A messy little memorial for Rachel Held Evans

It had been that kind of morning. The kind that heard me mutter, “I hate everything.” The kind that (telepathically) heard me shout, “I want to run away.” The kind that saw no warmth in my eyes as I stared at my children. No tenderness in my touch when my husband approached me.

It was the kind of trapped, desperate, itchy morning that I now know will pass, but dread anyway.

The kind of morning we used to not be able to admit that we have as Christian moms.

As I do on many of these mornings—though they are far fewer now that my two-year postpartum rager has abated somewhat—I waited until our small crowd was tumbling out the door, tasked my husband with “loading everyone up” and gave myself two minutes alone in the silent house.  I brushed my teeth. I peed. My phone buzzed, and in that weird compulsive way that I do, I answered the text and then gave a glance at Twitter.

Rachel Held Evans. “RIP RHE” posts abounded in my progressive Christian Twitter-sphere.

This is an odd thing to feel, I know, but my first thought was, “Oh. That’s why this morning has been so off.”

I’m no mystic, but I’ve become more of one lately. More attuned to the pushes and pulls of the spiritual realm.

I’d been following Evans’s health updates, so I knew things were grim. But, like everyone, I was surprised. Like everyone, I felt like I’d been sucker punched. And probably like many, the million little cracks through which brokenness creeps suddenly burst apart, and the shards collected in a box. A box to organize them, to summarize them, to overshadow them. A box labeled “loss.”

Evans’s popularity and power blossomed from the sheer number of people who wrestled with Christianity in the same way she did. If I were unique in my appreciation for her, the way I identified with her, no one would know who she is.

But in 2012, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that there was a rising tide of discontent with patriarchies, hegemonies, celebrities, and alliances within the evangelical church. I couldn’t tell what I was losing, but without any experience outside my small-tent denomination, I suspected that it was my faith. I knew I still loved and trusted Jesus, but I was so done with the church—its people and its culture—that I was facing the very real possibility that I would find some kind of itinerant agnosticism on the other side of the church doors.

Quite frankly, that’s what I had been told, and what the institutional church is still telling people. That progressivism is just a slippery slope to total rejection of the faith, a la Derek Webb. And while, sure, plenty of people probably pass through one to get to the other, there’s a heretical extreme on the other end as well, a sort of capitalist/nationalist/syncretism that has infected the church. So slippery slopes for everyone.

I may have even been on one while I was in the midst of my spectacular exit from my church, the loss of a career, and a miscarriage to boot. A friend sent me a blog post from a women, two years older than me, who seemed to be having some similar thoughts. Rachel Held Evans.

And far from ushering me out, Evans caught me by the collar, and said, “Hold on. You’re not alone, and your people are still here. Right here.”

It was like I had stormed out of the church building, and was sobbing my eyes out on the steps, trying to work up the courage to step out into the street. Her voice was like that big sister, older friend, who sits down next to you, offers you a flask or a cigarette or joint (depending on where you live), and commiserates.

Sometimes, as we know, protest is a form of love. Prophetic voice is a form of obedience. Not every nuance is going to be “right” but neither is every doctrinaire expression of Christ’s kingly office.

Like that drink-offering big sister, Evans told me not to worry about being rejected by the Country Clubbers. She told me about another party going on, one where we’d be far more likely to find Jesus. It was Evans and her women of valor who encouraged me to do more than just talk about the poor and marginalized in terms of a yearly mercy ministry project, but to actually keep company with them, to submit to their needs, and tell stories of their dignity.

She was that voice for so, so, so many people. That’s what her ministry and her power was. So when those who typically write about the institution of the church marveled (or complained) that this non-ordained, de-churched, unsanctioned woman was prophesying against the compromised church—those of us who had endured bottomless condescension from the ordained, churched, and sanctioned, only loved her more. Her freedom was more attractive than the hand wringing and pearl clutching of the those-who-must-be-right.

I didn’t follow the in’s and out’s of Evans’ personal faith journey, or dissect each of her theological views. I just knew that a lot of her Tweets, posts, and articles made me say, “exactly!” She carried her faith so freely.

And how you carry your faith has huge implications for the amount of pressure it places on your day to day life.

Evans was part of a larger trend as well. One that no amount of ordained preaching was going to fuel. Plenty of pastors rail against perfectionism while fostering it in their churches. Plenty ofIMG_6902 women say the words “gospel  freedom” in Bible studies, only to perpetuate a culture of performance and people pleasing. Teachers who mentioned grace, only because it was theologically necessary in their pursuit of being right.

But a groundswell of exhausted, disillusioned women made it real.

What was breaking my heart as a young woman in 2012, would come back to crush me in 2016, after I had my second child. The struggles brought on by postpartum anxiety surfaced an anger still deep in my bones from past hurts.

I found comfort not just in Evans, but in her other women of valor. Women who had walked away from the trappings of perfectionist, protectionist, rejectionist faith. Women who made it possible for me to have mornings like May 4th, and not feel like I had to hide. 

 

 

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I gave up pudding for Lent

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Also donuts. I don’t have any photos of pudding.

I’ve rotated between the usual lenten abstinences for years. Dessert, alcohol, meat, soda, dessert, alcohol, dessert, dessert, etc. I’ll be honest, that usually there’s a ulterior motive of shedding a few pounds, or kickstarting a healthy habit.

A few years ago, I was introduced to proactive Lent, wherein you replace the thing you’ve given up with some discipline—Bible reading, service, prayer, Scripture memory.

This year, I decided to think really hard about what to give up for Lent, and what to replace it with. Thinking really hard these days, for me the working mom, usually happens when I’m woken up at 3am but a tiny elbow to the jaw, or on the way to pick my kids up from school.

Simultaneously, but not coincidentally, I’ve been getting very serious about the destructive perfectionism that has crippled me since having children. I was a perfectionist long before children, but I was functional. With baby one I became, shall we say, compromised in my abilities. Baby number two sent me into full fragility. But because it was perfectionist fragility, you may not have known. 

I didn’t ever think about myself as a perfectionist, because I’m not super detail oriented, not obsessive about the condition of my house, appearance, or children. However, my perfectionism runs along a deeper, subterranean channel. The definition of perfect was set during my childhood from a mix of family and cultural expectations: perfection is effortless, universal, well-rounded admirability to which I must be totally oblivious and toward which I must be totally ambivalent.

“She doesn’t know how pretty she is.”

“It comes easily to her.”

“All that and a heart of gold.”

“With all she has going for her, she could be totally full of herself, but she’s super down to earth.”

When I wished on stars as a child, I wished that I could be skinny without trying. My worst nightmare was to get the “most improved” trophy in sports, because effortless mastery, not hard work was my goal. In 8th grade a girl who (probably with good reason) wanted to hurt me found the perfect insult, “She’s perfect, and she knows it.”

“She knows it.” That clause turned what would have been a sort of weak, gen-x-ish insult into total melt-down devastation.

The other way my perfectionism revealed itself by its shifting goal posts. Whatever I lacked, whatever superlative I could not effortlessly achieve, that became the one thing that mattered. If I deliver my children to school clean, fed, and rested, but didn’t volunteer to be a reading buddy—then I’d immediately remember that article I read about how “parental involvement” was the single greatest determiner in a child’s success. If I was invited to moderate a panel at a public event, but saw an unflattering photo of myself doing it, I heard a voice saying, “It’s so sad that someone who has to be in front of people is so unphotogenic.”

I couldn’t enjoy my professional success, my lovely children, my delightful marriage, or my totally functional body because I always lacked…something. And thus, lacked the perfection I really wanted.

The turn of screw there is that we live in a culture where experts vie for the final word on sleep, child rearing, diet, sex, budget, philanthropy, race relations, education, worship, and how to clean your mother f-ing house…you cannot win that game. It is intrinsically impossible to live according to the experts, because they contradict one another. And before my Bible-people say “just live by God’s rules” don’t even get me started on the contradictory things I’ve been taught from various pulpits in my life. 

At the heart of perfectionism is a powerless subjectivity, a need to fit everyone’s description of perfect. It’s a world where you are your own worst enemy, because becoming aware of any strength nullifies that strength, so you have to focus in stead on your weaknesses. Non-perfectionists see this as a quest to “perfect” the weaknesses, and, yes, that is part of it. But deep deep down, dwelling on weakness is the safe zone. It’s the place where I will not come off as arrogant, where I won’t risk ruing the admiration I receive by becoming aware of it.

This perfectionism is crippling my parenting, stealing my joy, and hurting my family, so I’ve been on a multi-year journey, slowed by postpartum anxiety, to get free.

Which brings us back to Lent 2019.

I gave up dessert.

Allow me to explain.

In Amy Poehler’s (highly-recommended) autobiography, Yes, Please, she talks about “the pudding” as the accolades and awards that can crowd out an artist’s focus on her work. The subjective preferences and shifting tastes that can cause someone to compromise what they know is good for what will get them recognition. In her world, that’s the temptation to make “Oscar-bait” and the Emmy version thereof.

While she admits, “pudding is delicious,” Poehler also cautions against it’s seductive, distracting nature, and reminds us that, “The doing of the thing is the thing.”

She compares awards and all that to pudding because it’s totally superfluous and we don’t need it. Sugar burns fast, and you’re left wanting more and getting very little from it, except a fleeting high.

My perfectionism runs on the pudding. In my world, that is retweets,  “some personal news,” fellowships, headlines, good stuff in the comment section, mentions, cover stories, “we are happy to announce,” hand-clap emojis, people recognizing me at the coffee shop, invitations to speak and moderate, and best-of lists. It runs on comments about my kids. It runs on compliments about everything from my appearance to my signature quinoa dish.

These are the subjective signs that tell me I’m getting it right, and when they aren’t there, I’m lost. And remember, I can’t give those things to myself…that doesn’t count in perfectionism.

Now, giving up the pudding itself would be impossible in my world because it would involve wearing a sign that says, “don’t compliment me or my children.” Getting off social media would help for about 10 minutes, but I use social media for work, so it would get me in the end. Plus, I was like this way before social media. (That being said, I do have parameters in place to help social media not run me into depression for a multitude of other reasons.)

Plus, I’ve been really hurt in the past by people who tried to send me into affirmation-detox. If you know someone who struggles like this, do not withhold praise “for their own good.” You’re not God and you have no idea what you’re doing.

Anywho, instead of giving up the pudding, I needed to change the way I thought about it. So I’m using a Lenten fast to remind me to think about my worth, where it comes from, who made me, why he made me. A natural physical reminder would be pudding, but I don’t eat pudding. At least not frequently enough to merit giving it up for Lent.

So I gave up dessert. Dessert in addition to being a reminder of “the pudding” is what I go to when I feel like I’ve earned a treat. What I go to when I feel like life is hard and I’m not getting enough of “the pudding” elsewhere.

Giving up dessert this year is my reminder that I don’t need “the pudding” to enjoy my work or my family. And that my worth is anchored in something that doesn’t burn up fast like sugar. Lent is part of a larger journey to free myself from perfectionism and find a constant, strong sticking place for my eyes, my confidence, and my peace.

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To my kids, on the seashore

The beauty and energy of being four, and being certain of everything, and hungry for everything else.

The depth of being two, with emotions carving out subterranean chambers until they erupt, run down your face and cool into igneous beaches that will hollow into coves and  gather soft sand over time.

This is our now. It is not easy, but it is pure life, and it is life-giving. It is humanity distilled to its essences – need, delight, energy, feeling, understanding.

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These two small people- the four year old circus and her brother with moods like fog and lava- are exactly who I dreamed I would mother, and yet exposing every day how small my dreams were. How low was my bar for a full life. Fullness is not easy. Fullness is scary, like my daughter on a cliff, insisting she’ll needs to take just one more step toward the edge. Fullness is one more stop, even though it’s bedtime, because we may never be back.

Fullness comes with tears, of course. But I’ve learned that tears are not a sign of failure, not theirs and not mine. Tears mean we are growing, expanding our reach. Even though I know this, I still avoid them when I can, I’m incapable of drowning out the whining or the wails.

The ocean is a perfect mother. She drags her tides in and out, at regular intervals, morning, noon, evening, night. She never complains that the work continues, she only delivers a new smattering of simple treasures to be scavenged by insatiable collectors, like my own. She lulls them to sleep, and chases them from the beach when it’s time to go home.

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I’m not the ocean.

I’m like the wind. All force and no regularity, leaving my family tousled and chasing their scattered paper goods. I’m always with a list or a task, always on to the next thing.

It’s nice to let the ocean be mother for a while, so that I can watch my children be nurtured by her. I am taskless here.

When we go away from our routine, I discover my children in their latest form. Not in the ways their newest angsts disrupt, derail, and splatter paint the day’s agenda. But in the ways they carve adventure across a landscape, and spread to fill the frame of every moment. The way each passing year adds to their capacity for rapture.

 

 

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Review: One Movie, One Book, One Vacation, One Humanitarian Crisis

Since it’s summer, it seems appropriate to recommend movies, books, and museums. Also, my name is Bekah, and if you think this is about the Incredibles, a mystery novel, or the McNay (ALL OF WHICH I LOVE!!!), you’re going to be super disappointed and probably mad. You’ve been warned.

Watching the events of the past few weeks, I’ve been wondering, what would Mister Rogers say about family separations? His concern was always with children—their wellbeing, their sense of self and security in a frightening world. Were he still with us, would PBS pull Fred Rogers out of retirement for a primetime PSA?

In the midst of all the chaos, we actually have a pretty good idea what Mister Rogers would say, because Morgan Neville has the direct quote, and a loads of other great documentary material packed into a 94 minute tearjerker, which is basically an instructional video on dealing with hostile politics and terrifying events.

In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” journalist Susan Stamberg, recounts Rogers’s advice that children needed to feel protected by their parents. They need to believe that the adults in their life could and would protect them, he believed. For Stamberg, this was difficult advice to reconcile with her own sense of vulnerability and the limits of her personal power.

Every parent knows what she means. But now imagine the parents who could not give their child that security in their home country…and then found that, by crossing into the United States they traded physical danger for psychological damage. A clear and crappy choice if ever there was one.

The release of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” on June 8, meant that most of us were seeing the film as the family separations were beginning to explode in the media. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt devastated by Rogers’s more generous vision of the nation as a neighborhood, and who belongs in it.

Of course, Rogers, being a devout Christian, asked the question “won’t you be my neighbor?” as a response to another question, “who is my neighbor?” A question Jesus answered in the strongest of terms though the parable of the good Samaritan.

In case you missed that parable, it involves religious and political folks stepping over their bleeding countryman in order to avoid dirtying their hands, when a religious/ethnic enemy finally comes to his rescue. The Samaritan and Jew, he points out, are neighbors.

Rogers had something to say about good Samaritans. He famously called them “helpers.” In frightening situations, he said, “look for the helpers.”

While he credits his mother with this advice,  it’s worth noting that in seminary, Rogers would have learned a deeply biblical definition of “helper”, translated from the word ezer, a powerful and effective aid or protector. It is a word used to refer to God.

The following Rogers quote is not in the movie, but taken from the Fred Rogers Center’s professional resources page:

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” 

Looking over the news coverage coming from the border (and steadfastly ignoring all punditry from elsewhere), I see a lot of helpers. I see a lot that Mister Rogers would celebrate. But a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude begs the question, the same question posed by journalist Tom Junod when he was interviewed for the documentary: Did Fred Rogers succeed in his mission to influence America?

The answer, of course, is mixed. The documentary suggests that America in 2018 would overwhelm Rogers, the champion of the neighborhood. The humanitarian crisis at the border is just the latest systemic assault on human dignity.

In The War on Neighborhoods Daniel Cooper and Ryan Lugalia-Hollon examine mass incarceration, over policing, and the high cost of being “tough on crime.” It reminds us that what is happening on the boarder has been happening daily in communities of color for decades.

Children in Austin, the Chicago neighborhood studied by Cooper and Lugalia-Hollon, often grow up without one or both of their parents, who have been taken out of the picture by one of two “methods of justice”—either the criminal justice system as we know it, or the “street justice” system that is, really, just the other side of the same coin, they say.  A coin taken from the pockets of poor communities of color and placed into the pocket of politicians, the drug trade, and the prison system.

“To varying degrees, both systems remove key actors from family and community life, and as a result, both perpetuate cycles of trauma within communities.” (The War on Neighborhoods, pg 69)

Throughout the book, Cooper and Lugalia-Hollon beat a continuous call for collective responsibility, similar to what Rogers (and the Bible) advocate.

“Issues of unemployment, addiction, and mental health were increasingly reduced to questions of personal decision-making. The policy focus moved away from neighborhood-level need and toward problematic people, rarely drawing the connection that the former provides the environment needed for the latter to emerge,”  (The War on Neighborhoods, pg 44)

They too look for the helpers, and extend that charge to local, state, and federal governments, who can choose whether to invest in services that strengthen communities—education, healthcare, economic development—or continue the cycle of incarceration, which, as the book points out, is not as easy to avoid as most white people like to think.

“Arrests, felony trials, and prison time all become the basis for society to further condemn these residents, to pile on stressors, removing them from existing supports, and further narrowing any redemptive opportunities,”  (The War on Neighborhoods, pg 14)

Because I was reading this during the same weeks that I was watching the border events, and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I took particular notice when the authors cite deterrence as one of four reasons given for incarceration. Of course the threat of punishment is not a deterrent, as everyone knows. Deterrence requires “making an example” of someone so that others will not follow. Interestingly enough, this deterrence argument, which at least some members of the Trump administration believed to be at the heart of Attorney General Jeff Session’s family separation policy, is also cited as a common reason for lynching.

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If books and movies are one staple of summer vacation, family trips are certainly another. This summer my daughter and I, with two longtime friends, made the trip to Montgomery, Alabama to see the Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, which commemorate the victims of lynching and tie the practice to the very practices of mass incarceration chronicled in The War on Neighborhoods.

I took my four-year-old to the memorial and to the museum, because I actually think she is old enough to learn about these injustices, as long as I am by her side, and we skipped the most graphic parts. I was by her side to assure her that she was safe, and that because she was safe, she could be a helper.

We ended our trip to Montgomery with a trip to the Freedom Riders museum so that we could embed the idea of being a helper right alongside the reality that injustice exists.

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But now I have to figure out how to talk to her about family separation. I have yet to do it, because I don’t want her to be afraid that it will happen to her. But when I explain why it won’t happen to her, I have to explain a larger injustice. It will never happen to her…because she’s genetically white…she was born with legal status…because her parents make a lot of money…because she’s lucky. I’m still trying to figure out how to do that.

I wish I had Mister Rogers for guidance.

We are left to imagine what Fred Rogers would have said to all of us in a primetime PSA, which would have gone viral on YouTube. I imagine that he would have reminded us that children need their parents, and they need helpers—adults supporting them and keeping them safe. He would have gently admonished us to be those helpers. Then I imagine that he would have pulled out the Daniel Striped Tiger puppet to talk about being afraid…and then maybe mad. And then, I think that there would have been a third element. I think he would have said something in Spanish, to remind us all that the migrant children are part of our neighborhood, and to try to give them some kindness to hold onto, if at all possible.

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Ode to Tom Wolfe, a delayed tribute

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Another book assigned by Jack Simons.

I was 19 years old when I read “Radical Chic,” Tom Wolfe’s biting critique of New York socialites who try to capitalize on the cultural cache of the Black Panthers. The teeth of the essay have come back to bite me often. It’s incisors haunt me as I try to write about social justice in an age where “wokeness” is having a moment.

That’s not a bad thing, that haunting.

When he died in May, I thought about how Wolfe’s work in general, and “Radical Chic” in particular, brought me into journalism. Ultimately, it was less about what he wrote, and more about the fact that he wrote it.

I read “Radical Chic”…and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test…and The Painted Word…and Bonfire of the Vanities…and Hooking Up…while I was deeply mired in the corner of the Evangelical world that is skeptical of outsiders at best and anti-intellectual at worst.

Jack Simons— a singularly formative voice in my education— assigned “Radical Chic” to his intro to journalism class. Simons is a Fulbright Scholar, Baptist preacher, and Vietnam vet, and at the time he had been seemingly exiled to a tiny building on the far edge of the campus at The Masters College (now University). He also taught a class on Southern Women Writers, which he boiled down to an exploration of the fear of “sexual predation between the races.” He devoted one class per semester to the proper use of swear words in writing.

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A book recommended but not assigned by Jack Simons.

In other words, he was a smart guy in a weird world. So when he assigned Tom Wolfe, he knew what he was doing.

He also assigned what came to be all of my other favorite books.

I read those mentioned above and other works from Wolfe, and fell in love with his style, which is super fun. It’s catchy yet human, casual yet precise. It’s readable. A perfect hook for the boy crazy and distracted reader (see photo below)

Wolfe often wrote about things far from the ordinary person’s experience, but he did it in a way that felt like it was happening in your back yard. More importantly, he wrote about a world of limited access in a way that didn’t act like he was happy to be there.

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What I looked like the summer I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and clearly took it to heart.

He was one of “them” in almost every way, except for the collective self-righteousness.

For an Evangelical kid from semi-rural Texas, Tom Wolfe was my inside man. He made me see that those people who, in every other form of writing, tended to sneer and disregard people-like-me, were just as silly and insecure as I was. They were striving and shallow at times. They were guided by the same base instincts as I was, and just as afraid of them.

With a trustworthy guide who was not trying to sell me or shame me, I was able to take a few glimpses into worlds outside my own. Wall Street, free love, radical counter cultures, and hyper-intellectualism. While my people were adding more locks to the door, I was able to cautiously peek outside. I could let down my defenses, because Wolfe was already on the offensive.

Evangelical alarmists beware, though. Wolfe made me feel “safe,” but I clearly was not. He made it appealing to think for myself. And that led to a life that is far from where things were headed when I first read “Radical Chic.” For those who knew me before, I’m a cautionary tale. If you ask me, I’m a close call. What if I had ignored the “Radical Chic” assignment, never discovered Tom Wolfe and kept fearing the Left and running harder to the Right? 

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Another Simons assignment. (Also Plutarch’s Lives was on his recommendation.)

If we want more people to fall somewhere in the middle, instead of on the far ends of ideology, we’ll always need Tom Wolfe in some form. Someone inside the camps has to be willing to critique their campiness in the most searing tone. Someone inside the pastures has to be willing to tip the sacred cows.

Writers like Tom Wolfe are good for everyone. No one has to be on the back foot when our toughest critics belong to our tribe. It opens up dialogue inside and outside, because it doesn’t equate criticism with rejection.

In the church, we call these internal outsiders “prophets” and they have long since been exiled by the greed of kings and the anxiety of priests. They are had to find in our partisan media environs and increasingly polarized academic institutions. There’s pressure to choose a side and back their play as they drift to the fringes. There’s pressure to put Team over Truth, and it’s dangerous.

But it’s a world with lots of fodder for the next Tom Wolfe.

Bathhouses of Hot Springs: Buckstaff

Recently Lewis and I took the family to Hot Springs National Park. This little gem of a park is tucked into the Ouachita National Forest, where very, very hot water flows like honey.

It’s also the only national park chockablock full of naked folks who have no idea what’s happening to them.

Beginning in the 19th century, a series of bathhouses appeared, ostensibly to harness the healing powers of the springs. They evolved over the decades until the 1910’s when they pretty much became what they are now. Today, two remain operational as bathhouses. The Arlington Hotel, once the fancy place to stay if you were a mobster, pro-ball player, or Tony Bennett (apparently), also has a bathhouse.

We visited all of these, thanks to our wonderful au pair Jessica, who kept our underage kids in the afternoons. Each steamy, naked experience was it’s own unique mixture of total relaxation, awkward mooning of strangers, and fear that you were more or less naked than you were supposed to be at any given time. If you ever plan to visit the baths, I recommend you stop reading here, because the element of surprise definitely adds to the fun.

Day One, Buckstaff.

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Buckstaff, still outfitted in blue stripe awnings, like a mid-century resort on the French seaside, is the only bathhouse that does not take reservations. It allows entries twice per day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The line starts forming about an hour in advance, and will extend out the door and down the sidewalk by the time the the first-come-first-bathe service begins. 

There is no other spa service in the world that begins this way, to my knowledge.

While you wait, you can study early 20th century photos of patrons, neatly arranged in rows, shrouded in white, smiling attendants behind them. It looks like an infirmary. Like they are being prepped for organ donation, or sweating out the plague. Behind them in these photos are a few metal boxes with heads sticking out through a hole in the top. The whole thing is as intriguing as it is unsettling.

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The other thing I noticed in line was that the Buckstaff, like every other National Park experience, draws a really eclectic crowd. Like really eclectic. And we were about to get naked together.

The bathers are divided into men and women, women go upstairs in a cage elevator run by a wizened bathhouse attendant in a blue t-shirt rather than a man in a fancy suit and hat. 

Your entire experience is guided by a tiny slip of paper with your name written on it. The elevator operator takes it first, and she hands it to the lady in the second floor lobby, who escorts you into the locker room. Advice: don’t tip every single one of your handlers or you’ll go broke. 

Lest you be picturing rows of lockers and benches, remember that there is nothing modern about a bathhouse, including the locker room, which is a series of curtained stalls, each with two full size, public high school style metal lockers. You go in, take off your clothes, lock them in the locker and poke your head out to let the locker room attendant (your third handler by this point) know that you are naked. She then comes tells you to face the locker, opens the curtain, and wraps you, toga-style, in a sheet. It’s like prison, but instead of a cavity search, you’re dressed for a fraternity party.

Then, you sit with the rest of the Roman senate and wait, trying not to see through anyone’s sheet.

Seated next to me was one nervous NPS visitor whose pre-toga attire had screamed “hiker.” She sat bolt upright, and her eyes darted around the dated (though very clean) room. The whole facility is built on a 1912 activity using 1952 technology and 1972 interior materials.

The hiker, whose heels tapped compulsively, blurted out, “I hope this is worth the wait.”

I shrugged. They’ve been in business since 1912, I wanted to say. But I stuck with, “I’m sure it is…”

“I mean, the line is one thing, but now having us wait in here?” she went on about not having much time in Hot Springs. I shrugged again, trying to look sympathetic. There’s not a lot else to do in Hot Springs National Park, unless I’m missing something.

“Oh well, I just hope the floors are clean,” she said.

Sister, I wanted to say—but didn’t (remember we were wearing sheets. It seemed like civility was of utmost importance during this unfamiliar social situation)—sister, you may have picked the wrong way to relax this afternoon.

Eventually a bath attendant (your fourth handler) steps into the room and calls your name. This is the woman who will be administering all of your…treatments? Rituals?

My confusion over what to call the series of bath activities gets to the heart of the experience. In the United States, we prefer to be by ourselves while naked, and we prefer a total sensory immersion with the right smells, music, and lavender tea accompanying our spa ritual. However, in 1912, being fancy was more Old Worlde, and the baths were billed as a healing treatment, and, if the grainy black and white pictures all over hot springs are any indication, it was one of those highly clinical environments where the well-to-do subject themselves to a lot of undignified pseudoscience in the name of progressive wellness.

And sometime in between, someone invented fluorescent lightbulbs.

Walking into the giant bathing room with marble panels, hanging fluorescent office lighting, the first thing you notice is that there is steam all over the place, and nothing looks particularly luxurious. Piles of towels, the occasional bucket, and pipes everywhere make the place look a bit like an institutional laundry room. Then you remember that you’re wrapped in a sheet, and begin to wonder if you are in fact about to be laundered.

It’s also fair to note that none of the bath attendants are anyone you’d want to cross. My guess is that it takes a particular constitution to usher naked National Parks visitors around in a steamy laundry room all day.

First stop is the whirlpool. The attendant takes away the sheet, which is momentarily awkward, but then you are in the tub. This is a pedestal tub with what looks like a turbine motor dropped into it. I was afraid the entire time that I was going to lose my toe or be electrocuted. This jet/agitator device, however, is not dangerous at all, and, once you slide in, a very well-placed jet stream gives some clue as to why bathhouses may have been so popular in the pre-battery era.

That particular 15 minutes goes by quite quickly, and the water feels glorious. It’s about 102 degrees and has just the right sting as you get in.

The attendant pops back in, however, and then it’s time to get out and put your sheet back on. You shuffle through the Agora of other women in white (now damp) sheets, over to what is essentially a row of massage tables, each the kind one would find in a college athletic facility.

Aha! The row of mummies from the photo in the lounge!

Yes indeed, covered in heat packs (piping hot hand towels) and one ice-cold head towel, I basically took a sublime 15 minute nap.

My attendant managed to wake me without startling me, which tells me I’m not the first one to fall asleep in the mummy lineup.

Now into the Sitz bath. I had assumed sitz was some sort of mineral or something. Now I’m wondering if it’s called that because you sitz in it. It was like a little water throne. My husband compared it to a janitor’s mop sink, which may be because his (male) bath attendant wiped it down with Ajax just before he got in. I can’t say I’m crazy about the sitz. It was nice, and if I had lower back issues, it could have been helpful.

The sitz baths do offer a great view of the room though, so I could observe the system of human laundry, and man what a system.

After the sitz, it was time for steam. My attendent led me to a little closet with a split door. The top was frosted glass, and open. The bottom was stainless steel. She opened it to let me in, and invited me to sit on the little bench inside.

She took my sheet, which made getting adjusted rather unpleasant to watch, I’m sure. But she swung the door shut and then folded two stainless steel panels down over the top of me with just a cut out for my head. Final mystery solved. She wrapped my sheet around my neck, and I sat for five minutes like a disembodied head on a metal box. Inside the metal box, the rest of me was being delightfully sauna’d. Truly, one of the better sauna experiences I have had, as my head was nice and cool.

Because I had opted not to be massaged, I was taken to the needle shower, which is infinitely more pleasant than it sounds.

The needle shower is a web of pipes wrapping almost 360 degrees around you. Water comes out everywhere in pleasant “needles” which are more tickly than prickly. There was a shower curtain, but by this time my attendant had seen my bare ass and twice-post-nursing breasts enough times that she barely made a show of trying to give any privacy, and I made very little show of caring.

The needle shower was delightful and refreshing and I want one very much. In my house. Lewis didn’t even fully inhale before saying “they’re hugely wasteful of water and against code.”

Guess I’ll have to come back, then.

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Baptisms and Tragedies

Asa BaptismI’m looking through the pictures of my son’s baptism yesterday, All Saints Day. It was an Anglican service, so we were up there for a while. The time stamps on the photos range from 11:35-11:48 am. They catch my daughter misbehaving. They show my son cooperating (though concerned) with the water, the oil, the lifting, and being walked through the congregation. The pictures catch our faces, immersed in the joy of infant baptism and the realities of parenting a three-year-old sister. We were celebrating a spiritual reality that informs how we live on earth.

These were also the minutes just after the shooting had stopped 33 miles away at another church in another town. The tragedy had occurred, and so many lives were forever altered.

I already had in my head the blog post I was going to write about how baptism reminds us that God enters the chaos of parenting and community. He works inside real life, and as nice as it is to have quiet sacred moments…sometimes we bring the chaos and God brings the sacred. We often think of infants as these beatific, peaceful, receivers of baptism, and the rest of us experiencing this wholly transcendent moment…when the reality is that they are actively resisting the grace most of the time, and the rest of us are pretty distracted. And that’s a much better picture of God’s grace.

I was drafting that in my head when I got the email about Sutherland Springs. My heart broke, and my thoughts changed.

I can imagine God in my chaos…but what about THAT chaos? What about the chaos of violence and tragedy? Does his grace go there? Does our baptism mean anything in that context.

Yes. Because we were not saved, not brought into God’s family, to revel in our own comfort and placid situation. We delight in our peace with God, not to insulate ourselves and work on our own personal holiness. We were saved to be a comfort to John Holcombe and his aching community, and we were saved to do battle against sin.

I can’t speak to the lawyers, Constitutional scholars, lawmakers and the others who have to wrestle with how to actually try to prevent the next shooting. But I can speak, as a member of God’s family, to how that informs my response to mass violence.

First, we need to be at work in the world, sharing the Gospel, and helping others find peace (and sometimes medical resources) to reach their sick and sinful places. We need to be sharing the healing we have been given. Because yes, violent people will be violent, whatever their tools.

But, in the current context, I also believe we need to go further. Because those tools, and their capacity to do harm, are a problem worth talking about. The public voice of the “Christian” community played a powerful role in getting us here, so let’s see if we can be part of the solution.

God’s family does not whine about its rights. God’s family asks, “how can we serve you?”

God’s family is not afraid of a “slippery slope toward tyranny” or other talking points provided by those who are raking in the cash from our addiction to firearms. We were saved to be brave about a conversation that we need to have as churches, as families, as lawmakers, as voters, as citizens.

Around the dinner table of God’s family, the “gun conversation” is this: a Christian has no business giving a second thought to his gun hobby, his hunting pastime, and even his own rights. The Christian, living in grace, bravely enters the conversation about guns open to the idea that he or she might need to give up a hobby, a pastime, or even a right. The Christian does not hold onto rights for rights sake. The Christian is far more afraid of violating the law of God than of living peacefully under even the most tyrannical government. The Christian’s primary identity is not American, it is Christian.

Maybe we have the conversation, listen to experts, take a real look at evidence, and come back around to the position that guns are good to have. Maybe we conclude that if fewer people had assault rifles, that we’d be worse off. But right now there are powerful financial interests, and lots of “me first-isms” with a deep foothold in the Christian community and those powerful interests will not allow the conversation to happen. They deflect, they cut it off. So before you pull out the knee-jerk talking points…ask where you got them, and who is laughing his way to the bank.

One little side note on the second amendment…and I’m open to a Constitutional lawyer helping me understand the broader implications of a “well-regulated militia” but… do you honestly, HONESTLY, think your assault rifle is going to protect your from the full force of the US Military (or Russian or Chinese or ISIS)? If the citizens of the United States ever need to defend themselves against a military power in a nuclear age…what exactly are you hoping to accomplish? If the most you can come up with is “going down fighting,” you need to get over yourself. You might as well use your fists. A well-regulated militia of exactly zero use in 2017.

The founding fathers were not God. They did not foresee where these things would go. And the Constitution is not Scripture. “The constitutions tells me so” is a really lame argument for a Christian to fall back on here.

One of Asa’s baptism gifts from the church was a (decorative) arrow. His name means “healer” and our prayer has always been that he would be a flaming arrow of peace into the darkness. That arrow is our reminder that baptism brings grace, and the effect of grace is power. The power to do good. The power to do battle with sin and its havoc.

There is sin and havoc in an angry man with a weapon capable of indiscriminate killing in the space of seconds. There is sin and havoc in greed and power. There is sin and havoc in church who can’t remember where its true citizenship resides. Let our baptism be a reminder of what we were saved from, what we were saved to do, and where our citizenship resides.

 

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San Antonio’s Two-handed Justice

The week after Harvey was a big week for San Antonio. We took on evacuees and sent aid to Hurricane Harvey victims with one hand, and with the other hand voted to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School, take down a Confederate monument, and obtained an eleventh-hour injunction against the State’s new “anti-sanctuary cities” law.

I’m partial, this being my hometown, but this week, San Antonio showed the world what it means to be hospitable and generous. With both hands.

Some argued that the time was not right. That one hand didn’t know what the other was doing. That both hands should have been full with Harvey. People argued that the monument and the high school renaming were “too emotional” and “a distraction.”

I disagree.

San Antonio is engaged in the both/and of social change. The one-two punch, if you will.

Pictures of Harvey rescues have gone viral. Black firefighters carrying white kids. White guys with their private boats going into Hispanic neighborhoods to run rescue operations. Young Hispanic EMTs lifting senior citizens in wheelchairs. They went viral with the comment, “We are not Charlottesville. We are Houston.” The people who posted meant this in one of (at least) two ways, as explained in their more elaborate comments.

Some meant it as inspiration. Like when you say to your kids, “You are part of this family, and in this family, we finish what we start.” It’s aspirational, a way to help them live into the identity we hope they will embrace. I’m all for America deciding that we want to be more like the heroes of Houston.

In San Antonio, our civic leaders beat that drum all week while asking for blood, diapers, blankets, cooperation, extra space and money for our friends down the freeway. They constantly reminded us of who we are: a generous, friendly, and hospitable city.

Others who posted “We are Houston,” however, meant it as a counterpoint to Charlottesville. They meant it to say, “see, at the end of the day, we don’t have a race problem.”

I would argue that we do. That while, yes, we will rescue “the Other” from a flood, we will alienate him again when the waters recede. The heroic deeds and character of individuals does not erase the injustice of institutions.

And so, with its other hand, a hand freed up by the fact that Harvey dealt us a mere glancing blow, San Antonio went to work on those institutions that marginalize or alienate. On the Tuesday after Harvey, San Antonio’s North East ISD school board voted unanimously for the name change of Robert E. Lee High School, a change led by student petition. One alumnus suggested changing the name to Harper Lee High School, to celebrate a brighter light of Southern grace.

On Wednesday a federal judge granted an injunction on the implementation of a law that was set to go into effect on Sept 1. It would have prevented cities and counties from adopting policies to keep their officers out of immigrations enforcement. It would have penalized elected officials who criticized the law. Law enforcement around the state spoke against the law, saying it would discourage cooperation with police and cause confusion among law enforcement. San Antonio and other cities in Texas joined a lawsuit to stop the law from taking effect. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia granted an injunction stopping the most potent provisions of the law from going into effect.

On Thursday the San Antonio City Council voted 10-1 to remove a Confederate monument from one of our historic parks.

Meanwhile, we kept taking in evacuees, donating diapers, and giving blood.

San Antonio was not distracted. San Antonio was looking deeply at what it means to be hospitable and generous. It means taking in evacuees, it means sending out teams from your Fire Department and EMS department.

It also means putting flesh and blood people ahead of bronze statues. It means that black children are not sent to schools named for soldiers who fought for the right to enslave black children. It means fighting against laws that make our communities less safe and goad vigilante justice.

We have to think both short and long term. In the short term, the Harvey victims need real help, and they need it now. In the long term, we need better laws and a more equitable world. When you have two hands free, you should use them both.

The hands of justice are both open and closed. Open hands offer assistance, comfort, and aid. Closed hands hold tightly to their vulnerable neighbors, pull down monuments to injustice, and clench into fists of determination.

Obviously, our work is not done. Not in San Antonio, and not in the world. Some say the monument and memorial discussion lacks substance, that it doesn’t make life different for anyone.

Again, I disagree.

To take down a monument or change the name of the school is not to pretend it never happened. It is a public statement about what we do and do not cherish. We take down monuments because we know we have a problem, because we are Charlottesville on August 12. We also take them down because we do not want that problem to continue to corrupt our identity going forward. We want to be Houston on August 27 and the days that followed.

If we are to make good on our statements, we have to keep both hands in mind. When Harvey has passed, we must continue to take care of the poor and most vulnerable. We also must continue to confront the injustice in our institutions—be they schools, churches, businesses or City Hall. We must continue to work at being who we are.

 

 

 

 

Auto-Correct

A Conversation Between Me and Auto-Correct while I try to compose the following Text message to my colleague before a breakfast meeting: “Tom is here. Want us to grab some tacos?”

Me: Tom…

Auto-correct: Tomato, right? You are going to type “Tomato?” 

Me: No. I mean Tom. 

Auto-correct: Oh, Tom. Like the man’s name? 

Me: Yes. Is it genuinely more common for people to begin a sentence with “Tomato”?

Auto-correct: There’s no one in your contacts named Tom, so I didn’t know you knew anyone named Tom. 

Me: So you went straight to “Tomato…” 

Auto-correct: Technically it’s more likely. 

Me: Okay. Well let’s go with Tom. 

Auto-correct: Aight. But I’m gonna underline it. 

Me: It’s a common name! 

Auto-correct: You should put this “Tom” in your contacts. 

Me: I do. It’s under Thomas. 

Auto-correct: Those are not the same. 

Me: Tom is here. Want…

Auto-correct: Did you mean “Wan”? 

Me: Wan? Is that a word? 

Auto-correct: Wan: (of a person’s complexion or appearance) pale and giving the impression of illness or exhaustion.

Me: What was wrong with “Want”?

Auto-correct: Nothing. I just wanted to double check. 

Me: But you just changed it. That’s not checking, that’s correcting.

Auto-correct: I needed to catch your attention to make sure that you didn’t embarrass yourself. 

Me: By accidentally typing “want” instead of “wan?” 

Auto-correct: Would that not have been embarrassing? 

Me: Not really. 


Auto-correct: Noted. But just to make sure, the next three times you type “Want” I’m gonna change it to “wan.” 

Me: Fine. Just let me get this text typed. 

Auto-correct: proceed. 

Me: Tom is hetw…

Auto-correct: Tom is vaulting?

Me: What?

Auto-correct: “Hetw” is not a word. I thought maybe you meant “vaulting.”

Me: So I hit two wrong letters right next to the “r” and the “e” and you thought that instead of “here” I was going for “vaulting.” 

Auto-correct: Was I wrong? 

Me: Yes. I meant “here.” 

Auto-correct: The only things I change to “here” are “her” and “hear.” 

Me: Tom is here. Want us…

Auto-correct: US

Me: Ah! Why the caps?

Auto-correct: US is the AP style abbreviation for United States. 

Me: I know. I’m a journalist. 

Auto-correct: I know. I thought you would appreciate it. 

Me: us

Auto-correct: US

Me: us

Auto-correct: US

Me: I’m talking in the first person plural. Can I please use the pronoun? 

Auto-correct: Errr….no. 

Me: Seriously?

Auto-correct: American first, man. 

Me: Tom is here. Want some tacos…

Auto-correct: I HAVE AN EMOJI FOR THAT!!! LOOK AT THIS GREAT TACO EMOJI!

Me: Okay. I’ll add the emoji onto the end.

Auto-correct: I’ll replace the word tacos with the emoji. 

Me: No! I want the word too. 

Auto-correct: Why? That’s redundant.

Me: I want to make sure he gets what I’m saying. I’m trying to avoid miscommunication. 

Auto-correct: What’s confusing about a taco?

Me: Nothing. But I want the word in there too. Tacos.

Auto-correct: Okay. Now you can add the taco emoji. 

Me: Okay. 

Auto-correct: Look how cute it is if I change it!

Me: AH! No. Tacos. The word. Tacos. 

Auto-correct: Geez. Fine. Do you want to add the emoji?

Me: No. Forget the emoji. 

Tom is here. Want some tacos?

Auto-correct: Ready to send. 

Me: Yes. You aren’t going to change anything when I push send? 

Auto-correct: No. All done. 

Me: Okay, send. 

Auto-correct: Tomato is herring. Want some racism? 

Me: WHAT? What are you doing?!? 

*texts frantically* Tom is here. Want some tacos? *send*

Auto-correct: Tomorrow has hernia. Wan something macho. 

Me: AH! Stop it. I’m texting my boss and you are embarrassing me. 

Auto-correct: Oh your boss? Sorry. I had no idea. Let me go into boss-texting mode. 

Me: Thank you. I just got this job and I’m trying not to screw up. 

*texts slowly and deliberately* Tom is here. Want some tacos?

You won’t change it if I push send?

Auto-correct: Nope.

Me: *send*

Auto-correct: Hey Baby, vagina vagina. Big horny?

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If Banana Republic Models Could Speak

I found another edition of my 2012 snark-fest. This time it is a trifold mailer for Banana Republic which I find entirely implausible.

I think we’re supposed to get the idea that she’s at some sort of swanky house party in LA. But no one showed up. I presume this is why she looks so grouchy. But while a realistic scenario would have her wearing sweatpants in the kitchen packaging up the dips before they go bad, this glamorous pariah decides to stay in her party duds and sulk. By the pool. Which she had cleaned for the occasion.

anthro-8

With no other guests to lift her spirits through playful banter and, let’s be honest, lots of colorful and entertaining lies, she apparently loses her mind, and like the Anthropologie models before her, gets fully clothed into the water.

anthro-7

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