The Feminist in the Room

Healing

This weekend my husband spoke at a marriage retreat. I swear speaking ideas to a crowd is his lifeblood. Me? I’d rather do a.n.y.t.h.i.n.g. else in the world, but he is so damn good at it. He’s known he was going to do this since some time last fall. I finally decided I was going about a week ago.

Before I decided, I set some stipulations: 1) I don’t have to decide until the last minute if I don’t want to. 2) I can change my mind at any time, even up to the point of pulling away 3) I don’t have to go to the sessions if I don’t want to.

I know it’s hard for people to understand why I would even consider going in the first place. It’s certainly hard for me to understand why I would put myself in harm’s way. I’m still very much working out my own spirituality, but sometimes, I miss experiencing it with people. I miss being excited about the potential of discovery that only happens in when ideas are shared. I don’t want what we used to have, but I don’t want to walk away from spirituality either.

It’s complicated.

Even though I had a big ball of anxiety in my stomach the first night, I was excited to hear Craig speak again. I am the reason he was pulled from the platform at our previous church. Apparently, if you can’t control your woman, you don’t get to do what you love, even if it’s to the detriment of the organization. In my head, I know this is some messed up bullshit, but in my feelings, I still wrestle with those emotional wounds.

Nervous or not, it was ok. I was doing ok until the question was asked, Can you imagine if there were feminists in the room listening to this right now? I know. I know it’s shocking except to me it isn’t. I am intimately acquainted with the ideology and language of church and believe me, Feminist might cause more raised eyebrows in a sanctuary than the actual F word ever will.

And there I was, the feminist in the room. The odd one out, again.

I started to go into a shame spiral just as I have for years when I realize I am the one who is wrong, broken, who doesn’t belong. And then I thought, NO! Nope. No. I don’t have to buy that steaming load anymore. Yes, this is hurtful, but it isn’t personal. Yes, it is generally exclusive, but it isn’t personally directed. And I don’t have to stay and be a target if I don’t want to.

So I didn’t.

And while I am desperately disappointed that I didn’t get to see my husband do what he does so very well, I took myself on a morning adventure. I meditated on the water. I watched all the water birds whose names I remember, and some I hadn’t met yet. I walked where Spanish moss trailed through my hair and stood with my eyes closed and face upturned to the sun. I breathed and laughed and petted random dogs and was fully my feminist, feminine self.

I didn’t go to another session the whole weekend, and I had a marvelous time. And I met delightful people who I don’t see eye to eye with theologically, and it’s ok because I don’t have to. I can know people and not agree with them. I can work with people without being a victim of conflicting worldviews. I can walk away if I no longer feel safe.

Maybe that all seems like practical common sense to you. It probably is to most people. But when you’ve been the subject of spiritual abuse and a controlling personality, you lose sight of these basic concepts. I experienced learned helplessness for so long it manifested as general anxiety and unpredictable panic attacks. I was not ok, and I could not escape.

This weekend I practiced a skill that I hadn’t felt free to practice before. I left a room where I felt unsafe without feeling shame about it. And I found ways to feel safe again without being less myself for it. If that’s the only spiritual stride I make in 2019, then I’ve already conquered ten thousand inner demons.

I’ll keep being the feminist in the room, thank you. I’ve had enough of pretending to be anything less than who I am.

How to start a conversation

Learning, Living

So the question becomes what now? What’s next after this round of Awakening?

Sharing the story, albeit the short version, of my journey with church and fundamental evangelicalism is an important part of my healing. But I don’t want to stay a victim, only talking about what happened and how it broke me, only focusing on the hurt and shame. I want more and better than what I’ve experienced. The only way out may be through, but sitting at the end of the tunnel looking over my shoulder isn’t moving forward.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve written about the spiritual for so long, I realize it’s where I am most comfortable. For two years I wrote very little at all never knowing what word or phrase would trigger my abuser(s). I wonder now if this fear has been part of my overall spiritual apathy. For the last year, I’ve basically pushed anything of a religious or spiritual nature away from my attention. I’m so disgusted by the fundamentalist response to an abhorrent political climate that I don’t even want to be associated with those practices or even sit in the buildings.

But I do feel that something calling me back to Center, and apparently that voice demands words, lots of words as part of the birthing process. Cutting off my Spirit is the same as ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’. I’m facing the same questions that many nones and dones everywhere are asking: where is a safe space for me and others like me to have meaningful conversation?  Meaningful conversation doesn’t have to center on spirituality, but I believe it often wanders into the spiritual realm anyway, whether or not we intend it.

For instance, a good friend joined me for dinner recently; her friendship is another unexpected gift from my job. We talked and laughed about many things.  Of course, books were an enormous part of the evening. Our conversation wove through books and musicals to more intimate details of our lives, how we feel, whom we love, how we experience life previously and presently. These things have great meaning and, in my understanding at least, they are deeply spiritual because they directly affect the well-being of our soul/ spirit. When I use the term spiritual, I mean this inner part of our selves at least as much as I mean a supernatural force outside of us.

Did we speak of God? Very little.  But I still consider our conversation Spiritual.

In my experience, many religious spaces aren’t safe for these types of spiritual conversations. My friend, who is a delightful, fun, incredible, world traveling, peace corp teaching, theater-loving, intelligent individual, who makes the world a richer place by being in it, doesn’t subscribe to the conventional, religious narrative. Would the church offer a safe space for her to be fully herself, freely expressing all the facets of her self without condemnation or coercion? Would we be free to have the conversations we had in my home within a religious construct without having to correct her choices to align to a cultural norm? Would she feel safe and welcome?

Would my non-binary friends? My gay friends? My secular humanist friends?
A practicing Muslim?
A black, single mom receiving state benefits?
A refugee?
A Hasidic Jew?
A Sikh?
A Christian with questions?

The curious thing about ‘safe spaces’ is if they aren’t universally safe, then they aren’t truly safe. Inevitably, a power structure will assert itself in order to dictate and control the narrative and experience of a non-inclusive ‘safe space’  In order for there to be a power structure, someone has to be in…and someone has to be out. That’s how power works. It is always binary; it must be more real, more right, more important, more venerated, more absolute than any other narrative. When power controls the narrative, it’s always possible you could embody the next quality which falls from favor, and when this happens you will be coerced to conform or be expelled.

The question I grapple with is whether a space seeks to expand and embrace, or reduce and indoctrinate. Fundamentalist spaces are overwhelmingly the latter. Christianity has evolved into an exclusive salvation club. A relationship with fundamentalism is fraught with an agenda: can we get this person outside spiritual construct to see the universe exclusively our way as well as renounce their former experience as wrong, broken and worthless and assume our agenda? Oh, and pray the sinner’s prayer which is, after all, the real key to holiness.

I know I’m stepping on toes here. Some of my longest and dearest friends identify as Christian, and I do find them safe and open and wonderful, even when we disagree. I am speaking now of systems, not individuals. Every religious structure, or any system of power, has its extremists, its moderates and its outliers. I’m not asking anyone to justify how they experience the Spiritual (in this case I do mean supernatural power), or even if they have any form of spiritual experience at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about conversation. For so long, I was excluded from taking part in it. When my abusers met repeatedly to talk about me, about how to handle and control me, I wasn’t allowed to be part of the conversation. I was reassured, however, that this type of a abuse is supported by scriptures, which were helpfully listed in the Silence Contract, in case I had any questions. Even had I been in the room, I wouldn’t have been part of the conversation because my experience didn’t matter, as long as the power narrative was firmly established.

But the truth is, I am hungry for spiritual conversation, the kind which meanders and wonders, the kind which is deeply intimate one moment and hilariously sacrilegious the next.

Do you know that I stopped laughing for a while when the abuse I experienced was at its peak?  I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but these days, when I laugh deeply from my center, I find myself thinking, I forgot how good this feels. Laughter is an experience my soul missed even though my conscious-self wasn’t aware of the lack. While I often say I am the funniest person I know, this type of laughter really only happens in conversation with another soul. I am profoundly grateful now when I consider how many people in my daily life elicit this response from me. They are my safe spaces, my spiritual spaces even if we never speak of God in any of Her identities.

So this is where I am. Seeking safe, spiritual conversation. If we happen to stumble on God, however we experience the Holy, while we’re at it, well, that’s alright too.

The things we trade away

Healing, Loving

Yesterday my daughter shared some of her feelings about how abused women are treated by our patriarchal culture. I’m so proud of my daughters when they share, and also terrified. I’m terrified because I know how the response in times I have shared has affected me. Deliberate transparency has been a tool used against me by men who sought to control and fix me. More and more I find that when women are transparent about our anger, men are quick to tell us why we are wrong. Put a Bible in that man’s hand, and he’ll use scripture to punch you too. I’d rather spare my own young women these experiences, but this form of sheltering does them no favors, not in the world we live in today. So, I do my best to let them express themselves and not interfere– with varying degrees of success.

Enter my rage.

When my daughter bared her heart, one of the perpetrators of my abuse chimed in. The emotions sweeping through me were so fast and so fierce they literally took my breath. My hands shook; my face flushed. I immediately felt powerless – powerless to stop his words, powerless to change what was happening, powerless to protect myself or anyone else from the punishment that was sure to follow.  This is what surviving trauma feels like, terror often coming out of nowhere.

I wish I could pinpoint the moment I began surrendering my power. Why did I do it? What made it seem like a good idea? Sometimes I blame the money. We made a lot of money in ministry.  People may say money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure as hell buys health insurance and groceries and a place to live and college tuitions and so many other things that make happiness easier to come by. For a long time, it bought me the freedom to be home with my ladies as they grew up, which I desperately wanted after staring down my own mortality.

I don’t know when I began trading my power away for these things, I only know that I did. Piece by piece – my control, my desires, my abilities, my identity and eventually even my voice. I gave it away. I signed it away. I did it. I did those things. I was an instrument in my own unmaking.

I feel shame when I talk about this, shame so deep it almost buries me. You know why women who are victims don’t speak up? I do. I know it every day, all the way down to the deepest cracks in my soul. Those cracks will never go away; the only thing I can do is to accept that they are part of my terrain.

What I am slowly learning is the things I may have done wrong, don’t excuse what happened. Just because I willingly surrendered, doesn’t make it right that they were asked of me, or demanded of me as the relationship evolved. Fear and gaslighting aren’t tools of love, they are weapons of power and control and they are wielded by those who feel they are entitled to use them. And, in my case at least, not only entitled but morally mandated to put me in my place by whatever means necessary, a terrible, holy duty.

I’ve internalized a great deal of rage over the last few years. This rage has manifested itself in anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and depression – the list is quite extensive. Sometimes I struggle with anchoring myself in reality. Sometimes my brain feels shrouded in fog. All of these are symptoms of internalized anger because I believed expression would lead to punishment. I believed because it was my lived experience, over and over again.

All of these concepts and constructs played a role in my emotional response to a person with a history of abuse trying to influence my daughter last night. I wanted to shut down, suck in my anger and disappear just like I always have. But then I didn’t.

Six months isn’t enough time to undo all the toxic messages and ideologies I’ve absorbed. I may spend the rest of my lifetime dismantling those things. But it’s apparently enough time for me to decide unaddressed bullshit isn’t something I’m willing to leave lying around any longer.

Instead of taking that anger and stuffing it down, I pushed it out. I pushed back. I called bullshit. It was freaking terrifying and totally civil and all of twenty people saw it. But I don’t care. It felt like fireworks and marching bands and unicorns with wizards on their backs shouting “RIDIKKULUS!!” riding across my soul. I took back my voice. I grabbed on to my power and held tight. I made anger my tool instead of my enemy.

I called bullshit. And I keep calling bullshit to the message that what happened to me was done in love, was a loving act. I reject that toxic “love” and the claim that it even resembles love. For every woman who has ever heard that weepy, “I love you” while she cowers, hoping the next blow won’t fall I say THAT IS NOT LOVE!  It’s power and it’s control and it’s ego and it’s fear and it’s small and it’s toxic and seeks to kill, steal and destroy but it sure as hell is not love.

For years and years, I traded away bits of myself, for money, for an image, for religion, for a fragile, hypermasculine god, for comfort, for fear of the unknown, for fear. I rode all the way to the end of the tracks and dropped off the edge.

But I’m still here.
I’m an angry woman. I’m not swallowing it anymore.