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.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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.