God made a little Gentian—It tried—to be a Rose: A love letter to heterocentric Christians

Dear heterocentric persons of faith and good will (which includes most of my dear family of origin):

I want you to know first of all that I can intellectually and compassionately understand both your consternation and some of the vehemence with which you defend doctrines on sexuality and marriage. Can we start there? Can we begin with me saying with love that I hear you and I see where you are coming from? Because I do.

Like you, I have been culturally conditioned since birth to accept heterosexuality as the prevailing paradigm and the normative ethic, both socially and religiously. I can certainly understand why those for whom attraction to the opposite sex is as natural and unquestioned a behavior as breathing would assume that any deviation from the norm is, well…abnormal, and perhaps even a willful rebellion against what’s natural.

My personal experience, starting from a very young age in this same milieu—specifically in the 1970s in the Church of the Nazarene—I’m guessing was exactly the opposite of yours, and for me, equally natural, unfolding softly like a wildflower. I did try to meet the cultural expectations, but those attempts in high school and college were strange, awkward and felt like a fraud. In 56 years of life, I have never fallen in love with a member of the opposite sex. Not once.

To be clear, this is not because I dislike men or have been damaged by a man. In fact, I love and appreciate men very much, starting with my Dad, grandfathers, and brother, all of whom were unusually loving, gentle, kind and approachable. I hung out with boys a lot during my teen years and they mostly treated me like one of the guys, which made me feel safe and comfortable, a pal. Secretly, of course, what we had in common was our attraction to the girls.

I never once said, oh, I think I’ll squelch my heterosexual identity and give myself over to lust for my own kind in defiance of the Church’s teachings. As far as I can tell, I only ever went with the flow of my own innate selfhood. I was a Marva. And even as it became clear that I would face disapproval and rejection, I did not consider twisting myself to fit cultural and religious expectations because I felt purposeful as I was and courageous enough to stay that way. I knew somehow in a very deep place—seemingly against the odds—that I was unique and beautiful and loved by my Maker, who is famous for moving in mysterious ways.

The fact that I have always felt this unexpectedly deep confidence in the face of pressure to conform to the norm, remains my single most powerful and self-evident argument against the moral depravity judgment. If I am an abomination or a mis-creation, why do I feel so confident in my holy birthright? Why would I take a path so painful, rocky and counter-cultural simply for the sake of rebellion, and if it were a phase, wouldn’t it eventually end? And why, if the way I am is a deep perversion subject to the wrath of God, do I manifest in my daily life so many of the fruits of the Spirit? How can I be the happiest and most peaceful person I know?

That’s all I have to offer, my own story, my own sweet certainty of the sacred validity of my personhood exactly as I am, and these heartful inquiries. If you would be willing to sit prayerfully with those questions, I would be so grateful. For the moment, I would love it if we could we drop our defenses and simply see each other face to face, and heart to heart, without scriptural interpretations and a church manual as wedges between us.

In case you wonder, I am writing because I have this wild, idealistic notion that it’s possible to befriend and heal the misunderstood pink elephants of shame that have been standing in the shadowy corners of so many good Christian living rooms for so long. These elephants are the unspoken plights of our children and grandchildren, cousins and nephews, mothers and fathers.

One of the motivations that spurs me onward now is the desire to heal my own hidden hurt by bringing it out into the light. I didn’t even realize how potent it was until I heard last week’s announcement of the Supreme Court decision for marriage equality and found myself ducking and bracing as if I’d just heard the unmistakable freight-train-roar of a tornado bearing down. Or of thousands of pink elephants crashing out into the public square.

While millions of happy people of all proclivities and nationalities joined in celebrating a step forward in human rights, I took a step back and felt inexplicably sorrowful, in part because I knew how many of you would feel about the announcement. I’ve made the mistake of reading too many condemnatory articles and offensive comments. I’ve stepped away in despair from many unfruitful and unfinished conversations over the last 30 years.

I am also inspired to speak because of my desire to encourage others to not give up on living authentically. I am convinced we all have a purpose in the beautiful spectrum of being—simply because we exist—just as we are.

And finally, the deepest driver of all—the most potent of motivators—the craving for wholehearted love and acceptance—not the confusing contradiction of I love you, but, or the poison razor of love the sinner, hate the sin—but love without condition, in the manner of Christ.

I am convinced this unconditional love is abundantly available to me from my Creator. I feel it purposefully and joyfully in every cell of my body and every particle of the cosmic consciousness in which I am an avid participant. I don’t need any religious institution to validate my spiritual passport; I have traveled a great distance without external approval.

What would be lovely, however, would be to feel that my fellow humans, especially my own extended family, did not condemn me for being myself. I am totally coming out of the closet as a Marva. I can do no less if I wish to be free and whole. Perhaps my heart can be a bridge. I offer it freely as a gift to the troubled waters.

Much Love, Marva

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A ukulele, a murder, and the shadowy road to trauma-informed compassion

Lately my soul has been inviting me on walks through some distinctly uncomfortable territory, through the valley of the shadow, the shadow of death as well as the shadow of disowned emotions and wounds, both personal and collective.

As a mystical idealist, I believe that to care, accept and have compassion for anyone is to embrace part of myself. To revile, judge and condemn anyone is to reject part of myself. This is my radical love-your-neighborself gospel, the good—and challenging—news of unity in practice, with no exclusion clauses. Have I perfected this? Hell, no. Again and again I have to remind myself—as often as necessary—that the light I see in you reflects my light and your shadow mirrors mine as well.

This ongoing spiritual practice was put to the test recently when the news broke that a beloved regional personality, Tanya Tandoc, had been murdered in Wichita. I instantly felt the rupture in the community as an uncomfortable physical sensation centered around my heart. Like thousands of others, I had eaten at Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, knew her by sight and reputation, and been within a few feet of her magnetic persona on several occasions.

As I read the preliminary reports and watched intense reactions ripple across social media that first morning, I felt strongly led to seek a point of peace within myself and find words to share as a gift toward community healing. I offered this:

The only thing I’ve ever found that makes sense of such a senseless situation and offers the possibility for healing in my spirit and in the community is this: every situation is either love or a call for love. 

As more details of the situation emerged, I realized with a conflicted pang that I had a direct connection to the person who’d turned himself in to police and confessed to the killing. Curt Mitchell once sold me a beautiful Riptide ukulele at his music store. My niece still plays that ukulele out in the mountains of Colorado. Somehow this humanizing connection invited me into direct dialogue with the shadow, challenging me to integrate my own ideals by practicing compassion for this fellow human, this person my beliefs and deepest intuitions tell me is part of me, uncomfortable as that may be to consider.

Love, unity and peace were the themes of my 2012 Christmas card featuring the ukulele Curt sold me.

I watched my own reactions as well as those in the community in recent weeks. We are quick to choose sides, I noticed, to align with the victim and divorce ourselves from the perpetrator. The ego’s first instinct is typically to join in reviling anyone who could do such a thing. I hope he rots in hell, said commenters on news articles. He should get the death penalty. I saw a couple of different articles posted on social media about the characteristics of a psychopath, an invitation to an armchair diagnosis that puts more distance between us and the killer. He must have been mentally ill, we might conclude, and comfort ourselves with all the ways in which we are not like him.

But what about all the ways in which we are like the killer? I am willing to consider that Curt and I might have more similarities than differences, starting with a love of music and a history of abusive self-medicating for emotional pain.

I started this post a week ago, without knowing exactly how to carry it to resolution. Then, this morning, I awakened to the news of the Charleston shooting that took nine lives in a church: a white killer and black victims, a weapon at a Bible study, a hateful act in a loving place. Now I have another name on my heart, Dylann Roof, age 21, inviting me to linger a bit longer in the valley of our collective shadow.

When people seem to lose their moorings in consensus reality and break laws and social codes, we rush to answer the question: What is wrong with you? This reductionist approach is abetted by over 300 handy, but subjective labels from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

An emerging alternative is called trauma-informed care, which is based on the notion that we are complex products of our experiences. Our feelings and behaviors are messages containing clues about our hidden wounds. The more meaningful and potentially-redemptive question becomes what happened to you? The search for the traumas that underlie diagnostic labels is the deeper work that can lead to hope for reclamation and restoration.

I cannot imagine killing anyone, but I can imagine myself sitting face to face with Curt Mitchell or Dylann Roof and caring enough to wonder what wounded their spirits, what led to such a grievous breach in their connection to the sanctity of life. To sit with them in the valley of the shadow, even at this distance, is troubling and uncomfortable, yet I cannot turn away. If I want to live in a healed world, I cannot afford to disown any part of myself.

My bias is that we are all born beautiful and innocent, and this makes me think of a massage therapist who once answered my curious question about how she coped with the variety of bodies that ended up on her table, not all of which might necessarily be particularly attractive or naturally lovable. I imagine them as newborn babies, she answered thoughtfully, and I offer up a little prayer: “May I have the privilege of facilitating healing.”

“I imagine them as newborn babies.” Me welcoming my niece Claire to the world in 1998.

I wish I knew how to share the depth of my discomfort here in the shadowland of these issues. I have no desire to sound glib or holier-than-thou. I didn’t even want to write this post, but there are stones of despair on my heart and I am listening to my intuition about how to lift them. I am sitting uncomfortably with ethical conundrums like how we justify punishing killers by putting them to death or how we rationalize sending human beings out to kill in the name of the republic, but don’t support them when they return home with invisible wounds. No wonder the steps of this dissonant dance are confusing in our culture. No wonder victims often recycle as perpetrators.

With a heavy spirit I went out to play ukulele with my friends at our monthly jam this evening. As I played and sang and sensed myself as a secure strand interwoven into the strong fabric of my community, my spirit felt sweetly repaired—as I knew it would—soothed by the balm of caring and connection.

Perhaps it is too little too late, but this healing and life-affirming community embrace is what I broadcast symbolically to all who feel isolated and estranged—this is the gift I offer to those deeply disenfranchised aspects of myself I see reflected as if in a broken mirror—this is my answer to the call for love. May my willingness to confront the shadow with compassion make a difference.

Curt and Dylann, what you did touched me. The idealist in me dares to believe that what I do touches you.

Lost and found: self-trust

I have an iconic memory from about 1966, when I was 7 years old. The traveling vision and hearing lab arrived at my country school for a day of testing, and I recall standing in line and paying anxious attention to the responses of the person in front of me. As it came my turn to peer through the lenses of the vision machine and indicate whether the apple was on the ground or the picnic table, I copied the reply of the previous kid rather than trust what was clearly quite the opposite.

“Are you sure?” asked the technician kindly, giving me grace to amend my answer as a rush of hot shame flooded my body. This story is deeply poignant for me, an early benchmark of self-estrangement and a distant mile-marker on a long journey of losing and eventually finding the courage to trust myself.

How is it that a child’s confidence in her own intuition and perceptions begins to erode? As I trace the trajectory, I find the first rupture in those early years between 3 and 6. As you know if you’ve read my recent posts, I lost my mom and baby sister in 1962. In 1963, my dad remarried and we moved from Connecticut to New Jersey. In 1964, my sister LaDeana was born.

Marva, first day of school, Princeton,1965

First day of first grade, Princeton, 1965, with LaDeana in the doorway.

In 1965, I lived in five houses and attended two churches and three schools in two states, a whirlwind of change and uncertainty. I have clear memories of the 2,500 mile trek with my dad from Princeton, New Jersey to Nampa, Idaho pulling an overloaded trailer of our possessions. I vividly remember a mechanical breakdown and being left in the home of strangers who lived near the highway while my father hitched a ride to town to get parts to repair our disabled rig. In my sense memories are these sharp puzzle pieces: something foul-smelling burning on the stove; the sun is down and no one turns on the lights; an older kid is jumping out from behind the couch and laughing at my terror; no one there understands what I know: parents disappear and never return.

My dad and I headed west in the Travelall. My new mom and sister followed by plane.

My dad and I headed west in the Travelall. My new mom and sister followed by plane.

By the time this extraordinary upheaval settled, I believe I had begun to lose some of my natural optimism and confidence. I remember feeling unsupported, tentative and vaguely anxious. I believed there were black and white answers, right and wrong ways of thinking and behaving, good sides and bad sides to be on. And one of my predominant perceptions is that no one was on my side and I was somehow on the wrong side simply by being myself. This explains, I think, why I copied the kid in front of me instead of feeling confident in my own perceptions.

Adding to my inner conflict was my deep desire to earn the praise, love and attention that seemed so illusive in my life after my mom’s death. The resulting assumption—that I was not good enough—conditioned me to place attention to the needs of others high above my own, tuning my inner radar to monitor everyone else’s frequency while losing touch for long periods with my own inner beacon.

This is the briefest of glimpses into my earliest recollections of losing faith in myself, but what seems most important 50 years or so down the road is not how I lost my self-trust, but that I eventually found it again.

My friend, Dr. L. Carol Scott, has an elegant theory about the seven childhood treasures we need for success as adults, all of which are capacities that arise for development during the first seven years of life. Carol calls them precious gems. There are no guarantees, of course, that we’ll get the tools and support we need to cut and polish our treasures at a developmentally-appropriate juncture in childhood, but Carol says it’s never too late.

Top on her list is trust. I consider self-trust to be my Crown Jewel, the key to self-actualization. I remember having it…I remember losing it…and I feel so rich to have uncovered it again, because it changes everything. Trusting myself, I believe, has been the key that allowed me to begin trusting others and trusting life.

At first as I began to look curiously into my own heart in 1995, all I could feel was the frustration of disintegration. My entire being was separated into endless compartments. I started by investigating and honoring my sense of disconnection from my true self, a tiny step in the direction of reintegrating. The day I created and colored this visual representation of my feeling was the day my inner child stepped out of the shadows and showed herself in detail for the first time. She needed to know, I believe, that I was serious about honoring our truth, no matter how difficult.

Disconnected

With the support of my therapist, I excavated deep into the darkness of my grief, fear and anger to find and polish my lost treasures. I discovered I had a creative instinct for what would heal me. Through journaling, art projects and personal experiments in trust, I finally recovered the gem that I consider to be of greater value to me than any other quality or possession.

In Carol’s metaphor, trust is a treasure, but I’ve found that trust is also a muscle. It strengthens only through repeated use, through conscious risk-taking. About ten years ago, I made a solemn promise to myself and have kept it even when at times I feel silly or uncertain: if I have an intuition I will trust it and act upon it. Oh, what a beautiful gift, this recovered birthright. There is no one on earth I trust more than myself.