they say our hearts are beautiful

When it begins you think they are giving you power. You are a little rosebud girl with easy smiles and a heart to please. They give you music: sing this for us. Jesus loves you, this I know. You are the light of their life. You are a princess, a daughter of God, they lavish royalty on you every time you swallow your pride, every time you cry over a lie, every time you make a little art from the scripts they wrote you. You learn the right words to say: “I’m not that kind of girl.” You never wear skirts above the knee. You never think about boys. You say weed is a gateway drug, you say you prefer real literature, you say everyone outside the nursery are living half lives and you are living the true one. They are all proud of you. They say your heart is beautiful.

But then they begin rationing their attention, these men who shepherd our hearts from the pulpit. That pride you swallowed, whose pride was it? You begin to not measure up.

So you get desperate. You make sure those other girls know exactly what they are: other. Sluts. Shallow. Vain. Boy crazy. Gossipers. It’s their makeup, the way they talk, the boys they date, the way they dress, the movies they watch, the books they read.

You think you’re the reason you’re losing your power. Something about you is wrong. Your grip on your conscience squeezes tighter and tighter. Maybe you’re still prideful. Who are you to want their approval anyway? Have you made an idol from the love of others? You should be content with the love of God. Was this all a performance after all? (Yes, it was. The one they taught you, the one they paid you for). You’re looking less like a rosebud girl now. You’re a woman. You’ve lost your sweet petal purity before your first date.

So you get louder — you’re singing onstage now, you’re writing, you’re talking, you’re itching itching itching at their ears. But something in you has fractured. Half of you is lost in grief for the girl you never got to be, the other inconsolable with your failure to be the girl they wanted.

You want to rebel, but you never learned how. You are sick and weak at a soup kitchen, they ladle out three spoonfuls per bowl of what they once set you swimming in. All those pastors who loved to listen to us girls sing, they start lecturing us in batches about sexual and moral purity. They’re suspicious of our bodies and their appetites. It doesn’t matter now that we’re still trying, they don’t have eyes for us anymore. We are no longer princesses. We’re cattle to be pastured off into feminine grazing grounds where we all keep an eye on each other’s modesty while we wait for husbands and children.

Every once in a while we manage to earn a taste of their approval again. You have such a beautiful heart. For me it was writing. For you, maybe the same, maybe something else. We are on our knees with open mouths. It’s just enough for us to feel we could repent our way back to our prepubescent radiance.

Or maybe we get angry.

Maybe we say: enough.

Maybe we become one of “those girls.”

Maybe we realize the power we thought we were accepting from outside was only the cannibalization our own innate strength as women together, and that we were never separate to begin with.

And maybe we don’t have to be quite so fucking beautiful.

Photo: me, five years old

an update (three years later)

I’m tempted to delete this blog. The person who started writing here feels almost like a stranger to me. Many of her values I would fight tooth-and-nail today. She believed the world was a simple binary: there were believers and unbelievers, the saved and the lost, the sanctified and the worldly. She had very clear ideas on who belonged in what category. God saw her as perfect & holy & redeemed, but only because he was looking at himself and his own blood that he’d scrubbed her sinful body down with under the cross. So to her, shame was indistinguishable from love. Maybe I can be compassionate, then, with how easily she dismissed whole groups of people, especially the LGBTQ+ community but really anyone who had sex and cursed and enjoyed themselves doing it, and called it love.

There are so many things I’d like to tell her.

I’d like to have a conversation with her about enthusiastic consent. I wish I could say: If you’re not happy and excited to have sex, you can (and should) say no. All parties should be totally down with what’s about to happen, or genitals are off the table. I was so ashamed of “sinning” that I never asked myself if I wanted what was happening. I wish I could protect my past self from those who took advantage of that vulnerability. But I’m also so excited for her that she’ll find partners who will help her find play and healing and freedom. (While I’m at it, I might as well tell her that masturbation and porn are a healthy extension of human sexuality, and leave her a few notes on what a clit is and where to find it).

I’d like to tell her she’s certifiably insane — one badass bipolar bitch. Her depressions aren’t the result of laziness and sin, and her delirious highs aren’t the holy spirit’s quickening. Therapy and meds will help. Sometimes it feels like I’ve lost my superpowers, but most of the time I’m grateful.

I’d like to tell her when it comes to people, she’s got an embarrassment of riches. With so many incredibly fascinating and compassionate humans, she’ll make tea and smoke cigars and climb trails, binge The Office while drinking grapefruit soda, race grocery carts in an abandoned parking lot, dance around a bonfire on the beach in matching yellow rain ponchos. Their support will get her through even the most impossible decisions. I’d say: don’t worry so much about perfecting your internal world through repentance, look outward. Don’t take every thought captive. Go ahead and just be a person with other people.

I’d like to tell her that she doesn’t have to be a writer.

I’d like to tell her that she was right about the high cost of coming out as queer. It’s okay for her to wait until she’s ready. (But while you’re waiting, give yourself some positive language for what’s happening in your mind and body. Watch Nanette, read We Are Okay, keep bingeing those Youtubers and sneaking episodes of The L Word in the middle of the night).

More than anything, I want to tell her: you don’t have to feel ashamed. Or maybe more clearly, since I’m ever prepared to manipulate my own emotions: You are not shameful. 

I thought Christianity was the cure for my chronic shame. How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. But while one hand reaches out with “God forgives you,” the other forces you to your knees to say “even my good works are dirty rags.” I’ve left both sin and forgiveness behind, and I’m two testaments and a guilt complex lighter.

I don’t want to delete this blog. I also don’t want to start a new one and pretend the rest never happened in favor of a more linear narrative. Stories of change are important, I think. I’m not ashamed of my past self. But I’m also really fucking glad I get to be who I am today.

I’m grateful to all of you who have followed my journey. Not all of you agree with my decisions, but know that I feel your love, and I feel only love back. I think it’s our connections to each other, more than any belief system, that leads us out of shame and into freedom.

(I did weed out several old posts — oh the cringe — but I kept a representative and properly mortifying sample. Also apparently I didn’t care at all about citing images, so I’ve replaced them all from the 1900s Cyclopedia of American Horticulture)

almost too much pink

20167239764_c9999415bb_o.jpg
655. Cytisus Canariensis

Spring. The camellia tree laying her arms over the brick outdoor fireplace, fussing at her pink blossoms. The whole yard smelling like the daphne flowering by the front door and the honeysuckles climbing along the neighbor’s fence. The sidewalks filling up with people walking dogs and buying veggie burgers and drinking bloody marys from mason jars. Finally some blue in the sky. Sunsets making the camellia jealous. Printing out the first chapter of my novel. My hair longer now, falling into my eyes.

This is what I’d like to do with my life. I’d like to watch the seasons turn. I’d like to write a little. I’d like to nanny three or four days a week. I’d like to sometimes climb a mountain with a friend. I’d like to rest in knowing I’m walking in my calling, small and ordinary as it is. Maybe my marching orders will change someday, but that’s not up to me to worry about. Each day has enough trouble of its own. 

I want so much to find a way to prove the incredible miracle God’s done with my heart… I want to write a brilliant novel, build a beautiful ministry, have a holy twinkle in my eye that everyone recognizes when they see me… but maybe that’s not how this works. Maybe I’ll just sing the old hymn and let God say the rest.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found;

Was blind, but now I see.

the 72 in the ice

419. Chamaecyparis pisifera

My hands have lost all feeling. The sidewalk glistens wickedly with ice, and the wind cuts sideways across my face. An old man waits for the bus with me, his hood pulled down to his eyebrows, his face creased and crumbling in that drug-hollowed way. He has a small plastic bag of grey-green powder, he wets his fingers, dips them, brings them to his trembling lips. “This just ruined my routine,” he says, gesturing to the ice sealed world around us. I laugh assent. He continues, encouraged, “The wind blew me half into the street all day. Makes me almost want to be back in Georgia. The humidity and heat were so heavy it was like someone poured a bucket of water on your head. You’d shower in the morning and never get dry again. I was in the military back then.” Our bus pulls up, looking so bright and warm it makes me want to write songs about it. “Well, nice to talk with you,” he says. We part ways.

I sit in the bus and lean against the cold glass, watching the rain cut a cross-hatch into the thawing ice. I listen to the people around me. They speak a different dialect of English, they saw off the ends of their words and talk at a different cadence, even after a year of riding the 72 I can’t understand most of what they’re saying. There’s the girl saying something about a “Tree-man” and how she has to get herself some good tree, none of that half ass shit. A boy tells her he’s just moved in with his dad but he doesn’t have a key, so he’s been wandering in the cold all day. An old man in a wheelchair with a flashing light-up tongue ring rolls in roaring hellos, he knows everybody in the front of the bus–you gotta watch out for the front of the bus. They’re all laughing and talking and acting like family, and they’ve all been on the road all day, bus hopping to keep off the ice.

This all used to seem so strange to me. The ice made me see it again.

grown up magic

When I was little I believed grown ups belonged to a secret world of magic and adventure. Somewhere in the glowy haze of my future I would discover fairies, pirates, enchanted kingdoms. It was fun to play stories because I thought those things were really coming for me; playing dragons and princesses felt as pragmatic as playing house.

I was right.

This is the thing about God I can never quite write out, and I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying. Taking a walk through nature with the God that created it is… I mean, that camilla tree with flowers in her hair, and that sky hard blue as a plate, and that smell of earth and jasmine… but no, that’s not exactly it…

It’s the time I heard Him speak my name, the months He kept whispering “Are you ready?” like we were on the tip of the swell of a rollercoaster and oh, we were, it’s the days I get on my knees to fight, it’s when I sin and sin badly and there He is with a tenderness more shattering than wrath, it’s the thundering paralyzing guilt and the sloppy wet waves of grace, it’s our inside jokes about dandelions and elephants and the number 13, it’s the tug in the middle of the night that teases me out of bed and under the cold fragrance of stars, it’s that time He sent a friend and I to get a grilled cheese sandwich two hours away so we would walk five miles on the ridge of the sea with Him… It doesn’t make sense, and how can I explain it? I hear reproaches in my head:

-How do you know you’re really talking to God and not yourself?

-You sound kinda childish.

-I think you’re enjoying your own voice too much and spreading the poetry a little thick.

All valid. There’s nothing to say to that.

This week when I was curled up on the couch with the kindergartener I nanny, reading aloud The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as he munched a bowl of popcorn, I got choked up again and again. For nostalgia, yes, I grew up on these stories, but also because dancing trees and endless winters and Aslan on the move are more true to my heart than they’ve ever been before. I feel as if I pushed through some fur coats into Narnia I wouldn’t be surprised. Sometimes I feel I already have.

(Well, I still haven’t written it out right. But here’s to another attempt, perhaps better than the last one, hopefully not as good as the next).

hi, i’m bekah, and i’m a people-pleaser

Last night I dreamed I was driving when suddenly a wall rose up in the middle of the road. “Go left, go left!” shouted my boss, who was inexplicably in the car with me, while my brother yelled “Go right, go right!” Unable to make up my mind, I smashed into the wall, killing everyone.

It wasn’t a happy dream.

Indecision is a major theme in my life, from choosing a toothpaste flavor to answering the Big Questions. I often pride myself on asking questions rather than claiming answers, but like G.K Chesterton says, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Instead I’m a chronic fence-sitter, a mumbling mugwump, the milkiest of milk toast.

There are things I’ve built my life on, like:

  1. There is a God.
  2. He speaks to us. Most notably through the Bible.
  3. [insert apostles’ creed here]

But everything else gets mushy. I rather just nod along like a big, beaming bobblehead

  1. Republican? Democrat? Socialist? Capitalist? (and is it just me, or is politics looking more and more like reality tv these days?)
  2. What do I think about women’s rights? Am I a feminist? An anti-feminist? What about a woman leading a church? What about a woman leading a country?
  3.  Speaking about gender, what do I think about transsexuality?
  4. Immigration?
  5. Global warming?
  6. What about recycling? Conserving water? Electricity? Gas? What about the food industry and how it treats animals? And don’t I care that the money I spend on clothes supports sweatshops?

Now I’m just getting overwhelmed.

I know that Opinions are often little more than social currency, and it’s better to take one small action for something you believe is right than to amass a complicated belief system. But all this indecision is starting to wreck my heart. In an attempt to be Tolerant, to feel and think through everything from all sides, and more than anything, to try very hard to make everyone like me, I’ve fractured myself.

Conviction. Boldness. Steadfastness. These have never been words that have described me. But I’m getting hungry for them.

So I begin where I should always begin. I open my Bible. I lean in.

appointed

338. Cloves Cobbett

February hasn’t even opened her eyes yet, but it’s warm enough to walk with a light jacket, and the rains are soft and blustery, and something has bloomed in my heart that marks a new season more surely than the daffodils.

Today I walked for the first time in a month without crutches or a boot. I walked further than I’ve ever walked down Alberta (my new home street), even before my injury, past the twinkling clusters of galleries and restaurants and boutiques and toward where the bars turn dark and divey and the smell of weed drifts from the house with bob marley’s face silhouetted on the window. And it was there I saw it–a large, stone church with cathedral-esque turrets and stained glass windows. I’d been there before.

It was St. Andrews, the catholic church I found out of desperation last spring. At 6am after not sleeping all night, I suddenly threw on my coat and jumped on the 72 to Alberta street. I ate oatmeal and drank coffee at some organic cafe, then walked to morning mass. For a couple hours I stood and sat and sang and prayed with everyone else, a human being again. That event is a clear fixed star in the otherwise churning darkness of that time.

And tonight there was a word there at the bottom of the steps to the sanctuary: Appointed.

Two years before I ever met the family I work for, I walked around their neighborhood and imagined what the families who lived there must be like. A year and a half before I moved to Alberta street, I sat there in Salt & Straw talking theology with a friend. And a year ago when I was losing my mind, I found a little bit of sanity at the stone church at the end of the street. There was no real reason for me to have visited any of those places. But somehow or another, I did.

I am not here on accident. And I am not here to bide my time before heading off to my Real Life. I am here on purpose; I am here with a purpose.

I smiled, I turned, I walked away.

life is a sipping drink

322. Citron Citrus 

At a hostel in Seaside, a woman I had never met before asked me to walk with her to the ocean. It would be her first time meeting the Pacific. I was in my pajamas already, but I stuffed my feet into my sneakers and followed her into the night.

I’ll call her Tracy. She had short blond hair cropped to her head and dark eyes that flicked after every noise and watched mine carefully to see if I believed her stories. She had a lot of stories. She used to be in law enforcement. She now runs a house-sitting business. She used to have a family and kids. Now she’d left her life behind to take a train to the sea and write her memoir.

As we walked the bridge across the river, I ran my hand along the cold metal railing, feeling the ropes the crabbers had left knotted there, and Tracy pulled an orange stuffed cat from her backpack. “A week before my cat died I found this in a thrift store. I knew he was dying, and this looked just like him. I take him everywhere with me. It feels less like I lost him.” Her eyes shone with tears for the first time in our conversation, even though she’d been talking about lost lovers, faraway children, estranged friends. She blinked them away and climbed to her feet.

She never stopped talking, not when she took off her shoes to walk barefoot on the cold sand, not when we tilted our faces to the stars, not even when the ocean rushed up around her ankles. “I don’t need anything. I’m complete. I don’t even need a lover, as nice as a companion would be. I’m completely satisfied with my life.” I might have believed her the first time she said it, but I didn’t by the twentieth.

We turned back after half a minute at the water. She and her cat had met the ocean, now she could go to bed.

When we were back at the bunks, she took out some boxed white wine and two collapsible plastic glasses and offered me a drink. I took it gladly, being twenty and still feeling mystical about even cheap alcohol. She tipped back her head and drank the whole glass in one gulp. I heard my mother’s voice in my head, “Wine is a sipping drink.” I nursed mine slowly, obediently.

“I had such a spiritual experience,” she gushed to the other women in the room. I watched them respond to her as if they were indulging a child, smiling encouragingly. She didn’t seem to notice.

I settled back in my bed again, listening to a woman play guitar and sing in french outside my window and the murmur of quiet conversation from the common area. I realized Tracy had drunk the sea like the wine, and the other women knew it. There had been no spiritual experience because she hadn’t stopped talking long enough to have one. Even though she was living a romantic dream, running away to the sea to write, she could only tell the story, she couldn’t live it. She had shut herself off from pain, so she had shut herself off from wonder.

That’s when I realized I had to go home. I had fled to the sea without telling anyone because I thought it would heal me. But here I was, lonely and surrounded with strangers, my heart just as heavy as when I left, my problems still existing despite the miles between us. I couldn’t find what I wanted by running away. I had to go back and feel my pain all the way through. Because when you increase your capacity for pain, you increase your capacity for joy.

But I enjoyed a long morning before I caught a bus back to Portland, eating strawberries slowly, talking about new york with the hostel owner, drifting along the shore, finding a spot in the dunes to write. After all, life is a sipping drink.

irma & the feast of noodles

291. Chenopodium Chebet

Anna and I were in the checkout of the grocery store, buying decadent things like strawberry kefir and organic dark chocolate and ohthecreamiest feta cheese“Oof, I’m tired,” Anna sighed as I swiped my debit card.

“I know, it’s all that pasta,” I laughed. We may or may not have consumed three bowls of noodles between ourselves.

“Just go in the back and stick your finger down your throat,” the cashier, Irma, said as matter-of-factly as if she’d just recommended a glass of water. Anna and I stood frozen, waiting for it to become a joke. It didn’t.

Anna was the first to respond. “Um, I think we’ll just go take a nap.”

“Don’t do that!” Irma cried. “You’ll get fat!”

“Yeah, I’d rather be fat than go down that road,” I said. I was still waiting for her to be kidding, but she said nothing else. We gathered up our bags and left.

Half an hour earlier at Noodles & Company, I’d confessed to Anna that I’d been struggling with my old bulimic thoughts that week. If I hadn’t confessed myself to her, all those thoughts would have still been covered in shame in the darkness of my mind. And Irma’s comments would have struck me like a poison arrow.

Sometimes I forget how important it is to live in the light. God isn’t the only one with a plan for our lives.

We decided to name my eating disordered voice Irma.

breakfast

To eat this strawberry is to taste the sun,
all the warm-growing days of June.
I taste Summer with my whole mouth,
pinking my lips and fingers.

Sometimes eating is the best worship.
A strawberry and a spoon of cream
are my hymnal and piano,
each bite longer than the last.