Relationships Are Not “Clean Your Plate” Clubs

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Photo credit: Dan with PieLab

When I was growing up, my family very much pushed the whole “clean your plate” value.  I frequently recall my mother admonishing me to “remember the starving children in Armenia!”  I had no clue at the time where Armenia was and why the children were starving there.  I think by that point perhaps her imperative was a little dated.

My dad grew up as a son of poor hill country ranchers, so he definitely was not one to turn up food, even if he didn’t like it.  He pushed this ethic onto my brother and me, especially the importance of being careful with how you dole out food so you don’t waste any or take more than what is rightfully yours.

I remember one time we were eating a meal with HEB BBQ sauce.  I particularly liked BBQ sauce, and this night, in my enthusiasm, I accidentally poured half the bottle of the sauce onto my place. My dad, in an effort to teach me proper bottle holding and sauce pouring, made me eat that plate of BBQ sauce.  Questionable parenting tactic, perhaps, but I guarantee you I never poured out a sauce or condiment from a 90-degree angle ever again!

In general, I was not a picky eater, and in general, I really like food. That being said, there were a few foods that I just had no appetite for.  I wasn’t a fan of cooked broccoli until high school, and olives (especially, when my mom ruined her amazing chicken spaghetti by adding them), just didn’t do too much for me.  But the most God-awful thing my mom ever made was boiled eggs sliced over cooked spinach from a can.

Now, I grew up outside the Wintergarden region of Texas, where basically an Eden of produce exists.  Why my mom felt the need to serve us nasty canned spinach when there was inexpensive, lovely, fresh spinach abundantly available, I’ll never know.  But even with this dish that I despised, my family’s “clean your plate” club rule was enforced.  I would stomach down that nasty spinach and eggs, praying I wouldn’t gag and resupply my plate with what I had worked so hard to get in me.

I know I’m not the only person that grew up in this kind of household.  While there are definite harms that can be done by forcing children to eat what they don’t want and and when they feel the sense of being full, it is also important to learn not to waste what we are given, and to tread lightly on the Earth by only taking what we need.

A friend of mine, while not a card-carrying member of the “clean your plate” club, is pretty emphatic with her kids that what ends up on their plates is really not up to them.  Her kids taught my boys the following sing-song response they had become so accustomed to hearing from her:  “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit!”

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For most of my life, I believed that people and relationships were sent my way directly via Providence.  Which meant, I was to accept them and all that came with them, including their opinions of me and words about me.  As a result, I never had very good boundaries until recently.  In fact, I rather think I used to approach relationships and friendships like “clean your plate clubs”:  I was to take all that was offered without throwing a fit.

For whatever reason, I have always been terrible about internalizing what people say to me. It’s like I trusted their opinions about me more than I trusted myself.  I don’t’ really know how I got to this place, but it’s definitely hard to learn to fight against this tendency.

I can think of so many stingers that people have thrown at me over the years that I swallowed hook, line, and sinker:  “Julie, you’re lazy.  Julie, you’re a quitter.  Julie, you’ll never succeed at such and such.  Julie, that’s a really stupid idea. ”  Etc, etc., etc. For years, it never occurred to me to question what these people were saying, to think that maybe they were the ones who were completely wrong and not me.

I think one of the biggest game-changers for me was when I finally began to learn how to say, metaphorically speaking:  “You are not my parent, I am not five, and this is not the dinner table.  I do not have to choke down anything that you believe about me, even if it is true.  I have the freedom to accept or reject what I wish from you.”

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One of the “clean your plate” club categories that seems to most plague many of us is when people slap broad labels on to us, like “SELFISH”, or “HATEFUL” or “LAZY” or “STUPID” or “CLUMSY” or “QUITTER”.  It’s these labels that tie themselves to our identities and hurt and immobilize us the most; it is much easier to swallow condemnations on individual behaviors that we exhibit than who we fundamentally are as people.

The crazy thing is, we often, without thinking, believe whatever people tell us.  Like we don’t stop and question our own thoughts, so do we frequently fail to actually question what people are saying to us.  Is what they are saying actually accurate?  Has the person who is saying something to us actually even earned the right to speak into our lives? Is the person simply projecting their own hurts and fears and insecurities onto us?

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I”m old enough to know now that no relationship or friendship is going to be perfect.  Everyone is beautifully flawed, and everyone is going to say and do stupid stuff at times.  But I firmly believe that we can fully accept a person we are in relationship with without accepting everything they try to give us or push on us. In fact, I now also believe that we don’t have to be in relationship with every single person that comes our way, which good grief, it only took me like 33 years to learn.

Here are my qualifications for how relationships should ideally work, and how we should know which people to keep close and which we should distance ourselves from:

  1. Relationships should always be a give and take.  This may not be equal 50/50 all the time, but if you’re constantly putting all the effort in the relationship and the other person is just taking and taking without offering anything useful in return….you have probably fallen into the “clean your plate” club.
  2.   If a person in your relationship is constantly slapping labels on you that negatively speak to your identity as a human being, shove that plate away and push back from the table. Insist that people express “I” statements about how they feel, not pointed “You” statements that throw all the blame for their feelings onto you.
  3. This one is big for me:  if a person can never, ever offer a sincere apology for wrongs they have committed against you….this is probably not someone you want in your life, or at least in your inner circle.  Each of us screw up from time to time, and real love is able to honestly convey to our loved one that we are wrong and want to make amends.
  4.  As Maya Angelou ( I believe) said, if you are only an option to a person, and not a priority, then be very careful what advice and words you are willing to receive from them. You are under no obligation to accept their opinions or criticisms of you.
  5. If someone also attempts to gaslight you, and twist words and situations to place the blame squarely on you all the time…again, push back from the table and walk away.
  6. If someone feels the need to opinion vomit all over you, but they have not shown themselves trustworthy in your friendship, and they are making no attempts to work on their own shadow selves….yep, scrape that plate straight in the trash.

So, then, who are the kind of people that we want to keep around…the people whose opinions are nourishing and good eats for our souls?

  1. Keep people that know you have shit you struggle with but who choose to focus on your strengths.
  2. Listen closely to the people who are willing to shut their mouths and listen.
  3.  People need to earn trust and respect; save your deep stuff and your traumas for the people who have proven they are willing to hang with you for the long haul.  Like it says in the Gospels….don’t throw your pearls before swine.  Don’t reveal your big heart hurts to those who can’t handle them carefully.
  4. Keep close to the people who know where you are now, but can dream with you about where you one day can be.  These are the people who have a vested interest in you and will help pick you up again when you fall down.
  5. Keep the people near you, who may completely fuck up but apologize and keep working on their stuff, getting up again and again…these are the people who can empathize with you when you yourself completely fuck up.
  6. Hold tight to the people who understand that life is mostly about love, and forgiveness, and grace…not things, success, and status.

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I think one of the markers of “growing up” as a human is the realization that we don’t have to automatically receive whatever is handed to us in life. We have the agency to accept or reject people’s opinions, beliefs, and words about us. It is this realization that really has the power to start transforming the way we live because it breaks chains in our minds that hold us stuck in certain thought and behavior patterns.

I used to absolutely fall apart when someone said something really awful about me, because I assumed that somehow, it must be true.  I have been so pleasantly surprised with myself lately to discover that those kinds of harsh words tend to bounce off me much more rapidly than they used to…it’s like I have some kind of Kevlar protection on my outside that keep hurtful labels form penetrating me.

Relationships are no longer a “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” kind of dynamic.  Maybe I don’t need to throw fits, but I can certainly refuse to engage in hurtful, toxic relationships because that is my right.  I can also choose to engage in difficult relationships that take alot of work and hard communication because that is also my right.  No one has the right to say how I, or you, are to engage in relationships.  We don’t just have to accept whatever appears on the plate in front of us.  This, I believe, is what develops the best, truest, most loving relationships:  where we come freely, giving, receiving, and never forcing anything on anyone.

And as a final note, just don’t ever buy spinach in a can.  Seek out good quality nourishing relationships, and consider yourself valuable enough to eat fresh greens.

 

The Challenge of Committing to Others and Making Promises to Yourself

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The other day I was listening to a recent episode of On Being, where Krista Tippett was interviewing the folk singer Joe Henry.  They were discussing how important his marriage was to him, how he saw being married to his wife as natural to who he was…it is part of his identity as a person and foundational to his human-ness.

The podcast episode, in general, was fantastic, but it caused me to stop and think for a while about the idea of commitment to others…both in romantic partnerships as well as committing to do life with specific people.  I actually sat down immediately and emotional verbiage vomited out an entire blog post, which I promptly lost because it didn’t autosave and I forgot to hit the update button. Honestly, that was probably the universe’s way of telling me that all ya’ll didn’t need to read that messy, unedited Julie-overload. This redo post is still me heavily processing ideas, and could still be a bit on the mental barf spectrum.

For whatever reason, this episode made me suddenly stop and decide to rethink marriage.  The truth is, I have been very grumpy about the institution of marriage for a very long time.  It took me years to be brave and leave my own marriage, so when people ask me about getting married again sometime in the future it’s almost all I can do to either not smirk or respond with a “Why the hell would I do THAT?!”

Of course, I’m always impressed when I meet couples who have braved the odds or have been married for decades.  I’m usually never against other people getting married. But, it left a really bad taste in my own mouth.  I’ve said so often in the last few years that I never again want to be legally tied to someone, that I never want my finances to be intermingled with another person’s, that I never want to be dependent on a man again. And until this last week, I thought all of my spouting off came from a place of self-awareness.  I have since been questioning this and thinking that maybe my “self-aware” attitude was really just my undealt-with fear attempting to appear enlightened.

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I definitely grew up with some deep-seated notions of what marriage was supposed to be about. (What I’m about to say is what I believed mixed with a healthy dose of sarcasm and generalization, just so you’re warned). What I internalized was that women, thanks to being created second and thanks to Eve’s colossal screwup in the garden, relegated us to second-class citizenship in the eyes of God. We were to submit ourselves to our husbands and help them succeed, being all that God had intended for them.  Seriously, I can’t believe I ever believed any of this, and these days the words “helpmeet” or “helpmate” make me throw up a little in my mouth. I used to believe that the man was supposed to be the spiritual leader of the house, and make the final decisions, and a whole lot of other ridiculousness….like how wives should be available for sex pretty much any time the husband wanted.  I’m eye-rolling so hard right now.

My rebellion against marriage is not just a pushing back against my own less-than-great 11-year experience, but a HARD push back against the belief system that I grew up with. I have associated marriage with a really icky feeling – suffocation mixed with feeling less than and the perception of not being able to make it through life as a complete and thriving person without a man to steer the ship.

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Byron Katie is one of my favorite spiritual teachers because she teaches me to question everything, and not assume that what I perceive as reality is always true. She is an amazing person who has this uncanny ability to not attach to outcomes, and as a result, she is free from suffering when things don’t turn out the way she would have expected or hoped for.

Katie is married to Stephen Mitchell, a well-known writer and translator of sacred Eastern spiritual texts. She has told a story several times about how her relationship with Stephen works.  Basically, when they got married, they did not promise to love each other until one of them died.  Instead, she promised to love Stephen until she didn’t love him. And he vowed the same to her.

I have always found this amazing because it implies that both parties have absolute freedom to stay or leave; they are not in the relationship out of manipulation or obligation, but simply because they love the other person and want to stay.  Why would anyone want a traditional marriage when they could have this kind of understanding….the kind that says “I love you and want you to stay, but if you want to leave I love you enough that I will help you pack your bags.”

It’s a shocking, scandalous kind of love, isn’t it? I want to be able to love others that way.

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As I was pondering this question of whether or not the idea of marriage could ever not be an icky topic for me, I began to think of the other people I have committed to in my life, and why I’ve committed to them.  Some of my best friends live states away from me.  A few friends and I have chased each other all over the country in the last couple of decades, but we stick out our friendship even when it’s hard.  We make a point to keep talking, to keep connecting, and to travel to see each other because we value this thing we hold between us.

But why? Why do I do this with some people, but not want to do it with others?

As I was thinking about this last week, a friend had a movie going on in the background, that caught my attention with a line one character asked another.  Granted, I later found out the movie was Midsommar, a dark and creepy movie whose ending totally weirded me out.  But the line stuck with me.

“Does he feel like home to you?”

And, yes!  This is why I stick with certain people, even when the logistics don’t make sense, even when there are ridiculous hurdles to keep crossing to maintain a relationship, even when we might go weeks without connecting.  I commit to these friends because they feel like home to me. They are the ones who make me feel like I am safe in the world and belong, even if they aren’t physically next to me.

I’m a very “feely’ person.  Being an XNFJ on the Myers-Briggs, I do so much of my life based on how it feels.  I buy houses based on feel, I choose towns to live in based on feel, I make impulsive decisions based on feel,  I, unfortunately, eat too much comfort food based on how it makes me feel, …. and…I choose people to commit to and do life with based on how they make me feel.

I didn’t always do this.  For much of my life, I based my relationship commitments on obligation, duty, and, a little selfishly, on those I thought might help make things a little easier, bring me more respect, or ensure me more security.  I’m glad I’ve learned to change that because now my relationships seem much more authentic. Nowadays, I want to be in relationship with people who feel like “home” to me, and where I, reciprocally, feel like “home” to them.

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I’ve known people who have intentionally committed to “do life” with other people beyond the scope of marriage or family.  This has varied in how it looked; some have lived next to each other on the same property with a communal money pot and shared business endeavors.  Others simply promised each other that they would intentionally stay living within certain geographical boundaries so that they could regularly meet with each other, encourage each other in goals, and hold each other accountable to whatever principles and values were important to them.

This kind of commitment seems really cool to me, but it takes some serious sacrifice. It’s about people choosing to accept the personalities and quirks of others in close proximity physically and/or emotionally, in the pursuit of some common goal.  It also accepts the fact that there may be struggle involved, and maybe the whole relationship structure will fail at some point. What makes people do things like this? And,  what are they getting out of it?  Is living in intentional, committed community with people a good thing all the time?  Is it always better than being able to freely move about without expectations from others? These are questions I think about alot.

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I should point out that I recognize that the Western world has a unique understanding of marriage, and that it has not always been about falling in love.  I get that in history marriage was frequently a way to create allies, and forge bonds between families and people groups to help secure peace. I also know that in so many places arranged marriages were the deal for years, where matchmakers or parents picked who someone was going to marry.

I have adopted parents (C and L) in West Africa who had an arranged marriage.  They have been married for decades and I’ve always marveled at how well partnered and suited for each other they seem to be.  I asked C once what he thought about his marriage.  He told me that when he was young, L had been pointed out to him as a potential mate, and after taking a good look at her, he was good with the deal. (He had a big grin on his face when he told me this). Though the marriage was arranged, they forged a friendship and bond that worked very well, raising great kids, and they have always seemed really happy and content with each other.

The idea of an arranged marriage feels freaking scary to me; I think you REALLY have to trust your parents in that area when the partner picking is happening. And I can see, in situations like that, you need a solid, formal commitment by both parties to be the glue that will hold the relationship together. There has to be some real sense of obligation, I think, to make an arranged marriage successful.

But, we don’t have that kind of society anymore. So, do we really need the formal commitments and legal boundaries of traditional marriage?  Getting into formal marriage is some ways, in my opinion, WAY too easy, when it is so freaking hard, stressful, and expensive to get out of those marriages.  I kind of think that if the State is going to be involved, then they need to make it harder for people to get married on the front end so maybe we’ll all stop and think a little harder before signing on the dotted line.

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I discussed this topic with a friend of mine after I completely lost the blog post that I had furiously typed out and then lost in a matter of seconds.  This person made a couple of good points.  When I said that I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of being tied so tightly to someone I was romantically involved with, and didn’t want the mess and stress of limiting myself legally and financially, they reframed it for me, saying “If you’re intentionally leaving yourself all of these strategic exits and backdoor escape routes in a relationship, then how committed are you really to the relationship in the first place?  And is that even really a legitimate, authentic relationship?”

That one stung a bit, to be honest.  If I want to be loosely tied enough to a person that I can escape when I start getting uncomfortable, is that really much of a relationship worth being in?

This person then made a second point that I think is noteworthy.  Why is it that we think the marriage ceremony is where, BAM!, all the commitment happens?  Isn’t it better to progress slowly in relationship with someone to the point to where we one day wake up and realize that we that we have worked ourselves into solid commitment with each other, and THEN have the marriage ceremony simply to acknowledge that recognized commitment?  It’s a subtle, but I think, important, difference in the way to view marriage.

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This week I had an epiphany while I was driving to work.  I was thinking about my own marriage ceremony and the vows that my ex-husband and I made to each other all those years ago.  Vows that didn’t keep.

It occurred to me that during that ceremony, I was making vows to another person, but I wasn’t making vows to MYSELF.  I was repeating the words that are expected in traditional marriage ceremonies, words that I thought were the magic and glue to make commitment suddenly appear and stick.  And then, I realized that making vows to other people will never work…not forever at least….because in making vows only to the other person, you’re forgetting an integral piece of the relationship….YOU.

If we can’t make promises to ourselves….if we can’t commit to ourselves….then how the heck do we think we can commit to some other person for who knows how many years? But don’t we do this all the time in marriage ceremonies?!  We promise to love our future spouse until we die, when we don’t really even know how to love ourselves.  We promise to stick with them through good times and bad, when we so frequently, we fail ourselves, judge ourselves, limit ourselves.  We promise to cherish each other, when so often, we can hardly stand ourselves, much less cherish ourselves.

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I think there are two main reasons I squirm around the idea of marriage these days.  The first is because for so long marriage was wrapped up in how God viewed me, and my identity, worth, and status were bound up in this institution. Marriage was very much a place of feeling trapped and controlled for me; it never felt like a place where certain freedoms were set aside for the sake of pursuing something greater. I felt worse about myself when I was married than when I wasn’t.  (I should point out this is not an ex-husband bashing post…I’m alluding to the unfortunate dynamics that were present in my marriage, not throwing all the blame on the other person).  But I really think now that part of the reason the whole thing was a failure was that I had never made vows to myself – I had never promised to treasure myself, I had never promised to hang tight with myself through whatever life brought me. Instead, I believed that I had to give someone else all the things that I had never yet learned to give myself.

The other reason I squirm about marriage is that I’m not sure we are always, absolutely meant to meet someone and stay with them FOREVER.  I think it’s fantastic when this happens, but….what do you do when you and the person you are married to completely outgrow each other?  When you suddenly have NOTHING in common, when even your value systems are polar opposite? The stigma of divorce here is so damaging to people who are just trying to be their authentic selves, and we shame them for being true to themselves and pursuing the things that are life-giving to them.  I think it’s a really bad idea to try and put one-size fits all templates of marriage on everyone and assume that we all know what is going on behind closed doors, and I really, really think its a horrible idea to bring God into the equation and start telling people that God wants their marriage to look like this or that.  I can personally attest to trauma received by people doing that to me in some terribly hurtful ways.

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So, what am I trying to say in all of the rambling of this post?

First, my ego has been knocked down a tad bit because I realized that my repugnance towards marriage again was not enlightenment and amazing self-awareness, but rather, me pretending that I don’t still have hurts and fears to process and work through.

Second, I don’t want to be the person that avoids real, loyal love because I need to keep backdoors open when I start feeling the heat and getting uncomfortable. Isn’t doing so exactly what I blog all the time about trying to avoid?  Don’t avoid pain and suffering, I always write!  Embrace the hard things!  This is where the growth and the real stuff of life is!  I’m spoonfeeding my own words back to myself right now.

Third, maybe marriage for me just needs to be completely reframed.  It definitely can have some legal and financial perks to it, to be sure.  But instead of viewing it as a static moment in time where people suddenly commit to each other, maybe it should be viewed as the culmination of commitment that been building over a long time….maybe it should be more of a celebration of that commitment rather than the sudden shaky start of commitment that hasn’t gotten it’s sea legs yet.

And fourth, what would it look like if we became more serious about making vows to ourselves WAY before we made these crazy, impossible-to-promise vows to another person?  What if marriage could be a fluid state where we were entirely committed for that period in time, but then we’re free and blessed to leave if our vows to the other person started causing us to break our vows to ourselves?  I know I don’t want to be with anyone who feels like they have to be with me out of obligation. I want someone to be with me because they feel like they can be their best self when they’re with me. And, I want to want to love people so much that they know they can come and go and they will always still be loved.  This is super hard to do in practice, but a worthy goal, I think.

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When I began questioning all the theological beliefs I grew up with, I had to undergo a deconstruction.  For a couple of years I was MAD at Christianity, MAD at the Church, and MAD at myself for believing things that helped keep trauma firmly embedded within myself and kept me pinned down in a trapped, small life. But over time, the anger faded, I was able to reframe my perspectives about my life and past, and I reconstructed a faith that is still deeply rooted in Christianity, that feels authentic and real to me.

As I’ve written this post, I’m thinking that the same is going to have to happen for me regarding the idea of marriage and long term commitments to anyone.  Maybe I needed to be really angry for a while, separate myself completely from the idea of committing hardcore to someone, and allow myself time to reframe my understanding of relationships, while gradually reconstructing a new paradigm for how I want future relationships to look.

Marriage doesn’t have to be BAD or a means of trapping myself or another person into staying. Committing to other people doesn’t mean that I have to lose myself or suddenly become subservient in different aspects of my life.

I’ve said this before in posts regarding spirituality…..as Ken Wilbur and others have talked about, I want to “transcend and include.”  I don’t want to throw out things in my life completely just because they were hard or didn’t well. I want to be able to take the good things with me, and use them to construct new ways of thinking and being. I think maybe I’m making small steps in that direction now as I’m finally willing to take another look at long term commitment and relationship with others.

 

 

How To Cut Yourself Off From Joy

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Photo credit: Melinda Shelton

As I have grown older, I am recognizing more and more that there is a huge difference between happiness and joy. I’ve heard about this difference since I was little, ’cause joy is discussed alot in churchy environments. However, I never really could make a distinction between the two in a real way until the last five or so years.

But now, I KNOW what joy is, and I totally get what Jesus meant when he talked about the peace that passes all understanding. Happiness is about the things that you enjoy in life, the things that bring you pleasure, the pleasant feeling of satisfaction with whatever is currently coming your way. The Office makes me happy.  Key lime pie makes me happy. Stupid Facebook memes make me REALLY happy.  Joy, on the other hand, is the deep soul resolve to keep waking up every morning with hope, determined to let life dance you moment after moment even in the midst of shitstorms. Joy is the grit, the resilient knowing, that, as Thomas Merton said, “Everything that is, is holy.”  Joy is the choice to love what is, even when that “what is” is paradoxical, painful, and hard because you know that there is a redemptive power coursing through life that is vibrating grace into all things….even the terrible and impossible things.

I’ve been thinking alot about my own joy lately, especially because of conversations that I’ve been having with people about the hard things in their lives, the things that God dammit! refuse to be resolved, the pain that won’t go away, the lingering resentments and fears and loss of big dreams. There is clearly so much in the world that threatens to rob us of joy. It takes daily vigilance and intention to hold onto it, to pursue it with abandon.

I remember when I first moved back to Indiana in the process of getting a divorce. My ex and I had split custody of the boys from the start, and twice a week I would send them to him on his designated days. Up until that time I had hardly spent many nights away from my kids other than to attend an occasional conference or travel to visit family. Now, I was regularly sending them away from me, for up to four nights at a time.  The pain of having to put my kids in his car, often when they were crying and begging to stay with me, made me absolutely want to die. During those first few months, I would crawl back into my house, lay on the living room floor, sometimes getting myself plastered drunk, because….how had I gotten to this place? This was not how life was supposed to be, not the kind of parent I was supposed to be, even if I had chosen this path and the end of my marriage. It would take all I had to get into bed in an empty, quiet house each night, and then get up each morning and face another breakfast alone, hating this void of my kids not being with me.

And yet, paradoxically, I did not despair.  Because while there was this horrible thing that hurt my heart so terribly, there was the possibility of hope. This hope rising, the hope that had made me brave enough to change my life, to listen to my gut for once, to trust myself…told me that I would get through this “I just want to lay down and die” pain of what I was going through with my kids. Each day, something would happen that would grow this hope, and as time went on I realized that I, in fact, was not going to die from pain, and my kids were not going to die from pain, and that everything was going to be OK.  I found that I could take pleasure and solace in things even when my heart ached for my children. I began to explore all the things in life that intrigued me even though I still had fears and hurts and unknowns that I had no clue how to deal with.  I could laugh and cry, and I can still laugh and cry, at the very same moment. This is joy.

Rumi said, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”  I totally believe this.  When you approach life by listening to the voice in your soul, your gut feeling, your instincts… even when hard, difficult things are required of you… you can sense this joy river within, and it begins to carry you, where fear and despair were once the currents that directed your life.

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Too many people are biding their time in life without any joy. Life becomes about checking off the next box, or climbing ladders, or creating external appearances that will garner laud and approval from others whose opinions really don’t matter anyway.

I hate that so much despair exists in the world, even in first world countries like the United States, where we live in relative ease and luxury.  How easily we forget that life is freaking magical, and how quickly we forget to be in absolute awe of the amazingness around us! I was talking with a friend the other night about our cell DNA and how I heard a fact about it that made me physically giddy and childishly excited.  If you took all of the DNA from al the cells in the average human being and stretched it out end to end in a linear fashion, it could go to the Sun and back 300 times!!!  Come on!!!  I mean, do you even need to believe in God to not be freaking amazed and overjoyed by the wonder of that?!  Doesn’t it dazzle you to imagine how far DNA would stretch if we took all of the genetic material from the 7-something billion people in the world and laid it out end to end?

We lose our joy because of how we frame life, because of the things we choose to focus on, and because we forget to wake up every morning with fresh eyes and open hands, willing to receive whatever life has for us.  I am in no way denying that events and people in life can be monstrous, shitty, and, well….evil.  But I am so completely soul-convinced that, as the Gospel of John said, the darkness cannot overcome the Light.

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I like practical, and I like lists.  So, here are listed, based on my life experience, six things that will absolutely cut yourself off from joy in life. So, if you don’t want joy, revel in these.  If you want to cultivate joy and peace, strive to fight against these tendencies, however possible.

1. Believe all of the thoughts in your head. In fact, believe that you ARE your thoughts.  There is plenty of scientific research out there that shows our brains have a greater affinity for negative thoughts than positive ones. And somehow, we all seem to grow into the belief that whatever comes down our thought pipeline must automatically be true…AND…those thoughts must be us because they came from our brains, didn’t they?  Nope!  You are not your thoughts, and just because your brain churns out an idea doesn’t mean that you even have to pay attention to it.  There is a REAL YOU that is a witnesser, a watcher, of all the thoughts that come into your brain.  It takes time and practice to separate the real you from the personality you, but it can happen.  I cannot recommend Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie highly enough for teaching you how to find the REAL YOU within.

2. Refuse to believe that the obstacles are the path. If you think that the only meaningful life is one that is rosy and blemish-free, then you will absolutely never have any joy. The obstacle IS the path!  REAL life, the real experience of being human, is being and accepting where you are and what you have now.  There can be no other way.

We learn to love and to grow through things not being easy, by not going our way….because….we learn that we don’t have to have things go our way to have joy, to be content, to love well. The obstacles teach us that it is not the externals that make us or break us….it is how we work with those obstacles and let them refine us.

3. Assume that all you see and perceive with your five senses is really all that exists. On one hand, I am very analytical and data-driven. On the other hand, I’m about as woo-wooey as they come.  I am absolutely convinced that the cosmos is enchanted, and any time someone tells me its just a matter of time before science figures everything out, I secretly smile to myself and say, “We’ll see.”   To me, God, the Divine, the Universe…is a mystery.  And, as Rob Bell has said, “mystery is infinitely knowable.” Which means that the spirit in everything will always be enchanted.  Try and convince me otherwise.

There are too many things that are unexplainable by just using our “5” senses.  Those senses can’t explain love.  They can’t explain how people can dream things that actually happen. They can’t explain the spiritual connections we feel with some people in our lives. And they can’t explain JOY.

But, if you think that the only things that actually exist are what you can hear, taste, touch, smell, and see….well, you might be occasionally happy but you’re going to miss out on some of the real mystery of all things and the deepest meaning of existence.

4. Identify strongly with your roles in life. The other day, in the hospital, I randomly had a patient ask me if I was a runner.  I was so pleased because, while I run and enjoy the heck out of it, I don’t exactly have a runner’s body and I’m not terribly fast or nimble.  So, to have someone recognize just by my body mannerisms that I am a runner simply please me to no end.

However, this identification as a runner made me think of the other roles in life I identify with.  I’m a mother, I’m an intellectual, I’m this or I’m that.  And while it’s great to have things that we are passionate about in life, over-identifying with anything can ruin joy for us….because we can get lost when the role we identify with is taken away from us.  The key to joy is to recognize that we all wear hats, we are all passionate about certain things….but those things are not who we are at our core. It is this recognition that helps us get up off the floor and keep living life when we are wrecked by devastating events. We are so much more than what is happening to us.

5. Stay in relationship with and in close proximity to people who treat you like crap. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will rob you of joy like negative people that tear you down…or even those who make minimal to no effort to encourage you. This is something I’ve discovered in the last several years:  life is TOO short and there are too many amazing people out there in the world for you to continue to do life with people who treat you like shit.  FOR REAL.

We don’t have to stay in relationship with people just because they’ve been in our lives forever.  We don’t have to be in relationship with people just because they are family. We don’t have to stay in relationship with people just because we feel guilty or codependent or lonely.  Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud – go buy this book and read it.

If you want joy in your life, seek out the people who are joyful. Seek out the people who notice your faults and weaknesses, but would much rather talk about and spotlight your strengths. Seek out the people who are literally willing to go in the trenches with you; not the ones who keep telling you why you’re such an idiot that you ended up in the trenches in the first place. Seek out the people that make you a priority, not an option. Follow the people that spread joy in their wake.

6. Avoid pain at all cost.  This is one of those, “trust me on this” things.  I don’t know why the universe is set up like this. God didn’t ask me for my input when They were making the rules.  But, for some reason, pain so very often comes before joy.  I’m not a huge fan of pain…but I’m gradually learning not to avoid it because I know that when handled properly, pain is often the gateway to joy. When we choose to avoid pain, emotional and sometimes physical, we may remain safe….we may remain comfortable…but there’s a very great chance that our lives will be much less rich and joyful than they could be if we had faced our pain head-on.

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I would much rather live a life drunk on joy and be thought of as a fool than to plod through life complaining and griping and feeling fatalistic and hopeless while being considered wise by the world.

To quote Rumi again…. “ 

Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance…

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Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,

No birth, identity, form—no object of the world.

Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing; Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.

Ample are time and space—ample the fields of Nature.

The body, sluggish, aged, cold—the embers left from earlier fires, The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again;

The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons continual;

To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible law returns,

With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn.

-Walt Whitman

I’m almost three and a half years out from my divorce. It kind of amazes me how fast that time flew, and all the big changes and events in my life that have happened between then and now.  Something I’ve alluded to in previous posts over those years is that dating after being out of the game for over a decade of marriage is no joke. Alot of this is because I’ve changed so much as a person, and the old dynamics of the way my dating life used to go don’t fit anymore.  Furthermore, the kind of people I’m interested in is so vastly different than when I was in my twenties. I’m much less driven by my fears and childhood wounds than I used to be. Also, I ain’t got time or patience for unnecessary drama.

I have a dating policy that I implemented about two and a half years ago. It’s something I take pretty seriously. : my policy states that barring really, really dreadful first dates, I will always go on at least two dates with a person.

Why?

Because so much can be weird and go wrong on the first date that isn’t representative of who the person really is. Nerves play a big role in feeling comfortable, it takes time sometimes to figure out a conversation flow, maybe you or the other person is still hung up on someone else and isn’t completely present. And, if you’ve been texting the person for a while after meeting them online, it takes some time after meeting the “real” them to undo the stories in your head that you’ve created about who they are.

I actually think first dates really shouldn’t count for much unless there is a glaringly obvious red flag or sign that makes you know with a gut feeling certainty it’s not going to work.  I’ve only had one date like that in the last few years, but I went on a second date with him anyway because that’s how important I think my policy is.

I hate being judged on how I come across the first time I meet people.  Some days I can be incredibly charming and things click right away.  But other times, when I meet people, I can be stressed or insecure, and I have this horrible problem of looking ticked off and angry when I’m really just concentrating hard on something.

Once, in college, a girl who later became a close friend, told me that when she first met me in an English composition class that she thought I was one of those super shy people that won’t dare say anything to anyone because God forbid they might answer me back.  Too bad for her, she realized soon enough that there are plenty of times where I’m not capable of shutting up.

Another person, more recently, who became my workout buddy, thought after our first very quick conversation, that I must be a bitch.  Apparently, in my shyness and insecureness about the new unfamiliar situation I was in, I came across as quite the snark.  Fortunately, she soon figured out that I’m actually a pretty decent person and we became good friends. I will admit that I was horrified, as a strong 2 on the Enneagram, that anyone thought me a bitch.  If only people could see inside my head and know right away what I was thinking, my good intentions and sincere motivations, how I genuinely like most people, and……this is exactly why romantic interests (and potential friends for that matter) need second date chances….because I clearly cannot read their minds or immediately perceive their motivations either.

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I just started up the latest semester of graduate school.  Currently, I’m taking an advanced forensic nursing class.  During the introductory video, my professor made what I consider to be a fantastic connection between trauma-informed care and a well-known approach to disease within healthcare.

In healthcare, there is something called “universal precautions.” This makes the assumption that every person we encounter potentially has some sort of pathogen that could be spread via contact or airborne droplets, so gloves, face shields, masks, and gowns are used as safety measures to prevent unnecessary transmission of disease.

A central tenet of forensic nursing is trauma-informed care….that is, when we work with victims of violence or social injustice, we are mindful that they could have been traumatized by their other people or experiences in their life and are carrying around the effects of those traumas in their minds and bodies.

Here’s the connection and point she made…which I love:  We should extend the idea of universal precautions to trauma; when we encounter anyone new, we should automatically assume that there is the possibility that they are carrying around unseen traumas that we don’t know about and we should mind how we treat them through that lens.  This doesn’t mean that we need to handle every single person we meet with kid gloves, but we should remember that a person’s past influences who they are now, how they communicate, how they interact with others, how they present themselves, etc., and we need to offer them grace for those moments when they aren’t so great or don’t immediately impress us.  Our responses likewise need to be gracious, because we don’t know how we can trigger old wounds or dig them into deeper holes of despair through our thoughtless words or callous treatment of them.

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The thing that strikes me funny about people is that Life clearly never gave us a manual, yet we always judge the hell out of each other and point fingers and categorize the people we think are doing life right compared to those we think are completely screwing up. When you stop and think about it, the way we harp on each other all the time is really stupid and never gets anyone anywhere.

I really hate it when parents get all judgy with each other.  Moms are so good at doing this; we pit ourselves against each other all the time, comparing working moms versus stay at home moms, this parenting style against that parenting style,  “my kid always looks amazingly cute and stylish” versus “thank God my child has pants on today.” We rarely seem to stop and give consideration to the fact that we all grew up in different environments with different degrees of nurture, so clearly, we are going to approach life and parenting differently.

I remember, before I had kids, I could be judgy of moms who didn’t seem to have their shit together in public places, or the ones who seemed to make little effort to discipline their unruly kids, or OMG, the ones who unashamedly fed their kids ice cream for dinner.  Nowadays, after having been through the trenches myself with three boys, I ALWAYS try to give those kinds of parents a second chance…..because, well…..I’ve been there too.  There have been days I’ve been so tired that I bought them fast food for each meal of an entire day.  There have been days when I’ve reached the end of myself and locked myself to nap in my bedroom while my kids sat on their butts in front of the TV while watching grown men doing stupid stuff on YouTube all day. I’ve yelled at my kids in front of people at Target, seethed through my teeth at them at the grocery stores, made ridiculous threats like, “I swear to the living God, if you do “…” one more freaking time, I’m taking away every piece of electronics in the house until you’re 25!!!” at the top of my lungs.  There have been days where I thought I might run away if I had to wash one more piece of pee-soaked laundry, or had to rewire one more electrical socket that somehow got poop in it, or had to dig around in the recesses of the minivan to find that one-month-old sippy cup of soured milk that was stenching up everything to high heaven.

Parents really, really need to be offered second chances.  Never underestimate the traumas they have experienced in raising children.

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I don’t really give up on people. Sure, there are people I don’t want to be around, people that I don’t trust, people whose hearts I think have really become hardened over time for whatever reasons. There are people that I intentionally refuse to do life with.  But I don’t believe anyone is ever lost forever.

And actually, when we reach the point where we completely write off a person as hopeless….I think that might be when we are in our own hell…because we have lost faith in the redemptive creativity of life. When we think anything real or good can ever truly be lost, that’s when love has gone.  On the flip side, I think heaven is about realizing that nothing is set in stone forever, that even those who seem the farthest gone can be rescued.

I’ve seen radical changes in people that, for decades, looked like would never, ever happen. I’ve personally experienced shifts in myself that I could have never imagined, out of beliefs and perceptions that I thought at one time were absolute truth and concretely ingrained in me. And, because I no longer believe in a linear progression of life and death where we get this one infinitesimally short shot at life and then go plunk ourselves down to sit for an eternity in heaven or hell….it seems to me there is all the time in the world for hope and love to work their magic.

I can hear some people’s responses here.  Julie, people are CHOOSING not to change. It’s through their own fault and their own poor choices that they are where they are right now.

Maybe, maybe not.  I think that we actually have far less agency over the trajectory of our lives than we automatically assume.  I don’t think everyone consciously makes all the stupid decisions they make, and I think we often unconsciously and unintentionally make really good choices.  My overall point here: we can’t cavalierly judge that everyone’s lives turn out the way they do because of their conscious thoughts and choices and that all of the responsibility for that should fall squarely on them.

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To give people second chances, we need to be willing to listen to their stories.   I think about this alot working as a nurse in the hospital.  I’ve had so many patients who, at the start, came off as completely disagreeable, unpleasant, and unlovable. But to my constant surprise, in almost all of those people, when I took the time to listen to their stories and showed that I cared, I would begin to notice the soft parts in them, the hurts that they carried, their fears and insecurities. And through that simple act of genuine listening, the dynamics between us would change, trust would build, and our interactions from then on would be completely different. We would find commonalities between us, and my perceptions of them would shift.  Maybe they’d still drive me nuts with their particular quirks, but I would be able to see them through alot more grace and much less frustration and irritation.

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I mentioned earlier that I don’t tend to give up on people all that easily. This is maybe one of my few good strengths, but it has also gotten me hurt on more than one occasion. Something interesting, and kind of sad, is that frequently some people don’t know what to do with people that won’t give up on them. I’ve had people push me away because they couldn’t believe that they could be cared about by someone who had no ulterior motives, no manipulative agenda in place. I’ve known people who revealed to me they were never really sure if they had ever been loved by anyone before, and felt pretty confident that no one had ever truly “seen” them.

These, I believe, are the people that are most in need of second, and third, and fourth, and fifth chances.  Everyone, I fervently believe, deserves to been seen in life.  Everyone deserves to know that they have been deeply loved by at least one other person, that their existence matters, that their worth is not based on what they look like, or what career they have, or their social status, or how clever and witty they might be.

In general, I think the people that are most hurtful to other people have never really felt seen or loved. Those who lash out at others, or withdraw from relationships out of fear, or those who are constantly in the comparison game trying to prove they are better than others….these are the ones in greatest need of more grace and second chances. These are the ones with the biggest heart wounds and the greatest disconnection with their true selves. Instead of hate and disdain, they need our compassion.

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In the Gospels, when asked by his disciples how mnay times forgivness toward a person was required, Jesus replied “seventy times seven.” Not literally 490 times, but rather, forgiveness after forgiveness after forgiveness. Grace upon grace upon grace. We ALL need it.

Whether it’s a first date, or a new friendship, or an encounter with a complete stranger…let’s all make the attempt to let go of our stories about people and really see who they are, forgiving them when they don’t meet our expectations or impress us or fail to give us what we think we need from them. Forgive the quirks, forgive the awkwardness, forgive whatever possible, because we’re all just doing the best we can, trying to make it through a world where there are no clear rules but there is alot of hidden trauma.

 

 

 

 

Bleeding Bowls and The Things We Can’t Fix

 

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Photo credit: Mate Marschalko

“Said if the last thing that I do
Is to bring you down
I’ll bleed out for you
So I bear my skin
And I count my sins
And I close my eyes
And I take it in
And I’m bleeding out
I’m bleeding out for you…”

-Bleeding Out, Imagine Dragons

Things get passed down through families.  We pass down physical characteristics, heirlooms, social habits, prejudices, and so much more. Our families of origin determine so much of who we end up being, and influence in so many ways how we approach life.

Some of the things that people pass through their families make me laugh.  I had a discussion with some coworkers the other day about how mattresses can stay in a family for decades.  One of these friends told me she still had and used a mattress that was over 60 years old. (Granted, it was one of those mattresses you could rotate and flip over). I promptly grossed out everyone at the lunch table by musing about the sheer weight of skin flakes and mites that had accumulated in the mattress during that extensive time period.  But in all fairness, I had to have a talk with my own parents about 15 years ago regarding a 30 year old mattress they thought was still a viable bedding option.  I explained that mattresses were never meant to attain vintage status, and when they can no longer maintain their shape, it’s time to let them go. My parents very begrudgingly (and with a little resentment towards me) sent that particular mattress to the dump….but they kept their other 25 year old mattress.  You’d think I was asking them to toss out the family silver or something.

Another item that families have passed down in past centuries, which I find fascinating, is bleeding bowls. The practice of bloodletting is at least 3,000 years old, and only with in the last couple of hundred years has it really finally been understood as a bad idea except in a couple of instances – like polycythemia vera where there is an overproduction of red blood cells, or when iron levels in the blood need to be kept in balance, in the case of hemochromatosis.  Way back when, illness was understood to result from the imbalance of humors in the body (yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood) of which blood was believed to be the strongest.

The history of bloodletting is rather interesting, and there are some stories of well-known people who suffered from its deleterious effects, brought on by well meaning doctors. Fortunately, scientists like Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur helped change the mindset that diseases were caused by imbalances, with the advent of Germ Theory. Still, I think this idea of letting unhelpful and harmful things out of our bodies still has some truth to it…and the process of letting out those things is no less shocking and disquieting than draining out our own physical blood stores.

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Years back, when I had different theological and ontological perspectives on the cosmos, I believed wholeheartedly in generational curses – spiritual consequences that are passed down through families as the result of sinful acts or habits, which can take root and affect generation after generation until broken off in some miraculous way.  I don’t have this fatalistic view anymore, where our external actions tragically screw us over, but I certainly believe that, somehow, traits and phenomena get genetically coded and can be passed down through families.  And I’m not talking about genetically inherited diseases, like something springing out of a gene mutation that is propagated through offspring. Although….it would be really interesting if certain gene mutations could create very specific trauma responses…

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

I’ve had panic attacks since I was about 7 or 8.  They are freaking dreadful….the worst fear I could ever imagine, and I can’t logic or rationalize my way out of them. They only happen at night, (thankfully now only every great once in a while) usually when I wake up to go to the bathroom and my mind is suddenly like, “Hey, Julie, this is a prime time to ponder the universe, God, and what eternity is!” And I quickly spiral into sheer terror, until I have the wherewithal to ground myself with some brilliant trauma technique given to me by my therapist best friend.

I’ve blogged about this phobia of eternity before:  it has a name (Apeirophobia), and is a legit THING, which makes me feel alot better about myself.  For years, I thought I was the only person in the world weird enough and neurotic enough to be afraid of existing forever.

But then, when I was already over 30, I found out that my mom had the exact same panic attacks about the exact same thing.  We got to talking one night and she described her apeirophobic fears, what triggered them, and what she experienced, and they were SPOT ON with my experiences. I was literally bowled over that this could be, because we had never discussed our panic attacks before.  Years after she passed, my dad told me more details about her panic attacks, that were again, exactly like mine.

How could my mom and I have the same panic attacks, based out of the same phobia, with the exact same trains of thought when there was nothing in our environments to create them, no one else we knew had these kinds of panic attacks, and she and I developed them independently from each other without talking about them? The only conclusion I can logically reach is that somehow they passed down from her to me. The whole process still blows my mind, and it has made me take very seriously the passing down of family patterns and dynamics through people that have absolutely nothing to do with environment or nurture (referencing the whole nature versus nurture debate).

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There’s that old saying that everyone has probably heard: Ignorance is bliss.  Sometimes I think this is absolutely true. Sometimes it’s really nice to not know what you don’t know…because then, you’re not bothered when you can’t fix something that you know is broken.

I blame alot of my mental struggles on Scott Peck…I read his book The Road Less Traveled over a decade ago and now there are things I just can’t unsee that on certain days I wish I could. Damn him, meant in the very nicest of ways. He was one of the first writers that revealed to me that I was in control of alot more of my life than I thought, that I could dig in and figure out some of the dynamics that seemed to be ruling me, and that I could make new choices and take a different path than the one I was currently on.

But this is where the problem lies in becoming more self-aware:  there are things, that no matter how freaking hard I try, I CANNOT fix!

I’ve gone to therapy, I’ve uncovered my childhood wounds, I’ve taken tests regarding Myers-Briggs, the DISC, the Four Color Personality, the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, the Enneagram, and more.  I’ve gone to church and other faith communities for over thirty years. I’ve taken depression, anxiety, and ADHD inventories, and I’ve taken plenty of SSRIs, sleep meds, Xanax, and Adderall. I spent a weekend in Reston, VA laying in a brain scanner and had my hair gooped up with electrodes and ultrasound gel for an EEG just to try and better understand what my brain was up to. I took part in a horribly claustrophobic sleep study that just gave me a wicked migraine and a diagnosis of idiopathic non-cataplexic narcolepsy and not much else. I’ve read a billion self help books, I’ve questioned my beliefs and questioned my theology. I’ve talked to really brilliant and enlightened people.  I’ve meditated (although in all fairness I think I slept through at least a third of one of the 8 hour meditation retreats I went to).

And the result of all of this?  The same damn things that I used to struggle with are the things I still struggle with. Except now I’m so much more aware of the complexities and triggers behind them.  I’m very aware of my weaknesses, my faults, and my fears….and sometimes there is nothing worse than being aware of these things and feeling helpless to actually be able to fix them once and for all.

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Maybe I’m being a little over dramatic…I mean, I have changed alot over time.  I’m much braver and more open-minded, I’m alot quicker to apologize, and I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of healing from some of my worst childhood traumatic experiences. I’ve been able to forgive people for events and words that I thought I would never be able to offer that grace to.

What I am most afraid of are the broken places in me that might somehow get passed down to my kids or affect those around me who I love. I’ve already partnered with my kids’ dad to pass on a tendency for anxiety and ADHD. What if one of my kids also develops my phobia of eternity? I’m terrified just thinking of that possibility. What if my kids also have days so dark that they wished to God they could die, as I once did?  What if my kids internalize in themselves that they aren’t lovable and that they must perform so that others will accept them?

I wish, so badly, that all of these places in me that I can’t make right could have been bloodlet out of me before they were conceived and born…so that their lives don’t have to be colored and influenced both genetically and environmentally by the imperfect in their mom. I’m trying hard, but often unsuccessfully, to trust in the universe’s plan to have people grow up through the process of parenting…kids really get the shitty end of the deal here on alot of days, being parented by moms and dads who are still trying to find their own way.

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A friend of mine told me years ago, when my oldest was a baby, that we’ll be successful as parents if we introduce our kids to God and teach them how to contact a therapist. I guess I’m doing OK, then.  I’m trying hard to show them how magical and enchanted life is, and we’ve already logged plenty of therapy hours.

But my heart was torn this morning when I dropped one of my sons off at school, and while moving through the car rider lane, he expressed to me how frustrated he was that he’s been working on a particular struggle for three years and it hasn’t resolved yet.

Oh kid, I told him, I’m still working on some of the same things I was working on twenty years ago.

I’m not sure if he was relieved or horrified by that.

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I don’t know if other people are similar to me in this, but I’ve realized lately that I carry a belief that everything needs to be resolved and all loose ends tied up by the time we die…like, we have to end this one life with all the games pieces tidily placed back in the box.  Where did I get this idea? Probably from the linear worldview I grew up with that we are dealt this one hand at life and if we don’t get it right that’s our last chance.

The idea of reincarnation or multiple existences in different forms actually makes more sense to me these days, but my other belief sets haven’t kept up with the evolving pace of this one. I still tend to live through benchmarks and milestones – markers to let me know if I’m on track.  Which is stupid because I’ve learned that those benchmarks don’t mean jack squat in the grand scheme of things.  I mean, I graduated high school, went to college, got married, bought a house, had kids…bam, bam, bam…all like you’re supposed to per the American dream, and the process of ticking those things off wasn’t always that great.

I wonder how I would live out each day if I believed…like, really believed…that I had an infinite amount of time to engage with these things in me that I can’t fix. What if eternity, that seemingly terrifying construct, is really not about reaching a state of perfection and then sitting there bored as hell for eon after eon, but more about having endless grace-filled space to keep changing, evolving, and growing without any time constraints being put on us?

I think if I could get to this place, it would change everything. The stupid things that stress me out on a daily basis would be so inconsequential….like the messy house and pee on the bathroom floor, the fact that I did not inherit a handyperson gene, the fact that I can’t read my own handwriting two seconds after I write anything, the fact that I get so completely panicked during the holidays.

And then, the big things…the traumas that have influenced how I approach life, the people that I can’t seem to get over or can’t quite forgive, and the glaring faults I perceive within myself…they wouldn’t have to be fixed RIGHT NOW. I would have time and grace to work on myself and allow changes to occur at a relaxed and safe, rather than frantic and obligated pace. Maybe then, too, I could offer my own boys the time and grace they need to grow and change, without the need to be perfect right away.

What if letting go of the belief that everything has to be changed and fixed RIGHT NOW is one of the best ways to avoid propagating trauma and fear in my kids and those around me?  What if the whole point is not to radically bloodlet everything bad out of ourselves, but to learn to be comfortable with the imbalances and know that there is not some divine timer out there ticking away and threatening an imminent end of our game of life if we can’t get our shit together promptly?

What if we have more time and grace and space and love then we ever imagined?  This could change EVERYTHING.

Mold Juice, Staying Curious, and Why the Details Matter

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Photo credit: Nathan Meijer

I’m a huge audiobook buff and am regularly listening to multiple titles at any one time. I especially love historical non-fiction, specifically when the progression of scientific topics are written about through a biographical or narrative lens. One of the most interesting books I’ve listened to in the last couple of years…which was really long but oh so worth it….is The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddartha Mukherjee. There’s really nothing better, in my opinion, than when a great science writer can take a complicated topic like genetics and transform it into a fun and educating read that the general public can grasp.

Right now I’m listening to an audiobook by Bill Bryson, one of my all-time favorite writers, called The Body: A Guide for Occupants. I have a friend who insists Bill Bryson isn’t really a science writer, but I beg to differ and offer this book as proof. Either way, if you haven’t read any of his stuff, you are really missing out and I suggest you pause reading this blog post and go discover his writing. It is well worth your time.

While listening to The Body yesterday driving up to Chicago from Indianapolis, I learned a story from Bryson about the discovery of penicillin that I’d never heard before.  Of course, I’ve known for years that penicillin was the first antibiotic that was discovered, but I didn’t know the details of how that happened. (Either that or I had zoned out that particular day in biology class.) The best part of this discovery that helped change the face of medicine?  It was completely by accident! Here’s the story:

Fleming was working on antiseptic research in the 1920s with our good old bacterial friend staphylococcus. At one point, when he left on a two-week vacation, he inadvertently left a petri dish of staphylococcus cultures sitting on the lab bench instead of putting them in the incubator. Somehow….SOMEHOW….the temperature and humidity conditions were just right that year, and preparation of the culture had let an air-traveling Penicillium mold spore from somewhere around the lab settle into the dish….and when Fleming returned, he found that bacteria were dying where the mold was present.  Fleming called this Penicillium powerhouse “mold juice”, which I find hysterical.  He wasn’t able to figure out how to isolate this antibiotic in his own work, and it took the medical community a while to understand the immense breakthrough this discovery was.  But, eventually, two other scientists furthered the work on penicillin and were able to mass-produce it just in time for use in World War II.

Here’s a statement he made later in his life:

“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”

Takeaway? Sometimes the very best things in life happen by complete accident! But, they happen when we pay attention to the mundane, and when we pay attention to the details.

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As I am steadily marching through the last few months until my fortieth birthday, I have finally fully embraced the fact that I have some serious quirks.  So much of the weirdness about myself that I once tried to burn away in order to make myself more palatable to others….I say TO HELL WITH IT now. At my core, I’ll always be a little weird, cooky, and eccentric and I am OK with it. I find myself much more interesting to me this way.

Over the last few years, I’ve also noticed something about aging that I did not expect. (Or, maybe it’s not necessarily related to aging per se, but more to alot of great therapy and shadow work.) I’m becoming more intensely curious about life – about people, about quantum physics, about gene therapy, about the cosmos, about music…about everything. Even when life is busy and stressful, I wake up wondering what I’m going to learn about that day.  This is such an odd juxtaposition to how I woke up each morning for almost 2/3rds of my life…where I would groan to myself and be like, “Again?  I have to get up and do this again? When will it be over, already?!” It is an amazing feeling to actually WANT to get out of bed each morning when you’ve never been used to experiencing that.

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Our world has been changed time and again by accidental scientific discoveries.  Think about x rays – that medical imaging technique we use thousands of times each day in hospitals and clinics across the globe, used in everything from mammograms to the diagnosis of pneumonia and broken bones – discovered when physics professor Wilhelm Roentgen was putzing in his lab in 1895 trying to determine if cathode rays could pass through glass.

Or how about the saccharin sweetener found in products like Sweet ‘N Low….that ubiquitous sugar alternative found in grimy condiment holders in diners and eating establishments everywhere. Constantine Fahlberg was working in a lab at Johns Hopkins in 1879 and made the ill-advised but serendipitous decision to eat lunch without washing his hands first.  He had unknowingly spilled a chemical on his hands while working, which he later tasted while chowing down. That chemical was saccharin, and our fake sugar addictions owe him thanks.

Or the slinky…originally designed to be a support for delicate equipment on ships.

Or the microwave, first created in the 1940s….thank God they aren’t 750 pounds anymore.

Or LSD, again accidentally discovered by a scientist researching a fungus that grows on rye, once more as the result of poor handwashing hygiene. Whether or not LSD changed the world for the better is controversial, but it certainly had a significant impact on things.

Or…. a myriad of other discoveries made by people who were in the right place at the right time, who paid attention to details and took the time to investigate further.

*************************************************************************************I have this one big strong voice in my head that I’ve fought against most of my life.  It’s the one that daily torments me, telling me that I’m a quitter, that I’m good at starting but never finishing, that I have no follow-through. The annoying thing about these voices is that they usually get their start with a particular person in your life, a person you love and respect enough that you believe the stupid things they say to you at their not-so-great moments…and there is usually enough truth in what is being said that you internalize it and then generalize it across the entirety of your life.

I’m so painfully aware of the big things in life that I’ve quit.  I’ve usually had really good reasons for quitting various endeavors, but sometimes I have quit things simply because I did not have enough faith in myself. It’s a terrible cycle….you don’t have faith in yourself to succeed at things you try, so you quit, and then you feel shittier about yourself, and the cycle continues.  That cycle spins faster when you have those external voices talking to you, too, assuring you that you are indeed a quitter.

That being said, I also have grace-filled voices in my life who help me reframe all of these negative beliefs about myself.  What would it look like, Julie, they say, if you stopped labeling your ADHD as a disorder? What if your ability to start well is a strength, and the trick is to team up with people who aren’t great at starting but who are great at finishing?  Others remind me on my bad days how I keep getting up again and again, and never quit at life even though there were times in the past where it was all I wanted to do.

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I love talking to people who have done a billion different jobs in their lives, and those who have a wide range of hobbies.  They are some of the most interesting people. These are the kinds of patients I care for in the hospital that get me into the most trouble regarding time management because I want to sit and hear their stories and how they transitioned from one path to another and how all those paths created and changed them.

When I look back on my own life, I’m kind of amazed at some of the stuff I’ve gotten to do, places I’ve been privileged to travel, and the wicked awesome people I’ve met. Despite my struggle over the years with depression and anxiety (which finally lifted a few years ago), I’ve lived a very full life.

But, something that I am most in awe about is that so much of the randomness of the first three decades of my life…where there seemed to be so much disconnection, irrelevance, and moments of epic quitting things and jumping ship for new paths…is that there is suddenly a magical convergence of all of these things. Everything in my past mattered, and it was like I had to get tho this particular point in life to see that EVERYTHING BELONGS and if we are patient and pay attention, it will all come together.

I’m probably being a little obscure here, but that’s because recounting my entire life story in one little blog post would be overkill. But here’s a brief outline of what I”m trying to say:

Where I currently am….as a nurse pursuing an MSN in forensic nursing and building up a significant writing side hustle…all pretty much happened by accident, but totally as the result of me being curious both about myself and about the world.  Here and there over the years, I paid attention to important details; it was those details that made the difference, even though I didn’t know at the time how they would be important.

Here are a few of accidents that happened early on in my life that I paid attention to and extrapolated upon, in no particular order:

  1. I recognized my own brokenness and trauma…instead of ignoring it, I started digging in and learning about my inner self and why I was such a damned mess.
  2. I was interested in science, so did chemistry research throughout college. This gave me some random skills that are serving me well now. I then worked in what seemed to be fairly random science-related jobs post-college – like blood sugar meter test strip research, blood filtration research, and vegetable physiology research.
  3. I thought I would like working in healthcare, so I did overseas medical trips in underdeveloped countries where I got a glimpse of how much so much of the world lives.
  4. I like to write…so I kept trying to get braver and do more of it while actually marketing myself.
  5. My mom told me I could major in anything in college as long as it was chemistry, physics, biology, or engineering.  Hopefully not biology, and math would probably be acceptable. So, I went with biochemistry.
  6. I did weasel in a second major of missions; which helped provide me with a good foundational understanding of cross-cultural learning and sensitivity.  Anthropological and cultural studies never get boring.
  7. I had amazing people come into my life, all at the right times and for various reasons, through no credit of my own.  But to my credit, I’ve managed to not run all of them off.

These, and so many other details that seemed insignificant when they occurred contributed to the magic that is happening in my life right now. Where I am now happened because of so many little accidents, so many unintentional jaunts into new territory, simply out of my own curiosity after noticing something small but interesting.

What I also find interesting is that this magic wouldn’t be happening if I hadn’t done ALOT of quitting. So take that you dumbass persistent voice in my head!  If I had stayed the course on so many of my endeavors, I wonder if I would have had all these awesome life experiences that I have had? I can’t help but believe that if I hadn’t quit things and taken some major detours out of my familiar comfort zone, I would have remained alot more narrow-minded and self-centered.

Life isn’t over until it’s over. I’m so glad I know that now, and that I didn’t give up on it twenty years ago when I would lay in bed, miserable, for days on end. There is always time for new things to spring up out of everything that seems irrelevant, useless, or dead. It is just a matter of holding everything that happens, allowing them to be, and trusting that we live in a benevolent universe that will raise up new life out of dry bones.

Sacred accidents rise out of the mundane, like penicillin from mold in a petri dish. Recognizing them just takes curiosity and a willingness to look closely at the details most people would simply pass over without a second glance. However, hand-washing before eating meals will forever be a good practice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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”.