February 28, 2014

Ninety-Freaking Five


That is how old Grampie is, as of today.

Can we think about this for a moment?

Ninety-five years.

That is a lot of living. A lot.

I'm going to be celebrating this amazing man with my family this weekend. In case you've forgotten (or don't yet know) why I love my grandpa so dang much, here are a few other things I've written about him:

It is strange and almost impossible for me to imagine him as a young man, gaunt and dirty and living in a trench for weeks on end. Seeing death come to those around him. Sending death to visit others. It hurts my heart. It makes me wish I could do something, sixty-five years later, to fix him; help him; give him back the innocence I don't even realize I carry with me.

A few weeks ago, I called Grampie...Our conversation, of course, turned to the war, and ...he made a connection I've never heard from him before.
"You want to know what we saw? Just watch the news. The same things are still happening to the women and children today."
The same things.Are happening today.
We talked about all sorts of things, including (of course), his sweetheart of 63 years, whom he misses terribly.
"It was love at first sight. She winked at me with both eyes and I knew she'd fallen for me. Of course, being a sophisticated city boy, it took me a bit longer to fall for her." "How much longer?" "About ten seconds."


If you feel like celebrating with me, I recommend this cookie recipe, which as become my go-to baking gift for him.

February 27, 2014

Reading in 2014: A Slow Start

It's been a slow start to the extra-curricular reading this year. But hey, school. Actually, if I can admit it, it's been a slow start to the curricular reading too... Eep.

Anyway, here's what I've read so far:

The Stonecarvers by Jane Urquhart - I liked it quite a bit. I am really digging Canadian lit these days, pieces of my cultural heritage and place names that are familiar to me in reality as well as theory.I like the rhythm of Urquhart's writing, and found this historically enlightening as ell as engaging.

Open Secrets by Alice Munro - This collection of short stories was for the book club I'm in, and I love love love my book club. I also quite liked this book, and the overlapping but not-quite-interwoven storylines. Also, as I wrote in an email to the book club ladies, "So many creepy men, so many strong women."

Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson - Meh. I am not familiar enough with classic Greek or 18th century Russian literature to understand 75% of these poems. But the book was redeemed by an essay entitled "Dirt and Desire" - on the "phenomenology of female pollution in antiquity,"  which you can read here if you're interested in the evolution of female portrayal in literature.

That's it. That's ALL I've read!!

BUT my to-read pile is growing, and that is exciting. AND I am open to suggestions from you, my dear friendly reader folks. I've had a few come in even yesterday, so please do post a comment or send me a note or suggest in some other fashion. And maybe I'll even return the favour :)

February 19, 2014

Safe People & Silence

At various times in my life, I have been called difficult to know, "closed," an ice queen, a brick wall, intimidating and other related things. This has deeply bothered me.

A few years ago, one of my closest friends went through an incredibly difficult situation. As I walked with her through some dark days, I wrestled with how much to ask about the source of her pain. I knew little about the specifics that had brought her here, and wondered how to be supportive when I didn't know what had gone awry.

But then I realized something. What made me a safe person for her was, I think, not only that she could tell me anything without fear of judgment, but that she could also tell me nothing without fear of judgment. Our friendship is such that we recognize and respect the space between us, and we don't have to know every detail of every little story to love or be loved. Although there are plenty of little details and many many stories we do share!

My point is this; in a culture that celebrates vulnerability, transparency, and personal stories (and often rightly so; the voices of the outliers, marginalized, oppressed and transgressed ought to be given space and applauded), I think it is easy for us to become uncomfortable with silence or holes in our knowledge of another person.

Yet as Henri Nouwen writes:
There is something beautiful about shyness, even though in our culture shyness is not considered a virtue. On the contrary, we are encouraged to be direct, look people straight in the eyes, tell them what is on our minds, and share our stories without a blush. But this unflinching soul-baring confessional attitude quickly becomes boring. It is like trees without shadows. Shy people have long shadows, where they keep much of their beauty hidden from intruders' eyes. Shy people remind us that the mystery of life that cannot be simply explained or expressed. They invite us to reverent and respectful friendships and to a wordless being together in love. 

As I think about the safest, closest people in my life, I know that this is true. What makes me feel safe with them is not only the freedom to say absolutely anything, but also the freedom to say absolutely nothing.

Sometimes, reverent and respectful friendships demand silence. Sometimes the safest, most loving thing we can do is expect no words at all. 

February 14, 2014

Our Third Annual Music Exchange

It's year #3 of one of my favourite traditions: trading music.

My friend Alasdair and I started trading music across the ocean way back in the 'naughts. A few years ago, we opened it up to all of our friends, and for the last two years, close to a dozen of us have traded albums/playlists.

I love this because I love new music, and I love learning about someone through their taste in music, and I just love good music.

So join us!!

Here are the guidelines:
  1. Let me know you want to participate, and I will hook you up with our Dropbox folder.
  2. Select ten-ish songs. (8 min, 12 max) Songs and artists don't have to be "new," but you cannot include more than 2 songs that appear on other albums (incentive to submit early!!), and you cannot include more than one song per artist.
  3. Upload your album to the shared folder on Dropbox by March 15, 2014 (your folder name would be MIX TITLE - NAME).
  4. Download all the other mixes.
  5. Listen to good music!!

And here is the theme:

Making Cloudy Skies Clear Again 

Interpret however you wish. 

February 12, 2014

Bodies Are Amazing and I Kind of Love Mine: A Postscript

I know I promised a three-part series, but I just want to wrap up with these few final thoughts:
This is my niece. Because she's cute & we've had enough pictures of me recently.

1. If ever there is a time in life when it should be easy to love my body, it is now. Is all this love simply because I'm in good shape and have finally figured out how to work with curly hair? That is definitely a part of it. BUT. There are deep shifts in my thinking and in my heart that I think might (just maybe) last longer than my amateur-athletic career. As my wrinkles deepen and my fat deposits grow, I am hoping that these truths will have taken root enough to come along with whatever the future holds for this body.

2. You all have been so surprising and encouraging. Thank you for that. Honestly. I am terribly awkward at receiving compliments, and have blathered on (my new favourite term) on more than one occasion when I've felt embarrassed and vulnerable, realizing that I actually wrote things about how I view my body, and you really read them. But without a doubt, it has affirmed to me that these are conversations that need to happen, for my own sake, if not for all of us. Let's be real! Let's speak the truth and hear the truth and be encouraged, even when we're awkward.

3. There are a few other blog entries that I re-read as I wrote this series, and I wanted to share them because in my head, at least, they are related and relevant:
I have come to this realization/belief: there is a difference between loneliness and what I call "only-ness." Onlyness is the reality that only I experience my life, and that there will always be a level of my personhood that is inaccessible/viewed differently/misunderstood by others.

When I look forward a dozen years, I have hope that I will measure my beauty not by the softness of my belly or size of my pipes but by the increase in my laugh lines and the scars that will tell stories of giving and receiving love, of sacrifice and patience.

My friends have been victims. I have been a victim. It isn't okay. And it isn't okay to think that the conversation is simply about crimes against women. The conversation is huge; it's about what it means to be a woman, what it means to treat women as equals in all areas of life, and what cultural views of women need to be left behind once and for all.

4. For all of you who are new here, welcome! I can't promise that every entry will be as exciting as the last few, but I can tell you that there will be other entries, and some of them will be about big topics like this. Others will be about books I've read, or about school (yay, seminary!), or about the funny things my niece and nephews say. Most recently, my baby nephew saw a photo of me and started moo-ing like a cow. That's always flattering. Granted, I DID spend the majority of our last visit making farm animal noises.

My next post will be about music, because I haven't said much about music lately, and it is time for what has become an annual tradition...

February 10, 2014

Bodies Are Amazing and I Kind of Love Mine: Because Bodies are Good

It's the final entry of this 3-part mini-series. Looking at bodies, listening to others' words, and now: forming a theology of bodies.

What does that even mean, Beth? And what if I don't believe in God or care about theology?

I know that many of you reading this may not share my beliefs regarding God. But I feel certain that there are still relevant ideas to consider, including an overview of what I think a Christian view of bodies is...Hint: it's not what we usually hear/feel when we think about the big religion. So read on! (please.) Or not. It's entirely up to you. I like you, either way.


I was fourteen or fifteen the first time I realized that God and I disagreed about my body. In hindsight, things were on the brink of a dangerous downward spiral for me. I hated my body, and treated it poorly. And one night, lying in my bed, God and I finally had it out. The God I believed in said that my body is fearfully and wonderfully made, that he knit me together and that I am precious and honoured and loved. I had a choice to make; was I going to live out of my beliefs, or God's?*

This is what I mean by a “theology of the body:” what we believe that God believes about human bodies. Or if God is not a part of your worldview, a philosophy of bodies would be what you believe is universally true about human bodies.

You may think you don't have a theology or philosophy about bodies, but you do. We all do.

Whether we have systematically thought through and chosen our beliefs in an intentional manner, or we've been brought up in a context that taught us things we've never questioned, whether we have the ability to easily articulate the things we believe or whether we struggle to identify the answers to questions about our personal perspectives, we each have a complex system of beliefs that our lives are formed around, and that includes beliefs about bodies.

Here is the other important philosophical note I need to make before moving forward: for all of us, there are gaps and disparities between our spoken beliefs and our practiced beliefs. For example, teenage-Beth would have said, “Yes, God loves me and God made me.” But was I living out of that belief? Not in the least.

Over the past several years, as I've unpacked the beliefs I live out of, I've realized that most of them have their roots in church culture and personal negative experiences rather than the words and actions of God in my life and throughout human history.

I don't want to live out of those beliefs anymore. If the spoken and the lived beliefs don't line up, one or the other needs to change... for me, it's been a little bit of both.

(You with me? Is this making sense? Good. Let's get into the good stuff then.) 

Me, thinking deeply, way back in 2007. I still make this face.
Here are some things that I believe about bodies, based on my beliefs about God and his actions towards them: 

  1. Bodies are good. Here's what I believe: God created humans with human bodies. He didn't have to. He could have made us with some other sort of strange bodies, or no bodies – he made other creatures like that. But he also made humans, with human bodies. And when I look at the creation narrative in Genesis, one of the things it tells us is that God was pleased with the world he made, and the creatures he made, and the people he made. He made humans on purpose, uniquely in His image (what does that mean!? Let's think about that for a year or two) and then he said that we were Good.
  2. Bodies are more than one thing. We cannot narrow the purpose of our bodies to any one thing. Nor can we exclude any of the natural realities of life. I am not defined by my physical abilities or inabilities. I am not simply my sexuality and my sexual choices; nor am I meant to deny that to be human is to be sexual.** Whether or not I bear children does not determine the fulfillment of my bodily existence. Different messages about our bodies' worth are bombarded at each of us: you are not defined by your weight, the clarity of your skin, the number of ab-muscles visible at the beach, whether you dance like an angel or regularly run into furniture, the many health issues you may have.
  3. What we do with our bodies matters. Our bodies were made Good, and our bodies are Good, but what we do with our bodies does matter. This is one of the things that I conclude both from the Old Testament Laws that often seem strange and irrelevant, and from the New Testament stories of how Jesus lived his live. He touched people he was not supposed to touch, took his self places he was not expected, used his body to back up the words of love and grace that he spoke. We can choose to do the same. Do we use our bodies to give or take, to speak words of hope and love or to tear others down?
  4. Bodies and souls are not easily separable. In the early Christian era, a group of religions/beliefs taught that matter is bad but spirit is good. These gnostics separated the world into two types of matter, and taught that to seek the spiritual, one must shun the material. This belief is still around in many spaces, not the least of which is the Christian church. But humans are integrated beings. Bodies are not strictly functional, an unfortunate necessity for life. The physical, the psychological, and the spiritual do not fit in neat, unconnected little boxes.*** We're spaghetti, not waffles (even the men!). This means that what we do with our bodies and how we take care of our bodies have implications on the part of our selves that is not physical matter, our minds/souls/spirits.
  5. God became a body. I recognize that my spiritual and religious beliefs are, to many people, strange. And this is one of the weirdest of all of them. I fully believe that God took on a human body and became one of us. Jesus is the embodiment of God – God with skin on, my old pastor liked to say. I believe Jesus lived, died, and came back to life in a physical body. This has implications for all kinds of things, one of which is how I view bodies. If God chose to become a body, and kept that body after conquering death then... then what? What does that mean for us meagre little ants on a pale blue dot? I am still trying to wrap my head around this. I think, at its most basic, it means that God loves us, bodies and all.

In my first post, I quoted from Barbara Brown Taylor. Now I will do so again, from An Altar in the World:
One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.

Having bodies is what gives us humans common ground. For all our differences, each of us has a body. A body with unique strengths and weaknesses, flaws and perfections. We all eat and sleep and bleed and make our way through life held in by the amazingness that is skin. Science is incredible, folks! We know so much and so little about human bodies, and we. are. amazing. The more human science I learn, and the more I think theologically about bodies, the more in awe I am.

Bodies are amazing, and bodies are beautiful, and that means my body is amazing and beautiful, and I have this one body for the rest of my life, so I can choose to run it into the ground, give the whole issue no thought at all, or embrace these bones and innards and skin (cold, cold skin) and see what kind of good we can get up to.

* another way to phrase this is that I knew the universal truth, but hadn't followed it down to the specifics that would follow. That is, to say “People are loved by God” is one thing. To say “I am loved by God” is a natural extension of the first, but I wasn't making that connection.

** There is so much more to say here-  a theology of sexuality is another big thing I've been thinking about, and could become a nearly unending series itself. 

*** Also, I've been watching Joss Whedon's Dollhouse series, which has got me wondering all sorts of things about how our unseen minds/souls and bodies interact, and why we try so hard to pinpoint our "selves."

February 3, 2014

Bodies Are Amazing and I Kind of Love Mine, Thanks to You (part 2)

 The preamble: this is the second post in a 3-part series on learning to love my body. In particular, I'm looking at:
  1. Looking at bodies. Seeing them and accepting them.
  2. Listening to what other people say.
  3. Forming a theology about bodies.
Today is #2. Listening to what other people say.

But first, huge thanks to all of you who read, commented, and/or shared my first post on this. Close to 700 people checked it out in the first 24 hours, and I feel honoured that my words were of interest to so many, and I'm ready to say things a little more loudly, knowing we are all in this big messy boat together!

Last month (oh, hello February!!), my friend Aisling* took some photos of me for an upcoming project she's working on (y'all should stay tuned for more on this). She posted one on Facebook, and by the end of the day, over 80 of my friends had liked or commented on it.

But can I let you in on a little secret?

Photo by Aisling - oakandmyrrh.com
My first response to the photo was not a positive one. The photo itself is lovely – the lighting, the the textures, etc etc. Aisling takes good photos. But when I looked at myself, I instantly picked out several things about how I look that I didn't like. I let Aisling share it anyway, because I thought, That is how I look, actually. And I am not going to be ashamed of that (see post #1).

So when the reaction to the photo was overwhelmingly positive about my appearance, I sat back and thought some more. And this is what I thought: What if they are right? What if they aren't just being nice? It is possible that they are wrong. It is possible that twenty-five people I know and trust have a strange sense of what is beautiful, and the other fifty are the type who "like" everything that shows up in their feed...

But it's also possible that I am wrong. It is possible that these people who know me and love me honestly do not see my tummy rolls with the same disgust I do. They truly do not think my lengthy limbs give me the appearance of an unsteady baby giraffe, especially on the dance floor.They think my curls are lively and lovely, not crazy and out of control.

What would happen, then, if instead of disagreeing with their words, either silently or directly denying their right to an opinion on my appearance, I took it in? What would happen if I believed that the truth about my beauty, perhaps, was not my sole decision to make?

I remember a conversation with some friends once about what our standards of “beauty” were. We all had different ways of measuring whether someone was or was not “beautiful” - and you know what? I'm 98% certain that we each fell further short of our own standards than of the others' measuring lines. I remember a lot of surprise and confusion when we heard each other's opinions. As I think about this, it seems to me that I've built my sense of beauty to tip the scales away from my own favour. Why is that?

I am not saying that my beauty depends on validation from one particular person (a dangerous game I think we play in romance), random men on the street, or the standards sold to me by the media or other unhealthy external sources. What I am saying is my heart needs to shift away from the self-centred and distorted belief that I alone truly know the ugliness of my body.

A few years back some boy band from the UK came out with the song “That's What Makes You Beautiful,” and I will freely admit that I loved it. I loved its catchy tune and seemingly sweet lyrics. And then, after hearing it for about the hundredth time, I realized that I fundamentally disagreed with its message:
You don't know you're beautiful
Bathroom selfies with Aisling (photo by Aisling)
That's what makes you beautiful

What a bill of goods we've been sold! Ignorance of my beauty ought not be the defining feature of my beauty (or the defacto marker of humility) in the same way that an awareness of my beauty ought not destroy it. A healthy-self love is neither haughty nor self-debasing. And just as a healthy self-perception cannot solely be dependent on the opinions of others (whether we're talking physical appearance or character, external validation is a precarious foundation for one's sense of self), neither does proper self-perception mean a dismissal of every perspective that challenges our pre-existing inner narrative. Especially when that inner narrative has conditioned itself to negativity.

So here's the change I've proposed to myself. I'm starting to live it out with my friends, and it is making a difference. That is the only (and best) testament I can give.
  1. Give honest compliments to people about their character, but also about their appearance.
  2. When people give me compliments, say, “Thank you.” Assume they are telling the truth. Think about their words and remember that they are as valid as my own opinions. Let myself wonder if maybe they are right.

 *I need to tell you a few things about Aisling. First, her name is pronounced Ash-ling. It is an Irish name, and I believe it means dream or vision. How incredible is that!? Secondly, Aisling is a photographer that I highly recommend to anyone looking for any sort of professional photos. Sometimes I work with her and she is a delight to be with, and her work is of the highest quality. Thirdly, Aisling is a blessing and a delight of a friend. We laugh together, we rant about life together, and more importantly, we share questions together. We are often asking the same questions, and that is such a comforting feeling. I'm honoured to have her as a friend.