Sometimes life hurts. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we dive deeply into darkness. Sometimes we fall.
Sometimes our lives line up so perfectly we can’t help but sense the hand of the divine helping us clear our paths and point us toward wonder. Other times we plan and work, make vision boards, bullet journal, dream journal, gratitude journal, think positive, dream big, and repeat affirmations until we finally take in the joyful chest-inflating breath of a goal welcomed.
Sometimes we can’t help but see the roles we’ve played our experiences, how we’ve drawn certain experiences into our own lives. We see how those experiences have impacted our lives for pleasure or pain, but almost always (if we are willing and able to work with them) for our growth.
Sometimes we do everything “right” and end up disappointed. Sometimes we float along without intention and land in the “right” places.
The past few weeks, I’ve been sitting with the many layers held by the concept, and the manifest reality, of mother, mothering, and motherhood. Mother is seen in the divine feminine, in the cosmos, and in the sea and the glow of the moon. She is held in our genes and our histories and the eyes of our children. She is found in archetypes of healing, nurturing, and comfort, as well as in stories of criticism, coldness, and abuse. She is the soft one who tends grief and holds hands and braids hair, and she is the unbreakable one whose labor and caregiving is taken for granted in most areas of her life. We carry our mothers with us in our DNA, in our stories, and in the way we navigate the impacts of intergenerational trauma.
She doesn’t always appear in our stories in simple or easy ways. Some of us mother children we did not or could not grow in our bodies; some of us birth babies who are now mothered by others. Some of us are not mothers at all. Some of us had mothers who could not love us unconditionally, or did not have mothers in our lives, or had mothers who brought us more pain and humiliation than comfort, from whose effects we are still recovering, are still healing. Others have mother wounds, mother blessings, that escape delineation in a single blog post restrained both by its word count and the sometimes-limited imagination of its author.
Mother is a tough concept for me. My own relationship with my biological mother was a source of confusion and heartache for years; the resolution of that internal conflict left me feeling cut off from my maternal grandparents, whose influence on my early life was wholly positive, loving, and stabilizing. Connecting with my ancestors is a part of my spiritual practice, so this loss was present with me, in my heart and waking meditations as well as in my rich dream life, which included frequent visits to my grandparents’ home. Each morning I’d awaken from a dream spent in that space to the stifling realization that their home – my childhood home for my earliest memories – had been torn down years ago…
Yesterday, Time Magazine announced that its “Person of the Year” for 2017 would be “The Silence Breakers” – the name it has given to those women who helped launch and made headlines in the #metoo movement. This movement was started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 to highlight the sexual abuse of women of color and was sent viral by actor Alyssa Milano in 2017. It speaks volumes that this designation falls exactly one year after Time awarded this honor to Donald Trump for the political shift heralded by his defeat of Hillary Clinton.
This defeat that was fueled, at least in part, by the way Trump’s own normalization of sexism, harassment, and assault played on the fears and bitterness of misogynist voters hell-bent on preserving what racial, gender, and economic privilege they could continue to hoard for themselves and those like them. This defeat, and the ensuing glorification of a sexual predator and rampant misogynist, in turn fueled a movement of people, mostly women, tired of being scared into silence to protect the powerful who abuse.
When the movement first picked up steam a few months ago, I found myself thrilled by the momentum. With each news report declaring a new power player whose reign of manipulation had fallen under the weight of multiple corroborating stories of abuse, I would cheer. “Let ‘em fall like dominoes,” I’d mutter to myself, too realistic from years of supporting survivors of rape and sexual abuse to feel the joy necessary for schadenfreude. After a while, though, as more and more abusers were identified among the ranks of leaders, celebrities, and crowd favorites, it became overwhelming to consider both the magnitude of the shift occurring as well as its impact.
Some of the most brutal weapons ever used against me were crafted and wielded by my own hands, forged in grief and self-loathing out of the words of others. In my better moments, I recognize that while another’s frustration with me frequently may be justified, any cruel words towards me never are, and are more a reflection of their speakers’ relationship with themselves than of any facts about me.
The parent who criticized me for being a “crybaby” saw in me a freedom of emotion that challenged the stoic denial of their own pain. The friend who criticized my optimism as “naïveté” and ignorance resented their own lack of hope about their future. The loved one who lashed out against my precious family deeply wished to experience that profound sense of belonging and acceptance that they’d not yet allowed themselves to feel…
Over the past few months, a precious person has come closer into my family’s life in such a way that their presence in my home, among my loved ones, has come to feel natural and easy. This is someone I love, someone who adores my children and appreciates my partner of 18 years and whose sweet spirit and vibrant laughter have added joy and mirth to our family home.
Yesterday, they rode with me to drop my freshly-mohawked teenager off at a farm to help with preparations for an upcoming arts camp. I introduced them by name to the camp assistant and walked over to chat with the camp director for a bit. Later, as we got back into the car to head to lunch, I asked what they thought of the farm.
“It was nice,” they said. “I’m glad your children have a place like that. Also, while I was chatting with the camp assistant, she asked if I was family.”
“What did you say?”
“I said yes.”
They weren’t wrong.
The meaning the word “family” holds for me is something I’ve given much consideration over the years.
Last month, I attended a series of workshops on self-care, family dynamics, and recovery from complex trauma. In one session, someone asked the facilitator, a counselor with over 30 years of experience in mental health fields, how to balance faith, confidence, and belief in recovery with the reality that sometimes healing can be a rocky road, with missteps, false starts, and restarts. The counselor noted that one of the key concepts he’s reinforced in working with people on their recoveries is that to keep moving forward – to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes, to not give up on ourselves when old patterns resurface, to sustain the energy needed to continue The Work in the face of obstacles, doubt, and fear – we need to be able to hold two truths at once. We need to expand ourselves such that we can hold two realities – that our hope in ourselves is not misplaced, that we are strong and can overcome adversity, and that we can move through our lives with grace and skill; and also that we may slip up and fall short of our ideals, that we sometimes may feel fragile and overwhelmed, and that recovery (from trauma, grief, substance abuse, or illness) may include steps backward intermixed with the forward movement.
This concept was especially powerful for me. As someone who spent my childhood and young adult years mired in black-or-white thinking, my personal healing and much of my spiritual practice has been built around reconciling seeming opposites, not by blurring difference such that the unlike becomes like, but by digging into the ways in which the tension between opposites is itself fertile soil for the activity of creation and growth, art and brilliance. Since creation is, for me, the sacred in action, and understanding of self in the context of the cosmos is sacred practice, this gives the tension of two truths a spiritual meaning and the fluid give-and-take that holds them in balance a spiritual wisdom…
I’ve been thinking lately about grief – about broken expectations and heartache and fear and anxiety and all that we’re told those things are supposed to mean or be to us. There’s an underlying current of thought in American culture, put there by hundreds of years of bootstrap theology, patriarchal models that privilege mind over body, and positive thinking pop psychology, that tries to convince us that grief cannot coexist with joy, that humor cannot coexist with sadness, or that anger cannot coexist with love. We are told that these things cannot go together, and thus we must choose, pick which one we want to give power in our lives, as if the experience of one emotion, of one way of being, precludes all others… as if allowing ourselves to feel deeply, to be present in our bodies and their experiences, is to betray the cultural expectation to be okay, always okay… as if allowing ourselves to feel regret means we have no gratitude, or questioning shows insufficient faith in a loving God’s goodness…
In 2011, the Anglican Theological Review published arguments for and against same-sex marriage. “A Theology of Marriage including Same-Sex Couples: A View from the Liberals,” co-written by Deirdre Good, Cynthia Kittredge, Eugene Rogers, and Willis Jenkins, presents a rationale for same-sex marriage that is surprisingly traditional, grounded in scripture and doctrine, understood and interpreted “in the company of patristic interpreters as well as in the company of readers long silenced by the tradition.” Part of the liberal view explores the relationship between eros and caritas, and how the marriage vows, which “mark marriage as an arduous form of training in virtue,” teach us to love and “offer a means by which God may turn eros into charity.”
As someone for whom eros is both a modality of intimate communion and manifest expression of divine love, the idea that it would need to be transformed into something less sensual, more socially acceptable, seems an arbitrary sanitization that positions eros as untamed and dangerous, in need of redemption by sexless ideals of Christian charity. Admittedly, my aversion to scrubbing eros of its rawness likely comes from my own understanding of the word, which might differ from that of traditional Christian theology, and which is inherently tied to the ways in which I’ve known the divine more deeply through expansive, mystical, erotic experiences that engaged my every sense in the coolness of rivers and grazing touch of mountain breezes.
Last month, I attended a lecture by Anglican theologian Adrian Thatcher on his recent book, Redeeming Gender. In this book, Thatcher draws upon the one sex and two sex theories described by Thomas Laqueur in his book, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Laqueur posits that until the eighteenth century, it was believed that women and men were two expressions of the same basic sex – that women were men whose reproductive organs were similar but found in the “wrong” places. Ovaries were internal testes, the vagina an inverted penis, and the labia a parallel for the scrotum – all making women flawed expressions of man.
This sets up a continuum in which there is one sex rather than two, with men as more perfect expressions of man, and women as inferior expressions. Thatcher argues that if the language, liturgy, and doctrines of the church arose in the context of the one sex theory, then Christianity’s foundational beliefs and practices are already compatible with acceptance of a spectrum of gender identity within a one-sex model, opening up new interpretations that allow for full participation of women and LGBTQ+ people within the church. While the old one sex theory as described by Laqueur is a spectrum from more to less perfection, from more to less like God, the spectrum Thatcher proposes is clearly progressive – one in which all places along the spectrum share in the same equality.
And yet it is still a linear spectrum, with extremes envisioned as opposites, as distant from each other…
When I was 19, I fell hard into the kind of deep depression that hits college kids whose unstable upbringings, rife with inconsistency and trauma, left them ill-prepared to face the self-direction and responsibility of independence. I didn’t grow up religious despite my father’s attempts to turn visitation weeks into conversions, but had started attending the local Episcopal cathedral months earlier after seeing its stunningly beautiful windows on a historic tour. Having taken basic stained glass courses when I was 18, I’d been mesmerized by the artistry and would sit in a different pew each week, drifting into and out of awareness of the service, eyes trained on the nearest window, lost in contemplation, love pouring in.
When the darkness became too much and I sought more of that love through spiritual care and reflection, I walked into the church library and thumbed through the directory looking for resources, and was hopeful to discover that the Episcopal Church had convents. That afternoon, I dialed the number for the nearest convent, and in that especially dramatic way of depressed 19-year-old artist types with backgrounds in theater, I declared that I couldn’t handle life in the world anymore and that I might want to become a nun. Sister Ann told me that their order was less an escape from the world than a new way of being fully present in it, but invited me to spend Christmas at the convent.
What started out as a holiday visit became several months of me spending every day that I wasn’t in class or at work at the convent, living in the guest house, attending five services a day, helping with maintaining the grounds, and spending as many waking hours as I could in the library, face buried in the works of medieval women mystics….
Christmas morning. I don’t usually have Sundays free and our family holiday celebrations lean nontraditional, so I’d come to a special ecstatic dance celebration and brought my 9-year-old daughter with me. As the music started and people all around us began to flow and move, I reached out to touch her hand. As if she’d been doing it for years, she shifted into a beautiful contact improv flow with me, rolling her arm down and across mine as she beamed love and radiance right into my heart.
This child brings up so many feelings in me as I watch her grow.
On many occasions at ecstatic dance, I’ve looked around the room and been overwhelmed by the beauty of the dancers and their joyful embodiment. When delight, peace, and ease are conditioned out of many of our bodily relationships through past traumas, body issues, or simply living in a disembodied or misembodied culture, feeling comfortable in our own skins is simultaneously an intentional act of cultural resistance and a profound act of self-care and self-love. Being present in the ecstatic dance space with lovely people moving confidently in fluid, sensual, emphatic, and silly ways fills my heart to overflowing on any given dance day.
Being present in that space with my daughter, looking around the room and imagining what it must look like through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl, gave it a whole new hue of meaning…
In my other writing for Feminism and Religion, I’ve discussed how a key focus of my spiritual path involves dancing within the tension of opposites, finding ways to move mindfully and freely inside the orbit of sacred circularities in which every curve leads into and out of its inverse, with infinite shades in between. Two areas of my life in which this tension has informed my lived experience are socioeconomic class and education. I’m only two generations away from factory workers and electricians, and three generations removed from a long line of poor farmers. Both of my grandparents on my mom’s side – with whom I lived as a child and whose influence on my life is felt every day – dropped out of school to work on their families’ farms.
And yet I was the little nerd in the gifted program, in two grades at once, through most of my childhood, even as my parents worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. By the time I left for college, I’d worked hard to rid myself of my Southern accent, not wanting to be flagged as uneducated or backwoods.
Whatever the markers for “poor” or working class in any given region – accent or dress or dialect – they frequently are coded as less intelligent. The impacts of these assumptions are felt early, as children from low-income or minority families are often overlooked for and underrepresented in gifted education programs, and the impacts are later reflected in graduation rates and college attendance statistics by demographic. Even as colleges work to provide opportunities for lower-income kids to attend, the dialogue typically focuses on how access to a specific, Western model of education can raise up underprivileged kids, and not on how getting smart kids from a diversity of backgrounds into the university system can expand the very boundaries of how a field understands itself and the framework within which it conducts its research…
… Less important in the greater scheme of injustice but still pinching my heart was the realization that my trees – my breathtaking, “natural,” inspiring live oaks – weren’t part of the ancient beauty of this stunning landscape, but rather were substitutes for that ancient beauty, stand-ins chosen for their aesthetic splendor after the complete destruction of what had been. As someone whose path is largely Pagan, this provided a parallel for some of my own experiences within the Pagan and Goddess spirituality movements…
Last month, I took a dear friend on a trip to the North Carolina mountains. Throughout the trip we were sharply aware that we were no longer in the progressive enclave where we both lived – the tiny area whose deep blue always stands out in votes-by-county maps after elections and whose responses to discriminatory legislation like HB2 – the controversial “bathroom bill” that prevented trans people from using the restrooms that correspond to their identities – has always been resistance.
Even in our progressive bubble, though, transphobic people found themselves empowered by legislative support to speak louder and more harshly to gender nonconforming people. Leaving that bubble for two days of rural travel with a trans friend meant a thread of tension that followed us throughout much of our trip, as every glance, every bathroom break and every interaction with strangers had the potential to become upsetting or frightening…
Last month, I took a dear friend on a trip to the North Carolina mountains. For months, I’d been telling him about the spiritual impact the Appalachian landscape has on me – about how my heart opens when the skyline first comes into view, with its arches pushing skyward from the horizon, sculpted curves rising up from streams that wash through valleys. He’d heard me talk about my favorite spaces – the river whose water wraps me in tiny galaxies of dazzling mica on brisk, soul-awakening swims, the rock by the river where I sit to meditate, and the wooded paths and bamboo forests who’ve been watered by my tears when my heart was heavy. He confessed that while he’d visited the mountains a few times, he’d never had the opportunity to dive into the lush beauty of North Carolina’s mountain forests and stunning views, and we planned a quick trip for before his mid-July move to Canada.
The county where we live is a tiny area of North Carolina whose deep blue always stands out in votes-by-county maps after elections. We voted strongly against NC’s marriage amendment a few years ago, and have numerous churches – even Baptist churches – that are welcoming congregations. After HB2 was passed in March – the controversial “bathroom bill” that prevented trans people from using the restrooms that correspond to their identities – dozens of new restrooms showed up in online databases of safe bathrooms, and after the Pulse nightclub massacre, our city governments put up rainbow flags, as well as trans, agender, asexual, and bisexual flags. Even in our progressive bubble, though, transphobic people found themselves empowered by legislative support to speak louder and more harshly to gender nonconforming people – not just in the context of protests and counter-protests, but as they were going about their everyday lives.
My trans friends have told me of being mocked while out around town and misgendered intentionally in the workplace, in addition to experiencing the kinds of abuses I won’t break confidence to divulge, and these abuses being on top of the ever-present stresses of being unintentionally misgendered, asked intrusive questions by acquaintances and coworkers, and frustrated at the kinds of support sometimes received from well-meaning friends and family. Even in a reasonably well-protected bubble, things are not ideal. Leaving that bubble for two days of rural travel with a trans friend provided a thread of tension that followed us throughout much of our trip, as every glance, every bathroom break, every interaction with strangers, and every meal stop had the potential to become upsetting at a minimum, and possibly frightening.
Our trip turned out to be lovely – we swam through the sparkle-clouds of the Swannanoa River, discovered dens of garter snakes along parkway overlooks with awe-inspiring views, and hiked trails by waterfalls. As relaxing as so much of the trip was, throughout it all we were sharply aware that the predominant culture in those parts of our state made rural NC a not entirely safe place for my friend. Restroom choices varied over the course of the trip based on where we were, and glares from strangers reminded me that HB2 has made trans people more visible, more acknowledged (for better or worse) than they were before. When we arrived at the motel near Linville for the night, my friend sized up the look of the place and the people heading in and out, and told me he’d let me do the talking. Disappearing into a display of rocks in the lobby gift shop, he watched as I transformed into a hardcore southerner with a thick country accent, trash-talking with the innkeeper as he teased and joked. While I live in one of the more progressive areas of the Southeast, am college-educated, and hold some intensely leftist political and social views, I come from a long line of poor Southern farmers and that accent was my natural one until I was a teenager and realized the stigma in academic circles against Southern accents. I still slip into it unintentionally when talking to my family who live in rural areas, and had slipped into it without conscious thought in my interactions with the innkeeper.
Whether we’ll admit it or not, there’s a certain prejudice in the South against anyone perceived to be an outsider. “You ain’t from around these parts” is not usually considered high praise, and those of us who are from “these parts” but live a little differently know that rule number one of avoiding conflict in deeply Southern, rural areas is not to stand out. This is where my privilege becomes obvious – as a white, Southern, cis woman, I can easily blend in if I choose to. I’ve never really thought about the ways in which I code-switch when around other Southerners; for the most part, it just happens around my family thoughtlessly and without pretense. On this trip, however, I became more aware of the ways in which I do it as a protective measure around other Southerners with whom I am attempting to establish rapport, smooth out awkwardness, or defuse conflict. The underlying intent, subconscious though it may be, is to be accepted as “one of the crowd” so as not to be on the receiving end of any of white Southern culture’s negative tendencies. And when it comes to passing as “one of us,” I can usually succeed, because as long as nobody pays attention to the bumper stickers on my car, I visibly look like a white, cis woman and can readily sound like a Southerner.
Not everybody has that option. Not every person who does chooses to take it in every circumstance, and I can guarantee that had anyone been aggressive, unkind, or violent to my sweet friend while we were on this trip, I would easily have thrown out any chance of passing for mountain folk in order to stand by, support, and defend him. Any obstacle he encountered on this trip, he wouldn’t have encountered alone, and while my role isn’t to speak or fight for him, I definitely call out transphobic bullshit when I see it and would have encouraged people to respect and listen to him. I’d speak and fight with him against those who would harm him. I don’t have any idea what it is like to be trans. I’m an ally, a friend. But I’m a friend who tries to listen carefully when people tell me about their experiences. I’m a friend who knows what it’s like to see an interaction unfold from several meters away, listening to hushed tones of voice for frustration or stress, narrowed eyes watching body language and facial expressions. I’ve done it enough times with different people in different situations – friends and family who are vulnerable for one reason or another – that I can feel my energy transform when I go from relaxed to alert, can feel the way my eyelids tighten and eyebrows shift. My way of looking changes as I try to assess any need for me to step up, to stand behind my loved ones, or to put myself between them and harm. On this trip, I spent a lot of time alert. I spent a lot of time paying attention.
And I spent a lot of time learning.
Anyone who’s read an article or seen memes about privilege knows that one of the key concepts is that just because something isn’t a problem for you personally doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Just because bathroom bills don’t affect you personally doesn’t mean they don’t harm people – good people, wonderful people, loving people who have already experienced too much discrimination, abuse, and violence. Just because they don’t make you feel unsafe doesn’t mean they don’t make others far less safe than they would be otherwise. Just because you can travel your state feeling relatively safe in its small towns and rural areas doesn’t mean others feel safe in the midst of conservative, evangelical, Christian culture, or that they feel welcome, or that they feel loved. Hospitality extended to those we think are like us is easy; hospitality extended to all people – hospitality that includes compassion, acceptance of differences, and genuine respect – that’s harder. We have a lot of work to do. Let’s join with those who are already doing it for their own communities, adding our voices, our strength, and our power to theirs.
“Great art is not a matter of presenting one side or another,
but presenting a picture so full of the contradictions, tragedies, [and] insights of the period
that the impact is at once disturbing and satisfying.” – Pauli Murray
My spirituality is inherently creative. Deep in the creative process, I open more fully to awareness of what is flowing around and in and through me. When I can get there – to that place of fully giving myself over to Spirit as a channel, vessel, and embodiment – creation itself becomes an act of prayer, of devotion, of intense ecstatic ritual to honor, grieve with, or celebrate the Ground of Being behind all expression. I craft, dig, carve, build, dance, drum, and sing. Mostly, my art involves words – spoken and written – to create moments, spark feelings, paint pictures, or shape ideas. Words carry tremendous meaning, unconsciously as well as when we use them consciously, with intention…