Monday, November 14, 2016

The Healthiest Days of Our Lives, Pt. 2

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be older. I don't mean a 12-year-old wanting to be 16. I'm excited to hit my 50s, 60s, 70s.

I know that's apostasy to many of my friends, so I try not to say it aloud since I'm usually the youngest person among my friends. Those hitting their 30s worry about the shrinking dating pool and closing window for bio kids. Those in their 40s wonder if they accomplished anything of value yet. Those in their 50s keep noticing their bodies don't behave like they used to.

I understand to some degree. I rather like my body and will mourn when it starts breaking down on me. Every day I ask myself if I've done enough good in the world. These are natural fears.

As I age, I will no doubt struggle with them as much as anyone else.

But I still can't wait to be old. I can't wait for people to judge my appearance based on pizzazz, not attractiveness. Getting off the gerbil wheel of the workforce certainly will have its perks. And I look forward to one day mastering the study of being still and quiet.

I don't expect these things to come magically, of course. I'm working hard to garner confidence and pride in my wierdnesses. We put a lot of our income into retirement now while we can. I work on self-control, meditation, trust. There's effort going into all those areas.

What I look forward to with age is experiencing the fruits of those labors.

There are less serious reasons why I want to be older, too. Old ladies get away with wearing the most awesome hats. I imagine I'll finally live where I want to. Observing the rotations of history, how things come and go, sounds reassuring -- like I won't freak out over the news as much, because faith improves with age.

I look forward to having decades of knowledge helping me fight more effectively for what is right. I look forward to cultivating habits of kindness long enough that maintaining them isn't as much hard work.

I have special grandparents: observant, active, kind, and artistic. I want to be like the three of them.

Sure, there will be hardships, but every season of life has those. You can choose to mull over the substandard things. Or you can balance yourself by noticing and encouraging the excellent things.

There are always blessings. Always.

The "healthiest time of life" quandary lies to us. It tells us there's a time that is best, persuades us to pursue something fleeting. But any time in life can be wonderful with the right people and outlook, and some good books and tea.

I'm inspired by the science showing how people with positive associations about growing older will age more gracefully. Your mind and body tend to hold together better when we don't strain so hard against time's pull. Essentially, looking forward to old age will make it more fun to live through.

And, really, isn't that true of everything?

Word count: 511.
Image: Advanced Style documentary.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Healthiest Days of Our Lives

Different people will tell you what the "healthiest" age of one's life.

If we're looking at stem cell healing and "bouncing back," small children have it in the bag. For physical prowess, look to those between 16 and 20. With mental agility, early to mid-20s are healthiest, when your frontal lobe finishes developing.

None of those sound quite right to me. There's a lot more to life than stem cells and frontal lobes.

Maybe my healthiest age could've been my early teen years. But I started struggling with depression at age 12 or 13. I'm not the only one: most teens in America wrestle with mental health issues.

There's the physical. Sure, teen bodies are strong and resilient. But increasing stress and low sleep take a toll. Plus who in their teen years actually utilized the health we had then?

High school and college students are more active in sports, making them more likely to incur injuries. College students are also in the top 5 loneliest demographics. Stress and mental illness continue to be high into your 20s.

Most kids in college don't eat or exercise too well, either. They're too busy with grades, internships, jobs, and trying to live up to expectations. Twenty-somethings outside college don't eat well either. They're too busy trying to get a living wage.

So forget eating and exercising: I need to pay rent. And ramen is cheap.

As I sat around with ex-roommates a few months ago, the topic of health came up. We realized we're in our late 20s/early 30s and all extremely healthy. We eat well; take care of our mental health; exercise; actually have a PCP; and work on improving ourselves.

We feel healthier than we've ever been.

Maybe it's the slow realization that we're not going to have these young, "easy" bodies for long. Or maybe it's that we're out of the stressful coming-of-age gambit. We have enough time now, and the knowledge gleaned from our mistakes.

My friends and I at that table have stronger muscles: running, dancing, climbing. Our numerous health conditions have died down or come under control. We eat healthy and feel great. Those of us with mental health issues are managing them.

We live well-balanced lives.

So what if your body is in peak condition when you're younger? Most of us don't use our body's full potential until after the peak. Youth may have greater vitality, but age makes you responsible enough to maximize it.

I don't want to be someone who pines after being in their early 20s again. If I ever do, please remind me about the depression, chronic gastritis, high stress and anxiety, hospitalizations, defunct knee, stress-induced casein allergy...

Remind me that no time in life is perfect.

And at the same time, every time in life is good.

All we have is right now. Even if our vitality cap lowers when we edge toward our 30s, we can still make use of what we have. We can still enjoy life.

What else are we going to do -- complain?

Word count: 507.
Photo: Donnie Ray Jones.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Loyalty, Anger, and Empathy

A year and a half ago, I had my anger management tested when someone mocked a dear friend of mine.

Up late one night at our yearly conference, my writing group friends and I were playing games with an assortment of others we'd collected. Everyone was having fun, letting loose, laughing. I was too, until I noticed one of the hangers-on give a scornful reaction to one of my friends' jokes.

It was subtle, just a facial expression and a toss of the head, but I happened to look over at the right moment to see it.

Then I couldn't stop seeing it: expressions of disgust, a mocking eye-roll, pointed repeatedly at my friend. My friend and I had known each other online for some time but this was the first time we met in person (my writing group is far-flung). Regardless, she was part of my tribe, and some girl was quietly ridiculing her.

Maybe the offending young woman was tired and had a bad week. Maybe I was exhausted, too (I was). Those things weren't exactly crossing my mind. When she aimed a sneering comment at me, it was all I could do to stay calm and not retaliate.

The fury lasted for weeks afterward, and with it, the guilt about being so bitter toward someone. I try to like everyone I come in contact with. In one evening, this woman lost all chances in my eyes. I felt shame in that: what are humans without second chances?

Some months passed before I could forgive myself. Several more months passed before I could forgive her.

But I remembered I follow a God who is fine with anger. There are some things worth getting angry about. It's a natural human emotion God created. We may go on to use anger as a tool for bitterness and scorn, but luckily God forgives those things.

It was a small incident in the grand scheme of life, but I still remember it a year and a half later. The resentment and guilt had a hard hold on me.

This is something I'm learning about myself: when someone mistreats my friends, I get really mad.

Since a friend in Virginia first pointed this out, more people have told me the same. I guess I never noticed because in my mind this is normal.

My loyalty-anger shapes my life in many ways. It gives me a new understanding of love as something solid we can lean on, not an intangible concept. It hones how and where I apply my passion for justice. 

It shapes the way I interact with the Christian church, too. Few of my friends believe what I do spiritually (I seem to be happiest in this setting). Years ago, a friend told me, "You're not like the other Christians I know," and it made me ache. Not but because of the compliment, but because someone had hurt her.

Ever since, I've wanted to be a Christian who does not, by accident or otherwise, shove a spear through someone's heart.

The desire to show a concrete, loyal love to my friends affects the influences I seek out, the books I read, everything. I don't want to be another empty voice. I want to be real.

Sometimes it feels like only God and I care about my people. Others are willing to write them off or trample them. People hurt my friends and don't give a damn about it.

But my looming failure here is not seeing that everyone is this way.

Everyone gets scorned, disregarded, damaged, and unfairly accused. Everyone faces a world which is not as kind to them as it could be.

If I could be best friends with the entire world, I might be less prone to rage.

On a practical level, we can't be friends with everyone. But we can empathize with everyone. That's what novels are about: getting us inside others' stories. Even if I'm not the one who's there for someone through all life throws at them, I can still relate with their point of view.

Acknowledging other people's pain keeps my anger from becoming a weapon aimed at someone's heart.

I'm not going to stop myself from feeling angry. It's an instinct I don't want to tamp down. I will try to not be bitter or let anger keep me from seeing the humanity in another person. I'll try to empathize. I'll try not to get too defensive and thus treat my friends as weak or unable to fight their own battles.

There's a balance in all of it, somewhere.

But I'll still get angry, because that's part of the balance.

I know I'm going to struggle with my protective instinct, and I'm okay with that. I hope I can stop writing off those I deem responsible for my friends' pain. Meanwhile, I hope I can keep loving the people I care about.

Word count: 818. Photos: Angry by Rodrigo Suriani, and Friendship by Rainier Martin Ampongan.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Aspirational Masculinity & Equality for All

A majority of the characters I write are female. That should surprise no one. I write plenty of male characters too, of course, and always with one rule. I must write them as themselves: not manly men, but realistic men.

I gave a burly giant of a man a soft heart and beautiful singing voice. A man with the most powerful magic is a father figure to his students and the gentlest member of the leadership. A young man who fails at fighting and manual labor uses his sneakiness instead.

They are three-dimensional characters. They reflect the men I know in real life.

But above all, they aren't stereotypes. Stereotypical characters can still feel realistic, but that doesn't mean they're good characters. I didn't want a hunky love interest who lets a woman do her thing but is there to save her when she needs. I didn't want a man whose defining characteristic is his strength and sole job is being angry and badass.

We've seen those types over and over. They contribute to the harmful narrative that men are strong, men are unemotional, men are good at physical feats, men save the day, men have automatic leadership skills.

Instead of men can be strong, might be unemotional, maybe are good at physical feats...

Our narrative goes on: men don't do feminine activities. Men don't wear flamboyant clothes or drive girly cars. Men can't communicate well or talk about relationships. Men never surrender to being the meek one in a relationship.

One of Mad Max: Fury Road's themes is that masculinity (not men) destroyed the world. Men are failing to thrive or create any sort of world worth living in -- and so are the women. Masculinity includes entitlement to certain privileges, laying claim to what's yours, and exercising deserved power.

These ideals turned the earth into a waterless wasteland of half-formed children.

Source: FeministMadMax.

There are thousands of ways to be a man that don't qualify under the current definition. Many men I know have parts of themselves that don't conform. They don't know a thing about cars or planes; are adept at interpreting emotions; hate most sports; write gorgeous poetry; cry during movies.

It's something I know many of them struggle with.

I've fought for a femininity where women go on camping trips together or watch Die Hard on girls' night. They've fought for a masculinity that allows them to be more than toughened empty shells.

Sexism doesn't just come from stereotypes about women. It also comes from stereotypes about men. When we elevate manhood above womanhood, everyone suffers.

An article I read called this a problem of aspirational masculinity. A boy is handed a toy truck. If he asks for something from the pink aisle, he's told he doesn't want that: it's a girl toy. Something makes him cry, and he's laughed at. He doesn't want to play sports and people call him a girl like it's an insult. He's told to man up over and over: aspire to toxic masculinity.

Boys either hurry to lose their "effeminate" edge or resign themselves to being a pussy. A vagina, an insult. These latter often embrace an identity that's as colorful and non-mannish as possible. Some because that's who they are. Others so that people can see they're dealing with a girly boy and get the mockery out of the way first thing.

There's no safety for those who fall outside the tight bounds of "normal." Which is most people. Misogyny holds greater physical, relational, and fiscal danger for women, but does endanger men too.

Sexism won't go away as long as we teach boys (and girls) that to be feminine is lesser and to be masculine is powerful.

There are a hundred areas where we need to address inequality and change our thinking. From our conqueror metaphors for sex, to our lack of support for stay-at-home dads, to the wage gap.

Stripping away the idea that there are Man and Woman boxes at all will go a long way toward changing the rest.

Word count: 678.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Forsaking the John Pipers Of the World

The first time I heard John Piper, I was a little put off.

It was in a Passion Conference video, and the sermon he gave was fine. It was something about how he spoke which rubbed me the wrong way.

But everyone else in the world seemed to love him, so I didn't say anything. We all have personal opinions about preachers and styles and interpretations. That's okay.

Over time I saw more and more of what Piper was saying on various topics. Some was good. Some was not.

He ignored the views of women while speaking into our situations. He slut-shamed and pointed out certain people's sins in a public arena, while staying silent about child abuse and rape within the Church. He wrote on a variety of modern topics claiming the will of God, but never backed his views up with Scripture.

His words have been downright harmful. Despite this, he still writes and says things I agree with. He preaches both truths and untruths.

Every human being has a part of the truth; nobody has the whole. One person can't contain the truth of life, spirituality, and existence. It's far too big. We learn new pieces of the puzzle from others we encounter. It's one of life's beautiful things.

I want to treat Piper in the way I treat most everyone else. He has some pieces, and other times makes pieces without consulting the manufacturer. I want to take in the good and decry the bad. I don't think doing so has to be a self-conflicting impossibility.

But two things lead me to want to distance myself from him, as well as others who've passed baseless opinions as God's truth to a large audience and knowingly injured others.

First of all, I don't want to reinforce his celebrity. He may say some things that are good, but he's also damaged some people in a bad way. And he hasn't backed down, rarely apologizing for his words. I haven't seen him humbly acknowledge when others are right and he is wrong.

That's concerning: all of us are wrong at some point, and we should learn how to handle it gracefully.

In light of that, I fear that spreading good words he's said will only lead more people to listen to him. Like me, they'll see he's big and popular and think, my feelings must be in the wrong about him.

I don't believe in shutting someone out of your personal space as soon as they're insensitive. But when the issue of celebrity comes in, a person's words are weighed on a different scale. You're allowed to cultivate safety in your life.

The second reason is that I care too much about justice. When people are hurt, I hurt. I get angry. I wait and plead and push for action, an apology, a healing of wounds.

I've written on this blog that when there's a rift between two groups, reconciliation can come from either side. Thus whichever side you're on you should offer the olive branch. I no longer believe that's always true. There are situations which are one-sided, where the wronged party saying, "it's okay, better luck tomorrow," encourages the abuse to continue.

Black folks shouldn't have to, and can't, do anything differently. They're just living their lives, but they're not valued as highly as others. Change needs to come from our end, from the white people--it can only come from us.

When someone tramples others without remorse and won't act to undo it, I have to put up boundaries.

I cannot open myself to someone who continues misrepresenting, devaluing, or shaming others. I can love them, respect them, but not give them a voice in my life. A KKK member might say, "Jesus loves you," but their proud racism will taint those words. It's unlikely it will sound positive as it should.

I will have to hear it from someone else. Luckily, many others are saying it.

Word count: 661.

Monday, June 13, 2016


Note: links in this post only go to informational lists, not to news stories. 

I'm not going anywhere there's news today, not even to watch the Philip DeFranco Show. I don't want to know what the media is saying right now.

About a shooting in a gay nightclub, on Latin Night, during Pride Month.

I don't want to think about how to interpret politician's reactions and whether or not they're using 50 deaths to their advantage.

I don't want to enter upon discussions about Muslims and immigrants and building walls.
I don't want to even contemplate what Trump is saying.
I don't want to catch a whiff of, "it's too bad those people died living in sin."

I don't want to careen off into other hot political topics. I want to focus on those who died. Stand alongside the survivors. Try to stop it from happening again.

Source: Katherine Locke.

By pure chance, I wasn't on the internet much Sunday, and didn't hear about the shooting until later. I went on Twitter once and by that point we had #GaysBreakTheInternet. Queers posted selfies with proud messages of we exist, we are not invisible. Some people even came out of the closet to support the victims and survivors in Orlando.

This morning I went straight to Vox, because I knew they would have the facts and no opinions. The end showed tweets from the LGBTQ community expressing love, support, and awareness.

That was hard.

I want to stay right here, in my and my friends' grief. But even without looking at media, I can't help wondering how the rest of the world is reacting. The largest shooting in American history. Is everyone mourning with us?

I can't help wondering if many people feel removed. If thinking, "I don't visit gay nightclubs and I don't know anyone who does," makes it harder for you to relate with the victims. Does that lessen some people's sorrow?

Last week I researched the FBI's crime statistics for a short story. Saw the section on hate crimes, and the yearly numbers. It breaks down by crimes against race, sexual orientation, gender orientation, or femaleness.

I wonder: will the events at Pulse night club enter the hate crime stats for 2016?

Will it go under Sexual Orientation: Gay,

or under Race: Latino?

Those classifications don't tell us they were people. They had dreams, friends, lives, and personalities we cannot capture with labels. Everybody is intersectional and interstitial. The only thing that can truly communicate a person is a story.

That's why my friends and I will continue writing stories about characters of every race, sexuality, gender, and culture.

People always ask, why do you need a queer character in a movie? Why do you need a queer protagonist in a novel? Why do you have to make it so big and bold and in our face?

Because it's still not safe to be queer.

Because people still ask these kinds of questions.

Because people still think that queerness is something to hide your children from. As if I, as a person, need to come with a trigger warning same as a graphic rape scene in a movie. As if my existence is hurting others.

Because people continue to attack, beat, and murder us.

Because the media talks about us like we're a collective object. We need a reminder to lift our heads.

Because as long as people don't see queer characters in books and movies -- up on podiums, in classrooms, on the news, and in Office -- people will continue to think of queerness as weird. As long as it's an unknown quantity, it will be scary. As long as people are scared, some people will commit acts of violence against us.

We say violence comes from anger, but anger is just the cover. Homophobia means fear. Fear of other people is what creates weapons and moves armies.

Equality House, across the street from Westboro Baptist.

It isn't safe to come out.

That's why the closet exists at all. So many of us have to lie about ourselves in order to keep our communities, friends, and positions.

That's why we have Pride. In June, we don't have to apologize for our existence. We can come together, come out of hiding, and not be afraid.

The only other time we can do that is in queer-designated groups. Gay bars, the few queer churches, and LGBT community groups are all we have.

I want straight folks to understand that Pulse was a safe place. Queers didn't have to hide there. When so many spaces aren't safe, that is precious.

Now, it's not safe there.

I want to create more safe spaces to make up for what we lost, and for what we should have more of to begin with.

I want people to proclaim if they're safe and queer-friendly, without fearing their churches and communities will become suspicious or cold toward them, or that we will somehow turn them gay or religiously gay-accepting. I don't want people to be afraid that if they are kind to us, something good and moral inside of them will be broken.

I want our world to become so safe that we don't need safe spaces. Where closets don't exist. Where people won't turn us away or put strictures on us because we're not straight.

If you want that too (and why wouldn't we all?), bring it up: LGBTQ rights and safety, bullying, and laws that could protect us. Discuss it constantly, in uncomfortable places and with uncomfortable people. Those spaces will never become comfortable and queer-friendly without nudging.

Mourn Orlando because 50 richly complex and unique human beings died, and also mourn because it was the result of hatred. Mourn because queers aren't safe. This unsafe world? This is what creates situations like Orlando. We let popular fear grow without confrontation, and people die.

Let's mourn that. We are allowed to feel things. Then let's change things for the future.

Word count: 973.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

She is Holy

No one ever told me referring to God as "her" was wrong.

They didn't have to. I heard whispers of the weird, way-too-feminist Christians who called God "her." I saw heads shake. Can you believe it? Ridiculous. I knew without anyone telling me that God being "she" was silly and possibly heretical.

The whispers also told me there was such a thing as too much feminism. According to the complementarian view, men and women have equal dignity but different roles. Liberal feminism wanted men and women to take over each other's God-ordained positions.*

But my thoughts shifted the more I read the Bible.

Ironically -- or perhaps not -- most of my liberalism came not from abandoning the Bible, but from studying it. I heard Scripture preached with patriarchal views, sure. But I found glorious, powerful femininity lurking in these male-centric, male-authored stories.

Take Deborah. Known for her wisdom, people came to her for advice and judgement. She stepped up in a time when only men were supposed to. (Women weren't believed capable of it: sound familiar?) Deborah and Jael, another woman, routed an army and killed a king.

Credit: Waiting for the Word.
Then there's Mary Magdalene. While all the men were hiding behind locked doors, women had the courage to go to the Roman-guarded tomb of Christ. Regular, gutsy women. Mary was the first person Jesus said hi to. The chosen first witness. The one told to preach the news to the men.

I cry every Easter when I read about that encounter. God chooses women when nobody else will.

Still, the interpretations I heard about these strong-women passages were male-centered. The Deborah's story charged men not to be cowards and miss out on opportunities for heroism. The Fall happened because Adam didn't step up and stop his wife. It's not like she had free will or anything. Mary Magdalene was skipped over. Ruth showed -- actually, they were never clear what she showed.

Real men take charge. Women can be strong sometimes, but that's not the way it's supposed to be. The Bible says so.

Nobody ever said this: it was the undertone. Kids pick up on implication, perhaps even more than adults. I grew up with all my strength and heroinism locked away. As a teen, I fought to figure out how to be the woman I was supposed to be. I didn't think I could be a warrior too.

Obviously, I do now.

About a month ago, I read William Paul Young's new book, Eve. It offered new perspectives on the act of creation, God and gender, and the Fall.

Full disclosure: I found parts of the story problematic. Young skimmed over a few important points about the experience of trauma. It was also poorly written, full of overdescription. Young didn't make me care about the characters. At the same time, stakes and tension were high, so I both did and didn't want to keep reading.

Regardless of the quality, the ideas are important ones we need to talk about.

Like the idea Adam and Eve's Falls were separate events with separate choices. The fact that women have some of the biggest roles in the Biblical narrative, and they're not flat characters. Most of all, the depiction of God giving birth to mankind from a divine womb through a holy vagina. God as a mother nursing children at their breasts.

These concepts aren't new. Jesus referred to himself as a mother. We connect God creating with birth. But like Paul, we often venerate pregnancy and parenting, not womanhood in its entirety.

Jodi Picoult's Keeping Faith taught me the Hebrew word for the Spirit is ruach. And ruach is feminine. God possesses a divine femininity that is equal to, not less than, God's divine masculinity. God is womanhood in its entirety.

Despite its faults, I appreciated the womanly imagery in Eve. It elevated femaleness to equal glory as that which maleness has had all these years.

It also used "they" for God.

I love this. God is all of femininity and masculinity: "he" misrepresents God, cutting women out. Modern English uses "they" for both plural and gender-free singular.

Thus using "they" for God expresses (1) God is plural within singular, echad, (2) God is not one gender, and (3) that includes God being all the genders we don't have pronouns for.

Genderqueer individuals' Preferred Pronoun is often "they." I see beauty in using it for God too. Genderqueer encompasses many identities. But at its heart is the idea that gender is female, and male, and both, and neither, and something else, and all at once.

Which is what God is, too.

They are a lot bigger than we can imagine, right?

Word count: 761.

* For the record, complementarianism isn't incompatible with feminism. Most complementarians I know live a rather egalitarian / feminist / equal lifestyle with their partner.
I turned egal because all the complem's I knew were modeling excellent egalitarianism. The equal-dignity-separate-roles mindset was just a holdover from the strong patriarchy of previous generations. Even though we give men and women different titles, they inhabit the same roles all the time. Nobody bats an eye until we try to call a woman "pastor."