Monthly Archives: November 2012

Onward Christian Soldiers

Occasionally, I startle someone I have known for years by singing battle hymns. “Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe, forward into battle, see his banners go.” I try to insert this as comic relief during a serious discussion, but eyes generally widen in disbelief, not humor.

I swear, I don’t do this very often.

Like many Christians, I was raised on the war of principalities. We sang songs about “marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before.” We were taught to see life on earth as a source of perpetual tension, that as the Devil’s domain, the earth is something to overcome. God ordained us to assert our dominion over the fish and the fowl, over all the beasts of burden that walk the earth– which includes, of course, our primal selves, long ago cast out of Eden. We were at constant war against the flesh, whether it was managing our weight (required daily weigh-ins), or resisting cold or heat or fatigue, while valiantly overcoming the desire for affection, comfort, and security.

I took for granted the notion that preparing for war is an essential component of growing up.

At chapel, we showcased a mannequin onto which we dressed layers of military garb. “Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” We ceremoniously placed the helmet of salvation on the wooden head, the breastplate of righteousness on the planked trunk, the sword of the spirit into the rigid fingers of one hand, the shield of faith to quench the fiery darts of the wicked in the other. We wrestled not against flesh and blood, but “against the rulers of the darkness of the world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” We girded ourselves with Truth, to withstand the temptations of pleasure.

No one defiled their bodies with tobacco, liquor, or other harmful habits. We had white glove tests and timed endurance runs, hiked in the snow and rain with loaded backpacks, tackled family KP and Police Call at the command of a whistle. “Let this faith of mine is tried, for the Lord is on my side, I am ready, I am ready, I am ready you can pass the cross to me.”

I am still a light sleeper, attentive and on call, resting with one eye open, waiting for an attack I am prepared to predict. As Christian soldiers, we march onward, for “hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise; brothers, lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.”

I don’t know how common this sort of training is, but I have not yet found it useful in my civilian life. I resent this sometimes.

And yet…

There is something to be said for self-discipline, regardless of its origins or its misuse.

Today, on Thanksgiving, I am acutely aware of pleasure and of freedom, of their cost and their value, largely because these were denied me. I am grateful I was raised in a family, no matter how dysfunctional, who taught me to fight for what I believe in. Even if what I believe in now is distinctly different from my upbringing, I know how to fight for my values, to court support, to share the struggle with other likeminded believers. I was taught to build stamina, not dependency, and this has its own logic, and its own reward.

As a mother, I have no intention of teaching these particular lessons to my offspring. But I will give abundant thanks this day for not having to.

a little bit of hope

One of my lowest points was when a potential employer asked me to remove my shoes before I interviewed with him. I thought to myself, If he asks me to remove anything else, I will leave. His office was out of his sprawling-by-New-York-standards apartment near Times Square. The sounds of traffic drifted up through the windows. It was clear by the decor and by his hair that his heyday had been in the 1980s. Many people ask you to remove your shoes before entering their homes. However, I was already seated across from him, and he was staring lasciviously at my feet. I am ashamed to admit that I slid those shoes right off. I needed this editing position for this “literary agent.” I got the job.

I have done the following jobs prior to my career, many of them simultaneously, all while attending college full-time: construction day laborer, box office attendant, dancing waitress at Denny’s, regular waitress at Applebee’s, busboy at Roy’s (a male-only job that they gave to me because I was “big enough”), front desk attendant at the YMCA, high school tutor, college tutor, sign twirler, law library assistant, regular library assistant, administrative assistant for a basketball agent, administrative assistant for a non-profit, editorial assistant to an author, literary events coordinator, online editor for application essays to MBA programs, and, yes, shady editor for shady, foot-fetish, literary agent. Within a few weeks of working for this agent, I realized he was taking cash up front from people with clearly unsaleable manuscripts, and I quit. With a few exceptions, most of the above jobs chipped away at my humanity, especially bussing tables, dancing at Denny’s, and twirling signs, likely because I had objects thrown at me regularly during the course of those jobs. I know there are worse jobs. I know there are five-year-olds digging through garbage piles for aluminum cans to recycle. I’m not feeling sorry for myself.

At the same time, it became quite clear while I was attending graduate school at an Ivy League university–very unfamiliar territory for me–that some people have very different lives, that some people travel to Thailand on their winter breaks rather than upping their hours, that some people who are not in fiction books actually attended preparatory schools and possess trust funds. That almost every rich person seems to speak French. One faculty member, not knowing my background, told me that it was nearly impossible for anyone who had attended a state school to be successful in the Ivy League. Another faculty member told me to stop working so much and focus on my writing. That would have been lovely. That would have been impossible. It became clear to me during that time that when you have privilege, it is very easy to continue to have privilege, and that this can have almost nothing to do with hard work. And doing an unpaid internship was out of the question; I needed an income. (This is a good article on that tangent.) I was at at this school because I worked hard, yes, but also in spite of it.

Just before the election, I got into a Facebook argument with some friend of a friend named Lonnie who said to me, “You are the exception.” His story was that he worked hard and that he made things happen for himself and he hates all of these “moocher” liberals who just want handouts. I told him that I had a story, too, and that I worked hard, too, but that I was also lucky and had help (like mentors and federal student loans and state tuition and scholarships), and that I didn’t consider myself a moocher, given that I had worked really really really hard. I suspect that Lonnie had help and luck, too, though he wouldn’t admit it. There is no such thing as picking yourself up by your bootstraps. We don’t do anything on our own, not completely.

I have an amazing job now, one that I love,  one that inspires me, one that allows me sufficient time with my children, and even some time to write. I am, of course, still paying down my insane student loans, but without student loans, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school either.  I would love to take complete credit for working hard and shaping my own future and all of that, but the truth is that I am simply lucky. If I had entered graduate school only a couple of years later, I wouldn’t be here. If I didn’t get all of those demoralizing part-time jobs when I was in college, I wouldn’t be here. If I hadn’t met the right combination of people who made me feel confident enough in myself to get through graduate school, I wouldn’t be here. No matter how hard I worked.

When I think about how much hustling I did between jobs and classes and homework and writing, I get exhausted. These jobs, however, in addition to the other opportunities I got, helped me get through college, and I am grateful for them. I was able to quit working for foot fetish guy because I knew there would be something else. There were jobs to be had then, multiple part-time jobs, and that is not always the case now. This past election made me feel as though maybe people realize, just a little bit, that the kind of gross inequality we have and are making worse with our policies is not a good thing, not even for the rich. I still think we need serious reform. Obama and the rest of them have been paid for. But I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about us. However heated things got on Facebook, the country voted fairly moderately. We put a lesbian in the Senate! In the states, there was marijuana! Gay marriage! Education funding! The most vocal lady-hating politicians all got booted. As difficult as things sometimes seem (side note: I really need to stop reading The Price of Inequality), this country decided to tell people like my friend of a friend Lonnie that we are not, in fact, in this alone. As a rule, I’m fairly cynical, but this gives me a little bit of hope.

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Just Breathe

Recently, my mother asked me to teach her how to breathe.

Why is this significant?

A) My mother seldom speaks to me.
B) I don’t work in the medical field.
C) My family of origin has never actually acknowledged anything I do.

Correct answer: all of the above.

For my day job, I teach students to write more effectively; in my community, I teach students to move through asanas until they sweat enough to get out of their heads and into their bodies, eventually softening into a relaxation we call savasana. Breathing is an integral part of this ritual, part of the meditative flow, but it’s not the primary method I emphasize, and I am not an expert in pranayama.

My history with my mother is fraught with disappointments on both sides. Arlis is a conservative Christian who believes the end of the world is at hand and she cannot forgive me for leaving our closed community, or for raising her grandchildren in a secular manner, dooming them to hell. I understand this point of view. Although I am a responsible citizen and an affectionate, conscientious mother, I am a failure in her eyes, and she is ashamed of me.

It took me a very long time to accept this.

I recognize that Arlis is a product of a time period when having too many children was not a choice, but merely a consequence of being married. I recognize that mothering is inherently more challenging and less rewarding than teaching, preaching, coaching or the myriad other activities she does so well. Perhaps more importantly, I recognize that we expect our mothers to love us and nurture us, often at the expense of their own well-being, and when this doesn’t come naturally to them, or they can’t sustain this role, we judge them as inadequate and we resent them.

But Arlis is more than a mother. She is a wife and a teacher, a naturalist and a mentor to women who seek the Lord as their personal savior. She is strong and powerful in these roles, and she orchestrates them with confidence. So what if she can’t love her children? Is it fair to judge women for predicaments they got themselves into before they even met us? Do we expect men to nurture offspring they didn’t want, or do we accept that maybe they aren’t equipped, that they simply don’t know how?

When Arlis sets her mind to something, she does it, and she can juggle dozens of assumed responsibilities with more strength than any other human I know. She is a musician and a scientist, an athlete and an orator, a cherisher of dogs and birds and all things green. She knows how to cook a meal and decorate a table, complete with an ornate centerpiece. Because she does these in the name of Christ, rather than for her family, does not make them any less impressive.

Now she has pulmonary fibrosis, and her lungs are stiffening. Her doctor recommended she find a yoga teacher to work with her on her breathing. She emailed me and I said yes. I put her right hand on her belly and her left hand on her heart and I maneuvered her through several body positions, breath sequences, and relaxation techniques. Although she was clearly uncomfortable, she hesitantly followed my instructions. I gave her some recommendations to try as homework, reached to hug her goodbye, and she stiffened. She left without saying thank you.

This is her defense, a stalwart form of pride she clings to like military armor. This is how she survives in a world that holds mothers to a standard she doesn’t comprehend and never chose. I believe women should have options in this world and I advocate for policies that allow us to choose our fates. I respect my mother for who she is, not who I wish she had been.

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