Thursday, February 28, 2013

What I Didn't Know I Didn't Know

It should have been some kind of sign that I was equally sure I would have both nothing to teach and nothing to learn from Femfest. On one hand, how was I supposed to define the rich and huge and sometimes cumbersome notion of feminism? And on the other, what were others going to say that I had not already read on the subject?

So, I started the only way I know how: I told my story.  And so, it seems, did everyone else.  The result was not a jumble of chapters to a piecemeal textbook, but vibrant stories of people learning what equality means to them, in their own lives.  Here are just a few of the themes that emerged as I read through dozens of stories of feminism in the words of the people living, and often struggling, with the concept.

Bra Burners and Baby Killers

"As a child, my image of feminism was Hillary Clinton riding on a tank into Washington, imposing regulation of schools, welfare for all, and free abortions on every corner."       ~ Connor Park, Keep the Muse
"When I was growing up there was a vivid picture next to “Feminist” in the dictionary of my mind. She was an angry, man-hating, bra-burning hippie. Bless her heart."       ~ Jessica Bowman, Bohemian Bowmans

Many of the people who readily identified as feminists admit that they were introduced to feminism as a movement of extremists, of bra burners and baby killers. I’m sure I heard those terms at some point, but I don't remember ever thinking of modern feminism as extremist.  In my hazy recollection, I was drawn to the idea of feminism like a greedy little moth honing in on a flame because I was so eager to find something that named what had always seemed just common sense to me. I remember knowing that some people thought feminism was dangerous, but perhaps I was unfazed by that as I knew plenty of people who were scared of words like butt and urine.

Reading accounts of people who overcame the villainous reputation of feminism to embrace it as a movement of equality, love, and faith in all of humankind was more deeply stirring to me than I could have imagined.  For many writers this was a coming out of sorts, the first time they had admitted that they were, in fact, feminists, and watching that kind of bravery play out was unexpectedly emotional for me.

Jesus Made You a Feminist, Too?

“Feminism matters to me plain and simply because Jesus matters to me and He also seemed to believe in this radical notion that women are people. So, if I truly want to be His follower I think I should at least consider the notion as well”      ~ Cogito Ergo Sum
"I'm a Christian feminist because when a prominent youth leader in my denomination raped a young woman, some people considered her the devil's instrument to bring 'a man of God' down."
     ~ Lit-Lass, Frigate to Utopia
“For many secular and/or mainstream feminists, the faith community -- especially patriarchal religions like Christianity -- may seem like a lost cause, unable to come to terms with modernity and the changing role of women and other traditionally marginalized populations. But I want to assure you that a tide is turning for feminism, and it’s happening in our church pews. Couples are promoting mutuality over hierarchical gender roles. They are reaffirming women’s inherent dignity and worth. They are dabbling in the intersectionality of different forms of oppression, even while not using this terminology. They are addressing hot-topic issues like homosexuality and abortion head-on.”      ~ Danielle Vermeer, From Two to One
Well, color me embarrassed.  I kinda thought I was the only one who came to feminism because it echoed what I saw Jesus say and do.  When Rachel Held Evans wrote that she was a feminist because she was a Christian, I read the whole thing with staccato puffs of Yes! and Thank You! bouncing back and forth from my lips to the computer screen.  I was simply unprepared for how many other contributors would echo this sentiment.

But it is also clear that the Christian community at large is not a welcoming place for this growing chorus of Christian feminists.  Many churches have clung so hard to the line that this is an either/or issue - either you are a Christian or you are a feminist - that it's a revelation to hear that you can, in fact, be both.

Feminists aren’t angry. Except when they are.

"I am angry, because I REFUSE to be apathetic, and most days, those seem like the only two choices.  I’m fed up. I’m tired. I could have written this post twenty years ago, because so little has changed. That’s exhausting."~ Coffeesnob
"I’m sorry. But this isn’t all about apologies, either. This is sort of what it’s all about. You get called to use your voice, and it’s messy, but you have to do it anyway. And then you realize, later, how little you understood what you were talking about. And then, as Sarah Bessey sometimes says, then you want to burn down your archives." ~ Esther Emery, Church in the Canyon

When I talk about feminism, I generally refuse to be apologetic. I am not an angry girl, as Ani DiFranco sang on the soundtrack of my teenage years; I am a rational, compassionate, faithful, loving human being who believes that all people deserve equal treatment.  When I think of the relationships I have had with other people who identify themselves as feminists, my mind brings up images of engaging, encouraging, uplifting experiences. I think of people celebrating each other for who they are instead of urging each other to act in some prescribed role.  These are people championing each other in honesty and mutual respect.  These are not angry people.

But at the same time, watching injustice played out over and over does, at times, make me angry. If you spend time and energy speaking or working to keep women shackled, to silence them, limit them, to malign or undervalue them, then it’s true you may be caught in my occasional angry outburst. Put more broadly, if you exert energy to keep anyone else downtrodden, if you participate in hateful talk or acts that demean others, if you spend your time working to keep yourself in a position above others, then yes, I may at times find myself angry at you. If you systematically make others less so that you can be or feel like more, then you are why I am sometimes an angry feminist.

Feminism is for Men, Too.

"Feminism was the first dialect I learned in the language of justice, though it wouldn't be the last. It was the first step of many in reversing the dehumanization I suffered in the army, by affirming my own humanity by recognizing it in others. It was a key tool in reshaping my notions of what it meant to be a man who did justice, who loved mercy, and who walked humbly."      ~ Luke Harms, Living in the Tension
"He never used the word feminism. But he did teach me why it's important.
It was December of 2011. I was sitting with my church's lead pastor, talking over women in ministry in his office, when he became visibly riled and desperately gestured as he said, "Do you really think, Valerie... Do you really think, that our God would have created half the human race, to be subservient to the other half? Does it really make sense to you to think that?"      ~ Of Faith and Feelings
"As patriarchy draws boxes around the places girls can go, it discourages boys from space God intended for them too."      ~ Abby Norman, Accidental Devotional
"I credit my mom’s boldness and faith for instilling me with such a high view of women, but in the same breath, I credit my dad’s gentleness and grace.
And that’s why I tell my girlfriend that her dreams and goals are just as important as mine.
And that’s why I refuse to view women as a commodity.
And that’s why when I have a family of my own I will plant gardens and cook and clean and do laundry.
And that’s why, yeah, I consider myself a feminist."      ~ Cort, Stories & Thoughts

I owe much of my comfort with the title of feminist to my husband.  One of the first Christmas gifts he gave me was a collection of essays called Listen Up: Voices From the Next Feminist Generation.  When I lent it to a friend and never got it back, he bought me a replacement copy.  When I tell myself I'm not smart enough, strong enough, talented enough, he calmly reminds me that I am. When I complain that I am too this or not enough that, he pulls me into his arms and tells me he loves me for everything that I am, already right now.

He is not just a feminist in some lofty, theoretical sense.  He does the exhausting work of stay at home parenting during the week while I am downtown at the office.  He changes diapers and scrubs toilets and listens to musicals while he is cooking dinner.  And, what's perhaps even more remarkable about the arrangement is that he actually likes [most of] it.  He is good at cooking, he is a tremendously active and engaged father, and he is proud of the incredible contributions he makes to our family.

My husband would be quick to tell you that he needs feminism as much as I do because he is as constricted by the typical male gender roles as I am by the typical female gender roles.  In our lives, we knew that feminism was crucial for both of our freedom, but it was such a surprise to read how many other men felt the same way.  Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Femfest for me has been reading the voices of the men who participated and the voices of the men who were quoted by their wives and sisters and daughters.  It was a brilliant reminder that we all need feminism because inequality injures us all.

Today is my contribution for the third and final day of Feminisms Fest.  I hope you will click over and read what everyone else discovered in reading the dozens of essays on what feminism means to us and why feminism is important to our lives.

Image credit one and two, both used under Creative Commons License.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Even When Her Shackles are Different: Why Feminism Matters to Me

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”  ~ Audre Lorde

It all started at Halloween.  I finally got angry.
It wasn't the first Halloween season I've spent lamenting the ridiculous costumes that have become standard fare for women.  It wasn't the first year I've ranted about the endless variations of sexy fill-in-the-blank costumes that don't even remotely resemble the character they are supposed to be portraying (see, for example the Gumby for women costume vs. the men's version).  It wasn't the first year I've bemoaned this ridiculous trend of ridiculous costumes.

But it was the first year my seven year old son noticed.  Sitting next to me on the couch, browsing a catalog of costumes that had come in the mail, he flipped to the page of half dressed women, pointed to the Sexy Spiderman costume, and said, "Girls are weird.  That doesn't even make sense!"

At that moment, hundreds of conversations flashed through my mind, conversations I've sat through and overheard and read online, conversations about gender roles and submitting to husbands and who can preach in church and what modest really means and whether moms should work or stay at home and whether feminists are angry and why men are better suited to lead and so much more.  I recalled all of the passionate arguments from people who swore, who promised, who begged, who logically laid out their argument, all so sure that God designed this world with men in the driver's seat and women riding shotgun.  Men leading, women breeding.  It was God's plan for us, I was told, and it was beautiful if I could just submit myself enough to see it.  If I could just be quiet and become less and shrink down into this here box, this tiny little box, then I could understand how it was God's plan for women to act one way and men to act this other way.

I looked at my son, all those voices bouncing around in my head, and I worried those voices would be so much louder than his father and I could be, that they would just drown us out in the end.

A few days later, I started watching the PBS documentary Half the Sky, and I had to stop it before the first half was over because I couldn't take it one second more, couldn't watch one more girl who had been raped or beaten or sold into slavery or sold into marriage.  Watching those stories, seeing the faces of the women and the girls who had survived those things, all I could think was that none of this seems like a plan.  No, this seems like the undoing of plans, like the sad, degenerative, unwinding of hope one little girl at a time. This seems like the systematic undoing of the well-being of half the inhabitants of this planet.

And I think of the conversations of women's roles we are having here, the charged admonitions of what women should and should not do.  And though, yes, our chains are loose compared to those of the women in the documentary, I see how they are still the same chains. These things we explain on a small scale, these things we couch in the language of submission and complementarianism, modesty and purity, faith and feminism, these are reflections of the larger women’s rights issues at play in the world.

I think ultimately we have to face up to the fact that the gender inequality that feels annoying and restrictive here at home is the same force at work in gender inequality across the planet that is used to justify arranged marriages, genital mutilation, widespread systematic rape, and the selling of girls as sex slaves.

The attitude that drives the tendency to silence women in church is the same attitude that can justify women’s Halloween costumes being ridiculous odes to women as sex objects. It is the attitude, the belief, that women are less than men. Less talented, less intelligent, less worthy of respect, less important, less valuable, less deserving of the ability to control what happens to their own bodies. And this is the exact same attitude that justifies the atrocious treatment of women in Sierra Leone or Kolkata or Somaliland.

And yes, it makes me angry.  It makes a lot of us angry.

So you see, when we say that we are angry about the inequality of women, we don’t just mean we really wish society was over this Halloween-style objectification of our bodies. What we mean is that we see in that seemingly innocuous objectification the same menace that cuts the hearts out of women in varying degrees all over the planet. We see the same attitude that can argue for capturing little girls and selling them into a life of sex slavery. We mean that although we recognize that there is a difference between the two, the similarity between the two is not as veiled as you who love to call us angry seem to think it is. We mean that we see you devaluing us, and though the U.S. brand of devaluation may appear a more petty and flexible version, we see that it is the same engine that drives the more sinister crimes against women being perpetrated right out in the open all over the world.

And it also means that, though you defend these petty forms of devaluation as harmless, we see that you aren’t fighting against the extreme forms of devaluation out there. You aren’t talking about them, you aren’t trying to stop them, and you aren’t standing up for the women who are trying to stop them. And in ignoring those extreme forms of devaluation, what you are saying is that you don’t think the devaluation of women is a problem no matter how violent and extreme it becomes.

What you are saying, what we are hearing, is that you want to be strong not because God promotes biblical manhood, not because you want to take on the burden of protecting us. You are saying you want to be strong so you can keep us under your heel.

See, these are not unrelated problems. These are all the same problem, different links of the same chain. And the reason some of us are angry is because we have seen how interconnected all of these issues really are.  And it matters because these are our lives, tied up in these archaic knots of devaluation and fear and abuse.  Feminism matters because it is a torch that burns to sustain the life and the hope and the respect and the freedom of half of earth's population.

It matters because someone has to look my son in the eye and explain the difference between a Sexy Librarian costume and the real, live woman who helps him pick out his next great chapter book at school.  It matters because my son will likely marry one of your daughters, and together chances are they will have a son or a daughter of their own.  It matters because we have not been loud enough yet. Not angry enough.  Not just yet.

Today, I am participating in day two of Feminisms Fest talking about why feminism matters to me.  I hope you will click over to read all of the stories on this important topic.

Image credit, used under creative commons license. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Yes, I Am

"The definition of feminism does not tell you how to vote or what to think. You can vote Republican or Libertarian or Socialist or 'I like that guy's hair.' You can bag voting entirely. You can believe whatever you like about child-care subsidies, drafting women, fiscal accountability, Anita Hill, environmental law, property taxes, Ann Coulter, interventionist politics, soft money, gay marriage, tort reform, decriminalization of marijuana, gun control, affirmative action, and why that pothole at the end of the street still isn't fixed. You can exist wherever on the choice continuum you feel comfortable. You can feel ambivalent about Hillary Clinton. You can like the ERA in theory, but dread getting drafted in practice. The definition does not stipulate any of that. The definition does not stipulate anything at all, except itself. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist."
                                                     ~ Sarah D. Bunting, from 2003 post "Yes, You Are" on Tomato Nation

On one of the first trips my husband took with my family, a year or two after we were married, all of the young couples stayed up late talking and catching up in the living room of our beachside condo. We had all gotten married in the last few years, and now here we all were, my brothers and their wives sitting across from my husband and me, all of us just beginning to get to know each other as adults.  And there, in the middle of our late night discussion, I heard something I both somehow knew to expect and also dreaded to hear: "How did this family raise a feminist?"

I don't remember what my answer was at the time.  I may have just shrugged.  But I won't easily forget the shock in my brother's voice when he realized the word that matched the things I was saying, when he came up for the name for what he had just realized I was.

I don't know how I became a feminist.  I believe that I came into this world this way, that I was just born too busy squalling to notice I was supposed to start learning to keep my mouth shut already.  As I've said before, I think the real miracle is how I avoided getting that feminism beaten out of me growing up as a preacher's kid in small town Texas.

I didn't call it feminism back then, of course.  As a child, it was what my mother called an insistence on fairness.  I could always spot an injustice ten miles off, and I had little patience for people who mistreated others.

I was always a bit of a tomboy, though I attribute that to having two brothers and realizing at an early age that playing G.I. Joe with them in the backyard was infinitely more exciting than dressing and re-dressing Barbies in my bedroom alone.  It wasn't about eschewing the trappings of girlhood, just about what made the most sense to my young brain.  It wasn't about refusing to wear dresses to church, just about choosing t-shirt and jeans the rest of the week so I didn't have to worry about keeping my skirt down when I wanted to ride my bike or climb the tree in the backyard.

Really, in retrospect, it was that kind of pragmatism that allowed me to ignore the more nuanced messages about how girls were supposed to act.  If it didn't make sense to me, and it wasn't an absolute rule, I just tended to ignore it.  So,  at church I learned how Jesus died for all of us, how He loved all of us the same, how He came for the forgotten and downtrodden, and how status wasn't supposed to matter to people who followed Him because our human ideas of status are laughable to the Creator of heaven and earth.  I learned how we were supposed to do our best in everything for His glory. I was taught these truths by both men and women in Sunday School and by both my mother and father at home.

There were other things I noticed in church, like how all the girls had matching quilted bible covers and sat with their shiny church shoes crossed to keep their knees together and wore pink headbands that they pushed back on their head and then slightly forward to make the front of their hair stand up like little chestnut hills above their foreheads.  I noticed that the girls sat together and giggled a lot.  I noticed those things, but I didn't learn them the way it seemed the other girls were scrambling to learn them.

As the years went by, the messages became more direct.  We had youth group slumber parties where women from the church would come and teach us how to set a proper table, how to apply an acceptable level of makeup, what moisturizers and cleansers were ideal for teenage skin.  More than one year, we had poise lessons where we all walked around with a book balanced on our heads to practice our posture.  But, to me, all of that was so secondary to the big goal we were supposed to be pursuing, to the big picture of who we were supposed to be as Christians, that I wrote it all off as innocent fun. I didn't feel like I was being indoctrinated; I felt like I was being entertained, though perhaps that was only because of my stubborn inability to believe that the same women who had been teaching us to act like Jesus since we were toddlers were now suddenly obsessed with teaching us to look like Barbies.

I've been told I'm smart for a girl, funny for a girl, good at math for a girl, handy for a girl, easy to talk to for a girl.  Until people started lining up to tell me all the things I was good at doing, you know, for a girl, I didn't realize people thought that those were things girls weren't good at doing in the first place.

And I guess that right there is what makes me a feminist because I recognize that many of my friends, when they heard words like that, listened more to the subtext of girls aren't supposed to be good at that than the compliment itself.  Many of my childhood friends acted more and more like what they believed girls should be as the years went by, whereas I started asking louder and louder, "Why shouldn't girls be good at math or be handy with tools or be funny?"  I knew intrinsically that any compliment designed to cut me down said more about the person giving the compliment than it did about me, and I didn't see any point in trying to fix someone else's hangup by adjusting my behavior.

The first time I remember becoming aware of the word feminist was in a book of quotes I was flipping through one day at the bookstore.  I happened on a Gloria Steinem quote, having not one single clue who she was at the time, that said a woman has two choices: “Either she's a feminist or a masochist.”

And I remember thinking Ah! I get it.  I am either a feminist or I am asking for every bit of inequality the world throws at me.  I am either a feminist or I believe myself to be less than equal.  I am either a feminist or I believe that every single woman I meet is capable of less, deserves less than even the lowliest, most disgraceful man I will ever happen upon.

For me, since that moment, feminism has meant quite simply that I believe men and women are worthy of equal opportunities, respect, freedom, and love.  I love this piece by Sarah D. Bunting where she says "It is quite straightforward and concise. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist."

But of course, it's not so straightforward in practice because, for me, this is the entrance point to what has become a much larger, interconnected series of beliefs about how women are systematically silenced, mistreated, and undervalued in our society.  It's not simple at all because women are not equal in most of the world, and even in places where they are equal on paper, they are still attacked in a variety of insidious ways that range from being underpaid and undermined to being exploited, being silenced, and being raped.  It's not straightforward or simple in any way when we try and unravel the damage done by abuses done to women, when we try to dislodge long standing beliefs that justify harm to girls, or when we try to advocate for change based on the worth of a group of people others have written off as unworthy.

Heck, it's not even simple sometimes to stand in front of the ones we love most in the world and admit this one gentle truth: Yes, I am a feminist.

This is my first of three posts on what feminism means to me for the Feminisms and Me linkup.  I hope you will click over and read through the posts to see what other real people have to say about how feminism has impacted their viewpoints and their lives.

Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Innocent Murmur

It sounds like poetry, like the whisperings of a stream dappled with shade or the soft, unformed words that spill out of the mouth of a half-asleep child. An innocent murmur. I am caught up in the lyrical flow of the words as I mouth them to myself over and over.

Lincoln sits in my lap and chatters, an excited flow of sounds that are not yet language mixed with fragments of recognizable words. Maw, he calls me, like a barefoot Southern boy on a back porch somewhere. "Maw," he says, "Maw, I nee bootanabo. Maw, abo. Abo." Slowly the babbling is being replaced with real words, his vocabulary is building steadily, but today he is excited and I can only make out my name in the torrent of sounds. He smiles and gestures at me, nodding happily, willing me to understand his request.

"Maw," he repeats. He lifts his shirt and points to his chest as he tells me again the urgent message I cannot understand. But, I smile back and nod, too, and I place my hand on the smooth, unmarred skin across his chest.

The man in a white coat told us that poetry, delivered the line with effortless beauty: an innocent murmur. 

When Lincoln was born five years ago and another man in a white coat said the words Down syndrome, we said numb prayers that his heart would be healthy. We would figure the rest out, if only they didn't have to slice open his chest and fiddle with his heart. He was so tiny, his heart the size of a plum thumping desperately beneath his pencil thin ribs. We watched the machines in the NICU count his heartbeats and prayed not his heart, please not his heart.

 photo P1002301.jpg

We met our son's cardiologist on his first day of life, a fact that seemed ominous at best. We began our own vocabulary lesson then: echocardiogram and patent ductus arterioles, or echo and PDA for those of us who knew the shorthand. How did we become the ones who knew the shorthand?

But we were standing over Lincoln’s hospital bed, trying to arrange the wires coming off his body so that we could change his diaper, when the doctor returned to give a tentative reprieve from worry. No surgery yet. Get another echo in six months.

How many times did we hold our hands over his heart and pray? How many echocardiograms that all gave us a reprieve, but all cautiously? Four perhaps, maybe five. For a few years, we rested in the tentative assurance that our son would not need heart surgery, until this fall as a new doctor pressed his stethoscope to Lincoln’s chest, sighed, and said he heard a murmur. One more test.

I once heard that the phrase "cellar door" was considered the most beautiful phrase in the English language, but perhaps that only applies to folks who have never heard a doctor describe their son’s healthy heart with that lovely phrase: it’s only an innocent murmur.

And now the poetry of that phrase gets mixed up with the chattering of my son, who sits in my lap and points to his heart. I place my hand over his smooth chest, relaxing into the news that he will have no heart surgery, no procedure to manipulate a shunt up the veins in his leg to clog an unclosed duct in his heart.

“It’s only an innocent murmur,” I tell him, loving the sound of those words on my lips, the most beautiful phrase in the world to me at that long awaited moment. My son’s heart is healthy, and though it keeps its own nuanced rhythm, its strong, reassuring beat patters against my palm. Just another beautiful sound, a life with an unexpected cadence.

{This post was written several months back, but I held off posting it until now because it was being considered for submission elsewhere.  Though it did not work for the other venue, I couldn't miss sharing it here.}

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

This is Not a Valentine

This is not a valentine.

This is not a candy heart, not a glossy card with bad poetry in a swirling font inside and a picture of a meadow somewhere pasted across the front.

This is knowing the sound of your breath, waking as your inhale changes pitch almost imperceptibly in what I know is the inevitable lead up to one of those rattling snores you make in the night. This is my arm on your shoulder, pushing you over and also holding you close. Go away and stop snoring and also don’t ever leave me and I love you and let me hold you while I drift back off to sleep. 

This is no single rose, wrapped up on itself, a blushing secret waiting to be revealed.

This is being seen, being known from hair to pinky toe, being laid bare in so many ways it seems you need a new word for exposed. This is being seen when you ache to hide, being inescapably known. This is having every freckle memorized, and every scar, too. This is having every tantrum witnessed, every careless word heard. This is opening your trembling petals to the light, exposing the sticky pollen of your brokenness and trusting that the arcing silhouette of your fragile form can seem a miracle even in the wake of your unraveling.

This is your dirty jeans on the floor by the bed and my shoes scattered like patent leather land mines across the living room rug. This is fixing your mess everyday, and you fixing mine. This is washing your sweat out of the pillows. This is you wiping my footprints off the tile.

This is a tangle of our things. Our clothes hanging in our closet. Our toothbrushes standing sentry over the sink together, leaning towards each other, almost touching. This is a home that keeps trying to crumble out from under us, threadbare carpet, patched drywall, paint baked pastel by the sun and drifting like dingy turquoise confetti down onto the driveway.

This is no valentine, no candy heart with one happy word painted on its face.

This is the real flesh and blood thing, an ugly tangle of muscle and blood that squeezes out a steady beat. This is a heart that doggedly pounds out love for you every moment of every day, that never twitches and flutters like the wings of a frightened bird, even when it wants to. This is the unbroken thump of the heart in my chest that stays here, beside you, listening to the unbroken thump of your heart even when the nearness is almost unbearable. Even when the sting of angry words is still caustic between us, a poison we both drink together. Even then, the ungainly muscles in our chests keep the time of our togetherness, singing their percussive song to each other through these hulls of bone and flesh.

This is no swirly heart necklace from the jewelry store in the mall. No shiny diamond earrings in a felt covered box.

This is an anchor, rusty and discolored from use. This is the tangled chain that binds us, a tinny makeshift thing whose links have been forged by weary hands choosing to make peace, make progress, make love, make do every day for the thousands of days we’ve spent together.

This is holding on to each other, clutching each other’s hair or shirt or whatever our desperate hands can hold as we rock each other's bodies with the staccato rhythm of our own sobs. This is watching each other lose a dream, lose a child, lose hope, lose sight. This is hurting worse for you than for me, though the burden is ours, always ours, not just yours or mine.

This is no valentine, no chocolate wrapped in red foil with cupid smiling out from the wrapper. This is no valentine. This is the love of everyday, that tireless champion, the plain truth of indescribable beauty. This is the weight of your leg draped across mine, pressing my thigh into the fabric of our second hand couch as we watch television together. This is knowing how your favorite t-shirt will feel against me before I even get my arms around you.

This is that stunted dance we do in the kitchen when we’re bumping around each other to get to the sink or the stove. This is knowing not to wash my hands in the kitchen sink after dinner because you’ll have the water scalding from washing the pans.

The way you look in the snow, with your hat pulled down over your brunette curls, tall and smiling, your puffy coat full of air that I will squeeze out when you pull me into a hug.

This is seeing your eyes on our son’s face. This is hearing your voice come out of his mouth.

This is loving you even when I can’t stand to be in the same room with you. This is not leaving when we lash out at each other. This is wanting you to comfort me even when you’re the one who hurt me.

This is every un-glossy day we’ve spent together, every filthy, exhausting, perfect moment of all of it. This is not a valentine. This is love.

Photo credit: Kiss from flickr creative commons.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Virus

Of course we’ve been sick (because isn’t everyone sick this month?), and of course it made the rounds (because when do sick children ever keep their germs to themselves?).  And it was some kind of sneaky virus, too, one that clings and lingers and winds itself up in your thinking until you can hardly remember a time when you didn’t cough twenty three times an hour.   It’s been almost two weeks since Lincoln first woke with the fever that signaled the beginning of this respiratory mess that settled on us all, and we’re all still feeling a bit Humpty Dumpty, like we’re all just bits and pieces of ourselves.  Scattered, too restless for the couch but too exhausted for much else, cut off from each other by the isolation of clogged ears that make everything sound muted, mumbled, far away.

I lost hope on day ten when some third round of the sickness uncoiled itself over our house and pressed down on us all with a vague, unforgiving pressure, a nameless malaise that seemed to come from our rattled coughs themselves.  Our lungs seized and seized as if trying expel a demon of dust from our poor, dry throats.  But nothing came, just a chorus of barking coughs that seemed bent on shaking us apart.

Our oldest, the one who never stops talking, fell into a dejected silence.  “Do you feel okay?” I asked him.  “Do you need anything?”  He would shrug and say he felt okay and no, he didn’t need anything.  No, he didn’t want to get out of the house.  Could he just sit on the couch for a while?

He hadn’t eaten more than four bites of any meal in a week.  Just enough to say he’d eaten something, but not enough to alter the landscape of his plate.  The doctor said there was nothing to be done; it was a virus, and we’d just have to wait it out.

He might as well have been reading my mind when he said it.  “Mom, I feel sad, and I don’t know why.  I just feel like crying for no reason.”  And what’s a mom to do but wrap this tall seven year old in her arms and tell him that it’s okay, he could cry, she would be here, and everything would be all right.  So, I held my son and tried not to cough into his hair as he felt that first unmoored sadness, the confused disillusionment that strikes us all eventually.  And wow did it hurt, hurt worse than having that feeling myself.  It rattled me harder than those relentless coughs, watching him feel that feeling I know all too well.

There is no cure for sadness that has no cause.  I could not comfort him as I usually do, by talking him through the events that led to the frustration or promising him the scratch would heal.  I could not bandage away a pain that came from no visible wound. I could only say these terrible words no parent wants to say to their child: “Sometimes this just happens.  People get sad sometimes, and sometimes we just feel like crying.  It won’t last forever.”

It won’t last forever, but it will come back someday.  Unexplained sadness will not rule your life, but it will be a part of it, from time to time.

This just happens sometimes.  To you, to me.  I’m sorry, son.  I’m so sorry that I birthed you into a world you are only just learning will hurt you and hurt you often. 

His hair is just the color mine was when I was his age, a golden brown like honey over chocolate, more hair than I ever had but just the same color.  I don’t want to see myself in his sadness, don’t want to entertain the thought that he will inherit that from me, this tendency for sadness that comes out of nowhere.  Mostly he is the spitting image of his father, a tiny little copy of the carefree Peter Pan I married.  Let him be like his father in this, too, I pray.  Let him dodge the melancholy vein that runs through me. 

That day, we held each other, and I kissed him and told him other words, beautiful words that are also true, words like how he brought joy into my life and more love than I ever imagined.  I told him how just the sight of his face turns a light on in me, how I will never forget the way he looked the first moment I saw him.  And more, how sometimes these moments of sadness kind of wake us up to how good the happy times are, how they teach us to pay attention to the good parts even more.  How you kind of feel cleansed after a cry, like you are ready to get back to feeling like yourself again.

And I would have gone on, gotten into rainbows after a storm and the promise that awaits and a whole parcel of elementary school theology, but just like that, my son wiped his cheeks and climbed off of my lap, already through the storm and watching the sun peek through the clouds.  So like his father, I thought, made of rubber that one.  I decided that perhaps the last throes of the virus might be gone then, exorcised through our tears, that maybe the sickness had just drained right out of us.  And then I stifled another cough.

Friday, February 1, 2013

In a Culture of Loud: Or, One Angry Introvert

For once, there was no sound when I opened my eyes into the darkness of our bedroom. No hum of the air conditioner or heater, no raspy vibration of the ceiling fan, no pitter patter of little feet, no neighborhood dogs barking in dark backyards nearby. Not even the rhythmic growl of my husband’s snore. As many times as I’ve woken in the dead of night in this house, I don’t think I’ve ever woken to complete silence before.

I lay still and listened, waiting for something to break the spell, waited so long I didn’t even realize I had fallen back asleep until I was jarred awake by the sudden interjection of the alarm.

I woke thinking of that silence, remembering how it seemed prophetic somehow, at the time.

~       ~       ~

Some days it seems we’re always of thinking of the next thing we’re going to say. We are updating our statuses and commenting on the pictures we see and the articles we read. We are liking and favorite-ing and tweeting links and keeping an eye on our updates in case anything comes in that needs a response.

I think we do, most of us at least, try to remember to listen instead of just waiting for our own turn to speak. But our own turn to speak is increasingly a wide and rushing thing, a full submersion in the constant current of sharing, the never-ending tide of voices all talking at each other. Does every new outlet we get to share our voices just make us try a little harder to bellow the loudest?

Doesn’t it sometimes seem we are all just shouting into a void, trying not to be drowned out, hoping our voices don’t get lost in all the noise?

~       ~       ~

Or may this is just an introvert’s cry, the wordless sigh of one who watches this stream of information whiz past and feels she could drown in it. Maybe this is the throwing up of the hands of one who knows she can never keep up with all of this keeping up with each other. I can’t do it. I give up.

I won’t ever win at social media, I won’t ever talk to every person at the party, and I won’t ever feel anything but angst over ice breaker games designed to force me to act more like the extroverted person we are (apparently) all supposed to be deep down inside. I will always cringe during the forced meet and greet period at church, counting the seconds until I can sit down and listen to the announcements in peace. If you are a stranger, I probably won’t engage you in witty banter. If I invite you to a party, I will likely start the evening out in the kitchen pretending to rearrange the food rather than greeting you at the door and trying to conjure up some small talk that doesn’t sound entirely memorized for the occasion.

And no, I’m not a timid person, not a shy little wallflower of a girl. Many times, I am the loudest voice in the room. When I am engaged, when I am enraged, when I am concerned, when I am giddy, well then my tongue loosens right up. When I am curious, the questions come tumbling out like scrambling tumbleweeds caught by my imagination. When I have something to say, I can hardly be shut up.

It’s just that I was made in a way that means I cannot compel myself to speak when the weight of silence has come over me. I mean, of course, I can open my mouth and make sounds come out, but it will always be fumbling, always be awkward and forced. For ill or for good, I speak when I have something to say, and the rest of the time I am silent.

~       ~       ~

I’ve been thinking about how I laid in bed this morning, listening past the silence. Listening for something to shatter it because I knew, eventually, something would. Silence is a fragile waif of a thing in these loud times. Even wind can blow it away, charge right through it and rattle the windows. Silence stands no chance in a place where we spend every waking second trying to fill the silence, as if it’s a void to be stuffed with our nonstop chirping.

If it seems I am angry, maybe it is because I am.  Maybe it is because being an introvert feels like a handicap in this culture of loud.  Maybe it is because I wish I were better at small talk and banter and soundbites and updates.  Maybe it is because when I was lying there in the middle of the night, even I couldn't enjoy the silence.  Even I found myself waiting for the thing that would break it.

So yes, maybe there is a part of me that's angry I've come to think of silence as something to be broken.  Not something to be courted or cultivated.  Just something to be ripped apart by the first noise on the scene. 

Because some of us are built on wells of silence, deep pools of wordless resonance that don't need to be rooted out and filled with chatter.  And those of us who are built like that don't need to be fixed by becoming like the ones who aren't built like that.  There's nothing wrong with our silence, see, and we will speak when we have something to say.  And not one moment sooner.