I’m sitting at the picnic table in my parents’ kitchen, the mess of art projects and nubbins of flowers picked by siblings and half-finished notebooks and Costco packs of food surround me. Walking down the hill this morning to make coffee cake before they left for church, I had to stop and soak in the lilting sounds of life on the air—the birds announcing their delight at the change in the weather, my brothers laughing on the trampoline, the wind hitting the blossoms in the trees and setting them to whispering. My sister was playing Minecraft when I came in, and while I dumped spices into the flour, she darted through, clambered up the counter and plopped white azaleas into dishes of water dyed with food coloring. My mother hugged me from behind while I made my brothers and me our first cups of coffee, and then they were gone and the house was still while the oven chirped and hushed itself into heat and the cake baked.

Here, I have been very lucky. Here, I have circled back and through and am again facing forward, about to launch myself at something unknown, leaving behind something I know all too well. Here, I try to savor up these moments and be grateful.

This last year has been a year of intense periods of growth and learning, which is an abstract thing to say, intended to make you nod and smile and agree (for it must be that you feel the same about this past bit of time, too) and leave me alone about what exactly I learned and how exactly I grew. But it would diminish the lessons to tell you, to try to sum up the breath of moments hitting my soul and inflating and tapping me into new shapes.

Usually I think that I want to be a fiction writer, that some day I want to make my livelihood with my hands and my pen, cooking up stories to delight and amuse and provoke. But I have been compelled to write poetry for the longest time, and I suppose I should be honest with myself that right now, I am not writing fiction; that right now I have a life that demands poems for survival and for joy. Poetry is the necessary outcome of my experiences, poetry is the colors on the wall when light hits the shards of moments on the floor of my head. Poems change me, too, each one turning and turning a moment over and around to look at it from funny angles, catching glimpses of myself reflected in it, and laughing in surprise when I sometimes see the sky looking back at me, too. 

When I came back to Richmond this winter, I knew I had a chunk of poems about these last few months that could probably be shaped into a chapbook—the story they tell is a beautiful narrative, but it’s also intensely personal (which is scary). Every time I sat down to write something else, this story pulled me back in, and I found myself arranging and rearranging and revising and refining these poems. The story was wiling itself into life. I couldn’t resist.

This last year I started reading tarot, and it has been an utterly joyful thing to play with for this English major who loves tropes and archetypes. And as I kept coming back to these poems, the framework of a tarot reading—which is to say, the narrative of a major life lesson learned at a moment in one’s life—bled into the organization of the story and I found that I had a poem cycle in the shape of a Celtic cross reading on my hands. So here we are.

On Wednesday, I shut the door on this season of my life and leave the country for the next two years to serve as an English teacher volunteer with the Peace Corps in the Kyrgyz Republic. I want to give this little book of poems to you as a parting gift, both to remove myself from it and let it live on its own (as it wants to do), and to try to share the beauty that blessed me with whoever wants to enjoy it as well. 

It’s a little terrifying to be leaving for so long, and it’s a little terrifying to trust that this is the right thing. And it’s a little terrifying to share these poems with the world and expose myself. But I’m learning that the things that scare me the most are the most satisfying things, well worth doing. These are the things that expand my capacity to love, to learn, to be present, to not be ashamed or afraid. So I’m going to give fear the middle finger and I’m going to go on an adventure and I’m going to share some poems with you. 

With love,
H

Poems


I am driving down Hull Street Road, coffee in the holster, string cheese in my teeth, driving into the sunrise. I am back in this town with my boots strapped on tight and my coat swishing at my knees when I walk, so I can run on the ice and so I might not get seen if you look at me from behind. My hair is brown now, like I want to take a shadow and paint it over my energy and slip along the side of the wall away from those walking toward me.

We walk our days out in cycles, circles on circles, turning into each other and kissing and turning away to meet the next thing before coming back again, later. Richmond is a boomerang town, they told me. I laugh and I know. These trees by the river know me, all my faces. I walk along at Pony Pasture with a friend and I forget who I’ve been there with. It all runs together, circles on circles, meeting the place in time immaterial with those I love, over and over. The story is the same. Am I chasing a destination in a straight line or am I running along behind myself, trusting that she knows where to go—have we been here before? I think we must have. I’ll keep running. The trees remember me. The ground still tells me stories.

I run around, a spider clinging to the center of her web, overwhelmed and frozen by the vibrations hitting her from each side of the strands she’s set, each tying her to a piece of life that she has claimed as her own. It’s windy here and the sun is opaque and distant, cuddling the mist and turning her back to me. I’m not in California anymore. I do not have the sharp lines of sunlight and dust and salt to cut up my day into spaces that are mine or not mine. I melt into the hours and the interactions, we sink into blankets on the couch and the ownership of feet is forgotten. My sisters and I are the same skin and voices and we circle in and out of each others’ days—who did I tell that to? Is this hers or mine? I had to stop eating that, your body might too. We laugh in cycles. It’s good. But I have no borders. Even when I close my door, my new phone buzzes and chirps and my mind becomes a set of tiny spinning gears and I chase the circuit around this circle and into the next and into the one below before getting tossed up to that one just up there.

My heart is warm. I have so much love for these people, for these places. But I have woken up here from an enchantment, a moment of life between dreams. They are the same, and they are not the same. We hold hands and move in the same steps as before, but I notice things I never saw before—how she carries her weight in her hips now, how his voice is more kind, how the fear in her eyes has eroded her shoulders, too. And I wonder if this is the dream or if this is the real life? Seven weeks left and then I pass into the next spell, a large and weighty unknown which has my name and is going to swallow me up. And I plan to submit to it, to ask it questions, to wait for it to teach me. So here I am, here, but not here, but unable to slip backward or forward—both feel dreamlike and opiate. I do not know if I actually kissed the stars or swam in the cold water. I do not know if I will be cold and catch the light. I do not know if my tongue tasted you or if it will shape strange sounds.

I am here. The hollowness of this house spins me around. There are whole patches of carpet I do not dare to dance on, whole shelves in my closet that I pretend do not exist. The street beyond the driveway might be water, and I might suddenly have weight and sink into it if I touched it. You might become real if I let you touch me.

Of course I cannot see the stars here—this must be a dream. Or maybe, the stars never were, and I have woken to my future.

I applied to the Peace Corps last summer. I got my invitation in November. I accepted. I got my medical clearance last week. I’m waiting on my visa. My passport has my new [own] name on it. I’ll be volunteering as an English teacher to primarily middle school and high school students, but I won’t know the details of my assignment or my exact placement until this summer. If all goes according to plan, I’m leaving for Kyrgyzstan for two years at the end of April. 

And: if I put together a chapbook of some of my poems and made it available for download for a couple bucks, would you like that?

xo,

h


I wrote this back in September 2014. xo, h.

*

It was raining when he picked me up. I dashed through the steaming air and bounce-slam into the back seat behind Jean. Jean was tense, her shoulders riding high and her chin tucked in.

“Hi,” I chirped, settling into my seat. Her dad looked at me in acknowledgement, but didn’t say anything as he put the car in gear and backed out of my family’s driveway.

“Hi,” said Jean, glancing back at me like a timid rabbit. She giggled.

“Excited?” I asked.

“Are you kidding me?” she said. “I’m terrified but I can’t wait to have my license.”

“I’m really glad we’re taking a class. My mom’s too stressful to drive with. Can you imagine doing this at home?” I leaned forward and put my chin on the shoulder of her seat.

She giggled again. “Yeah, my mom is just INSANE to drive with. She just throws her hands up and screams or grabs the steering wheel and tries to grab the keys out of the ignition.” She glanced at her father, unmoved.

“Dad’s so much less stressful to drive with, but he just doesn’t have the time,” she finished.

I nodded. She pulled out her book. “Have you read this yet? You have to.” She lifted it up: Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “It’s SO good. Seriously hilarious.

“No, I haven’t, but I will!” I said. “I’m reading The Black Arrow again right now.” I pull my book out of my bag and we fall apart and become quiet, cocooning for the ride in our separate worlds.

This is our default, if we’re not in the woods or on the ball field or watching Homestar Runner clips after chemistry class together. Books are our native world. Here we retreat from our separate personal insanities and find stability.

My world: age 16, oldest of 7 kids, part-time surrogate mother to the youngest, infant twins, and self-taught homeschool high schooler. Home is 4 bedrooms and 9 people and perpetual cries for all hands on deck.

Her world: age 16, one of two daughters, self-taught homeschool high schooler. Mediator between an emotionally distressed mother fighting brain cancer and an angry and withdrawn younger sister, and a father who, to me, was a mere question mark of intense, quiet social presence.

Both of us were sold out for Jesus, youth group junkies in our local cult, distressed at the appearance of of our new boobs and hips, struggling to distinguish ourselves amid our peers, who seemed to us like peaches and cream southern belles dreaming of secretarial positions, prince charming, and motherhood.

She wore a lot of neon orange and combat boots and she had a pixie cut. Sometimes I called her Ivan. I wore overalls and the smell of baked goods and always had charcoal on my hands, and I put my hair up in a bun with a pencil.

Her dad dropped us off at the classroom for our driver’s ed, housed in a refurbished house-turned-office with a familiar (and terrifying) local pastor’s name on the next-door office space. We entered the classroom, the first ones there, picking middling seats together at the plastic tables. Neither of us had been in class with public schooled kids before, and we were strung tight and hyper-attentive as the other students filed in, jostling and laughing and damp from the rain, exuding largess as they spread themselves out at their spots.

One of the guys announced to the class that he’d taken this before in another state, but didn’t finish because his parents moved, but that he couldn’t WAIT for the video portion, because they were “just sick” in how gruesome they were. He glanced at the girls as he said this. Jean and I looked at each other, eyebrows cocked. This was going to be interesting.

The teacher walked in, a short soft woman with cropped greying blonde hair and wearing khaki pants with a white polo tucked into a thick belt. She shut the door behind her and faced us, clearing her throat. “Hello class,” she said, her voice buzzing with years in the south. “I’m Mizz Ferris.”

The door behind her swung open and a girl in a black t-shirt and a sparkly pink skirt and red heels walked in. “Hiiii y’all sorry I’m late!” she cooed, scooching into a seat on the end, her backpack tumbling open on the table in front of her. She set her phone on the table next to her travel mug. Both were bright pink.

Ms. Ferris nodded at her. “I’m Mizz Ferris,” she repeated. “And I’ll have you go around and introduce yourselves in a minute, but first I want y’all to know one thing: I have a concealed carry and I’m happy to use it. And no, I will not tell you where I wear it.” She eyed the boys, daring them to give her body a second glance.

“Now,” she gestured to the girl at the end. “Why don’t you start off and introduce yourself to the class?”

The girl sat up straight. “Oh, okay!” she said. She looked around the room. “I’m Princess Jordan!”

Princess Jordan?” Ms. Ferris raised her eyebrows.

Princess Jordan pulled a plastic tiara out of her backpack and placed it on her shiny brown hair. “Princess Jordan,” she repeated. “I do pagents. I’m a role model for the community.” She applied a bit of extra lip gloss with precision.

One of the boys let his hand drift to his mouth, hiding a smile.

“Okay, then, Princess Jordan, everyone,” said Ms. Ferris.

Princess Jordan angled her chin in the air just so and smiled down on all of us. The boy who had talked about the gory videos (we later learned his name was Cody) snorted. Jean hid a smile. I kept my face blank, but in my mind I mocked her—how could she want to be so girly? Didn’t she realize that no one could ever take her seriously if she acted like that?

The rest of the class introduced themselves, and we settled in to listen to the rain and Ms. Ferris tell stories of her days as an EMT and why defensive driving could save your life.

Waiting for my mom to pick us up after class, Jean commented that she wished her dad was getting her instead. When I wondered why, she just shrugged and said she didn’t see him much with his new job—and with the side effects from her mom’s cancer, it was a nice break from her constant anxiety. “Maybe I can get him to take me bass fishing this summer,” she said. “It’s been far too long.”

At the end of the class, Ms. Ferris’s husband and business partner walked in and she introduced him. He was the foil to her bubbly and intense personality, reserved and understated. He matched her outfit—white polo shirt and khaki slacks—and sipped his Wawa coffee while she chattered, his bald head shifting its shine with each sip under the florescent lights. His quiet presence and his shaved head reminded me immensely of Jean’s dad, but I didn’t realize this until we were on our way home, telling my mom about our first real-life classroom experience. Jean volunteered, “I really like Mr. Ferris. He seems really cool.”

“I like him, too,” I said. “The in-car portion should be really low-key with him.

“He doesn’t seem like he’d be the sort to stress out a lot at you,” she said.

We were right—the in-car portion of the class was intense, but Mr. Ferris was placid and stern, so long as he had a fresh cup of Wawa coffee to keep him company. We mapped our driving routes all through Richmond by way of a compass rose delineated with all the Richmond Wawa stations. Most of our rides involved two of us in the car, plus Mr. Ferris, and a few times we had three students to a drive.

One hot July day saw me, Princess Jordan, and Cody in the car together. Princess Jordan was driving (she was an unremarkable driver and we were thoroughly bored), and she stepped out of the car to use the bathroom during one of Mr. Ferris’s Wawa stops.

When she got back in the car—which we had kept running to keep the AC blasting–with Mr. Ferris, the AC must have hit her hard, because Cody laughed to himself. When I raised an eyebrow at him in curiosity. He muttered “she’s cold, ha,” and nodded his head at Princess Jordan (who was being instructed on “disco driving” as a method for backing out of a space smoothly by Mr. Ferris.

I shivered and didn’t respond, suddenly thankful for the layers of coverage provided by my thick cotton sports bra, t-shirt, and overalls. I glanced at Princess Jordan, wearing her black Playboy pajama pants with a cheap cotton top that clung to her round shoulders and large breasts, the rhinestone letters marching across the shelf of her chest. I couldn’t see anything, but I was also sitting directly behind her.

I’m glad I’m not allowed to wear anything like that. Causing boys to stumble is so repulsive, I thought, slumping into my shoulder blades a little bit more, making my own small breasts even more hidden.

Jean and I both passed our driving tests with top scores by August. In our last class, we gave presentations about something related to what “safe and responsible” driving mean to us. Princess Jordan handed hers in to Ms. Ferris and refused to present it, saying it was “too personal.”

And then we were done and had our licenses. My mom breathed a sigh of relief and I was integrated into the family grocery shopping and swim team carpool rotation. Jean was given an old white Taurus for her first car. I negotiated for turns with my family’s rusting blue minivan.

Her dad never took her bass fishing. I pushed my mom to let me take more “out” classes that fall, but lost the battle. She took only out classes that fall, and her dad took another night shift job and her mom went under the surgeon’s knife and was declared cancer-free. I carried my baby siblings around after church every Sunday when the AC was too chilly and had my dad double-check every outfit for modesty approval, all in an effort to be unnoticeable. She wore Demon Hunter t-shirts and belts with studs and kept her hair short and played basketball fiercely and watched all the movies the guys liked in an effort to be unnoticed. She became one of the guys. I became a shadow.

Years later, when she was engaged for the second time and planning her wedding after cutting her dad off for physical abuse, and I was stunned at being newly divorced and reeling from the new freedom found outside of the cult, Jean and I reconnected. She told me that she was now using gender neutral pronouns. I told them I was using a last name other than my father’s. We cursed father’s day when we were both too tired to cry about it anymore, and I Snapchatted them my first timid forays into wearing crop tops. They Snapchatted me their femme days with bright red lipstick and their Ivan days of fauxhawks and binders. We talked about polyamory and consent and body image.

I still think about disco driving and Wawa coffee every time I parallel park (which is basically twice a day, here in LA). The Ferrises taught the next two of my siblings how to drive before moving to the deep south for their retirement. Now when I visit, we parallel park in Carytown in Richmond, and head to the Galaxy diner. My brother and I split deep fried oreos and Jean has a beer, and we make jokes about Hitchhiker’s.

And I scroll through Tumblr and wonder, what happened to Princess Jordan and her fuck-you-I’m-into-pink attitude that paralleled Ms. Ferris’s fuck-you-I-like-guns stance? Is she posting fatspo fashionista selfies in crop tops and red lipstick? Does she sing ***Flawless by Beyoncé when she’s in the car? Does she still do pagents and make her own way in organized settings? Or did the guys like Cody get to her, and did she end up losing her size 20 and her glitter to shrink herself into the life of some boy? I sure as hell hope not.

And I wonder, what other lovely pieces of life and human connection have my pride and privilege caused me to miss? How can I ever learn to truly see someone from where I sit?


For the last year, I’ve been sleeping on couches, borrowed mattresses, and at last, my own thin IKEA futon thrown down on the floor. I have lived out of a suitcase since last August.

This last week I spent wound tight, my attention turned so intensely inward that I left threads hanging to tangle in the wind out of sheer distraction. Calls left unreturned, texts half-started, emails glaring at me in bold letters, unread. I cooked a lot. It was all I could think about, though if I was honest I’d probably say I cooked a lot because I needed to be on autopilot so my brain could work overtime, like a computer empty of all but the most basic processes so you can run script through it in double time like they talk about in that hacking scene of every late 2000s movie. I made scones and cookies and soup and pizza, each without a recipe, each with a new twist. Raspberries in the scones, cinnamon and oatmeal in the cookies, soup with curry and kale and yams, pizza in a cast iron frying pan. Let me taste my way to culinary fullness so my brain doesn’t have to think about anything even so simple as a recipe.

It’s summer here, not spring. There’s no dramatic demarcation of seasons to announce the shifting, settling, creaking in my soulbones. I’ve been writing a shitty poem every day as part of a group project for the month of June. Greasing the wheels or somesuch–I thought it might help me dig my way out of the shell-hole Clare’s post going viral left in my brain. It hasn’t helped and I’ve been dry as a bone.

Back when I was in the church, I used to describe this restless shifty itching that leaves me without writing words and rusty-jawed socially as being in a spiritually dry spot. We had a book on the living room shelf called Streams in the Desert and every time I saw it this is what I thought of: the missing, the hamster wheel brain, the hibernating empathy. Now I’m more inclined to recognize it as an extension of me instead of an abstract force of a “season”–it’s a symptom and I’m learning to listen to it, to tend it, to be uncomfortable until I realize it’s passed me over and exhale in relief.

I really like my job when I’m like this, though I get cantankerous and set in my ways. The physical demands of sorting, shelving, unboxing, and moving product at the bookstore tires me out and pushes me through, much like the cooking does. I am Sisyphus but I am happy rolling up and down the hill because I know I am percolating something deep inside my boulder and then I can leave.

There were a lot of reasons for why I came to California. I suppose I was running away, on some levels. I was also seeking to undo curses that kept me feeling limited. This was my home, and I was exiled. Could I come back home? Was something fundamentally wrong with me, that I couldn’t return? Or would the mother-warm sun and the soft slopes of the foothills embrace me and hold me close? Even though that dream didn’t quite come true, I managed it. I came home. I returned. The curse is broken. Yes, it’s been a struggle and it’s seemed aimless, and sometimes I’m still here out of sheer exhaustion and sometimes I’m still here out of sheer pride. But I am still here.

And the sunlight has finally thawed something deep down, and I’m feeling like it’s time for one of those regulated burns they do in the mountains. I was up there two weeks ago with my childhood friend and her son, kicking pine cones and stomping through a mountain meadow to find “our” trees and a red spring by a creek. I indulged my ruminative state up there, away from cell service and the internet, and I came away feeling stilled.

And then reality bit my ass, reminding me that men like power and women don’t trust their own strength in the face of the blunt childishness of their men. I don’t blame them. Creature comforts are my security blanket, too. But if it is in my power to slice, to arouse, to startle, to blind with light, to burn, and the cost is not so great to those still dependent on these men, I will do so. And I knew I would, but the decision sat above my eyes and pressed down on me until I felt blinded by it. Days passed and everything was aching from the necessity of this little personal Alamo. And so I broke down my words into small pieces and mixed them with my tears (there were few–I can’t cry with a migraine) and poured us our tonic and lit the fire and walked away.

When I woke up from that hangover, all I knew was the clean blue of a June sky and the exhale of relief.

And then I looked around and saw I had been living like a beggar child, hoarding this and that, meeting my necessities alone and ignoring the music and the panache. So I set to clean house, dusting cobwebs out of high shelves and taking out books I’d forgotten out of necessity and drawing up plans again. Coffee was poured and I shifted into another time zone, chasing the zephyr across the horizon.

I used to be afraid of falling in love, and I think I am, still. But I used to worry about wasting a limited resource on the wrong person, of pouring myself out and seeing my everything puddled on the floor and not being able to catch it all back again in my jar. Now, I am afraid out of habit, but I know that instead of a secret stash in a jar, love is like that red spring by the creek where the water runs clear. It might get muddied, but there’s more where it came from and the dirt will either settle or get washed away or calcify and become beautiful in time.

20140607_133035

It feels like springtime in that the cobwebs are gone and the hibernation has ended and the growing things are forcing themselves toward the sun. It feels like spring in that the old hoary curses have been replaced with seductive promises. The miserly desperation of winter is gone, and I’m ready to loll around in the grass and gorge myself a little.


“I would be just devastated.”

It’s a word I’m not allowed to use, I think. You hit a point where too many bad things have happened to you in too short a period of time, and you suddenly have no time to be devastated because you’re pretty busy working until 7pm for someone else’s startup and getting up at 5am for your minimum wage, “regular” job. When you’re that busy trying to stay alive, you lose your right to be devastated.

Devastation is a luxurious grief. I think it probably involves flopping on the floor and sobbing loudly without regard to time or place or obligations.

I did that once. It was 3am. I put down the phone, and I covered my face with a pillow and soaked it as much as I could because I didn’t have a punching bag or a basement where I could go play rock music loudly. I cried until I got a headache, and then I tried to sleep because I had to be at work early the next morning and I knew I was going to have to fight icy roads on the way to work, but I couldn’t sleep because my pillow was wet and my head was exploding and my eyes wouldn’t make tears anymore but I couldn’t stop crying. And I was aware of my adult self as she kept checking the clock.

When I hear the word devastated, I think of Meryl Streep on the screen, tossing her hair in the sunlight with a big old empty house behind her as she whisks herself away to nurse a wine bottle and purse her lips before sinking into a bubble bath.

When I hear the word devastated, I think of Roxane over Christian’s body, damning death’s approach because, fuck it, she was going to have her cry on the battle fied. I think of her mourning dress in the morning light, the black lace whispering over the grass.

Life, put on pause. That is devastation.

I used to get really flushed and tight in my chest when I’d come back to campus after fall break and walk to chapel and see packs of girls with gleaming skin and freshwater pearl studs and snappy headbands, wearing smooth, fitted North Face jackets. Aghast at my lack of conversationable ideas when I bumped into one in line, I’d compliment the jacket, and she’d flash me a white-toothed smile and tell me how her dad takes her out to get a new fall wardrobe every year during break, and isn’t this just the nicest jacket? I’d agree warmly, and then I’d poke my fingers through the lining of my pockets and finger the length of the frayed edge and wonder if my parents even knew what my coat was like.

Sometimes I feel guilty for taking time alone so intensely. It’s not productive, I can’t answer any of my own questions, and I should be applying for more jobs, since I’m broke as shit. So when I walk to my car after work, I call a friend so I don’t miss the beauty of those five blocks over worrying that I parked in the wrong zone in my hurry to make it to work on time. I talk about writing ideas and boys, telling her how I’m craving hot mozzarella cheese sticks and worried about my little sister, and I try not to count out the impact of a $73 parking ticket on my week’s budget. I watch the light while I listen to her tell me about the first time she felt her baby hiccup inside her. I impress on my memory the glint of the sea between the houses when her husband interrupts us to tell her how he thinks she’s so sexy. I try to imagine what I would feel if I were in their town again, fighting 16” of snow and cursing the ice on my car in the mornings.

Devastation is a mindset that is incompatible with perceived scarcity, I think. It’s loss, but it’s loss to those unaccustomed to the sensation. I wonder sometimes how much bigger, louder, freer, and more me I could be if I didn’t have starvation mentality strangling my brain every second of the day. I trace the sunbeams and feel small, but it’s not new to feel small. When the world steps a bit closer and the rain whispers on the pavement, I feel large and I contain multitudes.

Is my aversion to accepting grand gestures of nature or grief or familial affection and accidental plenty a form of emotional ADHD? Am I afraid of having enough, because then I might lose my excuses for why I’m not yet flexing my full strength?

I don’t want to be devastated. I need to build an addition in my brain for the positive descriptors–they’re all bunking together in the back room while fear and shame play bachelor penthouse in my kitchen. I think I want to invite whole over for coffee. I want to make abundance my godmother. I want to be baptised with tranquility.

But I’m just not sure how to go about it yet, and I have to be up at 5am for work. Maybe I’ll whisper curses at the sunrise. Or maybe I’ll play Beyoncé.


I’m not really thinking about Christmas much right now. There are too many pieces of life still unresolved this December. I can’t see very far ahead–this is driving in fog with my low beams on, not knowing when I’ll arrive where I’m going. But I’m still walking forward, or trying to.

This past weekend I spent most of my free time revisiting my undergrad thesis on Derrida and T.S. Eliot, immersing myself in that headspace after years of absence. I’d forgotten about pieces of it, absorbed them so thoroughly into my thinking that the origin of the parts had become obscured. One of these pieces that became so much a part of me is Derrida’s concept of à venir.

I spent last year’s Advent season meditating on the idea of it being a penitential season. It was for me, a time of preparing the self, stripping the distractions, waiting for the arrival of the Christ child. It was a time of soul-stripping, and I had no idea how few things I’d be holding in my hands by the time it was over. The year before was much the same — feeling pressed in, pressed down, holding my breath as I let things go and slapping God’s name on it to make sense of it all.

There is so much brokenness. My brain is on overdrive, filled with stories. The pain of the people dear to me is a loud white noise in my head, keeping me awake at night. The idea of Advent being a time for introspection and penitence is still true, but it doesn’t fit this year. This year I can’t “God’s sovereignty!” myself out of the questions I carry, all balled up in my pocket.

Revisiting that thesis for my applications made me laugh. I’d tied up the loose ends in pretty bows at the end — I had succumbed to the internal pressure of working with Derrida at a Presbyterian college, leaned a little too hard on the Christianity-fixes-this-tension conclusion. Derrida didn’t go for answers, for tidy bows. That’s the whole point — he saw how uncontainable language and ideas and belief were, and talked about it. And the moderns couldn’t cope with the tension he embraced.

So now to explain: à venir. It’s Derrida’s term used to describe the space of tension between the idea of a thing and it’s actualization. It’s that time when you’ve had an idea for a recipe, pulled together your ingredients, and you’re waiting for the timer to take it out of the oven and see if it turned out how you hoped. It’s the moment between when you, a poet, have an idea for a poem and sit down to write, and when you give it to someone to read for the first time, and wait breathlessly to see their face and know whether or not you succeeded at yanking them into that first moment when inspiration struck.

À venir means “to come” or “forthcoming.” It’s the same root from which we name this time of year Advent. And Advent is about this, the tension of anticipation. That which is to come — we have no idea what it will turn out to be like, but we know it’s coming, and we wait, fully present.

I chuckle, because it seems that I’m not alone in feeling the anticipatory discomfort this year. Cara blogged yesterday, saying

I’m sitting here, in the present tense, realizing that I’m breathing somewhere between has come and will come, between Advent and Adventure.

Sarah wrote on it, too.

Now that I have wept, now that I have grieved, now that I have lost, now that I have learned to hold space with and for the ones who are hurting, now I have a place for Advent. Now that I have fallen in step with the man from Nazareth, I want to walk where he walked into the brokenness of this life, and see the Kingdom of God at hand. Now that I have learned how much I need him, I have learned to watch for him.

Advent is perhaps for the ones who know longing.

Two parts of the same à venir tension: adventure and longing; hope and grief. Advent, the penitential season. Advent, the season of tidings of great joy. Advent, the birth of the one who is to die. Advent, the birth of the King who will reign forever.

Advent, the messy season of the soul at its most human and most holy — when we don’t know what’s coming, we don’t know what we need, and we’re waiting and getting so antsy for something to change that we half don’t care what it is.

Maybe that’s why all my favorite Advent hymns are in minor keys? It’s a season of being unresolved. We may have a great hope, a great faith, a Messiah we watch for, but the beauty of à venir is in the surprise.

I like to hope I’m a lot more open to the surprises that may come this season, after a year full of them. But I know I’m not, not really. I love creature comforts, tidy endings, white hat/black hat thinking. Yet, that’s just not real. Real is nuance. Real is discomfort AND extravagant beauty mashed together in the same day. Real is unresolved melodies that are left unfinished.

And real is our very human, very beautiful innate ability to hope in the midst of crap. Even if it’s just the anticipation of sleep at the end of the day, or a warm cup of coffee in the morning, or a hot shower when it’s all over. We hope. That’s what we do. We look forward to things. And that’s the heart of being human, the heart of à venir. It’s the unquenchable spirit of Advent, and ideally of Christianity. Hope without ceasing, right? A God who cares, intimately. A God who took on flesh, who took on our tension and our humanity, our existence of nobility of soul and thought plus farting and tears.

Some days I don’t know if I believe, or if I do, what I know. But it’s human to hope, and it’s Christian to hope, and the messianic impulse of expectancy is strong. Things can get better. Things should get better. Love is real, and it is healing. The Incarnation is mystifying and surprising and good and I expect no less of final redemption. I don’t want a bow. I want a minor chord, I want the slice of surprise of the unresolved, the unknown. It’s more true.

À venir. God is with us. And it’s uncomfortable and surprising.


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source: pinterest

“I just don’t feel heard,” she texted me.

“I know, but I hear you,” I thought.

***

Awkward silence was the norm in the kitchen at one place I worked. You’d slip in for coffee or water or your lunch, and shuffle around each other with cringing politeness and fumble for what you came for in silence.

The old fellow with dancer’s feet and bright eyes walked in with me, silent. Then: “Did you see that new zombie movie?”

I hadn’t, but he saw me. We talked. I wasn’t invisible that time.

***

She was eloquent, but no one responded. She voiced her frustration, but she still felt marginalized. Two words on the screen made all the difference. “I’m listening,” she read.

***

We all struggle with this, I think. It’s human to want to be heard. “Hey anybody!” says a kid, and we all know what he means. Hear me. See me. Feel this with me.

Being unheard and feeling alone is the most miserable place. I think maybe Lewis was right in The Great Divorce that hell is a state of mind that creates the most ultimate isolation.

It’s what motivates us to blog, to tweet, to commune, to write, to gather. Tell me I’m not alone. Tell me you hear me. 

When I had been at my old SGM church for about nine years — after serving in Sunday school since I was 14, after raising $4,000 in bake sales ever Sunday for a year for the church building fund, after my dad played on the worship team, after attending every Sunday service and every weekly care group, while the church grew from about 200 people to 800 or so — I was in a van going to a church conference and the pastor was driving. He turned to me, and called me “Hannah” with a short a. (It’s pronounced with a long a, like in “father”). “So, Hannah,” he said, “how are you?”

And I cringed, and for the first time I realized: when I left town for my freshman year later that summer, I was going to be glad to leave that church. I’d poured my life into it, and they had no idea who I was. I was invisible. He didn’t even know my name.

That isn’t what the church is supposed to be like. The image of the church as the Body of Christ makes me think that the church is supposed to be a place where we are intimately known, heard, seen, and cared for. When one part of the Body suffers, we all suffer. We rejoice and grieve and grow and hurt and heal together.

***

After that, I was set adrift for a while, but everywhere I went that wasn’t KingsWay, I was met with more pastoral care and kindness than I’d ever experienced. Even those places where the theology was twisted and bordered on spiritual abuse, and I maybe wasn’t really heard, they tried to care for me better than I’d ever experienced before.

I left school and moved to a new area and got married, and promptly found myself in the tailspin of a faith and identity crisis. The church we were at had abstracted faith in such a way that there was no life there, and I spent our Sundays there evading detection by volunteering in the nursery or reading Harry Potter in the church office or outside in the sun.

And then. This year. This bizarre year. Where so much change has left me feeling exhausted and excited and cracked open and nomadic.

I find myself receiving the kindness of near-strangers at church, because they know. My pastor sits across from me in his office and I’ve only scratched the surface in my storytelling and he stops me and asks me about his preaching, how he can make sure he’s being intersectional and show how much he cares by not marginalizing people. And asks for book recommendations. And then prays for me and prays for unspoken things that he heard in between the lines of what I told him, and I sit there and choke back tears because I have been heard.

***

I wake up to an email from a girl who used to be afraid in her church, who’s now landed in a new church and has found love and isn’t afraid to show her face to God there anymore, and in all this crazy  mess of change I’m forced to be still for a minute there and give thanks.

Because this, this, this beautiful listening-talking-praying-holding-each-other-up mess? This is what the church is supposed to be. It’s not a unicorn fairytale wishful thing. It’s magic, sure, but a real kind.


In which I will probably sound a lot like Lauren Dubinsky, who is usually right about this stuff.

The credits were rolling on the Disney princess movie. I was in a swoony-moony eight-year-old’s post-Disney euphoria, soaking up the soundtrack swelling as I leaned back on my elbows on the living room carpet.

I don’t remember which parent said it or the exact words, but what I heard was something to the effect of

“Now, Hannah, we know that this is a good story, but the Bible teaches us that following our hearts is bad, and you can see how she made choices that hurt her family and friends because she was being selfish and followed her heart.”

This little moment was followed up later by years of Bible memory drills and post-spanking lectures:

The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?”

This verse was later reinforced by SGM teachings drawn from various bits and pieces of reformed theology.

  • You are the greatest sinner you know. 
  • I’m doing better than I deserve. 
  • I just don’t know if this is a good choice, because I need to pray and discern my motives. 
  • This is how this situation makes me feel, but I need to pray about it, because I might be reacting wrongly, because my heart is fundamentally evil, you know.

This was my justification for faith: people do bad things even if they want to be good. So T.U.L.I.P. and the SGM gospel had to be true. They were logically sound.

If you grew up like I did, you know what I’m talking about. And I’m not here to argue the logic of the theology. I know it “works” but I also know that it takes a toll on the heart, and that room for the miraculous and the impossible and the creative grace of a vastly loving God are so much more important to sane orthodoxy than systematic theology.

So I believed this. I doubted myself. I tried to act on reason and Scripture. If you look at my prayer journals (because talking about my feelings wasn’t okay, in my mind, unless I was “praying” about them) from when I was dating my ex, you’d see me agonizing about issues in our relationship (that never got better), and then you’d see me talking myself out of being worried about them because of reasons like: God is Sovereign, and God Led Us Here, and Love Endures and Hopes All Things. And I shoved red flags into a “hard things I can live with” pile.

I did this with everything, not just dating. Actually, I probably did it MORE with other parts of my life. I didn’t aspire very high with my college options, because I thought I should go to a Christian college so I’d have accountability from other Christians in authority over me, because, obviously, my heart was deceitful and college is a time when people explore, which naturally leads them into sin, so. Don’t follow your heart. Stay safe. Stay in authority structures that will keep you safe from you.

I chose to not make an issue about moving to my ex’s hometown when we got married, because I wanted to respect his preferences and he wanted to be near his family. I didn’t even make an issue out of the fact that I was the one who wanted to go to grad school and had definite ideas about what career I wanted. And later, we talked about grad school options, and assumed he’d “go first” and then I’d do my schooling later. Even my job choices were dictated by practicality and security, not passion.

Choice after choice after choice was pushed and nudged and bumped into place by systematic self-distrust and self-effacement in my head. I don’t regret the choices I made, not really. How could I? These choices have made me who I am. But they took a toll on me.

I stopped doing things I loved. I stopped being creative. During college, I didn’t do anything creative–I just did school and spent time with friends. I wrote a little poetry, but mostly for creative writing class. I painted and drew one semester, but again, for a class. I was happier than I’d been in a long time, but I still did it for the grade. I didn’t dance much. I didn’t cook or bake much. I didn’t write fiction or draw. If I was dying for creativity to stay sane, I’d indulge and make a batch of cookies or go for a walk. But it wasn’t a healthy habit–it was loosening the cap on a high-pressure container to let a little gas out so I could screw the lid back on, tight. So I could keep going, being productive, achieving goals, looking ahead.

And yes, I got shit done. But big changes happened to me, and I’m realizing I don’t know who I am now. What does “new” me like? Is that what “little me” liked? Were these things I identified with in the height of my fundydom really part of me, or just part of the alternate self I created to stay sane and fly under the legalism radar?

On Saturday I sat out on a slab of concrete above the James River in Richmond and started to make a list of things I knew about me. Trying to reintroduce myself to myself, in a way. I got overwhelmed pretty shortly after starting this list, because, shit, my life and choices don’t really give me space to breathe and be me. I’m not feeding myself, the breathing living creative soul-self. And I can’t just shove that aside and give it attention every few months to keep it from dying. I can’t just make choices for the sake of “balance” when my creative self is atrophied and disoriented–there is no balance without health in all parts.

Fighting fragments of evangelical Gnosticism keeps getting stranger and stranger. It’s not just the body we’ve forgotten, but the heart, too.

If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does following my gut leave me more rested and healthy and satisfied than constant self-control and vigilance in rational, Church-people-approved life choices? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why do I love beautiful things? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does caring for myself allow me to care for people better? It can’t just be the one thing. It much more likely to be both/and.

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer, 1662]

***

Edit: Here’s why this is a big deal. Go find a QF daughter or a woman who has spent significant time in either a legalistic church/family situation or a hyper-reformed group and ask her (if she’s still “in”) if she knows what her strengths are. Ask her what she likes about herself. Ask her what she wants her legacy to be. And if she’s “out,” ask her what she would have said when she was “in.”

I bet it’ll be really hard for her to say.



Yesterday the Feminisms Fest was all about why we’re feminists. Today’s question is: why does it matter?

I read Emily Joy Allison’s post this morning about how feminism matters to her because of her younger sisters, and chuckled, because she basically wrote my post for me. But there’s a difference in our stories, and I’m still going to write my own post.

The reason feminism matters (okay, ONE reason it matters — I have a lot of other reasons) to me is because when I was introduced to the ideas of feminism, I was given the language to talk about the cognitive dissonance I was seeing in the circles I grew up in (homeschool, conservative, Christian), what I now loosely call “Christian patriarchy.”

Having the language to talk about a problem or a pain or a fear makes that issue become manageable in new ways. Naming your pain gives you power to confront the source. [I want to talk about this more! But that’s another post.]

So when I learned terms like “slut shaming” and “objectification” and “invalidation” and “privilege,” I suddenly found myself able to describe why strict modesty teachings and checklists and surveys made me uncomfortable, why I didn’t want to make a big deal about whether or not I had my first kiss at the altar, why I would be furious if an authority figure didn’t want to listen to me because I was emotional, why it bothered me so much that white Republicans were so vested in the “pro-life movement” (e.g. why did they care so much about women’s reproductive rights?). The language of feminism gave me a voice.

And it gave me a voice after these issues became intensely personal. When I got married, it was in the midst of great tension with my father. He resented that we didn’t ask his permission to kiss for the first time, wanted to be able to tell me it was unwise to marry someone with student loans and have me respond with deference to his preferences, and told my ex that when we got married he would be transferring his authority over me to my ex.  He was upset that we didn’t submit to his advice but instead consulted our consciences and the Bible and decided that we were okay with agreeing to disagree on certain “grey area” issues — to him, these were not grey areas. They were black and white areas of Christian conviction and to disagree with him was to “reject” his authority and  set a bad example for my younger siblings, leaving him open to the risk of family insurrection if my siblings decided to follow my path and make the same choices I did.

[Why he believes these things is his own story and I disagree with the results but with respect to the origins, as he has valid cause to act the way he did. But it’s an example of this sort of thinking, which is why I tell you about it.]

After all that happened, after I got married in spite of his objections [which, for the voyeurs wondering, had nothing to do with where we’re at now], I followed the path of my feminist explorations, moving from literary theory into contemporary feminist dialog. And oh, man. It set me on fire.

Now, I knew how to talk about my story. Now I understood why things hurt me or bothered me. Now I saw why I had felt so helpless to respond well when I didn’t have the vocabulary to form my ideas and responses. And having the language to talk about these things gave me the ability to start blogging here, start talking to people about what had happened, and start identifying systemic issues in conservative Christian culture which perpetuate unintentional invalidation and marginalization of women.

I see a lot of women and girls living in this world still, and while it makes me sad that they’re still “stuck” in Christian patriarchy and often defend it with eloquence and sincerity, I realize that (with the risk of sounding arrogant, so forgive me) most of them don’t see the system (they haven’t transgressed it, so they don’t know it’s limiting them) and most of them don’t have the words to describe it, even if they sense a disconnect between ideas (like: be a critical thinker! but submit to the authority of your father/pastor/husband’s teachings; we respect and cherish women! but they have to adhere to complementarian gender roles to be godly women). They can’t talk about it if they don’t have the words for it. 

Which is why, when I see stories like the one about the girl who finally left the Westboro Baptist Church, I cheer. The language of feminism indirectly made this possible. She got out because she had the language to start asking questions. And that is the key to freedom.

But without the language to discuss things, to ask questions, these women in Christian patriarchy are left with expressing how lonely they are waiting at home for Prince Charming, how exhausting it is to be 25 with 5 kids under 6, how scary sex is as a newlywed (without any sex ed), how they wished their dads would be more involved or loving, somehow (but they can’t explain it), how depressed they are at the thought of just being another stay-at-home mom and how they feel compelled to start a home business or something so they don’t get bored when it inevitably happens.

Without the language, these women amaze me in their ability to endure difficulty, to be creative and celebrate individuality within their limited spheres, with their capacity to love despite being disrespected and not listened to. It’s incredible and it’s a beautiful testimony to the power of the soul to withstand much trouble.

But, should they have to? Is it necessary? Is it worth it? I’d argue that it isn’t, and I get so, so excited when we start talking and I see them trying out new words and new ideas and learning to talk about their experiences and gain confidence to ask questions. Seeing the beauty of a soul being restored to health after years in a barren land is the most wonderful thing, and feminism’s language has shown itself to be the key to this healing over and over again.

So, feminism matters to me because of my sisters and my mom. Because of Caleigh. Because of Ruth. Because of Elizabeth Esther. Because of all the “Quivering Daughters” and the “No Longer Quivering.” Because of the stay-at-home daughters who are trying so hard to be the right sort of future wife. Because of all the stay-at-home homeschooling mamas who are killing themselves to get it right and burning themselves out in the lonely trenches of complementarian gender roles without any compromise or compassion. Because of the women suffering post-partum depression who get told that they just need to work on their sin issues and it’ll go away. Because of all the women suffering under graceless Christianity without realizing how much Jesus loves them as they are.

Feminism can help you talk about why it hurts. How to fix it, how to bring nuance and humanity and grace back into the discussion of women’s roles in the home, society, and the church. It can free you from the childishness of a world that is only black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, and let you walk out of the farmhouse and into the technicolor of Oz. It’s a beautiful world that we have here and it’s okay to enjoy it. I think that Jesus would walk out there with you.

Link up with FemFest here!