Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tank Tops and Cat Calls.

When I was a teenager, my girlfriends and I used to make it a game to see if we could get guys to stare at us as we walked by. We mastered the art of catching a gaze and directing a lingering gaze well after we broke eye contact. It was great fun at the time. Probably because I felt like I controlled it. Somehow in those days, it seemed I had to fight for the same kind of attention that I no longer seek nor desire. In fact, that attention has readily found its way to me as a hawk seeks and descends upon its prey.

It was probably always there, but I didn't notice it. Not until I was an adult living in a large city. I heard it daily. Cars pulled over so that men could offer me a ride or ask me if I had a boyfriend. Strangers on the street asked me for my number, then acted offended when I wouldn't give it to them. Or they would beg. Both behaviors repulsed me and conversely caused a feeling of guilt to arise within me, almost as if I owed it to them. I knew I didn't, but that guilt was my immediate heart-response.

In its creepier and darker forms, I had strangers follow me for blocks, persisting in their pursuit for my - what? For my affection? For the trophy of myself? For affirmation? I don't know. But sometimes men followed me. Sometimes men made vulgar comments about things they wanted to do with my body.

It was utterly disheartening when one day my girl friend and I were walking with our close guy friends. As we entered the train station, a man made incredibly vulgar comments to me and my girl friend about our bodies. She and I slightly increased our pace and pretended not to be shaken. Our guy friends kept walking coolly on as though nothing happened. Because they didn't realize anything had. Because they didn't hear the comments. Because the man's eyes weren't on them. Because they would never imagine that anyone would be so vulgar. Because no one had ever done that to them. They didn't even hear it. It was so isolating to feel like the men who I perceived as my "protectors" at the time did not even perceive any danger, or worse, that they were incapable of doing so.

After a few years of constant (daily - no exaggeration) comments, cars stopping, cars honking, and me saying "No" more times than a ruthless 2 year-old, my wardrobe started to change. Old skirts that were "just too short" were pitched as were blouses that indicated I had a shapely torso (anything but T-shirts). Shorts were out altogether.

I didn't own a pair of shorts for about 4-5 years. I remember having a near panic attack one day when I was at my college campus. It was a rare beautifully warm day in the spring of Chicago. I wore a long skirt and a matching brown tank top.

In public. I wore a tank top in public. I was hyper-aware of the fact that my bra-straps kept slipping off my shoulders. Then I ran into my Bible professor. We made casual conversation about an assignment or something. I started panicking.

"He's seeing me in a tank top. Not now, bra-straps, not now! Can I pull them back up without drawing attention to them? Why did I wear a tank top?! He probably thinks I am a slut and that I'm obviously in the wrong major as a Bible student. Why is everyone looking at me?"

After our conversation ended and he innocently walked on, I continued beating myself up for what I was wearing. I almost vowed to throw out all my tank tops. Then realized I wasn't reacting to what happened in that moment. I was reacting to the accumulated, then-unnamed feelings of years before.

I realized that I felt like I was prey and predators were waiting to descend. I had to have my defenses up. I had to be proactive to reduce the likelihood of gaining that sort of attention. I changed my entire wardrobe as a result of it. I developed this weird fear of my body and a weird sense of guilt for the attention I felt like I brought upon myself simply by being a woman. I felt I had to do all in my power to reduce the attention.

My mini freakout made me feel like a stranger to myself. It was the start of a turning point for me.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Authority on My Head - The Story of My Hair

1 Corinthians 11:6-10, " For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels"

I’ve got to be honest. I don’t understand the “point” of hair. Ever since I was a kid, I figured hair was there because Neanderthals needed it for warmth during the Ice Age for humans to survive. Hey – that was pretty complex thinking for a kid! As I got older, I still didn’t get the point. Hair, to me, was a way to deal with my restless boredom. 

I grew it out long. I cut it short. I grew it out again. I cut it shorter. Maybe I’d dye it if I was trying to preserve the length. My hair was a way of jovial competition with my friends. It was a way to get attention. It was a way to make a joke (like that Halloween when I dyed my hair purple with temporary dye that was not quite so temporary as I thought). I didn’t connect how much my hair meant to my culture until I cut it. In fact, it never meant much to me until I shaved it. That’s right – not buzzed – shaved. With a razor for women’s legs.  

I won’t go into my reasons for shaving my head. It’s convoluted and it’s personal. When people ask these days, I say, “I felt like it.” Which, although it is a write-off, is also true. But I can tell you how it affected those around me. 

There were awkward responses that led to awkward conversations. “Thanks so much for the encouragement, but I don’t have cancer. I’m sorry.” There were a few awkward mistakes. “Thank you, sir! Err, ma’am. Um. Thanks.” There were lots of questions of “why?”, which I responded to fully at the time, but no longer have the energy (or clarity of purpose) to do so. 

By far, the most frustrating response was among male friends. I remember being subjected to the same conversation more than once - about me and my attractiveness, about females in general and their attractiveness, with short hair. It started with the typical “Why?”, then was followed up by the offering of an opinion stated as fact. “You shouldn’t have shaved it.” Or, “You look better with longer hair.” Or, “I dunno, it just doesn’t… Yeah…” 

I would say something about Natalie Portman shaving her head for V for Vendetta. Then they would recall all of the famous women they knew who shaved their heads and whether or not they should have done it, based solely on whether or not they looked attractive and sexually appealing to them with their hair cut short or shaved. Somehow it never crossed their minds that they were minimizing me and devaluing me in this conversation they had around me, in front of me, about me and not about me specifically, but what I represented.

It was weird years later to get a random message from a male friend who I hadn’t spoken to in months telling me that he was just “letting me know that I looked good with long hair” and that he was “glad I grew it out”. It was meant to be a compliment, and I love my friend and I appreciate the intent. But to me it felt like almost entitlement. Like his opinion mattered, like he was right all along and I must have finally realized (since my hair is long now), like it rocked his world so much that I shaved my head that he felt compelled to message me about it because he is finally at peace now that my head-covering, my grace, the “authority on my head” was restored. 

I know him. I know he didn’t intend it that way. Don’t get me wrong – girls also told me how they liked my hair. Some liked it short and “wished they could pull it off”, some liked that my hair looked “fierce”, some thought I looked better with it longer. No one of any gender hesitated to tell me their opinion when I didn’t ask.

But no female seemed so taken aback. No female thought my decision should be based on my sexual appeal to her (and if she did, she never verbalized or even hinted at it). No female felt compelled to message me, essentially congratulating me for finally seeing the light and growing it out. No female seemed so shaken. No female messaged me after months, years, went by telling me how much she felt that my hair needed to be long. 

Why did my hair need to be long if not for the symbol of authority on my head?

Monday, September 22, 2014

"When did you become a girl?"

“So when did you become a girl?” He asked. Not, “when did you become a woman”. Not “you grew up a lot”. Not “you look great these days”. I played dumb, asking him what he meant, even though I knew. He astutely noted, “You have big boobs lol”. 

When did I become a girl? For him, a girl was defined as one with big boobs. I didn’t quite get what that meant for me when he knew me, back in my Sophomore year of high school, before my set came in. At that point was I androgynous? Boyish? Invisible? Apparently I wasn’t a girl, not until I had assets he thought were within his realm of sexual possibility. Thank goodness he took ample notice of my breasts! Otherwise, I may’ve never been a girl. Phew, I was really tired of having no concept of my gender identity until he re-entered my life. 

The conversation denigrated from there. He began to hit on me voraciously via text, and at the time I played along enough not to alienate him, but I set firm and clear lines (as casually as possible so his ego would not be hurt). He told me my chest was distracting. I told him that’s why I buttoned my shirt back up over my bikini at lunch, especially since I wasn’t trying to hook up with anyone. He said he never mentioned anything about trying to hook up with me. Whoops, my newly-acquired “girl” brain must have been confused. 

I acknowledged that it’s good to be clear about intentions and boundaries if there’s any uncertainty in the air – yes, this was before Robin Thicke expressed his wisdom and experience with blurred lines.

His response? “Idk if I completely believe you though”. I made clear, again, that I just wanted to get to know him because I like getting to know people. I didn’t tell him this aspect, but there was added, humanistic intrigue in connecting with someone whom I never actually befriended or knew in high school except in passing. He indicated that he understood. 

Later that week, we tried to hang out again. After a few hours and a few missed texts, he finally replied that he was “drunk and horny lol”. I replied that, in that case, it was a good thing I didn’t come over. He said, “You know you wanna hook up”. I reminded him that I was not after that and asked him, “Why is it so hard for you to believe that I just want to get to know you as a friend?”

“Because I’m hot”… Yes, that’s how it happened. I retorted, “And that’s the only reason I could possibly want to spend time with you?”

That ended the communication though there may have been a passive aggressive status update on his facebook page the next day about people being “Debbie downers” and trying to be psychologists. Maybe he was right. I sure am analyzing it years later, and here are the things that really blow my feminist mind. 

I’m astounded:

1)      That I am not even female until I have a sexuality that can please a man
2)      That my gender identity is determined by others – I might have mistakenly misidentified as a “false positive” years before I had boobs
3)      That once I am determined to be a girl by a man, that I must be magnetized to the raw sex-appeal of said man (even if I barely know him)
4)      That when I state my intentions clearly, multiple times, I am either playing a game (afterall, I am apparently a girl, and we do that kind of thing) or I don’t know what I want (because I couldn’t possibly not want him)
5)      That Robin Thicke did not consult with this man before writing his song, or worse 
6)      That maybe this pattern of thought and belief is only an exaggerated version of the norm

For the record, I have always been a girl. A better question is “When did you become a woman?”, and here’s my answer. I have considered myself a woman on multiple levels at different times in my life, but never so much as in this period in my life, wherein I am claiming my womanhood with pride and gratitude. I hope that continues to grow as I become more rooted in my identity as a woman and as an individual human being.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Collections from my IRL journal.

Rereading my in-real-life journal has been so cool. I hate parts of it. I honestly think I kinda hate most of it. Don't we journal most when we're in a place of darkness or confusion? I act like everyone journals. I don't even journal much these days.

But somehow, rereading some of my writings makes me feel so "human". I mean, I know I am human. But I can almost read my journals from a place of distance now. Almost like I was reading some anonymous's journal. And I felt more connected to humanity through it, because the way some of my experiences were captured was so raw and poetic...

Anyway, enough of an intro. I just wanted to share so that hopefully you feel more connected to humanity through reading these blurbs and that in turn, I feel more connected to humanity - to you - through my sharing.

On Being Overwhelmed by Moving (8/22/2012)

I'm not going to see [my friends]. I'm not going to see the Sears/Willis Tower. I'm not going to Merla's Kitchen or that Ethiopian restaurant. I'm not going to North Lawndale at all. No more Diwali's, no Lindo's, no Village Thriftshopping. No more Redeemer Anglican, Mission Dei, Holy Trinity Church, Christ for All Nations.

This last stretch of time I so carefully preserved for others has quickly become my own life boat. If I bring too many on board, I'll lose my buoyancy. I don't know what to do or how to cope. When I'm home, I'm renting movies I've seen before, trying to quickly wile away the time I specifically set aside for others. And I don't care. I'll gladly watch another movie tonight or tomorrow.

What I have to do is encroaching on what I meant/planned to do. Both of those are being overridden by things I never planned to do or needed to do. So movies are doing exactly as they are subconsciously purposed to do: Make it so I don't have to deal with a damn thing.

Poetic Beauty and Philosophy of Moving Away from Chicago

As I sit here, finally at Intelligentsia, wishing an outdoor spot would open up, I am no longer feeling suffocated. For a brief moment I can enjoy a warm latte topped with a beautiful latte art heart and believe, if just for a second, that love and warmth can be bought for $4.00.

And for a minute as I swallow my cup of serenity, I can simultaneously be swallowed again by the anonymity of the city. In 6 days my entire life will be overturned and no one sitting around me knows. I'm outside now, considering the buildings. So large, cold, and unaffected by the people they have silently stood alongside for many eras. How can buildings which were so intricately crafted by human hands now stand so coldly distant? How does it feel for them that they have outlived their creators? For them my leaving means nothing more than the absence of one pair of eyes that have viewed them.

What does it mean that I have entered so many people's lives? Are they unaffected as the buildings? I know some aren't. I know that for certain. So as the Sears Tower gives me the cold shoulder (which I recently learned is the easiest way to tell the Sears and the Hancock apart), I'll try to hold to the fact that somewhere, somehow, my absence will be felt and my memory cherished.

I can leave the city that I've always felt was cold. I can even leave people. I know that my impression will somehow stand like the buildings - living long past the moment of their creation.

How though, can I leave this chapter? I don't need a resolution for every question, hope, and experience that was unliked during my time here. But I need to believe that there is a resolution more hopeful and revealing that simply leaving it all behind me as a memory that resurfaces in a moment of insecurity or joy.

Somehow, in a way, I think it's hard to believe that my leaving Chicago does not mean I've "given up" or like my time here hasn't mattered. I know I've had a place here, but I don't know the meaning of it, and I have to believe it was bigger than me.

As I finish my latte, I'm amazed to discover that after having finished the coffee that the latte heart is still intact. I'm encouraged that something so fragile, held together by bubbles, has outlasted the coffee. The cup that was intended to hold coffee now holds the beauty of what was left behind. In moving forward, I'll have faith that the cup of Chicago stills holds the beauty of fragile moments in my life, held together in resilient beauty long after I am gone.

Perhaps more to follow at a later date.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Feministic Creations

I think one of the most beautiful and meaningful thing that people can do is to create. When we do, we become united with some sort of divine imperative. If you are religious, it has the effect of bringing your heart and mind close to God's as creator. If you are not religious, creation represents the epitome of human achievement.

People create constantly. They create everything from the physical (scientific advances) to theoretical (a better world). As an artist and an occasional craft enthusiast, creation means a lot to me. Sometimes it means telling my own story. Sometimes it means telling the story of those more vulnerable than myself. Sometimes it means showing beauty in the mundane.

My current creative outlet is largely focused on womanhood, a story that is often hushed, despite its prominence.

I was googling some pro-feminine (for those who are repulsed at the word "feminist" - which probably doesn't mean what you think it means) ideas and creations when I ran across a website called Feby, which creates and educates through the use of the "Female Empowerment Bracelet". These bracelets are made with charms and beads to represent a woman's menstrual cycle. They don't intend for the jewelry to be worn, but for it to be used to teach young girls about their transition to biological womanhood (just one small aspect of womanhood).

Why was this important to me? Because a girl's first transition to womanhood is surrounded by mystery, fear, horror stories, and disgust. Gender is one of peoples' primary categories of understanding the Self. How tragic that this conception of the evolving self is met by such negativity.

It's reinforced by religious traditions (in the Old Testament, the Law proclaimed that women on their periods were to be considered "unclean", as well as any who touched her or anything she touched while she was menstruating), by health classes which teaches about menstruation in a clinical way (right alongside other scarier topics), by tampon commercials which teach women to be embarrassed and/or disgusted by their periods, etc. It goes on and on.

I decided to make some of my own Feby-esque jewelry. Jewelry that has more to it than dollar-store plastic beads. Every woman's journey and experience is unique. I wanted to make unique pieces. Pieces that coupled menstruation and womanhood with beauty and sophistication. Something tangible that celebrates womanhood - even under appreciated aspects such as a woman's cycle.

This is one of three pieces I designed:

This is an anklet. I also made a bracelet and a necklace, each of which is paired with a removable charm which can be used to signify a woman's position in her cycle, or one to keep centered to give the appearance of a "regular" piece of jewelry.

I don't plan on making an Etsy store about this or anything, but this has been a fun/empowering activity for me. I encourage other women to make similar pieces. If you have questions about how to go about it, you can contact me. And I'm not against making a custom piece for someone who really wants to buy one from me.

Right now my creation is taking a feminist form. What a fun ride! Happy creating in whatever you choose to create.

Monday, February 10, 2014

When God Leads You Wrong...

Boy, I sure like provocative titles, don't I? But haven't you felt that way before?

One of the most disheartening things to me is when I am certain that God is leading me a specific way and it fails. The blame must fall squarely in one of two areas. Either the blame falls on me (e.g. "I wasn't faithful enough", or "If I had only done X-Y-Z, then..." or "I must have misunderstood God's leading", etc.), or the blame falls on God.

I have reacted by placing blame in each place depending on the specifics of different situations. Sometimes I waiver back and forth, staging a mental debate trying to figure out where to place the blame. I never feel settled in my decision either. In the end, I feel hurt, confused, dissatisfied, and utterly alone.

When I was a young teen, I was at a church where I felt that the youth (kids my age and older) didn't have much direction or attention at the church. I felt as though more needed to happen, and I was bursting with passion and ideas. I wrote out a long email to the pastor explaining my vision and asking for permission to use the church building to host what I envisioned. I was going to lead it. I thought about it for weeks. I talked about it, I made flyers, I prayed about it, it seemed like the fulfillment of the use of my gifts, talents and passions in meeting a very specific, felt need.

The night of the event, a handful of the teens showed up. We gathered together and I tried to get everyone to quiet down so they could listen to my hope for the group, and for us to begin in the planned activities. That didn't happen. Just as quickly as this vision had built up, I saw it slipping from me. My words weren't heard. I was talked over. Before I knew it, all the teens were playing "Hide and Seek in the Dark" at the church building. I was crushed. I felt invalidated. I felt worse about myself, hopeless to the hope that I was certain God put in me. Obviously God would want a group like the one I envisioned to exist, I thought.

What went wrong?

Well, "If I was more assertive", I first thought. "I just need to persevere - isn't that what the Bible says?"

But I didn't try it again. I was crushed. As much as I felt my faith wanted me to martyr myself, I didn't have it in me. It failed. Plain and simple. Could it have gone differently? More than a decade years later as I reflect, I can say, "No." I don't think that a group of kids, mostly older than me, mostly male, mostly far less mature than I, would ever care about the idea that I, a pre-teen quiet little girl, envisioned. And even if they could, I couldn't make them.

But what about God's direction? What about the certainty I felt that God was leading me?

I still believe that God would have wanted what I envisioned. Sure! It was a beautiful picture. Such beauty and hope comes from God's heart. But maybe God's leading isn't always as we've imagined it.

This is one of many scenarios where I felt that God put His own hopes in me, just for them to be dashed before my face. I have grown tired of placing blame. There have been times where I have bypassed the question of blame altogether to ask the bigger question, "Where is God in all this? Does he even lead me or is this all in my head? Does he care about his own dreams for the world? Does he care about my struggle? Why would God dangle this hope in front of me to just snatch it away?" I realized that placing blame on myself led me to always feel guilty. I never felt like I did enough. I felt like I failed everything that God specifically led me to. I felt like a horrible Christian and like a horrible person.

Again, over the years my faith has changed. Guilt isn't so much a factor. It's still default more than I care for it to be. But now, I try not to assume the blame. I allow the feeling of the need to blame to lead me to ask questions, even of God. Questions that years ago I would have felt made me unfaithful. These days, I don't think there are any questions that are "off the table" where God is concerned. And I think he himself would have it that way.

So what about these instances where "God leads us wrong"?

Where I'm settling for now is maybe too simplified, and many of you may disagree with it. That's fine. But my take is simply this:

God has created us beautifully with different passions. These passions lead us different places. And if we are the kind of people that are inclined to consider God's desires, we tend to share the same hopes he does. The hopes we have because of our faith and the passions that we've either been born with or have grown into, lead us to new places. This pairing (which often feels like very direct divine leading) leads us to make decisions and to take risks. And like the parable of the three men who are given sums of money, I believe God (the master in the parable) is pleased by our taking risks, regardless of whether the world, the church, anyone around us, or even we ourselves are ready for it.

And in failure or success, we grow. The challenge is to not let your hopes be dashed and your passions squandered for lack of trying. Even when faced with the same seeming "failures" over and over again. But really, aren't you better for trying? I trust that the anyone watching us is too.

I recognize that this isn't perhaps the answer you were looking for. Maybe it's not really an answer at all. But this conclusion has brought me great peace and is beginning to bring some closure to all kinds of situations like this in my past. And I think my self-image and faith are healthier for it. And maybe, just maybe, I wouldn't have reached this result without encountering so many "failures" over my life. How about that?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Communal Liturgy

Transitions are an interesting time, full of expectations – some met and others grossly unmet, full of hope for unimagined possibilities, full of change with the hope of stability and a semblance of familiarity.

This time is a particularly strange transition – one involving more than just a change to the new year. This year, I am transitioning to a different place in the band, involving more leadership as far as direction and goals are concerned. With every transition comes to a chance to re-evaluate goal, purpose, and hopes. One thing I feel really convicted about in the flow of quote-unquote worship is reflecting the cries of the community.

With the recent transition, I’ve had an idea. A simple idea with implications that capture my heart for the church and hopefully, if well-received, could have a great impact on how we view ourselves, each other, and our place in the community of faith.

In the past several months, the band had begun doing scripture readings as a part of worship. Those scriptures have informed the way we chose songs, how we prayed for the community, and the direction we desired to walk with the church community. I have enjoyed going through the Psalms as a church, but my constant struggle has been that the Psalms may or may not capture the specific needs of our community, our collective soul’s cry.

I am proposing that as we transition to another year, that as a community we evaluate what we wish to be. I wish for our community to be more united. I wish for our communal praise to reflect the deepest cries of those who make up our congregation. I wish for us to be more enabled to walk into places of deep pain and deep joy with one another. I have seen this happen in the community through individual relationships. I want to see it reflected in our praise and our communal time together. I want our praise to encourage us to build even deeper relationships and to truly walk in solidarity with one another.

In one of my favorite verses where Paul talks about the flow of worship. In 1 Corinthians 14:26b, Paul says,  "When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up."  Everyone has something to bring to the table. I want what the band does on Sunday to be more inclusive than it has been. I want it to reflect the offerings of others.

Romans 12:15 talks about rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. Many of us may know some details of what one another is going through. The picture I envision is one where those who are hurting are lifted up. Their tearful prayers and cries are echoed throughout the community and embodied through our acts of praise and worship in a way that validates that pain and suffering is real, but also reminds each of us of our identity through the pain and how to support one another even better. Likewise I desire that any joy that is so strong in a person that it cannot be contained, to be reflected, that it escapes and floods the community, spilling into our praise and our walk as a church.

I have seen this among many relationships at the church. I want to see it more. I want it to be seen and felt not just through individual relationships, but even more through the communal acts of praise. I have ideas growing, but the first is this…

For our scriptural reading each week, I would love for different people in the community to share passages of scripture to be read. The songs we choose already relate in some ways to the scripture we are reading. I would love for our communal praise to capture the essence of what the community and its members are experiencing. I would love for individual members to share scripture for our weekly reading. If those people would like to come up and read the scripture and even share its significance, I would love for them to do so. If they do not prefer to read it, but would like the scripture shared, I would love for one of us in the band to read the scripture. If they would even prefer it to be anonymous, it would still provide scripture and direction for the songs that would reflect someone’s heart in the community and I would love to see it happen.

The idea is simply this – for our time of praise to:
1.       Reflect the inherent value of and individual walks of the members.
2.       Encourage greater understanding of what the community feels and needs at any given time
3.       Capture our heart as a community.
4.       Unite us closer to one another.
5.       Allow us to express to God through song that which cannot be expressed well any other way.
6.       Allow our songs to be sung over members in times of trouble, reminding them of God’s love and who they are in Christ.
7.       To remind us of who we are, individually and communally, acknowledging the importance of both aspects.

In the next few weeks, look for a shoebox and slips of paper at the coffee bar. If you would like to, write on a slip of paper a verse or a passage (it can vary in length from one verse to something about the length of a Psalm) that means something to you in your walk with God or life or whatever. Write your name if you would like. If you would be interested in reading it (which is perhaps a long-term goal – a lack of anonymity in the church), check the “Yes” box, or check the “No” box if you aren’t. In this way, the band will allow your walk, your prayers, your chosen scripture, and your heart to influence how we approach each Sunday.

I hope y’all will stand with me and that this desire I have is shared among many of you. I hope that we can take this opportunity of transition, painful as it is, to consider what God may be doing in this season. If you stand with me in this and share my heart for what I’ve posted here, please share a scripture in the box in the next few weeks! Share multiples as you see fit!

I am honored to be a part of this church. I am hopeful for what is to come.