Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Sting of Cultural Submersion

***There's no life lesson or spiritual parallel in this entry....just thought I'd lighten this thing up a bit.***

A handful of years ago, when I was an undergraduate at the college on the hill, I was Super Christian! Ok, well, that's not true. But I WAS involved in a campus organization that was evangelical in nature, and I must say, a little bit like being in a cult. I don't say that to belittle their mission or anyone who works for this ministry, because it IS a ministry, and the staff are incredibly devoted to their cause. However, after several years of involvement with this group, I learned that they had their own way of doing things that differed from pretty much everyone else on campus. They had their own "language," and, in all honesty, if you didn't act or think like them, then you were labeled "carnal" and a group of them would gather to pray for your soul. I know this, because at different points during my college career, I was both in the group doing the praying...and in the carnal lot of souls being prayed for.

In the summer of 2002, before I was engulfed by my own carnality, I took part in an extended mission trip to Russia. A group of college students from several different universities all converged on the streets of Perm, and we took up residence in the Ural Hotel. Our mission was to work with Perm University students. We were there to wrestle as many of them to Christ as possible, shrouded under the clever rouse of teaching them English. Since many of the Russian students already spoke an impressive bit of English, and almost none of the American students spoke a single syllable of Russian, our disguise was comical to say the least. I think the cat was undeniably out of the bag as soon as any of us Americans tried to order food. We would stand at the counter, look helplessly at the overhead menu, and then sort of point and grunt until the clerk realized that we were, in fact, complete Russian illiterates. She would then take mercy on us, sometimes while rolling her eyes, and give us whatever food there was a picture of. I like to call this little maneuver the "American Point and Purchase."

We spent the next few weeks building relationships with the Russians, and I learned very quickly that while our lifestyles were very different, the heart of a woman remains the same regardless of her nationality. These young women struggled with how they looked, what boys thought of them, and what their futures held. They were, in many respects, just like me. And they had such an intense desire to show us the very depths and heart of their culture. We ate their food, accompanied them to their homes, learned some of their favorite hangouts, and took part in a traditional Russian experience that I will NEVER forget.

I had heard about Russian bath houses. Our group of American students had been talking about it the entire time we were in Perm. However, this concept was somewhat similar to the city of Atlantis. It was interesting to talk about....intriguing to imagine going there even....but I was certain I would never end up there.

I was wrong.

On a hot summer day, the young Russian women decided it was time to introduce us to the bath house, the pinnacle of cultural submersion. A Russian bath house is similar to an American group of women spending a day at the spa. Only different. At a Russian bath house, the men go in one side and the women go in the other, so you are safely sequestered there with only your same sex. The first room is a changing room. And what do you change into, you ask?


That's right. You walk into a room full of 60 other people. Half of them are people you know, because they are your American or Russian friends. The other half, you don't so much know, but you CAN so much see their aged, sagging breasts tickling the floor tiles. And there, in front of God and the sagging breasts, you disrobe. Every stitch of clothing that you own comes off, and you stand in this room with all of your friends, who have also removed their clothing. And everyone collectively looks for a safe place to divert their eyeballs, because when you agreed to do ministry together, you didn't realize that meant getting up close and personal with the who-whos of your ministry partners.

From there, you walk into the shower room. This is a huge room, full of open shower stalls that continuously spew cool water. In a last ditch attempt at modesty, most of the American students had one hand placed firmly on their exposed breasts, and the other hand shielding the aforementioned who-who. The Russians are not so modest. Their breasts and who-whos are right there, out in the open, for anyone and everyone to see. Because there are many more people in the shower room than there are actual showers, you take turns standing under one of the shower heads and rinsing yourself with chilly water. The purpose of the bathhouse, or bano (pronounced bon-yo), isn't to scrub with soap. In fact, I don't recall there being a bar of soap anywhere in the shower room. The purpose, I was told by my naked, cone boobed, Russian friend, is to improve your circulation.

The next stage in the Russian bath house experience is to move from chilly shower water to the small room that is heated to what felt like 200 degrees. When you walk in to this heat, from the cool of the shower, your nose hairs literally feel like they have been set aflame, and it's honestly difficult to breathe. There was a long wooden bench in the hot room. I didn't sit down. All I could think of at this point was my father, who religiously wears his shower shoes in even the fanciest of hotels for fear of the funk that might be growing on the floor. I could only imagine how much respect he would lose for me if he knew that I had sat my buck naked ass on a sweaty wooden bench in a public bath house deep in the mountains of Russia. So I declined my Russian friends offer of a seat, and stood there trying to breathe through the heat and the steam and the sweat.

And that is when the old naked lady started beating me with sticks.

Apparently this is the part of the experience that is "good for the circulation." In the heat of the sauna, an old, stark naked, Russian grandmother, with deflated balloons for breasts, takes a bunch of sticks tied into a lot, and beats you with them.


And these aren't special sticks. They aren't sticks that are designed for bath house use. They are in fact, twigs of green wood that someone gathered from the grounds outside the bath house, similar to what you used to go rip from a tree when your grandmother told you to "get a switch." They are strapped together, leaves still on them, and then used to beat any naked body and every naked body that enters that hot room. And my turn had come. This old lady snuck up behind me, seemingly from nowhere, and began beating me from my feet to my head, her saggy boobs flying to and fro with every lashing and leaves leaping off the angry twigs, sticking to my damp skin. I was too stunned to even protest, although I think my hands instinctively went to my face, as I endured...

the culturally appropriate lashing of my life.
After that the rest of the bath house experience is simply "Rinse and Repeat." I did partake in the "rinsing" part, because...well....I was covered in leaves...but I left the "repeating" to the Russians. I'm all for cultural submersion. In fact, I even encourage it, as it obviously leads to an educational and memorable experience. Eat their food! Drink their ale! Speak their language!
However...I draw the line at being beaten with sticks by a wet, naked, woman. Once was enough.
But maybe that's my carnality talking. I dunno. Pray for me.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Real Deal

At 1AM in the morning, in the dorm room of my friend, in the Spring of 2002, I changed my undergraduate major. I realized, after nearly 3 years of classes, that I did not, in fact, wish to teach children how to read and write. So with all of the thought and consideration that one can muster at 1 in the morning, I hopped online and changed my major from Elementary Education to, of all things, Interior Design. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Looking back on it, I realize that this particular degree was about as useful as if I had never attended college at all. we've firmly established recently, I don't always make the best decisions.

During the course of my Interior Design studies I took a class called "Fibers and Finishes." Stop laughing...I'm serious. Part of the course was to use a microscope to identify the various types of fibers, natural and man made. (Interesting Note: This skill actually came in handy a few years later when I was selling yellow pages, and working tirelessly to sell an ad to a carpet cleaner. He literally purchased a half page ad from me simply because I could intelligently speak of the differences between the fibers of a wool rug and one made of nylon. True Story.) Anyway, the most interesting part of this class was the timed test we had to take. We each had our own microscope and a sampling of fabric swatches. We had 10 minutes to use a pair of tweezers to pluck a single fiber from each swatch, place it under the microscope and identify it's origin. Rayon...nylon...wool...cotton. Then we attached the swatch to a piece of paper and wrote our answer underneath.

Do you want to know how to identify a wool fiber from a nylon fiber? WELL OF COURSE YOU DO!!!! I'm sure you have spent your whole life walking around thinking, " long am I going to live on this earth before someone clears up this mind boggling question that nags daily at my soul?!?!" Well, good news, my friend. That day has come! A nylon fiber is perfectly smooth and round, because before it was a fiber, it was a liquid. The fibers are formed by being squeezed through a machine with tiny round holes. Therefore, under a microscope they look smooth and shiny and perfect. A wool fiber, however, looks disgusting. When you magnify a single wool fiber, you will see an abundance of tiny scales, each one wrapping itself around the next. It is not uniform. It is not smooth. It is not pretty. In fact, it looks rough, like the mangled bark of an aged tree.

What is the point?

I almost deleted my blog this week.

A lot of people use blogging to keep their families updated on the happenings of their kids, or as a general day in the life journal. My blog isn't really for that. It's my way of processing all of the things that are in my head. It's a release. It's me, being 100% transparent, behind the safety of my computer screen. And up to this point, that safety hasn't really ever been compromised. I know a lot of the people that read my blog make judgements about me. It's hard not to! But those of you that comment regularly, though I've never met some of you (and STILL owe others of you an introductory walk!) have been a real encouragement to me through this journey. If I never meet you on earth, I plan to know you in Heaven.

But this week someone, who chose to remain anonymous, left me a comment (which was not published) that basically boiled down to their judgement that I needed therapy. It was delivered in such a way that the tone didn't seem to be of a particularly helpful or encouraging nature...more of a "Good Lord You Are F****D Up!" judgement. It stung. And the result was the realization that there are mean people out there who will read some stranger's (at least I think we're strangers...) deepest heartache and feel it appropriate to point fingers, make judgements, and then share them without care or concern for others' feelings. And THEN, I realized that it's not just the mean people that do this....everyone does it. Whether they share their judgements with me or not...they are making them all the same. And suddenly, my little corner of the internet didn't feel so safe. So for about a day and a half, I decided to throw it away.

But the thought of deleting my blog made me cranky. And sad. And angry. So I didn't do it.

And here's why.

I already know I need therapy. Good lord, anyone who's ever read this thing knows I need therapy! Thank you, Captain Obvious! But I also know that my circumstances and the results of my bad decisions have absolutely no impact on the fact that God has a distinct purpose for me, and that He will use all of this....this time of rebuilding....this place of shame....this spirit of introspection....this season of confusion....for the good. Because He's just that kind of GOOD...and He's just that kind of GOD.

I have felt lately, more than ever, that I am under a microscope. Even though I'm the only one on this planet that is living my life, everyone seems to have an opinion about how I'm doing it. And granted, I've made it awfully easy for them to feel licensed to do so. I mean, honestly, I have made some REALLY BAD DECISIONS. And then I went and blogged about them.

What I've discovered during this period of intense scrutiny, is something that just doesn't look pretty. Me under a microscope looks an awful lot like a wool fiber. I'm not smooth or polished. I am rough around the edges, a scale to scale mess of imperfection. I look like something that needs to be stripped down to its core, because the appearance of what IS....just looks like it's come undone. It looks broken. It looks torn. It looks like it is in need of time and the tender hand of the seamstress have their work cut out for them.

But it's the very roughness, the very brokenness, of the wool fiber that sets it apart from it's man made nylon friend. Nylon isn't natural, which is why its fibers appear smooth and polished when held under intense magnification. Wool fibers, God made fibers, are easily identifiable...

because of their brokenness.

They are rough.
They are raw.
They are REAL.

Kind of like me.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Bad Words

Recently, I gave E a bath, and in the middle of playing with his bubble covered sea animals, he stood up, buck naked and dripping cucumber melon suds, made a very loud proclamation.

"Mama....I am going to tell you ALL OF THE BAD WORDS, and you NOT put me in time out!"

He looked determined, so I sat in front of the tub hiding a smile and told him to go for it. And this is what he said...loudly...

"Well....STUPID IS NOT GOOOOOOOD......and BUTT IS NOT GOOOOOOOD.......and (lowering his voice to a whisper) what the hell is really not good (head shaking). "

I was trying really hard not to laugh at this point, but I asked, "are there any more?"

"Ummmm......I think Cowboy is not good.....but I don't know why."

At this point, I busted out laughing. He sat back down in the foamy water while I explained to him that cowboy was a perfectly acceptable word that he could say any old time he wanted. And then he went on playing with his sea animals.

I'm not really sure what inspired him to stand up and recite all of the words that his short little history has taught him get him a good finger pointing or a lengthy time out. But whatever spurred it on, it gave me a hearty laugh on an otherwise boring evening of watching Aladdin 4 times in a row.

After this exchange, I began thinking about the bad words. There are obvious ones...ones that I was brought up never to say, yet somehow they creep into my blog from time to time. But then there are the words that you don't realize are bad until you find yourself in the depths of their clutches. Words like defeat.....shame......hopelessness....and the one that I have been held captive by recently, obligation.

And then, as I have up to this point only painfully experienced, there is Obligation's more well dressed twin: Marriage.

About 6 years ago I entered into a legally and, what I believed to be a spiritually binding contractual agreement with The One. We got married. And then, for nearly the next 4 years, we, the sickly, ill-equipped pair of us, did everything in our power to suck every ounce of joy out of marriage that we possibly could, until all that was left was Obligation. And then, not even Obligation was a strong enough glue to seal the cracks within our union. And in the space of a couple of hours, life was thrown into an empty suitcase and The One became The First One....known to you as Ex. A mistake? Hard to say. A learning experience? Definitely. Crushingly painful both before and after that suitcase filled up? Ummm....yeah.

THEN.....after dating a bunch of free dinners, a couple of really nice guys that I treated like disposable contact lenses (ahem...sorry about that Super Man), and one REALLY BIG LOSER, I fell in love again. Recklessly, and wildly in love. In love so much so that I ignored, and, might I add, even obliterated EVERY SINGLE RED FLAG (and believe me there were MANY) waving insanely in my face, because it felt

so damn good to no longer feel like my insides were dying from the weight of crushing pain.
So I did the thing that seemed the most logical in my warped brain....I stood up on a hill and legally OBLIGATED myself to The One. It seemed like the only way to ensure immunity from the crushing pain of heartbreak and failure that I had experienced from the person who had previously proclaimed love for me.
However, we all know how the story goes. It was mere months into this fresh union that I looked at The One and thought, "I don't like you." It wasn't because I can't commit. It wasn't because I am even bad at the basics of marriage. In fact, and I know this sounds somewhat insane coming from the fingertips of the woman who has been divorced twice, but I would venture to say that I am a GOOD WIFE. It wasn't any of that.
It was because I slipped out of the reckless throws of passion as easily as I slipped into them...and found myself in the death grip of obligation. And this time, I was obligated to someone who exhibited VERY FEW redeeming qualities....qualities such as mutual respect and general regard for others that make obligation livable, if not enjoyable. I stayed for many months after my family started saying things like, "How long exactly are you going to live like this?" I stayed, because of a bad word...because I was obligated to stay....obligated to give it a fair hope for the do something besides tuck tail and run.
So all of this to say, obligation has left a bad taste in my mouth. And now, like "cowboy" it has made it to the list of bad words....even if I'm not quite sure it actually is one. When we begin to do things out of obligation as opposed to a genuine desire to serve someone else, or uphold the commitments that are so important to our integrity, WHY ARE WE REALLY DOING IT? In marriage, I have learned, that the place where you begin to continually function, day in and day out, solely because you obligated yourself to do so, is also the location of a very fine line. It's the line between the dreams you allowed yourself to have with your partner, and the possibilities that you begin to see you could have without them. A scary place to find yourself, to say the least, because once you have reached this very fine line, the life on either side of the crevice seems to leave something within you vaguely unsatisfied. I know this...because I have now fallen on both sides.
So the question becomes, at what point are you free from Obligation? At what point, after being introduced to the clammy hand of Obligation grasping your life, are you allowed to walk down the path that you willingly chose, with some degree of resolve about choosing it? For months in my second marriage, I struggled with this question. But as it turns out, there is a force out there that is stronger than Obligation. And at just the right moment that force, Self Respect, came seemingly from out of nowhere.
For me, Self Respect showed up just as the chewing tobacco can was whizzing past my face, hurled at my by The One.....who henceforth will be The One Who Shall No Longer Be Named. And in that instance, just after I got chewing tobacco in my eye...but just before The One Who Shall No Longer Be Named attempted repeatedly to bar my exit from my home, Self Respect kicked Obligation's sorry little (bad word alert!) ass....and I landed solidly on the side of the fence where possibilities run rampant.
I guess if it took two failed marriages for Self Respect to finally show up, then we can call it good. However, I can't help thinking that it would have been so much more convenient if Self Respect had also practiced punctuality, but I'm clinging to the belief that lessons learned will continually cancel out mistakes made.
Regardless of the pain and the shame, and regardless of the fact that Obligation has been my bedmate for many years now, Self Respect is decidedly the companion that I wish to invite along for this journey. This journey into, what can only be described as a
very good word...
the possibilities.
(Now if something will just come along and kick the ass of Impulsivity, I think my family and friends will rest a bit easier and be less likely to kill me.)