There are certain things I just can’t do. 1) I can’t fake tan. I tried once, about 25 years ago when I was an undergrad in college. I went to Electric Beach, and stood in front of the tanning bed, just shaking my head. The entire time I was lying there, I was thinking, “What on earth am I doing? What has come over me?” 2) I can’t drive a mini-van. When it came time to get a second car, back in 1998, when we only had 2 kids, I tried. I really tried to drive a mini-van. We test drove every version on the market. Not even the apple-red Town and Country with leather seats could stop the tears. “Please Kev, don’t make me drive a mini-van. Please. Please. I just can’t do it.” 3) I can hardly wear lingerie—at least not without protest, huffing, puffing and adjusting, and whining, “This is so ridiculous. Who on earth designed this thing? There’s no bottom to it.” At which point I rip it off, and, standing naked and utterly floppy, breathe a sigh of relief, “Whew, that’s better.”
Lately, I’ve taken to wearing really bright colors. They make me happy. They make Kevin shake his head and smile. Sometimes he even laughs out loud. My church outfit yesterday was a burnt gold sweater; an orange, purple, hunter green, brown and yellow plaid tulip skirt; gold stockings, and brown and tan Poetic License shoes with a brown and purple rosette on the toe, finished off with a gold tassel. If I had a piccolo, all the children would have followed me down the aisle, out the doors and into the East Union Canal.
I don’t know why I can wear the United Colors of J.Crew, Anthropologie, and Benetton all in one day, but not the turquoise bustier. It’s just part of the picture of me I carry in my head. Somehow tans from electrical sources, mini-vans no matter how grand, and turquoise bustiers are not part of my definition of myself. They’re not how I see me playing out in my head.
It’s no mistake that John came, wild and woolly out of the wilderness, crying “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I don’t think John meant for the Jews to turn from sin. I’m sure there were your garden varieties of usury, adultery, hypocrisy and prideful neglect going on in the shadow of every synagogue. But, that’s small change compared to the change John asked of the Jews. He wanted them to change the way they thought, the dreams they dreamed. He wanted them to demolish the very form of the Messiah on which they had pinned their hopes. Only with a changed mind could they actually “see” this Jesus, who looked, for all they knew, exactly like “Joseph’s son.”
The Greek root of the word “repentance” denotes a change of mind. Given this etymology, at the heart of all repentance is the work of changing what’s in our head. It’s about putting in new ideas about God, about ourselves and about the outside world. Paul says it this way: “Be ye not conformed to the world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Ryan Bingham told me this morning to “take yourself out of your mind, away from everything [you] say you are.” It’s different words for the same idea. The change we seek starts with a repentant mind, dismantling the ideas and visions that prevent us from experiencing the truth of the life before us.
Perhaps the hardest idea I have ever had to repent of or rewire (if the word repent makes you feel too guilty) was my ideas about and reactions towards marital intimacy. That’s a cryptic way of saying, I came with baggage. It wasn’t like the first time between Kevin and I was a tabula rasa. How could it have been, if you grew to physical maturity the way I did.
In my head was a swirl of experiences, doctrines, faulty wirings, protection mechanisms, and object lessons. On the one hand, I had been taught, beginning when I was very young that “Sex before marriage is wrong.” Sex, in this case, meant any kind of touching that went beyond the one-piece bathing suit we were allowed at the time. If you did have sex, you were spoiled goods. On the other, very deviant hand, I had a brother-in-law who hadn’t heard about the bathing suit rule; nor the social taboo of taking sexual advantage of your family members. So, as a young girl, I learned to stay very, very still and not make a sound. On one level, I didn’t want this to be happening to me, but on another, my body seemed to want what my mind and heart said was so very wrong. I learned to distrust those physical feelings. I became afraid of that swelling of passion that welled up so naturally in my very young body.
A few years later, I experienced, with a giddy sweetness, teenage first love: holding hands, kissing, staying out late, leaning against fence posts and walking on walls at midnight. Young, lithe bodies, completely unaware of what it was we could be leading to, always a little breathless, always watching the clock. And always a “no, not there” ready as a response in case the hands wandered too low.
It’s a hard mental jump from “no, no, no” for twenty-four years to “yes, yes, yes.” For some women, especially those of us who’ve put protections in place, it’s not a jump we make easily. It can take years. The wires are set deep. A friend of mine’s daughter spent part of her very beautiful wedding reception in tears because she knew that as soon as it was over, she would be getting in the car with her new husband and then they would be having sex. Whatever that meant!
I had a hard time getting over the habit I had learned of becoming very still and quiet, of almost watching myself from outside of my body. I didn’t know how to ride the passion. Whenever I felt it take me, I clamped down tight, remaining completely and utterly under control. I couldn’t divorce myself from the idea that wanting sex was somehow wrong. Enjoying sex without a hard pit forming in my throat was almost impossible. I had to be either really sleepy or really on vacation—moments in which my brain turned off. The thoughts in my head were more powerful than the feelings within.
How do you put a new script in place? How to accept a Messiah who heals on the Sabbath and raises people from the dead? Instead of gathering up armies, he says he has come to “heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, . . . to set at liberty them that are bruised.” When you have thought for so long that when the Messiah came, he would liberate you from your Roman invaders, how do you root out that idea and replace it with the notion that He comes to liberate you from your worst self? Even if you really want to believe, even if you’re standing on the banks of the river, toeing at the mud and testing the water, how do you stop the thought, which comes unbidden, as if by rote, “Oh . . . that’s just Joseph’s boy.”
I read a romance novel. You have to know that’s another one of those things that’s not part of my self-definition—me, the feminist, career-woman, weight-lifting, no hairstyling or homemaking skills person who wishes she grew up on a farm and could ride horses at a full gallop. I don’t read romance novels. Or at least never confess in public to reading them.
But one day, about eighteen years in, I was at the library prowling through the stacks. I must have taken a wrong turn and ended up in the Romance section, which merges with the Mystery shelves. On one of the display shelves, there’s this book, some kind of historical romance. On a whim, I pick it up, see that it’s one in a series, find all the books in the series, and then shove them face down between two hefty tomes of non-fiction I’ve also selected. I choose the self-checkout so that the clerk doesn’t see me taking home pastel-colored paperbacks with images of pearl necklaces or swans or a Regency folly. (I also took them back through the drive-through book drop so that I wouldn’t be seen carrying them back into the library.)
Guess what I met in the pages of those Easter-basket books: a new script. I finally read the words that showed me a better way to react to the feelings of passion and arousal. The women in those books didn’t freeze up. Perhaps at first, because of course that’s what a morally respectable Regency lady does, but even in the freezing, she’s admitting that she enjoys the feelings that are surging through her, that she wants his hands on her, that she wants to feel his body against hers, that she wants to touch him.
When I first read those passages, I had to stop and read them again, not quite sure of what I was reading. Then I had to stop because my idea of a woman inside of sex had been blown apart. Here was a good woman who welcomed those feelings, who didn’t feel the need to repress them and to knock down the hands that moved towards her. I had never seen a different way of being other than my own. I had never had that conversation with anybody before. The intimate, spoken word doesn’t come easily to me. (I think it would be a conversation more easily had if I were slightly drunk; a little less inhibited. Seeing as I don’t drink, that options not really open to me.)
Maybe I’m just really slow on the uptake, but, for the first time in my life, I could see another way of being inside my own body. I must have read a dozen of those romances in about a three week period. (I’m a very diligent student). As I read, I repented, in the truest meaning of the word, of the idea I carried with me of myself as a sexual being. I removed the idea that had taken root at such a young age that sexual arousal was something to fight against and to ward off. In its place, I planted, very tentatively at first, the notion that sexual arousal was to be welcomed, embraced and moved into. At first, the old feelings of restraint would well up inside me, the old wiring working like it always had. But, I knew, because of what I had read, that restraint and closure weren’t the only reactions available to me when I became aroused. I deliberately chose to feel another way.
It has made all the difference, replacing this tightly held but incorrect idea, with something I never before had supposed.
What other ideas are there, grasped tightly in our monkey fists, that if let go, would open up avenues of experiences we haven’t yet supposed? I’ve thought of a few, centered around the triumvirate of God, self and community:
- In order to be a “good” member of my church, I must be completely satisfied with all it contains. Or, conversely, in order to be a “good” church, it must satisfy all my needs.
- Blessings come only because of my obedience to the commandments.
- God watches me with a critical eye.
- I am a bad person—because I only tolerate, not full out love, some of those around me; because I tend to examine before I come to know, and for some ideas that process can take years; because I don’t know all that I should know; because I don’t care to know some things; because I can no more get excited about the Adult Session of a regional church meeting than I get about matching socks.
About two years ago, at the age of 42, just past the Benjamin exit heading north, I had a realization. I was driving home from Colorado with my family, having spent the Fourth of July weekend with the cousins in Boulder. Kevin was driving. I was slumped in the passenger seat, mulling over I don’t know what. Out of nowhere, like the dew, an idea settled in my chest: “I am good. I’m a really good person.” I thought about why I was a good person. I was honest, kind, hardworking. I was compassionate, generous, committed to my family and to keeping my promises. I was thoughtful, tolerant and enthusiastic. I embraced difference and tried not to let my weaknesses get in other’s way. I loved this earth, its Creator, and worshipped my thanksgiving.
I looked across at Kevin and said, in a voice that must have sounded a little bewildered, “You know, I’m a good person. I’m a good person.” He looked at me with this puzzled expression, “I never thought you were a bad person.” “I know,” I replied. “But I did.”
I had thought, because I did not automatically want what I was told to want, because I questioned what others took upon themselves so easily, because I tended to tilt my head and narrow my eyes when some spoke or acted around me, because some commandments were hard for me, that I was somehow rotten at the core. I didn’t see then what I know now: that my particular feet and mind and heart would always journey in this particular way.
Once again, it has made all the difference, replacing this tightly held but incorrect idea, with something I never before had supposed.
Title, “Change Is,” by Ryan Bingham.