Saint Samantha

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We didn't have HBO growing up, but when by the time I started attending Christian university, Sex and the City reruns were playing on basic cable, albeit heavily edited. My roommates and I would occasionally gather to watch it, me with a certain feeling of nervousness. While our Evangelical culture told us "modest is hottest" and "true love waits" and that even the most innocuous things (hammocks, slow dancing, pajama pants) could lead to impurity and ruination, Sex and the City was shocking. These four women seemed to be happy, although I secretly suspected they were wrong. Surely happiness came from being a wife, mother, and good Christian?

Most of them seemed redeemable (particularly Charlotte) but Samantha was beyond help. She was brazen in her desires, slept around without shame. In one iconic episode, she breaks up with a guy by telling him: "I love you. But I love me more."

And that is what was so transgressive and fascinating about Samantha. She was the antidote to the image of the martyred wife/mother that seemed to be held up as the Evangelical ideal. She loved herself the most. Samantha never had children, but if she did, I imagine her being the type of mom who wouldn't feel guilty about parking her kids with the ipad so she could work out. She wouldn't feel compelled to sacrifice her identity in order to be a mom. 

Last week I had my tarot cards read for an upcoming Fundamentally Free post. The tarot card reader talked a lot to me about boundaries (something I'm also working on in my support group). She said to me, "Relationships require compromise, but not sacrifice. Do you know the difference?" I nodded, but she kept pressing me, "Do you? Do you?" While I don't believe in the magic of tarot (spoiler alert) I do think it's something worth considering. How we draw these boundaries matters. After all, Jesus commanded us to "love our neighbors as ourselves" not more than, not less than, but equally.

That is a surprisingly difficult line to walk. But maybe I need a little less Mother Theresa and a little more Samantha.

Jesus & Perfectionism

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Christians have come up with a variety of ways to discount the things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. I've heard sermons that talk about how Jesus' words were not actual commands but rather an illustration of how human beings could never measure up, and therefore are in need of grace. (Maybe that's true, how are we supposed to know? Jesus didn't offer additional explanation.) Don't get me wrong, there are parts of the Sermon on the Mount that are really beautiful and amazing (I'm looking at you, Beatitudes) but, if you take Jesus' words at face value (as we were taught to do as Evangelicals) then there are a lot of problems.

In this sermon, Jesus equates being angry with someone with murder (Matt 5:22), lust with the act of adultery (Matt 5:28), advises people to self-mutilate rather than sin (5:29-30), advises us to turn the other cheek, without asterisk for abusive situations (5:39), and sums up this whole series by commanding us to be as perfect as God is.

Perhaps the well-adjusted among us can read this chapter and ignore the parts they find unrealistic and simply get on with their lives, but this command to "be perfect" was a huge problem for me. I am a perfectionist, and here in the Bible, was justification for it.

Perfectionism is one of those quirks that tends to get laughed at, or even secretly admired, by those not afflicted with it. But, I've learned in the past year what perfectionism really is: a dysfunctional behavior that is the result of intense anxiety. Perfectionism is the driving fear that if something is not perfect, there will be trouble. It's the belief that if I can just control everything, make everything just right, then I won't get in to trouble and people will like me. It goes hand-in-hand with people-pleasing and being controlling. While others may look on in admiration at the amount of things I'm able to accomplish, how clean my house is, how much I read, or do x, y, or z, I know that this is an unhealthy behavior that doesn't lead to happiness.

I'm working now on letting go of control. It's very scary. A friend of mine who also struggles with perfectionism has started a new ritual. Each day she aims to make one mistake, and when she does it, she announces it, and her family have to applaud her. I thought this was silly, until the other week at breakfast, I spilled Cheerios all over the floor and was huffing and puffing in irritation. My three-year-old son looked at me sweeping and muttering and said, "Mommy, you made a mistake."

He said it without judgment, just as an observation. And then I realized that I need to treat myself the way I treat my kids. I need to allow myself to make mistakes, even applaud them. Maybe that's not Biblical, but it certainly feels healthier.

The Church of Daniel Tiger

the pieta

the pieta

As the parent of two small kids, I watch a lot of cartoons. Most of them are terrible, but some of them are truly great. Daniel Tiger, a PBS show for preschoolers, teaches children (and parents) emotional intelligence through a series of bizarrely auto-tuned yet irresistibly catchy jingles.

It was one such jingle that prompted me to rethink the Christian doctrine of sin.

Sin is a complex and depressing topic. In the Evangelicalism I was raised in, sin is of the utmost importance. ALL people sin, and therefore "fall short of the glory of God." We have "sinful natures" that we cannot overcome no matter how hard we try. The idea is that God created us to have free will, but once Eve ate the forbidden fruit, our natures became sinful. Not only do we sin constantly, but sin is defined in ever-increasing ways as the Bible progresses. Jesus tells us that even thinking about adultery or murder is sin. Christian doctrine draws on the gospels and epistles to say that all sins are equal before God. Telling a lie is as bad as committing mass murder. We are "slaves to sin" and the only solution is the Atonement of Christ.

This bothers me. I disagree that all sins are equal. And it seems to me that "sin" is not a bug, but a feature of humanity. Babies care only for themselves. But hopefully, as they grow into children and then adults they learn to put the needs of others as at least equal to their own. But how can you learn this without ever messing it up?

Which is why I prefer the doctrine of Daniel Tiger to the Bible here. Thus spake the Tiger:

It's OK to make mistakes
Try to fix them
And learn from them, too

The tiger offers no shame. The tiger doesn't threaten us with eternal damnation. The tiger requires no bloody sacrifice to blot out the mistake. The tiger acknowledges the mistake and tries to go forth and do better. Instead of the Bible's all-or-nothing, perfectionist thinking, the Tiger offers us nuance and space to mess up.

This is the big problem with the Bible, or at least how we most of us were taught to interpret it. Two thousand years ago it was truly progressive (parts of it still are). But many parts of that book no longer are. We don't stone adulteresses, that's good. But many churches still ostracize divorced people even though our entire model for marriage AND our concept of women's rights have changed radically in the last 2,000 years. So instead of pulling us forward, the Bible holds us back. We try to apply first-century rules to modern life and continually butt up against science, reason, and empathy. 

I don't know what the solution is, if there's a way to sift through the scripture and retain the useful while disregarding the parts that are bizarre and barbaric. But I do know that Daniel Tiger has never let me down! At this point in my faith deconstruction, I feel a bit like Gretchen on the first episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, when she escapes the bunker and then thinks Matt Lauer of The Today Show is her new cult leader, "I go with you now, yes? I'm married to you?" It's strange to walk away from an institution that has been your home for your entire life.

So, what say you, loyal readers? Do we start our own Tiger-based cult? Ideas? Locations?

The Gospel According to Hedwig

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The first time I saw the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I thought I would probably be sick. It was the early 2000s and I was an uptight Evangelical teen. I had never heard the words transgender or genderqueer. Hedwig's graphic talk of sex acts and the gory description of how a "sex-change operation got botched" was scary and probably evil, I feared. But there was something else, there. Hedwig was a compelling character, part philosopher and part diva-off-her rocker. She was the opposite of everything I was raised to believe was good and right, and I couldn't stop thinking about her.

That was many years ago. I've changed a lot since then. I've had the opportunity to see the movie and the stage production several times. Watching the film as an Evangelical teen, all I could think about were the sexual aspects. Looking at the film now, as an #exvangelical, is how intertwined Hedwig's story is with the gospel.

At first glance, Hedwig seems much more concerned with Platonic philosophy, particularly The Myth of Aristophenes, wherein Plato describes the origin of love. But there's a certain amount of Evangelical theology hidden there. One of awkward teenage Tommy Gnosis' first questions to Hedwig is whether she'd accepted Jesus into her heart. 

But the central theme of the show is power and its use, as discussed in the following scene:

HEDWIG: Jesus said the darndest things!
HEDWIG'S MOTHER: Don't you ever mention that name to me again.
HEDWIG: but He died for our sins.
MOTHER: so did Hitler
HEDWIG: huh?
MOTHER: absolute power corrupts
HEDWIG: absolutely
MOTHER: better to be powerless, my son.

The theme that is repeated throughout the play is that those in power hurt those without power. Those who are abused pass on their pain to others. Hedwig's parents hurt her, Luther hurts her, Tommy Gnosis hurts her, and so she abuses her bandmates and her spouse, Yitzhak. Hedwig's mother posits that it is better to be powerless, to be the one absorbing the pain than the one inflicting it. 

This is an idea taken up by rebel theologian Rob Bell. He posits that the power of the crucifixion is that rather than passing on the pain inflicted upon him, the all-powerful Jesus absorbed it. Jesus was stronger than those who killed him because he chose to absorb the violence and turn it into redemption and forgiveness. Forgiving people is infinitely harder than getting revenge or passing on abuse to those weaker than us.

Hedwig is a deeply flawed character, but she's also lovable and compelling. We care about her because she undergoes a transformation, from hostile, revenge-focused, toward forgiveness. The climax of the play comes in an intense, crucifixion-like moment, when we see Hedwig stripping off her wig and costume, transforming herself before our eyes into Tommy Gnosis, her former love and the object of her ire. Hedwig/Tommy performs a reprise of "Wicked Little Town" (a song Hedwig used to help Tommy transcend his small-town imprisonment).

But this time, Tommy sings

"Forgive me for I did not know
I was just a boy, you were so much more
Than any god could ever plan
More than a woman, or a man
And now I understand
How much I took from you
That when everything starts breaking down
You take the pieces off the ground
And show this wicked town
Something beautiful and new

The play feels ambiguous at this point. Is the actor now playing Tommy, offering a real apology? Or is it Hedwig pretending to be Tommy, imagining what she'd want him to say to her? Did she have the answer to her own problems all along? Does an imagined apology work as well as the real thing? 

Either way, Hedwig's next action is to pass her wig on to Yitzhak, a symbolic moment that shows her sharing her power rather than using it to abuse any longer. She gives up her power, fading into the background. Is it better to be powerless?

Trolling Myself

look into these dead ceramic eyes and know that you are mortal.

look into these dead ceramic eyes and know that you are mortal.

One of the hardest things about improving your mental health is recognizing the way you talk to yourself. It's so much background noise that it's hard to hear it. Why do we do the things we do? What are the hidden beliefs that motivate our behavior? This shit is hard to figure out. 

After my first son was born, something wasn't right. I was incredibly anxious, worried that something terrible would happen to him or that someone would take him away from me. Unbidden, horrific images came to mind; I imagined myself intentionally or unintentionally hurting him. I thought that these thoughts were a sign that I wanted to hurt him. I kept them private because I was ashamed. When I finally went to counseling a year after his birth and confessed all to a therapist, she told me that actually this wasn't the case. What I was describing was a classic symptom of OCD. These images were a manifestation of my anxious feelings. 

What I learned in therapy is to listen to my thoughts and to separate myself from them. It's still challenging, but I work on it by journaling, saying affirmations (even though they sounds stupid), and trying to re-frame ways of thinking these things. One thing I noticed: my insecurities sound less intimidating coming from someone else. If someone else was half as mean to me as I am to myself, I'd tell them to fuck right off. Which is why I gave a ceramic fairy figurine her own Twitter account.

I think someone gave this fairy to me for a birthday one year? My mother recently evicted it from her china cabinet, and I thought about tossing it, but instead I made her an evil fairy who torments me about my writing. I try to remember my negative self-talk around writing and have the fairy troll me. Then I can tell her to burn in hell. I can separate myself from this negative self-talk and not let it define me.

Blubel can troll you, too, if you're on Twitter. @blubelnanofairy

Here's a great Invisibilia podcast about OCD: https://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/375927143/the-secret-history-of-thoughts

And here's a By the Book podcast about self-talk: https://player.fm/series/by-the-book/what-to-say-when-you-talk-to-yourself

#amreading "Educated" and my Year to Date So Far

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I have a bit of a problem when it comes to Peak Picks. Peak Picks is a new-ish program of the Seattle Public Library. They take several copies of the hottest new books and stash them at random libraries all over town. You can look online and see where they are, but YOU CANNOT PUT THEM ON HOLD. Moreover, you CANNOT RENEW THEM. They are 2-week check outs only. This beautiful, terrible program turns bookworms into addicts. A friend of mine drove across town twice to get a copy of Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere only to find it was gone by the time she arrived. 

So when I was in the Central Library 2 weeks ago and saw Educated, I knew it was now or maybe never. I grabbed it, hoping I could finish it and my other library books before the two weeks were up. It was no problem. This book is phenomenal. It's everything you want from a memoir: Westover doesn't hold back. She doesn't sugarcoat her past. She reaches back through the past and channels the feelings of being a girl trapped in an abusive, fundamentalist home. She translates the indescribable feelings of a mental breakdown into something lucid and understandable. Her story itself, that of a Mormon fundamentalist girl who was never allowed to go to school and somehow managed to earn a PhD from Cambridge, is astonishing, but it's how she tells it that really sets it apart.

Westover's most difficult feat is perhaps how she portrays a family in denial. Denial is a funny place to be, because when you're in it, you never realize it. To the reader, as to an outsider, Westover's father is clearly mentally ill. But Westover illustrates how she could be raised under this man's thumb and never be sure that anything was wrong. That's the nature of denial: you'd sooner question your own sanity than the words of your abuser. This is what so many people get wrong about abuse and manipulation. They scold people who stay in relationships with abusers or addicts, never realizing how that ecosystem looks completely different to those inside it.

There were many quotations in this book that I would've underlined if it hadn't been from the library, but my favorite was this:

Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father and to use those truths to construct my own mind.

I think a lot of us coming out of Evangelicalism can relate.

In other #amreading news, here's my year to date thus far:

BOOKS I LOVED:
The Disaster Artist
The Artist's Way
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud
God: A Human History
The Bell Jar
Little Fires Everywhere

DECENT BOOKS:
Love & Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning
What is the Bible?
Healing Spiritual Wounds
The Very Worst Missionary

What are you reading? Have you read Educated yet? Why not? 

Is It All in My Head?

"that's what  I  was saying! So glad I'm not the only one who thinks so."

"that's what I was saying! So glad I'm not the only one who thinks so."

One of the tenets that simultaneously baffled and comforted me in Evangelical Christianity was the idea that the Holy Spirit talks to people. Usually not audibly, but somehow you would feel an impulse and know that it was God communicating to you, helping you know which decision to make. I've experienced this! It's led me to make really good decisions, decisions I look back on and think, "Wow, God was really looking out for me." And it's also led me to make terrible decisions, ones that make me scratch my head and think that I must not have heard God right after all, because, of course, God is always looking out for me, right? (RIGHT?)

When I was a teenager I was certain God was calling me to be an actress. Reading scripts, I knew intuitively how words were meant. I easily entered into stories and understood the motivation of the characters involved. I had loved being onstage since my first role in a church play at age 5. (I played Jezebel) When I was onstage, everyone listened to me.

The trouble was, I wasn't very good at it. I was...OK, but in a profession where only 10% of people doing it actually make a living at it, OK was not enough. Even my personal brand of superhuman perseverance and German work ethic could not make me a spectacular actress. My failure in my chosen field hurt worse because I had thrown everything I had into it. There was no backup plan, because I was certain that if God called me to do this, He would surely provide a way for me to do it.

This weekend I started reading The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever (which is a great read BTW) and I've reached the part where Jamie arrives in a Costa Rican Spanish language school and she's surrounded by rando missionaries. How do you get to become a missionary? You just decide that God has called you to do this. And that's a problem, because a lot of those people should've really been doing something else. Anything else. 

It's probably a problem we can chalk up to the Reformation. We now believe we all have a direct line to God and that God's going to tell us all these things. And we're wrong A LOT. But people rarely question these things, because we expect God to work miracles. And a lot of the time, that just does not happen.

It's likely enough that these instances of "God" speaking to people can be chalked up to things like confirmation bias. When you hear a similar message from several different sources, it can feel like synchronicity. So we could dismiss this phenomena entirely. But I don't.

I want to believe that there is a benign force of good in the universe that can help steer us toward a more just society. I want to believe in a loving God who looks out for all my stupid, insignificant problems and everyone's problems, big or small. I think, most of the time, this is harmless and perhaps even hope-giving. But I also think that taking these "whispers" or intuitions and running wild with them can lead to some pretty bad outcomes. Perhaps what we need most is to temper all this with humility and the knowledge that we could be wrong.

How I Wrote a Novel While Being a Full-Time Mom

haha, it's cool, I'll just get this baby to write my book, no problem.

haha, it's cool, I'll just get this baby to write my book, no problem.

When I got pregnant, I felt like my brain turned into mush. It actually got worse when my son was born because not only was I mush-brained, I was also a sleep-deprived zombie. But slowly and surely, I got my brain back. I started writing my novel, Manly Man of God, when my oldest was 3 1/2 and my youngest had just turned one. If you have young kids, writing or doing some other form of creative expression is often the last thing on your mind. Still, if the urge is there, you can make it happen. Here's some tips I've figured out along the way:

1. Accept that it is impossible to write and supervise children at the same time. If your children are old enough to ignore for a while that might work, otherwise you will need to find time away.

2. Recognize the difference between investments and costs. This is a great tip from Being Boss podcast: if you look at the costs of preschool, or grocery delivery, or whatever else it takes for you to have time to write as costs, writing does not make financial sense. It takes time to build up your skill set and your contacts. Your first month as a writer doesn't come with a magical paycheck that covers all these costs. Instead, realize that these expenses are actually an investment in your future as a writer. Of course, your ability to spend money on your writing habit will vary. If preschool is too expensive, can you arrange a babysitting exchange with another full-time parent?

3. Pick three things you are currently doing well & decide to do them terribly or not at all. It is impossible to give 100% to watching your kids, running a house, taking care of yourself, and producing art. Something has to go. For me it was exercise, vacuuming, and playing Legos with my kids. Some writer-parents forego sleep, personally I would not recommend it.

4. Seize the moment.  Any time you have ten minutes or more free can be writing time. Ignore the dishes, ignore the fact that you haven't showered, sit your butt on your chair, open your document, and Just. Start. Writing. BONUS: once you get enough practice, writing anywhere, under any circumstances, will become your SUPERPOWER. Non-parent writers will weep with envy. 

5. Write garbage. Just like Anne Lamott says, it doesn't matter if it's terrible, just get started. You can fix it later. 

6. Get some support! Parenthood is isolating and so is the writer's life. Don't go it alone! Joining a writer's group (in person, online, or both) will make you a better writer and a saner human. Listening to writing podcasts (such as the excellent #amwriting or Magic Lessons) can bolster your spirits and give you great tips on how to do this thing. Check out all the great writing hashtags on Twitter.

7. Look into the mirror and say to yourself, "I am a writer." Now say it to a stranger on the bus. Now say it to two strangers at a cocktail party. Now yell it at your family while closing the door to your office/closet! 

8. Ignore timelines. Some authors can write a book in a year, others take a decade. While some writers find daily (or weekly) word count goals helpful, for others it doesn't work. Cut yourself slack. Any progress is good progress.

Do you have a dream writing project? I'd love to hear about it! Post your wishes in the comment below and perhaps BluBell, the Evil NaNoWriMo Fairy will sprinkle magic dust on them.

A Cool Girl's Guide to Depression

so depressed, but at least my hair is freshly washed 

so depressed, but at least my hair is freshly washed 

  • look out of windows. Sigh periodically.
  • stop eating. You've lost all will to eat, or maybe you're just so depressed that you forget. Soon your outside will be as frail as your mental state.
  • smoke
  • take a lot of baths
  • pepper your speech with French words like ennui or raison d'etre
  • wear black, preferably a black sweater with no bra
  • be mysterious. Telegraph your depression without illuminating anyone to the specifics or causes.
  • listen to very cool music, preferably on vinyl
  • drink too much, but never vomit
  • continue to be the subject of the male gaze

I Bought a Ukulele Because I Don't Know Who I Am Anymore

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My ukulele arrived yesterday.

It was scary. What if it was hard to play? What if I was terrible at it? What if it was a huge waste of money? What if I only played it 2 weeks and then gave up on it? Won't I look silly? When written down, these fears seem overblown, but they did bounce around in my head for a few weeks. It was only $35. It takes up almost no space.

The uke was, itself, a compromise. A few months ago after I began reading The Artist's Way, I  became inspired and tried to convince my husband, Ryan, that we should buy a piano. I took piano lessons sporadically as a child and decided that I needed music in my life again. But pianos (even free ones) are very expensive, and they take up a lot of space. So, after thinking about this for awhile, I finally decided that the ukulele was a reasonable compromise.

The ukulele is a silly-looking instrument, which is, perhaps, appropriate. I feel a bit silly deciding to take this up. It certainly doesn't feel as important an instrument as the guitar, violin, or piano.

When I was in third grade, one of my favorite songs was a Wynonna Judd anthem called, "Girls With Guitars." It was about what you think it was about. One of the chorus lyrics is "Girls with guitars, what's the world coming to?" I sometimes imagined myself as the titular girl with guitar, but never picked up the instrument. I didn't realize it at the time, but even as an eight-year-old I had absorbed strict gender roles, and guitars didn't figure into my picture of being a desirable woman.

I became a stay-at-home mom almost without thinking about it. My mom stayed home, my mother-in-law stayed home. The Evangelical Church that I was raised in placed motherhood as a woman's highest calling. As a kid I may have briefly dreamed of being a teacher or a ballerina, but in the end, I knew my main job in life was to be a wife and mother. Even though I was smart, hardworking, and privileged, I never imagined that I could be anything I wanted to be. I never tried to become anything like a doctor or a lawyer; I had, perhaps, heard too many warnings about women who "tried to have it all."

Ryan and I were talking the other night about the ages at which we gave up. When I was 5 or 6, I quit doing the monkey bars. I wasn't as fast or strong as the other kids, and I didn't want to look silly. It was the same for Ryan and drawing. Isn't it sad how early we learn to limit ourselves?

There seems to be this idea that we need to hurry and grow up, become adults, figure out who we are and then set it in stone. Figure out who you are, THEN get the career, the house, the husband, the kids. Then, stay the same until you die.

I don't want to be stuck. I don't want to limit myself. Which is, I guess, why I'm a 33-year-old mother of two who just bought a ukulele. I want to play it, even if I totally suck. I want to try it, even knowing I might get bored and stick it on top of a precarious pile of sheets on the top shelf of my closet and forget about it for the next two years. I want to occasionally ignore my children while I practice chords. I want to drive my family crazy sometimes with my terrible playing. I want an instrument all to myself, with no one else's sticky fingerprints on it and no mansplaining about how to tune it properly. I want something for myself. A ukulele of one's own.