There is a certain risk involved in deconstructing one’s faith to rebuild it in a new and stronger way. You risk being misunderstood, accused of heresy, and otherwise shunned. You risk hurting the feelings of those closely associated to your own story. Committing to a deep-dive expedition of sorting through the roots of your belief system guarantees discomfort and some degree of conflict. As the beloved, classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, reflects, becoming real is risky, harrowing, and often lonely, yet enormously rewarding:
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Growing up in a relatively unstable and dysfunctional home required me to learn some unhealthy coping and survival skills. Sure, things looked okay on the outside because we learned to mask the uglier facets, but we were not a happy family. There were moments, of course, especially in my younger years when we managed to complete a family activity in relative peace. Yet, for as long as I can remember, there was an underlying current of tension, an expectation that the lid would blow at any moment without warning—and it grew increasingly heavier as the years passed. It wasn’t until my teenage years, when my sister and I referred to our father as “the man who lives in our house” (because he was physically present, but emotionally distant) that I began to realize this wasn’t normal.
Looking back, I can see how many of my behaviors and thought patterns developed as coping mechanisms and self-preservation tactics. Only recently have I learned that some of the things I experienced actually fall under the umbrella of trauma—including psychological, emotional, and spiritual abuse.
I know those are weighty admissions.
Believe me when I say I’m aware of their implications. But I’m tired of minimizing my experience to make others look better; I’m tired of remaining silent to keep the peace. It wasn’t my responsibility to do so as a child…but I did. As I work on healing and re-parenting my younger self, the best gift I can give her is to let her have her voice back.
In the past ten months, I’ve begun to realize just how much growing up not only in evangelical Christianity itself, but also during the height of the evangelical purity culture movement has informed my views of myself, the world, and the nature of God. While seeking growth and a deeper understanding of who I am, I hold a tangled ball of readily-accepted lies, wounds, and assumptions that formed from early childhood forward.
Not everything I learned was bad—and I believe most (emphasis on most) people who were responsible for teaching and guiding me did not have motives to harm. Many of them were merely passing on the tradition of the faith culture they themselves were fed. The problem, though, is that going against the grain or questioning the authority of those in leadership roles is highly discouraged and, therefore, taboo.
Well, I’m questioning.
And it isn’t a tidy little Q&A panel with answers handed out in neatly packaged boxes. No, this feels like a throw-everything-you-know-in-a-dumpster-douse-with-gasoline-light-a-match-and-toss-it-in season. You know how people describe working through issues as peeling the layers of an onion? This feels more like hacking the onion to death and hoping for the best.
Even in nature, death precedes growth—seeds must die before trees grow; seasons must rotate through fall and winter before the bounty of spring and summer. Pearls begin as an irritant inside an oyster’s shell. The process of change and discomfort is necessary for transformation and beauty to be birthed. It’s a healthy, natural process to wrestle through the beliefs, patterns, and circumstances that have irritated the human soul to find the core of one’s true identity without merely accepting Sunday School answers at face value.
I hope that my readers—both those who have known me my whole life and those who have known me only briefly in person/this virtual space can respect and honor my perspectives. We certainly don’t have to agree in order to honor one another’s stories. You don’t get to sit in the cheap seats and tell me I’m doing it wrong “if you aren’t in the arena getting your [butt] kicked” too, as Brené Brown says. Because I process so much of my inner life through writing and because a lot (though not all) of that happens on this platform, I need to make this clear: I’m not seeking to cast blame on any particular individuals but rather to share MY experiences from MY perspective as well as the culminating effects of those things. I’ve spent too much of my life suppressing my own emotions, thoughts, and beliefs because I worried about what everyone else would think.
Brené also says, “You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.”
I saw the new Little Women movie last weekend. As a lifelong reader and writer who holds an English degree and adores the texts of 19th century American writers, I’m always wary of films based on books, but new versions of the classics take it to a whole new level of skepticism.
Here’s my short review: For a modern re-telling it was well done. No retelling of a classic will ever be perfect, especially for literary purists. Even the 1994 version with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon (which I love!) is set in the original period in which the book was written. This one wasn’t and I’m glad. Shakespeare’s works are woven into modern films and it was long past time that this one had a turn to connect with a new generation.
I missed the opening weekend of this film because I wasn’t feeling well. A couple weeks later, I searched for a local showing to no avail. It was nowhere to be found and internet searches revealed a host of less-than-generous reviews. My friend Madlin found it at a local discount theater and we jumped at the chance to see it in theaters, accompanied by her 10-year-old daughter. I’m sure the movie was pulled from theaters early because it’s still a very sweet story—something that is drowned out in our quest for action-packed, racy dramas even in young adult genres. Our culture wants salacious story lines and this one didn’t deliver that–thankfully. It held true to the classic themes you expect from the original novel. I loved it and I think it’s worth seeing (especially if you have tweens/teens).
Now, a deeper dive into my thoughts on the movie.
Louisa May Alcott’s timeless novel has been a favorite since I first read a condensed version, gifted to me by a family friend, around age 10. In college, it was a pivotal text in my favorite upper-level literature class, Dr. Thompson’s New England Writers. One of my favorite memories from the class was the day we formed a circle with our desks and discussed which character resonated most with ourselves. I’ll never forget the impassioned argument between two classmates when he spoiled a climactic plot point she didn’t know about yet. (Hint: it had to do with Beth.) She literally threw her book at him. It was hilarious.
I had the amazing opportunity of visiting the Alcott home where Louisa penned the novel loosely based on her life with her sisters in Concord, MA in August 2009. Last year, while on the Epic Book Tour, we found ourselves with a few free days while in the northeastern part of the country and I lobbied fast and hard to take Anna on a brief literary tour of the sites that enthralled me nearly a decade ago. Orchard House was at the top of our itinerary. I couldn’t wait to share the magic of the historic house with Anna. There’s just something about walking the halls of literary greats that makes my heart beat a little faster and my eyes light up a little brighter.
So, when I heard a new film version was to be released this year, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Little Women’s publication, I knew I was going to see it—regardless of whether I sat through it with squinted eyes and clenched teeth, worried it wouldn’t live up to the original work.
[Warning: spoilers ahead. If you’ve read the book, you already know the basic spoilers, but I’ll also give away specific scenes from this film. Proceed at your own risk.)
Walking into the theater, I braced myself to hate it. I hoped to walk away with at least one positive thread that would redeem whatever mess Hollywood made of my beloved characters.
I walked out with a tear-stained face, drenched sleeves, and a full yet aching heart.
My reaction, due in part to the experiences I brought to the viewing (known in literary theory as Reader Response), took me totally off guard.
Though I’ve watched the 1994 movie dozens of times since college and know the major plot points by heart, the last time I read the novel was in Dr. Thompson’s class ten years ago. Back then, I identified mostly with Meg’s character; she too was the oldest of four siblings, quiet and sweet, and her dreams were those expected of young women of the time—nothing brash or lofty. On the other hand, I related to Jo only in that she was a voracious reader and writer. That was where our similarities stopped—back then.
Because this new interpretation of the book is set in modern time, I saw Jo in a new light. With each scene, I realized how much Jo’s character resonated with me. I also realized just how much I’ve changed since I read Little Women in college. This dawning knowledge had me a little emotional even before the news of Beth’s illness was revealed in the movie.
In the book, Beth is struck by scarlet fever after visiting an immigrant family but in this version, she’s diagnosed with cancer. This is where my heart first started constricting and my breath shallower. Of course; why would they not give Beth cancer?
Jo is Beth’s closest sister in both the book and the film. In the movie, Jo returns home for the holidays after Beth’s diagnosis; Beth’s health has obviously deteriorated. The two sisters lie in bed together, talking. Jo apologizes for not visiting more often and Beth dissuades her guilt with the acknowledgement that Jo is pursuing her dreams in New York. At one point, Jo tells Beth, “You’re my person.” Meg has John; Amy has Laurie; Jo has Beth.
This is where I lost it completely. Just the day before I saw the movie, I thought to myself, “What happens when you lose your person? The one to whom you text your random thoughts? The one you test your questions about life with? The one you explore your identity with? The one who knows you best and calls you on your crap? The one whose memories you share the longest? The one you sold tadpoles from your swimming pool with? The one who was always up for exploration and random road trips to cheesy roadside attractions? The one who threw a funeral-themed graduation party when you were depressed by the end of your college years? What happens when that person is gone, and you lose the reflection of yourself through their eyes? What happens when you’re left flailing in their absence?
(Even now, I’m tying these words through tear-filled eyes.)
A few weeks ago, Anna returned from one of Bob Hamp’s training sessions and we were talking about attachment and how you develop your perception of yourself as a young child through the eyes of those closest to you. Ideally, this attachment comes through your parents, particularly the mother. I realized as we talked that my deepest perceptions of myself and my identity were tied closely with the way my sister saw me and shaped me. She probably knew I was more like Jo long before I realized it.
During Jo and Beth’s conversation in the same scene, Beth tells Jo she wants to see the ocean. The next scene shows Jo and Beth sitting on the sandy shore, gazing at the expanse of waves before them. Beth tells Jo to live her life for both of them, to “do all the things.” It is their last conversation; the next scene is that of Beth’s funeral.
By now, I was literally covering my mouth to keep the sobs from escaping. My head was pounding from the sheer force of keeping the emotion from erupting. I could barely see through the tears. My heart felt like it was being shattered into pieces all over again.
Madlin realized what was happening and told her daughter, who was sitting between us, to switch seats. She moved over and grabbed my hand as I sobbed through the next few scenes.
In February 2016, I flew to S.C. to spend a couple of weeks with Jess before the busy season of launching Anna’s book and the book tour ramped up. I flew into Greenville and then drove to the coast where Jess was doing treatments.
That weekend, Mom and my brother drove back to Greenville to take care of a few things and left Jess and I at the hotel. I was nervous because Jess’ health was not good and she required some assistance with her care. Namely, she had a port that had to be flushed each night and she couldn’t do it by herself (though she did try, stubborn sasshole that she was). Now, I’m not a fan of needles, but I was determined to do what I needed to do. And I did, though it was not without a lot of anxiety, a few ridiculous errors (there’s really no telling how much saline solution I shot onto the ceiling from the syringe trying to get the air bubbles out), a little humor, and a few frantic texts to #the4500 when I could not get the line flushed after many attempts.
But the moment I remember most from that weekend is sitting on the balcony overlooking the ocean. Jess longed to be on the beach with her toes in the sand, but she was too weak to get there so we settled for the balcony. We sat in the sun, talking about how my life had changed. She offered her best fashion and makeup advice to turn me from a “tired teacher to a professional business woman” for the book tour. I hinted at my misgivings about even going on the book tour, afraid to be even further away if something were to happen, wondering if I should just not go. She was quick to shoot that notion down. She told me in no uncertain terms that I could not pass up this opportunity to travel the country like we’d always dreamed of doing.
She told me I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and I was where I was supposed to be. Essentially, she told me to go do all the things she couldn’t.
So I went. A week later, we were back in Greenville. The night before my early morning flight back to Texas, I went to tell her goodbye. We talked for a few minutes, but it was late, and she was tired. As I left her room, I leaned against the doorjamb and said, “Bye, Little Buddy. I love you.” “Love you, too,” she returned quietly.
“…the strong sister and the feeble one, always together, as if they felt instinctively that a long separation was not far away. They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it; for often between ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which is very hard to overcome.”
(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women p. 340)
As I closed the door, I felt a sense of finality. I wouldn’t realize until later that I knew in my spirit that this was the last time I would see her. It was February 19th. Eight weeks later, almost to the day, she was gone.
Grief is such a complex process. I probably should’ve realized that I was setting myself up for all the feelings by seeing this movie, but it truly blindsided me because of the modern setting.
One of the last scenes in the movie shows and angry Jo running, day after day, attempting to burn the negative energy of the grief that consumes her. At one point, Marmee runs up beside her and stops her.
Jo bursts, “How am I supposed to live like this? How long will it feel like this?”
Marmee replies, “Beth wanted you to do all the things. And that means you must feel all the feelings, too.”
For months after Jess died, I tried to suppress the emotions. The book tour made it easy to avoid confronting my emotions because it kept me busy and distracted—something I’m eternally grateful for. Without that distraction, I would’ve sunk deep into a hole I’m not sure I would’ve been able to climb out of. But then after the book tour ended, I slid down a slippery slope of avoidance and anger. I questioned God and every belief I’d ever held about Him. After months of this, I found myself enrolled in a three-part personal development program (Discovery) that would ultimately lead to a great deal of healing. The first time I truly tapped into my emotions over losing Jess was in D1 in March of this year. Sitting in the movie theater for two hours last weekend was almost as emotionally gut-wrenching as those three days I spent at D1. (And if you’ve been to D1, you know how intense that experience is.)
Before Discovery, I wouldn’t have given myself the freedom to fall apart in a movie theatre. I would’ve stuffed it down and avoided the feelings. But after 30-some years of stuffing and avoiding them, I’ve learned to just let the emotions come, to ride the wave and give into the current. The feeling will pass; it’s not the whole picture, it’s simply part of the puzzle of what makes me.
It’s me doing all the things and feeling all the feelings.
The church of the caterpillars sneaked up on me today.
This morning, my heart was still tender from an incident yesterday that left me feeling unseen, unknown, and unworthy. I attempted to stuff it down and move on. Realizing that it is a trigger point that has the tendency to send me into a downward swirl, I tried to push it away without examining it too closely.
But this lie was not going down without a fight.
An incident occurred yesterday that left me feeling overlooked and unrecognized. On the heels of that incident, I’d just submitted a guest blog post on the topic of speaking the truth of who we are louder than the lies that we are only as good as our shortcomings and failures. In addition to submitting that post, I’d also taken another flying leap in another area of my writing career. Both of these acts have me experiencing a bit of a vulnerability hangover.
Letter Four offers encouragement for those living in chaos: the aftermath of a traumatic event, such as a devastating diagnosis, for example. As someone who is living in the aftermath of the traumatic loss of a sibling, I found solace in her words. In this chapter, Reynolds discusses the process of metamorphosis in caterpillars and how their entire bodies liquefy into “protein soup” while they are snuggled inside the cocoon. As a child, she cut open a cocoon and found this phenomenon in progress. She writes,
“[…]when we get a close-up view of chaos[…]we begin to realize that big stages like “before cancer” and “after cancer” break down into specific days and hours that require miracles to survive[…]If it were possible to cut open a human soul during chaos, I think maybe this is what we would look like too. A casual observer staring into our mess couldn’t believe that we had ever been okay or that we would ever be okay again.” (75)
After more than two years of living in a high-alert state of just trying to get through each day, I am finally beginning to feel like I can breathe again. If someone had cut open my soul a few months ago, they would have found an unsightly mess, but that mess was the fuel that gave me the means to survive all those hard days. Nonetheless, the triggers still come, the anxiety still rises, and the depression still threatens to cloud my view.
But the “protein soup” still nourishes, too.
The Church of the Caterpillars
In the light of the blazing Texas sun this morning, a tiny movement in my peripheral vision caught my attention. From my chair, I squinted behind the lenses of my sunglasses to focus on the movement. Crawling along a blade of grass’ tip was a caterpillar, making his way across the surface with tiny, methodical movements. His body scooted in a fluid wave of motion. A few inches away, another movement caught my eye…then another. I leaned forward, counting each new caterpillar that caught my eye.
I threw a towel on the ground (silently apologizing to any caterpillars that may be underneath) and laid on my stomach to get a closer view.
Everywhere I looked within a few feet from my position, I saw caterpillars maneuvering among the grass. Some were tiny, no bigger than the tip of my fingernail. Others were plumper, a few inches long. There were dozens of them. I lay there watching them, mesmerized. For a split second it was quiet; I could hear the faint sound of them chewing on the grass, gathering nourishment for the metamorphosis ahead.
My perspective of oblivion to the fact that the caterpillars were partaking in an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch while I sat on the porch had morphed into one of seeing these little creatures everywhere I looked. In the span of a few short minutes, my perspective had changed.
These caterpillars were tiny. They were minding their own business, doing what they were created to do in preparation for transforming into their full purpose. And they were seen. They were observed; they were acknowledged; the were considered worthy of notice.
If I appreciate the work of a caterpillar enough to write about them, how much more does my Creator appreciate the work I am doing during my own transformation process?
Enough to send the church of the caterpillars in the sanctuary of His creation.
Enough to remind me in whatever way it takes that I am sustained by His “protein soup.”