The Ain't I a Woman blog examines the many ways Christian culture lets women know exactly who they should be. We deconstruct those messages that we find troubling--and, in the process, construct a different message: one that allows Christian women to be all that God intended.

The Problem with Proverbs 31

sewing buttonsI am officially ready for the start of another semester. And by ready I mean that I have successfully re-attached two wayward buttons to the pants where they belong.

Each spring when I hang up my “work” clothes for another season, I promise myself that I will go shopping before the fall semester and purchase at least a couple of new items to spruce up my tired wardrobe and, perhaps, replace my thread-bare pants. And, each fall when I return to my closet the night before my first day back, I remember the promise I have so skillfully dismissed for another year.

This recurring cycle is how I came to the absolute dire necessity of affixing two wayward buttons. I suppose I shouldn’t feel slighted, they’ve put in a good 6-7 years. But still, I was pretty miffed when I pulled on my pants just in time for the all-faculty meeting only to discover that there was no way either button had any hold left.

For some of you, repairing my pants by reattaching two measly buttons may hardly seem like a feat to mention, much less in public. Truth be told, I am a wee-bit embarrassed to admit that sewing two buttons onto two pairs of pants took WAY longer than it should have. And, if you must know, yes, I did, in fact, learn how to sew on a button in a Jr. High home-economics class required for girls (which was the ONLY reason I was in the course, as my teacher can attest). Still, that was ages ago and while I resented then the idea that as a girl one of the requirements I had to achieve was attaching a button or repairing a sock, I still find the thing a chore—so much so that I would rather live with pants that could become undone at any point rather than break out a sewing kit (if you can call it that) and get to work.

So, if by now you are wondering why I am belaboring this point of sewing and buttons and what they have to do with being ready to teach, here it is: as a young Jr. High school girl I keenly felt the sexism embedded in the assumption that girls must be taught home economics while boys needed to know their way around saws and cars. I did not get to make a choice about what I wanted, which was to build birdhouses and checkerboards. Instead, I learned to make pudding and potatoes and cut out McCall’s patterns and somehow get the pieces to look vaguely like clothing.

The roles society deemed appropriate did not fit me then and I knew it intuitively even though I had yet to understand the social underpinnings of these so-call necessities.

Now, years later, I still resent the idea that this is a skill I should have, so much so that I have refused to become adept at something pretty mundane. The irony is, of course, the one thing I must do in order to be prepared to teach (with my feminist convictions) is to sew on buttons, a task that has been—and mostly continues to be for many—women’s work.

Maybe one day we’ll actually move beyond these baseless assumptions about gendered roles and tasks. That time is a long way off, though, if you look at any of the latest gimmicks devised by Proverbs 31 proponents.

“In many ways, the Proverbs 31 woman is evangelicalism’s Martha Stewart, minus the jail term. The Proverbs 31 woman decorates her home well, dresses in fine clothes (marked by the K-mart brand if necessary), and makes fabulous meals for her family. Compare many of the Proverbs 31 websites with Martha Stewart’s Real Simple magazine, and you see little difference: images of beautiful (white) women standing in well-appointed homes (or, inexplicably, in fields of grain); links to recipes, decorating ideas, and child-raising tips; and day-by-day resources to help make a woman’s life manageable and perfect.” (If Eve Only Knew, pg. 40)

The problem with this Proverbs 31 image is that a serious reading of Proverbs shows this is not intended to be an idea of the perfect woman. This is an image of Wisdom Woman, a feminine image of God.

Is it any wonder women are frustrated when they can’t live up to this divine reality?

For further reading about Proverbs 31 we hope you will check out our new book: If Eve only Knew.

Does Having a Period Make You Heroic?

Kendra and I are relieved that our book, If Eve Only Knew, is finally here! You can order online at Amazon, or at Chalice Press; or you can support your local bookseller and order from them (for those in my area, I suggest Chapter’s Books). You can also read a review of the book here. Let us know what you think! We’re also looking for speaking gigs where we can talk about our research, so if your book group, Sunday school class, congregation, or college course is looking for guest speakers, feel free to contact us.

Periods have been much in the news the last few weeks. And I’m not sure what to think about this.

Okay, that’s not entirely true: I know what to think about Donald Trump’s stupid comment to FOX commentator Megyn Kelly at the first Republican debate. His implication that Kelly is a raging wild woman because she’s got blood running out of her eyes and—ahem, other places—is misogynistic and stupid, but I wouldn’t expect any less from The Donald, whose so far seemingly successful run for the presidency must be causing other GOP politicians to wonder What the hell is wrong with me? and They like that guy, but not me?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just projecting a bit.

The other story about periods that’s been in the news recently is more puzzling to me, as a feminist and a marathon runner, and also as someone whose bullshit meter is sometimes too highly sensitive.

You’ve probably all seen the story, about a 26-year-old rock band member who decided to run the London Marathon while on her period, but without any kind of feminine hygiene products. Kiran Gandhi, the drummer for singer M.I.A., ran with her blood “free flowing,” saying she ran with “blood dripping down [her] legs for sisters,” for those many women around the world who don’t have access to any kind of tampons or pads. kiran gandhi

She was lauded by some folks as heroic for taking this approach, and for drawing attention to the plight of women in developing countries, including girls who cannot go to school during their periods, meaning they miss up to a week of school every month. Gandhi also said, months later in an interview with People magazine, that she wanted to “remove the stigma of menstrual cycle” by allowing her period to be on public display. “If we don’t own the narrative of our own bodies,” she said, “somebody else will use it against us.”

And, to be honest, I can see merit in those who would view Gandhi as a hero, using the London Marathon as a way to highlight a biological process that is heavily stigmatized, still, despite the preponderance of advertisements in the U.S. about period-related products, many of which promise to be discrete. We tend to act as if women don’t have periods—or, acknowledgment that this is a part of women’s lives is often done in the vein of Donald Trump, making jokes about raging lunatics on the rag and PMS bitchiness.

Still, a lot doesn’t sit right with me about Gandhi and what she has suggested is her performance art piece. Rather than making an intentional decision to highlight the plight of women in developing countries, Gandhi concluded the night before the marathon that she would forego tampons while running. She started her period, worried that wearing a tampon might not be comfortable while running the marathon, decided to just let her blood flow freely, and then apparently came up with a cause to support what seemed, at least initially, a choice made on the basis of her own sense about running with hygiene products.

(And a silly choice at that: I’ve run countless races while on my period, and the presumed discomfort of wearing a tampon never even crossed my mind. Gandhi was more likely to experience chaffing from bloodied underwear and tights than any damage a tampon might do.)

More troubling to me, the entire event smacks of privilege that Gandhi herself fails to acknowledge. Running a marathon is itself a very privileged act: you need both time and money to train for and compete in a marathon; even beyond the entry fee, you have to have ample time to train, time that most people in the world do not have.

But she also has the privilege of making the choice to wear protection or not while running. I imagine if impoverished women had the opportunity to let their blood flow freely or wear a tampon, they would choose the latter, and would no doubt wonder what kind of crazy-ass woman would make a different choice, if she had the resources to do so.

Some have argued that Gandhi was showing how periods are natural, that by bleeding freely, she was challenging us to see the menstrual cycle as part of a woman’s biology, and thus nothing to be reviled. All well and good: I agree that women’s bodies and reproductive capabilities have for too long (read: all of history) been seen as abhorrent and shameful.

I’m not sure, though, that letting blood run freely is the best antidote to this stigmatization. Because, by extension, we might say defecating is also a natural part of the digestive process, but I can’t imagine many people would see a runner’s poop-filled shorts as heroic. Though as most runners will tell you, not pooping in your shorts can sometimes demand heroic effort.

I may be missing something in this story. Maybe I should see Gandhi as a feminist hero. Maybe I should be grateful that she’s brought attention to the plight impoverished women worldwide, recognizing that I’ve done little (okay, nothing) of similar magnitude. Yet something doesn’t sit right with me about this. I may need convincing that Kiran Gandhi is actually helping all women be exactly who they were made to be, blood flowing freely or not.

The winner of the London Marathon issued a statement yesterday about Gandhi. Her name is Tigist Tufa, though few people know that, because she hasn’t received any press, despite winning one of the world’s major races. Tufa points out the disparity, that although she won the race, Gandhi’s stunt is featured, taking attention away from, according to Tufa, “what really fights sexism”: beating thousands of men in a race, and showing the strength and power of women’s bodies.

If I wasn’t sure before that Kiran Gandhi did nothing heroic, Tufa’s statement convinced me. But maybe I’m wrong. Anyone want to explain what I’m missing?

Getting Inked, Middle Age, and Surviving Crises

I got a tattoo a few weeks ago to celebrate my mid-life crisis.

Okay, that’s not exactly true. My crisis has been in full swing for awhile now, and the tattoo was—at least ostensibly—a way to celebrate my amazing sister and the wonderful friendship we share. (And to experience a little pain together, though she told me it wasn’t going to hurt. Pshhh: It did hurt. A lot.)

The tattoo was a Reiki symbol for friendship, and is supposed to symbolize the essence of God we see in each other, and in ourselves. It also has a “S” swirled into it, which we decided denoted “sister” and “Springer,” our maiden name.

tattoosHaving a little bit of ink makes me feel somewhat bad-assed, I won’t lie. I told a few close friends that I will need to find new, inventive ways to show my tattoo off in class, so my students can see me for the hip, relevant professor I’m purporting to be. Will it seem too odd if I teach with my leg up on a desk, so everyone can view my tat?

Anyway, I convinced my husband that getting a tattoo with my sister was part of my middle-aged crisis, and probably better (Cheaper? More modest?) than buying a new sports car or splurging on surgical enhancements, the stereotypic symbols of middle-aged crises that often make us snigger at the fools who are struggling so mightily with half their lives behind them.

When I was younger—like, in my 30s—I assumed this middle age crisis thing would never catch me, that it was media-manufactured or, in the least, the provenance of vain people who couldn’t stand getting older.

Boy, was I wrong, something I discovered a few years after turning 40. And, in conversations I’ve been having with my same-aged peers of late, it seems we are all grappling with similar core concerns, no matter how we’ve spent the first part of our grown-up lives, either well entrenched in a career we loved; or staying uneasily in a job because it provided steady income; or being home with children, who are now growing up.

Our life crises look something like this: We wonder if we are doing exactly what God wishes for us, if we’ve chosen the best vocations. We wonder if we’ve made the best choices for our families—and for ourselves. We wonder if we are making a difference in our worlds. We wonder how we are supposed to spend the next part of our lives.

And also, we are beginning to see the natural entropy that accompanies being human. That damn unwanted belly fat is one thing, but we also experiencing—or witnessing—peers going through serious medical issues. We are witnessing our parents getting older, less the capable adults than they once were, when they made our teenaged lives miserable. Those people who served as mentors are also aging and dying, making us wonder who will we look up to for the next 50 years. Who will serve as our guides, our wise teachers? Will we be forced to navigate life on our own?

No wonder so many of my middle-aged friends feel in acute crisis. Because on top of all of this, we are told by the media (of course) but also by our church communities that being middle aged means we are no longer as relevant. Think about how many articles have been published in recent years, wringing hands about those millennials who are leaving the church, or how churches can appeal to millennials, or how millennials need something more than what the church offers, because they think more deeply about scripture, long for social justice ministries, have rejected the creeds and songs that older folks must like. For middle-aged women in the church, the news is even worse: according to most Titus 2 ministries, the best opportunity we have is to mentor younger women in the domestic arts, our own vocational aspirations now a thing of the past.

Turns out, being middle aged can make one despair completely, to sink into darkness, turn to addictive substances, or choose to abandon a family or career in quest of something better, a chimera promising happiness if only things were different. I know plenty of people who have taken these paths. Suddenly, just getting a little tattoo seems a fairly benign response to turning 47.

Benign, but also symbolic. At least for me, and not because I want to prove myself to still be bad-assed, still hip and relevant.

The symbol my sister and I chose suggests we see the essence of God in each other, and in ourselves, that we recognize and embrace what is holy in each other. And not only in each other, but in the people around us who reflect God to us each day. This has been the most pleasant surprise of my middle-aged life, that—now more than ever—I see clearly the ways God works through the people around me, a community of people willing to reflect the essence of God to me and to others.

If I need a touchstone, a mentor to guide me, I need only look to the folks around, peers my age whose pretenses have been burned away by youth, failure, grief, success and disappointment. More significantly, while these folks still believe deeply in Jesus, they’ve also relinquished the clichéd bullshit that sometimes counts for conversation in religious communities.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still stuck in the middle-aged trenches with plenty of others, feeling their crises. And in moments of clarity, I’m still grateful that I have a chance to be middle aged, knowing this is in itself a gift, one that plenty of others never have opportunity to experience.

But to be honest, I’m looking forward to 50. Oprah says life gets immeasurably better when a woman turns 50, and Oprah is always right, you know. Until then, I’ll keeping seeking the essence of God in those around me, all the while feeling a little bit edgy and relevant with my tiny tattoo.

A Biblical Response to SCOTUS

Along with everyone else I have closely followed my facebook feed this Friday in the wake of the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality. Wanting to fully experience this historical moment, I’ve simultaneously watched cable news while reading how my facebook friends responded to today’s ruling.

While many celebrated the news I noticed one who posted a link to Christianity Today where a group of Christian conservatives had already penned a rebuttal, signing their names as if their gravitas among evangelicals and fundamentalists would somehow stem the tide of social momentum.

There is no doubt about it: the ruling in favor of marriage equality will be fodder for an increased backlash among this group of Christians who claims to be marginalized, trounced beneath the cultural wars as America stampedes into the abyss.

I find it interesting, however, that this alliance of Christians—pastors, university leaders, popular writers—speaks so dishonestly about the Bible. They say the Bible “clearly teaches the enduring truth that marriage consists of one man and one woman.” Arguing this truth is non-negotiable, the signers urge evangelicals to remain steadfast to this belief while resisting an accommodation to culture.

Those familiar with the Bible—people who know it doesn’t speak with one voice and in one time and place—realize the Bible makes no such claims. Abraham, the great patriarch himself, had multiple wives as did others including King David, the so-called man after God’s own heart.

Instead of deepening this cultural dividing line by establishing their “declaration” of rightness, wouldn’t it be more biblical—and thus more godly—if in lieu of making such simplistic claims, arming people for epic social wars, these leaders decided to take the Bible seriously? What if, for example, Christians sought to practice the simple concept of loving one’s neighbor? How might that decision change the conversation post SCOTUS?

In timely coincidence, I happen to be reading Is the Homosexual my Neighbor: A Positive Christian Response by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. First published in 1978, they cogently argued for Christians to not only understand homosexuality more fully, but also to be more biblically literate, especially with passages that have been used to malign and discount people who are homosexual. As I read what they wrote almost forty years ago, I’m struck by how little has changed at least among the most vocal evangelical leaders (although this is changing for most younger people).

I’ve been reminded, too, by Scanzoni and Mollenkott of the importance of historical context and how disregarding it enables people to misinterpret the Bible (usually to support an already formed perspective). For example, the often quoted narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah is used to condemn homosexuality even though one of the well-accepted approaches to biblical interpretation requires studying how the Bible explains or illumines itself. In this case, there is no mention of homosexuality as the sin condemning Sodom and Gomorrah, but rather their inhospitable actions: greed, pride, excess, lack of care for the poor. When Jesus speaks of Sodom, it is not homosexuality that he addressed but the lack of hospitality.

So, what would it look like for Christians concerned with biblical morality to respond to the SCOTUS decision differently?

It would begin with hospitality rather than arrogance and ignorance. Placing one’s morality or theology at the center of a response is a self-centered act. It is saying that one’s own position is more important than that of one’s neighbor. Such actions are never reflected in Jesus’ own life as recounted in the gospels. The good news was that he welcomed all people, not placing them in categories or treating them differently depending upon who they were. Jesus’ ethic illustrated that loving one’s neighbor was more important than fulfilling the religious law, that relationship trumped righteousness every time.

Instead of signing statements of beliefs and declarations of certainty, I would hope Christian leaders and people of faith would reach out in affirmations of love, making their own commitments to learn to practice hospitality, the true biblical message.

The Duggar Debacle

Duggars

At the grave risk of Duggar fatique—I know; I have it too—there is one additional clue that needs to be addressed. No; I’m not referring to the debate over how the sealed juvenile record became unsealed and now spread all over the known world; nor am I thinking about the resignation of Josh from the FRC (Family Research Council); nor the upcoming interview of two Duggar sisters (Jill and Jessa) desiring, from the Fox promo, to set the record straight about their brother and the extent to which he sexually violated them several years ago.

Nor am I concerned to make clear the relationship between the Duggars and the now defunct Vision Forum where Doug Philips once reigned until his sexual escapades became known nor that of Bill Gothard’s and his empire that also faced demise when he was found his own sexual promiscuity problem (do you notice a recurring theme?).

What I want to point out for consideration is the culture created not only by the Duggars but also by many evangelical and fundamentalist groups. This culture is not “cute” or “traditionally wholesome” as proponents of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting may want us to believe. I suppose the reality show became such a hit because it strikes a chord with a more bucolic time, a simpler one, where people had time for mid-day picnics and shopping trips and family-centered activities, like roasting marshmallows over an open fire at the day’s end. The Duggars present a life that seems so easy, even as it is complicated by 19 kids. And, who, after all, doesn’t dream for a time when the complexities we face on an hourly basis weren’t so darn…well…complicated?

But, if we will take the time to peel back the layers that compose the life-style so well-presented by TLC’s hit show, we’ll see that the Duggars present a culture we would do well to reconsider.

Shaped by the idea that women and men are different, yet equal (where have we heard that before?), the Duggars and families that endorse the Quiverful mentality, believe these differences mean that roles are to be followed and that these roles are determined by one’s biology. If you are born a woman, you are to serve men, to be obedient to the man designed to protect you (father, husband), and you are to support and honor him in every way. On the other hand, if you are born a man, you are God-ordained to be a protector and provider. You should lead and your wife and children will follow.

What makes these separate roles so powerful, however, is their connection to God. These roles are the specific ways in which God wants people to live. To violate them is to transgress God’s law; it is to reject God’s plan.

This culture of gender-delineated roles makes it impossible to have equal power distribution. Those in power—in control—will always be men. And this is unquestioned because this is how God intends for people to be organized.

It is no accident that many groups who subscribe to complementarian (separate roles) ideology, including the Duggar family, find themselves at some point facing the problem of abusive power. Those with less power when violated or manipulated or controlled, have no way of identifying it. To do so, is to question God’s plan. Victims will often distrust themselves, and feel guilty if they question how they are treated. It’s a world where the powerless remain so, even as they appear glad about it.

But the Duggar debacle has something to teach those of us who are not in Quiverful cultures, who are not in evangelical or fundamentalist faith groups.

Even in progressive or liberal-leaning faith communities, distribution of power is still unequal. Look around. Take stock of what you see. Look at pastors and leaders, at who has the corner office in the best building on campus, or who makes the decisions despite what others suggest. Even more, consider how little we value the divine feminine.

Are you regularly hearing metaphors and similes for God that are feminine? Do you have a female image of God that automatically springs to mind? Are you just as likely to hear God referred to as “She” as much as “He?” Do you routinely hear prayers to Mother God?

My assertion is this: as long as our images and language for God are masculine and male, our culture will continue to devalue women and their voices. Such devaluing leads—at some point—to abuse of power. Sometimes this abuse will manifest itself sexually; often it will occur in lots of other ways.

So, even if the Duggars represent a small slice of Christianity, their debacle is an opportunity for broader and deeper reflection on the extent to which we all cultivate or blithely accept a culture that shares with the Duggars a distrust of the feminine.

If Eve Only Knew: It’s Official!

You can preorder our book now here!

And you can see our book’s really cool cover here:

book cover

And if you’re interested, you can read about our publication process here:

Four years ago this June, Kendra and I sat poolside at a hotel in Indianapolis, dreaming up a project we might work on together. The day seemed quintessentially Midwest summer: cloudy and humid, with thunderstorms threatening; the landscape, flat save for the restaurant signs of Cracker Barrel and Bob Evans, added to the Midwest vibe.

We had just finished a weekend long meeting with the board of Christian Feminism Today and were feeling an exhausted energy I always experienced at the end of church camp: ready to change the world for Jesus (and feminism), but only after sleeping for 15 hours or 60.

Together we thought about the work we might do, as writers interested in helping the young women in our classes process the sometimes negative messages they receive from evangelical popular culture. Kendra and I decided to start a blog, hoping that in the process, we might gather research for a more ambitious project: a book.

One year into our blogging endeavor, we started writing book proposals; two years into our blogging endeavor, we submitted our proposal to several publishers. And about 18 months ago, we signed a contract with Chalice Press, a publisher that has been a dream to work with.

In the last 18 months, we’ve finished our manuscript, then cut 100 plus pages of what we’ve written. We edited and copy-edited, read page proofs and contemplated titles and book covers. We have silently cursed the errors that still somehow snuck through (or at least I silently cursed; I’m not sure about Kendra).

Finally, last week, Chalice Press sent us a photo of our book’s terrific cover, and told us they would start publicizing our forthcoming work, due out at the end of July. So now we can began celebrating. Celebrating, and also experiencing now-and-then anxiety about what people will think of our final project, one that pushes back against some of the well-entrenched mythologies about the Bible, evangelical culture, and God’s design for women and men.

Even though I tell my students never to end a written piece with the phrase “And from this experience I’ve learned . . .” I will say this: From this experience I’ve learned that collaborating with a gifted thinker like Kendra is in itself gift. I have learned a lot from her thoughtful consideration of the Bible, and from walking with her through this entire process.

Thanks to all of you who have encouraged us as we wrote, rewrote, and edited; and for those of you who have sharpened our thinking on a number of fronts. We are grateful for the communities who have helped us write this book.

(If any of you has access to Oprah—or Ellen, I’m not picky—please let us know. I’d be happy to appear on Super Soul Sunday to talk about Christian feminism or bust my moves on Ellen’s show to get our message out there. Those who have seen my dance know how awesome that might be. )

 

 

 

 

On Reunions: The Minneola Wildcats

This weekend I will be attending a reunion, not just for my high school class, but for the entire school. Despite the threat of bad weather, this event promises to be big because, in case you didn’t know, small towns are tops for knowing how to celebrate their communities.

MinneolaThis summer marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the first graduating class of Minneola High School. Minneola is a small town on the Kansas prairie where wind is in abundance and rain is in short supply (except, apparently, this weekend). Still, over the years (the town was founded in 1887), people of grit and patience and neighborly spirit have pooled their talents to maintain a vibrant community worth celebrating.

I can hardly wait to see what the weekend holds! There will be the ever-present parade, the one I remember being in every year until I graduated. My first trip down main street was ruined, however, when the lamb I was planning to lead (yes; I was going as Little Bo Peep) was unfortunately kicked by my dad’s horse while they were in the trailer on the way to town and it did not end well. Other years I opted for the safer alternative of pedaling my bicycle draped in crepe paper or riding along-side my sisters on our horses, each with our matching patriotic vests crocheted by my grandmother. In later years, there were floats to decorate and populate—representing the United Methodist Church (one of four churches in our town) or our high school class. And, sometimes it was necessary to do double-duty: ride the float through and then run back to join up with the high school band in order to play our fight song and the Star-Spangled Banner while stopped in front of the announcer who usually was posted outside of Schmidt’s Radio and TV.

My sister who still lives near Minneola recruited me one time a few years back to join her as a co-announcer of the parade. She’s good at that sort of thing and is still used to the small-town necessity of everyone being involved and in the spotlight. As an introvert who had been away from such community-centered activities, my stomach remained in knots for weeks after—a feeling I’ve started to have again as this reunion occupies more of my mind now that the academic year has ended.

There are so many things, I think, we contemplate upon returning to the place and people who shaped our young lives and it can be difficult to take it all in at once. I wonder, too, if coming from a small town adds something to the experience, both of living there once and returning to it later. There is really no other experience I can identify that carries with it the sense of transparency—everyone really does know everyone—and community (there is no way to survive without everyone pitching in) and the corresponding challenge of how to fit in, especially if you don’t.

As a young teen growing up in Minneola, I relished my home town, believing there was no place on earth that could compare. Maybe this is what everyone thinks of their environment, but I doubt it. From the basketball court where Mr. Hamilton coached us into a pretty darn good team to the choir and band rooms where Mr. Pfieffer and Ms. Harvey taught us to play and to sing just as well as the bigger schools down the road to the classrooms where Ms. Blanchard and Ms. Zipfeld taught us science and English, school was an expression of the town’s commitment to its youth. Friday nights the football stadium or basketball courts were packed; filled not just with parents but with friends and relatives. Churches took turns feeding us, not checking to see whether or not we belonged to them or to another church. The town paper even kept up with what we did on weekends, recording it for all to see the “Town Trifles” section of The Minneola Record.

But just as much as growing up in Minneola shaped me and my sense of place, living in other places since then has also formed me, changing me in fundamental ways. Since leaving the Kansas prairie I have seldom felt like I “fit” in the same kind of way. I’ve been more outsider than insider: a young woman studying religion, a field populated by men; a woman who chose not to have children despite the strong cultural assumptions promoting motherhood as the most legitimate path of life; a feminist among colleagues and students who are more comfortable living with sexism than questioning it.

Because of these changes, I imagine there will be several times throughout this reunion weekend when I will feel like an outsider, no longer at home in my hometown. At the same time, I imagine others will feel similarly: those who have moved away; those who live in Minneola now as adults but did not grow up in there; those whose experiences of life and loss have radically changed them.

At first glance it is easy to assume everything and everyone will be the same but once that fleeting idea is passed, we know that nothing stays the same. Indeed, it would be sad it that happened. We are meant to grow and to be stretched; to be challenged and to see the world from the perspectives of others. This is the beauty of being human: we have imaginations that enable us to envision reality in multiple hues reflecting the variety of light as it illumines all of us.

Despite what this reunion weekend holds for all of us, one thing is sure: Minneola is a place of hospitality. People will open their arms to all of us—those who have stayed and those who have scattered. The welcome signs will be on full display and the feeling of belonging to a small community will be palpable. We will celebrate not only our little town but also the bonds that, in the end, do not require uniformity but rather understanding.

I’ve come to realize, it isn’t that we are all the same; that living in Minneola means we are cut from the same cloth. No. We are different; remarkable diverse, especially in our collective experiences that range from staying in Kansas to living all over the world. What binds us—what binds all of us as humans—is not our sameness, but our desire for meaningful relationships.

When we are able to do this—to start with what connects us—then we can move forward, step-by-step to learn from our differences, seeking to understand the other more than to be understood. Desmond Tutu once said that the reason God created us in such infinite variety was so that we could learn to love each other. What better time to practice such connection than with the 100th graduating class of Minneola High School?

I can’t wait to see those of you who also plan to gather on the Western Kansas plains and to celebrate the Wildcats of Minneola!

On Marathons, Blogging, And Sucking it Up

Last week, I finished a marathon in Bend—a town that is apparently not at sea level, and that has a significant number of really big hills, elements I did not account for when I decided to run it. The timing of the marathon seemed fortuitous, though, as my book group was holding its annual retreat the same weekend, and in Bend. God wanted me to run that marathon, I thought.

Or wanted to punish me, turns out.

Oh, the first miles were easy enough. But about ½ way through, the race became more onerous than usual, and I began wondering why the heck I pay money for this experience. Am I a masochist? Does anyone really like this kind of voluntary suffering? What the hell is wrong with me?

Just when I almost gave up all hope, when I imagined exchanging running for a far more sedate activity, I saw a group of friends ahead, cheering me on with signs only a cynic who also teaches writing could appreciate.

Signs like this:

yourloved

And this:

run for jesus

 

Even though I’d run plenty of marathons, no one had ever made me a sign. Sometimes, I’ve acted as if other people’s signs were for me, too: that one that said “We love you Mommy” was clearly intended for me, even though my sons hadn’t written it; the one that said “almost there!” was a little bit silly, but meant for me as well.

Turns out, though, signs created uniquely for a runner are really cool, as is having one’s very own cheerleader.

Only on one other occasion has someone volunteered to run the last miles of a race with me, and I’m still grateful to Staci for those six miles. In Bend, there was my best running friend, emerging from the sign-holding crowd, ready to run beside me through the hardest part of the race. Which she did beautifully, mind you, providing the right balance of encouragement, humor, and silence I needed to persist.

When a nearly-naked runner jumped into the race at mile 20, my friend had some great double-entendres at the ready to keep me laughing; when a much-older woman buzzed by me at mile 23, my friend intuited my mood immediately, and told me to stop feeling sorry for myself (but in the nicest way possible). Everyone, I decided, needs a best running friend willing to also be a last-painful-miles partner.

And then it was over, my support team friends meeting me at the end, walking me to the car, buying me potato chips and diet coke, celebrating later that day with bacon and pancakes. (Maybe it’s clear now why I actually run marathons: the after-race bacchanal of All My Favorite Foods.)

So here’s my excuse for why the blog has been silent for so long:

In many ways, this semester has been my Bend marathon. The first few months started out well enough, but about half-way through, everything became a slog: I was teaching too many classes, involved on too many committees, and my kids had too many activities to keep straight.

Every now and then, I saw people holding up signs (mostly metaphorical) letting me know I could get through, cheering me on to the finish; most definitely, there were people who came alongside, offering the support I needed. This included many of my students, who often reminded me exactly why I love my job, even when the air is thin and the hills are interminable.

Our semester’s finish line came on Saturday, at our university’s graduation, the first held on the new football field. The weather was beautiful, the graduation seeming more festive than usual, though that might have just been the jumbotron, changing the environment just a little. I sat with the faculty, next to a friend I’ve had for over a quarter century, stretching back to when we were both students at George Fox University, running cross country and track together.

It seemed impossible to believe that 25 years had passed since we were students, needing our own cheerleaders to help through to our undergraduate finishes. During college, and in the 25 years since, I’ve had people who came alongside me—teachers, parents, friends, a spouse and kids—and who assisted me by essentially flashing this sign:

goMelanie

I’ve had moments of despair, in this semester and at other times, when I wondered What the Hell? and Why am I doing this? At those moments, I’m grateful that there’s always been folks at my right elbow, guiding me along, humoring me, cajoling me, telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself already (but in the nicest way possible).

So I’ve reached another semester’s finish line, and the bacon, potato chips, and a donut or two are waiting, as well as long afternoons reading in the sunshine, visits from far-away family, and maybe—just maybe—the chance to pick up writing this blog more regularly again, especially as the blog-inspired book we’ve written is published in late July.

I’m also signing up for my next marathon. At sea level, of course.