Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Safety

A vexing situation – Sexuality 3

It’s now 1986. I’ve been an assistant professor of theology for three years. A new academic dean has just arrived, as have recent newspaper articles about one of our recent graduates. She had been one of our more conservative students, and was now an ordained pastor.

According to newspaper accounts, our graduate, happily married with two sons, left her conservative denomination to become pastor of a church for gay men and lesbian women. She had become disenchanted by her denomination’s anti-gay/lesbian rhetoric as well as concrete actions taken against homosexual women and men. I applauded her courage, as did some of my colleagues.

Our new dean circulated to the faculty a copy of the newspaper account along with a brief memo letting us know we would be talking about this. In the account, our former student identified herself as a graduate of our seminary.

Thus began a long conversation in the faculty that ended after nearly 10 years of anguished discussion about what we as a seminary should do. Not about this one graduate, but about gay men and lesbian women who might be already enrolled or applying for admission to our seminary. And about what faculty could or could not teach in the classroom.

The seminary hadn’t made attitudes or beliefs about homosexuality (or heterosexuality) an official requirement for admission in the past, so why did we need to clarify our ‘standing’ at this time? And why, given the recent history of the seminary’s heterosexual president, as well as hints of stories that might be told about one or two male professors of the past, were we suddenly consumed by angst about homosexuality? Wasn’t heterosexuality of equal weight and importance?

During my first three years at the seminary I became known, along with several colleagues, as a ‘safe’ person to talk with about matters of sexuality. Especially homosexuality. That meant I knew how to listen, how to be supportive without being directive, and how to help seminarians think about options. It didn’t take many conversations to realize I had no clue about the inner and family lives of gay and lesbian seminarians.

Some, now full adults, had never come out of the closet with their families, much less their friends. The thought of appearing before a board or session of a church to be interviewed for ordination was terrifying. Some ordination exams were public. Open to members from other congregations. Questions could be asked by anyone in the room, including questions about candidates’ personal lives.

I attended scores of these public exams. Nothing was more brutal than knowing ‘visitors’ from other churches could sway the outcome of an exam. The sessions sometimes functioned as semi-political social and theological warfare. If that sounds harsh, so be it. The possible consequences for the woman or man standing up front were harsh. Especially if the moderator wasn’t skilled and politically savvy.

Finally, in 1996, the seminary published internally a new policy on human sexuality and moral conduct. It included implications for present and future members of the seminary community and for faculty members in their responsibility as teachers.

I like clarity. I like knowing what’s expected of me. Yet this new policy sent a double message.

To be continued.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 April 2018

A vexing situation – Sexuality 2

Almost all my life I’ve been aware of sexuality, especially my own. Since my birth in 1943, I’ve been a member or participant of multiple religious communities that have talked about sexuality only when necessary. Usually when cultural pressures seemed to endanger ‘our’ young people.

I don’t remember sermons or safe conversations about everyday situations such as how to have a safe conversation with someone whose heart is aching or carrying a heavy secret. Nor have I had much training in how to watch or change my behavior so that I’m as clear and safe as possible when it comes to my sexuality.

For me, this unspoken agreement not to talk openly about sexuality made things worse. Especially after I arrived at the seminary in 1983, one of a small number of female faculty members. I felt alone and confused, left to figure things out by myself.

So here I am, a new assistant professor at a theologically conservative seminary with socially responsible roots and programs, along with a still-fresh wound from the former president. My new colleagues and students have their luggage from the past, and I have mine.

Perhaps the approach of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was the seminary’s way of allowing us to feel safe. Which, of course, many of us did not.

The first three years of my appointment I was exhausted, confused, anxious and fearful. Not because of what I knew, but because of how much I didn’t know. Not chiefly about how to teach or how to deal with classroom situations (though that was no cakewalk), but about being an academic advisor to each of my assigned advisees.

They appeared at my door, several times a year. Women and men with multiple issues about scheduling, grade point averages, work load, childcare, job requirements, immigration requirements, culture shock and yes, secrets. Heavy, untold stories about past history, realities about current history, sometimes things they’d locked away in a closet as though that would take care of it.

I think back to those three years as my Apprenticeship in Real Life. Classroom dynamics were nothing compared to the atmosphere in my office when an advisee or other student decided to tell me a secret about his or her sexuality. My job was to respond appropriately and with integrity.

Did I stumble around? Absolutely. Was I confident? NO! Did I have all the answers to life’s burning questions? No. Did I make mistakes? Yes, I did. And I learned a lot.

The most painful thing I learned was that my own sexual issues from childhood were still haunting me. Things I thought I’d left behind were suddenly right there in front of me or inside me. They demanded a hearing, even though I was there to listen and offer guidance to others.

I didn’t know it then, but I was beginning a personal curriculum that eventually humanized me. My closely guarded secrets about childhood and teenage years as well as secrets about my adult years weren’t the end of the world. They were keys to joining the human race, especially in the one area of my life I couldn’t understand no matter how much I tried to normalize it.

And I wasn’t there yet. In fact, things became more difficult after my first three years of teaching.

To be continued.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 March 2018

The Divide and Conquer Club


Thanks for visiting and commenting on Misfit and Misbehaving. And a big thank you to John in Australia who linked his blog to the post.

My grade-school experience began in my home. My father was the consummate divide and conquer ruler of the household. He made the rules. He called us out on the rules. He was the judge, jury and executioner of punishment. Four daughters. No sons.

My father ran a full-circle, all services provided under one roof enterprise. His best ally was my mother who couldn’t afford to go against him. She was already a wounded warrior—not just because of polio and its aftermath, but because of her own childhood deprivations and humiliations.

We four daughters learned early to survive by way of dividing and conquering. All we had to do was join forces against one of us. It worked wonders. The other way we survived was by not talking to each other about what was going on in our family. It was against Daddy’s Rules. No secrets. No chatter at night after lights out. No comparing notes or comforting each other. No plans to go against Daddy’s Rules.

What happened in my grade school classroom was a version of what I already knew. Only this time it was in a setting I perceived as safe. So much for safety.

The tactics of divide and conquer are so familiar we scarcely perceive them. Whether consciously or not, they cause division and divert attention from what’s really going on. Thus the divider has things his or her way.

Without knowing it, the girls in my classroom were reinforcing values of the upper class. Clarifying the dividing line between us and them. That may sound simple, but the other side of divide and conquer isn’t all that complicated once we understand how people abuse power and to what ends.

I’ve also experienced this in churches and in academic settings. It happens everywhere, often in ways that seem as innocuous or even praiseworthy.

In the USA today, I see this tactic as a deadly weapon of non-warfare. No one wields it so skillfully right now as POTUS—with the possible exception of Russia.

But the subject I care most about is women. Women of all colors and nationalities have experienced the tactics of divide and conquer in the home and in workplaces, churches, organizations, academia, the government, human trafficking, prisons, retirement homes, and any other setting in which women work or live.

This constant division serves the interests of white male supremacy, not the interests of women no matter how fancy the rhetoric sounds. It’s no accident that the USA is steadily falling behind other nations when it comes to women having access to all levels of government, healthcare, and other vital services.

It pays, it seems, to keep women in their place. Especially if we do this by promoting them. Feeding them a little of what they want and watching them fight over it, while withholding equal and proportional participation in deciding what that is.

Not every male is a white supremacist. However, without women banding together across significant divisions, all the men in the world with good and noble intentions will never save us. We must speak and act for and with each other.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 March 2018
Cartoon found at mikenormaneconomics.blogspot.com

the artist’s dream

the artist’s dream
takes an unlikely turn
into the desert

I’ve loved this painting ever since I first saw a version of it. I was shopping for discounted Christmas cards, and found a box full of blank Christmas cards with the sphinx, Mary and the Christ child. It’s still the most beautiful Christmas card I’ve ever seen.

I also love the larger painting. Joseph sprawls exhausted on the ground, head pillowed by a stone. His faithful donkey nibbles at blades of grass, and a small fire burns steady into the clear night air.

Perhaps Joseph is the artist dreaming this vision of unexpected beauty. Or perhaps Mary is dreaming it. Or even the Christ child–for whose life these young parents are fleeing their hometown. Refugees in the desert. Alone but not alone. On the way to Egypt. Taking nothing but themselves. Watched over by a power greater than themselves.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 5 February 2017
Image of artwork found at wickipedia.com – Rest on the Flight into Egypt 1879, by Luc-Olivier Merson

Haunted by unlived history

A couple of weeks ago I uncovered buried treasure. I’d stashed it away in a large envelope of notes I typed and wrote out in the early 1990s. The notes were about boys and men who made an unforgettable impression on me from childhood until the early 1990s.

This wasn’t simply a list of names. It was an itemized, annotated, categorized and coded treasure trove of information and reflection under several headings. Men I hardly knew, plus the real world of men I knew all too well.

I didn’t write this out on a whim. It was part of a therapy exercise for survivors of child sexual abuse. A way of getting to know myself better—by way of reflection on men who made an impression on me.

But before getting into that, I want to tell you about something else.

Several days ago I read about the way our parents’ unlived lives make an impact on us. Especially on our internal lives. This means that even though I appear normal on the outside, I can quickly numb out, withdraw, or shut down internally when I’m uncomfortable in a relationship. In fact, I’m skilled at this, even though it’s also a source of anguish.

The next morning I woke up and almost immediately burst into tears. My mother’s unlived life included her unlived life with me. I have no memories at all of my mother hugging, cuddling or touching me affectionately. She was industrious, resourceful, creative, and an attentive caretaker when I was sick. She was not, however, spontaneously or overtly affectionate.

My body and spirit grew up craving affection. I can’t count how many times my mother bent over to kiss me goodnight and kissed the air above my cheek instead. It still gnaws at me. A gaping hole in my heart that makes me wonder whether I was really loved.

I wasn’t simply running away from my father’s unsafe touch and punishing, overbearing, demeaning ways. I was also starving for my mother’s touch, affection, guidance and wisdom. I needed a safe haven in which I didn’t have to impress anyone, or get sick so I could be comforted.

Behind my history lies my mother’s history with her mother, my Grandma Z. One of my mother’s sad mantras was “I never had a mother.” She was correct. Grandma Z ran away with another man and divorced her first husband when my mother was very young.

My mother grew up without being cuddled, hugged or celebrated by her mother. Grandma Z favored her younger son, and treated my mother more like a toy doll. A plaything to dress up and display proudly. Not a little girl to listen to, love, comfort or encourage.

So there I was years later, a young woman. Uneasy in my body and spirit. Needy and pushing away at the same time. Haunted by my mother’s inability to affirm my body and my spirit. I didn’t think anyone would want to marry me. I also thought that having a man love me would heal my heartaches and take away the pain.

To be continued….

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 January 2018
Photo taken when I was 9 months old, 1 month before my father returned from the TB sanatorium; July 1944 in Charlotte, NC

I was just a beginner…

I was just a beginner when it happened. In a supposedly safe place. I had a title and stature within an academic community.

From my childhood I’d experienced worse. Regularly. In ways that raised deep shame and self-blame in me. Bad girl.

But this was different. I was an adult. A colleague among adults who were followers of Jesus Christ.

It happened in a crowded hallway between classes. Without a whisper of warning. Just walking to my next class, in conversation with an adult man.

He wasn’t a stranger and he wasn’t my father. He professed to be a supporter of women’s full humanity, and our right to fair and equal access to theological education as students and as professors.

Perhaps he wasn’t thinking? I could give a thousand questions you might have asked me. None would have erased the sudden chill and shame of feeling an uninvited hand patting me on my butt.

I switched my briefcase to my right hand, moved over slightly and kept walking through the hallway as though nothing had happened. Indeed, it never happened again. I maintained my distance, without giving up my friendly demeanor.

My friend touched my body in a way I wouldn’t dream of touching his. It wasn’t a hand on my arm, but my butt. I believed that any attempt to draw attention to this would have made things worse. I felt trapped.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not my big #MeToo story. I’ve already told that in earlier posts—not just about the Shopkeeper, but about my father’s attempts to subdue me, and my first employer’s determination to humiliate me as a young woman just out of high school.

So why tell it? After all, it happened in the blink of an eye.

I’m telling it because we need to attend to the daily impertinences and seemingly small ways in which women, girls, boys and men who aren’t considered manly are reminded of their place and who has power over them.

I’m also telling it because there are millions of everyday people aching to let someone know what happened or is now happening to them. Are we able and willing to listen from our hearts? Without offering solutions or trying to re-write the stories we hear?

Sometimes silence and listening without judgment are the best gifts we give each other. In fact, to listen well is to follow well. The way I imagine Jesus Christ following us and being there when we’re ready for help.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…. (from Psalm 23)

I’m grateful for the women, men, young people and even children who have listened to my story, and shared with me their own experiences. In some ways, this is the table God has set before me in the presence of my enemies—who are more like I am than I could ever guess.

Praying you have a wonderful Sabbath rest.
Elouise 

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 November 2017
Photo found at theanvilnewsletter.blogspot.com
Daily Prompt:Neophyte

An epidemic of unforgiveness?

A few months ago I posted a series on forgiving my Dad, The Shape of Forgiveness. Since then, this question has been on my mind: Are we, here in the USA, caught in an epidemic of unforgiveness for which we have no remedy?

In the last post of the series I wrote this:

God forgives each of us daily. This is an act of stunning creation, not just for us individually, but for the families and communities in which we live. I want to be part of this ongoing spirit of forgiveness because I want to be part of God’s creative act, not part of the destructive problem.

Yet sometimes I hear or think words that seem to shut the door on a creative tomorrow: I’ll never forgive him – her – them!

Are we locked into a pattern that undercuts creative endeavors to find common ground, much less forgiveness?

I’m not looking for acres and acres of common ground. Right now I’d settle for a tiny patch anywhere in which we could safely listen and speak about our anguish. Perhaps we would begin finding ways to heal, ways to know each other and ourselves differently and better.

More recently, I’ve begun thinking about my experience in 12-step programs. It wasn’t indoctrination. It was a carefully sequenced program that helped me discover how to deal with myself first. My life had become unmanageable.

Twelve-step programs taught me to let things be so I could discover a better way. I wasn’t in charge. My higher power was. I didn’t have to slam doors or flounce out of the room in self-righteous indignation. Or solve everyone else’s problems. Or prop up the self-defeating behavior of others. Or defend my behavior and condemn others.

Instead, I learned to find safe people, talk with them about things that troubled me, and explore ways to change self-defeating habits. Slowly, I began to join the human race. I stopped standing on the sidelines trapped in patterns of harsh judgment of others and of myself.

How about a Citizens Anonymous program for recovering citizens and friends of citizens? A program that would help us put down our addictive bottles of news headlines, gossip, outrage, harsh judgment, denial, diversions, taunting, and other ways we sooth ourselves when we’re feeling out of control. Maybe together we could find small patches of common ground and nurture something new.

Just a thought. Or maybe this is already happening somewhere? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Thanks for listening.
Elouise ♥ 

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 August 2017
Image found at callofthevedas.com

Something about prayer….

My history with prayer is all over the map. I’ve probably heard more prayers than I’ve heard sermons. Too many to count. On the other hand, I’ve always struggled with prayer. Here are two posts talking about my childhood struggles with prayer: here and here.

Last year a friend gave me a slim volume of poems by Mary Oliver, a winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The volume I’m reading is Thirst.

What caught my eye this week was the first stanza of a longer poem titled “Six Recognitions of the Lord.” I’m still taking in the first stanza.

I know a lot of fancy words.
I tear them from my heart and my tongue.
Then I pray.

When I read these simple words, I feel lighter. I grew up hearing and trying to replicate, in my way, prayers that would be polite and proper. Yes, I spoke from my heart no matter when I prayed. Yet I also felt unbearably self-conscious about my prayers, especially about the words I used.

It didn’t matter whether I was praying privately or publicly, I feared my words wouldn’t live up to what God expected to hear from me. Or that they would be used by others to judge my spiritual formation.

Looking back, I know my family upbringing contributed to some of this. Whether by design or not, my prayers to God felt like baring my soul to whomever was listening. I feared someone was grading, judging or scrutinizing me. Would I pass the test?

Mary Oliver’s words are to the point and liberating. They’re also primarily about personal prayer, not public prayer. Though they may apply there as well.

The best analogy I can think of would be a child talking to a trusted parent or caregiver. Freely, without shame or hiding. With no need to impress anyone. Not calculating or careful about choice of words or what the other person might think about what I’m saying.

God just wants me to show up, talk and listen. Listen and talk. Using my own words. No matter how I feel today about God or myself.

First, Mary Oliver invites me to tear all fancy words from my heart and my tongue.

Praying your Sabbath is filled with childlike joy and delight.

Elouise 

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 July 2017
Artwork found on Google at http://www.royaldoors.net

Why I haven’t buried God

I can’t count how many times people ask why I haven’t given up on God. Why I don’t curse God. Why I still call myself God’s beloved daughter-child.

Even though I’m a theologian, my reasons are deeply personal. Rooted in childhood experiences with my father who insisted I call him Daddy.

Daddy, a preacher, had his own kind of God. He desperately hoped his God would have mercy on him, though I never knew exactly why. Daddy also hoped his God would straighten me out into the submissive little girl and young woman Daddy thought proper and seemly for his #1 of 4 daughters, no sons.

So why didn’t I curse God, or at least bury God with honors? After all, Daddy kept saying he was following God’s law. God’s order. God’s instructions for parents and for children. And then he would beat me. All within a strangely church-like ritual that required my full attention, cooperation and submission to Daddy as God’s servant.

It wasn’t church. And it didn’t feel like a safe home. It was worse than being left out in the cold. Furthermore, I now know the God on which Daddy called was not God. He was more like a quixotic bully to be avoided and feared. Friendly one moment; cold and calculating the next.

So why haven’t I buried God? Because my parents did something for me, early on. My primers weren’t little Jack and Jill reading books. They were hymns, choruses, verses and entire passages from the Bible. All memorized and reviewed at home, and later in my grade school Bible classes from grade 2 through 7.

My father had a phenomenal memory and was eager for me, his daughter, to exercise her memory as well. Especially Scripture, but also hymns and poetry. I took to it like a duck to water.

My favorite was Psalm 23. Yes, it’s beautiful. And it’s more. It helped me endure many beatings. Daddy wielded his rod. But Jesus used his to comfort me. To shield my soul and give me strength to endure.

I also grew up hearing and reading the Bible. I loved the story about Jesus welcoming the children when large, grownup know-it-all disciples tried to send them away. Jesus rebuked the disciples, called the children to him and blessed them.

I don’t know what God looks like. But I know what God’s Son Jesus did with children just like me. The kind who seem to make too much noise. A distraction from the serious things of life. Always getting into trouble, or wanting to talk to Jesus about trivial stuff—not theology, or when the kingdom is going to arrive.

Like Jesus, God never sent me away, but offered a safe haven, especially when things weren’t safe. I never felt rejected or unwelcome. Nor do I today. I like to think that as God’s beloved daughter-child, I look a bit like one of Jesus’ sisters from time to time.

Why would I ever want to bury this God?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 July 2017
Image found at pinimg.com

Response to WordPress Daily Prompt: Bury

If ever we meet

If ever we meet
I will milk
every drop
and then some
from your demeanor
tone of voice
and eyes 

Agonizing
Calculating
Weighing the odds
Whether to respond
and how 

Experience—
my best friend
and my enemy
Trust—
a roll of the dice
until proven over time 

I shiver inside
Is it worth the effort
at this age
putting myself out there
in full view
of myself
not just of you? 

*** 

The agony of being attentive to nuance—not a characteristic I willfully chose, but a survival skill I learned on the ground. It served me well, though it didn’t always deliver the safety I sought or the safety I was promised. 

My trust of another human being isn’t a gift to be given on demand. It’s a reward to be earned over time. Giving away unearned trust is not a sign of approval. It’s a gamble that often leads to sorrow if not disaster. One of the most difficult lessons of my life.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 March 2017
Response to WordPress Daily Prompt: Nuance 

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