Friday, September 19, 2014

Mixed Messages

I have written before about how spankings were used in my family, and how I regret using spanking even in a more limited way on my own children.

In this talk, Robbyn Peters Bennett succinctly explains the damaging side effects of using physical violence to modify children's behavior.

In a 1978 speech, children's author Astrid Lindgren told a story about a little boy whose mother announced her intention to switch him. 
The boy was gone a long time. And when he came back in, he was crying. He said to her, "Mama, I couldn't find a switch, but here's a rock that you can throw at me."
Indeed, when I was a young person, I read this Bible passage of "God's Law" at least once a year, in which parents are enjoined to stone disobedient children as a last resort:
"If a man has a stubborn, rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they punish him, then his father and mother shall take him before the elders of the city and declare, 'This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and won’t obey; he is a worthless drunkard.' Then the men of the city shall stone him to death. In this way you shall put away this evil from among you, and all the young men of Israel will hear about what happened and will be afraid."      Deut. 21:18-21 (TLB)

The reason our parents were not obligated by this particular passage was that God himself had had his own perfectly obedient son killed, resulting in a surplus sufficient to cover all of our stubborn rebellion till the end of time. But that was small comfort when the wooden spoon came out and we were ordered to lean over Mom and Dad's mattress for being "disrespectful", "strong-willed", or "a bad example".

Once a month we read aloud, "Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying." My parents took the verse literally, and it was a rare week when one of us did not bear the evidence on thighs or buttocks.

The morality of attacking one's offspring with sticks was not open for debate in our home. Had not God himself said, "If you are not disciplined...then you are not legitimate"? The beloved maternal role model of my childhood was Marmee in Little Women. Her bold declaration, "I don't approve of corporal punishment, especially for girls", made me think I was reading very subversive thoughts indeed!

When a child is struck by those on whom he depends for safety, his young brain struggles to comprehend the mixed signals of danger and love, kindness and abuse, to say nothing of the twisted sexual component. Sometimes the task of untangling those threads lasts far longer than his childhood did.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Silenced

Continued from Uncertainty and a Breakthrough

Jeri early in the summer at SIL

"That's the first positive signal I've gotten from you," typed Chris.

He was more than ready to initiate "courtship" again. But our imaginations painted the process very differently. In my mind (influenced by the handful of courtship "testimonies" I had read), Dad would give Chris pages of questionnaires to fill out. They would have regular phone conversations talking about me, my strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. It might drag on for months, and I did not want to be living in my parents' crowded house waiting for it to unfold without being allowed to say anything myself. When the time was right, Dad would either give Chris his stamp of approval and turn him loose to "win my heart", or maybe he would help Chris plan a romantic surprise to launch the new with-marriage-in-mind phase of our friendship.

As far as Chris was concerned, my dad had already told him he approved of him. He was well-liked by my whole family, in fact. Asking for Dad's blessing (again) would be a formality, but he anticipated no trouble. He wanted me to be happy, so if I wanted him to wait quietly while I got ready for my trip, that was fine with him.  

Eight hundred miles north, I smiled from my seat in the computer lab. The summer semester was fast coming to a close. My visa for the Philippines had been approved. I would purchase my ticket when I got home. Meanwhile, I would focus on my Mandarin grammar project, prepare for final exams (my first ever!), and just enjoy my last weeks of independence with all my new friends. 

And then... I got mail. A card from my mom, to be exact. I had been emailing home throughout the summer, telling about my classes and my tamer adventures. Since I had no intention of being a "sneak" or of "rebelling" (a sin frequently compared to sorcery), I had mentioned my AIM chats with Chris in an e-missive from late July. And now Mom was concerned.

We had not gotten permission to communicate directly, she said. If I was having second thoughts about Chris as a suitor, we needed to go back to start and begin again on the right foot.

Oh...shit. If the word had been part of my mental vocabulary in those days, I would certainly have used it. As it was, it was as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of my atmosphere. My breath shortened and my heart raced. Notes from Mom often carried a punch, but this one was particularly upsetting. Mom hadn't even been involved in the situation up to this point. I may have signed my name next to Scott's with our pastor as witness, but I had never made any promises to let her guide my selection of a life partner. Mom was someone I alternately feared, assisted, or took care of. I was not prepared to let my present or future happiness depend on her whims.

Still, she was my parent, and obedience to parents was of paramount importance in our paradigm. Dishonoring a parent's wish could result in God removing his physical or spiritual protection from one's life. And I needed all the guidance and safety I could get. It would do no good to travel to a island nation across the globe only to be hammered by Satan's henchmen!

The answer, I decided, lay with Scott. Nothing in Mom's note suggested that Dad even knew about what she'd written, much less agreed with her assessment of the situation. As her husband, he was both her "head" and mine, and he possessed the authority to undo her orders. Heck, he'd done that before, coming along behind her to mop up confusing or anxiety-inducing restrictions. I would call Dad, let him know what Mom had said, and ask him to clear it up.

Cell phones still being luxuries, I squeezed into one of the phone booths at one end of the student lounge in the common area below my dorm room and began dialing the string of numbers on my long-distance phone card.

Dad listened while I explained. Though Mom's instructions seemed to be news to him, to my surprise he supported her. Regarding Chris, he said that more interest on my part should signal the need for more distance between us. I was incredulous. As long as I was actively opposed to Chris as a suitor, our friendship was no big deal, but once I began to consider him as a possible mate, I should avoid him? I don't think I had much to say after that.

I hung up the phone and exited the booth feeling both sad and angry and fighting not to let the tears spill over. I was nearly twenty-five years old and I was pretty sure not one of my classmates or even my missionary instructors would be able to understand how utterly controlled I felt. How could I be a marionette with strings my parents could pull from three states and one Great Lake away?

Well, there was only one week of the course left. If that was how it was going to be, I might as well enjoy it! So knowing a guy might be a good match meant I should ignore him. What if you knew a guy didn't have a chance?

The next time Chris tried to engage me on AIM, I told him I wasn't allowed to talk to him. But that weekend I played ping-pong with Paul. We went, with a small group, to Shakespeare-in-the-Park and "ended up" sharing a quilt on the grass. On Sunday, he complimented my appearance, even noticing the clip-on earrings I almost never bothered to wear. We ate meals together. I savored his attention. Paul even dared to inquire about how courtship worked in my family. I told him the truth, implicitly warning him off. Sweet man that he was, I was certain he could never win my parents' endorsement. At least Chris had a chance. But I still felt bad comparing my two gentle and dark-haired friends: one I had known just two months and another I had shared significant life experiences with over two years.

Days before I left the university campus, I wrote in my journal about "our bloody version of chivalry":
"If I were to refer Paul to Dad, it would prove what I have said about Chris: I have not given him my affections. My heart is free...  
I am willing for Chris to resume communication with Dad. Whether I am ever included or not, they should part as friends and clear up the judgments they have passed on each other over the summer. I love them both, and want them to be friends.
...If I have been a ray of brightness for Paul, here, I am content." 

To be continued...

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Uncertainty and a Breakthrough

Continued from Breaking Up With Fundamentalism

July-August 2000     Grand Forks, ND

I was studying hard, playing hard, and wringing as many fun new experiences out my summer as I could. 

Jed* continued to follow me everywhere. Sometimes I humored him. When it rained, I took advantage of his eagerness to keep me dry under his big umbrella. When I wanted exercise but didn't want to stroll around campus alone, I tolerated his company. Other times I got my friends to run interference. One gregarious young Canadian was particularly adept at intercepting Jed while I made my escape from the cafeteria, the chapel, or the classroom. Though I was not particularly flattered by Jed's attentions and dodging them became a sort of game, the idea that some men did actually find me attractive gave me a sense of power and vulnerability I'd never felt before.

One evening after we'd finished studying, Paul* asked if I wanted to get ice cream. I was getting to like Paul more every week and I did want ice cream, but the invitation put me on guard. I had made so many promises not to date. Going off-campus for ice cream after dark sounded suspiciously date-like. (Chris's dad's definition of a date--"when the girl doesn't pay"--came to mind, but I doubted my own dad would be convinced.)

"I'll go if it's a group."

Paul's big brown eyes held a puzzled expression.

I tried to explain that I did want to go with him. Just not alone.

"If you can find someone else to go, too, I'll go!"

Paul started knocking on doors in the girls' dorm hallway, recruiting other seekers of ice cream. As I watched him, I felt self-righteous and silly at the same time. In the end, I can't remember how many of us went, or if I even rode in his car. Any romantic warmth that may or may not have existed at the moment of his invitation had been effectively quenched.

I wasn't sure how to feel afterward. My "Commitment to Courtship" had been tested--for the first time, perhaps. Had I turned down a date? Or kept it from becoming a date? Had I been rude, or read too much into the simple offer?

The next day I told Chris about the incident while I watched him on the webcam. "Did I do the right thing? Do you think I confused Paul? He's such a nice guy. What should I have done?"

Chris patiently did his best, from his lack of experience, to reassure me, while Jed played solitaire at my elbow. I was comfortable talking to Chris about anything, but we danced around discussions of our own relationship. I didn't want to flirt with him. He described me once as "indifferent". But as we had more conversations that lasted into the wee morning hours, I knew I was not "indifferent". I was uncertain. I Uncertain about my purpose as well as my desires.

Every time I admired something I liked about Paul, I found myself comparing him to Chris. I appreciated Paul for being Paul, but he was continually reminding me of Chris. And I began to ask myself, if Chris was the rule by which I measured other men, what did that say about him?

"Do you want to be a mom?" A group of us were walking back from the cafeteria one night and this question from the sweet young student from Moody Bible Institute beside me took me by surprise. 

"Yes, I do," I answered, honestly.

"You'll be a great one." He smiled softly at me, but I knew he was also dreaming of his girlfriend and the family he was looking forward to starting in the not-too-distant future. It had been a long summer apart.

I was touched by his compliment. But it was the question that etched me deeply. What kind of person asked girls if they wanted to be moms? In my culture, one was not deemed ready for marriage until one was also prepared for the challenges of parenthood. I was certain that if I expressed any misgivings about maternity, my parents would never give their consent to my marrying. My reproductive instincts were primed and ready, but then, I had always considered them inextricably tied to my sexuality.

One morning in my dorm room late in July, a luminous new thought dawned on me.

Chris wants to marry you! I told myself.

Marry me? My self was dumbfounded.

That was why he wrote a letter to Dad! I'd interpreted his attempt to initiate contact as a mere "signal of interest". I had not truly absorbed the depth of his intentions. Marriage! He didn't want to merely get to know me, he wanted to start a family--with me! I had expected, from the books and stories I'd read, that I would just know when a man was interested in me. That I would be thrilled when he finally asked my dad for his endorsement. I had never pictured this out-of-the-blue interest from someone I had not already marked as a "possibility". I had to rearrange my fantasies to fit this new reality.

I was, and am, a terrible secret-keeper. The next time Chris and I were online, I told him what had begun to sink in. "I know I should have figured out that that's what courtship is for, but... I just realized that you want to marry me."

At his desk in his west Wichita basement, Chris sighed. This was going to be a long process!

"If you still want to, after I leave for the Philippines, it's okay with me if you resume communication with my dad," I told Chris. "I don't want to be around while you guys are working things out. But I won't interfere this time. Just wait till I'm in Asia."

Continued at Silenced

*Names are pseudonyms.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Food for Body and Soul

When my confidence fades elsewhere, there is always my kitchen.

Check out my other blog to see what I've been concocting in there this summer.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Our Courtship Story: Breaking Up With Fundamentalism

Continued from Instant Messenger and Little Women

Summer 2000,  Grand Forks, ND

I left fundamentalism behind that summer.

We'd grown apart, fundamentalism and I, but I made the decisive break almost as soon as I set foot on the University of North Dakota campus. It's ironic to remember now, because that summer turned out, unexpectedly, to be my first secular college experience. I had not realized we would actually be, for the summer term, students of the university, taking real courses for real credit. I was completely bewildered as the SIL staff helped me sign up for classes, as I stood in line at the registrar's office, as I got my official student ID card that gave me access to the amazing cafeteria as well as the Olympic-sized indoor pool.

My peers were a zany, brainy assortment of mostly evangelicals (missionary kids, missionaries-in-training, grad students, undergrads from Christian colleges), a few fundamentalists, and one middle-aged agnostic anthropologist. And unlike an IBLP training center, the males were not afraid of the females! Right from the start I made new friends easily. Paul* was one of the first people I met. He was short, dark, handsome, and smart, with soulful eyes and a gift for music. He was emotionally intelligent and easy to talk to. We took the same classes and sometimes studied together in our small group. I enjoyed his company, but took pains to make sure nothing we did could be construed as the evil Dating.

I hadn't been long in North Dakota when I found the computer lab. I went in to print off an assignment, but could not resist logging in to AOL's Instant Messenger website. And lo, and behold, Chris was online and we talked. I was still adjusting to being away from home, and it felt so cozy to talk to a familiar old friend. Knowing that he was paying for my coming trip to the Philippines made me feel special, too. I began checking online regularly when my homework was done, telling Chris about the things I was doing and the people I was meeting. I didn't contact my family nearly as often as I talked to Chris.

Linguistics delighted me. Syntax and morphology made me giddy with pleasure. The instructors impressed me. Also to my surprise, I had a dorm room to myself, so I had plenty of time alone to think, pray, and read. After the last months at home, I needed that time. This summer on my own was a rare opportunity, and I was not going to squander it.

I threw myself into the social world of SIL. The daily chapel service. Volleyball. The choral ensemble. The sacred classical harmonies we sang together were sheer delight. When tornadoes threatened, I joined the rest sitting in the basement hallway in our pj's--a new experience. And when I swam at the university center, the locker room was a new experience, too!

Oh, that silent married guy in the aisle seat on my flight from Minneapolis? He turned out to be a classmate, too, but he was an exception to the rest. Though we saw each other every day, he never said a word to me (and after our wordless flight together, I was too shy to say hello now!) morning when he came up to me and thanked me for always dressing "modestly". Apparently I was special among the group because my jumpers, long skirts, and loose blouses did not cause him to stumble. I felt sorry for him and at the same time a little guilty. I didn't deserve his "praise". What could I say, knowing I was already planning to expand my wardrobe at the earliest opportunity?

Though I still looked the part of the ingĂ©nue, I was losing my innocence and naivete at an alarming pace. A book I borrowed from the little SIL library in the corner of our student lounge opened my eyes to horrors I'd never heard of, like female genital mutilation. I was horrified. At the same time, the story fed my budding feminism--condemning patriarchy in its most hideous excesses and celebrating a young woman bucking the system by making choices for herself instead of staying under the "protection" of her father or husband.

Daily I learned more about our needy and messed-up world and wondered, did God intend me to help fix it? Or, was I meant to be a mommy? Could I, should I, be both? Would I be a contented single missionary linguist, like the elderly translator who regaled us with snacks and Winnie-the-Pooh readings on Friday nights? Or was one of these fine young men destined to be my partner in God's work? I puzzled over the question while I pondered how I wanted to live.

A friend was going to the mall for a haircut and I went along. I got my hair bobbed and found, on a clearance rack, a marked-down pair of loose-legged, pleated denim trousers that almost passed for jeans, in a size bigger than I wear today. I rolled up the cuffs and cinched the waist with a belt and self-consciously walked to breakfast on Monday, certain that all eyes were now on my ass. That was what Jim and Fay Sammons had warned us about in the Financial Freedom Seminar, after all! Later, at a thrift store, I found an outmoded pair of long light-wash Cherokee denim shorts. I even bought an SIL t-shirt, with words on the front! Move over jumpers, there's a new look in town!

I still wore dresses on Sundays, and sometimes a hat, when I visited churches of different flavors. Now instead of rejecting the enthusiastic beat of the music, I let it resonate inside me. I found a  friendly charismatic fellowship where I danced and sang, and hugged strangers and prayed in tongues. I could feel my heart healing from the wound it had received at IBLP Headquarters.

Jed*, a fellow student, was a brilliant guy, but sadly lacking in social skills. He apparently thought I was cute, jeans or jumpers, a concept I didn't grasp at first because no one had ever been so forward before. I began to feel like he was following me around campus, to class, to chapel, to lunch, back from lunch, even to church! And he seemed to always turn up in the computer lab when I was in there. I kept chatting with Chris, waiting for Jed to leave first, but Jed would patiently play solitaire--for hours.

Being the nerd that he was and is, Chris set up a webcam at home. When I opened a webpage, I could see whether he was at his desk or not, and while we chatted, I could watch his facial expressions. As time went by and I kept finding Jed at the computer next to me, I kept the webcam window open as a way of putting Jed on notice. Surely if I made it clear that I was locked in typed conversation with another guy for hours, Jed would take the hint and disappear? It didn't seem to make any difference, though, unless to encourage his interest. I talked to Chris about Jed. I felt as naive as a middle-schooler and needed a guy's perspective on the situation. What should I do?

And then there was Paul. I told Chris all about Paul. "Oh, he likes you," Chris told me.

"What should I do?" I asked. "How should I treat him?"

It was the blind leading the blind. Chris had never been on a date. I'd sworn off dating ten years past, before I was old enough to try it. But we chatted about relationships till the wee hours of the morning.

On a day we had no classes, one of the missionary women announced she would be watching the entire "Pride & Prejudice" miniseries from A&E in the TV lounge. A group of us girls, plus my stalker, joined her. That was my first introduction to Jane Austen. I ignored Jed, but wondered if he was there to watch me or all the actresses in low-cut gowns.

Another day I was invited to play a game called Mao, which proved hopelessly impossible because I didn't know spades from clubs, who trumped whom, or the names of the Beatles! Other introductions that summer included, in no particular order: Star Wars (I don't even remember which episode, but I knew Chris loved the series). Mr. Bean. Star Trek. Veggie Tales (I laughed so hard!). Thai food. Indian food. My first sips of wine (at a Lutheran communion service on campus) and beer (from a friend's bottle at a Chinese restaurant). Laser tag.

When a group of friends invited me to the cinema to see a movie, I didn't even care what was playing. I had not been in a theater since I was six years old, and who knew if I'd ever have the chance again! I could have chosen a gentler introduction than Erin Brockovich, but had to admire the title character. In the dorm bathroom the next morning, my friends were concerned, and curious. I was 24, and they'd just helped me lose my R-rated film "virginity". How did I feel about the experience?

I laughed them off. "I didn't learn any new words," I said.

I didn't mention that I'd looked away during all the scenes when I suspected the undressed bodies tangled in blankets on the enormous screen might be acting out something like...Sex?? The noises were strange, as I studied the haircut of the teenage missionary kid sitting in the row in front of me and wondered how such a nice boy could be watching such shameless goings-on. Would his parents be disappointed if they knew?

Later, the same boy was swimming laps at the pool the day I decided to ditch the sleeveless button-down shirt I wore over my swimsuit. It was fading from the chlorine anyway. I kept the loose cotton shorts on, though. And when I lost my eyeglasses afterward, I felt divinely chastened. Not for watching the movie, but for venturing too close to indecency at the pool. During our mirth-filled skit night, I sat squinting on the front row, but thanked God that he would not let me stray too far from the path of righteousness. And when my glasses turned up again, I felt that God had forgiven my independent spirit. The next time I swam, I wore the shirt over the modest swimsuit.

Continued at Uncertainty and a Breakthrough

*Names are pseudonyms.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


I'm back--sort of. The kids returned to school last week (whoever said public education is free hasn't visited our district!), we've heartily celebrated summer and birthdays, and I have some exciting projects percolating.

This week I am packing lunches, keeping up with laundry (we have a finite supply of school uniforms!), finishing library books that are almost due, and shopping for those last-minute supplies the kids' teachers say are required.

This is the first time all three kids had the "back-to-school" experience. No one started at a new school this year, they have friends from last year, and they all have some of the same teachers. I find it rewarding to see how much they have grown and adapted, how they have navigate socially, and how they are learning self-care along with us, their parents. No matter how the day went, we all enjoy regrouping around a Netflix episode of Star Trek before bedtime!

And one of these days I will write up the next chapter in our courtship story...

A happy school year to you!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Voices From My Closet

I am silken, draping, flowing, smooth.
I am sheer. I am light. I shimmer and glow.
I am quiet, casual but observant. I am earth tones and freckles, amber and wood, paisleys and plaids.
I am unpolished and nubbly, knitted, twisted, layered, ruched, ruffled, fringed. I am leather and wool, sweaters and corduroy. I am soft. And warm. And deep.
I am bold and loud. I am colors bright and prints writ large. I emphasize and contrast. Black as night, I show you as fair; white as clouds in a summer sky, I turn your ivory skin to honey.
I am unpredictable and inconsistent and sometimes rebellious. I am horizontal stripes. I am skinny jeans hugging your curves. I am white shoes in winter. I am youthful yet sage, and retro with a dash of vintage. I am square buttons. I am hats, beads, gloves, and the occasional rhinestone.
I am swinging, loose, in motion. I sway to comfort. I sway to entice. I sway because I feel life’s beating pulse and want to dance while I can.
I am shapely, secure, self-aware. I am attractive. Inviting. Flirtatious. Daring.
          Garbed, I must choose from among these voices.
          But disrobed, I reverberate with all of them and more.