Power, Institutions, and the Force

***Extensive SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. You have been warned.***

In the emotional climax between Kylo Ren/Ben Solo and Rey, Rey is tortured by Snoke, Kylo Ren turns on and kills Snoke, the pair defeat the red-clad guards, and now they must decide what will happen next. Both have entered this fight with assumptions about their end goals, and only now, when it’s just the two of them, do they realize how different these expectations are. Kylo asks Rey to join him in making a new order in the galaxy. Rey begs him not to choose this path of corruption.

They’ve been explaining their positions throughout the movie, but until this point they believed the other thought enough like them that the two of them could agree. And, honestly, I found Kylo Ren’s argument surprisingly relatable. All the only institutions are broken. Let them die, he says. We know how broken it all is. We can do things differently. We just have to let the broken institutions die. We have to let go of our ideas of how things have to be so we can build something better.

Even Luke, our dear, salty space uncle, is disillusioned with the institutions of the past and he makes sure Rey knows why they shouldn’t be resurrected. His unilateral decision about his nephew Ben’s darkness, and his power over him, is what pushed Ben to the dark side. Rey points this out to Luke, that his failure was a misuse of his power as the sole Jedi master as well as Ben’s uncle and mentor. By the red throne room confrontation, it seems Kylo has come to the same conclusion: the Jedi Order is just as broken as any other institution. His uncle tried to resurrect it and Kylo suffered, was nearly killed, because of it.

This morning on NPR, I heard a similar argument to Kylo’s, along with a guest asking young people, particularly millennials, not to completely abandon all the old institutions of government and civil service. The speaker agreed that institutions are fundamentally broken in many ways, but insisted that they serve a vital purpose: continuity. This is more of Rey’s philosophy. The First Order is tyranny. The Republic and it’s Jedi Order were also deeply problematic. But Rey doesn’t think others’ lives should depend on her whims, and in Leia and Poe’s arcs we see the need to pass on and learn wisdom so that the resistance and it’s members survive.

Kylo is willing to kill many people and to let many many more be killed for this purpose. And murder—since we’re talking about the rise of fascist regimes, it probably needs saying—is wrong. Including murders you allow to occur because the results will further your own purposes.

Kylo asks Rey to join him, to be his balance in the Force and in power, to let him be her balance and teacher. He asks that she accept that the existing institutions cannot be redeemed or saved. He asks that she give up on everyone who still clings to these institutions. He demands that she be complicit in the murders of hundreds of resistance members within sight of the late Supreme Leader’s command ship and the oppression of millions across the galaxy. After her experiences with Luke and Snoke, and confronting the truth about her parents and life on Jakku, he believes she will.

You don’t have to do it yourself, Ren says of the deaths. You just have to let it happen. Which is exactly how fascist regimes come to power, with the majority doing nothing so that, one day, they can hold more power. Even if that promise of power is a lie. I’d even say that it’s always a lie. Power corrupts. No one interested in sharing power with the masses wants loads of people to die in order to obtain that power. You can’t care about people’s freedom while not caring if they die.

I believe Kylo recognizes that he is a better person because of Rey’s influence. He wants Rey to be a part of this mission. He doesn’t want to be alone. But when she rejects his worldview and refuses to join him—refuses to accept the murders of hundreds and the oppression of millions in the name of one powerful person’s version of progress—Ren does not accept her decision and go about his mission on his own. He doesn’t wait out the battle on the planet or begin to dismantle the existing First Order power structures. He doesn’t wake up, fire Hux and Phasma, release all the Stormtroopers, and destroy the First Order ships. Rather, he lies about Rey and embraces again his existing power within the largest, most corrupt institution in the galaxy. Remember, this is minutes after Rey disagrees with his worldview, which is minutes after he promises to share power with her.

We don’t know Ren’s ultimate vision for the galaxy, but we are given a glimpse of possibility: a trusting and caring team, Rey and Ben Solo working together to eliminating oppression and bring balance to the Force. He is more dark, but possesses light. She is light, but possesses some darkness. Together, they can be in balance. If only she will accept oppression of others, but Rey will not. If only Kylo will work within the existing institutions, but he will not. Rey asks him to use his existing role of power to save lives, but Kylo wants them all to die instead so he and Rey can rule together, as they see fit.

Luke believes he’s right that the Jedi order should die when Yoda’s force ghost sets the ancient tree on fire, but that wiley master knew that the sacred texts, the building blocks of the Jedi and their understanding of the Force, were safe aboard the Falcon. In Rey’s choices, Yoda’s lightning, and even the final exchange of the movie between Rey and Leia, the filmmakers seem to be saying, “Yes. Tear down what’s broken. But don’t burn it all. Don’t hurt people to do it. Go back to basics. The basics are good. Start from there.” Considering the “Weinstein effect” presently gripping Hollywood, I find this argument particularly poignant.

Recently, a friend shared about a dysfunctional dynamic in an organization she belongs to. The person with the most power in the group felt threatened by anyone who disagreed with her and was actively discouraging discussion and making others feel small. This leader initially joined the group when only one person had a voice and only that person had any power. In her eagerness to dismantle that system in which she was voiceless, she created a new system in which only her voice mattered. She didn’t realize that she had helped created a system of oppression, just like the one she had suffered under, but this time she was the oppressor.

I read accounts of abuse, death, oppression, corruption, and listen to analysis of incompetence run rampant in the most powerful positions in government, supported by people claiming to value the opposite traits in humanity. I am tempted by Kylo’s message. I think the tired, jaded among us were meant to be tempted by it. Let it die. Just let all this horrible crap crash and burn. We’ll make something better. But power doesn’t work like that. Nor does creation. We must have honest group discussions, diverse voices, a populous that asks questions, leaders afraid of their own power, and checks and balances to both power and privilege. And I believe that we do need institutions. Not as they are at present, but institutions that will provide a framework of fair operations and protection of the vulnerable and marginalized so that no one is oppressed. I believe our rebuilt institutions should be able to survive in tact without its builders and leaders.

I don’t know where Star Wars is headed, if Kylo Ren will be redeemed somehow or not, if Rey will manage to create a freedom-oriented teaching environment for force-sensitive people. I come back to hope. I find more hope in a Falcon full of porgs and friends and mentors who work to give others freedom than in powerful people promising to forsake their power once they have a different kind of power. This year, as I call members of Congress and sign petitions and ask questions in response to diverse sources of news and commentary, I am leaning on hope. I am choosing to believe this country can be better. Rebellions are built on hope.

The Last Jedi Reactions – No Spoilers

The following are my reactions to The Last Jedi, which I saw last night, in no particular order with no spoilers and absolutely no context.

It’s already dead, what’s the problem?

Her hair really is much better this time.

I swear, the Skywalker men are weak as hell.

Get it, Chewie.

Swoooooon.

This seems like a bad idea. This seems like a bad idea. This is a Bad Idea. What are you doING THIS IS A BAD IDEA?!

#squadgoals

Hey! They gave her more than 1 line this movie!

DOUBLE TAP.

Well, like, wait a second.

I really need to learn the name of this pilot. She’s awesome. And I remember her face from last time.

Okay, but like, how are you going to get more of those?

The swoops. Why the swoops?

Luke Skywalker, actual drama queen.

So pretty. So deadly.

Maybe it’s a purple thing.

Dang, son.

Why did you leave a man in charge!? He’s going to ruin everything!

It’s a trap!

Well that was… a thing.

Ooooo, it looks like blood!

Okay, but physics tho.

Shoot him again!

Actual queen, Carrie Fisher. Oh! I mean Leia. Well, both.

Why do they always mumble when they’re saying new things? Let’s bring back the cool lady that enunciates when she says stuff like “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

…I thought they were gonna fight.

I did NOT see that coming!

I TOTALLY EFFING CALLED IT.

What time is it?

It’s a FAMILY!

You could say sorry, you know.

Devil’s Snare meets that scary cave place.

Aww, not the green one!

What’s wrong with your face?

Luke must have a thing for round houses. Better than a thing for sand.

Finn looks like he just leaped off a horse in an Recency romance.

Was that really necessary, Disney?!? I might expect that of Lucas, but not you.

Wait, that was it?!

That sounded much better than in the trailer.

I want that ring…. And Leia’s from before. #spacejewelry

Salty old man Luke!

Yuuuuuuuuusss.

Ok, that’s just creepy.

Ooo, shade! Massive shade. Here for it.

They even sound pretty!

Blue or green? Blue or Green? BLUE OR GREEEEEEEN??

Bahaha! Rocks!

*cries*

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.”

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.”

Space and Other Enthusiastic Interests

I love space. I wear space pun t-shirts and constellation earrings and refer to “Oppy” and “Curiosity” and “Juno” in regular conversation as if normal people know all about these rovers and satellites and what they tweet. I am also taking of the day of the full North American solar eclipse off work so I can enjoy it how I choose (i.e., in the direct path, with my boyfriend and brother, preferably drinking a moon pie milkshake). Kennedy Space Center, it’s existence and also the two vacations in which I’ve visited it, gives me a ton of feels. I reread The Martian at least twice a year. “Hidden Figures” makes me so happy that I’ll watch it two or three times, back to back, on a Saturday while crocheting and folding socks. I tweet “Merry Christmas” and “Welcome home” to astronauts on the International Space Station. My desktop image is either a high-res image of Charon, Jupiter’s southern pole, or Star Wars fan art of Rey, Leia, or Jyn. And the in-house blog contributors at work know that the best way to get a gushing reply email to their newest post, and for me to boost the crap out of it on the company’s social media, is to write about the distance between stars or the Apollo missions or something.

It’s important to note that, though I love space and profess that love openly, I am enthusiastically devoted to many things, and so am not Neil deGrasse Tyson or Emily Calandrelli levels of knowledge about the Hubble Telescope, upcoming missions, or the physics of black matter. (Please, no one ask me about light. I know it’s both a particle and a wave, but I don’t understand this at all.) Neither am I equivalent levels of knowledgeable about comics, yarn, young adult literature, ancient Egyptian mythology, hurricanes, Doctor Who (especially in the past 3 seasons), sharks, musicals, or women in the Bible, though I am deeply enthusiastic about all of these things. More than your average human with other interests.

People with less broad but overlapping interests sometimes grow annoyed with me for not having dyed my own alpaca wool or not being able to quote from a middling episode of the most recent season of Who. I try not to be upset by this. If I’m upset, it’s because that person has implied—or stated—that I’m not a “real” fan because I don’t bear knowledge or experience equal to or exceeding their own. There’s also, often, gender and age expectations in here that I’m not getting into because I don’t feel like it and it’ll bring the mood down. But bear in mind that I’m a human without knowing the exact pH of human blood (Kidding. It’s 7.35-7.45 depending on the person.), so I can be a comics fan without having read the first 17 issues of “Cloak & Dagger” (I haven’t read a single one, though I’m excited to try out the TV series adaptation).

I think they get upset because there aren’t too many in-person people they can talk proverbial shop with regarding out mutual interest, and they want to be able to talk in deep detail, as deep as they want, because clearly I exist for their conversational enjoyment. Mitigate expectations, my friends. Let’s gratefully sock-slide through our favorite lines of “The Great Comet” and our favorite characters in The Graceling Series until one of us (okay, probably me) reaches the stairs. Then, instead of getting upset that I haven’t mastered sock-footed stairs yet, let’s turn in a new direction! Also, don’t assume when I show up for a sock-party than I can’t walk at all. Don’t be that jerk. Also, I’m not here for you.

Not that I don’t potentially love you. But friends can also get frustrated when I don’t take up a new thing they’ve tried to introduce me to. For example, my best friend in all the world tried for eons to get me to watch “Parks and Rec”. Did I like what I saw? Definitely. Did I want to watch it? Yup! But I didn’t have the time/brain space then. I have found the brain space/time since her first attempts, but not so much with “Arrested Development”. There’s a degree of pressure to a person you love wanting you to love a thing with them. Loving enthusiastically takes work! It takes time! It takes a headspace open to New, but also that particular flavor of New. And there’s always the possibility that I won’t love it, thereby disappointing my dear, beloved friend.

Also, I believe they get annoyed because they know what brilliance I’m missing out on. (I know I need to read The Sun Is Also a Star! I know.) And yet, I suspect it’s fun to watch me gush over something, and they now don’t get to enjoy my squealing and talking incredibly fast and possibly tearing up over this thing. Being able to watch my newfound joy likely helps them to enjoy it all over again, in a way they haven’t since they were the gushers. Like when I introduced my roommate to “Ninja Warrior”. Or my bestie to “Arrow”. Or when I tell my massage therapist about Greenland sharks. (It’s Shark Week. My evenings are booked. Every night. Sorry, boyfriend.)

(Also, sorry coworkers. It’s possible I might be a bit annoying this week. But learning is FASCINATING.)

Here’s the takeaway. “Jill of all trades, master of none, is oftentimes better than master of one.” Also, don’t be a jerk about it.

In Silent Depths

A couple of worship services have combined in me over the past week, beginning with this question from last Tuesday’s Summer Gathering:

What obstacles do I need to revisit so I can build a monument to encourage others?

I didn’t have an answer then. But over the past week I’ve gotten frustrated multiple times, usually because I wasn’t communicating something to Tyler that I wanted him to know.

I wasn’t communicating for a lot of reasons, macro reasons like I have been conditioned not to interrupt men, micro reasons like I saw he was trying to do something sweet or I knew he’d had a long day, and no reasons at all. More than once, I repeated the words I wanted to say over and over in my mind but never said them.

Because I am spiritually gifted in service and it’s my love language, and because I have an introverted supine personality, I naturally prioritize others over myself. I even put others’ wants over my needs, and yes I know that doesn’t make sense and isn’t healthy. I’m fighting both nature and nurture just to say that I need to go to the bathroom, would rather eat at Wendy’s, would like to just lay down for a while. I got to the point where I even felt frustrated over what we were watching on TV, not because I didn’t have a say or was overruled, but because I wasn’t sharing my opinions and preferences when he asked. I let him choose, even forced him to choose, over and over, and then felt so frustrated by the results of my own silence.

I’m an introverted supine creative. I have a vivid, deep, complex inner life. It’s extremely difficult for me to share any of that inner life, even with people I trust. I can share seemingly intimate and important stories, but that doesn’t mean I’m being vulnerable. In true supine fashion, I fear rejection and don’t want to bore or burden. If it’s like this with my family, best friends, and boyfriend, you can imagine how it is with strangers, new acquaintances, and friends.

Aware of this and in light of last week’s frustrations, I have been trying to share more of my inner world, and more of my opinions, with Tyler. I’ve struggling to decide what I might ask him to experience with me—This book? That show? Which trail? A musical? But which one?—and to know how much is healthy and reasonable for us both. A struggle.

This brings me back to last week’s question: which obstacles do I need to revisit so I can encourage others? I’ve thought of dozens of instances when I didn’t say what I wanted, when I felt so impeded by my own personality and conflicting desires and fears that I wrote page after page in the backs of my class notebooks. Times when I felt so frustrated that I could almost hear myself scream in my own head, when I immersed myself in yet another book, when I pushed away from impatient or busy people I thought might reject me. It’s been isolating. I don’t want to set myself up for more loneliness.

Then came the second song during Sunday’s contemporary service, “Uncontainable Love” by Elevation Worship. As I stood beside Tyler, one of the worship leaders sang, “Your love is deep enough to reach the deepest part of me.”

And I relaxed.

I pictured the trenches at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, so dark and so cold, inhabited by otherworldly creatures requiring unique adaptations to survive. Piercing this darkness is a single, broad sunbeam, golden and strong, fluctuating with life, penetrating all those fathoms to reach the ocean floor. God alone can do that. God alone knows. Even when I struggle to illuminate a few meters to another person, God is a sun more powerful than our solar system’s, piercing right through. Nothing is hidden from God.

That comforts me. It takes some pressure off. The deepest part of me is a place no one else has seen. It’s a place I’ve even worked to keep hidden. No one will ever know all that is within me, including me. I certainly will never be able to communicate all that I know is inside me. But God knows. God sees. God created. God loves. I don’t have to get it all right. Even in the coldest depths of me, I am not alone.

And maybe my saying so can be a monument to encourage someone else.

Early Morning Prayers

I don’t like mornings. I’d prefer not to see most hours of them. Springing forward and having to get up that morning in the dark is a mechanical sort of torture for me. No hope. No mercy. Just darkness every morning for weeks. I’ve been this way almost since I was born (I made my appearance just after 7am, so I like to say that it was the only time I willingly got up early).

When I was in middle school, my brother (even more squinty-eyed in the mornings than I am) declared that even God wasn’t up yet and he didn’t see why he should have to be up either. I adopted the phrasing, but I did sometimes have such terrible early mornings (fights breaking out near me in the school gym, betrayal by a once-friend, arguments, missed homework, word of new terrorist attacks, rumors of wars and battles and deployments, flat tires, deaths) that I have been glad to know that God does not, in fact, sleep.

In time, I came to imagine that God the Father has passed off those dreadfully chipper mornings to God’s inexplicably early-rising Son. And so, like the Greek celestial siblings Helios (sun god), Selene (moon goddess), and Eos (dawn goddess), the parts of the trinity pass their duties from one to the next based on the hour in the Eastern Time Zone of North America. At times, surely, they are all three awake (it’s 6am somewhere on this planet) and I can talk to any of them and the Bible tells of all three doing unique things in the same scene at the same time. But on bitterly cold, grey-blue mornings on the bus or not-quite-dozing in my mother’s little car, I imagined those prayers going to answering machines while God the Father took five more minutes and the Holy Spirit grunted over a mug of coffee while Jesus took careful notes.

Now then. About two years ago my roommate and I felt called to foster children. We went from single friends excited about Shark Week and trying to catch up on our respective weekly Bible studies to temporary mothers of three traumatized children under three years old. I don’t know when the last time that baby had had a full stomach—he ate for two days as if it’d been weeks—and the older boys hadn’t been vaccinated since they were each nine months old. Their legs were also so badly bowed that I worried they might jump and their femurs just snap.

Putting them to bed the night they came to us was horrific. All three screamed—screamed—for two hours. No amount of cuddling or patting or shushing or singing soothed them. One would calm, then another, then the third would scream and start the others up again. Even putting them all in different rooms, they could hear the others crying and screamed in solidarity. Even the baby. Separating the older two proved to be a bad idea because they were afraid and had likely always slept together. Still, eventually, one by one, they screamed and cried themselves to sleep.

It took my roommate and I a bit longer to drop off ourselves: we lay on the couches in the living room under blankets scrounged from other parts of the house, clutching the baby monitors to our ears at the least rustle, reaching a leg from beneath the blankets to rock the two-month old in his bassinet every time he woke or fussed in his sleep.

At 6am, I was feeding the baby. It was dark and I hurt all over from physical and emotional exhaustion. I squeezed by eyes shut to try to pray, but that hurt, too, so I relaxed them. The pre-dawn grey light filtered through the slits of the blinds behind me and, for the first time, I felt thankful for morning. The easy light. The gradual way God brings the world into wakefulness. I sent the simplest snatches of prayers to whichever member of the Trinity had early-morning duty.

After a few minutes of “Thank you for this little boy,” “Thank you they slept so long,” “Please let him fall back asleep,” “Everything hurts,” “Please get us through,” “Thank you for this moment,” “It’s so early,” and similar prayers, I found myself grateful the Spirit is up, too, interpreting these bare words and literal groans into something sensible. I imagined Jesus on his knees and leaning against a Gethsemane rock, face aloft, attentive and squinting one eye, listening to my prayer, confused. Then I pictured him reaching over one sandaled foot to nudge the Spirit awake. The Spirit jerks and his mouth falls open before his eyes do, already interpreting my prayers to Jesus, who’s face relaxes.

With that image, I rocked the baby and opened my connection to the Spirit, focusing on the tightness in my upper back, the aching behind my eyes, the pulling at my scalp, sharing each with the Spirit. By this I believe the Spirit told Jesus all I hope for, how worn down I am, how afraid. I felt love radiating back to me, and the comfort of Someone just listening, understanding.

By the end of that day, the boys were with different families, my roommate and I were two single women watching Shark Week once again, exhausted and far behind where we should have read for the week’s Bible studies.

Though that morning two years ago was a meaningful prayer time for me, I haven’t tried to replicate it. Part of this, of course, is because mornings are terrible. But I think it’s also because I’m not used to praying in the dark. Darkness is for sleeping and stargazing and spy movies. We feel like we’re doing something we shouldn’t or slacking off if we aren’t praying with our eyes shut at a florescent-lit conference table or beside the brightest lamp in the living room (conveniently placed by the squishiest armchair, of course). Frankly, we feel like we’re wrong if we pray with our eyes open, too.

Despite my private jokes, though, God doesn’t need to be awakened and God doesn’t trisect God’s self to lessen the load around the clock. God neither nudges a part of the Trinity awake nor needs a poke in the ribs from me. Literally, any place and any environment is a good place to pray. You might need a bright lamp to read your Bible or journal prayers, and you may need some sunlight to help keep you awake, yet darkness is also a fine place to pray. Dawn and day and night and twilight and many other hairsplitting terms for mere moments on the clock can describe a moment you need to pray, an opportunity you may or may not take to pray.

This morning, as I read in Matthew 3 of Jesus’ baptism, I’m praying for those three boys again, two years older, who I held on the worst day of their lives.

Perfect Timing

I don’t want to be dramatic, but the other night I was standing in my boyfriend’s kitchen when he asked me, “If you were to write a blog post about the past two months and send it back in time to yourself, would you have believed it?”

So, you know, he started it.

“But, Katie,” you begin, “What are you talking about? Who’s this boyfriend?”

Well, his name is Tyler. And even though I’ve known him for 9.5 years and counting, I don’t know that a detailed blog post from myself to myself could have prepared me for how much of my life has changed in such a relatively short amount of time. We’ve often said to each other, “Two weeks ago/A month ago/Two months ago, I could never have imagined I’d be here with you.” We say this while watching a movie or taking cinnamon rolls out of the oven, while holding hands at the park or spearing roast duck from the other one’s plate.

Here’s the short of it: I went to work, went home, co-lead a Bible study, hung out with my roommate, went on walks or to dinner with friends, wrote a bit, read a lot, and watched a lot of movies. Now I go to work, go home, co-lead a Bible study, set aside time to hang out with my roommate, pick one or two friends to see this week, write a little bit, read when I can, and almost everything I watch is with Tyler. Almost all my dinners are with Tyler, too. I see him almost every day, but we definitely text every day. I seem to spend more time at his apartment than my home, except for when I’m sleeping. And I’m incredibly happy. And as much time as I spend with him, I want to see him more.

I’m still working on the balance: not neglecting my roommate and friends; writing more, reading more, sleeping more (I don’t know what I’d do less). I’m more regularly having a quiet time, but the content is more Bible-reading and less praying than it used to be. The dust bunnies are forming an army and I haven’t seen the bottom of the laundry hamper since New Year’s.

So what if I’d known? Six months back, two years back, five years back, what if I’d gotten a letter from myself? As starry-eyed as I might be right now (although I don’t think I am, I know it’s probably true), I’m not pining at all the time we “wasted” not being together. That wasn’t wasted time. Not at all. I needed these years to become this person, right now, who’s finally ready to devote myself in a relationship. This person who can trust, who isn’t so racked with fear and insecurity that she can’t stand to be special to a man. He needed that time to grow, too. And if I’d gotten that letter, I wouldn’t have waited.

If I’d told myself who, even if I’d told myself the exact day we began and how it happened and everything since then, I would have been too nervous to look at him for ages and then too wound up and impatient to wait for the natural course. It would have been Sarah and Hagar and Abraham all over again (but without the slavery and stuff). I would have wanted to fast-track all my present happiness and shove it in the midst of all the life I was busy living four years ago, three years ago, eight months ago. And I would have been astounded, devastated when it didn’t work.

I’m not like David. If I’d been anointed the future monarch as a child or young teen, I would not have waited those 20-40 years God spent preparing Israel and David for the throne. At the very least, tempted by so many opportunities to kill Saul, I would have had some serious “Really, God?” prayer sessions. (Which is not to say that David didn’t; the psalms are full of his honest laments, complaints, confessions, and praises.) But I also would have thrown in my towel and quietly plotted to take the capitol, take the throne, take the kingdom. I’d been anointed, after all. King Saul was no longer good for the country, after all. Surely Saul wandering into this cave is a divine opportunity.

I would have been a terrible David, a terrible king, a terrible follower of God. No, I am far more like Sarah, prone to frustration and calculation and impatience and second guessing. What if God’s promise isn’t going to come the way we thought? Did we really hear all that right? Are we remembering it right? This is so hard; I don’t think God meant this. How can I nudge things along? God does help those who help themselves!

A week after a friend became a Christian, we were leaving the church building and chatting and generally being pokey about it all. From the circle of a conversation in the parking lot, I watched my friend walk up to the pair of glass doors at the entrance and deliberately pushed the right handle. Locked. Then he pulled it. Again, locked. He pulled the left handle. Locked. With a nod to himself, he stepped in front of the left door and pushed it open.

A few minutes later, he explained to us that he had visited the church two years before. He’d gotten there a little late. The doors were closed, the greeters had taken their seats, and no one else was coming in. He’d pushed and pulled the doors three different ways. Then, believing the church completely locked to him, turned and went away. He remembered it so well that he knew exactly what he’d done to each door, in what order, and he knew that all he’d missed was pushing on the left handle. If he’d exhausted that fourth and final option—if he’d noticed that he hadn’t—he would have come into that church two years earlier. Disheartened, we fumbled over our regrets and apologies, but he shook his head, smiling: “God’s timing is perfect.”

These past two months with Tyler, I have often thought of that friend, of his confession of faith on the sidewalk that afternoon: God’s timing is perfect.

Praise be to God!

The Land Basketball Forgot

I suppose no one made a big deal of March Madness in college because Georgia Southern didn’t have a standout men’s or women’s basketball team. It must have felt disloyal for students and faculty who carefully follow March Madness every year to tout their Duke-dominated brackets.

Or maybe I just didn’t notice. Spring was always so full: azaleas, breezy dresses, carpenter bees, voluntary walks, reopened pools, spring break, spring classes, and The Great Duckling Count. I usually went with friends to one or two basketball games a season, but that was long over by March.

No, the first time March Madness settled itself on my radar was the first year I started at the publishing company where I presently work. A coworker came around with finger guns, asking everyone if they wanted to compare brackets.

“Brackets?” I asked him.

The beat which followed told me I really ought to know this. But I’m still in my first 6 months! I thought, I don’t know this tradition yet.

Except it wasn’t a company tradition, it is a national one. I returned home one day a few weeks later to find my roommate, who I could hardly convince to watch a single college football game with me, in rapt study of a Tennessee women’s game.

Eventually, I figured it out. March Madness is a national phenomenon. And I’m from the land basketball forgot.

Not intentionally, of course. But we don’t have professional teams in SC. We live and breathe the Clemson-Carolina rivalry because that’s basically all we have. If we must choose loyalty in baseball, the Braves are the closest. If we must choose in the NFL, the closest team is either the Falcons or the Panthers. (I know, the Carolina Panthers. But they play in NC and all the revenue goes to NC. Plus, when I was growing up, the Panthers sucked.)

I suppose I should specify that other areas of SC may well feel kinship for a team based on proximity to a border shared with GA or NC, but not so on my island. The state sort of looks like a piece of pie, the crust partially broken off to the north, and I’m from the gooey tip. I would have to travel to and through the crust to reach the Panthers. Atlanta, too, is about 6 hours away. So we residents of this land basketball forgot lean back with our water sports and our Clemson or Carolina coozies, never knowing that basketball carries raucously on without us each spring.

But, the internet. Travel. ESPN! Yes, you’d think a late 80s child who grew up in the 90s wouldn’t have been so insulated to the ways of that pimpled orange ball thwacking polished wooden floors all over the country. We certainly learned to play basketball in gym class—my brother even played basketball in high school—but we didn’t learn that basketball matters any more in March than at any other time.

Imagine my shock a year after I discovered March Madness when Macon’s own Mercer University not only made it to the playoffs, but beat Duke. The city shut down for the afternoon games. We took long lunch breaks to watch, coworkers clustered around computers to watch together.

Imagine my further shock a few days ago when, asking a group of coworkers what I should know about March Madness this year, I was told that South Carolina’s men’s team is doing really well. And it’s not a Mercer-esque underdog shot, either. Still, I was assured they wouldn’t beat Duke.

Except they did.

So maybe the land basketball forgot is just the county where I grew up. Or maybe it’s just the little spot where I’m standing.

Update: South Carolina is now in the final four! And that’s a big deal, apparently! A friend texted when they won to (a) inform me, and (b) ask if I’d caught the March Madness yet. But at this point, I think my lack of engagement is a winning strategy.

A History in Scarves

In the back and forth of this winter’s weather, from 34 degree mornings to 78 degree afternoons, I’ve been using a lot of scarves. My scarf repertoire is pretty extensive, but also relatively new.

The first scarf I ever owned was blue, downy, fluffy, and given to me by a middle and high school friend named Chelsey. I still have it and used to wear it to cold Georgia Southern football games. I also wore it skiing, along with my bright blue snow bib and pale blue ski jacket and Tarheel blue gloves, which is when I discovered that my scarf was quite ineffective against actual cold.

The first scarf I bought for myself was on the street in Barcelona. Okay, actually we were in Parc Guell by the bus parking lot. I wouldn’t have stopped but several of the others in my group had, so I felt safe doing so. I fell in love with the lightest, shiniest pink polyester scarf. Plyed with a “buy two, get one free” deal, I also bought a rich sky blue and a red and orange ombre. The pink and the blue I let an acquaintance borrow four or five years later, along with several dresses, because she was going to the same area of West Africa that I’d visited the year before. The scarves would cover her head as local custom demanded and and the dresses, which I’d bought there, would ingratiated her more quickly. She never returned them. I keep my orange and red scarf hanging in my closet, wearing it only once or twice a year.

I bought my next scarf—black, and currently hanging from the coat hook at my desk—from a vendor outside Primark on Oxford Street in London. I also bought a white one, possibly because of some sort of sale. I draped them over my shoulders in chilly classrooms and crisp evening streets. I draped and swirled and knotted and loved them. Where I wore hoodies in high school for warmth and armor, here was an elegant alternative suitable to a wider temperature range. I wore my scarves to the theatre and stuffed them into my bags.

That same summer, I bought a light, wide lavender scarf I had to fold many times to avoid blanket dimensions and to provide a touch of warmth. I wore it with a white blouse and grey skirt to Les Mis. At Javert’s suicide, I clutched it to me like Fantine and stumbled down the stairs from the Upper Circle, coughing so roughly that an attendant from the bar on the top floor and the coat checker from the lobby took to the staircase to search for me, one descending and the other ascending until they met each other, and me, in the middle.

My mother bought me an airy pale pink scarf from The Gap, so soft that I ran my fingers through and through it, still wanting it even thought we found a hole near one end. And because I wanted few things so much, she bought it for me. I liked to wear it to poetry readings and student panels in college, along with jeans, a white long-sleeve shirt, and my black pleather motorcycle jacket.

A very dear college friend returned from a year in China and gifted me a bamboo compact and a short silk scarf depicting the letters of an ancient poem. I keep the compact on my vanity and hardly ever wear the scarf. It is the most precious of all.

When I returned to England after I graduated college, I bought scarves quickly, cheap or expensive, to match outfits and coats, to warm and shield me, twice just to make me feel better, and once because my flatmate told me a lilac scarf gathered into puffs and waves didn’t look like me. When moving home again, I gave a few away. The rest, including the often-worn lilac-colored one, I stuffed into the corners of my suitcases until each seam held its breath.

The first scarf I completed was too irregular and short for an adult, so I gave it to a hot-blooded boy I babysat. Other than the moment I passed it to his mother and she tied it around his neck, I don’t believe he ever wore it.

The second scarf I made was more even, every stitch tight, especially when my flatmate (who’d taught me) was speaking. I never could regulate modest tension with her there, complaining and criticizing (even if it wasn’t about me). I’d pull my stitches so tight with unvoiced frustration, then she’d exclaim “watch your tension” and I’d want to hurl the entire thing, skein and metal needles and all, at her face. So I tried not to knit when she was in the room. Rather, I knitted while watching Merlin after she went to bed, in Edinburgh while she napped, on the bus to see the friend she didn’t like, in the kitchen while she Skyped with her boyfriend in her bedroom. I even took my needles on the plane home, getting the most done during the layover in Newark. I had five hours to eat Frosty’s and knit and reacquaint myself to the accents of so many Americans. But I never did finish that scarf.

I can’t regulate tension well wherever I am, so I asked a student at a later employment to teach me to crochet. I graduated from hats to scarves and taught others. In the four years since I first learned, I have gifted and been gifted scarves. Red knit, pink linen, gold crochet hang in my closet or lay rolled in a drawer. Two-toned reds with gold thread and ribbons of coral and cream appear in photos taken in cities I’ve never visited. My friends have frequently asked me whether or not I made the scarf I’m wearing. I learn new patterns, working and working the material between my fingers, working and working to keep its softness from the dog’s mouth, playing with colors and volume, keeping the skeins off the floor and away from the dog hair (so much dog hair).

I don’t crochet much anymore. There’s too much dog hair. I most often miss it when I’m at work, wishing I could spend my lunch break in the armchair by the window, intricately knotting yarn, my fingers worked as I listen to something soothing. But my work is always at home, with boxes and bags of skeins I haven’t touched in months. And at least one scarf is rarely far from me, at work, at home, in my car, if not around my neck.