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Doxology

On Sunday morning,
the dusty organ tune
gradually modulates
from the offering hymn,
accompaniment of sacrifice,
as dry hands place freshly sealed envelopes
into cold gold plates lined with velvet,
to the doxology,
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
We all stand and the pews creak with our shifting weight
to acknowledge the holiness of our gifts.
As I harmonize the Amen, Plagal cadence,
the organist’s skillful transformation
of D flat to G major
whispers
that I, too, can
modulate from
anything
to praise.

He Doesn’t Hit You But…

*tw: emotional abuse*

EDIT: The image for this post features a man of color and a white woman.  This image in no way indicates a correlation between abuse and race.  The featured image was chosen for other reasons by the author and should not be taken to imply that men of color are more likely to abuse their partners.

Several years ago, a popular hashtag cropped up that provided a space for people who had endured abusive relationships to share about their experiences.  Survivors of emotional and verbal abuse, primarily women, took to Twitter to increase visibility for the types of abuse they had endured.  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut his words create bruises just as punches would.”  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut treats you like property.”  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut he uses breaking up with you as a constant threat.”

At the time, I didn’t say much about it, but I sat back and watched friends and strangers validate my own experiences.  It was through this hashtag that I realized the truth of things I had experienced.

In the beginning, he was charming.  I was young and still figuring out who I was.  I was blown away by the fact that a boy I had just met was interested in me.  I was pretty dorky in high school and was still growing accustomed to the fact that men might pay attention to me.  I was naive and had unrealistic expectations of what romance should look like.  We fell in love over a summer, and it wasn’t until we entered our first few months of long distance that things started to shift.

I would call him and he wouldn’t answer.  While I knew I couldn’t expect him to be available every time I called, I would sometimes go three or four days without a call or text from him.  I would start to get worried and would contact one of his friends or roommates in a desperate attempt to make sure he was okay.  They were never very helpful, and eventually he would reach back out to me.  He would give some sort of flimsy excuse about why he had been off the grid, and I would blindly accept his explanation.  I wanted him to think I was “chill” and not clingy, and grilling him on where he had been seemed like a definitive way to drive him away.  He would disappear like this intermittently during our first year of long distance.  Eventually, it stopped.  Even after years of being with him, though, I never got a clear answer on his disappearances.

His flightiness was only the beginning.  Eventually, he tried to control what I wore and who I spent time with.  I wasn’t allowed to wear leggings or yoga pants outside my house because other men might look at me.  If he saw a picture of me in work out pants on Facebook, he would call me and question me about whether I had worn them outside the house and why.  I wasn’t allowed to wear too much make up.  Sometimes, I wasn’t allowed to wear any make up.  I initially thought this was romantic.  I thought it was evidence that he thought I was naturally beautiful, and maybe that was true, but controlling what I put on my body was not the proper way to show me.

Arguing with him was impossible.  Sometimes I would bring up things that were bothering me about him or about our relationship.  He would always claim I was making it up or exaggerating.  He would say I was attacking him and turn my concern back onto me, claiming I was the one who was flawed.  We would never resolve the initial things I brought up and I would leave the conversation feeling like a terrible girlfriend.  There were times when these arguments would get heated.  I’m not an aggressive or angry person.  I very rarely yell or snap at people, but with him, I did.  Often over the phone, we would yell and I would hang up with him and throw my phone across the room in exasperation.

Things continued to worsen when I moved to a different city.  I made new friends that he had never met and that concerned him.  Any time I claimed to be alone studying with a male friend, he would be noticeably suspicious or even blatantly angry.  I wanted to spend time with the new friends I was making, but if I told him I wanted to get together with friends instead of visiting him, he would always get angry or at least annoyed.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this relationship was that he cut me off from my family.  My parents never liked him, which, obviously, as an 18 year old, made me even more defiant.  However, he gradually convinced me that my parents weren’t the people I thought they were.  By the end of the relationship there was a noticeable distance between my parents and myself.  He had convinced me, over a period of years, to be completely on his side, mistrusting my family.  He manipulated me into believing that he knew what was best for me better than my parents did, so I trusted the things that he told me about them.  It was a vicious cycle.

He was never physically violent with me, and I’m grateful for that.  There were times when I worried about it, especially when he got angry.  Still, I know that plenty of people experience violence and abuse in relationships much more severe that what I catalog here.  But if you’ve experienced this sort of gaslighting and manipulation, I want you to know that you’re not alone.  If you are reading this and wondering about the state of your own relationship, don’t hesitate to reach out to me or someone you trust.  Because this isn’t just about me.  It’s about equipping others to leave unhealthy relationships, and healing in the aftermath. It’s about recognizing the signs before it’s too late. It’s about teaching (not exclusively but especially) our men deeper empathy and compassion.  Even the strongest among us can be emotionally abused, and the first step toward stopping it is realizing that it’s happening.

why did you stay?

why did you stay?

He grabbed
my waist
and told me
he liked my lip ring,
and then kissed it.

I said,
“no, please,
just come lay with me.”
I wore a white comforter,
and we held hands
on the couch
at 6:30
on a Sunday morning.

A train when by
the window
and he ordered me
around the bedroom
in a way that
I mistook for
romance.

He left
granola out on the table
for me,
and honey.
“You’ve overcome
so much,”
he said.

He held
me in his lap
and I touched
his sweaty neck
while he exhaled
and told me his secrets.

He told me
my writing
reminded him of
a certain British philosopher.

I misunderstood,
“I know we
should
let this go, but I
still
want to kiss
you.”

I saw a
pink hair tie
on his nightstand
but
excused it for
a rubberband.

The man before him
told me that I couldn’t
wear tight pants
or make up
because other men
would look at me,
so this kind of violence
seemed more romantic.

I am used to
lies,
and his, at least, came with
honey on his hands when
he held me down,
sticky sweetness on his lips when
he said,

“No wonder this is so hard for you.”

We Need Holy Saturday

Good Friday makes us uncomfortable.  The blood and the gore of the crucifixion makes us sick.  The guilt that all of this had to happen because of our own terrible actions in this world is almost too much.  And it is for these reasons that we must sit in this space known as Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

Most of us skip straight on through from Palm Sunday to Easter morning.  Those are the fun parts, the happy parts.  We listen to children sing and wave branches and sing Hallelujah.  But these two bookends of Holy Week mean significantly less without what happens in between.  If we consider the rest of Holy Week, Palm Sunday suddenly becomes a little more bittersweet.  While the people rejoice and make a beautiful gesture to Christ by laying down coats and branches, one that had been done before in their history to greet kings, Jesus knew what was coming.  He knew that because of these actions, he was seen as a threat to be exterminated by the Roman government.  He likely knew he was in danger by entering Jerusalem.  He knew the time was coming.  Yet, the people rejoiced and exalted him.

When Thursday comes, we remember the power of Eucharist.  These were the final moments of peace Jesus would have before the excruciating events leading up to his death.  For his disciples, it may have been just another Passover at first.  But then Jesus did some strange things.  He washed their feet.  He told them the bread was more than bread and the wine more than wine.  He tried his best to get the message through to them in these last moments they had together.  Not only was Maundy Thursday the last moments Jesus spent with those who loved him before his death, but it’s also Jesus’ final demonstration of what this whole thing has really been about.  He shows them humility.  He tells them that his body is a sacrifice.  He models the vulnerability of ministry.  And they still don’t quite get it.  But they will.

Then Friday comes.  So many of us don’t participate in Good Friday, especially compared to the droves of people who show up on Sunday.  Maybe it’s because we’re too busy or because we don’t see the point.  But there is no Easter without this terrible day.  If we cannot force ourselves to sit in the sadness and the pain of Friday, what good is Sunday?  If Christ is not dead, how can we celebrate him being alive?  We have to allow ourselves to experience the death to experience the resurrection.  In my tradition, we strip the sanctuary.  We read the painful Passion story and watch as candles get blown out and the adornments of the sanctuary are removed.  The crosses are hidden by black cloth.  There is nothing to celebrate.  Jesus is dead.  All is lost. It is painful.  I feel the weight of it in my chest.  Now, of course, we know what is coming.  But the disciples didn’t know.  They thought it was over.  When Christ declared, “it is finished,” it really was finished for them.  This man they had followed and given their lives to, who had shown them the face of God, was gone.  There is no victory in this day.  There is no hope.

Yesterday, on Good Friday, as I left the sanctuary of my church in silence, I was struck by the silence of all those around me.  We left the sanctuary without a sound and carried the reverence through the hallways of the church, only daring to speak once we had entered the parking lot.  The holiness of the pain and suffering we held space for was staggering.  The weight of Good Friday sunk in during these moments.  I was grateful to worship a God who understand my pain.

Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps my favorite liturgical day of the year.  That may seem like a strange statement, but the waiting of Holy Saturday sits true in my life.  In Saturday, there is tension.  Saturday is the day when the disciples began to process what had happened.  The tragedy was over.  The body was buried.  It was a day of sitting around and wondering, “what do we do now?”  It is a day of sitting in darkness.  In the words of Thomas Merton, “when the time comes to enter the darkness in which we are naked and helpless and alone; in which we see the insufficiency of our greatest strength and the hollowness of our strongest virtues; in which we have nothing of our own to rely on, and nothing in our nature to support us, and nothing in the world to guide us or give us light – then we find out whether or not we live by faith.”  It’s in the hours of Holy Saturday that we realize our weakness.  Human power cannot bring Christ back from the grave.  No amount of wailing or pleading done by the disciples could resurrect him.  They must have sat around together, confused, crying, defeated, as anyone does after a tragedy.  I imagine them sitting in a house all together.  No one knows what to say because the pain is too great.  They know they have to follow Christ’s instructions to continue to spread his message of hope, but things do not feel hopeful.  They feel broken and they only have each other.  Life feels like this sometimes.  In fact, for a lot of us, we often feel broken more than we feel resurrected.  And the feeling of Holy Saturday affirms that for me.  We have a God who knows suffering.  It’s ok for us to feel broken and lost and confused.  In fact, to fully open ourselves to these two days of mourning means that, when Sunday comes, we may rejoice more fully.

Right now there is pain.  But resurrection will come.  Be here in this pain, with me, with the disciples, and with Christ, but know that it won’t last forever.

Learning to Love my Body

First, I think it is important to acknowledge that I come to this conversation with privilege.  I am white.  Black bodies face so many more challenges than I will ever face, and I acknowledge that.  Women of color are treated as though their features are aberrations from the white “norm.”  People who are differently abled face many challenges that I will never experience.  Trans people struggle with the dissonance of the bodies they were born in and their internal identity.  I do not claim to understand these experiences and I do not claim that my experiences speak for all of us.  I can only speak from what I know, and this is my story:

I remember the first time that I looked in the mirror and hated what I saw.  I was a junior in high school.  A cross country runner.  The child of a health-food family – no junk food, no candy, no red meat, always low-fat.  I grew up knowing that health was important.  I was always involved in sports – soccer, ballet, running.  So, at the age of 16, after devouring the photos in a fashion magazine one after another, I suddenly realized that the choices I had made for my body weren’t enough.  The daily exercise, the vegetables – these things had not turned me into a fashion model, and I could not understand why.  I stood in my bathroom, pulling at my stomach and thighs.  I remember holding the magazines in my hands and crying for hours, until I resolved to do something about it.  And for the next several years of my life, I forced myself into disordered eating habits and dieting.

The worst of this happened in the spring of my junior year of high school.  I didn’t run track that spring, so the effects of my disorder didn’t show up quite as aggressively to others as they might have if I had been running on the track team.  But I was miserable.  I hated myself, and I hated everyone else.  Every day was a game.  Food was the enemy and I was there to conquer it.  Thankfully, I emerged from that year healthier.  Gradually, I ate more but still regimented myself to particular eating habits: no dessert, no snacks, no sugar, as few carbs as possible.  I felt best about myself when I ate mainly fruits and vegetables.  So, while I was doing better externally, I still couldn’t escape from the terrible internal relationship I had developed with food.

I don’t want to blame my negative relationship with my body entirely on the pictures in Teen Vogue 2006.  We get these images from everywhere – TV, school, our families, even our own psyche.  As a perfectionist, I took what my family had taught me about healthy eating to an extreme.  Instead of balancing health with indulgence, I saw myself on a sliding scale: the more “healthy” foods I ate, the better I was doing.  Even through college and grad school, I felt guilty about skipping workouts or eating too much pizza.  I didn’t know how to just let my body have what it craved on occasion and be okay with my decision to rest or eat some ice cream.  I always felt the need to justify my behaviors.

There were two significant periods of time in which I saw myself gain weight.  The first was the ever-classic “freshman fifteen.”  Given, coming out of high school with restrictive eating habits, I probably needed to gain those fifteen pounds, but watching the numbers go up on the scale was not something I was mentally prepared to handle.  I pretended that I was okay with it, constantly joking about it with other friends having similar experiences, but it really challenged me.  The second was my last year of grad school. This was a much more graceful time of weight gain. I was much more gentle with myself about it.  I knew I was skipping workouts to study.  I knew I was drinking more beer than I was used to because my new boyfriend was a beer connoisseur.  This last time around, instead of panicking and feeling terrible about my decisions, I simply cut out a few things when I realized that I was having trouble fitting into my pants.  I replaced beer with wine.  I tried to find time for even a small workout when I was busy.  I ate a few more salads. I didn’t feel devastated.  I tried to see it as a feasting season for my body.

Recently, a friend explained to me her concept of feasting and fasting seasons.  Our bodies experience different things at different times.  There are times when life is stressful; we have less time for healthy habits, and we skip out on what we know is best for us.  There are also times when we are more intentional about health and prepare meals for the week ahead of time and make time for yoga.  The body goes through seasons, and just because my body is one way right now, it might be different next year for any number of reasons.  This concept of seasons allowed me to have more grace with myself.

I am still learning every day how to best love myself.  Most recently, I’ve begun a practice of self-love that is both simple and transformative.  When I look at my body, I try to let go of judgment or comparison.  Instead of looking at my face and wishing I had less wrinkles, I look at my face and think “I have a laugh line on the left side of my face.  This is my face.  And I love my left laugh line because it’s a part of me.”  Instead of wishing my stomach were flatter or my thighs were smaller, I practice simply taking myself in as I am.  Even if I am working toward particular healthy body goals, my body is the way it is today.  I have no choice but to love it the way it is today.  The comparison game is what dug me into a hole of self-hate for years.  So, instead, I work toward loving myself as I am, not as I could be.

A few months ago, I was inspired by this post from a friend of a friend. (Her blog is incredible, so you should subscribe.) In it, she talks about learning to love her menstrual period as a part of who she is and what her body does.  As women, many of us are taught that menstruation is something annoying or gross, something to be complained about, something that gets in the way of living our lives.  What if, instead, she proposes, we learned to appreciate our period as something beautiful, sacred, life giving – something that can put us in touch with our womanhood and our emotions.  So, I took this concept and slowly applied it to my relationship with my entire body.  Instead of viewing my body as a burden, what if I viewed it as entirely sacred? Instead of wishing my body were something else, what if I appreciated the things it can do right now?

This practice is still a work in progress for me.  There are still times when I feel guilty about resting instead of running.  There are still times when I feel shame for eating certain foods.  But, if I can work toward loving everything I see when I look in the mirror, I can also work toward loving others in the best way I can.  As cliche as it sounds, I must first love myself well in order to have compassion for anyone else.

I Am Afraid of Men

TW: sexual assault, emotional abuse

I can’t say when it all started, exactly.  When I’m on the train, when I’m walking down the sidewalk, when I’m in a store – I am always on guard.  I put on my “resting bitch face” and my sunglasses and my headphones so no one will bother me.  I feel much safer when I’m surrounded by only women.  This doesn’t mean I hate men.  I love my father, I love my partner, I love my male friends.  I am not afraid of them because I know them.  They have proven to me that they are trustworthy.  But sometimes, even the men who find their way into my inner circle are not trustworthy.

I was emotionally abused for years by a previous partner.  He told me what I could or couldn’t wear.  He expressed an irrational, jealous rage if I ever spent time alone with a male friend.  When I went to seminary and developed into a budding feminist, he told me my views were wrong.  He yelled at me for taking naps when I was tired instead of spending time with him.  He used guilt to control me.  At first, though, he was charming.  But after a few months of sweeping me off my feet, he became distant and inaccessible while also needing to know everything about what I was doing so he could keep tabs on me.  Our relationship went through cycles of growth, but he always returned to his controlling patterns.  He taught me that relationship does not mean I should not be afraid.

I was sexually assaulted by a friend.  I’ve written about this experience before, but it’s important to emphasize that this didn’t happen to me in a dark, damp alleyway with a scruffy stranger.  Like many women, I was assaulted by someone I knew.  We had a budding friendship and I was developing feelings for him, but he still took advantage of me when I was vulnerable.  He taught me that friendship does not mean I should not be afraid.

If I haven’t even been able to trust the men closest to me, it is not wonder that I feel afraid to walk down the street.  I feel my body tense and my heart race each time I pass a man on the sidewalk, bracing myself for catcalling.  When I get on the train, I look for a seat next to a woman.  When I enter a public restroom, I look around to make sure there are no men lurking in the corners, waiting for an unsuspecting woman to enter.

I work at a social service agency, and we primarily serve men.  Whenever I have to walk through our lobby, with rows of men waiting to receive services, I clench my jaw and ball up my fists.  I worry about being grabbed.  Instead, I usually get comments about my body or asked for my name followed by a “mmm” or a “damn”.  While we are currently working to improve what safety looks like in our organization, for the reasons I mentioned as well as several others, it wasn’t until this week that I came to the realization that I am constantly afraid.  I am afraid in my workplace.  I am afraid on public transit.  I am afraid walking to my apartment, even in the daytime.  I often create scenarios in my head so that I have a plan prepared if something bad were to happen.

All of this fear is exhausting.  Being in a spaces with only female-identifying individuals is like letting out a breath I’ve been holding in.  I don’t worry about my body.  I don’t worry that my smile will be misinterpreted.  I want to feel this way all the time.  I don’t want to hold all this fear in my body.  But until men can prove to me that they are not a threat, I continue to clench my teeth and ball up my fists.  We are learning every day about more reasons to fear men.  For the past few months, it seems like every morning there is a new name to add to the list of famous sexual harassers.  It’s hard to face a world of men when I hold my own sexual trauma and constantly hear about the trauma of others.

But I don’t want to feel this way.  We don’t want to feel this way.  Women do not want to be afraid all the time.  So, men, prove us wrong.  Be kind.  Be vulnerable.  Show sensitivity.  Do not be defensive.  Open yourself to the possibility that you don’t know everything.  Listen to what we have to say.  Do not assume we owe you anything.  Do not say something to a woman you don’t know that you wouldn’t say to a man.  Stop catcalling.  Make sure your coworkers are being fairly compensated.  Be confident enough in your sense of self that you do not see a strong woman as a competitor to be squashed.  Be our partners, not our hunters.

Disclaimer: This piece deals with gender in a binary way.  I apologize to those who are trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary.  You have a place in this conversation too, but I cannot speak to your experiences of gender, so I have not included them here.  Please speak your own truths to better inform all of us.