Monday, April 13, 2015

Violence Against Children

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

I grew up in an abusive home.
Love and warmth and fun were there, too, but it was a very conservative, "born-again Bible-believing" Christian home where violence against even very young children was part of our parents' religious practice.

We were beaten frequently with wooden rods, both as punishment and to remove foolishness from our hearts. Beatings (we called them "spankings" then, but they were very painful, sometimes extended, and usually left bruises) were sometimes concluded with hugs, assurances of how much we were loved, or with a prayer to the God who required my parents to hit us for our own good. For years after we were deemed too old to spank, we watched or listened as our younger siblings received the same "discipline" we could still feel in our own bodies. And we were traumatized.

It took me years, even decades, to admit that my siblings and I were abused. And in that time, despite good intentions and preventive safeguards, I ignorantly perpetuated some of the same abuse toward my own kids. Recognizing the difference between training and abuse was a slow process, aided by plenty of reading (the Love & Logic series, numerous memoirs, Charles Dickens, child development, the effects and treatment of trauma), movies (Jane Eyre, Nicholas Nickleby, Lost in Yonkers), and talking to therapists.

It was painful to accept that some of what I had believed to be responsible parenting was actually abuse. Painful because I didn't want to be an abusive parent, and painful because I didn't want to believe that I had had abusive parents. But even if my parents had the best intentions, they did abuse us, nevertheless, using violence, intimidation, shame, and isolation to control our behavior.

(For a full-page version of the above graphic, and other helpful tools, visit The Duluth Model website.)

Therapist and educator Robbyn Peters Bennett is the founder of
In her TEDxTalk titled "Violence--a family tradition", Bennett describes the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which linked toxic stress in childhood (including the fear of being hit) with social, emotional, and physical problems--and even reduced life expectancy--in adulthood.

"Spanking is sanctioned violence against children." --Robbyn Peters Bennett

  • University of Michigan study found that "spanking is ineffective, and only further exacerbates aggressive child behaviors".
  • Canadian study warned that spanking could cause "long-term developmental damage" to the brain and even lower a child's IQ.
  • Other research has linked spanking to destruction of children's mental health, increased delinquency, and a higher likelihood of physical abuse.
  • Researchers at Duke University found that "childhood anxiety actually gets worse when parents are very loving alongside using corporate punishment".
  • 46 countries now protect minors from corporal punishment.

The science is in, and spanking is out. If I had realized that spanking can damage the brain's ability to self-regulate, I would not have paddled my children when they were young. Unfortunately, many American states still allow educators to hit children in public schools, a situation Charles Dickens was deploring way back in 19th-century England.

Years have gone by since I discarded the spanking sticks, but my children still tell me that I am a nicer, kinder, calmer, and happier mom than I used to be.

As I unlearn childhood lessons and practice treating myself with kindness, patience, and respect, I have become gentler with my family, too. We all benefit from a home that is nurturing and safe, a space where each individual's right to his/her body is respected.

Last year, while helping with a local volunteer project alongside my daughter, an older man made a joke about spanking. I winced, but my daughter paid no attention. When the man looked confused by her lack of response, I found my voice.

"She doesn't know what you're talking about," I said, with a trace of pride. "We raised her right," I added, to make sure he felt my disapprobation.

I fervently hope the tradition of violence against children in this country will cease with my daughter's generation. It has gone on long enough.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Recently a friend described a situation as "awkward" and I laughed.

Not because it wasn't true, but because I spent decades developing a resistance to awkwardness. It's not that I don't still feel it, I just have a vast collection of awkwardness to compare against and as a result, I probably disregard awkward feelings more than some.

Because awkward is keeping a chamber pot under the seat of the family van.

Awkward is a family of seven camping inside a Suburban with said chamber pot.

Awkward is bringing the family plunger when you stay at a hotel.

Awkward is showing your grandma your new cotton swim-dress and matching pettipants.

Awkward is being mistaken for a reenactor's child at a historical park because of your dress and sunbonnet.

Awkward is dead flies dropping from the sticky flytape coils above to the kitchen counter when guests are present.

Awkward is being the only one wearing a dress and bloomers at a public beach, or at a swim party.

Awkward is swimming with your brothers in an outdoor hotel pool--you in a blouse and denim skirt with tights, them in rolled-up pajamas.

Awkward is the housekeeping staff gawking when your whole family swims fully-clothed in the indoor pool in the center of the hotel courtyard.

Awkward is abandoning the beach as soon as normally-clad swimmers show up.

Awkward is your mom placing a rolled-up comforter down the middle of the hotel bed to make sure you and your twelve-year-old brother don't touch.

Awkward is your family being invited to someone' home for a meal and your father accepting, then informing the host that your family follows Levitical dietary prohibitions against pork and some seafood.

Awkward is you trying not to enjoy it too much when an elderly relative serves ham anyway and your dad decides it would be more godly to eat it than to refuse.

Awkward is returning and exchanging the Narnia book you won as a Sunday School prize.

Awkward is your mom substituting "special" for "magic" in the poem you are to recite for the kindergarten program.

Awkward is not quite explaining that you're afraid to watch Titanic with your aunt because you heard there was nudity in it. (Because at 23, you've never seen nudity in a movie. So you hide in her guest room with your brother instead.)

Awkward is your family of eight standing and filing out of the church pew during a vocal solo--again. It is standing around the lobby not making eye contact with the ushers and then filing back into the empty row and taking sermon notes as if nothing ever happened.

Awkward is being instructed to write a letter (for "school") to a church family protesting the Halloween party they are hosting for the church at their farm. And wanting to hide from said family every Sunday from then on.

Awkward is looking stupidly at expectant trick-or-treaters who show up at your family's home when you've forgotten that it's even Halloween. What to say?

Awkward is writing a thank-you note for the Christmas gift your parents wouldn't let you open.

Awkward is turning the placemats face-down when celebrating a family milestone at Chinese restaurant.

Awkward is your dad telling the server not to bring fortune cookies.

Awkward is your sister telling you to stop shaking the bed you share, when you're masturbating.

Awkward is explaining to homeschooled friends...
  • ...why you aren't allowed to read Anne of Green Gables.
  • ...why you don't use Saxon math.
  • ...why you don't have a Christmas tree.

Awkward is a carload of strangers stopping at your house to tour your mom's organized closets.

Awkward is the cashier saying, "Good luck, whatever you're hoping!" when your virginal self is purchasing a pregnancy test for your mother.

Awkward is forcing a smile back for the cashier's sake and saying, "Thanks!" before driving home in the family Suburban, stomach knotted.

Awkward is asking the restaurant staff to lower/shut off the music. Extra awkward points if you are in a foreign country.

Awkward is not knowing what grade you are in.

Awkward is asking your younger brother if your shirt is "modest".

Awkward is being the adult in charge while your mother gives birth upstairs.

Awkward is waking up to find a test tube of umbilical cord blood in the refrigerator.

Awkward is going to the laundromat with your teenage brother to wash linens from a homebirth, because the ancient septic system at home has given up.

Awkward is being wedged between your grown brothers in a car back seat while wearing shorts for the first time as an adult.

Awkward is being a university student and not knowing the name of even one of the Beatles.

Awkward is trying to make out with your fiance without letting your lips touch.

Awkward is a plane ride with your new fiance, wondering when he wants to hold your hand for the first time.

Awkward is saying goodbye to a good friend without touching them.

Awkward is being the only single girl at church:
  • with bangs,
  • or wearing jewelry,
  • or not wearing a headcovering.

Awkward is your parents awarding you a high school diploma (backdated fourteen years) in front of your three kids.

Awkward is church leaders asking your family not to attend anymore. More awkward is still running into their family members socially.

Awkward is a family friend coming to the door and your mom only talking to him through the nearby window.

Awkward is reading your teenage diary, or your family's old Christmas letters.

Awkward is standing in the moonlight gazing down at the Golden Gate Bridge on the cusp of turning 21, with your... dad.

Awkward is realizing you were once a bridesmaid in a gay man's wedding.

Awkward is being "caught" watching a Jimmy Stewart movie with your college-age friends and fellow cult members--and trying to figure out how to apologize to whom for what.

Awkward is your toddler deciding that a dinner with company from church is the place to share her [limited] knowledge of penises.

Awkward is realizing that your wedding photos are too triggering to display anymore.

Awkward is explaining to a classmate who saw you having a full-fledged panic attack on the side of the road minutes earlier.

A photograph may capture a memory, but awkwardness sears the deeper emotional experience into the brain. And that's not always a bad thing!

We love to watch how others manage awkward situations--in sitcoms like Seinfeld, for example, where Kramer seems impervious to embarrassment, while George appears to lean in to it. And the more uncomfortable the scenario, the better we remember the episode, grateful that it isn't happening to us. My daughter used to cringe when we watched The Andy Griffith Show, Barney Fife's character embodying her worst fears of humiliation. Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean is even better, completely and, yes, awkwardly, unaware of how horribly uncomfortable he is making everyone around him.

So, a little awkwardness? Sure, it's an inevitable part of trying new things, having complex relationships, living a full life. We encourage our kids not to fear harmless awkwardness, and sometimes they give us surprising opportunities to model the nonchalance we preach. While embarrassment might make my face redden for a few minutes, I'm a lot more resilient than I think!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Our Courtship Story: Lessons in Life

Continued from Talking to Myself

January-February 2001

Back in Kansas, Chris was as frustrated with the slow pace as I was. Scott* would mail Chris a list of [some very personal] questions and Chris would fire off a lengthy response. And then he would wait.

As far as Chris, living in his parents' basement while working full-time, was concerned, this correspondence with my father had top priority. After all, his future happiness was at stake! Looking back, I realize my courtship was just one of many more immediate responsibilities my dad was juggling, He had ten kids at home: there were diapers to change, bathrooms to clean, cars to maintain, children to educate. He had a business to run, schoolwork to grade, lessons to share at church, three college-age kids to advise. It was the coldest, darkest part of winter in Michigan, his wife's father was dying of brain cancer, and now his grown daughter Andraste* wanted to apply for a job that required black pants as a uniform. Yeah, Scott had a lot on his plate.  

My dad took the job of evaluating the character of a potential son-in-law very seriously, and as swift decisiveness had never been Scott's strong suit, "negotiations", as I called them, dragged on maddeningly. Chris even dialed Scott's number one night and cried into the phone as he made his plea to be permitted to write to me. But on the other side of the planet, I knew nothing of this.

* * * * * *

Just a week into the new year, Bob and Pearl returned to Canada. I said my goodbyes at the SIL guest house and moved in with another Canadian, a petite and girlish grandma whom I will call Catherine*. Catherine's housemates had been called back to the States unexpectedly, so she offered me a room for the rest of my stay in Nasuli.

Posing with my travel buddies near Davao City
I had scarcely settled in before another adventure beckoned: Ted* and a buddy were making a trip south with Tina*, one of the linguist-translators. Would I like to ride along? The pilots could manage without me for a few days, and this was a chance to see much more of the island as well as meet many of the translators I contacted by radio each morning. I didn't have to be asked twice!

The adventure of travel--with its new foods, new vistas, new micro-climates, new bathroom plumbing systems to figure out--made me feel even more alive. We saw the geothermal plant on Mt. Apo and hiked a trail to some of the volcano's famous hot springs. I slept under a mosquito net for the first time, and sat beside a dead body with a grieving family when Tina's translation assistant died during the night.

The change of scenery, while emotionally grueling, was cathartic, too. And when I returned, I was more sure of myself. I changed my work computer's wallpaper to a photo of Chris and began telling people when they asked that he was the guy who wanted to marry me. When they were inevitably confused, I would explain about my dad, and permission, and agreements signed when I was a fifteen. I remember one long conversation about it with my married friends from New Zealand, who promised to pray for Chris and me.

Though I scarcely knew Catherine when I moved into her home, I soon came to value her as the kindest friend and mentor I could have asked for. Simply sharing life with this sunny-faced woman was an unexpected treat for me--watching her plan the menus and grocery lists, drinking hot tea together after lunch, washing the dishes together on Sunday, watching movies on Friday night, working on jigsaw puzzles and eating leftovers.

One weekend as Catherine and I lingered at the table, I confided my resentment. My teenage brother and sister were going to swing dances, yet Chris and I were banned from emailing each other?? In what universe did that make sense? She didn't offer answers, but her sympathy was a balm to my heart.

As the weeks went by, I grew increasingly distracted and it took greater effort to focus on my official tasks. We were working on some hand-drawn health booklets for Tina to share with her village when a page captured my attention. The booklet was offering women the most simplistic information about "natural" birth control, teaching them to identify their most fertile times. Intrigued and curious, I lost little time getting to the Nasuli library for more research.

My sex ed up to that point had been mostly limited to childbirth and menstruation, with a cursory explanation of fertilization. As I paged through old books--likely left behind by former Nasuli residents--on something called "the Billings method", I was amazed at how little I had understood my own body.

Suddenly what I had always thought of as fickle emotional swings made biological sense! So my waxing and waning physical desires were not a function of how "spiritual" I was on a given day, but of a natural and even predictable cyclical chemical sequence. Wow!

Though we'd been careful never to talk about marriage directly, following Gothard's express teaching, I knew from hypothetical situations we'd guardedly discussed that Chris would not sacrifice a wife's health or sanity for any "full quiver" ideal. Still, contraception had always been equated with abortion in my circles, so the notion that I could have some awareness and control of my fertility boosted my optimism. Perhaps there were practical ways to prevent being pregnant for the next fifteen years! Maybe, just maybe, marriage would be less of a self-renunciation than I'd braced myself for.

Stimulated by my new knowledge of my body, I lay in bed and pictured Chris lying beside me, imagined pressing his hand, touching his dark hair.

And I stopped there.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Our Courtship Story: Talking to Myself

This installment has been the most difficult to think about and wrap words around. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." I've always felt that something special was taken, or withheld, from me during what should have been the most beautiful part of my life so far. When Chris read this blog post, there were parts of the story that were new even to him. Now he knows why I like butterflies.

Continued from Staying Strong

January 2001

Nasuli hummed with activity the week after Christmas. Many missionary families came from other parts of the archipelago to vacation in the natural beauty of our rural campus: the chilly spring-fed pond, the warm river, fresh fruit, flowering trees, mountains and jungle waterfalls. My work load was lighter, which left me with more time to think.

I had decided I wanted to communicate with Chris. Why did I want to email him? Did I love him?

Dad had told me he was proud of me for being on the mission field. He had said he believed God would reward my trust. When I confided some of my story to Ted*, he told me he admired me for submitting to my dad. I didn't admire me, though. Was it truly God who was demanding so much?

"Two Christian adults ought not to be forbidden to communicate," I wrote in my journal, "Oh, what shall I do?"

One day I took a walk alone along the grass runway bounded by sugarcane fields. I talked aloud to myself, and to my God, who claimed to be Love. I was lonely, and though we hadn't chatted since July or heard one another's voice since May, I was aware by now that Chris loved me. Why else put himself through this excruciating experience? He had to have been rather certain about choosing me to contact my dad in the first place. Such courage and tenacity made me want to love Chris back.

But did I?

"I really like Chris," I spoke the words into the humidity pressing against my skin. "I care about him as a friend. He's the closest male friend I ever had. I respect him, enjoy his company, and think he'd make a great husband."

But now we were right back where we'd been in May!

"I have had crushes on other guys, but I've never had a crush on Chris. I miss him and crave his company, but my physical desires are quiet. It wouldn't be fair to marry a man I didn't fantasize about sexually--no matter how wonderful he might be! Oh, whatever shall I do?"

Dad had not been impressed with my simple interest in corresponding with Chris. The time had come for more drastic commitment. All or nothing. I had always imagined being wooed with flowers, cards, and sweet words. But I was ready for closure, with or without the trappings of romance. With or without my suitor. I needed to nail this down for good. Did I want to marry Chris?

While singleness was more appealing than being unhappily married, I was ready to marry. In our sub-culture, marriage was the portal to adult privileges and responsibilities, not to mention sex. (Because sex was unmentionable, like undergarments--shhh!) And there was no one I would trust more with my future happiness than Chris.

The missing piece was what I scarcely had vocabulary for. I didn't know that use of the word "chemistry". I didn't know about "libido", or being "horny". I'd even been told from the pulpit that it was wrong to have crushes. I only knew that I felt butterflies in my stomach around certain guys and not around others. That there was a kind of almost painful charge in the air when they were in the room. And I had always felt completely comfortable with Chris, whether we were sharing lunch, riding in the car, listening together to office conference calls, reading Dickens, or visiting churches. He was a wonderful pal. Could he be more? How would that happen?

I was extremely naive about sexuality in general, but I knew sex was very important to husbands. In my fantasies, I was an eager and responsive lover. It would be grossly unfair to marry any man in the absence of physical desire!

"I'm willing to marry Chris," I was sure God could hear me, as I followed the trail worn through the grass, "But, God, you're going to have to give me sexual feelings for him. You take care of that, and I'm in. I pledge myself to support Chris and seek his fulfillment and happiness in every way I can."

It wasn't how I'd imagined falling in love or choosing a spouse, alone beside a sugarcane field. But that's how it happened. Calmer, I followed the loop back to the SIL guest house and wrote in my journal.

The next morning, when I came down to join Bob and Pearl in the dining room, I felt... different. Walking outdoors after breakfast, I realized that I had the sensation of butterflies in my stomach. I felt...giddy. Wow! God must have answered my prayer! Chris was his choice for me, too, and here was his gift. From then on, I never doubted that Chris was the "right one", or that my love for him could be starved or the supply run dry. I was certain that it flowed through me from God himself. (Yes, this interpretation of events posed some trouble as I transitioned to atheism and was one of the last "proofs" I clung to of God's existence.)

So, if God had given me love--erotic love?--for Chris, did that still mean I had to wait for Scott's permission before sharing that love? I was tormented by the biographies of Christian "heroes" who had not waited for parental approval before sealing their commitment to their chosen spouse. A veteran missionary had been teaching a Sunday School class on the book of Ruth and I was frustrated nearly to tears comparing my mousy self with the daring Moabitess who asserted her legal and cultural rights by going after the eligible farmer Boaz.

The Bible teacher was promoting rights for women in a way that both attracted and repelled me. I wanted to believe that I had rights as a woman, but I needed more encouragement. At twenty-five years old, I still didn't feel like a full-fledged adult. But if I was intended to take responsibility for my own choices and future decisions, I wanted to know it! That very afternoon I went to visit this older missionary and his wife and seek their wisdom.

Over calamansi meringue pie, I bared my soul to this kind couple. I told them about Chris, and my dad, and "courtship", and about the "covenant" I had signed a decade earlier. "What should I do?" I asked them. "Is it right for me to abide by my father's rules, or do I have the right to decide God's will for myself, and correspond with my suitor against my parents' wishes?"

Dick saw the analogy with Ruth's situation and supported my right to act independently. But his wife, Betty, countered his counsel. "But she made a promise to her dad," she cautioned. Betty didn't think it would be right for me to break the pledges I'd made when I was fifteen.

A split vote was insufficient guidance for me to risk my soul. I needed unanimity if I was to invite the attacks of Satan by stepping out from under the "umbrella of authority". I left their home disappointed, but resigned. If Chris could wait this long, surely I could

The next day was the New Year and a group of Australian missionaries invited me to join them on a holiday outing. We drove to the edge of the jungle and hiked across a rope bridge and through the trees until the trail brought us to a cool pool at the base of a stunning waterfall. While some played in the pristine water, I stood in the shade and observed. The cooling mist attracted dozens, perhaps hundreds of butterflies in exotic hues. The tree-canopied spot at the base of the waterfall was like a natural butterfly house and they landed on our hair, our shoulders, our shoes. I stood transfixed, gazing at the beautiful wings resting on me and feeling it was a metaphor for the excited "butterflies" in my stomach when I thought now of my future with Chris.

"Falling in love" did not have a place in the courtship model promoted by ATI/IBLP. A girl was supposed to "guard her heart" until the suitor pre-approved by her father made an attempt to "win her heart". All without physical contact, mind you.

Even approaching courtship from that angle, however, I never imagined that "falling in love" would feel so cerebral, or so...lonely. As euphoric as it was, it was a wholly interior experience. Something that happened inside my head. Something I couldn't speak of to anyone, even as my entire life changed direction.

Instead of remembering sharing a kiss, a song, or a romantic date, I recall talking to myself in a field, and then standing alone among the butterflies watching families play together under a jungle waterfall.

The setting seems picture-perfect, wasn't shared.

It was just me. 

To be continued...

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Losing the Umbrella

While I was typing up the latest segment of our courtship story, my twelve-year-old asked what I was working on. I shared some of the highlights with her and she responded with a look of incredulity.

"How did your parents make you so afraid?" she asked.

She meant afraid of "getting out from under the umbrella of authority". It was a good question. 

And then my brain gave me an instant flashback.  

I can see Dad doing a demonstration for us on the coffee table. He has a baking pan, Mom's big plastic ladle, a water pitcher, and two of our Fisher-Price people. The oldest sibling by two years, I am no more than ten years old. We all watch Dad's little drama with curiosity.

The obedient figure is protected by the ladle held over his head as the water rains down, falling around his feet in the baking pan. But the disobedient figure will not stay under the ladle. He rebelliously stands where he wants to, exposed to the direct torrent from the pitcher. 

"But, how did that scare you so much?" my daughter wanted to know. I saw her point. It was merely tap water and plastic toys, after all.

"What the water represented was left to our imaginations," I said. "Anything we were scared of, any bad thing that happened to us after that, must be Satan making it rain on us because we'd done something wrong." 

Granny Weatherwax, the witch in Terry Pratchett's Equal Rites, describes the same phenomenon when she explains magic to her protégé:
"...if you want it to for sure then you let their mind make it work for them. Tell 'em it's moonbeams bottled in fairy wine or something. Mumble over it a bit. It's the same with cursing.
"...Make it loud, make it complicated, make it long, and make it up if you have to, but it'll work all right. Next day, when they hit their thumb or they fall off a ladder or their dog drops dead they'll remember you. They'll behave better next time."

from Bill Gothard's textbook
The umbrella-of-authority was a kind of curse placed on me as a child. And the teaching was still potent, fifteen years later and an ocean away, because the virus lived on my own fear. 

My parents were my umbrella; my dad was my mom's umbrella. Dad had to center himself under the "umbrellas" of God, his employer, and the government. My brothers would one day constitute "umbrellas" for their own families, but as a woman, I was destined to move from under my dad's "umbrella" to that of my new husband. Women and children had to be protected by men, after all.

Shit. It's no wonder I still get terrified of messing up.

I'm glad my daughter looks at me like I have three heads when I describe how I, even as an adult, let my parents control my dating. I'm glad she thinks the umbrella concept is ridiculous, because she is not likely to let an authority figure think for her or dictate her feelings! And our little conversation helped to uproot yet another of the cult beliefs that have lain burrowed in my subconscious for decades.

I don't care about umbrellas anymore. I don't need to feel guilty every time I feel uncomfortable. My fears are only that, my fears. And my husband is not some mystical buffer that protects me from them. We are allies, experiencing life's storms and life's sunshine together. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Not a Good Girl

"Continue to act as a good girl, and you will satisfy us." 
Jane Eyre

After years of almost compulsive writing, I have had fewer words to share lately. My family has been a priority over the last few months as we celebrated holidays, passed sickness around (and around), and got back into the school routine. I spent much of January fighting bronchitis and its complications, watching Netflix, and getting acquainted with the Honda that recently replaced my little old Subaru.

And while resting quietly, I've given a lot of thought to how I want to spend 2015.

Two years ago, I gave myself Permission to be Outrageous.
A few months later, I wrote about always having been A Good Girl.
Last year, I tried to imagine what it would be like to "let it go" like Elsa, and embrace Who and What I want to be.

What I want.

What do I want? Working through therapy exercises over the last year, that question consistently made me uncomfortable.

I was afraid of what I wanted. I was afraid that if I acknowledged my own desires, others might not approve me. I might not approve of myself. If I let my real deep-down self out into the open, I might judge or hate her instead of loving and embracing her. And heaven knows that little girl has been judged and punished enough.

So I've been cautious about letting myself want--not venturing far from sensible things, not taking risks.

But, slowly, I am listening to my desires, and leaning into them. Taking baby steps, of course. Clumsy, tentative, frightening steps. Some have worked out better than others.

Dancing is an adventure I'd always wanted to have, so when my counselor prescribed it, I finally gathered my courage and went to my first swing dance. It was utterly terrifying, but at the same time fun enough that I have kept practicing. Chris has even been brave enough to join me several times.

I also signed up for a class in improv acting, something else I'd been wanting to try for quite a while. That one didn't go so well. Several weeks I came home and spent the rest of the day on the couch, recovering from the anxiety. One session was going well until the instructor directed us to come up with comedy lines on the subject of "Dating".

Dating? What did I know about dating? As the titillating jokes fell from the lips of the handsome man next to me, I felt my insides curl into a self-protective ball. My brain stalled. I suspected I had more sexual experience than my younger classmate, yet my tongue was frozen, my brain stalled. After a few more afternoons feeling panicky, tongue-tied, and out of my depth, I dropped out of the class.

By this time we were shopping to replace my car. Car lots and car salesmen intimidate me, and most of my life cars have simply been provided for me. But having attempted both dancing and improv, my confidence was growing. After a few excursions with my husband, I went to another dealership and test-drove a car by myself--then brought Chris back to try it, too. My selection turned out to be the model we settled on!

Next I joined a women's trauma therapy group. Many of my favorite authors have extolled the benefits of group therapy, so I was excited when this opportunity turned up. The common theme of systemic misogyny that ran through all our stories made me angry. We all came from different backgrounds and had suffered abuse in a variety of ways, but we all had first-hand experience with patriarchy. I joined the group in hopes of having my emotions "fixed". Instead, it made me grateful for how far I've come and for every opportunity I've taken to speak in defense of women's equality.

I felt different from the other women in my group, in that I had never experienced abuse at the hands of my partner. Trauma, yes, I knew plenty of that, but these women's stories broke my heart. In the end, I dropped out of the group early, feeling a little stronger, more independent, and a lot better about myself and about my parenting.

I've ventured into new emotional territory, exploring unfamiliar ways of relating to myself and the world around me. I watch my daughters and their refusal to be pushed into the molds that society has made for them and I'm proud. When I grow up, I want to be like them!

Many of you are following the narrative of our courtship. When I share bits of the story with our 12-year-old, she looks at me like I have three heads. How any adults could submit their marital destiny to the whims of their parents is beyond her. "How did they make you so afraid, Mom?"

The answer to that is another post, but seeing my past through my daughter's eyes is helping me recover my own autonomy. For the first time in my life, I recognize that I belong not to my parents or to my husband, but to myself.

So this year, I've decided I'm through being the "good girl"--the woman our society approves of because she can be predicted, and controlled. The rules I absorbed as a child have not helped me, so I am writing new ones. I'll be a good mom, a good friend, a good lover--but I'll be damned if I'll accept the part of the well-behaved lady any longer.

My friends and role models are women who have taken outrageous risks and press forward no matter what. They are who and what I want to be. They don't apologize for wanting the things they want, and they refuse to be paralyzed by someone else's disapproval.

So this year I'm choosing my own path, making up rules consistent with my values, and making my own "mistakes" along the way. I'll keep being brave and trying new things not because they are good but because they interest and challenge me.

I've taken author Neil Gaiman's words as my present motto:
"...if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something."
What adventures that may lead me on this year I have no idea, and I'm used to mapping my way to a destination.   

But after all these years of coloring inside other people's lines... feels good. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Our Courtship Story: Staying Strong

Continued from Heart to Heart

October-December 2000

After two weeks of orientation in Manila, I flew south to Cagayan de Oro, a provincial city on the coast of Mindanao, where palms lined the windy airstrip and I was the only white girl in the muggy three-walled terminal. On exiting the concrete building with my bags, I was met by Ted* and Janice*, the missionary couple who had come to drive me back to Nasuli, the SIL-Wycliffe community in the center of the island. Their friendly faces set me ease immediately and I savored the breathtaking views as soft-spoken Ted guided the truck down winding mountain roads and we munched on slices of fresh pineapple. Janice pointed out mango orchards, rubber plantations, farmers following their carabao, and when Ted stopped at a roadside fruit market, she showed me how to eat sticky but luscious lanzones.

It was the rainy season and the downpours began just before we reached Nasuli. Ted dropped me off in front of the Nasuli guest house, where I was warmly welcomed by Bob and Pearl, the retired Canadian couple who managed the home. Thinking of Bob and Pearl gives me warm tingles even now. They knew it was my birthday, and had cake and ice cream with mango puree waiting for me. The kindness of these strangers...well, tears are spilling down my face as I type. They welcomed me into their home and into their hearts and I will be forever grateful to them.

Pearl put me in the best bedroom and I began unpacking right away. I had arranged a few framed photos on the little table by the door when I had a guest. Tina* was the only other Wycliffe member my age. She divided her time between Nasuli and a village where she helped with linguistics projects. Tina's fiance was doing linguistics fieldwork in another Asian country. Her observant eye settled on the photographs. Andraste in a blue sweater. A family portrait.

"Who's this?" she asked, pointing out the snapshot of Chris.

"He's... a friend," I said, lamely, but feeling a growing pride. "He lives in Kansas and he's interested in me."

I don't remember if she asked for more details. She couldn't stay long, was leaving for the village the next day, in fact. But it was a significant moment for me. Who was Chris to me? What did I want him to be? And just why did I have his photograph in a prominent place by my door?

As I stretched out under the quilt on my full-size bed that first night in my new room, I felt a strange urge inside. It was familiar, yet strange. I had not masturbated in ten years--not since my commitment to follow Gothard's principles of God's will for my life. Certainly not since confessing the sinful habit to my parents and receiving their forgiveness. My dad had asked me about it once a few years later, when I was 19 or 20 and the two of us were driving alone across a desolate part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula on a frigid winter night. I had assured him I no longer yielded to such temptations.

What wile of Satan was this? I had been told that demons controlled specific geographic areas. It must be that the demon over this part of Mindanao was more interested in orgasms than the demons I'd dealt with in Michigan. I tried to ignore the nagging suggestion. It sure sounded nice, though...

* * * * *

Lush, laid-back, carved out of the rainforest next to a spring-fed pond, Nasuli was an enchanted place. The SIL missionaries had their foibles and conflicts, to be sure, but they were kind, open-minded people with good hearts. After my experience with IBLP, the love and cooperation I felt in Nasuli was a healing balm. I found my place in the group in no time, helping Ted in the computer office during the day, playing the piano, singing at services, tutoring children, using my cooking and entertaining skills to make people smile.

I took squash pies to Ted and Janice's house for Thanksgiving dinner. The next day, Jerry, the center's manager, made me an offer. A staff member was returning to the States unexpectedly. Even after some fancy job-juggling, there would be a gap in the duty roster. Would I consider taking the position of radio operator, keeping contact with the pilots and checking in regularly with the translators in the villages? I would continue to work with Ted in the afternoons, but working with the pilots would be my primary task. The hitch? They needed me to commit to stay until mid-summer.

My return ticket had been booked for February (Valentine's Day, remember?). I had been invited back to Grand Forks as a teaching assistant in the summer. And all my plans were hanging on the unanswered question of Chris. Was he in negotiations with my dad? I had been away for six weeks now, but Dad had not breathed a word to me. Was I about to start courting? Had he decided Chris lacked the necessary qualifications? I remembered, again, why I had been determined not to stay home and watch the agonizing approval process from the sidelines. I felt like I might go insane as it was!

Before I could give Jerry my final decision, I needed to talk to Dad. Grateful for the Internet, I used AOL Instant Messenger to contact Dan* (our co-worker from CharacterLink days), who in turn asked Dad to get in touch with me. When we talked, Dad's report was far from reassuring. He was in communication with Chris, but any permission seemed uncertainly far away. Dad did tease me, which was strange, and made my hopes rise a little.

Resigned to keep waiting, I told Jerry I would accept the job and wrote dramatically in my journal, no doubt comparing myself to the late Jim Elliot:
I know Chris loves me. And I am ready to love and be loved. But God is saying, 'Not yet.' So I am proving my loyalty to my first love [God]...  
Yesterday, I so wanted to talk to someone from home, and would gladly have poured out my heart to Chris. Nobody else was online, so we could have easily pulled it off, and enjoyed it. But God guarded us, kept us in the temptation.
Ah, yes, that temptation to reach out to another human being and, you know, converse. Exchange thoughts and feelings. But we resisted. Because we were strong. And good. And not a little scared.

I cried a lot that month. It was my first Christmas away from my family. Away from snow. (I didn't miss that part very much.) I loved my new friends and all the new adventures. But I was the youngest adult in Nasuli by a long shot. Some of the translators had spent fifty years on the mission field. One woman in her seventies had just married for the first time. They were the oddest newlyweds I'd ever seen! Some of the women missionaries had always been single. Another married a Filipino. One adopted a Filipino son; another was raising two "granddaughters".

Alone in the air-conditioned room in the hilltop radio tower, I had plenty of time to think while I watched the clouds over the mountain pass and logged the pilots' progress.

I studied the couples in our community. Most of these marriages seemed stronger than any I'd seen before. They were partners and teammates; they took care of each other. Ted and Janice took weekend getaway trips. Bob and Pearl were adorable together. They made jokes about sex that made me blush. Even the couples that were known to argue depended heavily on one another. I talked to my friends from New Zealand about their experience as translators. "The mission field is solitary enough", they warned. "Get married first."

Easier said than done, I thought. But there was Chris. If only we could talk about things. I emailed my dad, begging his permission for Chris and I to at least converse by email. It was what I wanted for Christmas. Pleeease? Dad declined my request.

Bob and Pearl made Christmas morning special for me. The single ladies invited me to share their traditional Christmas dinner. When evening fell, I sang "O Holy Night" for the Nasuli Christmas service, as a gift to my new friends. Though I felt like crying instead.

To be continued...

*Names are pseudonyms.