6 Women in the Woods

I rarely take vacations. On occasion, I’ll take a long weekend to go to the beach or a friend’s wedding, but the only time I’ve taken off more than two weekdays in a row was when I had the flu. So, clearly, time off is not my strongest form of self care. However, I recently came across the opportunity to go on a writing retreat with one of my grad school professors, and I immediately contacted my boss to confirm my time off before I could back out.

I spent four days at Lake Logan in the mountains of North Carolina with five other women, all at least a generation older than me, many of them mothers. It wasn’t shocking that I was spending the week with a group old enough to be my grandmothers, but what I learned from them was comforting in a way that was unexpected. I went on the retreat to write. I had been feeling stuck in my writing, both in terms of subject matter and because I had been struggling to make time for my writing. I wanted to take advantage of four days with no obligations to churn out a backlog of poems. I accomplished this, but I was offered so much more.

Each morning, we spent time writing together from a prompt, then sharing our writing and giving feedback. I’m a member of a long-standing writing cooperative, so this process was familiar to me. However, I’ve spent the past five years with more or less the same eyes reviewing my work, so the fresh eyes of these women were a blessing. They were not tired of hearing about the same three traumatic things that had happened to me, and this allowed me to find new wonder in my own story. Hearing the stories of strangers also allowed me to open up more space inside myself and shake loose some long-forgotten stories. I wrote about things I’d never written about before, mainly because I’d forgotten they had happened.

Each afternoon, we had time to ourselves. I usually spent my time hiking or doing yoga, napping, and reading. The silence was astounding. I live with two roommates and I work at a social service agency, so my life is not often quiet. At the lake, though, it was. I couldn’t distract myself from the hard things by re-watching Parks and Rec again because there wasn’t any cell phone service. I couldn’t avoid rest because there was nothing for me to clean and no roommate I could go to the next room to chat with. I was forced to sit alone, and it was hard.  It forced me to introspect in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Each night, we sat around and drank wine and told stories.  Hearing about the lives of women forty years my senior made me realize that I will never have my life together. These women are mothers, grandmothers, and retirees, but they are still figuring it all out. One woman recently decided to go back and get another graduate degree despite the fact that she will soon retire. A retired episcopal priest relayed to the group how confused she is about her identity now that she isn’t working. A woman from rural Georgia recounted her difficult relationships to us and the things she had learned. At my fingertips, I had a treasure trove of wisdom. And the wisdom, essentially, was nothing – that I will never really know what I’m doing and that’s ok. That with each stage of life I will continue to be confused and feel like I’m making things up.  We are always learning as we go.

Each of us expressed feeling tired of conforming, tired of doing what was expected. The other women told me I would care less and less what other people thought of me as I got older. At one point, someone exclaimed, “I’m so tired of being nice! I’m so fucking tired of being nice!” And I thought, yeah…same. Forty years from now I won’t care if I was nice. I will care if I sought healing, had hard conversations, chose adventures, and stood up for myself. I’m still learning how to do these things, but the women on this retreat made me feel as though I was ahead of the curve. “At least you’re dealing with your demons now,” they told me. “It took us years to get here.” So, for now, I will continue writing, not really knowing what I’m doing, but knowing that no one else does either.

On our last morning, perhaps my favorite woman on the retreat gifted me a gold necklace with a small circle charm hanging from the chain. “When I look at you, I feel like things have come full circle for me,” she said, “so I want you to have this.” Each time I wear it, I think of her and her small service dog who loved to lick my hands, and I know that I am headed somewhere important, even if I’m not quite sure where that will be.

The Wilderness of Church

The damage done to me by the religion of my upbringing only began to surface in my memory over the past year or two. By reading about the experiences of my other exvangelical peers, I realized that I, too, had been led on and manipulated by a church that I thought was my home. Until recently, I had never thought of myself as a part of the exvangelical community. I still wouldn’t describe the church I grew up in as evangelical, as it was mainline Methodist in many ways. However, many of the teachings, particularly in my youth group years, were full of evangelical beliefs.

Growing up, some of these beliefs were naturally repugnant to me. The church’s stance on LGBTQ people, for example, was something I’d always bristled at. The language was never violent, but it was definitely a “love the sinner, hate the sin” type of theology. It turns out I was a closeted baby bisexual the whole time (surprise!), which explains a lot of the inner conflict I felt around the teachings. Other aspects of the evangelical teachings of my home church, though, stuck with me, even through my college years. I read every book by John and Stacey Elderidge, a couple who notoriously writes about relationships that are sustained by strict gender norms. Really, all you need to know is that on the home page of their website, the scrolling information touts taglines like “Battle, Beauty, Adventure: What makes men come alive?” and “Beautiful, Pursued, Irreplaceable: What makes women come alive?” barf. As I entered my first romantic relationships, I thought I was meant to be pursued by men, and if I wasn’t being pursued, it was because I wasn’t offering enough of an allure. I specifically remember requiring my boyfriend during my freshman year of college to meet me at the top of the stairs in my dorm, literally making him go on a physical “adventure” just to say hello to me. I thought this would keep our relationship alive. Add to these relationship standards my belief in the teachings of purity culture, thinking for decades that my worth was proportional to my virginity, and you can imagine how all of this distorted my self worth.

I spent a lot of energy in seminary deconstructing these beliefs about myself and my place in the world. I was liberated from my concept of a privileged, male, white god and was introduced to the God of the oppressed. For once, this felt like a God who understood me – a queer woman. Religion finally felt like a thing that encompassed me and not a box I had to force myself into. But as I began life after seminary, the United Methodist Church was falling apart around me. Not even a month after graduating, I went to General Conference 2016 and witnessed my church’s inability to confirm my full humanity. Though I was still in the closet at the time, I knew I was bisexual and I had many queer friends from seminary who were doing incredible things in ministry. However, it was going to take more than one conference to disillusion me.

After being commissioned as a Provisionary Deacon, I started a job working with people experiencing homelessness. With each step toward ordination, though, I struggled time and time again to fit my creative, nontraditional ministry into the guidelines set by the church. After several years of this, I thought it best to go on leave from my ordination process and consider if and how I could best do the ministry to which I felt called. Then, at beginning of my second year of leave just a few months ago, I watched my church tighten restrictions even further on LGBTQ clergy and relationships. With one foot out the door already, I was angry and hurt by an institution that I had once been so determined to make better.

I am still angry. I am saddened as I watch all of my friends from my ordination class get approved for full ordination. If I had stayed on schedule, I would be getting ordained this summer with them. Instead though, I sit in the wilderness wondering if I wasted three years of my life getting a degree that I will never be allowed to officially use in the church of my childhood. I wonder if the grass is greener on the other side in another denomination and I wonder if all of this trouble is worth the pain anymore.

This wilderness is lonely but I’ve been here before. The deconstruction of faith is heartbreaking but necessary for the forming of a new and better thing. I am inspired while I watch many of my queer siblings and allies fight for change, but I know that I can’t do that work myself anymore. I am tired, disillusioned, and confused. It feels like so many things are broken, but the church has historically been broken many times. For now, I wait on God to see what she’s up to in the next promised land.

Why I Stopped Shaving

header image: Cathyrox

When I was in the seventh grade, I couldn’t wait to shave my legs for the first time. Despite the fact that my leg hair was still blonde and whispy, I knew that many of my peers had smooth legs and I wanted them too. Shaving seemed like something intensely personal that I needed to discuss only in whispers. The day I set aside to shave for the first time, I told a friend at school that I was excited to get home from school that day. When she asked why I replied, “I just am.” Shaving had the mysticism of sex combined with the taboo of menstruation, at least in my mind. It was something women did but never talked about.

It wasn’t until high school that I first began to question why it was that I was required to shave off my body hair. I went the whole winter of junior year without shaving my legs, wearing pants each day. My high school boyfriend asked me when I would start shaving my legs again, and I asked him why it mattered, since no one could see them. “Because I like your legs and I want to see them,” he said. I think he genuinely meant it as a compliment, but, thinking back, it makes me feel gross. This interaction solidified my growing suspicion that shaving was an activity that women did for men, not for themselves, and that, if I was going to be considered attractive by the opposite sex, then I better keep shaving. A few weeks later, when the weather started to warm up, I did shave my legs again, eager to reveal them to my boyfriend from their hairy, wintry prison.

Despite a short period of weird grunge in high school when I wore only boys pants, I’ve always presented as highly feminine. I like makeup, wearing skirts, and the color pink. So, I followed the script set by the women before me. Every day I would shave under my arms and several times per week I would shave my legs. Throughout years of knicks, razor burn, and Nair mishaps, it never occurred to me that I could just NOT do it anymore.

Every summer, I spend several days in Hot Springs, NC at the Wild Goose Festival. Two years ago, I met a fellow queer woman at the festival and noticed her armpit hair. I had always assumed that, if I grew out my body hair, I would look disgusting and mannish. However, this woman was beautiful and I thought her body hair only added to her ~*Earth Goddess Aesthetic*~. I doubted I was cool enough to pull it off, but I stopped shaving my armpits at Wild Goose that year, partially because I usually don’t shower during the 3 day outdoor festival, but this year I continued my no-shave experiment when I got home. Two years later, and the experiment is still going. It wasn’t as though I made a dramatic decision on a specific principle. I just stopped shaving and never started again. I found that it didn’t make me look gross like I thought it would, and, if anything, it made my armpits healthier. No razor bumps, no burning when I put on deodorant after a shower, no irritation when I run in a tank top. Essentially, my laziness turned into feminst rebellion and self-confidence.

My decision to stop shaving my legs was similarly unremarkable. During some medication changes last fall, my depression was particularly bad, and I decided to give everything in my room with which I could harm myself to my roommates as a safety measure. One of the things I gave them was my razor. After a few weeks, I was feeling better and asked for my things back. However, my leg hair had already sprouted, plus it was November, so I decided to let it grow. This week, for the first time since I was 12, I wore a skirt with fully grown leg hair, and I loved it. I could FEEL THE WIND. At first, I thought something was on my leg and I kept looking down, but I eventually realized what I was feeling was the natural little feelers sticking out of my calves.

I’m not trying to tell everyone to stop shaving. I don’t care what you do with your own body hair as long as it’s making you happy. Middle school me was pumped to have smooth legs. It made me feel glories. But adult me is tired of spending time in the shower removing hair and wasting plastic. I’m tired of men and capitalism telling me how my body should be. But if shaving is what makes you feel like an empowered super-lady, do your thing, girl. Shaving is a personal decision. Maybe my 12-year-old self was onto something. Removing body hair is intimate. It can be seasonal like cycles of the moon. It can be empowering. And it can be painful. Do what gives you power, and do it because you owe your body the best you can give Her.

Purity Rings & Other Lies

I was 13 when I put on my first purity ring.  It was silver and read “TRUE LOVE WAITS” in small block letters.  I loved that ring.  It was a symbol of my faith, my loyalty, my ability to perfectly follow the rules, and my worth.  I’ve always been a sucker for following the rules.  As Monica from Friends would say, “The rules control the fun!”  I loved the rules.  The rules shaped who I was.

I looked forward each year to the “sex talk” we were privy to at youth group.  All of the girls were hearded in one room and all the boys corralled into another.  The boys were lectured on the dangers of porn and masturbation.  The girls were told that sex would be magical if we would only wait until we found our one true soulmate, married him (always him – it was also heteronormative), and then had sex for the first time on our wedding night.  I looked forward to this weird, predictable litany because it reminded me every year that I was doing what I needed to do in order to be a “good Christian.”  I thought God would love me more if I followed the rules.  And every year I was reminded that I could check off another box on my Heaven Checklist.

What I didn’t see was how unequipped I actually was for a relationship.  We spent so much time talking about purity that I never thought to ask any questions about conflict resolution, loving communication, or how hard it is to try to understand the inside of someone else’s brain.  I thought that if I waited for my soulmate, everything would be perfect.  There would be no need for communication skills because I had saved my body for my one true love and that meant nothing would be able to tear us apart.  Everything would be perfect.

It turns out that relationships are SUPER HARD.  Even good, healthy relationships are (one more time for the people in the back) SUPER HARD.  I love my partner.  He’s the most kind and understanding person, and I know that we love each other deeply, but there are still times when we want to strangle each other.  We’ve had to learn how to ask for what we need, how to use “I feel” statements so that we aren’t constantly accusing each other, and how to talk through a conflict to arrive at the seed that it was really about.  I never learned how to do any of this in the church.  I had no idea that I needed to learn it.

Even more concerning is how my purity culture upbringing did not teach us about rape culture.  If anything, it perpetuated it.  First, the fact that we learned about our sexualities in gender separated rooms should really say more than enough.  The inherent belief that men have an unquenchable sex drive and women just want to be told they look pretty is the root of rape culture.  By learning about sexuality as a whole community, we could have fostered some of the communication piece we were so desperately missing.  Purity culture also taught me nothing about how to communicate what I want – whether I want to have sex or not, what to do if I don’t want to have sex, and what to do if I’m forced to have sex I don’t want to have.  It was presumed that all sex within marriage would be consensual.  (Hot tip: it’s not.)  There will be times that your spouse or partner wants sex and you do not and if you don’t know how to navigate that, it will be damaging.  

Furthermore, saving myself for marriage meant saving myself from all sexual encounters, even those that are unwelcomed.  There is an element of victim blaming in purity culture that is more than disturbing.  While it was never spelled out this clearly, it was only logical for me to presume that rape only happened to women who were actually asking for it – their clothes were slutty or they were drunk or they had been sexually active before.  All of these things fell under the category of not saving oneself, and that essentially negated assault as a possibility.  Being assaulted destroyed purity just as much as having sex with a high school boyfriend.  No matter what the situation, it was all the woman’s fault.

Purity culture has damaged so many relationships.  I’ve watched friends get married at 20 to avoid having sex before marriage only to get divorced a few years later.  I’ve watched women endure physical therapy well into their marriages to teach their vaginas to actually enjoy sex without pain.  I’ve watched people be exiled from their faith communities because of premarital pregnancy – planned or unplanned.  I’ve watched members of the LGBTQ community hide for decades (myself included) because of the heteronormativatiy preached within purity culture.  Purity culture hurts all of us.

I threw away my teenage purity ring long ago, but when I found out about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s plan for a vagina statue, I bought an identical ring on Amazon to throw in the fire.  If I’ve learned anything in my exodus from purity culture, it’s that we need to burn it to the ground and resurrect the ways we teach our children about their bodies.  Because if we want the next generations to fix this broken world, they first have to learn how to love themselves, their bodies, and their peers.  Following the rules will not do this for them, just like it didn’t do it for me.  Rings are easy.  Love is hard.

Terra Mater

The way all the muscles
in my jaw and back clench
when I feel the gaze of a nearby man,
it’s no wonder I have knots in my neck.
I remind my hips
to relax into the earth,
grounding back into their Mother,
who does not recoil
when we mine her for all she’s worth
and gaze hungrily at her beauty.
Instead her mountains stand brilliantly,
her seas crash violently,
her desserts burn relentlessly.
She reminds me there is power in my bones,
strength in my muscles,
and fury on my tongue.
She shows me the resistance
of blooming
after a prolonged winter,
of new life interrupting the grey.

Nice Guys Can Be Rapists Too

**TW: assault, abuse**

“I have friends who are women.”

It felt like Brett Kavanaugh repeated this over and over throughout his hearing.  This statement is the patriarchal equivalent of “I have black friends” – a phrase often used by white people to prove that their actions couldn’t possibly be racist because they know a black person.  Knowing black people does not mean you don’t say and do racist things.  And knowing women does not mean you aren’t a part of the patriarchy.  In fact, it’s entirely irrelevant.  Not everyone has black friends (though that blows my mind because it’s 2018).  But, everyone knows women.  Everyone has a mother.  By nature of existing you have come into being through the body of a woman.  Yet, there are rapists, misogynists, and abusers everywhere.  Knowing women means nothing.  The recently arrested East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer was living with his daughter when he was arrested.  Bill Cosby has a wife and daughters.  Brett Kavanaugh has a wife and daughters.  This does not exempt them from being perpetrators.

What’s more, being a “nice guy” does not mean you have never assaulted anyone.  Bill Cosby was the apple of America’s eye for decades.  He was viewed as a wholesome, all-American, family man.  But it turns out, there was a lot of abuse happening under that facade.  Throughout Kavanaugh’s hearing, he pointed to letters and statements from friends that stated he was a good person, a nice guy, a good friend.  These things are not mutually exclusive to sexual assault.  I know because my own story feels eerily similar.

The person who assaulted me is a “nice guy”.  He cares about social justice and even claims to be a feminist.  No one who knows him would point to him as being a violent or mean person.  I’m sure he could get 65 people to sign a letter stating the he’s a good person, just like Kavanaugh.  I myself was blinded by his good-guy persona, so much so that I continued to see him for several months after my assault because I didn’t realize what had happened to me.  It seemed impossible that a guy like him could do the very thing that he spoke out against.  He went to the women’s march.  He fights for the marginalized.  How could he have possibly done something so against what he claims to be his moral code?

I dont’ know the answer to that question, but I do that Dr. Ford’s story feels all to familiar.  If I were in her position, I’m sure people would be saying things about my perpetrator that are similar to the things being said by the committee and others about Kavanaugh.  He has a mother.  He has a wife.  He has a sister.  He has a daughter.  Witnesses claim they have never seen him act like this before.  The reality is that these things don’t matter because they don’t prevent assault.  Having women friends that you talked to on the phone in high school and never assaulted does not mean that you never assaulted anyone else.  No one assaults every woman in their life.  Just because there are women who have not seen this side of him does not mean that side doesn’t exist.  Nice guys can be rapists too.

 

GUEST POST: Who the heck am I, anyway?

I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass through the magic of Twitter.  A friend of mine asked if anyone she knew was doing work around #metoo and #churchtoo, and I immediately responded that I had done some writing on #metoo.  She connected me to Chrisie, who is doing some wonderful truth-telling, empowering work.  Chrisie and I immediately connected over being type 1’s on the Enneagram as well as our spirit animal, Leslie Knope.  We immediately decided to guest blog for each other.  You can find my post on her blog here.  Enjoy these words from Chrisie on the paradoxes of identity, realizing trauma, and self-discovery.

Growing up I thought that I would have life figured out by age 30. I would have a job, family, and know who I am and who I want to be. As I approach yet another birthday in my thirties, I now think that who I am and who I want to be is a fluid concept. Recently I have been reflecting on Psalm 139 and realized that I don’t really know myself as well as God does. In fact, in the last few months I haven’t been sure I even know myself at all. I find myself in a similar time of rebirth and discovery that I experienced in my early 20s.

I’m a 31-year-old pastor, mother, survivor, wife, advocate, and redhead. But am I more than those labels? Less? Confused? Lost? Can I accept the aspects of myself that I love and ignore the parts that I dislike or make me feel vulnerable? Is this how I want God to love me?

In the winter I discerned that God was calling me to embrace parts of my person that I have hid or shied away from. Most of life I have felt confused by who I am. I seem like mismatched pieces, incongruent and paradoxical parts smashed into one body. I love Star Wars but hate science fiction and fantasy, with the exception of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I can ride roller coasters all day, but I am afraid of fast cars. I am an extreme extrovert, but I can read quietly for days at a time. I am ethically against divorce, but I have been divorced. I love pretty things, but I hate clothes shopping. I’m an incredibly strong and independent woman, but I ask my husband to fill up my gas tank.

I thought I had myself all figured out prior to this year and prided myself on my self-awareness and introspection. And maybe I did know myself, and simply grew and changed in the last year. It’s entirely possible as I had a baby and changed churches and roles from associate to solo pastor. God’s sudden call for me to expand my ministry and identity felt like I lost myself at best, a betrayal by God at worst. I argued with God and cried in the middle of the night. I didn’t know who I was outside of my call to ministry and I narrowly defined what ministry was. God did not. I wasn’t ashamed of my past, but I didn’t really share it for a variety of reasons. I didn’t want people to look at me with pity, I hated how people would see me differently knowing I had been a ‘victim’ of domestic violence and sexual assault, and I never wanted to hear “God is going to do amazing things with you, because of your past.” Why that statement made me crazy is a whole other blog post for another day, but I separated my ministry from my story, and I wanted it that way.

God knows every thought and every part of who we are. I believe that God is calling us as disciples to be on a constant journey to know ourselves. The good and the bad. The good so we can embrace it and the bad so that God can redeem it. A strange thing happened with I started to write and reclaim my WHOLE story. I felt more like myself than I had in a very long time. I found myself, when I didn’t even know that I had been missing. I found that if I went too many days without writing I felt anxious and separated from the Divine. Once I started rediscovering myself, I couldn’t stop. I got new glasses, launched a website, wrote a book, and dyed my red hair blonde. I joked that I was going through a quarter-life crisis, but I was lovingly reminded that I’m a little too old for it to be a quarter-life crisis.

In my self-discovery, I rediscovered the beauty of God. I fell in love with my Creator in a deeper way, because I had a deeper understanding of my own heart and life and who I am created to be. God already knows all that I am, have been, will be, and could be. The beautiful and the ugly. In my teens I thought I would know who I was in my 30s and in my 30s, I now believe that I will never fully know myself, and that’s a good thing, because I am evolving and learning. The good news is that God knows and loves me, even when I don’t know who I am, because God is the I Am.

About Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass:

Chrisie grew up in Eastern New Mexico and West Texas and is the daughter of a minister and schoolteacher. She went to college at the University of Texas at El Paso and studied Clinical Health Psychology and English and American Literature, where she graduated in 2011. Throughout her college years, Chrisie worked at various churches as and served as everything from an intern to a youth director to a children’s director.

Chrisie then attended Duke Divinity School from 2011-2014 where she received her Master’s of Divinity. She is currently an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church serving in the South Carolina Annual Conference as the pastor at Gilbert United Methodist Church. In 2012 she married Rev. Weston Pendergrass, who is also a United Methodist minister in South Carolina. They adopted a beautiful and curious baby boy in 2016.

Chrisie is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault and suffered from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during her seminary career. She is now a fierce advocate for women and women’s issues in the church and understanding of mental health and better mental health care available for all persons. Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass is available to come and speak at churches and events on these topics.