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?


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.


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.


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.

Three days in hell


“Out of the Woods” by DestinyBlue

I have depression. This is an objective fact. I don’t know how long, exactly, I’ve struggled with it, but I do know it became unbearable back in January; a side-effect of postpartum hormones and lack of sleep (it was the first round of teething, which was a doozy). I began to think troubling, suicidal thoughts, and worried over my ability to care for my son. I was afraid I would scream at him or possibly even hit him (I never did either, but the worry alone was terrifying), and more than once I put him in his room, went into mine and closed the door, and sobbed. So I saw my doctor, explained my symptoms, and he agreed I probably had postpartum depression. He put me on an antidepressant. And pretty much overnight I felt better. The intense frustration I had felt towards my son was replaced by normal, motherly exasperation. The desperation I felt for rest or the conviction I had that others secretly would be better off without me went away.

To further help my recovery, I began daily pilates exercise and eating a better, more balanced diet, with lots of whole grains, lean protein, and fruits and veggies (and a daily piece of dark chocolate, because dark chocolate is good for you and makes you happy). And I began to read my Bible every day, in physical form, which was way better than doing it on my phone. And what else I realized was that… a weight I had no idea I was carrying went away.

You see, as long as I can remember, I’ve hated myself. Not just self-criticism. Not just body image issues. I’ve held a deep-seated loathing of myself, a sense of shame and intense dislike. Every failure, big or small, has stoked this fire over the years, and every success or kind word has been ignored as faulty.

No matter how much I’ve weighed or how I’m dressed, I’ve always approached the mirror with dread, and been embarrassed to exercise or draw any sort of attention to myself in public.

And since it’s been this way my whole life, I assumed it was normal. I’m just hard on myself. I just need encouragement.

But when I went on antidepressants, I noticed that that feeling of intense self-loathing was gone. That nagging, angry, disappointed voice that criticized my every failing, my every minuscule flaw, was silent. For the first time in my life, I realized that not everyone had a voice like that in their head. I felt… free. Sure, I still wanted to work on myself, but I felt like I was finally doing it for me, not to try and win the approval of that nagging, unsatisfied voice in my head.

I had no idea that all along, that voice was depression speaking. My tormenter that I’d tried to ignore and live with for so long had a name and a face now. You can’t imagine how incredible that was to realize.

And how horrible it was when it came back.

Through a series of mistakes on the part of my pharmacy on refilling my prescription just after my son’s first birthday, I went three days without antidepressants.

The only thing worse, I think, than struggling, unknowing, with depression for untold years, is tasting the freedom of living without it, and then suddenly being plunged back into it at top speed. You can’t mess with psych meds, as any doctor will tell you, as the side effects can be catastrophic. I rammed face-first into a solid wall of bleakness, that voice screaming at me that I should kill myself and spare everyone around me the trouble of dealing with my existence. When my son woke up, bewildered, from a nap, I sobbed and felt like if I had to face him I would lose it. You’ll only hurt him. You hurt everyone. You’re a horrible mother. You’re a horrible wife. You’re garbage and you always have been. You can’t do anything right. You are trash. You are trash. You are trash.

I tried, hard, to continue my daily routines. My pilates stretches. My good food. My Bible readings. I collapsed into tears halfway through a workout, convinced I could never do it again. I went on a food binge that would have made the Karly of six years ago proud. I stared unseeing at the Bible, unsure how any of its words applied to me.

I did know, of course, that it was just the lack of meds. That everything would readjust once I finally got my prescription. But having that torn away from me left me unmoored. I wondered if this was who I really was after all. This dark, destructive person, this awful, nagging, hateful voice. What if the medicine merely whitewashed over the awful person I really was, put up a functional facade?

I begged God for help, in abject agony. In some part of my mind, even after going on meds, I wondered if I could have beaten the way I was feeling if I had more faith. If I prayed the right prayers. I sobbed quietly, trying to rock my son to sleep, as my mind tread these paths. “God, what am I doing wrong? Why can’t you help me? I’ve begged and begged and you’ve never helped me.”

Oh Karly, I heard Him say. I am helping you.

And instantly my mind pulled up those Bible stories of deeply human, deeply flawed individuals; Paul with the thorn in his side that God would not take away, Jacob with his limp, David and his weeping and doubting in the Psalms…

“But what about the people Jesus healed?” I asked.

What about the people I did not? 

I don’t get it. I’ve seen it myself, that God can heal some people instantly. I’ve seen people released from lifelong addictions and diseases in an instant. I know it happens. I know God can and does do miracles. But not for everyone. For many of us, God lets us struggle. He may heal us through medication. Or not at all. I don’t know why. I will never know why.

But I do know in that moment that my doubts were silenced. The nagging, angry voice still threatened to overtake me before I finally was able to get my prescription. I still struggled and fought and worried I would not succeed in time. But I did not doubt anymore that it was my fault; that I could pray this away or that I struggled only due to a lack of faith.

In my life, I’ve seen wonderful things, inexplicable things that I can only say are miracles. And I’ve seen many hopeless, senselessly tragic things. I don’t understand any of it. But I guess I don’t have to.

As a writer, I think, I am able to process this better than some. I too do things that would baffle the characters in my stories––but in the end it will all make sense. If my characters were able to read ahead, they’d know it all worked out for the best in the end, that everything had to happen to them the way it did in order to get there. I believe the same for life.

“Life,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien, “is a tragedy with a surprise happy ending.”

I don’t know why I’m depressed or why I have to be on medication. I don’t know if I’ll have to be on it for the rest of my life or if I’ll ever be healed. But I know one day, when the veil is parted, it’ll make sense why it happened this way. Why everything had to happen this way. Why it couldn’t happen any other way.

Amen and amen.

To the woman who isn’t sure if she wants kids

NOTE: Let me say right up front that having kids is not for everyone. It’s a calling that not everyone has on them, and that is fine. There are any number of reasons, ranging from the physical to the emotional to the mental to the spiritual, that one would not want or should not have children. This post isn’t about or directed at such people. This is about women who are on the fence about it. And apologies to men out there, but don’t know about the mental process to becoming a father, and can’t add much to that discussion. I can only speak to the experience of motherhood.


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Credit: Edward White

I get it.

You are just walking around Target, minding your own business, then BAM. A kid is screaming that his parents won’t let him get the super awesome toy he needs. His harried mother looks like she hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep or a shower in many weeks. You sigh, shake your head, you might even roll your eyes.

This, you think, is why kids are a terrible choice.

But then, on the other hand, your best friend’s baby is gorgeous. Well-behaved. Curls like an angel. And that baby smell, my god. Your friend tells you, “it’s just different when it’s your own.” Your friend says, “it’s all worth it.” And you think, “yeah, she’s probably right.”

But you don’t know. You think, “maybe” or “in a few years” or “when I’m ready.” You think, “I just want to finish school/get to this position in my job/see the world.” You think, “what if I’m not cut out for it?” So you debate and you go back and forth and friends and family start to wonder if you know that your biological clock is ticking, (of course you know).

So let me be real with you.

You’re never ready.

No amount of discussion or debate or pros and cons lists or books or listicles prepare you for being a mom. It is a whole being transformation. Your body changes. Your mind changes. Your life changes. You’ll have to make decisions and compromises. You may lose your freedom to travel as much as you like. You may not be able to bear the emotional or physical toll of returning to work. You may have to lay aside your desire to write that book or finish that degree for the time being. (Though, I will note, if you WANT to travel or meet whatever goal or work, you CAN. Having a kid does require compromises and changes, but it absolutely doesn’t mean your entire life has to be put on hold. Plenty of parents have successful careers or travel the world. Having kids just makes it different, but not impossible.)

And it’s hard. No lie. There are poosplosions and illnesses and sleepless nights and if you’re LUCKY you might not get postpartum depression. And your friends start to treat you differently. And your social circles start to close and contract around other people with kids, and your mind suddenly is more on whether your kid is eating enough and getting enough mental stimulation and you can’t remember the last time you could just take a bath in peace.

But, and here is the absolute, God-honest truth, nothing freaking compares. Yeah, blowouts and projectile vomit are not fun. Teething is a bitch and learning to breastfeed will take every ounce of will you have. But in the long run, in the grand scheme of things, these days don’t last long. Before you know it, that thing that took up so much of your time and effort is something your child already raced past. And your worries suddenly become that it is so ephemeral, so short-lived.

My son is going to be a year old soon. And for all of the hard days and times I dissolved into tears and felt like I wasn’t going to make it to morning; it’s all in the past now. He’s walking. He’s learning to talk. He even knows some sign language. He COMMUNICATES. He has WANTS and DESIRES and TASTES. He likes certain types of music. He likes certain movies and books more than others. He brings things to me and says my NAME like it’s his favorite word. He gives hugs. He tries to make you laugh. He’s become a little person with personality and his own unique identity and, no offense to dogs or cats, because pets are great, but that’s something that ONLY a human child can do. Only they can grow up to become people, people who, if you’ve done your job right, will contribute something to the world, who will, in whatever small but significant way, make the world gradually better and better.

So if you’re on the fence, if you really don’t know if you want kids or not, think about that. And consider what will be your bigger regret: that you didn’t get to live in the biggest house or make the biggest paycheck or see that one place that would have made a great background for a selfie… or that you didn’t help make and raise a unique human being?

I know, at any rate, what my answer was. And for whatever physical, emotional, mental toll it’s taken on me (and it’s considerable) there has never been a single moment that I’ve regretted it. And I never will.

When you can’t muster outrage

I like to read. I’m not a fast reader, but I read every day. I read novels. I read the Bible. I read devotionals. And I read articles.

There’s a lot of articles out there. A quick scroll through my Facebook feed will produce dozens of thinkpieces on the latest politics (depressing), state of the environment (depressing), sex scandals (depressing), parenting trends (judgmental), health craze (unwise), pop cultural phenomena (with 2,000 words of analysis through whatever lens du jour) and so on and so forth. I like to read, I like to be informed, but I find it all so… exhausting.


From the always great xkcd.

In a given day, I may find no fewer than a dozen articles with varying degrees of outrage directed at GMOS, Donald Trump, formula feeding, climate change (probably also Trump), sex trafficking, abortion, and Star Wars.

It’s… tiring. I fit all of the textbook criteria for an HSP- a highly sensitive person. This is a real scientific definition for someone who processes information emotionally and is easily overwhelmed by the information they take in. In other words, I feel things. I feel a lot of things. I’m extremely emotional and extremely sensitive. Horrible news stories about children starving in Venezuela are very present and real to me, and my husband has found me more than once clutching our son and sobbing over something happening far away in the world that I have zero control over. And I don’t want to become desensitized. I don’t want to stop caring about these children in far away places. Just as I also don’t want to stop caring about the human impact on the environment or women’s rights or advocating for babies or minorities or the disabled. I don’t want to stop demanding better from the world and from myself.

But I can’t muster anymore outrage. I’m exhausted by it. I am up late caring for a child and meeting work deadlines. I can’t approach every topic with a default of righteous anger. I don’t have the energy.

Don’t get me wrong. I care about how Star Wars portrays women, I do. But I can’t work up the same amount of anger over it that I feel over starving children. When every article in my feed, every day, is spewing spittle with the same vehemence regardless of whether it’s over movies or global injustice, I find myself exhausted before we even begin. I want to close the computer and go lie back down. But I do want to have these conversations about movies too. I want to have intelligent discussions about WHY Star Wars makes us (or doesn’t make us) feel things. But I can’t have them with the same intensity as I want to talk about what is happening in Venezuela. When everything calls for outrage and boycotts and screaming matches, I want to quit. I want to give up on the internet and go hide in a nature preserve with a pile of books like I’m in friggin’ Walden.

But I can’t. Because I care about the world and what’s going on in it. I just can’t feel so much outrage. There’s got to be a more subtle range of emotions out there.

Do better

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When I was about 7 years old, my parents were hosting a ministry couple at our house for dinner and I was sent off to play with their daughter, who was a little younger than me. We played Barbies, because I had an extensive collection, but I had no Ken dolls, only my brother’s big GI Joes (which I preferred, because they were way better looking, to my mind). I paired my favorite Barbie (blonde, blue-eyed, with pink streaks in her hair and a guitar) off with the hispanic looking GI Joe, because he was the most handsome (ie. did not have a pained expression or scars on his face) and recommended to her the next-best looking, the black one with a cool scar on his eye for her equally blonde and blue-eyed Barbie. She frowned at the GI Joe and said, “Well, it’s fine to play, and I wish you could in real life, but you know that’s wrong.”
“You know, black people can’t marry white people.”
Seven-year-old me was flabbergasted. “What are you talking about? Yes they can.”
She just looked dubious, but agreed to take the handsome black GI Joe for her Barbie.

It’s been 20 years and I still think about that incident. I don’t remember the girl’s name, or her parents, or anything else, but how shocked I was to hear her say that. I grew up in one of the whitest areas of the country, and only knew a single black person growing up (Suzie, who lived about 6 houses down and let me and my friends come over whenever we pleased, which was often, because she always gave us Tootsie rolls).

This wasn’t a singular incident. I remember a lot more.
-Getting my hair cut when I was about 8, at another neighbor’s house, and overhearing her nonchalantly discussing with her friend how black people were just descendants of white people who’d mated with monkeys.
-A cousin of my mom’s explaining that the pink skin on black people’s hands and feet were because that’s where God held them when he spray painted them.
-Staring dubiously at the black Jesus painting in the lobby of the only black church I’d ever set foot in at age 10 or so, thinking it looked wrong, even though I saw a blonde Jesus painting every week at my church.

Racism is pretty insidious. It gets under the skin of your culture and you don’t even realize it because you’re so permeated in it. And loving black people doesn’t magically make all of that go away. As much as I’m still very-much that little girl aghast at that kid’s comments about my handsome GI Joe, I’ve also struggled with unconscious prejudices and biases.

Even as I became a teenager and moved to California and became friends with people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, I still shied away from the black guys who flirted with me (white dudes never liked me) because black guys “weren’t my type” though I was, evidently, theirs.

I remember when the last census came out in 2010 my mom asking my brother and I, pointedly, “Do you see yourself as white or hispanic?” “White,” we both said. Despite growing up eating yellow rice and black beans, being part Cuban has always been a side-note, a minor exoticism for us.

I went to a college with about 2 whole black students at it. I was dubious of claims of police singling out black drivers until I was in the car with my friend Marlon when he got pulled over and given a thorough once-over for, evidently, just driving around a white girl in a nice neighborhood.

When I started dating my now-husband, I once told him he “sounded white” and didn’t “act black”. I once asked him if watching movies like Lord of the Rings, one of my all-time favorites, ever bothered him because of how extremely white the cast was. I went to a family gathering with him and discovered how uncomfortable it was to sit in a room full of only black people, covered in pictures and figurines and memorabilia only depicting black people and black culture. I asked him on the drive home if that’s what being the only black guy in the room was like. “Pretty much,” he said. For some reason, he still married me.

I worried sometimes that our eventual biracial children might resent or hate me for being white. And he worried they might reject or be ashamed of him for being black. When they pulled our kid out of me, with shock, and just the slightest bit of regret, I saw that he was more pink than brown. I worried that might hurt him. I’ve had to steer the conversation with well-meaning people away from the color of my kid’s skin, as they make comments like, “His coloring is so nice” or “He looks more black when his dad holds him.”

There’s so many more anecdotes and incidents. There’s so much you don’t know because you don’t know it, no matter how well meaning you are. But, in the words of Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

I’m gonna keep trying to do better. Not just because I married a black man, not just because I have a biracial son. Not just because I have black friends and family. Just because I’m a human being. And sometimes I’m as ashamed of myself as I was of that little girl I was playing Barbies with 20 years ago.


What do you grab when your house is on fire?

What do you grab when your house is on fire?

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How do you compartmentalize your life down to what you can carry out of the blaze?

Our house is not on fire- not yet. Our neighborhood is, though. The sky looks like the end of the world. It is an angry, wounded red, flickering on the horizon. Terrifying and awful. I imagine I can feel the heat on me- licking up my arms, blackening my feet, melting my skin off my bones, leaving behind nothing. I remember when I was a kid, seeing those perfectly preserved bodies at a science exhibit on Pompeii. The mother clinging to her child. Forever.

My husband tells me to grab what’s important as he dresses the baby in pajamas. We have time for that. My mind goes blank. The power is out. I hurriedly stuff things in bags- a handful of clothing for me, an armload for the baby. I shove a few pairs of socks and underwear for my husband in too- just in case he forgets to grab his ready-bag.

On second thought, I grab some toys- a stuffed Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Lex the lion, Sly the fox, Tortuga the turtle. All of my son’s favorite humanized objects. Pausing from stuffing underwear in my bag, I grab my wedding ring in its box from the side table, my son’s storybook Bible. Hurrying downstairs, I take in, just briefly, our life in photos- me and my husband, my husband and I, smiling on Catalina, at Disneyland, in Banff National Park, on our wedding day, on the day we got engaged, when I was 6 months pregnant. Photos of our son, peacefully swaddled. We don’t have more recently prints yet. No, everything is digital now. I grab my favorite book- a worn copy of C.S. Lewis’ underrated novel, Till We Have Faces. It is replaceable, but still. My Kindle, my phone of course. My computer, oh god, with the work I was doing just an hour before, when the power suddenly winked out. Our wedding cake toppers- cute wooden pegs painted to look like us. A single ornament from our Christmas tree catches my eye- a preserved maple leaf from Banff. Our honeymoon. Into the bag.

“None of it matters,” I mutter, racing downstairs and throwing our bags in the car, not sparing a glance at our books, our instruments, our home we’ve worked so hard to build. “It can all burn.”

My son is screaming now. His routine was thrown off. He just wants to go to sleep. I do too. I just want this to be over. He’s screaming like he hasn’t in ages- a scream of utter confusion and desperation. “It’s okay,” I tell him without conviction. I don’t forget the formula, the diapers, the wipes, or the nursery water. Those were the first things I grabbed in my confused race through the dark house. My husband, more methodical, has packed a bag quietly, selected a single guitar to save. He has his computer, his chargers. “We’re not in danger yet,” he says calmly, hearing my heavy breathing. “We have time to get what we need.”

“What we need is to leave,” I try to insist.

“It won’t do to leave in chaos and be left with nothing.”

We are very nearly fighting, my anxiety at odds with his calm collectedness. Finally, we are in the car. We watch neighbors fleeing. We are not alone in this exodus. “Where are we going?” my husband asks.

“I just want to get away. I just want us to be safe,” I repeat. “I don’t know, but away.”

A few agonizing moments where he tries to figure out a plan. How I want to strangle him. But I am feeding the baby, strapped, exhausted, in his car seat, bewildered and tired and hungry. At least I have a task. Just another ounce, sweetie. It’s okay.

My husband senses my panic, drives us down the road to a parking lot to reconvene. Others do the same around us, I see. My husband makes calls, has me make calls, send texts, on dying phones- I forgot my damn charger.

He lines up a place to stay.

“I still have work tomorrow,” my husband, the dedicated teacher says. “I can’t abandon my kids.”

Fuck them, I think. I want to get away. But he has their respect, hard-won. He can’t lose it now in a crisis. He figures out accommodations near the school. Accommodations that, after an agonizing day I would spend alone in the house of strangers with nothing but the baby and terror to keep me company, we would quit. We would check on our house- it would be fine, but the air quality would make us sick. We would flee further south, to fresher air, far from the fires. We would sleep in the bed all together for the first time since our son was born, united by love and fear. We would wait for days.

I would say, as we became calmer, more secure, “Your level-headedness makes me want to slap you in the face, sometimes.”

He would say, “Your panic makes me want to slap you in the face, sometimes.”

We would kiss and cuddle and laugh, so glad to have each other and our son and be alive and safe. Our son would giggle and smile and clap his hands.

But that night, we drive in the dark, down the desolate highway, surrounded on both sides by fields of abandoned crops. We see the mountains lit up like volcanoes, throwing bright yellow and orange flames into the air. It is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Our son is now fast asleep, peaceful, in his car seat. I think of Pompeii, and start to cry.

If I don’t make it, I think, I just need them to be safe. I could immolate if they were safe.

And I knew I meant it, too.


Me too?

Last week, millions of women posted to the hashtag #metoo, sharing their stories of sexual assault and harassment to let the world know that situations like the publically splashy Weinstein allegations are not isolated incidents.

Hands underwater

When I first saw this post I thought, “I can’t post to that, I haven’t been raped or assaulted… and harassment…? That’s so tricky to define.”

But I saw who had posted it- my sister-in-law. And I know her. Well. And I thought, yeah. Me, too.

When I was about 4 years old, a wheelchair-bound, elderly man at our church liked to give out candy to the kids. Once, at a visit to his house, me and a friend the same age were asked to go visit him in the back room since he couldn’t get around well. He had candy necklaces for us. He sat me on his lap and kissed me- sloppily. With tongue. I remember his tongue, thick and large, swiping across my teeth, and how baffled I was by it. This was not, by any definition of the word, what I knew as a kiss. It seemed to go on and on and on, though it really couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. I was rewarded for my endurance with the promised candy necklace. My friend received a similar kiss and necklace. I remember afterwards discussing with her how gross the kiss had been, but nothing else. We didn’t know any better. The man was disabled… maybe he’d forgotten how to kiss?

It wasn’t until some days later that the man’s adult-daughter- the mother of other friends of mine- came into my room, obviously upset. “Has he ever kissed you in a way that you thought was weird?” She asked me. I cried. I thought she was upset at me. “You’re not in trouble, Karly,” she said. “But you have to tell me if he ever kisses you like that again.”

To my knowledge, I was never left alone with her father again, and it never happened again. As a kid, I brushed it off. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I seriously began to realize what had happened.

And by then I was so sexually confused I didn’t know what to think. At 13, a friend introduced me to Yahoo! Checkers, an innocuous online game hosted by yahoo where you could chat with the person you were matched up to play against. Privately. She thought it was funny to find people who were interested in cybersex, to play with them, flirt with them, and then leave the chat. I became fascinated. I was young and hormonal and ugly. It was nice to be the belle of the cyber ball. Some men, I discovered, wouldn’t play with you unless you said you were at least 17- but some of them relished the idea of your youth. It was men who thought I was 13 who began sending me pornography. Sometimes it was links to other websites- the first video I ever saw was pretty hardcore girl on girl that someone sent me to, I guess, get me, a child, in the mood. And sometimes- increasingly often- it was just pictures of their penises.

Never mind how confusing and disturbing and frightening this all was to me as a kid.  This was how the internet was. These weren’t isolated incidents. I experienced this kind of behavior online for all of my teenage years. Sometimes willingly, because I was lonely and felt horrible about myself. And sometimes it was totally unasked for and unwanted. I got it from men. And from women. I was sent graphic descriptions of rape fantasies, bondage scenarios, you name it. I was sent more videos featuring more grotesque, inhuman sex acts than my brain could fathom. Sex was horrifying and fascinating and I was deeply, hideously ashamed. Liberating, my ass. I felt enslaved. Sex was not enjoyable. I was not experiencing an awakening. I felt like I was staring into a dark, roiling void and wanted nothing, at all, to do with it in reality.

But there was bleed over into the real world occasionally. Like the guy I befriended online- a friend of a friend who claimed to be Christian- who started an innocent enough flirtation that led to phone calls. And demands for me to perform, or simulate, borderline acts for him. Not masturbation. But close enough. Wear such and such outfit. Do such and such while I listen. Listen to me describe to you exactly how I would tie you up. I was 17. I thought it was funny at first, as I held no actual attraction to the guy- but it became frightening when his calls became more insistent and he wouldn’t stop. I turned my phone off for a final in my freshman year of college and he had called me 12 times during that time, leaving increasingly demanding messages. When he started talking about coming to visit me, I broke off all contact. I remember asking my friend, who had introducing him to me, why she hadn’t told me what he was like. “I thought you were smart enough to figure it out,” she said. And of course there was that one guy I met at a coffee shop who immediately demanded nudes as soon as I began talking to him online and became threatening when I of course wouldn’t comply. But that hardly feels worth mentioning, it’s such a side note.

More impactful were the guys I really did like, who I really did want a relationship with. I found myself, in high school and again in college, in situations where I was growing close to a guy who manipulated me, used me emotionally, and was verbally and emotionally abusive. I rationalized their actions, knowing they struggled with their home lives, or their psychological issues, or what the hell ever, but the truth was… I just figured that these were the kind of men I deserved. I pined for one of them throughout all of my college years. I loved him almost right up until I started dating my now-husband.

Looking back, I can ask myself in every single one of these instances what was wrong with me? I can look back with shame and embarrassment at the situations I willingly walked into. But how willing was it really? I felt, and sometimes still feel, corrupted in some way by these experiences. I still feel sometimes like I walked away with the wrong husband- mine loves me too much and too selflessly, he must be defective. Surely, I deserve one of those “calls me at midnight blind drunk to demand we have sex” models, because those were certainly what I envisioned myself with for many years.

But I still don’t know if I can really say “me too,” you see. I wasn’t really abused. Or harassed. I wasn’t given anything I didn’t, on some level consent to. I know people who’ve been raped, and abused for real. That’s not my story.

But this is. And I know it’s plenty bad that I can look at all of this and still wonder if it counts.