A Love Letter for Mount Holyoke.

It began with a trip visiting my aunties in some place called Amherst, Massachusetts, and my father speaking sternly to me over the formica kitchen counter.

“While we’re up North visiting them,” he said, “I want you to look at Mount Holyoke College.”

“Mount Holyoke? What is that?”

“It’s a women’s college,” my father replied. I think he even braced himself for my reply.

“A women’s college?” I spat. “Over my dead body!”

Famous last words.

A week later I stood ankle-deep in Massachusetts rain looking out at a campus that I had arrived at, determined to dislike. And yet, something about that iron-wrought gate, something about the clock tower lit even in the downpour, something about it began to change my mind. I’m not sure what sealed the deal for me: if it was the cultural, racial, and religious diversity I saw in the student body, or the kindness with which people helped my father and I navigate what then felt like the impossibility of ordering food in Blanchard, or the lecture I attended entitled “Harry Potter and the Power of Critical Social Thought.”

All I knew was that when I called my mother that night, I had to convince her that no, I really wasn’t kidding when I said Mount Holyoke was now my first choice school.

Every one of us who chose this school has our own story of why we chose this quirky, Hogwartsian oasis nestled in the Pioneer Valley. We came, some of us from just down the road and others, like myself, from thousands of miles away. We all came with suitcases full of wonder and trepidation. We brought with us the multitude of stories that were our childhoods.

We came by way of planes and cars and trains, four years ago, to grow into our adulthood.

We were promised a place that would challenge us as much as it would comfort. For comfort, we were given milk and cookies – though, let’s be real, I swear I’ve had more carrots than chocolate chips these last four years – but we were given treats at 9:30 as small comforts for the insurmountable work each night promised. For challenge our peers and our professors pushed us to rethink and unpack and deconstruct our assumptions about gender, race, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, politics, science. And as much as our professors have given us, I think I have learned more from dinners and student-led campaigns than I ever could have in the classroom.

I have often thought the greatest thing about Mount Holyoke – however much it may bite us in the butt during finals – is how seriously we take ourselves. The stories we unpacked as we tucked our clothes into our bureaus for the first time, the thoughts we wrote out with those first papers became the verses and lines of the people we were becoming. Those dinners that changed my life were the dinners when we all sat down, alight by something that had been brought up in class or clamoring for news headlines.

We took each other, and the world around us, with a gravity that said we are, we matter, and you do too.

Mount Holyoke has given us permission to be fiercely, unapologetically passionate. We have been taught, over and over again, that our voices matter simply because they are our voices. Whether it was by slathering red paint on our faces for a scream-your-trachea-out convocation or by learning to radically listen to each other in the classroom, life at MHC demands you live with a full-bodied love of living. This passion is not the passive admiring of silent appreciation.

This passion has broken us open, it has driven us through these four years of menial jobs and incredible internships and more papers than I ever thought possible to write in a lifetime.

Passion, though, is not always perfect.

But when we honor our authentic selves, passion is always real.

As beautiful as these four years have been, they too, have not been perfect. Some of us have come to know loss for the first time, others of us have come to know loss again as an old, unwanted friend. We have endured painful ends to relationships, we have grappled with maintaining a sense of mental and physical well-being, we have learned that seemingly endless lesson that we can be very, very wrong. Living with such passion means we have the ability to feel all things – the good and the bad – deep in our bones.

But, hopefully, we have also learned that we are capable of continuing to live fiercely, regardless.

You see, this passion that swims in Mount Holyoke water is infectious. But as much as this passion, this valuing of who we are and what we have to say has cocooned us, we know this Hogwartsian place is not all that lies beyond those iron-wrought gates.

Mount Holyoke has prepared us for a world unprepared for us.

Mount Holyoke is not a community that invites the meek to stay meek. Mount Holyoke is not a community that invites those of us afraid to speak out in the classroom to stay silent. Mount Holyoke is not a community that gives a pass on prejudice without pushing back. Mount Holyoke is not a community that says you cannot have love and reason. Mount Holyoke is not a community that placidly accepts the status quo as gospel.

Mount Holyoke has given us permission to be riotous in the face of injustice.

Mount Holyoke has taught us to sing boldly when we are taught to be silent.

Mount Holyoke has taught us that saying we cannot is really just a dare for us to prove you wrong.

And the world out there is not ready for the hell we can raise.

All of us are going to challenge the world beyond those iron gates with the same richly diverse fabric with which our stories were woven. Some of us will continue to shout loudly while others may seem to be working quietly, under the radar. But if we can all remember the passion Mount Holyoke has taught us we will, all of us, disrupt the status quo.

We will combat the idea that a woman or non-binary gender-identifying person is secondary to a cisgendered man. We will challenge assumptions about womyn in the sciences, in ministry, in theatre, in social work, in education, in politics, in nonprofits, in international law, in journalism, in business, and in the home.

We will not apologize for being assertive. Nor will we apologize when we are vulnerable, when we allow that passionate core to move us to tears. We will not apologize for containing multitudes. We will continue to be broken open, by challenges we face and the comfort we receive.

We will be surprised by what this unprepared world can teach us, too, if we retain that Mount Holyoke spirit of being open to daunting change.

I may have spluttered and spat at my father’s suggestion to attend a womyn’s college all those years ago. But I can say now it was one of the greatest decisions I could have ever made. Because as unprepared as that outside world may be, we have been readied to face every day authentically, bravely, vulnerably, and passionately.

We are readying to leave now, by planes and cars and trains, having entered into our adulthood, prepared to face a world unprepared. Remember the sisterhood we have found here. Remember the value of using your voice and remember the value in listening to voices that challenge you.

Remember Mount Holyoke, and Mount Holyoke forever shall be.

The Author’s Note: “Son of God”

I have a new published work out – a short story, entitled “Son of God” in Mount Holyoke College’s literary magazine, The Blackstick Review. An excerpt:
  

“Son of God”

“Of Zebulun, fifty thousand seasoned troops,

equipped for battle with all the weapons of war,

 to help David with singleness of purpose”

– 1 Chronicles 12:33 –

 Zebulun, North Carolina, is the town that Israel forgot; the Wal-Mart parking lot stretches fatter than cars can fill, styrofoam cups piled beside crusting waste bins. There is not a truck without a Confederate flag or a church without a fire-and-brimstone mantle.

Nothing good could ever come out of Zebulun.

Joshua was about to turn eleven and, for his birthday, had asked for another My Little Pony doll. He imagined his own hair turning the same shade as the lilac hair that sprouted from her mane. He knew every song and every line from the DVD collection of the show his parents had first purchased for his sister some four years earlier.

His mother had taken him shopping for presents the Wednesday before his birthday. They were not of much money, nor of many options, so to the overflowing parking spots of Wal-Mart they went.

Joshua made a beeline for the toys section. His father had warned his mother that, being in middle school, Joshua had no business asking for toys anymore. But Joshua paid his father no mind, and so neither did his mother.

The cardboard sign for the Ponies had peeled, tight rows of brown corrugation interrupting the magenta and purple promises that “Friendship is the Best Magic of All!” A February birthday always meant the shelves were lean with all that had been pulled from deep storage after the holidays. None of the toys corresponded with the price tags and there were dents in the plastic casing.

Joshua, however, did not notice the desolation. With glee, he fingered the edge of the princess pony. The packaging was particularly damaged, which was probably why the doll was left in the wake of Christmas. Joshua looked expectantly at his mother. He lifted his eyebrows, a smile tucked in the corner of his face.

Joshua’s mother gave him a gentle grin in return, lifting the toy off the rack and leading him back to the checkout. The man running the register shot a questioning look at the doll, and then at Joshua, but he bagged it anyway.

Continue Reading … 

 

[SPOILER ALERT: the following author’s note contains details from the full story!]

I don’t think it is my best work.

But it is the story i have tried to write all semester.

The assignment was to write a story inspired by a newspaper article. I was home for Jonathan’s birthday and the Durham Herald was unfurled on our kitchen table. I combed through, looking for something to supplement my usual off-beat attempted-humor. Instead, i read “When Reality isn’t Magical for Youth,” an op-ed by Lydia Lavelle. She was writing about an eleven-year-old boy who had attempted suicide after being bullied for loving My Little Pony.

I wept. He was only eleven years old. He was only eleven years old.

The story was born then, with only a few of the fact of Michael’s reality before me: he was eleven, he was bullied for liking “girl’s toys” and he had tried to kill himself. I know now, from following his facebook page,  that his youth group and church community has surrounded him and his family with true Christian love. I am so glad my story is not what really happened.

I want to make one thing very, very clear: my short story is fictional. It is not Michael’s story, i am not telling it for him, and you can follow his story and make a donation to support his recovery on MichaelMorones.org.

I wrote my story based on what i have seen and known growing up in North Carolina, growing up as someone who chooses Jesus and chooses love without seeing these choices as conflicting.

And as glad as i am that my story is fictional, i do believe the truth in it is, tragically, very real. 

I crafted the story intentionally to sound almost Biblical, littering it with so many references it clobbers any Biblical scholar over the head with symbolism. I did this because i think Jesus condemns hypocrisy as much as God loves all of us.

It fascinates me that people who read this story often assume Joshua, the little boy inspired by Michael, is gay. Though i am of the John Green bent that books/stories belong to their readers, i do want to say i never wrote this story with Joshua’s sexuality in mind. I wanted to dip into a deeper critique: that we associate gender so inextricably with sexuality, that we think feminine things are so degrading that boys liking pink things must immediately be of a “lesser” or “deviant” sexuality, that humans have the ability to so shame a little boy for loving something that he thinks his life is no longer worth living.

Of course the narrative of gay kids being forced in the closet by conservative Christian communities is a real thing. But what scares me so much is that the very idea of being gay – of being a feminine boy, of liking something designed for girls, God forbid – is so repulsive, so pervasive, that it drives children to suicide. At that point, though sexuality is important, the reality of a person’s sexuality becomes almost a moot point because the taboo has more power than reality.

I didn’t write this story exclusively to show how queer people ought to be loved by Christians the way queer people are loved by Christ. I wrote it to show what a culture of hatred, of homophobia and of exclusion, can do.

Because if we call ourselves Christians, we all have to remember that which Mother Theresa taught us: Every one of them is Jesus in disguise.

Thesis: Submitted.

Cue: blog about how utterly anticlimactic it was to shove three $30 binders fat with 119 pages into professor’s mailboxes. Subsequent happy dance, alone, in dimly lit department lounge. Mild asthma attack.

Slow walk back to dorm, took brief nap.

Response: photoshoot with self, thesis, and about 2/3 of the books consulted and employed in the writing process.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

i call it: thesis face phases.

i call it: thesis face phases.

T-minus six days until the defense.

Jesus Loves Queer People! Reflections on the #UMassUnited Counter-Action to the Westboro Baptist Church

Almost a year ago, the amazing Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece on the CNN Belief Blog entitled “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” Of the many reasons she elucidates, she fundamentally argues that the contemporary church must be more authentic and, consequentially, extend Jesus-like love to all people:

“Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving . . . 
“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance . . .
“We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.”

Last Wednesday, bundled in my wool coat against the (unwelcome) mid-April freeze, friends and i made our way to our neighboring school, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Two weeks prior, UMass became home to the first out Division I basketball player, Derrick Gordon. It was a huge moment for the Pioneer Valley, and a huge moment for breaking down homophobic barriers in a traditionally masculinist, homophobic space.

And not a few days later did the infamous Westboro Baptist Church announce that they would be making camp at UMass to protest Derrick’s courage. (Well, that’s not the way put it, but you know what i mean.)

I sprang into action, contacting as many of my Mount Holyoke friends as i could rallying around a counter-protest. Of course, the folks at UMass were doing the same thing, but rather than giving the WBC more airplay by orchestrating a massive counter-protest, these leaders created something called #UMassUnited. A movement, a march, and a rally focused on creating an uplifting, queer-positive space that celebrated the love between people of any gender and the love of our wider community. So that Wednesday, we MHC pilgrims rolled up with our poster boards and scarves ready to join their ranks.

We wanted to outshine the WBC so much that our love was greater than the hate they bore on their signs. We wanted to show that Derrick Gordon is a whole human being, whose sexuality should not have to be so politicized as it is only one facet of his identity. And we wanted to embrace all among us who were scarred by the venom spewed by the WBC.

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That night, watching video clips and reading articles covering the demonstration, i knew we’d been successful. Almost every news outlet mentioned the #UMassUnited protest before mentioning the five WBC people who decided to show up for twenty minutes across campus.

10259951_2266412825118_2675391619399941410_nI was quite chuffed to find my own sign was mentioned here, on LGBTQ Nation, and littered across Instagram. I meant every word and i was grateful that LGBTQIA people were so excited to see a Christian in their ranks.

But it was even more exciting to me to see how many other Christian signs there were in the crowd, people taking a stand for love and reclaiming a faith co-opted and corrupted by the likes of the WBC. Two of the speakers at the rally were pastors at local churches. The cohort of MHC students who i’d come with all bore signs with God-like themes: “God is Love” read one, another with 1 John 4:7 written out.

It never fails to amaze me, to humble me, and to keep me faithful when so many Christians come out for queer rights. And maybe this shocks me because, as much as i agree with Rachel Held Evans’ piece, maybe we are the majority. Maybe folks like the WBC have been given too much screen time and rallies like #UMassUnited aren’t as sensational to talk about.

10246297_2266228900520_6162120665235027386_nI meant the front of my sign. I still mean it. But i had also made my sign double-sided, in part because i wanted people to still read it when i held it up in the air, and more so because there is a second message i think necessary to the one “Jesus loves queer people.” On the back, i wrote “Jesus Loves ALL of US.

I was working very, very hard to mean the back.

The part about all of us. And as much as it singes my throat to admit it, all of us includes and included those five people from the Westboro Baptist Church.

The beauty of #UMassUnited was in the celebration of love, and in the refusal to give into the hate of the WBC. I may not welcome the WBC views, attitude, language, or theology. But i’m pretty sure Jesus would still welcome them to the table. Not out of approval of what they say, but because they, too, bear God’s image.

Whenever i am struggling to remember this all-embracing theology, i turn to one of my favorite human beings: Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In a sermon given in 2005, he made this radical statement:

“This family has no outsiders. Everyone is an insider. When Jesus said, “I, if I am lifted up, will draw…” Did he say, “I will draw some”? “I will draw some, and tough luck for the others”? He said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all.” All! All! All! – Black, white, yellow; rich, poor; clever, not so clever; beautiful, not so beautiful. All! All! It is radical. All! Saddam Hussein, Osama bin laden, Bush – – all! All! All are to be held in this incredible embrace. Gay, lesbian, so-called “straight;” all! All! All are to be held in the incredible embrace of the love that won’t let us go.”

I love that. I love it because we have a religious leader who has fought injustice after injustice losing no steam as he fights the next battle. I love it because he says God loves terrorists, God loves us in our often fruitless labels.

And i love it because it means God loves broken me as much as She loves Derrick Gordon and those five people who came from the Westboro Baptist church.

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Senior Symposium Presentation

I wrote about my baby last week – my senior thesis, capping off at 120 pages on a womanist/feminist interpretation of the Christian Liturgical year. While ten minutes feels like an inch of what i had to say, here’s the presentation i gave at the Senior Symposium on Friday, should you like to watch it!

You might want to turn up your volume to hear. Many thanks to Alex (whom i reference in the film as having presented right before me on God and the Holocaust) and Nora for filming!

Baby Announcement

My baby weighs a couple of pounds, sitting at precisely 115 pages now. No trimmings yet; all bare bones, the introduction and the chapters and the endless endnotes. I was in labor for eight months.

I quit doing an honors thesis last fall. Even though i’d written about it, thought about, planned its length and topic since i first walked on Skinner Green. The pressure was too much, the culture of no-sleep and endless-stress that seemed part and parcel of writing such a monster completely unappealing. Especially because my therapist and i had worked so long on me learning to let go and let God. (Well, my phrasing. She’s not from North Carolina.)

It was a release. My advisor, Jane, told me to just keep reading, keep writing small papers, and we would just do an independent study. That seemed perfect: i got to indulge my craving for womanist theology whilst foregoing the purple-eyed haze everyone else seemed to be in.

Until.

It was just before Thanksgiving, and my backpack was plump with books on Jesus and womanism published in the last five years. I rattled off summaries, drawing my breath to talk about a womanist Christology when -

“Has nothing changed?” Jane stared me down. She’s got that deadly mix of Steel Magnolia and a feminism born in the 1960s. My stomach plummeted.

Everything i was talking about – the need to understand Christ as gender-full, as embodied in the faces of people of color and not just a white guy with a splendid beard – it wasn’t, well, new. More nuanced, yes, but nothing too drastically different than Kelly Brown Douglas or Jacquelyn Grant in the 1980s. Critiques of masculine God-language go back a long ways, farther than even Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848.

Her question plagued me the whole break. It wasn’t just a question of research: this project had always been more personal than that. It was a fundamental push against the anthem of change, the promise that feminism and Christianity were working, in inches, but working, towards a better beloved community.

And then i was back on the thesis track.

I’ve worked since then to answer her question, but instead of taking the usual de-constructive route (tackling a thinker or ideology and ripping it to feminist killjoy pieces) i’ve undertaken a project i see as re-constructive: writing an interpretation of the Christian Liturgical Year through a feminist/womanist lens. It’s in its final phases now, one enormous PDF waiting for copyedits and Jane’s last Southern-sensibility-critique.

On Friday, at 2:15, i’ll be presenting on my baby as part of the Mount Holyoke Senior Symposium. (More logistics here, under “Religion”) I would love it if you’re around and wanted to come here a piece of the story that led to this project, and why i think it is a meaningful discourse for feminists/womanists of faith to be having.

In her recent interview with Micha Boyett (fellow Talking Taboo contributor!) Erin Lane asks Micha why her new book Found was the book she wanted to “birth out into the world.”

While my thesis is by noooo means a full-length book, i love this imagery of the book as a child. As something you create and love and then have to let go, and let God.

And let me tell you, it’s been one hell of a pregnancy.

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!!

buy my book!

#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.

buy my book! 

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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The Drive Back.

It was the ninth time i’d made the trek.

Four Augusts ago, my mother came home armed with Bugles and window-paint Crayola markers; the Bugles, because she says no road trip is complete without crunchy tornado-shaped crackers from a gas station. The markers, so i could plaster her CRV with “Mount Holyoke or Bust!” and “Go Pegasus!”

It was the first road trip to my new home in South Hadley, Massachusetts. We took I-95, with a stop-off at an Aloft hotel somewhere in New Jersey. Mom did all the driving, because i was barely 18 and really not adept at highways in New England. Further proof of my inaptitude for staying in the lines came when i realized i’d mixed up my move-in date – we were a day early. Gracious Residential Life staff handed me a key anyway, and my mother set to work arranging my furniture in spacial relation sense and i planned wall-pockets for my posters.

I remember going to the parent-daughter tea without her. I’d insisted i’d be fine if she left before all the parent orientation activities. Strapped up my red boots and Ghanaian bracelets and told myself i was brave and true like any good Mount Holyoke woman. I sat in the corner, keeping tears in my chest and falling in love with new friends all in the same cup of chai. She says now it is one of her greatest regrets – listening to me and leaving when she did.

Everything and nothing has changed since that August. I still make her mix CDs when i leave for long periods of time. I don’t record voice messages on them anymore, but they’re as carefully curated as the day i handed her my “i’m grown and going to college and trying to be cool, but damn will i miss you” CD. (I changed the title for her; something cleaner and more sophisticated in block Sharpie writing). She came over before this big drive to help me fill my van again, her spacial relations genius only paralleled by her ability to leave hidden notes among my treasures.

But the most obvious change was who i made the drive with.

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I picked Jonathan up from the Divinity School around 2:30 after an embarrassingly tearful farewell to our kittens (they were having a weekend with my mother). We made excellent time, pulling into our stop in Pennsylvania at precisely 10 PM. Our route has changed since the plastered-in-paint CRV days. I prefer the leisure of I-81, the highway clinging to Appalachian mountains and off-the-track home diners. And the decided lack of the Jersey Turnpike.

Somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley!

Somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley!

Sun-dappled photo opp in the Blue Ridge Mountains!

Sun-dappled photo opp in the Blue Ridge Mountains!

Day two took us through rural Pennsylvania which bears a remarkable resemblance to the Trossachs in Scotland. Clearly, i wasn’t the first to think so:

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(I’ve also seen a rather gruesome-yet-compelling film that re-tells Macbeth, entitled: Scotland, PA)

Scotland felt so far and so close all at once. Mount Holyoke has been such a constant in my last three years that it seemed unfathomable to think of it changing, and yet i wondered how new it would look to me after nine months away.

Contemplating what it would be like returning to a home so beloved as a woman so changed sat with me for the drive. I loved my time abroad, still ache a little when i think about how beautiful Edinburgh must be in the (assuredly rain-splattered) fall. Missing my friends across the pond, missing my friends scattered across America. It had been a long summer. A summer of tremendous loss in my family, but also a summer spent with the man i’d committed to spending the rest of my life to. More transition than i thought possible in nine months away from school.

But there are some things that never seem to change. With New England temperatures come New England donuts – and our first Dunkin’ Donuts run! (I’m aware they do exist in the South, just in disappointingly small quantities!).

IMG_4730Clambering off of I-86 in Hartford onto I-91 remained a nightmare (the tunnel!) but my hands were steady on the wheel, the route still ingrained. We were staying with friends with Amherst for the night, but i insisted on taking the long way round. I wanted to drive past it, a tease, to see the campus from the roadside before moving in the next day.

My posters have changed since first year – all save one. I keep them all stored in the same long green bin, but the only recurring character is Rosie the Riveter – a poster i bought on my middle-school field trip to Washington, D.C. She’s crumpled on every corner and it takes some ten thumbtacks to hold her up, but it wouldn’t live in a room without her. Some days just need that muscle-bearing woman to get me through.

Jonathan was an asthma-saver unloading the van while i flittered with where to put what. The lack of A/C in our dorms rarely poses a problem past the fifth of September, but move-in day is always a humidity fest of misery and stale air.

And yet, all my tummy-knots were coming unraveled one thread at a time. It had been a fat nine months of change, but the campus was as beautiful as that first drive four Augusts ago. When mom and i pulled up to a building i didn’t yet know the name of that now i know houses the Religion department. My second home on campus. When we looked at the green and the lake and the Hogwarts-like library and both wondered who i’d be when i left this place. Wondered how i’d get through those first few tummy-knotting weeks.

Sometimes i still wonder. The similarities can seem minute, like the spaces between them eat away at the reminders they bear. But still, devotedly, i tack those ten pins around Rosie the Riveter. Still i look to her on those miserable Massachusetts snow days.

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And i’m learning, in that sluggish every day way, to sit with the paradox of big changes in small things. Jonathan and i are old pros at the distance, now, however begrudgingly so. And i wouldn’t trade that big change for the world. So with new Scottish flags on my wall and well-worn pens in my backpack, the semester is starting. And i’m glad to be home, if for only one more year.

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current jam: ‘from this valley’ the civil wars.

best thing: convocation!

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