The cigarette smoke clung to him lazily as he leaned against the brick wall on his break; we worked at the same coffee shop and he was the quintessential bad boy, as night as I was day, but I adored him.

He was a flaming liberal; I was super conservative. He had to get gas at an even numbered pump; I didn’t ask questions. He drank caramel lattes as if they were going out of style.

He blasted Counting Crows and Jeff Buckley into the warm summer night as we drove around for no apparent reason but simply to drive and feel the wind whipping through our hair. This was a new concept to me.

We’d argue for hours at a time about anything and everything; he vowed he was always right, but we both knew better.

He still pretends he’s always right. I just smile.

He was an atheist turned agnostic; I was a hardcore Jesus-follower. He went to church with me on a dare; he came for two years. We made it a ritual – we’d grab coffee beforehand and then sit outside the church, drinking our coffee while he smoked one last cigarette before going into the sanctuary; we sat in the front row. He stopped coming the day the pastor said the tsunami could be a judgment from God. I didn’t blame him.

We’d watch Stephen Hawking science videos until the late hours of the night; he’d pause the videos every ten minutes to make sure I understood everything and he’d scribble down drawings and diagrams for me on pieces of paper. He loved science and he loved to teach. Watching him watch a documentary on science was like watching a kid on Christmas morning. His whole persona would just glow with excitement.

He taught me how to laugh again.

He’d show up in my driveway, in his battered minivan, a family hand-me-down that he named Bessie – the smoke coming out of the exhaust pipe, his window rolled down while he waited for me. He hated that minivan. “Hey babe, we’re going to a movie, no excuses.”

I’d protest because I had work in the morning. He pretended not to hear. We went every Friday night. I looked forward to Friday nights.

He never protested when I wanted to go for a walk; even when he had injured his big toe and was in a lot of pain, he went on a walk with me. I only found out about the toe after the walk when we sat on my front porch and watched the sun go down. He shrugged it off and simply said “You wanted to go.”

He was a Star Trek freak; he made me promise to never, ever tell his friends. We’d watch episodes together just so I understood his love; when I jumped at the slightest provocation on screen, he laughed at me.

He had a whole other life he kept separate from me; he told me about it but he didn’t want me entering into it. One time he debated with himself about bringing me to his favorite club. He decided not to. Something about a pole.

One summer, we spent every spare minute I had together; that was one of the best summers of my life.

We’d drink coffee until the late hours of the evening… we talked until we got kicked out of the coffee shop because it was closing and then we’d linger outside enjoying the warm summer evenings, looking at the stars. He loved astronomy. He explained the sky to me, time and time again; I tried to remember certain stars but usually failed miserably. He still taught me.

He used to be a race car driver. To mess with me, he’d take curves really fast just to hear me scream.

He’d start yelling about politics and I would just laugh at him. Our first conversation was a six hour argument about Aids in Africa. At the end of that conversation, I thought he hated me; he knew he loved me. Said it was because although I was completely wrong on the topic, I could think and had reasons for my beliefs.

He respected that.

We became friends.

People still wonder how we became friends. We wonder with them.

For his birthday one year, I taught him how to bake a pecan pie, his favorite dessert. He had no idea what he was doing in the kitchen and wondered if baking powder and baking soda could be interchanged. I just smiled and told him to stir.

He grinned with delight when we took the pie out of the oven and he took his first bite.

He held me after my heart was broken. And he let me rant and rave about men, not mentioning that he was one. He didn’t think pointing it out was relevant at the time. He shared his stories. And I held him, stroking his hair, letting my tears mingle with his.

When I announced I was becoming a nun and shutting myself up in a convent, he laughed and told me I was right on time; when I questioned him, he informed me I have a male freak out (where I decide I am never speaking to another male) about twice a year. I told him he was sorely mistaken – it’s only once a year. And I reminded him it doesn’t last very long.

He reminded me I can’t become a nun unless I become Catholic.

He took me to see the movie “Monster” for his birthday; I walked out of the theater halfway through the movie and drove home; he came over later to apologize and tell me about the rest of the movie; we laughed; he never made another mistake about which movie to take me to.

When we worked at the coffee shop together, he was my supervisor but he spent most of his time visiting with the customers, dancing around the shop, and taking smoking breaks – he gave me all of his tips. He was the best to work with; our shifts flew by because we argued about everything under the sun and we laughed. We laughed a lot.

His laugh was infectious, as was his grin. And in the quiet moments sitting on the steps of his garage because he wouldn’t smoke inside, he showed me his heart, his soul. We spent a lot of time on those steps.

When I was in the middle of a fight with Mom, he drove me home, picked up a broom, and started cleaning, just because; I went upstairs to get some things done and came down later to find him dancing crazily in the kitchen with the broom, singing Motown at the top of his lungs. My siblings, watching, laughed with delight.

He left his sweatshirt at my house; I kept it hostage for a month and didn’t care – it smelled like him, and he was comforting.

I eventually gave it back.

He loved to get me riled up, saying ridiculous things he knew would cause a rise and then sit back and laugh at me.

I changed his thoughts about marriage; he changed my thoughts about liberals.

He always forgets my birthday; I never forget his. I forgive him for that.

One time, we spent the entire day together, doing whatever I wanted just because. We ate at a hippie vegan restaurant, grabbed coffee at my favorite coffee shop, walked downtown and people watched, drove to a neighboring mall and window shopped; he told me I was decorating his next house and we went into Pier One and picked out what we’d get. We passed a chocolate shop, Godiva, and he stopped me and told me to get whatever chocolate I wanted. I asked why. He said, “Because I know you absolutely love it.” We nibbled on dark chocolate for the rest of the afternoon.

We argued about evolution, marriage, the government; war, politics, our relationships; he always told me like it was.

When I flooded his email inbox with my writings, disabling his account for a few days, he didn’t get mad. He just smiled and suggested maybe I shouldn’t send “quite” so many emails at one time.

He has the Counting Crows’ “Rain King” song tattooed on his right arm.

He never likes any of the men who come into my life, except the one who broke my heart. I don’t like any of his women, either. They’re usually psycho.

He has the most fabulous sense of style and has the greatest rings ever.

He first introduced me to the television series, Alias. I still have his dvds hostage. But he has about 900 of my books and cds, so we’re even.

He’s one of my biggest fans but also one of my most honest critics.

He once wrote me a love letter – a platonic love letter – the kind of letter expressing love other than and deeper than Eros love – he titled it “el phantasmo and the chicken run blast-a-ramma.” I tried not to laugh when I saw the title, and then when I read his letter, I proceeded to cry. I still have that letter.

Seasons have come and gone and it has been many years since we first became friends; we don’t find the opportunity to hang out as often as we once did, but we are still connected to each other in the tangled way one is connected to one’s closest friends. He still smokes like a chimney and I try not to yell at him about it too much. Whenever we have dinner together, inevitably we find ourselves arguing and laughing simultaneously about something ridiculous or not so ridiculous. And sometimes, sometimes we just sit together, in silence, his cigarette smoke clinging to me lazily like a comforting sweatshirt.

(November 27, 2007)

He passed away unexpectedly a little over a month ago and I am forced to reexamine as the grief mucks around the crevices of my heart. Sometimes the pain is too deep for words and so one remains silent.

I am at a place where I cannot give birth to what is churning within; I cannot give voice to the deep utterances of my heart; I cannot do it adequately.  And so, I wait.

For one who expresses herself through the written word and finds release in so doing, this season of draught has been tough. But then I remember that God calls us into the desert for times of pruning, honing, and growth. He called Moses into the desert for 40 years; he called Jesus into the desert for 40 days. Who knows how long this season will last, but I embrace it. For it’s in the deserts of my life that I have grown the most, come to know God deeper and have fallen more in love with Jesus.

May it be so during this season as well.

The more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I knew, I’m learning them again

One’s self-awareness is a concept that fascinates me. Six years ago, had you told me I was a feminist, I would have glared at you or given you a quizzical eye, depending upon my determination of the needed response (were you maliciously calling me a feminist or did you haphazardly make the mistake?) — my glance challenging you, daring you to again call me a “feminist.”

The word “feminist” was a dirty word, almost equivalent to the word “Nazi.” While I blame some of those entangled with the right-wing conservatives for my bias, I also acknowledge that Betty Friedan’s views were far more responsible for my distaste, and rightly so. I assumed in my naiveté that the feminism I was seeing in action around me and the ideologies being espoused — that of Friedan’s — were true feminism, and so I hated the feminists (it’s so great to hate those you do not know, isn’t it?) with a passion. (Of course, since Jesus says to love everyone, even your enemies, I made sure I just “intensely disliked” them. “Hate” was much too strong of a word and I couldn’t be accused of that.)

I was quite content in ranting and raving against feminism, not realizing I was ranting and raving against corrupted feminism, not true feminism. And then one day, I realized Jesus was a feminist.

Now this was entirely upsetting, for here was the man I loved, my Lord and Savior, the one I follow, and he was a feminist. I forget who first told me he was but I was sure this could not be — this did not fit into my neatly constructed worldview. Surely, something was amiss.

My ideas of feminism started to slowly be challenged. Jesus spent time with women when they were second class in his society; his ministry was supported financially by women; he had women followers, and women were the first to see his empty tomb and see him, resurrected – quite crazy considering that in that society, a woman’s testimony did not count in a court of law – that his disciples elected to point out that it was women who first saw the empty tomb struck me as odd – that Jesus would interact and hang out with women when he was ostracized and persecuted for it was noteworthy. Jesus respected women and treated them with great love, care, and concern. He valued them, and by doing so, challenged everyone around him.

So I started my quest to better understand feminism, realizing I had a wrong understanding, and what I discovered is that there are two types of feminism. It was a haphazard quest and not a very methodical one — whenever I came across the subject in whatever books or newsmagazines I happened to be reading at the time, I stored away points, both pros and cons, in my head, slowly deconstructing my original understanding of feminism while simultaneously building a case for true feminism.

All the while, I still prided myself on not being a feminist, not realizing something under the surface was stirring.

Until one day, I realized that people viewed me as a feminist – it’s always an interesting exercise when you begin to see yourself through the eyes of others – sometimes you’re quite startled at what you see. When you have spent your whole life judging the feminist movement, to be labeled as a feminist is a little mind-bending. But as my spirit started to protest, I paused and listened to what people were actually saying about me, and I was left with the only appropriate response, to smile coyly and nod in recognition: I am indeed a feminist.

How did I seemingly go from one extreme to the other?

Simple: I had gotten my brand of feminists mixed up.

My distaste for Friedan feminism started at a young age and I still hold it. Much to my parents’ chagrin, at the tender age of ten, I started consuming over six hours of political talk radio daily (I attribute my love of dialogue/debate to the hours I spent immersed in it within the context of national and global politics). My heroes (funny how heroes change and morph – most I cannot stand today) thus ranted and raged against “feminists” and the Betty Friedans of this world, and I nodded my head as I recognized the outworkings of her philosophies on the lives of my friends – their mothers, absent; they, rebellious; their lives pockmarked by the effects of the “progressive” feminist movement of the seventies and eighties — and it left a distaste in my mouth that still remains today.

Friedan feminism (see an earlier piece) in essence encouraged women to become men – to leave their homes, enter the career field and disparaged those women who desired to stay home with their children as not fully being all that they should be. While I believe women should have the option to work, we were sold a lie that women can be mistress of their homes as well as aggressive, successful career warriors – the reality is that one domain will suffer; we cannot effectively do two-full time jobs without sacrificing the quality of one or our sanity and health. And so we have suffered the consequences of stressed, burned-out women trying to juggle both worlds in a male-dominated workplace. Friedan feminism, essentially, implicitly taught that if you chose to stay home and not have a career, not enter the male-dominated work world, you were somehow inferior, and so there is this undue pressure, stress, and expectations, both from other women and from men who enjoy two-income homes for women to work outside the home. This has resulted in many mothers letting others raise their children and in the children resenting their absent parent and actively rebelling as a result. The rippling consequences of Friedan feminism are surfacing and making themselves known, and it is that understanding of feminism that I challenge.

However, I started to realize with acuity that I was a true feminist at heart – that I believe that God made men and women equal (but complimentarian). And so while I support the right for women to work if they choose and to receive equal wages for their work, I recognize that women were created to be women; we were not created to be men, and the feminism of the seventies and eighties asked us implicitly to deny our femininity and become, in essence, masculine in order to compete with our male counterparts. Of course, while doing that, of which many of us have been successful, we were still required to bear children, keep the home, and somehow manage a family on top of pursuing a career, and it is in trying to do both well that we do neither.

Men and women are not the same; the gender-neutral push of the late eighties and early nineties has thankfully been silenced in light of scientific evidence that men and women, are, gasp, different. (Even I could have told you that but thankfully we have the scientific method to “prove” it and tell us what we did not know.) But while we are not the same, we have the same intrinsic worth and our voices are both desperately needed, not one more than the other, but in conjunction with each other. And I started to become aware that true feminism is about embracing who the creator has made us as women to be – fully feminine and fully free to express ourselves in the ways he intended – as strong, confident, loving, gracious, thinking, feeling women – in essence, a woman who is not threatened by masculinity but enjoys it and responds to it and encourages it – not a woman who tries to emulate it. When we start to understand our differences, to embrace them, to accept them, we start to truly understand what it means to be a woman.

In redefining my understanding of what it means to be a feminist, I learned that one should not hold on too tightly to labels, to positions, to arguments, but instead, should look at the principles behind the argument. I was deadest against being a feminist because I had misunderstood what true feminism was; I saw only the derogatory effects all around me; I did not see what it was intended to be. I had not yet met the Susan B. Anthonys, the Harriet Tubmans, the Mother Teresas of this world – women who took their femininity and changed the world.

I’ve learned not to be so tenaciously sure of my beliefs and to hold my opinions a little more loosely. Sometimes we do not have all the facts; sometimes we don’t see the whole picture; sometimes we need a little time to be challenged, to grow, to examine. We’re not always right, and there are times we find that we even change positions and proudly become what we thought we once hated — even if it’s only a change in definition, our acknowledgement makes us a little less crusty, a little more understanding, a little less likely to judge.

And sometimes the more we know, the less we understand and we are left with nothing else to do but cling to grace and laugh at ourselves.

I heard one of the most disgusting displays of vanity/materialism from my gender on the radio this morning on my way into the office.

Catching a morning talk show with three hosts, one male and two female, the subject of today’s musings was a question posed by a listener. The man, who desired to propose to his girlfriend (and with whom he intended to purchase a house) wondered in light of wanting to be financially wise, if he could purchase a “fake” engagement ring and upgrade to a real diamond at a later date, whether he should buy a small but real diamond, or whether he should just not get a ring at all in light of the impending financial obligations and responsibilities with both the wedding and down payment. The male host was shocked at both of his counterparts who argued that it would be horrible and inexcusable for this man to purchase a “fake” engagement ring. I was just as disappointed by their response.

But it got worse as listeners started to call in to give their two cents. And I was incensed, incensed at the response almost all of the women gave, and I was ashamed to be called female. I heard everything from “nothing under a caret is acceptable,” to “it must be huge and I’ll help pay for it, if necessary” to the most offensive offering – a woman called in to say that she flung her “fake” engagement ring (who determined that “diamond” was the standard by which all other rings are to be considered “fake”?!) at her intended fiancé and ran out of the room crying. He had explained to her he could not economically afford a real diamond but would upgrade when he could. Had I been in his shoes, I would have dumped her right then and there. I was horrified. Another woman said she must have at least three carets and it had to be real because otherwise her girlfriends would talk. To her, I would suggest she find a better circle of girlfriends and to her boyfriend, I suggest he find someone else. One woman said she would rather have a small real diamond and then wait until her husband can upgrade to a real – the implicit assumption that he should upgrade to a real diamond. One woman claimed that the ring is reflective of a couple’s love and therefore it must be “real,” for to have a fake is the first lie in the relationship. I felt nauseous.

Not once did I hear a woman profess that a ring is symbolic, that there is wisdom in not living beyond your means, that a diamond is no indication of love whatsoever.

What in the world is wrong with women?!

I used to not even want a wedding ring, let alone an engagement ring; however, as I grow older, I appreciate and value the symbolism of a wedding band. It is, however, only symbolism, and as I am in a season of life where many of my friends are married, have been married, or intend to get married in the near future, the subject of engagement rings and wedding bands is an often-discussed subject and thus has been a topic with which I’ve engaged.

I see no need to put an extra stress or burden upon my intended simply to keep up with the status quo or even tradition. Having been to many jewelers with my girlfriends, I learned to keep my tongue in check but I was aghast at the racket the jewelry business has. And I am utterly content to have a simple band, something perhaps reflective of my personal taste, remiss of any kind of stone. In fact, if I was in love and getting married and all my intended could afford was a cracker-jack ring, then I would be happy and proud to wear that ring.

The ring is simply symbolic of a bond that has been created and engendered in two individual’s hearts. In a world in which faithfulness and fidelity are not encouraged and women and men are extremely aggressive, I do see value in choosing to wear a band as a statement that your heart is taken and has been given and committed to one person. But to obsess over a ring, to make implicit or explicit demands upon your intended, to go into possible debt or use financial resources for a ring when those same resources could be used for a down payment on a house seems to me ludicrous.

I know I may be a lone voice regarding this manner, but I was personally sick and disgusted at hearing the women call in on the show, and I felt grieved for their spouses/partners. The ring (and the wedding day, for that matter, but that is another rant for another time) are not reflective of your love or the health of your marriage, and perhaps therein lies some of the problems we face regarding the state of our unions – if we have placed our security in the size and quality of our engagement ring, we have not only placed our security in the wrong trust, we have missed the point entirely.

The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.

Or stated another way, “You may make your plans, but God directs your actions.”

Life continually surprises me.

Last week I had the pleasure of talking with my childhood best friend – she lives in Montana and we see each other once every few years. When we became best friends, she was six and I was three (I’ve always gotten along better with those older than I, almost from the womb ;). We were neighbors and our parents were close friends, which helped foster our friendship. We spent hours romping together – creating, playing, dancing through childhood – and we were inseparable for years until my family moved away when I was thirteen.

She was an only child – independent, adventurous, a self-proclaimed feminist – into fashion, movies, the mall and boys – I looked up to her as she was three years my senior and was “cool.” I was the complete opposite. I was the oldest of a pack of siblings and I was most happy running around barefoot, climbing trees, reading and making things with my hands…and my parents, in their parental autonomy (which I disliked intensely back then but absolutely love now as an adult) refused to let me wear makeup or hang out at the mall during my formative adolescent years, so our worlds, while connected, were always slightly separate.

She wanted to be a marine biologist and was headed toward college and a career; I wanted to be a stay-at-home wife and mother (I realize I’ve always been a nurturer) and college didn’t interest me, nor a career. Instead, I wanted to write and start a home business, pursuing any one of my myriad interests. She never wanted to get married and didn’t want children; I longed to get married, have a family and homeschool my children. She was the Murphy Brown to my Laura Ingalls Wilder.

And then life happened.

And here we are, ten years removed from our former selves. She just had her third child, a precious little boy who joins two beautiful older sisters; she’s living in the mountains with her loving husband. And she tells me they hope to have seven children and would like to adopt after that, which upon hearing, my jaw literally dropped, and I was thankful she couldn’t see me register surprise. She is a stay-at-home mother and is homeschooling her children.

And here I am, a single, post-college graduate, working in the legal field the last three years living the craziest, best adventure of my life. Would I like to marry and have a family one day? Yes. That desire has never faded, but it doesn’t drive me as it once did – it’s somewhere there, on the back burner but it’s not my end-goal as it used to be – if it happens to take place along my life’s journey, wonderful, but if not, I’m content and happy with the life I’m living and the pursuits I run after. But I find it ironic that in essence, we switched lives, and I’m living out her dream and she is living out mine. Both of our adolescent dreams changed and morphed over the years, being affected by life’s circumstances and personal choices, and we are now supremely happy with where we are today, but had you told me at fifteen we would have changed places, I would have laughed, asserting by my tone that you were crazy. I never foresaw living the life I lead, nor enjoying it so much. Little did I know myself. Now I just smile and thank God that he sometimes turns us upside down and gives us the desires of our heart that we don’t even realize are within us until he cultivates them and makes them blossom.

I’ve learned not to hold on too tightly to any dream or plan I may have, because inevitably, when I just follow Jesus and take one day at a time, I am surprised and delighted by the journey that He takes me on, and my dreams, hopes, and passions change, morph, expand. I am living a life better than I could have ever dreamed or planned for myself, and I reflect that sometimes it’s better to leave the dreaming and planning up to him and be flexible when your life does not look like what you envisioned.

Maybe one day part of my childhood dream will be fulfilled and I’ll have a home with a loving family; until then, I’ll save up to fly out to Montana to enjoy my friend’s and rejoice with her while thanking God he’s directing both of our steps.

“Is what I’m living for worth dying for?”

Dear Tessa,

I may not be especially wise and I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I was also fifteen once, and every time I look at you, I am reminded that we were cut from the same fabric. So if you will indulge me, the following is an open letter that I wish I had received when I was fifteen. I submit it to you as a reminder of what you already know but what we all need to be reminded of.

Do with it what you will.

~

Remember that you are beautiful and vivacious.
Remember also that “beauty is as beauty does” and that outward beauty fades with time.
Develop yourself; figure out who you are; figure out who God has made you to be.
Don’t let others define who you are.
Don’t worry about the boys; they will come flocking later…trust me.
Smile.
Don’t read the beauty magazines; they will only make you dissatisfied.
Don’t worry about your weight; instead, learn about your health.
Don’t compare yourself to your friends. You will only damage your relationships with them, even if only in your head.
Dance.
Read. Read the classics. Read for fun.
Follow the news. Both national and global.
Develop your mind. Use it. Exercise it.
Dialogue with others; learn how to converse.
Learn how to be challenged by another viewpoint and not become defensive. Learn how to entertain that viewpoint, even if you don’t accept it.
Listen.
Learn when to keep your mouth shut.
Learn when to speak.
Discipline yourself, work hard, but play well.
Rest.
Get eight hours of sleep.
Don’t abuse your body. It is one of the greatest tools you have.
Look for the good in everyone.
Choose to love.
Choose to forgive.
Pursue your relationship with God; ask the tough questions; don’t be afraid to seek the answers.
Have mercy and grace for your elders who don’t know.
Continue to ask.
Laugh.
Work before play, but don’t become obsessed.
Pursue interests that you love; find out what it is that makes you tick, that you can do on your own. When your friends are busy, you will find this invaluable as you will never be bored.
Learn to read music; learn to play an instrument.
Sing.
Draw.
Write.
Keep a journal.
Visit those in the nursing homes.
Serve others. Seek to put others’ needs before your own.
Respect your elders.
Respect your parents.
Tell them you love them.
Tell your siblings you love them.
Show physical affection.
Learn how to cry.
Learn how to be angry.
Learn how to make a mistake.
Be quick to acknowledge wrong and ask for forgiveness.
Be careful of how much television you watch. You can never regain that time.
Paint.
Cook.
Bake.
Learn how to do your own laundry.
Learn how to clean a house.
Learn how to change a tire, sew on a button, pay a bill.
Take walks.
Listen to classical music.
Be confident without being arrogant.
Learn what it means to be humble.
Twirl.
Don’t be afraid to be unique
Realize that everyone just wants to be loved.

And most of all, remember that you are loved.

Your big sis,
Christy

Christy and Tessa