Part One Of Leaving Kuwait: I Tried On Hope And Went To A Job Fair

I tried on hope. I tried on fearless hope. And for a few days I felt like the name-it-claim-it-Oprah’s-secret kind of people might really have something, like the send-it-out-to-the-universe people might be right. I was high on hope. I thought maybe I’d been missing something essential in my faith for decades and now, look, I was unstoppable and sure and able because I wore hope. Not long ago, my friend sent me one of those daily affirmation emails that landed in her inbox. The message was to change your narrative. I’d been thinking about that in light of faith, reminding myself of who I am in Christ. We tell ourselves a lot of stories about what we can or can’t do, about what we should or shouldn’t want. We need to learn true stories.

So I tried on hope. I have this faith that says I can do all things in Christ. I have this faith sewed up with hope and trust. But for years I worked hope in private, praying for healing or joy or contentment in my own body and mind. And when I admitted hope to others, I couched assurance in maybe later or probably not. Like I know it’s a long shot to write a book in Budapest or run a hundred miles or climb Kilimanjaro but I still hope I do.

Maybe I confuse hope and dream. A dream is like spun sugar. Even dark dreams are made of spindly wisps. But hope is a cinder block. Hope has weight and sharp corners. Your arms get tired and scraped carrying hope around. That’s it then. Hope isn’t a fuzzy shawl that imbues you with certainty. Hope is a cinder block that cuts into your palms. True story: hope is hard to carry. I must be doing it wrong.

I want to live in Nairobi. This desire surprised me a year ago. We visited my brother and his family and all I could see was green trees and red clay. My sister-in-law took us to an outdoor market where vendors expected bartering but charged a Western price anyway. I ran the hills each morning, up and down quiet streets lined with gated properties. I found alleyways and narrow paths cutting through fields. When we drove out of Nairobi, I imagined us in our own boxy jeep exploring the plains. I have this spun sugar dream of a linen shirt, kicked off hiking boots and a cold beer. I have this spun sugar dream of running to the edge of quiet and standing very still under sky unrolled by God. I have this spun sugar dream of my kids climbing backyard trees, eating thick skinned fruit.

I made Nairobi tangible. So when Justin and I decided this is our last year in Kuwait, I saw us going to Nairobi. I saw my kids growing up with cousins. I saw weekend morning coffee with a splash of Baileys. I saw Justin biking to work. This is about the time I decided to try on a fanatic brand of hope, making Nairobi something that just had to happen because it had to happen because I was hoping hard enough that this city was our next home. And I thought God had to give me this. I wasn’t asking for France or Argentina. I was asking for a country with fire ants and the nearby threat of al-Shabaab.

We had an opportunity. Our first interview in eight years. Later, I’d think how underwhelming we were, lacking concision and polish. Later, I’d cry because I supposed I’d wanted this place too much.

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Learning My Kuwait

Every August, new teachers arrive to Kuwait. No one really knows what they’re getting into. That’s the nervy part of moving to a new place. For those of us who know the country, the challenge is to keep some things to ourselves. I think it’s important to let a person discover their relationship with a place. I also think it’s good for old expats to spare spoiling a place for new expats. The first weeks and months are rich with impressions. 


I remember standing on the tarmac of the Frankfurt airport, waiting to board our first flight to Kuwait. Ahead of me was a woman wearing a black abaya. Her abaya rippled. She took a step up and I followed. That was the moment it stuck that we were moving to the Middle East, a prick of uncertainty at my neck. For me, Kuwait was a place on the TV in a friend’s basement, the channel changed by parents to news coverage of a city lit up by mortar fire. I knew nearly nothing about the country we were moving to. In our round of interviews, the superintendent said Kuwait was like Dubai (it isn’t) and his wife told me I could wear short sleeves (I can). Teaching colleagues who’d lived in Kuwait five or six years before praised the food and recalled the friendly gratitude citizens expressed toward Americans because, you know, they aren’t Iraqis today. I knew there was a pool at our apartment complex and that chocolate chips were hard to find.

First weeks in a new place are like shuffled snapshots. We landed at night, welcomed by school admin and a few teachers who handed us bottles of water. The airport was busy, the languages around me indecipherable. There was an Egyptian bride wearing a wedding dress and thick make-up, smiling a fuchsia smile, carrying a bouquet, ushered through the crowd by attendants and a videographer. Her face sparkled. One of the teachers told me Egyptian brides arrive like that. Sometimes they dress on the plane. I took a picture of the bride, all the people near her happy. I haven’t seen an Egyptian bride arrive in a wedding dress since.

The air outside was hot. That night was humid, like the taking a deep breath in a sauna. Later, when the humidity left, my skin got tight in the dry sun. My lips chapped. It was Ramadan so we went on errands with water bottles hidden in our bags. I remember shopping for groceries, all the new teachers piled on a bus and told not to buy too much because we’d have to carry it all back on the bus. We walked up and down the store aisles, converting dinars to dollars, reading labels, finding familiar brands. Kellogg’s in Kuwait? I’m not sure what I expected of a grocery store in Kuwait and it only sounds dumb now, to admit paralysis in front of a wall of jam jars, finally choosing a French brand for its pretty label. But other expats were doing the same. One couple joked about the debate they had over a frozen chicken. We eat chicken, he said, But do we need this chicken? Grocery shopping is ordinary. But living in Kuwait wasn’t ordinary for any of us so the aisles were a trek, discovery. We didn’t know what we were like in Kuwait. When we picked up a deli container of hummus, we didn’t know we’d eat hummus and flatbread for lunch two months straight.

The Kuwait I moved to was different than the Kuwait I live in now. Our apartment windows faced a wide stretch of sand that became soccer and cricket pitches in the late afternoon as men gathered for a game after work. Standing at the window, I watched women in saris walk across the sand, their jewel tone fabrics a contrast to the blues and browns men wore. I followed the routes of water trucks sloshing over rutted sand, of cars and trucks that cut games in two for a moment. My view of the Gulf is smaller now. I watched buildings go up one floor at a time. At night I watched two men paint the dome of the mosque across the street.

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When You Need A Little Hope, Revise

I’ve been working this essay about Ramadan dresses (dara’as, caftans) and while the process is fun (interviewing! I’m interviewing people who can teach me more!) and I’m learning about the region’s holy month traditions and drafting real time, I really needed a chunk of writing to go somewhere this week. The Ramadan dress essay is like a sheep going from one tuft of grass to the next. I really don’t know where it starts or ends right now.

But
yay
for
revision
work.

I returned to the first essay I wrote for the creative nonfiction class I’m taking, reread comments and questions before parking myself in front of the draft to revise. I was a revision rock star. It helps that I’ve been thinking about this essay since first drafting it. It helps that I decided to do as I say: I sat in a chair and made myself revise. Discipline has its appeal.

What follows will get another go at some point. For now, mostly finishing a piece feels so good.

Fahaheel Sea Walk

One Saturday I take the kids for a walk in Fahaheel. This Saturday feels like one of the last cool days before the heat arrives to keep us moving from one air-conditioned place to the next, from apartment to car to shopping mall. During the summer I miss the Gulf. I miss its changing colors, grays and blues mostly but sometimes turquoise or murky green. I miss standing on the rocks off the path, watching waves form and crash. So this Saturday I want the Gulf. We park at the Sea Club and start walking south on the palm lined cobbled path. Claire and Grant jumped from the low wall to the sand and run alongside. When I first found this path, I had only Claire. And the next year I had Grant too, wrapped snug against my belly. The three of us made a twenty or thirty minute walk stretch the morning. On this Saturday my kids race ahead, circle back. Grant holds out his hands to show me treasure: popsicle sticks, a bottle cap, a cracked Happy Meal toy. He has an eye for screws, nuts, nails too, anything his dad might use on a project.

“Can we play here?” Claire asks. We’re halfway to AlKout, halfway to the coffee and hot chocolate we’ll have at a café there. Claire jumps up and down when I say sure, go, go play. She yells for Grant to follow. I sit cross-legged on the low wall. I can see Claire and Grant bending over something on the sand, then race toward the edge of the beach where a shisha bar overlooks the Gulf. They run back and forth like that, pausing to dig holes with pink Baskin Robbins spoons or examine shells. I remember pausing here when Claire was a toddler, squatting to speak with her. We came that morning with a group of moms and strollers and kids but at the first zig in the path, Claire sat down. The others waited a polite distance ahead. When we walked together, we were always pausing for someone to catch up but that morning Claire wouldn’t go. I waved at Jamie. “Go on ahead,” I called, “We’ll catch up.” She called back, “You sure?”

I wasn’t sure about much that year. I don’t remember how long I squatted there, Grant wrapped against my belly and Claire sitting, resolved. I am sure I sighed. That year was knit in sighs of tiredness, frustration, sorrow, surrender. I remember speaking gently. “Come on, we’re almost there. We’ll get a hot cocoa,” I might have said. And when Claire’s little legs still wouldn’t take another step, I’d promise a croissant too. I remember being gentle but not feeling gentle and when Claire finally got up and took my hand, I wanted to hold her hand so tight it hurt. The group was too far ahead to catch up but we walked toward them anyway.

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The One About The Traffic

The traffic is like the weather here, a topic of small talk. There is usually only one thing to say about that traffic and that is that it is bad. A lot of us have favorite accident stories, like the memory of a car suspended between two palm trees, because how does that happen? My first year here I saw a red car door in a merge lane. Shortly after, I noticed all the streaks of paint on the concrete dividers and the sprays of shattered glass at intersections. A wreck might sit on the side of a highway for a few days. I thought maybe as a warning. My first year I wrote with an art teacher who banned herself from mentioning the traffic in her notebook because all it did to write about the commute was make her mad. I get it. I’ve yelled fucking asshole at men and women who scream up my side or cut in and I’ve watched them weave their reckless way forward to take the next exit.But the other day someone complimented my driving. I’m calmer now (thank you Jesus), though anger still flares. The fear that I might die or my kids might die because some (created in the image of God) person is selfish enough to need to be in front of me and then in front of the next person and the next infuriates me. When I cry on the highway it is often at the state of my heart because when I am cut off or swerved at or flashed (high beams mean move out of my big trucking way) I really hate the other driver. It isn’t about me being in front of the other driver so much as it is about me and mine staying alive while the other driver gets ahead. So I cry because God wants me to love people and I think he includes that jerk in the Nissan Patrol.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard about a teacher who got hit while crossing the street in Salmiya. A couple of months ago, another woman was hit on the side of the highway while changing a tire. The man who’d stopped to help was also hit. All three are alive and while I don’t know the condition of the man, the two women have a long physical recovery ahead. Bones shattered, flesh too damaged to sustain operation, internal injuries, atrophied muscle. I can’t call either situation an accident when the more likely explanation for plowing two people in an emergency lane is carelessness and the more likely explanation for flipping a woman over a car is also carelessness.

I have a friend connected to both women. She talked about the teacher hit while crossing the street and the story stayed. A few days after, I started writing poems around the image of her laying on the street, surrounded by men who wouldn’t talk to her. A woman walking by cut through the men and sat down, stayed with her.


I Saw The Car

I had a dream like this, me looking up
looking down at my crumpled body on
cracked asphalt, circled by men with
unhurried voices. I am the only one who
hears my bones splinter again, who
hears the needle in my ear

The men do not kneel, touch,
pray over or speak to me. I saw the car.
I lift my head to say I saw the car
weaving speeding but I couldn’t
shout or step back from this cliff

A woman comes then, takes my hand
and stays. I say I couldn’t run or take it
harder than bruised and broken. I am
limp and rigid, my lips don’t work. The
woman closes her eyes for a moment
(I think it may be my death), says Jesus
in a land that calls him a man, only

I saw the car weaving speeding,
I saw my body balance between up
and down for a moment longer
than I thought possible

For N

I Find The Sea

I thought, I can watch a BBC mystery show or I can post the third piece. Virtue won. Vice can wait twenty minutes.

This is another single syllable vignette, again set in Kuwait. I’d wanted to write about my sea walks for a long time. This form works but I think a long essay is waiting its turn too.

I Find The Sea

I find the sea one year. I take my girl and boy south and walk a path lined with palm trees. We are slow. We stop to look at ants, dirt, leaves. I hold my boy while he sleeps and watch my girl kick sand. There is a place I like to stay. It is at an edge. I look out at the sea and think. The weight of my boy and the hand of my girl make me turn back.

There is a walk I love, the sea at my side, my girl and boy near. They play while I look at them and think how much I know and don’t know at once, and how much I want for them and me and us. They can’t know all I hold in my mind when my breath goes tight. My girl runs at me. I catch her. Her hair smells like the sun.

The sea is new each walk. I go for that. I like to see how the sun and sky work the sea to make it gray or blue or green, to make it calm or loud, flat or heaved. My son likes the men who fish. They cast a line, pull it in, send it out. They shoo the cats who want bait. One man shows my boy the fish he caught, a slick fish with wet eyes.

One day we walk on the rocks. The path is too smooth. In my mind, I go where I can see my feet are the first feet to walk these rocks. I feel a kind of wild. You can, I tell my boy, and he steps a gap. There is trash in the cracks. My girl is mad at the trash. She wants to know why.

I lose my fear to the crash and turn of the waves. I am small and loved. That truth is good. Let me hold on. Let my girl and boy know I will not let go. And one day, give them a sea to go to, where they may think.

The Appeal Of Single Syllable Writing

Clearly, not demonstrated by the title or this first sentence! Today I joined a class for their WP and wanted to write

I tell myself

except myself is two syllables so I came up with

I tell my mind

Single syllable writing is cracking open my expression the long (short word) way around and while I won’t make this a signature style, I’ve knocked out three Kuwait vignettes. And paradoxically, as I’ve reduced my syllable count, I’ve also written about depression, something I write about often enough in my WP but over many pages. In these latest pieces, I allude to my depression without explanation. I’ve gone on many sunny day trips carrying rocks without names.

While I didn’t intend to write depression into any of the vignettes, I did because it was there, a middle gray I sometimes live in. But what also shows up is plain thinking, lovely habit. Very often hiding in thinking (gray or bright) is prayer.

Since one syllable words stretch syntax and create unexpected poetry, I play with imagery too.

The Ridge

We are where there is flat sand and swooped sand. We go off the road, bump on a soft track, pass parked trucks and cut to the ridge. For a few hours it is our ridge to climb and scuff. My girl and boy start up the slope, fall, get up.

At the top I look for a way down. I did not want to come. While there is light I see mess is here too. I tell my mind, Look up.

We make it new. We know sand but not this sand. We know the sky but not this piece. I help my girl and boy walk down the ridge. There is a tail in the path. A dried, scaled tail my girl and boy poke at, pick up. They want to know who wore this tail last.

The sun falls from the sky. I am cold.

We have a fire and warm our food. My boy kicks sand on the meal. I eat the grit, breathe smoke. The stars are near and they are what I need. I wash the grit from my mouth and eat the stars.

I ask for more.

My girl and boy smell like fire. They have sand in their hair. I think, We might stay. We might be a kind of wild. But we leave. We go back to the lights we can see, the lights in a line.

Twenty Little Poetry Projects

This exercise is by Jon Simmerman, included in The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell:

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use one example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand).
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…”
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

Open the poem with the first project and close it with the last. Otherwise use the projects in whatever order you like, giving each project at least one line. Try to use all twenty projects. Feel free to repeat those you like. Fool around. Enjoy.


And below is my latest try, but with explanation first. This week there was a rumor that a teacher at another school was deported for driving without a license. That is within the law and expats are deported for that offense, but this was the first time I’d heard of a Western expat deported for that reason. Turns out, this expat wasn’t deported, only held overnight. I started thinking what I would do if I were picked up and taken to the deportation center, made to board a plane without a phone call to Justin. I started thinking why this teacher was allowed to stay in-country. Because he was Western? (Was he Western? I don’t actually know. I assume.) Because his employer lobbied on his behalf? I don’t know.

Also, ethnicity and socioeconomic status put a tag on people. I think this happens everywhere. Sometimes seeing people as equal is conscious work. (Change my heart!) I am uncomfortable with how noticeably differently I am treated as a white Western woman. My skin and nationality play more in my favor here than not, but I don’t like that. Or more so, I don’t like that I sometimes like what leniency white Western gets me. (Forgive me.)

So with all of that rolling around my head, and the challenge of (mostly!) completing twenty little poetry projects, the following draft:

By Way Of Deportation

My legs are roots
this chair a cliff ledge

I sit so still my thighs hurt,
my bladder burns

Around me: gray hum, sparks of yellow orange
when an Indian woman shouts like a song

If I move I will wet my pants

If I am released
there is a God
or wasta, Inshallah

I am called across the room
to an office where I sit across
from a man smoking a bored cigarette

The full knowledge of power
is sitting still and not wetting my pants
Easy-peasy, as my son says
Easy-pee-sy Sarah can hold it
in this windowless holding room
under fluorescent day/night

You’re the one who got caught?
No license? He smokes,
considers my tight pressed knees

I haven’t got a lie

I have one lie

Deportation as escape:
no last anything:
no last drive down Gulf Road
no last shwarma
no last sign-in at work

I don’t lie
I sit. He shifts
He lectures, I hear

Every year hundreds of brown-skinned
workers are relieved to be deported so
quickly and efficiently that suitcases and
passports are unnecessary, and you –

Equality by way of deportation

I will make it all the way to Chicago,
all the way to Kathryn, without crying

And you –

I sit long enough, white enough, that
he stubs his cigarette, lights another,
sighs, waves his hand, dismisses me

My bladder screams when I stand
I get a cot
no phone
no toilet paper
I get a morning taxi to my husband,
who is angry and relieved,
my children who cry

I might be over the Atlantic now
if I’d shouted or wet my pants
I might be drinking wine,
my ears full of gray noise

Third Culture Mom

Last week I was talking with a fellow teacher mom whose family is leaving Kuwait in June. She told me all the work involved in exiting the country. Moving necessitates a load of paperwork. (That’s the joke why Justin and I aren’t moving yet.) But moving also brings unexpected emotion. For kids too, which is what my friend and I talked about. She mentioned a book about third culture kids, which I haven’t read, and when I started listing not only my kids’ goodbyes but the ones I’d be making this year too, she said maybe I was a third culture mom. Her offhand comment got me thinking about where I belong and the unique challenges of living abroad. And so, an essay draft in its draftiest form:

One summer I took long runs from my parents’ house into the country and back through town. I ran past two houses for sale, one on a narrow country road and the other on a quiet town street. I looked at the front yards and driveways and windows thinking of picnic blankets, snow shovels and Christmas lights. If we lived there, my kids would grow up near grandparents and extended family. We could bike to the library and grocery store. Justin would have a workshop and garden. After dinner one night, I took Justin past both houses. One of them advertised an open house that weekend. You want to go? Justin asked.

What I craved from a house were friends who didn’t move away. Everything I’d been glad to leave – small town routine, especially – now had my affection. I went to my parents’ church and saw high school classmates with their own families now. I imagined how my life and theirs might overlap, how our kids might go to school together. I imagined finding a place in the community, staying for decades, maybe even watching my students come back to buy a house on the middle lot of a quiet street they’d wanted to leave too.

Finding a place underlies why I wanted to leave. And now I wish I was planted where neighbors remember when I had a paper route or knew my siblings well enough to ask after them.

One year I said goodbye to three dear friends in as many months. Two years of significant farewells followed. I started to think I couldn’t do this anymore. Last August I went to bed early while Justin joined a potluck of new and returning staff. I could think of nothing worse than answering where I was from and what I was teaching a dozen times, speed-dating for friends. One of my close friends (also leaving this June) thinks that means I’m ready to go too. I’m not sure. Maybe I reached an emotional pause. Like, I am full of dear friends right in front me and can’t take any more on board.

That’s selfish. So as the year went on, I learned better. Or am trying better. I want to love the one I’m with. I want to be present with the friend in front of me. Sometimes this means sidetracked conversation as babies, toddlers and kids weave around us. Sometimes this means I know this friend best in the courtyard or out for breakfast or before morning bell. What I’ve recognized is a wealth of relationships pouring into my day.

This June I am saying goodbye to a core of women who give me grace and wisdom (and laughter, recipes, books). I am afraid I won’t know how to be sad in a healing way. I am afraid I’ll count all my friendships lost, that the daily momentary relationships don’t add to anything sustaining and I’m silly to think so. I am afraid I’ll want to buy a house this summer only to find that there isn’t a good place for me there either. I am afraid I am running short on my allotment of dear friends.

Once I asked another mom friend what she found most difficult about being a mom. At the time, with an infant and toddler, I found nearly everything difficult. But she didn’t say sleeplessness or inexplicable grief or potty training. She said the most difficult thing about being a mom was spending time with people you wouldn’t choose. (I think she was talking about me). Being an expat can be like that, too, when we are finding our way through new cities, foods, currencies and norms, when what we need most is the stability and laughter friendship can give. So let’s try to like each other a lot.

Which is why June remains a unique heartbreak for me. Because I like you a lot, without trying. And because my sad heart will think it’s safer to stay closed or buy a house in Wisconsin. When August comes Justin (excited about meeting people he has everything or nothing in common with) will want to go to the welcome potluck. Fine, I’ll say, Give me a minute. I’ll go to the bathroom and put on mascara and lip balm, a spray of perfume, and head downstairs with my family. I’ll open up enough to tell as many people as ask that I’m from Wisconsin and I teach high school English. Yeah, I’ll say, Those are my two kids running around over there. I’ll open up enough to trust dear friends will come.

Poetry Revision

I haven’t played with poetry this semester as much as I have in past semesters. Even so, this week I sat down to practice revision. I used revision suggestions from The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.

First, a quick edit of my draft:

Gray day facing the sea,
waves turning over seaweed,
plastic bottles, shells,
our kids in the froth

Between us we’ve touched
all continents but Antarctica
We know how to pack a suitcase,
bringing what we’ll miss most:
cheese, chocolate, vodka,
the right pens, affordable shoes
Between us we know how to make
temporary permanent enough
so our kids make it through okay
and our marriages do alright
We paint walls, hang photos,
insist on familiar, heavy books
to fill shelves

Some places you just can’t make it
from the start or near the end
Oil and water,
your body and all the others
Even if you want to like it,
you can’t

Our kids come up from the waves,
shivering, kicking up sand,
hungry from play

It is good to sit
and look at the sea,
making it enough

And now, with lines cut and slight changes to how it looks on the page:

Gray day facing the sea,
waves turning over seaweed,
plastic bottles, shells,
our kids in the froth
Between us we’ve touched
all continents but Antarctica
We know how to pack a suitcase:
cheese, chocolate, vodka,
the right pens, affordable shoes
Between us we know how to make
temporary permanent enough
so our kids make it through okay
and our marriages do alright
We paint walls, hang photos,
insist on familiar, heavy books
to fill shelves

Some places you just can’t make it
from the start or near the end

Our kids come up from the waves,
shivering, kicking up sand,
hungry from play

And last, paring to the stanza that sparked the poem, and trying new:

Some places you just can’t make it
from the start or near the end
rural Wisconsin
New York
Kuwait
Even if you want to like it
you can’t
marriage
new motherhood
church
I make love a duty
to like this day enough

I drew the draft from a day at the beach with other expat moms, and from separate conversations over the years here. I like that a first draft turned out two different pieces. And I really like the line another woman said

Some places you just can’t make it

and how I finished it

from the start or near the end

The second revision includes another idea I’ve been thinking about, that sometimes love is a duty and there isn’t anything wrong admitting feeling comes much later, or not at all. That we love because it is right.

Neglecting Affection: Why Did I Think Hugging A Boy Was Two Steps From The Bedroom?

My last post: I was trying to write too much in a short space. I wanted to talk about the evangelical emphasis on virginity that turns nearly every physical encounter into foreplay. And I wanted to talk about another kind of passion, extolled in the Bible, to leave everything and follow Christ. Instead, the last post launched this in my WP notebook:

In Colombia, I had a class of seniors who were reading. All of their big adult bodies in narrow rows of desks, the boys with their long legs kicked out; the girls sitting with one leg crossed over the other, ankles turning circles. They leaned back in their chairs or slouched over their desks, flipping pages in the afternoon heat. I glanced around the room and saw a boy take a long strand of a girl’s hair and twirl it around his fingers. I saw a girl place her hand on a boy’s thigh. They rested against each other, reading and turning pages.

I didn’t have that growing up. As an adolescent, I got a very limited view of what physical affection was appropriate between boys and girls. My parents were affectionate with each other and with us, but I was a Christian teenager in the nineties when the True Love Waits campaign collected signatures from kids vowing abstinence until marriage. I got a chastity ring with a tiny heart and cross that I got tired of explaining and once told a boy was an Irish wedding ring.

The church itself said sex was sacred and the marital union represents Christ and his bride, the church. Sacred sounds mysterious and mysterious sounds like you aren’t supposed to ask questions. But what virgin wants to ask why God chose sex as a metaphor of Christ’s love for the church: it’s too much to think about when you’re fifteen.

The closest I got to an honest discussion about the emotional aspects of sex was at church camp one summer when the boys and girls split. We all knew this meant the boys would talk about porn and the girls would talk about saving your heart and dating Jesus.

(Which still sounds weird to me. Dating Jesus. He’s God. You don’t date God.)

But that summer, we knew the couple who’d gotten drunk at homecoming and had sex and regretted it. So the female campers and counselors really dug into the idea of guarding your heart, a charge given to all Christ followers and relating to far more than your private bits. It was the first time I heard the term “second virginity” which I hate about as much as “dating Jesus” but still, it prompted me to think about what happens when good Christian kids lose it.

And I’ve thought about this a lot since. After moving to Colombia and seeing the open affection between teenage girls and boys, I wondered why I grew up afraid of touching a boy. Afraid, really, that I wouldn’t be able to stop myself and one teensy tiny touch would spark this giant sex torch and burn the place down. And by touch, I mean: hug, kiss, hold hands, lean against, breathe in. I don’t mean hands down the pants. That might burn the place down.

Let’s not undersell self-control. And let’s not neglect the gift of affection. Here in the Middle East, I see teenage boys hold hands, kiss cheeks, pat backs in camaraderie. And the girls, as is given everywhere there are girls, hug and walk close. Though public affection here is usually kept to same gender, it is still treated in a way I didn’t see in the States.

As in: affection isn’t just sexual. I remember watching the seniors in my Colombian classroom, wondering if I should say something, as I might have in Wisconsin. Something like a whispered “Hands to yourself please.” That makes sense after coming from a school where an eighth grade boy was caught with a hand down his lab partner’s pants; from a country whose high school dance rules have to specify no simulated sex acts at prom.

It was another month or so before I understood that the affection between my senior boys and girls didn’t necessarily indicate who was dating whom or whether there was any sexual interest. Living in Colombia and now Kuwait, and seeing normal affection between teenagers, I wonder what got skewed during my adolescence. By the time I went to college and started dating, I had no sense of reasonable physical boundaries. Everything felt really good and really bad. Only one young man I dated held a more careful approach to our physical relationship and the affection shared was truly that, unattached from sexual expectation.

So I’ve been writing around this for nearly a decade, sorting out my own experience and observing what cultures practice. Sometimes I’m angry because I think it’s horrible to act as if a couple kids snuggling during a movie is robbing them of sexual joy in a distant marriage. I wonder if the hook-up culture in the States (and elsewhere) is partly born of neglecting affection. We crave touch and if the touch available is an accelerated sexual relationship, then maybe that’s what we take. But what if girls and boys keep the affection they have as kindergarteners, leaning on each other during reading time, linking arms across campus? What if kids got to keep touch that wasn’t tied to sex?

I may be speaking to the limited experience of Christian kids told sex is beautiful / holy / sacred / special / awesome, but only within marriage. I may be speaking of those same Christian kids whose every physical pleasure came with guilt and fear that this was too far. But if this was too far, why not go ahead with that too, in a spirit of equal sin and delayed repentance?

This is widening to bigger things and I’ll go there, but not now.


 

Follow up: I read Ephesians this morning and chapter five addresses expectations for husbands and wives, tall orders to both partners in a marriage, and the union’s illustration of Christ and the church. It’s worth reading carefully, as I believe the whole marriage (not just sex)  is designed to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church.

More follow up: The adults in my younger life, especially my parents and church community, were good examples of living our faith. When I consider my fear that physical affection was as sinful as sleeping around: that’s my mess. My parents didn’t put that on me. Because I didn’t date until college, a lot of my questions about what was okay were not answered. I only had this idea that sex was special and worth waiting for – a message repeated in many forms in evangelical media. Consequences like pregnancy were obvious, but no one had a concrete emotional or intellectual reason why abstaining was worth it.

I suppose that’s a kind of the point. Faith doesn’t always lend well to concrete intellectual reasoning. We have to take a leap.

But still. I wish I’d been fifty times less freaked out about whether it was okay to hold hands. I was not chaste, but a constantly fretful, guilty college freshman. So I keep writing to understand that part of me and other good Christian kids, who fell short on purity but still yearned to get faith right.

Christ wants it all. Every part of our lives. And when I was a teenager, it seemed it was my responsibility to steer clear of sex. I don’t agree with that anymore. My holiness is not dependent on my careful choices. I am made holy only in Christ.

I pray differently because of my wider Romans 7 experiences. I pray my appetite is changed. My physical, emotional, and spiritual appetites do change. I beg to want what is right. I ask again and again.

I didn’t know how to ask like that when I was a college freshman.

Yet more follow up: As for the hook up culture and returning simple affection to adolescents: I think young men and women need to know the value of their lives and bodies and treat one another with tenderness. If sex distracts from a better relationship, quit. Know a person more than their body. But this also goes to the heart. If we’re motivated by fear or guilt or selfishness, love gets choked.

Last follow up: This is what happens in my head, readers. I’ll keep writing around this topic and find a story. Maybe not anytime soon. But write fearlessly. Write the tough stuff. Write the offensive stuff. Write the confusing stuff. It’s much easier to close the notebook, but give yourself another page or two.