Give Love Voice

I got my first tattoo when I was 25. In the summer of 1997 I was in a weird place, done with college but not graduated, looking for work, restless. At the time I’m pretty sure I wasn’t all that certain exactly why getting a tattoo appealed to me, but I pawned my high school ring and went to a place in College Park and picked out a Chinese character off a sheet of flash. Walking out with “wisdom” inked on my back, I felt a rush of excitement that I’d done something different, something permanent. I’d changed myself in a small way.

Over the years, as I slowly got more tattoos, I started to clarify for myself what they meant to me. I remember watching some kind TV show – celebrity interviews maybe, I’m not sure – and a guy went into a tattoo parlor with Sean Penn while Mr. Penn got some new ink. It got me to thinking about the way our culture treats celebrities vs. how it treats regular people, and how a certain level of celebrity allows you to get away with things that would be frowned upon for “regular folks.” Of course over the past seventeen years, tattoos have become a far more accepted part of our culture and far more prevalent even on us regular folks.

In reaction to seeing celebrities with tattoos, I felt my own desires coalesce. I wanted to be seen. I wanted people to see me as more than I appeared at first. I wanted people to look at me and perhaps be thrown or startled that I had a tattoo, and wonder what it meant to me, what it said, what it signified. 

And in more recent years I have added to that. I want to be seen, period. I want to be heard. And I want to remind myself of those things. My tattoos have become more significant to me over time. The early ones, I plan one day to cover with more significant designs, but the later ones serve not only as outward-facing symbols but also as reminders.

The latest is also a promise. A promise I am making to myself, but externalized physically so the world can see it and hold me to it.

This weekend I was in Providence, RI for the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It’s the largest annual gathering of UUs each year, and it’s when the business of the association is conducted, as well as when many workshops, activities, and panel discussions are held. One day last winter I had lunch with my minister to continue our conversation on the vocation I’ve been contemplating, and she recommended attending GA as a part of the discernment process.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and it was all very overwhelming. Though I took my Catholic faith pretty seriously when I was young, that started wearing off in adolescence, and I never participated in large church-oriented gatherings – and then when I became an atheist, there was not yet much organizational structure that I was aware of. Nor, frankly, was I at that time in my life particularly interested in organizing with like minded people for social change.

My mind started bending in that direction as I got older. My return to the Catholic church did nothing to satisfy this desire. When I did volunteer work that led me to the UU church, I saw a convergence begin – I was starting to become who I thought I might be.

On Thursday night, my friends Laura and Michelle and I went wandering the streets of Providence in search of dinner. We eventually found a neat little restaurant, and on our way we passed a piercing/tattoo parlor. “Hey guys!” I said, “Let’s all get chalice tattoos!” I was kidding. We laughed.

I woke up on Friday morning at 4:30 a.m. thinking, “Hey you know what, I think I do want a tattoo.” Not a chalice. I was thinking of words. I’m not the most visual person. I had a phrase in mind and I thought I would sit with the idea. 

On Friday afternoon I attended a workshop called “Writing as a spiritual practice.” In my notebook, before I even started in on the first prompt, I wrote down a phrase that was surfacing in my mind again and again: Give love voice. This phrase came in part out of the morning session I’d attended, on using personal storytelling as an organizing tool for social action. We had done an exercise where we told a story of our own to someone we didn’t know. I spoke to a lovely older woman who was a minister from Colorado. When we went over my story afterward, I talked about the ways I was learning this particular event in my past had been a turning point in ways I couldn’t possibly have seen. “I got my voice back,” I said. “You see a way to give voice to the voiceless,” she said.

I slept on it again. On Saturday morning I woke up knowing what I wanted to do. I looked up the tattoo parlor I’d seen on Yelp, saw they were well rated, and at noon I walked over there. I was there for a few minutes and the piercer was very welcoming and gave me a tour and showed me the autoclaves and the tattoo area and the piercing area. I had fifteen minutes until my next activity so I made an appointment for 2 p.m. Before I left, I wrote the phrase on paper so they could transfer it to stencil: “GIVE LOVE VOICE.” After my afternoon activity ended at 1:45, I walked over again, filled out the paperwork, handed over my ID, and within 20 minutes I was out the door with that message on my right arm.

I do not know the ultimate outcome of my continued path in pursuit of this vocation. I learned so much this weekend, including the existence of legislative ministry, a phrase that made me stand up and take real notice. I met people I admire. I joined passionate people and engaged my own passions, without feeling like I had to hold them back or pass off a more aloof nature. At GA, it’s okay to be jazzed about everything.

“Give love voice” sums up what I want to do. It’s a promise to myself. And it’s a promise to everyone else. It doesn’t mean I’ll be perfectly unfaltering and undaunted. It doesn’t mean I know all the answers. It just means I am actively working on being who I think I can be.

Freshly unwrapped on Saturday afternoon.

Freshly unwrapped on Saturday afternoon.

June 30, 2014 · Jen · No Comments
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Vanity

Just lately I’ve been thinking of my own sense of vanity. This may be because I never really had much of one before, oh, the last couple of years.  Or, when I did feel that creeping up, I felt shame. Like I didn’t deserve to like how I looked, perhaps.

I spent some time searching my LiveJournal (13 years I’ve had that thing!), looking for an entry I’m sure I remember writing sometime before my first-ever Jeopardy! audition. (That would have been 2006 or so, I think.) I wanted to find it because I remember it being pretty funny, but it also dealt with the strange sense of …unease I had, allowing myself to be concerned with my looks. It told the tale of preparing for the audition (it was done in-person, not online, at the time) by going to get my eyebrows waxed. At the time, that was still something I had done regularly. The lady offered, as she always did, to wax other parts of my face where pesky hairs were springing up – lip, chin. I thought of auditioning for TV. I said “yes.” And then she hot-waxed half my face and I wandered around blinking back tears and looking like a horse stepped on my face. (My sensitive skin and I, by the way, no longer consent to having any hairs ripped out of any part of my body via hot wax. Just, hell no.) 

Before I say any more, I should perhaps adjust my terminology. I’ve been contemplating this post for a little while, on and off since my most recent Jeopardy! audition just a few weeks ago in fact. And I’d always thought, “Yes I’ll write about vanity.” So to check myself, I looked up vanity, and the first definition is “excessive pride in appearance” (emphasis mine). Wait. Is it excessive? What amount of pride-in-appearance is okay?

Apparently “none,” at least for me. While I don’t think I had a lot of active body shame (except when I was at my heaviest, and even then I’m not sure how aware of it I was), it’s also been a rare thing to look at myself – in a mirror, in a photo – and think “Hey! I look pretty!” 

Over time my attitude toward myself and how I look has changed. As I struggled out of adolescence, I took better care with hygiene. As I hit the stride of young adulthood, I started developing a sense of personal style. (A kind of sloppy one, but a sense of style nonetheless!) As I entered the world of dating and then of work, I became more aware of how my appearance was perceived by, and could influence, others. 

And then, they put cameras in cell phones. And then, selfies became a thing. And then, this year, I heard about the #365feministselfie project and started participating in it. And I’ve done that for six months now, and I had my audition, and in this drawn-out, agonizingly slow way of mine I have figured out that hey, I’m actually pretty.

And it’s OKAY that I think that. It doesn’t mean I’m full of myself. It doesn’t mean I’m a better person than I was when I didn’t think that. (Although in many ways, of course, I feel I have improved as a person as I moved through time. There may well be correlation but I doubt there is causation, other than perhaps in a certain confidence of carriage that has developed as I hit middle age.) I struggle with that last one a bit. The fact that I’ve taken more charge of my health in recent years has been important to me, and part of that has been significant weight loss. I find myself bringing that up at odd times, because it IS something I’m proud of – the good pride, not the sin stuff. (Many more thoughts on pride to come from me this summer, by the way.) Yet I remind myself continually that just as gaining weight didn’t make me a bad person, losing it doesn’t make me a good one. We are all so much more complex than that sort of dualism leaves room for. My rigid planner’s mind likes classifying things, though, so I remind myself. That looking good doesn’t make me better. And that liking the way I look doesn’t make me worse. It’s just part of learning to live with, and love, who I am.

Here's my selfie-project snapshot from yesterday. For Throwback Thursday, a shot of me at age 21 (1993).

Here’s my selfie-project snapshot from yesterday. For Throwback Thursday, a shot of me at age 21 (1993).

 

And here's today's snapshot (Casual Friday!) by contrast. Age 42.

And here’s today’s snapshot (Casual Friday!) by contrast.

 

And for fun, this is the first selfie I posted as part of #365feministselfie, on January 7 of this year.

And for fun, this is the first selfie I posted as part of #365feministselfie, on January 7 of this year.

June 20, 2014 · Jen · No Comments
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Helpmeet

In the last few weeks I’ve watched not one but two documentaries on comic strips: Stripped, on the history of and various possible futures for comic strips and related media, and Dear Mr. Watterson, one man’s filmic ode to the creator of Calvin & Hobbes. Both the films are very thorough and enjoyable, and worth seeking out – the first if you enjoy comics of any type, the second if you are a Calvin & Hobbes fan particularly. 

But in following my standard train of thought (i.e. completely bananas), I wound up reflecting on the way my upbringing molded my ideas of spousal roles. 

I love comic strips. I have since I was a little girl. The Sunday paper would come and Mom would read the Parade Magazine and clip coupons, and Dad and I and my brother would go for the comics. (I think my brother might have actually read some of the news stuff too, maybe. Nobody else seemed to care much.) I read Peanuts and made my so-patient parents sit through theatric presentations wherein I would re-enact Snoopy’s activities. The first fan letter I ever wrote was to Snoopy. (He answered, natch!) Then came Garfield. At last! A comic strip about a cat! For a few years there nearly everything I owned was plastered with Garfield. When I got my driver’s license I immediately got a suction-cup Garfield for the window of my Dad’s Buick. (Awww, yeah.) I have memorized and forgotten more Bloom County strips than I am quite prepared to admit. And comic books too – all Carl Barks’ luminous, hilarious works on years of stories featuring Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and Huey, Dewey, and Louie. But Uncle Scrooge was my favorite, by far. His adventures from the Andes to Alaska to Atlantis captivated me, and I read them over and over again.

Watching those documentaries reminded me of that childhood love, and also of the fact that for a while, I wanted to be a cartoonist. I wanted to be a cartoonist more than anything, in that intense way kids want stuff without really realizing what that means. It’s probably the best way to want things, to dream: without awareness of obstacles. I think that maybe if the dream takes deep enough root before you become aware of the obstacles, you kind of build up the steam and strength to deal with them. 

That particular dream didn’t last. A lot didn’t. Either I figured out the obstacles too soon or had them pointed out to me (kindly or unkindly, as both happened to me at various times) and felt overwhelmed. Sure, of course, how foolish of me. What was I thinking, dreaming like that.

I drew a lot even though I wasn’t terribly good at it. (A few old art teachers of mine would argue otherwise; I have a gift for copying and mimicry that falls apart when it comes to original art.) I had a few characters I drew over and over. But eventually I also started drawing some other things over and over: a simple desk, in a simple office, where simple work was done. My dreams started downsizing. Aim for the middle, kid!

One part of them that didn’t, though, was the part my too-romantic soul wanted: the dreams of growing up, meeting and falling in love with a wonderful man, getting married and having kids. Even though as I hit puberty the obstacles to this became glaringly obvious – it turns out that it is rather hard to begin a dating process (an important first step to marriage, or so they tell me) if one finds oneself incapable of even speaking to a member of the gender to whom one is attracted. 

Still, I stumbled my way out of adolescence, re-learned how to have conversations with men, and soldiered on. And when I did find a wonderful man to fall in love with, the fact that he was an artist seemed WAY TOO PERFECT.

I did this thing, in my head. I cast myself as the helping hand. The one who would run the household with quiet competence while my genius artist husband created wonderful works of art. The one who would stand, smiling, just behind him in publicity photos as he accepted awards. Artist, heck, I was no slouch: I fell in love with a cartoonist. I could see us, dressed all fancy to go pick up all those lucrative cartooning awards!

That particular man, while wonderful, did not turn out to be the person I would marry. But it did start me on a pattern. Boy do I love artists. I mean I looove artists. Show me a guy interested in a creative pursuit and I’ll show you my flashiest smile and sparkliest eyes. 

And every. single. freaking. time: I cast myself in that helpmeet role. I will support you! I will put you through schmancy art school! I will make you coffee when you are on deadline! I will Swiffer up your pencil-shavings! I will place a cold compress upon your tired hands! I will help tune your guitars! I will…

…I will only see myself as having value in someone else’s accomplishments? 

….I will sacrifice myself to the greater glory of some abstraction? 

…I will assume it is not for me to achieve but only to assist? 

…I will learn that there really AREN’T lucrative cartooning awards, won’t I?

Sigh.

Where did I learn this? Was this pattern modeled to me? In many ways, it was. In some ways, it was a failure of my own imagination, my own confidence. In some ways, it was a lack of understanding of the actual give-and-take that occurs within relationships. In large ways it was growing up within a religion that has very narrow “acceptable” roles for women – and all of them are secondary to men. In many ways it was that my family prized what I called “bootstrappiness” as in pull-yourself-up-by-yours: I couldn’t see asking for help but I could certainly see giving help. What eroded my confidence? What made me question my dreams? What made me cast myself as a supporting role in someone else’s life?

I’m not married. I don’t have children. I don’t draw much anymore (carpal tunnel syndrome would have derailed that long ago!). But I’m going to tell you one thing I’m teaching myself to do again. I’m teaching myself to dream. And in these dreams, I actually get a starring role. 

June 7, 2014 · Jen · 2 Comments
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Milestone!

Yesterday my oldest nephew graduated from college. It was pretty awesome. The speeches were interesting and they kept things moving pretty well…except, well. Loyola takes pride in the fact they announce each degree candidate by name. Every bachelor’s degree, every master’s degree, every doctoral degree. All in all about 1600 names. You guys, I felt old enough going into this ceremony. By the end I felt positively ancient.

I don’t want to make light of his accomplishment – not at all! He did very well, made it into some sort of business honor society thing. We were all so happy to see him walk across that stage and to give him huge hugs afterward. It was a great day!

But it is, after all, my blog. So my thoughts are gonna touch on myself a bit, here. A few years ago, probably around the time Jack was starting to think about which colleges to apply to, it hit me. My nephew was going to get a college degree before I did. 

Now I’ve written a bit about why I didn’t finish my degree 20-some years ago, and I’m pretty at peace with it. But back when the reality of my nephew going to college was starting to sink in, I wasn’t at peace with it. It was something I was only starting to feel comfortable acknowledging openly. But I was happy to listen as he went through the college selection process, as he moved up to Loyola, as he went through his dumb college stuff just like most of us who go to college go through dumb college stuff. 

Yesterday, I think, would have been very difficult for me emotionally if I hadn’t faced my own anger at and sadness with myself for not finishing college. But since I faced that, and am taking steps to finish for reasons that are really important to me – it was totally, absolutely okay. The emotions I felt yesterday were pride and happiness and love. (Okay and frustration – it was a confusing jumble at the ceremony and driving around the city post-graduation pre-Preakness was a bit of a zoo.)

Mostly, then, this is a post of gratitude. I’m grateful I was able to forgive myself and move on. I’m grateful to my mother for making it easier for me to finish my bachelor’s. I’m grateful to my brother and sister-in-law and both my nephews for being supportive and thinking it’s cool that I’m finishing up and not judging me at all for not having done it 20-some years ago.

I am also grateful to myself for remembering to pack a protein bar in my bag for the ceremony yesterday, because that sucker was about three hours long, smack in the middle of when most civilized people would have been eating lunch. If I hadn’t had a snack, I’m not sure I could have been held responsible for my actions. 

Congratulations, Jack!

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Hey, at least one of us will amount to something, right!? =D

May 18, 2014 · Jen · No Comments
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Come a long way…

I’l confess that I was awake before my alarm went off this morning, but relaxing, listening to birdsong and squirrels gettin’ up to springtime business, basking in calm morning idleness. Then the radio kicked in.

The static was scratchy but the song sounded familiar. As I rolled the top half of my body toward the clock radio (my legs staying in place so as not to dislodge the cat from her resting-spot) and stretched to turn on the lamp, my spine cracked pleasingly in not less than three places, and I smiled then…BOOM. It kicked in what song was on the radio. It was Michelle Shocked’s “Come A Long Way.”

As the chorus kicked in I sang along in a creaky morning-voice, having said nothing yet today other than perhaps a soft “hello” to a cat or two. And then I was crying.

Not because the song is sad, exactly. It was just a moment of remembering who I was when the album came out. I went to see Michelle Shocked and Bruce Cockburn open for Bob Weir at Merriweather Post Pavilion sometime in the early ‘90s (we only went for the opening acts and left for Bob Weir). And that song, that song summed up a certain longing for me at that time in my life, my early 20s. Inside the longing I felt was the desire for change, the desire to move, to get beyond what my life was at the time. The young woman who played that song over and over never realized that one day, she’d drive across country by herself. She never realized what she was doing to herself in school, not taking advantage of opportunities given to her. She never realized how closed her eyes were at the time… I guess we never do.

I didn’t really miss that young woman this morning, but I mourned her. Her dreams weren’t even really hers, and she didn’t even know it until they collapsed around her. Around me. I didn’t see that those old dreams had to collapse so I could dream any new ones. So I could take up the joy inside mourning and go on to build new things. To go on to …come a long way.

April 12, 2014 · Jen · 2 Comments
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Faith in action

When I was a young girl, maybe seven or eight, my mother took me to the Right to Life march a couple of times. (This annual demonstration is held by self-proclaimed pro-life activists on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, January 22. It is a huge march that takes up much of the National Mall.) Reflecting back now, it doesn’t seem much like her style, but I believe at the time she was going with one of the women’s groups at our Catholic church. I also believe she made the decision to bring me along more as an educational outing than anything directly political. (My parents were never very politically active, and I of course was far too young to have any real grasp of the political or personal issues involved.)

It was definitely a good educational experience. Growing up in the DC area affords a unique opportunity to see many parts of the democratic process in action, and large (mostly) peaceable assembly is decidedly an important part of our American heritage. We only went a few times, as it frustrated my mother to see the news coverage only giving time to the “lunatic fringe” as she and my father called them. Still, it made a definite impression on me. So many people! It was usually very cold, and we would carry a Thermos of cocoa, and some sandwiches and granola bars. I learned that I hated Porta-Johns and that my fingers got very cold carrying around signs. I much preferred to hold a cup of warm cocoa. I liked stickers and pins, and the marches afforded ample opportunity to pick up plenty of both.

My understanding of what we were doing, of what the issues were, was simplistic and shaky at best. I saw all the big pictures of dead babies, and thought, “Well of course THAT’S no good!” My best understanding of “pro-choice” was probably “a choice between piles of dead babies or NO piles of dead babies,” which was to my 8-year-old self something of a no-brainer. I was solidly on the side of no piles of dead babies. Just like every time I went to the National Zoo, I would go look at the playful seals, and then I would look at the disturbing pictures of dead seals with their stomachs cut open to show the coins inside. The pictures were there as a visceral – and, one supposes, effective – reminder not to throw coins into the seal habitat. To me, at age eight, being against piles of dead babies was exactly the same as being against cut up dead seals with coins in their stomachs.

Eventually, of course, I grew up. I learned about the issues involved in the Roe v. Wade case. I learned there was a lot more going on than could actually be assessed in the oversimplified sign-carrying and shouting happening on either side at the Right to Life march. And in time I became pro-choice. I learned about how my body worked as a growing woman, and what being pregnant meant, and could mean, to the rest of my life.

Still, I did not (and do not) resent my mother for bringing me to those marches. It was educational, and interesting. It was important to her as a woman of faith. It was easy to see, both as a girl and as a growing woman, how faith came in on the Right-to-Life-marchers’ side.

Learning how faith came to bear on the other side took much more time and questioning on my part.

Of course as many young Catholics do, I spotted something that bothered me. Specifically, the church’s restrictions placed on birth control made very little sense to me. If abortion is a bad thing, I thought, shouldn’t we do all we can to avoid needing to have them? It was quite simple as a preadolescent to say, haughtily, “Well just don’t have so much sex!” (I will hasten to add that for most of my preadolescence I barely understood what that even meant.) It was even relatively simple to utter that same haughty statement as an overly-hormonal adolescent who was so hamstrung by the idea of talking to a boy she had a crush on that she never expected sex to be a thing she, personally, would have to deal with.

Many other questions and struggles compounded, and I continued to grow, and eventually left the Catholic faith. My various spiritual struggles, I have recounted at other times. I spent time with no sense of faith at all, a time I ultimately came to see as damaging.

When I joined the Unitarian Universalist church, my sense of faith and my relationship with God had changed a great deal since the days when I’d gone on those marches. I had been pro-choice for a long time. And I still had never thought of that particular political leaning from a faithful perspective. My sense of the idea of “liberal religion” was very new.

Last fall, my congregation had a service on Reproductive Justice. It was my first real exposure to that term, which arose out of a conscientious movement put forth by women of color, to raise awareness of the way inequalities regarding reproductive health and choice have deep and broad affect on many aspects of life. I wrote a post on reproductive privilege as my eyes were opened to that concept in a powerful, personal way. I learned that the Unitarian Universalist Association has a strong moral position on the importance of reproductive justice for the health and wellbeing of all women and men.

I was humbled, and shocked, to realize how long I had been pro-choice without necessarily thinking of it as a right and moral choice. How long I had left that part out, because of the way my ideas were still colored by experiences from my youth. To realize I could stand up, raise my own voice as a woman of faith on the side of conscientious family planning and reproductive health for all.

From the perspective of recognizing my own privilege it was not much of a leap to arrive at a sense of my own responsibility. That is why on Tuesday of this week, I took the day off work and went into DC accompanied by several amazing women from my church to exercise our own right to peaceably assemble. We attended a faith rally and demonstration at the steps of the Supreme Court to take a stand on the side of a full range of coverage for safe, legal contraception.

I had a number of conversations that day with people on both sides of the issue. All were civil, and all were thoughtful. I do not mean to impugn the faith of others and especially not their right to take peaceful action as their conscience dictates. I was pleased to be afforded the same respect interpersonally. But most important of all I was blessed (and, yes, privileged!) to be able to stand up as a woman of faith and be counted.

Then later I wound up on TV, but that is a whole other story.

Then later I wound up on TV, but that is a whole other story.

March 30, 2014 · Jen · 4 Comments
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Dispatches

Dear Readers…all several of you…

Well! It’s been nearly a month since my last blog post, which was certainly never my intention. In my defense, it’s been a busy month, hence this hasty note.

First off, March kicked off with my birthday. 42! Not actually a true milestone, but thanks to Douglas Adams, a number of fun significance. It IS nice to be the answer to the ultimate question…if only for a year. I was lucky enough to see many friends and have a few days off work and just generally have a fine time celebrating and relaxing.

Good thing I relaxed then, because the rest of the month, the heck with that noise! My Spanish class kept me busy, but I did get a 100% on the midterm. Not only has it been a long time since I was a student, it’s been an even longer time since I was anything approaching a good student, so it’s nice to see I still remember how. Or perhaps, that I’m really learning it for the first time. I have a greater sense of time management now. Not to mention a sense of the actual reason I’m in school in the first place.

I was also continuing to teach human sexuality, in the OWL class at UUCC. That just wrapped up this morning! We had a fun little final celebration, and all the cupcakes I made that didn’t get eaten, I donated to our 9th graders’ bake sale to raise funds for their class trip. And all of them got sold except one, so that was a definite plus. That, plus the not-bringing-home-extra-cupcakes aspect.

On Tuesday I’m heading into D.C. for a faith rally and demonstration at the Supreme Court during oral arguments for the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. case. I’ve gotten a few interested folks together from church. It’s kind of amazing to step up and be part of this important day as a person of faith, on a very different “side” of things than the one I was raised on. Even though it’s supposed to…God, I don’t even want to say it…snow again on Tuesday. Yesterday I was out in short sleeves!

It was a long, rough winter. But spring is definitely on its way. I am looking forward to it, and to so many things. Including, dare I hope, managing to write more.

Until then!

For the record, here is a picture I snapped of myself on my birthday proper.

For the record, here is a picture I snapped of myself on my birthday proper.

March 23, 2014 · Jen · One Comment
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fin.

February is almost done. The cold still grips us, there is still snow on the ground. There’s been snow on the ground a long time, unusual for us except in the worst winters.

March marks so many things. The month we get the most daylight back. The vernal equinox. My birthday. And this year, significantly, six months since I took my cross-country trip.

I’ve struggled with what to say to cap off the experience. I wrote a lot on the trip and I’ve already written a lot here. I’m pleased with the way I captured the trip in words and pictures. But I need to wrap up, because there is a lot of other stuff going on in my life.

The last few days of the trip were spent with dear friends in Nashville, Tennessee. I got a few days off of driving, off of touristing. I got to be part of a family again, a joyous experience. My friends’ middle son is my godson, and godmother is a role I take pretty seriously, even though I have no models or experience. (I was christened in my grandmother’s home so that my wheelchair-bound grandfather – who died before I turned two – could be there. My parents weren’t Catholic at the time, so they simply asked my grandparents’ Lutheran minister to do the christening. I don’t have godparents, myself.) To me, it was an invitation to join the family in a formal, recognized way. Visiting with them, with their children, is always an amazing experience. At the end of a long trip away, it was another homecoming.

The last day, I drove from Nashville to home in one day. 13 hours, a speeding ticket in southwestern Virginia, an amazing moon and the emptiest trip down Rt. 66 I’ve ever taken. Leaving home, coming home. Rarely have I felt more grateful, or more blessed, than when I pulled safely into my parking lot and took a picture of my odometer. Over 5500 miles, over two weeks, a lifetime of memories.

I’m going to copy a part of what I wrote in my travel journal on September 17, the day before I made the big drive home. Here is what I wrote then:

“Sept. 17

One day more!

I kind of can’t believe it. It’s almost done. I look forward to being home, seeing my sweet kitties, all my lovely friends – in a way I even look forward to the resumption of routine. The comforts of home, but in the new light I can see myself surrounded by.

I am a person who needs and loves people. I am a person who needs and loves solitude. I am a person who looks in the mirror and likes who she sees. I am a person who over-plans but still takes joy from small things.

I am petty. I love attention. I am responsible. I am strong about some things and strangely weak about others. I can’t take criticism or compliments very well, but I’m getting better. I can speak. I can write. I can manage expectations.

I can forgive myself (difficult) and others (easier).

I have to touch the hot stove. Several times.

I love and I struggle and I fail and I grow.

I am going home. And I am at home, right now.”

So may it ever be.

Nashville moon

Nashville moon

There, and back again.

There, and back again.

 

February 27, 2014 · Jen · 2 Comments
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Eros

For a few years now I’ve tried to take different looks at love on Valentine’s Day. First I looked at how much I loved the holiday when I was a kid, when it was about friendship, philia. Then I wrote about agape. The next year I spent time talking about love of family (storge, to keep with the Greek), and the next year I even managed a sort of love letter to myself. In 2012 I wrote a little musing on the first time anyone told me he loved me, at least insofar as I can remember. Last year I skipped it.

Why did I skip it? I can’t honestly remember. Maybe I felt like I’d said all I could about non-romantic love.

Why, for all this time, did I avoid eros? Romantic or “intimate love” (thanks, Wikipedia!) seemed overdone at Valentine’s Day, it’s true. As much as I love the concept of love, it’s true that the continual crass commercialization of same, the way it is shoved down our throats every year at this time has often made me feel bitter or sad.

There’s a lot more to it than that, though. A lot more to why I’ve been bitter and sad. Things I’m only just learning to put into words.

The other week I wrote a little bit about some personal history. Part of the long-ongoing repercussions of that for me personally has been a real fear of intimacy. Combined with some other things that happened to me in my late 20s, I spent several years not merely single but nearly asexual, entirely ignoring that part of my life.

What a horrible, ridiculous disservice I did to myself.

There is not a thing wrong with asexuality as a natural sexual orientation or personal lifestyle choice. But that’s the thing, you see – I didn’t make a conscious choice. I shut down a whole important side of myself out of fear. Fear again! What I have let that take away from me. Let’s call it what it is: What I have taken away from myself. I am not an asexual person but I lived that way, unhappily, for years.

But this is not supposed to be a downer of a post! Because, please see above, I used the past tense. I’ve been bitter in the past, and sad. But I do love the concept of love. I love philia, agape, storge…and my goodness, how I do love eros.

It’s been a brilliant few years of change for me, probably since about 2008 or so – perhaps not so coincidentally, the year I started making a concerted effort to make positive Valentine’s Day posts. Some of the change has come from inside myself, some from outside. Some of it has hurt like hell, some of it has been amazing and wonderful, sometimes it’s even been both those at once.

Like love. Like eros. Like the part of me I hid away.

Now for me, eros still exists primarily as an intellectual exercise and, ah, personal expression shall we say. But owning that again, having that again, reminds me of all that I pushed away for too long. Reminds me of the things I want to change so badly for the kids in my human sexuality class: the way we can’t seem to talk about sex and our bodies without this over-arching sense of shame. The way sex still seems dirty or weird or somehow profane. In fact, I am reminded that I believe quite the opposite. Part of the power of sex is the way it allows us to approach something that is close to divine. Does that sound like an overstatement? I suppose it could. But keep in mind the fact that both the free, joyous, consensual sharing of sexuality and other times we approach the divine put us in touch with things outside the usual experience, outside rational thought, inside ecstatic joy, and beyond the realm of articulation.

So I say let’s raise a glass to romance, to eros, heck to every hearts-and-flowers cliche we’ve ever rolled our eyes at. Let’s embrace the speechless wonder of finding that kind of glory again.

February 14, 2014 · Jen · 4 Comments
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Words on this morning’s walk

I went for a walk this morning, even though it was six degrees outside and the snow-covered ground was hard frozen and unforgiving. Really unforgiving. With the scarf wrapped around my face to protect it, my glasses fogged up and froze over, and it was hard to see. I tripped over a raised edge on the sidewalk and went sprawling, taking it mostly on the left hip and elbow. My water bottle, mostly empty and the remaining water rapidly turning to slush, jostled out of my hands and lay on the sidewalk.

I sat there for a minute, stunned. “OW!” I said to the pre-dawn silence of the suburban street. “Seriously, that really hurt,” I said as I brushed myself off and got up. No one was around to hear me, of course. Which meant no one was around to see my spectacular fall. I was grateful.

Sure, I was grateful no one saw me fail so completely at walking down the sidewalk, a skill I really should have mastered in my 41 years. It was great there was no one around to hear me muttering to myself as I picked up my water bottle and gasped at how cold the drink I took was.

But my gratitude goes farther.

I’ve been scared to fall all my life. I never learned to ride a bicycle, I’ve never been confident at ice skating and only marginally so at roller skating, and the one time I tried skiing it was a disaster. As I walked away from my fall this morning I laughed to myself. “See?” I said. “That wasn’t so bad!”

There is a value in failing. There is a value in trying things that you are scared to do.

Another reason I was grateful was that I wasn’t scared to be on that walk at all. I could be. For a long time in my life I would have been. When I was ten years old, my mom went for a walk one morning in our calm, peaceful suburban neighborhood. But that day, on that walk, a man attacked her and raped her. At the time I could not imagine what this would be like. I can only remember waking to a house filled with the sound of strangers talking, strangers who were police, who were there for a reason that I did not understand. No one could or would explain to me what happened. I didn’t know what “rape” meant. I just knew it was bad. I knew it was a thing we couldn’t talk about or say and I knew, somehow, I just couldn’t ask a thing about it.

Of course soon enough I learned what rape meant, at least in terms of definition. It took me longer to learn about what it meant in terms of feeling. Lost feeling, broken feeling, the inability to speak or address anything surrounding that act – its meaning, its consequences, its impact on any of us, most especially my mother.

Her story is not mine to tell and she wouldn’t want me to, but my story is mine to tell. More than one person is harmed when one person is raped. Rape takes away more than health, more than dignity, more than a sense of self, more than you can imagine. Sometimes it takes away words. Sometimes when people start to talk about rape, they are shushed or they are disbelieved or they are not taken seriously, so they stop talking. And then everything shuts down. Every way we can possibly get back what was taken goes away as soon as the words are gone. And the words can take a long, long time to come back.

Every question unanswered. Every fight with my father weighted with unspoken words. Every emotion felt pushed back down. As if feeling the emotion in response was wrong. As if having questions or being scared was wrong. As if anyone, in any way, had done anything wrong at all except the man who raped my mother.

I walked around my freezing-cold hard-ground neighborhood this morning and I fell on my ass. And I laughed. And I didn’t cry, because I have done that. So many times. And it wasn’t even me. But the words were taken away for so long that crying was all I had.

I’ve written before about the opportunity I’ve been given, to teach human sexuality to K-1 children at my church. The class started last week. People have a lot of questions when they hear about starting sex ed so early. The biggest one is “Why?” And part of the answer, a big part of the answer, is: to give them the words. To give them the knowledge of who they are, of what they possess, of how to care for and respect and defend every single part of themselves. To allow them to know that no one should be permitted to take that away. And to give them the words to say “No.” And “mine.” And to ask for help, and to feel no shame.

January 30, 2014 · Jen · 4 Comments
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