Thursday, February 27, 2014

7 Quick Takes: Wombat Edition

This whole 7 posts in 7 days thing has convinced me of one thing: I need to give up the Internet for Lent.

I still have to check email and all that (unfortunately, email is my least favorite part), but for my mental health and the good of the country I need to take a big step back from blogs and blogging. Not that I don't like it - but because I like it too much. And isn't Lent about detachment? I have a feeling that squealing with delight when I get a comment is a trifle less detached than a desert father would recommend.

But there is one thing that I may not be able to give up, because it lifts my spirits when nothing else will: looking at videos of cute and adorable animals. Not even the funny ones where kittens leap off counters and land on their heads (though, as someone who distrusts cats of all stripes, that is awesome). No, I just like being able to feel all maternal and shit. My husband can always tell when I'm ovulating because I start looking at cute videos of babies and animals 24/7. On a particularly strong day, I told him that the moon looked cuddly. 

For instance: you've heard of wombats right? The little marsupial creatures? I had heard the word, but I just didn't know that they are the cutest thing since Babe. 

If someone had tried to devise a drug personally made for me, they would have made this video. The darling little creature, the heart-warming story of the rescue, and the delightful Tasmanian accents of the couple just melts my heart into a pile of goo.

You know you want a pet wombat now.  I mean, the image of him with the teddy bear. It doesn't get better than that. 

Actually, yes it does get better. A wombat named Millie who brings together a couple in love: that is the pinnacle of human/ animal achievement. 

I can't top that y'all. We're done here.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Public prayer is like putting on a play...

But not in the bad connotation of "showing off." (Hopefully).

If you grow up in an evangelical Protestant tradition, you are familiar with extemporaneous public prayers. You participated in "prayer circles" in which the leader would "start us off with a word of prayer," and then there was silence for others once they "opened the floor to prayer", and then the designated closer would finish. Jon Acuff did a hilarious send-up of the different characters in a prayer group a few years back. There are all kinds of cues that you just know. You listen for that sharp intake of breath that means someone's about to jump in. You know that "in Jesus' name" without the Amen means that it's the next person's turn to go. And of course there are the token phrases: "Father God, we just want to lift up Your name tonight because You alone are worthy of all our praise, and we just ask You Father God to send down Your Spirit down upon us. We just want to lift up our sister Kim to You God, that You will be with her and let Your healing hand guide her in this difficult time. Put a hedge of protection around her Father God. And we ask for travel mercies for the Williams family as they go to Nebraska...". (I exaggerate, a little).

If you've ever done improv theater, you understand the concept of "yes, and." When your partner says "It's all your fault that we're in the dragon's belly," you can't just say "no we're not, we're sitting at a kitchen table." The idea is to keep the scene moving and add to what's already there. The same is true of extemporaneous, public group prayers in a Protestant setting. You can't contradict what someone else has said, but you can't just repeat it either. Keep it moving and think on your feet unless you want the whole room shifting in their seats and sighing.

Liturgical prayer is a different beast. You follow the directions (ha! printed directions? not always) and don't speak out of turn. There's a script for both words and actions, and who speaks when, and even for the cadence of the words. Everyone else knows that only the priest says "Our Father," and then we join in on "who art in heaven" - everyone but you, blurting it out in the silence. There are no surprises - unless you don't have a script.

When someone raised on liturgical prayers in the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Episcopal churches comes to a Baptist prayer group, it's as if an actor trained in written plays is thrown into an improv troupe. And when a Baptist is thrown into a liturgical worship setting, it's like an improv player expected to know his lines to a play he's never seen.

When I started going to Episcopal churches, I was fortunate - the first one I went to had all the "lines" printed in the bulletin. Unfortunately I assumed that this was de rigour and was, shall we say, dismayed to find that some churches will just list the page in the Book of Common Prayer. Y'all, I love the BPC, but why in the name of everything good and lovely is the Eucharistic service split up into different pages? You're following along like a good little church goer, convincing everyone else that you know what you're doing, and then the prayers of the people start, and it's form IV, and you're flipping frantically while everyone else has memorized the responses. And then it's back to the service, but oh wait we're doing Eucharistic Prayer C this time, and where the hell is it and why is the priest talking about planets and shit? And now we're onto the Lord's Prayer, but I grew up as a debtor and everyone here is a transgressor, and it's not at the end of Prayer C, it's somewhere else again.

And don't even get me started on the 1982 hymnal. There's those damn "S" pages in the front with prayer settings etc, so if you're singing "hymn #1" you automatically go to the front like a normal human being, only to be lost in a sea of S's that don't even look like hymns. And Lord help me if they don't print the music to "Glory to God" and just write "S so and so" in the bulletin, because some of the tunes I know but some I don't. Same thing with the Sanctus. Get it together, people.

And now I'm just screwed, because I used to go to churches that did Rite II, and my current church does Rite I with a few alterations, so now I don't even know what side is up. I can never remember if it's "Glory be to Thee, O Christ" or "Praise to you, Lord Christ." And now I have 3 versions of the Lord's prayer and 2 versions of the Nicene Creed floating in my head, without a hope of ever getting them untangled.

All that to say, be gentle with each other. Protestants, if someone grew up in a liturgical setting they will be terrified at the idea of unrehearsed prayers in public. Don't ask them to bless the food or lay hands on someone or "open the floor for prayer" without clearing it with them first (they will say no, FYI). Catholics and all you other liturgical folk, don't glare at the poor soul who dropped their prayer book in your pew or went to the wrong side of the altar for communion. They're trying to learn this play off the cuff in front of a bunch of strangers.

When it comes to prayer, some of us grew up in an improv troupe, and some grew up in community theater. Let's work with what we've got and help each other out. And if you're in charge of writing the bulletins, have a quiet chat with a newcomer who used to go to a praise and worship service. They might have some valuable input on clarity.

Don't Talk to Strangers!

That's the phrase we hear from the time we can walk. Don't talk to strangers. Kick and scream if someone picks you up on the street. Don't look strangers in the eye. Check the back seats of your car before you get in. Have your keys out and ready as soon as you're outside the grocery store. Don't turn around on the sidewalk if you realize you're going the wrong way - go around the block so you don't look lost. Walk with a purpose. Keep one hand on your purse.

To a degree, these are (unfortunately) necessities of life as a woman. For those who question the concept of male privilege, here it is: even though a man can be raped, it's probably not on the forefront of his thoughts. He doesn't think about it when a car slows down beside him. He doesn't have pamphlets shoved at him explaining how he can "help prevent rape" by not wearing pony tails or going to the store alone at night. (Actually, most rapes happen during the hours of 10 a.m.-3 p.m., and most rapists know their victims, but that's a story for another day). Women have grown up with this hammered into our heads.

I know I did, perhaps more than those who grew up in suburbia. We lived in a "bad part of town" where the pizza delivery wouldn't come for fear of getting robbed. It wasn't as dangerous as folks made it out to be, but there were risks, and there was crime. If my mother was over-protective, I can't blame her. Wouldn't you do the same for your only child, a daughter, if you lived next door to a crack house, down the street from a house of prostitution, across the street from an apartment used for enormous drunken parties? The consequence was that I knew about rape before I knew about consensual sex. That is, I knew that a man (or a woman, but this wasn't said) could force himself onto a woman (or a man, but this wasn't said), and that he could force his penis into her vagina (I thought of it as "my hole,") and that this was rape. Years later I learned that this is a terrible definition of rape, but as late as 2009 it was the definition of rape as conjured by the state of Georgia. Bottom line, I knew about sexual crime before I knew about sexual love. And as a little girl, I knew that my weakness could be exploited by others for this purpose. Best to avoid eye contact, walk on the opposite side of the street, only walk with the dog or another person, walk briskly with arms at my side to exude confidence and strength. When inside I felt the exact opposite.

Fast forward to 2012, when as a newly wed I moved to Washington D.C. My apartment is in a nice part of Northern Virginia, though of course we are close to some "sketchy" areas. My church and job are both in the business district of northwest Washington, and I have never felt in danger there even at night. Washington has gentrified over the last decade, with both positive and negative results. So when my mom expressed concern that I was "in the big city," I laughed and told her I'd never lived in a safer place.

There was one thing I had to get used to though: the homeless. (Gag, I hate that phrase, "the homeless," like they're some kind of monolithic creature that sits outside the metro with a sign, an older man with grey beard who fought in Vietnam and has PTSD and drug addiction. That's the image, isn't it? But I digress). I wasn't really used to being in good urban neighborhoods - those don't exist in the South very often. Good neighborhoods were gated communities in the burbs with little upper middle class white families, maybe a few gay couples for diversity if you live in Atlanta. "Vital" (which means wealthy people shop and work there) urban neighborhoods were outside of my frame of reference, and thus I was shocked by the presence of business executives walking past homeless men and women seated on the sidewalk covered in blankets.

And as a good little white girl, I did what I was taught: eyes ahead, unbroken stride. There was a woman who stood at the corner across from my office every day, and as luck would have it I always had to wait on the walk sign when she was there. I never spoke to her, never even looked at her openly.  She would mutter to herself and sometimes say random things to passers-by, and no one ever responded. So I followed suit.

The first time I responded to a homeless man in DC, I couldn't even bring myself to speak or look in his face. He kept repeating that he was hungry, that he hadn't eaten in 2 days, and something about his insistence struck my conscience. I ducked in the CVS, bought a bag of pretzels, and set it beside him, not even placing it in his hands or asking if he wanted it. And then he yelled at me, "I don't have any teeth!" And then I looked, and he had no teeth, and pretzels were about the worst thing I could have given. And I was so embarrassed, and felt so awkward, that I turned away and walked off as quickly as possible. Because people were starting to look at us, and my desire for anonymity was more important than this man's dignity and life.

My takeaway was that I'd best mind my own business.

I clung to this notion until winter of that year. I had begun going to this beautiful Episcopal church downtown, and it quickly became my lifeline. It offered low Mass every day and a breathtaking solemn Mass on Sunday that fed my soul in every way possible. When you come in on a weekday the nave is so silent that you can actually hear the holy water ripple when you dip your fingers in it. And somehow in the midst of all these "papist trappings" like incense and candles and chant, I began to open my heart to the Holy Spirit, that frightening voice that I had mixed up with OCD and trauma as a teenager.

One day, He spoke with an authority I could not ignore. I had sat in the pew before Sunday Mass, and no sooner had I taken off my coat than He ordered me to put it on again and go outside. In no uncertain terms, I was to walk down the street to the homeless man that I always ignored, who sat with a sign every Sunday a couple of blocks away, and I was to speak to him. It was awkward, and I probably sounded as out of my league as I felt, but I learned his name. More importantly, it broke my orthodoxy about strangers, and I immediately felt a burden drop from my shoulders. I'll admit though, I was also scared. Now that I knew that it was possible to talk to a homeless person, to introduce yourself, to shake their hand and chat for a minute, there was no knowing what the limit was. The future was scary and exciting and unknown, and my introverted self knew that once God got His way once He wasn't going to stop.

What I didn't know was that it was to be one of the most wonderful blessings I could have received. What I didn't know was that my fear had more to do with self-consciousness than it did with security, that at my core I dreaded inconvenience, the messy reality of living side by side with those who lack the things I take for granted. I liked my controlled environment until I realized it was hell.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even to an animal.... The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. - C.S. Lewis 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Prayers Needed!!

Hello to anyone who sees this:

My sister-in-law who is currently a freshman in college is having an MRI done due to severe headaches. I just found out about 30 minutes ago from my husband. Hopefully this is nothing serious, but of course we are worried. Any prayers and good intentions would be greatly appreciated!

** Update: she will hopefully be OK, it wasn't a tumor. She will have to have spinal tap but should hopefully be much better after that. Thank you for your prayers!

I Can't Be Cured of Depression

**For anyone who reads this and relates, please know that my prayers and thoughts are with you. If you ever think of committing suicide, please call 9-11 or a suicide hotline for help.**

Those of you with major depression know what I'm talking about. You get on medication, start doing counseling, and things are looking up. You have interests again! You don't want to sleep all day! You have the energy to get through a full day of work! All those little things that "normal" people take for granted are yours, or at least in part.

And then one day you think to yourself that the medication has worked so well that you can "finally" get off it. You dream of never again taking Zoloft/ Klonapin/ Prozac/ Welbutrin (I've done them all baby). You dream of "finally kicking this thing" and "functioning like a normal human being."

So maybe you decide to skip every other day. Just to experiment, just to see if it's just a sugar pill and you're experiencing a major placebo effect. Maybe you find yourself pretending to take your medication so that your spouse won't suspect you. You hate being deceitful, but "nobody understands" that you need to be strong, to kick the pill-popping, to stand on your own two feet.

And then one day you find yourself clinging to a rail at the metro station, tears welling up in your eyes as you try not to huddle on the filthy tile floor and sob. You want to call your husband but your hands are shaking so badly that you can't make a call. You try to focus on breathing slowly, in and out, while you listen to your heart pound. And when the train comes roaring by you jump like a hunted animal, and it's all you can do not to claw at your face.

The term for this is "medical non-compliance." It sounds so rebellious doesn't it? It doesn't sound at all like someone who just wants to "get off those meds." But there's one thing this past year has taught me, and that's not to judge people. People, don't ask God to teach you this, because He will, and it will hurt.

When you've found yourself in the psych department of the ER laughing hysterically and threatening the doctor - yes you, you little white middle class college-educated nerd - then everything changes. That woman on the street with the matted hair that's picking through the garbage and yelling at pigeons? That could be me without my advantages - without my husband, without medication, without our support system, without capable doctors, and yes, without meds. When I look at a "crazy person" I see myself, and it ain't pretty.

And when you are forced to look at all this, to take in the pain, then you finally admit that you are weak. I need medication in order to do things that "normal" people do without thinking, and you know what? Even with the meds it's not working so well. I still get panic attacks that require fast-acting medication and well-honed relaxation techniques. I still wonder if anyone actually likes me or if they just put up with me. I still wonder when my husband will realize what a mistake he's made and leave me, even though he's said over and over again how much he loves me, how he will never leave me. I still struggle to make it through work. A "good day" for me is a day without a full-blown panic attack. Thus far, today has been a good day.

So there are a couple of things I won't say anymore:

"I struggle with depression." No. I don't struggle with it, any more than someone struggles with diabetes. I have it, or it has me, but with the proper treatment and support it doesn't have to rule me.

"Once I get off the meds...". It is humiliating to realize that I may always require medication to balance my brain chemistry. It's humiliating because we stigmatize mental health, and I just want to be normal damnit. Apparently that's not in the cards. Oh well. Slowly but surely I'm discovering that maybe the strong thing to do is to accept that I need help.

I'm not looking for a cure anymore. I'm using the supports I have - the excellent cognitive-behavioral therapy I found in DC, the excellent psychiatrist at the same place (The Ross Center for Anxiety if you live in the area - it has excellent doctors and counselors), the medication, the breathing exercises, the yoga mat that I pull out every night though I rarely feel like it.

It's kind of like when you've done your first confession, and you feel light as a cloud, and then you sin again - badly. So you go a second time, and then a third, and then a fourth, and you start to wonder if you're a worse sinner than the others. And then one day you accept that for the rest of your life you will go to confession, and a huge weight rolls away. (Please note: I am emphatically NOT saying that depression is a sin. No, no, and no. The point of the analogy is that these problems ain't goin' nowhere).

I don't think it's coincidental that I had these epiphanies within days of each other.

And now I try to let it soak in. I will always need confession. I will always need treatment for depression. I will always need other people. I will always be dependent, and I will never be rich enough to turn away the gifts that God sends my way.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Game of Thrones and the Four Humours

Friends, I have discovered the height of nerdom: deciphering the temperaments of Game of Thrones characters based on the ancient theory of humours.

Humour theory was developed by ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and, like many other philosophies, was co-opted by the medieval Western Church. The idea is that humans are composed of four elements: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. These elements correspond to the four elements of the universe: air, water, fire, and earth. To have good health, a human needed to keep these elements in balance. However, this is difficult because people tend to have a predisposition towards one or two elements over the others. You could tell which element was dominant based on certain character traits: for instance, phlegmatics are slow, ponderous, easygoing, and non-comittal, whereas cholerics (yellow bile) are judgmental, take-charge, decisive, and prone to anger. Also, certain temperaments gave one a predisposition to certain diseases. If you read any Shakespeare, you will need to have a basic grasp of the concept in order to get much of the character development and underlying philosophy. And in George Eliot's Middlemarch, Dr. Lydgate fights an uphill battle against the superstitions fueled by this theory. (One of the characters has famously ill health and makes great use of quackery, and the townswomen discuss about certain "drying" medications to help her "watery" disposition. As the ever-knowledgeable Mrs. Cadwallader says, "Everything depends on the constitution: some people make fat, some blood, and some bile - that's my view of the matter.")

The theory is not medically useful now that we have such discoveries as the germ theory of disease. But I can't help fitting certain humours with the different Game of Thrones characters. And since Westeros is based on medieval England, why not?

Some of the characters are obvious. King Robert Baratheon is a classic sanguine: full of laughter, prone to gluttony and drunkenness, lusty for all the sensory aspects of life, with a quick temper that immediately burns out without holding grudges. Jon Snow is a classic melancholic, with his brooding, thoughtfulness, tendency to depression, and ramrod ideals of justice. Other characters, like Arya, have a  mixture of humours, and their life experiences bring one of them to dominance. I would argue that Arya in the beginning seems quite sanguine with some choleric mixed in, but the tragedies of her family bring the choleric disposition to the fore as a means of survival. This is why, in my opinion, she gets along so well with Tywin, a choleric if there ever was one. It's also interesting to see the different temperaments can go good or ill in different characters. For instance, Tyrion is also arguably a sanguine, but the trials of being a dwarf in that society give him a self-discipline and steadiness that Robert conspicuously lacks. Part of winning at the Game of Thrones, it seems, is making sure that one's humour doesn't get the better of you.

7 Posts in 7 Days Y'all

We'll see how this goes. Like most procrastinators I am pressure-prompted... to a degree. I would not say that I work well under pressure because I don't. These days I hurl myself under the nearest rock whenever pressure comes my way, clutching my anti-anxiety meds like a madwoman. On the other hand, I like to put things off until the work becomes unavoidable.  This creates exactly the kind of problem one would expect.

This is why my husband and I have people over: so we can clean the apartment. We know when we need to have more guests when the sofa is covered in laundry and the table is invisible underneath unanswered mail. And my husband is a true pressure-prompted procrastinator who works wonderfully under pressure.

So I do identify with this, even though I'm not in grad school anymore:

* If you were ever in grad school, you should read PhD comics. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and when you think of friends still slugging through the mire you'll think "suckers."

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What I thought I knew about Catholics

When you grow up in the Bible Belt going to a Southern Baptist school and a Presbyterian church, you learn a lot of things about Catholics, none of which are true. Much of it I learned through osmosis: there wasn't an "Anti-Catholics 101" class or anything, but anti-Catholicism is part of the culture. At school it was pretty incidental, but at church and home it was quite purposeful as well, partly for historical reasons.

You see, back in the day when Europe blew up in what is called the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, tolerance was not exactly the top priority. There was no such thing as separation of church and state, and the heads of state in most countries were absolute monarchs. Live and let live was not an option because a difference in religion meant an upending of all life. It's hard for modern Americans to even fathom what it was like, but the closest analogies are places like Central Africa Republic. In that country Muslim extremists took over the government and terrorized the country, and now a Christian group has retaliated are engaging in ethnic cleansing of Muslims. (That is a really simplistic summary: check out the BBC for more in-depth information).

English history is fascinating because you get to see how it went down when Henry VIII forced a very Catholic-styled Protestantism on the country, followed by the very Protestant Edward VI, followed by the lovely debacle of evangelical Jane Grey and "Bloody Mary" and mid-way-but-who-really-knows-because-she-was-just-creating-a-middle-way-national-church Elizabeth, and later the coup of Cromwell and the beheading of Catholic King James. (Seriously, English history is amazing, but I digress. Henry VIII's multiple wives and children really threw a monkey wrench in the royal succession). Point being that religion was life and death, and countries went through a debilitating and neck-wrenching back and forth between Protestant and Catholic monarchs, not to mention all the different Protestant sects that didn't play well with each other. And the poor Quakers just got hated on wherever they went. Lots of blood, lots of political coups and intrigue and religious wars.

My family is proudly of Protestant vintage. We know which Scottish clans we had members of (MacMillan, McDuffy), and I grew up going to an annual get-together of descendants of Scottish ancestors who created a Scottish Presbyterian church in the Deep South. I had Dutch Reformed ancestors and survivors of the Saint Bartholomew's massacre in Paris France. Pretty much all of my ancestors on one side were from staunchly Calvinist European countries, and as they say, blood is thicker than water. Calvinists are big on tradition and family history, so I was reared on the mythology of good saintly Protestants persecuted by evil Catholics. Until college I didn't realize just how damned confusing the reality was outside of Fox's Book of Martyrs and Pilgrim's Progress.

As a result of this history, Catholics were Those Papist Oppressors Who Persecuted Our Ancestors. We weren't as extreme as what you see in modern-day North Ireland, but close enough that when I visited there in college I wasn't completely shocked. After all, I had always heard that "Catholics could be Christians, but it would be hard because there was so much baggage to get past."

What baggage? I'm glad you asked. Well for starters, everyone knew that:

- Catholics thought baptism saved you
- But that somehow they believed in works-salvation too
- But that's not surprising since they didn't want their members to read the Bible
- And really it was a big cult because they worshiped the Pope and thought he couldn't sin
- Not to mention all the Hail Mary nonsense, and the fact that they put Mary almost on equal footing with Jesus
- Not to mention that they prayed to saints and disobeyed the second commandment by having graven images in their churches and were rife with superstitions
- Not to mention that they added things to the Bible and were slaves to man-made traditions -
- Like having to confess your sins to a priest when the Bible clearly says "there is one mediator between God and man" -
- And having priests when we are all a royal priesthood -
- And calling those priests "Father" when our only Father is in heaven -
- And calling certain dead people "saint so and so" when all Christians are saints*
- And it's actually idolatrous to go to a Catholic church since they bow down to bread and call it God
- And it's sad how they think that these trappings will get them into heaven, although -
- Most Catholics are just cultural anyway and they only go to church on Christmas and Easter so clearly they don't really believe anything

And then there's general American pop culture about nuns and Catholic school girls, so there really wasn't anything positive to say except that at least they were anti-abortion.

Certain Catholic practices are making a come-back in Protestant churches. For instance, many churches do some form of Advent now - shoot, even my church did an Advent wreath. (My grandmama was very unhappy with this development because it was compromising with the truth and becoming too Catholic). Mainline churches have adopted Lent in various ways, and more churches are doing weekly Eucharist or the Lord's Supper. The Episcopal church is definitely more Catholic in its liturgy than it was mid-20th century, mainly thanks to the 1979 Prayer Book, but Episcopalians are odd ducks and not really representative of Protestants as a whole. The "new perspective on Paul" (which isn't new at all) threatened to break my childhood denomination in two before the elders clamped down because, and I quote, "this is a Catholic heresy and not part of the historic Christian faith." This is also political in part: some evangelical Christians are willing to join with Catholics in order to elect Republicans, although there are those who keep a firm separatist approach like good ole RC Sproul.

Now all y'all Catholic readers can take a nice calming walk, deep breaths, in and out.

* Fun fact: all Calvinists call Augustine "Saint Augustine," but they see no contradiction in this. Probably because they claim him as one of their own.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why You Should Re-Read Lord of the Rings

If you haven't read it for the first time - where have you been, living under a rock? Turn off the computer and get thee to your local bookstore.

Now this is for those of you who read it and loved it, but maybe haven't picked it up in awhile. (And super-nerds like Casey :)

When I first read LOTR, I was in the throes of adolescence. As a typical self-absorbed teenager, I identified solely with Frodo, feeling his physical anguish, the depression, the angst (mine that is, not his real suffering). The Two Towers frustrated the hell out of me because it leaves the reader stranded, literally, on the shoreline watching Frodo and Sam ride off down the river. I actually skipped ahead to the beginning of every chapter until I found them again. (I know, it's terrible. Mea culpa). I worried about them like a mother hen, and every chapter that took me away from their plight was an irritant and a distraction. Who cares about these damn walking trees? I need to make sure Frodo is OK!

As the years passed, I would re-read various sections - and yes, I did actually read The Two Towers in its entirety. I saw the movies, which came out when I was in high school, and had a blast nerding out with my dad about the discrepancies. But I hadn't re-read the entire book (it's not really a trilogy, by the way) until this January.

Naturally I'm in a different place: I'm now starting my third year of marriage, working full time at a law firm, living in an apartment in metro DC, with our friends and family a full 12 hours away. Moreover, I've discovered Catholic spiritual devotions and theology, which opened up so many nuances of Tolkein's Catholic text. Also, and even more importantly, I've started to believe that God actually loves everyone, not just His frozen chosen. It's like being a different person and reading it for the first time.

And that's the first reason why you should read it again: your entire perspective on the characters may have changed. You may identify with another character, or find interest in something you dismissed before. Maybe you've read more fantasy and have a better sense of how this literature "works," or maybe you have better appreciation for poetry this time around. This is especially true if you've experienced major life-events since reading it, such as marriage or the birth of a child or the death of a parent.

The second reason you should re-read it is because this time you can linger. A lot of times we book-lovers get so focused on the plot that we forget to savor. It's understandable, and it's how novels hook us in the first place. We need to know how it ends, and a good book makes you obsess about the fate of its characters. But now you know that Gollum had to live in that final hour and that Eowyn found true love. So now you can really read those words and soak up the beauty and wisdom.

For instance, this time I found myself enthralled with the Ents, whereas before I just wanted to get them out of the way and move back to Frodo. But how could I have thought that when the Ents are so wonderful? I actually read the poem of the lost Ent-wives this time, and I noticed just how many times Fangorn repeats his sad refrain that there would be no Entlings, and to really ponder what that meant to him. I noticed the deep sadness of the text, even in the midst of joy at the end, because killing the One Ring meant destroying the power of the Elves and entering the age of Man. I saw the sadness of Fangorn, waiting so many centuries for the beloved Entwives to return, seeing his friends revert back to trees, seeing the Orcs destroy what was left of his home, knowing that his was a dying race.

I was also struck by the juxtaposition of hope and despair throughout the text. All the wonderful Gandalf quotes about hope leapt out at me this time around. My favorite is when Gandalf is rallying the troops in the Return of the King, before they prepare to march on Mordor. The steward of Gondor succumbed to despair and killed himself, and he wasn't being unrealistic. The very idea of marching with a few thousand men to Mordor to take on the Orcs and oliphants and (above all) the Nazgul would make anyone despair. So Gandalf doesn't lie, doesn't sugar-coat the truth, and doesn't use typical battle-prep, cheerleading language. What he does is so much better:

My lords, listen to the words of the Steward of Gondor before he died: You may triumph on the fields of the Pelennor for a day, but against the Power that has now arisen there is no victory. I do not bid you to despair, as he did, but to ponder the truth in these words.... Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault. The next will be greater. This war then is without final hope, as Denethor perceived. Victory cannot be achieved by arms, whether you sit here to endure siege after siege, or march out to be overwhelmed beyond the River. You have only a choice of evils; and prudence would counsel you to strengthen such places as you have... I do not counsel prudence... I still hope for victory, but not by arms.

He continues to explain to his captains the Ring and the Ringbearer, on whose success they depend. And he finishes in this way:

It may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dur be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish ourselves... and know as we die that no new age shall be.

This changed my perspective on what it means to hope. This vision of Gandalf's is clear-eyed and, on the surface, does not sound very hopeful in the colloquial sense. But it seems that part of hope is doing what we are meant to do, even if the odds are stacked high against us, in hope that good will come - and maybe not even to ourselves. The hope of Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and Treebeard is selfless and giving, a hope to those who might live on or be born after them in the new age. And if doing charity means that one will die (or, in my privileged case, be tired or embarrassed) there is still hope beyond our own ends.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Seven Quick Takes

I had the following exchange with a librarian on Sunday: 

"I need to pay an outstanding library fine," I said while handing over my card.

"You sure do," she said looking at my information. "And you still have a title checked out that was due back in January."

"Oh no! I thought I'd turned in everything. What's the title?"

"The Art of Becoming Organized." 

This is why I'm worried about becoming a priest's wife. I think I need to hold a session with the other women and say look, I'm no good with kids, especially large groups of kids that I barely know; I'm useless at event coordinating; I am shy and introverted and have nightmares about being at a party that I can't leave; and I'm so disorganized and forgetful that it's a wonder my shoes match. Your expectations should be low, very low. If you wanted someone to organize pot lucks and teach children's Sunday school and host Sunday brunch - you need to find someone who's good at those things, cuz it ain't me. I just happen to married to the priest, that is all. 

My husband has finally convinced me to watch Game of Thrones, and like everyone else I'm addicted.
If you watch it, you know what I mean. It really was designed to be addictive for someone like me though: medieval costume and castles and the lot, political intrigue and plots, kings and queens and bastards and avengers. There is definitely gratuitous sex and gore, though my husband says there's less of that in the later seasons. Unfortunately, I've been warned that the good characters tend to die, and I just know that Ned's hour is coming. Of course it is, he's the most noble character in that universe. I think my favorite character is the Dwarf, though it's a close three-way tie between Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Arya Stark. And I love the friendship that happens between Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly. (If something terrible happens to them, don't tell me. I wish to remain in denial as long as possible.)

One reason why I love Game of Thrones is that the tone reminds me of my favorite rendering of the Arthurian legend: Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and its sequels. I'll post reviews soon because they're just so good. The outlook of the dwarf reminds me so much of Stewart's Merlin.

Because I'm a nerd, I'm fascinated by how binge-watching ala Netflix has radically changed the production of TV shows. I kind of miss the old-style shows because there was a ritual to it: sitting down every Thursday night to watch Friends and Frazier (which ended on the same night - my mom and cried together) or gathering as a group to watch a season ender, watching "Must See TV" - is that even a thing anymore? And then you actually had to wait for several months to know what would happen next! But I'm starting to sound like the grandpa who walked uphill both ways in the snow. I do enjoy binge-watching, but there is something lost now that we have more control over our entertainment.  Sometimes there's something gained too though, as this article points out. 

I've re-read The Lord of the Rings so much since the New Year that I am starting to memorize parts. I'll get some posts up with my thoughts soon, once I get them sorted out. For now let me just say that Treebeard is my new favorite character. I wish he were in more of the book. 

The only grocery store nearby is one of those fancy health-food type places - not Whole Foods, more like a smaller version of Trader Joe's. Not the best place to spend last-minute shopping before a storm. I kept wandering through the tiny aisles, running into people, wondering where they kept the easy-prep, high fat foods that you legitimately need for this sort of thing, when it dawned on me that the closest thing to easy prep was the box of quinoa hot breakfast cereal. I wanted to yell, "Snickers is the best candy bar in the world - who's with me?"

Happy Friday!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why Creation/ Evolution Debates Don't Work

I haven't yet watched the "debate" between Bill Nye (of Bill Nye the Science Guy - best show ever) - and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis in which they duked it out over creation vs evolution. It would probably be fascinating, and I'd probably learn a few things. Unfortunately, I don't think that such debates accomplish anything good, not for the general public.

First of all, note the place: at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. The audience was, naturally, full of creationists. My husband, who has a passion for mammalian biology and evolution in general, watched the full debate; his takeaway was that the crowd was completely white - no blacks, Asians, Latinos, etc. We're talking about an extremely narrow subset of Protestant religious fundamentalists who tend to be white, Southern, and conservative. And by holding a "debate" over scientific facts in this setting, you give them credibility. It doesn't matter that Bill Nye "won" - of course he did, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. This is the kind of publicity that creationists love, and it shouldn't be given to them. Would you agree to engage in a debate on the connections between poverty and race at a KKK rally?

Second, debates like this seldom change anything for the better. Not many people are going to watch the full debate, and if they do, they are the sort of people who already made up their minds a long time ago. Plenty of people will go on Buzzfeed and look at pictures of "questions for creationists" or "questions for evolutionists" and gloat, depending on which side they're on, but settling in to watch the whole thing? That's something that nerds (like my husband) or people very ideologically invested in either side will do.

Third, the whole game is rigged anyway because we don't even speak the same language. I don't see this problem getting any better, because these days Creationists can shelter their children from ever learning evolution until they're so brainwashed that they automatically shut their ears. In addition, scientists have little incentive to know what's going on in the minds of Creationists, so they don't realize how Creationists perceive evolution. The words theory, natural selection, evolution, species, change, and law mean completely different things to both sides. How can you even have a conversation without first defining your terms? (But partly that's because the very idea makes me giddy - I just love hermeneutics, so much fun.)

Fourth, trying to get a die-hard fundamentalist to change his or her views on anything is damn near impossible unless their entire "worldview" (to use my old Reformed-speak) changes. If you believe that Scripture must be interpreted literally, and that all Scripture is inerrant - meaning that it is always true about everything it says, then the cost is too high to change your mind. You see, in the Creationist mindset every verse in the Bible must hang together or hang together as Benjamin Franklin said. If you doubt that the world was created in literal 24 hour days, then you must also doubt the resurrection of Christ. And now your entire world is unmade. It's hard to explain to an atheist or agnostic what this would feel like, but think of it like the Matrix. Or imagine that your brain has been playing tricks on you, and that we're really just zombies in a room having psuedo-experiences imposed on our brains by drugs. Would you really rather live in the real world when it looks so horrible?

Those who make fun of Creationists don't realize the cost of changing their minds. It's not just changing your mind - it's unraveling everything you thought you knew and then scrambling to pick up the pieces. For most of us, it wouldn't have happened without dramatic personal experiences that called the entire fundamentalist mentality into question.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Spiritual Attack: Then and Now

****Trigger warning: if you have had bad experiences with fear of demons or the Satanic panic that happened in the 80s and 90s, please skip this. I would not revamp anyone's PTSD for anything. Instead, enjoy this wonderful duckling:

When I was eleven, I chanced upon this book at my grandmama's house:

If you've never read it, don't 

It's a book published in 1974 by a man who was part of the Jesus Movement. Here's a video on youtube that really gives a flavor of the time:

In brief, it was hippies meet Jesus, and most of the people in my generation of evangelical Christians were children of the Jesus people. Keith Green was probably the most popular singer-songwriter to come out of this movement, but the very idea of contemporary Christian music (CCM) has its roots in it.

A big part of this was the charismatic movement which occurred across denominational lines. The books written during this era have an energy and urgency because they were written by people who believed that they could really change the world. Given the time, it makes sense when you think about the massive social change going on. Unfortunately, the dark side to this was a renewed emphasis on Satan and demonic forces that culminated in the Satanic panic in the 80s and 90s. Satan on the Loose was a foretaste of that panic.

I really wish I'd known this history when I picked up the book. Maybe it wouldn't have scarred me so terribly. I have always been sensitive to horror, gore, violence etc, and I refuse to watch most horror movies because of this. Several times I have walked out of the theatre when the violence or darkness became too much for me to handle, and from experience I've learned to not just grit my teeth and "be cool." There's no such thing as being cool at 3 a.m. when you wake up in a cold sweat.

Frankly, I don't remember what the real contents of the book were, and God knows I'm not going to read it again. Vaguely I recall that the author had been a gang member ala David Wilkerson (author of The Cross and the Switchblade), and he had a dramatic conversion experience. Due to his background he had a history of traumatic experiences and was probably going through PTSD. The one scene I remember in the book is when his father was in the hospital dying, and he said "Son, Satan is here on my bed, and he won't let me pray." I get chills just thinking about it.

I read the book in one sitting. When I started reading it was light, but when I finished it was dark. I was alone in the "back part" of the house, and it was quiet. Then the wind started slowly growing until it howled around the corner of the house, and I jumped out of my skin. For many kids that would be were it ended - they had a bad scare and can laugh it off later. I was not one of those kids, and that book caused a great deal of misery for the next 6 years.

As I have alluded elsewhere, my faith background was not exactly sunshine and roses. I can finally name some of the things that happened as spiritual abuse, even though most of the people enforcing it had good intentions. And one of the most spiritually abusive ideas I absorbed, from this book and from the general atmosphere, was that Satan could overwhelm your soul if you gave him even an inch. That's why it was so important to be pure, to avoid even uncarved pumpkins at Halloween, or anything that had any connection to the occult, no matter how tenuous. My school taught that certain practices - such as reading Harry Potter - opened your soul to the devil, giving him the key as it were. I used to envision demons getting through the cracks in the ceiling or under the window sills. To this day I have a bad habit of sleeping with the covers over my head - yes, I manage to breathe - and that was partly due to my neuroses about demonic possession in the night. I would pray fervently every night that angels would stand guard around my bed and not let any demons near me.

My church didn't really talk about Satan much: we believed that he existed, but we were much more focused on the total depravity of mankind and figured that we didn't need much help when it came to evil. But even at my church there were hints of the panic, because it shrouded all fundamentalist and evangelical churches at that time. Part of the interest in the post-Columbine book She Said Yes (which I owned and read until I memorized) was Cassie's conversion from being in the occult. Cassie's experience was every parent's worst nightmare in the 90s - tapes of Marilyn Manson, cutting, drug use, violent drawings and poetry, black clothing, thick metal jewelry, etc. This is why any hint of being counter-cultural was punished so quickly in the church: it seemed that Satan went for the geeky kids with poetry journals and left the football players alone.

Did I actually experience demonic oppression or attack during this time? I don't think so. Frankly, I think the attack was from the church itself, from the terror and panic that were part and parcel of growing up in that subculture.

Do I believe that Satan exists? Yes, but not in the way I used to. I used to envision him as all-knowing - kind of like the evil version of God, which I later learned was one of the famous heresies. I used to attribute much of my mental illness to Satanic oppression, which is unfortunately a common practice in certain circles. I used to think he could read my mind and put things there, steal my soul, possess me if I sinned a certain way.

That said, I do think I may have experienced spiritual attack last year. There are a couple of reasons why.

First of all, the timing was just eerie.  My depression was getting better in February and March thanks to meds, but right after Easter my life took a turn for the absurd. I hit my head on Maundy Thursday; Good Friday I had a difficult time getting through the long service but managed; on the Easter vigil I was confirmed in the Episcopal church, and it was the most wonderful day since my wedding. Easter morning I woke up knowing that something was wrong. That was when my body and mind began a journey into crazy-town. Do I think Satan "caused" my mental breakdown? No, because I believe in Occam's razor and rational explanations for things like depression, panic attacks, and concussions. But, I will say that it's downright odd that it happened right after my confirmation. I've heard so many stories about people having tremendous difficulties right after conversions that it seems a tad too coincidental.

Second, I did have an experience that I think was one of the few times I experienced spiritual attack. But this post is super long, so I'll leave that for another day. Let's just say it was much more about sin and much less about demonic creatures attacking in the night.

And now I'm going to go think happy thoughts and listen to happy music, like this:

Monday, February 3, 2014

Making Comparisons

When I was in college I volunteered at a sexual assault center for a couple of years. We worked as "advocates," which means that we were on call for 12 hour shifts in case of an assault. If you got a call, you went to the hospital and met the survivor, the police, the nurses, family or friends, etc. But you were really only there for the survivor. Our role was to be completely on his or her side, with no agendas of our own. This is so important for survivors of rape, because the rapist took away their sense of control. A big part of healing is taking control of your own body and life again. That's why it's so important that you not pressure someone into reporting a rape if they don't want to, or even getting a rape kit done. Not my body, not my call.

One of the first things we learned is that survivors have drastically different reactions to assault. Most I met were just quiet, almost as if in shock. Some sobbed (very few); some were laughing hysterically; some joked around; some were (understandably) enraged. No one responds to rape the same way: we are all different people, with our own experiences and histories and bodies.

What's more, no one can tell you how you should react. One of the fallacies about rape and other crimes is "if it really happened, she would say/ do xyz." But there is no formula when it comes to personal experience.

That's why I am trying, trying, trying to learn not to compare my own experiences with those of others. It goes both ways. On the one hand, I cannot say "well I really didn't have a hard year because at least I'm not starving on the street." On the other, I cannot say "well look at that whiner, she doesn't even know what real stress is." It's all relative.

Another thing I learned is that you have the right to say "it was a bad year/ month/ day/ whatever" even if good things happened. You can own it. I'm not saying you should wallow in it, but don't feel guilty for your feelings either. Just because every second of your life was not pure agony does not mean that it's been all roses and sunshine either.

So if you're in the habit of telling others why they should really be happy with their lot, please stop. You may have the best of intentions when you say "well at least your grandma isn't suffering any more," but those words are poison. They rob the other person of the right to feel.

Also, if you're in the habit of comparing your life with that of others, please know that you are damaging yourself. No one knows the pain or joy in another person's heart, not even of their spouse's.

No one can tell you how to feel, and you cannot tell anyone else how to feel. Go write in on your mirror so you won't forget, and I'll do the same.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Weekend work and privilege

This evening I was feeling rather sorry for myself. Due to doctor's appointments and the ongoing depression/ panic crap, I'm still struggling with making my work hours. Since I really need those hours - and we just got several new clients at the office and are swamped with work - I volunteered to work this weekend. Normally it would be considered time and a half, but mine won't unless I go over the number of hours I owed, which is unlikely.

On my way home I went to the grocery store, and I spent a good deal of time having a pity party. Not about anything dramatic - just the busy parking lot, the traffic, a sinus headache, and the irritation of knowing that I have to go back to the office after church. But I found everything I needed pretty quickly and got in line.

The cashier was an older gentleman whose accent told me he's from another country, not sure where. I asked him if he was getting off work soon, and he smiled and shook his head.

"I've been here since 10. My feet and legs, you know, they get so tired."

And then I went home and ate a delicious salad with expensive ingredients that I could afford to buy, in a well-heated apartment. And I wondered how on earth I could complain about a job that lets me make up hours on the weekend, at an office job where I'm mostly seated and can get a glass of water or go to the bathroom whenever I want.