The Four Boyfriends of 2013

I broke my four-year dating fast and dated four men this year.

Call it a response to purity culture.

Call it an attempt at personhood.

Call it whatever you please.

Four times I ventured outside my comfort zone. Four times I decided to let someone inside my wall. Four times I took a deep breath and said, “Hey, yeah, in spite of logic, in spite of even my better judgment,

you have the permission to know me.”

Four times I showed up as myself, and four times I learned how to stay myself when it ended.

Four things stuck out as my take-aways from these experiences. Four quotes come to mind when I see each of their faces. I’m going to share them with you because I am tired of the way that people who love Jesus DO love, and I am trying to change.

I am trying to work harder.

I am trying to be better.

And if I stay single for the rest of my life after this sudden surge in my romantic life, Lord willing it will not be because I never figured out how to love.

Relationship #1: “I’m not over her.”

This one killed me. This one put me through two months of early morning torment,

waking up every morning to lethargically to drive to work and run through that last freezing Friday evening when he told me he wasn’t over her, and he wasn’t ready.

It turns out that wasn’t true. I’m sure he meant it, and I’m sure he really thought he wasn’t.

But this same man just sent out his save-the-dates with some other woman, so I can only conclude that was not quite true.

Here’s what I can conclude, because I still respect and trust the man who told me this particular un-truth.

He wasn’t over the idea of her… and I know a thing or two about that.

I spent three years of my life being in love with an idea, and here’s the thing about ideas:
Ideas can’t spoon you. Ideas can’t hold you. Ideas can’t pull your head onto their shoulder when one too many three-year-olds yell at you one day.

Ideas are the loneliest things to love, and they are also the easiest.

They require nothing of us.

We get to write angry love poems about them and pine for them and route and re-route our potential lives like a thousand Google maps for them.

We’ve gotta stop. We need to do better.

Relationship #2: “I’m not trying to tame you, I just wanna come along for the ride.”

So this was technically the right thing to say.

This is what I always wanted a man to say.

I wanted to be loved for my fire and my quirks and my passionate couch-jumping and my loud voice and my red lipstick and my cut-off t-shirts and my adventurous, wandering, grieving, revolutionary-type soul.

And he did, he really did. Or at least he tried harder than most.

Except he didn’t tell me the truth either.

Because most of us ARE actually trying to tame somebody. We are trying to love a real person while somehow fitting all of their square pegs into the round holes of our well-edited good Christian checklists.

We’re not looking for people, we’re looking for spouses. We are desperately trying – to fill this role of our perfect sexy virgin spouse and none of us – NOT ONE OF US – is good enough to be anybody’s perfect sexy virgin spouse.

Epilogue of relationship #2: also engaged.

What can I say?! I’m good luck.

Relationship #3: “I’m not what you need, so I’m not gonna fight for you.”

He sat across the table from me, one of my dearest, oldest friends,

and before this last quote, he half-heartedly said something about how we weren’t that bad. We could still work things out. Things hadn’t been bad that long.

It only took twenty minutes for him to give up on all that.

Admittedly, my communication skills leave whole worlds to be desired.

Bono said that “the best of us are geniuses of compression”, and I am an expert bottler. My heart is a bottling factory.

All of a sudden all of the concerns that I’d kept inside our whole relationship came spilling out of me.

They were good ones, too. I was fighting for my faith; he was letting his slip away. He was spending his nights bar-hopping with co-workers; I was reading and blogging and studying and arguing theology with people who actually cared. We were growing apart before we even had a chance to grow together.

But what’s sad is… we could have. We could have worked at it.

And when he walked to the door that night, tears gathering just underneath his lids –

when he turned around and said,

‘I needed this, Hannah. Nobody ever calls me out on anything.

I wanna fight for you, but I feel like you’re speaking from the Lord and I need to heed this warning…

… So I won’t’

I couldn’t help but think how different things could be, if he hadn’t walked out just then.
If he had tried.

If we both had just tried a little harder.

RELATIONSHIP #4: “Move across the country for me.”

Finally I had found my soulmate.

I had found him three years too late, but I had found him.

We had tried to date back when I was celibate and heartbroken, and I had rejected him one too many times.

But here he was, knocking on my door, keeping me up late on the phone, and he got me.

He practically WAS me.

We agreed on everything. We cracked jokes about all the evangelicalism and feminism and we questioned all the same things. We were so in sync. I was getting somewhere. I could feel it. Here was a man I could maybe marry…

if I moved across the country for him.

He was real set, you see. He had grown up in his city and he wanted to die in his city. I couldn’t understand that devotion to a geographical point on a map, but I respected it. I could go, right? I could find something to do, something to BE there, right?

And then, just as suddenly as he had happened to me, he disappeared. I was worried about moving for him for no other foreseeable reason, and at the first hint of strain, he just stopped. No more words. No more phone calls. He just

stopped.

//

Four relationships later,

I’m wide awake.

I remember what it was like to love.

I remember what it was like to open up my heart and let somebody walk in my gate.

I remember what it was like to beat down somebody’s gate too.

I used to be real good at this, when I was 18 and in love and planning a marriage to a man I don’t know anymore. I asked all the questions and I listened to all the answers. Then I lost him and I thought, maybe, I hadn’t loved him hard enough.

Maybe, maybe, if I had just tried a little harder.

If I had just fought a little longer.

But what I’m learning is,

whether right or wrong, I am

Ruth.

I am condemned to beat down the doors of the men that I love. I am a hard worker. I’m a fighter.

Because love – love is a skill. Love is a habit. Love is something you work at. Love requires effort. Love requires patience. Love requires determination.

Love means deciding, after considering all things, that

“where you go, I will go.”

After four boyfriends in 2013, that’s what I’ve learned.

For better or for worse, it is my calling.

And I am called to stay single, until I meet a man who can handle that kind of commitment, regardless of emotional attachment and regardless of the reasons why not.

And today I realize that I am rehabilitated from purity culture. My project is complete. I have learned how to be me, and I have learned when to withdraw. I have learned to accept my body as the gift that it is – no more, and no less. I have learned that, while everyone must decide for themselves what these are, physical displays of growing emotional intimacy and attraction are actually healthy. Whereas I used to boycott the institution altogether to set myself apart, I have learned how to be in relationship without giving in to the dating requirements of the increasingly obsolete Christian subculture.

I have learned that my well-being is not dependent on my relationship status.

I have learned that my comfort zone is not necessarily the way things should be.

I have learned how to look in a man’s eyes and tell him exactly where I stand, without using God as my crutch.

I have learned how to just BE.

And I urge you, in the same token, not to expect anything more from anyone else. Don’t expect anything more from anyone than being who they are. None of us deserves any better than that. Love – romantic or otherwise – is something we learn how to do.

Love is a skill. Hone it. Develop it. Stay up late practicing it. No one expects you to know how overnight, but you will be –

you ARE –

expected to try.

Friends, it is time to begin again. It is time to start something new. Something real. Something that does not shame us, something that does not inhibit us from being the men and the women that we miraculously, imaginatively, creatively ARE.

And if you’re ready, let’s get started.

Let’s try. Together.

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In Which I Find the Sky. (or, Kiss-ginity.)

“I’ve always thought it would be less sinful to look at porn every night than to just kiss a girl.”

He was young and handsome; just the right amount of devil-may-care mixed in. Burnished bronze skin, the longest lashes and that one black pea coat he wore into the ground but always managed to still wear everyday. His hair was combed up and to a hard left, with just the sort of careful nonchalance to effectively resurrect shadows of Dean and Presley. He was one of those friends that have been with you for so long that it’s okay to let the unnecessary words die on your lips and just sit in the pregnant silence for a bit.

And so we did. We sat there we two. We sat in the smoky night  as I tried to decode his experience with the light cast in from my own.

Crestfallen, I knew before the silence even began that I had nothing to contribute.

His eyes were bright, his dark cheeks flushed with all the sparkling excitement of a nubile teenager just discovering that romance and attraction and intimacy were things you could have and want and enjoy without all the latent . He had discovered GIRLS – real, live, breathing, smiling, kissable ones – and this statement he tacked on at the end, as a sort of apology for the exuberance that he was all too aware of but could not, at the same time, hold back.

I couldn’t help feeling like we were both too old for this. We were both beyond the age where this sort of discovery is appropriate or warranted. I mean, I’ve seen the Breakfast Club, people! I knew that we were both far past the period in our lives where kissing is a new-found, innocent diversion that we’re just trying on for size. By all conservative Christian estimates, we were both marriageable, marketable adults – too old for casual dating or casual kissing or “game-playing”, an epithet we throw around liberally to describe young people who aren’t pinning every detail of their supposedly near-future wedding on Pinterest and courting their future spouses already.

And it frightened me to think that he and I were both what our culture would deem well-groomed and “well-prepared” for marriage.

We had no experiences with which to fuel informed decisions for our future love lives.

No knowledge of who or what we were looking for in a relationship because we’d spent 22 years of our lives actively avoiding them. We had no track records.

No regrets.

Except for how I was all regrets. They weren’t supposed to be there for me, your standard well-behaved evangelical good girl, but there they were, assaulting my senses and paralyzing me from any and all baby steps forward.

Missed kisses. Loves lost. Every opportunity to express my extreme care and desire for anybody else’s whole self grown old & rusted over, bittersweet relics of a bright-eyed, simpler time.

So much for a pure heart – mine was a rancid abscess of rotted desire and memories of a thousand carefully skirted rules. While my reputation as a law-abiding evangelical remained intact, I knew that the once good and true wishes of my body and heart – to be close to somebody I could want all the way, mentally, spiritually, even physically – had devolved into self-gratification and lust.

I was no longer surprised why so many of my friends had developed addictions to various expressions of lust and pornography and other corrosive ways of expressing their tired and dormant and originally good desire for another person. What did surprise me, though, that all this was done in the name of purity and holiness!

They don’t read you that fine print in the dating books, do they?

DO NOT TAKE IF YOU SUFFER FROM HUMAN SEXUALITY. CALL YOUR DOCTOR IF YOU BEGIN TO EXPERIENCE DEPRESSION, LUST, OR SIMILAR DYSFUNCTION.

We paint every intimate moment before marriage like the defrauding of someone’s future spouse of something that is inherently theirs – as if anyone’s body somehow belonged, by some invisible lock & key, to the husband or wife they may or may not ever have. It perpetuates the idolatry of marriage; that there is somehow no acceptable alternative, no equally valuable journey to venture on than the get-married-early, hurry-up-and-make-a-family suburban lifestyle.

And I find that I cannot live like some man’s future possession.

So one of the assignments that Emily & I gave ourselves for this Purity Culture Rehab Project – the real kicker, in fact – was losing our kiss-ginity. She’ll tell you all about her reasons at emilyjoyallison.com (surprisingly, they vary quite a bit from my own!) All I know is that I felt that an important step in my journey towards personhood and autonomy and maybe actually having a relationship that I would not flee like the plague from would require me venturing outside of purity culture’s exhausting list of do’s & don’ts, and allowing myself to want a whole person.

See, I had broken down all of my previous non-boyfriends and organized parts of their selves into careful categories that would help me see them the way I saw myself: fragmented. Broken. Just as no one had ever grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me square in the eyes and said “I want all of you”, I had no idea how to extend that same consideration to somebody else.

Until, one night, under an alarmingly star-filled desert sky, I sat with an old friend who had always wanted me – just me, all of me – and I sheepishly told him I wanted the same.

And we kissed a frightening, chaste, holy kiss under that alarmingly open sky.

After a long while, he took my hand and helped me up, holding it close to him as we walked back to see what had become of our little bonfire. A few steps away from rejoining our friends, he brought it to his lips while his eyes stayed locked with mine.

I knew, in that brief moment, that I had never felt so overwhelmingly cherished and dear and like I completely, all the way, 100% mattered. In that one gaze, I heard echoes of a Creator designing his ultimate handiwork and saying, loudly, lovingly:

“THAT… is very good.”

I learned more, in that fleeting moment about the all-encompassing love that God has for my whole self  – and how to offer that whole kind of love to another human that I could no longer carefully categorize and trivialize and sweep into easily explainable bits – than I had ever learned in all the dating books and all the sober seminars that I had once so pored over.

And I came to the conclusion that holiness cannot be found in one’s tally of kisses. Holiness cannot be found in stringent rule books and the harried, desperate cries of those who hide in caves of their own creation from the expanse of alarmingly open sky that the Cross has created. Holiness is not found in “what we can do” or “how far you’ve gone” or “how much I’ve failed”.

Holiness can be found, however, in our deep holistic care for another image-bearer of God.

Holiness can be found in our refusal to devolve into numb, mindless self-gratifiers.

Holiness can be found in our kisses and in our refraining from them.

Holiness can be found in our joyful celebration of wide, open, free Gospel sky –

and in the cultivation of our whole selves – minds AND bodies – into closer communion with God and with one another.

And I think,

somewhere between that vast starry night and our little spark of a bonfire,

I found purity, as she really was,

in all her glorious,

frightening,

joyful,

celebratory,

overwhelming big-sky freedom.

Can we all just stop pretending like it’s not there?

 ‘I literally mean that I’ve been praying, for nine whole long tiresome beautiful months, that God would somehow smite me with the gift of singleness. as if it was a disease you could catch. i was so sure that if i tried hard enough or prayed long enough or pretended not to ever see men that God would give me what I begged him for.’

~*~*~*~*~

It’s all on Tumblr,

just like everybody else’s dirty laundry,

and if you look far back enough you can find me,

struggling against my flesh or whatever,

documenting the 9 months during which I tried to give myself the gift of celibacy.

Pretty sure that’s not actually how gifts work, but you can’t really fault me when my sexual identity was the thorn in my side, the shackle mooring my mystic soul to this cumbersome flesh and bone.

And the trouble is that I still can’t look in a mirror and see a whole body.

In its place there are a thousand disjointed parts that I can’t quite make sense of. All of its little flaws and scars and weirdnesses are immediately apparent to me; the little memories and frustrations associated with each of them crowd my eyes until all I can see is a pile of limbs and appendages that supposedly make up me.

Three years after I stopped trying to force celibacy upon myself, I’m still celibate. Looking back on my [more] youthful ignorance, I can’t really blame myself for trying to enjoy it. I chronicled (and Tumbld!) in poetic detail all of the times that I accidentally “felt something” for boys and I promised to myself and the great void of Internet to do better next time. I even turned away the boy I’m crazy about today in pursuit of this elusive, somehow holier gift of singleness.

After all, my 20-year-old sexual identity was purely a matter of passive happenstance:

I had made no conscious choices,  but a couple had been made for me.

None of The Rules had broken, though, you can put your mind to rest on that account: any of the well-known, oft-detailed

STEPS TOWARD THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF

that purity culture so carefully lists in all of the very divinely inspired dating books had been carefully avoided by all of my choice-makers.

It’s ok to make out with Hannah as long as her mouth is not involved. (Yes, that is in fact A Thing.)

It’s ok to threaten to kiss her, as if it were some sort of crime that you’d be willing to engage, given the right time and setting and carefully described dress, of course.

It’s ok to suggest sexual encounters via text message as long as they never actually happen.

It’s ok to inform her that she hugged you the wrong way. That she lingered just a tad too long.

It’s ok to lure her into your bedroom in the middle of the day and kiss her without warning,

get up and run to the kitchen when she unceremoniously blurts out that it was her first,

carefully avoid eye contact with her until she stops apologizing and informs you she’d “well, better get going”,

and then delete her from all possible forms of social media just in case she might possibly get it into her naive little brain that something

was actually

“there”.

It’s ok to mention, as she begs you to look at her,

 

while you fumble over some all-important pot of coffee,

that you really hope she can forget all of this and not go spreading rumors that you “used her” in any way.

(Kiss-rape is ok, but gossip, no! Heaven forbid.)

It’s ok to laugh and pull away when she tries to kiss you back.

 

So much protection!

So much care!

So much kind, thoughtful, chaste behavior on the part of my would-be suitors!

With all this respect in my life, I can’t think why I would try, as a love-starved just-older-than-a-teenager, to rid myself of sexual desire completely.

Oh dear! This was meant to be a funny post.

Because it is! It’s hilarious! It’s laughable that I could ever think that God, in His infinite wisdom, would ever enable me to actually alter my physiological makeup to such a degree that I could forget sexual desire altogether! It’s sort of adorable to think that I ever thought there could be a way out.

Is it wrong that I’m tired of being “respected”?

Of being “protected”?

Of being “looked after”?

Of assuming that just because you happen to be male that you somehow know how to do those things for me better than I do for myself?

And so today,

tired, defeated, world-weary,

I’m finally taking back my sexual personhood. I’m just gonna own it, I guess.

Because after all I AM this,

this strange fusion of mind and skin,

of urges and hopes,

of tears and failures and screams and smiles;

of stomach-sickness and lovesickness and deep soul stirrings that show up in my eyes and sometimes in my hugs.

And there’s nobody else who’s allowed to make my choices for me anymore.

If you want to treat me with respect, maybe start by affirming that right there.

And I submit the revolutionary idea for your consideration that maybe we all just need to TALK ABOUT IT A LOT MORE.

Boyfriends! Girlfriends! Normal friends! Broach the subject already!

Can we all just stop pretending like it’s not there?

You both have got bodies and no amount of careful abstinent thinking is going to make those go away! You need to know each other’s triggers and hurts and history. You need to know what each other needs and when. You need to know when to touch and when to pull away. Those choices need to be made in light of your faith and in light of scripture and in light of THE ACTUAL LIVING, BREATHING PERSON IN FRONT OF YOU.

I’d also like to suggest that maybe a good deal of the sexual dysfunction within marriage  –

supposedly only an issue when you get a little too hot and heavy before the big day –

happens because SEX IS A SIN before marriage, and THE ONLY THING YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO ANYMORE after the dress and the tux both come off.

You can’t yell “Sex is beautiful!” and “Sex is a sin!” at us at the same time and at the same volume and expect us not to grow up a little sexually deformed;

a little too fearful, a little too passive;

a little too unable to see

a thoughtfully created,

a fearfully and wonderfully formed,

a beautiful, sexual, precious, WHOLE body in that merciless mirror.

 

Because GOD DOES NOT RESIDE IN THE NEON PLASTIC CREVICES OF YOUR BULLSHIT HAMSTER WHEEL.

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.

//

It was not a silence that was malleable. 

It sat, 

intimate and brittle, 

like a flute of champagne atop a banister, daring entropy. 

It echoed out into the recesses of the heavens like a question that admits no answer but must itself exist, ringing unanswered through the ages. 

The dome that held the stars had often soared higher as she watched, inviting her further up, 

further in. 

“Ask more. Believe more,” the stars used to cry, but tonight –

they were silent.

She crumpled in a heap on the wet grass, thankful to be away from the eyes of all who loved her and would hate to see her sink into the darkness that she could no longer hold quite at bay. 

The dark sank into her heart like the nighttime around her, enveloping and permeating and veiling until she could no longer imagine her own face but silently repeated, trembling, all of the things that she knew and could no longer feel. 

//

Depression is not a disease. 

Depression is not make-believe. 

Being depressed does not make me a child, a monster, or a joke. 

Not that I believe it can’t be feigned. 

But based on the thinly veiled fear I find in my friends’ eyes when they catch me at my darkest, 

people I know to be astute, experienced, emotionally nuanced sorts of people, 

all that calls itself depression might not be. 

And people tell me that I don’t pray enough. 

They tell me to stand up & rebuke the spirit of ingratitude or hopelessness or whatever the demon du jour. 

“Get a hold of yourself.”

“Get your shit together.”

“SNAP OUT OF IT.”

Stop being so self-centered. 

(Self-centered really is the worst epithet these days, isn’t it? When a proper understanding of the search for self is not cultivated, then our continual denial of its existence can only lead to despair in those like me who are not content to view life at its surface level.)

I’ll give them one thing – depression is a breeding ground for extreme introversion & painfully sharp self-awareness. 

One minute you’re trying to not be seen because the social anxiety is so strong that you can almost believe that every passerby can see the tangible darkness that never does quite leave you. 

Some days you are launching yourself at the nearest breathing human body or, even better, group of bodies because the more people that surround you, the more chance there is of pawning off just a paperweight’s worth of the MILLSTONE around your neck on an unsuspecting acquaintance. 

You are welcome to try and tell me that my problems are not all that bad. I’ll sigh and I’ll agree. You’re right. It could be worse. 

And that is why depression is NOT sadness. 

I’m not sad. 

I’ve been sad. 

I’ve watched beloved family waste away & sink into death, I’ve been *sigh-yawn* heartbroken more than once and I’ve watched the dearest of my friends wander carelessly, aimlessly away from me. I’ve lost all of my worldly possessions a time or two and I’ve watched “home” disappear more times than I care to recall.

I’ve had some sad. 

Depression is [often] an actually physiological reaction to the actual horror of the world we live in. Nausea. Paralysis. Fever. 

“When the darkness hits me,” she said, “it’s often triggered by actual circumstances, but the heaviness stems from feeling, after my momentary sad has passed away, the enormity of the sorrow of the world we’re from. 

It’s like every tear that anyone has ever cried for anyone they’ve ever loved suddenly comes thronging in, in a merciless wave of raw empathy, and I suddenly cannot stand.”

And that’s why it hurts when well-meaning loved ones tell you to get over yourself. 

Get over myself, sure. I’d love to. But get over all the ancient sorrow of the sin and separation that our world has brought up on itself? Not likely. 

Look on the bright side, they say. Quote Philippians 4:8 at me a few more times. Go on. Make my day. You were going to anyway.

“Whatever is right, whatever is true, whatever is lovely… think on those things.”

Christians can be the most heartless of people. 

And I know that sometimes the ones who yell loudest need the most convincing themselves. 

I make allowances for you dear,

you loud,

you proselytizing, you spiritualizing, 

you hungry, you bankrupt, 

you so-anxious-to-stave-off-the-darkness-that-you-must-silence-those-who-swim-in-it.

I love you. I do. 

Keep running your little philosophical, faux-theological hamster wheels until your empty hearts give out. 

I will be here to catch you when you run out of answers. 

Because GOD DOES NOT RESIDE IN THE NEON PLASTIC CREVICES OF YOUR BULLSHIT HAMSTER WHEEL. 

We could argue out that he’s actually everywhere, and I would probably agree with you, 

but I will argue to my grave that you will NOT FIND HIS PRESENCE THERE. 

Because God is out here, 

in the darkness, 

in the pain, 

in the sorrow so strong that every nook, every cranny of our lives reeks with the stench of, 

where we all actually live & you pretend not to see. 

I can’t imagine what it must be like to walk around with those enormous horse-blinders on everyday and try to somehow function. I don’t envy you. 

I am out here bathing with King David in a few stray rays of sunlight outside the city gates, 

finding the heart of God when I am able to see him as refuge and not as perpetrator. 

I weep with Jesus, with Isaiah, 

with a thousand mourning prophets over lost generations, 

with Solomon, with Paul, with Rachel, 

refusing to be comforted until kingdom come. 

Because my depression, horrible as it sometimes is, is also my strength. 

I can actually weep with the weeping. I can rejoice with the rejoicing. 

My tears go deeper and so do my joys. I wrestle with life. I am always exhausted. Every single day of my life is a battle and when I tell you that dying would be a relief, I am in no way suicidal. 

I will go on fighting as long as my war lasts,

but I will also end happily – joyfully! – when my time is done.

And when the darkness seeps in and you cannot stand on your sandy foundation of cheerful platitudes anymore,

I will hold you, dear blind,

dear light, breezy, superficial one, 

dear starved, dear in denial, 

I will hold you. 

 

What If You Followed All the Rules?

It’s a great feeling to have all of your lifelong fears and discomforts finally validated;

when a whole community of writers and bloggers starts speaking up and tearing down the cultural constructs that have so oppressed and depressed you throughout the entirety of your childhood and early adulthood;

when all of the opinions that used to make you a rebel – a pariah, of sorts – are finally not only your own and the burden of the truth, the whole truth, no longer seems to rest on your shoulders alone.

One Sarah Bessey I’d never heard of or read before out of nowhere writes an article about her experience with something called “purity culture” and all of a sudden I’m in a heap in front of the gate to my preschool,

ugly crying as I pull a torn notebook page out of my back pocket and just as suddenly start writing again. I had really sworn off writing, you see, after two arrogant sorts in my college poetry club wore me down until I couldn’t hear my voice over their imagined critiques every time I set pen to paper. But there it was, that nagging voice that I just can never quite squelch, the one that starts whispering in my ears whenever my soul rubs up against any kind of injustice or injury towards the outsiders of society. I have always liked the borderliners,
the people of the outskirts,
the ones who liked to dance to their own beat right on the fringes of society and orthodoxy.

I considered myself quite one of their own.

Little did I know that I was dancing right behind that Pied Purity Piper all along.

See, here’s the thing:

I’m a virgin.

Emily says that I should define my terms which, whatever, but what I mean is my hymen is firmly intact. Not only that, there’s never been any danger of that changing.

So there’s all my cards out on the table. Yikes.

Oh yeah, see, I followed the purity culture rules to a tee. I am its angry, sulking poster child. I snarled and seethed and bathed in red lipstick but I never did quite get off my high horse. In fact, I did purity culture one better and I kept my kiss-ginity too. (yeah, that’s a thing.) I avoided boys like the plague and kept romantic moments quite out of the question and I ran as far away from that hypothetical ledge as I could and dear lord if you could get medals for self-control I WOULD HAVE THEM. Oh, I compromised alright, but I made sure that any rules I broke were the ones not quite black and white enough to find their way into the verbose, exacting purity culture handbook.

After all…

I was not about to be sullied!

I was not about to become pee water!

I was not about to give any Christian boy any further reason to discredit my viability as a spouse, seeing as how they already found plenty.

I was like those people who don’t believe in God but say a few rosaries & light a few candles every now & then, just in case of Apocalypse.

Now I’m 22 years old and I feel like I may still actually be a prepubescent teenager, unsure of myself or how to appropriately interact with the opposite sex and you know, how to hold a boy’s hand and stuff.( Are the fingers supposed to lock? Is that a thing? That is not pleasant. Am I just supposed to get used to that?) Sigh.

While my friends were getting labeled and shamed for engaging in sexual behavior, I was busy trying to convince everyone around me that I had no interest in and desire for sex at all.

While others were abused physically, I was abused emotionally by men who were so indoctrinated into purity culture that as long as they never kissed me on the mouth or slept with me, they earnestly believed they’d done right by me.

It’s strange to me that we seem to have the same triggers now – those of us who experienced physical abuse and those of us who suffered emotional heartache and physical neglect by men who thought they could divorce our hearts from our bodies. I do not claim that these two kinds of wounds are equal in destructive repercussions, but it seems that they are more similar in kind than they are often given credit for.

And I’m afraid I find myself at a crossroads.

Emily and I are two months into our Purity Culture Rehab Project and all of a sudden I realize that tearing down purity culture will have to involve constructing something inside the void that it left. But what? What goes there now? Do I start mercilessly sleeping with every boy I come into contact with? Do I throw caution to the wind?

I discovered this week that quite a few of the writers I admire most seem to vary rather widely when it comes to the whole “Is Extramarital Sex Still a Sin” thing, which I naively didn’t know was a question anyone was asking. Anyone who ascribes to any semblance of a Christian philosophy, that is. For me that’s not a question, based on what I believe about the Bible and stuff, but I’m learning how not to shame people for having choices that differ from mine.

I’m learning how not to shame myself for making choices that I can’t carefully, methodically defend.

I’m still a little ashamed though.

I’m a little ashamed of my inexperience.

I’m a little ashamed of my stupidity.

What is an ignorant virgin trying to combat purity culture for, anyway?

Isn’t it a little superfluous to try and rehabilitate myself from purity culture fully intending to stay a virgin at the end of it?

I’m still not sure it isn’t an exercise in futility.

My conclusion is this:

my virginity – or lack thereof – is the property of my personhood.

I am not less a person for losing it.

I am not less a person for keeping it.

I am not required to catch up.

Taking back my personhood means taking back my sexuality. It does not belong to my church or my friends or other people’s opinions or even to my own stubborn stereotypes of what should be; of what’s normal.

I have time to figure this all out, you see. Tearing down purity culture doesn’t necessarily mean that, at the end, I will have built a healthy understanding of my sexuality at the same time. While rehabilitation does require breaking a collection of destructive habits, it also necessitates the beginning of new healthy ones to take their place. So here’s my Rehab Project shifting focus a bit – from dismantling the evils of purity culture to creating something new to replace it.

//-//

I wanna talk about how I’m afraid that all of us fighting against purity culture will, by heading towards the other extreme, lose any audience we may have had with the conservative Christian culture that so desperately needs change.

I wanna talk about how sin & shame are two different things.

I wanna talk about how purity culture is as harmful to those who comply with its demands as it is to those who do not.

But right now, I just wanna sit

in the bliss that is knowing

that I am mine.

intimacy is not modest.

“The requirements for conforming to western female norms are ‘nice, thin, modest, uses all available resources for appearance.”

– Brene Brown

//

I’d never heard anyone explicitly state these standards before, but it occurred to me, as I glued my eyes to Brene’s kindly face projected larger-than-life on a living room wall, that I’d always felt uncomfortable, sort of socially naked, when I was not subconsciously complying with them.

// NICE. //

I have driven myself mad with NICE.

I have pretended to believe all manner of lazy theology because to disagree with someone I admired and honored would mean to offend them and to offend someone is not NICE.

I have shut my mouth and closed my eyes to disastrous choices that dear friends have made – journeys they’ve embarked on that I could have dissuaded them from – because to point out error is not NICE.

I have mopped the contents of my heart up off my bathroom floor, time and again, and offered my whole person to boy after boy who did not want it & did not care to care for it because refusing your trust to anyone is not NICE.

The very thought of NICE infuriates me and yet, when my supervisor tells me that an unruly child is spreading the word that I am a perpetrator of NOT-NICE, I melt into a puddle of angry self-doubt.

// THIN. //

I’m not quite sure any of us really know HOW to be thin.

I mean some of us are, and that’s fantastic, and a lot more of us aren’t. Nobody knows how to stay that way and nobody knows how to get that way.

If it happens for you, excellent.
Kudos.
Lemme buy you a [Slim-Fast] shake.

When I was sixteen years old I loved a boy whose constant bipolar crises I bravely strapped to my barely formed shoulders and the weight sent me into a tailspin of depression and sorrow. In the name of young, miserable, hearty and foolhardy love, his every thought became mine; his every misery my cross to bear.

A symptom of that mess was an actual physical loss of appetite.

I never meant to stop eating.
I never meant to starve.

But once you have begun slowly starving the soul, the body seems to quietly follow suit. All of a sudden you’re spending hours in between classes agonizing over trying to choke down a single cup of soup.

(While we’re on the subject, never do I ever want to hear any self-styled Christian counselor patronizingly inform me that depression is “all in your head, dear”. OKAY. You let me know when you’ve had every symptom of the stomach flu for months on end without any treatable virus. Then we can talk.)

And even as this distressed teenager, wasting away, I remember thinking – with a bit of morbid humor – that perhaps all the heartache was worth it if I could at least maintain this new-and-improved, bare-bones version of myself. Because if I could not comply with this boy’s exacting standards – if I could not somehow FEEL enough for him- then at least I could look the way I was supposed to.

Sometimes THIN is the only visible symptom of deep-rooted, black-veined heart rot.

And what a good deal of the rest of us dejectedly find is that the harder we work for THIN, we tend to just become healthier (or less healthy, as the case may be) versions of the bodies we already had. You can’t change your basic structure.

I mean, you can, but that’s another conversation.

// MODEST. //

Every time I ran across the courtyard and over the lawn and up 8 flights of stairs to my tiny two-room Chicago walk-up to throw off my clothes and swear never to put them on again because of the shaming glares of my sisters in Christ and dear God, maybe I wasn’t such a good believer after all.

Every time I would forego bright colors or red lipstick or that one shirt with the mildly suggestive cut-out in the back or any hint of dark self-expression because MODEST –

MODEST ultimately means UNREVEALING –

And there’s more to be revealed here than just skin.

And even though I wear the lipstick now on the days that call for it and I have – God forbid! two visible tattoos! – I still find my jaw clamped shut on long late-night drives with my best friends when we’re all supposed to be baring our souls and I decide to save my ugly, deformed little thought for later.

And this is what MODEST has become to me – a false storefront, a disguise, a comfortably barricaded bomb shelter of sorts to guard against the onslaught of honesty and vulnerability that have come knocking louder and longer lately.

It seems that every relationship, after it has first come to blows –

after the first breach of trust,

after the honeymoon perma-smiles have faded and you are made to look right into the eyes of someone who presumably has only, to this point, known only things they like about you and are about to enter a much, darker, overgrown, untraveled pathway of you –

– every relationship must choose whether being known – or feeling pleasant – is of more worth to them.

There is nothing MODEST about intimacy.

// EMPLOYING ALL AVAILABLE RESOURCES TO [IMPROVE?] APPEARANCE. //

I don’t have anything even lightly poetic to interject here.

My beauty routine involves a curling iron, a grocery bag of collected make-up supplies, a large quantity of baby powder, Moroccan argan oil and a Christmas-gift bottle of Kat Von D’s Sinner.

I’m hardly employing all available resources here.

While that used to trouble me more, there are still mornings I’ll pull into my backlot parking space at the preschool I work (read: slave) at and I’ll suddenly panic at the sight of my naked face in the rear view.

And although most days I’ll tell you make-up is a pastime and not a crutch, there are mornings when I’ll admit to myself – before the honesty of sleep has worn off – that I like my mask more than the face beneath.

I’m not sure there is, in fact, a point here.
I cannot divorce my body from my soul.
I cannot pretend to throw off the confines of society and adopt a lifestyle of hearty asceticism.
I cannot feel more helpless than I do on this subversive shoreline of ruthless Western superficiality. I am out of the waters for a moment, but it is, after all, just a moment and I’ll be assailed by its calm, imperturbable waters as soon as the tide rises again.

And even still I have not begun to chisel away at Christian purity culture’s adoption and unabashed copying of Western norms of beauty and femininity.

What I can – what I do – demand is a new standard for womanhood: one that has far more to do with the content of our deeds and our souls than our bodies, weary from doing good and from simply bearing the weight of living here in this unrestored creation which daily, hourly cries out for its Creator and Savior to please make all things new. My body – with its already grey hairs and dandruff and stress-weight and stress marks – cries out too, with the rest of everything.

Women of valor, lets imagine something better and teach it to our children and our grandchildren and remake this tired culture into a celebration of the divine image-bearers we each one of us are.

the day i learned i was the problem.

So I’ve had tonsillitis for five months.

FIVE MONTHS.

It’s on and off, but I can’t quite get it to go away. Granted, I’ll try hard for a couple of days, maybe stay home a night or two, pop a half-ton of ibuprofen, and go about my merry way. I believe the technical term for this method is “toughing it out”. I spent this whole week pretending that I was not coughing up an entire lung or that swallowing had not become an exercise in futility.

Finally, this Wednesday, I had to come to terms with the fact that maybe I should see somebody about my condition.

I sat in my tiny twin Ikea top bunk and I thought long and hard about my options.

I’m a 22-year-old college graduate with a full-time job as a preschool teacher. This shouldn’t be too difficult, right?

I should be able to call up my friendly neighborhood physician and get this infernal throat thoroughly coated with all of the happy, unhealthy antibiotics my faltering lungs could desire. Unfortunately, somewhere between my parents being the lovely, radical, non-salaried type of people and preschool being the single most overlooked profession in the way of luxuries like health insurance, I am somehow below the poverty line in every category that counts.

I’m used to not having money. I grew up as a missionary kid in Mexico and my friends used to live in cardboard boxes a lot and I spent a good half of my childhood in the backseat of a tiny teal Toyota Corolla. But dealing with the actual grown-up implications of being impoverished is a look I haven’t – correction: hadn’t – tried on yet.

With five months of minimal but still almost un-payable medical bills sitting on my parents’ counter, I decided to pay a visit to a neighborhood clinic designed for the insurance-less and anybody just under the poverty line.

Which, it would seem, now includes me.

I drove there in a fluster of theological angst about some purity culture nonsense that had me all hot & bothered and barely noticed the change in scenery as I drove deeper into the ghetto and further away from the cream-colored suburban wasteland I pretend to despise. I parked right in front of some garishly rose-colored house and tumbled out, still angst-tweeting (yeah, that’s a thing) and not paying attention to my surroundings. 

Flustered, I unceremoniously stumbled in the doorway of the clinic and just as quickly stumbled back out. I made a beeline across the street and back into my car and there I sat, like a spoiled, sullen child, waiting on God knows what. The proprietor of said garish rose-colored establishment thought it a good moment to bring out all of her questionable correspondence, ripping each piece into unnecessarily small strips and trying as hard to make eye contact with me as I was trying to avoid hers. 

And see here’s the thing. 

When I walked in, I didn’t expect to find that I was the only member of my ethnicity to darken that doorway. I didn’t expect to feel myself somehow – immediately – superior.

Immediately blushing and humiliated.

Immediately question my existence and wonder “how on earth it had gotten this bad”.

I didn’t expect to ever, EVER be haunted by the (until now) laughable phantom of white privilege I hear so much about and had never stayed up late enough to see. 

I didn’t expect to hear an almost-audible voice crying BUT THESE ARE THE PEOPLE I’M SUPPOSED TO HELP.

I DIDN’T EXPECT TO BE THE PROBLEM. 

Apparently all of my years overseas and living off of nothing and splitting Snickers bars four ways with all my family members and befriending the poor and the downtrodden didn’t actually prepare me for being downtrodden myself. Apparently all of my years studying race and injustice and always identifying with the “other”; the outcast; the marginalized didn’t mean that much after all. 

Because, when it came down to a matter of last resorts, I couldn’t stop seeing myself as some sort of kindly benefactor: the doer, the lover, the giver of gifts, the crusader against injustice and inequality and the relentless do-gooder. In spite  of all the self-important pride I’d formerly felt at being more “aware” (whatever that even freaking means) of systemic injustice and poverty and the plight of my fellow man,

I never expected to find myself in any of their shoes. 

I didn’t expect to walk in and not be able to go up to the window for all the paralyzing shame.

I didn’t expect to grumble audibly as I filled out paperwork that was all in Spanish.

“They’re lucky I actually speak this,” I said to no one in particular. 

I didn’t expect to cower in a corner with my head facing the stucco wall – partially out of extreme misery, and partially in an attempt to preserve a dignity I didn’t know I’d been quietly cultivating all along. 

 

As a walk-in patient, I watched as each of my Hispanic counterparts were seen, tested, medicated, and sent home before me. I was the object of light scrutiny as patients would leave and come back and find me still sitting – immobile, miserable, and thoroughly anti-social. I was afraid that they could read the silent hissy fit I was throwing in my gaze and so I averted it,

pretending with all my might not to be there. 

I didn’t expect to find myself at a furious loss for words when a sheepish desk-boy asked if I’d ‘uh, please put a mask on’ after a particularly awful-sounding bout of coughing. I mean, I realize that I sound like I’m dying of plague-worthy consumption, but please. Look at me. Do I look like I’m infecting anybody? BUT YES PLEASE, MR. DESK-BOY, WOULDN’T THAT DEHUMANIZING MASK JUST BE THE CHERRY ON MY ICE CREAM SUNDAE OF A WEDNESDAY. PLEASE CAN I HAVE A SIDE OF ENORMOUS RED-LETTER SIGN READING ‘QUARANTINE’ TO PAIR WITH THAT?

It would seem that “dehumanizing” isn’t an adjective I’ve had much real experience with.

On the table in front of my misery corner was a pile of donated bread loaves. Some of them were from the local Alpine Valley Bakery (the best stuff in town) and tempted as I was, I scoffed at myself as the hours ticked by for even considering taking any of that “charity bread”. I’d think of my empty pantry shelves at home, and then I’d think of DIGNITY. Empty pantry shelves. DIGNITY. 

I ended up driving home with two loaves of Alpine bread sitting shotgun that my sweet roommate Emily has taken to calling “the charity bread” every time we want toast, just in case I could possibly forget where they came from.

My dear friend Lisa, ever the dedicated doctor and even more dedicated friend, finally saw me at the end of her breakless day closing in on 6 pm, when the last of her appointed patients had gone home. While she could work anywhere, my friend works long, thankless hours at the clinic because people’s stories and hurt and poverty actually matter to her. Unlike myself, she has found a skill that she can employ to serve them, and serve them she does, week in and week out. She welcomes them into her office and her heart with all of the enthusiasm and deeply kind-hearted commiseration I’ve ever seen a fellow human muster.

And in that same spirit she welcomed me, taking my hand and loaning me all of her attention while I was in her care.

I think this is what they call bedside manner; but to me, in that moment, weary and worn, hers struck me as the very face of Jesus – his voice and manner; his smile and active compassion. 

Six hours after my dramatic entry, I walked out of that lobby with a few vials of healing magic and a heavy heart.

And I’m mortified to share these words with you. I’m mortified that somehow I let race and skin color and economic situation so define – and consequently, humiliate me. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know how I let it creep in. Perhaps it was always there and it took my humbling Wednesday to reveal it. 

I don’t know how to get better. I don’t have any answers. It frightens me though, that perhaps this is how we all are – that, maybe, as followers of Jesus in such a world and such a time as this, that we might be throwing all of our good-hearted, proud charity at the world and alienating them in the process. That maybe they can smell our quiet, well-meaning racism from a mile away and as a result, never darken our doorways. I know I’m no one to point fingers – that much is clear to me.

And I don’t know how to get better. 

But maybe – just maybe – we could all use a long Wednesday in a crowded waiting room.