Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

You're Not From Around Here, Are You

I took a couple of days to wander off to the Jersey shore this week, to study and write and rest. It is Holy week in the church--a time for churches to be at our busiest remembering the days leading up to Christ's crucifixion, culminating with trumpets and glory on Easter Sunday as we celebrate the empty tomb and victory over death.

This also means there were no classes at Drew since most of the students and faculty are involved in said busyness. But my tiny church isn't too busy this week, so I wandered off to the beach, like I said.

This morning I woke up and promptly stepped into a twitter discussion on children in church, which I blogged about at the Tiny Church blog. I blame @CarolHoward for getting us going, but the resulting twitter spat was entirely my own fault. I always get heated on this topic, and I lack the self-discipline to put down the twitter. So after a while I left my phone in my room and went for a walk. A long walk.

I walked three miles along the ocean and into the next town over. I was aiming to go further, to a beach bistro I'd seen on the map, but there was construction on the bridge, and a NJ transit employee discouraged me from using the rail track to cross over the estuary blocking my way. So I wandered further back into town until I found a local tavern.

It was 2:30 in the afternoon, so the tavern was filled with local guys who apparently sit in the tavern for a living. I ordered my Guinness and pulled out my book, a memoir by Faye Wattelton, an African American woman who was president of Planned Parenthood for a number of years. It was after the second Guinness that the bartender (a woman) said to me, "You're not from Jersey, are you." It wasn't really a question, and I didn't really have a good answer. I mean, I'm as much from Jersey as anywhere else these days, but I'm sort of actually from California. Although I wasn't born there, but I'm not really *from* Boston. So without explaining all that I just said, "No" and went back to reading my book.

It was an Irish tavern of sorts, and hypermasculine, complete with mahogany furnishings and dark lighting. At least a dozen large screen televisions lined the walls, each with a different sporting event playing all at once. As is almost always true, nobody approached me in the bar, and I was left to read my book in peace. Five hours and five beers later, a man finally sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. The bartender (now a man) wandered over and started talking about sky diving, and how he'd managed to get his newlywed wife to skydive with him once. The man next to me started protesting that there was no reason to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. And as they went on with their show of figuring out whether it was more manly to jump out of a plane or stay in the plane, I made my way out the door. I'm not from around here, and still at age 38 I can't figure out how to navigate the bar scene. People tell me I should leave off with the books for starters.

I wandered back to the bed and breakfast, another three miles back. I walked along the ocean just as the sun was setting in the west, like it always does. And it might have been the Guinness, but the sunset made me laugh, because it was in the wrong place. The sun, as every Californian knows, is supposed to set over the ocean. In fact, the beautiful sunset was a frequent topic of conversation in my hometown. "Did you see the sunset? It was gorgeous tonight--like fire in the sky!"

I never hear about the sunset in New Jersey. As I was walking along, I puzzled out the reason and it's simply this: the sun sets in New Jersey on the wrong side of the sky. I kept having to look to the ocean to witness the beauty of the waves and the sand. And then I'd have to twist my head around to view the sunset. It was like two of God's glories vying for attention at once, like squabbling children trying to outdo each other. The ocean and the sunset on the west coast are like a Reese's peanut butter cup--two great tastes rolled up into one. In New Jersey I have to use separate spoons for the peanut butter and chocolate. It's a problem. But like the bartender said: I'm not from around here.

As I walked a bit further on, I got tired and sat on a bench, feeling a bit lonely for company. The shore in early spring is a beautiful place, not yet over run by the summer crowds but still warm enough to be outside. I came once in the late fall, and it was lovely then too. It is the kind of place and time I wish I shared with someone else. And as I was thinking this, I turned and looked at the plaque on the bench which read:
"In loving memory of Michael and Dolores Breen who met at the Irish riviera. Come sit and enjoy the view."
So I sat there a while and pondered the differences between this ocean and the ocean of my youth. They are not at all alike, not really. The beach in California was rather untamed, full of seaweed and tar and driftwood. You might pay for parking, but never for a beach badge, and in California nobody would stop you from taking a picnic lunch out onto the beach. I missed the silhouette of our Channel Islands and even the oil rigs far off in the distance. In California I knew to look for sea lions and seals and dolphins, which on a sunny day would play near the coast. The California coast was a rocky shore with twists and turns. Here in New Jersey the shore seems so flat, so sanitary, so straight. It has a beauty in its own right, but I'm not from around here.

And I realized, while sitting on the bench of Michael and Dolores, that part of what I was missing was the memories that went with the beach. I thought back to the times I'd sneaked off to the beach with a boy and sat out on the bluffs watching the sunset until dark and kissing until the cops came and told us to go home. Or the barbecues with the youth group. Or the day camps I helped with out there. Or just the years and years of being shaped by living in a community bordered on one side by the ocean and the other side by mountains.

I realized as I sat there that I'm not really from around here, but I'm not really from around there anymore either. I'm not sure how rooted I will get here in Jersey, although I figure I'll be here another 10 years. I was thinking about trying the Irish Riviera, since it worked so well for Dolores and Michael. I've always wanted to go to Ireland. That is, until I googled Irish Riviera and discovered that it is slang for Spring Lake, NJ, which is where I was sitting right there.

Restless and rootless, a strong sense of expectation in the wind. I have a dream that someday I'll be sitting in a bar with my book, and the very oddness of that will be intriguing to some unknown stranger, who will pull up a chair and ponder life with me. Maybe we'll sit on the bench for Dolores and Michael Breen. Who said I wasn't a romantic?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Abomination Unto the Lord

I've been thinking tonight about childhood prohibitions, how they are formed, and how we as adults find ourselves uncritically perpetuating them long after they have served their protective functions.  This reflection was prompted by a bottle of aspirin, and the memory of how we ate pork in my childhood. *Please note that the following reflections are memory-myths, and I have provided links to the actual facts about both aspirin and pork.*

My mother often cooked pork chops for dinner, often with sauerkraut (which I refused to eat and still do). She broiled the pork in the bottom of the oven, and when it was white all the way through, and the juices ran clear, she would serve it. While we ate our beef medium rare, pork was cooked well done, and all dishes that came into contact with the raw pork were washed immediately and thoroughly.

I'm not entirely sure what my mother said about undercooked pork, but my impression was that the parasite trichinosis was some kind of worm that ate out your brain from the inside, and that if you ate pork that was even a little bit pink, a live trichinosis parasitic worm creature would take up residence and eventually come out your eyeball. Trichinosis could cause you to die within a matter of days.

Once when I was an adult and married, the whole family went to eat at a fancy restaurant by the sea. The waiter came to tell us the specials, and one of them was a pork dish cooked medium rare. My entire family gasped in horror and whispered of trichinosis while my husband looked on with some amusement. The waiter, I am sure, thought we were very strange.

When I was a child my mother had aspirin in the house, but we were prohibited from taking it. We could have ibuprofen (Advil & what have you) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), but not aspirin. When my mother was a child she knew a girl who took aspirin while she had a high fever, and she developed Reye's Syndrome. According to my mother, the girl was a smart child before she got sick, and when she returned to school she was unable to perform simple classwork. My mother was assigned to be her tutor.

This is an old family story that has mythic characteristics. I no longer remember the girl's name, although I bet my mother could still tell me. The truth of the story is difficult to verify since it was information gathered by an eight year old girl nearly 60 years ago and then passed on to another eight year old girl about 30 years ago. And the story was told, not as a memory, but to inscribe upon my memory that aspirin can cause brain damage or death.

I have never, not once, given my own children aspirin.

But tonight my body is very sore from swinging an axe on Sunday for an hour, and in the place I stay for school the only thing in the medicine cabinet is a bottle of aspirin. Truthfully I don't even know the proper dosage for aspirin since I almost never take it. And logically I know that I will not develop Reye's Syndrome from taking aspirin for some sore muscles. But I hesitated a while before opening that bottle, because inscribed into my body and soul is the memory that aspirin can cause brain damage or death.

As an adult I do not serve pork chops in my house. I don't even keep aspirin in the house, and I hide the Pepto Bismol (which has aspirin in it). If you tried to give my children undercooked pork or aspirin, I would snatch them up and stare at you in horror. I would lecture you ad nauseum about the dangers of what you had done. This is not a logical response, but it is a visceral response to the cultic-mythic understanding of food and medicine instilled in me from childhood.

This is the lens through which I consider most of the prohibitions found in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I present to you some verses from Deuteronomy 22-25.
You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, or the whole yield will have to be forfeited, both the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard itself.

You shall not plough with an ox and a donkey yoked together.

You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together. 
You shall make tassels on the four corners of the cloak with which you cover yourself.

Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

If one of you becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he shall go outside the camp; he must not come within the camp. When evening comes, he shall wash himself with water, and when the sun has set, he may come back into the camp.
If you go into your neighbour’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in a container.

If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.
Leviticus and Deuteronomy are full of prohibitions (including shrimp), and threats of horrible death for those who violate those prohibitions. These prohibitions serve a protective function much like my fear of men does--rooted in truth and experience. But there is a need to re-examine the old myths. Not to invalidate them or dishonor their roots, but to determine whether the prohibition and fear needs to remain in place. We are not, after all, static.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dishwater Blonde

My long-standing, complicated relationship with my hair began with a power struggle. I wanted to grow my hair long. My mother wanted it short. We decided that when I was 10 years old I could have my hair however I wanted it--that was the age when she figured I could take care of it on my own. So when I was 10, I grew my hair out long and got a perm. A tight, curly, Little Orphan Annie perm that gave me the biggest hair I have ever had. I think my mother has pictures somewhere, but you will just have to imagine.

A few years later, in an attempt to shock the world, I had a buzz cut, and spiked my one-inch locks with purple hair gel. My mother calmly paid for the hair cut and said, "I've always liked you with short hair."

For 15 years I went to the same stylist in Santa Barbara. Her name was Kim, and she worked for a tiny shop in the local student community. When she moved to a fancy salon downtown, I followed her there. A salon professional who knows your hair, who knows you, is hard to find. When you find one, you stick with her, that's just plain sense. Kim saw me through my last perm (after I figured out my hair is straight, even after a perm) and my first color treatment. I got married, then she got married. We had kids. Her dog died, my cat died. We both found Jesus about the same time--she in a Harvest Christian Fellowship, me in my quiet Presbyterian church. We knew each other across seasons and life changes. She was my Jayber Crow.*

And then I moved across the country where I didn't know anybody, and I jumped into grad school where I have been too busy to care much about my hair. Every now and then I get a trim to deal with the split ends, and now and then I've played with color again, but mostly I just don't have time. And a little bit, I don't have the self-esteem. Because the salon is a place where beautiful people reside. Gorgeous hair, piercings in the right places, the occasional tattoo perfectly formed, makeup beautifully done. When I walk into a salon, imperfections and insecurities rise to the surface. And when the beautifully coiffed salon artiste fluffs my hair and asks, "what are we going to do with this today?" I'm usually lost for words. There are suggestions for color or a daring cut or what have you, and I'm frankly too busy to deal with that. And besides the time and the self-esteem, fancy hair cuts and color cost money--a lot of money.

So today, as I noticed the badly split ends breaking off, I finally made a call to the salon to see if they had an open spot. It was 2:30 and the salon closes at 4:00 on Sundays, so I halfway figured they were all booked and done for the day. But the receptionist said, "The only person open is Bob." (Name changed to protect the innocent.) So I braced myself for the perfect piercings and coiffed hair, the well cared for skin and thin, hard bodies. I braced myself for the envy I have for those things.

When I got there, Bob squinted at my hair. Bob is no spring chicken. Bob has very little hair and a crooked smile. A very nice man, and when he fluffed my hair he said,  "We need to get rid of the ends, but we don't have to cut it all off." And then he went to work on it. As he worked he lectured me on hair care--how trimming the ends will make my hair grow longer faster. How it's a good color without color--and he squinted at me again when he said that. I didn't have the heart to tell him that the last time I colored my hair was two years ago when my friend Candasu handed me a glass of wine and pulled out the home dye kit. We did a nice bright red that faded fast. Bob cut the last of that color job today. (I miss you, Candasu!) He told me that in the summer my hair would streak blonde, and I should just leave it alone. With a sly look on his face he said that the other ladies would be envious of my hair color and ask where I had it done and what number dyes we mixed, but only if I left it alone.

It was a funny visit to the salon, devoid of the usual flirtatious overtones. For the most part I think Bob has male clients--he didn't have the usual frills I usually see lying around. And it was perfectly, exactly what I was in the mood for today. And Bob didn't try to sell me extra products I don't need, and I didn't have to say no. "Just leave it alone," he said, about 22 times. Every now and then it's nice to hear that who you are and what you have are just fine.

*Jayber Crow is a novel by Wendell Berry. Jayber is the barber of a fictional town called Port William, Kentucky, and the novel is his autobiographical musings of his life as part of that town. It's beautifully written; here's an excerpt about being a barber:
Among the other perquisites of my office, I might as well say, were all my customers..I liked them varyingly; some I didn't like at all. But all of them have been interesting to me; some I have liked and some I have loved. I have raked my comb over scalps that were dirty both above and beneath. i have lowered the ears of good men and bad, smart and stupid, young and old, kind and mean; of men who have killed other men (think of that) and of men who have been killed (think of that). I cut the hair of Tom Coulter and Virgil Feltner and Jimmy Chatham and a good many more who went away to the various wars and never came back, or came back dead.
I became, over the years, a pretty good student of family traits: the shapes of heads, ears, noses, hands, and so forth. This was sometimes funny, as when I would get a suspicion of a kinship that was, you might say, unauthorized. But it was moving too, after a while, to realize that under my very hands a generation had grown up and another passed away...
...I came to feel a tenderness for them all. This was something new to me. It gave me a curious pleasure to touch them, to help them in and out of the chair, to shave their weather-toughened old faces. They had known hard use, nearly all of them. You could tell it by the way they held themselves and moved.  Most of all you could tell it by their hands, which were shaped by wear and often by the twists and swellings of arthritis. They had used their hands forgetfully, as hooks and pliers and hammers, and in every kind of weather. The backs of their hands showed a network of little scars where they had been cut, nicked, thornstuck, pinched, punctured, scraped, and burned. Their faces told that they had suffered things they did not talk about...