You know the point in war movies when the disgruntled teenager declares his ironclad intention to enlist? Well, when the impact of coronavirus first hit us hard back in March, I understood that teenager’s motivations in a visceral way for the first time. COVID is the closest thing to a world war my generation has seen. Like so many others, I wanted to fight back.
But very quickly, I realized that I didn’t know how. First, as the schools closed, I thought I should offer to babysit children whose parents are essential workers (not that I actually wanted to, mind you, my hands were quite full enough with my own kids!). But then, of course I couldn’t. We weren’t allowed to see anyone. Some of the people I thought of took a leave of absence from work in order to stay home with the kids. Others divvied up the work as best they could. At least I checked in on them, I thought, trying to make myself feel better about having my hands tied.
Then I realized I wanted to help with the fight from within the hospital. What a waste of my medical degree to sit on the sidelines when so many people needed help. While I watched other health care professionals being pulled from their traditional roles in order to form COVID teams, I felt completely inadequate. Despite my medical background, I couldn’t fight as a medical professional.
It was about this time that my church began a mini-quarantine series called “Hope and Soap” as a way to share what God is doing through church members in order to spread hope during these times. With each episode of amazing acts of kindness and caring (anything from preschoolers painting rocks of encouragement to decorate the sidewalk to a friend of mine raising $28,000 for a local organization through a mega-bike ride with her husband and grown children), I felt worse about my lack of reserves to engage in anything extra to encourage others.
And as the weeks went on and I felt more and more disconnected from the community and out of shape, so to speak, with ways to serve, I started to realize that it would be helpful to borrow an analogy from the exercise advice I used to give patients during check-ups in outpatient clinics:
The 15 minute walk you take is better than the 30 minute run you don’t.
I felt like I had failed. We couldn’t even do this simple thing! Weeks of coaching were needed in order to normalize the new mandatory accessory.
After a few weeks of thinking about how to help, keeping in mind the “15 minute walk” idea, I started to run a tally on the small ways my family has taken part in the fight.
No, my masks didn’t inspire anyone, but I did email all of my friends in the medical field in order to thank and encourage them.
No, I didn’t write any breakthrough piece for the NY Times (my neighbor did this), but I have forwarded what others are writing about: King COVID and the King Who Cares, for example, which the author Nicole Rim has made available as a printable book.
When college kids were being sent home and needed a place to store their belongings, I wished my awful unfinished basement weren’t so heaped with stuff. But then I realized that with some rearranging, I could take two boxes. If someone just had two boxes, I could help. A few weeks later, I was connected with that person, and one day in April I drove over to the Harvard campus to retrieve two large boxes -- and one white board! -- from a student about to return home overseas.
When my sister asked me to volunteer with an organization making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless population, I found I couldn’t even respond to the email. I was overwhelmed with feeding my own family -- and there wasn’t any bread on the shelf in the grocery store (at that time) anyway. Plus, Community Cooks, the organization I usually work with to make food donations, cancelled all upcoming commitments in an effort to decrease the spread of disease.
But I still have been able to help feed others during this time: I donate money at the grocery store every time I shop. I supported friends who walked in the Project Bread Virtual Walk for Hunger this month. We also sent money to the Mision de Caridad that is providing emergency support to women and children in limbo at the Mexican-American border.
Participating in World Vision’s Global 6K has been a tradition in my church and in my family for the past few years, but without the group pressure to organize and my personal hesitation to fundraise for anything other than COVID efforts during this time (not to mention being incredibly out of shape myself!), I didn’t sign up. I was grumpy the whole morning on the day of the virtual event, and I had to remind myself of the other ways we were supporting World Vision during this time. For example, we donated to World Vision’s COVID fund at Easter, and we continue to sponsor our child in the Congo, now with 20% of funds being diverted to COVID efforts there. We also helped celebrate our sponsored child’s birthday this year by sending a card in advance.
I wished we had something to submit to display on “Hope and Soap”, but I realized we could join into efforts already underway. When certain church members organized a fund to double our donations to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund in Cambridge, we contributed and helped raise over $4600 for the Cambridge Community Foundation.
By the time I was done making my mental list, I decided we hadn’t lost our community at all. It just looked different now. It feels different now. But we have tried to help. And we have helped some.
Last week at (virtual) church, we sang the song Surrounded, written by Elyssa Smith and recorded by Michael W. Smith. The lyrics repeat the line “this is how I fight my battles” over and over again, reminding the worshipper that the fight continues. The chorus reminds of the promise that even when it feels all too overwhelming, like the fight is closing in on all sides, that God is also all around us, fighting for us and comforting us every step of the way.
Lyrics from “Surrounded”
“It may look like I'm surrounded
But I'm surrounded by You
This is how I fight my battles...
This is how we fight”
Now, not all efforts have paid off. For example, we donated to our local playspace that was at risk of closure...only to find it wasn’t enough. The playspace will be one of the many casualties of this war. It makes me sad that we can’t win all of the battles, but I know we won’t regret trying. And I try to remember that we are not alone in this fight.
This story takes place on March 1st, pre-COVID, when you could still go to events if you had the energy.
I had just hosted a double birthday party at home for my boys. I was exhausted and in no state to be sociable. So when my friend texted to ask if I wanted to go to a book launch with her -- she could pick me up in an hour -- I almost reflexively said no.
But then I read more closely -- she was asking me to go to a book launch in Porter Square, for a book written by a friend of hers, an Evangelical Christian writing about same-sex attraction.
I now had so many reasons to say yes:
First, send my husband and kids out for pizza and not have to cook dinner.
Second and following, go with a friend (2) to meet a local (3) Christian (4) author (5) presenting on a controversial topic (6) in the heart of Cambridge (7). Really, I wondered, how did this author manage to get an event at Porter Square Books?
I was intrigued. Except, when my friend picked me up and drove me to the talk, she turned onto a cross street before the shopping center. The event wasn’t going to be held at Porter Square Books after all. It was in Porter Square...but at a church.
“Oh,” I said, slightly disappointed, “that makes more sense.” For me, whose writing either dovetails or fully dives into discussion on faith and religion, I wanted to meet someone who was able to break through community and audience divides.
“Oh my gosh, you thought it was going to be held at the bookstore? Wow, that would have been amazing!”
My friend took my disappointment in stride as we swiftly made our way inside the sanctuary and came face to face with the author herself. My friend made introductions and I offered congratulations before we quickly found seats in a pew where we could listen to the church pastor interview Rachel.
“I can’t believe this isn’t true because it’s inconvenient for my life.”
After combing the scriptures to understand God’s design for human relationships, Rachel wrote her book in order to “help same-sex attracted Christians to thrive in Christ and also to help others understand those who are.” She said she wanted to share what the Bible says on these issues and to share the information within a framework of what God wants for us, his beautiful and positive vision for humanity.
She briefly acknowledged the two prevailing and clashing viewpoints, stating that conservatives might say, “in order to become holy, you have to become heterosexual.” She debunked that myth by reminding everyone that heterosexuals commit sexual sin too. On the other hand, she said, liberals might say, “there’s a strong belief to obey your desires in order to be yourself...when the truth is my desires don’t own me. They don’t care about me. Jesus does both. I will find more authenticity and freedom submitting to him than submitting to my flesh.”
My church friends and I discuss this issue periodically. I don’t have many Christian friends who are also same-sex attracted. I can see how checking out my church would feel alienating to a same-sex attracted person, whether she was in a same sex relationship or not. My church is crawling with (heterosexual) families. And yet, my church friends and I like to think we are accepting. We’d love for our gay friends to check out our church. You don’t have to be straight to attend. You don’t have to be straight to be a member. We want our friends to come to church...and we start to wonder if maybe our church should allow gay marriage. We start to wonder how much we are a product of our local culture. We wonder what the real answers to these questions are.
In the end, Rachel concludes that “it’s never safe to call something holy which God calls sin.” She broadens the discussion when she adds that her agenda “is not to change who they sleep with but to unite them with the one who created them.”
At the end of the night, the audience members were invited to grab a copy of Born Again This Way from the back of the sanctuary. I thought it was a great way for the publisher to promote the book. Several weeks later, when I was offered a free digital version of Maya Lang’s memoir, I realized that this might be a traditional publicity move. In the meantime, though, I had a free book, and I couldn’t wait to crack the cover.
Rachel uses her personal testimony and anecdotes from her life in order to illustrate corresponding messages from scripture. Her goal with the book is to explain God’s purpose for sexuality. Using the example of counterfeiting, she suggests that “people trained in identifying counterfeit money don’t need to know every type of forgery on the market. They need to be flawless experts in the real thing.” (30)
Then she gives it to us, a succinct analysis:
“Whether we’re married or single, through the blessing of sexuality God communicates powerfully about three things: his prizing of diversity, his priority towards new life, and his love for his people.” (31)
But, I argue in my head, surely there can be worse things than the friend of mine who has made a family with her wife. Is IVF sinful too? Does God allow it for the heterosexual couple struggling with infertility but not the same-sex couple? Is infertility a curse? A sign to seek adoption? As I wrote in my post covering Confronting Christianity, I scraped through the one philosophy course I took in college. I’m not great at forming arguments. I’m better at just knowing I disagree, yet not fully understanding my reasons.
Yet, as an east-coast resident like me who has been marinating in liberal ideology for over ten years now, by the end of Rachel’s book I was questioning my own conclusions.
Does God really ban same-sex relationships?
Well, no, Rachel says. Same-sex friendship, especially spiritual friendship, is extremely valuable.
But Rachel, we weren’t talking about that. You know what we were talking about.
Right, Rachel says. And yes, she adds, God bans same-sex marriage.
God designed marriage to be between a man and a woman. And interestingly enough, with just a small flicker of interest, Rachel married a man.
At this point in her story, I appreciated Rachel’s discussion of the fact that while sexuality is one part of a relationship, there are far more other parts that demand our attention most of the time. She points out that just because she is same-sex attracted, she doesn’t need to define herself by her sexuality. She could define herself by her religion, for example. Others might define themselves by their day job.
I realized that lately, I define myself as a Canterbridgian. And yet, is that really who I am? What about Christian? What about writer? What about mother? What about friend?
Above all things, Rachel’s book, surprisingly, was more than a voyeristic way for me to get an insider’s perspective on this same-sex marriage question. It was a deep dive into my own struggles -- in marriage, in identity.
“The gospel is about an uncrossable chasm shockingly bridged. We are made in God’s image, yet he is also completely other. Males and females are equally human yet inescapably different from each other. The metaphor’s power is in showing love across a fundamental, primary difference.” (40)
So maybe the question isn’t “should we allow same sex marriage” but “how the heck does heterosexual marriage succeed at all?” Men and women are fundamentally different, and yet, “Marriage has been practiced across cultures and throughout time, which only goes to testify that it points to something greater than itself.” (39)
“Marriage,” Rachel teaches, “is meant to be a powerful tool for communication and fails if it doesn't deliver its message: the gospel. / The designed purpose of marriage is to illustrate metaphorically God’s relationship to his people.” (38)
Rachel’s book is a call to come home. To return to your first love, or to discover Jesus for the first time, or to put him first for the first time. In her epilogue, she reminds the reader of three promises Jesus made:
First, that you have Jesus’s power to empower you for the fight against temptation. Second, he promises us companions who can provide company and accountability. And third, he promises that we have a purpose. For those who are same-sex attracted, Rachel suggests that purpose might look like this:
“Both locally and within our wider Christian culture, believers with same-sex attractions can teach the church about desire, about faithfulness, and about healthy relationships. You can show the church costly obedience that glorifies the Lord. And you can show your community how precious Christ is. You can confound the world with answers and questions it never expected -- one friend or coworker or neighbor at a time. You can share the gospel through the very thing that seems most offensive and bizarre about you -- your refusal to take your desires more seriously than your God. I hope the stories in this book have given you a glimpse of how this can work: that it is both possible and dazzling.” (142)
I love that Rachel uses sexuality to illustrate God’s greater purpose. Sex is a gift. But it’s not the final goal. It’s a chance to anticipate what God has waiting for us in the age to come.
I picked up this book to learn what I didn’t know. And what an eye-opener it was. You have to read it. I wanted to quote every other sentence, so you might as well get a copy for yourself. I still have a lot of questions for God, but I feel more equipped to join the discussion.
You can support Porter Square Books by buying a copy of this book from them, but I doubt they will be promoting this book anytime soon. So please, grab a copy and do that work yourself. Rachel Gilson is not to be missed.
Last month I wrote a post on my disappointment over losing opportunities to connect with the writing community. I mentioned an author I was looking forward to reading and meeting in person. Well, life goes on, albeit in a world altered by coronavirus.
This month I tuned into Porter Square Books’ virtual event Tell All Boston with Maya Lang, author of the newly published memoir What We Carry and the 2015 novel The Sixteenth of June. I was thrilled to be at this event -- with Maya Lang, of course, as well as with other writers who performed beautiful readings, with a Grub Street writing instructor commenting in the chat, and with Linda Wertheimer (an author I read a few years ago) who I was thrilled to see in another context. It was exactly the type of event I pictured occurring at Porter Square Books -- no surprises here, as seeing Rachel Gilson’s book launch would have been!
Since I had been registered to attend Maya Lang’s session at the Muse 2020, I was invited by the publisher to download a galley copy of her memoir and, if I was so inclined, to post a book review. Thrilled to be a part of this process, I would have read the book and reviewed it anyway, but it turned out that What We Carry is one of the best memoirs I have ever read.
Now, I haven’t lost a parent to Alzheimer’s, but her description of how becoming a mother ignited her passion to pursue her dreams really resonated with me.
“It sounds like the worst time to weigh one’s desires, as a new parent, but maybe it’s the best, the most necessary. When tasked with caring for a human being, when asked to subsume one’s own needs, this is when we require a firmer grasp on ourselves. Rather than telling new moms to indulge, to do the frivolous activities women in movies do, we should say this: Find yourself. Gather yourself up before it is too late. You are at risk of getting buried. Do something that will solidify your sense of self, buttress your retaining walls. Don’t worry if it feels scary. It’s probably a good thing if it does. / Working on my novel for an hour or two restores me. I return home from the coffee shop feeling renewed. / Perhaps this is what we should give new moms: A laptop and a cup of coffee. A notebook and a pen. Permission to dream.” (Part I, Chapter, 29)
I thought I was the only one who, after becoming a mother, preferred writing time in a coffee shop to getting a massage, but Maya describes it perfectly.
When Maya wonders how to take care of her baby, how she will ever get through it without the how-to manual, she realizes,
“My assumptions of motherhood have been all wrong. I feared I was supposed to have all the answers. I didn’t know my daughter would help me find them. I worried she would be an obstacle to my dreams, not the reason I went after them. Zoe makes me want to be the best version of myself. That isn’t sacrifice. It’s inspiration.” (Part I, Chapter 29)
Then I recalled a friend who felt the same way. Before writing his first graphic novel he told me he wondered how he could encourage his daughter to pursue her dreams if he didn’t pursue his own.
I love how Maya describes the experience of knowing she is a writer. In her family, it is this forbidden, derogatory role, not a real job, so her father tells her, but she feels that “pang of recognition” when he calls her a writer. “Is that what I am?” she wonders. I felt the same way, when my teacher said I wrote the best paragraph for our standardized testing in third grade, and later, when my seventh grade teacher selected my short story to discuss in front of the class. Could I be a writer too? It seemed too much to hope for.
“‘I’m used to my father firing insults at me -- “worthless girl” is the one that usually gets me sobbing -- but that afternoon, the word writer is an arrow hitting an altogether different target. Writer! I can’t believe there’s a word for what I am. I sit up straighter inside.” (Part I, Chapter 25)
Yes, me too, I think.
And when she writes of her despair over not finding a publisher for her novel, I understand her pain. And when she writes about going back to her work despite her lack of reward, I understand that too.
“Eventually, after weeks of moping, I return to working on my novel. Giving it more of my time is hard to justify. I work on it because it’s the only thing that makes me feel better.” (Part I, Chapter 39)
I’ve had a lot of disappointment over the past year -- rejections from writing classes, too much constructive criticism from an agent and an editor, room for improvement in every excerpt I present to my peers, and, of course, the cancelled writing conference. I feel unmoored from my writing project. I wonder if I should even continue these essays. Surely, when I don’t otherwise have direction with my work and especially during a global pandemic when I am prime homeschooling teacher and summer camp counselor for the foreseeable future, maybe it would be useful to think of motherhood as my main job and set everything else aside.
Maya writes that’s what she tries to do when she fears she will never find an agent...until she signs with one.
“Certain moments in life cause us to look up and reassess. The day I sign with my agent is one of them. It yanks me from my neatly stacked baby food purees and sparkling windows. / I see that I have been living in an illusion. I’ve created a fairy tale where home is picture-perfect, motherhood all-consuming, and martyrdom synonymous with bliss.” (Part I, Chapter 39)
I feel similarly. I return to my essays and to my project (thank goodness for writing group accountability) despite my disappointment. They make me feel grounded in a time when I am otherwise grappling for hope.
Perhaps someday I’ll get to meet you, Maya. Until then, thank you for writing. Thank you for drawing me into your story.
If you can get your hands on a copy of this book, read it. I’m pretty sure it will inspire you too.
I suppose it could be worse, this pandemic.
“I’m so glad we don’t have teenagers right now,” my husband commented one night shortly after our town instituted a stay-at-home order.
It’s interesting that there is no economic challenge within the book. Even those who are penniless end up getting what they need. The characters, presumably since they have already suffered enough by the swift loss of their loved ones, have life generally easy. Laws, schooling, expectations (about anything) are lax enough to allow them to avoid challenging themselves at all. They give into their desires, their grief and their obsessions, and they act selfishly. Even those who attempt a religious response seem lacking in genuine love.
The story centers around one family, oddly intact having not been taken in the “Sudden Departure” and yet drifting apart. The parents’ marriage crumbles. The mom wanders away to join a cult. The college-aged son seeks purpose in another religious movement and fails to find his way back home. The teenage daughter falls into the wrong crowd and loses herself. The father somehow becomes rich and the mayor of the small town but focuses on keeping everyone even keel and content rather than push anyone to right wrongs. The real rapture is one of those things that’s hard to wrap your head around, even for the Christian I am. But should it happen in our lifetime, I pray that we react in a better way that the residents of Mapleton!
I agreed with my husband though. At least we don’t have teenagers right now. On the other hand, homeschooling young children has been challenging enough, especially in a small house that, as the pandemic continues, feels like it’s shrinking.
While I’ve been complaining about our lack of space during this pandemic, within their sole eleven foot square room, Jack’s mother (who is never named) demonstrates heroic creativity, weaving math and language exercises from the food they eat and the TV they watch, supporting physical education by designing running, climbing and jumping games, encouraging health and hygiene by teeth brushing and regular bathing and laundry, and above everything, providing the security of a consistent schedule that all young children need. And then...in almost biblical obedience, the mother is willing to risk the most important thing in order to free them both -- Jack’s very life.
After subsisting in a state removed from all other contacts save their captor, the mother and son must wear masks once they finally escape -- to avoid the germs for which they don’t yet have immunity. Jack has to catch up on every vaccine he missed...and come to terms with the fact that “when our world was eleven foot square it was easier to control” (236). Wearing masks...losing control...living in an ambiguous state of the world where you don’t know the rules… I find these days I can relate to Jack. I can relate to Jack a lot.
As the story unfolds, the mother explains that having Jack gave her purpose and allowed her to be “polite”. While ours is obviously a different scenario, I’ve been telling friends that having homeschooling to focus on, in addition to attending church regularly (though virtually), has given our family purpose and structure. Perhaps I’m underestimating our creativity to suggest that without schooling we would be even more stir crazy, but our family rhythms have been anchored in this cause, work that has given us fodder for conversation that otherwise would be dry and monotonous by now.
The mother survived seven years in captivity. For us, it’s only been a few months. Perhaps with a little ingenuity of our own, we can make it a few more… But at the end of this, my wish is that with hope and persistence, we’ll have enough of our rhythm and enough of our relationships to enjoy as leftovers.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.