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.

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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.

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.

Dear Neglected Blog…

My book, The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid, is coming along, slowly but surely.  Turns out I had to learn how to write a book first.  Thanks to Cami Ostman and the writers of Memory to Memoir I have gained  invaluable support and feedback on this strange trip.

The recent surge of online truth telling, specifically the #MeToo, #ChurchToo, #RaptureAnxiety and #EmptythePews threads on Twitter have astounded me.  There are so many of us.  PTSD, anxiety and depression abound in the ex-evangelical community.  Seems like a good time to tell my story, even if it’s just another voice in the crowd.

If you have one, please tell yours, too.  One thing I have learned is to give myself permission to write it all down.  Edit later.  But get it out.  There isn’t anything that can’t be faced on the page.  Trauma, like evil, loses its power in the light.

Joy, Love, Peace and Merry Christmas,

Ronna

Tony says…

Faith Healing, Chickenshit and Bears

Well, this is weird.  It seems I have created a blog for my own personal use that I now handle with care.  In the beginning, this was a place to write my stories and get out my rants; my assumption was no one would ever read them, so I did not bother to filter.  I was wrong, so now I get nervous.  A profanity-laced version of this post was published on a secret site, so as not to offend, like the chickenshit that I am.

Some readers here, perhaps most, are showing up for the gossip factor.  Even Christians skip to the sex scenes.  Some understand the oppression of growing up fundie and appreciate the “me, too” feeling. Some are closeted unbelievers and are struggling with the reality that in order to be their own true fully actualized selves they have to come out to their families.  This is terrifying, because, as all of us who have been through it know, you risk losing everything: your family, your community and social life, your identity.  Your people will likely turn on you in a multitude of ways (disappointment, anger, fear for your soul, pray for, pity or condemn you) for your self-discovery.  Rarely are they accepting or curious about your evolution.  Rarely are there no emotional repercussions.  All of us who have walked away know this.  We have all experienced it in one form or another, the condescension and rejection.  There is a network of ex-Christians who have escaped fundamentalism and survived or are trying to escape and hoping to survive.  Some keep their non-beliefs secret from their families to avoid dealing with the drama. Many suffer from the aftermath of cognitive dissonance, PTSD and suicidal thoughts; leftover irrational fears that won’t quiet.   The beleaguered mental health community is not up to speed on the effects of fundamentalism.   My voice is one of many.  I thought I could walk away and pretend none of it ever happened, but that’s not how life works.  Here I am, decades later, finally speaking up.  I can’t say it isn’t still frightening, the risk of offending.

A recent Facebook post pushed me over the edge, as will happen.  A sad, sick woman with a debilitating disease wrote to an evangelical TV show asking why her prayers for healing had not been answered.  The response was a clip of Pat Robertson blaming demons or some such bullshit.  (Nut Job Here)  It really flipped my switch, not just because Pat Robertson is a douchebag, but because there was a sick, vulnerable, desperate person in need of help and comfort who was emotionally manipulated in a deeply sadistic way.   Not only was she dealing with the reality of her illness, she was also wounded, confused and fearful that the god she loved and depended on was ignoring her pleas.   It was a double whammy of pain.

Here’s the thing, I’ve got nothing against prayer.  As a matter of fact, sometimes that’s all you can do. When a worry is too big to bear, you have to let it go or be consumed. When life takes a turn, thoughtful folks say “I’m praying for you” or “thoughts and prayers” and post sweet emojis, they are saying they care and hope things get better. It’s nice. This isn’t about that. What follows is a request directed to those who are strident believers in faith healing; an appeal for consideration.  Please hear me out.

When a person with an incurable disease is told their condition can be whisked away by a prayer, it disregards their daily reality.  Every day contains struggles unknown to the rest of us, both physical and emotional.

To profess to have access to a magical cure insults the sick in a way that faith healing believers do not seem to understand.  The underlying emotion might be love for the afflicted and a desire for their wellness, but disregarding the daily reality of living with illness, the limitations of medical science and the personal beliefs of others comes across as an ego-driven, manipulative power trip.  Such disregard is rude at best, but also cruel and misinformed and can be emotionally damaging to those not good at critical thinking.

This might seem to be an overreaction to anyone who hasn’t been steamrolled by religiosity, but I have a sick kid who experiences this.  She, being a better person than me and not having experienced the steamroller, rolls her eyes and takes the good intentions. Or yells a little bit and lets it go.  Not me.

I see, at least a little bit, what she goes through; her fears and symptoms and side effects and endless appointments and medications.  The disappointment and discouragement when yet another treatment fails.  I see her absolute determination to stay as healthy and fit and positive as she possibly can despite her fatigue.  I see her siblings’ worry and fear and unwavering, astounding love.  If there is such a thing as a holy spirit, it lives in their support of each other.  I know what I go through, not just because I am heartbroken for her and would take the disease myself if it would save her from it, but working multiple jobs to pay the bills, staying in a job I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to for the medical benefits and watching my daughter ask strangers on the internet for money because I have no way of paying the deductible, despite the long hours.  I also see the resources and attention that go to this one kid, when I have others who need me, as well.  The endless fatigue and stress on us all.  If there was a god that could prevent this or take it away, and it doesn’t automatically do so, then it is evil.

I do not believe there is a being with the power to allow or disallow sickness; to cure or not cure based on variable criteria.  I understand that others do.

My problem lies with the manipulation of false hope. On the receiving end, it seems arrogant and selfish to tell a sick person that if they say the right words, they MIGHT be healed.  It feels like a head trip, a game.  Also ignorant.  If there were a kind and loving god with these capabilities, there would be no sickness.  The fact of sickness remains; therefore god is either not loving or kind, perhaps does not have those powers or simply does not exist. I assume believers have another explanation, but nothing else makes sense to me.

I prefer to rest my hopes in science; like that crazy kid from up the street who grew up to be a medical research scientist, spending his days conducting meticulous experiments in order to find another treatment or even a cure.  Do I believe my daughter’s life is worth more than those of the countless rodents under his knife? Yes.  Yes, I do.  The mice might disagree.

When my daughter was diagnosed, an acquaintance remarked that perhaps god allowed it to happen in order to get my attention.  I felt it was a remarkably unkind thing to say.  Were it true, then a nasty manipulation from a petty creature with too much power.   Since I don’t believe it to be true, I’ll go with the former, which brings me to my point. Fervid beliefs allow outrageously offensive things to be said under the guise of caring.  If I had indisputable proof that a god had made my daughter sick in order to turn me into a follower, then I would kill that creature, if possible. It most certainly would not be the recipient of my devotion but of the wrath of Mama Bear, complete with skin-ripping claws, saliva dripped fangs and a bladder evacuating roar.

My quest here is to ask those of you who read this blog and are believers in faith healing to consider another perspective. Consider that your beliefs are not factual.  You are absolutely entitled to them. No one can stop you from sharing them, either, but please consider how it feels to be on the receiving end. The idea that a person or their family member is somehow responsible for, or can effect their illness, either by disbelief or lack of proper prayer or by any other measure, is indefensible.  In response to a much more vitriolic version of this post, I heard stories from others:  someone who, when their own healing didn’t come, was told they were not right with God (they’re still sick because they’re SICK, goddammit); an elderly parent on their death bed was told to pray for healing (they died clinging to misplaced hope instead of spending their final moments in peace); another was told chronic illness plagued them because they had changed their address and cut loose toxic friends.  Another, when offered prayer for sickness, requested family members donate to stem cell research, instead and got blank looks all around.   For a person struggling with incurable illness and pain or facing death to be told they need to fix it themselves is cruel. Those words coming from a loved one twist the knife.

I realize there is likely nothing I can say, no matter how careful or loving or angry or direct or clear, to throw a faith-healing believer off the scent or knock them off their high horse.  Zealotry does that to people, however, if you are interested in not alienating loved ones who do not share your beliefs, please consider the following suggestions:

Recognize the difference between FACT and BELIEF.  Words have meanings and these things are not the same.    Fact is truth.  Facts are true whether you believe them or not. Beliefs are yours, they belong to you.  Facts belong to us all. We all have “personal truths,” based on our desires, perspectives, and experiences.  These are something less than factual and should be wielded with great care and understanding that what is true for you may not be true for others.

 

 

Refuge

I’ll never forget the day I found my apartment.  I had been desperately searching for a place to live.  Since I wanted the divorce, it was up to me to move out.  We had been living in the old house together for months and were to the breaking point.  It was time to find the money and find a place.  The only three bedroom apartment I could afford on our side of town was dark and gloomy.  I put in an application and was accepted, which was a miracle in itself.  I asked the girls if they wanted a dark three bedroom apartment or a nicer two bedroom. They said they would share to live in a nicer place.

I was driving down State Street, feeling as desperate as I’ve ever felt in my life.  I saw a For Rent sign on a shitty building by Boulevard Park, right by the water.  I took a look.  It smelled like old hotel.  There was a view, but, oh god, a million years of cigarette smoke permeated the very bones of the place.  As I was pulling away, application in the passenger’s seat, I noticed another For Rent sign two buildings down.  It was a modest place, to be sure, but not slummy like the first.  Somehow, in 17 years of living in Bellingham, I had never once noticed it.

I called.

The owner led me down a long hallway (nice carpet, great paint, no smells) out into a spacious living/dining room that overlooked Bellingham Bay in the crystal sunlight.  I could practically hear choirs of angels singing.  I signed papers on the spot.  My deposit check bounced in my brand new single mom account, but I was in.

I didn’t have a bed, just our old couch that had become remarkably uncomfortable over the years.  The first night my daughter laid on the couch with her head in my lap and cried, missing her siblings, who had stayed in the old house.

I found a navy blue leather loveseat and armchair on Craigslist.  The picture was blurry but I had a feeling about it and went to see.  It was gorgeous and cheap.  The woman selling it was getting divorced.  Said it had sat in their master bedroom unused for years (just like me).  I said, “Well, I’m getting divorced, too and need furniture.”  We laughed.  Divorce musical chairs.  I also found a like-new mattress set on Craigslist.  The seller was nice enough to tie it to the top of my minivan and I drove it home on the Interstate in the rain, praying it would stay put.  Hauled it into the apartment by myself with minimal damage to it and me and finally had a bed.

On my way out of the old house, I had taken everything I couldn’t leave behind; the only things I had picked out over the years.  A few pictures, a wooden giraffe, a fish-print painting, a chandelier.  My desk and antique farm table.  It all fit perfectly into my new space.

The first Saturday in the apartment I slept in until 8:00.  I hadn’t had that much sleep in 20 years.  I was safe.

Over the next months, years now, I have spent as much time as I can carve out of any given day, sitting on my balcony.  Under starlight, blazing sun, misty mornings and surreal, fiery sunsets I have watched the sky and water.  I have watched the sunset move across the horizon with the seasons, watched snow fall on the water, geese skim the surface, loons dive, seagulls careen and stalk my deck for bits of barbecue.  Herons glide, seals bob and boats come and go.  I have watched the Coast Guard, helicopter training exercises, barges, sailboat races, fishing boats, kayaks, and canoes.  It’s never the same scene twice.

My kids, who have come and gone and come back again, have done the same.  Sometimes I come home to evidence of their hanging out.  Stray socks and glasses, hairbands.

It is impossible to describe the overwhelming sense of peace that comes from sitting by the water.  I once described it to someone as, if ever I have felt the hand of god in my life, it was the day I found this place.  As I described sitting on my deck, he said it was as if god told me, “I will meet you right here.”  And he has.  And I don’t even believe in god, but there it is.  This balcony by the water saved my soul, healed my heart and, sunset by sunset, pieced me back together.

I created a home, a place where I remembered who I am, surrounded by things, simple things, that I love.  This place is me.  That is why when my children live here or visit, it feels like home.  Not because they grew up in these walls or have childhood memories of it.  It is because it’s the place their mother became real.  They can come here and hide, bring their friends, talk to me all night, or be sick and sleep in my bed, eat all of my food, complain that there is no food.   And sit by the water and watch.

Changes come and I know they are coming again.  The day will come when I say good-bye to my spot by the water.  It is the only home I will have ever been sad to leave.  As a matter of fact, I’m holding back ugly cries just thinking about it.  But change is now made by choice instead of desperate circumstance and that is a very different kind of sad.  What comes next is a new adventure and love and the next big thing.

I’m almost ready.

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