Learning How To Talk About Differences With My Evangelical Family

March 19, 2015 § 1 Comment

“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter in-law against mother in-law (Luke 12:50–53).”

It’s been fifteen years since I first came out to my family as a non-believer in Evangelical Christianity. From my current vantage point, I see now the evolution of not only myself, but of how my family has dealt with the situation. We’ve all changed in the process, and who we are today has little resemblance to who we all were when I was twenty-one years old.

At that young age there was the added pressure of two parents struggling to let go of their youngest daughter as I entered adulthood. With that letting go came a release of control. Because I’d spent my entire youth living in secret, I suddenly was not the person that anyone had thought I was. In fact, I was what I had feared all along. I was exactly what I had repressed. And more than that, I realized, it wasn’t a bad thing. I was learning how to be happy. What was bad was the amount of rejection I experienced – not only losing 99% of my all-Christian friends, but also being threatened with losing my family for being what my father termed as “a whore.” Lately I’ve been re-appropriating that slur to mean, “a female that cannot be controlled.”

We all got off to a rocky start. All I knew at that point was that the church was not for me. Within those confines I was suffocated, depressed, bored, and dead inside. I realize now that this is because I was and am rooted in creative expression. The artist needs diversity in order to breathe. The artist needs questions. Flat answers that defy all logic are merely roadblocks. The constant question, rather, is conducive to taking what is faulty, and transforming it in order to make it better. I saw clearly that the church does not do what it says it will. The church is for charlatans and blind followers who are told that if they question, they are heretics and outsiders. This keeps people in a place of fear and is a form of Fascism.

I am currently writing a book on religion from the point of view of the insider who became the outsider. Because my husband critiques my chapters in our writers group every week, my words are at the forefront of his mind at family dinners. He struggles to understand why and how my family believes what they do, so he asks questions. It’s gotten to the point where we talk about religion every single time we’re with them. The elephant in the room is now our go-to.

Though it’s awkward, though I sometimes feel offended, and my mother often gets emotional, it appears that we’re traveling through some necessary therapy. Reaching towards middle age, I have come to the point where I need to be respected as an adult within the construct of my family. I will no longer allow them to undermine me. By my side is my warrior husband who never backs down. I doubt we would all be so open without Michael’s curiosity and his need to defend me.

Michael has had little experience with the faithful. He still feels shocked that when asked, my parents relayed that we will go to hell without Jesus in our lives. All along, I had told him that this was the case, but he couldn’t believe it until he heard it directly from them. He told my father that he now understands when my dad says, “We worry about you.” And of course, they pray everyday that we will be with them at family dinners for eternity – as though life continues on as normal in “paradise.”

It would be morally incorrect of me to believe in something that I know is inherently false. Not only false, but the single cause of more abuse, tortures, deaths, genocides, conquests, and fear than anything else in the history of civilization. My father and sister have said, “If I believe and it isn’t true, then I’m wrong and there’s no harm done. If I believe and it is true, then I go to heaven.” But at what cost? The message is love but the giving is conditional. “The Other” is demonized for being under the sway of Satan – therefore outsiders can’t be trusted.

My sister and I are now finally opening up to each other. Though we grew up in the same family, we had completely different experiences of the same exact events. Our roles were such that we were treated very differently – she was and is the much older sister who can do no wrong in the eyes of my parents, while I am the stubborn younger sister who brayed at every perceived injustice. She will do whatever it takes to achieve harmony, while I prefer to tell it like it is to get to the core of the truth in a person. Our personalities created divergence in cause and effect. She and her family have been on the mission field in Papua New Guinea for close to twenty years. I thought that I could live with her silence on into the future, but now that she is finally talking, I see that we have reached a place that is necessary and important. It’s allowing me to let go of the anger that I feel when her idea of “harmony” equals not allowing anyone to know what she really feels.

Though it’s good to understand where all of us within the family are coming from, I’m not sure where it all leads. On the one hand, talking openly brings me closer to them, on the other there’s only so much we can say before hitting our heads against a wall. I find their beliefs in an antiquated mythology to be embarrassing – embarrassing that anyone could possibly believe what they do. On their end, they will never accept my views until my views become their own – an impossibility. If you return faulty merchandise, you don’t go back to the store to buy it all over again.

The perceived need for a Savior did not begin with Christianity. There are at least sixteen crucified and resurrected Saviors, which predate Jesus. Most of which are said to have been born of a virgin on December 25th. They all share variations on the exact same story including time spent in the desert withstanding temptations; turning water to wine; riding in a procession on a donkey; sacrificed to save humans from their errors, and resurrected to bring eternal life. These stories stem from Egyptian beliefs to Greek and Roman Paganism to Hinduism and Buddhism. Jesus is much less a Jewish story than a Pagan one. In the transfer of the telling from the Jews to the Gentiles, Jesus took on the traditional Pagan narrative. The story would have gained little traction without the details of deity come to save us.

Instead of being saved by religion, the modern narrative has shown that we need to be saved from religion. Though civilization is evolving fast, the faithful threaten to devolve our communities at every chance. One of the most important ethics for Millenials is the issue of equality. Western culture is moving beyond the place of women as property. “Good versus evil” is merely code for “us versus them” or tribalistic instincts. And though the church has always been the last to accede in the acceptance and freedoms of minorities and differing cultures, our attempts at democracy have shown that with respect, we can all co-exist and learn from each other. Faith, however, often gets in the way of this with the problem of, “My belief is the only way, and everyone else is an infidel.”

The God of the Bible has a faulty sense of ethics more akin to a gang leader, and hardly seems perfect at all. He requests that people commit atrocities in order to prove loyalty to him, and by the book of Revelation, it is clear that Satan is a mere puppet rather than a mighty foe. God admits that creating earth was a mistake – he wants a do-over. His codes pale in comparison to what we now know as right and wrong. He is faulty, and it is obvious that his author is man.

As a young Christian, I used to berate myself for being an “over-analyzer.” I thought this was a bad thing – mainly because it threatened to disrupt my faith. I’m happy now that it did. Analyzing is what I do best. I love research and games of connect-the-dots. I love the story of how religions grew, and the politics behind why they grew. It’s a fascinating story – rife with myth, clichés, and superstitions. Though we can now understand much of our world through scientific terms, there will always be questions about what lies beyond, and why are we here? These are good questions and an expansive space to exist within. All answers are counterfeit and meant to lead to more questions. We are merely tiny breaths in time. We are what the earth is – things that grow. Our growth is shaped by individuals, but driven by passing generations. The truth is that it’s the people who ask questions that shape the world we live in. Some have died for it. But in the process they cleared the way for more asking. No one grows by staying in line, they grow by exploring.

It’s clear that the largest hurdle most families face is a lack of communication. We hear it in reminders not to talk about politics or religion at family dinners. Many people don’t see a way of discussing it without becoming heated and upset. But until those issues are discussed, there can be no movement towards mutual respect. How can we see through the eyes of the other until we are given a chance to understand their motives and views? It’s not about coming to a place where everyone can be on the same page – it’s about understanding our differences.

By making my views clear to my family, they can come to the conclusion that I am not simply a “fallen soul” or a “rebellious person.” They can see that I have actually thought these ideas out, and that I have reasoning behind the different direction my life has taken. Our open communication is important in the respect that it can break clichés. I wish however, that their side of the story would break clichés as well. They recite words that I have heard since I was a small child. But it’s still fair to make an attempt at breaking through that version to get to the heart of our true stories. I’m doing my best to get to know them beyond their recitations.

I still exist within that role of the child they couldn’t keep in line. My words never come out as clearly with my parents as with other people. This really frustrates Michael. It’s exhausting for me to exist within the place where my parents think and the place where I think as well. I know their thoughts exactly because I used to think the same way. This can be vocally stunting, because I don’t want to hurt them. There’s a fine balance between being oneself and respecting the feelings of others. My mother was incredulous when I told her that I try my best to respect her faith, as though this should be a given. They think that I am deceived, while I think that they are deceived. Perhaps we are two sides of the same coin. But perhaps not. Faith is static and fights to never be challenged by new information. I welcome openness and fresh thought.

All of this makes me wonder how our story will unfold. Will we continue in this vein, or will the talks on religion come to an end with the end of writing my book? I watch them, with their hopes that I will come around, and cringe over their pain. I want to be understood but know that I never will be – my husband fills that gap. As a family, we all come to terms with this through focusing on our common features instead. I have my father’s personality, while Michael is very much like my mom. We all joke over our similarities. Half the table orders one thing and the other half orders another. We all love each other and have a strong bond of friendship – simply being related is no guarantee of that. I know for sure that I am luckier than most.

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The Truth About Sex

April 13, 2014 § 4 Comments

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As a single twenty something, I subsisted on stories of sexual exploits. Brunch with friends consisted of dishing the dirt on what happened the night before. All of our experiences seemed like some kind of amazing movie, where the hot musician/artist/stranger from out of town walks in and sweeps away the night with his own unique way of wooing, either leading to mounting sexual tension or strewn sheets.

I also worked at a brand new restaurant where they only hired you if you were beautiful or Irish. Everyone was sexy. We worked hard, played hard, and then all ended up in bed together. To be honest, it was the best job I ever had, with the strongest sense of community. The drama kept it interesting, and persistent flirtations kept my adrenaline pumping. People with commitments didn’t fare so well working there. But I had no strings, no attachments, and just a couple of obsessions. I was at that age where you were allowed to be just a little bit stupid. I learned that you probably shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, but it’s a lot more fun when you do.

Ten years later, I look back on that time as my heyday of singledom. It was an adventure to sleep with all kinds of men, and I’m glad that I did. I learned a great deal about life from all of those experiences. I never imagined that my life would change so much since then, and that I would choose to be in a monogamous marriage.

We’ve both admitted that the single thing we miss most about dating is the variety. Once married, that excitement of the brand new person in your arms is a thing of the past. The challenge is to go beyond the familiar to create a fresh erotic experience. Biologically, the familiar is a warning signal that keeps us from committing incest, and once your family, there is nothing more familiar than your spouse.

At times, we get our kicks from listening to stories told by our single guy friends. But as they talk, I find myself feeling depressed and left bored. They check young girls off their list, and are consumed with looks rather than substance – the type of girls who like to flip their ponytail in your face; had a boob job at eighteen; and fail in conversations with comments like, “Alcohol was once illegal? That never happened!” In the meantime, the fully formed human beings are relegated into friendship territory.

For much of our lives, love and sex are two very different things. If you marry a person based on your passionate sex life, you’ll wake up one day to find that you have nothing in common. If you marry your best friend, you’ll realize that as love grows stronger, keeping sex fresh is a challenge. Love and sex only come together completely in the first initial phases of an intense relationship, and as familiarity takes over, lust wanes.

Everything that I’ve ever felt about the nature of human sexuality is explained and affirmed in Sex At Dawn – How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’. As their theory goes, we owe much of our culture to the rise of agriculture, but the earth was a more balanced place when we remained hunter-gatherers in pre-history. There was no famine, no malnutrition; people grew taller and lived longer; finding food took up to three hours a day leaving the rest of time for play; when food and resources were scarce they kept moving; and communities were kept small so that everyone could be accommodated for. Strength came from how little you had – as in possessions as well as people. Greed represented failure, and sharing was the ultimate benefit. As food was not withheld, neither was sex.

During ovulation, women slept with as many men as possible, letting the best sperm-match for her egg battle it out inside her body. The baby could be anybody’s, and this ensured protection for the child. Everyone took responsibility for raising the children. There are many communities throughout the world that still function in this way, though outside pressures threaten to stamp it out.

Our bodies perform functions that are basic to this mode of sex and reproduction. As a woman vocalizes during orgasm in the throes of sex with one man, she is calling attention to other potential mates in the area. When a man thrusts, his action combined with the coronal ridge of his penis creates a suction that removes competing sperm from a woman’s vaginal canal. A woman’s body will actually attack sperm that are not the right match for her egg. But when sperm and egg are the right match to make a strong and immune child, her body is more welcoming. These various functions are called “sperm competition.”

There is a lot to be learned in this regard from our primate cousins. With Gorillas, the largest male wins all the females. He competes with his strength, but his scrotum is tiny – an example of male competition rather than sperm competition. With bonobo chimps, the females lead with a sexually free society, where the males can enjoy themselves instead of posturing to win the ladies. When there is enough sex to go around, everyone can relax.

Most social primates are non-monogamous. In fact, it’s a real stretch to find any animals anywhere that are monogamous. I hate to burst the bubble, but even penguins find a new mate after the hardships of protecting the young are through. Sometimes penguins engage in threesomes that are beneficial for the male in times of keeping the egg warm – double duty.

Of the primates, gibbons are a standout for their solitary existence up in the trees, with a generally monogamous existence. Among the gibbons, males and females are exactly the same size. Humans have much more in common with chimps and bonobos in regards to male/female size ratio and the general size of male sex organs. We also share 98.8% of the same DNA.

As a social function, sex throughout history has been a solidifying exercise between people groups – a way to create bonds, establish friendship, welcome distant travelers and gain their trust. Marriage, on the other hand, was a negotiation – an economic and political maneuver. Typically, patriarchs chose who you married, before the Victorian era built up the idealistic idea of marrying for love. That same era was the most uptight, restricting, and repressive time. No one thought that women actually wanted to have sex. They were idealized as angelic creatures, all the while getting their orgasms at the doctor’s office in treatment for Hysteria.

“Otto Kiefer, in his 1934 Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, explains that from the Roman perspective, “Natural and physical laws are alien and even opposed to the marriage tie. Accordingly, the woman who is entering marriage must atone to Mother Nature for violating her, and go through a period of free prostitution, in which she purchases the chastity of marriage by preliminary unchastity (Ryan, Jetha, 124 – 125).””

Sound advice. There is a reason why “gang bangs” are such a popular porn feature. The truth is, it takes us back to our roots in the ultimate expression of sperm competition. Monogamy has caused an increase in fertility issues in men – some 20% of men suffer, and the numbers are rising. These issues would never arise in a non-monogamous society, where the strongest sperm win, weeding out the weak. In monogamy, the weak just keep trying.

A man’s sexual preferences become rigid in his youth, while a woman’s preferences are infinitely flexible (whether she knows it or not).

“Gay or straight, the men were predictable. The things that turned them on were what you’d expect…. The female subjects, on the other hand, were the very picture of inscrutability. Regardless of sexual orientation, most of them had the plethysmograph’s needle twitching over just about everything they saw. Whether they were watching men with men, women with women, the guy on the beach, the woman in the gym, or bonobos in the zoo, their genital blood was pumping. But unlike the men, many of the women reported (via the keypad) that they weren’t turned on. As Daniel Bergner reported on the study in The New York Times, “With women… mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person (Ryan, Jetha, 273).'”

Despite the major shift in consciousness through the last one hundred years, women are still very good at being sexually dishonest with themselves. And why wouldn’t they, when society at large anxiously awaits that moment when they can label a woman a slut or a whore? Women are still punished for being sexual, when it should be celebrated.

I’ve never fared well with overly idealistic women. When they ask me to tell them how I met Michael, how he proposed, where we got married – I cringe a little bit. They are all great stories, but they sum up our relationship into some bizarre fairytale narrative that has nothing to do with our day-to-day reality. Those stories are mere blippits on the radar at this point. They remind me of the whirlwind that I was swept up into, left almost unrecognizable to myself, as I planned a wedding and turned into a girly girl, entering into a mainstream institution.

I’m still confused by what, exactly, happened to me. I’m still difficult to deal with, yes, but my personality did a back flip in response to Michael’s triple lutz. He made me a better person. I became strong and secure, simply because he believed in me so much. And now, five and half years since we met, we’ve changed so much together that I have little in common with the person I was back then.

I know that I could handle an open marriage, but Michael is not interested. And would I want to go back to that way of life? I see the other options out there, and it all pales in comparison. Before, so much energy went into thinking about sex, when now, we put our energy into the work that we love doing. I was not that productive before Michael came along.

We have a shared narrative that makes life enjoyable. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, and sometimes we forget to have sex for a few weeks, and at other times, he feels more like my brother or my son or my father than a husband. But then it all comes back around, and it’s like we’re at the beginning again, in our own little world, with the sheets in wild disarray, and the hours passing by undetected.

I think the important thing is to not look at a relationship as a given. To not give up on life and let everything go. It’s the outside world that keeps the inside world invigorated. It’s the community at large that keeps love alive. An insular relationship is doomed to end in boredom. With trust and openess, fresh energy flows, and you find that the person you married never stops changing.

Letting Go

January 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I have strayed far away from my roots in poetry. Neglected the vague for the purely visceral. Yet there is nothing vague about the poems by Sharon Olds in Stag’s Leap, or any of her other previous works. I’m pleased that she won the Pulitzer Prize for this release. She truly deserves it.

Stag’s Leap confronts the shreds of her life as she moves through the process of a divorce. Olds never hides behind her words. Instead, she uses them to strip herself bare to us. Embraced by her raw vulnerability, we find ourselves. We find parts that we didn’t know existed. She is teaching us our human condition. This is how poetry achieves relevance in a world that seeks to distract us from our inner core.

I’ve heard that the most difficult aspect of divorce is losing two combined minds. My husband, Michael, is a natural people person. He’s taken over all the social aspects of our life that I tend to lack the energy for. At work, people naturally trust him, and he feels fulfilled by solving their problems and dealing with confrontation. As for me, this sort of work gives me a lot of anxiety. I run the internal workings – the daily chores at the building we run, the budget, the groceries, the smooth flow of our home, most of the cooking, and random work that provides extra income. While I work hard to write almost every morning, I spend the afternoons doing my share to contribute.

Our balance doesn’t always work perfectly. There is often a lot of pressure for me to bring in more money, but I’m doing the best I can for now and trying to figure out how I can do better. Michael’s lack of balance comes from neglect around our apartment. He doesn’t realize that all of the piles of things he leaves undone end up being finished by me. Instead of contributing to my efforts, he multiplies the amount of cleaning that I do. Those small issues, however, rate low next to the chaos we experience without the other bridging the gaps.

“… When he loved me, I looked
out at the world as if from inside
a profound dwelling, like a burrow, or a well. I’d gaze
up, at noon, and see Orion
shining… (Unspeakable, Olds, 4).”

In marriage, a cocoon is woven. For years, we fought against it, held it back, and kept going out every night as though we were still single. Little by little, we began to find that the rest of the world really annoyed us. Why should we waste our time on excess baggage when our favorite person was right at home?

Our social life went from quantity to quality. At first there was imbalance – spending a lot of time with people I didn’t choose, who didn’t choose me either – Michael’s friends. I appreciate our differences, but when I talk about the things I love, their eyes glaze over. It shifted when we began to cultivate friendships as a duo – finding people who enrich our interests and vice versa. Now I can appreciate all of the people in our lives because my needs are being met.

I still look at my husband and think, ‘Who is this person that I’ve chosen to spend my life with, and how did this happen?’ It’s still a mystery to me. We are completely opposite and yet exactly the same – a complete contradiction. In the beginning I thought we’d never run out of things to talk about. That’s still true, as long as we keep living our separate lives, coming home with fresh energy to share. To be happy as a duo, you first have to be happy as a solo.

Michael is certain that we will never get divorced. I say, that if we ever separate, there’s no point in getting a divorce, because I will never marry again. If that were ever to happen, I’d probably end up right back with him. His ridiculous quirks, daily dramas, sensitivity, and jokes – I’ve become so accustomed to all of him that I’ve forgotten what life looks like without his presence.

There is the other running scenario, further in the future. The one where, being sixteen years older than I am, he passes away, and I’m a widow with a lot of life left to live. He’s certain that I’ll move to Paris, start smoking cigarettes, and surround myself with young protégés. I don’t know what I’ll do, but maybe I would move away. Even though Seattle is my home, there would be too many memories to live with.

When someone dies, someone who feels like your right hand, you’ve got to find whatever method you can to not die right along with them. Some people think it’s romantic when a spouse dies a week after the loss of their partner. I personally, find that to be depressing and the sign of a life turned too far inward. The only way to move forward is to rebuild your life completely.

I used to fear coming to this point in our relationship, when one of us has to say goodbye. I’m no longer afraid. I trust in my abilities of reinvention. I’ve spent enough time alone to know what it’s like, and I don’t really mind solitude. The thing that helped me let go of the fear was a documentary that follows several older women in London. Some of them have been without their partner for over twenty years. They haven’t succumbed to stereotypes of age, they’re not afraid of starting over, and they live passionate, exciting lives. Their style is a way of life. In short, they show us that growing old can be very beautiful, opening us up to new facets of life.

Unfortunately, the full-length documentary has been removed, but here is a taster and a link to purchase the full-length film.

http://www.wellparkproductions.com/filmography/fashion.html

“So the men are gone,
and I’m back with Mom. I always feared this would happen,
I thought it would be pure horror
but it’s just home, Mom’s house… (Telling My Mother, Olds, 10).”

We are lucky to find our best friends and lovers. Their presence makes pesky details less abrasive. They distract us with pure joy at having someone who really understands. They often present the challenge of ‘how do we grow with each other?’ The comfort of their arms is like a sedative, the struggle to retain the self, sometimes immense. Yet they are the only true source for our personal growth. Through them, we expand beyond ourselves.

“… I am glad not to have lost him
entirely, but to see him moved
at the whim of the sky, like a man in the wind,
drawn as if on a barge resting on
updrafts, mild downdrops, he is like
an icon, he is like a fantasy… (Slowly He Starts, Olds, 74)”

In our culture, we are taught to avoid grief, to pop a pill and be done with it. But you can never get to the happy well-balanced place unless you work through your full range of emotions. Masking a feeling only prolongs the ache. Separations, death – these are not experiences to be afraid of. They are a time to search the self, and begin again. As long as you are alive, there is time for new beginnings. Even at the point when you feel lucky to have made it this far. In fact, I feel that way already.

As the years pass and Sharon Olds moves through the steps of letting go, we realize, her ex-husband remains mapped onto her body and through her mind. He no longer exists in the way he did before he left her. But his presence is permanent. Distant, but always a part of her – joined through their children and their thirty years together.

“… We fulfilled something in each other –
I believed in him, he believed in me, then we
grew, and grew, I grieved him, he grieved me,
I completed with him, he completed with me, we
made whole cloth together, we succeeded,
we perfected what lay between him and me,
I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did not leave me,
I freed him, he freed me (What Left?, Olds, 89).”

Have you experienced the loss of a partner through separation or death? How did you cope, what did you learn in the process, and how did you come out on the other side? What was the positive that came out of the negative? Please share below.

Remembering The Beginning

September 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

Today marks the anniversary of being married to my favorite person in the world, Michael Barnhart. In honor of the event, I am sharing from a different kind of book – an old journal of mine. Every time I read this entry, I remember again, just how it felt in the initial stages of finding the man who would become my life.

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December 2, 2008

            Feeling a little melancholy today and don’t know why. Michael had to rush out this morning and I felt sort of deflated after he left. A strange flow between us. Intense confessional conversations, and this fiery passion that brims up and overwhelms us. And then, the mind is gone and this expansive place wells up which our melding energy creates, and I’m soaring through a place I’ve never known before.

But then when it’s over, life feels disproportionate when he is away. It’s gotten to the point where we can’t sleep without the other. It’s not quite codependency. More like ravenous to be in each other’s presence. Though sometimes I look at him still as though he’s a foreign object and a mystery I can’t solve.

On thanksgiving it was like he was already family. He melded in so seamlessly, as though he’d always been there. All week after, he barely left my side, nursing me off another case of bronchitis. He brought me food, and I printed out the final edits of my novel. He read while I was in the bathtub and shared his immediate impressions. He mused over my understanding of men, the genderlessness of my writing, and called me the female Hemingway.

“You have to quit your job. This is what you need to be doing,” he said.

“I can’t do that.”

“If I had more money, I would help you make this happen.”

“It will happen. I promise.”

His boss knows a Blackfeet Indian chief and asked him for a remedy for my cough. Michael called me, “I have the cure! I’ll be there soon.”

He scoured the city for ingredients, collected pine needles on his jog around the lake, and even found a Blackfeet CD of chants with the appropriate song for administering the remedy. A cleansing garlic and elderflower tonic that could pretty much kill anything in its path.

“I am in awe of you,” he said while reading my book.

No one has ever believed in me this much. It invigorates me to finish the book. It’s exhilarating to watch him read it. The world outside of our realm pales in comparison. The world outside has become only stories to tell.

I thought I would always be alone. I thought life would always be a series of one dark, edgy character after another. Of all things. I loved to be alone rather than be with anyone else. Sex was just a remedy for my bodies needs; performed with a person I preferred not to know. Can’t imagine ever going back.

I trust him more than I even trust myself. There has always been an untamable strain in me that I cherish and am afraid of all at once. But so far he’s lifted me so high with his positive charge, I don’t think anyone could touch that or break the spell. Is it a spell, or will it keep going? I don’t want this to ever end.

At the pond, we tossed coins.

“Make a wish,” he said.

I wished we could be happy together for the rest of our lives. Long lives, I hope. But it’s still a mystery to me. I’ve never been attracted to someone like him before. Someone so full of lightness. Though he has a slight dark side too. I wouldn’t be so amused if he didn’t.

The Silence of Snow

January 13, 2013 § 5 Comments

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Many years ago, I had a ten-month relationship with a Palestinian man who was getting his PhD in political science.  We were more like companions than lovers, but the sexual tension between us drove us crazy.  There was only one time, early on, that we acted on that tension, and it was a disaster.  Amidst our attempt at satisfaction, he fell asleep, and I left him there, alone with his own snores.  He woke up after I left, confused and lonely, wondering where I went.  I was furious, and it was a tremendous blow to my ego. I was very young, but I’d been through so much at that point, I was also very old.  Much older than I am now.

That winter it snowed so much, that I was stuck at his apartment in the University district for three days.  I hadn’t dressed warmly enough, so he lended me his black and white checked Keffiyeh.  It was thick cotton.  Piled around my neck, it protected me from the elements.  I thought of how the Keffiyeh is most commonly used for protection against the hot desert sun.

It wasn’t really a fad yet, to wear a Keffiyeh around a college campus as a fashion statement.  So a lot of people gave me funny looks.  It felt as though the scarf could speak much louder than I ever could.  There were people whose eyes lit up with happiness, and others who frowned.

Magid was much older than I was, and looked like a cross between Omar Shariff, and Louis Jourdan.  Outside, his cigarettes added smoke to the steam escaping from his full lips.  We walked through the city, beneath trees with intricate twig webs of white.  We drank espresso at the Solstice coffee shop.  He read the world politics section of the newspaper with his legs crossed.  I wrote poems.

Mostly, we just fought all the time.  But that weekend, with all of that snow, we created a cozy world for ourselves.  Unobstructed by stress, power struggles, and Magid’s pain over always feeling like an outsider.

 Though he had many friends, he was locked inside of solitude.  And within him, always the constant conflict between East and West.  To be in the West was both to avoid his homeland, and also to fight for it with the safety of distance.  To be in the East was to be beaten down and humiliated.  Even community, tradition, and  family, could not protect him from this.  He was a foreigner no matter where he went.

The same feels true of Ka, Orhan Pamuk’s main character in his richly poetic novel, Snow.  Through Snow we are given a view into the struggles of the small town of Kars in Turkey, and the conflict between Islam and the State.  Since a ban on headscarves for girls in school, there have been several suicides among the headscarf girls, but it is uncertain as to whether their reasons were religious or having more to do with their miserable lives.

Ka is a poet who comes to Kars on the pretense of covering the suicide girls and the political elections for a Frankfurt newspaper (where he lives as a political exile).  But his real reason is to seek out a beautiful woman he remembers from college.

While in Kars, Ka writes several poems.  He is snowed in, and the roads have been closed.  Political tensions come to a peak.  And though involved beyond what he would care to be, the events pale in comparison to the love he has found, and the overwhelming feeling that he will lose her.  What is more, his Atheism is challenged by the perfect symmetry of snowflakes, and so he begins to see through all points of view.  He becomes susceptible to the mystical, the charismatic, the theatrical dramas that cross the line from stage to reality.

My companion, Magid, did not seem to have a sense of faith.  I admired that about him.  His family was Christian, and he always said that Americans had no idea how many Christians lived in Palestine.  He taught me that the news we receive here is very dishonest and biased.  He took it upon himself to educate me on world issues.

There was a part of him that wanted to be liberated from his culture.  But the part that was still entrenched in tradition, railed against my strong willed nature.  He was both attracted and humiliated by my need for independence.  Insanely jealous, with no reason to be, since is wasn’t beyond him to take another woman home, if I wouldn’t go with him.

He said he would take me to Israel, but he never did.  Instead, he went alone when his father was dying.  And on his way back, he was strip searched and made to stand naked in front of group of guards.  They rifled through his credit cards.  They confiscated his luggage, and then gave it back to him after they had stolen the gifts he was bringing back.  They assigned him a guard, to escort him at all times in the airport, until he boarded the plane.  He was made to feel like a dangerous criminal.

When his plane had a layover in Jersey, he called his family and found out that his father had just died.  There was a sense of relief at having missed it.  If he had been there, it would have been weeks of sitting in the house and mourning while all the neighbors came by to offer food and condolences.  He considered whether or not he should grow out his beard as a sign of mourning.  Then he decided that no, he was in America now.  He didn’t have to do that.

He flew home, and when he told me all about what had happened, he cried.  It was summer now, and we were eating burgers at a bar in Fremont.  The sun was hot on our heads, streaming through a large window behind us.

The last time I saw him, we fought so badly that I drove him back to his street and dropped him off on the sidewalk before we could even make it to dinner.  I drove away without even saying goodbye.  The next day, I moved to New York.

Our story was a small pocket of my life.  And in that pocket is the silence of snow, a Keffiyeh, Magid’s cigarettes and a newspaper stuck under his arm.  We are not fighting the fight between East and West.  We are peacefully gazing at each other from across the table with love in our eyes, while the students around us are wondering what a young girl like me is doing with a stubborn old man.

I see that Magid is living a successful life as an intellectual and writer.  He is hard at work, stripping the layers off of the Westernized condescending and racist approach to Arab culture.  His research has led him to express his thoughts through a historically Arabic point of view.  It appears that he has returned to the East.

I will always remember that in Arabic there are over twenty words for “love” but in English, we only have one.  I will remember the way that the men all danced together, and swung their hips in a subtle way.  I will remember the koobideh with basmati rice and saffron.  The poets and musicians; the pain and love that they expressed.  The ancient culture that we could never feign to understand in the West.

Breaking My Erotic Silence

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

After watching the excellent film The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I had no choice but to pick up Dalma Heyn’s book, The Erotic Silence of the American Wife.

In the film, Pippa marries a wealthy man thirty years her senior when she is a young runaway living on the edge.  She mutates from being an expressive human being with problems into the stilted and empty role of being the Perfect Wife.  But underneath all of her prim lines, you sense the real Pippa lurking underneath.  She begins sleepwalking, ending up at the min-mart where she buys cigarettes.  And then, out to lunch with her neurotic friend, Pippa begins to combust:

“You could be married to anybody, if that’s what you’re worried about.  Marriage is an act of will.  I mean, I adore Herb, but our marriage functions because we will it to.  If you leave love to hold everything together, you can forget it.  Love comes and goes with the breeze, minute by minute.”

When Dalma Heyn set out to write her book comprised of years worth of interviews with wives who committed adultery, she began with an armload of clichés, stereotypes, and societal views that had nothing to do with the feelings of actual women, their marriages, and their experiences.  The problem that all of these women shared, was that they bought into the ideal of the Perfect Wife – she is selfless, giving, able to predict the needs of everyone else, without ever meeting her own needs.  When these women don’t measure up to this idea of goodness (and no one ever does or should), they constantly feel bad – they are a failure, there is something wrong with them.  In the process, they disconnect completely from themselves and go numb.  They can no longer experience a fulfilling sex life either.  They’ve become what they thought was their husband’s fantasy, but it has nothing to do with them.  They are looking at themselves from the outside in.

“They spoke of a profound awareness that they were somehow no longer themselves, that they weren’t in a relationship but playing a role in one (Heyn, 103)…”

They wonder what became of the sexual outlaw they were before marriage.  Some of the women had not even had premarital sex.  Regardless, women from their twenties to their seventies, and all walks of life, experience adultery as a rebirth of self.  They don’t experience shame or guilt – they experience life, total joy and an uninhibited place to reclaim their authenticity.  They seek out men that have none of the prerequisites that they look for in a husband or even a boyfriend.  They might not even be in love with these men, it doesn’t matter; the experience of total freedom is the same.

The women often have no desire to leave their husbands.  But through the experience of adultery, they understand that they need to change the shape of their marriages, so that at last, their needs can factor into the relationship.  There is no going back to the Perfect Wife.  Some of the women never tell their husbands and fare well, while a large percentage of the women who do tell end up in divorce.  But every marriage is different with different outcomes.

I never thought that I would get married because I loved being single so much.  My sexuality was the ultimate adventure for me.  So sometimes, I wonder, how did I end up married to a man whose sexuality is so vanilla.  He’s turning fifty this year, and though he thinks of having sex all the time, it’s often the last priority.  When it doesn’t feel like a routine, when he isn’t being too sensitive and careful, sex between us is wonderful, but rarely ever dark, or seductive, or unbridled.  Can these things exist in a marriage?  I always thought they could.

When we were dating he struggled to keep up with me.  He stayed up late with me till the early morning hours and we had sex everyday.  He was working three jobs and started to feel the pressure.

Around the same time, I decided to give him a fashion show.  I went into my closet and put on all my old fetish gear – vinyl, thigh-high fishnets, towering platforms.  When I paraded out, he was not aroused by it at all.  He said I was playing the part of someone else.  Maybe it was who I was before he met me, maybe I never was that role to begin with.  It just wasn’t for him.  He wanted me to put on a sleek and elegant dress instead.  I’d never encountered a man who didn’t go crazy over artifice.  For a week after that, he struggled sexually, and then unbeknownst to me, Viagra saved the day.

For him, the two events were unrelated, but after that week, I stopped taking risks.  I started feeling nervous about making him uncomfortable.  I left my kinks behind.  He loves my strength in all facets of our life together.  But he has a puritan side, a clumsy embarrassment over anything out of the ordinary.

The other issue is that he’s not the string bean-types that I used to date.  He’s like one of those massive warriors that you see in movies like 300.  Built like a rock, solid, stocky, with huge hands that don’t know their own strength.  When I told him that I like to be choked, he gave it a try and almost broke my neck.  When he sleeps with his arm across my chest, my ribs begin to feel like they’re crushing under the pressure and I panic, trying desperately to wake myself.  I’m still learning how to live with our differences.

But life is also easier, happier, more content with him.  We can’t get enough of being together – we work together, go out all the time, talk openly about everything, and share our passions.  It’s always fun, even when we’re fighting.  We don’t buy into the term “settling down” like many couples do.  I play the role of the Perfect Wife more for my parents than my husband.  When they show up, everything is clean and dinner is delicious.  When they’re not here, our lives are chaotic and slightly out of control.

I don’t idealize our relationship.  I didn’t marry a man for his status or money.  I married a fellow outlaw, who lives by his own rules, and makes me laugh.  I’m well aware that the future is uncertain.  I’ll be surprised if our marriage survives for the rest of our lives, and I very much hope that it does.  And does that only mean the rest of his life, since I’m so much younger?  I make jokes about being a wealthy old widow, living like a gypsy and on the prowl.  But really, it’s just to make myself feel better about the unknown.

I went through some confusing changes in the process of our growing closer.  Like a rubber band snapping back and forth.  I was caught up in the whirlwind, in the romance in the beginning.  Then after our engagement I rebelled and fought and wanted to leave.  I couldn’t figure out what I was doing.  But on our wedding day, it all made sense.

For a short while, I turned into an old lady, had no real friends, started to compensate for my husband’s reckless, accident-prone nature by being extremely anxious, nervous, overly careful.  At times, the pressure of being a wife overwhelms me.  I’ve often wanted to run back to when my life was more straightforward and simple – when I could just work, do my art, and have sex with random people every now and then.

Sex was self-discovery, mutual-discovery, empathic-discovery.  Married sex is something completely different that I don’t quite understand.  It’s like we need to learn to speak each other’s languages, and haven’t quite gotten there yet.

There is a strange role-reversal where in our relationship I am supposed to be more like the man and he is more like the woman.  He wants to cuddle and be close, and I just want to get laid.  He wants to work up to it for long periods of time, while I get bored waiting.  He wants me to initiate, while I just want to feel wanted.  And yet, he is enormously giving, patient, and selfless – which makes me feel like an impatient, selfish, taker.

No couple is perfect, and somehow our differences balance things out.  My husband is the first man I was ever in a committed relationship with.  I guess I got bored with everything else.  Before we met, I had become an evil heartbreaker.  The ego trip felt nice, but it didn’t feel right to hurt people and feel nothing.  My husband didn’t buy all that crap.  He saw right through it (though he admits to being scared of me at first).  It was good to be seen at last.  Really seen.  It still is.

When I think of other men sexually, I wonder what would be the point, when there’s only one man who lets me be who I really am.  Maybe not the dominatrix side, but every other side.  Everyone else pales in comparison.  Everyone else seems like they’re missing something.  With everyone I dated before, I was never really myself, and was never accepted to begin with.

I am the subject of my husband’s life.  He says that I give his life meaning.  He even took my last name.

Yesterday was our 2nd Anniversary.  I hemmed my wedding dress and surprised him by wearing it on our dinner date, along with my birdcage veil, and my grandmother’s jade necklace.  We talked about our plans for building our future together.  We talked openly and honestly about how we really feel about all of it.  We raved over Sea Urchin, Veal Sweetbreads, Cavatelli with Morels, Chocolate Truffle Cake with Black Cherries.  We even talked about this post, and how our memories are different, and yet the same.

This is the first openly honest thing I’ve ever written about my husband, stripped of all the idealistic tripe.  I’m breaking my erotic silence.

The Man Trap

March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

            In Alix Kates Shulman’s 1972 novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Sasha fights against the traps of being a woman.  As a child, the boy’s are pure enemies.  She is attacked, held down and pantsed so the boys can stare at her vagina with a ‘seen one, seen them all’ look on their faces.  As an adolescent she is lured into a ride home by a group of boys, only to be driven to a remote location where they can force her to touch a boy’s penis.

Her first boyfriend cares less about her than about getting laid, though she knows that if anyone finds out she’ll be expelled from her sorority and shunned by her classmates.  Her first job backfires when the cook threatens her to try and get her to sleep with him.  In college her dream of pre-law is put aside when she falls in love with Philosophy and the Philosophy professor.  By the time she’s playing with the big boys, attempting a PhD at Columbia – she is treated with so much disdain for being a woman in the program that she stops speaking in class and flocks to the safety of the wives in the kitchen.  She begins to panic that she’s getting too old and too educated.  So she marries the first guy who treats her well.

As soon as they’re married, of course, he stops talking to her.  He can’t hide his contempt.  His life has a grand purpose, while she supports him at menial jobs.  Her mind is no longer stimulating to him or to herself.  All he wants is his dinner.

“Why was everything nice he did for me a bribe or a favor, while my kindnesses to him were my duty (Shulman, 5)?”

She embarks on a series of affairs, but every time she leaves her husband she falls into the same man traps wherever she goes.  A lover in Spain, in Italy, and then eventually a second husband and two kids.  Completely dependent on a man who secretly hungers for carefree youth, she is constantly afraid he will leave her.

Interesting too, are Sasha’s musings over her physical self.  At fifteen she is crowned Queen of the Bunny Hop.  By twenty-four she fears that she is old, and that people would find it laughable to think she was once considered beautiful.  There is always that disconnect between how others see her, and how she feels she looks.

“Could it be that the prettier I grew the worse I would be treated?  Much likelier, I thought, I wasn’t really pretty (Shulman, 49).”

You have to wonder, though there were many disadvantages to being a woman at that time, did Sasha’s beauty add to her disempowerment?  Beautiful women are rarely ever noticed for their minds.  Sasha hates a come-on as much as she loves it.  On one hand it proves she’s still beautiful, on the other it reminds her she is vulnerable, even to possible attack.  Being valued for her looks is also emotionally damaging as age removes her worth.

Forty years since this book was published, the ultimate value of a woman is still judged on the basis of physical beauty.  A woman in the public eye who is not attractive is torn to shreds (for example, Hilary Clinton), while a beautiful woman is adored by everyone (Angelina Jolie).  Success and accomplishment are no protection from the scrutiny.  But will we remember Angelina Jolie for her excellent screenwriting skills, or will we remember her more for how hot she looked baring her leg at the Oscars?  Being beautiful, unfortunately, is a distraction from the accomplishments you weren’t born with.

I can vouch that when I was in my physical prime (early twenties), no one was really interested in hearing my poetry.  They just wanted me to wear hot pants to a party, and I was more than willing to flaunt it.  I never felt valued for who I was on the inside.  But I enjoyed all the attention otherwise.  And eventually I learned to lead with my personality rather than my appearance.

Beneath this was an insatiable need for affirmation.  Growing up in school I had been completely invisible.  I was always quiet and up in my head.  I was a dork – ugly, awkward, insecure, with bad grades and braces.  My quietness made the other kids uncomfortable.  Boys never talked to me unless it was to mock me or scare the shit out of me with sexual threats.  Maybe it was that total and complete lack of control that turned me into a control freak.  All I knew was, someday I wanted to be in charge.

If I had remained in the church, men and the life in general would have most certainly been a trap.  But outside of the church and those old fashioned values, men were my freedom.  In fact, the men I fell for brought my dreams to life.  For a long time I lived in a fantasy.  All of my relationships were open with no responsibilities involved.

Marriage and monogamy, however, are so based in reality, I have to admit, I’m still struggling to get used to it.  It’s hard to keep marriage exciting – especially when you are living with your best friend.  Sex is not the first thought, it’s the after-thought.  And it is sometimes difficult to not equate marriage as an institution akin to the church.  When I left religion, I celebrated all of my freedoms from repression.  But then when you get married, there are parts of yourself that inevitably become repressed to protect your relationship.  It’s like a catch-22, because you’ve never been happier than with your partner, but in order for that to survive, you can’t just do and say whatever you want.  You can no longer be selfish as you begin to think through this other person and their feelings.

But for the first time, I am finally loved for who I really am, and my husband embraces the free spirit in me.  He brings warmth and brightness to my life, whereas before, life was dark, edgy and unpredictable.

In Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen Sasha bemoans the traps of womanhood, laughing it off as all her fears come to pass.  There is always the clock ticking, the beauty slipping, the value falling down.  She runs from her own brilliance into the arms of man, where frets and responsibilities distract her from dreams that became insurmountable.

Memoirs was written from the standpoint of a very different time – but every time has its pitfalls and struggles for the sake of biology.  The balance between men and women is precarious and difficult.  Alix Kates Shulman based much of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen off of her own life.  Though her life story is such a great success (even helping to lead the famous protest at the Miss America Pageant), Sasha’s story ends in defeat.  I prefer to look beyond the book’s ending into Shulman’s inspiring example, trailblazing for women, allowing nothing to hold her back.

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