Saturday, March 5, 2011

Thoughts on HUQP, plus some literary allusions.

"What would happen if one woman [homosexual] told the truth about her [his/her] life?
The world would split open."-Muriel Ruykeyser

There's been quite a stir at my alma mater, Harding University, over the recent publication of a zine (I guess that's what the kids are calling it these days) which details the experience of 'queer' (LGBT) students at a staunchly conservative Christian university. Read their beautiful work here.

For the record, no one has asked me to comment on this--for the record, I would be flattered if someone did. I know no one is clamoring to hear what I have to say, yet I feel compelled to comment nonetheless. Why? I don't know. It's probably not the most prudent move, considering my current employment. Perhaps, as a proudly identifying feminist, I too feel like an outlier in Christian community. Don't misread me: I by no means intend to the equate the two--it's still less revelatory to declare that God is not exclusively male than to declare that maaaaybe God doesn't want gay people pretending to be straight, or just sucking it up and living lives without love.

The quote I posted above has been something of a lightning rod in my feminist journey, and I believe it serves the same purpose in this sticky, uncomfortable conversation. Like it or not, gay students are telling the truth.

But why is this particular conversation so uncomfortable? I don't have the answers, but to this I can speak my truth. I believe that, deep down, most people--perhaps many, if not most--really don't see anything wrong with being gay. You can answer for yourself if this describes you. We probably all know someone who is gay, if not outwardly so. And we love these people. They are our friends, our fellow worshipers. In my case, they were my fellow chorus members, my costars in the high school musical. They were gay. They just were. You knew it, and I knew it. Maybe they came from broken homes with absent fathers, so you could explain away their orientation to some defect in familial upbringing. Maybe they had two loving hetero parents, who were Christians, even....those were a bit harder to grapple with.

Deep down, you knew they would never be straight. You would not wish for them to marry a member of the opposite sex in some sham of a marriage that would silently kill the souls of both partners.

Neither would you wish for them to live alone. Just as you would not wish this for yourself.

And yet, there it is, in black and white: 1 Corinthians. Romans 1. Plus the Old Testament, but that also has tons of craziness which we don't do anymore, so we leave that out of the conversation. New Testament, though....that sticks. That hurts.

What does Jesus have to say about gay people? Well, where black-and-white speaks, black-and-red does not. Jesus is silent on the issue of homosexuality. He has more to say on the issue of divorce....and yet I do not see any Christians get up in arms over this sticking point, as I do not see the heartbroken condemnation of "divorced Christians" groups which have become something of a trend in more progressive churches. (Perhaps you have, in which case, at least Christians are being consistent). But I digress.

I have a long quote from Walt Whitman hanging up on my classroom wall, which admonishes the reader, among other things, to " re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, [and] dismiss whatever insults your own soul." Considering the school where I teach, it's a bit radical (but it was passed down from another teacher. So perhaps English teachers are just mavericks, or more probably, no one really reads those posters anyway).

Is it blasphemy for me to refuse to condemn homosexuality because doing so "insults my soul"? Is it heretical to deny love to others who are not me because they love someone whom certain passages of Scripture say they should not love (at least not sexually)?
(*Of course, there are different ways of reading Scripture. I don't have the education on this particular issue to outline them here, but many gay Christian scholars who know much more than me have done so. And before you scream heresy, keep in mind--we re-interpret other passages of Scripture which we do not find appealing all the time).

I don't know. Maybe it is. But I just can't. Perhaps this makes me a bleeding-heart liberal heretic; I choose to believe that it just makes sense. I don't want to serve any god which makes me go against my soul, against the very marrow of my bones. Furthermore, I suspect you don't, either.

The whole "gay question" often makes me think of what is perhaps the defining passage of Huckleberry Finn, a passage which is almost universally applauded and championed by readers and English teachers alike (yes, including those at Harding). I can't detail the events leading up to the passage, mainly because I don't remember them. But the crux of it is this: Huck is in trouble, and he reckons that his quandary is God's punishment for his sins, which include among them helping Jim, a black man and former slave--his friend--out of slavery. (I believe it is absolutely worth noting that, not that long ago, the Bible was widely used to justify racism and slavery).

Huck wrestles with his conscience, and even writes a letter to Jim's former owner which would sell him out. In his mind, he has two options: turn in Jim and be clean with God, or obey his soul and help his friend--and probably go to hell. Here are his thoughts after he writes the letter:

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking - thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll go to hell" - and tore it up.

Good Lord, that's beautiful.

I know many people who read this will disagree with me. I expect it, and encourage it, even. I know many will wonder at my audacity. If that's you, I suppose we are at an impasse, because neither one of us is going to change the other's mind. Perhaps it's audacious and sinful to post this to begin with. Perhaps I'm just tired of Christian morality, at least in climate of the Bible belt, being almost entirely relegated to the margins of society--i.e., people who are gay and women who get abortions.

Please know that I am not trying to make myself higher than God, or encourage revolt against Scripture. Or maybe I am....I don't really know. I guess I'm just trying to be honest, and trusting that there is grace enough to do so. Because one thing's for sure: this issue will never go away, and we might as well stop wishing that it will. I pray that we can re-imagine the role of gays in God's kingdom in a way that is vital and real, and absent of facades that slowly, slowly rot the soul.

I pray that you, dear reader, will do the same.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Still here.

I haven't posted in a really long time.
I don't really have anything to say now, either.
I did, however, see this band last night. I really like this song. Perhaps you will too.
It's a start.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Flying Solo

When I was in eighth grade I wrote a story about a fictional grandmother who traveled the world. This (in the story, my) grandmother, two years widowed, used travel as a means to embrace life after the loss of her husband. I was constantly getting her exotic souvenirs in the mail--a piece of the Berlin Wall, ceremonial masks from Africa, prayer beads from Tibet. I illustrated the story with snapshots from her adventures--Grandma beside the Dalai Lama, waving enthusiastically at the camera; Grandma shading her eyes and beaming before the Leaning Tower of Pisa. My teacher (no spring chicken herself) loved it, and I loved creating her--she was eighty-something and absolutely alive, and I sent her off to places that I could only then dream about.

I've been thinking about that story a lot lately, which has everything to do with the fact that I'm about to travel solo for the first time. I love how--without realizing it, of course--at twelve years old, I fictionalized the woman that I one day hoped to be: bold, adventurous, resilient, and most of all, able to keep company with herself. It's funny and perhaps weirdly prescient that I wrote the grandma without a backpacking buddy. That kind of independence inspired me, yes, but seemed completely alien to me as well, being a) twelve and b) one half of a fertilized egg.

Thus, you see how, with a sister succumbing to love and marriage, that exploring life alone (no, not alone, alone sounds depressing--independently) is a fairly new endeavor for me. And while I admit that I often envy my sister's seamless transition of partners--twin to husband--it is a bit exhilirating, this learning to do life by myself. To be known as Jess, and not part of some package deal. And to figure out what on earth all that means.

I've imagined myself as a lot of different people by now. When I went away to a Christian college, I was going to become the most amazing Christian. I would lose my self-consciousness in worship and evolve past my spiritual A.D.D. I was also going to date a lot, because that's what you do at Christian college, and because my high school awkwardness had to be worth something. When I studied a semester in Italy, I was going to be popular. I was going to make lifelong friends easily and for once feel like I wasn't craning my neck towards the cool kids' lunch table. When I went to Rwanda I was going to become a tanned, earthy goddess. I would feel beautiful, at one with God and nature, and surround myself with laughing orphans.

Life is nothing if not ironic: as I write this now, from the messy room in which I grew up, I feel myself becoming more than I ever did with all those of changes of scenery. But of course, they all played their part too.

I can't explain it, but it is deeply satisfying to know, with so much still up in the air (beliefs, career, etc), that I am different. This limbo in which I find myself is proving quite formative, if not outwardly productive. Uncertainty disarms and recreates, perhaps more effectively than any backdrop change ever could.

It is quietly intoxicating, to feel yourself becoming who you are--even if it's not exactly any of the selves you once imagined. I'm just happy now to bear some resemblance to the old woman I invented when I was twelve.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

What Are You Laughing At? No. Really.

Disclaimer: this gets a little preachy. Read it anyway.

The other day, I innocently approached a conversation two friends were laughing over, hoping to join in the joke. Almost immediately, I wished I'd stayed away.

The topic of conversation? Women jokes.

"...why are women's feet smaller than men's? So they can stay closer to the oven."

"Oh, I love women jokes," chimed in the second participant, who was, to my profound sadness, a woman. "You want to hear a funny joke? Women's rights."

They continued in that vein for awhile ("Why did the woman cross the road? Doesn't matter, she shouldn't have been out of the kitchen"; "What do you do if your dishwasher stops working? Beat her") as I awkwardly stood to the side, stone-faced and silent, the dreaded stereotype that I trip over myself to avoid: the Feminist With No Sense of Humor.

The thing is, I like and respect these two people very much. I don't think they would have continued if they knew their jokes honestly upset me. And I understand, from the female perspective, the urge to sell out your own sex, to be in on the joke--to be "one of the guys." I not only understand it; I've done it. I've ignored the sting of these barbs--the iceberg of truth buried beneath the punchline--and betrayed my femininity by one-upping the joke teller in misogyny. And I've cruelly laughed at far too many jabs told at the expense of other races and/or minorities.

But--what to say?--I just don't think I can do that anymore.

This goes far beyond the "woman thing," but that is where my story begins, so I'll start with that. And--hold on to your hat-- I'm going to use a word (again) that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable: "feminist." Over the past six months or so, I have been, with the aide of a few beautiful female trailblazers, reclaiming that particular f-word, and what it means for myself and the planet. (Interestingly, as a little girl I was a very vocal feminist. I stopped when I learned that that was a bad thing). I have surprised even myself at the depth with which this word has resonated in my heart, and befuddled many of those close to me with my ostensibly sudden passion on the subject. (It must be said, though: a number of people--men, even--have cheered me on in this awakening, or whatever you want to call it. To those people, God bless you). I don't know who reads this blog anymore, so I hope what I'm about to say won't give offense, but a lot--a lot--of my baggage concerning women has to do with the church (and I know about a dozen women who could heartily "amen" that). I don't want to get into biblical doctrine, but when little girls grow up digesting that the spiritual heavy lifting is a boy's job, that little boys can lead prayers and little girls can't, that boys grow up to lead and girls grow up to support the boys, something profoundly damaging happens to the female psyche. She grows up internalizing the message that boys are just more valuable to God--God, the King and Father: the ultimate Him. The level to which this subjugation lies buried in the heart of every good church daughter varies, but to any woman who grew up in this paradigm--in which her voice and ideas were relegated to the periphery of the church experience--I don't see how it can't exist.*

And the marginalization of women in church, though damaging, is by far one of the kinder, gentler faces of gender discrimination. Aside from the domestic abuse in our own backyards, the brutal misogyny accepted as standard operating procedure in so much of the developing world is enough to shatter your heart a thousand times over. Girls kidnapped and trafficked into sex slavery, women raped and then killed by their own families in the name of honor, infanticide of value-less baby girls--I could go on,** but you get the idea.

The cries of these women and girls simply makes it impossible for me to laugh at beating a woman dishwasher.

I read the following quote in a wonderful book*** recently, and it's about the truest thing I can think of right now:

"The quality of our laughter is a measure of our sanctity. It tells us how we feel about others. It tells them, too."

So, I'll ask it again...what are we laughing at? Specifically, whom are we laughing at? And would we still laugh if we considered the subjects of our laughter, in all of their beauty and scars, insecurity and individuality?

Would you tell a woman joke to your sister, your mother, your lover, your friend? And, if she laughed, would the smile reach her eyes?

This isn't about feminism, or racism, or any other ism. This is simply about operating from a place of love and respect for all of our brothers and sisters. For, in the words of the eminently quotable Joan D. Chittister, "Feminism makes humans of us all."

It may not seem like much, but the surest way I know to distance ourselves from each other is to trivialize a fellow human being's experience. And the surest way I know to do that is to laugh at it.

I don't pretend to be perfect, and I certainly don't pretend that residing on the higher plane of empathy will always be easy, or even desirable. But, honestly--what's the other option?

* If any of this strikes a chord with you, please, run don't walk to your nearest bookstore or library and pick up this book. Warning: you will not be the same after you've read it.

**This book does go on. Read it, get angry, get inspired, and get involved.

***Heart of Flesh by Joan D. Chittister. A bit dense, but
completely worth the effort.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Love Letter to Conan O'Brien.

Anyone who's known me longer than five minutes knows about my love for, my adoration for, my--okay, let's just call it what it is--obsession with Conan O'Brien. Not since my second grade love for Matt Medina (a fifth grader who, it must be said, has not aged well) has a redhead so captured my heart. So, as you can imagine, the recent NBC late night drama has captivated me in a way that I'm not particularly proud of, considering that the devastation in Haiti has highlighted the truth there actually is miserable suffering in the world, and the fate of one gangly multi-millionaire comedian is ultimately pretty unimportant. So...there's that.
At the risk of sounding trivial, I want to pay tribute to the man who has kept me up so many nights, and put a huge smile on my face for the better part of the last decade. There really is not a way to say that without sounding dirty.

I can't remember when exactly I began watching Late Night with Conan O'Brien, but I do remember this--it was some time in the 7th or 8th grade, and it was before I knew how to make coffee. Actually, it was before I even drank coffee. A simpler time. I call it B.C. I don't really call it that. Anyways, I know this because I would stare at the remaining dregs in our Mr. Coffee carafe, wishing to God I knew how brew a fresh pot--or better yet, enjoyed the taste--because I needed to stay up another two hours to obsess over some social studies diorama of Ancient Egypt, or something, as was my middle school way. So, without that bitter fuel to inject my decidedly-more-Type-A self with the necessary second wind, I turned on the television. Then, one night, I turned the channel to Conan.

This may seem completely unremarkable to you, but writing this just made me realize: I've been watching Conan longer than I've been drinking coffee. A notable milestone, considering that I now drink, on average, 17 cups of Joe a day, in addition to bathing in it nightly.

Conan came on like a strong gust of wind after what I would come to know as the reassuring banality of Jay Leno--full of manic energy, absurd characters, and disarming wit. He was tall, whip-smart, ridiculous, literary (fun fact: he did his Harvard thesis on Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner), self-deprecating, and gloriously pale--in short, all of my favorite things. And he drove a '92 Ford Taurus. I don't remember the first bit I ever saw on Late Night, but I do remember the first thing I ever talked about the next day--an absurdist and wholly appropriate take on the then-phenomenon of boy bands in a sketch called "Dudez-A-Plenti."


Susie | MySpace Video

And thus, a personal hero was born. Conan was my first-ever personality litmus test, a role that would later be filled by Christopher Guest, Lord of the Rings, and NPR. Liking him automatically made you cool in my book. Consequently, liking Leno made you stupid.

Throughout the years, Conan would be with me during the hard the night of my first run-in with the law. After leaving a chorus rehearsal very, very disgruntled, I was caught doing 60 in a 35. I was 16, and stupid, and everyone does 50 on that road anyway, but that's not the point. I came home sobbing inconsolably, miserable at the magnitude of my own idiocy. Eventually, though, I mellowed out, and turned on Late Night, because that's just what I did. I don't remember anything about that show, but I do remember laughing hysterically and feeling better almost instantly. It's so silly now, but there it is: Conan just made things better.
A few years down the road, Preparation H Raymond would help me get through those nasty prostitution charges. Ahh, the power of laughter.

As time went on, my love only grew. Characters like Vomiting Kermit, the Coked-Up Werewolf, Pimpbot, the Fed-Ex Pope, the Sports Fan, and The Interrupter; bits like "In The Year 2000" and the "Walker Texas Ranger Lever"--all of these became an integral part of my lexicon. (And yes, that was just an extremely transparent excuse to link those clips. Watch them all, then proceed). I started an innumerable number of sentences with, "Last night, on Conan..." I vividly remember hosting animated discussions on the brilliance of Late Night vs. the comedy graveyard of Leno's Tonight Show in my AP Macroeconomics class. (I had a cool economics teacher). I daydreamed about making it to a taping of Late Night before he wrapped it up and I begrudgingly--but proudly--surrendered him to the big bright lights of Hollywood and the Tonight Show. I more-or-less forced both of my college roommates (and anyone else in my room after 11:30 PM (thank you, Central Time Zone)) into watching, and subsequently loving, Conan along with me (a legacy I can surely be proud of). And yes, on a fundamental level, I suppressed the worry that my immense fondness for a late night talk show host was indicative of some latent personality disorder. Incidentally, a dream that I gave birth to a baby with Conan's head did not do much to allay my fears.

I'd rather not have this analyzed.

Admittedly, my viewership has waned in recent years. Graduating college and living in Africa for ten months kind of does that to you. And though, upon my return to the States, I was irrationally proud of little Conesie, all grown-up and hosting the Tonight Show -- not to mention happy to go to bed an hour earlier, since apparently graduating college made me age twenty years-- I also couldn't help feeling that my little secret was now out. I remained fiercely loyal despite the low ratings, and couldn't help but feel that if people actually prefer the Chin to the Hair, then people are actually stupid and terrible. (Prove me wrong, universe).

But the people--or moronic NBC executives--have spoken, I guess. Despite the legions of fans chanting, the vein of Nick Carraway, that O'Brien is "worth the whole damn bunch put together," it's goodbye, for now. So, what else to do, except compose an excessively rambling valentine to the man of the hour, in a forum that he has not the remotest chance of stumbling across, and say...thanks. For staying classy, ridiculous, hilarious, and genuine. Making people laugh ultimately isn't very imporant, after all. But to the people somehow is.

And Fox...getsa steppin'.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When words fail

An older woman came by the drive-thru at the Starbucks where I work today. (I work at Starbucks now, if you didn't know). Her eyes were glassy as I took her money, her cheeks flushed, and sadness like gravity pulled down the corners of her mouth. I kept a curious eye on her through the window as her drink was prepared, wondering what was breaking her heart.

As I handed her her drink, I smiled, and hollowly commanded her to "have a nice day," as if that means anything and as if she could, because that's all I know how to do. Her voice cracked as she said "thank you," and she drove away in tears.

I couldn't ask her what was wrong; I couldn't cry with her; I couldn't hold her hand. All I could offer were empty words, and watch her drive away.

Mother God, be near to the broken-hearted.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Gotta be the eyes.

There is a certain running theme to comments about my appearance/behavior made by new acquaintances. That is this: to the casual observer, I appear to be constantly stoned.

This pictures is far too disgusting to display my whole face.

As irony would have it, I've never been high in my life. I attribute this misconception to what I like to call the Merrill Deadeye. Observe:

Brother Paul

Sister Jenn, still managing to look sorta high despite the presence of glasses.

I really can't comment on the behavior aspect of this observation. (At least I seem happy...?)

I'm not sure how, but I'm certain I can make this stoner-chick persona work to my advantage.