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.

To be continued...

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. 

Continued at 
Lessons in Life