Sabbath in Slices

I can’t remember the last time i had so much table space, so many empty hours.

Summer is always painted a shade of allure: no readings to finish, sweet treats all the sweeter in the Carolinian heat. I graduated. I finished my Bachelor’s Degree, and with finishing came the flurry of packing and cleaning and thesis defending and family hosting and saying goodbye to beloved Mount Holyoke.

I’ve been so lazy since then. There are so many summer plans i’d made, and even after only a few days of crafting and working part-time i still find my 9 AM cup of coffee listless, quiet. I am trying to enjoy the quiet but the anxious tick of the academic in me won’t shut up. Won’t let me think i really can just breathe. Like i’m coming uncoiled, but there’s a catch in the spring that keeps reeling me back in.

That’s the funny thing about taking sabbath, with me at least. Carving out those hours, fat with nothingness, are daunting. Too quiet. I can be still in pieces, in the extra hour i give myself sometimes after i wake up and before i crack open the laptop. Or really, the more frequent five minutes i take still buckled in, the car in the parking space earlier than expected.

I can take my sabbath in slices.

But learning to really seep into it, seep into the rest and the quiet so much that my anxious heart keels out for something wider and calmer? No thanks. I’ll spread my seventh day evenly over the other six.

One of my favorite religion professors often said the way we conceive of God, write about God, is how we ultimately conceive of ourselves. In the broad sense, like society; in the narcissistic sense, like the best of who we want to be; and in the longing sense, the presence we need when nothing else is enough. So maybe my struggle with Sabbath is my struggle to look cleanly in the mirror.

Maybe too much quiet means listening more than talking.

One Foot Out

I’m just in this disgustingly liminal space right now. Like when my boots pinch my ankle and i want to change them more than anything in the world but i’m waist-deep wading in snow. So snow boots are what i have to wear, too bad for blisters.

February always feels choppy to me, like the lack of three extra days makes every week compressed. And somehow, the sun setting at 5 and the snow that never ends is making every day stretch to the last crumb on the plate of a dinner i didn’t want to eat.

God, there are too many metaphors here. I’m taking a Short Story writing class, which i am gaga for, but it’s also seriously making me doubt every word i write. Is that too cliché? I ponder, pummeling into the keys. Poppins, whose now almost nine months old and still kitten-sized, has a new hobby: prying off keyboard keys. My “o” is affixed at a 45 degree angle for life, now. So i’m really pummeling the pondering keys here.

I’m ready for Lent. This Ordinary Time, endless February days in a month that shrank in the wash, is so last season.

I’ve got one foot squarely in Durham now, acceptance letter to grad school gratefully in hand. Really, i’ve got my fingers wrapped so metaphorically tight around it they’re Devil blue. But cupcake M&Cs at Mount Holyoke tell me i should feel sad it’s my last semester. I should have been all mopey when the 100 days to graduation banner went up in the campus center. Instead all i could do was whittle them down to the double-digits. Three weeks on a campus and then J is here. I’m done with the liminal, the liminal of long-distance, the liminal of last semesters, the liminal of bloody February and its bloody habit of cramped days that go on for 28 hours a piece.

Lent, though mopey in its dearth of Allelulias, has purpose. There’s the counting and the fasting and the focus. Advent is all in the waiting, the anticipation. I like Advent for the hopeful expectation, i dive into Lent for purpose in the slog. Especially in New England. Spring is kind of a rare commodity here – every April i’ve been through in MA has gone from gritty, grey snow to mud and sun-bathing in the span of about a week.

But for now, i’ll just keep griping about the blisters on both feet. And trying to remind myself i’m lucky to have shoes and really, i should just eat my damn cupcake and get over myself.

Snow Daze.

We would pile in the living room, my mom tucked in a blanket her mother had probably crocheted. Dad would make cocoa on the gas stove using his camping gear for effect. Even when we lost power it was still warm – gas stove and fireplace keeping us cozy. All the kids on the cul-de-sac, our one pair of wool socks each drying on the tiles around the mantle, would pile in for Dad’s cocoa and mom’s blankets. The first ice storm kept us home for a week after we moved to North Carolina.

Talk about a shock for kids fresh from Southern California.

I always felt sad at the end of a snow day. Sure, it was part grief of the impending return to school and the end of those days more magical than Saturdays because they were gifts given at 7:30 in the morning. But it was more than that.

It was how the neighbors, people whose names i hadn’t learned in four years of a shared zip code, all clustered at the top of the hill to watch us sled. It was the ache in my cheeks from the cold. Snow days weren’t just days away from school, it was like the whole world stopped to be together and outside while blanketed in quiet white.

I’m not exactly a fan of snow now. I drive my New England friends up the wall with my whining, my endless sweeping of the sand out of my room and wishing it was spring already. But i’ve not forgotten how delicious those days were, with my purple snow pants and the sleds my Dad kept stocked in the garage, just in case.

Yesterday, Jonathan and i were driving back from the Harris Teeter. An inch had spread on the asphalt in the half hour we’d been packing the cart with Merlot and cookie dough. Barely two miles home and it took us almost 45 minutes, pushing the CRV ahead of us until she had enough traction to crest the hill. People were abandoning their cars to push other people along, i caught an old man as he tumbled down the hill in boat shoes.

Certainly not the spinning hillside with glee i’d had when six and new to Carolina. But a snow day nonetheless. Neighbors clustering and capping it all off piled chin-deep in blankets, in our fire-place-free living room.

And somehow, the magic of a day off when it’s not Saturday doesn’t dissipate, even at 21.

Reflections from Last Night’s Talking Taboo Event

“It’s been a long time since we wrote these essays,” Bristol chuckled. “And it’s a scary thing, preserving somewhat permanently that part of yourself for other people to read. It’s my past, I can’t change my past experiences, but still. It’s out there … When you google my name, this comes up!”

As Atinuke Diver had said of other people reading our essays: “It can flatten you.”  Suddenly, we may only exist in someone’s mind as the five pages we filled in a book.

1460098_2151719597859_1585428693_nMeeting more of the contributors to Talking Taboo was, as i expected, a delight and a dialogue. At last night’s event, i was grateful for the solidarity of each of us speaking for ourselves gave way to an authentic, vulnerable conversation. It was refreshing and reaffirming, the reminder that all 40 of us had snapped wide our secrets made it easier to continue to speak against silence.

And i’ve not stopped chewing on what Tinu and Bristol said. There were so many insights, and since the whole point i want to make is reducing someone to one essay or one quip is dangerous, i’m already having trepidations. These are two brilliant womyn who each contain multitudes, as we all do. So i don’t want to wrangle down or warp what they said.

But it’s this idea of flattening, this confining the words your read by someone to being all of who they are that has sat the most with me in the remnants of our conversation.

I think about my favorite authors who are currently living: J.K. Rowling, John Green, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. John Green especially has led a rather public career with his (excellent!) video blogs, but even he has on occasion had to remind the nerdfighter community that he’s a whole person, someone who has struggled with Depression and social anxiety as much as he is a New York Times Best-Selling author. Someone who has two kids to raise and most days is trying to be a dad and a husband with a kind of banality we forget about when all we see is a clipped-together four minute hoot on trademarks.

The first month i lived Edinburgh, everywhere i went i carried a small, paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I frequented the Elephant House reading it so much i felt myself oozing cliché. (The Elephant House Café, for those who don’t know, is where J.K. Rowling penned much of the first three Harry Potter books). I tucked it in the middle pocket of my backpack for one main purpose: were i to run into Jo Rowling, to have something for her to sign.

It was silly, and more than a little freakish, but also an emblem of my total devotion to the books that defined my childhood. I knew, if i ran into the famous author herself, that i wanted to earnestly thank her for the gifts she had given me in the world she had made with Hogwarts. For teaching twelve-year-old lizzie that “Happiness can always be found, if only one remembers to turn on the light.” 

But the more i thought about it, the less i carried the book around. I imagined running into her while she was out with her own children – imagined how clumsy and imposing i would be, asking for an autograph from a mum having normal old mum-time with her kids. I recalled times when i was out with my own mother, having normal mother-time, and members of her congregation interrupted our lunch to talk about their church-y needs. How as her daughter, i tried to be understanding of her position as counselor and confident to these people, but couldn’t help the irked sense that these congregants didn’t fully respect that my mom was a whole person whose whole life did not revolve around her church.

I think we do this all the time in our lives, in so many ways – we box people in. By race, gender, sexuality, class – but also by how we have conceived of them in our minds. Teachers don’t live in their classrooms, pastors have vices too, authors are more than their words.

I am so grateful for every message, email, and dining hall happenstance when someone says they’ve read my essay and it meant something to them. I’ve not learned how to stop turning a delicate shade of tomato, nor how to properly communicate how flattered and humbled and thank-you-for-holding-my-heart-so-gently i feel with every one of these encounters. More than once these encounters have made me weep. Bristol is right, a lot of life has happened between when pen was first to put to paper and publication. My essay rings to me now of too many run-on sentences, of how early in my now engagement i was writing about intimacy and the toughness of love. But what has not changed is the nakedness i felt writing it – the nakedness i feel when people say they’ve read the book.

So please, don’t get me wrong: thank you for reading, thank you for your kindness, for your affirmation, for your talk back and pushing and pulling and questions and comments. 

I guess what i want to say is thank you, thank you, thank you, but know there’s more. Not “just more to the body-image, sexuality, relationship journey, and not “just” more that i will never want to write or talk about publicly because even intercom-level-lizzie can be private. But more in the sense that some days i am a very boring, very not-creative, very not-roaring-feminist lion lizzie. I like eating cookie dough and really prefer days spent watching zombie movies in my pajamas with my brothers to any other activity and i know, acutely, that i talk about myself too much and i definitely over-analyze how much or how little this blog/my essay means to other people (i mean, really, i may wish i was Alice Walker, but let’s be real). Even now, i’m biting my nails and thinking will the twelve people reading this think i’m some ungrateful whiney snob with poor taste in adverbs?

So maybe this post is an over-analyzing, over-thinking mess and i should just pop in World War Z and pull out the tube of Pillsbury’s. John Green, after all, says over and over we as humyns must learn to imagine complexly, realize that the truth resists simplicity and that there is always more nuance than we want and more questions to ask than answers to find. I’m trying to find that balance of imagining others complexly as i ask others to do the same.

When asked how we found the courage to “talk taboo” in our essays, Tinu and Bristol had yet more fantastic replies: “I didn’t really find the courage,” they both said. “I wrote while i was still scared.”

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current jam: “i’ll fly away.”

relevant resources: Atinuke Diver’s blog, the official Talking Taboo website

Bears in the Shenandoah.

My throat was made of glue. The girl (let’s call her Ginger Dreadlocks) behind me on the verge of shrieking her head off. Ponytail-and-Manicure next to her was valley-girl-shushing her. There was nothing to be done, except:

“ROW ROW ROW YOUR BOAT!”

I was not even eleven and reeking of the day hike in the New Mexican mountains. The whole family had made the flight to Philmont Scout Ranch, NM, for my Dad and his bud to complete Boy Scout leader training. Mom was busy ziplining with the other spouses, the boys doing boy-things, and me?

I was a day’s hike into the woods on a camping trip with a dozen other pre-pubescent girls, staring down a mama bear and her two cubs. Our two counselors were younger than i am now.

We’d been strictly informed that, were we to see a bear, under NO circumstances were we to react with fright. We’d even had bear drills. No shrieking, no panicking, no fleeing into the woods without a guide. Instead, in an effort to keep us calm under duress but still, you know, let the leaders know a monster-sized mammal was in view, we were to sing “row, row, row your boat.” Loudly. But calmly.

Of course it was i who sounded the alarm, loudmouthed and lung-lusty even then. The two women in charge of us, all their lessons aside, flew into a panic. “Hey!” they screamed. “Back up girls, BACK UP NOW!” I yanked Ponytail-and-Manicure behind me, staring down the scream clearly welling up in Ginger Dreadlocks’ throat. Surely, these adult leaders knew what they were doing. Surely, they whom we had put our wisps of armpit hair and water-bottles half-full trust in, would take care of us.

“HEY, BEAR! RUN AWAY!! ARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!”

These “adults” were, quite literally, chucking rocks at the mama bear. Not exactly what i’d had in mind when i envisioned them ensuring our safety.

Shockingly, it worked. The mama bear barely gave them a glance before lumbering deeper into the woods, babies in tow. When at last her large brown rump was out of sight, Ginger Dreadlocks next to me broke out into sobs and Ponytail-and-Manicure gushed a stream of more EhMyGawddddZZZ than i had ever heard in my life.

I tried not to let my ear-to-ear grin explode. A bear! A real bear! I was really a warrior in the wilderness, saving my team with nursery rhymes!

We strung up our bear-bag that night, a white trash bag stuffed our snacks and the illicitly smuggled perfumes from Ponytail’s cohorts. If we heard a lumbering giant in the night, we were under NO CIRCUMSTANCES to leave our tent.

The next morning, the bag was slashed. Perfume bottles and chewed-into wrappers cluttering the roots of the tree the bag had been hung on. Luckily, there was enough food for breakfast and a slimmed-down lunch, pushing our hike back to base camp on a considerably less luxurious schedule than the hike out.

I don't have any pictures of the bear itself, but here's me about to head out on the hike.

I don’t have any pictures of the bear itself, but here’s me about to head out on the hike.

That was to be only my first encounter with a bear.

The second was less rife with pre-teens: Jonathan and i were cruising along Skyline Drive, a chunk of the Blue Ridge Parkway that edges the Shenandoah Valley.

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We were on vacation with his family, trailing behind them to enjoy the sun set while they made dinner. Naturally, we’d seen the placards warning not to feed bears (i’d like to keep my arm, thanks) but hadn’t expected to see any ourselves.

Until we rounded the corner on a dead stop in traffic.

“What’d going on?” i craned my head, trying to see past the truck ahead of us.

Jonathan swore loudly. “Look!! Over there!” his fingers indecisively jabbed out the window and tried to roll it down in one motion.

“What is it? I can’t – oh my God!”

Her arms, wrapped around the trunk of a particularly sturdy pine, looked bigger than my torso. “Quick!! The camera! The camera!!” Jonathan was scrambling with his arms, head locked on the bear.

Of all moments to have left the camera in the backseat, this was it. I handed him my phone with the scold not to chuck ANYTHING under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES at the mammal in front of us.

And then, to our bewilderment, the bear unlocked her arms and sauntered across the road. She didn’t seem to care there were five cars piled in either direction, tourists hanging out the windows with Nikons in hand. She stopped right in front of us. Turning her head back, she must have made some kind of magical bear-call because two little cubs came gallivanting out of the woods behind her.

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They dipped down the side of the road, the knobs of their tails disappearing in the darkening forest.

And that was the last we saw of the Skyline Drive bears.

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in case you missed it: my favorite summertime 2013 blog, when my mom got arrested for moral monday.

The Season of Weeding: Abim & Kotido, Summer 2011.

It was a two-day journey from Kampala to Kotido, only half of the way on paved roads. We did it in one day once (well, i did it once, my housemates lived there for three years and i, only three months). And the one time we did in one day was hell – my stomach had shrunk to the size of a walnut with its inability to keep anything down for three weeks, i was dehydrated, and i’m pretty sure i hallucinated.

But when we made the trek over two days, it was a dream. To get to Kotido, we had to pass through the Abim region.

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Abim is like nowhere else i’ve ever been. Even at the time, i think i wrote more blog posts about how voracious the colors were of the Abim mountains than i did about Kotido, which i did in fact quite love.

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You could see where the powerline stopped, somewhere in a town in the Abim region but long before we were in Kotido. Our home has a solar panel and small amounts of voltage so long as the sun was out. We’d take turns charging our laptops, running a mini-fridge a few hours a day to keep home-made ricotta cool. It was the rainy season, nothing like the dust-curling bone-heat they told me of when it was the dry season. I remember being grateful for the one sweater i’d thought to slide into my suitcase.

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In the Kotido market, during a rainstorm.

In the Kotido market, during a rainstorm.

My “room” in the house was a mattress and mosquito net tucked in a corner, shrouded by a collection of curtain pieces like the ones in the above photo. It was Thera‘s (very thoughtful!) idea, to give a fellow introvert some more privacy. She’d even saved me some ticky tack, to hang a collection of photos and postcards on my wall.

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I was re-living this summer while Jonathan (supposedly) studied for his Greek exam.

“It’s kind of crazy to me that you did that,” he commented, the photo Thera snapped of me on a boda-boda on my screen.

Photo by Thera Freeman!

Photo by Thera Freeman!

He didn’t mean crazy as in foolish, or as in out of character. This was a hint of green in his voice. More like it was a reality unknown to him, a part of me before us. And yet it was because of Uganda the “us” even happened. We’d had a champion of awkward first dates, us alone in an Applebee’s save the one guy hellbent on making Karoke night a thing. I’d just buzzed my hair, prepped for a summer of sub-Saharan heat and lack of hot showers. I noticed his dimples, the eyes, even then. But i my focus was on the 7,414 miles to conquer and courage to find.

Thank God for my mom. A friend of ours had prepped and de-briefed with both of us, a woman who had spent the bulk of her adult like working for MCC on the continent of Africa. “You’ll need spaces to really talk, to really be heard,” she’d told us. Mom arranged for me to preach my first Sunday stateside again, at her then-new church. She let me lowercase the bulletin and screen a video i’d edited of my time abroad.

It was Jonathan’s first Sunday as the worship music leader. He was one of the first to really listen, to let me be really heard. I remember noticing the eyes again in worship planning, how he didn’t judge me for wanting to juxtapose John 15 with an E.E. Cummings poem.

The fact that it’s me in that picture feels unfathomable. Not that i had the desire to learn and see and listen in Uganda, i still have that desire. But that time in my life, the depth and wonder and complicatedness of where i was feels far, far in my past and far from here. I know it happened, for how could a summer of confronting my own white, American privilege not leave contours on my perspective today?

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Maybe it’s the coming-full-circle thing, that bite and blister and beauty of seeing the time and the growth and the redaction between lizzie on that motorcycle and lizzie getting married. I have no regrets, the loves of my life all intertwining in the most bizarre of stories. I was so young, so eighteen, so fresh out of my first year of college and so wanting to know more than i did.

I said then it was a summer of pruning, like the name i had been given: Nachap, the season of weeding. The seed that has grown the most, though, is the realization that every season is one of both pruning and growth. Sometimes the balance tips, hands deep in the earth straining with the baobab roots to come up. And sometimes it’s the blossoms, blossoms who need water and sun like all seasons but whose focus is so on being alive there’s little room for weeding.

And sometimes, i think you just have to slap on the gardening gloves and make a choice to keep planting, whatever the weather.

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in case you missed it, some of my favorite posts from my summer in east africa: south sudan’s independence daywhen we went all the way to kampala so we could see the last harry potter movieon our access to water in kotido.

New Posts of Old Things.

I named my external hard drive “the penseive” in a moment of Potter genius in the summer i lived in Kotido, Uganda. It mostly houses back-ups of my photos and comfort movies, like The Princess Bride. But, being as absent minded as i am, yesterday was the first time since March i cranked open the two-terabyte Valhalla.

Oops.

While cataloguing my backlog of photos, i came across a few old gems that i’d neglected to post/write about here. So over the next few days, i thought i’d share a mélange of old tales dating back as far as the naming of the very external hard drive that prompted this serenade down memory gig lane. And maybe some stereotypical pseudo-philosophical reflections on how these journeys in life have brought me to the woman i am today, blah blah blah.

But for today, here are a few snapshots and accompanying stories from my six months spent in love with and living in Edinburgh, Scotland.

You know you’re an American expat when…

watermarked lidl

It’s true that the cultural clash between the UK and America is no chasm. Sure, they prefer tea to coffee (i can hear the hipsters screaming: SO DO WE!) and say “schedule” the way i did when i was six. I delighted in the wee differences, the brogues and the bagpipes and the slang. But there were three big things i missed most: fresh, non-root vegetables, my mother’s fried chicken, and peanut butter. I handled the chicken-making myself, and made do with Spanish apples for the bulk of the semester. But it wasn’t until i realized Lidl carried peanut butter for under eight quid that i had a field day with my favorite fat-laden snack. I never thought i’d say it, but over a plate of artery-clogging food i basked in the stereotype: GOD BLESS THE USA.

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I snapped this photo from the topmost layer of the Scott Monument on Princes Street, wheezing with the narrowing stairs and staving off my vertigo. I’d saved the clamber for when my Dad came to visit, because he’s the macho man with zero squirms when it comes to elevation. Might be a product of his upper-troposphere height. But this same obscene scale of stature made it impossible for him to follow me to the tippy-top: the stairways were too narrow. So alone, wind ripping off any moisturizer clinging to my cheeks, i snapped this picture and plummeted my head between my knees to keep from vomiting.

‘Twas a charming view.

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My favorite sightseeing to do in Edinburgh was easily the clamber up Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano overlooking the whole of Old Town. I only once got to see this marker of the elevation, because any sunny day i chose to scale its peak half the tourists in town had the same idea. On that same Dad-visit we made our way to the top, my father protesting i was trying to kill him with the hike. But it was a rare rain-free morning with no one else on the mountainside, and i insisted. He later confessed it was his favorite part of the trip – and it’s easy to see why.

Overlooking the city from Arthur's Seat!

Overlooking the city from Arthur’s Seat!

(Okay, that one was previously published, but still. Context.)

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in case you missed it: my favorite posts from studying abroad, including saying goodbye in january to jonathan, jonathan’s proposal, faerie-spotting on the isle of skye, and riding a camel in morocco.

The Big League.

The run stretched from the fold of my knee to my ankle. I toppled out of the car, engine still purring, legs wobbling at their unaccustomed new altitude.

“Just stay in the car!” i craned my neck back at Jonathan, his fingers still thrumming on the wheel. He’d probably put NPR back on without me there. I’d been too nervous to listen to the latest exposé on Joy Division, or whatever.

The lady behind the Rite Aid counter gave me a perplexed once-over, my shimmery pink swath of a dress and elegantly messy bun a vision of out-of-place.

“Y’all carry tights?” i was practically yelping, in need of an inhaler but afraid to elevate my heart rate any more.

“Back row, near cosmetics.”

Heels clacking and eyes as wide as my eyeliner would let them, i flailed my way to the rear of the store. My salvation: rows on rows of Leggs silky-sheer. Five dollars later, i was doubled over in the dingy back bathroom struggling to pull a mess of nylon over my prickly legs. Hopping from foot to foot, i plucked off the ring my Grandmother had given me for my high school graduation, gingerly placing it on top of the toilet paper dispenser. As beautiful as the blue stone was, the beast was the reason for this four-inch-heels sprint through the drug store.

And there i was: legs in nylon knots, trying not to collapse into a hypoglycymic meltdown Rite Aid toilet stall, twenty minutes before the moment i’d been dreaming of since second-grade carreer day.

It was the night of the Talking Taboo book launch.

My book, the real book – not the Advanced Reader’s Copy – was tucked next to my vintage leopard-print coat in the car. I’d outlined in pencil the excerpts i would read, rehearsing with a hairbrush-as-microphone like i was still sixteen and auditioning for American Idol. I’d spent the afternoon slathering myself with hollywood mascara, not caring that i’d be overdressed because you only get one first book launch and this was the dress i felt the strongest in. Pink, effeminate, swishy, and tender. Not a congruent image to the ball-busting feminist ricocheting off the Rite Aid toilet stall walls, but just as much me as the foulmouthed bra-burner found on page 170.

I wound a stretch of scratchy toilet paper around my hand, dabbing at the smears in my foundation. Surrounded by flourescent lights and graying tiles, i stared myself square in my mirror-face. You can, you will, you have. I plucked up my Grandmother’s ring and smoothed down the faux-silk of my skirt.

Jonathan had turned NPR back on by the time i wobbled my way into the passenger seat. Graciously, he turned the volume off and gave me his best honey-you-can smile. With one hand on the wheel and one hand wrapped tightly around mine, he drove the final two miles to the Reality Center downtown.

“You got this, babe.” He’d donned a sport coat and khakis for me, never letting me be the only one overdressed again. In his pocket was a pen, one i’d use later to sign my first book.

“Do i have lipstick on my teeth?” i blurted. He shook his head. “And you’ve got my inhaler?” He tucked the red plastic next to the pen. “Okay, okay, let’s just take a second.” I envisioned myself on my yoga mat, drinking in oxygen as muscles popped with tension-release. Whispered a prayer of thanks, a prayer for confidence, a prayer of humility.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

Half-wobbling, half-strutting, we made our way inside.

With the incredible Erin Lane, co-editor, her husband Rush and my own Jonathan at the event!

With the incredible Erin Lane, co-editor, her husband Rush, and my own Jonathan at the event!

current jam: ‘rise to me’ the decemberists.

best thing: signing mary’s book!!

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#ReligionMajorProblems

It is seriously my least favorite question in the world to answer.

Hefting my backpack beneath the seat in front of me, i’m clicking my seatbelt into place and halfway to securing my headphones even tighter when the man next me starts talking. Wildly, i look around, hoping he’s still on his uppity-businessman headphone-cellphone. Alas, his electronics are tucked into his equally self-important briefcase.

He’s talking to me. I fly into a panicked, what-do-i-do-with-my-headphones-now-that-they’re-half-on-my-ears half-smile.

Now before you call me an antisocial man-hating bitch (however accurate you might be) let me explain: i don’t mind a little airplane chatter. I’ve had some truly remarkable experiences with strangers in those altitude-gracing metal cylinders.

What i hate is the standard list of questions. There’s that weird hello that doubles as a comment about the soggy bag of peanuts in front of you. Some chatter about where you’re headed. All fine. All safe territory. And then there’s the digging deeper: where do you go to school? Oh how nice! A girl’s school I’ve never heard of! (At this point i’m gripping my armrests, refraining from yelling IT IS A WOMEN’S COLLEGE, NOT A GIRL’S SCHOOL, PLEASE STOP INFANTILIZING MY EDUCATION).

And then it comes. The million-dollar suckerpunch sure to make both of us miserable for the next soddy hour-and-a-half we have to pretend to know each other on this plane.

“So, what do you study?”

“Uhh-ummm,” I begin, trying to downplay it. Throw in a cough for good measure. “Uhhh …Religion.”

There it is. All cards on the table. Inevitably, no matter who they are or what they do, the person i’m talking to responds in basically one of three ways:

1. The militant atheist/agnostic assuring me religion will soon be obsolete and i best get over my bigotry.  Without waiting for me to say another word, they launch into how we should stop talking because they aren’t interested in being converted and oh, BY THE WAY did you know how awful organized religion is?! (Never mind that i’m a universalist who doesn’t believe in hell, studying in a pluralist department where most of my friends are not at all “religious” in the conventional sense – including some of my nearest and dearest who are either agnostic or atheist themselves.) Usually, though, i try to respond in a gentle but firm tone that making sweeping generalizations that ALL RELIGIONS are evil is a bigoted and essentializing statement in and of itself.

2. The Jesus-lovin’ Bible-totin’ Commentator. This one actually has two sub-categories: (A) The Lady-in-the-Pulpit-Hater, hellbent on convincing me my genitalia and gender performance preclude me from the study of religion (you can imagine how well that one goes over with this feminist); and (B) The Thank-You-LORD-we-need-more-Gospel-toutin’-folks-in-this-heathen-world person. I love responding to subgroup B with references to my favorite Sufi poetry and talking about how much Christianity stands to learn from the third Abrahamic faith, Islam.

3. The Prying Eyed Sage of Wisdom. However annoyed i may be with groups 1 and 2, this is my absolute least favorite. They want to know if i am religious myself, how my faith is complicated by what i study, how i deal with political and theological conflicts, etc, etc. All i want to retort with is my sassiest Southern reprimand: “Didn’t your mama [or parental guardian] teach you not to ask strangers extremely personal and prying questions?!”

I mean, seriously. Since when is it acceptable to ask people you don’t know all about the crux of their belief and how they handle conflict? I’m not going around asking intimate questions about your sex life, bro. Or how you deal with anxiety or guilt or whatever it is you’re after.

But, to be fair, i suppose i should include the secret fourth category of respondents:

4. Everyone else, who is perfectly lovely and complicated and dealing with their own spiritual existential dilemma (or sitting contentedly in Nirvana/non-spiritual scientific reality whilst i yank globs of blonde out over Hauerwas).

The truth resists simplicity. The study of religion is, after all, the grappling with the vast and resilient questions about who we are and why suffering exists. It’s prone to make anyone feel uncomfortable.

And really, sometimes i should just get off my high horse and pretend to still be a Sociology major.

Hipster-Jesus-I-Was-Into-Comebacks-Before-They-Were-Cool

 

current jam: that wrecking ball-little lion man mashup!

best thing: the man sitting next to me.

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What are you so afraid of?

I smooth the sticky side down on my wall, willing the fan to hold off long enough for adhesive to adhese (or whatever). I want both the air of the fan and the message of the note to stick. I want both things at once even though i know they are oppositional forces. 

It is a post-it note. “What are you so afraid of?” in block blue letters on a block of blue paper. Above the cross on my desk with a cheesy verse from Jeremiah that i love for both its cheese and its calories.

“What are you so afraid of?”

Mom is on Skype with me, glasses perched so far down her nose i swear they’ll fall off if she belly-laughs again. My legs are gluing to the wood chair, this miserable heat making me melt like Elmer’s. I envy Mom in the air conditioning promised inside her Southern home. New England winter is coming, you can already see the trees dressing in fire in the corner-most branches. But mostly the fire in New England right now is not a burning heat so much as it is a miserable slop, a clinging film of stick on everything not made of icebox rock.

“What are you so afraid of?”

I pull the fan closer, picking threads of hair off of my neck and re-wrap my hairtie. It’s the longest my locks have been since i started school, a reversal of fifteen-year-old lizzie who chopped off fifteen inches at Governor’s School to prove cookie-cutter wrong and feminist liberation right. Still feminist, still cookie-lover, still no cookie-cutter.

“What are you so afraid of?”

Mom looks at me now, serious-eyes over the tortoise-shell rims. “You’ve been talking about this since before you started school, honey,” she chides. A perfect blend of you-know-better and you-can-do-it. Someday she’ll teach me that recipe, maybe, if i have to tortoise-shell-glare my own daughter. Maybe. “You should be scared to death. Anything worth doing is scary.” I nod. Air forced in, air forced out. This heat, this heat and my tiny lungs are not friends. Makes oxygen into sluggish glue that sticks going down and never really makes it to the bottom. Anything worth doing is scary.

“What are you so afraid of?” 

I look at my note now, it blue on blue hanging by a thread to my sweating wall. How it hangs on, i’m not sure, but i’m glad i don’t have to move the fan. Mom’s right, i know, and that’s why i call her. When i need her to give me the permission i seem unwitting or unwilling to find myself. Permission to be scared of writing a thesis, permission to be scared of tomorrow. Permission to say “to hell with being scared!” and make defiant post-it notes in cookie-cutter rebellion. 

“What are you so afraid of?” 

current jam: ‘eavesdrop’ the civil wars.

best thing: blue valentine.

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