her price is far above rubies

I was eighteen and living in my first apartment, a tiny one bedroom across from the library in the high desert of eastern Oregon. I’d shoved two mismatched couches into my living room, one stiff white pleather, the other a fluffy grandma floral, and never thought much about decorating beyond that. I had money, but for some reason I never signed up for wifi and lived on a diet of off-brand sandwich cookies and ramen. It had no air conditioning, so all summer I’d wake up sweating, put my pillow in the freezer, take a cold shower, then fall asleep for another couple hours until I’d wake up again, rinse, repeat.

I was in heaven. I was helping a friend open a bakery, teaching ESL, filing papers for a real estate company, waitressing at a thai restaurant, teaching creative writing at the arts center, and developing and running classes at a children’s museum. Adulthood seemed pretty damn great.

One night there was a knock at my door, and I opened it to find my friend’s dad.

“Hi?”

“Hello, Rebekah.” Nobody called me by my full name. “I felt the Lord move me to tell you something.”

I’d met him only once or twice before, his daughter and I were mostly friends of friends. His mouth was a straight line under a flat gaze, the only real shape in his face was the v of his eyebrows always knotted in consternation. He looked like he was born a few generations too late, he wanted to be in the sun baling hay with his sons and coming home to daughters knitting his socks and his wife taking fresh bread out of the oven. In fact, I think he did.

He didn’t ask to come inside, so I didn’t invite him to.

“I only say this because I’m imagining my own daughter in your place. It’s the Lord’s will for you to stay under your father’s covering until you marry. A woman shouldn’t live alone like this.”

I’m pretty sure I smiled too much and said thank you. After he left, I immediately called my best friend to laugh about it — and to reassure myself that what had happened wasn’t normal. But even after I hung up, there was this uncomfortable tightness in my stomach. I knew he had taken something from the Bible too far, but there was still this unsettled question in my heart: what did it mean to be a Godly woman?

**

When I was seventeen, a year or so before my first apartment, I left home to attend New Saint Andrews, a small christian great books college in the middle of Idaho. We had to dress up as a sign of respect, so I was always uncomfortable in the few formal things I owned, mostly badly fitting slacks and blouses that did my curves no favors. Most students had grown up in church together and attended Logos, their K-12 program, so I felt especially out of place.

I was infatuated with one of my professors. He was so deeply read, and he rooted his theology to such alive physical things — food, nature, sex. He saw metaphor as inherent to creation, that the ideas of wisdom and strength were physically folded into the bark and roots of a tree. There was a particularly en-metaphored tree he walked by every morning on the way to work, and he prayed that God would make him like it. That was the way I thought, and I’d never seen it presented in a respectable grown up, least of all a man of spiritual authority.

It was a small school, so sometimes our classes would take place at our professors’ houses. On this particular day we were discussing St. Augustine’s City of God in his study, six or seven of us sat around his table and drank the tea and hot chocolate his wife had prepared. In the two terms I spent there, I never met his wife. Instead I knew her through the pictures framed on the walls, most of her luminously pregnant. She was strikingly beautiful, almost elfin with pale skin and dark features, and she had alive eyes that looked nothing like a docile wife.

The topic of marriage came up, as it often did. I was used to hanging onto his every word, so my heart was open, unprotected, when he said almost as an aside:

“Some women might know she won’t receive as many proposals, so she should keep that in mind when she considers who’s asking.”

It was like he’d thrown a rock at me that I’d caught with my stomach. I saw myself in my cheap black slacks that’s zipper wouldn’t stay closed, and felt my shyness at sharing my voice in class, and knew I was one of those girls.

He had no similar comment for men. They had the power, the magical gift of the proposal that we’d all compete for. What he was saying was: a woman has to get married to be a full woman, so she’d better be content with what she gets.

As an awkward homeschooler with zero dating experience and a secret growing sense of my attraction to women, this felt like a death sentence.

I didn’t know then, but the Augustine I also loved would have agreed with him:

Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image ... But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.

**

Both of these experiences lay outside the Christianity I grew up with. But what’s interesting to me is my response to both situations. I took it, I smiled, I questioned myself.

I’d been taught that the woman I was supposed to be was already decided by theology, the rules I was to live by would be preached to me by pastors and fathers. If the bible truly asked me to cover my hair and be silent in church, I would be expected to do it. I would expect myself to do it. But through arguments about “context,” I was spared.

The line wasn’t “I am a strong, self-sufficient woman, and I deserve equal respect.” It was a man saying, “Well, what I think the bible really meant is…” I was never able to know, completely within myself, that I could wear lipstick and rent my own apartment and never marry a man. I was vulnerable to those kinds of messages because I’d been trained to be.

It’s taken me a long time to unlearn that. I’m still unlearning it. But as I smile less and fight more, I’m slowly defining my womanhood for myself.

Image: Holly Lay

i like watching porn

A few months ago I was at Powell’s, a goliath bookstore that takes up a whole city block here in Portland (it’s half the reason I moved here), and I walked past the young adult LGBT endcap as I have a hundred times before, when I suddenly paused. I realized: I’m allowed to look. I touched a cover with two girls holding hands and almost expected to feel something other than paper — electricity? hellfire? glorious springy rainbows? I read the first couple pages of a few books. It struck me again how … normal? gay stories and experiences are. I thought they’d be salaciously wicked, all salt and fire, but it’s just… more life. I took We Are Okay by Nina LaCour home and read it with cups of tea all night and couldn’t stop crying tears of absolute relief.

Sexual shame is such a powerful tool of control because it works on almost anyone. Most of us have “sinned” sexually according to the limitations of the Bible, and because we in the western world already have a cultural taboo about discussing sex, our shame rots in the dark. Even when you confess your struggle to God and to spiritual mentors or friends, there’s still this feeling that you are especially weak and especially alone in your weakness. And because many of us have consistent sexual appetites (because that’s just how a lot of bodies work), we constantly reinforce our sinfulness to ourselves. I mean, you’re not even allowed to look at someone lustfully. There’s no more effective way to make someone think “I’m a sinner” every day of their lives.

When I was a Christian I thought, “What would I do with all this sin and shame if I couldn’t leave it at the cross?” I felt so much relief every time I got on my knees. I needed Jesus to feel whole and happy and okay. Prayer and worship was like a blood transfusion, it kept me alive. What I didn’t realize was that maybe the thing that was curing me was the same thing that was making me sick.

I hold all this with such a light touch today. Sexual desire isn’t mounting evidence in the case that my life is an epic battle between good and evil, proof that if I don’t pay very close attention, I’ll dissolve into wickedness and pain. It’s just desire. Sometimes I get hungry, so I make myself a sandwich. It’s as simple as that.

So let’s all masturbate! Watch porn! And have sex!

(if you want to)

(there’s also no shame in not wanting sex stuff)

(what you want and don’t want is all okay. let’s keep those things and get rid of shame)

A couple quick asides: Once porn stops being shameful, and you don’t have to sneak it in rushed handfuls in the middle of the night, you have space to seek out content that supports your values. There’s lots of delicious feminist porn out there. If you’re new to considering porn as a good thing, I’d check out pornastherapy.com. Another recommendation: masturbate in front of a mirror! It’s fine, Ilana does it in Broad City. Or buy a new toy! (SheBop is a great local, women-owned sex shop here in pdx). If you’ve ritually shamed yourself under the sheets, masturbating in a different way is a great chance to change the scenery and say: Yep. I’m doing this. 100% in the open. No shame, no hiding, just play. One more link: omgyes.com is a great resource for exploring ways to make a vagina happy, whether you’re learning for yourself or a partner. Lastly: enthusiastic consent! enthusiastic consent! enthusiastic consent!

Image: Cedric Lange

why i left christianity: part two

A few months before my bipolar diagnosis, during an especially wet pacific northwest summer, I got re-baptized.

My first baptism was performed by my father with a batch of my siblings in our neighbor’s hot tub. It was a whole church affair. We’d cleaned our house top to bottom, there were paper plates and potato salad, and I was wearing a new blue dress. I loved when the church looked at me, I loved how they told me I was sweet and good, I loved when my dad congratulated me on representing the family well. He knew who I really was, of course, my home-self who was rebellious and sarcastic and self-obsessed and lazy, but that’s what Jesus was for. So I let him push me underwater and pray for my sins to be forgiven and that I’d learn to walk in obedience.

I wanted to wash that off me.

It was a white, soppy midsummer. Even when the rain stopped, my hair curled the minute I stepped outside. Every morning I walked past little wet, shivery front yards with pale hydrangeas, lupines, rhododendrons struggling to color up under a sky hard and sunless as marble. Every morning I tracked mud across the floor of the bus, every morning I arrived to work with a pink nose and a triangle of frizz around my head.

While my little nanny charge was scribbling through his math homework, I was drinking pots of coffee and reading On the Road and the Beats. They made my blood thirsty. I was shaking all over with the desire to run. I was getting hungry, so hungry. I wanted to shave my head, have kinky sex, smoke weed, stay up all night drinking with strangers. I filled notebooks with all the reasons I had to stay good. There’s Living Water for the mad thirst that comes burning up when I read these books, I wrote, and it’s alive, and it’s real, and it’s already at my lips.

But I wasn’t staying good. In that dizzied half-drunk state, and probably a little manic, I downloaded Tinder to swipe through women. Just to see. Not because I was gay. But there was this girl with lavender hair, and I just wanted to meet her, just for fun, not like a real date, not because I was gay, because I absolutely wasn’t gay.

As I walked the few blocks to the bus on my way to meet her, I began to pray out of habit. I’m sorry, I said. I just can’t fight anymore. I’m so tired. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, it was hard to swallow. Then I felt God nudge my chin to look up. And there, walking toward me, a beautiful lesbian couple held hands as an actual literal rainbow arched behind them. I stared until they gave me weird looks.

God?

I almost felt him smile.

But then I was holding the door open for a woman, and I was looking at her lavender hair, and shame rushed back in. Sweet child soul come back, I wrote that night, desperation rising in my throat. Like a weaned child with its mother, lean against the Spirit. 

The cracks in my good Christian identity were starting to show.

**

A few weeks before my re-baptism, my friend Anna picked me up in her big red Tundra at 3am so we could arrive at the beach in time for the sunrise. She had a dream to burn. Ever since she was a kid she’d dreamed of becoming a police officer, and for over a decade she’d focused her tremendous resources of self-discipline and charisma on that goal. But now she had a new dream, and it was time to let this old one go.

I had this terrible feeling I was going to give up writing.

I wrote my first “book” when I was seven years old as a way to process my grandmother’s death, but I was hooked after the first compliment from a grown up. It became my whole identity. No matter how I was failing in my life, as long as I could write something beautiful, I still mattered. It was a way to be seen, and it was a way to disappear. When I hit flow, it’s like I don’t exist, there’s just the words willing themselves into existence.

Being a Writer felt a lot like standing by that hot tub as my dad dispatched a small sermon. I looked out at all the grown ups smiling at me and felt safe. I was doing the Right Thing, I was good, I was wise, I mattered. I was playing the role that they’d written for me, and I was good at it, so good that I started to believe that was the only way I could exist in the world.

Anna and I walked up the beach and built a fire just as the sun came out of the ocean behind us. We tore out bits of notebook paper to write on. I wrote vague things like “fear” or “pride.” The fire had almost burned to coals when I finally burst out: “I have to give up writing.”

“I know,” she said.

I started to cry. Not from sadness, not at first, but from absolute utter relief.

**

On the morning of my re-baptism, I stood in front of a different church in another new blue dress. But I wasn’t looking at the smiling congregation, I was looking at a row of familiar faces who all loved me to pieces. They’d seen my hurts, and they respected me with them, not despite them. I wasn’t a family flag. I was a person responsible for her own choices, and loved independently of those choices.

Then, in cold trough of water out under the sun — it was hot that day, and dry, and bright — I went underwater, and I came back up.

I wanted my re-baptism to wash away all my doubts about God. I wanted it to heal those widening cracks in my Christian identity. I wanted it to turn me back into the sweet Christian girl who sang songs about Jesus with her eyes closed on Sunday mornings. I wanted to never think about girls again. I wanted my parents to be proud of me. I wanted to know I was doing the Right Thing.

Instead, it was the first step toward letting all those things go.

Image: Tomasz Baranowski

why i left christianity: part one

I feel the loss of God under the left side of my sternum. It’s like a bad breakup, a hundred ordinary things reopen my grief every day. The smell of eucalyptus, like the salve my mom would rub on my chest when I was tiny and sick before reading aloud books about wild-hearted girls who found God across the world. The figs and walnuts that drop to the sidewalks as summer ends in Portland, because I used to walk through my neighborhood talking to God about everything and nothing. Sometimes when I wake up from a late afternoon nap, I see hymns like dust particles in a slant of sunlight. I wasn’t a Christian because it was logical. I was a Christian because I was in love.

Then I got sick. Depression hit the light switch, nothing new to you, nothing new to me. But this time, for the first time, I asked for help.

Maybe I lost God in a doctor’s office. With my sweet friend Anna sitting on a plastic folding chair next to me, I told a doctor things I’d barely confided even to her as he stared at his screen and typed notes about me like: “grooming, hygiene appropriate to the situation” and “slowed psychomotor activity; eyes downcast; gait normal.” Reading the notes later, I wondered how a depressed person should walk. He diagnosed me with depression, prescribed me Lexapro, and shook my hand goodbye. 

A few pills into that first bottle, my head was suddenly violently clear. My calling hit me like a bolt of lighting. I was going to be a circus performer.

Portland being Portland, I had plenty of circus gyms to choose from. I spent all my time and money beating my body against aerial silks, lyra hoops, and trapeze. My dreams were full of spinning circus tops and applause, and my thoughts spun faster and faster and faster until the friction caught me on fire. My skin was burning, it was about to bubble and peel and I’d rake it off with my fingernails. 

It turns out that if you give antidepressants to a person with bipolar, they go manic.

Sitting across from another typing doctor, I realized I’d felt that all-consuming intensity many times before. Mania, not God, had led me to abandon academic ship and enroll into a non-accredited christian college in the middle of Idaho, where I studied latin and dusty old tomes with only a handful of other students, and where I took a little too long to realize I’d landed in the middle of a cult. Mania, not God, had turned in my two week notices and bought me a one way ticket to NYC where I volunteered some for Cru but mostly just walked and walked and walked until the only shoes I’d brought wore down to the sole. Mania, not God, rode the bus with me to the International Hostel at Seaside where I stayed who knows how long wearing clothes from the lost & found and eating stale bags of chips other travelers had left behind. It made the trees talk, the sky weep prophecies, the streets shake with visions. Mania. Not God.

Driving home from that doctor’s appointment, bipolar written in red on my forehead, I wondered that if my brain had invented all that, what else could it have made up?

I didn’t immediately dismiss my relationship with God. I still had other people’s stories of their spiritual experiences. The task before me was to separate the real God from the electric illness crackling through my synapses.

So I prayed. “God, I can’t distinguish your voice from mine right now, but I want to hear you. Please speak to me in a way that I can understand.” I stopped leaning into our conversations, letting my brain autofill his responses. I repented of my imagination. I expected the real God to show up. I trusted He would. I had faith that He would.

In the songs I wrote over the year or so of unmaking my faith, the same lines came up over and over again:

Don’t you want me?

Why haven’t you come for me?

There was nothing for me to do but wait.

(continued in part two)

Images: 1 (Guttorm Flatabø), 2.