Faith in Santa

***SPOILERS for a long-standing Western Christmas tradition***

In the 1994 movie The Santa Clause, Laura and her second husband Neil are worried because their son Charlie not only believes in Santa, but believes his father Scott (played by Tim Allen) is Santa. The audience knows that, within the confines of this fictional world, Santa and the North Pole and elves and all the mythology is real, but this concerned couple doesn’t know that. Nor do they believe that Laura’s first husband Scott is Santa. As they see his habits and appearance change as Christmas approaches, they assume he’s trying to play into Charlie’s fantasy and take legal action to have Scott’s visitation rights terminated. In the waiting room while the judge and Charlie talk, Laura and Paul recount to each other the occasions when they stopped believing in Santa.

Around the same age her son is now, Laura desperately wanted a certain board game for Christmas. She received “dozens” of other presents on Christmas morning, but not the game she’d wanted. Neil, at the ripe age of three, stopped believing because he, too, didn’t receive a whistle that he’d wanted.

It’s a heart-felt scene, meant to allow the audience to step back into themselves long enough to relate to these parents who, despite playing the villains in this fiction, want to protect their son. They acknowledge that belief in Santa isn’t bad in itself, and Laura questions whether they’ve been too hasty in condemning Scott’s encouragement of Charlie’s belief. This conversation also sets up the final scene, when Scott, as Santa Claus, gives them each the gift that they stopped believing because of. He’s literally flying in his reindeer-drawn flying sleigh over their heads, after having spoken to them in the house a few minutes before, then parachutes down the game and the whistle to Laura and Neil, as well as other toys to other people in the crowd.

You’d think they’d have let go of this already. You’d think, as adults if not as children, they would have appreciated their other presents enough that the absence of one wouldn’t have mattered so much. True, Laura declares that Scott really is Santa in the previous scene, but there’s still a sense of Santa making things right by giving these gifts. And that infuriates me because we don’t have to receive everything we want in order to have a good relationship with our parents, friends, significant others, bosses, or anyone else. Why Santa?

You’d think Laura and Neil would have had more faith.

The first time I saw the movie, around age 7 or 8, I thought, “They stopped believing when they didn’t get one present they wanted? Where’s their faith. It’s one present out of dozens! It’s one year out of their whole lives!” And even as a child, I knew the same could be said of people’s belief in God.

Santa doesn’t have to get you every single thing you want in order for him to be everything that children believe he is: good, generous, kind, magical, real. But Santa does give children gifts. Good gifts, unless your people belong to the coal-giving persuasion of Western society. And God gives good gifts, too. There are the obvious ones like life and people to love and a planet that provides for our needs, but also ones like a breeze when you’re indescribably hot and a call from a friend when you’re ready to break apart and the awareness of a gorgeous sunset you would have otherwise missed. So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him (Matt 7:11, NLT).

God is not Santa. You don’t ask God for whatever you want and God provides, predictably and lavishly, risking your disbelief if God dares to deny you anything. God does not always provide what you want, and that doesn’t make God less good, less generous, less kind, less supernatural, or less real. Much like a parent not making you fried chicken every single day, even though it’s what you want more than anything else in the entire world, we often don’t want what we need or what would be good for us. And, sometimes, we just don’t get to have the good things we want even though it seems that everyone else does. When a storm comes, literally or figuratively, God has promised to be a parent and to be good to us, but we might still lose a loved one, a home, our health, our sense of security, and more.

This has happened before. It happened to Job. And God didn’t come right away to account for Job’s loss or to answer his questions. God didn’t even answer Job’s questions when God did come. Neither did Jesus appear to Thomas right away when Thomas expressed his famous doubt. Job waited an entire book. Thomas waited 8 days. And I think you’ll agree that these people experienced genuine, painful loss. Job lost his children, home, livelihood, and health. Thomas lost his friend and mentor, his lifestyle, his hope for the future and his country’s well-being.

Santa Claus’s ex-wife not getting the board game that she wanted at age 8, something she wanted more than the dozens of other presents she did get, that’s not genuine loss. That’s entitlement. That’s pettiness. That’s a small view of Santa. How little faith! How unsubstantial a belief if you can lose it so easily over something so slight.

It would be easy to shake my fist at people for not having more faith than Laura did in The Santa Claus, but life is not so easy. If you’ve survived on the planet long enough to read this, you’ve suffered. Your suffering is not insignificant. Your suffering isn’t dismissible just because it doesn’t look like someone else’s.

December holidays, when the world and everyone you encounter seems to be screaming at you to be happy, is a painful time for those who have lost. A person, a pet, a hope, a dream, a self of self, a livelihood, a home, an ability. Maybe it was recently. Maybe it was during this time of year. Maybe your loss just hits you differently when “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is stuck in your head and the trees have shaken off all their leaves and red bows on green boughs drape the doorways you must pass through.

If you had faith before your loss, I hope you kept it. I hope your view of God was big enough to include the possibility of pain. I hope you have never thought of God as a celestial Santa Claus, existing only to give you good things. I hope you don’t see God as a Krumpus, either. If you didn’t have faith in God before, I pray that you will search for God. The Bible assures us “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7). Search for God, and God will draw near to you.

God is good, but God is also so much more than we are. God doesn’t give us all that we want. God doesn’t “only give us what we can handle.” God doesn’t reward the wealthy with wealth and punish the poor with poverty. God demands we help one another, protect one another, seek justice for one another. God offers hope to all who suffer. God is very good and God wants to give God’s children good gifts.

Remember, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (Hebrews 11:1-3). By faith, by faith, by faith.

Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

A Matter of Weight and Size

One of the best things about traveling is packing to come back.

Everything comes down to weight, then size. The weight requirements are rarely negotiable, the size often is. How much does this weigh, objectively, in the world? How much does it weigh to me? Does the size make it too big to fit in the remaining space? What can I move, rearranged, rethink so that I can make room for this thing that weighs a lot to me? The more you pack, the more you leave a place knowing it could be forever, the better you get at learning what something weighs to you.

That clock you bought can—even should—be wrapped in shirts and returned to its box and bubble wrap with a glove shoved into the almost-space remaining at the top. Shove the other glove into a crevice nearby. Definitely leave behind the cheetah print slippers someone gave you because she didn’t check the size, and which you used for months even though you find cheetah print disturbing, because the slippers were free.

I like to buy jewelry as gifts precisely because the pieces are light and small and understood. Scarves, too, make great souvenirs because they stuff into the weirdest corners until every seam of the bag stretches and groans, its largest version of itself, but the scarf itself objectively weighs very little. I once picked up rocks in every town or significant location I visited throughout 5 week study abroad trip to three countries, bagging and labeling them like a Martian astronaut. And after that level of commitment I felt I had to devote the weight and space to take them all back across the Atlantic with me. Where they have sat on a shelf in a cookie tin ever since.

The goal is to fit everything you personally find weighty in your luggage. For international return travel, I usually only take one checked back and one carry-on. I buy a cheap duffle in Barcelona or a London street corner and stuff it with souvenirs and new clothes and whatever else I want to come home with me. The return trip gives me two checked bags and one carry-on.

Checked baggage generally cannot exceed 45 lb each. Thus the night before I leave a place where I’ve spend any significant amount of time becomes a stressful exercise in declaring my priorities, and a test of strength and endurance as I repeatedly heave my bag into my arms as I stand on a scale and calculate the bag’s weight.

Sort. Weigh. Weigh. Arrange. Rearrange. Weigh and pray. Tell myself to “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Get vicious. Re-sort. Weigh. Rearrange once more. Pray. Weigh. Add something back in that you cut. Weigh. Make a pile of what I’m leaving behind. Finally go to bed. Barely sleep.

When you’re home again and unpacking all your treasures for all your treasured to see, pray you reasoned well. Pray you have no regrets about the contents of the pile you left on your bed back in Johannesburg!

Things I Have Left Behind:
Slippers
Coats
Notebooks
Cardigans
An AirFrance blanket
An inflatable neck pillow
Belts
Medicine
Umbrellas
Jar of Peter Pan peanut butter

Things I Have Brought Home:
Magnets
Socks
London A to Z(ed)
A fancy clock
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
French- and Spanish-language editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Stuffed animals
Boots
Rocks
Plastic shopping bags
Necklaces
A sword
A vuvuzela
Flags
Betty Crocker crepe mix

Things I Have Regretted:
Betty Crocker crepe mix
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
French- and Spanish-language editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Rocks
An AirFrance blanket
Coats
Cardigans
Plastic shopping bags

Maybe you tend to drive. Maybe most of your trips are just to your grandmother’s and back. Maybe your return trip is heavy a cooler of leftover ham and more pie than you could possibly eat, but you still have one fewer bag after Thanksgiving than you did before. Maybe you don’t bring as much back from your trips as what you leave, so it’s a net loss. For good or ill. Light on gifts, heavy on exhaustion. Light on patience, heavy on endorphins. This is still a matter of weight and size. What did you choose to unload and leave behind? What was taken from you? What was important enough that you made sure to bring it back?

My past two trips have been of the lighter-returning-than-leaving sort. The first instance confuses me, as I didn’t leave anything behind. Not even accidentally, as far as I can tell. And yet it was easier to pack, load my bags into the rental, check into security, and get all my stuff back to my house again after we landed than it was to get it to Virginia in the first place. On my most recent trip, I took a lot of food for Thanksgiving and some gifts, so I knew I’d be lighter on the way back. However, I also brought a good-sized care package home with me, so you’d think it would have worked itself out to about even. Not so.

Maybe I’m just much better at packing to come home than I am to go somewhere. After all, going somewhere is full of unknowns. Will it rain? When? Will I be caught in it? Is this enough socks? What if it’s hotter than expected? Maybe I should pack a pair of shorts, just in case. It’s November in Middle Georgia, after all. You’re as likely to sweat as you are to shiver. So I tend to pack for a number of possibilities and encounter few of them. On the way back, as long as all the essentials end up at my house eventually, it’ll be fine. I know what home holds. I know I can adapt to it.

Now that you’ve been traveling for a while and are getting really good at this, look deeper than the lists. What was important enough that you never took it to begin with? What do you somehow end up carrying back and forth every trip, but you can’t remember the last time you actually used or needed it?

I’m this way with hair dryers. I know that there is one at my parent’s house and one at my grandparents’ house and even one at my brother’s apartment, as well as at almost every hotel in the country, and yet I still find myself trying to justify its odd shape and bulky curves and never-ending cord to myself as I pack for each trip. And I almost never take it. I used to, but I’ve packed a lot since then.

A Question of Blessings

Sometimes strangers and I have weird conversations. Sometimes those conversations are deep and vulnerable and revealing and the experience is a gift. I had one such conversation last week with a man in a black suit coat, khakis, and glasses. I was crocheting behind the half-table we’d set up as check, out of the twelve tables of books and studies my co-worker and I were womanning at a Christian conference in Virginia. He walked directly to me from across the entryway.

“Hello,” I greeted him at the sweet spot of our closing distance. “How can I help you?” Such purposeful direction meant he was looking for something specific, probably either a book or a bathroom.

“Hi,” he said. “Do you have anything on praying the Psalms?”

We had over 1,000 books on the tables around us, well over 100 separate titles. We have hundreds more titles in our stock online, but not one book exactly matched what he was asking for. The book that came closest wasn’t one of the ones we’d brought to Virginia.

“No. I’m sorry,” I said. “We don’t. Though, I wish we did.”

He shared that he’d been struggling to pray lately and had begun praying psalms, but was looking for a book to give him more direction. He had still experienced positive change in his prayer life, though, so he also wanted a study or guided devotional book that he could give to those he was counseling through their own struggles. I shared that, at various points in my life, I kept the same practice but had never read a book on the subject. He shared a bit deeper about his struggle and this ancient practice, being vulnerable with me, a stranger, about his spiritual searching. He wasn’t oversharing, but he was being honest in a rare way. It reminded me of a spiritual search I’ve been on for years.

Feeling surprisingly confident that he would hear my spiritual struggle, I shared that I can’t seem to understand blessings.

For years, I’ve struggled with this idea. How can these 2 things both be true: God blesses me and I bless God? What’s more, how can humans pronounce blessings on other humans, but also “bless the Lord” (Psalm 34; 103). What is a blessing, then? The best I could reconcile at that moment was that, when God speaks truth about Godself, God is said to be singing God’s own praises. God praises Godself. This isn’t arrogant, it’s just the truth of the matter. Only God is great, and it’s speaking truth to say so. Therefore, by the power of God, I can be blessed, bless others, bless food, and also bless God. God blesses Godself through me, who seeks to do as Scripture instructs and “Bless the Lord.” My willingness is the conduit by which God blesses Godself.

As I’s hoped, my fellow psalm-prayier listened. Then he considered, silent. Just was I beginning to regret my decision, he stepped into my wonder and searching. For several minutes we shared back and forth, building off one another’s ideas.

“If you bless someone,” he said, “that’s bestowing something. All they have, or all they are at that time, they give to you.”

“So it isn’t by an authority,” I realized, “but a gift from ourselves.”

“You know,” continued the man, “when a man asks for family’s blessing to marry, he’s asking for permission. But more than that, he’s asking for harmony. Harmony between the new family and the old, plus the different families coming together. It’s harmony.”

“And more than harmony,” I realized. “They will support and be devoted to helping that marriage work. Welcoming the new person as part of the original family forever is part of that. So is giving their full support to the betterment and success of the couple.”

“Yes,” he said. “A blessing promises support forever.”

Harmony, thriving, community. Now that I think of it, blessing sounds a lot like Shalom.

I have shared this struggle with at least 15 people over the past 5 or 6 years, former pastors and Bible study leaders and ministers and friends. But only this stranger ever wondered with me. Only he tried to find an answer with me, and he didn’t seek the easy ones. He took my struggle seriously, listened to me, and sought out understanding. I can’t say I’m done in my searching on this subject, but this man helped me travel miles further in 3 minutes then I’d gotten on my own in 5 years. Every moment spent in that conversation was a tremendous gift from God.

I helped him find a couple of books that we felt related to other spiritual interests. He even came back twice the next day, the first time to thank me for recommending a book of devotions for people struggling with depression, the second with a friend we was convincing to buy a copy of one of the books he’d bought the day before. I noticed his enthusiasm to bring people along on his journey. That was what had happened with me. He reminded me of Jesus’s apostle Andrew, who always seemed to be bringing someone to Jesus (boy with bread and fish, Gentiles, his brotherPeter). His openness and willingness to listen invited trust as well as community. And, perhaps most important of all, once someone trusted in him, he remained faithful.

If you’re somehow reading this, stranger, thank you. I hadn’t considered that blessings are like gifts, not words speaking principles into being. Like you said, Isaac blessed his two sons and, once he accidentally give Esau’s blessing to Jacob, he could not take it back. He had thrown his full support and harmony behind his deceitful younger son. Maybe in a couple of years we can publish your book on praying the psalms.

When Good Desires Go Unfulfilled

What do you want?

I’m in a Bible study on this topic called Teach Us to Want. As Christians, we often have this idea that desires are bad or selfish or sinful or can’t be trusted, that we must strip ourselves of our desires to be content.

First, let’s agree that not all desires are good. Also, not all motivations are good. However, many desires themselves are good, and can show us places God wants to work in our lives through our actions. For you, the desire that’s come to mind may be a relationship, a child, a home of your own, to travel, to be well, to preach, to publish, or something else entirely. And you may or may not have any confidence that that’s ever going to happen for you.

After some feedback about my last post, I want to encourage, specifically, single women who desire to marry. That may not describe you and you may be tempted to click away or to skip down to the starred paragraph for more biblical analysis of desires. You can do that. But I pray that, if you keep reading, you will find this encouraging for you unmet desires, too.

I’m not going to tell you all the “your time will come” stuff that people told me. I’m not going to quiz you on where you go to meet people or if you’ve tried online dating. I’m not going to say that God has someone out there for you. That might not be true and I don’t believe it’s kind to lie and promise that your deepest, most painfully unmet desires will come true. We don’t know that, you or I.

To be honest, as of the week before Tyler and I went on our first date, I didn’t have much hope that I would ever get married, that I would ever find someone who’d want to seriously date. I’d dated a few guys, been on occasional dates in the past few years, but I’d never had a boyfriend, never kissed anyone, and sometimes found myself wondering what was wrong with me. I overanalyzed every missed connection, finding fault with what I’d said or done, trying to feel in control over what I had no control over. “I was too nervous and came on too strong,” I chided myself. “I was too afraid and didn’t let him in soon enough.”

My most painful relationship experience was when someone changed his mind. He dropped me without explanation and without regret, for all I saw. In the aftermath, I wanted someone to tell me I wasn’t worthless. I wanted someone to say he was wrong to have treated me that way. I struggled when I realized that God loves him as much as he loves me, because God doesn’t favor any child above another, even when one hurts another. That works to my favor most of the time, but in that pain I wanted God to be more like my earthly parents, who would have been furious if they’d known how he’d hurt me. (If they’d known about him at all.)

My desire to marry hadn’t really wavered. But, even knowing that life is long and we should never say “never” to God, I was less and less hopeful that my desire would ever come true. Previous experiences, including more than one man who dropped all communication without explanation, had made me guarded. Who would hold out long enough to earn my trust, enough that I could let him in? I knew myself better, including my quirks and selfishness. How do people build lives together after so many years alone? How do marriages ever work, really?

I saw the examples of others who had married later in life and clung to theirs stories, but I also knew that, no matter how desperately I want to get married, it truly may not happen. That was—and still is—reality. I told myself that over and over, facing the waves of disappointment while there was still some hope, preparing myself so the possible, future, final realization wouldn’t devastate and embitter me beyond repair.

I’m so sorry for the pain of waiting. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not doing anything wrong. You are worthwhile. You’re wonderful. You wouldn’t be a growing Christian or a sweet friend if you weren’t. That is evidence of what so many people in your life see. That is evidence of God’s work in you and through you. And what a tower of ability you are! You can do so much. You do.

It doesn’t mean you don’t hurt. It doesn’t mean you don’t want someone to share in all these things with you. Loneliness really wears down on you, catching up with you at odd times. It’s like grief in that way. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself as much grace as you give to others.

A friend of mine frequently says that contentment is a daily choice. Every day while single, we have to choose to be content with where we are, the plan thus far, and fight to remember and act as though God has a plan for the future. Whether or not it’s a future I would choose, we fight to believe there is good in it.

*As I think about the thing we desperately want, I think of two women in the Bible in particular: Hannah and Jehosheba.

Hannah, you may remember, was the mother of Samuel, the prophet during Saul’s reign who anointed David (1 Samuel 1-2). But Hannah, for many long, painful years, was barren. In her culture, having children (especially sons) was a woman’s only public sign of worth.

Her husband didn’t understand, saying crap like “Why are you sad? Aren’t I better than having 10 sons?” He married again, probably so that he’d have children, and the second wife was cruel to Hannah. When Hannah went to Shiloh to pray for a child, she was so distraught than Eli, the high priest, thought she was drunk and yelled at her. Even here in an ancient text, we see men confused by emotions expressed by women and actively belittling their hopes and disappointments.

To Eli’s sort of credit, once Hannah told him she wasn’t drunk, just really upset and crying out to God—exactly what you’d expect to be happening in a place of worship, to be honest—he was like, “Sorry! I hope God gives you what you want.” And God did. God heard her and she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. When Samuel was still a boy, to fulfill her part of a deal she’d made with God, Hannah took her son to the temple to be raised by Eli in service of God. And then she had other children.

I’m thrilled for Hannah. She hurt, desperately, and had only shallow support around her as she struggled with this unmet desire. Eventually, she got what she wanted. But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, our stories go more like Jehosheba’s.

Jehosheba was the sister of the king of Judah and had married the high priest (2 Kings 11). When her brother died unexpectedly, her mother took the throne, killing all her grandchildren who might be heirs. Except, Jehosheba hid one of her nephews, smuggled him out of the palace, and raised him in secret in the temple. When he was old enough, Jehosheba and her husband presented Joash to the people as the rightful king, overthrowing Jehosheba’s mother.

Jehosheba had no children. In her culture, she was considered worthless, unblessed by God. The only recorded marriage between a princess in the line of David and a high priest, and they had no children. And yet, Jehosheba saved the line of David. Through her own initiative and courage, she rescued and protected her nephew, the great-grandson of evil King Ahab. She raised him to know God, and Joash became a good king who led his country to followed the Lord. We can see how she preserved the monarchy and blessed the entire country for generations! But she never had children. She was always barren. She got to help raise her nephew, but she never had children herself. She didn’t get the thing she likely wanted just as desperately as Hannah.

Wanting to have children, though far from a universal desire, is a good one. So was David’s desire to build a temple in Jerusalem. But, David was told no. Jehosheba eventually realized, though we aren’t told of the moment, that she would never have children, either.

If you are like Hannah, and after a long time you are blessed with what you desire, I will rejoice with you!

If you are like Jehosheba, I will mourn the loss of that desire with you.

I will mourn until you know for sure which woman you are, but I will also ply you with truth. You have other desires. God hasn’t forgotten those. You’re doing good work. You aren’t worthless or a failure if your desire doesn’t come true when or how you hope, or at all.

Remember, friends, that like Hagar realized in the desert, God sees you. God hears your cries of pain, and God is far from indifferent to pain. Jesus cried when his friend Lazarus died, even though Jesus was a few minutes away from bringing him back to life. Loss and pain are always sad, always hard. God understands that. God isn’t being cruel if God isn’t giving you what you want. God hears the crap other people tell you to try to placate you. God knows. God sees you.

You are not worthless. You are mighty. You are a child of God. You’re getting stuff done. You’re doing the work God has for you. I thank God for people like you!

Starting on Year 29

Today is my birthday. I was born just after 7 in the morning after only 4 hours of labor. It was the first time I willingly got up early, my poor mother. Although I have friends, and although I had the best family support I can imagine—including the best brother—I was a lonely child. I felt unnoticed, at times unwanted, and usually wholly misunderstood by the classmates and others around me. Not understood wrongly, so much as not worth other people trying to understand. At least, that was the impression I received.

From a ridiculously young age, I imagined what it would be like to have a boyfriend. In my mind a boyfriend would validates me and help me others see me as I secretly believed I was, someone worthwhile and important and funny, with all the makings of someone who was popular. Popular kids didn’t get picked on or bullied. And I just knew that if one person could see that I was worthwhile, and would choose me, then everyone else would see it too.

It’s easy to see now how sad and, well, wrong, that thinking is. And, in some ways, how common. Everyone wants to feel special, everyone wants to be noticed. Everyone wants to be appreciated and I was no different. And our culture glorifies relationships. Even from a very young age, I believed that a relationship would magically fix a lot of hurt in my life.

On big occasions like birthdays, New Year’s, and the inevitable, evil red and pink holiday of Valentine’s Day, I would feel especially lonely. And I would console myself with pep talks about how I was too young, how I didn’t like any of these people in my classes anyway, and how I would have all I dreamed of at some point in the future. By the time I was 15, I told myself. By the time I was 16 or 17. No, 18 for sure. Before I finished college. Probably by 25. But around my senior year of college, I began to realize that the years were passing faster and faster, and I seemed no closer to being in the relationship I hoped for.

I began to see how guarded I was and how my need for order and predictability would sometimes get in the way of possible relationships. In short, I began to look at my life and choices seriously. I’d long known, logically, that nothing would be fixed by a relationship. I saw my friends enter into relationship after relationship, the good and the unhealthy, and both kinds ended. Both kinds led to marriage, too.

And, as I grew happier in my life, and more mature in general, I put less desperate hope on a relationship that would validate me and make me a better person. I worked to do those things for myself, to build great friendships everywhere I went, but I was still lonely.

I kept extraordinary busy. My mom says I’ve been busy since I was eight, and that sounds right. I look back with amazement at how responsible and disciplined I was from about that age. I certainly am not that person now, but I’m also really glad I don’t have to be. It was a stressful life, one partially-built to keep me from dwelling too much on what I was still waiting for: recognition and appreciation and classmates’ kindness and being chosen by someone.

Once I passed a mile marker age by which I had thought I would have all of my romantic dreams realized—or just to have a boyfriend at all—I could look back and see how I wasn’t ready before. Of course 12 was far too young, and 15, 16 hardly better, 17 basically the same. And 18 was such a transitive year and I was so young and nervous and twitchy! I think about all I grew to know and learn, all the ways I was able to travel, to focus on other people—many people—and how blessed I have been.

So you can guess how weird it is that, this year, I’m dating someone on my birthday. I was dating the same person on Valentine’s Day of this year. I’m about to head into a major season of holidays and I have a boyfriend. It’s very good, but it is also very weird. I’m learning for the first time how to juggle this relationship and the possibility for new traditions amidst all the other relationships and traditions I’ve built over the past 28 years.

How do I make sure that my friends continue to know how important they are to me while also allowing Tyler to take an active role in the day? I don’t want to manage people, allotting certain hours or days to one group or person versus another. But, this year, that’s kind of how it feels.

At work I’ve been reading about the Israelites transitioning into the Promised Land. They had made lives for themselves in the desert. They knew how desert living worked. This generation have been taught by their parents, who had figured it out themselves with help from God through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

And even though they knew that this is what they’ve been promised, that the new land would be wonderful, they were afraid. They needed signs from God and reassurance in Joshua’s ability. They had trusted Moses, but this new leader was untested as a solo act. He’d only ever been Moses’ apprentice. Everything felt different, even if it’s what they had dreamed of their whole lives.

I don’t mean to be particularly melodramatic. These are very small concerns in light of so much pain in the world. Still, I built my identity around being single, advocating for the unmarried to be as respected and cared for as any other group, particularly in the church. But just as no person is unimportant, no concern is trivial to our father in Heaven. Transitions need growing pains. That’s how you know it’s really growth: a bit of pain is involved, some discomfort, more than a little uncertainty.

Tyler, I love texting you good morning and goodnight every day. I love knowing my hand is welcome yours, and I love when you reach for mine. I’m so grateful that you picked me to listen to and to ask questions of and to sit beside whether the day is good or bad. I’m so grateful I picked you to get to know, to learn from, to choose to love. I look forward to every single time I’m going to see you.

My friends, thank you for waiting so long for me to text you back. Thank you for understanding that I have no idea what I’m doing. Thank you for being so understanding when I fumble stuff. Which isn’t to say that I’m not still messing up. Thank you for being excited with me and for making my life so warm. I wouldn’t have been half as happy as I’ve been these past 28 years without you. You made my life interesting and you made me a better person. Thank you.

“Bless the Lord, oh my soul.”

For the Love of Hallmark Movies

It’s hardly a secret—though I haven’t talked about it much here—that I love Hallmark movies. Admittedly, they aren’t always the highest quality possible, but they are sweet, comforting, swoony, and leave me smiling. When the world feels like the flashback chapters of a gritty post-apocalyptic novel, it’s really important to me that I’m smiling when I close the back cover of a book or turn off my TV to go to bed.

Yesterday I read an excellent discussion of the use of “fluffy” to describe books, particularly Young Adult books (my favorite genre). Although some author balk at the word, readers generally use “fluffy” to mean a book, usually a contemporary romance, with little angst or melodrama that makes them feel happy and that they often reread. Hallmark Channel original movies, for me, meet this definition of fluffy. They aren’t only cheerful, neither are they insignificant. They could have wonderful messages or deal with deep or complex topics. The angst is limited in degree and topic to the relationship, and because it’s a Hallmark movie, we know what to expect and how it’s going to end (happily).

Now, let’s talk about what goes into the structure of a Hallmark, using a favorite fall Hallmark movie as a case study.

1. Plot set up. We’re introduced to out main character—almost always a woman—and the plot element that will put the main character in a position to meet the love interest—usually a man.

2. Meet cute. The couple meets for the first time or reconnects after a long separation, and they often don’t get along.

3. Thrown together. For plot purposes, the couple has to spent time together, though they try to maintain physical or emotional separation. This is often because of initial dislike, past hurts, or the existence of a significant other.

4. Bonding. The couple sees good qualities in the other person, overcome an obstacle, and help each other advance their goals. This takes most of the movie—everything except the first fourth and last fourth of the movie—which is why it’s really important to have an interesting situation or reason why they’ve been thrown together, as well as compelling goals for each person.

5. Small crisis. At the 50% mark of the movie, something relatively small but meaningful happens, often threatening one of the character’s goals, and which can only be overcome together. Doing so solidifies the relationship, revealing to the couple that they each care for the other. A first kiss might happen here.

6. More bonding. Now even closer, the couple works together toward their goals with increasing cuteness, perhaps peppered by a second kiss.

7. BIG PROBLEM. 75% of the way through the movie, the romance is threatened by a big problem, the couple separates, and everyone is miserable. In Hallmarks, the problem is usually something objectively small, like a misunderstanding or the reappearance of the aforementioned significant other who no one likes, as opposed to a massive problem like both of their dreams came true but now they live in different countries. Massive problems are difficult to overcome in the last fourth of the movie, so usually a simple but honest conversation will solve things. However, first they have to be miserable and the audience must pretend to wonder if they’ll ever work it out. (They will. This a Hallmark. We’re here for happy endings.)

8. Reconciliation. Often prompted by a friend or mentor shedding new light on the situation, one person doggedly pursues reconciliation, usually in a big or public gesture, offering a solution to the problem and pledging their love. This is always where the couple kisses. It might be a first kiss or the third kiss, but they kiss.

An Aside on Kissing: Hallmarks generally have a 3 kiss rule. If the couple first kisses around the halfway point of the movie, they likely kiss again before the BIG PROBLEM and kiss a final time to cement their reconciliation. However, in slower burn sorts of movies, the first kiss is at the end. Cheesy clichés like a Christmas tree lighting up in the background, the bang of fireworks overhead, or the first snowfall often accompany these finale moments. Some actors and actresses sell this well. Sometimes the actress is Danica McKellar (Winnie from The Wonder Years), who always looks doe-eyed and devastated right before the final kiss. This would be annoying but okay if she’d just follow it up with non-awkward-looking kiss. But she doesn’t. Ever.

To help us understand how this structure plays out, I offer All of My Heart, a goat-tastic fall Hallmark movie from 2015. Its sequel (a Hallmark rarity) came out earlier this month.

1. Plot set up: Jenny, a young chef wanting to open her own restaurant (played by Lacey Chabert, Gretchen from Mean Girls), learns she’s inherited a house in the country from her great-something-aunt. She decides to adjust her dream and open a B&B, a “restaurant with beds,” in the big country house.

2. Meet cute: Brian (played by Brennan Elliot), a Wall Street financial consultant, inherits the same house and, since he and Jenny have equal claim, wants to sell the house and split the proceeds. Jenny asks for time to start her business and buy him out, Brian wants the deal done so he can move on.

3. Thrown together: Brian is fired from his firm and can’t afford his apartment, forcing him to move into the inherited house Jenny is already living in.

4. Bonding: Money-strapped and grumpy, constantly searching for a new Wall Street job, Brian tries to save money by fixing the house’s many problems himself. He’s quickly won over by Jenny’s cooking and encourages her to sell her pastries to local cafes and restaurants, helping lay the base for her future inn. Jenny likes having help, even if Brian isn’t naturally handy, and flourishes under his encouragement and business advice.

5. Small crisis: Gabby, the nanny goat that came with property, goes missing. When Brian and Jenny finally find her and get her back to the barn, they learn she’s in labor. The morning arrives with happy kids, happy housemates, and a happy Gabby.

6. More bonding: Paint war on the porch, singing pipes, a wobbly table, a stuck window. New lock screen images of the furry kids. Jenny gets a deal with a regional supplier and Brian finally fixes the sink.

7. Big problem: Brian is hired to consult again and takes off back to the city. He’s just as good at his job, but not enjoying it like he used to. The advance on Jenny’s baked goods deal gives her enough funds to start buying Brian out. After he signs a few papers, they’re connection will be severed forever.

8. Reconciliation: Brian returns early, asking Jenny to let him move back for good. An epilogue scene includes the B&B’s grand opening and Brian’s proposal to Jenny.

I also want to point out that this structure is similar to most romance genre books—contemporary, historical, fantasy, and otherwise. Furthermore, it’s the basic structure I will be using for this year’s cozy mystery NaNo project (Eeek!).

I’ve already watched my first Hallmark Christmas movie of the year and am planning to enthusiastically watch and rate all 31 holiday movies Hallmark is debuting this year. I don’t want to be too annoying about this, so I’m starting a new tab on the site (see above, or follow this link) for my summaries and ratings of all the Christmas Hallmarks I watch this season. I’ll also post on Facebook and Twitter when I update the list, in case you’re into that sort of thing.

A “Me, Too” Story

This week on Facebook, I’ve seen a lot of posts saying “Me, too.” The movement started ten years ago but has gained momentum lately in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s long-awaited public shaming for being a sexual predator, protected and enabled by many for decades.

The language we use to talk about sexual harassment and sexual abuse is generally passive (ie, “she was harassed” instead of “a stranger harassed her”). However, sexual harassment and abuse are not things that happened to women because they’re women, like menstruation. They happen because men do them to women. Men, not exclusively but most widely, are the actors in this. They harass and abuse, and other men don’t do anything to stop it. Instead, they laugh or dismiss or ignore or excuse or look embarrassed and turn away. (Don’t say, “Not me.” You’ve done it. You may or may not have noticed when you enabled another man’s harassment or abuse. You know so many women saying, “Me, too.” We aren’t all getting harassed or abused by the same five of men in the world. You know harassers and abusers. You may or may not have noticed.)

As a woman, you learn very early that every man can be a threat. And there are plenty of women who abuse and harass, and victims are not only women. I don’t want to belittle that violence, and I don’t want to erase the victims. But masculinity is toxic and a constant possible threat to my happiness, my contentment, my safety. I could talk about a lot of harassment experiences but I only want to tell one story.

So I’m not going to tell you stories about the rocks and gum and vulgar words that have been thrown at me while I’ve been driving my car. I’m not going to talk about the man who rubbed his erect penis against me in a crowd at a parade. I’m not going to talk about the man who pushed against me and tried to kiss me at a circus. I’m not going to talk about the guy who stood in my driveway and screaming my full name for five minutes when I wouldn’t go outside to see him. I’m not going to talk about the high schooler in the stairwell who touched my breast as he ran past me, or the professor who put his hand high on my thigh during a class field trip. I’m not going to talk about the men who shouted and whistled and whooped at me as I walked to class, into the grocery store, on my way to church, in my own front yard. I’m not going to talk about the kissy faces and shouts about my body that have been cast at me for more years than I can count. I have no idea when it started. Men were looking at me, and leering at me, and saying things I didn’t understand when I was so young. All I knew was that I was uncomfortable and sometimes afraid. I didn’t know what they were doing or thinking. I didn’t know, yet, that I was being harassed.

The story I will tell happened six years ago, still affects my actions, and can still deeply upset me. I was driving from my best friend’s house to my parents’ house, where I was currently living. I was on a familiar stretch of interstate about three hours into the five hour trip when a man in a green truck, with a landscaping company name and number on the back blew the horn at me. I thought something might be wrong with my car, so I slowed down a little and looked over the driver. He was grinning, leering, and started making kissing faces at me, licking his lips and running his hands along the wheel as if it were my body.

My automatic reaction was disgust, and I know it my face distorted with it. I hit the gas and zoomed away, my heart hammering fast, shaking and angry and feeling vulnerable. He was pulling an ill-attached trailer with a picnic table strapped in upside down. I knew a trailer should not be driven at high speeds, so I thought my burst of speed would leave him far behind, but he sped up, too. And up, and up.

For 20 minutes, he chased me, pulling alongside me, cutting me off then slowing down, and every time he thought I could see him, whether he was in front or beside me, he made those same licking, kissing faces at me through his window.

He was in a landscaping truck. The number was on the back. I was going too fast—more than 90 miles an hour—trying to get away from him and I was too afraid to take a hand off the wheel to pick up my phone in the cupholder. Not to take a picture, not to call the number on the back of his truck that he was harassing me in, not to call 911 or anyone else. It went on so long, him driving so recklessly through all the other cars to chase me down the interstate, that I realized he might cause me to wreck. I could die, or I could be injured and trapped, and what if he was the only person who stopped? What if he made someone else wreck? We were going too fast and he was driving too recklessly. He didn’t care about my life. He didn’t even see me as a human or he wouldn’t be going to these lengths to harass me. He wouldn’t be harassing me at all if he thought of me as anything more than an object for his lewd appetites, someone to have power over.

Finally, I decided I couldn’t keep running from him, that it was too dangerous, so I scanned the other drivers as I buzzed past them. When I got to a black Suburban driven by a couple who looked to be about my parents’ ages, I slowed down and wedged myself in between them and a car driven by two men. I tailgated the couple for two miles so that when the harasser pulled alongside me again, I would have witnesses, including male witnesses. Or, maybe he would leave me alone. Maybe he wouldn’t cut me off and actively threaten my life again, if he thought might hurt these other people—other men—too. Any woman alone in public (and maybe not even alone) could have been the one he targeted, so I didn’t expect him to have more respect for the women in the cars around me, so I had picked cars with men and a woman in them to wedge my car between.

The harasser did pull alongside me. He rode in my blind spot so he could see me but I couldn’t see him unless I turned my head. When I didn’t, he pulled forward, our windows side by side, so he could see my expression when he blew his horn at me.

I didn’t look at him. I stayed exactly on that black SUV’s bumper and I looked at the heads of the couple, the woman’s swiveling toward the man in the green truck.

And then my harasser pulled onto an exit ramp.

Relief drenched me, but I didn’t trust it. He might get back on. He might still come after me. And maybe this time there wouldn’t be any other cars around. Maybe this time he’d run me off the road. Or maybe this time I wouldn’t see him and he’d follow me off my exit, and I wouldn’t let myself think about what might happen then.

I backed off a little but stayed exactly behind that SUV for another mile or two, checking my rearview and side mirrors constantly, looking for the harasser’s truck and trailer to come back at me. When it didn’t, I got in the other lane and slowed down just enough that the other two cars could get ahead. I felt embarrassed that I’d been targeted, that I’d driven so seemingly erratically, that I’d risked their safety too by trying to shield myself with them. But I also felt vulnerable without them. I was terrified that the same harasser, or even someone knew, was going to come up behind me and this would all start all over again.

Another ten or fifteen minutes passed before I forced myself to let those two cars out of my sight.

I called my best friend, told her what happened, and asked her to write down the name of the landscaping company so I wouldn’t forget it. But I was so adrenaline high that my brain had already garbled it. When I got home, after telling my parents what had happened, I couldn’t find an exact match to the company name. I wanted to call and complain to the owner of the company. Although it might have been the owner of the company who had been harassing me. I considered calling the police, but I’d crossed state lines. I never did report it.

If it were to happen now, I would have done some things differently, but if your inclination on reading this is to criticize my actions, you are part of the problem. You are why harassment and abuse happens. Because it is not my fault I was harassed. That man is the only one at fault. He should never have harassed me. He should never have endangered me and every other driver on that stretch of road for those twenty minutes. He harassed me because I am a woman who exists in public. Criticizing my actions blames me for his harassment, recklessness, and utter lack of respect for the autonomy of another human being. And please don’t wonder whether he has a wife or daughters or a sister. Men shouldn’t have to have close relationships with women to see women as people.

This incident hasn’t stopped me from driving or taking long trips, but it has forever changed how I drive. For instance, after six years, I still don’t meet other drivers’ eyes. Friends say that they see me in my car all the time, but I don’t ever see them because I never, if I can at all help it, meet another driver’s eyes. That’s not why I was harassed, but it was the first action I took in that incident. He blew the horn, and I looked. He blew the horn so that I would look.

The number one rule for dealing with street harassment, which women learn at a young age, is do not engage. Do not engage with the man or men harassing you, shouting at you, cat-calling you, trying to provoke you. They want a reaction. They want to feel powerful. And not engaging won’t stop the harassment, but sometimes they’ll get bored, and sometimes they won’t take the harassment any further than shouting. Maybe they won’t throw anything. Maybe they won’t follow you.

I’ve taken lots of long trips since then. Some alone, others with friends. I learn detours and alternate routes everywhere I go. I’ve learned to use my cell phone while under pressure, especially when driving. I have the ability to call hands-free if I need to. I’ve even trained myself not to look around at a blown horn at a stoplight. I’ve developed plans for what happens if someone starts following me in my neighborhood, in a place I’m familiar with, or in a place I don’t know.

Sometimes, like earlier this week on my way home from work, I can still feel terrified by what happened and what could have happened that day, and mostly by what could happen to me now, at any moment. Even if the drivers around me have done nothing wrong, or seem to have made no notice of me at all, I don’t look at them. They could men or women or tigers, but I don’t look, and I can still feel afraid of them. After all, at any moment, some bored or power-desperate man may pick me out, simply for being nearby and for being a woman.

I shouldn’t have to revisit such painful, frightening memories because painful, frightening instances should never have happened, to me or anyone else. I shouldn’t have to change my behavior in hopes that a future harasser will pick some other woman instead of me.

That’s what the “What was she wearing?” question means, by the way. It means, “You should have dressed differently so the harasser/abuser would have picked some other person to harass or abuse.” And I hate that question. I should be safe to get into my car in my front yard or drive to the grocery store or walk out of a movie theater without being shouted at, gestured at, touched, or followed. It doesn’t matter what I wore while I other people harassed me. I shouldn’t hear laughter from enablers while some man is harassing me. Most women know this inherently, and will do what they can to help another woman while also trying to avoid being targeted. I’m so sorry to those women I was too afraid to try to help.

I shouldn’t have to say “Me, too” for men, and many women, to understand how widespread and serious the problems of sexual harassment and abuse are. But people don’t realize. And women need to know they aren’t alone. And some need to say it for the first time.

Me, too.

Me, too.

Me, too.

Me, too.

Winter is Coming (and I Don’t Want to be Depressed Again)

Last year around this time, I posted about my favorite fall and winter activities. A few months later, I posted about why my autumn hadn’t shaped up to be the favorite season it usually is. Nestled in there was an admission that I’ve spent much of the past year processing in theoretical and practical ways: I was depressed. I was also anxious, though it took longer to figure that out.

This year, I’m giving a lot of thought to the coming season, but without the excitement level of last year. My favorite things about fall and winter have always centered on light in darkness, but last year there was a lot of darkness in my mind (and, I would argue, in the world). As 2017’s days get shorter, I’m preparing in specific ways to give myself the best chance of making to spring without becoming suffering another depressive episode. (I think all 5 strategies are pretty solid ways to enter into the rest of this year.)

1. Simplify. I love knick knacks. Little things that spark a smile and look cool and remind me of fun times or people or characters or concepts. I’m just like my grandmother this way, who lined all her shelves with porcelain and glass figures, and kept them forever. But too much stuff, and things not being neat, stress me out. Not badly, but my mind needs room to consider, to breathe, to be creative. So I’m making space in my life and my schedule. At work, I’m putting resources I rarely need out of sight and rotating out my knick knacks so they aren’t all visible at once. If I feel anything but peace about something I’m asked to do, personally or professionally, I take a step back and reevaluate it. Why am I anxious or worried? Is this something I can say No to and feel at peace? Are their benefits that would outweigh these feelings? If I can’t say no, what’s most bothering me and how can I manage it to minimize my stress?

2. Clean out. A little over a week ago, I cleaned out my drawers and closet, filling two huge bags of clothes to donate to a local domestic violence shelter. Some items I’ve “outgrown” and others I just don’t wear often enough to keep. I’m keeping clothes I wear, not the ones I wish I did. That includes a beloved but too-worn pair of boots, a pleather jacket coming apart at the seams, and an incredibly comfortable pair of linen pants I never want to iron. I’ve been careful to buy fewer clothes than I’m giving away, and only very soft, very practical items. (Other than that one dress, but it’s practically got a cape!) Last year, I only wanted to wear soft, easy, warm clothes, and if that’s helpful to my brain when it’s struggling, it’ll be a better for mild seasonal blues, too.

3. Build good habits. I bought a light therapy box. I know I get a little down in the winter because my element is sunlight (it’s the most relatable thing about Superman, who I generally dislike). And, with shorter, darker days, I’ll need some extra help making sure my body is getting the sunshine it needs. Happy light to the rescue! … I hope! I need to build the habit of using it every day and in the right way. Only then can it do the good, darkness-dispelling work it was made to do. I also need to incorporate a better prayer and Bible reading regimen, which dispels darkness in a different, but equally real, way. Eating bigger breakfasts but fewer snacks are also on my habits-to-form list. And none of this will mean much if I don’t get enough regular, quality sleep. It truly is amazing how much I starve my body, little by little, of these two basic needs: nutrients and rest.

4. Take social media hiatuses. Presumably, an ideologically catastrophic event will not occur this Nov. 8 like it did last year, and so the most serious bout of depression I’ve ever experienced will probably not be triggered. However, accessing social media definitely contributed to my anxiety and depression last November and December, and I’ve noticed that I’ve struggled under its effects since then, too. I’m much better able to absorb terrible news at 11am or 2pm than right before bed or right after I get up. Also, some days are just worse than others, in terms of the type of news or what’s happening in my brain. A stormy mental health day needs a social media hiatus, especially from Twitter. Very terrible news might necessitate a break, too.

5. Choose manageable goals. I want to finish NaNo. I want to do it in order to recapture the joy participating in NaNo has brought me in years past and to help jumpstart my fiction writing life again. I managed to complete the 50,000 word goal last November while depressed, so I’m reasonably confident that I can do it again this year. However, I’m doing this for the experience, not the product, so I’m going to be looser with the rules than in the past: I’ll count blog writing in my word counts and won’t restrict myself to one project. I might rewrite my NaNo project from two years ago (cozy murder mystery with ghosts) or I might try a new idea I’ve been kicking around since the summer (also a cozy mystery). If one project fails on me, I’m planning to just pick up the next one and keep writing. Finishing NaNo requires prep work, like making and freezing meals ahead of time and making lists of scenes and characters and basic plot structures. For me, it also means planning well for the days I’ll need to be traveling and scheduling specific rest times throughout the month.

I don’t want to end with something cheesy like “Stay positive!” but if there is a 6th strategy, that’s it. I’m looking forward to Hallmark Christmas movies, chili, snuggling under blankets, candles, a fire in the fireplace, Christmas trees, crisp air, apple pie with ice cream, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

If you also tend to have more mental health struggles in fall and winter, I’d love to hear how you’re preparing for the next few months!

Oh God, I am sorry

My childhood nemesis was murdered.

I don’t mean that exactly how it sounds. For one, I had several childhood nemeses, our relationships growing progressively hostile as we grew older. But this was an early one, my second. And for another, he wasn’t murdered when we were children. It was many years later, when we were adults and living in different cities—from our hometown and from one another—and hadn’t seen or spoken to each another in over 8 years.

So why did I care so much when he died?

Maybe because I always had, or try to have, compassion. Even for my enemies. Not that we were really enemies.

Maybe it’s because he was alive, and now he’s dead.

Maybe it’s because murder is terrible.

We had a lot of fun times together, actually. But only when it was just the two of us, waiting for our moms to pick us up or working on a project together or sitting at the same art table.

I remember once asking my mom why he and I couldn’t get along except when we were alone. She told me that when we were older, maybe in high school, things would be different and maybe we could be friends. I moved to a different school a couple years later and we never got that chance, but the optimism of what our future relationship could have been colored my memories until I saw him through the lens of that never-realized friendship. I don’t know if I still harbored any bitterness toward him when I left that school at age twelve, but I know I’d long-since lost it when I got the email from my mother, his name as the subject line.

It might have been something innocuous. Mom had bumped into old friends and even other nemeses of mine at the grocery store, and spoken with their parents in the store where she works. I expected a fun update from him or his mom about how he was doing, all the more welcome because it’d been so long.

I had to read the article’s opening paragraph four or five times before I began to understand.

It was October. I’d been for a walk at some trails and was catching up on emails in my car before driving to Bible study. I felt closed up, insulated and alone but exposed, realizing how terrible a thing had been done to him.

And my next thought was of his mother. His kind, loving, hardworking mother. His mother who had already lost her husband in another act of violence.

If you think about famous nemeses, you might think about Joker to Batman or Moriarty to Sherlock. You’ll think about dastardly villains on the wrong side, foils in specific ways to the protagonist, but also compliments in vital ways. The Joker and Batman live their lives by similar but polar principles. Joker believes that anyone could become what he is—the worst of villains—if their circumstances were bad enough. And Batman believes that no matter how bad your circumstances, you too can become a hero. (Or, at least choose not to be a villain.) They work so well as nemeses because they are determined to prove themselves right to the other, but neither can destroy the other without abandoning their defining principles.

Moriarty and Sherlock are fantastic nemeses because they are so well-matched in intelligence and skill, and have similar enough vices that you can see how they very easily could be the same person or even best friends. But their moralities are just different enough that they have chosen to use their intelligence and vices and needs in entirely opposing ways.

Where Joker and Batman cannot destroy each other because of the nature of their ideological battle, Sherlock and Moriarty fear how they will cope if one should kill the other. We admire Sherlock not for the murder he commits, or believes he commits, but for his willingness to finally end this dangerous feud. He does so for everyone else’s sake, since doing so poses a real risk to his happiness and well-being.

Alex and I were good nemeses in part because we were so similar. We were both smart, analytical, logical, sassy. We enjoyed arguing and bantering. And we were both proud. When no one else was around, the pride wasn’t much of an issue so we very rarely fought. Our similarities aligned and we had a great time. But allow even one other person into our proximity and we begin to compete, to spar, and to wound. I don’t think we really meant to hurt each other, just to avoid being on the receiving end. But I remember feeling hurt, so I know I hurt him. And that, I regret almost the most.

I probably should regret inflicting pain the most, and yet children are cruel. That was the duel and the deal until I bowed out and went to another school.

I didn’t reach out to him after his father died. I regret that the most.

He didn’t need me, but I wish I hadn’t withheld my offer of support and comfort. We were similar, had history, and had been connected. I told myself I didn’t know how to reach him but I did. I just didn’t try. I repeated, “He doesn’t need you” and didn’t dwell on “But what if it could help him?”

And, oh God, I am sorry. I am sorry for inflicting pain. I am sorry for withhold support. I am sorry for his fear and his death. I am sorry for his mother, his friends.

After Bible study the night I learned of his murder and the finding of his body, I stayed up for hours in the dark writing every memory I had of him. Most I hadn’t revisited in years, but they were still there, once I let my brain sift through its back rooms. My personal pain from those years of the bullying was gone in the echo of his taken life. Late, late, late, sifting and writing and sitting and grieving. The next night, I wrote more, wrote them all out, and now I have them. And I will keep those memories on paper, a back-up for my mind.

A year and a half later, the week my aunt passed suddenly of a heart attack, I wrote to the judge so he would know the man who’d been taken before passing sentence on the murderers. I sat in the dark of a Dallas hotel, my coworker/roommate asleep behind me, too far to comfort my family or be comforted by them. But I could speak for my childhood nemesis. I could advocate for his memory. And I could pray, for the thousandth time, for his mother.

His name was Alex. He was aware, so he must have been afraid when he died. I hate fear.

I tried and tried to find a way to reach his mother, to tell her how sorry I am and to share my memories of her son and husband, but she retreated and I respect her boundaries. I’m sharing about this now because, with one gunshot, October was smeared with gunpowder. Even though Alex’s birthday was in summer and I first met him in January, I think of him in October. I remember him in October.

Not only in October. Also in sunlit pools and when I see a figure through the rain and when I feel spattered paint under my fingers and when I see a pale blue polo over broad shoulders and when I hear a football being caught.

Oh God, I am sorry. I am sorry for Alex. Please comfort his mother.

Three Red Dresses

In the business and legal worlds, so taught my high school debate teacher, red is a power color. My dance teacher taught that less is more when trying to stand out. But red dresses are designed to attract attention and are worn to make statements, to distract, or as a disguise.

Think of the (often ill-fitting) red dresses you see characters wear in movies. In “Music & Lyrics,” Drew Barrymore’s character borrows a red dress to help her feel confident enough to confront a former lover. Rhett forces Scarlett O’Hara to wear a red dress so she’ll look the part of the homewrecker she tried to be. Julia Roberts’s “Pretty Woman” character wears a red dress to go to the opera with her John, as if they’re a normal couple who do this often. Peggy Carter wears red to let Steve Rogers in “Captain America” know she’s interested in him. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Downton Abbey,” “She’s All That,” “The Princess Bride,” “Titanic,” “Outlander,” “Clueless,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Arrow,” “The Princess Diaries 2,” countless Bond films, the Harry Potter franchise, and countless other movies and TV shows feature women wearing red dresses for one of these purposes.

I love the color red, but I’ve only worn a few red dresses over the years. Here are the stories of three of them.

The first is a dress of my mother’s. She wore it in high school, but in middle school I was playing Queen Isabella de Castille in a school play and needed something floor-length and regal. The dress my mom remembered, and which my grandmother mailed me, is a somewhat muted crimson with a deep V-neck. It’s not inappropriate, but lower than anything I’d worn thus far. The skirt billowed as I moved and the draping at the shoulder skimmed my upper arms. It was the first time I felt mature and beautiful at school. I was playing a queen. I made a headdress and veil and wore my mother’s red dress. I’d been in at least half a dozen plays or musicals to that point, but I had never before played someone whose voice carried such weight, who was always listened to. I certainly didn’t feel that way at school. I was awkward, anxious, and had been bullied. I had forged together some good friends and had good relationships with most everyone in my class. Still, that dress. Sitting on a throne, surveying my classmates in my mother’s red dress, I projected a confidence I’d never been able to display before. And if I could do it once, I could do it again.

I wore a floor-length, mermaid-style neon green dress absolutely covered in sequins to my junior prom. If I ever had a teen movie-style standout moment, it was in that green prom dress. Every single day of school, I wore a personal uniform of jeans, sneakers, t-shirt, and hoodie, but in my neon green gown, glittering as I moved, I felt light and relished the looks of surprise I received. Near the end of the following summer, my mom and I found a backless, wine-colored prom dress left over from the previous season. This dress was more mature, more romantic, than anything I’d ever put it. In the green dress, I had been vivid, effervescent, but in the red dress I would be daring, mature, desirable. My classmates would remember me differently. This was senior prom, after all. I think we paid $30 for it and I wore it, strappy and gauzy and slinky, in my room, trying to take pictures in the mirror that would capture what I felt while wearing this dress. But it didn’t fit perfectly, and by the time we got to March, I’d decided not to wear it. I was ready to leave high school. I loved my small circle of friends and planned to stay in contact with them forever, but everyone and everything else I was ready to leave. I didn’t care as much how they remembered me, or if they remembered me at all. So I chose to buy a new dress, one that made me feel my best and that befit the new era of my life I would soon be entering: a huge white princess dress, strapless, and overlaid with blue beaded flowers. I donated the hardly worn red dress, along with my green one, to a children’s hospital for their patients’ prom. I like to imagine the girl who got my red gown, and hope it helped her step forward boldly, and helped her say all she wished to that night.

Several years ago, one of my friends from college and his girlfriend broke up. A few months later, she had a new boyfriend but he’d chosen not to date anyone else until he graduated law school and moved back home, where he’d join a small local practice. But first was “lawyer prom”, and my friend’s ex had a new boyfriend, so he asked me to be his plus one. To be fair, I didn’t have a lot of notice for this event, but I happened to have a bright red, strapless dress with deep pockets tucked in the very back of my closet. I’d bought it several years earlier on sale, but had never worn it. His friends hadn’t met me before, as it’d always just been the two of us when we went to the movies or out for lunch. I got the sense that he wanted to escape the constant drumbeat of law school for a while and we’d been friends and classmates all four years of college. So the night of lawyer prom, the red dress to dinner with his friends said, “I am a force you know nothing about.” In the ballroom, where we bumped into my friend’s ex and new beau, my dress said, “Look at me; he’s doing fine without you.” I kept thinking about my senior prom, how ready I’d been to leave and what I had wanted to say, and felt honored that I got to help my friend say it. Plus, going alone to couple-y things sucks (I’d been to enough weddings to be absolutely sure of that).

There’s visual power to a red dress, or they wouldn’t be onscreen, let alone in our lives. There’s also the Jessica Rabbit factor, the woman in the red dress as a seductress or just arm candy. To that point, I’ll leave you with the words of the Honorable Miss Phryne Fisher, an on-screen fashion icon whose mysteries I’ve been rewatching lately: “A woman should dress first and foremost for her own pleasure. If these things happen to appeal to men, well, that really is a side issue.”