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 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?


I’m pretty sarcastic and snarly at the patriarchy most days, but I’ve recently gotten more fed up than usual and we need to talk.

Sit down. Pour a cuppa or a finger of whiskey or a beer or whatever you need to get through this. It’s going to be a little long. And I’m scared to publish this, which means I need to.

Clarification up front: I don’t hate men. (And I don’t plan on writing about dating experiences as a rule.)

But the fact that I feel the need to tell these stories and feel obligated to give that disclaimer at all makes me really tired and angry.

This is not how humans should relate to each other.

***

This is the story of two boys. Two “prospects.” Two evenings of deliberate vulnerability. And no second dates.

Both evenings ended the same: me driving home alone, feeling raw, and maybe crying at stoplights.

But these two dates were very, very different.

***

The first date was one of those dates where you’re not sure if it’s a date, or just hanging out in a somewhat intense and prolonged fashion and you happen to be alone with each other for the duration.

I barely knew this guy, but he had something about him that piqued my interest, and I liked him. I am/was also kinda not into commitment (and heard from a mutual friend that he wasn’t into commitment either), and so the idea of undefined hanging out with the possibility of more and little pressure was also pretty attractive.

I mean, let’s be honest, I haven’t been divorced that long and I’m totally learning how to date for the first time since ever, thanks to being raised in a culty subculture where a “healthy” relationship meant barely talking, never being alone, and having a three month engagement because you have to wait to have sex until you’re married and everyone knows that normal people can’t wait that long, so you just speed everything else up super fast.

So, handsome, smart, and no pressure. This looked good. And we hung out, and had a great time, and then I drove home. Everything went well.

Except I liked him a little more than he liked me, and I was “on the hook” for a couple weeks, waiting around, sending hesitant little texts, emailing him links, suggesting he join me for outings I’d planned with groups of friends, etc. He never responded negatively to any of this, but he never responded enthusiastically either, and eventually I just moved on.

Not a big deal. But here’s the thing to note: I had commitment issues. So did he. But because I knew he had commitment issues, I held back and was never very aggressive about my interest. I played it casual, I was vague and hesitant, and I was unsure of myself enough that I never really told him “hey, I like you, let’s hang out more.” I should have, though. It wasn’t like I wanted any sort of commitment from him; it would have just been an honest expression of interest.

But I never did that because I felt like I was supposed to be sensitive to his (presumed) commitment issues and take things at whatever speed he wanted to take it at, so as not to let him get overwhelmed or uncomfortable. I felt obligated to conform to his comfort zone and to let him initiate if he wanted more.

Honestly, it was poor form all around. I shouldn’t have felt like I needed to protect him, and I should have respected him as an equal, as an adult able to take care of his own emotional needs. I should have been up front and not played these culturally acceptable girl mind games.

Part of that was my own unlearning of codependent relationship habits. But a bigger part of that was fear of the patriarchy, of his social power and standing as a man: I have been acculturated to accommodate the man’s preferences and let his comfort zone be the hard lines around which I am taught to mold myself. My lack of confidence is the result of my own internalized misogyny.

Now, before I tell you about boy #2, I want to tell you a story about my sister.

She’s a freshman in high school—the first of my siblings to attend. She’s making me proud with how she’s transitioning to that environment, and she’s making choices that show a healthy sense of autonomy, boundaries, and self-respect. She’s emotionally and socially mature in ways I wasn’t until I was almost 21, just because she’s been exposed to more and is deliberate about respecting herself.

But earlier this year she called me up in a panic, because she had two female classmates threatening to beat her up, and waiting for her on the bus or at her bus stop or around school to catch her and hurt her.

Why? Because: before either girl started dating their current boyfriends, these boyfriends both expressed interest in my sister and got turned down. Fast forward a few weeks, and the new girls discover that their boyfriends are still in contact with my sister (these boys are stupidly flirty and my sister kept her same position and was ignoring them), and decide to punish my sister for being a “slut.”

Not the boys. My sister. Who has consistently told these guys to leave her alone.

These girls were afraid to confront their shameless and immature boyfriends, and instead chose to take out their insecurities and fear on my sister.

No wonder everyone still assumes that guys and girls can’t be friends. And no wonder there are so few depictions of healthy female friendship in popular media.

Hold that thought, and let’s move on to the story of boy #2.

This date started very differently. Meeting him was movie-style electric—he asked me out after one of those across-a-crowded-room eye contact moments. I said yes, he said he was making reservations at a nice restaurant, and he’d pick me up that evening.

I was nervously excited, dolled myself up, and off we went. Dinner was perfect, he was flattering and attentive, and the view from our table was breathtaking. The conversation was easy and interesting and skipped around to cover all sorts of things that I loved to talk about.

We went to a scenic spot afterwards, climbed some rocks and talked and kissed. The moonlight and the moment was storybook-perfect. I held my breath a little and memorized it all, and decided that this was awesome, but scary (vulnerability!) and I wanted to take it slowly.

Remember: commitment issues! And he knew about them, too. We’d covered that part of my emotional resume at dinner, and I’m usually really nervous to bring up that part of my story, especially on a first date. But it had been okay, and he hadn’t made me feel uncomfortable about it. So, I thought: good. This is nice. This could be good.

Then he drove me to my car—I’d parked in a parking structure and had a way to go before I got home—and it was 1 a.m. and the moon was magic and we kissed a bit more before I was ready to go.

And then it happened: he asked to come home with me.

Now, please don’t get stuck on this, because that request is not what went wrong.

But I wasn’t ready for that, and I told him so. And I told him nicely.

That aside: he was more into me than I was into him, and I wanted to take things slowly. I’d been burned before, and it seemed like he hadn’t been on the cynic’s end of a breakup yet. If I was going to keep seeing someone as enthusiastic about the idea of falling love as he was, I wanted to ease into it.

There is nothing wrong with his request (although it wasn’t the smoothest move to make), and there is nothing wrong with really wanting to fall in love.

But what happened next was frightening. He was visibly upset, and I asked him what was wrong, and he decided to tell me.

Clarification here: I’m not telling this story to punish him, I’m not telling this story because he was wrong to feel what he felt, and I’m genuinely don’t think he was responsible for feeling the way he did. But patriarchy fucks over dudes a lot and they don’t see it because they’re usually on the power side of it, and this was one of those blind spots.

What he told me was this: He was upset that the evening wasn’t ending like he’d hoped it would. He really wanted to fall in love, and he wasn’t getting much of a commitment from me after a beautiful date like that. He was hurt that he’d opened up to me and wasn’t getting rewarded with an assurance that I wouldn’t see other guys after our date. He was disappointed that sex wasn’t happening, and that dating is hard and unpredictable and he hadn’t met “the one” yet.

Very human emotions, all. But each emotion was underlined with an unspoken assumption, caused by how our patriarchy-driven culture treats love and sex.

  1. The assumption that a girl owes a guy anything (usually sexual intimacy) after being wined and dined. If he picks her and the tab up, if he opens doors, if he says nice things about her eyes…he should get a little something in return.
  2. The assumption that being slow to commit is a reflection on how much someone respects someone (as in: if she’s slow to commit to him, she doesn’t take him seriously).
    1. The assumption that taking something slowly is a sign of rejection (and by “slowly” I mean: without premature commitment and letting trust grow organically and in a non-codependent manner).
  3. The assumption that sex and love are limited resources, going out of style tomorrow—that you can use up all your love by spreading it around too thin.
  4. The assumption that you either fall head over heels and it all works out, or you get your heart totally broken (this is the “it’s better to love and lose than to not try at all” mindset taken to an unbalanced all-or-nothing extreme).
  5. The idea that a woman shouldn’t make her own choices based on experience and experimentation because then some good guy is getting the shit end of the stick. (This is basically an indirect version of slut shaming.)

His refrain was: “it’s not fair!” and he ended it by saying “I should have just had my way with you” because (in his mind) it would have been better to have “loved and lost” than to have had a nice romantic evening without sexual fulfillment or emotional commitment. Having sex with me at all costs and then losing me totally was (apparently) easier to deal with than continuing to hang out with me and the post-divorce commitment question mark on my forehead.

That comment (“I should have just had my way with you…”) was scary and sounded very rapey. And we were alone in an empty parking garage at 1 a.m. I sat up and looked at him then, and decided that I needed to wake him up out of his sad good-guy pity party (thanks to patriarchal entitlement blindness) and let him know how that all sounded to me, what it implied.

I knew I was not in any danger of being raped—he was much more sad and vulnerable and confused than scary and threatening, and he’d been a totally gallant, gentlemanly sort of date up to that point—but I also know that the more confused a guy like that gets, the more resentful they become, and I couldn’t just let a speech like that slide.

So, the romance ruined, I spoke frankly. I told him that those comments made me feel unsafe, that no girl is going to be able to respect and trust him if he talked like that, and that he absolutely had to stop treating love like a commodity that could be used up, or yeah, maybe he will die alone. Sex and love aren’t prizes, I am not a catch, and there is no way he’s going to ever be happy in a relationship if he can’t see women as independent and autonomous and whole creatures. And falling in love is a sham unless you are willing to let the other person be fully human and accept them the way they are, not the way you want them to be.

To his credit, he really did seem to hear me and take all that seriously. He apologized, and I left.

But I still felt really shaken up by the experience and not just because he said something so utterly insensitive and frightening, or because I had to quickly respond so and with a feminist rant that required a lot of vulnerability and frankness.

What upsets me is the assumptions. What upsets me is the same thing that upsets me about what happened with my sister and the high school kids. It’s the same thing that upset me when, a few weeks back, I went to a favorite bar for mac and cheese, an amber ale, and some time to sort out my thoughts in a notebook. Once I got settled in, an old man (who was pretty drunk) sat next to me and leaned onto the bar and watched me eat with a rapt expression on his face. I was helpless to get him to stop, I couldn’t find another seat to move to, and the bartender acted like nothing was wrong. I ended up leaving because I was so uncomfortable.

The assumption common to these situations is this: the needs of men are fixed points and the comfort zones of women are not.

Men have desires, needs, comfort zones, and women are to bend and mold themselves to meet them. The problem is not that the old guy was being a pervert, or that the boyfriends were slutty, or that the one guy was bad at communication, or that the other was presumptuous and rude.

The problem is that I was the one who was supposed to defend my personal space, that the girlfriends assumed it was my sister who was the problem, that I was uncomfortable voicing my own emotions, that I had to explain sexual ethics to a guy and be responsible for being the only one attentive to my own commitment issues.

This should not be. Women are people too (which is the oddly radical definition of feminism), and the common courtesy we women are acculturated to show everyone should be something we ought to be able to expect to receive in return. Instead, women are trained to make up for the social slack that men are never made to learn, and it pits women against each other to compete for men, and it puts undue responsibility on women to keep relationships together and the communication flowing.

And then we continue to perpetuate these things and say that dudes are bad at expressing their emotions, that women are more naturally nurturing, that dudes can’t be expected to know what we’re thinking, that we should not expect much emotional attention from them.

We are constantly building our own gender role prisons. And I’m tired of seeing emotional and relational codependency and false gender roles treated like they are healthy benchmarks of normal relationships.

I should not have to apologize for my comfort zones, my needs, my feelings, or my preferences. And if that is what “normal” looks like, it needs to change.


I have been waiting impatiently for this day to come, and now it’s here and I can finally tell you what I’ve been working on for the past two months.

Introducing! The Swan Children: Art Without Apologies

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The Swan Children is a bimonthly online art gallery and magazine founded to curate and showcase the creative work produced by artists of homeschooled, Quiverfull, and conservative Christian upbringing.

We are the Swan Children and we look after our own. We have inherited the kingdom and we’re singing for our lives – on street corners, in attics, in spare bedrooms, in the shower, at the family dinner table.

THE BACK STORY

I realized that everywhere we’re talking about these communities and social groups online, our discussions are analytical, first person, and are driven by debate and didactic analysis. This is the way a slice of this population processes our religious heritage, but it’s not the way most of us function best.

In my experience, homeschoolers are highly creative and the arts thrive organically in all of the communities I’ve been in–I’ve seen homeschoolers making paintings, murals, writing novels, putting on plays, composing original music, and excelling in fiber arts, fashion design, and graphic and web design. I love this and I think it goes unnoticed too often.

Whether or not we ideologically agree on whether or not homeschooling is the best educational method, whether or not we think one church group or another is abusive or healthy, whether or not we think that conservative politics reflect Christian values, we can all agree on the power and value of artistic expression as an avenue for the soul to thrive. 

I want to honor this vulnerability and draw attention to the beautiful things being created by people who were homeschooled or grew up Quiverfull or in a conservative Christian community.

The Swan Children, lead by our Editor in Chief Connor Park, will function as a place where art made by these people can find a home, where there will be no value judgment of “good” or “bad” or “appropriate” and where the artists will not be making apologetic explanations for their pieces. The Swan Children will showcase these works as they are, no apologies, no comments or commentary, no criticism.

While our first issue will be entirely made up of work from homeschool grads, we also welcome creations from those currently in (or from) Quiverfull or generally conservative Christian communities. We are eager to show a broad spectrum of perspectives as we do so. We want art by current homeschool students and by graduates–there are no restrictions other than that the work has to be compelling and executed well.

OUR FIRST ISSUE

We’re launching on March 1st! This first issue is so cram-packed with talent that I can barely contain my excitement. We have fiction, poetry, drawings, paintings, handmade baskets, slam poetry, original music, song covers, dancing, photography, and more. Every piece tells a story, every piece is moving, and every artist is generous to open up and share a piece of their soul for us to cherish.

Our community is so much more than arguments about policy and theology. Let’s show the world our art.

Excited? Go sign up for our first issue at www.swanchildrenmag.com!

We want to show you something.


Okay, so, basically, my blog is currently useless if you’re not familiar with Brené Brown’s work on shame, especially Daring Greatly. Just get a copy already. [On another note, I’m still working on a follow-up to my post on leaving fundamentalist thinking, but I’ve moved this week and had a family member in the hospital and have been generally too drained to write a good piece on that yet. It’ll happen as soon as I can.]

I used to own a copy of Humility by C.J. Mahaney. I used to think it was a really good book.

I used to beat myself up a lot over how “proud” I was, a concept drawn from SGM’s teachings inspired by C.J. and the Puritans. My desire to be right, my desire for safe relationships, my desire to be heard–all these were twisted in my interpretation of them and lumped in a pile in my mind, under a big black sign that read “PRIDEFUL SINNER.”

Pride, as they defined it in SGM, is “contending for supremacy with God” (Jerry Bridges). Any attempt to control your life, to assert your likes, dislikes, boundaries, or ambitions was written off as “idolatry” and “selfish” and “proud.”

Arrogance was a label of a tent that expanded in SGM to cover anything that wasn’t following the social code of correct behavior. Doubting or anxious? Your lack of faith exhibits pride. Depressed? Prideful doubt of God’s goodwill toward you. Making plans for your life and dreaming/learning/exploring about what and who you really want to do and be? Pride and refusing to listen prayerfully to God’s will for your life.

I suspect that this stuff was harsher for women in SGM (and the fundamentalist homeschooling community at large) than it was for men, because men were required to learn their skill sets, urged to find mentors, and assumed to follow their dreams (of some sort) and have careers and aspirations. Women were not. Gender roles were stricter for us–godly women aspired to be housewives and mothers, and anything outside of that was a spiritual open doorway to pride. Aspirations outside of the wife/mother/housekeeper role might be permitted, if you were quiet and meek and self-deprecating and insecure enough in your potential. Men with aspirations were taught to give lip-service to this sort of attitude as well, but they were never socially required to really adhere to it with the same intensity of guilt trips and care group self-shaming sessions that women were.

I was thinking on this the other day–I wrote a poem (which I may share here later) and I wrote it about the fierce beauty of a healthy, strong woman who is confident in herself. Which is, really, a positive sort of pride. I realized a few things, which I want to talk about here.

Pride, in its actual real-life definition, is a double-edged concept. It can be a false, inflated sense of self-importance (a sort of delusion, really), or it can be a secure feeling of worth and belonging of some sort, a warm connection to someone or something. My baby sister has no shame in her artistic attempts–if I get a box from home, it’s full of paintings and drawings she’s made. And she puts them on the fridge and sends them to work with our dad and it’s not a big deal. She doesn’t act self-important about her art, but she is happy with it and shares it with people. It’s pride in her work, and it’s deserved and healthy. And I am proud of her and her cheery lack of self-consciousness with her art. It’s healthy and that’s good, and so I am pleased and heart-warmed by it. That’s the other side of pride.

And the thing that I’m realizing, is that in all the years that I beat myself up for being proud, I was never really proud. I may have been immature and naive and selfish, but I wasn’t deluded in my importance (okay maybe sometimes with younger siblings when I was babysitting), not really. I was afraid of myself. I was afraid of being large and taking up space and having a voice and things to say and having people hear me. I was afraid of being good at anything that would prevent me from being mostly invisible. I gravitated toward excelling in supporting social roles, toward excelling in domestic skills, and toward excelling at being unobtrusive.

I was not proud in either sense of the word. And I was living in shame, afraid of existing much at all. And I think we should be proud in the healthy sense of the word.

My favorite example of this is my friend Kiery, who has been making art since hen’s parents rejected hen when hen decided, at 18, to move out and marry hen’s boyfriend/unofficial fiancé (only unofficial because of the parents’ attempts to break them up). Hen’s family was vicious and abusive to hen’s assertion of independence, and Kiery went into emotional cocooning as a newlywed, but eventually started painting and drawing. The process has been slow and agonizing at points–I know Kiery has fought a lot of internal voices telling hen to stop and that the art is worthless. But hen’s art has improved SO much, and Kiery’s doing a comic strip with a friend, running a gaming vlog, and making some really cool pieces of art. It’s taken years, but there’s a wholeness to what Kiery makes that has been the result of lots of self-nurturing and patience with henself that I really respect and admire. It’s been like watching a butterfly emerge and dry its wings in the sunlight. It’s so beautiful and good.

I aspire to things. So do you. And it’s not sinful or “prideful” to be honest and encouraging and kind to yourself about that.


Fundamentalism isn’t an ideology, it’s a habit of thought patterns. Fundamentalism is based in fear. Fear of not being heard, fear of being invalidated, fear of attack, of erasure, of silencing.

Fundamentalism can be present in any community regardless of ethics or system of belief.

The reason that I started questioning the Christian fundamentalism I grew up with was because I saw people valuing the system of belief as more important than having compassion for hurting people in our community. I was upset that our value system put being right over sitting with someone in pain and empathizing with them in their vulnerable place.

I think that’s why most of us left the system of legalism, fundamentalist Christianity, Christian patriarchy—whatever you want to call it. We saw the system steamrolling people in pain—either us or those we loved—and realized that the system didn’t work for outliers, for those who didn’t fit the boxes or couldn’t follow the rules. We suddenly saw the marginalized, and realized that we were in a broken system and needed a new paradigm to stop marginalizing people if we wanted to have integrity in our claim to love as an ethic of life.

And so we stepped out of the too-small shoes of whatever ideology we’d been living in, and tried to listen and learn and practice consistent compassion and fight shame. We learned about self-care and about boundaries, we learned to question authority structures and say no. We learned the value of listening to those less privileged than us, and we adopted the language of feminism and intersectionality—clumsily at first, for most of us, but with sincere desire to be different from what we’d been before.

But fundamentalism isn’t something you can leave by deciding you’re LGBTQ* affirming, or by reading bell hooks, or by finally expressing the anger you felt when you were marginalized in your former world.

All of these things are good, but being “feminist” or “progressive” or even coming out as atheist can’t really do a thing for unlearning fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is fundamentally a defensive position. It is not easily open to nuance, it uses synecdoche on first impressions to assume that one or two interactions is the sum of a person’s essence. It is too interested in self-defensive labeling of everyone and everything to have the patience to sit with someone and try to learn how much their good intentions are reflected in their actions over time—it doesn’t have time for those who are learning or need to ask a million questions before they can grasp concepts that may have come quickly to us.

In the book Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, Nathaniel is talking to a woman about teaching the sailors complex math tricks to navigate more accurately, but they’re not picking it up very quickly and he’s impatient. She chides him, saying [I’m paraphrasing] “Don’t kick the chair because you ran into it in the dark. It’s not the chair’s fault it’s like that.” She goes on to encourage him to try to get to know the sailors individually to understand how their different personalities might inform how he can best approach teaching them to navigate the stars well.

I think about this scene often, because sometimes I’m the quick one who picks things up intuitively, and I don’t always remember that not everyone else is like that. And sometimes I’m the one with clumsy emotional intelligence, and I step on toes without realizing it, and need to have things explained to me in nice, small words so I can understand.

I am not advocating re-traumatizing yourself for the sake of helping someone who you find triggering. That is not your job. Boundaries are good. Take care of yourself.

But: I think it’s inconsistent and a bit mean to have believe you’ve left Christian fundamentalism and to rail against its treatment of the underprivileged and to claim that you’re an ally—and to choose to publicly label someone as “unsafe” for some intent-to-action clumsiness despite evidence that they’re trying to change and learn, just like you. They may very well be unsafe for you or for others and I’m all for eliminating negative influences from one’s personal life. But I can’t help but think how grateful I have been for the kind people in my life who have chosen to sit with me in my ignorance and inconsistencies and help me unlearn my bigotry without labeling me or shaming me.

Compassion is an act of the imagination, right? Shame is the tool of fundamentalists to silence and control the borders of a community. I don’t want to be right and educated well about intersectionality and feminism and my privilege, and fail to have compassion for those who are not as far along in the learning curve as I might be. I remember what it was like to be there. Do you?

Leaving fundamentalism is more about a laying down an irrational craving to be right (oh, I love you my darling Gryffindors, but…) and a taking up of compassion and imagination and epistemological humility than it is about learning and using the right labels and theories. The ethics of unlearning fundamentalism must go much deeper than just jumping to the other side of your line in the sand.

Safe people aren’t relationally fundamentalist. Safe people are compassionate people.


I wrote a post about feeling displaced last January, three weeks after I’d had to move out to give my [now] ex-husband the space he thought he needed to clear his head and recommit to our marriage. I wasn’t able to tell you all why I was writing that post then, so I shrouded my grief in nostalgia, in childhood memories.

Sometimes people ask why I can blog such personal stuff and not be afraid. I have to laugh, because it’s not brave stuff I’m writing. It’s reactions and analysis, it’s carefully curated glimpses into my reality to bolster my message that you’re not alone and that asking questions and accepting yourself is not just not against the gospel or the teachings of Jesus, but foundational and essential to the health of a church and an individual. But it’s not very transparent.

And sometimes, that’s okay. I don’t need to tell you everything. It would be unhealthy if I was spilling all my guts on here all the time.

But I’m really tired and I’ve been thinking about Brené Brown‘s writings a lot, and this is my blog folks, so I’m going to give you a post with a little guts.

I’m tired of seeming unstable. I’m tired of not knowing if I’m going to have work or not this week. I’m tired of not knowing if I should be trying harder to show people my gratitude for putting me up. I’m tired of packing and repacking suitcases and then not knowing where my cute skirt is, or if I remembered to leave my jacket accessible. I’m tired of telling people that no, I don’t have enough work to support myself yet, that I can’t yet afford my own apartment, that I’m not sure what’s going to happen next.

I’m tired of knowing exactly what I want to do and where and why, tired of knowing who I want to be, but not being able to get there because I’m still stuck chasing these other life essentials. I’m tired of feeling guilty if I write things, because it’s detracting from job hunting. I’m tired of feeling both perpetually emotionally gutted and necessarily poised to respond to an impending crisis. I’m tired of telling my story and not knowing how to talk about my situation well. I’m tired of being afraid.

I’m tired of people being worried about me. It’s really uncomfortable.

All of that is vulnerability–I am in a vulnerable position, I don’t know what I’m going to do next, and I am losing my chutzpah to keep fighting for myself. It’s been almost a year and I just want to sleep for days, to get enough down time to begin to process everything that’s happened, and I just want to be able to take a day to myself not because I am stuck and don’t have work, but because I have worked hard and earned it and don’t need to worry about the financial ramifications. But I’m not there, and I do need people and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

I’ve lived in relative privilege for a long time. This is a very white whiney post. I’m trying to keep things in perspective and not complain because I am still, contextually speaking, in a position of relative security and privilege. I haven’t yet defaulted on a bill. I haven’t yet lacked for a place to sleep at night. I am still able to feed my cat and buy gas and food. I have had a lot of really wonderful people step in when I needed help and have been love with skin on to me. If I started telling you about each of the people who has been generous to me this year, I’d never be able to stop. There has been so much good tangled up with the hard stuff and I am so aware of it.

But I’m also just plain tired. So, hi, it’s Saturday, and this is me being vulnerable.

#feministselfie?


I feel like Stuff Christian Culture Likes is the comedy version of my Immodesty Rail pieces. If you don’t know Stephanie Drury‘s work yet, check it out. Her best work may be her themed Twitter search-and-retweet moments.

So, along those lines: stuff Christian culture likes [to do]:

Demand inappropriate justification for deeply personal decisions.

Maybe this is also a Southern culture thing. But if the South is Christ-haunted, the culture there is certainly also very inbred with church culture.

For example: when a divorced Christian (or a Christian dating a divorced person) is asked by another Christian if the divorce occurred on “biblical grounds” (or a similar question). You think you’re supported by someone, you think your trauma (if you’re the divorcé[e]) or joy (if you’re dating one) is safe to share with this particular person, and then you get hit with the icy water of presumption and judgment. And in that moment between the asking and the telling, you know that your ability to be vulnerable with this person ever again is dependent upon your answer. You are on the defensive, and you have to prove to the other person that your choices are worth their respect, that your decisions are good enough for them to take you seriously–either just as a mature adult, or as a “true” Christian.

It’s kinda traumatizing, and it’s irrational. It’s the milder, more benevolent version of that same sort of thinking that leads people to ask a rape victim if s/he was asking for it.

And I don’t think Christians mean to be so hurtful and oblivious–the discourse of most American Christian culture is premised on the assumption that love looks like challenging each other to be our best selves (in some way or another), instead of loving each other as if we were our best selves. The burden of hope should be placed on the possibility of being one’s best self, not on the act of achieving that possibility. It’s basic Works vs. New Identity in Christ stuff.

When I first told people what had happened, what my ex had decided, someone close to me asked me “What’s your theology of divorce?” and I was just devastated. Compassion and care and offers of support and help should have been the first response I got from this individual, not a one-line request to justify my actions (or, really, my ex’s actions). 

Similarly, demanding to know if there were “biblical grounds” for a divorce is like asking if a rape was legitimate. You don’t do it.

The concept of “biblical grounds” itself is flawed in the same ways that the idea of “biblical manhood and womanhood” is flawed–cultural norms are interlaced with the textual directives and you cannot draw a simple, direct parallel across the ages and say that the Bible’s most direct standards for grounds for divorce are culturally appropriate today. There is definitely ethical overlap, but the framework must be contextualized for the sake of interpretational integrity.

Beyond that, the thing that most people who haven’t personally experience a divorce (and even some who have) overlook is this: it’s more common for people to take the decision to go through with a divorce much, much more seriously than they do the decision to get married. They just don’t jump into it in a rush, eyes blinded by emotion. Some do, naturally, but it’s legally much easier to get married than to get divorced, and there’s a usually whole lot less incentive to change the status quo by ending a marriage. It’s hard to untangle two lives, it’s hard to go through the legal process and emerge intact, and it’s socially much, much harder to tell your friends and family that you’re divorcing than it is to tell them you’re getting hitched.

Black and white assumptions never help anyone. Compassion is an act of the imagination, at its root, and so before you go and ask if a marriage ended on “biblical grounds” or “who was at fault?” take a moment and put yourself in their shoes, and imagine what it must be like to be in that place.

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

[for some good voices on divorce and healing, check out: Natalie Trust, Letters From Scarlet, and A Christian Girl’s Guide to Divorce]


First off, thank you to everyone who expressed interest and then was patient and understanding when I didn’t show up on Friday with my post as planned. Life did some unexpected things and I spent most of the weekend on the road. But I’m back now, and here’s the promised post!

If you want to participate, link up at the bottom of the post with your own 5 (or more! I couldn’t stop and did 10) unnamed thanks to people who have made 2013 a better, more whole, more healing year. I’m going to be specifically talking about people from the Christian blogging community in mine, but I think that it doesn’t have to be that narrow. I just thought, for mine, that since it’s so easy to be quick to write each other off over a disagreement online, we sometimes neglect to appreciate positive things about each other in the ‘sphere. And I want to push back against that.

  1. Thank you for your caution in how you discuss hard issues. You get a lot of flack for your reticence, but I see what you’re doing, translating between realms and watching your tone for the sake of everyone, not for the sake of saving yourself online drama. I see the selflessness in this approach and know the hours and painstaking work of revising and adjusting it must take. You’re doing it well and I deeply admire your work and what you’ve been able to achieve.
  2. Thank you for your brash honesty, for being comfortable with not knowing what you believe all the time but comfortable with sharing the learning process with us all. The sincerity and curiosity you display is, I think, symptomatic of you becoming of a whole person as you embrace vulnerability and truth in your journey. I admire this about you a lot.
  3. Thank you for how much you love. I know you’re struggling with feeling out of place and not sure if you’re hitting all the right notes socially in this weird and wonderful online world, but the thing I love most about you is how sincere you are about your affections and care for others, for your family, for the things that make you excited. You’ve walked through hell and you’re not jaded. That’s amazing.
  4. Thank you for playing big sister to the outcasts of the church who congregate in comments sections and aren’t sure if they have a voice or not. Your perpetual hope in the value of a soul burdened with purpose is inspiring. Lives have been seriously changed for good because of your vision.
  5. Thank you for your incisive, non-stop analytical skills. Your intellectual integrity is something we all need to learn from, and I know you’ve moved on to other things, but while you were here, your research and thorough analysis was a tempering voice amid all of our questions and FEELINGS and I so loved that.
  6. Thank you for your love of beauty. Your intimate reflections on God and life and community and ordinary things have been, at points, a really wonderful oasis of meditation and reflection for me and for many others.
  7. Thank you for your maturity. Your voice has shifted, your tone has changed, and we’ve all collided into your blog with our vim and vigor and been sat down at your place and made to be quiet and think bigger than the insides of our own heads for a few minutes. We need you in these parts. Thanks for what you do.
  8. Thank you for your depth of compassion. Your knowledge is tempered by pain and that lends you the ability to hear the wounded in ways that many of us easily skip over in our race to make a point. Please don’t stop writing.
  9. Thank you for your sass and anger. I love how you are 100% wherever you are, I love how you are consistent online and in person, and I love how you are embracing vulnerability and growth with gusto and humor.
  10. Thank you for your absence. I don’t mean that I’m glad you’re gone–I’m not, and our community is often the poorer for it. But what I mean is that I am glad you have prioritized balance and personal health and perspective over the fear of missing out or the fear of not saying something that someone NEEDS to hear now. It takes actual real humility to shut up and sit out and just live, and I have learned a lot from your example of this. And not in a cheesy churchy way. For real.


I’ve been quiet here since I’ve been traveling, driving solo from DC to LA, but the other night I had the happy experience of an evening with Sarah and Micah Murray, and we talked a lot about our stories and processing the conservative Christian world we’ve come out of. And I had a flash of epiphany this morning as I drove away, so you’re getting an Immodesty Rail post instead of a happy-Hannah travelogue post.

***

When I started courting, I was hyper aware of how everyone else I knew had done this thing, what the stories in Josh Harris’s books showed as the “godly” ways to “walk out” their courtship in “good faith,” and what was necessary for having a healthy romantic relationship. Or at least, I knew what I thought a healthy relationship should look like and I had a pretty good idea of how to make mine look like a happy, godly thing for others to later emulate. This wasn’t conscious — this was just SGM culture.

See, the overall focus of everything in SGM (for me) was: be a good example for others. Every piece of my teenage and college years was set up in reaction to either 1) what my elders would think, and 2) what those younger than me would interpret as license to mimic if they watched my behavior.

Welcome to legalism.

And my ex, being who he is, was also really aware of what was and wasn’t socially acceptable in these circles. As a result (because, luckily for me, I was also aware that I was dating a person), I was tuned into this, too.

Given what we saw modeled for us in courtship culture (and, honestly, serious/”mature” Christian dating culture overall), his initial behavior as my boyfriend was much like this:

From xkcd

And it seemed like the reason he did this (well, the primary reason), was because of the culture in our Christian community where everyone assumed responsibility for policing each other (accountability) and thus you had to behave a certain way to assure everyone that you were being “above reproach” and “mature” and “godly” with your relationship choices. It was basically dating as social performance art.

Being uber happy with your new relationship — in a verbal performance sort of way, because physical demonstrations were too risky/sinful — was the best way to keep everyone off your back. I think, maybe, I engaged in this a lot more than he did. I’d be aware of the social expectations and talk up the positive things in our relationship and try to gloss over or tone down the negative elements. I felt compelled to talk about things that were too intimate to appropriately share (swapping dirt with your girl friends is one thing, but it’s entirely another to share that stuff with everyone to try to preemptively keep them from being “concerned” about you), and it drained me a lot. I felt like I was always on the defensive, needing to justify my relationship and my choices.

I’m not actively assigning motives here, but after all of that I tend to wonder a bit about why courting (or newly dating post-fundy life, or even newlyweds from this background!) couples tend to frequently feel the need to spam social media with announcements of how happy they are, how grateful they are for their bf/gf, how blessed and undeserving they are in/of the relationship. And I don’t really care about PDA if it doesn’t seem like a performance to make a statement.

But that all brings me to the problem with this defensive reaction to accountability in a legalistic atmosphere. Your simple motives aren’t good enough, and you are forced to second-guess yourself and over-think things to the point of cultivating insecurity and codependency. Decisions are made by committee — you talk yourself blue in the face telling everyone you know about your decision dilemmas, and ask endless questions about motives and fears, and then take steps based on where you are at the end of the accountability gauntlet. And advice from mentors and peers and parents is great, but this isn’t that. It’s losing yourself and appropriate sense of boundaries and privacy for the sake of fear, and you often forget to enjoy the ride of a new experience because you’re so afraid you’re doing the wrong thing.

I missed a lot of the joy in various “firsts” because I was so busy over-thinking everything and tense and afraid of doing the wrong thing. And that’s just silly. Dating is supposed to be about learning, not getting everything right the first time.

Why are Christians so afraid of making wrong choices and learning through mistakes? If we’re a practicing a faith that’s centered in grace and redemption, we shouldn’t be obsessing over having the Instagram-perfect, thoroughly “accountable” relationships like in the glossy courtship books our parents handed us. We should be enjoying learning about the beautiful things that can be had in community and learning about ourselves and each other, without fear.

***

All that said, I doubt I’ll ever recommend a relationship book to anyone ever again. Instead, I’ll shove a copy of Daring Greatly in their face and grin and say “this will change your life.”