Female Genital Mutilation, Body Shaming, and The Secrets Women Carry

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  • Disclaimer: This post is me getting real – more than normal – REALER.  But, I will warn that I will be talking about some topics that might make you uncomfortable, so if you don’t like talking about sex, or anatomy, or women being cruelly mutilated in their nether regions, then you should probably just hold out for my next post and skip this one.

I’m currently wrapping up a graduate course at Duquesne University in Criminal Law and the Courts, especially in relation to sexual assault and sexual assault nurse examiner training. We’ve been hitting up the hard topics on this subject…rape, erotic strangulation, rape kits, and sexual assault exams…alot of conversations that would have at one time made me really, really uncomfortable.  I’ve got my final paper coming due in a few weeks, and I decided to write on a topic that I read about years ago in college, but am more horrified by now as a fully adult woman: female genital mutilation (FGM). This horrible practice still takes place in pockets around the world, and it has traveled to new locations as specific immigrant populations from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia continue to move to the West.  FGM in itself is a terrible and very culturally complicated practice, and studying it has caused me to think of similar constructs we have in the West, that while not nearly as physically or maybe psychologically excruciating, can cause microtraumas to build up within women that can be very painful emotionally. This post is me trying to work out my thoughts on this topic, and explore how body shaming in women has affected my own life, and the lives of women I know.

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When I was growing up, I accumulated so much shame around my female-ness.  There are some specific reasons that I can put my finger on for why this happened, but I don’t understand them all.  Suffice it to say that I would turn crimson with shame in even the most superficial conversations regarding intimacy, that time of the month, etc, and changing in the gym locker rooms even among my peers was horrible for me.  I think the main reason that I was embedded in shame until even my late twenties was the lack of conversations going on in my world about female development, sex, relationships, and what a normal and healthy body is supposed to look like.  I don’t blame anyone for these lapses; they just happened.  But that silence did some deep damage to me.  I’ve recognized over the years that I am not alone in this.  I’ve talked to woman after woman who have revealed their own shame to me, and shared alongside them the incredible relief to find out that we weren’t alone with our feelings of not being “right”.  I’m now convinced, as uncomfortable as certain subjects may still make me, that we need to have big, broad open conversations to help heal the women of the world of our collective shame, and to work to create serious societal change for the little girls now growing up into women.

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Let’s start with a brief primer on female genital mutilation, from now on referred to as FGM.  It involves the mutilation of the female genital areas and usually takes place in a ritualistic manner on girls from infancy to early teenage years.  I will spare you from pictures, but it probably wouldn’t hurt anyone to take a look at what is being done to girls to feel the full gravity of the issue.  Better a little nausea and horror than to let such a practice continue.

The World Health Organization separates FGM into categories based on the severity of mutilation:

  1. Type 1 (Clitoridectomy): this involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris, or removal of the prepuce (a skin fold surround the clitoris similar to the foreskin on a penis)
  2. Type 2: (Excisions): this involves removal of the clitoris and labia minora (the inner labial folds of the vulva); the outer labia majora may or may not be removed.
  3. Type 3: (Infibulation): this involves sewing together the labia minor (and sometimes labia majora) to create a smaller vaginal opening.  The clitoris may or may not be removed.
  4. Type 4: this includes all other types of mutilation to the genital area for non-medical reasons, including piercing, pricking, cutting, cauterizing, or scraping out of tissue.

Are you cringing yet?  Maybe if you aren’t it would help to know that sometimes these practices are done with sterile, sharp knives, but not always.  Traditional cutters in some regions of the world, who also serve functions like midwives, may use pieces of glass, razors,  or other sharp instruments that happen to be available.  And anesthesia….well……..

While FGM is frequently referred to as female circumcision, nothing could be farther from the truth.  I now completely regret giving into the social norm of having my boys circumcised as babies and wish I could go back and undo it.  But, I will emphatically say, that FGM is nothing like cutting the foreskin off an infant boy’s penis. Furthermore, the longterm ramifications of FGM can be horrendous for women.

Let’s talk about infibulation for a moment.  A woman has her own vulvar skin folds sewn together so tightly that there is barely enough of a hole for urine to come out.  In many cases, she has to be cut open again for intercourse or to be able to deliver a baby.  And then, she is frequently just sewn right back up.   It’s fucking chastity suturing.   And the consequences of this:  tissue infections, urinary tract infections, severe chronic pain, development of cysts, shock, hemorrhaging, urinary retention, and PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA.  Recent research has also shown a connection between infibulation and the development of obstetric fistulas.  This is where a woman is trying really hard to birth a baby but the prolonged obstruction causes a hole in her birth canal leading to the constant leaking of urine and feces.  Doesn’t sound like that big of a deal to you?  Check this documentary out: Furthermore, if the woman’s clitoris has been scraped off as well, she’s deprived of her human right to sexual pleasure.

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I didn’t go to the gynecologist until I was 25.  Sorry if this is way too much information for the world, but it’s true.  I really needed to go years before then because of problems I was having, but I was too horrified and embarrassed to go.  I couldn’t even talk to my mom about any of this. I was CERTAIN that I was not like other women…that I was a gross anomaly and that even a female gynie would be horrified to examine me.  But, I eventually had to go see a doctor to get birth control, and to my surprise….REALLY, to my surprise…my gynie displayed no overt incredulity toward me at all.  Like, she acted as though she saw people like me EVERY SINGLE DAY!

That first visit began the gradual breakdown of my shame walls surrounding my body.  Alot more of my extreme modesty crumbled when I gave birth to my three kids and there I was displayed for hours on end in all of my butt naked glory, and neither the doctors nor nurses ever flinched.   As I think about my angst about all of that now, I have to laugh.   But at the time….oh my word…..it was a really difficult growing process for me.

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I’ve gotten to the point that I am really angry at how much control men have exerted over women’s sexuality and bodies for…basically forever.   FGM is practiced largely because it is a social norm in certain places around the world and helps ensure a woman’s marriageability.  I understand why families would feel pressured to continue with the practice for those reasons, even though I don’t agree. Either way, it needs to be fully eradicated and so much work is still needed to ensure this happens.

But, we do the same things in societies where FGM isn’t practiced, just in different ways. We women are controlled through our own social norms…not through physical mutilation but through small emotional cuts.  I HATE how women in the hospital feel like they have to apologize to me for their unshaven legs when I go in to examine them. Geez!  I”m not even a man and they still feel shame for having hairy legs! I think in the majority of the cases women are more ashamed in the hospital of having hairy legs than having a bushy Va-J-J. How did this happen?! We have hair on our legs for a reason, and it’s not dirty or unclean.  But I fall subject to it as well….I’ve also been the woman apologizing to health care providers for having Christmas tree legs.

Or, women are too ashamed to wear a swimsuit that is bikini cut because God forbid some hairs might poke out and they will be seen as “unclean” or something like that. But, on the flip side, if they wear a swim skirt or swim shorts they are often accused of being prudes.

Infibulation is used to control a woman’s libido….cut off her clit and sew her up and that will prevent her from having premarital and extramarital affairs.  Scrape out her vagina and she’ll be nice and clean and tight for her man.   That’s the external way to control.  But there are also internal, subtle ways to do the same thing: make women feel slutty if they don’t adhere to a certain version of femininity or if  they don’t maintain their bodies in certain ways, make rape and rape culture the woman’s problem to solve, designate the woman’s status in society based on whether or not she is married, etc etc.  Or how about….no one blinks an eye if a man has sex on a first or second date, but OMG…if a woman does that….she’s just a bona fide harlot.

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We women are taught to believe that our sexuality is not as important as men’s. I’ve met woman after woman who, in hushed tones and red faces, admit to me that they’ve never had an orgasm…and they’re well into their twenties and thirties.  Not for lack of trying on their part, but very frequently because of lack of any legitimate concern or effort from their partners.  And unlike men who are encouraged to say what they want and need, women are frequently terrified to express more than a few muffled suggestions….or they’re too ashamed and embarrassed to try to ask for anything at all.

Western women might not be literally sewn up, but our minds very often are.

And of course, I recognize that I don’t know every woman out there and that many are very uninhibited and free in the way they live and move in their bodies.  But I also know that I AM NOT an anomaly in this crazy shame carrying.

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A friend and I were talking the other day about how women’s health procedures are often suggested or pushed without any real education to discuss potential side effects down the road.  Women are still diagnosed as being hysterical over perceived health problems, even if nicer terms are used. And the unfortunate part is, women can unconsciously be complicit in perpetuating these behaviors.  We learn to accept things as normal (that are really not normal) and then we pass them on to our fellow women.

Here are a couple of examples:

After I had my third son, my monthly cycle never went back to normal.  It was dreadful and I was desperate. I met a nurse who told me that I should consider an endometrial ablation, and she painted a picture of a period free life, no worries of not having a spare tampon in your purse, no leaks or accidents….AND, insurance would cover it!  Sign me up, I immediately thought, and I had it done.  Looking back, other than the standard medical consent, my male gynecologist NEVER told me about the high rate of endometrial ablation failure that occurs, never told me that it was too good to be true.  And now, I’m dealing with the increasing physical pain and frustration that results from the mentality that “minor” procedures for women’s parts aren’t a big deal.  Yeah, whatever.  It appears that uteruses don’t like being cauterized, even for seemingly good reasons.

Or how about IUDs.  I know women who are told this is the best birth control option – just stick it in and no worries for years.  Oh, never mind that you might bleed through everything within five minutes for the next year as your body adjusts.  That’s a small price to pay for not getting pregnant right? Never mind that pill birth control might give you a blood clot or jack up your hormones…it’s the woman’s responsibility to give sex and avoid pregnancy, right?

Or, how about women who have cosmetic surgery to their labia because they are embarrassed about how they look and they are afraid their partners are judging them and thinking they are gross?  I think for me one of the absolute best things that has ever happened is that through working in a hospital setting I have literally seen just about everything genitalia-wise….nothing shocks me anymore.  And it makes me laugh at how afraid I was as a child that I was different down there than every other female.  The truth is….there is a HUGE AMOUNT of variability in anatomy both in men and women.  No one looks exactly the same and that’s the beauty of it.

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As you can tell by this post, I’m pretty angry.  But I want more people to get angry about these issues…I haven’t even covered anything to a significant depth here.  The point I want to make is that we need to keep questioning our cultural norms and the unspoken burdens we place on women.  Yeah, women in the West can generally vote, we can generally have credit, own property, get divorced, and a bunch of other meaningful things.  But our shame burden has not been delivered from us.

I want everyone to be horrified about the physical ways women are mutilated, and also the psychological ways we are mutilated. I want to be able to talk to my fellow women without seeing the shame and tears in their eyes as they reveal their pain to me.

So, as I write this paper on FGM, I’m committed to fighting against it and advocating for little girls here in the States that are still at risk for being mutilated because of cultural norms and peer pressure and the “that’s what we’ve always done” mentality.  But I also commit to teaching my three boys that there is nothing unclean or weird about the way girls and females naturally are. I will continue to impress upon them that girls are every bit as valuable as them, and their needs and wants are equally justified. And I will commit to teach them to question everything that has been done forever,  “just because”.

Grateful….For All of It….

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Photo credit: Sharon Sinclair

I was running a Thanksgiving day race this morning with my friend Bobbi. While we were trotting along she told me a funny story about a friend of hers welcoming some Indian friends to Thanksgiving by throwing open the door, enthusiastically saying “Welcome to America!’ and pointing the way to the shots.

Having had a friend who worked in the wine business, I realize that alcohol is a big seller at Thanksgiving. It struck me as ironic….we set aside this day to remember what we’re grateful for, but then many of us cover up that remembrance with enough alcohol that we can’t remember what we were originally grateful for.  Or, maybe we don’t think we have much to be grateful for so we drink to make ourselves feel better.

I’ve started a tradition with myself that every year at my birthday I write down something new that I’ve learned that year.  In a few short months, I’ll post the forty life lessons that I’ve intentionally made a point of recording and referring back to.  This year I’ve decided to think of the number of things I’m most grateful for right now. A sort of concentrated, mini, “One Thousand Gifts“, if you will.  I want to remember to not forget to be thankful for all the good things that come my way, all the good people in my life, and the daily gifts that are handed to me – unexpected, undeserved, but hopefully not unnoticed.

I was also thinking about the word “grateful” and how saying you’re “full of grates” doesn’t really seem to work.  Things that “grate” are things that rub us wrong, that irritate us, that are painful and maybe harmful.  Maybe they are raspy and annoying, or maybe things that grate make us feel like we’re being run through a meat grinder and torn apart.   But, the more I sat with this, the more I realized that some of the things that have grated me most…somehow…resulted in the things I am most grateful for in life. The grateful came from the grates.  The good came from reframing the bad.  Changing perspectives attracted new life.

I’m a big Josh Groban fan, and I love the song “99 Years”.  In the bridge between the verses and chorus, there are some great lines that really speak to me:

So let’s look forward to you and I looking back
To 99 years
Of nothing unspoken
With every day hoping
That when we feel broken
Our scars make us golden

I’m grateful for the things that hurt me in the past, the hard things I endured and still endure, all those that I loved and lost….because they have brought me to where I am. I have remarked to a few friends lately that it blows my mind how I can be a walking paradox: on one hand, I am deliriously happy all the time, and on the other, I’m a few feet from falling off the cliff of despair.  But I am grateful for this paradox, and the ability to fully feel as a human, to embrace a vast array of emotions, and to still be thankful for it all.

Right now, I am so grateful for:

  1. 80 hours of labor and 3 C-sections that brought me three of the most precious little boys who are loving, kind, curious, and ready to fight for justice and fairness in the world and who still think that I’m a badass mom.
  2. Meeting people, at an ever-increasing rate it seems, who see who I am at my core and are willing to invest in me and my wild ideas and big hairy dreams.
  3. The people in my life who are healing me from all of my past traumas and shame…those who do so willingly and freely without asking for anything in return.
  4.  Yats, and the fact that they stay open late enough so that I can get a fix even after a long shift at work.
  5.  My silly little dog Charlie, who chews on everything and everyone, but is always so delighted to see me.
  6. The turquoise paint a friend gifted me that transformed my bathroom walls.
  7. Richard Rohr, who unknowingly broke open my soul and let the light in….or maybe, showed me how to let the light that was already in there, out.
  8. How my mom still comes to visit me in my dreams.
  9. How I’m not afraid anymore.
  10.  How I found a home in Indiana when I thought leaving Boston was going to kill me.
  11. Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, Ken Wilbur, and all of the greats who help me stay optimistic about the world and humanity.
  12. How life is so much bigger and richer and deeper than I once imagined.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone…..I’m ever grateful for all who take a few minutes to read my musings and quirky views. You are very welcome here.

The Problem With “Instimacy”

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“You stretched for the stars and you know how it feels to reach too high
Too far
Too soon
You saw the whole of the moon”   –The Whole of the Moon, The Waterboys

Ok, who reading this post has tried online dating?  Raise your hand – figuratively or literally.

Or, who has ever headed off to freshman year in college and was so glad to find a friend that first day that you became inseparable besties for the first week of classes and then realized you didn’t even really like each other?

Or, who has sat next to someone at a table at a conference and the “hitting it off” vibes were so strong that you told each other your life stories before dessert and coffee were served?

Over the last ten years, I’ve thought ALOT about relationships we have with people….how we find people to be in relationship with, who we choose to stick with, and why some of those relationships just run off the rails as soon as they’ve begun. And ultimately, I think I’ve decided that so many of our problems in relationship come down to a weakening of our boundaries around our sacred space – our hearts, our souls, and all that we’ve experienced and treasure in life that makes us uniquely us.

This post is one of a three-part series I intend to write on this subject, the second being “Why You Should Stop Making Everyone Comfortable” and the final being “Unhelpful Platitudes and Other Stupid Things People Say”.

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We live in a horribly disconnected society even though we are all on social media, networking away and “sharing” our lives.  I’m not bashing social media; I have a very robust Facebook life that gives me alot of joy, especially through ridiculous daily meme posting.  And, I have friends who post about meaningful things, not just superficial ramblings about last night’s dinner or pics of duck-lip posing.

I think alot of people are just really lonely, and with the influence of our “get everything quick” culture, we want to build relationships and feel secure really quickly, too. I’m a huge fan of relationships and new friendships, but I have also realized that trying to build them too quickly – something I refer to as instimacy (instant-intimacy)- can really cause more hurt in the long run than intentionally moving slowly and steadily.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Online dating…in some ways, it’s a brilliant idea.  You’re able to narrow down the dating pool by honing in on the types of people you will most likely be compatible with, the ones who have similar interests, the ones who might be looking for the same things you are.  Basically, you can much more efficiently find a likely partner than just meandering through life hoping someone shows up on your doorstep, or doing the bar scene, or many of the numerous other ways that people try to meet each other.

So, you get on a site and find someone who seems to be in your tribe, and you start messaging within the dating site.  When that proves promising, you move on to actual texting. Then, you and this person text consistently until you finally decide to meet up.  Maybe you have a phone call or two in there, just to make sure the other person isn’t a real creep or completely making up what they’ve been texting about.

Then…you meet.  And you suddenly skip half of the conversations you would traditionally have on a date because you already had them via text. And you find yourself telling this person, that you really barely know, much more about yourself than you normally would.

Instimacy.

It’s great for a while….until it’s not.

The problem is, instimacy isn’t real intimacy because so much of it is based on the stories we have in our heads about who the other person is. They have stories in their heads about us as well. We take those texts, or those phone conversations, and a few dating site pics (or maybe you’ve advanced to Facebook and Instagram by then) and you concoct a whole narrative of who you think that person is. So, on those early dates, you’re having intimate conversations with an illusion.  The illusion you have of the person could, in fact, be spot on and true, but so many times it isn’t.

Or, maybe the stories you have about each other are so very true that you burn too hot too fast, and it’s not sustainable because you haven’t taken the time to build a foundation of trust and respect.  You know alot about that person, but you haven’t “experienced” them to know them at their core. There is nothing to tie that person to you or you to that person. So off you go in the world, if things don’t work out, knowing a crap ton about the other person and vice versa, wondering if the exchange was ever ultimately meaningful. Or you realize that you might have lost something that could have been really good because you were both hoping for way too much too soon

This is a hard lesson to learn…that to go slow and steady is better.  But I think in most cases it’s really true.

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I grew up believing that honesty was a paramount value in life.  The unfortunate part was that I was never really taught that honesty is nuanced, so I had to start learning it as an adult.  I now know that being honest doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to describe all of yourself in literal detail.  And, in most cases, the people in your life need to earn your honesty. The truth that you tell someone you’ve known forever and can trust should not be the same truth you tell someone you just met.  (I hope you all realize that I’m talking about personal honesty around who you are and your boundaries….not superficial things that every person in society really needs to tell the literal truth about just to be a decent human being).

I’m a pretty transparent person. Anyone who reads this blog very often knows I spill alot of gory details about myself and my emotional life.  I’ve grown to be this way because I’ve learned that 1) shame tends to naturally fall away when hard things are spoken out loud, and 2) other people need to hear your stories so they know they aren’t alone in their life experiences….they aren’t the only ones who have had “insert whatever here” happen to them….they aren’t the only ones to ever feel “insert more whatever here.”

Being open, transparent, and honest with people is generally a good thing. But maybe we all need to learn to hold our pasts, the things that are most important to us in life, our deepest secrets and hopes, with a little more reverence. Each of us have had hard things happen to us in life….things that radically changed us, or hurt us deeply, or in some way impacted us at our core. Those things are a part of who we are, and none of us deserve to have anyone trample over them, whether intentionally or unconsciously.  But because those people we are doing instimacy with don’t really understand us, they can’t know the things in us that need to be protected and held carefully.

It is up to each of us alone, as individuals, to protect ourselves. We have to parcel out what we reveal to people as they earn it, as they prove themselves trustworthy.  Words and promises don’t cut it here.  They have to show themselves trustworthy to handle the responsibility of seeing and experiencing the real you.

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I don’t think this dynamic of instimacy only occurs in romantic relationships; I’ve seen it with friendships before, and even work relationships.  In our desire to feel connected and a part of something, we allow others to be careless with us, and we are careless with others.

As I heard Richard Rohr say today, the goal is love, but the path to that goal is also love.  The means and the end are the same.  We can’t skip steps or rush building a good foundation to get the relationships we want.  We have to tread carefully with other people’s hearts and heavy stuff, and we have to insist that others who want to be in relationships with us do the same.

Building these foundations and earning honesty requires that we get out of the stories in our heads…our stories about the other person and our stories about what we think is happening at the moment. This means one conversation at a time, each marked by ample amounts of space and distance. It means recognizing that each of us is a unique, amazing person whose real self, not just a fabricated story in the mind, deserves to be seen and valued and treated with respect.

 

Why You Should Stop Making Everyone Comfortable

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Credit: Xavier Verges

I suffer from a chronic disorder.  It’s called: “Making Other People Comfortable At My Own Expense-osis”. The tricky thing about this ailment is that it typically presents first in childhood, and unless quickly nipped in the bud, it can wreak havoc on one’s ability to manage life well in the adolescent and adult years.

Symptoms of MOPCAMOE-osis include:

-a persistent weakening of personal boundaries and self-care constructs in order to accommodate another person’s desires or preferences

-an inability to feel completely comfortable in social situations because of the fear that somehow you are imposing on someone’s else comfort, even if you have no clue how you might be doing that

-a tendency to over-apologize for everything, and a tendency to offer a quick “That’s OK!” when a person has wronged you but throws out an insincere and thoughtless apology with impeccable timing

-a deep inclination toward hard and fast rule-following so that you can ensure you don’t break any social mores, workplace norms, unspoken relationship expectations, or arbitrary guidelines devised by others in your life for how you can interact with them.

-a reluctance to initially be too outgoing or “yourself” in case you’re not enough for people, or worse….too much for them.

-the insane urge to always explain yourself so that others understand your motives and that you never intended to make them uncomfortable when you were being yourself

As you can see, this is quite a serious condition to suffer from because it impacts every single area of one’s life. We who have it don’t develop it through any fault of our own, but the consequences can range from an inability to stand up for oneself and be authentic all the way to being outright traumatized by hurtful people.

My own case of MOPCAMOE-osis has regressed significantly over the last ten years, thanks to therapy, doing alot of shadow work, and learning to take the advice of the great actor Shah Rukh Khan: “Don’t Take No Shit from Anybody”….a line he so eloquently offered in a speech a few years back at the University of Edinburgh.  Ahhh….I adore him.

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Our society, it seems to me, does alot of teaching us at a young age to make others’ comfort a priority over our own. And not to be male bashing at all, but girls and women are certainly groomed in this fashion, much more in some contexts than others.

One of the first examples of this comfort prioritization that comes to mind is how we work with our children.  There was a post on Facebook yesterday covering an article about how girls should not be pressured to give out hugs during the holiday season.  I didn’t read the article because the headline said it all.  No child should be compelled to have any physical interaction with anyone that they don’t want to. But we are so conditioned to push them to do these things, aren’t we?  Billy, hug your great aunt that you’ve only met one time in your life. Sarah, let Bob (elderly friend of the family) give you a kiss on the cheek. Oh come on, Katie, it’s (insert whoever you want here)! You know them!  Give them a hug (or kiss, or handshake, or whatever other physical contact is being asked for). I can recall so many times as a child that I felt obligated to engage in some kind of harmless physical contact with an adult that I didn’t want to…but I knew the repercussions would be hurt feelings and disappointment.   While I was a very affectionate child, there were times my creep-o-meter went off strongly, but I believed that the other person’s comfort was more important than mine, so I ignored my personal boundaries and did what was asked of me anyway.

As a young mom, I initially fell into this same trap with my kids.  When I knew someone in their lives wanted a hug or kiss, I would encourage the boys to be friendly and do it.  Now days, though, NOPE.  I leave it entirely at my kids’ discretion.  If they want to hug someone, it is completely up to them.  If they want a kiss on the cheek, it is up to them. And other than offer a polite “hello” to a new acquaintance, I don’t insist on any interactions from them that they don’t feel comfortable with.   Kids need to learn early on that their boundaries matter, and their comfort level is no less important that those of other people. We need to be especially careful of this with our children who have a temperament that is prone to the development of  MOPCAMOE-osis. I also believe that we need to pay attention to the fact that our kids’ creep-o-meters might be more sometimes sensitive than ours as adults.

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It seems pretty apparent to me that in our society we unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, groom our daughters to believe that their job is to make other people comfortable.  This obviously is harder to do for girls with certain strong personalities and temperaments, but for others, this teaching is swallowed up whole and internalized.  I’m totally thinking of Type 2s on the Enneagram here, a group in which I happen to be a card-carrying member.

I grew up in the Church and have moved through numerous denominations and individual faith communities over the years.  Something that I have witnessed again and again is how prevalent rape culture is in these.  I’m not Christianity or church hating – far from it – but some of this just needs to be called out for what it is so we can all grow and heal from it. Rape culture happens when women are told that our job is to ignore our discomfort alarms going off to make sure that men feel at ease, that they get what they want, that their needs are more important.

Women in the Church, and in contexts of society that are influenced by “Christian values” are very frequently told what a little girl, grown woman, and wife should look like.  We need to be cute, feminine, calm, hospitable, nurturing, selfless,…the list could go on and on. I know it could seem like I’m slapping huge labels on this and broadly stereotyping, but I think if you look at overall patterns and the big picture, what I’m alluding to rings true.

Rape culture can sound harsh, too, I know.  But here are some examples, in no particular order, that I’ve seen or experienced in my own life that make me know that it is present.

1. As I mentioned quite a while back in a post on divorce, women in our culture know, either consciously or unconsciously, that marrying a man (and in some cases just being in a relationship with one) offers them a step up in status. This was externally very true in the recent past, but it is still true regarding how we are perceived by others. I personally experienced a dramatic up-tic in the respect I got from others in all spheres of my world when I got married. I’ve met a ton of women who know this happens, and who have admitted that they pushed aside their discomfort and married, not because of love, but because of the social benefits it brought them.

2. I went to a marriage conference once, years ago, by the authors of the well-known Love and Respect book authors.  I know these are good people with good intentions to help marriages, but I will unreservedly denounce the message in this book and all the other ones like it.  It irks me to no end that people can take a few lines out of a letter written almost two thousand years ago, from a patriarchal society, and use it to definitely outline how men and women should interact with each other today – especially when they are telling women to make themselves uncomfortable so that the men in their lives feel respected.  Disgusting.  During the conference, during a special breakout time for just the women, Sarah Eggerichs (the author’s wife), admonished all of us to just give our husbands sex whenever they wanted, because it “only takes a few minutes, ladies!”  This talk went on to include that men didn’t need to “earn” our respect….we have to treat them “respectfully” so that they can, in turn, be capable of giving us the love that we want.  Again, it all comes down again to women stroking men’s egos and making them comfortable, all the while having to weaken our own boundaries.

3. Why is the onus always put on women to moderate men’s behavior through our own actions and behavior?  Still, so frequently, when women are assaulted they are asked what they were wearing to provoke the attack?  Or, had they had a little too much to drink?  Or, were they out running late at night? Or, were they overly flirtatious?  In so many churches I’ve attended, girls and women are told to dress certain ways so that they don’t tempt men or cause husbands to stray.  The men can’t help the way they feel, and can’t control themselves because of their biological constitution. These kinds of statements blow my mind, because amazingly enough, I know SO MANY good men who are entirely capable of controlling themselves around women. And when did it become the responsibility of all females to protect the virtues of men? I’m pretty sure it goes back to a mythical story about the inherent sinfulness of a woman named Eve who caused her man to do wrong.  When we allow our girls to be taught this kind of logic, we are only perpetuating rape culture and giving men a scapegoat for their inappropriate behavior.  We should not be teaching girls how to dress to make other people comfortable.  We should be teaching our girls to dress in ways that make them comfortable, that gives them self confidence, that makes them feel self-respected.

4. Sex trafficking is a huge problem in this country, but one that doesn’t just happen in a bubble. There are real societal dynamics that help support it – dynamics that are rooted in so many of our “traditional values” and bad theology. All of us need to be careful that we don’t promote and normalize the dynamics that directly enable the sex trafficking industry.  Consider the following:

“But I don’t make rape jokes!”

While rape jokes are the most obvious example of rape culture, they are not the only things that perpetuate rape culture. Things like :

  • Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)
  • Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
  • Sexually explicit jokes
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Inflating false rape report statistics
  • Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Pressure on men to “score”
  • Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
  • Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
  • Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape

https://encstophumantrafficking.org/rape-culture/

And while I know this song/video isn’t perfect and it makes women look a little weak and in need of saving, I still love it:

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In this post, I’m not trying to make the point that we as individuals should live our entire lives in a completely comfortable state.  I’m a huge believer that discomfort and obstacles are the paths that lead to change and growth.  In many cases, we have to learn that we ultimately don’t have control over much, and we have to learn to let go of our attachments to things. However, I believe our comfort surrounding our individuality as persons, our emotional health, and our physical wellbeing are things that we should hold as top priorities.  We are not obligated to make other people feel emotionally better. We are not obligated to give anyone physical contact. We are not obligated to ease another’s discomfort when it hurts us.  If we possess the self-agency to choose to do those things, that is another matter entirely. But the important point is that we have to be able to “choose” and have our “yes” or “no” respected. Every. Single. Time.

Other people may become angry or hate us for not putting out what they think we should. They may tell themselves stories about our motivations and who we are. But this ability to maintain autonomy is, I believe, one of the most important parts of being human.

It’s really hard for me personally, to put my own comfort level above others’. Part of it’s my personality and childhood wounds, part of it is the messages I’ve heard from people, the Church, and society, part of it is because I genuinely care about how other people feel and want them to be happy.  And, part of it is a lack of practice in strengthening the belief muscle that I will in fact not die if people think I come off as a bitch or cold or self-absorbed when I’m firming up my boundaries.

But I now know, where I once didn’t, that my boundaries as just as valid as others’. I have the same right to exist and feel safe and pursue my dreams as every single other person does. I am a legitimate part of the universe and existence.  I have the right to say what is OK for me and what is not. And so do you.

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After all this on maintaining your own comfort level, it needs to be said that we need to respect the comfort of other people and their physical and personal boundaries. Though so much of this seems like common sense, we seem to miss the mark again and again. We make excuses about why it’s OK to step over boundaries and invade others’ personal space.

There is a great video that was made several years ago using the analogy of making someone tea to getting consent for sex. The video is simple and brilliant, and it applies to SO much more than sex.  Respect the personal boundaries of others, let their “no” be no, and don’t force others to become uncomfortable so you can get what you want.  It’s pretty basic, really.

Anyway, check out the video, and better yet, pass it on to your kids when they’re old enough to understand it. Maybe even pass it on to the adults in your life who think that what they want is more important than the things that make you uncomfortable.

 

 

The Songs That Undo Me

Music is my heart language.  I think in song lyrics (and can always provide a good song lyric for any situation I find myself in), and music is always running through my head.  I’ve had the unfortunate experience, on several occasions, to have a boss stop me in the middle of what they were saying and ask, “Julie, are you really humming (or singing) while I’m talking to you?!”  To my horror, I would realize that I was, in fact, humming or singing without realizing it, all the while completely listening to what they were saying.  I just can’t help it.

I’m one of those people who can get physical chest pain from an emotional experience elicited by a song or good lyrics.  I also think there is really nothing better in the entire world than speeding down a two-lane country road with the windows down while belting out a really good song at the top of your lungs.

I had a couple of conversations this last month with friends about songs that I feel define my life….the ones that undo me every time I hear them. There are five songs in particular that I call my “life songs”…the ones that resonate with me on a heart level. These are the songs I tell my best friends they should make sure and play at my funeral. Not because I’m morbid or anything, but because they speak to who I am and what got my attention in life; they speak to the human experience.  And also because I want it to be clear that I don’t want any “I’ll Fly Away” rapture style hymns sung when I kick the bucket.

So, listed in order of my favorites with a little commentary included for each, here are my life songs:

  1. Falling Slowly from the Once movie soundtrack

This song….OMG.  Gets me every. single. time.  My friend Jemima first introduced it to me about five years ago. The movie was wonderful and sweet, but the song lyrics are just amazing.  To me, it’s all about hope, making choices to change direction in life, to stop doing the same things that have always and only resulted in suffering. It’s about being seen and understood by someone who really knows and accepts you, and both of you offering hope to each other.  It’s a song about redemption, of having space and time to truly find ourselves and start anew.  This will forever be my heart song.

2. Holy Now by Peter Mayer

I still remember where I was the first time I heard this song.  My theological scaffolding was crumbling, and I was questioning everything Christian.  One day, about five years ago, I was in the sunroom of my house outside Boston, running on the treadmill, and listening to a podcast.  The podcast host mentioned this song, so I went and looked it up and listened.  I was completely bowled over.  I think I must have listened to it ten more times in the next hour that day.  This song represents EXACTLY how I feel about life now.  Once, I thought that the Earth was destined for the burn barrel and that miracles happened only here and there to other people.  Now, because of so many changes that have happened in my life, I am overjoyed at the goodness and grace I experience on a regular basis, even when life is hard. While I adhere less to “rules” for how to live life, I feel like I approach life with a gravitas I didn’t have before. EVERYTHING is holy, everything is sacred.  And this makes life worth getting up for every day, even when shit happens.

3. Human, by Christina Perri

This week every single area of my life blew up in my face. I was completely knocked on my ass and forced to remember that I am not invincible and that I have limited capacity. This is the song that reminds me that while I can do alot, I’m still just a human.  I have boundaries, I can be hurt by people, I can be overwhelmed.  Being human is OK; it’s who I am in this life, and I need to remember that margin and self-care and boundaries that protect my heart are good and necessary things. This is the song that comes to mind when I’ve reached my end and all there is to do is cry and reach out to my people who stand beside me when I have nothing left.

4. Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, sung by Pentatonix

Is this not one of the absolute best songs ever written? It sums up so much of life and what it means to love, and how hard and devastating that can be. “Love is not a victory march; it’s  a cold and broken hallelujah.”  Agh!  Yes! Most love does not come easy.  Most love is painful, wrenching, heartbreaking and so often that love is not returned. But we do it anyway because love is good and right even when it doesn’t come easy.  We are baffled by life and love and all of those who we try but do not understand, and because of grace, we can say hallelujah anyway, even when we are spurned or facing death or feeling utterly broken.

5. Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol

When it comes down to it, don’t we all just want to know we’re not alone?  We don’t need to have all the answers, we don’t have to be perfect, we don’t require alot of stuff. At a heart level, I think most of us just want to know that we are seen and heard and accepted. Will someone be there if we crash and burn? Is there someone who will join us in the mindless things of life just because they want to be with us? Will anyone join us in our misery and just be with us when we aren’t able to actually offer anything in return? This is what I hear every time I listen to this song…the human desire to not be left alone.

 

What are YOUR life songs, and why?

I’m Drawn To Those Who Ain’t Afraid…

joy.jpg
Oh, I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those who ain’t afraid
I remember that time you told me,, you said
Love is touching souls
Surely  you touched mine ’cause
Part of you pours out of me
in these lines from time to time….

A Case of You, Joni Mitchell

I’m on vacation this week in Upstate New York, where I used to live. I come back here every year in the fall…to soak up the autumn colors, post a ridiculous number of photos to Facebook and Instagram, spend time with a best friend, and give myself permission to take a long pause from life, work, parenting, and all the things that wear me down.

The nice part of having these few days to myself is that I can ponder and reflect with few interruptions; there is silence and stillness without responsibility, and it feels like these trips literally save me and make me useful to others and hopeful again for the coming year.

This trip I’ve been thinking about the people that have come in and out of my life – some for days, some for years – and how they’ve helped create who I am now. In my last post, I talked about how I want my life to be influenced and colored by others who are brave and creative. I’m constantly amazed at the people that swoop into my life…people that I never could have seen coming, people that I never fathomed could actually exist in the world, people that brought me gifts with their presence, people that showed up right at the moment I needed them – even when I didn’t know I needed them.  This, again, is grace…when you’re given what you need before you knew you needed it.

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Another thing about people that I’ve been thinking about, but which I don’t entirely like, is that sometimes, you can outgrow them.  Or, maybe you don’t outgrow them, but you grow off in opposite directions, and no matter how much you hash through things with them and try to come back to each other, you can never understand each other again. This growing away from people does not feel like grace, although it probably is in the long run.

Sometimes, the voices that you once trusted implicitly are no longer safe voices to speak into your life – they have become the devil, the accuser. And, it’s not because those people are bad or have ill intentions, but it’s because your paths have veered off in different directions and you lose the resonance that you once had with them.  You’re vibrating at different frequencies and when you try to merge together like you used to, the result is clanging dissonance. Maybe the flip of that is also true….your voice becomes the devil for them, as well.  You can no longer understand the path they are taking, and so all of your words, suggestions, and encouragements are useless and unhelpful.

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Not long ago I met with someone who once knew me very well, someone who I allowed for years to speak into my life because we were on the same path.  But this time, I realized how far we had moved from each other.  It was like we were complete strangers talking past one another, and there was no point in agreeing to disagree because we were already too far gone.

I told my story of the last five years, in the same way that I tell most people that come into my life these days.  To my complete surprise, though, I was wrecked by this person’s response. I came away from the meeting believing for a few minutes that I was a selfish asshole who had really fucked up my life.  Why was I working so hard on my writing career?  Why was I going to grad school when my children are still little?  Why didn’t I just ask my ex-husband for more child support?  Maybe I’m just not cut out for marriage or committed relationships in the first place. Did I not realize I’m treating my children like bowling pins in the pursuit of my own self-expression and fulfillment and joy?  Was it not apparent that the path I’ve pursued is surely devoid of empathy and compassion towards others? 

I believed for a few short moments that what I thought was being brave might actually just be folly rooted in my own self-centeredness.  I questioned hard the joy and peace I feel most days now, where once I had little joy and no peace. That meeting was an encounter with my devil, my accuser….a voice that sided with the lingering insecurities hovering around my mind.

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I’m so intensely attracted to people I see in the world who are being brave – not necessarily the ones who are doing nutty things that are dangerous – but the people who are ruthlessly pursuing themselves and searching for meaning in life even if means they risk losing everything.  When I come across these kinds of people, it’s almost all I can do not to grovel and beg them to let me just be around them once in a while.  Their stories help me to be brave, and there’s really nothing good that has come out of my life that has not been painted on or sculpted in places by these people.

After my momentary deep dive into depression and certainty that all of my decisions over the last five years were impressively horrible, I ran to a different voice – one who is resonating on my wavelength and has every right to speak into my life because she knows me and understands me, and somehow, I can do nothing wrong in her eyes.  [Side note:  EVERY SINGLE PERSON deserves a friend like this, where everything you do and say and dress like, plastered or sober, is accepted with love.  Grace, I tell you.]  I brushed away my tears, pulled myself together, and actively remembered who it is I WANT to be.  I don’t want to be a person who plays life safe and lives according to platitudes and rules.  I want to be a person who does hard things, and loves people easily and quickly, and shows my boys that sometimes the very best life is not the easy one – but the one with challenges and difficult decisions and a mom that will do anything to find herself, so that they can one day know how to really find themselves.

I want to keep chasing after the brave people and beg them to let me be in their lives, to show me how it’s done, to reveal more of the joy that I haven’t yet seen, to love me despite my fear and faults and failures.  I want to keep resonating with the amazing people I already have in my life who show me on a daily basis what it’s like to live wholeheartedly and authentically, even when they are still afraid.

I don’t know…maybe I am selfish.  Maybe it is selfish for me to try to squeeze every little bit of joy and glory out of life that I can, even when it looks irresponsible to some people. But I know there are people who resonate with me, who GET IT, who know that there are things you can’t unsee, places you can’t go back to, and ways of being that you can’t unbecome.

 

Is There a Protocol For This?

pot
Photo credit: Sharada Prasad CS

I have recently come to the awareness that I have taken handmade pottery for granted my entire adult life.  I’ve always been one to go to craft fairs in Vermont and New York and scope out the pretty coffee mugs and egg white/egg yolk separators, and I’ve known a couple of people here and there who made pottery as a hobby. I also remember back in junior high when we would take those clay Christmas trees [you know what I’m talking about, right?], scrape the seams off with scalpels, toss them into kilns, and Voila!, out came ceramic decorations that we felt compelled to pull out every year and plug-in somewhere with plastic lights to sparkle and gather dust until we repacked them away in March.

But I never really stopped and considered the process and hard work of creating enough product to market, sell, and make a living on, all the while trying to maintain a balance of creating good art but doing so in an efficient manner.  I have also learned that apparently pottery is not as romantic as portrayed by Demi Moore, in Ghost. I hear the real thing is alot more like chronic back pain, frozen fingers, sweat dripping into the clay, and feeling like you’re sticking your face into the Sun when you’re checking all your baking goods in the kiln.  I’m really, really wishing I could get SNL to do a spoof off of that Ghost scene now.

Another interesting and lovely find lately is to discover that there are potter-philosophers out there in the world who write some really amazing stuff.  I guess this shouldn’t surprise me; there are plenty of other artists who view the world through their craft.  Anyway, I was delighted to stumble upon this phenomenon.

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steve carrell

Working as a nurse, I frequently use protocols. They are basically an easy way for us to proceed in patient care without having to obtain doctor’s orders for things that are relatively straight forward and common.  So, for example….keeping a foley catheter in a person longer than necessary or without good reason is a surefire way to give them a urinary tract infection.  So, there are protocols for nurses to decide if that foley should stay put or if we should pull it. Or, if someone has imbalanced electrolytes, there are protocols to tell us which potassium and magnesium supplements to give, when to order blood redraws, and target values that let us know the protocol is complete. Basically, these protocols are step by step instructions for following a process to achieve a desired end result.

Sometimes I wish life had protocols.  Step by step instructions on how to get to where we want to be. Do this and do that until you arrive at your goal.  Be this and then that, and it will bring such and such into your life. I used to think life DID operate according to protocols.  It was called fundamentalist religion and contract theology.  It only took me 30 years of following all those prescribed rules to realize that God doesn’t really play by that game.  The Bible isn’t really a handbook for living, as much as people have told me throughout my life that it is.  If anything, the Bible is a guide for what NOT to do in life. I think the same is true with alot of other sacred literature.

The universe doesn’t seem to operate by a “you do this and I”ll respond in such and such a way” fashion much of the time.  This realization can be really hard when you’re coming out of a protocol-style faith tradition because it feels like you’ve lost ground to stand on and you no longer know the rules of how to play the game…..or if there are any rules at all.

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One of these potter blogs that I’ve been reading over the last couple of weeks is written by Carter Gillies; it’s definitely worth your time to look at. He writes the kinds of things I have to reread multiple times to really “get”, and he’ll throw out passages that can bring me to a hard stop.  Here’s one that I read yesterday:

“There is much more to the world than the ‘given’, and it is art’s duty to not only explore this but show the magnificent expanse beyond the merely existing and leaden ‘facts’. We don’t just receive the world, we bring it into existence.” -from Sisyphus, November 10, 2018

OMG!  So good!  This got me to thinking about the idea of being co-creators with God (or universe, or insert whatever word works for you here.).  How often do I sit around and demand life to bring me what I want, to avoid doing the heavy lifting, to refuse to see beyond the superficial? I want someone to hand me the rules and teach me how to play the game so I can get to the goal that culture and society tells me is the whole point.

But….what if….we are the ones that are making the rules?  What if there is no preordained goal imagined by the universe and we have the creative power to design our own ends?  What if the world and what exists before us are our paints and brushes, or our clay and glazes, and our job is to bring more life into existence with them? We belong to the world, but the world also belongs to us and comes into existence through us.

Carter says in all caps:  EVERYONE IS AN ARTIST.  Wow, what would life be like if we all really believed that?

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I definitely think there is a biochemical basis for depression, but I’m convinced that our beliefs play a strong role, especially when it comes to our sense of control.  If we believe we have no control over anything, and life is simply done TO us…well, that IS pretty depressing.  But, if we believe we have no absolute control over anything but that we DO have the power to reframe our perspectives, exert influence, and use our creativity to express ourselves in new ways and bring into existence things that once weren’t there….what’s depressing about that?

Protocols don’t leave any room for creativity or thinking outside the box.  This is one reason it was so freeing to walk away from fundamentalist Christianity. That God was boring, small, petty, and type A. There was little room for anything new and glorious because it was all labeled and judged as good or bad.  A protocol-less God/universe is freedom, grace, and space to make alot of mistakes with the knowing that there is always room and time to try anew.

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I had a conversation with a new friend the other night about my goals as a floor nurse, and then later, as a forensic nurse.  He asked me what was most important to me when I cared for patients  Good question on his part, and I knew my answer right away.  More than worrying about whether or not my patients walk out of the hospital cured or pain-free, I want them to feel heard and seen. This is an area where protocol doesn’t completely fly.  Yeah, it’s great to get all the technical details right in healthcare, but I’ve met plenty of people who technically received amazing care and still recalled their hospital stays as lonely and terrible.  On the other hand, I’ve had patients tell me I was the best nurse ever, even after all I did was pass meds and sit and talk with them.  Which shows me….most people don’t care about protocol and the details of their medical care nearly as much as they want to be known and validated.  And so, I work really hard to ask my patients the good questions, to listen to their life stories, to empathize, and Lord knows I cry alot with them.

So, my friend pointed out…..maybe your style of nursing is also art? I’m bringing into existence something that wasn’t there before….something that couldn’t have existed if I had just stuck to the rules, and gone step by step through the guidelines created by some hospital committee somewhere.

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Going back to the idea of everyone being an artist and my previous immature appreciation about the hard work of creating pottery.  I think we all want to have the sense that we know what we’re doing, and that what we’re doing matters.  Life feels safer that way.  But it’s also sterile and boring when we’re told what our lives are supposed to look like.  Are mass-produced lives, where we all follow similar paths adhering to the pursuit of the same life goals because someone told us to….really worth living? Is it really all that great to spend our entire lives consuming and never creating?

No, I want a life that I’ve helped create, not one that I’ve just passively accepted.  And I want a life that is influenced by other people being brave and putting their creations out into the world.  This gives me hope too; that the world will never remain just as I understand it at this very moment, because there are brave people out there who are constantly seeing with new eyes, creating their art whatever it may look like, and offering it without any stipulations for how it may be received or where it will end up.  People refusing to live inside boxes and according to checklist protocols are what contribute to the enchantment of all things.