Where Fear Has No Home

I thought I knew how to come and go as I pleased.

To load up the car, drive the tree-lined drive to two lane roads toward the behemoth interstates. I don’t. Or at least didn’ until I forced myself to do so this Memorial Day weekend. In March, I bought my ticket to a writing retreat in which I knew only the other attendees by their avatars on Twitter, years of blog posts, and that awkward moment when I friended a few of them on Facebook and hoped that they accepted. They did. IMG_0134

For three months, I scrolled through the #RRforWriters tweets and mapped out travel plans from the safety of my desk surrounded by all of crazy but comforting knick-knacks(doesn’t every writer have a Jane Austen action figure with a mini-poseable Shakespeare kneeling at her feet?).

But then the day before I was to fly out of RDU toward Michigan, I felt the old panic rising upward, fear tingling away whispering this was a bad idea. I’m an introvert. I’m fairly certain if Dante wrote about the circles of Hell for introverts meeting new people that one has only known through the internet would be in there somewhere. My mind grasped for excuses to stay where I was comfortable. Where I could be safely at home.

Home on five acres surrounded by pine trees, towering dead oaks, and blackberry vines. Where I can click the red circle on my browser to get rid of unnecessary blogger drama, to escape to my porch where I notoriously overwater my petunias, to tend my herbs–sage, thyme, lavender, rosemary. Where I feel both trapped and secure, where I have the power to keep all who’ve hurt me away.

Sometimes, we confuse what is supposedly stable, safe, and secure with what lurks beneath in the shadows. Our fear. 

Perhaps, fear doesn’t always look like the bogeyman under our beds. For me, fear wears Sunday dress clothes and carries a Bible, sits in the pew next to me, and waits until I offend to unleash its fury. These emotional scars came from those who claim to love the same Jesus I do, and yet, there are such deep hurts that I’m not sure will ever fully heal. Being around other believers causes me to panic, but the only I way I know to deal with this terror is to silence myself, push others far away. I’ve spent years bouncing from church to church, stayed seated when the old panic bubbled up, kept other believers far away so I could lick my wounds. Now, emotional callouses, hard and numb.

Fear took away my ability to be in community with other believers because I let it.

But I signed up for a Christian writing retreat anyway. Out of sheer bravery, doubtful.  Over-confidence in my own abilities, more likely. How hard could it be to sip some wine, talk about writing, meander about during free time writing poetry, endure the spirituality portion? Again, I tried to keep other believers at distance, walls built up from years of brick laying, plaster the everything’s okay smile on, no one would know the difference. Except for the Holy Spirit. And probably, everyone there.

During Vespers, we sat in silence. Sometimes, we stared at the flicking of the candle flame. In the silence, I felt these simple words–love, peace, and seen. While I had never been to Michigan before or this retreat center, this place became a new kind of home. Where I was loved, where I was seen, where I could break down the emotional walls for a much needed period of rest.

 

 

wash here

Poet Prayers

wash here. i crowd last night’s dinner

plates, cups, spoons coated in grease and leftover chicken

down deep in the soapsuds like a baptismal font.

between the scrub, rinse, dry–

silence eats into the back corners,

recites all of the caked mess life spattered

all over my heart, or worse, i did to myself.

i need to be clean too. with feeble words

heart murmurs, stir up the old woman lies

dunk them in the purifying water–

come out forgiven, new.

 

This month, we will begin a series of poems on grace. I’m looking forward to spending time contemplating this idea in poetry.

When I Say I’m a Feminist

When I say I’m a feminist…

I see the blank, awkward looks. Toes scuffing the dirt; you shuffle your weight and stare at your shoes. Perhaps, you sip your latte/soda/water and wish the awkward pause away. But the F-word hangs in the air like smoke from a Pall Mall cigarette. Neither you nor I can escape it, and I don’t want to. It’s who I have become, who I was, who I’m constructing myself to be. Feminisms Fest Badge

Every time, I label myself with the F-word; I see the gap between us open wide like a moon crater. Maybe, you will change the subject. Something comfortable like the weather or politics or faith. Something to move away from this label because we’ve weighed it down with images of bra burners, men haters, radicals. And I don’t fit that description.

So when I call myself a feminist, you’re never sure what to say or do. The word carries such a burden, but what great “isms” don’t? Somehow, we have this metaphorical dance of awkward pauses and gaps, but what we really need is to sit down and listen to what I mean when I say I’m a feminist.

When I say I’m a feminist…

I want you to see the little girl struggling to unify that Jesus loves everyone equally, but only men can preach and teach. The important church things. Women just take turns in the nursery. There’s a “natural” trajectory for a little girl’s life–grow-up, marriage, babies. The same for all little girls, doesn’t matter if they want to do something else or worse still don’t even want babies or marriage. It becomes hard to reconcile such a Creator who gives us all talents and gifts, but expects the same life plan for half the population. I struggled as a teenager to overcome my body and hide it at the same time. Too much knee, too much neckline, I cause others to sin because I have breasts and hips and a body that refuses to look good in ankle length skirts.

I want you to see college girl who learned early to shut up, be quiet, your voice is worthless. For the first time, an English professor with red curls and ice blue eyes tells me that my voice, my agency matter. She takes me under her wing and allows me to spend hours talking about poetry and novels and writing in her office provided I overlook the piles of ungraded papers. She listens and treats me as an equal. When she labels herself a feminist, I do too. A bit of a bandwagon conversion, but if feminism allows me to speak up for myself, for others, then I want in too.

I want you to see the graduate student. Far removed from her childhood faith,  diving into theory and literature, breathing in the intellectual discourse like oxygen.  Christianity and church fade into Derrida, Foucault, then bell hooks, Elizabeth Flynn, and Adrienne Rich. All of my professors treated my words as important and worth listening to. When I wasn’t treated as an equal outside of academia, I could find solace within its graduate seminars.With each course, I began hearing the cries of my feminist foremothers begging for me to speak, to use my agency, to rail against hegemony. In this time, feminism reconstructed my tarnished and battered view of being a woman, how a woman relates to the domestic and public spheres, how woman lives in the tension of place and purpose. Slowly, as feminism taught me my worth as a human, not just as a woman, I found my way back to the faith that I threw off so haphazardly.

When I say I’m a feminist…

(Maybe, I should have begun with this caveat. This is my practical vision of feminism rooted in the theories of bell hooks, Judith Butler, Elizabeth Flynn, and Gaytari Spivak. I understand that feminism is far from a perfect ideology, but if we can accept the messy and brokeness of the church, I think we can accept feminism’s incongruence as well.)

No one definition embraces its full scope. No one woman embodies its full vision. No set of words capture it—no matter how raw, graceful, or elegant. It does not exist in unified form; yet, it serves to unify the silenced, the abused, the First World, the Third World, the lesbian, the housewife, the academic, the high school drop out, the faith-filled, the agnostic. Underneath its wings, women grow stronger, more self-aware. They find voices to speak back to power and hegemonic authority. They find the strength to push against the wall of patriarchy and its abuses. Couched in all of its ideological weight rests Feminism. Loved and shunned. Embraced and rejected—Feminism.

Refusing to be hemmed into a succinct definition, feminism’s history is a piece quilt of the women who embrace it and who shun it. We feminists revel in the glory of suffrage. Our fledging step onto the stage of the public sphere. We take pride in those women who broke through the gender role barrier during the 1960’s. Those women who sought for gender equality give us hope. We celebrate the women who forced academia to consider gender differences in learning, to rewrite the literary canon so women writers could take a seat, to allow more women to showcase their intellectual triumphs.

Yes, these are wonderful depictions of feminism, but they don’t fully show the daily tension that I live within. I’m always already in a place of power and being othered. As a white, heterosexual female, I live with the tension of privilege and power in one hand, but the experience of being silenced in the other. It is not an easy tension to negotiate or to make into some semblance of an ordered theoretical framework. Quite frankly, I feel like my understanding of feminism looks like a patchwork quilt with crazy blue and red and green and purple squares. If you’re hoping that I would definitively explicate the theory of feminism and its truest meaning, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. But this is how I frame my feminism, this is what I want you to hear.

When I say I’m a feminist…

I embrace the experience of being a woman. Not limited to gender roles, but neither excluding those women who choose to stay within society’s prescriptive mandates. A woman has the right to choose her path without fear of scorn for her choice.

I embrace the grand meta-narrative of humanity. Both female and male voices speaking together without clamoring over one another. A beautiful dialogue of harmony, peace, and love.

I embrace the mystery of faith. A faith grounded in love. A faith rooted in the ideology that we speak up for the poor, the widow, the orphan.

I embrace ethical living. My lifestyle should never inflict suffering on others within my immediate community, my home nation, or the world.

On Dreams and Effed Up Theology

For the past four months, I’ve begged God for a dreamless sleep.

Sometimes, I crawl between the chocolate sheets, and sleep crashes into me. Darkness, rest, morning. But some nights, sleep isn’t so kind. Perhaps, it was the Valentine’s Day energy still buzzing from dinner and wine and an the horrific assault of too many perfumes and colognes all in one place. Or too much television, electric stories blinking on and off the screen, my mind worn down to its barest, rawest place. Sleep should have been easy–slip off into that good night. Morning and dog walks and routine. It wasn’t.

Dreams have a way of fettering out all the mess locked away during conscious moments.

Maybe, it’s just mine. But between night and morning, I remember standing on my front porch. Thankfully, fully clothed. Sitting next to me, my Ginger dog, the first birthday present my husband ever gave me, lay on her giant green dog bed, tail wagging and alive. And then, she bolts. Head bounding, legs springing like Tigger, but she runs farther and farther away. For moment, she turns her head back toward me, still standing on the porch calling for her, and  she disappears into the blackberry thicket and pine trees. Gone. IMG_0396

In my dream, she’s alive and vibrant. In the waking world, she’s been dead for four months. The day before my 31st birthday to be exact.

I wake up sobbing into my pillow, a guilt ridden mess. I can hear my other two dogs squirming in their crate ready to go outside, but I’m not ready to face the empty space where Ginger should be. But isn’t. Through the curtains, sunlight streams down on the kitchen floor, and the skies cold and clear blue. But I see only darkness, everything tightly closed up. I feel the bitter hand of self-abuse grasp my heart, and I allow it to whisper guilty lies–“if you hadn’t been selfish, Ginger would still be here.” Or another variation, “if you were normal and asked for stuff, Ginger would still be here.” The guilt and self-shaming kept telling me, “your fault, your fault, your fault” like drums banging out Taps.

Even now, I can’t write about Ginger without sobbing and feeling the searing hot guilt all over.

Days like these that I drop f-bombs into my prayers and desperately whisper apologies because my version of God looks more like a vindictive chain smoking whore than loving being. Growing up, God  took things away from us if we loved something besides Him. And I don’t want him to take away my other two dogs because for a long time I felt certain that he stole Ginger from me like a pissed off toddler who can’t play with his favorite toy.

I lived with this view of God for most of my life, and it plunges me back into the black hole of shame and guilt. There is no lightness or love  or kindness in this vindictive deity. Just shame and fear and despair. I imagine I hear God saying, “well, it’s your fault, bitch, deal with it.”

That’s some fucked up theology to live with everyday.

But then I pray for a miracle, and it snows in the South after sunny and 60’s. Maybe, you think I’m crazy for seeing a few pure white snowflakes and miraculous, but they were. Slowly, the light is coming back, and God doesn’t look so angry or bitter or vengeful. I can sort through all the self-imposed shame and be free. Truly free.

Prayer Looks Like

sometimes,

prayer looks like

a black hole,

a wide maw open

inhaling all of our

fuck this and what the hells

into nothingness.

our words drown

in the bottomless weight

of darkness.

 

sometimes,

prayer looks like

an open field

grass bending over

listening to  windtalkers,

our words filling in

the empty spaces

between gusts and stills.

but….

where is god?

he is the still voice

urging us to speak.

 

Heed: Guest Post

Today, I am honored to have one of my new internet friends as guest poet. Meet Mary C. M. Phillips! She is a lovely writer, deep thinker, and fellow dog lover(all poets should have dogs). Without further eloquence, I present her poem: Heed.

 

HEED

Of course it snows in winter

I expect it to be cold

with menacing clouds

and a dull pain

behind my eyes that tells me

a storm is coming.

My Lord says to walk in humility;

“Consider others better than yourself.”

I vow to surrender my pride

promising obedience, I say

“I will not mess things up.”

He then reminds me to

take my gloves and

wear a warm hat.

 

Mary C. M. Phillips is a writer of narrative essays and short stories.  

Her work can be read in several national bestselling anthologies such as A Cup of ComfortChicken Soup for the Soul, and Bad Austen-The Worst Stories Jane Never Wrote from Adams Media.  Her story, Jumper Cables, can be read in the new anthology, Finding Churchavailable next week from Civitas Press.


Mary blogs at Caffeine Epiphanies, a blog primarily devoted to literary heroines and contributes regularly to The Dark Jane Austen Book Club
As a musician, she has recorded and toured nationally for various alternative rock groups (Matthew Sweet, Marti Jones, Chris Stamey, and Don Dixon) and most recently with Red Wordsa New York based rock-and-worship band.

My essays are based on real life experiences, both humorous and inspirational.  The most satisfying task for me as a writer is to communicate that “A-ha” moment.  Whether in the discipline of short stories, songs, or poems, creative expression is (not only the truest art form) but also a vehicle for God’s love.  

31 Days of Poetry {Day 30} Storm

Welcome to 31 Days of Poetry

 

Storm

wind creaks

under door

under window gaps.

silence–stirred up loud–

nothing.

flashlight eats a hole

in the starless dark.

listen—

to the metallic chirps

like mining canaries

(the only remebrance

of power and light)

beep–beep-=beep–

i wonder, what happens

when they stop?

31 Days of Poetry{day 29} Seen

i’ve seen god walk in

upon the tail winds

of a hurricane.

felt the wind

pull on what tethers me

to this earth, this life,

watched everything

bend to him.

but sometimes–

god arrives, silent and slow,

on the back of my housecat

(wanderlust overtook him)

after i’ve given up hope.

31 Days of Poetry(day 26) Luck

sometimes…
i think this faith
is some cruel
gameshow trickery.
pray, spin the fortune wheel
clickclacklickclack
around till
one lucky soul
lands on the
jackpot–
problem solved.
while the rest of us,
keep hoping
for another
chance.

31 Days of Poetry{Day 7} Your Hands

Dear God, 

Your Hands moved

Dust and mud

Caked together

To form us.

Oceans, trees, mountains–

A word sufficed.

But humanity needed

Your hands.

 

How have you seen God’s hands in your life?

If you would like poetry delivered to your inbox, Subscribe today!

Never Miss a Post. Subscribe by entering your email address: Delivered by FeedBurner