(3) Notes and Quotes from “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” by Beth Allison Barr: Chapters 5-6

Chapter 5: Writing Women Out of the English Bible

… all biblical translations are written by human hands.

A conveniently forgotten truth, that translations are written by fallible humans. This truth is one to hold onto, my friends.

By fall 1997, the battle lines were drawn. Secular culture, especially the feminist movement, was changing Scripture in a dangerous way, and it was time for Christians to fight back.

The exact note I have in my book for this quote is, “Oh, GAG.” And this “battle”? Gender inclusive language in the Bible, something that from Barr’s historian point of view is more accurate than the male dominated language. Barr says the following:

Yet, as a medieval historian, I know that Christians translated Scripture in gender-inclusive ways long before the feminist movement. I’ll admit that the debate also scares me. It scares me for the same reason that it amuses me: because gender-inclusive language has a long history in the church, the debate shows how much modern evangelical Christians have forgotten church history.

This is just a funny little tidbit here. These Christians in 1997 thought the feminist movement was so dangerous, that it was such a big deal, when in reality the gender debate was nothing new. Do they even know church history? Seems not.

The Protestant Reformation changed how the Bible was used by Christians, but it didn’t introduce the Bible to Christians. English translations of biblical text existed long before the Reformation.

Just a little reminder for everyone that the Reformation wasn’t the beginning of it all. It wasn’t the beginning of Christianity, and it certainly wasn’t the beginning of the Bible. The Bible published as a single bound book happened in the 1500s, but the Bible did exist before it was a single bound book.

I was struck by how the SBC leaders harped on 1 Timothy 3:2, that overseers should be husband of one wife. They used this as ironclad proof that senior pastors had to be men. Yet Lucy Peppiatt shows us how 1 Timothy 3, the chapter so often cited by the male leaders of the conservative resurgence as articulating why only men can preach, was shaped by English-language translations to look more masculine than it actually is. We assume 1 Timothy 3:1-13 is referencing men in leadership roles (overseer/bishop and deacon). But is this because of how our English Bibles translate the text? Whereas the Greek text uses the words whoever and anyone, with the only specific reference to man appearing in verse 12 (a literal Greek translation of the phrase is “one woman man,” referencing the married state of deacons), modern English Bibles have introduced eight to ten male pronouns within the verses. None of those male pronouns in our English Bibles are in the Greek text. Peppiatt concludes that the problem with female leadership is not actually the biblical text; it is the “relentless and dominant narrative of male bias” in translations.

“Whoever” and “anyone,” you say? Interesting. Those original pronouns sure do seem gender neutral. I wonder why they were changed? A head-scratcher, for sure. Here’s just 1 Timothy 3:4-7 (NIV) with all the male pronouns in bold:

He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

Please don’t ever think that pronouns are insignificant.

From this perspective, gender-inclusive language isn’t distorting Scripture. Gender-inclusive language is restoring Scripture from the influence of certain English Bible translations.

Well, what a refreshing shift in perspective. And from a historian, no less.

The English Bible makes it clear that Genesis 2:22-24 sanctifies marriage. Yet neither the word marriage nor the word wife appear in the Hebrew text.

Genesis 2:22-24 (KJV), often under the heading “Institution of Marriage”: “And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”

Funny side-note: Several years ago, I and my husband were actually a part of a Bible study called “Leave and Cleave.” It was … not our favorite.

Chapter 6: Sanctifying Subordination

Medieval women moved closest to equality with men when they were furthest from the married state.

Well that’s just not Christian. Come on now. Moving along…

After the Reformation, the spiritual economy flipped, so wives received the highest honors, followed by widows. This time, virgins — now demeaned as spinsters instead of celebrated as saints — brought up the rear.

This is sounding more Christian. Phew!

To be a Christian woman was to be under the authority of men.

This is definitely the Christianity I know. Huzzah!

During the nineteenth century, a similar fixation with female purity emerged — stemming from a new ideology about women, work, and family life — which historians call the cult of domesticity.

OK, back to reality. I don’t want to be part of a cult. Do you?

Purity culture thus shamed women in the nineteenth century as it continues to shame women today.

(Because that’s what Jesus came to do: shame women. Among other things, of course.) Barr goes on in this section to chronicle many of the times that people broke the “rules” and Jesus responded with love. So if a girl let her bra strap show at Bible camp, Jesus wouldn’t condemn her.

Once again, the world in which we live oppresses women, fighting to control their bodies from their “natural” fallenness. … Once again, the God we serve has always done the opposite. Jesus has always set women free.

And to this I say as genuinely as it gets, “Thank you, Jesus.”

Perhaps the most famous early proponent of complementarity was the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his famous text Emile, he expounded his philosophy of education for women, arguing that “the search for abstract and speculative truths, for principles and axioms in science, for all that tends to wide generalization, is beyond a woman’s grasp; their studies should be thoroughly practical.”

“Quit being so selfish, Jean,” and give the women some credit. And speaking of practical, Jean, I’d like to see where we’d be today if it weren’t for women.

What evangelicals have failed to realize, explains Randall Balmer, is that the “traditional concept of femininity” that we believe to be from the Bible is nothing more than “a nineteenth-century construct.”

Christians, oh CHRISTIANS, did you hear that? Certainly we can believe that we are above adhering to a nineteenth-century human-made construct, right? Right. Good. Moving on.

History matters, and for modern evangelical women, nineteenth-century history has mattered far more than it ever should have.

Yep.

See you next time for chapters 7-8.

(2) Notes and Quotes from “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” by Beth Allison Barr: Chapters 3-4

Chapter 3: Our Selective Medieval Memory

“Blessed God, may you be praised, who, among the other infinite boons and favors which You have bestowed upon the feminine sex, desired that woman carry such lofty and worthy news.”

Let’s goooooo. Here, Barr is quoting Christine de Pizan — “a professional writer who lived in the late fourteenth century France and was employed by the French court.” Jesus, by authorizing Mary Magdalene the right to speak with authority, gave women “the freedom to speak.” Go, Jesus! Way to be a contrarian.

So, for medieval Christians, Mary of Bethany was not just a woman who sat quietly at the feet of Jesus; she was a repentant prostitute and former demoniac. She was the apostle of the apostles — the first apostle who carried the good news of the resurrection. She was a missionary of Christ, affirmed by Peter. She preached openly, performed miracles that paralleled those of the apostles, and converted a new land to the Christian faith.

Dang, Mary! You are a total rock star. Well, for medieval Christians, that is. Why is that, though? Why don’t modern Christians talk about you? Preach about you? Regard you as the apostle of the apostles? Sad.

In a world that didn’t accept the word of a woman as a valid witness, Jesus chose women as witnesses for his resurrection. In a world that gave husbands power over the very lives of their wives, Paul told husbands to do the opposite — to give up their lives for their wives. In a world that saw women as biologically deformed men, monstrous even, Paul declared that men were just like women in Christ.

People. This is big. REALLY big. (That’s what she said.) But seriously, Jesus comes in and completely upends tradition, cultural norms, rules. Reminds me of a one of my favorite quotes from good ol’ Walt Whitman: “Resist much, obey little.” Jesus seems to understand that there are times to break the rules. I’d agree.

No, the problem wasn’t a lack of biblical and historical evidence for women to serve as leaders along with men in the church. The problem was male clergy who undermined the evidence.

But good Christian men wouldn’t do that, would they? Are you alive? Have you seen all the crap “good Christian men” have gotten up to in the church? It’s embarrassing. It’s inexcusable. It’s a mess. Sexual abuse, affairs, stealing church funds, narcissism, lies — not to mention gross justification for private jets, mansions, extravagantly expensive sneakers, etc. I could go on; you know this. So are modern Christian men so very different than the men who contributed to the different translations of the Bible? Barr goes on to quote New Testament scholar Ben Witherington:

“No, the problem in the church is not strong women, but rather weak men who feel threatened by strong women, and have tried various means, even by dubious exegesis, to prohibit them from exercising their gifts and graces in the church.”

How are feeling right now? A little threatened? First, let me ask: are you a man? If yes, then read the entirety of this book. Next, are you a woman? If yes, then read the entirety of this book. Then we’ll talk. Because if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable, GOOD. Dig into that. (By reading Barr’s book.)

… “women have been preaching in the Christian tradition from the earliest historical moments, perhaps only days after Jesus Christ was crucified and his resurrection announced” …

Barr uses Elaine Lawless’s words here, and do you know why? Because writers know that sometimes someone else writes something so clearly, so eloquently, that they couldn’t possibly re-word it. This is an example of this. Lawless makes it pretty clear that women have been in the preaching game for a long time, preaching after and about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Boom, done. Up next is another one, this time by a guy named Abelard who is thought to have given the “last defense” for women’s ordination:

Abelard argued that female ordination “was established by Jesus himself and not by the apostles, specifically rejecting the teaching that only the male priesthood and diaconate were part of the original church.”

Seems reasonable. Logical, even. But female ordination went the way of all things, and soon enough, the church became full of male priests being ordained by male clergy. What the heck?

Could it be that another building block for modern biblical womanhood is simply that evangelicals have rewritten Christian history?

Could it be, indeed. Sigh.

Chapter 4: The Cost of the Reformation for Evangelical Women

While it could have affirmed women’s spiritual equality with men, the Reformation instead ushered in a “renewed patriarchalism” that placed married women firmly under the headship of their husbands.

Well that’s depressing.

Reformation theology might have removed the priest, but it replaced him with the husband. . . . In an eerie echo of the ancient Roman paterfamilias, the orderly household once again became the barometer for both the state and the church, and the waning power of the Catholic priest was balanced by the waxing power of the Protestant husband.

We sure do have a way of taking a good thing and messing it up, don’t we?

1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing.” In one of only two medieval sermons to discuss this verse, the sermon casts the woman (the “she” in the verse) as an example for all Christians, who must go through the pain (like childbirth) of cleansing themselves of sin before experiencing the joy of salvation (the child itself).

This verse is wacky, and I’ve heard different interpretations. One is that these particular women Paul is talking to are recent followers of Artemis, their “mother goddess,” and that when they give birth without Artemis’s help or blessing, they know they’ve been saved by Jesus. But this medieval sermon Barr shares is fascinating, too. For all the women out there who have given birth, you know it’s painful. But the joy of that newborn baby is unrivalled. So a cleansing of sin and joy of salvation is a neat analogy.

In other words, a shift occurred across the Reformation era in how preachers used Paul.

Just before this, Barr brought up an example of a sermon by a man named Lancelot Andrews that used the childbearing verses as some kind of divine ordination of women as homemakers. And then Isaac Marlow published a tract that argued “Women ought neither to teach nor pray vocally in the Church of Christ.” He goes on to argue that singing is considered teaching and since women clearly should not teach, they should not sing. As someone who has sung most days of her life, I am offended.

Paul had less impact on attitudes toward women within late medieval English sermons. In the aftermath of the Reformation, however, Paul came to define Christian womanhood. . . . The question is, of course, why? Why the shift in how Pauline texts were used in regard to women?

Yeah, I think that’s exactly the question I had reading through this chapter. So here we go:

The medieval reality was that most men would never be priests, placing them — strangely enough — on more spiritually equal footing with women. The spiritual headship of a husband didn’t matter so much in a patriarchal world where both husbands and wives had to go as individuals through a priest for the necessary sacraments. But it did matter in a world in which patriarchy was already the norm and women potentially had as much spiritual power as men did. Patriarchy had to shapeshift to adapt to the new Reformation world.

So there needed to be action. Patriarchy wasn’t going to shapeshift on its own. It needed help. Early modern reformers most likely did the easiest thing:

The emphasis on Pauline texts by early modern reformers was born into a secular world already supported by a gender hierarchy.

I imagine the conversation went like this: “OK, so gender hierarchy is already a thing? Cool, cool cool cool. Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s do that. Men, sound good to everyone? Yeah. K cool lez do ittt.”

Rather than Protestant reformers reviving a biblical model, they were simply mapping Scripture onto a preceding secular structure. Instead of Scripture transforming society, Paul’s writings were used to prop up the patriarchal practices already developing in the early modern world.

One word here: UGH. Now brace yourself for this next quote:

Women’s identities were now subsumed within the family. . . . As the role of wife expanded, the opportunities for women outside of marriage shrank. The family became not only the center of a woman’s world but her primary identity as a good Christian.

This just makes me think of the little blurb Christian women put on their social media bios. The descriptor “wife” is almost always on there. But do men include “husband” on their bios? I don’t see that as much…

Instead of Scripture transforming society, society transformed how early modern Christians interpreted the Bible — and this was compounded (as we will see in the next chapter) by the proliferation of the English Bible.

Well fantastic. See you next time for the next couple of chapters.

And, again, if you’re itching for something to do in the interim, check out my and my husband’s podcast: Red Weather Christians.

Notes and Quotes from “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” by Beth Allison Barr

One: The Beginning of Patriarchy

Let me show you, from the world history sources I have been teaching for more than two decades, how much Christian patriarchy mimics the patriarchy of the non-Christian world.

Here we go! I love this sentence from the first chapter because it sets up Barr’s ethos (credibility) as an author. She is a historian. She has studied this stuff for decades. She has taught this stuff for decades. So let’s pay attention when she says that Christians are like non-Christians when it comes to patriarchy. This is a problem, my Christian friends. We are supposed to be set apart, remember?

It was okay to hire a woman to answer the phone, but the job would be demeaning to a man.

She tells the story of her qualified male friend who applied for the church secretary position. He was denied, even though he was in financial need. The pastor assumed he wouldn’t want to answer the phone. Think about what this is saying: “the job would be demeaning to a man.” Hmm.

This example of a man being deemed above the work suitable for a woman fits into a larger social pattern in which men’s work is more highly valued than women’s.

Sounds like the secular world, amiright?

Shouldn’t Christians, who are called to be different from the world, treat women differently? What if patriarchy isn’t divinely ordained but is a result of human sin?

Barr talks about how “Babylonian law allowed husbands to drown their wives for alleged adultery” but also how her students live in a state (Texas) in which “women make up 94 percent of the victims in domestic partner murder-suicides.” Ick. Call it what it is (patriarchy), and stop considering it a point of pride in Christianity. Let’s treat women better.

Instead of looking different in how we treated women, Christians looked just like everyone else.

What happened to Christians being radically different from the world?

The first human sin built the first human hierarchy.

So what if hierarchy wasn’t God’s plan for humans? What if when Adam and Eve ate of that darned fruit, their consequence was that the ground was to be master over the man, and the man was to be master over the woman?

Patriarchy wasn’t what God wanted; patriarchy was a result of human sin.

Oof.

As Du Mez explains, “For Bushnell, male authority over women contradicted God’s will and perpetuated man’s original rebellion against God.” Women thus “continued to commit the sin of Eve when they submitted to men, rather than to God.” Adam’s rebellion was claiming God’s authority for himself, and Eve’s rebellion was submitting to Adam in place of God.

So what you’re saying here, Barr (and Du Mez and Bushnell), is that if we women have been submitting to our husbands as the authority figure in our lives, we’ve been sinning? Wow. That sure does change things.

Patriarchy walks with structural racism and systemic oppression, and it has done so consistently throughout history.

Well this is uncomfortable.

Clarice J. Martin asks a provocative question: “How can black male preachers and theologians use a liberated hermeneutic while preaching and theologizing about slaves, but a literalist hermeneutic with reference to women?” I would like to ask the same question of white preachers and theologians. When we rightly understand that biblical passages discussing slavery must be framed within their historical context and that, through the lens of this historical context, we can better see slavery as an ungodly system that stands contrary to the gospel of Christ, how can we not then apply the same standards to biblical texts about women?

How can we not, indeed. This picking and choosing of what is liberated hermeneutic or literalist hermeneutic has always baffled me. How to choose? Who gets to choose? Can I choose? Could be fun…

Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy.

OK, Barr, you’ve pretty well established your ethos (not only does she have loads of experience studying women in history, but she also has quite the erudite writing style), but now — on to the logos, the evidence. Can’t wait to dig into this!

The most difficult passages in the Bible to explain, historically speaking, are those like Galatians 3:26-28: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is what is radical. This is what makes Christianity so different from the rest of human history.

Preach, Sister.

Isn’t it ironic (not to mention tiresome) that we spend so much time fighting to make Christianity look like the world around us instead of fighting to make it look like Jesus Christ?

Hittin’ us with that pathos — that emotional appeal. This makes me want to stand up on a soapbox with a megaphone (and I can’t stand those people). But it gets me pumped up! And Alanis Morissette would have definitely added this to her song had she read this book first. It’s that ironic.

Two: What If Biblical Womanhood Doesn’t Come from Paul?

Paul frames every aspect of complementarian teachings. Evangelicals read Pauline texts as designating permanent and divinely ordained role distinctions between the sexes. Men wield authority that women cannot. Men lead, women follow. Paul tells us so.

Barr goes on to explain why so many of her students hate Paul. I can say there was a period of time for me when I thought I hated Paul as well. But what Barr continues explaining in this chapter is that perhaps we’ve been “reading Paul wrong.” Oh, suspense!

The evangelical church fears that recognizing women’s leadership will mean bowing to cultural peer pressure. But what if the church is bowing to cultural peer pressure by denying women’s leadership?

I like where this is going. I like it a lot!

The truth — the evangelical reality — is that we have focused so much on adapting Paul to be like us that we have forgotten to adapt ourselves to what Paul is calling us to be: one in Christ.

BOOM goes the dynamite. Yeah, I resonate with this. And don’t worry: Barr provides tons of verses in this chapter to support her statements.

By allowing a woman to anoint him with oil, Jesus overturns male headship — allowing a woman to do what only men had been able to do until that moment: anoint the king.

Jesus was a radical guy, what can I say. He’s like, “IN YO’ FACE, MEN!” (Probably.)

Pope John Paul II’s stance: using Paul’s writings in Ephesians 5 to justify male headship and female subordination in marriage would be the equivalent of using those passages to justify slavery.

Again, I’m uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing.

Rather than New Testament “texts of terror” for women, what if the household codes can be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy?

DOWN WITH THE (Roman) PATRIARCHY!

The Christian structure of the house church resists the patriarchal world of the Roman Empire.

Well, as it should. Now what happened between then and now to bring patriarchy back into the Christian community? (I am hearing in my head a reimagining of Justin Timberlake’s lyrics “I’m Bringing Sexy Back,” but instead of “sexy,” it’s “patriarchy” and instead of being sexy, it’s just pitifully sad.)

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) Yes, wives are to submit, but so are husbands. Instead of making Christians just another part of the Roman crowd (emphasizing female submission), the mutual submission in verse 21 is “characteristic of a way of life that sets believers apart from the nonbelieving world.”

Isn’t it strange (and alarming) that it seems Christians have become more like the ancient Roman crowd than radically different?

The subjection of women is highlighted in the ESV translation of Ephesians 5, and the call for husbands to submit is minimized — not because Paul meant it that way but because the complementarian translators of the ESV wanted it that way.

And now, for a quick music break: “I Want It That Way,” by the ever-popular Backstreet Boys.

Seven times throughout his letters, as Beverly Roberts Gaventa has found, Paul uses maternal imagery to describe his ongoing relationship with the church congregations he helped found. … What made female bodies weak in the Roman world made them strong in the writings of Paul. … Just because modern evangelicals overlook Paul’s radical use of maternal imagery doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It just means that, once again, we have gotten Paul wrong.

I used to despise Paul because I thought he was the main guy who taught female submission. But now I’m realizing that maybe we’ve simply been missing his point. This gives me hope.

Not only did early Christians place women in leadership roles; they met together on equal footing — men, women, children, and slaves — in the privacy of the home, a traditionally female space. Christianity was deviant and immoral because it was perceived as undermining ideals of Roman masculinity. Christianity was repugnant … because it didn’t follow the Roman household codes — not because it followed them.

Well, I’ve always liked to be a bit of a rule-breaker. You know, to keep life interesting. It’s probably why I married Steve.

What if instead of replicating an ancient gender hierarchy, Paul was showing us how the Christian gospel sets even the Roman household free?

Yes. I choose that.

Paul was an educated Roman citizen. He would have been familiar with contemporary rhetorical practices that corrected faulty understanding by quoting the faulty understanding and then refuting it. … When Corinthians 14:34-35 is read as a quotation representing a Corinthian practice, Paul’s purpose seems clear: to distinguish what the Corinthians were doing (“women be silent”), and to clarify that Christians should not be following the Corinthian practice (“What!”).

“What!” is right! That completely flips the narrative that I’ve been hearing from the pulpit most of my life, that women should be silent. Perhaps Paul is saying the complete opposite. That’s some fascinating stuff right there, gals.

Could it be that, instead of telling women to be silent like the Roman world did, Paul was actually telling men that, in the world of Jesus, women were allowed to speak? … Instead of heeding his rebuke and freeing women to speak, are we continuing the very patriarchal practices that Paul was condemning?

Well if that’s not something important for all of us mere mortals to mull over, I don’t know what it. So go ahead: mull.

Women really did lead and teach in the early church, even as deacons and apostles. Junia was accepted as an apostle until nearly modern times, when her name began to be translated as a man’s name: Junias. … Junia became Junias because modern Christians assumed that only a man could be an apostle.

And here I will simply transcribe what I wrote in the margin of my book: “messed up!”

Seminary textbooks are often written by pastors — not by historians (and especially not by women historians).

That’s juuuuust a little friendly reminder for everyone.

That’s it for Chapters 1 and 2. We’ll see you next time for the next couple of chapters. (I need to take a nap; I’m exhausted.)

Looking for something to do in the interim? Check out my and my husband’s new podcast, “Red Weather Christians.”

Grief and Miscarriage — in Quito, Ecuador

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost

One of my first little class activities for my students is to use cut-out lines of this poem (one per student, in groups depending on the size of the class) to try to put the poem back together based on content, rhyme, and chronology. Sometimes the students vaguely remember this poem from the book The Outsiders, and it’s fun to see when that lightbulb turns on. It’s gratifying to see the students working together to figure things out like, “Oh my gosh, these lines rhyme!” or, “Maybe because this line says ‘first,’ it should be the first line!” Then we get to discuss their choices and, ultimately, the poem itself.

As I begin prep work to tutor a student this year (as I am not full-time teaching anymore), I came across the activity and poem again. Wonderful memories of first days of school flooded back. What a joy it was to teach. What a joy it was to get to know the students and form real relationships with them.

I read this poem again, and my heart is flooded with something else, too.

Grief.

One of the very beautiful things about poems is that you go into them with your own life experiences: your burdens, your hurts, your joys, your worries, your faith, yourself. To a fourteen-year-old, this poem might mean a loss of a friendship, a loss of a love interest, a loss of closeness with parents, a loss of parents’ marriage, a loss of “childhood” and the time that came with it, or even a loss of identity.

I empathize with my students. It is not easy being a teenager and navigating the relationships, the friendships, the politics, the parents, the social media. It’s completely overwhelming, and I’m glad I made it through. But I’ll never forget how hard it was.

But for me in this season of life, I think of the golden excitement of being pregnant . . .
and then not being pregnant anymore.

~

Trigger warning: Miscarriage description. Graphic.

~

Two Thursdays ago, I peed and noticed some pink color. I had just gotten home from a particularly rough city-streets-and-sidewalks bike ride, so I thought there was a chance I had exercised a little too hard. And when it was just the one instance of pink over the course of the next few days, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief. The following Sunday I went to get my blood drawn to “prove” to the insurance company here in Ecuador that I was, indeed, pregnant. My HCG levels were in the 7-week range, even though I was 10 weeks. I was a little concerned, but I knew worrying wouldn’t help anything. I tried to put it out of my mind. Then on Wednesday there was that pink color again, but more. And then the pink turned a little more red. But it was really slow, and I had zero pain. I thought maybe I had twins and I was losing one of them. I googled it, and I had all the symptoms: I was older, I had lower HCB levels, the pain was on par with a mild period.

I had hope.

Thursday came, and I was still bleeding, slowly but steadily. I decided to make an appointment with an OBGYN. I got on the phone with him directly, and he told me to go ahead and come in that evening, that he’d make room for me. My kind-hearted neighbor offered to take me, my other neighbors offered to watch my kids, and, because Steve was still at school and somewhat unreachable, I accepted the help. (I am learning to accept help. It is a work in progress. But I was incredibly thankful for the kindness of my neighbors. I will bake them bread in the near future.)

The ultrasound clearly showed an egg sac.

But it was empty. And it was an irregular shape (not perfectly round). My kind doctor told me that the baby was not in the sac and that the sac had started detaching from the uterine wall. There was a teeny tiny little shape just below the sac, and my doctor said that it might be the baby.

Such a sad little gray lump on the screen.

He measured the sac and told me it measured about 7 weeks. He drew a line to show me how big a 7-week baby would be. He then drew a line about quadruple that, and way beyond the size of the sac, to show me how big an 11-week baby would be (which on that Thursday was the size baby I was supposed to have). I learned that something had gone awry around 6 or 7 weeks and that it was just now physically manifesting in my body.

We finished up with the ultrasound, sat back down at his desk, and discussed options: pills to expedite the process, a D&C (dilation and curettage — basically a scraping of the uterine lining to get everything out), or waiting it out. I chose to wait. I had done this three times already, so I felt I knew what to expect. I knew the worst was coming. I could brace for that.

I walked back out to the waiting room and cried as I hugged my neighbor. She drove me home. Steve was then at soccer with the boys, so I texted him “Miscarriage.”

I ordered Sushi on UberEats. I enjoyed what I wanted before anyone else got home.

My 9- and 6-year-olds were very sad about the news. My two-year-old was sad because he could see that I was crying; he opened his eyes wide and said, “Awww.” It was cute, in the most devastating way.

After reading a chapter of Christopher Mouse to the boys and tucking them in, I went out to watch some Netflix with Steve.

And wait.

I didn’t have to wait long. The blood started flowing heavier and heavier. Oftentimes, shuffling back from the bathroom to watch a few more minutes of our show, I didn’t even get to the couch before I had to turn around and head back to the bathroom.

Here’s my experience with miscarriage: when it comes, you know. The bleeding becomes very heavy and there are blood clots, ranging in size from very small to two inches in diameter. It’s terrifying.

And you know that one of those clots is the fetus.

This miscarriage was so sudden, I had a difficult time managing it. And in Ecuador, the plumbing is such that you are not supposed to flush toilet paper or the toilet will clog. So all the bloody toilet paper started piling up in the little wastebasket that sits next to the toilet. Clots splashed. Blood splattered onto the toilet bowl and somehow onto the bathroom floor and wall. Blood dripped down my legs.

The word that came to mind was “massacre.”

I decided to move to the shower to clean myself up. But the simple act of taking off my clothes and walking one foot over to the shower proved difficult. More blood dripped onto the floor, but I made it to the shower. In the shower, though, the blood was flowing so heavily, I started to worry I was losing too much too quickly. Clots stubbornly got caught in the drain. I felt dizzy. I decided to get out of the shower and try to just lie down. I grabbed a big bath towel, squished it between my legs, and waddled out to try to find a place to lie down and get warm. I ended up on the cold wood floor with Steve trying to get blankets and pillows to keep me warm and make it more comfortable. I didn’t have a fever, so I figured it was safe to try to rest, even as the blood flowed. At a couple points, I thought I was going to throw up, so a trash can was my sleeping partner for the night. Eventually, I felt able to get into bed. With a new bath towel acting as a the world’s biggest pad, I was able to get some sleep in a bed.

In the morning, I felt like I had given birth that night: sore, tired, mentally exhausted, and dizzy at times.

But there was no newborn sleeping next to me. Just a trash can on the floor and lots of blood in the bathroom.

It is Saturday today, and I am taking breaks from writing this to go change my pad. But the blood is very slow now, just a drizzle to remind me of the massacre that’s taken place.

When I posted about my miscarriage on Instagram, several people reached out to offer condolences and to thank me for sharing.

Several of those several people were former students. It makes me well up just thinking about the fact that my students care about me. Teaching is a job that is so much more than a job. It is the potential for life-long friendships. It is the potential to make a lasting difference in lives — both teacher to student and student to teacher (Students, do you realize you make a difference in your teachers’ lives? You do. You matter, so much.) Maybe a poem like “Nothing Gold Can Stay” resonates with a student and stays with her for the rest of her life. Maybe the poem makes her realize that happiness is fleeting and that’s OK. Maybe she realizes that trying to prolong happiness with people and things is an act in futility but on some level it’s still worth it.

Life is not simply long stretches of happiness. And it’s the big lie if you think it is supposed to be. There are massacres along the way. And they suck every ounce of happiness right out of your body — maybe for a day or three or 58.

So we move on as humans, beaten in spirit and body, but not broken. When I am beaten, I look at my kids and soak in the love. I hug my husband hard and know he cares about me on a deeper level than any human alive. I accept help from kind neighbors who have become like family to me. I pray to God and know that there are better things to come. I talk to my parents and know that they love me on an ethereal level, whatever that means exactly.

Perhaps it’s true that nothing gold can stay. And that’s OK. It’s a good reminder to appreciate what we have. So go hug your people. Call your mom. Tell your teachers thanks. And do your best in this life to be the kind of human that makes a positive difference in other people’s lives.

Sending you all the love.

J.

Getting Rejected and Other Fun Things About Publishing a Book

At the beginning of [chess], there are no variations. There is only one way to set up a board. There are nine million variations after the first six moves. And after eight moves there are two hundred and eighty-eight billion different positions. And those possibilities keep growing. There are more possible ways to play a game of chess than the amount of atoms in the observable universe. So it gets very messy. And there is no right way to play; there are many ways. In chess, as in life, possibility is the basis of everything. Every hope, every dream, every regret, every moment of living.

Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

What an analogy to life! You make a decision, thinking you know the outcome or the desired outcome or the correct outcome. We moved to Ecuador for our family to have a new experience and make a difference in our community and become bilingual. And while the first two are actively happening in wonderful ways we could not have predicted, the third is sliming along at a snail’s pace. Not what we imagined. I tell myself that the time and effort it is taking for all of us to learn Spanish might provide experiences and (embarrassing) memories that we will come to cherish. This time and effort might be making us into better humans. I can only hope so. Because if I don’t, my forehead will start looking for the nearest brick wall.

You might remember my announcing with great grandeur and flourish that I’m going to write a book, a terrifying but exciting decision. But I felt ready. I had the support and encouragement of a successful author and educational consultant. I had a good idea. I had the work ethic.

I sat at that chessboard knowing that my first move would be just that — the first move, of many. But I also knew that my first move would be the start of a game that I would win. And winning meant that I was going to publish this book. Not a bad way to play a game, knowing that you’re going to win and knowing what winning looks like.

So I got to work. I wrote, I edited, I pondered life’s mysteries, I drank coffee. I compiled my work into the required proposal format. I sent it off to a large educational publishing company with humility to know that it was my “reach” publishing company. No surprise, I received my first rejection letter a few weeks later. I was pretty sure my first move would result in this.

Oddly, I felt a sort of pride receiving this, knowing that most great authors out there have experienced rejection. I was all set for this rejection to be a wonderful chapter in my becoming a great author story. And, really, this big bad publishing company didn’t even know me. Why would they take a chance on a complete unknown author when they didn’t have to? Well anyway, I changed their message.

Jen
you
are
valuable.
we
are in
Development.

I created the closure for this rejection and moved on in stride. I went back to the proposal drawing board for the next company. Now this company — this company was the one my mentor recommended as a good fit for me and for the type of book I was writing. I pored over the proposal, checking everything. I didn’t want a single apostrophe out of place. Suffice it to say, I was very nervous submitting the proposal. I probably checked over the email and the attached proposal for 20 minutes before simply pressing that blue SEND (while holding my breath and twitching my toes).

In a few weeks, I received the reply.

You know, I felt like I had a knight-fork chess move going with those two publishing companies. Surely I would get one, but there was a countermove I hadn’t expected, and I lost my knight. (Steve helped me with this one: a knight-fork move is when a knight is attacking two pieces at the same time.)

Jen, you again

keep writing.
be
your best

Because losing my knight didn’t mean I was going to lose the game. I still had all my major pieces. I had my queen and two rooks (or if we care to remember the analogy to life — I still had my physical and mental health). I would keep playing and doing my best. But I was sad all the same. And that was OK.

Wipe the tears away . . . and ONWARD to the next publisher I go. I rewrote and reorganized my proposal to fit this publisher’s particular format and even added some details that I thought would help. Looking back, this third proposal really was the best. I had been so confident in my first proposal and then even more in my second, but those two rejections had forced me to see that my best hadn’t been that first or second proposal. It was my third. I was feeling good. Again I waited the several weeks for a reply, and when I saw it sitting unread in my email, I had butterflies. This could be good!

Neat. And, you’re welcome for the bit about the iPad and melatonin! How exciting that you liked that! So so great!

Sigh.

This trying-to-publish-a-book thing is not for the faint of heart. Luckily I have a nice strong heart. So that’s one thing goin’ for me. And a wee bit of creativity to bring me out of the black and white chess game for a little break.

We’re not
moving.
That was
you!

And speaking of movement, I remember another tidbit of advice Mrs. Elm, the wise librarian from The Midnight Library, gave to the hapless protagonist, Nora:

. . . a pawn is the most magical piece of all. It might look small and ordinary but it isn’t. Because a pawn is never just a pawn. A pawn is a queen-in-waiting. All you need to do is find a way to keep moving forward. One square after another. And you can get to the other side and unlock all kinds of power.

All you need to do is find a way to keep moving forward. And I’d humbly add to that: AND NOT GET CAPTURED BY THE ENEMY AND DIE. Simple yet powerful advice for playing with a pawn. And for living life. And for trying to publish a book in the time of COVID when publishing companies have had postponements and they’ve downsized and they’re only going with sure-deals and they’re only looking at known authors and
and
and
and.

Interestingly, two friends recently gifted me with the book Get to the Publishing Punchline, by Joy Eggerichs Reed. I devoured it. It was an easy, fun, funny read, and I enjoyed it. But it was discouraging, too. I read through all the advice Reed gave, and for most of it, I can say that I enthusiastically followed it. But just like reading a chess book can’t prepare you for every possible move you might need to make in a real game, reading a book about publishing didn’t help me for this particular move in this publishing game. But it might for the next move.

That is, when I figure out what that next move will be.

So that’s what’s on the agenda for me: stare at the chess board and do some serious thinking. Perhaps it’s time to pay a little more attention to my pawns.

And, hey, if you know of any good educational publishing companies out there, let me know. I’ll take all the help I can get.

There is always a time to say it with fresh eyes, a fresh voice, and, frankly, an alive voice. And if you are alive, and something is in you to write, get it out.

Joy Eggerichs Reed, Get to the Publishing Punchline: A Fun (and Slightly Aggressive) 30 Day Guide to Get Your Book Ready for the World

Grief and the End of the World — in Quito, Ecuador

The sting of a fly, the Congolese say, can launch the end of the world. How simply things begin.

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

Even though we are still lumbering through this pandemic — this pandemic that all simply began with one itty bitty bat (or an itty bitty pangolin, or an itty bitty lab leak) — when I read this quote from The Poisonwood Bible, I don’t think of a global pandemic that started with one infection and led to over three and a half million deaths.

I think of my own grief.

And when I realize this thought process of mine, I feel selfish. How can I possibly think of my personal grief when people are dying every single day in every single part of the world?

So I’m selfish. Because there are so many simple things that happen in the course of a day that launch me into the thick gray fog of grief.

Lately, everything reminds me of my mom.

When I tuck my legs up on the couch to read my book, I think of how my mom would tuck her legs up the same way.

Mini emotional breakdown right there on the couch.

Washing dishes the other night, I got to thinking about how my mom would keep her house so sparkly clean all the time.

Full, heaving sobs over the sink of dirty dishes and soap suds.

I made brownies tonight and was excited to add toasted walnuts to the batter. I remember my mom first discovering the magic that is brownies with walnuts and talking to me about it, going so far as to add a bag of them with a boxed brownie mix as part of a college care package.

Overwhelming sadness and nostalgia.

I sat down at the piano tonight to sing and plunk out the chords to Toto’s “Africa” and thought of how my mom wanted so badly for me to enjoy playing piano and here I was doing just that.

Fat tears. While I’m playing “Africa.”

When I watch old episodes of Call the Midwife, I think of how my mom would have absolutely loved watching that show with me.

Just miss her so much.

Typing that just now, thinking about how silly it is to be sad from watching some random TV show — a show that my mom was never even alive to watch — a fresh spring of tears to my eyes.

How simply things begin.

And while I don’t feel like it’s the end of the world, I do feel deep surges of anguish.

It’s been 12 years since I got to hang out with my mom, watching HGTV on her couch, walking over to downtown Sunnyvale to shop at the farmers market, grabbing lattes at Peet’s Coffee and talking about hopes and dreams.

Time has made things easier, and yet, at the flip of a switch, at any moment, tears can start rolling down my cheeks. I’ve accepted it. And I’ve learned some things about my own grief that might help you:

  1. Accept it for what it is and how it manifests. For me, it’s mostly tears — sometimes at inopportune times. Oh, well.
  2. Surround yourself with people who can handle it. And who care about you. The last thing you need is to be embarrassed about your grief.
  3. Don’t suppress it. I’ve found that my tears are pretty cathartic for me. Maybe they can be for you, too.
  4. Find outlets for your grief. Clearly one of mine is writing, as you know if you’ve been slinking around on my blog. Singing and playing piano is another. Reading books here and there about other humans experiencing grief has been helpful to remind me I’m not alone.
  5. Love others. Tight hugs and shared belly laughs can do wonders. But also being able to channel some of those deep, heavy emotions into love for other humans can be a boon.
  6. Do something that scares you. Perhaps a jump off a zip line tower. Or perhaps a telephone call to a dermatologist’s office to schedule an appointment — in Spanish.

This past Monday, I called a dermatologist’s office here in Quito. I was terrified. Speaking Spanish is already scary, but over the phone? I hate calling to make appointments in the States where I can speak English! But, as I mentioned, I’ve been watching old Call the Midwife episodes, and in one scene, one of the midwives is terrified to do her first solo birth. She knows that if she makes a mistake, a baby or mother could die. So when I started dialing that Ecuadorian phone number, I told myself, “NO ONE IS GOING TO DIE IF YOU MESS UP YOUR SPANISH.” And that made things a lot easier. Thank you, Call the Midwife.

But after I successfully made my appointment and got off the phone, I felt transcendent. I could fly! I could do anything! Silly, I know, but it sure put me in a happy mood.

So there you have it: a great way to deal with grief is to move to a country where you don’t know the language well and make an appointment over the phone. Let me know how it goes for you.

Until then, tuck your legs up on the couch and read a book. Or watch some BBC and have a little cry. Preferably with someone you love. Happy grieving, Friends.

I think my favorite part of this 17-year-old photo is that white-knuckled GRIP my mom has on my arm. Fierce is the love my mom had for me.

Don’t Be an A-hole. Read a Book.

When he needed to calm his mind, he opened a book. Any book. He had never failed to feel refreshed, even if the book was no good.

The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich

The skies are gray today. We are enduring another pandemic weekend lock-down, unable to leave our apartment. I look out at the other apartments across the street from us and see people on the roof, on their balconies, straining to get out.

To escape.

But even when the skies are blue and the gates unlocked, I feel trapped inside the confines of my own non-Spanish-speaking brain. People have told me it takes two years to feel comfortable in a new language, and sometimes, I just can’t wrap my mind around having to endure for that long.

Because I am being tutored, three times a week.

Because I listen to podcasts in Spanish.

Because Spanish subtitles are always on for whatever I watch.

Because nature documentaries I watch are completely in Spanish.

And yet.

When I escape my apartment gates, and someone, masked, speaks to me, I panic and hardly anything translates. Even Thoreau says, “We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.” Now add a language barrier onto that? Yeesh. I come home from my outing drained and discouraged.

I wish I could go to sleep with ear buds in, listen to a Spanish novel all night, and wake up refreshed and Spanish literate. If only it were that easy.

When I was in fifth grade, I did think it was that easy. For my science project, I posited that listening to a story while asleep would control dreams. To that end, I found a cassette tape and recorded my voice telling stories and describing the sights, sounds, and tactile imagery of walking down a beach. I recruited my neighbor Chris to listen to the cassette when he was asleep and write down his dreams upon waking. It was a great plan! I was sure to win the science fair.

Except that the cassette tape I found was one of my dad’s, and it wasn’t blank. So when Chris was in dreamland and the volume was turned way up so he could hear my voice describing the sand squishing between his toes, something bad happened. My voice recording ended, and in the middle of the night, Jimmy Buffett’s “Asshole Song” started BLARING:

Were you born an asshole?
Or did you work at it your whole life?
Either way it worked out fine
’cause you’re an asshole tonight.
Yes you’re an A-S-S-H-O-L-E and don’t you try to blame it on me
You deserve all the credit.
You’re an asshole tonight.
You were an asshole yesterday, you’re an asshole tonight.
And I got a feeling, you’ll be an asshole the rest of your life.

It was so loud that Chris’s parents ran into his room, confused and angry, to punch “stop” on the tape player.

Oops. Luckily, Chris reported, he did not have nightmares of being an asshole tonight and the rest of his life.

A good reminder for me when I want to take the easy way out in learning Spanish by listening to novels while I sleep.

But I think our friend Thomas from The Night Watchman might be onto something. Sometimes in life we just need to feel refreshed (likely it was not a refreshing night’s sleep for Chris or his parents). And sometimes, I think that means we need to escape real life for a bit. Maybe even leave “the present” and slip into the fictional world of a book.

When I was a kid, I loved the Pippi Longstocking books. When I read them, I felt empowered to do anything I wanted. Make a huge mess in the house, go on adventures as a Thing Finder, fight off robbers, go on picnics, skip school — lots of things that kids in their normal lives aren’t allowed or able to do. Reading those books flipped this little creative switch inside my brain, and the ordinary things (like a discarded can, for example) turned into a wonderful treasure with lots of uses. Things that might otherwise be scary (ghosts, for example), turned into opportunities for new friends. My living room couch turned into a pirate ship, and the floor was the sea, infested with sharks.

I slipped into Pippi’s world and then I slipped into my own made-up world. And it was a wonderful slip. (I am reminded of those hot summer days when my parents would relent to setting up the slip n slide on the lawn and my exhilaration in sliding down that yellow piece of plastic.)

So this weekend, as I was slipping into the slough of despond under the gray skies, trapped inside my apartment, I decided to reread Pippi Longstocking. It was fun. It was refreshing.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski, in their book Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, list seven things to do when we experience those inevitable times of stress:

  1. Move
  2. Breathe
  3. Talk to people
  4. Laugh
  5. Speak to loved ones
  6. Cry
  7. Do something creative

So I’d like to skip straight to number 7 and have a reading party. And maybe we can start with a favorite book from childhood. What would yours be? Here are some of my favorites:

  • Any Roald Dahl book
  • Harriet the Spy
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins
  • Little House on the Prairie series
  • Anne of Green Gables series
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • Any Judy Blume book
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • Megan’s Island
  • My Side of the Mountain

The bottom line is that it’s OK to give yourself permission to escape every once and a while. But that’s not a message that we get very often, and sometimes for good reason. When “escape” has directly to do with addiction, it’s not good. Growing up, my dad would escape through alcohol to avoid real life — and maybe also to avoid me, especially when I was a snobby, loud-mouthed teenager.

So choose a healthy escape, and read great books.

When you’re feeling discouraged and the skies are gray and you can’t understand the people around you (whether it’s the language or you just can’t understand the people around you), read a book.

And maybe read it while awake.

Happy reading, everyone!

Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, illustration: page 36 “Pippi Is a Thing-Finder” and has found a can

I’ve Had an Accident. So May You All.

I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Listen 8:09

Never have I resonated with this more than now. (OK, well, maybe with the exception of middle school because that was a complete nightmare of no one knowing anyone.)

I left a great job teaching English literature at a school where I was loved and admired and known by students and teachers.

I moved to another country where I barely know how to communicate with other humans.

I am now a stay-at-home Zoom Mom.

Ah, how the mighty have fallen.

So I’m at home a lot these days. And Quito has just mandated stay-at-home orders for the next four weekends. I am not in a classroom, I am not teaching, I am not making lesson plans, I am not pestering my students about what books they’re reading. As a teacher, I am not known here. At all. I feel like I’ve lost part of my identity. But while I am sad that people here don’t know me and the skills I bring to the table, something exciting is happening.

I am learning new things. New doors are opening for me. Dormant skills are bubbling to the surface. Dare I say, I am getting to know myself better. And while it’s great to feel known by others, it’s also great to know yourself.

It’s funny that we float through life just assuming we know all there is to know about ourselves. We are the only ones with full access to our own brains, after all. But it’s scary how easy it is to simply flip off the switch, darkening most of that mass inside our skulls.

I have to stop and wonder what we’re missing here. If we don’t know ourselves, how are others supposed to know us? And don’t we desperately want to be known by others?

It took a seismic shift of events for me to realize that there’s more to me than being a teacher. And I bet it’s similar for most humans. Maybe for you.

I learned something new this week about the word “accident,” all because of my 9-year-old’s Spanish project that asked him to write about “coastal accidents.” My son and I were both very confused — coastal accidents, like shipwrecks? Natural disasters on the coast? We were struggling. Finally, after a desperate email to the teacher, we realized that the word “accident” refers to how various landforms come into being. A bay, for example, is formed through the erosion of rocks. In the Spanish language, this is considered an “accident” because erosion is not intentional. But go ahead and Google “Tortuga Bay, Ecuador,” and you tell me if that looks like an “accident.” I’d visit that accident any day of the week.

What a mindset shift to think of accidents creating beauty. And though leaving the teaching profession, moving to a new country, and becoming a Zoom Mom weren’t accidents, per se, they certainly were in line with a seismic shift of events. And let’s remember that during seismic shifts when tectonic plates collide (accident!), beautiful mountains are formed.

I am reminded of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen,” a poem about a man who floats through life, doing things and saying things and being things. He is “normal,” “sensible,” “proper,” “popular,” and even a “saint” — descriptors we’d probably appreciate being said about us. His life is smooth — no accidents. But when he dies, we realize — with horror — that no one even knew his name. No one even knew if he was free. Or if he was happy.

Go ahead and read the poem. Take your time.

The Unknown Citizen

W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378

This Marble Monument

Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,

For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Except for the War till the day he retired

He worked in a factory and never got fired,

But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.

Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,

For his Union reports that he paid his dues,

(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)

And our Social Psychology workers found

That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day

And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.

Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,

And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare

He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan

And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.

He was married and added five children to the population,

Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

What a truly devastating poem. To go through your entire life, doing and saying and being all the things, only to die, in the abyss of obscurity.

It’s a reminder to us to live. To live in a way that we are known to others and to ourselves. And for that to happen we might have to endure some accidents. We might have to induce some accidents.

Leaving my profession, moving to another country, becoming a Zoom Mom — these things propelled me to dig deeper into what I have to offer to my community, to my family, to myself.

And digging deeper, I have discovered within myself something very exciting — something that has been waiting patiently for me.

That something? It’s a book. A book that I will write.

(I’m terrified. Maybe terrified like those tectonic plates when they were inching closer to each other, knowing they were going to collide and there was nothing they could do about it.)

When people look at my life after I die, I want them to see beautiful bays and mountains, knowing the erosion and shifting of tectonic plates it took to get like that.

Because sometimes it takes an accident to create something beautiful. And to be known.

Unlock the House. And Get Out.

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.

Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In”

Listen 8:15

Living locked — anywhere — sounds pretty icky to me. Say those two words together: live locked. Does that alliteration just punch you right in the tooth? It does for me. It’s definitive. It’s harsh. It’s like when you slam your locker door shut only to realize you don’t have the combination for the lock.

In junior high, I wanted to be locked in the orderly house of coolness, popularity, and rum raisin lipstick . . . and sunflower everything and baggy pants and white eyeliner and baby tee’s from Hot Topic and chunky-heeled jellies. Ah, the glorious mid-nineties — what a time to be alive! And I was living in California, so the word “like” was basically, like, a topic of conversation.

But my problem was that I didn’t have friends. Sad day, I know. (Hey, Parents! Wanna know how to really mess with your kids? Make them change schools right when they are at their lowest point in self esteem, self reliance, and confidence.) So being new and without friends, I — very logically — thought, Why not really go for it and get in with the popular clique?

‘Twas a great plan. A great plan that absolutely flopped. (Think of a fish out of water, eyes glazed in horror and locked with yours, gasping for breath, flopping its wet scales against the flat grey rock. A bit of an understatement to my situation, but appropriate nonetheless.)

You don’t just waltz into the popular group, the word like dancing on your lip-glossed lips. No. Those popular girls — they are exclusive, lemme tell you, and they decided pretty early on that the frizzy-haired, caterpillar-eyebrowed Plain-Jen just wasn’t gonna cut it. I even wore oversized overalls with a baby tee and men’s boxers peeking out. Not. Good. Enough.

So I would wander around campus, alone, wondering how to kill time during the soul-crushing breaks of brunch and lunch. One of my go-to tactics was to casually sidle up to my locker and pretend to busy myself getting ready for my next classes. Even better, to soak up juuust a few more seconds, I’d pretend to get my combination wrong opening my locker. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best strategy, seeing as how it killed maybe 20 seconds and made me look like a total idiot.

The funny thing here is that being a 13-year-old, I really thought that people were watching and judging me at all times. I wish I could go back to that girl, put my hands on her bony shoulders, give her a good shake, and tell her, People don’t really care about you that much! Nobody is watching you “struggle” with your locker. Just get your stuff and go find some decent humans to hang out with! Sheesh!

You’ll be happy to know that I did eventually find some decent humans, but only after a group of super-cool kids paid cash to Danny to try to “pants” me in the middle of the quad. It was all very anti-climactic, though, because I was wearing jeans, and when he got down and tugged, nothing happened. (Hey, Danny, here’s a pro-pantsing-tip: maybe pants someone when they’re in PE, wearing their stretchy-waisted sweat pants. Might work a little better.)

At the end of the nightmarishly long two years of junior high, I came out of it. I’d like to say I came out as a better person, but in truth, I came out as just a solidly average person. I still had lessons to learn in high school and a long way to go in getting to be a decent person myself.

I wanted so badly to be locked in with the popular crowd. I longed to follow their rules — their reasons and proofs. I held onto so much angst for such a stinking, rotten prize.

But struggling with my locker and struggling with my angst helped me to become the person I am today. And the person I am today would hop up onto that soapbox with Oliver and preach to the world that You can refuse to be locked up in the orderly house of reason and proofs!

Though it’s not about rum raisin lipstick and jellies and popularity anymore (maybe for some of you, it still is — yikes), we humans do have the tendency to lock ourselves into that orderly house. We like reasons and proofs and walls and locks and black and white and answers.

But wow has this past year been anything but an orderly house. For me, that meant an international move and the chaos that comes with it — all in the midst of a pandemic. But it was scary how quickly I settled into this new life and started allowing myself to be locked into the orderly house of Zoom and schedules and laundry and dishes and sweeping and cooking. Could I have gotten out of the apartment more, working on my Spanish in real-life situations with real people, exploring my city without waiting for Steve to be finished with school? Yes. But it was so easy to stay inside, telling myself I needed to keep my apartment orderly, telling myself I had to be with my kids during every minute of every Zoom call just in case they needed me even though Steve was in the house, too. I’m going to try to unlock a little bit.

Well this past weekend, we decided to unlock ourselves from our apartment and go stay at an Airbnb in Mindo, a cloud forest in Ecuador. It was a windy, nauseating 2-hour drive (vomit definitely happened — both ways), but when we finally made it, it was as if we had stepped into heaven, except with humidity and bugs and mosquitos. In reality, it was a wooden cabin nestled in the middle of lush tropical gardens and an organic farm. Hummingbirds, toucans, and lots of other birds I don’t know the names of twittered and sang us through the weekend. We walked, we read, we puzzled, we listened to the birds (Oliver would be proud), and we star-gazed. It was lovely.

I don’t think it was exactly what Mary Oliver was talking about in her poem, but, man, it worked for us. It was time to get out of the apartment.

Maybe for you it’s also about getting out of the house. But maybe it’s about refusing to accept the status quo. Maybe it’s about being the lone voice in opposition, being vulnerable. Maybe it’s about being OK with not having the answers. And maybe, it’s about refusing to live locked.

The world I live in and believe in
is bigger than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In”

One of our activities was hiking to La Reina waterfall. Here, we are trying not to slip on the rocks to get a close-up view of the falls. We were most definitely not inside the orderly house at this moment.
One of the views from the property.
On the property.
On the property.
On the property.
My boys had a blast running around, discovering trails through bamboo, forging into hideouts in the middle of banana trees, and catching sight of the guatusa, a rodent similar to the capybara.

How Not to Fall to Your Death: Climbing Life with No Ropes

But once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do a move or even an entire route, it’s like a tiny door opens inside your mind, and the belief that you can do it, that you will succeed, creates a powerful positive visualization.

Mark Synnott, The Impossible Climb

Listen 7:34

I don’t know a whole lot about rock climbing. But there’s something about those granite walls and cracks and slab pitches that lures me in. I don’t need to do it; I’m happy in my platonic voyeurism of the sport. And I admire the mental keenness it takes to get from ground to peak.

The context of this quote is that climbers can fail again and again and again on one particular move, but once they complete it, they’re likely to complete it every subsequent time. Synnott mentions a certain “warrior spirit” that enables climbers to give just a little more to succeed on the move. And when they keep coming up short? He says that it could feel like an intentional fail, called “punting” in the climbing world.

I want to have a warrior spirit.

But isn’t it interesting that a whole phenomenon exists where people intentionally fail? I have to wonder what that looks like off the wall.

For the longest time, I failed at writing. Intentionally. I was an English teacher teaching writing who didn’t write — not really. And the reason I didn’t write? Funny enough, fear of failure. So let’s climb through this, rock by rock, crack by crack: I taught writing without writing myself. The fear of failure (negative feedback, judgment from colleagues and students) kept me from it. But listen: the actual failure was not “turning on the faucet” — not writing that first sentence, and then that second one, and then the third, the fourth, and on. That first sentence for me was like that move on the granite wall that the climbers just couldn’t muster the spirit to do.

It seems silly comparing a sentence to the wrinkle of granite being used as a hand hold. Sentences don’t seem quite as scary — or dangerous. But in my bubble, I felt like I was on that wall, holding on for dear life, refusing to grab that granite wrinkle. I’d rather stay frozen, splayed to the side of the wall. No progress. But a feeling of safety.

I’d rather fail than take a chance on that move.

But just like some of the great rock climbers who scale a wall only after experiencing a traumatic event (watch the documentary The Dawn Wall to see Tommy Caldwell succeed only after heartbreak), it took a traumatic event at my school to finally light that fire under me.

I recently became “email friends” with Berit Gordon, and she mentioned that teaching is an “oddly lonely endeavor.” So true. We teachers don’t get much attention or validation from our peers. What validation we do get normally comes from the students themselves, which is great, but they’re not in charge of scheduling, pay raises, tenure, etc. So when I came back to school after taking maternity leave in the spring of 2019 to my department head demoting me, I was stunned. I would no longer be teaching my beloved AP Literature class.

There’s a whole messy story behind it, but suffice it to say, I was traumatized. And even though formal apologies were later made to me and I didn’t completely lose my AP class (I taught one section; a colleague taught another), the damage had been done. To liken my teaching to climbing, for years I felt like I was basically alone on the wall, taking care of myself, making sure I was taking all the safety precautions, successfully making my way to the summit. And I felt very confident in my abilities.

But then, in the middle of being alone on the wall, someone came out of nowhere and started fiddling with my rope, unclipping it from my harness, pulling it loose from the anchor. And then I was alone again. Without a rope. Scared. I was at the point where either I needed that warrior spirit or I was going to fall to my death.

Finally (finally), I decided to write. My starting a blog and putting my writing out there for the world (reality: tens of people) to read was my way of free-soloing the rest of my climb. No ropes, just me on the wall at my most vulnerable.

And did I mention that I’d never been on this particular wall?

But I’m making it up, trying to hold on to that warrior spirit, allowing that tiny door to open inside my mind. And let me tell you, it’s freeing. I don’t need to actually climb up a mountain wall sans ropes to feel liberated from the boundaries of this world.

And that’s the beauty of the analogy. What is rock climbing for you? What is that move you just can’t let yourself do in life? And do you realize that it’s you holding yourself back, failing intentionally? It’s a harsh reality, but one that we can face. And this difficult move you’re facing — you don’t have to wait for a traumatic event to happen to force you to make it. Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan without just having broken up with his girlfriend (he did wonder, though, if he was in the right headspace because his previous climbing feat was a result of a bad break-up).

So make the move. And live the rest of your life believing that you can do it, that you will succeed. Meanwhile, I’ll keep tapping the keys, wondering what my next move will be. Because, remember, I haven’t been on this wall before.

And neither have you.

Last weekend, my family and I went to El Refugio retreat center up in the mountains near Quito. The rock wall beckoned us, so we climbed. That’s me on the right and my 8-year-old son Asher on the left. We both made it to the top. With ropes.
At the top of one of the mountains. We didn’t have to rock climb to get up, but it was a feat nevertheless. No ropes.