Authoritarianism and Hierarchy: Lessons Learned in Khartoum

Seven days after our wedding, Ken and I boarded a plane and began traveling. Our first shared address: Khartoum, Sudan. Here we are at a party: Ken in galabia and mustache. 

We lived and worked there for almost one year. We were young, idealistic, and pretty clueless about life (married or single) anywhere, but especially in a totally unfamiliar culture. It was a horrible year. Not because of the hot, dusty weather. Not because we struggled to communicate with the kind, hospitable Sudanese. Not because we were learning how to live together, which was its own special challenge. But because the assignment with a small non-government aid agency slammed me into the flagrant disparity that comes with power and control, sometime called Authoritarianism and Hierarchy.

Disclaimer #1: Many things could and have been written about Sudan at the end of the famine in the 1980’s. My story is neither political, comprehensive, or objective; it is one that I will dissect and rewrite many times, for many reasons. Today’s reason: Personal Anger and Authoritarianism, also known as Hierarchy. Or A&H for now.

Growing up in a Man’s World, I saw A&H all the time. It colored everything I knew. But the coloring was subtle and muted because I’d had enough freedom and education to think hard work and smarts would earn me respect and a voice, that, on the whole life is fair, we all have the same opportunities and we get what we deserve. When I pointed out disparity, institutions of power, that is men, were happy to let (a-hem) me think I had a voice. They assured me that all I needed was a bit more effort, a bit more patience, a bit more diplomacy. And, by the way, they 1) knew what was best, 2) had always done it this way, 3) wished me well and/or loved me.

Seeing vs. Recognition

In Khartoum I started to recognize the no-win reality of the system of power distribution in which an individual or group is privileged over others within a culture, organization, or society. Personally, and as an observer, I began to wake up and see the ranking of people and their worth based on sex, skin color, wealth, faith, education—all of the things considered proof of what make us better (or worse) than someone else.

Disclaimer #2: Before I give the impression that Khartoum is where I became “woke”, let me quickly add that I am a bad feminist and a slow learner. As a newlywed, I shrugged off thoughts of authoritarian leadership (too close to home) and had no idea what hierarchy was beyond a brief encounter with Maslow. Figuring out that hierarchy is totally effed up—that it creates and feeds on division, distrust, and discontent—has taken me a very long time. For me, identifying and living an egalitarian life is an ongoing, hit and miss endeavor.

Ken and I landed in Khartoum in late 1986. The Horn of Africa, including Sudan, was recovering from devastating famine. Ken was there to work for the development and aid organization of our church as a one of many non-governmental channels disbursing assistance from USAID and a few international charities. We joined a small team of expats and Sudanese nationals working with food distribution and a mother/child health program.

When the primary purpose for a relationship is to dispense aid, power and control issues stand out in bold relief. Initially, the aid is a response to an emergency. Efforts to develop connection and understanding are skipped in the name of efficiency. One party becomes the good and powerful helper and giver, the other party a pitiful and needy receiver or taker. Respect withers before it is born.  Continue Reading →

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No one talked about consent

Grief fatigue. It’s a real thing. Trump’s election. Favorite son moving far away. Trump’s inauguration. Finding a dear friend dead. Helping pack up her house and participate in the memorial. Juggling the work of teaching and student-ing with all of that. So, yeah. It’s been a while. The last time we met here was November. For over a month I’ve scribbled lists of ideas, thinking of ways to continue the Personal Anger series with all the transparency and grace I can muster. There was the reminder of rebirth and resurrection with Easter. I’m swimming again. I watch satire. Favorite son moved back to the area. It all helped.

Then May 4th happened. The Affordable Care Act was repealed by the House. And along with taking health care from a few million people, the current bill will also allow states to permit insurance companies to deny coverage, or charge some ungodly fee, to those with pre-existing conditions. In case you wonder, pre-existing condition applies to sexual assault, postpartum depression, C-sections, and victims of domestic violence. Often known as being human and female.

Stop saying the United States is a Christian nation. Please. Stop!

There is nothing Christian about a system that dialogs primarily with the influential and powerful, and privileges the very same. There is nothing Christian about labels and limits. There is nothing Christian about withholding treatment and care based on a person’s race, gender, religion, income, passport, intelligence, work ethic, or lack thereof. There is nothing Christian about a system that withholds basic human rights from the poor, ill, or marginalized. If you don’t believe me, check out the bible stories of Jesus.

This is capitalistic, marginally democratic, and totally selfish. Call it that. But STOP calling it Christian.

Personal Anger

Please. Stop! I said. He didn’t listen. He pulled me down between rotting corn stalks. Built like an athlete, he easily pinned me against the damp dirt. Stop! Don’t! No. I pleadedHe hissed “You want it!” and forced me open.

I have a pre-existing condition. I was sexually assaulted. More to the point: I was raped.

Remember how I began this series? When I met Ken I was vibrating with rage for many reasons, but especially this.

All the Personal Anger I’ve written about so far—violence in response to truth telling, breaking the cycle of emotional poverty, living in man’s world, self-betrayal, striving to belong by behavior and belief—played into accepting that relationship. The one with the guy who raped me.

Growing up in a sheltered, faith-based community, I learned that a girl should be warm and affectionate, or she’s an ice princess. A girl must also put the brakes on because men can’t control their passions. Point of Personal Anger: No one talked about consent!

No one at home, school or church talked about pleasure, desire, or sex except to say that it is taboo outside of marriage and okay after you say I do. Abstinence only, dearie. End of conversation.

Because of my beliefs, I told myself Now that he’s had sex with me, I have to marry him. According to 1 Corinthians 6:16, having sex made us one flesh. No matter that he was violent, disrespectful, and didn’t listen to me. I’d absorbed the cult of virginity. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. He had taken the one thing I had of value.

But the main point of this essay is not about being raped. I’ve processed that anger and worked through recovery. (My relationship with my body today is one of tender awareness and intentional care. I’m vigilant about consent in various areas of my life.)

I’m angry about a culture that still thinks a woman gets what she deserves, that in some way she asked for it. Rape should disgust us. Full stop!

Rape should disgust us
I am angry there was no such thing as dialog about consent: 
what it is, what it is not, how to talk about it. And that instead of open and often, conversations about consent even today are pretty rare.

We must learn to name personal limits, needs and desires, and create communities where we can express them aloud in safety. When the agendas of institutions meant to protect and serve us — home, school, church, government — don’t intentionally foster this, we became predators or victims, mere ciphers.

This Cipher will not Consent

To the lawmakers who approved the list of pre-existing conditions in the May 4th bill, I am just a cipher. Other ciphers include anyone diagnosed with:

AIDS/HIV, acid reflux, acne, ADD, addiction, Alzheimer’s/Dementia, anemia, aneurysms, angioplasty, anorexia, anxiety, arrhythmia, arthritis, asthma, atrial fibrillation, autism, basal cell carcinoma, bipolar disorder, celiac disease, cerebral palsy, cervical cancer, colon cancer, polyps, congestive heart failure, COPD, Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, DMD, depression, DIABETES, disabilities, down syndrome, epilepsy, glaucoma, gout, hemophilia, hepatitis, herpes, high cholesterol, hypertension, kidney stones, leukemia, lung cancer, lupus, mental health issues, migraines, MS, narcolepsy, obesity, OCD, organ transplants, osteoporosis, a pacemaker, paraplegia, Parkinson’s, pregnancy, restless leg syndrome, schizophrenia, seasonal affective disorder, seizures, sickle cell, skin cancer, sleep apnea + other sleep problems, stent, stroke, thyroid problems, tooth disease, tuberculosis, and ulcers; to name a few. Oh, and survivors of sexual assault/domestic abuse.

Think of all the people in your family. Now those in your workplace, school, or community. Who looks “sick”? People who want to repeal the Affordable Care Act say they shouldn’t have to pay extra to cover “sick people”. But people who look sick are such a small segment of the group affected by the current health care bill. Many of us look like we are just fine. As things stand now, having a pre-existing condition is not a medical diagnosis. It’s a societal one. It’s a way to divide, label, and exclude. Instead of health and wellness being seen as human rights, they are seen as privileges. Using labels like pre-existing condition is another way to call out “sick” people as “other”—to say they deserve what they’ve got. It’s a lot like the culture of rape.

Please! Stop! I DO NOT CONSENT. Let it go on record: I do not understand the fear and scarcity that motivates the current government. But that is what it is — fear and scarcity. I will not play by their twisted rules. I am not a cipher. You are not a cipher. You may not have one of the pre-existing conditions, but someone you know does. And one day you may too. 


Stop saying the United States is a Christian nation. Please. Stop! Or: Start acting like one. Care for the stranger like your brother, your mother, your child. Live like we are all in this together. Vote as if we belong to each other.  

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Believe. How to Belong, Part II

I grew up in a group that had a lot of beliefs. Beliefs about what happens when you die, the right day to worship, what sin is, how the world was made, and that God was Christian. I breathed in these beliefs at home, school, and church. Believing these beliefs mattered about as much as how I behaved. Concerned group member felt compelled to finish the work, ie: get their beliefs (and behavior) in order and get others to believe the beliefs (and behave) too.

concerned!We believed that the world would end. Soon!  Just look at all the wars, earthquakes, famine, television, drugs, rock and roll, and Watergate! No one I knew wore sandwich boards emblazoned The End is Near. Repent!

Instead, my group offered solace and peace with pictures like this:

beasts

and simple charts like this:

eschatology chart

Jesus was coming soon and there were two big questions:

  • Are you ready?
  • Who is gonna rat us out?

We knew that before earth’s grand finale our beliefs would make us targets. Our obedience would be our undoing. Entwined with the mission to spread Truth was the conviction that whoever didn’t accept it could one day hand us over for a reward or just for spite.

Heaps of people didn’t accept Truth even when it was clearly illustrated and charted. So there were heaps of people to fear and suspect. We had to watch our backs.

Group membership came with a winsome combination: 1) we were right. 2) we would be persecuted.

Fear and suspicion came at no extra charge.

Behavior, Belief, & Belonging

The graduate class Colonial & Postcolonial Literature, introduced me to the definition and problem of the concept of “the other” for the first time. I was 46 years old.

I can now define and opine about insiders and outsiders and others, but I don’t often think about the politics of belonging. Until now. Like a houseguest from Uzbekistan, I’ve entertained thoughts on the politics of belonging for weeks. Awkward. Fascinating. Foreign. Limited vocabulary. I feel vulnerable processing my thoughts in public. Here goes.

There is no “other”. There is no them or those people. There is only us. 

Belonging is our deepest, most human desire. The need to belong drives everything we do. We work, speak, defend, pretend so that we feel worthy of belonging. On good days we do these things so that someone else will feel he or she belongs. On bad days we withhold belonging to discipline, censure, and wound another. Ironically, we cut off approval, kindness, and connection for ourselves when we feel unworthy of belonging.

Personal Anger

My behavior and beliefs do not align with the group I grew up in. Because the group is about proof and argument, I’ve been grilled about my behavior and beliefs to the point of tears. Many times. But my personal anger is about the fear. For years I feared that if the group didn’t approve of my beliefs and behavior, I would be lost and alone. I performed, behaved, and tried to believe so that I would belong. I was taught that love casts out fear, but I felt the fear of abandonment for most of my life.

The Present

The need to Belong — to be heard, seen, accepted — underlies the way each of us voted in the recent election. We may have voted in hope, but now we fear that we have not been heard, seen, accepted.

It’s tempting to say we no longer identify with this system or with people who voted a different way. Give up and move to Canada.

I no longer identify as a member of the group I grew up in. I just about gave up. But I love the people where I worship. The other worshippers and I don’t behave or believe alike. But I belong to them and they belong to me. We need each other. Especially now. Since the election I wonder how I can possibly make a difference. How can I extend belonging? The needs are enormous! I want to join my energies with others involved in a focused effort to creating belonging — not based on behavior or belief, but on the common need to be heard, seen, accepted. The congregation I attend is out to do this.

The Future

My daughter called me in tears the day after the election. She sees the future as dark and scary. It may be. I offered her the tiny light that keeps me going. Do something radical. Listen, stay close, extend respect and kindness to one person at a time whether she agrees with your beliefs or not. And if you’re lucky, you do this in concert with other people.

The Truth

belong-to-each-other

No matter how we behave or what we believe, this is the hard and beautiful truth: We belong to each other.

Over to You

Where can you join forces to create belonging beyond behavior and belief?

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Behave. How to Belong, Part I

With my siblings off the Isle of Skiathos, 1967.

With my siblings off the Isle of Skiathos, 1967.

In June 1967, my family had to leave our home in Beirut because of the Six-day War. While other expats waited it out in Cyprus, the Waring family soaked up the sun on the Island of Skiathos. After about a week on the Greek isle, we returned to the small college compound that held all my before-evacuation-vacation life experiences.

For a long time I thought evacuation was the way to vacation.

For even longer I thought right behavior was the way to belonging.

On the small island of my experience, most every person I met — from earliest memory until I entered college — belonged to the same group. Everyone I knew studied at the group’s schools, worked at one of the group’s hospital, or, most important, attended the group’s churches. These people all knew the same Truth with a capital T — so they all behaved in certain ways. And I learned early that good behavior meant approval and belonging.

Imagine my surprise when I found out about life beyond my island of experience; not everyone on earth was part of the group!! My illustrated story book showed dark-skinned women with huge gold hoops in their ears. I prayed that they would stop wearing jewelry because it meant they didn’t know in Jesus. But if they stopped wearing earrings, they could go to heaven.

As I grew older, belonging became super important. I might live in a man’s world and feel like an unfriendable freak, but I was part of my group. I knew almost everything about good behavior and bad behavior.

Good Behavior

Bad Behavior

Pray Listen to Rock music
Obey Skip church
Stay home and study for school and memorize Bible verses Eat meat, drink beer, smoke, use drugs, go to movie theatres, dance, wear jewelry
Make parents proud: get good grades, keep room tidy, practice piano Disappoint parents: get bad grades, talk back, or do the above bad things

You either stand inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” ~ Brené Brown.

Without a thought, I hunkered down to hustle and behave. I needed to say I am fine. I am fine. I am fine, Fine, FINE! Behavior was a stellar way to smother all that was not fine and numb the pain that was below the surface of my story.

Behave (get busy!)

I found heaps of acceptable ways to live on the surface, to ignore the inner ache. In high school: sing in the chorale, work on the yearbook, take violin lessons, work part-time as a hospital messenger, join the drama club, play summer softball, learn racquetball, and shadow the hospital chaplain on visitation. In college: sing, run, swim, jazzersize or play more racquetball, join & then lead a student volunteer organization, work part-time on the paint crew, join a national honor society, and become student body religious vice president.

Looking at my day planner with every slot filled made me smile. An empty hour slot made me anxious. Was I slacking?

The beauty of busy was that when I kept moving and I could mostly rush past the moment in front of me. The busy bonus: I proved over and over and over that I was worthy of belonging to the group. I might even score points in the game How Will You Make Us Proud?

Keep Watch

It’s so easy to figure out who belongs by watching how they behave. And boy, did we group members watch. We watched each other and wondered, Is that right? Do I do it as well as that? We watched ourselves and wondered, What will other people think? Between looking at other group members and worrying about how our own behavior measured up, it’s amazing that we had any energy to look around us. But we did!

We had the truth. And the MOST important behavior was to spread it!

Spreading the truth made me queasy. I lived in fear of meeting someone outside a story book illustration. Someone real who wore earrings, ate meat, danced, said Jesus as a curse word, prayed to the Pope, or smoked pot. In short, behaved badly.

The non-believer’s agenda frightened me: she wanted to tempt me to smoke, drink, dance, eat lard, say sh*t, and deny Jesus. My own agenda was just as scary: I must fix the person. Explain the Truth, give her the list of right behaviors, and convince her to fix her behavior. This would prove that I was a worthy sharer of the truth. That I belonged. Oh, and I that really loved Jesus.

Honestly, I didn’t care enough for anyone’s eternal salvation — mine or a stranger’s —  to resist temptation, explain truth, and fix behavior. I loved Jesus, but couldn’t I love him with the people who already knew how to behave the right way?

Right behavior & belonging

Without question I saw myself as broken and in need of fixing through right behavior. (In college there was still the small matter of waves of wonderful to confess and stop.) I saw other people as broken and thought it my job to fix them by fixing their behavior. If I could fix my behavior, I would belong. If I could fix others’ behavior, they would belong.

Belonging never came with right, approved, or perfect behavior. It never does.

I am angry that I believed behavior was the way to belonging. For. So. Long.


But now I am here

How has belonging bloomed for me? I’m still a bit puzzled on that one. I do not have a full day planner. I don’t own a day planner. This makes me so happy. On good days, I have nothing to prove. Zip. Zero. And there are fewer and fewer bad, prove-your-worth days. It is a privilege, a small victory, to show up as myself and believe that is enough. Honest about pain, joy, loneliness, and confusion as I pay attention to the difficult and delicious moment that is right now.

I never expected to have this life of connection, hope and wonder. But I’ve decided to stand inside my story, and that has brought me here.

Over to you

What have you mistaken for ways of belonging? Do you feel angry about it? You can’t change the past, but you can change how you see it and choose how your story ends.

When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.” ~ Brené Brown

It’s time to step inside your story, sit with personal anger, and start healing.

If you appreciated this essay, let me know. And feel free to share it with your friends.
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Self-Betrayal; The Big Break Up — Part 2

The standard-issue horrors of puberty ambush me in 6th grade. Why is my body so stinky, hairy, oozey, curvy and big? I am five feet, eight inches tall. I tower hideously over most of my peers. Why am I so not normal? I ask Julie Whitman if I can borrow her cool pants. We are both tall, but the cool pant legs drag and the waist is too low on me. I am a freak. When it starts, my period is totally unpredictable, but the science textbook in Mrs. Mauler’s room says “the normal cycle is every 26-28 days”. I am a freak! And how charming are feminine pads worn with wandering belts under my old-lady panties the other girls see when we change for P.E.? My freakness is complete!

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If You are Female

It is a truth universally accepted: How you look is more important than how you see the world, what you think, or the things you do or dream of doing — IF YOU ARE FEMALE. Attractive women have glossy lips, perfect hair, and run braless in high heels. How do I know? Charlie’s Angels starts daytime reruns. In 7th grade I kiss a boy underwater at the pool. At the eighth grade class party I have my first experience with something totally taboo: dancing!! (Why don’t Adventists have sex standing up? People might think that they’re dancing.)

Farah Fawcett, kissing, dancing. Consciousness level raised — self-consciousness that is. I am so sure everyone is looking at me and criticizing my appearance that sometimes I get cramps in my shoulders. How anyone survives middle school is a total mystery. And that’s just the warm up for high school.

The First Bad Boyfriend

I have my first boyfriend at 15. His name is Dal. Point of personal anger: I am so desperate for male attention, that I think Dal a catch. He is an 18-year old who 1) dropped out of high school, 2) has his license suspended, 3) often stinks of beer and sweat 4) believes that life is like Saturday Night Fever. Yup, lucky me.

A walking ocean of hormones he is quick to tell me I look good. He whistles at me. He is thrilled that I’m a tall blonde. Dal believes deeply in transaction/exchange relationships: time listening to me traded for time touching me. With a wink he calls me Jailbait which I think means I’m so cute it’s criminal. Yes, it is possible to be that sheltered.

We talk, but have little conversation. But that’s okay; Dal thinks I could be a model! I tell Mom and with very little urging she enrolls me in Barbizon School of Modeling. What if I could skip college? I’ve been told how hard serious subjects are for girls, so posing in fashionable clothes would be great. Other people will do my hair, make-up, clothes. Pay attention to my body, my skin, how I look. Wait, what?

When we first make out I feel some chills and a few thrills, but no waves of wonderful. I think, Gross! What is with the tongue?! So so so gross! Keep it to yourself. But there’s something even worse. This boy introduces me to the term erection in the practical sense. We kiss good night at my front door and one time I pull him close for a proper hug. Oh! The rigid shape below his belt startles me. He quickly says, See what you do to me. I do not like knowing this or feeling it. But once I do, it becomes a routine part of every good-night ritual. Mentally, I check out. I abandon my body and enter my head. Is that geometry quiz tomorrow? Are my favorite jeans clean? Are we almost done?

Who’s Driving

We never have intercourse — I am jailbait and a nice girl — as Dal says, but his hands end up on all parts of me. A horrific burning develops between my legs. I’m scared it’s an STD. The shame of my first yeast infection — thanks to his filthy fingers on my privates — burns as much as the itch. But if I want someone to listen to me, call me, take me rollerskating — the understanding is clear. He will (seem to) listen, I will let him touch.

When I was very small my father would tell me, Be a good girlie. I wasn’t sure what this meant. What would be good enough for him? Now my father tells me: It’s the girl’s responsibility to put on the brakes. I don’t drive yet, so what does that mean? The metaphor is a one-line harpoon of guilt because at summer camp I was told that Jesus should be in the driver’s seat of my life. Now I’m supposed to be in the driver’s seat, but I’m taking Jesus to places he doesn’t want to go, and not putting on the brakes! I am a physical AND spiritual mess. Not ever good enough.

How do I put on the brakes, I want to ask Dad. But I don’t because Dad has lots of work to do and expects me to know. 

Let’s Pretend I’m Fine

My busy father makes time to play golf with my brothers, and takes time to give me a dating tip. That’s all he can give me; it’s a man’s world. I tell myself that if I don’t put on the brakes I’ll just get what I deserve. It is supposed to happen. I have to accept it and be fine. I start pretending.

I complete the modeling course. I break up with Dal. My mother is upset. She takes Dal’s side. But I soon have another boyfriend. Mom is happy again. I have a string of less-than-great boyfriends. Mom likes them all. Dad not any. With an exception or two, each boy expects the trade: listening for touching. I believe I get what I deserve. I pretend I am fine. I get so good at pretending I forget that I’m pretending.

I’ve heard the phrase Damaged goods. I know I am a damaged, a disappointment, nothing near good enough. Jesus knows too. If my parents knew of all the time I didn’t put on the brakes — Hoh, boy! Talk about disappointment. I feel ashamed and alone. According to the transaction model of relationships, aside from my body, I have nothing to offer. I have nothing that is worthy. What I have is shame and secrets and a freakish body I do not know how manage, protect, or respect. 

I am unfriendable. Who would want me as a friend? If someone could see the real me she would be utterly disgusted! She would throw up. Then leave forever. Or the earth would swallow me whole. Same thing. So I try to look totally fine. I tell people I am fine. I am fine. I am fine, Fine, FINE!


Self-Betrayal

When I began writing this series about personal anger and the break up of my Body/Mind/Spirit trinity, I thought of it as just that — a split, a Big Break Up. Now I see that it was not so much a Break Up, but a process of self-betrayal. I compartmentalized. I abandoned the truth. I said I’m fine when I was not.

All kinds of things contribute to the self-betrayal process. But I can name the trifecta of self-betrayal: Pretending. Silence. Shame. So I continue writing. When I click Publish on this piece and share my story of anger and shame the world will not stop spinning or swallow me whole. And someone reading, maybe you, will say me too.

Enough Pretending. Enough Silence. Enough Shame.

Because we are enough as we are.

Thanks for reading, friend. With gratitude ~ Rebecca 

If you know someone tired of pretending, tired of silence, tired of shame — please share! Thank you.

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Waves of Wonderful; The Big Break Up — Part 1

The swing where I discovered waves of wonderful.There was a swing in the yard when we lived in Beirut. One day I straddled one of the support posts and, inch by inch, shimmied up toward the crossbar. Something happened. Waves of wonderful rolled through my body. It was great. If I slid down and rested my arms I could climb the post again. Great again. If I didn’t want to go outside, I could hold on to a doorknob with a leg on either side of the door and hang there for a bit. Great again!

Comfort in my body

When I was six my family left Beirut and all that was familiar — the people, the house, the community — and moved to the other side of the planet. Life was lonely and confusing. But I knew how — for a few minutes — to find comfort and control. When my parents realized what I was up to, they said Stop that! Mom made it clear I was doing something wrong. Don’t rub your tinkler. No explanation why it was wrong, or why I should stop. I liked the way it felt. I didn’t stop. The scolding continued.

My need to obey and my need for the waves of wonderful see-sawed through grade school. I was the small child hanging from the edge of a chair or reading table. In third grade a few other students recognized what I was doing. They sniggered at me. On the playground one boy shouted, “Hungry! Hungry, Becky!” He laugh and leered at me. I didn’t know personal pleasure was a dirty joke.

Shame in my body

My sister figured out her body. She was scolded. We became informants — I tattled on her, she tattled on me. We were both punished. Instead of the usual spanking, we were shamed. Personal pleasure was wrong, naughty, bad. We were wrong, naughty, bad. We each quit. Dozens of times.

The scolding began including stories of girls who injured themselves or women who, because they knew the secret to their own pleasure, were not happily married. This totally baffled me. I didn’t see a connection between what I was doing and marriage. Eventually, Mom sat me down for the talk. How babies are made. How this was special for a husband and wife. Her tone was strange and secretive. But nothing was said about pleasure. I still didn’t get the connection.

Eventually I understood three things:

  • You cannot be trusted with your body.
  • That authority is outside of you. It belongs to a man (your future husband).
  • When you are tempted, pray about it.

I grew up with the song —

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to him belong. They are weak, but he is strong.

I love those words. But when I failed to resist the temptation of those waves of wonderful, the words of the second verse rang in my head.

Jesus loves me when I’m good, when I do the things I should.

Jesus loves me when I’m bad, though it makes him very sad.

My parents would tell me that I made them cross, disappointed, angry, or sad. Now I was responsible for how Jesus felt. Every time I chose personal pleasure, I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed a lot. I became more discrete about personal pleasuring, but I knew God could see me. I felt ashamed.

Anger with my body

Shame grew into anger. I was angry that my body could shake and melt with waves of wonderful, angry that I knew how to make my own waves, and angry because I wanted the waves & knew they were sinful. When I resisted the desire for pleasure I felt self-righteous. When it didn’t, I felt wicked for making Jesus sad. Shame grew into anger that grew into self-loathing.


This is the first of two parts about breaking up with my body. For part two, Subscribe.

I’m writing about very personal anger. Thank you for standing with me and creating a safe place to bring dark topics to light. If this is an essay worth sharing, please do. With gratitude, ~ Rebecca

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I am angry that I loved my father

I love you Daddy! The words rushed out in happiness. I was about ten. I smiled waiting for the four word reply. Daddy nodded.

Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.”

I am angry that I loved my father. Angry that I was made to love so freely & and want such love in return. 


What his childhood may have looked like. Image from the movie Angela's Ashes.

What his childhood may have looked like. Image from the movie Angela’s Ashes.

Dad was almost silent about his story of growing up in Belfast. The few details that did emerge were raw and harsh. I imagine it as Angela’s Ashes except in Northern Ireland, and not Catholic, and Dad’s father was a mean drunk and a philanderer who ruled the family with his fists and a cat o’ nine tails

In his teens my father joined the church. His brothers taunted him and picked fights. What a sissy! But they could not throttle the faith out of him. Church people valued stability, education, and clean living — no smoking, no drinking. They proclaimed hope and offered certainty. With their encouragement Dad left Northern Ireland and completed college. He married. He gave his wife and children the home he had not known. He was, as he liked to say, Pretty good out of the stuff. He earned and owned his place as the spiritual leader and head of our family with unquestioned (and unshared) right to strong preferences, critical observations, impatience, and anger. And, I learned, the right to say Show me you love me.

Emotional Poverty

Dad escaped physical poverty but never shook off emotional poverty. Every relationship was an exchange, a transaction. Speaking of a new acquaintance, my father might say, He doesn’t have much to offer — meaning influence, ideas, humor, or clever conversation. He would observe, So and so brings little to the table — reason enough to let a relationship cool. To get something you must give something. Perform. Prove you are worthy. 

If I disappointed the parents, Dad would shake his head and say, After all we’ve done for you! What was fair exchange for all they had done for me? To do well and be good — preferably better than my peers. But way before puberty I figured out that somewhere in the world, in fact in my classroom, was another child who got higher grades, ran faster, played piano better, spoke with more confidence, and behaved more obediently and respectfully than I. My performance was shabby. I could not compete.

When life ran smoothly Dad laughed, whistled, joked. But when Dad was disappointed or displeased, harsh words were just the beginning. The climate in the house cooled. He withheld approval until the offender — my mother, one of my siblings, or I — felt sufficient chill to really, really apologize and know better in the future.

Dad’s transaction and performance expectations shifted over the years. But they didn’t go away.

In his eighties the burden to perform and prove continued. Dad stayed at a retirement community for a few months. On meeting another resident for the first time, Dad launched into a poetry recitation. After two verses of a long, lilting rhyme, pedestrian conversation pales. With a murmur of confused awe the new acquaintance stood silent.

I am angry that I loved my father.

my high school graduation with DadI am angry that I loved my father. Angry that my fierce, childish love was not enough to obliterate the prove-your-worth script he knew better than his own name. Angry that I breathed in the belief that I had to prove my worth — while certain I had nothing to offer. Angry that I believed I was unfriendable because of this. Occasionally, I am angry that my father didn’t feel the need to look for and learn new skills. On most days, I am simply sad he missed the freedom and delight of healthy emotional connections. We can only give what we’ve got.


I’m over fifty years old. I still do not know what Dad expected when he said, Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.

Unlike my dad, I am not so silent about my past. I see openly grappling with my story as an expression of love. [Thank you, Brené Brown.] Shining light into darkness. Staring down fear. Finding new ways to see.

Through the writing process, I realize that much of my personal anger is linked to not being seen. 

Dad, I see you. Your striving ended the physical poverty that your father, and his father, and his father before him handed to you. You broke that cycle so I can stand where I do. Thank you.

Standing right here, right now, my calling is to address the scars and patterns of emotional poverty. The wounds of family history and practices of a toxic culture go deep. The road is long. But I will show up as wholeheartedly as I can — to offer & receive acceptance freely, to give & get help without keeping score, and build and belong in relationships where authenticity is the best reward.

Because this is the love we are made for.

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a man’s world

I grew up in man’s world. My father was Dean of Men at a small college. Our family lived in Morrison Hall (pictured below), right through that center door and straight back.

Morrison Hall: the men's dormitory where I grew up.

Morrison Hall: the men’s dormitory where I grew up.

From the time I was seven until I turned 20, I was surrounded by 18-22-year-old-males. The smell of testosterone was so familiar that I never really noticed it.

Dad loved deaning. He needed it. In the dorm Dad ruled. One summer we left Bethany Beach a week early because Dad wanted to get back to the dorm. No matter that my mom, sister, and I enjoyed vacationing on the beach. He loved his work more.

The tide of testosterone dialed down a skoche when Dad stepped through the door that separated the dorm from our apartment. He sat at the head of the table facing Mom at the foot. Beverly and I, the girls, faced each other across the table as did our older brothers, the boys. Three males, three females. This balance was a visual illusion.

Dad’s preference for all things male flavored every part of life. I tasted it early and often. I knew Dad was busy, but noticed the way he made time with the boys — to putter on a car, play golf, or meet on the soccer field.

The Game

Dad loved games. He believed in the value of competition. The game How Will You Make Us Proud? was always in play at our house. It’s a small miracle that Beverly and I liked our brothers as much as we did. The parents held them up as examples of excellence at every turn.

  • When the boys were your age they took calculus.
  • When the boys were your age they had jobs.
  • When the boys were your age they knew how to study, socialize, exercise, and change the oil in the cars they bought themselves — all at the same time.

As luck would have it, there were ways a girl could try to compete. Dad shared his expectations freely about how I should: keep my room, do my school work, practice piano, style my hair, and spend time with peers. But no matter how I tried, I lost more points than I gained. There was always something that was not quite enough about my efforts, about me. Appearance was an area of particular interest to Dad. You look tired. Your blouse is too tight/low/wrinkled. You’re slouching. You seem a bit wide in the hips.

He was confident in the value of his opinion. It boiled down to this:

Dream, but not too big. You’ll set yourself up for disappointment. Be attractive, but modest. Be interesting, but not brilliant. (You’ll intimidate men.) After all, Don’t you want to get married and have children?


Growing up in a man’s world I came to believe:

  • I will never have a penis and so I will always be second rate, a disappointment.
  • Points go to the woman who makes her voice, her dreams, and herself tame, quiet, and small.
  • No woman lives bright & big and finds approval. When I figure out I am bright and have big dreams I entertain the idea of a lobotomy. Yes, really. Better to alter my brain than live with longing I’ll never realize.
  • I am a wretched ingrate. I collect all of the game-approved points — finish college, get married, have children, support my man — and it is not enough. I am so depressed I want to die rather than get out of bed.

I am angry that I believed this. I would love to redeem every single megawatt of emotional and spiritual energy I burned to win approval from Dad and the males like him I’ve met.


Game-changers

Someone — a mentor, neighbor, sister, teacher, coworker, writer — comes into your story. In my experience it took quite a few someones. It feels strange and disorienting when you meet a game-changer. Like the first spring thaw after a lifetime of winter. A game-changer finds you delightful, has no desire to fix you, and celebrates all of the you’s you become. You are neither too much or not enough. With this someone you cry shamelessly. Breathe deeply. Laugh freely. It’s weird and incredible.

I met Ken. And my friend Lisa. And a literature professor. And my therapist. And the writers Henri Nouwen and Anne Lamott. And many more. It takes a village. But I’ll talk about Ken.

Ken is nothing like my dad. So I try to fix him! I’m so accustomed to criticism and never being enough, that after we marry I give Ken prompts: Don’t you think I’m a little overweight? Look, Ken, here in the belly. I have a roll that needs to go. I’d look better if I lost five pounds, right? I badger him to take up the game. But Ken does not need me to make him proud. Quietly, stubbornly, he resists all that I have learned and believed about men and approval. He does not want me to be tame, quiet, and small. He respects wild, loud, and large, so he says the beautiful words I shared when I started this series,

I think you should have been angrier.”

Game-changers refute the rules. Male privilege exists, but it is not acceptable. We are not meant to live in a Man’s World. We are meant to be an all-inclusive world. Thanks to Game-Changers, the anger generated by impossible games recedes. It is still large and dark, but you can look it in the eye. Examine it in the open. Recognize its lies. Figure out what it’s taught you. And decide how to use it to make your life more deeply and tenderly your own.


This is one essay in a series I’m writing about personal anger. Something happens when we tell our stories. Only when we face & frame our stories of anger can we process this difficult emotion and learn how it can serve us.

If I talk about my anger, maybe you will find ways to talk about your anger too.

Wondering what will come next? Subscribe.

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This will hurt me more than it hurts you.

This will hurt me more than it hurts you, Dad says. He is not angry. He is disappointed, but calm. My father raises his belt. Tears already flowing, I clench my muscles as the belt smacks my bare bottom. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Afterward, I sit on the edge of the bed with snot on my face. Dad hugs me and prays with me. I feel powerless and small. 

B&W 5 year old alone

Do not think I was abused. I was not. My father was a consistent disciplinarian. Mom could snap and fly into a rage. But Dad was reliable, methodical. His reliability framed the foundation for our family. It meant that I always had a safe place to sleep, clean clothes, three meals a day, a ride to school, a good education, and someone to call when, as a teenager, I was in a car accident. More than most other children in the world. Much more than my father had growing up. I took it for granted. I needed to.

Dad’s reliability also meant that he is the one: the one I needed to please, the one I needed to understand and be understood by. But I didn’t understand his words. This will hurt me more than it hurts you. I turned them over and over to make sense of them. They become a tangled heap of confusion in my heaving heart.

Physical pain is the way to make someone stop doing what is wrong and start doing what is right. Parents must punish children. Parents do it even though it hurts them. It is okay because it is done out of love. I shouldn’t feel angry or upset. Dad is more hurt than I am. He loves me. 

My heart wrestles to make the pain, the punishment, the words Dad says, how I feel and what I think make sense. But I can’t. I need my family, my father, and my life to be alright. So I shove down the thought that what I feel is wrong. I don’t want to believe that pain and powerlessness are part of love. I hide these deep inside and cover them with a story. I tell myself that I have a special family, a reliable father, a wonderful life. I tell myself the story over and over and I believe it. I need to.


Years after my last spanking I sit on a therapist’s couch. Gently she walks with me into the deep trough of memory. She asks, How did you feel growing up in your family? I search for the right word. Erased.

Captured: a rare moment of truth.

Captured: a rare glimpse of truth.

I add quickly — But they loved me. We were very close. I had everything I needed. I was so lucky.

Did it feel like love?”

Did it what?! Where does she get such a question? How can she even ask? What psychobabble juju is this? 

I begin to tremble. If I tell the truth I will destroy my story that I had a special family, a wonderful childhood. If I lose my story I will shatter into a trillion pieces and disappear. They loved me. I know they loved me.

Did it feel like love? she asks again and waits. I inhale. Then exhale. My voice is small —

No. It didn’t feel like love.”

The room is still. I speak the truth* and I do not disappear.

I see the This-may-hurt-but-I-love-you moments in my life. The pain. The self-betrayal. The stories I told myself to make them alright. And I weep.

*Did my parents love me? Yes. Did it feel like love? No. Both are true.

This is one essay in a series I’m writing about personal anger. Something happens when we tell our stories. Only when we face & frame our stories of anger can we process this difficult emotion and learn how it can serve us.

If I talk about my anger, maybe you will find ways to talk about your anger too.

Wondering what will come next? Subscribe.

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Seeing and Being (seen)

It’s hard to know what we don’t know. Like how to see and how we are seen.

2nd Grade

Me in 2nd grade. See those eyes! So blue. So near-sighted.

This is me smiling into the unknown of second grade. I couldn’t read. The kind first grade teacher (not to be confused with the mean one) promoted me to second grade, but I had not unlocked the magic of marks on a page.

The popular approach to teaching reading at the time includes The Whole Word Method and Sight Words. I stand in the cool hallway outside the classroom while one of the kids who can read holds up flashcards for me. Held inches away from each card, I will it to tell me its secret. The only one I am sure of is the could card because it has a smudge on the corner. 

In second grade I have my eyes checked for the first time. My mother takes me to see the man who makes glasses. There is old leather furniture in his dim street-front office. He sits me up in the exam chair. Look at the chart and read the first letter you can see.

I can’t make out the biggest letter. The man fiddles with a huge pair of metal wings and swings them to my face. I sit up taller, each eye peers through a tiny window in each wing. Now, he says, tell me what letter you see.

snellen-eye-chart

Silence. I see the marks but I don’t know their names. I have not learned the letters. I can sing the alphabet song, but no symbol pops up in my mind for the names. Oh, except A! I know A! There is not a single A on the chart. Now the man can see I am dumb.

He has another chart:

graham-field-eye-chart

Tell me if the legs on the letter point up, down, left, or right. I don’t know the difference between left and right. I feel embarrassed. Use your hand the man says. Point your fingers the direction you see the legs pointing. That works. 

A week or two later we go back. My new glasses are ready. I put them on. BOOM! A slant of light pours into the office. I can see a million dots of dust dance in the beam. I blink. Mommy and I step out onto the sidewalk. I stare. The entire street rushes into my eyes. I can see the tire tread on a car parked at the curb. The bricks on the building across the street. And the leaves — swarms of perfect, tiny, individual leaves on the tall oaks along the block. This? THIS is how the world looks?! This is what other people see?

My world was not transformed in one moment.

I can see with my glasses on. But when I take them off, I forget all that I have seen. Like at the swimming pool. I leave my glasses in the locker room. In the pool, other people are a blur. I know my sister and our friends by swimsuit color. I can not see faces or silly expressions. I see other swimmers as blurs, and I am sure that this is how they saw me. Without concern I pick my nose or pull my swimsuit out of the crack of my bottom. As the self-conscious child I am becoming, I would horrified to know the truth. But instead I am just one happy, floating, splashing, little blur among many.

We see ourselves as we think we are seen.

Thanks to phonics I begin to wrestle meaning from marks on a page. But I know I am eons behind my classmates. As third grade unfolds, I see smirks from easy readers and multiplication table mavens. I am a slow, hesitant learner. Nothing more than a blur. 

The personal anger.

Fissures start early in the break up of the body, mind, spirit, union. By the time I am nine years old I know two things:

  1. Something is wrong with my feelings — my heart (spirit). Showing my emotions means parental displeasure or a scolding. If I say I feel lonely or sad, I am told You shouldn’t feel that way, or even You don’t feel that way. What I know is This is what I feel, but important people, like Mommy and Daddy, know my feelings are wrong.
  2. Something was wrong with my mind. I can’t read. I hate spelling.

I come from a family of quick, clever people. They learned to read by osmosis. They play Scrabble by the hour. They read for fun, dammit! Intelligence is noticed and praised. One person’s work is held up as an example for the others. The subtext: Can you do as well? There is no way I can compete. I know I am too emotional and rather plain looking:4th grade school picture I now have four-eyes, cry too easily (pretty girls should smile!), and not musically gifted or athletically inclined. I hate school and myself because I am slow, dumb, stupid. In a family where relationships are transactions -- What do you have to offer? How will you make us proud? -- I have nothing. The trinity of my body, mind, spirit fractures a bit more.

I now have four-eyes, cry too easily (pretty girls should smile!), and not musically gifted or athletically inclined. I hate school and myself because I am slow, dumb, stupid. In a family where relationships are transactions — What do you have to offer? How will you make us proud? — I have nothing.

The trinity of my body, mind, spirit fractures a bit more.


So often anger blooms from pain. I talk with you about my anger — walk right toward my pain — because owning all of the story, especially the painful parts, is how I find healing, compassion & redemption.

In two weeks I begin teaching Basic English — a reading and writing class for college freshmen who struggle with the marks on the page. These students probably see themselves a slow, stupid, just another blur in the classroom. Because of my own anger and pain, I believe teaching as sacred. I see words — reading, speaking, and writing — as modern magic. It is my intention to see my students and teach them to see themselves and the words on the page in clear, fresh ways.  

How can an experience of personal anger from your life make you more tender, more passionate, more compassionate?

Wondering what I’ll say next? The next essay in the series will magically appear in your inbox when you subscribe.

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