Monday, November 21, 2016

'Whew! OK' and then actually not OK...

Her brief shimmying moment during that first debate sort of summed everything up: As awful as this circus was, the colossal difference in sheer intellectual maturity between the thoughtful adult and the large toddler on stage gave me new confidence as an American and as a woman.

This nightmare blip would be over soon and very soon, and then we could each return to proactively pushing for justice and compassion in myriad ways – all with a capable Madam President at the helm. “Whew! OK.”

“Happy Election/Apocalypse Day :-),” a friend texted me. I winked an emoji back, delighted to wait quite some time in line at 6 a.m. two weeks ago to fill in that oval beside the name of an accomplished, badass lady. She would continue so much of what the deeply decent, gracious human who has occupied the Oval Office the past eight years began, and I was proud to cast my vote for her.

It was such a happy albeit early morning that I selfied it. I stopped and chatted with Lewis on my bike commute, rather than just rolling past with the usual wave or high five. And all day at work and around my neighborhood, the mood seemed different. It really felt like the best day of 2016. My power was turned on, and starting right then I’d be strong.

Cut to about 7:45 that evening, when I casually turned on the news and popped the cap off a delicious hard cider I’d purchased a few days prior for that specific night. Suffice to say, I should have purchased more than one bottle of the stuff.

Like so many, I didn’t sleep much that night, despite turning the TV off by 10:30 or so. I kept waking and crying. The sleeplessness and weeping spells continued over the next couple days, simmering down to a dark but settled cloud of grief and anger by the weekend.

Winter is coming, winter is here. The wind and the dying leaves and the physical chill that have finally made their presence known in St. Louis over the last few days seem a fitting accompaniment to the present triumph of fear, hate and ignorance in our cultural climate.

I’ve been told by several more conservative friends that those are strong words. Hateful words. And the other day, a white woman in the row ahead of me on the train loudly ’splained to her college-age seatmate, who was reading some real news on her laptop from what I could tell, that all of the protesters are “brats” and “need to get over it.” She certainly shut down the conversation on Amtrak that day. Yeah, she sure told us what we are: We are brats. We are nasty.

That’s been the voiced tone of many irritated by the grief and pushback over the election results on social media, too. Those who either voted for the president-elect or feel a measure of relief and hope at the prospect of his presidency are deeply offended to now find themselves considered complicit in what’s occurred and what may come in these next months and years.

It’s no fun to feel hurt, and I’m not trying to argue that everything that’s been said about the election of DJT has been nice or helpful by those of us who are not on the right-wing side of things. I am sorry that folks are going through that cognitive dissonance and inner discomfort.

But I still cannot feel all that bad for those grappling with that sort of hurt/personal offense right now. Frankly, some of it smacks of DJT himself, who, instead of getting it together mentally to become a non-catastrophic leader of the free world (even just in terms of developing a more healthy temperament and some capacity for reflection and critical thought, let alone developing workable policy), has been losing it again on social media – this time over a really very thoughtful, respectfully relayed message by the diverse and newly vulnerable cast of “Hamilton.”

I do think we must, more than perhaps ever before, find it within ourselves to listen to one another, give each other the benefit of the doubt and really seek to understand where those with different perspectives are coming from. And I do believe we have much in common with one another and need to celebrate all of that good and light and love.

But it’s also a time for taking sides, for speaking up, for working harder than we have been on behalf of the oppressed and those in danger– and not for apologizing for calling certain statements and actions unacceptable, inhumane, racist, selfish, etc. As much as we cringe at Facebook threads that go off the rails and poke fun at the idea that people’s minds *ever* get changed by social media ravings, let alone uncomfortable in-person conversations, those sorts of interactions are kind of all we’ve got, in some ways. And our country, and our entire world, is at stake. We have to keep at it.

I have seen minds changed, including my own, through conversation. Hugely bummer conversations, even – including several that still make me cringe in my own case, as well as feel a wave of gratitude.

Here’s one, gulp/cringe: Back in the early 2000s, over ice cream with a friend at Cold Stone Creamery, incidentally, our chitchat somehow briefly turned to state ballot issues. I don’t recall the exact nuts and bolts of the bill or referendum or whatever it was, but the gist was that LGBT couples would have some of the same domestic privileges and protections and rights that straight couples did.

Anyway, at one point I said something rather facile to my friend (and now to my deep dismay) about understanding where they’re coming from but still seeing it as different than a marriage and not something I felt I could vote in favor of. As I explained my view, my friend began to have kind of an odd look on her face. Unbeknownst to then-quite-conservative-and-Bible-thumping me, two women at the table behind me – plus their young children – were seated at a table behind me, just trying to enjoy their ice cream.

My friend, to her credit, quietly and gently pushed back with her own view of why the Colorado ballot initiative made sense. And just then the family of which I had been so spatially and ethically unaware walked past our table on their way out the door.

“Honestly, it’s just so that we can take care of each other in the hospital and have the same privileges with our children and that kind of thing,” said one of the women, to whom I am now forever and awkwardly grateful though it stung at the time. I don’t remember what she said word for word, but I do remember it was calm and persuasive…and firm. Unapologetic.

In that moment, I wanted to crawl into a hole forever. Actually, I still want to crawl in that hole a little bit. But more importantly I wish I could somehow thank that stranger (as I have my friend) for responding to my narrow statement with such resolute grace. Her life, and her love for her partner and her children, matter so much more than I could see at the time. And if she hadn’t shared that with me, hadn’t taken the time to counter me, it might have taken me even longer to recognize that.

So…on that embarrassing note…here’s to continuing the conversation, including the difficult ones, in the midst of a new and terrifying chapter. I do believe that deep-seated beliefs and blind spots can change, especially when we are given windows into others’ hearts and personal stories – and also when we are called out, sometimes fairly and sometimes maybe not totally fairly, for elements of badness in ourselves and in our society and subcultures. It’s natural to feel defensive, but it’s also possible for those moments to lead to self-reflection and action that result in needed change.

Whew! OK. :-/

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Fun facts and false starts

I am tired tonight, which is never an ideal state in which to attempt to think thoughts. But I’ve been tired kind of this entire calendar year, so I’m just going to roll with it. 

The practice (for better and worse, I think) of vulnerability has been on my mind a lot lately. When I consider what matters most to me, a certain insistence on openness ranks right up there among several prized ideals, if I’m being honest. And it’s been important to me for a long time.

I remember the strong obligation I felt early on to share my faith, to “Tell The Truth,” as the rather direct title of one evangelism training manual urged me in youth group. I also remember how I despised the competing internal hesitation I felt about inviting a sweet friend at Sears, where I worked part-time in high school, to church. A great and utterly unremarkable battle waged in my soul. But now you know. And I do think it may have had a lot to do with a genuine desire (along with ego, of course) to have nothing to hide, to be consistent, to be as real as I could possibly be.

That same insistence on honesty and integrity has (surprise!) become quite a bit more fraught as an adult.

In my twenties, an unexpected loss of confidence in the idea that the scriptures I loved were infallible, the only rule for faith and life, shook me to my core. I couldn’t affirm the idea of Jesus as the “only way” the more I saw the wide variety of lives being lived in good faith. (This is a wayyy-abridged version of the journey. But I am getting off track here.)

Anyway, instead of politely and undramatically putting myself away quietly from the church, I was pretty (stupidly?) open about it. At the time (and even now), there seemed a necessity to it. I had been open about and invested in my evangelical faith, and so I should be open about losing it, about grappling with it and finding, also, that I was still loved, still here, that things would be all right.

While I still think about the big questions of existence and eternity now and then (and will probably never not be still just a little afraid of hell, incidentally {thanks, Jonathan Edwards!}), the things I rattle on about more often these days in my head and, yes, online, are usually more…earthly and mundane, I guess you’d say. This crazy election year, for instance.

But this creates new problems for those of us who pride ourselves on “being vulnerable,” those of us who long ago relinquished the right to ever start a status update with “I don’t usually post much or get political on here, but…”.

I sometimes (meta-narcissistically!) fret that I post far too much, from cat pictures and bike stuff to links and rants. And I worry that something is seriously wrong with me for occasionally morphing into this frantically typing feline.

Well, there is a lot wrong with me. And I do seem to have a lot to say. But I also really enjoy seeing what others have to say and share, and I’m grateful for windows into the lives and opinions and experience of family, friends and acquaintances.

Then again it’s a mess (social media in particular…and sorry, this is the worst topic ever, make this post stop please). I don’t know. True confession, while we’re being vulnerable: Today I wanted to yell-comment on one of many posts equating my party’s flawed-but-experienced-and-intelligent-and-non-catastrophic candidate with arguably the most appalling nominee in our nation’s history that pluralism is not the same as persecution and that HRC is not Nebuchadnezzar or Hitler (P.S. #ImWithHer, P.P.S. #ImAlsoNotTheFirstHemphillToSupportAClintonJustFYI).

But I did not. I saved it for my blog. ;-) G’nite.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

In praise of sleep, laughter and ice cream (and other stuff)

It’s only August, so there’s a lot of year still left to go, but so far 2016 has in many ways felt uniquely eternal and taxing. Lately I’ve been trying to pinpoint bits of the “why” behind this.

Some of it, I think, is due to absorbing the news of jaw-dropping horrors across the country and globe. Orlando, Baghdad, Nice… the sheer frequency of such incidents and the unrelenting hatred seem unprecedented, shaking my hope in that arc of progress that bends, slowly but surely, toward justice. The popular ignorance and inhumanity of Donald Trump hasn’t helped either. Where is the love, the compassion, the common ground and good will that keep society intact?

But as much as these broad and legitimate reasons for deep concern have definitely affected my outlook this year, the primary roots of my weariness are more personal, more selfish, if I’m being honest – and mostly just not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things.

But in my little corner of our fraught world, or at least in my head, those ultimately minor disappointments, injustices, frustrations and failures have felt pretty big. And they loom even larger when I’m not feeling well (I’ve had a bad cold this week at an especially busy time).

And so I think that’s kind of what’s been going on and getting me down more than usual – just a lot of what seem like backward, out-of-my-control steps this year, followed by mental exercises in deep-seated insecurity and self-absorption of every stripe: My hair sucks. Maybe I am just terrible at this and chose the wrong path. I should dress better. It’s all my fault. I should be faster at this. What is wrong with me? Why haven’t I mowed the lawn yet? The weeds are literally the size of trees. Why do I feel so behind? Are they right that I am actually going to hell? Why can't I fix this? What is wrong with me? How have I still not made a dentist appointment? Is it selfish of me not to plan on procreating? How have I made so little progress financially at this age? Everyone else seems to be juggling life just fine. Stop looking at Facebook. Get it together, self! Blahhhhh.

On the upside, 2016 has been a really good reminder to me of how much we need each other and that I am beloved and understood (and so are you) by the people who know me and love me anyway, even when I’m at my worst. To have people in our lives that time and again help us claw our way out of our zany heads and keep on keeping on is no small grace.

In addition, I’ve taken refuge in more ice cream and other indulgences than I’d care to admit in recent months, but hey, oh well. Ice cream is very delicious and helpful. So is keeping a sense of humor, particularly about ourselves. Sleep is good, too, and possibly my most key accomplishment of 2016 was investing in a new mattress. Definitely an underrated errand.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Have you but one blessing

Esau’s desperate plea echoes on through the ages, an unresolved chord.

So does the divine verdict with its matter-of-fact shrug: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

It’s enough that life isn’t fair, enough that when Esau is hungry, vulnerable and consumed with work, those he trusts betray him. But it gets worse in the second act, of course. And centuries later, when people try to ask questions, an impatient apostle won’t hesitate to make Esau exhibit A of that’s-just-how-it-is.

People will keep asking questions and keep pleading Esau’s plea. The haunting verdict will stick around as well, and even the characteristically empathetic Jesus will repeat its chilly message now and then. When students ask about his cryptic approach with crowds clearly hungry for hope and help, the teacher will reply, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

To his credit, Esau himself eventually moves beyond his very justifiable outrage. Not only does he move on, though -- he becomes a model of reconciliation and being the bigger person.

Years later he will run toward his despicable brother, wrapping the twerp in an affectionate, all-is-forgiven, hairy-armed hug. And Jacob will be showered with unexpected grace.

There was and is still in this story only the one blessing, still the infinite injustice and betrayal, all of it unacceptably consecrated by a higher power. Esau rightly voices his rage at a rigged, wildly screwed-up game. In the end, though, while the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may hate him, love wins the day. And Esau decides to bestow it.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Becoming Eve

"We are deeply saddened that you have thereby separated yourself from the visible church, outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." So ended Form 2B, a Word document emailed to me in regard to my soul about six years ago.

After printing out this certificate of dismissal from the church of my youth, I didn't know where to file it away. In the back of my Bible? In the fireproof box under my bed? I folded it and carried it around in my shoulder bag for several weeks, pulling it out now and then to make sure I was reading correctly.

I tried drafting various Form 2Bs for other parting occasions: We are deeply saddened that you have left this political party, outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of social progress. We are deeply saddened that you have separated yourself from this company, outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of gainful employment.We are deeply saddened that you have chosen not to patronize this Denny's, outside of which there is no possibility of enjoying our delicious Grand Slam breakfast. We are deeply saddened that you have separated yourself from this relationship, outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of love.

Sometimes I can smile, shake my head at this ultimately impotent piece of paper, this well-intended warning of eternal perishing. But every so often I'm still anxious, fearing that Form 2B has been faxed to heaven, where Jesus will locate my name in the Book of Life and blot it out with his decisive red pen.


Looking back on some of the messages I received and what I recorded around the time I confessed deep doubts and was threatened with excommunication (before instead being sent on my rebellious way via the gentler Form 2B), several patterns emerge, including repeated invocations of a certain namesake.

A cousin wrote to warn me of my peril: "The very first temptation to mankind came when the serpent said to Eve in the garden, 'Did God really say?' Eve questioned what God had said and decided to live and make decisions apart from his Word. I pray that you will not make the same mistake."

A friend forwarded me a note from her mother, who was praying for me at the time. "Today, as I've thought about and prayed for Evie, I was struck by the thought that another voice is playing a role here. I thought of Satan's words to Eve in the Garden and was overwhelmed by the thought that Evie is being faced with the same battle. Trusting that Evie is born again, as I believe, then is the huge voice of doubt and accusation coming from the Serpent? Is Evie able to identify Satan's voice?" I neglected to answer these questions. I was not confident that I could identify supernatural voices, having never heard one before.

A loved one told me one day, "When we question God, we become like Eve. And what in the world would have ever led you to see the Bible as fallible, after all you've been taught?" She was upset, hurt, and I knew it was not the time or place for me to give a list of reasons. But I did have some. "I don‘t mean to be hurtful," I said, "but there are things I'm not convinced of, and it would be dishonest for me to pretend that I am." She softened for a moment and assured me that she was simply trying to be honest about what she believes to be true. "But it's also God's truth," she added.

Another family member told me he'd thought more lately about my name, Mary Eve, and how Eve was the mother of sorrows and Mary the mother of hope. He hoped that one day I'd mirror Mary more than Eve, though I've been "Evie" from day one. I watched his beloved face crumble, telling me this. Mine did too.

More than half a decade later, I'm far from knowing what to make of it all. I know I was loved and am loved still. I continue to feel a lot of guilt over leaving the tradition in which I was raised, and I still have great regret for becoming a source of pain I'm powerless to soothe. But I also still think I had to leave.


In the biblical account of Babel’s creation and collapse, the human remnant aspires to survival and even success, and a steeple takes shape above the landscape. Call it pride, hubris if you will, but see too it is human potential at its peak. The all-wise Adonai, seeing this, registers unusual surprise and concern.

"Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them,” he concludes, then proceeds to confuse the language of the people. Understanding fails and the community is undone.

Construction does not end overnight but scatters to the ends of the earth, each pinnacle mimicking the gesture of the ill-fated original—come, come here and be secure. We live in its wake, in places splintered between hope and disappointment, clinging for life.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Eclipses, exiled librarians and other things to love about 'Jade Dragon Mountain'

I never win drawings, but years ago I won a drawing where I got to nervously accompany the great Salman Rushdie on a short plane ride from Laramie to Denver alongside two fellow University of Wyoming writing students – each of them far more devoted Rushdie fans and just better-read people than me. Before the tiny plane touched down at DIA (and all out of our awkward and obviously over-prepared questions for the novelist), we asked him for autographs. I remember grabbing the one book of Rushdie’s that I’d read and owned – The Satanic Verses – and feeling rather sheepish as the other students on the flight handed him multiple volumes to sign. Then one of them said with a deep, earnest seriousness, “Midnight’s Children restored my faith in literature,” and I knew I was not worthy of this delightful and nerve-wracking trip.

That is all totally beside the point except that the statement comes to mind tonight as I think about the novel I just finished. I can’t say it exactly “restored my faith in literature,” because I’ve never lost that faith. But it did remind me of what real and robust storytelling can be and do in a world where it seems we lazily apply that term (storytelling) to everything under the sun.

The book, Jade Dragon Mountain, is a debut historical mystery by Elsa Hart, and the tale woven across its 300-some pages is alluring and rich like the cover. Exiled librarian Li Du, who is traveling in a western corner of China in the early 18th century, finds himself in the role of detective after crossing paths with a kind and curious Jesuit astronomer discovered dead just days before the arrival of the emperor. As a long-anticipated festival looms, all in honor of a solar eclipse widely considered the work of the emperor himself, time is of the essence. Somewhat reluctantly, Li Du suspends his solo travels to investigate the killing, an inconvenient development in the eyes of the ambitious local magistrate.

I am no mystery aficionado (though I want to read more of them after this!), but I loved this book. Somehow it manages a quick pace and plot alongside sentence-level delights of language. In addition, Hart’s understanding of the history and geography comes across with confidence and care, leaving me with a welcome glimpse of people and places about which I have known so very little.

There are compelling stories within the story, too. Thanks to the presence of the character Hamza, a travelling storyteller who befriends Li Du, the book introduces us to not only the city of Dayan (now Lijiang, where Hart drafted the novel) but to other faraway locales through Hamza's dramatic storytelling. Seamlessly told, the yarns tie nicely into the action of the overarching story, while also hinting that there are many more stories to come from this talented author.

And then of course there are the characters, who for all their no-doubt-carefully-planned-out usefulness to a satisfying story full of twists and surprises, are rendered with delightful relatability and depth.

Lastly, I loved the descriptions of tea, broth, wine and all sorts of tantalizing earthly goodness in this book. Two Sundays ago, I could not have been more happy than I was that afternoon, curled up on the couch with tea, cat, Jade Dragon Mountain and an impending eclipse of our own.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Thinking aloud about PP and such

Lately, my feed is a conflicted mix of pink profile photos and metaphorical rendings of garments. I tentatively thumb up the former when I see them, not quite confident enough to place the Planned Parenthood filter over my own picture, but ultimately landing on the pro-choice side of the abortion fence.

I haven’t always been there. I attended many a pro-life rally as a child, and in junior high I regularly volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center, folding baby blankets and sorting diapers and formula in a back storage area. Up front, in the reception area, a chain-smoking, disorganized, very personable and probably not-well-paid director handled the anti-abortion counseling sessions and walk-ins and such.

I am pro-choice now, albeit uncomfortably. My upbringing closely paired religious orthodoxy with vehement opposition to abortion, and these days I’m more fearful of admitting – and of trying to defend – a difference of opinion on this issue than even on something like hell or resurrection. But maybe that makes it more important to try and open up about.

It's difficult to pinpoint what specifically eroded my assurance about the anti-abortion camp being quite simply the right camp. Several moments have stuck with me, though, over the past decade.

The first is a statement by an evangelical, adoptive mother who said to me (in a 2007 interview for a feature I was writing about the practice of adoption) something like, "If you're going to be against abortion, adoption is the obvious thing to do." Although I had long admired the adoptive families I knew, this was the first time I’d heard an evangelical so starkly call other evangelicals to account in terms of a concrete commitment (or lack thereof) to this pet issue. She was very matter of fact about it, and it got me thinking.

And thinking (about this and many other issues) got me reading up on such topics. Pieces like this one, offering first-hand accounts of experiences I had never endured, and the heartbreaking testimony of Michael Chabon's wife, about her later-term procedure, pulled at me. This long-lived controversy was more complex, and more personally fraught, than I'd imagined.

Meanwhile, I moved to St. Louis, where I ended up living just a few blocks from the main Planned Parenthood facility in town. My short commute to work took me right past the gated parking areas, offering daily glimpses (while waiting at the light on my bike or on foot) of PP clients, employees and protesters – and of the latter’s strident voices and signs. And it was in St. Louis that studies like this one showed a dramatic decrease in abortions in the context of free access to contraception – something the right wing continued to push back against.

I also started taking public transportation, which among other things frequently offers a palpable and sobering reminder of the poverty and despair around me. Sometimes the children across the aisle from me look happy, well-fed and beloved. But this is not consistently the case. Now and then parents on the train yell hatefully at their children, completely overwhelmed and burdened and impoverished, barely holding on. It's a devastating scene.

On top of all this (and more…this is a bit of a rushed post, and hardly exhaustive) is what I observe on social media. First, the positive: I see adoptive families loving children in need – and, despite having perhaps the most integrity-filled case for being vocal about abortion and PP, not really going there much. I see a single friend fostering and adopting children in need in her own southern state – and again, not outwardly flipping out about PP, but doing the amazing work of offering shelter to unloved children around her. It’s these posts on my feed that bring, rightly, a convicted lump to my throat and motivation to do better, to find ways to help. There is so, so much suffering in this world, and here I am staring at Facebook.

The loudest anti-abortion outrage on my feed, on the other hand, typically comes from those with a number of biological children – children who understandably require the majority of their day-to-day attention. I don’t begrudge them that. But they sometimes come across as seeing their way of life as inherently laudable, above reproach or critique – and as if the only thing the reality of abortion (which, as a reminder, won’t go away if it’s made illegal/inaccessible) requires of them is righteous indignation. (And maybe showing up somewhere to wave a sign in front of someone who has come to different conclusions about this complex issue, or was raped, or may not live if she goes through with the pregnancy…oh and be sure to post pics!).

There's enough hypocrisy and deep inconsistency to go around, certainly. And this post is a half-finished jumble. Maybe I should have just filed it away in a “good try but…no” folder. But I do stand with Planned Parenthood, peeps.