On Forgiveness

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Some things are easy to forgive, and others, well, you can’t forgive because it feels too good to hang onto the hurt.  At first, the anger feels good, like a fire burning inside you.  It gives you strength, energy, fuel for living.

But slowly, that fuel of anger burns away your happiness, it rips away your joy.  You focus on the person you hate, who’s wronged you.  You cannot stop feeling hurt and angry.  And without knowing it, you become like the person you hate and refuse to forgive.

Wait long enough, and that hurt and anger becomes depression.  A yawning hole in need of something to fill it.  So you try things.  You smoke, you drink, you try out sex and drugs.  You turn up the music, turn on the TV to drown out the thoughts always screaming in your mind.

You find these things give you a moment of rest, of happiness.  But it never lasts.  And the more you’re drawn into those things, the more they swallow you up until those once pleasurable things no longer bring an ounce or moment of happiness.

You’re stuck.

Long ago you convinced yourself that you don’t need anyone else.  You push people away, telling them that it’s none of their business.  But deep down, you want them to keep pushing past your walls to prove that they care about you.  How much pursuit is enough?

You have the choice to be miserable and let the person you can’t forgive ruin your life, or you can let them go.  The thought of them hangs on you like heavy, wet clothes.  Every movement you make, they come with you.  The idea of them makes you sick, but you won’t take off those old clothes.  You need them because you think they’ve become who you are.  So what can you do?

Forgive them.  They don’t ask for it or even acknowledge that they’ve hurt you.  They may only care about themselves and they may wrong you all over again.

But you know what?  They’re just doing what you did for all that time.  They are filled with that same anger, that same hurt, that same sadness that’s eaten them alive because somebody did the same thing to them.  They take out all of their hurt on the people around them who care about them most—just like you do.

Can you forgive someone for making the same choices that you did?

Maybe you can’t do it on your own.  Maybe you need someone to show you how it works.  Ask the guy who forgave the whole world—you, the person that wronged you, the person that wronged them—to show you how to do it.  Jesus is just waiting until you’re ready.  Can you accept his forgiveness for the wrong you’ve done in order to forgive that person who’s hurt you?

The Best, Worst, and Most Thought-Provoking Books of 2014

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BEST

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

The epitome of BEAUTY.  If I had to say what kinds of stories delve deepest into my soul, it is this story: redemption through great suffering and sacrifice.  I read the unabridged version and I’m so glad that I did.  Before reading it, I had several people tell me to just skip the endless chapters of historical narrative.  Never.  Not only was I immersed in the history of the time period which in turn gave the fictional story much more depth, but Hugo’s observations were oft times interesting, cynical, and witty.  If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the battle of Waterloo, convents, or the sewer system of Paris, this is the book for you 🙂

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

What a wonderful thriller.  The writing is fabulous and the characters so real, it’s hard to put this book down.  And that’s saying something, since I grew up watching the Hitchcock movie over and over.  Honestly, I would recommend both.  Great book, great movie.  The best part was, I got this book for a dollar at a library sale. Win.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

It takes a truly talented writer to be able to tell you about his miserable Irish childhood and make you laugh and cringe all the while.  He does such a wonderful job of capturing his childhood understanding of God, school, sickness, death, and hunger and bringing you through that into his young adulthood.  His writing is sarcastic, witty, and beautiful in a dark way.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

This was my final book of the year, because I wanted to read it over Christmas break.  And boy did I save the best for last. Hillenbrand does a terrific job of weaving the bigger historical picture with the life of Zamperini.  Warning: once you begin reading this fast-paced, masterfully-written book about the crazy life of Louis Zamperini, everything else in you life will be put on hold (eating, sleeping, etc…).  You must read it.  It’s just that good.  Beware.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

When I was 16, a woman at church warned me about how horrible a book it was.  It was about a really dysfunctional family who went to Africa as missionaries and failed miserably.  With the memory of that awful review always staying at the back of my mind, I decided to read it if I ever found it.  As luck would have it, I found it at the same library sale as other books on this list.  The writing is fantastic and at times, poetic.  If you have traveled or lived in a foreign country, or especially if you are a child of a parent with a personality disorder, you will identify much with this family.  It is a wonderful book in that it is dripping with harsh, ugly and sometimes beautiful truths.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

After reading “American Gods” last year, and although not liking the story but appreciating his writing and imagination, I decided to give him another go this year.  I’m so glad that I did.  He is a masterful storyteller and oh so delightfully creative.  This book kept me enraptured, enchanted, and constantly guessing as to where this tale might be going.  I was mostly wrong.  Yay!

The Way of Kings: Book One of the Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

I know that loads of people hate the fantasy genre.  I do not.  However, I do concede that there is an overwhelming amount of crappy fantasy and a dearth of good fantasy writers.  But Sanderson, is where it’s at.  This guy is it.  This series is it.  If you have never before read fantasy, don’t start with this guy and especially not this series because you will forever after be disappointed even with some of the other big names.

 

Worst

A Thousand Gifts by Anne Voskamp

In case this is your favorite book in the whole world, you may stop reading now.  I have gotten much flack from the female Evangelical Christian community about my views on this book, but I do not apologize for my opinions.

The point of the book is great.  She has some good, relevant and deep points.  But getting to those nuggets of wisdom is a trial akin to swimming through a murky lake at night with your eyes closed.  It’s almost impossible to stay on track.  Why?  Bad writing.  Lots of people argue with me that she’s being artistic or poetic.  I love poetry.  I love art.  No, this is an extended edition Hallmark card.  Let me quote you a passage (and no, I’m not picking the only one or even the worst of the bunch—I simply opened the book and pointed to a page).

“I slam upright, jolt the bed hard, hands gripping the cotton sheets wild.  There’s a halo of light by the door.  I breathe, heave breathe.  There are stars…My chest pounds hooves of a thousand stallions running on and away, the universe outside the window holds—the one stuck through with stars—and I breathe, I breathe.”

Did you like this writing?  If so, read the book and enjoy.  But here’s the thing.  No, I don’t like fluffy, lacy writing, but it’s more than that.  This book somehow rings partially false and makes me ask the question, what is the point of being a writer?  Is it not to tell truth?  It’s strikes me that she’s trying to hard to impress readers with the truths she’s discovered, but leaves some of the darker truths unexplained or ignored.  I sense an underlying depression or sadness that may be helped but not fully cured by moment-by-moment thankfulness, but is never acknowledged.  Thus, making the sincere acknowledgement of God’s graces to us, seem slightly Pollyanna tinged.  Then again, I could be completely wrong.

Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther

This is another book that rang false in a very sad way.  This is a book written by a father about the last years of his son who is dying of a rare brain tumor.  From the point of view of experimental medical practices in the 1950’s, it is fascinating (who knew that doctors experimented with mustard gas to shrink tumors?).  However, from a personal point of view of John Jr. (the son), the book is extremely lacking.  If John Sr.’s point was to simply chronicle the medical journey of his son in the most sterile, detailed way possible, then he did his job well.  As the reader, I know John Jr. was witty, very bright, and had a promising science career ahead of him, but that was all.  I could not help but wonder if the father who was writing the book, was unable to bring himself to write personal moments with his son because it was too difficult, or were they non-existent?  My theory is that either the father, the son, or both, lay somewhere on the autism spectrum and thus, had a difficult time identifying emotions in play.  The most personal moments of the book lay at the end written by the ex-wife and mother exploring the idea of loss, death, and sadness.  Overall, I came away with a hollow feeling.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

After reading her previous best seller last year (see review) and being disappointed by the story itself, I thought I would give her another chance.  Nope.  If I thought the last one was bad, this one has even more drinking, drugs, and an even more fatalistic ending than before.  So here’s the moral of the whole long story: the only thing that makes this wretched life worth living is the need and desire for beauty.  Or as Dovstoevsky so eloquently put it, “Beauty will save the world.”

 

Most Thought-Provoking

Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther

This book really got me thinking about what it was like being a woman in a cult.  As I read her honest account, it brought back memories of the fear of eternal damnation, the trying to always be perfect, and the ridiculous standards for women made by men.  If you grew up in fundamentalist church or cult, you might really find this book not only interesting, but encouraging.

 

Bonheoffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

This is a wonderfully written autobiography that weaves history, faith, family, and the endless search for God, oh yeah, and Bonheoffer’s part in it all together.  It is a large book that asks large questions and delves deeply into the heart of Bonheoffer’s faith.  It is not a light read, but it is a must-read.

A Look Back (on our 8th anniversary)

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Today is my 8th year wedding anniversary to Ethan and boy has it been a great adventure.

Some people know our “how we got together story,” but if you don’t, I’m going to indulge myself by telling you (because I’m biased and I think it’s a great story).

Our relationship began our very first day of college in our small orientation group.  We were playing a get-to-know you game where each person has to take so many squares of toilet paper and tell that many things about themselves.  Only, the reason for taking toilet paper was never explained ahead of time.

“I know what we’re doing,” Ethan blurted out in his bombastic way, and proceeded to take half the roll of toilet paper.  I took three squares, still having no clue what was up.

As each person explained 3-4 things about themselves, Ethan rolled down his ream of toilet paper like a hard core couponer looking over a receipt, thinking she was overcharged.  The bragging about himself went on and on.  Let’s just say, I don’t usually dislike people automatically, but he was one of the handful in my life.

Let me take you back for a second and tell you the mentalities that we brought with us entering into college.  I went into college distrusting all men and never wanting to date, or especially, marry.  I would do my time, and go on my merry (single) way.  Ethan went into college with the belief that women are meant to be led (told what to do) by men.  I was a feminist, Ethan, a semi-chauvinist.

As college progressed, God softened my distrustful heart a bit and Ethan courted a girl for 2 years. It was an unhealthy relationship that slowly turned him into an egalitarian.  And little by little it was coming to an end.  And unbeknownst to me, I was one of the wedges in their relationship.  I noticed more and more that his girlfriend would constantly give me the cold shoulder and had no idea why.  Later on, Ethan shed a bit of light on it.

“I learned too late that if your girlfriend asks you who the prettiest girl on campus is, always say her.”

“What did you say?” I asked, unsurprised at his lack of girl knowledge.  After all, he did grow up with only brothers.

“I said what I thought.  ‘Anna Squires is the prettiest girl on campus.’”

“Never answer those questions,” I informed him with a smile and a shake of my head.  “They’re traps.  It’s like the ‘does this make me look fat’ question.  That is also a trap.  Never answer, but if you do, always give the answer they want to hear.”

So after the breakup, being a small school, rumors were spread and sides were taken.  I never cared either way because being the individualist that I am, it was none of my business.

Towards the end of that spring semester, Ethan’s best friend Andrew died very suddenly.  Ethan asked for prayer for Andrew’s family and for the first time, I could see that Ethan was trying hard to be strong and not cry and that he really cared about someone other than himself.  I recognized the look in his eyes because it was the same look that I had.  About a month after Ethan’s friend died, Mom tried to commit suicide and was in a coma for three days.

Summer came and went.  Ethan was angry at God and trying to work through his faith, and I was trying to make things work at home with a Mom who was never quite the same.  At the end of summer, he was resolved to quit wasting time and decide what he was looking for in a girl.  It was his last year in college, so he wanted to make the most of it.  He made a list—an actual list—with some very wonderful girls on it.

“And you were first on the list,” he later told me, “because you were beautiful, nice to everyone and smiled a lot.  Shoot for the moon and all that.”

So the fall semester came, and Ethan asked for a haircut.  I gave haircuts (I’m sure they weren’t great) to make a little extra money.  He payed me and left me with 2 rubles because I’d told him of my desire to go to Russia one day.  I thought that was very thoughtful, but no way was “him and me” ever happening.  But just in case he had ideas about “us,” I would test him.  No one ever passed this test.  It was the let-me-tell-you-about-my-crazy-family test that made guys either feel sorry for me and try to rescue me or made them forever ignore me.  I’ve given this test plenty because it scares people away like a charm.  However, Ethan said, “that sucks” with an understanding look on his face.  He wasn’t scared away and he knew I could and had always taken care of myself.  Years later, we’ve come to understand that we both grew up with an abundance of similarities in our backgrounds—hence the understanding.

At the time, I was teaching music at a little school down the road and we had a Christmas pageant coming up.  I had a dream several weeks before the play that the man I would marry would be there at the play.  I woke up thinking what a weird dream that was because I was never going to get married.  The night of the play came and before the play began, I looked around the room, the dream coming to mind.  I saw no one at all that would interest me in the slightest.  Whew.  When the play was over, Ethan and my friend Kari came up to me.  I swallowed, thinking Never will this happen, and said hello.  But instead of just saying hi and bolting, he stayed for 2 hours and helped me clean up the church.  He didn’t know this, but one of my love languages is acts of service (big time).  When we finished, I couldn’t help but be blown away by his thoughtfulness.

Fast forward to January, when Ethan tricked me into going on a date.  And let’s just say the date was hilariously disastrous.  Have you seen the movie Hitch?  It’s like that.  We went to a coffee shop and ordered tea.  He said he had to go to the bathroom and stayed in there for about an hour while I was left to sip my tea and look through some photos of a trip he’d taken recently.  By the time he emerged, I had the pictures memorized in order.  When he sat down, he looked at me and asked, “Are you okay?  Your eyes look funny.”  I went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror and saw that yes, my eyes were swollen.  Apparently, I’m one of the handful of people allergic to a certain type of tea.

After a few more hilariously disastrous, adventurous dates, I found myself liking Ethan, but I was scared.  I didn’t want to marry because I was afraid that I might have a marriage like my parents.  I was afraid to lose my newly found independence.  I didn’t think I could find a man with a will to equal mine.  And all of my friends were against the relationship because of Ethan’s previous relationship.  So we had the let’s just be friends talk.  Basically, I told him that “we” were never going to happen.  He smiled and was still nice to me.  I’ve never had one of those conversations go so well.  In his mind, he thought, “Challenge accepted.”  In my mind, I thought it was over.

We continued to hang out and be friends, and slowly, I started to realize that I didn’t have to lose my freedom and that we were not our parents.  I was still afraid to allow myself to trust someone, but he’d been perfectly honest with me as I had been with him.  The night before graduation, we had the final talk.  It went something like this:

Ethan (very nervous):  I like you, etc….will you date me?

Me: “I’ve thought a lot about this and blah blah blah, pros and cons, you’re not at all my type, (sounding doubtful), so heck, why not?  I’ll date you.”

And because this saga is far too long already, I’m just going to say, he loved me through my cold attachment issues while we were dating, and we both loved the freedom and complete honesty in our relationship.  He got to be himself, and I got to be myself.  To both our surprise, I was the first to say “I love you.”  It totally caught him off guard, and he didn’t respond immediately.  He was waiting until he proposed to say it, but I was tired of saying stupid things like “I like you a lot” when we both knew what we really meant.  “I, I love you back,” he finally replied with a sweet smile.

We’ve been married 8 years today and I would not give up a single moment with this man.  He is strong (inside and out), loving, thoughtful, gentle, intelligent, a lover of adventure, still likes to brag too much at times, is a joke stealer, and at times, shares my dark sense of humor.  So, as I part, I’ll leave you with some of the loving things we say to each other that keep the marriage strong ;p

Ethan: Don’t worry.  If you ever start gaining weight, I’ll just remind you that throwing up after every meal is an effective weight-loss tool.

Me: When I die naturally in my early 60’s, you need to remarry someone who doesn’t speak English so you’ll have someone to laugh at your jokes.  And as long as you keep her green card valid, she’ll keep laughing until she learns English.

Meeting Jake “Cray” Lazenby

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I sat alone that night, on the edge of the river, picking old scabs off my legs an crying. People said there was gators who came outa the river at night, but what do I care?  They kin come an eat me any old time they like.  At least, that’s what I thought in my tortured ten year old mind.  I listened to the tree frogs singing their songs and the fish making splashes in the water.  The air was that lovely semi-salty smell that reminded me of our last house across from the mangrove trees.  They made the water black, you know.  Life was a lot better there with those mangroves.

Somewhere behind me, a soft porch light flicked on and a screen door creaked open.  I turned to see that it was our new neighbor.  He had a strange name and kept to himself mostly.  I peered over the tall weeds to catch a good look at him.  He seemed really tall.  He turned his head to look back into the house as he held the door open.  He gave a whistle and out came two brown dogs who seemed all too glad to be romping around at night. He talked to them in a kind voice, but I was too far away to hear what he was saying.  I watched him sit down on a chair on his porch and look out toward the river.  I crouched lower, hoping that he wouldn’t spot me.  I pictured myself like a lion waiting for its prey.  He just sat and watched.

Before I had a moment to react, one of the dogs had found me and was wanting to play.  He started tugging at the bottom of my shirt.  I sat up, “Stop that!” I scolded in a furious whisper.  “Let go my shirt!”  I stood to tug, and as I did, I heard the man yell, “Here, Pal!”  The dog turned his head and went running full speed for its master.  The man was standing now in front of his porch, closer to where I was.  The dog licked his master’s hand and nuzzled it with delight.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” the man said, stepping closer.  “You alright?”

I nodded, tugging on my shirt.  He could see me clearly, but I could still mostly only make out a tall shadow.

“He’s jus a pup, so he don’t know any better yet.”

“I’m fine,” I said, suddenly realizing that my eyes were probably still swollen from crying.

“You sure you’re alright?  You look like the dog gave ya a bad fright.”

“It’s not the dog,” I admitted.

“Oh, I see.” He said in a thoughtful tone.  “Well, it seems to me that when I’m having a bad time that a glass of sweet tea makes everything better.  Come on.”  He started walking back toward the porch.

I wasn’t thirsty, but I followed him, mostly out of curiosity.  The kids at school said that he had two entire walls of his house that were books.  And one of them was fake.  Rhea said that the fake one was a hidden door to get to a secret room.  I didn’t believe her of course, but if there was truth to it, what would be hidden back there?  I peered through the old screen door and saw that in fact, there were two walls of bookshelves.  Why would a man need so many books?  One of em’ had to be fake.  He must’ve caught me looking in, because he said, “You can come in too if you want.”  I stood still and probably looked nervous.  “Or you can just stay on the porch out here.  I’ll go bring out the tea.”  He went inside and I could hear him humming in a nice soft, low voice.  I don’t know what it was, but it sounded kinda like a church song.  My family only went to church when Jesus is a baby every year or when somebody dies (which isn’t often), so I only know a few church songs, but boy do they all sound the same.

He brought out two mason jars of sweet tea with lemon slices floatin’ around in the ice.  He handed me one and sat down on the chair closest to the left edge of the porch.

“I like to eat the lemon slices once they soak up the tea and spit out the seeds. This is the best place to do that.”

Now that he was sittin’ still, I could see that I was right about him being tall.  He was real tall.  He had really cool eyes too, like when he was born God spilled gold glitter in em’.  And he had some weird scars all up one of his arms.  They were big and a lot whiter than the rest of his dark skin.  I think he saw me looking at em’ because he said, “Never tussle with a gator,” and took another sip from his mason jar.  Things were pretty quiet after that, so I tried to think of something to say.

“What’s your dog’s name?” I asked.

“Pal.”

“What’s your other dog’s name?”

“Same. Pal.”

“That’s weird.  How come their both named the same?” Momma woulda slapped my face if I’d been rude to her like that.  I shoulda kept my opinion to myself.  “Nobody wants to hear what a child has to say,” she’d tell me.

But he didn’t say that.  Instead, he laughed.

“You know, you’re the first one who’s ever asked me that.”  He smiled, his eyes seeming to peer back into time.  “I once had a dog I name Marie.  And then I met a sweet lady named Marie.  She got all offended when I had to say things like, ‘Marie, you quit drinking that toilet water.’ Or ‘Marie, stop draggin’ your nasty butt on the floor.’”  He slapped his thigh and let out a chuckle.  He had really nice teeth and a really nice smile. “I figure Pal’s a safe name.  Ain’t nobody gonna get offended by that.”

And I laughed too, despite my earlier troubles.  Our laughter died down and things got quiet again.  He seemed fine with the quiet, but I thought it felt like we were expecting something bad to happen.

“My name’s Ella May,” I said to fill the air. He held out a long-fingered hand to shake.

“And I’m Jake, but everybody calls me Cray.”

Happy Vignettes: A Smattering of Joyful Moments From This Summer

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1) A young man walking down the road, alongside the farm growing corn and soy beans, singing an Irish song at the top of his lungs with not a care in the world.

2) A French Canadian family brushing their teeth in the Niagara campground restroom while listening to “Gift of a Thistle” from Braveheart.

3) A beautiful Japanese girl with long, loosely braided hair, holding a black umbrella and wearing a stylish blouse and long, pencil skirt that blew ever so gently in the breeze.  She looked as if she stepped out of a painting.

4) Two boys sitting high on a statue as crowds of tourist passed below them.  One playing a Gameboy and the other providing helpful instruction on how to beat the level.

5) A small Asian couple walking in the park together, hunched beneath a tiny scarf to stay out of the glaring rays of the sun.

6) Playing the piano while my Dad sings hymns in his beautiful soft baritone voice.

7) Hilarious Kid Conversation:

“Hey you!  Girl in the blue shirt,” a little boy called out to me from across the large playground.  He and a little girl that I assumed was his sister were playing on the slide.  I was swinging while waiting for my brother Nick to come out of the bathroom.

“Did ya hear me, girl in the blue shirt?” The boy called out again.  “On the swing, in the blue shirt,” he clarified.

“Do you mean me?” I asked.

“Yeah.”  He jumped from the slide, the little brown-haired girl followed.

“I thought that maybe you were talking to your sister,” I said, nodding to the brown-haired girl.

They looked at one another “Ew!” they said in unison.  “No way am I his sister,” said the girl.

“Gross!” the boy interjected.  “She’s just my cousin.”

“Oh, I see,” I said.  “Sorry about that.”

As they got closer, the boy exclaimed, “Oh, sorry!” He seemed startled.  “You’re not a girl! You’re a teenager.  I’m really sorry that I called you girl.”

“I told you,” the cousin said, elbowing him in the ribs.  “That was rude and she’s like 14.”

“I thought you were a kid,”  The boy told me, blushing.  Both he and the girl looked to be about 9.

“That’s fine,” I said with a laugh.  “It’s probably not too many people my age that you see swinging.”

The boy shrugged and climbed on the swing beside me.  He kept glancing over at me with a puzzled look on his face.  It was then that Nicolas came out of the bathroom and joined us on the swings.

“This is Nick,” I said

“Is he your boyfriend?” the girl asked.

“No,” I laughed.  “He’s little my brother.”  More apologies ensued and more puzzled looks came my way.

“If he’s your little brother,” asked the girl, “then how old are you?”

“Are you 14?” the boy asked, thinking he was right.

I was really getting a kick out of this.  “How old do you think I am?” I asked.

“Can’t you just tell us?” the girl asked.

“After you guess,” I said.

“I think 13,” the boy said.

“No, she’s probably 16 or 17, stupid,” the girl said.

I laughed again.  “Higher,” I said.

They kept going up one year at a time until they finally arrived at 31.

The boy jumped off his swing and looked at me with a very serious expression.  “You can’t be thirty-one.  My Mom’s that age and you don’t look anything like her.”

“Well, I am thirty-one.”

“Wow,” the boy said.

It was the girl’s turn.  “Are you really that old?”

“Yep.”

The Importance of Being a Girl

How would you react if someone told you, “It’s your job as the woman to take care of the menial tasks at home so that [your husband] can focus on accomplishing the important things that he needs to do.” This is a quote from a conversation that I had not long ago.  It is one of many like it.  If you are a woman, it’s very likely that in subtle and not so subtle ways, you’ve been told that you are unimportant because you were born the wrong gender.

What I really want to discuss is my journey as a girl who never wanted to be a girl.  Don’t get me wrong, I love dressing up every now and again and feeling beautiful, but if God was giving out preferences, I would’ve chosen to be a boy.  Why?  No periods. Haha, no…seriously, let me take you the long way around through some of the more memorable highlights.

The first time that I realized that being a girl was not all it was cracked up to be was when I was 4.  My brothers and I were painting our “tree house” in our back yard.  My older and younger brother had their shirts off, so of course, being a hot day, I took mine off too.  Don’t worry, I was dragged in the house by my mother who was completely dismayed by my lack of modesty.  Modest what?  I was 4.  “Girls always have to wear shirts, Anna,” she said as she wrestled my shirt back over my head.  “But Jonathan and Andrew don’t have to,” I whined.  “It’s hot and we’re workin’.”  (Yes, I had a little southern accent back then.)

“You’ll understand when you’re older, but you always have to wear a shirt and they’re boys—they don’t have to.”

“That’s not fair.”  Oh how right I was as a little girl.

That was the first time I realized that there were rules which applied to me and not to boys.

My next foray into inequality came when my family first joined ATIA (Advanced Training Institute of America).  My first encounter with ATI was in Knoxville, TN.  Each year, there was a big conference where all of the families from the east coast and midwest would gather for “Biblical training.”  I don’t know exactly how old I was when we first joined, but I was forced to attend the children’s sessions.

To blend in, my parents bought us all regulation clothing.  Much to my brothers chagrin, they were forced to wear white, button-down dress shirts and navy pants.  For me and my sister, it was an ankle-length navy skirt (or as close as one find in such “worldy” stores such as Wal-mart), and an ill-fitting white blouse, to camouflage any feminine body part—such as knees, necks, shoulders, and chests—which might cause a brother to stumble.

“If anyone asks,” Mom drilled us before we arrived in Knoxville, “you dress like this all the time.  And Anna,” she said, “don’t mention that you wear blue jeans.  If they ask, tell them you don’t.”  I was given permission to lie!  I could handle this.  This undercover life excited my imagination.  I saw it as great practice for my later career as a spy.

However, the excitement vanished as soon as it had come.  Dressing in a long skirt meant that I could not do any of my favorite things without great difficulty. I learned quickly to distinguish fakers like me from the hardcore Gothard-ites.  The real ones wore red scarves tied 50’s soc-hop style around their necks.  It was also easy to tell by how gracefully one was able to sit on a concrete floor. The ones that were used to sitting on the ground in skirts, were able to sit down in less than a heart beat with the utmost grace and modesty: like a weightless fairy upon an enchanted lily pad.  I worked my way through several awkward positions, looking like I was wrestling a piranha that was caught in there before I had myself situated.  I couldn’t sit any of the ways I normally sat.

In the children’s program, we sang dumb songs (and as a kid who never stopped singing, for me to draw the line at these song says something about their poor quality), watched Mr. Andrew–our K group leader–do finger exercises and ventriloquy while we waited each morning for the bus, and heard stories about how animals, like the Indian elephant, could teach us character qualities such as perseverance, and hard work.

Each year following, there grew more and more dissenters in our family.  The second year, two of my brothers had a contest to see who could get more “wisdom walks.”  “Wisdom walks” were ATI’s happy sounding phrase for punishment.  Only bad kids got those. It was some form of punishment that usually involved running laps around the large warehouse and a good old fashioned talking to.  And this was exactly what my brothers preferred, over sitting in this awful place.  They likely received spankings as well, but I really don’t remember.

The next year,  two of my brothers and I graduated into the teen program.  At first I was excited, but I soon came to realize that it was far worse than the children’s sessions.  We still sang songs, but we were graduated to actual hymns now.  I learned the hard way that there were some hymns that I, as a female, was not allowed to sing.  For instance, it was offensive for a woman to sing any hymn that featured the word “men” in the title.  Obviously, these hymns were written for men only.  Duh. So when, in a mixed assembly, we were told to stand and sing “Rise Up, O Men of God,” I did so, and while singing out with gusto, a girl tugged on my skirt and said, “Sit down, this is not for us.” I was embarrassed to notice that out of the 300 boys and girls there, I was the only girl standing.  It didn’t seem right.  With each passing day of that week, I became more and more aware that the brothers I had been equal to my whole life were no longer my equals.  I was a lesser individual who had to surround myself with rules and personal sacrifice to make their world easier.  While the boys were learning survival skills and repelling from water towers, I was stuck learning how to make ugly multi-colored braid belts that no one in their right minds would ever wear, and being forced to memorize Proverbs 31 with the Gothard interpretation.  His interpretation went something like this.  The part where she buys land and her husband trusts her to run everything is always skipped over.  The focal point is always the making clothes, the women’s work, and the sacrifice that the woman must make.  And really, as a 12 year old girl, this was my interpretation of what I heard. “The Proverbs 31 woman is basically a glorified slave who does everything (without complaining) so that her husband has a great reputation at the gate and can hang out all day doing whatever he wants with his buddies.”  That was the first time in my life, where I felt an anger that I couldn’t understand or put into words until many years later.

The more my family delved into Gothard theology, in the nifty little “wisdom booklets,” the more a seed of anger grew.  I couldn’t explain it and I constantly repented for it, but the more we became entrenched, and the more rules I was told to live by (as a girl), the more obstinate I became.  I’ll never forget reading in the wisdom booklet the interpretation of Tamar’s rape.  According to Gothard, the rape was her fault: she was leading Amnon on.  Another time, the whole last 10 pages of the booklet were pictures and detailed descriptions about how long a woman’s hair and skirt should be, and how applying too much makeup led men to stumble.  And college, was out of the question for a woman because that would mean that she would be out from under the authority and protection of a man.  Thankfully, my parents, although many times idealizing other “perfect” ATI families, never made me wear skirts (except on Sunday), and thought that the whole no college bit was overkill.

When I dressed up on Sunday’s, I only wore dresses that were extremely modest.  I was never embarrassed by my body like many women are, but I believed that somehow my body was inherently evil.  I was just about the cover child for modesty.  When my mom allowed me to wear a skirt that had a slit up to my knees one Sunday, I kept trying to sit so that no one could tell how immodest I was.  Long baggy shirts, long shorts (if I wore shorts), and once I was in high school, I wore mostly men’s clothing.  I was afraid that I might lead a man into sin accidentally.

At home, I was held to a different standard than my brothers.  I was expected to do the women’s work and my brothers were not.  Whenever I did something (usually fun and) immature, my Dad would say, “I’m disappointed in you, Anna.  You acted like the boys today.”  Being the kid who wanted to please my parents more than anything in the world, this was always a blow.  I would vow to myself that I would try harder.

As a kid and a teenager, I wanted to join the military and thinking that my Dad might be proud, I told him.  “No you won’t.  The military is no place for a girl.  I won’t allow it.”  As it turns out, because of a health issue, I wouldn’t have been eligible anyway, but it was the difference between the encouragement of my brothers doing it and me not being allowed that made it memorable.

At one point in college, I found myself being the only girl playing a football-type game with all guys.  That wasn’t too uncommon in high school, but when one of the guys took me aside and told me that it was inappropriate for me to be the only girl playing such a rough game with about 20 guys, he asked me to leave and, being completely embarrassed, I did.  I look back now and wish I’d ignored him and kept on playing, but I didn’t.

When I married Ethan, I started to believe that for the first time in my life, I was beautiful and that I didn’t need to go out of my way to cover up my body.  He liked when I wore skirts that were above my knees and tops that weren’t burgeoning on high Victorian collars.

My next step in the process came when we were trying to find a church to attend.  There was one church (Crossway), and for some reason, each Sunday that we attended, I would get the same angry feeling that I did in ATI.  So instead of praying it away or dismissing it, I began to take note.  First, I saw that on the Sunday’s where I attended church and Ethan was not with me, they did not hand me a bulletin because they only ever handed the bulletins to the men.  Then, I noticed that men would avoid looking at me or talking to me.  In fact, there was one conversation that stuck out in my mind.  A man came up to Ethan to ask if he would lead a small group discussion.  I stood directly beside Ethan and the man asked Ethan, “Would your wife be interested in assisting you?”  Ethan laughed, not giving it any thought. “She’s right here, ask her.”

He turned to me and asked and I said I’d think about it.  I was already a little burned by the fact that not only are women not allowed to lead any sort of Bible study where there might be men or boys over the age of 12 (is that the age of manhood?), but the guy had to have permission from my husband to talk to me.  There were other comments about the place of a woman from the pulpit, usually along the lines of if you’re married, you should be having and raising children.  I had no children, and thus, I was likely viewed as a threat by the men of the church.

The most obvious example of the gender segregation was the Men’s prayer breakfast and the church workday afterwards.  Ethan went to the men’s prayer breakfast where the women made, served, and cleaned up after the men’s breakfast.  Afterwards, Ethan brought me back with him to work.  Out of the 500 people in the congregation, how many women do you think were there for the work day?  One.  Me.  So the whole time, I got comments like, “You work like a man,” and “Wow, you look like you’ve done this before,” and my favorite, “you know your outdoor work, but can you cook?”  At that point, and with my hands covered in wood chips and mud, I refrained from slapping the man.  Before that point, all of the things that I had noticed had gone unnoticed by Ethan.  It wasn’t happening to him, so he was oblivious to it.  I told him about these things that I was noticing, and slowly, he was starting to see things for what they really were for himself.  It was not long after the church workday that we left that church.

Is this what Christian fellowship is supposed to look like?  Is it supposed to be driven by fear of our sin natures?  I should hope not.

Not long ago, a Christian speaker asked, “How do I teach men how to be men?”  I would ask instead, what does it mean to be a man?  Most father seminars run along the lines of teaching men to “lead their families,”  using words like “leadership, decisive, strong, protection, etc…”  Is that really what a man should be?  What about the men who are nothing like that?  Perhaps they have no desire to “lead” their women.  Great.  What if the man and woman fall naturally into those prescribed roles?  Great.

What would happen if that concept was to change?  What if men were held to the same standards as women?   What would the world look like if men were taught to be kind, generous, thoughtful, loving, and serving?  What if women were taught to love themselves for who they are, tomboy or girly girl?  Would it be so wrong to embrace every part of each human?  And would we then be able to view gender roles as safety nets for our sinful natures?

The Jars…

The Jars of Truth

This summer, I decided to do an experiment. I’m calling it the “jars of truth.”  One is a jar with a label stating “Jar of Thankfulness” and underneath there is a verse “Give thanks in all things…” (1 Thess. 5:18).  Above the verse is a smiley face.  On the second jar, the “Jar of Ungratefulness” (frowny face), the verse “Out of the heart the mouth speaks…” (Luke 6:45) is written.  For the Thankfulness jar, there is a dish of white stones in front of it.  For the Ungratefulness jar, there are black stones (we got them for some sort of Chinese board game that we never learned how to play).  One stone for each noticed thought or word that is thankful or not.

There are several reasons for these jars.  The most important being, there was far too much complaining going on in the house.  In my family of origin, complaining is its own art form.  It goes hand in hand with the other practiced family traits of pessimism, skepticism, criticism and cynicism.  Negativity central.  And having two brothers here for the summer and my own self, I knew that ungratefulness would rob us of a truly enjoyable summer.  I was also noticing a trend of what I like to call “pre-complaining.”  That is complaining about something before it’s actually occurred.

Example: 

Me: We’re going camping this weekend.

Brother who shall not be named: *whine* It’s going to be hot and I don’t like sleeping outside, etc…

Reality: It was chilly and he slept on an air mattress in the truck.

The next reason for having these jars is to see that being thankful makes us see the good that God has for us in everything.  Giving thanks not only helps us to see the good things, but also builds trust that God wants to give us these things.  Complaining robs us of joy and the actual experience itself.  Negativity taints the perception of reality.  Not that there isn’t a time to admit that everything is not ideal or perfect, but it takes more work to notice the good sometimes—and that is work worth learning to do.

At first, I thought of just having a thankfulness jar, but that didn’t seem enough.  I wanted us to be aware of reality.  And being mostly boys (or a tomboy in my case), I knew we needed to make it a sort of competition.  So, at the end of each week, we look to see which jar outweighs which.   So far, there has been much less complaining.  Even though I contributed several black stones last night for my attitude, this week’s thankfulness jar still won out.  Yay us!

The personal why of the jars…

Earlier this year, I was (finally) diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) and this practice of mindfulness in thankfulness really goes hand-in-hand with other things that I’m working to learn: setting firm boundaries for what I will and won’t do for others, admitting that I can’t always accomplish something physically or mentally (depending on the day or week or month), and that I need to be fine with just being and not always doing.  This is tough since most of my life, I’ve been completely reliant on myself and accomplishing goals is how I’ve defined both myself and success.  And yet, if God had not forcefully slowed me down from my sprinting through life, I would not have learned many of these important lessons.    Thankfully, because I’ve tried to be very careful with how much I extend myself this year, I am (physically) feeling like a different person than the one I was a year ago 🙂

So I suppose that these jars are a physical extension of what I’m trying to learn: to notice and be grateful for the moment instead of always looking to the next thing.

Standing in the Shadow of Mother’s Day

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Please don’t ask mothers to stand, please don’t ask mothers to stand, I thought over and over this past Sunday morning.  I would not stand, even though I’ve been like a mother most of my life.

When I was young, and my mom only had five or six children, I remember looking forward to each Mother’s Day.  At the time, we attended a very large southern church and each year without fail, the pastor would ask mothers to stand.  To make things interesting, he would say something like, “If you have more than three children, please remain standing.”  This continued until there were only one or two women standing; they were usually in their eighties and had between twelve and thirteen children.

Every year, my mom would proudly stand and wait as the numbers of women standing dwindled.  As a kid, I felt so much pride that this was my mother.  In my eyes, she was a super hero.  I loved the gasps that swirled around us as she continued to stand.  It wasn’t lost on me though, that the admiration for five turned into incredulity of her sanity by six.  The blessed “quiver full of arrows,” came to be seen as being placed in the hands of mad men.

And each year, my mother scanned the large congregation for her personal rival, Mrs. Merriweather.*  It began with child #5 and continued through until Mom eventually took the lead at #9, nine years later.  Looking back, Mrs. Merriweather may never have known that their birthing of children was a competition, but in my mother’s mind, she not only knew, but was a bitter rival.  Sneers, slights and unkind looks were reported by my mother on a regular basis.  But I digress.

It was between child #6 and #7 that pride for my mother on this day, turned to one of conflicted shame.  It was the shame of a partial lie.  It really began with Mom’s depression that began before the birth of my sister (child #5), but being only six years old myself, I did not fully grasp the situation.  I remember making the conscious decision that Mom needed help, but did not realize until later that she needed much more than that.  By child #7, my innocent understanding of life had crumbled like a sandcastle in the tide.  My eyes were wide open to reality.  Mom was so busy trying to cope with her own deep depression, that she was unable to be a mom except to the babies.  She loved and cared for the babies because they fulfilled her need to be completely needed, but as soon as they became remotely independent, they became my children to take care of.

I remember wanting children when I was really young, but after basically raising my younger siblings, I realized that I never even wanted to marry, much less have kids.  These are the things that I thought about as my mother stood so proudly each year on Mother’s Day.  I loved her and I knew that she was trying, and yet, I couldn’t help feeling sick to my stomach that she was not the only mother.  It felt like a lie.  Mom birthed them, I took care of them. I sat silent, covered in the shadow of her standing figure.  I never stood.

So this year, as Mother’s Day came around, I thought back to those days; especially now, raising Nicolas.  When I mention that I became my brother’s guardian and I am back in the role of raising him, most people are very supportive.  However, there was one particular woman who took me back to my shadow days.  She vehemently told me, “You’re not his mother.  You’ll never be his mother.  It’s not the same, so don’t try to compare yourself to one when you don’t know what you’re talking about.”  I was stunned to silence.  It took me back to one of my most painful memories as a teenager.  Most painful because it was the quintessential example of how adults who didn’t know my situation, viewed me.

Mom had 9 kids by this point, and she had just had her second miscarriage in a row. She was devastated.  The house was a wreck and as usual, I was doing my best to keep everything under control.  An older, well-meaning couple from our church came over to bring words of comfort to Mom.  After the wife prayed with my mom in a caring tone of voice, I showed the husband and wife to the front door.  With a child on one hip and a laundry basket on the other, I thanked them for coming.  But instead of leaving, the husband turned to me and said, “Your yard is a wreck.  You really should get a handle on the poison ivy outside.”

“I know,” I was embarrassed. “I’ve tried but I’m really allergic, and it keeps coming back, so it’s difficult.”

“That’s no excuse,” he said.  He proceeded to tell me how to do it.

At that point, the wife chimed in, stepping close to my face and sticking an angry finger a few inches from my nose. “You’re lazy,” she said.  Her gentle tone of voice she’d used with mom was gone.  In it’s place was a hard, steely one.  “You need to help your mom.  This place is a mess.  She has taken care of all of you, and what do you do when she’s in need?  Nothing, from what I can tell.”  With that, they turned and left without looking back.  Every time I think back to that moment, and even now as I write, I shake with how ashamed I felt.  It was being told that my sacrifice of my life up to that point was nothing.  It was not good enough.  I understand that they had no idea, but it still cut deep.

So as these memories and thoughts came back to me, I was relieved that although mothers were thanked and acknowledged, this Sunday, there was no standing involved.  I don’t ever want Nicolas to think that I’m trying to replace Mom.  I’m not.  I will always be his sister and I will always love Mom.  So thank you to the thoughtful people who whispered a happy Mother’s Day to me when he was not around.  It meant so much to me that you were thinking not only of me but of him as well.

The Forgotten Element

Accompanying this man was a blast. He was a professional.

Accompanying this man was a blast.  He was on loan from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

A few years ago, I took a little job accompanying for a Suzuki strings studio.  It’s challenging, but learning so many new pieces, and polishing my accompanying skills is so much fun.  So this week, as I’ve been practicing for hours each day in preparation for the big recital, I remembered my own accompanists from years ago.

In college, I never truly appreciated how much an accompanist does.  Being a typical singer, I would forget to count half way through the long notes, and fudge a bit (for breath-sake) on the odd rhythms.  Tricky entrances were my worst fear.  I also chose the songs with the most difficult accompaniment because they were the most beautiful.  And somehow, they kept up with me and never complained.

Little did I realize the possible headaches and eye rolls that my poor accompanists held back for my sake.  And now that I am the one sitting at the piano most of the time, I have learned a few things.

  1. Turning pages is hard and sometimes impossible if you don’t have a nifty assistant beside you.  Although frowned upon, I use the spread out copies method for the most difficult, long pieces.  I’ve also learned the folded corners trick and the memorize-the-first-measure-of-the-next-page trick.  Who would’ve imagined that practicing flawless page turns sometimes takes more practice than the actual song?
  2. A good accompanist must be all-knowing.  Your part, the soloists part, everybody’s part and be prepared for them to mess up.
  3. When they do mess up (not if), you must use mind-reading techniques to decide how they’re going to react before they do it.
  4. You must learn the piece at every speed imaginable.  Child A studied diligently and learned the piece at the perfect speed, Child B takes it a bit too slow because the fingerings are tricky, and Child C thinks that this is a roller derby (fast, lightening speed, and haltingly slow).
  5. You Tube can be your best friend.  Are you bad at multi-tasking on those more tricky pieces and humming over your piano part doesn’t work?  I am.  That’s why I type it into You Tube and listen to 3 people butcher it before I find a decent recording.
  6. Trying to convince a parent that his/her child is not perfect is not a good idea.  I have one parent in particular, that each year, while I’m accompanying for her child, thinks that every mistake is mine.  Not a big deal until she refuses to pay me because there is no way it’s because her daughter hasn’t learned her piece well enough.   Again, if I could mind-read her child, this would be no problem, but alas, I cannot.
  7. If you do make a mistake, everyone will notice and likely remember.  If you don’t mess up, few will notice that you played at all.  It makes me laugh, but it’s completely true.

This is my heartfelt thank you to my accompanists (Tim, Tim, Dishon, and Roy) for not killing me during college.  You really showed me the grace of God.

2013: A Year of Unexpected Gifts and Blessings in Disguise

Hiking

Gift #1—Keeping Hope Through Disappointment

2013 was a trying year.  In May, I began to feel as if the mono, that I had been dealing with for 2 1/2 years, was finally subsiding.  For the first time, I felt well. I was so happy and relieved, that when I started feeling badly 2 weeks later,  I was just thankful for the window of respite.  This time around though, the illness was different. There were similarities (fever, headaches, and fatigue), but this one was scarier because it involved my heart and intense pain at unexpected times.

In August, I was assigned a heart monitor.   Let me just take a moment to describe to you what it’s like to wear a heart monitor.  First, there are two parts to the heart monitor.  There is the one part that is worn on a lanyard and hangs where most women would have issues with cleavage and is attached to five wires.  The five wires are clipped to the diodes (these sticky little circles on the body) in five specific areas.  The other part is an ancient looking cellphone that must be worn close to the monitor.   At the end of the month though, I was sorely disappointed and frustrated to learn that the heart monitor only worked part of two separate days in that entire month.  Every “episode” that I tried to record, didn’t go through.  After it was over, the red, itching, and raw circles on my skin from the diodes took two months to heal. There was no way I was doing that again.  The ordeal was…unfortunate.

Next up was an infectious disease specialist who sent me for chest x-rays, CT scans, and a cornucopia of blood work.  After months of testing and nothing showing up, he ended by saying, “We’ve done everything to find the source of the fever, but I have a feeling that you may be the 1% of that people that have an extremely rare form of an infection in the heart.  Knowing your history,” he said with a laugh, “you might be someone that is featured in the medical journals.  However, the only way to know that for sure is to do a somewhat risky procedure that I don’t want to do unless your fever is higher and stays that way.”

So, it’s the next year and I am back to where I started.  Only this time, I have the nifty catch-all label of “Fever of Unknown Origin.”  I am currently feeling much better in many ways. I still run a fever most days, have headaches, and am tired but less often, and overall, I don’t hurt as much nor as often.

I know this was a long way to say that through all of this, I’ve learned that it’s okay to just let other people help you carry your burden.  I’ve always been such a fiercely independent person that it is very hard for me to even ask for prayer from others.  My family, church family, and friends have done this for me and I am so extremely grateful.

  I’ve also learned that sometimes, it’s okay to trudge when you can’t run.  I mean this both literally and figuratively.  Sometimes when I ran, I felt okay as long as I ran slowly enough.  Other times, I would barely be running and feel as if I was dying.  Now that I’m feeling mostly better, I’ve been able to run faster and feel better than I have in nearly 3 years.  I don’t know why this is, but I am so thankful for it.

Gift #2—Becoming a mother without the title (again…sort of)

After making the promise as a teenager to care for my siblings if needed (see previous post), it finally happened.  My youngest brother came to live with us.  He was having trouble at home and at school, and Ethan and I both knew that God wanted us to have Nicolas come and live with us.  We became his legal guardians in September.

Since he’s come to live with us, I’ve come to know what a special young man he is with so much potential, but with so many old bad habits and heartaches that are difficult for him to face. (I know that I’m biased because I think that all of my siblings are the most wonderful people in the world, but trust me, they are).  At times, like the last 3 weeks, I’m reminded of how human we both are and why I need to be in constant prayer.  I’ve come to learn just how difficult trying to teach a 15 year old how his actions affect others is, when he has been in survivor mode his whole life and self-protection is all he knows.  It’s very much like adopting a 15 year old orphan.

And yet, there are those random moments when he opens up and I can see how beautiful a heart he has.  He is creative, has a great sense of humor, is kind to people who are having a hard time.  During Advent, he was my secret buddy and helped out with all kinds of chores because he knows that one of my love languages is service.  These are the moments that I try to remember when, in months like this one, he’s letting out years of hurt and frustration on those closest.

I’m so thankful to have him here in our lives.  I’ve learned so many things about myself, Nick, and how Ethan and I work as a team.   Life is pretty different now, but I’m glad.  I look forward to what 2014 will bring.