Song Of the Day

What song haunts you?

What song sums up your life?

What tunes runs through your head on an endless loop and will not be forgotten?

River of Dreams by Billy Joel is the one for me. Today, anyway.

What’s on your mind today?

Girls Walks Out of a Bar, a memoir

Big hard questions are making my head spin. Why is it that the importance of the separation of church and state isn’t discussed all the time, loudly? Where is the discussion of balance between the fundamental right of religious freedom and protecting children from the zealotry of their parents? When does religious freedom turn into abuse? Where is the line? How do we talk about this stuff and not end up fighting about politics?

These questions give me brain buzz and I have no answers, SO how ’bout a book review, instead?

YES.

Girl Walks Out of a Bar by Lisa F. Smith is the current favorite on my nightstand. I heard Lisa speak at the Hippocampus Writers Conference a few weeks ago and knew I wanted to read anything she had written.  Turns out her book is a memoir about her addiction to alcohol and cocaine while holding down a job as a high rolling NYC attorney in a big fat law firm overlooking Times Square. No easy task. She managed to hide her struggles not only at work, but from her closest friends and family. Her honest portrayal of that grim reality is gripping, horrifying, messy. She does not spare the reader, which is why I like her.

Do we ever really know what is going on with those around us?

There is a moment in the book when she blurts out to her friends, “I think I’m an alcoholic.” They are at a party, as usual. Everyone is drinking, as usual. Her words are met with resistance.

No one asks, “What makes you think so?” or “How can I help?”

Her admission is met with denial by them all, except for the one guy who wouldn’t meet her eyes. I bet that guy agreed and didn’t want to say it or maybe he was thinking, me too. The other friends… hmmm… they didn’t want to hear it? Perhaps their own fear of having to change overcame a desire to reach out. Maybe they were thinking, you can’t be an alcoholic because that means I am too.

Who knows? Lisa doesn’t blame her friends or try to explain their reactions, but left the scene hanging to replay in my head.

Happy ending! Lisa gets help, kicks her habits and is now a sobriety speaker to the legal community, where addiction struggles are rampant. Her courage to reach out for help, risking her career and reputation cannot be overestimated. Everything was at stake. She did it and I am proud of her and for her, even though she is technically a total stranger.

I highly recommend Lisa’s book and personal presentations, as well.  She can be found on Twitter @girlwalksout. No one asked me to write a review, by the way. I really do love this book.

As for the other stuff, maybe we can help each other along the twisted path if we pay attention, reach out in love and acceptance instead of fear and resistance. What if we aren’t afraid to be curious and ask an honest question or two and then listen to the answers? What’s the worst that could happen?

gwo

 

Feeling Free

A couple of weeks ago I found myself free to do as I pleased for a few hours on a summer afternoon near a beach. What more could a person want? Souls savor stolen moments.

Signage at the top of the steep wooden staircase read:

Clothing optional

No gawking

No cameras

I already knew the beach was clothing optional, but it was breezy and cool, so I had no intention of stripping. Let other people freeze their naked butts off. The last time I had been to a clothing optional beach, a woman who appeared to be a supermodel stretched out beside me with a friendly smile, her perfect breasts pointing to the sky. I just couldn’t join her.

At the bottom of the steps, a string of brightly colored sarongs caught the wind like wanna-be kites reaching for the brilliant sky. Sand and water swept the horizon before me. I put my phone away, took off my shoes and began to walk, toes digging into the soft sand. Happy as the proverbial clam.

The days prior and the days ahead were busy and emotional. Long awaited visits with my adult children behind me and my long awaited second marriage just ahead, brain and body needed the off switch. Worries, plans, and body aches vanished with the first step.  By the tenth step, I was sweating, because the breeze had also vanished and the sun was flexing its muscles. As I wandered down to firmer sand by the waterline, I noticed several naked bodies.  They were tan everywhere. Some of these folks must be hard core beach nudies. Huh. Not a perfect physique in sight.

I walked as far as the beach allowed and doubled back looking for the right driftwood log to lean against, wondering what it would be like to be naked here. The perfect spot appeared, so I plunked down in the sand, squinting and cursing my lack of sunglasses and empty water bottle. Sweat ran down my back into my underwear as the sun blazed hotter. As I scanned the horizon, a middle aged man sauntered past, penis swinging and free, utterly unselfconscious. Huh.

I furtively slipped out of my clothes and spread out my sweatshirt to sit on, unwilling to get sand absolutely everywhere. I glanced around. No one was anywhere near me, no one to see or care, so I settled back to watch the clouds and waves. I noticed that the breeze wasn’t entirely gone; I could feel it gently caress my body in places that had never felt fresh air before. My skin felt grateful and cool.

As the rhythm of the waves lulled my senses and swept out my brain cobwebs, someone with clothes on walked by and glanced quickly away with an awkward jerk of his head. Wonder what his problem is I thought, having already forgotten I didn’t have any clothes on. Oh yeah, I’m naked, I smiled to myself and felt sorry for him in his heavy cotton tee shirt and cargo shorts.

How did I come to be comfortable in my own naked bag of skin in my fifties after a lifetime of excruciating self-loathing? I was taught shame as a fact, that my female body was an offense, dangerous if uncovered, an abomination if fat, a death sentence if used. I carried those judgements like chains, even in my defiance of them. I don’t care anymore. Those chains may have left a few scars, but somewhere along the way they dropped off.

I wonder at the weight we carry sometimes. We can change inner dialogue from defensiveness to openness; allow others to carry their own opinions, their judgements, their perspectives without hefting the load. We can show ourselves compassion, too.

Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

I would add, it is the mark of a free mind, as well.

I can’t wait to see if Facebook deems my knee and shoulder inappropriate.

sarongs.jpg

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This Place Feels Sticky

I remembered something.  There was this weird thing that happened to me a lot in the Pentecostal church, so it must have happened to others, too. Maybe it happened to me more often since I ran wild on bible college campuses as a child. I don’t know.

Men would offer to be my boyfriend.  They would call me their girlfriend in intimate and flirtatious ways and pretend to want to date me. I usually knew they were not serious, but to have the attention of grown men as a ten or twelve year old girl was confusing and head-turning stuff.

Now I know their words were sexual predation. Grooming, if you will.  Had any of those men, most only eighteen or nineteen themselves, some older, had a more nefarious bent and tried to corner me in a dark room, I would have complied.  I would not have thought to resist.

As #MeToo moments go, being noticed in sexually or romantically suggestive ways by men is “not that bad.” I was never raped, have no violence to report, no molestation, no physical contact, except for that once, but I knew no one would believe me. And yet… I remember them all.

My value as a human was defined from day one by my appearance and my sexual value.  “You’re going to be beautiful when you grow up,” they would say, with a glance up and down, while everything sexual was condemned and shamed within the cult of the United Pentecostal Church.  Sex education was non-existent, information forbidden, genitals unnamed, normal developmental desires were an unspeakable sin punishable by the fires of hell. They were not joking.

Add in the Biblical philosophy of the second class nature of women and the demand for their submission, acquiescence, and silence.  The female body was vile and a dangerous threat; our shoulders and kneecaps an abomination to the eye, designed to tempt unwitting men. Scriptures seemed to be full of stories of women whose offense was to be curious or smart or beautiful (Eve, Lot’s wife, Jezebel) and they were always killed or banished for their infractions. Jezebel had the audacity to decorate herself and so was fed to dogs. Her story was a little more complicated than that, but the Sunday School literature blamed it on makeup and jewelry.

But, still, be pretty. Be pretty and wait to get laid by your future husband, a man of god who will pick you to have his children and play his piano. The scrutiny of every detail of females’ appearance played into this culture of sexualization, even of children. Our only value was sexual; our sexuality was also our shame. What a twisted fucking message.

In defense of those males, except for that one who knew better, they were victims of the same culture. I doubt any of them gave a second thought to the things they said to the Bible college campus child-pet and would probably be horrified to have their words marked as predatory or even inappropriate. Who knows what they got out of it.

“A woman’s body always stands on the outskirts of town, verging on uncivilization. A thin paper gown is all that separates it from the wilderness. Half of its whole being is devoted to remembering how to live in the woods. This is why Witch, this is why Whore, this is why Unlucky and this is why Unclean. This is why attempts to govern the female body always have the feeling of a last resort, because the female body is fundamentally ungovernable.”   —from Priestdaddy, a memoir by Patrick Lockwood

Of all of the books I’ve read that I wish I had written, this is the one I wish I had written the most.

What’s Inappropriate, Again?

Fellow ex-Christian blogger Clay of Life After 40 shared an intriguing post today.  While his story is very different from my own, we have come to many of the same conclusions and followed somewhat similar paths.  (I previously shared his post called My Crazy Vasectomy Story).

I would like to pass on his current post:  Sex – Not an Appropriate Topic to give you the opportunity to follow along.

In case you’re wondering why anyone cares to write or read about sex, particularly from an ex-Christian perspective, I would sincerely say that I do not believe anyone escapes fundamentalism without sexual damage.  From childhood, normal sexual development is stunted and shamed.  Guilt, silence and fear are what sex is about, instead of pleasure and connection.  I think that is inappropriate.

While there are many bloggers and other writers who address the enormous difficulties LGBTQ people have coming out to Christian families, few speak directly to middle-aged vanilla-ish types who never learned to honor their own desires.

I am happy to be in good company.

A Conversation, Lightly Edited

Beta Reader, male:  I hope you and yours are well. I just was curious, how is your book coming? I really enjoyed reading the chapters you sent. Have a wonderful day. 

Me:  My rough draft is done!  I am in revisions now.  Hoping to be ready for a publisher by the end of the year.  Are you interested in reading more?  I always need input!  Thanks for checking in. 

Beta Reader, male:  Yes, I would love to read more!

(Sound of chapters zooming through space)

Beta Reader, male:

Me:  Did you get the chapters I sent?  Just checking, no hurry!

Beta Reader, male:   Hi! I did and read it with great pleasure. I can tell you’ve spent some time tightening up the characters and developing them in more detail.  I found the detail of your relationship with (redacted) interesting. May I ask about the choice to include such erotic detail? Not judging, just curious. I certainly think those details are fascinating and stimulating, just sincerely curious about sharing the details.  I don’t think it is necessarily a bad choice, but it will be interesting when your grandchildren read it.  Who else besides the grandchildren of celebrities and rock stars know the sex life details of their grandparents? Because of my sexual repression earlier in life I probably now tend to have an unhealthy obsession with all things sexual.  To most reading your story it’s probably not a big deal. 

 I want to commend you on your bravery in writing. I grew up in the same religious context as you, although I didn’t nearly suffer as much. I’m sorry you had to endure that. I suspect because I am male and my dad did not attend church I escaped a lot of what many of my peers have endured at the hands of Pentecostals. But in some ways I envy you. I’ve always been a rule keeper of sorts and you knew a certain freedom of rebellion at an early age. I did all the typical teenager things but never had any of the adventures you describe in tantalizing detail. And now I’m at an age where the “What if’s” start to flood the mind. I wish I would have made some different choices earlier in life. But you did and now you are writing about them. Kudos. I want to read more!! Keep me posted. 

(Me, looking in mirror: GRANDCHILDREN?  Shit, I do look old.)

Me:  I appreciate your kind words.  You bring up some interesting points that have me thinking and refining my themes,.  Please allow me to think out loud here…

Regarding explicit detail and why I write it:

Sex and eroticism is and has always been a focus of mine, so I love writing about sex.  Also, everybody knows sex sells and I want to sell some books.  To that end, I also want to pull in male readers because I have something to say to them.  Men rarely read memoirs by women.

This brings me to what I want to say to men.  I am interested in their experience of sex and sexual interaction.  I also deeply believe that rape culture and the end of female oppression comes not only from women rising up but from “good men” listening and giving a shit about the effects of their disinterest.  People in power aren’t going to give it up voluntarily, but all men have a mother and most have sisters, female friends, daughters, etc.  It is important to understand our experience.

Which leads me to our experience.  Most women know what it feels like to be a sex recipient if you know what I mean.  A faceless receptacle.  I am fascinated that you find my experiences erotic as opposed to simply explicit.  They are descriptions of trauma.  Not rape.  Not non-consensual, but a search for belonging and love.  The narrator was not a free spirit out having a good time, but a damaged, sad, lonely girl.  Female readers get this.  I want male readers to get it, too, and I think they will when I’m done with the story, but I have to get them to pick it up first.

Also, no one gets out of fundamentalism without sexual damage, male or female.  You mentioned your own repression and the what-ifs that are coming around now.  I can’t help but notice that there is an assumption of shame associated with sexual experience in your response.  Sex is the best part of life.   People literally die of loneliness.  Lots of people are trapped in sexless marriages.  Many of the mass murderers we see in the news have a history of sexual rejection.  I think it is a worthy talking point.  Who decided sex should be associated with shame and guilt?  There is probably a provable answer to that question.  I am betting it is rooted in controlling women’s sexual behavior, which became a popular thing to do when humans started owning property:

Sex At Dawn

Do you mind if I use your response as part of a blog post?  Anonymously, of course.

Beta Reader, male:  Thank you for the thoughtful response. I suppose I did reveal my ignorance. I agree there shouldn’t be any shame associated with sex, I apologize for missing the point in your expressions of your experience. I was wrong to interpret them so. I confess that I’m still learning and not being a woman or someone who has suffered as you have I’m limited in my ability to fully understand. I’m sincerely sorry if my observations came across insensitively. Not if, they did. Thank you for confronting me on that point. If my ignorance will help inform others feel free to publish it.

ME:  Oh geez.  There’s really no need to apologize.  I appreciate your forthrightness.  You’re helping me form my thoughts on this subject in a very real way.
We are all dealing with this subject from different angles. Thanks for letting me use your thoughts to further the conversation.  I really do have a point to make with the explicitness of my writing and I want to make it thoughtfully and well.

And you know, if readers get turned on, so much the better!

 

Fiance:  If you want male readers to understand why the sex is traumatic you will have to beat them over the head with the point.

Writing Coach:  I agree.  Do it.

 

Isolation

I’m thinking about isolation.  Not what you do on a Sunday morning? Just me?

Several recent conversations with my sisters and my mother have reminded me how isolated we all were from each other in years past.  The stage was set within our family for absolute obedience and we were a perfect storm of noncommunication.

Firstly, the cult of Pentecostalism required isolation from the world in general, effectively taking away any context for normality.  Intrinsic to that religious culture is the submission of women to men.  Women cannot hold positions of power or have a public voice.  Their submission must be evident in behavior and appearance.

But you know that.

Add in an ambitious, power-hungry, sexually frustrated narcissist on a mission from God with a public persona to protect and we have a family of women who were not allowed to talk to each other.  Not because we didn’t want to, but because we were forbidden and didn’t know how.

When crises came around, we were already in a state of silence.  By the time my teenage fallopian tube exploded (see Close Call for the story) and I was near death, we were all perfectly trained. All Dad had to say was do not speak and we didn’t.  Our silence went far beyond lying to church people who would judge him for having a wayward daughter.  He didn’t have to tell me not to speak.  I hadn’t spoken out loud in my family for years and was not about to start.

Mom knew I was sick but was not allowed to visit me in the hospital, nor to comfort me afterward.  Dad told my sister that Mom didn’t know what happened to me and not to tell her, so she didn’t.  My sister was the only person who spoke to me during my six weeks of recovery following surgery.  I sat home alone with no one to blame but myself. My other sister was told nothing at all.

Silence filled our home, the air too thick to breathe. Not one word was spoken between mother and daughters nor sister to sister about the fact that one of us had a tragic, terrifying, near-death experience.

Thirty-ish years later, with the threat of Dad’s wrath long gone, we talk.  Now we know what we were forced to deny.  Now we say the words.  Now we are free to love each other.  And breathe.