Saturday, August 31, 2013

Where to Go From Here

After we got married, Ryan and I rented one half of a duplex in a tiny, map-dot-of-a-town, right off US 68, forty miles north of Cincinnati.  We thought of going on a vacation early that fall, but then remembered we had recently graduated from college with a stupid amount of student-loan debt and he was getting ready to go back to school and we had no money for a vacation.  Instead, we both used our paid vacation week to stay home and tackle painting white the hideous grease-brown cabinets in the rental kitchen.

And we seriously underestimated the investment of time and effort required for that task.

Thoroughly exhausted and with our patience wearing dangerously thin, we decided to take one day and do something away from the house and away from those damn cabinets.  We got in my old Nissan and started driving south on US 68.  (Because obviously, if you're sick of working together for 18 hours a day on a tedious project, the ideal break from that would be to spend an entire day together in the car.)

I don't remember anything we talked about.  We probably spent a lot of time listening to music and not talking at all.  I remember we pulled over at a few places along the way to take photos, as well as taking a lot of drive-by pictures out the window.  I remember that by the time we got to Lexington, Kentucky the trip wasn't seeming like such an awesome idea.  While we could drive away exhaustion and frustration for a little while with the open road ahead of us, we still had to drive all the way back home to our bills and our real life and those damn cabinets.

And it was a long drive back.  

Sometimes I think about what it would have been like if we hadn't gone back.  I'm not talking about actually running away, I just wonder what it would have been like if we hadn't felt like we had to do the standard jobs-kids-house thing and had done something totally different instead.  There were times we talked about it.  We talked about moving to the city, where I'd go to grad school.  We talked about moving to North Carolina so he could pursue a different type of job opportunity.  But we didn't.  We always went back to real life -- near our families and where we grew up -- just like we did that day when we got to the other side of Lexington and turned around.

Our road-trip experience is only going to get me so far as a metaphor for my spiritual journey, but as I was reading the Daily Office this morning, something reminded of that trip and that same feeling of wanting to keep going because there were so few good reasons to go back.

In terms of my spiritual life, there are days I ask myself what was the big deal with how things were, back when I was still trying to fit that ideal of the good Christian girl my parents tried to raise me to be.  Some days I wonder what the hell I'm doing with all this unraveling and shattering and searching and weaving.  I am tired.  I feel alienated from a lot of people I used to feel like I was close to.  Would it really have been so bad to have stayed where I was?

I read the words of other people who have left behind a lot of the same things I have discarded and they seem so sure of their journey.  They are so sure of it that they can blog about it almost every day while writing a book about it and debating their thoughts about it on social media.  They have answers and direction and purpose.  It's not that I want to be those people, it's just that their certainty makes me wonder how I am still so unsure.  If I made the conscious decision to unravel it all and burn down what was left and leave all those paradigms in the dust, why do I still have that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I have no idea where I'm headed?

And that's the thing about going somewhere without any real plan.  At some point, the sense of adventure loses its luster and you get tired and irritated at yourself for agreeing to such a thing and you can't decide if it is worse to keep going or to give up and turn around.  Even if you're mostly sure it is worth it to press on, you can't be sure that what's ahead is actually better than what you left behind.  Perhaps what you're getting away from was painful, but maybe the unknown isn't actually better.

I am not sure.  I continue reading and questioning and praying and processing.  I'm squinting, trying to determine if this direction is really where I should be going.  I have this feeling that it's right there.  I can't see it, I can only sense that ahead is a better understanding of this beautiful mystery of the gospel and that this journey is about grasping the hem of Incarnation and astonishment and redemption and love.

I recently read Beauty Will Save the World by Brian Zahnd.  In it, he writes, "To rediscover Christianity in all of its astonishing mystery and beauty will utterly overwhelm us and make all of our notions about its devaluation feel completely redundant. It will leave our skepticism in shreds."  That is exactly how I feel.  Everything is slanting and my cynicism is falling away and it seems that rock around my heart is starting to crumble.  I can feel myself being broken and wrecked and I feel raw and exposed and I'm quite honestly a little frightened, but I keep going.  In a way, I'm not sure I could turn around, even though it seems that might be easier.

At this point I can't tell if it's me and my stubbornness or if the Holy Spirit may actually exist in the way I've always wondered was truly possible.  I really hope it's all true.  I really hope that if I keep going, someday, I'll manage to reach the point where my awareness of the mystery and beauty assures me I'm going in the right direction, even if I'm still not sure of where I'll end up.

I really don't want to go back.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Belonging Together

In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of making a practice of standing naked in front of a full-length mirror with a sense of reverence for the physical body one lives in.  She goes on to observe, "One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours."  When the narrative for a reverence of my own embodied self is based on the belief that God loves and cares for people – people in their skin-and-bones physical entirety and not only their heart and soul and mind – it is impossible for me to view others with less reverence and autonomy than I allow myself.  

When this reverence is my narrative, I cannot think of others only for who they are in my life or what interaction I have with them. 

While embracing this narrative has broadened the way I view everyone I encounter, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on how it has changed the way I think of my family and my role in it. I never fully bought in to the teaching that a wife belongs to her husband and children belong to their parents, but it was part of my framework and influenced my thinking and my actions.  The way I now see myself as a person and a woman has helped me better understand the way I view marriage and motherhood. 

I know I've explained before that I do not belong to Ryan, my husband, but then it follows that neither does he belong to me.  I've always known this, but wasn't sure of how to explain it when “belonging to” was my default understanding.  I don't want to trivialize our relationship by arguing "we don't belong to each other," but I feel it is important to make the distinction between belonging to another person and choosing to belong together. 

Ryan’s role in life is not “Trischa’s husband.”  Yes, we said vows that we would build a life together and incorporate the role of husband or wife into who we are, but we did not take on the role of husband or wife as our entire identity.  It would be wrong to reduce Ryan from a person with his own passions and thoughts – many of which have nothing to do with me – to a role he fills in my life.  We choose that we belong together in our marriage, but we do not belong to each other.

Our sons, Luke and Owen, do not belong to me either.  Yes, I grew them inside my own body for a time and gave birth to them and nurture them and love them with a connected, reverent-awe kind of love.  I am their mother, but their role in life is not to be my children.  They belong to their own, autonomous selves and to the stardust from which their atoms were formed, and to God, who breathed life into their lungs.

They do not exist to exhibit behavior that would give me bragging rights or make me proud or conform to the way I think.  Treating my sons in that way would be to objectify them, to act as though they serve a function the way possessions do, which is not showing reverence for them as individual, embodied people.  I am responsible to actively teach them essential values and skills and celebrate with them when they excel or when they act with compassion and responsibility.  But I believe they learn much more about equality and consent and autonomy for themselves and others when they are encouraged to experience life within a framework of reverence, rather than training them to meet my expectations. 

My sons and I are in a life-long process of learning to love each other and figure out how we belong together as flesh and blood, but they do not belong to me.

Thinking that I belong to someone or that someone else belongs to me discounts that we all are unique individuals created in God’s image. I am better able to love with a deep, encompassing love when I embrace the incredible people around me as those I have the privilege of belonging with and when I allow them to determine how they belong in life with me.   

Note: I started writing this post last week, but just recently read a similarly-themed piece by Ben Irwin on why he does not intend to “give away” his daughter at her wedding.  It is beautiful and I highly recommend you read it here.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

More than 'Just' Friends

Relationships between men and women that do not involve romance and sex are usually referred to as ‘just’ friend relationships… few people seem aware that ‘just’ friend relationships can blossom into relationships of dialogical love. Those of us who have experienced the abundant being that can come from a deep personal relationship with a person of the opposite sex would never speak of our relationship as ‘just.’  Calling these relationships ‘just’ is not only misleading; it trivializes the relationship in a way that seems sacrilege. – John Scudder and Anne Bishop quoted in Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions
Some of my dearest friends are women whom I deeply and intimately love.  Because of the deep bonds we have formed, I would never say these women are ‘just’ friends.  I also have several dear friends who are men.  Yes, I am committed to honoring the vows I've made to my husband – and my cross-gender friendships my be of varying levels of familiarity and physical proximity – but I could never with good conscience say they qualify as ‘just’ friends simply because these friends aren't women.  

Several years ago I reconnected on Facebook with someone from my high school years.  It was right at the beginning of all my unraveling, when my process looked ugly and angry and I often argued with people who still believed all the old things I was in the process of discarding.  Even though he is hundreds of miles away, he was a gracious and calming presence, never balking at my anger or turning away when I was far from gracious.  From his years of religious study, he generously shared his perspective in response to my theological questions when I asked.  He introduced me to Volf and Keating and kindled my love for theological reading.  He would gently rein me in when I was disregarding the value of another person's unique life-experience for the sake of winning an argument.   

There is an undeniable bond that forms when someone can look past your pain and ugliness while you burn down the framework of your life, and treat you as though you've already risen from the ashes.  A person who does that is not ‘just’ a friend.

Five years ago, over shared office observations and a similar sense of humor, I became friends with the guy who sat on the other side of my cubical wall.  We don’t sit near each other anymore, but we still chat with each other every work day.  We share stories of what is going on in our lives outside of work and try to add a little levity to the daily grind.  Sometimes we go to lunch and talk about our kids.  Sometimes we grab a beer after work and commiserate about our jobs.  We talk a lot about beliefs, which can be a challenge considering that we could not be more different from each other when it comes to faith and politics, but we navigate the conversations with a great deal of mutual respect. 

There is an undeniable bond that forms when someone becomes a witness to your daily life and allows you to be a witness to theirs.  A person who does that is not ‘just’ a friend.

I have an ongoing dialogue with a long-distance friend I met over social media.  He messaged me one day to say he’d read some of my posts and that my thoughts and unraveling process resonated with him. We have swapped stories about our similar youth experiences and navigating family relationships while straying from our upbringing.  We check in with each other regularly, discussing work and faith and posts we read online, and we frequently swap prayer requests and commit to praying for each other.

There is an undeniable bond that forms when one person is vulnerable enough to reach out to another person and say, “Yeah. Me too.” and the two of you commit to regularly praying for each other.  A person who does these things is not ‘just’ a friend.

The reason I’m sharing about my experience with cross-gender friendships is to bear witness to their significance in my life.  They aren't taking the place of my relationship with my husband, but they are extremely important to me.  If someone has looked close enough to see all of my messiness and chosen to live life with me anyway – that person is dear to my heart.  The appropriate response when I reflect on all my close friendships should be to readily acknowledge that she or he is a dear friend or a kindred spirit or even a person I love deeply.  Life is too fleeting to distance myself from people who mean so much to me because I’m clinging to a religious or cultural narrative that is preoccupied with sex and only allows me to see my friends as “men” or "women" rather than individuals with whom I've formed a relationship that is a vital part of my life.  


Several weeks ago, Natalie Trust wrote a blog series prompted by Dan Brennan's book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions on the subject of cross-gender friendships.  This book was already on my to-read list and after reading Natalie’s posts (herehere, and here) I moved the book to the top of my reading stack.  I appreciate Natalie for inspiring me to read it sooner rather than later and I’m thankful to Dan Brennan for writing it. For most of my life, the most prominent narratives about relationships between men and women have been ones that are narrow, contradictory, and often promoted shame and confusion.  We are often cautioned against cross-gender friendships because attraction or closeness are equated with sex, even though the same type of relationship with someone of the same gender would be encouraged.

What Dan Brennan does in his book is provide historical, social, and spiritual reasons – ranging from an exploration of pre-Freud friendships to insights we can glean from teachings on chastity in the Catholic tradition – for why we should reevaluate how we think about cross-gender friendships and embrace a new narrative; he does this while providing a depth of insight to help establish that narrative.  Reading Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions and engaging in Natalie's discussions has been extremely valuable to me as I continue to unravel much of what I was taught about gender and relationships.  
I appreciated the analysis and criticism of the romantic myth an how it affects both our romantic and non-romantic relationships.  Dan explains, 
Idealizing romantic passion as the unique, one-and-only, exclusive form of love between a man and a woman has created a pervasive romantic myth in our contemporary world when it comes to male-female paired relationships…This is the fruit of romantic idealism, not romantic realism. The notion that one idealized relationship is the be-all, end-all for passion, intimacy, emotional commitment, friendship, happiness, fidelity, and depth, has a cluster of powerful myths supporting it…
The myths to which he is referring are found both in Christian culture (which tends to idolize marriage) and also in popular culture (with the idolization of romance and sex in movies, books, television, and music). I have seen personally the devastation the romantic myth can cause to marriages and the tainted light it can cast on friendships.  

I know that words like “passion” and “intimacy” have become synonyms for sex and can make some uncomfortable in the context of friendship, but the real synonyms for those words are actually: affection, fondness, love, familiarity, belonging, warm friendship, faithfulness, and loyalty.  In fact, the definition for the word 'intimate' includes phrases like: “belonging to or characterizing one’s deepest nature" and "marked by a warm friendship developing over a long association.”  Aren't those desirable characteristics in all close friendships? I think it is beneficial to examine the religious or cultural myths that might hinder intimate cross-gender friendships. 

While the criticism of the romantic myth can apply equally to any cross-gender friendship regardless of religious belief, one of the other points I've spent a lot of time reflecting on relates directly to my faith.  Brennan notes the “one-another’s” in scripture and how we often overlook the obvious inclusion of both genders when we read them:
Consider all the “one another’s” – none of which have a sex-segregated command embedded in them.  Here are just a few: “welcome one another” (Romans 15:7), “pray for one another” (James 5:16), “be kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32), “greet one another with a holy kiss” (I Corinthians 16:20), “teach and admonish one another” (Colossians 3:16).  None of these contains transcultural  sex-segregated warnings to keep men and women from meeting privately or in public, or from avoiding the powerful intimacy that may grow because male and female friends seek to be obedient to these commands in their nonromantic relationship.
At least five times in the gospel of John, Jesus implores his audience to “love one another;” and other variations of this phrase can be found throughout the New Testament.  It strikes me that there are entire books centered around a very few scriptures that speak specifically to one gender or the other and that those verses dominate admonishments for the interactions of men and women.  In contrast, it seems these multiple “one another” verses are viewed in the abstract, as an almost sterile “love” for some mythical “other.” I had not previously dwelt on these “one another” verses as a call to deep friendship with other embodied people, regardless of gender, but now I can think of them in no other way.  I’m learning to embrace an understanding of cross-gender friendships that can be both encouraged and celebrated within my faith tradition. 


I know Christians are the intended audience of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, but there is a lot to learn from this conversation even if you don't view cross-gender friendships through a religious lens.  It could be invaluable to your emotional health to evaluate what narratives govern your relationships.  If shame or the romantic myth are keeping you from forming intimate connections in your life, it may be time to look at things from a new perspective.  

As a Christian, the book left me hopeful that we won’t always be trapped in a destructive narrative where we idolize romance and are taught we should avoid cross-gender friendships.  As Dan points out, “The mystery of incarnation is that God in Christ overcame the boundaries between heaven and earth, between the spirit and matter, between flesh and spirit, and between men and women.”  The example of Christ is deep friendships with both men and women, who he lived life with and embraced and loved.  I truly believe that through understanding a narrative based on Christ's example the Church can see the truth of how cross-gender friendships can be deep and intimate, as well as holy.