Considering Charleston

Words usually come easily to me. I can be longwinded when I speak, and my writing is rarely brief. I blame the latter on my small handwriting. For the majority of my high school years, papers were handwritten, and I had to fill the page requirements like everyone else. Since my words took up less space, I got used to using more of them.

Words usually come easily to me, but then I watch the news. I see that the country I live in has some festering wounds. Slavery has left a legacy of disparity that is proving difficult to dismantle. I feel as though I’ve been tricked, or asleep, or in denial. When I was younger, I was certain that racism was endangered. I assumed it would die with the old-timers—becoming extinct in a matter of decades. But then the news of an event like the slaughter in Charleston hits me with a sucker punch. It’s 2015, and the assailant is young.

As a writer, I feel I should write something, but my reaction is one I find difficult to articulate. And whatever I could say in response to Charleston seems like a paltry offering when compared to what better minds than mine have written already—or even just stacked against the severe magnitude of the violence that took place.

I understand the history; it’s the present I’m struggling to grasp. Current events are making it clear: racism is a currency that is still in circulation here. When the conversation turns to Charleston, I’m ill equipped to make a response. What can I say other than I’m sickened and shocked? What will my words add? I have no solutions—no pithy rallying cries or hashtags.

Quite honestly, words leave me when I’m confronted with such atrocities. Considering Charleston, words fail me. All I’m left with is a confusing mélange of feelings: pity, sadness, despair, frustration, fear, anger. All my life I’ve been told (and believed) I can do and be anything I dream—that this is a land of equal opportunity. But hearing the news, I begin to wonder if we’ve irreparably ruined this world (or perhaps just this country).

In response to Charleston, the only words I can muster form questions: How can our country have come so far and still have so far to go? Have our methods of measurement been wrong? There’s a lot that can be said and even more that can be thought, but if we hope to make this world a better place, what can actually be done?

Racism isn’t new, but it’s modernized. I expected it would linger a bit, but I’m still caught off guard by its scope and size. Has it grown, or has it just been hiding behind political correctness and false smiles? How much of our progress is an illusion? How much of equality is a lie?

It’s not that all my hope is gone. I’m just realizing how much more I have to hope for.

Writing Is Work

Sometimes writing feels effortless—neither my fingers nor my mind grow fatigued. Instead of being painfully aware of each minute—each second—time passes without my noticing or counting. I’m somewhere else. I’m fully absorbed and reside in the process. Sometimes (rarely) I’m so engaged I forget to remember to eat. When I finally stop, it’s like waking up from a dream.

Sometimes writing is work; it’s an onerous chore. Instead of a stream of thoughts, words come in a lethargic crawl. Finding a phrase or sentence to add is like coaxing a suspicious and timid animal into eating out of my hand. Adding another paragraph is like finding a contact lens at night on the beach in the windblown sand.

Sometimes I can sit at my computer and write without ceasing. My brain doesn’t self-censor. My mind doesn’t grow weary. Once in a while a topic moves me—sets my thoughts astir, and then those thoughts set my fingers to typing more and more. I find myself lost in an idea. I write without being self-conscious or self-aware. Words become the strong current of a river carrying me forward. Instead of feeling like a beast of burden, I feel like a productive conduit.

Some days writing is simple. I get consumed by an idea, and it feeds me. I can write for hours at a time without any barriers or shackles around my thinking.

Other days writing feels futile. The task is never truly done. It’s shoveling my car out only to be buried again by a passing plow. I feel like Sisyphus—except my boulder is words, and the blank page is my mountain. Finishing a work requires starting anew. Reaching the end is finding a bare beginning too.

Sometimes writing is like skating on ice—the slightest effort propels me forward and far. Other days it’s like slogging up a muddy hill wearing flip-flops—progress is clumsy and arduous.

Sometimes writing is sitting down to a banquet—a feast of ideas for me to choose from. I feel nourished. My head is full. Other days it’s like looking at a barren landscape or searching for water at the height of a drought. Coming up with a new idea is like harvesting a field during a famine. My mind is dry and empty. It’s a well with no water to offer up.

Some days writing draws me in—attracting me like a magnet—luring me closer like the Sirens’ call. Other days I feel repelled; writing is an opposing force.

But whether it’s an endeavor I savor or suffer, whether the words ease or are eked out of me, if I refuse to abandon the effort, my work will produce something . . . eventually.

Playing with Words

I like playing with words. I like stretching them out like Silly Putty, molding them like Play-Doh, and assembling them into new formations like Legos.

Words are literary toys to toy with. I can make them dance like marionettes, line them up like dominoes, or turn them for a surprise—not unlike a jack-in-the-box.

Words make amusing playthings. They are lock, key, and door—question, reason, and answer. Writing is like solving an evolving puzzle. The permutations are multifaceted and infinite. No piece is wrong.

Words are an engaging activity. Instead of paints and crayons, I craft images with text and punctuation. Writing can be a game, a daydream, an awakening, or a labor of love. Words can be sharp, translucent, succulent, or soft.

Some wear masks and costumes; I play dress up with words. They can be witty, tender, or severe. They can act on behalf of thought, love, hurt, or anger.

Some words are comforting companions. I hug them close and often like a favorite teddy bear. I played with Barbie dolls when I was younger, but I also wrote plays for them.

Words are the building blocks of my mind—helping me construct and deconstruct life. Bridging the gap between my reality and my dreams. Drawing a line between the intuited and the seen.

Playing with words is serious work, but not so serious that it ceases to be fun. Words can create a character, a family, a landscape, or a universe. Writing is the vehicle (batteries included) that drives my imagination forward.

To Be Heard

I have two buttons that, when pushed, elicit a strong emotional response. I hate being interrupted (or talked over) and I detest being shushed. At the base of these pet peeves (or emotional allergies) is a common root: I have a need to be heard. When I’m speaking, I want to feel listened to.

Being shushed brings me back to my childhood. As a kid who loved and respected her parents like they were celebrities or gurus, feeling as though I’d disappointed either of them crushed me. I didn’t require spankings or time in a “time out.” A look of displeasure or disappointment from my parents (or a teacher) left me in a tailspin of remorse and shame (albeit a temporary one). In the moment, I wasn’t always able to separate their distaste for my actions from an aversion to me. In the moment, I became convinced that I’d lost their affection and would need to re-earn it.

Much like my mother was, I am an exuberant speaker. As my passion for whatever I’m talking about increases, so does my voice’s volume. The school I attended trained me to speak up to be heard—to make certain I got credit for my thoughts and words.

My father, on the other hand, is a soft-spoken man. I’ve heard him be stern, but in thirty-five years I’ve never (never!) heard him yell—not in pain, not in celebration, not in anger, not even for a taxi. His name, Clement, does mean temperate. I suppose in naming him his parents were a bit prophetic. I don’t know how he manages it or where his anger goes, but his temper is uniformly clement. He’s always in control.

Perhaps he doesn’t have to raise his voice because he grew to be so tall. Perhaps he can speak softly because he’s too big to be ignored.

I’m short. I have to try to be heard. And every now and again, when I was a child, my father would shush me. Now while I imagine he was simply trying to teach me to act in consideration of my surroundings (and to stop me from disturbing him or others) a “shush from him was a devastating blow—emotionally, it hit me hard.

Being shushed by my father made me feel as though he’d caught me doing something wrong—found me wild, uncivilized, and out of control. I felt sure I’d disappointed him by being too raucous to be his good little girl. His shush saddened me because I thought it carried his disapproval. It stung like a slap. It reeked like rejection. I felt emotionally disowned or abandoned—as though the sound of the “shush” stood for the distance he wanted to put between us.

As I got older, I learned that a parent’s love is more indelible than that—it’s permanent, in fact. I’ve learned that anyone who truly loves me will continue to love me even if they dislike some of my actions. But, to this day, my first response to being shushed is a regurgitation of the shame my childhood reprimands brought up. It’s an emotional smack that gives my sensibilities a jolt. It causes a number of my old insecurities to resurface.

When puberty developed my body, it also made me insecure. Already an introvert by nature, I got quieter. But that could only last so long. Athletics and academics wouldn’t let me stay silent. I wanted to be a good sport (and team captain). That meant cheering on my teammates and being vocal when I was playing. I was a perfectionist as a student, and class participation mattered. If I wanted the A, I needed to speak up. So I rediscovered my voice in the classroom and on the volleyball court.

While it doesn’t affect me as deeply as being shushed, I also have a strong aversion to being cut off. I assume you’re not listening when you ignore or interrupt. For me, being heard is akin to being seen. When I don’t feel listened to, I feel invisible—or like I’m being erased. All I hear in your interruption is, “Your words and thoughts don’t matter as much as this.” It’s as though you see me as small or you’re trying to shrink me down. I feel like a lost child going against the current of commuters at rush hour.

Here’s the thing though: I’m such a hypocrite. Even though I hate when it’s done to me, I interrupt others relentlessly. One of the academic survival skills I developed was how to cut someone off like an assassin. Whether consciously or not, I’ll identify points of verbal weakness in my target (be it classmate, teacher, or companion). That pause to collect his or her thoughts, or that beat to take a breath—stop speaking for just a moment, and I’ll start shooting my words in. I occupy conversations and stake my claim on every silence. And I rarely retreat until my words are acknowledged. And if someone tries to cut me off, I’ll raise my voice until I’ve silenced him or her.

I’m working on it (really), but I’ll cut you off verbally in a heartbeat. Say something that excites me or inspires an idea or memory and, more times than not, words will come spilling out of me. I also have this horrible habit of finishing other people’s sentences. In my excitement (or impatience) I’ll jump in and try to predict your thoughts like I’m a Wheel of Fortune contestant. And I’m a complete jerk about it too. So much so that I once found myself interrupting a girl with a stutter. I was mortified, but I still couldn’t (or didn’t) stop myself. (My belated and heartfelt apologies to her.)

Given how much I like to talk and my deep desire to be heard, it puzzles me when I don’t speak up—when I hold my tongue. On more than one occasion, I have been a silent victim. I have been pressed body to body with strangers on a crowded subway train and then felt something hard pressing into me. (What is that? Why is it moving?) Silence. (Is that someone’s penis!?) Silence. (No, it can’t be.) Silence. (Quit your denial and say something!) Silence. (Yell! Scream!). Silence.

I felt trapped and muzzled in my violation. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t see who it was. I could barely turn around. (Should I turn around? Or will that only make it worse?)

I still don’t fully understand why, but the few times this form of sexual harassment happened to me, I held my tongue and suffered silently. I’d slide my bag down to create a barrier, but not once did I say anything to the offender.

Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I speak up? Or, better yet, why didn’t I take “matters” into my own hands (with a forceful twist or pull)? Instead of suffering in silence, I should have made those perverts yell.

Childless & Christian: Part II

Disclaimer #2: I am a hypocrite. Those hyper-repetitive auto-fill questions I condemned as tedious in part one (Are you seeing anyone? When are you going to have kids? Et cetera), I’ve asked them all—and I expect I’ll ask them again (even though I try not to). There’s a reason they’re conversational defaults. Sometimes they’re all the brain can think of. Grace must flow both ways. I can forgive careless inquisitors, just as I hope to be forgiven for my offhand inquiries.

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As a woman of faith who has no desire to procreate, I’ve often felt like an anomaly…a mutant. Considering the various church communities I’ve called home at one time or another, I’ve been hard-pressed to find a significant number of Christian women like me—happily married without children…intentionally and unapologetically.

For a long time, I was left to assume that I’d either have to forgo marriage or compromise and have a child on behalf of my husband. And I could imagine both—lifelong singleness or loving a man so much that I couldn’t deprive him of the joys and privileges of paternity—that my desire to see him be a father would outweigh my disinterest in becoming a mother. What I found it impossible to imagine was that there could be another anomaly out there like me—a man who would love me and marry me without having to sacrifice his parental dreams.

I can’t speak for the atheists (or agnostics), but I wonder if they have it easier when they decide to not have children. I am tempted to think that parenthood is more expected of me as a Christian woman. Here’s what I see when I look at the Bible: The repeated imperative to “be fruitful and multiply.” God uses an abundance of progeny as a blessing bestowed on those He favors. Being barren is treated as gravely unfortunate—a curse to be avoided.

As a woman, and perhaps especially as a Christian woman, I run into assumptions about my being childless all the time. A significant number of people seem to expect that childbearing and child rearing is something I want to do, but simply haven’t gotten around to. So often I hear, “When you have kids…” (Notice the when as opposed to if there.) These are the people who ask when I’m going to have children as though it’s a task that’s slipped my mind. Sometimes I wonder if they’re expecting me to respond to their inquiry by running off in harried haste yelling, “Oh my goodness! I knew there was something I was forgetting to do! I really must get going. Sorry! Bye!”

I haven’t forgotten to become a mother. I’m not procrastinating. I’m aware that my womb won’t be willing and able forever, so I keep checking in on that part of me. My decision to remain childless is one I’ve revisited repeatedly—a regular internal temperature reading I take to see if I’ve warmed to the idea of doing the expected thing. Are you still absolutely sure you don’t want children? My answer has remained fixed so far—unchanging and unwavering.

I’m not apathetic to the affect my choice has on others. I’ll admit to feeling small pangs of guilt and sadness—pinpricks in my conscience—for not giving my father or my in-laws their first grandchild (especially as the eldest and first to marry). It comes out of my tendency towards people pleasing—not to mention my always-go-for-the-“A”-or-the-“win” mentality. But I can’t have a child for someone else—to make another person happy—not even family.

I had a fake fight with my sister a while back when she asked (hypothetically) if I’d be her surrogate if she turned out to be infertile and wanted children. I said no without hesitating, which made her play angry or really angry (sometimes it’s hard to tell with us—we both really like a good, spirited debate, even if it’s heated artificially).

What I realize now, but couldn’t fully articulate for her then, is that not only do I not want to have a baby, but I also don’t want to have a baby—literally speaking, as in carry a fetus to term and then give birth to a baby. And I can’t do for someone else what I won’t do for myself—not on that level. But above and beyond all of that, as much as I know I don’t want to have a baby, I also know that I definitely don’t want to have a baby and then give it away. I am in awe of those who are able to do this—give another person such an astounding and incalculable, sacrificial gift—but I know it to be beyond me. I would gladly give my fertility to the infertile, but not lend it.

It all comes down to self-knowledge and vision—what I am able to see for myself in the present and the future. I was not a child who knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be a mother or a lawyer. There are things I’m still discovering about myself, but then there are things I know for certain.

Wanting to be a writer is a desire I’ve had to carefully mine out of my heart. It took years for me to admit it to myself, and many years more to utter the dream aloud. I think I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer on some deep level, but I also thought I had to be given the permission and authority to do so by someone with clout—any one of my high school English teachers or professors in college, for example. I thought of becoming a writer as somewhat akin to being knighted—an honor that must be bequeathed, never self-asserted.

In hindsight I can see that even before I felt I had permission to be (or want to be) a writer, writing is something I’ve always loved doing. I remember wanting praise for my writing as early as grade school. In the third or fourth grade I wrote a piece in which I compared the sound of raindrops on the roof to the sounds of a tap dancer’s performance. I was so proud of my simile, metaphor, or personification (I can’t remember exactly how I worded it), that I reused it at least twice (if not more) in future writing assignments. I impressed myself so much, in fact, that I half-expected to win an esteemed award solely on the basis of that literary device.

When I was bored during my long vacations in the Caribbean with my paternal grandparents (and I was bored often), I’d write plays for my Barbie dolls. As a student, I was elated when my teachers or professors favorably graded my essays—and devastated by any indication that they thought my work less than perfect. I find creating with words energizing and life affirming. The same way I used to love playing with my LEGO set, I now enjoy playing with the pieces in my personal lexicon.

A few years ago I finally admitted it aloud—uttering what my heart had already known. With fear and trepidation, qualifications, self-consciousness, and rampant insecurities, I gave voice to my dream: “I want to be a writer. I want to make my living working with words.” Some time later, I put it on my business cards (and even apologetically handed a few out). And now when people ask me what I do, even though the words still sometimes stick in my throat and exit begrudgingly, I say, “I am an editor and a writer.” (I wonder if I’ll ever be able to say writer first.)

As a freelancer, whether I feel self-employed or unemployed varies day by day. It was easier when I had a job at a magazine and someone else picked the title for me—editor. Now that I’m assigning a designation to myself, it’s hard to not feel like a fraud—to feel no different than if I’d begun to insist others address me with an honorific I don’t really deserve—as in: You will henceforth refer to me as Your Royal Highness or Duchess of New York. Am I really a writer if no one is currently paying me for my words? What is the criterion for asserting that title?

When I need to muster a modicum of confidence, I often rely on a priori logic: At the very least I am a writer if I am writing, in the same way that I’d be a runner if I was running. It might feel more like my hobby than my occupation when the last or next check is beyond the horizon. But whether it feels like my profession or just a beloved pastime, I will profess it as my vocation—my calling.

What I have not been called to is motherhood. I will not have a child just because that’s what others expect (or hope). I cannot live in opposition to myself or keep pace with someone else’s biological clock. Not every woman—not even every Christian woman—wants to have a child. Not all Christians view marriage as a stepping-stone to starting their own family.

God didn’t build me with maternal affinities. What He gave me was a passion for words. The ever-evolving lexicon seduces me. I enjoy text. I carry my ideas to term until my mind has been sufficiently stretched. I have chosen to answer the directive “be fruitful and multiply” one syllable at a time. My mental womb is fertile. I am full of words. And so I write.