lazy repost, as a precursor to another conversation

January 17, 2012

You might have already read this a few months back when it was a guest post on Creideamh. If so, you can move along. Nothing to see here folks! I have re-posted it now because I am planning to have some conversations in the realm of body image but specifically on the still-taboo topic of fatness. But for now, a recap:

The Cheerful Heart Has a Continuous Feast

So you may or may not already be aware that I am somebody who has struggles with what’s known as “Eating Distress” – a range of eating disorders that have spanned my whole life from early childhood. But this isn’t a confessional – the ED is slowly and methodically being squeezed out of my life as I make room for good mental and physical health. Eating disorders are, of course, a kind of dogged and persistent mental illness of which abnormal food behaviours are merely a symptom. It is a grave mistake to imagine that enforcing “normal” food behaviours resolves ED. The underweight person is told, “Eat more.” The overweight person is told, “Eat less.” No shit, Sherlock. This kind of approach to curing someone of ED is akin to putting makeup on a cancerous facial tumour, putting a nice shirt on over a gunshot wound or injecting painkillers into a hopelessly torn ligament right before the match. You might think I’m being a tad hyperbolic, but unfortunately ED kills, regardless of the weight of the sufferer, and where it doesn’t kill, it almost always leaves permanent damage to the body even after recovery, whether that be osteoporosis, heart conditions, joint problems, muscle loss, hair loss, infertility, fatigue, blood disorders or hormonal disorders. That’s the short list.

And as I wind my way through the murky maze of exposing and undoing the distorted thinking of the condition I find myself beginning to see things how they really are. I came across this article last week, and have decided that it sums up perfectly the utterly broken vision we hold as a society of what health actually looks like. The cult of athleticism, of toned bodies, of will-power to self-deny, the frenzied embrace of restrictive diets all in the pursuit of the body as the perfect ornament swells with the self-righteousness of its participants and the envy of its onlookers. A woman at 39 weeks pregnant runs the Chicago marathon, with the blessing of her medical doctor, and is lauded in the media for her unflinching determination to cross the finish line. I am agape that she would put her body through such an ordeal, but I am not surprised. I sit with women like her in group therapy every week – women who run on injuries, who over-train to the point of exhaustion, who cannot eat a meal without paying for it, all in the name of our ultimate cultural value – thinness. There might have been a day when she was my hero. Such discipline! Such self-denial! Thinness is the private motivation of the ED sufferer – the socially acceptable one is “health”. Their friends and family look on with wonderment and praise as they train 4 hours a day in the gym on a diet of 600 calories while the muscle of their hearts burns away and their periods vanish. If (as I used to during certain eras of the condition) I headed to the gym seven days a week or, gritting my teeth, pounded my way through self-punishing boot-camp style exercise regimes, I was rewarded with mountainous praise. Every pound I lost was considered a virtue gained. Every grilled fish and salad meal was a plate of pulsating morality.

You know, it’s a miracle that the woman in this article managed to bring a baby to term at all. Thank God for that child who managed to survive in spite of the six and a half hours of intensely stressful pavement-thumping that preceded her entry into this fucked up world.

Most people with ED are not just food-deniers. They are also secret bingers and/or purgers. Occasionally the body’s instinct for survival kicks in and they are forced to succumb to a binge of astronomic proportions. ED is all about excess. You cannot seem to walk a balance, on anything. You swing from periods of excessive starvation, excessive exercise to excessive eating and unflinching lethargy. The “all or nothing” mindset of someone with ED means that their life is the eternal tossing of the same coin – heads being denial and tails being excess. Denial of nourishment, denial of what the body or mind needs, denial of self-care and self-respect and self-kindness; excess of exercise, excess of junk food, excess of restriction, excess of self-abuse and self-loathing. You might be surprised to learn that people with ED come in all shapes and sizes, and most of them live by the very same practices. The body does its best with the abuse it receives as the metabolic rate struggles to compete with its periods of famine and feast. And yet all of these are merely symptoms of the problems, and not the problems themselves.

So what are the problems, exactly? It’s going to depend on the sufferer. The reasons why women (and of course men) develop ED are unique to the individual. But at root, in each person, is the inability to value oneself. That is a simple sentence. Short, blasé. Easy to miss. But learning to value oneself when one has considered oneself of no value, for a plethora of reasons, since early childhood, is an enormous feat. The strange and abnormal food-behaviours offer relief to the harsh reality of the inside of one’s mind from where there is no escape. The mental assaults of ED are particularly vicious when on holidays – not simply because sand and sunshine bring all those issues of body-image to the fore – but because there is always an expectation that with vacation comes an escape from it all. “It all” remaining inside one’s head is a difficult 24/7 reality. I recall when I decided that there was one food behaviour that I could no longer live with, and I quit it cold-turkey. Left without any buffer or comforter, my brain began to scream, almost literally. I spent a week weeping under a duvet as I experienced for real the distorted thinking of the condition and the pain of my own realities without anything to ease it. That was probably not a good idea. ED has its uses, you see. It gets you through hard things, because you don’t have the normal kinds of supports and practices that other people put in place to get through them. If you remove the ED behaviours, you find yourself in a pit of despair with no ladder out. Better then, to take the route of learning new methods for getting out of the pit. Learning these methods also means there’s no room left for the old methods. This has the side-effect of uncovering the reasons for being in the pit in the first place.

So. This post was supposed to be about how you should not run a marathon when you are pregnant. I am guessing most of you don’t need to be told that. And I suppose in a way, it still is about that. Essentially what I am getting at here with the ED/cultural distortion/cult of health thing is that somehow we have forgotten that our bodies are not merely ornaments, but instruments. They are instruments of living. They are not something separate from “us” to be whipped into shape, but rather they are treasures to be kept safe, nourished well and used to fulfil our hopes. My arms might be fat but they are good at comforting. My middle might be soft but it’s a good place for my husband to lay his head. And my calves might be wide but they walk me thousands of miles.

Here’s to balance in that walk.

Your Correspondent, Every muscle in her body is getting a workout, especially her big fat mouth.


fifth rate poetry set to sixth rate music

January 9, 2012

That’s what C.S. Lewis famously said most contemporary hymns were – fifth rate poetry set to sixth rate music. In my circles it’s also known as “Jesus is my girlfriend” music.

If you’re a church-goer, particularly of the evangelical persuasion, you’ll know what I mean when I talk about “worship”. The word “worship” has become synonymous with contemporary  Christian music. I want to talk a bit about this idea of worship.

You’ll probably already know that worship is about “ascribing worth” to something or someone. Arguably all human beings are natural worshippers – we like to enter into the transcendent – be that at a gig, a football match or a church service. Most of us find something to worship – something to ascribe worth to and get lost in. It speaks to us; it somehow soothes.

And yet I find worship in a church context quite difficult. Not because God is difficult to worship, and not because I have specific liturgical tastes that don’t get met at my church. But, and I am only coming to this conclusion in the last year, it is because the very nature of the worship matters. We have forgotten that worship is a gift – one of the richest aspects of our humanity. It is a gift to God and a gift to each other. I’m not sure that this is always a lived reality on Sundays.

When we talk about worship as simply praise music (which incidentally is a tremendously deficient cultural perspective into which the evangelical church has, literally, bought, wholesale), I get irked by the reality of people being on “worship” teams. Firstly I think we should consider calling our worship teams simply music teams or musical groups. The idea that the worship should be left exclusively to the musicians is insane. A musician is no more or less of a worshipper than the person who makes the tea or cleans the toilet. Secondly, we need to talk about quality. I’m not talking about the music sounding good – I’m really not. I’m talking again in terms of gift. What are we likely to appreciate more – a gift that has been thoughtfully and lovingly prepared, or something that’s been thrown together or grabbed at the last moment? The actual sound quality or the skill of the musicians may make a difference to the quality of music, but it will not affect the quality of worship.

Of course there are many elements that affect my ability to enter into worship. Access to the transcendent experience gets hampered and even blocked by heartache or broken relationships or simply living a life of constant escape and distraction. I’m not exempt from any of those things. But I do find myself entering into worship with more fluidity when the music, readings and liturgy are lovingly and prayerfully prepared. Skill is a bonus but not a necessity. A perfectly performed set of standard songs delivered by a stressed and overworked person with fifteen minutes preparation beforehand leaves me cold, as does a smoothly-spoken sermon by a person who speaks at ease from the front who is not passionate about scripture or their ministry.

When we use or abuse our charisms (which Christians believe are spiritual gifts given from God for the glorification of him and the edification of the whole community) as tools to produce emotional responses, as something to reveal our own talent, as fulfillment of duty or as anything less than a gift of love to God and to one another, we are moving towards both a reliance on sentimentality in place of spirituality and simultaneously, burn-out. I’ve been to both of those places and I have no interest in going back.

If we do not have the time required to prepare what is considered to be the standard fare of an evangelical service, then we simply need to abstain. It would honestly be better for us to sit in silence waiting for the voice of God than to blare out discordant nonsense for the sake of those who come to worship the music. I think the Quakers might be on to something.

hi hey hello there how are ya

January 8, 2012

Greetings are really very interesting, particularly the physical aspect. I’ve been thinking lately that I’d love to do a little ethnographic study on how we greet one another in Ireland (finally making use of that one year of anthropology that I took). We all know that’ll never happen though, so I’ll just blurt out some poorly-thought-through nonsense here instead.

I think that how we greet someone has the potential to make a statement about:

(a) How we feel about ourselves;

(b) How we feel about the person we are greeting;

(c) Our intentions toward the person we are greeting;

(d) Probably lots of other things that I have neglected to notice and include.

I’m going to try to batter out my thoughts by using the headings I’ve just put in place, in an attempt to help them take shape.  I should add as a disclaimer that I can only use myself as an example. You might do the same things as me, with totally different motivations, or you might even do the very opposite, but with very similar motivations.

(a) What Our Greetings Say About How We Feel About Ourselves:

The obvious thing that comes to mind in this case is the handshake. I always offer a very firm handshake, and find that I am usually (although not always) the first person in the pair to extend the hand. I do this for four reasons.

Firstly, I believe that touching another person is an important way to begin any kind of relationship with them, and the handshake, although a little formal, can offer warmth without crossing any personal boundaries. I’ve only ever met one person who refused to shake my hand, stating at the time that he “doesn’t do that” and I later heard that he ended up stabbing someone and consequently went to prison. (Just saying.)

I also offer my hand because I am confident in my social abilities and know that I am a good conversation partner, most of the time, and recognise that handshakes are a precursor to conversations (conversations with strangers being something that a huge number of people find difficult). I also usually couple a handshake with a smile, which I often find is returned, but I find I am rarely greeted with a smile first from the other person. I do think this is a confidence rather than temperamental issue, because those of you who know me know I’m not exactly chirpy in temperament.

Thirdly, I extend my hand  because I feel that a firm handshake, while looking someone in the eye, is quite simply a good way of acknowledging our meeting – an acknowledgement both of myself and of the other person in the encounter. An astonishing number of people offer a limp hand in handshakes, and a large proportion of the dead-fish-shakes are from women (sorry women, but it’s true). This reminds me from my days in anthropology of the huge range of greetings that people in Papua New Guinea have for one another…a favourite, which the husband unit was talking about recently, is where one friend, facing another, will say, “Are you here?” and the other will reply, “Yes, I am here.” I like that a lot.

Fourthly, and this is certainly a subconscious rather than conscious motivator for shaking hands, is that shaking someone’s hand is a powerful symbol of peace between two people. When one person refuses to shake another person’s hand, it is an aggressive gesture symbolising broken relationship. It’s wonderful to be able to start and indeed continue relationships with the goodwill of continued peace between you, but that’s kind of leaking into part (c) of this discussion.

And so with hugs. When I lean towards someone to put my arms around their body, it says that I am confident that they will return the embrace. When an embrace is awkward, it is often because one party was not expecting the embrace and therefore was not ready to return it. The embracer in turn can feel awkward as their expectations of an embrace were not met. Alternatively, a hug can be awkward if one party senses that the other is feigning affection, and they don’t wish to join in. I get that. I hate hugs from people I don’t like and try to avoid them (the hugs, that is) at all costs.

(b) What Our Greetings Say About How We Feel About the Person We Greet:

I’m a hugger, generally speaking. Not with everyone, mind, and not in all contexts. I’m a kisser, too. The more affection I feel towards you, which is often linked to how long I have known you, the more likely you are to get a big kiss and a warm embrace when I meet you. I feel a lot of love for my friends and to me it is a natural way of expressing that love. I know that this phsyicality does not come naturally to all people, even many very loving people, and I don’t think there is any problem with that. There is no standard for expressing love and affection, and sometimes a tender word from a friend of typically few words can be worth more than a hundred floppy-armed hugs from someone else.

I work in a prison where there are a lot of boundaries around physical touch, and for many reasons. Many of the men are in prison because they have no boundaries at all. Sometimes I want to hug a man, or hold his hand, but I don’t. Sometimes however they want to hug me, or hold my hand, and that is ok with me. I can imagine scenarios where it wouldn’t be ok, but these have not yet arisen. All in good time. ;) In the prison, the handshakes, smiles and eye-contact are very important. Prisoners do not touch one another much, and the prison guards do not touch the prisoners at all.This says something both about how the prisoners feel about themselves and about each other, and about how the guards feel about the prisoners. I want my handshakes to communicate that I consider them important and important enough to have a relationship with, which I hope will be a peaceful and affectionate one. Even the nature of the handshake can change. Sometimes it is a jolly jovial shake; sometimes it is a dismal and sad affair where the prisoner gazes at their feet; at other times it is a clasping of hands with a locked gaze and intense words. A lot can be communicated in a greeting.

(c) What Our Greetings Say About Our Intentions Towards the Person We Greet:

I have touched on this one already with the symbolic meaning of the handshake and the importance of eye-contact and/or smiling, but I will try to explain what I mean here with two examples.

A few days ago, a young man came to our home to stay for a month. His name is Declan. He’s here to do an internship with our church. I have only really met Declan on one previous occasion, where I accused him of being a fundamentalist (which was untrue, and which he took rather well). I should add that Declan claims that we had met previously in passing but I can’t recall it.

When Declan arrived laden down with luggage and damp from the rain, he had been travelling all day. Although I barely knew him, and am in fact only getting to know him bit by bit now, I greeted him with a big hug (sorry if that was surprising, Declan). I don’t usually greet people I barely know with hugs, but I did so because I wanted Declan to know that he was warmly welcomed into our home for the month. I guess the message was to let him know that while here, he would be part of the family.

A second example: a number of years ago, a young woman named Sharon moved to my town. I had known she was coming for some time, as  we had a mutual friend called Lorraine. Lorraine was full of anticipation about the lovely Sharon’s arrival – she would be working locally and living with Lorraine. I had heard a lot of wonderful things about her and was finding myself excited to meet her too. On the morning when we eventually met, we had a huge spontaneous embrace and lots of laughing. Our greeting was symbolic of the fact that we had both decided to be friends with each other, despite never having spoken before. It was a lovely moment, and we did become friends.

(d) Everything else:

I think all this talk of shaking hands, hugging and kissing is probably going to lead to a blog post on boundaries at some stage… :) This post probably reveals something about me that I shouldn’t go around saying too much: I like touching people. Touch communicates a lot. I don’t mean to suggest that if you find touching people other than those to whom you are very, very close, awkward, that there is some deficiency in this. I am only sharing my own experiences and thoughts and recognise that everyone is different, and many other assorted cliches. I haven’t even glanced over verbal greetings here, which are a different and very interesting beast also.

Any thoughts, o wise ones? If I’ve offended you, try not to get too touchy with me…oh what the hell. Let’s all just make out.

talking vaginas

January 4, 2012

I read The Vagina Monologues far too recently for someone with a degree in literature (see what I did there? I turned a self-deprecating comment into self-praise.) You should take a couple of hours to read it yourself or better yet, catch a performance (I’ve not yet managed the latter). I read it for the first time just a few weeks ago in fact, because somebody asked me to make a response to it from the perspective of a Christian woman. So here it is: my Christian Woman’s Perspective TM .

The content of the Vagina Monologues definitely could not be considered to be “Christian content” (I am reminded of a comment I read somewhere years ago about how Christian makes a great noun but a lousy adjective). In the parlance of our increasingly stupid era it is certainly not in the “family friendly” category (whatever that might entail). (For the record, it’s advised that nobody under the age of 13 should be present at a production of the play.) The content recounts a sample of the experiences of hundreds of American women in how they have viewed, thought of, spoken of and experienced their vaginas. (Come on women, say it with me. VAGINAS.) The content deals with shame around the body, shame around sexuality, experiences of profound sexual violence, experiences of sexual awakening and sexual repression, menstruation, prostitution and lesbianism. In short, it deals with many of the experiences of life that are unique to women. These experiences are, I believe, as relevant to Irish women as they are to American women.

The play has been accused by Christians almost universally of being immoral, or of promoting lesbian relationships. So let’s say for argument’s sake that both of these accusations hold. What then should our reaction be, as Christian Women TM ?

If as Christians we can neither participate in nor view any form of art that expresses the brokenness of humanity, then we cannot participate in or view any of the forms of art with which we’re already very familiar. We can no longer read novels. We can no longer watch films or television programmes (Grey’s Anatomy, I’m looking at you). Art by its very nature exposes our humanity in its broken state. The Vagina Monologues is uncomfortable reading and viewing because it deals frankly with taboo words and subjects (VAGINA!). Can’t we be trusted as Christians to engage with taboo words and subjects with the open minds of those who are secure in the Gospel truth? Is it not always valuable to hear the stories of others? It is after all, our story, and the story of the life of Christ, that we are trying to unfold in our own lives, in our own church communities and with our non-Christian friends. If we expect others to listen as we drone on, why then can others not expect the same respect from us?

God speaks to us in his own ways. Karl Barth said, “God may speak to us through Russian Communism, through a flute concerto, through a blossoming shrub or through a dead dog. We shall do well to listen to him if he really does so.” Are we not open to hearing the rumblings of the spirit in a conversation about the rape of women, or a person’s right to pleasure?

But what of participating in the the sharing of such stories? What about being a Christian woman, performing in the Vagina Monologues? Do Christian women not have vaginas (do you guys not? I think I do)? Do they not experience sexual pleasure? Do they not experience shame, hurt and rape? May a Christian woman not act as a voice for someone who has no voice or even more simply, stand in empathy with another (note the word “other” here)? Although vocalising the truth of the Gospel is something that all Christians are called to, not all activities are about vocalising the Gospel. When we watch Coronation Street or paint a still-life or listen to a symphony or bake banana bread or write a song about a loved one, are we to be reprimanded for not telling the full story of the gospel in our re-creative activities? Is it a rule that we, if we are actors, can only be in plays where all the characters are Christians? (I don’t want to see that play.)

Maybe we should begin by boycotting the bible, with its tales of concubines, prostitution and faithlessness to God. Because these stories are our stories. The Vagina Monologues are the stories of women and we should not try to censor those stories. In fact, perhaps we should wait before speaking and, for once, as a church, simply listen. Perhaps we will learn something. Perhaps we will hear the rumblings of the spirit or the stirrings of our own stories. We cannot be afraid of what we perceive to be darkness, if we make the pretty outrageous claim that we do, to be those who bear the light. VAGINA!

on lament

January 4, 2012

I’ve been meaning to respond to this post on lament written by my friend Steph for a while now. I’ve been thinking about it since she posted it, and the husband-unit and I have had some good conversations on the topic.

Firstly I need to comment on the song to which Steph links – a song I have heard a lot this year as it really captured the husband unit’s attention. I however have struggled with it. I get that it’s subversive – singing happy words to a sorrowful melody, the singer’s voice rising and falling with pained emotion throughout. And I am not being cynical here. I get why it affects. And I generally like things that are subversive and affecting. And maybe it would have been an easier song for me to relate to if I hadn’t seen the video. It is one thing however to be affecting and another to be affected. How many takes did it require to get this woman on camera lamenting in so many different, perfectly posed shots? I think it would have spoken to me more in its imperfect state – one long, live take (like here, for example). As it is, it comes across as a very honed product – something far from the very real and authentic pain which it intends to express. I know that the woman who wrote and performed this song has known great grief. But something about this video does not allow me to connect with it. I am touchy about having my emotions manipulated. :)

But that is all beside the point and as usual I find very few people to agree with me. :)

But on to the subject to which the song attracts our attention – lament. Steph works through the idea that some Christians are, in a broad sense, joyful, and others, full of lament. She describes herself as empathetic – sharing deeply in the sorrows of others – and drawn to sad and morbid songs and movies and books.

But I think what struck me was that what Steph was alluding to was not being a lamenter, but rather being someone who is in touch with their own humanity. Lament is part of my life. And as Steph points out, joy is a part of hers. I have known very few people who truly face who they are, who truly face their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities and disappointments and pain, who truly engage and live and go deep and risk relationship – who do not lament. Who are the happy, joyful people she speaks about? I am certainly limited in my experience of others but I have not yet met them. I have met a lot of people who persistently take a positive attitude on things – and despite my natural cynicism, I try to be one of those people! I have known people who evoke joy in me and in others. But in each and every case, these people are acquainted with grief and have both known their own lament and journeyed on lament with others. One person in particular who fits this description of evoking joy in me and in others has in fact spent large pockets of his life in a mental hospital.

So what I am saying is this: Steph, I do not actually think that you are defined by lamenting. You are not a lamenter, to be held in contrast to someone who is a Joyful Christian. Lament or grief, and joy, are two sides of the same coin. You are a person in touch with your own humanity, and this is painful. You journey with people in pain, and this is painful. And those who appear happy all the time are, in all likelihood, not. Those who evoke true joy are always those who have come close to grief and borne it.

I have often said in recent years that it is hard to be a human being. I stand by that. That in itself is good enough reason to lament. That we can do it together is good enough reason for joy.

be good for goodness’ sake

January 3, 2012

Happy new year, folks.

I once wrote a long thesis on virtue ethics. I’ve thought about morality a lot over the years. But it has taken working in a prison to change my perspective on the topic. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking up moral relativism. In fact, my stance that there is an absolute moral standard toward which all human beings are drawn and further, by which they will be held accountable, hasn’t really shifted.

But morality, for morality’s sake, means less and less to me. Being good for goodness’ sake no longer seems to hold any authority. As I journey deeper into my faith the reality of the Christian journey as an invitation into relationship with the divine relationship is slowly seeping into all areas of my thought. Let me try to explain.

This struck me when I was chatting with a prisoner friend of mine last week. He was regaling me with tales of his youth, out robbing stuff from Dunnes Stores, with his girlfriend. This guy is an animated storyteller and the stories were very funny – classic “ordinary decent criminal” fodder, full of high jinx, and we were laughing. He stopped suddenly and said, “It’s bad though, isn’t it? If you read this in a book – you’d think I was a bad person, wouldn’t you?” The conversation called to mind for me an occasion when my father in law and the rest of his family returned home from a funeral and found the house cleared out by burglars. I was absolutely disgusted at the time and full of what I considered to be righteous anger. My father in law’s only response was to say, “Well…they must have needed that stuff more than we did.” At the time I was horrified with this response – where was the justice?! But over time, my father in law’s response of grace and understanding has had a deep impact on me. I shared this memory with my prisoner friend and said that I am trying to be the kind of person who responds the way in which my father in law did.

I am getting to my point, slowly.

My friend said to me, “I am done robbing. When I get out of here, I’m never robbing again.”

And it was at this moment that I realised that I didn’t care if robbing was right or wrong. I didn’t care that robbing was a sin. I don’t care, in fact, how much my friend has robbed in the past. But I didn’t want my friend to ever rob again because of what it could do to him, to his girlfriend on the outside, to their son. I wasn’t interested in him not stealing because people who do not steal are morally pure, or because stealing is wrong. I was interested in him not stealing because a life that is  not stolen is a life that is closer to flourishing.

So what I mean when I say that I am not interested in goodness for goodness’ sake is that if our virtues are only for the sake of the virtues themselves, then they are for nothing. You are left with legalism and pietism. You are left with “turn or burn” sermons given by right-wing wankers. But if our virtues are for the sake of our flourishing – and furthermore, the flourishing of those around us – then they are for something. I don’t want my friend to sin not only because sinning is in and of itself bad but because I view my friend as called into a relationship with his creator that is one of grace. There is no need for and no space for stealing in a place full of free gifts.

So it isn’t that I have become a moral relativist. It is just that I am beginning to see that all our virtues must be orientated towards relationship and in particular, towards the divine relationship, into which we are invited and from which all virtue flows. It’s a freeing place to be.