Friday, November 30, 2012

Ears to Hear

A couple weeks ago the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South, where I work, celebrated our 35th anniversary with an event at the King’s Daughters Inn in Durham, NC. Friends of RCWMS joined us for afternoon tea, dinner, and in some cases for an overnight stay at the inn. Basically it was a giant sleepover with a group of fabulous feminist women of all ages.

After an incredible supper, catered by Durham Catering Co., and even more incredible cakes from Yellowbird Baking, we all gathered in the parlour for some evening entertainment in the form of readings, songs, and a bedtime story.

Jeanette Stokes, the Executive Director of RCWMS, had asked me to read an essay as part of the informal program. I was happy to oblige, though a little nervous. At this stage in my writing career I haven’t done many public readings, but I knew that many of the women in the audience would be my friends and mentors, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to read to a welcoming audience.

As everyone settled into their seats, Jeanette staked out a space at the front of the room as a “stage,” and made some introductory remarks, and then I stood up to begin. At Jeanette’s request I first explained a little about my blog, which was helpful because it gave me a chance to find my voice before I began reading my essay. I was worried about my ability to project my voice all the way to the back of the room, so after my introduction I paused and asked, “Can everyone hear me okay in the back?”

Everyone nodded in approval, which was not what I expected. I went on to read a piece from here on the blog, which will also appear later this month in the RCWMS newsletter. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. What has stuck with me since then is the simple fact that everyone could hear me without me having to work too terribly hard at speaking loudly. I used my usual, reasonably practiced reading voice, enunciated and projected, and that was enough. This might not seem like that big of a deal to most people, but every time -- every time -- I speak in a room full of people, no matter what the context, a man somewhere in the room asks me to speak up.

Learning to speak in my normal voice in public has been a process, and when I was first getting used to public speaking -- reading, preaching, asking questions in class, whatever -- I had to work to use my regular voice, instead of speaking more quietly than normal due to nerves. So there is something to be said for practice. But after a certain point, not being heard is not my fault anymore. Reading to a room full of women and having everyone say, in effect, “Oh yes, of course we can hear you -- please, keep going, we want to listen!” clarified this for me more than hundreds of requests to speak up ever have.

Now, I realize sometimes people are just hard of hearing, and that is a different thing. I realize, also, that acoustics can be bad. And that I really do have a higher, quieter voice than a man, so it does not carry as well. But I am finally ready to say that none of that is an excuse for not listening to women.

I am not going to cultivate a “preaching voice” that sounds like a man. That is not my voice. If God wants to speak through me, then God will use the voice she gave me.

Listening is hard work. I know this because often when I hear other women speak I have to work harder to hear them, too. But if you believe women’s voices are valuable then it is more than worth that extra effort.

In the parlour at the King’s Daughters Inn I was heard not because I spoke more loudly than usual, or because the acoustics were exceptionally good. I was heard because the women around me have practiced listening to the voices of others for their whole lives.

If you cannot hear us, you must quiet yourself. If you cannot hear us, you must train your ears to attend to new sounds. If you cannot hear us, listen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dear Femmonite

Dear Femmonite,

I was walking in an almost entirely black neighborhood in Chicago and there was a billboard for American Apparel. It prominently featured a white woman in her underwear. My first thought was, "Hm. An advertisement with a white woman in a black neighborhood. Is this good (breaking down racial lines, even if in the name of nothing more than our mutual love of buying underwear), or is this bad (corporately colonizing an area using a foreign, "imposed" [whatever that means] standard of beauty), or is it neither per se (it's just an ad, like millions of others)?" I don't have a lot of experience thinking through these issues, so I was surprised that I even noticed it and that it stuck in my head. One of my first thoughts was, "I bet Meghan Florian has an insight or two into this”...I figured it was pretty innocuous in and of itself, but tangentially participates in some meta-evil that makes Amy Laura Hall cry.  -- University of Chicago Student

Dear University of Chicago Student,

Ah, yes. American Apparel. My first thought when I read your question was that cultural beauty norms for women are defined in terms of whiteness. So, think about things like black women chemically treating their hair to make it straight and so forth -- ways of making "bad" black hair more like "good" white hair. Or how mulatto women are considered really “hot” (maybe because they have “great hair,” or because while they have a darker skin tone they can pass as white, or many other complicated reasons). On a personal note, I think about a fifth grader I know who always wants to know how I get my hair to be so soft.

The answer, of course, is that I don’t have to do anything. That’s just how it is.

Have you read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? That book is what always comes to my mind when thinking about the power that beauty (defined in no uncertain terms by white characteristics like soft blond hair and blue eyes) holds in terms of racial formation, and the connection between beauty and certain notions of virtue. One example of the flip side, then, would be black women who go natural as a way of taking pride in their racial identity and redefining beautify.

So, in terms of the billboard, one could argue that it is selling a product that theoretically helps the consumer perform whiteness.

Then again, American Apparel could just be stupid about their billboard placement. And/or some black women might like to buy their underwear, which is fine. (Except that their advertising tends to be really sexist, but that’s a topic for another day...sweatshop free sexism, made in the U.S.A.)

All of this is, of course, way, way more complicated than I am doing justice to here, but hopefully this provides a couple of windows into beginning to think about beauty more critically. Read more Toni Morrison, and pay attention to the ways desire has been and continues to be shaped racially.

Meanwhile, I hope my fifth grade friend grows up to love her hair.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I'm in Chicago for AAR, so my usual Monday post has been delayed. I'll offer up some thoughts later this week on my adventures with Tiny Kierkegaard.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Tiny Kierkegaard Prepares for AAR

Tiny Kierkegaard, meet John Wesley Bobblehead

It's a busy week here in Durham, what with preparing for the 35th Anniversary Celebration of the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South, where I work, and flying off to the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Chicago next weekend. Tiny Kierkegaard (pictured above with his new pal John Wesley Bobblehead) will be accompanying me to AAR, so we'll be sure to post some pictures and thoughts on the meeting next week.

Speaking of Søren Kierkegaard, yesterday was his feast day. In honor of the Great Dane, instead of a new post I simply offer up some favorite lines from my favorite book, Works of Love:

The one who brings love along with himself as he searches for an object for his love (otherwise is it a lie that he is searching for an object – for his love) will easily, and the more easily the greater the love in him, find the object and find it to be such that it is lovable. To be able to love a person despite his weaknesses and defects and imperfections is still not perfect love, but rather this, to be able to find him lovable despite and with his weaknesses and imperfections. Let us understand each other. It is one thing fastidiously to want to eat only the choicest and most delectable dish when it is exquisitely prepared or, when this is the case, fastidiously to find one or another defect in it. It is something else not merely to be able to eat the plainer foods but to be able to find this plainer food to be the most exquisite, because the task is not to develop one's fastidiousness but to transform oneself and one's taste.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I voted.

It is election day, and though I have strong opinions about the presidential race, that’s not actually the main thing on my mind. I am just as preoccupied by smaller issues on ballots around the country today. The death penalty in California. Gay marriage in Minnesota. A tight race for governor here in North Carolina.

I’m thinking about people in Durham running for office who I see, regularly, out and about in the city. People who care about this place. I am thinking about a college classmate in Minnesota who recently became engaged to the love of his life, and waits today to see whether his state will recognize that union as legal. I’m thinking about women whose access to healthcare will be threatened from “day one” depending on the outcome of the presidential race.

I took part in early voting weeks ago. As a mennonite, I know this is surprising to some. Not only did I vote, but I’ve been bugging my friends to get to the polls -- particularly those who are most likely to forget, or to want to talk through the ideological issues surrounding whether or not to vote as an anabaptist. I’ve had those talks. I even went with one friend and stood in line with her for moral support, after she decided to vote.

I am a straight, white, middle class, educated person. I acknowledge that this puts me in a place of privilege. I benefit from the society in which I live in many ways. And so, as both a christian and as a citizen, I think it is necessary to speak out, via my vote as well as in other ways. Not to do so feels to me like trying to deny that I benefit from society, like trying to pretend I exist in some vacuum. It feels like ignoring the people who don’t have it as good as I do, like a little slap in the face to them. “Sorry, suckers! I have the luxury of symbolically choosing not to vote, in order to make a statement about the relationship between religion and government.” Meanwhile, ordinary people are just trying to figure out how to survive from one day to the next.

I tend to think symbolic gestures are for the educated elite. Excuse me while I try to act wisely in spite of my education.

There is such a thing as systemic injustice, and if you’re not going to break that system down, then you’d better work inside it for change. I am all for christian charity, but charity within a system that perpetuates injustice and inequality will always be severely limited. Government cannot solve everything, either, not ultimately, but at the very least I see it as necessary to vote for people and policies that have a positive impact on my neighbors' lives.

How can I say I love my neighbor, and turn a blind eye to issues that impact my community? I voted because I seek to love my neighbor, not because I love “my” country. A vote is not love, but a vote may well be one of many small acts of kindness done out of love.

There is a difference between loving one’s country as in the people you live here with, and loving one’s country as an abstract ideal, a mere concept. I don’t much care for the idea of the United States. I have no interest in showing my allegiance to a world superpower. What I care about are laws that directly affect the people around me.

So I voted. Voting is not the best thing I will do in my life. It is not the most loving, the most christian, or the most virtuous. But it is a pretty good thing, I think. And until Jesus comes back I plan to keep on doing it.

Monday, November 5, 2012


This morning has been a good work morning. The time change agrees with my writing habits. I try to get up at 7:00 a.m. most days, and to be at my desk somewhere between 8-9 -- a wide range, I realize, but I need serious slow coffee time most mornings before I ease into my work. The last few weeks that plan has failed miserably, however, because the combination of cold and dark is too much for me. I stay under the flannel sheets until the sun comes up.

I’m pretty happy with what I’m working on this morning. The problem is that none of it is something I feel comfortable publishing on the internet. Today is the kind of day where everything that is pressing on my mind has some intensely personal twist to it. It’s that whole philosophy and life thing, again. No separation.

Writing is risky. Writing publicly even more so, especially if you plan to take positions you know others will disagree with. You risk scrutiny, to be sure, and you risk being misunderstood. Harder still, you risk damaging relationships when your opinions differ sharply from those you care about.

I think a lot about how to navigate my own friendships with care and respect. As a writer, I am aware of the stereotype that you have to watch yourself around me because I might “put you in a book” someday. While life is my greatest resource as a writer, I don’t go around taking notes on everyone in my life each day, planning how I can utilize you for my own gain. The people in my life inevitably inspire my work, but it’s usually by accident, and never when I expect it. I am not trying to use you, nor am I trying to insult you.

And so, I hesitate to write about certain things because I don’t want to hurt or offend people I love. This is true when I write about theology and feminism, or when I write about politics (how obvious it would be to write a post today about voting! but no, not this time). It’s also true when I write about more accessible topics having to do with life and love. I have a lot of great material just sitting in my compost pile for now, because it’s going to be about ten years before I feel I can safely share it. The time constraint is partially for myself; as a writer, I need distance. Often I draft things shortly after the events that inspired me, to capture the raw emotion, to trap the intensity. Just this morning I read through pages and pages of drafts from the past six months and was surprised at the strength of the raw material. I am only just beginning to have enough distance from that material to start to shape it into something more artful. It will be years before that work can truly succeed, I think, and certainly before it can be offered up for public consumption. I need that distance from my own experiences, and -- even if I change identifying details -- many of the stories I want to tell need to be told at a few steps remove for the sake of their characters, as well.

So I seek space. And I wander around that space, looking for something to say right here, right now. None of what I’ve worked on today (except this reflection on process that you’re reading now) will be published anytime soon.

Sometimes it is risk enough to go certain places in my own mind, to put certain words on paper and admit them to myself. With time, they might grow into something more, but for now I will let the page hold them.