“Self-employment is like nothing else on earth,” a friend told us three years ago when the job that had brought us to Italy ended. “One month, you’ll be feeling wildly successful, and the next, you’ll be praying for enough money to put food on the table. It’s a roller coaster. You’ve got to be prepared for that going in.”
We were. At least, we were prepared to the extent that I had been as a kid plunging into the dark of Runaway Mountain for the first time, gripping the safety bar and reminding myself over and over again that the coaster had never killed anyone. (I didn’t think…) Dan and I truly didn’t know what to expect, but we were sure that self-employment was the right direction for his career. We had considered other options, prayed at varying degrees of desperation, talked the whole thing over every which way we could, and finally wrestled our fears into a shaky semblance of trust. This was what my husband was meant to do, I was certain.
That certainty came at a heavy price for me though. On the last day of Dan’s day job, we found out that he would not be receiving his final few months of paychecks, that the tenants renting our house in the States were being evicted for failure to pay, and that our Italian bank account was blocked. I kid you not. If you can stomach a bit of raw honesty, here is an excerpt from my journal entry that day:
“I don’t know what to do with the tension curled up like a thousand knuckled fists inside my belly. I want to pray, but I keep thinking about what a friend going through tough times wrote on her blog this morning: “I still believe in the power of prayer.” Well I don’t. If you believe that praying effects change, then you have to believe either A) that we are convincing God do our bidding or B) that God is withholding his will until someone thinks to ask for it.
I’m much more willing to believe that prayer is simply a good spiritual practice for focusing and connecting our thoughts with God, but I’m so not in the mood today to commune. I need answers, both global and personal, for trusting that he will have anything to do with the outcome of the tangle we’re in now.
It’s not a good place to find myself.”
I think that I worked as hard on trust those first months as Dan did at establishing his new biomechanics business. While he was wrangling website code and traveling to meet clients, I was wrangling fears as thick-limbed as gorillas and traveling my own daily—and sometimes hourly—journey out of panic. At the time, I was working as an English teacher, which helped keep us afloat… but it also tugged the energy out from under me like a cartoon rug. I worked during the hours that my little girls needed me most, and Dan’s business trips made our home life a logistical nightmare. We were exhausted and strained and frayed all the way to the core.
I’ve found, though, that this kind of desperate, minute-by-minute living is the ultimate breeding ground for miracles. Even as expenses continued to mount—our car’s epic breakdown, a drug operation being discovered in the basement of our rental home, and the Italian government booting us out of the country… all within the first four months of self-employment (seriously, Universe??)—we always had enough. We even got Disney World, and the kind of care that I felt from God during each last-minute upswing bolstered my courage enough for me to quit my job.
We’re three years into being on our own now—Dan an entrepreneur, I a freelancer—and I’m finally getting used to the ride. That is to say, my knuckles are no longer white and I am no longer actively preparing myself to live under a bridge. I would in no way call this experience easy. Having to provide work for ourselves, to keep forward momentum and always be on the cusp of some new possibility is exhausting. That’s the flat truth of it. However, we are also sustained by this work: by the thrill of doing what we love, by the freedom of directing our own time and energy, and by the unknown heights of potential climbing in the dark ahead. We are still sure that this was the right direction to take.
A family who has been friends with us for years finally asked this week what exactly Dan does, and we both laughed in understanding because “entrepreneur” is such a non-description. It means someone who starts businesses, sure, but that doesn’t exactly bring my husband’s day-to-day activities into focus. Actually, come to think of it, there is no such thing as a day-to-day activity in Dan’s world. There is only one day at a time and whatever menial or creative tasks will advance the project he’s pursuing. Today, for instance, he’s spending the morning on the computer working on Training Lot—a platform he’s setting up to help people make and market training videos online. Later, he’s going to join a pizzaiolo friend to film an authentic Italian pizza-making process, then he’ll put the video up as part of a publicity push to get votes for a startup contest he’s been selected to participate in.
Here’s my favorite of the promotional videos he’s made so far (though I might be unfairly biased toward those two bilingual girls of ours):
We’re on a part of the roller coaster right now that I think of as the Sideways Spiral of Death—you know, the part where the g-forces are sucking your brains into outer space and you’re doing your damndest to see through the stars and avoid throwing up if possible. This is all part of the startup process. I know this because we’ve been through it several times now, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Dan’s in the phase of trying a new venture that’s all momentum and effort and wild uncertainty, and I’m right there with him pushing past the exhaustion and clinging as loosely as we dare to the hope that this idea will be one of the success stories.
Only time will tell. It feels crazy vulnerable to be telling you all this. I’d much rather you think of us as stable and prosperous in this life we’re carving out for ourselves. I’m tempted to wait on telling you the self-employment stories until we have it all figured out (which we will someday… right?), but then I couldn’t give you the chance to be a part of them with us. And I would really value your companionship today.
Here’s how: If you took five seconds to open this link and click “like” on Dan’s video, you could help him advance to the next round of the Summit Kilimanjaro startup contest. He was already chosen as one of the top 200, and if he remains in the top 50 by Friday, he’ll be eligible for some awesome networking and publicity opportunities. He doesn’t have all the connections or financial backing that some of the other contestants are using to get ahead, but he does have a pretty great business idea, and your thumbs up would be a huge help. Really, five seconds. (If you then shared the link with all your friends on Facebook, we would both do a happy dance. Just saying.)
If any of you have struck out on your own before, I would also love to hear how the experience was/is for you. The more of us on this coaster, the more it will feel like a party rather than a death trap, non? And hopefully I’ll have a new miracle tale to share with you (quite literally!) in the near future.
As with all forms of bureaucracy here in Italy, the public health system is impressively complicated. I’ve written about it before, but all you need to know for the sake of today’s story is that there is a system called the CUP—pronounced “coop,” which I find fitting on so many levels—through which people must schedule their doctor’s appointments and pay their co-pays (rather than doing those things directly at the doctors’ offices). There are CUP windows at many pharmacies and medical centers; today’s tale of trickery and angst takes place at one of the latter where I went to pay for Sophie’s optometrist visit.
Are you ready to spend half an hour in an expat’s shoes?
Great! Let’s get started.
Warning: Those of you who suffer from agoraphobia, claustrophobia, noise-triggered migraines, and/or overactive bladders should proceed with the utmost caution. Thank you.
9:59a – I walk into the CUP center and notice that the electronic number displays on the walls are all blinking zeroes. Awesome. I’d been hoping to sit and read while waiting my turn, but I suppose this is as good an opportunity as ever to work on my waiting-in-line skills. That isn’t sarcasm, by the way. Navigating lines in Italy takes a certain skill set that I have yet to master. However, the fifteen people already in line seem placid enough. I take a number just to be safe and join the queue.
10:00a – As I wait for the line to move forward, I notice that the building’s heating system must be on. It is distinctly warm in the room, at least 85°. While I ponder who would run the heat on an already-warm spring day, several newcomers take numbers and get in line “behind” me. By that, I mean that they fan out beside me like chorus girls effectively ensuring that I remain the one in the rear. I expected this, so it doesn’t faze me. I just need to hold my place, and all will be well.
10:01a – The line shuffles forward a foot, and I now count nineteen people ahead of me. More are now crowded at my sides as well. Where are they coming from? I scoot closer to the elderly man in front of me and grip my number like it is the grenade of justice.
10:02a – Subtlety Hour is over. A well-coiffed blonde woman takes a number, sniffs the air for weakness, and then makes a beeline for me. “I’m just here to pay,” she announces to the top of my head as she tries to edge in front of me. Aha! I think. This I DO know how to handle! Had this happened seven years ago when we first moved to Italy, I would have let her in and then cried about the experience later. Now, though, I am tough. I have strategies. I have perfected… The Elbow Flex. To correctly perform this maneuver, you take a deep, satisfied breath as if you were stepping outdoors on bright prairie morning. While you exhale all that cleansing air, you puff your torso and place your hands on your hips, pointing your elbows outward. This must be done casually enough that you can pretend it’s not on purpose yet deliberately enough that everyone else knows it is. Once you have armed yourself with these jutting joints of territorialism, you can look line-cutters in the eye as I did the blonde woman and say, “Sorry, but I’m just here to pay too” as you physically block their progress.
10:03a – Blonde lady is undaunted by either verbal or elbowal barriers. In a supreme move of one-upmanship, she “accidentally” steps on my foot while wedging herself between my body and that of the elderly man in front of me. A small burst of steam escapes my ears, though that could be due to the temperature in the room. It’s got to be in the 90° range by now.
10:04a – A pleasant-faced PR volunteer walks by, and I consider asking her if she can do anything about the heat. However, seven people are already complaining to her. “The number display isn’t working!” several of them point out at once. “What are we supposed to do?” “Wait in line,” she replies with an affectionate smile. “But I’m only here to pay!” protests the blonde woman who is still on top of my foot. “So is she,” the volunteer says, pointing to me. “So are they. We’re all here to pay, and we can’t do anything about the numbers, so let’s just wait in line calmly, shall we?” She walks back up the line, and I notice there are now twenty-three people ahead of me. For the love…
10:07a – Despite the fact that a good two-dozen people have arrived after me, I am still the last person in line. The newcomers are all clustered at my sides waiting for the slightest lapse in concentration or resolve that would allow them to merge in front of me. I decide to strike up a conversation with the closest of them, a young mom whose arm is literally resting on my purse. I figure that if someone is going to be that close to my wallet, I should at least try to stay on her good side.
10:09a – It is now 95°, maybe 96°. I am sweating through my spring cardigan and cannot fathom how the others are surviving in their scarves and coats. The general mood does seem a bit more heated than before. The blonde woman on my foot is huffing and telling anyone who will listen that this is a grave injustice, she only has to pay, how can they expect her to wait? The mom hanging onto my purse is arguing with someone on the other side of me about whether or not the CUP should be giving out numbers if we were going to have to wait in line anyway. “Che casino!” people are muttering from all around. What a casino.
10:12a – Behind me, genuine shouting breaks out. A man has just arrived and is eager that we all know how busy he is, very busy, FAR too busy to have to wait in line. This is a free country, he says like a soapbox preacher with an emergency. Why should he have to wait in line? BECAUSE THE REST OF US HAVE TO, YOU IMBECILE, someone informs him. A dozen people start arguing at once. Chief among their complaints is the fact that lines exist and that we are expected to use them. Why should we? What is the point? Are we cattle to be treated this way? The volunteer hurries back and forth trying to calm everyone. “We are well mannered!” she calls over the din. “We are civilized adults!”
10:13a – No. No, we are not.
10:15a – To my relief, blonde woman moves off my foot and leaves the building in a huff. Maybe I can breathe a little more easily now.
10:15a and ten seconds – A new blonde woman is suddenly at my side with her body angled so as to make it seem like she’s in front. I have no idea where she came from or what she’s here to do, but I do know that she needs to pee. I know this because she has started informing the volunteer of this at top volume. Why should she have to wait in line? She has to pee! Badly, dammit!
10:17a – The temperature is now pushing 100°, and the general volume is rising along with it. The very busy yelling man is now directly behind me, but at least that means I’m not the last person in line anymore. The mom leaning on my purse has engaged him in a shouting match about the philosophy of standing in lines. I try recording them on my phone, but the man catches me about to push start. I pretend I’m texting instead and will the embarrassed flush on my cheeks to simmer down.
10:18a – Another mom inserts herself into the fray. She is holding up a squirming preschooler as evidence for why she shouldn’t have to wait in line. Because: BABY. The others are having none of it; I see The Elbow Flex rippling down the line like a stabby sideways version of The Wave. Preschooler mom yells about the ridiculousness of being expected to wait her turn, and the volunteer explains for the nine thousandth time that lines are how we keep order and civility in just such circumstances as these. Mr. Very-Busy jumps in, alternately defending and berating the mom. Both of them berate the volunteer for a while, but she is much more skilled in the art of blocking than I, and the mom is at last obliged to remove both herself and her kicking preschooler to the “back” of the “line.”
10:20a – I am sweating profusely now. I would take off my cardigan except that I have one yelling man, one yelling mom, and one yelling blonde with a small bladder pressed against my body. One of them is touching my butt. I text angsty emojis to Dan.
10:22a – The volunteer walks within range again, and both Pee Lady and Busy Man resume their high-volume complaining. The volunteer is looking decidedly worse for wear; her hair is plastered down in the 107° heat, her shoulders are clenched, and I watch as the last remnants of sparkle in her eyes blaze out. She engages the man first. “Do not use that kind of language with me, SIR!” He starts to bluster, but she cuts him off. “Have you ever been to the theater before? That’s probably too high a level of sophistication for you, but—” He informs her that he most certainly has been to the theater, many times. “Ah, well then I’m sure you must be familiar with what they have at theaters.” “I don’t un—” “THEY HAVE LINES!” During his momentary silence, she turns to the blonde woman. “Ma’am. If you have to pee so badly, by all means, go ahead and pee. ON THE FLOOR.”
10:23a – Busy Man: 0, Bladder Lady: 0, Volunteer: 1,000,000. She walks away muttering, “We are NOT well-mannered, we are NOT civilized, we are immature and conniving, oh yes. We wouldn’t know civility if it bit us…” I think about giving her a standing ovation, but it’s too hot now to do anything but shuffle forward. To my surprise, there are only five people left in front of me. The end is in sight.
10:24a – Four people, not counting Ms. Bladder who is still angling her body to pretend she is in front of me.
10:25a – Three. I look at her hard, hoping she’ll feel appropriately abashed and step back. She does not.
10:27a – Two. I decide it doesn’t hurt to try The Elbow Flex one last time.
10:28a – One. Pee Lady gives up. A solid dozen people may have cut in line in front of me this morning, but I have prevailed over one of them! 1,000,000 points for me.
10:29a – My turn has arrived! I see a CUP window free up, and I stride forward. It’s like being released from prison. It’s like stepping onto the shores of a brave new world. It’s like—A white-haired but incredibly agile man darts out of nowhere and runs in front of me to the window. I freeze for a moment, unsure which direction my emotional current is pulling me… and then I begin to laugh. Sure, I have just been outmaneuvered by the thirteenth consecutive person in half an hour. True, I am no savvier at this cultural experience than I was at the beginning, not really. But it is all pretty entertaining when I think about it, and even if ten more senior citizens cut me off here at the end, the glorious truth remains that I’m through the line. Done. Finished. Free. You might even say… uncooped.
From the time I stumbled across D.L. Mayfield’s writing a couple of years ago, her perspective has intrigued and challenged me. Her blog was the first place I came across the term “downward mobility,” and her conviction that Jesus’s teachings and the American dream might be at odds has set off powerful ripples within my own thinking. Through her writing, she draws those on the margins of society into the middle of the picture, over and over until readers can’t help but start to see the world differently. In short, she’s a game-changer. I’m honored to be sharing her space today with a cross-cultural redemption story that has become my favorite earworm; join me there for the rest, would you?
When Marcus Mumford and his band of indie folk-farmers hit the scene back in 2010, I had never heard the term hipster. I didn’t know suspenders were the new rubric of cool; I just knew that their music spoke to me, that Mumford’s “newly impassioned soul” plucked the strings of my own longing for a full-volume life. I queued up Sigh No More and played it on repeat for the next six months. Chances are, you did too. The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200 and was the third most downloaded album of 2011. Everyone, it seemed, was getting his or her British bluegrass on.
But this story isn’t about Mumford & Sons. It’s about an almost impossibly obscure group of musicians from rural India who recorded an untitled EP with them.
Image from last.fm user rahsa
They went by Dharohar Project (pronounced “Dah-RHO-har”), and the only thing I knew about them was my own disappointment. I’d been hoping for a fresh dose of the barn-dance rock I’d been cycling through my stereo—not the wailing and twanging I associated with traditional Indian music. I gave the MP3 samples a once-over, but they only confirmed what I already knew: Jaw harp just wasn’t my jam.
[Continue reading over at D.L. Mayfield's place!]
The weekend before last, spring burst overhead like a cosmic dandelion puff. Sunbeams settled on our noses, songbird gossip tickled our ears, and last year’s snapdragons made a grand re-entry if only to outdo the wild daisies carpeting our town.
It was terrifying.
The first good weather of the year, see, held me accountable to a promise I’d made to Dan: that I would let the girls out to play. As in, by themselves. Without any form of parent nearby. At the little park which is only partially within sight and earshot of my window and which has a second street exit within neither.
I promise you that I have worked hard to curb my paranoid instincts about mothering. My imagination has always been a worst-case scenario handbook with an apocalyptic bent, and each of the girls has toddled at least once within a hairs breadth of tragedy; by all logic, I should be a vigilante-helicopter mutt of a mom. I try not to let the crazy limit my daughters’ development though, which is why I agreed that this would be the spring of going out to play. But oh, friends… the disasters that played out in my mind as soon as the girls left my sight. They were kidnapped at least three times a minute during that first hour.
The girls went out to the park every afternoon of the week, and while those accumulating hours of non-tragedy helped bolster my resolve, they still weren’t easy for me. Villains and bullies and natural disasters lurked in my peripheral vision every time I peeked out the window. I kept running a cost-benefit analysis on the girls’ independence; did their healthy development really outweigh the risk of whatever [unlikely] [but unspeakable] evil could befall them out there? Could I live with myself if something happened?
I don’t have any easy answers yet—and probably never will—but a little trip we took yesterday helped put things into perspective for me. The four of us were sitting around the Sunday lunch table feeling worn down and antsy from our week when we decided the only thing for it was to hit the road. Half an hour later, we were merging onto the highway, and half an hour after that, we were winding up to a little town we’d never visited before. No maps, no guidebooks, no agenda whatsoever (aside from gelato, which is my goal in everything).
We only stayed an hour, but it was a gorgeous, living-out-loud kind of hour. Downtown Trevi is laid out like some kind of medieval maze, and we took turns choosing which direction to explore. The girls didn’t want to speak Italian—“We’re tourists today!”—so we snapped pictures and skipped and called to each other like the boisterous Americans we still are. I couldn’t stop grinning. Exploring like this might just be my favorite way to experience the world.
It always has been, too. The way Natalie and Sophie were running down stone tunnels and peeking into courtyards of olive trees yesterday is exactly how I used to run down creek beds and peek into dogwood thickets as a kid. The neighborhoods I lived in growing up were so much bigger to me than they were to adults, who always let themselves be limited by things like road signs or propriety. I wandered and scouted and burrowed and built and destroyed and imagined and braved. My knees were perpetually scraped. I couldn’t wait to go outside. Knowing that there was a dangerous element to my explorations had only sharpened the experience for me, a sprinkle of chili on my chocolate.
I watched the girls bound up a twisty side path and thought of an article from The Atlantic that my friend Dunny sent me a couple of weeks ago. It’s long but well worth the read if you’re fascinated by this latest generation of overprotective parents (myself included) and how our preoccupation with safety might not be the best thing for our kids. The article features a playground in North Wales that is set up more like a junkyard than anything; old tires, mattresses, and tin drums are at the kids’ disposal, and a playground supervisor only intervenes in the case of actual danger—say, if a kid’s fire gets out of control. Do you know how much I would have loved playing there? Exploration and imagination were always far more thrilling to me than regulation-height swing sets; I suspect they are to most children.
I wrote in a recent post how I owe every joy of my adult life to the high level of independence granted me. This is not an exaggeration. Being able to chart the terrain of my own life from a young age is why I live in Italy today with an entrepreneur husband and two little girls who think anything is possible. Our life is full of unknown turns; we rarely know where the next month will take us, and sometimes our choices feel as helter-skelter as our wanderings through Trevi yesterday.
There is so much joy in a life of adventure though. The reality of risk heightens our senses, keeps our prayers earnest, and reminds us to appreciate. The low times provide contrast for the highs, and we learn as we go. We cultivate grace as a survival skill. We do our best to trust and to keep on trusting that we’re not doing this life alone, that divine love is holding us as surely as the ground beneath our feet. We look forward to new experiences, new places, new reserves of courage on tap.
I don’t want to be painting our lives too glibly here. If I were writing this on a day when our bank account was drip-drying, for instance, or when bureaucracy had us in a stranglehold, I would tell you how I sometimes petition the universe for boredom—just a little predictability, just enough of a nice stable rut for me to catch my breath. I know the truth though: living greatly means risking greatly. And the question I’m left with on this side of our weekend is… Could I live with myself if I didn’t let my girls experience this for themselves?
Your turn! How do you cultivate a sense of adventure in your children? How much independence do you think is appropriate? Do you have any tips for parents like me who can’t help imagining sinkholes and trolls under the playground slide? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!
I don’t often write directly about the whole residing-in-Italy aspect of our lives. I’m not sure exactly why this is, but my best guess is that Italy has woven itself so thoroughly into the fabric of our days that I forget to single it out. This isn’t the same as being tired of the place. On the contrary, I love our weird little Italian life more every year. I still run into an invisible wall of wonder every time we walk downtown; the old stone palaces and fountains and archways stop my feet until my eyes can catch up with them. It’s also a special kind of delight to experience the language and culture as friends rather than obstacles. When we moved here nearly seven years ago, my only real point of connection was the food. Now, I’m taken with the local idioms, the Mediterranean rhythms, the way our Italian friends can spin conversation from straw, the geography of this country, its richly layered history, and the wealth of bilingual jokes now at my disposal.
This is in no way a deep post, but I wanted to share a little of why Italy charms my socks off. The following are all recent news stories that have been simultaneously cracking me up and warming my heart. Enjoy!
1. Sister Cristina Scuccia belts out Alicia Keys on The Voice of Italy and snags rapper J-Ax for her vocal coach.
(English subtitles can be turned on at bottom right.)
Everything about this story is my favorite—Sister Cristina’s jubilant performance, the cheers of her fellow nuns backstage, and J-Ax’s emotional connection to the whole thing. If you’re not familiar with J-Ax (and unless you’re into Italian rap or married to someone who is—ahem—you probably aren’t), he’s a gritty and hilariously irreverent performer whose hit titles include “Ohi Maria” (a love song to marijuana), “L’Italiano Medio” (a play on words referring to his middle finger), and “Voglio Una Lurida” (a tribute to dirty girls that involves the line, “I want to intimately caress her hair… On her arms, I meant!”). Ergo, he’s not the kind of guy I would ever have imagined tearing up over a nun’s performance, much less teaming up with her as her vocal coach. Just… awesome.
2. Roman mobster Enrico Terribile breaks house arrest 30 minutes early for… what else? Pizza!
First things first: Is Enrico Terribile not the most fantastic mobster name ever? True to his moniker, Terribile helped terrorize Rome as part of the Magliana gang in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I probably shouldn’t find this news story as delightful as I do. But going back to prison because his passion for pizza wouldn’t let him wait a single half-hour longer? That just slays me. (In another recent story, a man in Livorno broke house arrest on purpose so he could go to prison and thus escape his wife. Maybe not as good a reason as pizza but still highly entertaining.)
3. A team of amateur Sicilian scientists launches cannoli into space. Because… Why ever not?
(The best parts start at 2:30 and 6:03, if you don’t want to watch the whole thing.)
Bonus: The whole mission only cost €350. NASA, eat your heart out.
4. Italian dictionaries have recently expanded to include the following super-awesome verbs:
Now tell me that doesn’t make your day at least a few percentage points better. It’s upgradando mine!
When I was a girl, I believed I was fundamentally wrong. The exact term that rings in my memory is “an abomination to God.” An abomination. I didn’t have any context for that word outside of the Bible—in fact, I’m not sure I do even now—but I understood that its five syllables shook with the intensity of God’s disgust.
I gave proud looks.
I was deceitful.
I pushed back against rules.
I’d memorized verses declaring each of those things an abomination, a detestable affront to God, and over time, the word worked its way past my actions and straight into my identity. I didn’t try to be proud, see. I couldn’t help it; my entire theology was based on micromanaging myself toward perfection, and any time that I succeeded, my natural reaction was pride. I didn’t have many grounds to feel good about myself, but if I was managing more holiness than someone else in a certain area, my mind latched onto smugness like a drowning cat to a piece of driftwood. Pride wasn’t my choice; it just was. And that made me an abomination.
The same went for my deceitful and rebellious streaks. Lying and hiding were coping mechanisms for me, my body’s only strategy for self-defense. Rebellion was likewise instinctual; I never flouted rules, but I endlessly wrestled with the ones that suffocated me, trying to find loopholes through which to breathe. I was born with a question mark tattooed on my soul, and I believed the only reason God didn’t smite me for it was because Jesus had him on a choke chain.
There is a fiercely painful dissonance in believing that the one who made you is repulsed by who you are. I don’t think this is a sensation unique to my experience either. Mainstream Christianity teaches that we are born with a “sin nature” that God cannot abide, even though God is the maker and creator of all, and that we must perform series of steps to effectively hide our depravity from him before it is used as grounds to condemn us. I have heard thousands of sermons over the years to that effect.
Believing this way, that God considered who-I-was an abomination, stamped the dark impression of guilt onto my every waking moment. Not even those times of smugness when I was particularly rocking at righteousness could blunt my impression that God was gagging in my direction. I ricocheted endlessly between self-loathing and pride, my psyche working overtime to protect me from my theology. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out that this was a nightmarish way to live.
All the same, I had it easy in one regard: Nobody ganged up with God against me. If anything, I was praised by other Christians for striving so hard after holiness. Not once in my life has a group of people discriminated against me over those parts of myself that the Bible calls abominations. If I have ever defended my identity, it’s because I’ve wanted to, not because I’ve been under attack. I find instant acceptance in most Christian circles despite the ways in which my habits diverge from accepted biblical standards, and fellow believers’ open arms have strengthened the faith that I might have abandoned long ago without their support.
Not everyone is so privileged.
Among all the “abominations” listed in the Bible, from telling lies to eating shrimp to stirring up conflict to shedding innocent blood, the evangelical Christian community has picked out one on which to concentrate its outrage. You already know which one. You can’t help but know it. It’s on Saturday night’s news and on Sunday morning’s PowerPoint and on legislative drawing tables around the world. It’s the mountain on which we are willing to let others die.
This week, evangelicals became so incensed over World Vision, a humanitarian aid organization, expanding its hiring policy to allow married gay Christians that thousands of children lost their sponsorships. Let me put that in other words: People who claim to follow Jesus stopped providing nutrition, education, and health care to impoverished children in order to make a theological point.
Just before getting into bed last night, I saw that World Vision had reversed its decision, caving after two short days of uproar. The news settled on my heart like a boulder, and I lay awake for a long time exploring the contours of that weight. Being a Christian has never made me so sad.
I know what it’s like to feel that God despises my identity but not what it must feel like to have millions of fellow humans joining in. I can’t imagine having even just one person so repulsed by who-I-am that he or she would withdraw help from a child and call it my fault. I can’t imagine trying to reconcile my faith with my orientation only to have a nation of heterosexuals shouting from every available platform that I was choosing deviance. I can’t imagine having my heart and soul and talents rejected outright by the Christian community due to an inflexible interpretation of a few select Bible verses.
Can you imagine it?
I’m positive that the sorrow I feel today is a pale shadow of the pain my LGBT brothers and sisters are experiencing this week… this month… this lifetime during which they will be dragged again and again into a religious culture war in which everyone loses. Other writers have already made the points that bear repeating this week (see Rachel Held Evans, Jamie Wright, Jen Hatmaker, Erika Morrison, Nish Weiseth, and Kristen Howerton), and I know better than to think I can singlehandedly change popular doctrine. I do think it’s important though that I lend my voice to the discussion—if nothing else, so that my own LGBT friends will know that they’re not the brunt of every Christian’s theology.
I am grateful all the way to my bone marrow that my view of God did not stay rooted in that oppressive past. I still read the Bible but with very different eyes. Jesus is real to me now—unconditional love is real to me now—and through the clarity of that love, everything I once thought about religion is up for grabs. Except the view of a single human soul as an abomination. That’s not up for grabs. That’s just straight-up gone.
Hi, my name is Bethany, and I’m a high-maintenance writer.
In Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, a charming peek into the habits of creative geniuses over the centuries, I read about Frances Trollope, an English novelist who started writing in her fifties to provide for her family. She would get up in the middle of the night so she could finish the day’s writing in time to make breakfast for her six kids and infirm husband, and in this way, she produced over 100 books. Forget the ability to deflect bullets or to use one’s tiara as a boomerang of destruction; this lady was Wonder Woman.
I, however, identify much more closely with Frances’s son, also a novelist, who paid an old servant to wake him up early each morning with hot coffee and “no mercy.” In his autobiography, Anthony Trollope attributed his success to that arrangement. Now, I don’t have a servant, but I do have a husband with mad cappuccino skills and a kind heart whom I can directly credit for my state of not-in-bedness this morning (…aaaand just about every other morning of the past year). This isn’t really a matter of my being lazy; in fact, I spend my weekends looking forward to Monday’s arrival and that first blank document of the day. I love writing. It keeps me whole and sane and humanoid. However, my ability to write comes with an impressive list of conditions.
When I write, I venture into a different realm of consciousness. My focus intensifies on the elements of story behind the patterns of daily life, coaxing them forward like holograms in a Magic Eye image. Just as with those Magic Eye images, writing requires a delicate balance between concentration and relaxation; some muscles need to go slack in order to see the picture while others must tremble taut to hold it in place.
This is why I have trouble writing when someone else is in the room… or when I’m up against time constraints, or when some other matter has just been brought to my attention, or when I’m tired, or when our family routine is off, or when I’m frustrated about something, or when a head cold’s coming on, or when a favorite TV character has died, or when I haven’t started my day with that sandy-eyed sip of caffeine, or, or, or. I know. My muse wins for most ridiculous diva of the creative universe.
In her defense, however, she doesn’t require me to chain smoke or slip Jack Daniels into my tea or sell my soul to Chernabog in order to write. She lets me broadcast on my own brainwaves and heartbeats, and for that, I am grateful. Not all artists are granted that luxury. In context of all the mental illnesses and addictions that have traditionally plagued creative types, my reliance on quiet, unhurried hours hardly counts as a quirk, much less a neurosis. Still, though, I dream of one day being able to plop down on the bed where my chickenpoxy six-year-old is practicing her reading (to use a totally hypothetical example that has no grounding whatsoever in the realities of our home right now*) and crank out a work of art in between phonics tutorials and applications of calamine. If Mrs. Trollope could write novels before breakfast, surely I can learn to be a little more flexible in my writing habits. Not needing all nearby life forms to cease and desist while I’m working, for instance.
* on Opposite Day
I just have to get my muse on board first. She’s currently locked in her dressing room pouting about the fact that she and I can’t run off together to 1920s Paris and wear feathers in our hair and never have to think about anything other than being fabulous. The coffee is clearly wearing off. I don’t know; maybe it’s my lot in life to be a high-maintenance writer, ever at the mercy of loud footsteps and motherly concerns. I can’t tell you how much I’d like to move past that though—to be able to tap into my creative center no matter my circumstances. Even convincing my muse to pause her pity party for the next hour would be a step in the right direction. Maybe threatening to have four more children would do the trick…?
We talk a lot about parenting here on ye olde blog. I love exchanging strategies to help us rock (or possibly just survive?) these early years, and I’ve frequently drawn on my own childhood for examples of philosophies to avoid. A friend’s recent comment, though, reminded me that there is a whole aspect of the parenting discussion that I haven’t yet touched on here:
“I’d love it if our adult children, and those of your readers, could share what they think their parents did right.”
What they did right. In a blink, his comment brought back a little document that I typed up one morning three years ago, a list of ways that my parents demonstrated love and made my childhood special. I didn’t have an agenda for writing it; in fact, it’s been gathering dust in the recesses of my hard drive ever since. All I remember about that morning is that I felt compelled to seek out and celebrate the positive in my life.
It’s the perfect time to resurrect that practice, don’t you think, here in the first bright exhalation of spring? I’d like to share highlights from my What they did right list today and then open up the comments for you to share some of your parents’ wins as well. We could all use the encouragement that no matter how we imperfectly we navigate this parenting gig, our efforts to love and champion our kids will not be forgotten. Ready?
My parents cultivated my love of reading. My mom is the one who taught me how to read, and both parents enthusiastically nurtured my resulting love affair with words—filling our home wall to wall with books, taking me to the library to borrow crates full, and letting me while away summer afternoons in the nook of a tree with Nancy Drew or Homer (the bard, not the Simpson) for company. We bonded over books as a family as well. Our weeknight ritual for years was to gather in the living room where we kids would work on crafty projects while our parents took turns reading aloud—a tradition that Dan and I carry on with our girls today. The tapestry of stories woven through my childhood still hangs on the walls of my imagination, lending its rich backdrop to everything I create, an heirloom of identity.
My parents let my brothers and I run… and skateboard and climb trees and play street hockey and roam the neighborhood on bikes and explore the woods and build our own stunt equipment and ride wagons toboggan-style down hills and generally have a fantastic time trying to kill ourselves in the great outdoors. This is an aspect of life that I realize our girls are missing out on living in an urban landscape and an era in which parents don’t let kids out of their sight until they’re twenty-five or so (and even then, not without a helmet). I loved having the freedom to explore both our geographical surroundings and the risk-taking possibilities of my small body. It infused life with the tang of adventure and, well, was just plain fun. I’m sedentary by nature, a total couch potato at soul, and these outdoor escapades are a large reason that I’ve spent my adulthood trotting the globe rather than moldering into the furniture.
My parents invested themselves personally into my education. Beyond teaching me to read, my mom also provided my first introduction to math, history, science, music. She taught my fingers how to fly across piano keys and my arms how to sink elbow-deep into bread dough. She and my dad together taught me how to keep up a home, everything from applying wallpaper to cleaning the ceiling fans, and they made sure I had opportunities to pursue many different extracurricular interests—dance, sewing, creative writing, even politics for a while. They shuttled me to my first Shakespeare class when I was still in elementary school and, despite our unconventional schooling approach, made sure I had the solid academic base I’d need for college. Their involvement was as big a factor in my education as the coursework itself was.
My parents let me do things on my own when I felt ready. I can’t imagine putting Natalie on a plane by herself one short year from now, but I took the first flight of my life all by myself for my tenth birthday. Layover and everything. By eleven, I was going out in the evening for babysitting jobs. At fourteen, I traveled to a foreign country with a group of people I didn’t know—an experience so life-expanding that I kept it as a summer tradition until the year my first daughter was born. I landed a real office job at fifteen and left home for school at sixteen, and though many parents would have balked at giving me so much independence so young, mine stood with me. They let me write my own definition of age-appropriate milestones rather than making me wait for others’, and to that I owe every joy of my adult life.
Your turn! Here in the comments (or over on Facebook), tell me something your parents especially rocked at, and we can all start our weekends basking in each other’s good memories. No helmets required.
In a research-intensive book about couple communication that Dan and I are reading together, the authors emphasize how important it is to be aware of “filters” that might be affecting our conversations. A filter could be a bad mood, a distraction, an unspoken expectation—anything, really, that colors the way we hear and respond to our partners.
Immediately upon reading this, I thought of lunchtime. In our house, lunchtime falls anywhere from five minutes to an hour past my blood sugar threshold of niceness, and I inevitably become hangry. “Hangry” refers to the type of hunger-induced anger that, say, a cross-dressing Chris Farley might experience when denied French fries:
If Dan tries to speak to me when I am in this state of ravenous rage, I am liable to eat his head. This is an example of a “filter” through which his kind offers to help with lunch are interpreted as direct insults to my person and through which my attempts to express my feelings are interpreted as acts of cannibalism. Knowing that it’s my hangry hour, however, helps us get through it. (That, and compulsive snacking.) The point is that, by being aware of underlying factors, we take away much of their invisible power to manipulate situations for the worse.
(This is the face of hanger, FYI… brought to you by lunchtime circa 2009.)
I was reminded of this charming tendency of mine when a wise grandmom wrote me following my last Open-Source Parenting post. She shared her realization that sometimes meltdowns (of both the child and the parent variety) happen when we don’t have enough nutrients in our system—when we haven’t had enough protein that day, or when we’ve been eating a lot of junk food. Of course! I thought, reading her email. It’s the hangry effect!
I don’t know why I had never connected that idea to my children’s behavior before, but she’s absolutely right. Sometimes behavior problems aren’t really behavior problems at all; sometimes they’re tummy problems.
Other times, behavior problems are actually sleep problems. I am firmly convinced that most children we know here in this Mediterranean culture of long, late dinners do not get enough sleep at night and that this makes their little brains jittery and contrary during the day.
I see it happening with emotional states too, how one of the girls will channel her sadness or frustration into unpleasant behavior. (Don’t we all do this, really?) It also tends to happen when our schedules are overfull or when there’s too little attention to go around. Sometimes, behavior problems really are behavior problems and need to be met with consequences, but sometimes—more than fifty percent of the time for us—our kids are acting out because of some underlying cause that needs to be addressed more than the behavior itself does.
This troubleshooting approach is not the easiest, I know. It would take far less work to pick a preferred brand of punishment and wield it each time our children misbehave. In fact, I’ve heard disciplinarians argue that because kids thrive on consistency, punishment should take a one-crime-fits-all approach. That’s terrible reasoning though, especially if we want to reach our children’s hearts. These are our children, not lab rats being taught to perform a series of socially acceptable actions. I’m not nearly as interested in how well my girls act as I am in how well they are. If my daughter is feeling stressed, that’s the issue I want to address above and beyond the fact that she yelled at me. If my daughter clearly needs some sleep (or a steak!), that’s what I need to provide before I even think about sermonizing.
When I pay attention the context of my children’s behavior, I often see that it’s not about the behavior at all, and this helps me to respond to their needs rather than react to their deeds. (Too cheesy? Feel free to turn that into an ironic cross-stitch wall hanging if you’d like.)
Your turn! What underlying causes have you noticed affecting your kids’ behavior? Do you have any tried and true methods for deciphering what’s going on behind your child’s tone of voice? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!
Earlier this week, two story endings collided with each other in my headspace. The first was the leave-all-the-lights-on season finale of True Detective. (Did you see it? And will you ever step foot on a nature preserve again?) Less than twenty-four hours later, I finished reading (and by reading, I mean listening to the audiobook version of) Gone Girl. If you haven’t watched or read these yet, don’t worry; my blog is spoiler-free. All you need to know for the purposes of this post is that both stories involve, to some extent or another, a marriage that is unraveling.
It’s so easy to follow the decline of love when it’s outlined in pithy narrative, isn’t it? We watch fictional spouses behave like idiots or ingrates and wonder how in God’s name they don’t see what’s coming to them. We see all the little tendernesses taken for granted and the little barbs of bitterness digging in. We groan when the unhappily married protagonist catches the eye of some young hot thing at a bar because we already know the trajectory of that eye contact, how it will brush against skin and burrow into bed before curving toward a final showdown of heartbreak. Relational cause-effect is obvious under the lens of story.
Without that lens though, out in the unfiltered single-take of reality, nothing is obvious. When I look at my husband across the breakfast table, I don’t have a camera crew helping me zoom in on the adorable curve of his grin. There is no spotlight positioned to bring out the color of his eyes, no director coaxing my perspective toward an unseen worry line, no narrator highlighting the nuances of his words. I don’t think to study him, not the way I do movie characters. It doesn’t occur to me to practice literary analysis on the open book of our marriage. It doesn’t occur to me to notice.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week while mulling over plot lines (and debating whether or not to set foot in the state of Louisiana again). I can see so clearly how fictional husbands and wives sabotage their intimacy, but can I see it in myself? Do I have enough perspective to spot the inattention or fierce bouts of selfishness that I wedge into my marriage?
We celebrate our eleventh wedding anniversary this summer. I’d always thought that by ten years, I’d have marriage down pat, as if it were a skill that muscle memory could take over for me. I’ve come to see that that’s the real issue though—my ever thinking that long-term love should be as automatic and reflexive as pedaling a bike.
The following Fiona Apple song has been on repeat in my head lately, my mind reverberating with her line, “You’re more likely to get cut with a dull tool than a sharp one.” Isn’t that the truth of relationships? The hard, undeniable truth that passivity is lethal in matters of love? Here’s the song, every line razor-edged with honesty (I’ll warn you that the language isn’t polite, so listen at your own discretion):
“You forgot you have to try,
you have to try,
you have to try…”
The truth is that I don’t have marriage down pat. I do have to try, still, every day. Dan and I are continuously figuring out the practical implications of that vaguely ominous newlywed admonishment, “Marriage takes work.” (Best if said with funereal voice and knelling head.) I will freely admit that I had no idea what this meant when I first got married. What could possibly constitute “work” when it came to something as nebulous and giddy as love?
On the off-chance that you’re wondering the same thing right now, here is by far the most practical definition that “work” has taken (is taking) in my own marriage: intentionality. Being present when we’re together rather than letting my mind drift. Making conscious decisions about our relationship rather than letting it slide into poor habits. Noticing my husband. Being curious about him. Paying attention to what’s going on behind the scenes of his words and actions. Considering what goes into my words and actions in response. Setting aside time to spend with him. Letting him in on what I’m thinking. Being proactive about everything from affection to problem-solving. Intentionality, intentionality, intentionality.
And goodness, is that ever an example of easier said than done. Dan and I have kids. We both work from home. We are busy (which I fully realize is code for “average adult humanoid”), and we both want our relationship to be a respite from work, a worry-free zone where we can kick our feet up in easy companionship. The last thing that we want to do most evenings is sit down at the table to hash out communication issues and try to delve into each other’s psyches. That’s when being present in our relationship really does constitute work. Hard work. Hard work that—despite my love for that man—I would really, really rather not put in most of the time. (Just being honest, folks.)
Without intentionality though, a relationship begins to slip as surely as a rock climber whose concentration has lapsed. I know this. I’ve watched it happen before in my own marriage, a marriage which started out so breezily that I couldn’t imagine a context for work within it. I’m aware there are many, many other factors that go into relationships—communication skills, compatibility, psychological elements, circumstantial ones—but this is a big one. Like Ms. Apple sings, you have to try, you have to try, you HAVE to TRY. Without effort, without the genuine inconvenient labor of being present, a marriage can crumble into the past tense.
I would rather live here in the muddy now working to harmonize my perspective with my husband’s than be an narrator omniscient with retrospect, aware of all the wrong turns we took but powerless to change our story. I don’t want this good thing we have here to slip away when [because] I’m not looking. That’s why I’m writing this post, in fact: not because I’m trying to join the ranks of lugubrious advice-givers but because acknowledgement is such a big part of intentionality. I want this down in writing, for myself as much as for anyone else, as a reminder that marriage can be hard—really hard—but that hard can also be good.