Wednesday, September 27, 2006

When Jesus Arrives

In much of my formal essay writing the past year, one question/response from my readers has repeated itself over and over: If the church is such a sore point for me, why do I stay in it? A reasonable question--an obvious one, perhaps, to all my non-Christian readers. That said, I'll be posting some meditations on my answers--just some ramblings gearing me up for the next essay.

* * *
When Jesus appears lately, the scene is post-resurrection. But the cross isn't far in the background, perched atop a hill and set starkly against the grey sky. I know "grey sky" is cliched, but it's the truth: In my mind's eye, the sky is the color of dishwater. I wonder why Jesus appears to me with the cross, and why the image of him set against the instrument of his death unleashes any anguish inside me. It's in this scene, and only this scene, I know he gets me.

I've tried meditating on Jesus-who-welcomed-children, Jesus-who-didn''t-condemn-the adulteress, and Jesus-the-newborn-babe. None of these images emerges naturally in my prayer times. It is always Jesus-post-cross, at the scene of his death. Alive-after-death: the epitome of strength. I think, if he can handle the cross, then he can handle me. He could calm me down. Maybe better than Welbutrin.

What I throw at him is questions about the marriage, his church, the money, the kids, my general sense of being lost. (I'm not oblivious to the great irony of my feeling lost even though Jesus "found" me. I'm sure the irony is not lost on him, either).

Every time I'm about to give up on Jesus, he arrives. It's as if he's found me again, although the classic "Footprints" poem (and the New Testament) would say that's faulty theology: Jesus never left me. A good theology would say the leaving is on my end--not that I left him intentionally, but that I'm imperfect, human: I do not always sense Jesus' spirit near me, even if it is. I do not always believe he is with me, even when he is. But regardless of whether any finding actually occurs, in the moments I'm describing I believe he's found me. That's when: I express grief and know he understands.

Those two factors--the expression and the knowledge of him hearing--occur, it seems, when stars align.

"You hem me in--behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me," wrote a psalmist. "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain." It comes down again to me being human, then, does it? The knowledge of Jesus listening is perhaps too profound, too out-of-reach of my intellectual grasp. If this is the case, then I pray that Jesus be merciful to me in my weak-mindedness. If I don't know, maybe what's happening is feeling, and seeing. And aren't those just alternate ways of knowing? Isn't that his image and the grey sky? Isn't that the aching in my chest when I sense he is near?

How do I talk about grief and Jesus' comfort without relying on Christian cliches of "crying out to God" and "getting on my knees", which ring to me of religiousity. It is something different than that. It's raw. It's rediscovery of him alive-after-death. I rediscover him when I think I'm the one who's dying.

I once listened to a new believer give her testimony in front of a group of Christians. She'd had a bumpy road--bad relationships, addictions. Jesus found her. She discovered him. And walking arm in arm, the two of them set about untangling her life.

"Thanks to God and Prozac," she concluded, "here I am today."

I'll say Amen.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

No Cats and No Peanut Butter

I'm paralyzed with the cliched fear of the unknown.

Will I get the job or won't I?

If I'm offered it, how will I answer?

I lie awake late at night and in the early morning hours. Anxiety swells within me until I feel I'm choking on it. All I think about is Evvy and daycare. (And how I don't care about news).

I called the home day-care providers. Nobody fits all of our criteria. First Aid, Background Checks, CPR are all general key points, but here is what we want specifically:

No peanut butter.
No cats.
There aren't too many children.
Close to home or
Close to work.
Evvy qualifies for the "half-time" rate, and
Costs are less-than or equal-to $400/month.

My final criterion is subjective and nebulous. In my phone screenings with providers, I want to fall "in like" with them, if not in love. I want to see them as dynamic and magnetic kid-people who will connect with Ev or any child because they have compassion and understanding for children. Sometimes I get this feeling from a provider, but they have a waiting list, or they serve peanuts and have cats (allergens that would create big problems for our family), live too far away, or they'd charge us the "full time" rate, which we are trying to avoid due to my prospective half-time salary.

The only place that meets most of what we're looking for is Apple Tree, the center that will suck up more than half my paycheck.

I don't know how to decide if the financial gain we'll enjoy will be worth the emotional cost of putting Ev in day care at her age and losing so many hours with both of my girls of playtime, stories, and art projects and--let's be realistic--grocery shopping and laundry.

I've found myself praying on more than one occasion that the decision will be made for me--that I won't be offered the job. I catch myself and wonder, Am I insane? This is what we've been hoping for, looking for. This would solve a lot of problems.

My next thought in the cyclical series I endure is that Jesus can solve a lot of problems, too--in a lot of different ways. There might be another job out there with afternoon and evening hours, where the kids won't have to be away from one of their parents for so long every day. I doubt there's much out there that's better paying than the news job, but I'll save on child care and maybe--eventually--on the cost of Welbutrin.

Scratch that. My generic "Welbutrin" is free this year thanks to Welmark.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Apple Tree

Who follows their college roommate to another state after graduation?

This is the question running through my mind while interviewing Evvy's prospective teacher, Megan, at Apple Tree Children's Center yesterday.

Megan is tall, athletic, sweet, kind, and timid. She's been the lead teacher in the two-year-olds room at the center for three weeks, having recently graduated with a degree in Elementary Education (note: this training has to do with first graders, not toddlers). Still, at least she has training with children. It's more than I can say for a lot of child care workers. But with the high turnover rates in child care providers nationwide, I can't help but wonder if Apple Tree is going to hold Megan long: She's not from Iowa City; she's here because of the aforementioned college roommate. She didn't go to school to become a teacher of toddlers; I'm guessing she'll want to put her teaching certificate to good use, which will probably mean moving back to Illinois.

I ask her if she sees herself staying at Apple Tree for a while, "I hope so," she says . . . hopefully. "We'll see how it all works out."

Though honest, this is a less than inspiring answer.


At 8:45 that morning, we rang the doorbell for our visit at Apple Tree, and the assistant director, who could see us through two sets of security windows, buzzed us in.

"Can I help you?" She asked in a voice that I interpreted as extremely annoyed.

"Um, well, we're here for a visit."

She got up from her chair behind the window-wall and in a moment appeared before us in the entry way.

"What's your name?"

Slowly it came back to her that she'd scheduled the visit yesterday on the phone with me. After that she was the epitome of professionalism, assembling handouts, escorting us to the two-year-old classroom to observe Evvy's prospective new teach, sitting with Evvy while we talked to Megan. Evvy was invited to sit down at a toddler sized table and eat cheerios with Jonathan, the only other toddler present so far. She smiled enthusiastically at, I presume, the furniture in her size--and the cheerios and milk, which she's never had before.

I think she'd be fine here. I think Megan would be fine with her. Unless Megan leaves, and then that would be not-fine.

I"m hoping for more than "fine."

I suspect I would have trouble with the administration at Apple Tree. During our Q and A session, the asst. director and director strike me as bearing a resemblance to car salesmen the way they so aggressively emphasize Apple Tree's positive qualities. When I ask about teacher turnover rates and teacher salary and benefits (two factors that are inextricably related), they "don't think" they can disclose all those details, but have I _ever_ heard of a child care center offering life insurance?? They do that here at Apple Tree.

"Do you assist the employees in paying the premiums?" I ask, thinking this could be as good a benefits package as Wal-Mart's where the employees work for the insurance.

"Apple Tree flat out gives them their life insurance," the asst. director cooes. Life insurance, schmife insurance. What about the stuff that costs money--the health care, dental, and vision?

Whatever. They seemed defensive, though I was trying my hardest to sound friendly when I asked how well they treated their employees. My friend K. says it makes her think all that money people pay is going to corporate headquarters (yes, Apple Tree is a "chain"), and not to employees.

We now move the investigation on to Home Daycare.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Female Assertiveness

So, I'm a big proponent of women being gutsy. But I'm also anti-arrogance. And the professional interview (not to mention the thank-you note) feels like a big exercise in harping on how great I am.

What was my greatest success? --Oh, I ran a campus wide election and I had no idea how to do it at the start. It went well. I'm brilliant. A genius. How would I feel if I got a nasty phone call from Jane Q. Public? --I'd handle myself with a great deal of professionalism, diplomacy, courtesy. I would offer them the ear of my supervisor so that they might feel "heard." Would this be a blow to my ego--to have someone ask to speak to my super? --Well, hrrmm, it's never happened before, but no, of course not. I'm a professional. How have I improved a work situation? Well, hmm, I revamped a company's communiques to proofreaders: After my imput, the production editor informed me they would be making changes. Again: Genius.

I'm just a person who's as flawed as the next one, but you're not allowed to let that show in an interview. It's all fake and shiny and they want you to be brilliant and charming and smart and ethical (or have no ethics). Any small accomplishment must be spun into something mentionable and praiseworthy. Maybe the interview really is all about being assertive and selling yourself, and it doesn't have to be fake. But I left there worried they think I'm full of myself. Is it for lack of assertive women being a social norm that I call assertiveness arrogance, that I call confidence pride?

"You wouldn't describe me as arrogant, would you?" I plead with Mark after the interview.

"No," he laughs. The laugh helps. I know he means it.

But I still feel so full of shit.

And then I was faced with an additional exercise in self-praise: I wrote the thank-you note.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Home Maintenance Update

The husband works in mysterious ways.

After proclaiming his utter contempt for all home repair jobs cosmetic and functional, the husband independently spent an evening organizing the list of things I wanted done. Of course, he employed a highly geeky software program (chosen after a few hours of research on personal organization software) to make the list. In it he listed such things scoffed at in our week of fighting before the last counseling session--painting the bare patches around the window trim, staining the deck, gluing rubber baseboards on the bottoms of our kitchen and bathroom cabinets.

The next day he disappeared with the children to Lowes and came back with cement caulk for patching the driveway, and hardware to fix our slamming screen doors.

J says, "It sounds like he is responding well to marriage counseling."

"Apple Tree Children's Center"

J (counselor) says you get what you pay for when it comes to child care. He references "the research" when making this claim. And, being a parent of three young children, he can vouch for this being true.

Apple Tree, Apple Tree: Only day care center in the area that boasts its own professionally designed web site. Apple Tree, where "day care" is a dirty word, because they care for "children, not for days." Apple Tree, where my toddler will be "cuddled" and "loved" and celebrated for her developmental differences.

Tomorrow, we visit the esteemed Apple Tree.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Balancing Act

Someone on the interview committee wore a suit. I fit in!

No one spiked their hair for the occasion, though.

I want the job, but I want it at a few thousand dollars over the baseline salary in order to take home money of any significance after deductions for child care.

I've spent the last 48 hours calling day care centers in the area. Apple Tree, the center a block away from my prospective work building, charges 140$ a week for half time care. That averages $606 a month for Evvy. This is the center where teachers receive benefits, and almost everyone has a degree in childhood education. They boast a state-of-the-art security system in a brand new building, and a peanut-free environment. The center is also attached to the city parking garage in which I would park every day for $60 a month. Everything about the center sounds perfect except for the money. The cost of day care plus preschool for the four-year-old amounts to three times what I will take home in actual cash at the baseline salary listed for this job.

But, there are other options for child care. There are our local neighborhood daycare centers that charge a much more reasonable rate. The people who answer the phone sound harsh, stressed out, busy. (At Apple Tree and "La Petite Academy" the women who answered the phones sound as if they've all the time in the world. They are slow and measured, with a sing-songy cadence to their speech.) The people who answer the phones at the cheaper centers are "not sure" what to charge for the hours I'm looking for, or if they can accomodate me. Their directors might not be there today to answer these queries. Their teachers do not hold degrees in higher education. They are not peanut free. They let the two-year-olds watch Baby Einstein while the teachers "clean up from lunch." Clearly, they are lower budget. Clearly, they are stretched for help.

Listening to the Apple Tree teacher made me imagine Evvy playing in a beautiful brick courtyard on fall mornings with her peers, and playing in a brightly lit classroom full of colorful pictures and books. I see her besmocked at Art Time, lavishing paint onto an easel and smiling with great satisfaction.

I picture her at "Enchanted Neighborhood" playing in a dark crowded room, on dirty carpet--peanut butter oil-stains smudged onto all the toys. I see her crying. I see tired, underpaid caregivers not noticing her--they're busy with emergencies: a potty accident, the "family-style" bowl of corn was overturned at the lunch table.

Obviously I'll visit the prospective centers. I may hate the vibe I get from the toddler teacher at Apple Tree. I may love "Kiddie Konnection." And if so, I'll be taking home pay that equals _almost_ as much as I'll pay in child care.

Now I wait. The search committee said it might be weeks till I hear from them, that the hiring process always "takes a week longer than expected." Here are my questions in order of occurrence:

Will they offer me the job?

If so, what salary will they offer?

If it's not enough, how do I negotiate for more without turning them down if they can't give me what I want? (Because at the end of the day, I'm the one who needs them more than they need me.)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Cell Phones on Belt Clips

The corporate world scares me. But can the University of Iowa really be likened to the "corporate world." NO, a little voice inside (and my husband) tells me. Still, the job I'm interviewing for is categorized as "Professional and Scientific." That's enough to send me scurrying to suit-land and web sites about how to interview well. This is where that Welbutrin is kicking in: I never would have researched the art of the interview before. The art would have come naturally, intuitively. Now I can't imagine what it looks like.

My web "research" has taught me enough to feel a bit at odds with the whole process. I've learned, for instance, that a handshake is very important at the beginning and close of a meeting. But leaving it at that is too simplistic. There are 8 or 10 very important ingredients to the proper handshake, having to do with who initiates it, and whether there is simultaneous eye contact, pleasant facial expression, and a spoken word (greeting or thanks). A proper first handshake should last about three "pumps" (People pump multiple times??) and, if the meeting's gone well, three to five slow and deliberate pumps at the close--with eye contact and smile--and a thank you. Being a lady, I should be sure not to fall back on the Scarlett O'Hara brand of handshake, which is to extend my fingertips limply. No indeed, she needs to straighten up her spine, grip, and pump with some agression.

In regard to clothing, the goal is for the hiring committee not to remember it. Apparel should "compliment" me, but not draw attention away from the brilliant and talented proofreader/media communications person that I am/might be. Leather shoes and belt are a "must," as well as a neutral suit. Don't worry if you're way overdressed than everyone else in the room. This shows "respect" for them and their time.

Being the Gen-Xer (and non-handshaker) that I am, I scoff at all of the above. Yet, the truth-teller inside me knows that some people care about this stuff. Some people are going to judge me based on how I look and whether I shake. Maybe they won't be conscious of it, but they'll judge me all the same.

But, oh God, please prevent me from ever having to dress in Business Casual. That would be far worse than high heels and wool pants. Please keep me safe and protect me from the following: tan khakis, Ralph Loren polos in primary colors, and cell phones on belt clips. And may the hiring committee be comprised of at least one person with spiked hair.

Waiting for Sleep and the Interview

I bought a suit. Er, I bought two. It was Ann Taylor Loft v. Express, or Wool v. Polyester. I'll have to make the decision at home today because last night I was way too messed up from Wellbutrin to think clearly at the mall.

Welbutrin is doing me some favors: Instead of a rapid-heart-beat response to any thought about tomorrow's interview, I feel a great peaceful distance from the appointment. No adrenaline surges at the idea of having to perform for an hour and a half in front of three strangers and a proofreading test. I'm beyond calm, aware that in some parallel universe I am freaking out and breaking into a sweat at all the bars to be hurdled in landing a decent, family-friendly job. I'm so calm that I'm fuzzy. Fuzzy on why exactly I'm qualified for the job in the first place, what skills my experience has augmented. I imagine myself sitting in the room with the hiring committee and having nothing to say, staring at them in a Welbutrin-induced state of insomnia and a sleepy smile.

The not sleeping is a problem. If I do sleep, it's a few hours at a time. I've lost all my deep-sleep cycles. Now it's REM all the way and I can hardly tell if I'm awake or dreaming for most of the night. I wake up exhausted. And then I take another Welbutrin, which peps me up.

Don't be alarmed, readers. I think the problem will be solved by cutting back my dose, a plan I put into action last night. Of course, the med levels need to die down before I'll actually notice a difference. I went to bed at ten. Woke up at midnight and again at 3:56. Went back to sleep till 4:19 when the four-year-old came out of her room to say her back itched. After that, all hope was lost. I've laid in bed, done physical therapy stretches, checked on salary ranges for Program Assistants at the UI, laid in bed some more, got up, put on exercise clothes with the intention to go on a walk, decided it was too dark out, and sat down to blog.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

What Will I Wear to the Interview? Or: What Are My Chances?

After a month of faithfully checking the online job bulletin boards at the University of Iowa, I gave up. Last week, I poured my energies into a writing project and a homemade Christmas gift Mark and I are creating for the girls. I didn't bother to look for new postings. Somehow I was convinced I'd fulfilled the quota of resumes I ought to throw out into the job market. I'd sown as many seeds as I could bear; I'd wait and see if anything came back to me.

Last night Mark found a message on our answering machine from a guy in the University News Services department at the UI. Could they "bring me in for an interview" next week? he asked over the machine. Call him on his cell tonight (Friday) or over the weekend?

This threw me into the frenzy of trying to remember just what sort of job I'd applied for. Something to do with editing and routing UI news releases to the media, and national news to the UI list serve. I checked the description online and found the job has more to do with my particular skillset than any other job I've applied for. Still, I have no Associated Press style knowledge. I have no journalism background.

I called Steve on his cell phone where he apologized for the background noise: He was at the Ped Mall; it was Friday night. Kids screamed in the background. There were six candidates for the job, and every interview slot had been filled for next week except for Monday afternoon. Monday afternoon was the only time I'd have trouble getting to an interview. But if I didn't, he'd have to meet with the committee next week, and reschedule another time-slot based on the committee's schedule-compatibility. "You know what?" I told him. "I'll make it work."

The job offers financial security--its baseline salary is one of the higher paying I've seen. I could pay for child care and bring home 400$ a month. Not to mention the $581 in health flex credits we desperately need. The job I'm looking at is 50% time, and requires a morning shift presumably because that's when news releases get routed. But I find myself panicked at the problem of the children's care: Could I leave them early every morning with a babysitter (who would, initially, be a stranger)? And what would Mark and I do on inclement-weather days, in the winter, when the driveway was a a foot deep in snow and I have to leave at 6:50 a.m., he has to get Una to preschool, and the babysitter's car won't start? It's almost enough to make me cancel the interview.

What about when the kids are sick? Or I have a doctor appointment? Yes, I'll have vacation and sick time, but will this position, advertised as necessitating the "handling of multiple tasks simultaneously under deadline pressure," allow for snow days, sick kids, cancelled bus service, and counseling appointments? Furthermore, can my life handle any more multi-tasking-under-pressure?

Still, the benefits are pretty amazing. And if I start a graduate program next fall at the UI, I could get up to four semester hours paid for--making a dent in my tuition costs.

Now I'm back to all-out aggression: I want the job! With six candidates, that gives me a 15% shot of getting it. One of my friends said, with so much faith, "But you're best one!" A kind friend, certainly. Am I the best one? This city is full of educated people who probably want (and possibly need) this job way worse than I do, and I wonder if they aren't are a hell of a lot smarter than me about journalistic style, list-serves, and web maintenance.

My last meditation on the upcoming interview stems from my reading of Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book about white collar unemployment and how damn hard it is to get a job in spite of an investment of time and money in career-coaches, job fairs, and image consultants. In regard to the latter, she learned she needed a fitted suit in the right color, new makeup, and a small gold chain necklace to look the part. In her reading research, she gained the advice that it was unwise to look "too feminine" because men won't think you're up for a challenge. Contrarily, she shouldn't look "too masculine." Masculinity in a woman is perceived as a threat.

I've been asking myself: So what should I wear? But perhaps I shouldn't be asking. After all, Ehrenreich spent thousands and thousands on travel and coaches and seminars and a nice honey-toned suit from Ann Taylor. The best job she was offered was AFLAC sales representative, a position that provided no office, no benefits, and no actual salary.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

More Problems with Christians

A few months ago, half-expecting misery, I tuned my car radio to the local Christian station ("the Fish." Go figure.) The morning deejays (a.k.a. Christian-slogan spammers) were a man and woman duo announcing the release of a Christian woman's new book on "discouragement." The project was targeted at the ladies, who, as the radio hosts seemed to intuit, suffer particularly from hard-core down-in-the-dumps. Women listeners were encouraged (ha) to go listen to the author speak on such-and-such a date.

And then, perhaps in a fit of passive aggression, the female host (I think) said, "[You know,] Men as well as women leaders struggle with discouragement." Was hers a tone of mock surprise? Did she consider this a newsworthy tidbit? And if so, why?

In a spirit of agreement (or because Christian deejays always appear to agree on random points of pop-Christian-psyhcology), the male host rejoined with something like that's right. Men do struggle with discouragement, adding "It's really tough when leaders get discouraged, particularly the ladies."


I'll never claim expertise in theology. With the exception of John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son . . .") I can't remember scripture references for the life of me. And yes, to be sure, I just looked that up.

I haven't memorized the myriad Hebrew words, or their nuanced meanings, for God.

Still, I'm good at following directions. I can sit in a Bible study or the Sunday sermon and read along with the pastor's bulleted notes and/or scriptures on the projection screen. I make connections, or don't, depending on the clarity of a teaching and whether I concur with a particular arguement. I've also read enough books on gender issues in the church to be clear that one can make a Biblical arguement both for and against women in pastoral positions, and more specifically: whether she can have a position of authority in a co-ed setting.

One thing I'm certain of, however, is that a Biblical descriptor of womankind being prone to discouragement does not exist.

Lately, many Christian leaders have attributed weaknesses and strengths exclusively to either of the sexes. They've called these attributions "Biblical." I'm familiar with enough "movements" in the current church to know that to be female means to embrace one's weakness, to celebrate being "a girl," as one Christian author put it. She adds women should feel complimented by the insult, "You fight like a girl!" because it means women are being true to their God-given design.


This anecdote from a friend: A speaker at a genders-issues conference gave her testimony, saying she knew she'd finally gotten in touch with being a woman when she screamed at an unwelcome rodent in her home.

And thanks be to God.

What Will a Reader Afford a Writer? Or: What Will the Church Afford Its Critics?

I've appreciated the comments on my "rules" question ("If we can criticize the church, what are the rules?') My next question is: What are the rules from an artist's standpoint.

In an essay, I am not personally confronting any one person or individual. Instead I am confronting trends, values, traditions. If people are thrown into the rant, then they are used as props to make the narrative, and I mean them to be two-dimensional.

Still, I am haunted by one of the comments on the post about rules:

"Don't be divisive. Be careful the manner of criticism doesn't fall into a place of steal/kill/destroy - Doesn't mean it can't hurt or be hard, but it shouldn't destroy."

I wrote an essay titled "Problems with Christians." it was predominantly about the church culture's reaction to women's bodies and breastfeeding, in particular. In ten pages of ranting against varying aspects of the church's response to women, the one paragraph that actually haunts me is the following:

"I don’t have a blanket, dammit, and God forbid anyone should get a little flash of breast around here. It would probably be good for them—those nice thirties-ish, plump assistant pastors or so-called elders—like thirty’s old—with the goatees, khakis, and plaid shirts, looking all man-we-are-so-authentic-we-can-relate-to-you-but-can-you-feed-your-baby-on-the-toilet?"

Here's why I'm haunted: In order to make my point about Christians' attempts to be culturally relevant, I've created a stereotype. And I've applied my judgment to the sterotype.

There are a number of Christian men who sport goatees, khakis, and plaid shirts (I noted these details in the essay as indicators of an attempt to be culturally relevant. As in: the elders aren't wearing suits and ties. The pastor's not in a robe). Clearly, clearly, not all Christian men who fit this description are offended at the sight of a woman breastfeeding. Does this even need to be said? Is it understood by a reader?

That's the main question. Does the reader know enough to allow me the disgrace of a judgment based on a sterotype?

And if readers can't afford the writer this shortcoming, will they resign as audience members?

And if so, will there be any audience left?

And if not, has the writer written?

If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around, does it make a sound?

What is the value of the written word if no one reads it?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

How Cynicism Failed Me

If you head to our local Iowa City Walmart and find yourself in the express lane (with your twelve or fewer items), chances are you'll be serviced by a petite middle-aged woman with a rosy smile and voice.

"How are you today?" she'll ask sincerely.

You'll answer fine, and "how are you?" if you're in a pleasant mood.

"Did you find everything you were looking for?" she'll inquire.

Maybe you did, maybe you didn't. You figure it's not really worth outlinining the terrain you covered in the store, how you got to the photo center and it was closed, or how Walmart sells only one variety of cardstock. Whatever.

In case her questions haven't covered all the bases of customer courtesy, she will pause with the scanning of your items, sweep her arm to the side in a gesture of assistance and ask, "Is there anything that I personally can do for you today?"

You'll find this a bit much, and wonder if she is possibly mocking you, the customer, with this superfluous gesture toward servitude.

"No--no, I don't think so. Thanks," you'll say, puzzled.

We don't frequent Wal-Mart all that much these days, but all I have to say to Mark is, "you know that lady in the express lane?" and he rolls his eyes and says yeah he does. We've both been doing a lot of internal eye rolling I guess, when it comes to this woman: We don't understand why anyone would try to serve us like that, and we, therefore, label her suspect.

Last night, I took the conversation with the woman further than I ever do.

"So is this like, your lane?" I ask

"Well, sort of...people think that because I'm the last one here."

"Oh yeah? How late do you work?"

"Twelve-thirty--that's when the other shift comes in."

"Wow," I say, thinking that I'd have trouble staying up that late. "So what time do you come in?"

"Seven a.m."

"Seven a.m. Are you kidding?!"

"Nope." She's bagging my printer paper now.

I'm speechless. Numbers are figuring in my head. Seven a.m. to twelve-thirty a.m. That's 17.5 hours. Take out half an hour for a lunch and half an hour for two fifteen-minute breaks--that's a 16.5 hour workday. The bags I noticed under her eyes make sense.

"But," she says, "I don't do this every day."

I am relieved. "How many days do you do it?"


Four 16.5 hour work days is a 66 hour work-week. I"ve never worked for pay that many hours per week in my life. Not to mention that at 9:30 at night, when I encounter her, she's been standing on her feet for at least 13 hours.

I just don't get why or how someone could be that nice when they're physically demanded of in that way, with shit for pay. I doubt anyone who doesn't need to be making an income would work those hours.

I go home and, after the eye rolling, report the conversation to Mark. "Doesn't that change things for you?" I prod. "Yeah," he says. It completely does. Instead of our annoyance at what we suspected was a mockery of customer service, we are dumbfounded by her efforts.

And now, staying true to my blog's mission, I have to ask what this has to do with marriage, parenthood, or organized religion. The best I can do is cite this scripture, which flitted about in my mind as I drove home.

But God has chosen what the world calls foolish to shame the wise.
He has chosen what the world calls weak to shame what is strong.
1 Corinthians 1:27 (New Life Version)
My sensibilities about the world--my cynical, street-smarts brand of truth--is shamed.

Monday, September 11, 2006

For Christians: Is it Fair to Criticize the Church?

Today I got an email back from someone (M) in pastoral leadership. I had sent M an essay that was, essentially, a critique of the church's misogynist ways of thinking and practicing. Her response was that she felt it was "too sarcastic without being uplifting."

And I wonder: As a Christian, and as a writer, am I always called to uplift? Aren't we, as Christians, called to speak the truth (I admit, we see imperfectly what the truth might be and quite possibly, what I wrote was bullshit) even if it's not pleasant?

Then there's the issue of myself as an artist: Which means I might employ hyperbole and sarcasm to make a point. I know this might mean I'm standing on thin ice with many audiences--and maybe what I write will alienate them. But this leads me to my third point:

As a nonfiction memoirist, I am writing my experience in the church, experiences that were of being excluded in one form or another because I am a woman (among other things). If those experiences sucked, and are not uplifting, does that mean I shouldn't write about them?

I'm finding my way back into a community. I'm figuring out that nothing's ever perfect--but I still recognize traditional ways of thinking about men and women that are harmful and far, FAR, from perfect. I think we can get closer.

When I wrote the essay that M. responded to, I was unchurched. M knew me intimately for a long time, however, and knows about my relationship with Jesus. But I became unchurched because in many ways my church community, of which M was a part, failed me. I wonder if an unchurched person wrote what I did if there would be a different response not just from M, but from pastors and laypersons all around: What an awful experience she's had at our hands! What can we do to make our church more welcoming to women so these same wounds are not inflicted again? Can we get her back to church?

Because I wrote the essay while I was unchurched, I was on the outside in many ways. Perhaps the church would have afforded me the luxury of criticism then. But now?

I don't want to diss Jesus and my responsibility to him in loving and preferring my neighbor (whatever that looks like I'm not sure in this case), but I also feel like quite possibly there's a double standard--if you're part of us, don't criticize us.

I've got no answers. Do you?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Talking Jesus

My biggest problem with integrating into my new church has been that no one talks like me. I don't mean we don't all speak English. But here's the thing: We use different English words to describe the same things.

Rich is often referred to as "Pastor." He jokes that this is his first name.

In regard to other Christians, I hear "brother" and "sister."

In regard to helping out in a particular area of the church, someone says, "I'm gearing up for the new ministry."

When God's presence is felt, I hear "annointing on the service."

Because we live in a city where a lot of people are unsaved, I hear "there's darkness, heaviness, and oppression over the city."

Our small church community began 10 months ago, and is a conglomerate of individuals and families from all sorts of church backgrounds and cultures. One woman is here from South Africa. Another is American, but worked in misogynist Saudi Arabia for a few years. Our pastor's family did missionary work in Bangladesh for 11 years. Other's have been unchurched for long periods of time. One worship leader works security at a local hotel, and has his own pop/rock band on the side.

So, where do Mark and I fit in demographically? We're your run of the mill Gen-X midwesterners who of course, because we're Gen-X, don't like to think of ourselves as passe or boring. Also, we've given too much of our hearts and souls to past churches and past communities. Or: We gave the right amount and got hurt anyway.

We've come to this new community with chips on our shoulders. We are anti-institution. We are anti-the-tradition-of-the-last-three-decades of nondenominational charismatic churches. We harbour fear of hyperactive preachers. We're suspicious of anything other than plainspokenness. We wince and clench at slogans.

On Tuesday, during the housegroup we host in our home, our pastor's wife, C., was talking about how her sister came to know Jesus. She described how, many years before, she'd stifled her initial impulses to condemn her sister's pre-Christian lifestyle. Instead, she valued (and values) welcoming her sister, and extending kindness at every turn. As she described the scene of her sister's revelation of Jesus' kindness, C. began to cry.

There was something about the way she spoke, the way she cried, even, at the memory of Jesus intervening in her sister's life that I understood despite our different backgrounds.

Here is the insight I had on Tuesday night. I am aware how lacking in (and full of) profundity it is:

Her Jesus is my Jesus.

It was as if I understood it for the first time.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

When Your Stomach's Empty and Your Mind is Full

Yesterday, Una's preschool class was playing in the yard when I came to pick her up.

"Run, run, to your mom," Ellen, one of Una's preschool teachers, urged Una when I came into view.

Una stumbled toward me on the grass. Her eyes were red and puffy.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"I didn't have my snack," She wept.

Ellen said, "I told her she couldn't have her snack b/c the whole class doesn't eat snack."

"You mean she didn't eat her breakfast?" I inquired, and unzipped Una's fabric lunchbox I had just picked up from her cubby. The preschool class routinely eats breakfast at preschool (although Una refers to this as a snack). Inside her lunchbox were the three half-slices of banana bread and the uneaten container of garbanzo beans. The kid's stomach had been empty for hours and hours.

And then the light dawned on Ellen: "Oh, I didn't even think to check her lunchbox. I just assumed she'd eaten breakfast since I arrived at preschool after she did." She bent down to Una's eye level. "I'm sorry Una. It was my fault you didn' thave food in your tummy. I goofed."

She handled it beautifully, and humbly, yet my heart was in my throat. My child had fallen through a crack. She'd gone hungry for hours, suffered what she knew to be a true injustice. She lacked the verbal powers to articulate the discrepancy to her teacher, and sat at preschool hungry, red-eyed, and not-playing. I didn't know and couldn't do anything about it.

The regular teacher, who is always there when Una is dropped off, wasn't there yesterday. If she had been, she would have known, she'd have been Una's champion. This is what scares my about public schooling and private schooling, and any sort of institution where I send my kids: Sometimes, some days, their needs will be neglected. They won't be seen. Is this something to just deal with? How permanent is the mark? Will the overall loving kindness of these particular preschool teachers cover over the injustice that was done?

Una's physical discomfort was so great she only mildly computed Ellen's apology, and when I prompted her to respond she squeaked "I forgive you" without looking up. In the car, she demanded answers in a wavering voice: "Why did Ellen say I couldn't eat my snack? Why did she think I'd eaten it? And she didn't even give me any juice."

Oh, the promised juice. I told Una that very day I would allow her to have juice at preschool instead of taking water. Her mouth had thirsted for it from the moment I spoke the word.

At home, I fed her, juiced her, hugged and kissed her, and read to her from our current Bobbsey Twin mystery. After finishing teh chapter, I got up to leave her to finish her lunch at the kitchen table. At this point she'd eaten banana bread, lentils, two cups of juice, and garbanzo beans.

"Mommy," she said. "My stomach is empty, but my mind is full."

I paused. "Where did you here that Una?"

"Wilbur said that to Charlotte."

"Huh. So you're stomach's emtpy, but your mind is full?"

"Well," she held her stomach for a second, "now it's only a little empty."

Monday, September 04, 2006

"Rescue" Metaphors: Man on a White Horse

Q. and A. with Stasi Eldredge:

Q: "Wild at Heart says every man wants a beauty to rescue. And in Captivating, it says that little girls often play games about being rescued. Some feminists are against the idea of passive women who want to be rescued. What is your response?"

A: "I think there are days when every woman on the planet Earth would love to have a man come up on a white horse and whisk her away. But that’s not the reality of our lives, and women are not victims. We’re not weak women saying, 'Rescue me, I can’t handle my life.'"

Now I don't blame Stasi personally for borrowing one of culture's highest currency phrases. But can we stop using such awful figurative language to stand in for being rescued? Furthermore, I am allergic to horses.

I also hold a deep aversion to being "whisked" some place by "a" man, whose name and occupation and connection to my person is always unidentified in the phrase "a man on a white horse." No, no--one may argue--the man is sometimes identified as "princely," and ascribed a trait such as "charm."

Random definitions of "Charm" from Merriam Webster: 1. a trait that fascinates, allures, or delights. 2. a practice or expression believed to have magic power.

Implicit in the whisking scene is the woman's utter givenness to the charm of this anonymous man (or prince), as if somehow he indeed practiced an incantation over her, bewitching her heart so that he might more easily "move or convey [her] briskly" (def. of "whisk"). And even if he has not bewitched her with spells, his legal status as a prince most likely gives him the right to convey her anywhere he damn well pleases. (Off with her head if she resists?)

Here again, in this commonly used metaphor, the woman is not the subject of her own story. The story belongs to the prince, who carts a woman around like an extra saddle.

Next time I'm in need of rescue, I'll call the husband or a girlfriend; I'll seek out the help myself--because God knows we all need a little help. I'll use a phone, or email.

And no, I don't have days when I want a stranger to throw me on the back of a smelly horse and cart me off to God-knows-where. If it ever comes down to me needing a horse and a stranger, I'll climb on myself thank you very much. And I'll require a written itinerary before we get moving.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

"Truthiness" in Masculine/Feminine Ideologies

In the past five years the Church has been rocked and shaped by the ideology of John Eldridge's thoughts on men and women. He began a movement designed to reclaim the hearts and passions of men in service of the Great Adventure that God has called them to. Eldredge's ministry is beyond huge, the number of his retreats and men's mountain hikes and forest-bonding sessions innumerable. Men are crawling out of the woodwork in response to his Braveheart-centered ideologies. They are "reclaiming manhood."

Is this good?

Eldridge's ideology holds to three basic tenants about the God-given and inherent desires of every male. Might he phrase this in his own words? An interview published on

". . . every man wants a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue." These are the "true" desires of men, what God has designed them to experience, according to Eldridge.

In keeping with ideas about the masculine soul/spirit, Eldridge and wife Staci Eldridge have just published a book for women, which outlines the purported universal desires of women and how they compliment the masculine nature.

Stasi Eldridge: " [1]Every woman wants to be romanced; [2]every woman wants to play an irreplaceable role in a heroic adventure, not just to be useful but to be irreplaceable; and [3] every woman longs to have a beauty that’s all her own to unveil, both an external beauty and an internal beauty as well. To be the beauty and to offer beauty."

In other words, the divine plan is this: The guy should rescue the woman, slaying many dragons on her behalf. At the point of rescue she will unveil her mesmerizing beauty ("internal and external") and he will be capitvated for life. She will be his roadie-bride out on the trail.

In spite of the fact that I find no Biblical basis for the conclusions the Eldridges reach, the desires of my own heart prove them wrong.

I could start refuting their claims by saying I don't want to be romanced, or to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, or to be beautiful. (So there: not every woman wants that!). But, there is some "truthiness" (thank you, Stephen Colbert) in what they are saying and I'll get to that later.

For now I'll say: I myself want an adventure to live--not to play the role of just a rescued woman. Jesus has commissioned us to do his work--to seek and rescue those who are lost. To be Jesus to the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned. This is not about men and women. It's human to be in need of rescue, and it's God's work to extend help to those who need it.

This Biblical truth does not then separate women and men into categories of men=rescuer and women=needy. Jesus did not say not tell his disciples to seek and save the lost women. Indeed, we are all in need of appropriating Jesus' ultimate Rescue on the cross to our lives. And we are all in need of smaller scale "rescues" in our lives: we need our brothers and sisters. We ought to need them.

This is why the Eldredge's ideologies about the masculine and feminine ring of truthiness. So maybe all spiritually and emotionally well-balanced men do want an adventure to live (but so might [do] all women). And maybe all women want [need] to be rescued (but so might [do] all men). And do we not all wish to be seen as "lovely," to be loved unconditionally for the creation we are. Have we not all longed to experience the Father's delight in us? Have we not all longed to experience the delight of another human being in us?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Four-Year-Old's Consumption

The four year old is in the bath tub this morning before lunch. She wanted bubbles. I pumped some hand soap in when running the water. She plays while I get the one year old in the high chair.

"Can you close the door so I can have some privacy?" Una calls.

"Sorry, honey, I need to be able to see you while you're in the bathtub in order to keep you safe." It occurs to me that the last time she asked for "privacy," she shredded a whole roll of toilet paper behind closed doors. And last time she asked me "not to watch," she pumped out half a bottle of hand soap at the bathroom sink.

"What are you doing?" I inquire, and peer down the hall. Nothing looks out of the ordinary.

She holds up a green plastic boat. "I'm washing this."

Sweet and innocent enough.

Ten minutes later I wander into the bathroom and notice two things: It smells like flowers in there, and my brand new bottle of organic hair shampoo has been displaced to the far corner of the bathtub.

"What happened to the shampoo bottle?" I ask.

"I moved it because it was falling into the tub."

I reach for it and see through the nine-ounce translucent plastic bottle that there is less than an inch of product left. I'd used it only one time, on the one-year-old's bath half an hour before.

While I am trying my darnedest to consume less, the four year old is trashing what I do have right and left: Yesterday, I found my 2 oz bottle of Bumble and Bumble Grooming Creme (price: 10$, decision to purchase: thoughtful and agonizing) half-empty and wet in the bathroom sink.

"Did you squeeze out my hair stuff?" I asked her.

"No, I didn't."

"Are you sure you're telling the truth to Mommy?"

Suddenly, her face twists in utter darkness: "You're LYING, MOMMY!! YOU'RE NOT TELLING THE TRUTH."

She was so vehement, I wondered if i really had used half the product in the two months since I bought it. I used half a teaspoon a week, it seemed.

But today I recognize that we are on to a new trend of squeezing and dumping. Ten dollars squeezed into my daughter's bath, another ten used for handwashing (with the Bumble and Bumble) and washed down the sink drain.

That's six pairs of Stride Rite shoes from Goodwill.


Class Purchases

Another morning on my way to Goodwill to reconsider a pair of $2.38 Stride Rite shoes in Una’s current size. It’s after nine. Goodwill’s been open for fifteen minutes. I feel a surge of adrenaline flood through my body at the thought that some other shopper will have found those shoes during my delinquent, fifteen-minute lapse in punctuality. I imagine running through the store, one-year-old slung on my hip, barreling past other would-be purchasers of the used Stride Rite shoes. Will they be on the shelf? Will I find them if they are?

I pull my 2000 Toyota Sienna minivan into the Goodwill parking lot. It is full of shiny minivans and SUVs. This does not look like the fleet of the lower-class, and I consider whether the rest of the clientele this Thursday morning are self-employed or supported by the income of partners or spouses. I am both.

As I hurry to the shoe shelf at the back of the store, I’m overcome with the competitive impulse driving me. This morning it seems I compete with other middle class shoppers, people whose cars are better and shinier than mine, whose husbands or wives, I’m betting, have higher paying jobs than my husband does. I therefore feel deserving of scoring the soft leather Stride Rite shoes, with their doctor-approved arches and specially constructed soles to protect my little girl’s feet. I feel deserving for a second.

And then it occurs to me that I and my fellow shoppers for the day enjoy the privilege of shopping on a Thursday morning, when the vast majority of the working poor are at work. Maybe they get there by Saturday or Sunday, with kids in tow, and grab what they can (if the sizes are right, and even if they’re not . . .). But Stride Rite for the working poor? Even used Stride Rite? Definitely not—because “we’ll” have found them during the week, when we weren’t required to report to work.

The truth is that I can "afford" to buy the new 40$ shoes at the Stride Rite store, and I already afforded them in my budget this Fall. Now granted, I was practical and stuck to sneakers—no leather dress shoes. But my daughter’s feet are well cared for.
And now, in my "free" time, while the four year old is at preschool, I am able to go surfing the second hand shops, shops that are designed to benefit the lower classes, the working poor, students, and the unemployed. I am a middle-class mother padding my daughter’s shoes collection because I can. Not because I need to.

Is the solution for me to buy Stride Rite at the mall in the future? Not anymore, since we are downsizing. Full-priced Stride Rite shoes won’t be on our list of “needs” if we can find them cheaper somewhere else—namely the consignment stores. But today the idea of buying both (full-priced and Goodwill version) leaves a bad taste in my mouth for the excess that will result in my life, and for the deficit in the life of some other deserving working-mother’s daughter.

I arrive at the shoe shelf in Goodwill, my eyes scurrying over the rows until they land on their prize. I pick up the pair in one hand while balancing Evvy on my other hip. I fondle the shoes, review them, recheck the size.

The letter N follows the size designation. N for Narrow. The four-year old doesn’t wear a narrow.

I am relieved.

Buying More Because it Costs Less

The husband and I have been downsizing our purchases of late—buying less and paying less than we normally do. This is an adjustment, and requires bargain-hunting at second-hand stores instead of heading to the local mall. So far, I’ve been successful at Goodwill in picking up some of the things on our “needs” list: Snowpants for the four-year-old and a pair of underwear and clothes in next year’s size for the same.

Here’s what I bought that was not on the list: dress pants for the husband, two skirts for me, a shirt for the one-year-old, four shirts for me, a children’s tape player (I realized later we have no children’s tapes), a wool dress coat (for me).

I’ve come to realize that, at least for this “stay-at-home” mother of the 21st century, consuming has consumed a great deal of my energies. And not just my energies, but my imagination as well. What do I do when I’m stuck at home on a winter day with two small children who have cabin fever? Sure, I go to Playland, and then we stop at Target, because Playland doesn’t quite cut it for me.

Purchasing things often feels like the only sort of creative/productive activity I can accomplish while simultaneously caring for young children. The purchase captures my imagination by offering me a chance to envision my in-the-moment boring, tedious and frustrated life as something conforming to the likes of organization and an aesthetic. In other words, when my home is turned upside down by the book-throwing toddler, a pair of pink canvas baby high-tops at a price of $2.49 is soothing to the soul. And might I mention that every item of clothing purchased at Goodwill was a visually pleasing find from one of my favorite stores-- Gap, JCrew, Old Navy, Gymboree, and Banana Republic. Even the purchase of basic necessities--Q-tips, cotton balls, generic Claritin--requires an outing, a morning to fill with something other than child's play. (I love that my children engage in child's play--don't get me wrong. It's important. It's just that I get crazy playing "fort," "wrestling," "tag" or "exercise" for hours on end.)

Betty Friedan was one of the first writers to point out that the major role of the traditional middle class housewife in the 1950’s was to consume. This housewife was the “buyer” of the family, with the available time to make the purchases her husband could not while at his 9-5. Therefore she was the family member targeted the most by product companies--bombarded with advertisements for vacuums, window cleaners, and washing machines. Her job literally was to keep house, and “the experts” of the times (most likely spokespersons for company brands and products) presented all the new devices as home-keeping must-haves. This might be a good time to confess that my husband and I dont' actually keep lists. I do, in my head, and then I tell him about what we need.

In the way of those fifties housewives, I feel conditioned to buy and keep buying. Instead of stranger-“experts,” I have girlfriends, sisters-in-law, and other moms to keep me informed of the latest, greatest and cutest in children’s accoutrements, handy household products, and women’s shoes.

But what would I do if I stopped buying?

Maybe I’ll turn Evvy’s Converse shoes into an albatross of sorts, hang them around my neck when I peruse the stores next time (that is, if she’s not wearing them). I can ask myself: Does the husband, who hates to dress up, really need another pair of dress pants (that are too long, anyway)?