Wednesday, December 25, 2013

when Christmas makes you stressed out and crazy (and the God who still comes, anyway)


The air is cool for Australia in late December, the rain falls gently on skylights, my three next-of-kin sleep in a darkened room together with white noise lullaby.  It's Christmas, this morning we opened some gifts with Nana and Papa visiting from Canada, had a late breakfast and the over-sugared children needed a sleep to make it through the rest of the day.  So did their dad.

It's been a difficult few weeks for me, with nothing and nobody to blame.  I had high hopes for December, for Advent, for the memories we would create and the traditions we would begin with our toddlers, but only a few of them happened and were definitely not "pinnable".  (My homemade advent calender was pretty much the worst - I couldn't wait for the last paper to be torn off so I could throw it in the bin today - Merry Christmas!)  I appreciated D.L. Mayfield's writing this week on what is actually sustainable at Christmas time, and for me the trouble hasn't been financial; my expectations on myself are what I can't keep up with.  I didn't "do" nearly what I had hoped to accomplish and I still ended up a crying, stressed out, less than festive mess on too many occasions in the past few weeks.  If you don't believe me, just ask my husband.  Seriously, ask him - he could probably use some support.

The few things that have felt deeply meaningful had very little to do with me at all.  I saw some friends give anonymously and generously to some other friends of mine whom they had never met; inviting someone to our home for Christmas who didn't come but hopefully at least felt cared for and included; enjoying the hospitality of others, having meals in homes or sharing drinks outside while children play barefoot.

The line in the carol 'O Holy Night' has been rolling around in my heart for the past few days.  "Long lay the world in sin and error pining, til He appeared, and the soul felt it's worth."  I've spent so much of this month (and maybe my whole life) trying to prove my worth, and mostly just to myself.  Do I deserve to be a friend to circles of beautiful people, a mama to bright and crazy kids, a wife to the gentlest man?  I try to answer this question by packing my days fuller than I can handle, full of such good things and people I want to be with, it's not the doing that's the problem, it's the questions my heart is asking, the things that I don't believe true about my most secret self. 

It's not in our doing that our souls will feel their deepest sense of worth - it's in His Coming.  And like I wrote two years ago, very pregnant but not ready for our new baby to arrive yet, I feel it now.  "God came because it was time.  Not because we were ready, but because we were in need.  The beauty of Advent is in God's willingness to come to us, not our readiness for Him to come."

The kitchen doesn't have to tidy, nor the Christmas cards in the mail (or even on your mind).  Maybe you just shouted at your children or your spouse, or cried over an oven full of burnt baking; the gifts might be few or hurried, loved ones too far away, exhaustion holding you hostage for a good, long time.  You might feel disappointed with yourself.  It's okay.  Advent isn't about us preparing beautifully, lighting candles or creating the perfect family memories.  It's about recognizing our deep, deep need for a God who still comes, anyway.

As much as I despise all of this seasonal stress I've experienced this month, maybe it's been good for me.  Maybe not feeling like I measured up is exactly where I need to be.



Merry Christmas.  May your soul today feel it's worth, no matter what.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

things are messy, we are loved


 
Theotokos, from House for All Sinners & Saints


I live in the kind of place where you get to know your neighbours, maybe you do too.  They remind your kids to wear hats outside and gift them their first cricket set, you chat while hanging laundry in the Australian sun, or you overhear a (sometimes very loud) dispute. We live in an interesting place and our neighbourhood isn't just the people who live next door or around the corner.  There's also the people who come in and out of our street, often in need of cash or desperate for some kind of fix.  I've written before about how honest my neighburhood is about the power of addictions.

Sometimes I want to meet people, like other moms at the park who become your really dear friends over a couple of years; sometimes I don't want to meet people, like the men coming in and out of our neighbourhood for a drink or to watch topless women dance.  But my kids don't know any better, they don't know how I quietly classify people - my son asks men their names as we walk past a pub; I try to smile nicely while also slightly glaring at them.  I'm working on it, but it's still a reflex, that smile/glare.  I wish I could see like my kids do, like they know how the world is meant to be.

They have fallen in love with this one lady who is at the corner every day, they give cuddles and kisses, my daughter says her name all the time, even when waking from a nap as if maybe she has just been with her in a dream.   I used to be scared of her boyfriend until we started to chat regularly - their relationship is complicated and they are trying to care for each other despite themselves, and aren't we all limited in our capacity to love and be loved?  I was scared of him until I met his kids, until he introduced us as his friends.  

I just finished "Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint" by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a tattoo covered Lutheran pastor who lived in bondage to her own addictions for many years after leaving her childhood, fundamentalist church.  Her use of coarse language is plentiful (just a warning in case you were planning to gift it the book to a great aunt or something) and her understanding of life as continual death and resurrection has opened up my eyes.  Rather than be ashamed of ourselves, we can trust in a God who delights to scoop us up from our graves over and over again.  She writes freely of her own failings and need for resurrection, how God requires nothing of us in order to be loved.

I can be so ashamed of myself sometimes, I fall back into my grave and just want to stay there, want to let myself be covered over by disappointment, tiredness, hopelessness.  Rather than ask for help I'd choose to stay buried until I can slowly collect the will power to dig myself out.  But there's no self-digging required; God is proud to have dirt under His fingernails, unfatigued by another rescue, overjoyed by a child in Her arms.  My friend was telling me recently about a difficult situation she's in, "I'm a troubled person, but I don't need this."  And she's right.  If only I could take on that same language for myself, when I'm laying in my grave again: I'm a troubled person, but I don't need this.  I don't need to stay here, ashamed in my grave.

What if I can start to truly see other people as God's beloved, hear it sung loud over their heads, louder than anything else that has ever been spoken over them.  Imagine how I will think and feel about my neighbours then, not even judging their potential, but just believing who they already are at the center of it all.  My longing this Advent season, like Nadia Bolz-Weber, is for my heart of stone to (again and again and again) become a heart of flesh.

Things are messy in our neighbourhood and Lord knows they are sketchy sometimes, but it's a place filled with God's beloved children and it's still a beautiful day.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Gently Weaning Our 3 Year Old

*This post may not be interesting to everyone.  Unlike the rest of my posts which I'm sure are EXTREMELY interesting to EVERYONE. :)*


Since January I've known that I wanted to wean my son by the end of the year.  At that point I had already been tandem nursing my children for a year and although I mostly enjoyed it and believed it was the best option for our family, it was starting to feel like it was too much for me to handle.  Giving myself an end goal seemed to alleviate much of my angst.  I could slowly start working towards weaning my son, who at that point was almost 2 1/2.  I wanted it to be as smooth a transition as possible but I did not feel that I could leave the timing completely up to him.  The weaning advice of 'don't offer, don't refuse' didn't work for me as I had been 'refusing' sometimes since he was probably 12 months old.  At 2 1/2 I rarely offered, and he was still nursing 8 times a day.

In giving myself a time period to be finished by, I suddenly felt free again, that I wasn't being held hostage in this nursing relationship.  That was very helpful.  And it also gave me more of a motivation to set some healthy boundaries and continue to help Saf to find other ways to be comforted.  We were in Thailand in April and May and being able to nurse through all of that change and transition was very helpful, not to mention that he stayed very healthy on our trip.  On that trip we night-weaned him for good (unlike the two other times) although I would let him nurse early in the morning if he woke up and that would usually knock him out for another hour.  

When he was turning three in August he started to say that he would be all done with 'nai-nai'.  He even told someone that nai-nai was gross (um, excuse me??) but he continued to nurse, although less frequently, maybe only 3-4 times in a day.  The one time that it was so helpful was when he needed to have a nap and I could easily nurse him to sleep in under 5 minutes.  His dad had a lot of other skills to help him fall asleep, but I did not.  

In September we had an incident where he cut his finger on a sharp can lid and it was a bit deep so his dad and I took him to the doctor to have it looked at.  He was crying quite hard while we were there and I offered him milk, thinking it would calm him down, but he wanted his dad instead.  That's when I realized that we were moving out of the breastmilk as comfort stage; when he was really upset he usually wanted his dad, or he wanted me to put all 17 kgs of him in the Ergo and wear him but he actually rarely asked for milk.  

Also in September I became pregnant.  I'm assuming it's safe to nurse two children through a pregnancy (I know that Dulce de Leche has triandem nursed) but I don't personally know anyone who has done it.  And I really, really did not want to.  I also wanted my daughter (who was 20 months) to have a chance to nurse on her own for a while, until the baby came (if she didn't wean before I gave birth).  Jubee would take it very personally when Saf nursed - she would cry, whine or start counting to ten the best she could, trying to let him know that his time was up.  I also remembered how hard it was to nurse through pregnancy last time, the pain and feelings of aversion, lack of milk - I couldn't imagine going through that again and having two nurslings this time around.  So Chris and I decided it was time, for real (FOR REAL) to wean.

We began talking more frequently about Saf being all done with my milk, explaining that the baby in my tummy needed some of the milk to be able to grow strong.  Saf seemed to understand that and I think we only talked about it once.  When he would ask for milk at his usual times, which were pretty much boredom moments I think, I reminded him that we were going to be all done.  For the last few weeks he only had the early morning milk and it was painful to give it up as it helped him go back to sleep, but it had to go.  One day he didn't ask for milk, the first time ever, and I knew we were just about done.

A friend mentioned to me about having a special present for when the child is weaned and we told Saf that when he was ready to be all done, we could pick out something special that he could have instead of nai-nai.  On a shopping trip saw a big stuffed carrot that he desperately wanted.  We said it could be his special weaning present but we would hold on to it until he was ready to be all done and he grabbed the carrot from my arms and said, "I'm finished."  We had one last special nursing time the next evening, when I was 8 weeks pregnant.  It was fairly typical/hilarious because Jubee was crying and trying to climb on me while Saf nursed for the last time.  We took a picture together, which is pretty blurry, but he really wanted a picture with his carrot.  He asked most mornings for the next few weeks but when I would say no and remind him that he was done, that was it.  No fussing or begging or complaining.  He was three years and three months old.

He has been weaned for seven weeks and I barely miss it.  I cherished the time, (especially considering his traumatic birth and our initial separation), I'm so glad we got to have that in our relationship as long as we did, but I was ready to be done and I think he was nearly ready as well.  It's possible I would miss it more if I didn't already have a 23 month old nursling still having milk multiple times in the day and night, but my arms are still very full at the moment.   I do think mother-led weaning can be gentle and with minimal tears, but you probably have to take it pretty slow.  I think Saf being 3 also helped a lot in that we could converse with him about what was going on in our family and what our needs were, while still considering his. 

first nursing session - 30 hrs old
our special last nursing session - with a giant stuffed carrot

//

And a small sleep update: A few people have asked lately how our nights are going and what our bed situation is.  I am very happy to report that Saf usually sleeps 11 hours a night without waking up, with our day usually starting at 6am.  Occasionally he will wake in the night to pee, or for a drink, but it's pretty minimal.  We did have a 'wake-up at 2:30 and can't get back to sleep until morning' this week but those are so rare now that we can handle them when they happen.  In our bedroom we currently have a queen bed and a double bed pushed together, with bedrails on both sides.  Chris and I sleep in the middle, although technically on separate beds, and usually with separate blankets.  Jubilee still wakes and nurses 3-5 times a night.  I would like to night-wean her in the next few months before baby comes but I don't feel nearly as stressed about it as I did last time around.  I have nursed two babies in the night for many, many months and while it is not ideal, it's also not the end of the world.

The second bedroom in our flat is right on the main street that we live on, across from a pub.  We've had guests lately staying there and they've been woken up by arguments or just general loudness on the weekend nights.  We couldn't put our kids back there by themselves and would prefer not to be woken up by it either so we are all pretty happy to just sleep together in the windowless middle room for now.  I think there is plenty of room for the new baby in there as well.  Right? :)

**I'd like to take a moment to thank my husband of four and a half years, Christopher.  He has been extremely supportive from the very first nursing session to the last.  He actually has encouraged me to keep going when I threatened to wean my children (usually in the middle of the night) and he wasn't even keen on me weaning Saf, although he was supportive nonetheless.  He's a good one.**


Sunday, November 24, 2013

slow growing compassion


I spent the morning with a friend from Libya who lives in our area.  She and her husband did studies here, coming before the war began in her nation, and now it isn't safe to return.  They've applied for a protection visa and are desperate to stay.  She had her second baby a few weeks ago, the sweetest little girl, and she stays in her tiny flat caring for babies while her engineer husband collects shopping carts at the grocery store six days a week.  She has no complaints, she shows me pictures from home of coffins draped in flags lined up for ages, her sister will give birth there soon.  I love having her in my life - I need her to remind me of realities I quickly forget.  To have your children and your husband safe and with you, with food to eat on the table every single day - these are privileges, this is cause to celebrate and be relieved.  I examine my heart when we kiss goodbye at the door, I scan my small list of woes and let a few of them go.

I read about Syria regularly, I'm eager and terrified to know what life is like for the two million people who have fled across borders with little in their arms but the children they've bore.  I occasionally feel unsafe in my neighbourhood but those moments are fleeting and there's so much help available if I actually needed it.  I really cannot imagine feeling perpetually unsafe, and even worse, to know that my children weren't safe.  I can't imagine having to risk everything, leave the trees my family had tended for hundreds of years and travel under the cover of darkness.  I can't imagine how living in a tent in the desert in a foreign place could some how be safer than the house in which I was born.

Imagining these things is hard.  But I think it's part of caring, it's part of slow growing compassion, it's part of quiet prayer.  It's part of joining our thoughts into the collective longing for deliverance: from violence, from hatred, from power and division and suffering.

//

'I believe that Christ came not to dispel the darkness but to teach us
to dwell with integrity, compassion, and love in the midst of
ambiguity.  The one who grew in the fertile darkness of Mary's womb
knew that darkness is not evil of itself.  Rather, it can become the
tending place in which our longings for healing, justice and peace
grow and come to birth.' - Jan L. Richardson

//

City of the Lost - David Remnick for The New Yorker
 - an intense article about the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which has quickly become the second largest camp in the world



Sunday, November 17, 2013

"where you are is holy and you are welcome here."


I am writing this to say that I want to start writing again.  Writing is one of those things that when I limit myself to the fuel of 'inspiration' and the demands of perfectionism, I lose momentum, I lose my words.  These months of quiet in this little space have been beyond full in the rest of my life.  I have some dusty dreams that seem to be rousing themselves when my mind wanders, I've had a regular teaching opportunity that's stretched and enlivened me, and there's thirteen weeks of precious baby growing inside of me. (I have had so many thoughts and feelings surrounding expectancy, grief and community, much of which has kept me from this blog - but I want to go there soon.) I'm very tired, but in the best possible way.  I thought that if I let this space idle for a while then I would have more energy; I don't think it has worked.  I met a woman last night who reads my writing, and her encouragement was hopefully enough to push me back over the edge, to where I need to be.  Thanks, Linda.


Jan L. Richardson is a woman who's work breathes life into my bones.  I thought I'd share a poem of hers, in hopes that I can again find that star that blazes inside of me.


The Map You Make Yourself - Jan L. Richardson

You have looked
at so many doors
with longing,
wondering if your life
lay on the other side.

For today,
choose the door
that opens
to the inside.

Travel the most ancient way
of all:
the path that leads you
to the center
of your life.

No map
but the one
you make yourself.

No provision
but what you already carry
and the grace that comes
to those who walk
the pilgrim’s way.

Speak this blessing
as you set out
and watch how
your rhythm slows,
the cadence of the road
drawing you into the pace
that is your own.

Eat when hungry.
Rest when tired.
Listen to your dreaming.
Welcome detours
as doors deeper in.

Pray for protection.
Ask for the guidance you need.
Offer gladness
for the gifts that come
and then
let them go.

Do not expect
to return
by the same road.
Home is always
by another way
and you will know it
not by the light
that waits for you

but by the star
that blazes inside you
telling you
where you are
is holy
and you are welcome
here.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Liberation from the Beauty Myth: A Call for Transformation

Hi!

It's been a while, but I wrote something over at my friend Adriel's blog


Adriel has been doing a very cool month-long series on empowering women through so many different avenues.  She invited me to write about a few of my favorite topics: The Beauty Myth ala Naomi Wolf, the Liberian Women's Peace Movement ala Leymah Gbowee, the power of non-violence and how our own liberation from the myth frees us to 'pray the devil back to hell.'

Here's an excerpt:

"Advertisers want our money but there are spiritual forces at work that desperately want our female power to be wasted.  You know why?  Because so much can happen when women gather and call for change. 

My history education growing up in an American public school was largely based around how violence brings change; the heroes we learned about were those who won the wars they fought (and then wrote the history from their perspective, of course).  Rarely was a non-violent movement given much time in our classroom until we hit the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960′s and Martin Luther King Jr’s leadership (and a brief shout out to Rosa Parks).  Otherwise, it was all about war.  My imagination was never given a chance to grow and I’m pretty sure it’s stunted.  (Fortunately there is hope for my kids!)

When my husband was still a boy I had never met he spent a few weeks in Liberia, in 2004.  He was doing some recording in a local dialect for a project and had little knowledge of the history that was in the making.  He knew that civil war ended the year before, he saw the bullet ridden buildings and spent time with a man who lost his wife to violence, but it otherwise seemed very … peaceful.  Shortly after we were married he bought a documentary called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” on the Liberian Woman’s Peace Movement, which was the major player in ending the fourteen-year conflict.  We watched it together and everything changed for me.  I’ve seen it over a dozen times now and every time I hear these women speak I learn something new and I’m challenged by how I spend my own time, money and energy."

Read the rest over at Adriel's blog where we'd always love to hear YOUR thoughts!

Leymah Gbowee

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Rachel, Weep No More

a Sudanese sunrise

I wrote a song in 2008 while spending a few months in South Sudan with women who had been through the hell of war and displacement and vulnerability for over 20 years - and they had returned to their homeland, to re-imagine, rebuild and heal.  Many of them had lost a child: to war, diarrhea, childbirth.  There was still the threat of violence from the Lord's Resistance Army, sometimes just a few miles away; there were still fear and food scarcity and lack of healthcare - but these women lived with a hope that the future would be good, that God would make things new, in these very moments and at least someday.  The greatest victims of conflict and violence are always the women and children, and Rachel represents all the mothers who mourn and lament and grieve.  Rachel's prophetic grief (Jeremiah 31, Matthew 2) calls into questions the weapons of our warfare and the cost that we are willing to pay; that cost is the child that someone carried in their womb and in their heart.  The mothers weeping in Syria, Libya, Palestine, DRC, Afghanistan ... and the marginalized women of more "affluent" nations, they are our prophets and we need to listen.

my sweet friend who lost her only child in childbirth a few months earlier


I believe God is doing all that He can do to move situations towards justice and right-ness, towards a shalom wholeness that recognizes the interconnectedness of us all.  Our prayers invite God in even more, and our right actions change situations and give our prayers even more power.  As my friend Zack sings sometimes, "He will not rest until all things are reconciled to Him." (or Her). 



//

If you Knew Me, You Would Care - D.L. Mayfield

Come Hither Men, For I Have Sex Demons - Grace Biskie @ A Deeper Story [This is an incredibly intense and raw post with reference to sexual abuse and the over-sexualization of girls and women]

10 things that could go very wrong if we attack Syria - The Washington Post

On Syria: Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right - Shane Claiborne @ Sojourners

One of my absolute favorite books is Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: The Prayers of Walter Brueggemann.  It is filled with evocative prayers with which he would begin each graduate class that he taught.  I often use this book when I have no words.


Their plowshares are beat into swords

And now their plowshares are beat into swords -- as are ours.
now their pruning hooks are beat into spears -- as are ours.
Not only swords and spears,
but bullets, and bombs, and missiles,
of steel on flesh,
of power against bodies ...
And you, in your indignation sound your mantra,
"Blessed are the peacemakers."
We dare to believe they are the aggressor,
and we are the peacemaker.
Yet in sober night dream, we glance otherwise
and think we may be aggressor,
as we vision rubbled homes,
murdered civilians,
and charred babies.
And you, in our sadness, sound your mantra,
"Blessed are the peacemakers."
Deliver us from excessive certitude about oursleves.
Hold us in the deep ambiguity where we find ourselves,
Show us yet again the gaping space between your will and our feeble imagination.
Sound your mantra with more authority,
with more indignation,
through sadness,
in hope ... "Blessed are the peacemakers."
Only peacemakers are blessed.
We find ourselves well short of blessed.
Give us freedome for your deep otherwise,
finally to be blessed,
in the name of the Peacemaker
who gave and did not take.  Amen.

For the bombing in Serbia/March 25, 1999

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Powers of Addiction and the Honesty of Our Neighbourhood


photo cred: Spiro
I’d known Chris for two weeks when he told me about his addiction. It wasn’t a confession, nor an attempt to reel me in with an attractive pseudo-vulnerability.  We were talking about his album, eclectic, poetic and strange, and I asked him what the songs were about.  He went through them as he walked me home, of number six he said “That one’s about how I used to be addicted to pornography”.

I’d never heard anyone say those words before, not out loud, not in a normal conversation.  We said goodbye that night in 2007 not knowing if we’d see each other again, but began writing emails every couple of weeks (although my interest was much greater than my frequency let on).  Nine months later we became extra special friends of the long-distance kind and another year later we were extra special friends of the married and suddenly sharing everything kind.

When we met, Chris had been sober from a pornography addiction for two years.  That was after a decade of secrecy, self-hatred and intense shame, beginning in his early teens.  It was a private hell, he was powerless to stop using a substance stronger than hard drugs, one that completely re-wired his brain towards objectification of women and bonded him to a severe distortion of God’s design for sexual intimacy.  Coming out from under the addiction’s power began with extreme desperation and some life-altering honesty.  From then it was 18 months of regularly sharing in community, receiving unconditional love from people and letting God renew his mind.  One day it was done, he knew he was free.  For him, walking in that freedom has meant continually allowing people into that part of his story.

I’m so proud of my husband, eight years clean this August.  When I told him how amazed I was by him he said to me, “I’m still a recovering addict, becca.  I always will be.  You need to know that.”  There’s this honesty about him, this humility and openness about where he has been and a continual pursuit of wholeness.  We communicate very openly around the subject, with each other and with our community.

It was never really a pressing subject until we moved onto the main street of an industrial neighbourhood where we’ve lived for two and a half years.  I love it here–our street is lovely on sunny mornings, people visiting the small businesses and art galleries that have been popping up, it’s easy to forgive the abandoned buildings though they outnumber the healthy ones.  Neighbours teach my kids to speak Aussie and meet us at the park, shop owners know us by name and talk about grandbabies.

The situation has drastically improved in the last decade but people still come to our neighbourhood to feed addictions, escape reality and numb themselves.  Men file into the three pubs (read: bars) on our street or drive up and down looking for a sexually exploited woman who may be standing on the corner, leaning against a wall or stepping out of another man’s car.  Sometimes there are used condoms and needles at the park or you see a man and woman come out of the bushes together in the middle of the day.  Friday night is “waitress night” (read: topless) and I hear men hoot and holler when a woman appears at the pole specially erected for the weekly event.  Maybe five or six times I’ve been walking by and seen a woman’s breasts on display while she serves drinks to a table of men.  The more I learn about sex trafficking and prostitution worldwide the more aware I am of the invisible shackles on women in the industry, that it’s hardly their choice to be there if it is at all.

Power over addiction begins with honesty.  The media sells us a thousand lies about sexuality and pleasure and need, saying nothing of the terrible damage that occurs when we objectify other human beings.   But our neighbourhood is honest about the cost, about what addictions can lead to: a married man with kids risking everything for a body to orgasm inside, he’ll exploit a woman who is desperate, high or out of her mind; guys meet weekly with friends to drink while topless women ‘entertain’ them, people stumble outside drunk and angry at 2am.  There’s nothing glamorous or sexy here.
There’s been a new kind of pressure on our marriage since moving to this street- there are times when relatively small disputes feel like they carry this enormous weight, that there’s some cosmic battle already raging that we are just stumbling into.  God’s kingdom is a delicate eco-system of justice, freedom, and wild, beautiful Love and we are called to be an alternative people who honour rather than exploit.  When we are demanding rather than giving and ignoring the diversity and equality within each other we have subscribed to the dominant consciousness around us.

It’s really, really hard sometimes but there is something prophetic happening in our upstairs apartment.  It’s when my husband and I choose only each other again and again, even when we’re exhausted and frustrated and have said things we regret.  It’s when our friends pursue sexual wholeness together, when we name addiction for what it is and walk the hard road towards sexual sobriety.  It’s when we re-imagine the possibilities of honest to goodness friendship within our own gender and between men and women, when we really see each other as unique individuals powerfully equal, Imago Dei shining bright.  It’s when we practice the quiet, subversive sacrament of neighbourliness.  We are digging a hole here, planting our little tree and watching it grow; one day those roots will erupt through the concrete on our street.  As Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy has written, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Jesus’ resurrection frees us to to model our lives in his likeness, to treat each other with the honour and respect we all deserve.  Jesus has triumphed over the powers of addiction and exploitation that rage in our neighbourhood, he’s paraded them around to be seen for the lies that they are.  He’s made them get honest, and that’s our first step to freedom as well.  There is no shame or condemnation here, only healing and freedom and the transformation of our minds, the ‘conversion of our imaginations’.

Someday the tide will turn and the raging waves of misogyny and exploitation in the world will be drawn back out to the chaotic place from which it comes.   The pornography industry will self-destruct and all the precious children of God who make and consume it will be reconciled.  Men will drive home to their wives rather than up and down our street, our neighbourhood pub will be known for it’s good beer and honest conversation and everyone will take ownership over their thoughts and actions.  No one will feel shame over their God-given sexuality.  As we get free from our own addictions to self-comfort and escape, and when we give love freely in our families and communities, we are a sign that the new world is already on her way.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see the image of God in us all.
—-
For some incredible resources on recovery and addiction visit The National Association for Christian Recovery.  


... this was orginally a guest post for D.L. Mayfield at her awesome blog - check her out!



Thursday, September 5, 2013

Syria: memories and imagination


In April 2002 I spent a few days in Syria.  It was part of the semester abroad program I was doing in my second year of college, based mostly in Cairo, Egypt but with short trips to Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and then a three week excursion by land from Cairo to Istanbul, Turkey via Jordan and Syria.  I spent a few days in Damascus, staying in a monastery and exploring the immensely beautiful streets of that city - where you could knock on a door in the wall of the old city and then be immediately invited in, where street vendors with greying hair and wise faces joked that we were Egyptians because of our accents, where we had a lecture followed by dinner and dancing with young Syrian musicians.  It hurts to even begin wondering where those people are now.  On our way up to Aleppo we stopped at the oldest church building in the world, built into a mountainside in an Aramaic speaking village.  Then we had the incredible experience of visiting the extended family of one of the students in our program - Bethany's father was Syrian and almost all of his family still lived in a village there, although he had spent his adult life in the US.  When Bethany arrived - their American granddaughter and niece, there was so much weeping and laughing and hugging and kissing - a sacred place to bear witness to family in the quiet green of village life and apricot trees.  They set a massive meal before us and we sat on the floor laughing, feasting and drinking tea enjoying all the beauty of their lives.  It was a moment of sacrificial hospitality that marked me.  In May, Bethany's Syrian family had their homes destroyed and were forced to flee to neighbouring Lebanon as refugees.  They are doing alright there, she says, there are marriages and babies, they are a resilient people taking it one day at a time.

Bethany's Aunt and Uncle in more peaceful days


That semester in the Middle East was my most intense experience of culture shock (my first time outside of the US) and community and worlds colliding in the most untidy of ways.  It's when my "personal relationship with Jesus" met  "Jesus died on the cross so that the United States would not have to drop bombs on Iraq", which met an understanding of God's love for people groups and nations like never before.  Everything that I had thought was only spiritual and future in God's kingdom was finding urgency in our present physical reality.  It's when rhetoric and ideology was dismantled slowly and painfully on many life levels and I was confused, disillusioned but so incredibly alive.  Studying Arabic, Islam and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ripped my small-town Pennsylvania world wide open for me and I spent the next decade trying to live in the tension of so many questions: what does it mean to be a privileged American who is also a follower of the crucified Jesus?  What does it mean to be a good neighbour, a global neighbour?  What is really going on in the Middle East beyond what the media is telling us?  What voices are being ignored?  How do I stay connected to suffering people when my own life can be so easy sometimes?  These questions still burn in my heart.

I've had seasons of being extremely engaged and active, and  I've had seasons of tuning it all out and getting absorbed in my own stuff.  I've had moments of pregnant hope and long, long moments of despair.  I have, what one of my professors calls, "the luxury of irrelevance".  It's not my home that could be bombed at any moment, I'm not crossing international borders with my children in my arms and not much else.  I can very easily turn down the volume or unplug for a few days, even worse I can throw my hands up to fatalism and the gods and not engage because I feel hopeless and apathetic and scared. But when I open my heart up even a wee tiny bit to the suffering of families in Syria, (or Egypt, Palestine, Libya ...) I sense the tremendous grief of God, the divine pathos, the suffering of Jesus on the cross that continues as the children made in God's image suffer in these very moments.  And as a Christian I'm called to engage with God in that place of pain.

I believe that prayer matters, whether it's specific times of really engaging and interceding or it's just carrying a people on your heart throughout the day.  I think knowledge matters and as an American I care about the decisions my representatives make on my behalf, I acknowledge the blood on my hands as well with every drone and missile strike.  And I honestly believe that my capacity to imagine is extremely important.  Walter Brueggemann writes in The Prophetic Imagination,
How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation?  That is not to ask, as Israel's prophets ever asked, if this freedom is realistic or politically practical or economically viable.  To begin with such questions is to concede everything to the royal consciousness even before we begin.  We nee to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable.  We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.  
I want to take back my imagination and let God lead me to think the thoughts of someone who has been born into the new creation.  I want to hold on to those words in Scripture that make no sense, that seem like they are impossible or worse, impractical, and write them on my walls and tell them to my children.  I want to raise children who can see the evils of war and violence and can think in ways about conflict that I probably never will.  And just like I grew up pledging my allegiance daily to the American flag, I now pledge my allegiance daily to the Lamb who was slain, who took upon himself all of the bombs and missiles and hatred, racism and greed that fuels this violence again and again.     

Here are a few good links to read.  Regardless of how we think or whether or not we pray, let's all carry our neighbours in Syria close to our hearts.

9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask - Max Fisher @ The Washington Post

Syria: An Overview and A Call to Action - Joy @ Deeper Story

Greg Boyd's kingdom pacifist perspective on talking to Pres. Obama about Syria @ Reknew.org

Why Italian Trappist Nuns aren't leaving Syria.

Sweden leads the way in welcoming Syrian refugees.

Read Mennonite Central Committee's call to end violence in Syria and send it on to your representatives.

Subscribe to 25 Days of Prayer for Syria @ SheLoves Magazine

In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills.  Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. ... He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, no longer shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.  For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.  (Micah 4: 1-5, NRSV)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

on epic fights and letting love win (for chris)

The kids were coughing and we were all sick so nobody slept well and doesn't that just show us who we really are underneath all the Instagram.  Our most epic discussion/argument/fight was boiling just beneath the baby soft skin of four years and a few months of well, we're married now and here's two new humans to take care of.

You scratched me and I bled all over us, a tirade brought to you by the letter S: sickness, sleep deprivation and stress, nothing too crazy or earth-shattering really.  Just doing life a bit tougher than normal.  I felt justified, you were defensive and we left the room so that babies wouldn't hear, but they always know what's going on.

I could hear Patty Griffin singing over us, but we were louder:

//we're calling for help tonight on a thin phone line/as usual we're having ourselves one hell of a time/ and the planes keep flying right over our heads no matter how loud we shout/ hey, hey, hey, hey/ and we keep waving and waving our arms in the air til we're all tired out//

I could see your mouth moving but couldn't hear anything you were saying, the planes were so loud.   I couldn't understand what was coming out of my own mouth either, I wasn't sure why I was so mad but I just kept going.

For being two fairly mature people we can still be a relational wasteland, can't we?  

It had to stop though, there were children to take care of and we were ashamed like 4 year olds ourselves, fuming but neither of us willing to say that other S-word, the one that could actually, possibly, somehow make things new.

I always start my apologies with something lame, like sorry I'm tired, sorry I didn't sleep well, sorry you aggravate me so easily, sorry for being grumpy - I tread around in the murky waters that look almost like I'm sorry but I'm not quite ready to be a grown up yet.  Just give me two more minutes.  It always takes me awhile to get desperate enough to own my stuff.

I probably told you to go first, but I can't remember.
I'm sorry for being selfish.
I'm sorry for not making my needs known.
I'm sorry for lashing out in anger,
for not practicing self-control.
I'm sorry for swearing.  At you.

By now the girl has dragged a chair to the glass-paned door and is trying to work out the handle.  But we lay in bed together still in the same spot where moments before I was crying and shouting and angrier than I ever thought I could be at the Canadian boy whom I dreamed of sharing this very bed with.  We are quiet, relieved.

//it's hard to give/ it's hard to get/ but everybody needs a little forgiveness.//

And when we go there, go low, against every instinct in our bodies, hearts and minds, that's when the sun breaks through and we can suddenly breathe again.  The planes are quiet, there's no need to yell.  The wind lifts our little home-made kite way up, where we can see and remember why we are even in this moment at all, why we are walking together towards a future, towards good and hope.
 
The kids were coughing so I put them in the shower at 6pm hoping steam would help their breathing and maybe the warm water would wash off some energy as well.  I sat listening to them giggle and splash.  You came in and joined me.  There were plenty of dishes and laundry to keep you busy but you slid down to the cold tile floor.  We talked of nothing very interesting, I can't even remember what, but it felt good that you wanted to be with me still, we basked in the warmth of friendship resurrection.

I could see dark stuff growing on the bottom of the shower door and I sprayed and scrubbed a bit while we talked.  The slow accumulation of dirt is washed off our bodies daily but finds it's way there, to the lowest place.  Most of the time we don't notice it but then we do and it takes some work, some elbow-grease and the willingness to go lower than is comfortable.  If we just ignore it, we will be overcome by it, at least eventually. 

We thought our intimacy began in emails, long gazes, maybe on our first night together, when we really saw each other.  But we really saw each other today.  And it was ugly.  But when we still chose to stay - to say sorry like the four year olds that we are, to release forgiveness and hold on tight to each other - that's more powerful than attraction or hormones or even our wedding vows.  Our conflict isn't a red flag, it's the only path we have to each other.   It's a sign that we're being vulnerable, that we're doing something right.  We're headed somewhere together and this is hard because it's real.  Those painful moments are an invitation to be exposed, to see anew, to be forgiven, and to let love win again, at least in us. 

//open your eyes boy, i think we are saved.  open your eyes boy, i think we are saved.//


 

Friday, August 16, 2013

How My Kids *Actually* Play Together (in photos) & a few links for the weekend.

About 22% of the time my children play really, really well together.  But most of the time my children's play is some variation of this:

Sister, carefree with baby and pram in the winter sun.
Brother appears out of nowhere.
Sister is suspicious of his presence ...
...for good reason.  He takes her baby and runs.
Sister chases Brother,
but Brother is faster.
With Mom's help, the doll is returned to Sister's care.
But brother hands Sister the baby and takes off with the pram.


 Here's a few good reads to start off your weekend!  Enjoy!


“Beating AK47s into Shovels” - Red Letter Christians

“On peace [A guest post by Tonia Peckover]” - Deeper Story

“Breastfeeding and Following Jesus- uninviting “modesty” to the breastfeeding discussion” - The Leaky Boob

“You don’t hate me. You hate my brand.” - Rachel Held Evans

“Breaking News: Love No Longer Exists (And the World is Better Off)” - Dr. Kelly Flanagan @ Untangled

 "the ministry of funfetti" - DL Mayfield

"when your child has SMA: this is motherhood too" - Michaela Evanow

------

Thank you to everyone who read and shared my two posts based on Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth!


What was the best post that you read or wrote this week?  I'd love to hear!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Breaking the Beauty Myth (with 16 Girls in a Turkish Bath)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote what is by far my most widely read and shared post:  The Beauty Myth (And Why I'm Not Buying It Anymore), a quasi review of feminist and activist Naomi Wolf's 1991 book, "The Beauty Myth".  Can I just say that Naomi Wolf has actually read the post and tweeted it to her 36,000 followers?!? I was school-girl giddy to say the least.  I'm sure she does that for everyone who writes about her, but still.  I promptly retweeted her tweet to my 44 followers, I'm sure they were very happy for me.

we are going to frame this. ;)

When I first posted the blog I had a whole list of other topics I wanted to write about that related; so many more layers of openness I wanted to type out.  But then I got scared.  I suddenly felt shy and embarrassed and I haven't even written anything for two weeks.  So this is my attempt at continuing the conversation, at least for my own process, growth and healing.

My husand and son were walking in our neighbourhood shops recently when he noticed Saf was staring at a bigger than life-size poster of a woman (or maybe four women?  You can't say for sure because their faces aren't showing: a mark of objectification in advertising).  Chris asked him what he was looking at and he said, "Their private parts are showing!"  Maybe their "private parts" aren't technically showing but my son hasn't yet been desensitized to these types of images and that was his way of saying 'Something is wrong'.  Bless his little heart, I pray daily that he always sees women as people and not objects to be exploited and used as props to sell things.  I complained through a few different mediums (including unreturned phone calls to Cotton On) and the poster is still there.  I will continue to complain and also continue to withhold my business from their shop.


That evening my husband and I had a long conversation about how to protect out children, not even just from sexual abuse and pornography, but just the ill-effects of the every day media.  I don't want my daughter to think she can't be anything she dreams to be or to believe her greatest value lies in how she looks and whether or not boys are attracted to her.  (I recently watched the trailer for a documentary called "Miss Representation" which tackles this subject and looks pretty incredible, thanks for the tip Katie!). 

Where can we go to protect our children from the media, with their sponge-like hearts and minds?  I have a few Middle Eastern friends and they tell me that body image is just as bad for women in their communities, even though they are covered head to toe in loose black cloth in public.  I've traveled a bit, so tried to think about where in the world I've felt content and good about my body?  I remembered: rural South Sudan.

Over the course of three years I've spent 13 months in Sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, South Sudan, Cameroon–each a unique and diverse world of it's own).  While living in these places I felt remarkably good about my body, the same body I wore when the plane touched down in Australia, but almost immediately a sense of shame and inadequacy would return.

I was surrounded by women who appreciated their bodies in so many shades of brown:  women who helped their neighbours birth babies in mud huts, who dressed and walked like royalty in their bright form-fitting attire, women who knew the traumas of war and still chose hope and return and birth.  The Cameroonian midwives couldn't believe that white women wanted to hide their breasts when they nursed their babies in public.  Sudanese Miriam taught me to carry water on my head, wash clothes and shell groundnuts by the fire where she listened to my stories and told me her own.  And I'll never forget Mama Ruth in Capetown and her soliloquy of the day that God made her, how He made her body different than the rest of the mamas–with small hips and a round tummy–but it was good.  And then God reached down and wiped gorgeous dimples on each of her cheeks, smiled and placed a plentiful gap between her front teeth.  She processed her sense of inadequacy through this captivating monologue and had us all celebrating the ways we stand out from the crowd with Divine approval.  I began to appreciate my body's uniqueness, especially my diastema.  (Did you know that a gap in your front teeth often represents fertility and good fortune in many parts of the world?)



In rural Africa I was at my heaviest weight, but I felt good. I used my biceps to pump water under starry skies, my legs to walk dusty roads into town, my hands to palpate the promise of future and child, my voice to sing with loud strumming around camp fires, my ears to listen to mother-words tell the tales my babies need to know.  I had no more than six cm of mirror to my name.  Just enough to make sure I had nothing in my teeth.  I didn't watch TV, didn't look at magazines, didn't post selfies on Facebook, didn't see anyone else's faces there either.  In fact, the internet was usually a drive (or a 4 1/2 mile walk) away.  Modesty was confidence, humility and covering your knees.  Breasts were for babies:  let them be accessible if you've got a nurseling running around.  I was busy, heart-deep in the terrifying and resurrecting work of doing life in community, when it's all out on the table and there's nowhere to run.



The freedom I felt in Africa tells me this: The problem is not with my body. The problem is with my culture and all the lies that I've grown up with.  In no way do I romanticize the place of women in many African contexts.  There is much abuse, child marriage, FGM, systematic rape and heart-breaking oppression but African women still carry themselves like queens, without the self-loathing that many western women experience.  And there are some very powerful women there, changing the world.  Have you ever seen the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell?"  Leymah Gbowee is my hero.

The Beauty Myth is a power of it's own, like greed, violence, apathy and materialism.  It wants us to believe that we are simply individuals who are insecure about our bodies, but as I wrote last week, there is a much larger and more insidious force working against us.  It does it's best to hold us down, keep us consumed with ourselves and therefore consuming the stuff that advertisers want to sell us. But this power won't have the last word over our lives and our cultures.  I believe that Jesus' teachings, death and resurrection set us free from all of the powers that seek to enslave, steal, kill and destroy in God's good creation.  But it's still hard, isn't it? There's much work to do.   A whole lot of hard work.  Much un-learning that needs to happen, a lot of new thought patterns to adopt and maybe some deep healing–as deep as our collective wounds have gone.

So much change needs to happen within the media, especially for the protection of our children in regards to the images they are regularly exposed to.  Collective Shout, Peace is Loud and A Mighty Girl are all organizations who raise awareness, sound the battle cry, encourage and inspire women to step into their powerfully equal place in the world.  And just as much of the battle is in our own minds.  Naomi Wolf closes The Beauty Myth by noting it's not about whether we like to dress up or shave our legs, whether we wear make up or dye our graying hair–what's important is the motivation behind what we do with our bodies.  When I get dressed in the morning is it because I'm wearing self-hatred and disappointment and need something to cover it?  Or do I know without a doubt that I'm beautiful and want to share the unique beauty that I carry with the world?  She writes,

How might women act beyond the myth?  Who can say?  Maybe we will let our bodies wax and wane, enjoying the variations on a theme, and avoid pain because when something hurts us it begins to look ugly to us.  Maybe we will adorn ourselves with real delight, with the sense that we are gilding the lily.  Maybe the less pain we inflict on our bodies, the more beautiful our bodies will look to us.  Perhaps we will forget to elicit admiration from strangers, and find we don't miss it; perhaps we will await our older faces with anticipation, and be unable to see our bodies as a mass of imperfections, since there is nothing on us that is not precious.  Maybe we won't want to be the "after" anymore. (291)

I think one of my most profound experiences of body acceptance happened in Damascus, Syria.  I was doing a Middle East study abroad program based in Cairo but we traveled all the way to Istanbul by land (and a bit of water).  It was an incredible experience and I owe so much of my life today to that program and the people who taught and studied alongside of me.  One of the program's many traditions is a visit to the Turkish bath.  I was shocked and horrified when I heard this and spent at least a week with a dull ache in my stomach.  The last thing I wanted was to be naked with a bunch of beautiful, thin girls.  It wasn't just the extra pounds I had put on because of the amazing food we ate (but what a great reason to gain weight, ohmygoodness), it was all the lies I believed about what women should look like and what I thought everyone else did look like.  I didn't back out though.  I went and it was so good.  Life changing in fact.  Two hours of humidity and exfoliation by old Syrian mamas, splashing water at each other and laughing in the way you only can when completely exposed.  It was amazing to see what all of these women actually looked like: while they were all gorgeous, none of them were air-brushed or photo-shopped to perfection.  We were all pre-pregnancy and young, but none of us looked like the women in magazines or on TV.  We were way more beautiful than that.  Wolf writes, "We need, especially for the anorexic/pornographic generations, a radical rapprochement with nakedness. Many women have describe the sweeping revelation that follows even one experience of communal all-female nakedness." (280)

This may be even more true following childbirth; your body has just brought a whole new human into the world and you should feel pretty damn good about yourself.  But the stories of actresses and models getting back in bikinis six weeks after giving birth are unavoidable.  I gave birth the same weekend as BeyoncĂ© and she was back on stage waaaay before me.  (I'm still waiting for my nanny and personal trainer to show up.)  And that Hollywood pressure trickles down to us regular women: to look like a hard labour was effortless for Facebook photos and then be back in jeans two weeks later.  I still looked pregnant following the births of my two babies (BECAUSE WE ALL DO) and then my body took most of that uniquely feminine fat and made it into some pretty sweet milk (literally).  I've lost the pregnancy weight but I still tell the secrets of growing babies -  stretch marks and lactating breasts, soft skin around my tummy always, my arms now more defined with a baby generally on my hip.  I have more freckles now and my hair is darker.   Wouldn't it be great to see more real life post-baby bodies where we can affirm and celebrate the miracles that have happened?  Wouldn't it be awesome if at a baby shower all the moms who have given birth got (at least semi-) naked and showed off their pregnancy badges?  We'd probably grow more realistic expectations for ourselves.

I have found people quick to compliment my shedding of weight.  I appreciate that but I really didn't do anything to make it happen other than breastfeed my kids and sometimes take them on walks and try to eat fairly healthy (although I'm known to pick up a double cheeseburger every week or so).  What is so much more meaningful is when someone says "Wow, I see how hard you work for your kids."  The mothering is something I have much more control of and exhaust myself over (don't we all?) and when someone does encourage me in that way it makes my whole day lighter.  What kinds of compliments do I give to other women?  Does it focus primarily on hair, body and clothes?  Or do I call out the kindness I see, the confidence and truth and grace evident in their lives?  

Since reading "The Beauty Myth" I've paid close attention to the words I think about myself and others.  Thoughts can come but I don't have to take ownership of them.  The need to compare myself to others is fairly ingrained in me and I am working hard to stop that.  When that begins to happen I've decided to look at each of the women at the park or in the room, to really look at their body and then say to myself, "This is what the body of a beautiful woman looks like."  Can we all be the beautiful one?  YES YES YES!!!  I'm stepping out from under the power of the beauty caste system because within those strangling confines we all suffer and we all lose.

I want to also be very cautious about what I spend my time viewing.  Whether it's ads in a magazine or style pinboards, if it's making me feel bad about my life then I stop looking.  I'm not a Pinterest user and I know it's a great resource and organizational tool for people (who, unlike me, like to be resourced and organized) but recently I was checking out a few style boards and afterwards I told Chris, "Wow.  I feel crappy right now."  He noted that I hadn't talked like that in a long time.  Media is powerful and we need to be aware of our weaknesses.  Use it for all the good that it can do in your life and the world but we needn't subject ourselves to even subtle discouragement about the way we look, how we decorate our homes or what crafts our kids make/destroy.  [By the way, did you watch The Sapphires?  Wasn't it great to see four talented, beautiful women in the lead roles who looked very different than most of the women we see in movies?  So good.]

So maybe I won't head to South Sudan anytime soon but I'm going to keep fighting The Beauty Myth right here, for myself, my friends and the children in my life.  Sometimes that means making complaints at the mall, signing off from social media, or using it to sign petitions, going deeper in conversation than I'm naturally comfortable with or calling out the lasting beauty that I see in the women around me.  We are free from the powers of Beauty Myth, they've been found out to be lies.  And the more we learn to love our own real life bodies, just as they are, the more we will be free to love the real life bodies of our neighbours and people 'round the other side of the earth.

Barbara Brown Taylor, who talks about praying naked in front of a full length mirror says it beautifully in "An Altar in Our World",
"The first thing I understood was that it was not possible to trust that God loved all of me, including my body, without also trusting that God loved all bodies everywhere.  God loved the bodies of hungry children and indentured women along with the bodies of sleek athletes and cigar-smoking tycoons.  While we might not have one other thing in common, we all wore skin.  We all had breath and beating hearts....Wearing my skin is not a solitary practice but one that brings me into communion with all these other embodied souls.  It is what we most have in common with each other."
And if there's anything the world needs right now I think it's to realize how very much we have in common with each other.


-

How do you feel the media affects your view of your body?  If you've given birth, did you feel pressure to lose the weight and hide any traces of that miraculous process as quickly as possible?  Do you know of any shows or movies that portray women in realistic and empowering ways?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Beauty Myth (and Why I'm not Buying it Anymore)

There was the moment I stepped on a scale when I was ten and saw that I weighed 92 pounds.  I didn't even know what that meant but it was too much.  There were the half-naked bikini models on glossy paper, common decor of boys' school lockers visible to me when I was twelve and everyday after that.  Or hiding in the library pouring over Seventeen magazine, trying to figure out how to be pretty and what sexuality was all about.  Exercising to punish my body for what I'd ingested the day before, weeks of eating very few carbs and letting numbers determine my value. Being sexually harassed while waiting tables at a family diner when I was 22 and always blaming myself, never speaking up.  Hating my body and being terrified of nakedness when I should have been over the moon with soon to be married bliss.


I just read "The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolf and all these memories have been coming up, I've scribbled them into the margins of my thrift shop purchase.  I don't agree with all of her conclusions but something has been torn open in my mind, some paradigm is shifting, some hope is being sparked.  I was raised with a good amount of self-esteem for a girl growing up in small town America, attending a public school.  I made pretty good choices, did well in academics and sports, got a four year degree from a liberal arts college and have traveled to a few amazing places.  At 25 I met a boy and married him when I was 27; I have two children and my husband sees me as his equal in all ways.  I have a community of people, across oceans and down the street, who love and care for me.  I'm a privileged person and a confident, passionate, "liberated" woman.  I wrote a love letter to my body which is one of my most widely read postsAnd yet I am astounded by how I still have lived under the power of the Beauty Myth.

The premise of Wolf's book is that the more women break through historical hindrances, whether that be legal or material (the right to vote, the right to work outside of the home, positions of leadership) the more images of female beauty are used to constrict and control them.  She writes this in 1990, when I was only a child, but I think many of these problems have only gotten worse:
During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing medical speciality.  During the past five years, consumer spending doubled, pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American woman told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal.  More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. (10)  
Are most women individually neurotic and insecure about their bodies?  Or is there a greater force at work that seeks to undermine women collectively, a violent backlash against the corporate power of women to bring change in the world?

Wolf points to advertisers as the biggest players in determining what women think about themselves, because our economy is fairly dependent on their buying power.  In the 1950s the "Feminine Mystique" told women that their value was in being a good wife, good mother and good homemaker and then sold them home products to help them achieve that mythical status.  When women left homemaking for the workplace in the 60s, a new force was needed to compel 'insecure consumerism':  if women were no longer buying more things for their house, could they be convinced to buy more things for their body? "Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that they will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring "beauties." ... The Beauty Myth, in its modern form, arose to take the place of the Feminine Mystique, to save magazines and advertisers from the economic fallout of the women's revolution."(66)

Women's magazines that often featured pro-women content and had the potential to unite women for a common cause would lose large amounts of money from advertisers if they didn't also propogate the mythical ideal woman.  The focus on beauty in magazines is primarily an economic one, where "what editors are obliged to appear to say that men want from women is actually what their advertisers want from women."(73)  Wolf goes on to say that it's not sex that sells in advertising as much as discontentmentThe more dissatisfied a woman is with her body or her sexuality, the more estranged she is in relationships, the more stuff she will buy.  Hello, retail therapy?  It's a real thing and much more insidious than we think.

Wolf's chapter entitled "Sex" is fascinating.  I underlined about half of it and then read it all out loud to my husband.  The images of women that we see in, what Wolf calls, "beauty pornography" shapes our understandings (and mostly lack of understanding) of women's bodies.  It's relatively new for our culture to believe that beauty = thinness; impossible perfection = sexuality/sexiness.  Women are told that losing weight will make them feel sexier but it often has the reverse effect.  A healthy amount of fat is a female characteristic contributing to stable hormones, fertility and sexual desire; becoming thinner through hunger and dieting can decrease a woman's libido, especially when the motivation is self-deprecation, something never satisfied no matter what the scale reads.

We agree that violent pornography and violence against women in the media has devastating affects on how we understand sex, rape and our own self-worth as humans, increasing violence and abuse in our families and relationships.  But what about images of naked or near naked women who are not having any harm done to them?  Why does this bother us so much?  Wolf writes,
For the woman who cannot locate in her worldview a reasonable objection to images of naked, "beautiful" women to whom nothing bad is visibly being done, what is it that can explain the damage she feels within?  Her silence itself comes from the myth: If women feel ugly, it is our fault, and we have no inalienable right to feel sexually beautiful.  A woman must not admit it if she objects to beauty pornography because it strikes to the root of her sexuality by making her feel sexually unlovely. (148)
"Beauty pornography", the stuff we see daily in magazines, billboards and posters in the mall, makes women feel inadequate.  We will never look like her and therefore we will never reach the mythical status of 'beautiful'.  The objectification and comparison of women's bodies publicly is such a normal part of our culture (while it is very different for male bodies) that we are trained as little girls to do this to ourselves.  Women are asked to measure up to a hybrid ideal that, especially today, is computer generated (but we are convinced is real and possible even when we know better).  The Beauty Myth operates in a way that says, "You too can be beautiful like her if you just wear this, eat this, put this on your face, have your hair coloured like this; if you are not like her it is your own fault."  But models portrayed in beauty pornography will never look like real women because if they did then we would realize we don't need to buy the stuff they're paid to sell.

This public and private comparison robs women of their own innate dignity and it robs women in relationships from receiving love from their partners.  Early in our marriage I really struggled with the fact that I didn't suddenly feel beautiful and attractive all the time.  I blamed Chris because if he would just say it more or say it in public or say it at the right moments, when my eyes are asking him what he thinks, THEN I would finally know that I was beautiful.  We had quite a few arguments rooted in this and it was painful to feel forced to say "I want to know that you think I'm beautiful".   It quickly turned to anger because why in the world did I so badly want him to judge me at all?  Why wasn't this going both ways?  Why did he seem so secure that I loved him and didn't desire anyone else?  Why was I wanting to be measured and validated and he wasn't?

That's the power of the beauty myth.  It makes us be crazy and obsessive and fearful and competitive and it's not just our problem and it's not just "a mysterious hormonal woman thing"; it's a force that is trying to stop women from reaching their full potential.  The busier we are criticizing our bodies and measuring ourselves against other (real and not real) women, the more disengaged we will be in the world: we'll be less likely to speak up and take hold of  our rightful place in family, government, media, business and the church; we will be less likely to use our gifts and talents to seek justice and do mercy in the world.  We will keep buying the stuff they are selling.

What is the path out of the beauty myth?  Wolf closes her book with the question, "What will we see?" (291)  So much of the beauty myth's power will be broken as we challenge ourselves to see anew, to redefine beauty as something that all women carry, that is non-hierarchical and non-competitive.  We are enough and other women are too. We already are beautiful, we don't need to diet or get new clothes or cover up our acne or make love with the lights dim and we don't need to rank ourselves among other real or mythical women.  Wolf writes, "The 'beautiful' woman does not win under the myth; neither does anyone else... You do not win by struggling to the top of a caste system, you win by refusing to be trapped within one at all.  The woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her." (290)

Changing our habitual thought patterns takes time, maybe it takes years, but we must do it for our own selves and our communities but also for our daughters and sons.  Sarah Bessey wrote over two years ago, "In which I promise not to call myself fat" and it's really resonated with me now that my children are growing and listening and telling our family's story with their own words.  It may be a struggle throughout my whole life but I have so much hope that the next generation will have eyes to see what is truly there.




How has the Beauty Myth affected your view of yourself or other women?  Does any of this resonate with you? What have you done to walk out of the beauty myth's power? As always I would love to hear your thoughts!

  *(thanks for the pictures, Spiro)

Read Part 2 here: Breaking the Beauty Myth (with 16 Girls in a Turkish Bath)