Rainy Brain Lies

I give a weather report for my brain when I have a bout of depression or anxiety (often both). It usually sounds like “scattered showers” or “pop-up thunderstorms” or “overcast” or just “rainy.” This past weekend, it was scattered showers. I could feel fine, not notice a problem, but twenty minutes later be sobbing in the bathroom. Between rain showers, Tyler asked me what it feels like. One of the first things I thought of was, “Rainy brain lies.”

Depression lies. Depression tells me I’ve failed, I’m worthless, I’m unwanted and unloved. There’s no convincing my brain to stop lying, or stop raining. It’s weather, you can’t control it. The best you can do is dress for it. Depression lies like a bully. After a while of saying “No” and “Not true” you realize that your arguments aren’t making a difference to him and they aren’t going to. But it’s important to keep telling the truth and to not let yourself believe the lies. That’s hardest to do, of course, when they are based on an element of truth.

I told Tyler that rainy brain lies because mine had just told me that I’ve wasted the whole summer. All the warm weather and hot dogs and baseball games and swimsuits and light dresses I’d had the opportunity to enjoy, I’d wasted. True because I didn’t meet all my goals for the summer; false because using my time differently than I had planned isn’t wasting it. False because I did thoroughly enjoy aspects of the summer, even if, truthfully, I never did buy a new swimsuit.

So I know what my brain is telling me is, ultimately, a lie. One meant to hurt me because rainy brain is a jerk and a bully. I catch the lie, then tell myself the truth.

Except, my emotions are brown water barely contained behind a levee. The surging rainwater fills it to the brim, leaking down the earth and cracking the stone. My emotions react to the lie instantly, causing water to burst out as if a huge bar of soap had been dropped into an utterly full basin of water. I tug back against the lie, and there’s no getting back the water that’s spilled over, but the rush lessens. The water goes back to it’s overfull, dangerous, roiling place, lapping at the edge of the levee. But it’s back.

And then my brain lies again.

If I lean into one lie, even for a moment, the water gains strength and my mental levee is that much harder to shore up. That much more water escapes.

Of course, this is when I have access to a range of emotions. In longer, deeper episodes of depression, I don’t. I have the lies. I have fear. I have self-condemnation. I have exhaustion. And I have the rain. Emotions like joy and silliness and contentment and anger and irritation are the chimneys on houses, occasionally peeking over the waves. And the lies are worse. This weekend, the lies were “You failed” and “You can’t do anything worthwhile” and “You’ll never accomplish your goals.” But in longer periods, the lies are, “You’re useless” and “You’re worthless” and “You don’t deserve any of the good things or people in your life” and “No one really loves you and no one ever will.”

One of the weirder things about depression in my estimation—and I’m by no means an expert on depression or anxiety or surviving either—is that because the rain is in your mind, things in your mind can help you. It’s not like breaking your leg and putting an ice pack on it. The ice helps with the pain, and that’s important, but your leg is still just as broken once the ice pack is off. With depression, the ice pack itself helps you heal.

Or, as Andrew Solomon says in one of my favorite TED talks, if you have brain cancer and feel better if you stand on your head for 20 minutes each day, “it may make you feel better but you still have brain cancer and you’re still probably going to die from it.” But if a depressed person does the same thing, and it makes that person feel better, “it’s worked because depression is an illness of how you feel, and if you feel better, you are affectively not depressed anymore.”

Watching a gif of a fox on trampoline can help. Sitting on the porch with your roommate’s dog can help. Listening to your mother’s favorite song can help. A single song isn’t going to suddenly end your depression, but if it helps, you do it over and over. If it doesn’t, what’s the point?

Sometimes the point is that you really, really should brush your teeth if you at all can manage it. Sometimes the point is that you know you’ll feel worse if you don’t eat, even though you aren’t hungry and even though getting up sounds like the most unpalatable thing that you could possibly do. Some things just need doing, and there are people who suffer such extreme mental illness that they are completely incapable of doing them. But for me, during my longest bout of depression, I cut out everything possible so that I could make sure I ate at least twice a day and brushed by teeth twice a day and showered once a day.

Late Sunday night, I watched three back-to-back episodes of Modern Family because it was raining in my brain. Immersing myself in the show, which was familiar and made me laugh without requiring a lot of brain power, helped. So did the end of Look Who’s Talking?, which I hadn’t seen in years. When I got into bed, I played music for a while so I wouldn’t feel so alone and so I could focus on something other than the lies my brain was trying to tell me. And those things helped the rain to stop. But if inclement weather is troubling your brain, when you can’t find a way to make the rain stop, I hope you can find the umbrella and boots you need to keep sloshing through.

The Burden of “Happy Clothes”

The other day I was reading a book, and I’m not going to tell you which one. But, after an anecdote about the author’s mother, she wrote that adults “have the opportunity or maybe even an obligation to convey an upbeat spirit.” She followed that statement by saying adults must “show we can rise above winter’s chills by wearing happy clothes.”

I wanted to curse at her. I wanted to throw the entire book. The author’s a Christian, a long-time Bible study leader, and I wanted to shout “Is this what you teach?!?! Those poor people!”

The world isn’t entitled to a good mood from me. I don’t expect that from others. And I don’t demand that the world look “pretty” or put together or wear “happy clothes”. I’m not just talking about self-expression, which is important. I’m talking about the idea that women are pressured to present themselves, to have it all together, to show no emotion but gratitude, to never make a mistake or need a break. Men face it too.

According to the CDC, white men in this country are three times more likely to commit suicide than white women. Black and Hispanic men are only twice as likely as white women to commit suicide, but they are four times as likely as black and Hispanic women. Black women and Hispanic women are the least likely: half as likely as white women and twelve times less likely as white men. Society is built for white men. They have the most privilege. So why are they so much more likely to commit suicide? A big reason is that we don’t teach boys and men to deal with their emotions and we don’t allow men to appear weak. And it’s killing people. The burden to “convey an upbeat spirit” is killing people.

I’m sure the author, who I really don’t want to rake through the coals, wasn’t thinking in these terms. She was thinking about neuro-typical Christians exuding confidence in their faith to the outside world. Which I also have serious problems with. But I want to talk about the heavy burdens “an obligation to convey an upbeat spirit” and wear “happy clothes” place on a person’s well-being.

Let’s talk about spoon theory. It’s a concept generally used to help people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental illnesses to describe what their day is like. I’ll link you to the whole explanation here, but below is the short version.

Think of the spoons in your kitchen. You have a certain number, and that’s all you have. You cannot wash and reuse them. You can’t use a fork instead. You start every day with a specific number of spoons, and everything you do costs a spoon. Getting out of bed costs a spoon, brushing your teeth costs a spoon, flossing costs a spoon, cooking lunch costs a spoon but skipping lunch might cost two or three spoons.

When you’re well, you have a nearly unlimited number of spoons. But when you’re disabled or ill in one way or another, you have far fewer spoons. You might can borrow a spoon or two from the next day to help you get through your friend’s birthday party or a blown tire on the interstate, but you will go from 15 spoons tomorrow to 13.

Last year when I struggled with depression for two months, the four-minute task of putting on moisturizer, foundation, and eyeliner (what I consider to be my minimum makeup regimen) hardly ever happened. I didn’t have enough spoons. It wasn’t worth it to me to use a spoon to put on makeup for work. I knew it wouldn’t take long, but for once I cared more about the effort involved than I cared about the time it took. I might need that spoon to go to the grocery store later, or to take my car by the mechanic to have a light checked, or to wash my hair (another spoon for conditioner, a third to blow dry). Every spoon counts. Everything costs a spoon. Every email I read, every paragraph I wrote, getting out of bed, arranging a meal cost a spoon. My life whittled down to the bare minimum. I wore the same outfits—incredibly soft, comfortable outfits—over and over. I went to work, went home, laid on the sofa, ate at least twice a day, showered, went to bed.

I literally thank God that my coworkers didn’t bring up my lack of makeup, fifth day with a pony tail, or the third consecutive week wearing that outfit. The conversation would have cost an unexpected spoon and would have increased my anxiety and guilt for weeks about my limited number of spoons.

It’s not an act of service, and it’s definitely not an obligation, to smile and look pretty for the world. Those things cost spoons, and whether I’m struggling with depression or not that day, I may well decide that I don’t have the time or energy to bother with it. Everyone should be free of the same burden.

When I started dating Tyler, I had the energy but chose not to spend the time. Instead, I stayed up later than usual so I could spend those hours with him, and shaved off makeup time in the morning to help me recover some of my sleep. My choice was not an assault on the world. I don’t owe the world a painted face or a fake smile or a yellow blouse. (I’d also like to point out that men aren’t expected to wear makeup because we haven’t been trained to think that men need makeup to look “presentable”. Same with shaved legs.)

I don’t owe the world “presentable” anything. You don’t owe the world makeup or a smile. Other people are not entitled to the facade it expects. Do I care about people and want to be a good representation of my faith and my God? Yes. But inauthenticity drives away the hungry and gathers the shallow. I’m not going to knowingly hurt myself to make a few other people feel more at ease. And I want hurting people to know it’s okay to be hurting. That’s the kind of Christian I try to be.

***

I thought I was done with this post. I just needed a photo of a spoon, which I planned to take at my boyfriend’s, before we went to dinner and a worship service in which I was reading the opening Scripture (Psalm 145:1-3, 10-13). Even before I got to his apartment, though, my plan flew out of my head. After a busy day with little sleep, I was listening to an audiobook, reminding myself to read the Scripture passage a few more times aloud before worship, and carefully planning my nutrition intake so I’d have enough energy to stay alert through the late-starting service without sugar or caffeine crashing. I’d originally planned to go home and nap after work, then to get ready and leave from there, but I was too wired. So Tyler suggested dinner instead.

During the song immediately after I read, I realized that I hadn’t put on eyeliner. Or lipstick. Or even foundation. I’d been in too much of a rush that morning and I hadn’t gone home after work like I’d planned to, so I hadn’t remembered. And I was wearing my comfy work pants—a little high-waisted, a little baggy in the hips—instead of the skinny jeans I’d planned to be in. My loose floral top is exactly something my grandmother would wear if it only had sleeves.

So is presentation more important than the words I’d read? I hadn’t been worried about my appearance when I’d walked to the microphone. I hadn’t noticed my lack of makeup in the bathroom a few minutes earlier. During the song, though, I’d noticed someone else’s eye makeup and all the comparisons rushed to me, all my intentions I’d forgotten just like the spoon photo. I felt God nudging me, Do you owe the world “presentable” or don’t you?

I thanked God for not letting me realize until after I’d read. That’s very God and I. God teaches me something, but not when it might mess with other people’s worship. God often waits until the perfect moment, like when I’m singing the words of a praise song, to let me wrap myself up in my own self-consciousness. Then God reminds me of truth, and in this case of the words I’d written a few hours before. I asked for forgiveness, for my pride most of all.

Circles

Writing feels useless. And stupid. And lonely. 

But I hate disappointing people, or even feeling like I might have disappointed someone. And I hate to quit. Well, I hate being a quitter. At least I’m stubborn. At least I have that going for me.

So in the hopes that this will end up being something sort of meaningful to somebody, maybe somebody I don’t even know (which feels even more lonely than anything I’ve said so far), I’m going to talk about circles.

Last weekend I spent a long weekend at my brother’s, with his girlfriend and my boyfriend, so we could see the total eclipse. Macon was experiencing a 95% eclipse, but for just 4 hours of driving, I could see my brother and introduce our respective significant others, and see a bright circle in the sky. The circle I’m referring to is the corona, the white circle of the sun’s atmosphere visible around the moon in the three minutes of a total solar eclipse. There is no corona at 95%, in Macon. I had only ever seen photos, and the Heroes TV show logo, and I wanted to see the sun’s corona for myself. I’ve talked before about how much I love space, and after three terrible weeks at work on top of three incredibly busy weeks in my personal life, and after a week of being sick, I wanted my boyfriend and my brother and interesting space things to all be in the same place at the same time. 

However, much as the moon and the sun only seemed to occupy the same space at the same time during the eclipse, my weekend didn’t go to plan. Not just because I was exhausted and recovering from a bad cold, but because of unmet expectations and my inability, especially while so drained, to recognize how my supine personality was working against me. When this happens, I find myself struggling with the same things I’ve struggled with in the past. You’d think what I learned would have stuck better than that. I look through past journals and prayers and blog posts and constantly tick off a box in my head for lessons I must now relearn. 

I thought of this phenomenon first on the drive to my brother’s as I told Tyler about the movie “Letters to Juliet.” It used to be one of my favorites, but I noticed a pattern. I would watch it, enjoy it thoroughly, and hate my life afterwards. It’s a movie about traveling, and writing, and love, and each time I watched it (the last of which was two years ago), I was pining for all three. I wanted to be traveling but wasn’t. I wanted to be writing but was struggling to finish anything. And I wanted to be in love but had never been. As I told Tyler this, I had to force back tears. I wish it was because I was so thankful for him, and that after so many years of learning to be lonely but happy I felt the gravity of the blessing of being in love and happy. No, I fought tears because once again I am not traveling and not writing.

I don’t need to see the movie again to see the circles I’ve drawn in my life. Just as I knew two years ago when I last watched two people fall in love on a road trip to a Tuscan Winery with Vanessa Redgrave, I know that this is a wholly unrealistic situation. I also know it prompts me to make an equally fictitious summation of my life. There are so many things I love about my life, including the fact that I have traveled. A lot. And written a lot. And loved many, many people. I knew this two years ago, and the year before that, and every second I have let myself lie about my life. I know these thoughts are based in fear, including my old nemesis the fear of missing out, and not in fact. I struggled, even as Tyler sat beside me and held my hand, to relearn the lesson and view my life more frankly.

You know it’s bad when a more frank perspective of yourself would be more compassionate of you.

Since the three minutes I saw the corona, I’ve wanted to write about the eclipse. I enjoyed telling my co-workers what I saw, how the air felt, and inadvertently convinced my boss that he should travel to experience the total solar eclipse in 2024. Yet to write it down, when we are inundated with images and accounts from countless other people, what can I say? What use could it be? And how can I encompass my experience of those three minutes? Three minutes which I regretted being gone the moment the diamond of light appeared at the cusp of the moon’s top right quadrant. Three minutes which I now want desperately to experience again in 2024.

What can I write that hasn’t been written before? What can I say that will mean anything to anyone anywhere? Ageless questions, ones I used to spurn as being from those who had not committed, or fully committed if I was being charitable, to the life of writing. And now I’m asking these very questions. I’ve circled back.

Here’s to breaking a circle. Even if it’s stupid and useless and lonely.

The corona was “a ring of pure and endless light.” More pure than anything I’ve ever seen. It was easy to forget that there’s the moon between the sun and me, easy to forget that this isn’t science fiction. With the sunset in every direction, a loop of gold around our dimness, and with the purple and blue and pink thunderheads on our periphery, it was easy to feel both chosen and insignificant. In the dim, identifying planets and noting planes, we looked at the white-silver atmosphere of the star that keeps us alive. How little light was needed for the world to seem normal. And now normal was gone, replaced in the sky with this unearthly beauty. And silence. I felt like angels should be singing arias around us and over us and through us. But there was nothing.

Well, not nothing. There were the crickets, and the birds swooping to their nests, and all the summer sounds of twilight that were out of place in this dim not-night. People we couldn’t see shouted, and I think we did too, at the moment of totality. People on a sandbar in the river behind us, people in the apartment complex’s pool, people on their balconies, people with lawn chairs in the parking lot. If it weren’t for those shouts, it would have been easy to believe it was only happening to us. And in those shouts I felt the tremble of alarm and surprise echoing backwards and forwards throughout human existence. We knew it was coming. We’d seen photos of past eclipses and live videos of this same eclipse experienced in Oregon and Kentucky, and still we shouted when the lid closed on the jar and we were in darkness.

The moment of totality should have been as gradual as the rest of the eclipse, but it wasn’t. The streetlamp came on beside us, a disorienting LED surge at the moment of dark.

Though, it wasn’t dark exactly. It wasn’t like night. It wasn’t like twilight. It was like the pantyhose filter used to film “The Fiddler on the Roof” had been dropped over the world. Or, I suppose, it was like an Instagram filter. Everything we could see was dingier, a kind of brown, except for the sky.

Three solar flares were stretching our yellow sun’s atmosphere in pure white shoots. Nothing appeared yellow about our sun in that moment. Nothing appeared familiar. No feature of our moon was visible. It’s dark side was absolute and temporary. I wanted to watch the corona for hours. I wanted to see the solar flares change the corona’s shape. I wanted to look into the vivid sky, wave at Jupiter and Venus, and peer 360 degrees around me at the strong sunset.

I took four photos quickly, immediately, including one selfie. I used my Sky Map app to identify the star and planets we saw. We noted a drone and some planes. The frenzy of all that newness began to subside. I said I wanted to look at the corona for hours. I glanced at the tree below the streetlight where we’d looked at tiny sun crescents earlier.

“It’s ending!” my brother’s girlfriend cried and my soul shouted “No!” Frenzy took me. I looked up, and the diamond on the ring of light was growing. I couldn’t see the flare shapes in the corona anymore and my eyes stung. One percent of the sun reemerged and we fumbled for our eclipse glasses. Even one percent was too much to try to look at without protection. The frenzy was chased by disbelief, regret, and finally resignation.

I would have liked to have stayed there, watching the crescent sun grow back into the disc I’ve always known, but my life’s cares had rushed back with it’s single percent of light. We wanted to get ahead of as much traffic as we could. We stood up, walked back inside. Tyler and I shouldered our last bags and tucked our eclipse glasses inside my writing notebook. I drove the four hours back to Macon thinking about circles and regret and how my next chance to see the corona will be in 2024, I considered how much farther away than a four-hour drive the totality path will be, and how I’ll need to take more than one day off work so I can spend more time with the eclipsing moon and inconstant sun.

I hope I can. It’d be a good circle.

(Photo courtesy of NASA)

Be Still and Know

Recently, a favorite song has been The Fray’s “Be Still.”

It begins, “Be still and know that I’m with you. Be still and know that I am here,” seemingly referencing Psalm 46:10: Be still, and know that I am God. I’ve listened to this song dozens of times in the past month, often dozens of times a day, and find it playing in my head in quiet moments.

Mellow and emotive, the song carries the listener through a variety of situations, following these descriptions with the simple assurance of the speaker’s presence. In the second stanza, he also promises to “say your name”. Then, in the third, encourages the listening to “Remember all the words I said.”

The situations are moderated by either “when” or “if”. The two “when” instances are:
-“When darkness comes upon you and covers you with fear and shame”
-“And when you go through the valley and shadow comes down from the hill”.

These things will happen. “Darkness” and “the valley”—presumably of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4)—will enter our lives. We will feel “fear and shame” and “shadow.” We will be threatened by them. We will have to face them. And when we do, we should “Be still and know that I’m with you.” That exact phrasing is repeated four times, “Be still and know I am” twice, “Be still and know” twice, “Be still and know I’m here” once, “Be still” once. The effect is lullaby-like, as a parent soothing a crying child. The lyrics don’t make it clear whether the speaker is a parent, a friend, a lover, or God, but the words effuse safety, reassurance, and love.

Wisdom is also obvious in the inclusion of four “if” statements:
-“If terror falls upon your bed and sleep no longer comes”
-“If morning never comes to be”
-“If you forget the way to go and lose where you came from”
-“If no one is standing beside you.”

Extreme fear, despair, losing oneself, and feeling utterly alone may not ever happen to the listener, but if they do, the promise is the same: I’m with you. So are the instructions: be still and know.

Don’t lose faith, the lyrics seem to say. Don’t let the world or your feelings lie to you, telling you that you have no one. You will always have me. I will always be with you. Even if nightmares or fear of the future keep you awake at night, you will have these instructions to sustain you: “be still” and “know”.

The singer infuses his voice with simple, straightforward sincerity. His voice edges in pain when he sings of fear, death, and abandonment the listener may and will face. He does not want this person to suffer. He loves this person. He is devoted. And he has no qualms about how difficult and painful and mean and bitter the world can be. It will be painful; when. It may be horrible; if.

Depending on my mood and what else has happened in the day, I imagine a parent singing these words, a spouse, a sibling. I imagine myself as the singer or recipient of these promises. But most often, I listen like I do a psalm addressed from God to God’s creation (to me): be still and know that I am God. Be still and know that I’m with you. Be still and know I am.

There is one more assurance I want to point out. After noting that darkness will come and fear and shame will be felt, after giving the “be still and know” instructions, the speaker sings, “And I will say your name.”

In the Bible, names describe a person’s essence, who they are in a real and important way. Every time a person experiences a name change—by choice or divine decree—they are saying their character is no longer the same. Jacob (thief) became Israel (wrestles with God). Naomi (pleasant) becomes Mara (bitter). Simon (he has heard) becomes Peter (rock). Saul (prayed for) becomes Paul (humble). That last one has the additional layer of a person known by a Hebrew name becoming known by a Latin one as his ministry transitions from focusing on reaching Jewish people to Gentile people.

Asking for things in prayer by “Jesus’ name” is doing as Jesus instructed: If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it (John 14:14). But with this understanding of the use of “name” in the Bible, we can see that praying in Jesus’ name can mean praying in accordance with Jesus’ character. For example, if you ask for healing, you are appealing to Christ as healer, knowing Christ did heal many and loves people, so it is in his character to heal.

When we look at the phrases around the one I just quoted, we see shades of this: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:13-14). For God’s glory, not our preferred baseball team or convenience in the carpool line, will God grant prayers. And neither did Jesus act or speak except to bring glory to God. That is very much in Christ’s character.

As is restraint. Jesus did not save himself. He may not save you or your loved one like you hope. Even calling on Christ to save a life or to protect from harm—though fulfilling these requests would be consistent with his character—does not guarantee that Jesus will actually intervene as you’ve asked. Scores of books and sermons have analyzed the meaning and ramifications of “that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). I am by no means equal to them, but can attest that it feels awfully selfish of God—or at least feels like cold abandonment—to not receive the healing or help in my situation that I know another person received in their situation.

The singer promising to speak the listener’s name is an intimate and powerful action. Through this biblical lens, “I will say your name” becomes “I will remind you who you are.” And that, at least for me, is powerful encouragement.

On Mary Magdelene at the Tomb

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). —John 20:11-16

Mary had been at the cross. She was there until the very end, most likely. (As was John.) She may well have been one of the people who saw Jesus’ body go into the tomb. She may have had an hour or more with her dead friend and teacher as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus arranged for the body to be given to them and dress for the tomb. They had to transport his body.

No wonder it’s hard for her to picture Jesus as anything but dead.

And Mary has spent her Sabbath thinking about and preparing for her Sunday morning trip to the tomb to anoint his body. When you expect something so hard you don’t even imagine another possibility, of course any deviation is hard to comprehend. Especially your dead friend alive and speaking with you.

His body missing was devastating, but this isn’t a hard assumption to make. Christ was dead. His body isn’t where she last knew it to be. Therefore, someone must have taken it. Someone took it benevolently (the gardener) or someone took it malevolently (a robber or enemy). These are the possibilities in her mind, and they are evidence of her mind in crisis mode.

Mary is practical, maybe even a pragmatist. John wasn’t at the tomb at daybreak to care of Christ’s body as they hadn’t had time to on Friday evening. He’s not even there to support Mary and the others who are going, or to help move the stone for them. No one is there to offer this practical help, save Mary.

She came to care for her dead friend’s body. His body is missing. Someone must have taken it. But where, and why?

The fact that Mary seems to share this plea to the supposed gardener so quickly suggests to me that Mary has been thinking it through. Yes, she is grieving. Yes, she is devastated, gutted anew by Jesus’ missing body. But she is also working on the problem. Where could his body be? Is there any hope of getting it back? To the gardener, Mary offers to carry Jesus’ body away. I think she intended to move him herself, one way or another, despite the smell and loose limbs, both of which she’d prepared herself for on her long, mournful Sabbath. How beautiful, this willingness, this yearning to care for and to restore.

Caring and restoring. That sounds a lot like Christ.

Maybe Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus because he was kind of unearthly looking. Maybe he was still a ways off. Maybe Mary couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Maybe the new day’s sun was in her eyes. Maybe Mary still expecting death so much she simply could not recognize life. Maybe, like the disciples Jesus travels with on the road to Emmaus, Mary senses something is different. Something is good in a fundamental way, but she hasn’t yet figure out what. Maybe she stumbles on in spite of this feeling. Maybe she thinks this feeling, this heart-quickening leap, is hope that Christ’s body is not stolen forever.

The best, best news awaits her. The best revelation. And it comes with her name.

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.

Refilling the Wells

A few weeks back, I spent a long weekend visiting my best friend. We’d planned to spend most of our time working on our respective writing projects, but by the time I arrived it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. At least, not on my end.

Remember when I thanked Carrie Fisher for giving my desire to publish back to me? Well, it hasn’t been that easy. And the desire hasn’t remained constant. And I’ve still done very little of that work. So I felt a strong need to get over this block and to work like Kayla and I had planned. But I was coming off a very busy past few days at a work conference. I was physically tired, spiritually overwrought, socially drained, and creatively empty. My gracious bestie recognized this and refused to let me feel guilty over it. Instead, she encouraged me to spend the weekend refilling my wells. Here are some ways I like to do that.

Nap. Not kidding. I’m always an advocate for naps, and more and better sleep in general. And I know this isn’t easy for a lot of people. Kids and work and schedules prevent you, or you can’t turn your brain off long enough. But even just trying, even just laying there with your eyes closed can help you breath deeper. Giving yourself permission to take these five minutes or half an hour or two hours gives your overworked brain a chance to slow down a step or two. And if you make it to that space between sleep and awake, something like dreaming while dozing, that’s creative gold.

Read. No agenda, no timeline, just read something you enjoy. It can be a book you’ve read a dozen times before (Lately, Fire by Kristin Cashore or The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh) or something totally new (Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher or Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia). And while you’re at it…

Change the genre. In whatever you’re consuming—TV, movies, writing, the Bible—whatever you’ve been doing, switch it up. Start reading cozy mysteries. Start watching documentaries. Try your hand at poetry. Flip over to the Psalms or Isaiah. This change of pace and topic let’s your brain stretch and play a little. If you need to keep your routine but want to add a dash of newness, this can be a great way to accomplish both.

Color. I’ve been a proponent of coloring as a means of stress relief long before adult coloring books started dominating grocery store shelves and Christmas stockings. Coloring lets your brain focus on something small, manageable, and with clear evidence of progress. But you can also tear it up. You can throw it out. It’s just paper. Other forms of visual creativity, like crocheting or painting by numbers or cross-stitching or flower arranging, can help in similar ways. A college friend could create amazing art pieces on his tablet while watching the Super Bowl and carrying on multiple conversations. Engaging in visual creativity uses parts of your brain that words don’t, so go highlight something! Rearrange your bookshelves or closet until you’ve made a rainbow. Find a Star Wars coloring book, buy yourself a new box of colored pencils, and let yourself color.

Do a repetitive task. I find repetition comforting, which is how I ended up cleaning my hairbrush for half an hour last night. Vacuuming and scrubbing the stovetop involve repeated motions, leaving brain power free, but only if you want to use it. You can whittle your conscious thoughts down to nothing but the whirr of the bristle brush, or you can let your arm keep scrubbing while your mind works on whatever problems and preoccupations have been dominating your headspace. Jumping jacks or a hoola hoop would work, too.

Change your environment. Go for a hike Saturday morning or get out of town for the weekend if you can. Just pick a different coffee shop. Take yourself to your favorite restaurant and don’t be ashamed if all you can afford is an appetizer or dessert. Sit in your car with the windows down for a few minutes. Don’t be here, with all your thoughts running down all the usual pathways leading you to all your usual conclusions and anxieties. And you know what?

Go outside. Even if you only have time for a short walk. Even if it’s midnight and you only have a 3′ by 3′ porch. Even if you just stand in the doorway and let the sunlight hit your face and arms. ​When I lived in England, I walked or took public transit most places, so just getting from point A to point B meant I was outside a lot more than I am now. But being outside was not always pleasant. It could be sweltering hot or biting cold. Once, in October, we didn’t see the sun for five days straight. So what happened the moment the clouds parted at 2:10 that Tuesday? Everyone stopped. Drivers slowed and rolled down their windows to stick an elbow out. Pedestrians took off their gloves and stood to the side. Shoppers and shopkeepers stepped onto the sidewalk. Into the sunlight. Like wildflowers, our faces turned up to the sun. Like we were praying. Those three minutes of embracing the light helped us get through the rest of the day, the rest of the week until the storms passed.

G​ood luck, friends!​

Because Abram Lied to Pharaoh

This week on “Things Katie Learned from the Bible”: The whole child-by-proxy/Ishmael thing was only possible because Abram had lied to Pharaoh.

Background. Abram (later renamed Abraham) was married to his half-sister Sarai (later, Sarah) [Gen 20:12]. They lived in Canaan and, at one point, a local famine became so bad that they fled to Egypt (Gen 12:10). If this sounds familiar, but not with these names, that’s because something similar happens to Joseph’s family later in Genesis (chapter 43).

Sarai’s really beautiful. And because of her beauty and of how terrible men can be, Abram’s afraid the Egyptians will kill him so they can rape Sarai. So, Abram instructs her to lie and say that she is his sister, not his wife. (12:11-13)

Egyptians do notice Sarai’s beauty, officials tell Pharaoh all about her beauty (not her, mind you), and then Pharaoh wants her in his harem. So, he gives a bunch of stuff and animals—and also male and female slaves—to Abram, and generally treats him well, in exchange for his alleged sister Sarai. (12:15-16)

Now God gets ticked and sends plagues upon Pharaoh’s household (12:17). Apparently God’s the only one (other than Sarai) who doesn’t want her to be raped. When disasters befall you, you naturally wonder why, and somehow Pharaoh figures out that these plagues are because he’s been lied to and then took a married woman into his harem.

So now Pharaoh is ticked and calls Abram before him. Basically, he shouts, “What the hell, man?” (12:18-19). If Abram explains, it doesn’t hold any more weight with Pharaoh as it does with me. Then Pharaoh, the most powerful person in the region—if not the world at that time—an absolute ruler with power to take anything he wants at a mere word…let’s them go. Technically, he tells Abram to take his wife and get out (12:19). That seems rather generous, but Pharaoh’s priority was stopping whatever illnesses and suffering had come upon his household, and he wasn’t interested in risking further suffering by harming Abram for being such a callous, yellow-bellied, faithless liar. And although Pharaoh is framed as a victim here, let’s not lose track of Sarai, the real victim.

Abram does as Pharaoh commanded, leaving with Sarai and “all that he had” (12:20). Although it’s not said outright, it’s very likely that the Egyptian slave Hagar was one of those given to Abram. After all, Abram came to Egypt poor and is now leaving well off, if not rich. And there’s no mention I’ve seen of them returning to Egypt at any point, though we know from Joseph’s story two generations later that slave traders traveled between Canaan and Egypt (Gen 37).

Some years later—before pulling this mess all over again in Gen 20 with King Abimelech—God promises Abram and Sarai that they’ll have a baby (Gen 15:5; 18:10). There’s some laughter along the way, some disbelief, but they’re excited. And, by the way, I’d eavesdrop on my husband’s in-tent meetings if he once traded me to another man. (Gen 18)

After a while of continued infertility, Sarai gets impatient. Presumably Abram is, too, because he agrees when Sarai tells Abram to have children with her Egyptian slave Hagar. Sarai is planning to claim those children as her own. (Gen 16:1-2)

Sarai has probably been working out for a while how she can be infertile and past menopause, but going to have a child. This Egyptian woman is not past menopause, and we know from Jacob/Israel’s many children by his two wives and their various slaves that having a child-by-proxy was a practice of the times.

But once Hagar is pregnant, after Ishmael is born, and even after Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac is also born, Sarah is incredibly jealous of Hagar. Hagar doesn’t act perfectly either. But on top of instructing her husband to repeatedly rape Hagar, Sarah mistreats Hagar so badly that she runs away once and is sent away once. Hagar could have died both times, but apparently God is the only one who cares that Abram raped her and Sarah orchestrated it. God saves her and promises to bless her son (16:1-12; 17:20). Hagar names God, “The God Who Sees Me” (16:13).

Now, you may be a bit edgy, even outright upset, because I have twice stated that women were raped in these stories, one by a patriarch, and the Bible’s usual language for this [“laid with her by force” (Gen 34:2; Deut 22:25, emphasis mine); or “violated” (2 Sam 13:14)] is absent. So let’s have a little refresher on consent.

Consent means that both parties in any sort of exchange, but especially a sexual one, verbally agree to the proceedings and the way in which they will happen. If I’m exchanging money for vegetables at the grocery store, the grocery store and I both agree on the amount I’ll give, the number and kinds of carrots I’ll take, when possession will shift, that I’ll use modern and legal US currency. We also agree that I can return the uneaten, undamaged carrots and receive the same amount of money back, but I cannot return half-eaten carrots for the money. Neither can the store compel me to return the carrots once I have bought them. Both parties have power and rights and the ability to make choices about the exchange and terms. I have the power to refuse to pay the price the store demands and so to not buy the carrots. I have the right to return the carrots. The store has the right to refuse to take damaged carrots back.

In a sexual relationship, power is extremely important. “By force” is aptly used in the Bible to convey that the physical power between the people was not equal and was not used equally for a consensual exchange. However, that is not the only kind of power at play. And let’s remember that rape is sexual intercourse with a person when that person refuses or is incapable of giving consent. Someone incapable of giving consent might be unconscious, for example. A slave is incapable of giving consent to a master or other member of the oppressive group because a slave has no social power. Neither does a slave have the legal right to refuse anything that their master demands.

Remember Joseph? Potipher’s wife tried to compel him to have sex with her, and Joseph had the physical power to flee. However, he had no social power and no rights, so his word was not believed when she accused him of rape and he was jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. (Gen 39)

Therefore, a slave of any kind cannot consent to a sexual relationship with their master. Or to anyone the master “gives” them to. This includes Abram giving Sarai to Pharaoh and Sarai giving Hagar to Abram. There cannot be consent because neither Sarai nor Hagar had any social power to refuse. As a concubine, Sarai had no rights in Pharaoh’s haram. As a slave, Hagar had no rights in Sarai’s (really, Abram’s) household.

How else does this concept apply?

Well, let’s look at Esther. Yes, she became the queen and saved the Jewish people. But she did not have equal power with her husband. She did not have equal power with any Persian, particularly when the edict against Jews was written (Esther 3:12-15). Remember how afraid she was to go before her husband? Especially because she hadn’t been summoned in a month (4:11). Remember how long she prays and fasts before doing so, stating “If I perish, I perish?” (4:14; 16). She has some social power in the court, but her power is still no where equal to her husband’s. This is especially true when she first had her one night with the king (Esther 2). She’d been taken from her home and family by force (2:8). She had no rights and would never be allowed to leave, even if the king did not want her. Because she did not have equal rights and power to the man who eventually married her, she could not consent to a sexual relationship. Even when married they did not have equal power. Therefore, she was raped.

Let’s come forward in history a bit. Sally Hemings was not Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. She was his slave. She could not consent. She was, therefore, repeatedly raped and forced to have and raise his children. When Jefferson was made ambassador to France during the Revolution, he took Sally with him to France, where slavery was illegal. She had no rights or power to refuse to go to France, and still had no social power once she got there. To conform to the letter of the French law outlawing slavery, Jefferson paid Sally a wage so small she wouldn’t have even been able to afford a trinket sold on the street.

When Jefferson was returning to Virginia at the end of the war, he gave Sally, and perhaps other slaves, the opportunity to stay in France as a free person. However, Sally chose to return to Monticello. Why? She was a pregnant 16-year-old in a country she did not know and in which she could not speak the language. She had no friends or opportunities, no means of supporting herself or her child, and Jefferson still owned her entire family. He could do anything to them in retribution for her staying in France. And even if he didn’t, she would never have seen them again if she’d stayed in France. She likely wouldn’t have survived in France. If she’d lived long enough to see the French Revolution, her life may well have looking a lot like Fantine’s in Les Miserables. So no, Sally was not Jefferson’s mistress. Theirs was not a love story. And neither was Hagar and Abram’s or Sarai and Pharaoh’s.

In another vein, have you read any books, or heard about any advertised, in which a Jew falls in love with a Nazi during WWII? There are a few. I know of one that won a major Christian romance award. The two main characters do not have equal power or rights, so true consent is not possible. I call shenanigans: this is not love, it’s rape. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Jews and many, many members of various marginalized groups spoke strongly against the book and against it winning awards. This book is romanticizing the rape of Jewish people who did—and did not—survive WWII. It’s winning awards at the expense of today’s very real, very alive Jewish community.

To return to my original point, the whole garbage fire of a situation in Genesis 20 is only possible because Abram lied to Pharaoh and risked his wife being raped, which he did because he was scared for himself.

Jesus the Killjoy

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” —Mark 13:1-2

Sometimes I get to a point in Scripture when I just want to laugh. This poor disciple! I can see him leaving a fantastic worship experience and being so overjoyed by God’s greatness that he sees it reflected in the structures around them. He wants to share it with someone, and surely Jesus will understand! Big mistake.

“Jesus, look how big and magnificent everything is! Isn’t it wonderful? I love Jerusalem.”

To which Jesus answers, “All these buildings? They’ll be torn down soon, stone by stone.” Which, to me, sounds a lot like Solomon shouting “All is vanity” every two seconds or a cartoon character intoning “Doomed, doomed, doomed!”

I imagine the disciple getting frustrated and answering, “Dang it, Jesus! Can’t you just enjoy this with me for like five seconds?” Or buddying up to James and saying, “Should have known better than to try to point something nice out to Jesus.” Maybe he follows it up with, “Christ is such a killjoy.” After which he grabs Peter by the shirt and mutters, “Forget I said that. Don’t go blabbing this to that John Mark kid who’s always writing stuff down.” And then there’s a tussle. James walks faster to get beside John, who is definitely staying out of it. Jesus is rolling his eyes. Andrew ends up being the one to break it up.

Jesus is right, though. Even if we assume the best of this disciple, that he isn’t impressed by the size of the walls and the buildings and doesn’t see them as representative of Israel’s greatness or humanity’s ingenuity or anything to do with the worldly at all. Even if we pretend that this disciple definitely saw the temple and its surroundings as a reflection of God’s greatness, provision, protection, and presence on Earth (as the temple was generally viewed in Scripture prior to this event) the disciple does miss the point: “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7:48).

Jesus 1, Disciple 0.

But yeah, sometimes Jesus can really sound like a killjoy.

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.