Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Racism & Middle School

When I pick up my middle-schoolers at the end of the day, I park on the north side of the school. Because I park on the north side, nearly every child who walks past my car is African-American. If I parked on the south street, or the east, or the west, where the houses are bigger, most of the kids walking home would have different complexions. But I park here and this is Wichita.

Despite the downtown sculpture commemorating one of the first lunch counter sit-ins for civil rights, Wichita still has ghetto neighborhoods. The word sounds pejorative, politically incorrect, but the dictionary assures me it is the correct choice: “a quarter of the city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure”. Wichita definitely has ghettos and one of them is north of our school. We’ve talked about it in the car. You don’t have to be a sociologist to notice that all the kids clustered at the crosswalk heading north are black.

Diversity is one of the things we love most about our middle school. It was certainly one of the first things I noticed. One in four students is black. Similar to our elementary school, fewer than half the students are white, and the school has strong Hispanic and Asian representation. Many of my kids’ classmates are bilingual. When my kids spend time with them, they are introduced to other languages and customs, unfamiliar foods and religious traditions. I’ve come to see that building these connections is not merely enriching, but essential for a healthy community.

Even so, I was unprepared for our middle school’s cultural showcase family night last month. My sixth-grader had interviewed an elderly relative, gathered photos, and researched the history of her Kansas heritage, while my son had created a presentation around a family recipe from Pennsylvania, complete with samples to share. Our calendar was a jigsaw puzzle of assignments, schedules, and places to be, so it wasn’t till I delivered my children on time that night and began to look around that I realized hundreds of other students had done the same things.

In one room students exhibited colorful posters depicting their heritage, values, family traditions, religious symbols, hobbies and allegiances. As we milled through the crowd of other families, the posters forming a collage on the floor, I paid extra attention to the diversity of religions—Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Protestant, maybe others I’ve forgotten—and appreciated the creativity that went into each poster’s design, revealing hints about the personality of the student presenting it.

The school's lunch room was transformed into a crowded international food court, each student’s booth offering a taste of a dish important to his/her family. Next to midwestern staples like apple pie, monkey bread, and—my favorite—“funeral potatoes”, sat traditional homemade tortillas, Mexican mole, South American ceviche. There were dishes from Norway and Lebanon, Germany and Japan. Parents and children jostled elbows past platters of hummus, fish, sticky rice, two versions of lumpia, and plenty of recipes I didn’t recognize. I sampled the layered Vietnamese coffee-coconut-&-pandan jelly and a syrupy golden dessert made with semolina.

Some children had compiled websites to present information from their family heritage. Others had typewritten reports based on interviews with family members. We skimmed stories about people who’d grown up in Beirut, in India, in Bangladesh, in Vietnam, on the Korean Peninsula. Each story (and I only read a sample of the dozens arranged on cafeteria tables) connected to one of my child’s classmates, made the places on the news feel a little closer.

It wasn’t until we got home that I felt something had been missing. Some place. Some one.
Africa! And not African stories or African cuisine, but Africa’s people. While the rest of us celebrated the families and lands we hailed from, Earth’s second most populous continent had been absent from the school that night. I hadn’t seen any soul food, no interviews that mentioned Martin Luther King or Jim Crow, no posters by African immigrants. Had I overlooked them?

At elementary school enrollment, at middle school concerts, at high school project fairs, I always rub shoulders with black families, many of them. How had I overlooked them on this night? The next day I quizzed three other parents who’d attended. Had they noticed any African-American students or parents? They couldn’t remember seeing any, either..

That’s when it hit me that the culture fair was only for students, like mine, enrolled in the academically rigorous pre-IB program. The first time I heard of it was when a teacher recommended it during 5th-grade conferences. Parents have to submit complex applications with multiple teacher endorsements and students have to achieve high enough scores on special weekend testing days.

Only one Wichita school offers the pre-IB program and space is limited. It’s a fantastic program for my children, keeping them challenged while preparing them for success in high school, where grades count for scholarships. But in a school that’s 25% black (drawing students from elementary schools that range from 12% to 52% black) the pre-IB program, as far as I can tell, no more than 5% black, at most. African-American males are almost non-existent in pre-IB.

When I tagged along with my daughter on my first middle school field trip, I was startled to see that the black boys she’d had as elementary classmates had disappeared, along with most of the black girls. In their place were more white kids, more kids from all over Asia and the Middle East. And though its presence was subtle at first, their families had more money. Here, my kids learn alongside their African-American peers only in their elective classes and in P.E., where expectations are lower, discipline laxer, and the students my kids now breezily refer to as “Reg. Ed.” suffer considerably less performance anxiety.

It pains me to consider that much of my kids’ middle school experience is, for all practical purposes, segregated. It pains me because when people are segregated, both sides lose. And it pains me because as I sit at the curb in my late-model SUV watching obviously “Reg. Ed.” kids walk home across Central Avenue, I wonder how pre-IB adolescents can avoid developing a sense of elitism.

I put my kids in public school because I wanted them to be part of the mixed-up circus that is the human family. I wanted to throw my lot in with that of the whole community, give my kids a common experience with their peers, sharing the same rules and opportunities, neither fearing nor feeling superior to people with different backgrounds. And yet, if African-American kids aren’t getting into competitive classes, can we call our education system equal?

Are black students failing the required testing? Or are their parents not applying for the program? Does it sound too stressful or intimidating? Is pre-IB an elite secret? Are teachers recommending the program as an option for black students? If not, why not? Are black students falling behind their peers in elementary school? If they are, how can we help? It surely wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that from the beginning of their education, perhaps the only black adult male they see at school is the custodian?

Representation matters. It matters for the population represented, and it matters for those who observe. Kids aren’t stupid. Every morning they hear words like “one nation”, “indivisible”, “justice for all”, but at the end of the day the black kids walk north. Because in Wichita, we’re not all equal. Not yet.

Wichita ceased mandatory busing for school integration years ago, and today many of our schools are once again predominantly one race or another. And it’s no secret that the black elementary school in the neighborhood to the north and the Hispanic elementary school to the west are made up almost entirely of low-income students, while the mostly white school to the south is considerably better off. Those kids come together to share a building for the middle school grades, but they do not share the same experience.

We need more diversity; we need more equality. We need better funding for ALL elementary schools, especially those in low-income areas. We need more black teachers. We need better pay for those teachers. And we need to address the socio-economic factors that allow ghettos to exist at all. In 21st-century Kansas, one’s chance of survival to school age should not be dependent on one’s race, or one’s zip code.

I ponder these things and drum on the steering wheel. And then my kids climb in. They squeeze in their backpacks, their instruments, their lunch pouches. They buckle their seat-belts. I turn the car east and ask about homework. We talk about snacks, and what’s for dinner.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Pamela's Prayer and Purity Culture

Do you ever find yourself at a loss to describe "purity culture"?

To explain how it supplants individual agency, conscience, and boundaries in favor of ignorant obedience?

How it sets young people up for abusive relationships?

How it equates innocence with virtue?

How it demeans women by claiming to "protect" them as precious jewels?

Well, you are in luck, my friend, because the 1998 independent evangelical film Pamela's Prayer is now available on Amazon Prime. And there is nothing subtle about it.

Even struggles to describe this highly unusual irregular story, which not only lays out the most rigorous principles of so-called sexual "purity" but includes an unforgettable example of emotional incest as a bonus. Yes, that's Pamela's dad on her bed in the picture.

I will admit to shedding a few tears when I watched this movie as a 20-something in the IBLP cult. As extreme as the story was, it still seemed sweet and romantic. Its very existence was an acknowledgement of my yearning for heterosexual companionship. And I was already older than the bride in the story.

I didn't yet have the vocabulary to discuss the characters' psychology. It would be another decade or more before I began to grasp concepts such as: grief, attachment, trauma, self-care, sexual repression, bounded choice, emotional incest, emotional abuse and control, intimacy, boundaries, autonomy, enmeshment, differentiation...

Pamela's Prayer has come to mind occasionally over the years, so when my sister told me it is now available online, I was curious. Surely it wasn't as unhealthy and gag-worthy as I remembered? I hit play, then dragged the marker to the last ten minutes to find out.

No, it was worse.

My kids won't be watching this movie, but if they did we would talk about...

  • How Pamela's widowed father could have cared for his own emotional needs by investing in healthy peer relationships. 
  • How a person's worth is not measured by sexual experience or lack of it. 
  • Developing healthy independence from parents.
  • What qualities to look for in a romantic or sexual partner. 
  • In what ways parent-child relationships are different from partner-spouse relationships. 
  • How each couple negotiates the boundaries of their relationship.
  • Dating as self-discovery.
  • How the goal is not a wedding, but mutual trust, pleasure, and growth.
  • And so on...

In many ways, my courtship experience paralleled Pamela's in the movie. Some would look at my marriage today and consider it proof that "purity" works. But I beg to differ. I'm not proud of avoiding intimacy so long, and I believe our relationship owes its success to other factors.

More about leaving "purity" behind in an upcoming post!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Paczki, Thanksgiving, Gingerbread

A couple of weeks ago, our Kroger was selling pazcki--a rich Polish Fat Tuesday treat that evoked numerous memories of "fasting" from pleasures during Lent.

Losing our religion meant losing plenty of rituals, too. I tried to salvage what I could, but holidays--etched as they are with emotional baggage, cultural expectations, and sometimes religious history--had been rough for me for years, even as a devout theist. It's not as if I wanted to spend every Christmas Day tearful and depressed, but over decades, it had become my tradition!

I keep trying to jettison those Norman Rockwell expectations. It was a big deal the year we didn't have a single guest for Thanksgiving. I closed the kitchen and we ate our favorite snacks instead. And lots of pie. It's not that the holiday was so tied to religion (it's based more on American mythology, after all), but here in the Midwest, it encapsulates so many tropes about family and culture.

I love turkey, so I roasted one the week before and had leftovers for turkey sandwiches. We watched the Macy's parade and played games and read books. There were hardly any dirty dishes and everyone was happy! (The next year I tried to duplicate my success, but ended up sobbing in my room. Disney magic to the rescue--"Moana" and popcorn at the theater were just the diversion I needed.)

I can't lie; Christmas is still hard. But according to my journals, it always has been. The first holiday season after my faith in the "Virgin Birth" dissolved, I felt truly unmoored and the only song that felt comforting was Faith Hill's "Where Are You, Christmas?"

Some of my family's traditions survived the transition with us: secular advent calendars are easy to find. Some years we light count-down candles on an evergreen wreath centerpiece. We still hang garlands and lights or tinsel, put up a tree, bake holiday treats. We still watch The Muppets' Christmas Carol. I made a new playlist of holiday tunes that aren't triggering. One Christmas, we watched reruns of Leave It To Beaver all day. Another year, we enjoyed the company of a friend visiting from Colorado and played with our new puppy. Sometimes we see family; other years it is just us.

We talk a lot about the meaning of the Santa myth and older customs that sprang up around the darkest part of the year. Last year we hosted our first Winter Solstice party! I steered away from the colors I associated with Christmas and focused on other seasonal elements. As the door closed on the last friend that night, the evening felt like a great success. When we opened Christmas presents a few days later, my emotions were still buoyed by the warmth of that night.


At first after deconversion, I felt like Easter had been stolen from me. But I dug a little deeper, checked out some library books, and connected with the ancient celebrations of spring, water, life, and rebirth. Some years we color eggs, or bake cookies. We've had egg hunts; we've invited guests for a fancy brunch. Last year we kept it simple with real flowers and chocolate bunnies.

Of course, new traditions have a way of growing all on their own.

My menus have always celebrated the seasons: the first rhubarb coffeecake in spring, mandatory annual asparagus, the sweet peak of berry season, a box of ripe peaches, pasta tossed with garden-fresh pesto, warm and fragrant applesauce, roasted butternut squash, hot mulled cranberry juice in front of the fireplace, citrus biscotti making bleak January mornings more bearable...

Where my family read missionary stories aloud and closed the evening with prayers, our kids love to wrap up the day with an episode of Phineas and FerbStar Trek: The Next Generation, or M*A*S*H before heading upstairs for quiet reading followed by hugs, kisses, and lights-out. Right now, we're enjoying the last season of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Towel Day 
On May 25, like fans worldwide, we made time to celebrate the life of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. We curled up on the couch with snacks and, of course, towels, to watch the movie together. We sang the opening song along with the dolphins. We laughed. We pointed out our favorite scenes and actors. We celebrated the brilliance of the late Alan Rickman even as we mourned his passing. We watched the deleted scenes. By bedtime everyone felt warm and cozy and good about life, whatever its meaning. It was as close to a happy holiday experience as we'd ever had.

It's too soon to say what other family rituals our kids will remember as traditions.

Pi Day?
Winter Solstice?
Star Wars "May the Fourth"?
Beach vacations?
Afternoons spent in the backyard Tardis?
Watching fireworks?
Meteor showers?
Or maybe something spontaneous--like the innocent gingerbread that turned into a jolly family bikini-drawing contest. :-)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

On Seeing and Being Seen

Seated on my therapist's couch a few weeks after the election, the words tumbled out recounting both my successes and the rumblings of fresh anxiety now threatening my progress. As I waited for the elevator after our session, just one of her observations echoed in my head. Since then, it has etched itself on the walls of my mind in burning gold.
"You weren't seen. You need others to see you. Maybe someday you'll be able to see yourself."

The election shook me, for sure. It left me questioning,
"Can anyone hear me? Hear us? Don't they see us out here? Are they BLIND, or am I invisible? Do my tweets fall into a void? Does anyone notice my pins and posts and likes and upvotes? Do I make any difference?"

The new children's film A Monster Calls captures the emotion of feeling infuriatingly invisible.
"Do you know what I see when I look at you, O'Malley? I see nothing."
And then one day the invisible man decided, I will make them see me.

These blog posts document years of attempts to "make them see me". By their very nature, abuse and neglect have the effect of making victims feel invisible. So I've written about women erased from their own stories. About feeling hidden, and trapped. About learning to speak up, to take up space, to hold my groundto live out loud.

Watching the Golden Globes, I was caught off guard by the powerful compliment Viola Davis paid to Meryl Streep:
"She sees you."
Davis went on, telling Streep: 
"You make me feel that what I have in me--my body, my face, my age--is enough."

Could that be what my counselor meant?

Maybe seeing myself is what I've been trying to do all along.

As if the selfies, status updates, blog posts, dates, marches, and performances on stage will somehow prove that I was here. 

I appreciate the people who can make me feel seen. For now, I still look to them for clues about how to see myself. Because despite my intention, I'm not there yet.

But maybe, someday, I'll be able to see myself.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Shedding My Skin

One day perhaps I'll pick up Our Courtship Story again, but for now, I have to jump to to the end and write an epilogue. 

Wedding shower my parents' church held for us.

When I worked for IBLP in Oklahoma, my roommate and I once perused bridal magazines and selected our favorite dresses. I was conservative, of course: the gown I chose was appropriate for a much older woman, rich with textures of silk and lace.

Sometime after Chris delivered an engagement ring to the southern Philippines, I began browsing for dress patterns over SIL's tenuous Internet connection. Believing I'd have to sew much of it myself, I looked for simplicity and lines that would easily skim the figure I considered "curvy". (These days, a few pounds heavier and many scruples lighter, I dress myself two sizes smaller.)

The ivory raw silk came from a textile bazaar in Manila. I adored its natural texture, not satiny like lingerie I'd never owned, but nubby and matte. I'd warned my parents that I would not be wearing snow white, but I don't recall that they expressed any alarm. I was still as sexually ignorant as they could have hoped, but years with IBLP had given me an aversion to white.

The zipper and darling oval buttons we bought at a fabric store in Wichita, where Chris's mom did most of the sewing for me three weeks before the wedding. Fearful that my mom would find fault with the dress (the bust too tight? the neckline too scooped? the hips too hugged?) I left it in Kansas, revealing it to Mama just days before the ceremony, with my outspoken aunt present to deter any negative remarks.

Minimize cleavage!
I did feel slightly princess-like in the dress, in a medieval sort of way, but it was far from the image I'd always carried of what a wedding gown should be. Its lack of sparkle, detail, and embellishment was a great disappointment to one of my baby sisters, who reassured herself and me with, "Well, I guess you're just having a cheap wedding..." It was true. The simple nylon slip underneath--necessary to hide the full-coverage bra and granny panties--cost more than the dress itself.

Bless my maid-of-honor, she tried. She took me to Victoria's Secret herself and bought me a black lace bra, which she declared every married woman ought to have. But like David walking around in Saul's armor, I was not used to such accoutrements. So for my wedding day, I stuck to the familiar.

By the time I exchanged the bridal gown for a honeymoon travel dress a few hours later, I'd acquired a new ring, a new name, a new status. Not to mention my first kiss.

The cleaned silk hung in the back of our closet for years, coming out on rare occasions: A church Valentine's banquet. Our wedding anniversary between pregnancies. When I was finished breastfeeding, to see if it still zipped! And then, last year, when I again withdrew the dress from its vinyl sheath.  

My sentiment for the gown had diminished, representing as it did too much of the life we'd repudiated. We'd taken the wedding photos off the living room wall years earlier and hidden them in the spare room closet. I'd found it healing to recount the unwritten portion of our courtship saga to another lover. I was mourning my first romantic break-up. And I had an idea for a costume for my first Halloween party, and it involved repurposing my wedding gown.

On that September day, I slid the silk off the hanger and eyed it anxiously, scissors in hand. Isn't a bride's dress sacred, in some way? Yet here I was, ready to do some permanent damage.
Pulling out my wedding gown again was more triggering than either of us expected. So many emotions and flashbacks! Then I remembered that the guarded girl who donned that dress one October morning fourteen years ago has vanished. Out of that silken chrysalis has emerged a stronger vibrant woman carrying all the old memories but possessing new powers and a hell of a lot more wisdom.
I didn't end up using the dress for Halloween, but Chris did agree to help bring another artistic vision to life that day. He also finally told me that he'd never found this dress sexy. Ahem! Well, at least he was smart enough not to judge the cake by its austere frosting!

Those yards of silk were more symbolic in the backyard that day than they ever had been. I was as if I had at last shrugged off a skin that no longer fit, fought out of a cocoon to enjoy a winged new life.

In the year since, I've been aware of rapidly increasing distance between my past and my present, and most of the time, I'm completely comfortable with that.

I have finally created the life I want, and how many people can say that?

Thursday, November 17, 2016


MI Right to Life oratorical contest
As a teenager raised in the Religious Right, I was passionate about politics, state and local government, and activism for the causes we supported, though I struggled with cognitive dissonance regarding the biblical role of women! 

After I married and moved to Kansas, for a host of reasons, my community involvement waned. The passion was still alive, but life was broadening my experience and my adult values were evolving. 

Midsummer last year, I decided to attend an ACLU meeting held at a local church. I was uncomfortable walking into a church building to listen to a man named after an Old Testament prophet, but was relieved to see some familiar faces around me. As the speaker talked and answered questions, I began to feel that I belonged, after all. 

A friend who witnessed my almost giddy afterglow that night said I ought to get more involved in activism--it animated me so. I took his observations to heart and weeks later, I volunteered at an abortion clinic for the first time. Turns out, that was only a beginning!

Since then, I've met so many brave and amazing people. 

I've been trusted with so many personal stories. 

     I've cried and cried. 
     I've felt fear, and even hate.
     I've been angry to my core. 
     I've given and received the best hugs.
     My compassion and courage have grown.

I've been yelled at by Christians who take down my license plate number.

I've learned how to treat myself more kindly.

My values have become crystal clear. 

Distributing condoms at Kansas State Fair

Representing Wichita NOW
in the Wichita Pride Parade

Campaign to rally feminist votes

Honk if you like safe sex!

Post-election rally for equality and justice
(Wichita State University)

Whether I'm speaking up loudly or quietly supporting people exercising their rights, whether I can measure it or not, I know my involvement makes a difference. 

I want the world my kids live in to be more fair, more equal, and more kind. I'll keep doing what I can to make that happen. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Moving Forward by Looking Back

"...A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them..." 
Eccl. 3:5

Last month, I revisited my hometown.

I was homesick for the fall beauty of the Great Lakes region, for the wooded trails and the beach sand, for whitefish and Cornish pasties and cherry wine.

Autumn has always been the most emotional season for me, and after so many years away, I was hungry to experience it again in Michigan. So I packed up my "magic carpet" Honda and set off on an adventure--my longest road trip yet!

Shore of Lake Michigan

My daughter rode along and we made lovely new memories without much triggering unpleasant old ones. Friends spoiled me with kindness along the way. Driving near Chicago and recognizing landmarks from my IBLP days, I felt powerful. As we got closer to my childhood home, I realized I was driving some roads for the first time. (I never owned a car when I lived at home, and Chris did most of the driving on our family trips.) 

It felt strange not to visit my parents! One of my baby sisters kindly shared her apartment with us, but this trip was for my own healing, not a family reunion. And after four years of anxious avoidance, it was healing!

Grand Traverse Wine Country

I let my senses delight in Traverse City: blazing autumn trees, indecisive rain, beach sand, chill breezes off the lake, smoothed flat stones picked from the cold water, fishy air by the marina, fuzzy scarlet sumac, squawking gulls, black swamp mud, soft and aromatic fresh pine needles, damp smells of the forest, crunching fallen leaves, fragrant ripe apples...

Every beautiful step was awash with memories good and bad. but this time, instead of feeling triggered, I felt "grounded". Aware that while my life there will always be my Part One, I am living my Part Two here in Kansas, where I choose my own roles among people who love, value, and support me. I've shed the parts of my past that no longer fit the woman I want to be and created the life I actually want.

I feel incredibly lucky to have all the things that make me happy:
A generous and loyal partner.
Enriching relationships of all kinds.
Stories. Sex. Dancing. Art.
Meaningful work: motherhood, feminism, and helping women create the lives they want.

Shedding my old "skin" 
It feels good to be alive right now.

Breathing freely.

Embracing and letting go.

Saying and doing all the things I want to say and do, and trying all sorts of fun new things!

I'm glad life has seasons that soothe us and help us heal so that we can grow and thrive once more.