Holy even. It houses his soul, and his soul is wondrous. I would never wish for it to be altered or changed because it is his, and he is fearfully and wonderfully made.

My goal now, as I read from Kasey Edwards recently, is to live a healthy, active life, and let my body fall where it may. So I work out, I eat nutrient-dense foods, I have dessert when I want it, and I try not to worry about my hips and butt and breasts and tummy. I try not to worry about some narrow concept of beauty or a number on a scale or a dress size. I still have tough days, days where shopping for jeans reduces me to tears. But I think of my son, his chunky thighs too big for some of his own jeans. And I just don’t want to worry about it anymore. Because he has my body, and it’s beautiful because it is his. So mine must be too. Because it is mine.

Fear

Let me tell you a little bit about fear.

A few weeks ago, my husband, son, and I were heading to church on a Sunday morning. We got pulled over on the freeway, for speeding, evidently, though it appeared he was going with the flow of traffic. My husband was driving, and I had dozed off, not being a morning person. I was in the backseat next to our son. A CHP officer came to the side window, asked for license and registration. And white hot fear poured down my spine like gasoline. He seemed friendly enough, not intimidating. Just an officer doing his job, like most officers. But I kept looking at the gun on his hip and my husband’s brown hands flat on the steering wheel. I leaned up and rubbed his shoulder. Oh god, oh god, I kept thinking. Please let him see he has a family. Please let him see that I’m white. Please let my whiteness protect him. Oh god, oh god, please protect us.

We were ticketed and went on our way. Frustrated, of course, because we weren’t going faster than anyone else, but everything was fine. It was a standard moving violation. The CHP officer was just filling his quota (and has there ever been a more ignorant method of “justice”?). I’m sure there was no racial bias in his decision to pull us over. Right?

Because I don’t know anymore. We’ve all heard the news stories. An unarmed black man is approached or pulled over by police. He ends the encounter dead. The first few of these stories seemed like coincidence. But then it kept happening. And happening. And happening. Sometimes to black women. Sometimes to teenage boys. God help us, once even to a child playing in a park. And it stopped feeling like coincidence.

I know not all police; not even the majority of police, are people who would commit such acts. But I’m at a point in my life where I’m afraid of all of them just the same. I keep my eyes on them, shy away from them, leave the area where they are. I mark where their guns are, mark how they watch my husband and I as we go about our business. I see their hands touching the metal at their belts, that little weapon that can end it all in a second. Always, their hands rest on their guns.

My white friends have no idea what this is like. I had no idea what it was like either. Not until I fell in love with a black man. Now I can’t stop seeing it. Now I can’t stop being afraid around police officers. I know it’s not fair to label all officers by the actions of the few, but then again it’s not fair to label all black men by the actions of a few.

I’m afraid. Every day I see more and more news piling up and it’s all bad. Mass shootings Children snatched at the border. Rising sea levels. Temperatures rising. Babies starving to death in Venezuela. Women coerced into abortions by a system that has failed them. Wildfires ravaging our forests. White nationalist rallies. The normalization of pedophilia. Asbestos. Russian spies. Trade wars. Sexual assault. Ignorant leaders with almost limitless power.

Oh God, make it stop. I’m scared. I’m so, so scared.

When I was a child, I struggled with anxiety so bad I stopped being able to sleep at night for a time. I stayed up until all hours, getting up many times to wash my hands, which never felt clean enough. I tossed and turned, oppressed by anxiety and dark voices in my head. I paced the room. I pulled my hair. I couldn’t sleep until the sun rose for months.

I’m not pacing or hand washing or hair pulling, but I still toss and turn at night, imagining a world that we have made so uninhabitable that my son dies choking on poison gas.

I wonder how people throughout history have coped with what felt like the end of the world. How did the Greatest Generation make it through the war? Surely it felt like the end of the world then. What about all of those wars, calamities, and terror that preceeded this? What about the disciples in the days after Jesus’ crucifixion?

Maybe living in fear is part of being human. One of the things Jesus repeats most often throughout the Bible are admonishments not to be afraid. Somehow, even in the worst and darkest times, through slavery and siege and genocide; God’s people persevered in their faith. The Jewish people have been one of the most oppressed people groups in history. But they have endured. And continue to endure. God has not abandoned them. And, if we are to believe Jesus, we are his children too. Jesus says:

“…do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”- Matthew 6:25

Or, to put it another way, in The Lord of the Rings, a fantasy story about people struggling against incredible odds against a seemingly immortal and unknowable evil embodied by the One Ring, the unlikely hero, Frodo, laments to Gandalf, the wise wizard, “I wish it need not have happened in my time”

To which Gandalf replies, “So do I. And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”

 

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, spoke from experience. He lived through both World Wars, and fought in the first. He saw what looked like the end of the world; what looked like unbeatable evil. But Tolkien was a man of faith. He believed that, even if we failed in this life, there was a life beyond it, and our job was to simply do our best with the circumstances we are given.

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

 

Find that white star. Be anxious for nothing.