The Adventure.

Tonight I get on a plane to a country I’ve never been to before. The university I work for asked me to lead a group of students to the Dominican Republic, where we’ll partner with an organization that helps local churches provide basic resources to their community – clean water, food, shelter, childcare.

They asked me back in October, and I hesitated – am I the right person for this? Me, the introvert? Me, the non-joiner? Me, the oft forgetful, haphazard, doing-too-many-things-at-once girl? It’s a big commitment, to lead a team of students, to raise the funds and stick through all the challenges and pull myself out of my introversion and leave my life behind for a week.

But I shut my eyes and clutched the phone and just said yes. 

Sometimes you just have to do that, you know? Forget how busy you are and how you don’t really know if you can afford to step away from life as usual; it is time to do something different and trust that it will be good and right and maybe eye-opening.

It’s been an adventure just trying to get us there.

There have been challenges every step away, from finding a co-leader to go with me, to raising all the funds, to making sure my international students received their visas on time, to wondering whether my paternal grandmother will hang onto life for a few more days until I get back and can be there for my family, right down to finally being able to pick up my passport this morning. (YES. This morning.)

I couldn’t even write about it because a part of me wondered whether it would actually happen. But it is. And every time I’ve worried about whether I’m right for this or things will turn out okay, things fall into place. Every. Single. Time. Our trip is fully funded, everyone has their visas and passports, and my grandma is still hanging on.*

And so I’m learning, before I’ve even set foot on the plane, that this isn’t about shriveled, whiny, confused me, but about faithfulness, trust, arms-wide-open life.

Let the real adventure begin.

Say a prayer for G’ma Phyllis and my family, will you? And for our team, that we have safe travel, teachable moments, and a whole lotta fun. See you in a week, friends. 

Prodigal : What I Should Have Said Ten Years Ago.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about questioning my own authority and the way I’ve felt silenced by certain power dynamics, especially in the conservative Christian culture that I grew up in. Today, I’m over at Prodigal Mag exploring the ways in which that culture gave me false authority, especially in terms of purity and modesty culture, and how it influenced my relationships – to my boyfriends and my friends.

It’s on the drive home from dinner that she and I start talking about the modesty/purity culture stuff. She’s been reading links here and there that I’ve posted on Facebook – you know the ones. She tells me she really related to Sarah feeling like “damaged goods” and really appreciated Emily “turning in her v-card” and was fascinated by that statistic she saw about 80% of our Christian peers not being virgins.

My best friend is one of the 80% and I am one of the 20% —

But we sat in the same youth group and heard the same purity talks. Why did we choose so differently? What were the things we believed or didn’t believe about sex that led to our decisions? How do we feel about those choices now?

It occurs to me as we talk that this conversation with my best friend should have happened ten years ago. (Read more here.)

If you haven’t been aware, the Church’s longtime stance on purity has been a topic of much debate in the faith blogging sphere as my peers and I sort through its implications for rape and abuse culture, sexism, and developing a healthy sexual ethic. If you would like to read more posts about the topic, I suggest you peruse this helpful roundup at A Deeper Story, or follow along with Preston Yancey’s series on developing a healthy sexual ethic.

FemFest : My Daughter’s Body.

Today I’m linking up with FemFest, a three-day synchroblog devoted to exploring feminism and its importance, co-hosted by J.R. Goudeau, Danielle Vermeer, and Preston Yancey. Click over to Danielle’s blog to peruse the rest of these amazing stories, or to contribute your own. 

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This story of mine, it’s about a woman and her daughter. It’s about a fight for life and a fight for faith.

And it’s also, I’m discovering, about a fight for feminism.

I’m not sure my mom would have put it that way. She had some negative opinions about feminism, most of them owing to the particular breed she grew up with in the late 70’s and early 80’s. As she told it, there was a lot of hostility back then. A lot of confusion. My mother was college educated, the primary breadwinner in our household, a leader in her church. She would never have said that men and women aren’t created equal. But if I had to put words to it, “feminism” was not the lens through which she understood gender equality. She understood what it meant to be equal in the eyes of God, and that’s what mattered most to her. When feminism began to form, it was mostly in secular culture. I don’t think she knew back then how one could inform the other.

But as I read through some of the things she wrote about her experience as a young woman, as a wife, as a mother, as a cancer patient, I’m seeing this theme emerge. On one level, this is just a story about coping with tragedy, about the tension of grief and faith.

But because it is about breast cancer, it is also a story about women’s health.

And you could look at our family history and point to genetics as the main culprit, but that would only be half the story. From the dosage of birth control her (male) gynecologist prescribed her without batting an eye, to the endless treatments and choices she made to try and defy doctor’s prognoses once she was diagnosed with cancer, everything about my mother’s experience tells me a story about someone else deciding what women should do with their bodies. It tells me about dangerous assumptions and naive women and sickness being passed from one generation to the next, daughters without mothers and mothers without daughters.

Do I have kids now or later or never?

If I don’t want to have kids right now, what kind of birth control is healthiest for my body?

Do I have to take responsibility for birth control because – physiologically speaking – I am the one that will get pregnant? What can I expect of my partner?

Once I have kids, how do I stay healthy enough to raise them? When should I start having mammograms?

These are the questions she faced. These are the questions I face. These are the questions all women face everywhere, all the time.

My mom became her own advocate, she started asking questions, she took the reigns and outlived her doctors’ death sentence by several years. But it wasn’t until the tests came back malignant. It wasn’t until a lot more research had been conducted and showed that super high doses of birth control might actually produce something scarier than an “untimely” baby.*

And I guess the thing about feminism that I need, the reason why feminism matters, is that like breast cancer, it has motivated me to be my own advocate.

Feminism has motivated me to not only be concerned about my health and my future, but to do something about it, even if it’s telling my husband I’m not okay with taking a pill; I want you to wear a condom.

And feminism motivated me to marry a man that could look me square in the eye and say, I am willing to do that for you because more than anything, I just want you to be healthy.

And feminism is motivating me to tell this story, this story of a mother and a daughter, of breast cancer and women’s health, of grief and faith and feminism, so that our daughters grow up independent, happy and safe in their own bodies.

What’s your story with feminism? What has your experience been with learning to advocate for your own body? How has this factored into your choices with birth control? All voices are welcome here. And yes, male readers, you’re welcome to share your experience and understanding, too. 

*For more information on the troubling correlation between birth control and the increasing rate of breast cancer among women ages 25 to 34, see this report published by NPR today. Note that the NPR article clearly states that this is merely a correlation, not a confirmed cause, and that in my post I am merely writing about my mother’s experience and the likelihood that her dose increased her risk of breast cancer, which was hormone receptor positive.

I Am Done with Being Quiet.

I walked in the door of my apartment last night and the smell of natural gas struck me like a gale force wind.

Matt was sitting at the kitchen table, laptop open and earphones half on, working on music stuff.

“Babe! Can’t you smell that?!” I exclaimed.

“What?”

“Gas! It’s so strong!” I exclaimed. I ran over to the oven and opened the door, listening for the tell-tale hiss of gas leaking from the valve, but there was no sound. All the burners on the stove worked. I ran to the patio door and wrenched it open for fresh air, the bitter windchill swooping across the living room.

I called the customer service line for our apartment complex, who called the maintenance guy, who didn’t show up for 45 minutes. At 30 minutes I gave up waiting and called the fire department, who sent a crew over to inspect our building. The maintenance guy turned them away at the door before he or they had even inspected my apartment. He stomped in wearing heavy workman’s boots, claimed he couldn’t smell anything but if there was a smell, it was just sealant fumes from cleaning out the apartment below us. He shut off the gas line to my stove “just in case” and left, saying he’d back to check sometime tomorrow.

The gas smell hung in the air as Matt and I stood there, worried, hungry because we hadn’t eaten dinner, and furious at the maintenance guy’s cavalier and arrogant attitude.

After a sturdy pep-talk from my dad over the phone, I called the fire department again.

“Yeah, that shouldn’t have happened,” said the chief over the phone, apologizing profusely for the confusion. His crew came back and did a proper inspection, which revealed nothing, though they acknowledged the smell.

“You had every right to call us,” said one short, balding fireman as the crew walked out the door. “And you call us again if you smell it tomorrow after your maintenance guy ‘checks’ it.”

On the one hand, the whole two-hour affair was a waste of time. But then again, at least I knew for sure that there was no gas leak now. And at least I knew that whatever happened after that, I had a whole fire department willing to help me take care of it.

I sent the email and waited, staring at the screen, as a sick feeling settled in my gut. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent that. Maybe I was stepping outside my bounds. Maybe it wasn’t on my authority to address this.

I clicked anxiously from email inbox to email inbox, to twitter and facebook, to the article and back again, checking my phone intermittently for text messages.

No notifications, no responses. The minutes passed and I began to doubt myself. This isn’t my business. I shouldn’t care.

But I did care.

I cared deeply, even if all the reasons and the words weren’t fully formed in my thoughts yet. Something was wrong and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Awhile later, my phone chirped as an email hit my inbox.

“Thank you, friend,” it said. “Thank you for raising this issue and asking the question. We’re pulling the article. We want you to know that you can always come to us with your concerns.”

It wasn’t until I read those words that I realized what I had been anxious about all that time, what I am afraid of most when I raise my voice or speak out my fear : that someone will tell me to shut up and stop asking questions, stop making trouble because there’s nothing wrong here.

To know me is to know my deep and visceral sense of justice. There are a whole manner of things that I can attribute to this – my birth order as an oldest child and only girl, my conservative evangelical upbringing, my inherited stubbornness from two very articulate and opinionated parents. Part of it is just who God made me as an INFJ and Type 4; I find that as a creative person I am constantly weighing my intuition with the world around me, and this incites a lot of questions and an insatiable desire for truth.

But this visceral, intuitive and discerning part of myself got me into trouble a lot growing up. I learned that I argued too much, asked too many questions, got too angry, and blatantly disrespected the authority figures in my life – my parents, my teachers, my elders at church, the older and “holier” student leaders in my youth group.

Most of what I’ve known of authority is the kind that squelches doubt and questioning, the kind that equates criticism with trouble-making and disrespect, the kind that perpetuates shame and isolation, the kind that creates “did” versus “did not” dynamics, the kind that uses fear to motivate obedience.

I’ve watched quietly as the blogosphere has begun delving into issues of sexism, modesty, purity, rape culture, power dynamics, and sexual ethics. I share links and comment on threads, encourage others to speak up, but I haven’t been able to really speak up myself, and I’ll be honest,

I’m quiet because I’m not sure of my authority on the issues.

I’m quiet because I don’t know if I am a feminist. I don’t know if I am a complimentarian. I’m learning good theology, but I know that I’m no theologian. I know I’m no prophet.

And before now, I had not considered myself a victim to abuse. But the weight of these discussions have helped me recognize my own baggage and begin to unpack it. And here is what I’m learning :

Questioning my own authority is the result of abusive power dynamics.

Telling myself not to care because I’ll get too angry or it’s not my business is a repercussion of false authority.

False authority misappropriates power for itself, but healthy authority empowers the voices of its people to use discernment, find truth, embrace justice, bring healing.

If the people around us, in our work places, in our schools, in our homes, in our faith communities have told us to stop asking questions, then it is not a safe place to be. And those are the places that I’ve found myself silent, unable to ask questions, unable to speak truth and value and love to the people that needed it, unable to raise concern when I discerned that something wasn’t right.

But being concerned with something I find incongruous is not the same as being needlessly angry, and I’m tired of being labeled as such.

A healthy faith, a healthy sexual ethic, a healthy balance of power leaves room for questions, is not threatened by them, and makes no claim to have all the answers. And it certainly doesn’t silence or ignore its followers.

I’m still discerning what this means for me, for my faith, for my voice and for my writing. I know that I won’t always be loud or prophetic or theologically perfect, but I do know this :

I am done with being quiet.

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On Friendship.

When I think about Valentine’s Day, it’s not a holiday that I usually associate with romance. Although the hubs and I like to celebrate the holiday with a hot date or a little gift, our date-iversary is just before it on February 10, so the pressure to make special plans for Valentine’s Day is rather secondary to us.

For me, Valentine’s Day has become a reminder of all the great friendships I’m blessed with. Until I met Matt, I had never celebrated the holiday with any of the other guys I dated. For nearly every Valentine’s Day through high school and college, I found myself sitting across a candle-lit table from one of my best girlfriends instead.

In fact, on two separate occasions with two different guys, I dumped them a few days before the 14th because I realized they cared more for me than I for them. They wanted more out of me on Valentine’s Day than I was willing to invest, so dinner with my best friends seemed like the smarter plan. Maybe that was a bitchy move, and I feel bad for any broken hearts and wounded egos that resulted.

But when I made the choice not to invest in those guys, I was also choosing to invest in my friends first. And I don’t regret it one bit.

When I finally went on a romantic Valentine’s date, it was with a guy that I trusted as deeply and whose company I enjoyed as much as my closest friends. My friendships taught me to seek something deeper than romance, to look for all the elements of real, lasting love – trust, loyalty, gratitude, humor.

So today I celebrate friendship, because it’s an eternal kind of love, one that deserves a holiday filled with chocolates and love notes and fancy dinners.

For the friends that supported me and sat with me at a candle-lit table when there was no romance, and for the friend that decided to romance me for the rest of my life :

I love you. Thanks for being my valentine.

 

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Picking or Planting.

He’s been asked to pick weeds, but he wants to plant a vegetable garden.

This is what he tells me as we sit at the table, poking remnants of our dinner and digging through the hard soil our lives have fallen upon.

You know the feeling when everything you’ve done that day – many days – has yielded nothing?

It’s an apt analogy for this music man of mine, who, when not wrapping his long, curved and calloused fingers around the body of a guitar, loves to wrap them around a shovel to till the ground and make things grow. Herbs, peppers, zucchini, tomato, potato, beans, broccoli. He loves to bring a small harvest home for a good meal.

Today he feels about ready to bury it all – the hope he’s had for his music, the earnest effort of a decade practicing and playing, practicing and playing. It has yet to yield a real career, and he’s tired.

And so I hand him the shovel and take up my own and we keep digging, side by side, separating weeds from wealth, fear from truth.

I have dirt under my finger nails and I can hardly catch my breath but here is what I know :

It is not true that our effort is wasted.

It is not true that we have been given talents and passion that we will never use.

What is true is that some days we have to pick, and some days we have to plant. Some days we have to uproot the lies and wrestle with the weeds and do the tedious tilling.

What is true is that whether we are picking or planting, we will come away dirty and spent, all our work hinged on hope for those seeds we have laid in the soil.

What is true is that soil is made of layers and layers of dead things - shit - and that all that mess is made new when we wait long enough, and with hope.

What is true is that today the ground is cold and the season hasn’t turned. That time is coming, but it is not yet now. And so we wait and work, worry tossed aside as a weed so that our dreams can take root and grow.

 

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Hope in Things Unseen.

Here’s a small confession : I’m writing something, and it will be published in paper and ink.

Here’s a bigger confession : I’m writing about faith, and all the forms it has taken in my life. The fullness of joy, the hollowing lack, the cries in the darkness and the tears in its light, the worrying gray somewhere in between.

I confess this now because it’s happening and I’m terrified and I want to prepare you, my faithful readers who have believed in me when I can’t quite believe in myself.

I have to put words to this.

In some measure, I have already been doing this. I have talked about faith in myriad ways here on this blog, in this nearly three years when my journey has taken the wild roller coaster ride through grief and goodbyes and grace. Most of the time, I try not to spell it out too overtly because I respect your space in my space and I want to make room for you. This blog is not a roadmap for me and my journey; it is a wandering pathway that I hope to walk with you.

More to the direct, specific point : language, especially when it relates to world views and religion, is weighty. The last thing I want is to be heavy-handed. When we talk about faith, we are talking about deeply personal and often deeply painful things. The more room we give ourselves in our words, the more common ground we will find.

Sometimes, this desire leads me into timidity, and I don’t have the courage to say plainly what it is I think and feel. Sometimes, it leads me into truth, where your story and my story meet, no matter how different we are.

And now, I’ve been given this opportunity to be really specific, really honest about this.

And I am wrestling.

I want you to know that I am wrestling with some of the hardest questions of my life. I wrote about 3,000 words of an 8,000 word assignment, and instead of finishing the piece, the rest of my thoughts came tumbling out in questions and tears and God, I am so freaking angry right now. I don’t understand. I have no more words for this. I don’t even know what I believe.

The piece will find its ending, and I think today I understand that this doesn’t necessarily mean that I will find my answers.

Yesterday, that thought worried me, that maybe I was being lazy or anti-intellectual or too timid to confront my bad theology.

Today, this thought gives me relief. Today this thought tells me that this – this rambling post about faith and writing – is what writing out my faith looks like, because it is hope in things unseen. Because I don’t have the answers, but I’m going to take the step forward anyway.

The words don’t exist on my page yet, but my faith and my story are real. They are coming into existence. It is all possible, even when I can barely utter the words – book, faith, grace, God.

I have only to be faithful to it.

Because I’m No Mechanic.

My car wouldn’t start this week. In the subzero temperatures blowing through our Windy City, my car battery decided it had lost the will to live. First time it happened, I was secretly happy to be stranded. Second time it happened, it meant missing my therapy appointment and spending money I didn’t have on car repairs. The engine clacked emptily, as I wrenched the key into start.

Nothing.

I pressed my head against the steering wheel, hands white-knuckling it, and cried bitterly, like a petulant child.

I’m home now, in Michigan. I made the long, quiet drive between snow banks and trees after dark, slipping quietly into the house after midnight and between the sheets of the spare bed.

The thing is, I’m no mechanic. I stick my head under the hood of the car and stare blankly at all the foreign parts, a complicated mess that all seems broken and beyond repair.

My brother and father are the motorheads. They’ve taught me over the years to handle some things for myself – how to determine when I need an oil change, how to jump my car, how to put air in my tires, how to read the service engine codes, how to stand my ground against the sleezy sales guy at Autozone. But when the fixing needs doing, I go to them.

I woke up this morning and my brother had already replaced my battery.

I got a text from a friend yesterday. We don’t see each other often or even know one another that well, but she’s the kind of person that constantly casts light from her corner of the world, her corner of the internet in which, there, we keep tabs on each other.

The conversation was short, but piece by piece, she helped me break down some hurt and confusion I was struggling with. It’s clear where her gifts lie, and where her particular wisdom fuzes understanding for those outside of her education and experience. Her words were a spark by which I better understand my own gifts.

And this now, I know :

My hands don’t belong in the belly of an engine or in the muck of every messy paradigm, but resting on the keys of storytelling, where the tension we live meets the truth of grace, healing the cold mechanics of the human heart.

He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” – Ephesians 4:15-16

On Being Married to a Musician.

I bought him a Hohner Harmonica in G for his birthday with a harp-holder so that he could play it as he strums his guitar, just like Neil Young. He was thrilled with the gift, and I know this because the thing has barely left his lips since he got it. A few days ago I found him standing over the sink doing dishes and practicing “Heart of Gold” at the same time.

It dawns on me, even as I sneak off to the bathroom to escape the shrill tones of a song I can’t recognize, how lucky I am to be married to someone who is so unabashedly passionate about his art.

I am so often self-conscious about my work, afraid of revealing any underdeveloped idea, that I forget that the best way to really learn something is to play it till you know it in your bones, and take joy in the practice of creating.

Full Circle.

The new year began in two ways : one with the ball drop and celebration and champagne, and the other in the box of belongings and memory of a morning one year ago when her breath slipped away and life as I knew it was over.

The symbolism isn’t lost on me – this beginning and ending so close together, this cycle of saying goodbye and starting anew. Life and death and life.

On my morning commute I called my grandmother, just like I have each weekday morning since last January. We talked about all the everyday things – the chicken casserole she had made for dinner the night before, an update on how my aunt is feeling since her surgery in July, news from far flung family, a funny memory or two, and then, mom. We don’t talk about it every day, but it’s always there. When we do say it out loud, it’s a gift. Time slows down for me in that moment – I know it took a lot for her to say it, this precious, painful, oft unspoken piece of her life story.

She is the mother of my mother, I am the daughter of her daughter. She is a mother to me and I am a daughter to her in a strange, tight, eternal bond that both of us cling to with ineffable gratitude.

Just before we hung up and went about our days she said something, and I can’t forget it.

It’s like… we’ve come full circle to another year, and we’ve survived all these firsts and we’re tired. But the circle doesn’t end, it starts over again. I just can’t believe it. It’s hard… but it’s good, you know.”

I got a tattoo on the anniversary of mom’s death, the words of our favorite hymn scrawled like a bracelet around my arm, a circle of sorts. A reminder as I run my finger along the cracked skin of this scar as it heals :

Great is Thy Faithfulness. I am changed. Great is Thy Faithfulness.

I have to tell my story this year, in more ways than one, and with more words than the sum of all those I have poured out before. Some of my words will land in ink and paper, some in different corners of the internet, some on the cutting room floor.

Today, all of it feels fragmented and unfinished. I hesitate to plunge back into the memories again, to the death and the hurt and the pain. And I hesitate in this beginning of a new – another – year. I hesitate to watch the calendar and the seasons turn, toward every anniversary of the whole experience.

Maybe it’s because I worry sometimes that this is the only story I have to tell – sadness and loss. Grief. Is that all there is for me?

But I see in the circle that every end is its own beginning, and that’s His faithfulness in this story.

I can plunge into the depths, knowing that life will come from it. From telling my story comes life for someone else’s story. Grace abounds. The cup overflows. I find blessing in that. Great is Thy Faithfulness.

It is a surprise to me, even now, that I can say that of grief and mean it.

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