Sunday, February 8, 2015

Losing the Umbrella

While I was typing up the latest segment of our courtship story, my twelve-year-old asked what I was working on. I shared some of the highlights with her and she responded with a look of incredulity.

"How did your parents make you so afraid?" she asked.

She meant afraid of "getting out from under the umbrella of authority". It was a good question. 

And then my brain gave me an instant flashback.  

I can see Dad doing a demonstration for us on the coffee table. He has a baking pan, Mom's big plastic ladle, a water pitcher, and two of our Fisher-Price people. The oldest sibling by two years, I am no more than ten years old. We all watch Dad's little drama with curiosity.

The obedient figure is protected by the ladle held over his head as the water rains down, falling around his feet in the baking pan. But the disobedient figure will not stay under the ladle. He rebelliously stands where he wants to, exposed to the direct torrent from the pitcher. 

"But, how did that scare you so much?" my daughter wanted to know. I saw her point. It was merely tap water and plastic toys, after all.

"What the water represented was left to our imaginations," I said. "Anything we were scared of, any bad thing that happened to us after that, must be Satan making it rain on us because we'd done something wrong." 

Granny Weatherwax, the witch in Terry Pratchett's Equal Rites, describes the same phenomenon when she explains magic to her protégé:
"...if you want it to for sure then you let their mind make it work for them. Tell 'em it's moonbeams bottled in fairy wine or something. Mumble over it a bit. It's the same with cursing.
"...Make it loud, make it complicated, make it long, and make it up if you have to, but it'll work all right. Next day, when they hit their thumb or they fall off a ladder or their dog drops dead they'll remember you. They'll behave better next time."

from Bill Gothard's textbook
The umbrella-of-authority was a kind of curse placed on me as a child. And the teaching was still potent, fifteen years later and an ocean away, because the virus lived on my own fear. 

My parents were my umbrella; my dad was my mom's umbrella. Dad had to center himself under the "umbrellas" of God, his employer, and the government. My brothers would one day constitute "umbrellas" for their own families, but as a woman, I was destined to move from under my dad's "umbrella" to that of my new husband. Women and children had to be protected by men, after all.

Shit. It's no wonder I still get terrified of messing up.

I'm glad my daughter looks at me like I have three heads when I describe how I, even as an adult, let my parents control my dating. I'm glad she thinks the umbrella concept is ridiculous, because she is not likely to let an authority figure think for her or dictate her feelings! And our little conversation helped to uproot yet another of the cult beliefs that have lain burrowed in my subconscious for decades.

I don't care about umbrellas anymore. I don't need to feel guilty every time I feel uncomfortable. My fears are only that, my fears. And my husband is not some mystical buffer that protects me from them. We are allies, experiencing life's storms and life's sunshine together. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Not a Good Girl

"Continue to act as a good girl, and you will satisfy us." 
Jane Eyre

After years of almost compulsive writing, I have had fewer words to share lately. My family has been a priority over the last few months as we celebrated holidays, passed sickness around (and around), and got back into the school routine. I spent much of January fighting bronchitis and its complications, watching Netflix, and getting acquainted with the Honda that recently replaced my little old Subaru.

And while resting quietly, I've given a lot of thought to how I want to spend 2015.

Two years ago, I gave myself Permission to be Outrageous.
A few months later, I wrote about always having been A Good Girl.
Last year, I tried to imagine what it would be like to "let it go" like Elsa, and embrace Who and What I want to be.

What I want.

What do I want? Working through therapy exercises over the last year, that question consistently made me uncomfortable.

I was afraid of what I wanted. I was afraid that if I acknowledged my own desires, others might not approve me. I might not approve of myself. If I let my real deep-down self out into the open, I might judge or hate her instead of loving and embracing her. And heaven knows that little girl has been judged and punished enough.

So I've been cautious about letting myself want--not venturing far from sensible things, not taking risks.

But, slowly, I am listening to my desires, and leaning into them. Taking baby steps, of course. Clumsy, tentative, frightening steps. Some have worked out better than others.

Dancing is an adventure I'd always wanted to have, so when my counselor prescribed it, I finally gathered my courage and went to my first swing dance. It was utterly terrifying, but at the same time fun enough that I have kept practicing. Chris has even been brave enough to join me several times.

I also signed up for a class in improv acting, something else I'd been wanting to try for quite a while. That one didn't go so well. Several weeks I came home and spent the rest of the day on the couch, recovering from the anxiety. One session was going well until the instructor directed us to come up with comedy lines on the subject of "Dating".

Dating? What did I know about dating? As the titillating jokes fell from the lips of the handsome man next to me, I felt my insides curl into a self-protective ball. My brain stalled. I suspected I had more sexual experience than my younger classmate, yet my tongue was frozen, my brain stalled. After a few more afternoons feeling panicky, tongue-tied, and out of my depth, I dropped out of the class.

By this time we were shopping to replace my car. Car lots and car salesmen intimidate me, and most of my life cars have simply been provided for me. But having attempted both dancing and improv, my confidence was growing. After a few excursions with my husband, I went to another dealership and test-drove a car by myself--then brought Chris back to try it, too. My selection turned out to be the model we settled on!

Next I joined a women's trauma therapy group. Many of my favorite authors have extolled the benefits of group therapy, so I was excited when this opportunity turned up. The common theme of systemic misogyny that ran through all our stories made me angry. We all came from different backgrounds and had suffered abuse in a variety of ways, but we all had first-hand experience with patriarchy. I joined the group in hopes of having my emotions "fixed". Instead, it made me grateful for how far I've come and for every opportunity I've taken to speak in defense of women's equality.

I felt different from the other women in my group, in that I had never experienced abuse at the hands of my partner. Trauma, yes, I knew plenty of that, but these women's stories broke my heart. In the end, I dropped out of the group early, feeling a little stronger, more independent, and a lot better about myself and about my parenting.

I've ventured into new emotional territory, exploring unfamiliar ways of relating to myself and the world around me. I watch my daughters and their refusal to be pushed into the molds that society has made for them and I'm proud. When I grow up, I want to be like them!

Many of you are following the narrative of our courtship. When I share bits of the story with our 12-year-old, she looks at me like I have three heads. How any adults could submit their marital destiny to the whims of their parents is beyond her. "How did they make you so afraid, Mom?"

The answer to that is another post, but seeing my past through my daughter's eyes is helping me recover my own autonomy. For the first time in my life, I recognize that I belong not to my parents or to my husband, but to myself.

So this year, I've decided I'm through being the "good girl"--the woman our society approves of because she can be predicted, and controlled. The rules I absorbed as a child have not helped me, so I am writing new ones. I'll be a good mom, a good friend, a good lover--but I'll be damned if I'll accept the part of the well-behaved lady any longer.

My friends and role models are women who have taken outrageous risks and press forward no matter what. They are who and what I want to be. They don't apologize for wanting the things they want, and they refuse to be paralyzed by someone else's disapproval.

So this year I'm choosing my own path, making up rules consistent with my values, and making my own "mistakes" along the way. I'll keep being brave and trying new things not because they are good but because they interest and challenge me.

I've taken author Neil Gaiman's words as my present motto:
"...if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something."
What adventures that may lead me on this year I have no idea, and I'm used to mapping my way to a destination.   

But after all these years of coloring inside other people's lines... feels good. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Our Courtship Story: Staying Strong

Continued from Heart to Heart

October-December 2000

After two weeks of orientation in Manila, I flew south to Cagayan de Oro, a provincial city on the coast of Mindanao, where palms lined the windy airstrip and I was the only white girl in the muggy three-walled terminal. On exiting the concrete building with my bags, I was met by Ted* and Janice*, the missionary couple who had come to drive me back to Nasuli, the SIL-Wycliffe community in the center of the island. Their friendly faces set me ease immediately and I savored the breathtaking views as soft-spoken Ted guided the truck down winding mountain roads and we munched on slices of fresh pineapple. Janice pointed out mango orchards, rubber plantations, farmers following their carabao, and when Ted stopped at a roadside fruit market, she showed me how to eat sticky but luscious lanzones.

It was the rainy season and the downpours began just before we reached Nasuli. Ted dropped me off in front of the Nasuli guest house, where I was warmly welcomed by Bob and Pearl, the retired Canadian couple who managed the home. Thinking of Bob and Pearl gives me warm tingles even now. They knew it was my birthday, and had cake and ice cream with mango puree waiting for me. The kindness of these strangers...well, tears are spilling down my face as I type. They welcomed me into their home and into their hearts and I will be forever grateful to them.

Pearl put me in the best bedroom and I began unpacking right away. I had arranged a few framed photos on the little table by the door when I had a guest. Tina* was the only other Wycliffe member my age. She divided her time between Nasuli and a village where she helped with linguistics projects. Tina's fiance was doing linguistics fieldwork in another Asian country. Her observant eye settled on the photographs. Andraste in a blue sweater. A family portrait.

"Who's this?" she asked, pointing out the snapshot of Chris.

"He's... a friend," I said, lamely, but feeling a growing pride. "He lives in Kansas and he's interested in me."

I don't remember if she asked for more details. She couldn't stay long, was leaving for the village the next day, in fact. But it was a significant moment for me. Who was Chris to me? What did I want him to be? And just why did I have his photograph in a prominent place by my door?

As I stretched out under the quilt on my full-size bed that first night in my new room, I felt a strange urge inside. It was familiar, yet strange. I had not masturbated in ten years--not since my commitment to follow Gothard's principles of God's will for my life. Certainly not since confessing the sinful habit to my parents and receiving their forgiveness. My dad had asked me about it once a few years later, when I was 19 or 20 and the two of us were driving alone across a desolate part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula on a frigid winter night. I had assured him I no longer yielded to such temptations.

What wile of Satan was this? I had been told that demons controlled specific geographic areas. It must be that the demon over this part of Mindanao was more interested in orgasms than the demons I'd dealt with in Michigan. I tried to ignore the nagging suggestion. It sure sounded nice, though...

* * * * *

Lush, laid-back, carved out of the rainforest next to a spring-fed pond, Nasuli was an enchanted place. The SIL missionaries had their foibles and conflicts, to be sure, but they were kind, open-minded people with good hearts. After my experience with IBLP, the love and cooperation I felt in Nasuli was a healing balm. I found my place in the group in no time, helping Ted in the computer office during the day, playing the piano, singing at services, tutoring children, using my cooking and entertaining skills to make people smile.

I took squash pies to Ted and Janice's house for Thanksgiving dinner. The next day, Jerry, the center's manager, made me an offer. A staff member was returning to the States unexpectedly. Even after some fancy job-juggling, there would be a gap in the duty roster. Would I consider taking the position of radio operator, keeping contact with the pilots and checking in regularly with the translators in the villages? I would continue to work with Ted in the afternoons, but working with the pilots would be my primary task. The hitch? They needed me to commit to stay until mid-summer.

My return ticket had been booked for February (Valentine's Day, remember?). I had been invited back to Grand Forks as a teaching assistant in the summer. And all my plans were hanging on the unanswered question of Chris. Was he in negotiations with my dad? I had been away for six weeks now, but Dad had not breathed a word to me. Was I about to start courting? Had he decided Chris lacked the necessary qualifications? I remembered, again, why I had been determined not to stay home and watch the agonizing approval process from the sidelines. I felt like I might go insane as it was!

Before I could give Jerry my final decision, I needed to talk to Dad. Grateful for the Internet, I used AOL Instant Messenger to contact Dan* (our co-worker from CharacterLink days), who in turn asked Dad to get in touch with me. When we talked, Dad's report was far from reassuring. He was in communication with Chris, but any permission seemed uncertainly far away. Dad did tease me, which was strange, and made my hopes rise a little.

Resigned to keep waiting, I told Jerry I would accept the job and wrote dramatically in my journal, no doubt comparing myself to the late Jim Elliot:
I know Chris loves me. And I am ready to love and be loved. But God is saying, 'Not yet.' So I am proving my loyalty to my first love [God]...  
Yesterday, I so wanted to talk to someone from home, and would gladly have poured out my heart to Chris. Nobody else was online, so we could have easily pulled it off, and enjoyed it. But God guarded us, kept us in the temptation.
Ah, yes, that temptation to reach out to another human being and, you know, converse. Exchange thoughts and feelings. But we resisted. Because we were strong. And good. And not a little scared.

I cried a lot that month. It was my first Christmas away from my family. Away from snow. (I didn't miss that part very much.) I loved my new friends and all the new adventures. But I was the youngest adult in Nasuli by a long shot. Some of the translators had spent fifty years on the mission field. One woman in her seventies had just married for the first time. They were the oddest newlyweds I'd ever seen! Some of the women missionaries had always been single. Another married a Filipino. One adopted a Filipino son; another was raising two "granddaughters".

Alone in the air-conditioned room in the hilltop radio tower, I had plenty of time to think while I watched the clouds over the mountain pass and logged the pilots' progress.

I studied the couples in our community. Most of these marriages seemed stronger than any I'd seen before. They were partners and teammates; they took care of each other. Ted and Janice took weekend getaway trips. Bob and Pearl were adorable together. They made jokes about sex that made me blush. Even the couples that were known to argue depended heavily on one another. I talked to my friends from New Zealand about their experience as translators. "The mission field is solitary enough", they warned. "Get married first."

Easier said than done, I thought. But there was Chris. If only we could talk about things. I emailed my dad, begging his permission for Chris and I to at least converse by email. It was what I wanted for Christmas. Pleeease? Dad declined my request.

Bob and Pearl made Christmas morning special for me. The single ladies invited me to share their traditional Christmas dinner. When evening fell, I sang "O Holy Night" for the Nasuli Christmas service, as a gift to my new friends. Though I felt like crying instead.

Continued at Talking to Myself

*Names are pseudonyms.